issue 188 - October 1988
Join the NI's own Don Quixote and
Sancho Panza on their quest for Practopia.
1. Paradise postponed
Loyal but sceptical reader in tow, the NI sets off in search
of a better world, boldly going where no man has gone before.
Well, actually quite a few men have been there. Not to
mention a lot of women. Still, it feels fairly intrepid.
Oh it's you. You must be a glutton for punishment. The last time we had you along for the ride it was Global Finance, wasn't it? And before that.
Economics. Okay, so I've got an inquiring mind. What's it all about this time?
Oh, The World, Politics, Planetary Survival, Political Economy ...
I thought this was supposed to be a short course.
Shortish. What it's really about is changing the world. Most of us have some sense of an ideal world that we should be striving towards. A world free from hunger and poverty, where everyone has the chance to realize their full potential.
And no-one ever hurts anybody or has selfish motives. Everyone lives happily ever after, in other words.
Quite. Do I detect a note of cynicism here? But you're right that our visions of a future world can often make us seem like woolly dreamers, full of faith in a Utopia which is pretty hard to relate to the grimy and greedy reality of today. We have to keep our faith in social justice, equality and ecological health. But at the same time we also have to think what is feasible in the near future, otherwise there won't be much hope of persuading people that change is possible.
It's all very well to say that greed will disappear - that people who crave bigger and bigger houses and bank accounts won't want them any more in our new world. But at the moment we're surrounded by people who do want them and it's very hard to imagine those selfish motives evaporating.
But people can change. After all, we had tails once and got rid of them because they weren't any use. Why shouldn't we get rid of greed in a world where you didn't need to be greedy to live comfortably?
I knew you were an idealist really. But you've got to admit the self-seeking outlook on things is pretty ingrained. We can imagine a world where greed is outdated and useless. But it's how we can get to it that's the problem.
So tell me.
We could start with a 'practopia'. Something that's much better than what we have now but which doesn't involve a personality transplant - or a couple of hundred years of moral re-education. A world that is still recognizably inhabited by people like you and me.
And by the greedy people in the huge houses.
Exactly. My first presumption (at which point we'll probably have to kiss goodbye to the revolutionary socialists) is that it will have to be a programme introduced by an elected government of some sort.
That's a relief - I wouldn't want someone like you to be deciding who should go up against the wall.
Oh, it'd be all right if I were in charge of the firing squad. But since it's not likely to be we'd better choose another path to paradise. In any case we have to talk in terms of democracy because there's no point in doing otherwise at the moment. The sheer paramilitary power and hardware available to a rich modern state makes a revolution seem fairly unlikely. As Kurt Vonnegut said, the two best reasons to work within the system are tanks and machine guns.
Besides, people in Western societies don't believe in revolution - they're more interested in a quiet life. I'm afraid they've shown a marked tendency to avoid the revolution-mongers like the plague and get on with their shopping.
Now who's being cynical?
I could be more cynical and say that shopping is the big political issue of our times. Everybody is asking what part the market is to play in regulating our lives and what part the State. It's an argument that's raging not just in Thatcher's Britain and Hawke's Australia but in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in China and all over the Third World.
It doesn't seem to be much of a debate at the moment - the market's winning hands down.
Interesting you should say that so gloomily. Anyone would think there is only one side to the question. Yet you probably welcome the economic changes Gorbachev is introducing in the Soviet Union.
Of course. Though I'm not so sure about China - all that peasants 'get rich' stuff.
Fair enough. But what you're doing is drawing your own line between the free market and State planning.
Surely there must be some other way of organizing the economy?
Nobody's found one yet.
So you're saying it comes down to a choice between State planning and the free market or some kind of blend of the two. It doesn't sound very visionary.
And it's not. In practice every country in the world has a mixture. For all her belief in market forces and her privatizing zeal, Margaret Thatcher still presides over a country in which the State is by far the biggest single employer. While even the most rigorous planner in the world - probably Albania - still has some market elements.
You seem to think we all live in very similar societies.
No. There's a world of difference between Albania and Aotearoa, Cuba and Kenya. But it's worth recognizing that, for all the cold wars and competing ideologies, everyone is somewhere on that State-to-free-market continuum.
Let's accept for a moment, though, the normal way of looking at things and take the US and the Soviet Union as polar opposites. I think it's fairly clear that none of us would choose either of them as a model. I'm sure you don't approve of the way the US operates, where billionaires are free to buy television stations and paupers are free to live in the ghetto.
There are worse places.
Well it's true that the free market they believe in delivers consumer goods rather more efficiently and excitingly than the old-style Soviet 'command economy'. But the Soviet system has its virtues too - it attempts to iron out injustice and wasteful production by rigorously planning. This means things aren't left to random market forces which leave some people rich and some poor, some employed and some unemployed.
Because they command or plan the economy they can make sure everyone has a job. Even if it's not what would be called a productive or 'real' job in the West - being part of an army of cleaners at Moscow airport, for example - they have put full employment before economic efficiency.
You're beginning to sound like a press release from the Politburo.
The problem is that this kind of planning usually entails some bureaucrat in an office deciding how much of a particular item is to be produced in the next year. And while that might work okay for houses or for steel, it's not very flexible in other areas. That bureaucrat with her comfortable job is unlikely to be on top of changes in demand from ordinary people. How would she decide how many pop records to produce? Give me the job and I might decide the nation would be best served by 20 million Prefab Sprout albums. You, on the other hand, might be more partial to Perry Como.
I didn't come here to be insulted. You've no idea what my tastes are like.
My point exactly. As soon as an economy can aspire above the provision of the most basic needs, people's individual tastes come into play. And it's difficult to see how those can be catered for adequately other than through the flow of supply and demand in the market.
You're sounding more like Margaret Thatcher now.
I'm not suggesting we should accept the free market as it is - with all the horrendous inequalities and injustices it produces. And planning doesn't have to be done in the heavy-handed Soviet way. We have to find new ways of planning that don't involve big bureaucracies. But we should also be prepared to accept that the market can be useful - provided it remains a tool that serves society rather than a god to be worshipped at any human cost.
Right. That's more than enough theory - let's have some practical proposals.
If you insist.
1. KEY POINTS
Faith in an ideal future based on justice and equality is vital. But we also have to present practical proposals that seem feasible in the shorter term.
Even the oppressed in Western societies show little fondness for revolution - and would face the huge power of the modern state if they did.
Neither the US ideal of a totally free market or the old Soviet ideal of a totally planned society are desirable.
We should accept that the market can be useful. But we should also find new ways of planning the economy that are more responsive to people's needs.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7