22 Ideas to Fix the World: Conversations with the World’s Foremost Thinkers

22 Ideas to Fix the World: Conversations with the World’s Foremost Thinkers

Piotr Dutkiewicz and Richard Sakwa (eds.)

New York University Press, New York & London, 2014; © World Public Forum

The book is produced in the frames of World Public Forum “Dialogue of Civilizations” and the Social Science Research Council joint research project. It will be available in August 2013.

The volume brings together 23 leading thinkers (one of the conversations was with two scholars), encompassing economists, political activists, environmentalists, experts in social and public policy, specialists on the politics of divided communities, political philosophers and experts on the structure of the international system. They were in conversation with 19 different interlocutors. Most of the discussions took place in 2012, and thus reflect world history at a particular point, four years into the most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The conversations also reveal the contours of the associated political crisis, in which old forms of political management and accustomed notions of political community are being challenged as seldom before.

The conversations clearly demonstrate that the contemporary crisis is one of the reproduction of social forms and ideas, if not of the social and environmental bases for the sustainable development of humanity itself. This comes out explicitly in the conversation between Craig Calhoun and Ivan Krause but is evident throughout the others. This brief document builds on the Conclusion to the book to draw out some of the key elements of this multiple crisis of reproduction.

The first is a crisis of the reproduction of the future. As Ivan Krastev notes, time horizons in the postcommunist era are shortened, since the end of communist utopianism was accompanied by the denigration of all progressive visions of the future. It is quite understandable why this has occurred, since the communist revolutions everywhere were accompanied by the sacrifice of the present on the altar of the future, with whole peoples destroyed in the cause of the implementation of future-oriented projects. The burden of expectation fell on the future, thus apparently absolving the ruling elites of ethical responsibility today. However, the rejection of this classically Leninist trope has not been accompanied by the assumption of greater weight by the present. What Milan Kundera called “the unbearable lightness of being” in communist Czechoslovakia has been perpetuated in new ways. This is captured in part by Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of living in an “interregnum,” where the rules and conventions of one social order no longer apply to the next, and instead permanent and accelerated change, what he calls “liquid modernity,” becomes characteristic of the age.

Although the nature of historical time has changed and we now live in an apparently postideological age, in practice contemporary historical time shares many qualities with the previous era. Instead of aspirations being projected on the future, today there is greater emphasis on the past, accompanied by a greater horizontal burden of expectation on spatial visions of the future. The slogan “Back to Europe” after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 itself became a political project, later reinforced by aspirations (mostly successful) to join the European Union and NATO. Such a spatialized vision could have no place in most of the post-Soviet world. Where it was pursued, as in Georgia, it provoked in 2008 the most dangerous of all conflicts in the post–cold war era. Struggles over energy resources are also taking spatialized forms, as conflicts over various islands in East Asia demonstrate. The end of the future has been accompanied by the restoration of geography as a political project, resulting in the accentuation of geopolitical conflicts.

The second crisis focuses on problems associated with the reproduction of capitalism itself. Given the importance of the topic, we devote a large part of the book to discussion of the contours of the economic crisis, as well as the crisis of economics and of the social forms associated with the present economic order. Several leading economists and political economists have provided us with in-depth analysis of this in various conversations in this book, so here I will limit myself to just a few comments. For Joseph Stiglitz, part of the problem is the development of economics as an academic discipline. This theme is reflected in several other conversations, which in general hold that that the key feature of the Great Recession is the failure of the regulatory regime of what used to be called “late capitalism.” In other words, the collapse of the organized communist alternative in 1989–91 had been prefigured by a long decline in belief in the efficacy of state action. There was plenty of evidence to suggest that nationalized industries and heavy-handed government interventionism could lead to deleterious consequences (above all, expansive bureaucracies and irresponsible laborism), accompanied in some states by the creation of a whole service class parasitic on the regulatory regime itself. However, exponents of unbridled neoliberalism fell into an equally naïve trap: the belief that markets, freed from state fetters, would be able to generate self-sustaining and self-correcting mechanisms. The Great Recession is a vivid reminder that there can be market failure just as much as state failure.

It is not clear what will be the political consequences of the relative decline of Western economic power. We do not need to indulge in exaggerated fantasies of American “declinism” to note that the undisputed status of the United States as the world’s no. 1 military, political, and economic superpower will come to an end in the not too distant future, and probably sooner than it thinks. Such a global shift in economic weight will undoubtedly be accompanied by demands for power redistribution at the global level as those countries that had formerly been in the “periphery” insist on advancing their concerns. The old Anglo-American hegemony will be challenged as never before, as conventional interpretations of the leadership of “the West” and its associated ideological superstructure, which today takes the form of neoliberalism, will no longer be able to take its preeminence for granted. Capitalism, as Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan note, is a form of power; only if there can be some fresh thinking, they argue, on the relationship between the market and the state can the strains of the present system be overcome.

For Immanuel Wallerstein, this has been a long-term process with profound ideological consequences. In the latest volume of his magisterial sequence analyzing the capitalist world-system, Wallerstein argues that “centrist liberalism” was able to absorb its rivals spawned in the traumas of the industrial and French revolutions, notably conservatism and radicalism, to become the sprawling great “political meta-strategy” of our times. Over the past two centuries liberalism has fended off challenges from the left and the right, while working constantly to find ways to reconcile capitalism with the modern state. Centrist liberalism has become the universal legitimating “geoculture” of our epoch, reflected in the triumphal “end of history” ideas at communism’s fall, to enjoy an almost unchallenged hegemony today.3 The state has certainly become hospitable to capitalism, but it now seems to deal only with the residual tasks—training the workforce and dealing with welfare issues—while the economic system gets on with creating wealth and is to be meddled with only at the risk of dire consequences. Several of our contributors stress the need to rethink the role of the state in conditions of contemporary capitalism; others note that this eviscerated representation of modern society, in which humans are reduced to workers and consumers (if the population is required at all), is hardly a viable basis to create a dynamic community. As Muhammad Yunus argues, most economics excludes the possibility of humans being selfless and seeking nonfinancial gain from business and, conversely, that charitable work, by ignoring financial gain, can lack sustainability or create dependency among its recipients. He proposes instead a model of social business that uses the market system to deliver solutions to social ills.  Implicit in much of this argument is that a return to metaphysics, the concerns of the spirit, is essential to balance the hypereconomization of contemporary social being.

This brings us to the third dimension, the reproduction of society itself. Several of the conversations bring up problems associated with the nature and role of the welfare state, of education, health care, and other mechanisms whereby a modern society seeks to reproduce itself in a healthy and competitive manner. The Great Recession is beginning to prove a defining turning point, with a retreat from state provision under the pressure of the perceived and in some cases the actual need for budget cuts. This can be seen at its most extreme in Greece, but the phenomenon in developed countries is more widespread. The means of reproduction are in crisis as well as the forms. In response, in developing societies there is a new awareness of the need to focus on “human development” as the corollary of entering the international division of labor. China is now devoting more resources to consumption, but at the same time its educational system is adapting to the challenges of an internationally competitive system. This is happening when the developed world is beginning to dismantle some of its achievements. State-supported welfare, education, and health care systems have delivered enormous public goods, but they have not delivered profits to the private sector, and it is for this reason that they are now being opened up to for-profit providers, even though there is no sustained evidence that the quality of universal provision will be enhanced. If we are to believe the argument advanced by Naomi Klein, corporations are seizing the opportunity created by the Great Recession to open up whole new swaths of social life to the market principle.

A fourth dimension of the conversations was the debate over how the institutions of global governance need to adapt to the new challenges. Although there have been fundamental changes in the world economy and polity, the institutions of global governance remain frozen in the mid-twentieth century. The Bretton Woods system remains in operation (notably in the form of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), and there is a clear demand for a shift in voting rights and leadership selection to reflect the growing power and responsibility of the global South. Clearly the existing convention that the head of the World Bank should be an American and the head of the IMF a European has outlived its purpose. There is also a greater demand for these institutions, in one way or another, to limit the world of offshore tax havens.5 The siphoning of revenues offshore and the commensurate tax minimization starve public services of resources. The United Nations system remain at the heart of global governance, yet the status of the five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) is clearly no longer congruent with the real balance of power in the world today. Most reform ideas focus on the idea of a single European Union seat and perhaps an enlargement of the permanent members with the inclusion of countries such as Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa. Clearly the old format of the G8 can offer little substance to the resolution of global problems, hence the creation of the G20 in the wake of the onset of the Great Recession in 2008.

Whatever shape reform of the international governance system may take, it is clear that the strategic issue is to find some way to give voice to rising economic and political actors. This will necessarily lead to the diminution of the voice of the old imperial powers; after their clear abuse of the system in the 2000s (notably over the invasion of Iraq), few can doubt that reform is greatly overdue. Clearly the notion of global government is far-fetched at the present stage of planetary development. The 192 states represented in the United Nations are not likely soon to give up their sovereignty for some supranational commission on a global scale. This only places yet more pressure on devising more effective institutions of global governance, in a system that can encompass the enhanced needs of the rising powers of the South while preventing the introduction of the tyranny of the majority. Ultimately all this must be directed at preventing a return to the great power conflicts that bedeviled Europe up to the “great catharsis” of 1939–45.

Fifth, several conversations either explicitly or implicitly discussed the “end of the future,” and with that the crisis in the reproduction of alternatives. This could be designated a crisis of solutions. We seem to lack a language, let alone the institutions, to resist the encroachments of the private sector in spheres that in the past had operated according to a different logic, above all based on ideas of service, duty, and the public good. The old “solidarity” institutions, such as trade unions and even political parties, are in clear decline; in their place inchoate forms of social activism, often using new forms of social communication (Twitter, Facebook), have only partially been able to compensate. The Occupy movement has evolved from its early manifestations as Occupy Wall Street and has engaged in new forms of mutual aid, notably in Occupy Sandy to help those who suffered the effects of the hurricane in 2012. Occupy Our Homes has taken on a rather more radical edge, challenging the systemic failures leading to bank foreclosures, homelessness, and bank-owned empty houses. In Britain, U.K. Uncut has pursued tax dodgers and looks to find alternatives to austerity policies. These policies, as suggested earlier, are being used to change the very basis of the traditional welfare social contract, to foster marketization and profiteering.

Restless change is a characteristic of modernity, and while some populist and traditionalist movements seek to restore some golden age, the challenge for radical movements of critique and engagement is to build new forms of solidarity that respond to the current needs of society. It is no good reproducing old social forms just for the sake of doing so; instead only new social movements that engage with the real challenges of the present and forge a convincing vision of the future will be able to shape remedies for us all. The fundamental challenge is to find new ways of institutionalizing altruism. Already millions devote their time to philanthropic and charitable work, but at the local and indeed national level this lacks the ability to challenge the existing hierarchy of power.

There are numerous other facets of the contemporary crisis of reproduction of existing social forms. One of the most significant is the possible failure of the European Union to sustain itself other than as a free market area. The challenges facing the EU are well known, notably the lack of solidarity in evidence between northern and southern members of the eurozone. Its old model of social welfarism was already transformed by the Lisbon agenda to create more flexible and competitive labor markets. Its original core purpose as a peace project was challenged as it became little more than a different form of expression of the Western hegemonic system, and has thus been unable to extend the zone of peace farther east, beyond the old Soviet borders. Its peacemaking impetus is certainly far from exhausted, and in the Balkans the continued accession agenda means that its transformative power remains undiminished. This may be the natural limit of the Union, and dreams of encompassing Turkey, some post-Soviet states, and even countries in the South have been placed on indefinite hold. Nevertheless, for Bauman and many others, the EU remains the source of inspiration, leaving open the possibility of re-creating a social state and zone of solidarity.

We envisaged these conversations as a way of elucidating the dimensions of the current crisis, but we were also intent on their offering ideas about remedies. Plenty of general ideas have emerged, accompanied by some very specific proposals. What is remarkable is the unanimity that only evolutionary and inclusive approaches can work to counter the exclusive logic of contemporary capitalism and the wild-eyed revolutionism of earlier years. Notably Ha-Joon Chang insists that only a pragmatic gradualism can create the foundations for a more sustainable economic system. The sentiment is echoed by Peter Katzenstein, who also tempers exaggerated predictions about China’s rise and the beneficial effects of the European Union. He rejects rather too solidified notions of “crisis” or the “market” and instead posits a series of complex interactions between actors. Mike Davis insists that solutions have a spatial dimension, above all the “humanizing” of urban spaces. A persistent theme is the way that poverty and inequality, in incomes but also in access to opportunities for personal development, exacerbate existing divisions and act as brakes on economic development. Evolutionary approaches can be radical, but for that they need to be based on sustained critique of the present order.

One of the major challenges facing even traditionally homogeneous societies is increasing national diversity. One of the key responses since the 1960s, certainly in the Anglo-Saxon world, has been multiculturalism. It is important to stress that multiculturalism is not a single policy response but more of a general approach based on accommodation and flexible adaptation to changing needs. Undoubtedly there have been failings, above all in permitting a degree of ethnic ghettoization, as in some northern British cities. For this reason the idea has come under severe criticism in recent years, above all for its putative deleterious effect on social coherence. The right perceives multiculturalism as destructive to the rights of the dominant culture; the left perceives it as undermining other forms of solidarity, above all based on class. Will Kymlicka argues that the recognition of cultural diversity does not entail essentializing group characteristics but instead allows the dynamic development of new communities based on a range of national experiences. His stress on mutual understanding rather than what can be a condescending tolerance helps us out of the impasse that many societies have driven themselves into in dealing with rapidly diversifying agendas, based not only on rights but also on obligations to broader communities.

One of the themes that comes out clearly in these conversations is the emergence of what can be called multiculturalism on the global scale. The era of colonialism is now long gone, and with increasing confidence the two hundred–strong world community of nations each wishes to make its contribution to global politics and development. Jiemian Yang certainly makes this point in regard to China, but so too does the great Kazakh writer and social activist Olzhas Suleimenov. A veteran of the international peace movement in the late Soviet years, he remains committed to the cause of international peace. This can be achieved only through genuine dialogue, and the philosophical grounds for such a discourse are outlined by Fred Dallmayr. The argument is taken further by Vladimir Yakunin, who emphasizes the need to invert the old pyramid, in which socioeconomic factors took priority; instead a new hierarchy needs to be instated in which humanity’s spiritual needs are given due weight. Only on that basis can a genuine dialogue between nations and civilizations take place.

This book has not provided any easy ready-made remedies, but it has pointed out how we can begin to contribute to the dialogue and understanding without which any remedy is meaningless. To that degree, the book we hope will succeed in its task.

You are most welcome to buy the book following this link.