Friday, March 10, 2017

The importance of ideas (for McCloskey & for me at least)

Coming back to an old theme, I stated in a recent post that it was ideas, big bold generic overarching ambitious ideas what really mattered, more than inventions, more than the application of this or that technology to solve the puny problems we face (in the first world or in the third, the latter not so puny); More, for sure, than the well-intentioned (or mean-spirited) buffoons we seem so fixated on, be they politicians we have voted in office to advance what we understand to be our interests or popular culture media stars who we follow because (baffling as it is for media-averse me) we find their vulgar lives interesting.

On a side note, at the core of the stagnation and ultimate decadence of the post-modern, post-truth, post-economic growth society that happens to occupy the whole surface of the planet I diagnosed an exhaustion of the great ideas that allow for the people forming the society to agree and effortlessly coordinate their actions, which I called their “dominant reason”. The heart of the problem, then, is that the latest evolution of the Western World’s dominant reason, which took its current shape shortly before the onset of WWII, was less and less believed, and thus its commandments were less and less followed, thus the multiple signs of social decay, fraying societal bonds, inability to tackle collective problems (environmental degradation, growing inequality, inability to grow the social product at a speed that would allow us to honor the amount of debts we have been collectively contracting for the last half century, etc.) and overall pall of hopelessness that clearly hangs on the advanced world collective consciousness.

But back to ideas, before diving in the main argument of today’s post, I wanted to dispel an alternative narrative about the utter irrelevance of ideas that had certain currency between historians roughly aligned with the Marxist tradition, for whom the real motor of historical advance were class struggles, and the real explanation of the more readily observable events that come to define each age are the relations of production between the social classes. According to this narrative, ideas belong (with ideology, religion, mainstream discourse and political affiliations) to the “superstructure” that masks the real levers and pulleys that cause people (in their different and multifarious groupings) to act one way or another. Even people (political leaders or widely respected opinion makers) were in the end irrelevant, as corks bobbing in a powerful current. It is the current, and not the cork, which should interest us. So it is the play of productive forces and the property of the means of production what we should pay attention to, without caring much for who won this or that election, or wrote this or that book or declared this or that war. Given the technology, the relations of production and the level of self-consciousness of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat sooner or later (around the middle of the twentieth century) an autocratic leader will seize power in Germany, a war will be declared between Germany and the rest of the world, a communist country will be between the victors of such war, and in the end communism will extend to the whole Earth and abolish the State (well, that turned out to be a less than stellar prediction, so we may treat the whole historical materialistic outlook with a grain of salt).

Sounds fishy, as there are just too many examples of individuals that seem to have had an outsized impact on how events turned out. The rise of Nazism looks pretty much tied to the quirks and peculiarities of Hitler himself, and it is highly doubtful that any other figure would have guided Germany down the path he did. Ditto for Attila, Genghis Khan, Bismarck, Henry VIII of England, Louis XVI, Philip II of Spain and so on and so forth. May be in the end they all rode the waves around them, and in the very, very long run the destinies of the peoples they ruled would have been very much the same (i.e Spain a third-rate country in a more developed Europe, France a second-rate one, very much as England, the Mongol hinterlands a backwater with no relevance whatsoever after the XIIIth century to the history of any other nation), but for the peoples living in the years around their peak influence, it is undeniable that such influence was very considerable indeed. Heck, we do not even need to search for remote and (to the spectacularly unschooled modern day reader) obscure past leaders. Everybody should be familiar with how abruptly the opinion in the leading industrialized (although the term is highly misleading, I’m using It for lack of a viable alternative: ¿”knowledgealized”? ¿”information technologized”?¿”networkized”?) country, the USA, has turned against free trade, much to the surprise of most of the economic profession that thought the universal goodness of trade was an already settled and universally agreed upon tenet:

It would be difficult to argue that such sharp turn is caused by the cunning of reason, or the development of the universal spirit, or the dynamics of the class struggle or the impositions of the relations of production given the current technological level. Heck, sometimes the simpler explanation is the best, and in this case a certain person, about to be elected candidate by one of the increasingly polarized halves of the US electorate dared to utter “trade is bad, we are being killed by those cunning foreigners!” and millions upon millions of his followers just flipped a switch, and went from considering international trade an unalloyed good to thinking of it as an unmitigated disaster. That half of the electorate had another 7 candidates to choose, and I dare to affirm that had another one indeed been chosen (all of which had expressed a more “mainstream conservative” position -at least mainstream back then) the attitudes reflected by the poll within the Republican respondents would be pretty similar to the Democratic ones.

So people matter, and one of the reason they matter is because they embody ideas, they voice ideas, they give credence to ideas, and highlight some and neglect others, they enhance the social status of the adherents of some and degrade the standing of the followers of others. As I mentioned in a previous post about the rise of Trump (unaware then of the extent of such rise), a set of ideas the until November 2016 would have not just disqualified anybody uttering them from any dealing with polite society, but definitely barred them from ever being elected were suddenly openly espoused by people in high positions of power. From the inane (“blacks are partly guilty of their own situation of disadvantage” -how could they not be, if you grant them freedom and agency?) to the morally dubious (“helping the poor perpetuates poverty, and is thus to be frowned upon, condemned and stopped”) to the outright nutty (“there is a genocide against white people being perpetrated by a secret cabal of Jews, blacks, latinos, gays and the UN”).

Let’s then assume that we all accept that ideas are important, and have considerable explanatory power when it comes to the history of mankind and the development of societies. Are all ideas created equal? Or, put another way, which ideas should we focus on, as being most conductive to the advancement of arts and science, most favorable for the flourishing of the lucky humans brought up under their sway? To advance towards an answer I want to turn my attention to a book I finished reading three weeks ago, Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity. Why Economics can’t explain the modern world (needless to say, it was the subtitle which caught my attention, as granting dignity to the hated bourgeoisie, as much as one belongs to it part and parcel, would be too much to any self-respecting anarchist, traditionalist or not). I book I enjoyed immensely, although I strongly wanted to disagree with the author. But her wit, erudition and overall worldview were too overpowering, her putdowns of the pieties of left and right too brilliant and well-argued not to suspend my initial animadversion and finally surrendering with admiration.

Great book, then, by a sharply intelligent, fiercely independent author. In it she analyzes the explanations that have been given to the “great enrichment” (the hockey stick figure I myself used in my dissertation, showing how human history can be reduced to a single event: after tens of thousands of years in which nothing relevant happened, starting in Northwestern Europe in 1750 we have multiplied our ability to produce things we consider useful by a factor of between 16 -being very, very conservative and 100):

McCloskey makes a superb work of researching the numerous theses that have been advanced to explain such phenomenon, many of which I was already familiar with. So she (quite successfully, in my humble opinion) shows that it was not that the higher and middle classes started having more children, spreading their values (as Clark argued in his also superb Farewell to alms), it was not that the Protestant ethic made its believers more frugal and good at saving and accumulating capital (as proposed by Max Weber), it was not that Europe successfully copied China and, when arriving at the same dead end of ecological constraint had the luck to find coal geographically close to where it was most needed (the less convincing idea of Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence, which I had conveniently finished a few weeks before McCloskey’s), and definitely it was not the greedy expropriation of the commons through enclosures, which in turn forced the pauperized peasants in the hands of the budding industrialists (Proudhon and Marx, although McCloskey is aiming her sights more against Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, another great book I can not recommend highly enough).

Of course, after almost four hundred pages reading what didn’t cause the great enrichment (and thus what formulas are set to fail if we try to apply them to developing economies, in which the evidence is still stronger than the one marshaled by the historic analysis) the reader is aching to learn what in the friggin’ hell did cause it. Alas, he is in for some (judiciously announced in the introduction) rough disillusionment, as for that he will have to revisit McCloskey’s previous book (Bourgeois Virtues) and then read the following one (Bourgeois Equality -both already ordered, but will not have an open slot until 2018 to read them, I’m afraid). However, she gives us enough clues of what she has in mind as the real causes: ideas. Precisely in that age and place (the Netherlands and England around 1750 CE) the bourgeoisie (not in the Marxist sense of “the owners of the means of production”, but just a bunch of merchants and entrepreneurs, as distinct from the Nobility and the Peasantry) were accorded “liberty and dignity”. Basically that’s it. That’s the magic sauce to economic growth beyond your wildest expectations (well, that and the magic of compound interest). You grant liberty and dignity to the middle classes (also referred to as the “aspiring class”, the “enterprising class”, the “merchant class”, the “middling persons” and so on, in an uncharacteristic weakness of the book, as such labels may end up identifying wildly differing sets of individuals, but let’s not nitpick) and Presto! You have your economy mushrooming and soon everybody, even the poorest pauper on the street, is wildly better off than the richest pasha of 1001 nights.

So you want to get Afghanistan out of its current predicament? Grant freedom and dignity to its bourgeoisie! You want to keep China along its current growing path? Grant (even more)  liberty and recognition to its citizens (not only the CCP members)! You want South Sudan to stop depending on international charity and be able to feed its population? Recognize the dignity of its merchants, and let ‘em be free! A bit cartoonish, I know, and Ms. McCloskey is too clever a thinker to fall in these facile traps, but that’s essentially the core of her message, and it is not that off the mark.

However, we may want to understand a bit better what that freedom and dignity consists in, and why it is that the citizens of the USA enjoy a lot of both, why the subjects of Tanzania have very little of both. And for that I may humbly offer my own explanation: dignity is but another name for the granting of a certain position in the social hierarchy that every primate group needs to establish. So when Ms. McCloskey says that the Western powers thrived because they gave dignity, or recognized the value, of the enterprising people between them she is using a different set of words to describe what happened in the transition from a “society of orders”, where such status was determined by birth (in its last iteration what I called baroque reason), to a “society of merits”, where such position was initially accorded to whoever had genius (romantic reason), to whoever was officially recognized by the Nation State apparatus (bureaucratic reason) and finally to whoever had more money/ could command more material goods (desiderative reason).

As for freedom, here McCloskey seems to me to be in shakier ground, as it is not immediately clear to me that a XVIIth century Dutchman or Englishman was in any meaningful sense freer than a Frenchman, or than a pastoralist nomad for what is worth. The argument seems to be that such freedom has in the end very little to do with what Isaiah Berlin termed “positive freedom” (the ability of enjoying unimpeded access to certain options of life) and more with what he termed “negative freedom” (the lack of permission to intrude in other people lives), regarding the State. So Ms. McCloskey seems to think that as long as the State respects the private property of the individuals, and regulates as little as possible their whereabouts, everything is all right and everybody can be considered free as a bird (if they can’t fly… such is life!) Not that I’m against that freedom, but it is too closely aligned to “possessive individualism”, and the story of its birth and gradual increase in the Anglo-Saxon world (explained in stark contrast with its absence everywhere else, from France and any other Southern European country to Germany and of course all of Asia and Africa) smacks too much of a post hoc ergo propter hoc to seem much convincing.

Fact is, for people to be free it is not enough to have the horrible, bumbling, good-for-nothing, interventionist Leviathan of the State off their back. It helps to have some basic guarantees that you will receive an education that equips you to explore and develop your potentialities, that you will be shielded from the worst effects of catastrophic illness. Even that you will not be abducted and sold as a slave. And except for the slave part, they didn’t have much (and specially, they didn’t have differentially more than their surrounding societies) of those in XVIIIth century England or Holland. It is not clear they have universally much of it in all parts of the powerful and distinctly rich USA of today. I’m not saying that liberty is not an important motivator for people, and that its total absence would not be a serious hindrance to economic development, what I am saying is that it doesn’t seem to be as essential a part of the dominant reason necessary to foster spectacular material betterment as having a solid hierarchical criteria that bestows recognition in accumulating material goods. As the Chinese example shows (they are less free in a McCloskeian sense than the USA, but for the last three decades they have been growing much faster… I know, I know, catch-up and all that, but still…) Also, I think McCloskey would be clearer if she substituted “private property” for “liberty”, as really that is what she is talking about: Private property + social hierarchy based on possession of material goods = everybody work their assess off to produce as many material goods as possible (in the hope of retaining as many of them as possible, and thus enjoying as high a status as possible).

Which is essentially correct again, and all I would add is that the efficiency with which people pursue such material betterment can be even more enhanced (and has historically been so enhanced indeed) if people is told that the only thing to live for is the satisfaction of desire, and the only socially sanctioned desire is to improve in the hierarchy, and thus to produce as many thingies as possible (because the more you produce the more you will be able to monopolize for yourself). But had she realized that, she would have written the Critique of Desiderative Reason instead of Bourgeois Dignity, and she would be even closer to being a historian of ideas than she already is…

A final (minor) gripe I would point to is her enthusiastic and unconditional praise of the current capitalist system, in all its neo-liberal glory. Yes, I readily admit that it has been an unquestionable success in lifting untold millions out of the abject poverty of 2,5 dollars a day. Yes, I readily admit that the poorest between the poor have been as much benefitted as any other, and that a pauper in New York today has a better shot at a dignified living than a tribal chieftain in II century Gaul (or in XX century Cuba, although that last contention could be legitimately discussed, with well-intentioned parties reaching differing conclusions). Yes, I readily admit that most of the critiques that have been levelled against such dominant system are harebrained, have been discredited when actually tried, come from unscrupulous hypocrites or from irresponsible (and not too brilliant) academics who do not really understand how the world works.

But, but. We can not choose what the facts are. Even in this post-truth era, truth itself is not up for grabs. But how we judge it, and how genuinely scandalized we are by its most unsavory features is indeed up to us. We can look at the many injustices of the world and just shrug our shoulders, or resort to the panglossian TINA (“There Is No Alternative”, which amounts to Leibniz’s “Lucky us! We already live in the Best of All Possible Worlds”, take it from a Leibnizian), or we can bemoan and protest and denounce and criticize it. We can choose to be “justifiers” (and we would be in the most egregious and excellent company: as I’ve said so many times some of the best philosophers have belonged to this genus, like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Scotus, Bacon, Machiavelli, Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Locke, Hobbes, Hume…) or to be “critics” (you already know who they are, don’t make me repeat myself). Although being “critic” without the certainty of what to replace the current arrangement with may be seen as silly or irresponsible. Although it forces you to believe at the same time that this is the best system that has ever been actually implemented and that it is inhumane and unacceptable, so that every effort has to be made to come up with a viable alternative (as I already said in this old but still very current post: Two views of "da system")

So where I part company with Ms. McCloskey, lamenting not being fully aligned with such excellent and uplifting company, is in my choice not to be a praise-singe, not to be a justifier, not to be a sycophant (not that she is all those ugly things, again she is too intelligent by half for that). Yes ideas are the ultimate explanation of why the West, and why then, grew so astoundingly. Yes “dignity” had a great part on it (and private property, as slight a part of complete freedom as it may be, had another, humbler one). Yes, granting a similar degree of dignity and recognition of the right to possess things is still the surest way to enable economic growth in the underdeveloped societies of today. But in our own, rich and developed ones it is not more justification of the current dominant reason what we need. Because such dominant reason, which still has a lot to offer to the poorest places on Earth, is exhausted and breaking down in the richest. Thus, overcoming it, identifying and promoting the most promising alternatives, those most conductive to human flourishing, is the most urgent task at hand.

Which, how else could it be? Would be the subject of another post.

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