The idea of ‘convention’ and its associated activity of ‘deeming’ are fundamental to human activity, as I think I have said elsewhere.
By ‘convention’ I mean the agreement to be bound by something, to deem it to have a power which in reality resides with us.
The paradigm of this concept is when a child, in the course of a game, goes through the motions of tying you up with imaginary rope, then says, ‘there now, you’re my prisoner and you can’t escape’. Both child and adult know, on one level, that this is not the case (being called to the tea-table will dissolve it in an instant) but also that there is a space ‘in the game’ where it holds good, where you both agree to act as if you were bound.
There are two important things to note here: the paradox at the heart of this activity, and its origin in childhood, which suggests that it is ancient, instinctive and intuitive.
The paradox is that the power which we deem the external thing to have is actually our own: we are bound only by our own agreement to follow the rules; it is something which, in theory at least, we can shrug off at any time (though habit can be coercive). The fact that adult conventions are backed by a system of law and enforcement is proof of this: yes, I can be fined or sent to jail if I transgress certain rules that society has agreed, but that requirement for added enforcement is an admission that the conventions, of themselves, have no power to compel.
When children play games and set out the rules, they are not imitating adult behaviour; the reverse is actually the case – the use we make of convention and deeming in adult life derives, I would argue, from that instinctive childhood behaviour. Imposing order on the external world, structuring our lives by giving ourselves rules to follow, is, I would suggest, a method we have evolved that allows us to make sense of experience and manage the problem of existence; but how we do it is up to us.
And that brings us to the magic money tree and these extraordinary times we are living through. It was Theresa May, I think, who said that there was ‘no magic money tree’ in response to a question raised about funding the NHS. As many have since remarked in the recent turn of world events brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the government now seems to have found an entire magic forest.
If we deconstruct the expression ‘magic money tree’ as Theresa May deployed it, we find it is shorthand for the notion that ‘no matter how worthy the cause (e.g. nurses’ pay) the government can’t just conjure up money to pay for it.’ The implication is that the government is bound by some iron necessity which it could not disobey no matter how much it wanted to; but that is simply not true – the necessity exists only within the conventions of the game – as recent events have shown, there is a magic money tree, if the game has reached a stage where one is needed to keep it going.
The truth is that our economy (by which I mean global free market capitalism, which obtains generally) has no basis in necessity: it is simply a grand and elaborate game, a set of conventions that can be reduced to the notion that people must work (in providing goods and services) in order to earn money to pay for the good and services which people work to produce, in order to earn money, etc. – but we do not have to live this way.
To be sure, there are necessities within the global freemarket economy (I must have money in order to survive) but those are – literally, not metaphorically – just the rules of the game: its logic is internal; it is not founded on any external necessity – there is, ultimately, no reason for it. The fact that we do not have to live this way is demonstrated by the fact that not everyone does, even now, and not so long ago, no-one did – civilisation, living in settled communities supported by agriculture, accounts for only ten thousand of the 200,000 years our particular species has been on earth; in other words, for 95% of human existence we have lived very differently from the way we do now.
Take the case of Richard Branson, one of those who have played the present economic game with such skill that they have amassed a vast pile of the magic leaves we call money, yet who is calling on his airline staff to make sacrifices, which led one Liam Young to tweet the other day
‘Virgin Atlantic have 8,500 employees and Branson has asked them to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. It would cost £4.2 million to pay all of these employees £500 a week to cover this leave. In total that’s a cost of £34 million for 8 weeks. Richard Branson is worth £4 billion.’
[in percentage terms, £34 million is 0.85% of £4 billion, so the implication is that even after doing this, Branson’s wealth would be 99.15% intact]
Now, there are various points for comment here: on the face of it, there seems a great unfairness to ask others to give up their income when you yourself have plenty, even if (as people have pointed out) having a net worth of £4 billion does not mean you have that amount at your immediate disposal; and it is the fact of people working at such and such a cost to provide such and such a service that makes that net worth what it is.
The most succinct summation of the matter was offered by the person who commented, ‘Branson didn’t get his £4 billion by paying staff any more than he absolutely had to.’
No doubt she meant this critically, but it expresses an important truth. For Branson to pay his employees for not working is to play a different game from the one that made him so absurdly rich. That game depends on paying the market rate (which is, by definition, as low as you can get away with) for people to provide goods and services which you sell at a profit. To pay them for unproductive activity is (again, literally, not metaphorically) as if the person who wins at Monopoly, having amassed all the money and ruined everyone else, then says ‘let’s just keep playing, and if you land on my property, I’ll pay you till you’ve all got some money again.’ And of course you can do that if you want, but it’s a different game (and one that completely subverts the point of the original).
I expect, when all this is done, that the world will settle into a new shape, and perhaps a surprising one: habits and customs, once broken, may not be resumed; we may come to see that we need not do what we always have. At the moment it is clear that the present game – global free market capitalism – is in serious danger of failing, so the various participants (i.e. national governments) are willing to abandon the rules, at least temporarily – hence the magic money forest – in order to maintain a semblance of economic activity till we are in a position to start again in earnest; but what they may find, after this, is that people don’t want to play that game any more.