Peter Oppenheimer: There is a limit to the extent to which any society can absorb new elements into itself

Peter Morris Oppenheimer, a prominent economist and fellow of Christ Church, Oxford, in an interview to Invest Foresight, touched upon the fundamental causes of the tectonic social shifts the world has observed in many countries and is now eyewitnessing in the US.

Speaking of the social unrest in the US, he noted that “the pandemic may have played a role, but it’s not of primary importance. I would – in just a moment – emphasize two other things. As a preliminary, however, one must not exaggerate the unfamiliarity or suggest that we have never seen anything like this before. The race problem has been a continuous feature of United States history for the last two hundred years. The American civil war in the middle of the 19th century was fought – not entirely, but in part – over the slavery issue in the South. Furthermore, the rights and the social status of the black population, and the recognition of injustice towards blacks, has been an issue ever since. In recent times, there was the celebrated novel by Harper Lee published in 1960, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, about racial injustice, about a black man wrongly accused of rape. There was the murder in 1968 of the black Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Junior. There are the ongoing activities of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), white supremacists who are against equalization of rights for blacks. And there is the problem of the attitude of the American police throughout the country. This recent victim, George Floyd, was killed in Minneapolis, not in the South. And now the situation is apparently becoming more violent; not more violent than ever before, but more violent than most of us can remember in our own lifetime.”

“Why has it happened? In my view at least two things have to be mentioned,” said Mr. Oppenheimer. “First, in the age of social media – which means in the last 25 years at most – news and feelings, demonstrations and opinions spread more unpredictably and more violently than they did when one simply relied on newspapers, television and talk. I believe that social media have been a crucial factor emphasizing and intensifying the protest against this monstrous occurrence (and it is a monstrous occurrence: even if the Minneapolis police sought to arrest Mr. Floyd for some supposed offence, there is no excuse for the physical violence to which he was subjected). The fact is, with social media these things go viral in a way they did not 50 years ago.”

“The other point I would stress is Mr Trump. Donald Trump is an extraordinary person to be President of the United States. He is unpredictable, he uses objectionable language, he behaves undiplomatically. If the COVID-19 pandemic has partly caused the unrest in America, it was Trump’s reaction to the pandemic, and his attempt to blame the Chinese for America’s misfortune, that augmented it.”

“In Europe we too know that the virus originated in China (Wuhan), but that does not mean we blame the Chinese for having created it. The attitude of President Trump, his style, and his diplomacy or rather lack of it, is in general a violence-creating factor. It is enhancing the divisions in American society, particularly ahead of the presidential election this autumn.

“In sum, there are three points in my diagnosis: race relations have been a problem in America almost since the country was founded (since the 18th century in fact); social media to-day have the effect of magnifying the impact of individual scandalous occurrences; and President Trump and his pronouncements give further encouragement to intolerance and social tensions in America.”

A related question is, can extreme social tensions now cross the Atlantic and reach Europe? According to Mr. Oppenheimer, “there is a limit to the extent to which any society can absorb new elements into itself without generating tensions and clashes, because human societies differ in their customs, their behavior, and in what they expect from others around them. Social harmony needs certain shared assumptions, shared culture, and shared attitudes, as well as tolerance and respect for the Other. Where international migration occurs on a large scale, this may pose risks to social stability, to tolerance and harmony, and to law-abidingness.”

“In France, the Charlie Hebdo case, associated with Islamic terrorism, shocked the country; and today,” Mr. Oppenheimer observed, “there remain severe social tensions in parts of France – in some of the suburbs of Paris for instance, and in certain other cities like Marseille – between people of North African origin, and the long-standing native, mostly white population. Similarly, in Britain there are some localities which have seen racial clashes. Not necessarily, by the way, involving whites: tensions have also arisen between groups of Asian and of Afro-Caribbean origin.”

“The race situation in Europe is less deeply engrained than in America. America has lived with it for nearly three centuries. In Europe it is far more recent, and in any case Europe itself consists of numerous nations, with a great deal of both cultural diversity and political rivalry among them – and those nations,” Mr. Oppenheimer stressed, “have unfortunately fought wars with each other far too frequently over the last several hundred years. By the same token, the extent to which Europe possesses a sense of unity vis-à-vis the rest of the world is easy to overstate. The nations of Europe are physically close to one another and have elements in common, but they are also very diverse and mutually competitive. One mustn’t exaggerate the importance of immigration from other continents into Europe as a source of strain. Europe itself is inherently divided.”

As an alternative trigger of social unrest, “economic factors are important, regardless of race, although they are mostly less durable. Wide variations in income, extreme poverty against extreme wealth, tend not to last for so long. On the other hand, if one thinks about economic and social factors as a cause of upheaval, the first country in Europe whose historical experience comes to mind is, of course, Russia.”

“Serfdom in Russia was abolished formally in 1861, just as the American civil war was formally abolishing slavery in the United States. It is illuminating to compare the subsequent history of social tensions in the two countries. In Russia, race was not an issue – with the important exception of antisemitism. There was no difference in race between a typical Russian serf and a typical land-owning aristocrat. But there were insuperable barriers of class, education and economic opportunity, connected among other things with the vast size of the country and associated cost of physical mobility. And the lower orders in Russia, like blacks in America, could not expect equal treatment before the law.”

“These factors in Russia gave rise to the 1917 revolutions and – after a civil war – to seventy years of communist rule. That rule in turn transformed the Russian education system and in many respects modernized the Russian economy – but not sufficiently so to ensure its own survival into the twenty-first century. Economic factors have thus been a repeated cause of change in Russia’s political regime. That makes Russia a rather special case. West European countries, and to a lesser extent the United States, have moved with established political regimes from free-market capitalism to the mixed economy, where income inequalities are moderated through progressive taxation and social expenditure. Meanwhile,” Peter Oppenheimer concluded, “the People’s Republic of China has preserved its communist political order, while putting much of the country’s economy on a free-market basis.”

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