Friday, 21 January 2011

'Conspiracy Theory' As a Universal Rebuttal to Legitimate Questions

The term ‘Conspiracy Theory’ has been misappropriated as a pejorative catch-all for those who dissent from officially promulgated positions, in the same way as ‘liberal’ has been misappropriated by many in the USA.
When someone uses ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘conspiracy nut’ as a rebuttal to legitimate questions based on factual evidence, you know you are dealing with the duped, but it is a difficult one to deal with, because, firstly you have to unravel the fallacy behind the use of the lexically misappropriated term before you deal with the argument, which, argumentatively, puts you on the defensive. And secondly, it personalises the argument; ad hominem is an often used ploy of dishonest arguers. In this way, it is an excellent rebuttal, since it dismisses the argument as risible by lumping legitimate arguments with the genuinely outlandish.
So, if your argument is valid and someone tries to dismiss it with ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘conspiracy nut,’ be assured that you have won the argument, since your adversary has no further effective arguments to pursue and has to use a brain-washed mantra of the duped, like the above.
To dismiss legitimate arguments as nut-jobs says more about the adversary’s fears and need to believe. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” The converse of this is that if you believe casuistry, then you are helplessly enslaved. As Goethe said, “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free. Or as Bill Hicks said, “You are free to do as we tell you.”
Accepting analysis based on selective and/or fraudulent evidence absolves the believer from responsibility for actions based on those analyses, that other analyses, based on all available evidence, would not. This is because the truth carries with it the responsibility of speaking the truth, which, as Orwell pointed out, “In a time of universal deceit, speaking the truth is a revolutionary act.” So dangerous, in fact, that someone was arrested recently for using this quote.

So, ‘conspiracy theory’ is a lexically misappropriated, ad hominem argument, which would itself be risible, if it were not so pitiful.

The lexical misappropriation of the term might itself be a conspiracy to stymie all intelligent discussion that looks at all sides and all the evidence, and seeks rational explanations for them and how they may or may not be connected. In this sense, it is very much like book-burning and purges against intellectuals beloved of fascists everywhere.

The term carries with it an assumption and righteous, withering disdain. The assumption that just about any degree of dissent, by way of asking pertinent questions arising, e.g. from apparent inconsistency in the plot of an official account, or between plot and evidence, that an alternative plot has been constructed in the absence to the aforementioned pertinent questions to introduce consistency in the plot; a conclusion for which does not follow syllogistically, since the minor premise is an assumption that the dissenter has assumed answers to the pertinent questions.
The righteous, withering disdain that is often afforded the accuser arises from the ideas that the ‘theorists’ are malevolent and/or stupid and so beneath further discursive engagement, and so stigmatizes the dissenting ‘theorists’. Here, the user of the term looks suspiciously like those of the Death-to-the-Infidel, God-Told-Me-to-Do-It brigade.
It is the fear of the ‘infidel’ epithet that makes the accusation so effective as argument annihilation.

For example:

The 1954 Guatemalan coup d'├ętat
1974 Chile
1953 Iran Musadegh
1964 Gulf of Tonkin
1967 USS Liberty
1942 Pearl Harbour Attack (at least 9 hour warning)
1898 USS Maine (Spanish American War/Hearst’s War)
The Dodgy Dossier
The Magic Bullet/Back and to the Left/JFK

Thursday, 13 January 2011

What should be Britain’s ethical stance to calls for reparations for its part in the African slave trade?

In a recent near apology for Britain’s part in the African Slave Trade and the Irish Potato Famine, Mr. Blair went as far as he dared to accept the accountability and responsibility that the word, ‘sorry’ would connote, without actually saying it. With this word comes the danger of compensation, which, if we use the figures suggested in a recent conference in Durban on the subject, would cripple the country for decades, if not centuries. Admittedly, the conference was also about colonialism and empire and was referring to mainly European activities and to emerged states whose culture and government were ethnically European. The ‘villain of the piece’ is Britain, of course. Two facts make this so. Firstly, Britain and her Commonwealth ruled directly 25% of the population of the globe and about the same proportion of the land and her informal empire accounting for another large percentage. She had a formidable Navy and merchant marine; “Britain rules the waves” was not just boastfulness. Secondly, Britain shipped about a third of the total number of West Africans to the Americas.

The values of reparations are based on direct exploitation of resources and indirectly on the historical effects of European adventures like racism. To be part of the African Diaspora means you are more likely to live less well in material terms than your European neighbours. If you’re in prison in the UK you have a disproportionate chance to be part of the African Diaspora. If you live in Africa, you are much more likely to die from aids, malnutrition and violence and, of course you are much more likely to be poor.

The Race Relations Act in the UK and Affirmative Action program in the US have acknowledged the problem but, falls far short the degree of action called for. Mr Blair’s description of the African Slave Trade as a Crime Against Humanity similarly, might be seen as such.

In the parliament Mr. Blair’s statement has been satirised by an opposition M.P., “When will the Prime Minister apologise for the atrocious behaviour of Henry VIII towards his wives?” This may be seen as callous levity in the face of a global calamity, but the argument could have some merit. By the same token, you could ask, “When will the Barbarians atone for their part in the Fall of Rome which, subsequently precipitated in turn the Dark Ages, aggressive Christianity, The Crusades, European dominance and empire building, capitalism, industry and Global Warming. From this point of view it would appear that we all have something on somebody. Some of us, like me, have something on ourselves given, for example an Anglo/Irish background.

It could be further argued controversially that if Britain were to engage fully in a reparative process, she should also be rewarded for the ideal of the Sovereignty of Law, ending the slave trade at its most profitable and preventing it in the Atlantic and finally, surrendering her empire to prevent the emergence of fascist empires. This type of argumentation also draws attention to the fact that six ex-colonies are among the highest per capita GDP and one of those is the richest, most powerful country, ever. Another ex-colony is the largest functioning democracy on Earth and is well on the way to the rich club of nations. Granted much of this is down to the ex-colonies own endeavours, but that they are a large proportion of wealthy, stable nations and are all intimately linked historically with the British Empire suggests that something somewhere worked well.

Clearly however, something for the sake of humanity has to be done about empire and its real and demonstrable ill effects. The argument that this reparative claim is not valid due to the fact that all of us have something on someone else historically has some merit, but where the effects of historical misdeeds are still having profound effects on many levels from the personal to the global, the argument loses its claim. To asses the mediating effects of what good came of the British Empire is fraught with danger, since it is almost wholly accepted the empires and their activities were not good ideas, but there must surely be something mitigating in that she cleaned up her imperial act largely by her own efforts as a result of ideas of the 18th C British Enlightenment.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Why Germany Should Venerate the United Kingdom

As a middle-aged, notionally British man of no fixed emotional abode, who considers himself a world citizen, but who has been often described as more German than the Germans, I have no particular axe to grind when comparing cultures. This is a very delicate thing to do, since even by suggesting a cultural difference will often elicit a negative response, suggesting that the person making the observation is implying criticism of the other’s culture. That said, my British childhood has inculcated in me a strong sense of justice, fair play and ‘play up, play up and play the game.’
Britain is often viewed by Germans as almost a Third World country; a sort of cold, grey Portugal; an 18th C theme park with 17th C ideas and 16th C plumbing and completely fixated by the Second World War (pronounced the ‘woowah’).  I remember once during a class discussion on different historical perspectives, I mentioned that less than a century ago Britain was the richest, most powerful country on the planet. This statement elicited risible incredulity from my German students. My German wife, as a teenager, thought that the Beatles, Stones, Floyd and all the big names of popular culture hailed from the USA. These are but two examples of how Britain is viewed by many Germans.
In my opinion the woowah was really only part II of a global conflagration, whose causes had to do with European national hubris and competition. The scale of the conflagration was unprecedented. This was total war were all the means of production were devoted to the slaughter. Depending on how you measure it and who you ask, Britain was overtaken as the richest country on the planet by the USA and Germany at about the time of the outbreak of war in August 1914, so a cynical view is that Britain had to go to war with Germany at that time to maintain its supremacy, since, to do so later would have meant to lose that supremacy.
The British Empire rapidly ran out of money and had to go cap in hand to the USA for loans to continue the conflict. Naturally, the USA as a player and serious contender, was only to pleased to have this leverage over one of its two major competitors to tear chunks out of its other competitor. Some of this loan will never be paid off, incidentally. So, The USA had one of its competitors try to destroy its other competitor, with USA material paid for by massive loans in perpetuity. Nice work, if you can get it.
When the two main players had battered each other to a standstill by 1917, the USA joins in to tip the balance, although some say the balance at the time was already tipping towards Britain and her allies and that had the USA delayed any further, it would have been too late to have any say in the peace treaty. After all, to the victor, the spoils. When Woodrow Wilson came to Paris for the peace conference he was lauded as the saviour of Europe, curiously, given the above. He was the leader of a country that stood by while Europe was destroyed, provided one of the adversaries the means to effect that destruction and landed that adversary with an intolerable debt. A large proportion of this debt was given to other combatants to keep them fighting. Wilson was also responsible for abdicating a primary function of government to private interests by signing the Federal Reserve Act. This is such a miserably cynical piece of power politics that ever was and has caused such problems for the world.
So here, Britain, a democracy, sacrificed her world position to prevent non-democracies from establishing their primacy. Thank you very much Britain, I hear you say, how can we ever repay you?
The Treaty of Versailles, however, reflected who the real victors were; Britain and France. Cynics might say that the non-participation of the USA in the League of Nations was as a result of not getting more of the spoils of war. It was the spoils of war that contained the seeds of German discontent that brought the Nazis to power. It is common to suggest that it was Clemenceau who dug his heals in when it was clear that the pain of war reparations and that the Brits were the moderators in these discussions, but I cannot imagine that Ramsey MacDonald, nice chap that he was notwithstanding, could give up the opportunity to get some of the money the war had cost.
Furthermore, the financial crises of the 20s and 30s were American in origin and it has been suggested that they were contrived by the very men behind the setting up of the Federal Reserve. Whether this is true or not, they certainly did very well from the crises.
Britain has given the world John Maynard Keynes. Again, I hear you say, thank you very much, Britain. It was Keynesian economics that pulled the USA out of its economic difficulties in FDR’s New Deal in the 30s. It was Keynesian economics that was behind the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe. Britain benefitted very little from this plan, but instead contributed hugely to the rebuilding of Europe. Very little of this has entered the consciousness of Germans. Cynics might say that the setting up of Britain’s Welfare State and having a very left wing government might have prevented Britains access to these funds. In Germany, the Marshall Plan funds are still in existence are administered by the Investitionsbank, which is very helpful for the German economy.
The various conferences to design the post- woowah world obliged Britain to help police that world with a military and administration vastly disproportionate to its population or GDP and paid for with further loans. Britain, therefore was further impoverished – no spoils for this victor, but unsupportable burdens.
Britain, therefore had no opportunity to modernise its industry, which is vitally important to this argument. Any business that is under-funded will fail. Similarly, any country that is under-funded will fail. Every post- woowah government has tried to square this circle; grasping at one risible straw after another from the water driven economic predictor machine that still exists in the basement of the LSE to the Thatcher Monetarist revolution that gave away, through ideological fundamentalism, the great opportunity provided by North Sea Oil (by contrast, see what Norway has done with its share of the bounty – highest GDP per capita in 2006).
None of this detracts very much that in essence Britain sacrificed herself to prevent genuinely evil empires from establishing themselves and paid and continues to pay the cost. I’ll tell you what Germany, treat all that we have done for you as an investment and we’ll take our dividends at a reasonable rate.
Lastly, Germany, don’t get offended by our apparent fixation with woowah, it was, and remains our finest hour as Churchill predicted. John 15:13 Greater love hath no man, that he lays down his life for his friends – is not entirely correct – Britain did this for humanity; friends and foes alike.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The State of the English School System - A Personal and Historical View

For centuries, if not millennia, it seems that those in power were suspicious of learning by the masses. For example, the first English vernacular Bible got its translator, John Wycliffe and those that proselytised it, the Lollards, into serious trouble and it was often cited as the prime motivator for the Peasants’ Revolt and was particularly influential for its leader Wat Tyler. Better for society to keep the Word of God in Latin and have the Church as the only access to it, they thought.
All over the world, societies at certain points in their development have taken to book burning, which suggests a deep conservatism and a fear of ideas. Whether it is the burning of the library at Alexandria, the burning of books by various Chinese emperors, in 1930s Germany and even in the US in 2010, the motif runs consistently through history.
Stephen Fry, in the Star’s Tennis Balls has the main character claiming that the English were always suspicious of ideas and learning. It is easy to see his point, the English for centuries were a nation of doers; busy shaping the world in its own image. It is easy to see the effects of this busy-ness, English (ironically) is the planet’s Lingua Franca, the idea of the sovereignty of the rule of law, the global financial system. I could go on and we could argue the points, but suffice to say, there is strong evidence for England’s lasting legacy to the world.
On the other hand, for a nation of doers suspicious of ideas, the English have produced an astonishing number of people of ideas who are seminal to our modern understanding of the universe and all its glories. Think here of Boyle, Newton, Paine, Wollestencroft, Priestley, Dalton, Darwin, Rutherford (alright, he was a Kiwi of Scots decent – but we claim him, since he worked in UMIST), Keynes, Turing, Whittle and others.
All of the above came from similar, more elevated class backgrounds. It was only in the 19th C that working people had a fascination for learning for its own sake, for as we would say, personal development, rather than for its utility. This was the Sam Smiles era of self-help; lectures were the TV of the day and Exhibitions were their movies. The Working Men’s educational institutes stand testimony to this.
The Industrial Revolution required a better educated workforce, which led, inexorably to the Foster Education Act of 1870. This act effectively ensured compulsory, elementary education for all children between five and thirteen, but there was still no idea that equality of opportunity to aid social mobility should be the purpose of education. A good education was still the preserve of the Public Schools and of the few extant universities, and therefore the preserve of the upper and upper-middle classes.
The great upheaval of the Great War, or the Boss’s War, as it was known in some circles changed everything. The Labour movement and Trades Unions really got underway and the intellectual arguments of the 19th C socialist thinkers, like Engels, Marx, Hardie and Sidney and Beatrice Webb found a powerful resonance among the working people as the real creators of the wealth, upon which the higher classes were based. The 19th C flowering of a grass-roots education system of the working men’s institutes withered away to a great extent, largely due to education being seen as aping the higher social echelons. Since the working people had now the opportunity to access power and better living conditions, and since they considered themselves the creators of all wealth, the only education needed was that provided for by the 1870 Act and apprenticeships. There was, in this period the greatest pride in being working class, due to the solidarity of the unions and the certain knowledge that they were the creators of wealth.
The Great War, Part Two, otherwise known as World War Two brought about another great social upheaval. After Part One, the promises of those in power of ‘a land fit for heroes’ for those fighting in the great slaughter as an incentive to keep on being slaughtered, turned out to be almost entirely hollow. The same promises were made for those engaged in the sharp end of Part Two, but this time, the Government of National Unity contained Labour cabinet ministers resulting in the Welfare State, socialised housing and the 1944 (Butler) Education Act.
The Butler Act provided for state funded grammar schools based on competitive entry. The grammar schools were highly academic and were to prepare children from poorer backgrounds for university entrance. Effectively, this was providing a Public School education for lower-middle class and working class children, and the examination that allowed entry, the Eleven Plus, was a scholarship examination and the scholarship being provided by the state. Similarly the state provided a means tested scholarship for those students who passed enough GCE A’ Levels with good grades. The state also set up more universities (and polytechnic colleges for students who did not quite get the grades for university). These new universities based their degree standards on those of the established universities and therefore were very high.
For those grammar school students not destined for university would generally leave after taking GCE O’ Levels in up to ten subjects generally. One could start on many administration and managerial careers with O’ Levels as well as entry into teacher training college and higher technical careers like computer operating and programming.
For those that did not gain entry into a grammar school, there were the Secondary Modern schools were the leaving examinations taken at the end of fifth year (year 11, grade 10) were the CSEs. These schools were for those destined for apprenticeships at best. Some of the best students from Secondary Moderns who had five or more CSEs at A grade could transfer to a grammar school to take A’ Levels, since an A grade at CSE was equivalent to a C grade at O’ Level. This, however, was rare.
To a very great extent, the dramatic change in the social landscape of the 1960s was due to those of a lower social class getting educated to a good university level. The Satire Boom, populated to a large degree with grammar school oiks, dispelled the last of an anachronistic class deference. The leading lights of the Counter Culture, whose effects have such a great effect on the world today, were drawn largely from the same social milieu.
For those that attended a grammar school, the system was undoubtedly a resounding success, despite how much they might complain about it now and despite the sometimes withering disdain from teachers who were largely drawn from Public Schools and old universities. For those in the Secondary Modern schools, the system provided for little or no social mobility, social levelling or anything meritocratic. Secondary school for this cohort was often deemed pointless and since many of them went on to have jobs that supported families, it is difficult to argue that their schooling had any relevance for them.
No sooner had this system been set up, it started to have its critics and detractors. The language employed in the examinations was a form of English that was the almost exclusive preserved of the academic, largely middle and upper classes. Therefore, the form of the language used by the teachers was the same. To carry out IQ tests on children at such a young age was fraught with problems. Children mature intellectually at different rates, the nature of intelligence and to brand children at such a young age as not very bright can only be socially divisive. Mostly though, the grammar school system was seen as a state subsidy for the middle class.
To assuage the possible danger of this social division, the Comprehensive School was conceived. Those that thought the grammar school system was a subsidy, were to some extent vindicated by the flight of children of the more prosperous middle class families into the independent and Public Schools. Comprehensive schools still ran the GCE O’ Level and CSE examinations and students were set by ability in each subject.
By 1977, the school system was seen as still not doing what it should and that since a changing world requires its education systems to change prompted the then Prime Minister, James Callaghan to call for The Great Debate. This debate came to fruition as the 1988 (Baker) Education Act which set up The National Curriculum and the GCSE examination system to replace CSEs and GCE O’ Levels.
The new GCSEs were to be taken by all year 11 students. In the first year of the exams, those that would have done well in the old O’ Levels did well in the GCSEs, but everyone else did very poorly. In this sense the new exams were a failure. The next year, grades improved, since the exams were easier. In subsequent years they became easier still.
When Tony Blair declared that his three greatest priorities were education, education, education, he set in train a process of micro managing of education that has removed autonomy from teachers and imposed a mechanistic approach to developing the idea of supplanting memorisation for education. The once world renowned gold standard of the GCE A’ Levels have been diluted to such an extent that they are below the standards of those required at the same age in most of the rest of Europe.
As a means of effecting equality, this trivialising of examinations has definitely been a success, even though governments, exam boards and teachers (publicly) claim that the inexorable increase in the numbers of A’ Level successes is down to better trained teachers and better teaching methods. This is the emperor’s new education system. Anyone who thinks that the modern A’ Levels are equivalent in rigour, breadth and depth have only to do their own comparisons.
This attempt at equality is a simplistic and cynical ruse. The reason why middle class children do better academically is because, like most children, much (if not most) of their education happens outside the classroom. Middle class children spend their time, therefore in more academically oriented milieu. No education reform has addressed this advantage and our education system will continue to fail our children until it is.
Many of the education reforms have been a result of society’s common view of teachers, eloquently summarized by G.B. Shaw in Man and Superman, Maxims for Revolutionists. However Bel Kaufman in Up the Down Staircase states it more accurately, “Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." Like most sayings, this is only half true. Those who can, teach; those who can't -- the bitter, the misguided, the failures from other fields -- find in the school system an excuse or a refuge.”
Those who can; the good teachers have had the same traits and practices for centuries, if not millennia. The overriding principal is in loco parentis, meaning to have the same duty of care as the best example of a parent. How this is interpreted is to encourage their students with warmth, affection and inculcating a sense of belief and self-confidence. How this should be manifest is the student should feel that the teacher enjoys their company both within and without the formal learning environment. The student should be encouraged to ask questions when they have questions. Disciplining of students is done in proportion and done with great care to preserve the dignity of the student. Of course, being an effective teacher and setting work that is challenging and that is marked within an appropriate time and for which appropriate feed-back given. A good teacher identifies individual needs and should be prepared to go beyond the call of duty to address these needs, if they cannot be addressed within the normal course of things. Lessons should be well structured and planned, but a good teacher will allow their students to take control of their own learning and be prepared to change the lesson to make use of a learning opportunity and re-schedule and re-organize the lesson that was intended to take account of the impromptu lesson’s content. The teacher should be able to appeal to their students’ natural rational abilities to set the material to be taught into, rather than expecting rote learning. Above all, the student should feel that they are very welcome company for the teacher and to be a believable, three dimensional character – a real person that is an achievable role model. To do all this requires the best and brightest of our society, and not just on paper qualifications. No change in the training of teachers can legislate for this, although they have tried.
Instead, what we have done is to churn out teachers that are more technician/bureaucrat who have little time for the core tasks, to make the connections that facilitate the core task or to deviate from the treadmill of the curriculum to take up a learning opportunity proffered by students’ enthusiasms. In this sense, the cultural paradigm of the characteristics of a good teacher have changed. This change is reflected in students’ expectations of teachers and the educative process in that they expect the bite-sized memory tasks from a technician and do not expect a relationship with the teacher.
The cynicism referred to above is that the English people have been sold a bill of goods. We were enticed to send our children to university so that they would get better graduate jobs. Unfortunately, there was no concomitant increase in the number of these graduate jobs to match the dramatic rise in the number of graduates. This means that most of our degrees are worthless, except that a degree is now required to get almost any job now, but it costs parents and the students a small fortune. The real graduate jobs are still going to those that obtain degrees from the ancient universities, the 19th C universities and the universities founded in the early post war years. Our new universities have more to do with bums on seats and less to do with a university education. They deal solely with utility and not with universality that honours education as an end in itself. How many students in these new universities have, know or have tutorials with their personal tutor?
The argument that graduates earn more in their working lives compared to non-graduates is like that for priority boarding on Ryanair. If everyone has it, then it is no advantage.
Time to re-think in a time when 70% of new high-tech jobs in the UK go to those educated in other systems. Check were the UK stands in the PISA Study rankings . . .

Friday, 7 January 2011

What is the Morality of Wealth?

This is an essay I wrote for a ToK class a few years ago.
Last week’s discussion on the moral obligations of former imperial powers in respect of reparations for complicity in impoverishment and negative discrimination faced by the colonized regions and their descendents, evolved into the morality of wealth. Views on this were expressed in what I consider immoderate terms from both sides in the debate. Since balance is one of the attributes required by the Knower in ToK, I have composed the following essay. Whether I have achieved balance or not is up to you and probably depends on your background. Certainly the people from different backgrounds who have agreed to read the essay have opinions in line with their backgrounds. That said, the academics I have asked (2) have found it a balanced piece.

One of the main points in The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi, 1994) is that we should consciously evolve away from a lot of our basic biology, since these bits are anachronistic and cause many unhelpful causational counter-currents. ‘Evolve’, in this context, is defined more broadly than the strictly physiological and to include culturization around the awkward bits in order to promote sustainability through ‘complexity’ and suppress the ‘complicated’

The problem is ‘The Selfish Gene’(Dawkins, 1976). In Dawkins famous book the idea that we are just a support system for the preservation and propagation of our genes was made. Everything we do from the time we are born is geared to those ends, even the acquisition and exhibition of wealth.

Firstly, to paraphrase Lord Prof. Robert Winston (Winston, 2002), wealth is sexy. Behaviourally, it is an attraction to strength and hence the likelihood of survival. Furthermore, wealth in our society is an encouraged aspiration summed up by Michael Douglas (Gordon Gecko) in ‘Wall Street’ (Stone, 1987), “Greed is good!” and by advertising slogans like, ‘Geiz ist geil.’

So, is wealth a necessary adjunct to The Theory of Evolution in The Origin of Species (Darwin, 1859) suggesting that wealth is part of the human condition, which in turn suggests it is a human right? This, in fact, is used to defend the rights of the wealthy to be wealthy, sometimes suggesting that the critics of wealth would deny a person the opportunity to survive better and get ahead of the crowd. Another argument in support of the rights of wealth is that the wealthy are very often wealth creators far in excess of their own rewards.

To extrapolate the argument of wealth’s function as evolutionary behaviour, what is often seen as the vulgar vanity of conspicuous consumerism is actually natural and necessary. Seen from this perspective, it is more pertinent to ask why wealth’s critics find it so distasteful?

Wealth’s automatic, often reflexive answer is that it is very often a case of envy on the part of the differently wealth-endowed (to coin a phrase, albeit satirically). This argument suffers the disadvantage of being seen by those educated enough (in its broadest sense) to have a fulfilling life, at ordinary levels of wealth, as compounding the vulgarity exponentially. In this sense, wealth needs envy and seeks to demean through it. Conversely (and perversely), the argument has the distinct advantage of being largely true, in my experience.

From an ecological sustainability point of view, the inexorable pursuit of increased wealth is madness in a global economy at its most fundamental level, based as it is on consumption on non-renewable resources. Imagine, for example, the draw on natural resources that would be occasioned if everyone in the poor South lives as well as the rich North. Unless, of course, the rich North in some way, needs the poor South to stay poor, in which case this argument falls down, but, if it is so, it raises a disturbing moral question for all of us in the rich North.

The purpose of taxation is respect of these inequalities, is to make tax-payers financially accountable for the benefits the tax-payer derives form the tax-paying community. It helps maintains social order by assuaging the social ill effects of inequality. How much tax that should be paid is a very tricky question in a functioning democracy. Political parties tend to be oriented towards different poles of wealth and so the burden of tax is often shifted depending on which party forms the executive. In our society, taxing the wealthy too highly promotes capital flow out of the area with concomitant eroding of the overall wealth of the community. This was seen in the UK when the Labour party Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1964 raised tax on the wealthy, thereby putting into practice his promise to, “Squeeze the rich till the pips squeaked.” This policy was also seen as spiteful since taxes like Death Duties often reduced comfortable middle class families markedly, not only materially, but also socially, having no longer the wealth to qualify for their former social milieu but without the social network with other members of their new social class. People who grew up under these conditions are often filiopietistical as a defence to the challenges of their new situation.

Shifting the burden of tax towards the less wealthy has the advantage of being a greater encouragement for capital to stay in the community, but exacerbates inequalities with all the social ills that suggests.

It is not just a question of what level of tax is practical, but also of what is seen to be fair. Where has this idea of ‘fairness’ come from? Why is it so attractive, especially on an emotional level? This attraction seems to fly in the face of Natural Selection, but not if the survival function of the community is considered, where it seems that empathy is the directing impulse.

Historically the notion of fairness has been assimilated into religion where ideas of ‘Holy Poverty’ (Armstrong, 1998) are found. This has led to aphorisms like, “religion is the opiate of the proletariat/people” since it is seen as a method of exploitative control by the wealthy. There are many notable examples of the wealthy deliberately renouncing their wealth in accordance with these ideas, but their very notoriety is a function of their rarity. More notable still is the phenomenon of philanthropy that allows the philanthropist a form of immortality as a benefactor of humanity. In this sense it could be viewed as a version of ‘brand positioning’ and as a mechanism to confirm their wealth and power.

It is also these ideas of fairness that gave rise to some of the ideas of the Enlightenment, which, in turn nurtured ideas in Rights of Man (Paine, 1791), A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Wollstonecraft, 1792), The Wealth of Nations (Smith, 1776) and the ideas of liberty, individualism and independence fostering the idea that all are created equal. It is the idea of fairness that causes resentment of the unequal distribution of wealth when it is considered that 2% of the global population owns 50% of the wealth, according to the BBC.

The word ‘exploitative’ was used earlier in the negative context of current vernacular. This suggests that any advantage gained is wrong. Under these circumstances exploitation should not be seen as a polarised interaction, but as a continuum between the poles. This gives rise to notions of the win-win situations of good or fair exploitation and the bad or unfair exploitation that has given us so many of the Globe’s ills. It is the bad variety that is often insinuated by the critics of wealth as to its origin (O’Rourke, 1990)

Conversely, it is also argued by wealth that it is fairly deserved. In this argument there are echoes of religion when wealth cites the Lord looks after His own and the Enlightenment idea of utility exemplified by the Victorian best-seller, ‘Self-Help’ (Smiles, 1859). This suggestion of divine favour found form in ‘The Divine Right of Kings’ by James I of England and VI of Scotland and in how the imperial Indian Civil Service saw itself, The Heaven Born (Shama, 2002). It is this sense of Goodness that perhaps most upsets critics of wealth along with the assumed extra rights and privileges that it is seen as affording. The playing along with this meme is what we all do to some extend in order to survive. The corollary to this is that poverty, no matter of what degree or relativity, is seen as shameful suggesting that being a good consumer is synonymous with being a good person.

What level of wealth differential that is sustainable within a civil society is probably a function of culture. For example, in pre-Thatcher Britain, the inheritors of the middle class morality of industry, discretion and moderation applauded in the pages of Self-Help (Smiles, 1859), it is probably true to say that conspicuous consumption was more sneered upon as vulgar of itself and for the aggrandisement it is suspected to be its cause, whereas material success and its display in the US was seen as more respectable, “If you got it flaunt it!” as Zero Mostel says in The Producers (Brooks, 1968).

Driven by this biological imperative towards wealth, it is easy to see why it is for many the prime motivator and raison d’etre. Unfortunately for wealth, we have also evolved a big brain that empowers us to analyse critically our circumstances. It is in this sphere that we apply reason that suggests that the inexorable growth that fuels wealth will be injurious to the planet, based as it is on commodity. The point of Csikszentmihalyi s book was that humans have outgrown the point where wealth is necessary and becomes a hazard. It is in this sense that we must evolve around our biological imperative to be richer. This begs the question of what we could replace wealth as the currency of power, unless, of course if all were equally empowered. Some still hold these truths to be self-evident.

This ecologically based argument is Malthusian in essence and so is largely discredited as Malthus’ ideas of the limitations of carrying-capacities of eco-systems. The discrediting of this theory was based on technology and discovery overcoming the prevailing limitations. This discrediting is simple-minded in that it assumes that a change in conditions of a system argues against the existence of the system itself. So, unless technology and discovery helps us overcome our current carrying-capacity, our economic systems based on inexorable growth, we will have a bumpy ride ahead, given that we all need to eat and have shelter, we will never get away from economic systems based on physical commodity.

In conclusion, without the attraction of wealth, our economic systems and the comfort most of us enjoy in the developed world break down, but to maintain social cohesion that provides the milieu in which wealth is generated, the wealth differentials must be moderated by fiscal and philanthropic measures so that inequalities of opportunities are levelled to overcome the threshold of the ‘poverty trap’. We all have rights and responsibilities, but it seems to be fashionable to emphasise our own rights, but the responsibilities of others. Seen in this light, wealth has the responsibility not to flaunt material success to the point where it demeans the sense of self-worth and dignity of the less well materially endowed and to acknowledge that although a lot of wealth is based on personal industry and ability, a lot of it is based on dumb luck and bad exploitation. Similarly the less wealthy have the responsibility to acknowledge that a lot of their personal degree of comfort owes a debt to the existence of wealth. To return to Csikszentmihalyi’s thesis that we should recognise the ‘complicatedness’, chaos and conflict engendered by our biological and evolutionary imperatives that have caused us to be where we are today, may well be counter-productive for the further development of the race. This applies as much to the pre-eminence of wealth as life’s raison d’├¬tre as it does to man’s impulse to procreate as much as possible. This suggests that other attributes of humanity should be as highly valued as wealth.

References :

Armstrong, K., (1998) Holy War, Random House, New York

Brooks, M., (1968) The Producers, MGM

Csikszentmihalyi, M., (1993) The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, HarperCollins, New York

Darwin, C., (1859) The Origin of Species, John Murray, London.

Dawkins, R., (1976) The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Malthus, T., (1798) An Essay on the Principle of Population , J. Johnson, London

Paine, T., (1791) Rights of Man, J. Johnson, London

Shama, S. (2002) A History of Britain Vol 3 1776 – 2000, The Fate of Empire, BBC Worldwide Ltd. London

Smiles, S (1859) Self-Help, Riverside, Cambridge

Smith, A., (1776) The Wealth of Nations, Strahan; and Cadell London

Winston, R., (2002) Human Instinct, Bantam Press, London

Wollstonecraft, M., (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, J. Johnson, London