End of history or domesticating conflict?

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2024 years ago

“improvements in the world’s vaccination effort has cut the number of AIDS deaths, with an estimated half a million lives saved;”

There’s no AIDS vaccine so I’m not entirely sure what Hartcher is saying here. Perhaps he’s talking about the provision of antiretroviral therapy – developed by greedy, bloated, uncaring Big Pharma?

derrida derider
derrida derider
2024 years ago

That so many anti-poverty claim that things are getting worse really puzzles me. It’s not just that the claim is wrong (though it is) – it’s that it’s counterproductive. If we say that things are getting worse in spite of the reduction in wars, better aid and more trade we invite a response of shrugged shoulders and “the poor ye have always with you”, rather than getting people keen to further reduce wars, increase aid and open markets.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Thanks for the post Ken,

At least one important reason why discourse is so polarised is that the right learned to get aggressive. And it works. I think that’s one of the things that Krugman realised when he ‘twigged’ to the idea of the Republicans in power in America being a ‘revolutionary’ force. They have no regard for legitimacy. Though the right in politics are routinely attacked as the same, they’re not – thank God, though looking around at some of the younger right centre activists one wonders.

But around what I know of the world, the right have certainly learned the tactical merit of attack. Thus to question why we’re marching off to a war on the other side of the world on a ridiculously and transparently trumped up pretext is ‘anti-American’. (I’m not saying I knew that there were no WDMs, but why not allow the inspectors the few more months they asked for, why did we did invade when we did and not in any of the previous 12 years, why the outrageously dodgy dossiers etc etc.)

Another one is the politics of envy. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and hope to post something on it. But as far as one can ever know one’s own motives, it isn’t envy that leads me to believe in progressive taxation. But the aggression and presumption with which the charge is routinely made is psychologically (if not intellectually) persuasive unless one carefully takes stock and realises that one is simply being bullied.

Both the ‘triangulation’ of the left of centre (Hawke, Blair, Clinton) and its opposite poltical strategy (Bush and to a lesser extent Howard) share a similar insight into the electorate’s political psychology. We situate ‘commonsense’ between extremes.

Triangulation as I understand it is a bit of Hotelling competition for votes. Just as the two ice cream vendors on a beach will vie for the middle of the beach so political parties vie to be seen as in the centre of the debate.

But if you’re trying to change political perceptions then an alternative strategy is to be bold – even outrageous as it can help you shift the definition of what’s in the middle towards your own position. So you get bold and you get aggressive. And with a bit of luck and some other things going your way (as they usually have to if you’re to be successful in politics), you win the day.

2024 years ago

The simple fact of the matter is that the liberal trifecta of free trade, rule of law and a sound moral framework will deliver peace, freedom and prosperity, despite the best efforts of socialists and the adversary culture to derail the process.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2024 years ago


I quite agree with your point about the Right (or some elements of it at least) seeking to shift the “centre” by sheer aggression and bullying. But some of them would suggest, not entirely without reason, that some on the left are equally insistent and bullying, albeit in a rather more passive-aggressive way, in pushing their own views as the epitome of unchallengeably correct commonsense. David Williamson’s recent extraordinarily patronising piece about his free cruise on a ship full of bogans is quite a good example. So too were some of the comments at this blog that ultimately caused Sophie to retire from blogging, Wendy to go and start her own blog and me to take a very long holiday. The left also contains its fair share of bullies, although it hasn’t been adopted as a deliberate, co-ordinated tactic as it seems to have been by the Republicans in the US and to a lesser extent the Howard administration here.

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago

Yes Ken I agree.

2024 years ago

I don’t know whether I can agree with Hartcher or your blog entry. Is the world really becoming a better place thanks to the supposed defeat of Marxism or Socialism? Have they actually been defeated never to return?

This bullying nature of the Right is surely evidence that the guardians of such liberal ideology (commodities must be free, but humans can only be free if they’re rich and go to the right schools) are deep down just that, bullies.

see also the continuing Iraq bloodbath; John Howard (passim); the Katrina debacle; HIH distater and the continuing white-collar crime epidemic. I could go on.

I’m not pessimistic though as we have the means to defeat injustice etc but I refuse to believe that the magic of the free-market will somehow mysteriously cure every ill of the world and herald a golden age the likes of which humanity has never yet known etc etc..

Nicholas Gruen
2024 years ago


There’s nothing all that mysterious about the free market or how it works.

And it has lifted around 200 million from poverty in the last decade.

How many people would capitalism need to lift out of poverty for you to be impressed?

2024 years ago

Where is the evidence this 400 million who have been “lifted” from poverty? Make sure it’s good.

Have you met these people or do they send you cards every Xmas thanking you for supporting capitalism?

By the way please be sure to include a note on how this figure relates to how much the world’s population has been “lifted” in the last decade. ie. what’s the proportion of people who have been enriched by capitalism in the last 10 years.

This page says that half the world, ~3 billion people, live on less than 2 USD a day, assuming everything costs the same as it does in the US.

On the same page, they list this interesting statistic:

“An analysis of long-term trends shows the distance between the richest and poorest countries was about:
* 3 to 1 in 1820
* 11 to 1 in 1913
* 35 to 1 in 1950
* 44 to 1 in 1973
* 72 to 1 in 1992 ”

No doubt the last decade of free-trade has seen a miraculous reversal of this trend..

Same page:
“According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty… That is about 210,000 children each week, or just under 11 million children under five years of age, each year.”

But still, crack open the Bollinger, 400,000 of the 1,092,000,000 children who died in poverty made it…

Are we talking about the poor in Australia? The Smith Family says that the job market here is shrinking for young Australians (by 6.9% since 1995) and that in 2003 23% of young Australian adults were neither employed full-time or studying.

Almost half the homeless people in Australia in 2001 were 25 years and younger (I guess the life-expectancy of the homeless isn’t high).
Is it Australia’s indigenous, 70% of whose young adults aren’t in full-time work or studying?

Are they the poor in the United States? This page says: “In 2001 the number of poor and the poverty rate both rose as economic difficulties moved into recession, and the rate has continued to rise; in 2003, 35.8 million people were poor by the official measure of poverty. In 2004, the number rose to 37 million people (12.7 percent of the population).”

Shall I google the stats for the spike in people incarcerated this past decade? Is that where all the poor have gone?

I’ve been kind enough to google some evidence for my position. Now be a dear and do the same next time you make such an improbable assertion.

2024 years ago

I’m sorry that should have been: 200 million not 400 million or 400,000… : /

So that would be a ratio of 400:1,920 of people lifted from poverty to dead children, a survival rate of 17% if my high school maths doesn’t fail me. Is this supposed to be a good thing? In relation to what? Honest questions.

2024 years ago

Goddamit! why am I obsessed with the number 4 today.

Ratio 200:1,920 = survival rate 9.43%