2011, a year between worlds

A profusion of innovative projects guided by an ethic of collaboration holds out the possibility of creative responses to today's multiple crises, says Keith Kahn-Harris.
Keith Kahn-Harris
24 December 2011

This was a strange year.

On the one hand, 2011 was the bleakest year for decades. We are in the midst of a global economic crisis with no end in sight and the political class appears to have little idea of what to do about it. Conflict in the middle east seems highly likely. Catastrophic climate change seems impossible to stop.

But at the same time, I can’t remember a more exciting and creative year than 2011. The Arab spring, the Occupy movement and a profusion of innovative projects and startups, seem to be suggesting that we are living through a time of exceptional innovation. A substantial section of humanity is not taking the crisis lying down.

How should we understand this strange duality of hope and despair? One way to view it is with cynicism, concluding that social innovation and protest cannot overturn the fundamental trajectory towards economic and social collapse. Police actions against Occupy, the rise of the populist far-right in Europe and America and fundamentalist Islam worldwide, all suggest that a turn towards brutal oppression is a real possibility.

Such a pessimistic view would not be entirely unwarranted, but it also fails to capture the ironic nature of the current situation and the possibilities inherent in it.

Consider this: one of the fundamental assumptions of the neo-liberal right is that if the state withdraws from society, entrepreneurialism will be unleashed in the market and in the voluntary sector. This is the principle behind the "big society", the idea (or at least slogan) championed by Britain's prime minister David Cameron. It could be argued that the proliferation of independent, bottom-up initiatives is the vindication of the free-marketeers - for as people throughout the world lose faith in the state’s ability to protect them, they are filling the gap with new ways of organising society.

Consider this also: over the last few decades the apostles of the free market in the west have urged individuals to adapt to the deregulated "knowledge economy" by embracing change and creative insecurity. Those at the forefront of the current wave of innovation now appear to be doing precisely this. I can’t imagine a better person to work in a modern corporation than an activist for Occupy - for such people are evidently adept at collaboration, self-directed learning and vision-guided change.

Neither the free-market right nor the insurgents against it seem to recognise this ironic convergence. Everyone needs to be careful of what they wish for or it might come true: naked free-market capitalism may indeed unleash entrepreneurial creativity, but entrepreneurial creativity based on fundamentally different values; activism and movements for change may create new ways of being but in the process may nurture a skill-set that is ripe for the picking by the market.

In the balance

This can look like history's revenge: a classic Marxian contradiction between the economic base and the cultural-institutional superstructure. But it is a contradiction where we cannot yet know the direction towards which it will resolves itself. It may be that neo-liberal capitalism will collapse under the weight of the activist entrepeneurialism that it itself has produced, and what we are seeing now proves to be the birth of a genuinely new kind of society. It may be that activist entrepeneurialism will over time invigorate and renew the capitalist system and what we are seeing now is simply the labour pains of a generation adapting to a harsh new form of capitalism.

Either way, it is vital that we go into 2012 with open eyes. In the strange days of 2011 it was often hard to know whether to be incredibly scared or incredibly optimistic. 2012 may be the year when we finally find out what emotion has been more appropriate.

There is still everything to play for. Perhaps that is what was so strange about 2011 - the feeling that the future lies genuinely in the balance. We are not used to this sense of possibility. The cold war froze the world into a binary conflict and the triumphant global capitalism that followed was predicated on a sense of smug inevitability. The last time the future of the world seemed so impossible to predict was during the 1930s and 1940s.

This may not be a comforting precedent, but there is little choice now than to consider what strategies may help us survive the coming upheaval. The best lesson that the 1930s-40s present to us is that even in the midst of conflict we can keep one eye on the future (think of William Beveridge planning the welfare state as war raged). The worst lesson is that ideological conflict can only be resolved through annihilation of one side or other.

It’s on the latter point that Occupy and similar phenomena have most to offer, in that they have so far avoided ideological retrenchment and infighting. If this diffuse movement can retain its openness and suppleness while continuing to embed itself in political and social life, then maybe there will be more reason to look forward to, rather than fear, 2012.


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