IV.2.2: THE TROUBLE WITH ECONOMICS: A RETHINK FROM FIRST PRINCIPLES

Economics isn’t just about money. It is the medium, the matrix, and the mechanism by which we, humanity, can translate our aspirations into reality. Like science, like agriculture, it is right at the heart of all human affairs. If we get the economics and the science right, and embed everything we do in an agreed moral framework rooted in compassion, then, and only then, can we create a robust agriculture that truly serves the needs of humanity and of the biosphere. Then we could achieve the dream – convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere – or at least be well on the way to it. If we get any of the essential components wrong, then we will create injustice, and misery, and wreck the world around us.

These days, we are getting all the things that matter most horribly wrong. Many an intellectual these days, including many an economist, argues that the world is getting better, despite appearances. Steven Pinker makes a good case for this, based as befits a scientist on a mass of data, in The Better Angels of Our Nature (2012) – but a comparable mass of data shows the world in what could be terminal decline. All in all, we see very good things happening, subverted by really bad ideas and bad governance. Overall, whatever the optimists may claim, all is not well – and clearly, the economy and the underlying discipline of economics are largely to blame.

So what’s gone wrong? What can we do to put things right?

What’s wrong with economics?

The deep problem, I suggest, even before we start to discuss the shortcomings of any particular economic system, is that we have misconstrued the nature of economics. First, although economics is often regarded as a science, it very definitely is not – and the distinction matters. Secondly, each economic system tends to be treated as an ideology – the basis of an entire worldview, shaping people’s lives and attitudes as profoundly as any religion; and the fate of humanity and of the biosphere depends absolutely, in the end, on human attitudes. But economics should always be seen only as a means to achieve grand aims – in particular, as is the goal of this College, to create “convivial societies in a flourishing biosphere”. No one economic system should be seen as an end in itself, as if we will somehow have reached Nirvana when we are all good Tories or good Marxists. One of the greatest of all economists, John Maynard Keynes, made this very point the better part of a century ago. For if we ran the economy properly, he said, then economics would:

“take the back seat where it belongs … and the arena of heart and head will be occupied where it belongs, or reoccupied by our real problems, the problems of life and human relations, of creation, and of behaviour and religion.”

(Quoted by Archie Mackenzie, Faith in Diplomacy, Caux Books, 2002, p. 200.)

First of all, then (as with science) we need to ask what economics actually is, and what it is not; and what it can tell us, and what it cannot; and how much store we can put by it. So:

Economics is not and cannot be a science

Here we are in a double whammy. It’s largely because people – including or especially people in positions of influence – treat economics as a science that they grant it such authority, claiming certainty where there can be none, obliging us to live our lives according to some economic formula, as if the formula was a law of physics. What makes it worse, though, is that people (including or especially people in positions of influence) have also misconstrued the nature of science – for science does not deal in certainties either, as philosophers of science, and the best scientists, all acknowledge. So we treat economics with far more reverence that it deserves (at best it can offer guidelines) and treat economists as sages. To be sure, some economic theorists in the history of the world have been among the wisest of human beings – in Britain they include David Hume, Adam Smith, David Ricardo, J S Mill and John Maynard Keynes – but none has ever offered a sure-fire formula. There is no sure-fire formula, and cannot be, and the belief of various societies at different times that they have found one, has always ended in tears. Right now in the world as a whole the prevalent doctrine is that of Neoliberalism. We are all supposed to live our lives according to neoliberal ideas and yet, in combination with misconstrued science and inappropriate technology, framed by very dubious moral philosophy, it is helping to create a deeply troubled world and is threatening to kill us all.

Economics isn’t a science and cannot be because, quite simply, its ideas cannot be tested with the rigour that science tries to apply. Science can at least aspire to show that some of its ideas are wrong, even if it cannot exhaustively prove that any of its ideas are absolutely right – the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But the kind of tests that are needed to provide such insights cannot be applied to economic theories. (Some of this is already discussed in the metaphysics essay (VI.1.1), and will be teased out further when we get round to writing seriously about science.) So economic theories in the end always depend to a significant extent on opinion. The same is true of science to a greater extent than most scientists care to acknowledge – but still there is a clear difference between the nature of science and the nature of economics and in the degree of certainty that each can offer. Clearly some people’s opinions are worth more than others’ but no economist should be treated as a prophet.

Economics and ideology: socialism and capitalism

All economic systems exist at two levels (with quite a lot in between). All at one level provide or make use of a series of particular financial mechanisms – like lending and borrowing money etc.; and all are to some extent rooted in ideology – which includes ideas of right and wrong. Neoliberals make a point of not taking any particular moral stance. They are content to “let the market decide” what’s right and wrong. But that in itself is a moral position. It says that the vagaries of the market can and should be allowed to override any feelings we might have about compassion, or justice, and so on. The word “should” is definitely in there and makes it a moral position.

The two economic systems that have vied for global supremacy over the past 100 years in particular have been loosely called Socialism and Capitalism; neoliberalism is just one – extreme – form of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism have both been defined and construed in many different ways. Advocates of each camp are wont to throw custard pies at the other, or at least at what they construe the other to be, and so dismiss the perceived enemy out of hand; yet, I suggest, as is so often the case, each might learn from the other.

Socialism ought, I suggest, to mean nothing more nor less than true concern for society, as well as for one’s own self and immediate family; very much a moral position. Britain’s Labour Party was officially convened in 1900 as a socialist party in that broad sense, and as Britain’s last effective and properly socialist prime minister, Harold Wilson, observed in the early 1960s,

“The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.”

We surely have no hope of creating truly convivial societies unless individuals actually care about society as a whole, and are happy to devote at least some of their efforts and their hard-earned cash to the general good. Many feel (including me) that the great idea on which socialism is founded is morally right, and is indeed is a sine qua non. Taxes, it has been observed, are “the price we pay for civilization” – and we ought to be happy to pay them; at least provided they are not too onerous, and prevent us from living our own lives, and also provided that the government of the day really does use our money for the general good. The peasants of the late Middle Ages very reasonably objected to the expropriation – theft – of their very hard-earned wherewithal to pay for wars against the French, and nowadays we may reasonably question whether it is truly in the general interest to give taxpayers’ money to landowners simply for owning land (and there are many more such examples from all fields of life).

Socialists divide, though, very clearly, into two camps: democratic and non-democratic.

Britain’s traditional Labour Party was very definitely democratic (at least in intent. Democracy alas is very susceptible to corruption). Governments at all levels had to be elected. Taxpayers may sometimes have been expected to pay high taxes – higher than other parties were promising to impose – but they did so voluntarily, because they could see the greater good that could and often did accrue. In truth, democratic socialism requires a mixed economy: some public ownership and control (where “public” means government, either national or local); and some private ownership. One of the greatest spokesmen for the Labour Party in pre- and post-war Britain was the Welshman Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevan. He is commonly caricatured as a loonie-leftie but in his personal manifesto of 1952, In Place of Fear, he wrote:

“A mixed economy is what most people of the West would prefer. The victory of Socialism need not be universal to be decisive. … It is neither prudent, nor does it accord with our conception of the future, that all forms of private property should live under perpetual threat. In almost all types of human society different forms of property have lived side by side…”

He did of course add:

“But it is a requisite of social stability that one type of property ownership should dominate. In the society of the future it should be public property.”

– but still, as MP for Ebbw Vale, he was a champion of small businesses, in practice defending private property. Those who advocate mixed economies, whether left-wingers like Bevan who lean towards public ownership, or those further to the right who prefer to emphasize private ownership, can properly be called social democrats.

Commonly, though not necessarily, the morality of traditional Labour was inspired by Christianity, and in particular by the Sermon on the Mount. In the mining communities of South Wales, Labour Party socialism and the chapel commonly worked hand in hand. Union activists were often preachers too. The prevailing ambience of such societies and of the economic structure that supports them is one of cooperation: “We all look out for each other”, people used to say (and some still do).

But alas, there are non-democratic versions of socialism too, in which the economy as a whole is centrally directed (by the government) and in which, in extreme cases, the individual can make no personal choices at all. Indeed, at its worst, each individual soul is seen merely as a unit, a component in the great machine. Such societies tend to be ruled by despots and despots are rarely of the kind that are called “benign”. Stalin and Mao Zedong are the greatest exemplars. Both did do some good (people in the Soviet Union had pensions, for example, which they lost when neoliberalism took over circa 1990) and Mao in particular said many good things (as in “Let a hundred flowers bloom” and “Women are half of China”). But the presiding memory in both cases is of cruelty, and of huge and lasting damage to the biosphere. Together, they and their followers got socialism a bad name. Right-wing polemicists like Matt Ridley, zoologist, landowner, former Economist journalist and former chairman of Northern Rock, are wont to equate socialism in general with Stalinism in particular, which is mischievous, but plays to the prejudices of those they are keen to impress.

Incidentally, too, although Stalin and Mao both claimed to be “Marxist”, Karl Marx would surely have been turning in his grave. Marx was emphatically a democrat, and he did care about nature. He would have hated environmental destruction. (See for example Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right.)

Anyway, Britain’s traditional Labour Party came to a sticky end in the 1970s under James Callaghan, finally ousted by Margaret Thatcher; and the Soviet Union, Russia’s empire, collapsed in 1989. Then in the 1990s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown presented us with their newly minted “New Labour”, which wasn’t really socialist at all, and the rumour has got around (helped by people like Ridley) that socialism is dead – tried and failed. But its underlying moral principle – care for society as a whole – is surely right, and although some of its more extreme manifestations have been seriously unpleasant and in the end have failed, there are many examples the world over – not least from Scandinavia – of bona fide socialism that really does work and has brought societies as close as has yet been achieved in the modern world to the good life. Socialism needs to be dusted down and restored to its proper place at the centre of human affairs. Socialism – in its democratic form, and properly “Green” – is a vital player if we seek truly to achieve conviviality.

Capitalism, I used to think, is not an ideology at all since it does not have a particular moral agenda. I saw it merely as a collation of financial mechanisms. But I now think this is wrong. Capitalism as generally understood and enacted clearly does have a moral agenda that on the whole is shared by those who can properly be called “capitalists”. What is true, though, is that people who espouse capitalism overlap with those who call themselves socialists (or used to, before New Labour banned the term) to a considerable degree. That is, some “capitalists” do have a very strong sense of society and seek to use the financial mechanisms that are generally associated with capitalism for the common good. In practice, at least before neoliberalism took over, many if not most of those who voted for the traditional Tory party were not out-and-out capitalists but were social democrats – albeit the kind who leaned towards private ownership. The last two traditional Tory prime ministers, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, certainly were. Both came from business backgrounds (Macmillan the publisher, Heath the son of a carpenter turned small businessman) and both had a strong sense of society. In their day, after all, the Tory Party did have a very strong sense of society. Notably, the Tory manifesto for the 1951 general election, which it won, stated:

“Housing is the first of the social services. It is also one of the keys to increased productivity. Work, family life, health and education are all undermined by crowded houses. Therefore, a Conservative and Unionist Government will give housing a priority second only to national defence.”

Under Macmillan, then housing minister, the Tories built 300,000 houses a year. When Margaret Thatcher introduced neoliberalism to Britain circa 1980, both Macmillan and Heath were among her most outspoken and cogent critics – and now, of course, housing is high on the list, perhaps foremost, of Britain’s various social crises, the supply kept low so as to keep the prices high, in the same way that De Beer’s restricts the supply of diamonds.

Clearly, as is true of socialism (and indeed of all big ideas in all fields), capitalism means different things to different people. But those who can properly be thought of as capitalists do agree on a few ground rules. Most agree that the means of production, whatever those means may be, should in general be privately rather than publicly owned. In general, too, they agree that enterprises of all kinds should seek to make a profit; that they should accumulate capital, mainly in the form of money, which they can then (ideally) reinvest to make more money; that the property owners should be complemented by a class of people – generally a much larger class – who work for wages; that prices and wages should or indeed must be determined by the market; and that the market should, perhaps above all, be competitive.

There are many variations on these basic themes. Sometimes the state itself, or a community, takes over the means of production – but then operates in the marketplace as if it were a private trader. In practice too most capitalist countries including Britain under the old-style 20th century Tories have in truth been right-of-centre social democrats, as was the case under Macmillan and Heath. And so on.

Socialists tend to caricature capitalists of all stripes, just as capitalists tend to caricature socialists. Some capitalists are indeed fat-necked, bloated tycoons driven by greed and gluttony, but some decidedly are not, any more than socialists necessarily, or in Britain usually, wear boiler suits and advocate state ownership of everything. Blanket rejection either of socialism or of capitalism leads the world as a whole to throw out a lot of very valuable babies with the bathwater. It’s a mistake to ignore Marx, as is usual in modern schools of economics, for he had many valuable insights. It’s a mistake, too, to assume that those who are financially astute must all be would-be fat cats.

For in truth, the same kinds of financial mechanisms that produce unspeakable fat cats and Hooray Henries can serve society well, and the world at large, if deployed with a social conscience. Banking, lending with interest, investment in the expectation of profit (albeit small) all have their place. What’s bad is when the desire to maximize wealth, and especially personal wealth, becomes the prime or even the sole motive behind all enterprises, or indeed (as it seems is rapidly becoming the case) becomes the prime motive behind all human action; when kudos and power can be achieved solely by money; when the market rules; and when competition in the marketplace becomes a ruthless, no-holds-barred dogfight. This seems to describe the modern, global economy rather well. As St Paul wrote to his young associate Timothy nearly 2000 years ago, “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). He did not say, as is commonly supposed, “Money is the root of all evil.” As a good Jew he recognized that money always represents someone else’s work, somewhere along the line (or at least it did in those days, before economists learned to conjure it out of thin air); and work should be respected.

But capitalism lost its moral bearings after about 1980, when Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US and then increasingly the rest of the world embraced neoliberalism. The neolibs are ultra-capitalists who believe that everything should be valued only according to its market price, and that virtually everything (down to and including the atmosphere in some instances) should be in private hands, and that all humanity and everything we do should march to the drum of a market that includes all enterprises the world over who all must compete in the global market place with all the rest for maximum profit and market share, as ruthlessly as they can manage. Neoliberalism is the ultimate exercise in materialism and in solipsism. It is crude – unspeakably so – and yet, in the modern world, it dominates. It’s this that’s killing the world – combined, as it now is, with technologies that enable those who are focused above all on wealth and power to acquire wealth and power, and “rise to the top”, and dominate the rest; and make a virtue of this.

Whatever way you look at things, the fact remains that in the modern world and through most of the recent past people who work hard at things that are obviously worthwhile (such as healing, teaching, and agroecological farming) are often poor (truly finding it hard to make ends meet) while others grow rich simply by laying claim to the lion’s share of whatever is going and/or, especially in this age of finance capitalism (see below) simply by fiddling with other people’s money and creaming a bit off for themselves. This cannot be good.

We need to move beyond neoliberalism. Indeed, in economics as in all fields, we need to rethink the whole caboodle from first principles. To begin at the beginning:

Economics isn’t just about money

As we noted at the outset, the nature of the economy has been misconstrued – not least by modern economists. The economic system that prevails at any one time should indeed be seen as “the matrix, the medium, and the mechanisms by which we can translate our aspirations, collective and individual, into useful action”. Economics must have a very broad agenda therefore, moral as well as technical – technical in the way the law, at its best, is technical; rooted in principles that we can all take seriously, but that, like case law, are infinitely adaptable to the realities of life.

But in practice, economics has been reduced to a game of money, and to a search for algorithms: one-size-fits-all formulae. We have largely lost sight of the aspirations that lie behind it, the reason for the whole caboodle – apart from the aspiration to increase money: to become personally richer, as measured in money, and, at a national level, to achieve “economic growth”. The theories that underpin the world’s various economic systems are based, when you boil them down, on hypotheses that are for the most part untestable and in truth are little more than speculations. Yet, as discussed above, the discipline of economics is afforded the status of a science – which in theory at least admits no ideas into its canon that cannot be rigorously tested. Science has serious shortcomings, as discussed elsewhere. But as a source of insights that are truly “objective” and robust it is in an altogether different league.

Economic formulae should not be treated as ideologies!

Worse still, if worse can be imagined: the theories and formulae of economics have achieved the status of ideologies: Marxism, capitalism, neoliberalism: each a kind of religious cult, with its own doctrines and dogmas and – especially! – its own prophets. Governments regularly do things that are obviously silly and inhumane, and fail to do things that are obviously sensible, because they are following the economic theory of the day. So it is that now and in the past ministers from Britain and other rich countries, and their attendant experts, have sometimes advised countries in the throes of famine to sell what food they have because, so the advisers maintain, in the long run full bellies depend on wealth and wealth is achieved through exports. In the same way in the 1840s the people of Ireland were obliged to starve because the potato crops failed, even though there were fields and barns of barley and oats. The barley and oats were for export, largely for England’s horses.

Where governments lead (or the oligarchy in general: governments and corporates in concert with, alas, more and more of academe) – the rest of us must follow. So it is that entire societies are in thrall to whatever economic theory is in fashion, even when (as is usual) the economy spectacularly fails to deliver and is rooted, when you boil it down, simply in the particular opinions of particular individuals who, for whatever reason, find themselves being taken seriously. To be sure, some economists in the history of the world were and are great thinkers and great humanitarians. But the discipline of economics is by nature imperfect. It is not a grand unified theory but a path hacked through the thickets of human nature and uncertainty, and should be treated with extreme caution. The people who are taken seriously at any one time are not necessarily the greats, but those who say what suits the oligarchs, or the would-be oligarchs, and reinforces the status quo.

The goal of this College, which I presumptuously suggest should be the goal of the whole world, is to “create convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere”. We won’t be able to do this (or anything else we might aspire to do) without an appropriate economy, to make the things we need to do possible. So what kind of economy do we need?

Good, necessary, possible

As always, to answer big questions properly, we need to go back to first principles – to ask the three basic questions:

What is it right to do?

What is necessary, if we are to do what is right?

What is possible?

As always, we have at least to hope that what is necessary is also possible – which, mercifully, for now, is still the case. The first question is a matter of moral philosophy. The second two are best addressed through science, and in particular through the science of ecology. So whatever we do – including and especially with the economy! – must be guided by morality on the one hand, and ecology on the other (and all, of course, with metaphysical underpinnings).

I submit that no economy in the history of the world has ever been devised with these two sets of guidelines firmly in mind, although some have come far closer than others. To be fair, this would not have been possible in past ages because the science of ecology is only now being properly developed. But we do have a chance to do things better now and it’s not too late – not quite! – to make a start.

We might usefully begin the discussion right in the middle with the idea that is at the heart of the modern economy: that of the market.

How neoliberalism came about: the putative joys of the market

Neoliberalism is commonly equated with capitalism but in truth it is merely a highly extrapolated form of capitalism; the logic of capitalism pursued to the nth degree (and, some would say, including me, to the point of absurdity).

At the heart of neoliberalism is an absolute faith in the market. If only we allow the market to operate as markets can – in other words, if only we “deregulate” the market, free it from all constraints, including or especially busybody do-gooder governments – then all will be well; or so the dogma has it. Governments worldwide, starting with Britain in about 1980, have gone along with this doctrine, and made a virtue of not being do-gooder, except insofar as it is necessary to protect the market itself or, when all else fails, to stop society collapsing altogether and to prevent uprising.

Such faith in the market began in earnest in the 18th century thanks primarily to the cogitations of two Brits: the Scotsman Adam Smith (1723–1790), and the Englishman (though of Portuguese-Jewish ancestry) David Ricardo (1772–1823). Both were good men by any reasonable standards. Smith was a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, a good friend of David Hume, and a moral philosopher before he was an economist. Ricardo married a Quaker girl, became a Unitarian, and strongly opposed slavery, which in his day was a prime source of revenue; and some of his ideas inspired early socialists (which shows how convoluted this whole subject can become).

Adam Smith

Smith’s most famous idea first appeared in his first book, Theory of Moral Sentiments, published in 1759, but he spelled it out again in the better-known The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. To whit:

“by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, [the individual] intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.”

(The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter 2, Paragraph 9)

In other words – or this is the way his words have been interpreted – if everyone, seller or buyer, simply does his or her own thing, thinking only of their own self-interest, then the market itself – working through “the invisible hand” – will ensure that everything will turn out for the best. Everyone will get a fair deal – or at least, they’ve only themselves to blame if they do not.

The theory behind all this is beguilingly simple. If the market is working well, if any trader cheats – tries to pass off inferior goods, or charges too much – then the customers will soon find him out and take their custom elsewhere. Thus the cheats and the purveyors of shoddy goods will soon be weeded out, and only the good guys will be left; and they will be obliged by the competition constantly to raise their game. So the honest and most proficient traders, and the customers, come out on top. Good result. Win–win indeed. But the joy is that nobody needs consciously to be nice, except insofar as this is good PR. The traders just have to try to make money and to stay in business, and the customers just have to make sure that they get a good deal. No-one has to moralize. Indeed, said Smith (although he was a moral philosopher!) moralizing clogs up the works. Better just to let the mechanism of the market take over. It’s necessary only for society, or for governments, to create a space in which the market can operate with as little restraint as possible and perhaps, now and again, to oil the wheels, and clear up the mess (as of course in 2008).

David Ricardo

Like Smith, David Ricardo wanted the world to be a better place (more justice, more fulfilment) and felt, quite rightly, that appropriate economic strategy was essential if this was to be achieved. But Ricardo’s ideas, like Smith’s, have been over-extended and misapplied – used, as seems to be a common fate of economic theories (and indeed of all big ideas, including those of religion and science), in ways that serve primarily to make the rich richer and consolidate their power. The rich then use their wealth and power to set the tone of the whole society.

The particular idea of Ricardo’s that has found favour in the modern world is that of comparative advantage. This says, in effect, that all countries should focus on producing the things that they produce best and then sell them for the highest possible price on the world market. They should do this even when the things they produce most profitably are not particularly useful; and even at the expense of things that are useful – provided the things that are useful can be imported from elsewhere. Like Smith, Ricardo opposed protectionism – suppression of cheap imports to protect producers at home. Thus he opposed the Corn Laws, which put a tariff on imported cereals, notably wheat, so as to ensure that Britain’s farmers could compete in price in Britain with those of America, say, who had more land and (in parts) more sunshine. The Corn Laws were good for farmers (and hence for the lordly landowners) but they made wheat more expensive and were not good for the rising industrial classes who relied so heavily on bread. He surely would have approved of the current general strategy of agriculture worldwide, which encourages poor farmers in Latin America, say, to give up on crops that actually feed the people and focus on soya and maize for export (to be used primarily for animal feed in Europe and even, in the case of maize, for biofuel).

Smith’s and Ricardo’s ideas clearly complement each other – Ricardo was inspired by The Wealth of Nations. Both begin with the ideas that human beings seek happiness, and that it is the job of the economy to enhance happiness – which in themselves seem morally sound ideas. Both assume faute de mieux that human happiness depends on material security, which to some extent is true; but also seem to assume that happiness must increase as wealth increases – which of course is highly questionable, once we get above the breadline. Both agree that wealth is increased most efficiently through market competition and through trade that is as free as possible. The ideas of Smith and Ricardo are the basis of classical economics, which was transmuted in the early 20th century and onwards into neoclassical economics. The basic message is that the economy works best when markets are left to act freely and competitively, and when governments keep their noses out except when the market fails, whereupon they can use taxpayers’ money to bail it out .(as Gordon Brown’s government started to do, spectacularly, in 2008).

But even though Smith and Ricardo seem to be saying (and indeed did say) that the market and free trade would solve the world’s problems, if only we gave them the elbow-room to ensure that they could both operate to best advantage, both were essentially moralists. Even though Smith suggested that the invisible hand would iron out any glitches caused by dishonesty, he nonetheless seemed to assume that in practice most people are honest, do care about their fellows, and do not in general go out of their way to do other people down. Thus he wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Section I, Chapter 1) that:

“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. … As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.”

Ricardo was the first to acknowledge that his ideas were “domain-specific”. That is, they should not be applied willy-nilly – only when conditions are right. At times, though, his ideas have been applied to all situations as if they were a law of physics, and the world has suffered, and is suffering, accordingly.

But the “free market” approach doesn’t really work, either in practice or in theory. The market is never really “free”; in practice the strongest players call the shots, and so become stronger and stronger until the market is dominated by just a few players. Highly competitive economies are not necessarily the most efficient: cooperation often brings better results more quickly. “Efficient” economies as commonly conceived by economists don’t necessarily bring net benefit to the people at large and certainly not to the biosphere. What matters most overall though is that the market economy has no inbuilt morality, and if none is applied from outside then everyone is likely to suffer – apart from the most powerful players in the market, who pull the strings.

Economics and morality

Most businesses that grew up in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries of course accepted the need to compete for profit in the market and generally sought to maximize what they were best at and sell to the highest bidder. But I get the impression that most businesses and banks also had a moral agenda. They competed but they were not generally ruthless. There was commonly a sense of public service even among the most “faceless” corporates. Some of them some of the time did behave like gangsters – including some of the US railroads in their early days who hired killers to shoot all the bison to deprive the “Indians” of their sustenance, which forced them to quit the prairies and clear the way for the engineers; and those same railways later were handed similar treatment by the car companies. When industries failed – or when they did not seem to be operating in the country’s or society’s best interests – governments took it to be obvious that they should intervene. This was their job, after all – to look after the electorate; which required them to keep the economy on an even keel and to ensure that it worked in the people’s best interests.

So it was that in the 1930s Franklin D Roosevelt imposed the New Deal to bring the Depression to a close. So it was too that all British governments until the 1980s, of all parties, were basically social democrats. They all favoured a version of the mixed economy – some private ownership, and some “public”, including state, ownership. The Conservatives (and traditional Liberals) favoured private ownership and Labour favoured public ownership but they differed only in degree. Both accepted the need for both. In general, until about 1980, politicians and businesspeople alike tended commonly to talk of moral principles. Individual businesspeople and their companies could and did go off the rails and abuse their power (this has been a common theme of Hollywood movies throughout their history) but on the whole, business – honest business – has been seen as the natural underpinning of democratic society. This whole attitude is epitomized by Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946): Stewart as George Bailey is the small, honest businessman, humane and thoroughly “decent”, up against Lionel Barrymore as the deeply unpleasant and totally venal Mr Potter, the banker, who just wants to take him over, and indeed to take over the whole town – one example of what Edward Heath later called “the unacceptable face of capitalism”.

All this now seems like an Age of Innocence, for circa 1980 first Margaret Thatcher in Britain and then her chum Ronald Reagan in the US adopted neoliberalism and this, I suggest, is at the root of all the world’s present troubles – not the sole cause, of course, but a major cause; and the troubles are now so great that they could prove terminal.

Before 1980 I and my contemporaries railed against the evils of capitalism as vehemently as anyone before or since but on the whole, looking back, things were not as dire then as they are now. The differences between then and now are in practice technical, but they are rooted in matters of morality: whether or not economists, and therefore economies, should march to the drum of what Adam Smith’s near contemporary and friend David Hume called moral sentiment. Traditional entrepreneurs in what might be called the olden days of classical and neoclassical economics did of course set out, usually, primarily to make money. A few, like the Quakers, who set up many a powerful company in the 19th century, were obviously driven in large part by moral purpose, a mission to make the world a better place – but they too were hard-nosed businesspeople. Most businesspeople, religiously inclined or not, took it to be obvious that they ought to behave “decently”, as most (surely?) still do. Most traders seem to behave well most of the time, not because of Smith’s “invisible hand” but because of his other grand idea – that there are “some principles in [a person’s] nature, which … render [other people’s] happiness necessary to him”. Most businesspeople agree with James Stewart’s George Bailey that Mr Potter had overstepped the acceptable mark. Some at least of the corporates, the big guys, behaved as if they felt it was part of their remit to deliver some social service, and not simply to do the most profitable thing, either because they were run by basically decent people, or at least in the spirit of noblesse oblige.

But although most modern businesspeople would surely claim to be honest, and on the side of humanity, and most of them surely are moral beings or at least would prefer to be, it no longer seems to be taken for granted that moral sentiment ought to play a part in commerce. Neoliberals, indeed, make a virtue of not being moralists. Their job, they say, is simply to ensure that their own companies are functional and maximally profitable and can compete in the market (and the market should be increasingly “global”). They believe, or seem to believe, that they have fulfilled their moral duty if they simply do their job to the best of their ability – and their job in this neoliberal ambience is to maximize profit; and/or to compete with all the rest, and grab a bigger market share for their companies, and create more wealth in a given time than anyone else. Others simply believe that the invisible hand really does work as Adam Smith said it would. If the invisible hand does work as well as Smith said it should then – paradox though it may seem! – the most moral course is not to try to be a moralist and do good! If the market really does work to everyone’s advantage (because of the invisible hand) then the most moral course (or at least the course that brings most benefit) must simply be to play the market for all it is worth.

Thus some traders who may seem to be behaving with extreme ruthlessness and callousness, and governments of all parties like those of Britain post-1980, claim nonetheless to occupy the moral high ground. They are behaving ruthlessly and callously, the argument has it, so as to protect the market and to increase general wealth – maximize “economic growth” – which in the end is good for everyone; indeed, in the end, is best for everyone. They are being cruel (if indeed that is the case) so as to be kind. Doubters and detractors who claim to be moralists have misunderstood the economy and would, if put in charge, bring the whole society to its knees. Those who seek to keep the market in the best possible heart, and to compete most vigorously with everyone else, are the truly moral ones, even if there is a little collateral damage along the way. Theirs is the only “realistic” course. Thus the present-day Tories, now neoliberal through and through (apart from a few die-hard aristocrats, who are a quite different breed) argue that only they can be “entrusted” with the economy and that woolly-minded socialists would lead us quickly into the mire. Many Labour MPs too of the “New Labour” persuasion evidently agree with the Tories on this. They are good neolibs too. Those who question the status quo, the detractors and the do-gooders – “socialists” indeed! – are seen as self-indulgent dreamers.

When the market economy falters it is the task and the duty of everyone to tighten their belts and rally round (or so the official line has it). That is the responsible thing, and therefore the right thing. So it was that Britain’s Tory chancellor George Osborne imposed a policy of austerity in the wake of the great market crash of 2008. We’re all in it together, he said, although it may not have looked like that to those on the receiving end. Tomas de Torquemada, founder of the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, the layer-waste of heretics, was not more zealously self-righteous or more self-assured than Mr Osborne.

So it was too that the best-known of the founders of neoliberalism, Milton Friedman, was by no means a villain. He was the son of Jewish immigrants who fled to the US in the 1930s to escape from Hitler and arrived, penniless, in the midst of the Depression. So Friedman knew poverty and injustice at first hand. He perceived, as people weighed down by poverty understandably do, that what poor people in a money-dependent country need above all else, in the short term, is money. So the immediate task must be to revive the economy as quickly as possible to get the money flowing again – and this requires, first, that money should be generated, and second, that it must be moved around by trade – buying, selling, lending. President Franklin D Roosevelt attempted to kick start the US economy with his New Deal – in effect taking control of the market economy; bringing it to heel, some might say. But, said Friedman, the money would have flowed again more quickly and more surely if market forces had been left to battle things out for themselves. Roosevelt’s New Deal, though widely praised, in fact slowed things up. Friedman first started developing his ideas in the 1940s when the depression and the New Deal were fresh in the mind, and developed them further in Chicago in the 1960s.

Evidently, too, Friedman believed as people who have experienced real poverty understandably do, that wealth is the sine qua non. That is, if you really want to do good, and if you really want the world to be a better place, then you had best be as rich as possible. Margaret Thatcher espoused this argument. Thus on ITV’s Weekend World on 6 January 1980 she famously told interviewer Brian Waldren that “no-one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well”. She seemed to be arguing that we can’t do good things unless we have money, which surely is stretching a point; and also that the more money we have the more good we can do – which seems on the face of things to be commonsensical but in practice is a highly dangerous philosophy. Some problems can’t be solved by “throwing money at them” and many a grand endeavour from football teams to farms has been turned awry by too much wealth and many of the ways in which money is made in the first place do far more damage than any good that might (or might not) be done later. True philanthropy of course is valuable and in the present economy may be vital (faute de mieux) but it’s the morality that’s the sine qua non. The money is not, and often, demonstrably, prevents good things from happening.

There are other arguments too. Market apologists argue that traders can succeed in the free market only by producing and selling things that people actually want, and are prepared to pay for. Therefore the market ultimately is controlled by the desires of the people. Isn’t that a prime criterion of democracy – that the economy should be directly answerable to the people?

Then again, the traders in the market are exponents of free enterprise – people doing their own thing. Aren’t people doing their own thing what freedom in general largely means? And did not the French revolutionaries emphasize Liberté as well as Egalité and Fraternité? Didn’t the authors of the American Declaration of Independence take it “to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”? If the freedom of the market is restrained, doesn’t this mean that free enterprise is restrained, and isn’t this an assault on freedom itself, universally agreed in the modern western world to be an “unalienable right”? So how can the market be bad?

Then there is a Darwinian – or at least a quasi- or para-Darwinian – argument in favour of the free market, and one that puts a whole new spin on morality itself. For (the argument goes) the free market operates very like nature itself: all-out competition between the various participants. Since the prize is limited – there’s only so much that can be sold – natural selection must apply. The less good traders must go to the wall: and the less good will include the ones who are dishonest and are caught out (as Smith suggested); and the ones that fail to produce the things that people want (in which case they deserve to fail); and the ones that operate least efficiently and fail to make a profit. The survivors – the “fittest” – are therefore the ones who are most honest, most alert to people’s wishes, and least wasteful. How can that be bad?

(There is an argument, too (commonly associated with Friedrich Nietzsche, 1844–1900) which says that all and each of us has a moral duty to strive for personal excellence, and that we should not let concern for others stand in our way. Compassion is for wimps. If we all strive for excellence then humanity as a whole will be improved. It’s doubtful if many of those who now strive to “get to the top” have ever heard of Nietzsche, but they conform to this philosophy nonetheless. Donald Trump in a sense is a Nietzschean. Since Nietzsche is taken seriously in philosophical circles we have to say therefore that Trumpery has respectable philosophical roots. Respectable perhaps, yet surely misguided and in practice vile.)

In short, despite appearances, there are high-sounding arguments in favour of neoliberalism. It isn’t just an invitation to the rich and powerful to become even richer and more powerful, by whatever it takes. At the heart of it is a moral paradox. For if it is really true that wealth is needed if we are to do good – and indeed that the richer we are, the more good things we can do; and if it is true that the free market really does produce wealth most efficiently; and if it is true that the free market really is a necessary component of freedom in general, and that freedom is “self-evidently” good; then it seems to be the case that to do most good in this world we should remove all restraint from the market and let it do its thing – and “all restraint” includes all moral restraint. After all – as Smith suggested – our do-gooder attempts to do good by interfering with the market are likely to make things worse. Ergo, the most moral thing we can do is to stop talking about morality!

QED, some would say. Those who wag their moralistic fingers and try to stop tycoons from doing their thing are doing their fellow citizens no good at all. Those who try to interfere with the market merely demonstrate the adage, the origins of which are lost in history, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Better not to have any good intentions in the first place, and just let the mechanism of the market take over.

So what could possibly go wrong?

What could go wrong?

Many feel that things haven’t worked out these past 40 years as the neolibs promised they should. In reality, the rich have grown incomparably richer while the middle classes at best have stayed where they are and although we are told that many millions have been “lifted out of poverty” a very large proportion remain in misery and many are demonstrably worse off than ever. The collateral damage – to human societies and cultures and to the biosphere at large – has been enormous. There have been advances too, beyond doubt, as catalogued by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature. But it is hard to escape the feeling that life in general could have been so much better for humanity in general, and that our fellow creatures would not be so parlously placed, if only the prevailing economy had not been quite so rigidly pro-market; if it had had some regard for the principles of morality and ecology – compassionate and green. Of course, some argue the case the other way around: that the free market has fallen short here and there because it hasn’t been free enough. That could theoretically be true (just about). But there are good reasons to think that free markets don’t deliver what is truly good – conviviality within a flourishing biosphere – because they cannot. They are not what the world needs,

Here are a few key questions:

Does the invisible hand really work?

The logic behind the “invisible hand” idea seems unassailable. In a market that works really well, with customers who care about what they buy, the inefficient and dishonest traders should indeed be weeded out and the general standard should be raised; and no trader should succeed except by doing what people want, which looks democratic. The theory was backed up by empirical evidence, at least according to Smith; for, he said, “By pursuing his own interest [the trader] frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.” So we have good logic backed by evidence – hallmarks of real science. Certainly, many an economist and politician since Smith has treated his grand idea as if that’s what it really is.

But as real science has often shown, there is many a slip between theory, however solid it may seem, and application. For the invisible hand describes an ideal. It might work as Smith said it might (perhaps there’s a computer model somewhere that shows this) if there was an infinite number of traders on a level playing field, and if all the customers had perfect information and infinite time in which to shop. Then we really might see the bad guys weeded out, and a general rise in standards, by what in effect would be natural selection. But with each and every deviation from the ideal state the hypothetical guiding hand becomes weaker.

In Smith’s day we surely would have found traditional markets with a wide variety of traders competing to sell the same things – spices, herrings, baskets, whatever – just as we still may find today the world over. In such a melee the invisible hand might well come into play, or at least we can see how it could. But in the UK in 2015 Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrison’s – “the big four” – shared 73.2% of food retail (figures from Wikipedia). Full-time home-makers are getting thin on the ground. People are commonly obliged to shop on their way home from work, tired and short of time. They are not, for the most part, knowledgeable. Traditional home-makers learnt cooking from infancy, from their mothers; and accompanied their mothers to the market and absorbed the arts of selection – sniffing and squeezing and haggling. Now in countries like Britain (particularly in Britain) this is less and less the case. True food culture has largely gone. Now people learn about food from magazines that are financed by corporate ads. Folk knowledge is fading fast and information on foodie things is largely controlled by the traders themselves. Fruits and vegetables come polythene-wrapped so the customers couldn’t sniff them if they wanted to. Modern governments, determinedly non-interventionist, seem content with this. Smith’s invisible hand, if it works at all, is, like Ricardo’s notion of comparative advantage, “domain-specific”. Whether or not it works depends absolutely on circumstance. Circumstances right now more or less ensure that it hardly comes into play at all.

There is worse. If the competition in the market is ruthless, and if the total number of traders is less than infinite, then any one trader who starts with even a very slight advantage is likely to grow richer, and expand, and any trader who is slightly worse off than the rest will fade commensurately. In the same kind of way cosmologists tell us that stars and galaxies, great masses of concentrated matter, grew out of what in the beginning was a perfectly “smooth” universe, with no concentration of matter at all. The slightest irregularity in the pristine cosmos magnifies as time passes, at the expense of the rest. The slightest advantage in the marketplace is likely to lead to dominance. This initial advantage (or disadvantage) may have nothing to do with merit. Luck plays a huge part. In any case, what most of us would call merit – the honest sale of high quality goods – doesn’t necessarily triumph. In the short term at least, good salesmanship counts most, and for those who lose out in the short term, there is no long term. In short, if we start as inevitably we must with a less than perfectly level playing field, and just let things rip, the rich tend to grow richer while the poor are pushed aside. In fact, unrestrained markets tend inexorably towards monopoly.

To be sure, modern governments and the world in general take pains to prevent monopoly. There are laws against it. Among other things, monopolies threaten government itself, precisely because they are so powerful. But governments like Britain’s do seem well content with oligarchy; an irreducibly small elite of players – in practice corporates – who don’t quite have the field to themselves but are hugely powerful nonetheless and in practice (although there are laws against this too) may operate as a cartel, mutually supportive. Just to be cynical, this suits politicians too, who can play one corporate against another and join the board of one or other of them when they retire. It is, some might say, a stitch-up. The truth is that those who seek to justify the free market in the name of Adam Smith, and play the market best and rise to the top, make it impossible for the market to operate in the way that Smith envisaged. The most zealous advocates of the free market tend to form an oligarchy. In short, the invisible hand, in real life, does not work.

In truth, too, even if the invisible hand worked as well as Smith said it should, it still would not guard us against frank miscreancy. By excluding meddlesome moralists the advocates of free markets leave the way open for an “anything goes” approach. The market itself becomes the arbiter of morals – whatever people will pay for is ipso facto “good”. For traders, the only imperative is to maximize wealth. True, traders are meant to comply with the law – but large traders in the form of corporates routinely employ armies of lawyers to clear the legal pathways, alongside armies of accountants who work out what in any one circumstance is the most profitable course. Thus, for example, those who pollute the countryside are fined (once the law catches up with them, which can take some time). But it may be far cheaper to dump whatever is foul in the local river and pay the fine, than it would be to improve the modus operandi. Besides, the law takes ages to run its course, and the right to appeal creates yet more delays, so that any fine that is payable is long deferred and can be discounted accordingly. To the offending companies, in a free market economy without morality, the law itself can simply be seen as a “cost”.

People who behave in unsocial ways to maximize their own wealth may properly be called gangsters. To be sure, the roots of the neoliberal economy were in part benign. Some at least of its founders and its advocates genuinely thought, and think, that the mechanism of the market left to do its thing would benefit humankind in general, by increasing general wealth – and many (most?) people in modern societies have tended to assume that this must be a good thing. J F Kennedy no less, by no means a neolib, spoke of “the rising tide that lifts all ships”. But an economy that is freed from outside constraint, moral and ecological, and makes a virtue of competitiveness and wealth, also clears the way for gangsters. Gangsters may reasonably be seen as sociopaths – lacking what Smith called human sympathy; and as noted elsewhere, there is, in fact, a higher proportion of sociopaths among the rich and powerful than in the population at large. Entire countries, too, including Britain, in effect behave as gangsters with their hugely biased trade deals and land grabs. Taken all in all, an economy that makes a virtue of its lack of morality is a very dangerous entity indeed.

Whatever happened to social justice?

Justice, and the related concept of fairness, are fundamentals – moral principles so deeply embedded that they are built into our biology, and shared by other intelligent creatures (dogs, meerkats, monkeys, apes – wherever biologists care to look). Many feel, in the cause of justice, that everyone should have the same income; although in practice this is not achievable and would not necessarily be just if it were, since some people need more than others, and those who work hard at socially worthwhile tasks, like teachers and nurses, surely deserve more than slackers who do things that are of little or no real use to anyone (even though, of course, that doesn’t happen). Some would rather do very little and earn very little than work all the hours that God made and earn a lot – a sentiment with which I have much sympathy. (If only genteel poverty were possible in a world where it costs a fortune just to put a roof over your head).

But although absolute equality may not be possible or even desirable, we should at least draw up some guidelines. No-one – surely? – should be so poor that they cannot afford the necessities of life, plus a bit more. Common sense and observation too tell us that on a finite planet we need to a large extent to share – and the very rich clearly have more than their share. It’s clear, too, that the extreme wealth of the few, leading as it does to extreme power, can and does restrict the lives of others; and it is a prime principle of morality that no individual has the right to interfere with the lives of others (unless they are mandated that right), even though emperors and kings and – nowadays – the very rich, have often assumed such a right. Apologists for the status quo, keen to demonstrate that the world is getting better under the gentle guidance of the free market and the ruling nation states, like to boast that over the last few years N million people and especially children have been “lifted out of poverty” (the stats differ depending on what point is being made) – but we ought to be asking why it is that in a world where the top one per cent are seriously rich, two billion people or thereabouts still live on less than two dollars a day, and almost a billion are chronically undernourished. Such unfairness predates neoliberalism, of course, and cannot be laid at its door. Clearly, though, the free market does nothing to correct the discrepancy – and in net is making things worse. Milton Friedman himself acknowledged that the free market does not deliver social justice. If we really do want a better world, neoliberal economics must be declared unfit for purpose.

Margaret Thatcher and others argued and argue that the extreme wealth of the few “trickles down” to the rest of us; indeed, those who are able to accumulate wealth should do so, since by so doing they can help the rest. Anthony Trollope expressed the same idea in his novel of 1875, The Way We Live Now. The banker, Augustus Melmotte, tells his would-be clients:

“What is the engine of this world? Profit. Gentlemen it is your duty to make yourself rich!”

Trollope was being ironical. Melmotte was very obviously a villain. Mrs Thatcher and many since meant it for real. To be sure, the very rich can and do provide jobs for cleaners and cooks and internal designers and landscape gardeners and so on, and hire pop groups and string quartets to entertain them, and some have founded factories that employ many thousands. But many people too are robbed of their traditional livelihoods by the ambitions of the rich (vide Donald Trump’s golf course in Scotland, which seriously compromises local farmers), and even when the rich do provide jobs, they tend to stay a great deal richer than their employees. “Guess what”, said then-President Barack Obama, “Trickle-down does not work!” But of course, though billed in his time in office as the most powerful man in the world, Obama could do very little in practice to counter the idea that it does.

Whatever happened to values?

The market is about money: competing to make as much as possible in the shortest possible time. The (highly dubious) moral justification for this is that with more money we can do more good – to which we may respond: “Up to a point!” The values of the market are entirely, or primarily, materialistic. What we might call “human values” – compassion; spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual fulfilment; conviviality – are treated as incidentals. The biosphere gets a look-in only insofar as “natural resources” may save us money by providing “ecoservices”, including flood control; or earn us money and so increase GDP through, say, ecotourism.

Market zealots argue that the market can deliver all the good things of life, if only we make our wishes known – and are prepared to pay. You want culture – theatre, music, libraries, or a countryside to roam in? Fine! Just pay for them. So it was that in Britain under Thatcher for the first time in some decades people found they had to pay to get into museums and art galleries. In the 1960s it cost me nothing to go to university, although now students must take out loans that may take a lifetime to pay off and British universities fight to attract foreign students who are prepared to pay more than native Brits. In my day scientists who accepted commercial money were pressured to resign their university posts, lest their studies be compromised. Now it is hard to get a university position without commercial backing. In the 1980s I wrote reports for the old Agriculture and Food Research Council – a network of government-backed research stations throughout Britain that fed useful results and new varieties directly to farmers. All in all the AFRC was a wonderful institution – truly the envy of the world. Under Thatcher most of the AFRC research centres were closed or privatized; perhaps the greatest act of state-sponsored vandalism since the dissolution of the monasteries. Nowadays the National Health Service, one of the jewels of British post-war politics, is hanging by a thread. And so on.

To some extent it does make sense for people to pay at the point of sale for what they want. I certainly don’t mind paying to visit wildlife reserves, for instance, or museums and galleries. If everyone was paid a fair income (as is always possible) then everyone in a rich country like ours would be able to afford such indulgences – not, usually, enough to support the museums or reserves entirely, but certainly enough to make a difference. But good things cannot be supported at all unless they are truly valued – unless people at large see the point of them; and they cannot be made available to all if only a minority can afford them. In short, it does make some sense to apply market forces to the good things of life – but this becomes deeply unjust, and socially destructive, if those same market forces ensure that some people can afford to indulge every passing whim, while others struggle to stay alive.

In the early 1990s I found myself on a council that sought to conserve, not to say rescue, one of Britain’s great institutions which was concerned with animal conservation (or at least, that is what some of us thought it was for). But in those Thatcherite years it was considered smart – hard-headed, “realistic” – to talk about “the right-hand column” and “the bottom line”. The right-hand column records all the income and outgoings from any particular item – labour, raw materials, etc: and in the bottom line all the figures in the right-hand column are totted up, to show overall profit or loss. Before the late 1980s the great institution with which I was involved had not bothered itself with such vulgarities. It had influence in government, who until then could be relied upon to make good any shortfall, and to pay for new ventures. But in the Thatcher years, institutions of all kinds, including the most august, were expected to pay their way.

Up to a point this is fair enough. All great institutions with a big purpose in life could spend indefinite amounts of money if they were given their head. The NHS, if it did everything that modern medicine is capable of, and everything that people would like, could easily swallow up the entire national budget. It’s true, too, that great institutions (including the one I was involved with) do tend to waste money – and this, as many a moralist has pointed out, can be considered a sin, for money represents other people’s work and whatever is wasted in one context might have done useful things in another. So yes, of course, all institutions must take care of their finances and that includes paying their way as far as possible. The entrepreneur Jim Slater observed in the 1970s that no-one should trust a company that doesn’t have an accountant on the board, and that goes for non-commercial institutions too.

But Slater went on to add that “No-one should trust a company that has more than two accountants on the board!” In other words, accountancy is not all there is. It’s easy to become obsessed by the bottom line and hence to lose sight of what the organization in question is actually for. The institution I was involved with in the early nineties was intended to conserve animals, not least through research and education. But when some of us on the council drew attention to this the hard-heads tut-tutted. Worse, the main tut-tutters were not themselves accountants, but academics with the zeal of the convert who had learnt accountant-speak. For what the information is worth, all the real accountants I have known have had a broad sense of values; one with a penchant for ornithology, aspiring to be a small farmer; one an evangelical Christian; all very nice people. I have no wish to insult accountants. But accountancy, like economics in general, must be seen to be “necessary but not sufficient”.

Thus, as outlined above, John Maynard Keynes argued that in a better world than we have made economics would “take the back seat where it belongs” – and be seen only as a means to greater ends.

You may feel, though, as many do, that all this is taken care of by the concept of “the triple bottom line”, also known as TBL or 3BL, first proposed in the early 1990s by the writer and entrepreneur John Elkington. He retained the general idea of the bottom line as a way of assessing progress but, he said, we should not focus on money alone. We should also take account of the social impact, good or bad, and the impact on the biosphere.

Well, money plus society plus biosphere certainly improves on money alone, and the TBL idea has had a gratifying impact. But still, I suggest, it won’t do. The finance should always be clearly seen as only the means to the end; and the ends are always moral and social (convivial society) and ecological (a flourishing biosphere). Manners and customs differ from society to society, but as argued elsewhere, fundamental moral principles should be seen as an absolute: especially those of compassion and humility, and a reverent attitude to the biosphere; and the world’s ecology should be taken as a given – the world as it is, to which we must adapt. So those two, morality and ecology, must be our guides. Sound finance is necessary, but it should always be seen only as the mechanism. It is absurd to say that we cannot do good things because we need to stick to the economic rules. Within ecological limits, we can create economies that will do anything we want them to do. The economy itself should not be setting the rules or defining the goals. Money must not be given, or seen to be given, equal status with the grand goals. Economists and accountants, as Winston Churchill said of scientists, should be “on tap but not on top”.

But, just to hammer the point, the neoliberal economy gives more than equal status to money. Money – the creation of wealth – is the supreme goal. The market itself becomes the arbiter of morals. Give or take a few taboos, such as child pornography, whatever people are prepared to pay for is OK. In the US guns (“personal side-arms”) are OK in large part because they are big business. The biosphere is left to take pot-luck. Mass extinction is written off as “natural selection” and natural selection is good because it is natural (which at the very least is bad philosophy, as discussed elsewhere). If two or more sets of values are in conflict, then it is taken to be self-evident that the most profitable should win. That is considered “responsible” and “realistic”. Thus venality assumes the moral high ground. If it is more profitable to drain a mangrove and build a casino than to leave it alone, then we can be pretty sure that the casino will be built, and the tycoons and politicians who made it happen will contrive to convince the world, and themselves, that this is good; that indeed it is “progress”. Progress towards what?

Yet the “free” market, in effect a quadrille of corporates, is only part of the modern economy – and in practice not the largest part. The market after all deals in goods – real things, including things we really need, and which by any reasonable standards are good, as well as a great deal of junk. But most of the modern economy deals not in real things, but in money. Money is not a real thing, useful in its own right. It is a symbol of real things; an abstraction.

But in the modern world the abstraction has taken over. The process by which this happens is called finance capitalism.

Finance capitalism

Once money has been generated by producing and selling (or indeed before it is generated) experts of various kinds – financiers, brokers, bankers – seek ways of increasing the amount by a whole range of methods that are often arcane and sometimes downright devious. These include lending with interest; buying a share of the action, with a commensurate share of the profits; buying cheap and selling for more – though without necessarily handling the goods; changing currencies of fluctuating value one into another, and then changing them back again. Not all of these devices are intrinsically bad. Often people need to borrow money so that they can buy somewhere to live or get their business going, and so on, and the lenders surely deserve some “return” since all lending is risky and to some extent inconvenient (in its simplest form it means that the lenders, until the debt is repaid, can no longer make use of their own money – although banks lend money and claim interest without actually owning the money they lend in the first place, so lending seems to be no real hardship).

But again, as with the market that deals in real goods, the whole caboodle is liable to go sideways from time to time, and then may do a great deal of harm to a great number of people and to the biosphere at large. It surely is incumbent upon all members of the human community to behave “responsibly” – which implies that those who live by lending money should not grant loans to people who are clearly desperate, and/or impose interest rates that accumulate over time through compound interest and so may blight people’s entire lives. But this happens routinely, not only at the level of back-street spivvery but on the international scale, leading for example to huge national debts, which commonly fall on the “Third World”. More generally, those who are skilled at the various wiles of “trading” these days exchange fantastical sums in a day – more money even than most nations would dream of – by sitting in front of a computer screen. They skim off a proportion of the money that passes across their screens for services rendered, and the sums involved are so vast that the amount skimmed off is huge too, even though the percentage of the whole may be small. Sometimes the enterprises in which they are vicariously involved benefit from their interventions, and some of those beneficiaries are doing good things. But the traders don’t know whose lives and landscapes they affect, and it’s not their job to care. So their little games may wipe out entire industries and ways of life, not to mention the odd forest or sacred mountain, in passing. But that, we are given to understand, is how life is; and, apparently, is how it has to be.

More fantastically yet: the money that changes hands in such copious quantities never actually exists. There is no chest of Spanish doubloons as in days of yore, or even of printed notes. Only figures on a computer screen; a few displaced electrons on a micro-chip. In truth the money is merely deemed to exist. Modern bankers may lend huge sums (usually, as Mark Twain observed, to people who don’t need it, though sometimes in recent years to people who did need it but had no means of paying it back); but only to a very limited extent do they actually possess the money that they lend. They merely have the right to deem that the money exists, and hope that by the time it has to be paid back, someone’s labour somewhere will ensure that it does exist. Usually, to be fair, by the time the debts do need to be paid, the necessary money has been generated. But sometimes it hasn’t, and then we see the most almighty crash. The latest grand implosion was in 2008, and in 2017 we ain’t out of the woods yet.

Most of the modern economy is of this kind: not dealing in real things, for real benefits, but a game of money, and this is what is known collectively as finance capitalism.

None of this would matter, perhaps (except that it all seems a little unsavoury) if finance capitalism was just a game, like Monopoly, say. But it isn’t. Its machinations dominate the world’s economy and therefore determine the way we live, and can live, and the state of the biosphere. For although the vast sums ostensibly generated by the money market don’t actually exist in any tangible form, they can nonetheless be spent on real things. So men and women who grow as rich as an old-style archduke without moving from their computers can use the non-existent money they are deemed to have earned to buy things that are real – up to and including archducal estates if they so choose, to match what they perceive to be their status. Right now in Britain, where such behaviour is positively encouraged (it is seen to increase GDP, after all), it’s the smart thing for those who have made their fortunes in the city to buy farms in the country. They rent out the bulk of their new-found land to local graziers or to contract carrot-growers and keep a patch near the farmhouse for their ponies and a helicopter. After all, we can always get our food from places with more sunshine and lower safety standards, provided we stay on good terms with people who have oil, for example, and are really really rich, and perhaps have a few big bombs in the locker. That, roughly, is the official line.

In short – as seems to be true of so many things in so many contexts – the kind of economy we really need, that could deliver justice and keep the world in good heart, is almost the precise opposite of what we have. Compassion and care of the biosphere must be its guidelines. Short-term material gain very definitely should not. The economy should primarily be cooperative, with competition reduced to friendly rivalry; not the devil-take-the-hindmost punch-up that now is considered de rigueur. As always, democracy should be preferred to rule by oligarchy. The economy should focus on things that truly bring benefit to humanity and to the biosphere; not simply on whatever it may be that makes rich people richer. It is not beyond the wit of humankind to devise such an economy – and indeed, the mechanisms for doing this are already out there. Together they are the stuff of economic democracy.

Economic democracy

As intimated above, the economic mechanisms that have now produced such a distorted world are not all bad in themselves. The injustice and destruction that have now ensued mostly derive, in the end, from the conceit that is central to neoliberalism: that it is safe, and sensible, to liberate the market and finance; and that we should remove moral restraint and what most people would consider to be common sense, and put our faith in algorithms – once-and-for-all, all-purpose, economic formulae that are given the status of scientific laws. In short, the belief has been that the mechanisms of the market and of banking can, if left to do their thing, produce a world that is good to live in. All around us, at the micro-level and on the grand scale, we can see if we look with unprejudiced eyes that this just isn’t true.

Yet some at least of the mechanisms can be turned to good account. We merely need to constrain and tailor those mechanisms so that they serve us, and the biosphere. Right now it’s the other way around: we are obliged to conform to the dictats of the economy, and of the oligarchs who dominate the economy.

The kind of economy the world really needs is commonly called economic democracy. It has three main ingredients:

Social enterprise

The tripartite mixed economy

Ethical investment

In addition, the economy as a whole must be

Green

Circular

No-growth

So:

Social enterprise merely means that all businesses, of whatever kind, should strive to bring net benefit to society and more broadly to humanity in general, and/or to the biosphere. Such enterprises should make enough money along the way to keep afloat – “wash their face” – but maximization of wealth is not their raison d’etre. Thom Hartmann records in Unequal Protection that in the early days of the United States, corporates were required to show that they brought social benefit, or else they were not allowed to operate.

The tripartite mixed economy: I first got this idea from Martin Large’s book, Common Wealth; it is an extension of the well-established idea of the mixed economy which is the basic economic mechanism of social democracy – and was the norm in Britain and the west in general before Thatcher and Reagan swept all before them with neoliberalism. The traditional mixed economy combines private ownership and control with public ownership and control – where “public” in practice means control by governments, whether national or local or anything in between. Martin Large and others, however, have added a third component to the mixed economy – which could and perhaps should become the most important of all: community ownership, where communities are defined either by geography (the village; the neighbourhood) or by common interest (the Honourable Company of Fishmongers; the county Wildlife Trusts; Tranmere Rovers Supporters’ Club); and so on.

Communities can be big enough to have real economic clout (some supporters’ clubs have bought their own football club) but also small enough to be democratic – and members of communities, unlike members of nations that are run by faraway oligarchs, are likely to take a real interest. Particularly promising are various community initiatives worldwide to take control of farms (as in Community Supported Agriculture, CSA); and community buy-outs of land, as by Terre de Liens in France, and the Ecological Land Cooperative in Britain. If all British farmland was community-owned and placed in trust we could ensure that it was farmed well by farmers who really care what they are doing, and this would go a long way to stabilize food prices. More of this elsewhere. This would cost surprisingly little: around £8000 a head at present prices, although in practice this probably comes down to around £5000 per head since we don’t really need to buy every last hectare, and some land is already in trust and some that is in private hands is already very well managed. £5000 isn’t much if paid back over a lifetime; a term at Oxford, say, or the price of a five-year-old Skoda.

As outlined above, too, all 20th century UK governments of all parties, before Thatcher, were in truth social democrats, favouring the mixed economy. The conceptual gap between Macmillan and Thatcher, or between Bevan and Mao Zedong, was far greater than between Macmillan and Bevan. For the advantages of the mixed economy are obvious. Sometimes private enterprise really can deliver, and sometimes public institutions can be best – like the NHS; and both at their best can be highly convivial. Community ownership can combine the qualities of both – and might with advantage in the fullness of time become the principal player.

Ethical investment means what the name implies: that people who have spare money to invest should invest only in things they really believe in (including small mixed farms and local markets). Like all investors, ethical investors must follow the standard guidelines; that no-one should invest more than they can afford to lose; that investors should really understand what they are investing in; and that any enterprise that offers more than the average return should be treated with extreme caution. In general, too, given that most truly good enterprises (like, say, microdairies) have a very difficult time in the present economic climate and can be slow to get going and often fail, returns on ethical investments are generally low, and in practice many ethical investors can expect merely to get their money back. But many people are content with this. They like to know that the money they or their parents spent their lives earning is doing good things, and not just stoking the fires of some offshore corporate.

Green simply means that the economy, however structured, must always be designed to minimize damage to the biosphere, and wherever possible to enhance biodiversity and resilience. It should not only be unlawful to do otherwise, it should be unthinkable.

The circular economy requires us to devise methods of manufacture and farming, and indeed all human activities, that do not simply turn raw materials into waste that has no further use, or indeed is toxic. Recycling is part of what’s needed, but not the whole. The bigger point is to manufacture whatever we need – motorcars, say – in ways that enable us to dismantle them when they are past their best and re-use the bits that have a long lifetime (as many bits do). Ideally, too, ad-hoc rental of the things we need – cars for instance – would start to take over from ownership. The manufacturers would remain the owners – and, perhaps ideally, the factory, the “means of production”, would be owned by the community. The manufacturer–community–owners would then have a vested interest in ensuring that their goods last as long as possible – as opposed to the present arrangement, by which it pays the manufacturer to build in obsolescence, so their customers must buy again.

Finally, the whole world needs to move as rapidly as possible towards the no-growth economy. In fact, it would in theory be possible to create a growth economy – increasing disposable wealth – without diminishing the fabric of the Earth – if all components of everything we buy and sell were “renewable”, ultimately powered by sunlight, with every ingredient recycled; and clearly, the circular economy helps to achieve this. But we need above all to abandon the idea that we need to grow richer and richer year by year, and generation by generation, and that there is virtue in this and that it represents progress. There is a material level below which it is difficult for human beings to achieve fulfilment or even to survive, but once we are even slightly above that level, and have security, that’s enough. After that the task is to build socially and culturally – which can be very cheap, and may need no material input all. Conversation is 70 per cent of sociality and costs nothing (and silent retreats are remarkably convivial too). In short, we should be seeking to create a no-growth economy.

It is all eminently do-able. The economic models we need are already out there. How is it, then, that the leaders of the present world have embraced the present nonsense with such zeal? Why do the rest of us put up with it?

Why do we put up with nonsense?

I reckon the world has fallen foul of three kinds of mistake.

First, as discussed above, we have misconstrued the nature of economics; allowed it to assume the status of an exact science when in truth it can be no such thing; treated its ideas as dogma by which to live our lives. In short, the neoliberal world of the west has allowed itself to be ruled by its own economic doctrine no less decisively than the Soviets did under Stalin, or the North Koreans under Kim Jong-un.

The second grand misconception lies in the standard modern concept of progress. Progress these days is equated with increase in measurable wealth – “economic growth”; a steady rise in the arcane abstraction known as “GDP” – irrespective of the means by which wealth is produced, or how it is used, or who it finishes up with. Progress, too, is equated with smarter and smarter technology, which usually means science-dependent “high” technology. But all innovations have a downside, and advancing technologies have often put people out of work and brought entire cultures to a stop, and sometimes to a shuddering stop, leaving men and women to scratch an existence as best they can. Technological advance has brought many benefits and surely is necessary (most of us have very good cause to give thanks for the benison of modern medicine). But it is crass to assume that technological change per se is good. It is good only when it makes the world more convivial and secure, and often it does the precise opposite. The world must continue the debate that was begun in the 18th century, not least by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and continued through the 19th and 20th centuries by the Luddites, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, William Morris, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich and E F Schumacher, on the proper balance of machine and craft. Indeed, the whole phenomenon of “work” needs rethinking. The rise of smart technologies and robots in particular has added a new urgency to the discussion. The new machines of the Industrial Revolution threatened many a craft. Now all traditional livelihoods are under threat, including those of the intelligentsia who once seemed impregnable. Indeed, high tech even in its present form threatens to make humanity itself obsolete.

Finally – though this is not often articulated – progress is conceived as order a giant exercise in tidying up. On the grand scale, “Man” (the portentous term for humanity at large) contrives to knock nature into shape. Rivers are straightened and deepened, post-senescent trees that once supported rich ecosystems in their slowly diminishing carcasses for centuries at a time are cleared away, gardens are preferred to wilderness and farms are reconceived as factories. On the social scale, power and wealth are concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, until the whole society, and indeed the whole world, is run top down by an oligarchy. Everyone knows their place, be it ever so humble. It’s all very neat. Messy cogitation of the moral and metaphysical kind is replaced by algorithms – sure-fire once-for-all all-purpose formulae; notably, these days, the algorithm of the neoliberal free market, which is sweeping all before it. All any of us needs to do, apparently, is to produce more and more stuff more cheaply than anyone else and flog it to the highest bidders, and all will be well. No more messy moralizing; no more old-style politics. Indeed, as Francis Fukuyama absurdly assured the world in his best-seller of 1992, we are witnessing The End of History. All we need are aggressive producers to stoke the fires of the free market, financiers to magnify the proceeds (or give the illusion of doing so) and bureaucrats to keep the rest of us in order. To substitute machines for human work, bring the wilderness into production, replace thinking with algorithms, and install an all-seeing bureaucracy, is what progress is now perceived to mean. Conviviality and reverence are for the fairies.

When this is spelled out it all seems the most terrible nonsense – so why do we put up with it?

Much of the answer, I suggest, is as outlined in the essay on governance (IV.1.1 on this website): the positive feedback loop. Some people are doing well out of the status quo, and they form an oligarchy with an entourage of dependants: chauffeurs and landscape gardeners, scientists who rely on the powers-that-be for grants. The oligarchs call the shots – set the tone of the entire society. They also control the main lines of communication, from ads through newspapers to academe. Consciously or otherwise they impose their own spin, and it’s hard for those with alternative views to get a look-in. So the status quo is perpetuated. Those who are doing badly are led to believe that things would be even worse if the oligarchs were not in charge; and, clearly, most of the oligarchs believe that too, despite all the evidence to the contrary. The great machine of neoliberal economics and finance capitalism, of science geared to high tech of a lucrative kind, and bureaucratization, has the power of a juggernaut and can carry us all, if unchecked, pell-mell to the buffers. What can we do about it?

What’s to be done?

What’s needed, as always, is Renaissance: complete transformation achieved not simply by step-by-step reform, nor by all-out no-holds-barred revolution, but by rethinking everything from first principles and, where necessary, starting again. Renaissance, as always, is achieved by starting from both ends. On the one hand we need to rethink – what we are trying to achieve, and how to go about it – and this, of course, is the function of this College. On the other hand, we need individuals and groups simply to start doing the things that need to be done; setting up small farms and local markets, often, though not necessarily, community-owned; taking farmland into community ownership; and establishing new economic/business models that are geared to the needs and aspirations of the people (the society as a whole, and the individuals within it) and of the biosphere. We can never afford to lose sight of the grand goal: convivial societies (with personal fulfilment) in a flourishing biosphere.

The thinking and the remodelling should not take part in sequence, rethinking first and then starting to build new enterprises. The two must build together – an exercise in co-evolution. We should in fact mimic human evolution, the process by which our lineage became special. Hands and brains evolved side-by-side, synergistically, each feeding off the other. Brains are very expensive organs to maintain. They need to pay their way. Our ancestors would never have developed big brains if they weren’t already blessed with the manipulative hands of the primate, able to refashion their immediate surroundings in all kinds of subtle ways. Pigs are very bright but their hoofs limit what they can do, so they would gain little by being brighter. As the human brain grew larger, in the woodland edges of Pleistocene Africa, it set harder and harder tasks for the hands to cope with, requiring them to do more than simply grip, and peel fruit, and groom fur. So our ancestors’ hands were under selective pressure to up their game as well – and the more dexterous the hands became, the more they challenged the brain. Another positive feedback loop. Eventually (in a very short time, by evolutionary standards, so the fossil record suggests) we had thinkers like Albert Einstein and moralist–artists like Yehudi Menuhin. In the same kind of way, new economic thinking and new ways of doing things can and will egg each other on. We can see this happening already.

The economic/business models we need to make use of don’t necessarily have to be “new”, and certainly not new in every respect. As intimated above, many or most of the economic devices we need are already out there, though often swamped by the juggernauts of corporates and big-time finance. For the most part, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We merely need to rediscover and re-invoke what already exists (and that to a large extent goes for the law, too. Often in reality the law is more on the side of people who want change than of those who use it to protect the status quo. But that’s for discussion elsewhere). This is a key difference between Renaissance and revolution. Renaissance requires us to identify the good things that are already out there, and build on them – and at least for the time being, there is plenty. Revolutionaries tend to want to start with a clean slate. But the collateral damage in a revolution is enormous (much of it social and psychological, and not so easy to spot) and the wounds may never heal. Sometimes revolution is necessary but if possible it’s best avoided.

Already there are many new enterprises and models out there that are laying the foundations of the Agrarian Renaissance – and therefore of the Grand all-embracing Renaissance that the world so clearly needs. Some are visible, tangible, up-and-running businesses, exercises one way or another in social enterprise, including farms and bakeries and breweries and charcuteries, and various forms of people-friendly markets – including local markets and food clubs and those that operate online and by post. Others are developing new ways of doing things; new (or at least re-created) business and financial models. These include brokers who deal in ethical investment (some more astute than others, as is the case in all things). Various groups such as the Ecological Land Cooperative seek to acquire land, to be dedicated to enlightened agriculture. The Transition Town movement aims to transfer more and more power to local communities. Other organizations, such as the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and the Permaculture Association, are promoting particular forms of husbandry of a kind that are clearly in line with the real needs of the world, human and otherwise.

I wrote about some very promising new enterprises of the tangible kind in Six Steps Back to the Land. Walter Lewis has now written up a whole lot more in Unlikely Heroes: The Story of an Agrarian Renaissance. Worldwide, there are many, many thousands of good things happening.

Even so, as things stand, all the new enterprises taken together, certainly in Britain, form only a small part of the whole food “industry”. We need them to take a bigger and bigger share. Eventually – sooner rather than later – we need the ways of Enlightened Agriculture with all that it implies to become the norm. So the question arises – how is the transition to take place?

The way it should not be done is the way that is favoured and recommended by the government and the rest of the powers-that-be in general. (Again we see that the powers-that-be have an uncanny ability do the precise opposite of what’s needed.) We should not for the most part be trying to “grow” small enterprises into large ones. The ideal for all kinds of reasons (including, actually, the one that Adam Smith alluded to) is to build a network of small enterprises: each no bigger than is needed to be viable; each owned and/or governed by individuals or groups who keep the purpose of the enterprise well in mind, including or especially the social and moral purposes, and lavish tender loving care accordingly. Scale-up can have advantages but it also tends to mean cutting of corners; increased expenditure on things that wouldn’t otherwise be necessary – with the need to make more profit to pay for them; obsession, in consequence, with the cutting of costs (beginning, often, with sacking people in the name of “efficiency”). Excellence tends to take a back seat – or serves merely for PR. As an Italian friend told us: “When an Italian opens a new restaurant he or she then seeks to ensure that it is the best restaurant it can possibly be. When an English person opens a new restaurant he or she immediately thinks of starting a franchise.”

Network is the operative word. In an ideal world, we, humanity, would run our affairs in the manner of the nervous system: a neural net; many different, ever-shifting centres of power. We would not, as we tend to accept as the norm, run the whole thing as a hierarchy, with a despot at the top – or, as in countries like Britain and the world as a whole, with oligarchs at the top. Certainly, the neural network model is harder to operate than the hierarchy (just as democracy is harder than feudalism) but it remains the ideal nonetheless, and the nearer we can get to it, the better. So we don’t need, as now, a few mega-powers, super-rich and super-powerful corporates, and banks that are “too big to fail”. We may need a few big enterprises for special purposes (building ocean liners for example), but for most purposes including most of agriculture we need thousands and thousands – or millions and millions – of small enterprises. But the small enterprises must be interlinked as far as possible, in all kinds of different ways, so that they really do form a coherent network. We don’t need a majority on side in order to change the world. We just need enough – a critical mass. After all, even in Britain, which sees itself as a model of democracy, governments in recent decades have rarely won more than a quarter of the available vote and yet have wielded enormous power. There is no hard evidence that I know of but there is very good reason to think that the world already contains enough small enterprises and enough people who see the need for change to form a critical mass, which in a true democracy would be seen to be the biggest group. But the mass doesn’t become critical because the many different players do not cohere. Coherence is vital: coherence of worldview and of action. Again, that is what this College is for: to achieve coherence of thought and at least to encourage coherence of action.

In summary, if we are truly to create a better world then we need three things. The greater, the tone-setter, is morality. We have to want to foster conviviality. We have to care about the biosphere and truly to want to see it in good heart. Compassionate and Green must be the guiding principles. The greatest single change we can make, perhaps, is to cooperate, rather than compete. But moral principles must be put into action and for this we also need good technique. Craft is the basis of technique, rooted in traditional knowledge and abetted by science and appropriate technologies (including both traditional and science-based, “high” technologies). Finally, though, we also need the kind of structure that will enable the technique to be applied in ways that are truly good – for the general benefit of humanity and the biosphere and not simply to enrich and empower the most ambitious. This requires a sound economy. We surely have the ideas that are needed to make the world work well, but the best ideas are marginalized. But the world’s moralists do tend to be dreamers, and the most financially savvy tend to be self-seeking – wanting above all not to serve their fellows but to be rich and powerful.

What the world needs above all, I’m beginning to think, is moralists – in practice in the form of green socialists – who are financially astute. They certainly exist, but they are not the norm.

Colin Tudge, 18 April 2017

Some further reading

Ann Pettifor: Just Money: How Society Can Break the Despotic Power of Finance, Commonwealth Publishing, Margate, [c.2014].

Martin Large: Common Wealth, Hawthorn Press, Stroud, 2009.

Thom Hartmann: Unequal Protection, 2nd edition, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, c.2010.

Terry Eagleton: Why Marx was right, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011.

Walter Lewis: Unlikely Heroes: The story of an Agrarian Renaissance, Independent Publishing Network, 2017.

Colin Tudge: Six Steps Back to the Land, Green Books, Totnes, 2016.