Tag Archives: #liberty

The Lazy Greek A Contemporary Myth

The Myth

When I first went to Greece several years ago I bought like many visitors a guide book. There was in that guidebook a picture of a group of  Greek men at a table in a cafe idling away the time and playing back gammon and drinking coffee. I imagine that image or similar appeared in several guide books and is responsible for the image that most northern European’s now have of the Greeks, that is a people who spent hours idling their time away gossiping.

There are many erroneous stories circulating in the press about work shy Greeks, but I intend just to focus on one, that is the pensions story. This one unlike many others appears to have an element of truth.One the reasons the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has given for pulling out of the current negotiations is that the Greeks extend further financial support to Greece is their refusal to reduce the size of their pension bill. At present the pension bill accounts for 10% of GDP, while the average for European member states is 2%. It seems from this that the Greeks are molly coddling their pensioners by paying than far more than other states pay. However this ignores two key facts and the first is that the austerity measures imposed on Greece have reduced the size of the economy by 25% which means if the economy shrinks and the pension bill remains the same, it will become a proportionately greater share of the GDP.  If this is taken into account in pre austerity Greece the pension bill would have been about 6.5% of GDP, a figure not too different from that of the UK and Germany. Also this 2% average is a figure much reduced by the minimal pensions paid in many of the new Eastern European states. These states pay minimal pensions or none to their retired and this drags down the European average.  It does seem that the EU and its member states want to push Greek pensioners not poverty through reducing their pensions  to a nearer the Bulgarian average . Any astute observer would have noticed that reports in the newspapers that pensions in Greece had been reduced so much in response to the demands of the EU that most represented more than the lowest of living wages.

What the EU seems to doing is using Greece as a template for a Europe that is fit for bankers and big corporations but unfit for people. This is not to deny that there is much that is wrong with the Greek economy, but that the wrong problems are identified and the solutions that are imposed to solve the problem are the wrong ones because they are addressing the wrong problems. The austerity programme can be best explained by the use of metaphor, the programme has wrecked a badly built but functioning house and left it its place nothing but some waste land.

In Praise of the Greeks

What economists particularly those in government employ forget is one of the first lessons they learnt,   which s that wealth is anything that is valued by people. Economists much prefer wealth that  can be measured in monetary terms and don’t factor into account in their calculations, wealth that lacks monetary values, yet this wealth can regarded as equally valuable by its receipts. If out of work time was not valued, people would want to work as many hours as possible. Instead much to the frustration of employers they want time at home with family or friends or just leisure time to enjoy.  In consequence there has been a move in northern Europe to increase the economic cost of out of time work to high as possible, so as to discourage workers from taking it. This has been achieved by reducing wages (particularly in Britain) so employees are forced to work for many more hours to earn a living wage. Employers have persuaded successive governments to weaken all the protections that workers formerly enjoyed at work. This means that workers with insecure employment, who are in fear of losing their jobs are much more willing to sacrifice their out of work time to meet the employers demands. Workers for instance on zero hours contracts in Britain risk not getting work ,if they refuse their employers request to come into work, no matter how unreasonable the request. Greece represents a throw back to the time when workers had rights, the right to refuse to adopt modern flexible working practices.

It looks to the politicians of Northern Europe and the USA that Greek society as a whole is conspiring to prevent the obvious and much needed structural reforms, most especially in the labour market. Labour flexibility means in simple terms that workers are at the disposal of their employers, who can use them in what to the most efficient ways, unrestricted by trade unions, politicians or culture. This can mean as in Britain that a split shift system is employed, so staff are only called in at busy times, times such as early morning or evening when the family needs the working parent most. Therefore in a low productivity society such as Greece it was obvious that it would incur debt problems, as it was paying its workers too much for too little work. Greece needed to be carried kicking and screaming into the modern age. Once Greece had adopted the reforms so desired by the Northern Europeans it’s newly productive workforce would produce the surplus goods for export which would reduce the deficit.

Part of the same story was that as the Greeks were paying themselves too much and as the local economy did not produce enough to satisfy their demand, they turned to buying goods from abroad. This obviously created a trade deficit, and the solution to the problems of debt addicted Greeks was to cut their incomes. Incomes were reduced by cutting average wages, reducing pensions and welfare payment and finally the cruelest measure reducing people’s income to poverty levels through unemployment. This shock treatment was deemed essential to reduce the deficit.

There goes unremarked another story, that a large part of Greece’s debt problems had little to do with Greeks over paying themselves or doing too little work. German and other European banks had huge surpluses of cash and rather than invest those funds in industry with it’s relatively long pay back time, they wanted an alternative that generated quick returns. Only speculative investments in property and other assets can earn the big returns, so the German banks in particular made huge speculative investments in the Greek property market . When the financial bubble burst in 2008/9 these banks had potentially lost millions of euros in foolish property investments. They were saved by the European Central Bank who lent millions of Euros to the Greek government to bail out is stricken banks, who were holding millions of euros of worthless investments. Then through a clever sleight of hand these debts were no longer those of the banks but those of the government, as the European money was given to the banks to bail them out, but it now counted as  a government debt. This made it much easier to portray the Greek problem as that of feckless Greeks and not foolish German bankers.

While it is hard to argue that the austerity imposed on Greece which has caused national income to fall by 25% and increased youth unemployment to 50% has been a success. What matters is how this story is portrayed, which is that if you give the workers too many rights and privileges they will abuse them and the economy will lapse into chaos. This is why it matters that British newspapers print nonsensical stories about young women marrying old men so as to earn an entitlement to a lifetime income. There are many similar stories in the British media about the feckless Greeks, which have convinced the British that the problems of Greece are all its own fault. Greece is a useful horror story to be used by employers and governments when workers claim addition rights and protection against abusive employers. They can claim that when workers get too many right they abuse them and the result is national bankruptcy. If workers are given few rights and protections they must understand it is in their own interest and they won’t use them responsibly. In Britain all three major parties accept this mantra and when the last government  restricted workers access to employment tribunals on the grounds that all these needless appeals against dismissal   were costing the employers millions of pounds, this change was understood as necessary by all three main political parties.

Why a paean of praise for the Greeks, a country with one of the worst performing economies in Europe even before the financial crash? One reason they put a higher valuation on non monetary wealth, workers did retire early but this was symptomatic of a country that valued its people above its output. The patronage system did lead to abuses such as over employment, when too many party loyalists were employed in public sector jobs. Yet for whatever its faults it valued its people, compared to their British counterparts they had security of employment and could look forward to a well paid retirement.

Human society is not a perfectible creation, whatever the society there are always problems. What I am stating is that Greek society for all its faults found one of the answers to the problems that society faces. It was a society that attained a more equitable division between non monetary or material wealth and material wealth.  Greeks because of the unique nature of their society were able to enjoy a much higher standard of non material wealth than their Northern European counterparts. It is perhaps no coincidence that Greece as with the southern European nations family relationships flourish they are the nations of the extended family. Only in the Anglo-Saxon country such as the USA could somebody write a book called “Bowling Alone” a book about the loneliness of contemporary life. In Britain the nation of overwork and underpay family breakup is at record levels, with some estimate suggesting that under current trends 1 in 2 marriages will end in divorce. Countries such as the USA and Britain that put little value on non monetary or non work wealth have some of the most serious problems of social disharmony.

In Praise of Idleness

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Aristotle writes an the end of the ‘Ethics’ that the greatest possible human good is contemplation, a life lived remote from endless activity. Another example of the benefits attributable to idleness is the life of Socrates, possibly the greatest of the Greek philosophers. He gave up his work as a stonemason to engage the citizens of Athens in discussions on philosophy. He wanted to educate them as to the real nature of good and so reform the behaviour of their behaviours. This meant he neglected his work as a stonemason and his family were left in want. Xanthippe his wife got an unfair reputation as a scold, as was constantly trying to persuade him to work. Despite his neglect of his family Socrates was revered by the citizens of Athens as their greatest teacher. Yet while the ancient Greeks could value leisure as one of the greatest goods, the rich countries of contemporary Europe look on leisure or idleness as an evil. Germany is trying to impose a work culture on the work shy Italians who take three hour lunch breaks. Good is equated with the hard working German labourer not the idle Southern European. What Germany and the European Union is attempting to do is to remove those rights workers have to create in Italy a British style flexible labour market where workers only right is to receive payment for their work. A country where Tesco’s the largest supermarket chain is applauded for scrapping it’s worker’s pension scheme.

There is an unfortunate axiom of business practice which states that if something has to be done, give the task to a busy man. Probably the task will get done sooner but probably not very well. The culture of overwork is now thoroughly embedded in British institutions,and the example I shall give us the one that one I am most familiar and that is teaching. When I started teaching in 1972 the breaks for play and lunch were periods in which teachers got a respite from the students. Children were discouraged from coming to the staff room and disturbing teachers during their rest period. Now any sense of break from work is strictly discouraged, teachers are expected to spend those periods of break on productive activities. Activities defined as productive by the management. The freedom to have time to think and speculate is strictly discouraged; what they don’t want is teachers questioning today’s battery hen methods of educating children. If they can fill teachers time with relatively mindless paper work, they can prevent this questioning and discontent.

Teaching is one of the professions most unsuited the production line methods. Contemporary teaching practise is good at instructing but poor at educating. When I was in teacher training I learnt that the process of learning was incredibly complex and could not be reduced to one simple method of teaching. This truth eludes education managers and politicians who want one simple method of instruction that yields quantitative measurements that can be checked to ensure that teachers are not slacking. What matters now is appearance, work that matches up with some externally imposed standard or concept of goodness and one that is easily recordable. A good teacher is now one that has excellent records, not one that inspires children with the love of a subject.

The problem idleness poses for the economist

Idleness is one human activity that economics have difficultly coming to terms with. For the economist any activity that leads to human satisfaction counts as contributing to human welfare. Socrates sitting at the rivers edge speculating on the nature of philosophy with a friend was enjoying himself and adding to the sum total of human happiness in classical Athens. Yet to the economist this idling by the river adds counts as nothing unless Socrates charges his friend for his time. Then it would be a recordable cash increase in the income of classical Athens. They would not recognise any inconsistency in their reasoning.

Economists have used the concept of opportunity cost to value idleness. They say what would it cost to persuade an individual to give up one hour of leisure time to work for one extra hour. If they demand £20 extra that is the value of leisure to that individual. However it is an inadequate response as in reality the vast majority of workers have little discretion as to whether or not they work extra hours. In contemporary Britain increasing numbers are on poverty level wages and are desperate for any extra hours of work. Often overtime is not at the discretion of the employee but the employer. Not to work overtime can put one’s job in jeopardy, so the coerced worker provides a very bad example of opportunity cost. Also in many of the professions many hours of unpaid overtime is the norm and refusal can harm job prospects or even out one’s job in jeopardy.

Obviously Socrates is an extreme example and reducing his family to penury is not perhaps the best example. Idleness I do believe when taken in moderation is one of the greatest of all human goods. It is a time to reflect and enjoy the pleasure of thinking, which contributes immeasurably to human happiness. The cost benefit analysis of economics has no role in valuing idleness. If sleep is necessary for human welfare and good mental health so is idleness.

The case for idleness

There is another historical example of the benefits of idleness that I would like to cite. Idleness has always been the weapon of choice of the poor and weak in their struggle against the over-powerful. Even the slaves of Rome managed to organise go slows, an action noted as ‘mumurings’. Roman slaves were one of the most oppressed groups in history. Unfortunate slaves could end up in the arena being killed for amusement in gladiatorial contests, yet they discovered an effective weapon of resistance. However the example I want to use is the one quoted by Anthony Beevor’s in his history of a World War II. Officers in the British army in the initial days after D-Day were frustrated by the habit of their men stopping for brew ups and so delaying the advance. He as with these junior officers had a very poor view the quality of the British fighting man. He is writing from the perspective of the officer corp and as so frequently in history ignores the views of the ordinary soldier. He ignores the fact that these officers were often referred to as ‘Ruperts’, a negative comment on their leadership skills. How many men were killed through poorly thought out plans or tactics? What he ignores is the stoicism of the British infantry man, who even when having little confidence in their leaders would attack the enemy regardless. Brew-ups etc. were one of the ways in which the infantryman coped with the horrors of war. Much has been made of the Polish cavalrymen attacking German tanks (which never happened), yet similar incidents occurred in the British retreat to Dunkirk. There on at least one occasion British infantry regiments bayonet charged German tank regiments. Taking time out has been the time honoured way in which the working men coped with the horrors of a situation into which they had no control, as well as being the best method for striking back at their over mighty rulers.

In today’s Britain when workplaces are becoming more and more oppressive, taking time out is is the one way of copping with the stress. It is also an effective way as the Roman slaves demonstrated. Once Britain had trade unions that effectively organised go slows to curb abusive work practices, with an increasingly disaffected labour force and worsening conditions of work perhaps a modern day equivalent of the Roman ‘mumurings’ is needed.

However I want to praise idleness for its liberating effects, when you reflect or idly speculate you are freed from the constraints and oppressions of everyday life. Even the most oppressive of employers cannot control an individual’s thought, only the public expression of that thought. Individuality and human freedom for me is best expressed by Socrates idling the time away with a friend on the river bank on a hot summers day. I see no freedom in the frenzied round of activities of the supper rich who go from one ‘to be seen at’ approved event to another. J.S.Mill defined liberty as the freedom to think free of external constraints, the chance to escape from the thought police.

How to resist the unpleasant culture of Neo-Liberalism

This essay is my answer a question posed to me by my 22 year old daughter. She asked me what can I do to help change this cruel Neo-Liberal society in which we live. I suggested that she get involved with a extra parliamentary campaigning group, extra parliamentary because the parliamentary parties are too compromised in their politics. All in the UK are practitioners of Neo-Liberal politics, none could consider any alternative. However a short conversation between my daughter and myself is not an adequate answer to the question she posed; this is my considered response.

Neo-Liberalism appears impregnable it has captured the commanding heights in British society. All three main parliamentary parties are adherents of this hateful ideology. The example of the private rental housing market demonstrates this; private tenants especially in London endure squalid housing conditions, have little security of tenure and pay exorbitant rents, but all parties do not see this this as a problem requiring urgent remedial action, instead see it as one for inaction, leaving it to the free market to solve the problem. There is not one major politician who is not a free market proselytiser. Changes imposed by various governments have removed from the political scene any organised extra parliamentary opposition. First of all the trade union movement was emasculated and now even the rights of charitable organisations to campaign are being severely limited through government censorship. Gradually Westminster is slowly suppressing any dissenting voices. Governments are reverting back to the bad old practice of inserting police spies into dissenting groups, who then often act as agent provocateurs to goad them into actions that bring discredit on to these groups. However this seemingly impregnable Neo-Liberal edifice of the combination state and big business still remains vulnerable to ideas of an alternative world from the society below.

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What I am trying to suggest is that the very limitations of the cultural values of Neo-Liberalism will be its undoing. There cannot be an immediate overthrow of this culture of the elite, a culture that excludes most human values, but its incompatibility with civilised life will lead to its constant clash with other cultures which will undermine it and inevitably lead to its demise. Today’s papers illustrate this point, communities in constituencies held by loyal Neo-Liberal MP’s are in revolt against the cracking which will be undertaken by the oil industry in their area. Residents of England’s green and pleasant land are horrified by the environmental damage that cracking will cause in their area. Yet the Neo-Liberals in government have given the oil exploration industry carte blanche to do whatever they please in these areas, believing what is good for business is good for society.

Stifling, dull and oppressive are the words I associate with Neo-Liberalism and as such it cannot contain within its boundaries the vitality that is human life. This stultifying dullness is demonstrated in the new university curriculum. Vocationalism, relevance to industry and commerce are the buzz words that are used to describe the new curriculum. But what they hide is a dullness, the emphasis on the non thinking curriculum, a curriculum from which ideas that challenge the orthodoxy are banned. Economists that challenge the orthodoxy are either forced out of the faculty or forced to find work in departments such as geography. One Keynesian economist told me how he had been silenced; he could only get published in economic journals if articles expressed Neo-Liberal ideas any hint of Keynesianism meant it would not get published. As an academic it was essential he got work published, as his continued employment depended on his getting work published. Academics that don’t get published lose out on preferment and are liable to dismissal. This dullness in the academy has begun to produce the stirrings of a student revolt. Students at Manchester University have begun the revolt by demanding the economics curriculum be changed to accommodate alternative economic doctrines. While the complacency of entrenched of the academic economists will enable them to initially resist change, they will have to change if they they not wish to lose the brightest and best of their students to the other social sciences. Once economics becomes seen as the cultural backwater, economists will lose influence and prestige in society.

Theology in the medieval university was the Queen of subjects, but due to the refusal of theologians to do other than cling to the orthodoxy, it got left behind and by the 19th century was an intellectual backwater. All the arrogance of today’s professional economists cannot prevent a similar fate befalling economics.

The only value recognised by Neo-Liberalism is cost benefit, it’s an updating of Oscar Wilde’s line about the cynic who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. A culture that only values arts according to its market price is an incredibly shallow culture. This shallowness is being demonstrated by the culture of the super rich, which is one of excess. What achieves admiration is the conspicuous consumption, what gains the most respect is not the best but the most expensive. To rephrase a biblical expression man cannot live by cash alone, as the example of the Jazz Age shows. In the 1920’s the super rich needed to inject some excitement into their lives, there was only so much over priced champagne that they could buy. It was the music of these poor black musicians that gave them the excitement they craved.

A culture such as Neo-Liberalism lacks creativity it has to be parasitic on other cultures. The music and culture of the young rich is but imported from other more creative social groups. They can produce musicians but their music is derived from other lower income groups. These are Social groups who have to create their own entertainment as they can’t buy it from somebody else. Through importing the music and ideas from the non dominant cultures, Neo-Liberalism will fry at the edges. The edifice will start to crack as they import alien cultural values.

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What I am trying to suggest is that the very limitations of the culture of Neo-Liberalism will be its undoing. There cannot be an immediate overthrow of this culture of the elite as it is too powerfully entrenched, but its incompatibility with civilised life will lead to its constant clash with the culture of alternative and humane values of other groups in society which will undermine it and inevitably lead to its demise. Today’s newspapers illustrate this point, communities in constituencies held by loyal Neo-Liberal MP’s are in revolt against the fracking which will be undertaken by the oil industry in their locality. Residents of England’s green and pleasant land are horrified by the environmental damage that fracking will cause. Yet the Neo-Liberals in government have given the oil exploration industry carte blanche to do whatever they please in these areas, believing what is good for business is good for society.

History also demonstrates that any culture that celebrates the greed of the super rich as its prime moral value ultimately fail. A society that impoverishes the majority and enriches the minority always be inherently unstable, being held together only by a repressive and authoritarian government. It is forgotten that many of the barbarians that sacked Rome were in fact its former disenfranchised citizens of whom many were former slaves. The empires that disappeared from Europe in the twentieth century such as that of Austro-Hungary and the Soviet Union, have not been made anew by their former subjects. Such change takes time but I would encourage all cultural wood worms to continue eating away at the fabric of this rotten society, so it collapses of its own volition.

Possibly this is not the answer my daughter wanted, but my reply in essence is retain an independence of mind and not to be fooled by the propaganda of the Neo-Liberal state. J.S.Mill the great liberal philosophy, defined liberty as being the liberty of thought. His critics dismissed this as a small minded liberty, want they wanted was liberty of speech, freedom of assembly etc. What they failed to realise is that all these follow on from the independence of mind. Why else have autocratic regimes such as the North Korea of Kim Jong-un and the China of Mao Tse-Tung taken such great efforts to control the minds of their subjects.