Sunday, 25 December 2011

Adam Curits - YouTube professor of the history of conspiratorial epistemes

Adam Curits thought piece on politics of British market ideology.  Has a British angle but is somewhat broader in goal.  What I'd like to take issue with is the assumption that there's some kind of prior political agenda which effectively determines the choices we make in selecting our economic models (political expectations theory, if you will).  The clip by Tony Benn nicely makes the point.  Clearly this is quite true, to some extent.  But clearly also it is the case that politics itself has evolved over time to reflect the hard won insights (I won't call them truths) of certain sciences.  I'm thinking of the secularisation of modern politics around the time of the early enlightenment (Montaigne, Hobbes), the incorporation of specialist knowledge into key decision making processes and, yes, even some economics is uncontroversial enough to enjoy broad support in many developed economies.  Curtis is right, though, that some other broadly supported key ideas may turn out to be inadequate. I know of no documentary maker who more winningly develops these critiques.   

Foucault has the idea of an episteme which provides a structure within which conceptual argumentation occurs, but beyond which it is much more difficult.  These epistemes surely must have a kind of Hegelian movement to them - I wouldn't say they're inevitably evolving towards Truth, as such, but clearly we're building on some, rejecting others, all the time.  Within that moving context, all thinking people find a certain politics, a certain economic mind-set within which we can wander intellectually.  I don't think it is fair to  denigrate individual intelligences as merely captured birds of some political cage.  Many thinkers the world over, are probably more than comfortable with the ultimate transience of their thought; and they probably have a range of opinions on the acceptance or rejection of their ideas by the current political establishments.  True, ideas, especially economic ones, can pretty soon develop an unshakeable political musk which attracts some, repulses others.  That musk, insofar as it augments or clashes with the major cultural epistemes of the day, will likely determine the fate of the idea in the history of ideas.  But its fate is one thing.  Its value quite another.

Curtis's documentary style and content are so interesting and provocative that I'll always hunt out and consume his output.  But his characterisation of Hayek's key idea that distributed pricing information is too incompressible for any system other than a market is perhaps unfair.  It is quite far from Curtis' characterisation of it as robotic technocracy.  Hayek sees no-one as a robot.  Curtis on the one hand tries to characterise Hayek's ideas a technocratic, and on the other as Machievellian in their committed political drive.  It is hard to see how you can have it both ways.

I often wonder how successful traders operated before the whole concept of the rational man first made an appearance in the history of ideas.  No doubt there were successful traders, industry barons, market manipulators, manipulators of public opinion (or of respected opinion, just as damaging), operators innately sensitive to the business cycle, theorists like John Law and especially Richard Cantillion who could engineer vast personal profit (and lose it again, the former's case).  Is it possible to look at all of these lives in a way which is not simply politically deterministic, but is still sensitive to their political effects as well as determinants?  And can we see how some of these ideas are important and long lasting; which have survived many transformations?  I say yes.  Enjoy the history of ideas, but see that there's nothing inevitable about their direction; there's nothing to say those ideas always move in the direction of truth.  There's nothing to say usurped ideas can't be valuable ones, in the end.