Monday, February 4, 2013


The other day I was reading some things by André Gorz --his political-economic, or ecological writings, as he sometimes referred to them. Not Letter to D: A Love Story,which might be really great for all I know, but I'm not interested in it right now -- and not for the first time I was exhilarated by Gorz' great good sense, and at the same time deeply discouraged by what seems to me to be the great distance between such good sense and most people's even allowing themselves to consider such topics, let alone agree with Gorz. I'm a very enthusiastic reader of Gorz, and I would encourage everyone to take a look at such books as Ecology as Politicsand Farewell to the Working Class,although I am not a Gorzist in the sense that many people have been Marxists, inasmuch as they have treated Marx's writing as holy texts, claiming that All The Answers Are In There. (Marx himself said that he was not such a Marxist, but the Marxists have overlooked that passage in Marx just as other believers overlook whatever they have to so as not to have to actually think for themselves.) You don't have to agree with Gorz about everything, but I think it would be very helpful if more people began to think about the topics he raises.

Among these is setting limits to economic growth. This is already quite a familiar topic to ecologists (and meteorologists), but it does not compute for many economists, because much of economic theory still is predicated on constant growth. Well, we're beginning to burn the Earth to a crisp, and so we need to start thinking about this. Soon. Now. Ecologists have been thinking and talking about it for decades, but they haven't been getting through to most economists and leaders of politics and industry. Al Gore is one of the exceptions, and for his trouble he got the Nobel Peace Prize and became a laughingstock among most economists and politicians, even as the effects of global warming he and other ecologists have warned about have been coming to pass. The problem is that there is such a separation between ecological and economic thought. Gorz, unlike most ecologists, including Gore, unfortunately, has a profound grasp of the economic theories which have been put in place by the world's leaders, he understands their jargon, he understands their concerns, and he responds to them in ways they can readily comprehend. It's not very often you see an ecologist who is also an economist.

What Gorz writes about -- along with some other New Leftists -- is a paradigm shift in economics, away from the obsession solely with quantity and toward the deeper concept of quality. To this day economics is dominated by the concern with quantity and with growth and ever more growth. We've come to realize that we are endangering ourselves by burning too many petrochemicals and clearing away too many forests and wetlands and paving too much of the Earth -- but we keep on doing it. The economic markets continue to behave as if no-one had ever heard of air pollution or global warming or extreme weather, because they continue to be based on the criterium of quantity, that more is always better. This mentality is not merely absurd: it also often rewards people who frankly are just not bright enough to realize that it is absurd. William Gaddis' novel JRunderscores this point by making its title character and odious protagonist an 11-year-old boy -- and not even a remarkably bright 11-year-old -- who becomes a financial titan by observing other Wall Street titans and doing what they do. (He's surrounded by highly-cultured and sensitive adults, and when they occasionally notice and are appalled by what JR is up to, he replies, "That's what you do!")

A paradigm shift in economic thinking, from quantity as the goal to quality, would make this a much better and more satisfying world. Oliver Stone's second Wall Streetmovie, with Shia LaBeouf, Carey Mulligan and Josh Brolin, makes this point in Stone's typically un-subtle way. The original Wall Streetfrom 1987, in which Charlie Sheen dueled with Michael Douglas, had more subtle hints of this conflict between a paradigm of quantity and one of quality -- more subtle perhaps because at the time Stone was only subconsciously aware of it. I don't mind Stone not being subtle: he's trying to make people think, and in such an effort subtlety is not always called for. The examples of the Soviet bloc have shown us that it's extremely difficult to force entire nations to behave in their own self-interest. I don't believe that broad-scale paradigm shifts can be brought about in such a top-down forced manner. I think that education has to be improved, that that's the only way that the human race can be saved from itself.

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