John West - Labour supporter and journalist

Currently living in Paris, I'm a Labour member, activist and freelance journalist. I'll be writing mostly about missed opportunities, as I see them, and the necessity to rebuild Labour as a cohesive movement. We mustn't lose sight of reality, but we should sometimes challenge it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Book review

This is a book review I wrote for Tribune, a version of which was printed in this week's edition (18/11/05):

The Possibility of Progress: Mark Braund
Shepheard-Walwyn £14.95

The attractiveness of ‘progress’ to many politicians and movements is its lack of any historical moral ballast, being, as it is, a different thing to different people. A call for progress can, therefore, allow the vague to go unchallenged and the misguided to be set down in stone: to counter the orthodoxy of progress is to stop history in its tracks and to deny the inexorable drive of humanity. Such a deterministic pitch for progress is, of course, highly undesirable when the term itself has no inherent value.

By addressing this problem, Mark Braund does us all a great service. In The Possibility of Progress, he seeks not only to demonstrate that human potential is unlimited, but also to unlock the falsehoods that have so far inhibited the use of this potential for the more equal benefit of the world’s citizens. His study and thought, based on an impressively broad knowledge and reading of philosophy, science and economics, add greatly to the debate about how necessary global reform can take place and what it might look and feel like.

Advocating a new definition of progress as “movement towards a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable global social order”, he ties it to an Enlightenment-based ethic of universalism. In so doing, he powerfully dismisses the misapplication of science from thinking on the future, material and otherwise, of humanity and raises the importance of philosophy: a discipline that has, from certain sectors, advocated the notion of all human beings as born equal and equally deserving of basic needs. For Braund, the scope for such altruism in the human mind is evidence in itself that human consciousness, whilst the result of biological evolution, is a tool that can shape itself to constructing any social order it can imagine.

To this end, the book begins with its most effective, and most hopeful, argument: namely that any scientific model for human progress, on which many orthodox views of the term are based, is a sham. It is all too easy today to miss the link between the suggestion that economic competition, and the collateral damage of those who lose out from it, has always been a necessary and innate element of human progress and the social Darwinism most of us hoped had been consigned to the history books. Braund, with passion and persuasion in equal measure, exposes this link and holds up the pseudo-science behind it to ridicule. Genes do not determine social and economic practice, so nothing is inevitable – we are merely subject to cultural conditions that human consciousness has created. Over the last 10,000 years, while society has developed into a complicated network, our genes have hardly changed.

He goes much further than some frustrating social and political analysts by seeking to find applications for his thought. The results here are more mixed. His analysis of how the economy has been misrepresented to people is founded on the best thinking and is rooted in reality. So, he uses the work of David Ricardo and Adam Smith to point out structural problems with our economy that restrict the possibility for social justice while equally criticising those who argue that fairer trade is a realistic route for the developing world to take to feed itself. For him, given that the structure itself is the problem, exposing the developing world to it – in however fair, or free a form – can only do monstrous harm.

But his pressing desire to solve the social ills of the economy by resolving the “rent problem” (that money accumulated by the rich is often gained without any input on their part, merely the ownership of land for which productive elements pay rent) with a catch-all tax on rent seems simplistic, utopian and nightmarish all in one. One of his biggest problems is that he does not relate this argument to Marx’s analysis on surplus value, which seems to be a grave omission given the subject matter. More concretely, it is clear that in the democratic society he envisages, a single tax on rent could easily become a flat-tax, depending on the political environment. In his model, where entrepreneurial figures are free to roam and create wealth but all land is commonly owned, pressure would be put on the political apparatus by business to reduce the rate. With no other tax structure as a check or balance, the social programmes the author heralds as necessary to comply with his idea of progress would be fatally damaged.

Braund lacks a convincing blueprint for change and does not point the reader to the left, the only place where his thoughts can gain political voice. Yet he is to be congratulated for opening up a debate based on the notion that we must radically rethink our economic system for it to be fair and sustainable. And he gives us the tools to do this with an analysis that frees our minds and holds the problems up for us all to see. His is progress with purpose and we would do well to reflect on it.

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