Around this time of year, I usually write a column about the best investing and business books I have read over the year. This year I thought I would do something a little different. I’m concerned — and hardly alone in being concerned — about the bad rap capitalism is getting at the moment.
Despite pretty definitive proof that free markets are the best way to make the world richer, healthier and happier over the long term, some 40% of voters in the UK are positively keen to elect a socialist prime minister, with a view to getting rid of the horrid thing that is capitalism.
So I thought I would suggest some rollicking good reads that also show the market economy, big business and the capitalist instinct in a good light. You can either read them yourself or give to your Corbyn-minded family members on the 25th. By Boxing Day, I figured, all our problems would be over.
If only it were so easy. The problem is that Western writers aren’t mad about big business. Few novels have business at the core of their plots. Where business acts as a backdrop, its character is almost universally bad.
Big corporations exploit. Those who work at the bottom of them can only be miserable. Those who work at the top can have no empathy — they can’t connect, or at least not until they are bankrupted or forced to see the error of their rationalist money-grabbing ways by the love of a good woman, daughter or orphan.
So Dickens gives us Hard Times: the miseries of Coketown and the loveless philosophies of Gradgrind. EM Forster gives us the unsentimental Wilcoxes. DH Lawrence gives us the constant contrast between the vitality of nature and the awfulness of industry (he particularly had it in for miners).
Theodore Dreiser gives us the greedy and ambitious Frank Cowperwood in The Financier. David Lodge’s Nice Work stresses yet again that industrialists have to be taught romanticism and empathy. So too does The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells: his paint manufacturer protagonist can only be made morally acceptable by having all his hard-won wealth removed. Yawn.
Modern popular writers work within the same rigid mindset of good and bad, with evil multinational companies — there is no such thing as a well-meaning multinational in literature, so far as I know — taking over from coal mines as top villains.
I give you John Grisham (The Runaway Jury) and Michael Crichton (the Jurassic Park crisis is all the fault of a greedy billionaire and his company InGen). The rotten-to-the-core multinational is a constant theme in comic books too. Batman’s Wayne Corporation is a force for good (it finances all Batman’s gear) but what of Lex Corp, Oscorp and Hammer Industries? I’m slightly outside my area of competence here, but I don’t think there’s a goody among them. No wonder that many people’s default feeling towards capitalism isn’t quite as warm and fuzzy as it should be.
So what Christmas reads might help ardent socialists see that entrepreneurialism and business creates the wealth that pays for everything else, and that capitalism is a force for good?
One slightly unexpected place to start might be Great Expectations. Escaped criminal turned super-rich entrepreneur Magwitch offers a fabulous lesson in the uses of capitalism to Pip (and in a real turn-up for the books, he’s kind as well). Pip redeems himself — after he has lost his fortune, of course — by his work with Pocket.
Another contender has to be Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, in which industrialists, fed up with the failures of central planning and stultifying effects of overregulation on their businesses, effectively go on strike from productive activity.
Their intention is not to return to work until the “looters” (those exploiting their productivity) collapse. It is long and boring in parts, but has a fabulous female heroine, a satisfactory love story, plus it works as an explainer of how free markets theoretically drive prosperity. Half a million copies may have been sold in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but online reviews use the words “evil” and “extreme” to describe it more often than they use “brilliant”.
With that in mind, I’d point you towards Henry Hazlitt’s similarly themed 1966 novel Time Will Run Back. It is a better read (Hazlitt is known to be one of the few economists who is also a good writer) and is basically an economics explainer hidden in a work of fiction. It kicks off in a miserably Orwellian state (think 1984) which is gradually turned — to everyone’s benefit — into a capitalist one by an accidental leader full of “new” ideas.
It should serve, Hazlitt says, as a reminder that “capitalism is merely a name for freedom in the capitalist sphere” and that the “will to freedom can never be permanently stamped out”. Worth reading.
My next pick — Red Plenty by Francis Spufford — is a cheat, but only a small one. It isn’t all fiction. But it is a beautifully novelistic set of stories about the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s. At the time, the USSR had the fastest rate of GDP growth in the world. This book shows you why that couldn’t last. That’s my only cheat. But I recommend it particularly on the basis that the truth about the Soviet Union is now of such little interest to people that you can buy a good condition used copy online for 1p plus postage. I’m always telling you to be contrarian and to seek out value — here’s your chance.
You might be thinking that this is all a little highbrow for Christmas, so let me add a few that are nothing of the sort. The capitalist very often comes off best in novels of little pretension. So how about a couple of Jeffrey Archers?
Your average millennial might shrink at the thought of reading Kane and Abel but you don’t get a much more enthusiastic tribute to the virtues of hard work and free markets than the tale of Abel’s journey from a miserable birth in Poland to his great fortunes in the US. The book has also sold 33 million copies and been reprinted 84 times.
You might also look to the novels of Louise Bagshawe (who once told an interviewer that she considered Kane and Abel to be the “best popular fiction of all time”). Bagshawe is a confirmed capitalist and her books play out against that background. Trash? A little harsh — but if so, highly readable trash in which people are allowed to run businesses and make money without automatically being cast as villains, which is nice.
Start with Career Girls. You don’t have to embarrass everyone by handing this out in your formal present opening sessions, but you might like to pop one inside a socialist’s Christmas stocking.
• This article was first published in the Financial Times