The real purpose of the nonbudgetSeptember 26, 2022
Christianity and government: swapping prime ministers doesn’t cure the diseaseOctober 25, 2022
This post is a continuation of my last one in which I argued that the economic policy of the British Government is a replica of ancient Mesopotamian imperial practice.
This post gives greater detail.
The texts that have survived from ancient Mesopotamia express the policies of kings. Very few people could read and write. What we read is the ruling class perspective.
The ancients understood wealth differently from us. In modern industrial society we are all surrounded by, and dependent on, what other humans have produced. To the ancients it was quite clear that the wealth was being produced by whatever forces made the crops grow and the animals reproduce. They thought of those forces as gods.
Emperors imposed taxes, and before the invention of money taxation was in kind. Peasant farmers were obliged to bring their produce to the temple for sacrifice. The system of sacrifices already existed but was turned into a way of enriching the ruling classes at the expense of the farmers.
1) The threat
The nation is threatened. Both discourses restrict their focus to the nation. In Mesopotamia the threats come from gods. The gods provide the environment, which produces the wealth. If adequate sacrifices are not provided the gods will punish the nation. The most extreme threat is to abandon the environment and let the world return to the original chaos.
In Britain today the threat is of a collapse of the economic system. Britain’s rating on the markets has gone down. Some talk of the possibility of ‘economic chaos’. The fear is not for the natural environment but for the artificial structures we have built upon it. Our lives depend on plumbers, electricians, train drivers and bank managers. If the political-economic system collapses we won’t have them.
2) We are all in it together
The idea here is that the whole nation is threatened, so the nation as a whole must co-operate to overcome the threat. When George Osborne introduced the Austerity regime in 2010 he stressed that ‘we are all in it together’. It was a lie then, it was a lie in ancient Mesopotamia, and it is a lie today.
The lie is essential to the theory. It is designed to stop us talking about the real problem, which is the rich taking from the poor. Instead it locates the problem in transcendent forces over against the-nation-as-a-whole. Whether those transcendent forces are gods or ‘the economic situation’, they perform the same role: they are what the-nation-as-a-whole is to contend against.
3) We need knowledge
In order to overcome the threat we need to know how to do it. The kind of knowledge we need is technique. This is a completely different discourse from the ethical arguments of those who argue for redistribution from rich to poor.
4) Knowledge comes from experts
To know which techniques will overcome the threat, we need experts with the relevant knowledge. In ancient Mesopotamia the experts were those who understood how to propitiate the gods.
We might call those experts priests. This is not quite accurate. M Beard & J North, Eds, Pagan Priests, argue that there was no ancient pagan equivalent to our priests. It might be better to describe them as ‘temple officials’. But for now, my point is that the system depended on expert knowledge of the gods.
Ancient Mesopotamian beliefs about gods may seem miles away from modern economic theory. But the two have in common the elements that concern us here. In order to overcome the threat, expert knowledge is required. The expert knowledge is the ‘facts’ that we cannot escape. Just as modern economics tends to be taught as a science describing facts, the ancient priests thought their information about the gods provided facts.
While it may seem odd to compare the two, it is well known in philosophical circles that all accounts of knowledge are theory-based. There are no pure theory-free facts. Modern Britain, just like ancient Mesopotamia, takes for granted as ‘facts’ information derived from theories about how the world works. The theories are different, so the ‘facts’ end up being different. What the two have in common is what concerns us here: the narrative that the nation, in order to overcome the threats, depends on the information provided by the experts.
5) Some people are more important than others
If the experts are that important, it follows that a hierarchical society is required. Because we depend so much on them we must give them whatever they demand. At the same time, whatever they tell us to do absolutely must be done. Anybody who doesn’t or can’t contribute is a drain on society. In ancient Mesopotamia it was a matter of punishing those who didn’t produce adequate sacrifices. Today ‘benefits scroungers’ are often denounced as a drain on the economy.
6) The threat never goes away
In ancient Mesopotamia the demands of the gods always had to be met. Similarly in modern Britain the economic problems of the day are nearly always presented as a top priority. The main exception is war. Otherwise, the current state of the economy is a reason for not meeting people’s needs.
It is a bit over 50 years since I first wrote to my Member of Parliament to ask when Britain’s economic problems would be solved. He answered that he couldn’t see that happening in the foreseeable future. Dead right. The whole point of the discourse is to dangle in front of us the carrot of future solutions, while making sure they remain in the future.
Have we reached the end?
It is not that economic growth inevitably takes from the poor: it can be combined with other policies, as John Maynard Keynes argued. When those other policies were abandoned – increasingly since the 1970s – the reason for pursuing economic growth came to depend on the idea of a ‘trickle-down effect’ which is clearly the reverse of what happens.
So the British Prime Minister’s declared priority of ‘growth growth growth’ isn’t going to help the increasing numbers of homeless and starving people.
As I write this nobody is quite sure what British Government policy is. There have been so many changes that it seems foolish to expect stability.
But Liz Truss’s belief in economic growth isn’t new. It has been central to capitalist theory for 300 years. Every British government has pursued it for the last 50 years, and much the same is true for other countries in the affluent West.
So what has changed? Is it just that her simple trust in it is so open for all to see? Is it that neither Conservative nor Labour politicians are prepared to admit the cost of Brexit?
I find myself thinking – and hoping – that the present dissatisfaction reveals a widespread sense that capitalism itself has reached the end of the road. The cult of economic growth, like the cult of ancient Mesopotamian gods, doesn’t serve any useful purpose. It’s a shame that, in order to get the message, we needed climate change, pollution, extinctions of species, and ever-growing numbers of homeless and starving people; but better late than never.