The starting point of Robin Blackburn’s study of ‘Grey Capitalism’, published in New Left Review 233, is unimpeachable. He is right to say that the complex and anarchic world of contemporary capitalism cannot be tamed either by the Keynesian welfare state or traditional, ‘autarchic’ communism. This is an argument all the more welcome for resisting the siren song of a ‘New Age’ in which the distinction between Left and Right has ceased to be relevant, and a ‘Third Way’ lies ahead, trumpeted nowhere more than in the land of Blair and Giddens. If we wish to keep faith with the historic aspirations of the Left, we must begin with a critical analysis of the new configuration of global capitalism. A merely practical opposition to the present drive of neo-liberalism, of the kind represented by current social or ecological movements, is not enough. A new vision of a society founded on the values of social and political equality, public intervention and democratic control of the economy will not emerge spontaneously. We cannot depend merely on more or less instinctive condemnations of individualism and the free market. Our task must be, as Marx would have said, to ‘penetrate the secret laboratory of production’, to capture the inmost nature of this society and find ways of mastering it. Blackburn is therefore quite right to focus on problems of socializing the process of accumulation, as the ground on which social, civic and ecological movements should converge.

Is Blackburn correct, however, to suggest that what he dubs our current ‘grey capitalism’ might be reformed into a ‘new collectivism’ through popular control of pension funds? This recalls a line of argument already strongly advanced in France by Michel Aglietta, to whom he refers in his introduction.footnote1 Blackburn employs the term ‘grey capitalism’ to indicate both that the financial structure of contemporary capitalism now rests essentially on the pension and insurance funds of those in or approaching retirement, and that the exercise of property rights in this sort of capitalism is delegated to managers who act according to financial criteria of their own, rather than in the interests of the supposed fundholders.

In the US and Britain, pension and insurance funds hold about half of the value of shares and bonds quoted on Wall Street and in the City; but these pseudo-collective property rights are in fact playthings in the hands of managers whose only goal is to ‘outperform’ average returns in a footloose international financial system. It is just here, however, that Blackburn thinks the vulnerability of this sort of capitalism lies. His thesis is that these funds, the driving force behind the present casino capitalism, could be transformed into the nucleus of a new collectivism if a number of conditions were met. These he spells out as follows: firstly, all citizens must be covered by such funds; secondly, they must be able to have a direct say in their management; and thirdly, there must be a fiscal and legal framework for such funds which emobodies a new definition of the general interest. Certainly, these conditions are far from being met in either the United States or Britain, the cases Blackburn considers in detail.

Thus the proportion of wage-earners covered by a pension fund in the United States, far from increasing, actually fell between 1987 and 1995, from 53 to 40 per cent. Moreover, these employees are now covered increasingly by funds with defined contributions (DC) and decreasingly by funds with defined benefits (DB)—the proprtion of the latter falling from 28 to 19 per cent between 1989 and 1995.footnote2 The difference between the two systems is very pointed. Under DB, the size of the retirement pension is determined in advance and guaranteed by the employer and/or state; under DC, the size of the pension depends on the speculative performance of the funds, so that the pensioner bears the entire financial risk.

So far as collective intervention by wage-earners or their representatives in the management of these funds is concerned, we can scarcely speak of anything more than vague ideas. Since 1996, when John Sweeney became leader of the AFL–CIO, there has been some talk within the unions of attempting to shift such funds—especially those with defined contributions—from the ‘downward competitive pressures’ of ‘short-termism’ to a more ‘long-termist’ approach where competitive pressures would be ‘upwards’, with the trade-unions taking a more active hand in their management.footnote3 But so far it is only talk. As for a fiscal system capable of making pension funds an instrument of egalitarian progress, with redistributive measures to assist the working poor, the unemployed and under-employed, no such thing is even remotely on the horizon. On the contrary, as Blackburn himself rightly points out, all that exists today is a system of tax relief designed to hand most advantage to those who have most money to save.

Thus, even if we confine ourselves to Anglo-American capitalism, the notion that a ‘new collectivism’ is on any plausible agenda seems highly questionable, so distant are current realities from the conditions it supposes. There is an element of paradox, at the very least, in the mention of Clinton’s suggestion to Congress that a proportion of public retirement funds be invested on the stock exchange as a way of increasing their yield. Even Greenspan pointed out that this would expose them to the risks of already very inflated share prices. We need, moreover, to make more of a distinction between the United States and the United Kingdom. For British capitalism is even more thoroughly ‘financialized’ than its American counterpart. In the US, unlike the UK, there are local pension funds run by public bodies—teachers, municipal employees, firemen, policemen, and so on—which play a not insignificant role in financing small and medium enterprises in the locality, by investing ‘below the market’.footnote4

Pension funds are a reality in the Anglo-Saxon countries, and it does not look as if they are going to go away; so any proposal that social or trade-union forces take part in their management seems welcome. It is another matter altogether, however, to extend this concept to other countries where the retirement system is not already based on them. This brings us to the particular case of France, and in a more general way to continental Europe.