A different end of history?

I’ve just come across the political philosopher John Grey. Here’s a conversation he had with Aaron Bastani. It makes for depressing listening to me, as I think he’s right on a lot of his points (and not as far off the mark as I’d wish for on others).

Of course, the title (“Everything you know about the future is wrong”) is sensationalist and outstrips the ambit of the actual conversation. However, some extremely good points fall out of it. First is the complete negation of Francis Fukayama’s thesis of “The End of History”. I think Fukayama himself has been moving away from the idea that we have arrived (or very nearly arrived) at an inevitable historical conclusion in which Western style liberal democracy had, in effect, won history – we were, per Fukayama, at a situation in which it was inevitable that the whole world would adopt the ideas of liberal democracy, but Grey is adamant that in actuality we passed the point of maximum liberal democracy just after the Soviet Union collapsed. when it did seem that some kind of Western democratic system was inevitable. In fact he points out not only that populist movements have taken root in the USA (and to an extent in Britain) but also that much of Europe is showing signs of a resurgence of far-right nationalist populism.

I could also point out the more or less universal failure of the West’s fatuous “nation building” programme – Grey is absolutely right that a significant proportion of people (and I think a majority in most countries in the world) don’t really want democracy. A reasonably benevolent dictatorship seems much more to their taste – and possibly even a not-very-benevolent dictatorship as long as, to use the terminology of pre-war Germany, “the trains run on time”.

OK, he does point to that as a reason why we might actually celebrate the fact that Brexit has happened and we are not inevitably wedded to Europe, and to my eyes that is a huge overstatement. Yes, there are resurgent nationalist-populist movements all over Europe, and he points to Germany and France as examples (as I write, indeed, Holland has elected a far-right party as its largest). In fact, there are no European countries I know which are free of such impulses. But nowhere is there a working majority (at least as yet) and if there were, I fancy that its worst excesses would probably be tempered by EU membership (and, as Grey remarks, membership of the Euro, which it would be extremely difficult to disentangle a country from).

He points out, rightly, I think, that membership of the EU precludes a socialist government – it’s a fundamentally liberal-democratic, economically neoliberal organisation. However, I think he underplays the fact that this is largely irrelevant for the UK – as long as our economy is tied in to global markets and in particular as long as we have a national debt, I don’t think very much socialism is possible for us (and I don’t see Starmer trying it). What I’d have liked to see him discuss (and maybe he does this elsewhere) is the fact that neoliberal economics, which was part of Fukayama’s end of history, is doomed, and we (and the rest of the world) is going to have to institute some other way of doing things. The climate crisis is one factor which is going to make the dependence on growth of neoliberal economics impossible, but at the moment I rather fancy that the advances in AI are going to render most people’s jobs redundant first, at which point we have a massive demand hole. Clearly people with no income can’t afford to keep on buying consumer goods, and I can’t see our billionaire classes willingly spreading out their mountains of cash in order to keep the machinery of capitalism going for at least a while. This guy touches on the problem, but mostly sees pluses in AI.

It seems ironic that the way we are likely to stop being a society revolving round ever-increasing consuming and producing is to make production costs of many things (particularly entertainment and intellectual property) trivially small, while removing the actual markets for these things…

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