Thursday, March 12, 2009

Beyond the Financial Crisis: Intellectual Package Holidays for the Mind

I will get back on the 'deviancy' trail shortly. Meanwhile, I want to briefly reflect on something that has been bothering me for a few months now: the low quality of public thinking about the current financial crisis. This crisis does not only involve the degradation of monetary wealth and the social misery caused by this. It is also a palpable manifestation of our intellectual bankruptcy. And, not just in the obvious sense that much of recent finance theory and the free-and-efficient markets ideology underlying it now seems as defunct as old-school, soviet-style marxism. Thinkers of all persuasions seem to have been caught out.

Where are the useful and pertinent commentaries by members of the intellectual avant garde, those who look down on the rest of us from the progressive heights? Deconstructionists and their ever more colourful offspring? They haven't left the starting gate yet. Ultra Radical Feminists? I've heard some predictable complaints that the crisis is an entirely male concoction, but nothing more insightful or constructive. As for political critique, those on the right are laughably sticking to their outworn dogmas and leftists seem a bit hysterical. Some have withdrawn into their Stalinist shells and others are hand wringing at the very thought that the business community has instigated a crisis that defies explanation in terms of their familiar jargon.

The management gurus, and other charlatans residing at somewhat lower altitudes of thought, are also keeping their heads down. Perhaps they sense that most of their drivel is now even easier to recognise as drivel. Though no doubt Tom Peters is somewhere right now shouting "This is all very exciting!" (only in CAPITALS). But, I don't think there will be a rush on the resulting book of rants.

The same goes for New Age prophets. You read The Secret or The Six Steps Towards Complete Self Love, but you still lost your house and your job. Time to wise up, I guess?

We can be thankful for these latter small mercies. But nevertheless, the paucity of fresh ideas on how to deal with what is happening and also move society forward amidst the exceedingly choppy economic waves is pretty depressing to behold. The Financial Times has just announced a series of articles by supposedly big hitters on 'The Future of Capitalism'. But, even the very use of the word "Capitalism" suggests we shouldn't get too excited.

Next time I will explain more details of my special free offer of Intellectual Package Holidays. Meanwhile, if you come across anything on the crisis that goes against the pessimistic grain of this post, please let me know. Perhaps we can find, and then nurture, some interesting ideas that will flower in the desert we seem to have been left with.


  1. Hi Prof. Malachowski,

    I was reminded of Rorty's complaints about the academic left in your thoughts, which I imagine is one reason you're as attracted to him as I am. One of the things I found incredibly surprising and titillating about President Obama's rise was that his rhetoric, so beautifully executed, almost seems straight out of Achieving Our Country. I really wish he'd been alive to see his election--he would've been so proud of America.

    I'm barely literate in economic matters, but more and more I'm drawn back to the way Rorty had been describing the political scenario of America, pretty much ever since he started commentating. The neoconservatives had taken over the Republican party, and they--from Reagan through Bush the Second to McCain and Boehner and Limbaugh--have used religion and Chicago-school econ-ideology to mask the fact that they are basically a bunch of thugs. Rorty never moved beyond his reply to Bernstein--thugs and theorists. The problem with the left intellectuals is that they are too caught up in theory to notice that that's exactly what the thugs want.

    Being State-side and too uninformed about the rest of the world, I can tell you that over here, Senator Bernie Sanders, the first (and only real) independent ever in the Senate, knows what's going on. My former senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, too. But they are nearly alone in the arena, with the Progressive Caucus being just too small, and Harry Reed not having the stones to either blow up the filibuster (which Daschle constantly threatened Democrats with, for comparatively small potatoes) or else call their bluff and make them stand up there and tell the American people just why exactly they're standing in the way of aid to the plight of Americans.

    I like Paul Krugman at the New York Times. I like Keith Olbermann, and love Rachel Maddow on MSNBC (which isn't to mention Jon Stewart, who may prove that comedians are still the most incisive cultural critics the left has--if you haven't seen his encounter with Jim Cramer, you must find it on youtube). But if you are really looking for a commentator with a little more intellectual gravitas, you might check out Thom Hartmann, a bizarrely prolific author and left-wing talk radio host.

    He wrote a book in 2006, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against The Middle Class, that I know Rorty would've loved and agreed whole-heartedly with--we haven't moved beyond FDR and the same thing that saved us then would save us now. He advocates rolling back, not the Bush tax cuts for the top blip of a percent, but the Reagan tax cuts, enforcing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, breaking up the media conglomerates so we get news again, creating a single-payer health care system so people don't go bankrupt trying to save their child's life, which will take the burden off of businesses to pay for something that doesn't work anyways so they can get back to competitive innovation and unions back to making sure workers get good wages, etc., etc.

    He's a comprehensive thinker with a clear vision of the moral future of America, and the world. He combines, just as Rorty did, utopic hopes with political realism.

  2. Hi Mark,
    Thanks very much for your interesting comments. I already keep a close eye on Krugman, but I will follow up on some of your other references. I have also found Joseph Stiglitz's work/commentary useful - especially on the international aspects of the crisis (though I think both these guys underestimate the role played by dubious financial instruments, and the mindset behind them). keep in touch. Alan

  3. Prof. Malachowski,

    Thank you for your blog entries. I find them quite interesting. In addition, to Krugman and Stiglitz, I enjoy Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University. I read his blog on Huffington Post. Like you, I have been searching for optimistic view points on the global financial crisis. Today, I read "After Capitalism" by Geoff Mulgan and found it to be fairly optimistic or at least imaginative and forward looking. It can be located at

  4. Hi Greg,
    Thanks for responding. And, thanks for the
    Mulgan reference in particular. I have been a bit overwhelmed lately by the number of books and articles with 'After Capitalism' or the likes in the title. One of my worries is that labels like 'capitalism' are now past their sell by date. This morning I happened to re-read Rorty's 'The End of Leninism' in which he captured my concern back in 1991:"I think the time has come to drop the terms "capitalism" and "socialism" from the political vocabulary of the left. It would be a good idea to stop talking about 'the anti-capitalist struggle' and to substitute something banal and untheoretical like 'the struggle against avoidable human misery'." Much of the material on the current crisis either clings on blindly to free market ideology (so you will see journalists getting worked up because government intervention is preventing market self-regulation - what self-regulation?)or assumes that there is some standard socialist solution sitting waiting in the wings.