Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mary Swann by Carol Shields

I have just completed four years of thinking through a project. There were several false starts, many rejected, some reworked ideas. What I wanted to achieve was tangible, but I could not grasp it. When I thought I had it held, it would melt away or fly out like squeezed soap. Some six months ago things gelled and I began in earnest to write Eileen McHugh, a life remade. It’s the story of a sculptor who left no work, but who, by accident in this case, had become sufficiently recognized for a biographer to reconstruct her life and remake her lost work.

With the book complete and published, I decided it was time to relax and took up Mary Swann by Carol Shields. I found and bought it in a charity shop bag-full because I knew the author, not the book. I began to read and the experience was uncanny.

Mary Swann concerns of life and work of a poet from rural Canada. The town of Nadeau was both small and insignificant, until, that is, the world discovered a slim volume of a hundred or so poems by one Mary Swann, insignificant herself, until she was murdered - shot, bludgeoned, dismembered - by her husband in 1965.

Born in 1915, the exact date still debatable, she lived out her anonymous, almost hidden life, even from locals, on the farm. Elsewhere in the world this would be called a peasant holding and her life would be characterized as mired in poverty. Mary Swann had no domestic help, no appliances, none of the trappings of modern life. She never drove a car. Isolated, remote, poor, dilapidated are words that applied equally to the setting of the life and the person who lived it. Nothing much is known of her relationship with her husband, who killed himself after murdering his wife. The erasure was complete, except that they had a daughter who is alive, but is unwilling to discuss family matters.

But Mary Swan wrote. She wrote pithy, crunchy verse that inhabits the world this side of the garden gate but seems to dig deep into the infinite internal space of being. Academics, having discovered her work, likened her to Emily Dickinson. Mr. Crozzi who originally accepted her poems for publication and produced a couple of hundred copies of Swann’s Songs, the perhaps appropriately titled slim volume, was the last person to see her alive, apart from her husband. There are estimated to be about 20 extant copies of the collection. But the content has found its admirers and champions. There are even academics whose reputation is built on the critique of Mary Swann’s verse.

There is to be a symposium on the poet and her work and Carol Shields follows the lives, testimonies and experience of a group of interested parties. There are academic researchers, who cooperate by competing. There is Rose, the Nadeau town librarian, timid, self-effacing and suffering. There is Crozzi, perhaps a little crazy, the publisher and a long-standing journalist in the local press, though himself an immigrant. He is an eccentric, opinionated type who dearly misses his deceased wife. He also likes a drink or two. There are Sarah and Morton, academics with their own lives to live who have championed Mary Swann’s work.  And there are others. Via the experiences of these characters and others, we piece together something of the life and work of Mary Swann, though, like everyone else involved, we never know her and her work remains enigmatic.

What for me was utterly uncanny, was that this was the exact form I had chosen for Eileen McHugh. Exactly what makes an artist? Why do we try to express ourselves in these arcane, often esoteric forms? What is authorship? What constitutes recognition? Who controls that process? How does life influence art, or vice versa? How do we recall our interactions from the past with someone we never thought we would remember? At eighty per cent through Mary Swann, I felt like I was reading a different version of my own book and I concluded I was very glad I had not read Carol Shields’s book before inventing my own.

But eventually, things diverged. Carol Shields’ Mary Swann concludes with the symposium on the poet’s work, a meeting that brings together the characters we have been following and constructed in the form of a screenplay. A particular thread of the plot begins to dominate. Competition surfaces, insults are perceived, and offense is taken. Difficult to explain events coalesce to identify and conclude what really has been going on in the background throughout the book. By the end of this superbly crafted and constructed novel, we are intimately involved in considerable slices of the contemporary characters’ lives.  Mary Swann, however, lingers in a continued, enigmatic anonymity that remains entirely her own, just as, thankfully, does that of my own Eileen McHugh.

Last Stories by William Trevor

Painters know that the viewer’s gaze can be tricked. Perhaps led is the better word, for this deception’s aim is merely to communicate more effectively. In visual art this can often mean placing a single line or mark, rather than spending hours with a hair-thin brush trying to capture detail. The trick, if it is one, is to convey all the detail by suggestion, so that the viewer’s mind creates it and therefore sees it.

The equivalent for writers is surely the ability to convey meaning both effectively and succinctly. But the idea goes beyond this. If we want to describe the life of a character, for example, we cannot and must not seek to include every detail. Salient points, finely formed, provide a complete picture. A single word, correctly chosen can create personality in a way that description alone can never achieve.

The technique is particularly noticeable in that much used but rarely mastered genre, the short story. And William Trevor offers a superb example of how it should be done in his Last Stories. These pieces are about people, their lives, loves, losses, hopes and fears. What happens to them is only as important as the how. And by the end of each story, we feel we have met the characters, shared their lives for a few pages. But we also feel we know them individually, and in depth.

William Trevor’s technique is startling. If this were visual, it would present a large canvas, most of which would be blank. Here and there would be marks, dabs, lines, almost randomly scattered across the surface. But when we stand back, these would coalesce and sum to reveal utterly convincing detail, which would then fill the rest of the picture. It is so easy when creating a short story to concentrate on the minuscule, to conclude that the form is better suited to the containable. Here William Trevor lays this idea to rest, elegantly, succinctly and in suggested, but vivid detail.

Monday, January 11, 2021

Childe Harold by Lord Byron

I finished a novel recently. In Eileen McHugh, a life remade, I created a character called Alice, an art teacher close to retirement, as the principal character’s sculpture teacher during her first year as an art student. The structure of the book demanded that the story, set in the 1970s, should be told by contemporary survivors from today’s perspective. Alice would not have lived until now, so I passed the responsibility of her character to her son, a physics professor in a university in the north of England. I had already decided on the surname of the artistic household in which the son grew up. It was, by chance, Childe. These two artist parents, one three-dimensional, the other two, would certainly have chosen a one-dimensional name for their son, so I called him Harold, Harold Childe. It was a joke.

Then, a few days later, I heard a performance of Harold in Italy, the viola concerto in all but name by Berlioz. Somewhere in this drug-fuelled Romanticism there was an account, or perhaps the mere reflection, on Byron‘s Childe Harold’s travels through Italy. It occurred to me that I should re-read the poem. I read it first when I was the age that my character, Eileen McHugh, was in her art college. I could now remember next to nothing about it.

It’s an heroic poem by the equally drug-fuelled Lord Byron, written in nine lines stanzas, eight pentameters followed by the terminating Alexandrine. It rhymes ABABBCBCB, meaning that five lines in every stanza rhyme in a traditional manner. In it, our eponymous hero traverses the Mediterranean by sea, if that’s linguistically possible, and visits many places where an artistic education might recall classical allusion. Throughout the journey, he calls in to places with millennia of evident history and proceeds to show off much of what he knowns, all learned within the confines of an English private education. Childe Harold remains self-obsessed, always eager to place his own responses at the forefront of his thoughts, often in spite of external stimulation. But that’s Romanticism, isn’t it? And I had not just written about Eileen McHugh, a 1970s concept artist who imagined meaning into everything she might choose to juxtapose?

Some years ago, I wrote a novel that attempted a loose parody of Don Quixote. It was called A Search for Donald Cottee. I am the person who wrote it, so you will be unsurprised by my estimation of success. I was particularly proud of my updating of the episode in the Caves of Montesinos. I began to wonder how one might parody Byron’s Harold some 200 years on from its conception.

So rather than review Childe Harold, which has probably been done, what I offer here is a plan of parody that may never be written. The first two stanzas, for me, if experienced today, would be a Mediterranean cruise. Let’s not experience much at first hand but take pleasure in being dropped off for a passing couple of hours in the protected zone of somewhere famous, visited, historical, as specified in the brochure. A diary, kept by our cruiser, written in verse, is Childe Harold 2020, with sections copied from the handouts given on the onshore day trips. It’s not Childe Harold’s nor any other passenger’s reflections on experience that forms the gist but grab quotes from the tourist notes supplied to anyone who was paid for the excursion.

The later stanzas do travel inland. How we get from A to B is largely ignored, but Byron rarely strays anywhere off the Grand Tour. In contemporary terms. it’s surely a bus trip, a 50-strong group of the kind that marches, chattering, past the wonders of Neapolitan art in Capodimonte, to be loudly lectured in front of the Caravaggio, in Milan ignores the Brera to marvel at the Last Supper’s peeling plaster and congregates surround the copy of David in front of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. I think I jest. But Naples is rather too dirty to walk around, isn’t it?

What interest me in 2020, is the fact that the coronavirus pandemic would make both cruise and bus trips rather difficult to pursue. The barriers are obvious and I will not even try to list them. So how would Childe Harold 2020 manage to suffer his cascaded paroxysms of emotion?

Online, that’s how. WebCams, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Airb’n’b reviews, restaurant evaluations complete with owner’s apologetic comments about the service, that’s how our lockdown 2020 Childe Harold might play his viola. Imagine the locked-down pensioners at home. Where did you go today dear? I had a walk around the Uffizi. Ignored the crap. Just looked at the Canalettos. Read about them as well. Views of Venice, apparently. The poem will be epic.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Tribes by David Lammy

Tribes by David Lammy promises much, delivers something, but ultimately fails to convince. Its problem lies in the very nature of its vision, not that this is wrong, misguided or anything less than laudable. This ultimate failure to convince, in fact, derives from the overall vision‘s inability to confront the very issues that the author identifies at the start.

David Lammy is a British politician, currently a member of Labour’s Shadow Cabinet. In Tribes he attempts to evaluate the political landscape, beginning with a theoretical analysis of why class and other grander identities have become fragmented into what might seem to be smaller, interest-led groupings that he calls ‘tribes’. Many readers might expect this analysis to be developed, but instead the author pursues a personal reflection on some of the ideas raised. And, as the book progresses, the context becomes more personal still, before a final section attempts its rational, credible and, given what preceded, impossible finale. The approach renders the book very readable, but less than satisfying after its promise of theoretical discussion.

The author is a remarkable man. He was born to a Guyanese immigrant family in north London’s Tottenham, brought up by a single mother and then attended the cathedral choir school in Peterborough. London University preceded Harvard Law School, where he became the first black British graduate. In Silicon Valley he became a lawyer and then was elected as a Member of Parliament on behalf of the Labour Party. And then he was a government minister. These are just a few of the facts of this brilliant man’s life – thus far! His wife is white and his children are mixed race, whatever that means, since we are all mixed race, if we are human.

But in a quest for identity of the type that seems to obsess modern people, David Lammy sought out a DNA analysis. The results suggested a mix of origins, one of which linked to the Tuareg of the west African Sahel. The author spends much time and resources researching this link and then, as far as possible, experiencing it at first hand. Though ultimately this association is revealed as tenuous at best, perhaps even illusory, the author’s willingness and enthusiasm to pursue it illustrates a point he makes early on in the book, that identity nowadays seems more strongly felt on a personal rather than group basis. Except, of course, where the group has the ability to bolster and confirm the personal.

David Lammy introduces Maffesoli’s concept of neo-tribes, communities of feeling, to identify a contemporary trend of seeing one’s own personal identity purely in terms of a group identity. Thus, rational approaches to certain issues which, by the nature, are universal, become devalued as neo-tribes develop their own internal values and explanations. It is the fact that these are identity-conferring minority positions that provides the focus for the neo-tribe identity. Fragmentation in our social, economic and religious life fosters the replacement of universalism. This is a crucial point.

A few pages on and David Lammy identifies practically how this behaviour, even propensity, has been exploited by the political Right. He cites two successful electoral slogans - “Make America Great Again” and “Take Back Control”, to which might be added “Get Brexit Done” - as examples of labels that brought success to campaigns by exploiting group fears above rational arguments, thus defeating rational analyses that recognized, or at least attempted to recognize, the true complexity of the issues discussed. The slogans denied this complexity and offered an illusion of simple solutions. David Lammy persuasively illustrates how these simple emotive but inaccurate messages prevailed over the complex, unclear, yet accurate counter argument.

Still in the introduction, he quotes a survey that claims almost two thirds of UK voters still believe the oft-falsified claim that the country sends 350 million pounds a week to the European Union. David Lammy follows this by stating that there still exists a group of deluded individuals who think that Arsenal are the best football team in north London. By way of balance, I will remind him that about thirty-five years ago the philosopher AJ Ayer wrote that it ought to be impossible for a logical positivist to support Tottenham Hotspur. Joking aside, the author thus illustrates that once accepted by a neo-tribe, a falsehood can retain its own internal illusion of truth.

But people do support Arsenal and others Tottenham. They can’t both be right if they assert they follow the ‘best’ team. From the internally accepted values from within the group, however, they can both be right. Even a moment after chanting “what a load of rubbish” at their own team, such a tribe would unite if the same sentiment were to be expressed by the opposition. Welcome to the Conservative Party, which is forever internally divided, but externally as united as Stalin’s allies, until purged, then largely silent. And who cares if the message is irrational, impossible, implausible or even irrelevant? The tribe will back it to exclude others. And it works.

There is much in Tribes that it is rational, clearly expressed, credible and heartfelt. It is a superb snapshot of where British politics and society now reside, precariously in opposing camps, ideologically armed, but often not agreeing on a language where debate might happen, where sensible question is usually answered by an irrelevant, unrelated positive soundbite.

The book’s overarching message, however, is flawed, since by the end we have returned to the necessity of acknowledging and recognizing the complexities of real issues. We must trust our rationality and engage in the politics of discussion and debate. Global problems need global solutions. Working in isolation will foster failure. Messy international cooperation and thus, effectively, globalization is the only way out of local problems. The difficulty with such a laudable, deliverable and sensible analysis, however, is that it fails, repeatedly, in the face of soundbite slogans that seek and achieve short-term, but identity-giving non-solutions. Remember Vote for Victory?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is a deeply disturbing book. This scenario that unfolds around the life of its principal character and narrator, Harrison Opoku, always feels uncomfortably real. For the most part, these are scenes that inner-city dwellers pass every day, whilst the denouement, thankfully, is still rare, despite such events often appearing to be daily occurrences.

Harrison Opoku is eleven years old, secondary school year seven to British readers. He is into many things that interest inner-city kids. He is athletic and regularly tells us he is fast he is faster than most, especially when wearing his new branded trainers, if brand logos can be drawn on in felt tip, that is. We doubt, however, whether his assessment is based on more than a competitive dash to the next lamppost along a pavement containing just a few old ladies and gentlemen.

He is prone to the exaggeration of youth, with most experiences being the best, biggest, coolest in at least a million years. He is also prone to the novelty of youth, where the mundane is revealed as special. This is one of Stephen Kelman’s great achievements, in that one feels authentically inside the psyche of this near-pubescent boy without ever being forced into the experience.

Harri is competitive, regularly awarding points to himself in make-believe games that often involve such spectacular activities as spotting particular governments going around inside a Launderette machine. He lives in a tower block in a place that feels like London but could be anywhere in Britain. One does sense an oppressiveness, a claustrophobia pervading the thoughts of all concerned. Everything is local, to the extent that the end of the street is really quite distant.

Harrison Opoku, however, was not British born. He came from Ghana and still has vivid memories of his African family and their culture. To say he is a child of two worlds, or two cultures, however, would be a mistake. Harry lives his own life, the only life he has, and it comes with whatever amalgam of beliefs and cultures he has thus far assimilated. He is a black, African kid, it is true, but labelling him as such ignores the fact that the greatest influence on his life is the here and now. And the here and now is inner-city Britain.

He goes to school, where he meets some teachers who cope and some who do not. School is a priority, but it is well down the list, it seems. His friends and acquaintances largely attend the same institution and some of them can be trusted, whilst some of them can be trusted to shaft you. Some of them steal your dinner money. Some of them sell you drugs. Some of them prick you with compass points in the thigh to make you cry out in class and get into trouble. Some of them carry knives. And use them.

In this big anonymous city, Harry inhabits quite a small world. He has a crush on Poppy, whom he thinks might also have a crush on him. He never strays far from home, because that may be someone else’s territory, a different gang, who are likely to treat you like an immigrant. And there has been a problem. A boy is dead, stabbed, and the police have taped off the crime scene. But for Harri, what has happened is close to home, perhaps too close, and he resolves to solve the crime that currently baffles the police. He devises a strategy and plays at its enactment. This involves becoming an expert in fingerprinting, in making casts of footwear imprints, of noticing and collecting evidence. Someone, surely, must be noting his activity.

Throughout Pigeon English, Harri talks to the pigeon who picks up the feed he leaves outside his window. The pigeon seems to know what Harry, himself, suspects. And thus we move between the serious and playful, fact and make-believe, with the boundaries marked by postcodes, street names and imagining lives that only those involved may see. We learn to inhabit this eleven year-old’s world, to share its novelty and understand its reality.

Investigating a murder, dodging the dealers, not stepping on the cracks in the pavement, it’s all a game. Until it isn’t.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology is a monumental achievement. Its scope is vast, its size is daunting, its scholarship and vision both quite breath-taking on every one of its 1000-plus pages. Ostensibly, it claims to be an analysis of the origins, politics and economics of inequality, but it goes considerably deeper and further than its brief. This work is nothing less than a snapshot of global economic history and politics taken at the time of writing. Though the historical element might be seen in different forms via the lenses of centuries and assumed perspectives, the book’s analysis of current political issues was always going to be subject to faster change.  I doubt whether Thomas Piketty himself would have predicted that, just a few months after his work’s publication, the global economic and political landscape would be redrawn by a new, microscopic virus. But that is exactly what has happened. And, given the effects on wealth and asset distribution the author attributes to the capital-destroying wars that dictated the history of the twentieth century, one wonders what a post-Covid analysis of the mechanisms that create and maintain inequality might look like. One suspects that the political prescriptions in the book’s last chapter may just, out of sheer necessity, have been rendered more likely.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century charted the origins and extent of inequality in human societies. Capital and Ideology follows on by examining current and historical circumstances and mechanisms that determine its extent and influence its propagation. The book charts comparisons of inequality across countries, continents, cultures and eras. In doing so, its author uses much more than statistical comparisons. Historical and cultural perspectives are offered. Economic analyses are suggested. Crucially, societal structures are analysed, especially those of triumvirate societies, where the ownership of religious, scientific and military power provide the justification and the means of establishing and maintaining skewed ownership of assets. Though the book covers much ground, many different civilizations, locations and eras, the overall analytical focus is never lost.

A criticism of such an achievement may seem petty, but the book could have profitably dealt with one of its weaknesses much earlier. A constantly aired opinion of Thomas Piketty’s work is that, like all socialists, he wants everyone to be the same, to compress all to the same lowest common denominator. This, the criticism continues, would stifle creativity and drive in any society that tried to implement his recommended policies or even tried to address the obvious and growing inequality caused by market capitalism. Readers of Capital and Ideology, however, will have to wait until the book’s last chapter before reading this passage.

“A just society is one that allows all of its members access to the widest possible range of fundamental goods. Fundamental goods include education, health, the right to vote, and more generally to participate as fully as possible in the various forms of social, cultural, economic, civic, and political life. A just society organizes socioeconomic relations, property rights, and the distribution of income and wealth in such a way as to allow its least advantaged members to enjoy the highest possible life conditions. A just society in no way requires absolute uniformity or equality. To the extent that income and wealth inequalities are the result of different aspirations and distinct life choices or permit improvement of the standard of living and expansion of the opportunities available to the disadvantaged, they may be considered just. But this must be demonstrated, not assumed, and this argument cannot be invoked to justify any degree of inequality whatsoever, as it too often is.”

Let’s juxtapose this quote from page 967 of Thomas Piketty’s book with the following: “Above all, we will listen to the people who have felt left behind by the last few decades of economic growth and want to have control of their future. (We) will give the public services the resources they need, supporting our hospitals, our schools and our police. We will help people and families throughout their lives…” This latter passage is quoted verbatim from the webpage of the British Conservative Party, from the manifesto upon which they fought their successful campaign for the 2019 election, an election where an unprecedented number of voters from disadvantaged communities (largely as a result of previous Conservative governments’ priorities) opted to vote for the party in the hope they would honour a promise to “level up” the country. There seems to be electoral kudos in levelling, despite the opinion of right-wing politicians who extol the need for libertarian individualism married to economically deregulated separatism. Thomas Piketty analyses such tendencies and offers a paradigm to explain these shifting political alliances.

Capital and Ideology is the perfect text for anyone needing an update on the world. It has so many succinct and pertinent analyses that even a list of its insights would be a tome in itself. Some examples will suffice.

For instance, if anyone finds it hard to understand why certain elite groups from Western democracies might now be sympathetic towards Putin’s Russia, Thomas Piketty can enlighten.

It is important to note that it is very difficult to measure and analyse income and wealth in postcommunist Russia because the society is so opaque. This is due in large part to decisions taken first by the government headed by Boris Yeltsin and later by Vladimir Putin to permit unprecedented evasion of Russian law through the use of offshore entities and tax havens. In addition, the postcommunist regime abandoned not only any ambition to redistribute property but also any effort to record income or wealth. For example, there is no inheritance tax in postcommunist Russia, so there are no data on the size of inheritances. There is an income tax, but it is strictly proportional, and its rate since 2001 has been just 13 percent, whether the income being taxed is 1000 rubles or 100 billion rubles.”

When this is placed alongside the fact that Europe in general and the European Union in particular is a global outlier in the extent of its greater equality of wealth and income and we can see immediately why the libertarian, individualists of the political right, who for example favour Brexit for the United Kingdom, might also cast an envious glance towards Russia’s largely unregulated treatment of wealth, no matter how it was amassed.

Thomas Piketty offer numerous such insights. He analyses India’s castes, charts the French Revolution, analyses politics in the USA and takes long hard looks at colonialism and empires. And what is more, all of this is accomplished with transparency and fluidity, so that at no stage does a reader feel presented with a mere list. The analysis of current political strands is particularly enlightening.

Piketty rejects the term “populism” as meaningless. He prefers to use “identitarian” to describe the tendency for many voters in democracies to retreat behind promised protectionism and fortified borders to exclude foreigners. In doing so, he sums up both cause and effect in a single idea, a summary that is both more accurate and more enlightening than “populism” in terms of understanding the political direction being followed. But he goes beyond description and offers analysis of motives. He cites, for example, evidence relating to Poland and Hungary, both of whom currently have governments that have displayed tendencies to restrict freedom or roll back liberalism, even to the extent that they are at odds with a European Union they were once eager to join. Many observers are perplexed by this phenomenon, noting that both countries have benefitted hugely from European development aid and inward investment. Piketty’s analysis, however, examines net transfers and finds that for both countries, capital flow has consistently been out of the country and towards Europe’s epicentres of wealth. And electorates are aware of this bloodletting. The only solution, he maintains, is greater political integration, not less.

He analyses politics in the USA, though obviously not in great depth. He does, however, make enlightening points about race to illustrate how the Democrats became transformed from the party of southern slavery to the natural home of the “ethnic” vote. It is a process that happened over a century, from the Civil War, when the Republicans were the champions of opposition to slavery through the New Deal and into the late 1960s, when it was the Democrats who espoused civil rights.

The author spends much of the early part of the book identifying the structure of triumvirate societies, where a peasant majority is ruled by an alliance between warrior and priestly classes who, combined, rarely accounted for more than ten percent of the population. He then shows how this structure developed into proprietarianism, which preserved the right of the ruling classes to own property. This later evolved into capitalism when the owners of property increased the scale of operations and created industrialization. He makes a convincing case in relation to the political control claimed by an alliance of religion and sword that was used to justify and then preserve property ownership of the ruling minority. Piketty offers the following, again late in the book:

“I have defined proprietarianism as a political ideology based on the absolute defense of private property; capitalism as the extension of proprietarianism into the age of large-scale industry, international finance, and more recently to the digital economy. At bottom capitalism rests on the concentration of economic power in the hands of the owners of capital. In principle, the owners of real estate capital can decide to whom they wish to rent and at what price while the owners of financial and professional capital govern corporations according to the principle of “one share one vote”, which entitles them, among other things, to decide by themselves whom to hire and at what wage.”

And then there arose democracy and later war. It was not that wars had been unknown in the pre-modern era, but he suggests that the industrialization of war after the dawn of the modern era rendered it more thoroughly and extensively destructive than it had previously been. Because of its destruction of property and the creation of debt via interruption of economic life, war threatened proprietarian societies in a way they had never before experienced. Democracy also threatened ownership directly unless it could be manipulated, of course, and both of these threats to the classes born to own had to be managed. Ownership had previously coped with war losses, the twice national income debt in Britain after the Napoleonic Wars, for instance, having been turned to the owners’ advantage by the issuing of bonds their capital bought and a century of poor people’s contributions rendered lucrative to their owners via interest and redemptions.

Democracy posed a new type of challenge to the owners of assets, and still does. So, to explain how systems of inequality can be maintained after everyone, at least in theory, has an equal say, Thomas Piketty needs to examine in detail how politics have changed over the last century. He now finds there exist four almost equally popular political ideologies. He writes:

“In 2017, 21 percent of voters could be classified as “egalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-poor); 26 percent are “inegalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-rich); 23 percent are “inegalitarian internationalists” (pro-immigrant, pro-rich), and 30 percent are “egalitarian nativists” (anti-immigrant, pro-poor).”

Furthermore, he finds that there is now a tendency for there to develop an alliance between the two factions of nativism, an alliance that does not challenge property rights.


And, crucially, he finds that the social democrat model that made significant inroads into inequality in the middle of the twentieth century has now been transformed into an ideology of a Brahmin-like educated elite, leaving the votes of the losers in the distribution of wealth to be hoovered into an identitarian trap by the owners of an increasing share of property. This, in essence, is not dissimilar in character to the concept of false consciousness that Marxists find they have to apply in order to explain why masses of people regularly vote or act against their own interests. Here, Thomas Piketty offers a rational mechanism and a convincing argument by which false consciousness can be cultivated and exploited, an approach which does not fall into the distasteful trap of branding poorer people merely stupid.

There is so much in Capital and Ideology that it is almost impossible to review. Reading it comes close to a life-changing experience. Please do read it. Do persevere with its length. Take it at a steady pace and read something else, something contrasting, alongside. Readers will immediately and repeatedly find themselves amazed at the scholarship, the revelations and the rationality of the book’s argument. Anyone interested in our own times should regard it as essential reading. The presence of a virus, however, probably demands a companion volume, since the political and economic landscape is now surely transformed, just like war ripped up its design a century ago.

Eventually, Thomas Piketty champions the politics of social democracy as the solution to growing inequality and, eventually, environmental degradation. He cites the example of Sweden, in that:

“it shows that inequality is not the product of some essential cultural predisposition: in the space of a few years Sweden moved from the most extreme hyper-inegalitarian proprietarian system, which survived until 1909-11, to a quintessential egalitarian social-democratic society once SAP came to power in the 1920s and then ruled almost continuously from 1932 to 2006.”

With the right policies and crucially an end to the retreat into identitarian separatism, the author sees a future where, during an individual lifetime, people can be as entrepreneurial and as successful as they like, but where tax systems and inheritance management ensure the recirculation of wealth and capital to ensure it does not become the permanent property of an ever-smaller elite. A still far from perfect Europe is the example, while the libertarian, identitarian deregulators pose the threat.


Monday, December 28, 2020

From The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s From The House of the Dead is not a novel. Though its principal character, its narrator, the upper-class Goryanchikov, is probably a fictitious identity, it is also probably the author, himself, masquerading, so the overall impression is that of a recollection of real experience. We do not know if the other inmates of the prison camp where the book is set are faithful descriptions of real people, but they certainly come across as such. If there is anything that lingers after reading this book, then it is the immediacy of its realism.

Dostoevsky spent years in such a camp, in Siberia, of course, after surviving his own execution via a last minute reprieve which arrived, apparently, as his executioners as were ready to take aim. It was a bit of a wheeze and quite often used by the Russian royals and their system. Perhaps they were always late in the signing of such orders, since they were probably preoccupied with the counting of their serfs’ earnings, or should I say the earnings from the serfs. One has to be careful to look after the welfare of one’s subjects, after all, because if these people were actually to starve to death, one would take a cut in income and one might have to run the fountains at Peterhof half an hour or less each month. I exaggerate, perhaps but one senses that Dostoyevsky did not.

And it is the detail of the descriptions offered by its author that bring this living death to life. When he describes how even a misplaced word or glance could result in a prisoner receiving literally hundreds of lashes, one begins to understand the nature of absolute power derived from God.

It is perhaps the descriptions of these beatings that linger the longest in a reader’s memory by the end of this book. Dostoyevsky, via Goryanchikov, of course, describes the state of the flesh on the backs of the persons who had just returned from their ordeals. He even allows those tasked with the delivery of these disciplinary measures to describe the minutiae of their technique. We learn, for instance, that the ultimate weapon for the corporal punishment artist is the birch. It was the particular flexibility of this wood that enabled the true expression of the beater’s persona, in that its ability to store energy meant that a few tens of lashes from the birch could be as destructive as a hundred from a cane. The reader should take note of the advice. It may come in useful.

One of the more book’s arresting memories is how often such punishments appear to happen. After all, it’s the deterrent effect which is their most important function, so to be effective in this they should be used as frequently as possible. It will make them think twice, then thrice and so on…

But in the end, as the composer Laos Janacek concluded, it is the humanity of the people involved that shines through. Some of these people committed the most horrible crimes and most of them enjoyed relating their stories. And there was always, it seemed, an internal logic in their stories that arises to justify action, no matter how disastrous the effects may have proved, no matter how dire the consequences may have been. It is not that they were proud of what they had done, but its reality had become part of them, part of their present and future, as well as their past. One wonders if the royals and their loyals used to indulge similarly by recounting the histories of those they condemned.

Overall, one marvels at how these prison camp inmates simply get on with their lives. They eat their food, whatever it is, involve themselves in illicit trade, run their own drinking establishments, of sorts, and probably engage in conjugal acts of whatever character can be imagined. And they cooperate when they are not getting beaten. The next century had Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and frankly, little would appear to have changed, apart from the eventual ownership of the facility.