The Courageous State: Rethinking economics, society and the role of government

By Richard Murphy, reviewed by Heather Blakey

June 4, 2012
5 min read

The Courageous State is an indictment of the behaviour and agendas of contemporary politicians. Richard Murphy argues that we have ‘a government … run by cowards who believe that there is nothing they can do but acquiesce to the demands of the market’ (p6). He juxtaposes the cowardly state, whose politicians have swallowed the lie that market outcomes are always better than state-designed outcomes and run away from their responsibilities by leaving everything to the market, with the Courageous State, whose politicians have integrity, who know that the future is uncertain and that there is a great deal they do not know, but also know that they must take responsibility, must choose and must act. He asks how we can expect people to have faith in politics and politicians when our politicians themselves have no faith in themselves but only in ‘the market’.

This is a book bristling not only with indignation, but with disbelief at the thinness and absurdity of the claims of neoliberalism: for example, that markets know everything but people make mistakes, that people are always selfish, always rational, always motivated by financial gain, and that transactions or exchanges are irrelevant unless they are cash-measurable (Murphy recognises that there are more nuanced neoliberal arguments, but makes a case that politicians act on the meta-narrative). The book shines a strong light on the narrowness of the economic vision that informs UK policy from Thatcher onwards.

Murphy wholeheartedly rejects neoliberal economics as the framework for thinking which got us into our current troubles, and makes a passionate and compelling case for a new framework which might get us out of them.

Part 1 of The Courageous State refutes the neoliberal analysis of the state and demonstrates how and why the state is not simply important but the very bedrock of a healthy and sustainable economy. However, Murphy does not simply offer a critique, though he does this with useful factual detail and conviction, but in Part 2 proposes an alternative model of economics. Running through the book are two conceptions of human nature: the grasping homo economicus of neoliberalism is displaced by an empathic, relational being who can only flourish, perhaps only exist, in society and in community. The former is motivated by acquisitiveness, the latter by the drive to maximise human potential (both individually and collectively). Murphy recognises that these are not new ideas; simply that they are new to mainstream economics.

The main aim of The Courageous State is to explore the kind of economics we need if this is who we are. Murphy proposes an alternative framework for thinking (he rejects the scientific connotations inherent in the word model) in which the goal of economics is to help us maximise our potential in four areas: material well-being, emotional well-being, intellectual well-being and our sense of purpose (which he judges a central human need). For me, this is one of the central charms of the book. The collective aspects of human identity are placed centre-stage as a human need and as a motivating force.

Murphy’s vision is clearly communicated, and The Courageous State offers us practical and conceptual tools for rejecting the neoliberal ideology which has underpinned government policy for the last thirty years. He distinguishes the cash economy of ‘feral finance’ from the real economy, and argues that the Courageous State should reduce and limit the former while promoting the latter. Part 3 of the book offers an exhaustive wealth of ideas on policies, including with regard to tax as a central right and power of government, that politicians could choose if they were guided by the broader vision of economics that Murphy proposes.  In the bicentenary year of the Luddite Rebellion, I feel compelled to make the point that when Murphy says he is a not a Luddite but that we should provide tax relief to encourage employing people instead of machines, he is indeed making a proudly Luddite argument: that technology should not harm people and communities.

Murphy’s policy proposals are a key strength of the book. They overwhelmingly demonstrate, in very specific and concrete detail, that There Is An Alternative. Yet whilst Murphy invokes democracy throughout the book, both as necessary to the Courageous State and as threatened by the cowardly state and the reality of feral finance,  I found there to be a central question which the book does not answer: how do we – as democratic citizens – act to create a Courageous State and not a cowardly one? Murphy’s perspective is powerful and compelling; it would only be strengthened by a more central analysis of power. Neoliberal politicians are not merely cowardly – by and large, they are themselves amongst the elite who benefit from the appropriation of resources by a tiny wealthy minority. They will not simply choose to be courageous. It is we, as active democratic citizens, who must demand it. This book is, however, a significant resource in that campaign.

 


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


54