Saturday 17 September 2011

Why are we failing?

It’s been 10 years since the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York and the sense of crisis has not gone away. George Packer wrote recently in the New Yorker (George Packer: Coming Apart, New Yorker, Sept 12 2011) that the past decade has been one of missed opportunities. No other attack on the US has left the country in a more divided state than 9/11. 
For Packer it is a lack of political leadership, a lack of a unifying narrative that prevented the country to become great again. Although his analysis is thoughtful and measured, I think the crisis has a deeper cause than an absence of a grand narrative. 
There is no doubt that the US, just like the countries in Europe, experience an unprecedented challenge in the economic, political and social sense. Since the late 1990s, the economy has failed to create winners in the middle and lower middle classes. Real wages have been stagnating, jobs have migrated to China or, in the case of Europe to the former post-communist countries, and economic foundations turned out to be shaky, built on enormous personal and governmental debt. As we anxiously watch the jitters in the stock markets and the wrangling of political leaders to get to grip with the Euro crisis, there is above all one interpretation that emerges more strongly than others. It is that we are clueless, bereft of any ideas how to find the exit to this economic and political disaster unfolding before our eyes. 
To be clear, there is no shortage of options, nor any lack of experts. What is missing is a consensus of what we want to achieve, who we want to be in a world that is bound to be fundamentally different to the one in 2001. 
For Packer and others it is a lack of consensus on the basic principles of economic and political life. Yet, despite the rise of the Tea party, I am convinced that political debates in the distant past were often just as acrimonious as the ones we witness. We just have a very short memory, and historians often don’t help by telling grand narratives of unified people marching forward under a banner of national will and determination. 
What we forget I think is that democratic politics is always characterized by a multitude of options. What creates certainty is not the stability of principles, or the sureness of political leaders. Roosevelt dithered about the entry into the European War before Pearl Harbour just as Lincoln’s professed motifs of going to war were a subsequent abbreviation of many ideas. 
What democracy is, above all, is a mechanism to deliberate freely, to think about the options available and to foster a consensus. The crisis we are in is not a crisis caused by a lack of confidence or of principles we hold dear. It is above all a crisis of practices, of mechanisms that structure and organise our public discourse, and bring to bear rational thought on what to do next. 
Given human nature, this should be no surprise. We all feel from time to time anger, rage or despair and our reactions to events around us are often guided by those sentiments. Yet, eventually we come to realise, in our own individual world, that gut feelings are a bad guide to solve our problems. We sit down, take stock and think what might genuinely solve the difficulties we are in, rather than what would satisfy our immediate feelings. This isn’t always easy. It is uniquely comforting to give in to anger and wrath. But once we cool down, and we think clearly we often come to different, ultimately better conclusions about what to do. 
Politics is no different. Why should politics be the rational deliberation guided by a clear vision of the public good? Politics is a creation of human beings, engaging with each others with all their flaws and shortcomings. So we built mechanisms to ensure that rational thought would prevail. We ask people to ‘represent’ us, politicians who, we think, would be able to remove themselves from the influence of gut feelings. 
Yet, politics has also become more immediate, more direct and infinitely more instant through a proliferation of technological means, social networking and the ever present media. So, the structures we originally put in place to ensure that rational thought prevailed in public debate are about to fail. The choices we have about what to do with the economy are not a domain of experts anymore, everyone, including myself, has an opinion which may often just reflect his or her own interests. 
In other words, our political frameworks are failing, parliament, government and civil service are not delivering the disinterested consensual decisions any more. They are moving closer to the strife and uncertainty that characterises all our daily deliberations and arguments. We, as individuals, have always been subject to our emotions, yet our political institutions are progressively becoming subject to them too. The result is a cacophony of voices rather than an emerging choir of finely tuned registers. What has been failing us since 2001 is not the will to unite, to come together, but the absence of political and economic frameworks that provide carefully deliberated decisions about the public good. 

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