Thursday, October 09, 2008

World on the edge


With the world financial system on life support, picking up this week's issue of The Economist is unlikely to make you feel any better. Since it went into print, the malaise has continued to worsen and some herald this to be the end of capitalism.

Not that quick. Though the capitalistic system will certainly face serious challenges in the future as the world gets hotter and more crowded, I take this crisis to be of a more traditional kind, emanating as it is from a long unsustainable housing boom. At the same time, echoing the 1930's, there is something strange with economic growth coming to an end in a world in which so many people still urgently need to improve their material living standard.

Yesterday, I finally sent in that article. Reading up on dependency theory made me think of how Marxist explanations of poverty have evolved as sort of a three-stage-rocket. First, under early industrialism, it was fairly straightforward, the declining rate of profit was thought to lead to an "increasing immiseration of the proletariat" as Marx famously put it. Then, as this turned out to be empirically false and (following the great compromises between labour and capital) people in fact got it a lot better, Marxists had to argue that poverty had only moved and that any gains were bought at the expenses of people in the Third World. Now, following the rise of China and India, there is suddenly a third reason as to why people have to be kept poor and that reason is spelled the global environment.

What unifies the three explanations is that they take society to be a zero-sum game played out with finite resources. That assumption is just as false today as it was in the 1930's. However, before we take another mojito and disappear into liberal cornucopia we have to remember that even as the possibilities ahead (including space industrialization) may seem endless, we are not quite there yet. For the moment, we are still stuck in a primitive fossil economy, torn by endless wars, and in the midst of so much spatial/temporal chauvinism. It is not at all certain that we will ever learn how to "ride the Juggernaut of modernity" as Giddens memorable expression goes.

Progress is never inevitable nor linear. Only a week ago new dark tales reached us from the Vienna woods as the xenophobic FPÖ/BZÖ took 29% of the vote in the national election. And, what is especially worrying, a third of the country's new young voters (the voting-age has just been lowered to 16) backed them.

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