Friday, 30 January 2009

Political Chatter and Financial Speculation

Why do people bother? Is there some public value in the gossip and interest that people take in the minutiae of politics?

All reasonably well informed people know that MP's have little or no influence on the course of events, so why do some people so desperately seek the job? Yes, there's the lure of pecuniary gain, and for some - especially Labour peers it seems, the opportunity to function as highly paid lobbyists, or to boastfully claim undue influence over the legislative process.

It appears that many of these people however, are more motivated by the prospect of forming part of an 'in' group, inflating their self-importance, seeming to know more than others, feeling closer to the centre of events, or just love of gossip.

They may be very shallow people, drifting more or less unconsciously on the currents of conventional opinion - herd animals; not leaders, thinkers, reformers or deliberately subversive revolutionaries, although the rhetoric to which they subscribe or succumb may make them claim to be such. It's probably not possible to have a polity without such people to transmit opinion and justification or criticism of the way things are to the mass of the public, and more faintly reflect back any strong episodes of public emotion.

As part of the mass media they can serve to tell the public what the public is allowed to think, delimiting the range of acceptable views and channeling the emotions of large sections of the public. Not so much pack leaders, as loyal exemplars and enforcers of pack discipline and etiquette. Broadly, they don't need precise instructions, although there may be influential spin doctors and others doing just that in limited circumstances. It's more a matter of instinct, being quick to pick up what is expected, and find ways to articulate and implement it. There may be a sequence of concentric circles of influence, with more precise knowledge and expectations nearer the centre, and the centre of influence may not be the centre of visible power.

When there's no actual real world power and wealth to squabble over, such people will still gather to form cabals, to gossip and award each other fancy titles. There are on-line free computer games involving thousands of players, for instance Ars Regendi, Jennifer Government, or eRepublik, where there is a 'cover story' of running your own country, but the main appeal is for people to chat, form notional alliances within which Poo-Bah titles and functions are distributed and electoral votes eagerly sought, and even wars may be fought - but without really affecting the notional countries the players are supposedly running. Of course, there are lots of more normal games where the players' diplomacy and politicing has direct consequences for their notional countries. There's clearly a strong instinct towards political gossip and machination and a love of marks of distinction - even when everyone involved knows it's all a game, or even a game within a game.

A good deal of what passes for 'real' politics and business may be just such games for insiders. "The money's just a means of keeping score", so to speak. When it's our blood and treasure our rulers use to keep score in their games, we the public are likely to feel aggrieved, but unlikely to be able to prevent it, and highly likely to be emotionally caught in the game, partly through the agency of our politicians.

This evening there was a TV programme about commodity speculation. Recently there have been others about financial speculation, and trading, and the role of 'securitisation' of mortgage debt, sliced, diced and traded, and generally just betting vast amounts, and how it's not working out as the public was led to believe. Just considering the function of speculation in 'normal' times, it is not clear to me whether it actually performs the useful tasks of counteracting excessive price movements and maintaining continuity of market prices, as its advocates claim; or whether it is just, (or when taken to excessive levels), legalised theft.

It seems to me to be an activity comparable to the political speculation already mentioned. Both seem to express an instinct to outwit others, partly playful, partly combative, more elaborate versions of the 'play-fighting' of young animals, not always involving 'real life'. Both may be tamed to be beneficial, or not greatly harmful to the public; but when they get out of hand using 'real life,' may be seriously damaging to large numbers of people and of benefit to very few.

It has been found, by observers at a park in America, that the local flock of ravens competes, drives off intruders, and the young males fight skirmishes with hawks, without serious casualties. Nature is able to keep a balance. We are not always so clever. Something that is deeply instinctive, however fashionably expressed, can't be ignored or suppressed without danger. Wisdom may find a way to allow the play without grave public danger, and even in ways that benefit the public overall. It is not something to be legislated away by our stupid and foolish leaders, too ignorant and arrogant to realise the truth of the old saying that you can throw Nature out with a pitchfork, but she will return.

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