Pandaemonium

A CRISIS OF DEMOCRACY OR OF LIBERALISM?

Lise Reinke Hymn to the Masses

I reworked my essay ‘From the End of History to 2016’ for Sunday’s Observer, developing the theme of the tension between liberalism and democracy, and of the distinction between the ‘politics of solidarity’ and of the ‘politics of identity’. It was published in the Observer under the headline ‘Liberalism is suffering but democracy is doing just fine’, and was slightly edited down from this original version.


Welcome to 2017. It will be just like 2016. Only more so. This will be the year in which Donald Trump formally enters the White House, and Theresa May (probably) begins Brexit negotiations, in both cases giving institutional form to the two most startling election results of last year. It will be the year in which elections in Germany, the Netherlands and France, and possibly Italy, are likely see rightwing populists gain ground, even triumph.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilder’s anti-immigration, anti-Muslim Party for Freedom (PVV) is ahead in the polls, and may help form the government after elections in March. In France, in May, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National should reach at least the second-round run-off in the Presidential elections, and may win. In Germany, Angela Merkel could possibly hang on as Chancellor after elections in September. But the far-right AfD will almost certainly have dozens of seats in the Bundestag.

And, so, 2017 will also be the year when fears for the future of liberal democracy will reach a new pitch. Such fears will, however, be only half justified. Democracy, on the surface at least, is in rude health. It is liberalism that is in trouble.

Democracy does not require that the ‘right’ result be delivered every time. Indeed, were the ‘right’ always to delivered, it would indicate not the success, but a failure of democracy. The whole point of the democratic process is that it is unpredictable. The reason we need democracy is that the question of what are ‘right’ policies or who is the ‘right’ candidate is often fiercely contested. Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen may be reactionary, and their policies may help unpick the threads of liberal democracy. But their success reveals a problem not with democracy but with politics.

We have become so accustomed to talking about ‘liberal democracy’ that we often forget that there is an inherent tension between liberalism and democracy. At the heart of liberalism stands the individual. Classically, liberals held that any official restraint placed on an individual’s liberty had to be both justified and minimal. Liberals, however, fear also the masses, worrying about ‘mob rule’ and the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as threats to the liberty of the individual. For all the distaste for state restraints, many liberals have increasingly looked to state institutions as means of checking the power of the many. This has inevitably led to ambivalence about the virtues of democracy.

With the end of the Cold War, many liberals expected the tension between liberalism and democracy to be resolved. Liberal institutions, they imagined, could concentrate on governance and the enactment of the ‘right’ policies, while, freed from dreams of socialism, the masses could simply become the electorate, exercising their democratic right at elections, and enjoying the benefits of technocratically-shaped governments.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The tension between liberalism and democracy has become far sharper. Many liberals insist that the only way of defending liberal values is by insulating them from the democratic process. Many who feel politically voiceless in this new world believe they can only assert their democratic voice by challenging liberal values. It is this polarization between liberalism and democracy that created the tumult of 2016, and will create the even greater tumult of 2017.

LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929. LS Lowry's Returning from Work, 1929. lowry returning

Democracy is not just about placing a cross on a ballot paper. It is fundamentally about the contestation of power. We might vote as individuals in the privacy of the polling booth, but we can only defend democracy, and assert our political voice, by acting collectively. This requires a robust public sphere, and a democracy that is contested as much in the streets and the workplace as in the polling station. This is the real problem with democracy today. It is not that the events of 2016, and possible events of 2017, show a failure of democracy, but that while people have been able democratically to express their disaffection with the political elite, the erosion of the power of labour organizations and social movements has helped weaken democracy in a broader sense by limiting the possibilities of real social change.

At the same time, the decline of these organizations has encouraged a shift in power away from democratic institutions, such as national parliaments, to non-political institutions, from international courts to central banks. Many liberals view this as ensuring good governance and protecting important policies from the vagaries of the democratic process. Many on the left, no longer rooted in old-style class politics, have welcomed this shift, seeing transnational organizations, such as the EU, as key vehicles for social change. Many sections of the public, however, have been left feeling as if without a political voice.

Having lost their traditional means through which to vent disaffection, and in an age in which class politics has little meaning, many working class voters have come to express themselves through the language of identity politics; not the identity politics of the left, but that of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, that provides the fuel for many populist movements.

Critics of liberalism have long recognized that its fundamental flaw is that humans do not live merely as individuals. We are social beings, and find our individuality and discover meaning only through others. Hence the importance to political life not just of individuals but also of communities and collectives.

Politically, the sense of the collective has been expressed in two broad forms: the politics of identity and the politics of solidarity. The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The difference between leftwing and rightwing forms of identity politics derives, in part, from the categories of identity that are deemed particularly important. The politics of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as the left has declined. For many, the only form of collective politics left is that rooted in identity. Hence the rise of identity-based populist movements.

Such movements often link a reactionary politics of identity to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Consider next year’s French Presidential elections. The two candidates likely to make it through to the second round are the centre-right François Fillon and the far-right Marine Le Pen. Fillon is socially conservative and economically ‘liberal’. He wants to crush what remains of the French ‘social model’, cutting state expenditure and slashing workers’ rights. It is Le Pen who poses as the champion of the working class, hostile to austerity and supportive of the welfare state.

_MAL8990

Populists pose, too, as champions of liberties and freedoms. Geert Wilders was found guilty last month of ‘inciting discrimination’ by asking a crowd of supporters whether they wanted ‘more or fewer Moroccans’ in the Nertherlands. Rather than challenge his bigotry politically, liberals are content to damn it legally, allowing Wilders to promote himself as a martyr for free speech, despite his deeply illiberal views, including the demand that the Qu’ran be banned.

Figures such as Le Pen and Wilders have marched on to the terrain, and speak to the constituencies, that the left has abandoned. The failure of the left to defend popular sovereignty has enabled the far-right to frame such sovereignty not in terms of the politics of solidarity, but in the language of nationalism and bigotry.

The polarization of liberalism and democracy shows how the fundamental aspects of a progressive outlook have been ripped apart. Those who rightly bemoan the corrosion of collective movements and a sense of community often see the problem as too much immigration or too great a stress on individual freedoms. Those who take a liberal view on immigration, and on other social issues, are often happy with a more atomized society. Until we find a way of establishing a new politics of solidarity which links liberal ideas about individual rights and freedom, including freedom of movement, with progressive economic arguments and a belief in the community and the collective, we may welcome 2018 in the same fashion as now we are welcoming 2017, only more so.

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The paintings are, from top down, Lisa Rienke‘s ‘Hymn to the masses’; LS Lowry’s ‘Returning from work’; and a panel from Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry mural.

20 comments

  1. “Critics of liberalism have long recognized that its fundamental flaw is that humans do not live merely as individuals. We are social beings, and find our individuality and discover meaning only through others. Hence the importance to political life not just of individuals but also of communities and collectives.”

    Politics is nothing more or less than regulating the conduct between individuals and managing the commons. The issue, I would argue, is the interests to which the the commons are managed. The shorthand utilitarian answer, the answer that most citizens of western democracies would embrace at least normatively, is that the commons are managed to maximize benefit to the most while minimizing damage to the few. That the commons are actually managed this way is a canard much peddled by the political class and more or less accepted by the populace to the degree dependent on current economic conditions.

    The commons are in fact managed to the benefit of the very wealthy. The very wealthy ensure management to their benefit by supporting – by generously supporting – the political class, by funding its campaigns, by feathering individual politicians’ beds. As an example, in the United States it is common to turn a life of “public service” into a burgeoning personal fortune. This largess offers excellent return on investment as the very wealthy invariably do very well, even in times of economic peril. By way of example, the US financial industry ran the world economy to the very event horizon of collapse, a calamity from which America is only now recovering and of which much of the rest of the world is still mired. Millions lost their homes, their savings, their jobs. Families crumbled. But no one on Wall Street was prosecuted much less imprisoned, and Wall Street was back to paying staggering bonuses within a quarter.

    Tensions involving identity politics and immigration policy and arguments over which political party will most help the common man are acts in a carnival sideshow serving no purpose but to distract the rubes. The rubes, of course, have the ability to change the rules of the game and they showed it with the strong showing by Bernie Sanders in a campaign fueled by $25 donations. But not enough of them. For most, the siren song of the carnival barkers and the gaudy lights of the carnival midway is all they want or need.

      • The buck has to stop somewhere, Dr. Braterman. In a democracy the electorate is that somewhere.

        But I take your larger point. There are a good many complicating factors, not least of which is often a ballot choice amounting to the lesser evil. And of course the fourth estate these days delights in politics waged as a mixed martial arts cage match. The electorate doesn’t have a fighting chance.

  2. Fayyaz Sheikh

    It is great article but peripheral arguments. It is the economic interests that matter the most. I agree with arguments by James Thomas. Even liberals like Clintons and Obama helped to undermine the economic interests of the same constituents that were backbone of the Democratic party by promoting trade deals ( NAFTA, TPP) and promoting the interests of wealthy donors. Nationalism and xenophobia is the vehicle to express the economic deprivement of the working class- and perhaps promoted by the same wealthy characters to divert attention from their greed.

  3. There are alot of contradictions going on here which leads to the very paradoxical conclusion that liberalism needs to be able to combine both individual and community/collective rights in a peaceful way. This I guess is the ideal for any ideology since, as Kenan highlights, we are essentially social\community/collective beings that finds our individuality through others. However what Kenan is really alluding to here is how can liberalism and its bundle of values and beliefs triumph over other equally legitimate ideologies and so avoid moral pluralism.

    Therefore, whilst the distinction and tensions between liberalism and democracy is a much needed analysis in these rather hysterical times, it must be noted that Kenan’s argument necessarily conflates solidarity and collectivism with progressive lefty liberalism whilst at the same time seeks to separate identity politics from the collective movements in which they are embedded in order to diffuse so called rightwing populism.

    By doing this he wishes liberalism to be the vehicle by which individuals can express their democratic rights within an ever-enlargening progressive liberal community and thus co-opt both the individualism of the left and the commuitarianism of the right whilst simultaneously denounce and disregard individual and community rights that are not aligned to liberalism.

    Since Kenan’s only real interest is to promote freedom of movement or in other words a borderless world, his primary focus is in seeing only collectives that subscribe to a liberal view of the world as legitimate with other collectives being legitimate in so far that they only represent a ‘reactionary’ failure of liberalism to be liberal. He does not seem to see non-liberalism collectives as identities in their own right which are advancing a different world view and quite often a fundamentally different set of virtues and beliefs to the liberal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

    In reality, far from there being a reduction in collective identity-based politics as Kenan argues, we are witnessing a flourishing ideological environment that enables a rich and diverse contestation of power. All of which was ironically brought about by liberal elites attempting to quarantine popular sovereignty.

    Thanks to Brexit and the illiberal features of liberalism, we have at present a build up of flourishing collectives that are aligned to conservatism, populism (self-determining communities), fascism (self-identifying communities), socialism, libertarianism, ecologism and of course liberalism. These ideological collective identities all have a different view of the world and each sees differently how different individual and community values shape the world in which we live and survive. In my opinion, this is a great philosophical time that we now live in compared to Kenan’s view that we live in pessimistic times.

    So whilst I appreciate Kenan’s appeal for the Left to create an alternative to the eroded and almost extinct class-based identities that formed powerful collectives around proletariat identities, to do this around ideological values that promotes radical internationalism is not, in my opinion, in keeping with the times.

    The future of local, national and gobal politics will be framed within resilience and so rather than relying on an alternative that can replace a solidarity that is aligned to community-based manufacturing and extractive industries, politics (and liberalism in particular) will need to be more aligned to the principles of resilience which are all observations of how healthy ecosystems work. These being:-

    Adaptive Capacity (liberty)
    Managing diversity and redundancy (equality)
    Managing Connectivity (fraternity)

    This is why liberalism is dying, because liberalism cannot incorporate resilience thinking. On the other hand conservatism, populism, socialism, ecologism, fascism and even libertarianism can and does, to varying degrees, incorporate resilience thinking.

    Hence for liberalism to take over the socialist mantle would not only require liberal elites to reframe liberalism away from liberty-based liberalism towards a better balance between liberty, equality and fraternity, but also liberal elites would need to start accepting that managing diversity and redundancy and managing connectivity are essential principles for a Sustainable Future.

    So however liberalism might be reinvented, if it cannot incorporate resilience then democracy will always remain the best platform to deliberate, debate and decide about our ever changing political and ecological environment peacefully rather than concluding that technocratic liberalism is the end game.

    So may 2017 be the year of deepening democracy so that the people can deliberate, debate and decide on not only national and international issues but also local issues too in order to remove the control that local, national and international elites have over our communities, whatever their preferred ideology.

    • “other equally legitimate ideologies and so avoid moral pluralism.”

      Which “equally legitimate” ideologies might those be? And why should moral pluralism be avoided? Or did you intend to write “moral relativism?”

      “[Malik] wishes liberalism to be the vehicle by which individuals can express their democratic rights within an ever-enlargening progressive liberal community and thus co-opt both the individualism of the left and the commuitarianism of the right whilst simultaneously denounce and disregard individual and community rights that are not aligned to liberalism.

      Perhaps I slept poorly. Perhaps I’m dense. I do understand each and every word in this sentence, but strung together as they are I can make no sense of the sum. I do, I think, understand at least the last clause: “disregard individual and community rights that are not aligned to liberalism.” I reread Malik’s essay again after reading your comment, thinking I must have missed something. I didn’t, I don’t think. I don’t see where Malik mounts any case for eschewing rights “not aligned to liberalism,” whether individual or communal.

      The rest of it is a mish-mash totally unintelligible to my tiny mind. By way of example I give you:

      This is why liberalism is dying, because liberalism cannot incorporate resilience thinking. On the other hand conservatism, populism, socialism, ecologism, fascism and even libertarianism can and does, to varying degrees, incorporate resilience thinking.

      And then my head exploded, so I went and got myself an Irish whiskey.

      You could have saved yourself and the readers here a good bit of time by simply saying that you dislike liberalism and imagine it to be the Latin of political philosophy. You’d still be wrong, but your wrongness wouldn’t require such effort to decipher. And while we’re chatting about this, about halfway through you wrote:

      politics (and liberalism in particular) will need to be more aligned to the principles of resilience which are all observations of how healthy ecosystems work. These being:-

      Adaptive Capacity (liberty)
      Managing diversity and redundancy (equality)
      Managing Connectivity (fraternity)

      And yet only a couple of paragraphs earlier your wrote:

      the liberal ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity.

      Do you fail to be struck by the cognitive dissonance of these quotes in juxtaposition?

      • Equally legitimate Ideologies that dont promote uncontrolled freedom of movement, equality etc etc. Conservatism, marxism, fascism, populism to a degree, libertarianism.
        Liberalism tries to avoid moral pluralism hence the hysterics of right wing populism which is simply a different moral perspective.
        Self-determing communities are not necessarily aligned to liberalism. Kenan wishes to avoid the deeper implications of self-determining communities since they might not align to his broader goal of a borderless world of radical internationalism.
        It is true that liberalism cannot incorporate resilience thinking unless liberty, equality and fraternity are reimagined as the freedom to pursue adaptive capacity. Community management of diversity and redundancy and community management of connectivity in order to promote ecological sustainability. Liberalism cannot comprehend ecological rights because it is impossible to fulfill rights to life to all sentient beings.

        So whilst I admit there is some incoherence in my writing the critique of liberalism and the radical internationalism of Kenan’s are fundamentally flawed with regards the need for resilience thinking which in turn requires management of resource flows (inc human) rather than a laissez faire policy regarding resource flows.
        Liberalism does not facilitate community determination of resource flows because current interpretations of liberty, equality and fraternity are focussed purely on the individual and not the community in which these indivuduals are located and rely upon.

        Im assuming you are unable to understand because you only see the world ecology as “nothing more or less than regulating the conduct between individuals and managing the commons.” Nothing about negotiating collective identities in relation to distinct territories or bioregions, nothing about the rights of communities to be self-determining, nothing about nonhuman rights, nothing about the politics of ideology and nothing about how to build up prosperity within the context of resilience hence why my piece is such a mishmash to you. Im guessing because mainly your worldview relies on a liberal technocratic state-centric perspective. But tell me if Im wrong!

        • “requires management of resource flows (inc human)”

          Management by whom? Management of resource flows requires managers of resource flows, some set of principles by which the flows are to be managed (a macroeconomic theory), and objectives to which these efforts are directed, viz. a unifying political philosophy. I have made clear that my unifying political philosophy is entirely utilitarian, my economic theory is empirical rather than dogmatic, and that managers should be popularly elected. You will forgive me for noticing but your expository prose is so stultifyingly turgid that I haven’t the slightest idea what, if any, philosophy underlies your various utterances.

          “Im assuming you are unable to understand because you only see the world ecology as “nothing more or less than regulating the conduct between individuals and managing the commons.”

          Actually, I said that politics is nothing more or less than that. But I’d be interested to read what you imagine “world ecology” to be that doesn’t fall more or less neatly into one of those two categories.

          “Nothing about negotiating collective identities in relation to distinct territories or bioregions”

          I’m not entirely sure what a “bioregion” might be, but “negotiating collective identities” is a scalable phenomenon that humans (and a number of other social animals) have done since time immemorial. A family, a clan, a tribe, a village, a nation; these are all collective identities united at a minimum by a shared set of cultural values that regulate the conduct between individuals and manage the commons.

          “[N]othing about the rights of communities to be self-determining…”

          They should be, though few in reality are.

          “[N]othing about nonhuman rights…”

          Rights are negotiated. That is part of the “regulating conduct between individuals” part. Nonhumans are, generally speaking, poor negotiators. Most reasonable communities adopt standards of treatment of non-human animals, but that is rather different than “rights.”

          “[N]othing about the politics of ideology …”

          Politics are ideologies

          “[N]othing about how to build up prosperity within the context of resilience…”

          Any lasting macroeconomics will by definition be resilient, but I suspect that yours is an idiosyncratic definition of resilient.

          “Im guessing … your worldview relies on a liberal technocratic state-centric perspective.”

          First, “liberal” is imprecise in that it has many connotations. I am a scientist. I am far more specific policies than in the political labels that attach to them. Second, any group of people sharing a commons can be seen to be a state. I am not sure what you are getting at here. Are you advocating anarchy? Third, technocratic, like liberal, is imprecise. If by technocratic you mean regulation based on measurable inputs and outcomes, then yes, I do like my philosophy to be grounded in reality.

          “But tell me if Im wrong!”

          I think I just did.

        • I think your problem is that you cant seem to see outside your technocratic centrist utilitarian bubble. You call yourself a scientist but dont even understand what world ecology means, what technocratic means, what an ecological perspective is, what management of resource flows implies and the fact that different management techniques will vary according to community since the needs and desires of different communities will be different.

          Dofferent communities would rmploy whichever ideogical mix they democratically choose in order to achieve their democratic goals.

          Your argument that politics is simply regulating individual conduct and managing the commons obviously has alot of truth in it but it is also obviously far more than that since much of politics is about how to distribute and organise scarce resources within a field of power. This takes politics into an emotive sphere, the one in which you are predominantly engage with.

          How does your hyper-critical uninformed perspective relate to “politics being the regulation of human conduct and the commons”. How are you regulating me and how are you managing the commons (internet space) between us. You do come across as a utilitarian technocratic dictator but if this is how you think everybody should do politics then fine but Im afraid you are going to be very disappointed that the world refuses to adapt to you.

          In terms of regulating your behaviour, I suggest you google any terms that I use that you do not understand.

          In terms of clear unifying principles and then saying you default to empiricism rather than abstraction, how about the Laws of Conservation and Newton’s 3 laws of motion especially as utilitarianism is simply an abstraction with the greatest good being simply a subjective appraisal of who is considered worthy of being included in the greatest good. Obviously you will always make sure you are included as will anyone else.

          So to take you away from your stultifying abstractions, which coincidentally do not seem to include anything regarding Kenan’s post i.e liberalism and democracy, how does your perspective deal with the issue of freedom of movement?

        • Put simply .. let the people (democracy) decide.

          For me ecological sustainability and ecological management is the priority which doesnt necessarily rely on grand unifying economic principles that can be applied and abstracted on to Nature but is a conscious deliberative process that takes account of the political, economic, cultural and ecological needs of those affected by decisions from the local to the global.

          So for me self-determining communities within a framework of confederated regions is the best way to achieve this but that is just my perspective. Im not really sure of yours but for the sake of democracy Im certainly willing to listen to it and then put competing perspectives to the vote.

  4. steve roberts

    The last sentence is the most important and polemical, specifically the importance of linking of ideas and values – which many would agree with – to the absolutely vital progressive economic project.
    Without such a project,to take us way beyond our present pathetically inadequate level of resources and wealth, crudely one could identify it as a larger cake of the entire social product of society, none of the ideas, values etc can be realised in any meaningful way.
    We would still be left in a very constricting fight between different interest/identity groups for the relatively meagre and insufficient social product. This situation is antithetical to forming universalist ideas.
    Hence I would suggest that the starting point, if fact the foundation for building a new politics based on the values Kenan states in his last sentence is the demand for a hugely increased cake.

    • “is the demand for a hugely increased cake.”

      How? This item in BBC sheds light on approaching this from the direction your suggest.

      The inexorable quest for more stuff for more people is irreconcilable with available resources and the ecological impact of exploiting those resources.

  5. steve roberts

    Well that’s another subject though obviously related, if accepted it’s logical solution is an acceptance of the status quo though with some criticisms perhaps and an inevitable scramble for resources between different groups, often given a so called radical edge by claims for a more equitable redistribution of the social product.Usually the position of those calling themselves of the left, I would call them regressive obstacles to progress.
    The other end of that same position is the demand for population control to resolve the same “problem” you identify.
    Malthusian misanthropy in my book.
    You draw one conclusion from the facts or evidence you have decided to accept- though it is likely considering the issue raised that I would not accept it – and that effectively is that human progress is irreconcilable , a form of the end of history.
    However the point is that the information that you or I accept is only that, information, what we do with that information is the important issue. Do we accept the presentism or even regression that you are proposing or do we have a view that humans are the agents of change , progress and history makers who will ,as has been the historical story so far, use our knowledge and ingenuity to solve problems and advance.

    • “You draw one conclusion from the facts or evidence you have decided to accept- though it is likely considering the issue raised that I would not accept it – and that effectively is that human progress is irreconcilable , a form of the end of history.”

      No. But then I do not measure human progress by the accumulation of stuff. We have the ability to provide quality sustenance, education, healthcare, and so forth for a burgeoning global population. That is very different from everyone living a Western middle class lifestyle. I would argue that to be the wrong objective as well as an unattainable objective. To bake a “hugely increased cake” one needs a hugely increased supply of flour. There are other alternatives. One can bake a better cake and distribute the slices more equitably.

      “Do we accept the presentism or even regression that you are proposing” or do we have a view that humans are the agents of change , progress and history makers who will ,as has been the historical story so far, use our knowledge and ingenuity to solve problems and advance.”

      I propose no such thing unless the notion of advancement is to be measured in the surface area of flat panel televisions and the per capita consumption of disposable diapers.

      “[O]r do we have a view that humans are the agents of change , progress and history makers who will ,as has been the historical story so far, use our knowledge and ingenuity to solve problems and advance.”

      Is that the punchline to the question: what do you get when you cross a strawman with a false dichotomy? Wisdom is the ability to recognize which problems to solve and the direction in which real advancement lays.

  6. steve roberts

    Yes I get it , it’s so comforting for the World’s population and those still to come that we have such arbiters of judgement, purveyors of wisdom, who will decide for us, in our and the planets interest of course, that we have enough, this is the end, and we can all settle down and pursue the the good life where happiness and contentment et al will flourish once we realise there is more to life than the material, because of course none of those aims could be achieved with material gain as well.
    Your ideas are dangerous for the future of humanity, damn good job historical gains of the past were not hampered by the same ideas,where would we be now ? Living happy and contented lives in caves perhaps.

    • John Galt, is that you?

      “[I]t’s so comforting for the World’s population and those still to come that we have such arbiters of judgement, purveyors of wisdom, who will decide for us, in our and the planets interest of course, that we have enough, this is the end, and we can all settle down and pursue the the good life where happiness and contentment et al will flourish once we realise there is more to life than the material…”

      Yes, it is, isn’t it?

      Again, you set up a false dichotomy: laissez faire or abject penury. Economic growth is a tool, not an end in itself. We, through our various governments, have shaped economics in a variety of ways and to a variety of purposes. Fairly unbridled capitalism has brought tremendous benefits to many nations that have embraced it, but this has not been a single-edged sword. Moreover, that sort of capitalism was appropriate at a time when industrialization was nascent; its propriety now is debatable. I would argue that freewheeling capitalism is neither sustainable nor desirable at this point of human development. The economics of the supply side have changed dramatically. We are living in a time of oversupply of productive capacity and we are awash in capital looking for a productive place to be. The demand side is also increasingly problematic, especially on the lower-skilled rungs of employment. Automation is, relatively speaking, cheap. I once kept a small factory outside of Shanghai to manufacture products that I simply couldn’t make competitively with US-priced labor. I now manufacture all but one of the items I made there, here in the US – but without increasing my US payroll by one dime. Capital equipment is cheap relative to labor and long outlives its depreciable life. But on a macro scale, supply is not meaningful without demand and for there to be demand people most have disposable income.

      One can take the position that we can accept a bifurcated society of haves and have-nots, that the most productive members of society (economically speaking) should have it all and that the unproductive should get what they can scratch out. You might travel around, say, Mexico to see how that looks in real life. Social pathologies follow gross inequality as night follows day.

      Or one can understand that the traditional underpinnings of macroeconomics are changing and that our society needs to change with them. Or one can continue thumping yesterday’s drum as if thumping harder or faster will return us to a world gone by.

  7. steve roberts

    Your dogma leads you to an absolutely fundamental mistake, if you think I am in favour of laissez faire capitalism you could not be further from the truth.In fact you are too generous, the benefits of capitalism could be called regressive for centuries in many ways especially the social consequences, The fact that the division of labour under capitalism has increased massively under capitalism has to be balanced against the social costs and also that cause and effect ought to be considered here
    .Just because this huge increase in productivity has taken place is not at all necessarily been because of capitalism per se but because of advancement and progress that is a by product of capitalism, cause and effect is relevant here.
    The question you ought to be asking yourself is how your critique of capital social relations has led you to a position of denying the desire or possibility of progress itself while at the same time believing you have a radical edge.
    You also are quite determinist in that you assume the only possibility of growth can be within capital social relations so you reject it due to it’s negative effects, is there no possibility that humanity can determine socially organised progressive economics without capitalism?
    You choose not to pursue that possibility and regress into environmental miserabilism / Malthusian ideas.
    That is a rejection of the possibility of the human agency to make a better future, perhaps because of the weight of historical failures of capitalism and radicals to build a progressive outlook and future of which you appear to be a part.
    You must be living in you own bubble if you think there is an overproduction of capacity, there is so much inability to satisfy even basic need throughout most of the world – dependant on your definition – that we to have to posit that we need much more is almost unbelievable.
    Finally one of the reasons so much capital, labour, knowledge,resources, technology and all the unknown gains we could make are completely unused is because of the prevalence of ideas like yours that are mainstream throughout the world.
    So sad.My name is as posted

    • “Your dogma …”

      My only dogma(s), though dogma by definition demands an authority figure which mine lacks, are logic and reason.

      “if you think I am in favour of laissez faire capitalism you could not be further from the truth.”

      I’ve no idea if you have a coherent economic philosophy or what it might be. I try to pick through your impenetrable commentary for some kernel of shared language and extrapolate from there. If I’ve missed the mark I’m neither surprised nor particularly contrite.

      Here I’m going to skip sentences that are impenetrable to me rather than enumerate them and reiterate my inability to make sense of them.

      “is there no possibility that humanity can determine socially organised progressive economics without capitalism?”

      Why certainly. It has been tried any number of times with limited and short-lived success. Further, I have argued in this very thread that capitalism, at least in its classical sense, has largely outlived its usefulness.

      “Finally one of the reasons so much capital, labour, knowledge,resources, technology and all the unknown gains we could make are completely unused is because of the prevalence of ideas like yours that are mainstream throughout the world.
      So sad.”

      You know, I think it was Albert Einstein who said that anyone who couldn’t explain the basic outline of some fundamental concept to a child in a paragraph or two didn’t understand it himself. Can you explain the general outline of politico-economic philosophy to a dunderhead like me in a paragraph or two of simple sentences composed of words whose meanings we share?

      “My name is as posted”

      Mine is not, and for very good reasons.

      • steve roberts

        Yes, from many posts to others on this site this is where debate with you seems to lead, your failure to understand etc, an avoidance, so I will make this my last one, I doubt it will affect you one iota, but possibly others interested in debate.
        Of course historically all economic/social systems have had both positive and negative periods, each have led to a progression to a more advanced one in terms of the division of labour and increased size of the social product, we are all living a longer, healthier, and better life than before despite the problems we still face.
        It ought to be clear that whatever the form a new possibly mixed economy and social system would take it would involve, as I explained a, huge increase and use of what we have available to solve societies problems, billions of human beings, knowledge, technology, resources known and yet unknown et al.
        That for you is all irrelevant as it involves in it’s philosophy growth on an unprecedented scale and more , much more for all – a material basis from which we can all be more free to begin to further develop in all social aspects-until we decide to do otherwise, something a very long way into the future for others to decide their own destiny,which is not for you and others who share your views to decide , yours are are misanthropic at source.

        • My “failure to understand” is a direct consequence of your inability to mount a coherent argument. Look at your comment above. You start with a banality, fall to your knees waving your hands and jabber vaguely about human potential and human need without any specific policy or even direction, and end with an ad hominem accusing a committed utilitarian of misanthropy.

          So I have come to understand that you have no program, no philosophy, no concrete ideas, just an inchoate desire for “things to be better.” Terrific Steve, so does Miss America. But the fact is that neither of you brings anything to the effort to actually make things better. Feelings are not policies, they are not even meaningful goals. Neither are vague, gauzy ramblings.

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