Friday, June 13, 2008

The Limits of Ideology

Ideological frames, like anything else, need to be continually challenged and rethought. They're like neural paths -- necessary for thinking, but artifacts of a reality that is now past. I believe this is true of the narrowly ideological frame of some on the left. Even those who have gotten past the old Marxist model often (or in some cases, always) still organize their thinking rigidly in terms of “left vs. right.”

Marx’s analysis of industrial capitalism was acute, though his solutions to its problems turned out to be pretty bad. But the problem is, we’re not in industrial capitalism any more. The access to the means of production is becoming radically democratized. It is literally the case today that any literate person can become a global publisher for free in five minutes – as everybody in the blogosphere knows full well. The blogosphere – which is growing at three times Moore’s Law. And it’s not just that any literate person has at his or her disposal capabilities beyond the fondest dreams of William Randolph Hearst, William S. Paley and Henry Luce… because this isn’t just about publishing. Thanks to mash-ups, software-as-a-service and the componentization of business processes, those same ordinary citizens of the planet can create actual functionality – new functionality, capabilities that have never existed before this morning – for free in five minutes, without even having to get a computer science degree.

So, as we continue to evolve from industrial capitalism to post-industrial capitalism – from the era of the nation-state to a truly global commons for communication, commerce and society – the old paradigms and the old institutions become less and less useful.

The old institutions haven’t disappeared, of course, and they won’t anytime soon. Neither will the social relations that those institutions shape go away overnight. Revolutions don’t destroy, they repurpose. And new ages always, necessarily, arise within the context of an existing regime. Mutations occur and succeed within an existing and dominant ecosystem. That’s how nature and natural selection work. It’s a process not of simple replacement, but of transformation.

But a stubborn focus on the prior age’s ideological tropes blinds us to much of what is actually happening on this orb – and also to much of what was so dangerous and destructive about W’s administration. Further, it skews our thinking about what represents a real alternative to it.

The Bushies can’t be adequately understood as just another chapter in the conspiratorial evil of corporations or capitalism. That’s a bogeyman, and an archaic one, at that.

For one thing, these guys weren’t regular Republicans, they were radicals. They targeted not just the New Deal social agencies and institutions that the Democratic Party had built up since FDR, but also the intelligence, defense and other agencies and institutions that were the home turf of the Republicans. They rejected Bush 41 and the “Realists” every bit as much as Clinton and the liberals. There’s a good reason why the military has turned on them.

I talked about this in another post. Of course, like any administration, this one was a mix of different motives, strains and constituencies. But the net effect – especially after 9/11 – was that the serious radicals – the Dick Cheneys, Jon Yoos, David Addingtons and John Boltons – drove out the conservatives – the Christine Todd Whitmans, Ed O’Neills, James Comeys and even, bless our souls, the John Ashcrofts.

The emblemmatic confrontation in Ashcroft’s hospital room between Gonzalez and Card, representing the coup, and Comey, Mueller and Ashcroft himself, representing the institution, will go down as one of the crucial – and consequential – political dramas of our era. It was people we disagree fervently with who stood up for and may have saved our democracy. Comey was called into Bush’s office the next day, and he stood the Imperial President down. His threat to resign – backed up by Mueller and a phalanx of others in DOJ – tops the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate in scale, courage (because it happened in private) and significance.

The United States of America was in serious danger in the period of 2003-6. Our government had been taken over by aliens, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers – only what they were picking up every morning at their central dispensation stations wasn’t pods, it was spray cans of sulfuric acid. They headed out to melt down some institution of our government or society.

“What’ve you got today, Joe?”

“FEMA. How about you?”

“Justice. Well, have a good day”

“See ya.”

As Grover Norquist famously put it, their goal was to reduce government to the size where they could drown it in a bathtub. Well, we’ve seen the bathtub. It used to be called New Orleans.

Anyway, applying a simplistic left-right filter obscures these important differences. W’s administration melted down the Republican Party as much as it melted down DOJ, FEMA, EPA, the CIA, DOD and pretty much everything else in the U.S. government.

Secondly, railing against capitalism in Old Left ways is pretty silly. Capitalism is, simply speaking, reality. Any Communists still out there? There aren’t even any in China. That proposed alternative to organizing society turned out to be a delusion of incomprehensibly horrific proportions. Check out the chronicles of life under Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot, if you have any doubts on that score.

But capitalism isn’t monolithic, it's dynamic. The global economy that is taking shape today isn’t a static thing – any more than anything else in history or nature ever are. We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift, of at least the magnitude Thomas Kuhn famously described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Such a shift changes everything – the conceptual frame of reference, the institutions of society, the relationships among the actors in that society.

This shift is, to pick just one instance, threatening multinational corporations every bit as much as it’s threatening nation states, academia and the rest of civil society. The new capacity for individuals, entrepreneurs, communities and business ecosystems to self-organize dynamically, along with the radical democratization of the means of production, are rapidly undercutting the rationales for the large, vertically integrated firm – such as Coase’s famous theory of the raison d’etre of the firm: to reduce transaction costs. Today, the Net does that far better than the firm.

We see this in all spheres – business, governance, academia, the life of communities and across society at large. We are seeing the rise of an increasingly networked, increasingly democratized, increasingly feminized, increasingly globalized economy and normative culture… a culture that can now spread with viral speed and organic variation. Of course it emerges in fits and starts, with two steps forward and one step back. But it does emerge.

In fact, it is precisely in reaction to this onrush of modernism that we are seeing the concomitant growth of fundamentalisms, at home and abroad. Traditional society – in the Middle East, in America, and everywhere else around the planet – is terrified by what’s happening, and they’re reacting accordingly, by spreading terror.

Of course, it’s not only opportunity, innovation and democracy that can use the global commons. Really scary shit can spread like this, too. But it’s this shift, not the creaky old left vs. right tropes (or, for that matter, secular vs. spiritual… or technology vs. art… or business vs. government), that speaks to the actual changes in the human deal going on today. Those tropes are becoming as outdated as trying to explain history by astrology, or our bodies in terms of the “humors,” or the physical universe in terms of earth, air, fire and water.

Finally – and this is the key point – a networked global market economy is a very good thing. Read Jeffrey Sachs if you doubt that. No one who professes to care about the fate of the humans can possibly ignore the fact that hundreds of millions of people in India, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe and even now in Africa have been and are being lifted out of poverty.

That includes more than half a billion people – larger than the entire population of Europe – who have joined the middle class in India and China alone in the past two decades alone. This is a phenomenon that makes the Industrial Revolution look like a warm-up, and can only be regarded as wonderful by anyone who claims to be a liberal or a progressive.

Are there concomitant problems? For sure. Is this explosion of wealth being fairly distributed? Not at all. Does the reality of globalization have huge policy, governance and environmental implications? You bet. Do struggles continue? Of course. Does there remain a need for regulation and oversight? Totally. But the enormous overall increase in wealth – which is continuing, at rates never before seen – is a great thing. We will never get anywhere if we keep repeating the old mantras and shoving these new square pegs into the old round holes.

For all his failings, Bill Clinton’s great achievement was to free the Democratic Party from the old trope that business is evil, and that the chief purpose of government is to serve as its superego. Bill, Hillary and the wonkocracy that they brought into power in 1992 saw the potential of technology, and saw the growth of market economies in the developing world as an enormously hopeful and progressive force – a force that was then taken to the 10th power by the emergence of the Web in the mid-‘90s. They began to move government toward being a catalyst for progressive business, academia and civil society, through new kinds of rational collaboration.

I part ways with some of my fellow Clinton supporters on this. They look at Bill’s economic policies and see them as an unfortunate but politically necessary compromise, a bow to the right’s dominance in the ‘90s. I don’t. I see them as an affirmative embrace of new engines of progress in our era. This wasn’t “triangulation,” it was innovation – progressive innovation. Early stages of that, to be sure, with plenty of missteps. But an important shift, nonetheless.

And it worked. As Hillary was wont to ask during her campaign, “Which part of the ‘90s didn’t you like – the peace or the prosperity?” Of course, we all understand that no political administration can take sole credit for either. But I think it’s quite clear that the Clinton Administration made a significant contribution to nurturing and sustaining the greatest economic boom in American history. They freed us from the schlerotic analyses and policies of both the right and left.

Indeed, for all the dispiriting NAFTA-bashing of the primary, the core economic debate today reflects this basic shift that Bill Clinton pulled off. Obama accepts it, and Hillary accepts it.

At the very least, the Clintons played the hand they were dealt in the ‘90s pretty well. They didn’t screw it up – and that was because they actually understood it… its economic, technological and cultural strains and energies. Bill Clinton is regularly praised for his political skills, but those were not just a matter of personal magnetism and street-fighting savvy. He, Hillary, Al Gore and the rest of that remarkable and fractious crew were seriously smart, and they actually understood the forces that are shaping the world today. A whole lot of people – in America and around the world – are a lot better off today because of that.


David Berger said...

You're certainly equating Clinton's "New Democrats" with "New Labor" in the UK - where a political movement turned away from its calcified principles and were rewarded thusly.

Actually, you could see the beginnings of this in 1984 - think of the Hart challenge to Mondale - and it accelerated in 1988 with Mike "competence, not ideology" Dukakis. Clinton added the intellectual heft and political smarts to put the strain of Democratism over the top.

Sadly, I don't necessarily buy that Obama embraces the Clinton reformation. I certainly think he's a canny enough politician to not alienate the country (should he be elected) but his philosophical roots - to the extent he has any - are certainly grounded in the "street organizer"/McGovernite wing of the party. I think he'll have to betray those roots - dare I say "netroots?" - at some point to consolidate his power, and that'll be entertaining to watch.

Falstaff said...

I don't make much of a brief for Obama -- as is pretty obvious here. And I do think his actual thinking on the economy is pretty unspecific. He never managed to present a single economic issue that he obviously cared deeply about or had concrete thoughts about -- and voters who really care about how the economy turns out (those with less disposable income) noticed.

Having said that, he has just taken on economic advisors from the Rubin/Clinton team, and today's Times quoted Rubin himself endorsing Obama. So, to the degree that one can define an economic analysis/position for him, I'd say it's pretty much within the new paradigm that Bill Clinton established.