Optimism seems to be a quality in short supply in this current period of Islamo-fascist terrorism and authoritarian responses to it. That’s why I was taken by a SMH article a few days ago by Peter Hartcher. The world, he pointed out, was pretty damned good and getting better, both in terms of reducing the incidence of wars and cutting poverty. Hartcher (and the reports on which he relies) attributes this both to the end of the Cold War and the delayed calming effect of the end of western colonialism:
Most arrestingly, the report finds that the number of armed conflicts around the world has fallen by 40 per cent in the last 15 years, since the end of the Cold War.
The number of genocides, notwithstanding Rwanda and Srebrenica, peaked in 1988 and has since fallen by 80 per cent.
And with the incidence of war and genocide in decline, so is the number of people displaced. The number of refugees worldwide shrank by 45 per cent since the end of the Cold War.
Hartcher’s take on poverty is equally optimistic:
And on Stettinius’s second front – freedom from want – the news also is surprisingly positive. The UN’s annual Human Development Report, published a few weeks ago, reported that people in poor countries are healthier, better educated and less impoverished than they were, on average, 15 years ago. Life expectancy in the developing world has lengthened by two years; there are 3 million fewer child deaths annually; more than 130 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
In the past decade, the UN reports, 1.2 billion people have gained access to clean water; improvements in the world’s vaccination effort has cut the number of AIDS deaths, with an estimated half a million lives saved; and the literacy rate in the world’s poor countries has improved from 70 per cent to 76 per cent.
Why? Mainly because of economic growth in China and India, but also because some of the world’s programs of aid and trade really work.
It may sound a little triumphalist, even somewhat reminiscent of Fukuyama’s “end of history” meme. But the facts speak for themselves, except perhaps for determined devotees of neo-marxist doomsayers like Immanuel Wallerstein. Instead of Fukuyama, Hartcher references the philosopher Hegel and his notions of historicism, the World Spirit and so on:
The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel theorised that there was a great progress in the history of human affairs, something he called historicism, and not just a permanent worldly purgatory. Could he, just possibly, have been right? “It’s consistent with this data,” says Mack, “but with 50 wars still under way around the world, we have a long way to go.”
I took the opportunity of refreshing my memory about Hegel by reading this article at the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (an Internet resource which provides an instructive contrast with Wikipedia on which Nicholas Gruen has just posted). I was especially interested to find a paragraph in the Stanford article on Hegel which neatly reflects back to Nicholas’s fascinating recent series of posts on the grandfather of free market capitalism Adam Smith:
Perhaps one of the most influential parts of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right concerns his analysis of the contradictions of the unfettered capitalist economy. On the one hand, Hegel agreed with Adam Smith that the interlinking of productive activities allowed by the modern market meant that “subjective selfishness” turned into a “contribution towards the satisfaction of the needs of everyone else.” But this did not mean that he accepted Smith’s idea that this “general plenty” produced thereby diffused (or “trickled down” ) though the rest of society. From within the type of consciousness generated within civil society, in which individuals are grasped as “bearers of rights” abstracted from the particular concrete relationships to which they belong, Smithean optimism may seem justified. But this simply attests to the one-sidedness of this type of abstract thought, and the need for it to be mediated by the type of consciousness based in the family in which individuals are grasped in terms of the way they belong to the social body. In fact, the unfettered operations of the market produces a class caught in a spiral of poverty. Starting from this analysis, Marx later used it as evidence of the need to abolish the individual proprietorial rights at the heart of Hegel’s “civil society” and socialise the means of production. Hegel, however, did not draw this conclusion. His conception of the exchange contract as a form of recognition that played an essential role within the state’s capacity to provide the conditions for the existence of rational and free-willing subjects would certainly prevent such a move. Rather, the economy was to be contained within an over-arching institutional framework of the state, and its social effects offset by welfarist state intervention.
Yet, as Nicholas demonstrated, Smith wasn’t totally opposed to State intervention to reduce poverty, although he certainly envisaged a much more minimalist state than Hegel had in mind. Nevertheless, these two intellectual titans of the 18th-19th century again today represent the boundaries of respectable mainstream western political thought. Almost no-one now advocates either Marxism or any extensive version of state socialism.
The debate is instead about the extent to which the state should properly/optimally intervene in the capitalist market economy to reduce serious unfairness or inequality. It’s a debate to which there is no unarguably or universally correct answer, and about which reasonable minds might (and do) differ. So you’d expect that the temperature of early twenty-first century political debate would be somewhat cooler than it was back in the Cold War days of not so long ago. And yet, in the blogosphere and elsewhere, it often seems that the opposite is the case. Opponents are excoriated in more and more extreme language for espousing views that aren’t radically different from their adversaries.
Why? Maybe it’s just the human psyche’s need to differentiate itself from the “other”. As poverty and conflict are reduced and we agree more and more on the broad outlines of the social, political and economic structures needed to sustain progress, so we have to strive ever harder and more aggressively to find opponents against whom to define ourselves. I suspect that contemporary (and somewhat post-modernist) political theorist Chantal Mouffe defines the limits of the possible in terms of civil political debate:
I consider that it is only when we acknowledge the dimension of “the political” and understand that “politics” consists in domesticating hostility and in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations, that we can pose what I take to be the central question for democratic politics. This question, pace the rationalists, is not how to arrive at a consensus without exclusion, since this would imply the eradication of the political. Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity; it is always concerned with the creation of an “us” by the determination of a “them”. The novelty of democratic politics is not the overcoming of this us/them opposition which is an impossibility but the different way in which it is established. The crucial issue is to establish this us/them discrimination in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.
Envisaged from the point of view of “agonistic pluralism”, the aim of democratic politics is to construct the “them” in such a way that it is no longer perceived as an enemy to be destroyed, but an “adversary”, i.e. somebody whose ideas we combat but whose right to defend those ideas we do not put into question. This is the real meaning of liberal democratic tolerance, which does not entail condoning ideas that we oppose or being indifferent to standpoints that we disagree with, but treating those who defend them as legitimate opponents.