Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Quest

Recently, I've had a lot of really negative things to say about why I think our modern political ideologies are fundamentally flawed and inadequate. What I haven't suggested is what the alternative is. This is because I don't have one. However, I think this necessitates an honest effort at identifying and formulating one.

My essential critique is that I feel that up until very recently the world was dominated by states that were all descended from a European history and political ideology (if you want to split hairs and use Huntington's civilizations instead, you still have to admit that the Soviet Union followed Marxism which is definitely a uniquely European ideology), with the notable exception of Japan, whose success was one of the various sources for critiques of the standard paradigm of historical and economic development. The gap between the west and the rest in political and economic power has declined rapidly over the last half century, with the rise of China, likely to be followed shortly by India and perhaps others as well, all but the very naive, or ideologically blinded, should have to admit that there will be fundamental changes in the international system as states with different histories and ideologies have more influence in the system. Domestically, this requires an evaluation of our political ideologies to see if they can survive the conditions of a modern system where European descended ideas are no longer completely dominant. One great European ideology, socialism, has already showed itself inadequate to function in the modern world as a stand alone ideology, leading to the collapse of one of history's great states. If we remain bound by old ideas it is inevitable that we will not just decline relatively, but eventually collapse.

So what exactly am I proposing needs revising? I don't mean to imply a need for a truly radical new understanding, just a reassessment of a few areas that I believe modern ideologies handle particularly poorly. Put simply I see the greatest weaknesses in the notion of the role of the state, interactions between the state and the economy, and lack of a sufficiently dynamic theory of how markets are created and the interactions between markets and different conceptions of property rights. I don't propose that I can develop a coherent theory that can do all of this. That would be the work of a lifetime and probably impossible to do, several theories of different aspects are likely necessary, I feel the earlier western ideologies have ultimately failed because they claimed to do too much. So my intent will be to set qualifications in advance and look for existing ideas in academia (since I doubt anyone is exploring these concepts in depth on youtube videos) that fit these criteria and link to them. Where necessary I will try to summarize for the general reader since I feel there is relatively little effort to try to inject new ideas into political discourse, academia and public discourse has probably rarely been more divergent than it is today. Mostly though, this will be an ongoing attempt to list good resources for readers to access themselves to form their own opinion.

An explicit goal is to not argue for a single new ideology but to instead propose components that should be incorporated into any ideology's conception of reality. I feel the political divide in the US is at its base an argument about how to conceptualize the world we live in. The divide was less stark in the past because there was a consensus paradigm that allowed for a lot of division within it, but over means and ends, not over different understandings of morality and essentially different views on the effects of policy on society. This paradigm has failed but not been replaced, leading to both sides feeling that the other is fundamentally wrong about their conception of our world. I'm suggesting both are right that the other has misconceptions and I am playing Sisyphus in trying to push the idea there is a possible paradigm both can agree on that will still allow for them to shout at each other about differences in how to prioritize and what direction to take within this paradigm.

On to the categories.

1. A theory of the state. This theory should be able to handle the distribution of authority structures within a society. Why are certain powers reserved to the classic state, why are others devolved to corporations or religious institutions, among others? And why does this change over time? Why are some powers shifted towards international bodies and not others? Is there significance in the shift from the political representation of a family unit to the modern notion of political representation as representing the individual? How does culture and identity interact with the institutions in a society? Why does the selection of persons to exercise authority differ so much between institutions with different kind of powers (for instance, why do we insist so strongly on the need for democratic principles to select officials to positions of power in the state but are not concerned with the centralization of authority, and complete lack of any democratic process, in a single person in a large corporation with great economic power)? Most importantly the theory should be able to deal with the organic evolution of the state and its interaction with other governmental bodies in the world system.

I suspect that a strong theory of the state already exists. None of my courses dealt heavily with the topic while still taking classes but I believe my reading lists contain high quality works that can deal with most of these questions. Once I finish with my current backlog I'll move on to this question in the book reviews.

2. Interactions between the state and the economy. This section will rely most heavily on historical works. I don't believe the current political ideologies of any group deal with this well. I also believe this is the area where changes in the world at large due to the development of technology, resource use by a developing world, and changes in the international system are most likely to require modern ideologies to need the strongest, and most accurate, theories incorporated into them if we are to cope with changes over the coming decades without stubbing our toes really, really badly. The easiest starting point here is to look at the development of markets and the role of institutions in their development in the original rise to European dominance. Current economic (of the very general type, from what I know, which is admittedly not at the highest level, most modern economics doesn't seek to explain things this far back and instead focuses on interactions within a known environment, it is only the theories that that seek to delve into more theoretical, and less descriptive, interactions that I mean to critique here) and political theories are very heavily invested in stories told about this development and take them as guides to current action. They haven't been updated for additional research or with the increased knowledge of the development of commercial institutions in the rest of the world.

What I'll be looking for is an explanation of what policies actually changed to allow the great expansion of trade and how this impacted states. What are the interactions between new sources of wealth and state institutions? What was the impetus behind major developments in legal structures, or other state actions that led to great changes on how commerce was conducted.

This is probably the topic I've already thought about the most. At this stage, I largely feel the idea that the state somehow got out of the way leading to an explosion of development is pretty much completely wrong. Instead, I see a story of much greater centralization where the state destroyed virtually all competing sources of authority as being a driving force in the rise of "capitalism." No longer could groups compete in any way but in the realm of commerce. States also destroyed many other forms of identity, leading towards something resembling modern nations. In addition, the state created new institutions that led to more efficient means of raising capital as well as methods to more efficiently, and less destructively, extract wealth. This needs greater development, but I believe this will be an easy subject to give a more nuanced, complete, and accurate story of development.

3. A more dynamic conception of markets and property rights. I know the least about this going in so I will be brief in describing what I'm looking for. Basically, I want to look for studies on how markets change as the notion of property rights have changed as well as the interactions between when a service is provided through non-market means, such as when a family traditionally does the work itself, and when this begins to be handled by markets instead.

As something of a sub-group under this, I also want to look at how shifts in identity have influenced markets. For instance, how did the shift from earlier identifications rooted in the family as an economic unit to the individual as an economic unit effect the broader economy? How is culture interacting with it? How does the notion of what kind of unit should be acting in certain areas of the economy shift, such as services provided by religious groups (such as medical care) that later evolve to be provided by other groups?

These new topics aren't meant to dominate the blog, simply to show that there is a particular direction my thinking is going and that I'll be actively looking for either current events that illustrate this or reading that will help me understand these subjects. I am very open to suggestions of new works to look at that are related to these topics. When I have some concrete sources to add I will start posting pages on each topic as a permanent point of reference.

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