Review of Tim Rogan, The moral economists: R. H. Tawney, Karl Polanyi, E. P. Thompson, and the critique of capitalism, Princeton University Press, 2017.
Nearly twenty years ago--at the high point of the progressive turn--the moral philosopher Jonathan Glover accurately warned that the enlightened approach to the evolution of humanity, and with it the development of reason and ethics, was in danger of becoming 'thin and mechanical' and demanded a 'new human psychology'. (1) He was generally ignored given the widespread--vainglorious--belief that history had ended, growth was locked in and the solutions to material injustice appeared within sight.
Fast-forward to the 2010s and we can see how this played out, with the global rise of authoritarian populism and a raw far right politics on the move across the continent and beyond. The foundations of liberal democracy are endangered whilst the centre left has collapsed; the latter expressed in electoral defeat and intellectual decay. Even in Britain, where the Labour Party made gains at the General Election in 2017, it remains out of power, and there are important questions to answer about how it might construct a viable coalition to win the next election.
Today, political philosophers such as Michael Sandel suggest that the challenge we face is of epic historic proportions--to transition beyond (quite understandable) protest and resistance and rebuild a public philosophy for progressive politics. (2) This is an imperative not least because today's populist--often nativist--energy has been ushered in by a disintegrating social democracy that long ago lost its postwar ethical potency; today it has shrunk into a soulless technocracy lacking the capacity to offer anything approaching a moral critique of capital.
Given this wretched environment Tim Rogan's The moral economists is a welcome publication--although the central argument is quietly devastating for the left. He suggests that already in this short century we have dramatically truncated our critique of capitalism through a focus on material distribution, inequality and utility at the expense of deeper moral or spiritual questions. In so doing we have overturned the priorities of much radical thought of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth. Today we are suffering the collateral intellectual, cultural and political damage. Paradoxically, we are losing the capacity to diagnose and resist precisely that which politically so concerns us.
Rogan seeks to rehabilitate an alternative tradition, one that has...