Defending the right to mock JM Keynes
Why on earth is historian Niall Ferguson being dragged over the coals for having a pop at a dead economist?
I’ll tell you what is really shocking about Niall Ferguson, Harvard professor of history, author of countless forgettable books, and sometime man-ont’-telly. It’s that so many insist on considering him some sort of towering intellect, be it Time magazine, which put him in its ‘top 100 most influential people in the world today’, or Prospect, which did something similar in terms of global thinkers. If ever there was an indictment of the contemporary world of thought, it’s that: the thoughtless elevation of this spectacularly vain shock-jockademic.
But I’ll also tell you what’s not shocking: Ferguson’s less than admirable view of prominent twentieth-century economist, and famed Bloomsbury Groupie, John Maynard Keynes. Yet that is precisely what twisted quite a few right-thinking knickers over the weekend and even prompted an ‘unqualified apology’ from the not-so-great man himself.
Ferguson, you see, was doing a gig for a 500-strong audience of financiers and investors at Altegris, a California-based corporate shindig. Asked during the Q&A about Keynes’ thoughts on economic self-interest versus Edmund Burke’s notion of a generational contract, Ferguson explained that Keynes, who advocated high state expenditure, had little interest in how present economic actions affect future generations because he did not have any kids. Keynes, Ferguson continued, ‘was a homosexual and was married to a ballerina, with whom he likely talked of “poetry” rather than procreated’. So ‘it’s only logical that Keynes would take [the] selfish worldview because he was an “effete” member of society’. While the live audience was reportedly silent, the eagerly offended, sensing more than a whiff of something anti-gay, were soon, well, eagerly offended.
‘His remarks are what we might expect from a pub bigot, not from a Harvard history professor’, complained civil-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. ‘This takes gay-bashing to new heights’, complained another commentator. ‘It even perversely pins the full weight of the financial crisis on the gay community and the barren.’ Stonewall chief Ben Summerskill, who went to Twitter war against Ferguson, even suggested that Ferguson may have given homosexual students lower grades because of their homosexuality: ‘Who will ever know how many gay students @nfergus@stanford have been marked down in exams or theses because their worldview was wrong?’, he tweeted to one of Ferguson’s employers.
The implication of such outrage is clear. Ferguson was not expressing a legitimate view of Keynes; he was expressing anti-gay sentiment and ‘bigotry’. And he has probably carried that discrimination into the seminar room, too, implies Summerskill.
Yet what is perplexing about this eruption of disingenuous outrage is that Ferguson’s contention – that Keynes’ homosexuality/childlessness informed his thinking about economics – is actually a perfectly typical and acceptable intellectual move. Yes, it reduces a thinker’s thought to his life, his work to his biography, but how unusual is that? After all, how many critics have sought to explain Samuel Coleridge’s poetry in terms of his opium addiction, or the works of Keynes’ associate Virginia Woolf in terms of her lesbian flings. In fact, it’s fair to say that countless interpretations of writers and thinkers routinely seek to reduce text and thought to any number of other determinants, from pseudo-Freudian complexes to economic forces. Why should Ferguson be singled out for reducing some of Keynes’ economic views to his sexuality and childlessness?
Then, of course, there’s the irony of Ferguson’s critics’ attempt to damn him using precisely this reductionist trick: that is, condemning his views on Keynes on the basis of Ferguson’s own anti-gay prejudice. So let’s stop with the ‘you can’t say that’ double standards. Ferguson should be free to be as crudely biographically reductionist as so many of his contemporaries, without fear of employer-contacting censure. Criticise Ferguson’s thinking by all means – it won’t take long – but don’t pathologise and persecute the man.
Yet what is perhaps more interesting than this chattering-class contretemps is that the substance of Ferguson’s argument – that a selfish, spend-now sentiment comes at the cost of future generations’ economic happiness – is so thoroughly conventional. Indeed, to insist that ‘excessive public debts are a symptom of the breakdown of the social contract between the generations’, as Ferguson does in his new book, The Great Degeneration, is not to dissent from acceptable dinner-party opinion; rather, it is to conform to it. Hence it bears a striking resemblance to the views of the numerous generational jihadists, who blame our current economic problems on the selfishness of the ‘baby boom’ generation.
Perhaps that is why Ferguson’s comments prompted such outrage: too many of Ferguson’s would-be critics, certain but without knowing why, that Ferguson is right-wing, neocon poison, actually agree with the ‘think of the children’ substance of Ferguson’s argument. As a result, they are driven instead to focus not on the miserable substance of Ferguson’s remarks, but on a few knockabout, glib comments about Keynes’ preference for poetry and effete posturing over procreation and swearing. It’s the ideological proximity of Ferguson that riles his opponents, not his ideological difference.
However, there is one issue on which I do agree with Ferguson’s critics: Keynes was very interested in future generations. In 1911, he even founded the Cambridge Eugenics Society. Now there’s a biographical aspect that is of potential intellectual significance.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.