Tag Archives: Neo-Platonism

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.

Why economists would benefit from a little Christian sensitivity

Why do economists need a Christian sensitivity? The obvious answer would be to instil in them a sense of compassion, while the suffering caused by economics does not compare to that caused by the most brutal of political ideologies it is on the same suffering causing spectrum. The spirit of the Reverend Malthus has always inspired economists and never more so than today. Population growth he believed would always tend to outstrip the resources needed to food, clothe etc. the ever growing population. Therefore his first conclusion was that there must always be the poor, as there was never sufficient wealth in any economy to enable all to have an adequate standard of living. He also saw disease, famine and war as the saviours of mankind as they kept the population within bounds. While economists particularly those in the British Treasury have persuaded politicians of the need for the first, they have not yet tried to persuade of the need for the second. There is another answer and that is economics is one of the best examples of arrested thinking, so common in contemporary Britain. What concerns me is the immaturity of thinking of contemporary economists, their overly simplistic reasoning.

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The inspiration for my reasoning is Kierkegaard (Fear and Trembling), in that book he bemoans the practice of Christianity in 19th century Denmark. He writes that the Christian intelligentsia regarded an afternoons reading as sufficient to acquaint them with the essentials of Christianity. This he compares unfavourably with the Christian Fathers who spent a lifetime trying to understand Christianity and who even at the end of there life said their understanding was limited and flawed. Just like Kierkegaard’s Christian intelligentsia economists suffer from the same intellectual arrogance. They just know, they have at hand the answer to all society’s problems. The comment that the answer was worked out on the back of an envelope is intended as an insult but with economists as a statement, the truth of economics can be distilled down to a few sentences that could be written on the back of an envelope. The best metaphor that describes contemporary economics is that it arrested thinking that has never really progressed beyond that if the schoolboy. This school thinking is demonstrated in the words of the Shadow Chancellor, who spoke with glee when he said his cuts to public spending would leave the public sector reduced to its bleeding stumps. As with a schoolboy no thought of the consequences of his actions for the people of an austerity hit economy. Military terminology can be applied as for the modern economist the people are unfortunate collateral damage, who suffer for some greater good.

Economics unlike contemporary theology is a closed subject, the truths are already known and its the work of the economist to apply those known truths correctly in their analysis of any given problem. In a closed subject such as economics, no new thinking is needed because all the fundamental truths have been discovered, all that is required is some tinkering to achieve perfection. Theology by contrast is an open subject, all the truths are not known and those that are are but imperfectly known. It would be ridiculous for any theologian to claim to know the mind of God, yet Christianity has been a closed subject many times in the past, when it claimed this knowledge. It has an unfortunate past record of persecuting and killing those who did not accept the acknowledged truth. Galileo Galilee was silenced by the church for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, that the earth was the centre of the earth, by the simple expedient of showing him the instruments of torture. Unlike my predecessors as a theologian I claim to know little about God, I am a negative theologian a theologian who admits that God is unknowable. However this does not mean negative theologians have no knowledge of God. They have knowledge of the presence of God in human society, the means by which the unknown makes themselves known. They can glimpse aspects of God’s nature and explain it to others. The aspect of God that I know is the good, the good that characterises all good actions. Good can never be explained except through good actions and as a Neo-Platonist I believe that within all these good actions, there runs an indefinable good. It is a good I know but whose essence I can never adequately explain. All I would claim is that I know something of God’s nature as in is known through the medium of human existence. I am looking through a very dark glass which obscures most of the truth, what a much better theologian than myself called the ‘cloud of unknowing’. What I do know is the limits of my knowledge. I only know a little of one aspect of God’s nature and I shall spent a lifetime trying to develop that understanding.This is unlike an economist who does know and they even know what forms of economics are in error, something I would never claim about other religions. To paraphrase Uriah Heep, I am ever so humble, whereas the good economist possesses the arrogance of truth.

A negative theologian such as myself is keenly aware of the limitations of their knowledge, whereas all economists are positive theologians, who are aware that they know everything and have little if anything to learn about the world. Whereas the truth is the opposite the theologians have spent centuries studying the nature of God and the few truths they know are greater than the imagined truth of economics. Economists have discovered one economic truth, the market and having achieved that they think they know all economics. What they need instead is the perspective of the negative theologian, which one of ignorance. The truths of theology are but a small part of the truths of Christianity, and therefore they are open to any approach that might shed new light on the ultimate truths. Economics needs similar enlightenment it needs to seek new ways to go beyond the few truths it has discovered. When doing a thousand piece jigsaw I always try to fit together first the pieces that make up the edge of the jigsaw and give it its shape. Having put together the outline it is tempting to think that the main task has been done, yet the jigsaw remains a hollow square, with most of the content missing. Economists are in the same position they have some awareness of the outline of the economy, but they are largely ignorant of its content. The pieces that make up the content are missing from the jigsaw economy. Only arrogance prevents them from seeing the truth. What economists lack is humility, if they acquired this very Christian virtue the practice of economics would improve immeasurably.