Charles Boix is Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. His primary research interests are in political economy and comparative politics, with a particular emphasis on empirical democratic theory. Previous notable publications include Political Parties, Growth and Equality (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Democracy and Redistribution (Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Political Order and Inequality (Cambridge University Press, 2015).
In Democratic Capitalism at a Crossroads Charles Boix seeks to explore both the historical chapters of democratic free-market tensions and current issues facing capitalism within western democracies. The author divides the narrative into three main eras: 19th century Manchester capitalism, 20th century Detroit capitalism, and the current 21st century Silicon Valley-based model of capitalism. The final chapters consider the implications of these forms of capitalism on the future workforce, in particular with respect to automation, the rate of technological change, income distribution and politics (or the role of government more broadly).
Charles Boix’s thesis is that, “the consequences of today’s technological changes […] are not set in stone. They will work their way into the economy through their direct (although, at this point, still uncertain) impact on the demand for different types of labour and on the cost and ownership of capital. Yet they will also depend on the institutional and political strategies we follow in response to those technological transformations” (page 3).
The book is well-written and comprehensively researched. The author does a commendable job of avoiding the clichés that often surround the topic of technology and maintains both nuance and a satisfactory degree of objectivity. We will touch upon some of the more intriguing points made throughout the book.
Chapters 1-3 explore the impact of technology on society and politics from a historical perspective. Chapter 2 dedicates a fair amount of attention (and rightly so), to the first industrial revolution. Boix points out that automatization brought by a new class of comparatively poorly skilled labour that replaced “…an old class of artisans and highly skilled operators” (page 57). In 20th Century capitalism however, the advent of technology (and automisation more specifically), led to a further replacement of low skilled workers with semi-skilled workers – albeit in much lower numbers. This new workforce of semi-skilled labour was needed to oversee, maintain, and repair the machinery in operation. Yet perhaps the most important consequence of the process of automisation was the arrival of “… new layers of white-collar, relatively well-paid jobs – from accounting departments to car dealerships” (page 59).
This in effect resulted in a new form of Corporatism whereby the relationship between employees, trade unions and the employers are far more interwoven than before. An interesting point is made in chapter 3 whereby the continual development of a company’s human capital became a vested interest for the company itself. Henry Ford for instance invested heavily in the education of his workforce. He established the Ford English School to teach English to recently arrived immigrants and he even established a “…Sociological Department, with about two hundred employees, to ensure that the family lives and overall behaviour of his factory workers did not deviate from a clear set of norms such as thriftiness, continence, and basic hygiene” (page 78).
Chapters 4-6 move the conversation to the contemporary debate around technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and its impact on the labour markets and consequently, on democracy itself. Charles Boix rightly points out the difference between simple AI and machine learning. The key form of impact here is that while computers/AI displaced routinable jobs at a large scale, they have “…hardly replaced nonroutine jobs” (page 103). Though this may be changing with machine learning.
Boix acknowledges in Chapter 6 that, ultimately, we cannot predict the impact of technological change or indeed “…depict the society it will give birth to…” (page 180). Therefore, any future policy responses must be made in a piecemeal fashion (ibid.). The chapter concludes the book with a few tentative proposals for reform. Rather unexpectedly, Universal Basic Income (UBI) is presented as one such proposal – yet the arguments made against UBI seem more convincing than those in favour. For instance, the author claims that UBI has two main advantages: “First, it may free individuals from routine, repetitive tasks, allowing them to engage in more creative and inventive professional paths. Second, it should reduce poverty and arguably, equalise conditions” (page 206). Perhaps the keywords here are ‘may’ and ‘should’ – one cannot help but feel that this is mere wishful thinking.
On the challenges of UBI, Boix acknowledges a rather lengthy list: UBI cannot be tailored to individual needs, it distorts the incentives that people have to work, it may keep the pre-existing structure of inequality in place, it reduces the need for schooling, it enables firms to offer lower wages, it affects the inner motivations and ambitions of youngsters, it can create antagonism between those that are earning against those that are not (pages 207-208). We don’t have space to go into further detail here, and surely each reader will make up their own mind – but it is a strange and slightly disappointing end to an otherwise interesting book.
In summary, Democratic Capitalism at a Crossroads is an engaging read about the impact of technological change on the transformation of labour markets, society and indeed, democratic systems themselves. It is accessible to the educated reader and while some might take issue with certain sections of the book, the author does a laudable job of curtailing his more subjective opinions by also presenting the counterarguments. One result is that some readers may find the counterarguments more compelling than the main arguments themselves (UBI is a case in point). This might not necessarily be a bad thing. The book is a recommended read to those looking to expand their knowledge of the intersection between technology, the economy, and democracy.
“Democratic Capitalism at the Crossroads” by Carles Boix was first published in 2021 by Princeton University Press, ISBN: 9780691216898, 272pp.
Andrei E. Rogobete is the Associate Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.