Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Let The Art Monsters Play

November 24, 2017

There’s a Paris Review piece I’ve seen circulating on newsletters and social media. I had a read of it today. The greater part of Claire Dederer’s essay was unfortunately lost on me as I’m not a film guy and haven’t seen any Woody Allen films – I say unfortunately because Dederer wrestles at such length with the question: can you enjoy Woody Allen films while aware of his personal reprehensibility? Dederer says: ‘Look, I don’t get to go around feeling connected to humanity all the time. It’s a rare pleasure. And I’m supposed to give it up just because Woody Allen misbehaved? It hardly seems fair.’

She goes through it for paragraphs – her feelings about the movies, her experiences of watching the movies at different points in her life, arguments with friends about the movies. She includes a dialogue with a male friend about the film Manhattan:

‘You’re just thinking about Soon-Yi—you’re letting that color the movie. I thought you were better than that.’

‘I think it’s creepy on its own merits, even without knowing about Soon-Yi.’

‘Get over it. You really need to judge it strictly on aesthetics.’

Reading all this, it strikes me that this is a conversation about ‘high art’. Can you imagine this conversation about O J Simpson, R Kelly, Gary Glitter? (‘Get over it. You really need to judge Happy People/U Saved Me on its aesthetics.’) Dederer writes: ‘I suppose this is the human condition, this sneaking suspicion of our own badness. It lies at the heart of our fascination with people who do awful things. Something in us—in me—chimes to that awfulness, recognizes it in myself, is horrified by that recognition, and then thrills to the drama of loudly denouncing the monster in question.’

Then Dederer turns her focus inward:

Look at all the awful things I haven’t done. Maybe I’m not a monster.

But here’s a thing I have done: written a book. Written another book. Written essays and articles and criticism. And maybe that makes me monstrous, in a very specific kind of way.

Why does it make Dederer monstrous? Because ‘A book is made out of small selfishnesses. The selfishness of shutting the door against your family. The selfishness of ignoring the pram in the hall. The selfishness of forgetting the real world to create a new one.’

She goes on to say this:

When you finish a book, what lies littered on the ground are small broken things: broken dates, broken promises, broken engagements. Also other, more important forgettings and failures: children’s homework left unchecked, parents left untelephoned, spousal sex unhad. Those things have to get broken for the book to get written.

Sure, I possess the ordinary monstrousness of a real-life person, the unknowable depths, the suppressed Hyde. But I also have a more visible, quantifiable kind of monstrousness—that of the artist who completes her work.

I recently read What’s There is Therethe new anthology of Norman Geras’s writing. If you’ve never heard of the professor and blogger, this is a good introductory collection, with essays and thoughts on war, terrorism, compassion, and literature. Geras spent a lot of his life writing about the duty to help others versus personal self interest. In a blog post titled ‘Why does football matter?’ he argues that:

Even if one thinks – as I do – that we have obligations as human beings to others in grave need, difficulty or danger, to demand of people that they give all of their time and attention to such things amounts to demanding of them that they sacrifice the whole part of their lives which might otherwise be given to pursuing their own enjoyments and their own happiness. That would be an exorbitant expectation.

Sure, Dederer’s own duties as she writes them are more local. And I want to say: ‘Claire! Jesus! Give yourself a break!’ A life comprised of nothing except responsibility would be a life half lived – and it’s my view that we make mistakes, and cause more trouble down the line, when we overcommit ourselves and take on more responsibility than we want and can handle. Everyone needs time out – and if every time out, moment of solitude or diversion, is selfish, then so be it. Ask the golf widow.

As Geras also said: ‘Football matters to those to whom it does matter just in the way that, for others, ballet, music, walking in the countryside, literature, movies and gardening matter – in the way, indeed, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness matter.’

We know that evil men leveraged their talent into positions of power where they could exploit others. Should that become a barrier or impediment for the exercise of your own talent, and pleasure derived? Hell no. There’s no reason to deny yourself a moment of doing something you like and are good at. The art monsters need to be let out of the closet every once in a while, and allowed to play in the fields.

Advertisements

On Sin, Passivity, Aggression

November 4, 2017

A few years ago a local ideas festival in my city held a panel debate called ‘Has lad culture gone too far?’ This innocuous title turned out to be misleading – I suspect that the event had been organised by a fringe libertarian group to publicise its own agenda and that most of the audience (and the festival organisers) weren’t aware of that. I wandered down out of curiosity. True to form, there was a local councillor and a sexual violence support worker for balance, but the panel was dominated by a couple of men who pushed heavy politicised grievances against the feminist movement – portrayed as a network of hysterics trying to police free speech and behaviour. As the evening dragged on, the atmosphere inside the community hall grew pricklier. I heckled. Other people heckled. Women walked out of the hall, visibly shaken with anger.

That night came back to me as I followed the sexual assault and harassment scandal of the past few weeks. It feels like a turning point, but then Savile and the celeb scandals felt like a turning point and I still remember people at the time, with the reflexive bitterness that passes for cynicism in this country, saying that it was all a ‘witchhunt’, a ‘bandwagon’, that accusers were ‘attention seeking’ and all of this. What I learned though, was that the real personal liberty at the core of it all is physical autonomy. You have nothing without it. The struggle for physical autonomy was a significant part of anti slavery and torture movements, it has been written into international law and is the reason we have courts and prisons. Argue against feminism all you want, but if you think women should just put up with being groped, hassled and followed around, as a matter of course, then you are no kind of liberal or libertarian. Don’t pretend you are talking out of good faith.

I also wonder about the proposed safeguards to this kind of thing. Political correspondents cry ‘If only Parliament had a proper HR department’ without considering that, outside the Westminster village, HR is very much part of the problem. Things get covered up, because ‘he’s a good manager, he’s been with us 37 years, he will be unioned up, the papers might get involved and it’s all too difficult.’ Lashing together some kind of regulatory body for the HoC won’t change anything. There’s a reason these things happen to large sclerotic semi accountable organisations, it is because people like their pay scales, their flexi and their little games – any serious reform that threatens this will be quietly tabled forever. Harvey Weinstein is Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile is Jimmy Savile, he’s been with us Xlight years… papers might get involved… too difficult…

I can, off the top of my head, think of reasonable safeguards that could minimise sexual harassment in workplaces. My ideas may well have all kinds of flaws and complications, they may have already been implemented with problems arising, but I use this blog to blue sky. Don’t worry, I don’t want segregated spaces or speech codes – these are just simple proposals which would in my view be good for workers’ rights anyway.

1) Ensure a reasonable gender ratio in offices or on projects – because, obviously, men are unlikely to harass women if there are other women around

2) Introduce entry-level representation at strategy/board level and ensure that a reasonable proportion of reps are women. A senior exec is less likely to harass a woman employee if he knows he’ll be facing that employee at a strategy meeting the next day.

3) Build protections into employment law that allow employees to discuss workplace experiences outside the workplace – including on social media. As long as data protection is not breached, there’s no reason people should not be able to discuss work matters on Facebook or in the pub. The workplace omerta must be broken.

Of course these would only be structural changes and would not address social misogyny and the established level of entitlement that an alarming number of men seem to have. But, if a sense of entitlement can lead to evils, so can humility. Part of the reason that predatory men get away with what they do, is because we are all conditioned to an extent into passivity – to accept what is, manage your expectations, keep your head down and say nothing. This stuff is drummed into you at a young age and reinforced in adulthood by workplace conditionality, class etiquette, credit and debt, libel courts and half a hundred other things. Even the advice we give to prevent sexual assaults – plan your night, don’t walk home alone, stick to main roads – is commonsensical but reinforces that sense of passivity.

The problem is us, Jonathan Freedland writes today, and also says that ‘I suspect most of us have been interrogating our own past or present conduct in the workplace, wondering if we’ve been getting it wrong. We all need to make that effort, and to make it in good faith.’ And I agree – a moral inventory of this kind is useful, and necessary. But we can all try in our lives to be more proactive, when it counts, and less passive. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. The courageous stories and reportage on this subject over the last few weeks is hopefully just the beginning of how.

Harder Than Heaven

July 23, 2017

I don’t know who it was that called Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness ‘the longest short novel’ but, in terms of long short novels, Boualem Sansal’s 2084 gives it a run for its money. He writes his religious dystopia in short, elegant, powerful sentences and paragraphs, which (thanks also to his translator, Alison Anderson) convey all too well the cruelty and struggle of his fictional Abistan.

The enemy in Orwell’s 1984 is ‘called by a Chinese name normally translated as Death-Worship, but perhaps better rendered as Obliteration of the Self.’ That seems to sum up Sansal’s Abistan quite well. In Abistan life is lived out according to a single holy book, with a prophet figurehead as god’s representative on earth. People are allocated housing, employment and other privileges according to a rigorous examination of personal morality in which the citizen must recite psalms and scripture and stanzas: everyone wears robes, embroidered according to status, caste and said moral score. Technology is almost non-existent, food bitter and scarce, no one ever leaves their designated district and crossing the country itself takes years. Economy is reliant upon an endless war without, and within on public executions, the mechanics of torture, the bureaucracy of power, and on long, hazardous pilgrimages all meant to ‘transform useless, wretched believers into glorious, lucrative martyrs.’

Sansal’s novel is blurbed as a tribute to George Orwell’s classic, and indeed it sometimes surpasses the original in its prose. True, there is little dialogue or dramatisation – Sansal breaks the rule of the finger-wagging creative writing hack, that you should always show rather than tell. His writing is elegant and demonstrates obvious empathy as well as the continual apprehension of fresh hells.

The story itself is no great shakes. Protagonist Ati returns to his home town after spending a year in the mountain sanatorium where a superstitious regime sends its sick. Surviving such perilous convalescence in itself grants Ati a higher revised status, and he is given more relative autonomy within the province. A good believer all his life, Ati becomes more curious about the society he lives in. He teams up with the wealthy scholar Koa and the two men try to infiltrate the heart of government to find out Abistan’s secret origins.

Fans of dystopian fiction will smile in recognition at the 1984 references that Sansal weaves into his text – you will recognise the enormous woman in the courtyard, singing as she hangs her line out, an Abistani analogue of the ‘red-armed woman’ from 1984, who sings ‘They sye that time heals all things,/They sye you can always forget’… inspired in turn by Orwell’s early mornings at the BBC, when the cleaning women would sing as they went about their work.

Orwell developed this into the only element of hope in his novel: ‘The birds sang, the proles sang, the Party did not sing… everywhere stood the same solid unconquerable figure, made monstrous by work and childbearing, toiling from birth to death and still singing.’ In 2084 it is the song of fellow feeling that resonates. During their difficult journey into the heart of Abistan, Ati and Koa are helped at every turn by the common people, who show them the shortcuts and safe passages. Human nature, Sansal says, is basically good – however ‘in the presence of the forces of law and order, whether it was a war tactic or simple human weakness, they set aside their kindly disposition and heaped abuse on strangers.’

So 2084 is a more hopeful book than 1984. Orwell imagined Ingsoc going on more or less forever, while Abistan by the end becomes vulnerable from infighting. (I note here Margaret Atwood’s more optimistic theory that the Party had to have fallen at some point because of the novel’s appendix, which talks about Ingsoc retrospectively.) Perhaps Sansal’s novel in that sense reflects better the world of its time – the recent defeats of ISIS, by Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as western air strikes, testifies to Stephen King’s line that evil is fragile as well as stupid. And what resonates from Sansal’s 2084 is the reverence for life, the sanctity of life, which in the face of terror and oppression, so often manages to find an honourable way through the dark.

Update: this fine archive piece from Leyla Sanai gives more background to Sansal and his work.

The Grave and the Proximate

July 15, 2017

In History on Trial, her account of being sued by the Holocaust denier and quack historian David Irving, one of the points that Deborah Lipstadt got across very well was that in history, there is no ‘smoking gun’. We don’t have a written order saying ‘Kill 6 million Jews. Signed, A. Hitler’. What we have is photographs, testimonies, ruins, letters, journals, fragments – that, put together, make something horrifying.

Perhaps the legal version of this historiography is the example of proximate cause that Alexandria Marzono-Lesnevich gives at the beginning of her riveting memoir. A young man, a package wedged under one arm, sprints along a crowded platform to catch a departing train. He has to jump to make it. A conductor pulls him onto the train from the carriage: a porter shoves him onto the train from the platform. But here’s the thing – the young man was carrying fireworks. The package hits the platform and explodes. Who bears responsibility for the mess – the young man, the porter, the conductor, the railroad, the firework manufacturer? It is the classic tort problem, Marzano-Lesnevich says.

The case she writes about in The Fact of a Body is not as complex. In fact the crime appears depressingly simple. One day in rural Louisiana in 1992, a little boy named Jeremy Guillory visits the house of two childhood friends. No one is at home but the lodger, a gas station worker named Ricky Langley. Langley is also a parolee who has done four years for child molestation: he has a thing for kids as young as six. Langley lures Jeremy into the house, strangles the child to death and then simply wedges the boy’s body into a closet, where it stays for three days. A police-led search of the nearby forests widens out until it occurs to somebody that they should really check out the local man with the history of predatory sex offences. When questioned, Langley admits his guilt and is sentenced to death… then to life.

Langley’s life was the sad, sordid tale of many violent convicts. He was conceived after a car crash that killed his brother and left his mother in a body cast. Doctors couldn’t understand how Bessie Langley could have fallen pregnant, on a panoply of hardcore hospital drugs and in such intensive care. Bessie insisted she wanted to keep the child, and Ricky Langley was raised in the make-do-and-mend style of poor towns and large families. His short years of adulthood out in the world were marked by suicide attempts, social isolation, and, Marzano-Lesnevich says, struggles with his attraction to small children.

As well as piecing together Langley’s backtrail, Marzano-Lesnevich draws heavily on her own past – in its way, just as fraught and troubled as that of the killer. She grew up in a family of lawyers. Her parents had a mom-and-pop practice in town, and money was tight. The father is particularly well-realised in this book, a reasonable and loving man who at the same time was impulsive and hard to live with. Frequently he’d go on drinking jags and threaten to kill himself, or to leave the family for parts unknown. Marzano comes across as a man trying for contentment, but perpetually haunted by lost possibility.

The Marzano-Lesneviches were a close family. Alexandria had a sister and a brother. The grandfather came round often, and regularly molested both young girls. Before doing this, he would take out his teeth and warn: ‘I’m a witch. Don’t forget. If you tell I’ll always come find you. Always. Even after I’m dead.’ Years of this elapsed before Alexandria felt able to report the abuse (and what a coy, euphemistic word ‘abuse’ is, when you think of what actually happens in such cases!) When she told her parents, the molesting stopped – but the grandfather’s visits continued. In college Marzano-Lesnevich suffered eating disorders, and difficulties with intimacy. As an adult, she confronted her grandfather directly about the crimes. The grandfather dismisses her. ‘Besides, what happened to you is not such a big thing,’ the old man says. ‘When I was a child, it happened to me.’

The Fact of a Body is written careful and measured, like a very highbrow psychological thriller. While reading the book I had to keep reminding myself that Marzano-Lesnevich is a writer and a lawyer and not a federal agent or behavioural scientist. She comes across as a character from Harlot’s Ghost – the FBI gothic. She worked on the appeal against Langley’s death penalty conviction, a case that seems to have permanently scarred everyone who came into contact with it. The mother of Jeremy Guillory – a fascinating person, who we don’t see enough of in the book – pleads that Langley should be spared execution. The judge involved repeatedly broke off proceedings to testify to the effect that this difficult and distressing case had on his state of mind. One detail that stayed with me is that the jurors at Langley’s original trial took a Bible into their decision room and actually prayed before deciding for execution.

There is an appearance from the British lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. Stafford Smith is an admirable figure in the text. He has spent his adult life defending convicts from the death penalty, winning the majority of his cases. During Langley’s trial Stafford Smith chose to stay in New Orleans’s dangerous urban Ninth Ward rather than the city suburbs. Yet he strikes the only dead note here. He argues not just that Langley should be saved from the needle, but that the killer should be let off entirely, due to mental illness. Stafford Smith’s father suffered from mental health problems and it seems to have made an impression. ‘Ricky is not plain mean, Ricky is mentally ill, like my dad. Far worse than my dad.’ The theory in the book is that Ricky was haunted by the ghost of his dead baby brother, Oscar – that Oscar, somehow, made him do it.

But the deeper truth of Marzano-Lesnevich’s compelling story is that there are some things the law can’t go into… and that we all have our own ghosts.

A Summer of Apprehension

July 3, 2017

‘Time had turned it into a historical novel,’ Elif Batuman writes of her debut, The Idiot, in the acknowledgements to it. She began the draft in 2000-2001, but more recently came back to her story of a shy Turkish-American student finding herself in Europe and America. But on close reading this odd, quirky campus novel seems well ahead of its time.

Protagonist Selin turns up at Harvard and finds herself lost in the 1990s academic scene as much as inside her own head. She gravitates towards teaching ESL, at first teaching classes in the Boston projects, then over the summer in Hungarian towns. She also falls in love with a Hungarian student named Ivan, an older man, a mathematician and an intellectual. The romance between two chronically awkward, introspective and self absorbed people works about as well as you’d expect. Mainly they send each other long, intense emails.

I came of age before the digital era and there’s a pleasant nostalgia in Batuman’s early electronic touches – co-op internet cafes, Ethernet cables and the clatter and zing of dial-up connections. There is a deeper recognition also in Selin’s way of looking at the world. Selin is part Turkish but barely knows Turkey, she doesn’t really understand Boston either: she travels widely but is a stranger everywhere she goes. She doesn’t do booze or sex or nightclubs, not from puritanism but because she just doesn’t see the point in such things. Critics might call Selin’s narration ‘affectless’ but this isn’t Less Than Zero, there’s no nihilism or ennui in Batuman’s novel. Selin is the opposite of bored: her narrative is a constant apprehension of new stimulus.

The story is set in the Long Calm of the 1990s but the constant references to Soviet-era literature, Europe under the commissars and medieval and Islamic history bring to the novel the constant presence of the authoritarianism of the past… and of that still to come. In an engaging interview with the Guardian Review, Batuman says: ‘ I thought: racism is over, sexism is over, bigotry is over. I was in for a rude awakening.’ Selin is surrounded by the knights of summer, but knows winter is coming.

Although Batuman takes a pride in the messiness of her structure (‘Write long novels, pointless novels. Do not be ashamed to grieve about personal things’) there is a momentum to The Idiot. In it there is the gradual accumulation of references, points of friendship and in-jokes (in the second half you won’t be able to read the word ‘antlers’ without giggling) that bind Selin to her experiences, her fellow students and the wider world. Yet that wider apprehension of experience isn’t necessarily incompatible with solitude and the reading life. There is a lot to said for the simplistic and instinctual view that books get in the way of life, I personally have a respect for that position, but at the same time, can it be life if it doesn’t have reading and stories and ideas and other worlds? I doubt it.

The Trouble with Goat’s Milk

May 7, 2017

The worst individual memories often rest on something trivial. In the space sitcom Red Dwarf, neurotic technician Arnold Rimmer’s darkest secret centres around soup. Eventually he gets drunk and confesses that as an up and coming Space Corps man he was invited to the Captain’s table – a sure sign of promise. During the meal Rimmer orders a waiter to reheat his soup course – not realising it’s gazpacho, which is meant to be served cold. He blames his failures in life on this one misstep, and when he dies, these are his last words – ‘Gazpacho soup!’

Cat Marnell’s drug memoir isn’t like most drug memoirs. The tone is brisk confidential. She takes you through her childhood in Cheever country (‘The houses on my street, Kachina Lane, were so far apart that no one ever had any trick-or-treaters on Halloween’) her prep school, and first jobs in New York fashion magazines. There’s no melodrama or self-pity, but when something irritates or frightens Marnell, there are a lot of exclamations – ‘RAARRRRRR!’ ‘AAAUUUUGH!’ It’s like reading something from a feminist zine fair. The Bell Jar rewritten by Shoshanna Shapiro.

Then Marnell is assigned her first byline: a one-para analysis of goat’s milk in beauty products. Dropping prescription meds and grinding her teeth to the nerves, Marnell reworks her sentences over and over again, all through the working day and into the night. By nine thirty she is weeping at her desk in despair and frustration. Her boss takes her into a private office, gathers up what Marnell has done, and assembles a reasonable, readable para, which Marnell includes in the book – ‘This is the paragraph I’d lost my mind writing.’

How does a person reach such a state – to detonate one’s brain over 120 words on a dairy-based exfoliant? How to Murder Your Life is preoccupied with pop culture and fashion, bristling with neologisms and listicles and odd little fragments of advice – ‘When writing, never refer to your own body parts – toes, stomach, bikini area – or prisoners will use the imagery you’ve created for their masturbatory fantasies, and you will get letters from them.’ The fashion world as Marnell writes it seems dysfunctional, but not toxic or cutthroat. People collect obsessively, but don’t seem to judge by looks. This is not The Devil Wears Prada. Marnell’s employers seem like decent people, and support her through her periodic crises and rehabilitations.

Marnell’s book traces the industry from its print based boom period, through the 2008 crash and towards a more online based and body positive form of glamour. Marnell has to hide her addictions at Condé Nast, but ends up as a kind of gonzo drug correspondent for internet startups: sample articles include ‘I Spent Two Weeks in a Mental Institution, but I Left with Better Hair’ and ‘The Art of Crack-Tractiveness: How to Look and Feel Hot on No Sleep’. It’s interesting that part of Marnell misses the more prescriptive and airbrushed Manhattan scene. ‘I particular hated the gross-out stories and embarrassing bodily function-centric ‘It Happened to Me’ essays. ‘Why don’t you just hire a full time yeast infection editor, Jane?’ I’d bitch’.

Sometimes Marnell’s conversational tone clashes with the darkness of what’s happening in the narrative – in the second half of the book a lot of it is sleeplessness, penury, hallucinations, destructive narcissistic friendships and suicide attempts. But that’s also where How To Murder Your Life becomes a more muscular and involving piece of work. The life lessons aren’t obvious, but they are there, and owe more to the honest emotive grunge aesthetic of Marnell’s youth than to any twelve-step programme.

Her unconventional ending reminded me of an Atlantic piece I recently read that critiqued abstinence based addiction therapy. Reporter Gabrielle Glaser asked why alcohol and drug therapies are practically the only branch of medicine that hasn’t moved since the 1930s. She interrogates AA and NA’s low success rate, and points to more effective but barely known treatments. Cat Marnell’s cycle of binge and patchup is the norm for most addicts. But her writing is heading towards something new. A different form of struggle and desire.

Luxemburg’s Cat

April 16, 2017

Professional book reviewers, particularly recently, often attempt to bring a current affairs element into whatever new title they’re reviewing. You see phrases like ‘a disturbing portrait of a world that seems not entirely confined to the realm of fiction,’ ‘dramatic scenes that would not look out of place in the pages of today’s newspapers,’ ‘a warning of a nightmarish scenario that today seems all too possible’ – try looking for this yourself, you’ll see that I’m right as often as I’m wrong. Frequently these stabs at universalism seem inane and half hearted. But the general effect is achieved – the title under review now looks ‘timely’ and ‘relevant’.

I’ve used this rhetoric myself of course, and reading the correspondence of Rosa Luxemburg I cannot escape the cliché. There is something about Luxemburg that always feels here, that feels now, and it’s not entirely because of the politics – violent and confused as they were in Luxemburg’s time. I should say I only have a very broad understanding of events in Europe between 1891-1919, and came to Luxemburg’s letters expecting to lose myself in the activist forest of revolution, denunciations, theory and composite resolutions.

But the letters turned out to be a striking and addictive read. Great political thinkers are not always great writers (try Gramsci’s stuff if you don’t believe me) but reading Luxemburg is to be consistently blown away by her forensic intelligence and her clarity of expression and thought. She was tough, and faced with equanimity her frequent prison sentences for political non-offences. She had no time for ideological fools in the male dominated activist left (‘And with such people we’re supposed to turn the world upside down?’) and was not afraid to speak up. Enduring a Social Democratic meeting in an ‘obscure tavern on the corner of Menzel and Becker Streets’ she reports that ‘Karolus cleared his throat and began to lecture on the subject of value and exchange value… in such a unpopularised way that I was absolutely amazed. And so it went for about an hour. The poor things struggled desperately against yawning and falling asleep. Then a discussion began, I intervened, and immediately everything became quite lively.’

Not that there’s nothing to argue with here. Time and again Luxemburg affirms her faith in ‘the objective logic of history, which tirelessly carries out its work of clarification and differentiation.’ This leads her into lapses of ‘don’t rock the boat’ revolutionary conformism: during the early Leninist terror of 1918 she admits that ‘One would like to give the Bolsheviks a terrible tongue-lashing, but of course considerations do not allow that.’ Luxemburg implores a friend in April 1917 that ‘Don’t you realise it’s our own cause that is winning out triumphantly there, that World History in person is fighting her battles there and dancing the carmagnole, drunk with joy?’ As it turned out, History was dancing the mortata.

Is it an insult to dwell on Luxemburg the person? I don’t think so. A huge part of the correspondence is by nature on her relationships with others – her friendships and love affairs are at least as complicated as was the political situation at that time. She was clearly the kind of woman it’s easy to fall in love with – and she wrote the best ‘btw you’re dumped’ signoff ever, dismissing one crestfallen fellow with ‘Now you are free as a bird, and may you be happy. Principaccia no longer stands in your way. Fare thee well, and may the nightingales of the Appenine Hills sing to you and the wide-horned oxen of the Caucasus greet you.’

We see so much of Luxemberg domestically: arranging flowers, painting, playing with her cat (an intermittent delight in the letters: ‘Mimi is a scoundrel. She leaped at me from the floor and tried to bite me’) and complaining about the laxity of her domestic servants (perhaps forgetting on such occasions the role service workers had to play in the Women’s Question and the struggle of the proletariat). Even in prison she keeps herself occupied by making friends with the birds and wasps that fly in and out of the exercise yard, and cultivates little gardens on whatever patches of green space are available to her. Had she been born in 1971 instead of 1871, she’d likely be organising book groups, writing NS columns, instagramming the Trump demos and bitching about Waitrose substitutions.

Luxemburg can make you laugh at such moments. She travelled widely, and saw with fresh eyes the little quirks and discordancies of an unfamiliar landscape. She enjoys visiting the Italian Riviera, but its soundscape drives her crazy: ‘Frogs – I can put up with them. But such frogs, such a far-reaching, self-satisfied, blown-up croaking, as if the frog was the number one and absolutely most important being!… Second: the bells. I appreciate and love church bells. But this ringing every quarter of an hour, and such a light-minded, silly, childish ding-dong-ding – ding-ding-dong, which can make a person quite idiotic.’ When Lenin visits her in 1911, her cat attacks him: ‘when he tried to approach her she whacked him with a paw and snarled like a tiger.’ (Go, Mimi!)

What comes through the most, though, is Luxemburg’s force of life and joy at being alive, and this is what makes her timely and relevant, over the distance of a century or so. From a letter in 1916:

To be a human being is the main thing, above all else. And that means: to be firm and clear and cheerful, yes, cheerful in spite of everything and anything, because howling is the business of the weak. To be a human being means to joyfully toss your entire life ‘on the great scales of fate’ if it must be so, and at the same time to rejoice in the brightness of every day and the beauty of every cloud. Oh, I don’t know any recipe that can be written down on how to make a human being, I only know that a person is one, and you too always used to know when we walked together through the fields of Südende for hours at a time and the red glow of evening lay upon the stalks of grain. The world is so beautiful, with all its horrors […]

Deal Orr No Deal

September 11, 2016

Deborah Orr’s column yesterday has got a bit of a slagging. Which is to an extent unfair, because she comes up with an original angle on a complex problem: are zero hours contracts really a universal bad thing?

Orr makes a number of points that normally I’d be sympathetic with. I agree that the economy is changing, and the ‘job for life’ ain’t guaranteed any more. I agree that the left tends to regard pre-Thatcher employment as a lost kingdom, and ignores the difficult, repetitive and hazardous nature of manual careers. I agree that the grind of full time work is not for everyone. And the rebel in me still regards the prospect of decades in the same workplace with a kind of horror.

Orr balances the boring old unionist jobs for life culture, with sunny assertions on the happy go lucky world of the gig economy: ‘it’s also true that many people like being their own boss, and just don’t recognise the binary struggle between bosses and workers as relevant to their lives. They like being both.’ Zero hours contracts ‘are mostly taken up by women, and two thirds of people on zero-hours contracts say they don’t want more hours than they have already.’

Is there a little scripture left out of this sermon? I think there is. Here are what to my mind are the problems with zero hours jobs:

1) They are generally crap jobs. I never heard of, say, a zero hours barrister or a piecework advertising executive. But there are plenty of zero hours cab drivers, care workers and pizza deliverers. High powered professionals can get flexibility within their role at their level but the Deliveroo/Uber guys seem to have to deal with all the petty pressures and sanctions of permanent employment. If you are a zero hours worker then your phone tells you what to do.

Which brings us to:

2) Zero hours jobs are not that modern. Zero hours workers report lack of sick pay, leave entitlements, no insurance for when they get knocked over delivering takeaway food all over the city. For the FT, Sarah O’Connor went out and spoke to zero hours drivers and found them struggling under arbitrary rules and on-call systems. As a Deliveroo courier told her: ‘They are treating you like an employee, so how can they say it’s self-employment?’ Rather than writing about new ways of working, O’Connor ended up writing about Taylorism in the nineteenth century. Zero hours jobs could potentially be great flexible jobs if they were reformed, but as it actually exists at the moment the gig economy is just Taylorism with smartphones.

3) People tend to prefer secure employment. As Chris Dillow has said, most people do not have portfolio careers. Most people prefer a regular job with regular pay, particularly if you are young and have a family. That’s not everyone’s situation, but the workplace is set up that way (and it took a lot of hard work to get there) because families stand to lose the most when capitalism goes wrong.

4) Forget your tax credits. It’s also very difficult to claim in work benefits on zero hours contracts because the benefit system is set up to pay people in permanent jobs with regular pay. In a truly scary recent piece by John Harris he argues that the world of work is fragmenting so fast that more and more of us will have to be reliant on benefits in the future even if we have a working income. This would be a perfect storm and I am not convinced that Universal Credit will resolve it.

5) It tends to be a generational thing. When I started work I started out in temp jobs. You could be dumped back on the employment line at a moment’s notice (and I was). For young people coming up, with little experience, the zero hours job will be the only job available – yet another way in which the latest generation loses out in Britain.

So, as I say, I understand Orr’s point that a life in service to one employer is boring. But job security for most people is a bare minimum requirement in life and we are nowhere near being able to guarantee it.

As Gene used to say at Harry’s Place: for most people the problem with capitalism is that it’s not boring enough.

How To Fix Social Mobility Without Really Trying

August 27, 2016

bloodworthA story in the grown-up news caught my eye recently. Longitudinal research has discovered that the graduate class of 2004 – my year, more or less – failed to prosper a decade on, with 25% of ’04 graduates earning around £20,000. The Guardian quotes Alice Barnard, CEO of a vocational education charity:

Immediately after graduation, many graduates are either in jobs that didn’t require a degree or didn’t require the level of education they had got themselves to. They have invested not only time, energy and effort but also quite a lot of money and potentially come out the other side without the jobs they perhaps expected to get.

In other words, for all our education and qualifications we might as well have left school at sixteen, borrowed some money and started flipping houses on the property game. It appears that – O lost, and by the wind, O grieved! – my generation has achieved less than jackshit.

Michael Young invented the concept of ‘meritocracy’ in 1958. He did not mean it as a good thing. ‘I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,’ he wrote in 2001. ‘The book was a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded) against what might happen to Britain’. While it was ‘good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit’ the meritocracy turned ‘Because I’m Worth It’ into an ideological cudgel. ‘They can be insufferably smug… The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.’ And the people who don’t make it – for whatever reason – are near-demonised, because under true meritocracy bad circumstances can only be the result of personal failings. ‘No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that,’ said Young. They have been left with the poverty of expectation, which will kill you just as soon as material poverty.

Politicians today always say they are going to ‘break down privilege’ and ‘help people get on’ in meritocratic terms, and contrarywise political writers across the spectrum revive Young’s criticisms. Charles Moore points out, in a critique of the Prime Minister’s social mobility speech, that life chances are impacted by loads of things that have nothing to do with merit: ‘luck, ability, upbringing, health, inheritance, education, marriage, even looks (as in ‘Her face is her fortune’).’

Moore is right that ‘few would tolerate a Conservative government who tried to punish everybody who is rich for these reasons’ (although one might take issue with his claim that ‘It is encouraging that a man whose family first got rich because his ancestor was the fat huntsman (gros veneur) of William the Conqueror has £9 billion today, 950 years later… It gives hope to us all.’) The point is, meritocracy is far too deterministic. People do not just slot into their allotted ‘station in life’ as a result of inborn talent and personal worth. As the man said, life is short and art is long, and success is very far off.

In any case, the UK is still far too shackled by aristocracy of birth to worry about Young’s dystopia just yet. James Bloodworth is a good, muscular writer who rams home his points with a welter of stats and figures. Only a small percentage of UK citizens are privately educated but they dominate the judiciary, journalism, television, politics,  medicine, drama, showbusiness and the music industry. Cliché as this is, it appears that ‘who you know’ is a big thing on our small island. ‘Put more straightforwardly,’ Bloodworth writes, ‘if you live in London and have friends in high-powered jobs, you are far more likely to get an ‘in’ with someone influential in your desired profession than someone who lives a long way from the capital and who lacks the same contacts.’ The interesting and rewarding stuff relies on networks and unpaid internships which are difficult or impossible to get into. ‘Politicians are thus chasing a mirage,’ Bloodworth writes.

When Bloodworth’s book came out some reviewers complained that he offered no potential solutions. It’s understandable as ‘social mobility’ contains a multitude. When does personal drive end and environmental impacts begin? What does and doesn’t impact a life, and what if anything can the state do to mitigate these impacts?

Nevertheless, let me now try to put the world to rights, and offer some potential very simplified solutions to the complex issue.

  • There is no reason for everything to be concentrated in London. The skew towards our capital is destroying it, aggravating the property market and making the city unliveable. Power should be devolved to the regions where possible and media outlets/publishers/TV stations should open offices there. The Northern Powerhouse is a political thing. Let’s make it a real thing.
  • We need more capitalism. Too many areas have only a few public sector bodies or monopoly private employers to apply to. This keeps wages low and prevents bad practice from being challenged. We could set up some kind of commission to break regional monopolies. We should cap business rates for smaller companies and give grants to any small entrepreneur with a reasonable business plan.
  • Make localism pay. We should reform local democracy so that elected reps are paid the national average and that working age people can get involved in their communities. This would also provide a route into politics for bright people outside political networks.
  • Bright people who want to go to college should be allowed in. Whether you want to become a cardiologist or just spend three years reading books, the experience of university breaks down poverty of expectations and makes people realise that other things in life are possibles. And this can only be a good thing.
  • Vocational stuff needs to really be vocational. I’m all for vocational education but too often the state seems to use it to tie up working class people on meaningless NVQ or BTECs because it can’t think what else to do with them. Vocational education is great but it needs to teach skills. And that had better be clear and marketable skills.
  • Bring on welfare reform. Job Centres and the welfare reform industry has function-bloated right out of control. Rather than helping people find work, they act as enforcement arms for the state. If the current system can’t finance vocational training for jobseekers or get them into decent jobs rather than just off benefits then it should be closed down and replaced with some sort of base income.
  • Let’s be nice. Our economy has been troubled for a while and it will get more so, many people are out of work through no fault of their own. Others find it very difficult to work due to physical and mental health problems. Try to be compassionate. Poverty can happen to anyone. It can happen to you.

And if you really do want to get on in life then the last thing you should do is listen to a politician.

Borderpolis: Inside the City of Thorns

April 11, 2016

cityofthornsAt some point in the last two or three decades, immigration became something it was impossible to have a reasonable conversation about. It is a domestic and international issue that has been politicised and magnified beyond reasonable conversation. The right doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks they erode British culture and drain welfare capital. The left doesn’t like immigrants because it thinks (on dubious evidence) that they take British jobs (and also, refugees cannot always be trusted to express constructive opinions of the absurd religions and nasty, thieving dictatorships that so many leftists in the UK support). Neoconservatives worried that immigrants had too much potential to be radicalised and become terrorists. And there are also some people who don’t like immigrants because they have racial prejudices against people from foreign countries or with different colour skin.

A sense of raging unreality replaced the reasonable conversation. A few reasonable voices demurred. Centrist leader writers quoted from economic studies, Quakers worried about the humanitarian consequences of indefinite detention and deportations. But the raging unreality created its own compelling discourse, so that immigrants can drain the welfare state and take British jobs, can reshape English communities and fail to make a social commitment to the ‘host country’, refuse to learn English and simultaneously speak it far too well. When the crisis came, when thousands drowned in the Med, a few reporters wandered around Calais for a few days, but still the focus of the debate remained on the impact of immigration upon the UK. The public sector mantra ‘no decision about us, without us’ never applies to migrants. What doesn’t get asked is: who are the refugees? Why are they coming? And what are they running from?

Ben Rawlence spent four years, on and off, in the Dadaab refugee camp on the Kenyan/Somali border – one of the many grey zones and process centres that are created, and expand, when the rhetoric of the open world meets national protectionism. The camp complex is funded by the UN, is the size of a small city and has existed for generations. Somalis ran there fleeing warlordism, starvation and al-Shabaab. (It took some guts to do so. Rawlence explains: ‘The camps lie seventy miles inside Kenya across the barren scrub of the border country and the crossing is dangerous. The police in Kenya jokingly refer to undocumented Somalis as ‘ATM machines’. Rape is routine.’) Once inside the camp, accommodation and work are scarce: refugees make a pittance shoeshining, or selling khat from a stall. (The UN also has an ‘incentive worker’ scheme where people the National Security Council designates as Islamists in embryo, risk their lives detecting and defusing al-Shabaab IEDs.) The common situation of the migrants doesn’t guarantee solidarity. Rawlence meets numerous refugees whose lives have been put at risk after falling in love with someone from the wrong religion or tribe. How do you imagine a refugee camp? It’s not Buchenwald. It’s more like an open-air prison – complete with beatings, headcounts, hustles, desires, hatreds, segregations, and plots to escape.

If the city of thorns is a prison, parole is extremely difficult. Migrants crowd around the UN building daily to check the few resettlement slots that become available. For those without nous or connections to get moved up the list, the wait can last generations. Some people can’t handle the wait, and sign up with a trafficker. ‘If you get a good one,’ a restless young man told Rawlence, ‘you can reach quickly and safely’. If you don’t get a good one, you can die in a broken-down hotbox truck in the desert, or be ransomed back to your relatives by corrupt cops. Even if one escapes by lawful means, freedom can be short lived. A man Rawlence met, named Fish, came to Dadaab feeling a civil war in ’92 and eventually made it to Nairobi, but had to head back to the camp when the Kenyan authorities cracked down… and ‘cracked down’ in Nairobi meant more beatings, arbitrary detentions and rapes.

Just like in prisons, a listlessness takes over, drains thought and energy. People spend whole days chewing khat, or creating Facebook photos of imaginary lives in Europe or America. There is a Dadaab word for this feeling, buufis, ‘the name given to the longing for resettlement out of the refugee camps. It is a kind of depression rooted in an inextinguishable hope for a life elsewhere that simultaneously casts the present into shadow.’ The emotional detail is typical of Rawlence, who narrates City of Thorns in terms of the complex relationships and inner lives of the people he meets there. The flailings and machinations of various governmental and NGO bodies, as they try to deal with unprecedented eruptions of globalisation and war, he recounts briefly – and perhaps with a little dark irony. (Rawlence is particularly scathing on the corporate aid agencies: ‘At five o’clock sharp, they left their cool offices and their computers glowing with warnings and got into their cars…. through the streets wet and slick to some house party or restaurant glittering with laughter and money, and the lights of the city sparkled in the puddles.’) Mainly, Rawlence gives his voice to the voiceless. As Fish says: ‘We talk, but our voices are never heard. We move, but only inside a cage. We have many skills and talents, but we are denied our chance to maximise our potential’.