I’m currently working on fleshing out the conclusion to a paper, essentially trying to demonstrate that it is possible to derive Habermasian norms from shared contemporary historical experiences, without having to assume a common human nature. Much of the paper covers ground already discussed often on this blog, but the conclusion does touch on some new ground – basically, on how we might try to understand the concept of “capitalism” in a way that avoids generating endless dichotomies between states vs. markets, regulation vs. freedom, and similar concepts. I’ll post the current, very rough, version of this section below the fold.
The section needs fixing in so many ways I’ve lost count, but what I’m mainly worrying about at the moment is whether the core definition I suggest for capitalism makes any sense. I’ll then need to do a lot more work than has been done in this sketch, to explain how you might actually put this definition into play, to explain why it is historically and socially plausible that certain political ideals should emerge at particular historical moments…
[Note that, since this is an exerpt from a longer piece, it occasionally refers back to authors and issues not included here.]
In this section, I wish to explore how we might try to preserve Habermas’ insight that certain contemporary critical sensibilities can be considered universal, by grounding this insight in a more thoroughly historical, pragmatist framework. As I understand this task, it would require us to identify elements of a contemporary global social context – elements of historical experience that are widely shared, even across the historical boundaries erected by states, regions and ethnicities. We would then need to explain how these widely shared historical experiences make it historically plausible that particular kinds of political ideals would arise at the present time – like Habermas, we would be searching for very abstract critical sensibilities, whose global resonance makes them unlikely to correspond directly with any concrete social institutions. As in Habermas’ framework, these counter-factual critical sensibilities would represent a reservoir of ideals that could be directed against concrete institutions. These ideals, however, would be incubated through our practical experience of living in a modern social context, rather than somehow encrypted and then deciphered in human nature. Following this path, I suggest, we could construct a theoretical approach that is self-reflexive while also remaining fully historical.
In the brief time remaining, I cannot fully outline such a framework. I can, however, suggest a route that might lead us in a promising direction. The recent interest in “globalisation” suggests a broad receptiveness to the concept that, on some level at least, we can speak of sharing a global social context. The term “globalisation” has, however, been criticised for its failure to cast any light on the specific of what this context might be: social institutions, cultures and economies appear to vary widely across the globe – in what sense can we really be said to live in any kind of global society?
The related notion of “global capitalism” might bring us a bit closer – and yet, common definitions of capitalism sit in tension with the concept of capitalism as some kind of global social relation. Capitalism is most often defined in terms of social institutions like the market and private property – in other words, as a means for distributing social wealth. This definition, however, is intrinsically divisive. It leads us, for example, to classify nations or regions as more capitalist if they have developed strong, self-regulating markets and robust private property systems, and to label a strong regulatory state that intervenes often in production and distribution less capitalist than a state that allows markets to self-regulate with minimal political intervention. As a framework for organising historical information, this definition leads us to view the middle of the 20th century as less capitalist than the periods that came before, or after. As a guide to political practice, this definition implies we should dismantle the market and private property if we wish to abolish capitalism, and bolster the market and private property if we wish to embrace it. In short, this definition of capitalism slices the contemporary world, as well as recent history, into capitalist and non-capitalist categories – classifications that may be very useful for some purposes, but that constrain our ability to understand overarching global patterns.
A more productive definition for our purposes might be one that abstracts from the various concrete social institutions with which capitalism has been historically associated. Rather than viewing capitalism in terms of the institutions of private property and the market, I suggest that we define capitalism as any organisation of social life that has, as its consequence, the generation and reproduction of a drive toward economic growth.
From this standpoint, some unifying dimensions of modern history, and of the contemporary world, become clearer. We can begin to consider, for example, that it might be possible for parts of the contemporary world to be “capitalist”, even without a strong market or private property; that the middle of the 20th century can be considered just as “capitalist” as the present era, even though the state was much more interventionist than now; that various institutions – states, markets, universities, NGOs, families, etc. – might play different roles, at different times, in reproducing capitalism, to the extent that they play some role in transmitting incentives and compulsions for economic growth; that the abolition of private property and the market does not necessarily entail the abolition of capitalism; etc. We can also begin to conceptualise some of the other dramatic features that differentiate modernity from other historical periods – we can begin to grasp how the enormous dynamism, the process of creation and destruction of institutions, cultures and practices, that characterises modernity, can also still appear, on some level, historically coherent and unified: to the extent that the drive for economic growth is retained, we are still in some sense in the same kind of society, even if this drive has led us to transform all concrete social institutions.
For present purposes, this alternative conception of capitalism can remain at the level of a thought experiment – one that, if it proves sufficiently productive, we could attempt to prove in a more conventional sense. Nor can we fully explore the potential of this thought experiment here. I can, however, suggest that it would be productive to begin by thinking seriously about the impact of living in a world in which concrete social institutions are routinely created and destroyed, as we retain and reproduce the central drive for economic growth. This dynamic process of creation and destruction provides us with practical, everyday experience of the historical character of our social institutions: we collectively demonstrate to ourselves, through our everyday practice, that concrete social, economic and cultural institutions and practices are human products, that such institutions can be brought into being and can be destroyed. We teach ourselves, in other words, the most corrosive critical sensibility of all: that we possess the potential to make conscious decisions about our social lives.
I suggest that we could build on this foundation, and begin to understand the historical emergence of a range of critical sensibilities – sensibilities that might not be identical to the ones Habermas identifies, but that would be similarly universal within our historical moment. We could also, I suggest, begin to differentiate between sensibilities that we could only realise through a radical transformation of our shared historical context, and sensibilities that we can express partially or fully while preserving capitalism’s drive for economic growth. In this way, our concern with seemingly abstract philosophical matters can translate into deeply practical insights – helping us to determine whether and how, as Mark Considine has asked, “the new gestures, feints, slogans, programs and experiments that have helped to proclaim this – end to the old rigidities – has something really new to say to researchers, practitioners and citizens” (Considine 2005: 1).