Thursday, September 2, 2010

By the numbers

Judt, whose book begins with the words ‘Something is
profoundly wrong with the way we live today,’ is
particularly strong on ‘economism’—the reduction and
compression of virtually all political debate to matters
of profit and loss, growth and gain. The way we live now
is essentially by the numbers. It has become very
difficult, if not impossible, in current conditions to
sustain any kind of argument about, say, the care of the
aged or early-childhood education without being forced
back onto purely financial calculation (and made to feel
as though you are naive and woolly-headed if you don't
think purely in dollars and cents). This, in a large sense,
illustrates the atrophy of our conception of the state and
the triumphalism of the ‘market.’ But it is not, Judt says,
an instinctive human condition; there was a time when
we ordered our lives differently, and were no worse for it.
Taking my cue from him, I believe that one of the most
fundamental challenges for the left is to confront the
blatant and insidious permutations of economism, and
thus shift the ground of debate from ‘Can we afford it?’ in
a narrow accounting sense to ‘Can we not afford it?’ in a
fully contextualized ecological sense (which is also an
economic approach in the truest sense of the word).
A very challengeable recent example would be the report
of the Welfare Working Group, which seems to have
emerged from a hermetically sealed space
uncontaminated by the real world in which people work
and live. It also means addressing the role of the state,
which, like it or not, remains the best counter to the power
of globalized capitalism, because, as Judt says, it embodies
notions of collective trust, communal identity and social
cooperation that no 'market' will ever truly reflect or
answer to.

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