30 May 2010
The rise, and now fall, of David Laws genuinely merits the over-used journalistic adjective meteoric. The man had moved from relative obscurity to the position of Lord High Executioner in a matter of weeks. His story seems to have the mark of a mystery play; his character is the rational economic man.
In the past month, much has been made of David Laws's double-first in economics from Cambridge. This has been touted as a reassuring indication of brilliance: here is a man who understands the workings of the market and can therefore save us from our financial travails. His rise to prominence in the Liberal Democrats was the result of his persuading them to leave behind their days of beards-and-sandals economics and wholeheartedly embrace the market, through the publication of the Orange Book.
I always ask my students why they chose to study economics. Over the years I have found that they are often vulnerable, shy, and socially dislocated. In the iron laws of the market they find a sense of security. Learning to read the movement of finance markets or the mathematical formulae of a regression equation brings power to those who have often felt powerless. In the rational economic man they see an icon to aspire to: a role model of elegance and control.
The ecofeminists detest the rational economic man. As Mary Mellor writes:
'Economic man is fit, mobile, able-bodied, unencumbered by domestic or other responsibilities. The goods he consumes appear to him as finished products or services and disappear from his view on disposal or dismissal. He has no responsibility for the life-cycle of those goods or services any more than he questions the source of the air he breathes or the disposal of his excreta.'
Rational economic man is ashamed of his own embarrassing body, his sexual idiosyncrasies, his dependence on women, his need for rest and sleep. These are interpreted as weakness, rather than humanity, and must be hidden ever deeper within a shaved and moisturised skin, a sharp and expensive suit. Once they are revealed he has become, in the words of today's headline, 'a broken man'.
Yet it is this very dislocation of our identity from our physical existence that is writ large in the way our economy is dislocated from nature. As we hide our weakness and our illnesses, so we deny the planet's need for rest. The superficial manifestation of the late-capitalist world is impressive, but behind the facade the earth itself, and the indigenous peoples who still live close to it, are slowly dying.
The loss of David Laws from the Treasury is a mixed blessing. His competence in understanding the crisis we are in was a counterbalance to the crass ignorance of Boy George, although both, as wealthy men, have faced a problem of credibility when trying to persuade us to live on less. Did he make a rational choice to deny his need for love, to conceal his lover, to deceive the world about the sexuality that made him ashamed? The door has been left open for him to return, but before he does, in the style of a true mystery play, he must learn the lessons of his own humanity, and the greater wisdom that the earth teaches. Tweet