George Orwell – lessons for a post-truth world

How do you define an essay, and how does an essay differ from a blog, or an article by a newspaper columnist?

Bernard Crick in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition (published in 2000)  of George Orwell’s essays attempts a definition: it can be moral, didactic and serious … it can be informal and flexible, ‘above all it leaves the reader in some uncertainty about what is going to be said next’.

By comparison so much contemporary discourse is predictable: read a blog, your favourite blog, and you’ve a good idea what it might say.

Orwell as we all do had favourite themes (though he often surprises), but he approaches them in ways that are never tedious or predictable. The Prevention of Literature begins at a PEN Club meeting, ostensibly celebrating John Milton and freedom of the press, where none of the speakers highlight that freedom of the press means the freedom to criticise and oppose. (Two speakers eulogise the Soviet Union.) Antisemitism in Britain begins with specific examples (‘No, I do not like the Jews … Mind you, I’m not anti-Semitic, of course’), Politics and the English Language with passages which exemplify ‘a few of the bad habits which spread by imitation’, and How the Poor Die takes off on a harrowing journey based on his own experience in Hopital X in Paris in 1929.

The greatest joy in reading Orwell is his lucidity – and the sheer breadth of his experience and reading. (In Books v Cigarettes he owns to having just 442 books, and yet his range of reference and quotation is remarkable. There were of course always libraries.) His essays are models – and reminders – for our own time, as they were for the 1940s.

Likewise his conclusions. ‘The Catholic and Communist are alike in assuming that an opponent cannot both be honest and intelligent.’ We no longer have a Russian ‘mythos’ (‘true individuality is only attained through identification with the community’) but we have ‘mythos’ which are all our own, and a society which in recent years has become more divided and less tolerant.

We don’t play with ideologies as they did in Orwell’s time. But we tailor what we say or write, more dangerously, we tailor what we think, to received notions, put identity and security before intellectual challenge.  ‘A bought mind’, now as then, ‘is a spoilt mind.’

Orwell continues: ‘Unless spontaneity enters at some point or another literary creation is impossible, and language itself becomes ossified.’ What applies to literature also applies to politics.

What we also get from Orwell is a portrayal of the mood of his times, the anxieties of a wartime and immediately post-war would where one spectre of totalitarianism has been removed but another is asserting itself ever more strongly, good minds all around Orwell are signing up, and tempering their beliefs and writing to what they deem a higher cause. Orwell doesn’t question the aim, the emancipation of the working class, but is adamant that Soviet Russia isn’t the vehicle by which that might be achieved.

(We also pick up on his anxieties about a post-Christian, avowedly humanist society, where socialism as as an ideal, as an alternative to the afterlife, has been compromised, maybe fatally.)

Totalitarian regimes require misinformation, they write and re-write their own histories (pro-Soviet intellectuals were caught out by the 1939 German/Soviet pact, and caught out again when Germany invaded Russia in 1941). But apologists for Russia weren’t the only enemy.

‘Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by the general drift of society rather than active persecution.’ Examples include ‘the concentration of the press in the hands of a few rich men, the grip of monopoly radio and films, the unwillingness of the public to spend money on books…’

Misinformation in our own time has been well-disguised: it’s about how the news is framed and who does the framing – about how we, as watchers and listeners and readers with it, are manipulated. But post-Brexit, post-Trump, in the recent German election, it’s out in the open. Which side is putting out ‘fake news’?

Many of the essays were written for Tribune, and that meant a left-wing and intellectual audience. I’d guess that Orwell would love to have written for a wider audience, to have hustled in alongside a newspaper magnate (or maybe not!) as Michael Foot did with Beaverbrook in the 1930s, or better still find popular media outlets that weren’t in the hands of rich men. 1984 and Animal Farm, written at the same time as the Tribune essays, did of course break through, but at the level of the educated middle- not working-class. So the best Orwell could do, the best he could hope for, was to influence other writers, other opinion-formers, to lay out a course between the intolerancies of the Tory (and Catholic, as he saw it) right and the radical and Sovietised left.

He does this with grace and precision at the conclusion of his essay of antisemitism, arguing for integrity based on self-examination:

‘I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual.’

Hatreds and loyalties aren’t confined to nationalism of course. (Another subject on which Orwell writes with great insight.) My only caveat is his use of the word ‘intellectual’. It is not beyond all of us in our educated world to step back and step back and view our world dispassionately.

One obstacle, a fundamental one, to our doing so, is our use of language.  Orwell is explicit on the subject in Politics and the English language:

‘…the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language … one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy … where you make a stupid remark it will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits …’

There’s a mighty challenge here, and the first thing I must do is re-read what I’ve written here – is it an essay or a blog or just a few ruminations ? – and see how it fares when judged against Orwell’s high aspiration.

“The people have spoken”

There’s much talk in Britain about sovereignty, about the “will of the people”, and “taking back control”.

Can the will of the people, as expressed in a referendum, be overturned by Parliament? Do we have any clear understanding of what sovereignty entails, and who the people might be, and who will gain control when we take it back?

For many of us, who we mean by “the people” is self-evident. The ordinary person in the street … the silent majority … anyone who isn’t part of the “establishment”, however that might be defined … the “somewheres” as opposed to “anywheres” in David Goodhart’s definition (see Goodhart’s “The Road to Somewhere”) … the readers of certain newspapers … the electorate.

There are many definitions, many ways in which ‘the people’ identify themselves. Putting the issue in an historical perspective may help.

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We think of Periclean Athens as the first experiment in democracy. It was short-lived and the definition of the people as stakeholders in society was in any event radically limited by notions of status, property ownership and patriarchy. The Roman republic was in theory government by the people, but effectively by a patrician class, only occasionally challenged by “champions of the people” such as the Gracchi brothers and Gaius Marius.

Insofar as power was vested in the people it was at the behest of, on the whim, of a ruling class. 1500 years later Hobbes, Locke and later Rousseau focused on consent – individuals giving consent to government. In the case if Hobbes, to a ruler who held power out of necessity, a necessary constraint given our brutish natures. In the case of John Locke, to constitutional government. Rousseau took the idea of consent a step further: sovereignty lies in a community of citizens co-existing on a free and equal basis within a republic, governed by laws which are founded on the general will of the citizens.

We’ve moved beyond the idea of a royal prerogative, or a divine right to rule, or a simple brute assertion of power. Hobbes focused on a power as necessary constraint, Locke and Rousseau on citizens giving their consent.  The practical expression of consent is engagement in the act of government. The Christian focus the uniqueness of the individual before God with all rights and obligations that implied found expression in a secular context.

Over the last three centuries those who count as individuals in a political sense, as enfranchised citizens, has greatly expanded. But our status as citizens, freely giving our consent, freely engaging in political life, has brought to the fore basic concepts of representative government which we are still wrestling with now – now as much as ever.

We may imagine that active citizenship will ultimately allow us, in the language of the utilitarians, to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number. But who dictates what happiness is? The individual, or the state? Is there any way in which the general will of the citizens can be expressed in a way to which all citizens and all interests can consent?

Happiness at the individual and community level are not the same thing, as John Stuart Mill made clear. One of Mill’s early essays, Bentham (1838), reflected his utilitarian background, arguing for ‘rationality, system, moral calculation’, and the other, Coleridge (1840), argued for ‘imagination, intuition, moral feeling’. That dichotomy survives today: how willing are we to subordinate our own imagination and liberties to the wider requirements of the state? (See Edmund Fawcett’s Liberalism: The Life of an Idea.)

We’re faced with a fundamental question: when we use the term, ‘the people’, who do we mean? In theory the people are individual citizens acting in aggregate. But what form should that take? The people are not the state, nor can the definition be narrowed down to a section of society, be it the working class, the middle class or the old propertied class. No single part of society has any majoritarian rights over another.

In the broadest terms, socialism has identified ‘the people’ with the working class: capitalism alienates and the working man, redefined as the people, will in a recognisably near future come into his own. But there’s a catch: some individual or group must arrogate the right to themselves to determine a socialist agenda, and there can be no guarantee that they or their successors will ever relinquish power.

The conservative mentality on the other hand looks to tradition and custom tied to the land and in more recent times to the paramountcy of the free market. Social experiments and transfers of political power to a wider population carry inherent risk.

Labour MP Lisa Nandy writes in the Journal of the RSA (Royal Society of Arts):

“Our charge is not simply to redistribute wealth but to restore power to those who rightfully own it and, in doing so, offer hope and security in a society that cares more, looks far into the future, is less closed and rigid and, as a consequence, is less closed and rigid.”

Nus Ghani, a Conservative MP, writes in the same issue:

“We need to demonstrate how we understand the country’s problems, what we think about the role of government in people’s lives and how we will use politics to solve everyday problems, using Parliament to ignite debate…”

For Nandy, the prime issue is to restore power to the people; for Ghani, it is how they, as Conservatives, can act as agents of change.

There is a third powerful tradition in British politics, broadly defined as liberal, which takes the individual citizen as its prime focus. It recognises the variety of individuals and aspirations that make up any society, and seeks to give them full expression, while taking into account all the conflicts of interest of daily life. It aims to maintain the distinction between individual citizens and the people as an aggregate, easily open to manipulation.

Francois Guizot, a historian and politician influenced by events in France in the post-Napoleonic period, warned of the dangers of manipulation. (Quotes here are from the excellent summary of Guizot’s ideas in Fawcett, cited above.) While our ideas may be coherent, people are not: we have to work with people as they are. We should treat with great caution any idea of the people as sovereign. ‘The only sovereigns in politics [are] law, justice and reason.’ The people shouldn’t have the final say: ‘public argument about decisions should never stop.’

At the same time, as a conservative liberal he argued for restricting the franchise to the propertied class, for which more radical liberals never forgave him. Likewise, John Stuart Mill, an early advocate of giving women the vote, argued for universal participation in government, but not yet – not until further social change had taken place.

Today we have an unrestricted franchise. Every individual, in theory, has an equal input and benefits from equal outputs. In practice we have an established and broadly liberal elite locking horns with a new and upstart moneyed elite which exerts wide influence through the popular media.

We may have the outward forms of elections and ballots but democracy is about more. Amartya Sen, an Indian economist and philosopher, insists in The Idea of Justice that democracy is “government by discussion”, a term which includes “political participation, dialogue and public interaction”. For Sen the terms “public reasoning” and “democracy” are interchangeable.

The term “the people” can all too easily be localised to an interest group, which may be an elite, a majority or a vociferous minority. It may ride on the back of short-term popularity and seek to make a temporary dominance permanent. In Britain’s 2016 Referendum on leaving the EU the “will of the people” was applied to a 51.9% majority, and that majority was treated as sacrosanct. Even Parliament hitherto seen as the sovereign power could not override it.

Guizot argued that the only sovereigns should be law, justice and reason. Parliament as law-maker has recently been challenged, so too justice: we’ve seen the UK Supreme Court attacked for upholding the rights of parliament by newspapers arguing for the supremacy of a referendum vote over both parliament and the legal system.

Law, justice – and reason. None of us has a monopoly of reason. Both sides of the referendum debate need to be reminded of that. But reason does require debate, continuous debate (“government by discussion” or “public reasoning” to use Sen’s terminology). While arguments can be overturned, the right to debate cannot. And debate is time-consuming, detailed analysis is a slow process, and short cuts are dangerous.

Free trade – whatever the cost?

Free trade and a hard Brexit are all but synonymous. There’s an obsessive quality about free traders, men on a mission, who feel their time has come: seize the moment, lest it slip away.

Daniel Hannan and Boris Johnson recently helped launch the Institute of Free Trade, arguably duplicating the work of the long-established Institute of Economic Affairs. I’ve always had a sense of vast lacunae between argument and reality among free traders, and I turned to an article on the IEA website, by its chief economist, Julian Jessop, to check out whether this judgement was justified. For the full article see:  https://iea.org.uk/whos-afraid-of-free-trade/

Jessop expresses puzzlement as to why ‘the economics commentariat’ (i.e. most economists) had given a ‘sceptical, with some downright hostile’ response to two papers advocating a policy a free trade once the UK leaves the EU, by Professors Kevin Dowd and Patrick Minford.

It may be unfair to quote passages and not reproduce the whole article, but to my mind they do speak for themselves.

‘… it has been suggested that Prof Minford’s analysis shouldn’t be taken too seriously because his forecasts of the economic and market impacts of the vote itself were inaccurate. As it happens I don’t know what Prof Minford was forecasting in 2016. But nor, frankly, do I care….’

‘Professor Minford’s current and past work in this area has been challenged for using what some regard as a simplistic and out-dated model of world trade. But the ‘gravity models’ favoured by many of his critics also have their flaws. Even if Professor Minford’s numbers are only as good as his models (which is always the case) …’

The phrase, ‘the underlying principles are as sound as any’, is key: there is a millenarianist belief in free trade as a universal panacea, the UK’s adoption of which will open the eyes of the rest of the world, as Britain did once before, in the early 19th century. ‘Gravity models’ refers to the long-established and incontrovertible pattern of a much heavier weighting toward trade with one’s neighbours, than with more distant countries.

Nonetheless, whatever the correct interpretation here, these legal points do not weaken the more important economic argument that the UK would be better off lowering its own trade barriers regardless of how the rest of the EU responds.

Free trade it seems works because it works, regardless of circumstance. In what sense better off – who would be better off?

‘… of course, there would be some losers from free trade among consumers as well as producers …

‘….there would be some losers..’ The reality is that the disruption would be extraordinary.

Others have suggested that trade can never be fully ‘free’, because of non-tariff barriers. But this is tedious semantics. Even if unilateral free trade only results in freer trade, relative to the status quo, that would be an improvement.

‘…tedious semantics’? There’s an impatience here, a touch of the Gadarene swine.

What then about things that we do produce ourselves but where other countries have a genuine comparative advantage? Why should we subsidise domestic producers if consumers can buy better or cheaper products elsewhere?

A few suggestions as to why… Easily disrupted supply chains, sourcing expensively at long distance, security implications, quite apart from the disruption to urban and rural landscapes as industries close and new ones – we would hope – spring up elsewhere. But in the chaos, and the economic disruption, what certainty is there that new industries, competitive on the world stage, would rise up?

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Read the whole article: you may find you’re on his side, not mine.

Wishful thinking

…..and its consequences.

How do you deal with half-truth or dissimulation, with hyperbole – or simple wishful thinking? Or simply two versions of the truth – see my last post on the subject of identity. I might disagree with Roger Scruton, but I’d never doubt his integrity.

Government isn’t about certainties. Most government policies don’t deliver on their original intentions. But if based on clear principle and sound argument then we can accept them, for good or ill, as part of the political process. Not so wishful thinking, which can have malign consequences.

Workforce planning in the NHS  From the Department of Health, last December: ‘Brexit will be a catalyst to get [workforce] planning right.’ [Source: The New European] This in the context of a steep rise in the number of nurses and midwives from the EU leaving the UK. And the answer, we’re told, is to train more of our own nurses.

Why Brexit should in any way be a catalyst for workplace planning in the NHS I can’t see. There is an ongoing need to train more nurses, Brexit or no Brexit. Desperation, as we find our health services understaffed, is hardly the way forward. And if anyone has seen cold, clear planning on the Brexit side over last few months, please let me know.

Trade deals and food standards  ‘Mr Gove has insisted that the UK will not compromise on food standards, even if that means a “narrower deal” with the US.’  Retaining access to EU markets, vital for many farmers, ‘will require continued adherence to EU standards’. That access could be hard to reconcile with US demands for the UK to import chicken washed in chlorine and hormone-treated beef, both of which are banned by the EU. But in a speech this month, Wilbur Ross, US commerce secretary, said that if Britain wanted a trade deal, it needed to accept US rules on precisely such issues.’ [Source: Financial Times 25/26 November]

Remember the context: 70% of the UK’s food exports last year went to the EU. 80% of our food exports come from the EU.

Obama warned how difficult a trade deal with the USA could be. Maybe under Trump we wouldn’t be at the back of the queue – but only, as Wilbur Ross makes clear, only if we accept American standards, and abandon the EU standards we ourselves have done so much to nurture over forty years. The first lessons of negotiation are to be sure of your argument, and negotiate from a position on strength: neither would true of any post-Brexit US trade deal.

Remember also that this is the USA of Donald Trump, busily posting anti-Muslim videos produced by the British extreme right. More than ever, we need to stand our ground, and know who our friends are, friends who share our values.

A new generation  There’s a breed of establishment liberals, all avowedly Remain voters, who may see Brexit as an economic mistake, but ‘put the blame for the mistake on liberal leaders rather than the benighted masses’. Robert Peston is one such: I’m quoting here from The Economist’s review of his new book, simply entitled ‘WTF’.

This isn’t to say that ‘the self-renewing elite’ Peston refers to shouldn’t be in the dock. And I’ll leave aside my thoughts on whether ‘establishment liberals’ are true liberals. My focus here is on wishful thinking, and I’ll let The Economist’s review of Peston’s book speak for itself:

And his conviction that ‘out of the current swamp a new generation of politicians with credible ideas will emerged primped and pristine on the shoreline of our ageing democracies’ looks delusional. There is little evidence that Britain’s elites are prepared to use Brexit as a spur to bright new policies. There is ample evidence, by contrast, that Brexit is being handled in the worst possible manner: dividing the country still further and distracting attention from what ails us.

That last sentence, and the last clause, ‘distracting attention’, is key. ‘Wishful thinking’ in everyday life may help keep us all afloat, but in politics the damage it can do is extreme.

 

 

Which side are you on?

Or, put another way, do you need – do we need – to be taking sides at all?

We muddle along in democracies, more or less getting along with each other, tolerant in the sense that we don’t enquire too deeply about each other’s opinions, and preferences and prejudices. We give each other space. Some of my best friends are Tories, or Marxists, Corbynites, or liberals, or whatever…. Then some event comes long which polarises, an event with an emotional charge which takes us by surprise. And if we hadn’t realised before, we know then which side we’re on. We don’t have Civil Wars, inspired by tribe or religion or ideology, or simply survival…. But we do have Brexit.

Brexit is about many things, but maybe the most fundamental is identity. An exchange of letters to The Times involving Roger Scruton and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill puts this neatly into focus. Scruton hopes that Brexit will restore a sense of patriotic identity ‘in a place of belonging which we can identify as our home, where the inhabitants can be trusted, and which is protected by a single sovereign power’.

What’s remarkable about this hinges on one word, ‘restore’. This assumes a loss of identity, and if that’s what in Scruton’s mind, then that’s where it is – in his mind. There’s been an extraordinary amount of press focused on a divide between the UK and Europe, and when it comes to refugees and foreign aid, between the UK and the world. But I don’t for a moment believe that at a deeper level, certainly on the Remain side, we have lost our sense of patriotism.

Scruton is well-known as a philosopher and specifically as a writer on conservatism, the person I’d turn to first for a deeper understanding of the conservative mind. I can connect even if I don’t agree. Hearing him speak at the Cheltenham Literary Festival recently I found him affable, gently humorous and lucid in the spoken word in a way he isn’t always in the written. In other words, I want to be on his side.

But I, and countless others, millions I assume, need to explain to him, to insist, that patriotism doesn’t equate with insularity. We patriots are happy in our skin, in our own land, but we’re happy also sharing it with others, and their lands with us.

There is of course another phrase in in Scruton’s letter, quoted above: ‘[a sense of patriotic identity] … which is protected by a single sovereign power’. Maybe there’s the rub – how best to share sovereignty, widen our sovereignty if you will, in an ever more globalised world. But let’s not for a moment elide sovereignty and patriotism, which is what Scruton is doing. It takes us on to dangerous ground.

Wallace-Hadrill quotes a 5th century Roman Orosius, proud of his ability to travel: ‘Among Romans I am a Roman; among Christians a Christian; among humans, a human.’

He continues: ‘Like Orosius I feel proud of my country, but I also enjoy the fact that I can travel freely in Europe as a fellow citizen, and feel a European among Europeans.’

For Orosius the freedom he enjoy was soon to disappear, with barbarian invasion threatening. We will be also be losers, if we exclude ourselves from the EU, and this would be of our own making. The barbarians (and who might they be?) are within the walls.

Yanis Varoufakis: Adults in the Room

A review of Adults in the Room, My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment, by Yanis Varoufakis, formerly Greek finance minister, which I’ve written for the blog, Brave New Europe – a blog by the way which I’d highly recommend.

Cross-posted from https://braveneweurope.com/

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How far should economists engage in day-to-day politics?

“Researchers have an obligation to society to take positions on questions on which they have acquired professional competence,” says French economist Jean Tirole[1]. But how does an academic do this when media are not, in Tirole’s words, his ‘natural habitat’?

Yanis Varoufakis, in his recent incarnation as visiting professor at the University of Texas, Austin’s School of Public Affairs, took more than a position. He became a politician. He doesn’t share Tirole’s constraints: “…my resignation of 6 June 2015 [as Greek finance minister] was due precisely to my peculiar commitment not to sign any agreement I could not defend as an economist, politician, an intellectual and as a Greek.”

The step into politics was a big one. But Greece, after 2008, was, and remains, in crisis. No country has a more acute sense of its own sovereignty and identity, as the troika of the Eurogroup (of finance ministers), the European Central Bank and the IMF were reminded in January 2015, when Syriza, the radical left party, took power, and the Greek public once again took to demonstrating in Syntagma Square.

“Adults in the Room” (a phrase coined by Christine Lagarde, managing director of the IMF) is Varoufakis’s highly personal account of his brief tenure as Greek finance minister: six months of negotiations between January and June 2015, during which time he initially had the backing of his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, for a radical stance which held out the threat of leaving the euro, and a full Grexit, if the EU and the IMF didn’t agree to renegotiate the debt.

Friends who discussed the book in a reading group were divided: some were exasperated by the repetition as negotiations inched forward. Others saw it as an epic tale. Varoufakis is a skilled storyteller who allows the events to speak for themselves.

Meeting Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Eurogroup and finance minister of the Netherlands, on 30th January, Varoufakis told him that there were only three options available (he recorded meetings on his phone):

“One was a third bailout to cover up the failure of the second [in March 2012], whose purpose was to cover up the failure of the first [(May 2010]. Another was the new deal for Greece I was proposing: a new type of agreement between the EU, the IMF and Greece, based on debt restructuring, that diminished our reliance on new debt and replaced an ineffective reform agenda with one that the people of Greece could own. The third option was mutually disadvantageous impasse.

You do not understand, Jeroen told me, his voice dripping with condescension. ‘The current programme must be completed or there is nothing else.’”

There is also Thomas Wieser, Dijsselbloem’s deputy, to take into account. As president of the working group of officials behind the Eurogroup meetings he was, in Varoufakis’s words, ‘the most powerful man in Brussels’. Wieser circulated an unsigned ‘non-paper’ (a nice Orwellian touch) which made it clear that Greece should expect to receive no money owed to it by the European Central Bank, nor any loans agreed under the previous government… but it was still expected to meet its debt obligations in full. There might be an extension of the existing bailout agreement, a temporary appeasement, “but this would be conditional upon Greece taking a ‘cooperative approach’”.

The hidden agenda, the obstacle that ultimately overpowered all Varoufakis’s proposals, however clever, was that the French and German banks, which had invested so heavily in Greece, would always be given priority. Their governments had invested too much political capital to allow otherwise.

No bailouts, no haircuts, no debt renegotiation.

We’re down to the roots of the ‘deep establishment’, beyond prime ministers or presidents, finance ministers, EU commissioners, the Eurogroup of ministers (Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker doesn’t even have a walk-on part), down to the level of a working group which, taking its lead from the two most powerful EU governments, sets the mood and calls the tune.

Varoufakis in his account of the 30th January meeting with Dijsselbloem uses the phrase, ‘an agenda which the Greek people must own’. Sovereignty is not an issue he addresses directly in ‘Adults in the Room’, but in his 2016 book, ‘And the Weak Suffer What They Must’ he argues that the dismantling of sovereignty could ultimately lead to the dismantling of Europe. Varoufakis is a passionate European: his Democracy in Europe Movement, launched in autumn 2015, focuses on a much more open exercise of power within the EU.

But even the closed structures of the EU can be overridden. When Prime Minister Tsipras loses faith in the Brussels negotiating process he begins direct discussions with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and is quickly impressed ‘by her diligence and mastery of the Greek programme’. They should, she suggests, sideline their finance ministers Wolfgang Schäuble (a supporter of Grexit) and Varoufakis. Their discussions led in July 2015 to a third bailout agreement.

As for other participants in the skirmishes, Christine Lagarde is let off lightly on a personal level, with her integrity and goodwill just about intact. But not the IMF itself, which backed the third bailout against its own better judgment. Emmanuel Macron as French economy minister is peripheral to the negotiations, but always supportive of Varoufakis.

There are many who argue that Varoufakis’s confrontational approach made the ultimate settlement between the Syriza government and the EU worse. And, had debt renegotiation been taken seriously by the EU, another issue would have come to the fore: how far Varoufakis and the Syriza government would have voluntarily accepted privatisations, cuts in pensions, labour reforms etc.

Varoufakis not only had to contend with practised stone-wallers and the deep establishment, he also had to deal with a press that portrayed him as a dilettante. To quote The Economist (25 March 2015):

‘Mr Varoufakis’ lifestyle … is embarrassingly close to that of the rich Greeks he castigates for avoiding taxes by stashing cash abroad …he lectures his euro-zone colleagues and shows little interest in the detail of reforms demanded by Greece’s creditors…. as a fellow professor puts it: “Unlike his predecessors Yanis isn’t interested in managing the economy. What he really enjoys is brinkmanship.”’

Varoufakis had a conversation in 2012 with Larry Summers (former US Treasury Secretary), who argued that there were “two kinds of politicians, insiders and outsiders. The outsiders prioritise their freedom to speak their version of the truth. The price of their freedom is that they are ignored by the insiders, who make the important decisions.” And the insiders? – they “never turn against other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what the insiders say and do.” Varoufakis replied to Summers that he would behave “like a natural insider for as long as it takes to get a viable agreement on the table.”

In the end Varoufakis never stood a chance. To be a fully accredited insider he would have had to accede to the insiders’ working methods and conclusions. The Syriza party were self-designated outsiders until their leader and prime minister brought them in. Tsipras to the surprise of many ultimately had the insider mentality. Varoufakis did not.

[1] Economics for the Common Good, Princeton UP, 2017

Swift, clean victories

There’s an intriguing book just published by military historian, Lawrence Freedman, entitled The Future of War: A History: it focuses on (to quote the Economist review, 20th October) ‘how ideas about future wars could be fought have shaped the reality, with usually baleful results’.

‘Swift, clean victories’ have long been ‘baked into concepts of future war’, WW1 being a prime example. It would all be over by Christmas. In our own time we’ve civil wars rather than wars between nations, urban and guerrilla war, and hybrid, cyber warfare. Wars feed on themselves, self-perpetuate as they ever did.

Freedman’s message to policy-makers, the review concludes, is to beware those who tout ‘the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries’.

I’m reminded of the current Brexit discussion. First create your adversary, as we’ve done, and then under-estimate his capabilities, and all the while assume that radical change, and even outright victory (and it would be seen as ‘victory’: we are combatants), can be achieved quickly.

I’ll bring in Richard Thaler here, recently-announced winner of the Nobel Prize for economics, and developer of ‘nudge’ theory. Thaler understand choices ‘as battles between two cognitive forces: a “doer” part of the brain focused on short-term rewards, and a “planner” focused on the long-term’. For Daniel Kahneman a related divide is exemplified in the title of his bestseller, ‘Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow’.

Our instinct for short-term success overpowers our planning instinct, we always want the quickest route, and we fool ourselves into thinking we have the wherewithal, the strategy, the materiel, to get us there.

There is, it seems, an inevitability about this process. There’s a quote from Steven Pinker, writing about Kahneman (Guardian, February 2014): ‘he gave me a comment that really sat with me: he noted that the idea of human nature with inherent flaws was consistent with a tragic view of the human condition and it’s a part of being human that we have to live with that tragedy.’  Pinker also argues that ‘we have the means to overcome some of our limitations, through education, through institutions, through enlightenment’.

I’ll take him at his word on ‘enlightenment’. There’s another side to human nature, as inherent as the flaws that Pinker alludes to, that takes us beyond  the ‘doer’ and the ‘planner’, the fast and the slow. Practised down the generations, put simply it’s self-awareness, living in the moment, bringing our reason, our planning instinct, to bear on our immediate or short-term actions.

In the spirit of zenpolitics,and in the absence of any apposite zen koans to hand, I’ll quote the 13th century Turkish (though born in Afghanistan) mystic, Rumi (I love the langauge): ‘…your inspired reason goes forward without obstacles/at the careful and measured pace of a camel’.

As for over-reliance on reason: ‘Discursive reason’s a vulture, my poor friend:/Its wings beat above a decaying corpse./The Saint’s reason is like the wings of Gabriel: …’

I’m touching on a vast subject here. Two Nobel prize winners on the one hand, three-millennia-old tradition and practice on the other. They don’t need to be in conflict, and both would warn against the pursuit of ‘swift, clean victories’.