All posts by Giorgio Baruchello

About Giorgio Baruchello

Born in Genoa, Italy, Giorgio Baruchello is an Icelandic citizen and works qua Professor of Philosophy at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. He read philosophy in Genoa and Reykjavík, Iceland, and holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Guelph, Canada. His publications encompass several different areas, especially social philosophy, theory of value, and intellectual history. Public e-mail: giorgio@unak.is

Twelve Years an Editor – Almost. Nordic-Mediterranean Perspectives on Iceland’s International Image

Introduction

Since the year 2015 I have been working as editor in chief of Nordicum-Mediterraneum: Icelandic E-Journal of Nordic and Mediterranean Studies, published by the University of Akureyri (<http://nome.unak.is>). As such, I have received, read, reviewed and released a number of contributions by foreign and, in particular, by Italian scholars, dealing with Iceland under a broad variety of scientific perspectives. Also, especially during and immediately after Iceland’s 2008 financial meltdown, I was contacted and interviewed by a number of media outlets, primarily Italian. Thanks to these experiences, I can contribute to today’s discussion with an eminently personal yet qualitatively rich account of Iceland’s image among Italian and foreign academic circles. Above all, I believe the materials accumulated in the long life of Nordicum-Mediterraneum to be a truly interesting source of insight in the academics’ interest points, if not even the educated commonplaces, about Iceland.

Albeit in charge of the journal since its inception, I am not its real father, who is instead a scholar that has been working for many years at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, Maurizio Tani. Eleven years ago, one year short of the title’s twelve, he approached me with the idea of a scholarly journal devoted to the many and diverse historical exchanges between the North and the South of Europe and, in particular, between Iceland and Italy. Nothing of the sort existed on the academic scene. Needless to say, his suggestion was taken aboard. Then, thanks to the small yet vital financial support of the University of Akureyri, plus the crucial help qua webmaster of Mr. Fabrizio Veneziano of Schiller International University in Paris and of Ms. Sigrún Magnúsdóttir qua Akureyri-based editorial assistant, the journal was officially born.

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Numbers and titles 

A true pioneer in open-access scholarly publishing in Iceland, the journal aimed primarily at serving as a forum and an archive for scholars interested in Nordic and Mediterranean mutual connections. Progressively, pressured by its growing readership, the journal expanded its scope to Nordic and Mediterranean matters at large, rather than remaining confined to the exchanges between the North and the South of Europe. At the same time, the journal continued to publish a variety of other contributions as well, ranging from reviews of recent literature to interviews and personal memoirs. The break-up of the publications listed below does not include the special issues 11(2-3), due this year and already in the pipes, editorially speaking, and reads as follows:

Regular issues: 11 (2006-2016)

Special issues: 12 (2006-2016 i.e. up to 10(3)/2016)

Of which:

Conference proceedings: 11 (2008-2016)

Other subjects: 1 (2006)

New articles: 42

Reflections on Iceland’s economic crisis: 13

Conference proceedings: 102

Conference-related notes: 11

Review essays: 5

Book reviews: 121

Interviews: 6

Memoirs: 6

Translations: 5

Republished books: 2

Degree theses: 1

Other contributions (short notes, reports, surveys, non-peer-reviewed articles, etc.): 19

Total publication: 333

Of all these published materials, 45 contributions can be said to deal with Iceland’s image in the eyes of foreign scholars, whether directly or indirectly, e.g. as reported in books reviewed for the journal (in the case of book reviews and review essays, I attribute each entry to either the reviewer’s nationality or the book author’s nationality, depending on who emphasises Iceland more). Longer pieces (e.g. articles, conference papers) amount to 21, while shorter ones (e.g. book reviews) to 24. Most of them are in legal studies (12), linguistics and/or literature (7) and history (5). Then we have contributions in philosophy (4), economics (4), geography (4), politics (3), psychology (2), art history (1) and personal memoirs (3). The countries of relative observation can be listed as follows:

  • Argentina: 1
  • Faroe Islands: 1
  • Finland: 1
  • Germany: 3
  • Ireland: 2
  • Italy: 25
  • The People’s Republic of China: 2
  • Romania: 1
  • Russia: 2
  • Scotland: 6
  • Spain: 1

True to the original spirit of the journal, publications by Italian scholars on Icelandic or Italian-Icelandic matters stand out as far more numerous than the others. This geographical predominance and the limited overall as well as specific number of published contributions make a quantitative analysis unlikely to provide valuable information. Their qualitative value as academic exploration of Iceland’s heritage and historical experiences persists, however.

The typology, depth and length of these 45 contributions varies enormously. I list them below in chronological order, specifying their category, in accordance with the journal’s internal system of classification. In the pages following the list below, I refer to the underlined authors and the relevant year of publication in the journal; when Icelandic-foreign collaborative projects are included, I underline and count for the country list above only the foreign specialists involved:

1(1)/2006

Article

Antonio Casado da Rocha, “Narrative Ethics and the Ecology of Culture: Notes on New Italian-Icelandic Sagas”

Note on conference proceedings

Maurizio Tani, “Italo Balbo, Iceland and a Short Story by Halldór Laxness. Notes on the Conference ‘La trasvolata Italia-Islanda del 1933’ (Reykjavík, 7 June 2003)”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Francesco Milazzo, “Teaching Roman Law in Iceland”

1(2)/2006

Translations

Maria Savi Lopez (1848-1940), “Akureyri”, Nei paesi del Nord, Torino: Paravia, 1893

Italo Balbo (1896-1940), “Nella terra dei Vichinghi”, La centuria alata, Milano: Mondadori, 1934

3(1)/2008

Articles

Emanuela Finocchietti & Luca Zarrilli, “Paesaggio naturale e politiche di sviluppo territoriale in Islanda”

Conference proceedings

Manuela S. Campanini, “Iceland as a Landscape Investigation Pattern”

Book reviews

By Antonio Calcagno: Paolo Borioni, Cesare Damiano & Tiziano TreuIl modello sociale scandnavo. Tra diritti e flessibilità (Roma: Nuova Iniziativa Editoriale, 2006)

4(1)/2009

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Federico Actite, Ancient Rome and Icelandic Culture – A Brief Overview

5(1)/2010

Articles

Diego Ferioli, “On the Oral-Formulaic Theory and its Application in the Poetic Edda: The Cases of Alvíssmál and Hávamál”

Manuela S. Campanini, “Imagine a Collective Landscape”

Viola Miglio, “Old Norse and Old English Language Contact: Scandinavian Legal Terminology in Anglo-Saxon Laws”

Reflections on the economic crisis

Giorgio Baruchello, “Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano”

Maria Pia Paganelli, “Learning from Bjartur About Today’s Icelandic Economic Crisis”

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Antonio Costanzo, “Fyrirlestur um bókina Hávamál. La voce di Odino”

Marinella Lorinczi, “Dracula in Iceland”

6(1)/2011

Article

Adriana Di Stefano, “Northern Steps of EU Enlargement: The Impact of ‘Cohesion’ Policies on Iceland’s Accession Process”

Book reviews

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: H. Beale et al., Cases, Materials and Texts on Contract Law, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2010); and T. K. Graziano, Comparative Contract Law: Cases, Materials and Exercises (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2010)

Dissertation

Fabio Quartino, La Costituzione Islandese: storia ed evoluzione

6(2)/2011

Article

Garrett Barden, “Responses to the contributors”

7(1)/2012

Article

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “’Karlson’ – A Stasi ‘Kontakt Person’. An episode of Iceland’s Cold War legacy”

Book reviews

By Andrea Hjálmsdóttir: Aðalheiður Ámundadóttir & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, Mannréttindi í þrengingum: Efnahagsleg og félagsleg réttindi í kreppunni (Akureyri-Reykjavík: Háskólinn á Akureyri og Mannréttindaskrifstofa Íslands, 2011)

By Anita Einarsdóttir & Tiantian Zhang: Herman Salton, Arctic Host, Icy Visit: China and Falun Gong Face Off in Iceland (Saarbrücken: LAP Lambert Academic Publishing, 2010)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Jorge Mejía, “Some impressions after a quick visit to Iceland”

8(1)/2013

Articles

Hjálti Ómar Ágústsson & Rachael Lorna Johnstone, “Practising what they Preach: Did the IMF and Iceland Exercise Good Governance in their Relations 2008-2011?”

Irina Zhilina, “The Security Aspects in the Arctic: the Potential Role of NATO”

Review essay

By Carlo Penco: Juha Manninen & Friedrich Stadtler (eds.), The Vienna Circle and the Nordic Countries. Networks and Transformations of Logical Empiricism (Vienna: Vienna Circle Institute Yearbook vol.14, Springer, 2010)

Book reviews

By Gísli Aðalsteinsson: Maurizio Tani, La chiesa di Akureyri: Guida storico-artistica alla parrocchiale luterana della «capitale del nord» (Grafarvogur: Snorri Sturluson, 2010)

By Guðmundur Heiðar Frímansson: Brian Lucey, Charles Larkin & Constantin Gurdgiev (eds.), What if Ireland defaults? (Dublin: Orpen Press, 2012)

By Herman Salton, “‘Arctic Host, Icy Visit’: A Response” (cf. Tiantian Zhang)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Jesús Ballesteros, Encarnación Fernández Ruiz-Gálvez & Pedro Talavera (eds.), Globalization and Human Rights: Challenges and Answers from a European Perspective (Ius Gentium: Comparative Perspectives of Law and Justice, Vol. 13, Leiden: Springer, 2012)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: T. Kue Young (senior ed.), Rajiv Rawat, Winifred Dallmann, Susan Chatwood & Peter Bjerregaard (eds.), Circumpolar Health Atlas (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012)

By Tero Mustonen, C. Raudvere & J.P. Schjödt (eds.), More Than Mythology – Narratives, Ritual Practices and Regional Distribution in Pre-Christian Scandinavian Religions (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2012)

Translation

Luana Giampiccolo, “Leiðarvísir, an Old Norse itinerarium: a proposal for a new partial translation and some notes about the place-names”

9(1)/2014

Article

Matteo Tarsi, “On Loanwords of Latin Origin in Contemporary Icelandic”

Book reviews

By Federica Scarpa: Natalia Loukacheva (ed.), Polar Law Textbook II (Copenhagen: Nordic Council of Ministers, 2013)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Birgir Guðmundsson & Markus Meckl, “Regaining Iceland for the Catholic Church in the mid-19th Century”

9(2)/2014

Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises”

10(1)/2015

Conference proceeding

Thomas Hören, “IMMI and Whistleblowing in Iceland – the new regulatory framework”

Book reviews

By Giorgio Baruchello: Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

By Giorgio Baruchello: Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

By Rachael Lorna Johnstone: Kári á Rógvi, West-Nordic Constitutional Judicial Review: A Comparative Study of Scandinavian Judicial Review and Judicial Reasoning (Copenhagen: Djøf Publishing, 2013)

Interviews, memoirs and other contributions

Roberto Buccola, “The Unconscious and the Island: Fragments of Research on the Self”

10(2)/2015

Conference proceeding

Giorgio Baruchello, “Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights“

 

Foreign contributions about Iceland: Recurring themes

What sort of recurring themes can be found in this collection of diverse scholarly and scientific texts? I have identified four.

  1. Iceland as “the land of the Vikings”

This is the title given by the aviator Italo Balbo (2006) to the chapter on Iceland in his 1933 memoirs, who also recalls how the Vikings discovered America before Columbus himself. Spanish-Portuguese philosopher Casado da Rocha (2006) mentions too the Vikings’ “stories of warriors and wise men, poets and politicians of the golden age of settlement and commonwealth.” The marauding hordes, their adventures and their legacy are very much a focus-point for many commentators. They are a reason for distinctiveness, if not distinction. For instance, law professor Milazzo’s (2006) account of his teaching experience emphasises how Iceland is not as much part of the legal tradition based on Roman Law as most other European countries. Legal scholar Johnstone too, in her 2011 review essay on comparative law, mentions the enduring island-centric character of mainstream legal education in Iceland. This is not to say that classical culture did not reach or influence Iceland’s cultural development. Quite the opposite, Actite’s 2009 text offers a concise account of the deep, extensive and sometimes surprising impact of the Latin tradition on this island: “For instance, the Latin phrase Rustycus es, Corydon gave origin to the Icelandic words rusti [farmer] and dóni [rude people]”. Tarsi (2014) offers an even longer account. Even some elements of the later Catholic Christianitas endure, as noticed by Cardinal Mejía (2012) and Tani (2013). Still, the land of the Vikings is distinct and original, which is shown by the interest of foreign scholars, and Italian ones in particular, in the history, development and influence of Old Norse or ancient Icelandic, and its literary accomplishments in the Edda and the Sagas, e.g. Ferioli (2010), Miglio (2010), Costanzo (2010), Lorinczi (2010), Tani (2006), Barden (2011), Mustonen (2013), Giampiccolo (2013),

  1. Iceland as a Nordic State

Former Italian governmental ministers Damiano and Treu, together with the historian Borioni (2008), lump Iceland together with the other Scandinavian countries, as though Iceland had as strong a social-democratic tradition as Sweden, Denmark or Norway. However, Iceland does not have it. It was never a welfare State, in the sense and to the extent these other countries have historically exemplified. The right-wing Independence Party has marked its history much more than the various incarnations of democratic socialism in Iceland (cf. also Meckl’s 2012 article on Iceland’s Cold-War history and Baruchello’s 2014 book review), as also reflected by the largely unnoticed repression of Falun Gong demonstrators in Iceland in 2002 (cf. Tiantian Zhang, 2012 & 2013). Difference does not mean intransigence, however. Thus, Hören (2015) and Johnstone (2013a) reveal significant changes in a more Nordic direction led by the historically weaker left-wing forces of the country, in freedom of the press and in human rights provisions respectively. Perhaps, the most obvious manifestation of the “un-Nordicness” of Iceland was the neoliberal boom-and-bust hot-money cycle that led to the notorious kreppa of 2008, about which a number of contributions have been published, i.e. Baruchello (2010), Paganelli (2010), Johnstone (2013), Lucey, Larkin & Gurdgiev (2013), Johnstone (2013a & b), Baruchello (2014 & 2015b). Penco (2013) adds another layer of “un-Nordicness” by noticing how Iceland’s philosophical tradition owes more to Anglophone and Dutch academic traditions and establishments than to Scandinavian ones. Still, there exist clear connections with Scandinavian political experience, notably the Danish roots of Iceland’s constitution (cf. Quartino, 2011). In fact, in addition to its linguistic-literary roots and heritage, the legal tradition of Iceland seems to be, at large, the most Nordic feature of Iceland’s culture, at least according to Kári á Rógvi (2015). Baruchello (2015) adds another line of continuity, i.e. the cartelisation of strategic industries during the 1930s.

  1. Iceland as an Arctic State

Less controversial is this third commonplace notion. Iceland is located in the North Atlantic, after all, which is cold, dangerous to navigate upon, remote. This is the tone of the account by Savi-Lopez (2006), who pioneered the study and dissemination of Icelandic literature in Italy in the first half of the 20th century. As to later accounts, it would appear that being located in the North Atlantic is strategic. It is so for NATO (cf. Zhilina, 2013), for the EU (cf. Di Stefano, 2011), but above all for the Arctic nations and the governance of the region, as emphasised by Loukacheva (2011), Johnstone (2013c) and Scarpa (2014). Indeed, Meckl’s 2014 studies on the Catholic Arctic mission of the 19th century show the Catholic Church being the first international institution to conceive of the Arctic as a geographically, politically and culturally strategic region of the World. The number of submissions and publications pertaining to this third notion have been growingly steadily over the years, reflecting Iceland’s own growing institutional and intellectual self-characterisation as an Arctic State, not least as manifested by the developments within the University of Akureyri, which is part of the University of the Arctic consortium and hosts a most successful Master’s programme in Polar Law.

  1. Iceland as a dimension of the spirit

Iceland’s unique landscape, the result of equally unique and rather extreme geographic, geological and climatic conditions, lead to awe and deep existential reflection. Scientific observations are the beginning of more profound considerations about the relationship between humanity and the natural environment, the struggle for survival that we have fought throughout our journey on this planet, and the most disturbing question of all: why do we keep fighting? More or less explicitly, this is the tone of the contributions by literary scholar Finocchietti (2008) as well as geographers Zarrilli (2008) and Campanini (2008 & 2010). The same applies to those of Jungian psychologist Buccola (2015a & b). Numerically, we are not talking of a large number of contributions. However, and here the qualitative character of the present account comes to the forefront, the number of authors that have been interested in Iceland because of its mystique is conspicuous. Methodologically unlikely to reflect upon and disclose the motives for their own research, scholars and scientists have often discussed them with me qua editor and a southern European expatriate in the far north. The fascination with Iceland’s lunar vistas and its seemingly prohibitive inhospitality, combined with the sense of authenticity that such conditions inspire, are a frequent reason for Mediterranean minds to develop an interest in Nordic matters, even if these may have little to do with the island’s vistas, inhospitality or authenticity.

Concluding remarks

The literature by foreign experts published over the years in Nordicum-Mediterraneum pertains to many different disciplines. Prominent are literary, linguistic and legal studies. These disciplinary areas of emphasis are the result of many factors, not least the network of scholars and researchers who have found the journal a suitable venue for their work and that of experts willing to review the books that we receive from publishers. It is difficult, if not impossible, to gauge with certainty how representative they are of the stereotypes of, and commonplace conceptions about, Iceland. Nonetheless, I believe that they do offer considerable food for thought, which is an adequate and relevant aim for the present contribution.

Rikke Andreassen & Kathrine Vitus (eds.), Affectivity and Race. Studies from Nordic Countries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)

The book’s title announces that two concepts are of crucial importance in this publication: affectivity and race. The book’s subtitle places its content geographically: in the Nordic countries; or better, in Scandinavia, since there are no studies comprised in the present book that deal with Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Continue reading Rikke Andreassen & Kathrine Vitus (eds.), Affectivity and Race. Studies from Nordic Countries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015)

Tom Houston, My Story with Governance. What I Have Learned from Running Christian Organizations (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014)

— Hold fast (only) what is good. Discuss it among yourselves. Search the Scriptures (48)

I have been teaching and researching issues concerning “good governance” (1) for a number of years in connection with the Master’s programme in Polar Law of the University of Akureyri, Iceland. Moreover, since my youth, I have been involved with a Christian charity operating in Genoa, Italy. It is the first time that I come across a book that tries to combine together an articulate Scripture-based, faith-imbued understanding of good governance aimed at persons working within organisations of all stripes (esp. parts 3 and 4 of 4: 43-101), and a deeply personal Christian meditation (esp. parts 1 and 2 of 4: 1-40).

Continue reading Tom Houston, My Story with Governance. What I Have Learned from Running Christian Organizations (Oxford: Regnum Books, 2014)

Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights

I was invited to present some reflections on my own intercultural experiences as an Italian philosopher who emigrated to Iceland, especially in the context of the latter’s much-televised banking collapse of 2008, without neglecting my own research on political theory. Thus, in what follows, I try to bring such seemingly disparate themes together, and discuss the notion of interculturalism, or at least some aspects relating to it within “the Nordic context” (NordForsk, “Interculturalism and Diversities: Developing intercultural models and thinking in the Nordic countries (IDIN)”, n.d.), such as:

  Continue reading Enemies of Interculturalism: The Economic Crisis in Light of Xenophobia, Liberal Cruelties and Human Rights

Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

 

While Castoriadis discusses the notion of crisis in other works of his, he focuses therein on one or two of these five specific elements (e.g. (1) in “The Crisis of Culture and the State”, (1) and (3) in “Un monde à venir”, (5) in “Entretien avec Cornelius Castoriadis”). Thus, what makes this particular 1965 talk so interesting is its broader, perhaps more superficial, but undoubtedly more comprehensive scope. In essence, it is as synthetic a picture of what Castoriadis understood as crisis, and particularly as modern crisis, as there can be. Also, it must be noted that Castoriadis revised his assessment of (4) in a later work of his focussed upon crisis (“The Crisis of the Identification Process”), which seems to reduce considerably the relevance of this element. Later assessments of (1)-(3) and (5) do not differ much from what he stated in 1965, instead.   

  Continue reading Reflections on Castoriadis’ “The Crisis of Modern Society”

Pia Guldager Bilde & Mark L. Lawall (eds.), Pottery, Peoples and Places. Study and Interpretation of Late Hellenistic Pottery (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

 

The volume hereby reviewed springs from a conference held at the Sandbjerg Manor in Denmark in late November 2008, dealing with the study of ceramics in the second-century BC Mediterranean and Pontic regions, hosted by the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Black Sea Study. It comprises seventeen essays, plus a preface, an introduction, an extensive bibliography and a detailed analytical index. The essays, authored by a number of scholars from several different countries, are organised in three fairly broad but to most appropriate sections.

  Continue reading Pia Guldager Bilde & Mark L. Lawall (eds.), Pottery, Peoples and Places. Study and Interpretation of Late Hellenistic Pottery (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2014)

Pieter Bevelander & Bo Petersson (eds.), Crisis and Migration. Implications of the Eurozone Crisis for Perceptions, Politics, and Policies on Migration (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2014)

 

The volume addresses some of the consequences for the European Union (EU) of the prolonged economic crisis resulting from the 2008 implosion of Wall Street’s financial wizardry. One particular consequence, or area of concern, is at the heart of the essays included in the volume, i.e. migration, meaning chiefly, though by no means exclusively, the movement of people from outside the EU into the EU. Albeit clear, relevant and useful statistics are offered both in the introductory chapter by the book’s editors (pp. 9-24) and in the second chapter, penned by economics professor T. Hatton (pp. 25-47), theoretical issues of socio-cultural perception are given more room in the book’s studies than empirical issues of demographics, econometrics and/or specific legislative acts.

  Continue reading Pieter Bevelander & Bo Petersson (eds.), Crisis and Migration. Implications of the Eurozone Crisis for Perceptions, Politics, and Policies on Migration (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2014)

Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

 

Historical memory is unwelcome by people who have too much at stake in the short term to realise that they may have much more to lose in the medium and/or long term. Historical memory is also unwelcome by people who wish that economic history could fit neatly within the theoretical constructs that they favour because of ideological, political, moral or pecuniary commitments of theirs (cf. Francesco Boldizzoni, The Poverty of Clio: Resurrecting Economic History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011).

  Continue reading Sven-Olof Olsson (ed.), Managing Crises and De-globalization. Nordic foreign trade and exchange 1919-39 (New York: Routledge, 2014 pbk.)

Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

The passage above contains, in a nutshell, the core theme, the valuable strengths and the somewhat obvious weaknesses of the book reviewed hereby. 

  Continue reading Gaetano Roberto Buccola, Forme del centro. Percorsi analitici dal “Viaggio al centro della Terra” al nucleo dell’uomo (Palermo: Nuova Ipsa, 2013)

The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises

 

0. Introduction

I was invited by the organisers of this Winter Symposium of the third research group of the Nordic Summer University (NSU), devoted to the concept of crisis, as an Icelandic citizen and scholar to offer a concise picture of the events in our country, which experienced in the year 2008 a much-televised economic crisis or kreppa, as it is called locally. In what follows, I provide two succinct and inevitably selective pictures: one small, another big. The small picture is a three-step account of what led essentially to the economic crisis, what this crisis consisted primarily in, and what followed it that induced a recovery. I focus upon the third step in particular, since it is less known abroad than the prior kreppa. The big picture is a brief twofold reflection on how the Icelandic experience fits within larger global trends, i.e. I assess it from an economic-historical perspective and from an axiological one. Under both perspectives, I make use of two chief intellectual reference points, both Canadian, namely the work and wisdom of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith and of the value theorist John McMurtry. Given that the audience at this symposium is not fluent in Icelandic, I make use only of English-language sources (and spelling of Icelandic names) and as far as possible, given the electronic format of the journal in which this paper is going to be published, of sources that are easily accessible online.

Continue reading The Picture—Small and Big: Iceland and the Crises

What is Morality? Pascal’s Heartfelt Answer

 

 

Introduction

I had the good fortune and privilege of meeting Mike when I was a student, back in 1995, and I owe him so much in so many ways, both as a man and as a scholar, that no words of mine will ever be able to convey my gratitude, my admiration and my friendship. A bottle of red wine might do instead. Also, as a humble token of recognition and a heartfelt recollection of the times when we first met, I decided to answer the question that he has chosen for this symposium by going back to an author, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), who was influential in making me interested in philosophy as a boy, but whose work I have not dealt with as a scholar. Thus, what follows is both old and new, being a first step into a terrain upon which I have not trodden for many years.

In effect, had I been asked to give an immediate answer to the question ‘what is morality?’ I would have said: ‘an instance of civil commons’, that is, an instance of “social constructs which enable universal access to human life goods without which people’s capacities are always reduced or destroyed.” (John McMurtry, “Human Rights versus Corporate Rights: Life Value, the Civil Commons and Social Justice” Studies in Social Justice 5(1): 11-61, 2011, p.17) In line with my academic studies over the past decade, I would have placed myself in the ideal position of an external observer and determined what role morality has been playing vis-à-vis the most regular aim displayed by human beings, both individually and collectively: to lead a tolerable life. Now, referring to the civil commons would give a description of morality that focuses upon its life-enhancing function. It would be a description of morality from the outside. Another description is also possible, however, that focuses upon the feelings of outrage, remorse, shame, distress, empathy, pleasure, pain, as well as the calls of duty and the spontaneous sense of what is right and what is wrong that populate at least my experience of morality—inside. All these emotions, the related beliefs, the reasoning processes that they set in motion, the subsequent acts of will and the corresponding physical actions that one imagines and hopes to materialise constitute the domain of morality as felt being, or lived personal experience.

It is primarily within this domain that Blaise Pascal develops his reflections on morality, which, despite his enduring fame as a scientist and a thinker, have received very little attention by modern Anglophone ethicists, who have written instead endless volumes on the epistemology of his wager or le pari (“the machine”, 680)[1]—itself a piece of apologetics and an early example of game theory. They have labelled Pascal a ‘philosopher of religion’ and pretty much left him there, as marginal as religion itself seems to be these days.[2] Yet, Pascal did have a moral philosophy of his own and one that can help us answer the question ‘what is morality?’ from the perspective of lived personal experience.[3] It is not an easy one to detect, for it is scattered across his unsystematic maxims, short reflections and aphorisms, themselves scattered across a number of differing manuscripts. Reconstructing and outlining it here today is the chief aim of my paper.[4] Knowing that some of today’s participants are greatly interested in French philosophy, literature and culture at large, Mike himself included, I hope you will appreciate my effort.

Pascal’s Moral Philosophy

According to Pascal, morality is behaviour consistent with the correct apprehension of moral value, i.e. goodness, through “the heart, which perceive[s] wisdom” (339). The heart [coeur] is the faculty that feels or senses good and bad or, in other words, it is the moral sense, perhaps an organ of perception, analogous to hearing (41) or seeing—hence Pascal’s writing in the same passage about “the eyes of the heart” (cf. also 804 [from the Manuscript Guerrier, not Copy B]). And if the eyes can see many things, so does the heart deliver much more than just the immediate apprehension of moral truths or values, whether ‘explicitable’ (e.g. “homicide is wrong”, 450) or not, since all forms of knowledge rely upon first principles that cannot be rationally demonstrated, but only intuited:

We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to challenge them. The skeptics, who have only this for their object, labor uselessly. We know we are not dreaming, however powerless we are to prove it by reason. This inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, and not, as they claim, the uncertainty of all knowledge. For knowledge of first principles, such as space, time, motion, number is as firm as any we derive from reasoning. Reason must use this knowledge from the heart and instinct, and base all its arguments on it. The heart feels that there are three dimensions in space and… Principles are felt, propositions are proved; all with certainty, though in different ways (142).[5]

Analogous remarks appear in his 1658 Art of Persuasion (Harvard: Harvard Classics, 1993-2013 [1909-14]), where Pascal distinguishes between knowledge that enters the heart through the spirit, and knowledge that enters the spirit through the heart.[6] Perhaps the heart should be better described as a skill than a faculty, indeed one relying upon long-internalised skills, such as seeing or hearing; this is certainly a difficult issue to resolve, given the ambiguity of many passages in Pascal’s work. However, the actual crux of Pascal’s emphasis is the following: sane human beings grasp and believe in the existence of, say, space, time, extended bodies, moral wrongfulness, and upon them build their sciences, whether these eventually reflect adequately the original intuition or not.[7] “Ethics” itself, albeit “special”, is, for Pascal, a “universal science” (598).[8] What is important in it, is to rely upon correct, intuited principles, which we may have experienced in childhood, if we had good enough a natural disposition (157-9, 527), and before education, local customs[9] or excessive faith in discursive or demonstrative reason could lead astray (97-8, 132, 171): “Wisdom leads us back to childhood” (116).[10]

It is important to highlight that the heart’s sentiments combine emotional, intellectual and volitional elements. We may separate them in abstracto, but they are joined in actual experience.[11] These sentiments are “internal and immediate feeling[s]” (360; emphasis in the original), but they are also forms of comprehension, insofar as they engender certain beliefs and interpretations (287), and they prompt us into action, including successive discursive or demonstrative rational processes (662). As Pascal famously asserted: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” (680; emphasis added) Typically, philosophers have emphasised the negative part of this statement. However, the positive is at least as important. Pascal was an intuitionist and believed sentiments to be the springboard of morality, but he was no sentimentalist or, to use a 20th-century label, no emotivist. “Religion”, as he writes, “is not contrary to reason” (46). “The principle of morality” is, for Pascal, “to think well” (232; cf. also 106, 117). Pascal does not posit an impassable contradiction between blind subjective bodily passion on the one end, and cognising objective disembodied reason on the other. Rather, he tries to reveal how different types or levels of belief, certainty and knowledge, wisdom included, can be acquired through our different faculties, one of which, the heart, also characterisd as “instinct” (187), can grasp fundamental truths that discursive or demonstrative reason cannot grasp.[12] Indeed, science itself would not be possible if we were not trustful enough in our intuitions (cf. also 455). Thus, Pascal condemns “Two excesses. Excluding reason, admitting only reason.” (214).[13]

True to his intellectual hero, Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), and to Augustine’s motto “credo ut intelligam”,[14] Pascal sees the limits of human reasoning and believes our sentiments to be able to spur (142 cited above), integrate (e.g. 287) and, when necessary, substitute our discursive or demonstrative reason (e.g. 662). A famous mathematician and physicist, Pascal reminds himself nonetheless to “write against those who delve too deeply in the sciences. Descartes” in primis (462). There are much more important subjects than the scientific ones, such as “the study of man” (566), to which science can contribute nothing, for it cannot address the ultimate questions of existence (57). The strictly rational conceptual tools of science are inadequate: “The heart has its order; the mind has its own, which consists of principle and demonstration. The heart has another. We do not prove that we should be loved by displaying in order the causes of love. That would be absurd.” (329).[15] Thus, gifted with intuition, a humble child may attain moral truths that an adult, even the keenest scientist or theologian, fail regularly to grasp (13). As Pascal puts it: “The greatness of wisdom… is invisible to carnal or intelligent men. These are three different orders. Of kind.” (339). The most intelligent philosopher’s reason may demonstrate, the libertine’s body desire; but the sage’s heart loves, allowing for forms of understanding that escape reason. After all, to expect that one faculty or one mode of reasoning suffices for all possible domains of experience and investigation is a foolish form of “tyranny” (92).[16] For Pascal, there are “different kinds of right thinking: some in a certain order of things, and not in other orders, where they talk nonsense” (669).[17]

Let me emphasise once more that Pascal is not advocating irrationalism, rather a form of understanding that does not rely primarily upon abstract conceptual expression (e.g. Descartes’ ethically “useless” rationalism, e.g. 445), logical reasoning (e.g. the “corrupt” Jesuits’ casuistry attacked also in his Provincial Letters, e.g. 498; 770 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B], 800 [from the Recueil Original, not Copy B]) and algorithmic computation (e.g. his own calculations of utility for the libertine’s sake, 680). As difficult to pinpoint as it may be, for he never offers more than a sketchy phenomenology of the heart in action (cf. 87, 544), Pascal’s account of moral experience entails an embodied rationality that is intuitive rather than discursive or syllogistic, as well concomitant and intertwined with emotions and wilfulness, and capable of grasping objective truths about the world. As Pascal writes, “We know this in a thousand things” (680).[18]

Immediate, intuitive apprehensions of good and bad are not the end of Pascal’s moral philosophy. Rather, they are its beginning. In primis, there is the issue that we might be mistaken in our apprehensions, which may then require correction, as when we hear ‘cabbage’ instead of ‘baggage’ inside a noisy airport, or claim to have seen Woody Allen when in fact we had seen Mike. Yet this is not an issue that Pascal is interested in as such. His focus is moral and apologetic, not epistemological. As Richard Rorty would possibly put it, it is relevance, not rigour, what guides Pascal’s endeavour (cf. Objectivity, Relativism and Truth Cambridge: CUP, 1990). Pascal wants to help his fellows to lead a better life, not to get entangled into technical debates. Indeed, Pascal cautions us against over-rationalisation as a path leading away from our intuitions’ potential clarity: “Reason acts slowly, and with so many perspectives, on so many principles, which must be always present, that it constantly falls asleep or wanders, when it fails to have its principles present. Feeling does not act in this way; it acts instantaneously, and is always ready to act. We must then put our faith in feeling, or it will always be vacillating” (661). Consistently, he warns his readers against people who no longer have any “common sense”, such as “academics, students, and that is the nastiest type of man I know.” (662)

Pascal is much more intrigued by the fact that despite our possible immediate grasp of moral value, human behaviour is all but consistent with it. Even moral philosophers, who might be inclined to making morality an important feature in their lives, fall prey of professional pride, pettiness and resentment. A devout Catholic, Pascal was well aware of the endless list of sins that human beings are capable of. How can we sense what is good and bad and, between the two, opt for the latter? Pascal’s penultimate answer to this crucial ethical question lies in his account of imagination, which reshapes and reinterprets the immediate givens of the heart. And this is bad. Far from extolling the virtues of this faculty, which Romantic and post-modern philosophers have done in later centuries, Pascal worries about the imagination’s “dominant” role within the human psyche (78) and its ability to distort in self-serving fashions the data of sentiment, which is particularly prone to being twisted in over-intellectualising minds: “I am not speaking of fools; I am speaking of the wisest, and they are those whom imagination is best entitled to persuade. Reason may well protest; it cannot determine the price of things.” (Id.)

Reason does not fix values within and around us; imagination does. Appealing to our “proud” and selfish thirst for power, knowledge and pleasure, “imagination… has established a second nature in man” and “disposes of everything. It creates beauty, justice, and happiness, which are the whole of the world.” (Id.) Instead of allowing the humble acknowledgment of our helplessness and imperfection, which is grounded in our feelings (689) and is rationally as undeniable as our mortality (e.g. 195-8, 686), imagination leads each person to attribute an overwhelming amount of value upon herself and “makes [her]self the center of everything” (494), when it is quite obvious that she is not (cf. also 509-10). Far from the exaltation of amour-propre or “self-love” that will characterize much French and Scottish Enlightenment moral philosophy, Pascal writes:

The nature of self-love and of this human self is to love only self and consider only self. But what will it do? It cannot prevent the object it loves from being full of faults and wretchedness. It wants to be great and sees itself small; it wants to be happy, and sees itself wretched; it wants to be perfect and sees itself full of imperfections; it wants to be the object of men’s love and esteem and sees that its defects deserve only their dislike and contempt… No doubt it is an evil to be full of faults; but it is a still greater evil to be full of them and to be unwilling to recognize them, since this adds the further evil of a deliberate illusion. (743).

The power of imagination can be so deep-reaching that we may no longer be able to distinguish between sentiment and the fantasies that imagination—also “fancy”—delivers in order to please our self-love:

All our reasoning reduces to giving in to feeling. But fancy is similar and opposite to feeling, so that we cannot distinguish between these two opposites. One person says that my feeling is fancy, another that his fancy is feeling. We should have a rule. Reason is proposed, but it is pliable in every direction. And so there is no rule (455)… It is a nothing that our imagination enlarges into a mountain: another turn of the imagination makes us discover this without difficulty (456)… We need a fixed point in order to judge… The harbour decides for those who are on a ship. But where will we find a harbour in morals? (576)

In the midst of such uncertainty and confusion, which are epitomised by the madness of human love affairs (cf. “Cleopatra’s nose”, 31-2, 228), given that intuition itself can become as unreliable a source of belief as reason, tradition can come of use and help us. When something is not “demonstrable” and “doubting” leads nowhere, “submission” becomes reasonable (201; cf. 203-13). In Pascal’s case, that means submission to religious tradition, and specifically to the Catholic one (cf. “Luther: everything outside the truth.” [791] {from the Recueil Original, not Copy B}); in this sense, then, “all morality is concupiscence and grace” (258).[19] “Religion is such a great thing”, as Pascal writes, also because it grants “[c]omprehension of the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’.” (709-10). Submission to religious tradition means, in essence, to follow “[t]wo laws” that “suffice to rule the whole Christian Republic better than all political laws” i.e. to love God and to love one’s neighbour, as of Matthew 22:35 (408); “charity” or love “in morals” being able “to produce fruits against concupiscence” (458) and turn the energy of potentially sinful “passions” into “virtues” (500; cf. 759 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).[20]

Still, even within religion does imagination make moral life difficult: “Men often take their imagination for their heart, and they believe they are converted as soon as they think of being converted.” (739); they can therefore remain “duplicitous in heart… neither fish nor fowl” (451); their “blinded” minds leading to quarrels, schisms and sectarianism that “destroy… morals” (447-8); their misplaced self-confidence making them “sinners, who believe themselves righteous” (469; cf. 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), “corrupt the laws” of “the Church” (558), and “do evil… completely and cheerfully… out of conscience” (658). Consistent with his picture of the human being as an erring wanderer prone to error yet also capable of greatness, Pascal offers no easy path to wisdom, which may be perceived at times, even patently exemplified in saints and sages, yet still elude us in spite of our best efforts to grasp it and make it truly ours.

Furthermore, according to Pascal, imagination is the first step in a process of moral self-deception, which reasoning can take farther by: (A) adding the uncertainty of sceptical considerations to the distortions of the imagination; and (B) making religious self-correction ineffective. We may even be most thoughtful and honestly good-willed, but without divine grace there is little likelihood of success. The good may still escape us—even the brightest and most celebrated minds amongst us. As Pascal remarks, there are “[t]wo hundred eighty kinds of supreme good in Montaigne” (27; cf. also 16, 714).[21] Starting a theme that will play an important role in the moral philosophy of 20th-century French existentialists, Pascal deems self-deception the main springboard of immorality, not our inability to perceive what is right or wrong, or our incapacity to comprehend what is good and what is bad. Quite the opposite, according to Pascal, we would appear to have the faculties needed to perceive and understand all this; but we also possess another, imagination, which, combined with our passions and with self-love in particular (e.g. 699; 744 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), distorts our perceptions and understanding to the utmost degree.[22]

 

Conclusion

Reading a classic is always a worthy endeavour, especially if it offers opportunities for genuine philosophical meditation. However, there are some more specific reasons why I think that rediscovering Pascal may be advisable for today’s Anglophone ethicists.

First of all, his moral conceptions and his celebrated literary style highlight the importance in human morality of sentiments. This is no minor issue, for the impact of sentiments upon people’s actual behaviour tends to be much stronger than that of abstractions or complex reasoning.[23] And yet philosophers have been pursuing relentlessly the path of abstraction and complex reasoning, leaving that of sentiment to others. Now, if we wish to engage in meta-ethics alone, such a division of labour may be fine. But if we want to change the world a little, whether as educators or public intellectuals, then some familiarity with the realm of sentiments may be a boon, since we may aim at “impassioning” rather than just “instructing”, as Pascal would word it (329; cf. also 496, 702).

Secondly, moral intuitionism has been on the rise over recent decades because of its recurrent empirical substantiation in psychology (e.g. J. Haidt (2001), “The Emotional Dog and its Rational TailPsychological Review 108:8, 14-34). Still, as far as I know, the only philosopher who has taken seriously Pascal’s notion of a different, heartfelt understanding—embedded, embodied, united with sentiments—and built an ethics upon it was Max Scheler (1874-1928). Amongst contemporary Anglophone intuitionists, Pascal is as absent as Scheler himself, who has long lost the enormous popularity that he enjoyed in the early 20th century. Yet Pascal’s moral philosophy is based upon the notion of intuition and constitutes an attempt that treads upon the tight rope set between rationalism and sentimentalism, and one that could be mined for insights and for the enduring rhetorical power of his writings.

Thirdly, Pascal’s approach is relevant because it makes the ground of moral value independent of the individual, who can only apprehend it for what it is, lest her imagination is so corrupt as to distort apprehension. In that case, Jesus Christ, that is, revealed religion is the fixed point of equilibrium that Pascal opts for (e.g. 570). Since the global affirmation of industrial society, we live in the first age in human history in which our species has become a threat to its own survival, as another religious-minded ethicist, Hans Jonas (1903-1993) underscored repeatedly in the 20th century (cf. The Imperative Responsibility Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984 [1979]). Pascal’s moral philosophy is relevant in this respect because, like Jonas’, it reminds us of the possibility that the ground of moral value may not be individualistic, relativistic, or even anthropocentric. The risk of species-wide annihilation may reveal something much more objective, such as planet-wide life-conditions and eco-system-wide life-needs, which we can only acknowledge and comply with, lest we prefer perishing to living, hence destroying the fundamental precondition for all preferences. As such a reminder, Pascal’s moral philosophy can then serve as a token of civil commons. And there I am, again: civil



[1] All references are by fragment number as they appear in the latest complete English translation of the 1976 Sellier edition of the so-called “Copy B” of Pascal’s thoughts, that is, the second copy prepared for his sister and least likely of having undergone third-person reordering (Pensées, edited and translated by Roger Ariew, Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 2005). When preparing this paper, I have also made use of the original French and related Italian translation of Pascal’s thoughts by Adriano Bausola contained in Pensieri (Milan: Rusconi, 1993).

[2] A valuable and possibly unique recent exception is constituted by: William D. Wood (2009), “Axiology, Self-deception, and Moral Wrongdoing in Blaise Pascal’s PenséesJournal of Religious Ethics 37(2): 355-84; the first footnote in Wood’s essay contains also a brief account of the negligible record of Pascal studies in modern Anglophone ethics.

[3] Pascal’s religious focus is as much a result of his moral philosophy as his moral philosophy is the result of his religious focus: “Man’s true nature, his true good, true virtue, and true religion, are things that cannot be known separately” (12).

[4] The main difference with regard to Wood’s own commendable 2009 attempt is my further avoidance of strictly epistemological and theological considerations, to either of which Pascal’s moral philosophy is regularly reduced. Also, I attempt hereby to provide more numerous references to relevant fragments in Pascal’s Pensées.

[5] Pascal’s emphasis upon intuition vis-à-vis first principles is analogous to Aristotle’s epagoge in connection with the fundamental laws of thought that cannot be obtained through any set of syllogisms but that underpin them all nevertheless (Anal. Post. II, 99b-100b; Meta. 980a-981a).

[6] This is not to be confused with Descartes’ distinction between empirical and innate knowledge. Rather, Pascal wishes to separate knowledge that we can reach through explicit reasoning processes of demonstration, whether deductive or inductive, and the indemonstrable fundamental principles that make them possible.

[7] Henri Bergson, probably, would be sceptical that they do so (cf. Time and Free Will London: Allen, 1910 [1889]).

[8] Given the regular use of “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” in connection with the moral considerations expressed in his Pensées, I would venture to argue that this different object is one of the reasons why “ethics” is said to be a “special” science.

[9] Customs, for Pascal, are very powerful, to the point of establishing causality itself (661), though theyr are neither absolute (e.g. 527) nor certain (e.g. 94-6).

[10] Some human beings, according to Pascal, are fortunate enough as to be able to attain religious faith through the same mode of apprehension: “As if reason alone were capable of teaching us! Would to God, on the contrary, that we never had need of it, and that we knew everything by instinct and intuition. But nature has refused us this good, giving us instead very little knowledge of this kind… That is why those to whom God has given religion by intuition of the heart are very fortunate and, in fact, properly convinced” (142). The least fortunate, instead, who are devoid of a piously “incline[d] heart” (412; cf. also 443, 448, 450, 646, 717) or have been hardened (580) or corrupted to the extreme point of cynical disinterest for the most important things, such as the fate of our immortal soul (2, 5), may have to think through Pascal’s wager or “machine” and determine whether it is advantageous to lead a pious life rather than a selfish one (680).

[11] Pascal’s account is reminiscent of Mihail Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2002 [1958]); perhaps morality is an eminent example of tacit knowledge that is difficult to make explicit and cannot be turned into a neat system of axioms, theorems and corollaries

[12] On repeated occasions (e.g. Gesammelte Werke, Bern: Francke Verlag, 1971-97, volume V, p.104) did Max Scheler praise Pascal and his spiritual mentor Augustine for attempting to overcome Western thought’s long-standing prejudice that grants epistemic objectivity and evidential value to rational proofs alone, ignoring sentiment and religious revelation or, worse, condemning them as subjective and dangerously irrational.

[13] The notion of a golden mean between too much and too little of something is a recurrent theme in Pascal’s thoughts and it applies, inter alia, to the effect of age on judgment (25), thinking (25), the distance from an object of observation (25), the speed of one’s reading (75, 601) and the constitution of virtue (645). Whether it can be attained, however, is doubtful, given the dual nature of man (cf. especially 145-67, 230-4, 690, 707-8; 753 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]), who is a “thinking reed” cast between two opposed infinities (i.e. meaninglessness and all-embracing thought), experiencing opposed tendencies (e.g. fear and courage, pain and pleasure) and possessing two opposed natures (i.e. animal and angelic). Jesus Christ alone seems capable of embodying opposites successfully (e.g. 736; 749 & 771 [from the Manuscript Périer, not Copy B]).

[14] “I believe in order to understand”; cited in Perry Cahall, “The Value of St Augustine’s Use/Enjoyment Distinction to Conjugal LoveLogos (8)1: 117-28, 2005, p.117; under this perspective, Pascal’s heart can be seen as opening a hermeneutical horizon, which embraces much more than just the knowledge that can be rationally demonstrated.

[15] This is another notion that Pascal derives from Augustine, i.e. the “order of love” [ordo amoris].

[16] One generation after Pascal, Vico would describe reason’s hypertrophic disregard of bodily and emotional components of life and related understanding the “barbarism of reflection” (The New Science, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948[1744]). Today, faced with the notion of a particular mode of reasoning (e.g. scientific ‘Method’, homo oeconomicus‘ self-maximisation) being regarded as the only one possible, we would speak of cultural or disciplinary imperialism.

[17] There is no lack of vagueness and ambiguity in Pascal’s writings. For one, “heart” itself is not used only as the term denoting our faculty of intuition, but also more loosely as referring to will or desire (182, 536, 681-2; cf. also 544 in which “the will” is said to be the human faculty that “loves”), mere feeling (210), and a person’s soul or character (especially in connection with the Old Testament’s use of it, e.g. 309, 311, 378, 504; cf. also 707). Furthermore, it does not help that Pascal stresses so often the opposition between heart and reason, as though they were irreconcilable enemies at “war” with each other (29; cf. also 144, 164, 203, 414, 503, 514)—and here we get truly to the negative part of the cited famous statement about heart’s reasons.

[18] Whether in matters of mathematics, love, or religion, intuition anticipates, grounds and eludes whatever subsequent reasoning we may attempt to build upon it. As morals are concerned, Pascal believes logical reflection to be inadequate within the domain of the intuitive spirit for fine things, or “ésprit de finesse”, as opposed to the logical spirit of geometry, the “ésprit de géometrie”. Whilst the former is subtly acute, delicately nuanced, highly personal, and mixed in its being both cognitive and affective, the latter is forcefully trenchant, rigorously explicit, methodically interpersonal and allegedly purely rational. These two forms of comprehension are not mutually exclusive in absolute terms. For example, a mathematician may sense analogies or truths and conjure thereof new hypotheses, which he can test according to standard geometric methodology. Moreover, explicit knowledge may be internalised to the point of becoming intuitive, as with the acquisition of a skill (531; cf. Polayi, supra). Still, Pascal knew that these two forms of comprehension could subsist separately. A mystic, for one, could cultivate the former to the point of becoming unfamiliar with the latter: “Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand matters involving reasoning. For they want first to penetrate at a glance, and are not used to looking for principles.” (622) On their part, persons relying upon logical reasoning can become so removed from their own heart and the realm of intuition that they end up quite ignorant of them both and incapable of ascribing any order or intelligibility to them: “And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles and being unable to see at a glance” (Id.)

[19] Pascal does seem to allow for cases of commendable moral virtue in non-Catholic and non-Christian settings, e.g. “the Jewish religion” (276; cf. 692-6, 715).

[20] Christ’s two laws go to the very heart of human behaviour towards oneself and others, hence they can make the eradication of vice fairly effective, since “[t]here are vices that take hold of us through other ones, and that, when the trunk is removed, are carried away like branches”. (457)

[21] Humbly, Pascal remarks: “It is not in Montaigne, but in myself, that I find everything I see in him.” (568)

[22] Wood (2009) argues convincingly that the imagination’s detrimental deceptions are, for Pascal, one of the consequences of the Biblical fall, i.e. the ultimate cause of immorality. For Pascal, having tasted perfection before the fall, we are condemned to sense and seek truths that, however, escape us (e.g. 25, 62, 90-1, 165-6, 180-1).

[23] Abstraction and complex reasoning are relied upon in somewhat particular circumstances, such as bioethical committee’s deliberations about technology-driven dilemmas and adjudications by courts of justice. Under normal circumstances, mothers, teachers, priests, novelists and TV stars affect people’s sentiments to a much greater degree than any ethicist or judge, shaping a fortiori people’s moral and immoral behaviours. As Richard Rorty noted in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did much more to let Americans see the true horror of slavery than all liberal philosophers since John Locke’s day.

Erik S. Reinert & Francesca Lidia Viano (eds.), Thorstein Veblen. Economics for an Age of Crises (London: Anthem, 2012)

Frequent yet allegedly unexpected crises, the sudden meltdowns of recently praised free-market ‘tigers’ and large-scale social unrest keep surfacing in the post-Thatcherite world of ‘free-trade agreements’, ‘globalisation’, ‘deregulation’, ‘privatisation’, monetary ‘great moderation’ and similar catchwords for the so-called age of ‘neo-liberalism’. Given such circumstances, a few mainstream economists have been willing to reconsider at least some of the premises upon which their discipline has operated and rediscover the long-forgotten wisdom of a famous but largely uninfluential mind, whose contribution to the discipline’s textbooks has been reduced to a class of odd goods that moneyed people want all the more the costlier they get (i.e. so-called ‘Veblen goods’).

In this perspective, part four (of four) in Reinert’s and Viano’s book contains six exemplary chapters, penned by five seasoned academics and two outstanding young students, that focus upon the usefulness of Veblen’s diverse and different categories of thought for today’s economists, legislators and policy-makers.

Geoffrey M. Hodgson’s “Thorstein Veblen: The Father of Evolutionary and Institutional Economics” compares mainstream economics’ current usage of notions that were crucial for Veblen—such as “institutions” and “evolution” (283)—with Veblen’s original understanding of them. His conclusion is that the former, corrupted by rational choice theory and a simplistic interpretation of Darwinism, has reduced these notions to “apologetic” descriptors within a grossly distorted picture of “market competition” that pleases the adherents of “laissez faire” economics (292). On the contrary, Veblen’s understanding of them is much more nuanced, empirically perceptive, open to revision, and disciplinarily ecumenical. He therefore concludes: “We can still learn a great deal from his writings and build on them for the future.” (292)

Paul Burkander’s “Veblen’s Words Weighed” dissects the full complexity of meaning in a famously convoluted passage in Veblen’s essay “Why is Economics Not an Evolutionary Science”, showing its author’s commitment to replace “neoclassical economics” (297) with a novel approach that may truly “scrutinise the economic actions of man” (300).

L. Randall Wray’s “The Great Crash of 2007 Viewed through the Perspective of Veblen’s Theory of Business Enterprise, Keynes’s Monetary Theory of Production and Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis” brings three heterodox classics into dialogue, highlighting mutual similarities and differences, so as to provide insights in the structural economic conditions that do actually cause financial crashes like the 2007 one.

James K. Galbraith’s “Predation from Veblen until Now: 0Remarks to the Veblen Sesquicentennial Conference” makes use of a largely neglected concept in Veblen’s understanding of socio-economic phenomena, i.e. predation, in order to explain the historical origins and the well-tested beneficial functions of regulation within market economies. As he writes: “A functioning structure of regulation is the instrument… of that part of the business community that wishes, and chooses, to play by a common set of rules” that keep market economies from “predatory self-destruction.” (327)

Sophus A. Reinart’s and Francesca Lidia Viano’s “Capitalising Expectations: Veblen on Consumption, Crises and the Utility of Waste” addresses another economic notion, i.e. “expectations” and how Veblen was capable of explaining its centrality in “systemic financial collapses” as well as “patterns of individual consumption.” (329)

Robert H. Frank’s “Thorstein Veblen: Still Misunderstood, but More Important than Ever” takes its moves from Veblen’s enduring textbook relevance in the very specific field of positional goods. Then it proceeds to emphasising his relevance vis-à-vis the much more general claim that “evaluations of all types depend heavily on social context”, hence on the necessity for “economic models” to stop assuming “that consumption decisions take place in social isolation” and start differentiating amongst the ways in which social factors affect economic evaluations and actual choices. (358)

Elements of the fourth part of the book colour the third one, in which three more social scientists explore in as many chapters Veblen’s importance for the field of politics.

Sidney Plotkin’s “Thorstein Veblen and the Politics of Predatory Power” focuses upon Veblen’s understanding of predation in human affairs and its applicability to phenomena such as social coercion, alienation, instrumental rationality, warfare and institutional development.

Stephen Edgell’s “Veblen, War and Peace” tries to fill a gap in the scholarly literature about Veblen, since the economists interested in his work are said to have largely neglected Veblen’s studies on World War I and the ensuing peace agreements. By doing so, Edgell does not only offer an account of this lesser known component of Veblen’s legacy, but also an application of Veblen’s insights to the contemporary conflicts in the Middle East.

Eyüp Özveren’s “Veblen’s ‘Higher Learning’: The Scientist as Sisyphus in the Iron Cage of a University” approaches Veblen’s research from the perspective of Veblen’s assessment of the history of modern sciences, the development of academic institutions, and the failure of the latter to be truly beneficial to society at large. According to Özveren’s “account, Veblen was highly sceptical of the universities’ ability to produce skilled and constructive minds, because of enduring archaic habits of thought, ritual functions in costly displays of wealth and status, enslavement to short-term business goals, and the prevalence of institutional competition over institutional cooperation. Additionally, Özveren’s account offers a depiction of academics as Sisyphus-like figures, who engage in the production of knowledge and fame that are bound to be overcome by the future academics that they nurture and instruct.

Parts one and two of the book belong primarily to ‘Veblenite’ historiography, as they deal with Veblen’s personal biography, his family and cultural background, his education in the US, and his own controversial teaching experiences. Of the six chapters comprised in these two parts, the readers of Nordicum-Mediterraneum are going to find the first four (i.e. part one of the book) of particular interest, for they focus upon Veblen’s Norwegian and Scandinavian background, especially in the context of late-19th-century Nordic immigrant communities in North America. These four chapters being: Kåre Lunden’s “Explaining Veblen by his Norwegian Background: A Sketch”; Terje Mikael Hasle Joranger’s “Valdres of the Upper Midwest: The Norwegian Background of the Veblen Family and their Migration to the United States”; Knut Odner’s “New Perspectives on Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian”; and Russell H. Bartley and Sylvia Erickson Bartley’s “The Physical World of Thorstein Veblen: Washington Island and Other Intimate Spaces”.

The book hereby reviewed is the result of the conference held in Valdres, Norway, upon the 150th anniversary of Veblen’s birth. It contains essays that differ considerably in length, topic, methodology, and reader-friendliness. Most of them presuppose a modicum of familiarity with Veblen’s work. Therefore, this volume cannot be recommended as an introduction to it. Rather, taken together, the book’s essays offer a very interesting token of Veblen scholarship and an eloquent exemplification of the cross-disciplinary appeal of Veblen’s genius. Furthermore, the essays comprised in the first part of the book reflect extensively upon the Nordic elements in Veblen’s life experience and intellectual interests, and should appeal to our journal’s Scandinavian readership, particularly in Norway.

Dom Holdaway & Filippo Trentin (eds.), Rome, Postmodern Narratives of a Cityscape (London & Brookfield: Pickering & Chatto, 2013)

Rome qua its sprawling peripheries, immortalised by Italian literature and cinema in their bleakest and most dramatic aspects (e.g. Pier Paolo Pasolini), has also become a well-known aesthetic trope, which is itself parasitic upon Rome’s paradigmatic historic centre, whose time-honoured beauty and wealth stand in stark contrast to the more recent peripheries. Whilst the former aesthetic reception of Rome is tied indissolubly to the classical age and later classicism, the latter is a standard case of modernity qua urban phenomenon, i.e. the pre-modern city centre being surrounded and eventually dwarfed by ever-growing circles of newly populated areas marking the inexorable advent and advance of the modern age.

The contributors of the volume hereby reviewed attempt to overcome this aesthetic dichotomy and present a postmodern understanding of the city, drawing primarily from architecture, psychoanalysis, art history and film studies, the book’s cinematographic references spanning from Enrico Guazzoni’s 1913 Quo vadis to Michele Placido’s 2005 Romanzo criminale. Whereas classical and modern narratives aim at establishing fixed points of reference and final evaluations, a postmodern one contents itself with their plurality, which reveals implicitly the irreducible variety of perspectives characterising human affairs and the incessant flow of human life, individual as well as collective, which no abstract concept or conception can truly grasp once and for all.

 

The first three essays in the book pursue their postmodern interpretation of Rome by focussing upon: (1) the ever-changing urban landscape around, against, through, within, beneath and upon the Aurelian Walls (“Between Rome’s Walls: Notes on the Role and Reception of the Aurelian Walls”, by Marco Cavietti); (2) the impressionistic and idiosyncratic depiction of ancient and modern Rome in Federico Fellini’s cinema, which has itself become part of the internationally shared imagery of the city (“The Explosion of Rome in the Fragments of a Postmodern Iconography: Federico Fellini and the Forma Urbis”, by Fabio Benincasa); and (3) the further expansion of the re-presented Rome in recent Italian films, which bear witness to the gradual cultural acceptance of more and more sections of the modern city in the same imagery (“Centre, Hinterland and the Articulation of ‘Romanness’ in Recent Italian Film”, by Lesley Caldwell).

The second lot of three essays focuses instead upon specific places and notable artefacts in Rome, the fame of which may often hide the very different meanings that they have had in the course of their history or with regard to their observers. The chosen items are: (1) a number of famous buildings, monuments and neighbourhoods in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1979 film entitled La luna (“Topophilia nd Other Roman Perversions: On Bertolucci’s La luna”, by John David Rhodes); (2) the 2nd-century equestrian bronze statue of emperor Marcus Aurelius and emperor Augustus’ 1st-century BCE Ara Pacis (“Marcus Aurelius and the Ara Pacis: Notes on the Notion of ‘Origin’ in Contemporary Rome”, by Filippo Trentin); and (3) the gigantic gas holder built in the Ostiense area in the 1930s to provide the citizens of Rome with cooking gas and street illumination (“A Postmodern Gaze on the Gasometer”, by Keala Jewell).

The concluding three essays discuss Rome’s two-way links with foreign architectural experiments. Specifically, they address: (1) the growingly innovative and daring architecture of the churches built outside Rome’s historic centre in the 20th and 21st century, especially after the 1962-5 Second Vatican Council, in line with analogous developments in Glasgow (“Ecclesiastical Icons: Defining Rome through Architectural Exchange”, by James Robertson); (2) the thirty-year-long international success of the itinerating architectural exhibition called Roma interrotta, in which twelve architects from different countries reinterpreted Giambattista Nolli’s seminal 1748 Great Plant of Rome (“’Roma Interrotta’: Postmodern Rome as the Source of Fragmented Narratives”, by Léa-Catherine Szacka); and (3) the influence of Rome’s architectures on two of the most influential 20th-century American architects, i.e. Charles W. Moore and Robert Venturi (“Las Vegas by Way of Rome: The Eternal City and American Postmodernism”, by Richard W. Hayes).

 

The volume edited by Holdaway and Trentin is the second instalment of the Warwick series in the humanities and it offers an engaging exploration of Rome as an evolving cultural hub of important significations for architects and artists, well beyond the firmly established waves of classicism that, recurrently, have swept the shores of Western creativity. Also, it offers a convincing example of coherent application of “postmodernism” as a useful hermeneutical tool and an established category of academic thought. Although the level of scholarly detail of the chapters is not homogenous, the overall quality of the volume is noteworthy, since this book offers many a refreshing perspective over a city about which countless perspectives have already been offered. Moreover, interesting considerations about the city’s demography, politics and economic life punctuate the chapters and make this book even more appealing. Above all, a genuine fascination with Rome’s vast and complex architectural and artistic history informs the whole endeavour, turning the book into an erudite act of love for the city. The reader who has never visited Rome will feel compelled to do it. The one who has already visited it will wish to do it again, in order to savour it in a new way.

Þorlákur Axel Jónsson, Dagur Austan. Ævintýramaðurinn Vernharður Eggertsson (Akureyri: Völuspá, 2009)

Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s slender volume (104 pages in total) is written in Icelandic and inaugurates a book series devoted to the history of northern Iceland’s Eyjafjörður and its inhabitants: Safn til sögu Eyjafjarðar og Eyfirðinga. Yet, in a way that is commented upon in the following paragraphs, this book is relevant to Nordic and Mediterranean studies and it has therefore been decided that Nordicum-Mediterraneum should carry a belated review of it, given the book’s relatively old year of publication, i.e. 2009.

 

Vernharður Eggertsson (1909-1952) was known also as Dagur Austan, a marginal contributor to 20th-century Icelandic literature, to whom serious critics and well-established literary reviewers have paid hardly any attention. Despite his vivid depiction of police callousness, or his groundbreaking references to homosexuality and child abuse by Catholic priests (79), the author’s little fame between the 1930s and the 1950s was due primarily to infamy or, to put it more correctly, to notoriety. Before and during the years in which Dagur Austan published one book (An Icelandic Adventurer in the Spanish War, 1938), one booklet and a handful of short stories (including the 1950 “The Dog and I”, perhaps the most successful of them), the name “Vernharður Eggertsson” appeared repeatedly in Iceland’s newspapers and even more frequently in the official records of Iceland’s police, courts of law and prisons for a long string of petty crimes, often related to alcoholic beverages. 

Since at least 1931, when he experienced a stint in a Canadian jail for a somewhat mythical case of prohibition-era smuggling (24-7), Vernharður Eggertsson’s life was marked by the homelessness, poverty, instability, mendacity, proneness to self-harm and the erratic behaviour that are often associated with excessive drinking amongst working-class men. On top of that, his professed adherence to communism made him a target of exemplary toughness by Iceland’s police authorities (60-3). During a remarkable dry spell facilitated by the Salvation Army in the early 1940s, Vernharður Eggertsson did succeed in finding a wife and fathering a host of children, from whom he was eventually separated by his overwhelming propensity for the bottle (see esp. 64-70). What is more, before and after this spell, he worked in the family brewery (9-18), travelled the world as a sailor (21-3, 82-7), witnessed and probably fought in the Civil War in Spain (44-59), walked rarely trodden paths in his native country after a jail break (35-43) and managed to charm and befriend many fellow Icelanders, including young artists, journalists and literati (78-81, 101).

In the end, Vernharður Eggertsson suffered a tragic death in a shipwreck off Caithness’ perilous coasts, probably after sailing in the treacherous Pentland Firth (87), crowning a tempestuous existence with the kind of salt-water tragedy that fate reserves to the true adventurer, which is the way chosen by the book’s author to refer to Vernharður Eggertsson, i.e. Ævintýramaðurinn (“the adventurer”), and possibly the one in which Vernharður Eggertsson liked thinking of himself as well.

Certainly, the gritty tales that Dagur Austan recounts in his book on the Spanish Civil War—passages of which are included in Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s text—are worthy of the most audacious adventurer, if not of a hero, which is the term used by the Swedish communists’ journal Ny Dag to salute in 1936 the brave Icelander that was reported to have fought for the Republic in the International Brigades (57). Besides, Dagur Austan’s matter-of-fact, adventure-centred outlook on the bloody fights between Republicans and Monarchists, as well as between Anarchists and other Republicans, offers an unusually fresh, ideologically uncompromising and little-known account of the Civil War itself. Historians that are interested in what happened in Spain during those terrible years may well find it a valuable integration of more commonly cited sources.

 

The author of the volume hereby reviewed is a historian and social scientist. His style is dry, unadorned and non-evaluative. He is careful in the selection of, and the references to, the sources utilised for his biography of Vernharður Eggertsson aka Dagur Austan. Photographs (mid-book insert, 1-8), a thorough critical apparatus (88-94), a poem (2) and a short story penned by Dagur Austan himself (95-100), plus a 1952 obituary by Sverrir Þórðarson (101) complement it effectively, giving a concrete sense of the times and the lives that are touched upon. The resulting volume is not big, its short chapters offering a dozen of highly effective sketches, rather than a lengthy account, of salient moments in the life of Vernharður Eggertsson and of his family. If neorealism were a literary style, rather than a cinematographic one, Þorlákur Axel Jónsson’s book would be an instantiation of it.

One may wonder why such a peculiar citizen of northern Iceland should have been chosen to launch the book series on Eyjafjörður and its inhabitants. Though unquestionably exciting and romantically eccentric, Vernharður Eggertsson’s story is neither enviable nor edifying. As Sverrir Þórðarson wrote, he was “a son of the street” (73). Yet, it is true that Icelandic literature has never eschewed the darker margins of the island’s society, whether by devoting entire sagas to famous outlaws or by celebrating the most poetically talented psychotic murderer of the Viking age, Egill Skallagrímsson. If divine wisdom informs the entirety of God’s creation, then lessons can be learnt from all walks of life. Thus, pondering upon Vernharður Eggertsson’s tribulations may remind the reader of how healthily insignificant is a comfortable middle-class life.

Michele Renee Salzman, Marvina A. Sweeney & William Adler (eds.), The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World (2 vols.) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

However variously and perhaps even ambiguously understood the term “religion“ may be, all ancient civilisations inhabiting the lands surrounding, or surrounded by, the Mediterranean Sea have left ample material and textual evidence of their widespread and regular acknowledgment of the supernatural as a dimension of individual and collective existence, the personal and social need for relating to it in structured meaningful ways, and the articulation of these relations to the supernatural within the wider socio-political, economic, cultural and artistic contexts. The two-volume publication hereby reviewed charts and discusses recurrent religious phenomena (e.g. ritual worship, erection of temples and shrines, priesthood, etc.) in the ancient world, organised by geographic region and time period.

Continue reading Michele Renee Salzman, Marvina A. Sweeney & William Adler (eds.), The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World (2 vols.) (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013)

Cruelty and Austerity. Philip Hallie’s Categories of Ethical Thought and Today’s Greek Tragedy

Quels crimes ? Quelle faute ont commis ces enfants sur le sein maternel écrasés et sanglants ?

(Voltaire, Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne, 1756)

Cruelty

As 20th-century scholarship about cruelty is concerned, Philip Hallie’s research is possibly the most extensive. Working for many years as an ethicist at Wesleyan University, Hallie wrote no less than three books on this largely neglected topic, the most famous of which being Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed, published in 1979. In this book, Hallie recounts and discusses how the inhabitants of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small village in South-eastern France, protected more than six thousand Jewish refugees from fascist persecution during the 1940s. The inhabitants were led by the local Protestant pastor, André Trocmé, who believed firmly that, albeit extremely risky, such a line of conduct was the only justifiable one, i.e. in line with the morals dictated by the Christian faith.

In his many works on cruelty, Hallie defines this term in somewhat different ways, such as “the infliction of ruin, whatever the motives” (1969: 14), “the slow crushing and grinding of a human being by other human beings” (1979/1985: 2) and “the activity of hurting sentient beings” (1992: 229). Besides, echoing Saint Augustine’s classical distinction between natural and human evil, Hallie distinguishes between the “fatal cruelties” caused by nature and the “violent cruelty” caused by humans (1969: 5-6). Violent human cruelty is distinguished further into “sadistic” and “practical”: the former is “self-gratifying”; the latter is instrumental, i.e. cruelty qua means to ulterior ends (1969: 22-24). Concerning “practical” cruelty, Hallie adds to the picture the subtler form of “implicit” or “indirect” cruelty, which arises because of sheer “indifference or distraction” to the pain that has been caused, rather than because ofanyexplicit violence or direct “intention to hurt” (1969: 13-14 & 29-31). “Implicit” and “indirect” cruelty can grow in time and mutate into “institutionalized cruelty” (1981/1989: 11), i.e. a persistent pattern of humiliation that can often endure over many years or generations, and yet is downplayed by the perpetrator as well as the victim, both of whom take it for granted and may even justify it by appealing to the laws of science, the natural order, or religiously sanctioned traditions.

In addition to these distinctions among different forms of cruelty, all of which would appear to be evil, Hallie (1969) offers a puzzling reflection on some types of cruelty that might be better not to avoid altogether, for their disappearance could generate more harm than their continuation. For one, the processes of individual “growth” and maturation can be horribly painful and, in all honesty, “cruel”, but Hallie (1969) thinks that they are a most valuable component of the long and tortuous road that leads to higher human fulfilment (55). Then he considers the artistic insights and particularly the disclosure of sorrowful truths that can be obtained through in terrorem techniques, as well as many other aesthetic forms of elation, including “sexual” ones, that cruelty is capable of bringing about (41). On top of that, Hallie (1969) admits that cruelty may be a necessary evil in the public sphere, since “responsive” cruelty is entailed by the national and international systems of law and order; although such a “responsive cruelty” can be mitigated, it cannot be avoided entirely (33). Finally, Hallie (1969) notes how cruelty can be brought about in the name of altruism, happiness and justice, since “substantial maiming” can derive from “wanting the best and doing the worst” (15-20). For all these reasons, he deems cruelty to constitute a “paradox” (1969: book title): we may well regard cruelty as one of the most horrible things in life, perhaps even the worst thing we can do, yet we cannot and may not want to rid ourselves of it completely.

Hallie (1969) offers us what is to date the richest philosophical study on the paradoxical character of cruelty. As I discussed years ago (cf. Baruchello 2010), this is one of the five broad conceptions of cruelty that can be retrieved in the history of Western thought, the other four being: (I) “Cruelty… as a quintessentially human vice affecting specific individuals” such as “persons involved in punitive contexts, e.g. courtrooms, schools, armies”, that show no propensity for “clemency” (172-73); (II) “Cruelty” as “sadism”, namely “a malaise of the soul”, possibly “the result of a poor, incompetent or broken mind, which reduces the humanity of its carrier and makes her closer to wild animals” (173-74; emphasis removed); (III) “cruelty as harm to be avoided”, as exemplified most notably by “[t]he champions of the European Enlightenment” and a long string of successive “political and legal reformers” (174-75; emphasis removed); and (IV) cruelty as something good, whether instrumentally or intrinsically, as exemplified respectively by Machiavelli’s acceptance of extremely evil means (e.g. war) for good ends (e.g. the State’s stability) and Sade’s glorification of our natural propensity to violence.

No univocal interpretation of “cruel” and “cruelty” applies to the five conceptions listed above, especially if we consider the fact that they are themselves only broad categories applicable to a large variety of more or less refined reflections on cruelty that started with Seneca’s De clementia and have continued up to Michael Trice’s 2011 theological work entitled Encountering Cruelty (the present paper is actually a preparatory work for a larger reflection on the unacceptable cruelty of austerity from a Christian perspective). In my past research (cf. Baruchello 2010), I identify seven frequent connoting elements for what is deemed “cruel”, which amount to little else than family resemblances among usages of a term that is deployed very frequently, defined very rarely and, even so, conceived of in different ways, as the five broad conceptions just mentioned bear witness to.

Still, taken together, these connoting elements and broad conceptions chart a vast realm of linguistic expressions located inter alia in the fields of philosophy, theology, politics, economics, social theory, psychology, jurisprudence and literature. Referring to my own 2010 work, the seven connoting elements are (171-72; emphases removed):

1.Pain: Whether only physical or also psychological, serious or minimal, justified or unjustified, cruelty implies pain

2.Excess: Whether of pain as such or of its usages to acceptable ends (e.g. penal sanctions), or of our hopes in a tolerable life, or of our abilities to understand reality, cruelty eventually steps “beyond”—acceptability, tolerability, comprehensibility

3.Roles: Whether directly or indirectly established, cruelty requires the roles of victim and perpetrator, even when the latter is institutional, impersonal or unknown

4.Power: It is only by means of power differential that the roles of victim and perpetrator can be established

5.Mens rea: Whether delighted in or indifferent to the pain inflicted, the perpetrator possesses a culpable mental attitude. Interestingly, when tackling impersonal and institutional perpetrators, several thinkers have personified the universe or the State

6.Evil: Cruelty is a species of evil. Even when conceived of as good, it is either an instrumental evil or an apparent evil, the goodness of which must be revealed and justified

7.Paradox: Cruelty horrifies and, at the same time, fascinates. This is just one of the many contradictions contained within cruelty, which can be aptly described as paradoxical. The array of diverse conceptions collected below further substantiates this point

Keeping cruelty’s shifting semantic area in mind, let us focus nonetheless upon Hallie’s (1969) claim that cruelty can be: (A) practical, in the sense of being a means to an end and not an end in itself; (B) implicit, in the sense that it is not a manifest attribute of the end being pursued; and (C) indirect, in the sense that it results from the choice of means by which the end at hand is pursued. As such, cruelty can inform complex forms of social agency in which much dread, destruction, deprivation, loss of dignity and life are visible, and yet in which no explicit violence, no patent intention to hurt, no delight in other people’s misery and no non-human constriction can be discerned.

Austerity

The austerity policies that have been implemented in a number of countries since the collapse of deregulated private finance in the year 2008 can be regarded as contemporary examples of practical, implicit and indirect cruelty. I believe that this can be shown by addressing a representative case, namely that of Greece, where leading constitutional lawyer Giorgos Kasimatis (2010: Foreword, 2nd par.) writes:

The Loan Agreements (the Loan Facility Agreement; the Memorandum of Understanding between Greece and the Euro-area Member States and the agreement with the IMF for the Participation of Greece in the European Financial Stabilization Mechanism to the purpose of obtaining the approval of a Stand-by arrangement by the International Monetary Fund) form a system of international treaties the likes of which… the cruelty of the terms and the extent of breach of fundamental legal rights and principles… have never been enacted in the heart of Europe and the European completion; not since the World War II. (emphasis added)

Constitutional lawyers are not renown for their rhetorical flamboyancy or heated prose. So, where does Kasimatis’ “cruelty” come from? In the 100 pages of the Loan Agreements of May 2010, annexes included, no mention whatsoever is made of cruelty, pain or suffering as the stated aims of the signed agreement, not even as a salient characteristic of the chosen means of implementation. Any possible ruin, crushing, grinding and hurting of victims is nowhere remarked upon in the document, although it is conceded that provisions must be made to protect “the minimum earners” and compensate “the most vulnerable… for possible adverse impact of policies” that include, inter alia: layoffs of public employees; “pension” and “wage bill reductions”; decreased job security; and lessened provision of public services and “social security benefits” (54)—i.e. policies that, combined together, are liable to weaken “social cohesion”, cause “poverty” and shrink “employment” (54). The intermediate and ultimate aims stated in the agreements are the granting of loans “in conjunction with the funding from the International Monetary Fund” (3), to be duly repaid according to the schedule specified in the document, so as to “correct fiscal and external imbalances and [therefore] restore confidence” that alone is said to make “growth… buoyant” and let “the economy… emerge… in better shape than before [i.e.] with higher growth and employment.” (52; emphasis added)

These three ultimate aims—buoyant growth, an economy in better shape and a higher rate of employment—are said to be the expected and projected result of the “economic and financial policies” (51) listed in the agreements, which express grave concern for “the recent deterioration in market sentiment” (54) and recommend ways to re-hearten it, such as: “fiscal adjustment” by novel and “special taxes” (53-4); reducing “incomes and social security” provision—old-age pensions included—so as to make them “sustainable” vis-à-vis the new debt obligations of the State (53); increased supervision over the banking system during a forecast “period of lower growth” (53); reforming “ambitious[ly]” the Greek “public sector” to “modernize” it by reducing its size and funding though “oriented to providing better services to its citizens” (53-4); making local “labor markets more efficient and flexible” (53); withdrawing the public role “in domestic industries” (53) and managing or owning a large variety of “assets” (59); reforming the “health sector” (55); sustaining a “safety net for the financial system” (58); reducing “minimum entry level wages” and “employment protection” levels (58); and “facilitate greater use of part-time work” (59). The details for the implementation of these policies are spelled out qua “specific economic policy conditionality” (69) for the disbursement of funds and make it clear that “elderly people”, “workers in heavy and arduous professions”, recipients of “disability pensions”, “social security, hospitals”, “existing social programmes” (73-4) and the recipients of “unemployment benefits” (79) are to bear a share of the burden towards debt repayment.

Given the conditionality and the policies specified in the agreements, it does not take much to infer that much pain, both physical and psychological, has been bestowed upon the Greek population or a conspicuous portion of it. The signatories themselves admit in the documents that the immediate effects of the measures specified therein are likely to be a “growth” that is not “buoyant” (52) and that the expected and projected positive outcomes would take place in the “future” (54), though nowhere it is said when exactly that will take place. Similarly, it does not require much imagination to realise that all this pain has exceeded the pain that most Greek citizens would have been likely to encounter in their life under normal circumstances. In point of fact, these policies have been implemented within the context of considerable diplomatic and economic pressure both at the international level (e.g. public indictments of the Greek government and citizens at large by representatives of the French and German governments, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund; cf. Alktenhead, 2012) and at the national level (e.g. street riots, general strikes and public demonstrations quenched by police force; cf. Smith, 2011). There have been, in other words, perpetrators, both at the national and international levels, who have used their power in order to have these policies and conditionality implemented despite popular protests and, above all, the visible ruin, crushing, grinding and hurting of victims leading to these protests. The perpetrators have intended to pursue the policies listed in the agreements in spite of all this ruin, crushing, grinding and hurting. Evidently, such a cruelty was either not their main concern, or not sufficient enough a concern to stop them in their pursuit.

It can be argued whether the ruin, crushing, grinding and hurting, in short, the cruelty of these policies was a necessary, bitter medicine; or a deserved punishment for prior errors (i.e. a form of “responsive” cruelty); or a failed attempt to do good. What cannot be argued, however, is that there was no cruelty. That is where Kasimatis’ “cruelty” comes from. As the italicised words in the comments above flag out, all the connoting elements are at play here, including that of paradox, for the declared ends of these policies have not only failed to materialise, but have been made more difficult to achieve, as the successive amendments to the loan agreements of 2010 have eventually revealed (cf. Blanchard & Leigh, 2013). Today, the Greek economy shows no sign of buoyancy, the shape of its economy is among the worst in the EU and the rate of unemployment among the highest (cf. IMF, 2013).

The bitter medicine has sorted no positive effect, at least as the declared aims of the May 2010 Loan Agreements are concerned. On the contrary, there has been a plethora of nefarious side-effects, such as: a sudden suicide spike, especially amongst men (Kentikelenis et al., 2011); a considerable increase in mental illnesses (Economou et al., 2012; Faresjö et al., 2013) and infectious diseases like HIV, TB and malaria (Stuckler & Basu, 2013); and higher infant mortality (Stuckler & Basu, 2013). If it ever was a form of “responsive” cruelty, the punishment has indeed reached “the most vulnerable”, i.e. children, who cannot be deemed responsible for any pre-crisis errors made by the adults, of whom only some could be regarded as legally, politically or morally guilty. In essence, were we even to admit the possibility of this cruelty being “responsive”, it would constitute nonetheless a case of collective punishment. In short, if any genuine good was ever intended as the main aim, such a good has become harder and harder to come by, to the point that leading IMF economists have admitted that, not unlike former experiences in the developing world (Stiglitz, 2002), the austerity policies originally recommended for Greece have failed the test of reality (Blanchard & Leigh, 2013).

Paradoxical is also the fact that, while such dramatic side-effects materialised, special credit lines and liquidity injections have been operated repeatedly by the European Central Bank (ECB) in order to safeguard the viability of the Continent’s largest private banks, while no special intervention of this kind has been made in order to sustain, say, healthcare provision to Greek children (cf. Reuters, 2013). As the language of the 2010 Loan Agreements would read, the ECB has provided funds for the “safety net of the financial system”, which feeds on money that is not spent on meeting genuine life needs (McMurtry, 2013), but has provided none earmarked for the safety net of the Greek children, whose life needs are being met less and less (Stuckler & Basu, 2013). “Lifelines”, as they are called in the financial world, have been thrown to private banks, their managers and shareholders; nothing comparable has been done for the Greek children, who needed them in no metaphorical way, i.e. in order to live (cf. McMurtry, 2013).

Conclusion

Given the evidence above, I believe that it can be reasonably stated that austerity policies like those witnessed in Greece constitute a token of cruelty in its social manifestation, as this can be conceived of thanks to Hallie’s categories of ethical thought. There have been the infliction of ruin, the slow crushing and grinding of human beings, the hurting of sentient beings—all as a means to an end that does not focus upon the ruin, the crushing, the grinding and the hurting as such, and yet brings them about inevitably and remains de facto indifferent to them, for the ruin, the crushing, the grinding and the hurting are allowed to continue and the end is not abandoned or the means revised.

 

 

References

Alktenhead, D. (2012, May 25) “Christine Lagarde: can the head of the IMF save the euro?”, The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/25/christine-lagarde-imf-euro

Aquinas, T. (1264-75/1947), Summa Theologica, Einsiedeln: Benzinger Verlag. [English translation by he Fathers of the English Dominican Province available at: http://www.ccel.org/a/aquinas/summa/FP.html]

Baruchello, G. (2002) Understanding Cruelty: From Dante to Rorty, PhD Thesis, Guelph: University of Guelph, Department of Philosophy. [Abstract published in Gateway. An Academic Journal on the Web, Winter 2002-2003, available at: http://grad.usask.ca/gateway/abs_Baruchello-win_02.pdf]

Baruchello, G. (2010) “No Pain, No Gain. The Understanding of Cruelty in Western Philosophy and Some Reflections on Personhood”, Filozofia 65(2): 170-83.

Blanchard, O. & Leigh, D. (2013) “Growth Forecast Errors and Fiscal Multipliers”, IMF Working Paper ref. WP/13/1, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2013/wp1301.pdf

Economou, M., Madianos, M., Peppou, L.E., Theleritis, C. & Stefanis, C.N. (2012) “Suicidality and the Economic Crisis in Greece”, Lancet 380: 337.?

Faresjö, Å., Theodorsson, E., Chatziarzenis, M., Sapouna, V., Claesson, H.-P., Koppner, J. & Faresjö, T. (2013) “Higher Perceived Stress but Lower Cortisol Levels Found among Young Greek Adults Living in a Stressful Social Environment in Comparison with Swedish Young Adults” PLoS ONE 8(9): e73828. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073828.

Hallie, P.P. (1979/1985) Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon, and How Goodness Happened There, New York: Harper & Row.

Hallie, P.P. (1969) The Paradox of Cruelty, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press.

Hallie, P.P. (1981/1989) “From Cruelty to Goodness” in Sommers, C. & Sommers, F. (eds.) Vice and Virtue in Everyday Life, San Diego: Harcourt College Publishers, 9-24.

Hallie, P.P. (1992) “Cruelty” in Becker, L.C. (ed.) Encyclopaedia of Ethics, New York: Garland, 229-31.

IMF (2013), “Greece: Ex Post Evaluation of Exceptional Access under the 2010 Stand-By Arrangement” IMF Country Report No. 13/156, available at: http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2013/cr13156.pdf

Kasimatis, G. (2010) “The Loan Agreement between the Hellenic Republic, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund” [Research paper prepared for Athens Bar Association, English translation by Vryna, S.G. available at: http://www.kassimatisdimokratia.gr/index.php/law-science/item/129-the-loan-agreements-between-the-hellenic-republic-the-european-union-and-the-international-monetary-fund]

Kentikelenis, A., Karanikolos, M., Papanicolas, I., Basu, S., McKee, M. & Stuckler, D. (2011), “Health Effects of Financial Crisis: Omens of a Greek Tragedy” Lancet 378: 1457– 1458.?

McMurtry, J. (2013), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, 2nd ed., London: Pluto.

Montesquieu (1748/1949) The Spirit of the Laws, English translation by Nugent, T., New York: Hafner.

Nietzsche, F. (1881/1911) The Dawn of Day, English translation by McFarland Kennedy, J., New York: Macmillan. 

Nietzsche, F. (1908/1911) Ecce Homo, English translation by Ludovici, A.M., New York: Macmillan.

Reuters (2013, September 13) “Bankers call for third LTRO”, Reuters, available at: http://www.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USL5N0H820C20130912

Smith, A. (1776/1904) An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London: Meuthen, available at: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN1.html

Smith, H. (2011, July 1) “Greek police face investigation after protest violence”, The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jul/01/greek-police-investigation-protest-violence

Stiglitz, J.E. (2002) Globalization and Its Discontents. New York: Norton.

Stuckler, D. & Basu, S. (2013) The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, London: Allen Lane.

Trice, M. (2011) Encountering Cruelty: The Fracture of the Human Heart, Leiden: Brill.

Vv. (2010) The Loan Agreements (or The Loan Agreements between the Hellenic Republic, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund) [Formerly confidential governmental and inter-governmental documentation, distributed to the participants in the conference “Sovereign debt and fundamental social rights”, organised by the International Association of Constitutional Law and held in Athens, Greece, June 28-29, 2013]

 

The Hopeful Liberal. Reflections on Free Markets, Science and Ethics

[T]he idea of a self-regulating market implied a stark utopia. Such an institution could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society

(Polanyi, 1944: 3)

Introduction

The international economic crisis following the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers unleashed a flood of fiat money by selectively prodigal central banks that have seen fit to plunge the world into a recession in order to keep over-indebted private banks afloat (cf. Hudson, 2012). Also, it unleashed an outburst of academic literature on the crisis itself, its causes, its effects, and its possible solutions. With this literature, a modicum of doubt has re-entered the mainstream of public discourse on topics such as globalisation, capitalism and the free market, to the point that even corporate newspapers have reported renowned liberals’ and conservatives’ statements that, until few years ago, would have been associated with leftist ‘radicals’ and ignored by mainstream media:

 

  1. “The doctrine of the dictatorship of the market is dead” (Nicolas Sarkozy, former French president, 2008);[1]
  2. “We need…  humaneness…  rules…  and abandoning the idea of… massive pro?ts” (MIT Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Samuelson, 2008);
  3. “The dictatorship of the [credit] spread… nullifies… universal suffrage… [for] those who hold economic power… have every decisional power” (former liberal MP and current head of Italy’s securities and exchange commission [CONSOB] Giuseppe Vegas, 2012);
  4. “There emerge… in civil Europe the first signs of a new type of fascism: financial fascism, white fascism“ (Italy’s liberal MP and former finance minister Giulio Tremonti, 2012).

 

Aims and methodology

International crises and their dramatic outcomes notwithstanding, certain long-lived, deeply rooted beliefs are hard to die. Thus we keep hearing leading politicians and revered economic advisors who call for a return to growth and assert that structural reforms are imperative so that market confidence may be re-established and increased competitiveness achieved, without ever pondering upon the fact that these aims are precisely those that guided the global economy before the crisis. Could it ever be that endless growth, market confidence or competitiveness are misguided aims for the world’s economies?

In these reflections of mine, I wish to address one of these resilient beliefs. Specifically, in the traditional philosophical way initiated by Socrates, I shall assess some logical knots arising from a hypothesis, that is, the commonplace liberal notion that the so-called “free market” possesses a unique capacity to generate prosperity.

This hypothesis is highly generic, diversely instantiated and potentially vague. Nevertheless, it pervades the whole spectrum of the liberal conceptions of the economy, such as Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”, whereby the individual’s pursuit of self-interest results often into collective wellbeing (1776, IV.ii.9), or the textbook category of “market imperfections”, according to which explaining is needed when the outcomes of market transactions are not optimal (e.g. Sloman, 2006). There exists an extensive literature for each of these conceptions, which I could address in a book, but not in a short piece like the present one. Rather, I shall select one representative liberal formulation of the hypothesis at issue and deal with those logical knots that I deem most likely to be of interest to a scholarly audience.

 

Rhonheimer’s formulation

The formulation that I now refer to is a recent book chapter written by the Swiss liberal thinker Martin Rhonheimer (2012),[2] who claims that the “free market” is “a necessary condition” of human prosperity (9; emphasis in the original). In his eloquent account of Eucken’s ordoliberalism and the related critique of laissez-faire liberalism, Rhonheimer offers in support of his claim:

 

(A) one elucidation; and

(B) one generic token of empirical proof.

  

(A) The elucidation is that no central planner would be able to coordinate all economic activities as efficiently as the “free market”, in which individual agents pursue their own particular self-interest and, by so doing, unintentionally produce prosperity, in accordance with Smith’s principle of the “invisible hand” (9-10). Though not all conditions for prosperity may arise this way, none would arise without it. The “free market” is a necessary condition for prosperity, albeit not a sufficient one, which is what more trenchant laissez-faire liberals believe. States must also be involved, according to ordoliberalism and many other streaks of liberalism, to secure fair market transactions, enforce beneficial rules, correct market distortions, and redress socially and morally harmful market outcomes. However, to think that “central planning and state regulation… through several government-run agencies” could ever achieve any prosperity without the “free market” is discarded at once (5).

 

(B) The generic token of empirical proof is that “history teaches” all this: “a capitalist economy based on a free market, entrepreneurial activity, and free trade without tariff barriers is more realistic and in the long run beneficial for everybody” (24). In this respect, the unrealised failure of Roosevelt’s New Deal and a passing reference to Soviet Union are the two cases of “socialism” that the author utilises to give strength to his point (4-7).

  

The critique

1. Indemonstrable necessity

Rhonheimer’s elucidation, though very commonly heard, is not much of an empirical proof. At best, it is an enthymeme, i.e. a rhetorical proof. To make it stick more convincingly, it would require itself many empirical proofs for adequate scientific substantiation. Yet here emerges a severe and unflinchingly by-passed methodo-logical issue. How can anyone prove a thesis as comprehensive as the one presented in Rhonheimer’s essay and, in general, upheld by the liberal community?

The necessary character of any economic system cannot be determined in a scientific way, for we have only one planet, one humankind and one very short historical span at our disposal for any empirical verification and/or falsification of the “free market” and, for that matter, of “socialism”. Apart from mere logical possibility, which cannot exclude a plurality of ways to prosperity, it should be observed that for any claim of such a necessary character to be ascertained, we should investigate a set of entirely alternative and separate systems over a certain period of time, probably a very long one, so as to determine that only the ones operating upon the “free market” produce prosperity, whatever this may be like. Unfortunately, to this day, such a test has been impossible to perform.

Moreover, focussing onto the “market” versus “socialist” dichotomy can be misleading, for it shifts the gaze away from what is undeniably necessary for the meaningful survival of our species, i.e. the continued satisfaction of human needs across generational time. That is the prime end, whatever additional feature we may wish to add to the notion of prosperity. Economies are the means to attain in primis this prime end.[3]

As the past is concerned, we know that some civilisations have made it this far. In this connection, we might think of prehistoric, ancient and medieval Earth, let us say before the age of European exploration, as a plausible set of sufficiently separate and alternative economic systems to conduct a comparative study. Yet, apart from the fact that hardly any of the known ones would count as a free-market system, we know far too little, if anything, about most of them to make any valid scientific comparison, whatever notion of prosperity we may wish to employ (cf. Boldizzoni, 2011). If we look at what history has produced until now, we may be in a better position to determine which system has been the most ruthless, hence the one that has imposed itself over the others. However, that would be a banal and, I suspect, rather degrading notion of superiority, not to consider the very thin or quite absent link that such a superiority may have to human needs or prosperity (cf. Castoriadis, 1997).

As the present is concerned, there may be alternative but no separate systems, given that even the most isolated indigenous communities in the world are being affected by the environmental changes produced by the advanced economies of the planet (e.g. Itkadmin. 2007).

As the future is concerned, unless we deny the ability of humankind to change creatively its collective organisation, which has varied enormously throughout the known history of our species, we cannot even begin to fathom what awaits our descendants: a Star-Trek-like society without money, need and greed; or a Mad-Max-like post-atomic age of barbarism? But this is the territory of science-fiction, not of science.

 

2. Lack of prosperity

If we follow Rhonheimer’s representative formulation and understand prosperity as “consumption, that is, the satisfaction of the needs of all the persons living in a determinate territory” (19; emphasis in the original), we quite simply lack information about most human communities in most parts of the world throughout most of human history. Presently, the past is closed to us; and so is the future, for we cannot predict what will happen on our planet tomorrow, not to mention in two years or two centuries.

As the history of today’s world is concerned i.e. the so-called ‘global market’, which is usually claimed to be an imperfect instantiation of the “free market”, we know for sure the following: it fails regularly to satisfy the needs of all the persons living on the planet, as the UN’s annual statistics on death by malnourishment and starvation regularly report. And while failing these persons’ needs, the current imperfect instantiation of the “free market” also caters to artificially instilled wants of others, including the desire for carcinogenic cigarettes and life-shortening junk food. In other words, the global market fails not only to secure planet-wide need-satisfaction, which is what Rhonheimer appears to be taking as genuine consumption, but also to distinguish between, say, the need for bread of the starving paupers and the desire for golden toilets of oil tycoons, so as to prioritise the former above the latter. What sets in motion the “free market” in both theory and practice is money-backed demand, i.e. preferences or wants of market agents endowed with pecuniary means, not the genuine needs of humans or other living beings, whose possession of pecuniary means may be nil. Money, not need, is what determines consumption in today’s world, pace Rhonheimer’s noteworthy equation (cf. McMurtry, 1999).

Revealingly, many liberal economists and, above all, the actual economy treat both bread and golden toilets as marketable ‘goods’. No axiological compass is present for basic distinctions between that which is of real value and that which is not, or that which is good and that which is bad. Neither any economic ‘good’, nor all economic ‘goods’ are good. Some are bad. For example, financial speculation over the price of staples such as rice and wheat may be deemed “rational” and a form of “wealth creation”, but it does increase malnutrition and illnesses. In other terms, the invisible hand seems to possess an invisible brain, which is why ordoliberals à la Rhonheimer, unlike libertarians and radical laissez-faire liberals, have long recognised the importance of at least some State intervention.

 

3. Imperfect imperfections

In connection with the importance of State intervention, Rhonheimer introduces a number of additional qualifications that cause the “free market” to come across as more inefficient than initially stated in the thesis. Albeit a necessary one, this mechanism is not a sufficient condition for prosperity or consumption. It is said that it “frequently” leads to prosperity, i.e. not always (10). It is incapable of providing many “public goods” (14). It is prone to “failures” (13). If the State does not intervene, it generates “cartels” (15). Indeed it possesses “a tendency to destroy itself” (15), given also that it causes major social “problems” such as “inequality” (25).

These qualifications are unlikely to sound surprising to most liberals, for, in varying degrees, the near-totality of them acknowledge that some imperfections do affect the market system. However, it is perplexing to notice that, under their perspective, qualifications of the actual market economies such as the ones listed by Rhonheimer are not seen first of all for what they are, i.e. features of the existing markets. On the contrary, they are seen as exceptions to the implicit rule, which assumes markets to be perfect, even if they are clearly not perfect. Indeed, a few years before his death, liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith (2004) stated the very talk of “free market” to be nothing but a “fraud” (in the title) aimed at hiding the historical fact of capitalism, that is to say, a much more fitting term to describe Western economies, inside which there has always been a dominant group planning the economy to its own advantage (e.g. merchants, industrialists, absentee owners, managers, financial managers), conspicuous market manipulation (including creating demand by operant conditioning techniques) and extensive conditions of monopoly and oligopoly.

Textbooks often refer to methodological convenience when explaining why economists assume perfect markets. Though understandable, such a prioritisation of methodological convenience over empirical evidence is a grave departure from standard scientific methodology. Galileo may have invited the scientific inquirer to reason ex hypothesi, but he never maintained that contrary evidence should be systematically side-stepped in order not to change the starting hypothesis. In the natural sciences, hypotheses are meant to be tested and revised in light of empirical evidence. Only the formal sciences content themselves with coherent theoretical constructions (cf. Hintikka et al., 1981).

 

4. Vaguer and vaguer referents

The absence of exact instantiations of the clearly unempirical “free market” is only the beginning. If we allow for some State intervention, as Rhonheimer does, what should count then as truly “free market” and “socialist” economies? Where should we draw the line of demarcation?

These two terms are almost omnipresent in both recent political history and scholarship, yet their actual separation is far from obvious. Indeed, from a 19th-century conservative perspective, liberals and socialists were hardly distinguishable from each other, as the political critiques by Pope Pius X or Friedrich Nietzsche exemplify. Furthermore, before the 19th century, most societies in human history had not been market societies. They may have contained some markets (e.g. slave trade in the ancient Mediterranean), but most of their members did not participate in them (cf. Boldizzoni, 2011). As far as we can ascertain, subsistence and reciprocity were their main features, as reflected also in their culture, which kept the analogues of today’s economic rationality as limited secondary instruments to other primary social goals, such as community status, personal honour, or the salvation of each believer’s immortal soul.

Great achievements were possible in these older societies, whether in the arts, philosophy, mathematics, law, engineering or religious life. Such human accomplishments seem to have little to do with “free markets” or the size of a country’s GDP, and perhaps may be unrelated to whatever prosperity the hypothesis at issue implies. Still, it is not aimless to ponder upon the fact that even the great scientific discoveries that led to the technologies whereby 20th-century human populations boomed worldwide, in both self-proclaimed “capitalist” and “socialist” economies, were made in countries with smaller GDPs than today and limited “free markets” (cf. Galbraith, 2004). Moreover, modern societies, in which commercial and financial markets have become much more extensive and influential, have often retained—sometimes up to the present day—significant elements of subsistence and reciprocity (e.g. small-scale farms in Scotland, Poland and India), as well as many development-spurring elements of public ownership and public planning (e.g. Venice’s publicly owned merchant and military fleets; George C. Marshall’s post-WWII ERP; Germany’s, Brazil’s, North Dakota’s and China’s public banks).

Additionally, it should be noted that Ronheimer himself claims that genuine free markets existed worldwide only for a brief period of time, i.e. “between 1850 and 1870”, and that self-proclaimed “free market” post-WWII USA has resembled post-WWI Germany in maintaining the State-centred structures inherited from their war economies, which still allow the State, for example, to bail out bankrupt private firms (21). In short, the issue of identifying genuinely “free-market” and “socialist” economies is not an easy one. Not even post-war USA may count as a decent token of the former type of economy, at least according to Ronheimer, who compares them to the historical champion of cartel-friendly organised capitalism, i.e. Germany (cf. McGowan, 2010).

Any firm, trenchant scientific evaluation of the historical experience of concrete societies seems therefore less and less likely, at least if we take Rhonheimer’s considerations seriously, for we lack clear referents for the key-terms of “market” and “socialist” economies.

 

5. Non-existence

The distance from concrete societies increases further whenever liberals like Rhonheimer assert that the “free market” is an ideal, i.e. something that does not truly exist in reality (I shall not dwell on the contradiction entailed by the claim that he makes about free markets having existed worldwide only for a brief period of time). In other words, it is a purely theoretical construct, an empirical impossibility, for the human being is actually incapable of operating according to it. Perfect markets as such, in whatever Hyperuranus they may be located, are therefore not to be blamed for crises, unemployment or whatever other misfortune may befall upon us. People are. The former are not around. The latter are.

Liberals seem not to notice the troublesome logical implications of such an approach, for not only does it mean that there is no clear empirical evidence that free markets are the one and only way to prosperity, but also that there cannot be any, for they have never been truly present, since they are not suited to “the human condition” (15).

Moreover, liberals do not seem generally to notice that their approach is analogous to that of many 20th-century Marxist zealots who, when confronted with the failures of Eastern Europe’s “real socialism”, argued that their theory was correct, since its practice alone had failed, given various and varying human flaws. In short, no amount of contrary evidence could disprove their stance.

 

6. Unfalsifiability

The Marxist zealots’ case leads us to the most fundamental and most intractable logical knot of the liberal position with regard to the markets’ unique ability to generate prosperity.  If (a) the genuine “free market” cannot be established, for it is a theoretical construct inconsistent with “the human condition”; and if (b) the actual historical experience of what is commonly referred to as the “free market” or “capitalism”, i.e. the history of mostly Western developed countries over the past three centuries, is one of considerably imperfect applications involving significant elements of State intervention and ownership (e.g. post-bellic Germany and USA), why is the market necessarily responsible for wealth and, to some extent, well-being, whereas significant State intervention and ownership are not? Why not the two of them together, on a par? Or why not either of them, depending on the specific circumstances of each particular case, duly investigated by means of close historical, economic, medical, sociological, anthropological, environmental and axiological analyses? Principled comparisons are possible, but they must rest on solid empirical ground. And why should we ignore other factors altogether, such as gifted individuals, fortunate circumstances, scientific discoveries, cheap energy sources, literacy levels, or religious dispositions? Must it be always the markets that save the day?

By his own account and qualifications, Rhonheimer has no real answer to these questions. Quite simply, he states his thesis and uses it to read history so as to be allowed to state it. In other words, Rhonheimer is assuming a priori that the “free market” produces necessarily wealth and, to some extent, wellbeing. By means of that assumption he then proceeds to read human history as its verification—State-led development, recurrent crises, environmental degradation and social tragedies notwithstanding. Verification is open; falsification is not. This is a profound methodological flaw not just in Rhonheimer’s essay, but also in much economic thinking. In fact, it does begin with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and reaches its highest peak in laissez-faire economics, which argues that the “free market” is the necessary and sufficient condition for human prosperity. In all of its forms, it is an example of scientific unfalsifiability, or pseudo-science, for such an assumption, whereby “free markets” are bound to generate prosperity, admits of no counterevidence. Let me explain better how this unfalsifiability is the case:

 

  1. In the first place, insofar as it is assumed that unhindered markets bring about prosperity, if we do not have prosperity now, then we must simply wait and abstain from causing undue hindrance. As Christians and Marxists have long known, eschatology calls for patience; hence the recurrent phrases commonly attached to so-called “market reforms”: “in the long run”, “future generations”, “long-term benefits”, etc.
  2. Secondly, if waiting is not a credible option and we do not have prosperity yet, then we can always blame the government (e.g. ‘corruption’, ‘red tape’) or some dishonest private actors (e.g. ‘crony capitalism’, ‘State capture’ by special interests) for being unfaithful to the actual spirit of “free markets” and therefore causing hindrance. Markets fail not, people do—although one can legitimately wonder what markets may be if not people transacting with one another within a certain normative setting (cf. Barden & Murphy, 2010).
  3. Furthermore, insofar as Smith’s followers and ordoliberals à la Rhonheimer argue as well, though often reluctantly, for the desirability of some, however limited State intervention (e.g. Smith’s progressive taxation, Presbyterian-style education of the youth, public regulation of banks and mentally destructive working conditions; Eucken’s redressing of socially detrimental unfavourable market outcomes), they corner public authorities in a hopeless argumentative position. Given the starting point, growth and prosperity can always be seen as the result of the markets’ enduring degree of freedom—i.e. not of the State’s intervention—while crisis and misery can always be blamed onto the State—i.e. not onto the markets being actually unable to generate growth and prosperity.

 

Operating under such an assumption, markets can never be wrong, whatever environmental or social ills may have arisen. Thus, not only can prejudicial favour for the free market go on unchallenged. Also, if the markets do not deliver the promised bounty, the cure can be said to be only more of the same. Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what happens in Rhonheimer’s essay: “markets”, he writes, are “normally and as a matter of principle the solution” (12; emphasis in the original). And equally unsurprisingly, many leadings statesmen and politicians seek too more of the same (e.g. Italy’s PM Mario Monti, 2012).

 

Conclusion

Rhonheimer’s essay is fallacious, given the self-contradictory confusion that results from insisting upon the markets’ necessary beneficence whilst also piling up observations and qualifications that point precisely to the opposite conclusion. Like all analogous liberal assessments, it is built upon an unfalsifiable hypothesis that makes liberals highly unlikely to:

  

(a) Read historical experience in ways that may render more complex or contradict the original assumption (e.g. Earth-wide ecologic collapse, recurrent crises, continuing unemployment, the wasteful failure of most enterprises and products launched every year, successful development by public planning of industrial production or strategic public subsidies), so as to acknowledge that capitalism à la Galbraith is at work and, though driven by the same principles of the “free market” (e.g. growth, market confidence), it is not necessarily beneficial to societies at large and must be therefore integrated, constrained and/or contrasted by other principles (e.g. sustainability, human rights; cf. Polanyi, 1944)

 

(b) Avoid engaging in pseudo-scientific ad hoc explanations, or de facto exculpations, so as not to revise the original assumption (e.g. people fail markets and not vice versa; the State’s pro-market legislation, liberalisations and privatisations are to blame, for they were erroneous, corrupt or insufficient; State institutions are to blame for financial crashes, because of some minor change in the laws that unleashed an otherwise impossible flood of private greed; Mexican, Korean, Russian, Icelandic…, X culture or human nature itself is not suited for the actual application of the “free market” and therefore leads to its historical failure)

 

(c) Envision different, hybrid, pragmatic, contingent or case-specific solutions to economic problems (e.g. mixed economies; voluntary communes, cooperatives and social enterprises; State ownership of crucial assets qua cost-abating fourth factor of production; Georgist taxation of economic rent from natural resources; constructive cooperation with cartels and oligopolies; ecologically sound rationing in view of gradual retreat from the environment and life-sustaining de-growth)

 

(d) Conceive of possible major alternatives, whether based on past experiences (e.g. monastic communities, the Israeli kibbutzim) or untested and novel ones. Human freedom entails creativity and change that cannot be predicted in advance. (cf. Castoriadis, 1998)

 

(f) Realise clearly that by assuming the markets’ beneficence as necessary, promoting freedom to trade as paramount and reinforcing scepticism vis-à-vis public intervention and regulation, liberals make it more difficult, if not impossible, to discriminate effectively between good and bad growth, good and bad market confidence, good and bad markets, and good and bad goods. Thus, ecologically and biologically destructive economic growth keeps being pursued instead of growth in life-capacity alone; wealthy investors’ desiderata keep being prioritised over the life-needs and related demands of deprived local communities; and cigarettes, junk foods, armaments and speculative assets keep being traded because profitable (cf. McMurtry, 2013).

In nuce, the fictional notion of free markets impinges upon reality by buttressing in theory and fostering in practice unfettered capitalism, which has led to disastrous results on economic, social and environmental levels. Yet none of them is blamed upon free markets, since free markets are already assumed to be the paramount way to prosperity, with all good results numbered as proofs of this assumption and all bad results blinkered out—the self-enclosing frame of mind behind all possible interpretations of past and present experiences. Blame for the disastrous results is, in turn, shifted onto other agents, especially the State, on which the near-totality of free-markets adherents first of all depend and the limited intervention of which, albeit grudgingly, they require. It is then easy to use the State as the scapegoat whenever things do not work out as the doctrine assumes they must. And since things do not work out the way they should, then more free market, hence more unfettered capitalism, can be the only answer within such a closed metaphysical circle, which reduces from the beginning all possible solutions to itself.

Yet there is more. Given how pervasive the hypothesis at iusse has been, it follows that politics, policies and entire academic programmes have been built upon a fundamentally unscientific assumption. I do not object to having unscientific assumptions. Indeed, some of the most important dimensions of human existence are built upon unscientific assumptions, such as intimate love and religious life. I do object to doing so, though, and not admitting it. Were liberal economists to state that they offer an essentially religious interpretation of reality, based upon some successful partial instantiations—analogous to the proofs of reasonability of scholastic theology—and the hope that the markets left largely unhindered may provide us with prosperity, then they would be intellectually honest. They could follow in the steps of Richard Rorty (1998), who advocates political liberalism qua civil religion of democracy. They would be consistent with Friedrich Hayek’s (1992) characterisation of the market order as “transcendent” and analogous to the religious one in assuming that its own unfathomable will, “not mine” i.e. humankind’s, “be done” (72). They would be reminiscent of the likely Providential character of Adam Smith’s (1776, IV.ii.9) “invisible hand” (e.g. Oslington, 2011).

But economic liberals do not. Economics textbooks say nothing of the sort. They assume the free markets’ existence, which is itself empirically doubtful and at best historically limited, assume away any flaw by way of a priori methodological perfection, and ascribe to them the necessary generation of human prosperity, whatever contrary evidence there has been in human experience, such as State-led development (e.g. Communist China), prosperous cartel-intensive economies (e.g. Bismark’s Germany), the collapse of the first age of market globalisation (1870s-1914) and the ensuing Great War and Great Depression, the booming populations of 20th-century socialist nations (e.g. USSR), or the on-going worldwide depletion of natural and human systems upon which “the life and health of the billions [are] supported” (Hayek, 1992: 75). Their reticence and assumption are not only unscientific; they are also unprofessional. In truth, they are a nothing less than a lie. And lying is, under normal circumstances, unethical.

 

 

References

 

Barden, G. & Murphy, T. (2010), Law and Justice in Community, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Baruchello, G. & Johnstone, R.L. (2011), “Rights and Value. Construing the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as Civil Commons”, Studies in Social Justice, 5(1), 91-125.

 

Boldizzoni, F. (2011), The Poverty of Clio, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

 

Castoriadis, C. (1997), “The ‘Rationality’ of Capitalism”, Figures of the Thinkable, available at http://www.notbored.org/FTPK.pdf

 

Castoriadis, C. (1998), The Imaginary Institution of Society, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

 

Galbraith, J. K. (2004), The Economics of Innocent Fraud, Boston: Allen Lane.

 

Hayek, F.A. (1992), Collected Works, vol. I, London: Routledge.

 

Hintikka, J. et al. (eds. 1981), Theory Change, Ancient Axiomatics, and Galileo’s Methodology, vol. I, Leiden: Springer.

 

Hudson, M. (2012), The Bubble and Beyond, Dresden: Islet.

 

Itkadmin (2007). Inuit Recommend Changes to Canadian Environmental Protection Act, Inuit Nunangat: Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

 

McGowan, L. (2010) The Antitrust Revolution in Europe: Exploring the European Commission’s Cartel Policy, Cheltenham, UK & Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

 

McMurtry, J. (1999; 2nd ed. 2013), The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, London: Pluto.

 

Monti, M. (2012, 10 September) “Italy to return to growth in 2013”, Reuters, available at http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/10/italy-gdp-idUSL1E8KAH6720120910

 

Oslington,P. (2011), Adam Smith as Theologian, London: Routledge.

Polanyi, K. (2001/1944), The Great Transformation, Boston: Beacon. 

Rhonheimer, M. (2012), “Capitalism, Free Market Economy, and the Common Good: the Role of State Authorities in the Economic Sector”, first chapter in Martin Schlag & Juan Andrés Mercado (eds.), Free Markets and the Culture of Common Good, Dordrecht: Springer.

 

Rorty, R. (1998), Achieving Our Country, Harvard: Harvard University Press.

 

Samuelson, P. (2008), “È’ l’ultimo regalo dell’era  Bush“, La Repubblica, retrieved from http://rassegna.governo.it/testo.asp?d=33912628

 

Sarkozy, N. (2008, 23 October), “Morta ideologia della dittatura dei mercati”, La Repubblica. retrieved from http://www.repubblica.it

 

Sloman, J. (2006), Economics, 6th ed., Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

 

Smith, A. (1776/1904), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations available at http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html

 

Tremonti, G. (2012), Uscita di sicurezza, Milan: Rizzoli.

 

Vegas, G. (2012, 14 May), “Vegas: ‘C’e’ il rischio dittatura dello spread’”, Il Sole 24 Ore, retrieved from http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/finanza-e-mercati/2012-05-14/relazione-consob-vegas-lancia-110722.shtml?uuid=AbXHvNcF

 

 

 



[1] All translations are mine, unless stated otherwise.

[2] I have published a critical essay of this volume in the fourth 2012 issue of Economics, Management and Financial Markets.

[3] On this point, the UN’s Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has long espoused an aim-driven approach: the specific economic system of each member nation is not important, as long as human rights are protected, respected and fulfilled (cf. Baruchello & Johnstone, 2011).

Giulio Tremonti, Uscita di sicurezza (Milan: Rizzoli, 2012)

The first chapter of the book (19-41) discusses the “three tragic errors” (19; all translations mine) that led to the current international economic crisis, that is to say:

 

(a) the blind faith in financial globalisation as a path to prosperity that caused Western political leaders not to acknowledge either the nature or the magnitude of the 2008 financial crisis, thus misinterpreting it as a sheer downswing of a normal business cycle;

 

(b) the same leaders’ willingness to rescue the world’s de facto bankrupt financial giants instead of liquidating them and substituting them with public banks; not doing so meant socialising private losses that have escalated into the alleged sovereign debt crisis (i.e. as though the crisis were public rather than private in essence);

 

(c) the same leaders’ irresponsible and subservient decision to allow the de facto bankrupt financial giants to see to the much-needed task of writing new global rules on the products and modalities of virtual trade, which have translated since then into “finance dictating its own rules to the governments” (35).

 

 

The second chapter (43-56) tackles the history of the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, so as to reveal the thorough shift in overall economic value and political influence from the real economy to the virtual one or, as Tremonti dubs it, from a “productive economy” to a “speculative” one (14). The third chapter (57-66) sketches an insightful and at times humorous picture of the utter disconnection between the aims of the “speculative economy” and those of the real economy, upon which rest the livelihoods and lives of billions of human beings. The fourth chapter (67-76) denounces the complete failure of mainstream economics and leading economic institutions to foresee, forestall and address effectively the ongoing crisis. Not only does he criticise the majority of professional economists, who have lost sight of the real world in lieu of the abstract realm of deductive models. Also, Tremonti criticises the private rating agencies and the Bank of International Settlements’ (BIS) Basil Committee and Financial Stability Board. These emanations of the BIS have been characterised by a “hypertrophy” (69) of official guidelines and recommendations that have been not solely egregiously ineffective, but also a proud display of obtuseness, given that they dare suggest, for one, that banks and financial institutions should follow the “best practices… of the hedge funds” (69; emphasis removed) involved in the “speculative economy” of the planet.

  

 

The fifth chapter (77-86) flags out the European Union’s (EU) structural deficiencies in managing and protecting its rather young new currency, the Euro, which the “American will to power” has possibly targeted as a threatening rival to the US dollar qua “reserve currency of the world” (84). While assessing such deficiencies, Tremonti highlights the profound political character of the EU’s economic policies, which are regularly depicted as sheer technical issues. The sixth chapter (87-92) dwells further on Europe’s systemic weaknesses and so does the seventh (93-8), which offers a masterfully concise yet insightful overview of European economic history. The overall picture that the author offers to his readers is one in which all European countries are inextricably interconnected and bound to succeed or fail together. According to Tremonti, the age of national self-interest and isolationism belongs to the past. Consistently, he argues that Europe would be better off, and certainly more likely to cope with crises like the current one, by seeking a higher degree of integration than a lesser one.  

 

 

The eighth chapter (99-106) recalls Tremonti’s first-hand experiences at a number of highest-level 2010 gatherings of EU State officials, who were not able to buttress the Euro with adequate defence policies and financial instruments. The ninth chapter (107-20) deepens the analysis of the EU’s inadequacies vis-à-vis its own currency. The tenth chapter (121-30) adds to the previous one a number of considerations on the positive and negative aspects of the policies promoted as well as opposed by the EU’s leading member, i.e. Germany.

 

 

The eleventh chapter (131-49) discusses four hypotheses on what is likely to lie ahead for the EU, depending on the decisions that its member States will take or fail to take in the near future:

 

(a) waiting passively for its demise;

 

(b) separating weaker and stronger areas within it;

 

(c) reorganising the EU and providing it with new and better instruments, such as a more flexible Central Bank and the Eurobond;

 

(d) advancing a “New Alliance” between Europe’s nations, along the lines of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

  

 

The twelfth chapter (151-63) articulates and explores the implications of the fourth hypothesis, which Tremonti favours. Although he opposes an inflationary way out of the sovereign debt crisis, which resulted from a suicidal subservience of the world’s government to the banking industry, Tremonti does believe that co-ordinated action by the same governments could lead to a positive solution. The thirteenth and final chapter (165-84) explains in finer detail Tremonti’s “exit strategy” (151), which builds upon three pillars:

 

(a) “placing the State above finance and finance under the State” (167);

 

(b) “letting rules prevail over the anarchy” of finance, as done in the past with the Bretton Woods agreements (173);

 

(c) “launching great public investment projects for the sake of the common good”, thus following in this case the example and the wisdom of the age of Keynesianism (177) or, to find cases that are closer to us in time, the unorthodox economic policies of Malaysia in 1998 and, to a lesser extent, Iceland in 2008-12. 

 

 

The book comprises a closing appendix (187-260) containing several intriguing reflections and original documents, including a 2008 letter written by Tremonti to the then French Minister of the Economy, Industry and Labour, Christine Lagarde, i.e. today’s director of the International Monetary Fund  (IMF; 187-97). Excerpts from his previous book, La paura e la speranza – Europa: la crisi globale che si avvicina e la via per superarla (Milan: Mondadori, 2008 [Fear and Hope – Europe: The Approaching Global Crisis and the Way to Overcome It]) are also published in the closing appendix. These excerpts remind the reader of the progression of Tremonti’s criticism of financial globalisation. Over the years, he moved:

 

(A) away from his earlier positive acceptance of the new economic world order (cf. his contribution to the book Nazioni senza ricchezza, ricchezze senza nazione, co-authored with Galgano, Cassese and Treu; Bologna: Il Mulino, 1993 [Nations without Wealth, Wealth without Nation]),

 

(B) towards a less serene reading of its implications for Europe at first (cf. Rischi fatali – L’Europa vecchia, la Cina, il mercatismo suicida: come reagire, Milan: Mondadori, 2005 [Fatal Risks – Old Europe, China, Suicidal Market Freedom: How to Respond])

 

(C) and, eventually, for the entire world.

  

 

The book is complemented by a dedicated website, which readers can access in order to discuss select topics in contact with the author himself. However, the book as such lacks a comprehensive list of references and a critical apparatus of scholarly notes. As a consequence, the reader of this volume is left to speculate about the sources of Tremonti’s current views and the inspirers of the revision of his older, much more mainstream positions. These positions are exemplified not only by the publication cited above, but also by the finance-friendly policies that he promoted qua Italy’s Minister of Economy and Finance in the 1990s and early 2000s.

 

 

Minor imperfections notwithstanding, it is highly unusual and equally significant that Tremonti’s book be so open and so forceful in denouncing how a global “financial élite has been left to hold power’s reins” (40) on the international stage. Combined with the severity of the ongoing economic crisis, Tremonti claims this power shift to be morphing into nothing less than “financial fascism, white fascism” (14 & 120; emphasis removed). This new form of fascism would be the consequential, most undemocratic expression of the dangerous “monster” unleashed by globalisation, as Tremonti characterises it, that is to say, a “financial market, based upon a powerful and dominating ideology, which tends towards the annihilation of the best part of human nature, reducing life to the economic sphere, and the economic sphere to finance… devouring us and eventually devouring itself.” (8). For Tremonti, behind the threatening power structure bringing forth “white fascism” lurks a life-blind, economicistic reductionism that prevents the most valuable dimensions of human existence from being considered, respected or promoted. Grave conceptual inabilities thus reflect onto the real world, causing havoc and suffering.

  

 

Tremonti’s book highlights how the paramount guiding principle in the economic order that has been built under the banner of “globalisation” is whatever profit the accountant may jot down in the books of a corporate firm. Everything else, if perceived in any measure, does not seem to matter much, whether it is the environment, the welfare of families and children, well-established industrial networks, centuries-old cultures, or even Western democracy itself. This chilling axiology is commonly revealed each and every time political leaders do not describe their paramount task as fulfilling their constitutionally mandated duties to the citizenry, but rather as “reassuring the markets”, “reducing the spread” levels, making or keeping a country “competitive”, or “attractive to business” and to “foreign investors”. However, the analyses offered in Tremonti’s book spell out in their complexity the profoundly un- and anti-democratic implications of such business-oriented interpretations of political life. This interpretation has been embodied by a long series of either myopic or conniving political leaders that opened the door, over the past “twenty years” (27), to the actual marginalisation of representative institutions. Even the German philosopher Juergen Habermas, usually quite cautious and rather indirect in his public statements, has described in 2011 the EU’s “embedded capitalism” as “post-democracy”. Oligarchy, not democracy, is the name of the game. The representative institutions of many nations have been overtaken by a technostructure emanating in primis from the world’s largest financial holdings. As Tremonti remarks, for instance, just nine such holdings have come to dominate today’s US financial market and exercise an enormous influence over US politics and policies (38). And if “oligarchy” is too mild a descriptor for this sort of reality, the English-language brochures of Tremonti’s book include a subtitle that makes use of an even stronger one: “tyranny” (12). What is more, this tyrannical oligarchy has proved even more myopic than the national governments permitting its affirmation over the past two decades, since the world’s largest financial holdings have been patently unable to operate sound business models and caused their own collapse in 2008. Still, as their gravy train came to a sudden halt, these incompetent financial holdings have nevertheless succeeded in compelling the world’s governments and central banks to operate as their pork-barrel and rescue them from themselves. This rescue operation has been conducted whilst withdrawing much-needed resources from the domains of real-economy credit and public services. No clearer instance of their overwhelming power could be given.

 

 

That Tremonti may call this power as the path leading to “fascism” should not be entirely surprising: this is the sort of private power over public institutions that none less than F.D. Roosevelt decried in 1938 as quintessential to “fascism” (cf. Luciano Gallino, Con i soldi degli altri, Milan: Einaudi, 2009, p.i [With Other People’s Money]). After many years spent (A) preaching about market discipline via their associated think-tanks, opportunistic academics, affiliated journalists or privately funded university chairs; as well as (B) after lobbying successfully for de-regulation and reduced State intervention in the economy, the State was called in by the largest financial holdings in order to fix their own failures and let them continue to operate as recklessly as before. All the mantra-like principles of ‘competition’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘toughness’, ‘merit’, ‘efficiency’ and the ‘invisible hand’ were forgotten overnight in favour of the very visible hand of State aid and State protection – though seemingly reserved for such financial ‘giants’ only. Schools, hospitals, scientific research, public housing and poverty relief programmes, national opera companies and local cultural centres had been starved of funds for decades, under the banner of ‘free markets’, ‘business-friendliness’ and ‘liberalisation’. Now, they keep being starved. In 2008, as Tremonti’s book candidly observes, the world witnessed a glaring contradiction between the words and the deeds of the so-called ‘masters of the universe’; a contradiction that shows the sort of impunity that truly powerful hypocrites can enjoy.

 

 

It should be noted that these hypocrites are in great part the same managerial class that regularly pay themselves stellar salaries and huge bonuses irrespective of performance, whilst opposing better salaries to the average employee for the microeconomic sake of remaining competitive and the macroeconomic imperative of price stability. Somehow, as John Kenneth Galbraith stated long ago while distinguishing between actual economic behaviour and the fictional one presumed by the ‘science’ of economics, market discipline is always expected of others, never of oneself (Sapere tutto o quasi sull’economia, Milan: Mondadori, 2000/1979 [To Know Everything, Almost, About the Economy]). As he kept recording proofs of this fundamental distinction over the years, glaring contradictions emerge at every level of the actual business world (cf. The Economics of Innocent Fraud, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004). Thus, one can still see how MBA students are taught to praise the pioneering entrepreneurial individual above and against any corrupting State interference. Once employed, the same students are required to lobby State representatives of all kinds, under the banner of public-private partnerships. This way, public money is to be spent on hefty commissions for their corporate masters, which have been known to profit enormously and, in the case of Galbraith’s USA, especially from the most evident form of State interference into the lives of private individuals: warfare. The same MBA students are taught to respect consumer sovereignty and admire the way in which it determines production and prices. Later on, these students are employed alongside the most ingenious minds that society can offer in order to survey, predict, condition, programme and brand, like slaves of old, actual consumers. Similarly, any MBA student can soon distinguish between the private sector and the public sector, typically equating the former with positive notions (e.g. efficiency, discipline) and the latter with negative notions (e.g. inefficiency, corruption). Later on, nearly all of them serve in corporate bureaucracies, whose heads command crucial State institutions through a system of campaign funding, advertising strategies, media ownership, legal advice, scientific lobbying, capital strikes, kickbacks and revolving doors. Competition and merit may be said to be the Northern Star of the market system, hence of progress and well-being. Still, even if progress and well-being were its actual by-product, in the real market economies:

 

(A) wealthy shareholders care not about their businesses as long as they get their dividends;

 

(B) managers pay themselves stellar salaries and bonuses irrespective of performance;

 

(C) entrepreneurs seek and obtain by hook or crook any special legislation that they may wish in order to be sheltered from more efficient competitors; and

 

(D) workers follow their bosses’ example by unionising so as to enjoy stable and well-paying jobs without having to be productive.

 

Unsurprisingly, after at least two centuries of market economies, progress and well-being remain elusive for a lot of people.

 

 

Some of the contradictions highlighted by Galbraith and discussed in the previous paragraph do surface in the new volume by Tremonti. Nevertheless, his focus remains fixed upon the one between former claims about the financial markets’ beneficial ‘freedom’ from State ‘interference’ and the subsequent involvement of the State to save the financial markets from their own incompetence. Within this area of analysis, Tremonti’s book reveals another glaring and important contradiction, that is to say, the one concerning the actual liquidity available on the global market and the recurrent notion — aired by politicians, pundits and media outlets alike — according to which there is no money (esp. 29-31). Tremonti remarks that, due to many years of low interest rates by the world’s main central banks, liquid capital was already far from scarce before the 2008 crisis. After 2008, the world has become awash with money. Specifically, an ocean of cheap fiat money has been created via special subsidies and credit lines, quantitative easing programmes and further various ‘liquidity injections’ by the most important central banks, whose coffers could become so generous thanks only to the States’ unprecedented and promptest emission of novel waves of public debt. These central banks, sanctioned by governments and visibly forgetful of their public functions, have therefore assisted the world’s overindebted gargantuan private banks to stay afloat in spite of their own recklessness (following Tremonti, I am using here the term “bank” quite loosely, for it applies also to institutional investors, very high net value individuals, and the most important financial managers). Indeed, their recklessness has been allowed to go unpunished as well as to grow further through ensuing and enduring waves of speculation, which have included speculation upon the very debt of those States that saved such inept private banks from themselves.

 

 

No drop of this flood of cheap fiat money has reached either the productive structures of the world, i.e. most firms and households, or the States’ own budgets, upon which depend vital programmes for the poor, the elderly, the infirm and the youth. The former received no credit from private banks that were too afraid of one another and of the mess that they had created to lend anything to anyone. The latter have long self-emasculated by granting boundless freedom of movement to private capital — including from and to tax havens — and by setting up finance-friendly fiscal systems. Thus, firms, households and States have been hit by a deadly drought during a Biblical flood. Tremonti does not say much of the well-paid sycophants of the dominating banks that have resisted any alternative course of action, for such a course could create inflation, which is taken to be the worst of all evils under any circumstance. Inflation, though potentially eating away the accumulated debt that strangles today’s “productive” economy, would also reduce the value of the assets listed on the books of the banks entangled within the “speculative” economy — and the banks wouldn’t like that. Rather, Tremonti remarks that, given the nature of the response to the crisis, enterprises have been forced into extinction, jobs destroyed, social programmes slashed, poverty and destitution increased, while those chiefly responsible for the ongoing crisis have often avoided bankruptcy, returned to profit and further concentrated their control over the world’s capitals, both financial and political. In short, national sovereignty, genuine economic prosperity, human wellbeing and actual lives have been sacrificed to the whims of a handful of ruthless gamblers playing a dangerous game in what Tremonti terms a “financial casino” (16), thus recalling Keynes’ famous indictment of reckless speculators in his 1947 General Theory (16 n4).

  

 

That such a high-profile member of the world’s political élite, indeed one associated with Italy’s liberal and conservative parties, may use so strong a language should lead us all to ponder.

 

 

First of all, Tremonti’s choice of words reveals deepest preoccupations about the composition and the reliability of the international power structure. Not only is it clear for Tremonti that democracy has been side-stepped, if not suspended altogether. Also, it has not been replaced by an alternative system that can deliver any concrete wellbeing to the world’s populations. Despotism is back and it is not an enlightened one.

 

 

Secondly, such a choice of words reveals that major political leaders of the world, with whom Tremonti himself co-operated throughout the 1990s and 2000s, did accomplish to a significant extent the demise of forms of democratic self-government that Tremonti hails as the mark of distinction and honour of the Western nations. Rather than defending or promoting them, these political leaders, whom Tremonti does not name individually and describes as feigning knowledge of the financial universe, allowed a silent take-over by the planet’s banking giants. This is no small incident or institutional faux pas. Indeed, Tremonti writes of a present “financial autocracy” (168) begetting a future “white fascism” (14 & 120) headed by the same financiers.

 

 

However, Tremonti is not the first one to have done so. The bankers’ tacit coup d’état had already been denounced in the 1990s and the 2000s by a few scholars and fewer dissenting politicians, whom mainstream academia and mass media had however either neglected or accused of ‘radicalism’ and ‘incompetence’. Intellectuals like Cornelius Castoriadis (cf. Figures of the Thinkable, Paris: notbored.org, 2005), Eduardo Galeano (cf. Upside Down, New York: Picador, 2000) and John McMurtry (cf. The Cancer Stage of Capitalism, London: Pluto, 1999), or political ‘eccentrics’ like Oskar Lafontaine and Mahathir Mohamad had long been right on at least some crucial issues, such as the establishment of a finance-centred worldwide oligarchy, the life-threatening effects of financial globalisation, and the mainstream economists’ trained incapacity to address either of them as major factors of actual economic life as well as of economic instability. Tremonti, who started expressing some degree of concern over these phenomena in the early 2000s, has eventually come to agree with long-time neglected and/or loathed ‘incompetents’ and ‘radicals’ who had been, so it would seem today, right.

 

 

History’s lessons notwithstanding, and despite the ongoing economic crisis and its aetiology, most countries are still resorting to the alleged wisdom and leadership of the same agents that were in power while the maelstrom was in the making. For example, institutions like the IMF and the BIS had been promoting international financialisation for decades and yet they enjoy today even more clout upon the world’s governments than they did before the crisis. Treasury secretaries and national central bankers that sponsored massive waves of speculation for twenty years, or that reassured the world about the international financial system’s ability to self-manage without State interference, have been promoted to more prestigious positions. Revealingly, as a member of Italy’s governing cabinet, Tremonti conflicted on several occasions with the president of the Bank of Italy, former Goldman Sachs vice chairman Mario Draghi, who serves today as president of the European Central Bank. Re-regulation of the banking industry, which had successfully lobbied for de-regulation in the decades preceding the 2008 collapse, has been mostly postponed and generally left in the hands of the very same industry that should be bound by it. Can we expect anything good from this perplexing decision of the world’s leaders? Tremonti does not, and laments: “Five years after the explosion of the crisis, if we consider and add together the little and often damaging actions that have been taken, as well as all the inaction that has occurred, it is clear that its causal factors have not only persisted, but increased” (70).

 

 

To make things worse, mainstream newspapers and media outlets seem to have forgotten Lehman Brothers, the deadly bubble of “toxic assets” and, in general, where exactly the crisis comes from. Rather than addressing the fountainhead of all problems, public debates have veered away from the “financial casino” deplored by Tremonti. Instead, they have been focussing upon particular effects of the casino itself, whether outstanding public debt during a recession or individual private frauds at Wall Street. Instead of denouncing the lethal and criminogenic character of the economic system established by the financial oligarchy and their obedient political servants, journalists and pundits have been attacking what little is left of the welfare State as ‘unsustainable’ and particular criminals as dangerous black sheep (e.g. Bernard Madoff). Whether this shift of the media’s spotlight is the direct result of the pervasive power of the “financial autocracy” (168) denounced by Tremonti, or yet another sign of a bourgeoning “financial fascism” (14 & 120), is something that the book does not address. 

 

 

These unanswered questions notwithstanding, it must be acknowledged that Tremonti’s book, alongside a growing number of publications on global economic trends, does highlight how much need there is on the planet for an “emergency exit” like the one that he announces in the title. Whether this exit will be taken is not yet clear. The grip of the financial oligarchy upon the nations’ governments and many super-national institutions is still very tight, as exemplified by the recessive austerity and deflationary anti-labour policies implemented after the 2008 crisis all over the EU. Banks on the verge of bankruptcy were granted lifelines. Citizens were told to tighten their belts. Autocracy, not to mention fascism, was never a paper tiger; why should it be so in the 21st century? 

 

 

That an emergency exit may eventually be taken, however, is possible. Signs of forthcoming change abound. Many of them are far from reassuring. Growing unemployment, popular protests, the resurgence of terrorism, looming wars in the middle East as politically viable spending programmes, diplomatic tensions within the EU, BRIC’s complaints about currency wars initiated by Western countries, and the electoral success of xenophobic parties in civil Finland and France cast dark shadows upon the future of Europe and of the world at large. The emergency exit awaiting us may be a truly dramatic one. Though terrifying, this is no surprising possibility. World War I followed the first prolonged global experiment in free capital trade (i.e. 1870s-1914; cf. Michael D. Bordo, “The Globalization of Financial Markets: What Can History Teach Us?“, 2000), whilst World War II (WWII) concluded the Great Depression that was begotten by Wall Street’s ‘roaring twenties’ crashing down upon the notorious ‘black Friday’ of 1929. The night of finance is the mother of social nightmares.

 

 

On his part, Tremonti offers an exit that is civilised, not only because it does not rely on State violence for its accomplishment, but also because it calls upon the world’s governments to be “leaders” once again, rather than “followers” of the “financial economy”, and therefore regain the awareness of the civic function that is expected of them by constitutional mandate (22). No longer must power be left to “ventriloquists of finance, lobbyists, replicants according to the liturgy of the mercantile word and financial orthodoxy” (23). States can and actually ought to play a much more significant role, also with regard to the economic sphere, as indicated by the third pillar of his exit strategy. Tremonti believes that today’s political class must learn to resemble “the old political leaders [of the post-WWII era], forged in social struggles, ideological conflicts, human adventures, even incarceration and wars; but capable, because of this, of deciding for better or worse upon the destiny, the future, the fate of their peoples.” (22 n5). 

  

 

Politicians of formally democratic nations can be corruptible and even loathsome at times, yet they must respond, in the end, to their peoples. International financiers must not; at best, they may have to respond to their largest shareholders, who are anyway a tiny proportion of the world’s population and are frequently deprived of any genuine instrument to restrain the managers’ self-serving control of the actual firms (cf. John Kenneth Galbraith, The Economics of Innocent Fraud). Despite its imperfections, Tremonti does believe “democracy” to be the best political system available (168). Therefore, if democracy is going to have any meaning in the 21st century, power must be wrested away from the financial oligarchs and restored to constitutionally elected politicians, who themselves are to regain their forgotten ability and duty to lead. If this is not done, then we are likely to experience the full force of “financial fascism, white fascism” (14 & 120). The 2010s may be the new 1930s. As dramatic as it may sound, this is Tremonti’s warning and call to arms. Will anyone listen, or will he be discarded into the bin of those ‘radicals’ and ‘incompetents’ that were, however, right? Will his keen observation of economic phenomena be taken seriously, or will it be labelled ‘anecdotal’, ‘journalism’, ‘sociology’, ‘activism’ and ignored? History alone will tell.

 

Federico Sollazzo, Totalitarismo, democrazia, etica pubblica. Scritti di filosofia morale, filosofia politica, etica (Rome: Aracne, 2011)

In the first part, Sollazzo tracks recent evolutions in the theoretical and historical understanding of social and political control of human collectivities, such as: (1) “totalitarianism” (17) in the work of Vaclav Havel and his mentor Jan Patocka; (2) “system” (20) in that by Herbert Marcuse; (3) “terror” (25) in Max Horkheimer’s; (4) “stereotyped reasoning” (28) in Theodor Adorno’s; (5) “rationality deficit” (28) in Juergen Habermas’; (6) “empire” (30) in Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s (30); (7) and “culture” according to Pier Paolo Pasolini (34). This initial section is followed by an exposition of the philosophical anthropology of three great minds of the 20th century, namely Arnold Gehlen, Helmuth Plessner and Max Scheler. A common theme is retrieved in their thought about human nature and the human condition, that is, the uniqueness of humankind’s inextricable admixture of biological and psychical elements, which allow the human being to be part of nature as well as to transcend it through its “peculiar” (43) intellectual—for the first two authors—and spiritual—for the third—abilities. The ensuing chapter stresses the crucial role played by the species-wide biological and emotional make-up in providing a valid ground for the establishment of credibly universal philosophical anthropology and ethics. Remarkable is the attention paid to the notion of vital “needs” (47) as a stark and straightforward reminder of our common humanity. The field of ethics is further explored in a chapter devoted to communitarianism as a representative reaction to utilitarian individualism, which fails to acknowledge the deeply interpersonal preconditions for any meaningful human existence.

 

In the second part, Sollazzo explores the issue of totalitarianism with special reference to the seminal work of Hannah Arendt and her ability to perceive the totalitarian threat of numb conformism in modern mass cultures, and not just in the key examples of totalitarian regimes, namely Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. This line of analysis is deepened by means of a discussion of the notion of “bio-power” (84) and of different conceptions of totalitarianism beyond Arendt’s one, such as Marcuse’s, Horkeimer’s and Neumann’s. Sollazzo then returns to Arendt’s work and her study of the anonymous, grey “model citizen” (108) of modern societies, who is incapable of challenging the received views of her socio-political community and participates dutifully in whatever life-destructive systemic horror such received views may entail. This study is followed by a reflection on genuine democracy as Alexis de Tocqueville and Arendt would have it, so that model citizens be not as incapable of Socratic critical reflection as previously discussed. Considerations on democracy are furthered by a presentation of Karl Popper’s ideal of democracy as open society and his profound distrust for any “utopian engineering” (135) that may prevent tolerant coexistence of different worldviews in peaceful conversation with one another. Adorno, Norberto Bobbio and Zagrebelsky are then utiklised to criticise Popper’s seemingly wilful blindness to the darker areas of actual democratic communities, such as techno-scientific “chains” (150) to free human agency, dehumanising “mass conformism” (150), economic “commodification” (150) of human relations—including political ones—and “political apathy” (153). Zagrebelsky’s work is also utilised to assess the issues of social justice and human rights in allegedly democratic societies, whose enduring and entrenched inequalities fail regularly large sectors of the population.

 

The third part of the book opens with a survey of the so-called “rehabilitation of practical reason” in the German-speaking philosophical world of the 1960s and 1970s, especially with reference to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Habermas. The threat to social cohesion and human well-being emerging from pseudo-rational individualism is presented and then addressed in a chapter on leading libertarian thinkers, such as Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek. Bobbio and John Rawls are introduced and presented as attempts to rectify from within the liberal tradition the many weaknesses and blind spots of several libertarian stances. Communitarianism is addressed subsequently as an attempt to rectify them too, though this time from without the liberal tradition. Ferdinand Toennies, Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre are the pivotal references in this context. Amartya Sen is used eventually to propose a tolerant, pluralist form of communitarianism that describes cultural identities as inherently diverse, “always in fieri” (212) and analogous to an ever-shifting mosaic requiring the person’s free consent and critical self-reflection. The theme of a species-wide ground for life-enhancing social and political self-organisation is brought back in a chapter devoted to Hans Jonas and his call for human ethical responsibility vis-à-vis the planetary environment, which human ingenuity and techno-scientific advances are threatening as never before in human history. The final chapter outlines the understanding of human alterity in the works by Emmanuel Lévinas, Paul Ricoeur and Jacques Derrida.

 

The book is most erudite and shows how well-versed the author is in the works and terminology of the many thinkers that he cites and presents to the reader. Still, after reading the book, it is not clear what the author wished to accomplish with it, apart from charting a number of interesting issues and related reflections by famous thinkers. In short, the book has no clear thesis to offer. Also, the critical assessment of the thinkers tackled in the book varies considerably, thus a few thinkers are duly presented and equally criticised for what Sollazzo argues to be their theoretical weaknesses (e.g. Jonas), whilst others are just outlined and never criticised (e.g. Havel) or timidly rebuked in a few footnotes (e.g. Arendt). By this lack of critical evenness and courage, Sollazzo comes across as sharing claims by some of the thinkers that he refers to (e.g. Arendt’s negative assessment of the modern political emphasis upon human biological necessity) that do not sit well with those of other thinkers that he includes in his book (e.g. Jonas’ call for immediate global ethical responsibility in the face of the modern techno-scientific threat to the continuation of biological life on Earth). Analogously, it is not clear whether some rare yet conspicuously superficial analyses, such as the one that he provides about human rights (159-65), should be ascribed to him or to the thinkers that he makes use of therein. Specifically, as human rights are concerned, they are reduced to the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, which is claimed to be “universal, modern and Western” (163), as though there had never been thereafter any advancement, such as the actually binding sister covenants on civil and political rights on the one hand, and economic social and cultural rights on the other; or the pronunciations of the related United Nations’ human rights committes. Finally, the book would have benefitted from an analytical index and a bibliography.

 

Franceso Giacomantonio, Sociologia e sociosofia. Dinamiche della riflessione sociale contemporanea (Trieste: Asterios, 2012)

This task is humble, for the author explores the main tenets of well-established schools of thought within the recent history of this discipline and its closest cognates, such as social philosophy and socio-political theory. As such, the book is the shorter analogue of a common undergraduate textbook, since it touches upon the most influential theoreticians and traditions, highlights their crucial contributions and summarises their pivotal methodological and conceptual assumptions. The book’s task is equally bold, though, for it aims at bringing together a vast array of “giants”, whether major (e.g. Habermas) or lesser (e.g. Bauman), and offering an overall account of today’s sociology qua family of variously self-aware views of late modernity.

 

The book comprises an introduction, three chapters, and an epilogue.

Apart from outlining what is to follow, the introduction offers interesting considerations concerning the close relationship between sociology and philosophy, which is both the spring whence sociology came into existence and the sea that receives sociology’s deepest ethical, political, epistemological and ontological implications. Also, the introduction stresses sociology’s “theoretical polytheism” (17), meaning the pre-paradigmatic status of sociology as a science, whose many adherents have not come to an agreement upon the fundamental methodological and epistemological assumptions to be taught and utilised. Giacomantonio is not critical of this status that, for one, sociology shares with other social sciences too, such as psychology and economics, even if major efforts have been made therein over recent decades to attain the semblance of a paradigmatic status by preventing unorthodox specialists (e.g. Thorstein Veblen, Cornelius Castoriadis) and alternative schools of thought (e.g. critical economics, psychoanalysis) from receiving consideration within official academe and therefore survive within teaching curricula.

In the first chapter, Giacomantonio reviews “the condition of social thought today” (19) and surveys several conceptions of the fast-changing social meanings pertaining to reality, social relations, space (e.g. Marc Augè’s “non-places”, 22), time, knowledge, rationality and identity. The result is a picture of late modernity as a profoundly chaotic, individualistic, possessive and fear-driven age, which finds adequate representation in relativist conceptions of social phenomena, essentially sceptical scientific epistemologies (e.g. Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend), and case-specific applications of sociological skills and knowledge that eschew altogether larger theoretical knots.

In the second chapter, Giacomantonio furthers his account of the late modern age as a troublesome time obsessed with its own finitude, incapable of producing or believing in comprehensive theoretical systems, run by “the brutal imposition of economic interests” (45), pervaded by apocalyptic visions, anomie, alienation, numb hedonism, and deafened by the roaring sound of billions of meaningless words. If Marx, Simmel, Durkheim and Weber had already detected the malaise of the modern age, late modernity would seem to be in even poorer health.

The third chapter offers a tentative way out of the malaise: “sociosophy” (59). Its inspirers are Berger’s and Luckmann’s “social constructivism” (63), the “critical theory… of the Frankfurt School” (65) and Foucault’s “post-structuralism” (77). Together, these three inspirers provide Giacomantonio with a conception of human knowledge as irreducibly diverse—indeed polytheist—yet capable of constructive communication and caring. Thus, “articulation, openness, care” are the three pillars of Giacomantonio’s reconceptualisation of contemporary sociology as a sociosophy that, even if aware of its own epistemological limitations, can attempt to provide the modern mind with a modicum of social hence existential meaningfulness.

 

Giacomantonio’s account is most erudite. In particular, the first two chapters of his book provide the reader with an interesting map of several issues addressed by leading sociologists and social thinkers with regard to a number of troubling aspects of late modernity. The third chapter is somewhat perplexing, for sociosophy is outlined in so abstract terms that it is actually impossible to determine what it is. Indeed, abstractedness characterises the whole book, which never descends from the heights of theoretical speculation by providing, for instance, a concrete example, a token of practical application, or a reference to a particular episode or event. Any reader that is not well-versed in social theory is bound to find this short book (109 pages, bibliography included) a daunting challenge. The expert reader, instead, will have more than a chance for some serious reflection upon contemporary sociology and late modernity. 

 

Joseph Femia (ed.), Vilfredo Pareto (London: Ashgate, 2009)

However, apart from Pareto’s posthumous peak of fame in the 1930s and 1940s, when his work inspired a generation of scholars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, genuine engagement with his studies has been actually quite rare over recent decades. To most contemporary researchers, Pareto is primarily little else but a name in the “rosary” of great dead white men encountered during one’s undergraduate studies, and then a label for two mathematical notions that young academics must familiarise themselves with. Even Pareto’s crucial contribution to political science, namely his theory about the circulation of the elites, seems to be poorly known these days.

Perhaps, as Joseph Femia—editor of the volume hereby reviewed—suggests in his concise yet comprehensive introduction to the life and work of “the hermit of Céligny”, it is true that Pareto’s cynical notion of social equilibrium, his lack of faith in human progress and collective enlightenment, his elusion of the comfortable categories of normal science, and the overwhelming theoretical as well as historical analyses in which he indulged for the sake of scientific completeness, scholarly precision, intellectual integrity, and academic pedantry make of Pareto one of the least inspiring authors that ever reached the status of “classic” in any discipline.

Yet, several scholars of the 20th century did read his work, no matter how uninspiring, depressing, tedious and taxing it could be. And they did not only read it, but also recognised its remarkable character and its profound insightfulness. In particular, many seemed to find Pareto’s work extremely appealing in connection with the general decline in individual liberty, social wellbeing and collective hope informing the aftermath of the First World War and of the ensuing boom-bust financial cycle of the 1920s, which unleashed the Great Depression and the affirmation of fascist regimes all over Continental Europe.

Some scholars, albeit fewer than in the inter-war grim interlude, have kept finding Pareto congenial after that time. Amongst them, Femia has proved himself to be one of today’s main experts on Pareto within Anglophone academia. In addition to the volume reviewed hereby, to him we owe two further recent books on Pareto: Pareto and Political Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006) and Beyond Disciplinary Boundaries (London: Ashgate, 2012). Whereas the former, as the title indicates, focuses upon the work of Pareto as a political thinker, the latter, co-edited with Alasdair Marshall, explores the ramifications of Pareto’s contribution for contemporary areas of inquiry, whether sociological (e.g. stratification research), economic (e.g. monetary issues) or humanistic (e.g. rhetorical reasoning).

The 2009 volume that Femia edits comprises three parts, each containing essays on Pareto by variously influential scholars of the 20th century. Specifically, Part I focuses upon methodological aspects of Pareto’s contribution to the social sciences, most notably sociology rather than economics, written in the 1930s and 1960s. Part II explores broader aspects of his social theory and includes studies written between the 1960s and 1990s. Two of them deserve a special mention, i.e. “Vilfredo Pareto’s Sociology in his Letters to Maffeo Pantaleoni” and “Introduction to Pareto’s Sociology” (pp. 67—87 and 89—112), for they were authored by Italy’s leading liberal thinker Norberto Bobbio and constitute a sort of “classics” in Italian Pareto studies. Noteworthy is also “Pareto, Vilfredo: Contributions to Sociology” (pp. 171—80), written by US action theorist Talcott Parsons, who is probably the most famous heir of Pareto’s in the Anglophone world. Part III discusses Pareto’s politics, especially with regard to English-speaking countries, and offers reflections over the last three decades of the 20th century by, inter alia, Nobel-prize economist Amartya Sen (“The Impossibility of a Paretan Liberal”, pp. 267—72) as well as Joseph Femia himself (“Pareto and the Critique of Justice”, pp. 317—29). All together, these essays represent the most articulate introduction to Pareto’s social and political thought, as well as its reception over the past 70 years, currently available in the English language.

What is more, given the high quality of the scholarly work selected by the editor, such an introduction avoids the unfortunate yet widespread oversimplifications and blatantly erroneous depictions of Pareto’s thought, which is often “pigeon-holed” into science-worshipping positivism, psychological reductionism and proto-fascist authoritarianism.

Certainly, Pareto did attempt to apply the induction- and experiment-based scientific methods of physics and chemistry to the study of social phenomena. He did so in order to stress and charter the uniformities of human behaviour due to fundamental instincts and mental dispositions characteristic of our species, as well as to criticise much-venerated democratic regimes qua demagogic plutocracies. Nevertheless, he never denied the limitations intrinsic to the observation-constrained, abstraction-prone, descriptive, probabilistic hypotheses of the natural sciences. Indeed, even the field of economics, which he himself had contributed to formalise by adopting elements of the mathematics used in physics, had been abandoned by Pareto because of its inability to grasp the non-rational elements of the human psyche, which caused rationality-based economic models to fail regularly and inevitably in their predictions about the future. As Pareto had come to realise, the actual social man was not much of an homo economicus. C.B. Macpherson’s 1937 essay “Pareto’s ‘General Sociology'” (pp. 3—16) in Part I of Femia’s book is most relevant in this respect, as it accuses Pareto of adhering too much to the allegedly value-free methods of empirical science, yet revealing as well Pareto’s awaraness of the profound differences existing between the study of inanimate or animal phenomena and the study of value-driven human beings.

Analogously, Pareto researched and categorised the fundamental instincts or sentiments (“residues”) determining human action within societies and commonly rationalised post-factum into fallacious arguments (“derivations”) and doctrines (“derivatives”) in order to please yet another sentiment of ours, that is, our desire for explanations that sound logical to us. However, he never denied the ever-changing creative power of the human being as a semiotic animal, who is capable of activating and intensifying certain instincts and dispositions by engaging in symbolic activities. The tension between the fundamentally non-rational universal constant of “residues” and the possibility for self-reflective, cunning minds to manipulate them intelligently is discussed in Bobbio’s work as well as in the 1972 essay by Vincent Tarascio chosen for this collection (“Marx and Pareto on Science and History: A Comparative Analysis”, pp. 145—58), which also belongs to Part II.

Even less did Pareto deny the dangers to social order and public wellbeing stemming from political doctrines fostering despotism, censorship, nationalism and racism. Indeed, Pareto was very much an old-fashioned 19th-century liberal, who certainly disapproved of universal suffrage and other socially “dangerous” socialist aims, but commended the peaceful, direct male democracy of small Swiss cantons as the best example of political life in his age and regarded the liberty of the individual as paramount. In nuce, Mussolini’s deification of the State and his charismatic leadership of the masses did not belong to Pareto and their common association is, as S.E. Finer called it, “a misfortune” (“Pareto and Pluto-Democracy: The Retreat to Galapagos”, pp. 305—15; 305).

A scientist but not a devotee of scientism, a pessimist about human reason but not an irrationalist, and a conservative liberal but not a fascist: Pareto was a complex man and a complex thinker. He tried to mirror in his work the complexities of human phenomena themselves, thus avoiding explanatory shortcuts and ideological simplifications that would have probably granted him a much wider audience and a much broader appreciation. Femia’s book, which contains selected essays by some of the most eminent intellectuals who have written about Pareto over the last seven decades, bears witness to such complexities. It is therefore no easy book to read; yet no more candid depiction of Pareto’s approach and investigations would be possible.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Introduzione al pensiero politico di Habermas. Il dialogo della ragione dilagante (Milano-Udine: Mimesis, 2010)

Our age of crisis has taken many more forms than just the widespread rejection of Enlightenment ideals. Possibly, its most visible contemporary manifestations are: (a) the devastation of the planet’s “ecological equilibrium” (25); (b) the consistent anthropological impoverishment and individualistic atomisation of human societies (e.g. “social conflicts” read as individual “psychic problems” [26]; “anomie” [31]; “confusion between… [individual] success and… [collective] understanding” [32]); and (c) the undiminished international instability (e.g. religion’s “self-destructive forms” [63]; “Western military interventions in various areas of the planet” [77] ).

Patiently and laboriously, Habermas has addressed in his complex oeuvre all of the aforementioned forms of crisis of our age. It is Giacomantonio’s task to survey Habermas’ accounts in this slender book (99 pages).

Specifically, Giacomantonio praises the erudite, articulate and abstract “theoretical wealth” of leading German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) as a rare exception to current scholarly and scientific trends (78). Avoiding academic partisanships and specialist parochialisms, Habermas is said to have scrutinised and engaged with an “ample spectrum of stances” in the attempt to provide a reasoned, synthetic as well as analytical understanding of the enduring age of crisis (77). Swimming against the current, Habermas believes the Enlightenment project—modernity itself—to have to be brought to completion, not discarded.

Habermas’ first major intellectual accomplishments are claimed to be his 1960s and 1970s studies in the economic and administrative structures of late-modern Western industrial societies. Then, Habermas focused primarily upon the legitimisation of such structures via political procedures of mass participation, as well as upon the growing class fluidity, which Giacomantonio describes as the “dissolution” and “fragmentation” of traditional class consciousness and discourses (25).

According to Habermas, the post-war decades had seen capitalist societies benefiting from large-scale entrepreneurial pursuits, under the cooperative scrutiny and sophisticated direction of the State, which allowed these pursuits to serve vastly accepted inclusive social aims (e.g. “urban and regional planning”, “research and development”, “unemployment benefits”, “public welfare”; 25). These aims facilitated the legitimisation of the pursuits themselves, as well as the State’s own authority. Then, this virtuous circularity ended. For Habermas, the 1970s mark the beginning of the age of crisis.

The 1970s “late” or “mature” capitalism (23) continued to display massive State intervention in the economy. Yet, an increasing outgrowth of private interests started to escape from State control, leading to “systemic” failures (24) and to a generalised loss of faith in the State. This reduction of legitimacy was indicated by declining political participation, which was due too to the opacity of class consciousness in now tertiary-dominated economies. A variety of rescue plans were implemented by national governments, often via ever-increasing State intervention and techno-scientific legitimisation thereof. Regularly, these plans proved of little success, at least as the previous inclusive social aims were concerned.

Rather, the recurring reliance upon science and technology as grounds for political action induced considerable “de-politicisation” (28) of collective life and institutional decision-making. Within this novel frame of reference, whereby political issues were turned into “technical problems”(28), the public opinion was morphed into a passive spectator or sheer recipient of the diktats of a self-enclosed—and often self-serving—“expert” bureaucracy. In any case, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decades started to wane, becoming a more and more remote memory of better, foregone times.

It is Habermas’ opinion that the highly educated “expert” bureaucrats of recent decades have failed consistently to perceive the unavoidable connection between factual scientific investigation and value-driven technical application. To counter this phenomenon, Habermas has recommended the establishment of a more open critical exchange amongst experts and between experts and the public at large. In this perspective, communication should serve as an antidote to the former’s intellectual insularity and to the latter’s political disaffection.

Concerned with the de-politicisation of socio-political phenomena and populations of democratic countries, Habermas began to explore the socio-political relevance of “communication and linguistic dimensions” that were to become the hallmark of his later intellectual production (31). Indeed, the 1980s witnessed a vast output of studies by Habermas on the deeper structures of anthropological impoverishment and atomisation in modern nations. In them, Habermas came to conceive of “society” as comprising: (a) the “system” of professional, formal networks of “strategic behaviour”; and (b) the personal, informal “life-world” of existentially meaningful behaviour (“Lebenswelt”; 31). On the one hand, human activity was being described by Habermas as the “success” or “influence” of the competitive individual; whilst on the other stood the truly life-defining, cooperative linguistic (“communicative”) praxes seeking mutual “understanding” and engendering shared “identities” (32).

Initiating the age of crisis, the former dimension had been invading the latter by using communication instrumentally, i.e. the shared linguistic means for genuine self-expression and social cohesion were turned into sheer means of self-maximisation. To respond to this invasion, Habermas has recommended the overcoming of national barriers and the creation of a “cosmopolitan… deliberative democracy” centred upon ethical and normative issues and aims (35). Roughly speaking, more conversation about justice, the common good and the like–as already anticipated in his reflections on science and technology of the 1970s–would mean more democracy; more democracy would mean more legitimacy; more legitimacy more effective laws; and more effective laws more social and socially acceptable results. All of this, however, should be taking place on a global scale.

Habermas’ reflections on democracy became even more relevant in the 1990s. Then, in the face of an even faster-paced post-Cold-War economic and cultural globalisation, it was the very cradle of modern democracy that was to experience its deepest crisis, i.e. the nation State as such. Apart from intensifying the problems that Habermas had already tackled in the 1970s and 1980s, fin-de-siècle globalisation further deprived States of the crucial means of control over the “economic dimension” (40). In particular, free capital trade robbed the State of those vital “fiscal” resources that were needed for its administrative functions (44). Weaker States became even less credible to the populations, whose interests they were still expected to serve. The legitimacy of their power and even their own raison d’être became shakier. In the process, the vastly accepted inclusive social aims of the post-war decadeswere even openly rejected by leading parties and statesmen, who engaged actively in the persistent reduction of the public sphere. Deprived of the State’s support, larger and larger sectors of the population found themselves poorer, marginalised, and more vulnerable.

In the final decade of the 20th century, Habermas stressed further his commitment to a “cosmopolitan” solution of the ongoing crisis (43). In his view, a global economy needs a global deliberative democracy. This is not the same thing as to say that the world needs a world State. Rather, the world needs actual world politics and actual world policies. International organisations are already in place (e.g. the “United Nations”, the “World Trade Organisation”, the “International Monetary Fund” [46]). What is missing is the democratic appropriation of those institutions as positive means for global governance.

Interestingly, the “European Union” has been described by Habermas as an example of existing trans-national coordination and a possible force for progress, which he understands as the generation of a new political community reflecting truly democratic values and substantial ethico-political aims, such as solidarity and social inclusion (45). As an opposite model of global governance, Habermas has often highlighted the “hegemonic unilateralism” of the United States of America, which has accompanied throughout an economic globalisation capable of producing a “more unjust… more insecure” world and a threat to our “survival” as a species (48).

In particular, Habermas has stressed of late the centrality of the rule of law for the proper functioning of any complex social arrangement. As opposed to the brutal force exemplified by military intervention, a binding legal framework springing from democratic deliberation would constitute in his view a powerful means to a noble, desirable end: “to include the other without assimilating him” (50).

As further explained and substantiated in Habermas’ works of the 2000s, democracy should be thought of as much more than just a set of public institutions and formal procedures, for it is also an array of informal social praxes and individual forms of conduct. Within his deliberative and cosmopolitan model of democratic rule, Habermas has ended up combining the “liberty of the ancients” with the “liberty of the moderns” (51). In other words, both republican active participation and liberal individual-rights-protecting public guarantees are embraced as important components of actual democracy. Societies need both enduring compromises amongst rights-endowed self-interested individuals and the formation and expression of collective will via societal “self-clarification” (37).

Habermas resolves in an analogous manner the tension between liberals and communitarians on the much-debated issues of multiculturalism (51-6) and religious tolerance (61-8). Both universal, trans-cultural principles and cultural rights are said to be important for the socially inclusive survival of democratic States in a more and more inter-connected international reality. Disagreements and problems are bound to arise; still, what matters most is to have enough institutional and conceptual resources as to be able to tackle such disagreements and problems without falling into either coercion or social disintegration, which destroy genuine social cohesion and solidarity (54-6).

This, albeit sketchy, is the overview of Habermas’ intellectual production that Francesco Giacomantonio offers in his new book. It is indeed a clear and effective account of Habermas’ nearly unique oeuvre, as the author of the Introduction to the Political Thought of Habermas cites Touraine and Castoriadis as the only other equally daring grand theorists of recent times (80). The book comprises six chapters, an introduction, some final considerations and an appendix by another author. The presentation waves between a thematic subdivision and a chronological organisation of the material. Either way, the book addresses all the essential aspects of Habermas’ vast production. By this feat alone, it deserves much praise.

If any criticism is to be passed on it, then it must be pointed out that the book could be even more slender: the appendix by Angelo Chielli is redundant and unnecessary (83-90); whilst the 6th chapter, which deals with Habermas’ relevance to contemporary academic pursuits (69-75), could have been reduced to, and included with, the author’s final considerations (77-81). Also, the book would benefit from an analytical index of cited topics and authors.

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.

Maria Moog-Grünewald (ed.), Brill‘s New Pauly. Supplements 4. The Reception of Myth and Mythology (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2010)

This encyclopaedia served literally as a pivotal reference work for several generations of students and academics, especially though not exclusively in Continental Europe. However, being as massive as it was impressive, this important source of knowledge was never translated into English in toto. On the contrary, such a fate awaited the newer and thoroughly revised version of the same encyclopaedia, i.e. Der Neue Pauly, published by J.B. Metzler over the period 1996-2003. While the translation of Der Neue Pauly is reaching its completion with the publication of the supplementary volumes, Brill’s already twenty-six-volume New Pauly has become one of the richest encyclopaedias of Western antiquity in today’s Anglophone world, and possibly the most consulted reference work in its field. What is more, the New Pauly provides not only an extensive coverage of the cultures and events in the ancient heart of Europe from early Aegean times to late antiquity, but also a multi-disciplinary study of the reception of classical antiquity in the following centuries—indeed up to the present day. Particular attention has been paid in the New Pauly to the changes and trends in classical scholarship itself, which has witnessed as diverse and turbulent an existence as the Graeco-Roman civilisations themselves.

The supplementary volume reviewed hereby belongs to the latter, multi-disciplinary study area. As the subtitle highlights, it is devoted to the reception of classical myth and mythology. Its original version was published in German in 2008: a two-year backlog for translation in today’s lingua franca of scholarship is not blameworthy. The volume reads as a one-book lexicon of the most important characters in ancient mythology. Each lemma tackles one (e.g. Achilles, 1-14; Zeus, 616-20) or, in alternative, famous pairs (e.g. Agamennon and Clytaemnestra, 37-42) and groups (e.g. Nymphs, 433-43). Information is offered concisely and in a fairly standardised manner: Greek and Latin names come first; then a brief summary of the character’s/s’ main features; a presentation of the relevant myth(s) involving it/them, inclusive of historical and geographical variants; the character’s/s’ relevance in ancient religion(s); and eventually its/their literary and artistic reception in ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary times, inclusive of references to significant philosophical, artistic and political usages and conceptualisations.

A complete overview of all the known receptions of each character would have been impossible or, at least, impractical. However, the lexicon of this Supplement is generous enough with representative varieties of interpretations concerning each mythical character concerned. As such, this volume serves also as a concise history of Western ideas, which means that the fourth Supplement of the New Pauly should appeal not solely to classical scholars and historians, but also to students and academics in the humanities at large. In particular, art historians and cultural theorists may find this volume a very useful reference book; one of those books that should be kept on top of one’s office desk. Still, a more extensive overview would have been possible and, in all probability, even more practical to the academic community. The editorial choice of favouring “the need for brevity and lexical usability” (viii) over the comprehensiveness of the lexicon may be well-intended, yet at the same time it does strike as naïve, especially if one considers the encyclopaedic nature of the whole enterprise to which it belongs. Besides, given the considerable amount of money that university libraries, research centres and individual scholars are expected to disburse for each volume, including the Supplement at issue, not to mention for purchasing or accessing the whole New Pauly online, then it would have been wiser to make the lexicon “fatter” rather than “slender”.

Pecuniary considerations aside, the scholarly fitness of the fourth Supplement remains excellent. It is highly recommended to all humanists and scientists that may need or benefit from expert accounts of ancient myths and their reception in Western culture.

Eight Noble Opinions and the Economic Crisis: Four Literary-philosophical Sketches à la Eduardo Galeano

I.

Until control of the issue of currency and credit is restored to government and recognised as its most conspicuous and sacred responsibility, all talk of the sovereignty of Parliament and of democracy is idle and futile… Once a nation parts with control of its credit, it matters not who makes the nation’s laws… Usury once in control will wreck any nation.

            William Lyon Mackenzie King

Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

      Albert Einstein

Philosophers are often and rightly accused of dealing too much with the past, pondering endlessly upon origins, reasons and causes, and too little with the future, leaving hardly any room to proposals, solutions, or calls to arms. To prove myself capable of the latter kind of activity, and despite the unavoidably old noble opinions quoted above, I shall keep Minerva’s owl nailed to a perch. Though Pythonesque, this little cruelty should delay any backward-looking blathering of mine, which is to come eventually in the other sketches.

After all, we are facing a dramatic twofold crisis, ecological and economic, which even uninfluential public figures like the current UN Secretary and US President have acknowledged and denounced as deadly. As for the title under which I allow myself to do so, I shall be content with declaring myself a professor of philosophy who has studied value for some time, i.e. what is important and what is not. In this pursuit, which I regard as valuable, I have reached a fairly simple conclusion: that which keeps all of us and our descendants alive and well is very, very important indeed. Those who deny it or claim my claim to be unscientific can do so because they are tacitly doing all that is necessary in order to stay alive and well enough to be able to talk a lot of nonsense.

But let us dwell no further on this simple subject, about which I have written around fifteen complicated essays in the past ten years—I need another nail… Worthy of Epicurus, I can offer a tetrapharmakos to today’s world, confident to be received by no-one in useful time, for that seems to be the fate for all who dare criticise—as I am going to do—large-scale private banking, the profit motive as paramount,  the private ownership of strategic resources, deregulation, and the managerial mind. Some may even call me a “socialist”, as though it were a derogatory and disqualifying term, similar to “criminal”, “pervert” or “rascal”. Probably, given the notoriety of Italians and academics, “old pig” or “bore” would be more fitting insults. Politically, however, I would describe myself as “life-grounded”, not “socialist”. Still, I shall not mind and endure the epitaph with grace, even gratefulness. I shall keep company with Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte of Saint-Simon, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell. An aristocrat, a physicist, and a logician…

(1)

First, fundamental medication, upon which all else depends: nations should establish, or in most cases re-establish, good public banks. Why? Well, here is something that should have become obvious to anyone who has eyes to see and a fat wallet. As stated by Russian President Vladimir Putin when speaking last year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the economic crisis that we are witnessing today has destroyed, in about one year, approximately twenty-five years of pecuniary wealth, i.e. the sort of wealth that our intrepid yet “virtual” capitalists were aimed to produce in the first place. Private banks and financial institutions, left to their own devices by prolonged tidal waves of worldwide deregulation, brought themselves down and, with them, much of the world’s “real” economy. Do you remember the real economy? If it goes down, down go also the starving children of unemployed sub-Saharan family fathers. Down into the earth they go, whilst shareholders moan for lost profits and fire a few more people to ease their pain.

Clearly, many private banks cannot do their job unaided. As they were busy concocting mathematically byzantine derivatives and variously vehicled securisation packages in the deregulated shadow of global finance, they forgot about honest bookkeeping, sound reserves, mutual trust, and other basic old-fashioned principles of chronically anachronistic banking. They even forgot about that primitive slave invention, morality. Alas! Such is the genius of the invisible hand free from State direction or, as Icelandic philosopher Mikael Karlsson dubs it, “the invisible brain.” This is not meant to be an insult to anyone, unlike “socialist” or “pervert”. The so-called “Free Market” promoted by “deregulators” has no visible brain, insofar as State-centred social and public planning is regularly rejected as anathema. Still, who came to the rescue of self- (and other-) destructive private banks? The State.

Turned into the banks’ pork-barrel, the State has thrown trillions at the banks in order to keep them afloat—in the Land of the Free, in Great Britain, in Benelux. Was it necessary? No, for the State could have simply taken over the banks. Was it desirable? No, for public banks, still run in communist countries such as China and North Dakota, can spur development, employment, and take far fewer risks than private ones.

It must be emphasised that it is not enough for the State to own the banks; these must be run like public banks i.e. banks for the public good. Some morality is required in the process. Prudently restricted by various strings, these public banks can respond more easily to the needs and aims of actual populations, rather than to the whims and fancies of absentee owners or of their volatile servants, that is to say their bonus-benefitting managers.

What am I saying? Have public banks and run them as such. They must spur real development, not inflate bubbles that transfer wealth from the bottom to the top. Will it hurt the shareholders and wealthier customers of private banks? Certainly. They have already enjoyed the State’s helping hand; it may be time to repay the State with gratitude. Doesn’t anyone remember how to do it? Read history books, study the European Payments Union of the 1950s, ask retired Italian or French bank managers, use your imagination. A few rules of thumb may assist those who lack enough imagination:

(a)  Ban financial and currency speculation, at least within and via public banks: the casino belongs to “competitive” gamblers. Yes, people who used to claim that they would succeed or fail like Promethean heroes… Before they all asked for help to the Great Nanny, of course, lost as they were on their er-rand. And please, let the State never again salvage these hypocrites from their own myopic greed. They are now trying to wash their guilty conscience by returning one hundredth of what they have received from the public purse, whilst re-filling their pockets at the State’s expense, with fierce bearish appetite

(b)  Lubricate the real economy, if forward-looking, so as to launch much-needed public works, create long-term employment, and generate steady streams of income within the nation. Public banks can do so, at low interest rates: they must be profitable, but not at all costs

(c)  Monitor inbound and outbound capital flows, so as to direct investments to socially beneficial areas, and counter tax evasion as well as tax avoidance: far too much has been denied in the past to the very public purse that has then saved the incompetent affluent from themselves. And remember that a stable currency and genuine economic sovereignty can only be secured by abandoning the disastrous freedom of capital flows that has flooded the world with crisis upon crisis since the 1980s: tequila, vodka, whiskey or brennivín, ouzo, they all taste the same

(d)  Secure reserves by compelling the capitals of public bodies, pension and social security savings, and the revenues of public banks to be invested in the public banks themselves. The State must be as free as possible from the bondage and the blackmail of its current masters i.e. foreign direct investment and international bondholders

(e)  Pay bank managers State salaries comparable to those of other leading promoters of public wellbeing—surgeons, health-&-safety inspectors, judges—and avoid attracting the covetous, self-indulging, big-jet and big-penthouse penis-length-comparing “best and brightest” who plunged the world into a massive crisis. Communities need not such beastly best and brittle brightness. Forget them and their barbaric macho ethos—made of turrets of money, performance-enhancing bonuses (as though they alone were working), fee-demanding buddies-consultants, and PR companies using invariably words like “aggressively” and “targets”.

Finally, do not underestimate the fact that it is difficult to deal with cronyism by voting new governments into office. Yet it is much more difficult to do the same thing by waiting for anonymous and short-lived shareholders to reform their servants, who are so free from supervision as to jot down any number they like in the books without anyone finding out. As Adam Smith forewarned us some time ago, the corporation is amongst the least competitive and the most corruptible of human institutions, hence amongst the most damaging to the proper functioning of capitalism.

And inflation? Don’t worry. Nobody talks about it—a sudden silence. After all, common people are no longer able to buy anything, not even on credit. If anything, the real problem to come will be deflation. Besides, more than 90% of the money circulating around the globe is the result of financial leverage by private institutions. Still, old-fashioned, knee-jerk reactions may be reoccurring soon: pensions and salaries must not go up, for the poor must repay the money lost by the rich; States must rein in public expenditures, which they have been doing for thirty years, unless there was a war to be fought; public assets must be privatised, so as to further enrich the incompetent and further weaken their only saviour; cheap money must stop (now), lest we tax the wealthy to give some jobs to the restless youth, etc. By the way, how is it that bonuses for bank managers could always go up? It must be the same people who think that only private firms can be valid multipliers…

It is ironic that, after two decades during which we had been told that the State and, for that matter, its independent Central Banks could not issue money for schools, hospitals, public works and social projects, quite mysteriously they started printing so much money. Sure, they now tell us that we need private banks to keep credit flowing, for credit is the life-blood of the economy. Without it, there shall be no green-spanning across the meadows. And yet, enterprises and households worldwide are still struggling to get the credit that they need. In truth, the selectively generous Central Banks’ cheap money benefits financial speculation, which is where the trouble started in the first place. How could ever a heartless economy pump any actual life-blood?

Indeed, in California, the local government is at risk of being terminated by the refusal of private banks to subscribe local public bonds because “unsafe” i.e. the State of California could go bankrupt. “What a cheek!” my mother would say, and she has dealt with banks for most of her life. The banks refusing to purchase these sunny bonds today are the same banks that were saved by public money yesterday, when it was raining. But there is more.

Were even these banks to provide enterprises, households and public authorities with the credit they need, they would not do it for free, for the common good, or for a little interest; they would do it for profit, and for as much of it as they can get. Thus, things would be so arranged and, sadly enough, they are being so arranged, as to have public money given very prodigally to private banks, so that these banks may give it to the public far less prodigally.

What is more, in order to be worthy of the bailed-out banks’ money:

  • Enterprises have been reducing their workforce to be more “competitive”
  • Households have been returning their homes to banks that had sold highly reliable mortgages towards the purchase of… homes
  • The State has been thinning out its already skinny body in order to be attractive to the banks, which the State has just rescued from themselves

After decades of TINA-like reduction of all that is public, public money is being given to glaringly incompetent private banks so that their losses be made public and their profits, which were always private, recover and be still private. In the process, public money is not used to counter dwindling employment, secure houses, and, say, fund hospitals, schools, university research, care for the elderly and the mentally ill, public gardens, public football fields, archaeological preservation programmes, amelioration of penal institutions, better garbage collection, sanitation and, why not, aid to starving children. How many tramps will get trapped in the revolving doors of the wealthy’s tower?

That the State may have money for the bankrupt banks but not for its own social functions, it is something that defies imagination, morality, and even legal obligations. Many of them ratified the International Covenant on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, didn’t they?

(2)

Second, life-saving medication: if you skip the middle man, operate good public banks, and have money to use for the common good, then launch a vast programme of green public works. More severe and threatening than the economic crisis itself is the ecological crisis. Ask the United Nations about that. The former crisis threatens fat wallets at the top and starving children at the bottom, yet at different degrees of dangerousness. The latter crisis threatens all equally with death. The grim reaper is the great leveller. Since so much private enterprise has caused the ecological crisis in the first place—the smoky days of the Industrial Revolution—and has continued it in the face of scientific alarm calls as old as Britney Spears, then it is advisable that the State be able and willing to step in and, both by regulation and by direct economic action, reverse the tide.

Forget speculative carbon emission quotas and reduce carbon emissions; ban outright or force rapid conversion of the most obvious forms of life-destructive economic activity; tax the remaining polluting activities and de-tax non- or less-polluting ones; have a major public company undertaking proper refitting of houses on a massive scale so as to make them less energy-consuming; create large public recycling facilities so as to counter illegal dumping of waste at large; found and fund new public research centres for the development of green technologies, free from the yoke of short-term corporate desiderata; ration carbon-based power and use it only for vital and life-enhancing activities…

There are so many tokens of environmentally constructive planning, yet so few that have not been resisted as “too costly”, “too rigid”, “too much for us, who have already done so much”, etc. Were only the people uttering such phrases to consider seriously the fact that they can be so garrulous because the environment is still, barely, able to support them, their bodies, their minds, and the natural and social infrastructures that have allowed them to grow, socialise and, limitedly, mature…

In addition to a life-enabling aim and a counter-cyclical alternative to depressing austerity, politics would also regain its dignity by having a green mission. Strangled by powerful yet incompetent lobbies, and fettered by incompetent yet powerful central banks, politics has been reduced for far too long a time to day-to-day management of production costs in the domestic market and salesmanship in the foreign ones.

(3)

Third, important medication: since some neighbours may not like your policies and your currency, then they might respect your resources. States should increase or secure public control of strategic assets: water, oil, gas, the knowledge of its own population—this knowledge having been fostered by public education, healthcare provision, and cultural activities.

Whether by safeguarding the revenues originating in natural resources that would otherwise enrich few and often foreign shareholders, or by reclaiming a knowledge-based industry that would otherwise be outsourced by corporate giants, the State must secure a steady source of income for itself and for the nation’s economy. This income alone should help democratic governments to respond to their constitutional sovereigns, not to rating agencies and “markets” whose lords regularly reside offshore.

As Norway’s long experience in State-run oil extraction and refining illustrates, it is the one and only “trickle-down” strategy that has produced tangible results for an entire nation. States’ assets are not a factor of market distortion, but a factor of production—and one that can help businesses to grow by providing cheap goods and services, as opposed to the endless and costly bloodsucking of postmodern privatised economies. Ideally, it would be good for States to regain control over money-creating central banks, but there are limits even to one’s dreams.

Incidentally, even the many wars paid by the American public purse to secure control over other nations’ oil, or at least force its trade in US dollars, indicate that the public control of strategic assets is not so foolish an idea. And yes, also that getting bombed may be a risk for the nations pursuing the path recommended hereby. Apart from the landowners, cunning agents and financial moguls who have charged prices well over any real cost of production, for all others there is no such thing as a free lunch—Miltons have always known the devil very well.

(4)

Fourth, integrative medication: since some powers-that-are may not be pleased with your plans, make sure you can deal with them. Create a just fiscal and regulatory framework, which empowers the population at large and weakens the usual lobbies: close tax loopholes and tax breaks for the usual lobbies; withdraw passports and freeze assets of tax fugitives; tax rents (land, inheritances, capital gains) and de-tax hard work, so as to reward merit and distinguish sharply between earned and unearned income; end subsidies, legal privileges (e.g. limited liability) and tax-breaks to private companies, lest they never compete in a truly free market; nationalise the companies that are too big to fail, as John Kenneth Galbraith advised us to do long ago; reclaim research and development grants and whichever other public credit given to private firms leaving the country; confiscate the assets of companies outsourcing to countries with lower labour and environmental standards; put regulatory agencies and grassroots associations on the boards of private and public companies to fight corruption; inspect constantly and reward those inspectors who discover illicit activities.

Taxes matter. Especially when there is an ever-richer tiny elite of super-rich whose fortune comes as a long free lunch over accumulated wealth, whether in property or capital. They hardly ever pay taxes. They pay fewer than most, since someone else paid taxes before them: those who actually earned that property or capital in the first place. In truth, they may quite simply avoid taxes by shoring their assets off to tiny islands or Alpine valleys. The members of this tiny elite are above and beyond the common citizen, whilst their trusted and highly paid managers rarely go to jail when guilty of fraud or cheating. Above-and-beyondness is a transferrable asset too. If and when hijacked by this elite, States are likely to commit suicide by taxing those who work instead. And if the people sweating and bleeding don’t have enough money, then State activities are to be reduced in the name of, say, the Big Society–of the hopeless and of their hopeless resilience.

In brief, internalise costs that have been externalised regularly and mercilessly at the expense of natural and societal well-being; and effectively re-regulate the disastrously de-regulated playground of the free enterprise–especially but not exclusively of the virtual type–whose only known freedom is that which cages every possible aspect of reality into the life-blind logic of profit-making.

Will anyone undergo this cure? History will tell. And history is full of surprises. Who would have ever thought, for example, that little furry animals could outlive giant dinosaurs and become the first species ever capable of destroying the ecological structures that allow them to live!

II.

Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation.

         John Maynard Keynes

There are two ways of conquering a foreign nation. One is to gain control of its people by force of arms. The other is to gain control of its economy by financial means.

       John Foster Dulles

In the year 2003 I published a review of Value Wars, written by Canada’s leading value theorist John McMurtry. In it I provided an account of the stunning whistle-blowing by World Bank Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz vis-à-vis “deregulation” and “globalisation”, two terms that had been dominating economic and political discourse for some time. Quite unexpectedly, and rather shockingly, a well-connected, mainstream, Nobel-prize-winning economist denounced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for implementing over a period of at least twenty years a merciless four-step process of re-colonisation of independent nations by international private capital. This was the sort of suspicion that radicals like pop singer Bono Vox and Polish actor Karol Woitila, better known as Pope John Paul II, had been voicing for a long time. As for John McMurtry, he took due notice, since Stiglitz’s revelation was consistent with his own description of world affairs as directed by the profit-motive of the few versus the vital interests of all others. Preferring truth to originality, I endeavoured to spread this description of world affairs around me. In fact, I had given lectures about it, also in Iceland, before 2003.

Nobody seemed to care, however, at least here in the north. Stiglitz’s views were not widely discussed and even less were they taught at the university level, except by a few—sometimes foreign—eccentrics. McMurtry’s views, hadn’t it been for the same eccentrics, would have been left to gather dust in local libraries. Meanwhile, the policies of deregulation and enthusiastic participation in globalisation were not halted. On the contrary, in the year 2003, the three largest public banks were privatised. Immediately, they started to sail the seas of international speculation, never seen before in Icelandic history. “Carry trades” and “financial leverage” became mantras recited on the first page of all newspapers, whilst the businessmen who were dubbed the “new Vikings” set out to raid foreign banks, enterprises, supermarkets, and football clubs, with money that they did not have. But such is late- (or post-) modern capitalism, or “the Icelandic way of doing business”, as I was told back then. Besides, it would appear that only professional economists are entitled to teach about why they, unlike a mere philosopher like McMurtry, got it so wrong. And there’s so much to learn!

What did Stiglitz’s whistle-blowing describe? And how does it apply to the Icelandic case?

First, the permeability of the nation’s borders to private foreign capital is increased by deregulating capital trade and privatising strategic national assets. Barriers, bottlenecks, and “obsolete” protections are removed, whether material or immaterial. Nobody quite remembers why they were there, and even fewer wonder why. Above all else, money must flow. That’s the consensus, at least in the district of Columbia, which is obviously populated by zealous reformers. Their principles are crystal-clear: “public is bad, private is good.” They believe in “The Free Market”, whatever that may be thought to be; and they believe in it so ardently and unflinchingly that Stiglitz and others refer to them as “market fundamentalists.” They even set complicated rules at roundtables to force dissenting markets to be free. Anyhow, this very first step, which may take some time, is achieved by lubricating slow-moving and slow-thinking local politicians, business leaders, present and future ideologues with adequate amounts of grease. Grease, yes, such as co-opting these people into the international jet- and yacht-set, promising or securing that they will have their own golden toilets, washing their brains at spectacular conferences and exclusive think-tank meetings, baptising their best and brightest first-borns in the sacred founts at the sacred shrines, stirring their simmering jingoistic sentiments, or bribing them straightforwardly—indeed Stiglitz talks of this process as “briberization”.

Secondly, money flows into the country. A bubble ensues; in fact, a cyst. Depending on the country’s economic conditions, the cyst can take different forms, but all of them eventually become painful. In the case of a reasonably well-off country, glittering streams of foreign capital inundate the land, turning modest entrepreneurial fields into a glorious harvest of unprecedented projects. Thus refreshed, the local currency and the local shares pupate into surprisingly light-winged and seemingly fertile young fairies, whose well is said to be full of diamonds. Moreover, the nation’s financial institutions become large fountains that can quench the thirst of anyone who is eager to drink from them, including those who do not need it, but have the misfortune to possess a belly. New buildings spring up like mushrooms in the vast new wetlands, luxury and consumer spending—mostly dependent upon credit—fly high like gleaming droplets out of a geyser’s mouth. So mesmerising is this sight, that more permeability is actively sought.

Then, the cyst bursts. As swiftly as it flew in, so does the money flow out. A rumour, a token of gossip, an unfortunate diplomatic incident, a well-paid expert report, or a speculator’s premeditated signal to his colleagues rapidly reverses the tide. The flood ends. A drought follows. Projects—and buildings—remain unfinished, half-mast, like flags at a funeral. The wombs of local currency and local shares reveal themselves sterile; it was all make-up, they now say, even the wings; you should never trust the books. The well in the garden is dry, and full of stones. Moreover, the fountains are dry too. Around them, stunned, jobless, emaciated peons, indebted up to their eyeballs, drown into whirling sand clutching their plasma TV sets. And their TV heroes have not come to save them, be they crusading party leaders or Viking raiders. Who will?

Nobody is without friends, especially after having become part of the international jet- and yacht-set, educating his own children in the best schools, or attending eye-opening conferences and meetings. Not to mention those friends who have already proven so generous in the past. In truth, after having advised on how to render the country prosperous, they now spare no saliva explaining what can be done in order to rescue it from its unfortunate plight. Thus, money is poured back into the nation. High interest rates are, however, de rigueur. One does not give much to drink too easily to a friend who has already drunk too much. What kind of a friend would he be?

The third step is therefore to make up for the mistakes of the past and repay one’s generous friends. Whatever wealth remains must be scrupulously collected so as to honour the debt—or so as to secure further loans. Debt gives salvation from debt, as gamblers understand so well. Certainly, the wealth of the wealthy is better left untouched: they are the producers, the life-givers, blessed fountainheads of the nation’s wellbeing, which needs them so badly under the burning sun of the new sad day. They must be treated kindly, lest they or their wealth be forced to flee by too rapacious and visible a hand—some have already fled, they whisper. The wealth of the poor—or of the poor-to-be—is a better starting point. After all, they may have little, but there are many of them. Besides, since they have little, they cannot flee as easily as the rich, nor can their wealth flee. And whereas the wealthy can go bankrupt and be resurrected cleansed of their debt, like the imperishable Phoenix, ordinary mortals honour their debts, willingly or not. They may protest, but law and order are the last two public sectors whose resources are cut off, unless successful ways are found to privatise them too.

Finally, as the nation struggles in debt and turmoil, groaning so loudly as to disturb its neighbours, the generous friends come back to help. They cannot remain untouched in the face of so much poverty and violence. They have new “plans”, “strategies” and “packages” to sort things out. Yet, to implement them, national borders must be removed completely and an iron framework of conditions for investment and development must be imposed in order for the nation to become a proud participant in fully liberalised, multinational free trade. For example, its tax environment must be suited to foreign investors—may God bless them—and its population as flexible as unthinking reeds in gushing new brooks, to which they contribute sweat and tears.

By the way, where does Iceland stand now? Probably it stands at the threshold of deciding whether to plunge headlong into step three, with signs of the fourth step already lurking behind the waterfalls harnessed for hydropower.

III.

In all normal civilisations the trader existed and must exist. But in all normal civilisations the trader was the exception; certainly he was never the rule; and most certainly he was never the ruler. The predominance which he has gained in the modern world is the cause of all the disasters of the modern world.

  Gilbert Keith Chesterton

The economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable, and we should face up to that.

  Lawrence “Larry” Summers

It has been long known that Europe catches a cold whenever the United States sneezes. Yet things get even worse when the immune system of rules and restrictions to international capital and currency trade has been removed altogether. Iceland and some young, yet already former, free-market miracles on the Baltic Sea did catch pneumonia this time. Ironic indeed, as they are just another group of market miracles turned into meltdowns—Asia had a few of them in the 1990s. Miracles seem short-lived these past few decades… Though if truth be told, even Lazarus died, after having been brought back to life.

Historians of the future, if there shall be any and if they will be honest, are going to wonder and ponder upon how such intelligent and highly educated “knowledge economies”, capable of the finest mathematical-financial wizardry via the fanciest computer technologies, could bestow upon themselves so much avoidable pain, destroying in the process not solely further scores of planetary life support systems, but also man-made social infrastructures that have generated, depending on the country, genuine welfare for up to three or four generations. These future historians will be at pains to conceive of powerful, well-off, democratically elected representatives who listened to foreign bankers, and not to their own citizens, rushing to implement, whenever they could, multilateral agreements on investment robbing their own cabinets of much of their power.

These future historians will probably fail to empathise with and understand such bizarre people, very much like Voltaire, who could not really explain why our forefathers were willing to slaughter one another over the correct interpretation of the Holy Trinity. After all, they had never seen it (or them?) and Jesus himself had never said anything clear, if anything, about it (or them?). Not to mention the centuries that humankind spent warring, raping, disembowelling, burning, maiming, chaining, flogging and excommunicating one another because of errors of interpretation. Obtuseness is incredibly resilient. And we are not so different today. Check the Athenian cradle of our civilisation if you don’t believe it.

Yes, embodied and expressed by the very same conventional people at the helm of the world’s public and private financial affairs, the wisdom arising from the ashes of the current crisis is astoundingly similar to the one that caused the crisis. Are you indebted? Take on another loan. The private banking sector has betrayed you? Restore it with public money and run it as before. The world’s economy is a gilded cage run on behest of under-taxed oligopolists, tax-evading rentiers and idle absentee owners that squeeze money out of the real economy through banking charges, debt repayments, service fees, monopoly and land rents? Keep it going and call it a “free market”. People are suffering, jobless, and with their tax money siphoned to the creditors that inflated the bubble? Show them tough love and deprive them of further healthcare, education, culture, wages, pensions, childcare, subsidised water and power. Austerity measures turn a crisis into a depression? Implement more of the same measures. The environment is running amok in the so-called free-market environment? The market will fix it; in the meantime, profit will keep being extracted from increased prices in oil, gas, polluting consumer goods, and cancer treatments due to the ecological collapse of the planet. Apparently, the only green rules acceptable are those that transfer further money from the public purse into private pockets. All others are resisted as “costly”, “distorting”, “rigidifying”, “liberticidal”, which may be true—and good. The one and only truly binding international environmental regulation that, so far, has saved us from extinction, preventing excessive UV-irradiation, was a top-down imposition from Montreal.

But life, not to mention a happy and healthy life, has never been the paramount goal of the pursuit of profit. War was and still is a major source of profit, towards which public subsidies to private firms are given generously… Well, they call them “research & development” grants or “national security” strategies… Disease-causing pollution has been mostly an externality that had nothing to do with profit, until pharmaceutical conglomerates found a way to exploit that too. Slaves and their children were most profitable for many, many centuries. Wage slaves… Oops! The flexible working poor and their children are very profitable today too.

And for what must all this wisdom be endured? To give money to people who have money. They have enough, one would believe. They should start communicating it to those who have nothing… little… less. Jesus and Aquinas regarded this as obvious. No, it is not obvious. Money is never enough, especially to those who need yet another fancy dress. But why are these people non-satiable? Why do they complain, lobby and shift electoral allegiance whenever taxation on capital gains is vented? Why do they transfer their fiscal residence to tax havens, whilst benefitting from handouts of the State they are deserting? Why do they outsource productive structures to countries squeezing labour out of turnips, if youngsters are not available? Why do they say that “they have already done enough” whenever life-saving regulation is discussed? Why do they care more about the interest rate they can get, than they care about how their money is invested? Why do they oppose healthcare, old-age pensions, education and culture for all, while they enjoy it for themselves?

It is competition, they answer. There isn’t enough around for all of us, only for the really tough ones, who can then live in much-deserved luxury. But why do people compete for having more for themselves, instead of, say, competing for beauty, generosity, selflessness, equal distribution, full employment? There can be so many different and more constructive competitive aims in life: just look around. Nuns, school teachers, barefoot physicians, rocket scientists, marine biologists, old fishermen, young artists… They may not all dislike some cash, but they do not live for it, or at least they try not to. Since Divine Will is out of fashion, and if you press them long enough, the luxury-deserving competitors are going to tell you, eventually, that we are cruel wolves. How naïve was I! I thought that they were cruel wolves… The world is a cruel place—those ferocious nuns… Nobody waits for those left behind—and they don’t. The market forces accept no barrier. As one of their fairest ideologues so frequently stated, there is no alternative; it is human nature. A hidden philosophical anthropology…

And yet, none less than their poorly understood hero Adam Smith taught us long ago something very different in the opening page of his greatest book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments:

How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion which we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrow of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous and humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.

This is certainly not the one and only betrayal of Smith by current capitalism. After all, his market was meant to be free from rentiers, who now run the show. Anyhow, why so much mercilessness, then? Have we become worse human beings? Have we lost our humanity? Have we found ways to outcruel the cruel, underfed, superstitious peasants, who, when not breaking skulls in the name of God or King or Country, killed and maimed animals on a farm? Well, as modern and proud of our science-technology as we can be… Well, yes… Overall, subtly, we have. The thinning of solidarity that embraces the whole humankind, which a German-sounding French warmonger studied in depth, is a weaker barrier to the undergoing evil drives.

Or, at least, we have done our best to train impressionable young minds to being ordinarily callous and participating in the most spectacularly life-destructive economic system ever seen on Earth—a system that, as denounced by the scientific community for the past thirty years, has turned the survival of our species into a big question mark. Much is done in this direction, routinely, thousands of times a day, so that our youth may become more beastly than ruffians and more abrasive than criminals. But how? Simple. We (mis-)educate them, and we have tools for (mis-)education that no emperor or church of old has ever owned or mastered. Only a couple of totalitarian dictators gave it a go or two in the blood-drenched century of Charlie Chaplin and Woody Allen… But how, where? Open your eyes. Watch.

Our TVs and media are replete with commercials. They are meant to accompany you from the cradle to the grave. Selectively and scientifically trained marketing strategists, creative psychologists and advertising gurus are paid to induce desires in the subtlest and most effective manners, starting with our children’s delicate souls. These desires will blossom into poisonous “new needs”, as these “experts” call them. These weed-like flowers being sheer wants perceived as genuine individual needs, the delayed satisfaction of which is to generate a sense of inadequacy, anguish, frustration, isolation, or envy towards those who do satisfy them. And these are the only flowers that must grow; hence they are everywhere. Children no longer need an imagination. Marketing strategists make sure that the only pictures that children can have in their mind are those that sell. They speak already like TVs: why shouldn’t they replicate TVs in their brain? Eventually, as grown-ups, these children will be branded, like slaves of old, or cattle still is today. Perhaps, like the slaves of old, they will enjoy freedom one day a year. Or maybe all the days will have been taken away by marketing strategists, who wish to celebrate the sales of Valentine’s Day, Mother’s day, Father’s Day, Marketing Strategist’s Day…

You don’t believe me? Go to any primary school and you will meet hordes of little creatures dressed according to the latest fashion code, or pestering their parents to be so dressed. Those who are not there, because they are busy sewing the actual fashion items, may well try to rob them from the horde one day. These little brats! They want and want and want scores of items that they do not need, the possession of which, moreover, does not grant happiness at all, despite the glittering promises. Were it so, no new purchase would be “needed”, and that would be bad for business. Certainly, one may learn to control such a powerful impetus, but it takes years of self-re-training. Not even hunger and utter destitution placate it. Not even the full awareness of not being able to afford those consumer goods. Nothing will ever erase the deep-rooted psychological mechanisms implanted into our souls when we were little. Is this enough? No, there is more to it.

Our TVs and media are replete with role models—and the medium is the message. Rich and wanna-be-rich people of all sorts shine even when performing the most ordinary activities, such as shaving or concealing their stench with perfume. From slutty heiresses to pimping rappers, from cosmetically mummified bad actors to ignorant footballers, from divorce-addict hair-died tycoons to soon-to-be-millionaires answering questions or showing their private parts in public—these are the saints and blessed inspirers of the modern secular creed. They may be confessing their own sins to a TV host, confident that their words will be forgotten. What remains, instead, is the scent of money that perspires through their placenta-creamed pores. A powerful aura.

The same aura surrounding the action hero, who fights, kills and kidnaps for the sake of justice, peace and freedom…  There he comes! Dressed in an Armani suit, he jumps out of a Mercedes, talking briefly on his Nokia. He checks his Rolex, then gets into a Ferrari and drives to Chez Maxim’s. There, he meets a beautiful young lady, whose Valentino dress will soon be ripped at the Hilton’s. And there he’ll kick the guts out of the villain, smashing his Patek Philippe and ruining forever his Dolce & Gabbana jacket… Justice is served. Peace is conquered. Freedom triumphs. That’s the message, isn’t it? And if not much of the beautiful young lady is shown, then children can watch too.

Poor people are less frequently shown. They don’t sell as well as our hero. Moreover, they don’t buy. There exist notable exceptions, though. Poor men and poor women are sometimes on display, like animals at the zoo, to be observed, mocked and, on Christmas day, to feel sorry for. Other times, they are actively humiliated on screen by policemen, judges and other masters of entertainment. Crime, ignorance, savagery: what a show! Once again, as long as it sells, keep it up. There, in the spotlight, for less than fifteen minutes and amidst commercial ads, the poor can shine like greasy piglets on spits, or like the tin their most unfortunate children collect in garbage dumps.

What is the result of this Blendungsroman? Go to any secondary school and you will meet cell-phone-talking walking replicas of the rich, parading themselves in the corridors. Give them an opportunity to put down a “loser”, and they will savour it like their own parents, whose SUVs and triple-mortgaged houses are punches into the Joneses’ stomachs. Even poverty is a risk worth taking to cast the rich’s aura.

The silent walking replicas of the poor are usually in other schools, unless they have dropped out of school already to find a job that will secure their poverty. Some are hiding in the toilets. They are poor and they know it. They look poor. It is not only their clothes that say it, but their bodies. They have bad teeth, small tits, big noses. Their parents have wrinkles. They can’t get fixed, like those people on TV, or their replicas and the replicas’ parents. To cope with this obvious inferiority, they breathe in. In Italy, they sniff cocaine to think that they too are rich. In Rumania, they sniff glue to think that they too are sniffing cocaine.

Either way, none of these kids must worry about being politically active. It is too dangerous. Yes, youngsters still remember how to bark: they haven’t been beaten up into silent submission, yet. Some will have to be locked up, so that trade be free. Don’t give them any wrong ideas. That’s socialism—or any bad “ism” of the day. Don’t give them hope. That’s socialism. Politics is best left to corporate employees, who siphon public money to their shareholders and, God be gracious, to their own bank accounts. That’s the free market. These employees alone are capable of understanding why unemployment is natural and inequality good. They’ve got talent. They’ve got the degrees that get you good jobs. Therefore, unless they are corporate employees, not even the kids’ parents have to worry about politics. Like these happy few, the kids’ parents can take happy pills too or, if pills are too expensive, drink themselves out blind.

Drunk, the poor parents can cope better with the trauma of seeing their children die. Each country has its own special way of sending new winged angels to God. In high-tech market-miracle India, they die of cholera in open-air sewers, where they were looking for edible scraps. In coup-idity-ruled Honduras they die poisoned by pesticides in a free-market plantation, so that the bananas people eat in Canada be not too pricy. In revolutionary France they die stabbed by an angry pusher in a dark alley, but they were not really French after all. In peace-loving America, they die fighting for human rights in another country, since their own country denied them a future. How was it possible? They had trained them at killing people since they were three, on a stolen X-box… Maybe they should have trained them at doing something else, but there is no videogame that teaches you how to free a political party from corporate diktats or join a trade union… Is this enough? No, there is more.

Our TVs and media are replete with experts telling us that greed is good. They are the most interviewed and consulted members of the intelligentsia of our community. Sometimes they even become our presidents, ministers, mayors and godfathers. Go to any university. Some of them feed on tenure and enjoy healthcare and pension benefits, whilst arguing that you shouldn’t have them. You will discover that there is an entire discipline built upon that notion.

If truth be told, a few of its adherents do remind their students, on leap years, that the profit-motive of the homunculus œconomicus is just one drive amongst many. This drive becomes one and insatiable for the sake of toying with mathematical formulae, not for the sake of describing reality, which never works quite like the models do. Facts can be so obstinate. Theory is much more flexible. Occasionally, on elective days, these beautiful souls mention even mysterious, metaphysical, unscientific words: “ethics”, “morality”, “duty”, “respect”, “goodness”, “virtue”, “governance”, “responsibility”… They don’t fully grasp them, though, for they slip out of books and balance sheets. Sometimes they even get their students to learn some history, thus half-stuttering what sort of devastation this homunculus and its leit-motive have caused. Still, these are exceptions, divagations, and the students, between the end of their studies and the beginning of their careers, know it very well.

Our MBAs and the many branches of science and engineering dependent upon private sponsors and future corporate employers are the convent-barracks where our crusading novices, more or less geeky and asocial, are told that only numbers really matter. The fate of a paterfamilias and of his family does not. They are told that persons are not persons: they are costs, opportunities, capital, markets… They are all sorts of things that can be converted into monetary units—numbers, in fact—though most definitively they are not persons. In fact, such things, be they free individuals or free communities, can turn into dependent variables. And if some of these things are laid off by a firm that rationalises an otherwise irrational workplace—what a madness it must have been!—then it may be time to invest money in that firm. If the right numbers go up, then things are just as they should be. If they don’t, they can be massaged. If they still don’t, they can be fixed. If they still refuse to go up, then a couple of hospitals plus half a university, as long as they are public, can be sacrificed to a return to growth.

In the streamlined world there can be recoveries without jobs, business opportunities in famines, increased flexibility via insecurity of employment and future bread, full employment at the natural unemployment rate, goods that do a lot of bad things, and market miracles that melt into destitution because of something bad but the pious market. What lesson is learnt? Everything in the world exists in order to maximise the money of investors and/or their managers. Even old, wrinkly countries must be attractive to such people or face their own demise. Make the rich richer. That is the one and paramount commandment. Such merciless homunculi are no fiction; they are science-fiction: they drive around in Dalek machines. Indeed, to those who do not simply rob and run, being merciless is a fiduciary duty. Apart from this, everything else goes.

Yes, everything else, unless you get caught and cannot pay the best lawyers—what a shame. Business words of the business world tell no lies: lack of scruples is “determination”, mercilessness is “having balls”, inhumanity is “being committed”, callousness is “professionalism”, locust-like behaviour is a “hedging”, stealing traditional knowledge is a “patent”, depriving people of knowledge is a “copyright”, poisoning the destitute is “mutually beneficial trade”, taking public-sector resources to guarantee private profits is “hard work”, threatening employees with unemployment is “personnel management”, gambling is “trading futures” and other cabalistic formulae “over the counter”, oligopolies are “economies of scale” and cartels are “free markets”, sending knowingly drivers to die because of a few faulty cars is a “cost-saving measure”, sending knowingly air passengers to die because of reduced safety controls is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of inspectors is a “cost-saving measure”, corruption of politicians is “lobbying”, and rent-exacting parasites are “the productive class”. The list goes on and on. Read the news and enjoy the game: destroying peoples is “restructuring”, keeping them poor is “preventing inflation”, colonising a nation is “opening markets”, withdrawing rights is “reform”… By the end of it, you almost believe what they say.

Has any student still doubts or feels uneasy? Then he is told that all is well, for all ends well. Yes, those things that we unscientifically call “people” may seem to be suffering, poor things. And the others, crony criminals who have nothing to do with the free market, are the exception, though the rule just wants to be like them. After all, those exceptional exceptions were on the cover of glossy magazines like Capital, the Cosmopolitan of people who “have balls”… Don’t worry. Everything will be alright. Just wait—that’s what my old priest and the party commissar would say… The invisible hand of the self-regulating market is going to look after all of them. Free from State intervention and from trade unions—for only capitals may associate and go on strike if they don’t like a government—the invisible hand is to generate endless bounty for all—the invisible bounty? Most of the world’s trade is virtual, after all…

Such is orthodoxy today, for which even a Pope’s distribution chests are heresy, utter hilaireous bellocs… If you claim that small is beautiful, the giants get angry: go make your shoes elsewhere! Today, you no longer need to be red to be a danger. It is enough to be as white as a dove. The Market God likes hawks, whose endless preying is the source of all that is good. His transparent hand turns into water all the blood that these hawks spill. As to the tallest shrines, they are no longer erected for the glory of the Sun, Athena or Almighty God, but for the likes of Morgan Stanley. Behind all this, a hidden theology… Maybe Divine Will should be in fashion again.

IV.

The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

   Franklin Delano Roosevelt

 To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom… I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not.

Isaiah Berlin

 

The child empathises with the dying bird. The adult empathises with the starving child. The nurse attempts to ease the pain of the terminal patient. The teacher smiles patiently at the pupils playing in the courtyard. The schoolmaster hides his unease as the ancient oak is felled. The gardener watches wildlife documentaries on the TV. The mayor goes on holyday to his cottage on the lakeside. None of them likes to be ill. All of them fear death. All of them experienced curiosity or elation as they held a newborn creature in their arms. All of them have been compassionate at some point. All religions have praised divinity as the fountainhead of all that is. Whether physically, emotionally or mentally, all of the above have exemplified the ultimate source of all values.

Years of research about value have led me to conclude that nothing is more valuable than that which allows value itself to emerge: life. Without life—biological, emotional and mental—there can be no value, whether ethical, aesthetic, economic or political. Those that deem life’s value instrumental acknowledge its value nevertheless. Besides, none of them seems likely to prefer beauty or other values to eating every day and being in good health: take away their bread, and they will sell their dearest painting… Of all crazy philosophers ever alive, only a handful rejected life as a value and one alone behaved in a way that denounced actual indifference to life: Pyrrho the sceptic, whom his friends prevented from walking under carts and falling off cliffs. One. As for the few who told us that life is a valley of tears and an endless stream of horrors, none of them ever stopped eating, drinking, and philosophising, i.e. one of the activities that they clearly enjoyed the most. But what can the lives of crazy philosophers teach us about economic matters?

As usual, philosophy can reveal the heart of an issue. If life is so crucial, indeed the source of all values, then it can be inferred that a successful economic system provides universal access to vital goods across generations. Economic efficiency means that the lives of all benefit from it and nothing is spoiled to the point that those who come after us may not benefit too: resources are left for others the way in which we would like to have them left for us, if not better. Improvement is a possibility. An economic system that achieves its vital aims more effectively, thus opening the door to a richer fulfilment of planetary and human potential, is yet a better system. On the contrary, an economic system that does not fulfil its vital aims, either because access is limited to few or some, past or present, or because it delivers goods that are deadly, detrimental to life or irrelevant to life needs, whilst leaving some of these needs unanswered, is a failure.

The current economic system is a failure. As repeatedly denounced by the international scientific community at its highest and most representative levels, human civilisation has become for the first time in its history a threat to the planetary environment that allows for humanity’s own existence. There is no aspect of the Earth’s environment that has not been depleted in the three centuries that have seen the affirmation of capitalism worldwide: the biosphere-protecting Ozone-layer, breathable-air-producing and reproducing pluvial forests and oceanic life-systems, self-regenerating water aquifers, nourishing-food-producing arable spaces, and natural-equilibrium-maintaining and science- and technology-inspiring biodiversity. The continuation of life as we know and enjoy it is at risk.

Much has already been destroyed beyond repair, to the point that bioengineering is being discussed as a tool to cope with the most tragic consequences of “development” awaiting us. Emblematically, one nation of the world is planning already the purchase of land in India in order to transfer its entire population there upon the day when the ocean will have swallowed their ancestral islands. And yet, in the face of current profit losses, all this is treated as secondary. Just read the news and you shall see that the focus of collective action is upon a “return to growth”, as though the sad and deadly harvest of greed were not still vivid before our eyes.

What is more, the mantra of competition goes on unchallenged. But competition for what? To generate profits? And why? Why should rich people become richer? There’s more than enough to go around. Even more ludicrous is the idea that schools, healthcare, free time, old-age security, peace of mind and all those gains for life that people acquired in decades of blood and humanity should be dismantled so that competition be won. By whom? What sort of victory is the augmentation of the money heaps of people who already have it, whilst the quality of life and the living conditions of most are worsened?

F.D. Roosevelt told us seventy years ago that greed is not only bad morals, it is also bad business. When business’ sole purpose is to make as much money as possible as soon as possible, then the somewhat constructive role that business may play in society disappears altogether. It doesn’t matter if any private business actually makes a lot more money, gets bigger internationally or pervades even more diffusely the lives of millions: the standards of evaluation and appreciation for the constructive role of private business belong to the sphere of public wellbeing. And public wellbeing cares about long-term indicators: happy workers retiring in good health, healthy mothers making plans for their children’s education, educated youngsters looking forward to playing on the beach with their grandchildren. If this horizon disappears, then you’d better start to worry. Private business is known to have played far too often a destructive role, as everything, the long-term survival of private business included, can be sacrificed to man-eating Baal.

Short-termism, combined with the relentless pursuit of profit, characterised roaming Goths, wooden-legged pirates and cigar-loving gangsters. The entrepreneur, the glorious creation of modern capitalism, has always been expected to be something different. Restrained by family and personal pride, religious morals, annual dividends, trade unions and other 20th-century legal suasions, his horizon has been defined as a somewhat distant future, his playground the real world of flesh-and-bone persons like him, his reward the admiration of affluent or fully employed fellow citizens that participate in and benefit from his endeavours.

As long as alternative economic systems were either widely discussed or experimented with, the entrepreneur had to justify his existence by creating some tangible, albeit sometimes debatable, token of social worth, such as employment, community networks, or nice new gadgets. Only the speculator, hardly distinguishable from fraudsters, trotted relentlessly upon a different path. But speculators were said to be the exception, not the rule…

Yet the day came when Gordon Gekko and his friends got to control more than three quarters of what is still incautiously dubbed “world trade”. The decades of my life, infested by Maggies, yuppies and wall-less oligarchs, launched “The Financial Revolution”, a pivotal process in contemporary history that no historian has yet so baptised: let this label be my grand legacy to international scholarship.

An equally bombastic historian used this term in the 1960s to describe the emergence of public creditors in 18th-century England… It doesn’t quite compare, I’m sorry. We’ve just witnessed thirty long years of national barriers coming down—and how long it took for both nations and their barriers to come into existence!—so as to allow for a gigantic flood of miraculously leveraged liquidity springing out of… books and vast pools of capital formed by privatising public money in all of its shapes, squeezing profit from de-unionised workforces threatened by—what a coincidence!—unbarred international competition, and such ingenious tokens of financial engineering that only professional mathematicians could make sense of them. All this money travelling much faster than any good or service ever before: computers have replaced the pens and ink of old. The world of Gekko and other reptilian inhabitants of city hedges and wall streets is indeed a very bizarre world.

Originally, these creatures were meant to trade pieces of paper granting a share of the profits made by fairly large private companies. It is something that had begun in Genoa a long time ago and that their trading partners, the Dutch, had brought to the North Sea around the year 1600, sailing thence to the New World, another Genoese discovery… But a share of the profits may be less remunerative than profiting from shares. Gekko’s forefathers started betting on rises and falls in the price of those pieces of paper, sometimes causing them by moving massive amounts of money or dropping a few words into the nearest ear…

In the days of poor old Nixon, in the Big Apple, they traded about 20 million stocks every day. Today they trade 1600 million or so—and there’s more fruit in the basket than just a big apple. Also, as of Nixon’s time, they started playing games with the world’s currencies, namely the money with which common people buy their bread. Again, they started slowly, about 20 billion USD a day, but now, after “freeing” trade worldwide, they are up to 2 trillion. It is by far the largest chunk of trade in the world and it has one severe drawback: it makes the form of trade that normal people think of when they hear the world “trade”—buying and selling bananas, timber, cars, computers, etc.—much more complicated. Not to mention buying bread. But the reptiles don’t worry: they own the future. They buy and sell it.

Actually, they take bets—only a tiny fraction of trade in existing “futures” fulfils the official excuse that these are ways to hedge against risks on purchases of actual goods—on nearly anything that can be grown, mined or brought into existence, influencing the price of all sorts of goods, including the bread that common people wish to buy. Still, since even this casino was not big enough, the reptiles added onto the table the so-called “derivatives”, which are pieces of paper whose value is derived—hence the name—from something else, whether another piece of paper or a price arising from combining a few of them. Anything goes. Also because you can buy or sell these pieces of paper any way you like—over the counter, under the counter, beside the counter… You can actually buy and sell the option to buy or sell them, for short-termism can be so short that, to spare time, it allows certain persons to sell what they don’t have.

Is this too complicated? Too silly? Well, today, around the globe, there’s an ocean of derivatives, for a value of about 500 trillion USD. It is a lot of money… Strangely enough, however, the reptiles that invented them also felt the need to insure themselves against any risk that may ensue from trading in… derivative paper. So they started buying “credit default swaps” from insurance companies and let their friends and colleagues, the bankers, pile them up as assets, claiming that these “swaps” were as sound and good as gold itself. Probably they would have started taking major bets on them as well, had the entire mathematically engineered and economic-science-backed system failed from collapsing under its own virtual weight. Too much genius had been spent for the business world to bear. Under so much talent and foresight, the reptiles’ joints felt suddenly empty of market force. Amazingly, the invisible hand was nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the State ran to their rescue and gave them a visible, reinvigorating bailout with other people’s money, lest the bank’s own mouthpiece uttered “BBB” or some other silly rating. And that’s where we stand today. The real suffering surrounding us, from the unemployed Spanish worker to the starving Senegalese farmer, is due to a virtual catastrophe. And if the starving Senegalese farmer tries to move to Spain, he shall meet a wall and possibly drown in the sea, while frustrated unemployed Spaniards, trained by modern corporate journalists, will hate guts those that didn’t. Strangely enough, these migrants are to be loathed, not the freely migrating virtual capital that cannibalised both Senegal and Spain.

Like all human endeavours, business can be either good or bad. To know what makes it good or bad, what is nobler than money, means to know how to measure real growth, real development, real utility, real goodness. Who, though, after Pareto’s Protagorean reinvention of economics, is allowed to know what real value is? Certainly not serious economists, who can only acknowledge preferences… The Pope may know, perhaps. He claims to be right like no-one else and that’s maybe why so many people cannot stand him: who likes an old moralising grandpa, in an age in which we are told by our media gurus to give into any juvenile urge of ours that can make them a buck?

Or maybe any living creature knows: they’re all God’s creatures, after all. Yes, even by watching slugs and bugs we can evince something important, which degree-honoured geeks may have neglected while sitting in front of an inanimate computer screen. They are not forgivable, though: no matter how much you masturbate, avatars are not human beings. Here comes the slap; Zen masters should love it: entomology can rescue economics from its value slumber. Vade ad formicam. What a twist! Or maybe not. It all started with Mandeville’s bees, to be honest…

Let me be brief and clear on this. What consistent pattern of behaviour can be observed amongst slugs and bugs? Watch them in your garden, if you have one. Or go and watch them in a public garden, if it hasn’t been sold to developers. As small and allegedly stupid as they are believed to be, all invertebrates try to do their best to survive at all times. And when they take risks, it is because they either look for food, shelter, safety, or attempt to ensure the survival of their species. As economically irrational as animals can be, these small beings can even sacrifice individual utility—one’s safety, food or head—for the sake of keeping, indeed at times just making, their young. Future generations matter, to them. Some seem even to care for their fellows in the anthill, hive or nest in which they live… Life, in truth, matters to living creatures, and yet life can be sacrificed, for more life may thus ensue. The only higher value that life acknowledges is, in fact, life.

And yet, in today’s world, money is still prioritised over life. Listen to our leaders, and with the exception of a pair of Caribbean politicians that corporate media describe regularly as lunatics, what matters most to most who matter most is to keep “growth” going. Capitalism or the “free market”, as they like labelling it despite its dictatorial logic, must keep generating profit, free from State intervention, which does not serve that one paramount end. All this is held, despite the well-known biocide implications of such a process. Yes, capitalism is responsible for the ecological degradation that we are living in with, and leaving to, our children. Has nobody really put together the Industrial Revolution and the collapse of the planet’s life support systems?

I shall help you: the causal link between the pursuit of profit and environmental degradation becomes visible every time environmental regulation is resisted as “too costly” or by-passed by illicit behaviour or by off-sourcing to countries that have actually little such regulation or none at all. Unless business is forced forcefully to comply with existing regulation, which is much more difficult in a barrier-free worldwide market, common praxes show that the primacy of profit persists over, say, not killing other people by dumping toxic waste onto them.

Indeed, in economics, it is methodologically impossible to address the environmental preconditions that make life possible and can secure its long-term flourishing. To the eyes of the economic observer, bread is as much and legitimately a “good” as nuclear waste, as long as a lawful market exists for both of them. It is only through direct State intervention that a bad “good” becomes officially what it is: a bad—and that is just the first step, for enforcement is yet to be secured from lobbying and bribes.

States alone can ban slavery, organ trafficking, child labour, exploitation, air pollution or aquifer poisoning as the bads they are. States alone can make the real economy and earned income primary, and the virtual economy and unearned income secondary. There is nothing intrinsic to market mechanisms leading to that and we have known it for nearly two hundreds of years. Read Charles Dickens’ subversive novels to get a clearly bleak picture. Also, ecosystems are “externalities”, as the language of economics reveals, at least as long as they are not turned into a cost by environmental legislation, into a loss of profit by reduction in reputation and actual sales, or into a market opportunity by persistent spoliation of it—see the oxygen cans sold in the subway in Tokyo.

Protecting life and the environment is something that runs against the logic of profit, even if some business leaders may themselves desire it ardently. Profit can only relate to the value of life instrumentally: as a means to further profit. Money is a fetish, and one that eats living creatures and their dwelling spaces if that generates revenue. Nothing leads profit-driven “rational” agents to doing that which is necessary for planetary survival and, for that matter, for a decent social life on a vast scale. Even public health, the most obvious case of socially beneficial public agency, is opposed as unprofitable hence bad. Not to mention all the money that is made by “growth” via sales of carcinogenic “goods”.

As the world’s money is controlled by gargantuan private institutions and managed to enrich their rich shareholders, even if it means strangling debt-ridden public authorities and diverting resources from public sewers to private coffers, there is little hope that the dominating logic may change. Some used to argue that money should be controlled by public authorities and managed for the public good, as written in certain constitutions… But we have already talked about such a peculiar notion. For the moment, let’s see whether the Philosopher-Kings of Greece will crumble because of the Goths, after being failed by Chelsea-resident haven-seekers and the advice of Goldmen-sackers.

Flavio Baroncelli, Mi manda Platone, edited by Annalisa Siri and Emilio Mazza (Genoa: il melangolo, 2009)

Flavio Baroncelli’s posthumous collection of short pieces by il melangolo is a splendid exception to standard philosophical literature. It is a slender book (157 pp.) that can be read purely and simply. Indeed, to the extent available to hopeless academically minded professional philosophers like myself, it can be enjoyed as a string of exquisite literary-philosophical vignettes. These short pieces, originally published in various Italian periodicals and newspapers, range from scholarly debates on Plato’s role in Western culture to the pride of showing scars and tattoos on one’s own body. They are divided in two parts, the former dealing with philosophical themes (15-83) and the latter dealing with ordinary life and socio-political affairs (87-149). Witty and concise, they retain the inventiveness and the curiosity that characterised Baroncelli’s life, of which Armando Massarenti, Emilio Mazza, Annalisa Siri and Gürol Sagiroglu Baroncelli provide a useful account via the preface (5-8), a short biography (151-3) and an editorial note (155-7).

Some professional philosophers, like the undersigned, may attempt to make some use of Baroncelli’s book, e.g. by writing a review of it. However, the review is bound to be fairly unorthodox. What can one say of a book that reads: refreshingly colloquial yet deep; humbly self-depreciating but highly learned; ironically sceptical though warmly humane; both open to the general public and pregnant nonetheless with precious insights for actual academics? Baroncelli’s prose, full of abstraction-averse, real-life examples and academic-pomposity-shattering vernacular gems, flows like the prose of his eighteenth-century role-models. Most of all, it recalls Voltaire’s prose, whose humour and compassion it evokes when dealing with topics such as tolerance, liberty, dignity, multiculturalism, religion and scientific realism.

Perhaps, the author of this slender book would have preferred to be compared to David Hume, whom Baroncelli admired and studied. Or even to Hume’s and the French philosophes’ much older mentor, i.e. Michel de Montaigne, to whom Baroncelli devotes a delightful sketch (23-6). Still, it is Voltaire the name that springs to mind when Baroncelli combines together, with a few touches of his pen, experience, irony, linguistic analysis, moral wisdom and intellectual acumen.

Professional philosophers may fear such a facility of expression. Clear and pleasant language is often seen as a threat to an argument’s poignancy and visibility. Long, tedious, difficult passages abound in philosophical literature. This happens not solely because philosophers are not poets or novelists, though they may be failed ones, but also because philosophers want the full load of reasoning poured into their works to be felt and borne by the reader. Whenever reasoning seems too unhindered and beautifully rendered, professional philosophers are likely to accuse it of being either “shallow” or “rhetorical”, if not even both. Nonetheless Baroncelli was a professional philosopher, and a good one. His arguments are sound, they stand on solid ground, and they are written so well and humorously – there is enough to become bitterly envious.

Certainly, the same philosophers that treat as “shallow” and “rhetorical” their literarily gifted colleagues are likely to accuse me of being partial. After all, I knew personally Flavio Baroncelli as a teacher, mentor, and friend. That is why I shall invite them to attempt to read simply his latest and, probably, last book. They should follow the advice that he himself gave with regard to Plato, whom one should read “because he is useless” (66). Hopefully, they will appreciate Baroncelli’s gentle and humorous way of being a genuine, unpretentious source of enlightenment.

Francesco Giacomantonio, Minima cura. Lunario del filosofo sociale (Rome: Aracne, 2008)

Modernity has never been easy. In its early stages, it had to fight gruesome battles against the feudal order. In its successive stages, it has had to fight against itself. Liberty—the elusive aim and defining character of modernity—liberated an array of novel individual and collective dimensions of existence, many of which have proved to be rather unpleasant. Scores of Western intellectuals have acknowledged modernity’s unpleasantness by scores of different names: anomie, alienation, absence of recognition, ennui, blasé attitude, inauthentic life, relativism, ejection, meaninglessness, etc. Giacomantonio dubs it “existential uneasiness” (15).

By demolishing the mythical totems of all previous systems and augmenting the individual’s perceived opportunities for choice and self-definition, the modern person has had to face a greater degree of uncertainty and responsibility vis-à-vis her life. At the same time, the modern person has felt threatened and even dwarfed by the broader, cosmopolitan reality of the new global order unleashed by countless and never fully successful revolutions: English, French, Russian, industrial, sexual, dot com. In other terms, modernity has advanced in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, it has increased the felt scope of individual self-determination. On the other hand, it has diminished the actual importance of the choices we make. Ironically, as Giacomantonio states, “the factors whereby individualisation is accomplished produce standardisation” (23).

Post- or late-modern consumer society is, in this sense, most representative and unsettling. Then, it is exactly the section of modern Western history that Giacomantonio focuses upon in the first part of the book. Specifically, by means of a comprehensive overview of philosophical and sociological critiques of modernity as well as of post- or late-modernity, Giacomantonio endeavours to show how “the I and personhood” are seen no longer as expressions of “linearity, univocity, precise identity, autonomy” (18). Rather, “the individual… perceives her own identity as pulverised, fragmented, troubled, isolated” (18) and condemned to bleak “anonymity” by the affirmation of the impersonal structures of “bureaucracy” (20) and “technological production” (21) in “all the traditionally most relevant sectors of social existence: work, education, communication, emotional ties” (21). The modern person is claimed to be forced by “the society of risk” (24) to strive endlessly for an eventually ungraspable “control” over her own “disenfranchised” and “disenchanted” condition (24). Frustration and a quasi- yet not always pathological “existential uneasiness” cannot but be commonplace.

Nevertheless, Giacomantonio wishes to cure the modern malaise, even if only to a limited extent, as the title of his book suggests. The medicine he decides to employ is a mixture of Wissenssoziologie, critical theory and post-structuralism. The first ingredient should help the modern individual to realise that the social and ideological structures that surround her are not at all natural and inevitable. The second ingredient should lead the modern individual to “act”, whether to accept or deny her “collocation” within society, the contingency of which she now recognises (31). The third ingredient should make the modern individual understand that her self-perception qua individual is itself part of the problem, insofar as modern society has created a certain type of individuality, which is said to be free while is in fact “enslaved to one’s own desires” (39). Eventually, if the medicine takes effect, “social philosophy” should enable the modern individual “to find herself and deal with the world, even the post-modern, unequal, pulverising and precarious world of the 21st century” (49).

In this perspective, the second part of Giacomantonio’s book offers a rich, diverse array of applications of his proposed medicine. Fields of individual and collective existence as mutually remote as religious belief, football, international law, welfare policies, fast love and spoiled teenagers are discussed in the light of explanatory and hermeneutical criteria derived from the three “ingredients” mentioned above. The outcome of these applications should be a deeper, wiser, healthier understanding of contemporary society and of one’s own place within it. And this is probably the outcome that the author must have experienced himself when confronting post- or late-modern phenomena with his armoury of socio-theoretical notions. Will the same outcome be available to anyone reading Giacomantonio’s book? This is an empirical question, to which each individual reader is bound to answer for herself.