West Needs New Ideas, Not Just New Voices
(Bloomberg Opinion) - Mainstream, middle-class Americans and others have grown more appreciative of the virtues of "diversity" and "inclusivity" in recent months. The US Senators have taken a knee in protest against police violence - a gesture that ended a great sporting career not so long ago. Ralph Lauren Corp. has decided that black, Latin American and Asian workers account for 20% of its global leadership position. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences now requires that films competing for the best picture award have different casts and crews.
Still, a larger space for minorities should not be confused with real intellectual diversity and openness of thought - which is more difficult to achieve but is absolutely necessary when we are facing a world that has been drastically changed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Powerful institutions from politics, business and the media have long shown not only racial and sexual homogeneity, but also intellectual uniformity, even conformity. For more than three decades, they have held to the belief that democracy and capitalism in their existing forms bring social justice and prosperity, and have the potential to become truly universal, as applicable in China and Russia as in the United States
In this broad consensus, globalization seemed inevitable and unstoppable. Nation states were powerless against the mechanisms of the free market for capital and goods.
These ideas are broken today. Its proponents face a serious legitimacy crisis that even the likely rejection of President Donald Trump in November cannot resolve. Suddenly we have no clear sense of the future - only that it will be fraught with uncertainty and instability.
There is no question that we need a new political language. But where do these fresh ideas come from? And what chance do they have of being heard if today's intellectual elites fail to make room for them?
As early as 2010, a few weeks before his death, historian Tony Judt warned of a purebred and unaccountable ruling class that had become insensitive to external pressure or criticism: “There is no external input, just no new types of people - the political class breeds himself. "
Commentator Wolfgang Münchau had a similarly sobering message in his Valedictory column for the Financial Times. When he spoke of the current crises, he rejected all conventional antagonisms from left and right and statements that blamed unscrupulous populism for our problems.
"The rules-based multilateral order," he wrote, "is crumbling for reasons unrelated to populism." And when "many traditional centers of power in our democracies - centrist political parties, the mass media, some industries" are besieged, it is because they are "oligopolies" that are primarily concerned with protecting their interests.
In other words, what we've seen is "a power struggle between insiders and outsiders". If demagogues posing as outsiders, like Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have ordered electoral support, it is because they can convincingly point to firmly entrenched oligopolies in almost all areas of public life.
This includes the mainstream media, which helped establish the market-friendly discourse of centrist politicians and wealthy businessmen as the standard wisdom of our time until Trump's insurrectionary candidacy in 2016 belatedly drew his attention to the anger of the world's "bereaved".
Disoriented American commentators, writes Carlos Lozada in What We Thought: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era, have since "retreated to their comfort zones, finding solace in old arguments, familiar enemies, instinctive outbursts, and easy certainties."
The mainstream media need a new framework for analysis and interpretation in order to rebuild their moral and intellectual authority. And it will have to raise a different set of questions.
For example, the state that was once discounted and laid off by free marketers is now back, for better and for worse. It turns out that only governments that levy taxes and regulations can provide security and resources in a major crisis.
What else can the state do? And what shouldn't it try? There is a solid, historically verified case against top-down or centralized planning. There is also a case for what the American anthropologist James Scott calls "local knowledge" - the precise knowledge created over time through personal interactions in the community, rather than the standardized versions created by impersonal authorities how the state and the markets were created to seek control and benefit.
Recent political earthquakes have shown that in complex, diverse societies like ours, the top ones are unlikely to be aware of these realities below.
In the empirical research of the last few decades on a range of phenomena, from persistently poor ghettos to white supremacist movements, many answers can be sought and new questions asked. Movements, organizations and individuals involved in local political and environmental issues can also help bridge the large gap between expertise and mainstream reporting and commentary.
A stronger representation of racist and ethnic minorities in the workforce will certainly not be enough on its own. After the racist-ethnic quotas have been met, the intellectual oligopolies still have to be dismantled.
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion. His books include Age of Anger: A History of the Present, From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Recreated Asia, and Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond ".
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