Home > Uncategorized > Utopia and the exhaustion of the center

Utopia and the exhaustion of the center

from David Ruccio

We’re ten years on from the events the triggered the worst crisis of capitalism since the first Great Depression (although read my caveat here) and centrists—on both sides of the Atlantic—continue to peddle an ahistorical nostalgia.

Fortunately, people aren’t buying it.

As Jack Shenker has explained in the case of Britain,

one of the most darkly humorous features of contemporary British politics (a competitive field) is the ubiquity of parliamentarians, pundits and business titans who wail and gnash at our ceaseless political tumult but appear utterly incurious about the conditions that produced it. . .

Such stalwart defenders of a certain brand of “common sense” capitalism have watched in horror as ill-mannered upstarts — on both the right and the left — build power at the fringes. But these freshly emboldened centrists pretend that the rupture has no connection to their own dogma and seem to envision the whole sorry mess as some sort of administrative error that will be swiftly tidied away once the right person, with the right branding, is restored to authority.

Much the same is true in the United States, where centrists in the Democratic Party watch in horror as the Republican Party falls in lockstep with Donald Trump and the only energy within their own party comes from the Left. All the while, they ignore their own role in creating the conditions for the crash and the fact that their technocratic promises to American young people—university or community-college education leading to a stable and prosperous worklife, the dream of a thriving middle-class democracy, the claim for capitalism’s economic and ethical superiority—lie in tatters. 

As it turns out, Jürgen Habermas sounded the warning of just this eventuality back in the mid-1980s.* His argument, in a nutshell, is that western cultures had used up their utopian energies—and for good reason, because

the very forces for increasing power, from which modernity once derived its self-confidence and its utopian expectation, in actuality turn autonomy into dependence, emancipation into oppression, and reality into the irrational.

In particular, the social welfare state—based on Keynesian economic policies and democratic politics (with a social basis in independent labor unions and labor-oriented parties)—had lost “its capacity to project future possibilities for a collectively better and less endangered way of life.”

The reactions to this crisis are well known: on the Right, the rise of neoliberalism associated with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan; on the Left, the celebration of non-party social movements. And, in the center? “Those who defend the legitimacy of industrial society and the social welfare state”—such as the more conservative wing of the Social Democrats (he mentions the Mondale wing of the Democrats in the United States and the second government of François Mitterand in France)—who “have been put on the defensive.”

I would make it even sharper: the center refashioned itself in the mould of the right-wing neoliberals, at least in part to isolate and contain the criticisms from the Left, by emphasizing individual (not collective) initiative and market-based (not social or solidarity) solutions to economic and social problems. As a result, the center lost its utopian impulse and settled for a meek defense of what remained of the social welfare state.

Habermas’s view is that society has been reoriented away from the concept of labor toward that of communication, which requires a different way of “linking up with the utopian tradition.” The alternative approach would be to rethink the concept of labor in terms of class and analyze the ways in which the forces of capital that were supposed to be regulated and contained by the social welfare state were left with both the interest and means to undo those regulations. And it’s the center that put itself in the position of responding to and representing the progressive dismantling of the economic side of the social welfare state—in deregulating finance, pursuing globalization, and helping to unleash new digital technologies. The result was, not surprisingly, the growth of obscene levels of inequality, increasing precariousness for large parts of the working-class, and finally the crisis that broke out in 2008, which has led not only to economic but also political breakdown.

However, as Shenker correctly observes, “the breakdown of any political order can be both emancipatory and revanchist.” And it now falls to the Left to reharness and reinvigorate the utopian impulses and energies that the center has squandered in order to chart a path forward.

*The English-language translation of Habermas’s article, “The New Obscurity: The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies,” was first published in Philosophy & Social Criticism. The article, with a slightly different title (“The Crisis of the Welfare State and the Exhaustion of Utopian Energies”) and translation, was reprinted in On Society and Politics: A Reader. According to a friend and colleague who is a Habermas expert [ht: db], the essay is typical of his thinking that issued from what most people still consider Habermas’s most important work, The Theory of Communicative Action. “I would characterize Communicative Action as his middle period, which follows his earlier, more Frankfurt-styled emphasis on ideology critique (especially positivism) in books like Knowledge and Human Interests and Theory and Practice. In this middle period, he moved way from negative dialectics à la Adorno and Horkheimer toward developing a positive social theory of his own, one he would say was a “reconstruction” of Marxism but I would call a “replacement,” in which he develops a theory of communicative action to avoid what he sees as productivism and economism in the Marxist tradition.” And he adds:  “I find his means of doing so, evolutionary theory, unacceptable.”

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  1. Helen Sakho
    September 2, 2018 at 12:51 am

    Thank you David. I would urge potential readers to double check the headlines of the FT today, and to also read the following book “Crisis Consciousness In Contemporary Philosophy” from which I quote: “The endless cycle of idea and action, endless experiment, brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.”
    We cannot put the dead on trial, but let us add to our new curriculum a simple question, urging our students to give us 1-3 reasons why the vast majority of all economists should be stripped of their PhD titles. If anyone disagrees, do please pose a counter argument. I would be delighted to hear you out. Worse is yet to come…

  2. September 2, 2018 at 5:29 pm

    Were it not probable that the authors whose views are posted on this site (with a few exceptions, notably Merijn Knibbe) do not actually read the responses to them, I would be suggesting David Ruccio be stripped of his PhD for getting his understanding of Utopia second- (or two hundredth-) hand from the enemies of its author. More generally, and I hope more kindly, I would say that relative to economics a Doctorate in Philosophy is about as relevant as a banker’s Nobel Prize, it being a wonder the presenters of both haven’t been prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act. Most of those dedicated students no doubt deserve their Doctorates, but they should be in Historical Mathematics rather than for Wisdom
    in Economics acquired through familiarity with its history and conceptual development.

  3. Craig
    September 2, 2018 at 5:38 pm

    His analysis is good, the way forward and upward isn’t quite as well understood. Progressives need to consult the dialectic Marx cobbed from Hegel, and conservatives need to FINALLY get past Smith’s invisible hand. Both perspectives are ideologies looking for justification. The way forward is a true thirdness greater oneness integration of the truths, workabilities, relevant and emerging factors/applicabilities and the highest ethical considerations of the two persectives.

    Much of the research and theorizing for this synthesis/integration has already been done by the likes of Steve Keen, Michael Hudson and others, now all it really needs is perception of the new paradigm of Direct and Reciprocal Monetary Gifting as the singular concept that describes and fits within the new pattern and a nice theoretical handle like Wisdomics-Gracenomics to more clearly identify and indicate what is actually needed to make the thirdness greater oneness a more conscious understanding.

    In this way we can re-energize the Utopian thrust while inverting its generally perceived and actual top down orientation into freeing the many hands of individuals….to create what they consider to be their ideal scene/own utopia.

    • Craig
      September 2, 2018 at 6:06 pm

      After all, inversion is a signature of paradigm change.

    • September 2, 2018 at 10:16 pm

      Smith’s hands being invisible, he didn’t notice that we have two hands, the two sides of our brain (one predominantly for sound and the other for vision) tending to use them differently. Craig using words transparently hasn’t noticed their lack of direct inversion (such as one gets in the positive and negative of a photograph). Words need to be supplied with content.

      • Craig
        September 2, 2018 at 10:33 pm

        Quite the contrary Dave my concept of the cosmic code recognizes Duality as a reality and trinity-unity as the result of their integration…much like our vision is a unitary integration of the left and right eyes. All realities are real, it’s just that some are more complete. And so far as content is concerned the cosmic code being a TOE and the expression of virtually everything….if one trains oneself to perceive it…is also the very expression of content.

  4. September 6, 2018 at 11:03 am

    Habermas is an interesting fellow. I reach similar conclusion but by a very different process. I believe just about any normally intelligent human (Trump excluded) will get a lot more out of my explanations than Habermas’. Let’s look at chickens. How do we create a better chicken? Evolution without human intervention is a blind process. It is not teleological. But humans can and have directed evolution. For example, in the instance of chickens. Researcher used two methods in their attempt to create a better chicken. First method involved selecting the most productive hen from each of several cages to breed the next generation of hens. The second method involved selecting all the hens from the most productive cages to breed the next generation of hens. The results. First method. The most productive individuals had achieved their success by suppressing the productivity of the their cagemates. The researchers had selected the meanest hens in each cage and after six generations had produced a nation of psychopaths. Most dead from combat with other hens. Second method. By selecting whole groups, the researchers had selected against aggressive traits and for cooperative traits that enabled the hens to coexist harmoniously. This second method generally compares to human evolution. But the kicker is that the first method also occurs in human evolution. When the two butt heads in human evolution the aggressive and non-cooperative individuals always attack the harmonious and cooperative human groups. In simple terms method two favors the survival of Sapiens; method one diminishes the likelihood of Sapiens survival. So, genetic evolution is part of the explanation for such problems as obscene levels of inequality, increasing precariousness for large parts of the working-class, and repetitive resource problems that breakdown societies. But the bigger part of the explanation is cultural, not genetic. For culture to work it must make everyone accountable. For only then can there be enough trust in a society for government, religion, science, economics, and every other part of culture to function effectively in meeting human needs. No one must be excluded, leaders, followers, rich, poor, all classes, and all jobs. Like genetic evolution cultural evolution includes both methods. When the two butt heads in human cultural evolution the aggressive and non-cooperative individuals always attack the harmonious and cooperative human groups. So, as with genetic evolution method two culture favors the survival of Sapiens; method one culture diminishes the likelihood of Sapiens survival. Or, in shorthand. Method one is capitalism in all its varieties. Method two is any society where the welfare of the cooperative society is raised above the welfare of any member of the society.

  5. September 15, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    Well Ken, I suppose one could draw the conclusion that in Trump, the chickens have truly come home to roost, the worst of capitalism’s competitive traits bursting out. But we are all still waiting for the economic manifestations to bring the show to a climax, are we not? Explaining the features, and fault lines in today’s economy is still the most daunting challenge, something even the resurgent American left is not very good at, with some notable exceptions.

    Most American state governments, supposedly the “laboratories of democracy,” must still live under Austerity like regimes where budgets must be constitutionally balanced – each year. So the aspirational progressive policies from the Sanders camp, which I support with these qualifications, can’t be paid for at the state level.

    Here is supposedly progressive Blue state Maryland, Gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, a Sanders devotee in 2016, now stressing that he is really more a “Venture Capitalist” as he’s been attacked as a Socialist. How will he fund his calls for many progressive planks for education, prison reform, funding Green banks and renewable energy funds? He doesn’t seem to have done the homework, sadly.

    And to show you the hollowness of the Center of the Democratic Party, it was under allegedly progressive governor Martin O’Malley that Maryland passed legislation to align its inheritance and estate tax system with the regressive revisions passed by the Republican Congress under Obama. Even an estate tax moving in the wrong direction is not small change; stop and think: it’s falling on only a very small percentage of the 1% and company, with a hefty exemption which keeps growing, yet it raised $182 million in FY 2018. I’ve suggested a one time wealth tax of 10% on all wealth holdings over $500 million or so…but despite the work of Piketty, Saez and Galbraith…this is still beyond the horizon for a state democratic party.

    To flesh out the realities a bit more at Blue State Maryland’s fiscal accounts, for the Fiscal Year of 2018, we can find the startlingly regressive lay of the budget landscape. Franchise and corporation taxes only bring in $242 million not that much more than the Death Taxes (yes, that is the “formal” label in Governor Hogan’s budget documents) at $184 million; sin taxes on tobacco and alcohol are significant but not determinative at about $421 million.

    And now the big hitters in the budget: corporation income taxes $827 million, dwarfed by the individual income tax burden of $9.4 billion. The regressive sales tax of 6% comes in at $4.7 billion.

    No, I’m not turning into an accountant, just pointing out the dual game progressives must play: one at the state austerity level; the other, grounded in a potential yet to be realized at the federal, to take advantage of some of the leeway granted in the textbooks of Modern Monetary Theory and Republican governance, of damn the deficits under most circumstances, the full reality of which has not yet been digested by the voting public, still very much susceptible to the metaphors of “kitchen table economics,” bringing the household budget to the national accounts. Would love to have heard a Sanders-Clinton debate on those flows, but the sad truth is our press – Chris Cuomo at CNN are you reading (No, he’s not) is not capable of formulating these necessities.

    • Craig
      September 15, 2018 at 10:07 pm

      The smartest thing we could do is actually consider that accounting is the integrative infrastructure upon and within which the entirety of commerce is embedded. As one of the requirements for a paradigm change is that it must fit seamlessly within virtually all of the structures of the area of human endeavor it applies to while simultaneously effecting a transformation of same…accounting fulfills that integrative requirement. As accounting’s rules (all costs must go into price) and tools (debits and credits) are digital all you would need to do is find the terminal ending point for the entire economic process (retail sale) which would also be the terminal summing point for all costs and so prices because its where production becomes consumption….and then implement a digital debit/credit monetary discount/rebate policy of high percentage (say 50%)…and you will have cut through all of the dynamic interactive complexities of the economy, doubled everyone’s potential purchasing power and so doubled the potential sales of any and every enterprise…..and implemented the new single concept that represented the new paradigm of Monetary Gifting.

      This might insult the intellectual vanities of the genuinely erudite, but then paradigm changes are always as philosophically simple as they are permanently progressive and earth changing.

    • September 16, 2018 at 10:57 am

      gracchibros, a little history of capitalism helps understand what’s happening to us. Capitalism was just one of the schemes that emerged after feudalism screwed too many times to continue its game. Especially, with many screaming for democracy. But make no mistake about the goals of capitalism. They were the same as feudalism. To keep the master in charge. Particularly of money, property, and profits. Competition was not and is not a big factor in this process. The trading is either done behind closed doors of so mystified in legalese that no one outside the “circle” gets the messages. In its early history governments made valiant and sometimes successful efforts to control and if necessary punish capitalists and capitalism. Those efforts appear defeated now; perhaps permanently. Austerity, balanced budgets, and a thousand myths about competition, profit making, and efficiency of capitalism are not just parts of capitalism’s manipulations of its environment and propaganda, they are also effective tools to maintain the dominance of capitalism and capitalists. Much as hate to say it capitalists, like some of the monarchs and other autocrats before them (thankful a minority of them) have shown themselves effective masters of the things and people they encounter. The contest between Democrats and Republicans today is a family quarrel between only slightly different capitalists. When capitalists collapsed the world in 1929 not even Keynes suggested discarding capitalism. Keynes wanted to save capitalism. Considering the harm capitalism had already done humans and the planet, I’ve wondered how he could have made such a mistake. But then again perhaps it wasn’t a mistake so much as just one strategy to keep capitalism and capitalists in charge of it all. And capitalists are good at “asserting” control.

  6. September 15, 2018 at 10:59 pm

    I hear echoes of Bitcoin, blockchains, VATs, carbon tax rebate systems, and of course, more than a bit of Universal Income proposals, Craig.

    For a world of citizens, at least in the US, but, given the portrayal of social democrats in Varofakis’ “Adults in the Room,” I’d better add Western Europe, who haven’t been able to absorb Modern Monetary Theory despite the Federal Reserve slyly demonstrating how it worked in 2008-2009 and beyond, and the ECB and BOE as well, this would be a huge leap in understanding without the infrastructure steps in education to get them “there.” After all, in our federal system of tax collections, federal, state, local, we couldn’t get our national act together on taxing online sales from Amazon, for example, decades after the IT Revolution – “don’t leave home without it” has rewritten a good part of the economic structure of our world.

    I don’t want to throw a huge cistern of cold water on your presentation, though, since in Greece’s tribulations Yanis V. with the help of James Galbraith, was preparing a portion of such a system, to issue new electronic credit cards tied in to the Greek tax system when the ECB cut off the ATMs from Euro replenishment. There would be new “Greek” money in those citizen accounts, the bottom 40% or so, so they could pay at least some basic bills. A paving stone on the step to your financial Appian Way.

    • Craig
      September 16, 2018 at 7:11 am

      The key is starting a grass roots movement directed at the large constituencies of indebted students, the small to medium sized business community and the generally more grounded female half of the species showing them the obvious self interest of the policies I advocate, and forgetting about the futility of trying to convince ego involved academics and theorists.

      Direct and Reciprocal Monetary Gifting is the new paradigm. Bitcoin, Blockchain, et all are mere reforms and in some instances are exactly opposite of what is required. Paradigms accomplish permanent progress via transformation, and even though that is anathema to researchers and scientific types….everything adapts to a genuine paradigm change….not the other way around.

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