Review of Will Hutton’s “The World We’re In”

Published in Australian Journal of Social Issues 37.4 (2002): 467

Will Hutton is best known for his text The State We’re In. His latest book is a polemic designed to convince British Euro sceptics that Britain is culturally and socially part of Europe. Integral to his analysis is the proposition that Britain’s 25 year flirtation with the US conservative style of business and its associated social agenda was and is a mistake. Australia is not mentioned once in this book but as I read it I felt as if I were listening to a parable. The lessons in this book are as pertinent to Australia as they are to Britain for we too have blithely wandered down the yellow brick road of financial deregulation, privatisation, labour market flexibility and lower taxation towards the economic fundamentalist preoccupations of US conservatism.

The World We’re In is a timely book, coming in a period when the United States is increasingly adopting unilateral military and economic solutions in the wake of September 11 and in the face of a severe stock market down turn. Hutton ruthlessly criticises the prevailing US conservative agenda whilst praising the “best of American universities, culture and business” – presumably he wants to sell some books in the United States. He is at pains to disassociate himself from anti-Americanism and socialism.

At one level this book is a committed critique in support of the public sphere of life. If he were writing a slogan for the 1789 French Revolution it would go something like ‘Liberty, mutuality and public rights’. Whilst he abhors the increasing inequality, poverty and maldistribution which the US conservative agenda foists on its own and other world citizens, he shares a dislike for full blown equality. The closest he comes to equality is a Fabian style equality of opportunity.

This well written book is essentially compares European and US capitalism yet it is delightfully devoid of economic and other social science jargon; it will be read and understood by the average educated reader. Considerable research has gone into this publication and it combines case studies of firms like Nokia, Volkswagen, European Airbus and Boeing with broader social, political, economic and cultural analyses of Europe and the United States. It examines the culture of such businesses, noting the current US business propensity to be driven by short-term shareholder value and corporate executive share options compared with a European tendency to take guidance from a broader stakeholder group which includes workers, consumers, the environment and society. Hutton believes that this leads European companies to develop longer-term business viability strategies than do their US counterparts. He also presents evidence that US business productivity figures are overstated and that European productivity is achieved without many of the social costs experienced in the United States.

Hutton draws attention to increasing workfare and inequality and consequent income insecurity. He explains that “the charge that welfare creates dependency is only the old Confederacy assumption that blacks are inherently lazy dressed up in modern guise. If the US possesses the best doctors, hospitals and medical technology in the world, forty-three million of its people remain without any form of health insurance (p.32)”. Yet US health costs amount to 14% of gross domestic product compared with approximately 8% for Britain and Australia which provide universal cover. Hutton notes that “The US has 5 per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of the its prison population …Because most southern states disenfranchise convicted felons, there are now 4.2 million (p.33)” prevented from voting. In this share owning society “64 per cent of American households own less than $5,000 worth of shares (p.124).” The “richest 1 percent of the population holds 38 percent of its wealth (p.149).” Increasingly many are working long hours in low paid jobs – “Americans, in short have created a treadmill for themselves and hailed it as an economic miracle (p.169).”

The World We’re In contrasts this socially unequal country with European countries. Hutton points to the fact that even in Europe “Civility is under siege as a market economy makes strangers of us all (p.7)”. As he did in relation to the United States, he looks to the historical philosophical basis for developments in each country and notes the importance of Catholic humanitarianism in the development of social welfare in much of Europe. He argues that “It is only when there is strong social solidarity and a powerful collective conscience that individuals have a platform on which to express their individualism (p.73)”. He considers the different attitude to property ownership, in Europe and the United States, an important determiner of the form which the welfare system takes “Aristocracy contained the notion of noblesse oblige – literally, ‘nobility obliges’ …their privilege (is) subject to their recognition of their obligations to the social whole (p.69)”. Hutton quotes the French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin “being for a market economy but against a market society (p.73).”

This book argues the importance of providing an adequate basic income backed by decent public health and educational services as the foundation on which to build a productive civil society. I found The World We’re In a compelling text; whose arguments were well supported and cleverly written providing a comprehensive synthesis. I could not put this book down – I hope you pick it up.