Category Archives: development
An article I wrote was published a week last Friday in a special edition of Millennium: Journal of International Studies focusing on the topic of Materialism and World Politics. The special edition features papers presented at the rather excellent two-day conference at the LSE in October 2012, including my own. The title of my article is ‘ Structural Inequality, Quasi-rents and the Democratic Peace: A Neo-Ricardian Analysis of International Order’. Here’s the abstract:
This article employs the neo-Ricardian concept of quasi-rents – temporary above-market returns – to vindicate the structuralist claim that patterns of international order are shaped by global inequality and the transnational division of labour. Developing a framework linking the distribution of quasi-rents within the global economy to the process of class formation, the article examines the implications for the influential ‘social market democracy’ explanation of the democratic peace. It argues that the democratic peace is in part predicated on the quasi-rents enjoyed by substantial sections of the workforces of the ‘core’ advanced industrial states. Such a political economy provides the foundations for a ‘social market democracy’ in which economic security can be enjoyed by substantial sections of the population, giving rise to the system of values on which the democratic peace rests. Thus, present patterns of international order result from a historically specific unequal distribution of quasi-rents within the world economy.
The abstract is somewhat technical, due to the need to locate the article in ongoing theoretical debates in less than 150 words. For the non-initiated, here’s what the article seeks to accomplish: Structuralism is a materialist theory of international relations which focuses on asymmetric relationships beyond the nation-state and how they result in global patterns of inequality. Structuralism has lost favour in international relations theory, partly because scholars feel it doesn’t have much to say about core issues of international politics such as authority, order and the use of organised violence*. This article seeks to present a fresh defence of structuralist arguments, arguing that patterns of war and peace may in fact be linked to patterns of global inequality and the organisation of the global division of labour. It does this by engaging with an influential position in the debate over the ‘democratic peace’ (the observed regularity that democracies very rarely engage in inter-state war with one another), Michael Mousseau’s ‘social market’ theory. He argues that peaceful, human rights-respecting values become dominant when large numbers of individuals in a society can enjoy economic security when they participate in the market. When markets do not provide economic security, those peaceful values will be weakened.
In the paper I investigate the circumstances under which markets may provide economic security, drawing on the labour market sociology of Aage Sorensen. He argued that individuals enjoy security when they occupy certain semi-insulated niches within labour markets, such as within occupationalised careers or professions. The ‘rungs’ of the ‘ladders’ of such internal job markets provide a greater degree of security than fluctating, unfettered markets. These niches arise out of the process of bargaining over quasi-rents, temporary returns above the normal market rate for an economic resource such as land, labour or capital. The local availability of quasi-rents will therefore determine the ability of actors in a common economic position (members of a class, if you like) to establish themselves within a niche in the labour market. The article uses research from the global value-chains literature to analyse some of the features of the distribution of quasi-rents. Until recently, the lion’s share of quasi-rents were located in the advanced industrialised North due to the compounded technological advantages of the early industrialisers. Economic actors in the global South found themselves stuck in industries producing generic products and were forced to compete on price.
But the new global division of labour has shaken this picture up. Many economic actors in the global South still lack access to quasi-rents and find themselves squeezed by large multinational buyers that control supply chains. But in other parts of the world, SE Asia and the S American cone for example, the shift in manufacturing capacity from the North may have led to opportunities to bargain for quasi-rents. Workers in the North, however, have been fighting a rearguard action to protect their niches within labour markets and defend systems of social welfare and insurance. Employers in the North have, due to a conjuncture of political, economic and technological factors, gotten much better at eliminating their workers from shares of quasi-rents. This seems to have led markets to become much more fluid, ‘flexible’ is the preferred term. But as Sorensen argued, freer markets might mean more insecure lives. More insecure lives might mean weaker support for pacific, liberal values. Of course, pacific values might actually strengthen amongst the new industrialisers in the global South. The point is that there are a set of compelling reasons, based on established empirical literatures within three different disciplines, to believe that the democratic peace is in fact underpinned by the specifics of the present global division of labour. This means that structuralism really does have something big and important to contribute to debates in international relations theory and the study of international security.
That’s the gist of the article (reversing the structure of the argument), but the real thing really attempts to nail down each step and present a rigorous, plausible restatement of structuralism using the idea of quasi-rents. I’m really happy with how the paper turned out and delighted to be part of what looks like a great issue of Millennium.
My previous post on Gellner’s ‘Plough, Sword and Book’ (PSB) managed to attract an approving link from Brad DeLong, so I thought that I might as well write the promised follow-up.
To recap part 1, PSB is an extremely ambitious – and overlooked – magnum opus that attempts to outline the structure of human history in terms of the development of production, coercion and cognition from the hunter-gatherer past to the advanced industrialised present. Gellner’s thesis is that the three epochs of human civilisation (hunter-gatherer, agrarian and industrial) are distinct not just in their patterns of social organisation, the focus of other historical sociologists such as Mann and Tilly, but in the way that they conceive of the relationship between mind and world.
Of note is the significance Gellner attaches to Plato. I’ve never believed that Plato has much relevance to the study of contemporary politics or even contemporary political theory, his political concerns belong to a very different world to our own. Popper’s criticism of Plato as totalitarian or proto-totalitarian always struck me as completely anachronistic. But Gellner makes a fascinating case for seeing Plato’s philosophy as exemplary of the cognitive shifts of Karl Jasper’s ‘axial age’. Before this age, local ritual and custom (nomos) ruled human life. Nomos was authoritative because human beings lived within small-scale, closed communities. It was grounded in a meaningful, ritualised shared social existence. Metaphysical concepts, norms, aesthetic standards and empirical beliefs (all of which are merged together at this point in history) compelled human thinking but were socially bounded and could not transcend context.
The key change in the axial era was the rise of putatively universal systems of normatively-loaded concepts that were ‘trans-ethnic, trans-social, trans-communal’. This is the birth of logos and the idea of reason and of the notion of a transcendent supra-sensory reality standing above, and giving meaning to, mundane existence. The death of Socrates might be seen as marking the historical juncture between the age of socially-circumscribed communal norms and the the axial age in which concepts transcend context.
Normatively-loaded concepts, now recognised explicitly as concepts, form the basis of explicit doctrines. The literate intellectuals of the axil age were deeply concerned with achieving coherence between these concepts in order to correctly understand and explicate the nature of the noumenal realm. The intellectuals, theologians and priesthoods pushed against the ‘easy cohabitation’ of many incompatible strands of belief that had characterised earlier periods of human history. But empirical investigation was not held in high regard within this new age of cognition and belief systems became largely non-referential:
Reality does not constitute a check on Ideas: on the contrary, they are the norms by which reality is to be judged and guided (p. 76)
The reality of the senses is only a flickering shadow cast by the true reality accessible only through reason and – once the world religions had established themselves – scripture, meditation, faith, veneration of saints and so on. The world is seen as a meaningful whole, each element accorded its proper place and imbued with a purpose. This axial age cognitive order, in which normatively-loaded concepts stand over and above mundane reality, helped to stabilise an agro-literate social order in which violence-specialists and legitimacy-specialists stand over and above the great mass of agricultural producers. The world religions offered salvation in the here-after but legitimated hierarchy on Earth.
Initially confined to the philosophically inclined elites, access to the noumenal order was restricted to priesthoods who interceded on behalf of the mass of the population in the mature agrarian societies. Effective monopolies were established on access to truth and salvation. Yet the salvationist aspect of many world religions always held the prospect of direct un-mediated access to the noumenal order by ordinary human beings. Thus under a specific set of circumstances at a particular point in history, the spiritual monopoly was broken and large numbers of people gained direct, unmediated access to salvation. Yes, this is Weber’s story of the rise of the Protestant Ethic and the swinging shut of the monastery door as essential to the rise of modernity. Indeed, I would argue that Gellner is much more neo-Weberian than the likes of Mann and Tilly – who are interested primarily in organizational rather than cognitive structures.
In any case, universalism managed to break free of the Universal Church and thus from the hierarchical social and spiritual order which it embodied. From there, Gellner argues, it was possible for the modern cognitive order to emerge. In this cognitive order the noumenal, super-sensory realm is dethroned. Nature is regarded as a single ordered whole free from any intrinsic meaning or purpose but comprehensible through experience and the faculty of reason. No knower is unique or has specially privileged access to the facts about nature.
This was a huge inversion in the cognitive ordering of the world. Previously, nature presented a testament to the veracity of supra-sensory truths – it confirmed the divine order. After the Enlightenment, reality provides the external measure of systems of belief. How did the Reformation bring about this ‘dethronement of the concept’, considering that Protestant denominations continued to regard the Bible as Holy Scripture? This is the weakest link in the whole chain of Gellner’s argument, in my view. In fact, the answer to the question is split between the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Gellner suggests that the scriptural criticism may have led towards the view that everything can be criticised and thus the destruction of the idea of sacred knowledge. He makes a more convincing suggestion that the acceptance of a stalemate in the Wars of Religion gave rise to toleration and the creation of a social space in which free inquiry could flourish. Thus the Reformation may have been instrumental rather than essential to the Enlightenment.
Although I think he leans on Weber too much to the exclusion of consideration of the material processes transforming Europe at the end of the medieval age, I’ll restrain myself in this post and save the critical discussion for a final post dealing with the contemporary world and Gellner’s relevance for international relations. But I’l make one final point. Gellner’s thesis is very much focused on Western Europe and the transition to and then away from the medieval era. His rich discussion of the relationship between legitimacy-specialists (priests, scribes etc.) and violence-specialists, emphasising the role of mobilizing norms of legitimacy to decide between essentially equivalent groups of violence-specialists, has a great deal of applicability across cultural contexts.
But much of the discussion assumes a certain division of labour between the two groups, the division of labour present in medieval Europe. India is recognised as being on a very distinct sociological and cognitive path, but isn’t examined in any depth. Although the role of ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’ in traditional Chinese thinking does fit with Gellner’s account of the cognitive structures of agrarian society, priests and mediators with ‘heaven’ have not held the authority or autonomy in China that Gellner assumes as the norm. The discussion of Islam is very limited, with Gellner commenting on the ‘anti-rational theocracy’ of that world religion without mentioning the Islamic Golden Age. Nonetheless, he has some much more interesting things to say about the position of Islam in the modern world – but that will have to wait for another post!
Continuing my efforts to blog my progress through Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order vol. 1, here’s Part the 4th. This section could be subtitled ‘a brief history of accountable government’, as it deals with how broadly responsive government emerged in the pre-modern era. Again,Fukuyama is engaged in another plate spinning exercise. Accountability can only exist under very specific ‘goldilocks’ conditions under which the central estate and elite actors are roughly in balance.
Fukuyamapresents a typology of three different kinds of regime: Strong absolutism (his conception of which I discussed in my last post on China and Russia), weak absolutism, failed oligarchy and genuine accountable government. The last three are found primarily inWestern Europe, where the lateness of the development of the state made strong absolutism unlikely.
Ironically, although he makes many criticisms of Marx, it is clear that Fukuyama views class struggle as a pretty major determinant of the type of regime a society ends up with. Weak absolutisms occur where elite actors are co-opted by the state but retain their privileges. This produces a systematically corrupt form of government with a dependent elite above the rule of law and an oppressed peasantry. The exemplars Fukuyama provides are France and Spain, where caste-like gradations between different noble office-holders and elite exemptions from taxation produced societies dominated by rent-seeking.
What’s particularly interesting here is Fukuyama’s examination of how this venal system crossed the Atlantic and was transplanted to the Spanish Americas, giving rise to the legacy of oligarchic and patrimonial politics in Latin America. Indeed,Fukuyamamakes some fascinating comparisons between the travails of weak absolutist regimes and contemporary developing nations, likening Louis XVI’s minister Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot to technocratic neo-liberals parachuted into finance ministries inLatin America. He also notes that this kind of elite-co-opting state is chronically unable to institute a sensible system of taxation, so it has a strong tendency to default on debts as a surreptitious form of financing its expenditure. The centre cannot truly eliminate well entrenched elites, only chip away at their independence. Networks of patronage take the place of negotiated settlements between organised social groups, the norm in accountable regimes.
Those elites eh? Nothing but trouble. They make a similar nuisance of themselves in ‘failed oligarchies’, the exemplar of which is medieval Hungary. The Hungarian kingdom is not exactly well known as a crucial case-study in the making of the modern state, but it is of pivotal importance to Fukuyama’s argument. Indeed, maybe too much rests on this single case study. Hungary is important because Hungarian elites were able to thoroughly check the powers of their monarch and reduce him to their agent through the Golden Bull of 1222, a kind of super Magna Carta. The church, high nobles and lower gentry were all arrayed against the centre. The result was a weak state that failed to institute the kind of fiscal-military reforms pioneered elsewhere inEuropein the late middle-ages. At the mercy of large noble estates, the peasantry was crushed:
The “freedom” sought by the Hungarian noble class was the freedom to exploit their own peasants more thoroughly, and the absence of a strong central state allowed them to do just that. Everyone understands the Chinese form of tyranny, one perpetrated by a centralized dictatorship. But tyranny can result from decentralized oligarchic domination as well
So we hit another dead end.
The Hungarian example is important because it buttresses Fukuyama’s belief that too much of anything (state power, elite independence) is a bad thing. The path to political development is the golden mean between alternatives. Down this path walked England, where a strong state faced a coherent landed elite. Unlike in Russia or China, English elites retained their independence. Unlike in France, they had deep roots on their estates in the country, they did not become office holders clustering round the royal court like flies. Why didn’t England go down the path of Hungary, however? Alternatively, why didn’t Englandend up like France? Why were the tendencies towards weak absolutism in the Stuart period defeated? For Fukuyama the important factors were the established liberties enjoyed by all social groups and the more open and less caste-like nature of social class in England.
Okay, plausible enough. But I wonder if an alternative explanation could be thrashed out by focusing on the terms of the settlement between elites and the state in the late medieval period. Whereas once lords had vied for the crown and acted as kingmakers, under the Tudors the elites were largely disarmed. However, the monarch depended on parliament to raise taxes for the purpose of war-making. So, perhaps by accident, the UK happened to hit on a compact between nobles and the state in which an accountable state secured a monopoly on the use of force. I’m not a historian of this period (yet alone of medieval Hungary for purpose of comparison), but I believe Mann makes the argument that by Elizabeth I the outlines of constitutional government were already in place.
Once again,Fukuyama’s argument might seem rather Whiggish, with its story of the rights of freeborn Englishmen triumphing over the plots of popish Stuarts, but he tries to head off the criticism with an example of how it could all go wrong as it did in Hungary, and how it went right for slightly different reasons in Denmark. In the home the best lager in the world, the monarchy supported literacy amongst the peasantry for religious reasons and attempted to build a peasant-based conscript army to avoid dependence on the nobles. This established traditions of corporate organisation amongst the upwardly mobile peasantry, setting the stage for gradual political mobilisation and the demand for accountable government. So the English Goldilocks had sister.
What Britain and Denmark shared was a synchronicity between state-strength, rule of law and accountability – providing a virtuous circle which created conditions for further political development. These nations were able to deal with the strains of modernisation, whereas (as Fukuyama acknowledges in the conclusion of the book) absolutist regimes such asFrancecould not cope with the demands of newly mobilised social groups during the dawn of the modern era. In any case,
The three components of a modern political order—a strong and capable state, the state’s subordination to a rule of law, and government accountability to all citizens—had all been established in one or another part of the world by the end of the eighteenth century.
Returning to form as a disciple of Hegel and Kojeve, he notes that history effectively ended in 1806 at the battle of Jena. All that follows is epilogue.
But before the owl of minerva takes flight, lets go back a bit. First, I’m not really sure how separable the rule of law and political accountability in Fukuyama’s narrative. The problem is that England (and sometimes Denmark) is the exemplar of both of these aspects of political development. Both require a balance between state and elite power. Fukuyama suggests that Prussia under Fredrick the Great was an absolutism constrained by the rule of law, a Rechstaat, and it might have been enlightening if it had been used as a case study. But it is difficult to think of a state with political accountability (which we might define as the ability of corporate actors representing both elite and subordinate social classes to constrain the state) in which the rule of law was unknown. It’s hard to think of any likely candidates.
Second, I think that there is still a lot to be said for an alternative perspective that sees Britain as one of a chain of capitalist polities of increasing scale and ‘nation-ness’, from the city state of Genoa to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. This family of polities, which also might include Switzerland and the Hanseatic League, has been of interest to scholars such as Tilly, Arrighi and Deudney. It’s not as if the international aspect of political development is missed by Fukuyama. But whilst the importance of conflict is acknowledged, he pays little attention to the development of worldwide capitalism and how it drove processes such as urbanisation in early modern Europe. War, trade and political development have always been related, however. The maritime orientation of Britain, for example, has been seen as pushing it towards developing a navy and seeking colonies overseas instead of remaining involved in continental European geopolitics. Its decision to become a sea rather than land power may have pushed it down a very different path to Spain, which Tilly suggests it otherwise resembled. Navies are expensive, but they cannot be used as a tool to oppress and extract wealth from domestic actors.
But in Fukuyama’s account, the rise of urban commerce and the burgher class depended more on domestic factors than international relationships. Capitalism arose in Europe because a deadlock between elites and the state prevented it from being strangled in the crib by either.
But enough, onwards towards the final post, where I’ll cover the conclusion as well as sling out some more reflections onFukuyama’s opus.
Everyone is commenting on how eventful 2011 has turned out to be, with Charlie Brooker comparing it to an untoppable season finale. Given that the past week witnessed the deaths of both Vaclav Havel and Kim Il Jong (seems like the childlike empress of the universe is trying to keep the scores even), it’s anyone’s guess what surprise twist will be sprung in the last two weeks of the year. Alien contact via microwave signals beamed to Nintendo 3DS consoles? Ahmadinejad turns out to be a Saudi sleeper agent? Dolphins petition to join the UN?
The ‘Arab Spring’ and the Occupy protests have, of course, been identified as the crucially important events of the year by many. The link between the two was at first seen as spurious by many. But in an article for the Guardian last Friday, Malik, Shenker and Gabbat make a decent case for seeing events of the year as part of an interlinked youth revolt against economic and political hierarchies, taking inspiration from one another and employing the same social media-enabled tactics.
It may have seemed churlish at first to compare the sacrifices of the Egyptian protesters to those of the Occupy movement but, without losing a sense of perspective, the parallels seemed much more relevant once security forces responding to Occupations by pepper-spraying unarmed, unresisting students in the face at point blank range.
In addition, commentators such as Malik, Shenker and Gabbat (as well as Mason) have seen in the various struggles signs of the decentralised ‘multitude’ prophesied by social theorists Negeri and Hardt back in 2000 as the new vanguard of global protest. On this I’m not so sure. Is the Egyptian uprising really all that different in terms of its social composition or organisational strategy from past pro-democracy movements, such as those which brought down the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe?
Malik, Shenkar and Gabbat seem like they are on to something when they suggest that there is an important generational aspect to current protests. There is an undeniable groundswell of frustration from what they describe as ‘most well-educated generation in human history’, a generation which is probably the most under-employed generation in history to boot. High education and dashed expectations are a volatile mixture. As Mason quips in what was probably the most important and perceptive blog post of the year, the French revolution was ‘not the product of poor people but of poor lawyers’.
The Malik et al piece, however, ends with the rather strange suggestion that
the great revenge is this: the generation that grew up being told they were the heirs to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history and victory of a liberal capitalist society, is now working its damnedest to prove how untrue this is
Maybe I just have Fukuyama on the brain this month. But the comment seems strange because it seems to describe the opposite of what is going on in the Middle East, where pro-democracy movements (or at least important elements of them) are trying their damnedest to prove that Fukuyama was right, to prove that that the Arab-Islamic world is not eternally destined to be subject to tyranny and that democracy is a universal aspiration. Even in the advanced industrialised world, where I agree that many making up the Occupy movements seem to yearn for something more than representative liberal democracy, it seems strange to call the protests ‘revenge’. Rather, they seem more like self-defence in the face of the shredding of the social contract and all-out assault by the 1%. Indeed, a return to the model of social market democracy extant before the crisis would no doubt be an appealing proposition for many in Western Europe and the US right now.
In other words, I think many of us in the North wish that history really had ended in 1989.
That’s the question being asked over at hnet. Why does belief in the singularity, the imminent exponential acceleration of the development of technology resulting in a post-scarcity age of limitless possibility, remain confined to dedicated enthusiasts?
The answer provided is that the public remain uninterested, unaware and/or sceptical of such notions because 1) the benefits promised by new waves of technology (such as the technology for space travel) proved to be a mirage 2) political, regulatory and cultural factors are inhibiting the development of many promising avenues towards Singularity City.
Call me a know-nothing sceptic, but the fact that space travel, robotics, genetics and – yes – even computers failed to live up to their promise should make us all a bit wary of the idea of an accelerating upward curve of technological development. As brilliantly expressed in Gibson’s short story The Gernsback Continuum, we already live in a world filled with echoes of the shiny utopian visions of yesterday. It’s somewhat ironic that the article expresses a hope that a film of Neuromancer might help shift cultural attitudes, as cyberpunk was an expression of total incredulity towards the optimism invested in the Jetsons-esque imagined futures of the ‘golden age’ of welfare capitalism.
One reason why many of those who have engaged with singularitarian ideas remain sceptical might be that over the past few decades there have been few technologically induced improvements in the quality of life for the majority of people in the advanced industrialised world. Much heralded discoveries, such as the human genome project, represent major scientific milestones but have produced fewer tangible benefits than expected (in the case of the HGP partially due to the unanticipated complexity of the epigenetic systems that control the expression of genes). 2011 was once envisaged as a time in which the promise of the early developments in cybernetics and biotech would be realised (just as the early C21st was envisaged as an era of space colonisation in the imaginary of the previous era), yet it still looks very much like the past.
This fact is made clear by the lacklustre rate of economic growth experienced in the industrialised world over the last thirty years. Computers and communications technology represent a partial exception. But this wave of technologies have not resulted in the generalised productivity growth associated with electrification or steam-power. They haven’t made transport easier or more rapid, they haven’t yet solved the problem of Baumol’s cost disease (teachers can still only teach effectively approximately the same number of students as they could in the C19th). Of course, robotics, space travel (through communications satellites) and computers are all now essential parts of the way the world economy operates. But all were oversold and none have had the dramatic, positive effects that previous technological shifts had. Indeed, through processes such as outsourcing, many of these technologies have been implicated in shifts which have left those in the industrialised world more insecure and precariously located than they once were.
I’m not actually a complete sceptic when it comes to specific singularitarian ideas. Cybernetics, narrow AI, advanced materials, gene-therapy and gerontological medicine (life extension) are probably going to arrive eventually . These technologies will likely reshape human societies, although in periods measured by ‘historical time’ rather than ‘event time’. But at present, there is as much evidence to suggest that we live in an era of technological stagnation (even whilst we witness dramatic leaps in scientific knowledge) as we do the pre-takeoff phase of a singularity.
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.
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.