Thursday, December 18, 2014

Retail Liturgy

Retail therapy has become retail liturgy: an exercise in public worship shared and practiced by believers in the transformative power of shopping. Dundrum Shopping Centre is the Pro-Cathedral of retail liturgy, and the Blanchardstown Centre is Christ Church Cathedral (though I might have my denominational allusions confused).

The idea that shopping has become a form of collective worship is one developed by James K A Smith.  His Theos talk - The Secular is Haunted - introduces Jamie's thoughts on Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor's ideas about secularism, including our need for liturgy - sacred or secular.  I'm also reading Jamie's introduction to Taylor - How (Not) to Be Secular - and it is a delightful read.  Anyone who can weave Radiohead, David Foster Wallace and Augustine into a narrative knows how to engage his reader.

Christmas, of course, has a special liturgy all of its own.  Indeed, just as many feel compelled to go to church at Christmas time but not other times of the year, many (albeit mostly men) feel compelled to go shopping at Christmas time but not other times of the year.  Funny enough, you get carol singers participating in both liturgies...

Maybe it's me, but this Christmas seems a bit more 'manic' than previous Christmases, though that might simply be the end of the recession (for some) and people enjoying a bit of a 'blow out' after all the lean years.  Or it might be that the continued substitution of the secular for the sacred in our post-Christian society makes us even hungrier for shared experiences of belonging and transcendence - even if it is in a shopping centre.

But don't get me wrong - I'm glad for the retailers that they are having a 'good' Christmas after all they (and we) have been through.  Still, we should beware the dangers of our new secular liturgies.  As Arthur C. Brooks suggests, we should celebrate abundance but avoid attachment.

Easier said than done, of course.  I personally don't see the need for a new range of Louise Vuitton handbags, but a new iPhone 7 would undoubtedly be an historic step forward for all mankind. Though womankind might beg to differ...








Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Escaping Velocity

The year is ending with a bang rather than the usual seasonal whimper. The cold war on Russia has warmed up via the foreign exchange markets. And mass murder came to a school in Pakistan this week. Meanwhile back in Ireland the 10 year sovereign bond rate has fallen to its lowest level ever:


We're in good company: half of all the government bonds in the world yield less than 1%.  Apparently investors are spooked by what's happening to everything else (stocks, commodities, you name it). Could it change? Sure, the Russians increased their interest rate to 17% from 10.5% overnight. Though that's the kind of interest rate increase nobody wants right now.

On the other hand, Andrew Haldane thinks low interest rates could be with us for the next 40 years or so. Which is fine if you are a borrower - but not so good if you are a bank: Europe's commercial banks will be crushed if that continues.  It doesn't look like we're about to escape the gravitational pull of the zero interest black hole any time soon. 

Still, at least we'll have a few referenda to distract us from our predicament next year, though events abroad might prove even more distracting in the meantime. 


Monday, December 8, 2014

None of The Above

The rise in support for 'Independents' in recent opinion polls (now at 32% in the latest Irish Times poll), is another Irish solution to an Irish problem. So what is the problem? In short, we don't have the equivalent of UKIP. There isn't a political party/leader articulating the frustrations, fears and preferences of a large section of the Irish electorate: so instead we get a siren chorus of Trotskyists with backing vocals by a few celebrity Independents - lots of noise, but little leadership.

Of course, the key word is 'equivalent' when it comes to UKIP. Ireland doesn't have the same issues (or should that be 'obsessions') with membership of the EU and with immigration (especially from outside the EU) that vexes so many in the UK and has undoubtedly helped the rise of UKIP. So there's no future for a party in Ireland that simply lifts the UKIP agenda and tries it here. But we do have something of the same experience of alienation from the democratic process that many have felt across the water. That alienation, however, has little to do with the Left-Right political spectrum beloved of so many Irish political correspondents who hope that - finally - we might be a General Election away from a 'real' choice between left-wing and right-wing parties. I don't see it myself.

Instead I am thinking of the alienation David Goodhart describes between Metropolitan Liberalism - dominant in the media, academia and mainstream political parties - and Popular Liberalism - dominant among those who prefer 'None of the Above' when it comes to the very same mainstream political parties. Goodhart has written a fascinating paper for Demos on the subject, and his recent talk at Theos expands further on the themes in his paper. In his Theos talk, he presents a check list on what differentiates Metropolitan Liberals from Popular Liberals along seven key political dimensions, which I've captured it in the chart below (note, it's my derivation of his check list from the audio track, so any errors are mine):


Goodhart quite explicitly sees the rise of UKIP as a result of the failure of mainstream UK parties to articulate and champion the values of those who are Popular Liberals. On a wide range of broad political and economic issues, there are fundamental differences in the values that drive the elite and drive much of the electorate on issues such as welfare, mobility, freedom and belonging. It isn't all, or even mostly, about immigration and the EU.

I believe something similar is happening in Ireland. A great many people in Ireland (away from the self-reverential bubble that is the Dublin media landscape) are deeply disaffected by what is happening to the country - economically, socially and culturally. And it isn't all about 'blaming the government' or water charges. They have no voice, or so it seems, and in the absence of mainstream leaders articulating their worries and wants they grab hold of whomever else feels like they might do the job. The rise of the Independents is our UKIP moment. Whichever party (existing or new) grasps the Popular Liberal agenda will enjoy something of the same success as Nigel and the 'Ukippers'.

Next year's General Election in the UK will probably inspire some to try it...

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Excarnation

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

Definitions

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.



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