Friday, 25 November 2011

Why the world is not changing

 Review of The Return of the Public by Dan Hind
Part One

In the summer a book was published about something that didn’t happen. The Strange Non-Death of Neo-liberalism concerned an earthquake that never occurred.

Following the 2007-? economic crash, the fundamentals of an entire economic system should have been coldly reappraised. Instead, corporations still funded and lobbied political parties for favoured treatment, banks were showered with taxpayer billions which they then didn’t lend, and supply-side fantasies that lower corporate taxes could revive economic growth were clung to with an almost touching disregard for actual evidence.

But this adherence to the pieties of the past, while everything underneath had changed, was not restricted to boardrooms and ministerial office suites. There was no marked shift among the general population either. In November, The Guardian newspaper reported that, still the most popular explanation for the economic downturn was debt racked up by the last Labour government.

In the metaphor of one economist, blaming the government for the current capitalist economic depression is about as sensible as blaming your neighbour’s dog.

It’s as if a person whose entire family is killed in a car crash starts taking it out on traffic wardens.

Dan Hind’s book, The Return of the Public, is about why this urgent need to transform the world or even to reform it, isn’t happening. Its argument is similar to one put by Noam Chomsky. Before you can change the world, you have to understand it.

Here is Dan Hind speaking:

For the mass of people in Anglo-American society, the world is not understood. Hind does not lapse into the familiar shrugging lament that most people are only interested in celebrities and just can’t be persuaded to take an interest in more important things.

His argument is different and genuinely radical in its implications. There once was a time when a person could make sense of the world through conversations and the ordinary interactions of everyday life. That time is past. Now, in order to understand the world around them, people are dependent on others – other institutions – to report events and provide explanations for why they happen.

Public opinion is not the result of millions of people autonomously establishing how the world works. Public opinion is created. And the organisations that create public opinion, media organisations private and public, the sources that the public get their opinions from, uninform and misinform in equal measure. The result is that the pre-condition for changing the world, grasping what it is really like, is not there.

“Efforts are reform or transformation stand or fall on the basis of the picture that most people carry in their heads about what is possible, necessary and just,” says Hind.

We have been told, he says, a generation of fairy tales. And sleeping beauty has not woken up yet.

One example Hind gives, is the economic crisis, which gets more serious by the week. For most people, in the words of Bank of England governor Mervyn King, it “seemed to come out of a clear blue sky”.

Of course, it didn’t just fall out of the sky. The conditions were building for years, decades even. But in order to know this, you would have to have read, for example, the Marxist-inspired Monthly Review, where dissident economists, like Harry Shutt and Richard Wolff, were arguing that trouble was brewing, that growth rates had slowed, and that debt was filling in for the role that should have been played by rising incomes.

But the mainstream media, the media on which most people are reliant for the picture of the world that they carry in their heads, said nothing was wrong. For example, David Lereah, chief executive of the National Association of Realtors, and author of Why the Real Estate Boom will not Bust (2005) was cited 1,700 times in the American media in the two years before the housing bubble did actually burst, more than three times more often than any other source.

The media were ably assisted in their failure to carry out their ostensible social function of informing the population by policy-makers. In 2005 Timothy Geithner, now US Treasury Secretary, said there was “no sign of a large, macroeconomic shock on the horizon.”

“When the facts change, I change my mind,” John Maynard Keynes famously said. One reason for the spread of Occupy protests is that the media, and policy-makers, have proved incapable of changing their mind.

Harry Shutt and Richard Wolff are still marginal, still outside the bounds of acceptable opinion, despite having been proved right. While their voices are not heard in the media (Wolff is heard somewhat but only due to huge personal effort and the fact that the US is in worse shape than other economies) other economists who saw no problem with the credit markets, remain at the centre of decision-making.

“It is, by way of analogy, as though physics remained dominated by papal patronage and career success depended on denouncing Newton and Einstein,” says Hind.

In order to be heard, you have to serve an identifiable constituency, most commonly through the job you are employed to do. Consider this article on what economists think will happen to inflation from the left-liberal Guardian newspaper. Barring the General-Secretary of the TUC, the economists all speak for businesses. IHS describes itself as global information company that shapes today’s business landscape. The British Chamber of Commerce aims to help “British business to thrive”. ING and Deutsche Bank are both, well, banks. The Centre for Economics and Business Research was set up to “bridge the gap between economics and business”.

It should be rather obvious that if you are employed to speak for IHS, the British Chamber of Commerce, ING, Deutsche Bank, or the Centre for Economics and Business Research, you don’t just say what you think, but you speak for interests of that organisation. You articulate their worldview or you don’t work for them.

But inflation, or unemployment or wages, is a subject that affects everyone. If inflation spikes massively upwards, many millions of people would struggle to buy basic necessities, or afford their rent or mortgage payments. What to do about inflation is something that the population at large, the public, has a huge interest in. But who speaks for the public? As the above discussion in The Guardian (a newspaper which presents a far more accurate view of the world than most) demonstrates, the experts who do speak, all speak on behalf of organisations with very specific, and limiting, interests. Unless, we still have faith in the old adage, “what’s good for General Motors, is good for America”, this is deeply troubling.

This is not to embrace the delusion that the public is “omnicompetent”. No-one person can be an expert on everything. But it is to recognise that something is very wrong when marginal economists who predicted the economic crisis, are still marginal. And those that thought everything was fine, are deciding what to do next.

The problem, says Hind, is that the public has no means to assign expert status to “social scientists whose work has predictive power”.

The reason is that expert status, and thus the right to have influence and speak to millions, is limited to those that work for organisations that already have power. The problem is so intrinsic and so fundamental, that attempt to reform the media and make it more representative, are doomed to failure. We have to, as philosophers were wont to do in the past, turn everything on its head.

Hind turns to the insights of a timid eighteenth century Prussian philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Kant did something deceptively simple, but amazingly enlightening (he was an Enlightenment philosopher). He said our concepts of private and public were the wrong way round.

We reflexively assume that a spokesperson for the British Chamber of Commerce is acting publicly when h/she speaks for them. When they go to the pub after work, and they can say what they please, they are speaking privately.

Kant said this was all mixed up. In truth, when we act in an institutional role, we are acting privately. But when we step outside this role, we are free to reason in an unrestrained way. Thus, we are acting publicly. Kant gives the example of a priest who has to believe in Catholic homilies as a priest. But if he steps outside of this role, he can consider if religious doctrines are in error.

“Experts who remain bound to institutional roles and interested constituencies cannot make public use of their reason,” says Hind. “They are not, in Kant’s sense of the word, enlightened.”

The times in which we live, says Hind, call on us to examine how we might reason publicly in the Kantian sense. “How we might reason as disinterested individuals and in ways that communicate successfully with others.”

His ambition has a lot in common with that of the American libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin, whose concept of libertarian municipalism is about disinterested citizens taking power, and not acting in an interested fashion as lawyers, teachers, marketeers or toilet brush salesmen.

Hind’s idea, his first step – public commissioning – is much less wide-ranging than Bookchin’s. The “field of general description” – the way the world is understood – can no longer be left to professional editors in the private or public media, and their use of experts, who act in Kantian sense privately, as the servants of institutions.

The public would be given the right and the resources to commission investigations, carried out by journalists or scientists, into subjects they choose and decided by a vote. This is not to assume that the general public knows everything, or can know everything, but the desire for impartial scrutiny, of knowing the truth about something, will prove decisive when people are free to act outside the constraints of their working lives.

Some subjects may be frivolous, or right-wing (like political correctness or liberal bias), but most wouldn’t. “Any issue where there might be doubt over the prevailing consensus,” says Hind, “for example the trade in illicit drugs, the struggle with terrorism, the global financial architecture, or the governing views on economic development, peace and war – could, in a system of public commissioning, be opened up to scrutiny.”

Public opinion would no longer be the creature of private interests.

In the second part of this review, we will look in detail at the idea of public commissioning. And the concept of liberty, forged in the English Civil War, that inspires it.