Who are “the people?” Language games in Brexit and beyond

brexit-e1547639192542Many of us in the UK are sick of Brexit, and it hasn’t even happened yet. We have been living through the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, Brexit as process, for more than three years. Keen political observers and pundits may be among those who are fed up, though they keep a closer eye on matters, and some of them have reporter’s duties to uphold.

One of the aspects of this whole business which is not often examined, with regards to Brexit and politics more generally, is the use and abuse of political rhetoric. I have chosen a few terms that are over-used by our politicians and try to unpick them below. Since they generally pass without question, and are key to how we are persuaded, or otherwise, I thought it would be a helpful exercise. This is part politics and economics, part semantics.

When others are trying to persuade us using rhetoric, one must keep in mind that words are not the same thing as that to which they refer. Words are not reality. Words are symbols used in communication to convey meaning. While it is both inconvenient and practically impossible to contest every word as it is uttered, it should be remembered that ideas and concepts, however we name or describe them, miss out much of the related information that we can potentially perceive with our senses, as well as much that we cannot.

Our sensory experiences are mediated by our nervous system and the ways in which it is structured and has learned to process information. We tend to believe that what we perceive is equal to reality, whereas whatever reality might be, it has been filtered by our often biased and very human brain. Snakes can perceive heat waves, allowing them to “see” in the dark. Humans perceive things differently. This does not make either perception the “correct” reality, rather each one is partial.

Following this digression, I discuss some of the language games of Brexit below. Calling them games may rather trivialise the serious issues involved, so please forgive me for that. Continue reading


Economics and ideology — LARS P. SYLL

Mainstream (neoclassical) economics has always put a strong emphasis on the positivist conception of the discipline, characterizing economists and their views as objective, unbiased, and non-ideological … Acknowledging that ideology resides quite comfortably in our economics departments would have huge intellectual implications, both theoretical and practical. In spite (or because?) of that, the matter has […]

via Economics and ideology — LARS P. SYLL

Wholes and parts: economics in the spirit of Keynes

A nice little post at the link below from Lars P. Syll quoting John Maynard Keynes on what he calls ‘organic unity’. Another way of putting it is that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts. This is the basis for the discipline of macroeconomics as distinct from microeconomics. Modern mainstream macroeconomics insists on ‘microfoundations’ and neglects the concept of organic wholes, which runs against the spirit of Keynes and his wish to establish a distinct macroeconomics.

Organic wholes can be seen as emergent from, but irreducible to their constituent and interacting parts. Thus while one can still pay attention to microfoundations (the parts), the behaviour of a larger whole can be very different from that deduced from simply adding the behaviour of the parts together.

In economics, the parts might be individuals, firms or households, while the larger wholes might be an economy at the national or global level. Of course, one could think of these concepts in ways which reach beyond the discipline of economics, which conflate wholes and parts and provide useful insights: an individual can be thought of as a ‘whole’ rather than a ‘part’, with the parts defined biologically, such as organs, cells etc, with the whole human being and its functioning as emergent from but irreducible to its constituent parts.

Returning to economics, a national economy can be analysed as a part of the global economy, leading to the possibility of certain macroeconomic paradoxes. So an economy can be seen as both a whole and a part, depending on how we look at it.

The unpopularity of the principle of organic unities shows very clearly how great is the danger of the assumption of unproved additive formulas. The fallacy, of which ignorance of organic unity is a particular instance, may perhaps be mathematically represented thus: suppose f(x) is the goodness of x and f(y) is the goodness of y. […]

via Additivity — a dangerous assumption — LARS P. SYLL

A world out of balance

599px-The_Blue_MarbleWhen rich speculators prosper

while farmers lose their land;

when government officials spend money

on weapons instead of cures;

when the upper class is extravagant and irresponsible

while the poor have nowhere to turn –

all this is robbery and chaos.

It is not in keeping with the Tao.

Taken from: Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, verse 53 (Translated by Stephen Mitchell, copyright 1988)


Two types of freedom

“An important strand of Western political thought has been concerned with the distinction between two types of freedom. It distinguishes between ‘negative’ freedom, or freedom from constraints imposed by others upon the individual, from ‘positive’ freedom, or freedom to achieve self-fulfilment and realize one’s human potential. In order to fulfil one’s human potential it is necessary to have access to the physical and cultural pre-requisites for the realization of one’s capabilities. Access to education is the most important of all the pre-requisites for self-fulfilment and access to healthcare follows closely behind in terms of importance for human self-fulfilment. Access to food, shelter, personal security, clothing, heating, lighting, safe water, sewage services, means of inter-personal communication and transport are all necessary for self-fulfilment. A just society is one that ensures through one means or another that all citizens have equal access to the means for self-fulfilment. The pre-requisites necessary for a fulfilled ‘good life’ are a fundamental human right within any given society. If one considers the whole global society as a single community with a collective interest in the common good of the whole global population, then an equal access to the fundamental pre-requisites for human self-fulfilment is a foundational human right for the whole global community. If the notion of a political society as one that seeks the common good for ‘all under heaven’ is taken seriously, then equal access for all citizens to the means for self-fulfilment is a necessary ethical foundation for that society, whether it is the sub-division of a country, a country or the world considered as a whole.”

Peter Nolan (2019), China and the West, Routledge, p.180

Structure, agency and the micro-macro divide

Chris Dillow, Marxist economics writer for the Investors Chronicle, blogs regularly on all sorts of topics at Stumbling and Mumbling. A recent post of his discusses structure versus agency and the neglect of systemic analysis in economics.

Structures and structural forces tend to be left to macroeconomic analysis. In modern microeconomics, individual agency, or the ability to act in order to influence some outcome given a particular environmental context, dominates theory. But structure shapes the environment, enabling or constraining agency. Individuals may therefore act in good faith but be unable to achieve the best economic outcome for themselves in the absence of a favourable context.

Given the limits of human agency in a particular structural context, an understanding of that structure, whether it is an institution such as the state, or macroeconomic in nature, such as the force of competition throughout the economy, can enable a response from policy-makers to try to improve social welfare, or not as the case may be! Continue reading

Ideas and wealth creation

rawA break from the economics (sort of), with a quote from the late social philosopher and eclectic thinker, Robert Anton Wilson, from one of his most popular books (and one of my favourite), Prometheus Rising, which tries to make sense of the workings of the human mind and its role in human development in its broadest sense. Here he is on page 113:

All wealth is created by human beings using their neurons intelligently.

A neurotic young man once went to a Zen Master and asked how he could find peace of mind.

“How can you lack anything,” the Roshi asked, “when you own the greatest treasure in the universe?”

“How do I own the greatest treasure in the universe?” asked the young man, baffled.

“The place that question comes from is the greatest treasure in the universe,” said the Master, being more explicit than is common for a Zen teacher.

Of course, as a Buddhist, the Master had taken a vow of poverty and did not mean exactly what we mean here. But he knew that the brain produces all that we experience – all our pain and worry, all our bliss states and ecstasies, all our higher evolutionary vistas and trans-time Peak Experiences, etc. It is also “the greatest treasure in the universe” in the most materialistic economic sense: it creates all the ideas which, socially employed, become wealth: roads, scientific laws, calendars, factories, computers, life-saving drugs, medicines, ox-carts, autos, jet planes, spaceships…”