Economists will argue for evermore about the best and most effective way to organise a monetary system, both locally and globally. Like the rest of the population, economists come in all shapes and sizes and political hues, so this can be expected.
But some economic views are academically acceptable at a given time, others not. This would not matter if economists stayed in their universities and ivory towers. But they are let out into the real world, often unsupervised, into positions where they can influence public policy: and the influential ones get there because they once said the right things to their academic superiors, not because they have anything in particular to offer.
It is the economic decisions made by unelected and unproven academics, rather than unelected bureaucrats, which have the greatest effect on people’s lives, complaints about the EU notwithstanding.
All decisions are based on priorities of what is important to given constituencies in given circumstances. It is these which have created the social problems people are protesting about now: not because politicians said so, but because economic advisers said so. Unless that changes, no amount of protest will ultimately have any effect.
Weighs of the world
For example, public spending was long considered a good thing, even in the countries most interested in destroying Communism. All these had public welfare policies which were neo-socialist in character – public money was used to build homes and facilities for local people, support the needy, promote culture and generate jobs, just as they were in the Soviet Union.
By some measures, these policies worked, by others they didn’t. Arguing about economics is like retelling the Second World War joke: a German retreat from France is also a German advance on the Balkans.
But the main reason these measures were adopted is that, having gained academic credibility through the technical quality of their arguments, their proponents then gained the political clout to put these into effect. John Maynard Keynes is most often associated with such “tax and spend” policies, and he was a member of the British delegation to various international conferences which established the post-1945 global economic system, a director of the Bank of England and Member of the House of Lords. If you wanted to argue, you had to rise to the same heights, and displace those who had put him there to do it.
Now the thinking is different. Simply because Keynesianism was dominant, it was blamed for everything bad as well as praised for everything good, and Monetarism emerged as an alternative.
Eventually the academic quality of Monetarism gave it enough impetus within the economic schools to make its supporters important, and thus give them access to politicians. So a new generation of leaders enacted contrary “economic policies” which were really political policies based on political calculations, just as the previous ones were.
This is why we have a world in which government shrinks and individual gain is supposed to be the answer to everything. These policies are described as “neoliberal,” which is ironic given that Keynes was a member of the Liberal Party.
But whichever policy is adopted, for what reason and for whose benefit, the end product is the same. Political decisions are made, at the highest level, about what is considered acceptable in the pursuit of wealth, whether it be the rules of trade and financial speculation or the ethics of the wealth generation practices undertaken.
Black lives won’t matter for these elites because no economic system yet invented has addressed the prejudice upon which it is based. Under any economic system, some people’s interests are not considered important, and harming them is an acceptable part of wealth generation.
Protests and politics may change the priority given to black and minority issues. But unless the economists with government influence change too, they will make little difference – and there is no sign of this happening as yet.
Your hero is my heroin
As a result of all the Black Lives Matter protests, the “official outlook” on various historic figures is likely to change. For many, this is not before time. Those affected by the negative things a famous person did have never been happy with them being lionised for other things, as if their crimes don’t matter.
There will always be debates about what crimes you can ignore when they are set against praiseworthy achievements, such as Hitler’s profound improvements of the German economy which laid the foundations for the postwar “Economic Miracle”. But the argument of Black Lives Matter is not that the line has been drawn in the wrong place, but that it has to be drawn somewhere.
In some cases, this is happening. Radio and TV personality Jimmy Savile was very popular, or he wouldn’t have had a successful career lasting decades. But when his other life as one of the most prolific child abusers in history began to come out after his death, his relatives removed his headstone from the cemetery he was buried in and sent it to be broken up for landfill.
Though his media and charity works live on, no one will be erecting any statues of Jimmy Savile.
However this does not represent justice for the abused children and adults who were silenced for years, or fearful of consequences to their own careers to speak up to begin with. Vilifying Savile simply shifts the blame for systemic problems onto him personally, rather than addressing how he was allowed to become all the things he is now known to have been.
Savile’s crimes were not considered as important as protecting him, and by extension others. Officially vilifying him now continues to protect those others, whilst not altering the system which did so.
The law didn’t work, self-regulation didn’t work, trust in authority didn’t work. The only way to alter those things will be to change the people in charge.
Theoretically, this can happen in a democracy through elections. But in practice, as Bill Clinton said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The values of the economic system have to be those of the political class, because public confidence in the economy is what makes or breaks any government.
You can’t change your priorities if you have to manage an economy built on those same priorities. If anything is acceptable as long as it keeps the economy going, everyone is a potential target, as the millions of highly skilled and trained unemployed all over the world, now branded as “bad people” for being part of dead industries, can testify.
Statue of limitations
The statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, removed by protestors who had long campaigned against its continued presence, has become symbolic of both what these protests are about, and why they are not going to get anywhere. The ignorance which kept the statue in place for so long has not been dented by highlighting who Colston was, and why he shouldn’t be commemorated.
The statue was erected to recognise Colston’s many philanthropic works for the city, not the fact that he had made his money from slave trading. Nor was the statue the only reminder of those good works: a school, a rugby club, a concert hall and many other things still remind Bristolians daily that appreciation of who he was and what he did are fundamental parts of this multicultural city, with a significant black population.
Statues are erected, and things given names, by those in authority. Either they commission these statues and namings, or find it acceptable for someone else to do so. Even if the now recovered statue is not re-erected as the result of these protests, will this change anything?
Few of those who supported slavery had anything against black people themselves. They may have considered them inferior, and nothing more than saleable commodities, but in their own minds this was very different from being openly hostile to blacks, and wanting them to suffer.
On the contrary, many slave owners prided themselves on the humane way they treated their black human property. It is well known that Thomas Jefferson, he who wrote the words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was a slave owner, but justified this to himself as unimportant as long as he was on the “right side” of the politics of his day, as he saw it.
How Colston had gained the wealth he bestowed on Bristol was long considered either not important, or not important enough. The more it was accepted that slavery was wrong, the more attempts were made to justify it, by using phrases such as “the standards of the time,” which can be used to justify any crime ever committed, anywhere.
What is actually meant by “the standards of the time” is the economic standards. For example, a sixteen hour working day was once the standard of the time in some places which look back with pride on their contribution to the Industrial Revolution, and what it did for them.
This practice wasn’t abandoned because it was socially desirable, but because paying increased wages for that much work wasn’t economic. It is politically impossible to advocate a sixteen hour working week again, but the concept hasn’t been abandoned: the Johnson government’s recent attempts to sign up people to pick fruit and vegetables “for Britain” now the foreign workers who used to do it have been driven away are merely an extension of it.
Politics won’t change unless economic schools do. They won’t until someone comes along with a stronger intellectual argument (regardless of practicality) than those currently graduating to positions of influence because they follow the intellectually accepted models.
This won’t happen by giving greater access to these institutions for black and minority individuals, or creating a society where this happens on its own. It will change by prioritising basic humanity over intellect – and if universities were going to do that, we would never have seen Western politics students fed intense diets of Marxism whilst the Soviet Union was there as an example of what that brilliant intellectual system meant.
No change in sight
Obviously it is important to have a functioning economy. Any economy will function more for some than for others, as we all remember from the Iron Curtain kleptocrats who promised equality from their luxury Dachas on the Black Sea coast, even when their countries didn’t border the Black Sea.
But if the neoliberal economics which are still in vogue really work, they will do so regardless of the society around them. People will freely trade and employ on the basis of their own economic decisions, and race and gender will not enter into the equation. We don’t see this at macroeconomic level because it has been decided that black lives don’t matter, not because discrimination is a natural by-product of this system.
The Black Lives Matter protests have been extensively covered by the media, and may well produce certain changes in both general public and official political prioritisation of the issues which provoked them. But they are being covered so that particular changes can be made to entrench the system which created the problems, not alter it.
Why else would we have a situation where so many genocides involving “the wrong side” or “yesterday’s news” go unreported by the same press which is now obsessing about these protests and their significance? Are these genocides not part of the same problem and the same narrative?
This article (see link) gives a graphic account of the horrors experienced daily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, what was once called Zaire. These have been inflicted on that country, and many others, because black lives don’t matter in the grater geopolitical and economic scheme of things.
Anywhere you look on the globe, the US is depriving the citizens of client states of the same democracy, transparency, human rights and rule of law which it maintains are essential forces for good. This happens because the people who live there are “black” in the eyes of the nation George Floyd lived in, so their lives don”t matter.
The Black Lives Matter protests may change some things in prosperous countries, which think they are good examples because they are wealthier. But they will have no effect on the problems caused in other places by the same attitude, unless the politicians stop following the money down the road considered most intellectually credible by the economics professors.
Removing one manifestation of wrong thinking is good. But no one will ever be able to “Take Back Control” or “Make America Great Again,” or even create a “Hungary for the Hungarians,” without removing the slavery to intellectual systems which is still creating the problems the protestors are seeking to address.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.