Lady Caroline Lamb’s famous epigram elegantly sums up the problem of free thinkers: they are ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ as the Lady declared in one instance. Few who dare to think freely, who boldly go beyond accepted conventions escape being considered either mad or bad or dangerous in any or all senses and applications of that perilous word. And who can argue? Love them or loathe them, if they cannot be classified as mad, bad or dangerous there would be little in the ideas thinkers put forth worth more than a moment’s passing reference. Disturbing the waters and ruffling the feathers is not the way the world turns. It is the great tsunamis, the eruptive larval outpourings, the earthquakes of insight that put us in thrall and debt to free thinking individuals. Nothing would be as it is, for good or evil, without the contribution of the free thinker.
Actually, her famous epigram could be applied to Lady Caroline (1785-1828) herself. She ended mad and was notorious for being bad in a way most dangerously destabilising to the social expectations of the rich and famous in the era the novelist T.H.White dubbed the ‘Age of Scandal.’ One can hardly blame the lady for becoming mad. She is remembered most for just one quip though she wrote a number of novels, was a capable poet, an erudite, puckish and accomplished observer of the life and letters of her time. She was married to a rising politician, later to be the Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (1779-1848), till her death despite her famous indiscretion. In an age when physical and mental disability were hidden and hurriedly confined to asylums the Lambs tended their own disabled son at home. Yet, as a female, Caro, as she was known, was subsumed by the ruling (and seemingly eternal) double standards concerning female contributions which eradicate her achievements, deny her any claim to being a free thinker, and condemn her as bad bad bad for free living and madly emotionally unstable for refusing to fade quietly when her ‘amour inappropre’ tired of her attentions. It is depressingly dangerous to be contrary, to be not what convention will tolerate.
So what of the object of Lady Caroline’s barb? Lord George Noel Gordon Byron (1788–1824) was the original ‘celeb’, the socialite heartthrob, the quintessential romantic hero, the literary ‘rock’ superstar image conscious poet sensation of the age, perhaps more infamous for his lifestyle than his poetry while both life and letters should properly be understood as expressions of his thought, his ideas about what and how the world should be. It is by no means only the peccadillos of his private life, though they were varied and many, that made Byron mad, bad and dangerous to know. He provided new impetus to old orientalism and dedicated himself to a new-fangled modern style exclusive nationalism by denigrating Ottoman tyranny as he championed the cause of Greek independence. Thereby, he regenerated the idea of the impenetrable rift between Europe, whose birth was in classical Greece and Rome, and Asia the distinctly Other, inimical to all that was Europe no matter how interesting its exoticism might appear. This cavernous abyss beyond mutual understanding had been opened in the febrile imagination of the humanist thinkers of the Renaissance when they determined to eradicate their civilisation’s debt to the predominantly Muslim world of Asia in favour of sole affiliation and loyalty to newly recovered classical learning. Byron’s literary construct, the romantic hero, is another pestiferous blot on the imagination who has stalked the pages of literature and arts and on into film and television ever since. This hero is a figure of passion and opposition, or ‘anti-establishment radicalism and anarchy’, as the novelist John Updike put it. He achieves his rebellious objectives by the marriage of licentious personal freedom of the free living individual who cares not for convention with the quest for freedom from restraint by oppressive power of state and church and all other such institutions for which, ultimately this tormented world weary hero is ready to embrace self-destruction/sacrifice. The romantic hero’s ultimate cause is, as Byron wrote in Canto IX of his most acclaimed poem, Don Juan, freedom of thought:
And I will war at least in words (and should
May chance so happen deeds) with all who war
So why is free thinking always deemed dangerous? Quite simply, it means pondering the way of things as they are, asking questions without restraint, traversing the known knowns with a quizzical intent, interrogating the known unknowns and venturing forth into the realms of the unknown unknowns, daring to contemplate that there are things we do not know. Whoever thought I would end up quoting Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense and architect of the Iraq War? This strange circumstance, surely, is the essence of free thinking: finding the hooks that lead to productive thought in unexpected places and with meaning and purpose quite other than its source may have intended or suspected. It only goes to show that not every useful utterance needs to come from a free thinker or indeed a revolutionary, some can be gleaned from reactionary warmongers as well.
The revolutionary is always presented as a free thinker, like the romantic hero, which perhaps explains why they are so often conflated in the world of art and culture. The revolutionary seeks rebellious overthrow of the established order. Free thinking, however, can come in more mundane less easily recognised yet just as profound categories. It can mean seeing so clearly how things are that new arrangements, new connections, new possibilities, alternative understandings of what is established and accepted become apparent. The path of patient dedicated reform can be the outcome of radical free thinking. Yet radical reform can also leave in place much that is cherished that is called tradition, heritage handed down from the point of origin. One can assert, as I most emphatically do, that tradition is change or it is no longer tradition that is relevant and fertile but rather ossified dead letters and the outpourings of dead good men that can lead whole civilisations into the error of defending what has become indefensible. Reform that keeps tradition mobile, adaptable and pertinent to contemporary need by constant amendment, permanent small (or large) adjustment, does not necessarily render itself any less dangerous to vested interests than revolution that would sweep society clean of the old ways for the sake of what is claimed to be a new utopia.
Thought, the ability to reason is what makes us human. Yet thought operates always in a context, the context of the world, the culture, the time and circumstances in which we live. Pure thought is a true utopia, a nowhere no place that is as delusional as it is illusory. We think with the materials we have acquired from history. It is how freely, how widely, coherently and cogently people are prepared to think with the materials available in their world that determines just how mad, bad or dangerous the results are likely to be.
The tyrants and dictators, the despots and potentates familiar from history are easily categorised as both bad and often mad. They are the evil geniuses who manipulate power and seek relentlessly for absolute power to impose their will on others. In modern times they have been joined by the familiar cultural construct of the mad scientist, either the benevolent naïve kind that remain oblivious, deaf, dumb, and blind to the uses their thought can be put to by unscrupulous power hungry establishments or megalomaniacs. Or there is the truly bad mad scientist ready to destroy humanity for its failures. Tyrant or scientist mad or simply bad their evil influence is a result of thought, their perverse, perverted thinking which is freed from moral and ethical moorings and restraint. Such monsters we know to be wary of, to oppose (if only we could as we know we should) and generally to avoid as best we can. These familiar bogeymen of history and cultural stereotype are personifications of free thinking in its worst sense. The dangers such living or imagined monsters pose is evident. The trouble is there are whole troves of other monsters lurking in the world of thought that escape scrutiny, odium or even earnest interrogation of their faults and methinks this is much more dangerous.
In the world in which we live thought not only happens in a context it happens in neat compartments that we call disciplines of knowledge. Each discipline has a history, a process of genesis framed by asking questions. It is a function of the questions one asks that they inevitably contain assumptions and lead to the accumulation of facts, mounds of information that answer to the predicates of the questions posed, the information sought. Therefore the necessary accompaniment of knowledge is ignorance, ignorance of the questions not asked, not considered relevant, excluded by our assumptions and predicates. We all accept the existence of ignorance, such is the accumulation of facts and information available in our world that it is no longer possible to know everything. We are a world awash with experts. It is easy enough to accept that an astrophysicist may know an inordinate amount about his or her discipline and yet be as uninformed as the average lay person about medicine, history, philosophy or literature. The age of the polymath is past and not even the best search engine means we genuinely can know everything. The danger of thinking then is accepting and respecting the boundaries that have been constructed and ignoring the ignorance these boundaries entail. The complexity of the realities of the world in which we live is shaped and fashioned from the knowledge and expertise that comes to us through the history of the disciplines of knowledge. All these disciplines, the structure and operation of modern academia, originate in the western world and employ its characteristic cultural ways of thinking and attendant assumptions as a further set of exclusionary boundaries. There are other traditions of reasoning, ways of framing questions and different starting assumptions. It is not a denigration of free thinking of the western way to argue that cross fertilisation, thinking beyond one’s own conventions – as the rest of the world has been required to do – might be a dangerously useful means to attain new insights.
The greatest danger we face is how circumscribed our freedom of thought, exercised as free inquiry, has become along with the reliance we place on knowledgeably ignorant experts who are the products of our highly structured systems of thinking – more commonly known as academic disciplines. In a complex and ever more interconnected world it is entirely possible to think ourselves into a new era of serfdom, shackled to the bidding of interlocking networks of the rich and powerful, the mega corporations that command and control the choices of our lives, to become powerless servants of a system running out of control beyond our ability to think and therefore act, create and operate otherwise. If that seems alarmist, dear readers, the evidence is in – we already are!
We live in a dangerously unequal world, a world riven with haves and have nots within and between regions, countries and continents. The map of inequality is daily growing more complex and exaggerated. We live in a globalised world of international capital where money washes around the globe as blips on computer screens by the nanosecond and the bulk of it always comes to rest in the pockets of the few who were, are and ever yet shall be wealthy. The institutions and operatives who manage this system are the architects of such fiendishly devious schemes to generate wealth that it is almost beyond the wit of a sane mind to comprehend. Assuredly they are beyond moral hazard since the enterprises they operate are deemed so essential that they cannot be permitted to fail and hence are beyond effective regulation or oversight. We call this system liberal capitalism and we know it has failed us. Yet we are asked to accept this liberal capitalism as the apotheosis of history, the dispensation towards which humanity has been making an inexorable march. The hope of the human future has therefore to be placed in the warped vessel of global capitalism in the unlikely eventuality that it will do what it says on the tin and somehow, no one knows how, turn into a self-regulating mechanism where hidden hands will make it all turn out for the best in the best of all possible worlds by essentially returning to the assumptions, predicates and procedures that delivered us into the maw of a global economic crisis in the first place.
If ever there were a time for critical free thinking it is now. Fortunately, cometh the hour cometh the book, the thought and ideas we all need to take seriously. I speak of the sensation of Amazon and the New York Times bestseller list Capital in the Twenty-first Century by the French economist Thomas Piketty. Piketty has built a cogent, reasoned argument that the present situation where wealth is concentrated in few hands is no aberration. The concentration of wealth to levels incompatible with democracy and social justice and the creation of levels of inequity that are unsustainable are automatic outcomes of capitalism, he argues. The book gathers the evidence that we are on an inexorable march which while it may include a rise in living standards – the supposed promised land – nevertheless does so in a context of increasing inequality. Wealth gathers to itself disproportionate accumulations of more wealth.
Conventional theory holds that while the early stages of industrialisation were fraught with inequality this lessened with the advance of industrial society. The proof offered is to point to the post World War II era characterised by the expansion of the middle class, state funded social provision and high taxation of the wealthiest. Indeed there was a fashionable export of this supposed commonplace. It was the underpinning of the economic miracle said to be taking place in East and Southeast Asia. The various ferocious beasts that became the epithets for the various economies all managed to work best and produce the most marked results through their more marked equality of wealth. A few decades on and the shallowness of this view is clear to see. High performing economies in rapidly developing countries materialised not through the prudential application of economic theory but because each of the countries concerned was of special interest to the Western powers in their battle with communism and therefore received high levels of aid and investment. While there might have been growing equality once upon a time, the long term effect of the excursion with capitalism has produced enormous wealth concentrated in few hands which will ramify burgeoning inequality down the generations. Croney capitalism of the Asian kind is the self-selecting elitist handmaid of global capitalism with all its attendant features. What once looked like a possible alternative has become a case of the same old same old that afflicts western nations.
Piketty is able to demonstrate that many of the shibboleths of what economics calls theory are either barely defined or demonstrably false. The Kuznets Curve, generally accepted within the realms of academe, supposedly shows the inequalities at the outset of industrialisation flattening as economies mature. Piketty has gathered the evidence to show the curve goes in the opposite direction taking the global economy back to the gross inequalities with which we began the failed adventure of industrialism. There is a central myth to capitalism which is wielded as its shield or moral armour by politicians, theorists and thinkers of many stripes. The myth is that wealth is the outcome of effort, ingenuity, hard work, wise investment and risk taking. Sadly, this is the conjuror’s illusion dangled before the gullible audience of the populace. In contemporary times one stands a better chance of getting some purchase on wealth by becoming a footballer’s WAG (Wives And Girlfriends), as so many young girls apparently aspire to be, or rock superstar. Provided they have the suitable hedge fund manager not of the Bernie Madoff variety then their wealth can grow down the generations in an environment where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth. Under such conditions, inevitably, inherited wealth always outstrips earned wealth. Today’s nest egg becomes the growing trust fund of future generations for only the few who are or are gradually inducted into the ranks of the super rich.
It is no secret to the general public how this depressing state of affairs keeps on proliferating inequality. It happens by the co-option of the managerial class that can succeed in paying itself ever increasing salaries boosted by perks irrespective of its productivity, the stagnation or even the obvious failure of the enterprises they manage. It’s the bankers’ bonuses and eye watering stock options on top of huge basic salaries of the fat cat section of the economy.
The basic proposition of economics is that human beings are selfishly self interested and when they act on these instincts they create perfect markets where the rational choices of individuals as buyers and sellers will equalise fair outcomes. The right goods will be made available at the right price and supply and demand will even make sure the workers get a fair wage. In other words economics is based on a set of idealised assumptions which made sense to those who devised them, way back in other times, as means of answering the questions that interested them. Today, critical free thinking finds them wanting and hardly satisfactory as a basis for devising policy to right all the imperfections which distort society and burden it with increasing inequity that makes a nonsense of social justice and eunuchs of the power of the people as the supposed basis of democracy.
Piketty is clear that the problem of wealth and income, concepts to which he has given free thought and careful definition, can be addressed. His remedy is 15 per cent tax on capital, 80 per cent tax on high incomes, enforced transparency for all bank transactions and the use of inflation to distribute wealth downwards. In other words he is suggesting the turkeys vote for Christmas. Even Piketty describes some of his solutions as ‘utopian’.
And there dear reader we meet the problem with free thinking. It is the essential critical tool to gain insight into what we do not know yet urgently need to know. Free thinking is dangerous because it unmasks the imperfections in our world, the assumptions that have installed themselves in power and pervert and divert the course of justice, equity and full equal representation for all. The most dangerous thing about free thinking is when it proves reason is powerless and impotent to effect moral change, and adherence to ethical norms that would distribute justice with equity and enable the people to determine their fate is irrelevant in the status quo.
The final and most dangerous stage of free thinking is finding effective, peaceful means to change the equation of powerless impotence that envelops the world today for a reasoned programme of competent reform. Thinking of that order would be sane and good. The dangers inherent in not thinking freely and leaving things as they are should be enough to stir anyone’s critical juices.