Reality as a social construct


I have always been taken by explanations of how society works. Perhaps the ultimate expression of that is indeed that reality is a social construction.

The first comprehensive theory that I was taught was Keynesian economics. After many lessons of preparation, we ultimately learned the truth - that full employment was in the gift of government. We learned about the bad old pre-war (World War 2) days when the wicked UK government stuck to the 'piece of cake' theory, that if you (maybe as a poor person in need) got more, a larger piece of cake, then someone else had to accept a smaller piece of cake, for the cake itself was of fixed size. This pernicious untruth was blown away by Roosevelt's New Deal in the US in the 1930's, and what the Americans did was an example of how you could make the cake itself bigger so that everyone could have more! So after World War 2 the people would only accept a full employment economy directed by Keynesian economic policy which said that we could all have a bigger piece of cake year on year. We did very complicated sums for Economics A Level, and could calculate down to the last pound, shilling, and penny, how much the government would have to inject into the economy if unemployment rose above an acceptable level, which was about 300,000. Roosevelt had initiated public works such as building bridges and tunnels in New York, La Guardia airport at NY, and the Hoover Dam project, and many other high-profile public works. This had cured unemployment at that time. Hitler did a similar thing in Germany, the most famous thing he did was to build the autobahn network, again with the result that unemployment dropped. The UK went for this after 1945, and when we did Economics A Level in 1969, we were certain that we could do the same sums the Treasury did and that validated the Keynesian model. This was a model that explained every macroeconomic fact and allowed us to believe that this full employment situation would go on for ever, it had been shown to us by our young, brilliant, Cambridge graduate Economics teacher. It was a wonderful way of explaining the world, and very clever to boot. It was a perfect system. Whoops!

In 1976 the UK went bankrupt and had to apply for an IMF bailout loan. One feature of Keynesian economics was that there was a trade-off known as the Phillips Curve, and this was proof that if you wanted to lower unemployment, you just had to induce a little inflation. Unemployment and inflation were opposites on the Phillips Curve, they were mutually exclusive. You could not have both at the same time. This had been proven to me by Mr Pinkney for my undiluted B grade at Economics A Level in 1969. A feature of the bankruptcy of 1976 was the presence of inflation and unemployment at the same time. I had been taught that this was impossible. Yet in 1976, unemployment went over 1 million for the first time since 1945, and inflation was roaring away at 25%. This perplexed me, and I was by 1976 fully ensconced in the psychiatric system and had no hope of getting academic discussion of why it should be that we had inflation and unemployment at the same time. I had been removed from the academic environment, there was no university within many miles of the asylum at Hellingly, I had no business at a university any longer, and to ask questions such as : why is there inflation and unemployment at the same time, why is the Phillips Curve no longer working, were not part of asylum life. No one had the slightest notion about such things. All that was important were the injections in the backside and the days packing soap into boxes at Industrial Therapy. Why ask me about economics, I'm a psychiatrist, how should I know? Well if he doesn't know, I certainly don't, I'm a nurse trained at Broadmoor and I like Teddy Boy dress hairstyles and rockabilly, come and get your backside injected, I can always call out the crash team.

So for me, my fortunes had tumbled along with the UK's national plight. Part of my drug taking at Reading University in 1970, 1971, and 1972 was because I had a large but inadequate sum of money as compensation for losing a leg in a road traffic accident. It was not enough to buy a nice detached house, such as I had helped to build for other people to live in, so that my father and uncle could drive around in new saloon cars and spent all day at the Black Boy pub in Sevenoaks. But the compensation money was enough to buy, several times, a pound weight of cannabis from drug dealers I had sought out in Croydon. I smoked the dope with other drop outs in terraced houses in Reading, on the University fringe. It was in my mind that as this money could not put me in my rightful place, in a detached house, it was fairly useless, so why not spend it on cannabis? I flirted with the idea of an anarchist commune, but got nowhere in that noble purpose and so the £2000 was frittered away, including on several pounds of Paki, Lebanese, and herbal cannabis. But I think equally important for me in those years was the belief I had got from A Level Economics, which was repeated and reinforced by the first year teaching at Reading University, which confirmed the Keynesian model. So I was confident in the reality of the full employment economy. I could just drop out, as I was doing, because whenever I wanted, I could drop back in again. Easy. Simple. The main criticism of a 'normal' or 'straight' life was that it was a 'drag'. So boring. But it will come to us all sooner or late. We'll have to get the hair cut, wear a suit, and be resigned to work where we would have to accept that salary and get the mortgage on the detached house and go through life accepting those promotions and pay rises. We might even get married. But at least we made a difference by smoking pot at university. Drop out and then drop back in again, at least Timothy Leary had been read and Jimmy Hendrix had been played on the stereo. I firmly believed there was nothing wrong in wasting my money on pot and dropping out, because we had the full employment economy, that was a permanent fact of life, and when I was ready I could use my soon to be obtained Politics degree. Or at the minimum, the proof that I was worthy of a good job just because I had gotten to university, this showed I was one of the top 5%, so anyone will employ me, regardless of the class of degree or the subject. Then 1974 happened. Then 1976. In 1974 I was admitted to Hellingly asylum for the first time, I had hit the skids. Then in 1976 the certainty I had in Keynesian economics and the great intellectual achievement that that was, dissipated. What was happening? My demise happened at the same time as the UK's economic demise. I had no-one to turn to and began 20 years as a revolving door patient, part mental ward resident, and part vagrant. My economic icon, the wonderful revelation of John Maynard Keynes' economic model, was no longer.

I clung to this confidence in the Keynesian model for many years. In the 1980's I got a job as a clerk in the City of London, and still held that unemployment was curable by government action. I had not found, anywhere, an explanation as to why we had unemployment and inflation at the same time. So although I was in that most Tory of working environments, the City, on election day 1983, I wore a bright red tie to work! This was because I believed unemployment was an evil, and that the 3 million we had out of work could be rectified if Mrs Thatcher stimulated the economy. No-one had told me any different. On election day 1983, I saw no other red ties. Everywhere was blue. In the evening I went for a drink near Eastcheap and someone challenged me on my red tie. I said: No, sir! I have my blue suit on, with a white shirt as well as my red tie. I’m being patriotic wearing red, white and blue. I got away with it. Later when I covered economics again in 1996 for my MA in Social and Public Policy, we learned the cobweb diagram. I had come across that briefly at Reading in 1970, but had not understood it, as it is quite complicated to construct and for me it is not intuitive. The upshot of the cobweb diagram shown at Brighton University in 1996 was that interest rates can be used to control inflation. This was now de rigueur. There was no explanation of how the Keynesian assumptions had been confounded in 1976 with the UK bankruptcy and IMF loan, just that now we do it this way. There was a clear asymmetry between the two views of economics. Hence when Gordon Brown became Chancellor with the Labour victory in 1997 – how welcomed was that, with the song ‘Things Can Only Get Better.’ So before Weapons of Mass Destruction, George Bush uttering ‘Yo! Blair’ calling Prime Minister Tony Blair to heel, and the rest of the downturn in that government, Gordon Brown gave us 10 years of low inflation, very important for people on low incomes. Money went further on the back of the operation of the cobweb diagram, and Gordon announced the ‘End of Boom and Bust.’ ( If only.) We just had new ways of doing things, and I still cannot say who has explained why the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment of Keynesian economics no longer worked, and how that is linked to market economics, New Labour and its affiliates, and their way of doing economics. When this scenario took hold during Mrs Thatcher’s day, we lost another Keynesian tenet. Under Keynesianism, provided the economy was in balance, provided leakages equalled inputs, things would be OK. Inputs were Government spending, Exports, and Investment; leakages were Taxation, Imports, and Savings. Provided aggregate inputs met aggregate leakages, the economy would be in balance and OK. Mrs Thatcher’s Chancellors, and also New Labour Chancellors, concentrated on balancing the government’s books, where the relationship between Taxation and Government expenditure was crucial as that affected Government borrowing. Aggregation of Inputs and Leakages no longer applied. Today in 2013 that post-Keynesian scenario of low inflation controlled by interest rates seems to have been superseded by other considerations, as interest rates remain low while inflation is relatively high, there is no attempt to stop inflation. I assume we have again moved on. A last observation is that we were taught in 1968 that interest rates were for ‘liquidity preference’. There was incentive for people to hold their cash as bank balances rather than notes as interest rates rose, and this was a side-show to the overall economic picture, not a major plank as interest rates are under the cobweb diagram.

Although it was intellectually satisfying to learn all the exact sums and the principles of the Keynesian model, it was proven to be an incorrect meta-analysis, or overview. I also was acquainted with the Marxist-Leninist ideology, and parts of that remain valid for me today in 2013. I am amazed by the correctness of Marx’s Communist Manifesto of the 1840’s. Some of his observations about the inevitability of crises in the capitalist world are so true – was that really written for 1848 or 2008? The main aspect of Marxism-Leninism that I find useful is the concept of alienation. This is where people are separated from the origin of their food and shelter, they lose touch with that reality. I suppose, instead of familiarity with nature and the elements, people live in a socially constructed world. This is the crux of alienation, the removal from the natural world and the way it supports us, and this removal process also involves exploitation. I think this is a true observation and I am a strong supporter of ‘eco-therapy’ and would be delighted if my social enterprise could improve the wellbeing of people by getting them close to nature. This can be done in some easy forms, for example taking people to an animal sanctuary, getting them to feed the chickens, collect the eggs, and then cook them. This would be a good project for me, or its vegetarian equivalent, or another hands-on demonstration of where food originates.

Marx’s and Lenin’s answer to alienation and its associated exploitation was the Communist revolution where the Party through the State would own the means of production, and this in turn would lead to the withering away of the state, and a socialist world where there was no economic exploitation. Personally I never really had the interest in the state, and would have liked to have gone directly for an anarchist commune where there could be self-sufficiency, if I had to nail my colours to the mast. This is however merely theoretical for me as I descended into drug induced psychosis when that time for a commune was ripe. There is no doubt also that many people will be extremely angry around acknowledging ideas such as alienation, for those ideas belong to the Communist camp – the camp of Stalin, the camp of Lenin’s persecution of kulak farmers, the camp of horrendous loss of life in famines and purges, the camp of the post-World War 2 suppression of opponents of the regime, the camp of the use of psychiatric hospitals to bend the minds of dissidents. This has a personal or family meaning for many people still alive in the old Eastern Bloc, who had fathers, daughters, husbands sent off to labour camps, some never to return. This often occurred after previous years of suppression and hardship under the Nazis. So not everyone is willing to look at the intellectual concept of being removed from the origin of our food and shelter, and wellbeing benefits from renewing those links, because that is derived from hated totalitarian Communist dogma.

I covered aspects of Communism in a course for the Open University in the early 1990’s. This is where I first encountered the term ‘paradigm’, which I learned is pronounced ‘parra-dime.’ I understand paradigm to be interchangeable with model, and paradigm I understand also applies to those verb and noun declensions that were taught in schoolboy Latin classes. The OU looked at neo-Marxist paradigms (neo being ‘new’). One paradigm was proposed by a writer called Wallerstein, and divided the world into three types of state: core, semi-periphery, and periphery. The proposition was that wealth was transferred from the periphery to the semi-periphery, and then from the semi-periphery to the core. Thus the poor countries of the world were kept poor, and the rich core states maintained their hegemony or dominance. This was a bit like the concept of surplus value which Marx wrote on. Surplus value is the value created by workers over and above the socially necessary goods produced, and is creamed off by the evil capitalists. As well as working for their wage, the proletariat carry on working to give a surplus value to the owner of the means of production, hence this is exploitation. Wallerstein proposed that there is a similar movement of value from poor areas of the globe to rich areas. I did a case study at an Open University summer school at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and found that for Ethiopia, their products of pulses (peas and beans etc) and animal skins did indeed follow this pattern. I found that over a period of a number of years, the amount of produce had increased but the financial return they got from Western markets actually decreased, so in part confirming Wallerstein’s neo-Marxist paradigm. This was for me not as fertile an area of theory as original Marxism-Leninism, yet was technically provable. Nothing had as yet been put to me in the startling detail in which we were taught Keynesian demand management at Sidcup Grammar in the late 1960’s.

This last appreciation of various paradigms was a step on the road to getting my brain back. The thought processes were stimulated by the propositions of the OU for my Honours degree in the early 1990’s, and by the new economic status quo described for my MA in the mid years of the 90’s. Recently I have been engaged by the idea of a social construct of reality. This has come about through my reading of books by Peter Chadwick (Schizophrenia: The Positive Perspective) and by Gordon McManus and Jerome Carson (From Communism to Schizophrenia and Beyond). Much of what I have retained over the years relates to a social construct. Keynesian economics is indeed a social construct. Marxism-Leninism is a social construct, as are its offshoots including Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory. In many ways I have felt at times that my life mirrors the prevailing social construct. So when the UK went bankrupt in 1976, this had meaning for me, that most people would not get from reading the papers, with headlines about the price of potatoes doubling, and so on. For me the meaning was that the essence of what I had been taught about economics had dissipated. At the same time I went from promising undergraduate at a good university to impoverished clerk driving old bangers to work in nowhere backwater places like Edenbridge, East Grinstead and Tunbridge Wells, living in council psychiatric hostels or B&B’s in the middle of some field with no heating in the winter. I still cling to the validity of the notion of alienation. I don’t hold that the concept of alienated labour is a reason to submit to the Communist party in pursuit of violent revolution. But I do appreciate the value of that analysis. If alienation means being separated from the origins of our food and shelter, that has meaning for me. For example: why should I have wanted to work on my family building sites as a labourer? Why did I want to unload bricks, mix concrete, paint fences, emulsion walls, and insulate lofts for other people to live in luxury four bedroom houses? What was the point for me? I have never lived in one of those houses, indeed I have actually slept in bus shelters for five years. This was exploitation which enabled my father and uncle to drive around in new Citroen and BMW saloons, and indeed for them to have lived for decades in four bedroom detached houses. I was truly separated from where my shelter came from in helping to provide luxury living for strangers in Sevenoaks, Chislehurst and elsewhere, and this surely did involve exploitation. This for me as the oldest son of the family, as well as for the good hardworking men I have met on sites and since. They have helped to build a life of luxury for people they have no relationship with – not even a thank you passes from the owner-occupier to the workers. It goes without saying that none of the considerable resources from the family firm were used to help me in my descent into mental illness and asylum life, in fact that life for me in the NHS was a cheap disposal courtesy of the state to absolve the family from responsibility. Another social construct, this one for me personally perniciously devastating, to go alongside the other models and paradigms imparted through the A Level system, university seminars, self-directed reading, the BBC and other ‘serious’ media.