When Clowns Run the Circus: Economic Institutions and Intelligence Services


Adam Curtis has a new blog post out today which is as fantastic as usual. This one deals with intelligence services and how they are generally run by weirdos and idiots. This is something I’ve long been aware of personally — having been earlier exposed to the psychological pseudo-science lying behind the CIA’s infamous MKUltra program.

The reason that these organisations fill up with freaks so quickly is because there is no real oversight. Curtis quotes from a history of spying by Philip Knightley The Second Oldest Profession:

The whole organisation [MI5] was riddled with nepotism — dim, dreary people of utter unmemorability; sub-men who were doubled up with other sub-men to create an illusion of strength and only doubled the weakness; others made memorable only by poisonous, corrupt malevolence or crass, mulish stupidity; the whole run by a chain of command remarkable for its feebleness. The entire service was decrepit and incompetent.

What happens in organisations with no-strings-attached funding and no real oversight is that incompetent but politically ruthless people tend to rise to the top. They then solidify their position by populating the lower-ranks with Yes Men and allies. Those at the top then impose their bizarre and otherworldly ideas on the organisation and all sorts of weird stuff starts to happen.

The economics profession, while not quite as desperate, is somewhat similar. The reason it is not quite as desperate is that economic institutions — from central banks to the IMF to think-tanks — are largely answerable to open institutions, while intelligence services are not. There are some checks and balances keeping such institutions in the tow of practical administration. Nevertheless, however, economic institutions are populated by head-in-the-clouds incompetents who lack almost any ability to see the world for what it is.

This is what accounts for the complete disconnect people often notice between these institutions and the real world. Unlike in other institutions — such as the court system — the people in economic institutions have been trained to purely think in abstractions and their jobs allow them to take an enormous distance from everyday matters. Reading the statements that come out of these institutions is often rather comical — not to mention concerning — but it is for structural reasons that this is the case. And when you meet many of the people that work in these institutions you quickly notice that they talk about abstract ideas as if they were real entities.

This is not to say that there are no good people in these institutions. But they are usually marginalised or find themselves more suited to practical matters (like managing open market operations or something of the sort). They almost never rise up the ranks to call the shots about the general direction of the institution. This is because their colleagues generally dislike them to some extent and find their pragmatism and lack of toleration of airy-fairy abstract nonsense irritating and personally insulting.

Such is also the case, as Curtis points out, in intelligence services. He gives the example of Percy Sillitoe who was brought in by the radical Labour government after the Second World War to clean up the mess that was MI5 Sillitoe, who told his wife that he was “working in a madhouse”, was a former police chief who dealt with gang violence in Glasgow. He was a careful and realistic man — and the people working at MI5 hated him because, presumably, he burst the phantasmatic insulated bubble that they lived within. Curtis writes:

All the insiders hated him, and they ridiculed him by speaking in Latin (which he didn’t understand) in front of him. Plus they deliberately gave him the wrong papers when he went to see the Prime Minister.

Today, in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, intelligence services are under intense scrutiny. Some of the worst excesses are likely to be cleared up but we should never expect a leopard to change its spots. Likewise, after the 2008 financial crisis, some of the worst excesses of the economic institutions were reigned in. But again, to hope that a leopard can change its spots is perhaps to hope too much. With no real, hardline oversight forcing these institutions to engage properly with the real world the clowns will continue to run the circus.


About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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