The Seriously Bad Ideas that are Killing us all

In Britain just a few years ago it was the smart thing in high circles to suggest that British farming should go the way of its mining. Farming was surplus to requirements. It was cheaper and therefore more “rational” to buy food in from foreigners with more sunshine and cheaper labour.

Now the mood seems to have changed. “Food security” has become a big issue. Just a few weeks ago the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee produced a two-volume report with more than 600 pages on Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK. All were invited to contribute (and there is even a piece by me on Enlightened Agriculture. Volume II p 275 et seq).

There is no need to doubt the government’s sincerity in all this. The present government really is a disaster on all fronts and no-one hates it more vehemently than I do but it does include some good and intelligent people and the same is true, despite appearances, for big industry and the banks.

But all of the present-day powers-that-be, and all the economists and scientists who advise them – or at least the ones who are listened to – have crammed their heads with the most appalling nonsense: a series of political, economic, and quasi-scientific dogmas that are obviously highly damaging and yet have the force of revealed truth. So long as the present-day powers-that-be continue to cling to these dogmas, they can never solve the world’s food problems, or the world’s problems as a whole, no matter how good their intentions may be or how many earnest reports they may commission.

In truth, we should not dwell on negatives – the task for those of us who give a damn is not to complain about the status quo but to bring about Renaissance: to take over the food chain and do the job ourselves. But as Napoleon said, we need to know our enemies – not individual people, but unexamined and deeply pernicious ideas. So what are these dogmas that are ruining the world?

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Underlying all government policy in all contexts, at the root of all the government reports that have emerged of late on agriculture, lies a set of dogmas. These are not proper, respectable dogmas, in the sense that the Catholic Church uses the term: summaries of ideas that have been thrashed out over decades or centuries by the best scholars in the field. They are for the most part assumptions, arbitrary statements dreamed up by economists and scientists. They have been taken up by politicians not because they are true, and good, and tried and tested, but because they are of the kind that reinforces their power; and they are taken up by industry because they are of a kind that tends to generate wealth, and to concentrate that wealth in the hands of a few. The governments, industrialists, and experts who espouse these dogmas invariably claim above all to be “rational”, but unlike true rationalists (and unlike serious theologians) they do not examine their dogmas. The status quo is taken to be modern, by definition; and, more or less self-evidently, to be good. In truth, almost none of these dogmas is truly modern in the sense of being novel. But all of them are deeply pernicious.

Different observers might summarize these underlying dogmas in different ways. I have reduced them to the following eight:

1: That the political system and way of life that we have in Britain and the Western world as a whole is fundamentally good, or in some Hegelian sense is inevitable.

The state that now prevails is assumed to represent “progress”. The west is said to be “developed”; we are the “First World”; we are rich and we are democratic. In all respects therefore we have the kind of society that (a) is innately desirable; (b) is envied by the rest of the world; and (c) provides the model for the rest to follow.

All these assumptions are highly questionable and I would say, if we take terms like “progress” or “democracy” seriously, then they are obviously wrong. They can be justified only if we define the terms tautologically – for example if we define democracy as “that form of government that Britain claims to possess”.

2: That the economy of the day should be taken as a given, and everything else must be built around it.

All governments, of whatever kind, tend to believe this. They take their favoured form of economy as a given, and take it to be self-evident that everything else – technology, social structure, way of life – must adjust to it. So it was that Stalin created his collective farms, as a rural imitation of the urban factories which he felt must form the economic core of a communist state.

We recognize the mistake in Stalin. We don’t seem to recognize exactly the same mistake in ourselves. In truth if we want agriculture that works – farming that feeds people without wrecking the rest of the world — we have to acknowledge that what really counts – what are most fundamental – are physical reality and morality. We have to work with the bedrock principles of biology, and we have to have a very clear idea of what we think is desirable – concepts such as justice, peace, human fulfillment, and the wellbeing of our fellow creatures. The economy must then be adjusted to suit these realities. To begin with economic dogma and then expect humanity and the physical world to adjust accordingly is to invite disaster. And disaster is precisely what we have.

3: That the particular economy we have now – the neoliberal, exclusively money-based, allegedly “free” global market – represents some kind of denouement: inevitable, immutable, and desirable.

The ground-rules of the neoliberal economy were first laid down by Milton Friedman in Chicago in the early 1960s. The “Chicago School” economic model was taken up with huge enthusiasm in the late 1970s by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and by Ronald Regan in the US, and has become the norm. A whole litany of assumptions is embedded within it, all of them highly questionable, though not necessarily questioned by the powers-that-be. Over the past 30 years, as the neoliberal philosophy has spread around the world, it has brought havoc in its wake.

Thus, to begin with, neoliberal economics assumes the supremacy of money. Without money we can do nothing, or so the dogma has it. With enough money we can do anything. Therefore the point of government is to encourage industries to generate as much money as possible. In earliest times, money was a symbol, a token of real things that could be bought and exchanged, a device to iron out the problems inherent in barter. Increasingly it has become a commodity in its own right. Nowadays, too, money is not so much generated, as deemed to exist. People and companies have been encouraged to borrow money that does not exist on the basis that they will, in the fullness of time, pay it back – a “debt economy”.  The debtors pay compound interest on whatever they are deemed to have borrowed. Compound interest increases exponentially so long as the debt remains unpaid — which means that debts can rise rapidly towards infinity. This is a strange state of affairs in a finite world.

At present the total amount of money that is deemed to exist exceeds the amount of stuff that could theoretically be bought with it by about 20 times. This is why bankers talk of the need for “confidence”. People now routinely borrow vast sums of money which they spend their lives paying back and for a few brief decades may harbour the illusion of genuine affluence. But it really is an illusion, which depends absolutely on everyone being prepared to go along with the game. Indeed, Sir Charles Stamp, President of the Bank of England in the 1920s, remarked even then that “The modern banking system … is perhaps the most astounding piece of sleight-of-hand that was ever invented”. The system requires people’s confidence because it is, quite simply, a confidence trick. If people get cold feet and decide that they would rather have real stuff than hypothetical loot, then the whole house of cards comes crashing down. Which, recently, it did.

Behind the belief in money, to be fair to the powers that be, lies the idea that money makes people happy, and that the more they have, the happier they will be. So the declared aim of all modern governments is to increase Gross Domestic Product, GDP, which is the sum total of all the wealth generated in a given country in a given year, by whatever means. “Economic growth” – year-by-year increase in GDP — is the yardstick by which governments like Britain’s measure their success. Of course it’s obvious that increase in national wealth does not necessarily increase personal wealth. John Ruskin pointed this out in the 19th century: “It is impossible to conclude, of any given mass of acquired wealth, merely by the fact of its existence, whether it signifies good or evil to the nation in the midst of which it exists”. This is obvious today in countries such as Nigeria, with oil pouring out of its ears, generating pots of money, and huge and unprecedented misery. The same will surely come about too in Poland, as the traditional agriculture that serves people so well is trashed to make way for big business – as reported in this blog by Sir Julian Rose.

Even when the newly generated money does get to the people,  common sense and many a formal study show that happiness does not correlate with wealth, once people have enough to keep a roof over their heads, raise their children, know where the next meal is coming from, and can afford to have a drink with their friends. In short, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out the better part of a century ago when the concept of GDP was still new, GDP is not a measure of human wellbeing, and never was intended as such, and in truth has almost nothing to do with it. We might also point out as any six-year-old could do, that indefinite material growth in a finite world is just not possible.

Thus, simple theory and common sense reveal the fatuousness of the neoliberal model, at least as it has been applied. The experience of the past 30 years, when neoliberal economics has been given virtually free rein, have shown its shortcomings beyond all doubt. The rich have grown incomparably richer while the poor have grown steadily poorer, with more and more tipping over the edge, and this applies both between nations and within nations. In countries like Britain, the middle class are now increasingly to be numbered among “the poor” – and so it is that people in good jobs, including plumbers and shopkeepers and schoolteachers and architects and university dons, can no longer afford to live in the cities where they work, and farm workers cannot afford to live in their villages, and all are clustering in ex- Council houses that once were intended to serve the less well-off.  Neoliberal apologists claim that the wealth of the few “trickles down” to the many but in practice it does not — or at least, only under special circumstances. The newly disenfranchised might get a job in Macdonald’s, for example.

“The market” is supposed to solve all our problems. Adam Smith in the 18th century said that in a free market everyone should simply do their own thing – and if they did, then justice and honesty would prevail because the bad and dishonest traders would be weeded out as the consumers took their custom elsewhere. But common sense and the simplest computer models show that this principle works only if there is an infinite number of traders and customers, and if the customers have perfect information and perfect access to all the competing trades people. Such an ideal is clearly impossible. Interestingly, Adam Smith saw the corporates as the enemies of the free market because they represented oligopoly which is one step away from monopoly. But the laws of complexity show that it is impossible to prevent the rise of corporates unless we regulate expressly to prevent this (as was the case in the early decades of the United States). But regulation is the very thing that the advocates of the free market abhor, and now the corporates hold the whip hand.

In short, whatever way you look at it, neoliberalism cannot work and demonstrably does not work. Such is its hold, however, that the market nowadays is seen as the arbiter not simply of the economy, but of morality itself. What is deemed to be “good” is whatever people with money are prepared to pay for. Only a few taboos are now holding out. Child pornography is still verboten, even though some people will pay a great deal for it. But increasingly, whatever you can pay for is deemed to be OK.

Oddly, although common sense, some formal studies, and decades of experience are against them, the governments and intellectuals who subscribe to neoliberal economics invariably claim to be “rationalists”. Well, if we equate rationalism with short-term materialism, they are right. But if so, then we must conclude that in the running of human affairs, mere rationality just won’t do.

4. That competition is the vital spur to all action

The market that dominates the world’s prevailing economy and hence our entire lives is supposed, above all, to be “competitive”. When prime ministers and presidents are not talking about “economic growth” they talk about the need to be “competitive”. Put the two together and the market becomes a global dogfight in which the notional winner is the one with the biggest pile of money, at least as measured by the computer. What does it matter if you throw most of your farmers out of work, or wreck the countryside, or drive your fellow creatures to extinction, or reduce the quality of food, so long as you are “competitive”? We can drive ourselves to the brink of disaster, as indeed we have, so long as our pile of money is bigger than anybody else’s. (In truth, present-day Britain is deemed to be rich even though it owes about trillion. It gets weirder and weirder).

Even in fields that were not conceived originally simply as a source of cash, “competition” is supposed nowadays to provide the vital spur. Education, medicine, farming – all are supposed to be ruthlessly “competitive”. I even heard one of Britain’s most senior scientists solemnly assert of late that his fellow scientists do better research because they have to compete for private funding (although I am not sure, considering his age, that he would ever have needed to).

So what is the supposed virtue of all this competition? Why do the modern powers that be attach such importance to it? Apparently competition leads to “efficiency”, and “efficiency” vies only with “growth” and “competitive” as the buzz-word of the day. But does competition really make us more efficient? Would Mendel have got to his laws of heredity more quickly if he’d had to apply to Monsanto for funds? Should Bohr have spent his days writing grant applications to Toshiba? Ernest Rutherford positively refused to cash in on his own, early contributions to radio, and left the spoils to Marconi instead. Think what he might have achieved if only he had been more competitive! It is all so obviously crass. But it is the modern mantra nonetheless.

There is irony, here, too. Game theory shows that if you want to concentrate all the community’s wealth in the hands of one individual or of an elite then indeed you should be maximally competitive. But if your aim is truly to create maximum wealth, and to ensure that everyone gets fair shares, and that no-one misses out, then game theory tells us that cooperation must be the name of the game. It’s good to have game theory on side because maths does have a certain rigour about it, and it does impress people. Yet we don’t need game theory to tell us that cooperation is more “efficient” than competition – if your aim is to spread sweetness and light to all, and not to create misery and wreck the world. Common sense tells us that those who compete need above all to fight and fighting needs time and energy and makes a mess and kills people. The same time and energy could be spent doing the things that you originally thought were worth doing.

There is worse. Darwin did indeed emphasise competition as the spur to natural selection and hence to evolution. No competition, no biodiversity; no oak trees no cows no human beings. In truth, nature is more cooperative than it is competitive – if it weren’t it would not work at all – but competition is in there too. Darwin certainly had a point.

It is a huge mistake, though, to extrapolate in any simple fashion from what is perceived to be “natural”, to what is perceived to be right. In practice to a huge extent our sense of what is “right” is informed by what we perceive to be “natural”. Certainly the Catholic Church comes down hard, as St Paul did, on whatever it perceives to be “unnatural”. But we cannot extrapolate simplistically from “natural” to “good”. Nature does bad things too, including rape, infanticide, cannibalism – you name it, it happens. Nonetheless, the idea that competition is good and can and should be pursued to the death because that is what Darwin said and therefore that is how nature works, has crept in to modern morality and informs a great deal of modern business practice. I recall with some chill a director of Enron who had walked off with a billion dollars or so of other people’s loot before the crash he knew was imminent, telling a TV interviewer that he knew this was OK because he had read Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, and concluded that selfishness is the way of the world. This is not what Dawkins intended but you can see how the Enron director made the mistake, and others are making it all the time.

There is competition in everyday life, of course. Farmers and growers love competitions: the biggest marrow, the shapeliest cow, the straightest furrow. But in well-tempered societies the competition is just a friendly rivalry – competitive in the way that club cricket is competitive. It is a spur to action and self-improvement but nobody is meant to get hurt. In traditional societies, farmers or shopkeepers or publicans who are ostensibly in competition help each other out when the chips are down, or indeed do so all the time. Everybody recognizes that no-one can survive in the end unless everyone is basically on the same side, and they all pull together.

In a real, gloves-off competition, as American sports movies are forever assuring us, there is only one winner, and a great many losers. The billion people who are now undernourished and the billion who live in urban slums, and the billion who are obese and marginally diabetic and permanently ill-tempered, are the losers in an economy that is designed to produce losers. “Over-population” is often blamed for the mass deprivation. If a billion people are hungry it’s because there are a billion too many. QED. As Ebenezer Scrooge remarked in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, if the paupers die “It will only lower the surplus population”. But if you have an economy designed to be competitive then there will always be losers, however big or small the population may be. If the competition is intended to be ruthless then the losers will die, as indeed is happening before our eyes. But even if world numbers were reduced to three billion, by whatever draconian means, then an economy like ours would ensure that hundreds of millions would die in any case.

In truth, if we truly want agriculture to feed people, then we need to design it expressly for that purpose. The present notion, that if we set out with maximal competitiveness to produce the biggest possible pile of money by whatever means we will somehow produce a just and tolerable world, including good farming, is the crassest conceivable nonsense. Yet this is the modern mantra, boomed to us daily from on high.

5: That technology, and particularly science-based “high” technology, can always dig us out of whatever holes we may have dug ourselves into.

This is the mentality that lies behind the current government zeal for GMOs. In thirty years genetic engineering has produced no new crops or livestock that truly help to improve the food security of the world as a whole or to supply good food to poor people in particular — but that in no way stems government enthusiasm. Whatever problems we are confronted with, high tech must find a way. That too is the dogma.

High tech by definition is science-based tech – gmos and electronics as opposed to oxcarts and windmills which people devised long before there was formal science. Science is widely assumed at least by some scientists (by no means all) and many non-philosophers of science (including most politicians and industrialists) to offer us a royal road to unequivocal truth. In effect, it is seen as the royal road to omniscience. If the underlying science is omniscient, then the high technologies that emerge from it should make us omnipotent. (That doesn’t quite follow of course, but it as good as the thinking gets). But of course, as all serious philosophers of science have been emphasizing for a very long time (J S Mill in the mid 19th century more or less said it), science tells us only what science tells us. As Sir Peter Medawar put the matter in the mid 20th century, science cannot be more than “the art of the soluble”. As for omnipotence – well: the same applies. We can do the things we can do, but there is a lot we can’t, and there is a whole string of obvious reasons to show why that will always be so.

The notion that we can understand life exhaustively and manipulate it how we will is particularly dangerous when we try to control nature for our own purposes, which in essence is what farmers aspire to do. Every serious ecologist knows that nature is way beyond our ken, and always must be. The idea that we can re-shape nature at will in any form we choose is not only hubristic but ludicrous.  But that is the conceit that lies behind modern biotech – or at least behind the megabucks that are invested in it. Good farmers approach their task humbly. They are keen to experiment, but they do not take liberties. Excellent science is vital of course, in agriculture as in all modern life. But it must be seen as an aide to good practice; not as the means to supplant good practice with systems that are intended primarily to generate cash.

6: That we can always provide the kind of technologies we need if we spend enough on R & D.

This was the assumption that lay behind the American dream to get to the moon in the 1960s – which in that context seemed to be vindicated. The same assumption lay behind Richard Nixon’s campaign to “lick cancer in the ‘70s” – and there it clearly wasn’t. It might seem unjust to suggest that Sir Nicholas Stern’s report on the economics of global warming rests on the same assumption – that we have the means to do what needs doing, and with enough cash we can buy our way out. Yet to me this seems uncomfortably true – although Stern is among the more enlightened ones. Common sense suggests that we are likely to succeed in a predictable period and with a finite budget only if we undertake tasks that are highly  specific (like getting to the moon) and which partake of scientific principles that are simple and seem well understood (like Newtonian physics). But  we are likely to fail if the problem is full of unknowns and possible unknowables – including the many biological quirks that underlie cancer, or the likely the behaviour of the world in the face of unprecedented climate change. Some philosophers of science like to tell us that the task of science is to improve on common sense but in truth, in real life, we dispense with common sense at our peril.

But governments believe in the power of high tech just as the inhabitants of Tanna island believed in the beneficence of John Frum. They further believe that we can always devise the high tech that we need if we spend enough on it. This in turn reinforces their most fundamental, neoliberal belief that it is their principal duty to maximize the nation’s wealth. If we are rich enough, the dogma has it, we can always buy our way out of trouble.

7: That “strong central government” is necessary; that the present governments of the western world are democratic; and that they are a good thing — doing more good than harm.

British politicians as ostensibly divergent as Lord Hattersley and Kenneth Clarke are wont to assure us in public debates that countries need “strong” government. The anti-terrorist laws that grow more draconian by the month in Britain and the US presumably reflect a belief that strength implies minute-by-minute interference. But if recent governments really have been strong, then we must conclude that strong government  is not obviously to the public good. We have disaster on almost every front. Societies and perhaps the world at large probably do need some kind of government. But present experience and all of history show that in practice governments rarely work in the best interests of their people. History suggests that wars are made by governments, not by people at large. The governments that do benefit their people are not necessarily the “strong” ones, whether they are totalitarian or allegedly democratic.

Specifically, it used to be the perceived job of government to control big business in the interests of the people. But Britain’s present government, and that of the US, have in effect become extensions of the corporate board room, and make a virtue of this. In short, our allegedly strong government interferes with our lives at every conceivable turn. But it does not truly govern, in any worthwhile sense of the word.

In short, the whole issue of governance needs to be re-thought from first principles. The prevailing conceit, that Britain should be ruled by one or other of two of three political parties is too crude by half.

In truth, most human enterprises that are of most direct relevance to human beings, including education and agriculture, are best run by communities of people who know something about them and give a damn. The prime task for central government is to ensure that the communities under its jurisdiction have fair shares; that at least as much is spent on educating poor kids, as on rich kids; and that farmers in difficult areas are at least as well rewarded as those who can simply run their combines through the fertile lowlands. It is not the government’s job to tell teachers what to teach, minute by minute, or to turn farming into a branch of industrial chemistry, just to swell the coffers.

8: That the development of the western world this past few hundred years represents “progress”, and is a model for all the rest to follow.

By most objective measures of human wellbeing, Britain and the United States come out badly. Yet we achieve our mediocrity by gobbling up far more resources than the world can possibly sustain. Indeed we would need the resources of three to five planets Earth to raise everyone to our level of material consumption. We cannot possibly sustain what we have without perpetuating the enormous injustices that now prevail, and accepting that billions must go the wall. Actually, of course, we cannot sustain even that which we have for more than a few more decades, however unjust we allow the world to be.  It is not even remotely logical, let alone morally desirable, to regard ourselves as a model for the rest. Such progress as we may have made has been down a blind alley; or, to shift the metaphor somewhat, we have climbed further and further out along a limb that grows thinner and thinner, with an ever more precipitous drop beneath, held aloft by nothing more substantial than hype and wishful thinking.

In sum: all this is a long-winded way of backing up the notion that we really do need the Campaign for Real Farming. With the help of people who really do know something about agriculture, those of us who give a damn just have to do what needs doing ourselves. The minds of the powers that be are not on the job at all.

In truth, the fight is not between left wing and right wing, or capitalism against socialism, or East against West, or atheism against religion. It is between people who take it to be self-evident that the economy comes first and we must work outwards from there, and people like me who acknowledge that the physical world, not money, is the only tangible reality;  and that human action must be moral, and it is vital to spell out, and never stop trying to spell out, what morality ought to mean. Then “the economy” must be re-thought from first principles to match what is physically possible in this world, with what it is right to do. This task involves all human enterprise, of course. But for all kinds of reasons, most of them obvious, agriculture is a very good place to start.

Colin Tudge, August 6 2009

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