Branko Milanović – “We Had Everything Before Us, We Had Nothing Before Us”

A great weekend read.

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His new book “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World” should be appearing in October.

Cross-posted from Branko´s blog globalinequality

When I was young and would overhear (rare) conversations that my father and his friends had about their own young lives in the inter-war period, I would often long for these years thinking how great it must have been to be growing up then, between 1918 and 1938, when three powerful ideologies, liberalism, communism (with its many mutually internecine shades) and fascism, clashed mercilessly across Europe and the world. Not only was what was on the offer in these ideologies so different, and in each case, powerful but the stakes were high. Choosing one or the other ideology (or in the communist case, one or the other subgroup) led most of the time directly into illegality, jail, or for many ultimately to death. The intensity of ideology is not measured only in the space of ideas, but in the space of risks people are willing to take to defend them.

The dreamlike enthusiasm and envy for those years were of course tempered by the knowledge that young people like my father lived then in the shadow of a great war. But perhaps the very life on the edge of the precipice added to the excitement. Perhaps that the belief that if you defeated fascism now, and it would not engulf the world into destruction and extermination, gave an extra zest to the life composed of equal measures of ideology and action.

I compared in my mind the excitement of that period with what I regarded as an intellectually sterile age of the confrontation between the two immobile blocs of US capitalism and Soviet communism. On the one hand, stood US with its simulacre of ideology that could best be explained as utilitarianism-cum-pragmatism (hardly something that would move you), defended by people in boring suits, wearing funny glasses, and living in suburban homes. On the other had there was a crumbling edifice of state socialism that has not produced a single new idea since 1925, defended by dreary bureaucrats in fedora hats wearing light grey socks and shoes. Only the Third World offered some hope, novelty or excitement. It was, I thought, the only part of the world—Cuba under Castro, Egypt under Nasser, Indonesia under Soekarno, Ghana under Nkrumah– that had vigor and youth. (We know that these things ended mostly badly; but they did not look like in the late 1960s or early 1970s).

This stalemate between two decrepit ideologies ended with the victory of liberal capitalism. And that ushered the most ideologically deadening period of all. The period 1990-2010 in its “pensée unique” and wooden language almost replicated the worst features of Sovietiana: a formulaic language of false unity of everybody and everything under the benevolent rule of liberal bourgeoisie. Like in Soviet regimes, all contradictions were supposedly solved; once for ever. There were no new questions, and answers to all previous questions were provided. The whole world was just hurrying to become another Denmark where nothing of interest would ever happen.

But that stultifying intellectual world was exploded by the 2008 crisis, the rise of political Islam, and the rise of China. It exploded because it was (i) unable to address real issues and contradictions and supplied only ready-made formulaic bromides, and (ii) it wrongly assumed that people desire to be free of ideological choices. In other words, it is not only unlikely that the world will ever become Denmark (the Middle East has been in turmoil for the past 4,000 years and is likely to be so in the next), but the world does not want to live in a society devoid of major ideological choices, cleavages and battles.

Now, the exciting times are back again. It is especially exciting for the young people because the richness of ideological choices they have before them is immense: liberalism, new socialism, nationalism, political Islam, Chinese political capitalism, probably more. In my father’s youth there were three strong, different and very potent brands of ideological cereals that you could buy in your neighborly market of ideas. During the Cold War, the offer was reduced to two, rather bland, types. Then in the (original) Fukuyama moment we had only one brand of rather tasteless cereals on offer. Nothing else existed on the ideological shelves, a bit like Moscow’s real supermarket shelves in 1975. But today, we are thriving with numerous cereals, some with potent taste, others very spicy, some sugary. The choice is great and it is all yours. The stakes, fortunately, are not as great as during the inter-war years in Europe and the world. We do not all crave to die for an ideology. But the intellectual excitement and ferment is back. My students are lucky. It is good to be young in interesting times, despite that much quoted Chinese curse.

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