T2B37: Cliden 10

The Liberal Order

Frame: The Liberal Order

We are so used to talking about the social or political order in moral terms. We say that the caste system is unjust, which it is, and we say that a good society must respect the rights of individuals, which it should. Moral intuitions change; in times past we might have had people say the exact opposite.

But order is more than the moral order. As we say in Hindi, society and its ordering mechanisms should provide sukh aur suraksha. There are aspects to human flourishing that don’t have a clear moral framing. For example, the moral framing of the social order misses a huge component - the material order, that wealth needs to be created and distributed, that energy and matter need to be organized for the benefit of people. There’s also the ‘bodily order,’ that society should protect people from injury, disease and war. However, the use of the terms ‘benefit’ and ‘protect’ suggest a normative component even to the material order.

Order lives on the same plane as disorder, and the fear of instability and its impact on suraksha (security) is arguably as important as the fear of hierarchy and oppression. I increasingly believe that order is more visceral than the (often) abstract claims of modern political life.

‘Order’ is prior to ‘moral’ or ‘material.’

The liberal order has been successful precisely because it claims to promote flourishing along all its dimensions: not only the moral dimensions of individual rights and liberties, but also the economic dimension coming from the capitalist mode of production and the institutional dimension regulating everything from international treaties and trade organizations to local zoning laws.

Not too long ago, it was popular to think the liberal order has solved the problems of order for eternity, but now it’s clear the liberal order is in crisis.

The stability and robustness of the liberal order turned out to be a short term phenomenon - in fact, it’s buffeted by forces of instability both within and without. The capitalist mode of production leads to widening inequality and globalization increases that tendency. Then there’s the ongoing debt to the nonhuman world, and at some point our slashing and burning of the rest of nature will cause the system to collapse.

Can the liberal order find ways of responding to these two sources of instability? Does it have the capacity to create order at a higher level than has ever been done before?

The Neoliberal Green New Deal

Not sure if its backers and sponsors think about it that way, but the GND is best understood as liberalism’s response to the two instabilities that beset the United States and the rest of the world when seen from a US perspective. The original New Deal managed to save (or capture, depending on your political persuasion) liberal capitalism from the great instabilities of the first phase of capitalism. Even though the ND couldn’t prevent the Second World War, the institutions and institutional expertise that the ND inaugurated made it possible for the US to come out victorious in WWII and beyond.

Can it be pulled off once again?

Depends on the kind of GND we demand. How much of the green new deal is:

  1. Producing new things the old way (the neoliberal GND)

  2. Distributing new things the new way (the climate justice GND)

  3. Shifting away from producing and distributing as the main concern of society (ecology rather than economy)

My gut says it's going to end up being mostly 1. with a layer of 2. and almost no chance of 3 - even a smattering of 3 will be momentous. 1 is the position of the liberal mainstream - venues such as the NYT and the Economist. GND talk is routine in these two venues, which is an amazing transformation in a short period of time.

What’s amazing is not that something like the GND is being considered at all. As I said in this update, the GND should be palatable to most neoliberal capitalists if marketed appropriately - Tom Friedman used the term ‘Green New Deal’ before AOC ever did!

What’s truly different is the extent and continuity of coverage, that a rapid energy transition and a dramatic transformation of the economy is now a ‘centrist’ view.

Consider these headlines from the Economist:

  1. Is it the end of the oil age?

  2. The world’s energy system must be transformed completely

  3. Paris-anniversary climate pledges bring progress but fall short

Can you imagine one of the most important sources of neoliberal reporting writing three such headlines in less than six months anytime before 2020? Then there’s this piece by Al Gore of inventing the internet fame:

Together, they give me the sense that a section of the elite has concluded that massive transformation within liberal-capitalist boundaries is the only way out of the current crisis. I will spend the next two-three updates reading these articles closely and commenting on them.

There’s convergence toward acknowledging an existential threat; but there are dramatic differences on what to do about that threat. Progress!