Wednesday, September 07, 2011

The absurdity of modern economics

Any rational economics would be about how economic activity plays a part in the wider social system. Modern economics is doubly divorced from that. Firstly, it treats economics as an abstraction from social life, as though it could be judged solely on its own terms. And within that, economic activity is presented as revolving around money, rather than money being kept in its proper place as a means to our real social (or even economic) ends. Even if we accept the former abstraction, within economics itself one would expect the making, distribution, exchange and consumption of goods and services to predominate - that is after all how people actually live - but we have succeeded in making all that secondary to the circulation and augmentation of money itself.

This peculiar displacement and inversion that places money first and last - the perspective of the miser, that most wretched of human beings, who is, as someone-or-other once said, as much in need of what he has as of what he has not - is not the fault of economists, of course. Or at least they are no more than ghost-writers to the real culprit. This is after all a perfectly valid description of an advanced capitalist society, in which finance capital (and its unacknowledged bastard-and-then-master, fictional capital) has deposed real goods and services from the pinnacle of profitability to such as extent that the classic model of capitalist economic activity in which money is augmented through the creation and sale of goods and services - summarised by that nice Dr Marx as M-C-M1 - has started to run an increasingly poor second to the more direct creation of money through speculation, the creation of fictional capital and all the rest - M-M1.

It’s a distasteful state of affairs and creates the impression that economics has fallen into a sort of fantastic black hole, from which the introversion into which it has fallen ensures that it cannot escape. But even from the most radical point of view we can't just switch economics off. The economy is after all where we create all the means to our various ends, our economy is a capitalist economy, and so we must at least try to understand capitalism's view of itself. On the other hand, surely we are capable of constructing an economics that starts and ends with people, and so with goods and services. (Even this ignores the deeper significance of economic activity, of course - the way the very process of participating in economic activity shapes the way we experience existence, and the way we define what is real and what is not, what is normal and natural, what is right, wrong and indifferent. But at least it would wrench us away from this hypnotic fantasy that money must rule.)

An example of what I mean. In economic theory money is rightly assigned many functions. It is a store of value: people can use it to hold their savings. It is a medium of exchange, enabling us to buy and sell without having to wait for someone possessing exactly what we want and wanting exactly what we have. As an instrument for expressing the value (or at least the price) of goods and services, it’s a unit of account. Finally (as the list usually goes), money provides a standard of deferred payment (which is one important reason why we are always so concerned about inflation).

So far so ordinary. But since the creation of money by means of speculation, manipulation and downright fraud has come more to the fore (and nothing in recent economic policy has reversed this), this has made another, perhaps previously too obvious function of money more visible. For money is also a claim on goods and services. In a market that responds only to money, anyone with money has a right (or at least an access that will only be challenged in exceptional circumstances) to the goods and services created by society as a whole. As a result, those who specialise in creating money can corner a correspondingly volume goods and services (i.e., get rich) even though they create none themselves. Of course, financial activity does have its value - not only managing the supply and circulation of money and directing investment (though still conceived of in narrowly financial rather than social terms) but also rationalising and smoothing various aspects of markets themselves. But once financialisation gets out of hand and the generation of money through bubbles, absurd risk and outright crime starts to predominate over real economic activity - the creation of goods and services -then the financial sector starts to achieve stupid levels of wealth (i.e., a huge proportion of the money in circulation) even though it is adding very little of social value. On the other hand, as I have argued elsewhere, once finance capital starts to predominate, bubbles, speculation, crashes and monopolisation are inevitable - yet 'investment' banks, hedge funds and the rest are left in greater control over the real economy than ever.

Hence the significance of money's function as a claim to goods and service. It allows an otherwise parasitical class of financial specialists to distort and undermine the socially valuable part of the economy, not only making them richer and richer even though they produce very little of value themselves, but by this very process strengthening their position in the economy - and so society and politics - as a whole.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The flight of capital from China

Well, if the Chinese government was under the impression that creating a wealthy capitalist class would serve the future of China, I hope they have noted that 'Close to two-thirds (60%) of wealthy Chinese with assets of RMB 10m ($1.53m) or more are either considering emigration through investment overseas or have already done so (China Merchants Bank/Bain & Co). Further, the tendency to move abroad moves in line with wealth levels meaning the wealthiest group are the most inclined to emigrate. Of those with assets of more than RMB 100m for example, close to half (47%) are considering leaving while almost one-third (27%) have done so already' (Ledbury Research's High Net Worth, July/August 2011). Perhaps that's why, as Reuters reports, they are cutting taxes on luxury items.

Why we should never rely on philanthropy

Speaking of hedge fund-based donors, the July/August 2011 edition of Ledbury Research's High Net Worth reports that 'Overall philanthropy levels in the US were negatively impacted by the financial crisis and last year the total amount donated by the top 50 donors fell to the lowest levels since 2000'. In other words, just when things are at their worst, philanthropy dries up. But equally absurd, there is a strong correlation between philanthropy and hedge fund bonuses. In other words, the level of generosity is directly tied to one of the most pernicious features of the economic system!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Happens When The Riots Reach Mayfair?

That's the headline from Wealth Briefing, an online magazine for bankers to the obscenely rich. Perhaps a more pointed question might be, Why doesn't it happen?

Perhaps we should answer that question with another one? If you had the plague, would you treat it by squeezing the spots?

Spot the connection? Well, maybe it's not that obvious. Perhaps another question will make things a little clearer. What happens when you decide to stop governing society and hand it over to 'the markets', the police and the tabloids? Feed everyone with a constant diet of titillation, exploitation and deceptions? Encourage everyone to jump on every get-rich-quick bandwagon? Has this led to the advertised tidal wave of liberation, creativity and 'wealth-creation'? Well, it's easy to find out - just leave this potent recipe to ferment for three decades, and - suddenly it explodes. Slapping down the rising mass and thinking you are getting at the underlying cause will only make a still bigger mess.

This is something we have spent 30 years preparing. On the one hand, we have created a culture of false promises, fantasy expectations and entitlement, and on the other bred a generation of politicians who have long since abandoned any pretence at managing society in favour of handing every problem over to their business pals, cowering before red-top newspapers and abandoning every serious political concept and programme as 'ideological' in favour of 'common sense'. (But as Gramsci once said - I think - common sense is the practical ideology of the ruling class.)

How about a little history? In 1981, we had the Brixton riot in London, the Handsworth riot in Birmingham, the Chapeltown riot in Leeds and the Toxteth riots in Liverpool. Although initially popularly denounced as race riots or 'mindless' violence' and 'copycat' events, it soon became clear that brutal conditions in the inner city, maintained by heavy-handed policing, were the real cause. But it never went further than riots - the victims of social brutalisation turning on their immediate neighbours. Now, 30 years on, things are perhaps taking a marginally different turn. As Wealth Briefing put it, 'Last night the King’s Road in Chelsea, Notting Hill and the iconic Sloane Square were all targeted of terrifying indiscriminate violence.'

Indiscriminate? I suspect not - and certainly no more so than the occupation of Fortnum and Mason by anti-cut's demonstrators (in which, I am proud to say, my son took part) earlier this year. It's just that today's rioters - unintentional demonstrators - are a lot less politically conscious, but a lot more ready to use violence to express themselves, even though their lack of political consciousness means that they are incapable of expressing themselves through anything else. To quote Wealth Briefing again, 'The events may be characterized by mindless so-called “rioting-meets-shopping”, but the last three days have exposed serious undertones. According to a report on the BBC, two 17-year-olds told police that they were rioting because they were "showing police and rich people they could do whatever they wanted".'

Interesting turn of phrase - apparently rioting isn't serious to the rich - just as long as it's happening to the poor. But as for these 'serious undertones', Wealth Briefing can breathe a sigh of relief: only when the rioters are more politically conscious and organised will they prove a threat to their rich readers. As long as that is the case, it will be possible to denounce them as looters and feral youth - because, in many cases, that's what they are. But how much more would it take to move them a little farther along towards informed political action?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rossz csillag alatt született

Finally, I discover that Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor, Op.85 may have had a reason to exist after all. Listen to Venetian Snares' 'Szamár madár', from his album Rossz csillag alatt született (Born Under A Bad Star).

Apparently 'szamár madár' translates literally as 'donkey bird', but more generally as 'stupid bird'. Which suggests that he understood Elgar better than most.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What makes us free

In these happy days when one can almost believe that the Murdoch empire is finally in retreat, I come across a splendid quotation, almost two centuries old, that tells us a lot about the way we liberate ourselves from his ilk - and from other over-weaning corporate egos and the under-achieving politicians who play at representing us. It's from the radical journal Black Dwarf in 1817:

States must either proceed, or retrograde. While we contented ourselves with boasting of our advance, we have been silently, but rapidly falling back... The people ought to remember that they are the guardians of the constitution. Instead of that the simpletons expect protection from the constitution; which is in fact nothing but the recorded merits of our ancestors. The country that boasted of being free, because Magna Carta was enacted; when the least share of penetration would have taught us, that Magna Carta was enacted only because our ancestors were determined to be free. Our ancestors, with swords in their hands, and the tyrant John on his knees before them, would have been just as free, whether they had insisted on the signature of Magna Carta, or not. Their freedom was in their power, and in their will.

The author was Thomas Wooler (1786-1853). His words are quoted by Edward Vallance at the very conclusion of his Radical History of Britain.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tough at the top

Compared to us mere mortals who are faced with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), an alternative index adjusted for the rich - the SALLI (Stonehage Affluent Luxury Living Index). It's based on a basket of 50 items such as central London rental costs for a family property, private education, a day’s grouse shooting and fine wine and cigars and so on. And a new one is out now, and shows that things are getting tough at the top. The poor dears are facing a mighty 6% rise in the 12 months to April 2011, compared with our measly 4.5%. How will they get by?

This, apparently, “reinforces findings that UHNW [ultra-high net worth - i.e., obscenely rich] inflation is much more volatile than CPI, tending to exceed standard inflation in good times and significantly fall short in times of downturn”. Rents on 'high-end' London property rose by 6.7%. But apparently this trend is driven by higher demand, which is to say, the fact that rich people are actually queuing up even more than usual to rent London property - not exactly a problem of impoverishment, then. Consumables for the rich jumped 18% - fine wines rocketed up 27.6%, but fortunately champagne limited itself to a mere manageable 8%. Culture/entertainment were up an average of 10.3%, including a rise in art prices by 10.5%. But again the problem was high auction prices, so it really only shows that the rich still have plenty of money. They also cover 'investments of passion' - a wonderful phrase, betrayed by the fact that it refers to things like luxury cars, not, for example, the cost of paying their accountants extra to work how much tax they really owe and then paying it - rose a mere 4.7%. Yacht hire is up 5.1% on a year back, and sports and recreation as a whole up by 5.4% overall.

I don't wish to seem ungrateful, but looking at some of the creatures that figure in the world's rich lists (especially the realistic lists that include the dictators - Mubarak was wealthier than Bill Gates - and other corrupt plunderers of their own people), what exactly have most of these people done to deserve this pampering? Conversely, is there really so little understanding of what it means to have an economic system that is ultimately geared to the interests of these groups - does anyone really believe in trickle-down economics any more?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Big fleas have little fleas...

The FSA is currently sending out a letter ( to the CEOs of 'wealth management' firms - organisations whose sole function is to pander to individuals of 'high net worth' (i.e., the rich) and even 'ultra-high net worth' (i.e., the obscenely rich). The letter describes research that suggests that quite a few of these organisations are busily doing their clients a large collective disservice. In fact their review found that 14 out of 16 UK firms pose a substantial threat to their own customers. According to the FSA, two-thirds of the files they reviewed were “not consistent with one or more of the following: the firm’s house models; the client’s documented attitude to risk; and the client’s investment objectives”. As the firms investigated ranged from small independent advisers to global banks, plainly the problem is endemic to the industry. The FSA has concluded that many firms are either ignoring or not properly taking into account their clients' concerns, knowledge or wishes (The Independent, 15 June 2011).

In other words, they are either massively incompetent or pursuing their own agendas.

It is a familiar enough scenario:

Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so, ad infinitum.
(The Siphonaptera, by Augustus De Morgan, 1872, after Jonathan Swift's On Poetry: a Rhapsody, 1733)

At the same time, it exposes yet another dimension of the general corruptness of the financial sector. The fact that this time it is the rich and super-rich who are being bitten also suggests that no one is safe - not even the individuals standing at the pinnacle of the system as a whole. And if even those in whose interests the system ultimately operate are not immune, that in turn suggests that it is the system itself that is the problem. In other words, it is not just that the system is plagued with fleas; the system itself spawns the fleas directly.

The financial sector occupies a doubly powerful position capitalism as a whole. Firstly, given that the point of capitalism is the maximisation of profit, the sector that specialises in the management of money is surely the functional axis of that system. Secondly, as the single greatest source of credit, it sets the terms and makes possible the opportunities for investments. Indeed, the financial sector is the ultimate arbiter of what an investment is, and what priority should be attached to any particular course of action.

And curiously enough the financial sector is also unique to capitalism in that, unlike any other part of the economy, it makes money without producing a good or service that is of any value to anyone.

At its most basic, you can't eat money. But money is the ultimate commodity - in fact the only commodity whose sole use value is to embody exchange value. It is the ultimate means (as Byron remarked, 'Ready money is Aladdin's lamp'), as it can command any product and, owing to the increasingly obsessive commercialisation of capitalist societies), it is rapidly elbowing out every other factor mediating social relationships. So a sector that specialises in creating money out of money cannot lose: it stands at the heart of the system, it controls both the one indispensible means and ultimate end of the system as a whole, and it is the irreducible goal and need of every other sector to feed it.

And, it turns out, it is corrupt.

But it must be understood that this is not a kind of corruption of which the system can be cleansed by the vigorous application of righteous indignation, and that's that. This corruption is built into the system in much more profound ways than that. As capitalism is driven by its own tumbling profitability to absorb larger and larger segments of civil society, living on capitalist terms becomes a greater and greater part of life as a whole. In that respect capitalist relationships increasingly become the very definition of normality. With that, not only does more and more power (direct or indirect) flow to its financial core but the central myth of capitalism - that pursuing self-interest is the Royal Road to the Common Good - comes increasingly to define how we all think about how to live our lives. Given a combination of increasing pressure on profits, an increasing illusion (among our bankers at least) of selfishness and greed as the supreme social virtues and more and more opportunity for a little 'financial engineering', we can only expect this tendency towards corruption to grow.

And who is going to stop them? Not our governments, that's for sure. The economy is by definition the source of the material means to all our ends, so politicians can hardly be immune to the same temptations as their business allies - business controls the economy, so they must be pandered to at all costs. As history makes very plain, governments quickly realise that they have to pursue business's agenda if they are to realise their own, so hospitals, schools and even armies start to be designed, planned and funded in ways that ensure that the businesses involved profit to the maximum possible extent. On the other hand, if business interest and party policy come into conflict, it is not long before the one starts to undermine and overwhelm the other, as the sordid picture of the Labour Party's ideological striptease during the 1990s illustrated only too repulsively.

But all this is looking at the problem as though it were a possibly interesting theoretical problem, but with little relevance to the rest of us. But as De Morgan's ditty adds:

And the great fleas, themselves, in turn
Have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still,
And greater still, and so on.

And where does this all stop? Where is the great beast on which all these tiers and tiers of fleas are finally feeding? It is us. Our governments won't be able to avoid it. To have the tax base to fund their own schemes, business must be provided with every opportunity to profit from the public purse. In other words, we have to bribe them to get them to pay tax. Ironically enough, one of the main ways we do this is by letting them off their tax bills. Not very clever. The only limit to this process - and absolutely the main target of contemporary capitalist expansion - is society as a whole. The systems we have spent so long building - health, education, welfare - are increasingly being set up as the Next Big Thing for exploitation.

And it's not only a matter of Coke machines in our schools and privatising the health service (gruesome though such prospects may be). Our security and military services - police, army and all - will also be handed over as opportunities for profit. That is, following our recent adventures in militarism, absolutely the other main target of contemporary capitalist expansion. So apart from the privatisation of pubic services, right now I fully expect the next big thing in capitalism to be the security state. Oh dear oh dear.

Quote of the week

A fascinating insight into the world of serious money from one of its architects:

The wealth management business will not run out of business but will be impacted if it starts asking questions about whose money this is. (John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi, 'Quote of the Week' at, on 17 June 2011)

Given the number of dictators, generals, 'entrepreneurs' and assorted hangers-on stashing away their country's money in truly staggering amounts, much of it going straight into the coffers of the 'wealth management business', how different is this from a fence protesting that, if he started asking whose property he was so discretely buying, he'd be out of business in no time?

Of course, as I have argued elsewhere. this is simply the obverse of a world in which powerful people and perfectly serious intellectuals fantasize that the ruthless pursuit of self-interest is for the greater good.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Save the saddest dolphins

Some creepy hotel chain is trapping dolphins. As Avaaz put it:
The pod was swimming peacefully in Samoa when nets closed in from behind -- trapping 25 wild dolphins for a luxury resort's latest exhibit. They are now locked in tiny pens, starved of food -- but we can free them.

For wild dolphins captivity is torture, their powerful sonar bounces off the walls back at them -- as if they are trapped in an endless house of mirrors. Most die young from stress induced illness, but some even commit suicide. If the wealthy Resorts World Sentosa succeeds in keeping them captive then half the dolphins will die in the first 2 years -- and it will legitimise the widely banned practice of capturing dolphins in the wild. We can’t let that happen -- let's use our voices to set them free.
This is the equivalent of locking up small children to amuse the ghouls. Go to and sign up to their petition, then pass it on.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Electoral reform after AV - What next?

I don’t know who will win the referendum next week - I hope it’s the Yes campaign - but whoever it is, we will still be a long way from a credibly democratic electoral system. To take only a few of the more grotesque blots on the face of our ‘democracy’, we cannot recall our representatives once they are elected. As the current government is constantly proving, there is no recourse against a regime that introduces major policies for which they have no mandate.

And of course we still have that running sore on the face of democracy, the House of Lords. No, it makes no sense to claim that they have some sort of proven wisdom or experience we cannot do without: any government that really wanted Melvyn Bragg’s opinion of culture or the arts can always just ask him, without conceding him the right to make law in perpetuity.

A slightly more obscure issue, but one that really bothers me, is the fact that our elections permit us to elect constituency representatives, even though it has been perfectly clear for a couple of centuries that most of the really important decisions are made by central government. Hence the persistent conflict between voting for a good MP and voting for the national government we actually want. They are not at all the same thing, and persisting with a constituency-based electoral system means that we half our local MPs are parachuted in by national parties even though they know nothing about the constituency and their primary allegiance is to the national party. Conversely, to the extent that we do vote on local issues, this precludes voting for the national government, which is by far the predominant force in most aspect of all our lives.

It is an absurd state of affairs that could be remedied with a very simple solution: divide general elections into two votes (held simultaneously), with the first remaining a vote for local constituency MP, and the second a vote for a national party. The second vote would then populate a senate (to replace the ridiculous and offensive House of Lords) by allowing national parties to assign senators based on their percentage of the national vote.

The new Commons and Senate could also be allocated different spheres, with foreign policy and defence going to the Senate and all local issues being the preserve of the Commons. Others areas could be shared.

Finally, I would suggest a different approach to how often elections are held. For both houses I would suggest a fixed period of six years, with the provision that a third of each house, chosen at random not more than a month before the election, would be subject to re-election every two years. This is important, as it permits a randomly chosen sample of the electorate to provide a running commentary on their representatives, but also, by being random, prevents the parties from buttering up local constituencies as the election approaches.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Our heroic bankers take on the evil dictators

According to the March 2011 edition of Private Banker International, 'at least $235 billion of illegal assets are held in offshore accounts opened by the wealthy, including those taking advantage of their government positions in the Middle East and North Africa. That is equivalent to 15 percent of the total $1.5 trillion held offshore by individuals from Arab and African states…', as 'over past decades these regimes have grown an entire ruling class consisting of family, friends, businesses, security forces and secret service that have transferred significant wealth out of their home countries.'

Bizarrely, the same article (aptly entitled 'Private banking’s ticking bomb'), having noted that 'The family of deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is estimated to have as much as $70 billion of assets. Tunisia’s ex-president Ben Ali is said to have up to $10 billion and Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi and his family have an estimated $20 billion offshore', suggests that 'One big problem comes from trying to assess which assets originating from the region are legitimate and which are suspect'.

Really? How could any of these groups conceivably have acquired such staggering sums by legal means?

Equally bizarrely, a leading baker is quoted as saying that 'Your private bankers should be close enough to their clients to have alarm bells start to ring if what they are being offered, say £5 million, looks unusual in size and timing”. Well, they scored well on that one too: what 'timing' could possibly explain away wealth on such a gargantuan scale? Gadaffi has been in power for 42 years so, with $20 billion between them, his family must have deposited an average of $500,000,000 each year for decades on end. That’s the £5 million deposit our eager banker suggests might be a tell-tale sign of corrupt dealing every 5 days. But only when the people of Libya say that enough is enough do the Gadaffis' bankers wonder whether there might be something doubtful about this.

So when the previous article in the same journal celebrates how heroically Swiss bankers shut down the tyrants' assets in record time, we are entitled to ask, how did you manage not to notice the staggering scale of looting while it was happening?

Incidentally, the reported figures surely understate the problem. As reported, the amounts stolen by Ben Ali, Mubarak and the Gadaffis come to $100 billion. If the total of illegal assets is only $235 billion, then these three groups account for 40% of the total. Surely that cannot be correct - not with all the other dictators, their families and their cronies, all the corrupt generals and arms dealers, and all the rest. What if this little groups represents only 5% of the whole - which I find quite believable, given the nature of these regimes - then the offshore stolen money comes to $2 trillion - that’s $2,000,000,000,000, or a little under $6,000 for every single Arab man, woman and child.

Perhaps our upright bankers can redeem themselves a little and tell us how much Mugabe and his grubby pals have stashed away? Or exactly how many of the 400,000 millionaires in the Middle East and North Africa did not acquire their riches by raping their countries? Given that 'Banks in Europe, the US, Switzerland and most other developed countries have to do background checks on so-called PEPs (politically exposed persons)', they surely know more than they are telling.

Conversely, what do they plan doing about it? Or do they just smugly assume that the new regimes will be as corrupt as their predecessors and be happy to let bygones be bygones? Perhaps the millions of poor in Arab countries can help them make up their minds, or at the very least make sure they not only get the money back but also demand that these shabby crooks (and no, I don't mean the dictators this time) are made to pay for the part they played in robbing some of the poorest people on earth.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

For want of a nail...

... the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the rider was lost’. Or in the words of Benjamin Franklin’s own synopsis (in his Maxims Prefaced to Poor Richard’s Almanac, 1758), ‘A little neglect breeds mischief’. It is a simple truth, concisely and graphically put; however, one risks plunging wildly overboard as soon as one extends the chain of reasoning to more than a handful of terms. How far can one take it?- to a message, a battle, a kingdom, planet Earth, Milky Way South East, universal heat death?

Isaac Asimov once suggested (I forget where) an interesting analogy for how history really works, as a kind of 'bow wave' in time. At first there is immense tumult as the immediate effects of a cause (an event, a great personality, and so on) spread and proliferate; but then a phase of sublimation supervenes, assimilating those effects to the broader, deeper currents of Universal history. The same applies for Great Men. What if Hitler had won World War II? It would certainly still have mattered in 2000 and even 2100, but what difference would it have made by 20,000 AD? Or 200,000 AD or 2,000,000? Indeed, looking at the history of Europe since the end of the Cold War, it is striking that, at least in terms of international politics, things look remarkably as they might have in 1925, had the First World War not intervened.

The whole logic of 'For want of a nail' rests on two false assumptions: that the world is basically atomistic, and that what changes is more vital than whatever remains the same. They are equally curious opinions, although entirely compatible with a world of fragmentation and distraction we inhabit now. But the universe is not just a concatenation of atoms but is on the contrary deeply and universally structured, local quantitative variations may be rapidly countered and any potential qualitative effects generally suppressed. And although we may not be interested in the same old same old, the universe and its human expression, history, takes it all into account.

Popular (mis)interpretations of chaos theory make a similar error. Contrary to the way in which it is sometimes alluded to, chaos theory does not say that chaos is fundamental. On the contrary, it says that apparent chaos is often actually the expression of profound (if also somewhat obscure) order and simplicity. That is why the old saw about a butterfly in Rio de Janeiro causing a thunderstorm in Peking is so misleading: not because the effects of its wing beats could not trigger a storm on another continent, but because they are only one of a massive number of other more or less profound effective causes. Especially on the global scale, weather consists, by and large, of immense and highly stable systems controlled by forces and laws operating on an incomparably vaster scale than all the life forms on the planet put together. Of course, a single butterfly may tip a system that is either exceptionally sensitive or already in extremis into a new mode or phase, but that is hardly the same thing. Having the trigger does not mean you don’t need the rest of the howitzer.

So what is this really about? My own view is almost equally simple: it is about a popular ideology designed to accept the unintelligibility and uncontrollability of the world, be it through popular wisdom or pseudo-scientific explanation or (in a previous age) the Will of God, or indeed by any other means. The reasons why the world is fragmented and full of distraction are beyond both the understanding and the control of individuals, and there are vast forces ranged against anyone trying to create either a popular understanding of exactly what those forces are or a political organisation capable of combatting them.