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Editorial - What then must we do?

Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England, kicked off a speech he gave earlier this year by stealing the words of the 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. (The speech is available here.  King turns the opening sentence of the latter novel to his own purposes, stating that, ‘all happy economies are alike; each unhappy economy is unhappy in its own way’. He then goes on to tell us what ‘happy’ economies look like: they ‘combine growth, stability of prices and of the financial system, fiscal sustainability, supply-side flexibility and low unemployment’. He leaves aside the puzzling coexistence of such blessed happiness with historically unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety and depression, and presses on instead to give some of the reasons for the present unhappiness.

One reason we might be feeling glum, speculates King, is that most of us are getting poorer. Real take-home pay has already fallen 12 percent and is likely to fall again in 2011 to 2005 levels. ‘One has to go back to the 1920s to find a time when real wages fell over a period of six years,’ says King. But this  ‘squeeze in living standards is the inevitable price to pay for the financial crisis and subsequent rebalancing of the world and UK economies’. Here King inadvertently invokes the ghost of another 19th century radical thinker, but does not mention this one’s name: it was Karl Marx who taught us that capitalism inevitably goes through periods of ‘rebalancing’ (i.e., of restoring profitability by destroying capital and devaluing labour), which inevitably leads to a squeeze in living standards (for the working class).

King concludes his speech with Tolstoy ‘s conclusion to Anna Karenina. This is that, despite life’s ups and downs, happiness is less important than trying to live in the right way.  King must have been smugly proud of his intellectual prowess, connecting something as dull as a long speech on inflation with the words of one of the world’s best loved novelists. But the result is revealed as putrid when you compare King’s intent with that of Tolstoy’s.

Tolstoy was disturbed and horrified by the high levels of poverty and misery in the towns of the Russia of his day, and turned his mind to identifying the cause of the misery in his book, “What Then Must We Do?” Tolstoy followed Jesus in arguing that the first thing rich men like himself (and Mervyn King) could do would be to ‘get off the backs of the poor’ by giving up their own wealth. King misses this advice.

Tolstoy recognized that even such grand gestures of charity would not make a dent in the problem, because the problem is rooted in the whole system of property ownership and money, backed up by the tyranny of the state machine, which Tolstoy said must all be abolished. King strangely missed these lessons too. Tolstoy was on the right lines because he had the courage and intellectual honesty to pursue social problems to the root, and to state his conclusions regardless of the harm it might do to his previously existing beliefs, or social status or wealth. That makes Tolstoy a truth-telling hero.

What it makes Mervyn King we leave our readers to decide for themselves.