The Pretense of Prediction
12 March 2010
The older I become the more it is driven home to me that almost no one can predict what products or industries will be successful before they exhibit their success in the marketplace. This is more than a needed warning against the state intervening in markets by attempting to pick winners and losers, it is also intended as a gentle scold to that particular streak of self-aggrandizement that flatters itself by believing that it understands where the world is going. By and large we do not know where the world is going, and it is pretense and folly to pretend that one does know.
In the above I wrote “almost no one” because even exhortations to epistemic humility need to be hedged in the same spirit of epistemic humility. The vast majority of us do not know where there world is going (or, if we think we do know, we are mistaken), but that does not exclude the possibility that there are persons with exceptional insight into the nature of things who do have a good idea of the direction in which the world is headed. But because there is a vastly greater number of persons who falsely believe themselves to understand how the world works than there are persons who actually do understand how the world works, the voices of authentic insight and intuition are lost in the din of shouting multitudes. As a consequence, they are not heard, and not heeded.
In contemporary industrialized society, the question as to what products will be successful in the marketplace (along with the industries that produce these products, or produce the means to produce these products) has about it a certain existential poignancy. In a world in which almost everyone is an employee working either for wages or a salary, watching the sands of time slip irrevocably through the center of the hourglass as their hours are wasted away in alienated labor, the question of what products will be successful is a question of what individuals will trade their lives for. What constitutes a fair exchange for the irreplaceable hours of life? This is the question the consumer asks before spending his or her money.
Who could have guessed twenty years ago that teenagers would work at an after-school job in order to buy a particular cell phone with an especially intriguing functionality? Who could have guessed that buying virtual goods in online gaming worlds would become an industry so large that venture capitalists would begin to involve themselves in it? Twenty years ago, one could not even have explained what a virtual item in an online game was. And yet these are the growth industries of today. And at the same time, many of the thirty companies that twenty years ago constituted the Dow Jone Industrial Average, with their false sense of permanence (having forgotten the destruction part of creative destruction), are no longer listed on the Dow, and some are no longer in existence. It was once said that what is good for General Motors is good for America. General Motors is now in bankruptcy.
Side by side within the contemporary economy, there are growth industries and there are contracting industries, there are newly emergent industries and there are dying industries, there are industries undergoing transformation and there even a few industries caught in the limbo of stasis, neither being born nor dying. Even within a given industry there are particular firms that thrive and others that fail. Which is which is a question not only for the investor, but also for the employee seeking stable employment and the vendor seeking stable clients. Some of us make wise choices, and some of us do not. Most of us don’t make any choice at all, but simply stumble into our line of work.
The same epistemic humility that we ought to bring to the unbearable pretense of economic prediction ought also to be exercised in political prediction. The economic and political sphere are closely parallel. At the present moment, side-by-side in contemporary societies there are ideologies that are growing and other that are contracting, ideologies that are newly born and others that are dying, ideologies undergoing transformation and ideologies caught in a limbo of stasis, their prospects unknown.
It is as much a folly to claim that one knows what ideologies will be successful as it is to attempt to predict what products will be successful, and for similar reasons. But while the success of a product in the marketplace is based upon the existential poignancy of an exchange of a portion of one’s life for a commodity, the success of a political ideology is based on a distinct existential poignancy, but one no less deeply felt.
The successful political ideology will be that ideology that spontaneously resonates with the bulk of the people in any given region during a given period of time. Who can say what makes a political idea resonate with a people? I attempted to sketch something of this some time ago in The Historical Resonance of Ideas.
Almost a year ago in Earth Day I wrote the following:
Environmentalism today is on the cusp, perhaps even past the cusp, of being not only the dominant apocalyptic discourse of our time, but also the dominant discourse simpliciter of our time. This is significant. In fact, it would be difficult to over-estimate the significance of the emergence of the environmental movement. It is today one of the very few ideological movements that inspires people to action and changes the fates of individuals as well as that of nation-states.
I don’t regard the above as a prediction, since it is already an established fact. Few if any within the political establishment saw environmentalism coming — most regarded it as a fringe nuisance — but it is now a force to be reckoned with. As I noted in the above quote, there is only a handful of ideologies today that change the fates of both individuals and nation-states. It is difficult to name them, since it is difficult to objective on the topic precisely because the only ideology that can change the fates of individuals and nation-states is one that resonates within us. We do not understand a successful ideology as much as we feel it and respond to it. An ideology, if it is successful, moves us, that is to say, an ideology represents the political sublime, a particular species of the intellectual sublime.
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