Tag Archives: elites

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.

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I am a person not a shopper

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Shopping is unfortunately the prism through which the government now views the people. People have one fundamental right and that is to be consumers. What matters is not that the government should provide high quality public services, but to provide a choice of service providers. Changes in education and health are intended to present the consumer with an array of services from different providers so they can choose the service that most meets their needs. Economists are responsible for this nonsense. Having advised governments that choice and competition are the mechanisms best fitted to provide good public service, they forgot to mention that economy theory states that this market mechanism only works if consumers have perfect knowledge. When buying vegetables it is possible to judge what is the best potato but the same cannot apply purchasing medical services. How can I know what is the best possible medical care for what may be life threatening illnesses or even know what illness effects me? When given the choice of five medical providers for my eye surgery, I had no idea which to choose. I lacked the knowledge to be able to choose the best provider. What I did was ask the optician which were the best. All she could say was that a previous patient had been a doctor and he choose this one, and in my ignorance I copied the example of the doctor.

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How did this become the accepted public policy? Baby boomers are blamed for many things unfairly, but the economists and politicians of this generation are to blame for this policy nonsense. As a member of this generation I can give an insight into this malaise. The sixties generation are often described incorrectly as the generation of ‘free love’, sexual and social liberation. What is less often acknowledged is that this is the generation that gave up on serious thought. It was not so much that this generation became obsessed with the new sensual delights of drugs and rock and roll, but their dropping of old difficult belief systems in favour of a new simpler techo-scientific belief system. A system that would deliver ‘real’ solutions to the problems facing the world. Unrealistic and unworldly ideologies such as socialism which never delivered on their impossible promises were replaced by a belief in a hard edged social realism. A dogmatic belief system called Neo-Liberalism, as one politician said it is the only game in town.

This hard edged belief system was one disseminated downwards from the social and intellectual elite. The intellectual elite schooled the new and up and coming political elite and the mass media disseminated it into wider society. Usually by highlighting the horrors of the old ways, ‘the winter of discontent’ and by simultaneously giving over column inches to the gurus and prophets of the new politics.

I as a student in London University witnessed the early stages of this new inhumane ideology. The economics professors were teaching that the dominant humane system of social democracy was wrong it gave people an unrealistic expectation of what the state could do. Two of our professors expounded the then shocking view that unemployment was too low and must increase if the economy was to grow. Yet they were part of the generation that lived through the Great Depression.

Unknown to us at the time was that the new theory of cost benefit analysis as taught then would prove a useful tool for destroying social democracy. It would replace the more subtle and complex ethical thinking of the past with the crude simplicities of technical analysis. All the benefits of living in a civilised society are difficult to price, because they are all too often the intangible benefits of the mind. Yet just as real as the material benefits. How can the deleterious effects of the noise nuisance caused by a third runway at Heathrow airport be priced? Only by indulging in a series of thought experiments can such harmful experiences be priced and by any reckoning such reasoning lacks any really sound underpinning in the reality of people’s lives. It is much easier to calculate the benefits in terms of increased passenger flights and cargo deliveries. They can easily be priced and the value of increased air traffic is calculated on a much sounder basis than the cash cost of noise pollution, so it is hardly a surprise that cost benefit analysis usually turns out to favour the proposed development. The benefits of a good life cannot be priced, they can only be part of a moral calculus. Fortunately for the developer cost benefit analysis avoids any such difficult problems.

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What was disseminated outwards from the universities was the new culture of ‘not thinking’. Calculation would replace open debate, values were dismissed as distractions that prevented a realistic assessment of the issues. Ostrogorki would shudder to think to his study how the Conservative party of the 19th century used various tricks to manipulate the popular prejudice to win elections would lead change they nature of politics teaching. Political philosophy would be replaced by the study of the means of manipulating the popular vote. The science of calculation would replace the discussion of values. Values other than those as an embodied in an ideology to get out the vote were to be regarded as an irrelevance. Politics became nothing more than the study of the mechanics of politics. As a significant number of the dominant politicians studied PPE at an elite university, it left them ill prepared for the great debates than dominate contemporary politics.

There is a danger of over stating the influence of the ‘new intellectuals’ in shaping the nations thought. Higher education has to a large extent in the UK been part of the interlocking system of social elites that govern this country, educating the members of the new political elites. The new science of ‘realism’ suited the needs of the social elite who felt their interests had been ignored and disregarded by the social democratic settlement of the post war period. A teaching of humanities that regarded calculation as the supreme virtue suited their interests as any course such as philosophy that embodied a teaching of values would expose them as a privileged elite whose position lacked any moral justification. Isaiah Berlin the great political philosopher once wrote that there could be no such thing as a right wing philosophy. No moral virtue attaches to the abuse of power and privilege.

It was no coincidence that when this group achieved overwhelming political power with the conservative governments of the 1980’s they ordered a purge of the universities, the thinking departments were to be closed. Philosophy departments shut in many universities and the liberal arts were starved of resources so as to reinforce their new second class status. Instead the humanities were to be replaced with the new ‘non thinking’ subject, business studies. A subject in which students are to be taught to do business, not to think. It is no surprise that students are beginning to rebel against the dullness and enforcement conformity of thinking that characterises British universities.

North Korea is mocked for the peculiarities of the most authoritarian of systems that cannot tolerate even the most innocuous of dissent. Even to the extent of limiting its barbers to a few approved types of hair styles. What its leaders should instead do is copy the example of the UK, the country of ‘not thinking’. People are not forced to become model citizens of the people’s republic, but have been taught to express themselves as shoppers. A much more complex interplay of forces have made the non critical culture the popular culture. Great cultural events have now become little more than festivals of shopping.

This is demonstrated by the two so called insurgent parties in the USA and the UK, where the dissent or insurgency is more confected than real. UKIP the insurgency party is funded by a millionaire, its leader is a former investment banker, one of the new privileged elite. Its policies are those intended to protect the interests of the privileged elite. The withdrawal from Europe is really a wish to withdraw from the EU regulations that control business, such as the working hours directive. Limiting immigration is a popular policy but immigration has become less necessary for business as the organised labour has been effectively destroyed and employers can now treat the indigenous population as badly as it likes so there is less need for cheap easily exploited foreign labour. Other policy measures such as the introduction of a 10% flat rate of income tax and the privatisation of the NHS are contrary to public interest. What can demonstrate more clearly a ‘non thinking’ culture than one in which the popular party is the one that has absolutely no interest in the welfare of the people, who it claims to represent.