Tag Archives: #St.Augustine

Why are our leaders so stupid?

What puzzles me is why are people such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson so popular. The first advocates the policies of a clown and the second pretends to be a clown to achieve political success.

When I was at school in the 1950s I remember being told about Columbus’s voyage to America. The Headmistress told us that it was a particularly daring adventure, as people at the time believed the world was flat and thought that Columbus was in danger of falling off the edge of the world. The  truth was very different as I discovered later. Columbus was an experienced sailor who knew about the fishing grounds off North America that European sailors visited each year that the Atlantic Ocean was bounded by a large landmass to the West. Also it was known at this time that the earth was round. The classical Greeks had realised that the earth was round because they knew there was a horizon, beyond which the eye could not see, therefore  the earth surface must be curved.If was the geographer Eratosthenes (276BC to 195/4 BC)  who calculated with an incredible degree of accuracy the earth’s circumference. It is highly unlikely that Columbus was unaware of that the earth was round. My teacher was typical of those of the time that believed that people of the past had a childlike understanding of the world, whereas in fact the opposite was true.

We assume today that our knowledge and understanding is superior to that of the past. Yet our politicians constantly disapprove this notion. In the USA Donald Trump is likely to become the Republican Party’s candidate for the Presidency and Boris Johnson possible future Conservative Party leader What both these leading politicians have in common is an anti-intellectualism, both of them in their campaigns seek to  appeal to most primeval of voters instincts. Trump blames the Mexicans for crime and wants to erect a wall to keep them out, and Johnson believes that Obama’s part Kenyan ancestry makes him anti British, because of the injustices the British inflicted on Kenyans during the days of Empire. To say that both these politicians are intelligent men who are just using anti immigrant and anti foreigner feeling to win support and that they don’t really believe what they are saying does these two men a disservice, they believe what they are saying. They are both populists who believe in simple solutions to difficult and complex problems, both of them personify the  anti-intellectualism which is dominant in the our society. The political dialogue in both countries is dominated by the anti-intellectualism of those such as the Tea Party whose policies are moving closer to the mainstream in both countries. UKIP a party that gets much media coverage seems to be campaigning for things such as ending the smoking ban in pubs. Sam Goldwyn once  said a movie never lost money for underestimating the intelligence of the average cinema goer, now in politics the belief is that no politician ever fails for underestimating the intelligence of the average voter. There is a change in society that has made stupid politics the dominant strand. Possibility it is linked to Walter Benjamin’s insight (when writing about the cinema) that contemporary media  leaves little time or scope for reflection, as the media image is all involving leaving no opportunity for distancing necessary for reflecting on the projected image.

If I was to compare contemporary England with medieval England, I would say that the former is technically sophisticated but intellectually unsophisticated. This is not to say that there are not a community of intellectuals whose thinking is far superior to that of those of the medieval era, but these people are excluded from the public debate, which is dominated by the advocates of stupid politics. Obviously Trump and Johnson are not stupid men, they just find a politics of idiocy the most effective means of self promotion. What is most disturbing is that these men intend to pursue the policies they advocate, without regard to the damage caused to society through the introduction of their simplistic policies.

As an economist I can see the dangers of practising stupid politics. Britain has endured years of austerity because the government believes in a nonsense called ‘expansionary fiscal contraction’, that is cutting government expenditure will increase growth. Despite this policy having no economic credibility the opposition’s chief economics spokesman, a man who had a top class degree in economics from Oxbridge immediately signed up to the policy. Knowing it was fallacious economics made no difference, he did not want to appear out of step in with all the others who were practising stupid politics. Bonhoeffer said that the success of the Nazi’s was due to fact that good people did not speak up, similarly stupid politics is prevailing because the intelligent do not speak up. In England it is the noise and abuse made by the practitioners of stupid politics that scares of the intelligent when we most need them.

Intelligent women for example are put of entering the English Parliament because of the sexist behaviour in the bear pit that is the House of Commons. When female opposition MPs speak, male MPs on the government benches often  make crude sexual gestures with their hands and shout sexist abuse. Also any show of intelligence is likely to get a politician pilloried in the tabloid press as a geek, as happened to the last leader of the opposition. Anti-intellectualism is rife in the English political culture and it’s preventing intelligent government.

What really provoked me into writing this article was a tweet by the illusionist Derren Brown, in which he referenced a You Tube in which two evangelical preachers explain why it is necessary for them to own private executive jets. One says it is so he can get some quiet time in which to talk to God, as he would be unable to do that on a flight with other passengers who would disturb him. Christ when he wanted a quiet place for meditation found a quiet spot in a garden or in the countryside, surely these two men could have done the same. These two men are Christian literalists they believe that the bible is the word of God and that all should to obey the word of God as explained in the bible. These two Christian literalists are following a practice condemned as being wrong as far back s the early Middle Ages. St. Augustine in his book on Christian teaching explained that the bible should not be taken literally, the word of the bible required explanation by the Christian teacher. Following St. Augustine’s advice all medieval bibles contained commentaries on the page side by side with the biblical text. These commentaries were there for the preacher to help him explain the text to the people. What these evangelical preachers are doing is practising a type of Christianity that even the least educated of medieval priests would have recognised as wrong. If these men had been medieval clerics they would have been relegated to some obscure rural parish where they could have done little harm. Yet these men are seen as representative of true Christian belief, religion seems to mirror the practice of stupid politics.

This simplistic religious view of the world that divides the world up into good and bad guys is very influential. George Bush’s crusade against the evil of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq is representative of good versus bad guy politics. Isis and other Islamic fundamentalist groups embody the same good bad guy philosophy. A philosophy that justifies the cruel treatment of all unbelievers whether they be Christian, Yazidi or Shia Muslim, as they are already condemned by God for rejecting the true religion and as such are wordless people. One of the main targets for Islamic fundamentalists are the Sufi Muslims who practice a more sophisticated and humane religion. The simplistic belief of the fundamentalists contrasts unfavourably with the sophisticated Islam of the medieval  period as demonstrated in the poetry of the Rumi  (1207-73) or the philosophy of Averroes (1126-1198). Christian thinkers owed much to these men, Francis of Assisi’s thinking was greatly influenced by the poetry of Rumi. Depressingly anti-intellectualism is not only a feature of Western politics but also in the politics of much of the Muslim world.

There are many sophisticated and intelligent clerics today but they do not get a hearing in today, because their speech is too subtle and nuanced for a world that wants simple truths. Rowan Williams the very intellectual former Archbishop of Canterbury was pilloried in the press as a bearded weirdy. They were not interested in the message from an educated Christian, for them Christianity is that of the simple minded fundamentalists.

There is no doubt that the public appetite is for stupid thinking, there is a wanting for people offering a few simple homespun truths that they claim will solve the world’s ills. Does not the constant diet of super hero films coming out of Hollywood demonstrate that something is very wrong in our culture? Hollywood appears to have opted out of making adult films, as it has correctly judged that the audience for its films want simple child like stories. The only hope is that the world particularly the Western world will tire of simple childlike stories and politics. When politicians such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson get chance to put into practice their childlike policy solutions and those policies prove to be a resounding failure, the pendulum will surely swing in favour of a more grown up politics.

The Deceivers

 Theology with its emphasis on ‘other worldly’ experiences appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum of thought to economics which deals with the mundanity of every day existence. It’s a science of facts far removed from the speculative thinking of the theologians. Yet this is a false understanding of theology, as it can be as every day as economics, the only difference being the approach to life. A theology that had no relevance to daily existence would be pointless subject of study. Adopting something of the perspective of theology would be of benefit to economics.


What I intend to do is demonstrate how an analytical framework taken from St.Augustine’s Fifth Century classic, “The City of God” can be used to explain developments in the economy of today.

  

The City of God & the City of Man | Koinonia palamas.info

Although  Augustine’s book is primarily intended to explain why the eternal city of Rome fell to foreign invaders, what interests me particularly is Augustine’s account of the role of its Gods in Roman society. The Roman’s assumed one of the reasons for their success was their fidelity to their ancient Gods. Castor and Pollux the heavenly twins were thought to have intervened in a crucial battle to assure the Roman army of victory. In gratitude to the two Gods the Romans constructed temple in the forum for their worship. When Rome fell it was thought by some that the cause was the abandoning of the worship of the old Olympian Gods, the Gods who had always stood by Rome and ensured its survival and success. Augustine suggested a very different Christian version of Roman history


The Olympian Gods were for Augustine not Gods but demons who lead mankind astray. Stories about these God’s such as Zeus’s rape of Europa in the for of bull demonstrated their demonic nature. The nature of these Gods was capricious and cruel.  Apollo was for instance challenged to a music contest by the satyr; unfortunately for Marsyas he was judged the loser and for having had the impudence to challenge a God  Apollo hung him upside down and flayed him alive. Roman cities that had temples of Mars, chained the statue to the temple in the hope that the God would not wander  and provoke war with a neighbouring city. 


Augustine saw these God/demons as having bodies of air and circulating around the earth in the atmosphere waiting for the opportunity to intervene in the affairs of men and cause mischief. Misleading mankind was not difficult for them as all men were corrupted by original sin and easily corrupted. Despite pretending to be protectors of Rome, they had according to Augustine in fact allowed it to be sacked in the past by the Gauls; so the sacking of Christian Rome by the Visigoths was little different from the sacking of pagan Rome by the Gauls in earlier centuries. The visions and dreams that Roman’s had of the God’s which they thought gave them insight into future events, were nothing more than trickery intended to mislead the dreamer. On innumerable occasions Roman Emperors and Generals made sacrifices to the God’s to ensure victory. Yet on so many occasions instead leading their armies  to victory they led them to defeat.


The Gods for Augustine were the deceivers of men, leading them into error from their own sense of mischief. This concept of a group of deceivers leading mankind into error by making deceptive promises is a useful concept when it is shorn of its supernatural context.  I would like to recast Augustine’s concept of a world of men mislead by a race of demons into a more human form. Rather than seeing original sin as the corrupting element in mankind, I see ambition as the corrupting element, something best expressed in the term vainglory. Leaders wish to be remembered in history as men and women who changed the world for the better. While this is a laudable ambition it can led them into following certain practices or beliefs which they believe will improve the lot of mankind, but which in fact does the reverse. Unlike the demons of Augustine these deceivers often deceive themselves as they really do believe that they have discovered the holy grail of human betterment. The current race of deceivers are not demons but Neo-Liberal economists and philosophers. 


These philosophers and economists have been campaigning actively since the 1970’s for the adoption of Neo-Liberal economic policies and the creation of a free market society, one largely free of government intervention. The argument in the 1970’s by these economists was that by freeing markets to find their own equilibrium there would no longer be any foreign exchange crisis, as currencies would freely move up and down to their natural level. (This was a time of crisis when the IMF was constantly having to bail out countries such as the UK which were experiencing such crises.) Despite that the world has not seen an end of foreign currency cries. However Neo-Liberal economists would assert that these have been due to governments not wholeheartedly adopting the Neo-Liberal agenda. 


The UK is one of the countries that have most wholeheartedly adopted Neo-Liberal economics, through the practice of supply side economics. Supply side economics stated that the cause of economic under performance were the various restrictions imposed the markets that supplied the factors of production, in particular labour. Following these policy prescriptions the government almost completely destroyed the powerful trade union movement and removed most of the employment protection measures that previous governments had imposed on the  labour market.  The UK now has one of the most flexible labour markets in the developed world, a market in which employers have few restrictions on how they use labour. Yet the UK is not an economic success story, 1 in 3 workers in the UK are receiving less than the living wage, having to rely on government handouts to held them pay for their accommodation, food and clothing for their families. The trade deficit also has spiralled out of control, in the 1960’s it averaged 0.2% of GDP, whereas today it is 30 times larger at 6% of GDP. Despite all the increased flexibility in the labour market, the productivity of the average British worker is significantly less than in our European partners such as Germany or France. However Neo-Liberal economists continue to assert that the economy is healthier than ever, usually citing some statistics to prove their point. They are self deceiving as many of the statistics that really matter show an economy that is performing badly.


However the self deception is largely that of the politicians, as economists have always known that changing to a Neo-Liberal economy would create a substantial group of losers. The deception has been in that they have always dismissed the losers as a small and insignificant minority. Those British economists asking for reform in the 1960’s argued for an unemployment level of 3% and for those  economists this would be made up largely of those people temporarily unemployed and who were between jobs. However the more influential have been the public choice theorists and Neo-Liberal philosophers such as Ayn Rand, who have argued for a more social Darwinist approach to public policy making. Ayn Rand argued that the poor had little place in society as they contributed little to it and saw starvation as one means of reducing the number of useless mouths. (Atlas Unshrugged). She has been extremely influential in British political circles and her followers have been effective in creating a society wide contempt for the poor, which has led to a whole series of measures directed against them. These politicians have never gone so far as advocating the starvation of the poor, but they have implemented policies that have impoverished them. What these deceivers have been successful in doing is portraying the poor as the OTHER, a group to which the majority never belongs. They have successfully concealed from the public imagination that disabling illness is not confined to the poor, but it can affect anybody and only the richest can avoid being driven into poverty by disabling illness.


Perhaps the worst of the deceivers are the public choice theorists who pretend that privatising public services will only create winners as we all will benefit from cheaper public services. However these are labour intensive services and cheaper services can only be delivered through reducing the incomes of the people working in these services and through worsening their conditions of service. One very effective way of doing this is to abolish extra payments for working outside normal hours, or by using zero hour contracts, by rewriting the terms of employment or using temporary agency staff. All of which enables the employer to get more for less.  Today my dustbin was collected by the refuge service on a day which for most is a public holiday. In past I had to wait until the day after the public holiday. While most people will probably appreciate the fact that there is no break in the service; I am concerned that the families of the three men on the lorry are deprived of their company on a holiday. Am I in a minority in preferring to have my bin collection delayed by one day so these men could have a day with their children?


These Neo-Liberal deceivers have succeeded in portraying those who lose as a consequence of their reforms as the losing OTHER. Yet there is a danger that this other might become the majority should society move backwards in recreating the widespread hardship and misery of previous eras. These economists, philosophers and politicians have successfully deceived the majority by portraying their changes as necessary if society and the economy are to prosper and that the only losers will only be the insignificant OTHER, not them. Yet the purpose of a Neo-Liberal agenda is to create a large impoverished serice or underclass to service the deserving better off minority(?). In fact in 2011 a group of politicians published a book which blamed the poor for their plight, they were poor because they lacked the work ethic. I don’t think it’s wrong to compare the Neo-Liberal deceivers of today with Augustine’s demons, as both promise a better tomorrow, while in fact intending the opposite.