Sunday, June 3, 2012

Luxuries we have to afford

Given the failure of politics to secure the good life, we are convinced that we should take on such matters at the level of individual action: ethics, for example the ethical choices we make as shoppers. Alas, we then discover (or are told) that ethical choices are a luxury that the poor cannot afford. We return to the politics of TINA: there is no alternative to the market, or to electoral politics, except worse things, and so we must accept things as they are, and hope that the experts will provide us with technical solutions to the problems they generate, and the continual flow of new things that will ensure that essential feature of capital, growth.

There should be a major discussion on why the state is the patron of arts, science and sport, the three big recipients of cultural funding (I exclude technology form science: I refer here to the pure sciences like astronomy, which have little chance of repaying investment through patents). The terms of that debate will illuminate how migration, the movement of people, has been allowed to take the form of a cultural issue, excluded from the sacrosanct trans-border economic flows of money, goods and data. Migration is spoken of as an economic issue, from time to time: we cannot afford migrants, they are a luxury. But then even the economy is spoken of in economic terms, as if there were no other way to describe or analyse exchange, even though, once again, we recognise that economists are in the large, especially those in charge of governments and the instruments of the Washington Consensus, have failed us abjectly in recent years.

The Western Code (described by Walter Mignolo in The Darker Side of Modernity) can be thought of as software that, like a user's agent on a site like Amazon, exists, as Jaron Lanier once had it, to hide the user's profile from the user. We speak of human rights and mean only the rights of citizens. We speak of citizens' rights when we know that nazi Germany and James Callaghan's Labour government of the 1970s both rescinded citizenship, from German Jews and Ugandan Asians respectively, and that such denial of responsibility is indeed integral to the project of modernity, because whoever is not a citizen has no rights, except the rights we elect to give them under the terms of the CRSR, which are the rights of those that have no rights, that is, no rights at all.

"Culture", defined as that last remaining area over which states can still exercise some control, is not a luxury: it is the whole point of creating wealth. Like ethics and like the freedom to travel (which we grant so easily to objects and money), it is a luxury we must afford, because the pursuit of wealth for its own sake has created such poverty as to deny even what is necessary to an increasing proportion of the world – human, of course, but also that green and living planet which, if we are to believe economic imperialism, we also cannot afford.

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