Tag Archives: Les Miserables

A God for an Economist

Whenever I confess my belief in a God my friends are incredulous. They cannot understand how a person who they consider an intelligent rational thinker can believe in such a superstition. What makes my position seem even more ludicrous is that I am a negative theologian, that is I believe that God in his essence is unknowable. Bertrand Russell pointed out that is illogical to believe in something or someone that is unknowable as a knowledge of such a being is impossible, it’s a logical contradiction. How could you know if you did not know? However I want to turn these arguments on their head. As an economist I talk about the economy but I as with my thousands of fellow economists don’t really know what the economy is in its essence. I can talk about markets, the balance of payments but they are only certain highly visible parts of the economy. Classical economists and those of a Neo-Liberal persuasion will claim that the economy consists of a number of inter related markets. The falsity of this claim is demonstrated by this simple truth, if economists understood the true nature of the economy they would have at their disposal all the tools necessary to manage and control the economy. Economic crises would disappear instead of occurring at regular intervals and the economy would be on continuous trajectory of growth. The welfare of all would be maximised. History demonstrates the fallibility of economists, all to often they get it wrong. It should not be forgotten that when the financial crisis struck in 2008, the majority of economists were caught by surprise. Only a small minority expected a crisis, but they were a small disregarded and isolated minority.

I do then believe in the existence of two entities neither of which I can really know in essence. It can be argued that while I may not understand the real nature of the economy, I am every day affected by the reality of it, it is not something that I cannot ignore, it is just there. The economy generates the tax revenues from which my pension is funded, everyday I participate in this self same economy that has the shops and chains of distribution from which I buy the essentials and good things that make my life bearable. One such good thing is the cappuccino that I buy daily at my local Salumeria. Similarly nobody would deny that they are affected by the good and bad actions of others. What hurts most, being betrayed by a friend or being unable to buy the latest IPhone through lack of funds? We all participate daily in a network of relationships whose nature determines our sense of well being. However whether they are defined as spiteful, hurtful, mean, bad or evil actions, the consequences of such actions can be devastating for the victim, more so than any economic loss. Similarly friendly, helpful, kind or good actions can transform the life of the beneficiary of such actions.

Fiction provides the classic example of a life transforming good action. The Priest in ‘Les Miserables’ who forgives Jean Valjean for his theft of the church’s candle sticks. If he had not forgiven him, Jean Valjean would have been sent back to the prison galleys where he would have lived out a short and wretched life. Human relationships can be explained or described in many terms, but all too often they are permeated with a sense of good and bad. Theologians such as myself identify that sense of good with God.

There is a tradition of Christian Neo-Platonism that goes back to St.Augustine, a tradition to which I belong that identifies God with the Good. Identifying God with the good, transforms God into a solely moral entity, an identification which I find sufficient. God as the Good, that is the source of that sense of goodness that informs all moral actions. Constantly we speak of good actions that is actions which have in common that thing which we call good. Yet this good is indefinable except through descriptions of good actions. It is this indefinable essence that theologians such as myself call God.

Describing good as a moral sense derived from God is a pre modern concept, but one that is given a contemporary guise by the theologian Caputo. God he sees as a weak God in the sense that his is a God of moral sensibilities not power. This weak God exists outside human society but is constantly pushing in and that pushing in takes the form of a pushing in of moral sensibilities. Sensibilities which mankind is free to accept or reject. Given that all accept that good in its essence is indefinable I see this explanation of the origin of good as the most acceptable. Neither Caputo or I know God but we both know God as this moral sense or good itself. This to me is the most acceptable explanation of the existence of that moral sense known as the good. This understanding of good and the nature of God is a myth in the Platonic sense. It is a truth than can only be spoken of in terms of a myth, the myth of a weak but moral God, exist beyond but in constant contact with human society. Framing truths in mythological terms does not make them less true. Some truths because of their nature cannot be explained in other than the language of religious mythology.

There is a simple story that explains my reasoning. Heidegger was one the greatest 20th century German philosophers, the one who subjected the nature of being (humanity) to forensic scrutiny, yet he almost completely lacked any moral sense. When Hitler came to power he became an enthusiast for the Nazis. He refused to help his Jewish lover Hannah Arendt, he in fact abandoned her to her fate. Fortunately she was able to escape to the USA, but with no help from Heidegger. This supreme rationalist thinker eagerly participated in all the intellectual nonsense propagated by the Nazi regime. He believed that the of the philosophy of ‘sturm und drang’ captured the essence of the Germanic nation. A man who never understood why after the Second World War that is was right that he should be excluded from teaching in German universities. In contrast to him there was the lesser philosopher the catholic Jaspers, who opposed the Nazis and had to flee to Switzerland. What cannot be denied is that Jaspers moral sense was greater than Heidegger’s, although he was the inferior thinker. Jaspers had far more of the nature of goodness about him than did Heidegger. Hannah Arendt later described Heidegger as a man devoid of any moral sense. Perhaps because Jaspers knew that myth was a valid means of demonstrating truth, that he was able to comprehend the true meaning of the Christian myths and resist the evil of Nazism. An understanding denied to a purely rational thinker such as Heidegger.

At the end of his life Heidegger began to turn away from rationalism and began to look for truth as expressed in poetry. He found truth in the poetry of Rilke and Holderlin that was absent from his great work of philosophy ‘Being and Time’. This new searching for truth found him attending Sunday Mass at his local Catholic Church.

If I give an identity to good surely it is necessary to give an identity to evil, a theology such as mine requires a devil as the personification of evil. Admitting the existence of the devil would take my theology back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately Augustine provides an answer as to why there is evil in the world without needing to reference a devil. Evil acts according to Augustine are undertaken by those who do not know good or God. Rather than evil being a thing it is a not knowing, a not knowing God. Men with no moral reference points commit bad acts, because they have no knowledge of good. Knowing good means more than just knowing the word, it a knowing that penetrates the very fibre of existence. It’s a knowing that involves changing one’s persona according to the strictures of good or God. As Plato said once you know good you will not wish to do evil. The most extreme practice for the knowing of good was that undertaken by the hermits such as St. Anthony who spent a lifetime as a hermit living in exile in the desert struggling to know God or good. However Kierkegaard provides a more achievable alternative, he recognises the frailty of human nature. A Christian life for Kierkegaard is one of slipping in and out of that ecstatic knowing if God (good), it is impossible he says to constantly be know good, as we are all moral backsliders. In Augustine’s word we are the ‘not so good, saints but our actions are influenced by our understanding of the good.

The problem with theology as with philosophy is that once one starts to unpick the ideas that make up the content of the subject, the investigation into their significance and meaning can be endless. Rather than undertake such an investigation I prefer to state that this theologian and economist finds it sufficient to identify God with that moral sense we know as good. Other understandings of God are unnecessary, God might be a creator God, the Triune God (the one in three God) or the God that brings the world to an end at the end of days, but they are all irrelevant to how I act. They are questions that I don’t need answering. To put it in the language of the past I am an adept in two separate spheres of knowledge the non rational knowing of God and the rational understanding of economy. As with Jaspers I subordinate the knowledge of the second to the first, as moral sensibility must always take precedence over and inform my rational thinking. Never unlike many current economists and politicians could I subscribe to Says Law which states that in any recession unemployment and falling wages must be allowed to continue until the wages of the unemployed as so low that they price themselves back into employment. The misery that is consequent on adopting this policy disqualifies it as a viable policy option. How can it be right in a rich country such as Britain to have children going hungry and living in squalor? Yet our political class practises a more sophisticated version of Says law under the cover of globalisation, which states that to keep people in work in face of competition abroad it is necessary to reduce incomes to the lowest level to retain employment in this country. There are many alternative policies which could be adopted with better outcomes for all but which are never considered.


Les Miserables and the economics of revolution

Towards the end of the film ‘Les Miserables’ there is a very moving scene in which the young radical students who rose in revolt against the government are shot by the police. The revolt is doomed to failure as they fail to gain the support of the wider Parisian population and the authorities are easily able to suppress this uprising. This is the popular perception of revolution, that is a futile uprising by the young against the tyranny of the old order one that is easily put down by the authorities. Any history of the 19th century consists of a long list of failed uprising, the Poles in particular participated in number of uprisings against their Russian overlords, all of which ended in its participants being imprisoned or going into exile. However this is a misunderstanding of the nature of revolution, the successful ones usually don’t involve violence and generally take place over a number of years. What I mean by revolution is the shift in people’s attitudes that can be best described as a sea change in their behaviour and attitudes. 
Revolution of the Right
Often this type of revolution is initiated by the right, as instanced by the successful revolution by the right against the welfare state. If Britain is taken as an example when the welfare state was introduced it was seen as a bulwark against the twin evils of sickness and unemployment. It was seen as an individual right that the state should provide an income for those unemployed through sickness or bad luck. The political right in Britain never really concealed their dislike of the welfare state principally because they saw it as an injustice, that the rich were expected to pay more tax than the poor to fund welfare programmes. They ceaselessly campaigned against the iniquities of the welfare state. Now they have practically succeeded, welfare payments are now seem as benefits to a group of undesirables the work shy. The emphasis now is on reducing benefits and targeting the claimants with sanctions to force them into work. Only last week the welfare minister announced to general a claim that he would target the disabled forcing more of them to take work, through making it harder to claim benefits and by reducing individual welfare payments. The assumption is that by making life progressively more difficult for them, they will take up employment to avoid the unpleasantness of life on benefit. As one who has worked with disabled people, I can only see this minister as an uncaring monster largely lacking the human traits of empathy and compassion.
Now the philosophies of such as Ayn Rand are the guides to life for the decision makers in society. While it may seem harsh to suggest that a writer who would welcome the death by starvation of hundreds of the useless poor provides the distorting ideological glass through which these people view the world, evidence suggests otherwise. Recently our rulers withdrew the Royal Navy from the task of rescuing refugees adrift in the Mediterranean, on the grounds that by making the journey across the sea safe it would encourage migrants to attempt the crossing. The unspoken assumption was that if some refugees drowned at sea it would discourage the rest from trying to enter Europe. This policy was not questioned by any of the opposition leaders, so demonstrating that the spirit of Ayn Rand flows through our the veins of all our political leaders. Now it is ‘cool’ to be uncaring, as this is regarded as hard nosed realism, as distinct from the naive sensitivity of the political left. 

Revolutions of the Left

Unlike revolutions of the right which are initiated at the top of society, revolutions of the left are initiated by those in the middle and lower orders of society. This means that they are inevitably doomed to failure as the top orders of society command the instruments of power. The legal system can be directed against the insurgents. Imprisonment being but one of the means of suppressing such people. Yet such revolutions are not futile even if they end in defeat. They can despite their repeated failures change the nature of society and ultimately achieve their desired ends. This can be demonstrated through a metaphor, these revolutionary movements are as a wave from the sea smashing against a rock, the rock at first repulses the wave leaving it to fall back into the sea, yet the constant pounding sea will eventually destroy the rock. Similarly while the revolutionary movements of the left are initially doomed to failure, they can through insurgencies change society. By revolutionary surges I don’t mean violent revolution, so much as oppositional social movements which constantly rise and fall, but which eventually undermine the existing social structure, which leads to change.

The sea metaphor has further applications. British society at present resembles a placid sea but which under the surface there are currents swirling which can change the nature of the sea. One such current which has surfaced in the insurgency which threatens the Labour party. In the current elections to find a new leader it is the outsider Jeremy Corbyn who seems to have an unassailable lead in the contest. He represents a very different politics to that of the main stream party, a politics well to the left of the current parliamentary consensus. It is quite likely if elected his term as leader will be brief, as the parliamentary party will find means of rejecting a leader they don’t want. However he is representative of a much larger social movement, a left insurgency that rejects the harsh austerity programmes endorsed by the parliamentary party. This current which is sweeping through the party will change it whatever happens in the leadership contest. There are other similar examples of insurgency in Europe such Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Whether these individual insurgencies succeed or fail, what matters is that the initial process of undermining the unequal social order has begun.  
Then there is in the USA the ‘Fast Food Forward’ campaign whose aim is to secure a national minimum wage of $15 an hour, if it succeeds it will transform US society and economy, it is yet another insurgent movement. What these movements have in common is that they form outside the political system, as that system is constructed so as to prevent change, rather than facilitate it. Change of this significance will only take place in response to change from outside the political process. The established political process is dominated by the dogmatists who believe that the existing social and economic order is the the best possible one as it is founded on the universal truth of the free market. Politicians believe their only role is to implement changes to make the market system work more effectively, keep things as they are and if necessary repress those movements campaigning for change.

The economics of change and revolution

Society comprises of competing social groups with conflicting claims on its wealth. Rather than stable social order organised around one universal organising principle  that of the free market, it is a kaleidoscope of competing different groups all wanting very different orderings of the social system and its wealth. Society at best is the ring in which these groups compete, but according to rules of the competition.  Violence for example as a means of effecting change is ruled out. However if the dominant group refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the competing groups and tries to suppress them, violence will be resorted to as the social order or the rules of co-existence have been destroyed by the dominant social group.

Economics to have any relevance must be a dynamic subject one that can accept change, not a subject that believes that it has found the holy grail of social existence in the free market. It must recognise that the society of today can be very different from that of yesterday and so should accommodate that change. Economics cannot be a subject of universal truths, but one of partial truths, it must establish which of those truths in its current content list can be used in the study of different societies. A modest subject that seeks to find truths in very different economic and social systems, rather than have a universal blue print to which all societies and economic systems must conform.