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A note on Furet

Summary:
From Peter Radford Intellectual vanities abound in a technocratic society.  It seems inevitable that as we push the boundaries of knowledge further and further into the space of potential beyond our current state that the division of labor presses down on us.  We become, each of us, more distant from any sense of self-sufficiency.  Such a state is an absurdity in our technologically infused and dependent world.  We have become enmeshed in the very supplementary support system we developed to drive ourselves out of the Malthusian trap we lived in for millennia.  As the complexity of our society rose, as the interdependence implied by the ever increasing network of specialities grew, and as we left behind the visceral ways of life we were prepared for by our evolutionary trajectory,

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from Peter Radford

Intellectual vanities abound in a technocratic society.  It seems inevitable that as we push the boundaries of knowledge further and further into the space of potential beyond our current state that the division of labor presses down on us.  We become, each of us, more distant from any sense of self-sufficiency.  Such a state is an absurdity in our technologically infused and dependent world.  We have become enmeshed in the very supplementary support system we developed to drive ourselves out of the Malthusian trap we lived in for millennia.  As the complexity of our society rose, as the interdependence implied by the ever increasing network of specialities grew, and as we left behind the visceral ways of life we were prepared for by our evolutionary trajectory, we became attached to, and eventually, inseparable from, our technology.

The implications abound.

Our social organization has had to adapt to the complex realities.  We have had to create softer social technologies to foster and manage the harder technologies of production.  We had to organize.  We had to specialize.  We had to delegate.  We had to invent various forms of political arrangement to rein in the very freedoms that we unleashed in order to set ourselves beyond the deprivations of yore.  

This contradiction between the freedom necessary to defeat perpetual poverty and that needed to restrain the concentration of wealth that threatens to disintegrate the cohesion needed to maintain prosperity once achieved, is an ongoing and insoluble aspect of modernity.  

There has been, within the attempt to resolve this contradiction, a variety of illusions.  They are the vanities of intellectuals who identify supposed permanent, historic, or universal regularities within the tumult of what we have put in place over the past two hundred years. 

The contradictions, the paradox of modernity, has spawned its own intellectual contradictions that vie for attention and allegiance.  Neither offering any space for the other.  Neither actually solving the central question of how to achieve the delicate balance between the two opposed freedoms we need to maintain to preserve our progress.  Instead the intellectuals take radical sides and are willing to pretend that only one side is necessary to sustain us.

This conflict has played out in political and social reality.  In a tragic confirmation of the Keynesian notion that politics reflects the ideas of some long deceased thinker we have become embroiled in pointless debate.  Various illusions have entranced, enthralled, and deceived us for the better part of two hundred years.  Lives have been blighted by the failure to recognize that the answer is neither extreme.  

One of those intellectual vanities, the compilation of ideas loosely called neoclassical economics came crashing to the ground just over a decade ago.  The entire discipline of economics was diminished as a consequence.  It matters not whether other forms of economics persisted in the wings, what matters is that the discipline had rallied around what turned out to be a rotten core.  The degrees of difference from that core do not excuse the fringes from failure to influence society more strongly.  The discipline is in a cul-de-sac and is now reduced to being little more than a series of techniques or applications of techniques to social problems.  That is a very long fall from the lofty and practical heights achieved by the thinkers of the 1930s, which is the period that, on reflection, produced the most recent vibrant thought.  

Even now, after the embarrassment of 2008, there are far too many economists advocating so-called market solutions to complex problems that confound the simplicity of such markets.  The teaching of failures, or desecrations of the purity of the ideal, still comes after the advocacy of the ideal.  Even though the ideal is one of those intellectual vanities that misdirect our energies.  It has never existed.  It can never exist.  It is a complete illusion.  To teach it is to lie.  Yet it is erected in order to contrast with reality.  Worse, it is advocated as the long sought order that we might attain if only we eliminate the messiness of human relations.  Or, at least, restrain that messiness by imposing a technocratic regime to reduce the ardor and ignorance of the common folk.

The other great illusion of the past two hundred years was, of course, the great project of communism.  There remain advocates of that illusion also despite all the evidence that the past century has to offer.  The collapse of any practical application of communism has left us bereft of a bulwark against the rampant consequences of the unfettered freedoms we have come to call capitalism.  By imagining that human nature can be bent towards a consolidated consensus and thereby cleansed of its millennia of history, the left has deluded itself into thinking that nirvana is just around the corner if only something called capitalism were to go away.  And, because communism has manifestly failed, that departure is now dependent upon the supposed contradictions within capitalism.  But those contradictions are not potential weaknesses or sources of failure.  They are strengths.  

Anyone who dares to imagine an end of, or a trajectory to, history, is doomed to be known as a fool.  It is unimaginable.  It has no purpose.  It just is.  

It is the mightiest of all intellectual vanities to imagine otherwise.

As François Furet asked in the epilogue of his majestic “The Passing of an Illusion” :

“If capitalism has become the future of socialism, if the bourgeois world is what comes after ‘proletarian revolution’, whatever happened to temporal certainty?”

Furet is sympathetic to socialist thought and so its failure raised, in his mind, the confusing specter of uncertainty.  This reveals a misunderstanding.  It is the strength of capitalism that it adapts to onrushing uncertainty.  Indeed it revels in uncertainty.  It is an illusion ever to have imagined the possibility of something called “temporal certainty”.  It is an attempt to impose a structure where no structure can be sustained.  It is an attempt to freeze society in place and admit no change.  It is a failure to recognize the fluidity resultant from the destruction of the age old monarchic and religious orders that held back progress for millennia.  It’s worth reporting Furet’s contemplation of this conundrum in full:

“To add to this threat of uncertainty, there is the shock of a closed future.  Westerners have become accustomed to investing society with unlimited hope, since that promises freedom and equality for everyone.  In order for these qualities to assume their full meaning, it might one day be necessary to go beyond the horizon of capitalism, to go beyond the universe of rich and poor.  But the end of Communism has brought the individual back into the antinomy essential to bourgeois democracy.  It has revealed, as if something quite new, the complementary and contradictory terms of the liberal equation — individual rights, and the market — thus compromising the very foundation of what has constituted revolutionary messianism for two hundred years.  The idea of another society has become almost impossible to conceive of, and no one in the world today is offering any advice on the subject or even trying to formulate a new concept.  Here we are, condemned to live in the world as it is.”

This gloomy conclusion is based on an error.  Which is that binary intellectual vanities are all we have, and that there can be certainties.  That theories of society need not bend or adapt as society does.  Or that perpetual conflict between those antinomies is necessarily a bad thing.  It isn’t.  It is how the excesses of those intellectual vanities are shaved off.  It is how we modify the extremes to bring them into the dull and more modest center.  

In the midst of modern complexity it is deluded to imagine simple solutions.  We left that world behind a long time ago.  Unfortunately we have carried forward with us too many ideas built back in those simpler days.  As Balibar tells us, the original concept of “liberty” was fractured into rival notions that have been in conflict or contradiction ever since.  The search by idealists ever since to reverse that fracture and to re-create the “equaliberty” Balibar spoke of has only produced unnecessary intellectual confusion. The ideal unity of individual and social liberties can never exist.  Instead they vie for supremacy.  They seek a balance in order to survive. It is the constant opposition of democracy that moderates capitalism.  And it is the existence of capitalism in opposition to democracy that prevents stasis.  Our two modern freedoms co-exist uneasily.  But their tension permits progress.  The presence of that tension, the existence of uncertainty in Furet’s words, is exactly what we want.  

It’s what draws us inexorably into the future.  It is what excites our imagination.  It is what gives us hope.

Meanwhile, the idealists are best left to their respective vanities.  The rest of us need to be pragmatic.  However boring and confusing that might be.

Our problem is not surfeit of capitalism. It is that we have allowed, through conceit and adherence to the false doctrines of modern economics, a deficiency of the democracy needed to rein in the capitalists.  Markets are not the be-all and end-all of social organization.  They fail too frequently if not all the time.  So our objective is to rebuild or re-invigorate democracy, not to eliminate capitalism. 

Or, returning to my Heraclitus of yesterday:

“The cosmos works

by harmony of tensions

like the lyre and bow”

Peter Radford
Peter Radford is publisher of The Radford Free Press, worked as an analyst for banks over fifteen years and has degrees from the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

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