Monday, December 24, 2007

Our Entire Post-Cold War Paradigm Revealed

First, I just want to say that I hope you all have had the chance I've had to eat pain au chocolat half-naked in a sun-filled living room on the morning of Christmas Eve.

Sated as I therefore was, I wonder why I went on line to read the Financial Times so that I could run into the Sum of all Errors in the form of this column from December 18th. It made me have 2 big wishes for 2008 - wish for reductions in two big kinds of dumbness. Please!

1. Could we remember that value doesn't just come from technology and fossil fuels, but also from people working, aka Labor?

2. Could we realize that value doesn't just come from incarnations of "entrepreneurial spirit" - aka CEOs of corporations larger than half the world's economies - but from collective effort in complex social systems?

Of course we could! Except that the opposite views - these two giant, pervasive mistakes - have become pillars of Western Civilization.

Take the terrible column I read as an evil chaser to my pain au chocolat. Its author is the basically sensible but compulsively orthodox Martin Wolf, more or less at the top of the English-language profession of business journalism. He posits something he calls "the positive-sum economy," which he worries will be damaged by our global encounter with some basic environmental limits. OK. But things go downhill very quickly.

Wolf says that "fossilised sunlight and ideas have been the twin drivers of the world economy." Translated, this is oil and technology. The "clever use of commercial energy" has yielded endless new "goods and services" and led to greater justice: "Serfs and slaves need no longer satisfy the appetites of narrow elites."

The latter claim is false: legalized forms of serfdom and ye olde wage slavery are the backbone of emerging economies. So is the former claim. Wolf can ignore serfdom and slavery because he simply omits the two elements I mentioned above - labor and social systems - as sources of value. People and society: not positive factors in the production process. Exploitation and tryanny: figments of our imagination. Not.

Next comes this: in contrast to the perpetual-growth economy, "A zero-sum economy leads, inevitably, to repression at home and plunder abroad. In traditional agrarian societies the surpluses extracted from the vast majority of peasants supported the relatively luxurious lifestyles of military, bureaucratic and noble elites. The only way to increase the prosperity of an entire people was to steal from another one." Now Wolf is claiming that democracy also comes from the energy-intensive growth economy. This is also wrong: democracy comes from people, especially from people who have had to battle the leaders of the growth economy.

Wolf moves on from democracy to peace: "Equally, a positive-sum global economy ought to end the permanent state of war that characterised the pre-modern world. In such an economy, internal development and external commerce offer better prospects for virtually everybody than does international conflict." This is a version of Tom Friedman's old "Golden Arches Theory" of conflict prevention, in which no two countries that have a MacDonald's franchise ever go to war with each other. That one was wrong, and so is Wolf's theory - completely wrong. He ignores Columbus, New World gold and silver, Algeria, the colonization of Africa, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and dozens of others conflicts that show that economic growth and war have gone hand in hand throughout modern history.

Getting towards the end: "But if there are indeed limits to growth, the political underpinnings of our world fall apart." No - except in Wolfworld, where wealth, democracy, and peace - my pain au chocolat and his nightly Talisker's - all come from Growth, and growth alone.

Finally, the fatal finger of blame: "The response of many, notably environmentalists and people with socialist leanings, is to welcome such conflicts. These, they believe, are the birth-pangs of a just global society. I strongly disagree. It is far more likely to be a step towards a world characterised by catastrophic conflict and brutal repression." War, invasion, inequality, misery, hunger, and three billion people living in shantytowns are the once and future fruits of environmental and socialist leanings. Again, completely and absurdly false.

Wolf's worldview is worth this detail only because it is a neutral statement of the worldview of leaders in the Anglo-American world: capitalist growth causes prosperity, democracy, and peace. Restraints on growth cause poverty, tyranny, and war. Attention to the needs of the environment, of people, and of society, cause restrains on growth. That's really our entire post-Cold War paradigm.

The paradigm has a permanent crawler on the bottom of its screen. It says, attention to the needs of nature, people, and society can be tolerated only if those needs are defined in advance by the Growth Model. Look at the side of your cigarette pack - it says it there too. There can be no autonomous discourses of those needs. It is Wolf's task to equate the emergence of such an autonomous discourse with the coming of World War III.

Wolf won't state his real fear, which is that the leaders of Anglo-American capitalism will never ever do the one thing that will save them.

Some quick background: These leaders have spent decades celebrating "creative destruction" that deliberately destroys the social systems that support collaborative problem-solving. The West thus approaches the environmental crisis of its growth model with what I call a cooperative disadvantage. Western leaders have pissed off a majority of their own population,s which haven't had a raise in decades, and have pissed off a majority of the world population, which experiences unequal development, exploitation, intense poverty and political oppression. These leaders have a good minority in the most abused subordinate countries (oil despotisms in the Middle East) baying for their blood.

The one thing that would save the West would be for its leaders to give a little - actually, give a lot. Shut up about chopping down the people's "olive tree" so Tom Friedman can have his era of the Lexus, and redistribute wealth. Stop supporting every last one of its pillaging tyrants while selling them your country's brand of helicopter gunships. Start letting wealth flow more to the work that produces it in the first place - the work that is happening every minute all over the world and that makes "the West" possible in the first place. Doh.

What Wolf knows is that Western leaders will never share like this - share in a considered, systematic way that acknowledges the role of people and societies alike. And that is the real reason why we continue to face economic decline and perpetual war.

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