Thursday, July 15, 2004

JK Galbraith - A cloud over civilisation

The Guardian has an extract from a forthcoming book by John Kenneth Galbraith,The Economics of Innocent Fraud: Truth for Our Time. He must be pushing 90 by now and yet what he writes is so lucid - I was lucky enough to attend a couple of lectures he gave at Harvard when he was in full disquisition in Emeritus Professor mode essentially making one question everything that we had been taught over the year - that's when Reagan's economist Martin Feldstein was running that class at the time. (I remember our EC 10 section leader roughly describing the economic scene as 'basically there are the Keynesians and on the other hands, the supply-siders and of course there's Galbraith. In any case, the piece should be read in its entirety. A snippet:

As the corporate interest moves to power in what was the public sector, it serves the corporate interest. It is most clearly evident in the largest such movement, that of nominally private firms into the defence establishment. From this comes a primary influence on the military budget, on foreign policy, military commitment and, ultimately, military action. War. Although this is a normal and expected use of money and its power, the full effect is disguised by almost all conventional expression.

Given its authority in the modern corporation it was natural that management would extend its role to politics and to government. Once there was the public reach of capitalism; now it is that of corporate management. In the US, corporate managers are in close alliance with the president, the vice-president and the secretary of defence. Major corporate figures are also in senior positions elsewhere in the federal government; one came from the bankrupt and thieving Enron to preside over the army.

Defence and weapons development are motivating forces in foreign policy. For some years, there has also been recognised corporate control of the Treasury. And of environmental policy.

We cherish the progress in civilisation since biblical times and long before. But there is a needed and, indeed, accepted qualification. The US and Britain are in the bitter aftermath of a war in Iraq. We are accepting programmed death for the young and random slaughter for men and women of all ages. So it was in the first and second world wars, and is still so in Iraq. Civilised life, as it is called, is a great white tower celebrating human achievements, but at the top there is permanently a large black cloud. Human progress dominated by unimaginable cruelty and death.

Civilisation has made great strides over the centuries in science, healthcare, the arts and most, if not all, economic well-being. But it has also given a privileged position to the development of weapons and the threat and reality of war. Mass slaughter has become the ultimate civilised achievement.

The facts of war are inescapable - death and random cruelty, suspension of civilised values, a disordered aftermath. Thus the human condition and prospect as now supremely evident. The economic and social problems here described can, with thought and action, be addressed. So they have already been. War remains the decisive human failure.
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