Friday, August 26, 2011

Galtung, Macrohistory, and 2008

I'm cheating a bit on this blog post by doubling up with my final assignment from my latest class from Transcend Peace University.  I'm using the text of my response as my blog post, which actually works out fine, since I've been thinking about economic/political issues anyway.  It might not make a lot of sense out of context, but I think the basic upshot--that our discourse around the economic "crisis" is based in a rhetoric of personal accountability and blame and this leads to a myopic view of the problems and solutions--is clear enough.

A macrohistoric/holonistic view of the response to the response to the 2008 economic crisis would move us away from (to use the terminology of rhetorician/social critic Kenneth Burke) a preoccupation with the Agent/Act relationship to the Agency/Scene relationship.  These roughly translate to moving from questions of “WHO did WHAT” to “HOW did it happen and WHEN and WHERE did it happen.”  In the macrohistoric view, the when and where are vast, the when being the history of capitalism and the where being the globe.   We are then prompted to look at 2008 as a byproduct of a system, not as the malfeasance (ACT) of particular people (AGENT), such as bankers, government leaders, unions, or even whole countries (Greece, Ireland, Spain, etc.).  

The problem policymakers see 2008 in agent/act terms, and the solutions are similarly short-sighted.  The complexity of the system is ignored.  “Austerity” is invoked—a solution steeped in the idiographic mindset that individual virtues are the response to a systemic issue.  Particular people are blamed and punished (“greedy” union members, the “unproductive” poor, etc.).  The blame falls on those whose economic existences are most directly affected by situation, despite the fact that they are already economically marginalized within the system of capitalism.  Here, we have Burke’s fifth and final term: purpose, or “why.”  While traditional views would ascribe the “why” of 2008 to individualistic motives (albeit often projected onto collectives) and corresponding flaws in character, a macrohistoric view would see the “why” in terms of the internal mechanisms of capitalist economics—as system problem, not an individual problem.  Solutions would be based on examining the internal mechanisms of the system and changing them.  Even then, however, a macrohistorian would point out that such changes will only slightly alter its workings in the long run.  As the Roman empire enveloped cities and states, societies that had theretofore been relatively homogeneous in terms of economic standing of their populace became increasingly stratified, with growing disparities between the wealthy and the poor.  Social instability followed.  To the macrohistorian, such a data point would be more relevant to explaining 2008 than the GDPs of various countries in 2007.  Militaristic capitalism leads to expansion which leads to empire which leads to exploitative use of resources which leads to society being “stretched” wildly between extremes of wealth, which leads to economic, political, and social instability.  

Because policy makers generally 1) have a vested interest in maintaining the system more or less as is, 2) have chronological horizons that last only until the next election cycle, quarterly earnings report, or their own personal lifespan,, and 3) are wedded to the personal view of history, with heroes and villains (where they, at the top of the political and economic ladder, are of course the heroes), there is little chance for fully grasping the problem, let alone resolving the conflicts it engenders.   A macrohistoric view looks the issue from a systems point of view, at the changing relationships among economic stratification, expansion of economic domains over time(city-state, nation, region, globe), and conflict/peace over the scope of history.  She/He would also perhaps suggest that the current system and its measures of “success” are problematic and that not only the system, but the purpose behind it should be questioned and changed.

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