Choose your own utopia

Slavoj Žižek has published  a short essay in LBR a couple of weeks ago commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. It contains several  familiar riffs for those who have been following his writings recently (like a reference to The Eighteenth Brumaire or his speculation on whether China could be a successful example of a capitalist society that doesn’t need to provide its members democratic freedoms in order to thrive) but the main theme of the article is the fate of anti-communism in the Central and Eastern Europe over the last 20 years. And in this Žižek makes an interesting observation, noting how the problems and challenges of the new era are seen in terms of old struggles – although most of the former Eastern block countries have been democratic for almost two decades now, any failures are seen as remnants of the old system that still haven’t been completely purged.

Žižek asks:

How and why are these ghosts being raised in countries where many young people don’t even remember Communism? Anti-Communists ask a simple question – ‘If capitalism is really so much better than socialism, why are our lives still miserable?’ – and offer an equally straightforward answer: it is because we don’t yet have capitalism, we don’t yet have true democracy. Ex-Communists are still in power, disguised as owners and managers. We need another purge, the revolution must be repeated.

And in this way, Žižek argues, the Central and Eastern Europe has been largely living for a capitalist utopia, believing that soon the true democracy and prosperity will arrive (now embarrassing populist election slogan of Estonia’s rightist Reform Party that set the target for Estonia to become one of the five most prosperous EU nations in 15 years was a perfect example of this kind of utopianism) – quite without realising that this is capitalism that they are living in, about as good as it gets. Electorates have been buying the stories of how the rising tide lifts all the boats and seeing in the practice the social inequality creeping up constantly – only to dismiss it as “a transition problem”, something that will eventually pass once everyone becomes laborious and savvy like those at the top.

On this note there is another interesting, if lengthy, article-cum-book-review from LBR by David Runciman that discusses the relationship between social inequality and quality of life – and makes some very profound points, the main one being that “among rich countries, the more unequal ones do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator you can imagine” and that “per capita GDP turns out to be much less significant for general wellbeing than the size of the gap between the richest and poorest 20 per cent of the population ”. And, as the book under review – The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better – makes clear, in most of the cases this is not because of those at the bottom bringing down the average metrics of quality of life – on many accounts, those at the top in unequal societies fare worse than those at the top in egalitarian ones (although they may be much better off in absolute money terms), and in some accounts they may well actually fare worse than those at the bottom in more egalitarian societies. It is a lengthy and complex argument, as the review makes it apparent, and not everything is as clear-cut and simple as the title of the book makes it look like, but there is a lot that would deserve a very close attention by those who want to argue over the respective merits and shortcomings of capitalism vs. socialism.

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2 thoughts on “Choose your own utopia

  1. I’m a bit out of my depth here, but last para resonated well with a book I’m 2/3 through, “Seeking Alpha”. In it, the author posits that investors in reality don’t care about their absolute risk adjusted returns, they care how they do vs others, hens they want positive skew. This is after he shows that CAPM doesn’t work, and that there is no quantifiable or clearly defined relationship between risk and return, due to this “anomaly” of the individual utility function (which can be called in other words, as jealousy and envy).

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