The collapse of common sense

After 2007, the common sense that had governed our understanding of politics and the economy dissolved.

    The collapse of common sense
    Former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke statements in 2007 demonstrate how the government was comically unprepared for the onset of the financial crisis [REUTERS]

    London, United Kingdom - The common sense that governed us for a generation has collapsed. We are living in revolutionary times, whether we like it or not.

    Common sense is the sum of what we don't have to demonstrate or prove, of what we can take for granted. Two plus two equals four. Water is wet. The earth orbits the sun. Common sense appears to us as timeless and uncontroversial. Common sense is what we have agreed on; It marks the limits of acceptable controversy. It is where we live.

    Although common sense is meant to be timeless, it keeps changing. Everyone knows that the sun is the centre of the solar system and always has been. But only a few centuries ago that idea was dangerously controversial. Proverbs preserve, as if in amber, commonsensical claims that have long vanished from the culture at large. "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was once a self-evident principle in English childcare. An old French saying had it that "as long as a man has good sense, he must confess that there is a God". There are plenty now who would noisily assert the contrary.

    In the second half of the eighteenth century it was still commonsensical to believe that societies without kings would descend into lawless chaos. Tom Paine set out to destroy that notion in February 1776. The success of his pamphlet Common Sense helped prepare the American colonies for the Declaration of Independence in July of the same year. Changes to the constitution of common sense are necessary prequels to changes in the organisation of society. Nothing can be swept away while most consider it inevitable or natural, but nothing can long survive if it is thought absurd.

    Every age has acted as though what it happened to believe was a perfect reflection of reality, and every age has believed things that later proved incorrect. We have been no different. Our common sense has been the usual mixture of things that are obviously true and things that look obviously true until they look laughably false. In 2007 the common sense that had governed our understanding of politics and the economy for a generation began to fall apart.

    We had been told that financial institutions worked best when they were left to regulate themselves. We had been told that the fabulous rewards enjoyed by a few were a fair reflection of their energy and talent. In the course of a little more than a year we discovered that, in fact, unregulated banks take risks that put the global economy itself in danger, and that the salaries and bonuses of bankers reflected nothing but their recklessness and greed.

    By the time disaster stuck the governing establishment was almost comically unprepared. In May 2005, Tim Geithner, the man who would become Obama's Treasury Secretary, assured us that there was "no sign of a large, macroeconomic shock on the horizon". In 2007 the current Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, told Congress that the problems in the so-called sub-prime mortgage market weren't "a broad financial concern or a major factor in assessing the course of the economy". Only a few months later, bad debts in this precise sector triggered a financial crisis that in turn derailed the wider economy.

    We are still trying to come to terms with the scale of the collapse and the damage it did to the credibility of the experts who ran things. Almost everyone in a position of power and prestige was profoundly wrong about almost everything that mattered.

    Since then public life has carried on in much the same way. The same people that led us into disaster are still in charge of economic policy. The same people that cheered them on still offer their expertise on television and the radio. Politicians and commentators use their considerable powers of persuasion to assure us that no one could have known. Governments still prop up banks and watch impassively while they pay themselves generous bonuses with public money. Everyone acts though their astonishing failure is nothing of the sort, and hope that we don't notice.

    It is a masterful performance, but it is no more than that. People know that the old common sense has broken down. We are starting to realise that we can't leave the rich and the powerful to cobble together a new one. The occupations and assemblies of last year were the beginning of an attempt to discover the world after long years of enchantment.

    They were only the first skirmish in a much longer struggle to reform our societies. If we are to succeed, we have a great deal to learn from those occupations. Only free speech between equals can discover a common sense worthy of the name. It is the only means by which we can unmask the expert who serves wealth rather than reason, the only way to silence the uproar of money.

    In 1776 Paine's appeal to common sense helped put an end to British rule in the American colonies. He was able to show the Americans what they already knew, that living as the defenceless subjects of a distant king was as intolerable as it was absurd. We already know that finance has become a tyrant and expertise has become a swindle. Perhaps this year we will declare our independence from them both.

    Dan Hind is a journalist and publisher. He is the author of The Threat to Reason and The Return of the Public. Common Sense: Occupation, Assembly, and the Future of Liberty is published online on March 20.

    Follow him on Twitter: @danhind

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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