Category Archives: Philosophy

The End Days for British Democracy

Britain with its Westminster system of democracy has claimed to be the exemplar of good democratic practice. Many countries, most commonly in the former British colonies have adopted the Westminster practice of government. However classical Athens home of the first democracy provides a terrible warning of what happens when the practice of democratic politics becomes corrupted. Tragically Athens provides a template for the systematic corruption of democratic government, a model that Westminster appears to be copying.

While the primary cause for its abrupt end was a brutal foreign conquest, it was already rotting from within. It was the poor behaviour and discreditable practices of its leaders that caused it to lose popular support. According to one source, democracy was so discredited that few of the citizens could not be roused to defend it. What is true, is that after the destruction of Athens by Sulla and his Roman army, no attempt was made to restore democracy.

Given that democracy in Athens involved the demos or the all the citizens how did it become so unpopular. Leading politicians increasingly used informers to discredit their rivals. These informers were planted within the households of their rivals with the purpose of gathering information to discredit their rivals. Often these informer stories were fabrications, but so artfully put together that they put an end of their rival’s careers. Politics became the amphitheatre in which your rivals were discredited and destroyed through a process of character assassination.

In the UK the tabloid press and social media perform a similar function to the Athenian informer. The informed source always claims that there scurrilous stories are in the public interest. What they mean is that by revealing discreditable stories about politicians, they are stopping this rogue from achieving public office, where he would abuse the power of that office. Strangely it’s is only politicians of the opposing party who behave so discreditably. No doubt the same justification was claimed by the Athenian informers.

This has three unfortunate negative impacts. Citizens become disillusioned about the practice of politics. Increasingly they come to believe that all politicians are rogues. The disillusioned people withdraw their support and involvement in the democratic process, so it loses legitimacy. Only a certain type of politician can thrive in these circumstances, that is the rogue. Only the rogue is immune to stories about themselves. They care little for discreditable stories about them, stories that would destroy an honest politician. In fact they claim that the open displays of their roguery demonstrates their honesty. They unlike the other politicians are the prepared to be open about their failings. Unfortunately an people are becoming disillusioned about politics believing that all politicians are rogues a liars. Finally when the practice of politics is reduced to little more than character assassination, politicians are incapable of raising to the occasion when a crisis threatens. They simply don’t what to do.The cheats, the liars and purveyors of scurrilous story are helpless, they have nothing to offer apart from dissimulation. Government policy degenerates into a search for scapegoats on whom to deflect the blame for their failing policies.

There is another minor vice that is beginning to pervade Westminster democracy. The intra party struggle for ideological purity. A struggle in which the enemy is not the opposition party, but perceived opponents within the party. Each of the main political parties has embarked on a Soviet style purging political deviants. The consequence of which, is the unedifying spectacle of seemingly endless civil war within the party. Debates on issues of national importance become secondary to the internal party debate on matters of ideological purity.

One consequence is that if the British experienced the devastation wreaked on by foreign invasion, they would be as unwilling as the Athenians to restore their old discredited democratic system. Athenian democracy was never restored, they remained content to accept domination by a remote central government either in Rome or Constantinople, in preference to government by their own local leaders.

As an incredulous student I remember a lecture by Professor Oakshott in which he said the poor behaviour of the Athenian politicians has discredited the idea of democracy for centuries, and the rehabilitation of democracy and its procedures was but a recent historical phenomenon. I fear that the bad practice which masquerades as democratic politics in both the USA and the UK, will as did that of the Athenians, again make democracy seem the least desirable form of political governance.

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.

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.

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’

Why the economic crash of 2008 will not be the last such financial crash.

As an economist I know of several explanations of why economies experience sudden and unexpected down turns, the usual explanation is the bursting of a credit bubble as happened in 2008. These downturns or crashes are always claimed by our political leaders to be unpredictable events, once in a life time happenings, even an ‘act of God’. Even when as in 2008 when the crash was caused by both human folly and greed. This misunderstanding is only possible because politicians have never understood the economics associated with John Maynard Keynes. He stated that economies are inherently unstable and these sudden and unexpected collapses in economic activity are part of of natural economic cycle. Unfortunately politicians act as if the good times will continue forever, a dangerous self delusion.

Although an economist by education, I am a philosopher by interest. Unlike Keynes I want use the techniques employed by the Greek philosopher Plato to explain the instability of the economy. He used myth to explain those aspects of reality that were not easily given to rational explanation, myth could make understandable, what reason could not easily explain. Perhaps the myth of the cave is the best known. A myth he uses to explain the ignorance of mankind as to the true nature of reality. He says imagine mankind as a group of individuals chained up in a cave. These chains prevent them moving and force them to look in one way only forwards.. In front of these men is a wall behind which is a fire. Now behind that wall images of things are passed backwards and forwards, so all the chained men see is a series shadows, which they take to be reality. Mankind for Plato could only see the world of appearances, which obscured the true nature of reality. However as I’m a 21st century economist who does not believe in myth, I will use metaphor as a substitute for myth.

The economy can be seen as a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces seem to fit together to form a picture,. It’s seems to be composed of a series of interlocking pieces that fit together to form an integrated whole. However closer inspection of the puzzle reveals that the pieces do not fit easily together. There are gaps between the pieces they don’t easily fit together. Now if the tray on which the pieces are resting is moved, the puzzle immediately begins to lose shape and the picture eventually disappears from sight. The economy can be seen as a badly formed jigsaw puzzle that is likely to falling apart at any disturbance. Politicians ignorant of economics constantly make foolish decisions, that disturb and disrupt the economic policy. Occasionally they make disastrous decisions that cause the economic puzzle to fall apart,

There have been in our recent history a series of such foolish policy making from our political leaders. The most common fallacious policy is to promote speculative boom in either the property or stock markets as the main driver of economic activity. It is the fools gold of a policy. If economic growth is dependent on a constant inflation in house and property prices, there will be a time when market confidence fails and asset prices collapse and with it the economy. Unfortunately this simple understanding of the economy is beyond the political classes. Politicians seem predisposed to believe that everything in the garden is rosy and nothing bad will occur. A recognition of the fragility on which economic well being is based is too disturbing and unsettling to be accepted as a truth by our blindly optimist politicians.

The jigsaw metaphor can be used to explain how policies should be made to fix an economy, once a downturn has occurred. The broken puzzle can be put together through decisive political action and the economy rebuilt. There might have to be some reshaping of the pieces to make them fit together better, so making the economy more resilient to future shocks. Obviously the one piece that needs to be reshaped is the property and financial markets. Action needs to be taken to limit the activity of speculators in each. This action is a system credit controls and taxation that chokes off any foolish speculative activities. Unfortunately the politicians seem to believe that remaking the economy is an impossible task. What they prefer is the maladroit tinkering that is called Neo-Liberalism or leaving the market to fix itself. This is akin to asking these malformed pieces that remake up the economic puzzle in their own image. As a consequence the speculative economy that caused the collapse of 2008, has been rebuilt by the dominant players in the market, bankers and financiers with minimal interference from the government.

I must confess to one failing which is typical of all economists, I find it much easier to explain why economies go wrong than why they go right. My jigsaw metaphor cannot explain why the economy is subject to exuberant and unexpected periods of rapid economic growth. Perhaps if economists such as I could explain this economic fact, the economy would be in a better position than it is now.

Epictetus and our narcissistic politicians

Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135) is a Greek philosopher whose writings never seem to date. One particular discourse is which impresses me is addressed to those who wish to be admired. A very apt discourse in an age which is obsessed with celebrity. Not only obsessed with celebrity, but an age in which our politics is dominated by a group of narcissistic celebrity politicians. Leaders who crave the adulation of the crowd. Epictetus offers these people a stark rejoinder, which is that there very actions are going to win them the affections of those who can be most easily swayed. These peoples affections change quickly, today’s hero is instantly forgotten when these people find a new subject for there affections. Our narcissistic politicians are aware of this and their politics is reduced to a  constant struggle to retain the affections of the volatile crowd.

The crowd’s affection is retained by maintaining a high profile in the media. What this media wants is a constant series of highlights to hold the fickle crowds attention. Media celebrities such as the Kardashians are the masters of media manipulation. They can create daily stories for their social media followers a series of eye catching and glitzy events. However a politics that consists of just a series of media highlights is bad politics. What should be a reasoned deliberative practice is now reduced to the practice of producing simplistic stores of headline grabbing nature? Now the politician is no longer the master but the slave.

What Epictetus states is the affections these politicians win are not real or substantial. They are merely the latest glittering media toy that catches  the crowds attention. One politician who is admired for his japes or media catching antics does not have the respect of the crowd, just their attention. He might think he is the new Churchill, the man who will change the nation’s destiny, but to the crowd he is an amusing distraction. A distraction from the dull difficult stuff that is the reality of politics. Unfortunately these narcissists are reducing politics to a reality game show. What matters is who has the most engaging personality, it’s  a political Love Island. Politics is reduced to the jostling of the politicians, each determined to come out on top in this personality contest.

Epictetus makes clear that the popularity these politicians seek to win is with the worst kind of people. What our narcissistic politicians must win the support of the representatives of the people. These representatives are the media bosses and their journalists. These representatives are the interpreters and explainers of the will of the people. However they are not of the people. Journalists and those working in the world of media overwhelming come from elite backgrounds. Only 8% of the population went to private schools, and even less to Oxbridge, yet people from these backgrounds dominate the media. This leads to the curious situation in one group of the elite, tabloid journalists speak to the political elite as representatives of the people. What the people speak to our leaders is mediated through these media filters.  A filter that is not impartial, but one that gives the people the voice that it thinks they should have. All one can add is that whatever the tabloid press and media express is not the voice of the people, but one that is a creation of the media world. When Kierkegaard said that public opinion is the dogs opinion he gave the best description that I can find of today media world.

What our narcissistic politicians are incapable of doing is making good decisions. Deliberation and reason are alien to there thinking. What matters is how will there decisions sit with the crowd. In consequence today is the time of bad politics, when politicians make only those decisions that will please the crowd. There politicians shy away from difficult decisions that would make them unpopular, instead such decisions are postponed or delayed in the hope that the people won’t notice.

A new and unusual solution to economic policy making. ‘Wittgensteinian’ Economics.

Recently I have been reading Ray Monk’s biography of Wittgenstein. In reading this book I realised that Wittgenstein’s approach to philosophy opens the possibility of there being a different approach to economics. What Wittgenstein is always criticising philosophers for is there constant search for the one grand theory, the unifying theory that answers all the questions. There was he argued no grand theory and it was pointless looking for one. This is an approach that I believe should be adopted in economics.

There is at present one theory that dominates economic policy making and that is what might be termed free market economics. One small book Hayek’s ‘The Road to Serfdom’ is the origin of all current thinking on economics. Usually today it is known as Neo-liberal economics, an economic philosophy associated with the political right. Although there is a left of centre variant, new Keynesianism. Proponents of the latter claim to have rediscovered in Keynes writings his love for the free market and put to one side Keynes radicalism.

Keynes radicalism was the consequence of his despair at the misguided policy making of the governments of the 1920s and 30s. Usually the policies of the 19th century Parisian commune are ridiculed by economists. One policy that was held up to ridicule was the policy of having the unemployed dig up the paving stones, only to replace them later. The unemployed were paid a wage for this work. Economists saw this as a foolish waste of money that did little to improve the economy. However as Keynes pointed out this created an income for the unemployed and that there spending could help bring a dormant economy back into life.

What this illustrates is that Keynes was asking a different question to that asked by his contemporaries. He was trying to find an answer to the question, how do we bring to an end the misery of mass unemployment? His academic colleagues were asking a different question, how do we restore a dysfunctional economy back to being a fully functioning one that will in the long term work to the benefit all? Different questions have different answers. While Keynes advocated greater government spending to increase the demand for labour to reduce unemployment; they wanted to cut government spending, believing that only a prolonged period of sound finance and balanced budgets could create the strong economy, an economy which would eventually generate new economic growth and so ending the time mass unemployment. All this government could say to the unemployment was to have patience, as eventually the economy would pick up and they would have jobs. Keynes had one answer to this policy and that was in the long run we are all dead. There was also the unspoken assumption that growth generated by Keynes spending policies would be bad growth, whereas the economy eventually moved into the upswing in the trade cycle that this was good growth. A set of unprovable and dubious assumptions

When George Osborne adopted a similar policy in 2010, that of fiscal consolidation, cutting government expenditure and balancing the books, he repeated all the errors of the politicians of the 1920s and 30s. Mass misery, although this time not caused by unemployment, but low wages and the insecure employment of the ‘gig’ economy.

Wittgenstein’s last book was ‘Philosophical Investigations’ crystallised my thinking on economics. Rather than believing that there was one grand unified theory of economics, there are series of economic investigations which belong to one family, as they all bear a familial resemblance. The economy as subject matter is the familial resemblance. He also writes about the grammar of philosophy, which provides the format or structure for ensuring that the correct questions are asked or the correct philosophical investigations undertaken. What is the nature of good is an incorrect question. The correct question is what actions are understood as good. Asking people what is good is silly, as anybody when asked that question could give numerous examples. They understand the concept good, what they don’t need is a philosopher telling them what good means. Philosophers when asking this question brings itself into discredit, as the answer is either I don’t or a definition that lacks application or validity to everyday life.* Politicians are also failing to formulate their questions correctly. What they ask is that asked by the politicians of the 1930s how can we the economy to health. What they should be asking is a series of questions about the economy, such as how can unemployment be reduced, when looking for policy solutions to all these individual problems they will be answering the big question, of how can we restore the economy to good health.

I can give examples to demonstrate my thinking. The British economy has a number of dysfunctions within it, but ones that the Neo-Liberals believe only require the one solution. These dysfunctions are:

• Slow and anaemic economic growth

• The highest trade deficit as a percentage of GDP for a developed country, as a consequence of a shrinking manufacturing industry

• An unbalanced economy, one in which the financial service sectors are booming and manufacturing is in slow relative decline, an economy also unbalanced in that the southeast and London are experiencing high growth and incomes while the other regions experience the reverse

• An economy that is increasingly failing to deliver for increasing numbers of people, who are denied the essentials of a good life, that is fair incomes, secure employment and good housing.

• Income inequality is now approaching those levels last seen in the dismal 1930s

• The economy is increasingly subject to speculative booms and busts in the various asset market, usually such busts originate in the property market

• A country which shares record levels of indebtedness with Japan. The majority of British debt is private sector debt, which an upward shift in interest rates could make unsustainable, as too many households would have difficulty managing their debt repayments

There are other dysfunctions that I could add to the list, however I had to end the list somewhere. Only today Areon Davis (Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment) has in today’s Guardian newspaper outlined a different set of market dysfunctions, which could result in a repeat of the 2008/9 financial crisis. Yet the Neo-Liberals politicians always resort to the same set of policy options to deal with each of these dysfunctions. They are

• Vary interest rates, either lower or raise them

• Reduce regulation on business, thereby reducing the regulatory role of the state

• Cut taxes and government spending

• Recently they have added a new measure – quantitive easing, that is increasing the supply of money to the banks

What the British economy requires is a different set of policy options for each of these major dysfunctions. Why do these politicians believe that the same policy options should be prescribed for each policy? A doctor prescribes antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, he would not use them a patient that suffered a cardiac arrest, yet this is exactly what the government does with economic policy making. It’s always the same prescription, whatever the problem.

The economy is a dynamic organisation that is constantly changing and each change in the economy offers new benefits or brings to the fore new problems. There can be no one theory of everything, while Neo-Liberalism offers some policy options suitable for some problems, that is all it can offer. If instead politicians realised that each new problem the economy threw up was asking a new question of them and not just some variant of an old question policy making would improve. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, economics is a series of investigations that ask different questions, each of which requires a different response.

*I am aware that my brief paragraph does an injustice to Wittgenstein’s thinking, as I have taken elements from ‘The Brown and Blue Books’ and ‘Philosophical Investigations’, which are dissimilar books written at different stages in the development of Wittgenstein’s thinking. However to do so suited my purposes.

Intellectual stupidity a practice common to both Economists and Politicians

Intellectual stupidity is not a concept that is to be found in book on either the subject of economics and politics. This is a concept that was created by Robert Musil. He distinguishes between two types of stupidity, natural and intellectual. The first is the one due to physiological factors, it occurs when an individual lacks the mental capacity for higher order thinking. Although he would be criticised today for his use of this offensive word, he can be justified when its contrasted with intellectual stupidity. A term Hannah Arendt had in mind when she criticised evil as personified by Adolf Eichmann as banal. This was a man who lacked intellectual curiosity, he was unable to empathise with the millions of victims of the holocaust. He thought the was a good man because he made the trains to the death camps run on time. The fact that these trains took millions to their deaths was no significance to him. Their deaths were somebody else’s responsibility. He was in his mind a good administrator not an essential player in the holocaust.

Politics and economics practitioners are blighted with a similar failing. Milton Friedman was guilty of this failing. When Milton Friedman was told that the Chilean government when introducing the free market reforms he advocated were imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents of these reforms, he said it was a price worth paying. Just as with Adolf Eichmann his vision all that mattered was the introduction the Chicago School of Economic management to human societies. Human rights was for him just a matter of secondary concern. Recent political history has been dominated by such practitioners of intellectual stupidity.

In Britain such stupidity has been demonstrated by successive governments in there implementation of the free market economy. They see there role as being facilitators of a Hayekian free market system. When ever such reforms produce failures such as the collapse of Carillon, a company to which many government sources had been outsourced; it was a consequence of poor management with the company. Never was the policy of privatisation of government services considered to be a flawed concept. The ‘Economist’ magazine while exposing the failures of Carillon’s management mounted a strong defence of the outsourcing of government services. Now two other outsourcing giants Capita and Interserve are in trouble. Yet our government remains committed to outsourcing as a policy practice. This is demonstrates intellectual stupidity, as government ministers cannot contemplate any alternative policies or thinking.

Intellectually stupid politicians are always trying to second guess their civil servants. Rather than seeing them as experienced administrators who can offer them practical and useful advice on policy matters; they are seen conspirators who are trying to obstruct their policies. The traditional civil service practice of providing the minister with a series of policy alternatives from which to choose is seen as a threat to the integrity of government policy making. Just recently a senior politician who studied history at University decided that economists at the Treasury were conspiring to undermine Brexit, by producing erroneous data on the consequences of leaving the EU. This politician who has only a brief acquaintance with the subject of economics, claimed he could see not just errors but treachery in the work of these Treasury economists. This failure to accept any alternative view of events to the individual’s own is typical of the intellectually stupid thinker.

Why is intellectual stupidity the default mode of thinking of our politicians?

Perhaps part of the explanation lies in the books they read. Friedrich Hayek’s book ‘The Road to Serfdom’ can be read in a few hours, possibly on a wet afternoon, when there is nothing else to do. In this short book he claims to offer the solution to our contemporary malaise. There is no end to these books that claim to have the answer. Another such is Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Unchained’, yet another writer who claims to provide the solution to our current malaise. What these books encourage in their readers is a cult like belief, that they alone have the exclusive possession of the truth. The blinkered mindset of an ‘Moonie’, Jehovah’s Witness or Scientologist, is mirrored in the thinking of so many of our leading politicians. The lack of curiosity about alternative thinking is characteristic of the intellectually stupid.

These politicians have also been to the elite universities and this has given them an intellectual arrogance. They after a short period at university just ‘know’. One exemplar of this type is the politician who is an English graduate who decided that he did not need any advice from experts in their field (educationalists and economists), as he had acquired sufficient understanding ‘to know’. He as with so many of his colleagues ‘knows’ any further knowledge would be superfluous to the task in hand. These politicians can be best described as ‘generic’ politicians, as such they believe that they have already possess all the skills and knowledge necessary for the most demanding of political positions.

This lack of intelligent curiosity is demonstrated in these three remarks made by politicians about food banks in the U.K. The first said that increase in food bank use food was because people were attracted there by the free food on offer. Another said increased food bank use was a good thing, as it had shown that his government was more effective than the former at publicising this service. The last said people go to food banks for many reasons. What none of these politicians could say that people on low incomes were reduced to such desperate straits, that they were forced to go to food banks to get the food they needed for themselves and there families. Just as Adolf Eichmann could not bring himself to admit the his trains were taking the Jews to there death, so these conservative politicians cannot admit that there policies are creating such widespread impoverishment that thousands are now forced to go to food banks in order to survive.

This callousness is not the consequence of intellectual dishonesty, but a thinking that prevents thinking of either the Jews or the less well off, as people of any consequence. They are demonised either as a threat to the well being of the German people or a threat to the well being of the British economy and society. The political philosophy of both Adolf Eichmann and contemporary conservatives treats certain groups of people as inferior beings who lack the rights accorded humanity in general. A world view best summed up by the Nazi official who called Jews vermin.

What Robert Musil writes about intellectual stupidity is very similar to the thinking of Augustine on evil. He describes evil as a not knowing of God. People who don’t know God commit what we term bad acts. Augustine as a Neo-Platonist also equated God with Good, so people who did not choose to know God could not know good. The intellectually stupid chose not to know the evil of their actions and as such are unable to know good. These intellectually stupid would be the people who Augustine’s would accuse of doing evil acts.

Seeking Solace in Philosophy

As an economist the quality that you most need is equanimity. Why, because as an economist you are all to aware of the follies of the politicians and the damage their policies can wreak on the economy and society. A concern heightened by my anxiety about the futures of my daughters and my expected grandchild. When a senior banker accused some of our leading politicians as being ‘clueless’ on the economy, I mouthed a silent ‘hear, hear’. What an economist needs is some defence mechanism that prevents them from being overwhelmed by pessimism. When one writer called economics the miserable science he was all too correct in his opinion.

Perhaps I should adopt the philosophy of Democritius, who dispelled this anxiety about the follies of mankind and in particular its leaders in laughter. However laughter is only a temporary source of relief and soon the feeling of pessimism returns. I find some solace in the classical Greek philosophy of scepticism. A philosophy which demonstrates that all which passes as human knowledge is fallacious. This is of some comfort when I realise that the ‘reforming’ policies of our latest group of reformist minded politicians are based on little more, that what can be described as a set of incoherent and wrong headed series of assumptions about human society. While I can get some pleasure from demolishing these policies in my mind, it does not help alleviate the blackness of mood.

Philosophy has always been a refuge for me. I can retreat to my philosophy books, which takes me to a world far removed from the pettiness of what passes for the public debate. Ever since I was introduced to him at university I have been entranced by the figure of Socrates. When Plato writes of about Socrates and one of his students going to the cool river bank to escape the hot sun in Athenian sun to find the a more congenial place for discussion, I feel that I could be there with them. Aristotle writes that the highest form of human activity is this, the contemplation of the great questions that have always puzzled and intrigued mankind. Students of philosophy such as myself enjoy the intellectual cut and thrust in the dialogue employed by the greatest of philosophers. What we understand is that there are no simple or easy answers to the great questions posed by the nature of human existence. While practising this very Western form of active contemplation, I can get so lost in the books that I’m reading so that I forget the world outside.

When devising his philosophy Plato would make use of the myth to make his reasoning comprehensible to his audience. Plato’s the cave is one very familiar myth, but there are others. One of my favourites is the myth of human creation in ‘The Timeaus’, he uses this myth to explain the fallibility of human understanding. Mankind he writes is fashioned by the demiurge (the divine craftsman) out of clay. If mankind is made out of some inferior substance to that of which the Gods are composed, they are therefore incapable of understanding or sharing superior knowledge possessed by the Gods. Compare this to the less interesting contemporary myth of the market, which dominates current policy making. It’s a myth that tells us little about the economy. The central tenet of market theory is that there is a price at which markets clear, that is there is a price at which supply equals demand. There has never been a market in which an equilibrium of supply and demand has been attained. In reality markets are inherently unstable, as supply and demand are constantly changing and are never equal. Consequently the myth of the market as a guide to policy making is unhelpful, although perhaps to call it useless is going too far. This is why I prefer philosophy to economics, the stories it tells are more interesting and more truthful.

Recently stoicism has begun to find favour. This is practical philosophy devised by the classical Greeks. Its purpose was to help its practitioners lead the good life. This practical philosophy teaches that the only things that one can control are the one’s own emotions and feelings. There is a story which demonstrates this. There was a stoic philosopher on a ship caught in a storm. He was the only person to remain calm during this storm. When asked why he was indifferent to the crisis, he said that the observed a pig on the ship. The pig seemed undisturbed by the storm, so he imitated the behaviour of the pig. There was nothing he could do to avert the possible impending disaster, so the only practical policy he could adopt was to remain calm, as his getting anxious would do nothing to avert the possible impending crisis. Those things in life that the individual cannot control they call the ‘indifferents’. There are many ‘indifferents’ that the individual cannot control, also some such as good health they can influence by adopting a sensible diet. Anxiety comes from worrying about these ‘indifferents’ over which the individual has little control.

Donald Trump and the alt. right are a threat to the way of life that enjoy. There ever willingness to resort to violence or to threaten its use, is a threat the the tolerant civilised lifestyle which I value. As is also his constant demeaning of various ethnic groups as the threatening other. As this is an indifferent over which I have little control, the person who suffers if I obsess about this is me. Constantly being anxious is damaging to the human personality. Being a good stoic I am concerned about the irrational and erratic behaviour of our leaders, but I am not going to be overwhelmed by my anxieties on that score. Also I can influence this particular indifference by becoming political active. I can become part of the resistance.

John Stuart Mill gives me solace when I read that freedom, is the freedom to think. Whatever the alt. right does it cannot control my thoughts. In doing this I do have an advantage in that I am retired and can devote my time to reading my philosophy books. Perusing one of Plato’s dialogues on Socrates I can lose myself in the world of the Classical Greek philosophy. Also I can counter the nasty xenophobia of the alt. right by going to my local coffee shop, and there I can immerse myself in the Italian culture. What can be more engrossing than a discussion of the merits of the various types of pasta, while enjoying a cup of Italian coffee. What I am trying to say is that for a stoic there is much I can focus on to enjoy in these unhappy times.

Stoicism offers an interesting historical parallel, Seneca one of the best known stoics lived in a Rome, whose ruler was the narcissistic Nero. Given the predominance of narcissistic leaders in the Anglo Saxon world, who mistake their personal well being and success as metaphor for that of society, one can see the value of reading Seneca. Despite being an advisor to one of the most capricious and unpredictable of Emperors, he not only survived in that role for many years while others perished, but he did for many years act as a restraining influence on Nero. During those years he lived a modest moral life in keeping with the tenets of stoicism. Although even he lost his life as Nero’s paranoia intensified. His ‘Letters’ and plays I believe should be required reading for staff in Donald Trump’s White House.

When I read Erasmus’s ‘Adages’ I am reminded that the curse of having leaders pursuing policies that are ruinous to their countries in order further their own personal ambition is nothing new. Renaissance Italy in which he lived was plagued by wars between the Princes and Dukes of the various city states, which might have brought fleeting glory to these men, but which were ruinous for there various city states and the Italian nation. Is there no more insightful into the psyche of politicians, than Erasmus’s adage that ‘war is sweet to those who have never tried it’? Despite the almost constant internecine warfare in Italy, Erasmus still managed to write and publish his criticisms of the crass behaviour of the ‘great’ men of Italy. Although, as with many writers living in authoritarian states to avoid persecution, his critiques of foolish and arrogant leaders were set in the past or given such ambiguous settings that no contemporary leader could consider themselves libelled.

Reading philosophy reminds me of the heights to which the human spirit can rise, in contrast to the gutters of the human spirit in which so many of our contemporary leaders reside. This is why I find solace in philosophy.