The Manners and Morals of High Capitalism
The only two things that were actually surprising about Boris Johnson’s Centre of Policy Research speech were:
i) That anyone should think that Boris’ avowal of 19th Century Social Darwinism is surprising because it is patently obvious that his speech also represents the views of Cameron, Osborne, Tory Ministers and much of the wider Conservative Party.
ii) That Boris would have talked openly about his views in public.
However, Andrew Rawnsley was surprised on both counts:
Where on earth do we start? Let’s begin with his view of what drives human nature in general and capitalist economies in particular. The speech was highly illuminating – not about what really makes society tick, but about what goes on inside the whirling head of mayor Johnson. It is his contention that “greed” and “the spirit of envy” are not vices to be regretted, but virtues to be lauded because they are “a valuable spur to economic activity”. This was not a throwaway line, a light aside, just another one of those provocative Johnsonian sallies designed to wind up lefties and stimulate the erogenous zones of the right wing of the Tory party. It was central to his argument. He hailed greed and envy as emotions to be celebrated because that was at the heart of his contention that inequality is not only inevitable, it is desirable and necessary as an engine of economic growth.
Clearly, Andrew Rawnsley has never heard of Herbert Spencer, 19th century philosopher beloved by the wealthy and powerful American Robber Barons, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and the rest?
(See below – J. K. Galbraith’s video clip from the 1977 ‘The Age of Uncertainty’ series)
It was Herbert Spencer, not Darwin, who coined the phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’, drawing parallels between his political classical economic theories and natural selection.
Spencer’s theories of laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest and minimal human interference in the processes of natural law had an enduring and even increasing appeal in the social science fields of economics and political science. 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand expanded on and popularized Spencer’s ideas, while politicians such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher enacted them into law.
‘Laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest and minimal human interference’ as advocated by Ayn Rand, is the pedigree of Boris’ incongruous suggestion that the largest cornflakes rise to the top of the shaken packet.
And also his even more controversial assertion:
‘… Johnson mocked the 16% “of our species” with an IQ below 85 as he called for more to be done to help the 2% of the population who have an IQ above 130.’
(Well, perhaps not so controversial given that those percentages are inherent to the IQ test methodology… but let’s not get bogged down in dissecting Boris’s faulty understanding and ignorance. Let’s go with the implicit message.)
American follower John Fiske observed, that Spencer’s ideas were to be found “running like the weft through all the warp” of Victorian thought .. and are clearly still running like a weft through the upper echelons of the Conservative Party. The silence from Cameron et al immediately following Boris’ speech was deafening.
Essentially, the tenets are those of the American Dream:
i) Rich people are rich because they have fought their way to the top and are more intelligent.
ii) Poor people are poor because they have not tried hard enough and are stupid.
iii) Government and the benefits system prevent the cornflake packet being shaken hard enough. Hence, the need to remove the ‘safety net’ of the welfare state and shrink the role of government.
(Frankly, I can’t believe that I’m writing this extremely unpleasant garbage which owes nothing to any informed understanding of genetics, cognitive psychology, sociology or economics.)
As a commentators on Cif wrote in response to Boris’speech:
‘They’re not even trying to pretend anymore, are they?
Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it shows that the end is near. Hubris is the best indicator for that…’
‘Spot on, it’s the new eugenics. The conservative hierarchy genuinely believes that there is no further need for social mobility, that the social hierarchy with its grotesque inequalities is some kind of perfect order. The rest of us simply live to serve the new banking aristocracy.’
Boris may well have overestimated the readiness of the UK for his ‘eugenic’ message. Another putative Tory leader, Sir Keith Josephs, certainly scuppered his chance of being Prime Minister when he attributed the cycle of social deprivation to a combination of the young and poor in a climate of sexual freedom perpetuating a deprived class with little effective hope of self-improvement – adding that “the balance of our human stock is threatened”.
After some days, Cameron and Osborne finally felt the need to distance themselves from the Boris speech but it is noteworthy that their disclaimers were somewhat ambiguous and not entirely inconsistent with Boris’ views …
Asked on his flight to China whether the London mayor spoke for the Conservative party about IQ levels and inequality, the prime minister said: “I let Boris speak for himself. I think it is very important that we make sure we do everything so that we maximise people’s opportunities to make the most of their talents.”
.. which could mean ‘maximise cornflakes’ opportunities’ so that they can greedily and enviously fight their way up the packet unimpeded by big government.
George Osborne similarly distanced himself:
“I wouldn’t have put it like that and I don’t agree with everything he said.”
.. so which bit didn’t you agree with George?
However… How can Cameron and Osborne possibly say that they reject Boris’ philosophical assumptions when we can all see in their policies that they are doing their utmost to create the ruthless laissez–faire society advocated by Hayek, Friedman, Rand, Regan and Thatcher?
It is a bit hazy as to how Boris explains inherited wealth as being the result of individual struggle… Did Cameron, Osborne and the other cabinet millionaires all start at the bottom of the cornflake packet?
The Age of Uncertainty Episode 2 – The Manners and Morals of High Capitalism
The Age of Uncertainty is a 1977 television series about economics, history and politics, co-produced by the BBC, CBC, KCET and OECA, and written and presented by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
Galbraith acknowledges the successes of the market system in economics but associated it with instability, inefficiency and social inequity. He advocates government policies and interventions to remedy these perceived faults
The content of the series was determined by Galbraith, with the presentation style directed by his colleagues in the BBC. Galbraith began by writing a series of essays from which the scripts were derived and from these a book by the same name, emerged which in many places goes beyond the material covered in the relevant television episode.