Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 57

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 56
01/05/2024

The inexplicable poverty of modern political reflection

An unexpected consequence of modernity has been the consistently weak level of insight stemming from political philosophy during the last hundred years.  There have been few political philosophers of any stature since Karl Marx: and his reputation, let’s remember, was partly built on his brazen misuse of the word ‘exploitation’…. one which conflated ‘profit’ with worker ‘exploitation’. An anglophone thinker who approached Marx in stature (and who managed to see through Marxism) was George Orwell. But his reputation has suffered recently from the unexpected discovery that he behaved very badly towards his wife.    

Socialism was, for many years, an idealistic political concept based on the premise that centrally controlled economies would be much fairer than so-called ‘capitalist’ economies.  However the collapse of the USSR vividly brought home to most intelligent people the overlooked truth that centrally controlled economies are prone to stagnate, to become dirigiste,  ineffectual and tyrannical.  Socialism was a notion incubated in past, more principled, times when religion was still taken very seriously, and there were lots of dedicated, rigorous, conscientious people around.  It is a consequence of the decay and demoralisation of the West, that there are nowhere nearly enough people of this kind around today to run nationalised businesses (in addition to the need to find enough reliable people to run the state). The  tough-minded, incorruptible, public-spirited people needed to run a socialist economy have become, in effect, extinct.

This doesn’t mean that capitalism is crisis-free or hunky-dory. It simply means that the problem of reforming and re-moralising capitalism is much more complicated, deep seated and conceptually difficult than it appeared to be. 

Actually the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘the capitalist system’ are quite woolly: because they refer to the kind of conditions which obtain if firms and agencies are able freely to negotiate commercial deals. What results from this vast open-ended mass of autonomous negotiation is obviously not a ‘system’ of any kind. It has none of the regular, structural, regimented qualities of a ‘system’. ‘Autonomous, unpredictable change’ might be a better description.

The free market, though, can easily degenerate into becoming a breeding ground for craven materialism (greed), profiteering, fraud, scamming and exploitation.

The very ‘openness’ of free markets leaves them vulnerable to such predatory evils. This poses a problem, because the last thing ordinary citizens want, is to be in constant danger of being ripped-off .

Initially the free market was seen as a good way to harness personal aspiration to the needs of the community. Businesses were competing to provide products and services. They certainly wouldn’t deliberately cheat the customer, because that would tarnish their reputation. Those who provided the best service at the best price would succeed, and the profit they made as a result could be interpreted as the appropriate reward for their outstanding service.

This idealised way of looking at the free market, though, has long-since disappeared. Why?  What are the conditions which have changed the word ‘profit’ from a praise word into a source of concern?

The most likely explanation is that quite a lot of businesses have slipped unconsciously into bad habits,  becoming less concerned with good ethics, and more hell-bent on maximising their profits, whether by fair methods or foul. 

A situation has gradually evolved in which the social unacceptability of this slippage has been tacitly forgotten and treated as the norm.

If so, the gist of the problem surrounding capitalism, may be a taken-for-granted dearth of rigorous ethics. Future shock may be part of the story. The factors which have led to such a serious desensitisation, though, obviously include the fact that a glamorous materialistic social hierarchy has established itself, which, to a degree, glorifies opulence. This may have happened because reasoning surrounding personal and social ethics has gone AWOL for a very long time. That this opulence motif may be harmful to community well-being and social justice is widely acknowledged, but somehow it has been upstaged by toothless politics, PR, Ads, social media and a vacuum of responsibility.

The chief factor dumbing-down and desensitizing the masses is undoubtedly the adoption of valuefree ‘education’, a contradiction in terms, because education means the transmission of society’s values to the young, and this isn’t going to happen when values of all kinds are being deliberately left outside the classroom door. What is likely to happen if WW3 does not intervene, is a gradual return to mass poverty, caused by the almost total dysfunctionality of this valuefree education. This might put conspicuous consumption under a cloud, and hence eventually restore the visible need for more responsible, unprovocative social behaviour among the affluent classes.

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CHRISTOPHER ORMELL 3rd June 2024