Economics and politics - comment and analysis
7. January 2017 I Heiner Flassbeck I Ecology and Growth, Economic Policy, Europe, General, General Politics

Babylonian double talk, populism and leftist confusion

Nowadays, enormous amounts of information reach people. Most of it passes through very few channels. The mainstream media dominate the public debate, sow confusion and propagate disinformation. Unfortunately, the situation is hardly better on the other side. Many leftist intellectuals love talking about big goals, but they hate the discussions about the way to get there.  

 Many people go into the New Year with the same uncertainty with which they left the old one. They wonder how the world, or even their country, will solve imminent problems they are faced with. It is a difficult situation. If it becomes near impossible to rationally discuss a minor issue and bring to it a reasonable conclusion, what are the chances of successfully dealing with the central questions of our times?

It was to be feared that such situation would occur. We are constantly being flooded with more and more information, but the main institutions that should channel this flood, so that we can learn something and interpret the world accurately, are progressively becoming more insignificant. In the past, we had printed information. The thinking was that the effort and the cost of printing would ensure that not everything appeared in print.

The ‚Net‘, where, so it seems, all information is equally valuable and where everyone can make public and perpetuate everything at almost no cost, produces an ever growing flood of information from literally every perspective. Instead of a being problem solver, this is seen by many to be our main problem. However, the difference between the forums of the net and the talk at the bar or the inn of the last thousand or so years lies in the fact that sound waves disappear faster than electronic records and that the beer which was lavishly consumed while producing nonsense at the bar made it easy to forget what was being said.

The real meaningful change is that the “official” media have been robbed of their traditional role. Their business model no longer works because if any information can be accessed for free somewhere, information becomes unsaleable. Out of pure self-defense, the traditional media progressively became more and more a defense machine of what their owners and publishers consider to be the ‚party line‘ of the publication.

This is logical. Whoever is no longer able to sell information will try to sell opinions. But selling opinions is not as easy as selling information. An editorial office is not effective if it has five differing opinions. It needs to have one, but if it has one than it is the opinion of the publisher. It then turns out that the opinions of the ten most important publishers are all very similar. There is no doubt that this sort of ‚homogenisation‘ has taken place. Traditional newspapers, originally from all sides and stripes, increasingly comment on events in an uniform manner. Behind it, lies despair because the publishers know that, since everything is so similar, it is only a matter of time until no one will want to hear or and read anything anymore.

Politicians greeted this evolution with enthusiasm because it looks good to them – at least in the short term. Coincidentally, the opinion of the ten biggest publishers is also the opinion of the ten most influential politicians. It seems to be a ‚win-win‘ situation. As a ‚serious‘ publication, one can, joyously drift into the marsh of the mainstream babble and never realise that one is sinking. Of course, the dogs on the net bark loud, but the caravan “of the great spirits” remains unimpressed and continues.

The problem with this grand strategy is obvious. People get tired of reading all the splendid news in a world which becomes more dysfunctional by the day. At the end of this process, barely anyone believes anything anymore. Some prefer “alternative” voices that pretend to oppose the mainstream. This happens, even if the „rebels“ are only barely capable of covering up that they are nothing but charlatans.

This is exactly where we stand at the beginning of 2017. In the US, someone who knows nothing except mainstream cliches will be president. He has been elected into office because a mass of people are dissatisfied with their economic situation and he was able to play the role of the rebel convincingly for a few months.

In Europe, major changes are also coming because the economic situation remains catastrophic even a full seven years after the start of the crisis. Unemployment is still at an extremely high level in some countries and European economic policy-makers continue to defend their miserable failure by repeating, somnambulistically, that there is no alternative. Politically and in the media, Germany continues to play its destructive role. It continues to pretend to do everything right, while the media continue to deny and conceal the tragic effects of Germany’s mercantilism and its responsibility for the euro zone crisis.

This is exactly where populism enters the stage, or, what is considered to be populism. In Germany, everything that goes against the mainstream consensus is considered to be dangerous populism and is therefore unsuitable for discussion. A debate on the thesis that one can be as successful as Germany without painful adjustment processes is out of the question. It is impossible to say that it is not necessary to lower wages (and, indeed, that they should rise) without being marginalised, let alone that one should make the point that Europe’s economic problems can be solved by stimulating demand, preferably state demand. Those who go as far as to argue that the government stimulus should be financed, not though higher taxes, but through higher borrowing (in more vulgar parlance: debt) is not even a ‚populist‘ any longer but a dangerous misanthrope, an enemy of good, hard working people and their wage lowering government.

From this it follows that, in Germany, stupidity has become state religion. The simple insight that, in a monetary union, not everyone can be as competitive as the most competitive country or the realisation that no savings here exist without debt somewhere else is beyond average German comprehension. German politics and the media act at the intellectual level of a toddler. We have to say it like this, because we cannot constantly insult all the housewives, not even the Swabian ones.

However, stupidity still has a completely different dimension, one that is even bigger and more dangerous than the incomprehension of the German toddler. The Left, acting from the outside against the mainstream, ask the few critics oft he mainstream to stop talking about German wage moderation and other issues because they too are only the sad slaves of a system that is doomed to failure anyway. One should leave the field to the Right once again for a another few hundred years, because “the system” can only be reformed ecologically and economically if it completely collapses first. The goal must be the overcoming of our current economic order. Then we will see.

A quite incredible example of this second sort of stupidity has been delivered by the “leftist” British journalist George Monbiot in the Guardian (here). After attacking neo-liberalism for its many ills, Monbiot feels he “must” finally “tell the others” that they too have totally failed. They have not succeeded in developing a whole new theory that is equally far from both neoclassicism and Keynesianism. This culminates in the sentence, which is really idiotic, that every call to Keynes is a confession of failure (“Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure”). What is decisive in the first place for him is that Keynesianism only functions if private consumption and growth are being stimulated and that is exactly what is responsible for the destruction of the environment.

So whoever thinks in macroeconomic terms, whoever is trying to understand how the system in which we live really works and how fundamental policy goals can be achieved through concrete policy measures is a Keynesian and therefore fails even before the first words on growth and consumption have been spoken. Indeed, the argument, which is popular in Leftist-ecological circles, that state deficits constitute evidence of unsustainable economic activity, shrink the entire alternative to neoclassicism and neoliberalism to the size of a pinhead. Congratulations, with this kind of intellectual self-castration one prepares the way for the final victory of the unreason.

What happens at the end, once it is clear that the mainstream is without alternatives but nevertheless unsuccessful? This, to be sure, is not the hour of a sterile left. It is the great hour of those who are for “action for action’s sake.” Those political forces gain power who have a general mistrust in reason itself and in the institutions that allow for reasonable discussion. Their program is the antipode of those who seek serious reflection and political reason. Such a situation, as Umberto Ecco has taught, leads to fascism in one form or another, regardless of whether one wants it or not.