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Corbyn is terrible, but so-called “heavyweights” aren’t much better either

Nick Cohen is one of those socialist writers I read because he has a core of decency – he is right on the money around Islamism – although he is uneven and his spit-the-dummy turn over the Brexit vote did not impress me one jot. He has an article out about the awfulness of Jeremy Corbyn and his circle, and of course he is right, but he has lacunae of his own:

“The last upsurge of left-wing militancy in the 1970s had Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and other formidable socialist thinkers behind it. Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty and Danny Blanchflower looked like their successors. They too have produced formidable work on how to make society fairer. They agreed to help Corbyn, but walked away after discovering that Corbynism is just a sloganising personality cult: an attitude, rather than a programme to reform the country. That attitude is banal in content, conspiracist in essence, utopian in aspiration and vicious in practice.”

These four men’s reputations are greatly overblown. All of these men were or are capable of producing work and comments of quite outstanding levels of imbecility. Thompson was a prominent supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament during the 1970s and 1980s at a time when the Cold War was very far from being obviously won; his Marxian treatment of English history, for example, while not without its merits, infected a generation of students. Hobsbawm, whose treatment of history could be equally tendentious, to the end of his long life was an unrepentant defender of the Soviet Union; Stiglitz, while he might produce good work (I cannot think of any off the top of my head), is not renowned for his judgement, as his praise for Venezuela’s catastrophic socialist regime a few years ago attests. And finally, we have Thomas Piketty, whose immense book on inequality, while it gives a sort of spurious intellectual cover for leftists looters, contains fundamental conceptual errors and its policy prescription of massive wealth taxes would be catastrophic.

In other words, some of the people on the Left may sound as if they have more intellectual gravitas than, say, Jeremy Corbyn. This is not exactly difficult. But the fact is that in varying degrees, these men were/are deeply wrong and their ideas are dangerous nonsense.

As an aside, Dr Roger Scruton has issued an updated edition of his excellent study, Thinkers of the New Left, which goes into a lot of detail about this sort of intellectual. By the way, he has praise for some aspects of their work and tries to see merit where it exists (he is fond of EP Thompson on his understanding of the English working class, for example). Recommended.

 

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34 comments to Corbyn is terrible, but so-called “heavyweights” aren’t much better either

  • Hobsbawm himself is just a little too young to be one of those expatriate intellectuals described by Hayek in ‘The Road to Serfdom’ as being commonly heard during the war years saying (I quote from memory), “It is not that I admire Herr Hitler – indeed I have excellent personal reasons for hating him – but …” after which they would recommend some of the more socialist aspects of National Socialism as a great idea for post-war Britian. However, growing up as he did in 20s and early 30s Vienna and Berlin, he is very much of the type.

    Generally, it is the essence of the PC to believe in their own superior intelligence, to flatter their intellectuals – and to be very indifferent to how accurate their predictions prove in the real world. Stiglitz admiration for Chavez’ Venezuela puts him very much on a level with Corbyn as regards that particular judgement – and is just the kind of “and how did that prediction turn out” point that they so ruthlessly overlook.

  • Lee Moore

    “Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson and other formidable socialist thinkers behind it. Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty and Danny Blanchflower…….These four men’s reputations are greatly overblown”

    So you’re classifying Hobsbawm as a worm rather than a man ? Sounds about right.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Lee, well, if the cap fits!!!

  • Laird

    Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Danny Blanchflower.

    I’m still trying to figure out which “four men” Johnathan was referring to.

  • Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Piketty, Danny Blanchflower.

    I’m still trying to figure out which “four men” Johnathan was referring to.

    Counting is for capitalists.

  • RRS

    There is this constant return to The Fatal Conceit

    They too have produced formidable work on how to make society fairer.

    Theirs is a fundamental arrogance, born of that prevailing ignorance, that they have not the, nor sufficient, knowledge, let alone understanding,for making a “society” which is, in the end, the result of the interactions of motivated human beings.

  • PeterT

    The most dangerous “intellectuals” of our time are those scientists promulgating AGW. What depresses me the most is that in 50 years time, when the world is doing just fine, none of them will have been held to account.

  • CaptDMO

    *sigh*
    It just hasn’t been done RIGHT yet!
    ……………………………….PLEASE clap!-J. Bush(US)

  • staghounds

    “Look at the big house. Look at the little house. It’s not faaaaaaaair!”

    There’s all leftist thought since Marx.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Laird, Danny Blanchfower doesn’t count. He played for Spurs in the 60s. (Grin)

  • TomJ, September 23, 2016 at 4:44 pm: “Stiglitz is at least correct in his conclusions on the Euro”

    Though some remarks in the article are sensible, if anything but brilliant, Stiglitz places himself squarely with those who think the problem was not the euro but the lack of political union to back it. The euro just needed “an array of institutions” to make it work. “Europe failed to create these institutions”.

    He also blames the euro’s founders’ “unwavering faith in markets” (!!) which he mocks as “market fundamentalism, sometimes [called] neoliberalism”. `And he is clearly hoping for a resurgence of the european project when these flaws have been fixed; as always, the expectation is that next time the left will get it right.

    Reading the article confirms my agreement with the OP. There is maybe a bit more gravitas and playing the long game than would be evident from a Corbynista – but little fruit of sense beneath.

  • Johnnydub

    Niall Kilmartin – “The euro just needed “an array of institutions” to make it work. “Europe failed to create these institutions”.

    This is factually correct. The cure for the Euro is unified treasury and fiscal transfer. (Not that I want it to work) Its just the Germans will throw a shitfit if its ever attempted. Hence the Euro project will continue to be a disaster.

  • James Hargrave

    At least the good people of Bulgaria saw off E P T’s brother.

  • Mr Ecks

    “Laird, Danny Blanchfower doesn’t count. He played for Spurs in the 60s. (Grin)”

    And E P Thompson used to publish the Beano and the Dandy which are by far his best work.

  • Paul Marks

    I have actually looked at “Capital” by Professor Piketty – he says basically nothing about how Central Bank credit-money expansion benefits the rich at the expense of the poor (something that has been known since Richard Cantillon in the 1700s).

    Nor does Professor Piketty refute the argument that the bust of 1929 (and of 2008) was caused by the Central Bank supported credit-money expansion that preceded it – again he does not even mention the idea, let alone refute it.

    Basically Professor Piketty is attacking traditional saving (real saving – the actual sacrifice of consumption) and investment – because, according to him, real savers tend to be richer than other people to start with – and their investments tend to make them richer still.

    So Professor Piketty does not deal with the important matter of what causes a bust (he just assumes the Keynes-Freidman Keynesian-Monetarist view is correct), and he presents a non problem (the productive of real savings) as a terrible thing.

    I am sometimes accused of being harsh – but I can think of no polite way to describe Professor Piketty and co.

    So I will stop here.

  • TomJ

    I deliberately changed from saying big Joe S had got his analysis right on the Euro to his conclusions: viz that € is fundamentally broken and cannot be fixed without a shedload of political integration and institutions that seem terribly unlikely.

    On Piketty: while he tried to blind any potential critics with (somewhat dodgy) data, he did make the error of making a pronouncement of his fundamental thesis that was testable. So some one did test it; funnily enough it appears not to hold water:
    http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/08/05/no-empirical-evidence-for-thomas-pikettys-inequality-theory-imf-economist-argues/

    Similarly, when someone looked to see if the oft-prescribed “increase public infrastructure spending to increase GDP” mantra held true, they couldn’t find an example of it having done so:
    http://www.edwardconard.com/new-imf-study-casts-doubts-on-the-value-of-increased-infrastructure-spending/

    It’s almost as if economic theorists aren’t actually paying attention to the real world, an impression reinforces by Paul Romer’s recent comparison of lots of modern macroeconomic modelling to pseudoscience. I note Romer has published some thoughts on criticisms of his thesis here. In the original paper, Romer makes this statement:

    The evolution of macroeconomics mirrors developments in string theory from physics, which suggests that they are examples of a general failure mode of for fields of science that rely on mathematical theory in which facts can end up being subordinated to the theoretical preferences of revered leaders. The larger concern is that macroeconomic pseudoscience is undermining the norms of science throughout economics. If so, all of the policy domains that economics touches could lose the accumulation of useful knowledge that characteristic of true science, the greatest human invention…

    I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine what other physics related discipline could be substituted for string theory.

  • John Galt III

    Stiglitz:

    He and the Orszag brothers (Peter Orszag was Obama’s 1st budget director, representing the Democrats who in almost 4 years under Obama never passed a budget for the 1t time in US history) wrote the infamous paper on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

    http://dailycaller.com/2012/08/11/gop-marks-1200-days-without-senate-budget/

    In the paper, released in 2002, Stiglitz and the Orszags argue that if Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had a problem the cost would be miniscule – a few million – and that both were sound financial institutions. It was like writing in April of 1945, that Nazi Germany was still in great shape and there was nothing to worry about.

    By 2007 Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bankrupt, costing almost a trillion dollars, the companies were run by Democrat appointees who stole hundreds of millions from the companies, committed fraud and no one, not one person went to jail.

    People still admire Stiglitz who is to economics what Mao was to agricultural policy.

    https://www.aei.org/publication/the-last-trillion-dollar-commitment/

    Oh, I forgot, the above paper, claiming Fannie and Freddie were just fine was paid for by Fannie Mae. Stiglitz got a nice check for being a shill and a liar.

    Stiglitz is a piece of shit.

  • Runcie Balspune

    You have an electrical circuit; a battery, a switch and a light. Your theory is when the switch is flicked the light comes on, and when it flicks again the light goes off. You assemble it, you flick the switch and the light comes on, you flick again and light stays on, and no matter how often you flick the switch the light refuses to go off. You analyze and discover that the switch and the light are the same thing, a “swight” if you like, that once lit it stays lit. Your circuit theory is wrong, it has a fundamental flaw, it supposes that the light and the switch are different components, which they are not, it can never be right.

    People, that’s all there is. Concepts such as “society”, or “the state”, or “the establishment”, or “corporations”, or “government”, whatever, are all just people, made of people, formed of people, and just like the people elsewhere. If your theory transcribed them as separate entities interacting with people when they are plainly not, your theory will never be right. No matter how intellectual you sound, or what degrees or qualifications you have, or how influencing or highly regarded you are, if that principal is ignored, your theory is wrong, and it will remain forever fallacious.

    For centuries, socialism and leftist thinking refuses to consider that there are only people, and they will keep mismanaging economies, causing misery and death until they finally realise, but they wont, because their theories devise power and control of others, and that’s what they really want, harking back to an age when a vengeful deity kept people under its wrath, woe betide those who angered it, so said the priests of the day. Today we have the fatherland and mother earth and “the good of the state” and a “fairer society”, the modern versions of gods, dressed up as an intellectual entity, prayed for by the most fervent of comrades for the cause.

    Corbyn and his ilk are nothing more than the next legion to provide entrails to strangle the kings with.

  • The Jannie

    “some of the people on the Left may sound as if they have more intellectual gravitas than, say, Jeremy Corbyn”

    some of the people on the Left may sound as if they have more intellectual gravitas than, say, Jeremy Clarkson.

  • RRS

    People, that’s all there is. Concepts such as “society”, or “the state”, or “the establishment”, or “corporations”, or “government”, whatever, are all just people, made of people, formed of people, and just like the people elsewhere. If your theory transcribed them as separate entities interacting with people when they are plainly not, your theory will never be right. No matter how intellectual you sound, or what degrees or qualifications you have, or how influencing or highly regarded you are, if that principal is ignored, your theory is wrong, and it will remain forever fallacious.

    Runcie Balspune

    That is an SQOTD

    And the corollary is “people” are individuals.

  • Lee Moore

    Yes, but no. Of course society, governments, companies are composed of people. But that doesn’t mean that these collectives do not possess attributes different from those possessed by people. A crowd can block a street, a person can’t. And so on. Institutions matter. They represent command and control systems external to people, and they can organise people into more than the sum of the parts.

    People are composed of cells, but people can do stuff that cells can’t do. Studying cells won’t tell you very much about people. The Earth is composed of atoms. Knowing tons of stuff about atoms is going to tell you very little about the Earth.

  • Alisa

    Runcie Balspune

    That is an SQOTD

    Second that.

  • Alisa

    But that doesn’t mean that these collectives do not possess attributes different from those possessed by people.

    That was not part of the claim.

  • Runcie Balspune

    A crowd can block a street, a person can’t

    A crowd cannot block a street unless each individual comprising the crowd makes the conscious decision to do so, as individuals, the attributes of a crowd are no more or less than the combined attributes of the people involved. Collectively they can achieve more, but they are not more effective without collective agreement.

    A “crowd” can be forced to do what one person wants, by dint of violent reprisal, that’s the leftist agenda, and it fails because ultimately people do what people do – what they damn well please, and they will eventually oppose being forced to do otherwise.

    It is an illusion to believe, as the left do, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Collective action is powerful, but only if individuals willingly cooperate. The flaw is thinking they can be forced to cooperate and always be effective just because there are many of them.

  • Laird

    “People still admire Stiglitz who is to economics what Mao was to agricultural policy.”

    Brilliant comment.

    Alisa, I think it was an inherent part of the claim. How else can you read “If your theory transcribed them as separate entities interacting with people . . . .”? This is why I think Lee Moore’s rebuttal is a fair one. RRS is fond of reminding us that institutions are more than the sum of their parts, that they develop qualities and objectives, indeed “personalities”, which may not shared by the individuals which make them up. That’s essentially what Lee was saying, and I agree. Pretending that institutions don’t matter, or that they don’t exist independently of their members, would be a huge mistake.

  • Alisa

    Well Laird, this is one of those instances when I regret jumping ahead and commenting on someone else’s behalf (Runcie Balspune’s in this case), instead of waiting for them to speak for themselves, but since I already got myself into this:

    RRS is fond of reminding us that institutions are more than the sum of their parts, that they develop qualities and objectives, indeed “personalities”, which may not shared by the individuals which make them up. That’s essentially what Lee was saying, and I agree. Pretending that institutions don’t matter, or that they don’t exist independently of their members, would be a huge mistake.

    Indeed, and I also agree. Only Runcie’s comment was not ignoring the institutions or their impact on reality, but rather pointing out that collectivists are the ones who ignore the individuals comprising these institutions (and of course Runcie may correct me if I read his comment wrong).

    More to the point, institutions do exist and are more than the sum of their parts in terms of their impact on reality – but they do not exist independently of their members (and if RRS ever claimed that, I’d have to disagree with him on that particular point). What happens instead is that institutions are sustained by their individual members, and are in turn influencing those thinking and behavior through various and often complex systems of incentives. But it is always the single individual who makes the final decision in any particular instance (including whether to stay as a member or to leave).

  • Alisa

    those thinking and behavior

    Should be ‘their (the members’) thinking and behavior’.

  • RRS

    The term “Institution” is used descriptively (and in other ways) in differing contexts.
    PdeH once advised me that Governments are Institutions, not mechanisms, (I now sometimes use the term “facilities”) as indicated by that famous document that states “Governments are Instituted among Men” (where Adam Ferguson might have used “Established”). Differing contextual uses elicit differing responses to that use. And, of course PdeH is right, practically all Governments have become, and are, “Institutions” (see below).

    In responses to particular assertions that have made various uses of the term “Institutions,” within some context (often not precise)I may have created a skewed view of what informs me.

    The following repeat of a prior post is pretty much where my thinking follows:

    Carroll Quigley (1910-1977)

    Used the term Social Instruments to describe facilities established to meet real social needs.

    He found an explanation for the disintegration of social orders
    in the gradual transformation of social instruments into institutions, that is, transformation of social arrangements functioning to meet real social needs into social institutions serving their own purposes regardless of real social needs. [From the introduction to the work cited]

    Quigley identified categories of human “needs” in the development of “levels of cultures ‘ that make up social orders.

    He posits:

    To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call “instruments” as long as they achieve the purpose of the [cultural development] level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an “institution.” This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purposes of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact it can be stated as a rule of history that “all social instruments tend to become institutions.”[emphasis added]

    An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instruments become an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization.

    [emphasis added]
    [pp. 101-102 Op. cited]

    The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley 1961; Liberty Fund reprint 1979 Still available in print.

  • RRS

    Lee Moore:

    People are composed of cells, but people can do stuff that cells can’t do. Studying cells won’t tell you very much about people. The Earth is composed of atoms. Knowing tons of stuff about atoms is going to tell you very little about the Earth.

    Perhaps you allude to that long held conclusion:

    The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

    In rebuttal: we can (and do) learn a great deal of the whole from being informed of its parts and their relationships (connections).

    Observing that most “light” matter is composed of particles that form atoms, which on reduction reveal “energies,” has (so far) given us much information about Earth and the Cosmos.

    But, to your point [?], we are led to the greater question:

    How does it all come together?

    as raised in a Lisa Randall presentation a few years back, which has taken her from Particle Physics to Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

  • Lee Moore

    we can (and do) learn a great deal of the whole from being informed of its parts and their relationships (connections)

    That’s the point isn’t it ? The whole isn’t simply the sum of the parts, but also the relationships between the parts. A computer is composed of a pile of molecules of various not particularly exotic stuff, stuck together in a particular way. How it’s stuck together is the key to what it does and how.

    It’s quite true that you can often discover interesting things about the whole, by studying the parts. And some of the relationships between some of the parts. Many big puzzles are usefully studied by inspecting the smaller puzzles within.

    But sometimes study of the little bits won’t tell you as much as study of the big bits. No doubt physics and biology are fundamental to rugby. But to understand what’s going on in a game of rugby, you need to look at rugby per se, not merely the physical and biological principles that are incorporated within it.

  • Paul Marks

    Quite so John Galt – and the media know what you know about Stiglitz and co (they know they wrote that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were fine – and they know about the trillion Dollar bust).

    And the media still treat Stiglitz and co as “great economists” – running to them to give their opinions, and presenting fawning interviews. Where their BLATANT LIES (such as the idea that Herbert Hoover cut taxes and cut government – actually he increased both, especially taxes on the rich) go unchallenged. The lies are presented as truth – and taught to the young (and to the not so young).

    It is not lack of knowledge in the media people – not honest intellectual error. It is something much wore than that.