There are three kinds of therapy our minds tend to apply to life as it is lived in our era. (Well, four if we don’t count binge-watching crime TV where bluish corpses are so grim and several, we think, “Well. Things could be a whole lot worse.” Unless it’s only me who does this on Sundays?)
The first is to take a Steven Pinker or Bill Gates or World Bank type hallucinogen, which allows us to view endless war as peace, wealth accumulation by a few as “billions being lifted out of poverty!” and private financial institutions being really awesome places that just want to, you know, help little ladies, or whoever. See also the cruder antidepressant of a Tony Abbott that allows climate change, if it even exists, to be not a bad thing, but more like free heating for the poor.
The second is to worry a lot about things, but to worry more that worrying about things out loud is to make our world worries worse. This complex anti-anxiety approach can be seen in, say, online responses to a description of a problem. Professor Hooziwhatsit writes that there are 1 billion persons starving on the planet, and then Thingymabob of Balwyn North holds forth in the comments, “Well. It’s all very well and good that you have described the problem, but what’s the point if you don’t have a solution, smarty-pants?” (At which time, Watchamacallit of Waverton might direct them to that nice Bill Gates, or a comforting article that says people are not that hungry, or to an upbeat festival, which promises that the solutions are at hand.)
The third therapy is the most tiring, ergo the least popular. If we see those other therapies as quick-fix drugs or peppy self-help, this is more like talking to Dr Freud for 10 years about one’s mother in the mild hope we can relieve ourselves of a nervous tic. It’s a process of endless diagnosis, which may just help us, and our analyst, to see the origin and the nature of the problem. It could be years before either of us works out how to fix it, and even then, we know it may not be solved in our lifetime. But at least we may die knowing the stuff that we have done on this couch will help a neurotic of the future.
If those first two therapies (or crime drama) work for you, read no further. One must live, after all, and the third cure is only for those who have both time and tolerance for the doctor’s couch. Otherwise, endure the first of a very irregular series that offers no guarantee of anything but frustration. Let’s take a brief look at three books, old or new, that may move us through the treatment process.
1 The Production of Money by heterodox economist Ann Pettifor
This book has, despite its intellectual pessimism, a tight and lively shape, and a very optimistic subtitle: How to Break the Power of the Bankers. This 2017 book may not truly give us a plan for breaking into the banks — we’d need a million with the persuasive pep of Pettifor, who comes across both in text and in speech as a headmistress at the sort of utopian girls’ school where even student Maggie Thatcher would have learned some good economic sense.
No small wonder that Pettifor was one of a handful who predicted the financial crisis of 2007-’08. She understands the power and profitability of the finance sector so well, she is able to explain it to people, like me, whose economic education has been about as solid as air. She takes us through the creation of money itself, and by the book’s end, we are amazed that it could be as easy as that. Banks extend credit, often for no truly productive purpose, and they make money. There’s so much of this made money, but so little of it permitted to arrive at the places where it might actually be useful.
Pettifor loves money. Not personally accumulating it mind; she admires its useful potential. Even the total pinko or the good Christian who feels that money should be abolished can learn from Pettifor how crisis occurs.
2. The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi
This book was published in 1944, but it took muggins until 2017 to find it. This was with thanks to Pettifor, whose work is informed by an economic thinker who is just now being widely remembered. Karl himself, who had some very helpful ideas, didn’t help his own case much by writing like an economist. There’s an occasional zinger here, though, the most famous being that “laissez-faire was planned”.
This is his thing. It is the state that makes the “free market” possible. We can see, in a text written long before neoliberalism, that classical economic liberalism itself devised a series of techniques to brutally impose “freedom” on citizens. He published just as Friedrich Hayek, whom Polanyi knew from Vienna, published The Road to Serfdom which warned of the slippery slope of economic regulation. Let the government plan our market, they’ll plan us into slavery, etc. Hayek’s view remains popular to this day.
Polanyi, the shadow of Hayek, is getting a little attention now thanks not only to his description of the way in which the “free market” requires a lot of state machinery, but for his concept of a counter-movement. The coercive market gets too “free”, and there will be a response. In other words, he helps us understand Trump.
3. Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank
This pessimistic, funny book published last year is the account of a disappointed Democrat. While Frank, who is a cheeky bugger, looks only at the internal disaster of a party that turned more toward Hayek than it did to the “serfs”, he also offers a story that could be more widely applied.
Again, the ardent belief that “freedom” must be expressed in the market had taken hold of another late twentieth century institution. This freedom, that requires so much planning and so much perky talk about how things have never been so good, has filled the DNC, but emptied it of enthusiastic supporters.
That’ll do for your therapy today. Get well soon. Or, at least, before those poor people enjoy too much heating from upbeat climate change.