For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots, and complication

I

–Here’s a conjecture. Widespread fear and dread, which were reviled by Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

The large-scale systems for betterment–whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other–are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they have to change.

That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them. This proves true even when betterment, rather than human perfectibility, is the objective. (In fact, the enemy of high reliability is the true believer in perfectibility through macro-design.)

–I’d like to believe that if we were to read more closely the early Enlighteners who focused on the drivers of inexperience, difficulty and not-knowing in the pursuit of human betterment, we’d see that the blind-spots of negative fear and social dread are their positive functions (and vice versa).

II

This Janus-faced nature of blind-spots–strengths and weaknesses are inseparable–is the useful complication which erodes so many ersatz dichotomies, such as Enlightenment versus whatever.

I can, for example, make the case that the manifest marker of a globalized modernity is the betterment described in this blog. I can also make the case that modernity’s latent marker, massive tax avoidance and evasion worldwide (throw in the billions and billions of wages stolen by employers, etc), is causally related to betterment. That is not a “paradox” or “dilemma”; it reflects a blind-spot that indexes complexity to be managed, not resolved.

–Some people do not like the complications; I do.

Consider those who are stopped short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Neoliberalism generates such contingency and uncertainty as to undermine a conventionalized “status quo.” It’s the status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

And here’s what’s helpful in that realization. When have status quo’s ever been as real in practice as they are in theory? (We might as well try extracting sunbeams from cucumbers as in Gulliver’s Travels.) To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, and that must be the place to start. That is hope not worn-thin by mis-use.

Appeals to anything like prolong stability in the midst of collectively-evident turbulence have to be read symptomatically if they are be of value to something as complicated as actually-existing betterment.

Principal sources

See the blog entries, “Betterment (continued),” “Good-enough criticism,” and “Where distrust and dread are positive social values”

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