All posts by angrytunbridgewells

About angrytunbridgewells

I am a retired secondary school teacher and former social worker. Also a former Labour Party activist, who left when their politics deviated from mine. I loved economics as a sixth former, but became disillusioned with the subject while at university. Economics is badly served by its practitioners, who take a blinkered and often boring approach to the topic. I want to to introduce a new approach to the subject, which is hopefully a little more interesting.

A Country Childhood – Enchantment

A friend of mine often mocks my religious beliefs, citing Bertrand Russell. A philosopher who said he had no respect for those who claimed to worship an unknown God. People such as me believe he thought in an irrational and nonsensical set beliefs that could withstand the cold of scientific scrutiny. What I believe is that they they lack is an understanding of the magic of existence. One of the benefits of a country childhood was being gifted with an understanding of the magic of nature. Now in my seventies I can see it as a time of enchantment.

As a child of the 1940s when technological advances had left the countryside largely untouched, anything could be magical. One such occasion was my first visit to the blacksmith. His workshop was dark and gloomy, the only light coming from the forge and a soft ingrained window. Usually the lack of sunlight meant he left the door open, whatever the weather so as to get sufficient light with which to work. I witnessed this man using hammers, pincers and the forge to manufacture a horse shoe. A man so shrouded in shadow, that the only feature of his that I can recall is his bare arms. As a child of a pre-industrial age I can understand why medieval man intuited magic to the work of blacksmith. Seeing him turn a lump of shapeless metal into a horseshoe for the horse tethered outside seemed to be the practice of some spectral art. Given the powers of the swords wielded by the heroes of the medieval sagas, magic had to be part of the process of their making. Excalibur could well have been made in that age old smithy in the Gloucestershire of my childhood. It was not so far distant from the reputed land of Arthur.Technology robs today’s children of that sense of wonder. Excalibur for them could feature in a game played on their tablet, becoming a sword robbed of all its magic.

Today’s urban children are remote from the natural environment. I was not only in it, but part of it. . The natural environment was an ever changing constant in my life. Nature started at the bottom of my garden. There the hidden world of the woodland started. Even those paths through the woods that were familiar to me were constantly changing. Each day there would be something new to discover. Autumn was the time to look for toadstools, what I wanted to spot was the red Fly Agaric. A red toadstool with white spots, so loved of the illustrators of children’s books. Surprisingly they were not a common sight in the woods, instead they were full of their duller cousins. Although one duller cousin the puffball gave off delightfully clouds of black dust when kicked. Once the red Fly Agaric was finally found you knew that you were a participant in those stories about fairies that you read. Not only that there was the even more exciting time when you came across a fairy circle. These toadstools grew in a circle within which you knew the fairies danced at night. Adults then never disabused you of this belief. They also knew that nature was never a mystery can could never be fully explained. In their lifetime they had seen things that could that not be contained within rational explanation.

Naturalists claim that the rooks court is but a figment of the rural imagination. Rooks courts were those held by the colony of rooks, in which those rooks that have committed infractions of the rules of the colony were judged and punished. Yet my father one day heard a cacophony of noise from the vicinity of the rookery. There he saw a circle of rooks in centre of which were two rooks. From the tone of the rook’s cries it was obvious that were antagonistic to these two at the centre of the circle. Unfortunately these rooks became aware of my father’s presence and flew off, so he never discovered how the rookery would have dealt with these two miscreants. All countrymen could recount the similar stories, so for them nature was a mystery that could never be reduced to the explanations of science.

One of the most important events in the estate calendar was the village fete. All the villagers wanted to earn the prestigious title of best of show for their vegetables and flowers. Tricks and ploys of various forms were used some whose practice seemed to be the practice of some natural magic. Some men swore by planting their vegetables during the evening of a full moon. I cannot comment on the efficacy of this practice, although my father did try it one year, but disappointingly it produced no excessive profusion of vegetables.

None of the men of my childhood ever attended church. Church was for those of a different social class. It was for those who considered themselves superior to the workers, the rural middle class. The attitude of these people towards their supposed inferiors can be illustrated by a story. When the estate agent was checking on the work of the gamekeepers, he came in a car accompanied by his wife. She while observing the workers from the open car window, dropped a glove. She said to her husband while pointing at my father, tell that man to pick up my glove. What my father and his co-workers seemed to believe in was a religion was one that predated Christianity. An older religion that was founded on a respect for nature and its ways. They knew little of the church rituals or practices. Yet they were aware were the seasonal Christian rituals, as these rituals marked the changing of the seasons and there work practices. Then harvest festival signalled such a change. By now the crops had been harvested and the pace of work slowed. Work lost the intensity of summer. No longer would men work late at night harvesting the crop to take advantage of the favourable weather conditions.

While they never delayed the ploughing until ‘Plough Monday’ and certainly never attended a church service on that day, they knew on what day it fell. Plough Monday and other such rituals sanctified their working lives, it was more than a recognition of there value to the community. It elevated the mundane task of work into something out of the ordinary, something hallowed. For a country child Ash Wednesday was not a day of penance, it was instead the day in which we played with keys from the ash tree, trying to make them spin and fly. A shortage or lack of ash keys would have meant something was very wrong in nature. If I could go back in time and tell my father and his friends, that they practised a natural religion, they would have laughed at me. Religion was not something they talked about. Although I believe it governed there lives. Nature was a certain something, a thing to be respected not abused. They always had tales about the farmer or farm labourer who went against nature and suffered in consequence.

Although I think that my father and his workmates would have implicitly understood Democritus’s statement that every changes and nothing changes. They knew that nature was both ever changing and also a never changing something that endured from season to season and year to year.The rhythm of the seasons taught them this.

What a country childhood has given me is a sense of wonder. I can still see the enchantment within everyday things. As a child I eagerly looked for the first snow drop, as being the sign of the approach of spring. Then, if my father had come across the first snowdrop of the year, I and my sister would accompany him to that spot in which the snow drop was found, and marvel at its presence. Even now in my seventies when snowdrops are so common in urban gardens, I still look eagerly for that first snowdrop that is the first sign of the coming spring.

These old countrymen seemed to me to possess the wisdom of the ages. Not the silly version shown in Hollywood films, but a knowing grounded in reality of human existence. This gave them the strength to endure the horrors of war. In my fathers unit of thirty two that went to war, only three came back in 1945. The man who came back my mother said unrecognisable, he had become an old man. Yet he and the others endured seemed to me and his childhood friends to have come through the conflict unscathed. We longed forward to adulthood when we would possess the strength of our fathers.

Unlike my father I can give a name to my religious beliefs, I am a deist. While I respect Christianity and love the Anglican Church, I cannot call myself a Christian. What I possess is a countryman’s natural religion, a sense of awe at the wonder of existence. A religion which is not one that does not fit easily within the narrow confines of a particular doctrine. One that is without boundaries, one that flows easily from one religious discipline to another. That anonymous author who wrote ‘The Cloud of the UnKnowing’ gives the title to my religious belief. It not require a name.

Having inherited the natural religion of my fathers, unlike my friends I have great respect for the religious writers of the past. I read them wishing to give clarity to my natural religion. Medieval theologians were not as I popularly believed, obsessed with silly debates as to how many angels could dance on a pinhead. Anybody who cares to read the scholastic philosophers will discover thinkers as sophisticated in their thought as contemporary philosophers. Also as difficult to read as any modern philosopher.

John Hick with his term the ‘religious ultimate’ expresses best the belief of the those who cling to the natural religion of their fathers.

There is an alternative – moral economics and economists

Economists see the free market economy as the end point of social evolution. Industrialisation and the market economy are but inevitable stages in the development of society. Sophisticated developed societies are market economies. They are the high point of social evolution, a belief best demonstrated in Francis Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the development of liberal democracy. All these democracies were of course free markets. Human freedom has reached it’s zenith in the free market. (Milton Friedman even thought the killing and imprisonment of thousands in Pinochet’s Chile, as a price worth paying for the restoration of human and economic freedoms.)

This triumphalism of the market economists is a recent phenomenon. In the period after the second world war and as a consequence of the Great Depression, free market economists were a small discredited minority. Instead economists such as Karl Polanyi, Nicholas Kaldor and John Maynard Keynes who supported the state management of the economy were those held in the highest regard. However with the economic crisis of the 1970s, these economists fell out of favour to be replaced by the free market economists, who persuaded governments institute the new era of neo-liberalism.

Karl Polanyi is now one of those unfashionable economists that is now being studied again after the collapse of the market economy. What makes him so different from the free market economists is that he did not believe that free markets were a product of social evolution. He sees the economy as part of an integral part of a network of social institutions. Changes in the economy were a consequence of changes in wider society and changes in the economy in its turn changed the society in which it was located.

Polanyi traces the origins on the free market industrial society of today to Tudor society. The old military aristocracy was losing power to a new rising class comprised of small landowners and the merchants in the towns and cities. It was the demands of these two groups that kick started the social and economic change that led to industrialisation and development of the free market. Landowners wanted the rural peasantry off the land, so they could introduce new and more profitable farming methods. This was enclosure of common lands. Legislation made it almost impossible for the poor ‘inefficient’ peasant farmers to continue to farm the land. They could not afford the costs of enclosing their farmland. . The great merchants in the cities wanted the end of the guild system, which they believed restricted their ability to make money. Guilds imposed regulatory controls on their members, which the great merchants believed placed unfair restrictions on their ability to trade. These two groups were over represented in parliament. Also the great merchants (Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell) were the source of loans for a government that was always short of money. Consequently the government introduced measures to help both groups.

Once example was the vagrancy laws which could be used to control the landless peasantry. Landless peasants without work and no support within the community could be whipped and driven out of the community, so relieving the landowners of the obligation to support them. E.P. Thompson about the Black Laws introduced in the 18th century) which further disempowered the working poor. These acts introduced capital punishment for offences such as trespass or for destroying a farm gates. These had the effect speeding up the exodus of peasants from the land. Formerly the rural peasantry could collect fallen branches from the woods, now this was illegal. Similarly poaching as means of supplementing a poor diet was now a hanging offence. This created a new class of landless proletariat who would supply the labour for the new industries that were developing in the towns and cities.

This breaking of the link between the poor and the land, created the flexible and mobile workforce that the new industries would need. Obviously there were other important factors that facilitated the industrial revolution such as advances in technology.

If I understand Polanyi correctly the free market and industrialisation, were accidental changes following on from a power grab by the landowning and merchant classes.

Social and economic change produced a new ideology, that of capitalism. In the new social environment, people thought differently. What now ensured societies well being was Adam Smiths ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. Now the price system would be responsible for distribution of wealth, and consequent responsibility for people’s well-being. Poverty now was not deserving of amelioration, it was a consequence of a personal failings. However even Adam Smith was shocked at the brutal way the new capitalists were treating there employees in Glasgow. However the moral coda that he inserted at the end of ‘The Wealth of Nations’ stating that employers owed a duty of care to there employees was ignored. Capitalist ideology dehumanised society, people and land were now valued according to their utility. They were now things, society was commodified, people and land were things that were bought. Valued only according to their usefulness. This was according to Weber the process of disenchantment. What today has become known as financialisation. Society was an inhuman affair in which people only had value in their functionality.

Perhaps the best illustration of the new way of thinking is represented in the writings of those twentieth century economic historians who wrote that the introduction of the Factory Acts were responsible for the slowing of economic growth in the 19th century, as the money that should have been reinvested in the business was instead spent on wages or improving the welfare of the workers. This was the cause of Britain’s relatively poor economic performance compared to foreign rivals. There spokesman was the liberal MP John Bright who argued that the country’s continued prosperity was dependent on the continued exploitation of children in the Mills. An attitude that still prevalent today. During the 2015 election campaign Ed Milliband was criticised by a member of the audience for not understanding that the success of his business depended on his continued ability to continuation of that exploitation of his workers through the zero hours system. Some employers certainly in the medieval period treated their workers equally badly, but they did not boast of the fact, or claim that their behaviour had moral sanction from the nations code of ethics. Then the prevailing Christian code of ethics would have condemned such behaviour. The stocks were often occupied by tradesmen who had cheated there customers. Whatever the failings of the Middle Ages a different and anti capitalist ethics prevailed.

Polanyi writes that the unregulated free market is a threat to social order. The example he uses to demonstrate this is the Speenhamland system which was introduced in the late 18th century. Until industrialisation there was a thriving cottage based textile trade. With the introduction of new technology and the growth of the factory system, these people faced impoverishment. Trade was lost to the new mills taken and payment for whatever they produced was reduced to the price paid for such products by mills. In France the impoverished peasants together with the urban proletariat provided the foot soldiers that made revolution possible. This was avoided in Britain, because the poor could apply to the parish for relief. They never became as desperate as the working poor in France. The parish money enabled these workers to remain in their homes and provided them with sufficient money to satisfy there family’ basic needs. Unlike their French counterparts desperation did not drive them to revolution. There were no equivalence in England of the Chateau burnings of France.

One writer rightly describes Polanyi as a moral economist. All new economics students in the U.K. are taught that moral preoccupations have no place in the study and practice of economics. It is a science different in nature from ethics. Even today economists and writers prefer Polanyi without the moral dimension. Threats to the social order posed by the economy are said to bring forth a reaction, societies develop protective measures that seek to minimise the disruptive effects of the free market. Anybody who has read ‘The Great Transformation’ cannot fail to note his suppressed anger when he describes the impact of the Great Depression on people in Europe.

Polanyi is important today not just because he offers an alternative vision of economics and society; but because he was one of that great generation of economists, who persuaded governments that a new way of managing the economy was possible. A way that would prevent a recurrence of both the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Unfortunately a later generation of economists have persuaded governments to abandon the policies of these economists and revert to the failed economic policies of the 1920s.

One last point Polanyi makes and that is that the market based price system is only a recent historical development. Only in the last two to three hundred years have households satisfied a majority of there needs by exchanging money for goods and services in the market. Prior to take the market only provided a minimum of a households needs. There is no reason why the price system and free market will always be the means by which goods and services are distributed. When the managing director of the IMF warns of another Great Depression, all that can be certain is that the free market so beloved of the Neo-Liberals will disappear.

A Remembered Country Childhood 2

Growing up in the countryside you experience a sense of intimacy with nature. There is no feeling that nature is something alien or distant from your lived experience. Then my world was that limited by the distance I could walk. Even the occasional trips to distant towns by bus did not change this perception. The slowness of motion meant that I was constantly observing the environment in which I travelled. In spring I knew where to go to pick primroses for my mother, in summer I knew of the best places to pick wild strawberries and blackberries, in autumn hazel nuts and in winter where to look for frozen puddles on which to skate. As a country child you have a sense of oneness, you are part of countryside. Family visitors from the town were different to us, as they were alien to the ways of the countryside. They were missing a vital part of the human experience.

Although as a child you saw the countryside as a friend, you were also aware of the dangers. Never drink black water that gathered in the hollows within tree trunks, that was a warning given by my father. He told by me of two brothers who died from drinking such water. The first when thirsty on a hot summers drank it to assuage his first. He soon died from a bacterial infection and his brother out of remorse committed suicide by doing the same. Usually warning tales were less threatening. Never eat blackberries with the morning dew on them, as it would give you diarrhoea. As the folk tale had it they had been ‘pissed on by the devil’, which is why they made you ill. It was the latter which always stuck in my mind, not the former. These tales were suggestive of an easy going familiarity with nature.

One tradition I remember was the beating of the parish boundaries, something which I always wished to attend, as it sounded fun. I thought because it fell on a school day, that was the reason for which I could not attend. However it was because whenever the men stopped to beat the boundary, they passed around the flasks of spirits. It was an occasion of adult merrymaking which boys were forbidden from attending.

This familiarity extended to the names given to features and places. There was Tom Miles’ pool, so named after the Tom that fell into it. A field given the name the lump of dirt explains itself. There was North America, that part of the farmland which was so named, because it was so remote from the home farm. Later as a teenager I thought no such part of the local landscape could be so named. It must be a joke name known only to the local farmhands and gamekeepers. However a map of locality revealed an area named North America.

There was certain magic to this name giving. There was the fairy glen. A glen created within woodland at the express orders of the lady of the manor. We children were told that it had been made to provide a home for the fairies on the estate. In springtime it was ablaze with colour with, the various yellows of primroses and daffodils. An imaginative child such as myself could easily be persuaded that such a beautiful place was the home of fairies. Often when passing the glen my sister and I argued about whether not we had a spotted a fairy amongst the daffodils and ferns.

What I felt in the villages of my childhood was a sense of ‘at homeness’. Names given to easily identifiable sites gave you a sense of place and belonging. A certain ‘oneness’ with nature. I loved dusk when the darkening sky changed the landscape, when growing shadows changed the shapes of things. Old trees bent over and distorted with age took on new shapes, shapes that I could associate with the stories I heard. The dark hollows beneath the trees became entrances to another world. One of the themes of the many children’s stories and folklore was the luring of people by the fairies down to their magical underground kingdoms. Only returning as old men to there former homes as strangers finding that all the people that they knew had died. As an imaginative child I never feared nature, even at night. Nature to me was a friend somebody or thing with which I identified.

There was a mystery to nature, I was aware of a greater something or presence that was the spirit of nature. Heraclitus explained what I felt when he stated that nature is hiding within plain sight. Despite the evidence of nature being all around us, we don’t really know nature. Nature is that eternal something that gives shape and form to the nature we can see, we can know nature by its appearance but not its essence.

This is an understanding developed by the Czech philosopher Erazim Koháv*. Nature to him as is that mysterious being we cannot know but of which we cannot but be aware. We exist he states at that point in which our temporal being intersects with that eternity which is nature. That eternity has a place for us within its order, a place superior to all the other fauna. This superior position in nature comes with responsibilities. the duty of care. Given the ephemeral nature of our existence, it is our duty to pass nature undamaged to those millions of beings that in the future will be dependent on it. The nameless Saxon noble who compared the human timespan to that of the time spent by a sparrow passing through the Great Hall, understood human existence. Nature is there to be used, but it must be used correctly, exploitation of the type practised today agri-business is to be condemned.

As a father and grandfather I wish that my children and grandson will know something similar to the nature that I knew as a child. Then butterflies were not seen in ones or twos, but as a moving colourful moving mass that swarmed over the green verges of the roadsides. Not so rare that butterfly collecting Fields that were not subject to today’s monoculture, hosted a variety of flora. Wildflowers such as buttercups, milk maids, poppies, birds eyes and lords and ladies slippers gave colour to the dull greens and yellows of the cultivated hay meadows and cornfields.

This philosophy of nature which I share with Heraclitus and Koháv can be dismissed as mysticism. When Koháv speaks of the mystical experience he undergoes with the coming of dusk, when senses the presence of God; his philosophy of nature can be dismissed as mere romanticism. However anyone who has experienced the coming of the dusk in the countryside know that he speaks of a real experience. With the coming of dusk perception changes, certain senses such as hearing become strengthened, while others such as sight become weakened. What were once prominent features of the daytime landscape slowly disappear and the landscape of sound becomes more prominent. I have experienced the same magic to which Koháv has become subject to, it’s a wonderful moment when the world slowly takes on a new shape.

The lived experience of a country childhood has made me a deist. I was aware of a greater presence within nature, which as Heraclitus states is hiding within plain sight. Unlike Koháv although I love the religion of my fathers, I cannot call myself a Christian. Nature for me is still in essence the great unknown, the indescribable. Codifying it, enclosing it with a framework of beliefs merely diminishes it. All the criticisms of my rural mysticism I can understand and find difficult to refute. The only justification is that my country upbringing left me in awe of nature and deism is the only way I can express that awe. It is that sense of the presence of a greater something within nature.

Jaspers wrote that myth is the only means of expressing truths that cannot be expressed in any other way. If my deism is a only a myth or story well told, I can accept that as it an expression my respect for the natural order. Industrial farming that I have witnessed is disrespectful and damaging of that natural order. When I read that with current farming methods that there are only 65 harvests left before the soil becomes too impoverished to support agriculture, I see this as a justification of my deism. No deist would wantonly destroy the natural order for profit our values a very different.

* Erazim Koháv The Embers and the Stars

The dogs opinion – letter to my daughters 1

I have reached that time in my life when I find it impossible not the look back on my life and reflect on it. What I don’t intend to do is pass on my wisdom to a younger generation, all too often age is confused with wisdom. There are plenty of foolish seventy year olds around, certainly in sufficient numbers to disabuse me of any notion that age might in some way equate to wisdom. Instead passing on my tenets of wisdom, I make will some observations on life in general.

Kierkegaard is one of the most profound observers of humanity. One of my favourite sayings of his, is that public opinion is the dogs opinion. What is often claimed to be received wisdom is often nothing more than a series of fallacious understanding believed by the majority to represent truth. There are many occasions when society is swept by new and compelling misunderstandings of society and human behaviour. I say swept because even the most intelligent of people feel obliged to subscribe to the current nonsense that will now pass as accepted wisdom. Brexit Britain and Nazi Germany can be used to illustrate how public opinion can be corrupted

National socialism was the passion that gripped Germany in the 1930s. Jews, Jewish thinking and Jewish ways of behaviour were held have corrupted Germany society and to be responsible for the malaise into which Germany had sunk. Germany to recover its national health and natural vitality had to rid itself of this alien virus. A return to the Germany of folkloric heroes, men and women the becoming equals of the heroes Nibelungenleid. Once Germany was freed of the alien virus of Jewish cosmopolitanism this happy result would be achieved.

Brexitism is a nationalism similar to nationalism which swept through Germany in the 1930s, both identify an alien virus as being responsible for national decline and decay. Although in this example the alien virus is Europeanism, our national spirit Brexiteers believe has been sapped and fatally weakened through contact with European cosmopolitanism. Just as with the Nazis the solution is to eradicate this virus from U.K. society. What is proposed is a violent break with the greater Europe or the EU. Britain will be returned to splendid isolation on the of an island situated on the edge of Europe. Geographically European but politically anything but.

Not surprisingly the government’s of both countries adopted similar solutions to this problem. Expel those responsible for spreading the virus. Although the expulsion policy was less brutal in Britain, it is in essence it is similar to that of the Nazi’s. If people are denied to right to work and reside in the country, they will leave. In Britain it has been this has been enforced through the hostile environment which denies Europeans the right to remain in this country, while in Germany it was the violence of the brown shirts.

Brexitism is a nonsense, but a nonsense that is increasingly held by the political elite. A nonsense that is beginning to permeate all levels of society. In the 1960s it was believed that the quality of parliamentary democracy would be improved by the influx of educated graduates as MPs. Yet it is these very people that have become enthusiasts for Brexit. It is as if are governing classes are gripped by a religious fervour, a fervour that prevents them accepting anything contrary to their belief system.

The parliament of local squires and trade unionists of the past so derided by political commentators in the 1960s; was the one that withstood the fascism of Mosley and his blackshirts and resisted Hitler in the dark days of 1940. Today’s parliament of graduates (often educated at the elite universities) have surrendered their integrity to nothing more than a media campaign led by a group of populists.

Nietzsche despite being claimed as one of there own by the Nazis was nothing of the kind. He was a fierce critic of German nationalism seeing it correctly as yet another non thinking belief system of the majority. It was for him the wisdom of sheep, the herd instinct, the wish to fit in and be the same as the others. An unquestioning desire to live like others. This is why he opposed democracy, believing that it would give power to the undistinguished middle classes. As today’s parliament is drawn overwhelmingly from the middle classes, it is worrying to think that Nietzsche might be right. The next Prime Minister is criticised for being a follower of public opinion. In the words of one critic he sees which way public opinion is going, and then rushes to the front saying follow me. If this critic had been brutally honest, he would have said that the same is true of the majority of MPs. Unfortunately we are led by a parliament of sheep that are constantly looking for somebody or something to follow. Prior to the referendum of 2016 the parliamentary sheep believed that public opinion favoured remaining in the EU, now although by a small margin public opinion was demonstrated to be the contrary, these sheep switched sides. Truth they believe resides in majority opinion.

Returning to Kierkegaard he believed that it did not matter, if only one man believed the truth. The truth was the truth no matter how many believed it. Therefore it was of no consequence, if what the majority believed was wrong. He took this belief to extremes, believing that the Danes were insufficiently Christian lived a life contrary to the mainstream, provoking controversy about his person hoping his example would lead Danes into changing their lives. His appearance helped in his task as he looked distinctly physically odd. One leg seemed shorter than the other, his badly fitting trousers gave that impression. He tried to be a Danish Socrates button holing people in the street and engaging them in a conversation through which he demonstrated the unsoundness of their beliefs. As a figure of controversy and mockery, he certainly was a lone speaker of Christian truths. The isolation and mockery made him convinced that he was a martyr for the truth. He found this martyrdom unpleasant, but thought it necessary to bring Danes to a sense of the truth. Although his martyrdom failed to change any minds, his books did for so later generations, who appreciated his unique approach to truth.

What Kierkegaard and Nietzsche shared was a scepticism of the received truth. This isolated them from there fellow men. Truth is often more offensive to people that the accepted lies by which live their lives. A knowledge of the thinking of the sceptic philosophers is the best protection against the fallacious enthusiasms that periodically sweep through society which carry others away. I cannot believe that anybody schooled in scepticism can believe in nonsense, such as that preached by our Brexiteers.

Brexit explained by a sceptic

What must be understood is that Brexit (Britain’s leaving the EU) has no economic justification? All post Brexit scenarios will leave the British people poorer and in the event of a ‘no deal’ substantially poorer. Instead it best understood an expression of the political classes  ‘amour propre’ or self worth. Politicians want to be participate in some history changing event, so they can demonstrate there ‘greatness’ of spirit. This is why they remain so nostalgic about 1940, they want also to be known for their membership of a great and noble generation of politicians, that saved their country. Reputation counts for everything amongst the political class. Being members of a community of nations greatly restricts their scope for leadership and individual distinction. Free of the shackles of EU membership they will be freed to demonstrate their leadership qualities. Theodore Roosevelt demonstrated this when he expressed regret that during his time as US President, the US had not participated in any war. He was denied that opportunity to distinguish himself and earn glory for himself and his country.

While it may not be true that most British politicians want to wage war on their neighbours, they do want the bully pulpit from which all US President’s operate. This is why since 1945 Britain has been eager to demonstrate that it is the major power in Europe. Unfortunately they have never been able to demonstrate this, as Germany and France have been unwilling to play second fiddle to Britain. Free of EU membership these politicians believe (misguidedly) that they will as leaders of an independent nation able to play the great game of international politics. Reality will strike on leaving the EU and these politicians will discover that as leaders of a small nation off the coast of mainland Europe, they will be relegated to being just another group leaders from a small nation, shooting from the back of the room hoping to attract the attention of the great powers at the front of the room.

There is another compelling reason for Brexit. Britain has been in relative decline since the late 19th century. In 1914 Britain was still a great power, but by 1945 exhausted by two wars it was reduced to being a minor player in world affairs. In 1949 Britain became bankrupt, ruined by a run on the pound, and only to saved from the ignominy of bankruptcy by a large US loan. Politicians have recognised that this decline has robbed them of their power to play a significant role in world affairs. As a consequence politicians have resorted a number of increasingly ploys to arrest this decline. These ploys have become increasingly desperate, the latest being Brexit. The shock of leaving the EU will revolutionise British society and economy. Europe with its rules and regulations they believe stifles individual creativity and enterprise. Freed from them Britain will enjoy a new industrial renaissance and become an economic power house. Unfortunately history demonstrates shocks such as Brexit have the reverse of the intended effect. The Neoliberal experiment of the early 1980s destroyed 20% of British manufacturing industry, if Professor MInford is to be believed Brexit will destroy the rest. As a British citizen all I can hope that is the last desperate gamble of a political class obsessed with dreams of past Imperil glory and that the reality of Brexit will finally destroy any such illusions they hold about Britain being a great power.

Why do we constantly choose men who we would reject as friends as our leaders?

As somebody with a keen interest in history, I often see in past times leaders who resemble those of today. I see in the last three Caesars, Caligula, Claudius and Nero men who embody the characteristics, so often demonstrated in the behaviours of contemporary politicians. Caligula was mad and brutal, once slaughtering a senators son and forcing that same senator to share in his jokes about his dead son. This senator having one surviving son was forced to participate in this charade to preserve that son. He was reputed to have wanted to make his horse a senator and to have declared war on the sea. Claudius was a vindictive mediocrity, who ordered an invasion of Britain, so he could have a triumph in Rome. He believed this would establish his right to the throne. Claudius was poisoned by his wife, so her son Nero could become Emperor. Nero was a vainglorious man who believed that he was a talented poet, musician and playwright. He was neither, but his courtiers out of fear flattered him by praising him as a talented artist. Madness, mediocrity, charlatanry and vaingloriousness are personality traits that I can identity in so many of contemporary leading politicians.

Although contemporary political leaders no longer have the power or right to kill their enemies, they as so many vindictive Caesars try to destroy them. The media can be relied upon to indulge in the character assassination of their rivals. Any right wing politician can expect the media to conduct on their behalf the most vituperative and vile attacks on their left wing rivals. Intimidation is their weapon of preference. It is no coincidence that so many politicians are poor public speakers. They don’t need to employ reasoned speech, as they have much more effective means of silencing their critics.

Without exception the person who abuses, exploits and intimidates people is recognised as the person best qualified to be leader. These are people who amongst our friendship groups, we would reject recognising them as unpleasant dysfunctional individuals. Today power and the ability to use and exploit power are seen as the only political virtue required of a politician. What we worship is the abuse of power. Bad behaviour by our leaders is excused as being necessary to get the job done.

Contemporary politics lacks any great motivating belief or ideology. The politicians who govern us today have grown up in what is an age of relative plenty*. They and the people found the great ideologies of the past unnecessary, as no great change was needed in society, all were well fed and housed. The great anger at the injustices of society of which gave rise to the great reforming and revolutionary ideologies of the past was no longer there. The left grew complacent and abandoned socialism and was negligent in the protecting the rights of the people.

Whether it be called individualism or something else, people saw the life as being the acquisition of material goods, the securing of a comfortable lifestyle. However in this complacent society, there were the malcontents. These malcontents were of the right, the wealthy right. They wanted a return to the unequal society of the past. A society that gave them a unique set of privileges of wealth and status. They wanted back a society that deferred to wealth and privilege.

All societies have periods of crisis, any organisation created by fallible mankind is prone to periods of failure. When the economic crisis of the 1970s occurred, rather than take action to remedy the most obvious failings of a society that served most people well; the right seized the initiative and implemented a series of changes that would create not a society that served all well, but one that served to benefit a small group of the most privileged.

They also had an ideology, Neo-liberalism which claimed that by dismantling the regulatory state it would free the economy to create more wealth for all. These regulations which they were so eager to destroy were those that protected the well being of the people. Soon even the political left adopted this philosophy believing it the only means of attaining political success. Neo-liberalism is a belief system empty of any moral code. The only moral value that can be ascribed to this philosophy is a belief in success to be achieved at any cost.

What Neo-liberalism created was a moral waste ground, a society in which the old social contract was destroyed. No longer did the political leaders govern in the interests of the people, so the people no longer gave there consent to be governed by their current leaders. Dissatisfaction with the political leadership has grown, increasingly people have turned to political groupings outside parliament which promise change. Change that will benefit them the people. Although these leaders are charismatic, what they offer is unreal solutions to real problems. Solutions such as leaving the EU as the means to restore national prosperity and pride. These political groups are so like the millennial cults of the past, that offered magical but unreal solutions to real problems. Since they preach the impossible, they don’t employ reasoned argument, but the tactics of the advertising industry to sell there set of impossible truths. Criticism of such movements only attracts hostility and threats. The British Brexiteers constantly make threats about what will happen if they are denied. A threat left unspecified.

Returning to my main argument since the onset of the Neo-liberal revolution we have been taught that the only people that count are the ‘movers and shakers’ of society. Such people can be identified by their abrasive personal style and there contempt for the ordinary people. The billionaire heroes of Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’. Even politicians that are far from being characterised as movers or shakers feel they have to adopt this mode of behaviour. A politician would feel insulted if they were described as principled and of good character. Unless of course it was in their election literature and being used as a means of winning votes.

There is also the self fulfilling prophecy. Our expectations of the political class are so low we expect them to behave in an unprincipled manner. Any politician that behaves differently is an object if suspicion.

* This has become increasingly less so since the Neo-liberal reforms of the late 20th century and the financial crash of 2008

Reading Thomas Aquinas gives a better understanding of human society, than does a reading of the works of Friedrich Hayek

Just recently I have been reading and studying Thomist philosophy and works of other medieval Christian philosophers such as William of Ockham. The thinking and is usually regarded with contempt by contemporary philosophers. When I studied philosophy at university, the only philosophy of this period we studied was Augustine of Hippo and he was regarded with interest, because his work was a reworking of Plato’s philosophy. However what I discovered in these philosophers was a clarity of thought and elegance of writing lacking in so many contemporary thinkers. Anybody familiar with the writing of contemporary post modern philosophers will be perplexed by the obscurity of expression in their writing. They seem to believe that the difficulty one has in reading in there is a demonstration of their intelligence.

What particularly interested me was the question that these philosopher’s struggled to resolve, which was in God created the world, and he was a God of good intent, why did he allow evil to thrive in the world he created. There is a similar problem with contemporary economics. Nero-liberal economists have created there own best possible of world’s, the free market. They believe that the free market represents the epitome of collective human endeavour. The free market they believe possesses the mechanism to ensure the fairest distribution of wealth between members of society. When problems occur such as the lack of housing provision in the housing market, it is not the fault of builders or property developers, but some factor extraneous to the market. One favourite culprit is the local authorities who fail to release enough land for housing. Another is green belt regulation that also limits the amount of land available for housing. Never to blame are the suppliers of housing, they are the victims of foolish and vindictive governments.

What these economists are guilty of is dishonesty. They cannot admit to there being no fault with that creature of their imaginings, the free market. In fact in all economics textbooks,* there will be a section devoted to perfect competition. This is the idealised free market with all the imperfections of reality removed. Medieval Christian philosophers unlike free market economists face up to the problem of evil, in what should be the best of all possible worlds. Unlike contemporary economists they don’t blame some extraneous agency for failings within human society. As this was an age of belief they could easily have blamed all human failings on the devil. Instead face up to the problem as how a good God could allow evil to exist. They employ sophisticated logical reasoning to demonstrate that evil actions are a consequence of the choice made by human actors, nothing to do with God. It is in fact a turning away from God that leads to evil acts.*

This naivety has not always been a characteristic of economics teaching. When I started teaching economics in the 1970s, I taught my students both the failings and strengths of the free market. In particular how natural monopolies were unsuited to the free markets, as monopoly power of the suppliers would always enable them to exploit their customers. Monopolists because they lack any effective competition, maximise their profits by either charging exorbitant prices for their products and services, or by minimising costs by providing the minimum service possible. British rail companies do both, offering the customer a very poor deal.

There are many economists who have written about how it is possible to combat the abuses of the free market. The majority of them were writing in the 1940s and 50s. All these economists are hardly known by politicians today, in consequence a wealth of knowledge on how to manage the economy equitably in the interests of the majority has been lost. It’s a situation similar to that of the great Christian philosophers of the medieval period, apart from a small minority all knowledge of their works has been lost. If only our rulers would consult these ‘old’ books, they would find solutions to many of the problems that now bedevil our economy.

* Friedrich Hayek is the doyen of free market economists, who in his ‘The Road to Serfdom’ gives the best account of the virtues of the free market economy.

* This brief summary does little justice to the thinking of Thomas Aquinas and the other medieval Christian philosophers. Perhaps the best explanation of the thinking of these philosophers, can be found in Etienne Gilson’s ‘The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy’