How to save the world
Could a blueprint for a happier and more successful society come from someone outside politics? George Orwell's utopian vision has found an echo in a little-known French philosopher
Tuesday 01 March 2011
Seventy years ago, George Orwell published a short book called The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. As bombs fell on London in the winter of 1940-1, Orwell imagined what the world might be like after the war.
His essay is usually remembered for its affectionate descriptions of "Britishness" or, as Orwell insisted, "Englishness": "...the rattle of pin-tables in the Soho pubs, the old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings".
The book is remembered also for its arresting first sentence: "As I write, highly-civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me."
To defeat Nazism, Orwell said, Britain would have to remain true to itself and, at the same time, metamorphose into a classless society: land, mines, railways and banks would have to be nationalised, public schools would have to be abolished, incomes would have to be controlled.
Many of his detailed predictions now look wrong-headed or quaint.
In broad terms, however, Orwell was proved right. In the process of winning the war (with some help from its friends), Britain did become a somewhat more equal society.
Orwell's essay accurately foretold the social-democratic and welfarist zeitgeist that ruled Britain and much of western Europe, though not the United States, after the Second World War. To think clearly while bombs are falling on your head is quite an achievement. Who will think for us now? Who is capable of thinking, as Orwell did, beyond the day's headlines and the day's calamities to create a single, optimistic, political philosophy, or road-map, for our new, global age?
The post-war consensus predicted by Orwell lasted until the late 1970s, when it was carpet-bombed by Reaganism and Thatcherism.
The West-knows-best, free-market-fundamentalism of the 1980s and triumphalist 1990s lasted until 2001-2008, when it was exploded by 9/11, the sub-prime crash, global warming and the rise of China.
Since then, nothing. Countless thinkers have examined parts of the puzzle. How can we halt climate change when the world is incurably addicted to growth? Can the Western values of openness and democracy survive the anti-Western radicalisation of Islam?
Is it rational to allow speculative, virtual trades equal to 12 times the planet's GDP to be wagered daily on financial markets? Will the economic and political rise of China save the world? Or will the new century be dominated by a Chinese form of national socialism, in which military conquest and outright racism is replaced by artful economic conquest and a master race of faceless oligarchs?
Is the blabbering global village of the internet turning us into global citizens or into global village idiots?
Into this jungle, there has stepped, in recent days, the French philosopher Edgar Morin, one of the most original and joined-up thinkers in the world. Mr Morin, 89, the apostle of "the politics of civilisation" and what he calls "complex thought", is a leftist political thinker (which, as he demonstrates, need not be an oxymoron).
Mr Morin is well known in continental Europe and Latin America. He deserves to be better known in the Anglo-Saxon world.
His new book La Voie [The Way] (Fayard, £16) is selling by the tens of thousand in France. It appeared in early January and has already gone into a second impression.
This book should not be confused with another recent French book, or pamphlet, which also tries to address, from a left-wing perspective, the complex mess we are all in. Indignez-vous! [Cry Out!], a 19-page squeal of rage by Stéphane Hessel, has now sold over 1,000,000 copies in France.
Both men are former French resistance heroes. Both are elderly men (Mr Hessel is 93). Both are jews who have been courageous enough to criticise Israel. Both appeal for the younger generations to refuse the "pensée unique" or standard political thinking of their parents.
Mr Hessel's book is inspirational but shallow and offers no solutions, except "indignation". Mr Morin's book is inspirational and profound and offers a jumble of ways to save the world from environmental/economic calamity and a cataclysmic, three way (West v Islam v China) clash of civilisations. It suggests, if anything, far too many detailed solutions (to everything from nuclear weapons to saving rural post-offices).
The success of both books points to an inchoate hunger – and not just in France – for a new, post-2008, post 9/11, post Copenhagen "unified" theory of politics. Neo-liberalism is discredited but the old statist, left-wing arguments are dead. What will emerge as the Next Big Thing?
Will it be something greener, softer, more local, more social democratic? Or something crassly nationalist and crypto-racist?
Mr Morin, unlike almost any thinker in the world, tries to grapple with The Big Picture. "The spaceship Earth," he writes, "is being propelled by four uncontrolled engines – science, technology, economy, profit – towards a series of probable chain catastrophes." Far from being distinct one from another, he says, the crises facing the world are all components of one "mega-crisis", in which each potential calamity will worsen and hasten the others.
Globalisation, the obsession with growth and the Asian boom have increased pressure on resources and climate. In turn, the shortage of commodities and the climate-driven failures of crops offer welcome opportunities for new frenzies of speculation in increasingly "virtual" and "disconnected" markets which are driven by greed and short-term profit rather than by enterprise capitalism. (Mr Morin says the average, total value of the "financial markets" is now $540 trillion – 10 times the annual GDP of the planet. The French national assembly recently put the figure at 12 times world income. The "value" of futures markets can be up to 40 times the value of all physical stocks of the commodity available in the "real" world). Globalisation of economies and the advance of Western culture has provoked a backlash of Islamist hostility to the West. It has also triggered the "hyper-development" of China into what he calls a "capitalist slave state". The powerlessness of Western governments to control immigration, economic events, radical Islam or Chinese competition have provoked, in the West, the rise of a new, quasi-racist, middle-class, ultra-nationalism.
All these crises, Mr Morin says, tend to be seen individually or, at most, in pairs. He argues that – unchecked – they could mesh together into a single machine for destruction. The obsession with economic growth – on both left and right – is driving the world closer to dangerous levels of global warming.
Increasing shortages of commodities, from oil to wheat, will provoke new paroxysms of speculation by traders and hedge-funds whose strategic sense does not go beyond next Wednesday.
Food shortages in the developing world will strengthen jihadist Islam and produce increased waves of emigration, to the fury of the Tea Parties in the US and the G&T parties in Britain and elsewhere. The weakness of Western "real" economies will allow China to buy up Africa and much of the rest of the world.
"The barbarous enemies of humanity are approaching a state of eruption," he writes. "...their conflicts are generating blind and mutually hating, over-simple oppositions. The new unbridled financial capitalism is not the only danger. Fanaticism has been unchained. We face new implacable dictatorships, new forms of totalitarianism, even wars of annihilation".
Phew! You don't have to buy all Mr Morin's arguments to accept that he is right to link up the crises and that he is right to be pessimistic. "A catastrophic outcome to the way that things are now is highly probable," he writes.
In fact, Mr Morin insists that he is not entirely pessimistic. He is, he says, an "opti-pessimist" or a "pessi-optimist". This is an example of what he calls "complex thinking", the refusal to accept the simple, binary oppositions that tend to rule headlines and politics.
Mr Morin was once a Communist. He rejected Marxist-Leninism more than half a century ago but he still maintains some Marxist habits of thought. The present mega-crisis, he insists, contains the seeds of humanity's destruction but also the seeds of humanity's salvation. "Globalisation contains unprecedented perils but also unprecedented opportunities."
By spreading the gospel of uncontrolled competition and by trampling national cultures and provoking an extremist backlash, globalisation has helped to cause the mega-crisis. By linking the world through the internet, the aeroplane and the TV screen, globalisation has also created, according to Mr Morin, a sense of "Terre-Patrie" or "World nationhood".
Edgar Morin, like George Orwell, is no abstract "internationalist". Orwell in The Lion and the Unicorn, talks eloquently about "national identity" and "patriotism" as the strongest "levers" in politics. Morin says that respect for national differences and national cultures must be the bedrock of any "global" solution to the "global" problem.
Strong international bodies are needed, he says, to enforce rules to prevent dangerous climate change and to impose common sense on financial markets. There should also be strong "regional bodies", such as the EU, for Africa, Latin America and Asia.
But the purpose of such bodies, should be, in part, to protect national identites and traditions – even national governments – from the bullying homogenisation of "global" markets and global companies and "global media".
In other words, "globalisation" should be at once reinforced and policed and, in part, reversed. "Morinism", or "complex thought", proceeds by paradoxes of this kind.
The idea that "growth" is inevitable and endless must, he says, be replaced by the idea that some growth is good and some is bad. There must be "growth" in renewable, soft industries and "de-growth" in polluting, energy-hungry industries. That may seem obvious but how many mainstream politicians are arguing for de-growth?
The compartmentalisation of education into science and humanities, or into more exclusive domains, must be reversed, Mr Morin says. Modern education fails to teach children to understand the world they live in: neither its technology, nor its politics, nor the way that global media industries lead them by the nose. We have unprecedented access to information (through the internet), he says, but we understand our world less and less.
"Only a way of thinking which can grasp the complexity of our lives... can help us to understand our present course towards the abyss and define the new directions which will help us to accept the reforms which are vitally necessary." There is much more. Morin calls for "planetary" great works of infrastructure to soak up unemployment.
He rejects the traditional model of Western-led, Third World "development" as crass and counter-productive. Something closer to local patterns of society and economy, especially local patterns of farming, is needed.
He is very optimistic about the importance of small acts of resistance and rebellion and creativity, from local currencies to "micro-credit". He wants more and stronger local government and citizen participation in government.
All in all, he says, natural organisms and human societies resemble each other. When faced with threats they cannot control, they either capitulate and die or they "evolve" or "metarmorphose" into something that will survive and thrive. Often, he says, this metamorphosis – such as the development of democracy in ancient Greece – comes from small and seemingly feeble beginnings. "In just the same way, we can hardly imagine today the future world-society which could emerge from our own metamorphosis."
As George Orwell says in The Lion and the Unicorn, we British "have a horror of abstract thought". We "feel no need for any philosophy or systematic 'world view'".
Mr Morin's "Voie" or "way" will doubtless be mocked by many "Anglo-saxons". There is much that is mystical and priggish and simplistic. Rising food prices and hunger, it could be pointed out, are on the way to producing democratic change – not dictatorship – in Tunisia and Egypt.
Globalisation and global markets have created new middle classes in China and India and Brazil, who will, as middle classes do, demand stronger and more democratic political institutions.
There is nothing much in Mr Morin's "Voie" which is likely to impress Ossama Bin Laden or the Chinese leadership. He does not explain how the world can persuade the arrogant bullies known as "the markets" to give up all that fake, or virtual, liquidity, without causing another, even more lasting, recession.
Like George Orwell in 1941, many of Edgar Morin's detailed presciptions in 2011 may, in the future, look wrong-headed or quaint. In broad terms, however, like Orwell, he has asked the right questions and joined up the right dots.
Can economic growth remain forever the currency of commercial, and political success, in a world of finite resources? To think so, as Mr Morin quotes the economist and mystic Kenneth Boulding as saying, you have to be "mad or an economist".
We have created a global world. We have, sooner or later, to start thinking or acting globally. How strange that it is the powerful global empires – from the People's Republic of China to Rupert Murdoch's News International – that are the most viscerally opposed to any form of global regulation.
We should remember our own recent history. Capitalism, in all its forms, including Chinese state-capitalism, will resist regulation where it can. But it was the regulation imposed on Western economies (even in the United States) by states and trades unions in the first half of the 20th century, that saved the world from Bolshevik revolution and Communism, not Mrs Thatcher or Ronald Reagan.
Even two years on, political and journalistic orthodoxy in the Anglo-saxon world is still reluctant to make a distinction between "real-world markets" and the kind of fantasy markets, driven by short-term-greed, which caused the 2008 crash.
Last year a man called John Paulson made $5bn, largely by speculating on gold on Wall Street. In the run-up to the 2008 crash, his fund made $15bn, by speculating on the forthcoming collapse.
The average income in Egypt is $2,000. As Orwell might have said: "As I write, highly civilised human beings are (metaphorically) flying overhead, trying to destroy us all."
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