Monday, November 19, 2018

Political beliefs

 For some months now I've been reading the commentary of Umair Haque.  His understanding of the current political situation, especially in the United States is so bleak that it reminds me of Old Testament prophecy, or maybe the crazier elements of the Reformation.  

But as this recent essay indicates, 

Umair would not thank me for the comparisons to prophets.  And in fact what he says about  political beliefs is surely the most important part of this post. It is certainly worth serious thought.

A substantial excerpt:

I want to tell you the story of the greatest lesson in history, which you probably don’t know. It’s the one the 20th century is trying to teach the 21st — but we, blinded by ideologies, weary and failing ways of thinking about the world, society, and ourselves, are still only just barely struggling to grasp it — if we are not resisting it outright. After all, we are not even twenty years into this century — so it’s no surprise the last one’s greatest lesson is yet unlearned.
There’s a question that’s as old as time. How do we build ciities, countries, towns, societies — worlds, lives — which prosper, endure, soar? Some said — the brutish and the shallow, mostly: “We gain by taking what is theirs! Let us enslave and exploit them! Why, they are not people at all!” And then cooler and wiser minds replied, shaking their heads: “No, no. We mustn’t do that. We must lift everyone up — and everyone is a person — never pull anyone down.” So. Shall we prosper by exploitation — or through liberation? Through subjugation and slavery, through hate and violence — or their opposites, equality, freedom, justice? Here’s a fact. Nobody really knew. So we humans, being the blind things we are, settled for the best we could: we debated it for millennia, with more and abstruse and abstract theories of morality, ethics, politics, economics. Here’s another fact. We didn’t know the answer — until now.
I was amused — if not surprised — to read, somewhere in a little corner of the internet, a description of myself as a socialist. In that accusatory way that Americans — at least some of them, on the fringe — still use the word. Amused because, well — let me describe my politics to you. My politics are very simple. I try not to have any. LOL — what? I’m sure that leaves many of you bewildered, even surprised. “But you’re always going on about capitalism and — “ Very true, so I do. So what in blazes do I mean?
You could in one way describe my politics, if you are very insistent of putting people in little boxes and neatly labelling them, this way. I suppose that I’m a pretty ordinary kind of social democrat — the kind that most people who aren’t Americans, but live in rich countries, are, from Europe to Canada. I think that the superior social contract at this juncture in human history is simple and straightforward ... That social contract goes like this: people provide one another the basics of a good life in modern terms, which means health care, education, some minimal income and savings, retirement, and so on. Capitalism — at a human scale — takes care of thmy politics” in the sense that people usually mean the term. They are not my beliefs, moral, social, cultural, and so on, based on theories of some such and this that, which I am trying to push on you, to persuade you of, mistakes to correct in you. They are not beliefs — things I don’t know, but presume, or hope, or wish to be true — in any whatsoever ....) So if they aren’t my beliefs, then what are they?
They are facts. Nothing more and nothing less. Just facts. It is a fact that people are happier in social democracies. It is a fact that people are richer, wealthier, closer, live longer, saner, better lives, in nearly every regard. There is nothing subjective or unknown about that statement, and so it is not a belief in any way whatsoever. Do you see the difference here — between fact and belief? You might think that I’m splitting hairs — but I think that both the future, and the greatest lesson in human history that you probably don’t know lie right here.
Why? Let me explain backwards. What’s unique about America? It’s that it got the social contract of modernity, which I described above — people provide each other the necessities, and capitalism provides the luxuries — absolutely backwards. America, unique amongst rich nations — all nations, in fact, tried a social contract where capitalism provides people the necessities, and the luxuries, things like yachts and mansions and so forth, are often had by way of a kind of weird, inverse socialism — cronyism, how close you are to powerful politicians and capitalists and so on, how many subsidies you can grab, how much you take from others.
Now, it doesn’t take a genius to have said: hey, listen…this social contract probably isn’t going to work out. Not only does capitalism have no incentive, reason, or motive to provide people the necessities, if the way to get rich is by everyone exploiting everyone else in the first place — then a society will never really go anywhere at all. And that is exactly what happened in America during my whole adult lifetime. Society literally went nowhere.
I mean that in the hardest possible terms. Society literally went nowhere.Incomes went nowhere. Life expectancy fell. Social mobility dropped. Depression and suicide rose. And so on. Along every indicator you can imagine or think of, America has made zero progress during my whole adult lifetime. That is not a belief. It is not my opinion, it is not a subject for debate — it is simply a fact. America tried out yet another social contract based on exploitation — capitalism, after segregation and slavery — whose results were as predictable then as they are real today: as people grew poorer, they turned to authoritarianism, instability became collapse, and here we are today, hoping a Blue Wave will stem the tide.
But if I start “believing” things about political economy, about society, about the world, then what happens? I can’t do my job very well if I “believe” things to be true, instead of know them, can I? Then I go from being something like an observer — or maybe intellectual, or maybe just an educated person, or maybe just a civilized one, you can choose — to being something more like a fool, someone who has rejected knowing, scorned truth. Do you see the problem here? It applies to you, too.
So why are we cursed with this burden of political beliefs? Why can’t more of us simply let go of beliefs — and say — whatever labels and ideologies the world, my society, my culture has trained and taught me to “believe” in, I will hold them lightly, tentatively, skeptically? Strangely, if you think about it, we can’t shed the burden of belief because it is a new thing to be able notto have political “beliefs.” Think about the world. Until the 1970s or so, it was eminently reasonable to say something like — “Who knows? Maybe capitalism is better. Maybe communism is! Maybe authoritarianism is. Or maybe apartheid states are the best kind to be! Who knows how the average person will be better off?” You see, we didn’t have much evidence about much at all, when it came to different modes and models of political economy, society, social contracts, and so forth.
Let me put that to you much more starkly. We could have said, probably until the 1970s or so, that America was a rich and powerful nation — and it was still segregated. Furthermore, it had gotten rich through slavery as much or more as through innovation. Europe, too, was still rising from the ashes of war — at that point, Spain was still a military dictatorship, and Germany still a split, riven nation. Who was to say which system was better, out of all the many choices political economy had to offer? Remember my question? It’s as old as time.
Over the last fifty years or so, a revolution hidden in plain sight has taken place in the world — which has gone too often unnoticed — and especially not American intellectuals, which is why Americans are in the dark about it (even though they intuitively get it, a full 70% of them can be described today as something like emerging social democrats anyways.) That miracle was this — European social democracy began to pioneer history’s highest living standards ever, period, full stop. Within fifty years — just fifty years! — less than one human lifetime, shattered, wrecked societies like Germany, Spain, and France had achieved the following things: the world’s longest lifespans, richest and largest middle classes, most equitable distributions of wealth, and so on. Scandinavia, taking it further, built history’s, and the world’s happiest, most egalitarian, and wealthiest societies.
Does prosperity come from exploitation — or from liberation? No one knew. Hence, millennia of bitter debates, about morality, religion, society, and so on — which simmered until the boiled over, finally, in a century of grand social experiments. American capitalism, Soviet communism, German fascism, and so on. That century was the last one.

The system that resulted in Europe, which came to be called “social democracy”, was revealed to be the most powerful lever of human possibility that had been discovered, ever. It was so powerful, in fact, that it made an impoverished, ruined Europe more prosperous in every single way than America in a single human lifetime.
Now, it’s equally important to understand the rejection, if you like, of the alternate hypothesis. Since the beginning of time, human beings have been ruled by the most brutal and foolish among them — and such minds have said: “the way to prosperity is through enslaving and exploiting and abusing others! As long as we can get them to do our work, with the whip or the chain or the trinket — why, we will be kings!” America, sadly, has a tendency to listen to such minds, over and over again. Hence, the basics of the hypothesis it has been testing have always remained more or less the same — prosperity results from exploitation.
But American collapse tells us that exploitation does not lead to prosperity. It leads to poverty amidst grotesque amounts of plenty, like having to choose between medicine and shelter even if you’re “middle class””, that is, profound and terrible inequality, which causes instability, which sparks authoritarianism, and so on.
That’s why America is where it is. It is a nation, sadly, which is largely ignorant, by design, of the greatest fact in the world, one of the greatest facts in history: that we have the missing formula for human prosperity, finally, after millennia of strife and war and hate and ruin. It’s simple. Prosperity comes from liberation, not exploitation. That formula — or that recipe — is at this point in human history, an empirical reality,
That is why I try not to have politics, my friends. Politics are largely empty vessels, hopefully obsolete things, in this day and age, really. The future won’t be made with people with political beliefs, as it was yesterday. That is because we have stark evidence about those beliefs, finally, after all the long midnights of human history — all the slavery, all the hatred, all the whips and all the chains. Where did they lead? Upwards — or downwards?
Today — this juncture in human history — really is different. We don’t need to believe, like blind people, anymore — to guess and hope and wonder. We simply need to see what is front of our eyes. The future will be made, then, by radical pragmatists. Who can take history’s great lessons — and apply them. But that is only because they understand them.

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