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What Would Keynes Do?

What Would Keynes Do?

Your family history is quite exotic – you were born on the Pacific coast of what is now north–east China. Can you tell us a little about your background?

I’m very interested in my family history. My parents started in the west of Russia – my father’s family was Jewish and lived in the old Jewish Pale [of Settlement] and then they went east and made a lot of money on the way, partly by building a bit of the Trans–Siberian Railway, and ended up as a big family firm in Vladivostok. My mother’s family were Russian Orthodox farmers and they, too, were part of the opening–up of the east in the 19th century, which was really the Russian equivalent of the Wild West.

So, they were both established in Siberia by the time the Revolution came along in 1917, and they went across the border to Harbin, which had become a great centre of émigré Russian life in Manchuria. My parents met because their families ended up in the same place.

Were you conscious of any clash of cultures?

Not really, because my father… After the Revolution, his mother settled in Paris and sent him to boarding school at Brighton College and he became very English in his outlook and appearance, so I never got a Jewish flavour from him, really – except that he enjoyed Jewish jokes a lot. From my mother, I got a very strong sense of Russianness – she spoke English always with an accent, unlike my father. But religious influences were not particularly strong. I was quite eclectic: when I was eight or nine in Tianjin I used to go to the Russian Orthodox church with my granny, but I was educated at a Catholic school and I was an altar boy in the Church of England, so I had a very ecumenical background.

I did have a religious period in my life – I think in my teens, when I was at Brighton College. I got confirmed, and then it sort of faded away, really.

Your family lost its wealth as a result of the Revolution and then the Crash of 1929 and then the Second World War, is that right?

Yeah. It really got screwed by both systems.

Do you think that may have made you cautious about all forms of economic ideology?

Yeah. I don’t think I’ve even been an economic ideologist. I suppose the nearest I came to it was in the Eighties, when I was quite supportive of Thatcher though I never became a Thatcherite. I admired her courage and I thought she was doing some of the things that were necessary; but I think I was always very much, in economic terms, a kind of middle–wayer. I think I’ve always rejected any form of extremism in economics.

You came to this country for good in 1950. Did your upbringing give you an outsider’s perspective on British life, and perhaps on Britain’s intellectual traditions?

Sure. I’ve always thought of myself as an outsider.

And has that proved to be a positive thing for you?

Well, I think I’ve tended to have a contrarian streak, and to be very suspicious of what’s called ‘conventional wisdom’. I think my basic instincts are quite subversive, really. I’m very aware that most people don’t think much outside the particular box in which they find themselves. I’m also struck by peculiarities of civilisations – perhaps I see them a bit more clearly, having a view from the side rather than the centre. I’ve always felt myself to be in an ambivalent relationship with the English – and it’s rather astonishing to me that somehow I have eventually found myself within the English establishment, but not really feeling part of it.

You studied history at Jesus College, Oxford and you’ve said that you ‘picked up some economics’.

Yes. I’m really an economically literate historian – that would be my preferred description.

Did you find yourself operating in the economic world by accident or design?

It was accidental in a way. One of my friends at Oxford – and he remains a very good friend – was Max Mosley and I became interested in his father through knowing him. When I got my degree I had a choice, to go into the BBC or to take the academic route and go to Nuffield College, and I decided to do a DPhil on the Labour government [of 1929–31], in which Oswald Mosley had been a leading advocate of Keynesian economic policy.

And you went on to write a biography of him.

Yeah. It is my most controversial book by far, because I portrayed him as a sort of misunderstood Keynesian, essentially, who went off the political rails because he couldn’t get a proper unemployment policy. I mean, he had personal flaws as well – and I came to the conclusion that he was too young to resist the temptation to hubris – he was an extraordinarily brave and dynamic person who thought he could do anything.

I think people thought I was too sympathetic to him. I wrote the book when he’d stopped being in active politics, but people felt that there might be a Fascist comeback and that I was pumping some wind into these sails, long deflated, by making him into an interesting figure. But I don’t regret the book. I think there were things I did wrong, but I think it was courageous.

You are most celebrated for your very extensive writings about Keynes. He was not originally an economist, while Adam Smith himself was actually a moral philosopher. One of the themes that run through your work is that economics has lost that kind of setting in a larger system of thought.

I think it’s become completely technical. It has become simply a concern with efficiency, and behaviour that maximises people’s efficiency, without asking questions about the ends of economic activity. Making a living is obviously essential to survival, but, further to that, it’s a means to live a decent life – a good life, I mean. If you lose a sense of that, you’re just on a treadmill.

I think economics was very, very important from the time of Smith onwards, when wealth was starting to explode and people started asking questions about how the wealth of nations was increasing, and why, and what it meant for the human condition. Until then, economies had been completely static and it had been assumed that the poor would stay poor: the small minority of rich people would be either benevolent or exploitative, but there was no possibility that the human race might solve the problem of poverty.

As soon as that possibility opened up, then obviously people got interested in to what use they’d put their wealth. But it’s exactly at that point that economics lost its bearing, I think, because it became so obsessed with the efficiency of production that it lost any sense of what the purposes of production were. It also took as its unit of analysis the self–interested individual. Smith has huge problems in reconciling self–interest and sympathy (which is a way in which the individual connects to other people). And as time went on, economists lost any real sense of that connection; and now all economic models simply start with the idea of a selfish individual ‘maximising their utilities’.

Economics as a discipline emerged in 18th–century England and Scotland, very much in the shadow of the Newtonian revolution in physics. Do you think that envy of physics was built into it from the start – manifested in the way it conceives people almost as atoms and wants to systematise, and mathematise, their behaviour?

I think that there was a desire to make economics as scientific as physics, and as much of a natural science as possible. I mean, physics was the epitome of science and the way to the future. It was the opposite of theology, and if you wanted to emancipate yourself from theological views of human beings you went over to physics. Self–interest is a basic concept of economics that maximises the analogue of an atom.

Do you think, then, that economics is inherently opposed to theological thinking?

Yes, I do. I mean, it’s perfectly possible for economists to be religious people, but economics, because it’s a science of means and not ends, takes your ends as something for the individual to make up their mind about. What economics is about is: what’s the most efficient way of achieving whatever goals you have? I mean, if your goal is salvation, I dare say an economist will tell you how best to use your time in order to attain it. And efficiency is rooted in the idea of scarcity: time is scarce and so you have to use it properly or you’re not going to achieve your goals. Economics cannot really cope with the notion of abundance.

The other thing that I think was intrinsic to economics right from its inception was the idea of maximising your benefits over time. There you have a very interesting religious root, because in religion you have this idea of eternal bliss and that people should act in such a way as to secure their immortal souls, but now you cut out the immortal bit and you are left with the idea that people should act in such a way as to secure their long–run utility. The timespan is truncated to this life, but that is what enlightened self–interest is. You don’t just spend all your money now in riotous living but you save. And so the idea of postponing satisfaction and saving does have quite a strong theological root; but it’s been completely cut off from any end purpose for the human species.

Let’s turn to your political career. You have belonged to three major political parties and in the House of Lords you now sit on the cross benches.

Yes, that’s true. I was quite active in the Oxford University Labour Club in the Sixties, but in the Seventies I began to think that Labour was hopelessly trapped by its commitment to Clause IV,2 and that was stopping it developing into a really radical alternative. It should have been more of a liberal party, like the historic Liberal Party. And when finally Labour seemed to lurch to the left, I joined the [Social Democratic Party in 1981], which I thought was what the Labour Party should really be like. The SDP accepted quite a lot of Thatcherism, but not the attack on the National Health Service and not her divisiveness – it would have tried to unite the country more. (I was always critical of Thatcher but I do now see that I gave her too much of the benefit of the doubt at the time.) 

But then in 1992 you moved to the Conservative Party after the SDP was finally dissolved…

I took the Conservative whip in the Lords, but I never joined the party. It’s one of these strange conventions that you don’t have to to take the whip.

You weren’t tempted by the Liberal Democrats?

No. I suppose I was influenced by [my close friend, and co–founder of the SDP,] David Owen in that. I mean, he was so hostile to them!

I was still mildly ambitious for a political career, maybe, and I thought I’d perhaps get a chance of being a minister [with the Conservatives]. And I would have been a minister quite easily – I mean, I was a rather able recruit – but I was too independent–minded, I think.

So independent–minded that you ended up being sacked in 1999 for publicly opposing Nato’s bombing of Kosovo.

Yeah. I was a Treasury spokesman and that was taken from me by that great leader of the Conservative Party at the time, William Hague. For about a year I still took the whip as a backbencher, and then I went to the cross benches – mainly because I was very out of sympathy with the hysterical anti–Europeanism that had come to dominate Conservative politics in the 1990s.

How come Tony Blair couldn’t tempt you back to Labour?

I would have thought that the noises he was making at the time, about making the capitalist system work for everyone and not just the few, would have appealed to you strongly.

Well, first of all I thought that you can’t go on moving parties the whole time and I’d found a place that, you know, probably suited me best. But, secondly, I didn’t want to accept the obligations of active membership of the Labour Party in the Lords. I was writing the third volume of Keynes3 and it was absorbing practically all of my energy, and I suppose at the back of my mind there was the thought that actually this is my work and not the ephemera of politics.

What was it about Keynes that first so attracted you?

I think he was just incredibly intelligent. I don’t mean just in the clever–clever sense – he was very clever but he actually had some really profound ideas about the human condition, and the condition of society: the impact of the loss of religious belief (which he had lived through himself), the threat of revolution and descent into barbarism and how that can best be averted, and [the prospect of] a utopia in which the economic problem would be solved and we’d become like the lilies of the field.

You see, although he was of the non–believing generation, he was very influenced by religion – his categories were essentially religious, not economic. A lot of his imagery was biblical, actually. (He had close connections, and very interesting correspondence, with people like Archbishop Temple and TS Eliot. He was very aware of the value of religion; he just couldn’t believe the dogma.)

The skill with which he navigated economics, from a position of being a non–believer in it, really, to imposing himself on [the discipline] – I mean, it was an unbelievable undertaking. His innovations, which had been made in the language of economics and looked like economics, were actually attacking the foundations of the subject: the self–interested individual, always rational, always maximising [their own utility] with perfect information – and with perfect markets as well – which is how they’d built their subject up. And when the scales fell from their eyes, quite a long time after he died, and they realised what he was really on about, they spewed most of it out.

I thought all that was such a colossal achievement. It was something I both felt in awe of and wanted to explain to the present generation.

How is it that economists can end up disagreeing so vehemently about certain key concepts? I wonder whether to some extent they tailor their theories – though ‘tailor’ is too strong a word – to suit their own predispositions and commitments.

I don’t think they do disagree about key concepts, actually; but I think they disagree about the implications of some of those concepts. Take the idea that the economy is like a Newtonian system – it may sort of oscillate a little but it’s always more or less in equilibrium (which means that there are never any crashes or crises of the kind we’ve just experienced) and it’s just a question of how you allocate resources most efficiently within that equilibrium to get maximum growth and that kind of stuff. Now, virtually everyone accepts this – but then they also accept the fact that this perfect picture is not realised in real life. I think all the disagreements really arise about what those imperfections are and how serious they are and what should be done about them, and whether doing something about them isn’t going to make things worse than they would otherwise be.

The idea that economists differ is not so surprising if you think of them as would–be physicists, because they’re trying to do something in economics that can’t be done because the subject is human behaviour. You wouldn’t be surprised if sociologists disagreed, I think, or historians; but it’s disguised in economics because all the stuff that is really like sociology or history is in that box labelled ‘Imperfections’, whereas the basic model floats free above that.

I think Keynes would have said: Don’t start with that perfect model, because it’s not connected to anything in the real world. Start with something messier and then develop models that are more realistic and relevant to the real world. And there wouldn’t be one supermodel: there’d be lots of models that would be appropriate to different contexts.

In How Much is Enough?,4 which you wrote with your son Edward Skidelsky, you seem to argue that we need some normative framework in order to live well (if I can put it that way). We need to know how much is enough. Do you think that such a framework is possible outside of religion? Can a secular society say: ‘This is enough, we don’t need any more – and our wanting more is not a sufficient reason for having it’?

Well… Is environmentalism a secular belief–system or a religious one? You see, I think religious belief is associated in our society with organised religion, but that doesn’t exhaust what people mean when they talk about a religious view of life. It’s more to do with something sacred and not to be tampered with just for the sake of expediency or ‘getting on’. Certain kinds of exploitation that are in your power you don’t do because you’re too aware of the wonder of the way the universe works and… A religious sense is a sense of wonder. So, there are lots of these attitudes that we have got to have if we are to avoid, ultimately, self–destruction which I think can be called ‘religious’.

Whether the churches as they’ve existed can be the carrier of contemporary religion again, I’m not so sure. Possibly they can. But they can only become so, I think, if a really great disaster overtakes our civilisation, and that’s what one’s really trying to avoid! So, in a way the question needs to be rephrased: Is there religion beyond Christianity for our society?

It’s sometimes said that Christianity is a religion of scarcity and it has most difficulty in winning people’s hearts and minds in conditions of plenty – which is a nice parallel with what you said earlier about economics.

You ended How Much is Enough? with the statement: ‘Could a society entirely devoid of the religious impulse stir itself in pursuit of the common good? We doubt it.’ But where does that impulse ground itself if not in one of those organised religions that have, for better or worse, provided us with stability for centuries?

Well, it’ll be a grounding that will draw on them but not be identical to them. After all, Christianity drew on Judaism and other Middle Eastern religions in forming its own foundations, and Islam did the same. I don’t think religions should be regarded as [something carved] in stone which are just there and you either worship them or you don’t. I think they change – they have got to, because, after all, the world hasn’t been static for the last two thousand years.

You could interpret the question ‘Are we due for a religious revival?’ as: Are we due for another religion? I think that’s probably what that thought at the end of the book leads to. Which is not to say that one wouldn’t draw a huge amount from the old religions. The real issue is, I think, the question of the church, because you can have a kind of unchurched religion but that’s sort of wishy–washy – you don’t really have to believe anything in particular, and because you don’t really have to believe anything in particular it makes no claims on how you live your life.

And any belief system has to make sufficiently strong claims on your life to deny your ‘I want’ statements?

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

And, of course, the organisation is part of the community of the church, isn’t it? I mean, basically people are kept religious – or kept in the religious community – by worship. It may be that one of the seeds of the revival of religion lies in this communitarian sense that, you know, at least you’re in connection with your fellow human beings.

You told the Observer recently: ‘I am not religious, but would like to be.’5 Can you imagine returning to the fold?

If I were to embrace organised religion, I think I would become a Catholic, rather than an Anglican…

Because of the tradition of Catholic social thought?

Yeah, I think it’s a broader… And it’s a non–state religion. There’s too much compromise with the state in the Church of England, and I think religion must be independent, otherwise [it loses] its critical edge… Admittedly, Catholicism has made shameful compromises with the secular power as well, but in principle it’s got some independent standpoint. A religious standpoint is not the same as a secular standpoint, and the bishops are good in Parliament, quite often, and when they’re coming from one place and the Government is coming from a different one, they don’t hesitate to say so. And yet they do hesitate to say so, because they say it in a way that keeps one foot inside… You see, they’re part of the establishment and that’s a compromised position.

Of course, there have been great Anglican clergymen and statesmen. I’m a huge admirer of Rowan Williams (I don’t know enough about Justin Welby, really – yet). I mean, Williams was remarkable

You wrote in New Statesman the other day that ‘economics contaminates all our motives.’6 It strikes me that the apostle Paul’s famous (but usually misquoted) dictum that ‘the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil’7 is one you would wholeheartedly countersign.

Yeah, yeah, yeah – and it’s something Keynes would have countersigned as well. He says three things, really, to which my philosophy points. He says that first of all you’ve got to get the current economic problem out of the way – you can’t go on having economies crashing in the way they do, so you have to get investment flowing until the point at which there are no longer any returns from it. As you move beyond that stage, you ‘equalise consumption’; and, finally, you work less. Those are the three stages he envisaged.

And we have not equalised consumption, and so our investment is always in crisis, because we’re always having to think up ways of keeping it going; and we don’t work much less, either, so we’re not enjoying the fruits of our labours. Wealth and income are very unequally – hugely unequally – divided, and have become more so over the last 30 or 40 years.

Do you think there is something in human nature that militates against us moving on in the way we should?

Yeah, I think we’re very flawed.

Would you accept the word ‘sin’ to describe it, or is that too narrowly Christian a concept?

No, I think original sin is a good metaphor. I think we are terribly flawed. And, time and time again, you see that people react to things so irrationally. Who has ever understood human nature, really? I mean, people who can be extraordinarily kind and thoughtful and empathetic to those immediately around them become hate–filled when they’re confronted with something new or unfamiliar.

The optimist, or the rationalist, says: ‘It’s a matter of education. You spread education and gradually human behaviour will become more equable and will no longer descend to those barbarities to which it’s prone.’ But I’m unconvinced by that. There’s a level at which everything is reasonable and then you dig just a little deeper, you frack a bit, and, you know, horrible stuff gushes out – which has all been there from the beginning, maybe rooted in our hunting ancestry or something. And so, if you’re looking really very far ahead, there may have to be a new species to carry on life.

The horrible thought is that as we find out more and more about how the human brain works, we may be able to expunge original sin [along with] everything else that makes us human – because original sin is part of the human condition – and we end up as placid robots.

I imagine you wearing a ‘WWKD’ bracelet. What do you think Keynes would have us do today?

I don’t think he’d ever give up on full employment. It may be that there’s not really enough work any longer for everyone to do the 40 or 50 hours a week they used to do in factories and coal mines, and maybe that degree of fullness of employment has gone. But he would have said: OK, let’s turn that into increased leisure – but not at the expense of income. He certainly wouldn’t have sanctioned creating a whole population of people in subnormal jobs and occupations at very low incomes.

After all that happened in the 20th century, he wouldn’t have sanctioned the re–emergence of a servant class based on huge inequalities.

I mean, we are reproducing Downton Abbey but in a different form, and he wouldn’t have sanctioned that. He would have been a redistributor.

This interview was conducted on January 13, 2014 and first appeared in Third Way magazine. 

Photograph from Andrew Firth from under the Creative Commons Licence.

Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer

Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014).

Posted 3 April 2014


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