On virtue

Few are those who wish to be endowed with virtue rather than to seem so.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Amicitia

To those of us of a certain age, it is surprising how popular the notion of virtue has become in recent years. Virtue used to be more or less synonymous with sexual continence, especially in women, and connected in some obscure way with the cleanliness of net curtains. It was old-fashioned, dowdy, and not conducive to having fun. People like Mary Whitehouse who took it seriously were considered faintly ridiculous.

Contrast that with the situation today, in which so many people are so loudly obsessed with being virtuous, enforcing virtue in the public realm, and deploring a lack of virtue in others. Savonarola would have been right at home on social media. Except, that is, for the ideas of virtue that are being promoted. What Savonarola preached was broadly compatible with what contemporary Florentines already believed, or at least felt they ought to believe. What we are dealing with now is equivalent to a new revelation.

One prominent element of it would nevertheless have been familiar to the old firebrand: the call for repentance. It rarely seems to be an effectual channel of grace in practice, but self-criticism is the only acceptable defence to accusations of non-virtue – I hesitate to call it sin, as there is no explicit theological component to it, although as we shall see there are religious parallels.

The basis of this is a doctrine of collective guilt extended indefinitely across time and space. As with the Manichaeans, humanity is divided into two disjoint groups: the oppressors and the oppressed. All virtue resides with the oppressed. In a bold reversal of the proverb that two wrongs don’t make a right, here the only way to be right is to accumulate as many wrongs as possible. If one is an oppressor, one is guilty of any wicked act with which your group can be identified. (Here we see the usefulness of the tendency to put people into boxes, which I discussed in a previous post.) Thus, to take a concrete example, as an Englishman I should be held morally responsible for everything bad ever done either by English people or males, despite the fact that I have pretty solid alibis for the Amritsar massacre, the siege of Drogheda, and the triangular trade, to name just a few.

There is a splendid simplicity and purity about this view. Thinkers over the millennia have explored many forms of enquiry into moral questions. The great achievement of the new morality is to replace all that with a simple two-step method that requires almost no thought whatsoever. To be sure it requires an act of faith, but once that has been managed anyone can have access to the absolute truth of any moral question. It goes as follows:

  1. Identify the most oppressed person in the room. This process is familiar to anyone who played Top Trumps as a child. Gender, ethnicity and disability are all point-scorers here, although curiously not class, even though this line of thinking is associated with the political left, which traditionally was heavily into class analysis. Go figure.
  2. Accept uncritically whatever that person says. This step has the useful side-benefit of testing the virtue of those present, so that deviationism can be detected and rooted out.

Sadly, there are some practical issues with this approach. For one thing, if the moral status of the individual is to be identified with that of the collective, it is quite hard to find anyone who is not in some way an oppressor. That is to say, we are all sinners. (Again, this view would have been fine with Savonarola.) Given this, any individual’s claim to moral authority can only be relative, which makes the second step above unreliable by definition.

Moreover, the notion of collective responsibility is distressingly broad in its application. For example, it was used historically to argue that Jews were responsible for the death of Christ and therefore could and should be massacred. Collective punishment has a long and unpleasant history, and those who carry it out are surely to be numbered amongst the oppressors, and yet it is to be seen as virtuous when it is the virtuous meting out punishment. I hardly need to point out how dangerous this can be.

From the standpoint of the accused (and presumed guilty), there is also no inducement to behave well. If, as a heterosexual male, I am defined to be a rapist, why should I refrain from going out and actually committing rape? (I’ve always thought this to be a weakness in Calvin’s notion of predestination; you are, in the famous phrase, damned if you do and damned if you don’t.) This seems to me a basic problem with this approach to morality.

Inevitably, people have tried to game this morality by self-identifying as a member of a more oppressed group. No less a figure than Senator Elizabeth Warren attempted this gambit, with unfortunate results. Gender fluidity seems to be a card than anyone could potentially play. What exactly are the rules of the version of Top Trumps we are to play? Where do they come from? What makes them the specific rules that need to be followed in order to sort the sheep from the goats?

That is of course a Biblical reference, and it seems to me that there is a clear if unacknowledged debt to Christian thinking in all this. The notion of damnation is largely confined to post-classical Western thought; ancient philosophers tended to see virtue as a habit of mind to be encouraged and as a mean between opposing vices rather than as an absolute in its own right. Plato compared wrong-doing with making a mistake (Republic, Book I; the word he uses refers to missing a target).

Another serious flaw in this notion of virtue, at least in practice, is what it does not condemn. There is some token hand-wringing about the collapse of probity in public life, for example, but nobody appears to be seriously exercised about it. Whether or not some film passes or fails the Bechdel test seems more important than the question of whether or not Cabinet ministers are corruptly giving lucrative government contracts to their friends or allies and concealing the evidence. Regardless of the legal position, that seems to me to be immoral conduct which ought to be called out.

This narrowness of vision is also apparent in some areas which it does scrutinise. For example, in regard to environmental issues it tends to focus on climate change and specifically on carbon footprint. While this is certainly part of the issue, it is far from being a comprehensive view. And while it may be bad to drive a Chelsea tractor, it is not really much better to drive an electric car when one looks at the wider picture. The question of right living is much broader and deeper than any checklist of acceptable and unacceptable behaviours can capture.

All this is not to say that I decry this new-found interest in virtue. To give serious consideration to how one ought to live is an important and valuable endeavour. What I urge, however, is that those embarking on this quest be aware of two seductive temptations. The first is the siren call of simplicity: as H. L. Mencken pointed out, “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.”

The second, which is harder both to notice and to resist, is the temptation to go along with what others think, or at least say they think. It is in our nature as social creatures to do this, and on the whole this tendency to agree with those around us is a good thing; a society of rugged free-thinkers would be wearing, to say the least. Nevertheless, on the really important questions it is essential to avoid groupthink, if only because we need to be able to own and stand by our beliefs when the chips are down.

No more than two cheers, then, for the modern pursuit of virtue. Insofar as it represents a sincere engagement with moral questions, I am all for it. The problem is when it descends into mindless dog-piling. Savonarola, after all, didn’t succeed in fixing much.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On hatred

Now hatred is by far the longest pleasure;

Men love in haste, but they detest at leisure.

George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don Juan, canto xiii

Hatred gets a very bad press, and on the whole deservedly so. It is often opposed to love, and given how depressing it would be to suppose love other than a good thing we see hatred as unequivocally bad. This has not however made it go away. Murder has been illegal for a long as there have been laws, and that hasn’t gone away either.

In his often-referenced novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell – Eric Arthur Blair, but as far as I know unrelated to Tony – describes an institution called the Two Minutes’ Hate. As so often, Orwell’s prediction seems laughably tame nowadays. With the advent of social media, we now have the Twenty-four Hours’ Hate. Ah, progress.

We might reasonably ask why this should be so. Is there more hatred going around now than there used to be? Or is the (perceived) safety and anonymity of online discourse simply removing our inhibitions, uncorking a reservoir of hatred that was already seething within us? Is there perhaps something in John Michael Greer’s view that hate is the new sex? – that is to say, that hatred has become for us as sexual desire was to the Victorians, a powerful emotion that was widely felt but which could not be expressed in a socially acceptable way.

In last week’s post, I talked about the importance of having a historical context in trying to understand the modern world, and this would seem to be an ideal candidate for that approach. For hatred is caused: not necessarily in a straightforward way, but something happened in the past, a transgression, or something that was perceived as a transgression. And probably not once, but many times.

I won’t get into specific examples here; goodness know there are plenty to choose from – Palestine, Ireland, Cyprus, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Iraq, and the list goes on – because my point here is not to identify the rights and wrongs of the particular case so much as the fact that the people involved believe, with at least some cause, that they have suffered undeservedly. This will lead to anger, and frustrated anger will eventually express itself as hatred.

The target of that hatred may not necessarily be what you would expect. In the aftermath of the First World War, Germans had a very hard time of it, due in large part to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. (The famous hyperinflation in the 1920s was at least partly caused by the need to pay exorbitant reparations to the Allies.) It would have been natural for this to have been expressed as hatred for the French, who were largely behind this, but France was too powerful. Instead, the hatred was transferred onto the Jews, who were close at hand and vulnerable.

This choice also had historical roots, as anti-Semitism was already a well-established tradition from medieval times (and not just in Germany, which we prefer to forget). Part of that was due to the association between Jews and usury. Lending money at interest was forbidden by the Church, so Jews were a convenient workaround. As they were often excluded from other ways of making money, they became money-lenders under the precarious protection of the local aristocracy, who could cash in at any time by simply withdrawing that protection, confiscating the money, and abandoning the Jews to the mob.

Inter-war Germany looked to the average German very much like another version of the same debt-trap with which their peasant forebears had been all too familiar. It was therefore easy for their anger and resentment to turn into a familiar channel, with the results we all know. Even though the Versailles settlement was not in fact a Jewish plot, it is quite comprehensible that many Germans might have wished it to be; and it is a short step from wishing something to be the case to believing that it is.

There is something delusional about all hatred. Those that we hate are never as purely evil and loathsome in reality as out hatred needs them to be. This is true of individuals, and more so of groups. As social primates, we have a strong need to differentiate the in-group from the out-group, and we readily confuse this with moral judgement. But once we have a delusion, the only way to preserve it is to keep contradictory evidence well away.

Hence the need to see those we hate as something other than people. The whole apparatus of Nazi “racial science” was created for this purpose. But consider equally the dehumanising of native Americans by the Conquistadors and later by European settlers in North America. If you are going to work someone to death in the silver mines of Potosí, you are not treating them humanely, that is to say, as a fellow-human. Slavery in general is a dehumanising process. A thing for sale cannot really be a person.

This gives us a clue to the abundance of hatred online, with which I began. There is a fundamental qualitative difference between relating to people online and in the real world. If you are talking to someone face to face, then (unless one or both of you is on the Asperger’s spectrum) there is a great deal of non-verbal information passing between you, and doing so immediately. It requires an act of will to overlook the personhood of the other party. (This can be done, and people do it all the time, but it is not the default level of interpersonal communication.)

In an online forum there is none of this. All you know about the other party is their bare words. Even without malice, it is easy to misconstrue what someone types. If you are looking for a fight – and a great many people are, as I will discuss in a moment – a fight is always available. And unlike the real world, there are no real consequences. If I smack someone over the head, I can expect retaliation and probably the intervention of the police. The worst thing that can happen to me online is a ban, and throwaway accounts are easy to make.

Moreover online communities are classic in-groups. The likes of Facebook and Google and Twitter are interested in ad traffic and data harvesting, and to keep you hooked they will ensure you get a constant diet of what you seem to like, or perhaps a little more so. A great many people imagine this is a balanced picture of the world, because Facebook, Google and Twitter certainly aren’t telling them any different. If you want a different point of view you will need to go and look for it proactively, and most people won’t do that: it’s time-consuming and uncomfortable and it may even oblige you to develop skills in critical thinking that nobody in power wishes to encourage.

People like to think of themselves as right-thinking and good. This goes equally for Joe Biden and Mao Zedong and Heinrich Himmler and their many admirers. We all prefer to sleep well at night. There is a warm glow of satisfaction to be derived from feeling that we certainly showed that Trump-loving bigot/capitalist running dog/Jew-lover what’s what. We may even feel as if we are pursuing a moral crusade.

But crusades are a two-edged sword. It is not for nothing that the original Crusades still rankle in Muslim eyes. Many of the most appalling things that people have done, and do today, are done in the sure and certain conviction of righteousness. It was after all a Cistercian abbot who uttered the cheerful advice “Kill them all, the Lord will know His own,” resulting in the deaths of thousands of people, at least some of whom were certainly not the heretics he was trying to get rid of. No doubt he genuinely believed he was saving souls.

Remember him the next time you’re about to click Send.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On history

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written.

George Orwell, “England Your England”

Our culture has a curious relationship with history. On the one hand, we are dismissive of it; to call something or someone “history” is to consign them to irrelevance, and “ancient history” is even worse. This is bound up with our deeply-felt, if irrational, belief that the passage of time necessarily makes things better, so the past must have been worse than the present, and the further back in time you go the worse things must have been. We also like to believe that what happened in the past does not constrain our situation today, although of course it inevitably does.

But we are also deeply conscious of history, in a way that other cultures are not and indeed our own used not to be. If you look at mediaeval depictions of Alexander the Great, for instance, he is shown wearing contemporary armour. The past was imagined to have been much the same as the present. For us, however, as L. P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” History is exotic, other, even alien. We love books and movies set in the past, even if they are usually produced by people whose attitude to historical accuracy is comparable to King Herod’s attitude to childcare.

This does not, however, free history from our criticism. Passing judgement on the past is by no means a new pastime – Sellars and Yeatman’s definitive spoof 1066 And All That is full of Good Things and Bad Kings – but it has recently become an obsession in some circles. Curiously, we seem able to do this without imagining that anyone in the future might disapprove of us; we are obviously right, everyone else (past or future) merely thought/will think they were/are right. For instance, the person who wishes to cancel George Washington for having been a slave-owner may well own a dishwasher (for much the same reasons); it isn’t hard to imagine future generations taking a dim view of that.

The recent trend of pulling down statues of people of whom right-thinking people disapprove is just a conspicuous example of this. For example, some people seem to imagine that we can fix the problems of southern Africa by pretending that Cecil Rhodes never existed. This notion is not without its appeal, but the prospects of success are slim.

Now it is true that George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” But this was in the context of a totalitarian society, in which such control might be feasible. The real world is rarely so well-organised.

Henry Ford said in a 1925 lecture: “I don’t read history. That’s in the past. I’m thinking of the future.” This is more proof, if more were needed, that Henry Ford was not a deep thinker. (He also wrote: “Mass production is craftsmanship with the drudgery taken out of it,” which is the reverse of the truth.) It is obvious that the future originates in the present, and the present originates in the past. It may not be a coincidence that Ford’s legacy has not turned out to be a thing of loveliness.

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Pexels.com

But how can we know the truth about history? This depends very much on the kind of questions we choose to ask. It is true that written sources tend to be biased and incomplete. History is often written with a conscious agenda, but even when it isn’t it is inevitably selective. Most written European history between the end of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance comes to us via monks or clerics, for the simple reason that almost everyone literate fell into one of those categories.

Clearly you can’t believe everything you read in history-books, any more than you can believe everything you read in the newspapers (or on blogs like this one). This doesn’t mean that they contain no useful information at all, though. It simply means that critical thinking is required. Sadly, this appears to have been surgically removed from the educational curriculum, certainly in the UK and by all accounts in the USA and elsewhere.

A reliable strategy, where it can be followed, is to read multiple sources with known and conflicting biases, and try to determine where the truth seems to lie. For example, the standard account of the Industrial Revolution in England can be balanced with E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican, 2013). Incidentally, this strategy goes back at least as far as Thucydides, and is (at least in theory) the way modern historians approach their source material.

It is often objected that we learn nothing from history. Collectively, this may well be true. (Collectively, human beings seem to behave like idiots most of the time.) It cannot, however, be an absolute truth, since learning anything is the result of what happened to us in the past; otherwise you would still be merrily inserting your hands into the fire. Such lessons as we can learn from history are of course less clear-cut. History never repeats exactly. But this is not to say that useful parallels cannot be drawn.

Consider the cycle in which civilisations rise and fall. Joseph Tainter, in his classic study The Collapse of Complex Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988), discusses a number of historical examples and concludes that the common theme is declining return on the investment in the complex structures and processes that are needed to keep things running. That is to say, at some point it makes more sense to give up on the whole project than to keep pouring resources into it.

This is something concrete we can look out for in contemporary events, and indeed when we look for it we shall find it. Industrial society depends on an enormous amount of complex infrastructure, which is hugely expensive to maintain – not just financially, but in terms of energy and physical resources. Just think what goes into keeping a motorway functioning: not just the physical roadway, but the signage, the drainage, traffic police and all the rest of it. At what point does all that become a price no longer worth paying?

Another useful result of the study of history is to provide context for contemporary events. The value of this is shown by what you get in its absence: the English are, on the whole, studiously ignorant of the history of Ireland, and thus are unable to comprehend why large parts of the population of Ulster would like to be shot of us. US reaction to 9/11 is another example. “Why do they hate us?” Well, a good start on answering that question might be to read French journalist Matthieu Auzanneau’s book Oil, Power and War: A Dark History (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018; originally published in French under the title Or Noir: La grande histoire du pétrole, La Découverte, 2015). It will explain a great deal about US-Arab relations and quite possibly make your hair curl.

Without this context, much of the world around us is inexplicable, and so we tend to attribute much of it to mere lunacy, especially where religion is involved. I grew up in England during the heyday of the Northern Irish Troubles, and it was always framed as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants even though theology had very little to do with it. It was at least as much of a class war as it was religious war. (Then again, even the French Wars of Religion were about much more than religion.) In the same way, we steadfastly pretend there is no historical or political background to militant Islamism. It’s just the fault of random nutters. Right.

The poster child for this syndrome is Donald Trump. I should make it clear that I hold no brief for Mr Trump, and I dare say he is as despicable an individual as he is made out to be, but the fact remains that he spoke for a real and large constituency in the USA, namely those parts of the American working class who felt – with good reason – that they had been thrown under the proverbial bus. Since neither of the major US political parties was prepared to acknowledge this, let alone speak for these people, they were obliged to resort to Mr Trump. It is by no means clear that the Biden administration is likely to address this issue.

So the critical study of history is an important tool in understanding where we find ourselves and why, and also in trying determine what sensible options we might have in trying to plot a course towards a tolerable future. As the saying goes, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. We don’t really want to be rhyming with this guy:

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On quantification

Counting is the religion of this generation. It is its hope and its salvation.

Gertrude Stein, Everybody’s Autobiography

Industrial civilisation is in love with numbers. We have numbers on pretty much everything that can be quantified, and some things that arguably can’t. When someone wishes to assert incontrovertibly that X is the case, the magic words are: “Studies show…”. And how do the studies purport to show that X is true? Statistically, that’s how.

Like so many things that appear to us to be immutable truths carved into the primordial ground of cosmic being, this tendency has a history and is the result of human choices. We first find the appeal to statistics in the eighteenth century, originally in connection with matters relating to governing a state (hence the name) such as population and economic activity. The following century saw the formation of the Royal Statistical Society in London, and the use of statistics by political and other campaigners to advance their cause; one famous example is Florence Nightingale, the Society’s first female member, who popularised the pie-chart as a means of visualising data and thereby presenting it in an accessible form.

It is not, I suspect, a coincidence that this parallels the development of the Industrial Revolution, whose consequences I discussed in a previous post. It is a natural part of the standardising tendency which gave us the Whitworth screw thread, SATS and the Big Mac. We want the world to be made up of things which are all the same.

This is obviously a prerequisite for counting things. If you have a pencil, three bananas and a bicycle, you don’t really have five of anything. If, on the other hand, you can say that one lump of pig-iron is much the same as another, then knowing you have five of those is a useful thing. Of course, it’s not actually true to say that all lumps of pig-iron are strictly equivalent; things like the carbon content will vary from one to another; but you may not need to worry about that if all you want to know is how many tons your foundry produced this week.

Then again, if you care about the quality of your pig-iron, knowing that you have five lumps of it is not especially useful. So the meaning of a statistic depends on what is being counted and why. Who is doing the counting may also be significant; human motivation is rarely pure.

Consider official unemployment figures. No government would like these to be higher than they need to be, and it is much easier and quicker to fix the numbers than it is to fix the economy. Thus the definition of unemployment becomes remarkably fluid, in order to leave out as many people as possible. In the UK, for example, you need to be unemployed and claiming a government benefit. Unsurprisingly this is coupled with a benefits system of Byzantine complexity which has all the hallmarks of having been designed to deter applicants.

But in any case, is counting people really the same sort of thing as counting pig-iron? You may (or may not) be familiar with King David’s census of the Israelites (2 Samuel 24, if you want to look it up). The king soon came to regret it: “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.”

The biblical text doesn’t make clear why this was such a bad idea, apart from the punishments that follow, but there’s a case to be made that this that this is a reaction against the kind of state bureaucracy that flourished in both Mesopotamia and Egypt at this period. Here I am following the account of state-formation in James C. Scott’s Against the Grain (Yale University Press, 2017), and while I’m not going to attempt a summary here, the relevant point is that ancient bean-counters started off counting measures of barley and ended by counting pretty much everything.

Now there will be some variability even between measures of barley, but it seems intuitively clear that human beings are individuals – indeed, we even use the word individual to refer to a person. Moreover, they have relationships with one another. What does it mean to treat another human being as a countable unit, like a measure of barley or a lump of pig-iron? Surely it is not the way most of us would want to be thought of. It is a denial of one’s basic humanity.

But when one is dealing with large numbers of people – more, let’s say, than Dunbar’s number – it is inevitable that one has to resort to this approach. It’s the only practical way of keeping on top of things, and early states were all about keeping on top of things. This appears to have been why writing was invented, and why so much of the vast corpus of cuneiform texts is so dull.

Nowadays, of course, we have Big Data. This is largely a result of technological advances; scribes inscribing clay tablets can only record a limited amount. Thanks to the miracles of Progress, we are now able to collect, store, and analyse stupendous amounts of data, most of it about us. And because we can, we do. (The scribes of Third Dynasty Ur or Qin China would most certainly have done so, given the opportunity.)

In this context, “data” just means “counts of stuff,” where many of the things being counted are events – typically things that a person has done: they spent x seconds viewing such and such a web-page, they bought this thing, they liked that post. This has a market value, because companies can use that information to sell you stuff. Governments can also use that information to identify people they don’t like; the Chinese government already does this, and I’d be very surprised if they were the only one.

However much we may claim to dislike this state of affairs, we still put up with it. It does however give us some idea of why the ancient Israelites of 2 Samuel found the whole notion of counting people as if they were things so viscerally repugnant. And it is also dangerous, because data can be inaccurate and/or misinterpreted.

This can be the result of error, or it can be deliberate. Science itself is not immune to this: famous (or notorious) examples include Sir Cyril Burt, who fabricated data wholesale to support his ideas about the heritability of IQ, or more recently Dr Werner Bezwoda and his fraudulent cancer research. There may well be many more whose nefarious practices have not been discovered; there is a lot of research which has proved difficult or impossible to replicate. Scientists are themselves human beings, a point which we seem to find difficult to admit.

You can also build a mathematical model to interpret that data, which looks impressive and works beautifully until it doesn’t. This is what happened to Long-Term Capital Management, which went south in 1998 despite the presence on its board of Nobel Prize-winning economists, requiring a bail-out to the tune of $3.625 billion. They thought they understood their model. With modern statistically-based AI, of course, nobody understands how the algorithms work. Because they seem to function most of the time – as the LTCM model did until 1997 – it’s just assumed that we can rely on the results. You may not find that thought comforting. I certainly don’t.

When Hillary Clinton ran for the US Presidency in 2016, her campaign made heavy use of data analysis, all of which suggested that she would win. We know how that ended up. I was reminded at the time of the statistical approach taken by Robert McNamara in managing the Vietnam War, relying on the body count as his measure of success. That didn’t go too well either.

But this is more than a practical question. It has profound implications for how we deal with one another and with the world in general. Is the world, to borrow a phrase from Coleridge, “an immense heap of little things” to be reckoned and classified and managed, to be bought and sold and monetised? Are there not important truths which cannot fit into a spreadsheet? I suspect most people would agree that there are, but that’s not the way we do things. There is the quantified and the unquantified, and most of the time the quantified takes precedence.

Iain McGilchrist’s magisterial study The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press, 2010) examines this division in the light of research into the workings of the human brain. It’s a fascinating, well-researched and thoughtful book, but ultimately rather depressing. There seems to be every likelihood that we will continue to be blind-sided by our obsession with numbers, just as LTCM did, failing on an epic scale to see the wood for the trees. Nobody felling a tree in the Amazon to clear land for soya-bean cultivation is doing so because they want to damage the planet. They end up doing so just the same.

The philosopher Martin Buber arrived at much the same insight from a different direction. He distinguished between I-Thou relations, in which the other is treated as a person, from I-It relations, where the other is a mere thing. When we count, we necessarily treat what is counted as things rather than persons. This may work well enough for pig-iron, but it doesn’t work for people and I would argue other living creatures too. Twenty thousand chickens in a broiler house can only be thought of statistically; a flock of half a dozen are individuals. If this reminds you of the famous remark attributed to Stalin – “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic” – that is not a coincidence.

Genocide can only happen when the victims are treated as things, not people. Nothing about the Holocaust is more striking than the way in which it was managed as an industrial process. Likewise, ecocide can only happen when living beings are treated as things, either as raw materials to be processed or as obstacles to be removed. Those long-dead Sumerian scribes weighing and recording barley never intended any of this, I’m sure, but that’s where we are.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On value, continued

I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.

Oscar Wilde (attributed)

In last week’s post we distinguished value from price, but having determined what it isn’t we haven’t said what it actually is. In this essay I want to have a crack at doing that.

The word value is prominent in economic discourse but also outside it. We speak of values in the plural when we wish to discuss an ethical position. There is also the expression value judgement to denote a subjective opinion. (I am old enough to remember the Senate confirmation hearings for General Alexander Haig when he was to be appointed US Secretary of State, and he used that phrase liberally in order to weasel out of giving a straight answer.) So what exactly is this thing?

There is undoubtedly a subjective component to it. Economists refer to money we spend on what we want rather than what we need as discretionary spending; one can think of this as an indicator of what people value, at least in the category of things that money can buy. What interests me here, however, are the things it can’t.

On Planet Economics, human beings are rational actors who exclusively pursue their own interests. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met anyone remotely like that, nor would I wish to. Actual human beings are almost never rational; even when we think we are, most of the time we’re actually justifying our choices after the fact. Rationalisers we certainly are, but rational? Would Las Vegas even exist on Planet Economics?

Advertisers know this, of course. There are very rarely compelling reasons to buy Brand X rather than Brand Y of almost any consumer good. If Brand X is consistently better than Brand Y then usually Brand Y will simply go away, because while people aren’t rational they aren’t idiots either. So the advertisers hired to make you buy Brand X will try to make you like it on non-rational grounds. Buying Brand X will make you cool and sexy and irresistible to the opposite sex. (Personally I have never been attracted to anyone on the basis of what phone they have, and if someone were attracted to me on that basis I would run a mile, but that could just be me.)

There are a few exceptions where some sort of vague gesture in the direction of rational argument is attempted, usually around products that have some medical aspect to them. Often these take the form of surveys. When you look at the sample sizes given in the small print – and I assume it must be a legal requirement to provide these, because I’m sure the advertisers would rather not – they are always pathetically small. If you take enough samples of a few tens of people, you will eventually be able to find one where 79% of them like whatever it is that you’re pushing.

There was an old ad campaign I remember from my childhood which demonstrated this perfectly. These days they’ve learned to be a bit more subtle. It was so long ago that it was a TV advertising campaign for cigarettes, which has been illegal since 1965 in the UK. I’m quoting from memory, but the ad was really just some pictures of moderately cool and sexy-looking people going about their lives with a voice-over that went somewhat as follows:

People.

People like you.

People like you are changing.

People like you are changing to Players Number 6.

Disclaimer: I am not endorsing this product and I don’t think they still make them anyway.

Now I wouldn’t have been their target market at that age, but this must have been plastered all over the TV for me to have remembered it, ahem, many years later. The 1960s was self-consciously a decade of change, so it made sense for the advertisers to latch onto that. It worked, too: Players Number 6 was the best-selling brand of fag well into the 1970s.

What we’re also being sold here – and many, many advertisers and persuaders in general play this game – is that it is better to belong to the majority, or (as in this case) the group that will be the majority soon. This is a value most of us share, at least to some extent, and it is of course straight out of the social primate playbook. And also it has many practical advantages, which is why we follow it.

Some of us, though, imagine we are immune to this. We are outsiders, romantics, rebels. Advertisers have this covered too. I have never understood how consuming a mass-produced good can be a statement of one’s individuality, but you’ll find this claim being made – not, of course, so starkly.

Remember the Apple Mac commercial that riffed on Nineteen Eighty-Four? (It’s here if you need to refresh your memory.) The idea was that buying their mass-produced thing would mark you out as a special, non-conformist freedom fighter. So many people have now bought their mass-produced things that having an Apple product is now a mark of conformity. Nor is this an unintended irony: Apple paid for that that advert precisely in order that this should be so, because they have made an awful lot of money out of it, and continue to do so.

There’s an alternative, of course, which may appeal more to your values, although you won’t find it being suggested by advertisers, politicians, or anyone else; apart from occasional statements by the Pope, who enjoys pretty good job security. If you really want to be a radical outsider in industrial society, you’ll try to avoid buying mass-produced consumer goods altogether.

This is practically impossible to do for everything in our society, particularly when it comes to things like underwear where buying second-hand isn’t an appealing option for many. Your discretionary spending will get you a lot less if you choose not to take advantage of the “fact” that it is cheaper to buy something made in China and shipped half-way around the world than it is to buy the equivalent product from a local small-scale maker, assuming you can even find one. But the choice is there to be made, at least some of the time.

I have already suggested in my essay on food that there are practical advantages to be had if you can eat fresh locally-produced food purchased directly from the producer. A point I didn’t make there is that every pound/dollar/euro you give to that producer is a pound/euro/dollar that isn’t going to Big Ag or to the supermarkets. Ultimately this is the only kind of activism that such entities will pay attention to.

Consider also joining a local trading scheme such as LETS (this is a UK-specific site, but similar things no doubt exist elsewhere). This is the ultimate decoupling of price from value, because no money changes hands at all. Instead, you have a local credit economy – there’s more on the theory behind it here and here if you’re interested. My brother once got himself a second-hand car via his local LETS, so it’s quite a serious proposition.

All this does have the disadvantage of moving you out of the dominant majority group, as things stand today. But as things stand tomorrow, I suspect it will become more attractive to more people, and may indeed end up as a necessity. Your call, of course, but remember you read it here first.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On value

Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Following on from last week’s discussion of wealth, I want to investigate the related notion of value. As Oscar Wilde pointed out, we often tend to conflate value and price, but these things are distinct in important ways and confusing them blinds us to much that we need to be aware of. I want to tease out some of these distinctions and some of the things we miss by ignoring them.

A price is a number that is supposed to correlate with or describe value. It is expressed in monetary units, which are an abstract representation of value. Prices are supposed to be determined by markets, which will be getting their own blog post in due course, and these determinations are considered to be infallible.

Now confusing the representation of a thing with the thing itself is a fundamental error. (The philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined the term “category-mistake” for this kind of thing.) Ordnance Survey sheet 158 is not the town of Newbury. It is a description of Newbury, which necessarily leaves a great deal out. Nobody lives in Ordnance Survey sheet 158. It has no MP, pays no taxes, and is only 1/50,000th the size of the real thing. Even in these times of economic difficulty, I don’t think you could buy the town of Newbury for £8.99. Clearly nobody would confuse the map with the actual town. But we make essentially the same basic mistake when we confuse price with value.

I mentioned the price of the map because that is supposed to stand for its value. But of course its value is not a constant thing. Ordnance Survey charge £8.99 because they hope they can sell enough at that price to cover the cost of producing it and make some profit on top. That’s its value to them (and even so, they charge the same for all of their 1:50,000 scale maps, and no doubt some sell much more than others).

But what is its value to you? Unless you live in the Newbury area, or are planning to go there, probably not much. Even if you do fall into that category, is it worth £8.99 of your hard-earned money? To answer that question, you must compare two values: the value of the map, and the value of £8.99.

For the value of £8.99 is not fixed. If you are a multi-millionaire, it is to all practical purposes zero. If you are a rough sleeper with no source of income, it represents a small fortune. You are probably somewhere in between those two extremes, but you will still have a sense of what £8.99 is worth to you.

This brings out the point that although we express prices arithmetically, they are not absolute in the way that arithmetical values are. The number 42 is always and everywhere 42. It is never 43 or 41. My 42 is the same as your 42. Some thinkers would indeed argue that 42 has its own existence, independent of there actually being 42 of anything, but be that as it may we can I think all agree that 42 is always the same thing.

But £42 (or $42 or €42) is clearly not always the same thing to all people. In England in the early fourteenth century, for example, £42 would have represented twenty-one years’ wages for a labourer. By 1900, according to one source, it would be equivalent to £3609.26 in 2021 terms. And of course the value of £42 to someone in a non-sterling country is subject to the further vagaries of foreign exchange. So price looks as if it expresses some eternal mathematical truth, especially to economists, but of course it doesn’t.

Economists, of course, will riposte that the eternal mathematical truth in question is not price as such but the law of supply and demand. That is to say, a good or service is worth what someone will pay for it. The market determines price. On Planet Economics, we all go around making free contracts with one another on the basis of perfect information, and thus we invariably arrive at the correct and fair price for everything. It’s marvellous.

Of course, this rosy picture is far removed from reality. It has the advantage of being a lot easier to model mathematically than reality is, but that’s about all that can be said for it. If you are an economist and your job consists of building mathematical models then this will be sufficient reason to adopt this notion, but the rest of us would probably prefer something more realistic.

Prices are rarely correct or fair. We all recognise this when we say that something is cheap or expensive; we’re saying in effect that the price is lower or higher than than the value it represents. And in a world of perfect information, there would be no such thing as arbitrage, let alone insider trading.

The economist’s definition does have one virtue, though, in that it reminds that a price applies to a specific transaction at a specific time between a buyer and a seller. If nobody wants to buy a good or service, then it has no actual price. (The vendor can offer it at a price, but if nobody’s buying then it’s meaningless.) Likewise, if nobody is selling a good or service, it doesn’t have a price either. You can offer me as much as you like for my first-born child; it will avail you nothing, not least because I have no children.

Now, money in the sense of an abstract representation of value is quite a recent development in human history. Value is both logically and historically prior to price, and distinct from it. Many things don’t fall into the category of things that can be bought and sold, and some of those things are the most valuable of all.

In the industrial world, we have tried to address this by trying to bring as many things as possible into the marketplace. Consider if you will the almost religious awe inspired by Gross Domestic Product. This is an entirely monetary measure and has much less basis in reality than is commonly supposed. Yet GDP growth is the only thing we seem to care about. When GDP goes up, things are assumed to be going well; if it goes down, things are going badly. But it ain’t necessarily so.

For example: consider a couple with a young child. In Scenario A, one of them goes out to work and the other provides unpaid child-care at home. (It doesn’t matter which of them it is, which gender they may be, or whether the couple is gay, straight or what have you.) In Scenario B, they both go out to work, and pay some proportion of what they earn to a third party for child-care. In monetary terms, Scenario B is to be preferred, because more money changes hands and GDP goes up. In terms of quality of life, though, and arguably the best outcome for the child, Scenario A is better, even though GDP isn’t increased. But we can only see the numbers.

An even more egregious example of this thinking is the (in)famous 2013 report which valued the planet’s natural assets at $7.3 trillion US. Now as we have seen over the last year, US dollars can be conjured from nothing in arbitrary quantities – $3.5 trillion or so already – so it is quite conceivable that the Federal Reserve could come up with $7.3 trillion to buy another planet’s worth of resources. The only slight problem with this wheeze, of course, is finding a vendor.

Prices are supposed to perform the miracle of measuring the relationship between incommensurable things. On Planet Economics, it’s supposed to go like this. I have a sack of potatoes. You have an electric toaster. I want the toaster but you are allergic to potatoes. What can I do? Well, by turning my potatoes into money – i.e. selling them to someone else – I will have something to give you for your toaster that you are bound to want. (They’ll need to be pretty expensive potatoes to pay for a toaster, but that’s another discussion.) I give you some nice pictures of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, you give me the toaster, and everyone goes on their way rejoicing, with the possible exception of the sucker who paid twenty quid for a sack of spuds.

This kind of story goes back all the way to Adam Smith. It is of course nonsense; Adam Smith himself knew it to be nonsense; even economists must realise it’s nonsense, but they’re still telling it today to explain the origin of money. In reality, as the late David Graeber showed in Chapter 2 of his excellent book Debt: The First Five Thousand Years (Melville House Publishing, 2013) this has been a non-problem for almost everyone throughout history, because this kind of transaction is the exception, not the rule. As with the map of Newbury, this story leaves a lot of things out.

What sort of person, for example, only has potatoes? I’ll tell you: someone at a market with a potato stall. (And when have you ever seen a market stall that only sold potatoes?) The rest of us have other things, and we meet in other settings than the marketplace. You have a toaster that I want. We can have a conversation about what goods and/or services you would be willing to exchange for it. After all, in the real world, we probably know one another. (It’s an artefact of industrial civilisation, and another historically recent development, that so many of us now live surrounded by strangers.) Maybe I have a pregnant cow. I might consider giving you the calf, provided you throw in that comfy armchair and a bottle of your home-made vodka. And because you know me, you’ll be willing to give me the toaster now on the strength of the future calf, and we trust one another enough that if the cow miscarries we’ll sort it out.

We may not even discuss the bottle of vodka or the chair. We understand that calf is a lot more valuable than an electric toaster, even if it can do bagels. When I give you the calf, you’ll owe me… something. Or perhaps you won’t, because we already have a history of mutual credit, and I already owe you… something else. We’ll work it out.

We need prices as a stand-in for value because we live in a commoditised, impersonal society that is in love with numbers and abstractions. This is a highly abnormal, even perverse, way to live. It only seems normal because we grew up with it and it is everywhere. Like so much in our industrial civilisation, however, it is gives us a distorted view of how things really are.

Remember that the next time you buy a toaster.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On wealth

There is no wealth but life.

John Ruskin, Unto This Last

I’m going to start an occasional series of essays enquiring into economics by examining the notion of wealth. Adam Smith himself defined economics as “the science of wealth” and his most famous book is entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. We often hear of a mysterious process called “wealth creation”.

Let us begin by distinguishing wealth from money. The Pharaoh Tutankhamun, was, we can all agree, a wealthy man. His mask (shown above) is of solid gold and weighs in at 321.5 oz; at the time of writing, just the metal would set you back a tad over £469,110, even if we ignore the work that went into it and its artistic value. However, the Pharaoh Tutankhamun had no money, either in the form of coinage or of credit. Coinage would not be invented for a good six centuries after he and his mask were interred in the Valley of the Kings, and as pharaoh he owed nobody anything. His wealth consisted in owning all the land in Egypt, and taxes were paid to him in kind from its produce.

So his wealth consisted of physical goods and services. Anyone claiming to be a “wealth creator” in that kind of economy is going to find themselves up against the laws of physics, which has the interesting consequence that the wealth that such people deal in is non-physical. So what exactly might that wealth be?

I would characterise wealth as comprising the following:

  • access to breathable air – without which one is dead; Tutankhamun may have been wealthy when he was alive, but I wouldn’t want to claim that he still is. Of course this isn’t a very exclusive requirement, but clearly people who are obliged to breathe the heavily polluted air of some urban environments would be considered less wealthy that those who are not.
  • access to drinkable water – again, basic stuff, but plenty of people don’t have it and those people are definitely not wealthy.
  • access to food – not just sufficient to keep one alive, but in more than sufficient quantity and of more than merely tolerable quality; Fortnum & Mason rather than the Trussell Trust.
  • access to shelter – and again more than the bare minimum required for survival. Bill Gates does not live in a tent.
  • access to medical care – within the limits of what may be available in your particular circumstances, of course.
  • access to community – we are social creatures, and we need one another. If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has taught us this.
  • access to luxuries – whatever those might be for us. Exactly what that means is always contingent on time, place, cultural values and personal tastes, but as the judge said of pornography, you know a luxury when you see it.
  • security of tenure – we need to have some confidence that all of this won’t be taken from us at a moment’s notice. This is a relative thing, of course, as we are all ultimately going to end up the same as Tutankhamun, who doubtless expected to enjoy his wealth for rather longer than he did.

Looking at this list, we can see that there is indeed a mixture of both material and non-material things, and some of them may have quite elastic definitions. Even luxuries may be non-material. For my part, if I were to win the lottery, I would certainly not buy a Lamborghini, but I would still enjoy the luxury of never having to worry about money. This is not a tangible thing.

Again, security of tenure has both material and non-material aspects. If I did own a Lamborghini and someone took it away from me, I would be reliant both on the legal concept of ownership (a non-material thing) and on the police force (very much part of the material world) to make good my loss. Wealth is therefore not simply a matter of physical stuff, although physical stuff is always involved at some level.

This is where money re-enters the story. It may surprise you – it certainly surprised me when I started looking into it – that there is no universally accepted definition of what money is. David Graeber discusses this in some depth in in his excellent Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2012), especially Chapter Three, but for our purposes I’m going to define money as an abstraction of value. That is to say, it is a tool for making quantifiable and commensurable the values of different and potentially incommensurable things, as in when a company pays someone £10.00 an hour.

We take this so much for granted that we often confuse money with value itself. But of course the worth of money consists entirely in its acceptability. I remember travelling to the Netherlands in the days before the Euro and being given a bunch of these things at the Foreign Exchange desk:

I simply couldn’t take this seriously as money. Nevertheless, Dutch people all seemed quite happy to accept them and give me goods and services in return.

Nor is this just a characteristic of paper money. Try taking a bag of sestertii down your local supermarket and see how far you get. Of course you could sell your coins to a collector but then you would be exchanging them for your locally acceptable currency, effectively turning them into money even though they were minted as money in the first place.

None of this was an issue for our friend Tutankhamun, who as noted above had no money, although he had plenty of access to value. And the foundation for that was an intangible thing: his prestige as the divine ruler of all Egypt.

This gives us some context for understanding the magical phrase “adding value” which is what wealth creators claim to be doing. Again, I think we are looking at a mixture of physical and non-physical things, which I am going to call transformation and pixie dust.

A basic example of transformation would be to take a chunk of flint and turn it into a hand-axe. You can do a lot of things with a hand-axe that you can’t do with a lump of unworked rock; this is the added value. Another example would be to cut down a tree and use the wood to make a chair. This is less clear-cut, because the tree had value which it has now lost – you won’t find many birds nesting in a chair, nor is it a CO2 sink. You are exchanging one bunch of value for another. In other words, there are often trade-offs with this kind of thing, and not all of them are going to be obvious.

Where you can really cash in, though, is by adding pixie dust. This is what brands are, fundamentally. You can have two functionally equivalent items – T-shirts, say – and by the simple act of attaching a designer label to one of them you can charge far more money for it. This only works, of course, to the extent that people buy into it, which is why we have the advertising industry. Naomi Klein’s book No Logo (Fourth Estate, 2010) goes into this in depressing detail.

Another popular way to apply pixie dust is to add pointless features. Cars are an excellent example of this. At this point, we know how to do cars. There are no longer any killer features to distinguish one from another; they all cover the same essential bases. Therefore the two avenues to added value are branding (of course) and adding extra bells and whistles. Do you really need a powered cup-holder? Probably not, but you’re going to be offered one if the manufacturer thinks they can charge you a bit more for it. All of these extra bits and bobs are of course more things to go wrong.

The trouble with pixie dust, though, is it has no substance to it. If I need to go down to the shops, I don’t need a Lamborghini, and I’m going to need a lot of persuading that I do, especially as there isn’t much room for your groceries in the back of one of these:

So what is the foundation of true wealth? I think there’s a clue in the fact that all of the things on my list depend on the co-operation of others. (Including breathable air – remember the tree that was cut down to make a chair?) We are social creatures, and our well-being depends on social factors – for example, some kind of arrangement that ensures reasonable security of access to one’s needs. This doesn’t have to look like our current property laws, by the way, but that is the purpose they are intended to serve.

Now I’m not putting forward any kind of legislative programme, and I doubt any my readers are in a position to do so. What I would encourage is the development by each of us of local, personal networks that can provide mutual, practical aid and support, because we’re all going to need it. But if we have that, maybe we can not just weather the forthcoming storms but even prosper.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On slogans

War is peace.

Freedom is slavery.

Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The word slogan comes to us from Scottish Gaelic, and its original meaning was battle-cry. As such, its basic function is a declaration of group identity. The meaning of what is being yelled is less important than the fact that all of us over here are yelling it together. My intention here, however, is to unpack a few slogans as if the meaning of the slogan mattered.

I’m doing this because the slogan is one of the favourite rhetorical devices of our age, and as such it is used to persuade. By encapsulating what one desires the audience to believe in a slogan, one bypasses their critical faculties, because the content of a slogan is not usually examined. Instead it is swallowed whole.

My first example is a golden oldie that will be familiar to UK readers, originating with the Women’s Institute (although it has since evolved into its own charity):

Keep Britain tidy.

I chose this because it seems quite innocent on the face of it – nobody suspects the WI of dark ulterior motives – but it packs a surprising number of assumptions into three short words.

Firstly, it implies that Britain is already tidy, in the teeth of the evidence; or at least that tidiness is somehow Britain’s default mode of being. In its original context, the aim of this slogan was to get people to pick up litter, or at least not to drop it, so this is a little surprising.

Secondly, it assumes that tidiness is a good thing, in and of itself. I would argue that like many things it’s a good thing up to a certain point. My point here is that the slogan elides any discussion of how tidy we want Britain to be, or indeed what tidiness is or should be.

Thirdly – and this is something we find in many slogans – it is expressed as an imperative. The WI is a fine body, but it has absolutely no authority to command anyone to do anything. Advertisers love this. They often command us to buy whatever it is they’re selling, presumably because it works, even though they have even less authority than the WI, which at least has some claim to the moral high ground.

Apart from telling you to buy their product, advertisers are reluctant to make definitive statements even in their slogans. My favourite example of this, which again is an old one, is:

Ford gives you more.

Four words, but so many begged questions. What is it exactly that Ford gives you more of? One could perfectly well interpret this as “Ford gives you more trouble,” but presumably that wasn’t what they had in mind. And what is it than which Ford gives you more of this thing? I assume we are supposed to insert the name of Brand X here. Notice how they are careful not to say anything that could be objectively tested. Had they said, for example, “Ford gives you more miles between services than Peugeot,” we would be able to look at the facts and decide whether it be true or false. But that would cease to be a slogan and become a claim that invites verification.

What we have instead is a vacuous form of words which, if repeated endlessly, will leave you with a vague warm fuzzy feeling towards Ford, possibly to the point that you end up buying one of their cards. This sort of thing is very popular in car advertising, because there isn’t really all that much to choose between different makes of car. Hence the saying – I’d even call it a well-known fact -“You are what you drive,” a maxim that renders me non-existent but which many people appear to believe.

This characteristic vagueness on the part of the motor industry shows up in our next example:

You can in a Nissan.

What exactly is it you can do in a Nissan that you can’t do in some other make of car? The slogan prudently refrains from telling us, because the answer is: absolutely nothing. It does, however, suggest an ill-defined notion of empowerment. After all, the main thing you can do in a Nissan – as you can equally well do in a Fiat, an Audi or a Hyundai – is to drive from one place to another. The motor industry has spent decades trying to instil in us all the notion that this is the true meaning of freedom. And freedom is good, right? You’re probably lacking much other freedom in your life, what with all the time and effort you put into making enough money to pay for your car, amongst other things. Ivan Illich went so far as argue that when this time was taken into account, the actual speed of a car was around walking pace.

But the queen of all “empowering” slogans must surely be:

Because you’re worth it.

Devised back in 1973 on behalf of L’Oréal, a company which markets cosmetics to women, this is a beautiful instance of the personal being political. What, after all, is the point of cosmetics? Surely to make yourself more attractive to others. And why should you want to do that? This was a hot topic in 1973, when second wave feminism was in full swing. L’Oréal’s business proposition could easily be characterised as: “Hey, fish, would you like some help getting a bicycle?” Not an easy sell.

Previously, cosmetics advertising played quite straightforwardly on the insecurity of women, with headlines like “How to Bring Your Husband Straight Home at Night.” The genius of this slogan is that it continues to do so while appearing to do the opposite. Clearly there is an underlying sense of worthlessness which is assumed women have; by seeming to affirm the opposite, L’Oréal tacitly acknowledges its existence. You will feel better about yourself if you use our products, it suggests, and you deserve to feel better, therefore you should give us your money.

The unspoken corollary of this is that if you don’t buy our products it is because of a sense of self-hatred. Once this assertion is exposed to the daylight, of course, it becomes self-evidently ridiculous. But of course the art of slogan is conceal its underlying assumptions under a plausible surface.

Which brings me to my most recent – and controversial – example:

Black lives matter.

On the face of it, this is an entirely reasonable statement. It was coined in response to racially-motivated police brutality in the US, which as far as I can tell – and I live many thousands of miles from the US – is a real and appalling issue. Nevertheless , it can be read to imply things that are far from reasonable, as became apparent when an alternative version was proposed: “All lives matter.”

This would seem even more reasonable than the original, but was vehemently rejected by the BLM campaign. Which leads us with inexorable logic to the unpleasant conclusion that what is really meant by saying “Black lives matter” is that “Some lives don’t matter.”

Which lives? And why not? It seems to me that these questions need to be brought out into the open and honestly discussed.

At the back of this is a curious notion of virtue which has somehow evolved in the recesses of US academia. It has long been considered a truism that two wrongs don’t make a right, but we are now supposed to see wrongs as the only genuine source of right, and that the more oppressed a person is, the better and righter they are. I confess I struggle to understand how anyone thinks this could work, but there it is. Statistically, some not very nice people must surely have perished in the Holocaust. That doesn’t justify what was done to them, but it seems weird to pretend they must all have been angels.

When those who have been persecuted become persecutors in turn, they do not get a free pass. Consider the history of Christianity. For the first three centuries of its existence, its followers were subjected to various penalties, sometimes very severe. (How severe tended to fluctuate from one emperor to the next, but it could certainly include being thrown to the proverbial lions.) As soon as the Church was established as a branch of government, however, the burning of heretics could begin. Arguably, a similar pattern is visible in the Israeli state’s treatment of Palestinians.

People have an unlovely tendency to identify other groups of people as evil, on racial or religious or otherwise arbitrary grounds. Sometimes they maltreat or even attempt to exterminate these groups of people. It’s never justified, regardless of who does or it who is on the receiving end. It was bad when the USA passed the Chinese Exclusion Act because of racist feeling against the Chinese, and it is bad when the Chinese persecute the Uighurs on religious (and possibly racial) grounds. Again, nobody gets a free pass.

So the questions that a slogan begs can be deep and sometimes disturbing. Next time you encounter one – and you won’t have to search far – take a moment to unpack it, and see what’s underneath. You might be surprised, and disturbed, at what you find.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

On hope

Hope is being able to see the light despite all of the darkness.

Desmond Tutu

The turn of the year is a season when people naturally turn their thoughts to the future, as well as looking back on the year just passed. (Hence the appropriateness of naming January for Janus, the two-faced god of boundaries.) This year is particularly dramatic. It has of course been dominated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which is very much still with us. Here in the UK,we are also looking forward (with varying degrees of trepidation) to Brexit. Early in the year, that was all that the news media seemed to talk about, and now at the eleventh hour it has crept back onto the news agenda.

Under the circumstances, hope seems frankly irrational. But then that is the nature of the beast; if one had certain knowledge of the future, it wouldn’t be hope. Think of all those tombstones bearing the phrase “in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection” – if it were sure and certain, it wouldn’t be hope. As the ecclesiastical historian Owen Chadwick said in another context, faith would not be faith if it were knowledge, and hope is a close cousin to faith.

There is nevertheless great strength to be had from this kind of irrationality. I can personally vouch for its usefulness in getting through bad times, and if these aren’t bad times they’ll do until bad times come along. Sometimes pig-headed persistence is all there is. It worked for us in 1940, after all.

It also worked for Barack Obama, who won two terms as US President on the basis of hope. He even wrote a book entitled The Audacity of Hope (Canongate Press, 2008). The fact that, for example, he failed to close down Guantanomo Bay despite this being one of his initial election pledges and having eight years in which to do it, proves that hope springs eternal in the bosom of the electorate. No doubt the current inmates of Camp X-Ray are hoping that Joe Biden will come through.

There is a saying – I don’t know its ultimate origin – that “hope is hopeless.” I rather like this as a counter-balance to the fetishisation of hope in and of itself which is so prevalent in our culture. Hope is important and necessary, but in itself it is not a substitute for positive action. We are often prone to forget this.

You will often find people of a vaguely New-Agey cast blathering on about the law of attraction, which Wikipedia helpfully summarises as “the belief that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into a person’s life”. Now there is something in this, insofar as your thoughts influence your behaviour, and your behaviour influences your life. But behaviour is about action. Winston Churchill did not simply light a candle and trust the Universe: on the contrary, he took vigorous action to maintain the struggle with Nazi Germany in the face of apparently impossible odds.

We should also bear in mind that apparently impossible usually are indeed impossible. “Wizards know,” says Terry Pratchett, “that million to one chances come up nine times out of ten.” This is funny because it’s only true in the kind of fantasy universe that Pratchett is affectionately satirising. Yes, it always happens in the movies; in real life not so much. We remember and celebrate Churchill in 1940 because it was improbable. The previous year, the Polish President Ignacy Mościcki had also faced apparently impossible odds, and that didn’t turn out so well.

Yet even if the light which Desmond Tutu speaks of is not actually there, we are still well-advised to hope. It may be that no action we can take will avert disaster. In many areas, I would say that is clearly the case; we are not going to “fix” climate change, for example, however much pious hot air politicians may contribute. We may however be able to mitigate disaster, or at least to adapt to it. (Jem Bendell’s notion of “deep adaptation” is relevant here.) Crossing your fingers is definitely not going to help, and neither is giving way to mere despair.

How then to sustain and nourish hope? Archbishop Tutu has the consolation of a strong personal religious faith, and if you have one of those I strongly advise you to make the most of it, unless your strong personal religious faith is atheism, which may not help much. It does seem to me that faith of some sort is going to become more important to many people in the future, if only in the sense of there being no atheists in foxholes. Stoicism is certainly an approach that will be of help to many and is entirely compatible with atheism, for that matter.

For my part, I take comfort in the larger view that life on this planet is incredibly resilient. It has been through much worse things than we can throw at it: the Permian extinction, for example, and before that the Great Oxidation Event. The grass will still grow, albeit at slightly higher latitudes.

I remain impressed and encouraged by the vision of the future outlined by Chris Smaje in his book A Small Farm Future, which I recently reviewed. There are people all over the place doing good and useful work: off the top of my head I can think of Incredible Edible, the Agroforestry Research Trust, Joel Salatin and Gabe Brown in the US, and that’s just talking about food. Every day the penny drops for more people that we can’t go on like this. and at least some of those people are starting to take action. That which is unsustainable will not be sustained, after all.

It’s easy to get too fixated on current events, the froth on the surface, and overlook the deeper currents. Things will be rough, certainly, but they won’t stay that way for ever. These upheavals may be what we need in order to bring about necessary changes. We need to cling onto that hope if we are to notice the opportunities that may emerge; but we also need to seize those opportunities and make something of them.

At any rate, those are my thoughts. Let me know yours in the comments.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Predictions for 2021

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.

Yogi Berra

It is the season for pundits everywhere to make predictions about the coming year, most of which will turn out to be complete bobbins. I hereby present to you five suggestions for things I think are likely to happen in 2021. It will be interesting to revisit this post this time next year. Some of these are quite specific, others are less so, but it should be clear enough in each case how far off the mark I am.

(1) Julian Assange to be extradited to the USA

This is of course pretty basic realpolitik, and given that we are already half-way through the extradition hearings and that the UK is even more desperate than usual to curry favour with its transatlantic overlords this one is pretty obvious. I only mention it because the Assange case isn’t getting much airtime these days, and he is unlikely to see daylight again once the Americans get their hands on him. He made them look like idiots, which is the surest way to irritate the powerful.

In the unlikely event that the judicial route is unsuccessful, he may well suffer some unfortunate “accident”. I’ll still count that as half a hit. However, if the end of 2021 finds Mr Assange enjoying a pina colada on some tropical beach, I’ll have missed this one. To be honest, I would prefer that outcome, but it isn’t up to me.

(2) Boris Johnson to leave office

If this happens, I don’t think many people outside the UK will miss him. It might seem unlikely, given that his government has a huge majority, but it will be his own party that does for him. They have plenty of form in this area: Conservative leaders who don’t cut the mustard are traditionally disposed of without mercy. Even Mrs Thatcher got the chop from her own side rather than the electorate.

The motivation for this will be Brexit. At some point in 2021, and sooner rather than later, it will become apparent that this was not the masterstroke which we were assured that it would be. We don’t need to get to the point where there are food riots for this to become an issue. The obvious move to limit the political damage, from the Conservative Party’s point of view, is to blame it on Boris. Brexit would have been marvellous, the line will be, if only this bumbling incompetent hadn’t been in charge.

Now I hold no brief for Mr Johnson. He is indeed a bumbling incompetent, as has been shown multiple times throughout his career. I will shed no tears for him if he is bundled out of Downing Street. But I don’t think you can pin all of it on Boris. Still, this is going to be the best option available, and I expect the Conservatives to give it a go.

It may be wondered who will succeed him, given the startling assembly of third-rate no-hopers whom he has gathered into his Cabinet. History tells us, though, that being a third-rate no-hoper is no bar to leading the Conservative Party. They had Ian Duncan Smith in charge not so long ago. Those with longer memories may recall, with some effort, John Major. As for David Cameron, least said soonest mended.

So the office of Prime Minister will be filled by someone or other. I don’t expect them to be a spectacular improvement on Mr Johnson, although they can’t be much worse. Unless we get Gavin Williamson. Or Priti Patel. Or… I’ll stop now before it gets too depressing.

(3) The USA to suffer its Suez moment

The Suez Crisis of 1956 is generally thought of as the moment when the UK was obliged to recognise that it was no longer as big a force in the world as it had been. Essentially, the Egyptians had nationalised the Suez Canal – which was an entirely legal act – and we decided that we would relieve them of it, with the assistance of France and Israel. We failed to get the permission of the USA to do this, and were forced to desist.

For a very long time, the USA has been accustomed to throwing its weight around in foreign affairs, replacing national governments as it saw fit. After the collapse of the USSR, there didn’t seem to be anyone who could stop them doing whatever they wanted. This led to a somewhat euphoric period, summed up in Karl Rove‘s notorious declaration: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

Those who create their own reality sooner or later collide with some solid object that disillusions them, and this is what I think will happen to the USA next year. Foreign adventures are the traditional way for a precarious regime to cement national solidarity – this was why Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, for instance. It is pretty generally agreed that the USA’s internal affairs are in a somewhat parlous state right now. They are likely to try and push their luck, and my guess is they will embarrass themselves.

What form will that take? There are plenty of hot-spots in the world where Uncle Sam might choose to plant his size nines. The South China Sea suggests itself. Perhaps one or other of the Gulf States might implode. But the USA will try and cross a line, and either Russia or China – or Russia and China acting together – will tell them no. And they will find themselves having to take no for an answer.

This will come as no surprise to anyone outside the USA and will cause complete bafflement and consternation within it, as 9/11 did. Of course I could be wrong about this happening in 2021, but I don’t think I’m wrong about it happening some time soon. We shall see.

(4) Covid-19 to rise again after victory has been declared

Governments everywhere will be keen to claim that the whole Covid-19 thing is now under control, thanks to their brilliant handling of it, and that we can all get back the serious business of creating shareholder value. At least one of them is bound to declare this prematurely, and another major outbreak will ensue.

I won’t state categorically that it will be the UK government that does this, but I wouldn’t bet against it either on current form. It’s likely to occur in a country that has suffered heavily from the virus, because that’s where the most points can be scored for “defeating” it: the US, China, Spain, France and Italy are all candidates.

I am not saying that the pandemic will go on forever. Pandemics don’t. Nobody developed a revolutionary vaccine against the Black Death, but it’s no longer a major problem. This is more about some government claiming to have overcome the virus and then being proved embarrassingly wrong.

When I come to assess this one next year, much will turn on the vague phrase “major outbreak” – I’m sure there will be at least one unambiguous claim of victory.

(5) Another major global financial crisis will hit

This is a matter of when, not if, since there was little done to address the systemic issues in the global financial system that were so cruelly exposed in 2007-8. Which domino will fall first is anyone’s guess. The Italian banking system has been a disaster waiting to happen for some time, and I doubt that the pandemic has helped the situation. Deutsche Bank is also in less than perfect health.

We could also be looking at a currency crisis: sterling, or (heaven forfend) the US dollar could come under pressure. Money is being created hand over fist to prop up industrial economies in the face of the pandemic. Certainly the UK government has been throwing it around like a sailor on shore leave, having apparently discovered the elusive magic money tree. The Federal Reserve in the US has also put in eye-wateringly vast sums.

Plenty of major national economies have been flying on one engine for a while. Brazil is in serious trouble. China might be, as nobody really believes the official government statistics. Lord knows what will happen to the UK, but it’s not going to be pretty. If even a second-tier economy has to default on its international debt obligations, something somewhere in the financial system is likely to break.

Nobody really knows how long all this can keep going. It’s entirely possible that I’m wrong about the timing and 2021 will not turn out to be the moment Wile E Coyote finds out he has run out of cliff. But if not next year, soon enough.


So there you have it: my five cheerful prognostications for 2021. I don’t expect to be right on all of them. Let’s reconvene in twelve months’ time and see. Tell me what you think in the comments!

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.