Economists and other prophets

George Orwell 1984It hasn't been a good millennium for prophets.

In ancient times seers and diviners of one kind and another had the ear of the populace whom they awed, mystified, incited or simply scared the pants off. All kinds of 'evidence' was called upon by these negotiators with the fates to justify their prognostications.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, warned against being too adventurous on the ides of March, seeks an opinion from his augurers. They slaughter a beast — as you do — and examine its innards. This process, known as haruspication, leads them to conclude Caesar should 'not ... stir forth to-day/Plucking the entrails of an offering forth/They could not find a heart within the beast.' Bad news.

Even worse comes from his wife, Calphurnia, who reports that overnight 'A lioness hath whelped in the streets/And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead.'

Caesar has already been warned by a soothsayer to 'Beware the ides of March' and when, on the very day, he encounters this gloomy fellow on the steps of the Capitol, he rather smugly points out, 'The ides of March are come', to which the soothsayer, with the eerie prescience and mordant wit common to his kind, replies, 'Aye, Caesar, but not gone.'

Meanwhile, Cassius is persuading Brutus of exactly the opposite. To hell with all the signs: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves that we are underlings.'

Shakespeare, as we know, played pretty fast and loose with myth and legend, but his portrait of your better class of superstitious Roman is persuasive. Caesar was mad not to be influenced by such explicit omens,

Explicitness, however, is what subsequent prophets lacked. 'The young red black one will seize the hierarchy/The traitors will act on a day of drizzle,' warns Nostradamus, with what may be dire prediction or a weather forecast.

'Remember all ye that existence is pure joy; that all the sorrows are but as shadows ... but there is that which remains,' proclaims Aleister Crowley obscurely. A member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, he received in later life a mystical message called The Book of the Law and proclaimed a new and splendidly convenient principle for the whole of humankind: 'Do what thou wilt.'

Yorkshire's Mother Shipton, whose conception allegedly resulted from her mother's union with a demon, was more helpful when she predicted in 1641, 'Carriages without horses shall go/And accidents fill the world with woe' but, like her prophetic brethren, she was not immune to a touch of the vague apocalyptics: 'The time shall come when seas of blood/Shall mingle with a greater flood.'

Nearer our own time, Manning Clark detected a prophetic streak in Henry Lawson but perhaps the most interesting modern 'prophet' was George Orwell. Of his great novel, 1984, he said: 'I do not believe that the kind of society I describe necessarily will arrive, but I believe (allowing of course for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive.'

In the world of Airstrip One — the London of Orwell's year 1984 — the rewriting or large-scale falsification of history, the purging of political opponents, the possibility of controlling thought by reductive restructuring of language, the use of ruthlessly efficient secret police, the planting of spies and provocateurs among the ordinary populace, the enforcement of discipline and sacrifice by constant reference to a threatening enemy, the use of intrusive surveillance technology, all in one way or another eventuated in the eastern bloc between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

In Stasiland, Anna Funder's brilliant study of life behind the Wall in East Germany and especially in Erich Honecker's East Berlin, the plight Orwell imagines for his anti-hero Winston Smith is played out in real life. An imprisoned society spies endlessly on itself. Informers — some of them children — report meticulously not only on the affairs, words and ideas of people in ministries, politics, industry, education, and so on, but also on 'activities at kindergartens and dinner parties and sporting events across the nation'.

Orwell's vision in 1984 is detailed and explicit and so, unlike the oblique fantasies of earlier prophets, it is easy to assess if he was 'right' or 'wrong'. Stasiland shows him to have been uncannily accurate, even allowing for the profound gloom and pessimism that gripped him in the writing of that novel.

But the 21st century is surely the age and apotheosis of the prophet. Our prophets are called economists. They prophesy relentlessly and they are often — sometimes spectacularly — wrong. But like all of their kind over the centuries, they are unabashed by and unpunished for abject failures. They just pop up again from each new set of ruins, surprised yet unrepentant, princes of a plethora of evanescent predictions.

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place, The Temple Down the Road and Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: brian matthews, prophets, soothsayers, economists, Shakespeare, Julius Caeser, George Orwell



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Existing comments

Does "controlling thought by reductive restructuring of language" mean, like, replacing husbands and wives and de-factos of various sorts and permanences by 'partners', thus removing the institution of marriage from out thoughts and having it eventually fade into oblivion? I'm one who won't conform to that.

Gavan | 12 August 2009  

Let's beware of classifying economists, priests, politicians - or estate agents - as universally untrustworthy.

His life story shows that J.M.Keynes began as an old-fashioned economic conservative but was shocked into reality by the tragedy of the 1930s Depression. His new-found principles served us all well for some decades after World War Two. They were then nudged aside; and now - in troubled times -revived.

His lesser-known disciple, Joan Robinson, was even more insightful; but there's too little space to describe her realistic economics here. However, her 'Economic Philosophy' tells it all - the importance of economics and how it can be used for good or evil. And how the economic fashion at any one time is likely to support the interests of the currently rich and powerful.

Bob Corcoran | 13 August 2009  

Could we include climate "catastrophists" in this band of discredited yet persistent prophets?

Patrick James | 17 August 2009  

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