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Sunday, 20 January 2019

Saints, 'Scholars' and Jacques Derrida

TL:DR Synopsis: Historians who haven’t read Derrida should STFU about Derrida 

I get increasingly worried about the comparative intellectual level of academic history. Partly it comes from seeing university history professors (professors, mind: not lecturers or readers) making the most unbelievably stupid comments about Brexit, on Facebook or elsewhere, or more generally just in the levels of critical sophistication in the arguments one sees published, or in the degree of intellectual ambition or reach. I have said before that I find academic history – in the UK at least – to be a very lazy, complacent discipline. US history seems to have different, existential, problems and challenges, but not ones that have produced better thought. 

One of the ways in which this is manifested is in some historians’ attitudes to supposedly ‘postmodern’ philosophy, attitudes which suggest that they think that the normal scholarly principles can be suspended when discussing it and, moreover, that this will somehow make the author appear clever or witty. 

Here is an example: 

‘We should not pretend that Jacques Derrida has revealed something radically new to us: that hagiography reproduces hagiography rather than some putative reality. Hippolyte Delehaye pointed this out in 1905 in his Legends of the Saints, although because he wrote in plain, comprehensible language, his message was perhaps not as clear as that of Derrida.’ (Patrick J. Geary, ‘Saints, scholars and society: the elusive goal’, in id., Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca NY, 1994), pp.7-29, at p.17) 

Take that, Derrida! Note also the barbed comment about Derrida’s language. This is the old Anglo-American trope of the French bullshitter with nothing new to say who only gets away with it because of his impenetrable prose. You can find that in too many flippant discussions to decide on a representative sample but look up Derrida in ‘Sir’ Anthony Kenney’s New History of Western Philosophy for a particularly shabby and libellous example. (1

I read Geary’s article in 1995 before I had read anything by JD and promptly forgot about it. Maybe I thought ‘ha ha! Good zinger there, Professor Geary!’ Who knows? The passage above has reappeared in my consciousness recently, however, quoted by another good historian whom I know and (at least currently) get on with: James T. Palmer, in his new Early Medieval Hagiography (? s’-Hertogenbosch: ARC Humanities Press, 2018, p.68), which is otherwise rather a useful little primer on the topic. Later in the same chapter, Palmer goes on (p.83): 

‘Postmodernism is not a licence to make everything up. Nevertheless, we are not far away from Derrida’s maxim ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ (there is no outside-text), a claim that reality and language never truly intersect. For many medievalists this is largely unproblematic because we know that we are locked into partial views of textual discourses with no possibility of external validation (subject to the invention of time travel, of course). Indeed we have already seen Geary’s dismissal of the idea that Derrida announced something new here, because Delehaye, Graus and many more had already explored issues about textuality and truth. Geary, building on thoughts by Gabrielle Spiegel, even wondered if manuscripts could help to supply something like the “outside-text” that would lead to a better appreciation of the social logic of the text.’ 

For me, this kind of thing is nowadays like a red to rag to a bull, not least because I should get out more. It’s pretty commonplace to misunderstand the arguments made by other people – indeed Derrida would have said, I imagine, that it’s pretty much inevitable. If I were to say that Patrick Geary or James Palmer had nothing new to say, because loads of people had said what they had to say before, and took a side-swipe at the clarity of their prose-style, people might say I was being a bit rude. If my statement represented an utterly bizarre misrepresentation of their arguments anyway, I would come in for more (justifiable) stick. If, however, it turned out that I had made those remarks without even having read Geary’s or Palmer’s works in the first place, then I’d really be ruled out of court. Yet, it appears that when it comes to continental philosophers, that kind of behaviour is accepted as fair play and even cheered heartily. 

I have said, for many years now, that the degree of venom spat at Derrida stands in inverse proportion to the familiarity of the writer with Derrida’s works. Indeed, if one reads Geary’s article, there is no sign from the footnotes or text that he had, at that stage at least, read anything at all by Derrida or that, if he had, he’d made much effort to understand it. What he had read, and what is cited in the passage quoted earlier, is Gabrielle Spiegel’s well-known article ‘History, historicism and the social logic of the text in the Middle Ages’ (Speculum, 1990: reprinted in ead. The Past as Text. The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, Baltimore, 1999). For many, perhaps most, medievalists, Spiegel’s widely-read and -cited article appears to have stood in for any first-hand acquaintance with Jacques Derrida’s writing. This is a shame because Spiegel misunderstood Derrida and deconstruction pretty badly (I will leave that for another time, perhaps). She had, however, at least read some of Derrida’s early works and made an effort to engage with his thought. 

Palmer has made the effort to look up the page reference for the phrase ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’, infamously mistranslated by Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak in the first edition of the English translation of De la grammatologie as ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (Chakravorty-Spivak possibly read the phrase as something like ‘il n’y-a pas dehors texte’ but who knows?). Palmer quotes the more correct translation: there is no outside-text. 

Neither Geary nor Palmer – manifestly – had/have the faintest idea of what Derrida was talking about, however, as is abundantly clear from their comments. Abundantly clear, that is, to anyone familiar with Derridian philosophy. The gamble in statements like theirs, though, is the fairly safe one that none of their medieval historian readers will be familiar with Derridian philosophy. It is a – not untypical – rhetorical ploy to suggest familiarity with ‘postmodern’ philosophy while simultaneously dismissing it, and thus staying securely and unthreateningly within the accepted, traditional historical paradigm and its attitude to ‘postmodernism’ (see also the misuse of Derrida’s term ‘deconstruction’).(2) That is to place a bet on what look like good, safe odds. It’s actually a high scholarly stake to gamble but normally it pays off. If it doesn’t, though, you run the risk of looking pretty foolish. 

Over the past decade or so, I have read quite a lot of Derrida’s writing, and exegesis of it. Indeed I was partly drawn to Derrida precisely by the venomous reaction any citation of his name appears to excite. If people hate him that much, he must have something important to say, thought I. Over the years it became clear to me that my hunch was exactly correct. What Derrida’s thought calls into question is the very project of modern, ‘rigorous’ Anglo-American ‘analytical’ philosophy. Indeed, in my opinion, he makes it fairly clear that that project, the whole search for logical truth, is entirely pointless. (3) No wonder that, even 14 years after his death from cancer, you can still find British philosophy professors deriding Derrida (pun intended) as a French fraud. 

Derrida had nothing to say about the things that Geary mentions. ‘Hagiography reproduces only hagiography’ has nothing to do with Derrida’s thought. Contra Palmer, Derrida’s thought is absolutely not about ‘textuality and truth’ in the sense that Delehaye, Graus and the rest were discussing it. There is almost no intersection between the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and those topics. Derrida didn’t say anything that Delehaye had said before, which is no slur on Delehaye. They were discussing quite different topics. 

So, what was Derrida on about? Let’s start with ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’ and work back. To understand that phrase you need to understand what Derrida meant by ‘texte’. One key point made in De la grammatologie, actually a pretty prescient point (as John D. Caputo says in his recent, excellent Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information (Penguin, 2018)), is that the fundamental characteristics of writing apply to all other means of the communication or recognition of information. The features that allow a written text to convey information regardless of the presence or absence of the initial writer or the intended recipient – the idea of iterability – underlie spoken language too. Indeed, they underpin any form of the conveyance of meaning. Once a signifier of any sort has become associated with a signified it can be repeated ad nauseam. This feature of iterability brings with it all the possibilities for the slippage of meaning when the sign is deployed in new, different contexts. The sign (of any sort) has meaning only because of its place in an endless chain, or infinite network, of relationship to and difference from other signs. Even on the very first time that a specific signifier is used to relate to a particular signified it has always already acquired the feature of iterability, the capacity not just to relate to that one thing but to any other instance of that thing, and to relate to it ironically or sarcastically, and its meaning is always already conveyed in part through its difference from other things. Thus – in time – you can never get back, however hard you try, to an ‘originary’ meaning where sign and referent are entirely co-extensive. Such meaning is perpetually deferred. And – in space – you can never leave the chain or network of differences. Even to imagine such a thing you have to move into the realm of theology: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God (John 1.1): ontotheology. This applies to speech, to writing, to pictorial representation, to mathematics, to basic cognition of the world around you. Nothing can be understood outside a network of presences and absences, beyond the play, or motion, of différance (Derrida’s neologism that conveys the combination of deferral and difference just alluded to). This was what Derrida meant when he talked about ‘texte’: the features of ‘text’ that in fact all cognition and communication are based upon. All transmission of information works using the structures and principles of writing, to describe which he coined another of his many neologisms: archi-écriture (a word that combines architecture and écriture – writing – and the word arche, meaning beginning or origin). All such systems work with ‘graphemes’, signifying-units subject to différance. 

So: there is no ‘outside-text’: no ‘neutral’ vantage-point, outwith archi-écriture, outside the features of writing and text, from which to assess absolute meaning; no point from which it would in any case be possible to convey absolute meaning, self-present to, co-extensive with, the means by which it was conveyed. If Hippolyte Delehaye or František Graus ever said anything even remotely like this I would be extremely glad of the reference as their significance within the history of continental philosophy has been entirely ignored! The other point to be made, is that the discussions of différance, texte and archi-écriture are the spring-board for, not the end-point of, Derrida’s thought about deconstruction. 

Is ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’, then, ‘a claim that reality and language never truly intersect’? Clearly not. It is a claim that, insofar as it is perceived and understood, reality is ‘text’. In the Venn diagram metaphor, the sets of ‘Derridian ‘text’’ and ‘perceived reality’ do not merely intersect; they are the same set. Anything outside those sets simply cannot be perceived, understood or represented; it’s equivalent to the Lacanian Real, the Kantian ‘Ding an sich’, the reason why Speculative Realism is speculative. Once something is perceived, understood and described, it becomes iterable, subject to the potential slippage that comes with différance, caught in the features of text and archi-écriture. 

None of that, you will note, has anything – at all – to do with text reproducing other text, or discourse staying within the bounds of discourse (that’s Foucault, not Derrida: the two were very different). Geary ought to read Derrida on ‘the law of genre’, in that regard.(4) Nor does any of it have anything to do with the problems involved in dealing with the partiality of our evidence or the dangers of reconstructing the past from partial evidence. The vantage point ‘outside text’ (hors du texte) or a means of expressing reality via a supposed hors-texte can hardly be equated to going back to ‘seeing it for yourself’ via time-travel (ho ho). That (sorry, James) is a simply absurd misrepresentation. Equally absurd is the idea that manuscripts would create an ‘hors-texte’ (to be fair to Geary, I can’t find any point in his article where he claims this). No one with any familiarity with Derrida would suppose that it could. The only way that you could recognise, extract and convey information about the past from manuscripts, whether in their contents or in their physical construction, or the statistical analysis of their distribution, production, etc., would be – inescapably – through ‘text’ in Derrida’s sense. The mistake here – on both Palmer’s and Geary’s parts – has been to wrongly assume that Derrida was talking about actual texts in the most narrow, scriptural sense. That is an error of the most egregious kind.(5) These representations of Derrida’s argument in De la grammatologie are unrecognisable. The usual ‘clever’ (with a big K) cop-out response is to say ‘ah, but if text is inherently slippery, isn’t my reading as valid as anyone else’s? Is the author not dead?’ To which the answer is, firstly, that the argument that the slipperiness of text makes interpretation a free-for-all is that of Paul de Man and the ‘Yale School’ of deconstruction, not Derrida’s. Derrida distanced himself from that use of his idea. He did that not least because Derridian deconstruction is based upon the most minute, careful close-reading of the authorial text. The ‘death of the author’ is Barthe’s idea, not Derrida’s, though clearly there are points of contact. Derridian deconstruction leaves the (apparent) authorial text and intended meaning in place; it just, additionally, points out the other readings and texts that inhere within it so that the intended meaning is not the only one. Alternative texts, though, are nevertheless produced via the act of close reading. You might want to argue that there are other conflicting texts within Derrida’s writing but you still have to leave the text and argument(6) as it is. That is why Derrida’s writing is as difficult as it is. He was, ironically, attempting to make his argument as clear as is possible within language. ‘Plain, comprehensible language’ – language, in other words, predicated on accepted style – is precisely the sort that renders itself open to the presence within it of other texts. 

It’s an indefensible, disgraceful way to handle a scholar’s work and Palmer and Geary should really be ashamed of themselves. Leaving out the comments discussed here would hardly have made any difference to their works, so why are they there? If they treated their medieval texts and the ideas expressed in them, or the works of their contemporaries or near contemporaries in the historical profession, in anything like the same way – and I am pretty sure that neither of them does – they would rightly be hounded out of the academy. If one handled, say, some of Augustine’s more recondite texts like this, on the assumption that it was a safe bet that none of your audience was familiar with them, and were found out, the consequences for one’s scholarly reputation would (or ought to) be serious to say the least. Treating philosophical in such cavalier fashion should be seen as equally poor scholarship. 

1: I have long thought it a sorry indication of the state of play in British philosophy that Derrida gets a fairer hearing in Bluff your Way in Philosophy than in Kenney’s New History

2: The best place to read this is, probably, in his responses to John Searle: Limited Inc. translated by A. Bass & S. Weber (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Pr., 2008). Charles Barbour (Derrida's Secret: Perjury, Testimony, Oath (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017)) describes Searle’s attempt to take on Derrida’s critique of Austin’s category of performatives as like taking a knife to a tank battle. A more balanced account can be found in Raoul Moati (trans. T. Attanucci & M. Chun), Derrida/Searle: Deconstruction and Ordinary Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) 

3: The outstanding example of this approach is Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History, which consistently sets itself up in opposition to continental philosophers like Derrida, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard, but without giving any indication, via footnotes or text, that the author had read anything at all by any of these writers. This is an irony in a book championing empirical research. The way in which ‘deconstruction’ has acquired a wholly different meaning from that which it was coined, by Derrida, to convey is an interesting ‘scholarly’ phenomenon in itself. Misusing the word to mean ‘critically taking apart’ allows the author to sound ‘philosophically’ or ‘theoretically’ sophisticated (note how French philosophers are so often called ‘theorists’, buying into the ‘analytical’ narrative that denies them even their status as philosophers) while doing nothing new at all. 

4: English translation in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge. (New York: Routledge, 2009). 

5: Palmer also says (Hagiography, p.78), ‘This leads us, directly or indirectly, of theorists such as Derrida and Foucault who encouraged such decentring – and who in the process encouraged greater attention to narrative’. Any ‘leading’ going on here would have to be extremely indirect. Again, the frequent pairing of Foucault and his student-friend-enemy-friend Derrida (in the terrifying two-headed beast Foucaultandderrida) is problematic. I am not sure what Derrida (or Foucault) said about the sort of de-centring going on in the paragraph from which I just quoted. The paragraph is more haunted by the works of Lyotard than by either Foucault or Derrida. Palmer moves seamlessly from the dreaded mythical two-headed French monster to that rather more domesticated animal, Hayden White. White, however, was entirely dismissive of Derrida, with whom, like so many others, he barely took the trouble to engage. 

6: I originally wrote ‘his text’, but Derrida was opposed to the idea of proprietary ‘ownership’ of texts – one reason he fell out with Chakravorty-Spivak and other Marxists (see also Searle and Limited Inc.). ‘Texts to which the name Jacques Derrida has been appended’ would have been his preferred circumlocution. I have left the phrase ‘Derrida’s writings’ (or ‘Derrida’s works’) elsewhere simply because it was too much like hard work to change them all.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

More Posts you might have missed on the other site

Here, in order from oldest to most recent are the not-exactly-numerous posts that have appeared on the other site in the past two and a half years, in case you have missed any.  'Missed' might, of course, not quite be the word...














It was nine years ago today...

Professor Grumpy taught the band to play.  Or rather that I began this blog.  It's become increasingly quiet over the past few years.  This is not because I consciously gave up on it.  I have many, many half-finished blog posts on my computer/s/iPad etc.  I did experiment with other forms of engagement - a Facebook Page and then a Group, neither of which turned out so well in that they brought the sorts of personal abuse that I can a: do without, and b: that I no longer have the resilience to deal with.  Partly it's been the result of a bit of a collapse in self-confidence, related to mental health issues (the old Black Dog) that have dogged me (no pun intended) for as long as I can remember but which have become quite acute since maybe 2013, especially since 2015.  I hope that such personal revelations don't make you uncomfortable, dear reader; I think it's important to be up-front about such things.  That said, I think I may be on the up again since then, not least owing to a change in my private life and a concrete 'exit strategy' with relation to academia and my 'career' and I have been meaning to start blogging more regularly again for some time.

Some of the issues with Blogger that led me effectively to close this version of the blog down and start a parallel version of the blog seem to have waned. This makes me want to start running this 'main site' properly again, not least because it is the one with almost of all of my blog followers, though I might keep them both going in tandem.

I also had an interesting conversation about turning some of the blog posts into a book.  Whether or not anything comes of that remains to be seen but it is (for me) an exciting idea.

Anyway, to those who still visit this page, thanks for bearing with me.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Monday, 8 August 2016

Dead Blog?

Because of serial spam attacks which the Blogger platform seems unable to deal with (yes - people warned me about Blogger), I have moved the blog elsewhere albeit still on Blogger - edgyhistorian[dot]blogspot[dot]com -where you will be able to find all the posts and comments here with the 600transfomer.blogspot.com address (substitute that bit for the new one and you'll get there) as well as posts made after the start of June 2016.  People who have kindly followed this blog may wish to add the new address to your followed blogs list.  Similarly, those bloggers who have kindly listed this one in their side-bars might wish to update their blog-rolls.

I did think of simply deleting this version but - gratifyingly - people have cited it, sometimes (thanks, James Palmer!) in published books, so I wanted to ensure that those links would still work.


Prof. Grumpy.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Philip Green: The insanity of neo-liberalism

‘Sir’ Philip Green, eh?  What a guy.  Knighted by Blair, a government advisor to Cameron.  Now his business ‘skills’ have led to the collapse of the 90-year-old BHS business, the loss of 11,000 jobs and the collapse of the company pension fund that he raided.  He is a fine example of unfettered neo-liberal capitalism.

In 2005, Green paid himself nearly £1.2bn. The figure I have seen is £1.17bn. Let us think a little about that. £1,170,000,000. That is £3,205,479.45 a day (that 45p matters; an extra £164 a year would make a big difference to a lot of people).  The UK average wage is about £26,000 per an. Put another way, on every single day of 2005, ‘Sir’ Philip Green earned 123 times what the average UK wage-earner makes in a year. Every single day. In the year, he earned, in that payment alone, for I dare say he had other sources of income, the equivalent of what just shy of 45,000 (that’s forty-five thousand – the population of a small town or the average gate at, say, Old Trafford) average wage-earners made.

I’m not arguing that everyone only deserves the same pay or that no one should be allowed theirfinancial success or to earn great wealth. I have no particular objection to people being millionaires or even multimillionaires. But … £3million a day? Let's just let that sink in and – more than that – think how utterly pointless that amount of money is in one person's off-shore bank account, or even in one person’s on-shore bank account. How could you even spend it all?

Let’s think.  You could buy all of the nine properties listed in this Telegraph piece on the most expensive properties in London and still have getting on for a billion pounds left over! Out of that, you could buy a couple of super-yachts like this or perhaps the world’s largest private vessel at a cost of $600m (£414.353m) and still have well over £500,000,000 (half a billion quid) to spare. So, let's buy one each of the ten most expensive types of car in the world. That's about £20m. We could hire 100 staff and flunkies for our houses and cars and yacht/s and pay them £30k p.a. each. Just to guard against future hiccups, we could set aside their wages for the next 10 years: £30m.  Let's invest £20m in various funds which, all being well, ought to give us an income for life of a million a year, probably more. What else could we do?  I know, we could buy another ten mansions around the world to sail to in the yacht (and maybe keep one of our super-cars at each). Roughly matching our London properties in price, with three staff at each, with wages for ten years: say another £250m?  Blimey. We still have £180m left. Now we could invest it, but that would only yield even more income and the point of this thought experiment is to think how we could spend the money (and we’ve already set ourselves up with a million per an for life, so we hardly need to work again)..  I’ll tell you what we could do. We could give 11,000 employees £16,363.63 each either as a bonus or – maybe better – into their pension fund, but oh dear, that smacks a bit of socialism.  Maybe we could donate £180m to charity…  Think of the good that could do.  Or – get this – pay it as … tax?!?!  Just that last bit? 15% of the total?  You have to admit that £180,000,000 would be a reasonable shot in the arm to schools or hospitals.  Hell, we could pay nearly ten percent of the entire country's university research budget for the year.  But, oh dear again, we don’t like tax, do we? It's a dirty word. Oh, I know. A jet. We haven’t bought a private jet yet…

You see what I mean about the difficulty of spending it all?  And what – really – would you do with nineteen mansions? Much more to the point, all that was in just one year.  Even I am sufficient of a champagne socialist (call it aspiration if you will…) not to think it that much of an issue if someone possessed nineteen mansions around the world, ten super-cars, a super-yacht or two and a private jet at the end of a long career of hard work at the top end of the successful business world.  But the experiment we have just indulged in concerned just one element of one year’s income.  He could have paid himself £170m and said to the government ‘fuck it. Here’s half of this year’s university research budget for the whole country. You're welcome.’  Or, better, he could have not let the government off the hook and said ‘here: raise this year’s university research budget by 50%.’ 

One thing to remember at this point is that one person is earning this, literally almost unimaginable, wealth in one year in a country (and not merely a first-world country but a G12 country) where ever more people are descending into poverty and being dependent on food-banks.

Where does all that money go? In Green’s case it was shunted by a tax-avoidance dodge into his wife’s account in Monaco, which rather illustrates the left-wing Facebook meme that money paid to the rich just gets salted away off-shore rather than going back into the economy.  All that money could instead have been distributed among the employees of the companies or in the creation of new jobs.  As I have said, 45,000 average salaries could have been paid out of that sum.  That probably misses the point that it wasn’t a sum he paid himself every year but it hardly negates the general issue.  More to the point, those salaries would have been taxable (and the sort of legal tax avoidance that ordinary people go in for costs government revenues way less, even when multiplied by 45,000, than that indulged in by the super-rich) and the rest would have been spent in the UK economy.

People will doubtless defend Green on two scores.  The first is that what he did is not illegal.  That really is something that governments need to think about.  Whether or not technically illegal, this sort of tax avoidance is profoundly unethical.  Who pays for the education of Green’s workforce, or their health-care when they are sick, or for the roads and infrastructure on or by which his goods are transported, or for the police that maintain their security and the armed forces that protect them?  By tax-dodging he is expecting us – and his own workforce – to pay for all that. For his own benefit (and remember, he benefits to an unimaginable extent).

The other defence, which I have seen proposed by the equally awful Karen Brady (though grudgingly  I still have to respect her success in the boys’ own world of football-club ownership and admin), is that by creating jobs and business, he contributed enough to the economy and deserves his tax-free billions.  I don’t think that that withstands the arguments above, and I don’t think it defends the sheer scale of the wealth being taken out of the country (he could, after all, have paid himself £100 million and still paid 100,000 employees a £10,000 bonus, which would have stayed in the country, without affecting the companies’ ‘bottom line’).  In the thought experiment above, no more than a couple of hundred jobs were created, as much outside the UK as in.  More importantly though, it is completely undermined by his long-term failure. Eleven years (and god knows how much additional wealth) later, he has ruined the business, screwed their pension fund and left 11,000 people jobless (whose benefits, insofar as this government will still allow them any, although their unemployment is no fault of their own) will have to be paid for by the rest of us.  In the meantime, who has benefitted?  Not many traditional Tory-voting demographics, that’s for sure.  That money could have gone into sustaining rural communities, for instance and supporting farmers; companies of the sort that Green runs (generally dodging corporation tax too, remember) are the ones ruining the high street and forcing small businesses out.  This is the short-termism of neo-liberalism, witnessed by heaven-knows-how-many of Osborne’s economic ‘policies’.  Take as much money as you can, here and now and screw the rest, screw the future.

This isn’t just greedy. It's sociopathic.

Unimaginable, un-spendable wealth, looted by a few and taken abroad in unsustainable get-rich-quick schemes, benefitting almost no one.  That is the utter insanity of extreme, unfettered neoliberal capitalism.