Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Ross Douthat on our Political Impasse

Ross Douthat has been reading Michael Young's 1958 novel The Rise of Meritocracy, which introduced the word and imagined a future in which the meritocrats have become a ruling elite even more intolerable than the old aristocrats had been. Populist revolts keep breaking out against them, but they always fail because all the smart people are in the elite. Douthat thinks this is a good parable for our own time:
In this situation, which is ours, the meritocrats have no mandate and no sense of why the public hates them — believing that their governance was wise and just and there’s nothing wrong with meritocracy that can’t be fixed with more of it. But the populists have no competence and no coherent program, and so all their revolt can win is stalemate.

Different versions of this impasse exist in Britain, France and the United States. In the British version the forces of populism won a stunning victory in the Brexit referendum but lacked real leaders (save hacks and opportunists) and a clear plan for pushing forward (save implausible promises). The result is Theresa May’s shambolic attempt to deliver the impossible, a job she’s graced with because nobody else wants it — save Jeremy Corbyn, whose left-populism seems entirely unready for power in its own way.

In France the “gilets jaunes” protests have brought populist fury from France’s peripheries into the heart of Paris and wrecked Macron’s centrist-technocratic plans. But as a political force the protest movement remains essentially inchoate, now pulled toward the far left and now toward the far right, awaiting leadership and vision. Which, judging by the equally dismal approval ratings of Macron’s rivals, is something that French politics is unlikely to supply.

In the United States the populists theoretically hold the White House, under a president who promised to be a traitor to his class. Except that these promises were mostly just a con job, the Trump inner circle is a parliament of opportunists, and his administration’s policy agenda has been steered by the Republican Party’s business elite rather than by the voters who elected him.

Each case is a variation on the same theme, a slightly different intimation of the meritocratic endgame that Michael Young foresaw 60 years ago. A governing class that has vaulting self-confidence and dwindling credibility, locked in stalemate with populist movements that are easily grifted upon and offer more grievances than plans.
I think this is interesting but only partially right. For one thing, as I keep pointing out, one reason every rich nation in the world has some version of neoliberal economics is that we simply can't imagine any real alternative. It isn't just the greed of elites that keeps things as they are, but our inability to come up with a system that could deliver the dynamism of the current economy without its massive unfairness. For another, elites vs. populists is only one of our impasses. We have an equally intractable conflict between liberal and conservative worldviews that prevents the forces of populism with ever forming a stable political bloc; whatever Berniebros and Tea Partiers agree on, they hate each other too much to ever work together.

Maybe one day super-intelligent AI will work out a better economic system for us, but until then I think we are stuck with the conflicts and systems we have.

3 comments:

G. Verloren said...

I think this is interesting but only partially right. For one thing, as I keep pointing out, one reason every rich nation in the world has some version of neoliberal economics is that we simply can't imagine any real alternative. It isn't just the greed of elites that keeps things as they are, but our inability to come up with a system that could deliver the dynamism of the current economy without its massive unfairness.

Oh, bullshit.

Letting the wealthy rig the game in their favor doesn't create "dynamism" in the economy. If anything, it eventually leads to monopolies and robber barons.

The problem is we refuse to use the tools available to us to address the problems of wealth inequality and predatory behavior. We don't need to imagine new and revolutionary ways of doing things - we just need to stop letting the rich skip out on their taxes, and create more laws protecting the poor.

These are things we could easily do, but we simply don't because we play an absurd game of politics that promotes graft, corruption, nepotism, and letting the rich write their own rules.

Cost of living keeps rising, but wages have remained stagnant for decades, yet we refuse to raise the minimum wage to compensate. Why? Because the rich don't want to pay their workers fairly and they control the pursestrings of the politicians, and no one who wants funds for their next election is going to go against their wishes.

The entire town of Flint, Michigan was poisoned by unscrupulous profiteers cutting corners, and yet we refuse to properly legislate and police such things. Why? Because the people who write the laws and enforce them take their orders from the profiteers, and not the people of Flint.

We have the tools to fix things, but the people in charge of those tools have no incentives to actually use them to make fixes, because the system favors exploitation and predation of the poor and disempowered by the rich and influential. Our entire system's operation depends on dirty money, blatant lies, and naked greed, and it grinds the bones of millions of innocent people in order to stay in motion.

David said...

On the grand scale, I think John is right--no truly revolutionary replacement (in the Marxist sense) for the whole capitalist-democratic-meritocratic system is in sight. The historical dialectic (again in the Marxist sense) seems to have ground to a halt.

On the other hand, I think Verloren is right that there is plenty of room for a major effort, FDR-style, to reform capitalism in order to save it from itself.

After all, Douthat's not actually calling for the revolutionary replacement of the meritocracy as such; instead he is complaining that they lack an ethic of social responsibility and an etiquette of dignified restraint. He would like to see them change the way the behave, the way they talk about themselves, and they things they do with their leadership. And after four decades of Milton Friedman, Gordon Gecko, and "move fast and break things," a change in tone would seem more than timely.

John said...

What David said. You all know I would like to see us do a lot more for poor people and tax the rich more heavily, but that would still leave us with a very similar system. Trust me, leftists in Sweden and Denmark rail against capitalism and inequality just as much as they do in the US.