Friday, 16 May 2008

Thought for the Day - Surfing the Rage

When I first began working on what I now call the ‘economics of enough’ we didn’t have the interweb, but it wasn’t long after first wiring up that I searched for the phrase. It didn’t and doesn’t crop up much, which was/is both depressing (from a global perspective) and reassuring (from an egotistical perspective). It seems to appear most frequently in the work of Christian philosophers, sociologists and commentators. It popped up yesterday in (for me at least) dramatic form when Dr Elaine Storkey used the phrase (repeatedly!) during her Thought for the Day piece on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

You can read her thought here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/programmes/thought/documents/t20080515.shtml

and listen to it somewhere else, if you can be bothered.

This occurrence is both good and bad.

It’s good in the sense that any wider appreciation of the relationship between the economic system we have evolved for ourselves (transitive use deliberate) and its negative consequences – most notably, systematic environmental degradation, systemic and persistent inequalities and high and rising levels of psychological ill-health – cannot be but a good thing. The more that people are noting and noticing the connections, the better. And if a few minutes in the god-slot on Britain’s premier news broadcast contributes to that process, so much the better.

But therein lies the bad bit. It seems to me a profoundly unsatisfactory thing that the idea of enoughness should have such a conspicuously religious character.

Leaving aside any antipathy I might have to Christianity in particular, or organised religion in general, there seems to me to be a problem if the idea of enough is seen by non-Christians as a specifically Christian message. Identification of an idea with a particular sub-set or sect within society enables others to distance themselves from it. This has already happened with a number of specifically environmental behaviours, with ‘mainstream’ society (that is, millions of ordinary individuals) too easily able to think of ‘greenies’ as tree hugging weirdoes. Even now, with climate change apparently ‘top of mind’ among the British public, around a third of respondents to a recent Defra survey agreed with the statement: “Being green is an alternative lifestyle; it’s not for the majority” [Defra/BMRB, November 2007, Q8.11]. Among some groups, or segments, more than four fifths of respondents agreed with this statement.

This finding is more than simply wryly amusing (in the way that surveys showing that millions of Americans believe that the world is 4,000 years old, that aliens routinely abduct people and that ‘central America means Kansas’ are found wryly amusing by many Brits.) These results have important consequences: one of the best ways of avoiding taking personal responsibility yourself is to believe that a behaviour or attitude is ‘Other’ and therefore nothing to do with you. By believing that pro-environmental behaviour is weird, and for others, you resolve the paradox of conscience that might otherwise prompt you to realise that you – we – just can’t go on like this.

Similarly with religion. It’s all well and good for the religious community to speak to themselves and remind each other of the teachings of their scriptures, and if Christians start to behave in a more environmentally-friendly way, or even a way genuinely consistent with the economics of enough, then great.

But I cannot help that fear that millions of ordinary people, and thousands of economists, get let off the hook. The ordinary secular consumerist masses can say to themselves: that’s just weirdo Christian claptrap. If they want to be ascetics hugging trees in their hair shirts, that’s fine, but it’s clearly not for me, in the same way that transubstantiation and kneeling in subjugation on Sundays are not for me. Preaching abstinence and thrift appropriates an important message to a wider assembly of ideas – what Steve Bell labelled ‘the wrong kind of gobbledegook’ – thereby absolving the secular masses of responsibility.

The economists, too, get off the hook, because each and every idea that threatens their edifice can be discounted (ha ha) because it has a particular origin rather than some general application. Most ‘environmental economics’, or ‘green economics’ or even ‘post-autistic economics’ has utterly failed to make headway inside mainstream economics because it can be easily anaesthetised with the phrase “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” If ‘enough’ is one of god’s words, this will make it easier for the economists to ignore it.

On this theme, there is not merely a history to be told of the complete dominance of neo-classical orthodox economics, and the primacy of abstract, quantitative analysis, there is an evolutionary Just So story to be told about why that has come about, about why alternative narratives, models and world-views have failed. It’s not just that Marxism failed in its most obvious practical applications, or that applied Keynesianism didn’t quite cut it in the 1970s, it’s that self-replicating, interdependent ideas and institutions have co-evolved in a particular way.

Lying at the heart of the ‘economics of enough’ – or, more precisely, the casting of enoughness that I wish to argue and spell out – is an evolutionary account of a thing called an economy, and the institutions within it. Such an account is necessarily conditional – in this place, at this time, such and such happened to be the case, and perfectly ordinary evolutionary processes led from there, to here, in the same way that the explanation of this animal or this organ or this habitat is conditional. We can use general ideas to establish the design space, and Darwin to explain the processes, but the specifics are – just so.

Neo-Darwinian theory makes it very clear that there is nothing inherently ‘best’ about this, it is simply that the various entities and agents involved were seeking and selected for ‘fitness’. The ‘neo-classical account’ was fit for purpose because it happened to arise at a time when mechanistic models of the universe were in vogue, because key institutions, particularly academic institutions, adopted certain ideas at certain times to serve their own ends, because coalitions of actors – particular political functionaries in national treasuries – found particular tools useful at particular times.

And in much the same way that the QWERTY keyboard persists far beyond its rational lifespan, so too does neo-classical economics, and so too do many features of late-capitalist economies.

Take, as an inflammatory example, the system of education in the UK. (Not quite as inflammatory, I grant you, as arguing that organised religion consists of an evolved human institutional device consistent with protecting an emotionally and psychologically underdeveloped species but which is now a remnant of an earlier time, a comfort blanket we need to leave behind. The mature world of tomorrow needs to look squarely and assuredly at the nature of the distribution of resources, and say enough is enough; and it needs, too, to stare squarely at our existential plight without the magical props. We all need to grow up.) (What else is there to do?)

Anyway, education gets a look in because not only does it provide a good example of a malformed evolutionary artefact, and not only because the nature of the malformation (in the UK at least) is a fundamental component of systemic injustice and inequality, but because recent events and news coverage has brought it to the forefront of my mind.

In fact, I have to confess, that among the many things about which I really get quite angry, education usually comes top. If we ask ourselves: what are the signs of a genuinely advanced civilisation? we must answer not with talk of money or power or toys, but of care and nurture. A genuinely civilised society is one in which the weak and vulnerable are cared for by the strong and the capable. Most precisely, the judgment of a society is on the basis of how it cares for its young, its old and its sick. I’ll return some other time to which of these comes first, but let’s focus for now on the young.

What more important thing could there be than to look after and raise a child? At the level of the individual, the family, the community and society as a whole? (I’m tempted to go on a long diversion into Rawlsian ethics, but I don’t have time, and you’ll have to wait for the book.)

Back to the plot. In the UK, in the early twenty first century, it is considered perfectly normal for people with more money than average to buy a separate kind of life for their children. In London, apparently, more than one fifth of children are being educated in this way. Parents – all kind and well-meaning, I’m sure – seek to maximise the life chances of their loved ones by buying access to superior sports facilities, enhanced extra-curricular music tuition, a virtually guaranteed higher performance in exams, a virtually guaranteed improved access to higher education and, most crucially, immunisation from contamination with the riff raff whose dirty and unwashed faith/colour/attitudes/fashion choices would corrupt their little darlings.

Whilst thereby insulated, the darlings will make friends with all the other little darlings who, in ten and twenty and thirty years’ time will run the show. Their social networks will ensure they will run the newspapers, the political machinery, the major financial and commercial institutions and so on.

Don’t believe me? Read John Harris’s article entitled “Networked from Birth” from last weeks Guardian:

http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,2279014,00.html

This article rekindled – no, reignited – my fury at all this. I’ve had enough. A culture of individuality, of parental choice, is simply the latest carapace for the Establishment’s systematic reproduction of itself through an elitist educational system. In the UK, the ancient institutions of Eton and Harrow and Westminster have become so entrenched that they comprise part of what is called in evolutionary theory the ‘fitness landscape’; they are powerful enough to be able to shape the entire operating system to suit their own ends. Allowing the occasional poor boy in on a scholarship is exactly the same phenomenon as the lottery making the poor believe that it’s acceptable to be rich just in case it’s one day their turn (a disease that is the basis for an entire society in the States). It’s a sham, a device, a self-perpetuating fraud upon the rest of us. It is an evolved human system that systematically protects a narrow elite (which allows just enough new entrants over time to assuage the discontents) whilst condemning the majority to mediocrity.

I occasionally hear a counterargument that says something like “Well, it’s not the children’s fault they went to that school, it was the parents, so we can’t really blame them.” I’ve even heard one argument go so far as to say that to be prejudiced against the well-educated is as inappropriate as being prejudiced against someone on the grounds of their race – in either case, they can’t help it.

I admit too, that most of the privately educated individuals I’ve encountered are perfectly nice people. (Actually, that’s hardly surprising – they’ve been bloody educated at enormous expense to be ‘nice’.)

These arguments are fallacious. The rich are privately educating their children in the sure and certain knowledge that they are being inculcated with the arrogance necessary to run the show in due course. The little darlings figure this out very, very early. Children are not fools. And on the prejudice point, my view is clear: prejudice against the weak, or the marginalised, or the downtrodden, is the platform for injustice and oppression. Prejudice against the rich and the privileged is the ground for righteous anger, is the motile force for the pursuit of justice, is the basis for fiercely opposing the continuation of systematic exploitation. Fair enough, don’t hate the individual; but don’t let that nice smile and gentle handshake weaken your resolve that the system that produced them is a causal factor in your disadvantage, in your struggle, in your distance from the land of milk and honey. Ride that wave, surf that anger.

So yes, pour resources into state-funded education in a bid to lure back the middle-classes, but let’s not kid ourselves. So long as there is a long-evolved two-tier educational system in this country, a key element of an economy of enough – social justice – is unavailable. It has to go.

And faith schools, naturally, inspire a particularly acute form of politicised distress within my poor wizened frame, but I’ll have to talk about them some other time

PS: thanks to the Disposable Heroes of Hypoprisy for the ‘Kansas’ reference earlier.

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