Category Archives: Philosophy

Contemporary Britain, a country dominated by Nietzsche’s untermensch (under men)

Nietzsche hated democracy because it makes possible the rule of the common man and the suppression of the superman. A term that Nietzsche uses to describe the common man is untermensch or underman, a term which was open to misunderstanding and abuse. What he meant by the untermensch was a man who lacked the potential to live the life of a ubermensch or superman. What was never understood was that for Nietzsche the distinction was based on intellect and character, not power or physical strength. Originally he named the saint, artist and philosopher as his supermen. Even his dislike of Christianity as the religion of slaves did not stop him admiring Christ as a possible superman. He admired Christ as a founder of a religion but despised Christians for slavishly following the beliefs of another. What I think is most useful is his description of the untermensch as those in thrall to a slavish culture. People incapable of independent thought. When I look at the British parliament and the legislatures of other Western nations it seems obvious that we live in an age of the untermensch.

What the untermensch share is a slavish adherence to a common culture which means that politicians of whatever political stripe, will all give the same replies to questions on policy. These are a few examples which demonstrate this clearly.

In Britain the housing market is broken and many people are forced to live in private rental sector. Properties in which they have no security of tenure and for which they pay ever increasingly exorbitant rents. Whenever it is suggested that these tenants should be given security of tenure or have their rents controlled, the same parrot cry comes from politicians, whether of the parliamentary left or right, that such controls would only make matters worse. They claim that such controls would force landlords to withdraw from the market, reducing the number of properties for rent and so making the situation worse for tenants.

Britain’s railways are the most expensive and some of the least efficient in Europe. When it is suggested that these railways should be taken out of private ownership and returned to the state, it meets with howls of derision from the collective parliamentary body. Everybody in parliament knows that the state is peculiarly unfitted to run business and businesses such as the railways are best left in private hands. The solution to the problem is as every parliamentarian knows is to transfer the railway franchises to more efficient private owners.*

There are many other examples of the politicians collective thought that could be mentioned. What is common to these practitioners of politics is a hatred of those that think independently, they expel or seek to suppress from the collectivity of politicians those who think differently. At present the parliamentary Labour party is seeking to purge itself of a leader who thinks differently. A glance at the politics of contemporary Europe provides evidence that those who think differently have no place in the mainstream political parties, they have to come from insurgent parties such as Podemos in Spain or The Five Star movement in Italy.

One common place truth of contemporary political analysis is that the political elites have lost touch with the people. It is a resentful and sullen people that turn to the populist parties of the right. These parties at leas recognise the pain of the people, something that the political parties of the left fail to do. Durkheim called socialism a cry of pain, the parliamentary socialist parties of today no longer this truth. Rather than ignoring the people, parliamentarians are following a culture that denies the validity of other expressions of the truth other than its own. Truths that might appear obvious to the people are to politicians merely uninformed opinions.

Another demonstration of the untermensch mentality is the slavish following of opinion polls. Rather than leading, politicians prefer to follow, all to often they are prepared to abandon their principles because the people as expressed a different views to theirs in an opinion poll and the peoples will  must be respected. Never do they consider that they are elected to lead the country, they prefer to follow.

The language of politics is so often that of the untermensch. One of our most popular newspapers is said to ensure that all of its content can understood by the average thirteen year. It does not tax its readers with difficult text or content. Similarly our leading politicians prefer the language of the thirteen year old which are  expressed in what are meaningless phrases or slogans. Our current Prime Minister is campaigning for re-election with a series of simple phrases, such as that she will provide ‘strong and stable government’ as opposed to the opposition who represent a ‘coalition of chaos’. She it seems feels no need to present a detailed and reasoned manifesto to the electorate.  A vague and rather meaningless manifesto will suffice and that is all she and her advisors believe is necessary is a few repeated slogans to get out the vote.

Defenders of the present political system will argue that the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians not only went to university, but elite universities and got good degrees. However the very intelligent can be members of the untermensch, as its a mentality or way of thinking and it is as much about  character as intellect. Politicians rarely stray beyond the party line or parliamentary consensus of views, they sacrifice their individuality on the altar of group think. What Nietzsche’s supermen do is to challenge the conventional thinking of the time. When politicians continually speak and think in the language of the average thirteen year old, it cannot but deform their personalities. What at first becomes a means of communicating with the masses through does through constant repetition become incorporated within their personality. They take some of the characteristics of what they affect to despise, the common or under man.

While I think that Nietzsche’s understanding of British democracy is correct today, it has not always been the case that the British parliament promotes the mediocre at the expense of the talented. Today parliament has been overtaken by the culture of the untermensch, whether its expressed in terms of loyalty to the one’s party, obedience to the will of the people or submission to the dominant Westminster belief system. In previous times there has been a much more vigorous culture at Westminster, one in which individualist thinkers could thrive and even achieve the highest office. What is needed is an ending of the stranglehold on Westminster culture of the parties of the consensus, then politicians of an independent mindset will begin to flourish there.

There are those who will have a different understanding of Nietzsche’s concept of the superman. Mine derives from the earlier writings of Nietzsche, as his understanding of the superman did change in his later writings. Obviously those who have read ‘The Will to Power’ a book created by his sister out of his notes will have a very different understanding. Personally I think that this understanding of Nietzsche’s superman is invalid and of little intrinsic merit.

* Any independent minded economist could easily expose the flaws in such thinking.

Societies of no opportunity – reflections on the Anglo-Saxon societies of today

Politicians always have a story that transforms this dull rather ordinary looking individual into something quite different. These people who look rather like your unimpressive neighbour claim to have charisma. They are imbued with special qualities denied to the common man. Usually these stories come from a shared stock of charismatic images. One that is constantly brought up is how hard was the politicians childhood and how they overcame immense difficulties to achieve their current position. Recently a new story has become part of the common stock of images, the politician as revolutionary. However it as a special kind of revolutionary, what they are doing is overthrowing the tyranny of past thinking. They are much like Nietzsche’s iconoclast taking a hammer to those false idols that trap people into a false way of thinking and behaving*. While Nietzsche was taking a hammer to the Gods and idols of the Judaic Christian tradition, the current revolutionaries are taking the hammer to the idols of the Social/Christian democratic state. They as did Nietzsche believe that these idols encouraged the development of a feeble civilisation, one which suppressed the great men. A civilisation that reduced all to the most mundane levels of living, great men were forced to live the life of the mundane middle which prevented from fulfilling their potential. He despised the UK a society which through its democratic system gave ordinary men the power to rule over the great or the supermen. Similarly today’s political revolutionaries believe that the welfare state has given rise to a culture of feebleness which has led to the current political malaise.

One of the most detested aspects of the social democratic state for them is the dependency culture. State benefits created a type of person that rather than be go-getter looking for work and constantly trying to improve themselves, would instead rely upon the state for handouts to support them and their families. These people were a drag on society and in urgent need of change. I think General Kitchener best epitomises this way of thinking when he objected to the introduction of pensions for war widows in the First World War. He thought this would encourage the wrong kind of man to join the army, one who wanted to get killed or wounded so he or his family could benefit from state handouts. This type of thinking is very prevalent today. Politicians constantly talk about families that live from generation to generation on benefit, families in which no one has worked. Their solution is to reduce benefits to a level that are just sufficient for human survival, so the misery of a life on benefit will be the incentive to make people want to work. This one act will change the feeble creature of the dependency culture into a go-getter that is proud to work and prides themselves in supporting their family.

The lack of evidence to support this policy of cruelty does not matter. Whenever research is undertaken into the unemployed it never produces evidence of a work shy population. One estimate suggests that there are only 33 families in which the parents and then the children have never worked. However such evidence can be dismissed when the popular media can always produce stories about inhabitants of the work shy benefit culture. It is for politicians the morality of the hypocrite they can do evil in the cause of a greater good. Misery and suffering become merely the start of a life cycle that propels the individual towards the good life.

There is one fallacy in this revolutionary logic, it assumes that there is a career path out of poverty for the work shy. However in a low wage economy it is impossible for this new generation  of strivers to move out of poverty. This is the culture in which the strivers have to take two or three jobs to survive. There is little scope for such people either amassing the savers to improve their life circumstances or shave the time study to achieve the qualifications to improve their life chances. What is wrong with our society is not the people but its lack of opportunities? The economy is designed or structured to produce few winners and many losers. In an unfair society which denies an increasing majority of the population the opportunity to live a decent and civilised life, what is needed is a story to justify this unfairness, a story that turns moral dross into moral gold.

One is that told by our new generation of revolutionary politicians. They believe that it is the culture of the welfare state that has produced a generation of the feeble minded. People who lack the drive and initiative to improve themselves. Demolishing the welfare will be the shock these people need, it will transform the general population.  There will be a few degenerates that will be mired in poverty, but the rest will the strivers and achievers. The latter group will be the winners who will be rewarded with the material rewards that characterise the good life. This story has the virtue of demonising the poor as deserving their fate, a just return for their lack of drive. It’s a persuasive story but one that has little foundation in reality. In an unfair unjust society even the hardest working of the strivers can be denied a good life.

There is another story circulating about the unfair society and that is that it the natural outcome of a  the meritocratic society as suggested by the writer Toby Young and the sociologist Peter Saunders. Evidence shows that the IQ scores of the middle classes exceed those of the lowest classes. The argument is that higher income is the just reward for possessing the greater intelligence. However there is doubt that can be cast on IQ as a measure of real innate intelligence. If coaching for the IQ test can improve markedly the individuals test core it cannot be a valid test of innate intelligence. Innate intelligence just is there it can’t be taught, if these tests were a real measure of innate and not acquired intelligence, training in these tests should make little difference to the final score.

What unites this new generation of revolutionaries is their high income. These revolutionaries don’t live in garrets or hovels plotting change, they live in big houses and enjoy the lifestyle of the affluent. It is not unusual for these new  revolutionaries to enjoy six figure incomes, profitable second jobs can be as a columnist for a newspaper or lobbyist for a city finance company. Revolutionaries don’t live the comfortable life they are driven by a desire to change the unfairness of society, an unfairness manifested in widespread poverty and misery. These new revolutionaries wish to increase unfairness, inequality and poverty. Rather than accepting the self image of these new revolutionaries they should be seen as the really are stripped of their revolutionary romantic aura, they are merely the spokesmen for the rich and powerful oligarchs. These politicians rather than ushering in a new revolutionary age are the reactionary spokesmen for a new generation of backward looking oligarchs. What they are spokesman for is a hatred of modernity.  The oligarchs associate modernity with all that they hate which can be reduced to taxation and legislation to improve the life chances of the majority, which they see as reducing their opportunity to make money. As one of their spokesman so eloquently put it, its immoral to increase taxation on the well off. Making excessive amounts of cash and not paying taxes is the new approved morality of these new revolutionaries.

*Nietzsche ‘Twilight of the Idols’

Stoicism and epicureanism philosophies for today

Recently on radio there was a programme about the Roman philosopher and politician Seneca. What occurred to me was the similarities between the world in which Seneca lived and the one in which I live today. He witnessed the decay of the old Roman Republic into an authoritarian state which was at first ruled by the rich oligarchs, a rule which evolved into the rule of one man the Caesar. Several books I have read suggest that we are living in the last days of liberal democracy and that our political system is being subverted by the rich oligarchs who are turning our society into one that bears strong resemblances to the Rome of the last days of the Republic.

These similarities are no more than that, Britain is not becoming a society ruled by a new class of Caesars. Violence is not employed by the rich oligarchs to destroy their enemies, no opposition politician has suffered the indignity of being murdered and having his skull converted into a wine cup by his enemies. These oligarchs to gain power have used more subtle methods. They have corrupted the legal system with their wealth so all kinds of judicial restraints have been developed to silence their opponents.  One such restraint is the super injunction whereby a powerful individual or business can prevent any reporting or discussion of their alleged wrong doing as it is claimed that it will unfairly damage their reputation. Such stories can remained suppressed for years.  The other powerful weapon wielded by the oligarchs is the destruction of their opponents reputations. This is conducted through the publication of hostile articles in the media, which they largely control. It a weapon whose power cannot be underestimated, as when the politician Nick Clegg was asked to explain why so many MPs voted against their principles and backed the government over its policy to leave Europe, he said that they were scared of ‘The Daily Mail’. While there is no equivalent of the Roman mob who could be incited to attack opponents of the oligarchs there are the internet trolls. They can be whipped up into a frenzy and encouraged to launch virulent attacks on the oligarch’s enemies.

When hearing this programme I wondered if stoics such as Seneca who lived under the cruelest of authoritarian rulers could provide evidence of how to live the good life today in a society which is becoming increasing dominated by rich unpleasant oligarchs.

Stoicism taught that the world was created by logos (the spirit) and that logos remains force which continues to direct the development of the world and humankind. The logos determines everything, so people have a choice either to ignore logos and risk being crushed under its onward movement or change their actions and behaviours to accord with the movements of logos. What stoicism taught was that history was pre-determined and wise individual was the one who accepted their lack of control over their lives, Happiness was gained attained by those who cultivated an air of indifference to those things that they could not control. A person who valued material wealth above all else would suffer great pain from its loss. This cultivation of indifference reaches its extreme limits in the writings of Epictetus. He advises the father not to kiss his son goodnight or show any kind of affection, as that son might be dead by the morning. At its simplest stoicism was a philosophy of pain management. In the Roman society of the Caesars  it was rule by Caesar a capricious individual who if he wished could tomorrow deprive you of your wealth or even your life, therefore one should not be greatly attached to either.

In a society in which social and economic inequality is increasing to such an extent that it is likely that the great majority of people will be poor, in which the poverty that characterised earlier societies will begin to characterise the Britain of tomorrow. Material riches of even the most modest kind will be denied to a majority of people, so an indifference to material wealth will help them cope with a life of relative poverty. People would not be depressed for a lack of things of this world, as they have minimised their attachment to them. However such poverty does bring real suffering and why stoicism will help with managing the discomforts and unpleasantnesses of poverty it is not an answer to pain and suffering. Poverty is not caused by the movements of the logos, but through the greed of the rich oligarchs. A more activist philosophy than stoicism is required.

Stoicism was usually a philosophy of the educated rich. These people who had ample wealth could afford to affect to be indifferent to material wealth, as even under the worst of the Caesars very few of them lost their wealth. The poor of Rome preferred the fairy tale religion of the Olympian Gods. They would turn out in their thousands to celebrate the festivals of the old Gods, as the theatre of these festivals offered them some escape from the misery of their lives.

One positive effect of adopting stoicism as a philosophy would be an ending of the cult of celebrity. All these endless talent shows would lack an audience, as people would not longer see a rags to riches story as real, as celebrity would be due not to talent but the arbitrary movement of the fate. Also a people that attached little value to material wealth would have little interest in programmes which celebrated individual talent as a means to material wealth. Celebrity culture acts as a safety value, it releases the pressure that builds up from social discontent. The poor can be pacified by the fairy tales of celebrity that claim that no matter how poor there are celebrity offers an escape from poverty. People will instead have a keen sense of reality and are less likely to taken in by stories of celebrity success.

Stoicism can perhaps be called the philosophy of unpleasant reality and as such it will always lose out to philosophies of hope. In the Roman Empire such a philosophy of hope was Christianity.  Contemporary Britain lacks such a philosophy of hope which will act as a catalyst of change. There are many alternative philosophies in our society but they do not have the messianic appeal of Christianity with its potential for change.

There is another philosophy that was popular among the Romans of this time and that was epicureanism. This is a much misunderstood philosophy it usually thought of as the philosophy of hedonism, as Epicurus taught that the good life should be one of pleasure. However it was a very different pleasure that he had in mind. Individuals should take pleasure in the essentials of life, pleasure should be derived from enjoying a modest diet, dressing modestly, these things were sufficient to enable the individual to live a good life. If one took pleasure in the luxuries of life, life was reduced to a constant craving for more and more of sensual pleasures and this craving made life one of misery. For Epicurus only a person living a modest life could be described as happy.

Epicureans were often persecuted by the authorities because by only valuing a life lived modestly they threatened a society that valued overindulgence and sensual pleasures in all forms. At Roman meals the rich had vessels placed near the table at which guest could vomit into, so as to make room in their stomachs for more of the extravagant dishes that would be placed before them. They took pleasure in all kinds of sensual pleasures as demonstrated by the popularity of gladiatorial sports. Pleasure was gained from watching the pain and suffering of others. Epicurean philosophy through offering an alternative to the dominant philosophy of excess was seen as a threat to a society that valued excess.

If epicureanism was more widely known, there would be one major beneficial effect. The rich billionaires rather than being celebrated for their wealth, would be seen rather as slaves to it and as such to be pitied. There is one marvellous passage in Thomas More’s Utopia where it is seen as slavish behaviour to wear gold and valuable stones as jewellery or chains of office, they are seen as slaves to their possessions. If the rich billionaires who dominate contemporary society were seen to objects of pity, rather than celebrity, their malign influence on politics would be much reduced. Politicians would not seek out their company and not be so desperate to give them favours.It goes without saying that in contemporary Britain and the US the billionaires can buy policy favours, with what to them is the small change from their pockets. Unfortunately the most successful of our politicians worship wealth and despise modesty. Politics for them is a means to acquiring a substantial fortune.

In today’s papers an open secret is being exposed and that secret is that London is one of the major centres of money laundering for criminal enterprises. In this instance the police forces of Latvia and Moldavia exposed this criminal behaviour of the London banks. It was the poor underfunded police of two poor European countries that exposed this activity, not the well funded City of London police. Perhaps the relative poverty of the police and politicians there means they are of higher moral calibre than those of the UK. Only where wealth is so celebrated as the chief of virtues could such corrupt practices be sanctioned.

Billionaires by their very nature will always seek to corrupt those around them. What is the threat to our democracy is the willingness of our politicians to be corrupted by them.  An annual salary almost three times the median wage in Britain is seen as inadequate by most MPs. Too many of them seek sources of income from outside politics making them susceptible to persuasion or corruption. Now the successful politician is seen to be the one who uses their position to acquire the most wealth; the practice of politics taking second place to money making. Reform has become redefined as making changes in the law or society that benefit the MPs wealthy benefactors. Epicureanism with its emphasis on modesty if more generally accepted would give us a generation of politicians less susceptible to corruption and a political class more deserving of respect. Those few politicians uncorrupted by money are drowning amongst the swill of corruption that is contemporary politics.

Social democracy was formerly the force which ensured that the market economy worked for the benefit of the majority not the minority. Unfortunately nominally social democratic politicians have abandoned the substance of that philosophy believing that Neo-Liberalism was the philosophy of today. In the heyday of social democracy many politicians of the right subscribed to its tenets and contributed making Britain a fairer and better society. With the discrediting of social democracy it is unlikely that those moderate politicians of the right would ever subscribe again to its tenets. Epicureanism has none of the baggage associated with social democracy and could be easily adopted by those moderate politicians on the right. In a country with a political class in thrall to the philosophy of greed what is needed desperately in a philosophy of compassion and fairness to counter that extremism.

(Gauis Gracchi was the unfortuante Tribune of the people who lost his life and head.)

Swamp creatures, entrerpreneurial economics and Donald Trump

When Donald Trump spoke of draining the Washington swamp, he conjured a very different image up in my mind to the one he intended. I immediately thought of an old film that I had watched entitled ‘The Creature from the Swamp’. In this film the inhabitants of a small American town are terrorised by a creature from the swamp. This creature has been created from the interaction of the chemical discharges from the town’s factories with one of the embryonic reptilian creatures developing in the swamp. Needless to say after a number of deaths the creature is killed by the ‘all American Hero’ a man who was a feature of so many films of the fifties. I should have added that this film included the fainting helpless blonde who attracted the desire of the swamp creature and who had to be saved from the creature by the all American hero. If Donald Trump has seen this film he would have identified with the all American hero, instead of seeing the swamp creature as an all too realistic portrayal of himself.

The swamp creature I believe provides a very useful analogy for the understanding the politics of our time (and the misguided economic policies of those politicians). There are I believe many cultural swamps within our culture that damage and distort the personalities of the people within them. Although it may appear an unfair  comparison, I think there are two similar swamp cultures within our society that are particularly damaging. One is the criminal sub culture that produces the bosses of organised crime and the other that entrepreneurial subculture, usually focused around property development, that produces the new class of sociopath entrepreneurs.What both cultures produce is a people who lack empathy, who lack an understanding or appreciation of others. These creatures rise to the top through a career that involves the destruction of others. The sociopath crime boss or entrepreneur sees others either as an obstacle to their advancement which has to be overcome or as tools that can be used to advance their interests. What both swamp creatures lack is empathy as they cannot see others except as either having or not having a ‘use value’. They are incapable of recognising the humanity of the other, people for them as people don’t exist. Only by denying the humanity of the other can practise the cruelties and deceits which are the prerequisites  of their success.

In a radio programme I heard how the Tony Schwartz the author of ‘Trump: the art of the Deal’ describe how he first came into contact with Donald Trump. He was a journalist working in New York and he was sent to investigate a redevelopment project for which Donald Trump was responsible. He discovered that Donald Trump had hired a firm who specialised in getting those with a legal right to remain in their home to move. (He could only redevelop an empty apartment block so he needed these people out.) They could make it undesirable for these tenants to remain by removing the lights from corridors or putting lifts out of action. What is significant about this story is how Donald Trump turns what could be a human obstacle into a tool for their own use? The journalist Tony Schwartz was so captivated by Donald Trump the man, that he agreed to write a book on Trump the deal maker. The book was a tremendous success and it made Donald Trump into a national and international celebrity. Such a favourable public image is essential for the sociopath hungry for power. The mythic status of being a deal maker turns the uglier aspects of the personality, the ruthless and abusive personal manner into something more positive. Donald Trump became the man who could get things done, which became the essence of his successful Presidency campaign.

Despite my reservations the sociopath can fulfil a useful function in society. It was Robert Merton who said that crime and organised crime fulfilled an invaluable role  in society. They made available to people products or services that they otherwise could not get. Without organised crime the low income addict could not get their drugs and the city financial dealer their cocaine. Some accounts suggest that cocaine is the essential tool for maintaining that high level of frenzied intellectual activity which makes a successful trader. Similarly many of the great entrepreneurs of the past such as Andrew Carnegie America demonstrated the ruthless behaviours characteristic of a sociopath. He believed that steel worker union was hampering him in his efforts to trade union prevent him from make Carnegie steel into the largest and most efficient maker of steel in the USA.  He decided that he would remove this obstacle which resulted in the notorious Homestead Strike of 1892. He employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency to break up the steel workers strike. Extreme acts of violence were committed against the trade unionists and by the trade unionists in their defence. Ultimately the ruthless boss triumphed.  Other businessmen were not above using organised crime to deny the worker their rights in their endeavours to make their businesses more profitable. Jimmy Hoffa the boss of the Teamster’s Union decided to fight fire with fire and he allied himself with organised crime to use the employers weapons against them. He was so successful that many of the dockyards in the 20th century USA were in effect controlled by the Teamsters Union and their allies in the American mafia. Although I can condemn these men as monsters, they performed an essential role in driving the American economy forward.

While Donald Trump is but a pale imitation of the great entrepreneurs such as Andrew Carnegie. This particular monster is far more damaging to American society, as the damage he has done to the social fabric is not matched by any benefits accrued to the wider society. A steel mill is far more beneficial than a casino, for example the former requires skilled highly paid workers, the latter the reverse. The one single factor that makes the difference is that in 1890 although Andrew Carnegie was able to subvert the local legal system and manipulate it to his advantage, the larger national legal system remained largely uncorrupted. Andrew Carnegie was a monster but his monstrous activities were largely constrained within a manner that benefitted society.  In contemporary America there are no longer the legal constraints limiting the damage that these people can inflict on society. Wolfgang Streeck describes American variously as a kleptocracy or oligarchy. It is a state in which the rich oligarchs can use their money to bend and twist the law to suit their purposes. Just recently the US senate passed a law guaranteeing the US banks unlimited and ‘no questions asked bailouts’ in the event of another financial crisis. The monsters are no longer constrained in their behaviours in a manner that ensure that there activities work largely to benefit to the wider American society.

In a successful and viable social system monsters such as Donald Trump would be constrained. He would have been the owner of a small chain of casinos and leisure centres, the legal system would have prevented his ‘walking away’ from his serial failures. Unfortunately in the current US the legal system has been rendered ineffective in regulating the bad behaviour of rich oligarchs, so there is now no limit on what these monsters can achieve. There is a similar change taking place in the UK. There is on disturbing example that proves this, when the EU was proposing to introduce legislation to make money laundering more  difficult, the British government successfully lobbied against it. The City of London had argued that if the legislation was passed British banks would be at a disadvantage, as other countries would not observe the law, while the British government would operate it to their competitive disadvantage.This spurious argument worked and the UK is now called the world’s largest tax haven by the IMF.

Unfortunately for us all the creatures from the swamp are allowed to roam freely within our societies and wrecking damage to the host society to further their own self interests.

A Letter to Donald

Dear Donald

This short letter is my attempt to try to come to try to answer the question who is the real Donald, why does he behave as he does and why are you such a threat to the continued existence of liberal democracy. It is my attempt to come to terms with the phenomenon that is Donald Trump. If you met me you would notice a distinct difference in our manner. I am a man who  values modesty in conversation and behaviour. In short I am one of those Englishmen who overuses the world sorry, so I guess you can see why I find your behaviours so hard to understand. Not only that but I am also a liberal so we are so different in manner and our politics.

Although your personality is one steeped in anger, I think your anger comes from a fear of modernity. The world that you knew as a child, the America of the white heterosexual males is now being challenged, Now instead of the television presenter is less likely to be an Ed Sullivan, than a lesbian woman such as Ellen DeGeneres or a woman of colour such Oprah Winfrey. This is becoming an increasingly unfamiliar world to you in which you are not sure of your place in it. Formerly you would have been lauded for being a billionaire and having a much younger and beautiful wife, now many doubt the value of your achievements. This must be confusing to you, their must  be times when it seems that you are adrift in a hostile world. One reaction only is possible for you to this fearful world and that is anger, an anger which is so often caricatured by others as a snarl.

Unlike you I welcome the ‘differenceness’ of modernity, something I first encountered in a trip to Scandinavia in 1966. A difference demonstrated in the design of there housing and the beauty of their cities and towns, a beauty lacking in Britain. Other and later trips to Europe instilled in me an enthusiasm for the different. In 1970 I went to France where I had my first taste of French coffee, it was love at first taste. Until then coffee was instant coffee, either Nescafe or Maxwell House. A harsh tasting drink that you drank to keep you alert and buzzing. This French coffee tasted nice, it had flavour you enjoyed, coffee drinking now became an unalloyed pleasure. Getting to know other cultures and taking from them what I enjoyed has enriched my life.

New York as with London where I taught has become an increasingly cultural melting pot with an increasing diverse ethnic mix of peoples. While the integration of new ethnic groups could present problems of which as a teacher I was well aware. They also brought their cultures with them. Some saw these cultures as alien and a threat to the host society. Yet these cultures embodied a whole new range of cultural experiences that enriched the host culture. One such obvious enrichment was the West Indian carnival in Notting Hill. A diverse open society is a creative society and London at present is the leading cultural centre in Europe. The constant making and remaking of London culture that is the consequence of having to adapt and absorb new cultures is  a source of the creativity that makes London a leading culture centre. However with Brexit the open and welcoming culture of London will be lost as new ethnic groups and their cultures are increasingly excluded from Britain. What is likely to replace it is a cultural resistant to change and closed to new ideas?  In fact many of our new right politicians would welcome this, a London that increasingly resembled one of those dull provincial towns or cities that characterised Britain in the 1950s.

Although you regard Muslims as that most alien of the other, my experience of them is entirely different. I have encountered them as students and friends.   Coming into contact with them made me realise that there was another exciting culture and life to get to know. I have read the poetry of the Sufi master Rumi. No doubt you are familiar with the life of St. Francis of Assisi, but what you don’t know is that this greatest of Christian saints regarded Rumi as a spiritual master. This intermingling of European and Islamic culture has been of benefit to both societies throughout the millennia. The classics of Greek philosophy might have been lost if they had not been preserved in the translations of the Arab philosophers. Unlike you when coming into contact with a new culture, my reaction is not to reject it as something alien and foreign; instead I want to explore it, to learn from it. I have a friend who as you do rejects muslim culture as being alien and benighted, yet even he enjoys the poetry of Omar Khayyam.

What is frightening about your anger and that of your fellow believers of the right is that you have the power to turn back those aspects of modernity that you despise?  This is why you want to make abortion illegal. If women no longer have control of their bodies, they will be unable to live independent lives and will be forced back into the box of domesticity. Similarly there are the new Jim Crow laws of the South, which make it difficult for Americans of colour to vote.  These laws reduce the presence in the political arena of people of colour, a change which is ensuring that the white dominance of the South is continuing.  Another alien group is put back into its box, but this time it is the box is one of servitude. Although this turning back is but a temporary measure, history shows that regimes such as yours can successfully hold back the tide of history for many years.

What worries me is your destructive attitude towards those institutions that make civilised life possible. Liberals such as myself think that John Rawls political thinking provided the essential  template for making of a successful political system. He wanted to answer the question to which all liberals want a solution. How do you construct a political system that gives voice and sanction to people of different and often incompatible views in a manner which avoids the worst of the destructive and divisive effects of political conflict? Societies can be torn apart by warring factions as demonstrated so well in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There the two rival factions, the Capulets and the Montague’s constantly threaten the peace of Verona with their constant feuding.

To this problem John Rawls had an interesting answer. His answer was that the constitution makers should indulge in an act of collective forgetting. When devising a constitution they should strive to forget their own beliefs and prejudices and try to exclude them from there thinking. Then they should focus on the building of a belief and bias free constitution. The emphasis should be on functionality not belief. One such example is the American constitution of 1787. The political system they devised was not free from fault, but until recently it had functioned effectively by containing political conflict within a system that delivered effective governance. Now unfortunately the new right that is the Republican party has set out to destroy that system that worked so well for two hundred years. The behaviour that you displayed towards former President Obama is demonstrative of the destructive behaviours of the new right. One of the main voices accusing Obama of being ineligible for office was yours. This nasty ‘birther’ campaign was a child of your making and did nothing other than to bring discredit American politics.

There are two requirements for a good political system. The first is how the winners treat the losers. The winners must accept the reality of the rotation of power, that is that the losers might be the winners next time around. They must accept the threat of the loss of power with good grace. While it is legitimate for politicians to seek to retain power, it is not legitimate when they use means which can only be described as illegitimate. American political history of the recent past has been little more than the attempts by the Republicans to change the political system in such a way as to permanently exclude the Democrats from power. Using the conservative Supreme Court to open elections to undue influence by the rich and powerful business corporations is one. These so called ‘super PAC’s  (political action committees) are free to spend as much money as they want to influence an election. The same court has permitted the gerrymandering of the electoral process to exclude potential Democrat voters in the South. When the winner refuses to acknowledge the right to dissent and opposition, the tenor of politics changes it becomes more shrill and intolerant. Politics is conducted in the language of a Fox News presenter or the ‘shock jock’.

What has been lost from contemporary politics is the civility of manner? In the early twentieth century the members of the various political parties in Britain would be at each others throats in the Chamber, but they were able to distinguish politics from the person. These same men would then meet at various country houses for weekend parties at which there was no trace of animosity. This courtesy no longer exists in contemporary politics and you are the exemplar of the new rude and brutal politics. Without the practice of courtesy politics becomes degraded into being an unpleasant fight in a bear pit. When intolerance towards the other is the practice of each party democratic politics becomes impossible. The ‘give and take’ that made democratic politics possible in the past has ceased to exist. The obstructive behaviour of the Republicans toward President Obama which culminated in the threat to shut down government is an example of the new destructive politics. Similarly the behaviour of the Republicans toward former President Clinton demonstrates most effectively the breakdown of the American political system. Shutting down government for a month by refusing funding and impeaching the President over an affair with an intern was the nadir of American politics. All the worst practices of Republican politics have culminated in you. The destructiveness of your political reign is likely to exceed in destructiveness the damage inflicted on American society by the actions of Senator McCarthy. HIs witch hunts inflicted irreparable damage to the lives of individuals, you threaten to inflict irreparable damage to the fabric of American society.

What I believe disqualifies you from high office in a democratic society is your lack of civility. This is incivility derives in a part from your fear of and anger at modernity, as a relatively  inarticulate man it is second nature to express your anger in abusive language and in uncivil behaviour. It is not the belief in reasoned argument that is practice which enables democracy to thrive. All to often recorded parliamentary debates in England and those in the Senate or Congress fail to demonstrate reason. Civility was one of the factors that influenced the construction of the House of Commons after it was destroyed by German bombs. It was deliberately made too small to accommodate 600 MPs comfortably, it small size was intended to ensure that debates would tend to brevity because of the discomfort of being too long in the Commons. This with the regular emptying of the Chamber for numerous votes would be a tension releasing mechanism, so preventing that build up of tension that would lead to outbreaks of bad temper and behaviour, evidenced in other parliaments. Unfortunately British politics all too often copies the worst of American practice and incivility is now becoming the dominant mode of British politics. By civility I mean the civilised behaviour that makes debate and political dialogue possible, not the abuse and demeaning of one’s opponents which is now the common practice of British politics. When Theresa May came to the US it was not just to make a trade deal but to meet a like minded politician, a man who is the master of incivility. Why I want you to go is not just because you threaten the existence of liberal democracy in the US, but because you give encouragement to those many European politicians that also want an end to liberal democracy. Manners are said to make a man, manners are needed to make a President.

How to survive in the age of Trump, May and Farage

How do I live in a society in whose leaders values are totally alien to me? In Britain we have a Poujadist leader who seems intent on dragging Britain back to a country of her childhood imaginings. A country from which people with foreign sounding names with funny foreign languages are absent.The Britain which I love is fast disappearing before my eyes. EU nationals are now threatened with deportation because of their ‘EUness’, an alien virus which is seen to threaten the integrity of the English nation. To answer my own question I look to those who have survived with their integrity intact in more violent and authoritarian societies than mine.

One figure that has always attracted me is the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, a women who survived the horrors of Stalin’s persecution of the intellectuals in the 1930s. She was one of the early supporters of the revolution or rather the revolution in social mores that was sweeping through Russia in the early twentieth century. What this change meant was that women were no longer confined to the domestic scene as wives or mistresses. They could live their own lives rather than a life according to established custom. When Stalin achieved power this independent minded woman was seen as threat to new puritanical work obsessed  world of communism. In Stalin’s world individualism of the type that was practised by Anna Akhmatova was seen as a threat to the collective. People should work for the good of society and exhaust themselves in the fulfilment of communist society’s goals. The individualism of Akhmatova was seen as bourgeois and as contrary to communist life and practice. Also she scandalised the puritanical Stalin by living what in the sixties would be termed a sexually liberated life.Women could take on traditional masculine roles that being a doctor, architect in Soviet society, but they should not transgress the traditional sexual mores.

The first act of persecution on her was the sending of her husband sent to a labour camp, where he later died. Then when her son had achieved adulthood he was sent to the camps on a trumped up charge. Stalin and his secret police then played a cat and mouse game with her. She would go to the camp were she thought her son was imprisoned with food and queue for an opportunity to meet her son. All to often she would be turned away on some pretext and was denied a chance to talk to her son or deliver her food parcels. This was an experience common to many mothers and wives of camp inmates. Yet despite this treatment she continued she take whatever opportunity she could to help her son. Somehow her son survived the camps and returned to civil society.

I cannot know what anguish Anna Akhmatova suffered because of her cruel treatment by Stalin, but I do know is that she retained her personal integrity. She continued to write poetry. It is this quality of personal defiance that I most admire, an intent of being herself and not communism woman. There is one of her poems  ‘The Crucifix’  which expresses her personal agony, in the manner in which only be achieved by a poet.

The Crucifix

Do not cry about me mother seeing me in the grave

I

The greatest hour was hallowed and thundered

By angel’s choirs, fire melted sky

He asked his Father ‘Why am I abandoned?’

And told his Mother ‘Mother do not cry’

II

Magdalena struggled, cried and moaned

Piter sank into stone trance

Only there, where mother stood alone,

None has dared cast a single glance.

Translated from Russian by Tanya Karshtedt

Edited by Dmitry Karshtedt, August 1966

What I take from Anna Akhmatova’s story is that even in the most cruel and corrupt of societies, it is possible to retain that independence of mind and sense of individuality, which represents the best of human life. In the end she triumphed over Stalin. The many tomes of his writing remain largely unread today, the only readers being those historians who need to understand Stalinism; whereas Anna Akhmatova’s poems are read by many thousands if not millions for pleasure. Her spirit lives on through her poetry, Stalin’s died at his death.

There is another story from Soviet Russia that sticks in my mind. A person who has been recently freed from a labour camp is given a $10 dollar note by a friend, who realises that they will need help now that they are trying to reestablish their life. However this man knows of friend in similar circumstances who he thinks is in greater need of the money, so he sends him the $10 dollar bill. The recipient of the money knows of a person who is greater, so he sends on the money. In the end the $10 dollar bill never gets spent as its sent from one person to another. People can it seems retain the best of human qualities in the most appalling of circumstances.

What I am not suggesting is that contemporary Britain is the 21st century equivalent of the Soviet Union. Instead I live in an increasingly authoritarian society in the leaders have values alien to me. It is a country in which the nastier of the Poujadist or Little Englander strain of politics has become mainstream. While our leaders may claim they are neither, their actions and the wording of their speeches betrays there true intent. How will I live in this new Britain? I will continue my friendships with my Iranian and Peruvian neighbours. Continue to patronise the Italian cafe where I regularly go for coffee. What I am trying to say is that I will try to live my life according to those qualities of life that the philosopher Kwane Anthony Appiah calls cosmopolitanism. I enjoy a life which I see as characterised by friendship with people of other culture. A cultivated open mindedness a respecting others for there differentness. Perhaps a feeling first stimulated on my first visit to France in the 1970 when for the first time in my life I could enjoy a good cup of coffee. This to a person brought up on instant coffee was a life changing experience.

I grew up in what many would consider ideal circumstances. It was a childhood spent in small rural village of native born English people. There was a strong sense of community mindedness. I could wander through the village and its surrounds knowing that I was safe. If I encountered any problems I could go to a neighbour. Yet now I could not return to a community of native born English speakers, as I love learnt to love diversity and difference. In the village of my childhood there would not have been a Mohammed with whom I could discuss Middle Eastern politics. Now my ideal world is the one centred on the urban coffee house, where I can engage in conversation with people who are not like me. One in which a secular minded Englishman can have a friend  who is a good Muslim who both share a liking for indulging in good conversation.

Why economics fails

There is it seems a present a desire to doubt the validity of economics and the skills of its practitioners.  Just yesterday there was Chief Economist at the Bank of England issuing a mea culpa on behalf of the profession, in which he apologised for his and their failings and said that economists must do better in the future. He is just another ‘failing expert’, as Michael Gove would have said. When Michael Gove said in the EU referendum debate that the people were fed up with experts and were best of without them, one assumes that he was speaking about economists. However Michael Gove as with many politicians is adept at deflecting the blame for their own mistakes on to others. Politicians are those in charge and they make the decisions on matters of economic policy and not the economists. Yet whatever failures of government policy that occurred in the period 2010 to 2016, Michael Gove and his colleagues will never put there hands up and accept their share of the blame. Politicians such as him have a list of scapegoats to use to disguise their failings and another such favourite is the  EU. Teresa May’s disparaging comments about citizens of the world being citizens of nowhere can be paraphrased to describe contemporary government ministers, they are the ‘ministers of nothing’ knowing and caring little about their departments. Just sitting out their ministerial brief waiting for an upgrade to a more high profile ministry.

While it is the politicians that have been responsible for the disasters of recent policy making, economists still share some of the responsibility, in that they have encouraged politicians to develop an almost papal like sense of infallibility. Neo-liberal or free market economists claimed in the decade 1970-80 to have discovered the holy grail of economic policy making. They claimed that at the heart of any economy there was a self regulating market which when left to itself produces the best results for all. This market mechanism was capable of outthinking any politician. If  left to itself it would settle on the natural equilibrium levels of growth, employment and inflation, which would in turn mean society would enjoy a level of prosperity that it would otherwise never achieved if the economy had been managed by politicians. All the politicians had to do was to create the optimum conditions in which to enable the market to work unhindered, which was quite simply a bonfire of regulations. They can maintain an Olympian disdain knowing that they know  the answers to everything and have to hand the one key policy measure, impose the free market on the seemingly intractable problem.

One thought  that never occurred to these politicians or economists is fallibility of human thought, never in history has mankind ever succeeded in creating the perfect social organism. They seem to have forgotten such schemes are referred to as utopian in the history books, because they are always hopelessly impracticable.

What cannot be said is that there were no warning signs. When with great enthusiasm the Conservative government of the 1980s followed the policy prescriptions of Milton Friedman, failing to notice that his major policy prescription was unworkable. He said that the government should be regulate the economy through control of the money supply. Unfortunately he had not done his homework, as in practice it proved impossible to define what exactly was money supply. The Bank of England came up with at least five possible descriptions of money supply. There preferred choice was description number 3, what was known as M3. The only reason for choosing M3 was that it was easier to calculate than the other possible choices. Then having settled on M3, they realised that it would be extremely difficult to devise ways of controlling this money supply. All possible solutions would involve interfering in how the banks managed their finances. Instead the government opted for controlling by money supply by controlling demand for money. If they changed interest rates this would either or lower the price at which people could borrow, so if they put up interest rates people would borrow less and the amount of money (bank deposits) in circulation would fall. Never once did it occur to the government that controlling interest rates was not the same as controlling the money supply. Interest rate changes could change the supply of money held but it was a very indirect and imprecise control. Unlike what Milton Friedman desired what the government used as a very rough and ready measure to control money.

Politicians were obvious to the problems of implementing this policy, is it because the economics of the time was encouraging them not to think and question. They cannot claim not to have any warnings of the volatility of the free market as there were many financial crashes from the period 1979 to 2008.Yet these politicians believing they possessed the holy grail of policy making were  able the collapse of the Asian tiger economies or the dot com crash.  In consequence the great financial crash of 2008 which should have been foreseeable became the catastrophe that came out of nowhere, a veritable economic tsunami.

What economists should also be blamed for is there willingness to overstate their abilities and knowledge of all things economic..The economy is one of the most complex of mechanisms developed by mankind and yet economists all to often suggest that they really do know, when they don’t. I as an economist take my lead from Socrates. The oracle at Delphi told him that he was the wisest of men, yet this was a man who claimed to know nothing. Was not the oracle stating that Socrates was wise because he was the only man prepared to acknowledge his ignorance? I always wished that as a teacher I had told my students that I really knew nothing about economics. Yet as an economist I know a thousand times more things about the economy that any politician. What I see Socrates as saying is not that he lacks knowledge but answers. He was I believe using his ignorance as ploy to unsettle  his rivals, as a reading of any of Plato’s dialogues does demonstrate that Socrates knew quite a lot. Any economist when faced with a problem should be prepared to state his ignorance, as with a rapidly evolving and every changing economy, yesterdays’ knowledge is never sufficient to provide today’s answers. As  an economist what I possess is a knowledge of problems that have occurred in the past which appear to have some similarities with the problem at hand. Using that knowledge I could suggest a variety of policy solutions and recommend that which I think would be most effective. However I know that in what is an ever changing economy events may happen to make my policy recommendations ineffective. Humility should be part of the economists weaponry. I know that I can’t give Michael Gove the definitive answer he craves, the world is much more complex than the one viewed from Westminster or his newspaper column. I do know that my answers are better than his on all matters economic, as some knowledge of the economy and its workings are always better than none.

The last word I leave to Erasmus, ‘only a fool boasts of their ignorance’ or should it be ‘that only a fool takes pride in their ignorance’. A faulty memory prevents me recalling Erasmus’s exact words.