After security checks that make airport security despots seem like amateurs, we descended into a stifling labyrinth and, after numerous heavy metal doors slammed shut behind us, we waited outside the makeshift prison cinema. We watched the final moments of the film then, as the lights went up, we turned to the audience and kicked off the Q&A. Initially there was silence. We - producer Megan and me - were intrigued by the audience (and naturally their back stories) but they were clearly nervous about asking questions of strangers. Eventually someone broke the silence: "Do you think the Russian oligarchs got that rich by stealing all the countries natural resources?" Answer: "Yes". We were off.
The RepublicExcellent questions came from many who were serving life sentences - there was an amazing awareness and concern with issues in the world beyond the prison gates; perhaps surprising given that many of these guys will not be part of that world for many years to come. "Do you think that modern warfare is now driven solely by the desire for profit on behalf of corporates and arms companies?" Answer: "Yes – and Eisenhower warned that his would happen."
One softly spoken man then made a point about us using Plato in the film. "Do you think Plato can play a part in how we get out of this current crisis?" Answer: "Yes –why do you ask that?" Prisoner: "When I started the prison philosophy course my world opened - I became free and it was Plato who did that." I asked, "Are you free now?" "Yes – of course I am." After more reflection the man went on: "Plato subscribed to the oral tradition because he didn't want his words or knowledge twisted." At this point there was wholesale audience agreement.
This was a profound exchange and although the prisoner obviously lacked conventional liberty, he had found the mind space to attain a different kind of liberation through understanding. He then talked about the work of a Belgian scientist and historian Gérard Garitte (1914–1992) who wrote about capitalism and the social exclusion required for it to 'function properly'. I agreed with him, but was still thinking about the Plato exchange and how the systems we endure today have been twisted and manipulated to benefit the few.
More innocuous profundity...One of my favorite moments at any of the Four Horsemen screenings was in Leuven Prison that night. Towards the end of the film we show a shot of Cambridge University and the narration reads: "It's astonishing that neo-classical economics continues to be taught in all Ivy League universities today". At that moment, watching the shot of the Cambridge campus pictured above, an inmate at the back shouted "it's like a jail". Everyone laughed at an innocuous comment which concealed a profound truth.
I didn't mention it in the Q&A, but in 1903 Cambridge University separated economics from the moral sciences. Although there are no bars on the windows, over the last century the economics they've taught at Cambridge - and other Ivy League institutions - have imprisoned the minds of many innocent people. When Goethe said "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free," he might more appropriately have concluded with the words 'free market economists' and been even closer to the truth. No nation has been spared the negative impact of a century of teaching of neo-classical, supposedly free-market, economics. Only now is the realisation beginning to dawn that that true human liberty will not be achieved until the economic system is constructed on firm moral foundations, instead of an ill-considered, self-serving ideology.
The Next Big Leap
Plato once said "Courage is knowing what not to fear". For humanity to take the next big leap forward, the professors who have been teaching junk economics must find the courage necessary to admit they were wrong. This would be a liberating process not only for them, but also for many millions of people around the world.
When we left the prison that night the warden said to us "you are now free to go". He famously says this to everyone returning to the world outside. For some, he adds "until next time". We need to find the collective courage to demand that the neo-classical economic paradigm is 'free to go' and make that leap. If we say 'until next time' this ideological prison will take our liberty for life.