Tomáš Sedláček at the roundtable "Economics, Art and Europe" in Porto


Photograph: © Susana Neves

From left to right: Sergio Escobar, Tomáš Sedláček, Francisca Carneiro-Fernandes, Rui Moreira, Nuno Carinhas

Ladies and Gentleman,

It’s a great joy to be here. I am a person who is used to beauty. Coming from Czech Republic I’m spoiled by beautiful Prague. But I am utterly impressed and I really salute you for living in a beautiful city.

So let me talk about three subjects. I wanted to talk about two, but you got me started on the invisible hand. The ‘invisible hand’ is something that we economists talk about; it’s also a belief of economics. And it’s important to know that it’s a belief. One of the pre-Socratic philosophers defined myth as something that never happened but it’s happening always. And the invisible hand is a good example of that. It’s something that doesn’t actually exist, it never happened, but it’s happening always. Now, I’m a big critic of this economic religion and I will come to it. I will talk about the invisible hand of the society, I will talk about economics as a religion, and I will talk about a very important subject, which I would call subject-object reversal; when something that is supposed to serve you becomes a master, which I will try to claim that this is exactly what happened with economics.

Let me first start with the invisible hand. I actually believe in the invisible hand, but not of the market, that doesn’t function almost at all, but I believe in the invisible hand of the society. Somehow there are regulatory mechanisms within a society that regulate it. It’s not a perfect mechanism. We do have wars and we do have unnecessary bloodsheds, but we are here and the society is functioning somehow. What I mean ‘invisible’ is that it’s completely ‘unplanable’ and it’s a regulatory hand that keeps society together almost without any without any direct intervention from the government or anyone else. So let me give you three examples. When the society becomes too corporate, too business oriented, too profit oriented, a generation of hippies will be born. And that will sort of bring back the balance to our perception of cooperation. When society becomes too fascinated with bureaucracy, which is exactly what happened in the mainland Austro-Hungarian empire, there was a huge fascination with bureaucracy, Kafka will be born. And he will with the strike of the pen will lay down all these miraculous beauties that we have around bureaucracy and he will ridicule it with a pen. In 1989, where there was this Velvet Revolution in my country and many others, it was the area of art that saved the area of politics. Politics itself was helpless, it was collapsing and from the area of politics salvation couldn’t come. Interestingly enough, we still believe that salvation somehow will come from the realm of politics. It usually doesn’t. I mean who remembers the Swedish government in the 80s? Right. But everybody knows Abba. And this is what I mean. This is one hope we have after the Trump election is that there are many other areas in life from which development and new ideas come. So in 1989, it was the arts that saved politics, because the revolution was mainly carried out by artists, such as Václav Havel and others. In 2008, the area of business or finance was saved by politics. In other times it is business that saves art. And you can find many examples where completely different realms of society suddenly intervene and save each other. So society is somehow balanced by this invisible hand. I think it is the role of us intellectuals or people who actually move and care in the public sphere; our role is to keep these channels clean and unclogged. So if the area of art, for example, feels that politics is going astray, they communicate this, or the other way around, without bloodshed and without mud in the communication lines. I think this is something that we underestimate in our society. Also note that we live in a very strange time where European and American civilisation, which is based on democracy and capitalism— We have managed to export capitalism to China, to India and Russia; we have not managed to export democracy. This is a huge failure, I think, because originally we were taught that democracy and capitalism go hand in hand. We are seeing that it doesn’t go hand in hand. And what we have done is that we have exported a very powerful Bazooka, called capitalism, which really can make a poor nation into a rich nation. Even the most fierce critic of capitalism, Carl Marx, acknowledged that capitalism is the strongest machine or mechanism to make nations rich. But we have not managed to export the soft manual, which is democracy. So we have exported a very strong tool without sort of the soft edges or properties of democracy, making the world somewhat more dangerous. So that’s my first topic.

In my second topic I would like to talk economics has become a religion. You see, economics tries to portray itself as a technical, analytical, scientific and physics-like area when in fact it is ideology covered in a disguise of mathematics. What do I mean by ‘ideology’?

Let me again three examples of the norms which have existed in the past, they still exist today, but the reasoning behind them is completely different. So let me start here with an easy example, which is corruption. Corruption is something that we fight against because in our economic models, corruption slows down GDP growth. Now as a thought experiment — this is only a thought experiment — what would we do if our models would show that corruption actually speeds GDP growth? Just hypothetically speaking. Would that mean that we would support corruption? This is not unthinkable. I come from a country where in the 90s we believed that corruption is actually useful for the economy, that it sort of makes things faster, that it sort of oils the rigged mechanism of bureaucracy and capitalism. Only now did economists discover that corruption is wrong. Not because it’s wrong. 100 years of corruption would be wrong because stealing is wrong. Period. Whether it supports growth or doesn’t support growth would not even be a question. Today we need economic reasoning to understand that corruption is wrong. My second example is an example from the area of art. Now, there have been many efforts in our society to calculate the contribution of the creative industries to GDP and we’ve learned that it’s a positive. 0.4… Some nice little number. My question here is again some question that I’m having with corruption: what if, again as a mental exercise, our models would show that art actually slows down GDP growth? Which again is something that intuitively could be possible. Art is not here to make us work better and harder, to quote George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’— you know the horoscope boxer who always wanted to work harder and better for the pigs. Art is here to in fact really slow us down. Art is here to make us think. How would our lives look like without the art critique. Also note that most of the dystopia, movies and books, first thing that they get rid of is art. If you think of the movies, such as ‘Equilibrium’ or ‘Island’ or ‘Dystopia’, such as 1984, first thing that the totalitarian thinker, which was usually mostly a ‘he’ by the way, rids the society of is artistic expression and artistic emotion. Because in truth this is something that endangers the stability of any totalitarian system. Oscar Wilde very famously, in his prologue to ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, which I think is a must-read for people who think about art and economics, ends with ‘All art is quite useless’, meaning that it’s something we should throw away but that it is one of the few areas in our life that is exempt from the cruel imperative of having to be useful. Almost everything we do in our lives is useful, for more or for less. The question here is what is it useful for? What is the ultimate use of cleaner water, better GDP, better functioning infrastructure? What’s it useful for? Art is one of the things that by definition isn’t useful. If you take a toilet bowl and you put it into a museum and you put a fence around it, it becomes art. It becomes art exactly in the moment when it is useless. The moment you start using that toilet for the normal routine, it ceases to be art. But the moment you exempt it from usefulness and you place it in an exhibition, it becomes art. So art really is not here to make GDP growth smoother. And by the same logic, if we find out in our models that creative industries actually slow down GDP growth… Should we tax them or should we go against them? I’m only saying these two examples to show how we are respecting the value of corruption, anti-corruption, and how we are respecting the value of art, but not for their own sake, not because art is the ultimate thing to do in life and because stealing is wrong, but we respect these two values only because they have economic argumentation. Which is so embedded within us; we have been born and raised in this economic religion that we don’t even think about it. So it’s something that I like to remind us of.

A third example is resting, I would just like to make a brief parallel here because I don’t want to take too much time. Hit me when I have three more minutes.

The fourth commandment of the ten commandments— I’m only taking this as an example because these used to be the values of our forefathers and ‘foremothers’ (we have to be politically correct). The fourth commandment, which is by the way the first practical commandment because the first three commandments are sort of theological ones “Love thy God from all thy heart…”; “Thou shalt not make a graven image…”. And then comes sort of the practical commandments. The first one of these, the fourth commandment is a commandment of Shabbat. And this is something that we often forget. Why did it have to be a commandment? Why wasn’t this a suggestion? It was a very hard commandment and if people broke it, they got stoned. And here I mean ‘stoned’ with stones, not the Dutch way of getting stoned. So it was a very serious commandment, and it had to be a commandment because obviously there is something in our nature that has a tendency to work all the time. There is something in our nature that tries to change reality to fit our image. By the way the word ‘art’ comes from the word ‘artificial’. We are living in an artificial society. If you were born in a city, you have never seen anything natural. Everything you’ve seen from the day that you were born was made by human beings for human beings and has no sense outside of human beings. Everything you have ever seen in your life is artificial. Even if you go to Tibet to meditate for two years, you will still have your Portuguese passport being protected in this condom of Western society with your credit card. And somewhere in your luggage you will have your cell phone, just in case. So you cannot reach ‘real’ or ‘natural’ anymore. Nevertheless, let’s go back to this commandment. So it had to be a commandment because there is something in us to economise everything. There are about four times when the Bible is critical of lazy people, and there are about 160 warnings of people about being hyperactive, which is of course the commandment of Shabbat.

Now, again, here today we respect rest but not as an ultimate result of work but as a subset of working better and harder. So rest, again— God created in order to rest. According to Jewish religion, God didn’t rest because he had another universe to create on a Monday morning and he needed to rejuvenate his powers. He rested because the work was done. Our work is never done, which is also nicely represented in this GDP growing and never reaching the sort of orgasm where we would be flattened out (but that would be a different talk). So we do respect rest but only for economic reasons.

So just to summarize, corruption, art and rest make sense to us, we respect these values, but only because they have an economic interpretation and an economic justification in our life.

If I’m running out of time, I can stop here. (I’m really getting better at this. The older I get the faster I talk.)

The last example is this subject-object reversal, which I promised. Subject-object reversal is something that happens very frequently in mythology; it happens very frequently in fairy tales; it happens very frequently also in literature when the master-slave relationship is reversed. Let me again give you three examples.

The first example is from popular literature from J.R.R. Tolkien, I don’t know if anybody heard of him. He wrote this trilogy called ‘Lord of the Rings’. Now the basic question here is what is this book about? Who is the Lord of the Rings? And most people think that it was Mordor or Sauron, some people think that it was Gollom. But the correct answer is that the Lord of the Rings was the ring. The dark lord Sauron put so much power into this one small ring, so much power that the destruction of this small ring actually led to the destruction of Mordor itself. So at the end of the trilogy, this big war, Middle Earth fighting Mordor never actually took place because it was enough to destroy a small tiny piece of metal and the whole of Mordor disassembled. In other words, the dark lord put so much power into the ring that the ring actually led to destruction.

Another example would be: I come from the Czech Republic, the country of Milan Kundera, even though the French sort of tend to have a copyright on him, but they’re wrong. He will always be Czech — one of the great prides of our culture. If you read Kundera, which I suppose you do, you will notice that the basic plot in almost all of his stories is also a subject-object reversal. It’s usually a man who starts a game, very often of sexual nature, a game which was originally meant to give the man more power, more libido, a greater degree of freedom, greater being, actually gains a life of its own. The game that’s inanimate and doesn’t have a life of its own, gains life and starts playing the player, making the male, who actually started the game, become a slave of the very game that he started.

If you have seen this movie ‘Being John Malkovich’, this is the same plot. In the beginning he was a puppeteer, and in the end he becomes a puppet. So here you can see that it doesn’t even have to be an object like a ring. In philosophy and psychoanalysis, this is called ‘objet petit a’. It is the mask of the Joker, the mask that plays you, it is the costume of Spider Man and Peter Parker has to dress as Spider Man. It is the costume that actually makes Spider Man. So the ‘objet petit a’ doesn’t even have to have an object like the ring in the Lord of the Rings, it can even be a game. My claim is that this is what happened in economics. It was something that we gave too much power; we believed in it so much; it gave us so much, we have invested so much power in it that now it has become our master in terms of philosophy, in terms of religion, in terms of 40 hours a day. And it of course has the capacity to destroy us, which is something that almost happened in 2008 and 2009. If it hadn’t been for politics, the area of finance would have been destroyed our civilisation exactly because it was based on it.

Thank you very much for your attention.

Speech held in the context of the roundtable "Economics, Art and Europe" at the Teatro National São João in Porto.