Saturday, September 27, 2008

International life

Last week’s issue of The Economist came with a 14-page special report on globalization. In these times of financial turmoil it is easy to lose track of the longer and more promising trends: the world is indeed getting richer, living standards are improving and life expectancy is on the rise almost everywhere.

Despite all its apparent flaws, it is clear that global capitalism has been the great drive behind this development. As market conditions turn sour, the spectre of protectionism and economic chauvinism is never far away. It will take a lot of our political leaders to refrain from this temptation and remain true to the fundamental truth that the world economy is not, and has never been, a zero-sum game.

While the intellectual argument may be won long ago, every time I find myself debating these issues I have a creeping feeling that what is really at stake here is something different, and that it has a lot more to do with ontology than with economics. First, and this I would very much like to research empirically, it seems as if most people opposing growth hold a very dark, Bladerunner-styled, image of what a growth-driven future would look like. Instead of reflexive modernization and a living natural environment, they tend to associate such a future with 19th century London pollution and Dickensian poverty. Despite all the historical success of welfare capitalism and functional socialism (as opposed to the authoritarian command-and-control socialism of the former Eastern bloc) too many, also on the right, have bought into the perverse idea that the only way to accumulate wealth is to make other people poor.

Among those more radically inclined, there is also a critique of the global lifestyle as being superficial and empty of social meaning. This being a recurrent theme here on Rawls & Me, I will limit myself to remind us that it is in fact the liberal state which enables a plurality of conceptions about the good life. Even as some may prefer to splurge poolside at a Woodland Hills hotel, that does not take away the right of others to live in small mountain cabins or grow their own vegetables. That observation underlies a serious objection which I believe all those future primitivists have to answer: what to do with the people who do not seek the calm village life or the subjection to nature?

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Even as some may prefer to splurge poolside at a Woodland Hills hotel, that does not take away the right of others to live in small mountain cabins or grow their own vegetables."

However, things are not as straight-forward with others who prefer, say, to drive their 4x4s or perhaps 6x6s oblivious of the ecological consequences that may befall on the said cabin-dwellers or some far-away darkies. And in an interdependent, globalised world of finite ecological resources, and very strict limits, most examples tend to be of this second kind.

9:22 pm  
Blogger Rasmus said...

Thanks for your comment Anonymous, you definitely raise a valid point here, and as I have been arguing in my research, those limits are to be taken serious indeed. Yet, as you may also have noticed from my weblog, I thoroughly reject the standard "green story" about what to do about global environmental destruction and resource scarcity.

Instead of de-modernization and future primitivism, I have been working on the possibilities of reflexive modernization and radical technological innovation. This does not mean that I believe that there is a simple “technofix” to our current predicament. On the other hand, any progressive vision of the future must include a decent global living standard and also a political realistic idea about how to get from here to there.

10:22 pm  

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