Lynn Parramore & Jeffrey Spear: On George Floyd and John Ruskin


INET Senior Research Analyst Lynn Parramore and NYU Professor of English Jeffrey Spear talk to Rob Johnson about what Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s writings on the collective have to do with the protests that have come in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Transcript

Rob Johnson:

I’m here today with Jeffrey Spear, a retired Professor of English at New York University who has taught Victorian Studies, Art History, done some work on British India. And the focus today is his book Dreams of an English Eden. He comes from Minneapolis so there’s plenty to talk about in light of recent developments here on June 1, 2020, and he’s accompanied by his colleague and coauthor Lynn Parramore. Lynn, I am proud to say, works as a research analyst with the Institute for New Economic Thinking. She’s one of the most gifted writers and translators, since she helps what you might call brilliant, abstract, economists reach other people with great skill. She’s a cultural historian and lives in that space between culture and economics.

Together they wrote a very, very powerful article for our website recently called America’s Chilling Experiment in Human Sacrifice. On May 14, 2020 it was published. Thank you both for joining me.

Jeffrey Spear:

Thank you, Rob.

Lynn Parramore:

Thanks for having us.

Rob Johnson:

So we’re sitting amidst a pandemic, COVID-19, here at the beginning of June 2020. And I’m curious how, whether in the world of events, institutions, or ideas, each of you is perceiving, seeing things, some of which you find I’m sure dreadful, some of it perhaps there are some silver linings to be pointed out. And always I’m interested in your vision of how to move and evolve society to a better place than has been unmasked by this terrible episode. So either Lynn or Jeff, I’ll let you choose, but I want to hear from each of you, how does this pandemic affect your view of the world we live in and the possible?

Lynn Parramore:

I’ll start out maybe and tee things up for Jeff. I find the work of John Ruskin, whom we focused on in our recent article, a very interesting voice for this moment. He was a Victorian art and social critic as well as a political economist, who had a moral vision for how the economy could operate and be structured. And that’s one of the things that Jeff and I have talked about in our work. He came out of a moment in English history, the 1840s, following the French Revolution, a time that really could have become an era of reform or an era of revolution. A lot of questions on the table, a lot of tensions as to whether we were going to have a violent transition or a more peaceful one into better lives for the English people. And I think that starting with that context and that milieu, really helps us think about this moment that we’re in right now.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. Okay. Ruskin was born in 1819 so he was a mid-Victorian and his background had roots in Scotland. His mother was an extremely pious evangelical Christian and his father was a wine merchant and a frustrated gentleman. He wanted Ruskin to grow up to be the kind of gentleman that he didn’t, because of economic necessity, have a chance to be. So Ruskin’s thinking is formed partly by his evangelical heritage, even when he, as many Victorians did, lost his specific faith. That pattern of thinking, which is a strain of evangelical Christianity that sees the world as the fallen Garden of Eden and as mankind’s responsibility to help restore that Eden.

Rob Johnson:

Did he spend a lot of time what I’ll call it almost inductively observing the world and sharing his observations or his interpretations of those findings?

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah, again, that began with his obsession with the work of the painter Turner, who of course was a painter of natural landscape. And so he became an acute observer of the weather, as well. It’s a kind of paradox because he chose his major first work, Modern Painters, as a defense of Turner, not as a realist as we would understand it, but his late work, which is atmospheric. So he became, on the one hand, his idea then of nature was like a dynamic interchange, not the static thing that he attributed to Dutch painting where nature was represented conventionally. So there’s a kind of phenomenological underpinning to the way he looked at things that, again, carried over to social commentary.

Rob Johnson:

Interesting. Interesting. I didn’t know Turner had played such a role. That’s a fascinating bridge. Lynn, when you two sat down to create your article for INET, what was in your mind? Where did the inspiration come from?

Lynn Parramore:

I think the inspiration came from the fact that Ruskin was a very trenchant critic of capitalism of his day and had a very interesting definition of wealth that was different from economists of the time like John Stuart Mill and others. He really defines wealth as anything that is availing to life, to the life of people in the country. And as Jeff and I were seeing the pandemic evolve, it became clear that even though the United States was the wealthiest country on earth, it had become quite impoverished when it came to the life and the health of its citizens. It was accumulating what Ruskin referred to as the opposite of wealth, which is what he called “illth”, things that make society and its people ill, anything from lack of access to healthcare, to environmental pollution, etc.

Ruskin, early on in his writing career, wrote a letter to the London Times and he said that the first duty of a state is to see that every child born therein shall be well-housed, clothed, fed, and educated till it attain years of discretion. And that is something that the United States has obviously been failing in. And so this impoverishment and a reorientation of how we view what makes a country and its people wealthy, what makes them happy, seem to be an important discussion to have right now. I think it’s even become more important since we wrote the article in the context of the terrible murder of George Floyd that’s happened last week in Minneapolis. Jeff, you might want to say something about your experience in Minneapolis during the sixties. I think that’s coming into a lot of people’s minds right now.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. I was a graduate student at Minnesota during the antiwar period. When we were demonstrating, we tried to broaden the protest to make it not just about the war, but about local conditions as well. And one of the saddest things for me to see about this whole episode, apart from the immediate tragedy of that man’s murder, is how little progress was made there, despite being one of the most liberal spots in the country. And if you look at who they elect to office, it’s like a roadmap for the future. And yet one of the things we were protesting was the fact that most of the police in Minnesota police department didn’t live in the city because of economic reasons. Again, it was cheaper to live in the suburbs. So you have a police force in all of the city, but of course in the minority area as well, that doesn’t live there, that’s not part of the community.

After 50 years, that’s still a problem that’s still not been solved, that you have to some extent, you might say, an alien police force in those areas, in that part of Minneapolis, which is not only home to the African American community, but to the Native American community, which hasn’t gotten much mentioned here though their center was burned down in these protests, and since I left, a lot of the Southeast Asian population’s there too. So it’s a very mixed area. That’s one of the things I found, so really disappointing that if a place like Minneapolis can’t deal with these issues with the kind of governance it has, it does make you worry about places in which the problems are even more intractable.

This particular death itself, as an image then, also encapsulated, the image of somebody kneeling on a person’s neck in this insouciant casual manner with his hand in his pocket, is so visceral, I think, to people. I think that’s one reason that unlike shootings, which seem to show some space and sometimes seem to involve a narrative of chase and whatever, this is person-to-person, and I think there’s something about that that just grabbed people as well as the almost archetypal image of conquest, which goes all the way back, Lynn knows about this, all the way back to ancient Egypt, of your foot on the neck of the people you’ve conquered. It’s just terrible. It was just really resonant. I think it’s one reason that that image has just riveted people and brought them out in the middle of a pandemic. So you could say that these demonstrators, the peaceful demonstrators, are in a sense risking their own lives at this moment to make a statement.

Rob Johnson:

Yeah. I think you’re very sensitive in putting together what you might call the inescapable nature of this horrid thing that happened to Floyd. And it portends what you might call a longer and deeper oppression. I saw Kareem Abdul Jabbar today wrote a beautiful piece in the Los Angeles Times about the nature of the despair that people are feeling, the African American community.

Jeffrey Spear:

The legal question about first degree murder, in a moral sense it’s first degree murder. In a technical legal sense, it may not be. But the way I see it, what’s pressing down through the agent of that one policeman is 400 years of intent, of evil intent, that takes place in the transaction just between that one man and another. But it’s really the intent comes all the way back into the beginning of, as everybody says, our original sin as a nation, which is slavery.

Lynn Parramore:

I originally came from North Carolina, which is actually where I’ve been spending time during the pandemic. And one of the things that’s always troubled me about America’s attitude towards slavery is what seems to me a blind spot about our collective guilt. I’ve lived most of my adult life in New York City. And you sometimes get the feeling that people think that slavery is something that happened in a particular region of the country, but actually the second largest slave market next to Charleston was on Wall Street.

Wall Street has had a connection to racist economics, unfortunately, from the beginning. The slave trade could not have operated without the shipping industry, the insurance industry, the bankers, the financiers. The whole country was so deeply intertwined in this abhorrent economic system that the guilt is really collective. It’s not something that happened in one particular place. It’s something that we all have collective guilt about. And I think that a question which is hanging in the air, a moral question about reparations comes up in the context of what happened to George Floyd. And I think as people are grasping for systemic solutions that’s something that we’re going to have to perhaps visit and own this collective guilt and this collective stain on our history once and for all, all of us as a people.

Jeffrey Spear:

I don’t let myself off the hook because my people came to this country in the 20th century. When you’re interpolated into the culture, you acquire it, the good and the bad, and there’s no easy out for it.

Rob Johnson:

I’ve reminded, one of my earliest guests on the podcast was the African American scholar Gerald Horne from University of Houston. He wrote a very, very powerful book. You and I talked about his book Jazz and Justice, but he has another book called The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance in the Origins of the United States of America, which, how would I say, shows how deeply embedded, even at the time of our what you might call inspiring documents, this practice had become.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. If you want to go back to the founders, then just before we move on to Ruskin, when Jefferson changed the standard formulation of life, liberty, and property, which he inherited from the British tradition, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, he made a tremendously important ideological switch that, of course, he could not live up to in his own life. So the paradox is right there at the beginning. Life, liberty and property, that formula is still in operation, right? The pursuit of happiness is for everybody.

Rob Johnson:

In your article that you co-authored for INET, I recall you focused on the World Happiness Report. And some Columbia University studies in relation to that. And as I recall, and I remembered reading this on the same day I read a piece by David Brooks in the New York Times about the Nordic experience, but where has happiness been most achieved? In what type of social organizations have these studies found to, to contribute to that?

Jeffrey Spear:

I’m hardly an expert on that kind of thing but one of the things that’s quite clear is that in the literal sense of the word “social security” has been the thing that has marked the success of the Scandinavian countries. And if you look at the things that have been undercut since the time of Ronald Reagan, pensions. I was astonished to find that a company, of course, could reorganize and get rid of all of its pension obligations. They want to privatize that. Healthcare, all of the things, unemployment, a guarantee that you won’t be thrown out in the street if you become unemployed.

So it’s basically, like I say, in kind of the broadest sense of the word, social security, which actually ironically encourages entrepreneurship. Because if you have an idea and you want to pursue it and create a business or something in Sweden today, you don’t have to worry that if your idea fails, you’ll be on welfare in our sense. So it’s not a terribly well known fact that there’s more entrepreneurship per capita in some of these countries than we have, even though we like to say that this is the great home of entrepreneurship and invention. So that’s where Ruskin comes in. No, go ahead, Lynn.

Lynn Parramore:

Oh, I was just going to say, I think that what we have learned about George Floyd really underscores this point. He, for example, had hypertension. This is the condition that is overrepresented in the black male population in the United States.

Jeffrey Spear:

That’s right.

Lynn Parramore:

And it’s certainly connected to economic inequality and the 400 years of oppression and walking outside your door and being afraid of a potentially fatal confrontation with the police. All of these things, racism, xenophobia, all of these things we know from social science are exacerbated by economic inequality and those countries that have less inequality tend to have less social unrest of this kind and fewer deaths, what some call deaths of despair, deaths from diseases that are caused by living in poverty and living in oppressed circumstances.

Jeffrey Spear:

As we all know, it’s very expensive to be poor.

Lynn Parramore:

Very expensive to be poor.

Rob Johnson:

I often recall a meeting I had with some Swedish economists at the consulate in New York at the behest of an old friend of mine who was the attache in the United States in New York. These economists came in and they said to me, Mr. Johnson, the old growth model was the American model supply side flexibility. And Europe was considered to be sclerotic and bogged down because there were too many rigidities and social protections. But with the advent of globalization and automation and profound transformation, they cited to me… This was in early 2019 that the kind of presidency that Donald Trump represented was a symptom of a despair that they thought was overwhelming America. And that we were not going to be able to adopt technology because our politics would become dysfunctional and violent. And their punchline was, we in Scandinavia love the robots. We don’t protect jobs. We protect people, meaning their healthcare, their pensions, their children’s education, and their ability to be retrained so that in a dynamic sense, they could be radiant and taking advantage of all these opportunities with all of the humans, being confident that they would continue to benefit and that America had lost any credibility in that regard.

Jeffrey Spear:

It’s important to say that this doesn’t mean that there’s no disharmony or no racial prejudice or anything like that in Scandinavia. And sometimes it said that there are like that they are more uniform populations and that we couldn’t do that here because we’re so disparate, but that seems to be like a terrible cop-out. This economic idea of putting people first works, even despite the fact that there is in fact racial tension in these countries that have taken in immigrants since the last 50 years. So it’s not paradise on earth, but it is a better system.

Lynn Parramore:

It goes to this definition that John Ruskin had of wealth and understanding that the wealth of the country lies in the radiant lives of its citizens. I think another Ruskinian perspective that’s useful for us now is not only is it the life of individual citizens, it is their social life, their life together. There’s almost no recognition in economics that the human being is social, is the member of a mutually responsible community. We’re not just atomistic units, separate economic units.

This really goes into something that Jeff and I have talked about, the importance of narrative and storytelling. Economics, mainstream economics, neoclassical economics has told a story about human beings that is fiction, that we are these separate units driven by our economic self-interest. That is actually not how human beings live. It is a fiction, but it is the fiction that Donald Trump has picked up on very successfully — and some on the conservative side. It’s a story of the salvation of our country.

I think everyone can agree right now that something is wrong, whether you’re on the right or the left or whoever you may be all over the globe, there’s a feeling of anxiety that something is wrong. We all agree on that, but the salvation and where it’s going to come from, Donald Trump would put it forward that it comes with individual empowerment where someone like Ruskin would have said, no, it is our collective empowerment. It is our collective salvation. He was a storyteller who was interested in the plot structure, known as romance, where you have a hero fighting against a dragon, good versus evil, but the hero doesn’t have to be an individual hero. It could be a collective hero. For example, the essential workers during the pandemic, the people who are producing the materials that can help us combat this virus foe. It is a way of thinking about our interaction and mutual dependency that I think is so important to this moment. And it’s a difficult narrative to achieve. The individual empowerment narrative is hard to argue against, because in Ruskin’s time, you had a very clear idea of Christian social values that you could pit against capitalist practices, but we don’t have that now. We don’t have an agreed upon set of practices. Later in Ruskin’s career, he might’ve even said that exploiting your fellow human or exploiting nature was a violation of natural laws. We don’t really talk that way either. And Jeff and I were discussing, so what is it? What is it we can pose in opposition? What does it violate when we exploit nature and we exploit our fellow human? And we agreed, it’s a violation of what Ruskin would imagine as whole systems and some thinkers that Rob, I know you’ve had on the podcast, such as Jeremy Lent, I think could relate to this idea that it’s whole systems we live within that become violated when we do this damage.

Jeffrey Spear:

When they become segmented, and that was the argument that people like Barry Commoner and the original ecology movement, much of the prosperity in capitalism has been produced by creating a debt to nature. If you have a factory that pollutes the water, that pollutes the air and so on you can produce a much cheaper product. Going back to 19th century kinds of examples, then a place that pays a decent wage and is careful to clean up after itself. So where does the debt go? It’s very often assumed by the people who have to clean their water where they wouldn’t have had to, filter their air. Very often that’s put onto the state. So the actual real profits in Ruskin’s terms of the firm is much smaller than its capital return because they’ve taken much of the cost and dumped it on other folks. And so looking at things as a whole system… By the way, this is one reason why he supported the graduated income tax and tax on property, very unpopular in his time. You have a responsibility because you don’t own the land in an absolute sense. You’re a custodian of it.

Rob Johnson:

It’s interesting now, the awareness of climate is not even one person or a group. It’s how different countries can affect the whole world. I’ve talked to many guests on this podcast about tension now between the development of India. This is a country that has limited resources, foreign investment in the transformation of an energy structure that will help the rest of the world a great deal. And yet we don’t seem to be able to marshal our resources among the advanced countries to help them help us. Since there are failings in every respect, I’m always very attracted to the notion that Naomi Klein brought out in her book, “This Changes Everything”, meaning the change in response to the challenge of climate change eliminates the fantasy that an unfettered market can take care of human needs. And it sets a precedent for a different consciousness in a different organization of society. You’re working, as you mentioned, Barry Commoner. These different visions are beckoning us now.

Jeffrey Spear:

Ruskin saw this clearly in a way that we can’t quite now in that he was present when industry was coal-fired. He literally saw a pristine environment in the countryside turned black from coal. And there was no question about who caused it. The steam engines were putting out that smoke. The area around Northern England around Wolverhampton became known as the Black Country. It’s a little less clear, or we’ve certainly made the narrative a lot fuzzier about the causes of our present climate. There’s the ozone layer and things like this are very abstract to most people. And so you don’t see day to day as vividly as Ruskin did, the damage until we start noticing weird things. A few years back, I noticed I took the car trip and came home and realized there were only like two or three bugs splattered on my windshield. And remembering when I was young, if you went out for a drive in the summer, there were all kinds of things you would have run into that would… What happened to the bugs? We don’t have those bugs. Some of them were not here.

Lynn Parramore:

That’s where you get into the whole systems idea again. And then this idea of connectivity, and Jeff and I with our background in literature, talk a lot about language. And the very language that we use to talk about nature is something I think Ruskin would find problematic. We refer to it as the environment. It sounds something that is wholly external to ourselves, something that is out there rather than nature, which is, which is a word I think is much more honest. It is something that is within and without, and there is no real meaningful separation between the two.

Jeffrey Spear:

The coronavirus reminds us because it is entirely a biological phenomenon. We are mammals, and we are subject to little bits of RNA that want to replicate themselves.

Lynn Parramore:

And we’re a collective.

Rob Johnson:

So Lynn, what is the story that you want to write that the pandemic, the COVID-19 virus, has awakened so that people will be able to comprehend the lesson of your vision?

Lynn Parramore:

It is a story, and I think it has never been told as succinctly as Muhammad Ali told it in a poem that he wrote that I know you’re very fond of Rob, and that poem is “Me, we.” To me, that really says it all. That is the transition that we have to make at this moment. That is the key to all of it. The key to new economic thinking, the key to social reform, the key reforming our prison systems is to understand fundamentally that we are connected and that we have a mutual responsibility and to not be afraid of putting our story in a moral context and using value-laden words to talk about what we need and demand and deserve as a people. That is the plot that I want to see unfolding. And I would like to talk and think more about not just leadership in a general sense, but narrative leadership.

One of the things that’s become clear in this pandemic we have these images, and particularly in the George Floyd murder, we have these images flashing constantly on our television screens, but it’s stories that put the images together in a way that we understand and comprehend and move us forward as a society and the internet for all its wonder and the media that we have now, sometimes we’re just lost in a chaos of images that aren’t woven together into a coherent story. I think people who want to challenge the narrative of neoclassical economics or the narrative of politicians like Donald Trump, we have to really think hard about regaining our plot and making it clear that our plot is one of a collective salvation and not just an individual one.

Jeffrey Spear:

It’s a necessary, since Americans as a whole have so little interest in history, it’s worthwhile remembering that we’re one of the oldest nation states and the nation state has not been the natural form of human organization forever. Historically speaking, they come and go. So the idea that the United States is some kind of exceptional place that’s going to go on forever while the rest fade away, we’re in a very, very troubling moment. And at times it reminds me of what it was like in the 1930s, which I don’t remember and only know historically, but people should remember that Hitler took over not when he was winning elections, but when his party had peaked and was declining.

And so this whole, “it can’t happen here” narrative is… we’re in a very, very perilous time in terms of what our political future and because each of these images and so forth, if we make up a story about it, that story is going to be determined by ideology. And we have a very ideologically divided… and by ideology, I don’t mean a conscious held viewpoint, but more like the philosopher Althusser would put it that it’s our way of making contradictory things cohere. It’s not a conscious process. That’s one reason it’s so hard to bend these things around because one image does not tell its own story. Who’s doing the storytelling is really an important issue.

I’d like to go back if we could just to say that there’s an alternative possible way using Adam Smith and our own history of how economics developed that there’s two routes that might’ve come up. Adam Smith, who was after all a moral philosopher. The one we’re used to is the story of the division of labor. One man draws out the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, the fourth points it, the fifth grinds it, at the top of receiving the head makes two to three distinct operations. And so on. That’s the story that’s generally told, but in the second volume of the work, he says something else about the consequences of the division of labor.

The workman, having no occasion to exert his understanding or exercise his invention and finding out expedience for removing difficulties, which never occur. He doesn’t have to invent anything. He naturally loses therefore the habit of such exertion. And generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as possible for a human creature to become. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems in this manner to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social and martial virtues. But to every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the laboring poor, that is the great body of people, must necessarily fall. And who would have thought Adam Smith would have said this, unless the government takes some pains to prevent it. If that were our Adam Smith, maybe we would have a different basis for the way we think about our economic.

Lynn Parramore:

And if we also thought about the state as that which enriches, sustains, provides the conditions for the radiant life of its citizens. It would help if we use the Ruskinian framework to think about our response to the pandemic, for example, it would become very clear what kinds of choices we need to make about sending people to work with or without protective equipment. We would know the answer to that question. It would be a very easy judgment to make, and we would know that it’s the state’s responsibility to make that judgment.

Jeffrey Spear:

Well, let’s put it this way. If there’s a moral hazard to people getting more money on unemployment than they would get if they went back to their job, as the Lindsey Grahams of the world seem to think, does that say something about the people’s motivations or does it say something about the miserable wages they pay?

Rob Johnson:

Right. Yeah, I think the… It’s… Lynn, you said it very well earlier on in this conversation. It’s about the nature of the narratives that people have come to, how you say, emotionally be attracted to. And how it influences what you might call the resistance to caring. And to go back to Muhammad Ali, the me and we. I think what you were suggesting, Lynn, is that me is better off when I work in the we system.

Lynn Parramore:

Yes. Me is dependent on the well-being of we.

Rob Johnson:

Yes. It’s not one or the other in the shortsightedness or the vacuity of awareness as to what really matters is what you and Ruskin are exploring.

Lynn Parramore:

Yeah. I mean, I think it comes really clear in situations like discussion of a vaccine for COVID-19 that’s only going to be effective if we look at it as a we solution.

Rob Johnson:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lynn Parramore:

If we look at it individually, some people might prefer, for various reasons, not to have their children vaccinated. But unfortunately, we’re all connected in this.

Jeffrey Spear:

Aah, yeah.

Lynn Parramore:

And the way it works is if we do it as a we. Our individual choices are intimately, and our individual lives are intimately connected to how we operate as a whole, as a whole system.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, our country took a strange turn when… I guess Reagan was a great proponent of it. Thought it was more important that everybody get a dollar back that was theirs, and that everybody put in a dollar for some general good. I mean, we’ve lost our, we promote the abstraction of liberty and democracy and all of these things until the words themselves are emptied of their content. And our sense of collective identity is, right now, I think, deeply fractured.

Lynn Parramore:

I think that’s true, Jeff. And I think that’s one of reasons that George Floyd’s dying words, “I can’t breathe?”

Jeffrey Spear:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. Absolutely.

Lynn Parramore:

Have been such an important message in the protest. Because I can’t breathe has become a collective cry during the protests.

Jeffrey Spear:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.

Lynn Parramore:

It seems to lend itself, not only to the moment of reckoning with police brutality, but as you said, an oppressive system that has its boot on the neck of the people of an environment that is so polluted that people can’t breathe in it.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah.

Lynn Parramore:

It’s a cry that is both an individual cry and a collective cry that goes to the very essence of what Ruskin talked about; the right to lead a healthy life.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. And breath is the essence of life. And it also is metaphoric, you know? The beginning of the creation of the world. And God breathes upon the waters, right? So you know, breath is, even in yoga? Breathing, breath is our life, you know? The system of panic. When you’re in a panic, you tighten up and you can’t breathe. So the, that very, I think that those words of his have this really powerful resonance, like you were saying, Lynn. Not about, just about his own individual life and he can’t breathe, but in a certain, pretty literal sense, we’re all being suffocated. And that’s, if there’s to be a crusade of some kind, then saving the planet is also saving ourselves.

Rob Johnson:

Everybody consents that we’re off course. Profoundly off course. This is not the world we want to hand to our children. But where I struggle, and I’m asking you both to explore this, is it the institutions that need to be repaired or is the real disease the ideas, the ideology and the narratives that are pointing us in the wrong directions, and that those institutions are a reflection of that misguided vision?

I’m very attracted to the writings of an old man who studied a lot about Eastern philosophy, his name was RC Zaehner. He was at Oxford University in the 50s and early 60s, and he has a quote. That’s an epigraph of a music book that I own where he says, “Loss of faith in a given religion does not by any means imply the eradication of the religious instinct. It merely means that instinct temporarily repress will seek an object elsewhere.” I want to bring this to you, particularly Jeff, because you spoke about The Wealth of Nations. In my understanding of history was that the time of the industrial revolution and the onset of the wealth of nations, much of the church and moral and ethical language had been the discourse of governance. It lost its credibility because the church was seen to be siding with the landed aristocracy, the oligarchy of the time and contributing and legitimating oppression. And after the Industrial Revolution, governance for reasons that I think cohere moved to this antiseptic scientific quote value free technocracy.

But that in itself is a false consciousness because there were values embedded in every action. But I can understand why a practitioner say in a finance ministry or a central bank or the tax office, or an agricultural office would not want to speak in moral and ethical language for fear of being suspected of being part of that old rancid power structure, where the church had misused its power over ideas and committed to contributed to oppression. So we’re at a place now where what you might call the dry technocratic value, free notion, exhibited some failures in the era of Stalin and Mao and other places.

Rob Johnson:

And it seemed like the void was filled by this deity called the free market and capitalism. Zaehner’s seeking an object elsewhere for the religious instinct seemed to take on a secular form. And this, my intuition is this is breaking down. So this is a long winded way of framing a question. Can we just go to institutional reform or do we have to go to ideological re-examination upheaval and get back to defining what it is that matters and create institutions that are a means to that end, despite the concentrated wealth and opposition that will always be present?

Jeffrey Spear:

Okay to say, I think it’s the latter, but of course, in these institutions and structures, you brought up the…they can be transformed, in a sense spiritually, as you pointed out the presence of the Citizens United decision, for instance, changed the nature of politics because both parties in our country had to go to the same people for support.

It seems now through the internet, this development of grassroots financing is one of the things that’s led to the candidacies that are not so dependent on the big money, but that’s…but spiritually speaking, this is one of Ruskin’s main points is that the development of this free market ideology somehow gave the market a moral free pass that they subbed, but that was his main objection to the idea that you could develop a science of economics.

And then when you decided to apply it to actual situations, bring in things like human affections emotions and so forth, what he was pointing out is that basically you’re actually dividing human beings apart at that point, because they do have this instinct for reverence and religion, which will find its place. And so why should the market… Why should your behavior as a merchant or a person in the marketplace not be subject to the values of your professed, religion, which is supposed to govern all your behavior?

One of the things that has struck me again about politics on the left is this kind of moral unilateral disarmament. You don’t have to be a believing Christian to say that Jesus would not have some pretty bad things to say about some pretty, what we considered the fundamentalism market capitalism, right?

So to leaving that religious rhetoric to the right wing has been, I think, a terrible mistake that there is a moral component that could be appealed to, and it, but it requires something other than the kind of cliche language that we’ve got.

We are so used to these parades of abstractions that Trump almost makes into a caricature where we act as though these abstract words like democracy and freedom, and all of these things somehow do work for us, you know, and they don’t, they’re camouflage, right?

Rob Johnson:

Uh-huh (affirmative).

Jeffrey Spear:

So one thing I would love to see, and we’re not going to get it, I’m afraid from Joe Biden would have been a really a moral and values based candidacy in this moment that could employ the religion language of all faiths and indeed moral philosophy, right. About in looking at these things that there are issues of right and wrong here, not just issues of productivity and externalities and capital return and so on. Anyway. So I think that that’s the best I can do at the moment.

Lynn Parramore:

I would say that, I think that your question about, whether we go to institution before we go to something perhaps more fundamental, I think, the observation has been made that the world arises out of language.

It arises out of culture and the metaphors use shape our values and our culture and those in turn, shape our institutions. And I think we’re in the midst of a transition, which will be reflected in language one way or another. It’s a process that sometimes in history can happen in a generation or two. We may be in a moment of this kind of shift, but I think, the nature of the shift is a movement from a self-focused to a whole focus. You know, we were talking about whole-systems later, Muhammad Ali “me, we” framework and we’re grappling right now.

I think that’s a way of thinking that certainly has existed in the West, ever since Heraclitus, but it hasn’t necessarily been the dominant kind of narrative trope, at least in the last couple of hundred years. So I, again, I’m sort of looking for language revolution and narrative revolution as much as anything right now.

Rob Johnson:

Very… I find it… How would I say… I find it like I’m an explorer, and I’m trying to understand the resistance to change when change is so clearly profoundly necessary. And I think that the pandemic, the environmental crisis, all of these things are very, very big, what I’ll call more than nudges they’re throttling our consciousness. So that clinging… I remember the philosopher Stephen Toulmin wrote a book essentially about from the 30 years war to the end of Ronald Reagan called Cosmopolis. And one of his key findings was the notion that the…how would he say this, “At the time when you were unsettled and you become afraid, the tendency is to look back to the familiar rather than forward to what is necessary.”

And, but I must say, I think this episode is so extreme. We can’t go back. So I think that may be the silver lining of how ordered this is.

Lynn Parramore:

I think you’re right, Rob. And I think that one of the hopeful things neuroscientists have been showing us recently that our brains are flexible. We can rewire them. We can learn new ways of thinking and doing things. You know, there’s the example of when someone has a stroke, sometimes certain activities are impossible, but the brain it’s possible to rewire it and train it and learn again.

We have a cognitive flexibility. We also have a cultural flexibility, like I was saying, sometimes we have pretty amazing shifts that happen just in a generation or two. I mean, you look at the environmental movement that took off in the 1960s with Rachel Carlson’s, Silent Spring. We have had these moments of transition and they unfortunately do often come out of very chaotic and bloody circumstances such as the one that we have now, but we don’t have to be stuck. We are flexible. That’s one of the things that makes us human and transformation is never out of our reach.

Jeffrey Spear:

And one of the most impressive things and hopeful things that’s come out of this has been the many actions of ordinary people in the absence of proper leadership, how people have stepped up, and helped their neighbor and look at the private mask making industry that came up out of nowhere.

So, I mean, at the potential, we certainly have the potential, if that could be, put into some kind of…if it doesn’t just go away and everybody go back to their own house after the crisis is over, there is a potential movement here. It seems like that’s democratic in the real sense.

Lynn Parramore:

And there’s really no normal to go back to right now, that’s both a very painful thing, but it’s also a thing that makes a transition possible. The pandemic is going to be with us, and it’s a feedback loop and a spiral that can be very destructive for a while.

People who are protesting may get the virus, that’s going to impact communities of color more than others, but it is also going to force us to remain in this moment of tension and struggle until we have figured something out. It’s almost like the boot of history is on our necks right now. And it’s not going to let up until we come up with a new framework, a new path forward, it’s, we… there is no normal.

Jeffrey Spear:

Yeah. And people, it’s hard to, I mean, I keep thinking again, of the thirties and my own re… As this person, I can say I’m old guy and all that, but my own relative passivity in seeing what’s happening out there and wondering again, that, did I not take action? I’m not knowing what’s going to happen next. But if the worst comes, where was I, what did it mean? It’s one thing to see all these things and pontificate about them, but where am I?

Rob Johnson:

Yes. Well, I think that’s a good…that’s almost a good title for this session. Where am I? Where are we? Where is me? But I guess, I love how much the two of you were exploring again for our listeners today. America’s chilling experiment in human sacrifice on the INET website, by Lynn Parramore and Jeffrey L Spear is a tremendous article. And as I read it the other day, I heard a song from the rock band, U2.

And the last verse, the lyrics go, “…one love, one blood, one life. You’ve got to do what you should. One life with each other sisters and my brothers one life, but we’re not the same, but we get to carry each other, carry each other.” I want to thank you both. And thank you each for bringing your vision and this challenge to this podcast. And I hope that we can convene again and that you keep writing and I can keep illuminating your insights in the weeks and months ahead. But for right now, I just want to thank you both for a beautiful exploration. And I look forward to our next one.

Lynn Parramore:

Thank you very much, Rob.

Jeffrey Spear:

Thank you, Rob. I really appreciate it.

Rob Johnson:

The pleasure’s mine. Thank you. Bye bye.

About the Host

ROB JOHNSON serves as President of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Johnson is an international investor and consultant to investment funds on issues of portfolio strategy. He recently served on the United Nations Commission of Experts on International Monetary Reform under the Chairmanship of Joseph Stiglitz.

More

About the Guests

LYNN PARRAMORE is Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. A cultural theorist who studies the intersection of culture and economics, she is Contributing Editor at AlterNet, where she received the Bill Moyers/Schumann Foundation fellowship in journalism for 2012. She is also a frequent contributor to Reuters, Al Jazeera, Salon, Huffington Post, and other outlets.

JEFFREY L. SPEAR is an Associate Professor of English at New York University where he teaches Victorian Studies, Victorian Literature, and Visual Culture. He is the author of Dreams of an English Eden: Ruskin and His Tradition in Social Criticism (Columbia UP, 1984), and has published essays on Victorian writers including Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, William Morris, John Ruskin and Bram Stoker.