A weakened economy needs strengthened humanities

Economic freedom has turned toxic because we lack the cultural maturity that the humanities used to provide.
John Armstrong | Nov 12 2008 | comment  

What do the humanities have to do with the growing economic difficulties of the world? At first sight, perhaps nothing at all. What could be further apart than the selling of sub-prime credit on the one hand and, on the other, the scholarly investigation of the speeches of Cicero or the date of a drawing by Antoine Watteau?

There is, however, a deep underlying connection. The long-term health of the economy depends on the flourishing of the humanities: an important factor in our present troubles is their self-imposed weakness.

The dependency is hard to see because the standard ways in which we think about capitalism and the humanities are misleading. To discover the crucial connections here we need to ask fundamental questions: What is capitalism? What are the humanities?

Capitalism is the economic expression of individual liberty. The humanities are the roots of social and personal maturity. To flourish individually and collectively, we need economic liberty; but economic liberty on its own is not sufficient and can be disastrous. Freedom is good only when it is accompanied by maturity and wisdom.

The deep sources of wisdom and maturity lie in the humanities. These sources have all but dried up. Wisdom and maturity have not been flowing from the humanities into the wider fields of society; that is why economic freedom has turned toxic. It is of the greatest significance for our cultural and economic future -- for the future of our civilisation -- that we understand what has gone wrong and put in place the conditions of our renaissance.

Under capitalism the market says: Tell me what you want and are prepared to pay for. If I can extract a profit, I will supply this to you very efficiently. I don't judge what you want. You are the expert in your desires. I want to tap into your longings, but I don't care what those longings are, so long as I can make money from them.

Ease of access to capital, through borrowing, increases the scope of most people's choices. Until about five minutes ago we could borrow not only against whatever assets we might have, but against potential earnings and assets projected far into the future. This is an enormous opportunity but also an enormous risk. In other words, capitalism essentially puts great freedom as well as great risk into the hands of individuals. Do what you like, it's your life.

Capitalism depends for its success on high levels of individual maturity. We can understand why this is so by considering a personal analogy. I would not let my young children make central decisions about their purchases (where to live, whether to buy a car); and it would be insane to give them large sums of money or to allow them to borrow. It's obvious that they lack the maturity to use these opportunities well or to make these decisions. It is pervasive, socially distributed maturity that is required for the flourishing of liberal capitalism.

In advanced democratic capitalist societies we get the economy we deserve. The economy tracks the goods and services that many people want and are willing to pay for. Anti-capitalist sentiment is often no more than revulsion at the preferences and attitudes of a great many people, expressed in their economic choices.

Capitalism is the economic counterpart of the political doctrine of rights (although there can be marginal clashes, for example on minimum wages). Rights essentially secure freedom of action for individuals. They protect individual decision-making and preferences from authoritarian interference. But rights do not guide you to a good life; they don't positively indicate what you should do, except in minimalist ways: don't trample on the rights of others.

Further, cultural democracy is the social version of the capitalist spirit: you can choose whatever style of entertainment you like; it's up to you what you watch and consume, and how you find relaxation and entertainment. No one has any business telling you that your preferences are unworthy, base or vulgar.

Rights, cultural democracy and capitalism are all aspects of the great project of spiritual freedom. The origins of this project lie in the development of Christianity and were dramatically renewed with the advent of certain kinds of Protestant Christianity. Faith and love, it was argued, are immensely precious spiritual goods but they cannot be forced, they cannot be imposed or demanded. They must be assented to in the private depths of the individual soul.

The most important things in life -- what you believe, how you act, what your motives are -- can go well only if they are free.

You can terrify someone into agreement, but that's not what's needed. God wants the free, private assent of individuals to his love. That's the religious root of the project of freedom. The crucial determinants of life are what we freely do. It is logically and practically possible to force people to act in sensible and reasonable ways, but forcing undercuts the value. What matters is what we do when left to our own devices.

And that, of course, brings with it the possibility of making our own mistakes, of freely choosing things -- relationships, careers, investments, friends or ways of amusing ourselves -- that end up ruining our lives.

The present crisis has come about because the liberalised capitalist economy, which has been growing since about 1980 (despite recessions), has required more maturity than we collectively possess.

In the life of an individual, maturity indicates a group of virtues. It suggests the anticipation of danger and the capacity to cope with difficulties. Maturity is displayed in knowledge of one's weaknesses, and in the tailoring of behaviour in the light of this. It builds on education through one's own mistakes and the mistakes of others, and on the ability to hold long-term issues in view and to plan and act accordingly.

Maturity is shown in the capacity to face unwelcome news, to analyse one's convictions and discover their blind spots. Above all, maturity involves directing one's energies and efforts towards genuinely worthwhile ends: building a real, solid and good life for oneself and one's dependents. But these are only the most obviously practical aspects of maturity. More subtly, wisdom concerns what you esteem: to what degree are your values in touch with the real lessons of experience? How wisely do you accord admiration to others, how independent-minded are you, how resistant are you to cheap seduction, flattery and group thinking?

The general level of maturity or immaturity -- of wisdom or lack of wisdom -- has the greatest possible consequences for the economic health of a democratic, free-enterprise society. And the present economic crisis is a study in immaturity. This immaturity can be seen within the financial system and more broadly in consumer societies.

Turning to the humanities, they can be listed under a series of formalised, academic names: history, philosophy, literature, the history of art. But what are the projects that lie behind these academic facades? History is the attempt to understand the past for the sake of accumulating an understanding of the collective human condition. It is, ideally, a school of wisdom in which one becomes mature by learning from the experience of others. Philosophy is, ideally, the project of piecing together our ideas about life, testing them against experience, sorting through their internal tensions; carefully pondering why one thinks what one thinks and attempting to improve one's view of life and the world.

So it is too, ideally, a school of wisdom. The same holds for the study of art and literature: the project is to become mature, to speed up, enrich and greatly widen a process that we know occurs in individual lives. As we live, memory, thinking, enjoyment, worries and experiences accumulate. In making good sense of these, in digesting their lessons and putting those lessons into practice, we become wise. And we do so through discussion with and observation of those we know.

The humanities are -- again, ideally -- the more rigorous, better informed, more careful collective equivalents of this intimate process. Only now our range of acquaintances extends across time and space and the quality of conversation we can have, in principle, is vastly increased. We can learn from the Roman Empire, the French Revolution and Tolstoy; we can take up our worries with Freud and Goethe, we can ask Titian and Mozart about the meaning of life.

But I stress ideally. For this is not really what happens in practice. In principle, the humanities are the wellspring of collective maturity: they are the project of collective maturity carried in its purest and most concentrated form. But in practice, these have become academic specialisms: they have been trivialised and marginalised by their self-conceptions. And so the project of collective maturity, so crucial to a civilisation that is devoted to freedom, has been weakened.

When a society is in the grip of a powerful, repressive and traditional culture, there is much to be said for the role of the humanities as voices and agents of liberty. When even to question received opinion is dangerous, then critique is crucial. The first tasks are to create the liberal space of speculation, to tear down the idols, to encourage self-expression, to be sceptical of the rules, to see authority as inherently dangerous. It's entirely understandable that, in some societies in the past, these should have looked like the crucial tasks of the humanities.

But we do not live in such a society. Free expression is everywhere; for us the urgent questions are those around quality, depth of meaning, lasting value. Self-determination is the basic mode of modern life; we don't need to argue for that very much. In other words, we are due an epochal change. We should accept that the project of liberty is intellectually complete.

A second self-image in the humanities derives from the vision of neutral scholarship. This has been extremely important. The humanities in this guise were the fact checkers, the record keepers, the impartial line judges of culture. That may have been a sufficient role once. But it depends on having a high level of acceptance in your society.

Line judges hold sway only when others are playing the game. If the population at large is playing another game entirely, then this role is of little importance.

Maturity certainly involves care about the facts, caution and rigour in interpretation. But it is only when these qualities of mind find their home in experience that we become mature or wise. The studied neutrality of scholarship often has become cold distance, reluctance to ask why this particular application of rigour or cautious interpretation is so important. Does it matter if one misunderstands Kant or has a false belief about the date of a Watteau drawing? Well, it may, but all the work now has to go into explaining why that is the case, what these details of knowledge contribute to life.

The questions should be much more urgent. Scholarship takes the comfortable supposition that it does not have to justify itself because in a civilised society the values of careful neutrality can be taken for granted.

Two good aspects of the humanities -- the defence of liberty and the cultivation of scholarship -- have become, on their own, liabilities. They do not, on their own, rise to the urgent present task.

In recent years it has been natural, all too natural, to blame the strategic weakness of the humanities on a shortage of funds. But that is not where the problem lies. It doesn't matter how much money you have or how vigorously you pursue a goal if you are pursuing the wrong goal, quickly and in luxury.

It seems as if, in a capitalist society, the premium placed on a short-term economic return will necessarily leave the humanities on the margins because in those terms their claim on attention, respect and reward is slight. And, of course, it looks as if the fault lies with capitalism. However, the problem is not with the economic system but with the preferences and choices and attitudes that collectively constitute it.

The humanities have had a marginal place because they have a marginal place in most people's lives. The causality runs in the opposite direction. It's not that capitalism has undermined the humanities; it's that capitalism has revealed the marginal place of the humanities. At least so one may think.

But here we need to hold on to an important distinction. The humanities, as I have been stressing, are, properly speaking, the organised, careful and more powerful versions of standard human concerns. The drive towards maturity hasn't gone away, it has merely been unsupported by the things from which it most needs support. The basic problem is that, as academic disciplines, the humanities lose a sense of genuine purpose. Their goal becomes internal: to be more and more specific, to find greater detail, to become more complex.

None of this need be so bad. After all, part of maturity is coping with complexity and paying attention to logic and the details. But the humanities pursue these fragments in isolation. It is as if they are endlessly discovering more about a few pieces of a large jigsaw and unimpressed that hardly anyone is paying attention. So these valuable, though partial, contributions get lost.

To generalise boldly: three underlying characteristics have reduced the influence of the humanities, and so have undercut the foundations of civilisation.

The humanities have been shy of evaluation; they have become embarrassed by the educational project of cultivating wisdom and taste. They have lacked missionary zeal (and the abilities to make good such a mission); they have been nervous of commerce and wealth. The ideal educational project for the humanities is to teach depth of feeling, seriousness of thinking and the lessons of experience to politicians and consumers. But this has been almost the opposite of what has been happening.

The least likely projects for humanities classes would have been the cultivation of good taste, wisdom and maturity, and the last people invited into the discussion have been politicians and mass consumers. They have been seen as a philistine enemy rather than as the proper focus of education.

Maturity doesn't lie just in thinking; it depends on the relationship between experience, action and reflection: the mere passing of time or the fact that a lot happens to you in the course of a life doesn't on its own ensure wisdom. So, to be the agents of the maturing process, the humanities need to pay much closer attention to the relationship between ideas and the rest of life.

It isn't that the humanities as practised in universities should become the general portal of public maturity; it is, rather, that they could and should play a foundational and formative role; they should shape the climate of ideas that are then given more concrete expression in other areas. The visual arts, for example, have completely failed to be sources of maturity in our society. And one sign of what's so wrong there is the lamentable internal code language and stray assumption that masquerades as clever discussion. That fault does not originate in the visual arts -- they are the carriers of the virus -- but it thrives because of the weakness of the humanities.

One of the key strategic ideas deployed by Karl Marx was that the kind of economy you have powerfully influences the kind of culture you get.

So if you have an economy based on buying and selling, on financial speculation and the amassing of private wealth, then you get a culture that reflects this. If you are bothered about the culture, you have to take a long road through changing the economy.

But there is another side to the story. The kind of economy we have depends on our collective cultural resources. What we collectively admire, love, find exciting or admirable determines what will sell and what the profit margins will be. It determines how much people are willing to borrow. It determines how a successful career is imagined.

Through the 1970s the big theme in business was the creation of desire. An essential message in advertising was: We know what will make you happy. The message was less than candid because the subtext was: How can we get you to want the things that will make us rich?

Since the '90s businesses have become more and more responsive to what people want. They aim to target more closely than their rivals exactly what people are willing to spend their money on and to provide that more efficiently than their rivals.

Now the essential message of advertising is: You know what will make you happy and we're listening to you.

But the big opportunity for the future is going to lie in desire leadership. It marries the two earlier trends: creative leadership in influencing what people want, together with a service towards actual needs. The hopeful future of business lies in serving mature needs, not just fabricating new wants.

This is where the humanities come in. The underlying point of the humanities -- often submerged by scholarship -- has been the study of what it is good to desire and what our real needs are. If the businesses of the future can focus on these and if we can be wise enough to concentrate on them, then the relationship between the economy and the humanities will be one of mutual assistance rather than conflict.

We should not regard this with suspicion. The idea of a civilised modern society should be one in which a strong commercial instinct serves a mature and widespread conception of the good life.

When the humanities go into recession, the economy comes loose from its moorings.

John Armstrong is a senior adviser in the office of the University of Melbourne's vice-chancellor and philosopher in residence at the Melbourne Business School. This essay was first published in The Australian's Higher Education supplement on November 5. 

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