PoW: The People versus Everybody Else

This week, the stock market collapsed, the US government almost defaulted, the euro teetered, and – worst of all – the Beefeaters got accused of growing dope at the Tower of London. I mean…seriously folks….I knew things were bad, but growing dope at the Tower? It’s high treason! Thank you. I’ll be here all week. Try the scampi.

So what’s at the bottom of our moral malaise? Two of the UK’s leading left-wing intellectuals – Neal Lawson of the think-tank Compass, and Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation – suggest the problem is that our elites have lost any sense of serving the public interest. They write: “We are witnessing a crisis of elites”. The global debt crisis, the MPs’ expenses crisis, the Murdoch hacking crisis – these were all examples, they say, of elites gone wild. The British ruling elite are “like kids left free in a sweetshop, going feral as they lost all self-control and all touch with society”.

The “only means” by which such crises can be averted in the future, say Simms and Lawson, is by the re-assertion of the Public Interest via a People’s Jury of “a thousand angry citizens”, randomly selected by lottery, who will channel their “horror” at scandals into actual anti-elitist policies. How would the Jury work exactly? “A paid secretariat will commission research and call witnesses to make our nation’s elites answerable to the public. Reporting within a year of its launch the jury will report on how the public interest relates to media ownership; the role of the financial sector in the crash; MP selections and accountability; policing; and more generally on British political and corporate life.”

An interesting idea. I can see Rupert Murdoch being hauled before a panel of baying sans-culottes, the drums being banged as the guillotine is slowly raised…But are elites really to blame for these crisis? Is the public itself wholly innocent?

Take the consumer debt crisis. Surely, this is at least partly the fault of the consumers who borrowed all that money. They – or rather, we – proved incapable of managing our finances. We’re the ones who “lost all self-control”, like children in a sweetshop. Yet when the consumer debt bubble burst, needless to say, it was everyone’s fault except the people. It was the banks, the Fed, the rating agencies, the regulators – and the people could indulge in another very satisfying bout of righteous indignation.

Or take the Murdoch hacking crisis. Can we really blame it entirely on an elite? News International was so powerful because so many people bought The Sun and News of the World. They were part of a very small group of national publications, which includes the Daily Mail, that actually made money, because they gave the people what they want. Turns out what the Public wants is jingoism, sport and large dollops of celebrity gossip. We, the people, never asked too many questions about how our daily diet of gossip and intrigue was cooked up. And when the truth came out, needless to say, it was everyone’s fault except the people. It was the Dirty Digger’s fault, Rebekah Brooks’ fault, David Cameron’s fault – and we, the people, could indulge in more rage, horror and indignation.

Or take climate change, another great crisis we’re facing. The reason we’re failing to cope with it is, at least partly, because the public don’t want to curtail our consumption, and we react with fury at any attempt to put up taxes on fuel or limit our consumption of meat. Yet you can bet that, if we do eventually go through some awful climate crunch, it will be everyone’s fault except the people’s. We were lied to, we were betrayed, we must find someone to string up. In a democracy, it’s never the people’s fault.

As it happens, the same week the idea of a People’s Jury was floated, the British government launched e-petitions on the DirectGov website. Any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures will get its issue potentially debated in the Houses of Parliament. And what did the People demand? Blood. The return of capital punishment to be precise. And Jeremy Clarkson as prime minister. I’m not convinced the public is that interested in the public interest.

The British government seems to be unsure what attitude to take to The People. David Cameron – or rather, his deep thinker, Steve Hilton – has two Big Ideas, as outlined by Cameron in his pre-election TED talk. The first Big Idea is ‘empowering citizens in the post-bureaucratic age’ (or the Big Society). The second Big Idea is ‘working with the grain of human nature using behavioural economics’. The government set up a behavioural science unit, nick-named the ‘Nudge Unit’, to utilize the behavioural techniques of psychologists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein to ‘nudge‘ the people towards pro-social outcomes like organ donations. (You can see a video of last month’s Policy Exchange event with Thaler and the head of the Nudge Unit, David Halpern, here.)

Isn’t there a contradiction between these two big ideas? The first idea means giving as much power to the people as possible, letting them run their own services and influence policy through websites like DirectGov. But the second idea – behavioural economics – basically says that the people are irrational creatures who are incapable of controlling their appetites and emotions, and who therefore need to be nudged by experts in pro-social directions. So which is it Steve? Trust the people or nudge the people? Are you ‘post-bureaucratic’, or just creating another class of nudging Mandarins?

Let us, in Platonic fashion, turn our eyes away from the sordid realm of politics, and consider the pure realm of numbers. I’ve been enjoying a BBC documentary called The Code, which explores the fractal theories of Benoit B. Mandelbrot. (You know what the B stands for? It stands for Benoit B. Mandelbrot.) But even more enjoyable is this very trippy documentary on Mandelbrot, written and presented by Arthur C. Clarke, with psychedelic plinky-plonk music by Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour. Watching it made me wonder…why do people on hallucinogenic drugs typically see fractals and mandalas? Are we, as Mandelbrot suggests, “used to fractals in our subconscious minds”? Is the rational law of the cosmos somehow reflected or embedded in our minds, as the Stoics believed?

Talking of the discovery of hidden numbers, I see that the Kabbalah Centre in New York, beloved of Madonna, is being investigated by the FBI for tax evasion after this fascinating Newsweek expose. Apparently, the Centre had defined itself as a religious organization to get tax benefits, claiming its founders followed a “vow of poverty” while they actually lived in LA mansions. There were also several irregularities in how their school outreach programme, Success for Kids, was run both in the US and the UK, and the programme has recently been closed. Religious organizations do tend to go wrong, don’t they?

Meanwhile, Stephen Hawking’s new book, The Grand Design, insists that God doesn’t exist, but the universe is instead governed by science – or rather, by laws which science can discover. Hawking suggests the universe “spontaneously created” and then expanded according to these laws. One day, the universe just went…’fuck it, why not exist’ (it’s very spontaneous like that, the universe), and as soon as that happened, it followed the laws of quantum and gravity. But why did these laws exist in the first place? Why should the universe follow mathematical laws? And why should our minds respond to these laws – the laws of harmony and ratio – as if we were born with intuitions of them, and were designed to discover them? Why should we be built with the capacity to comprehend the universe?

Hawking would argue that humans’ capacity to reflect on the universe and discover the laws that guide it comes from the Darwinian law of evolution. Nature enabled us to contemplate the universe because it improves our ability to survive and reproduce. But that seems to me rather like using a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works to hammer in a nail, or using a Ferrari to drive to the shops once a week to pick up the groceries. Why do we have such a powerful system for such a basic task? And why is our reasoning capacity so much greater than every other species? Why, damn it, why?

If anyone can answer these questions, let me know. I’ll be in the cellar, stacking my tinned food and preparing for the apocalypse.

Comments:

  • Greg Linster says:

    "In a democracy, it's never the people's fault." It looks like you composed an excellent aphorism using the spontaneous combustion method! It brought a wry smile to my face.

    Great piece, thanks for the read!

  • Ben Irvine says:

    Many thanks for this Jules – fascinating, as always. I want to pick you up on a couple of things…

    "Isn't there a contradiction between these two big ideas? The first idea means giving as much power to the people as possible, letting them run their own services and influence policy through websites like DirectGov. But the second idea – behavioural economics – basically says that the people are irrational creatures who are incapable of controlling their appetites and emotions, and who therefore need to be nudged by experts in pro-social directions. So which is it Steve? Trust the people or nudge the people? Are you 'post-bureaucratic', or just creating another class of nudging Mandarins?"

    There is no contradiction between the two ideas – what I would call, on one hand, a biologically-informed paternalism, and, on the other, a self-sufficient, proactive, morally-informed populace. The former, indeed, can help bring about the latter. By analogy, consider a fantastic schoolmaster who uses the right combination of cajoling and censure in order to inspire confident, upstanding pupils; or an attachment figure (in Bowlby’s sense) who inspires a secure and independent protégé through responding appropriately to behavioural cues. In both cases, leadership – an ‘elite’ – can wield its influence to inspire not subjugation but self-esteem and efficaciousness. There is, I believe, a crisis among Britain’s elites, but the decadence begins with the intellectuals, the baton then being carried by politicians and business persons into the realm of the economy.

    "Hawking would argue that humans' capacity to reflect on the universe and discover the laws that guide it comes from the Darwinian law of evolution. Nature enabled us to contemplate the universe because it improves our ability to survive and reproduce. But that seems to me rather like using a copy of Shakespeare's complete works to hammer in a nail, or using a Ferrari to drive to the shops once a week to pick up the groceries. Why do we have such a powerful system for such a basic task? And why is our reasoning capacity so much greater than every other species? Why, damn it, why?"

    Check out Geoffrey Miller’s superb 'The Mating Mind'. His thesis is that the disproportionateness of human intelligence with respect to the survival needs of the human being is analogous to the peacock’s tail: both the tail and the human brain are organs that were selected according to a ‘handicap principle’ whereby females chose to mate with males who were encumbered by an organ of excessive sophistication, and which thereby indicated biological fitness. A good (and plausible) read.

  • Thomas Riplinger says:

    Thanks for your very sagacious analysis. How can we expect our elites to act ethically, if we do not do so ourselves?
    Excellent piece!

  • Jayarava says:

    Only the left could suggest institutionalising mobs, and mob justice… but they do have a point about the elites. If we could get them to pay tax it might be a step in the right direction.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks everyone.

    Ben, I received the journal in the post (Ben has launched a new publication called the Journal of Modern Wisdom). Looks excellent, well done.

    On the role of intellectuals (or lack of) in modern society, have you read Furedi's 'Where have all the intellectuals gone' and Stefan Collini's 'Absent Minds'?

    Isaiah Berlin's essays on the Russian intelligentsia would also be interesting – British intellectuals like Tom Stoppard have often looked rather longingly at the 19th century Russian prototype of the public intellectual. Would be great to interview Stoppard about that for the journal!

    all best

    Jules

  • Olly R says:

    Hi Jules, here's a few thoughts on how this all inter-relates. The Kaballah movement, as with many other modern religions, is premised on the possibility of moral perfection, and the existence within the organisation of morally advanced gurus/masters. Given that humans are always in possession of their genitals and reptilian brains, when this happens those gurus then simply find that with power and adulation their baser side pops about and – lo and behold there's financial shenanigans or often sexual dodginess.

    And so it is with the people. What do they really want, according to e-petitions? They want death. DOH! Freud knew that, and he suggested that the job of government is as much to manage people's baser natures, as much as it is to inspire their higher nature. This was really well discussed in Adam Curtis' the Century of the Self. Did you ever read this paper by an American law academic called 'Porn Up, Rape Down'?
    http://anthonydamato.law.northwestern.edu/Adobefiles/porn.pdf

    Olly

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Olly

    I like that analysis a lot. So the role of government is to guide the desires and aspirations of the masses, in a Platonic sense. Except that the ruling elite is often just as corruptible, just as guided by their genitals and reptilian brain (look, for example, at Dominique Strauss Kahn). Who is noble and self-aware enough to lead?

    And also, who's going to tell the public their desires and tastes need educating? In a free market, the quickest way to get rich is simply to pander to the public's taste as they are (which is what Murdoch's press does) rather than try to guide them.

    The BBC – the institution most disliked by Murdoch – may have been founded on a Reithian mission of 'inform, educate and entertain' but has increasingly lost its confidence in the first two, while spending more of its resources on the last one. Because 'inform and educate' seems paternalist and patronising, in a world where popular tastes and appetites have been given sovereign power.

    And where are the great moral figures to inform and educate us? Never mind our politicians. The popular view of our cultural elite is also pretty low – we think of them (perhaps rightly) as bitter, vain, petty, back-stabbing careerists – look at the vitriol thrown at AC Grayling when he wanted to set up his school.

    Or, perhaps, we don't think of the cultural elite at all. We've simply never heard of them. If most Brits were asked to name our cultural elite, they'd probably say Stephen Fry. Can you name five great living poets from the UK? Not sure I can. Or even five great living playwrights? Either we don't know who they are – or perhaps they don't exist…So who is going to guide us?

  • Olly R says:

    I think its easy to accept moral guidance from people just as long as we don't make the assumption that they are perfect and make room for the imperfection. Martin Luther King had affairs, so did Nelson Mandela, and so on. Yet they were at the moral vanguard too, thanks to their clarity of foresight and deep empathy.

    We need a working model of human beings that accepts their split nature – both animal and something more, and to realise that while the something more bit soars upwards, the animal bit just stays as it is. So any moral code or guiding view of human nature must encourage people of whatever rank and brilliance to incessantly repeat to themselves and to others that at some level they are broken and that a shard of animal darkness lies within. I guess that's what confession is, or for many what therapy is all about.

    I can't help wondering if the wilful and total denial by positive psychologist and others is in the end just dangerous. It creates a form of blindness.

    And it's a bind for politicians, because they can't say out loud to the populace that they everyone is a little bit grotty. So they have it discuss how to manage bestial irrationality in total privacy, and lever let on. It would be the end of any political party if they discussed it in public. So a Wikileaks-style utopia of total transparency is really a nightmare scenario, because it would mean the rough stuff could not be discussed. I'm all for a bit of governmental privacy.

  • Ben Irvine says:

    Thanks for those recommendations, Jules. I'll look them up.

    Glad you received the journal – and I hope you'll enjoy it.

    Keep up the great work – Ben

  • Anonymous says:

    Describing either Mr Simms (a notable charlatan who is very retivent about his credentials) or Mr Lawson as "intellectuals" is pushing it a bit.

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