Extension material for students of the OCR syllabus on Business Ethics: Kwasi Kwarteng’s 2022 ‘Trickle-Down’ Mini-Budget, a recommendation for further reading, and reviews of Ronald E. Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became The New Capitalist Spirituality, and Byung-Chul Han: Capitalism and the Death Drive.


‘Trickle-Down’ Economics

Neoliberalism, the predominant global form of modern capitalism, is one that – rather like Covid-19 – has given rise to a number of variants, namely, Thatcherism, Bill Clinton’s Market Globalism (which basically asserts that the global integration of markets will bring about material prosperity for everyone), and Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ (which attempted to balance free-market dynamics with a wider concern for the public good i.e. all stakeholders). In other words, as far as the wording of the OCR syllabus is concerned, the real issue here is ‘whether or not human beings can flourish in the context of capitalisms [in the plural] and consumerism’, especially bearing in mind that, in other parts of the world, for example in South Korea and Japan, governments have frequently proved resistant to the blandishments of neoliberals and evolved their own, indigenous forms of capitalism.

But anyway, one of the earliest versions of neoliberal theory is what has been dubbed ‘Supply-Side economics’ (aka ‘Reaganomics’ or ‘Trickle-Down’ economics).

Both Thatcherism and Reaganomics favoured a reduced role for government, as well as increased military spending and the cutting of public expenditure on programmes for social welfare. However, Reaganomics is itself distinguished by an emphasis on tax cuts for the rich. In part, this reflects a specific and personal concern of President Reagan, one that dated back to his period as a Hollywood actor, when he apparently calculated that it was scarcely worthwhile for him to make another movie in one particular year, as most of his fee would get handed over to the government in the form of tax.

The basic idea behind supply-side thinking is that tax cuts will incentivise everyone to work that bit harder, as they will earn more money (and pay more tax on those extra earnings – so there ends up being greater not lower tax revenues for the government in the longer term). And when that money is spent, this will generate increased demand for goods and services, so that the economy grows. In the case of the very rich, especially those who are entrepreneurial, the assumption is that they will invest that extra money in projects related to their own economic activity. For example, if they run a business, they may seek to expand, which could create more jobs. Or they might invest in extra training for their staff, and/or further research and development projects. So, once again, ultimately everyone benefits, including the less well-off through the trickle-down impact of the fresh opportunities and greater prosperity generated by all this additional bustle.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence that supply-side economics ever produces its desired effects. For example, in the USA, the promised tax bonanza for the government never arrived, and although productivity rose, the earnings of the majority (eight out of ten Americans) either stagnated or fell, though the rich did become even wealthier. And so typically, whenever tax cuts are enacted, they tend to be funded largely by government borrowing.

All the more reason, then, why it is somewhat mystifying that the Conservative politician Kwasi Kwarteng (who actually has a PhD. in economic history) tried to revive this neoliberal variant during his brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2022, especially bearing in mind the economist Paul Krugman’s observation that ‘there isn’t a serious debate about the proposition that tax cuts for the rich strongly increases economic growth. The truth is that there is no evidence — none — for that proposition’ in a subsequent article on Kwarteng’s budget.

Indeed, as painstaking research by the IMF (International Monetary Fund) has demonstrated, a moderate redistribution of income that favours the worse off is what actually stimulates economic growth, as poorer people tend to spend any extra money they have, which thus tends to increase demand in any given economy.

One suggestion, advanced by the political campaign group Led By Donkeys, is that Kwarteng and Elizabeth Truss are both ideologues who subscribe to an extreme form of free market fundamentalism advocated by a number of shadowy organisations that are based in and around 55 Tufton Street in Westminster. All this is explained in a compelling eight minute documentary:

Be all that as it may, the form of ‘Trickle-Down’ economics favoured by Kwarteng is perhaps the best example of a species of off-the-leash capitalism that most certainly does not result in ‘flourishing’ for all except the most wealthy.

Recommended Reading

One of the more entertaining ways to explore topics that arise on any A Level syllabus is by reading novelistic treatments of them. And when it comes to Business Ethics, there is an outstanding recent example.

JG Ballard is perhaps best known for his novel Empire of the Sun, which features on the OCR GCSE syllabus for English Language and is based on the author’s own period of adolescence that was spent in both Shanghai and a Japanese internment camp during World War 2. However, Ballard’s reputation was founded on a body of work which amounts to a form of literary surrealism, consisting of apocalyptic science fiction, experimental writing, and novels with pronounced dystopian themes. Along with Shakespeare, Orwell, Kafka and Joyce, his surname has been adjectivized, so that nowadays ‘Ballardian’ sits alongside words like ‘Orwellian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’ in reputable dictionaries, one of which defines the term as ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in the works of J. G. Ballard, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak artificial landscapes, and the psychological effects of technological, social, or environmental developments.’

In this respect his final novel, aptly entitled Kingdom Come, exemplifies many of those preoccupations, especially given that the main ‘character’ as such is arguably the Bluewater-like ‘Metro Centre’, a vast mall which serves as a focal point for most of the action. Ostensibly, the plot concerns a jobless advertising executive who travels to Heathrow to investigate the murder of his father, who was shot by a psychiatric patient in the aforementioned galleria. But from a more significant thematic perspective, it looks at how consumerism can evolve into a form of fascism, and a shopping plaza transform itself into a place of pilgrimage and worship, ‘the last refuge of the religious instinct’:

‘Nearby was a store with a still intact pyramid of sample wares in its doorway. A trio of microwave ovens supported columns of computer towers, topped by a plasma television screen, the whole display decorated like a Christmas tree with a dozen digital cameras, lenses gleaming in the half-light. The structure had been lovingly designed to resemble an altarpiece. Bouquets of artificial flowers lay at its base, and a circle of candles surrounded a framed photograph…A few minutes later, in an alleyway behind the Novotel, I came across another of the pyramids, a modest tableau built from mobile phones and DVD players. Part sales display and part consumer shrine, it was clearly a prayer point for pilgrims on the great circuits of the Metro Centre.’

Ballard’s artistic influence and legacy have been profound. For example, novelists Will Self and Martin Amis, and the political philosopher John Gray (see the main blog entry on Business Ethics) have all acknowledged his fiction as a source of inspiration, with Amis going as far as to identify Ballard as “the most important British writer of the latter half of the 20th century”. Unsurprisingly, four of his novels (Empire of the Sun, Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition and High Rise) have all been made into films. Arguably though, Ballard’s prose has had the most impact on musicians, in spite of the fact that he is not considered to be an especially avowed devotee of music, and his own favourite song is ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’ (‘I could happily listen to it forever’).

To cite just a few examples: Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the post-punk band Joy Division, was very much an admirer, as evidenced by the title of his band’s second album, while the Eighties classic hit ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles, which topped the charts in the UK and fifteen other countries, took inspiration from a Ballard short story called ‘The Sound Sweep’, and Madonna’s 2001 Drowned World tour was named after one of his first novels, perhaps because the environmental catastrophes he described in his earliest works – melting ice caps, global warming, mass flooding – were already, by then, starting to move closer to becoming a lived reality.

In summary, Ballard’s entire oeuvre (not just this particular novel) is very much worthy of further investigation.

Ronald Purser – McMindfulness : The New Capitalist Spirituality

The main argument advanced in this polemical attack on the global movement and $4 billion industry that has grown up around mindfulness, a form of meditation based on what is known as vipassana or ‘insight’ into the nature of reality, is that, shorn of its traditional Buddhist lineaments, and presented as a secular panacea for the stresses and strains of 21st Century life, the technique gradually transforms its adherents into something comparable to the submissive women in novelist Ira Levin’s The Steptford Wives, or the emotionless alien duplicates that feature in the old horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers, namely, unquestioning servants of an unjust and exploitative capitalist system. Indeed, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has observed, mindfulness is “establishing itself as the hegemonic ideology of global capitalism” through the promotion of itself as an all-encompassing stress-reducing method that ends up serving rather than challenging capitalism by “helping people to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity.”

But more than this, Purser also asserts that mindfulness is simply not all that it is cracked up to be, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, in its present secular form he thinks that it has been cut adrift from its ethical moorings (as represented by Buddhist teachings to do with sila or ‘right conduct’), as evidenced by the fact that it has been appropriated by the US military as a means to enhance the battlefield performance of soldiers. The training they receive does not, as one might imagine, merely confine itself to the curtailing of overreactions that may result in innocent civilians being killed; rather it is expressly designed so that, if necessary, a prior stilling of body and mind should ensure that the conscript retains a ‘capacity to kill, without hesitation and without remorse.’ Additionally, there is no scope within that training for the questioning of the ethics of missions, which thus leaves open the possibility of a war being fought mindfully for the wrong reasons. Such an approach is also unjustifiable because Buddhist moral teachings have traditionally abjured the intentional harming and killing of living beings. By extension, the meditative practices that are built on the foundation of sila are therefore arguably incompatible with any form of militarism, and so for advocates and teachers of mindfulness (some of whom have been very well compensated for their involvement with the Pentagon) to pretend otherwise suggests that they are being disingenuous at the very least.

Probably only Kafka fans will get this

Secondly, Purser draws attention to the fact that the clinical and scientific studies which appear to demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness do not always stand up to more exacting scrutiny, with many being subsequently identified as being of poor quality (often due to a failure to utilize randomized control groups) and subject to positive reporting bias, whereby it is suggested that this therapy may be more effective than it actually is. In support of this line of argument, Purser refers to a number of examples, including a 2015 report called Mindful Nation UK which cited research into MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy) suggesting that ‘the treatment helps prevent multiple episodes of depression, reducing relapse rates by 43%.’ However, as Purser points out, a follow-up study by its original author that was not mentioned in the report subsequently found that these reductions ‘only applied to those who had experienced three or more depressive relapses, while the rates of relapse for subjects with two or fewer episodes actually increased’. Meanwhile, a separate meta-analysis published by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in 2014 indicated that ‘mindfulness was no more effective than physical exercise or other relaxation techniques.’ This analysis found that moderate improvements could be achieved with respect to the management of depression, anxiety and pain, as well as very small reductions in the case of stress, but that ‘there were few other measurable benefits.’

Purser is also sceptical of the neuroscience that is invoked, often in the form of impressive looking PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and fMRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans, to demonstrate that mindfulness produces both short and long term beneficial changes in brain activity and physical structure. For example, Sara Lazar, a research scientist at Massachusetts General Hospital has found that vipassana (mindfulness) practitioners have a thicker cortex in some parts of their brain than non-meditators. The degree of thickness has also been found to correlate with length of practice. And as far as overall cerebration is concerned, one review of the existing data (not mentioned by Purser) concludes that “mindfulness meditation may alleviate symptoms of general anxiety disorder by increasing connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, thereby increasing a patient’s ability to regulate emotions. Meditation may also lessen the perception of pain by reducing pain-related activation of the somatosensory cortex and increasing activation of areas involved in the cognitive regulation of pain.”

Frustratingly, in Purser’s book Lazar is mentioned in passing but there is no specific and detailed discussion of her intriguing findings, though he is surely right to caution that ‘although brain scans show some of the active networks involved in situations where mindfulness helps, the underlying mechanisms that explain how it works remain unclear.’  He also describes a useful metaphor for brain-imaging studies provided by a colleague of Purser called David Lewis, who compares them to ‘trying to deduce the economic and social structure of New York by observing movements of vehicles and people from an airplane.’ 

As research into neuroscience and mindfulness is at an early stage, it may therefore be premature to make too much of what has been discovered so far.

To focus on one more example that is certain to be closer to home for many readers of this blog, another cause for concern on the part of Purser has to do with the teaching of mindfulness in schools, both here and in the USA, given that the UK charity MiSP, the or ‘Mindfulness in Schools Project’ is aiming, according to its own website, ‘to reach one million schoolchildren within the next five years with quality, face-to-face mindfulness training’, while the California based Mindful Schools organisation have apparently already “impacted” two million students as a result of their teacher training programme.

That mindfulness should be deemed appropriate for school pupils should come as no surprise, as problems such as anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidality, low self-esteem and eating disorders are becoming endemic among the student population and also manifesting at earlier ages than previously, so much so that the philosopher Mark Fisher was moved to observe that ‘it is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being classified as a sickness’. Plus, according to one 2018 study, ‘Currently in the UK about 25% of young people are estimated to have an identifiable disorder, with 10% needing specialist treatment, and 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year.’

The reasons for this may be various, but more than four decades of neoliberal policies have exacerbated economic inequality in both countries and proven themselves to be corrosive of social cohesion and family life, so for Purser they are certainly implicated. For example, divorce rates have increased significantly, as many parents are enmeshed in a 24/7 culture of long working hours, with the effect that teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, as profferers of pastoral and emotional support for pupils, but at the same time are required to submit them to a regime of relentless testing, surveillance and micromanagement, as their continued employment often depends on the pass rates that their students achieve in public examinations.

Nevertheless, Purser has some serious reservations about bringing mindful stress relief to the classroom. Once again, this is because of a lack of evidence that it actually works. For instance, meta-analytic studies indicate that its effects on pupils are negligible, and when favourable outcomes are reported, publication bias, whereby only positive research findings find their way into the relevant academic journals, may be a factor. And as far as imaging is concerned, there have been no studies that have investigated the effects of mindfulness on the brains of teenagers. Further issues highlighted by Purser include the fact that the limited training that teachers receive render them ill-equipped to deal with potential adverse meditative experiences on the part of pupils, as well as the safeguarding risks that arise if those participating in any programme are not screened beforehand for prior psychiatric problems. Lastly, Purser is very much of the view that the ‘self-pacifying’ effects of mindfulness may once again inhibit an acknowledgement and discussion of the social injustices that are a product of decades of neoliberal hypercapitalism and have arguably created the deprivations, crime rates and violence that students have to cope with in the first place. While he acknowledges that ‘the therapeutic functions of mindfulness-based interventions are clearly of value’ and so may have their uses, what he calls ‘neoliberal mindfulness’ very much exceeds its remit when its advocates talk about it as if it is some kind of global panacea for the manifold problems that are presently engulfing the world:

‘It seems foolhardy to assume that assume that watching one’s breath will have any systemic effect on climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution, or mass environmental devastation. As for changing the plutocratic control of government, finance and the media by corporations – or ending unemployment, inequality, homelessness, substance abuse, or white supremacy – it seems almost mean to suggest that paying attention will weave magic wands.’

As things stand, mindfulness-based initiatives presently offer little more than ‘palliative care’ for those engulfed in a ‘neoliberal nightmare.’ Instead, what is required, Purser believes, is a form of Engaged Buddhism, one comparable to the liberation theology movement that arose as a Catholic response to capitalist exploitation in Latin America, and that promotes, in the words of Bhikkhu Bodhi* , a ‘conscientious compassion’ that is unabashedly anti-capitalist and explores saner alternatives to the ‘free-market imperatives of corporatism, exploitation, extraction, consumerism, and toxic economic growth.’

Overall, Purser’s thesis is a compelling one, and because his book is also highly readable it is suitable for both bright A Level students and teachers, especially those currently following the Eduqas specification, which requires candidates to study ‘The Mindfulness Movement’ in depth, whilst taking note of Slavoj Zizek’s claim, that ‘by encouraging stress-release, mindfulness serves capitalism rather than challenges it’. McMindfulness can, in fact, be regarded as a book-length treatment and evaluation of Zizek’s assertion.

However, for all its merits, it does suffer from one or two weaknesses. Firstly, Purser assumes that his readers already know what neoliberalism is. But as Guardian columnist George Monbiot has so eloquently pointed out, it is an ideology that, in spite of its pernicious effects, tends to hide in plain sight. Unlike Communism, most people have never heard of it. So a brief explanation would have been helpful.

Secondly, the prominent Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard is mentioned in the book, but in such a manner as to give the impression that he has been co-opted by neoliberal mindfulness. In fact, Ricard should be regarded as an ally, given that his formidable publication Altruism: The Science and Psychology of Kindness includes a lengthy and multidisciplinary critique of neoliberal economics and the empirically false view of human nature (as advocated by thinkers as diverse as Adam Smith, Freud and Ayn Rand) that underpins it.

As for mindfulness in schools, a review of ongoing research authored by Professor Katherine Weare that appeared in 2018, just before the publication of McMindfulness, appears to anticipate some of Purser’s concerns about MBIs (Mindfulness Based Interventions). For example, there is a significant focus on studies that include RCTs or ‘randomised controlled trials’, which therefore addresses his reservations about the quality of the research that is being carried out. She also notes that there is ‘little evidence of harmful (so-called ‘adverse’) effects from these short, focused interventions’, whilst acknowledging the need to look into this issue in greater depth, as well as the quality of the training that a mindfulness instructor receives and the need to reduce possible bias in reportage resulting from a lack of separation between ‘those who develop the programmes and those who evaluate them.’ Weare is also aware of the tendency to ‘oversell’ mindfulness, and emphasises the requirement to report results with ‘modesty and caution.’

These concerns notwithstanding, the studies that are included demonstrate that MBIs have tended to have a modest, small to medium impact on pupil well-being, specifically with respect to overall mental health, cognition (as evidenced by an enhanced ability to focus and sustain attention), and problem behaviour. Intriguingly, improvements in physical health have also been noted across a spectrum that includes blood pressure, heart rate, sleep patterns and quality of sleep, and eating-related issues.

Weare’s summative conclusion is that – while research on MBIs is still in its infancy – ‘mindfulness in schools appears to be well worth pursuing [as] it has already demonstrated a great deal of promise’.

Unfortunately, a much more recent article suggests quite the opposite, with the Guardian reporting in July 2022 that ‘School-based mindfulness training does not appear to boost wellbeing or improve the mental health of teenagers, according to research that found many pupils were bored by the course and did not practise it at home…While it has been found to help with the symptoms of depression and anxiety in some studies, researchers from the My Resilience in Adolescence (Myriad) trial found the broad school-based mindfulness offered was no more effective than what schools were already doing to support student mental health with social-emotional learning.’

Obviously, the jury is still out on MBIs, and the best policy would seem to be to watch and wait as far as the ongoing research is concerned. However, when it comes to the conflation of mindfulness with neoliberalism and Purser’s view that the technique is in danger of internalising the class struggle, a point echoed in the writings of the philosopher Byung-Chul Han (see below), it is possible to be more unequivocal: his argument may be somewhat stridently presented but it is also persuasive, and ‘The Mindfulness Movement’ has yet to convincingly refute it.

In closing, for anyone who may have got a bit worked up, anxious or deflated whilst reading about the pros and cons of mindfulness, courtesy of KFC and Colonel Sanders, here is a little guided meditation to calm you down. 

.*Bhikkhu Bodhi is an American monk who, like Purser, has argued that, lest they be subjected to a trenchant social critique, Buddhist practices like mindfulness are in danger of simply reinforcing a culture of consumer capitalism.

Byung-Chul Han – Capitalism and the Death Drive

In a speech to the 2022 Conservative Party Conference during her short-lived tenure as Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss declared that her priority for the British economy was ‘growth, growth, growth’, a proclamation that would surely disconcert the bestselling German-based South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han.

The reasons for Han’s probable perturbation can be found in his Capitalism and the Death Drive, a series of loosely connected brief essays and discussions, with an argument running through them that might be summarised as follows:

1.The constant demand for economic growth that is a defining feature of capitalism is comparable to a metastasizing cancer that will eventually kill the patient.

2. As such, this imperative can be understood as an expression of what Freud called the ‘death instinct’ (re-named by Han as the ‘death drive’), a craving for self-annihilation that is a paradoxical force within the psyche.

3. The death drive is paradoxical, as humans are ordinarily directed by evolutionary drives towards acts of self-preservation.

4. For Han, an overwhelming compulsion to consume and, especially in the case of plutocrats, to appropriate vast amounts of capital, is actually a vain attempt at immunisation against mortality, as it makes them feel invulnerable.

5. The same goes for the rest of us as members of a consumer society. We are all engaged in a project of death-denial.

6. Capitalism is therefore obsessed with death, and is driving us towards not only an ecological but also a psychological catastrophe. In short, consumption is destruction.

7. A return to authentic living can only be achieved by acknowledging the original act of repression which brought this about and that continues to fuel capitalism. In other words, to more fully embrace life, we need to accept death.

All this is set out in the eponymous first essay with which Capitalism and the Death Drive commences, and the remaining pieces in the book serve to embellish Han’s core argument. Again, it is worth attempting to bring his somewhat disparate ideas together in a summary format, as this will help to identify some of the ways in which Han’s thesis, for all its merits, is not entirely coherent. So here we go again:

1.Neoliberalism has snuffed out dissent by turning us into atomised, lonely entrepreneurs of the self.

2. This eliminates any possibility of communal resistance, as the class struggle has effectively been internalized.

3. We have willingly acceded to this state of affairs because we have been told that neoliberalism is libertarian, so we are, ‘free to choose’.

4. So we are now essentially self-exploiting rather than exploited by others within this system.

5. Plus, we are incarcerated in a ‘digital panopticon.’

6. In the 18th Century, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham designed what he called a ‘panopticon’, a prison in which 24/7 surveillance of all inmates was possible, and in which the prisoners, who were all isolated from each other and forbidden to communicate, could never tell whether they were being watched.

7. Fast-forward to the 21st Century and we have now become obedient servants of social media, and are all too willing to communicate, to be enticed and encouraged into voluntary acts of self-disclosure, via the medium of online posts, Tweets and ‘likes’, which in turn render us transparent to a regime of surveillance capitalism, and that transform us into ‘puppets on algorithmic strings’.

8. At the same time, an underclass of the poor, as well as those who are hostile to this ‘ban-opticon’* are categorised as ‘waste’ are excluded from it.

A little more perhaps needs to be said about ‘self-exploitation’ here. Once individuals effectively become microcosms within a neoliberal macrocosm, discrete and isolated pocket versions of a PLC, any personal failings on their part cannot be explained as resulting from systemic injustices, so that, in the words of Han, ‘If I fail, I take responsibility for this failure. If I suffer, if I go bust, I have only myself to blame. Because it is wholly voluntary, self-exploitation is exploitation without domination.’ Mindfulness or ‘McMindfulness’ (see above) is therefore a technique ideally suited to this kind of economic environment. All symptoms of dysfunctionality are psychologized, explained away as products of excessive rumination or entanglement in and identification with powerful emotions, and can be remedied through a stress-releasing period of immersion in the present moment.

Han’s reference to Bentham’s panopticon is also noteworthy, given that some might regard a culture of gratification through consumption as exemplifying Bentham’s moral philosophy, according to which our decision-making should always aim to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’. The irony here is that we end up being imprisoned in a Benthamite utopia.

How convincing is Han’s critique of late period capitalism? Well, first of all, the fact that it is partly based on Freud’s death instinct may cause some to regard it as suspect. This is because Freudian psychoanalysis is regarded in some circles as unscientific, as no testable hypotheses have ever been derived from any of his theories. For this very reason, Karl Popper thought that psychoanalysis was unfalsifiable, and therefore unscientific.

However, in more recent times, and specifically with regard to the death drive, some intriguing research has been carried out which suggests that Popper’s assumption may be unwarranted. It has been described in this publication:

As John Gray has stated, ‘The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

One crucial piece of research cited by the co-authors describes what transpired when some Creationist Christians and evolutionists were confronted with a description of ambulocetus or ‘the walking whale’ in a passage from a book by the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Would threatening people’s cherished beliefs bring thoughts of mortality closer to consciousness? Ambulocetus could walk as well as swim, proving that whales evolved from land to sea based animals. ‘If you had given me both a blank sheet of paper and a blank check’ Gould wrote, ‘I could not have drawn you a theoretical intermediate any better or more convincing than ambulocetus….Ambulocetus is the very animal that creationists proclaimed impossible in theory.’

The passage obviously undercuts the central creationist claim that there are no transitional species, no ‘missing links’ of this kind.

Everyone who had read the extract was then required to complete a word-stem exercise. Creationists confronted with evidence that jarred with their core principles came up with more death-associated words. Here’s how:

Co _ _ _ _

Sk _ _ _

Gr _ _ _

Where others might complete the blanks to produce ‘Coffee’, ‘Skill’, ‘Grind’, many of the Creationists wrote instead, ‘Coffin’, ‘Skull’, ‘Grave’.

One other interesting aspect of this ongoing research is the punitive behaviour that death reminders can provoke.

In another study it was found that judges who were encouraged to ponder their mortality in response to a bogus questionnaire that they filled out immediately before sentencing tended to be far more severe than those who did not. The judges in a control group who did not complete the survey imposed an average bond of $50 for a case that was invented by the researchers but which they thought was genuine. Contrastingly, the judges who had pondered their demise imposed a bond of, on average, $455, more than nine times the typical tab.

The study perhaps also casts an interesting light on the vitriol directed at environmental activist Greta Thunberg, particularly from the older generation, given the agenda of the Extinction Rebellion movement, which might be perceived as a death reminder on a global scale.

Additionally, in his book Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death, the octogenarian former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway wryly observed that: ‘Narcissism in both its classic and Freudian forms has become a prevalent disease in late-modern societies obsessed with image and the screen technologies that promote it. It supplies the energy for one of the of the main enterprises of modern capitalism, the Anti-Ageing and Postponement of Death industry, what we might call the AAPD complex. We spend fortunes delaying death and the physical dissolution that precedes it.’

In summary, what might seem to be the weakest link in Han’s argument turns out to have quite a lot going for it.

Nevertheless, there remains a lack of fit between his assertion that a more authentic form of living is still possible (though just how you could tell the difference between someone who has stared down mortality and someone living in denial remains to be seen**), and the more pessimistic line that Han takes with regard to imprisonment within a neoliberal panopticon, which would appear to hold out no prospect for a jailbreak. Given the emphasis in the book that Han places on rationality, in the final analysis, perhaps escape is only possible for philosophers like him, who have emerged blinking into the daylight from the darkness of Plato’s famous Cave.

* ‘ban-opticon’ is simply a synonym for Bentham’s panopticon, one that is intended to convey the notion that some are actually excluded from it.

** Though a possible candidate for what Han might be thinking of is Terence Stamp’s character Willie Parker, who has acquired an inner peace that appears to make him entirely accepting of the prospect of dying at the hands of two gangsters in Stephen Frears’s acclaimed but rarely seen movie The Hit.