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These best of times? August 3, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

I’m as unconvinced as Oliver Burkeman in this piece in the Guardian at the idea put forward by some that we live in the best of times. There’s an element of truth in regard to certain aspects of life globally. But that seems a bit too pat. As Burkeman notes:

…after steeping yourself in their work, you begin to wonder if all their upbeat factoids really do speak for themselves. For a start, why assume that the correct comparison to be making is the one between the world as it was, say, 200 years ago, and the world as it is today? You might argue that comparing the present with the past is stacking the deck. Of course things are better than they were. But they’re surely nowhere near as good as they ought to be. To pick some obvious examples, humanity indisputably has the capacity to eliminate extreme poverty, end famines, or radically reduce human damage to the climate. But we’ve done none of these, and the fact that things aren’t as terrible as they were in 1800 is arguably beside the point.

Or rather, it is very much a part of the point even if matters are better than they were in 1800.

And this leaves me cold:

…it is in the nature of the New Optimism that negative developments can be alchemised into reasons to be cheerful, and by the time we spoke, Norberg had an upbeat spin on the election, too.

“I think it might be that in a couple of years’ time, we’ll think it was a great thing that Trump won,” he says. “Because if he’d lost, and Hillary had won, she’d have been the most hated president of modern times, and then Trump and Bannon would have used that to build an alt-right media empire, create an avalanche of hatred, and then there might have been a more disciplined candidate the next time round – a real fascist, rather than someone impersonating … Trump may prove to have been the incompetent, self-absorbed person who ruins the populist brand in the United States.” This sort of counterfactual argument suffers from not being falsifiable, and in any case, it’s a long way from a position of straightforward positivity about the direction in which the world is moving. But perhaps it is the one genuinely indisputable truth on which the New Optimists and the more pessimistically minded can agree: that whatever happens, things could always, in principle, have been worse.

That’s all very well but it ignores two salient aspects… firstly that Trump gaining the presidency has dealt huge damage to many many people both in the US and further afield. Secondly that that worst case scenario is by no means a sure thing. Would Hillary have been the most hated President of modern times, and would Trump have had the patience to build any such network (let alone allow an outright fascist to supplant him?). It’s not that it’s impossible but that as with much of this ‘optimistic’ line seems to need to structure the context in ways that are too easily open to critique.

And perhaps there’s a reason for that. As Burkeman notes:

At its heart, the New Optimism is an ideological argument: broadly speaking, its proponents are advocates for the power of free markets, and they intend their sunny picture of humanity’s recent past and imminent future to vindicate their politics. This is a perfectly legitimate political argument to make – but it’s still a political argument, not a straightforward, neutral reliance on objective facts. The claim that we are living in a golden age, and that our dominant mood of pessimism is unwarranted, is not an antidote to the Age of the Take, but a Take like any other – and it makes just as much sense to adopt the opposite view. “What I dislike,” Runciman says, “is this assumption that if you push back against their argument, what you’re saying is that all these things are not worth valuing … For people to feel deeply uneasy about the world we inhabit now, despite all these indicators pointing up, seems to me reasonable, given the relative instability of the evidence of this progress, and the [unpredictability] that overhangs it. Everything really is pretty fragile.”

Not merely is it ideological, it is a conservative argument that at its very least sees the status quo as so much better than the past that it is near enough above question. How do we understand, let alone engage, with climate change, inequalities of increasing scope, etc in light of that?


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