The Eurocrisis: a celebration of outsider thinking

A colourful bunch of political animals has emerged in the ruins of the EU’s single currency. Down in the political undergrowth, for instance, you’ll often find an Oborne, a large and irritable beast who doesn’t mind digging in the dirt. “Idiots!” he trumpets, as he tramples over meeker, non-native species.

Meanwhile, up in the trees you can hear the shrill cries of the Hannan. “It pains me to say I told you so,” he twitters, “but I really did tell you so”. And this prickly little creature is a Taleb. What’s he saying? Nobody knows, but doubtless he has just been proved right too.

Surprisingly, given that they seem to view our financial misery primarily as a source of personal vindication, these beasties are currently basking in public affection. The root of their popularity lies in the notion that they are far-sighted political outsiders who have been unfairly sidelined by The Establishment. If only someone had listened to them earlier!

This annoys the EU’s political insiders. They would argue that, if these individuals have been ignored over the years, it is for good reason: they almost certainly belong to one of those categories of public intellectual whom the world can readily do without.

Perhaps they are McCones, named after the hawkish head of the CIA in the 1960s. He happened to foresee the Cuban Missile Crisis, but his ideas about what caused it and how to resolve it were all wrong. The McCones’ problem is that, because they are right about one big thing, they think they are right about everything.

Perhaps they are Pauls, named after the perennial US presidential hopeful who has a habit of saying what everyone else already knows, but in a particularly outraged and obtuse manner. Their problem is they simply haven’t learnt the art of political compromise.

Or maybe they are Clarkes, named after the US official whose warnings about the 9/11 attacks went unheard. It may be because they fire off too many predictions at once, or because they have a penchant for cryptic neologisms, or just because they only have the strength of their convictions after their warnings actually came to pass. Whatever the reason, this group just doesn’t communicate properly at the right time.

Not so, say the outsiders: history has shown the McCones and Pauls and Clarkes of the past to be insightful individuals who just happened to be articulating a message which their governments didn’t want to hear. Such people, moreover, have a key role to play in any well-functioning political system. Their outsider knowledge is a useful counterpart to governments’ serial in-thinking.

Insider knowledge, the knowledge typical of government officials and ministers, is kennen, connaitre — being acquainted with and experiencing political realities first hand. Outsider knowledge, the knowledge typical of the academic or the backbench parliamentarian, is categorised as wissen, savoir — understanding politics from a critical distance.

Insiders see things in a compromised, practical way; outsiders, with greater theoretical clarity. In a well-functioning political system, both groups chat with one another. But if the dialogue between them dries up, insiders are left in their grey swamp of practicalities and compromises, and outsiders only have their black-and-white certainties.

So, is the euro-crisis the result of the way political insiders systematically sidelined critical outside-voices? Or is it down to the way that sceptical outsiders effectively disqualified themselves from the debate? Most likely, neither is the case: insiders and outsiders have an altogether more collusive relationship than either side likes to admit.

In reality, most political insiders love outside thinking. And they love it not because it is good—it seldom is—but because they are snobs. Years spent surrounded by official jobsworths mean they look down on the ideas produced by their administrative colleagues. To them, the outsider perspective seems exotic and untrammelled by practical concerns.

Outsiders find this flattering, and play along, generating ever more outlandish ideas. But don’t expect them to take responsibility when the shit hits the fan. Not our fault, they say, we were just brainstorming. And don’t expect the insiders to take responsibility either — after all, none of this was their idea.

In short: if we really do need these outsiders to get us out of our current political and financial mess, then it is only because they are precisely the kind of people who helped get us into it in the first place.