I've been meaning to write something about Zygmunt Bauman for some time. Partly, because he is the first person I've come across who uses the term "post-modern" in a way I actually find useful in understanding what is going on now. But more, because being well into middle age myself, I find the idea of a man in his late seventies, tucked away in a suburb of Leeds, having a much better idea of what is happening in the world than many much younger commentators and publishing his thoughts about it prolifically, very encouraging. For me, Zygmunt Bauman stands as a beacon of hope, representing the possibility that aging doesn't have to be a process of decline, but can be a period of active, intelligent engagement with a changing world.
In the past I have often used Alford Korzybski's much quoted "A map is not the territory" when I have hit situations where our perceptions or models don't seem to accurately reflect what is going on or what a situation is.
It was only very recently I came across a fuller version of this quote that seems much more interesting; "A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness"
If we think of the world of finance as a kind of map of the world of people creating, making, building, buying, selling, exchanging goods and services I am beginning to wonder how well the map represents the structure of what is going on. I have a growing sense of a disjunction between the two. And, if there is, may be we have to question how we think about finance, economics and the real world of productive human activity.
Let's start with some figures drawn from a number of different sources:
In 1975, about 80% of foreign exchange transactions (where one national currency is exchanged for another) were to conduct business in the real economy and about 20% of transactions in 1975 were speculative. Today, the real economy in foreign exchange transactions is down to 2.5% and 97.5% is now speculative.
At the end of the 1970s, the stock of financial assets in the world's leading economies was worth about the same as the "real" assets that underpinned them; today, financial assets are valued at three times real assets.
And as C.K. Prahalad and Stuart L. Hart write "According to the United Nations, the richest 20 percent in the world accounted for about 70 percent of total income in 1960. In 2000, that figure reached 85 percent. Over the same period, the fraction of income accruing to the poorest 20 percent in the world fell from 2.3 percent to 1.1 percent."
And go on to say:
"At the very top of the world economic pyramid are 75 to 100 million affluent Tier 1 consumers from around the world. This is a cosmopolitan group composed of middle- and upper-income people in developed countries and the few rich elites from the developing world. In the middle of the pyramid, in Tiers 2 and 3, are poor customers in developed nations and the rising middle classes in developing countries.
There are 4 billion people in Tier 4, at the bottom of the pyramid. Their annual per capita income ? based on purchasing power parity in U.S. dollars ? is less than $1,500, the minimum considered necessary to sustain a decent life. For well over a billion people ? roughly one-sixth of humanity ? per capita income is less than $1 per day."
At the same time there is a general consensus that almost every industry is plagued by excess capacity. Nearly five years ago Lester Thurrow wrote, "The world is awash in excess capacity. Take any product, estimate how much the world could make if all of the world's factories were running at capacity, subtract expected 1999 sales, and there is at least one-third excess production capacity for everything."In the following years little seems to have changed.
These fragments look like a pattern to me and show a gap between what our world could be providing for our people and what it actually does. For some, no doubt, the pattern will look like the same old story of the rich and powerful grabbing what they can and undoubtedly there is some truth in that. What I wonder is whether there is another kind of story? Whether the spectacle of the pigs with their snouts in the trough is a transitory phenomenon as we pass from one kind of economic world to another?
Maybe, lurking in this pattern, this very crude map I have drawn there are some other possibilities. At some point the world of finance and the real economy have to reach some kind of equilibrium, anything else in unsustainable. And, maybe the route to that equilibrium involves a shift from thinking about problems and thinking instead about capabilities.
To use a quote I have returned to over and over again for many years:
"The great landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown, when confronted with a client's estate, did not say "what is your problem??, he asked "what are the capabilities of this piece of land?". Optimism, generality, and scope flowed where otherwise all would have been pessimism, specificity, and narrowness. That is what is wrong with conventional wisdom: not enough Capability Browns and too many Problematic Tom, Dicks and Harrys."
Perhaps its time we found a few Capability Browns to look at the territory and to construct some new maps of what they find. Conventional wisdom seems to be heading us in a downward spiral, maybe some unconventional wisdom will help us move in an upward direction.
One of the things that irritates me is when we lose useful concepts when words are misused. Now, despite being a closet pedant, I am quite happy to accept that language evolves and that words do change their meaning. Attempts to freeze language are pointless and futile. More than that, the changing nature of language is a resource for thought. Often tracing the changing meanings of words like "education" or "jobs" is a means of generating new insights or innovations. But, there are words we can ill afford to lose. I am thinking, in particular, of words like "disinterest" and "disinterested", which have come to mean in common usage the same thing as "uninterested".
I was pleased to come across a piece by Terry Eagleton making a similar point. "Disinterestedness, a notion almost universally scorned by the cultural left nowadays, grew up in the 18th century as the opposite not of interests, but of self-interest. It was a weapon to wield against the Hobbesians and possessive individualists. Disinterestedness means not viewing the world from some sublime Olympian height, but a kind of compassion or fellow-feeling. It means trying to feel your way imaginatively into the experience of another, sharing their delight and sorrow without thinking of oneself."
Since we seem to live in a time when "everyone for themselves" is proclaimed as a rational way of being, the notion of disinterestedness may be an important counter. Putting ourselves in the place of the other may modify our behaviour for the good. Our inability to do so certainly enables brutalities we might otherwise reject.
But, equally, the hard won human ability to distance ourselves from what we want to be the case, to a disinterested assessment of the realities of a situation, is crucial to effective action in the world. The value of such a stance has been under attack for something like the last thirty years. As Eagelton writes, "Postmodernism rejects the idea of there being firm foundations to social life. 'Nothing we do,' writes Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'can be defended absolutely and finally,' a statement that may be taken as a keynote of much modern thought. In a brutally fundamentalist era, this sense of the provisional nature of all our ideas - one central to post-structuralism and postmodernism - is deeply salutary. Whatever the blind spots and prejudices of these theories, they pale in comparison with the lethal self-righteousness of the fundamentalist."
Never-the-less, while we may recognise that the foundations of a disinterested assessment may be provisional and tentative, the failure to base our actions on such an assessment can lead us to disasters with profound human consequences. To take a contemporary example, had the governments of US and UK made a more disinterested assessment of the situation in Iraq, instead of being driven by some "sincere" beliefs, we might have had a happier outcome than now looks likely for both the Iraqi people and ourselves.