A woman walks past a broken cafe window in Clapham Junction on August 10, 2011 in London, England. Image: Getty
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From the archive: Bertrand Russell on civil disobedience

In the face of Britain's 1961 nuclear policy, Bertrand Russell argued there is sometimes a case for breaking the law.

On 17 February 1961, the NS announced that Bertrand Russell and others who considered civil disobedience a valid form of protest would take part in an unlawful demonstration against Polaris and Britain’s nuclear policy. As the editors stressed, “We do not believe that either [Russell’s] assumptions or the tactics he advocates are correct in present circumstances, but we believe that he should have a full opportunity to explain his position.”

There are two different kinds of conscientious civil disobedience. There is disobedience to a law specifically commanding an action which some people profoundly believe to be wicked. The most important example of this case in our time is conscientious objection. This, however, is not the kind of civil disobedience which is now in question.

The second kind of civil disobedience, which is the one that I wish to consider, is its employment with a view to causing a change in the law or in public policy. In this aspect, it is a means of propaganda, and there are those who consider that it is an undesirable kind. Many, however, of whom I am one, think it to be now necessary.

Many people hold that law-breaking can never be justified in a democracy, though they concede that under any other form of government it may be a duty. The victorious governments, after the Second World War, reprobated, and even punished, Germans for not breaking the law when the law commanded atrocious actions. I do not see any logic which will prove either that a democratic government cannot command atrocious actions or that, if it does, it is wrong to disobey its commands.

Democratic citizens are for the most part busy with their own affairs and cannot study difficult questions with any thoroughness. Their opinions are formed upon such information as is easily accessible, and the Authorities can, and too often do, see to it that such information is misleading. When I speak of the Authorities, I do not think only of the politicians, whether in office or in opposition, but equally their technical advisers, the popular press, broadcasting and television and, in the last resort, the police. These forces are, at present, being used to prevent the democracies of Western countries from knowing the truth about nuclear weapons. The examples are so numerous that a small selection must suffice.

I should advise optimists to study the report of the committee of experts appointed by the Ohio State University to consider the likelihood of accidental war, and also the papers by distinguished scientists in the proceedings of the Pugwash Conferences. Mr Oskar Morgenstern, a politically orthodox American defence expert, in an article reprinted in Survival, says: “The probability of thermonuclear war’s occurring appears to be significantly larger than the probability of its not occurring.” Sir Charles Snow says: “Speaking as responsibly as I can, within, at the most, ten years from now, some of those bombs are going off. That is the certainty.” (The Times, 28 December 1960.) The last two include intended as well as accidental wars.

The causes of unintended war are numerous and have already on several occasions very nearly resulted in disaster. The moon and flights of geese have been mistaken for Russian missiles. Nevertheless, not long ago, the Prime Minister, with pontifical dogmatism, announced that there will be no war by accident. Whether he believed what he said, I do not know. If he did, he is ignorant of things which it is his duty to know. If he did not believe what he said, he was guilty of the abominable crime of luring mankind to its extinction by promoting groundless hopes.

Take, again, the question of British unilateralism. There is an entirely sober case to be made for this policy, but the misrepresentations of opponents, who command the main organs of publicity, have made it very difficult to cause this case to be known. For example, the labour correspondent of one of the supposedly most liberal of the daily papers wrote an article speaking of opposition to unilateralism as “the voice of sanity”. I wrote a letter in reply, arguing that, on the contrary, sanity was on the side of the unilateralists and hysteria on the side of their opponents. This the newspaper refused to print. Other unilateralists have had similar experiences.

Or consider the question of American bases in Britain. Who knows that within each of them there is a hard kernel consisting of the airmen who can respond to an alert and are so highly trained that they can be in the air within a minute or two? This kernel is kept entirely isolated from the rest of the camp, which is not admitted to it. It has its own mess, dormitories, libraries, cinemas, etc, and there are armed guards to prevent other Americans in the base camp from having access to it. Every month or two, everybody in it, including the Commander, is flown back to America and replaced by a new group. The men in this inner kernel are allowed almost no contact with the other Americans in the base camp and no contact whatever with any of the inhabitants of the neighbourhood.

It seems clear that the whole purpose is to keep the British ignorant and to preserve, among the personnel of the kernel, that purely mechanical response to orders and propaganda for which the whole of their training is designed. Moreover, orders to this group do not come from the Commandant, but direct from Washington. To suppose that at a crisis the British government can have any control over the orders sent from Washington is pure fantasy. It is obvious that at any moment orders might be sent from Washington which would lead to reprisals by the Soviet forces and to the extermination of the population of Britain within an hour.

The situation of these kernel camps seems analogous to that of the Polaris submarines. It will be remembered that the Prime Minister said that there would be consultation between the US and the UK governments before a Polaris missile is fired, and that the truth of his statement was denied by the US government. All this, however, is unknown to the non-political public.

To make known the facts which show that the life of every inhabitant of Britain, old and young, man, woman and child, is at every moment in imminent danger and that this danger is caused by what is mis-named defence and immensely aggravated by every measure which governments pretend will diminish it – to make this known has seemed to some of us an imperative duty which we must pursue with whatever means are at our command. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has done and is doing valuable and very successful work in this direction, but the press is becoming used to its doings and beginning to doubt their news value. It has therefore seemed to some of us necessary to supplement its campaign by such actions as the press is sure to report.

There is another, and perhaps even more important reason, for the practice of civil disobedience in this time of utmost peril. There is a very widespread feeling that the individual is impotent against governments, and that, however bad their policies may be, there is nothing effective that private people can do about it. This is a complete mistake. If all those who disapprove of government policy were to join in massive demonstrations of civil disobedience, they could render governmental folly impossible and compel the so-called statesmen to acquiesce in measures that would make human survival possible. Such a vast movement, inspired by outraged public opinion, is possible; perhaps it is imminent. If you join it, you will be doing something important to preserve your family, friends, compatriots, and the world.

An extraordinarily interesting case which illustrates the power of the Establishment, at any rate in America, is that of Claude Eatherly, who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. His case also illustrates that in the modern world it often happens that only by breaking the law can a man escape from committing atrocious crimes. He was not told what the bomb would do and was utterly horrified when he discovered the consequences of his act. He has devoted himself throughout many years to various kinds of civil disobedience with a view to calling attention to the atrocity of nuclear weapons and to expiating the sense of guilt which, if he did not act, would weigh him down. The Authorities have decided that he is to be considered mad, and a board of remarkably conformist psychiatrists has endorsed that official view.

Eatherly is repentant and certified: Truman is unrepentant and uncertified. I have seen a number of Eatherly’s statements explaining his motives. These statements are entirely sane. But such is the power of mendacious publicity that almost everyone, including myself, believed that he had become a lunatic. In our topsy-turvy world those who have power of life and death over the whole human species are able to persuade almost the whole population of the countries which nominally enjoy freedom of the press that any man who considers the preservation of human life a thing of value must be mad. I shall not be surprised if my last years are spent in a lunatic asylum – where I shall enjoy the company of all who are capable of feelings of humanity.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt