Niall Ferguson does a Romney

Keynes did not provoke the crisis we are living in – unchained capitalist speculation did, writes Barcia.

Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson has been relentless in blaming government intervention for the hard times we are living in [AP]

Over the past few years as gays, lesbians and transsexuals made social gains across the world, they have found themselves at the end of all sorts of accusations from those who see these advances as a threat to their precious status quo. They have been blamed for earthquakes, hurricanes and terrorist attacks. Now, in a very subtle way, the responsibility for the current economic crisis has been blamed on one of them, the famous and well-respected 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes. 

This time, however, the gay bashing did not come from some religious extremist in the American Midwest or Indonesia, but from Professor Niall Ferguson, a well-known British historian who plies his trade at Harvard University. 

For the sake of disclosure, I have to admit that since I first read Ferguson’s work back in the 1990s when I was doing my BA in history at the University of Havana, I have rarely agreed with any of his theses. I have disagreed profoundly with his apologetic studies of emergent imperialisms and, even more, with his opinions about the reasons leading to the crisis we have been plunged into since 2007. Nonetheless, I had respected him as a fellow historian. Now I don’t any more. 

I cannot respect his “off-the-cuff” remarks blaming Keynes and his sexual orientation for the current economic crisis. I cannot respect either his spurious attempt to backtracking, which seems more of a damage limitation PR exercise than a truly felt explanation. I am not saying that he is not sorry for what he said; only that he has failed to convince many, including me, that he really is. 

Romney’s 47 percent all over again 

Let us examine the facts. Ferguson’s remarks were made to a crowd of financial investors and advisers, during a Q&A session that apparently followed a lecture. As soon as I read about his blunder, I could not help but remember Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remarks made in front of a group of campaign contributors during the US presidential campaign last year. 

In both cases, they said things that they probably should have kept for themselves, and in both cases abundant apologies ensued. Following his blunder and in what was the mother of all PR exercises, Romney admitted to having been “completely wrong” when he de facto dismissed almost half of the American population as people whose votes were not worth pursuing. 

Now Ferguson, who coincidentally was one of the main supporters of Romney, has done something similar by profusely apologising and admitting that his comments were “doubly stupid”. 

Well, forgive me if I don’t believe either of them. 

Both were addressing crowds of wealthy investors/donors. Maybe this is the sort of audience that brings out the honest bits out of them. Maybe, just maybe, they feel so much at home among these speculators and bankers that they open up to them, overlooking the fact that someone may be recording or filming them. 

When Ferguson justifies his gaffe as being the result of an off-the-cuff answer, he almost mimicked Romney, who put the blame on the “hundreds if not thousands of speeches and question and answer sessions” that he had to endure during his presidential campaign. Both excuses if anything only made things worse. 

Basically, all Ferguson and Romney were suggesting, even if they do not realise it themselves, is that they are too clever to tell what they probably really think in a written speech, and that spontaneity is to blame. 

Romney’s promises on economy worry some

Let us not fool ourselves. If one does not believe that Keynes’ sexual orientation had anything to do with the current crisis, one would never moot the idea, in public or even inside one’s head that he did. Besides, this is not the first time that Ferguson links Keynes homosexuality with his economic decisions. Back in April 1995, he did so in an article for the Spectator entitled “Let Germany keep its Nerve”. 

Equally, in Romney’s case, if one would not feel a millionaire’s disdain for the working classes, one would never have the treacherous campaign-ending thought that they contribute nothing to the American economy or that they are tax-dodgers, and therefore their votes are not worth pursuing. After all, only months before this blunder he had admitted in public that he was “not concerned about the very poor”. 

They might be or not, but these conflictive statements seem to me nothing but rare bouts of honesty by people whose main objective in life is to validate an ongoing process of exploitation by which big corporations profit from the hard work of men and women day after day across the world. 

After all, both Ferguson and Romney are mouthpieces for some of these corporations and hedge funds. Not surprisingly, I must say, they have consistently failed to question a business environment where accountability and transparency are sacrificed on the altar of the god Money, and where corruption accusations are every day nuisances that can be solved with high-fee armies of lawyers and some more corruption. 

Keynes and the future 

Ferguson’s take on Keynes is all the more problematic because here is a man who has unswervingly taken the side of those who speculate with the markets and who have started the wars that emptied the coffers of the American and British states. 

Ferguson has been relentless in blaming government intervention for the hard times we are living in. Only recently and still full of admiration, he claimed that Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation policies were one of the many right things she did to the British economy. Obviously, Ferguson lives in the US and not in the UK, and does not have to contend with railway, electricity and gas services, among others, which are well below the standards, not to mention more expensive, than those government-owned in mainland Europe. 

Whenever he has a pop at Obama, Clinton or any US democrat politician, he conveniently decides to ignore the fact that when Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000 the US Treasury was in a very healthy state. Even if we were to accept that the early signs of a slow-down were over the horizon, that would only add to the fact that the Republicans’ decision of going to two wars, one of them illegal, left America weaker, and probably did more than any other single event to precipitate the crisis. 

Keynes did not provoke the crisis we are living in. Unchained capitalist speculation did. More to the point, Keynes’ sexual orientation had nothing to do with his understanding of the economy. Had Ferguson taken his time to read Keynes’ essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, written in 1930, he would have steered clear of suggesting something so outlandish and cruel – and I say cruel, because Keynes has been long dead and cannot defend himself or sue Ferguson for libel. 

As Ferguson himself recognised in his dull apology, Keynes did care about the future and at a more personal level, he did try to have children, only that he could not. Contrary to his simplistic and ill-advised opinion, Keynes’ relationship with his wife Lydia Lopokova was not sexless, as Lopokova’s biographer Judith Mackrell has just revealed in unequivocal terms

The question that led to Ferguson’s answer, almost certainly coming from one of the many anti-government capitalists that abound among bankers and investors that make money without producing anything for the rest of us, should serve as a clue. A clue as to why Keynes continues to serve as a soft target for those who see his ideas as an obstacle to becoming rich, quick and fast. And Ferguson’s response was yet another attempt to discredit how Keynes’ ideas address the current crisis. 

Probably, Ferguson will never fall into this trap again. Probably, he will mind his off-the-cuff answers more now as Romney has done. A shame because with their renouncement to spontaneity we will only be able to access the official, revised script that is politically and socially correct, and not what lies beneath. On the other hand, at least Keynes and whatever he wanted to do with his body probably will not be again a scapegoat for the social, political and economic problems created by those who are so ready to condemn him.

Dr Manuel Barcia is Deputy Director at the Institute for Colonial and Postcolonial Studies at the University of Leeds.

Follow him on Twitter: @mbarcia24

You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets