Friday, April 10, 2009

Collectivism reborn?

It has been hard to rise from the slumber induced by the Greek spring and a surfeit of 'Wine Poems'. Eric Hobsbawm has just about woken me up with a patchy piece on the economic crisis that, at first, posits a false dichotomy between unrestricted global capitalism, “a sort of international bourgeois anarchism”, and “centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type”, or Stalinism as he doesn't call it. A whole range of social democratic and democratic socialist alternatives disappear in the chasm between his two irreconcilable models.

However, he seems to be grasping for just such alternatives, though, curiously, he shows little faith in them,
You may say that's all over now. We're free to return to the mixed economy. The old toolbox of Labour is available again - everything up to nationalisation - so let's just go and use the tools once again, which Labour should never have put away. But that suggests we know what to do with them. We don't.
This pessimism seeps through the article, but he makes one pertinent, if commonplace, point deftly calling for “a return to the conviction that economic growth and the affluence it brings is a means and not an end. The end is what it does to the lives, life-chances and hopes of people”.

And that raises the importance of collective action, not as an alternative to individual liberties, but as an essential component of them.
The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the "capabilities" of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy - not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.
There's that pessimism again, however his assertion of a collective interest in public provision chimes perfectly with those of us who still cling to a public service ethos. There is nothing new here. It could almost be a restatement of the 'Middle Way' of the 1930's. It is just nice to see advocacy of "public non-profit initiative" and "collective social improvement" at a time when one of its instruments, adult education, appears to be in its death throes with the remnants being corralled into the low-cost wishful thinking of informal learning.

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