What a piece of work is a man

We live in hyper-metarialist times, both financial materialism and scientific materialism. It has become so intense, it is scarcely noticed. Yet its consequences are profound, not least for how we understand economics. The concluding remarks of Adam Curtis’ documentary “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” detail some of them. He argues, using the example of Rwanda — a somewhat long bow — that seeing ourselves, humans, as things rather than creatures with free will — whether it be as like machines (and therefore machines) or as “selfish” genes — allows us both to explain and excuse our habit of doing appalling things to each other.

Curtis highlights one of the central contradictions in the modern anthrosphere. Humans control more and more of nature because of scientific progress, yet our ways of thinking about ourselves are increasingly based on pushing humanness to the sidelines. All for the purposes of excusing and explaining; that is, avoiding moral responsibility. A kind of nausea, perhaps, or despair, whose origins lie in the two World Wars, which has then been followed by a constant succession of murderous conflicts, mostly targeted at civilians. Not to mention the charnel houses of the communist world.

Thus economies are not considered arrangements of human beings freely choosing to behave badly or well, they are thought to be systems subject to impersonal, scientifically identifiable, Market Forces. Capital is in charge, “flowing” about the world like a giant tsunami bending us all to its will (as opposed to what capital really is, which is agreements between people based on an underlying assent about the rules). History is not a series of free choices by the powerful and the powerless, it is believed to be the inevitable march of “selfish” genes, irresistible Hegelian dialectics or some other deterministic impulse. It is no accident that Marxism and the neo-liberalism of the right are both based on materialist assumptions.

“So what?” you ask. “Well, why don’t we put humans back at the centre?” I reply, not expecting to get too far. And in the process put moral thought back at the centre. This, it seems to me, is the proper response to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which is most of all asking us to look at the human consequences of the financial kleptocracy that has almost destroyed the global monetary system. Varoufakis’ discussion on this looks interesting.

It would take a very long time to detail how it could be done, but let’s sketch out a few starting points. First, ditch the pretence of trying to isolate scientific “rules” of markets, whether it be monetarism, Keynesianism or any other “ism”. This aspiration is both impossible and pernicious. When scientists study physical phenomena, the objects they are analysing are not aware of being studied. Molecules, or clouds, or immune systems, cannot change the way they behave because they are aware that scientific laws exist to describe what they do. But humans can. That is why forecasts about what should happen in financial markets are nearly always wrong. Because the traders are aware of what should happen, so do something else. That is why risk pricing does not work, because traders are aware of the risk pricing, so take risks with the risk pricing. And so on.

A second step is to look closely at what humans are like. Let us not call them “laws”; just common sense observations. One starting point is that markets have existed for thousands of years — they are just something we do — and if they are properly policed they are the best way to express people’s self interest (financial markets I consider an exception,; they are more about rule making, legalised violence, and so ensuring their healthy functioning requires a different metric). Consumer markets should therefore be neither demonised nor worshiped, they should be governed properly.

A second sep is to state the obvious fact that self interest is not a panacea, it has limits. The important point about markets is that they do only express self interest, they do not respect collective interest. When a consumer is buying a product, he or she has no interest in the welfare of another consumer buying the same product. Consequently, allowing markets to be applied universally means an inevitable destruction of collective thinking about the wider  social good. Especially as it relates to civic life.  The right, citing Adam Smith and his invisible hand, has, of course demonised such collective thinking as always counter-productive, inevitably subject to the law of unintended consequences, a law so beautifully described by Paul Johnson in his “A History of the Modern World.”

The claim is, of course, in part true. Charity can create the opposite effect. Government legislation can be counter productive. Regulation can create the very problems it is supposed to prevent. Our thoughts are ours, their ends none our own. But to think that is always the case and so a reason to do nothing is rubbish. It is just another reason for eternal vigilance. Equally, to elevate self interest as the only reasonable motivating force, even moral choice, is preposterous. Unless humans in human systems behave with an eye to what is healthy for the common good, there will eventually be no society, nothing to hold things together. Instead the moral courage is needed to try to protect the common good, then try again when there have been failures. Become grown ups, in other words.

A third step might be to hold our social “scientists” to account. They are, for the most part, a bunch of charlatans. There is no such thing as social “science”. Not only is the “object” being observed aware of being observed and reacting to the observation, it is impossible to repeat experiments, isolate causal variables (even correlation is near impossible) and there is no predictive validity. Not a science, in other words. At best a specialised language. This is not just an intellectual error, it is an invitation to serious moral failing, as one of the Naked Capitalist respondents, Hugh, commented last week (I am going to finish this blog with a  few responses). That is, put humans at the centre. There was Hugh, who makes a moral point, about the culpability of practicing such false science:

“I am once again struck by what an absurd body of ideas, or more accurately, self delusions, much of modern economic prejudice-masquerading-as-theory is.”

You gotta love a description like that. Economics is just a form of charlatanism. Reader Jessica asked the right question, “cui bono?”. Who but our looting elites does it benefit? Bringing these two ideas together is the key point. Economics is not just absurd. It is criminal. Its practitioners are not just ideologically driven careerists. They are rationalizers for and apologists of kleptocracy. They abet criminality. The mistake that so many of us make is according a certain degree of good faith to our elites that simply doesn’t exist. The housing bust was 4 years ago, the meltdown was 3 years ago, the European crisis has been going on for more than a year and a half. There is no way that these elites who claim entitlement to their power, prestige, and wealth based on being so far ahead of the curve could remain, in good faith, so far behind the curve for so long and just happen to make decisions and deliver up rationales that benefit themselves so massively at the expense of everyone else. We cling to the idea that these are really good people who are simply wrong, or even possibly bad people but not really bad, because the alternative is so uncomfortable, that they are not like us, that they are criminal, intend to enjoy the fruits of their criminality for as long as possible, and have no intention to act in any other way. They are today’s expression of the banality of evil. They can not be reasoned with. They can only be resisted and, hopefully, one day put away from the society they have so abused.?

Bigsurtree outlines our increasingly contradictory human condition quite nicely:

We live in the Happy Holocene, where man has left his primitive state and the animal kingdom altogether. That’s why we have things like money, the great transcendent symbol of terrestrial autonomy. And we build weapons to protect this chimera. Western Civilization really isn’t much more than a series of wars of ideas with occasional breathing room for resting up for the next one. And of course real bodies have to be sacrificed so the “winner de jour” feels like a true, proud gorilla.

Lonny notes the lack of knowledge about what really drives markets:

This is one of your best ever Yves. I work oil exploration(as an independant producer) up in Canada for more than 30 years have listened (and watched) as legions of experts on commodity price, risk management, geological or geophysical interpretation, or reservoir modelling engineering expound and move forward with ridiculously simplistic models that are laughable in hindsight. Nature itself, and specifically the financial markets which are driven and modulated by selfish and erratic human behaviour is way more complicated than anything our puny, linear-thinking earthling brains can predict. But then again, guessing the outcomes, rolling the dice (aka wildcatting) is way (way)more fun than working at the sausage factory of life.

Paul Tioxin is no doubt correct in isolating the bad quasi-scientific metaphors used in economics (although I think many neo-liberals like the implication that markets are self organising natural systems):

I am not clear that anyone in economics or social science in general was looking to nature, but to the reigning paradigm of Newton’s mechanics. The world and society were seen not an ecological balance but a well crafted machine, with parts, that could be taken apart intellectually and put back together so that by reason we could understand how everything, including human society works.

Monsierbarso on MB nicely describes why we need to stop worshipping self interest:

Left to their own devices, humans are demonstrably biased towards acting in their self-interest and against the interest of others. That is why there are social, legal and other structures to regulate our behaviour. Markets are no different. Whether those regulating mechanisms perform as they are intended is a different question. To conclude the impulse to regulate is a reaction to complexity misses the mark.

The truth is that there are no explanations or excuses. We can’t hide behind selfish genes, market forces, dialectical materialism. There is only moral responsibility and very imperfect means to meet those responsibilities.

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  1. Wow! Watched the Documentary and read the whole article, some paragraphs again. Don’t know what to say or think…

    Humans! A beauty filled with folly. Either that or I just experienced a new sensation (to me), being slightly stifled and very humoured at the same time.

    If there is such thing as re-incarnation, I hope I come back as a tree in the middle of nowhere.

    • dumb_non_economistMEMBER


      Be careful what you wish for, there is no “in the middle of nowhere” anymore ….. is that a chainsaw I hear?

      Don’t expect any change. This was obvious, or should have been many decades ago and nothing, unfortunately, is going to change.

  2. Nice post with a lot of good observations.
    As for studying human behavior and value of the ‘social sciences’?
    In my view you can gain a pretty good understanding of human motivations and behavior from a few hours detailed observations of a chimpanzee colony.
    We really have not come very far as a sentient species yet.

  3. The problem of a mechanistic world view is not limited to social science.

    Scientists are rather prone to illogical conclusions, often based on the assumption that if a machine cannot detect a difference then no difference exists.

    Another favourite one is that nothing important changes with distance or time. Experience suggests that things change in unexpected ways. Who could expect different languages if he had only experienced his own? Or predict oceans if he had grown up inland? Or predict tides?

    Fact is the world is much more mysterious than we like to admit.

    I cringe when I hear phrases like “Scientists now know” used by supposedly eminent scientists when in truth that is just the best theory we have at the moment and it seems to work; that is until a better theory is found, which is what science is about.

    There’s more to life than science admits.

    • Didn’t really enjoy “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace” too Arty, too intellectual for my taste, some of the linking of disparate events/ideas came across as somewhat schizophrenic to my mind.

      Check out Curtises “The Century of Self” for good expalanation of why centre left parties find themselves in the unenviable position of standing for nothing and why only failure of the current system will lead them to rediscovering some guiding principles.

    • “There’s more to life than science admits.”

      Not so. There is more to life than the media portrays science to know.

      “Scientists now know” is media-speak for “most of existing evidence, as insufficient as it is, points to the following being possible, or even likely, with the following caveats…”.

      Science, by definition, admits to knowing nothing with certainty. This is why I love it so much. Science is one of the few ‘philosophies’ (wrong word, but it fits the sentence better) that intrinsically doubts itself.

      Also, your comment “Who could expect different languages if he had only experienced his own? Or predict oceans if he had grown up inland? Or predict tides?” is unfounded.

      There are many things completely outside human experience (at the time, or intrinsically) that science was/is able to predict with startling accuracy. Look at all modern physics research, for a hard beginning.

      • “There is more to life than science admits”

        No, there is more to science than you admit.

        “in truth that is just the best theory we have at the moment and it seems to work; that is until a better theory is found”

        Welcome to the scientific method.

    • RTD, not sure about some of this. Certainly there are things I can predict (ie which weeds will appear in my garden in a particular month of the year), things that I can’t (why the coffee tastes much worse than yesterday), and stuff that I just don’t understand despite my best attempts (dark matter anyone?). The scientific discipline is no different.

      At some point, people revert to what my old Lit teacher called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. For me that limit sits at Newtonian mechanics, though some friends of mine consider me a primitive for that view. I recognise what I can change, what I can’t, what I can influence, what I can’t, and where I can contribute.

  4. SON, Some horific images in that video. Confronts me, my compeditive side let loose leads me to this and my darkness.

    In between your words I think I hear a scream. I certanly have one.

  5. this is a good reflection of where I sit on many of these issues. Like many sciences as many try to find explanations of what they see as seek to find vindication in science of how they see things.

    Each view is part of the picture and very few views attempt to engage in a holistic manner.

  6. My being is materialist, which I dare not despise.

    BUT I am “not only” materialist- I am “more than” materialist. I have consciousness. Therein lies my capacity to hold hands with the devil or the divine.

    Capitalism is a fine science to feed the world. Unbridled capitalism and unbridled self-interest is a dark art that devours everyone associated with it.

    Fine essay Sell on News.

  7. “BUT I am “not only” materialist- I am “more than” materialist. I have consciousness. Therein lies my capacity to hold hands with the devil or the divine.”

    Well, I would argue this is not really so, much as we might be tempted to describe “consciousness” as a property that exists independently of our material beings.

    A sense of consciousness is clearly an expression of material existence, and, as far as we know, nothing else. “Consciousness” has no verifiable existence beyond organic life, in the same way that pain, love, remorse, hope and redemption arise within and are confined to our personal beings. Our understanding of these “modes-of-thought-or-feeling” in others is entirely qualified by our own interior experiences and by our abilities to reason, learn from and communicate with each other – that is, by interacting with others who experience these things that we have agreed to name the same way. (Incidentally, this may not be so if we shared our nervous systems with each other, but so far we have not been able to try this out.)

    This proposition gives rise to another understanding, which is that it must be a mistake to extract or refine the supposedly “materialist” or “mechanistic” components of human behaviour from the supposedly “moral”, “extra-materialist” or “idealising” qualities that we all exhibit to varying degrees.

    These characteristics are all of a piece. They are not “opposites”; nor are they necessarily even “separates”. Rather they simply illustrate the complexity and inter-relatedness of organic existence.

    I think this relates to the difficulty we have in dealing with seeming contradictions – such things as inconsistent data, unintended outcomes, self-defeating systems, dysfunctional processes, moral conflicts, contrasts of scale between the microcosmic and the meta-structural, imbalances in power, and the tendency for “concentrations of opposites” to exist alongside each other, and of our awareness of both time-processes and cause-effect relations.

    We also have the concept of “paradox”, at our disposal. This term describes both an “experience” (a moment of being) and the product of reasoning (a moment of understanding). That is to say, “paradox” captures the psycho/neurological state produced by having to accept the “simultaneous reliability” of mutually exclusive knowledge-sets and at the same time enables us to comprehend, order and describe or “compute” the features of such contradictory information or beliefs.

    A sense of paradox therefore unifies “understanding and being” – it allows us to internalize contradictions – and should be seen as a potential impulse for our behaviours, from the most creative to the most destructive, from the most self-surrendering to the most self-empowering.

    To my mind, to declare that “Economics is just a form of charlatanism” is to oppose the very idea of inquiry into some elements of our behaviour as producers, consumers, workers, savers, managers, owners, donors, voters, parents, care-givers, learners, courting lovers, farmers, fishers, family-members or suburban commuters, among others. It is very strange to think that because we are complicated – even paradoxical – we are inevitably inexplicable.

    On a final note, of course the empirical universe does also exhibit mutability when it is subjected to observation at the sub-atomic level. This was the extraordinary conclusion of quantum mechanics – that it is possible to know where a particle is, or the speed/direction in which the same particle is traveling, but it is not possible to know both things at the same time, because the fact of observation changes the behaviour of the particle.

    So we are like all other matter in this respect. All of our conduct is susceptible to investigation and explanation, whether we wish to cooperate or not. Even non-cooperation is itself understandable and measurable, and, paradoxically, is capable of being accentuated or harnessed or moderated.

  8. SNC, why are you so angry to capitalism and its apologists? Didn’t you read critics on it or you have follow the crowd of those social “scientists”, who, as you rightly notice, “are, for the most part, a bunch of charlatans”? The problem is that anyone who dared to criticize the beloved capitalism was very quickly labeled as a communist (which means mortal enemy) and I am sure that most of us have been enjoying the “golden years” and were very much unfriendly to anyone who dared to criticizes the globalization of capitalism, which gave us GFC and the rest. Everyone loved the young capitalism, the growing one, but when it gets to mature age, you find it ugly and unfit for our aspirations.

    And by the way, just to remind you the Stalin’s and Bush’s ideology: if you are not with us in everything, you are against us and you are a traitor.

    It is very easy now to criticize something obvious and irreversible. Where have you been when it was not so obvious and painful, when those who foresaw the natural stages of capitalism with their consequences for the democracy and contradictions were discriminated and outcast-ed from the “scientific community” as ideologically brainwashed, when actually the apologists were brain washed or just very well paid by the elite you envy now so much. What an irony is the history of mankind thoughts. We are bound to rediscover many truths in life always and only through pain. The politicians love our memory and rely so much on its shortness, like the economists rely on our shortsightedness.

    You are right that experiments in economy are not possible, but knowledge and truth can be acquired not only via controlled experiments. We are not machines, as you rightly noticed and we have conscientiousness and intelligence. Economics isn’t an exact science, it is more a philosophy, because it depends on our world view.

    More than a century ago it was unbelievable and ideologically totally unacceptable for someone to even suggest that the world is changing and capitalism is changing and evolving too. It was a frozen world, that no one could change, because it had been created to BE for ever such.
    Today we have another tool for this same ideological claim, which is much more scientifically based: we are determined entirely by our genes and genetically we are more selfish than anything else and only the market gives us the freedom to express this selfishness, which is the only natural way of our existence. Then why would someone think about others, if we are like the animals and not like any animal, but like the ones at the top of the food chain – the carnivores. It is so convenient for the elite to promote this understanding about the humankind. From something, which was totally opposed and different from the animal kingdom and the nature, the humans are now described as something totally driven by blind genetics and instincts and again we can’t change the world, because THIS IS OUR NATURE and we can’t change it, unless we control our genes, which won’t be achieved so far in the future, but surely won’t be for the benefit of all of us as usual.

    Do you smell again some kind of ideological bias and apologetic? It is always about whether we can change the system or we have to accept what ever it becomes, because IT IS OUR NATURE. We are slowly brainwashed “scientifically” that we can’t change anything, we don’t have free will and we are fighting life like any other animal – by killing and eating the weakest and everything is fare, because it happens to occur on the “free markets” driven by an invisible hand (maybe Adam Smith meant God???, who knows).

    Why would we despise the financial industry, the banks, the poltico-housing complex etc.? They are the best, they deserve what they have got via the free market, they are the genius of the society, the most intelligent, they are at the top of the food chain. Some of us are just a heard of beautiful dears or stupid sheep or helpless rabbits hiding in their holes when the wolves are circling around and waiting for them to come out. It is nature.

    It is true that when something is demystified, like for example the capital was demystified more than a century ago, it doesn’t look so beautiful in its nature. But the true scientific approach to economy is its critics. There is no other scientific approach to economy. Unfortunately exactly this approach was banned by the apologists of the free market “invisible hand”, which means now we don’t have who to blame for the pain, the crisis and its destruction. He is invisible……

  9. I think there are many places where people are reliably not self-interested – friendship and so on.

    These areas tend to ‘externalities’ on which the economy relies.

    California made law a couple of new kinds of companies – both having other goals than maximising shareholder value. This is a hopeful sign (even if it is only the size of a man’s hand).

    The new vision of the self needed is to see that we are our relations as profoundly as we are our protoplasm. It may be that this comes from an ‘ecological’ view of the self (although from of these seem to be frighteningly reductionist), or perhaps from social activism. I certainly hope it becomes prominent soon – I think the signs are that our time is short.

  10. All of this, and, unless I missed it in my quick read, I see no mention of Thomas S. Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Some people should just take a time out until they have read Kuhn.

  11. Cassandra was given the gift of being able to see the future but cursed by the fact that her predictions would always be ignored and thus she would be powerless to change the future.

    This idea applies generally to anyone who can accurately understand and predict the behaviour of systems involving humans. Some people are able to predict the future, but if they can successfully convince enough people then behaviour changes and thus the future does not occur and hence they could not predict the future. The only people who will ever be able to predict the future accurately will ignored, ridiculed, cast out. This puts them in the same bin as crackpots and looneys.

    There are no systems so complex that they can’t be understood and modelled – not even human systems. However, this doesn’t mean we will ever understand them, or have the capacity to model them. Nevertheless, while we have been increasingly enjoying the fruits of our understanding of the physical universe since the dawn of humanity, so will we continue to enjoy the fruits of our understanding of ourselves.

    We need to continue to study sociology, anthropology, psychology and everything else that is considered a “soft science” because sooner or later they will become hard. Our only mistake in the interim will be to misjudge the current level of softness and make hard decisions around it.

    I would concur with the author that this mistake is current practice and I am also quite concerned by the consequences.

    If it does all go pear shaped it will make a useful learning experience for our future civilisation…