The great social paradigms are dead, long live the next ones (whatever they are)

16 02 2010

Are we witnessing a paradigm change? I suspect not. Remember Kuhn’s assertion that a paradigm does not truly collapse until another is ready to take its place. China does provide an alternative, apparently successful, model, but it is difficult to see it succeeding in many other countries.The free market will accommodate its lessons and find a way to survive. The Chinese model will continue for some time too. I don’t see business’s Copernicus. Kuhn was probably right: lessons from the history of science are hard to apply elsewhere.

Michael Skapinker’s article, from which the above quote comes, asks whether the creation of paradigms, that is of unifying if transitional theories, which are vital to scientific development, is applicable to social and economic questions. His answer is probably not as these ‘these other areas are more fragmented’.

I would argue the opposite. The creation of  paradigms in politics and economics is vital to progress. Humans do not live by bread alone. We require an overarching view of the world within which to locate our own feeble individual efforts. This role has been played throughout human history by various religions. In more modern times it has taken the form of economo/political movements like the bourgeois individualism of nascent capitalism and the reaction against this in the form of  both romantic conservatism and the communism of Marx and Engels.

While it is true that these paradigms never became universally accepted in all sections of society at all times they nevertheless played a key role in creating a world view within which adherents could comfortably operate. Crucially they also  allowed those who believed in the paradigm to take action and make things happen which required very tough decisions and were often to the detriment of other human beings. The driving of peasants from the land in the various forms of land enclosure is one example of this. These were acts which caused enormous hardship to many, but as Marx recognised  

They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a “free” and outlawed proletariat

The point here is not whether these things are right or wrong, but that without the firm belief in capitalism and the market of those who perpetrated the enclosures they would not have happened.

Skapinker acknowledges that we are a bit short on political or economic paradigms today. The ‘free market’ of  Thatcher and Reagan appears discredited. Communism is extinct.Skapinker  dismisses China as a possibility, although there are those in the west,as we have noted here, who seem to aspire to a Chinese model of political concensus and more centralised state control.  How is it that we seem to have reached this paradigm free state?

The answer lies in understanding how paradigms are created. In historical terms they are the product of historical developments. The paradigm of bourgeois individualism was the product of the development of the free market and an assault on the privileges of the landed aristocracy. Social change became embodied in the person of the new middle classes. The paradigm of communism was the product of the development of the working class, free of the means of production and therefore with no stake in the existing paradigm.

Today there is no rising historical force which can embody a new paradigm. In that respect history appears to be exhausted. The paradox of this development is that in the absence of a paradigm with historical force it appears to be impossible even to imagine that one could exist. We are suffering from a failure of historical imagination about the possibilities of social change because human history has reached an impasse. That is why politics everywhere is in disarray and confusion. It is also why throwbacks like islamic fundamentalism or the religious right in the US can appeal to people who need some kind of world view to give their lives meaning.

Perhaps the only comfort here is that history, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Our individual life spans are short but seem to encompass eternity. In historical terms the period since the collapse of communism and the discrediting of its only apparent alternative is very brief. It would be a mistake to think that we have reached the end of paradigms. As with science, it is just when we think that we know everything that something new comes along to reveal a new and higher truth.




One response

16 02 2010
Weston Bay


I’ll stick that on a placard at my next demo. Assuming that is, there’s anything left to demonstrate about.

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