As the crisis sapping the Western economies continues, the division between those who get it and those who don’t becomes wider and more important. Unfortunately, those who don’t get it are mostly those who are in charge—of governments, banks, corporations, and the media. Perhaps they don’t see what is happening because, having done so well from the system they have organised, they have most to lose from its collapse.
What they don’t get is that the economic system that has dominated the world in recent decades, most aggressively in the last 30 years under the soubriquet of the Washington Consensus, is dying. Crucially, it is dying from its own inconsistencies. Its theories were false; its models were flawed. Money really cannot be spun out of straw. Nor, in times of famine, can it be eaten.
Because they don’t understand this, the elites in government, business and finance—but also sometimes in academia and culture—have dedicated themselves to repairing the existing system. They cluster round the wrecked train with slightly varying proposals for getting it back on track. They don’t ask how far the coal stocks will take it, whether that is a good direction in any case or—really unthinkable—whether a train is best form of locomotion any more.
Those who do get it, as Manuel Castells argues, have moved on. They do not expect those in power (but not in control) to solve the crisis and they do not trust their solutions anyway. Instead they are creating new ‘post-capitalist’ ways of living and organising. Castells’ networked world is changing how we think and what we believe. Perhaps this is how Jeremy Rifkin’s ‘empathic civilisation’ will emerge; perhaps not.
The point is not whether the forecasts of Castells, Rifkin or anybody else are correct: the future is always far too complex to foresee reliably. But hindsight, as politicians are fond of saying, is quite reliable. And hindsight shows, except to those blinded by narrow self-interest, that what has been will not be in future. It is not necessary to know what will be to understand that what has been is over.
If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with culture, art and democracy, this site probably isn’t going to interest you. But our culture is inseparable from the economy and the society that has created it, as they are also shaped by it.
So the question for cultural workers, as for everyone else, is where they stand. Are they in the crowd trying to get the train back on the tracks? Or are they among those who are working out new ways of living in a changed world?