The Power of Reconceptualization: The Three Spheres

The Power of Reconceptualization: The Three Spheres

(A version of this article was published in Blogcritics on March, 2010)

Overview

In the first article of this series, I spoke of the three spheres of a human community — economic, social, and political — and their interaction. This interaction is always in flux, ever-changing, varying from society to society or even within the same society over time. And it all depends on which particular sphere of activity is the dominant one at the time, more determinant than the rest. Now we must examine this interaction in detail, from the vantage point of history down to the present, and spell out all-important implications.

Without further ado, then, let us proceed.

The Economic

I

Let us start with the following proposition:  

“Only a few would disagree that we’re in the midst of a massive recession, comparable perhaps only to the Great Depression of 1929, and the parallels abound.” 

That’s a given. What’s not a given is how we interpret the proposition with whose truth-value we happen to agree — in particular, how exactly do we understand our past and our present as “being comparable.” For it’s in that, I suggest, that all the differences lie.

II

For starters, let us posit what I’ll call the “continuity thesis.” All sorts of indices seem to support this narrative. It’s a narrative that is grounded in the unshakable belief that our present circumstances are only a replica of past events!

The underlying idea, among other things, is 

  1. that if we could only revisit the past, rewind it like an old movie or a VCR tape, then we would see our present unfold just as it had unfolded for our parents or grandparents in their lifetime.  
  2. that what we’re going through right now is just another hiccup, the distinctive aspect of a capitalist system well known for the periodic occurrence and reoccurrence of business cycles and periods of bust and boom.
  3. that if only left to its own devices, the system would surely correct itself as it always has.
  4. that prosperity, thanks to the ingenuity of our business class, is only around the corner.  

And so it goes!

Indeed, we keep on talking of the unemployment index, presently at ten percent but much higher in real terms, quite unlikely to go down in the foreseeable future. And then, we talk of consumer confidence or lack thereof, again at its historical low, coupled, of course, with reduced inventories and empty shelf space. And last but not least, there is the usual talk of the correct strategies to get us over the hump and up and running again as only America can and will, like the little ol’ engine that could. And it’s precisely in this context that Obama’s economic policies are being compared to those of his nominal predecessor, FDR, as to their efficacy, sound economic thinking, raison d’etre, etc. 

III

All of which raises a series of questions.

Is government spending — and expanding the public sector, which comes part and parcel with the idea — the proper remedy to get us out of the economic straits we’re in, or is it just going to prolong our misery and suffering? Should the private sector be allowed to rebuild itself of its own accord and start functioning again, or should the government intervene in the interim? Is the stimulus package — only as an idea, mind you! not in this application or that — a sound economic policy, or is it just a shot in the dark, embraced with no other purpose in mind than to convince the public that doing something is better than doing nothing. Is it but a clever guise, trying to conflate the concepts of motion and action?

IV

Never mind the vociferous critics of this “diabolical plan.” They’d be the first to assert that 1929 is in no way comparable to the present. And they’d argue that we’d only be adding to our national debt. And that what may have been possible in FDR times is no longer possible today. And that monetarily and economically, we’re on the brink of disaster. And that printing more money is only going to hasten our eventual demise and set us back, blah, blah, blah. In short, they’d argue that everything else being equal, the two situations are incomparable, and they may be right. 

I question their intent. As I see it, the objection is not to the incongruity between our present and our past — because that would imply a brand-new vision! — but to the idea itself. 

Indeed, the very objection to the “continuity thesis” between our present and our past is only a pretext — a mere excuse for invoking apparent differences between the two situations for the sole purpose of defeating the main idea. And that idea is that government has a role to play in determining the nation’s economic well-being. The predominant proposition which informs the naysayers and the obstructionists alike is that government interference is anathema. Leave it to business, they say, and it’ll be alright.

V

I’m m not going to debate the merits or the demerits of the Keynesian theory. Economics, besides, is not a precise science. It’s a “dismal science” by many accounts. Consequently, I could take refuge in the fact, but I won’t. And the main reason is — it’s no big feat to play a Monday-night quarterback or to invoke a 20/20 hindsight. 

But even this misses the point, for I don’t see how anyone could know, and with absolute certainty, what exactly had gotten us out of the Great Depression — FDR’s all-out programs, the war effort, any or all of the above? These are but speculations, and there’ll never be a way of ascertaining the exact cause of events, what exactly caused what, which prong of policy was more instrumental than the other. It’s for historians to argue about and for ideologues to assert.

Fortunately, there’s a way of bypassing the entire question. And in this spirit, let me offer an alternative account.

VI

We have reached the peak of our productive capacity in the good, old-fashioned sense of the term. Except in the area of computer technology and weaponry, high-tech industries for short, we’re no longer the world’s leading producer. 

It’s no wonder that most of our manufacturing jobs and the requisite technologies have moved overseas, and this trend will only continue. And why shouldn’t it since mass production is all about quantity, not quality! Lowering production costs is the ultimate determinant.  

Thus, we have effectively compounded the exploitative techniques of the colonial era during which the home country would import raw materials for production at home. Today, it’s foreign labor that’s being exploited, along with raw materials. Aside from providing the initial expertise and set-up, American companies, which still bear their logo on most of the products sold either domestically or on the global market, are playing the part of the middle man or the distributor — take your pick.

VII

These are “shadow companies,” in a manner of speaking — holding and finance companies, that’s all. And their relationship to the actual producer of goods and services has been effectively reduced to “contractual relationships. It’s a relationship between a contractor and a subcontractor. Except for supplying a trademark, along with advertising, marketing, and financing, Honeywell, Stanley Tools, Chicago Cutlery, Hotpoint, Mr. Coffee — look at your Walmart shelves and see for yourself! — all are manufactures and producers in name only.  

Even the French have succumbed to this obscene practice of branding. They, too, have lent their name to products manufactured in China, anywhere else for that matter, only contributing thus to the illusion that we’re buying quality and reliability. 

Indeed, it’s almost impossible to buy a genuine article nowadays unless you shop at Gucci’s or Williams-Sonoma. But this only reiterates the stark truth that we are not a nation of producers any longer, not when it comes to producing tangible, honest-to-goodness products.  

This function we have long since relinquished. Is it any wonder that in the past decade or so, apart from the technology sector, financial products, dubious as they may be, are the only ones that made the headlines and in which we have excelled and shown true Yankee ingenuity? 

With what disastrous results, I needn’t argue, but this only compounds the problem. Indeed, since technology, both in the real sense and as intellectual property, has become our major export and our only economic contribution to the world, we’re running out of economic space – areas of productive activity in which to exercise our creativity, our know-how, and our entrepreneurial spirit.  

VIII

It’s for these reasons that I view the recent Wall Street debacle — a burn-down or a meltdown, or however else you may want to call it — as a symptom of the disease rather than as its cause. A symptom 

  1. of a capitalist system having reached its outer limits;
  2. of it having nowhere else to go but to self-destruct;
  3. of it having to eat its own young when worst comes to worst, and that’s despite its long-term interests;
  4. of capital having become the be-all and end-all as the name of the system name implies;
  5. of a kind of psychosis whereby making money, paper money, any kind of money, takes precedence over real productivity;
  6. of a perfidy of sorts, when only the bottom line matters and the dividends paid to the stockholders and gatekeepers, whether yearly or quarterly, take instead of spreading the wealth and bringing happiness and well-being to the world at large, never mind the home country and its populace.

The Social

I

There are profound social consequences and what comes with it, different outlooks that come with subscribing to either account.

Suppose it’s the first-mentioned narrative – the so-called “continuity theses,” as I dubbed it – that you’ll find convincing. In that case, you will tend to view our present unemployment and economic crises as temporary phenomena. Sure, you may empathize to a point with the armies of all those who have been laid off and support unemployment benefits within limits allowable by law. But then again, you will be against their extension and regard the government as a major enabler.

And here, you’ll most likely bring up the “Great Society” model and the general concept of welfare which, rather than helping people help themselves, has only made them more dependent on their government for all their subsistence needs, and then some. And you’ll blame that model for having created a sizeable underclass of welfare recipients and social parasites — all of which is a constant drain on the nation’s economy and the shrinking number of all those who still chose to remain productive.

Indeed, even though the model in question — excepting some abuses that come with any bureaucracy — may have served us in the past, you’d still regard the present government policies as only perpetuating the malaise in thwarting individual initiative and encouraging a state of permanent dependency. In short, you’d tend to view the growing army of the unemployed as lazy bums and as society’s dregs.

II

What might your view be if you were to lean toward the alternative scenario, the one running counter to the “continuity thesis” delineated above?

Well, for one thing, you’d tend to see the present unemployment picture as chronic, soon to become a permanent feature of our society. And in regarding it as being systemic instead of representing just another business cycle or a hiccup, you’d also tend to see it as a symptom of a system that had run against a brick wall, not as a temporary aberration soon to be eradicated if and only if . . .  

III

These are crucial differences apropos of this “vision thing,” and they matter. For if the alternative account is even halfway correct, it would appear that a greater and greater proportion of America’s population is about to become reduced to a state of chronic unemployment and condition of utter dependency. And further, that no governmental action — no retooling or re-educating the masses for new and exciting jobs of the 21st century, no amount of growing a business large or small, no kind of expansion whether of its own accord or as a result of artificially-induced measures such as tax incentives and the like — would make a significant dent.

IV

Let’s face it.  A disproportionate number of the citizens, and their number is not about to decrease, only increase, is about to become dispensable and a permanent drain on the economy of the most industrial and technologically advanced society that had ever existed.

And so, barring another technological revolution on an unprecedented scale — and here, “green jobs” and “green technology” come to mind — the future does look bleak as the vast majority of Americans are bound to be excluded from any productive participation in any meaningful sense.

Indeed, aside from the professions — in the medical field, weaponry- or computer-information technologies, and the researches from biological to hard sciences –and the government bureaucracy, of course, the rest of us is destined to become burger flappers or service-industry workers if we’re ever so lucky. But even those jobs wouldn’t alleviate the growing number of unemployed.

V

Robert Reich had it right when he prophesied years ago [see The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism  (1992)] that we’re about to become a nation of “symbolic analysts” and “gatekeepers” — the lowly security guards protecting the interests of the rich and famous. 

Reich’s breakdown, by the way, was nine to one in favor of the gatekeepers. He made no mention, besides, of the unemployed or the perennially unemployable, but that was over fifteen years ago.!

Indeed, even Reich couldn’t foresee the extent to which capitalism, rampant and unabashed, would dig its own grave. One would have to be a true visionary! 

VI

But such are the wages of a system that’s bound on forever expanding in the interest of ever-greater efficiency. And the cost seems to be that however much the standard of living the world over may or may not improve because of capitalism’s relentless expansion — and that’s s big if — local populations suffer.

So perhaps we shouldn’t begrudge the rest of the world catching up with us, or rather, us getting down to the level of the pre-industrial nations –not if the gains outweigh the losses, I hasten to add. But do they or have they? And was the sacrifice worth it?

Indeed, even if we were to consider the beneficial aspects of capitalistic expansion, resulting as it invariably does in the good ole leveling effect, I’m certain that most Americans would respond with a resounding “No.”

VII

Therein lies the irony of our age. Whereas the industrial revolution, despite its many hardships and excesses, was instrumental in having brought about full or near-full employment to the masses, improved the material conditions of the average life, and put the working class on the map, it’s not the case with the technological revolution, in progress.

Though presumably a higher stage of capitalism’s spectacular advance, it appears to have precisely the opposite effect. It rendered a great majority of the earth’s population dispensable and only marginally productive.

It’s almost as though the very efficiency of the system, its quest for marginal utility, was its own worst enemy. And if this isn’t indicative of a deep-seated, inherent contradiction, I don’t know what is.

The Political

I

If you embrace the earlier vision, you’re likely to speak of individual freedom, liberty, and limited government, because you’ll view the latter’s expansion as an encroachment on your constitutionally guaranteed rights. 

You’d see our political, two-party system as a kind of forum, a clearinghouse for amicable interplay between public and private interests and equally amicable resolution. And among private interests, you’d count your own (economic) freedom to do what you will and pursue financial independence, as well as freedom on the part of corporations to do likewise (for how could you deny the latter while asserting the former?) Consequently, anything standing in the way of such freedoms, whether the government or the unions, would count as an obstacle, contrary to the spirit of free enterprise.    

Inherent in this picture is also the following idea:

  • that the notion of the public good is pure fiction, a figment of the liberal mindset;
  • that it all revolves around individual rights without any reference to a larger community or society; 
  • that government interference in the “natural” order of things, any kind of interference, is just that, pure interference;
  • and that the concept of social retribution and social justice is not only ill-conceived but sacrilegious.
II

What might the other view be?

Well, for one thing, you’d come to realize that the economic shape of the world has practically affected the world’s political landscape in its entirety.  In particular, you’d come to see that our major corporations are no longer our corporations but that they’ve come to represent their own interests rather than national interests or the interests of the citizens. Indeed, entire countries  — and Greece is a perfect example — can become hostage nowadays to financial manipulations and the economic order of things. “Sovereign debt” is what the IMF calls it!

The foreseeable result is that the political, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, is quickly becoming subservient to the economic – the latter serving as a superstructure in Marx’s terms. And so it goes for the attendant set of laws which, though commonly understood to guarantee due process and the inviolability of the individual, is in effect just another instrument of coercion, only providing an aura of legitimacy to the ruling, economic class.  

III

Indeed, you’d come to see that most of what appears nowadays as being undertaken in “national interest” is nothing but posturing. You’d also see that national interests, and all actions undertaken on behalf of national interests, are empty slogans. There are only global (economic), nothing but!  Everything else is a charade.  (I’m speaking here of the major players, of course.)

And so, while shelving the usual dialectic between individual freedoms, on the one hand, and government interference on the other, you’d be more inclined to talk instead of the natural opposition between private and public interests and, in the process, discount the notion of the public good as the desirable end. Indeed, what once used to be the noble aim of compromise for which politics was so ideally suited – the art of the possible! — is no longer.

IV

The truth of the matter is, private interests have so pre-emptied public interests and have become so dominant an aspect of the economic order that there’s no longer any viable opposition and no room for compromise. The two have become mortal enemies, so to speak, forever estranged and irreconcilable, antithetical to the core. 

And in consequence, the notion of public good, the presumed result of the two forces opposite but equal, has virtually disappeared from our political itinerary. Indeed, there s no longer any middle ground to hope for in the requisite sense of reaching a sensible solution (the pending healthcare legislation before us being a case in point). Now, it’s either all or nothing at all, a zero-sum game, complete and total polarization. And any semblance of having resolved what, for all practical purposes, is no longer resolvable is bound to be a farce and an exercise in futility.

Closing Remarks

I

The thinkers of old (Aristotle, Plato) had a soft spot for the idea and practice of politics as somehow defining a niche all its own, separate and distinct from spheres economic and social. 

 The latter were presumed to follow from — as a matter of direct or natural consequence –,and then eventually be guided by the society’s political organization and structure. As to the former, I’m afraid the ancients were silent on the subject, although I think we’d be quite right to surmise that a measure of economic stability and order has always served as a tacit assumption of sorts. It served as a prerequisite for the very existence of human society, let alone a political one. 

II

In any event, the classical notion of politics was that of an art (or science), both forms of human activity and practice. And the primary purpose was to provide a badly-needed corrective, ever-present, always needed, and always intact. It was an organizational model of the highest order to serve as a general pattern for molding all human and social relations in the interest of attaining a harmonious and relatively conflict-free, orderly society. And the spirit behind and informing “the political” in the traditional, classical sense was, of course, justice — justice in all matters applicable to human relations, be they individual, social, or economic. (Don’t forget that according to classical thinkers, politics was but an extension of the moral — the rule of conduct deemed appropriate to govern person-to-person relations — to encompass all social relations, the entire society in fact.)

III

Well, it would seem that we’ve moved quite a ways from the classical conception. Apart from some obscure theorists (Claude-Frederic Bastiat comes to mind), the uninformed opinion seems to be that politics ought to be but an expression of the economic (and the resulting social) order, limited to doing their bidding.  

And so, if “free enterprise” is the spirit of the day, then, by all means, let our politics reflect that spirit. And if it’s slavery, then let it reflect that too. In a nutshell, whatever suits public opinion or the sentiment of the day, let politics serve as a stamp of approval — the ultimate validation of things that are so just because they’re so.

IV

I find such a concept not only abhorrent but intellectually repulsive. It amounts to relinquishing our capacity for judgment, our being able to evaluate our situation, our life condition, other than in strictly self-serving terms, which is to say, in terms of some other, independent criteria.  

Politics, properly understood and as conceived of by the ancients, was supposed to do the very trick. Nowadays, it’s been stood on its head. . It’s been made to justify rather than to question or correct.1

How we view our present may well affect how we envisage our future and how we must act to ensure the best possible result.  

Again., it all comes down to this “vision thing.”

Notes

  1. “Theater” was the ancient Greeks’ invention, and it was a political institution through and through. And the idea was to evoke citizens’ participation in stately affairs by exposing, even to the point of ridicule, some of the glaring deficiencies, if not injustices, to make the necessary corrections. The comedies of Aristophanes are a case in point.  

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