#92: Pianists in a brothel


There is a story (which may well be apocryphal) about an Italian politician who took a friend home to meet his mother. On the way, he warned his friend that his mother was a rather grand old lady, with high notions of decency and respectability. For this reason, he had not informed her that he was in politics, and asked his friend to keep his secret. “If she knew I was a minister in the government”, he said, “she would be appalled”.

His friend asked him what his mother thought he did do for a living. “She thinks I play the piano in a brothel”, replied the politician. “That’s far more respectable”.

This story is a reminder that politicians as a genus have never topped the public popularity stakes. Some very decent men and women do go into politics, but the system seems (and probably is) designed to prevent them from getting to the top. Ideally, our leaders would be taking a strategic view. All too often, however, they are too mired in trench-warfare to do this.

This means that we need to rely on ourselves, not wait for government to find solutions.

The need for solutions seems particularly imperative now. Even those who don’t subscribe to the interpretation of economics along surplus energy lines would find it hard to deny that there are strange tendencies afoot, not just in the world economy but in the social and political spheres as well.

It has been well said that “a country is more an idea than a place” – and much the same can be said of the world itself. Ideas are perhaps the most important influence of the lot. Politicians, theories, and even prosperity, come and go, but the fundamentals remain the same – how do we best manage the issues of getting along with those around us, balancing security with individual freedom, and combining prosperity with both harmony and sustainability?

At times, we have seemed tantalisingly close to success, only to slip off the rails, temporarily at least. Great thinkers – amongst them Smith, Voltaire, Gandhi and Mandela – have carried us forward, but never far enough, it can seem, to put the demons of greed, brutality and unreason finally behind us. We seem to have to endure recurrent periods of madness, examples in modern history including the First World War and the rise and fall of murderous regimes in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.

Solid evidence suggests that material conditions have a very significant bearing on the swings between enlightenment and darkness. Prosperity seemingly gives us the leisure to think, and the security to interact more constructively with others.

This linkage is particularly disturbing at a time when the established (though historically recent) expectation of continuous material advancement faces grave challenges. The danger is that a climate of unreason may advance hand-in-hand with a deterioration in prosperity. Indeed, it seems that this may already be happening.

This being so, preparations for new era of straitened material circumstances need to go far beyond practical preparations, such as learning new skills or stockpiling tools or food. I for one have never believed in the practicality of survivalist solutions, accepting instead that we need to do as much as we can to shore up civilization (which means reforming it), in order to depend less on prosperity, and more on reason.

I am reminded of the imperative of reason by the rapidity with which, in some situations at least, rationality appears to be breaking down. Nowhere does this seem more obvious at this moment than in Britain and America, though I should make it clear that my fear for the role of reason in both countries is not – repeat, not – based on the political choices that have been made.

Some have described the election of Donald Trump as an insane choice by American voters. Whilst I am not an admirer of Mr Trump, I do find this reaction unduly extreme. For starters, the alternative, Hillary Clinton, was an unappetising choice, less perhaps in herself than in what she represented. For good reasons, millions of Americans wanted something different, which was exactly what they would not have got from the Democrats’ archetypal establishment candidate. Some of the anti-Trump rhetoric seems strangely intense – and anyone painting Mr Trump as the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office must be suffering from convenient amnesia about the Iraq war.

Similarly, Britain’s “Brexit” decision to withdraw from the European Union (EU) was always going to prove divisive. But the debate, both before the referendum and since, has moved far beyond “divisive” and into “thoroughly nasty”. Perhaps because they lost, the Remain side seem the angrier, sneering at opponents whom they deride as stupid (and much worse). If the Leave camp had lost, we would probably have been hearing similar nastiness from them, whilst there does seem to be a link between nationalism and attacks (both metaphorical and literal) on EU citizens living in Britain. Neither side seems able to accept that the other side might have a scrap of logic or integrity – but experience surely teaches us that things are never, ever really as black and white as this.

What surely matters, in America as in Britain, is not why people take the positions that they do, but why they hold them with such intensity, and with such intemperate hostility towards those who disagree. There is a flavour of selfishness and arrogance in this, probably underpinned both by fear and by insecurity. In Britain, tub-thumping over Gibraltar is the most recent example of irrational hysteria – the future of the territory is a subject for negotiation, but not for threats or intemperate language.

It seems to me that a common strand which links intemperance, intolerance and unreason in Britain and America is the set of shared attitudes to which both have been subjected. The catch-word we can use for this is “neoliberalism”, though labels matter far less than substance. If the vast majority of Britons and Americans are to become more at ease with themselves and others, they need to start by challenging the thinking (as well as the economic quackery) of neoliberalism.

If one stands back and thinks about it, the intellectual case for neoliberalism is extraordinarily threadbare and tawdry, and about as rational as Soviet communism. Where the Communists made “profit” a dirty word, the neoliberals have elevated it to the status of Holy Writ. Both attitudes are idiotic. To make a profit is not automatically wrong, but neither is profit a mantra which can justify everything.

According to neoliberals, the profit motive is supreme, triumphing over all other values. Human beings, then, are portrayed by neoliberals as motivated almost entirely by personal greed. This is a puerile argument, because there are many values of comparable, indeed of far greater, importance, values which include compassion, co-operation and culture. To be dominated by the pursuit of material gain, or for that matter by a craving for celebrity, is to become mentally stunted. In a sane society, these incentives have their place, but should not reign supreme. Thus elevated, they lead to the nastiness of unfettered selfishness.

A balanced observation of where this has led surely underlines this point. Advertising, for example, has become a vast propaganda machine proselytizing material values over all else. Our happiness, this argument runs, can be gauged, and our worth measured, by our comparative success in accumulating money and possessions.

The sheer banality of this sometimes beggars belief. If one buys a certain beer, or so the ads imply, one will instantly be partying with sports stars and celebrities. The purchase of a particular car will place you on a winding mountain road, or on strangely depopulated city streets, in both instances magically freed from the daily reality of traffic jams, speed limits and the police. Buying the right fragrance will make you instantly irresistible to members of the opposite sex. A particularly nasty subtext here is that these things will put you ahead of others – this is life lived purely comparatively, not by any real sense of self-worth.

The motives behind this are as transparent as the argument is banal. Many big corporates subjugate all else to the pursuit of sales and profit. This is not done to advance the interests of shareholders (who bear the burdens when things go wrong), let alone of workers, as the outsourcing of jobs and the casualization of employment surely attest.

Moreover, if profit and personal gain justify everything, cheating and dishonesty lose any moral dimension, and penalties become merely snakes on a board dominated by ladders. Such is the grip that this thinking has exerted that shareholders, not decision-makers, are punished for corporate misbehaviour, whilst the politicians who should challenge this equation seem happier instead to pass on by, on their journey to retirement into the materialist nirvana of “consultancies” and “the lecture circuit”.

Even by its own lights, this neoliberal orthodoxy has failed, becoming progressively more economically destructive. Outsourcing skilled, well-paid jobs whilst maintaining the relentless adulation of consumption has driven debt sharply upwards, such that ten-year growth of £215bn in British GDP has been accompanied by a £1,370bn escalation in debt. Undermining the tax base has undercut the provision of public services, whilst monetary policies geared towards co-existence with debt have created huge deficits in pension provision. The emphasis on the pursuit of quick material gain has favoured speculation whilst undermining the patient creation of value through innovation and initiative. The uncomfortable suspicion lurks that, when the economy slumps, pension provision collapses and the debt burden becomes overwhelming, the masterminds of this state of affairs will already have departed to pastures new.

Of course, there are policy initiatives that the public could pursue to improve the situation, most obviously by capping the earnings of politicians and administrators in retirement, and by legislating to make executives accountable for corporate misbehaviour. Both would help. But such initiatives would be purely cosmetic if they fail to address fundamental patterns of thought.

Rather, what we surely need to do is to enlist reason to make pragmatic choices. Has the neoliberal formula made most of us more prosperous, or happier? Since it clearly has not done these things, we should repudiate it, not just through the ballot box but by promoting intellectual resistance. Pragmatism seems to tell us that the “mixed economy” works best, combining both private enterprise and public provision where each is most effective. If that is so, we should demand it.

Happiness is not promoted by material prosperity alone, but by security and a sense of worth at work, and by solidarity and co-operation more generally. We need to develop a mental toughness which rejects the blandishments of the most blatantly commercial, and a reason-based balance which prevents us from thinking that anything, ever, is either totally right or totally wrong.

Had I been writing this in a Soviet bloc country in the 1980s, I would have been concluding that communism was a bad idea, damaging to society as well as economically inept. As it is, the detrimental tendency today is towards self-serving neoliberalism, with its cult of selfish materialism and its willingness to subjugate all other values to this tawdry doctrine.

We are better than neoliberalism portrays us. We need to remind ourselves of this, and enlist reason to assert it.


59 thoughts on “#92: Pianists in a brothel

  1. At a fundamental level, as biological organisms, we share even with humble single-celled organisms like amoebae, a simple dual urge, the pursuit of pleasure/avoidance of pain. This is why when conditions are good, most humans are lazy and will only innovate to raise their game when pressured to do so by adverse circumstances.

    This apathy explains why even today, being well-educated doesn’t prevent the voters of developed countries from wanting to believe the lies of their rulers, then doing little about being fleeced like the sheep they emulate with this indolent behaviour. As one of the few who choose to remove the blinkers form their eyes and truly see people and the world for what they really are, I understand human frailties like cowardice. Opposing the system is often an act of self-destruction; not only do you sacrifice yourself by rebelling, but often those you do it for don’t even notice, let alone appreciate it. Witness the prison sentences meted out to the London rioters even for looting just plastic trinkets or bottles of water vs not one banker ending up punished in any way for destruction of the economy that resulted in the cuts we’re all still enduring today.

    But even as your average, relatively-cowardly citizen, there are simple lifestyle choices we can make to fight back without being targeted for retribution by our ruling elite. Just refusing to mindlessly consume gives us control of our finances and by extension a lot more freedom in our daily lives. Honing our skills makes us similarly more independent and therefore out of the range of those who wish to manipulate us. Relentlessly adding to our knowledge at every opportunity also gives us power over our own destiny; needing as little as possible from others makes us self-reliant. Granted the price is ostracism by the majority who wont understand why you’re different, but this can be disguised to a large extent to avoid social opprobrium, so that life is not hard; we can’t avoid our need for some social interaction.

    The relative prosperity (until it stalled recently) of the populace in developed countries not resulting in serious improvement of their political maturity at all, perhaps proves that our brains can’t evolve fast enough to keep pace with technological advances and the lifestyle change that is ushering in. It seems therefore that no amount of education can overcome those cognitive biases and other psychological weaknesses hard-wired in us from birth. If fully informing people of their situations doesn’t inspire them to change for the sake of their own happiness, let alone survival, I don’t know what will serve to motivate.

    History should give us clues from past examples, ideologies whether economic, religious etc., did rise and fall and shape eras, but the triggers are not often clear. The rise of communism via the Russian revolution was from war-weariness, general suffering and resentment at inequality, but the case of the US independence struggle was a power grab to radically improve their lot not only economically but via unprecedented individual freedoms. So the causes or even the variables maintaining the momentum of rebellion are not always a threshold level of pain, oppression or inequality. It’s a very interesting subject, but also vital in looking for the motivation needed to save ourselves this time by wakening the majority and more importantly unifying them to bring success.

    • Re: “So the causes or even the variables maintaining the momentum of rebellion are not always a threshold level of pain, oppression or inequality. It’s a very interesting subject, but also vital in looking for the motivation needed to save ourselves this time by wakening the majority and more importantly unifying them to bring success.”

      “Wakening the majority” only goes so far. In order to sustain a social revolution, the vital factor is leadership, and that is what has been lacking. The Chinese revolution had its Mao, the Vietnamese had Ho Chi Minh, the Russian Revolution had Lenin and Trotsky, and the colonial Americans had George Washington, Tom Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. The difference between people like us, who educate ourselves to these issues by reading blogs and discussing ideas, and those who actually effect change is the presence of a galvanizing figure. It is “great man meets historical circumstances” that bring about revolutionary change. This rarely happens in good times because the social conditions for change are not present. When societies go off the rails, the social circumstances favoring change may arise, but there is no guarantee that the great man will arise with them. In my opinion, the US and Europe, while we can clearly see that we’re on the wrong path, we are still a long way from hitting the kind of bottom that sparks dramatic changes.

      In my opinion, the coming decades will be a sad era for our children and grandchildren. The 2016 US election is the model for what lies ahead. Given the choice between Clinton and Trump, what can one do? Both are deeply flawed. The winner couldn’t even capture the majority of the popular vote, and won primarily as a backlash against the screwing that ordinary Americans have taken from the establishment for the last four decades. Is that the best we can hope for?

      I think the answer is “yes”. There is a huge amount of momentum in a society as large and well entrenched as are found in the US and the UK. The role models of our childhood, the instruction provided by our schools, the messages of our media, all conspire to maintain and promote the status quo and in particular the interests of the ruling class. Those manipulating the levers of power have the law, the schools, the media, the police and the national security state at their disposal to maintain the current system and to marginalize or suppress its critics.

      My point is that educating the public is not enough. The public must also be motivated and organized, and this requires both unacceptable social conditions and a leader who can galvanize the public into action.

      On another point, re “there are simple lifestyle choices we can make to fight back without being targeted for retribution by our ruling elite.”

      While this may be true, I think that, practically speaking, these choices are limited. Like it or not, we have to play the hand we’re dealt, and the hand dealt to the average European or American is living in a country where all property worth having is already owned by someone. One can’t just “drop out.” You’re going to have to pay either rent or taxes in order to secure the means of existence. So unless you want to live life as a street person, you’re going to have to plug into “the system” at some level.

      It is true that some choices result in more freedom than others, but the price of such freedom is often reduced standard of living. That’s a hard choice for people who grew up in an era of prosperity to make. It’s only when their current circumstances are already dire that they are likely to take the kind of action needed for revolutionary change.

      In the meantime, I think the most important activity is organization. Political organization. Once again, almost all of the revolutionary movements cited above were preceded by periods of organization. The American Colonies had their Committees of Correspondence, for example. The Communist Party of China was founded in 1921, twenty-seven years before the 1948 revolution. And the Viet Minh was organized decades before Vietnam finally expelled the French and then the Americans. So I’m not sure the time for revolution is at hand. Put the time for organization definitely is.

  2. Thanks Tim for getting us to think about what lies behind all the stuff spouted by politicians, media and most thinkers in our society. It is difficult to imagine how to change attitudes and approaches towards more happiness and sustainability when most of the levers of power and information are in the hands of neoliberal thinking- often unknowingly.
    As I understand it, things change when there is a threat to deal with and an alternative narrative or philosophy available to which people can shift. However threats are only reacted to if they are:-
    The structure of our thinking, of our economic and financial systems and the threat of climate change and resource depletion do not have those characteristics. Think sabre tooth tiger, otherwise no big deal.
    To have an impact the appeal to facts has to have some or all of the characteristics noted above and to have an alternative more attractive story.
    It appears to me that Brexit and Trump happened in a large part because the people who voted them in a) had nothing to lose- as they saw it- and most importantly, b) the alternative was a better story – it had more play with the heart strings than the message of more of the same. The “nothing to lose” feeling should help with the search for a new attractive story.
    Much as I love reason and numbers they do not have much traction with most people- an attractive story is what we need. Hopefully we can base that on the facts you search out and present so well. Perhaps we can have thinking about the new story as a future discussion?

  3. Hi Tim

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking article.

    In some ways Adam Smith was one of the main fathers of the free enterprise system (despite the fact that he lived in pre – industrial revolution times) that is the basis for neoliberalism and his phrase “the invisible hand” is quoted as the magic that reconciles the selfish with the fulfillment of a social purpose (the baker looks after his own interest and supplies us all with bread).

    The interesting thing is that Smith is misquoted. His use of the phrase “the invisible hand” is used in connection with international trade. He says that entrepreneurs will often find it to their advantage to produce abroad with cheaper labour (globalisation?) but they realize the cost to jobs in the home country and the “invisible hand” restrains them from exporting the jobs overseas, it is a thing which brings to the fore a “home bias” and restrains that self interest.

    My point is that Smith knew that capitalism had a tendency to self destruct and had to be restrained and indeed explored this much further in his work “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”. Adam Smith is one of the main poster boys of neoliberalism but he is widely misunderstood and would I believe be horrified at being associated with this philosophy; he was much more aware of the tension between self interest and the needs of society as a whole.

    • Adam Smith is grotesquely misrepresented. His insistence on an orderly, honest and transparent market clearly requires regulation, which only the state can provide.

  4. I think there’s something to be said for limiting the length of time all politicians are in office. At the moment politics seems to be dominated by career politicians whose sole objective is to get re-elected at all costs, almost everything they do appears to be a calculation to this end. We need more conviction politicians with experience in the real world, particularly business.

    a reason-based balance which prevents us from thinking that anything, ever, is either totally right or totally wrong.

    Are you hinting that ideologically driven solutions tend to overlook important problems that don’t fit into the ideology? I fear that the sentence is not logically correct however, there are times when things are totally right or totally wrong I think.

    Apart from that, would you mind if we re-publish this post at our new online opinion magazine (crediting yourself as author of course and including a link to your blog)?


    We’re seeking a range of different opinions on social and political matters.

    • Feel free to re-publish.

      Articles here are normally about energy and economic issues – here I felt a need to stand back and ask “what is it all about?”

    • Thanks Dr. Morgan. We published it and it sparked a bit of debate. A big question which came out of the debate was on the subject of so-called “Private Finance” in the public sector – is this the worst of both worlds public/private? We uncovered some troubling info. about the Mapeley Steps deal, where the HMRC sold off some of its property to a company that proceeded to make hundreds of millions of pounds when the property went up in value! The company was also based in an offshore tax haven, rather embarrassing for the Inland Revenue! Its a subject we will be returning to at the Participator…


    • Thank you, and good to know it sparked a lively debate. Do feel free to use it in your magazine.

      The big problem – with economics, and finance, as well as government – is concentration of power. In economics, monopoly is damaging to both customers and employees – and this is true whether the monopoly is state- or privately-owned.

      There’s surely a case for private and public sectors each doing what it does best. Nationalising plumbers would be a recipe for disaster – but so would privatising the police!

  5. Thanks for cogently criticising the Neo-liberal dogma. It now joins communism and capitalism as another failure in ideology and economics. The equally great failure is the political world. IMHO, politicians today are ill equipped to handle our modern society. After all, to aspire to politics, it starts simply by raising your hand. There is no education bar experience and the experience no longer measures up. Getting a good politician is a fluke. Maybe they start out well, like Obama, but fail as he did.
    The obvious answer is for we citizens to become informed. Too often the vested interest parasites ply us with convenient lies and misinformation. Pernicious, even criminal, behaviour. We have now the means, the internet. Blogs like yours if only available as print would struggle to be read at all bar a tiny minority. IMHO we will cut through before too long.

    • Yes, being informed is critical.

      Though most articles I post here are on economics (and I try to make them as evidence-based as possible), this article differs, in being an expression of personal opinion. I have wanted to share these ideas for a long time, and of course to put them up for discussion.

      I do not consider myself political, but prefer to observe. My heroes include Robert Lowe (who applied rigorous logic to policy in the 1850s-1870s), Gandhi (a quiet, unassertive man, who led by example), Martin Luther King (a man of the highest principles) and Nelson Mandela (who refused to be embittered by his own experiences, and exemplified the best combination of principle, magnaminity and dialogue).

      Surplus Energy Economics is objective, data-led, and in that sense is not political. As time has gone on, however, it has helped to expose some of the flaws in neoliberalism. I keep seeing the most obvious economic weaknesses coinciding with the most neoliberal-inclined policies.

      Rather than despair, it might help to recognise that, like communism, neoliberalism will self-destruct. It flirted with this in 2008, but I envisage a rolling deterioration rather than a dramatic crash, possible though that is. At least one sizeable economy has already been hobbled by neoliberal quackery.

  6. @ Dolphin, I agree totally with your analysis – those points that didn’t overlap with my discourse I didn’t make myself because I had already written quite a lot. What worries me is that most great leaders are sociopaths somewhere on the malevolent manipulative behaviours spectrum of psychology, (this is so obvious in the corporate world) so that even if they win trust by doing good things, they will go off the rails at some point & we’ll all pay for that. The system itself has evolved via gatekeeping of power to preserve the privileges of the elite …..to the point where it’s only capable of producing candidates of & for that elite.

    My point on being as self-sufficient as possible was to individually ameliorate the socio-economic pain that’s coming, yes it’s only management, I know it’s not a cure, but still better than nothing. I think, following on from your thoughts, we (developed countries addicted to growth by debt alone) will drift on through lost decades, producing at least one ‘lost generation’ the millennials, who will go backwards in aspiration. We are already headed into the second, while Japan is going for the third and probably is the default blueprint for us, since they’re effectively ahead of the curve in societal aging, shrinking population & a busted economic paradigm – whilst still bereft of solutions.

    • Savant

      Re your comment about self sufficiency I can understand where you’re coming from but I think this actually compounds the problems we have in a way.

      The move to individual freedom which gathered pace in the 1960s has tended to atomize society and neutered the type of social solidarity that we had just after the war and into the 1950s and indeed 1960s. The problem with the atomized individual is that they can be manipulated far more easily because their reference points are external, being the media and government, both of which control the message.

      It’s arguable that we need to get back to the type of community solidarity that we had before as a precursor to evolutionary change rather than allowing ourselves to be picked off and manipulated by TPTB. I’m not suggesting that we return to the days of trade unions or the corresponding societies that existed long ago; this is not possible but I think you get the drift.

      Having said all this I tend to agree with Tim in that I believe it more likely that the current system will self destruct and TPTB will simply get too greedy and go too far and that we will be faced with revolution rather than evolution. Of course this tends towards chaos which usually results in a more authoritarian political structure than heretofore.

    • Savant,
      Re: “What worries me is that most great leaders are sociopaths…”
      Well, there’s certainly a lot of supporting evidence for that idea. My first reaction is that there are going to be times of revolutionary change regardless. Perhaps the most we can hope for is an outcome that’s better for the general public than what came before.
      I also agree that self-sufficiency to whatever extent is feasible is good. Especially in times where governments are acting in ways that are inimical to the interests of the people, putting some distance between you and them is may be the only way to shield yourself from exploitation and subjugation.
      Still, I do think it’s incumbent upon us all to do what we can to improve the political landscape in whatever ways are practical. Not doing so simply yields the field to the sociopaths. IMO, this was the mistake made by the American counter-culture of the 1960s. Once the Vietnam war ended, those involved believed that their job was done and went off to their own personal pursuits. With the results we are dealing with today.

    • Bob J

      Re: “I tend to agree with Tim in that I believe it more likely that the current system will self destruct and TPTB will simply get too greedy and go too far and that we will be faced with revolution rather than evolution.”

      I wish I shared this view, but I see subjugation of the mass of humanity into economic peonage at least as likely. The “security state” in the US and UK have gone far beyond their original mission and are now pursuing the domestic equivalent of the military’s “total situational awareness.” Take it from someone who works in the field: capture of peoples’ communications and movements — especially their movements in urban areas — is virtually total at this point. New devices such as smart TVs and Alexas bring this surveillance capability right into peoples private homes. Huge resources are now being expended to develop automated processes that analyze the data for whatever purpose the authors of such processes see fit. We comfort ourselves by believing the intent is to identify potential terrorists and other bad actors, but “bad actors” can mean different things to different people. When TPTB sense that their power is threatened, I have no doubt that the thrust of the analysis will be to identify “subversives” and determine their whereabouts. The rapidly militarizing police forces will then be deployed to take care of “the problem”. Anyone who thinks their tax dollars will not be used for such purposes is living in a fool’s paradise. Just ask yourself this: would the average Trump supporter on some police force have any problem bashing in the door of some “Libtard who hates America and wants to destroy it?”

      So who knows? Perhaps I’m too pessimistic. But in any case, I still maintain that organization is essential. Otherwise, as Edmund Burke so eloquently observed, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”

    • My interpretation is that these things follow a pattern – history never repeats itself, but certain patterns recur.

      Established regimes become complacent, corrupt and incompetent. When they do this, the economy gets into trouble. Embattled regimes usually resort to coercion, and seem able to do this, apparently having the money, the organisation and the technology to succeed. Yet repression tends to fail, as it did in France in 1789 and Russia in 1917. As the USSR began to implode, and likewise East Germany, hardliners thought that repression would work – but it didn’t.

    • Dolphin

      I actually agree with you that organization is essential; I was not suggesting that the new situation would arise like a Phoenix from the ashes; what I think I have a problem with is how that would happen in the context which you describe – a context which, as you say, is getting more malign as time passes and we become the serfs of the surveillance state.

      I don’t think you are being too pessimistic; I think you are being realistic which is why I see the future in more apocalyptic terms, a view which is based on TPTB not conceding power voluntarily but fighting to the last ditch to preserve it.

    • Bob:

      Point taken, and TPTB won’t just roll over. But my article isn’t about the mechanics of what happens next (though that’s a fascinating subject).

      Instead, it’s about preparedness. My starting assumption is that the system itself induces a major economic downturn. This seems extraordinarily likely, to me. The question then is, when TPTB are discredited, what should we want instead?

      If you look around, you’ll see that various countries are in varying degrees of stress. Things to look at, from ground level, are real wages, cost of household essentials and levels of household/individual debt. At macro level, debt is again critical, but look also at “quasi-debt”, pension deficits, the current account and affordability of public services.

      In the article I mentioned the US and the UK, as the leading neoliberal economies. In the US, huge numbers deserted the establishment and supported Mr Trump and, not to be forgotten, millions of Democrats preferred Mr Sanders to Mrs Clinton. Mr Trump, having won, has to deliver on what these millions want. Can he? Frankly, I doubt it. So, what next? Back to supporting “the establishment”? Again, I doubt it. So what I’m talking about is preparedness for a situation that we cannot predict.

      As I see it – and I think the accumulating evidence is becoming overwhelming – the UK is in the process of falling apart. The numbers on this are clear, but so is “experiential” evidence, I think – for the average person, how far does his/her income go after household essentials; how much debt does he/she have; what about services ranging all the way from health and elderly care to refuse collection and libraries; how “happy” is he/she with the society in which they live? The degree of stress is, I suspect, reflected in division, as revealed by “Brexit”, a protest vote as much as anything really about the EU.

      So, when the next iteration of Trump, Sanders, UKIP etc comes along, how do we judge the validity of their promises? This is where reason comes in.

      I hope people will obey the law, and respect others; and my hero in this regard is Gandhi, not Guevara. History suggests that revolution is seldom an answer to anything, and makes things worse. The neoliberal system will collapse through its own failings – the challenge now is to work out how it is replaced by something civilised, through as process that I foresee being “rapid evolution”, not “revolution”.

  7. @ Bob J, I actually agree with you too, rebuilding the various types of community bonds that were the social safety net for humans until very recently would definitely free us from autocratic control much better than if we’re individually isolated. I didn’t mention it though because I thought that in the ‘developed’ countries at least, we’re too far gone for that – too brainwashed en masse to cooperate for the collective good and so atomised we barely have much family any more; between the collapsing birthrate & nomadic separation (geographically) to find work.

    How the failed neoliberal system will end is probably going to be down to the situation on a case-by-case basis in each country, depending on how the various criteria align at the time, different cultural values etc. So, I’m guessing some countries can drift/stagnate for decades like Japan, while others may well explode instead …..it’s probably going to be an uncomfortable ride.

    I can’t see a way to get to a positive outcome, given that a lot of people are unaware that there’s even a problem and most of those that are don’t understand it, so will believe the lie they find most attractive. Taking brexit as an example, the defenders of the status quo essentially said ‘things may be far from perfect, but if you opt out it’ll be much worse’ with not even an attempt at offering a reform program to remove corruption and ineptitude. Then the rebels seemed to have as many reasons for wanting change as there were individuals, no clear idea of what that change should be, let alone how to achieve it & most confusingly seemed to be blaming the EU for whatever the current biggest problem was in their life at that moment in time, even if it was completely unrelated.

    That would suggest unifying people to oppose the system is harder than herding cats. Within my own social circle, the few people who think about this stuff can actually see & understand the problems, but not the seriousness, they think it’s no different this time to every generation’s worries about the world ending – nuclear war for example, then the world wars before that. (So they reckon you just have to ignore it all or you’ll never get on with your life & it’ll resolve itself)

    • Savant

      I can see where you are coming from.

      My view is that we would not recapture the solidarity by what might be termed evolutionary means; you are right things are too far gone. What I had in mind was a black swan event (financial collapse; war; natural disaster; climate issues) which would shake up the whole system and present people with the fact that it can no longer be BAU and that we had to make radical change ( a sort of modern Dunkirk spirit might, and I emphasise might, result). I think this is most likely because, as Dolphin has said, I can’t see TPTB simply giving up and conceding power

  8. A lot of very interesting ideas about how change may come, and how to prepare for it – a stimulating discussion, for which many thanks.

    In recent times, at least two self-serving regimes have toppled – Communism in Russia and its satellites, and apartheid in South Africa. In both cases, economics was critical, and the regimes fell because their economic systems were not sustainable. To this extent, change was not exactly “revolution”, but something more like “extremely rapid evolution”.

    This is surely relevant, as the neoliberal system seems to be crumbling, albeit at different speeds in different places. How peaceful the change can be remains to be seen, but I strongly hope that it can happen in an orderly and civilised way.

  9. @ Dr T, one of your examples gives a ray of hope that things could work out – I was in varsity in SA when that choice was made by the electorate (the last apartheid voters) & had the biggest decision in my life to date then, to make. Born & raised in a newly-independent country to the north, I had no hope for sub-saharan Africa & had to choose between staying in SA where I’d just arrived to study, (the only nearby country with a lot of developed features) or ‘returning’ to a Europe I only knew from holidays. I chose to leave because I couldn’t see how they could/would avoid a war, both sides had a near total fear, hatred, mistrust & misunderstanding of each other.

    Having no desire to die for nothing, (I reckoned there was no way the regime could hold out against worldwide sanctions forever) I figured it’d be payback time for over 3 centuries of subjugation & I would be on the wrong side of the colour divide without even having been the perpetrator. Also as an 17-year old just having left home, it was unnerving having classmates freshly back from the war in ‘Nam’ (Namibia) at my age who were clearly disturbed – we didn’t know what PTSD was back then. The older guys in my halls of residence studying geology & economics told me the deal had been made to let the ‘south west province’ go because the cost of the war had outstripped the bounty in diamonds & other resources SA got out of the territory.

    A few years later, in the UK after shuttling between the UK & SA for the transition years, I was shocked to witness a double miracle, peace in SA followed by N. Ireland, both of which held. It’s all coming back to me now, the irony, in the UK, people would say how can you live like that in SA? – there were bomb detectors at supermarket entrances & we got used to it – for just daily shopping ! (A bar I was in with friends in cape town was blown up a week later) Then in SA my friends there would say how can you live like that in the UK? …..after the face of Ealing Broadway high street was blown off by a car bomb near the tube station I used every day. My answer was the same to both groups, ”The violence seems not that much/far away, you don’t think it can ever be you & my personal choice is to rather risk losing my life than any privacy, because I see losing your right to freedom as having already lost a worthwhile life.”

    So, looking back, I would have bet all my own money on both those conflicts being intractable – as such, perhaps there is hope after all that the fear & anger unleashed by this inequality may also be peacefully resolved …..because it’s a fact that stranger things have already happened.

  10. The comment I have heard is that first the French, then the Russian Revolution so scared the establishment in the UK that they were willing to make concessions to ‘buy off’ the masses and keep the peace. George V overturned the UK Government & refused to allow the Tsar to flee to Britain and while strongly opposed to the Labour Government insisted that they were received properly at Court.

    Now however following the collapse of the USSR it seems those in power have forgotten this lesson.

    • It’s a fascinating subject, and one which I have studied. Something to note is the role of war in both instances – essentially, if you hand out guns to huge numbers of men and train them how to use them, you are creating a risk.

      In the late- and post-Napoleonic war years, the powers that be were very worried – understandably, perhaps, with the PM assassinated! They went in for a great deal of repression, not least because Luddities were active as well as labour organisers. Reform did not come until 1832, when “middle class” men got the vote.

      The same problem – large numbers of men armed and trained – came up after 1918, with revolution in Russia and also in Germany. There was a real fear that “Bolshevism” would sweep across Europe. Britain sent troops to help the White Russians, and the General Strike (1926) was seen by some as a direct threat.

      On a personal note, I have always understood that my grandfather was prominent amongst the strike organisers in 1926.

    • Yes, Tim, we are going off topic in the sense that we are getting too political.
      However, this still is very relevant material, and I can see that we differ on some points.
      However, what we are witnessing are the geo-political manifestations of SEE, this conflict is about oil and gas, and the control of markets.
      It is of great interest to us all, that these geo-plolitical forces do not end up getting us all killed !
      I look forward to your next article. Thanks & regards, -Johan.

    • Thanks Dan – I saw that item. I remember, too – when I was still in the City as head of research – writing about the 2011 English riots and blaming it on thwarted materialism.

      Something that shocked me just as much – in its minor way – was sitting in a restaurant and overhearing a teenage boy telling his parents how well off he would be when both his grannies dropped off the twig.

      His parents – whose mothers he was talking about, after all – said nothing. Also, unless he was going to inherit directly from his grannies, wasn’t he wishing his parents into early demise as well?

      If this was a one-off, I’d just have written him off as a greedy little moron. But I’ve had adult acquaintances moan to me, not about the death of their mother, father or grandparent, but about siblings getting more than their fare share. Bereavement, it seems, matters less than gain.

      Am I unusual in finding this very depressing?

    • Haven’t you heard this one Tim? Baby boomers are saying this.
      “Being of sound mind, I spent all of my money while I was alive!”

      One in the eye for their children.

  11. @ Dr T. I think in most cases of genuine changes of the guard with financial/politico-social systems used to run countries, it happens only because the elite are actually involved, sanctioning those changes when they’re convinced there’s no other option for self-preservation. An example of this would be the removal of Ceausescu in Romania, amid the chaos and conveniently rapid execution at the time, it seemed like an angry, bloodthirsty, populace really went for it. A couple of decades later, it transpired that the crony elite around him, were less deluded than him & in touch with reality enough to know the game was up. So they basically engineered a coup, disguising it as a revolution by allowing directionless, confused mobs to rampage a round a little, then threw them a few concessionary bones, like declaring nominal democracy and ensured there was no obvious figurehead to invite future flak while restoring their corrupt privileges.

    As such, it must be the most likely possibility of peaceful change is to convince the elite it’s the best thing for them too, so it’s interesting that a US asset manager paid attention to a report -”The deep causes of secular stagnation and the rise of populism” by James Montier and Philip Pilkington – that has echos of some of what you cover: https://www.gmo.com/docs/default-source/research-and-commentary/strategies/asset-allocation/the-deep-causes-of-secular-stagnation-and-the-rise-of-populism.pdf?sfvrsn=7 [in the middle of that front page, click on the 3rd bullet point in that pragraph]

    So could this be a sign that if not yet known mainstream, the inconvenient truth you try to publicise is being increasingly pitched at people who have money to protect? They wont all be elite, but the elite will all be in that category. If so, then the elite will quickly be at least aware of an impending crash if they don’t change course …..& if enough of them hedge their bets by altering their course, transition could actually happen.

    • This makes a lot of sense, and I was aware of the Romanian example – indeed, I seem to recall having suspicions pretty soon after the “change” in Bucharest.

      So your argument is pretty persuasive. Right now I’m drafting a follow-up to this discussion, and the figures for the UK are so clear that only a total idiot could fail to realise what the situation is. My measure of individual prosperity is falling by about 1.5% annually, which is about twice the rate of deterioration in the United States – and, even there, Mr Trump is going to find it very hard to reverse the deterioration in prosperity for middle class Americans.

    • It is very intruiging, of that there is no doubt.
      As for conspiracy theories, many as it turns out have eventually been shown to be conspiracy fact.
      So it is wrong to discount them out of hand.
      I agree with your political motivations aspect to the argument, and it was my own initial assessment that Trump was acting for a domestic audience. A big part of the problem here is that Mr. Trump, for all his attributes and for all his faults, is not really an intellectual heavyweight. His ego will probably allow him to be swayed by the cleverer minds that surround him. That said, it is plain that the actions of the president, are not really his own, but of those who have his ear.
      That in itself is a bit of a conspiracy theory, or is that accepted conspiracy fact ?
      Much of this comes down to who do you trust more, the Russians or the Americans.
      At present the Russians hold the sway with me, and will tell everybody quite openly that I hold Putin and Lavrov as 2 of the most intelligent politicians on today’s world stage.
      As for honest, well I would say that Putin is more honest than Trump and more honest than May and more honest than Merkel. But when it comes to politics, honesty is a somewhat vague and relative term.
      Getting back to the gas attack in Syria.
      Yes, the narrative out there is saying that Assad has “form” when it comes to gassing his own people. Well I think it has been proven that he previous gas attacks in 2013 were attributable to the rebels, and not to Syrian forces.
      I would say that today we have a similar situation.
      Firstly there is no proof that the Syrian army carried out this attack.
      Secondly there is no agreement as to what agent was actally involved, and thirdly, there has been no inspection of the attack site.
      The reports that we are receiveing all emminate from dubious sources, from people with an active desire to pin blame on the Syrian forces. These so called “White hel;mets” are political activists and not impartial humanitarian volunteers. They have got “Skin in the Game”.
      This narrative was jumped upon by the Western media, no discussion allowed.
      As for “co-incidences” in Russia, the Russians are also fighting Islamic terrorism, there can be no denying that. The Russians are also fighting American sponsored imperialism. The uprising in Ukraine deliberately started by the USA and the EU to de-stabilise Russia. The Maidan was staged.
      To claim that a terrorist attack in St.Petersburg smacks of Conspiracy, yet to deny any conspiracy conducted by the West is a bit of Doublespeak.
      Who is to say that Anti-Putin rallies held in Moscow are not sponsored and orchestrated by Soros and the CIA ? Is this another popular uprising against a hated dictaor ?
      Funnily enough, Putin has 75% popularity with the Russian population.
      So yes, Putin does have his hands full, but I still trust him more than I do the American Deep State.
      I am glad that we live in a world in which there is a Vladimir Putin to stand up against American world hegemony.

    • Well, I think we’re getting a long way off topic, so had better leave it there. But no-one amongst Putin’s admirers has explained about Litvinenko…..

  12. I’ve been trying to avoid public speculation about the latest events in Syria, but I’d be very interested in the any thoughts that drtim and those of us who comment here have to offer.

    I know it has limited relevance to surplus energy economics, apart from the need for the US to replace 59 rather ancient cruise missiles, but still…

    Has a scrap got out of hand in the brothel?

    Can the pianist keep playing?

    Has Trump finally been made “an offer he can’t refuse” and capitulated?

    Is the launching of 59 missiles (of which it is reported that only 23 arrived on target) at a pre-warned and largely evacuated remote airfield any use militarily when the runway and aeroplanes were so undamaged that it was back in use within hours?

    What actually happened in the supposed chemical gas attack that set it all off – the White Helmet’s pictures of babies seem like bald propaganda to me? Yes I know various ‘experts’ were trotted out to obfuscate the issue of whether it could have been opposition chemical stockpiles.

    Why did Trump launch without even the barest semblance of an investigation?

    Cui bono. Why on earth would Assad launch a pretty ineffective chemical attack that was guaranteed to earn the world’s condemnation when he was winning anyway?

    In fact, I have yet to read any news reports that don’t sound like propaganda.

    A few days ago 200 civilians were killed in an airstrike in Mosul. That’s at least double the reported gas casualties in Syria.

    We have been here before.

    I almost despair.

    • I don’t know how much I can add to this, but I think the US strike was justified.

      “False flag” operations are always a possibility (and I note how conveniently the terrorist attack in Russia coincided with protests against Putin). But Assad has form, having done this before, and certainly has a motive for terrorizing his opponents. Russia may not have known, but has a relaxed and cynical view of this sort of thing (n.b. the radioactive murder of Alexander Litvinenko, which put large numbers of innocent civilians at risk).

      Basically, this limited strike seems a justified response to the use of chemical weapons, a heinous act in my opinion.

    • @Default,
      I despair too. The world does seem to have gone mad.
      This airstrike is completely bonkers. It has no justification whatsoever.
      Western politicians are falling over themselves, to justify it and claim it as a great success, they cannot see how ridiculous they look !
      Your man, Fallon was babbling on about, “fully supporting ” the mission based on “ALLEGED FACTS”.
      Explain to me in English what an “alleged” fact is ?
      A fact is a fact. It cannot be alleged.
      Is he saying that the USA bombed Syria based on “Allegations ” ???
      Any two year old can see that this was a false flag !
      The rush to bomb Syria was obviously a prepared event, any old excuse will do; in fact, let us just make up an excuse:- it doesn’t even have to be a good excuse any more.
      But to your very pertinant question Cui Bono ?
      Well I have been reading a very interesting article over on zerohedge, which appears to answer that question.
      Israel is the prime beneficiary.
      The objective in Syria is not to win the war, but to keep it going. If the Middle East can be kept on fire for the next decades, then it will remain weak and can pose no to threat to the state of Israel. At the same time, it allows Israel to expand its Appartheid State, by focussing attention away from its own misdeeds.
      This is not an anti-semitic point of view, and it is not anti-semitism wrapped up as anti-zionism either.
      It is simply the way that I see things.

    • I’m behind you 100% Johan. Counterpunch is a left wing orientated publication, but it doesn’t spare the Democrats when they deserve knocking.

    • It’s an interesting idea, but my problem with most conspiracy theories (including this one) is that I don’t think they’re that clever. Also, this one doesn’t make sense to me.

      If the US objective is to prolong the civil war to prevent Syria attacking Israel, why bother? After this war, Syria will be a basket case anyway, in no fit state to attack Israel or anyone else. Even if Syria did attack Israel, the result would be the same as all the other times they’ve tried it – Syria’s military would be wiped out by Israel’s forces. If Russia helped Syria to attack Israel, Russia would find herself at war with the US, which could only have one outcome – America has the technology as well as the resources to win. I don’t think Putin is stupid enough to take on the US.

      The situation in Syria is undoubtedly complex. Logic says that the worst winners from any sane point of view would be ISIS and similar loonies. Assad’s regime is essentially secular (as was the other Baathist regime in Baghdad). But Assad, like his father, is a brutal dictator, in an alliance of convenience with Putin, who I wouldn’t trust at all.

      So a simpler view is surely that, whilst staying out generally, the US felt it could not just stand by and watch civilians being gassed. Obama ducked this, and Trump wants to show he’s made of tougher stuff. Obviously, it’s useful for Trump to wave the flag, and to have some overseas distraction for political reasons, especially right now, with his health care plans in tatters, and both China and North Korea needing to now he means business.

      So I can buy a political motivation, but not such an involved conspiracy scenario.

      Also, it’s interesting that those who believe in conspiracy theories and false flag operations look at the US and Israel, not at Russia. Given the scale of anti-Putin protests just recently, wasnt the terrorist attack the other day, justifying a crack-down, just that bit too convenient?

    • Dr Tim

      Re “this limited strike seems a justified response to the use of chemical weapons, a heinous act in my opinion.”

      True using gas is a heinous act, but how to identify the perp? However one feels about this strike, it’s pretty clear to me that it was carried out before the facts were in. Why was that?

      In short, I smell a rat. I think it’s the same rat I smelled once before, somewhere over in the Gulf of Tonkin…

    • Here’s a response to the US official statement on the alleged sarin attack by “Dr. Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology, and national security policy at MIT. Postol’s main expertise is in ballistic missiles. He has a substantial background in air dispersal, including how toxic plumes move in the air. Postol has taught courses on weapons of mass destruction – including chemical and biological threats – at MIT”.

      Its well worth a read.


  13. Tim,
    There does seem to be a conclusive view that a chaotic tipping point is on the near horizon namely the collapse of the world economic model.

    It is extremely unlikely that we or politicians are going to deal with the underlying causes before this point is reached. Once it has occurred do you think there is any hope of establishing an economy system based on the concept of a steady state model.

    I have read a number of books setting out the problems we face but I have only [so far] come across one which puts forward a “framework” for actually moving towards a steady state economy .

    Briefly the book is “Enough is Enough” by Rob Dietz and Dan O’Neill published in 2013 [ http://www.steadystate.org/ . ] It is an easy read and very clear but doesn’t dodge the issues….the main/critical issues are dealt with in separate chapters but under three headings : what are we doing ? what could we do instead ? and where do
    we go from here? [to get there!]

    They are hoping for an enlightened discussion to enable a
    transformation of society/economic model to a steady state economy.
    [They do recognize the need for more appealing title rather than the
    dull slightly negative “steady state”]

    There is just a need for some open and free ranging discussion
    around the societal issues we have to face without entrenched views
    …..so that the ideas gain some common currency.
    Any thoughts comments welcome.
    best Peter M

    • I can see the appeal of steady state, and I’m convinced that “growth” as we’ve known it is over – and a crash is the most probable result of kicking agaimst that reality.

      This said, I think human beings are strivers, so standing still would be a hard idea to sell. The really big challenge now may be to break the psychological link which ties materialism to happiness – we know this is consumerist propaganda, but it’s deep-seated. Obviously, happiness should be what we are, not what we own – but gaining traction for this may be very hard indeed.

    • I think a Steady State economy is completely unrealistic. We have to exploit resources to survive let alone grow. We have never had a steady state economy. When we were few in number our exploitation was able to be covered up, but that situation went out the window when we became an agricultural society and started producing a surplus.

      After the ordained crash coming happens, we will not be able to produce a surplus We will have a hangover population of people and that will be a very bad situation. Climate change will bite into our prospects and the planet will simply not be so accommodating as it has been in the Holocene.

  14. Tatws ar werth £5 ….. more than 30 years later, Tatws ar werth £6 ….. seems steady to me (for those poor souls who aren’t in Wales – farm gate sales of sacks of spuds). We have our own economy…


  15. What’s a car without a steering wheel? What’s an economy without finance? Especially 2017 finance? We can’t go back. In 2008/9, we tried. It didn’t work.

    Of course it didn’t work, growth is over the top since 1970. The rest is monetary policy.

    The Money Church. Accepting failure with 7 billion + people is about truth, not about words.

    • In my book, I set out a distinction between the real and the financial economies. The financial economy of money and credit performs a very important function, but is ultimately subservient to the real economy of goods and services, energy and labour. When we forget that subservience, we are asking for trouble.

      A related concept is financialization, where too much is paid for simply moving money around. Kevin Phillips is very good on this. Historically, there are interesting links between financialization, rentiers and revolution. Dmitry Orlov says that, instead of treating finance as a positive component of economic output, we should treat it as a negative, being a cost to other sectors, and deduct it, not add it, when calculating GDP.

      There is a school of thought which says that, when energy costs rise beyond a certain point, sustaining a population of 7 billion will become impossible, with the sustainable limit being about 1 billion. This is not simply about the affordability of agricultural inputs, but also about the degradation of soil after decades of input-intensive monoculture.

    • Yes doc., fully agreed. I would like to add that as soon as ‘money’ is decoupled from gravity, the end of that money system is unavoidable. I think its in humans nature to absord as much as possible. Current ‘financialization’ is way over the top and provides for millions of jobs. Dangerous considering our just in time interconnected systems.

      Imagine you’re in the shower and you have a full bottle of shampoo. You use the shampoo without looking very carefully how much you use. Because there’s more than plenty. But when the bottle is almost empty, you will use little shampoo because the next trip to the supermarket is three days away.

      Next time the supermarket will be empty and we will all ask ourselves why we used up so much shampoo in such a short timeframe.

  16. Tim,
    Yes there is a vital need to break the link between consumerism and the feeling of [short term ] happiness it can provide.

    “Steady state” does sound as if the pause button on a VCR has been pressed! But in fact it is a state of equilibrium between the resource consumption and population: its an economy in in which material and energy use [amongst many things] are kept within ecological limits with the goal of improving quality of life.[not GDP!]

    It still leaves plenty of scope for strivers:technology,reuse of materials , production improvement, sustainability, life long learning , learning just to enjoy life.
    It is all about reorientating how society works for the majority not the few ..

    Best Peter

    • Understood. Breaking the consumerist mind-set is going to be very difficult. Apparently even very young children, when writing a want-list for Santa, tend nowadays to use brand names.

  17. Pingback: #93: The prosperity equation | Surplus Energy Economics

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