Who is the most articulate voice of global capitalism? George Soros comes to mind, of course. And so does Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder of the international marketing leviathan WPP. Last weekend, we both spoke at the International Advertising Association’s global summit in Cochi, India. And Sir Martin was in a typically expansive mood when, over lunch, he talked to me about global democracy and its discontents.
Sir Martin’s new company is called S4 Capital. And, as I joked with him, the S – which, of course stands for Sorrell – could also mean socialism. He argues that global capitalism has what he calls a “product problem” which has spawned anti democratic populist movements all over the world. And the only way to fix this, Sir Martin says, is through what he calls “subsidies” – which is the redistribution of privilege via income, mobility and education. That sounds like a very civilized, democratic kind of socialism to me. Like contemporary Denmark. Or post Second World War Britain. Socialism, to borrow an old term, with a human face.
For all his faith in free enterprise, Sir Martin believes that we need more regulation if we are to protect democracy. Particularly in media where, he says, globally dominant Silicon Valley players like Facebook and Google haven’t been accountable for the often flagrantly anti democratic content published on their platforms. These Silicon Valley platforms are “media companies”, he insists. And so they need to be regulated like newspapers or tv stations. As the head of the world’s most powerful advertising company over the past quarter century, Sorrell is right. It’s a critically important message.
Sir Martin has always been very bullish about the Chinese economy. But, of course, he’s less optimistic about Chinese democracy. So when, I asked him, will the Chinese people rebel against their authoritarian government and demand more democracy? It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. But I think he’s right to suggest that the stability of the Chinese communist regime is predicated on their economic success. If this growth stalls, then everything - yes, even the future of the Chinese communist party’s dictatorship – becomes questionable.
There’s an opening in India, Sir Martin says, as the developing world’s model for economic growth. But there may also be an opening for Indian democracy too. As western democracies either stall or fail, we need non-European models which inspire the rest of the world. The Modi regime in India isn’t, of course, perfect either. But having spent the last week in India, there’s something intrinsically democratic about the vibrant anarchy of Indian capitalism. India is the future, Sir Martin says. And it’s certainly a more democratic future than China.
So will global democracy be in better shape in ten year’s time? The contemporary system, Sir Martin, warns, is cracking. In the UK, for example, he believes that the two party system is about to be reinvented. And while this might be a worrying development in the short term, he believes that in the longer term – at least in ten years time – the system will “adapt”. Is this optimism convincing? I think it will take more than ten years. As Sir Martin says, we have a “product problem” with global capitalism. And I suspect it’s going to take at least another quarter century for this system to be properly fixed by the establishment of Sir Martin’s subsidies.