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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How much is enough?

25 11 2009

Robert Skidelsky, with whom I debated on this issue a few weeks ago, has returned to the fray in the Guardian. In his new article he looks at Keynes’s prediction that by 2030 the world (or at least the developed part of it) will have raised living standards sufficiently to call a halt to growth and to reduce the working week to 15 hours. Skidelsky points out that we have already reached Keynes’s income target in the west, but instead of this leading to a shorter working week it has led to the tendency for people to work longer for higher pay. He explains this as due to  insatiable desires induced by the consumer society.

 Keynes …recognised that there are two kinds of needs, absolute and relative, and that the latter may be insatiable. But he underestimated the weight of relative needs, especially as societies got richer, and, of course, the power of advertising to create new wants, and thus induce people to work in order to earn the money to satisfy them. As long as consumption is conspicuous and competitive, there will continue to be fresh reasons to work.

As I pointed out in my debate with Skidelsky, the developing world is far from reaching even the basic levels of income required to combat poverty. This alone would demand that we continue to grow the world’s economy for many years to come. I also argued that even in the west there are many areas of life and many sections of society which are underfunded and  suffering deprivations of different types.

However let us accept for the time being that we stay in the developed countries and we equalise incomes to produce a tolerable subsistence level for all of society. Would this then justify an end to growth? It is a good question to ask. After all, it is true that often consumption for consumption’s sake can induce a feeling akin to nausea. It is something I experience every Xmas when confronted with the huge pile of presents which arrive for my children, most of which are consigned to the rubbish tip within days (sorry grandparents!). It is also true that we ‘need’ many of the things we buy only in the sense of satisfying a desire, rather than in order to keep alive and healthy.

So should we cut back on growth and train ourselves to not want things which we do not absolutely need? I think this is a dangerous path to pursue. Human beings have developed modern sophisticated societies on the back of scientific, medical, technological and engineering progress. Taking the long view, in the space of a few thousand years we have transformed ourselves from primitive beings at the mercy of the elements to masters of our own destiny. We have turned our planet from a hostile environment to one of relative safety for most. Accepting an end to growth in all of these areas would mean that we have effectively called a halt to our upward progress.

This would have profound effects on who we are. Humans have become something special through our conflict with the natural forces which threaten us. We have transformed ourselves into civilised people through this process. If we gave up on this struggle, stopped being inquisitive and experimental, we would be in danger of becoming the human equivalent of cows, well fed, safe and chewing the cud to pass the time.

Where Skidelsky has a point is in his recognition that we have paid a price for the way in which we organise production,

The accumulation of wealth, which should be a means to the “good life,” becomes an end in itself because it destroys many of the things that make life worth living. Beyond a certain point – which most of the world is still far from having reached – the accumulation of wealth offers only substitute pleasures for the real losses to human relations that it exacts.

Here Skidelsky touches on the alienating and destructive effect of modern capitalism on human relations,something Marx described brilliantly in his description of commodity fetishism. It is true that the capitalist mode of production isolates and alienates us from each other through the endless process of competition. But to use this as a reason to abandon economic growth is to confuse the current way we organise production (capitalism) with the purpose of production (raising living standards). We can find an alternative to the first eventually perhaps, but we should never give up on the struggle to develop ourselves through further control over the world around us.





Why has there been no social response to the recession?

15 09 2009

images[2]When Lehman brothers collapsed a year ago, a credit crunch turned into a full blown panic. The result has been recession and a collapse in world trade. But there the similarities (with the thirties) end. Growth is returning. Stock markets are booming. Democratic government survives.

Today’s Times editorial sums up the mood of many in the elite after a turbulent year. It has been tough but capitalism survives more or less intact. Perhaps the most striking aspect of this recession has been the lack of any serious questioning of the market system, despite the negative impact of unemployment and the collapse of world trade on millions across the world.

In the past, recessions have been met with widespread social disorder, even in developed countries. In the thirties of course the recession played a big role in the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis. But even as recently as the  early eighties there were  large scale strikes and riots  in the UK which had an economic background to them. Why is it that this recession has been met with quiescence across the world?

During the summer I read Tristram Hunt’s biography of Engels. The most poignant section dealt with the forty years or so that passed after the 1848 revolutions in Europe which helped to inspire Marx and Engels to develop their critique of capitalism. For most of this time the two revolutionaries, Marx in London and Engels running the family firm in Manchester, wrote letters to each other pointing out what they hoped were signs if incipient insurrection around the world. A strike here, an outbreak of political radicalism there, all enough to raise hopes that something big was about to happen. In fact they were living through a period of relative social peace as capitalism began to expand around the world. How many times must each of them pondered on Marx’s profound words from 1852

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

We appear to be living through a period of history in which the question of profound social change is no longer on the agenda. Does this matter? Most people in the world are much better off than ever before. Even in India, China and other traditionally poor countries living standards are rising, although from a very low base.

Yet there is a profound sense of unease running throughout western society. It is not the spectre of communism which is haunting Europe, but the actuality of capitalism. Many people now feel uncomfortable with the benefits which it has brought with it. The French government is leading the way in trying to replace the traditional yardstick of progress, economic expansion or GDP, with a ‘happiness’ index. This is part of a broader backlash against materialism and economic progress exemplified by the influential Green movement. Even in a recession, when many people in the west have experienced directly the misery that comes from lack of jobs and money, these voices have not been stilled.

It would be a terrible thing if mankind turned its back on material progress while so much remains to be achieved in raising living standards around the world to a tolerable level. Marx and Engels objected to capitalism because they did not believe that it could raise the living standards of all in a consistent way andf that it was prone to violent crises. We have seen their critique vindicated once again in the current recession. The truly radical approach today is to insist on the necessity for continued economic growth, and to deal with any obstacles to that. At some point this may mean that people begin to question the ability of the market to deliver that growth and a search for alternatives can begin again. But at present the most important thing to do is to challenge the anti-growth sentiments which are occupying the hearts and minds of many.

It was only at the end of Engels life on the last decades of the 19th century that the new socialist movement began to make itself felt in the world. History does not run in straight lines and is not predictable. Neither does it repeat itself and we should not be deluded into thinking that the mass socialist movements of the past will reappear. But neither should we think for one minute that human social history is over. As long as we want things to change then we can make them do so-but not necessarily in circumstances of our own choosing.





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.