When the Church of England starts wringing the necks of the ‘golden geese’ of finance, the market and the city of London, then the thinking that sustains this column is thrown into sharp relief. A world in flux reveals the temporary, fluid nature of so much that had seemed permanent and solid. Meanings, connotations and evaluations carried by familiar words had yesterday seemed selfevident, shared by all ‘right-thinking’ people. Today they are seen as temporary effects of power, sustained by a complacent ‘group-think’.
Symptomatically, the Archbishop of York denounces “a market system” which seems to take its rules “from Alice in Wonderland.” The Archbishop of Canterbury is accusing “unbridled capitalism” of turning us into “idolators”. You’d think these dignitaries had converted to the ‘ranter’ tradition.
This brings us to a term bound up with what has been worst in the ‘group think’. Its participants’ first recourse, when confronted with any sustained challenge, has been to reach for a label – frequently the ‘r’ word.
A ‘rant’ is an argument which is, allegedly, neither well-researched nor calm; the connotation is of imbalance; the evaluation very negative. The original Ranters were a religious sect in 17th Century
England. Regarded as a threat to social order, they were accused of terrible immorality and labeled as heretics. Indeed, one leading historian regards the idea of ‘the ranter’ largely as a horror-myth created to reinforce traditional values. In other words, the propagation of the term was largely bound up with power delegitimating its critics.
There was some indication of this even in the last Scotregen. Andy Milne’s review of Klein’s The Shock Doctrine mentioned its widespread denunciation as a ‘rant’. Andy went on to note that Klein’s book was meticulously researched and referenced – so not a ‘rant’. But who now is arguing with Klein’s claim that recent decades saw an increasingly reckless global capitalism making itself fantastically rich at the expense of ordinary folks – while looking to the taxpayer to line its pockets (or bail it out) whenever possible (or necessary)?
But it’s not just ‘radicals’ who have had the treatment. Radicals don’t get invited to the IMF, but it was there, in 2006, that Nouriel Roubini was labeled ‘a Cassandra’. The ‘crime’ of this NYU economist was to forewarn of the disaster for which the world financial and economic systems were headed. He was supposed to crawl into a hole and wait for permission to re-emerge. But he continued to challenge the ‘orthodoxy’, and so found himself on the receiving end of the ‘ranter’ treatment – labeled ‘Dr Doom’.
But ‘Dr Doom’ is now, according to The Sunday Times, “the world’s most in-demand economist”. His secret? The “ability to work outside traditional economic disciplines”, together, one imagines, with the personal courage not just to think for himself, but to speak against the ‘group think’. In Scotland we have had our own ‘group think’ in ‘regeneration’ for over 20 years. It has, inevitably, evolved somewhat. Most recently its evolution produced what one leading professor calls a “new conventional wisdom” (NCW) – though with “surprisingly little public debate” to scrutinise its wisdom.
It was based on the ‘faith’ that boom and bust had been banished. A burgeoning world economy and buoyant’ property markets were here to stay. The future lay in making our cities, and indeed our nation, “open for business”. The ‘regeneration challenge’ was to link the resulting growth to the welfare of our poorest communities.
This NCW was always more conventional than wise. It simply ignored the evidence that even if such growth were secured it would tend to exacerbate the problems of our poorest communities. And it was a wee bit intolerant of those inclined to refer to such evidence, and to question the ‘wisdom’ of ignoring it. But now even the NCW’s staunchest advocates could hardly begin to defend it.
Some who have fallen prey to the ‘group think’ have at least shown self-awareness – which can be redeeming. The ‘confession’ of leading economist Professor Lord Robert Skidelsky stands out for me. The good Lord admits that he was himself seduced by the ‘group think’. He “resented the stultifying hand of the state on everything” and was in favour of extensive deregulation. And not just in theory: Since 2005 Skidelsky has been a non-executive chairman of the Greater Europe hedge fund.
But now Skidelsky acknowledges that: “Anglo-American capitalism has had its run, and has been tested to the point of destruction”. There is, he now remembers, “social harm that the market can do against which governments do need to protect people, and we’re going to start re-learning that lesson. I think some people have always been aware of it, but we were actually deluded by something else”.
Roubini, on the other hand, has “never traded, bought or sold a single security”, seeing such as a serious barrier to objectivity. And Skidelsky now recognizes as much too. What was that “something else” that “we” were “actually deluded by”? Why, of course, “the dollar signs”.
In urban policy, as in our economic and political life more generally, it’s time now to confront the delusions of recent decades and to start over. Let’s try to avoid further ‘conventional wisdoms’, especially those based on “surprisingly little public debate”. And let’s problematize that worrying psychological trait that has seen too many in ‘regeneration’, including the odd academic, wanting to be ‘inside the tent (where the dollars are to be found) pissing out’. Because outside that tent are to be found, not just the critics and the ‘ranters’, but the ‘socially excluded’ themselves.
Further nominations for the ‘language games’ dissecting table to: chik.collins(a)uws.ac.uk