Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Month: August 2016

Why Socrates Would Vote for Corbyn

I was reading Plato’s Gorgias recently and I was struck by how close this two and half thousand year old discussion was to the debate currently going on within the Labour Party. In brief, I think it is clear that Socrates would have been a Corbynista – for he advocated the need for a commitment to the principles of justice and he rejected the pragmatic need to flatter or pander to the electorate.

For those of you who have not read Gorgias I heartily recommend it. It is certainly rather funny.

It is a debate between Socrates and some of the leading teachers of rhetoric (the art of oratory) of his day. Socrates mercilessly attacks each of them and demonstrates that as the central function of oratory is to persuade others to an action which is independent of the justice of that action then the person persuaded (or the demos) has been corrupted.

The humour comes from the nearly visible eye-rolling and wry smiles you can imagine on the rhetoricians’  faces as they think to themselves that – for all the truth of Socrates’ critique – everything he says is unrealistic. People want to be flattered. We want politicians to lie to us. Justice feels far too much like hard work. Power is more important than principle.

And of course the wicked twist in this tail is that they were right. The Athenians killed Socrates for his truthfulness and his refusal to flatter them.

Today we hear that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable, unpersuasive and unrealistic. He’s too principled. Far better that we accept someone to lead Labour who can ‘reach out’ to the middle and win those critical swing votes.

Is this the vapid choice that lies before us – between honest failure and the victory of the charlatan?

Well here are three reasons why I’ll back Socrates and Corbyn over the current alternative:

Truth has its own victory. We behave as if the trick to justice is to get ‘our man’ (or woman) into power. But in the process, not only do we place an unreasonable responsibility on such a candidate, we also forget that true power comes through community. As Socrates observes, the tyrant inevitably loses that which is the very best thing – friendship. The desire to gain and to keep hold of ‘power’ by tricking people into believing in you is actually the desire to take on the lonely job of manipulating others to do your will.

We commonly confuse – as Hannah Arendt observed – power and force. Control of government only gives you force; real power comes through the collective action which can also shift the will and the understanding without coercion. Offering someone control of your democratic organisation, in the hope that they can then seize power over the country, but in the name of your part, is not the meaning of democracy.

Democracy is more important than Party. Simone Weil persuasively argues we’d all be better off without the Party Machine. This is another (connected) unrealistic idea. But, even if we do not achieve that utopia, surely we must all recognise that democracy in its current form is an inevitable process of victory and defeat and that ‘our’ party cannot be right all the time. The paradox is that this also means that we should want politicians to disagree, to hold out for principles and avoid the race to the middle. It is only through this kind of democratic process that we can expect to develop and improve our society.

The fact is that we are suffering under the most extreme Right-wing Government in the developed world precisely because Labour’s long-term strategy has been to occupy the ground that is as close as possible the Tories. It is a strange form of competition to drive you to imitate your competition. In the end the result of this strategy has been to create no effective counterweight to the Rightward swing that began under Thatcher and has reached such extremes under Cameron. Debate has been stifled, interesting alternative policies are not considered and a stifling elitist consensus prevails.

In fact one of Socrates’ most powerful arguments is that these experts in rhetoric cannot even name someone whose rhetoric has left Athens in a better state than he found it. Even the greatest of Athenians found themselves attacked or exiled after their periods of leadership. As Socrates says, a true leader would not have made the people more vicious, more eager to blame and less interested in true justice. What then the legacy of the New Labour as we enter year 6 of an austerity programme condemned by the United Nations for rejecting human rights?

Argument trumps rhetoric. Modern politics has abandoned any respect for evidence, logic and the wisdom of practice. We wish to be saved from our fears and anxieties and we rush to those who promise us safety. In the end we are disappointed and in fact we knew we’d be disappointed, because we’d listened to promises that we knew lacked substance. The salesman sells and we buy, because all we are offered are competing sales pitches. We do not really believe all the rhetoric – we have just come to accept that the only choice available is to choose the best salesman, the best spin doctor.

Corbyn’s refusal to look the part, to sell himself, to use rhetoric and bombast – that’s what I love about him. I’m sure that on many matters of detail I’d disagree with him. But so what? What appeals to me is that he is offering – both within and without the Labour Party – the chance for meaningful debate.

Socrates may also have been unrealistic and there is certainly no apolitical path to justice. What I’m looking for is someone who wants to open debate – not someone with all the answers. What I’m looking for is someone who remembers that justice is never safe in the hands of the rich and powerful. What I’m looking for is someone who knows I don’t need a hero or even a leader; I just need someone who remembers that it’s ordinary people – the demos – who are the foundation of a just society.

And one last point. You may not have heard of Gorgias, but you’ve probably heard of Socrates. His ideas and his thinking survived his murder by his enemies.

Gangster Economics

Economics emerged as a moral science, an attempt to understand how to advance justice and the wellbeing of all. The word comes from the combination of two important Greek words:

  • Oikos – which means family, family property or the family house
  • Nomos – which means law, order or justice

Today economics is treated as merely a social science, and as with all social sciences, the assumption that there is a moral order and that justice is a fundamental reality has faded. This is very much to the disadvantage of the science. Without moral imagination economics becomes lost in its own self-made world of artificial principles and models. It tries to predict rather than to guide us towards what is right. It becomes a servant of the powerful and of economic power in particular, rather than an advocate for economic justice.

It is striking that one of the founders of economics, Adam Smith, was a moral philosopher and that, his original vision was certainly very moral. For instance, Smith wrote:

“This disposition to admire, and to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean conditions… is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”

Smith is responsible for helping to found the most powerful and well known of economic theories, economic liberalism; and while there have been some other important innovations in thinking and practice over the years, this approach – which stresses the importance of individual free choice in promoting good outcomes – has been resilient. Most economic theory is merely a footnote to liberalism.

It is a sad irony that the ideas of a man who often stressed the rights and freedoms of the poorest is now often cited to support the policies that harm them. In the UK, Government’s of both Left and Right, have turned justice on its head and acted as if we exist to serve the market, not the other way around. Advocates of justice often use the term liberalism, or its variant, neoliberalism to define the nature of their moral error.

This marks a decline in the meaning of the world liberalism that is also bitterly ironic. Originally being liberal meant to be free or to be lavishly generous. There is nothing liberal about the meritocratic, mean-spirited elites who rule our country today.

In fact I think that when we criticise the current Conservative Government, or the previous Coalition or New Labour Governments, as ‘liberal’ or ‘neoliberal’ we are in danger of flattering them. There is nothing liberal in their policies – in either sense. They do not enable more people to be free and independent, they do not encourage generous giving or secure welfare. They are illiberal, reducing freedom and increasing inequality and poverty.

How then should we characterise their economic policies if they should not be called liberal? I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I think I’ve come up with the right name. We are living through an era of Gangster Economics, where the purpose of economic policy is to reinforce the power and wealth of a small group by exploiting the poorest and bribing the powerful.

Think how gangsterism works. First you must exploit the poorest, using fear and violence, while ensuring that no powerful forces of resistance can arise from within the exploited communities. Compare this to a range of current Government policies:

  • Benefit cuts, sanctions and workfare brutalise the poorest
  • Regressive tax increases (poorest 10% now pay 50% of their income in taxes) milk them
  • Legal aid, trade union rights and the right of charities to protest have all been weakened
  • Asylum seekers, immigrants, disabled people and the poorest are stigmatised and insulted

The second phase of gangsterism is to protect the gangster’s field of operation, to ensure that nobody will come to the aid of the poorest. In 1920s America this was achieved by bribing the police, the mayor and by threatening jurors. In the UK today such bribery and pandering takes a somewhat subtler forms.

  • Tax and benefit policy is designed to benefit swing voters, to keep the elite in power
  • Honours and contracts are distributed to political donors, charities and commercial interests
  • The commercial media is courted, the independent media is undermined

For instance, during the Coalition Government taxes and benefits were both changed so that the poorest 10% were hit more harshly than any other decile. Their income, which was already only £40 per week after tax, was reduced by a staggering by 9%. At the same time the incomes of some middle income groups were even increased. If the Government’s objective had really been to reduce the deficit then logically it should have targeted the well-off and middle income groups. If you’re looking for money, don’t go to the poor. This policy reveal that current economic policy is an exercise in power – not in accounting.

The third stage of gangsterism is to get the whole economy dependent upon some substance over which you have monopolistic control and from which you can then cream enormous profit. Twentieth century gangsters used alcohol and then, when that was legalised, drugs. In Gangster Economics the drug on which we’ve all been hooked is debt.

  • Government has allowed banks to create more money, by creating debt.
  • Banks then profit from this new power by taking a slice of their Government granted monopoly
  • Politicians then discover the joy of the housing boom, as interest rates drop house prices grow, along with all the associated debt.
  • Home owners are happy (a ‘popular’ policy in the UK and US with high levels of home ownership) because their house is ‘worth more’ and they vote for the Government.
  • Banks are happy because they can cream off yet more money from higher levels of debt.
  • Banks then discover that they can manufacture new forms of debt, junk bonds, CDOs, synthetics from which they can cream further profits.

I would like to say that, eventually this all came crashing down; but it hasn’t. After a small wobble, the world economy is still doing its crazy debt-ridden dance. The Government keeps it going with Quantitive Easing and, now, 0.25% interest rates. Banks are the drug pushers, government is their backer and protector.

Historically debt has always been the means necessary to create slavery. Debt keeps us obedient and makes us run for protection to the government. Government reassures us and tells us that they will solve the problem, a problem they say that was the fault of the poor, the disabled and the immigrants. It beggars belief that we believe them, but believe them we do.

It is encouraging to see organisations like Positive Money emerge to challenge this nonsense, for social justice will require more than a restored welfare state, it will require new forms of economic policy. I think this will happen, eventually; the current system is just too crazy to survive and, as Adam Smith also said:

“Avarice and injustice are always short-sighted”

Confusopoly: Lessons for Social Change

I came across, thanks to Samantha Connor, a beautiful new word the other day – confusopoly.

After some searching around the internet I think I found the source of the word to be Scott Adams, the comic genius behind Dilbert. He defines confusopoly as “a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.”

Well we can all recognise the truth of that. Who has not been confused by the complex and mobile pricing structures used to disguise a crude choice between a handful suppliers of utilities, phone lines or TV services? We all know we are being bamboozled; we often accept it as a feature of modern life.

I may not have given this enough thought, but it seems to me that confusopolies must thrive when:

  • We have little choice but to accept one of the available options – e.g. we need to heat the house
  • There is little, other than price, to distinguish the actual choice in front of us – e.g. iOS or Android
  • There are few real competitors – e.g. BT, SKY or Virgin Media

Oligopolists would not risk a strategy of confusopoly if they though most people would just walk away, choose on the basis of some different criteria to price, or choose someone offering a simpler and clearer alternative price plan.

I’ve always found the behaviour of firms in competitive situations interesting to watch. Do you remember when cash machines were new? (I’m showing my age now). Originally you could only use your cash card at your own bank. Then banks started to club together to create greater advantage for their customers. Eventually the system became a kind of duopoly, where about half of all banks would take your card. At this point the Government intervened (from memory) and insisted banks agreed to accept all cards – without charging us for the privilege.

This was a case study in how diversity becomes duopoly – but how duopolies must be forced over the line into more useful forms of monopoly. There was no commercial advantage to the banks in organising a monopoly – it was just better for us, the customers.

The reality seems to me that free commercial enterprise is basically helpful, innovative and creative – but always in danger of becoming damaging, exploitative or absurd. I find it strange when some people think commerce is bad. I find it equally strange that some people think democracy shouldn’t try to discipline commerce into being better than it naturally would be.

I love a beautiful garden. I don’t make the plants grow. But it wouldn’t be much of a garden without weeding, pruning and some overall design.

The tension between commerce and democratic control is inevitable and we should not be persuaded by liberals or by Stalinists from wanting both free commercial activity and strong democratic discipline.

However, when Sam Jenkinson used the term, she was referring to Australia’s disability support system and I found the term also being cited by Australia’s Productivity Commission in its design of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to replace the previous complex system. So perhaps it is not just commerce that creates confusopoly.

Reflecting on my own field of endeavour I can see that systems can become unnecessarily complex for a number of reasons:

  1. We may create an innovation from within a largely static system. For example, Direct Payments were a good innovation, but they created greater complexity because they left the old social care system untouched. One system became two systems.
  2. Alternatively we may create an innovation which can only be fully integrated into the system over time. For example, Personal Budgets were progressively rolled out, but many systems protected older forms of practice either by excluding Personal Budgets from their domain or by corrupting the definition of Personal Budgets to include inflexible options.
  3. Or we can force an innovation to adapt to an unreasonable obstacle. For example, integrated Individual Budgets died when parts of the bureaucracy, like the civil servants running the ‘Supporting People’ programme successfully defended their own funding stream from integration into one coherent model.
In fact we can see that here bureaucracy mirrors commerce. Bureaucrats do not always prefer what is rational, clear or to the advantage of the citizen. Their first concern (as with business) is to safeguard their own roles, their own funding streams and their own patterns of thought and behaviour.
Bureaucracy is not bad, bureaucracy is necessary; but it is perhaps no more likely to choose to do the right thing than is commerce. This is what I take from my own experience. Just as you cannot give a good idea to commerce and expect all to be well, so with bureaucracy. Discipline and integrity are required and some of this will need to come through democratic processes that can exert pressure on both bureaucracy and commerce.
The lesson for advocates of social justice and true welfare reform is that to have a good idea is not enough. Giving good ideas away is not enough. We must also attend to the process of change itself and in particular to the public and political processes that create some of the necessary discipline for coherent change.

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