Eagleton’s Hope without Optimism and Ridley’s The Rational Optimist

I heard today that veteran Marxist Terry Eagleton’s new book contains a short and trenchant review of The Rational Optimist. The review is being highly praised (though vaguely so, and in passing) by book reviews in the leftist press.

On perusing the book, a grab-bag of essays rather dourly titled Hope without Optimism (Sept 2015), I see that Eagleton’s review of The Rational Optimist is not announced as such but is instead buried in the middle of an essay. For those not able to get this new book, below is my quick digest summary of Eagleton’s specific quibbles. His review is characterised by a constantly upbraiding of Ridley for not saying this or considering that, then a paragraph or two later Eagleton grudgingly admits that Ridley did actually address this or that — just not in a manner in accordance with Eagleton’s avowedly Marxist ideology.

* “Ridley sees a direct relation between material affluence and human well-being”. This, according to Eagleton, is not a sufficiently nuanced view of the matter — since the great Karl Marx saw the whole thing in a much more balanced light.

(So, by implication, nothing has changed since Marx and Engels formulated their ideas and partially cherry-picked from data in the England of the 1850s and 60s. Will the left ever cease to view the world through the grimy windows of an early Lancastrian cotton mill?).

* Ridley is said to “naively” over-emphasise “the emancipatory nature of markets, exchange value, and the global circulation of commodities”. Ridley is thus a “devout believer” who places too much faith in free-market economics.

(But, late on in the review, Eagleton concedes that Ridley does warn that certain types of capitalist asset markets are prone to damaging “bubbles”, in a free market.(1) Eagleton later notes that “Ridley concedes that the world will end in disaster if we carry on the way we do”. I’d note that Ridley also expresses his doubts about certain types of corporations and “rent seeking” in the current economy).

* Ridley is fairly described as thinking that open “commerce goes hand in hand with a general spread of civility”, moderating many underlying human tendencies such as aggression. Apparently, to Eagleton, this is to be deemed questionable. He springboards from this point straight into an attack on Pinker, rather than on Ridley.

(I think that Ridley is simply unassailable on civility, in terms of the overall historical record. I seem to remember that Ridley even goes into specifics at one point in the book, suggesting that the rise of civility is probably a combined effect of various factors: trade + all the factors that run alongside the spread of trade).

* Ridley is admonished for having “passed over” or been “complacently silent” about the downsides of the upward trajectory of “trade and prosperity”, such as 19th century industrial factory conditions and even “colonialist genocide”.

(Yet, a page or so later in the same review, Eagleton admits that Ridley was not so “silent”. Since he bridles when “Ridley proudly points out” the history of the outlawing of “slavery and child labour”, on which point he chides Ridley for not paying enough attention to the opposition that some 19th century reform movements faced. Eagleton bridles again, when he reads Ridley condemning the early factory system of “inhuman hours” in “terrible danger, noise and dirt” — because Ridley then had the temerity to point out that a factory life was often a somewhat better life than one spent as a farm labourer (or child or wife of such). Deirdre McCloskey has already ably proved Ridley’s point on this.

* Ridley is deemed an “embattled ideologue”, and therefore not a dispassionate judge of the matters under discussion. Ridley’s faith in the future is deemed to be essentially a mystical one, through being described by Eagleton in terms such as “unquenchable belief”, “a faith in the spirit of innovation” and various similar quasi-religious denigrations.

(/Splutter/ Well, that’s “the Marxist pot calling the Free-Marketeer kettle black”, if ever I heard it. Ridley has explained many times why he is a rational optimist, not the unthinking happy-clappy sort of optimist, something which any fair reading of the book should have made evidently clear).

* Eagleton remarks that the trajectory of our future progress may even give to rise too… an eventual utopian Marxist society.

(Erm… you were casting aspersions about someone being quasi-religious in outlook, Terry…?)

* Ridley allegedly “passes over the fact that innovation is simply one factor in a complex economic system” and Eagleton gloomily asks “what if the innovations prove unprofitable?” Ridley is also claimed to have “failed to point out how capitalism can impede inventive thought”. The Rational Optimist‘s working notion of “collective intelligence” is deemed too vague, and yet it is concrete enough for Eagleton to suggest that it could become “despotic” in future.

(Ridley’s major new 2015 book has amply addressed all those quibbles, I think).

* Ridley is a “social Darwinist”.

(A common slur and falsehood made by the left, here made in passing. It’s an accusation I’ve heard Ridley cogently rebut several times now, calling its use by another reviewer “an elementary howler”).

* Ridley’s 2010 book took too rosy a view of progress in contemporary China.

(Possible. All books seem unavoidably and unconsciously to reflect the times in which they were written. The Rational Optimist may have been no different in certain minor respects. An intelligent reader of the books of the past sees such ripples of history and upbringing, but looks through them to see the grit of the underlying argument)

* Ridley’s book is somewhat mired in the author’s own upper middle-class worldview.

(Possible. But since socialists and Marxists seem to be overwhelmingly upper middle-class, this criticism seems another example of “the pot calling the kettle black”. It’s true that Ridley’s political savvy does partially suffer because he has never been on/in the left, but always embedded in the English small-c conservative mindset. So he just doesn’t understand his opponents on the left well enough to combat them effectively.)

* Ridley expends “no less than an entire paragraph” addressing the current threat of nuclear war, which is not enough space according to Eagleton. Just because nuclear war and various other dire threats (named by Eagleton as “famine, plague, environmental disaster and so on”) haven’t yet happened, says Eagleton, doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.

(Ridley has ably addressed such “but… but… the doom just hasn’t happened yet!” arguments. Yet, later in the same review, Eagleton admits that Ridley does suggest that such dangers — if they were to occur — would obviously make the 21st century what Ridley terms “a dreadful place”. It seems obvious that the potential for a small group of extremists to cause a widespread and existential chaos has increased since the 1980s. Partly due to the spread of enabling technology, and partly due to our complex and delicately-balanced supply-chains. But at the same time our methods for the detection and prevention of such extremism have also vastly increased, and we have greatly raised the overall level of moral pressure against acts that could threaten whole populations. If a widespread attack were to occur, for instance a hundred drones carrying a contagious bio-war attack combined with a major cyber-attack, then we now have vastly better ways to route around or solve the major problems and food-security blockages that would follow. In my view the more serious existential worry should be that some scientifically-approved global project to ‘rectify the climate’, by seeding the oceans or atmosphere with something or generically-engineering carbon-trapping weeds, will go horribly and irreversibly wrong.)

* Ridley may think that many of humanity’s perennial problems “are en route to being resolved”, but how can we ever overcome “the crimes of our ancestors” that are deemed to have enabled such progress?

(The “we are always-already responsible for all the crimes of the past” argument is a bit rich, coming from a Marxist who sits in a tradition that whipped out a dubious New Left “Get Out of Jail Free” card in regard to the immense crimes of Stalin and Mao. And who comes from a wider socialist tradition that has historically been blithely happy to raise its future ‘utopia’ on new foundations containing the bones of tens of millions of people.)

* Ridley may also be ignoring much that was good and recoverable in the past, in his rush to the future. Eagleton then actually supports this point by quoting nearly a page from what he terms the “ever-sanguine” Leon Trotsky.

(Hmm… now that’s quite possible, Trotsky aside. The Rational Optimist was written before Scruton’s recent book on conservative traditions, which is excellent and written from a British perspective. Scruton’s early chapters discuss and pinpoint British conservatism’s traditional respect for both the past and for future generations. I sometimes think that Ridley isn’t as sharply aware of the outlines, value and reach of these traditions as he might be — perhaps because he lives inside them rather than ‘seeing them whole’ from the outside.)

* 1. Footnote: In the case of the U.S. housing asset market, I would argue that the recent bubble/crash was actually caused by quasi-socialistic government interventions and fumblings. Thomas Sowell’s excellent book The Housing Boom and Bust (now out in a Revised Edition) gives a very clear account of this government intervention in an asset market, and can be summarised in one paragraph thus…

“There was over-regulation and mis-regulation by city and federal governments in the 1970s and 1980s, creating a shortage of house building land. This then triggered land price booms in a small number of desirable cities in the USA. House builders then passed these land price increases to house buyers, triggering highly localised house-price booms – which then attracted many investors looking for a quick buck. As new-build houses rose in price, gentrification kicked in and renovators started pricing locals out of formerly run-down neighbourhoods. The many multi-property investors who entered the game were sustained by a government which had encouraged a low-interest / easy-credit economy. These highly localised house-price booms were then cynically used to justify a national political crusade for “affordable housing” for minority groups. Very quickly the mortgage companies were forced by the U.S. government (under threat of legal action) into mandatory quotas which handed out millions of no-risk mortgages (“low incomes acceptable, no deposit needed, pay almost nothing for two years”) to those least able to afford the eventual payments. These “toxic debts” were then bought up by the huge U.S. government-sponsored mortgage aggregators, which quickly repackaged them as ‘mortgage-backed securities’ which they could sell off to unsuspecting investors and banks around the world. The bubble burst and the crash occurred. The problem was then made worse as governments dithered about which banks they should save, and which they should let go to the wall. This uncertainty meant that no-one in business knew who to trust for credit, leading to a spiralling credit crisis around the world.”


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