The Growth of a Global Community

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr

by Dan Shanahan
Togga, 2011

When we hear the word “growth” spoken in political discourse, we generally think in economic terms—and usually with the implication that growth is a good thing. But at least since E.F. Schumacher’s Limits to Growth, the West has been faced with the notion that economic growth in and of itself may not be the unmitigated blessing we once thought it to be.

If we try to bring the discourses of economy and personal psychology together, we run into real problems: few would argue that “personal growth”—as conceived by psychologists like Rogers or Maslow—is anything but a good. Schumacher’s “limits” don’t come into consideration at all.

At first glance, this is nothing more than cross-disciplinary crosstalk. One discipline using a word in one sense, another in a different sense, and—to paraphrase Mark Twain—you’re OK if the trains don’t meet. But in a new and provocative reflection on the future of progressive political thought, Waiting for Something That Never Arrived: Meditations on a Progressive America in Honor of Tony Judt, Dan Shanahan lets the trains meet. And instead of a head-on collision, we get something more like atomic fission, and it produces a remarkable amount of energy.

As the title suggests, the book is in part an homage to Tony Judt, the brilliant New York University political historian known to readers of the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. Shanahan had a brief set of email exchanges with Judt in the waning months of the historian’s life, which ended last year due to Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Shanahan had been struck by the implied optimism of Judt’s Ill Fares the Land, a 2010 book on the alarming increase in unequal distribution of wealth in Western democracies, so he found himself wondering if Judt wasn’t leaving himself open to the accusation of naïveté with respect to his assessment of the possibilities of social democracy in America. Pondering that question up to and after Judt’s death, Shanahan set out to ask what foundations, beyond altruism and liberal guilt, might exist upon which a progressive vision could be built in the age of Limbaugh, Palin, and the Tea Party.

Enter “growth.”

Shanahan says life has two irreducible qualities: it tries to survive and reproduce, and to aid in that effort, it “grows”—both with respect to its complexity (thus Darwin’s findings on natural selection) and with respect to what, for lack of a better word, we might call “wisdom” in elaborating its interactions with its environment.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt] Anything that nurtures those qualities, Shanahan says, is “progressive” and therefore good in the eyes of people who call themselves by that name.

But Shanahan also finds fault with the American Dream and the focus on purely economic growth (a focus often veiled by the use of the word “prosperity”). Particularly in a world where relative affluence is guaranteed for the many, he says, to make economic growth the pinnacle of human aspirations is to demean what it is to be human. In short, the focus upon prosperity has left Americans in a vacuum where meaning is concerned; the dream reduced meaning to the material, and when the material was assured, no new aspirations appeared, leaving the country in an unbroken cycle of material pursuits centered around the increasing variety and volume of consumer toys.

Shanahan fears that this cycle has already infected not only other Western democracies, but also the many countries that are striving to achieve economic liftoff and enter the ranks of the affluent—as well as the many that cannot yet even protect themselves from famine and disease. This, he suggests, requires progressives to reexamine the foundation of their political philosophy, but also affords the opportunity for growth of a more satisfying and ultimately a more deeply human kind.

Shanahan introduces Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, long a staple of both personal psychology and even some more radical approaches to economic development. Maslow’s emphasis on the need to establish a foundation of basic safety and security—which then allows development of a sense of belonging, the respect of one’s peers, and self-esteem—provides, in Shanahan’s eyes, a means for measuring the extent to which the world of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has continued to evolve in the way the species might expect. The report card is not good. In a world where the affluent distract themselves with celebrity scandals, unreal “reality” shows, and mindlessly obsessive consumption, struggling to ignore the evaporation of higher-order concerns in their lives, the less affluent—that is to say, the overwhelming majority of the planet’s population—struggle with poverty, often living on the edge of personal and social catastrophe.

Shanahan’s repeated references to a “global family” are not incidental. He argues that progressives must, without becoming overly sentimental, recognize the extent to which contemporary realities bind rich and poor, North and South, into a global family in which each member’s fate is interwoven with that of all the others. He says:

Without launching out into some New Age, Starship Enterprise view of where we must go, we can look at ourselves as a species situated on a habitable planet with sufficient resources, talents and tools to maintain ourselves at a minimum level of comfort and within the limits of those resources.

We have also begun to recognize that our species has an identifiable pattern of needs, behavioral responses to those needs, and even an ability, in the right circumstances, to transcend those needs, and that the insights we have into how our species behaves, brought together with our understanding of our evolution and of the environment we inhabit, afford us the chance to establish an equilibrium which will afford us all safety, security, and the opportunity to reflect on questions of meaning without facing undue threat. What is perhaps most awe-inspiring about our age—and, indeed, frightening—is that we have the power to situate ourselves in the evolution of our species and our planet and to make our decisions accordingly.

Redoubling the family motif, Shanahan says the magnitude of the frightening power we hold could easily inspire a sense of futility—futility of the kind that underlies his questioning of the optimism implied in Judt’s Ill Fares the Land. But, he says:

I suspect that, just as I have countless times in the past, in moments of doubt about the usefulness of writing a book about the inequalities of affluent societies which he would shortly leave, never to revisit, he drew strength from thinking about his sons. While he might not live to see the impact his book would make, while the book might not even have any impact at all, thinking about his sons, their future, and the world that future would play out in must have reminded him of one of the cardinal rules any good parent learns from the moment they know a child is on its way: you don’t take chances with your children’s welfare.

And in that rule I think there is a lesson for progressive thinkers, particularly those of us who may wonder about the futility of it all. You don’t take chances with humanity’s future.

Along the way, Shanahan offers insightful reflections on subjects such as abortion, gun control, health care, and the rabble-rousing discourse of Limbaugh, Palin, and the Tea Party movement, and he makes interesting suggestions about the need for progressives to introduce a note of gravitas into their discourse. But the real message of this clearly written and thought-provoking book is that we stand at a crossroads in the history of the species on the planet. The decisions we make, or fail to make, will affect the lives of generations upon generations to come. Even if there were not much else to recommend it—and there is—the introduction of that perspective in a sober and reflective fashion makes the book a welcome addition to the progressive political discussion.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *