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I tinker, therefore I am

June 8, 2011

John Harris has an excellent blog in the Guardian  about the need for bigger thinking:

…on all sides of politics, the fashion is for flimsy texts that, in that rather irksome post-Freakonomics kind of way, tell us that a world whose iniquitous outlines look much the same as ever is actually much more complicated. As well as his fans on the right, there are people on the left who urge us to pick up David Brooks‘s insanely hyped treatise The Social Animal, which advises us that class is bunk, and “society is a layering of networks” (p155). Yesterday morning, the postman brought me Adapt by the British writer Tim Harford, another voguish book whose blurb advises us to dump “grand visions” and “improvise rather than plan”. Every week, in fact, brings another lecture or book about the political uses of neuroscience, or what Twitter is doing to human consciousness – everything, it seems, apart from what’s actually most important. The world arguably needs a new Marx, but it keeps creating Malcolm Gladwells, pirouhetting around their flipcharts and ignoring the real problems.

Postmodernism has fallen out of fashion, but it’s clearly thriving behind the scenes. Harford’s apparent pessimism is a version of Lyotard’s famous ‘collapse of grand narrative’, in which he argues that the bold stories told by socialists and conservatives don’t apply any more. No big ideas can explain society’s ailments. Instead of social planning, we have piecemeal engineering. Instead of rationalism, fiddling. Descartes’s Cogito Ergo Sum reaches its ultimate perversion: I tinker, therefore I am.

Harris clearly thinks that we can do better than this, complaining that in Britain

One family in five has either “difficulty” or “great difficulty” in making ends meet, and our working hours remain as crushing as ever.

A terrible slur on a rich country.  But i’d say that greater ambition means thinking internationally, not just worrying about one corner of Europe. Yes, how we treat ourselves influences our behaviour toward others, but  it’s surely the very definition of pessimism to focus on our own backyard.

Many of the economic problems facing Britain are global in origin: the imbalances whereby America spends for the world and China saves; the tax havens that suck money from poor countries and lubricate the race to the bottom; the anarchic financial order; the power-based trading system that prevents poor countries from selling their goods to the rich. And that’s not to mention the environment, which is surely the very definition of global.

No, the avoidance of tinkering means addressing an international audience. A new Marx, like the old one, wouldn’t just bemoan local difficulties, iniquitous as they are. He or she would take the globe as  a stage. Marx said that the various philosophers have interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it.

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