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The Loss of Utopia and the Search for a New Social Paradigm
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2011-11-02 07:17:30
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In my last contribution titled Utopia and Imagination we observed that History in the West has always had a Janus face: that of Utopia and that of Ideology which are often seen as contrary to each other; in reality they can be harmonized despite Fukuyama’s “end of history”. I’d like to return to the concept of Utopia. Such a concept cannot even be theorized unless its contrary is also considered: a sense of dissatisfaction with the present realistic condition and a longing for a future more just world which is presently envisioned as utopian. As any doctor worth his salt will inform us, a prognosis proves impossible without a previous diagnosis of what needs attention and healing. Any utopia implies a sense of unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

So the question arises: in the light of the present ominous economic crisis that one can observe on both sides of the Atlantic in Western Civilization and the prevalent sense of general dissatisfaction, what are the erroneous assumptions that have landed us in a serious economic crisis nearing a total collapse of the whole economic system? On the surface it appears as a mere financial crisis, but I submit that such is merely a symptom of a deeper cancer eroding the very core of Western civilization and caused by an inability to imagine a radically different social paradigm.

Let’s briefly look at some of those pernicious assumptions:  The first is that spending must be drastically cut if budgets are to be balanced. The second is that the West’s liberal economies must always compete with the emerging economies of developing countries, and this can happen only by reducing labor costs. Paradoxically, a few days ago we witnessed the spectacle of European financial ministers in China begging for credit loans. In any case, this can only mean that in order to become competitive the life of the worker in the West must be impoverished and perhaps brought to the level of that of the Chinese laborer. Nobody has ever explained why the only criterion for evaluating wealth must be financial in nature, nor is there much imagination discernible to conceive a different criterion. The third assumption is that while the worker’s productivity must be increased  salaries must be reduced. This produces the effect of  overproduction. The fourth assumption is that the age of retirement must be raised, as there will be too many young people and too few old people in the future. But the rationale here is faulty. The productivity of the average worker in the West has increased at least fivefold over the past fifty years, so when the time comes, fewer young people actually will be able to feed more old people. But in reality, raising the retirement age is a trick for reducing labor costs. Corporations nowadays would rather pay a poor, old worker a salary than a deserved pension, and leave the young to find their own way, accepting any kind of occupation, whether precarious or simply underpaid. This is what is actually happening as we speak and it explains the protests by the young in every major city of the West.

None of the myopic visionless unimaginative politicians of today dares to challenge these false assumptions. Those who protest against these disastrous measures are accused of being unable to comprehend the task at hand: to advance the very deregulation that produced the present collapse. If lower taxation on high incomes led to a fall in demand they say, let’s lower high-income taxation. If hyper-exploitation resulted in the production of unsold and useless cars, let’s intensify car production. One must wonder if those who think this way have all their screws in their head. It is not even logical, never mind idealist or utopian.

On both sides of the Atlantic the myth is that the people are in charge  of their destiny since they live in a democracy. But this democracy proves to be rather fictitious and governed by autocratic organisms called central banks, federal reserve, or financial institutions. The Chinese have done us a service by exploding the myth of the connection between democracy and the market economy: the so called “free markets.” Their economy is now growing at 10%; the West at 3% at best. We now go to China with thin cup in hand to beg for credit. How pathetic.

While the US Federal Reserve was established to stabilize the value of currency and maximize employment, the primary goal of the ECB charter is to fight inflation. This goal has become irrational, as deflation is the overwhelming trend. Citizens can do nothing to influence the politics of the ECB, as the Bank does not respond to political authority, and this is why European citizens have been conscious of the meaninglessness of European elections. In the future, these same citizens will come to view the EU as their enemy.

The discourse of modernity, of romantic Sturm und Drang, of the Faustian drive to immortality, the endless thirst for economic growth and profit, the denial of organic limits has always buttressed the myth of Western Civilization’s  sense of superiority. That is how empires and colonies were rationalized, as a civilizing mission of sort, the white man’s burden, almost a duty. Indeed, the romantic cult of youth which begins with Goethe’s Faust, is the cultural source of idealistic nationalism. In late modernity, this depiction became an essential feature of advertising. But contrary to Fascist discourse, late modern advertising does not abuse old age, but denies it, claiming that every old person can be young if he or she would simply accept to partake in the consumerist feast.

The Fascism that triumphed in Italy after 1922 first had a cultural component which was dubbed Futurism. It idolized energy and youth. One of the iconic fascist songs was “giovinezza” or youth. Berlusconi has brought back this sheer arrogance, but the actors of the present comedy are old men who require face lifts and Viagra to inhabit a self-created image of energy and potency. The former was based on the youthful virtues of strength, energy, and pride, the latter employs the mature virtues of technique, deception, and finance.

What we desperately need at this crucial point of Western history is a new paradigm for social life, a new conception of prosperity and happiness understood in the ancient Greek sense of “eudaimonia.”  As Derrida warned us in the 90s as he reflected on what the New Europe meant  for the West and for the world, we are fast reaching a point of exhaustion; energy is flowing away from Western Civilization relentlessly and the decline may be on the horizon unless a return to origins is envisioned. Actually the West was first advised of exhaustion in 1972, when the Club of Rome commissioned the book The Limits to Growth. For the first time, we became aware that the physical resources of the planet are not boundless; and we now have seven billion persons inhabiting the earth. Some months after the publication of the report, the Western world experienced the first oil shortage following the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Since then, we are expected to be conscious of the fact that energy is leaving the physical body of the Earth. But there are ignorant politicians who refuse to accept those scientific conclusions; they consider them not convenient for the national interest, or as Al Gore puts it, an “inconvenient truth.” If science proclaims otherwise, so much the worse for science.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the collapse of the dot-com economy led to the pauperization of both physical and intellectual workers, while the financial meltdown of September 2008 initiated a process of pauperization of the overall society. Millions of young well educated people are now unemployed. But the worst may still be coming.

In the coming years one third of the population in the West—the baby boom generation born after World War II, when the fulfillment of the modern promise of peace, democracy, and well-being was apparently at hand—will reach old age. The new generation now entering the labor market does not possess the memory of this past civilization, nor the political force to defend their existence from the predatory economy. The age of senility is upon us, and it may introduce a generalized form of dementia: a disastrous loss of historical memory coupled with xenophobia. But one can also envision a different scenario wherein this process of senilization may open the way to a cultural revolution based on the force of exhaustion, of facing the inevitable with grace, discovering the sensuous slowness of those who do not expect any more from life than wisdom—the wisdom of those who have seen a great deal without forgetting, who look at each thing as if for the first time. The wisdom of an old Socrates who taught us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Neither is the unexamined civilization. Civilizations too, like people, die the way they live.

This is the lesson that we may hope the West may learn if it musters the courage and the vision to  come out from the capitalist obsession with accumulation, property, banks and greed. A radical contemplative attitude toward the meaning of life, individual and collective, would dispel the ethos of relentless productivity. The mother of all the bubbles, the bubble of work, would finally deflate. Indeed, we have been working too much over the past three or four centuries, and outrageously too much over the last thirty years. What demons are we trying to dispel? The Spaniards ought to have learned a lesson from the Tainos Indians of Puerto Rico who worked only four hours a day and then Marx would not have had to write his utopia of a worker’s paradise.

The current depression may mark the beginning of a massive abandonment of competition, consumerist drive, and slavish dependence on work. But that will not happen if the West is  afraid to decline, if it fails to grasp that to decline is not necessarily to die, it may well mean a renaissance or a rebirth. Indeed, if there is something unique to Western Civilization it is its various renaissances. Ultimately that would mean that we might be able to recover the imagination to return to our origins. And here lies the paradox: Greece is the place where the West began. It remains the place where the West must return to recover its origins and cultural identity, or on the other hand, it could be the place where it commits suicide and dies. The choice is ours, for indeed the existential dread of choosing our destiny is what keeps us human.

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Roman Stranger2011-11-02 14:14:31
"A radical contemplative attitude toward the meaning of life" associated with a turn to the "organic limits" of work. All of this sounds like a fine return to the classical primacy of contemplation over practical life.

But if the ENDS (of our labor) are GIVEN--i.e. if they are NATURAL rather than MANMADE (malleable/expansive)--then would they not be PERMANENT, rather than FUTURE? To wit: "a future more just world" is a world that requires lots of work and lots of technology, and so lots of competition and production. Laborism was never an end in itself. Neither was Capitalism, which sees capital not as an end in itself, but as the best way to reach our ends.

The real problem would seem to pertain to our understanding of ENDS or their nature.


Emanuel Paparella2011-11-02 15:20:51
The article by Mr. Kalamidas’s article ("In the Mind of Papandreou's Loaded Gun") and the two first comments under it, one by yours truly and one by Mr. Kalamidas himself who is the one of the editors of this magazine, may perhaps prove useful to this observation by a Roman Stranger whoever he may be (Ulysses’s alias as “nobody”?) which all but ignores, or perhaps remains unaware of the theoretical and practical meaning of the concept of Utopia and therefore misses the point. I would suggest that Plato’s Republic too is a theoretical utopia destined to remain a mere theory till tested upon the practical rigors and considerations of Syracuse. There it comes up a bit short. Don Quixote also envisions a utopian ideal world (which exists nowhere on earth) duly ridiculed by Sancho Panza, the practical Machiavellian realist, who considers Don Quixote’s “impossible dream” the delusions of a raving madman, the but that lunatic vision eventually changes Sancho Panza for the better.

Leah Sellers2011-11-02 20:48:28
Hello Brother Emanuel,
Being an Eternal Optimist and Romanitic, I must confess to always falling in love with the Lunatic Visionaries of the World.
Christ was such a Visionary. I often wondered how many Roman soldiers and Pharisees called him a Lunatic.
Also, one of my favorite songs is the Impossible Dream.
Kudos to you, Dear Sir.

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