Saturday, 25 February 2012

Ill Fares the Land by Tony Judt

If, like me, you wonder daily why and how it has come to pass that political debate today in most western democracies is devoid of principles, this is the book for you. It is beautifully written and a brilliant, pointed reminder of why ideas matter and why we miss them so much in today's stunted and etiolated political discourse.

Tony Judt died recently and this book feels like a last shower of intellectual fireworks, crafted to be short and digestible but still full of wisdom. Among the several great pleasures of the book are the many pithy and apposite quotations he uses. The book's title comes from Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

Pretty relevant to where we find ourselves today, huh? But many other wise words from great thinkers, not least among them John Maynard Keynes:

" is not sufficient that the state of affairs we seek to promote should be better than the state of affairs that preceded it; it must be sufficiently better to make up for the evils of transition."

are peppered throughout this brief but sparkling book.

Judt's basic point is that many of the achievements of 20th century social democracy have been squandered in pursuit of a short sighted and narrow minded conception of the human condition, based around the belief that markets are always right and that their very rightness is a kind of natural order. He is surely right that, in the UK at any rate, political debate is based on a shared assumption that economic, usually monetary, measures are the only means by which we can assess the value of what our people and institutions do. How often do we hear anyone ask questions like: is this just? Is this good? Is this the sort of society we want? Not very, is the answer.

He makes the point that no society can be healthy when fear takes control. At the moment, we are clearly at risk of losing all faith in our ability to influence our social and political environment. Globalisation and the inexorable power of financial markets make elected politicians seem irrelevant, reduced to idle commentary on affairs they cannot contain or direct. Judt thinks this situation is recoverable and  his prescription is to change the language of politics. I hope he is right.

But this is a really tasty little book about ideas, written by a top class thinker. Nice one, Tony.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

I came to this book with no preconceptions, apart from glancing at the comments from critics chosen by the publishers for the cover, as it was a present. Overall, I found it slow and a bit superficial.

It is set in World War II London - the Blitz, sweet tea, civilians doing heroic jobs, all that. Nearly all of the characters are gay, in various states of denial about their sexuality. That is probably the main theme of the book, in fact. It is written back to front, in chronological terms. So we start in 1947 and move episodically back to 1941.

The narrative was too slow, in my view. Scenes took a long time to play out and there was much description that felt self indulgent and added little to the atmosphere or our understanding.

The characterisation felt superficial. I wondered, as someone who is not gay, whether I lacked sensitivity in failing to appreciate something but thought of brilliant, brilliant writers like Alan Hollinghurst who also write about gay characters and whose books I have loved. I concluded that the writing is just not that good.

If you had nothing else to read and were on a long train journey, this is a decent enough novel. Truth to tell, I felt with sufficient time and effort I could write it. The artifice is too visible. But we want, don't we, something more from our books? To be captivated by something that carries us away, to feel guided by something better, cleverer or more insightful than ourselves? I am afraid this book never quite achieved that, for me. But it was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Orange prizes so perhaps I missed something.

Friday, 10 February 2012

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

The writer is a 'development economist', in the jargon of the economics profession (on which, incidentally, he is very interesting in this book) and he does write from the perspective of the developing economy.Which is no bad thing, when he is so brilliantly and analytically critical of the way in which developed economies have been managed in recent decades.

The format of the book is pretty much as set out in the title - a series of chapters, each addressing an aspect of how capitalism works. His style is light and easy to read, full of the self deprecating humour that seems common to so many great expositors of complex subjects.

His basic argument is that the world economy is far too much influenced by the lazily accepted tenets of free market economics. He adduces plenty of evidence in support of this, showing that the application of this orthodoxy has actually diminished economic growth in those countries that have either embraced it willingly or had it forced upon them by agents of the 'Washington Consensus' such as the IMF.

He convincingly challenges some of the assumptions that underpin our faith in free market economics: that putting the interests of shareholders first leads to sustainable business; that the internet changes everything; that more education leads to economic growth; that governments cannot pick winners.

He also makes the excellent point that free market theories never, in wealthy countries, extend to immigration policy. If you allowed free immigration, lots of brilliant people from poorer countries would come to rich ones and undercut the native labour force, even in highly paid jobs. This would drive down costs and make businesses more competitive on grounds of cost, with no loss of quality. The free market would be working. But immigration control is a form of protectionism that is rarely questioned, even by the most ardent free market advocate. For good policy reasons, sure; but it knocks on the head any idea that policy interference with free markets is inherently bad.

Finally, he points out that the most successful economies in the world are not run by economists. Comfort for all of us who are puzzled by the intellectual deference accorded to the 'dismal science'.

This is a punchy, topical book, written in bite-sized chunks by a top class intellectual. Brilliant.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

This short novel is something of a period piece. Written during the 1930s, it describes the life and loves of an anti hero, Gordon Comstock. The themes are well known from Orwell's other works - poverty, class and alienation. These ideas, deriving from Marxism and the widespread belief that a better system than capitalism was within mankind's grasp, still seem a little dated despite the evident vacuity of today's political offerings. Orwell labours his point about money or, more particularly, the lack of it, and its corrosive effects in a way that echoes Tressell's 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'. He is however more in tune with today's sensibilities than Tressell in his clear recognition of the gulf between human decency and the implacability of all ideological systems. The anti hero and his only friend in the novel are socialists but only in an abstract sense. They are not able to live their socialism, in the misguided way that Orwell was always so scathing about, to the point that they abjure decent food and a warm fire. As in much of his writing, he points out nicely and neatly the remoteness of ideology from human experience and, in consequence, its dangerous irrelevance to it.

In modern parlance, the anti hero needs to get out more. Actually, when reading it, I felt Orwell was often describing a person with depression. But that is to medicalise, daftly, a situation that he uses to tell us a social fable.

The anti hero's redemption or return to the social currents whence he came is a simple narrative trick that feels a little rushed. But the pleasure of this book lies in Orwell's keen eye for the workings of class and social hierarchy in Britain. I suppose it is a rather British book - the aspidistra, the blameless plant that Orwell uses to symbolise the conformity and suffocating propriety yet deathlessness of lower middle class England, is a common houseplant in Britain - but Orwell writes such beautiful, beautiful prose I recommend it to all lovers of the English language.