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.

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2010-the year of living uncertainly

12 01 2010

Welcome to 2010, a year which is pregnant with doubt and uncertainty. The western world has moved from the certainty of recession to a fear and acceptance of stagnation, the ‘flat is the new up’ mentality derided by Martin Sorrell. In the UK we have a general election contested by three parties which is shaping up like a contest between weak boxers. Every time they land a punch on each other they weaken their opponent without strengthening themselves.

There is a general mood of cynicism and disgust towards the political process which means that whichever party or parties win the election then nothing can really change. Mick Hume has accurately summed up the state of modern politics as dominated by;

..the politics of fear, with many apocalyptic warnings, but little analysis of the underlying causes; the politics of behaviour, with attempts to blame the crisis of the system on the greed of individuals; and the politics of low expectations, with efforts to persuade us that the most we can hope for in the future is no/low growth in a stable/stagnant capitalism on a life-support machine of state intervention.

We  have reached the end of a political cycle which began with the collapse of communism in 1989. Just to remind ourselves, the collapse of the Soviet Union created an initial surge of optimism that history had ended with the triumph of western liberal democracy.  In the East new democracies arose. In the west the third way concensus politics of Bill Clinton, adopted by Blair and others, replaced class based politics. It is very hard now to remember the enthusiasm which accompanied the election of Blair’ s New Labour in 1997. Many people welcomed what they saw as a decisive break with the past and the opening of a new chapter in history. We can now see that the idea of a new era of peaceful and stable capitalism which dominated the twenty years since the end of communism has come to a political dead end.

The upcoming defeat of Gordon Brown in the general election here will mark the final eclipse of New Labourism in the UK. What we are left with is a severely confused and disoriented western elite which is struggling to tackle the major changes taking place in the world. During the credit fuelled  boom years of the noughties the absence of any clear economic and political blueprint for the future did not matter so much as it does now. The best that any politician can do now is to try to navigate the future without a map. On the economic front there is just as much confusion. While there are some commentators who wish to paint a rosy picture the general view is one of foreboding. The underlying problems facing western capitalism, which have been extensively debated in this blog over the past year, have not even begun to be addressed. The lack of a plan means they will fall back on restraint and cutbacks in public spending rather than bold policies for economic growth.

Elsewhere the triumph of liberal democracy is looking very hollow. The most dynamic economies in the world now pay lip service to democracy in general if at all. The recession has played its part in deepening the crisis of western politics by accelerating  both a shift in global power eastwards and by undermining the western model of (supposedly) free markets plus democracy.

All of this means that the stakes are even higher for anybody who can come up with a better idea of how to run things. The depths of cynicism amongst the elite and the general populace will prove a huge barrier to any ideas of change, but there are always some people who will not want to give in to these  widespread negative sentiments. Uncertainty can be a good thing if it leads to broader questioning and wider debate. There are those, such as Martin Wolf, who accept that we have reached a ‘hinge in history’. Whether this leads to a turn for the better or the worse is up to us.





The three interlocking crises of global capitalism

1 04 2009

As the G20 leaders begin their deliberations today it is worth trying to assess the problems that face them, and us. Everybody has been competing to describe this recession as the worst since the 70s/30s/black death, yet the full scale of the crisis has yet to be properly discussed.  The world is facing three interlocking crises.


Firstly…

The recession is severe, but what makes it worse is that it is happening when the coherence and the credibility of the political elites is at an historical low ebb.  The coexistence of a political with an economic crisis is what makes this recession so dangerous.

The entwining of the political and the economic crises has meant that the world’s response to the recession has been slow and lacking coherence. For example,we are nearly two years into the toxic debt crisis and still the bank bailouts appear to be having very little impact. The weakness and isolation of the political elites has led them to scapegoat  bankers, and by extension the whole financial system of capitalism, as the cause of the problem. This has in turn undermined the bailouts of the banks as investors have become wary of being seen to be making money out of the crisis and governments have become constrained about what they can do for fear of upsetting their voters.


Secondly…
A key element of the crisis is the changing balance of world power. The imbalance between productive economies like China and the less productive economies in the west lies at the heart of the recession. China and others built up huge financial surpluses which were recycled into consumer debt in the west. Now China is demanding that it be recognised as a new global power and wants to see its economic clout recognised by changes in global institutuions like the International Monetary Fund. The very fact that it is now the G20, which includes China and other developing nations, that are meeting today is a recognition of the shift in the balance of power. But changing the way the world is run will be a tricky process as there will be losers as well as winners.


Thirdly…
There is an absence of any alternative to the status quo. This may seem an odd thing to say. Why should an absence of any critique of capitalism be a problem for the system? The answer is that in the absence of contestation the global elites have lost their way. For most of the 20th century the west was driven on by its conflict with the Soviet Union. The technological and scientific breakthroughs that came with the space race, for example, came about because of the US’s determination not to let the Soviet Union put a man on the moon first.

The absence of opposition of any kind to capitalism today has contributed to a sense of drift and general loss of impetus in society in general and has also affected the political elites. The global elites have themselves begun to lose faith in the market system, so much so that the G20 looks to be dominated by arguments about how much global regulation the system needs.

There are other social and natural problems facing the world of course. Huge numbers of people in the world still live close to the breadline. We need to develop new, cheaper and cleaner energy sources. But the three interlocking crises mean that developments in these areas will be held back until politics and politicians themselves are given a new lease of life.





Capitalism, anti-capitalism and the G20

30 03 2009

The fault line in politics today is not between capitalism and anti-capitalism. It is between those who favour economic growth and those who are opposed to it. The ‘anticapitalists’ who will be protesting this week against the G20 do not have any kind of coherent alternative to capitalism. They are only anti it in the sense that there are aspects of capitalist society that they do not like very much. What they do have in common is an opposition to economic growth. 

Marx’s critique of capitalist society was profound and all embracing, but it had at its heart a central belief that capitalism needed to be superceded because it could not consistently develop the means of production globally. It was prone to economic breakdown and even war. This analysis has proved to be correct over the past century and is true today. The current recession is a product of the declining productivity of the economies of the west and the tensions between global powers. But Marx never rejected the economic growth that capitalism can bring.  He understood that freedom from want was the basis of civilisation and that remains true today.

If it were just a ragbag of anti-capitalist who held these anti-growth views that would not be a problem. However the sentiments they espouse are  shared by large sections of society. There are people who back the anti-capitalist demos who believe that we need a permanent recession to combat global warming.  This may seem extreme but it is now commonplace to hear people argue that we have too much and need to cut back.

One consequence of the recession in the UK is that we face austerity in the years to come. Public services will have to be cut and living standards will decline. Our response to this should not be to rationalise it by saying it is good for the planet or good for our souls. It should be to look for more ways to invest and innovate in order to find solutions to the technical,  environmental and social challenges we have to face.