Good news for Monbiot

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George Monbiot

THE PREVAILING IDEOLOGY is so overpowering that it’s rarely named. So suggests George Monbiot in the UK Guardian. His recent column must have struck a chord, since it has been shared online 233,000 times with comments closed after 3964.

Monbiot identifies the “coherent philosophy” as neoliberalism.

According to the headline, neoliberalism is “the ideology at the root of all our problems”, and his new book How Did We Get Into This Mess? collects earlier columns that survey the devastation.

In Monbiot’s account, neoliberalism portrays “competition as the defining characteristic of human relations”. Among consequences, competition relies on quantification and ranking, which lead to a “stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers”.

As “something admirable” about the neoliberal project, Monbiot nominates the patient organising of a network of thinkers and activists, ready with a clear plan when the inadequacies of Keynesianism became apparent in the 1970s.

In turn, John Maynard Keynes made a comprehensive economic theory available when laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929.

From the success of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism, Monbiot draws a lesson that “it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed.”

And so what is neoliberalism’s replacement? It’s not Keynesianism, which recommends stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth, and consumer demand and economic growth are the “the motors of environmental destruction”.

Disturbingly, Monbiot finds that the “left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.” So, he issues a call:

For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system tailored to the demands of the 21st century

This is where I step in.

I have come up with a general framework of economic thought. Taking an embarrassing number of years, the task has indeed felt like an Apollo program.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands on the Moon
Apollo person

Seriously, I know a lot about neoliberalism, and have a sound response – to the extent of 100,000 words. If I haven’t posted on this blog for a while, it’s been putting the finishing touches to a complete draft.

Where to begin? The working title: Gastronomics: Because Meals Matter More than Money.

The book is a critique of not merely neoliberalism, because neoliberalism essentially institutionalises the narrow assumptions of mainstream economics. These axioms have become so ingrained that even leftish political philosophers and economists have difficulty breaking through the illusion, and my list of offenders spreads beyond the familiar Hayek and Friedman. As Monbiot ruefully observes: “We are all neoliberals now.”

Even Monbiot under-estimates neoliberalism’s capture of ideas, so that, to most of us, economics can seem to be something they do, when it is potentially the most caring of all disciplines.

Not that I have invented much. Instead, I offer the twin advantages of persuasiveness and surprise – by bringing a gastronomic focus to reasonably established economic and social theory, political philosophy, and intellectual history.

The answer to market fundamentalism is not some other fundamentalism, but is intrinsically complex. Not that this prevents clarifying the meanings to words and re-formulating basics.

To encapsulate the answer in one word, liberalism. Liberalism, not neoliberalism.

This is the liberalism of Hobbes, Locke, Smith, Brillat-Savarin and many others who used to know that meals matter.

Now to find a publisher …

Gastronomics
Meals matter more than money

Christmas, a “shallow celebration”?

HERE’S A RESEARCH question – is Christmas more enjoyed in the north than in the south?

In today’s column in Fairfax papers, Wendy Squires argues that any seasonal fun is spoiled by commercialism, family conflict and an ensuing “festive funk”.

That is an increasingly common view, and I sense a growing demand for a Christmas rethink.

The disaster seems too big for my suggested survival tactic of a Champagne anti-party.

Drawing attention to an additional post-Christmas funk, Squires’ column forced me to theorise further, and to suppose the clear benefits of a mid-winter Christmas over our present “shallow celebration”.

Australians have long enjoyed the “joke” that baked turkey and plum pudding are as unseasonal as Santa Claus’s thick coat and tinselly store Muzak. Historian K.S. Inglis pointed to the colonists’ tradition “to enjoy both the heavy Christmas dinner and the absurdity of it”.

Gastronomically, however, more has to be said.

Forget the birth of Jesus, and not merely because of falling church attendances.

Historians have difficulty estimating his birth year, let alone precise date. The choice of 25 December under Emperor Constantine borrowed the mid-winter festival, presumably because the beginning of the year would be appropriate for the beginning of Christianity, too.

Christianity’s local languor has left it too like a sentimental, Dickensian festival. Concentrating on family fun is triply two-edged. Firstly, which family? One practical solution has been for a couple to join one partner’s family for lunch and the other’s for dinner or the next day.

Secondly, it’s for the children, they say. But that should be year-round. Besides, Squires points to parents who just “spent the holidays aching for children in the custody of exes”.

Thirdly, as she reports, happy snaps of elderly relatives and wide-hatted kids on the beach are more than matched by negative stories – this year, one of her mates had a seemingly irreparable falling out with his brother, and a girlfriend’s “strained marriage” finally snapped.

To family woes Squires adds the “general malaise”. Falling into a festive funk, she tends “to ponder what I haven’t, rather than embrace what I have”. She laments another year passing, and flagellates herself for what she didn’t achieve.

And worst of all I make that terrible and oh so common mistake of thinking everyone else’s life is better than mine.

People then return with their holiday stories – about broken families, and about noticing “the empty chair of a lost loved one” – and she realises that “many of those happy snaps I envied should have been captioned ‘help!’”

Squires recommends accepting the Buddhist belief that “life is suffering”. I prefer the formulation in my dear friend Suzie’s long-term email signature, which I suspect she restored especially for the season:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. ~ Philo of Alexandria

My love for Brillat-Savarin rivals M.F.K. Fisher’s, and is helped by him tackling such downers as The end of the world”, which is “Meditation 10″ in Physiology of Taste.

In “Meditation 14”, Brillat-Savarin argues dolefully that table-pleasure compensates for hunger, thirst, and pain. He asserts:

Humanity is incontestably, among the sentient beings that populate the globe, that which is inflicted with the most suffering.

His evidence is people’s unprotected bodies, poorly shaped feet, inclination to war and destruction, and a mass of maladies such as gout, toothache, acute rheumatism and strangury. In his view, the fear of all the pain pushes people to give themselves up to the “small number of pleasures which nature has allotted”.

My suspicion is that contemplative festivity works better when it’s cold, and meals are made from thinning flocks and from fruit preserved in puddings. Christmas thinking is helped by the faint cheer of carols and baubles, attempting to keep close for warmth, and the prospect, however distant, of fresh shoots.

Our Christmas made more sense a year ago in Germany when cantatas and Christkindlmärkte seemed to challenge the cold and dark.

Even and, indeed, especially in a secular state, Christmas ought to arouse what the Christian emperor wanted, new beginnings. New Year’s Eve is beaten hands down by Christmas’s gift-giving, family reunions, intense commercialism, and whatever remains of religious thought.

But we need renewal in the right season. Those Antipodeans who move to a “Christmas in July” are on the right track, trying hard to get even colder and more drab than with a six-month shift to June.

We should not have to mourn among young bodies dashing into the surf. Daylight saving was not introduced to serve melancholy. A world flowing with white peaches, raspberries and, further north, mangoes provides pure pleasure, leaving scant room for reflection.

Plum pudding at a jolly Australian Christmas, 1875

Ten reasons you’re needed at table

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1. To be polite

… which means coming to the table as soon as called, because the cook probably has hot food ready and/or needs urgent assistance. Showing enthusiasm will be rewarded

2. As a platform

… for actual conversation. More important than social media,* chit-chat is at the heart of good living, socialisation, civilisation and word of mouth

3. To look silly

… it’s not necessary to hold bad manners dinners. Just check out, between mouthfuls, others chewing

4. To be sophisticated

… there can’t be much more to get on top of

5. For seduction

… at table together … the fundamental test of compatibility**

6. To be a family

… as Brillat-Savarin said, some couples might sleep in separate beds, but they can always share the  table, and have an endless topic of conversation: the previous meal, this, and the next one

7. For health

… solitary dining shortens life expectancy

8. To join the human race

… because, as James Boswell decided, we’re the cooking – i.e., meal-making – animal

9. For pleasure

… and, nearly forgot …

10. For physical sustenance.

* I couldn’t resist composing a listicle or list-article – rhymes with “popsicle”

** Try searching “marriage compatibility” – the results are dominated by astrological, numerological and other such sites. Sexual compatibility used to be the thing. It must be meals’ turn