Thursday , September 24 2020
“. . . the elements of danger in the human prospect are by no means all located in ‘external’ threats, but in our ‘internal’ capacity to respond to those threats.” There's a silver lining, however: they are problems of our own making. Thus, they’re soluble.

An Inquiry Into the Human Prospect: an Overview, Part One

Heilbrener identifies three major areas of concern, external danger zones, if you like, which threaten the survival of the species o which, at any rate, are bound to affect the manner of our survival in the foreseeable future.

These are: (i) the proliferation of nuclear arms which, in addition to contributing to a general sense of unrest in the unlikely event of there ensuing a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game, only adds to the climate of global uncertainty at the fringes if such weapons were ever to find their way into the hands of rogue (read: underdeveloped) states intent on leveling the economic playing field, exacting concessions, etc., by resorting to nuclear blackmail and the like (Iran and North Korea come to mind) or, if worse comes to worst, to terrorist organizations, (Al Qaeda. e.g.); (ii) the ever-present danger of population explosion, still not under control, and its most likely concomitants, a worldwide food shortage and energy crisis, both promising to exact their gruesome toll and bring the world’s population to its knees; and lastly, (iii) the indisputable fact that the planet’s natural resources happen to be limited (and therefore exhaustible) if we are to press on with the rate of our expansion and the demands we place on them, mindless of the law of diminishing returns, just so we could sustain ourselves in the lifestyle to which we’ve been accustomed. (Under this rubric, there falls a multitude of environmental concerns and bio-hazards from water and air pollution to the endangerment of the species and the depletion of the world’s resources; for brevity’s sake, however, “climate change” is a convenient shorthand to refer to all of the above and to suggest, in passing, that unless we change our ways, and drastically, we all live on borrowed time.)

Needless to say, although it makes perfect sense to speak of these “danger zones” as though separate and distinct, they’re highly interdependent in that a perceived threat in any one area is bound to have severe repercussions in the other. A spread of worldwide hunger, for instance, due to uneven population growth in the developed and underdeveloped parts of the globe, is likely to trigger blackmail on the part of the impoverished nation-states, a blackmail aimed at redressing the imbalance and redistributing the world’s wealth and resources more evenly. Should the developed nations succumb to these demands, they’d stand to inherit an unprecedented quotient of social unrest and division at home because of stagnated rates of growth, already under pressure due to natural causes. And so on and so forth.

Sustained growth, lest we forget, has always been the one magic formula for keeping everyone appeased and social unrest under wraps, and that’s in spite of the growing disparity in income and wealth between the diverse strata of a typical post-industrial society: it perpetuated the illusion that, however unevenly, all shared in the economic progress of the nation, each and every individual’s contribution didn’t go unnoticed but was rewarded.

Unlimited growth carried the added benefit of perpetuating that illusion indefinitely, forever postponing our rendezvous with history. Well, with economic growth coming to a screeching halt even among the very precursors and champions of industrial development, resulting in what Heilbroner calls “stationary capitalism”, the eventual stage of any post-industrial system, we’re about to experience the kind of leveling never fathomed before: a leveling whereby third-world nations, insofar as the bulk of the population is concerned, would be indistinguishable from the first-rated ones. And if this were to happen, all hell could break loose and none would be the wiser.

It’s not, however, his depiction of the kind of external dangers facing us, graphic and persuasive as it may be, that sets Heilbroner apart from his many contemporaries, but another thing entirely: his unique focus on our capacity to respond as an integral part of the very dangers which confront us. What follows is Heilbroner’s signature statement on the subject:

. . . the gravity of the human prospect does not hinge alone, or even principally, on an estimate of the dangers of the knowable external challenges of the future. To a far greater extent, it is shaped by our appraisal of our capacity to meet those challenges. It is the flexibility of social classes, the resilience of socio-economic orders, the behavior of nation-states, and ultimately the “nature” of human beings that together form the basis for our expectations, optimistic or pessimistic, with regard to the human outlook. And for these critical elements in the human prospect there are very few empirical findings on which to rest our beliefs. We possess little or no “hard” information about the propensities of nation-states to peace and war, about the stubbornness or adaptability of social classes, or about the malleability of individual beings, except for those frail generalizations that we assemble from our real and vicarious life experience – itself biased, as we have said, by our situation within society and our private predilections. Thus, as regards the most important element of an effort to assess the prospect for man, we have no guide but ourselves, and are thrown back, willy-nilly, to criteria that trouble us by virtue of their subjective foundation.

Or to take another, equally illuminating passage:

. . . that list of dangers still does not fully describe the challenge of the human prospect, nor wholly account for the somber state of mind with which we look to the future. For the dangers we have discussed do not descend, as it were, from the heavens, menacing humanity with the implacable fate that would be the consequence of the sudden arrival of a new Ice Age or the announcement of the impending extinction of the sun.
On the contrary, as we have repeatedly sought to emphasize, all the dangers we have examined – population growth, war, environmental damage, scientific technology – are social problems

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, originating in human behavior and capable of amelioration by the alteration of that behavior. Thus the full measure of the human prospect must go beyond an appraisal of the of the seriousness of these problems to an estimate of the likelihood of mounting a response adequate to them, and not least to some consideration of the price that may have to be paid to muster such a response.

In short, “. . . the elements of danger in the human prospect are by no means all located in ‘external’ threats, but in our ‘internal’ capacity to respond to those threats.” There is a silver lining, however, in that the dangers and the challenges which face us are “social problems,” which is to say, problems of our own making: they’re soluble.

These observations are as relevant today as ever. For indeed, no matter what external threats are thrown our way, past, present or future, ultimately, it always comes down to our internal capacity to respond to those threats both as individuals and as members of a collective: it’s always a matter of our ability to adapt to the challenges facing us, again, both as persons and as members of a community. And since the first-mentioned line of inquiry would invariably lead us to consider the rather murky subject of human nature, dealing besides with responses which, by virtue of being individual and possibly idiosyncratic, are anything but wholesale (there being little payoff in that from the standpoint of analyzing organizational structures as a whole), quite naturally, Heilbroner starts out with the second, the object being to examine the resiliency of our institutions, social, economic and political, to adapt to all manner of challenges facing us, to re-invent themselves, so as to carry the day. Hence the title of the third chapter of the Inquiry, “Socio-Economic Capabilities for Response,” and we shall follow this order of presentation.

It’s rather significant that the political dimension, surely an important aspect of social organization in any day and age, didn’t find its way into this chapter. Oddly enough, we see it smuggled through the back door, as it were, into the chapter to follow, a chapter devoted besides to the vagaries of human nature (“The Political Dimension and ‘Human Nature’”), but more on that later. Needless to say, Heilbroner thinks he has good reasons to relegate the political to the back burner.

In the following segment, I propose to expose the nature of Heilbroner’s bias in having posited the primacy of socioeconomic arrangements over the political ones. By way of preamble, let me state at the outset that the underlying rationale doesn’t seem to follow the traditional Marxist line of analysis in terms of structure and superstructure, but issues instead from the mind of a conservative.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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