Central Banks & Conspiracy Theories

Nine-to-five, plus hours commuting, leaves little time (or energy) for reading. I remember reading once that the origin of one of the big English publishing companies was commuting: a publisher got the idea that there ought to be something better than “penny dreadful” (a.k.a. pulp fiction or romances) books and magazines available for people to buy and read at train stations, and thus was born one of the most admirable features of the history of English publishing: cheap reprints of classics, once known as “everyman editions”, which still cost less than many of those overpriced fruit juices, packaged sandwiches or take-away coffees that “the contemporary commuter” is encouraged to buy. As for me, I usually rely on my mp3 player.

A new inexpensive English book series, “a brief history of” or “a brief guide to”, are a common sight these days at newsagents, usually fitting the bill of what people call “popular history books” but not always. The first one I saw a few years ago was called “a brief guide to Judaism”, written by an actual rabbi. I found it rather fascinating and a more interesting/credible perspective than a history of “anti-Judaism” that I remember an English Jewish woman later recommended to me that I read. I think I prefer matter to anti-matter in more ways than one. Currently, I have two books packed away in my travel bag (alongside the tea and sandwiches): a new book on central banking in Ireland and Europe, and “a brief history” one, called “The freemasons: the true story of the world’s most powerful secret society” that has a blurb for it written by the British imperial historian Andrew Roberts, singing its praises and describing it as “timely”. But what is “timely”?

A good piece of casual advice that a one-time historian of the United Irishmen gave to me, as a naïve youth, a couple of years after completing my first book on the IRB was that “in my experience, these things do not work like clockwork”. What does not work like clockwork, one might ask? He was talking about underground intrigues being a naturally messy situation, so one should be cautious about reading neat patterns into whatever one may discover. In a far out way, this reminds me of a theme of Honohan’s book, when he emphasises that central banking is more like an art form than a science. In the last week, the same author has reportedly questioned the wisdom of an appointment as a successor to him as governor of the Central Bank of Ireland who has previously worked in New Zealand, which according to British imperial logic in or about 1922, was a similar fiscal entity to Ireland as a food-supplier economy for the British Empire. Is Ireland a country that still seeks to balance its current European fiscal identity with historic British roots in a way that seeks to capitalise upon the best of both worlds without necessarily realising what bargain it is actually striking? Or is to politicise a question like central banks’ strategic attempts to manage a future too close to “conspiracy theory” thinking to have any merit? Lets be enigmatic by leaving that question open.

I remember some former students of an Australian-born Irish historian, the late David Fitzpatrick, singing his praises, not for his writing on the 1916 era and Irish emigration (which was perhaps the basis of his scholarly repute) but for his teaching of a novel and (so they said) inspirational module that he designed on the subject of “fraternal organisations in Irish history”. As I was not “in Trinity” (is there an irony in that comment?), I have no idea what the course actually involved, other than it covered subjects such as the freemasons, Orangemen, fenians and others, to a greater or lesser extent. Perhaps it was fitting that Fitzpatrick’s final book, published around the time of his death, was a biography of Ernest Blythe, in which he suggests that because Blythe (the first finance minister of the Irish state) was, at different times, an Orangeman and a member of the IRB, could he have been a “double agent” of some kind? I have not got a chance to look at Fitzpatrick’s biography yet, but no doubt will if or when I return to writing a history of the IRB; a subject that I believe I am better equipped to deal with than Fitzpatrick was, whereas I in no sense could match his awareness of the history of organisations like the Orange Order. There is perhaps no unhealthier attitude for a historian to entertain than ideas of conspiracy theories, although with me being a smoker and Fitzpatrick having being (or at least so I heard) an eminently-fit jogger, I’ll let his theory go unquestioned for now.

The history of the freemasons (written by a mason) that I mentioned emphasises the presence of masons in powerful political positions at various times, but is at pains to point out, for instance, that the presence of masons in revolutionary situations (such as the American, French and Russian revolutions) should not be allowed to obscure the centrality of the English Masonic tradition, both political and historiographical, based upon unquestioned loyalty to the monarchy and a desire to protect England from a continental “Papist” menace. That tradition of thought, it seems to me, is rooted not in actual early-modern European politics (which were governed by statecraft and trade wars, not religious dogmas) but rather a 16th-17th century English perspective on the challenge of restoring or rather cementing order in England itself, particularly up until the royal succession issue could be settled minus the Jacobite threat from 1717 onwards (the year and context of the masons’ foundation). How far was masonry that internal English challenge “writ large” and, in turn, “written into” a broader British outlook on international affairs, I don’t think anyone can say, least of all those Masonic historians like the author of this peculiar little book but the idea evidently informs his prose all the same. Incidentally, some masons ended up forming the Orange Order in 1795, which progressively over the next fifty years and thereafter existed to perpetuate a similar sense of an English/British nationalist tradition, or way of thinking, with near legendary levels of success from “top to bottom of society” within Ulster as part of a contemporary British “civilising mission” (a concept that some liberal historians of American foreign policy, or should I say historians of liberal American foreign policy, are also aware of). I’ve only recently (within the last fortnight to be exact) discovered the writings of David Sim who, it seems to me, could potentially readdress that old question if James Bryce informed the American political conscience less by his insights than by his success in persuading Americans that he could tell them who they actually are better than they could understand themselves. Did the Roosevelts actually smoke Churchill’s leftover cigar butts, I heard a cartoonist once seriously ask. Perhaps he had read David Stafford.

A credible “anti-conspiracy theory” argument of the Masonic author is that the principal significance of the masons was that they targeted aristocrats for patrons, nationally and internationally, and thus the influence of masonry and aristocracy went hand-in-hand. This perspective would not seem to fit, however, with some American trends. A few months ago, for light entertainment, I was watching old episodes of the Rockford Files, in which the father of Rockford (James Garner), who plays the role of a “true-blue, working-class, truck-driving man”, incidentally throws out the line in a half-dozen episodes that “me and the truckers were down at the Masonic lodge as usual for the week’s social”. Not quite the usual stereotype. I remember after writing my book on the IRB that I was asked to take part in a short radio discussion that was arranged by a DJ in Dublin, who was “mystified beyond belief” when he discovered Masonic regalia among the possessions of his late American grandfather. As a result, he became obsessive about secret societies (and, as an American himself, with the idea of “why are there masonic logos on the almighty dollar?” etc.) Apart from the DJ and I, the other two people in the radio discussion were two men who were orphans that were raised by the masons in Dublin and an English author on secret societies (I can’t remember his name, but I don’t think it was the Anglo-Irishman and intelligence analyst David Barrett), who participated by phone and suggested that I deserved the biscuit in the debate for throwing out the idea that the mentality exhibited by some members of the IRB (“the brotherhood”) often reflected the fact that they were social misfits who evidently joined out of a need for a sense of belonging “in feeling/thinking different” and that would appear to be the essential trait of secret societies. I’m not sure if the orphans entirely appreciated that argument, however, and before leaving I thought I detected a suspicious look from them, as if they had determined from their moral training that I must be one of those closet “Papists” that they had heard about as “the great Other” who subscribes to a dangerous, threatening and false idea of a universal morality and that it is their raison d’etre to protect the world from. If the academic manifestation of that mentality is often to be seen in certain liberal historiographies, “what does it matter” if it is not your own thought or mine? Oh well.

To sign off, though, I’ll suggest that the ultimate antidote to conspiracy theories may be “central banking” books like Honahan’s, the gist of which—in its historical sections—confirms my own reading of the history of state fiscal policy, minus “a few significant details” from my end, and has a lot more in it besides: it is one of the few Irish contributions that I can think of to “macro-economic history” (it is published within such a series) and it has a welcome readability. As I am not an economist, I do not understand all that I read and I will probably still not understand by the book’s end what is meant by “quantitative easing” (that is, if I can even stay awake long enough in the first place to read any more than tea-leaves during my five hour commute) but it is refreshing to discover a sophisticated analysis like this, written from both an Irish and international perspective. So, even if it may not enlighten us all about “quantitative easing”, it may at least “quantitatively ease” the minds of the likes of me that it is possible to understand the subject (somewhat) purely as an outsider, without two brass farthings to rub together, rather than as a professional.