Sunday 29 March 2015

A Short View of "A Short View". (iii)

(From part ii)

How could worldviews commonly regarded as antagonistic, as those represented by Keynes and Mises/Rand, coincide in such a fundamental manner?

Lord Skidelsky, Keynes’ respected biographer, offers a measured and carefully worded indirect answer:
"There was clearly a tension between its [Bloomsbury Set’s] cultural ideals and democratic sentiment: civilisation, as Clive Bell put it, always rested on having someone to do the dirty work. Maynard Keynes, as we shall see, attempted to go beyond this contradiction; but it cannot be claimed he got very far. And he, like the rest of the Bloomsberries, depended completely on domestic servants to sustain their own lives [cf. Peter Clarke’s comments in Liberals and Social Democrats]. Bloomsbury was rooted in the class assumptions of the Victorians. Their revision of the Victorian scheme of life tended to take them back to the eighteenth century idea of a cultured aristocracy rather than towards the ideal of a civilized democracy". (“John Maynard Keynes: Hopes Betrayed 1883-1920”, pp. 248-250)
Whatever later commentators might argue, the Bloomsberries’ beliefs and ideals, writes Skidelsky, were not the product of dispassionate philosophizing: they were rooted in their social context. What holds true to them and Keynes, also holds true to Nietzsche, Mises, Rand.

Ironically, one of the real, but unmentioned, targets of Keynes’ ideological tantrum would probably have agreed with Skidelsky: Keynes must be judged within his social, economic, and historic context.

Karl Marx:
"I paint the capitalist and the landlord in no sense coleur de rose.  My standing point, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them". (“Das Kapital”, vol. 1, preface to the 1867 edition).
Keynes wasn’t creating anything new in moral and political philosophy, just giving expression to his class’ pre-existing views of society and of his fellow human beings: the same views Nietzsche articulated before, and Rand and Mises would echo decades later.


By 1925, in the middle of the Roaring Twenties (perhaps the last hurrah of the Belle Epoque), the class views Keynes reflected, while cheerful, were not untroubled. The previous year, Calvin Coolidge was elected U.S. President. His campaign slogan describes the times: "Coolidge Prosperity".

Across the pond, Keynes -- perhaps with more than a little bravado -- puzzled over the appeal of “Leninism”: “It is hard for an educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe to find his ideals here, unless he has first suffered some strange and horrid process of conversion which has changed all his values”.

The income figures Thomas Piketty and others compiled shed some light on Keynes’ optimism and puzzlement with any discontent:


In other words (by interpolation between 1919 and 1937), in 1925 a member of the British 1% perceived a gross income (in Piketty’s definition) equivalent to about 25.0 times the average for the remainder 99%: a remarkable difference. Keynes -- the self-described "educated, decent, intelligent son of Western Europe" and financial speculator -- had little reason to feel uncomfortable and one cannot blame him for fearing that could come to an end.

Upton Sinclair, an American journalist and another eye-witness of the last days of the Belle Epoque, could have added: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

It's on this light that Keynes' oft-quoted appeal to the “ideas of economists and political philosophers” reveals itself in all its self-justifying glory:
I am sure the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas Soon or late it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil."
Another English economist -- one much closer to Keynes -- would have disagreed with Keynes on that and, instead, would have proposed the primacy of vested interests and prejudices in determining economic wisdom:
"Anyone who says to you: 'Believe me, I have no prejudices,' is either succeeding in deceiving himself or trying to deceive you." (Joan Robinson, "Economic Philosophy", p. 26)
There is little difference between Keynes' "pratical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist" and "the Devil made me do it".

You don't need a Ouija board to understand how Keynes, Mises, Nietzsche and others could coincide at a fundamental level; a materialist conception of history is more than enough.

 (To be continued)

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