'The ancient gods of Greece are not extinct'

James Head gives his personal interpretation of the Greek Polytheist religion in the 21st Century

An ancient Athenian was once asked where his altars of Zeus, Herkios and Agathos Daemon were located. His answer was to give the address of his home, adding that: ".... and I am worshiping there as my ancestors have before me".

Estimates of the followers of the ancient religion in Greece vary between 1 and 2% of the population which translates to somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 followers. However, the memberships of the various "organised groups" in Greece is very small and does not reflect these estimates in any way.

A reason for this is that many people who follow the Gods see it as a personal relationsip with the Gods and pray and worship in the privacy of their own homes with family or friends. Another factor has been discrimation in Greece over the years which has kept many followers "in the closet". Happily this discrimination has dissipated greatly since Greece became a full member of the EU and many followers are now "coming out".

Some people ask me whether I am trying to convert people to my faith. Nothing could be further from my mind. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that everybody naturally thinks that their own God, (or Gods!) and religion is the best - so why bother to try to convert people?

People's faith is largely an accident of birth although a relatively small number of people change faiths during their lives. If you were born in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to Saudi parents, then there's a very good chance that you will be a Muslim and the same applies if you were born in the Bible belt of America, you are likely to be Christian.

The same applies to the billion Hindus in the world. Trying to change people from one faith to another has caused hostility, prejudice, intolerance and war throughout the ages and still does today. The most important thing is simply to be a good human being and to live peacefully in respectful tolerance with other people.

I am definitely not trying to "convert" anyone from their chosen faith to follow Apollo. However, there are many many people these days (especially younger people) that seem to have no faith at all in the divine or any other spiritual awaresness. In these circumstances I only wish to make these people aware that there are many "faiths" in the world they could explore, and this "still" includes the worship of the ancient Gods of Greece such as Apollo. This is not an extinct religion.

As a follower of Apollo for over 18 years I have no need to be a member of a religious organistion, with man-made dogmas and practice, since like that old Athenian mentioned above I can worship in my own home and in my own simple way.

Nevertheless, spiritual isolation is not much fun and so recently, some Greek friends who live in England and I started "Greek Gods UK" which is an informal network of friends who arrange occassional "get togethers" for social dialogue and a simple communial ritual.

The advice of the ancient Greek poet Pindar (518 - 438 b.c.) has special importance to me when it comes to our relationships with the Gods and religious practice. Pindar talks about the dea of “phillea”, that is, the idea of a personal "friendship" with our chosen God. We are lucky in that we can enjoy this special friendly relationship with our God and pray to Apollo as we would talk to a close and respected friend.

We can pray simply and intimately, and have no need to pray in fear. I would say we were very lucky in this respect. Pindar also talks about the idea of a special place (sacred place) where we go regularly (perhaps monthly) to be close to our God such as a park, or by a beautiful lake when we need to be particularly close to our Gods.

It is also very important to have a special place in our homes, where we might turn our thoughts to the Gods more regularly. Sacrifice and offerings such as libation (the pouring of wine) is an important part of our worship. This pouring of wine is a symbolic offering - we do not of course believe that the Gods drink the wine when it is poured. As I have said there is a tendency among followers to see the Gods as good and special friends who don’t need expensive presents or people to show off about how much they paid say for the wine.

It's the same with Apollo, some wine poured on the ground at our “sacred place” is appreciated by the God as a personal offering as much as a lot of pomp and show, well at least in my opinion and the opinion of Pindar.

Knowledge of all sorts is seen positively by us, but the reading of our many ancient texts such as the tragedies helps us with religious enlightenment. One thing which does amuse me is that a few small minded people criticise us because we are "not people of a book" when the truth is that we had so many books on various subjects; indeed libraries full of them.

Many people refer to us as "pagans" which is not really a "label" I am entirely comfortable with since of course the ancient Greeks never called themselves pagans. It is a derogative post Christian word of Latin / Roman origin put on worshipers of some non-Christian faiths. The word is derived from 'paginus' meaning peasant or country bumpkin in the derogatory sense of the word. Ancient Greek science, art, theatre and philosophical thought was hardly the stuff of country bumpkins...

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?