Monday, April 21, 2014

Piketty: Some personal, political reflections

I have just finished Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Harvard UP), and it is magnificent. The Book We Need Now. Much thoughtful ink has been spilled on the technical and historical aspects of the book. What's most striking to me is the respectful hearing it is getting even on the right, which acknowledges (one might even say surrenders to) the central thrust of the arguments it makes about the shape and sources of galloping inequality and the dire social and thus political implications thereof.

While I have little to offer technically on the subject, I thought it might be interesting to try to situate the book historiographically, via some personal reflections of my experience reading the book.

Piketty is precisely my age, and has apparently been on precisely the same political trajectory. That trajectory is defined by two formative aspects of our youth: on the one hand, we're both children of post-68 leftist intellectuals, who passed to us in equal measure a respect for the values of socialist humanism and a distrust for the institutions of political power; on the other hand, the central political experiences of our childhoods were the belligerent revanchism of Reagan/Thatcher, the corrupt cynicism of Mitterand/Gonzalez, and the feckless foolishness of Gorbachev—capstoned by the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the very year we reached our majority.

Along with the impression left by post-Tienanmen China's capacity to generate (highly inegalitarian) wealth, this collapse produced two crucial psycho-political instincts in people of our specific age and political upbringing. First, it generated a deep disbelief in the utopian nostrums of so-called actually existing socialisms, which we were just old enough to have believed was a "permanent alternative" to liberal capitalism, but just young enough never to have personally committed to, despite our upbringings. (This is a very microgenerational experience: for those even four or five years younger or older than us, at least one of these does not apply.) Second, it led us to appreciate the economic importance of price mechanisms, innovation and competitiveness, without generating any love for capitalism as a system or any respect for the self-regard of the rich, who people with our background regard less as exemplars of meritocracy than as avaricious parasites. For us, TINA is the Big Lie of our times: just because socialism failed as a political project was no reason to believe the story (that the Right in our countries told about the lesson of this failure) that capitalism was humane, and not still an ecologically rapacious form of social vampirism.

What I find beautiful about Piketty's book is that it crystallizes and speaks to and for this worldview — that is, to the sensibility of a "red diaper" GenXer. It is a book written by someone who watched the socialist-utopian eidolon of his elders implode, without ever buying into the liberal-utopian promises made (or the sense of political limits imposed) by the successor regime(s). 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Techno-rationality or bust

The New York Times had a fascinating profile of Paul Kingsnorth, whose "Uncivilization" project looks squarely in the face of the failures of the environmental movement to stop to wholesale ecological ransacking of the planet, and decides to throw in the towel and adopt a stance of resignation, and instead of fighting the inevitable, to focus on preparing "to live through it with dignity and honor."

Now, this is a position that on one level I find quite congenial. As I've remarked manymany times, climate change is not a "problem" (which implies there are "solutions"), nor even a "wicked problem," but rather is a "dilemma." And dilemmas require existential readjustments rather than a frantic search for solutions.

The long-term future is of a tremendously crowded, drastically climate-altered planet that has been strip-mined of all the easily accessible resources, and pock-mocked with toxic dumps. A focus on creating a social world that sustains human and political decency in the face of that reality strikes me as at least as noble a calling as describing oneself as an environmentalist while trying to invent better batteries for coal-powered technorati-mobiles.

Where I get off the bus is with the Uncivilization team's the counter-Enlightenment discourse, which as always tends to operate in some nether space between tedious and sinister:
The myth of progress is to us what the myth of god-given warrior prowess was to the Romans, or the myth of eternal salvation was to the conquistadors: without it, our efforts cannot be sustained. Onto the root stock of Western Christianity, the Enlightenment at its most optimistic grafted a vision of an Earthly paradise, towards which human effort guided by calculative reason could take us. Following this guidance, each generation will live a better life than the life of those that went before it. History becomes an escalator, and the only way is up. On the top floor is human perfection. It is important that this should remain just out of reach in order to sustain the sensation of motion. 
Recent history, however, has given this mechanism something of a battering. The past century too often threatened a descent into hell, rather than the promised heaven on Earth. Even within the prosperous and liberal societies of the West progress has, in many ways, failed to deliver the goods. Today’s generation are demonstrably less content, and consequently less optimistic, than those that went before. They work longer hours, with less security, and less chance of leaving behind the social back- ground into which they were born. They fear crime, social breakdown, overdevelopment, environmental collapse. They do not believe that the future will be better than the past. Individually, they are less constrained by class and convention than their parents or grandparents, but more constrained by law, surveillance, state proscription and personal debt. Their physical health is better, their mental health more fragile. Nobody knows what is coming. Nobody wants to look.
It’s not that any of this is empirically wrong, mind you; it’s just that the only morally non-monstrous approach is forward, not backward. At this point, with seven billion technorationality-dependent people on the planet, to reject technorationality is implicitly to accept or perhaps even to embrace a terrible triaging of humanity as the only possible future. We must continue to invest in the search for better technologies, if only to slow down the arrival of the inevitable. I'm with George Monbiot and Naomi Klein's critique of Kingsnorth's suggestion that we should "step back":
Monbiot responded that “stepping back” from direct political action was equivalent to a near-criminal disavowal of one’s moral duty. “How many people do you believe the world could support without either fossil fuels or an equivalent investment in alternative energy?” he asked. “How many would survive without modern industrial civilization? Two billion? One billion? Under your vision, several billion perish. And you tell me we have nothing to fear.” Naomi Klein also sees a troubling abdication in Kingsnorth’s work. “I like Paul, but he’s said rather explicitly that he’s giving up,” she told me. “We have to be honest about what we can do. We have to keep the possibility of failure in our minds. But we don’t have to accept failure. There are degrees to how bad this thing can get. Literally, there are degrees.”
In the end, we need to do both: we need to both prepare ourselves existentially for a world of less, and to work without surcease to slow that coming of less. Above all, we need to fight against those who use the claim that the world of less is not coming as a way to justify their own seizure and arrogation of more and more for their own private selves.