Over at Project Syndicate: Which Thinkers Will Define Our Future?: BERKELEY – Several years ago, it occurred to me that social scientists today are all standing on the shoulders of giants like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim.
One thing they all have in common is that their primary focus was on the social, political, and economic makeup of the Western European world between 1450 and 1900. Which is to say, they provide an intellectual toolkit for looking at, say, the Western world of 1840, but not necessarily the Western world of 2016. What will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What canon – written today or still forthcoming – will those who end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had used when they started them in the late 2010s? Read MOAR at Project Syndicate
Several years ago I had a thought: it seemed to me that the social sciences we're still standing on the shoulders of giants—thinkers like Niccolo Machiavelli, John Locke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and company. You can indeed see far when you stand on the shoulders of a giant. But, unless you adopt a twisty and undignified posture , you see best only in the direction that the giant is looking. And the giants of social science were all looking at the Western European world from 1450 to 1900--looking at its orders and disorders, its structures and changes, and its problems and proposed solutions.
We will very shortly be trying to understand the world of the second fifth of the 21st century. Attempting to do so using an intellectual toolkit that is really focused on 1840 or so seems hazardous. So I asked myself: what will be taught in the social theory courses of, say, 2070? What authors and what toolkits--written today or still unwritten—will those who will end their careers in the 2070s wish that they had focused on when they started their careers in the late 2010s? I started a file folder: "The Social Theory of the Late 21st Century". I filled it with things when I found something I thought had purchase on something likely to be an important problem over the next couple of generations. I put things in. I took things out. I looked at the folder again last week. The bulk of it consisted of the writings of three people: Alexis to Tocqueville, who wrote in the 1830s and 1840s; John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in the 1920s and 1930s; and Karl Polanyi, who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s.
Now the fact that I appear to think that the cutting-edge social theory of the 2070s will then be composed of books between 125 (Polanyi’s The Great Transformation) and 235 (Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) may simply be a consequence of my own stupidities and biases. But maybe, just maybe, there is something more here.
John Maynard Keynes’s central concerns as he wrote in the 1920s and 1930s were five:
- The fragility of our collective prosperity.
- The grave tensions between the demons of nationalism and the rootless cosmopolite attitudes needed to support a peaceful and prosperous global society.
- The need to figure out how to organize our lives and utilize our prosperity to create a world fit for humans to live good lives in.
- The bankruptcy of the ideological nostrums—laissez-faire, spontaneous order, collective cooperation, socialist command-and-control—with which his world was faced.
- The delicate and technocratic problems of running a prosperous economy—and the economic, moral, and political disasters that would follow from failing to do so.
But after World War II the problems that had spurred Keynes’s concerns faded into the background. The Thirty Glorious Years after World War II allowed some to believe that they were permanently—rather than temporarily—solved. The subsequent inflation of the 1970s could be blamed on social democratic overreach, and the claim that the Thatcher-Reagan correction had been salutary and effective was highly credible to the moneyed classes that prospered thereafter, and to their tame ideologists who dominated the 1980-2010 public sphere.
But today the problems that had spurred Keynes’s concerns are back.
Karl Polanyi’s central concerns writing in the 1930s and 1940s was that a market society could indeed produce a great deal of material prosperity, but it did so by making people and the fabric of their lives puppets and playthings of mindless market forces, and that people really did not like that. The task was to grasp the prosperity that came with a market economy without suffering the risks of poverty, the destructions of enterprise, and the erosion of community and expectations that came with a market society. If the modern bourgeois order failed at this task, Polanyi warned, fascist and communist authoritarian or totalitarian forces would benefit.
Like Keynes’s problems, Polanyi’s closely-related problems faded into the background for the Thirty Glorious Years immediately after World War II. And in the subsequent Neoliberal Age the argument that the prosperity of a market society was great and worth the price paid was, again, highly credible to the moneyed class and to their tame ideologists.
But today the problems that had spurred Polanyi’s concerns are back.
Alexis de Tocqueville’s central concerns writing in the 1830s and 1840s were about the consequences of the destruction of caste—the big castes of supposedly Frankish nobles of the sword and supposedly Gallo-Roman villeins, bourgeois, and nobles of the robe; and all the little castes with all their little privileges and liberties that gave them autonomy and a measure of control over their lives—and that came, of course, with obligations attached that grew as social status declined. Tocqueville saw this ordered world of societal orders being replaced by societal democracy and formal social equality—in which everyone would be equally free, but would also be at the mercy of society. No privileges or liberties would protect you if you failed to find a counterparty in the market, or ran afoul of the tyranny of the majority, or simply sought some form of direction as you tried to decide who you were supposed to be.
Tocqueville’s concerns never went away. But in Tocqueville’s world the destruction of caste was partial only: Tocqueville wrote for white men who knew their nationality, knew what those caste memberships meant, and knew what privileges they brought. Now, however, the destruction of caste and caste privilege is taking another step forward. Who, we all now ask, are the inhabitants of Birmingham? And we are trying to deal with it and grasp the opportunities for human betterment thereby created.
So my answer is: No, we have not resolved the concerns that spurred Tocqueville, Keynes, and Polanyi to think and write. We and our successors face their problems and opportunities in a transformed and reshaped form. Mark Twain said that history rhymes. And right now it looks as though the rhyme scheme is very strict.
- Polanyi: The Great Transformation
- Tocqueville: Democracy in America