Tag Archives: Athenian Democracy

Why it matters that politicians lie

Why are people so tolerant of lying politicians? It no longer seems to matter that politicians are exposed as liars, in fact some politicians have made a career out of being known as audacious liars. When one senior British politician is caught yet again in manufacturing falsehood, it is said that its only X behaving as X does. His lying makes him bit of a card. Nobody seems to mind that lies are increasingly becoming the common mode of the political dialogue. Politicians have always lied to protect their careers or to advance party interest; what has changed now is that the political lie is now seen as noblest of the political arts, being exposed as a compulsive liar no longer disqualifies a politician from the highest office, rather it is seen as a necessary qualification for high office. This terrible corruption of public behaviours is destroying the integrity of the political process. Democratic politics can only function if there is a certain degree of integrity, that is the political players must respect the rules of the game, when they show a contempt for these rules they discredit the whole system of governance.

There is a terrible warning from history that our politicians ignore at their peril. When in the fourth century BCE, Athenian democracy was threatened by the Persian kings, the whole population was united in resisting the invaders. Then when in the first century BCE the Romans invaded Greece, the population of Athens offered no resistance to the Romans when occupied their city. Once reason for this lack of resistance was that the political leaders of Athens had by their behaviours so discredited Athenian democracy that few felt it worth preserving. These politicians were masters in the art of fake news. They would use informers infiltrate their rival’s households and these informers would then claim to have evidence of salacious misbehaviour or wrong doing by their rivals. Personal vilification became the main mode of political debate, the practice of politics was largely reduced to the art of personal assassination. Although there is some difference in political practice today, politics tin its essentials increasingly resembles that of first century BCE Athens. Fake news, deception and dissembling are the most practiced of the political arts.

One obvious example of this practice is the attacks directed at the Leader of the Opposition. Whenever a government minister speaks of him, phrases such as a ‘friend of terrorists’ are always inserted into the conversation. Just as did the Athenian politicians ours practice the art of personal vilification. Not so long ago the government discovered a report by a former Czechoslovakian agent in which this agent claimed that the now leader of the opposition had sold state secrets to him. When these secrets had been supposedly sold to the agent, this leader was then an obscure backbench MP with no access to any state secrets. The fact that the story was totally implausible and easily discredited did not matter as it was an opportunity to smear the man. It’s political mud throwing it does not matter what is thrown as some will stick.

However the real problem of lying being elevated to the principle political art is that politicians never have the need to confront the truth. When evasiveness and dissembling characterise the art of politics, difficult and uncomfortable truths can be avoided. Particularly if confronting those truths would mean taking actions that would make the politician or government minister unpopular. Apart from a few dissidents, scientists are united in the view that the global climate is warming and this poses a serious threat to mankind. When for example the sea level rises as a consequence of global warming, many of the great cities of the world will become uninhabitable because of flooding. If the politicians took action to avert this impending catastrophe, it would be action that would make them unpopular with the voters. Averting this catastrophe is only possible if there is significant reduction in the production of the main green house gas carbon dioxide, this can only be achieved if there is a significant reduction in energy consumption. Such a reduction could only be achieved if the people, particularly those in the richest countries who use the most energy would accept a cut in their standard of living. Cutting energy means producing less of the goods and services that people desire. Making people poorer if only temporarily is a very unpopular policy option.

There is a good example of this dilemma in Britain’s recent political past. A city council in Scotland wanted to introduce a congestion charge to reduce the number of cars using its roads, as a means of reducing pollution in that city. Unfortunately it is common understanding amongst politicians that denying people the right to use their cars when and how they please is electoral suicide. Although this city council was controlled by the party in government, that government collaborated with the objectors to the scheme to prevent it being introduced.

Our political culture of lying and obfuscation provides a convenient escape clause for those politicians who don’t want to take unpopular action to halt climate change. There is an influential group of climate change deniers, funded and supported by the fossil fuel industries. Politicians can claim that the evidence for climate change is not yet conclusive, they can point to the research conducted by climate change deniers as proof of this. What matters least is this research is of little scientific validity, what matters most is that it exists. Claiming uncertainty as an excuse means that politicians can postpone or avoid taking those unpopular measures that are required to prevent global warming.

Perhaps it is the American Congress that provides one of the best examples of truth avoidance and evasion. There was from medical experts a demand that government to improve the nations health should persuade people to eat five portions of vegetables or fruit a day. Any such measure would mean that Congressmen would be going against the interests of the powerful processed food industry. As they would be promoting the same of fresh fruit and vegetables, which would have been at the expense of processed food. What Congress did instead was contrary to the recommendations of scientists, they decide that the tomato topping used on pizzas should be included as one of the five a day foods.

What the Athenian citizen witnessed in the First Century BCE, we are witnessing today. The slow decay of democracy. Democracy has always had its enemies, either foreign powers or powerful individuals and business corporations who hate the idea of being subject to the people. However just as with Athens the greatest threat comes from within the democratic system, that is from it’s leading practitioners. The practice of lying is corrosive of the human personality, such people no longer recognise or value truth. Truth is something quite alien to them. A list of all the ignored inconvenient truths about the threats to the health and viability is lengthy. When a senior official at the Bank of England said he could not understand how the Governor of the Bank of England could sleep at night, given the threat posed to the economy by the enormous debts of the banking system, he was ignored. All his concern rated was a short article in the little business columns of the newspapers.

When its leaders no longer value the norms and conventions that make democracy possible, its future is bleak. People who lie, cheat and are adept in all forms of malpractice, don’t make good guardians of our democratic system. A corrupt and dysfunctional Westminster or Washington no is incapable of serving the people. The people become disenchanted and see contemporary politicians as venal and corrupt. Such politicians have lost the respect of the people. Unfortunately the yearning of the people for good governance makes them susceptible to the charms of right wing populist leaders. Leaders who promise to clean up politics and make government once again the government of and for the people. In the 1930s when Washington and Westminster seemed helpless in the face of the Great Depression and did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the people, right wing fascist leaders such as Huey Long in the USA and Oswald Moseley in the UK became immensely popular. If circumstances had been more favourable to each they could both have brought to an end the liberal democratic experiment. Whatever Donald Trump might be he is no Huey Long, American democracy will survive Donald Trump. The real threat lies in the future, when the continued failure of the American Congress and the British Parliament fail to deliver for the people will discredit Anglo Saxon democracy. Then the people will welcome a strong leader to deliver from the self serving and venal politicians that currently govern them. What will destroy democracy is the worms at the centre of the democratic apple that cause it to decay and become rotten.

What I am writing now would be familiar to the people of the U.K. and the USA, who in the 1930s despaired of there governments taking effective action to solve the problems caused by the Great Depression. Only when democratic leaders such as Franklin D. Roosevelt took measures to reinvigorate the democratic system to ensure that it delivered for the people, was it able to survive. However if Huey Long had no been killed in 1935 it is likely that he would have become President in 1936 and replaced Roosevelt. He as President would have brought an end to liberal democracy in the USA. Surveying the contemporary political scene it seems that there seems to be a paucity of Franklin Roosevelt’s who could save liberal democracy from itself.

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Ugly economics an explanation of why we are in a mess

Plato developed the theory of forms which stated that all the virtues such as good and beauty were but mere copies of their ideal forms that existed beyond the sphere of life inhabited by humanity. In Plato’s creation myth the demigod who creates mankind makes mankind from the only material available, clay. A being made up of inferior materials unlike the Gods could never see the virtues in their true forms and would never able to appreciate true Good or Beauty. These inferior beings could only apprehend what were in effect rough and ready copies of the true virtues. Men could only know an approximation of the virtues. Although Plato was writing two thousand years ago his theory of the forms describes accurately the state of current economic knowledge, it is but a very imperfect copy of what might constitute true economics.

When I read economics what is striking is the lack of beauty in the subject, unlike for example physics there is no beauty in its formulations. Physics reveals the beauty of the universe, whereas all economics does is to reveal the ugliness of human society. The words of Gordon Gecko that ‘greed is good’ can be taken as the principle from which all current economic analysis derives. Our current Chancellor of the Exchequer believes that rewarding greed through  tax cuts for the wealthy is good, whereas helping the poor through welfare payments is bad, as it merely rewards a group of losers who are deprived of the incentive (compulsion) to work to provide for themselves and their families.

As a NeoPlatonist I recognise that although all the human sciences cannot be one or another form of moral philosophy; I do believe that a good social science should be informed by at least some of the virtues. Whenever I read an economic text it is very rare that I am grabbed by the beauty of the writing. All too often it is a struggle to get through some poorly written text.  A text that is peppered with difficult to understand economic terms, words that disguise the emptiness of the written text.  I believe that a text that is ugly in its construction can only create something that is ugly.

Good writing is that which contains understanding of beauty and as such moves the reader bad or ugly writing lacks any of the other virtues and as such has lost  touch with humanity. The government by constantly referencing ugly economics to justify all forms of unpleasant policy measures. One of the hidden scandals is the number of disabled and ill people who have succumbed to sudden death, as a consequence of sudden and unexpected benefit cuts. There are those ill and disabled who have resorted to suicide in consequence of the sudden loss of the income on which they depend.  Normally in such situations policy measures that have caused death would produce some contrition within political classes. The harsh welfare polices of the past few years have produced no such reaction. Instead ugly economics gives the justification to such measures, as what counts is the effectiveness of the whip that compels people to work. Government policy seems to a perverted inversion of Plato’s theory of forms. The supreme good is the balanced budget and subordinate policies such as welfare cuts are intended to make possible the attainment of this supreme goal. If this is the supreme good of human society it must be a very poor or mediocre society that sees this as its supreme good, a society which has rejected any sense of the grand vision that society’s of the past embodied. Athen’s with the construction of the Parthenon is one example of the grandeur of the human vision, contemporary Britain in which the only large constructions are shopping centres or malls sense to represent the very rejection of the grandeur that is humanity.

If Britain is to be judged by it’s leaders it is a nasty society bereft of any of the virtues that make a great society. A society which uses hunger as a scourge to make the poor work lacks any of the virtues that make a great society. All it’s leading politicians are like Socrate’s Alcibiades, a physically beautiful young man in appearance but in an inversion the Silenus dolls were ugly only on the inside he was ugly on the inside. Physical beauty concealed an ugly soul. It is not a true demonstration of the ugly society that politicians take great pains over their appearance, maintaining their youthful image through jogging or other forms of exercise and cosmetic surgery, What matters is their image, how they appear on the media. All our leaders tend to exhibit that fatal Alcibiades trait, beautiful on the outside ugly on the inside.

Perhaps it is being too unfair to blame the proponents of ugly economics for the mess that we are in. Could it not be equally possible that it is the ugly society which has created an ugly economics to match its essential ugliness. If economists are merely responding to the demand from the major power holders in society for a theory to justify their existence, they are culpable of devising a message that enables the ugly society to thrive. Their privileged role as the sanctioned intelligentsia serve to suppress any alternative voices. They are like the garden weed that denies those food plants we desire the space in which to grow and thrive.

Can a sense of collective depression account for the decline of Britain and the West

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Image taken from socialworktutor.com

Periodically I suffer from depression and with depression comes a self loathing. The depressed individual sees themselves only in terms of their failings, it is a worse picture scenario. When going through a bad patch I would compare myself unfavourably with others, in my mind I over exaggerated their strengths and virtues and under estimated my own. Something similar has happened to Western democracies, they seem to be under going a collective depression. This collective lack of self confidence negatively impinges on our choice of leaders. We just them by their failings not their strengths, we have lost the ability to pick leaders on the basis of their strengths.

Womanising politicians such as John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, Lloyd George would have never made it near the top in our contemporary world. A rival would have revealed their many liaisons to the press so as to destroy their career. Yet these three men were visionaries who could envisage a better world and could motivate others to share their visions. David Lloyd George had a vision of a society in which the ills of the industrial revolution were ameliorated through the provision of unemployment benefit. Franklin Roosevelt bought into effect the New Deal which ended the mass unemployment and poverty of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy initiated the Great Society and under the aegis of this umbrella term many reforms such as Medicare where introduced to improve the lot of the less well off in American society and he started the process that ended worst forms of racial discrimination in the USA. Black Americans now had the protection of the law and killing of ‘uppity Negroes’ had became a crime. This is not to deny that politicians with exemplary family lives don’t make great leaders, but as leaders are chosen on the basis of whether or not they behave well towards family, excludes the great leaders who have had a less than moral personal life.

Britain in particular cannot conceive of leaders except in terms of their vices or relative lack of vices. Not being a self confident society, it like the depressive only sees the world around them in the worst possible terms. Great ideas and the associated visionary politics have disappeared from British society. Now great ideas are seen to be a propaganda cover for a particular interest. Words are bandied about by politicians but those words have no real meaning. Rather than explain a policy vision a politician’s speeches contain a number of key phrases designed to evoke the right feeling and response from voters. In the words of a former Prime Minister, that ‘vision thing’ is lacking from politics. Our depressive society cannot believe that there can be any great ideas or leaders.

There is one example that I can call to mind, which illustrates perfectly the current low level of personality based politics. During a wartime debate in Parliament Winston Churchill was accused by an opposition MP Bessie Braddock of being drunk. He replied that ‘I may be drunk now, but I shall be sober in the morning, you are ugly now and shall still be ugly in the morning’. The sexist language is no longer acceptable but the important fact is many people in Westminster and the press where aware that he had a serious drink habit, yet it was considered of no significance. What mattered were the outstanding qualities he embodied as national leader. Churchill was also subject to intense periods of depression, periods he referred to as the black dog’. Today a rival would have leaked stories to the press about his drinking and depression ensuring that he would never get anywhere near the leadership of the country.

A more current example illustrates how a political career can be destroyed through gossip. Charles Kennedy as leader of the Liberal Democrats took the party from being an insignificant fringe party to the centre of British politics. He increased the number of the parties MPs from less than twenty to over sixty. Unfortunately he as with Winston Churchill had a serious drink problem. A problem which destroyed his career in these timid times. His rivals leaked stories about his drink related problems and he was forced to resign the leadership. After rejecting the next leader for being old, they selected a leader fit for the times. He was a very presentable young man who was a devoted father and good husband. This leader displayed such a lack of political acumen that he led the party to disaster at the polls. Now the total number of Liberal MPs could be comfortably be seated in a small family car. The party rivals by focusing on Charles Kennedy’s weakness, were able to obscure the fact that he was an inspiring and effective leader, who in spite of his drinking towered above his rivals. Charles Kennedy’s rivals were able to leak stories about his drinking problems to a press that saw an MPs vices as the story, not his politics. It is true as had been said that the British press rarely ventures out of the gutter in which it habitually wallows. Only a society with no confidence in itself would think that politicians foibles rather than policies are the main story.

There is an interesting historical comparison. In the dog days of Athenian democracy, when it was in decline, politicians stopped attacking each other’s policies and instead attacked their rivals by claiming their bad behaviour in their personal life made them unfit for high office. These politicians planted informers within the entourage of their political rivals. These informers would report salacious stories about these men to their employers. Political careers were destroyed on the basis of what can only be called malicious gossip. A situation not unlike today’s Britain were the informers are political rivals in the same party ever eager to leak damaging stories to the press. These stories are then published in the news media and a run of bad stories can ruin a politicians career. Today’s politicians have delegated the role of destroying political rivals through the publishing of malicious stories to the press. It is the press not politicians than determine the success or otherwise of a politicians career. These stories can be quite trivial in nature but the cumulative effect is the destruction of a career. One such example this trivia is the leaking to press of stories that a particular senior politician had a quick temper and threw staplers at his staff. A story that was totally irrelevant to his leadership capabilities. Unfortunately in today’s Britain politicians prefer to destroy their rivals anonymously through the leaking of malicious stories than through open debate.

Suggesting British society is going through a period of collective depression is unusual, but I can think of no other equally valid metaphor that can be used to describe Britain today. Only a society in this strange mood which can see nothing good in their politicians, a country in which the least bad are chosen as our leaders. One characteristic of all our leading politicians is their emphasis on their normality. They never aspire to greatness, oratory has vanished from our politics speeches put the emphasis on their ordinariness they always agree with the generally accepted opinions. The leader of the opposition party is subject to vilification for not going along with the majority view in parliament. When one reads about the actions of the members of his parliamentary party one gets the impression that there is a desire to abandon these challenging policies and retreat the safety of the parliamentary consensus. These MPs have been baying for military intervention in Syria in unison with the members of the governing party, they are afraid of seeming to be different. This fearfulness and the seeking of a security blanket is also typical of depression. The depressed individual seeks to hide from the world, normal social intercourse becomes difficult. There is also a desire for the peace of anonymity, a desire not to stand out. All characteristics of the current political classes.

All to often commentators speak of the loss of hope among the young, as they face a world which is increasing hostile to their aspirations. Yet this loss of hope is common to all levels of society, but particularly among the political classes. They also lack in the future, they lack the confidence to introduce for example radical policies on climate change. A selection of policy proposals from the last election demonstrate this timidity, rather than offering private rental tenants security of tenure, they were to be given the right to ask for it from their landlord after a certain period of time. Rather than ban zero hour contracts the employer would be given the right after twelve weeks to ask to be given permanent contract. Taking the last one it is obvious that employers would dismiss staff after eleven weeks to avoid having to offer that a permanent position in the workforce. Probably the same employer would after having given an enforced break to their employees, would rehire them on a new eleven week contract. A good example of promising to alleviate a major social ill, while in fact doing nothing to change the situation. What could be a better example of the mood of hopelessness that infects the mood of politicians.

Often it is the young who are cited as having no hope, which may be true but its more true of our political classes. They as with the depressed individual have lost hope and believe it hopelessly misguided to think they can do anything to improve the situation. They as with the depressive see themselves as helpless pawns who are the playthings of greater forces, such leaders lack the self belief to implement changes necessary to arrest the slow decline of this country economy a decline that will see the living standards of the majority fall towards those prevalent in the less developed economies. Already this country’s fall from major power status is obvious, as it can only provide six ageing fighter bombers for the campaign against Isis.