Just how do you change the world?

Is there a progressive counter-narrative to the libertarian right?

    Just how do you change the world?
    In his article for Foreign Affairs, Francis Fukuyama writes that the libertarian right has 'held the ideological high ground on economic issues' for a generation and that the absence of a 'counter-narrative' is worrying [EPA]

    London, United Kingdom - Earlier this year Francis Fukuyama wrote an article for Foreign Affairs entitled The Future of History. In it he talked about the absence of "a plausible progressive counter-narrative" to the "libertarian right". This libertarian right has "held the ideological high ground on economic issues" for a generation. In a telling analogy, he said that the absence of a "counter-narrative" was worrying because "competition is good for intellectual debate just as it is for economic activity".

    After a quick, but somehow interminable, canter through modern history, Fukuyama asks us to imagine "an obscure scribbler today in a garret somewhere trying to outline an ideology for the future that could provide a realistic path toward a world with healthy middle class societies and robust democracies". He then helpfully explains what this ideology would need to look like. It would have to "reassert the supremacy of democratic politics over economics", in the context of a reformed and technologically enabled state. It would have to argue in favour of redistribution and "present a realistic route to ending interest groups' domination of politics".

    "Fukuyama does us the favour of making the non sequitur obvious."

    In the economic sphere, Fukuyama warns his obscure scribbler not to "begin with a denunciation of capitalism as such". "Old-fashioned socialism" no longer offers a viable alternative, so it is now a matter of choosing between varieties of capitalism. Fukuyama does us the favour of making the non sequitur obvious. While capitalism contains multitudes, there's only one flavour of socialism, and that is state socialism. Anyway, Fukuyama doesn't really want to outline a left programme as such. What he calls "the product" will have be "a synthesis of ideas from both the left and the right".

    As ever, there's a lot wrong with what Fukuyama has to say in the article. Actual libertarians would be amazed to hear that they have held "the ideological high ground on economic issues for a generation". Most of them want to abolish the Federal Reserve and oppose government bailouts of banks. Their candidate in the Republican primaries, Ron Paul, had a great deal of scorn and derision heaped on him from the "ideological high ground".

    Grip on the recent past?

    More strikingly, Fukuyama claims that "one of the most puzzling features of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that populism has taken primarily a right-wing form, not a left-wing one". So while he thinks it conceivable that the "Occupy Wall Street movement will gain traction", he can't find space for the hundreds of other occupations in the United States and worldwide. The role of trade unionists and socialists in Arab Spring is nowhere to be found and the vast movement for real democracy in Spain likewise vanishes. The Tea Party is what captures Fukuyama's attention.

    "A persuasive populist program would have to povide, at the very least, a plausible imitation of a grand, all-encompassing blueprint for organising political and economic life."

    It would be unfair to mock him for his failure to predict the rise of Syriza in Greece, the defeat of a right-wing president in France and the growing confidence of anti-capitalist left in Europe and North America. It is, though, reasonable to expect a prophet to have some kind of grip on the recent past.

    Still, Fukuyama makes a much more interesting mistake than usual in the article. He thinks that a solitary scribbler in a garret will be the author of a new and influential populist program. There are at least two big problems with this idea.

    A persuasive populist program would have to provide, at the very least, a plausible imitation of a grand, all-encompassing blueprint for organising political and economic life. It is an understandable temptation for intellectuals, to think that they, and they alone, can trace the path to universal prosperity and global justice. But the idea that one individual can create such a blueprint is a delusion that social science should have jettisoned long ago. Collaboration is both necessary and possible now in a way that renders the mythology of solitary genius obsolete.  

    Besides, even if an individual could come up with a blueprint in splendid isolation, there is no guarantee that anyone would read it, or even be aware of its existence. A mild reformer like Paul Krugman cannot persuade the White House to adopt his ideas. A more radical critic of finance like Steve Keen can't even get his fellow economists to engage with what he is saying. Krugman is a Nobel Prize winner, Keen is a professor of economics. They are neither of them wild-eyed inhabitants of garrets. But, for much of the time, in most of the places where we turn for instruction, they don't exist. And they have little or no influence on policy.

    Waiting for a solitary genius?

    The power of ideas is material. They matter if they re-wire the brains and so change the actions of people in the world. The mechanisms for making ideas prestigious and conveying them to large audiences - the circuits of influential speech - are at least as important as the ideas themselves. Most of these mechanisms are in the hands of people who have little or no interest in promoting a program that is appealing to a broad public and grounded in reason.

    "We have some idea of what has happened and we have the beginnings of a program in response. What we lack is a mass movement that can enact this program nationally and globally."

    Such a program would go far beyond the redistributive blend of left and right that Fukuyama offers us. It would have to threaten the most powerful interests in society with the loss of their privileges. I mean this in the precise sense that an appealing (appealing because effective) program of reform would call for an end to both the private control of credit creation, and the private control of the systems of communication. Just how would such a program find its way from the isolation of a garret to a mass audience?

    If we wait for a solitary genius to do the work for us we will wait forever. And we do not have to wait. We have some idea of what has happened and we have the beginnings of a program in response. What we lack is a mass movement that can enact this program nationally and globally. 

    There is a great deal of disagreement, about details and about fundamentals. That is to be expected. But these disagreements can be resolved, if those affected by what is happening now decide what to do next. That is to say, if we all join the debate. After all, while there are bound to be disagreements about the kind of society we want, and how to achieve it, it is not beyond our powers to understand our current arrangements.

    What we need are spaces - both physical and virtual - that support the work of mutual instruction. These we can create ourselves, and we can demand that the existing structure of communication be reformed in ways that allow accurate descriptions of reality and humane visions for the human future to secure a respectful hearing.

    No one person's grand scheme will become the sacred text of Fukuyama's "progressive counter-narrative". We need the exact opposite of a solitary scribbler in a garret. We need great numbers of gregarious people, talking with one another, in the open air. As he so often does, Fukuyama helps us to find the way forward by pointing in precisely the wrong direction.

    A conversation between equals is the only means by which we can hope understand the current situation. It is the only means by which we can establish a compelling program for change. It is the only means by which this program can be enacted. A conversation is also a constituency. At a certain scale it is an articulation of the common good. Participation can discover what must be done and, crucially, it can ensure that what is necessary becomes possible. The means are integral to the ends.

    Dan Hind has worked in publishing since 1998 and is the author of two acclaimed books: The Return of the Public and The Threat to Reason. He is this year's winner of the Bristol Festival of Ideas Prize. 

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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