Where Are We Then?

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British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton

The search for identity, and the valuing of identity against the demands of global commerce, is likely to become the critical factor in national elections.

Roger Scruton, Where We Are, p. 177

In May we saw something rather wonderful in Britain: the coming together of the nation around an ancient institution, seemingly made young and fresh by its most recent addition. No, not Love Island on ITV2, but the wedding of Prince Harry and the American divorcee Megan Markle, now the Duchess of Sussex.

I mention this because it is interesting to note that whilst democratic politics have been extraordinarily divisive these last couple of years, a Royal event has brought a degree of, if not harmony, then at least accord.

Even those joyless naysayers who repeatedly profess not to take an interest, do so with a resigned smile saying that, as it is just a prince some steps down the pecking order of heir to the throne, the event wasn’t all that important, showing that they have, after all, been paying attention in class (albeit from the back and chewing gum).

Keep that in mind along with an article in the Sunday Times entitled ‘Heil Hipsters’, where Andrew Gillingham wrote about the new phenomenon of mainly young people uniting under the banner of ‘Generation Identity’ (GI). A Guardian article took umbrage at the article not presenting the group in a way the Guardian writer agreed with, pulling out the usual left-wing incantations of denouncement: “racist” and “fascist”, comparing the GI-ers to ISIS, without actually criticising any specific standpoint the group purports to favour, and fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of ISIS: a “nation” built on religious creed, not blood relations.

I think calling the Identitarian movement ‘fascist’ is slightly off the mark, and risk making the same mistake as it is calling everyone ‘racist’ who wants a sensible immigration policy. Whether we like it or not, we must, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, engage with the ideas we don’t like, and argue in favour of something else. Those calling for a sensible immigration policy do of course have the advantage that they may be right, but the GI-ers most definitely do not. What the Identitarians have done, is embrace a collectivist narrative. On their website they talk of the rights of “peoples” (not individual people but groups of people) and the right to maintain “group identity”. Well, well, well, where have they learned to think like that, I wonder? Perhaps by reading the Guardian?

Group identity – and indeed identity politics – has been a growing phenomenon in our neck of the woods (the Western word, US and UK in particular) for the past few decades. It reached fever pitch with the two phenomena that superficially seem to have so much in common that they are nearly always mentioned in one breath: TrumpAndBrexit.

In Britain, much has been made of David Goodhart’s claim that those who voted in favour of leaving the European Union were the Somewheres, pitted in existential battle against the Anywheres, who voted to stay within the multi-national organisation. In his latest book, Where We Are, the English philosopher Roger Scruton points to polling that, in contrast to this narrative, shows that “[…]both sides of the Brexit debate – the leavers and the remainers – identify what matters most to them as job, family and place, in other words, as the three normal ways of being rooted.” (P. 88).

It is far less about Brexit vs. Remain than Young vs. Old. Younger people tend to be less tied to place than the older generations, and more geographically mobile, connected through networks and virtual communication on social media, rather than physical proximity.

This lack of belonging could be a democratic problem. Scruton, a mainly Conservative philosopher, highlights a point that is very similar to the socialist Yanis Varoufakis, that for genuine democracy to be possible, there must first be a “demos”. As Scruton puts it “[…] we are in need of an inclusive first-person plural, one that unites both the mobile elite and the settled people.” (P. 54).

For Varoufakis this idea leads him down the dangerously Utopian idea that it is possible to develop a Europe-wide sense of “we”, a European demos that can lend democratic legitimacy to the patently Napoleonic institutions of the current EU set-up.  Scruton takes in my view a more realistic line, building on the history of nationhood, as developed since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and claims that in order to move forward after the Brexit vote, it is crucial that we now succeed in building a new common understanding.

Now, recall the points mentioned initially: a royal wedding that brought us together, a new youth-led movement that talks of the need for nations to maintain its nature (its identity) as a network of families, actually related by blood. I used to be a republican (i.e. against Monarchy) but I have been cured of this particular malady. The Monarchy is a super-political (in the original meaning of “super”, meaning “over” or “above”) institution through which a family generally, and the Monarch specifically, represents the nation. But a nation isn’t literally a family. It is a set of unifying institutions, values and traditions, which gives us a sense of belonging to the degree with which we subscribe to them. Of course, being born in a nation gives you belonging, but as the many cases of young Muslims who choose to turn their back on belonging to Britain (or other nation states in which they were born) show, it is possible to lose your sense of belonging, by turning your back on the unifying institutions, values and traditions of that nation. Scruton writes: “The first-person plural of nationhood, unlike those of tribe or religion, in intrinsically tolerant of difference.” (p. 69).

Which is true, but at this point I would have liked to see Scruton discuss the Cambridge spies, some of whom turned their backs on their country in favour of internationalist Communism in part due to a feeling that as homosexuals their country had turned its back on them. Not to mention how the actual disenfranchisement of Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries led to several terrorist attacks perpetrated by English Catholics, most famously the plot to blow up Parliament during session in November 1605 – still commemorated to this day on the 5th November with Bonfire Night and the recitation of the famous children’s verse: Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot. The greater inclusivity of Catholics, along with Catholics’ own willingness to moderate their religious allegiance (putting King before Pope in matters temporal) is, I think, a relevant historical parallel to the present day problem with radical Islam. The acceptance of homosexuality is also important, as it shows how, once people feel accepted, they also embrace the establishment back. Gay activists like Peter Tatchell used their activism for equal rights as a spearhead in a broader neo-Marxist fight against the family as a bourgeois, patriarchal institution, and many of the early activist didn’t want gay marriage at all. But for most ordinary gay people, all they wanted was to take part in normal, civil society like anybody else. So Scruton is right that the nation-state has the potential for an inclusive first person plural, but it is one that must we worked on, and the accommodation must go both ways: today, as society strives to be inclusive towards Muslims, they must in turn embrace British values and, like Catholics of old, pledge true allegiance to the Monarch and the institutions she represents, in all things temporal. (Whether this is possible for a religion that it is claimed has no distinction between things temporal and spiritual is of course another matter, and something Muslims, across the different schools of Islam, must work out).

But it is not only religion, or a religious identity defining itself in opposition to a secular state and society, that is problematically exclusive according to Scruton. Exaggerated family loyalties can displace the culture of trusting the stranger, so crucial in building a sense of national togetherness, and the mass immigration of communities that depend on such loyalties, can therefore be problematic (p. 131).

At best, a family thrives when it is open to new members, as the Royal Family itself has shown itself eminently to be. At worse, family loyalties can descend into tribalism. The views put forward by the Identitarians are pure tribalism – locking out from membership anyone who does not have a blood connection to the land. As Scruton points out:

“It is in contrast with the tribal and religious forms of membership that the nation should be understood.” (P. 61).

He goes on to say: “Members of tribes see each other as a family; members of creed communities see each other as the faithful; members of nations see each other as neighbours.” (P. 62).

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The fanatical anti-nation attitudes, peddled for decades by Neo-Marxist who impertinently has sometimes been called or call themselves “liberals” (they are of course no such thing, read this article by F.A. Hayek to get a proper understanding of what Liberalism really is), an attitude Scruton cleverly calls “oikophobia” (from the Greek words for “home” and “fear”), have undermined the nation-state as the proper entity for identity and political discourse, in favour of the multi- or supranational institutions, of which the EU is the most striking example.

Those who have wanted to protect and restore the centrality of the nation-state have been denounced as “racists”, whilst identity politics – the rights of groups of people rather than the individual – have dominated the discourse. A recent survey by YouGov for the BBC showed that fewer than half of 18-24 year olds felt proud to be English. They have never been allowed to be, and have constantly been fed a narrative of how horrid Britain’s and England’s imperial past is.

These are some of the reasons for the rise of the Generation Identitarians. They have grown up in this way of thinking. They have no memory of the Berlin Wall, no experience of growing up under the shadow of the Cold War with the Communist regime of the Soviet Union as a constant threat not only to liberty, but to life itself.

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Learning from their left-wing counterparts: identity politics of the collectivist right.

What they have grown up with is a sense that it is illegitimate to be fond of your country. That it is racist to appreciate the culture of your own people. That internationalism is the only way forward. And that individuals’ rights are trumped by the rights of groups of different identities. But if the research that Scruton refers to is correct, what matters most to all of us are those things that are closest to us: our jobs, families and places. The only way this young, post-Cold War generation knows for asserting this legitimate need for belonging is through group identity, and so they reach for the tribal language of family ties and blood relations.

Although Scruton in this book specifically set out to address the troubling schism between Remainers and Brexiteers, and to point to a way forward together, and did not set out specifically to address the Identitarian movement, I think the issues he discusses do that as well. The Generation Identity has emerged as the bastard child of Identity Politics and Multiculturalist internationalism. Scruton points out “…that a large number of young people voted for Marine LePen in the first round of the 2017 presidential elections, on the grounds that she spoke for France against the dilutions of the global market”. (P. 172). Varoufakis warned against the rise of extreme nationalism in Greece and other nations, if the people feel powerless against a supranational cabal making political decisions that the people – and not the rulers – had to pay the high price for. The claim is that the extreme internationalism of the EU – leaving national institutions impotent to deal with the grievances of the people – is directly responsible for a rise in extreme nationalism. But where his solution is an ideologically motivated call for more internationalism, Scruton, I think, has a more level-headed, pragmatic approach.

Where We Are by Roger Scruton explains how we can inoculate against nationalist extremism, by reasserting the proper place of the nation-state, both as a clearly identifiable and non-sectarian entity to unify within, and as a place where decisions can be made close to those affected by them, with transparency and accountability.

The book furthermore provides the arguments to refute – but in a sympathetic and understanding way – the erroneous claims made by extremists on both sides of the argument: the tribalist Identitarians and the anti-national Remainers.

Scruton has, I think, made an extremely important contribution to the debate on the way forward from where we are now.

I bought my copy from my local bookshop, Red Lion Books of Colchester.

Where we are
Well written and well argued, could have been much longer.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Joys of the Dystopian Novel

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Artwork by Norwegian artist Pushwagner – inspired by Brave New World?

“Utopia” is a word derived from the ancient Greek: “eu” meaning “good” (as in “euphoric”) and “topos” meaning “land” (as in topography). Its antonym is “dystopia”, a word first used (at least according to the OED) by John Stuart Mill in Parliament in 1868. Hansard quotes him as saying, “It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.”

 

The “caco” there is the Greek “kakos”, same as in “cacophony”, meaning “bad” or “evil”. “Cacotopian” somehow didn’t catch on, but dystopian did (the “dys-“there, by the way, meaning “bad”, “abnormal” – also from Greek, who would’ve guessed?).

Although many of the texts we call Utopian have elements in them that are problematic, not to say downright sinister (see the story of El Dorado in Candide as a wonderful example), the term dystopian later became the label for those literary stories that unashamedly presented a singularly negative, bad, evil scenario, most often at some point in the distant future, when those you most disagree with have taken over the running of the show.

I want to highlight three such delights of negativity, two of which you may not have read, perhaps not even heard of (you could test your friends at dinner parties to see who are the most literary of them, by asking who have read which of these).

  1. Brave New World – this you have heard of, and perhaps even read. (At least you started it at university). George Orwell was inspired by it when writing his dystopian novel, 1984.
  2. Anthem – you may or may not have not heard of it (if you were born in, or  have ever lived the USA you are 300% more likely to), but even if you have, you have probably not read it.
  3. We – I would wager my second gin and tonic that you have not heard of it, nor read it, yet this story is said to have inspired the two mentioned above (it definitely also inspired Orwell).

Quite apart from the fact that I happen to have read them and feel pretty smug about it, there are some interesting commonalities to these works of literature:

Firstly, they are all rather short novels. More like novellas, or long short stories. So the format is similar.

Secondly they have a male protagonist who, for some reason or other, do not quite fit in to the society of the future.

Thirdly, they all raise the issue of sex, some more than others, and one more obsessively than the other two.

Fourthly, two are similar in their presentation of the technology of the future, and offer little hope of redemption, one presents a radically different view of technology, and offers some redemption.

(I will attempt not to reveal the plot in the following).

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Aldous Huxley – like yours truly, he also favoured round glasses.

Brave New World is, as you know, (as EVERYBODY knows),  written by Aldous Huxley, the upper-class English writer, credited with inspiring the band name The Doors, by his later novel The Doors of Consciousness (all about taking drugs, apparently, and very popular with hippies). Brave New World was written in 1932, and I believe only 1984 is referred to more in political and popular debates, and very often by people who have read neither.

 

 

There are several similarities between Brave New World and We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the earliest of the three works, written in 1921: both are set in a highly technologically advanced society of the future, a society that has arisen after some cataclysmic global conflict. The ruling regime in both is highly collectivist, they view the past (our present times) as uncivilised, almost barbaric, not least because people were in a state of very irrational freedom (all freedom is irrational).

Sex is very much a concern of the state; in Brave New World the state wants people

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Yevgeny Zamyatin in a relaxed moment

to have it all the time with everyone, as a means to induce pleasure and happiness (the guiding principle of the World State), whilst in We people are assigned to one another, but not on an exclusive basis, so a girl may have several males swarming about her. In We “mathematically faultless happiness” as they put it, is also the stated goal of the regime. In both stories there are geographical areas outside of civilised control, and in some of these there are uncivilised people, and carefully managed places one can visit to see how backwards people used to be before the new civilisation dawned. The geographical areas are also symbolic of the innermost areas of the individual that we sense through the protagonists the state cannot reach, despite all its brainwashing, conditioning and outside control.

Anthem, by Ayn Rand, is the odd one out in certain respects. Written in 1937, it also describes a totalitarian collectivist future, but one where technology has evaporated from the knowledge of man; not only has society stood still, it has regressed to a medieval state, having lost even the ability to produce electricity. One of the ways the regime in Anthem holds the populace suppressed, is by having eradicated the personal first person pronoun.

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Ayn Rand – “knows nothing about socialism”

Where in We and Brave New World the rulers keep individuals in their places by happiness, in Anthem there are no individuals to keep happy, because “I” do not exist. This is both symbolic as well as a profoundly philosophical point. If the word describing a concept does not exist, does the concept exist? I will not give away the plot, but I think it can be mentioned that the greater sense of hope offered by this story, does involve the rediscovery of the first person personal pronoun. As a linguist, I find the critical importance of a grammatical entity very satisfying.

In Anthem as in the other two, relationships are highly regulated. In Anthem sex is strictly for procreation, and as in We and Brave New World, the discovery of exclusive feelings of love for one other person stirs the protagonist’s latent sense of individual identity.

We was banned by the Soviet state (giving us an example of the fact that communism was not corrupted by Stalin, but was utterly corrupt and oppressive from day one). As in Brave New World, the evils of the regime stems precisely from its desire to make people happy – in a version of the Kantian morality of intentions, the virtuous intent is what gives these futuristic governments the right to do whatever it takes to achieve the good goals they have, and that any means are justified by their end. It reminds me of the quote by Henry David Thoreau: “If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”  One can also with a shudder recall video footage of left-wing students at universities, who these days seem to have such a confidence in the virtue of their own stances, that they think it is fine to shout down and even physically intimidate those who hold different views.

In Anthem the ruling regime appears to have forgotten what good intentions there once may have been. Fear is now the ruling principle, exemplifying how the inherent paranoia of a totalitarian state reaches a natural and inevitable suffocating stage, just like the Soviet Union did under Stalin. The regime in Anthem is clinging to what they know, clinging to their ignorance, their power and their prejudices. I find this a more compelling vision of the future than the other two. Zamyatin and Huxley seem to both find knowledge and science scary, they present knowledge and rationality as the enemies of mankind. Rand presents the opposite perspective: it is ignorance that is dangerous, science and knowledge are our liberators, not our captors. Unlike the other two, she did not believe that a totalitarian society could develop very far technologically. Innovation would suffer if freedom was stifled. Again I think history supports her supposition. The Soviet Union continuously lagged behind the West in technological development, and today we see that the remaining Communist regimes of the world, such as North Korea and Cuba, are severely under-developed compared to the freer and more capitalist countries of the world.

One reason I believe Huxley’s work became the best known, and more widely read of the three, is that it is the only one not written by someone with first hand experience of socialist oppression. Huxley was born into a comfortable and academic English family, and was educated at Eton and Oxford. His novel speaks to us from a point of view of conservative romanticism, with its deep scepticism of vulgar modernity, mass-production and the consumer society. This is a view we all agree with, whether we want to or not, whether we know it or not. We are brainwashed – just like the mass-produced citizens of the Brave New World – into pathological self hatred of the symptoms of the capitalist disease: too much food, too much time, too much entertainment, too much fun. The novel mines this self-hatred, and I believe the recognition of it gives us the same sense of catharsis a Catholic may feel when going to confession. The depiction of sex in the novel is, it might be added, guiltily Catholic. The novel was in part inspired by what he saw as the horrors of Henry Ford’s mass production – also gloriously satirised by Charles Chaplin in Modern Times. The new God that is worshipped in Brave New World is called “the Great Ford”, and time is reckoned from the birth of Henry Ford. Huxley was not alone in finding mass entertainment tasteless and base. Many of the Marxist intellectuals who in the 1930s had fled European National Socialism, happily bit the hand that generously fed them, by attacking relentlessly what they saw as the opium of the American masses: popular films, shows and television programmes. Huxley was no Marxist – he was too intelligent, I guess – but his internalised hatred for Western values did take him down the route of Easter inspired mysticism.

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Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times – criticising Fordism and Taylorism from the inside

As with We, Anthem was also attempted silenced, not by the government, but by publishers in the US with strong pro-Soviet sympathies. Apparently one even suggested Ayn Rand didn’t understand socialism very well. Similar to Yevgeny Zamyatin she had only grown up in Russia and lived through the violent civil war and power grab by the Communists (she was able to flee the country in 1926, Zamyatin managed it in 1931), so it is very likely she had no clue, compared to those who had grown up in the West. The story was eventually published in the UK

The themes that are treated so masterly in all three novels follow many of the same fault-lines we see in current debates: the discussions around the application of science, such as Artificial Intelligence, DNA-technology and information gathering, in the (feebly) ongoing debate about whether the state should be involved in our well-being, in the changing mores around sexuality and relationships, in the importance of the individual as an individual, in opposition to the needs and goals of “society”, if that even exists.

But the books do not need to, nor perhaps should they, be read as debating points. They are great stories, engaging and intelligent and worth to either discover (or re-discover) on Kindle (if, like me, you’re lazy) or at a second hand bookshop near you.

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Chinese soldiers expressing their entirely individualistic preference for blue dresses.

Slaying the Euro-monster

“[…] The European Union genes were geared from the outset – from 1950 – towards the depoliticization of political decisions. Europe’s elites wanted a mega-bureaucracy in cahoots with large, oligopolistic business without the vagaries of federal democratic politics”   (And The Week Suffer What They Must, Yanis Varoufakis, p. 101).

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Varoufakis on his way to meet the Eurogroup, when finance minister of Greece

Now, I try to stay off politics in this blog. It is, however, not possible to brush the political aspect entirely under the carpet when considering such a book as this, because it is all about political money. Or rather, as Varoufakis points out, the attempt to take politics out of national and European money policies (yes, I know, seems oxymoronic, doesn’t it?). Secondly it is about how the attempt to implement this within the Eurozone when things started going wrong in 2008, made things go wronger still, and thirdly it is about the consequences of and possible remedies for this. Fourthly it is about what it is not about: all the facts whose name he dare not speak – but more on that later.

First a trigger warning: I am an old fashion liberal (what in the US is sometimes called “libertarian”). This means I will be wary of anyone who is in favour of large government and ‘socialism’ (however defined), and Varoufakis is of course in favour of both of these. Nevertheless, I shall try to be as objective as I can.

Apolitical money. A central point for Varoufakis is that the Euro is the gold standard by another name. It is also the Deutsche Mark by another name. But whereas a nation whose currency was pegged to gold could unpeg it, should it be deemed necessary, a country currently in the Eurozone cannot realistically extricate itself from the Euro. There is no political process by which the peoples within the Eurozone, who suffer from the monetary policy of the Euro, can influence that policy, nor can their politicians divorce their countries’ economies from it. Like Hotel California they can attempt to check out, but they can never leave.

The Euro is not a currency with a demos (a nation – people) behind it, the European central bank is not under the scrutiny of democratic institutions, something he, to his credit, acknowledges Margaret Thatcher warned about in 1990, when he quotes her talking about a European central bank, “[…] under that kind of central bank there will be no democracy, [and the central bank will be] taking powers away from every single parliament and be able to have a single currency and a monetary policy and an interest rate policy that takes away from us all political power.National sovereignty is nothing if not sovereignty over the nation’s money.

In place of democratic accountability a number of rules were designed, so as to take politics out of political money. Of course, this is not possible, but it is also inevitable, precisely because there is no such country as “Europe”; there is no unified entity that “Europe” is the political expression of, and so the Euro cannot be administered with overt political intentions; there is no direct democratic accountability nor authority for it. Thus necessary political judgement is precluded and a reliance on inflexible rules replaces it.

The Euro’s lack of rootedness in a demos is beautifully expressed in a lovely passage on the Euro banknotes:

Forget the mind boggling economics of it all. A glance at the euro’s aesthetics speaks volumes. Take a look at any euro banknote. What do you see? Pleasing arches and bridges. But these are fictitious arches and bridges. A continent replete with cultural treasures has unbelievably chosen to adorn its freshly minted common currency with none of them. Why? Because bureaucrats wanted nothing contentious on their new money. They wanted to remove culture from our currency in the same way they craved the depoliticization of politics and the technocratization of money.” (Varoufakis, page 196).

Alienation and Extremism. And this leads to the second point; how the implantation of the dead hand of rules to govern the Eurozone made a bad situation worse. In a slight misquote of Shakespeare Varoufakis points out that the rules were always honoured more in their breach than their observance. The reason is the implicit paradox of the Euro itself:

The common currency was equipped with a European central bank lacking a state to support its decisions and comprising states lacking central banks to support them in difficult times.”

To mitigate this, he goes on to explain, “…the Maastricht Treaty and its successor treaties created a panoply of non-credible rules to constrain states. Of course non-credible rules end up as violated rules.” (Both from page 136).

He goes on to point out that fixing the exchange rate (through the mechanisms that preceded the Euro, and then with the Euro itself remove exchange rates) whilst allowing the free movement of money, had the dangerous consequence of directing money to the countries where the highest interest rates are paid. That just happens to be the countries with the biggest deficits (the interest rates – the price of borrowing money – is higher here precisely because the risk of non-repayment is higher). The Euro therefore caused a rush of lending to those countries with the least ability to sustain the debt.  The money was largely spent on buying stuff from the Germans, who make stuff, and the surplus cash the Germans built up was then sluiced back into the credit market to be lent to where the interest rate is highest, and so forth and so on in perpetuum. Only not in perpetuum. This process created a bubble that would burst at the first sign of credit trouble. That came in the wake of 2008.

Instead of being able to respond in a flexible way to a country like Greece’s inability to pay their debt, with new political decisions made in the interest of the people, the EU (mainly the Germans) enforced The Rules with a Bismarckian iron hand, and forced Greece to take up new government loans, not to ‘stimulate the economy’ as Keynsians (of which Varoufakis enthusiastically is one) like to say, but to repay the old loans whilst cutting public spending. So at a time when credit is cut off to businesses, government is also cutting spending whilst getting deeper into debt to repay the debt. To me, it makes the administration of the Eurozone seem like a very expensive version of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.

And the price for this tea party was paid by ordinary people. Unemployment among the young rose to around 50% (!) in Greece and other countries such as Spain and Italy. Pensions and salaries were cut; poverty was again riding Europe. Varoufakis argues that this has directly led to the rise of national socialist parties such as New Dawn (incidentally the socialist Varoufakis consistently avoids calling them national socialists, using instead the German slang word “nazi”); the anger and frustration at an elitist system, that seems designed for the elites with democratic institutions and processes left impotent to respond to the needs of the people, direct people’s attention towards those parties that reject democracy altogether.

More of the same? As an economist Varoufakis has a very good grasp of what is wrong with the Eurozone and the mechanisms that made it all go belly up post 2008. But as a socialist his reading of events, and his understanding of the way forward, is heavily coloured by his ideology.

The weakness in Varoufakis’ argument is two-fold:

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Varoufakis: hurt pride and no tie

Firstly: His view of history is that Roosevelt and the New-Dealers saved the world, but that the liberalisation of credit and financial markets in the 1980s created a merry-go-round of financialization that created the credit bubble that burst in -08. He seems very willing to forget the fact that we have not had a free market laissez-faire free-for-all, even in the years after Thatcher and Reagan. We have had a very Keynsian mixed economy. The credit crunch in America had as its root cause, many argue, the government policy to subsidise house loans for people who in the free market would never have been given a loan, as part of a wider social policy. It was these people’s inability to pay, in their millions, that started pulling out the thread of the jumper that was modern finance. These social policies are pure New Dealism, not laissez-faire capitalism.  It is furthermore a little known fact that under Roosevelt’s New Deal the economy lingered in the doldrums:

The plain fact is the economy recuperated far more slowly under FDR than it did in any other slump, before or since, in American history“. (The Great Depression and the New Deal, 2009, Robert P. Murphy, Ph.D).

In 1931 US unemployment was 15.9%, and in Canada it was 11.6. Seven years later in Canada it was down to 9.1, same as in 1930; but 14.3 in the US. By -41 it was 4.4 in Canada, but still 9.9 in the USA. (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Statistics Canada).

The parallels to the Eurozone are actually quite easy to draw, with current unemployment figures in Greece of 20.9%, Spain 16.3%; and amongst youth in Greece 43.7%, Spain 36%, and Italy 31.5%.

Varoufakis’ unwillingness to face the fact that it is his preferred economic model, the Keynsian one, that has failed, harms his credibility when discussing future solutions.

Secondly: The Euro was from the conception by de Gaulle in 1964 an attempt by the French to screw the Germans, and through the various stages of the ERM and finally the Eurozone an attempt by Germany to screw down the French with a Protestant fiscal screw. Wearing the fish net stockings of Eurozone constraint our German überfrau wants nothing more than to whip the French naughty boys into submission. The Euro is a Sado-Masochistic relationship writ large. Varoufakis seems to say that we need more of this, not less. If, he argues, Europe really was a federation – a bit like the USA – where the central bank really was an institution under the scrutiny of a real democratically elected executive, with a properly elected law making body that had the power to actually propose laws (which the wrongly named “European Parliament” does not), voted in by European citizens all over Europe, then everything would be fine, he thinks. I have my doubts.

Varoufakis fails to see the problem with the European Union as a project, as explained by the British philosopher Roger Scruton two years before Varoufakis’ book:

Treaties are dead hands, which should be laid upon a country only for specific and essential purposes, and never as a way of governing them.

In the previous paragraph he also points out: “There is no first-person plural of which the European institutions are the political expression.” (How to Be A Conservative, Scruton, 2014, page 35).

To effectively abolish the nation state and institute A Federal Europe with genuinely democratic institutions, would perhaps remedy some of the democratic deficit mentioned earlier, but it would not change the nature of the beast, as identified by Scruton, and it would make the national parliaments even more impotent, and give still greater rise to those forces who wish to reject democracy altogether.

He writes about the current state of the European Union: “At some point Europeans will shake this monstrosity off their backs and escape from the iron cage under construction around them.” (Page 231).

Strong and poetic words – and evocative of the iron curtain – yet in the case of the only European nation that actually has shaken off the “monstrosity” and is in the process of escaping the “iron cage”, The United Kingdom, Varoufakis recommended to remain within the cage. Does he actually believe his own words, or was it that the “wrong” kind of people were in favour of leaving?

In conclusion: Varoufakis has become a bit of rock star intellectual in left-wing circles, regurgitating old Marxist tropes in new, “progressive” language, wearing an open neck shirt and no tie. That gives you cred amongst the lefty kidz.

But compare him to the intellectual giants Ludvig Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, and Varoufakis’ short-comings become clear.

Unlike these Old Masters, what has made Varoufakis famous is not the originality of his thoughts (they are not) but the fact that he was Greece’s Minister of Finance at a time when all eyes were on that situation, and that he bravely tried, and failed, to stand up for his country. Indeed, he seems to realise this (whether consciously or not) as he almost narcissistically, in the manner of a bore at a party, keeps fitting in variants of “when I was finance minister of Greece” to the text; the whole book is steeped in a tone that suggests a vain man’s hurt pride at the hands of the nasty Germans.

None of this can take away from him, or the book, that as an economist he has an excellent grasp of the mechanics of the processes that make the Euro a mistake of such enormity, and the Eurozone a place that works a lot better for some (the Germans) than others (all the others). He has a school-masterly grasp of economic history, although, as mentioned, his ideology gives him a tendency towards one-eyed tunnel vision. Thankfully he intersperses his text with a few anecdotes, to highlight particular points, and from a literary point of view these are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the best bits of the book. Not only because they are the best written, but also because they are truly enlightening.

Too often these days, not least thanks to social media, it is easy to be locked into echo chambers reinforcing our prejudices. Opponents of Brexit, who often denounce supporters of Brexit as “ignorant”, would do especially well in reading this book, and possibly become slightly less ignorant themselves. Even if Varoufakis is wrong on many topics, he knows of what he is talking, both from a theoretical point of view and from first hand experience.

On that basis, the book is highly recommended reading.

Book
Should be obligatory reading for Remainers

Reading a winner: Close to Home by Cara Hunter – UPDATE

Hunter

After having finished this book, I wanted to share some further thoughts, among them: Hunter hates aspiration! But, because I have to spoil the plot I have put the update at the bottom.

Non-spoiler: The best line of the book is when Hunter’s Oxford detective gives the following knowing meta-comment, to the reader, as it were: “And while I’m at it, the car is a Ford. In case you’re wondering. And I don’t do bloody crosswords either.”

I am reading this book to find out what a success looks like. All the books I like best are written by dead people. And whilst the canon of 18th and early 19th century literature is a great bedrock on which to build your literary garden shed, it is not necessarily a pointer as to what will be commercially successful in what is commonly known as the 21st century, or thereabouts.

Now, so far I have been extremely successful in not being commercially successful – I have learned the 18th century lesson very well – and I therefore wanted, indeed needed, to know what a commercially successful book looks like. So that I might emulate it, you understand.

Close to Home by Cara Hunter is apparently what success looks like. It is not on the favourite list of our bearded and sandal wearing friends over in the Guardian, as it is not an in-te-lec-tual book. It is, however, on the W. H. Smith bestselling list and picked for the Punch and Judy book club, or whatever it’s called. It is, whether you like it or not, a crime novel. And it is not bad.

Yes, there are the usual tropes and motifs, a detective with some personal tragedy lurking in his not very distant past, the cardboard cutout characterisation of middle class people (a symptom of a self hating middle-class writer), and as I seem to already have mentioned it: the very British (or rather English) obsession with the obsession with class. That is not a misprint. More than with class, the English (British) are obsessed, not so much with class, as with the preoccupation with class, and it is mainly the middling classes who churn and gurn and twist and writhe in the hellfire of this particular malady. So also this writer, who so clearly sees what she despises in herself in the characters that she writes with so little love. Not badly written, mind you, just loveless. Her non-middle class characters are written far more lovingly. There is a healthy dose of prejudice – such as in the little Chinese-American girl who is all materialism and money. Lovely.

This is a well written, well put together book, and quite engaging; a page turner, as they say. Almost as good as Inspector Morse, but no Jaguar.

Whether I can pull off something like this at some point remains to be seen. Perhaps an ironic crime novel. That might give rise to a new genre: the chronic novel.

 

SPOILER ALERT:

Here goes: did you ever read Matilda by Roald Dahl, or perhaps see the film by the same name starring Danni DeVito and Rhea Perlman? There is an element of Matildaism in this book, but without Dahl’s dark humour or intellect. What Hunter presents on these pages is a middle class educated person’s fantasy: to be able to take the children away from those horrible aspiring working class people who think they are middle class just because they have a house and a 4×4, but who reads the Daily Mail (she gets that point in) and presumably not books like Close to Home (although they are far more likely to read Close to Home than say Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky).

Her portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Mason, the couple who produced the offspring Daisy, who goes missing at the start of the book, are cardboard cutout types. They are not real people, there is nothing remotely real about them. In 18th century literature the standard types were very central in fiction. The John Bull-character, the fop, the young girl from the country, etc. They used these types because they represented something real, albeit in an idealised version. Hunter also uses types here, but not because they represent something real, rather it is to allow her to create characters that is not just impossible to love or feel any sympathy for, but for whom it is okay not to have feelings of human warmth towards. We want them to be guilty, we will it, just as I suspect Hunter did and does.

This is where the Matildaistic twist in the plot comes in handy: Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, sorry, Mason are not guilty, yet they are obviously guilty: of being aspiring lower middle class people who do not go to the opera, of being interested in looks and one’s status, of reading the Daily Mail, and (although she doesn’t say this one) probably of voting Leave as well. And so, even if they are not guilty, they are guilty anyway. To readers who share Hunters mal-anthropic world view it must therefore be immensely satisfying that Mr. Mason’s sex drive lands him innocently in jail and Mrs. Mason is wrongly convicted of killing her daughter (to which the book records no emotional response that might tease out of the reader a deeper understanding of her as a human being – remember, she is just a type; the type that voted Leave, so no sympathy or understanding is required.

The actual guilty person goes free. Little eight year old Daisy has, it turns out, colluded with her teacher (remember Matilda, waltzing or otherwise, and Miss Honey?) in getting herself kidnapped by said teacher, and as the book ends they are on a ferry on their way to Ireland. Daisy’s teacher, Miss Madigan, a Guardian reading young lady, who once lost her baby, has taken it upon herself to right the wrongs of nature, by saving this poor, intelligent child from her monstrous, striving parents. It’s all she can do to avoid another one growing up to voting the wrong way and reading the wrong newspapers. It is a nice plot twist, but one that is only made possible by a disturbingly amoral view of the universe. As my headline quote of Ibsen says: to write is to judge yourself, and I think Ms. Hunter, in trying to pass judgement on the Despicables has indeed passed judgement on herself.

Close to Home is a shallow book. A book where language is little more than bricks in a utilitarian wall. I feel the words of Beethoven describing Rossini in 1824, if slightly amended, is apposite for Ms. Hunter: “Rossini is a talented and a melodious composer, his music suits the frivolous and sensuous spirit of the times...” I know Hunter has another story out with the same detective. I am not sure though, that a detective who got two people wrongfully convicted, for crimes that didn’t even take place, and let the guilty person get away with it, fills me with confidence and a desire to follow his careers.

As almost stated earlier: nice try, but no Jaguar.

Close to