Passions, Interests, and Hobbits

My latest column for Critical Quarterly is now available here.

2 replies on “Passions, Interests, and Hobbits”

Thought-provoking, as usual. But I struggle with the notion that there is a “backlash against the market”. I see a thoroughly justified backlash against rigged capitalism, suborned politicians and pervasive rent-seeking by those exercising power and influence across the political spectrum and against the armies of professional flunkies and functionaries who spew layers of bullshit (a la Harry Frankfurt) in an effort to legitimise this state of affairs. Most markets are rigged or subverted and economic regulation is a sick joke.

The real problem is that this backlash is being articulated, for example in England, by deluded unreconstructed “socialism in one country” crusties on the left and, on the right, by unhinged fantasists searching for a Merrie England that never existed. And together, almost by default, they triumphed in the Brexit referendum. In Ireland, the situation is very different. The rent-seekers, their hangers-on and the large number of voters who wish to maintain a reasonably comfortable existence (even if they know they’re being ripped off) are putting their faith in FG and FF behaving themselves and holding the centre. The political forces outside the centre largely have just a nuisance value. But many in FF will struggle if they’re out of power for a third term and a coalition with SF is on the cards.

In western Europe that centre seems to be holding. But it is brittle.

‘Passion’, ‘greed’ or the application of the seven deadly sins as a tool of analysis of the progress of capitalism are useful signifiers for the underlying interplay between the processes of politics and economics.

Politicians don’t think the same way as economists. Their mindsets are different. Practical politics is dominated by short-term considerations related to the preservation of the power and authority of action; whereas political economy, at least in part, is concerned with the ways and means that will prove most effective towards achieving that goal. Otherwise that long-drawn out argument about evidence based policy v. evidence-informed policy, or no-evidence-at-all policy (i.e. the we’ve “had enough of experts” school of thought) could hardly continue – as it does – without respite.

Your interpretation of Hirschmann’s point that “in the beginning the main arguments for capitalism were not economic, but political” is well-founded. However, by extension, it could be argued that the separate spheres of politics and economics don’t just overlap, they shape and drive one another and continuously modify the institutions of society which emerge as a consequence of such interactions. A further crucial variable that impacts both politics and economics, especially in determining the relative content of economic ideas and the shape and form of political and social institutions deriving there from, might be loosely described as ‘the diffusion of knowledge’ within our collaborative (if also inherently violent) species of ape.

Such diffusion of knowledge within a given population contributes to task and problem-solving specialisations, thereby increasing the potential for innovation and emergence of useful technologies. A key constraint on development, and deployment, of such new technologies involves short-term political considerations. These may include public acceptability, and/or other vagaries such as ideologically determined preferences, that may apply within the framework of a particular political culture.

Thinking about all this brought to mind Jim al Khalili’s BBC4 TV series and subsequently published book (2010) on Arabic Science. Al Khalili ascribes one of the key reasons for the decline of Arabic science from the early 16th century, after several hundred years in which it had flourished, to inability of Middle-Eastern societies of the time to assimilate printing technology, and hence the diffusion of ideas, as occurred in Europe at the start of what is conventionally termed ‘The Great Transformation’.

Such ‘great transformations’, of course are only recognisable in retrospect. As such, dramatic shifts in individual and societal values may take centuries to demonstrate their full effect. Throughout Antiquity, and as a feature of so-called labour-intensive ‘traditional societies’ which relied on the ready availability of human resources to survive and thrive, the existence and the morality, or otherwise, of slavery was unquestioned, including in the sacred texts of various monotheistic religions. Over a thousand years ago, or so, Dublin was established as a Viking hub for a lucrative slave trade. Not much consolation to defenceless native populations, but territorial expansion, and the prized booty of access to natural resources and enslavement of highly valuable human resources, traditionally provided justification for any number of voyages of exploration, territorial invasions and wars. If I recall correctly, Carlyle’s designation of political economy as the ‘dismal science’ arose at least in part from his antipathy to its pointing out the inefficiency and unsustainability of slavery or serfdom as a means of production. Ultimately, the industrial age would do for it.

It seems reasonable to argue that at the present juncture we cannot reliably predict what ‘great transformation’ in politics, economics, and the acceptable norms and values of society, will ultimately be wrought by globalisation of access to internet information technologies and their products. There’s no avoiding the progression. Viewed from that standpoint, perhaps the phenomena of Brexit, Trumpism, the resurgence of political ‘strongmen’ and so on, are best understood as part of a process, already underway, working itself out (?).

Don’t ask me! I’m just musing. I’ve no idea.

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