Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Two views of “da system”

As Charles Dickens famously stated at the beginning of his Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. In today’s post I will argue that such evaluation can be properly and fully applied to our own times, that people tend to notice only one of the two halves that compose it, and that the half they fixate onto markedly determines their whole political outlook. To that end, I submit for my readers’ consideration the following two statements (I will call them “statement 1” and “statement 2”, and will need to unpack them a bit, so the complete enunciation of them may seem a bit contrived at first). As they both refer to something I will call SANAMAE (Socioeconomic Arrangement Nominally Accepted by Most Advanced Economies), I will need to start by describing such awkwardly named beast. The SANAMAE is characterized by:

1.       the existence of private property

2.       free markets (agents can exchange their property and effort for money as they damn please)

3.       the rule of law (not so much as they damn please, as long as the constraints that bound them are impersonal, sufficiently publicized and reasonably stable)

4.       the ability of the citizenry to direct the evolution of the law through direct election of the representatives that create and apply it (representative democracy)

5.       a moderate intervention of the state in the economy to correct for market failures

Those features are described with an admittedly broad brush, and there are significant variations between different advanced economies regarding how it is interpreted in any of them. For example, the Nordic Countries admit a larger intervention of the state in the economy than the USA, and have in turn a greater tolerance for big firms (sometimes state owned, but not always) having quasi monopolistic powers (or forming outright monopolies). However, nobody would deny that they have the same basic socioeconomic arrangement, constituted by a mixture of capitalism and representative democracy that they share with Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and which sets them apart from Russia (no clear rule of law) or China (no clear rule of law and lack of ability of the citizenry to direct the polity) or Sudan (almost none of the above). Interestingly enough, in the last couple of decades more and more countries have joined the SANAMAE (Latin America, India and most of Southeast Asia now comply with almost all of the listed features), although it is debatable to what extent they have been rewarded with the economic development that was the main selling point of the whole package.

The two statements about the SANAMAE that I wanted to discuss are:

S.I Measured for how well people under it can live (its ability to ensure a reasonable amount of safety from physical harm, the enjoyment of considerable amounts of material goods and security from unexpected turns of bad luck), SANAMAE is

a.       The best current arrangement (that is, better than any alternative currently in existence)

b.       The best arrangement that has ever existed, in the whole history of the human race

S.2 The SANAMAE is morally unacceptable, as it condemns millions of people to poverty and destitution, poisons its own citizens (the more virulently the more distant they are from the centers of power), imposes a heavy toll of anguish and mental suffering (attested by the prevalence of mental illness and suicide even between the more well-to-do), fosters inequality, and requires the imprisonment of an ever increasing number of the less fortunate

My contention is that BOTH statements are equally true, BOTH are correct descriptions of the reality we live in, and both should equally guide our decisions about how to steer society towards a more just system, able of a better promotion of human flourishing. Unfortunately, most people seem unable to perceive the simultaneous truth of both statements, and depending on which one they see more clearly they tend to reach an unwarranted conclusion regarding the other, which necessarily clouds their judgment. If we define people who only seem to realize the truth of one statement, and assume (incorrectly) that such truth necessarily implies the falseness of the other one as “unnecessary partialists (UP’s)”, we can distinguish two flavors of UP:

UP.1 (panglossians): they have reached the conclusion that the SANAMAE is the best possible arrangement by careful comparison with present and past alternative systems. From that they deduce that, being best between many alternatives, it must be necessarily good (note the non sequitur), and from such unwarranted conclusion they end up seeing every denunciation of it, or even harboring any doubt about its greatness, as being explained by pettiness, resentment and delusion. They tend to be overzealous in their defense of the status quo, and they invariably denounce every fundamental criticism of it as “communism” and “not being well founded in human nature”. They tended to be neoliberals, as of late neoconservatives, and it is telling that many between them started as radical leftists (a sin for which they are still atoning, and which partly explains the extreme sensitivity of their leftist tendencies detectors). Its avowed bible has become The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker, which validates their faith in their whiggish interpretation of history, seen as unrelenting progress towards ever greater amounts of material wealth and physical safety for everybody (the fact that such wealth and safety tend to be unequally distributed seems to those sensible gentlemen a price well worth paying, as they suspiciously tend to count themselves between the ones taking the lion’s share of such unequal distribution).

UP.2 (cassandrans): they have reached the conclusion that the SANAMAE is evil, normally by having a very direct (many times from a first-person perspective) experience of some of its most deleterious effects (devastated communities, bouts of unemployment, environmental degradation, declining mental health, loss of economic security, increasing stress and anguish). From that they deduce (note, again, the non sequitur) that there must be some alternative way of organizing society that is not only better, but already in place. And if not already in place, there must have been at some moment in the past, as the idea that this is up until now the best we can collectively do seem to fill them with dread. This need to believe in the factuality (in the actual existence, as opposed to the utopian conception or the theoretical possibility) of such alternative makes them whitewash and paper over the very real deficiencies of every single damn social arrangement that has been experienced in the last hundred thousand years, which has sometime led to a truly tremendous level of whitewashing and papering over (see the otherwise inexplicable swoon of the European left with Stalinism decades after it become evident it was much, much worse than the “heartless” capitalism as actually practiced in Western democracies they so much liked to disparage). Most of the (alternative and not so alternative) left nicely fits here, and every leftist manifesto of the last years can play a similar role as Pinker’s treatise plays for the panglossians: Unequal Freedoms (John McMurtry), Debt, the first 5,000 years (David Graeber), The limits of Capital (David Harvey), Late Capitalism (Ernest Mandel), and for those of a more nostalgic bend, anything written by Herbert Marcuse and his fellow Francfortians.

The funny thing is that, in a limited sense, both panglossians and cassandrans are right, as both see a true aspect of reality that imposes some constraints on what kind of evolution towards a better compact can be feasible. From panglossians we should learn that as much as may dislike some aspects of the SANAMAE, it has shown to be a closely knit package, whose different features are deeply interwoven, so it is difficult to get rid of one without the whole unraveling. And once it unravels, whatever substitutes it is likely to be in a continuum between worse (an economically successful dictatorship) and much, much worse (a dictatorship that quickly becomes an economic basket case). Something to remember when we question how to change things and we tend to be carried away by youthful enthusiasm and propose revolutionary changes (that are soon overwhelmed by the powerful law of unintended consequences, which are invariably for the worse).

But there is also an important lesson we have to learn from the cassandrans, and it has to do with the deep burn, the fire in our belly the unfairness and lack of basic decency of the SANAMAE should elicit. We should never become so numb to the suffering of millions upon millions of our fellow humans as to consider that the best actually existing system must be the best possible system, so we should do nothing. Doing nothing is not a morally acceptable option. With great care, with trepidation, giving due consideration to all the imaginable pros and cons, thinking through the likely consequences, but change the system we must. With the utmost respect, with the broadest agreement of those that are more likely to be impacted compatible with actually getting things done, but we have the non-negotiable moral imperative to bequeath to our descendants a system regulated by a different set of rules, that allow and fosters a more humane outcome than the current chaucun pour soi.

Obviously, nowadays most panglossians are of a right wing political persuasion, whilst most cassandrans are found in the left, although there are some mixed types (moderate progressives are quite fond of the current system and feel comfortable within it, and alt-right types think that the SANAMAE is a moral abomination and –difficult to believe as it may sound- argue that the middle ages in Europe were a much better time to be alive than in our current anomic society), but both share their apparent inability to contemplate the simultaneous truth of S.1 and S.2, so when I try to defend both statements they will loudly denounce me either as a communist fellow traveler or as a lackey of capitalism. If that is the price of seeing farther and thinking deeper than the contented majority, so be it.  


  1. I'm not so sure that is "seeing farther and thinking deeper than the contented majority". You could replace "panglossians" with "conservatives" and "cassandians" with "revolutionaries", and you'd get pretty much the same picture, in terms most people would understand. Or, using Umberto Eco's terms in a book I really like, "Apocalittici e Integrati" (although he looked at it from an anthropological point of view, rather than political, but he got to the same conclusion: they're both right)
    Or maybe you are right, maybe there is something deep in the fact that both conservatives and revolutionaries are, in a sense, right (conservatives in "being careful" and revolutionaries in "something has to be done") and yet they'll never agree. Maybe that "something deep" is the fact that factions need identities more than they need ideas (they need ideas to thrive, but they need identities to exist). The critical thing for them is to deny the opposite faction, so they can exist, by contrast (so, for the revolutionaries the conservatives are "the ones that don't want to do what's needed", and not being that is what defines them; and similarly, the revolutionaries are, in the eyes of conservatives, "the ones that aren't careful to maintain what's good in society").
    And that's why none of them will agree with you in "the simultaneous truth of S.1 and S.2": it's not that they can't realize it, it's that they need to selectively ignore part of that reality in order to construct their identity.
    (Watching the Champions League final thinking "I would be very happy if Real Madrid gets the cup, but I would also be very happy if Atleti gets it" might be fair and balanced, but it would also be terribly boring!!)

    1. Come on, Jose Luis, gimme some slack! I agree claiming to see farther and think deeper is a bit over the top, but it's my blog anyhow, so I feel a tad entitled to some (minimal) self aggrandizement ;-)
      Just remember not all conservatievs are panglossians (burkeans consider thmeselves hard-nosed realists well aeare of the limitations of human nature, and because of that weary of too much experimentation) and not all cassandrans are revolutionaries (or not serious ones at least, many are just posers without much knowledge of history or anthropology to judge fairly).
      Great erference to Eco, I also loved that book back then, and was considering buying it in the original Italian. Just remember that, if I recall correctly, the apocalyptics for him included the traditionalists from the right that longed for the return of a class-based, well-ordered society.
      On the extent on which such distinction rests on the nedd of an "outgroup" to better define our own tribal identity, you may enjoy my discussion about the growing polarization of modern politics: http://purebarbell.blogspot.com.es/2015/10/some-thoughts-on-political-polarization.html.
      Thanks for reading and for the thoughtful comment!