Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Origins of Political Order: Fukuyama Blogging Intro

Francis Fukuyama is best known for his much misunderstood meditation on the epochal significance of the end of the Cold War, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ , which famously argued that post-nationalist liberal democratic capitalism represented the final form of human social evolution – barring any radical efforts to utilised technology to alter human nature.

Since 9/11, however,Fukuyamahas been preoccupied with the thorny problem of how underdeveloped nations can actually establish the institutions of liberal democratic capitalism for themselves, the problem of ‘getting toDenmark’. His concerns led to a brief and unhappy fling with the neo-cons, who he subsequently denounced as ideologically blinkered yahoos unable to learn from their mistakes and ignorant of the difficulties in exporting liberal democracy . As a result, he published ‘State-Building’, a series of lectures reflecting the state of the art on the art of making states.

This avenue of inquiry seems to have led Fukuyama to a much more ambitious project: developing a theory of the evolution of political order from pre-history to the present. In doing so, Fukuyama is making a bid to top his mentor and rival, Samuel Huntingdon, and to renovate modernisation theory, the master theory which united American social science in the post-war period and provided a framework for the US’s attempts to fight communism and control the development of the post-colonial world. All societies around the world were posited as moving though a series of steps until they finally converged on the ‘high mass-consumption’ society of the Eisenhauer-era USA.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about Fukuyama’s project. Few perspectives have had more criticism directed at them than modernisation theory, which has rightly been lambasted for its dubious Eurocentric assumptions, empirical flaws, authoritarian value commitments and quasi-totalitarian political implications. This is, after all, the ideology which played no small role in the disaster of Vietnam– as recounted in Nils Gilman’s brilliant intellectual history of modernisation theory. Huntingdon’s opus, ‘Political Order in Changing Societies’ may be a classic of political science and path-breaking work on the political sociology of development, but it is also a treatise justifying support for the most odious regimes – an apologia for the Suhartos and the Mubaraks of the world.

However, I’m an avid reader of big-picture historical sociology and attempts to make sense of large-scale patterns of human socio-economic and political development – I can’t really turn away when Fukuyama throws his hat into the ring. I’m also of the opinion that so much calumny has been thrown at modernisation theory that scholars might be missing the important points that it does make. In particular, the reaction against ‘stagist’ theories of human development, where human societies are posited as moving along a linear path from one form of political order to the next, has gone much too far. As a result, it has become difficult to discuss notions of development or to raise the possibility that some directional processes link together what does on in changing societies.

So I’m interested to see what Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political Order’ brings to the debate. The book is divided into five parts and I plan on writing a little review of each section with an overview and some reflections in the last post.

Crisis Thinkers: Beverly Silver, #OWC and the Variety of Protest Movements Part 1

In addition to her work with Giovanni Arrighi on Chaos and Governance (the inspiration for this blog), Beverly Silver has conducted path-breaking research into the development of organised labour as a political force within the context of the long-term development of the world economy. I can’t due justice to her full argument at the moment with an in depth engagement, but I want to draw out one of the points that she makes and use it to analyse the current situation we find ourselves in.

Whatever happened to organised labour?

Silver notes the variety of different goals pursued by organised labour since it emerged as a political force around the globe, making the distinction between Marxian struggles and Polanyian struggles. The former are economistic battles on the part of labour for a bigger share of the gains from the production process, control over the conditions of work and so on. These can be thought of as workplace or within-industry struggles – the bread and butter of trade unions. Polanyian struggles, however, are broader struggles to secure social protections such as unemployment insurance and health insurance. These struggles are much broader and operate through the democratic public sphere rather than the sphere of production. Social democratic parties, supported by organised labour, successfully prosecuted Polanyian struggles in most ofWestern Europeafter WWII.

A central part of Silver’s argument is the notion that labour struggles take place through a cascading sequence or cycle of torchbearers. So for example, after Western Europe attained industrial maturity, the relocation of the centres of manufacturing to places such asSouth KoreaandBrazilgave rise to new economistic labour struggles in these industrialising nations. Mature economistic struggles often subsequently often turn into social struggles – as in Brazilwhere Lula, former the head of the metal workers union, became president on a Worker’s Party ticket and instituted a highly successful programme of social transfers to the Brazillian poor.

So for all the complaints from protectionists, outsourcing and de-industrialisation in the North seems to have opened up opportunities for the spread of social democracy (or at least welfare capitalism) in the South.

Social democracy comes to the Southern Hemisphere

But where does Silver’s account leave egalitarian struggles in the North, especially in the context of the present crisis? Well, one point of view is that such struggles are left high and dry. Faisal Islam points out that, rather than organising in response to the present crisis, employees are rolling over and accepting pay cuts. In the context of slack labour markets caused by technological change, the weakening of organised labour, immigration and competition from centres of manufacturing in the global South, the possibilities for economistic struggle seem very limited.

Indeed, this situation was anticipated over 30 years ago by Hobsbawm when he suggested that the forward march of labour had been halted. But rather than disappearing completely, the focus of egalitarian struggle has shifted in the advanced democratic nations to action in defence of existing social democratic protections. The site of struggle changed from industry to the broader public sphere. This was to some degree reflected in the writings of political theorists such as Habermas, who focused on the human capacity for communication as the potential source of progressive change rather than looking towards some dynamic within capitalism itself as radicals influenced by Marx had done.

Egalitarian struggles became linked issues such as human rights and sexual orientation, the set of issues arising from what some have called ‘post-material values’ or perhaps more accurately ‘emancipatory values’. So even as the importance of the workplace as a site of politics faded, campaigns for socio-economic equality endured and became linked to struggles to enable all individuals to live with autonomy, dignity and respect – even though these changes also led down the blind alleys of identity politics and anti-scientific thinking. The social basis of support for the egalitarian programme shifted though a process of realignment from the urban working class to a more diverse cross-class alliance including white collar workers, professionals, and networks of individuals involved in issue-specific campaigns.

John Walsh, writing a couple of weeks ago, was right therefore to emphasise that the Occupy protests are notable in that they have little link to wider struggles in the workplace or industry. As Walsh notes, that does limit the potential scope of the protests in important ways and gives rise to illusions such as the fantasy of progress without economic growth. But, like Faisal Islam, Walsh assumes incorrectly that economistic struggles are the only avenue to promoting egalitarian goals. If Silvers’ typology is correct and there are two quite distinct routes to the pursuit of equality in the contemporary world, then the prospects for campaigns on behalf of the interests of the majority within democratic societies might be a good deal better than some acknowledge.

I’ll expand on this further in the next post.

Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC Part 2

In the last post I drew upon Charles Tilly’s framework for understanding what he called contentious politics to shed some light on the tactics of OWC and aligned movements. That post analysed various common features of the gestation and development of such movements through mechanisms such as emulation, brokerage, formation of a blame narrative and the employment of a repertoire of contention. Although cautious about making claims for predictions about a process so open ended and dynamic as political protest, Tilly also offered some insights into how movements achieve success.

For Tilly and collaberators such as Tarrow working in the same tradition, the space for protest is strongly conditioned by the ‘political opportunity structure’ within a specific ‘political regime’. In other words, the space for protest depends on the specifics of a social and political context. Movements must be able to organise, communicate, reach out beyond their core base and to actually engage in some form of protest. Different opportunities result in different kinds of protest movements. For example, an acquaintance of mine was a dissident in communist Poland. He and fellow dissidents were severely limited in their ability to openly criticise the existing regime, but they took to wearing electronic resistors on their lapels to indicate that they were resisting the communist regime.

Resistance not always futile

In many non-democratic Islamic nations, political movements were systematically crushed by autocratic governments. As a result, political protest retreated inside of the remaining social space the security apparatus had difficulty operating within and could not shut down, the Mosque. This left movements like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood as the primary vehicles for anti-government discontent, explaining a significant part of the rise of political Islam over the past three-and-a-bit decades.

But the political opportunity structure does not totally pre-determine the fate of political movements, according to Tilly a great deal depends on the strategies adopted by political movements. Such areas are genuinely resistant to generalisation, they depend on issues of timing, leadership, when to consolidate and when to go on the offensive – the stuff of political judgement. But Tilly does repeatedly insist that, at least in modern democratic societies, mass movements engaging in contentious politics have to take steps to publically demonstrate four things as they issue their claims:

  1. Worth: Movements engaging in contentious politics usually appeal to some set of widely acknowledged moral or political principles. To have credibility they need to demonstrate that they themselves are morally worthy by the standards of society. The more worthy a group, the more difficult it is for the state or other opponents to confront that group with violence. Thus successful pro-democracy movements often induce a kind of paralysis in the authorities – who cannot crush them without destroying what remains of their legitimacy. In order to demonstrate its worth the OWC movement has had to rebut claims that they are composed of only the shiftless unemployed and troublemakers, emphasising the role of veterans in the movement. The Occupy London Stock Exchange movement has been able to position itself as standing up for widely shared values of social justice, acting as the conscience and representative of theUKpublic. Their standing was increased after the St Paul’s farce, relative to both a Church that some now seen as having failed in its own moral mission and an opaque and murky political entity in the form of the Corporation of London.
  2. Unity: This requirement is pretty straightforward. Strong political campaigns can claim ‘E pluribus, unum’, drawing diverse individuals under a common banner. This might be where the OWC protests find themselves weakest, as the goals as well as their make-up of the protesters are diverse. Nonetheless, opposition to accelerating inequality has provided a common enough of a focal point to unify the movement thus far and allowed it to issue a reasonably clear public message about its goals, even if the specifics are vague.

    CC DoctorTongs

  3. Numerousness: Protestors must show that their claims are supported by large numbers. This might be because they need to demonstrate that their claims are not just the special pleading of a malcontented minority, but it also serves to demonstrate that their claims are supported by large numbers of people who, if they chose, could take more direct and disruptive action. In the OWC occupations efforts have been made to both attract more participants and to appeal to the idea that the occupiers are part of a much larger 99%. Opponents of OWC have tried to undermine such claims through the (somewhat incoherent) ‘We Are the 53%’ slogan, demonstrating the importance of the claim to numerousness. The ‘We Are the 1%’ style rebuttals, however, fail to understand the dynamic of protest within a democracy.
  4. Commitment: Protest movements attempt to demonstrate their depth of commitment to the principle underlying their claims by ostentatious public actions designed to remove scepticism that they are unserious or narrowly self-interested. Classic examples might include the Jarrow Crusade, or Ghandi’s hunger strike. Hence in the current round of protests, critics of Occupy London Stock Exchange have made the claim that protesters are not really sleeping in their tents at night. This is an attempt to undermine the public perception of their commitment.

As the above suggests, Tilly’s framework is relatively simple and intuitive but is nonetheless quite helpful in understanding the some of the dynamics involved in the current round of political protests.

Crisis Thinkers: Charles Tilly and #OWC

What thoughts might sociologist Charles Tilly have offered if he had lived to witness the #OWC protests? Probably something considerably more eloquent and erudite than this blog post. Nonetheless I’d like to offer some ideas drawn from the eminent historical sociologists rich and insightful work examining the nature and evolution of popular protest and collective action. The following mainly draws upon Dynamics of Contention (2001, with McAdam and Tarrow) and Contentious Politics (2006, with Tarrow), which examine what Tilly referred to as ‘contentious politics’: episodes and campaigns of non-institutionalised claim making.

The Occupy protests (as well as the Tea Party in the USand the student protests in the UK) are clearly examples of movements engaging in contentious politics. Tilly’s schema for analysing such movements employs a set of mechanisms which account for the strategies of those involved in collective action. Movements make normative ethical/political claims that (usually) draw upon principles which are widely accepted within their wider social context, as members of OWC do when they point out that extremes of inequality have undermined the cherished American principle that with hard work anyone can achieve a middle-class lifestyle.

An important part of such claims is the blame narrative, which assigns responsibility for the complaint with a political set of agents and identifies that which the movement is protesting against – ‘the 1%’ and the Wall Street financial sector in the case of OWC. At the same time, movements must try to appeal to a broad set of supporters from whom they can draw moral and practical support. This involves brokerage, the attempt by activists to find grounds for a common platform with groups beyond the original ‘base’ of the social movement. This is depicted superbly in the film Milk, which highlights Harvey Milk’s skill at building bridges with social groups beyond his core constituency of homosexual men.

Movements tend to draw on a relatively narrow repertoire of contention, a ‘script’ of common protest actions varying heavily from place to place. Movements tend to emulate the repertoires of other successful protest movements, perhaps best demonstrated by the wave of ‘colour revolutions’ in which successive groups of democratic activists in different nations drew on the techniques of past movements for democracy. OWC has clearly drawn on both the experiences of anti-war and global justice movements over the past decade and emulated the tactic of occupying a central urban space employed by the Egyptian protestors in Tahrir square.

As this post is already fairly long, I’m going to break it into two parts. The second will look at Tilly’s framework for analysing what movements actually have to do to successfully press their claims and offer some thoughts about OWC’s strengths and weaknesses.

A Terminal Prognosis? The Case for Financial Euthanasia

In the past few weeks the scale of the crisis has escalated once again. The question however is the location of the weak points and hidden fractures within the present system. As Faisal Islam points out, from a certain perspective this does not look like a crisis of capitalism at all. The bargaining position of capital vis-a-vis labour is currently extremely strong in the industrialised North, no doubt because the high levels of unemployment induce quiescence on the part of employees desperate to keep their jobs. Workers are effectively accepting cuts in their standard of living, there is no factory floor challenge to capitalism.

Worryingly for the populaces of the advanced industrial economies, this rather supports the viewpoint that some shock (maybe technological change or the rise of the emerging economies) has occurred which has significantly undercut the market price that labour can fetch in the world economy. If this is the case then things won’t get better after the financial crisis, indeed the GFC might be a signal of massive shifts within the world economy that signal a bleaker future for many workers in OECD nations.

The problem for the ‘no real crisis’ argument, however, is that if shocks of such significance have occurred then the reverberations might themselves be catastrophic. The three clear dangers ahead are that the global financial system may not be able to take the strain of both sorting out bad debt from good and absorbing losses likely to arise from secondary consequences of the crisis; the fact that the structures of political decision making (what Susan Strange called the Westfailure system) are pretty clearly inadequate for the scale of the problem and elites far too insulated from the depths of the crisis; that publics in the North are not prepared for drastic downward revisions in their standard of living and attempts to enforce any such settlement will result in the collapse of the legitimacy of democratic institutions. In this crisis political problems simply cannot be separated from economic problems because an economic solution to the crisis depends on international cooperation and maintainence of domestic order.

Hence the excellent discussion with Paul Mason and Gillian Tett over at the Guardian, in which the two commentators discuss the nature of the risks the liberal international political economy may be threatened with. What is fascinating is that, in the face of such risks, hitherto totally left-field ideas suddenly become thinkable. It’s particularly interesting to read mention of ‘financial repression’, also known as financial euthanasia, by Tett. The term is shorthand for a series of policy steps which close off avenues to financial speculation and force liquid capital into the economy at below market or negative rates. These sort of measures were employed by East Asian economies such as South Korea during their industrialisation, providing a source of domestic seed capital drawn in significant part from small household savings accounts.

Time for Another Roll of the Dice?

Intriguingly enough it was just such measures, which include controls on the movement of capital, that the US took aim at in the 1990s through the IMF as well as other channels. According to the sadly late Peter Gowan this was part of a concerted effort, a ‘global gamble’, to expand the scope for financial capital to operate, providing an enlarged market for the US financial sector to expand.  The idea of financial euthanasia therefore runs against the entire thrust of post-Cold War US geo-economic strategy, the interests of a hugely powerful set of organised interests, as well as the economic orthodoxy which still dominates the mindset of Northern elites. But then again other potential solutions such as monetising the debt and eroding it through inflation are equally radical. It is a testament to the scale of the crisis that such ideas are being floated by journalists working for the Financial Times.

The Return of IR and Zombies (the straight to dvd sequel)

Third post in a row referencing The Disorder of Things – I hope it isn’t against the law to stalk a blog. International relations theorists are still making a fuss over Dan Drezner’s International Relations and Zombies, whether they are cooing over it or slating it as LSE’s George Lawson does.

A while back on the Duck of Minverva, a few people commented on the rather high-handed way in which Drezner apparently deals with non-mainstream and critical accounts of international relations in his book. What would radical theories have to say about how to cope with a zombie plague wondered commentators?

The problem here is that the primary goal of radical theories in international relations is not to provide policy-ready solutions for existing problems. Rather, they seek to unveil the power relations which result in those ‘problems’ in the first place and confers authority on certain political actors over others. They disagree fundamentally with the narrative presented by orthodox approaches. So the critical theory perspective on zombies, had it been included in Drezner’s book, could possibly be introduced through discoveries that the accepted aetiology of the zombie outbreak was incorrect and covered over the real power relationships involved. To use a clichéd example, perhaps that the zombie plague originated in the machinations of evil megacorporations dumping toxic waste in helpless developing nations. The monster was us all along! [gasps from the audience] What’s more, military solutions against the zombie plague only reinforce the power of those who caused the problems in the first place! Voila, a nice little example of the operation of what Susan Strange called ‘structural power’.

Handling he Undead

Towards a Critical Theory of the Zombie Menace?

As for extant examples of contributions to the zombie genre, John Arvide Lindquist’s Handling the Undead really strikes me as having lots of affinities with critical or constructivist accounts of international relations (although the scenario he presents is much more subtle and powerful than the one I sketch above). I don’t want to give any of the plot details away, but if you’re an international relations geek looking for an unorthodox and even radical take on the zombie plague it might make a refreshing read by subverting the idea of the zombie as a mindless, external threat to which the only response is violence.

IR and the New Space Opera

Since I’m commenting on posts over at The Disorder of Things, I may as well offer some thoughts on a post on science-fiction and international relations that Pablo K wrote ages ago. Although the post is pretty old, it didn’t attract much comment at the time. I would have written a comment, but I didn’t have this soapbox back then and now I do.

I think Pablo K and I are coming from quite radically different directions, unfortunately. I don’t, for example, think that using science-fiction as an inspiration for developing counterfactuals and for systematic thinking about large-scale social change is an unworthy pursuit. I agree that it’s an error to mistake ‘things that give us pleasure [for] things which matter to the study of world politics’,  but the use of the term ‘fanboy identification’ does speak of a certain literarian snobbery. My suspicions are likewise raised by a statement like ‘Star Trek similarly embodies much of the technological determinism that literary types find so vulgar’. Is the shiver of disgust here ironic or is the writer really trying to denigrate as baseborn and common the belief that technological change influences social change?

I’m not sure. But the real problem with the article is not that it doesn’t share my own perspective, but that I’m not really sure how familiar Pablo K is with science-fiction. Who on Earth claims that Alfred Bester ‘hardly counts as SF at all’ in the view of many sf enthusiasts?

To unpick one misunderstanding in detail, the post describes Star Trek as hard science-fiction, presumably because it features space-ships and teleporters and so on. This is incorrect, hard science-fiction is usually defined by the conformity of events in the narrative to the laws of physics as they are understood. The plot is driven by problems which are largely scientific and technical in nature. This doesn’t describe Star Trek to any great degree. Science and technology in the franchise are largely rationalised in terms of technobabble and serve as devices to advance plots which focus on human relationships, moral quandries and philosophical puzzles. In fact I’d go as far as to say that Star Trek the Next Generation is a great example of soft science-fiction, with its prioritisation of anthropological, social and ethical issues over hard science. Mind-melds, a robot who want to have emotions, an empathic counsellor, a Traveller who can navigate space with his mind, aliens who only communicate through metaphor… and barely a Lorenz transformation in sight! Nor is Star Trek technologically determinist (as if there was anything wrong with that!) – indeed how can it be if other technologically similar civilisations are so different in the series? So the dichotomy being established here doesn’t work, the popular science-fiction series given as an example is on the wrong side!

The misunderstandings continue as the article goes on, with the author conflating the hard/soft distinction with the low-brow/high-brow distinction. This is in error: both hard and soft science fiction are generally both relatively highbrow elements of the sfverse. The lower-brow or more mainstream science-fiction gets the more it sheds both the hallmarks of hard sf, scientific verisimilitude, and soft sf, attention to the interior life of protagonists and complex socio-cultural milieu. In the end we reach the stage occupied by weaker entries in the Star Wars franchise, which are essential space fantasy (although sadly lacking the mythic resonances of the original films) with sfnal tropes like space ships and blasters. This is where we get ‘gun battles and car chases… now merely transposed to an astral register’. Fun if executed well, but not deserving of sustained attention. In this the author and I are probably close to agreement.

But Star Wars isn’t the be all and end all of space opera, which the author is probably thinking of when he talks about his phantom category of mainstream/hard science-fiction. Indeed, it’s pretty surprising that the post doesn’t mention anything from the new wave of space opera which has emerged over the past twenty years, which has integrated many of the concerns of hard sf, soft sf and cyberpunk. Grittier than its predecessors and free of the transposed jingoism of much older space opera, the new space opera has combined a concern with the implications of technology with an exploration of philosophical and political questions, and the inner-worlds of realistic, three-dimensional protagonists. Gender, identity, the legitimacy of intervention and terrorism, the nature of mind, socialisation and human nature, inequality, religion and ideology – all are addressed by luminaries of the new space opera such as Banks, MacLeod, Stross, Simmons and Williams.

For this reason, I don’t think an engagement with sf has to be limited to the approach suggested near the end of Pablo K’s article. Yes, science-fiction can be analysed by cultural archaeologists to provide insights into the hopes, fears and beliefs extant within wider society. But following such reflective and autobiographical route actually blocks off some of the radicalism of good science-fiction, the radicalism of science itself and the realisation that we are biological beings who live on a planet orbiting a star in a vast universe, fated to make out own collective future. It is this radical insight which many in the humanities flinch from, seeking to return to comforts of anthropocentrism, but which the best science-fiction, exemplified in hard, soft, cyberpunk and the new space opera, addresses with verve, intelligence and imagination. Here international relations has a great deal to learn.

Cultural Turns and Dead Ends in the Academy

Writing the last post on Adorno and Horkheimer got me thinking about a post I read recently on The Disorder of Things by Nick Srnicek which argued that the left had neglected engagement with economic questions because of the focus on cultural and ideational issues in recent decades. This has rendered the left unable to offer alternative ideas to the solutions offered by its inegalitarian opponents. In this claim, X was surely right.

Now it’s certainly not true that no-one on the left has been engaging with economic questions, far from it. But there has been a massive and largely deleterious shift in the focus of enquiry to cultural and ideational questions. Unlike Nick Srnicek, I don’t agree that much of what was produced as a result is valuable, as a great deal of what is written under this idiom is either a distraction from or actively pernicious to egalitarian concerns. The ‘cultural turn’ in academic has resulted in a great tidal wave of contributions to debate which are unclarifiably unclear, founded on tendentious assumptions, and almost self-consciously solipsistic. This isn’t to say that no thinkers writing on cultural or ideological issues made important breakthroughs, I’ve already declared my affinity with Frankfurt School critical theory, and Edward Said is indispensible for thinking about the representational and discursive dimensions of inequality. But the overwhelming focus on ideational and discursive formations within academia has brought with it a whole set of dogmas which severely limit what gets discussed within an academic setting (‘x is a social construct’ is at this point nothing more than a shibboleth). With the budding of the sub-discipline International Political Economy, a concern with material and economic questions has all but been jettisoned from non-orthodox debate in International Relations.

If academia is a kind of laboratory in which ideas and arguments can be tested and developed before entering into the public sphere, then this surely has a bearing on wider democratic attempts to challenge the economic status-quo. As Payne writes in his The Global Politics of Unequal Development (2005), there is a real hunger for ideas amongst those concerned with global egalitarianism and justice, but as yet there is nothing capable of engaging in ‘real ideological combat’ with neo-liberalism. Currently the Occupy protesters are doing well by making a clear populist claim that chimes with the experiences of the majority of people in the wealthy world. But long term, the left needs a substantive alternative programme – the Tobin tax isn’t a bad start. Unfortunately many thinkers seem to see shifts in the values and belief systems as key to achieving egalitarian goals. But the ‘politics of unequal development’ is still with us, and those with egalitarian commitments need to provide incisive critique of present economic realities and practical solutions to the failings of neo-liberal capitalism.

Post-Scarcity Critical Theory

The Utopian has a fascinating excerpt from a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer, luminaries of the Frankfurt School of critical theory which has deeply influenced the UK study of IR through people like Andrew Linklater. To pick up on a single point, they insist that ‘it is obvious that we could supply the entire world with goods and could then attempt to abolish work as a necessity for human beings’. This is a pretty important claim as it supports the idea that human beings no longer live in the ‘realm of necessity’ where possibilities for human beings are no longer set by nature or the development of technology. Rather, the only thing limiting us is the cage of illusion and mass deception which we have constructed for ourselves in the contemporary world. So according to this strand of thinking, transmitted I think by Marcuse to the New Left, is that those who want a better world should focus on the realm of culture and ideas rather than on purely economistic or technical questions.

The problem is I think this is incorrect, and provide a few reasons why in the Crooked Timber comments thread. To expand on those points:

1. The world mean GDP per capita is around $9-10k. That’s what each person would get if egalitarians won the day and everyone got an equal share of the world’s wealth. Obviously, it would represent a massive improvement from the perspective of the billions living on less than $2 a day, but living on $10k pa would take some adjustment for many people in the advanced industrial economies who have gotten used to expected more than essentials. Subtract from that figure the per capita cost of healthcare, education and other public goods.

2. Although nearly everyone could likely meet their essential needs, we still wouldn’t be able to abolish work.

3. Static comparisons are misleading. If incomes around the world were equalised the price of essential commodities like grain, fuel and cooking oil would rise due to inelasticities of demand. $10k would go less far. Indeed, this kind of demand-pull inflation is happening already due to the industrialisation of Asia.

4. Wealth might not be all that easy to redistribute (I think van Parijs talks about this in ‘Real Freedom for All’). Roads and other infrastructure can’t simply be redistributed to the world’s underdeveloped regions. Wealth tied up in human capital, trust, firm-specific knowledge and technology is not easy to transfer.

These points aren’t meant to be in support of a cynical point of view. Yes, we could indeed make the world significantly better and go a long way to remedying the worst forms of human misery at this stage of world history. But I think Adorno and Horkheimer, talking in the 1950s, jumped the gun by about 150 years. As they say, they know little of Asia. I think they, like many egalitarians since, under-appreciated the challenge of moving the whole world to a situation where meeting human needs and abolishing toil is within our grasp. That means that issues of material scarcity and distribution will remain with us for a very long time. It’s unjustified, therefore, to jettison a concern with such issues in favour of a focus on cultural and ideological formations.

In any case, the excerpt is fascinating, especially how they see nothing whatsoever of value in the USSR but are adamant that they cannot call for defence of Western civilisation: even though it represents in their view the most free and just society that has existed it seems they thought it could not achieve its own aspirations without criticism to highlight its many failings.