03 December 2008

We're the kids in America

I have for some time been slowly working my way through De Tocqueville's "Democracy in America. It is not really the type of book you sit and read from cover to cover (even with my new glasses), rather it is the type of text that encourages you to dip in and out of, a chapter here, a chapter there, to be enjoyed concurrently with a few other tomes like a literary dim sum. Its current bedfellows are John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty" and Max Weber's "the Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism", so no doubt upon completion of all three I will have a keen and unerring insight into the American psyche.

Or be mad. Or possibly both.

De Tocqueville has been used by both the left and right for generations as a reflection of their idealised America, for, like the bible, it is easy to find a quote inside that justifies any viewpoint you have. Weber is obviously more a savant of the modern right, the yin to Marx's yang, but given the fact that the left in America is more of a 'Diet Right', he also has his adherents in the party of Hope and Change. The thought that struck me yesterday is how odd it is that a mid-19th century French and early 20th century German text are still considered the key to understanding the concept and ideals of 21st century America.

Contrast this with economic theory, which changes rapidly and normally influenced by living proponents who are able to argue their own theories at length. Keynes' "General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" was published in 1936 and shaped the post war economies of the globe. Friedrich Hayek saw his theories put into practice by Thatcher and Milton Friedman danced with glee as his policies ravaged South America in the 70's and more recently in the US for the last 6 years before his death.

Political thought and discourse however normally takes many years after the death of its originator to take hold and have influence, and thus today much of our political landscape is still shaped by 19th century ideology. While the move towards Green politics can be argued as a new development for the 21st century, many still see the movement through traditional left or right lenses.

Thus I found myself asking firstly why is economic theory immediately put into practice (often with spectacular failures), and yet political theory often takes decades to be acted upon? Secondly, if political models do take decades to take hold, then surely as we speak the political and social models of the mid-to-late 21st century are already written and are being debated; why in this time of instant access to information are these ideas not more widely known?

The recent US election saw the debate between capitalism, uber-capitalism, and 19th century libertarianism, with all three groups claiming to be the true inheritors of the mantle of the 18th century Founding Fathers. Nobody is actually looking forward or proposing something new, when it is clear that everybody's favourite 19th Century ideologies are no longer working in the 21st century.

As I continue my year of reading, I keep hoping to find this new thought, or new idea, and suddenly everything will fall into place and I will say, "yes, this is the way things should be, it all makes sense now". But deep inside I know that this is very, very unlikely to happen.

I guess that's why people love religion.


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