Saturday, January 17, 2009

Freedom and sustainability, part II

Regular readers will remember that I occasionally depart from my normal diet of student activities, technical bulletins and climate science news to spot a few somewhat random paint drops on a wider canvas of ideas. I'm full of personal contradictions in this respect: patriotic English ex-patriot, pacifistic drill sergeant ex-serviceman conscientious objector, Quaker militarist, and on and on, so I sometimes wonder if I follow too many threads at once for my own sanity. At other times, I feel that if I try to carry only one idea at once and concentrate on it, I might go crazy. So I like to have two or three pots on the boil at any one time and don't care very much if the flavors clash or seem irreconcilable to other chefs.

For this reason, I like Orwell. Mr. Eric Blair, to give him his real name, somehow managed to reconcile many of the same threads, and in his time boiled a lot of the same pots.

At this point in the development of political ideas in the English-speaking world, we might fess up to a few Orwellian contradictions of our own:

One in particular I'm thinking about, American capitalist or free-market political economic theory, has somehow quietly expired of its own internal intellectual weakness in the last six months, to be replaced by, well, nothing much, as yet.

It was always too simple, too uncomplicated a creed, with none of these eternal internal human contradictions.

And now it's gone. Good riddance. But what will replace it?

For a generation and a half, since the Reagan revolution, the English-speaking world was somehow incrementally bludgeoned out of any reliance on the state as an organizing force in commerce. Keep private industry and international trade free of the trammels of social control, we were told by the likes of various Friedmans, Thatchers, Bushes, Clintons, and Blairs in succession, and the swelling tidal force of private exertion and production would trickle down to lift all boats. We would all be rich eventually. Capitalism could succeed so brilliantly, if only it were allowed to, that even the homeless and mentally deranged would somehow be trickled up to become owners of capital and property themselves.

And to give the insane this sterling opportunity to thrive, Mr. Reagan promptly freed many of them from their publicly-funded asylums and put them on the street, where many of them remain, struggling manfully to beg in the best capitalist fashion.

Just give it a little time. Say, 28 years or so, to do its work.

But, to let everyone get so wonderfully rich, we would have to tolerate the sight of some of us getting almost impossibly rich. A single family, the Gates, for instance, or Google's founders, might have tens of billions. Their just reward for being so incredibly inventive.

So when these ideas had had their 28 years, and there still were homeless in the streets, and all of our factory production had been exported to Mexico and China, away from even the timid remaining ghosts of our unions, and we still somehow still got ourselves into a recession, what then happened?

I don't think we quite know yet. But somehow, the managers of all this capital, much of which is now overseas, the technical experts who ran the exchanges and the banks and the insurance companies and mutual funds, when it came to the crunch, were revealed most definitely not to be Friedmanites. They suddenly wanted some socialism, a little intervention on their own behalf. Never mind that they were ridiculously better off than the homeless beggars they walked by each day on the streets of New York, San Fransisco, even London, who still lacked decent asylums and health care. And so the governments in all the major English-speaking countries, desperate in their economic illiteracy and naïvity (because honest decent questioning political economy, the subject matter of Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Dickens, and Orwell has been so out of fashion these twenty-eight years that it hasn't even been taught in the universities), rolled over and borrowed millions more of other countries' money, much of it Chinese, to keep them in business.

The only thing we're debating is who gets their bailout first!

And now we're waiting to see what sort of political economist Mr. Obama will be. Will the bailout and handouts go just to the businesses, or will we get a new New Deal and Great Society, a new system of safety nets and recovery organizations? How green will it all be in the end? Will we really get on with this project of stopping emissions and shifting to a new energy economy, or will we pay mere lip service and instead keep the old one propped up as long as we can?

It's an unformed, unscripted moment. No-one quite knows how it might all work out. We're hopeful, I think. But not very knowledgeable. And still impressively naïve in political economy, to the point where I'd give fifty-fifty odds as to whether or not we'll be fleeced, the great mass of us essentially taking on a massive 24.9% APR credit card to the tune of trillions to keep a very few of us in business, while the coal and oil companies set up an energy economy that will lead to almost certain catastrophic climate change.

A new holocaust awaits for all of us, if some of us can't see these things sufficiently clearly and presciently.

During a similar unformed, unscripted moment in history, writing in his wartime best-selling pamphlet, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, Orwell looked to the future in a clear-eyed unsentimental way. He correctly predicted the wartime system of political economy that Churchill and Atlee and the war cabinet would find purely necessary. He understood the few seemingly tenuous but massively strong threads that held the disparate British class system together, and how the whole thing could be used against fascism. He even predicted in its entirety the Labour platform of 1945 that would win the election that year, junking even the wartime hero Churchill, and founding the first truly democratic welfare state in history.

It's worth a fresh read for those of us seeking a lesson in political economic writing applied to holocausts.

American should understand that when Orwell wrote, there was still massive doubt as to where America's loyalties would lie. The German-American Bund, Lindbergh and the Isolationists were working freely to subvert Congress and winning. Even Lend-Lease, just recently begun, was weak and massively controversial.

As Orwell wrote, most Americans honestly thought that Europe could be left to Hitler, and Britain's fate was none of their business.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the Wannsee Conference would soon be underway and the Final Solution established, intended as a permanent program in the Thousand Year Reich. After the feeble, the Jews, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the Slavs, who would be next?

Orwell knew. as he wrote at the time,

"If Hitler wins this war he will consolidate his rule over Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and if his armies have not been too greatly exhausted beforehand, he will wrench vast territories from Soviet Russia. He will set up a graded caste-society in which the German Herrenvolk (‘master race’ or ‘aristocratic race’) will rule over Slavs and other lesser peoples whose job it will be to produce low-priced agricultural products. He will reduce the coloured peoples once and for all to outright slavery. The real quarrel of the Fascist powers with British imperialism is that they know that it is disintegrating. Another twenty years along the present line of development, and India will be a peasant republic linked with England only by voluntary alliance. The ‘semi-apes’ of whom Hitler speaks with such loathing will be flying aeroplanes and manufacturing machine-guns. The Fascist dream of a slave empire will be at an end. On the other hand, if we are defeated we simply hand over our own victims to new masters who come fresh to the job and have not developed any scruples.

But more is involved than the fate of the coloured peoples. Two incompatible visions of life are fighting one another. ‘Between democracy and totalitarianism,’ says Mussolini, ‘there can be no compromise.’ The two creeds cannot even, for any length of time, live side by side. So long as democracy exists, even in its very imperfect English form, totalitarianism is in deadly danger. The whole English-speaking world is haunted by the idea of human equality, and though it would be simply a lie to say that either we or the Americans have ever acted up to our professions, still, the idea is there, and it is capable of one day becoming a reality. From the English-speaking culture, if it does not perish, a society of free and equal human beings will ultimately arise. But it is precisely the idea of human equality – the ‘Jewish’ or ‘Judaeo-Christian’ idea of equality – that Hitler came into the world to destroy. He has, heaven knows, said so often enough. The thought of a world in which black men would be as good as white men and Jews treated as human beings brings him the same horror and despair as the thought of endless slavery brings to us."

That political equality that Orwell predicted is here now, as on Tuesday we install the first black man to be the American President.

A kind of rough economic equality has also transpired, for the middle classes at least, as all of us are just as dependent on the market for our security and pensions. Not that we all have the similar incomes that Orwell envisaged. We're simply about as insecure as one another, the twenty-year UAW worker as dependent on market earnings as any fund manager. The homeless are merely the most insecure of all. There is no yawning economic class divide, as there was in Orwell's day when a young middle class Englishman had to deliberately try to be the tramp of Down and Out in Paris and London. Any of us could be homeless, in the right circumstance.

We have very little educational equality. The real class divide is between those of us who get a successful high school education and those who do not. The worst public inner city high schools, in Britain and America despite eight years of No Child Left Behind, and sixty years of social democratic education policy in Britain, remain mere warehouses for hip-hopped up thugs of a dozen different cultures and skin colors, who each have about as much chance of getting a elementary education or getting to university as Holocaust victims had of surviving the war.

If we ever have to draft these youths, we will soon discover how bankrupt our education policy has been.

But what we lack most of all in all of this is a voice of decent, honest, political economic criticism about how weak-minded and unfair and foolish it all has been. For our fecklessness in allowing political economic debate to become unfashionable and even vaguely disloyal to the capitalist creed, we face the obvious danger that all we will be able to think to do is bailout and patch up this tottering system.

If we don't grasp the nettle and start to argue for a better economic and energy future for everyone in the west, we will abdicate that future to the Chinese. As it happens, they already own a lot of our future anyway, right now. They are becoming the masters of the world.

We could just as easily let them succeed as fight them with ideas in our own interests. At which point we'd better hope that they will be nice enough to let us remain democratic and open societies.

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