Tag Archives: Syriza

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. 

The Flawed Belief in TINA (there is no alternative)

Today there was yet another article in my daily newspaper by a prominent politicians disparaging those on the political left that fail to recognise the realities of life and want to make impossible changes in society. This disparaged group who are abused as fantasists, protest voters but never by terms that suggest that their choices are made on the basis of rational judgement. The only surprise is that he did not suggest taking the vote away from these ‘childish’ voters. Actually one former leading politician did suggest that by suggesting that the vote for the new leader of the Labour Party should be sabotaged by the other candidates withdrawing so making the contest invalid. If this had happened the same politician would have advised on how to rig the voting mechanism to ensure the right person was elected.


18th Century Aristocrats (counter-factual.net)
What is barely understood is that we are governed by an elite comparable to the landed aristocratic elite that dominated politics in the eighteenth century. This elite is composed of politicians, media persons, technocrats and financiers educated at the elite universities. (There are other groups that could be included but for brevity I have excluded them, what they all have in common is an education at one of the elite universities. It is this education that sets them apart from the rest of society.) What they practice is a policy of exclusion, only the dialogue between the members of this selected group is considered valid. They only listen to themselves, the rest of society is to be a childish rabble whose views and opinions are not worthy of consideration.

What I want to attack is the shared understanding of this group, an understanding which ‘things must be as they are’ or as it is more familiarly known TINA that is the society in which we live is the product of economic, social and technical forces that are beyond the control of individuals. What the politician must do is understand those forces making for change and work within the constraints imposed by them. Social democratic politicians recognise the pain of people working on zero hours contracts and that caused by job insecurity, but their role is not to change the cruel inequalities in society. Their task is to explain that low wages and job insecurity are a feature of modern society and must be accepted and that it is only through individual efforts at self improvement can circumstances change. The only amelioration they offer is the most modest of reforms, which will have little impact on there working lives. The social democratic party refuses to accept policies that would reduce or end job security by insisting that it is not the role of government to ensure that employers treat their employers well, what they instead offer is a way out of this appalling way of life through self improvement via education.

This new elite remains isolated by its adherence to things must be as there are ideology from the wider discontent in society. They believe that they are the ‘grown-ups’ in the words of Christine Lagarde (Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund). The new left in Greece (Syriza), Spain (Podemos) and Britain are childish fantasists trying to ignore the reality of the grown up world.

As a sceptical economist I must doubt such understanding of society I would ask why is it society is as it is? The reasons given are irreversible technological and social changes. Yet on examination they are only partial truths. Technological change has taken place but the distribution of incomes is determined by the social order. The company director in Britain earns a hundred times the salary of the average of the incomes of the employees in his business. In the 1960s the director’s salary was only 30 times greater than the average. Why the change, if the answer is that company directors have become more productive, that is open to objection. The profitability of companies as a return on capital invested in very similar to that of companies in the 1960s. The falsity of this view is demonstrated by the fact that in many failing businesses the directors are paid excessive salaries, how can huge salaries be justified for such corporate dimwits?

What as the sceptical economist I would say that there are different reasons for gross income inequality. While it cannot be doubted that some income differentials are due to technical change in that information technology has made many former skilled occupations redundant, the growing prevalence of the low wage culture has origins elsewhere. One is custom and tradition which decrees that unskilled occupations only deserving of low incomes.There is one interesting example which demonstrates this fact. When at university I read a book on applied economics by a Professor Brown and one example from that book sticks in my mind. He stated that the evidence suggested that wage differential between craftsmen and unskilled labourers had remained the same since Roman times. This suggests to me that much the justification of current income differentials comes from custom and tradition and does not reflect the real contribution each employee makes to the business. Why should the cleaner or the sales assistant be paid so little?

The other factor is power, the financial and industrial elites have cited custom and tradition as the reasons for low pay. Their mantra is unskilled staff make such a small individual contribution to the businesses profitability that they are only deserving of low pay. Yet I have never read of any study which has successfully identified the contribution to the firms productivity of say the cleaner and the financial director, yet the salary of the latter is more than that of the former. Businesses are a collaborative venture in which it is impossible to identify the contribution that each individual makes to the success of the business. Is the cleaner really that unproductive? It is the cleaner that maintains the workplace as a clean and healthy environment in which to work. Dirty toilets and uncleaned washrooms would lead to outbreaks of illnesses associated with unhygienic environments. How productive would the company director or IT specialist be if struck down by dysentery? There is good reason to suggest that cleaners are vastly underpaid, yet employers continue to pay the minimal wages.

Governments have enabled this power grab by the business elite by passing legislation to weaken or destroy those organisations that are the only means of equalising power in unequal labour market. Ever since the Neo-Liberal revolution politicians have constantly weakened the power of those groups that threaten the power of the over mighty employer. In Britain it has meant the emasculation of the one powerful trade union movement, changes in the law now make it very difficult for the unions to effectively organise industrial action. Therefore there is little restraint on the employer who wishes to pay as little as possible to his staff. It is no coincidence that some of the most profitable businesses with the highest paid directors in Britain have been the supermarkets an industry where low pay and job insecurity are endemic.

Scepticism as a philosophy is misunderstood, sceptics don’t believe are no truths, in that all philosophies or ideologies are fallacious. Instead it is the belief that in subjecting an ideology, philosophy or belief system to sceptical enquiry the truths it contains can be discovered it is the stripping away of error.

Being a sceptic is not contrary to a belief that society can be improved through reform, it is just a scepticism about the nature of such much contemporary reform, reforms whose fundamental truths are based on custom, tradition and exploitation of market power. I am a left of centre sceptic who believes in the superiority of left of centre ideology because it contains less wrongs than the alternatives and that with its emphasis on fairness those wrongs are likely to be less damaging to humanity than the wrongs of alternatives that exclude any notion of fairness. A sceptic also favours democracy as in a democracy there are always contending philosophies and ideologies as the proponents of each that will be subjecting each to scrutiny and through that many of the errors of policy associated with the mono-thought of the Neo Liberal world view can be avoided.

Unlike the interchangeable Neo-Liberals and New Keynesians who dominate the political process with their uniformity of view, I want a political culture that recognises many ideologies and philosophies as valid and that a recognition the aim of politics is not to destroy the opposition but to create a political culture in which many views can thrive. Contemporary politicians are so assured of the rightness of their beliefs that they cannot concede that they may wrong. They are as in Christine Lagarde’s word the grown ups who understand reality and who don’t indulge in childish fantasies. What a sceptic would say is that any believers in any ideology that denies it contains any errors or wrongs are the childish and naive ones.

Machiavelli and the Madness of Politicians

What puzzles me is why when we have the best educated politicians in history, the governments that they lead are so abysmal. At least one European leader has a doctorate and most were educated at the elite universities in their own countries. Why are these so well educated leaders so awful at the business of government? The only plausible answer that I can find plausible is that they are affected with a degree of madness in that they consistently mistake the world of their fanciful imaginings for reality.

Perhaps this is best demonstrated with the current crisis in Greece. The  leaders of Europe insist on repeating the  changes they have forced on the Greek economy which rather than solve Greece’s debt crisis has worsened it. The programme of imposed austerity and so called structural reforms pushed Greece into a situation which resembles the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939. Obviously a country in suffering an economic recession is less able to pay its debts than one that is booming. Yet the so called Troika (the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund [IMF]) and the European Central Bank) insist that the Greeks must accept even greater levels of austerity if they are to receive the bailout funds necessary to keep their banks open. It is obvious to all that this a policy that won’t work, yet our European rulers insist that it must continue.


Reading this it seems that there is a hint of madness in the decisions of the European policy makers. They were all the time confusing the world of their imaginings with the Europe of today. Anybody can misunderstand the reality they face yet to consistently do so suggests madness. The IMF has twice produced reports saying that Greece is incapable of repaying its debts, the latest report suggests that Greece should be granted a moratorium of 30 years before it has to repay any of it debts. Yet despite the evidence from the Greek economy demonstrating that the policy forced on it by the Troika has put it into long term decline making it less likely to the economy will ever achieve a level of growth that will enable it to repay its debts, they continue to insist that the policy must not change. While it is possible that the European leaders directing the policy of the European Commission can be deluded as to the effectiveness of their policy, what is most surprising is that Christine Lagarde as managing director of the IMF is supportive of this failed policy when her own organisation is writing the reports stating that the policy is wrong headed. Why this level of delusion, why do these politicians fail to see what is in front of their eyes? Why are so self evidently mad?

The best explanation for the behaviour of our contemporary leaders comes from the writings of Machiavelli. In ‘The Prince” there is a chapter in which the following scene is described. The son of one of the Greek tyrants is accompanying his father on a walk. Then as they are walking past a field of wheat, and the son he asks how is it possible to remain in power when their are so many potential enemies in society. Rather than answering his son directly this man picks up a stick and knocks of the heads of the tallest stalks of wheat. European leaders in their dealings with Greece have adopted a similar policy. Whenever a Greek leader appears who might threaten their policy of austerity, they destroy them. The greatest threat the European leaders have faced is Tsiparas  so they had set about undermining him and destroying his power base. In denying the Greek banks access to much needed Euros they have reminded him that they possess the power to close the banks and with that wreak havoc on the Greek economy and society. Rather than risk chaos, Tsiparas has capitulated. The leaders have calculated that the terms that they have forced him to accept will force his eventual resignation and destruction of his radical Syriza party. Not only these politicians cut down the tallest wheat stalk in Greek society, they have made it clear that they will do the same to any other wheat stalks in any other European country that might threaten their authority.

This leadership style that Machiavelli demonstrated is not a style of leadership appropriate for a democratic society, which depends on political dialogue and consensus to function effectively. If the opposition is destroyed or emasculated the political dialogue becomes extremely limited, as all the potential leaders realise that only by following the accepted script can their careers advance. Consequently there is a political echo as what leaders hear from the political dialogue is but an echo of their own views. ‘Yes’ men and women become the vogue in politics, individual thinkers self exclude, as they must pursue careers outside politics as the system penalises individual thinkers.  They  realise if they entered  politics would be marginalised in the political set up or more likely as in the Greek example have their political reputation and  career destroyed by a hostile elite of non thinking conformists, who hate any threat to their authority. This gives leaders a sense of omnipotence as all they ever hear is their words repeated back to them. Political difference is viewed in the words of Christine Lagarde, as not being ‘adult’ and not worth consideration. The views of Tsiparas and the Greek leaders were not worth considering as they were not spoken in the language of the elite. They were children who failed to understand the grown up world of the political elite.

Never having to engage in serious dialogue with your rivals and their alternative views, leads to an arrogance of power. By never facing contradiction these leaders cannot but believe in the rightness of their views. These leaders have been driven mad by power, they believe the acquisition of power sanctities the rightness of their views. What they say is true, anything else is heresy. They are like so many  Kim Jong-uns who don’t have to pay regard to any view but their own. Kim Jong-uns that will resort to any tactic to destroy the reputation and career of rivals.

There is one great failing in Machiavelli’s book ‘The Prince’ he failed  warned leaders that acquisition of power does not equate with greatness of mind. What we have in the West is a series of mediocre leaders who have attained power by Machiavellian means, but who lack the greatness of mind to govern effectively. In Britain and Europe the means to power is also the means by which great individuals are excluded from power.  Mediocre thinkers who have attained power by manipulating the political system overestimate the significance of their success, playing the system well does not equate with greatness. The technocrat governments appointed in many southern European countries are not experts in economic management but timeservers willing to do the bidding of their political masters. The technocrats that Europe will put in charge of the running of the Greek economy, will be no more successful than their predecessors. The misery and damage they inflict on Greek society will be hidden behind a serious of dubious statistics that appear to shw success. Britain and Europe are ruled by a number of petty Napoleons who are blinded by power and in the madness, they believe that their insane visions represent what is best vision for humanity. We are ruled by the self deluding inhabitants of a political madhouse.