Monday, October 7, 2013

Common sense and neoliberal pseudo-economic nonsense

Here's a comment from the Another Angry Voice Facebook page that on the face of it is nothing more than pitiful absolutist generalisations about a very loosely defined "enemy ideology" written by a typical right-wing blow-hard.

"One of the troubles with lefty mentality is it doesn't do common sense. It exists simply to oppose and do the opposite of the right."
Many would counsel me to save my analysis for more serious matters, but as is becoming a habit, I'm going to pick it apart to see what we can learn about the warped right-wing mentality that lies behind it.

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The first thing to note is that these statements about "the left" is that they are absolutist generalisations. I've written a whole article criticising the use of these kinds of lazy generalisations, so I won't repeat myself by stating my numerous objections to the tactic of  making sweeping generalisations about extremely loosely defined groups, other than to say that the first claim, that the "lefty mentality doesn't do common sense", is just as devoid of clearly defined terminology and empirical evidence as the second.

Having stated my objection to wild generalisations about loosely defined subjects, I'm going to admit that in this article, as a literary device, I'm going to resort to a few generalisations of my own. But I'm going to mitigate their use by at least offering some kind of definition of who I'm generalising about before I begin:

For the purposes of this article, when I refer to the "righty mentality", I'm referring to people who uncritically support the right-wing pseudo-economic ideology of neoliberalism (often also called "neoclassical economics", "Reagonomics" or "Thatcherism"), that over the last three decades or so, has become the almost immutable economic orthodoxy of our age.

I'm referring to people who are perfectly willing to accept an economic ideology that is riddled with claptrap like "deregulated markets operate in perfect efficiency", "state control of industry, infrastructure or services is always bad", "the invisible hand of the market", "consumers are only motivated by rational self-interest" and "trickle-down economics ensures that all ships are lifted by the rising tide".

I'm referring to people who not only uncritically accept this pseudo-economic mumbo-jumbo, but give their explicit support to political parties which adhere to this absolute nonsense.

I'm referring to people who are too stupid, ill-educated or stubbornly pig-headed to bother to actually trying to understand the right-wing economic dogma that underpins modern conservatism, but who loyally vote for political parties that enact it, and vociferously criticise any group or individual that dares question the economic orthodoxy that they themselves do not even bother to understand.

Right - now that I've defined the terms of who I'm going to be criticising, I'll return to the quote from the introduction.

"One of the troubles with lefty mentality is it doesn't do common sense"

One of the troubles with the "righty mentality" is that it doesn't even bother to try to understand anything that can't be explained in simplistic tabloidisms.

It knows that the "left" is to be criticised, but it knows even less about "the left" than the neoliberal ideology that it instictively defends, which puts it in a very weak debating position indeed. This means that it tends to present glib pseudo-philosophical musings, rote learned tabloid style rhetoric, ridiculous assumptions, logical fallacies and simplistic appeals to prejudice - in lieu of anything that actually makes sense at an analytic level.

Take this appeal to common sense. What does common sense even mean in the context of this supposed critique of the lefty mentality? Well, according to Wikipedia:
"Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things which is shared by ("common to") nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate."
Is our amateur right-wing political critic tying to claim that people with left-wing mentalities are more likely to argue against "common knowledge" statements such as "the cloudless daytime sky is blue", "refrigerated food lasts longer" or "mobile telephone technology is improving"? - I don't think so.

Aside from a few extreme outliers, I don't think many people on either side of the political spectrum would seriously contest the assertions that sky is blue, that the fridge is cold and that the modern smartphone is vastly superior to the chunky plastic bricks we used to carry around in the 1990s.

Perhaps our right-wing political critic means the ethical interpretation of "common sense", which was defined by the 18th Century Irish philosopher Francis Hutcheson as "a publick Spirit ... from a social Feeling or Sense of Partnership with Human Kind" and "our Determination to be pleased with the Happiness of others, and to be uneasy at their Misery"?

It would be difficult to conclude that this is what they meant, given that the two philosophical sentiments stated above clearly align very closely with the left-wing concepts of solidarity and social justice, which are both important pillars in almost all left-wing ideologies.

What is more, is that things like human solidarity and aversion to the suffering of others are expressly prohibited by the right-wing neoliberal economic orthodoxy, which tells us that traditional moral virtues like charity, empathy, patriotism, solidarity and a sense of social justice are actually aberrations which lead to market disequilibrium and imperfect competition.

According to the bonkers pseudo-economic theories that the righty mentality instinctively supports (despite having never even bothered to try to properly understand them for themselves), we are informed that rational self-interest is the only true virtue, and any actions which go against pure self-interest are irrational and immoral because they will create disequilibrium in the market and impair the "greater good" which comes of a balanced market. In other words, if we don't act in a greedy and disinterested manner, even in the face of appalling suffering, a greater harm will surely be inflicted through the market disequilibrium which results from our ill-considered act of charity, altruism or solidarity.

We can't fail to recognise that this neoliberal idea, that it is "common sense" is to behave in a ruthlessly self-interested manner, is almost precisely the opposite of Hutcheson's moral definition of "common sense".

What else could it mean? Perhaps it is an appeal to the heuristic interpretation of common sense? Maybe the complaint of our right-wing amateur political commentator is that the people who believe in left-wing ideologies are unable to make sensible decisions without getting bogged down in painstaking analysis of every conceivable factor and outcome; that the entire "left" has some kind of collective inability to make decent snap-judgments; that they are heuristically impaired; that they "can't see the wood for the trees".

On the face of it this does make a little more sense than the first two interpretations given the righty contempt for things like empirical evidence and logical consistency.

Neoclassical economics is renowned for simply disregarding any empirical or theoretical evidence which undermines it (of which there is an awful lot) and ostracising academics and researchers who dare to criticise any of the core beliefs of neoclassical scripture. If the evidence doesn't fit, bin it, bury it, dismiss it and above all don't ever discuss it - that's the neoliberal methodology for dealing with criticism. One of the most notorious practitioners of this right-wing "evidence doesn't matter" approach to reasoning is the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary Iain "it's true because I believe it to be true" Duncan Smith.

Perhaps the intended meaning of this criticism of the "lefty mentality" is that it stubbornly sticks to it's habit of gathering and analysing evidence instead of embracing right-wing heuristics and engaging in ill-considered, ill-informed, evidence-free, emotively driven knee-jerk reactions, as the righty mentality is so inclined to do?

The problem of course is that this heuristic interpretation of "common sense" is also completely incompatible with the neoclassical model of how the economy supposedly works. According to which, the individual makes decisions in a purely rational and self-interested manner.

According to neoclassical theory, the individual must strive to have perfect knowledge of market conditions before they make their decisions. Back on planet Earth it is absolutely obvious that this is not the case. We make the vast majority of our daily decisions quickly and heuristically. When we do the supermarket shopping, we don't compare every price of every product in every supermarket before we buy a single item, we grab what we think we need or would like, and reject anything that appears to be particularly poor value for money.

The more rational amongst us might perhaps go as far as pre-considering our needs in order to write a shopping list, but absolutely nobody compares every price in every shop before they make a single purchase as neoclassical theory suggests that we should. Given that the neoclassical model that the "righty mentality" implicitly or explicitly supports refuses to even account for heuristics, it would be a bit bloody rich for our right-wing amateur political critic to claim that the "lefty mentality" has no heuristic "common sense".

Perhaps the intended definition of "common sense" can be linked with the neoclassical strategy of refusing to acknowledge anything that contradicts the core unquestionable beliefs of neoclassical theory.

Perhaps the intended meaning of "common sense" is "tendency to agree with neoliberal doctrine"? Thus, anyone who questions the right-wing economic orthodoxy can be dismissed as irrational and lacking "common sense".

If the meaning of "common sense" is interpreted as "agrees with the orthodox right-wing mentality", the problem for our righty critic of the left is that the phrase "one of the problems with lefty mentality is it doesn't do common sense" is rendered essentially meaningless. The idea that the problem with the left is that it doesn't agree with the right is so devoid of actual meaning that it's not even worth critiquing. We're hardly going to learn anything profound from analysis of a tautological statement which asserts nothing more than "the problem with the left is that it isn't the right".

OK, so my analysis of what might have been meant by "common sense" demonstrates two things; that our amateur political critic probably doesn't even have a clear idea of what he means when he invokes "common sense", and, that if any political mentality is deficient in "common sense", then by all kinds of definitions of the term "common sense" it is actually quite clearly the neoliberalism infused righty mentality.

"The left exists simply to oppose and do the opposite of the right"
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The idea that the left simply exists to do the opposite of the right is so backwards it's beyond parody. The political right is absolutely fixated with the ideology of neoliberalism, which is essentially an extremely reactionary stance built on the assumption that if communism is evil, then the economic opposite of communism must be virtuous.

It may seem like "common sense" that in order to counteract the threat of communism, capitalism had to carefully construct ideological neoliberalism as a mirror image of communism, but from a philosophical perspective it's childish gibberish which relies on a clear logical fallacy called the illicit major, which is conventionally illustrated like this:
  • All A are B
  • No C are A
  • Therefore no C are B
  • All dogs are mammals.
  • No cats are dogs.
  • Therefore no cats are mammals.
If the "righty mentality" allows itself to believe that:
  • The communist regimes I've been told about are evil.
  • Neoliberal regimes are not communist regimes.
  • Therefore neoliberal regimes are not evil.
 It is akin to believing this:
  • A used car salesman with a beard sold me a dodgy car.
  • This used car salesman has no beard.
  • Therefore this used car salesman will not sell me a dodgy car.
Not only is there a clear logical fallacy here, but anyone with a bit of "common sense" should be able to realise that extreme opposite of something bad is not by definition something good (the clue is in the word extreme).

Imagine that you are parching to death in the arid Atacama desert in Chile, which is the most extremely dry place on earth - where there is so little water that even most bacteria cannot survive the conditions. A moderate change to your circumstances could be extremely beneficial, such as the provision of a barrel of drinking water or a vehicle. But imposing the polar opposition to an extremely bad situation could end up making your situation even worse. If the almost complete lack of water in the Atacama desert is replaced with an almost complete presence of water, you're immediately going to begin drowning beneath an immense volume of water.

Another clear objection is that both communism and socialism came along well before the neoclassical school was even developed, and over a century before neoclassical economics was crafted into the neoliberal ideology with it's three core objectives:
  • Congruity - Maintaining the wealth and privilege of the establishment.
  • Self propagation  - Through the usurpation and bastardisation of Keynesian international organisations like the IMF, World Bank and WTO and their conversion into ruthless enforcers of neoliberal orthodoxy.
  • Self defence - The almost complete marginalisation of dissident (alternative/heterodox economic theories).
It shows a quite remarkable lack of political awareness for the adherent of a pseudo-economic ideology that was deliberately crafted as an almost exact mirror image of communism, to go around lecturing a loosely defined collective "left" that the leftist ideology supposedly only exists in order to counter the right-wing neoliberal economic orthodoxy.


The obvious conclusion is that our amateur right-wing political analyst was talking absolute crap! However that's not much to leave you with so I'll offer something a little more substantive:

The neoliberal economic system favoured by the righty mentality is a bonkers, poorly conceived, logically inconsistent, empirically disproved and hopelessly bankrupt ideology, which survives by simply disregarding any empirical or theoretical evidence that undermines it.

Adherence to this ridiculous neoliberal dogma caused the global financial meltdown (in pretty much exactly the way that Hyman Minsky predicted), yet the righty mentality carries on cheerleading for it, presumably because it is too hopelessly misinformed to understand the ludicrous crap it is actively shouting in favour of.

An economic ideology that pretends that unregulated markets always tend towards  stable equilibrium is strongly at odds with the trend towards ever larger financial crises that has occurred since neoliberalism was established as the global economic orthodoxy (The S&L Crisis, Russian shock therapy & collapse, The Asian contagion, LTCM, The Argentine default, The Dotcom bubble, Enron, the Eurozone crisis, the global financial sector meltdown and bankers' bailouts ...).

Given the ever growing intensities of these economic crises, and that the ludicrous right-wing response to the 2007-08 global financial sector meltdown has been "more of the same but this time even harder and even faster" ("austerity", mass privatisations, labour market deregulations, tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, refusal to re-regulate the financial sector, attacks on the welfare system, wage repression and deliberate efforts to re-inflate the UK property bubble) the next financial crisis looks set to be even more catastrophic than the last one.

Will the establishment abandon their hopelessly flawed neoliberal pseudo-economic ideology before they create a crisis so vast and unmanageable that the fabric of society itself begins to disintegrate (which would happen if the financial sector fails so badly the state is powerless to intervene, cash machine cease to function, wages and debts go unpaid, money loses it's value, people begin to starve, riots and lawlessness become commonplace, the establishment itself is torn down and looted and those establishment figures deemed guilty of causing the crisis by "the mob" are lynched)?

If you're not a millionaire, neoliberalism doesn't work for you and it clearly defies rational self-interest for you to continue supporting the political parties that promote it. If you are one of the tiny minority of wealthy beneficiaries of neoliberal pseudo-economics who support it because it supports you, then perhaps the unimaginable social and economic chaos that may well ensue if the establishment continues pushing your beloved bankrupt pseudo-economic ideology to it's logical conclusion might one day be enough to wipe the smug, self-interested grin off your face?

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