When I was still quite young and narcissistic enough to believe that the era in which I lived was the most troubled of them all, I happened to interview Harry Frankfurt, now 88 and still professor emeritus of philosophy at Princeton. I asked the thinker, then enjoying unlikely best-seller status for his analysis of the phenomenon of “bullshit”, if he didn’t agree that our time was not the absolute worst.
Frankfurt did concede that there was now a greater volume of the thing he calls bullshit — distinct from a lie in that its producer has no relationship to the truth — but he wouldn’t go with me in my handcart to hell. “Every time is the worst,” he said. “Every time is also the best. The one thing about which I am certain is that this is the time in which I live, and I am doomed to write about that one.”
There is not much a cautious analytic philosopher like Frankfurt would say about natural human tendencies. But he might say that many of us are inclined to think like I did then: apocalyptically. Whether we think, per Fukuyama, that we have arrived at a perfected “end of history”, or we think we’ll be charred by global warming, nuclear war or the hand of god, we believe in conclusions. We often believe that things will stop changing.
Since the conversation with Frankfurt — one of many in which I have embarrassed myself by talking bullshit — I have made a conscious effort not to think that we are arriving or have arrived at a historical endpoint. History moves on, I tell myself, and so we can rarely say that it has settled at its worst or its best.
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Lately, though, I find it hard to resist the temptation of End Times thinking. I wonder if I talked to Harry, he might not agree that some apocalyptic cracks are starting to show in the West.
You know the headlines that might prompt a person to think this way: Brexit, Trump, the Pyrrhic victory of a banker in France whose promised maintenance of neoliberal policies is unlikely to do anything but fan the flames of a re-emerged fascism. It’s been more than five years since Greece was saddled with the biggest debt in history. This week marks the 10th anniversary of what is generally regarded as the onset of the global financial crisis. We’ve had a decade of “market corrections” that have produced a plague of political monsters, brutal austerity policies and wage stagnation. What we haven’t had, as we did following the crash of 1929 and the stagflation of the 1970s, is a significant change in economic thinking.
If, as Frankfurt says, we are obliged to address the period in which we exist, we have failed. During the Great Depression, the policy class looked at the cracks and elected to fill them with Keynesian prescriptions. When the worker-friendly regimes of the West began to eat away at profit by the early 1970s, neoliberal policies took their place, destabilising work for the many. Whatever particular loathing you may have for either school of thought, these were, at least, answers to crises of political economy.
And now, the overwhelming response to disaster is, historically speaking, bullshit. There are very few leaders or pundits who choose to address the time in which they live and are, you’d hope, doomed and obliged to think about. Without getting too apocalyptic about it, an economic regime change is sorely needed.
The cracks are visible. Political parties cannot contain their own divisions — just yesterday, we saw Abbott and Pyne have a cultural stoush and Lee Rhiannon and the Greens a genuine economic one. Buildings whose structural flaws are permitted by market-friendly politicians begin to fail.
This is not, as I learned, the end of the world. What it could be, if we tried, is the end of political bullshit — not a lie, but an obfuscation that bears no relation to the truth. What it could be is a beginning of a time that may not be the best, but will save us from the worst.