Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Rambling about scepticism, pessimism and lefty-ism

Via Dave Osler I came across this article, and in particular this quote:

In 2004, Solnit published a much-praised book, Hope in the Dark: the Untold History of People Power, challenging the instinctive pessimism of many leftists.
"A lot of activists," she wrote, "specialise in disappointment." She adds now: "Despair is a black leather jacket that everyone looks good in. Hope is a frilly pink dress that exposes your knees."

It sounds like an interesting book, and I may well read it, but this, and some of the other quotes in the article, got me thinking about pessimism and the need for it.

I'm frequently quite pessimistic, and am sometimes chided for this by a number of mates who work in a similar area to me. But to be honest I have seen many bad ideas and poorly thought-through plans either fizzle out or crash and burn over the years. As such appeals to immediate action on the grounds that inaction is reprehensible usually leave me cold. My pessimism is, in my opinion, partly an inherent bias in the way I think, but also partly the product of experience.

As such I actually have some sympathy for some instinctively conservative arguments along the lines of 'if it ain't broke don't fix it' and the law of unintended consequences. So this is constantly in confinct with my belief in our ability to overcome social problems and injustices. But I actually think that a dose of this sort of scepticism is absolutely necessary in order to develop ideas that are actually workable and might deliver some positive results. I think it's a mistake to view a willingness to think through possible negative ramifications, or the lack of a positive impact, as somehow unprogressive.

According to my pessimistic view of the world, too often we lefties want to launch into something without thinking like this. Then when things don't turn out how we envisaged we cast around for reasons to explain our failure but often without returning to the assumptions (explicit or otherwise) that led us off in this direction in the first place.

In the bit of the world that I inhabit the financial crisis has made it absolutely clear to me that the broadly leftish/greenish push for 'responsible investment' is in large part economically illiterate. Despite its orientation as a sort of progressive force in finance, there are many unexamined economic assumptions in its approach that are unproven to say the least. It therefore doesn't surprise me that so few people in this microcosm (myself included) had any notion that a major crisis was imminent. There has been far too much well-meaning guff, and far too little concentration on how markets/companies/ownership actually work and what the implications of this are. (This would of course mean some searching questions about fund management in itself, which might partially explain the lack of introspection).

The basic ideas that sit behind a lot of the activity that is undertaken are incredibly simplistic, and the inferences from this about what can or should be achieved are therefore, in my view, inherently flawed (though I don't have a clear idea about the alternatives). And the irony is that a more sceptical and more economocally informed approach might have led to a far more radical perspective. It was the hedge funds, not the SRI funds, who were reading their Minsky.


Nicolas Holzapfel said...

The world needs more people who think like this. Don't know how to make that not sound sycophantic.

Nicolas Holzapfel said...

To add a little substance to my comment above: I think that too often it's the most dramatic, exciting calls to action that attract attention and motivate people; the kind of things that appeal to the simplistic meta-narratives that people cling to. That's nice for people's inner worlds, but the real world is too full of complexity, ambiguity and unanswered questions for those kinds of approaches to be much use in resolving complex problems.

Tom Powdrill said...

Hi Nicolas

we're definitely on the same page here. I think that unfortunately people like holding certain ideas - sometimes because, as you say, they are more exciting - and they are very difficult to shift once in place.