Monday, July 16, 2012

The unconsidered

It is John Maynard Keynes who is credited with saying, "even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist." I would add that much of what passes for technical economic diagnosis is underpinned by a whole set of social and moral assumptions as well.

At the moment one of these is that the mere possession of power confers wisdom. So moves to resolve the Euro crisis by creating ever greater integration is phrased in the language of passing control over to central authorities so that they, with a heavy sigh, can do it right. This makes much sense to people who assume that they must be correct in every way. Those of us who look on with increasing bewilderment at their actions have their doubts. Mind you, our protestations are met with disdain from those on the Olympian heights convinced of their own disinterested intellectual gifts. Good, virtuous European citizenship means respect for authority in their eyes. Meanwhile, the people who have to deal with the real impact of their policies, gaze upwards and mumble the word 'idiots'.

Their general contempt for the powerless is compounded by an ungenerous, pinched view of people's suffering. It is rooted in the old notion of the deserving and undeserving poor - a view held widely by the undeserving rich. Their wealth is, of course, entirely merited and the poverty of the poor is solely down to their failures. So they raise their eyes skywards, sugest that some may be redeemable, up to a point suitable for their station, if they pull their socks up and work as hard as the wealthy. But then reality creeps in for the un-deluded and points out that hard work, grindingly hard work, the sort that involves emptying the bed pans of the demented, caring for those whom others would rather forget, is often rewarded with poverty pay.

So, as one version or another of the latest conventional wisdom is endlessly ground out, it is nice to be shaken awake by reading something different. Near the end of David Graeber's intriguing book on debt there is this:
I would like, then, to end by putting in a good word for the non-industrious poor. At least they aren't hurting anyone. Insofar as the time they are taking time off from work is being spent with friends and family, enjoying and caring for those they love, they're probably improving the world more than we acknowledge. Maybe we should think of them as pioneers of a new economic order that would not share our current one's penchant for self-destruction. 
Even though his perspective is viewed through the rosiest of rose tinted glasses, my heart lifts. Here the most unconsidered and stigmatised are given value - what a generous view of the world. It is a reminder of the closing words of George Eliot's Middlemarch.
... for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs. 
 An uncomfortable thought for those who are certain of their own importance.

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