Jules Evans

About Jules Evans

Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

Has neo-liberalism fatally undermined the idea of global governance?

GD readers might find interesting this piece by Columbia University’s Mark Mazower, from the FT this weekend. He has a book coming out in October on the history of the idea of global governance. Brief highlights:

“They decided without us. Let us advance without them,” reads the slogan on the website of Syriza, the leftwing Greek party that shot to prominence after elections this month. But what emerges as one reads on is less a clear strategy for the country’s future than a worldview suffused with the images and memories of its turbulent past. Here, the fight against today’s perceived enemy – neoliberalism – evokes the struggle against the military junta 40 years ago, and the resistance to Nazi occupation during the second world war…Alexis Tsipras, Syriza’s leader, is too young to remember this: he was born just as the junta fell, in the summer of 1974. However, his party’s language reminds us that the eurozone crisis is raising some deep historical questions about what has happened to politics, to democracy and to the very idea of international co-operation.

It was in Europe, two centuries ago, where the idea emerged that the world was a governable place. This idea was radically new: the term “international” itself was coined by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham and only entered general circulation in the decades after Napoleon’s defeat. Although nationalism was emerging as a potent force at this time, the supporters of international co-operation were not alarmed. On the contrary, they believed that nationalism and internationalism were soul mates, that a continent of vibrant national democracies necessitated co-operation among its diverse people. Novelist Victor Hugo conjured up the vision of a federal Europe to a wildly cheering audience of peace activists in Paris in 1849; the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini inspired US president Woodrow Wilson with his idea of a society of democratic nations.

If Wilson’s ill-fated League of Nations was one outcome of such views, other internationalists fought equally hard for free trade, or for communism. But the second world war saw anti-fascists in Europe return to the idea of federation for the continent as an antidote both to the bellicose nationalism of Hitler and Mussolini, and to the hopeless high-mindedness of the League. They believed that without integration, Europeans would continue to fight indefinitely; with it, the nation could be tamed and the needs of the weakest members of society guaranteed.

The origins of the EU thus reflect the persistence of the old idea that international co-operation is the best guarantee of national well-being. US support for European integration was premised on the belief not only that it would boost growth and keep communism at bay but that it would revive democracy itself. The early decades of the common market coincided not only with unprecedented productivity gains and growth across western Europe, but simultaneously with significant falls in inequality and enhanced spending on social services and welfare.

That achievement seems to belong to an almost neolithic past. The past 25 years have seen many of those gains reversed and have thrown into question the notion that national sovereignty and international co-operation are complementary. The architects of this reversal were not philosophers such as Bentham or revolutionaries such as Mazzini but sober technocrats such as Paul Volcker and the IMF’s Michel Camdessus. Managers of the global monetary system after the oil shocks of the 1970s, they believed that international prosperity and stability depended upon the liberalisation of capital movements. Europe’s enthusiastic participation in this financialisation of the global economy has had striking if largely unintended consequences.

All international organisations require their members to give up some sovereignty in exchange for the benefits of joining the group. But in earlier times, this choice did not entail anything close to the kinds of sacrifices that are required today. Legislatures within the EU, and especially within the eurozone, are now obliged to cede discretionary power to unelected central bankers, judges, bureaucrats and industry regulators. One does not have to be a supporter of Syriza to see how this allows established political parties in difficult times to be turned into stooges of shadowy special interests.

So what is at stake in the eurozone crisis goes beyond the consequences of a Greek exit and beyond even the future of the EU itself. The crisis has thrown into question the very idea that the world can be governed.

The Vickys: can you be paternalist without being patronising?

Two news stories caught my eye this weekend. Firstly, the British government wants to launch a voucher scheme so every parent can take parenting classes from a range of providers. One of them is called the Parenting Gym, and is owned by Octavius Black, the millionaire school-chum of David Cameron’s, who made his fortune through Mind Gym, a corporate well-being consultancy.

The other story was that the Templeton Foundation has given a multi-million-pound grant to Birmingham University to set up a Jubilee Values and Character Centre. The press release says:

How does the power of good character transform and shape the future of society? What would be the wider social, cultural and moral impact of a more grateful Britain?  What personal virtues should ground public service?  How can fostering character traits like hope and optimism be help working towards a better British society? The Centre will initiate a national consultation on a proposed curriculum policy for character building in schools, and will run a 10-year project at Birmingham called ‘Gratitude Britain’.

These are the two latest trumpet-blasts from a movement which has been dubbed the New Paternalism. The phrase originally appeared from Nudge psychologists like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who call their nudge policy interventions ‘libertarian paternalism’. They want to nudge people in pro-social directions without them realising it (hence it’s ‘libertarian’ – because the citizens are so dumb they don’t realise they’re being guided).

But there are other New Paternalists who are much bolder. They want to instil good values in the citizenry, create good habits, foster good character. They are similar to Victorian paternalists like Matthew Arnold, but they take his lofty Hellenic philosophy and try to put it on a firm evidence base, to create a science of resilience, optimism and other ‘character strengths’.

I call this movement the Vickys, after the tribe in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a steam-punk novel about a future society that has fragmented into a collection of tribes or ‘phyles’, each with their own culture and moral code – including a Nation of Islam tribe, a neo-Confucian tribe, and the Vickys, who are cyber-engineers and who follow Victorian customs. Basically, success in this society is all about what phyle has accepted you. Your character depends on your moral culture. The book tells the story of how the leader of the Vickys hires a nano-engineer to code an interactive ‘gentleman’s primer’ to cultivate the character of his niece – except it gets stolen and discovered by a street orphan, who subsequently rises to the top of her society.

The Vickys include Martin Seligman and the Positive Psychologists, who have got enormous backing from Templeton for their research into character strengths and resilience training, and who launched a $125 million course in resilience-training for the US Army. Like Stephenson’s Vickys, they want to create a computer-automated course in moral education – an app for character. The Vickys also include  include self-control psychologists like Roy Baumeister, and champions of ‘social and moral capital’ like Jonathan Haidt and Robert Puttnam.

In the UK, the Vickys include Wellington headmaster Anthony Seldon and his new colleague, the young former policy advisor James O’Shaughnessy, who has gone back to Wellington to set up a chain of Wellington academies; Matthew Taylor of the RSA; Matthew Grist and Jen Lexmond of Demos; the Young Foundation; David Goodhart of Prospect Magazine; Danny Kruger, another former Tory advisor who now runs a charity for former prison inmates; Lord Richard Layard of the LSE; and, more speculatively, Alain de Botton, whose more recent writings have called for a shift beyond liberalism and back to a more interventionist paternalism.

Anthony Seldon described the New Paternalist ethos in the Telegraph this week. He wrote:

Character, and specifically its neglect, is the number one issue of our age. A society that is not grounded in deep values, that doesn’t know who its heroes are and that lacks a commitment to the common good, is one that is failing. Such we have become… The riots in British cities in August 2011 were the catalyst for the creation [of the new Jubilee Centre for Character and Values]. As the fires subsided, a call was heard across the nation for a renewed emphasis on communal values and ethical teaching, which would discourage such events happening again. It is an indictment of us all that such a centre should ever need to have been established…The development of a sense of gratitude among people in Britain will be at the heart of the work. The character strengths it will advocate are self-restraint, hard work, resilience, optimism, courage, generosity, modesty, empathy, kindness and good manners. Old-fashioned values, maybe. Some will sneer, and ridicule them as middle class or “public school”. But these are eternal values, as advocated by Aristotle and countless thinkers since.

I am interested in this movement, and attracted to some aspects of it. My new book is about the contemporary fusion of virtue ethics with empirical psychology, and how this new fusion is being spread by public policy in schools, the army and beyond to foster character, resilience, eudaimonia and other such ideals. I got into the scene when Cognitive Behavioural Therapy helped me overcome depression in my early 20s, and I then found out how much CBT owed to ancient Greek philosophy. I’m a huge fan of Greek philosophy and its practical therapeutic use today, so a part of me loves the renaissance of virtue ethics in modern policy.

But we have to be aware of the ideological and political context of these efforts in mass character education. It can all too easily seem like rich people telling poor people to buck up and be a bit more moral. It can ignore the economic and environmental context and how that dynamically feeds into character. I’m not saying character is entirely caused by economic context. But it’s certainly a factor – Aristotle himself knew that. He insisted eudaimonia was as much made up of external factors like wealth and the kind of society you live in. If you’re too poor or your society is too unequal, he warned, it would be very difficult for you to achieve eudaimonia or for your society to find the ‘common good’. Continue reading

Bhutan’s well-being measurements (or ‘how Buddhist are you?’)

The UN Happiness Conference last week looks to have been a fascinating event. The Prime Minister of Bhutan sent me a giant Willy Wonka-esque invitation, for which I’m grateful, but wouldn’t pay my air-fare, for which I’m lingeringly resentful (not really). Anyway, I didn’t go, but have spent this morning reading through some of the material that came out of it.

The main event was the publication of The World Happiness Report, edited by Jeffrey Sachs, Richard Layard and John Helliwell. Interesting that Sachs, once a champion of ‘shock therapy’ and the neo-liberal Washington Consensus, should have climbed on-board the happy train.

In fact, Sachs seems to be making a bid to be the train-driver – he wrote the intro to the report, which seems odd, seeing as he’s quite a recent convert to well-being economics, while Layard’s been banging on about it for over a decade. Anyway, Sachs (who says he’s an Aristotelian) has clearly reigned in Layard’s ultra-utilitarianism. There are five or so references to Aristotle and the Stoics in the report, many more to the Buddha, and not one to Layard’s beloved Jeremy Bentham. Sachs opines loftily in the introduction that western economists’ pursuit of GDP is “completely at variance with the wisdom of the sages”. Oh really Jeff? Do we need shock cognitive therapy?

Despite Sachs’ attempt to put himself forward as the global guru of love, the conference really marks another huge success for Richard Layard, who to my mind is by far the most influential British intellectual today – partly because of his success in British mental health policy and the spread of CBT, but also because of the global influence of the happiness agenda he has pushed.

Although there are many aspects of Layard’s agenda that I welcome (its support for CBT in particular) I remain wary of the agenda because I think utilitarianism and positivism can be too monist and authoritarian: they force an entire country to follow one particular philosophy of the good life, which they insist is ‘scientific fact’. That’s what John Stuart Mill warned in On Liberty, where he spoke of the danger of a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and insisted we need to encourage diversity, experimentation, non-conformity, and the right of people to pursue their own good in their own way. Layard, I suspect, would see all that as rank individualism. Continue reading

Balkan gangstas kill Serbian prime minister, eat each other

Well, the headline pretty much says it all, but here’s some more of the story:

A mafia traitor was beaten to death with a hammer and then eaten by Serbian gangsters, police believe. Officers said Milan Jurisic, 37, was killed in Madrid by criminals from the Zemun Clan, a mafia group from Belgrade.His remains were then ground up with a meat grinder, cooked, and eaten, according to a confession by another Zemun Clan member, Sretko Kalinic, nicknamed “The Butcher”. Later the gang reportedly threw the bones into the River Manzanares in the Spanish capital.This week, police found bones in the river and the apartment where the killing apparently took place in 2009. Jurisic is thought to have betrayed his fellow gang members by stealing money from them. He was on the run after being convicted in his absence of assassinating Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003. Kalinic confessed to the murder after he was arrested in the Croatian capital of Zagreb in 2010. Police believe the murder and subsequent cannibalism was led by Luka Bojovic, a Serbian gangster arrested in Valencia last month.

Messed UP. Still, you hang around with a gangster nick-named ‘the Butcher’, what do you expect?  All I can say is I’m really glad I’m not a Serbian gangster. I don’t have the stomach for it.

Chris Hedges goes viral

It’s become an unlikely YouTube hit. No, not sneezing pandas or puppies on skateboards…but Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges talking on C-Span for three hours about the triumph of the corporate state, the failure of liberals, the over-reaching of US empire, the cost of war, climate change, Christianity, the Occupy movement…everything really! Quite a performance. Posted online in January and it already has a quarter of a million views. Difficult to turn off once you start watching.

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