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Better at diagnosis than cure
on 27 February 2014
This book is well worth reading, but ultimately somewhat anti-climatic. The first chapter contains a searing indictment of the contemporary world, its materialistic philosophy and cavalier disregard for the global environment. Much of what the author has to say in the opening chapters about mankind's post-enlightenment conceit - the blithe assumption that progress through ever-increasing mastery of technology is guaranteed - is absolutely spot on, and resonates strongly in a culture dominated by smartphones and busy lifestyles. Many readers who feel trapped by a routine of long working hours and increasingly insecure employment will relate strongly to the tone of disenchantment that pervades the narrative. Eisenstein shows how this 'old story' of human progress has come to dominate policy making in most western societies, to an extent that its key dogmas go largely unquestioned, except by radical fringe groups.
However, it is at this stage of the analysis that the book starts to hit a problem - a big problem. Eisenstein's political manifesto is based on the insight that concepts of separation and individualism have traditionally dominated western thought patterns, and that to overcome this, and put humanity on a more constructive path, we need to develop a more unitary doctrine of 'inter-being' which sees us as an integral part of nature, with each part affecting the whole. As a rejection of extreme individualism, this seems altogether sound. Unfortunately though it means that the arguments developed in the later chapters of the book don't take sufficient account of the enduring reality of human conflict, specifically conflict between competing value systems. For example, at one point the author asks (rather naively) why the complete disbandment of the US 'military machine' is not on the political agenda of any US political party. The answer, surely, is obvious. The US has real enemies, such as al-Qaeda, who are hell bent on destroying the freedoms we enjoy in the West, including those enjoyed by proponents of 'alternative' culture. Surrendering one's military capability unilaterally in the face of people like that is no answer. So it is not enough to preach a doctrine of univeral love and harmony. Real politics involves the hard slog of dealing with real, unavoidable value conflicts and trying to overcome these by compromise, negotiation and a clear sense of what is non-negotiable and what (sometimes) has to be fought for. High level concepts of 'inter-being' don't get you very far when you're dealing with people like Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, who are implacably hostile to everything you stand for. So ultimately this book is a bit like Marx and Engel's 'Communist Manifesto'. It is an incisive critique of the existing system, but offers only a sketchy picture of possible alternatives - a fatal flaw.
I suspect that one of the underlying problems with books of this kind is that US political culture has never found a place for socialist ideas. As a result, alternative political movements that try to critique corporate America and replace it with something better have no solid ideological anchor for their beliefs. In the real world, hard choices have to be made. If one rejects a society based on unfettered free market forces and aggressive individualism, the alternative has to be one built on principles of human co-operation, and one way or another this is inevitably going to imply a greater emphasis on collective provision, which is something alien to US political culture. Much of what has gone wrong in the past 25 years, since the Berlin Wall came down, represents the slow unravelling of a peculiarly extreme version of globalised capitalism which was doomed to failure because it systematically over-estimated the capacity of unregulated free markets to correct themselves. Replacing this failed system with a reformed capitalism that places more emphasis on co-operative enterprise is the key priority for radical politics, and it cannot be achieved unless the objective is explicitly framed in these terms (ie. as a response to the failure of a specific model, not the whole post-enlightenment human enterprise). Also, for all its faults, the existing US socio-economic system does retain certain strengths, for example the capacity to generate the wealth needed to finance research into curing cancer. Would Charles Eisenstein be prepared to give this up? In his enthusiasm for Native American culture, would he be willing to accept the higher mortality rates that reversion to a less technologically advanced way of life would entail? The book is evasive on key questions such as these. In the end, therefore, it proves anti-climatic and slightly disappointing. It diagnoses the ailment, but is less successful in suggesting a cure. This is a shame, as the world would be a better place if advocates of alternative lifestyles could move out of the world of seminars and workshops they have created for themselves and start engaging seriously with mainstream politics, with all that this entails in terms of a focus on practicalities and setting achievable goals.