||Latest update:18 August 1996. This does not necessarily mean
that I ran out of ideas then, there may still be other explanations...
Some of this will eventually be integrated into NETWORK.
Do whatever you like with these ideas: laugh at them, argue against them, push them backwards out of the window, quote them ;-), develop them, transform them, reverse them, ignore them ... but do me a favour and send me a mail if you have reactions which I might conceivably be able to use (or laugh at, argue against etc.)!
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Politics at the turn of the millennium
The public spheres of the Western world have been dazed (and possibly confused) for a few years now. The situation is, perhaps, hopeless but not serious, but it may well turn serious in a short while, and we should make an effort to make it less hopeless. Let me recapitulate:
* The fall of "Communism" and the Berlin Wall did not only remove the West's arch enemy from the face of the earth, but it also removed that wide field of discourse which grew up between the superpowers: Clearly, neither the USA nor the Soviet Union were perfect, but neither of them were total disasters either. In the USA, there was an intoxicating respect for individual initiative and a very honourable tradition of local democracy; while the Soviet Union was a society where certain rights were institutionalised in the state structure; for example, the right to an education. The USA, of course, had a bad criminal record and was in many ways a fragmented society with a serious gap between the haves and the have-nots, while the Soviet Union seriously impeded crucial individual rights. Both countries had lamentable environmental practices and horrible foreign policies. Between them, a great number of alternatives were proposed: environmental, revisionist Marxist, left and right libertarian, strongly ideological social democracy (as in the Swedish model), feminism, pacifism and so on. With the disappearance of one of the poles (the East European one), the space between them has also disappeared. When the only strong alternatives to individualism, capitalism and bourgeois democracy are communitarianism (chiefly in the Anglo-Saxon world) and conservative traditionalism (chiefly in the form of political Islam), it does not seem to be exaggerated to speak of ideological drought. A recent article on this issue, in Norwegian, can be read here.
* The three most publicised wars of the 1990s; the Gulf war, the Balkan war and the Rwandan war, have been difficult ones to interpret -- and they have certainly been difficult to evaluate in moral terms. Although it was easy to depict Saddam Hussein as a good guy, it was not easy to see the Kuwaiti regime that he ousted (a feudal system, parasitic on underpaid and overworked migrant labour) as a morally superior one. The UN 's bombing of Baghdad and, later, imposition of a trade embargo on Iraq would also have been difficult to defend from a humanistic point of view: the victims of these policies have consistently been innocent civilians. -- The Balkan war is also becoming more and more opaque as we learn more about it retrospectively. Why did it begin; what was the nature of its popular support in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia; and who were the bad guys (apart from Karadzic and his crew) and the good guys (apart from the multiculturalist Muslims of Sarajevo)? The Rwandan war I'm not even going to comment on. The point is that unlike previous wars after 1945 -- for example the Korean war, the Vietnam war, the invasion of Afghanistan -- no large critical opinion denounces and defends fighting parties in contemporary wars. What should we, for example, make of the Sri Lankan civil war? Should the Tamils have their state or shouldn't they? Few non-Sri Lankans have strong opinions on the matter. The opacity of contemporary wars adds to the widespread feeling that the world is no longer an intelligible place.
* The spread of real-time communication media (TV satellites, Internet, fax etc.) entails that everything happens everywhere simultaneously during the 1990s. This further means that since there are no time lags, boundaries vanish, and the political space disappears from sight along with other spaces.
* The counterreactions against liberal and radical ideas, often in the form of jeering and wilful parodies, has contributed further to paralysing "the left" in politics. The notion of "political correctness" as misplaced tolerance, naive humanism and utopian liberalism has gained ground dishearteningly quickly, and functions as the Thought Police of the 1990s. Severe, cynical and self-celebrating, established political ideas -- or lack of such, as when politics degenerates into mere administration (slave morality in Nietzsches terms) -- are more hegemonic than ever at a time when the need for alternative visions is, perhaps, stronger than ever before. Stupidity and laziness reigns: it has become "politically correct" to be against ethnic discrimination, snobbish to be against the massive onslaught of competitive sports through the mass media, and naive to favour a just distribution of the world's resources. (To be continued.)
Rethinking productivity, work and (ultimately) the quality of life
For many years, I was convinced that any attempt at evaluating, in absolute terms, the relative merits of different kinds of work was inherently dangerous. Every kind of job or related activity ought to be seen as equally meaningful -- if nothing else, then at least to the persons who carried out the work. Essentially, this point of view is compatible with powerful traditions in moral philosophy, from Kant to Rawls. Nevertheless, this no longer seems a morally or politically defensible point of view. The further our everyday activities are removed from -- dare I use the phrase -- basic needs satisfaction, the more difficult it becomes to assess their merits. It becomes increasingly obvious that a great number of jobs, some of them quite well paid, add little to the well-being of society or to the well-being of the person in question. Why do these jobs exist? The explanation is complicated, and it is not necessary to expound on it here. The point is that these jobs continue to exist partly because they are self-preserving (like genes), partly because it is deemed unhealthy and dangerous (both for the individual and for society) to be out of wagework. Not because they give anyone a more fulfilling life or are necessary for society.
Where does this lead us? Partly to the young Marx' theory of alienation, but also partly beyond the work ethic which Marx so strongly believed in: the idea that human self-realisation is inherently connected to work. Work, leisure, useful versus useless work: all these dimensions must be considered by a future-directed political movement. Poetry is necessary because it makes the world more beautiful, while a lot of bureaucratic work, for example, is only alienating and expensive.
With time on our hands?
Time is a scarce resource, as they say, but lack of time can also be a scarce resource. Look: According the the values on which our societies are built, to be in a continuous hurry is an indication of success and professional fulfillment. In hypermodernity, the current phrase of modernity characterised by real-time communication media, time lags shrink and time slots diminish. More and more information, activity, work, consumption, "self-realisation" (that ludicrous term) and sheer living must be crammed into ever shorter periods. As a result, slowness becomes the scarcest of all resources.
A fundamental critique of contemporary civilisation might do worse than begin with a critical approach to our dominant temporal structures. A short piece in Norwegian which deals with some of these issues can be consulted here.
When the Apple Macintosh was new and young, back in 1984, everything about it was compatible with everything else. Word processors, graphics software, printers (we used ImageWriters back then, remember?), spreadsheets, system extensions and virus protection software. Its capacity was low, but a couple of years later, the SE was introduced, containing an internal hard disk with the impressive capacity of 20 Megabytes. Everything was still compatible with everything else, and system breakdowns were virtually non-existent. Now, a decade later, an ordinary Mac is a PowerMac using an awesome processor, an internal CD-ROM drive and a hard disk with a capacity of around 500 to 800 Mb. Whereas the first Macintosh had a memory of 128 Kb and the SE was delivered with 1 Mb of memory, Power Macs often have 16 Mb of internal memory, frequently doubled by Ram Doubler or similar software. Now to the point: With the first Mac, it took about three minutes from the time you switched it on until you had the standard word processor up and going. With the SE, it took slightly less. With today's PowerMacs, with an average number of control panels and system extensions, it takes longer to get a popular word processor started. The system file takes a lot more space, and the size of software packages has been multiplied many times. Moreover, Macs are more and more resembling DOS PCs in that extensions, programmes and applications no longer are compatible with each other. System breakdowns, error messages and loss of data is becoming more common; the computer is becoming less predictable.
This example is merely an allegory. The increasing complexity of the Macintosh, with its concurrent problems, is analogous to the growing complexity of many other institutions in our culture and society. The logic of bureaucracy is only one, obvious example. Another is the structuring of mass-disseminated information (the more we know, the less we understand; the more items are featured on an evening news programme, the fewer of them do we remember after five minutes); a third is the structure of political decision making. The only issues that are debated publicly are either the trivial token issues (easy to grasp, easy to opine about), or the large, symbolically saturated ones whose complexity is so staggering that nobody pretends to know everything about them, but which have a powerful emotional appeal. As a result, important issues for the future of countries, regions and the world as a whole are left undiscussed.
Small is probably beautiful, as E.F. Schumacher famously argued two decades ago; simple is also beautiful. And efficient. It leaves you in control. It makes it possible yet again to understand the world. There are many simple truths available, but they need to be distilled from the surrounding cacophony.
A few other ideas, to be developed further when I have the time:
How much community is required to have a society?
Foundations for political legitimacy (the fiction of democracy)
Just distribution (beyond capitalism and socialism)
Tolerance, pluralism and a society?
The right to be unhealthy and ugly
Après post: Inversions, obsolescence, reversals, intensifications
The inverse relationship between amount of information and understanding
The positivist idea of intelligence: a metonym for the value hierarchy in this kind of society: measures adaptation and servility, neither more nor less.
Again: do send me a mail if any of this rings a bell.