Intellectual weapons

Issue: 129

Alex Callinicos

HaJoon Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, (Allen Lane, 2010), £20.00

Ha-Joon Chang is an economist based at Cambridge who has made a reputation as a critic of the free-market orthodoxy in development economics. Thus in Kicking Away the Ladder he showed how the leading Western capitalist states demand that developing economies abjure all the protectionist methods that they themselves had used to industrialise in the
first place.

In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism Chang widens his fire to neoliberalism more generally. The book is a pleasure to read, and not just because of Chang’s very clear, conversational style. In a series of brief chapters (or “Things”) with titles like “Capital has a nationality”, “We do not live in a post-industrial age”, and “Despite the fall of communism, we are still living in planned economies”, Chang demolishes various sacred cows of the Washington consensus, using a highly effective combination of argument, evidence, and humour.

My favourite chapter is the one where he argues: “The washing machine has changed the world more than the Internet has”. Chang shows that the telegraph speeded up communication by 2,500 times, whereas the Internet is only 100 times faster than the fax, and argues that, by making it easier for women to participate in the labour market, the washing machine has had far more revolutionary consequences.

This doesn’t mean the book is perfect. There is a dreadful chapter where Chang argues that it is only immigration controls that keep wages in the North higher than those in the South—even though he concedes in passing the role played by differences in labour productivity.

Moreover, Chang is anxious to make clear that his beef isn’t with capitalism itself. Rather he wants to rehabilitate the kind of state-directed coordinated capitalism that industrialised his native South Korea in a generation. It is a sign of the suffocating orthodoxy that has made mainstream neoclassical economics an intellectual disgrace that books like Chang’s—and an earlier, somewhat similar work by the great economic historian Paul Bairoch, Economics and World History—seem so radical. But genuine anti-capitalists can mine 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism for weapons to turn against the system itself.