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Optimism and pessimism

Douglas Carswell has made a You Tube film which argues that the most important political difference that divides people is ultimately between optimists and pessimists. While this may seem to be a reference to a Brexit leaver-remainer distinction, it in fact refers to a larger issue. Carswell is an advocate of the almost complete elimination of the powers of states; he is a true believer in the power of free markets to bring about the best of all possible worlds. Carswell is very optimistic that the world will become a much better place after people realise that unrestricted free markets will solve all their problems. Of course, it is conversely true that Karl Marx was very optimistic that the world would become a much better place after people realised that unrestricted free markets were the cause of all their problems. Oddly enough perhaps, Marx’s ideas agree with Carswell’s that the state will ultimately wither away in a better future. The route to the better future is strongly disagreed upon by the two sets of ideas, the nature of the destination considerably less so. Carswell and Marx both express optimism about the future and so both are in a way optimists, but both are also in a way pessimists in that they both see the future as the principle grounds for optimism, and in doing so they present the past as being something to be overcome- as Nietzsche saw the human condition as a thing for the ubermensch to overcome- through a process of creative destruction.

The world is currently in a state of upheaval and seems ripe for some sort of change. Some see reasons for optimism and others for pessimism in the current tumultuousness. What though is the perspective of the left? In general, the current perspective of the left is pessimistic. This is in many ways nothing new. Marxism is a creative destruction based philosophy centred on the ideal of creating a better future that sees as inevitable and desirable the collapse of the capitalist world order and the eventual dissolution of the very state of consciousness upon which that world is founded. Existence in the capitalist world is basically something to feel bad about. More specifically though, the left is currently experiencing a great abundance of pessimism unquestionably associated with a massive and very widespread collapse in its levels of democratic support. This too is not a particularly new situation; the current collapse in democratic support for what have come to be the most recognisable features defining the contemporary left (internationalism, multiculturalism and individualism- in the sense of individual human rights) echoes the onset of the collapse around four decades ago of democratic support for the features that then most recognisably defined the left (Keynesian economics, the welfare state and trade unionism). During the last great collapse of the left (as in the one happening now) the voters abandoning the parties of the left tended to transfer their support to political ideas presented as being optimistic. The free market, deregulatory, entrepreneurial policies that won mass democratic support away from the left in the nineteen-eighties was seen by many as offering hope and promising to reverse a decline that was not seen as inevitable but as the left’s fault. Today’s rising nationalist populism also tends to be seen by its support base in a similarly hopeful, pessimism combating, anti-left light.

Another characteristic of the resurgences of the right both in the nineteen-eighties and today is a positive attitude towards aspects of the past. It is not for nothing that neoliberalism possesses the prefix ‘neo’, being a revival of pre-Keynesian economic ideas going back to early stages of economic theory. The ascendancy of the neoliberal right in the nineteen-eighties was accompanied by an agenda of criticising the welfare state for eroding longstanding traditions of personal responsibility and initiative, while emphasising the importance of these traditions in maintaining society’s well-being. Today’s nationalist populists promote a somewhat similar agenda, although the different character of today’s left (including its assimilation of the ultimately failed market based economic policies of neoliberalism) means that the nationalist-populist reaction against it has specific characteristics critical of multiculturalism and internationalism, including international free trade.

Neither the events that led to the collapse of the left in the nineteen-eighties nor today were fundamentally the fault of left wing policies in the ways that they have popularly come to be understood to be, so much as they were the results of the failures of prevailing economic theories to understand the complexities of global trade and finance, largely irrespective of whether these economic theories tended more to the left or the right. The left was complacent and negligent to trust economic theories to effectively deal with the degree of complexity that global economic integration introduced, but this is not uniquely a failure of the left. What is however a strongly characteristic failure of the left is its pessimistic tendency. The pessimism of the left affects how it tends to respond to global economic crashes. Quasi-periodic large-scale economic crashes are basically unavoidable in globally integrated economic systems due to their inherent unmanageable complexity. A global economic crash is a sign that complexity in the global economy has surpassed some point of sustainable manageability. The world has got far too complex and become dangerously unstable (I am using the term ‘complex’ here to mean something like what Nassim Taleb means when he uses the term ‘fragile’). When crashes like this occur, an urgent need arises for the restoration of some sort of simpler and more stable system configuration. Greater simplicity and stability might be restored by the dismantling of regulatory frameworks that contributed to increasing complexity (even if they were intended to do the opposite) and/or by reducing the extent of global economic integration. In either case the basic idea is some sort of attempted falling-back on better established, less uncertainty beset systems- and so as part of this tendency, revivals of social traditions tend to attract more popular support.

The future-oriented, past-pessimistic attitude of the left makes the left likely to reject opportunities to align itself with rising support for re-establishment of more traditional philosophies and instead to press onward with further complexity increases in the hope that these will, given time, solve the problems induced by excessive complexity. The effect of this response is that the left then becomes increasingly antagonistic towards tradition based re-stabilisation attempts. Because the reduction of complexity is likely to be the only effective method of tackling the problems resulting from overcomplexity induced system failures (although that effectiveness may not persist for very long) the left’s resistance of these measures has the unfortunate effect of making the left antagonistic towards trends that seem to be helping ameliorate the very difficulties that the left seems to be intent on exacerbating. The left come to be seen to be wedded to continued failure whereas whatever agenda opposes the left’s agenda conversely acquires a spirit of optimism.

In the wake of the 2008 crash the left has so far mostly done what this analysis of it suggests that it would do. The right has for the most part exploited the left’s continued commitment to a dysfunctional global economic system and so successfully taken up the mantle of popular optimism through setting the agenda of falling back on traditions. Is this ineffectiveness and decline the left’s only possibility though? Can it do better than this?

I believe that the left can do much better than this, but improvement depends on two things being removed from leftist thinking- the destruction inherent in creative destruction and the unquestioning preference for increasing complexity.

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