Tag Archives: Nick Clegg

Stoicism and epicureanism philosophies for today

Recently on radio there was a programme about the Roman philosopher and politician Seneca. What occurred to me was the similarities between the world in which Seneca lived and the one in which I live today. He witnessed the decay of the old Roman Republic into an authoritarian state which was at first ruled by the rich oligarchs, a rule which evolved into the rule of one man the Caesar. Several books I have read suggest that we are living in the last days of liberal democracy and that our political system is being subverted by the rich oligarchs who are turning our society into one that bears strong resemblances to the Rome of the last days of the Republic.

These similarities are no more than that, Britain is not becoming a society ruled by a new class of Caesars. Violence is not employed by the rich oligarchs to destroy their enemies, no opposition politician has suffered the indignity of being murdered and having his skull converted into a wine cup by his enemies. These oligarchs to gain power have used more subtle methods. They have corrupted the legal system with their wealth so all kinds of judicial restraints have been developed to silence their opponents.  One such restraint is the super injunction whereby a powerful individual or business can prevent any reporting or discussion of their alleged wrong doing as it is claimed that it will unfairly damage their reputation. Such stories can remained suppressed for years.  The other powerful weapon wielded by the oligarchs is the destruction of their opponents reputations. This is conducted through the publication of hostile articles in the media, which they largely control. It a weapon whose power cannot be underestimated, as when the politician Nick Clegg was asked to explain why so many MPs voted against their principles and backed the government over its policy to leave Europe, he said that they were scared of ‘The Daily Mail’. While there is no equivalent of the Roman mob who could be incited to attack opponents of the oligarchs there are the internet trolls. They can be whipped up into a frenzy and encouraged to launch virulent attacks on the oligarch’s enemies.

When hearing this programme I wondered if stoics such as Seneca who lived under the cruelest of authoritarian rulers could provide evidence of how to live the good life today in a society which is becoming increasing dominated by rich unpleasant oligarchs.

Stoicism taught that the world was created by logos (the spirit) and that logos remains force which continues to direct the development of the world and humankind. The logos determines everything, so people have a choice either to ignore logos and risk being crushed under its onward movement or change their actions and behaviours to accord with the movements of logos. What stoicism taught was that history was pre-determined and wise individual was the one who accepted their lack of control over their lives, Happiness was gained attained by those who cultivated an air of indifference to those things that they could not control. A person who valued material wealth above all else would suffer great pain from its loss. This cultivation of indifference reaches its extreme limits in the writings of Epictetus. He advises the father not to kiss his son goodnight or show any kind of affection, as that son might be dead by the morning. At its simplest stoicism was a philosophy of pain management. In the Roman society of the Caesars  it was rule by Caesar a capricious individual who if he wished could tomorrow deprive you of your wealth or even your life, therefore one should not be greatly attached to either.

In a society in which social and economic inequality is increasing to such an extent that it is likely that the great majority of people will be poor, in which the poverty that characterised earlier societies will begin to characterise the Britain of tomorrow. Material riches of even the most modest kind will be denied to a majority of people, so an indifference to material wealth will help them cope with a life of relative poverty. People would not be depressed for a lack of things of this world, as they have minimised their attachment to them. However such poverty does bring real suffering and why stoicism will help with managing the discomforts and unpleasantnesses of poverty it is not an answer to pain and suffering. Poverty is not caused by the movements of the logos, but through the greed of the rich oligarchs. A more activist philosophy than stoicism is required.

Stoicism was usually a philosophy of the educated rich. These people who had ample wealth could afford to affect to be indifferent to material wealth, as even under the worst of the Caesars very few of them lost their wealth. The poor of Rome preferred the fairy tale religion of the Olympian Gods. They would turn out in their thousands to celebrate the festivals of the old Gods, as the theatre of these festivals offered them some escape from the misery of their lives.

One positive effect of adopting stoicism as a philosophy would be an ending of the cult of celebrity. All these endless talent shows would lack an audience, as people would not longer see a rags to riches story as real, as celebrity would be due not to talent but the arbitrary movement of the fate. Also a people that attached little value to material wealth would have little interest in programmes which celebrated individual talent as a means to material wealth. Celebrity culture acts as a safety value, it releases the pressure that builds up from social discontent. The poor can be pacified by the fairy tales of celebrity that claim that no matter how poor there are celebrity offers an escape from poverty. People will instead have a keen sense of reality and are less likely to taken in by stories of celebrity success.

Stoicism can perhaps be called the philosophy of unpleasant reality and as such it will always lose out to philosophies of hope. In the Roman Empire such a philosophy of hope was Christianity.  Contemporary Britain lacks such a philosophy of hope which will act as a catalyst of change. There are many alternative philosophies in our society but they do not have the messianic appeal of Christianity with its potential for change.

There is another philosophy that was popular among the Romans of this time and that was epicureanism. This is a much misunderstood philosophy it usually thought of as the philosophy of hedonism, as Epicurus taught that the good life should be one of pleasure. However it was a very different pleasure that he had in mind. Individuals should take pleasure in the essentials of life, pleasure should be derived from enjoying a modest diet, dressing modestly, these things were sufficient to enable the individual to live a good life. If one took pleasure in the luxuries of life, life was reduced to a constant craving for more and more of sensual pleasures and this craving made life one of misery. For Epicurus only a person living a modest life could be described as happy.

Epicureans were often persecuted by the authorities because by only valuing a life lived modestly they threatened a society that valued overindulgence and sensual pleasures in all forms. At Roman meals the rich had vessels placed near the table at which guest could vomit into, so as to make room in their stomachs for more of the extravagant dishes that would be placed before them. They took pleasure in all kinds of sensual pleasures as demonstrated by the popularity of gladiatorial sports. Pleasure was gained from watching the pain and suffering of others. Epicurean philosophy through offering an alternative to the dominant philosophy of excess was seen as a threat to a society that valued excess.

If epicureanism was more widely known, there would be one major beneficial effect. The rich billionaires rather than being celebrated for their wealth, would be seen rather as slaves to it and as such to be pitied. There is one marvellous passage in Thomas More’s Utopia where it is seen as slavish behaviour to wear gold and valuable stones as jewellery or chains of office, they are seen as slaves to their possessions. If the rich billionaires who dominate contemporary society were seen to objects of pity, rather than celebrity, their malign influence on politics would be much reduced. Politicians would not seek out their company and not be so desperate to give them favours.It goes without saying that in contemporary Britain and the US the billionaires can buy policy favours, with what to them is the small change from their pockets. Unfortunately the most successful of our politicians worship wealth and despise modesty. Politics for them is a means to acquiring a substantial fortune.

In today’s papers an open secret is being exposed and that secret is that London is one of the major centres of money laundering for criminal enterprises. In this instance the police forces of Latvia and Moldavia exposed this criminal behaviour of the London banks. It was the poor underfunded police of two poor European countries that exposed this activity, not the well funded City of London police. Perhaps the relative poverty of the police and politicians there means they are of higher moral calibre than those of the UK. Only where wealth is so celebrated as the chief of virtues could such corrupt practices be sanctioned.

Billionaires by their very nature will always seek to corrupt those around them. What is the threat to our democracy is the willingness of our politicians to be corrupted by them.  An annual salary almost three times the median wage in Britain is seen as inadequate by most MPs. Too many of them seek sources of income from outside politics making them susceptible to persuasion or corruption. Now the successful politician is seen to be the one who uses their position to acquire the most wealth; the practice of politics taking second place to money making. Reform has become redefined as making changes in the law or society that benefit the MPs wealthy benefactors. Epicureanism with its emphasis on modesty if more generally accepted would give us a generation of politicians less susceptible to corruption and a political class more deserving of respect. Those few politicians uncorrupted by money are drowning amongst the swill of corruption that is contemporary politics.

Social democracy was formerly the force which ensured that the market economy worked for the benefit of the majority not the minority. Unfortunately nominally social democratic politicians have abandoned the substance of that philosophy believing that Neo-Liberalism was the philosophy of today. In the heyday of social democracy many politicians of the right subscribed to its tenets and contributed making Britain a fairer and better society. With the discrediting of social democracy it is unlikely that those moderate politicians of the right would ever subscribe again to its tenets. Epicureanism has none of the baggage associated with social democracy and could be easily adopted by those moderate politicians on the right. In a country with a political class in thrall to the philosophy of greed what is needed desperately in a philosophy of compassion and fairness to counter that extremism.

(Gauis Gracchi was the unfortuante Tribune of the people who lost his life and head.)

Why there will never be another British Winston Churchill, the theory of political dwarfism

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Political dwarfism explained

Politics in the UK is dominated by a set of mediocrities, not that this is new, if you read history there is frequently despair about the quality of political leadership. What is not new is the depths to which our current leadership has plunged. They seem to be indifferent to the problems besetting UK society, seeing it as not their concern. At the risk of using an over employed metaphor, they are the band playing on the deck of the Titanic, although unlike that band they are oblivious to the dangers that surround them.

There is one startling example that demonstrates this indifference. In London a housing estate has been taken over by an American property company; that will make the current tenants homeless through the simple expedient of tripling the rents on existing properties to bring them in line with current market rates. Fortunately the tenants have secured a stay on the rent rises which will enable them to stay in their homes over Christmas. Originally the estate was established to provide housing for people on low incomes, a good intent that matters little in a residential property market driven by speculative greed. Despite the publicity given to the plight of these people in the media, the political classes as a whole have remained indifferent to their plight. Even the Mayor of London a man ever eager to court publicity has remained aloof from the tenants campaign. The only public figure to have sided with the tenants is a comedian, Russell Brand. A man demonstrated the commitment that should be expected from the politicians. Instead they are all to keen to demonstrate their helplessness in the face of ‘market forces’. What is so puzzling is why even the publicity seeking mayor like his Westminster colleagues is so eager to embrace this culture of ‘political dwarfism’.

Politics should be about doing, however British politics is about not doing, postponing decision making to the distant and ever receding future or making ‘faux’ decisions. (A decision that turns out to be less than it appears, often nothing more than ‘soundbite’). If decisive action is ever taken its at the behest of some superior force, either the world’s superpower or more usually a large business corporation. So eager are our politicians to embrace insignificance that they are negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. This a treaty that will give business corporations a major voice in policy making and the power to veto decisions they dislike. When the treaty is in place, business corporations will be able to bid to run various public services and if denied the that opportunity they can sue the government for compensation for lost revenues. A good example of this is the private health care provider who is suing a local health care trust for turned down their bid. The bid was rejected because because the price was too high. They are asking for a judicial review of the decision because in making its decision the health care authority had not taken into account the private health care providers need to make a profit. Quite probably in the near future private corporations will be deciding what public services will and should be provided by them. The only role for the government will be to sign cheques promising tax payers money to these corporations.

Probably there any many reasons for the popularity of adopting ‘political dwarfism’ as a persona amongst our current generation of politicians. The one most normally cited is the popularity of Neo-Liberal ideology, which relegates politicians to the role of bit players on the world stage. However explanation that interests me is language and the culture that determines how politicians use that language.

Contemporary Political Language

Greek philosophers originally put their philosophy into verse believing that the language of poetry was the best means of explains the ultimate truths of existence. In contrast political language today has very different functions rather than being the language of challenging truths its that of complacency, one of non enquiry, the means for reciting pre-agreed truths and pre-agreed propaganda. A language that obscures and hides truth. The current Chancellor of the Exchequer is a master of rephrasing his language to hide the failure of his policies. We are living in the fastest growing economy in the developed world according to his speeches. What is hidden is that it’s a recovery of statistics, a sleight of hand to hide the emptiness of his political rhetoric. The recovery is a debt led property boom, inflating property values and the property trade, which generates an inflationary increase in national incomes, demonstrating what appears to be a rise in the average incomes of all. Yet the truth is that for the vast majority there has been no increase in incomes, either they are experiencing slow or no growth in their incomes, or working for poverty wages.

One would expect the opposition to make the most of this growing inequality and inequity in incomes, yet all they can offer is a ‘faux’ policy alternative. They will generate a faster growth in the economy, which will boost incomes for all. However it is a policy so light on detail that it is practically meaningless, more a hope than a policy. Politicians seem to have lost the ability to express meaningful truths in language, language for them is the language of non truths, the language of evasion and obscurantism.

Why this decline in the spoken language?

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Politicians have always used language for propaganda purpose or evasion or what parliament calls dissembling (lying), but it was never in the past the predominate use of language. This example provides an interesting illustration of this. When a young man was asked by Lloyd George at house party what he hoped to do with his future, he answered that he was undecided between a career in the navy and politics. Lloyd George advised him to go into politics as he would experience more ‘boardings and mutinies’ than he would in the navy. This politician had a reputation for deviousness, he was the Welsh wizard, yet he introduced the beginnings of the welfare state and led Britain to victory in a world war. Today’s politicians could probably match him for deviousness, yet not for vision. His vision came from an upbringing in Welsh baptism, that imbued him with a sense of justice.

If I can go back to Churchill I can make the point more clearly. Churchill would have studied classics at Harrow and many of his contemporaries would have gone on to study classics at one of the Oxbridge colleges, whereas today contemporary politicians study PPE at an Oxbridge college. This is a significant factor as the education of today’s politicians and the past differs drastically. One classical writer studied on both classics and politics courses is the Roman philosopher Cicero, but who is treated very differently in each subject. Students of classics particularly of Churchill’s time would have seen Cicero as a heroic figure whose command of language was one to emulate. A man whose courage was matched by his oratory. The Cicero they studied was the Cicero who at risk to life and reputation defended in court a man who was the victim of a friend of the dictator Sulla. (Sulla was a dictator who had killed hundreds, when taking over the Roman Republic.) This was also the man who gave up his life to defend the restored Roman Republic. He was such a significant opponent of Mark Anthony (one of the triumvirate of politicians seeking to overthrow the Republic), that he had the murdered man’s hands nailed to the Senate door to demonstrate his command of Rome. In my politics course as is so of contemporary politics courses, Cicero was dismissed as a plagiarist, whose books were copies of better Greek originals. A man who rather than being a heroic defender of the Republic, was a man who took many ignoble actions to advance his career. In the space of 50 years Cicero had been diminished from being a man to aspire to to being to yet just another very ordinary politician motivated by the spirit of self advancement, all be it a good self propagandist. With an education devoid of heroes or heroic figures, an education that trashed the value driven figures of the past, future politicians educated in politics courses were lacking the language of value. A realist education that sees only human frailty and failure cannot but give a very downbeat view of the world.

An observer of the 19th century parliament would have noted that speeches were liberally sprinkled with Latin phrases, speakers tried to out do each other in their command of rhetoric. Observers could drop into parliament to be amused by the wit of Disraeli or the eloquence of Gladstone. The latter a man who on his campaign trails could speak to an audience of thousands for an hour or more and yet command their attention. Today’s politicians could not speak for ten minutes and hope the attention of an audience for that time span but instead they sprinkle their speeches with brief ‘sound bites’ (always of less than a minute’s duration) to capture their audiences attention.

Obviously the decline of the teaching of classics cannot be held responsible for the decline in the quality of parliamentary debates. It is just one factor but one that I think is a predominant factor. Now There is an intellectual culture that values mundanity and the accepted over creativity and originality of thought. A culture that equates any value system or ideology as a fantasy, at best useful for getting out the vote, but nothing more. This culture of mundanity goes by many names, the most popular are post modernism and Neo-Liberalism. While the first is a both a philosophy and a literary theory and the second is an economics, what they both have in common is a contempt for any value driven system, seeing instead a society of things in which values are an alien intrusion.

Why how language is used matters

Language is both a servant and a master, and it is the extent to which it is the latter that explains the mediocrity of the present political class. It is a servant when I use language to get something done, as when I order my cappuccino at my favourite coffee shop. Using it is this way has no impact on my behaviours, it’s nothing more than a request. However language is much more than a means of making requests, it is determines my perception of the society in which I live. Society is one of those strange objects that is both intangible and tangible. I know it’s there it is a given in my life, but it’s not something than I can readily comprehend. I just know it’s there, I know it’s an organised system of social relationships, whose meaning I understand through language. When I go into my coffee shop I am immediately aware that I’m entering a place of structured inter relationships. I know to order my coffee from the barista and not the manager or the chef. All have a identity disclosed in language, which tells me how I should interact with them or even not at all, as is the case with customers to whom I am a stranger. The coffee shop etiquette is something we all learn, and that etiquette is expressed in language. Anybody who fails to understand that etiquette will get bad or poor service.

Similarly the politician has come across a language which explains to them their role and that role within the greater network of social relationships that is the political system. If as at present it is the language of Neo-Liberalism, it is a language of can’t does. Neo-Liberals believe humankind has discovered the perfect social organisation, the free market and their only role is to remove any obstacles that prevent the free market operating. Consequently the voter that expects their MP to do something about the pitifully poor wage they receive is doomed to disappointment. The MP believes in the long term, in the long term the market will right itself and all will receive a living wage.

This stance of ‘doing nothing’ is reinforced by contemporary post modern philosophy that teaches that the higher moral order of which past philosophers such as Marx spoke are only the wishes of a particular age. Socialism was only had meaning in the Industrial Age of great factories, when labour protection and wage legislation made sense, because all did similar jobs in large industrial units. Now when all do very individual jobs in very different work environments, universal legislation covering all workers makes no sense and so it’s right to abolish all worker protections. Also there can in the post modern age there be no universal values as it is an age of extreme individualism. Values are relative to the individual and their unique social circumstances. Although it rarely said any notion of universal human rights is contrary to post modernism. All there can be is a democracy of rights, a competition of rights. Alistair McIntyre when speaking of a debate between two people debating the rights of their own ethical position, likens it to a shouting match. If they have different ethics, there can be no common ground between them which make any meaningful communication between them impossible. They might both be English speakers, but as for any chance of communication between them, they might as well be speaking different languages.

If the members of our political classes, particularly the leadership have been schooled at the elite colleges that teach post modernist philosophy and Neo-Liberal economics they will have been schooled in a culture that has little belief in the efficacy of human agency. Values have no place in the pseudo-science of Neo-Liberal economics and values for a post modernist are little more than an individual’s chosen life style, they have no universal validity. How can the product of such a culture, be value driven as was aWinston Churchill who had a belief not only in the rightness of British democracy, but in Britain’s unique role in the world. In an education system that excludes any education in values from its curriculum it is not surprising that it produce politicians that are only capable of having a mundane hum drum vision of the world. John Major the British PM summed up the current way of thinking, when he spoke of the need for a ‘vision thing’. He was unfairly characterised by cartoonists as a grey figure, when in fact it was a characteristic he shared with his generation of politicians.

How can such language of universal,dullness produce and thinkers of great thoughts? Whether the politician be David Cameron, Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband, all will be indistinguishable to the future historian, just a group of indistinguishable mediocrities that will fail to leave their mark on history.

Charles Dickens’s was a far better economist than either Nick Clegg, George Osborne or Ed Balls

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If I wanted to understand the nature of our current economics problems I would be better turning to the novels of Charles Dickens’s than by reading articles on economics by the current generation of politicians. Rooted at the heart of the political consensus is a misunderstanding of the current economic crisis. Any politician if asked will say that its a crisis brought on by government overspending, which can only be resolved by a prolonged period of austerity which will reduce the deficit that is at the heart of the problem. This week this misunderstanding has been put into words by Ed Balls, George Osborne and Nick Clegg. They have all stated that the priority of government should be to reduce or eliminate the government deficit. All claim ‘responsibility’ as their guiding principle, all must suffer because of the foolishness of past governments. They all assume a highly principled stance of statesmen making the painful but necessary decisions to secure the nations future.

The cleverest of them must know that they are spouting nonsense, but go along with it as they it’s what everybody or so they believe, in the gilded circles of power believe. (The speculative frenzy that resulted in the crash that bought society to its knees in 2008/9 is never mentioned.) Lying was never a barrier to a successful political career. What we most need now is a Charles Dickens’s to expose the charlantry, hypocrisy and foolishness than passes as informed political debate.

Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister, a millionaire owner of luxurious homes on the continent preaches the need for self restraint on an impoverished people, as do the fellow members of a cabinet of millionaires. The country cannot afford to pay the living wage to workers on part time contracts but instead pays the minimum wage or less if agency workers; but it can afford to allow Barclay’s Bank to pay bonus’s of £1.8 billion to its staff. (most of which will go to top executives and highly paid traders). I read somewhere that City bonuses this year could top £80 billion. A word has been coined to characterise such behaviour ‘Pecksniffery’. Seth Pecksniff was a character in one of Dickens’s novels, an unpleasant hypocrite who affected benevolence and high moral principles. Best illustrated by the Conservative Minister who characterised the large numbers going to food banks as going there because the food was free. Those who would rather depend on charity than work for a living. Conveniently ignoring the fact that free food is only given to those in possession of vouchers given by a charity to certify real need, many of whom were the working poor.

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Self deception and hypocrisy should be regarded as two of the principles that inform economic policy making. These two attitudes are embodied it what is called supply side economics. It states that people are unemployed because of regulation and restrictive practices in the labour market. Trade unions, regulations on hours worked and on conditions in which people are employed only serve to push up the cost of labour, meaning that fewer workers are employed that might otherwise be the case. If trade unions are emasculated or abolished, labour protection laws removed the cost of employing labour will fall (wages) and many more people will be employed. All benefit because more are employed and the economy becomes more productive. This increased productivity will push down prices, so wages become worth in terms of what they can buy. Actually this has elements of a fairy tale in it. In the 1960’s when wages were relatively high compared to the other costs of production unemployment averaged 2%, today when wages are relatively low as a cost of production unemployment is 7%. If the unemployment measure used in the 1960’s was used, unemployment would probably be about 10%. Many of those now employed struggle to make ends meet.

There is one beneficiary from this change, the better off upper middle classes. Mark Harper the recently resigned immigration minister was able get as a cleaner for four hours a week at the cost of £22. This woman was an illegal immigrant who was probably desperate for the money. One consequence of the change in the labour market is that people are now cheap to buy. The Mark Harpers and Nick Clegg’s of this world can now benefit from a plethora of cheap services provided by people on poverty wages. I imagine there is much less concern about the servant problem today. In the sixties I lived on a country estate and my social betters were concerned about two things, the high cost of servants today and the insolence and less than respectful manner of those servants. Lack of respect deriving from the fact that servants would have no difficulty finding another job, so they were unwilling to adopt the demeaning behaviour expected of them. They as human beings had rights and exercised them to the perceived detriment of their betters.

Charles Dickens’s would have understood the behaviours of our governing classes and predicted that their economic policies would be designed to benefit the better off no matter in what guise they appear. Nick Clegg, George Osborne, Ed Balls etc. are all blinded by hypocrisy, unable to recognise that they govern in their own interests and that of their friends and not the nation. One image from ‘David Copperfield’ characterises today’s society for me. While David Copperfield and the other orphans sup on thin gruel, Bumble the Beadle and his friends enjoy sumptuous meals funded by money intended for the orphans. What better image to capture the nature of today’s society.