Morbid optimism, from the banks to the streets

Out amongst the usual street theater that follows a meeting of world economic powers like that held last week in London, the observer will behold a good sample of debased political idiom. The banners read like cant on stilts: “Abolish money” and “One currency, one government, one world” and “The government lies” and “Democracy is an illusion” and — my favorite — “No borders anywhere.” It is a peculiar amalgam of cynicism and Utopia, this idiom. The great reaction against a failed aspect of modern Capitalism shows at once a sneering mistrust, often bolstered by dreary conspiracism, and an almost innocent hope in drastic remedies. Somehow modern politics has managed to bring into alliance despair and idealism.

In a word, the reaction against Capitalism partakes of the selfsame disease as has recently been exposed in the Capitalism we knew. Both find their spring in morbid optimism. The young people who throng the streets of London denouncing Capitalism, no less than the young men who constructed the shadow banking system which has nearly ruined Capitalism, are exemplars of Chesterton’s morbid optimists.

Perhaps the only thing more morbidly optimistic than founding a system of finance on formulas assuming a never-ending rise in asset values, is presuming that it is possible to abolish money. The type of man who believes that “no borders anywhere” will produce anything but ruin and misery and chaos, is also the type of man who might build up an enormous portfolio of obligations based on the assumption that they will never, ever come due. These two may in most other particulars of class, dress, manner, etc., be very different from one another: but in their picture of how the world works, in their disposition toward reality, in their assumptions about the nature and destiny of man, they are very much alike. The boast of Utopia which lies behind placards in London is not so different from presumption behind the braggarts of the derivatives trade of London. There is very little, logically, to distinguish the fragile idealism of the man who said he would never lose a single dollar writing credit default swaps on exotic mortgage bonds, from the man who says we shall lose nothing by subsuming all the vast diversity of man and his works under one government and one currency.

Let us note that part of the reason the whole world in hurting now is precisely because, the US dollar being the global reserve currency, almost everyone was exposed to dollar-denominated recklessness and folly. Or again, in Europe, the monetary union has exposed the various regions to one another’s problems. Germany is vulnerable Eastern European debt. The UK was stricken by Irish turmoil. In other words, it is very far from obvious that “One currency” is something that any self-aware anti-globalization protestor should be preaching. Chances are “One currency, one government, one world” or “No borders anywhere” would mean the consummation and consolidation of the very thing he hates.

The morbidity of modern optimism lies in its divorce from transcendent hope. It has no anchor outside the capricious world. It is terribly subject to the vicissitudes of life and luck, and when it fails, those under its spell will often retreat into a sullen, lonely cynicism. We should not be surprised to see the placards proclaiming in one moment an extravagant, half-mad slogans, and in the next an all-encompassing, jaded bitterness and mistrust.