Review of Value(s): Building a Better World for All by Mark Carney (Signal, 2021)
Mark Carney would be a socialist if he wasn’t such a capitalist. But he gets so close. The Canadian banker, economist and would-be politician is a true believer in free enterprise and an honest, if misguided, broker.
In his new book, he writes that “companies exist to improve our lives, expand our horizons and solve society’s problems, large and small.” He makes this case in the context of the climate crisis, arguing that those who caused climate catastrophe must be trusted with leading us out of it. After all, why not put the arsonists in charge of putting out their fires?
Yet his line of defense has a strategic quality that is easy to appreciate: as capitalism and capitalists come under increasing scrutiny, Carney’s effort to remind us of the “good” they do will read as cogent to anyone inclined towards the status quo.
In Value(s): Building a Better World for All (Signal, 2021), the former governor of both the Bank of Canada and the Bank of England, and current Vice Chairman and Head of Impact Investing at Brookfield Asset Management, makes the case for a reconception of capitalist markets based on the core values of solidarity, fairness, responsibility, resilience, sustainability, dynamism, and humility.
Taking us through the 2008 global financial meltdown, the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and other events, Carney evaluates market failures that have created or exacerbated structural inequities andt have produced widespread risk, suffering, and breakdown. He then makes the case for maintaining, but improving, that same free market.
Carney believes a shift is underway in how people understand private enterprise and its purpose and responsibilities. There is growing opposition to shareholder primacy—a focus on maximizing profits and dividends for those who own stock in a company—and towards a broader conception of well-being and interests of all stakeholders, which is broadly conceived of those who do not own or invest in the business but who are impacted by its decisions.
He argues that companies should adopt more “enlightened values” because it’s in their own interest to do so, especially when it comes to ensuring sustainable profits. Carney suggests companies, which are “the engine of value creation in a modern economy” have a raison d’etre that is “not simply to maximize value for one of the stakeholders—the shareholders. Profit is essential but it must be achieved in a manner that creates shared value for all stakeholders…a company’s highest purpose is to provide solutions, in a profitable manner, and contribute in its own way to the betterment of society.” In what world is this true? Only a selective reading of history and the present supports this understanding of private industry.
Four centuries of history with the rise of private firms in a capitalist economic system reveals the aims of profit-maximization, extraction, externalization, monopoly, and worker and environmental exploitation both domestically and internationally underwritten by mass commodification. In that sense, Marx was correct in his assessment of the inherent tendencies of private capital and enterprise. In Das Capital, Marx wrote that “the wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities.’” We have taken that immensity to its natural, planet-crushing limits. The idea that a values shift in the 21st century is going to change the course of capitalism is optimistic, to be charitable, or hopelessly jejune, to be less so. Either way, Carney’s characterization of enterprise represents two fundamental flaws that underwrite his effort at defending the free market.
The first fundamental flaw of Carney’s argument is that he misunderstands the structure of the private market vis-à-vis the outcomes he wishes to see; not only does the structure of the market militate against the prescriptions he offers, it effectively prevents effective and lasting system change. The sort of transformation he imagines would require upending the market in such a way as to render it much closer to a socialist order than a capitalist one, which is not what he imagines or wishes. Moreover, his roadmap for implementing these shifts with a mix of moral suasion, enlightened self-interest, and gentle-enough state regulation reads like a plan to power a booster rocket with a 9-volt battery. It’s just not going to happen.
The second and related fundamental flaw of Carney’s argument is that it lacks a coherent, comprehensive account of power and how it circulates within and across borders in a globalized economy marked by concentrated wealth and biased pluralism. The book contains very little analysis of who decides what, when, how, and for whom, nor does it include substantive engagement with a labour perspective. The remaking of the market in Carney’s vision seems to rest on a top-down conception of noblesse oblige and strategic self-interest maximization, which one assumes is worked out in boardrooms and first-class airport lounges without input from the social movements and masses around the world who have been demanding better for centuries.
Moreover, the book is written as a roadmap to policymaking for states that sit on stolen, often unceded, Indigenous land. The word “Indigenous”appears in the book a handful of times, in a single section, that is tacked on to the end of this 608-page defense of a new, kinder, gentler capitalism that has never existed, and never will.
Stacked up against other capitalist defenders who have or may enter the political arena, Carney stands out. To his credit, Value(s) reads as a comprehensive, good-faith effort to outline a new vision for the market and its governance. And yet, it is more utopian than anything Marx or Engels might have imagined. It’s also overstuffed, mixing a market defense with monetary history, climate science, leadership tips, memoir, and more.
In that sense, it reads like an introduction of the man to a world he expects to lead—reminiscent of, if much more wide-ranging and ambitious than, similar books by Justin Trudeau, Chrystia Freeland, and Gavin Newsom. The book is worth reading and taking seriously, if only to understand what a strong 21st century free-market defense will look like. It is also of use to prepare a counter-argument for unmaking the private free market and pursuing a socialist vision that is much more likely to realize and maintain the sorts of outcomes that the latest batch of capitalist utopians are selling.