During the summer - in the lull between the Arab Spring and the autumn, when the sovereign debt crisis grew up and became the eurozone crisis – there was a mildly diverting bit of banter in the Financial Times about which philosopher best illuminated the current state of the world, economically-speaking.
It started when the columnist Gillian Tett suggested Hegel. She cited his theory that the world is made in such a way that events are followed by their opposites, and finally you get a resolution that is somewhere in the middle. As Hegel put it, thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Tett suggested that we might pass from a world with too little financial regulation to one with too much, and finally we will reach the right level. (Which seems a mite optimistic, seeing as most people feel that we are still firmly stuck in “thesis” mode on this one.)
Following Tett’s piece a reader wrote in to suggest that Kant better represented the current argument on financial regulation when he wrote that even “a society of devils” would obey laws if it they could be persuaded that it would help them achieve their evil ends.
Another flagged up Kierkegaard’s book Either/Or, in which the gloomy Dane said only those who can self-regulate are capable of goodness. Those who require society to regulate their actions are capricious and childlike, he thought, and are forever stuck in a hedonistic and unserious life.
So what other thinkers can illuminate our current travails? Karl Marx said capital tends to accumulate to the wealthiest in society, who benefit from an expanding economy. Once it stops expanding, however, the rich and powerful wangle money from the rest to keep on growing their wealth. And then capitalism destroys itself in a series of strikes, protests and general implosions. I’ll leave it to you to decide where, if anywhere, we are on this trajectory.
Those who are depressed that British prime minister David Cameron’s desperate defence of the City threatens to damage links with our biggest export markets might be tempted by Nietzsche’s exhortation to “rise above the chatter of national politics” and find solace in Italian comic opera, as Nietzsche did (just before he went mad and started talking to horses).
I always think that we can learn much from French “Situationist” Guy Debord, who once published a book bound in sandpaper so that it would destroy others placed next to it. He said that we are living in the “society of the spectacle” in which advertising, consumerism and a sensationalist media derail us so that we are unable to live genuinely satisfying lives.
My vote, though, has to go to David Hume. The Scottish philosopher is most famous for his work on induction, arguing that we can’t ever know that the future will resemble the past. That could be the motto for 2012.
He also knew that human beings are the measure of everything. “’Tis evident, that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature,” he wrote, “Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man”. Derrida and Barthes couldn’t have put it better. A friend of Adam Smith, Hume surely thought the same about economics. Remember that quotation as we watch the vanities and foibles of politicians shape the world in the coming months.
And if it all gets too much, you could just do what Diogenes the Cynic did, and go and live in a barrel.