Sunday, November 16, 2014


Excarnation - a word I'd never heard of before two weeks ago, and have heard several times since. Here's Richard Kearney explaining it, during a superb broadcast on the nature of evil in the 21st century:

It's true that our contemporary postmodern communications-digitalised age is one where we are in a sense immunised from others in this space, which is very safe. It's very vicarious, sometimes it's voyeuristic. We're living at a distance, a bit like Plato's figure of Gyges, you know, his ring. He can see everything but nobody can see him. And in a way the culture of internet and Facebook and so on in extraordinarily rich and creative in terms of putting us into contact with so many people... 
But the other side of that is that you're in your little bubble, where you are presenting a face, and seeing faces, and at a safe distance. So what seems like universal interconnectedness, or interdependency to use a Buddhist term, is in fact in many respects an extraordinary form of isolationism, where all these little autonomous sovereign egos in front of our screen. 
I think Charles Taylor makes a very good point in his book A Secular Age when he says that our contemporary society is very often guilty of what he calls "excarnation," that we have become more and more and more disembodied. We've kind of entered into an immaterialism. Materialism is denounced as the great evil of the age, and that's a certain kind of consumerist commodity materialism and I agree. But actually it's an immaterialism of living in a spectral, vicarious simulated world - which is how indeed the whole advertising commercial industry lives.
Excarnation explains a lot about the strangely dissociated world many find themselves in nowadays. On the one hand we have 'Faceboast' turning us into narcissists, defined by Simon Blackburn (in a zeitgeist-ful essay called Know They Selfie in Aeon magazine - whence the image above):
The narcissist is not so much conceited – where there is a relationship of arrogance or contempt towards other people – as solipsistic, or in a world where he is the only person. Thus in the original myth, the only voice that Narcissus hears is that of the nymph Echo: in other words, his own voice thrown back at him. Others are invisible and inaudible. And we are told that eventually the erasure of other people kills Narcissus. In his self-absorption and self-obsession, he is as good as dead.
Not everyone loves themselves, like Narcissus. Instead, we have epidemic levels of loneliness, depression and suicide. All of them, in one way or another, a result of excarnation and the loss of real community and shared purpose that goes with 'an immaterialism of living'.

What to do about it? In E F Schumacher's last book - A Guide for the Perplexed - written long before the invention of the selfie, he quotes Theophan the Recluse (1815-94) on how to deal with the distractions of 'excarnation' thus:
For so long as the mind remains in the head, where thoughts jostle one another, it has no time to concentrate on one thing. But when attention descends into the heart, it attracts all the powers of the soul and body into one point there.
Or, to paraphrase Timothy Leary: log out, turn off, join in...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Citizens Not Subjects

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty five years ago has been rightly celebrated these past few days. It marked the end of an experiment in centralised economic control that had clearly run its course.

The debate about how much further we can or should go with decentralising the economy - and politics - is, if anything, gathering momentum. Chris Dillow asks the question, if 'command and control' economies were such a bad idea, then why shouldn't the same process of 'decentralisation' be applied to 'command-and-control' corporations?

I think he has a point - though not necessarily from the Marxist perspective Chris brings to bear. Clifford Longley argues in Just Money: How Catholic Social Teaching can Redeem Capitalism that we need to strike a new balance between the State, the Market and Civil Society. Funny enough, I think the emerging ethos of transparency (sort of) in relations between citizens and government, consumers and businesses might nudge us in that direction.

I love the UK Government's initiative to make the tax system more transparent by sending every citizen a statement showing how their income tax and national insurance contributions have been spent. Something that would have been unheard off on either side of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago. Perhaps the Irish Government will follow suit - some time in the next 25 years.

We are citizens not subjects nor comrades, and we must remember that not all walls between the holders of power and the rest of us are made of bricks and barbwire.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Losing Control

Once again, Japan points the way (and we don't want to go there):

In short, everything the central planners have tried has failed to bring widespread prosperity and has instead concentrated it dangerously at the top. Whether by coincidence or conspiracy, every possible escape hatch for 99.5% of the people has been welded shut. We are all captives in a dysfunctional system of money, run by a few for the few, and it is headed for complete disaster. 
To understand why, in all its terrible and fascinating glory, we need look no further than Japan.
via Hang The Bankers

Do read the rest, perhaps with Joy Division's Control playing in the background:

And she showed up all the errors and mistakes,
And said I've lost control again.
But she expressed herself in many different ways,
Until she lost control again.
And walked upon the edge of no escape,
And laughed I've lost control.
She's lost control again.
She's lost control.
She's lost control again.
She's lost control.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Beyond Banality

"Really, Doctor Cors, the evil to which even you should have referred was not suffering, but the unreasoning fear of suffering. Metus doloris. Take it together with its opposite equivalent, the craving for worldly security, for Eden, and you might have your 'root of evil', Doctor Cors. To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law - a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security."
From A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr.
A recent break in Krakow, Poland took me on a day trip to Auschwitz. It left a lasting impression. As I walked around the huge complex of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which at its 'peak' employed some 7,000 people, I kept thinking of Hannah Arendt's comment on the 'banality of evil'. She was not suggesting - as her detractors unfairly inferred - that the industrial scale mass murder that took place in the extermination camps was somehow trivial. Far from it. She was simply trying to grasp how evil on such a scale could happen and the answer was obvious:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
There are plenty of psychopaths and sociopaths in the world, but not enough to run a death camp. Indeed, as Kevin Hart observes in a magnificent, two part series on the implications of evil for the 21st century on ABC's RN (easily the smartest religious programme in the English language):
The Holocaust, Auschwitz was the great passion of the Jews, as Emmanuel Levinas says, and in completely agreeing with that I would add that it is a passion also, or should be, for Christianity. The most horrifying thing for Christians, it seems to me, the twentieth century, is the thought that the people who murdered Jews in a mechanical way at Auschwitz all knew their Catechism. 
The two part series also features Ireland's greatest living philosopher-in-exile Richard Kearney. Well worth the listen for that alone (although there's much, much more besides).

Another philosopher, John Gray, has recently analysed the problem that modern, liberal societies have with evil:
In its official forms, secular liberalism rejects the idea of evil. Many liberals would like to see the idea of evil replaced by a discourse of harm: we should talk instead about how people do damage to each other and themselves. But this view poses a problem of evil remarkably similar to that which has troubled Christian believers. If every human being is born a liberal – as these latter-day disciples of Pelagius appear to believe – why have so many, seemingly of their own free will, given their lives to regimes and movements that are essentially repressive, cruel and violent? Why do human beings knowingly harm others and themselves? Unable to account for these facts, liberals have resorted to a language of dark and evil forces much like that of dualistic religions.
Gray goes on to argue that - just as war is 'politics by other means' - so politics has become 'religion by other means':
In Europe religion was a primary force in politics for many centuries. When religion seemed to be in retreat, it renewed itself in political creeds – Jacobinism, nationalism and varieties of totalitarianism – that were partly religious in nature. Something similar is happening in the Middle East. Fuelled by movements that combine radical fundamentalism with elements borrowed from secular ideologies such as Leninism and fascism, conflict between Shia and Sunni communities looks set to continue for generations to come. 
Bad news for the Middle East, but surely irrelevant to us in the secure and comfortable West? Surely we are immune to the virus of politics-inspired evil? Surely not, for as the infamous Milgram Experiment back in the 1960s illustrated, ordinary people can be persuaded by others in positions of authority - the experts in white coats - to do harm to others, even up to the point of, apparently, killing them. Nor was it just about authority. Recent analyses of feedback given by participants in the experiment (those 'duped' into thinking they had electrocuted others, even to death) showed not remorse, let alone horror at what they had done, but rather an exhilarating sense of belonging to something bigger and more important than their own, mundane lives: in doing their bit for science and for mankind. What would you be willing to do for the great project of Science and for Mankind?

The question I have asked myself since visiting Auschwitz is: could it happen again? Nowadays we don't even know our Catechism. Our contemporary culture of relativism might make it harder for a 'Hitler' to get going, but might make it even harder to stop him if he did. Which is why Angus Kennedy thinks we need a renewed focus on morality:
What has emerged from the wreckage of traditional, ‘bourgeois’ morality is not – despite appearances to the contrary – liberation from stultifying moral orthodoxy and routine like some butterfly from a wheel. Rather, the waning of the force and authority of traditional morality was itself a precondition for the emergence of non-judgementalism. That is to say, the seeming strength of today’s non-moral code is an illusion caused by the weakness of any alternative. Traditional morality has no more bite than the teeth of the Cheshire Cat. What is left is at best a morality of repudiation, verging on moral nihilism, espoused by moral nothings in a discourse in which nothing means very much at all. This is a moral mirror world in which it appears as if the virtuous ones are those who have liberated themselves from the moral strictures of society, but in which the real truth is that society is deeply troubled by the idea of genuinely individual judgement, of being moral. What passes for virtue today is really the pretence that one has escaped at last from oneself.
Morality, of course, implies an understanding of the Good as opposed to Evil. Therein lies the real challenge for the 21st century if we are to avoid re-visiting the horrors of the 20th.  In the absence a compelling vision of the Good - and all that implies for how we must live and how we must treat one another - then a vacuum is created, in our society and in our hearts. We need a vision of the Good that is about more than avoiding suffering and craving security. Otherwise the fences we build will soon become our prisons.

Friday, October 31, 2014


Judas Iscariot on the meaning of the word politics:
"Poli from the Greek word meaning 'many'; ticks meaning 'blood sucking organisms'."
A line from Simon Callow's magnificent performance of The Man Jesus last night in the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. Catch it if you can.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Physics of Debt

I recently came across Keith Weiner's theory on interest and prices. He likens zero interest rates to a black hole:

First, zero interest is like a singularity. I have repeatedly emphasized the fact that debt cannot be paid off; it cannot go out of existence. It is only shifted around. Therefore, regardless of whatever nominal duration is attributed to any bond or loan, it is in effect perpetual. At zero interest, a perpetual debt has an infinite net present value.

The next part of the analogy is the strong gravitational pull from a very far distance. The rate of interest has indeed been falling since the high of 16% in 1981, and it was pulled in to a perigee of 1.6% before making an apogee (so far) of 2.9%. The analogy still holds, objects spiral around and into black holes; they do not fall in directly.
With a growing part of the global economy struggling to pull away from both deflation and zero interest rates, it's obvious that something unprecedented is happening right now. It's happening in Ireland too:

Source: Trading Economics

What is the source of 'gravity' that is pulling our economy towards the event horizon? The answer, obviously, is debt. Ireland is in the premier league (along with Japan) when it comes to total national indebtedness (households+government+businesses): which by analogy means we're trying to escape the gravitational pull of a super massive black hole. Ultimately the developed world is learning the hard way that - in Andy McNally's phrase - 'debt is a sociopath', one that starts by killing equity and then moves on to the rest of the economy.

So how do you escape from a black hole? The first thing you do is stay away from them. Which in Ireland's case meant not joining the euro. Unfortunately, as Megan McArdle points out, it's too late for that - path dependence has its own gravitational influence:
As I noted the other day, the fact that you can avoid some sort of terrible fate by stopping something before it starts does not mean that you can later achieve the same salutary effects by ceasing whatever stupid thing you have done. It would have been painless just to not have the euro. But it will be painful indeed to get rid of it.
So now we're close to the event horizon what are our options? In Weiner's model, the actual event horizon is when debt passes the point where it can no longer be amortized - the interest on total accumulated debt becomes can no longer be funded via tax revenues and additional borrowing. We're not there yet, so maybe there is still time to escape.

As a small open economy we can still do things that a larger economy - or eurozone - cannot do. For example, creating new, parallel currencies is one option. A balanced budget is another (Budget 2015 forecasts a net increase in borrowing of €5.2bn), which would at least slow our trajectory down. And the biggest option of all is debt forgiveness - though alas that'll only be tried when it's probably too late.

Where's the warp drive when you need it?

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Political Chernobyl

"The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies." Robert Conquest's Third Law of Politics
Irish Water looks like one of those issues that's going to run and run - or leak and leak, depending on your preferred metaphor.

But here's a thought that should exercise the minds of our political masters and betters: just think what will happen when the first Irish Water bills arrive in January 2015, along with a severe winter the like of which we haven't seen since, oh, 2010?

Add large, unaffordable bills to thousands of burst pipes and you get... Political Chernobyl.

Best pray for global warming so.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Passionate Intensities

Work has prevented me from blogging lately, but sometimes I do get the chance to explore ideas at gatherings and conferences etc.

Below is the text of a talk I gave recently - more of the scaffolding than the final building, but you should be able to get the gist of it. The theme was ‘changing lifestyles, values and behaviours – what’s happening below the radar’.

Passionate Intensities

I thought a handy title for my talk would be ‘Passionate Intensities’, a play on that well known passage from Yeat’s ‘Second Coming’, written in 1919:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I want to talk about some of the passionate – and sometimes dispassionate – intensities shaping the moods and lives of Irish people today as I observe them through my work, and to speculate about what they might mean for the future, both near and far.

But I don’t want to be all gloomy, even if I do subscribe to the old Russian adage that ‘a pessimist is a well-informed optimist’! So I will talk about change below the radar in terms of the good, the bad and the ugly, with a view to stirring your own passionate intensity for further discussion!

The Good

Resilient Recovery
Yes, there is a recovery, especially in Dublin. Economic sentiment is a little ahead of economic reality, but it helps in terms of most people seeing a better future ahead, and it’s all quite recent.
Young people in particular are positive about their prospects and choices, even if they’re not quite sure how they’re going to get to the future they want.

Still, we’re in a better place than a year ago, let alone five years ago.

Digital Empowerment
Digital technology – broadband, smartphones, online services etc – has transformed people’s lives, mostly for the better. People feel more in control, that they have more choice and that the quality of their lives is better because of technology and despite the recession.

Technology hasn’t just got cheaper these past few years, it has made lots of other things seem cheaper was well – even as incomes stagnated.

People aren’t waiting for the government to solve their problems: they’re giving up on the HSE & VHI and getting on with running, going to the gym, better diets and other ways of investing in their own health and wellbeing.

It’s about taking control – or taking it back – and replacing fatalism with a renewed sense of resilience, purpose and ambition that doesn’t rely on politicians or the return of the Celtic Tiger.

The Bad

Discounting the Future
People may believe things are getting better, but they don’t expect them to get good any time soon. Most are hanging on from month-to-month, not thinking about pensions, pay rises or more kids. We’ve become a ‘high time preference’ society, focused on now and the immediate future, not giving much thought to the future. It’s partly cultural (living in the now), and partly psychological (why think about something you have no control over or certainty about?)

Money is still very tight for an awful lot of people, who have little or no capacity for savings, pensions or rainy day problems.

Selfie Destruction
There’s a shadow side to our digital rapture: we’re losing connections with reality and each other. From low attention spans to cognitive problems in children raised by screens, we’re only beginning to figure out the mental and emotional toll of living in the digital simulacrum. Perhaps the highest price is an epidemic of loneliness, even among young people with 300 ‘friends’ on Facebook.

A lot of people think it’s a problem, nobody know what to do about it, and we haven’t been here before.

Losers & Winners
The future is a zero-sum game in the minds of many people nowadays. They don’t expect the cake to get bigger any time soon, so they know that gains for some will mean losses for others. Most are prepared to make the trade-offs, and to do the political triage as necessary. They know they can’t have their cake and eat it too in the current climate: whether it’s helping families at the expense of the elderly… or vice versa.

Voters are ahead of politicians in this regard: if more tough decisions have to be made… then they’ll be in favour of making them…

The Ugly

The traditional life path for most young people – job, spouse, kids, house – appears increasingly unattainable for many, and undesirable for many more. They are ‘route-less’ in the sense of not having a defining route forward in their lives.  That might not matter at the level of individual choices, but it has profound implications at a societal level in terms of economic output, productivity, population growth and the sustainability of welfare provisions. Think of it as the social equivalent of the 'paradox of thrift': more like the 'paradox of choice'.

A lot of young people aren’t ‘growing up’ because they can’t – or they won’t.

Deeply Indebted
The Irish love affair with home ownership has now given way to divorce proceedings. Many remain trapped in negative equity, either for their PDH or their business. And with little or no prospect of a healthy period of inflation to rapidly erode the real value of their debts (quite the reverse in fact), then the ‘squeezed middle’ (mostly 40 & 50 somethings) will continue to be squeezed.

Hence the allergic attitude to further borrowing, which means less investment and weaker balance sheets for our banks (who might best be described as ‘sleeping pygmies’ since they’ll have very few customers when they are ‘really’ open for business…)

Politics without Purpose
People aren’t cynical about politics and politicians – they’re way beyond that. Everyone knows ‘it’s a game’, they’re trying to buy our votes with other people’s money. We no longer have leaders, only managers – and the political opposition campaign on the basis that they are more competent managers than the incumbents.

The rise of the independents and high share of ‘don’t knows’ in political polls all point to an electorate that feels increasingly disconnected from the governing class, and increasingly open to alternatives to the status quo.

The Second Birth
Yeats originally called his poem ‘The Second Birth’, to reflect the other, famous stanza from his poem:

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats was writing at the end of the First World War, in the midst of the Irish War of Independence, as Europe was convulsed by the Spanish Flu, Russian Revolution and the collapse of empires. He had good reason to feel a sense of foreboding about the future.

But 2014 isn’t 1919 – Ebola isn’t the Spanish Flu nor is ISIS the Bolshevik Red Army. Nor, for that matter, is Paul Murphy TD the equivalent of Michael Collins!

Yet, in a sense people today are ‘trapped in the present’, waiting for the future to resume, and not sure if it will. A the same time, people are optimistic right now – for Ireland, for Europe and, to a lesser extent, for themselves. The question is: despite all that is ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ in the landscape will the ‘good’ prevail? Or will the hour come round at last for the rough beast to slouch its way and birth a different future to one we would wish for and prefer?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Nations Once Again

Ahead of tomorrow's referendum in Scotland, Stratfor's George Friedman explores the wider implications for Europe (and they're not good):
More important, perhaps, is that although Yugoslavia and the Soviet collapse were not seen as precedents for the rest of Europe, Scotland would be seen that way. No one can deny that Britain is an entity of singular importance. If that can melt away, what is certain? At a time when the European Union's economic crisis is intense, challenging European institutions and principles, the dissolution of the British union would legitimize national claims that have been buried for decades.
The vote will come down to the emotional appeal of national self-determination vs the rational self-interest of continued union. History is made by emotions.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Scottish Dependence

A friend asked me the other day if I favoured Scottish independence. I have to admit I was stumped by the question. My heart says yes, but my head says... 'seriously?!'

I can understand the passion that fuels those who favour independence - I'm a big fan of Irish independence after all. I'm just not sure why the Scottish want independence in 2014. The Scottish enjoy considerably more freedom to manage their own affairs (political, economic, social and cultural) than the Irish did one hundred years ago.

From various conversations with Scots over the years, I think some of it is a visceral hatred of the English that is as bad, if not worse, than the kneejerk Brit-bashing that was a familiar refrain in Ireland until recent times. Though not any more. And if it isn't as crass as that for many pro-independence advocates, then there is undoubtedly a big streak of anti-Tory sentiment. Let's face it, this wouldn't be happening if there was a majority Labour government in London.

Still, hatred only gets you so far: in the end you have to be for something, not just against everything. Nor will a 'rational' case for independence do: there are as many (if not considerably more) reasons to rationally favour retaining the status quo as there are for changing it. All that talk of tax revenues from North Sea oil might have worked back in the 1970s: but output peaked in the 1990s and has plunged since. Scotland won't be the next Norway, on the economic front anyway. Though it might be the next Norway on the social policy front, given the recent announcement of a state guardian for every child in Scotland.

Independence will likely mean economic turmoil - if not deep economic depression - for many Scots for the first decade or two after independence (unless the English taxpayer comes to the rescue, but frankly, why should they?) We had the best part of five decades worth of depression in Ireland, but hopefully they can learn from our mistakes in that regard.

But... even that might be a price worth paying if independence unleashed creative forces of construction that would make Scotland not only a better place to live than it could ever be as part of the United Kingdom but also an inspiration to small nations everywhere who wish to set out on their own path to the future, away, for example, from the lowest common denominator of globalisation and consumerisation.

The thing is, I suspect that following a new path is the last thing the SNP wants to do. Theirs is very much an ideology of Big Government, Big Spending and Big Taxes. Politics is their religion and Government is their God: they just want more direct control and the political power that goes with. Which is all very well if you're into that sort of thing - politics, after all, is just the negotiation of power between interested parties. But most people aren't that interested (though at times like this they probably should be). A Scotsman I know describes the SNP as a cult. He's obviously not a member, but then again 95% of people aren't members of political parties in most democracies.

I'd back a 'Pearse' any day in the cause of national independence, but I'd back away from a 'Machiavelli'. I'm still conflicted.


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