The siren song of financial realism

By Paul Tyson, August 22, 2015

This third-century mosaic from the Roman city of Thugga, in Tunisia, shows how Ulysses, bound to the mast of his ship, hears the song of the sirens—and survives.

This third-century mosaic from the Roman city of Thugga, in Tunisia, shows how Ulysses, bound to the mast of his ship, hears the song of the sirens—and survives.

Financial realism has enchanted European polities. It is a song the powerful love to hear. But a song that will destroy all that is good and humane about Europe explains Paul Tyson, Honorary Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Nottingham.

Ulysses’ encounter with the Sirens speaks of the fatal attraction humanity has towards enticing enchantments. I am going to try and convince you that we too are being seduced towards our own destruction by an enticing yet predatory enchantment. I call this enchantment “financial realism.”

This song, intoning the iron mechanics of global financial reality, now seems hypnotically embedded in the assumptions and practices of high power. High power – global finance, trade and military force – increasingly defines the limits of political deliberation at the level of communities and polities across the world.

The Sirens who sing to high power masquerade as manifestations of naked and necessary truth. High power loves their song, but we also – rowers of the global boat – are being seduced. In fact, the Sirens are not what they seem, they do not proclaim disinterested truth. They are handmaids of a very distinctive conception of amoral and practical knowledge and their song promotes a very particular power agenda which subtly, but most effectively, obfuscates the very logic of democratic politics.

Tracing the patterns in the evolution of post-1945 globalization it is not hard to see where high power is trending. When the globe is entirely embedded in the laws of politically unimpeded financial realism, this will destroy the very meaning of democratic politics, crippling the human spirit and leaving horrifying exploitation and destruction in its wake.

Greek case an archetype
Let us momentarily put our fingers in our ears to the orthodoxies of enchantment. Let us question the Sirens, their song and the destination that high power is taking us to. Let us ask: is nation-state democratic politics under threat from the financialization of power at an international level?

Relations between Syriza and the Troika from January 25 to July 8 of 2015 give us a very dramatic illustration of what can happen when nation-state democratic politics seeks to negotiate terms with international financial power. One could not fail to notice how fruitless Greece’s attempts to negotiate more realistic repayment terms with the Troika were, and how meaningless a national anti-austerity referendum result proved to be, both to the Troika and to Greece’s own parliament. It seems reasonable to conclude that in this case, the prerogatives of representative democratic politics were effectively expunged by international financial power. If the Greek case is in some sense archetypal of how power now works between nation-states and high finance, then the very idea of democratic politics at a national level is becoming meaningless. If that is indeed the case, then people committed to the values of democratic politics have a big problem on their hands.

Greece has particular and extreme financial vulnerabilities, and these, combined with the unique architecture of the eurozone, make it possible to think that there are no global lessons to be learnt from this case.  But, unfortunately, that is not so. Wherever one cares to look, the manner in which global financial and international business forces are displacing national political prerogatives is apparent. Even so, this process is not disconnected from all nation-states. Financially powerful states are big players in the global arena.

Any more than cursory examination of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership makes it clear that a key objective of these bilateral trade agreements is that the nationally situated regulation of business activities and conditions – for small nations – is being made subservient to the interests of powerful American corporations. International corporate interests are rapidly escaping political accountability to the citizens of all states who are not big global players, and states that are big global players increasingly act to advance their international financial interests, not to advance the interests of their own citizens. The irrelevance of the Greek polity to the conditions under which international financial power dictates they shall live and do business is a stark illustration of a pervasive global trend.

Financial Realism is the dominant ideology of international financial power. Here, financial power is its own justification. Because this ideology governs the operational logic and accepted norms of high finance, and because this ideology is believed to be necessary and reasonable by those who implement it (and, sadly, to many who are caught up in its implementation), we can see that ideas rule the world. Let us see if we can understand the ruling ideology of our times better.

Financial realism is a mutation of political realism
In modern political philosophy, those approaches to power that are typically termed realist hold that the observable evidence indicates that political actors always try and act in such a way as to advance their own power interests. Hence, every realistic political actor should act in such a way that advances their own power interests, and by whatever means works. In the final analysis, political realism is a pragmatic outlook which assumes that power is its own justification. In other words, might is right.

There is a metaphysical assumption underlying modern political realism, and it is this: politics is an amoral forum of action. There is a cosmological assumption underlying modern political realism, and it is this: power relations are contests for survival and domination, which is, after all, only natural.

The Siren that we hear proclaiming the truth of financial realism has a name. She is the Neoconservative TINA. Given than power is its own justification, that victory in contest is what power aims at, that power is amoral, and that it is rational for the powerful to protect and pursue their own interest, There Is No Alternative to fitting in with whatever the most powerful wish to do. But is TINA really true?

In philosophy there are always at least two sides to every argument, and this is as true in relation to views about the nature of power as it is to views about the nature of everything else. So let us look at an alternative view on the nature of power.

Traditionally, the opposite stance to political realism is called moral realism. Dante and Shakespeare provide us with good examples of moral realist perspectives on power. Here, human affairs are not determined by the survivalist mechanics of Social Darwinism. Here indeterminacy, moral truths, transcendent mystery and reasoned debate (freedom) are as important in power as are natural drives and limits and essential needs (necessity). Here, power does not operate in an amoral manner.

To Dante and Shakespeare unscrupulous pragmatic pursuers of power may indeed be ‘successful’ in achieving their objectives – and political actors indeed are free to choose evil – yet the ruthless pursuit of power for its own sake is never amoral because we live in a moral universe. Power freaks might hope to ignore or violate moral realities, but the truth is, you cannot escape moral reality just as you cannot escape the laws of physics. To the moral realist, history illustrates that immoral political ‘success’ inevitably generates dynamics of exploitation, evil and dysfunction which must take their destructive course once they are set in motion. The oft repeated lesson of political history is that sustainable power cannot be built against the moral grain of the universe.

The metaphysical assumption underlying moral realism is that moral truths are, in some manner, features of reality. The cosmological assumption underlying both Dante and Shakespeare’s moral realism is that even though deception, oppression and evil are normal features of politics, these are – at an ontological level – aberrations. Reality, at its most basic level, is a harmony of differences undergirded by the love and goodness of God.

So why is this alternative to TINA’s political realism not being advocated today?

Western political theory
For interesting reasons, the west’s political heritage in moral realism has had sporadic traction on modern western political theory, and almost no traction over the past 30 years.

Because western moral realism has roots in Christian theology, after Feuerbach, the new social and political sciences largely rejected the west’s Christian heritage in political thought, including its moral realism.

Of course, the process of rejection was well under way before the 1840s as the origins narrative of secular liberal politics – theologically driven as much of it was – is embedded in a profound backlash against the horrifying sectarian violence that wracked Europe after the Reformation. Of course, modern secular politics was greatly influenced by its rejection of religious examples of political realism too, such as those practised in the Spanish Inquisition. Reasoning about moral truth without theological warrants has a long tradition in western modernity, but the historical connections between the Christian religion and western moral realism has been something of a hindrance to its acceptability in the academy for the past 180 years.

Another problem with moral realism in western modernity is that not many people seem to have noticed that it has disappeared from our high culture. To the student of political philosophy, that which separates political realism from moral realism is pretty obvious. In practice, it is by no means obvious. There are three reasons for this.

Firstly the dominant discourse of secular ethics in the modern west is now pragmatic, relativistic, utilitarian and formally legalistic. That is, it is increasingly normal that we understand morality itself in non-moral-realist terms. Non-realist moral consciousness does not deny the subjective existence of moral convictions and sentiments in individuals, nor does it claim that classical moral realist prohibitions and injunctions are to be ignored, nor does it deny that our legal codes are historically embedded in moral realist assumptions. Indeed, political realism holds that the existence of people’s moral sentiments and beliefs are significant factors in any power context which the political actor ignores at great peril. Machiavelli, no less, was very sensitive to this.

Likewise, law is here understood as a construction that is of profound political significance. Thus the formal requirements of law are typically taken very seriously by political realists. For these reasons there often appears to be no inner tension at play when a law-abiding political actor who personally adheres to moral realist convictions is required to toe the party line and function in a politically realist manner.

Secondly, liberal secularism privatizes moral conviction. Within the life-form of liberal secularism, demarcations between personal beliefs on the one hand and objective truths and legal actions on the other hand, makes it common for people who hold moral realist convictions to accept that those convictions do not apply to the realm of objective truth and practical action.

Thirdly, political realism is – ironically – typically understood as a normative outlook itself. That is, the idea that the advancement and use of power is, in point of fact, the first objective of political action is often understood as implying that the advancement and use of power should be the first objective of rational political action.

Fascinatingly, this collapse of ‘is’ to ‘ought’ is embedded in the acceptance of Hume’s account of the naturalistic fallacy. If there is no objective ‘ought,’ then instrumental amoral power is the only rational understanding of power, and hence all serious power actors who are rational and scientific should be political realists. Here, ironically, any political actor who does not accept political realism is readily seen as being morally defective for being hopelessly unrealistic.

For these three reasons we tend to think we are decent moral people while acting according to the necessary requirements of amoral pragmatic reality. At the level of political slogans and popular public consciousness, then, the underlying opposition between a moral realist understanding of right and wrong and a utilitarian understanding of political success and failure goes almost entirely unnoticed.

Moral realism since Marx
Interestingly, different forms of moral realism have still been with us since Marx famously crossed the fiery brook into the materialist paradigm of the social sciences. British Idealism in the late nineteenth century and Universal Human Rights after World War Two are two good examples of this. Both were secularized versions of Christian moral realism. These two examples, however, failed to shape the world of ideas and practice since the 1910s and the 1980s respectively. British Idealism was disposed of by pragmatic positivism in the early decades of the twentieth century – a “realist” friendly philosophical stance if ever there was one. After the horrors of World War Two faded from memory, a genuinely universal approach to human rights shifted from being a substantive moral commitment to being a formal legal construct. If one has a good legal mind law can be used as a structure to advance the realist demand for the pursuit of rational self-interest, without any regard for substantive moral concerns.

Both these attempts to put moral realist boundaries on power failed to slow the ever expanding impact of political realist commitments governing global power. This is no great surprise, for political realism was nascent in the manner in which the USA set up the post-war architecture of the global economy. Yet after the demise of the US surplus economy from around 1971 on, political realism has evolved beyond an international state-concerned context and into a global financial context. Here nation-states are no longer the central players on the anarchic field of international power. Now a single global empire of financial power has become the new Pax Romana. Within this global empire, rewards are freely dispensed to winners, and destruction is callously handed out to losers, with scarcely a thought for such non-financial concerns as national politics, human rights or any humane compassion for the weak.

The enemy of democratic politics
Moral realism of some form and a serious commitment to indeterminacy rather than pure necessity, is necessary for democratic politics. The very idea of representative political deliberation requires that power is a function of publically reasoned agreement which results in us constructing laws and implementing public projects that advance the common good of the polity.

Democratic political power only has the authority of being a product of a justice concerned polity if the majority of those ruled freely agree to its moral validity. Justice, after all, is a moral term situated within a community context. A realist understanding of power, where validity is a function of the mere force of a powerful elite in the advancement of their own interests, can never be seen as politically valid. A realist understanding of power is also bereft of the capacity to even see humanly concerned non-quantifiables such that it is functionally deterministic, treating human affairs as if they are governed by objective laws of necessity. This makes the unpredictable outcomes of political deliberation a hindrance to the rational management of power. Political and financial realism are in fact the mortal enemies of democratic politics.

Modern science
The recovery of moral realism in our times is necessary if we are to revive a near dead commitment to making power morally accountable to the people who are ruled. But how did political realism come to have such a powerful ideological grip on post-war western polities and, via that avenue, on global financial power?

This is a complex matter, but when you dig down deep, it has a lot to do with the cultural power and distinctive belief and practice structures of the modern scientific outlook on truth. Here French and German hermeneutic philosophers and the French critique of knowledge loosely called postmodernism are very insightful.

To Dante and Shakespeare, facts and values are always integral. After the scientific revolution, the separation of objective facts and logic on the one hand, from subjective values and meanings, on the other hand, produced a distinctly instrumental and amoral understanding of objective truth.

There are many wonderful fruits of modernity, but in the area of politics, the idea that you could structure the use and ordering of power around purely factual and logical (which is to say, deterministic) accounts of reality has deeply influenced the way we try and do power. Modernity has given us astonishing instrumental power – and power has a way of amassing once you get a critical quantity, and it is certainly addictive – and this power does have many wonderful applications.

And yet, historically, western modernity is a life-form where power has an unprecedented autonomy from value and meaning. Frighteningly, an intellectual culture that assumes that truth is amoral and valid because it is useful, has no way of thinking about politics where political realism could be anything other than true. But the truth of political realism, situated within a modern philosophical context, is anything but certain.

Philosophically, the modern approach to truth has always been problematic. Whilst modern truth works like a charm pragmatically, its attempt to dispose of belief via indubitable empirical and rational proof has never actually been achieved. But those interested in the pragmatic power that the modern approach to knowledge has given us have never been terribly concerned about philosophy.

Now that we are deeply embedded in the life-world of modern power, we have the bizarre situation where people intellectually believe things they existentially know are not true. In terms of what we take to be economic and political reality, we are prepared to believe that the self-interest of the rich and powerful, which exploits and destroys the weak and vulnerable, is a mere fact of how power does and must work. This reality might be unpleasant for the weak, but …too bad, that is just how things are. If you don’t like it, get rich.

But existentially we know this is not true. We are actually embedded in moral relations and responsibilities, whatever our outlook on objective truth might be. But here is the sad truth. The way we think about objective instrumental truth makes it hard for us to listen to our hearts, to touch the moral realities in which we actually live and on which we actually depend. It is now hard for us to speak about the truth of value and meaning in a public context. We have a big problem here that is deeply embedded in the modern western approach to knowledge and instrumental power.

Here is the conclusion of the matter. Unless we can vote in politicians of genuine moral power – to use Ghandi’s term – and unless we can vote out politicians who are committed to the pragmatics of merely winning power, and to the ‘realism’ of amoral instrumental determinism, then democratic politics will remain a tool of the international domination of our polities by the high end of global financial power.

Our acceptance of financial and political realism in our politicians is the key link in the chain of our slavery. Our ideological slavery to amoral realism upholds a global political arena in which the horrible exploitation of the poor and indebted by the rich controllers of global finance is the shockingly immoral norm. This is a morally repugnant global world order where the senseless ransacking of labourers and nature in the global South for the accumulation of wealth and power by a tiny global minority has far more power than democratic politics.

Thinking as a moral realist it seems clear that the operational norms of global financial power violate the most basic moral truths and thus this global financial order will not last. Yet, unless we change things now, the destruction resulting from the fall of the present order will be great and terrible indeed.

There are moral realities to how societies work which any student of history can identify. Exploitation and oppression has its natural limits, though, via technological aids such as drones and supercomputers, our elites have been able to extend a global environment of artificially produced social, economic and political instability well beyond its natural implosion limits. But there are post-natural limits too, such as ISIS and global warming. Surely it is not beyond us to turn from the brink of global destruction before we hit those limits? Surely the revival of morally meaningful politics is our only way forward.

A political NO
I would like to end this short essay where I began – in Greece. The endeavour of Syriza to assert a moral, a reasoned and a political NO to the demands of mere financial power has been genuinely inspiring, even though – as I write – it has had no impact on the inhumane and irrational actions of international financial power over the Greek state. But here is the reality of the matter: there is nothing fixed about the way an economy works because it is embedded in human choice, belief and action. We can make an economy work not simply for the advancement and perpetuation of those who have the most dominant power interests over it, as if society has to work that way.

Syriza has pointed out that the ideological power of financial realism is now structuring money, law, society and humanity in such deep and corrupting ways that it is destroying the very possibility of democratic politics and humane economics. This makes the amoral logic of financial realism the greatest peril to the well-being of humanity in our times. Further, the impossibility of Troika demands points out that financial realism is profoundly unrealistic about what is even possible. By unrealistic I do not mean that it doesn’t ‘work’, but I mean that when it works power becomes nothing other than mute force, which is the displacement of politics with violence. Thus, financial realism is politically unrealistic.

If we want to live in a global context where human affairs are governed by reasoned debate, where laws are transparently determined by representative democracies, and where power is directed towards humane ends that uphold the common good, we must abandon both political realism and its now global imperial mutation, financial realism. Here, Pope Francis, the political philosophies of both Plato and Aristotle, French cultural critiques like Paul Virilio and the Radical Left of Syriza all stand together. People committed to morally governed politics, no matter where they come from philosophically or theologically, have the same basic foe – those who believe in amoral power.

The Siren song of financial realism has enchanted European politicians and our polities. It is a song the powerful love to hear. But it is a song that will destroy all that is good and humane about Europe. This is what Syriza shows us. And the resistance which Syriza has given is the only sign of hope for the political future of Europe.


Paul Tyson is Honorary Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Nottingham.

Article courtesy of Open Democracy

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