OK, you’ve read my thread on the Commonwealth. For those of us fortunate enough to live within its present or former extent, the British have given us the English language, parliamentary democracy, the writ of habeas corpus, Common Law and pretty much every sport worth playing. Democratic politics, both conservative and progressive, trace their roots to British thought. I would even make the case that the British Isles gave birth to positive libertarianism (but that’s another thread).
However, before you leave me pegged as an incurable anglophile, I want to canvass five of the very worst ideas the world has ever seen: ideas which, like weeds, have shaded out and strangled more noble ideas about them by sheer force, ideas which poisoned both mind and body as they morphed into religious cults, ideas which have resulted in the loss of tens, if not hundreds of millions of lives across the world, not to mention disease, starvation and human bondage and misery. Great, stinking, rotten, accursed ideas, every one of which were sown and took root in—England. Specifically, among its comfortably-off, middle-class, left-leaning, elitist academia.
The list is far from exhaustive (more on that later) but these five examples are linked by history, vectors of malevolence and subjugation and—most importantly—by their erroneous key presuppositions. Entire careers have been devoted to each one, and here is no more than a whistle-stop tour, together with what I regard as a common theme.
The Malthusian Theory of Population
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction, and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
Reverend Thomas Malthus (1766-1834) came up with this little gem in his 1798 tome An Essay on the Principle of Population. For any of you unfamiliar with it, Malthus wrote that human populations, like those of bacteria or fungi, will tend to increase until the limitations of food supply precipitate catastrophic events which will reduce population back to a subsistence level. Clearly, Malthus presupposed a) there is a definite (if not strictly calculable) limit to food production, b) humans are happy to live at a subsistence level and c) humans are about as imaginative as the average bacterium. If Malthus himself is any example, that last one might just be true.
Anticipating social Darwinism, the good Reverend was an ardent opponent of England’s Poor Laws, or indeed any attempt at interfering with what he saw as a divinely-appointed natural order of human affairs. Clearly, he took Christ’s aside that the poor you will always have with you (Matthew 26:11) as a divine command, and did all he could to make sure that it was indeed so.
Malthus’ purulent conceptions of population have been so magnificently demolished elsewhere that I’m not even going to start on them here. History has proven him wrong time and again; yet the narcissistic urge to cull the human population of lesser breeds persists, zombie-like, among cliques of “elite” academics throughout the First World—nowhere more so than in England.
If Portugal produces wine more efficiently than it does cloth, and England produces cloth more efficiently than it does wine, but Portugal produces both more efficiently than England produces either, then Portugal should stick to winemaking, England should stick to weaving, and then just buy the other stuff from the other guys.
The arithmetic adds up, all right. But it buggers up everyone (except shipping companies, big business and international banking), and makes sure no nation can ever be truly independent. David Ricardo (1772-1823) was a contemporary and sometimes rival of Malthus. Blinded by the technological achievements of the nascent Industrial Revolution and having built an enormous fortune on the stock exchange (partly by betting, like Nathan Mayer Rothschild, against Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo), Ricardo was completely besotted with the idea that the ultimate goal was the numerical maximum global output of goods. Living in a nation which was a colonial power, his ideas were the sound of giant cash registers ringing to his government (in whose parliament he sat from 1819, as member for one of the original rotten boroughs), which promptly took his theory to India.
India at the time had a thriving cottage textiles industry. But the colonial government made sure that all the cotton and silk production was rounded up, exported to England where, in the steam-powered textiles mills of Manchester, it was “value-added” and sent straight back to the country from whence it came, where both weavers and rice farmers were forced to abandon the trades that had been in their families for generations, and grow cotton instead. The social dislocation was immense. Cotton production in India boomed, as did textile production in England, just as Ricardo predicted it would. The resulting food shortages in India, brought on by the re-allocation of agricultural land from rice to cotton, led to riots which were in no small part the beginnings of the Independence movement. It’s no coincidence that Gandhi himself proposed the spinning wheel as the centrepiece device for the new Indian flag. By law, official Indian flags today can only be made from certified, locally hand-spun cloth. The ashoka chakra Wheel of Eternal Law on the modern flag design is meant to hark back to Gandhi’s original upraised finger to David Ricardo and the government who took away the livelihood of millions of his countrymen.
Ricardian economics is still lurking about today, underpinning institutions like the World Bank and IMF, national specialisation being impractical without a global, top-down system of credit. Global credit means global interdependence and the impossibility of shielding any one country from a system which is the economic equivalent of a house of cards. As we all saw in 2008; toxic debt was the proximate cause of the collapse, but a system which allowed failures to cascade across national borders was the ultimate cause.
Interdependence is the sine qua non of Ricardian economics, but like Malthus, it treats humans objectively, reducing them to a few easily-manipulable parameters. And we just ain’t like that. Not to mention the idea that food is just one more commodity, no different to wristwatches or iPods. The results are predictable: in the end, global collapse; no goods produced, bankers jumping out of windows, humanity decimated, a barren, wind-swept, post-apocalyptic planet inhabited only by roving bands of naked Portuguese. And sober Englishmen.
The value of my scribblings is exactly equal to the amount of work I put into them, not what the market is prepared to pay for them, Shakespeare be buggered. Publishers are capitalist exploiters, but I’ll take their money anyway.
Krackpot Karl Marx and his sycophantic sidekick Fast Freddie Engels were a pair of Germans who found their blatherings drowned out in a European marketplace overcrowded with revolutionary ideas. They needed a receptive audience, and they knew exactly where to go to find one. As a matter of fact, it was actually David Ricardo above who, in 1817, first postulated the labour theory of value (in England, anyway: Adam Smith wrote much the same thing in his 1776 The Wealth of Nations), which Karl in any case happily cut-and-pasted into his own tome exactly half a century later.
Krackpot Karl however, is not nearly as intriguing a character as Fast Freddie. The scion of a minor German textiles magnate, Freddie was sent at age 22, head stuffed with Hegel, to the Manchester branch of the family firm, from which he retired a wealthy man in 1869. He became well-known among London’s left-wing intelligentsia set for his gregarious and free-spending social life, sallying forth on fox hunts and becoming, according to his son-in-law, “the great beheader of champagne bottles”, hosting frequent parties at which “no one left before 2 or 3 in the morning.” Having gained this kind of lifestyle as an exploiter of underpaid mill workers, Engels ranks as one of the modern era’s most significant hypocrites—as was the essentially unemployable Marx, by virtue of his having sponged off the Engels fortune for the last few decades of his life. There’s no polite way to put this: they can’t possibly have believed their own bullshit, or, as per George Orwell’s Animal Farm, believed their own theories at any rate didn’t apply to them.
Marxism went on to pollute every country on earth, divert a great deal of humanity’s efforts into a totally useless “cold war”, and provide the political framework for some of the greatest tyrants the world has ever seen. The way I see it, far more labour has gone into works denouncing Marxism than into works promoting it. What Marxist theory therefore has to say about its own utility, I leave for you to judge.
For us, quality is a replacement for truth in our methodology. We argue that this is quite enough for doing science, and that truth is a category with symbolic importance, which itself is historically and culturally conditioned.
We live in a society which for two hundred years has become increasingly technologized. Virtually every aspect of our lives, from dawn to dusk, birth to death, is either completely controlled—or at the very least, inextricably entwined—with some aspect of science and technology. It’s easy to see how the appearance of radio and television, the progesterone pill, personal computers, microwave ovens, mobile phones and the internet have made our lives today unimaginable to someone from fifty years ago. This gives enormous power to science generally, and scientists in particular, themselves by their nature unelected and beholden to no political ideology, committed only to the uncovering of objective reality by means of the scientific method. Such independent empiricism has long been viewed as dangerous by politicians, and it was always going to be only a matter of time before politics made a serious attempt to colonize science.
And so it came to pass, in the form of one Jerome R. Ravetz. This American scholar, born into a family of communists (though never an official member of the American Communist Party himself, describing himself as a fellow traveller) went to England in the early 1950s on a Fulbright Scholarship, and spent the rest of his career there (his American passport was revoked in McCarthyist era, but later returned) promoting his own brand of science-in-the-service-of-a-political-agenda against the traditional empirical paradigm of Kuhn and Popper. For a guy to go to all the trouble of acquiring a doctorate in mathematics, only to declare that henceforth two plus two equalled whatever the Party Central Committee said it did, demonstrates a kind of bloody-minded determination at the very least.
Once again, it’s been thoroughly deconstructed elsewhere. But the post-normal paradigm not only paved the way for the final toxic idea in this series, but unwittingly attempts to shackle all future scientific endeavour to the fate of its own intellectual antecedents—and very nearly succeeded.
Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming
If an international scientific commission were created today under the aegis of the United Nations, and given the brief of collecting evidence that the moon was made out of cheese, twenty years from now we would be witnessing an unassailable scientific case (with 90 percent certainty) for the immediate and forcible cessation of all dairying industry on earth, together with a multi-trillion dollar investment in lunar cargo ships.
In a real sense, CAGW is the logical outcome, indeed the reductio ad absurdum, of the first four ideas I have discussed here. Founded on a Malthusian conception of population’s effect on scarce resources, seeking a Ricardian global reconstruction of industry and attempting to treat CO2, a chemical compound essential for life, as simply one more trade-able commodity among many, justified by a scientific endeavour whose conclusions were written into its own mandate, and which takes the labour theory of value and substitutes energy for labour, came about through the exertions of a British government (a Conservative one!) for an essentially political purpose (breaking the power of the coal miners’ union). Never mind what the thermometer actually says. It’s getting warmer, and it’s your fault.
Like Marxism, those behind CAGW don’t really even believe their own B.S.—the science of it, at any rate. Ravetz again:
…climate change models are a form of “seduction”…advocates of the models…recruit possible supporters, and then keep them on board when the inadequacy of the models becomes apparent. This is what is understood as “seduction”; but it should be observed that the process may well be directed even more to the modelers themselves, to maintain their own sense of worth in the face of disillusioning experience.
Such monumental cynicism gives the lie to any pretence that Climatology, as it is practised today, is based in any way on the old empirical pursuit of truth. Their paradigm is probably best expressed by UEA professor Mike Hulme who, like Ravetz, essentially concedes uncontested the literal truth of his message is without foundation:
Self-evidently dangerous climate change will not emerge from a normal scientific process of truth seeking.
In such a milieu, all the Climategate shenanigans, peer-review rorts, silencing of dissent and worship of the projections of computer models over direct, raw measurements become suddenly “normal”. Jolly good show!
From Malthus, to Ricardo, to Engels, to Ravetz, to Hulme, a straight line can be drawn.
All these ideas have several aspects in common. They tend to suffer what Joseph Schumpter called Ricardian Vice; that is, though they can be made to appear prima facie internally self-consistent, they do so in an artificial, closed universe, in which man is misrepresented, over-simplified, and whose individual desires are dismissed as irrelevant, and rendered a mere tool of the idea, a cog in a wheel. Factors such as quality of goods and services (as opposed to quantity), which cannot be reduced to a simple number or parameter, are left out of the equation. And without exception, they were conceived by men whose personal circumstances ensured they were comfortably shielded from the ultimate consequences of their ideas—that they themselves, in other words, were above the law.
No idea in human history was ever conceived ex nihilo, and the examples I have shown here are no exception. While promulgated in England, their progenitors themselves sometimes came from abroad, drawing on older intellectual traditions and norms. And of course, every society has had its cranks, charlatans and mountebanks. But it is in England, among one specific sub-class, where these ideas found fertile soil and took root. I’ve given five examples, but I am sure you could supply many others.
Why is this? That is the central question of this thread. Those of you who follow this blog will understand I’m not indicting an entire nation—just one small section of it. What is it about this particular sub-culture, the psychology of this little, self-satisfied society that allowed such evil to flourish? Is there some unique chemistry of, say, stiff-upper-lip stoicism masking a deep self-loathing, an unknowledge of self founded on a Calvinistic mistrust of contentment, together with a puritanical envy and hatred of anyone whom they suspect of being actually happy? The Cambridge Ring meets Basil Fawlty. To borrow from Brucker Bummer, the American Precedent, “it’s a question that’s above my pay grade”.
I’m hoping some of you might shed some light.