Saturday, March 2, 2013

The inconvenience of voters


This week's Economist cover (and accompanying article) garnered almost a thousand, mostly hostile, online comments and deservedly.

This was not because some of its criticisms were not germane (especially of Mr Berlusconi whose attraction to Italian voters remains to me a complete mystery except when you consider the immense media tailwind afforded by his owning much of it)!

It was because of its unconcealed contempt for voters - democracy is theoretically applaudable unless it gives the 'wrong' answers and like many centre-right newspapers that means if the voters (either in their pain and bewilderment or their intelligence or a confused mixture of both) question the dominance of the market.

This peculiar entity, 'the market' (always reified) is not fashioned by human hands and is apparently to be worshipped at all costs lest it wreak terrible revenge - like destroying the euro in a fit of wrathful peek! (It should, I think, never have been invented and should now be dismantled, undoubtedly painfully, sadly).

Italians should have voted for the saintly Mr Monti whose policies have mollified the 'market' and failing that the 'centre -left' (if suitably chained and restrained by Mr Monti) as a second best alternative instead they have voted for a political insurgency of an uncharacterised kind and a crook and crooner (rather than a clown). This is explained away by 'The Economist' as simply the electorate not 'facing reality'.

It was T.S. Eliot who suggested that we cannot bear much by way of reality but, if this is a common failing, it is one undoubtedly shared by the Economist who five years into the most serious economic crisis since the last one when the 'market' not made by human hands was allowed full reign, has still not questioned any of its own assumptions.

Financial markets if left to their own devices generate deceptive complexity and quickly diverge from any real economic activity into varied forms of fantasy - whether tulip speculation in the seventeenth century or stock markets in 1929 or credit default swaps in 2008. It is precisely because we cannot bear much reality that we need tight and binding rules anchoring 'money' to real world activity, to the adding of actual value to real things rather than fostering 'growth' (another word that tends to get reified).

In an undoubtedly very confused way the Italian voters see this and they blame politicians for failing to recognise this and to serve those actual needs of people preferring to feather their own nests by feeding our collective fantasies over 'growth', 'markets' and 'free lunches'. Likewise the UKIP result in England on Thursday is not on the whole a vote 'for' UKIP as against a political theatre that has become radically divorced from people's sensed need for secure anchoring in confused times (and probably against a government so improbably incompetent as only plausibly to be the creation of fantasy).

As is the 1930s, the choice is stark - listen to the people and reconfigure the world (and rein in finance) so that the polity can become again secure and real (the Roosevelt option) or choose a faked alternative (fantasies of left, right and a confused popularism). Our present leadership deficit is a very interesting one in either category (inspired or deranged), everyone comes over as a muddy version of grey. This is of its own sparing comfort if there are no Roosevelts in view neither is Mr Berlusconi or Mr Grillo a Mussolini in waiting. Be thankful for small mercies!

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