by Cosmo Houck

There is a genius post over at Crooked Timber exploring the avenues open to Greece and the EU in dealing with the current economic crisis. Go choose your own path to avoid economic catastrophe! (I ended up at number 5) I’m not an economist, I haven’t studied economics, and I generally try to stay out of the way of people who seem to know a lot more about the dismal science than can be gleaned from casual perusal of Wikipedia, so I haven’t really talked about the EU and Greece much. However, it’s nice to hear someone say something that makes a lot of intuitive sense to me: that the answers to the Greece dilemma aren’t that simple and there isn’t really an obvious and good practical solution.

Maybe I find that admonition refreshing simply because I’m a pessimist. It deserves to be pointed out that most columnists will gesture feebly in the direction of doubt with a disclaimer–something like “obviously, the gravity of the challenges in front of us mean there are no guarantees”–but they invariably continue on to offer “concrete” solutions or to criticize the actions of others as clearly wrong. (I’m sure you can find examples of me doing this) It’s late tonight and I don’t feel like trawling for evidence; feel free to go read some Thomas Friedman on your own time. (Actually, here are two examples of how he blithely and sweepingly caricatures immensely complex challenges in short posts) I’ve written before about how I think that easy answers don’t really exist to many of the social problems we face; our lives are just too complex, governed by the interactions of billions of individuals and the structures that they both create and are created by. It’s naive to think that in less than 1000 words we can make much sense of anything.

I think partly it’s a disease that’s born in education–a miasma of scholarship that demands focused, defined arguments that address specific concerns. I began thinking about this in my senior year of school when I took a seminar on the historiography of the French Revolution. After some groundwork we read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution. It remains my favorite piece of historical writing. It’s also a bit of a funny book; it’s hard, reading it, to get a sense of how Tocqueville really thinks the Revolution happened. Much of it is self contradictory. Tocqueville took it upon himself to explore everything that led up to the Revolution, and in the process sacrificed internal consistency for astonishing breadth. That approach to scholarship has since, I feel like, been mainly discarded.

As an example: there was an excellent piece of cultural history we had to read later in the class. Some enterprising historian took it upon himself to examine the role of the French affiche (think…a modern day coupon booklet) in precipitating the Revolution. It’s a truly excellent article, and one I enjoyed immensely. And I came away convinced that, indeed, the affiche probably had something to do with the coming of the conflict. But what to do with that information? How does it fit into a larger whole? On some level this is an obviously apples to oranges comparison: it’s not really fair to take a singular journal article and compare it to an astonishingly ambitious attempt at a comprehensive history of an event. But I think the broader point is that Tocqueville’s ambition doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re trying to prove a point, because the circumstances surrounding events are always going to be fractured and contradictory; if you want to make a compelling argument, you have to dial out the noise and specify. And I think the proliferation of micro-histories over the last thirty years–like the examination of the French affiche–is potentially representative of that.

I don’t really know though–it’s just an idea I’ve been kicking around. And I should probably mention that a lot of The Old Regime and the Revolution can be pretty problematic. But there is a general sense I’ve had lately–cultivated by my uncertainty about the nature of many of the political challenges we face, not to mention their solutions–that things are, to some degree, spiraling out of control. That the interrelationships between everything that goes on at a global level defies our ability to theorize about it or, more importantly, to act upon it. Political contingencies are too limiting, and our theory hasn’t kept up with the pace of change.

That’s probably not a claim I would have made yesterday. After all, if you want you can go back into Marx and find passages that presage the housing bubble, just as you can go into Friedman and find plenty on how the government distorts markets. I’ve always loved big theory like that. But that’s macro theory; that’s principles of the world type stuff, and reality is often a lot muddier. On the ground, in the realms of policy, there aren’t really Marxists and Friedmanites; there are mostly pragmatists. And to the degree to which they are governed by theories, they are governed by models and data. And on that level, it seems we haven’t kept up. The world, so far, seems to resist our abilities to make easy sense of it. Indeed, it seems to be getting harder and harder to do so (at least to me).

If this post has meandered, or lacked any evident purpose, I apologize. I usually try to write  about something, but tonight I mainly wanted to write about something. If this post has a conclusion it is one that was better expressed almost a decade ago by William Gibson, in his book Pattern Recognition: 

Fully imagined cultural futures were the luxury of another day, one in which ‘now’ was of some greater duration. For us, of course, things can change so abruptly, so violently, so profoundly, that futures like our grandparents’ have insufficient ‘now’ to stand on. We have no future because our present is too volatile. … We have only risk management. The spinning of the given moment’s scenarios. Pattern recognition.