Utopianism and curiosity

Not every far-fetched ideal is utopian. Utopianism is a bad yearning, political ideology acock persistent ignorance.

One of the best things I’ve listened to this year is political risk consultant Ian Bremmer, author of ‘The End of the Free Market‘, presenting at the RSA on state capitalism after the financial crisis.

An excerpt from a review of the book (by somebody who fears central planning):

“The provocative — and ultimately false — premise upon which some of Bremmer’s argument is based is that the financial crisis revealed the inherent weaknesses in unregulated free markets.

He describes a meeting at the Chinese consulate in New York in May 2009 at which China’s vice foreign minister stated: “Now that the free market has failed, what do you think is the proper role for the state in the economy?”

Bremmer recognizes that this premise is laughable, but he is astute in seeing that state capitalism is an important political force.

Kenneth Minogue reminds us, “Capitalism is what people do when you leave them alone.” So, for Bremmer, state capitalism is “a system in which the state dominates markets, primarily for political gain.”

Bremmer emphasizes that state capitalism is not 17th-century mercantilism rehashed; international trade is not a zero-sum game, and the historical forces that gave rise to the British East India Co. are no longer at play.”

There’s another review in The Torygraph, none in The Guardian. I’ll add a review from the political left if I can find one.

The joy I took in the presentation was only partly because I adore puckish, enthusiastic presenters (including my pin-ups Jonathan Zittrain, Christopher Hitchens and Cindy Gallop). It was because he was committed to a multi-factorial, multi-perspective god’s eye view of economic risk which didn’t flinch from the complexity of globalised circumstances, so much so that he was the equivalent of an entire panel. I was also very interested in this bit [audio, 23:34] shortly after a question about the far right reaction which was answered in more depth:

Qu: What’s been the reaction of the far left?”

IB: Oh. The far left’s reaction has been … “The free market has failed, and what we really need is the Chinese system”, right? I mean, the far left reaction is basically [China‚Äôs Vice Foreign Minister] He Yafei’s reaction. You see, what’s interesting about both the far left and the far right – I don’t think either of them believe it. Not the mouthpieces. I think they’re just – now of course I would say that, right – you know, that’s the worst criticism you can possibly damn on somebody: “You know what? I know you’re saying that but you don’t actually – I don’t think you believe what you’re saying”. I’ve done that on TV before, and it’s fun because they don’t know how to react to that – “Whaddaya mean I don’t believe what I’m saying?” – “No you don’t, you are a shill”. I mean, I think that – look, I’m a political scientist and ultimately I’m a curious person – I want to kind of try – I’m not intending to be ideological, I’m trying to get a sense of what’s going to happen. My view is that if you can tell me what’s going to happen, and you can tell me even where we are right now, that’s 8o%. And then you can tell me about where you want to go given where we are.”

It’s idiosyncratic but I was so impressed by this that I listened to the presentation several more times – it covers environmentalism, why multinationals hesitate to go into China, the importance of immigration, what happens when constituency becomes important, and many other interrelated facts briefly and in rapid succession, but – paradoxically perhaps because it was one of the few explicit principles, as opposed to fact-backed predictions – the part transcribed above is a touchstone.

This reminds me of another RSA thing when Conservative panellist Francis Maud was talking about the differences between conviction and weathervane politicians and I had the feeling there was something in between he’d missed out. It’s the curiosity to form genuine questions and collect evidence which don’t simply nod towards a preordained conclusion, so that conviction grows from research and is so well-evidenced that the weathervane goes your way too (well, sometimes). Active curiosity is the most important thing for anybody interested in politics. Most have it, but if utopians did they wouldn’t be utopians.

Sometimes he could do with not talking about people as if they were so many ants but all the same, Ian Bremmer is an exhilarating assimilator of facts and ideas. To read: his book.

Bonus links: Rosie on Hitch22.

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