11 min read

How to Think About Political Economy in the 21st Century

How to Think About Political Economy in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

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Today's Read: 11 Minutes.

Why is the GOP So Backwards? What Should the Future of Democracy Be, Anyways? We dive deep into how to think about politics and economics in the 21st century, tracing history, revealing its patterns of vicious & virtuous cycles, and what makes the Big Difference between them.

 1. Humanity facing ‘unprecedented global toxic emergency’. (UN)
 2. The era of climate migration is here. (ICN)
 3. Mass extinction is eliminating entire branches of the tree of life. (Stanford)
 4. Biden warns US democracy in peril from 'extremist' Trump. (Le Monde)
 5. Six young people take 32 countries to court in unprecedented climate case. (CNN)

Today's Issue. History. Politics. Economics. Power.

Did you watch the GOP debate? Didn't want to torture yourself with such an absurd spectacle? Let me sum it up for you in two words. Negative Politics.

That doesn't just mean nasty rhetoric, or mud-slinging. Rather, I mean it—and it's opposite, Positive Politics—in a formal sense. We discussed it recently, but let me quickly give you the definitions again.

Negative Politics centre around taking rights and freedoms away from others.

Positive Politics centre around extending, elevating, and expanding rights and freedoms.

So. The debate. Shudder. There was Mike Pence, talking about the death penalty. Vivek Ramaswamy called being trans a "mental disorder." Candidates leaned towards agreeing on abortion bans, bans on forms of healthcare. On and on it went, into sheer facepalm-inducing delirium.

What's all this about? Here we have a ritualized display of Negative Politics. Whose rights can we take away? The fastest and most easily? Is it women? The LGBTQ? Minorities? Kids? How about those who fall into many of those categories? What about people who read books? "Believe" in science? Who should we come for next?

There were no ideas here. To fix a beleaguered nation, like America. America, as we all know, is buckling under the weight of very real problems. Big Ones. The social contract's all but nonexistent. Retirement, healthcare, education, just paying the bills—these things are becoming unaffordable as a rule, not an exception. The middle class and working class don't really exist in the classical sense, and are instead one precarious underclass, beneath a glittering handful of super-mega-rich. And as an answer to all this? Nothing. Not a single idea of any kind to fix any of the above.

But there's a reason there were no ideas here. Because the only idea at all was...Negative Politics. And that has the logic of authoritarianism, essentially. I take your rights away, in order to establish and maintain my rightful place in the hierarchy, the pecking order, and that's what a society is. Hence, the GOP's growing focus on making average people informers and enforcers on and of their neighbours and peers.

What does that tell you? How should we think about political economy in the 21st century? I don't think the old distinctions of left and right carry much weight anymore. Instead, I think it's better to think in terms of Negative and Positive Politics.

Why? Take a simple example. "Conservatives" should be focused on...conserving...plenty of things, from the environment, to life on the planet, to democracy, to human life, too. But of course the new strain that's spread in America, and around the world, isn't worried about any of that—it's more or less openly authoritarian.

To it, you're not to have basic rights at all anymore. Women in Texas aren't to use highways. Talking about reproductive healthcare can get you informed on. Reading the wrong books can get you reported. Is your kid different? Sorry, we have to turn in your whole family. On and on it goes, and the story's the same: you don't exist in a modern sense anymore. You can only exist in the way that regressive, authoritarian power lets you, which is to say, not very much at all, and certainly not in a modern way, composed inherently as a "person," a being of self-determination, self-governance, and moral agency.

Along this road, usually, the very meaning of "freedom" becomes inverted. It means that I can ban kids from reading books, or women from having healthcare, or this person from existing, or that I don't have to uphold even the faintest speck of a notion of a common good or interest, and I can do whatever I want, here, see, I'm at Starbucks, carrying a bazooka, "freedom!!!"—reality falls in on itself, and modernity falls apart. If "freedom" just means more and more childish, extreme, outlandish forms of "I get to hurt you" and "I can take your  rights away, just because I feel like it" then of course, by definition, in actuality, what we're really doing is just circling its drain.

The thing that should be understood, and taught, about these forms of politics, Negative and Positive, is that they're what we might call "dynamic equilbria." Let me translate that to plain English. They have natural endpoints.

Negative Political Economy is a vicious circle, a downward spiral, of lower and lower living standards.

Positive Political Economy is a virtuous circle, an upward spiral, of higher and higher living standards.

How so? You can already see it happening in America. There were the GOP candidates, on the stage, basically just competing to see who could be the most Negative Politician—the best demagogue—of them all. But after the headlines and clickbait, where does it all end? Where must Negative Politics end?

Think about it. If the entire point of a politics is me taking your rights away, then of course, a society must be constructed along authoritarian lines. You're going to have to be watched and monitored, for what's now illegal, or at least undesirable, conduct. Being gay. Reading a book. Having a kid of that kind. Going to the wrong doctor. Saying the words you shouldn't say, even to your friends.

Negative Politics end in authoritarian societies. They're not just headlines and clickbait. They have a telos, a natural, inherent endpoint to them. That's why America's becoming an authoritarian dystopia before the world's eyes, a place where my baffled and shocked European friends ask me things like, "but have they really banned books? And high school classes?," and I nod, wearily, and tell them that's just the tip of the iceberg. There's a momentum and force, like a force of nature, at work here: when the point of politics is me restricting your freedoms and rights, then of course, that becomes the point of governance, too, and that form of governance is hardly likely to be democratic.

What are some of those basic freedoms and rights, by the way? Expression, association, movement, speech, self-definition, intimacy. All of those are under severe attack in America today. But let's go further now.

What kinds of rights are we going to need in the 21st century? Not just want, but need? If we're going to make it as a civilization, as societies, as democracies? I can think of plenty, and I'd bet you have already, too. A right to a clean and healthy environment, like kids just won in Montana. How about the right to clean water? The air's becoming unbreathable in places—what about that? Or how about food that's not full of microplastics and other pollutants? And those are just the basic ones.

Let's go further still. How about the right to...retire? To have healthcare? Plenty of European nations enjoy those, but Americans don't, still. What about the right not to be traumatized, by predatory institutions, whether lenders or utilities? How about the right to a basic level of income and wealth, which brings to life the idea of a right to dignity and equality, in a fundamental way?

Even that's just a beginning. Nature is going to need rights, too—from oceans to forests to mountains to rivers, and so are animals. They're just as deserving of resources and room and existence as we are. And what about the rights of future generations, not to have to clean up our messes? How about the rights of past generations, to have their memories not just honoured, but their voices heard, by us learning the lessons they fought wars and suffered depressions over?

That's what 21st century's going to look like. Have to look like, because the alternative is the outright madness the GOP presents us with. But it's not just that it's morally foolish, it's that it's self destructive.

Remember how Negative Politics have a telos—to spiral downwards into authoritarianism? What does that mean, to "spiral downwards"? Well, it means that now a society's work, labour, effort, endeavour, time, attention—it's spent on useless stuff, like policing everyone for being gay, a woman, a kid who reads books, a high schooler who wants to take a class, a young person who express themselves a certain way, an adult with a family just living in peace...policing everyone, all the time, for not just victimless crimes, but for just existing to begin with.

And when a society's doing all that, what can't it do? Prosper. Because prosperity, as we've learned, takes a few things. Collective investment, sustained over generations, to build sets of public goods, which all can enjoy, and which even spark, later, private-sector innovation. So we build universities, researchers and academics make discoveries, and they get turned into everything from iPhones to medicines. Meanwhile, universal healthcare and education, for example, keep the wheel of prosperity spinning.

But in a society whose only real purpose has becoming...essentially...policing purity of faith and trueness of blood? That's all it invests in, too—but that's not the right word, "malinvests" is. So such societies don't build universities, hospitals, schools, in fact, they aren't even very good at building working factories or farms. Just think of the Soviet Union then, or a place like Afghanistan today. Telos—the natural end. The downward spiral of Negative Politics into authoritarianism is also always—this is an iron-clad rule of history—accompanied by spectacular descents into impoverishment.

Now think of Positive Politics. That's an upwards spiral instead. Why? Well, what happens as we extend, expand, and embrace greater and truer and nobler freedoms and rights, still? Let's imagine that tomorrow, we woke up, and everyone on the planet had the right to a clean environment, beginning in exactly one decade's time. Can you guess what would happen next?

Three things would, in the following order. Businesses, some of them, would try to squirm out of delivering on that promise, and some governments would, too. But they'd find themselves bound to deliver on the promise of resources, which is what rights really are. And so, three, there'd be a huge, massive, history-shaking wave of investment, in clean energy, manufacturing, transport, infrastructure, agriculture, everything, that'd make what we've done so far look like a mere feeble thimbleful.

History's greatest virtuous circle would have begun, because at the end of that revolution, guess what we'd have? Vastly higher standards of living. Powered by new waves of innovation, which would have been mere capstones atop groundbreaking discoveries, insights, research, all of which would have yielded explosive gains in the surplus we enjoy as a civilization.

That's not a theory, that's a rule. How did prosperity happen historically? It was accompanied by the expansion of rights and freedoms. We abolished child labour, and educated kids, and suddenly, instead of having cheap, small hands to turn machines in mills, we had minds ready to pioneer even better things. Women were "allowed" to work, at last, and that remains the single most powerful way to improve an economy anywhere in the world.

We freed the slaves, whose enslavement was once thought to be the real source of "economic growth," and it pains me to write such a crude, awful sentence—and discovered, instead, that, liberated, people could do far better and worthier things than merely serve the morally corroded whims of others. And all that began with merely the right to exist at all.

Think back in history. The right to exist....didn't exist for most of it. In almost all societies, there was a strict hierarchy, into king, noble, peasant, and untouchable. And in most of them, those above you had the right to take your life. Almost no questions no asked. With impunity. It was a seismic event when the first nobles got real rights, by challenging kings, in events like the granting of Magna Carta. For most of history? Those above you in the social order could ride by, swing a sword, take your life, and nobody would say a word. Because that was just how..."things were," meaning, how society was ordered, along...authoritarian lines of Negative Politics.

It wasn't until Positive Politics began to emerge that human progress's Big Bang happened, because it wasn't until then that it could have. What reason did societies in which those above you could take your life for almost any reason...have...to ever innovate...discover anything new...improve much of anything...so that it would elevate everyone's living standards? How would such a process even happen? None whatsoever, because the idea then was the the repression and subjugation of human possibility were the wellsprings of prosperity. Hence, no universities were built, no hospitals raised, no miracles of science sparked. Only pointless wars of empire raged across humankind's earth, and mausoleums filled up with their dead. Nobody had the faintest clue, except maybe history's brightest minds, like Artistole and Avicenna, that freeing all that possibility would bring explosive leaps for all.

The story of the Great Leap from Pre-Modernity to Modernity is the story of Positive Politics, in other words. It hasn't been an easy one. Emancipation, liberation, freedom—winning these took centuries, and rank among humanity's greatest accomplishments. Because they made everything else possible. Everything we take for granted today.

And that the fools among us are throwing away, too. Left and right don't capture that. Not well enough, if you ask me. I think it's better now to begin to understand history, and the present moment, through the lenses of Positive Politics and Negative Politics, and grasp that each one isn't a static thing, but a process, with its own telos, endpoint, destiny. Negative Politics end in...for us...we hope...just at the modern variants of authoritarianism. But who knows? Maybe the loonies on the stage at the GOP debate'd be happy to see the Antebellum South flourish again, or maybe even they want to go all the way back to Ancient Rome, or maybe they just want a Reich of their Very Own.

Positive Politics, meanwhile, is human progress. Its linchpin and its lever. It's the virtuous circle that history teaches us is our true destiny, if only we choose it. I free you. You free me. Together, we can collectively invest, in the things that elevate our lives, whether books, universities, research, schools, roads, medicines, research. Our surplus grows. Now we have even more to invest, and so the cycle continues.

But it only continues, crucially, if we keep on expanding and embracing rights and freedoms. If we don't, and we fall right back into conflict—at that precise instant, the virtuous cycle halts, and we plunge backwards, knives at each others' throats, into the virtuous cycle of hatred, enmity, and penury. That way lies ruin. Desolation. And it can happen in the blink of an eye—see how fast Brexit broke Britain. Snap. Like that. See how quickly Europe overtook America—snap, like that, in the span of one human lifetime, too.

All that's a little beginning, about how to think about political economy in the 21st century. Hold on, here's the short version. See the GOP? Yeah, exactly. They haven't learned a thing from millennia of history. So here's your chance, I guess :)

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