Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rheinisches Schwarzbrot

Taking that ICE 654 from Berlin at 06.50 on a Saturday morning. But this time past Wuppertal and instead all the way to Bonn for a few days on the Rhine celebrating that dad is turning sixty. A special feeling to be back travelling together all of us in the family, it must have been four years ago or something since we did anything like this.

A slow upstream cruise with Köln-Düsseldorfer. A day with autumn leaf colours in Heidelberg and some good cheese on the train from Mainz. And now, already back in Gothenburg, trying to re-accelerate and finish all that has to be done before I can leave for California on 4 November. Fleeing moments but the next days will be somewhat more bearable now when we are equipped with half a suitcase of German bread...

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The tale of poverty

In my research I have occasionally made the controversial claim that part of the “resistance” against a just world order is due to the belief that it would mean a “levelling out” of our economic wealth. Closely associated to this view is the idea that we in the industrial countries are rich today because other people in the developing world are poor. In many ways these beliefs reflect a traditional pre-modern understanding of poverty that has been, if not before, thoroughly falsified by the experience of welfare capitalism. To illustrate why this is so we can begin with imagining a traditional agrarian economy. In such a setting it may be true that the rich benefit, at least in a material sense, from having a large class of destitute people who carry out all the hard work necessary to maintain society. But as soon as we move forward in history, the introduction of labour-saving devices and the expansion of the monetary economy mean that the rich have a lot more to gain from growing aggregated purchase power. Continuous productivity gains in fact begin to depend on that more and more people become skilled and also become able to buy all the goods that are produced. By the advent of industrialism, this feedback loop starts to accelerate dramatically as mass production sets in. At this point, capital owners realize that without consumers, the massive productive capacity of their industries is not of much use.

Yet today, in a sense of historical déjà-vu, we are again faced with the belief that it is necessary to keep people poor in order for the economy to function. The argument normally goes that without a constant flow of cheap natural resources and the underpaid work carried out in for instance textiles industries, the world economy would come to a halt. What is missing here is of course the other side of the coin, namely what additional purchase power that all these (previously) poor people would bring to the market. Since economics by definition is a plus-sum game, this would simply mean that all our boats would rise. Most likely, a lot of menial work would then be priced out of the market since no one would be willing to carry it out, yet this should come as a relief and not a threat since it would leave more room for automation.

Fantastic as this tale may sound, I believe that it is a pretty accurate description of what has already happened in many parts of the world. Yet, as you are all aware, the real caveat remains. If the world were to see, and data suggest that it is in fact seeing, such an unprecedented rise in living standards, it would put an enormous strain on the natural environment, possibly unleashing cataclysmic environmental changes. While maybe temporarily halted by the current deep economic recession, some analysts think that we have already missed the turn to a low-emissions path and that the lofty promise of mainstream sustainable development, that poverty reduction would automatically lead to less environmental degradation, has categorically turned sour.

To overcome this apparent trap, and again show why the world does not “need” poor people but rather transformative progressive politics, we urgently need breakthrough innovations capable of challenging the Neo-Malthusian logic prevalent in much contemporary Green thinking.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Shrill trumpets

Returning home after a long tedious day of work at the library. Meanwhile the blogosphere is boiling with activity after the Swedish xenophobic party Sverigedemokraterna was given a prime media outlet in the form of an opinion piece in Aftonbladet. Traditionally, the leading media has chosen to ignore rather than to engage in debate with these ominous undercurrents in the Swedish society.

So, what do they say when they are given the chance? In a surprisingly academic yet shrill tone, their party leader Jimmie Åkesson trumpets that Sweden is faced with its greatest threat since the Second World War and that that threat is spelled ISLAM. While most of it can be dismissed out of hand (as the prospects of “sharia law” replacing Swedish law any time soon), Åkesson’s article offers an interesting panorama of his strange universe of ideas. Borrowing the terminology of the British neo-reactionary Roger Scruton and his notion of “oikophobia” (as in an unhealthy rejection of one’s own culture), Åkesson writes:

“One of the many inherent paradoxes of multiculturalism is that, despite its universalistic aspirations, it remains a mono-cultural phenomenon that only has found fertile ground in the post-modern oikophobic West. By basing its views solely on Western experiences it sees the West as having attained a higher stage of development that the rest of the world has yet to reach. This is also the reason why the power elites of today are so totally blind for the dangers of Islam and Islamization. [...] one seems to think that Muslims want nothing more than adjusting to a Western way of life [...] this is also why [the multiculturalists] think that they will be able to tame Islam in the same they way that they were able to tame the European Christianity and confine it to the private sphere” (my translation)

Though only an excerpt it is difficult to know where to begin disentangling this conceptual confusion. But to start somewhere it is interesting to note that Åkesson seems to view multiculturalism as having “universalistic aspirations”, something I think most multiculturalists would strongly object to. Also, most defenders of multiculturalism are not at all convinced that Islam or any other religion will cease existing as a public force, this is rather the reason why they argue the value of sustaining co-existing, yet distinct, cultures.

Beyond these easy first misconceptions it is not difficult to recognize that part of the confusion Åkesson experiences is indeed due to the ambiguous relationship to the modern project that multiculturalist thinkers tend to exhibit. By doubting the emancipatoric force of the Enlightenment, and with it the cosmopolitan vision of humanity one day being able to constitute itself as “humanity”, room is given to precisely these kinds of murky views. At the same time, too often has the “human” been nothing but the pseudo-universalism of the privileged few and over-generalizations of Western experiences. That observation however does not invalidate the prospects of, in the future, being able to raise the contingent rationality of a Eurocentric Enlightenment into a new, truly global Enlightenment. And if we believe in that bright future we have to ask ourselves how we can heal the wounds that give rise to people like Åkesson, how we can transcend the deep class divisions that now leave the difficult task of integrating immigrants to those already marginalized while the upper classes are busy exoticizing ethnic food and sending their kids off to “free schools”? Only be reaffirming our allegiance to the founding values of the Enlightenment can we counter these trends and start building a truly universal civilization of mankind.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The planetary dimension

A cold Wednesday morning, I go running for 10 km in the nearby woods, at a distance I can hear the workers and their machines in the port. This is where Sweden ends to the West.

Also this morning I finished a first draft design for the new CCS-Politics website, as often it was quite liberating to do something hands-on instead of just thinking in the abstract. Of course, there is no permanent escape, today Dagens Nyheter had yet another piece by Christer Sanne on “Living without growth”.

What to say? Maybe that, as much as I agree with some of his basic ideas (for instance the need to shift consumption from the private to the public), the essay obviously fails to understand the global dynamics at stake. Despite its explicit concern with the “poor countries”, it does not at all ask what the responsibilities of the rich world are, except than maybe to simply stop consuming. Instead we should ask ourselves what we productively could contribute with that would fundamentally redefine the “sustainability equation”. Sensible as the language of “one-planet-living” may sound at first, it clearly points in the wrong direction: instead of returning to a romanticized idea of “nature” we should try to de-couple ourselves from that nature and seek to restore the integrity of the natural world. Instead of reducing working hours, we need to intensify our effort in the decades ahead. Maybe in a hundred years we will indeed be the Keynesian grandchildren that Sanne talks about in his book, but for now we certainly have our work cut out for us.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Lillsjödal

Muddy fields, a cold lake that has already forgotten those unrelenting summer afternoons, and all these remarkable people who represent the highest and the lowest in us all.

Fragment (consider revising).

Even Word tells me that my thoughts are fragmentary. But it is not like if I could easily synthesize everything into one simple story; it is not like teaching, that I can just force linearity and attention. There is no authority to invoke; I am simply alone here and there is really no silence to hide in. Friends who have followed me since I was seven years old, what can I say that would tell them that something is substantially new and different? How could I possibly prevent falling into those familiar patterns?

Sauna-bathing in that lake despite my cold, Morrissey on the iTunes-playlist, and all these young professionals.

Yesterday in Lund, someone told me that it was a relief then she read my Facebook-update some weeks ago that I had found a pitcher with mojito and “was now crazy drunk”. That she saw it as a hole in the armour, a comfort that I was just as human as she. Undoubtedly an eye-opener, that people can at all think of me as being that hard and unyielding otherwise. Maybe it is a thing about getting older, that one has to revise one’s self-perception.

//

3 a.m.

Tomorrow I have to return the rental car before noon and then work.