On the Myth and Use of History

My world is a historical world and the limits of my world are historical.  In so much that the primary sciences I concern myself with are social sciences and biology, the primary mechanism I use to understand the economic is the anthropological and the history of political-economy, and the primary metaphors in my writing are hidden traces of historical past on my subjective consciousness.  In other words, I am the rare non-conservative who thinks the past is playing out in the present and the future is contingent upon not just our ideas of the past but the threads of historical development that we probably have not seen.

Yesterday, I had a fairly heated debate with an ernstwhile friend on a pamphlet by Tylor Cowen. Cowen’s technocratic neo-liberalism which dons the mask of moderation is about as far as from my politics as one can run, yet I find myself agreeing with a lot of Cowen’s assertions in the great stagnation.  His answers, of course, I think are hogwash.  (For example, he thinks marketization of education would increase educational proficieny and make better educational investments ignore ALL the data from Higher education that indicates that for profit schools are actually LESS efficient at this than non-profits and governmental schools.  We have hard data for this, and not just in countries where government loans distort the market. East Asia and Latin America is rife with questionable for profit schools where there is no government loan system. Non-profits may produce the most educational efficiency as they are not as tied to the bureaucratic apparatus of the state, but one must remember that large scale businesses are also bureaucratic in nature and significantly more given to rent-seeking.)

The argument had to do with declining rates of profit and overly complex systems, which both parties largely agreed on, but also on the technological plateau on all most forms of tech outside of communications software.  Cowen talks about this, and he seems to think it is tied to decreased marketization and a focus on sectors where marketization does not work (such as healthcare). Of course, I think this is wrong, but technological stagnation outside of communications and even in production (where automation is not making leaps and bounds in new tech, but mainly just getting more affordable through miniaturization and remote supervision).   The plateau of technology that produced efficiency in the main of production has gone down with profits in non-monopoly sectors.

Regardless, Cowen’s own ideological commitments seem to lead him to avoid going all the way with his description.  A friend questioned that we could learn anything from the plateau and pointed out that “experts” could not predict the effiecacies that arrouse in 1820, 1850s, 1880s, 1920s, and 1940s-1950s, and thus the only thing we could learn was that experts were unable to predict historical trends.

While I actually do agree on the whole with the assetment of both credentialed experts and pundits, both of whom have professional and ideological pressures to have a very myoptic world view, I do not think history is that random.  The pleateu described is longer than the nearly perfect generational cycles before and correspond to declining rates of profits (even if income is up, there is a lot of evidence that profit per unit made is down), overly complex distribution systems which even markets seem to have a hard time deriving clear feedback from, and end of what Cower calls “low-hanging fruit” or what I call the end of a mixture of primitive accumulation and natural wealth (through depletion by use).  The cycles tied to wars and generational turns, as unpredictable as they were in content, were regular in form, and this seems to have changed.

In fact, even the delusions about history: the invented traditions, the retrojections, the impositions on the past, the ideological misreadings are somewhat predictable in form, but not content.  A change in the forms, however, happen but they indicate broad scale social changes, and again this may only be clearly predictable in content retrospectively.  While I realize this is a problematic appropriation from  a scientific idea, I sometimes wonder if an incompleteness theory of historigraphy is justified.   One can probablistically understand the form of historical movement, or one can understand the content of a historical movement, but one cannot deal synchronically with content and diachronically with form in any meaningful way at the same time. I suppose this could be called the rhyming dictory theory of historigraphy.