Swans Commentary » swans.com August 29, 2011  



You Are Here


by Fabio De Propris







(Swans - August 29, 2011)   Imagine you are in your car consulting a global positioning system or a city map. On the map you can see a red point with the indication, "You are here." These reassuring three words are the answer to an unspoken question, "Where are we?" If we ask the same question of the global economy, the answer will have to be, "We don't know." In this case we lack a map for finding out. We have no ideology, and that is not good news. An ideology is a harmonic complex of ideas.

What we do have today are market forces, which we don't think of as an ideology but a God-given reality like earth, fire, and polluted air. We also have bits and pieces of liberal culture riding along on the free trade bandwagon. This makes for the mainstream political division of parties right and left. So the one and only true Western ideology of our time is free trade or the market even though its promoters don't call it an ideology, but fancy it bedrock, a planetary given.

When the money flows in the right direction, namely into our own bank account, problems there are none. But when the Western economy, from Japan to Greece to the United States, goes into recession, and when the only country that has money and industries is the People's Republic of China, then problems are many. Moreover, we don't know how to explain, much less fix them. We need another ideology to accomplish such an onerous and intricate task. Marxism, Socialism, and Communism have provided effective tools to understand the global economy, but in the twentieth century they managed to fuel only gloomy societies. So, since we need an ideology to take us through the twenty-first century and, with hope, beyond, we have to grasp the real import of the question, "Where are we?"

No one can deny that economics and politics are intertwined. We can consider the economy as the core interest of politics, because the political question par excellence is, "How can we use our resources to make the greatest number of human beings happy?" An answer from the right says to let the smartest individuals collect most of the resources, and use the rest of humanity itself as a further resource. An answer from the left says to share the resources, considering the smartest individuals as a resource for the whole community.

In economic terms, happiness and resources are enjoyed through money. Taxation is the principal means of spreading this happiness and these resources amongst the public in the form, for instance, of schools, health care, and measures of security. Certain individuals, confident of their own ability, see taxation as robbery of their well-deserved riches by a treacherous state. Others disregard their personal ability and consider public welfare the aim of all political activity. For them it's the complex answer to Hamlet's "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," i.e., human frailty and the conduct of nature either good (fertile fields, oil or gold in the ground), or bad (floods, earthquakes, drought). Their answer is to offer human skills and understanding as "arms against a sea of troubles."

The supreme question has led us to economics, but only to raise yet another and loftier question. The greatest number of human beings, community and public are not expressions to take for granted. If we want to establish a new leftist ideology for this and possibly the coming centuries, we have to answer the question of, "What exactly is a community of human beings?" In order to exercise a wise global policy we have to scrutinize politics and economics from the outside, which is to say from a philosopher's point of view.

Philosophically speaking, man is not yet ready to recognize in every human being a creature similar to himself. When he speaks of "we, the men," man thinks of a more or less defined group, a circle whose circumference can be measured according to common interests, such as religion, wealth, nationality, sport, or music. Man's capacity to count others as "men" must be dramatically improved. This is the philosophical revolution the world badly needs.

The Thatcher paradigm ("there is no such thing as society") must be scrapped. It could only have had relevance before the Paleolithic period. The farther we get from the cave, the less that paradigm works. Society does exist, and man doesn't exist outside of society. A community can no longer be a small number of men gathering fruits or hunting wild beasts. A community must be a part of humankind, which has to comprehend all women and men living on earth.

Economics and politics must be built on this philosophical principle. The goal will be terribly hard to reach, because many will wrongly consider "a man is a man" a hollow and senseless maxim. Such is the great twenty-first century challenge.

Our second challenge is to come up with a solution to the machine problem. Men, living in society for millennia, have built machines. Today, machines can build machines and incorporate an artificial intelligence that will allow them progressively to improve their efficiency. We have entered a meta-machine era or, if you prefer, a machine 2.0 epoch. This means we can have goods and services (bombardments, patrols, or surgical operations, for example) with ever less human intervention.

Twenty-first century machines are not just "better hammers and nails"; they are a new world. Machines are changing the global economy. Maybe it's time to stop thinking we are simply going through an economic crisis from which it is very hard to recover. (The thoughtful know, in any case, that a resolution of the crisis won't provide enough jobs.) The machine problem has to be faced. It can be described simply: "Machines do the hard jobs and they will do them better and quicker with each passing year." This means that how men -- will we still call them workers? -- are paid will have to be completely reconsidered. We can't wait to have seven billion jobless before looking for answers.

For the twenty-second century agenda a third and last question ought to be if not asked, at least envisaged. How are we going to handle our relationship with machines the day they are provided not only with an artificial intelligence, but with an artificial conscience as well? Will it nag us? Will we be able to switch it off?


(Thanks to Peter Byrne for his help with this article.)


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published August 29, 2011