Instrumentalism, The Fallacy of

The perception of a thing or person as useful for your purposes, but otherwise expendable and of little or no account.

It is a form of abstraction, because the victim, forfeiting his, her or its claim to defining properties and characteristics, is recognised only in terms of that usefulness. An image of this is the nude observed coldly, but with interest, by a man in a suit, complete with clipboard, biro, well-filled wallet, mobile phone, calculator . . . The instrumental detachment has the quality of the scavenger, the asset-stripper; the victim is likely to be destroyed in the process, but that does not matter if it serves the exploiter’s purpose. The characteristic art of instrumentalism is kitsch.

One victim of this instrumental detachment is the nation. The nation exists as an asset, a character, a community, in its own right. It is part of the frame of reference which give a person an identity. It has its place, its narrative history, its culture, its language, its jokes, its politics. The people and parties of national politics can legitimately speak for the same community, however much they may disagree. This is the principle of the loyal opposition—acknowledgement that disagreement at least starts from the same premises: debate and dissent are legitimised as diverse expressions of a common identity; the participants are defined by the place. Without that, identity depends, instead, on opinion and on the security of belonging to power networks and faction, so that institutions break: social cohesion is surrendered and reduced to obedience. A nation, in contrast, is a being, in a sense a personality, a person. It lives.

However, like all living things, it is vulnerable. It can be reduced to a mere instrument for the overriding priority of economism, which renders collective identity down to the pursuit of economic growth. Economism bundles together the whole inherited diversity of skills and investment, of material, financial, human and natural capital, as a single passive entity, naked and awaiting the attention of the experts. It is practised at peak aggregation; it takes the imperative of growth and competition as the only reality to be tolerated; it is The Argument: like surreal announcements from Alpha Centauri, it tolerates no reply. It is an addiction which falls for the childish error of failing to distinguish between per capita growth, which market economies have to sustain, and aggregate (national) growth, which is not a coherent objective at all. Since abstractions do not have a beginning and an end, the signs that growth is about to touch-down at the end of its 300–year flight are missed.

The market economy takes over most of the need to make decisions; networks of reciprocal obligation, emotional literacy and social capital are displaced by competitive prices and regulation. However, when it is no longer capable of delivering its skin-deep social cohesion, a secure setting, where the communities of a particular society can live and have their being, will be needed again. The place capable of providing that wider context is the nation. Whether it will have survived its rape by economism and be in any fit state to live again, to be itself, is another matter.I51


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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