Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

A Devil’s Bargain

May 5, 2019

Today Nick Cohen asks a good question: how does the useless Jeremy Corbyn still manage to maintain loyalty and followers?

What kind of leader produces such unthinking loyalty from his followers and, more pertinently, what damage does he inflict on the souls of followers prepared to give it?

Jeremy Corbyn is not particularly interesting. Labour officials tell me that the key to understanding him is to grasp his intellectual inferiority complex, which resulted in him turning to political dogmatism as others with his disadvantages turn to Scientology. The socialist dogmas of the 1970s gave his limited mind certainty and freedom from responsibility, and a set of enduring precepts.

There had always been a strain on the British far left that opposed European co-operation because ‘capitalist’ Europe threatened to rival the Soviet Union, the 20th-century object of their utopian fantasies. Corbyn had a ready-made anti-European policy right there. Starting with the Stalinist purges of Soviet Jews in the early 1950s, and extending to the wider left after the Israeli-Arab war of 1967, the notion that leftwing antisemitism didn’t exist surrounded him. In this milieu, it was natural to ally with the goosestepping Shia fascists of Hezbollah, and wild-eyed creeps who babbled about how the Jews caused 9/11; natural, too, to use the racist sneers of his class and generation to tell British Jews in his audience they did not understand ‘English irony’. And… well, I could go on, as you surely know.

I think the answer to Nick’s question is a kind of devil’s bargain.

David Hirsh in Contemporary Left Antisemitism argues that there are two traditions to the left. There is the democratic left which gave us the vote, trade unions and the minimum wage. Then there is the totalitarian left – which is as different from the democratic left as darkness from noon. From it, came gulags and show trials and ideology and blood.

It’s been obvious since he won the Labour leadership that Corbyn is from this second totalitarian tradition of the left. People aren’t stupid, they sense the intellectual darkness around Corbynism, they don’t particularly like it but many have been willing to accept it anyway, as ‘part of the package’.

Why? Because Corbyn also talked about the injustices faced by ordinary people struggling against the austerity of the last nine years. If you’re a lone parent of three in a falling-down private rental, or an unemployed 58 year old living on foodbanks and Universal Credit, his message is going to resonate. There are people out there hoping for a socialist Labour government to save them. They are only just hanging on, and they are the people who are going to be let down most of all.

The 2017 election intensified this because Labour surpassed very bad expectations. Since then the narrative has been ‘one last push’. It has been ‘we are so close to power, Jeremy’s enemies are panicking’.

‘Therfor bihoveth him a ful long spoon/That shal ete with a feend,’ said Geoffrey Chaucer. Medieval literature isn’t my field but what I think Chaucer is saying here is: when you deal with the devil, keep your eyes open, because he’s like to fuck you over. And so it is proving.

In What’s the Matter with Kansas? Thomas Frank explored the attraction that Republicanism had for working class Americans. He looked at the disconnect between what Republican voters wanted and what they were actually getting. ‘Vote to stop abortion: receive a rollback in capital gains taxes… Vote to get government off our backs; receive conglomeration and monopoly everywhere from media to meat packing. Vote to strike a blow against elitism, receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes.’

You could tabulate a similar vote/receive for Corbynism, based on what it’s likely to look like in power. Vote for meaningful work and a strong welfare state; receive Brexit on WTO terms and an economy in freefall. Vote to end homelessness and reform the housing market; receive international alliances with authoritarian states. Vote for solidarity with migrants and asylum seekers; receive tolerance of anti-semitism and an end of freedom of movement.

Corbyn’s team have relied upon people not realising that if they are not credible on issues like Brexit and antisemitism they are not likely to be credible on fixing the economy and social justice either.

There are signs, however, that the credibility gap is beginning to close, and that people are catching up.

Labour lost 79 seats in local elections this week. I had very far left people in my timeline, previously loyal to JC but who couldn’t vote Labour this time around because they were so disillusioned with him. Corbyn spent the day of the People’s Vote march campaigning in Morecambe. It went independent.

It has been a long time since 2017.

As I said, I can understand why people living in the hell of poverty might want to overlook Corbyn’s baggage.

But what about the more established supporters of JC – the Guardian and Jacobin columnists, the pundits, journalists and outriders?

What’s their excuse?

If You Liked Neoliberalism, You’ll Love Nativism

April 27, 2019

I have finally got around to having a look at the Hansard Society survey that came out a few weeks ago. The audit caused something of a stir because it concluded that the public were sick of parliamentary democracy and wanted an authoritarian strongman to take over. As the Guardian reported:

The UK public is increasingly disenchanted with MPs and government and ever more willing to welcome the idea of authoritarian leaders who would ignore parliament, a long-running survey of attitudes to politics has shown.

Amid the Brexit chaos, overall public faith in the political system has reached a nadir not previously seen in the 16-year history of the Hansard Society’s audit of political engagement, lower even than at the depths of the crisis over MPs’ expenses.

Almost three-quarters of those asked said the system of governance needed significant improvement, and other attitudes emerged that ‘challenge core tenets of our democracy’, the audit’s authors stated.

The study, compiled annually by the democracy charity, found that when people were asked whether ‘Britain needs a strong ruler willing to break the rules’, 54% agreed and only 23% said no.

The report itself isn’t as striking as the Guardian makes out. There are key phrases that jump out at you – ‘People are pessimistic about the country’s problems and their possible solution, with sizeable numbers willing to entertain radical political changes’, ‘42% think it would be better if the government didn’t have to worry so much about parliamentary votes when tackling the country’s problems’ – but Hansard doesn’t seem to drill down as much as I’d like. I would like to have seen quotes from participants in their own words. What kind of radical changes? How has the country declined compared to say thirty years ago? The report does not say. It’s all a bit vague.

I am reminded of Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. Hochschild is a Berkeley sociologist, the epitome of American liberalism. In 1964 she took part in the freedom rides where students travelled to Mississippi to help black southerners register to vote. Her book is about the time she spent with working class voters in rural Louisiana. Many were disillusioned with politics as usual and most planned to vote Trump in the 2016 election. Some of Hochschild’s subjects were enthusiastic, others viewed Trump as a lesser of two evils. The main sentiment in Lake Charles was anti government. Taxes were too high. The state should get off our backs. The Louisianans worked hard and lived in very close communities. If you lost your job or fell ill, it was okay to claim unemployment for a while; otherwise, your family and the local church would help out.

Hochschild asked a small businessman named Mike Schaff: ‘What has the federal government done that you feel grateful for?’

‘Hurricane relief.’ He pauses again.

‘The I-10…’ (a federally funded freeway). Another long pause.

‘Okay, unemployment insurance.’ He had once been briefly on it.

I suggest the Food and Drug Administration inspectors who check the safety of our food.

‘Yeah, that too.’

‘What about the post office that delivered the parts of that Zenith 701 you assembled and flew over Bayou Corn Sinkhole to take a video you put on YouTube?’

‘That came through FedEx.’

Hochschild’s book is a testament to the beautiful state of Louisiana and the warmth and kindness of its people. (It’s a quirk of human nature that small-town conservatives often display more compassion and solidarity than virtue signalling liberals.) Much of the story is animated by the various big corporate pollution scandals in local rivers and bayous. Debates rage over kitchen tables over how to clean the lakes. Strangers in Their Own Land is a masterwork of imaginative empathy, by someone who respects people enough to challenge them, and pick at their contradictions.

But my point really is that this kind of self sufficient libertarianism doesn’t exist in this country. Hansard’s focus groups likely had similar complaints to Mike Schaff, Sharon Galicia, Danny McCorquodale and Hochschild’s other friends in Lake Charles. But the British don’t want ‘government off their backs’. They voted for Brexit because they thought there would be more money for the NHS. Tories learned to win elections again through giveaways like Help to Buy. Britons tend to demand state-based solutions, and that raises the stakes so much higher.

My parents’ generation came of age in the postwar settlement when it was agreed that the state would provide. They had the NHS, a generous welfare system, free college education, a raft of entitlements and privileges. I do not envy them and I’m sure they struggled. My generation has more personal liberty and technological advances. British sociology from then to now has essentially been about people adapting from a welfare state communitarian society to a more neoliberal society with free information and entertainment.

It’s something I first noticed in the early 2010s when austerity hit. People had grown up with the assumption that the state will look after them and they find out the hard way that it doesn’t. The public want more council houses, more mortgage subsidies, more GP appointments, more roadworks, more post offices, more childcare, more benefits, more hospitals, more schools, more border guards, more cops, more jails. After all, the authoritarian strongman, the Trumps, the Putins, the Orbáns, they are nothing without the state apparatus of soldiers, police, spies and lawyers in stretching battalions behind them. And yes, these kind of demands tend to come from Britons of a certain age, too young for the war but old enough for the peace dividend (although again, the Hansard Society is maddeningly vague on this).

But there is a danger in wishing more powers for the state. We don’t really get this in the UK because we never lived under a dictatorship. We never lived in the godforsaken parts of twentieth century Europe where you had to bribe three separate border authorities to get a day pass to leave your village. The idea of losing the right to live and work in 27 countries didn’t impact on the Brexit debate. It didn’t feel like a loss.

That’s why people are casual about the idea of expanding state powers. Another frequent demand I noticed in the austerity years was that the state should crack down on one particular group, or take entitlements from another particular group. We are too casual about letting the state intervene in other people’s lives, and like I say, it raises the stakes. It could be that this is the end of the neoliberal age and my generation are going to find out what authoritarianism is. Housing benefit, predator drones – they come from the same place.

Research pollster Matthew Goodwin says all this is alarmist. He writes: ‘When prominent Remainers compare Eurosceptics to Nazis, or modern-day Britain to the Weimar Republic, they are engaging in something that has defined much of our post-referendum debate: liberal ‘catastrophising’ – a cognitive distortion leading them to expect, and become obsessed by, the worst of all possible outcomes.’ I hope he is right – but it’s no comfort to say that we’re not headed to a contemporary Third Reich. A variant on Erdoğan’s Turkey or Law and Justice Poland would be grim enough. A country doesn’t have to go too far into fascism to shatter lives, or make changes that can’t be taken back.

I think politicians and activists of all kinds should be very careful what they wish for.

2016 And All That

March 5, 2019

A curiosity of political writing is the panoply of small sites that have sprung up outside traditional UK media, offering regular blogs with a particular political slant and names you half recognise. This week we’re looking at ‘Unherd’ which examines current events from an angle of the communitarian left and right.

You might have heard on the grown up news that the Labour Party has (provisionally and reluctantly and at this very late stage) backed a second referendum on Brexit – and that has not gone down very well with the fellows at Unherd. Their always entertaining contributor Paul Embery has written a polemic against any such new referendum. Even among a political movement known for zealotry, Embery’s partisanship stands out.

Embery laments that ‘the post-referendum debate among Westminster politicians and the commentariat has missed the mark spectacularly by focusing almost exclusively on the dry, technical issues of Brexit: the Single Market and Customs Union, the Irish border backstop, and so on’ – you know, the boring, technocratic shit that keeps food on the supermarket shelves, and gunsmoke off the breeze. Embery is more of a Brexit purist, perhaps Brexit aesthete.

In 2015, five in six MPs voted to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. Then, a year later, in the biggest democratic exercise ever witnessed in our nation’s history, more than 33 million people went to the polls and a majority voted for secession. They didn’t vote to leave only with a divorce agreement that the EU was willing to approve. No, the question on the ballot paper was simple: remain or leave.

For Embery, democracy began in 2016. And that’s where it ends, apparently. For the second referendum in Brexit mythos is an establishment ruse to subvert popular sovereignty. Embery warns: ‘For as the gilet jaunes have shown across the Channel, if you chip away enough at people’s faith in the democratic process and their ability to hold their political leaders to account, then from behind that silence a mighty roar will eventually emerge.’ (The stirring Shelleyan rhetoric clashes badly with the example of the gilet jaunes: a couple of weeks ago the brave boys of Paris had to be restrained by police after bullying an elderly Jewish philosopher on one of their demos.)

Here is the problem. It has now been more than three years since the referendum. If Brexit were a government it’d be past the mid terms. It would have faced local and by elections. The action has become boring. (It is an irony of the Brexit vote that what was supposed to lead to one big decisive outcome instead gives us endless process.) Most people don’t have fixed and unchangeable views. Most people have moved on. And was 2016 such a huge moment? I don’t recall the street parties.

And think on the fundamental things that will not change. We are next to Europe. We had a relationship with Europe before the EU, we will always have that even if the EU falls over completely as it periodically threatens to do. If we are going to leave it is best to sort out some kind of trading relationship rather than go out on WTO rules. WTO rules may be survivable. Sure, we might run out of produce, and medical supplies, and god knows what else.

Let’s say no deal is survivable. It may not create the communitarian paradise that Unherd writers dream of. Polly Toynbee, speaking with postwar austerity historian David Kynaston, said that: ‘Even in a supposedly collectivist decade, people were strongly individualist… They welcomed the NHS as ‘good for me’, but reading mass observation archives, [Kynaston] detected no widespread New Jerusalem sentiment.’ Quite so. In times of privation people think to me and mine. As so often, the collective revolution leads to grasping selfish survivalism.

‘These things are important of course,’ Embery says, ‘but no-one in power has yet bothered to initiate a serious discussion about what drove so many of their fellow citizens to vote Leave in the first place – defining issues such as community, identity, democracy and belonging.’ The question here really is, what stopped you? Brexit for good or ill was an opportunity to find out what kind of country we wanted to be. We could have had a written constitution, a First Amendment, an elected senate by the year 2017. Instead it has been a comedy of lowered expectations and an epic of wasted time. And still, Embery and his Brexit purists stay in referendum day, fixed in amber, trapped in the golden moment and lost content.

The People’s Vote is still more of an idea than a reality. Embery is the latest of numerous commentators in political and journalist circles to warn against it. I’m not convinced about a second referendum but this to me seems a reasonable argument for having one.

A Government of Fantasy and Fictions

January 27, 2019

Volker Weidermann’s history of the Bavarian revolution can be read like a novel. Events lead to further events with the seamlessness of great storytelling, and the personalities of the time stand out with a vivid spectral life. When the Writers Took Power begins at the end of a costly and unwinnable war. Soldiers abandoned their barracks, tore off their insignia and marched with professional activists and civilians caught in the rush of the moment. They took the Residence, the military prison, the army HQ, government ministries. A revolutionary council doled out ammunition and sent the mutineers to occupy public buildings. The royal family waited until dusk and fled the city.

The revolution coalesced around a diffident social democrat named Kurt Eisner – a theatre critic, of all things. The poet Oscar Maria Graf recalled that on the night of the takeover Eisner ‘was pale and his expression deadly serious; he didn’t speak a word. It almost looked as if the sudden turn of events had taken him by surprise. Now and then he would stare straight ahead, half fearful and half distracted.’ Eisner wanted a minimum wage, an end to the war, a welfare state and an eight-hour day and was prepared to fight for them.

But he resisted the ideologues far and away who wanted to turn the revolution into a more state-oriented affair along Soviet lines. The Bolsheviks in Weidermann’s account appear as remote and wary figures rather than brothers in solidarity. After Eisner was gone his successor Ernst Toller was in constant conflict with the KPD ideologue Eugen Leviné, who wanted a pure communist rule, complete with expropriations. When Toller raised concerns about the food supply, Leviné told him that ‘they will do what they did in Russia and force the peasants to provide corn and milk by sending troops out to punish those who refuse.’

Eisner was more of a diplomat. He announced to startled activists that he would leave the ministries operating as is, because ‘we do not want to make it harder than necessary for the civil servants, on whose joyful, perhaps relieved support we are relying’. As Weidermann says, the man who had overthrown the Bavarian state now apologised for the temporary inconvenience caused. ‘A prime minister for the people,’ he writes, ‘that’s [Eisner’s] vision, that’s his dream.’

Not to be. Eisner’s fledging programme of ‘permanent democracy’ began to unravel in a matter of weeks: the far left hated him, the far right (already working on its stab-in-the-back myth) hated him more, and the rural population simply did not care, no matter how many earnest delegations Eisner sent their way. (‘I’m sure you’ll do all manner of clever things… but out here no one gives a fig!’ a peasant shouted at Oscar Graf.) In the Landtag elections, Eisner’s party was bulldozed. He won three of a possible 180 seats. And then Eisner did something incredible. He resigned.

In the face of death threats, Eisner reassured a colleague: ‘You cannot avoid an assassination attempt for ever, and after all, I can only be shot dead once’. He refused guards on his journey to the Landtag, where he planned to give his resignation speech… and was shot twice, en route, by a madman named Count Arco. The assassin Count also killed the Prime Minister, and inside the Landtag, a devotee of Eisner shot the SPD’s Ernest Auer, believing him responsible for Eisner’s murder.

‘It is more pleasant not to govern,’ Weidermann writes. ‘These weeks see the arrival of dreamers, winter-sandal wearers, preachers, plant-whisperers, the liberated and the liberators, long-haired men, hypnotists and those who have been hypnotised, dreamers. Anyone coming to this luminous city is themselves illuminated.’ And what creatures emerged from the shadows in the wake of Eisner’s assassination!

As well as the historical celebrities you hope to meet in such accounts (Weidermann weaves into his narrative marvellous portraits of Rilke and Thomas Mann, and brilliant Third Reich diarist Victor Klemperer turns up to report on the revolution) there are more political characters I wasn’t previously aware of. The financial wizard Silvio Gesell, with his theory of ‘free money’, perhaps luxury and fully automated. The job of foreign secretary – People’s Delegate for Foreign Affairs – went to a Dr Lipp. Dr Lipp cut all the phone lines in his office due to a ‘phobia of bells’. He liked telegrams. He sent a lot of telegrams. At one point the telegraph office queried ‘another telegram for the Pope in which Dr Lipp complained that Hoffman, the head of government in exile, has taken the key to his ministry toilet with him to Bamberg, and that the republic is threatened by ‘Noske’s hairy gorilla hands.’ The telegram closes with the line: ‘We want peace for ever’.’

But the time for laughter was ending. Leviné overthrew Toller six days into his rule. ‘Enough of the ‘platitude-politics of the boy Toller’, as Leviné had intoned several days before. We are engaged in real struggles. We can no longer afford to have romantic, peace-loving aesthetes in charge.’ Perhaps to demonstrate such manliness, the new government shut down post and wire services, expropriated food from hotels and restaurants, and banned newspapers. It was not just the communists that wanted to rid Bavaria of its degeneracy. A man named Josef Karl crept into the old Wittelsbach palace during a Red Army parade and found it ‘A real Russian-Galician pigsty… there are a dozen Jews with their girl typists, the latter with their typical Russian hairstyles, cropped hair, voluptuous figures with low necklines and their ‘ankle-length’ skirts cut as short as possible, transparent silk stockings and ten-to fifteen-centimetre heels on their shoes… Yes, these are the people who are shamelessly selling off and sucking dry the poor state of Bavaria… Jewish foreigners with a real criminal aspect are the only ones at home here now.’

Karl’s sentiments – antisemitic, foul, perhaps envious – were not uncommon. Hitler appears in Dreamers, a pretentious young corporal left gas-blind by the war (Weidermann shares a creepy legend that Hitler’s blindness was actually psychosomatic and that he was cured by a psychiatrist who successfully hypnotised him… but forgot to wake him up, alas.) The count who killed Eisner was a member of the mystical far right Thule Society, a precursor to the NSDAP. ‘The Thule Society has no interest in re-establishing the monarchy,’ Weidermann writes. ‘Their goal is to create a German dictatorship and drive all the Jews out of Germany.’ Count Arco was kicked out of the Society when it was discovered he had a Jewish mother. The count wanted to ‘redeem himself’ by killing the Jew Eisner. He served a short sentence for the murder, then returned to a celebratory welcome in his home village: a newspaper reported that ‘Late at night, the young Arco was led into the castle amid cheering, flag-waving and music.’

‘They were entirely unprepared for it all,’ Weidermann writes, ‘after 900 years of the Wittelsbach dynasty, after losing an unloseable war. There were no historical precedents for them to draw on. Direct, permanent democracy; everyone having a say in everything. A government of fantasy and fictions. They wanted the best and created horrors.’ That last line could be the epitaph for so many revolutions: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China and the Venezuela currently imploding under Maduro. And yet… was the German revolution really so bad? For it led to the Weimar Republic, those years of liberty and brotherhood, before the Nazis smashed it (the squabbling German leftists could not even forget their differences to resist Hitler: Luxemburg’s murder cast a long shadow). It’s in human nature to strive for something better especially when you see the poverty and casual cruelty in capitalist societies these days. We are all dreamers, Weidermann says. But reading his book the lure of revolution is more visceral. Reading Weidermann you can smell the cordite and hear the night’s swift footsteps.

Acts of Faith: R O Kwon’s ‘The Incendiaries’

December 2, 2018

People are leads in their personal dramas more than they are witnesses to social change. Jane Smiley’s epic Last Hundred Years trilogy is a long story about the lives of Iowa farmers over the last century. Many of her small town characters leave the farm for wider pursuits, but don’t get heavily involved in the seismic cultural changes of the mid 20th century.

Janet Langdon is an exception. She winds up in San Francisco and drifts into the Peoples Temple cult. Her aunt (an ex communist herself) sees the red flags, and persuades her to come back to Iowa instead of leaving for Guyana with other recruits. One day in 1978, Janet sees in the news that something has happened in Guyana.

The front-page article did not say that they were all dead, only three to four hundred. The article did not say that American soldiers had raided the Guyana compound and mowed everyone down with machine guns, which was Janet’s instant thought as her eye raced down the page. When she read it more slowly, she saw that American soldiers were actually nowhere in the vicinity, that everyone was using the words ‘mass suicide,’ and Janet’s next thought was, how did Reverend Jones persuade Lucas to kill himself? Such a thing was not possible.

Janet realises then that she had a lucky escape, that she almost crossed the line between personal drama and world drama. It’s a line that can lead over the cliff’s edge.

R O Kwon’s protagonist, Will Kendall, is very much a witness. He is an ex Christian who transfers out of bible college to the Edwards party school. He falls in love with more confident and relaxed Phoebe Haejin and follows her into a secretive religious cult led by the mysterious John Leal. Phoebe is popular and beautiful, but just as screwed up as her boyfriend Will, blaming herself for her mother’s death in a car accident. Will is very much the callow youth character – a man from a poor background, working at restaurants to pay his tuition, he has the same mix of recklessness and conservatism that characterised Donna Tartt’s male heroes. His problem is that he has lost his faith but found nothing to replace it. Yet it’s Will who escapes the Leal cult while the more capable Phoebe is swallowed whole. The novel is split narration but her sections tail out. She becomes world drama, but loses her authentic voice.

The Incendiaries is a very economic read, clocking in at just 210 pages. Part of this is the MFA-style prose, where the author condenses everything down into as few words as possible, while still feeling pressured to evoke what’s happening (‘She picked me up to drive to John Leal’s house. Paired taillights swept ahead of us, the red lamps slewing here, there’) but mostly it’s because Kwon knows exactly what she’s doing. Her Leal cult is deliberately unoriginal – it features the usual slave labour, marathon hazings and acts of terror.

Fanatical beliefs tend to come in packages. Fanatical thinking tends to manifest itself along the same lines. Leal himself was inspired, like Lev Gumilev, while doing time in a gulag. He worked with a Seoul refugee group and was captured by the North Koreans. Leal is struck by the loyalty his fellow inmates continue to demonstrate for the North Korean despot. ‘Punished for absurdities, they still maintained that the beloved sovereign, a divine being, couldn’t be too blame… Some people needed leading. In or out of the gulag, they craved faith. But think if the tyrant had been as upright as his disciples trusted him to be. The heights he’d have achieved, if he loved them’.

Kwon is more interested in the roots of belief – the idea that ‘some people need leading’. Will feels his change in outlook always as a loss – he is envious of people who can still believe in the Christian god. ‘Instead, Will hustled. He strove. It felt as though, having lost the infinite, he couldn’t waste what little time he had.’ Phoebe wants to annihilate herself in something bigger because of her sense of guilt – she thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s death. In one of her final chapters she lists the names on plague-year tombstones, dozens of them, in capitals, dissolves her voice in an act of remembrance. ‘I thought I’d see the face of God and live,’ she writes to Will. ‘I’ve since learned that it’s possible to love life without loving mine.’

This sentence chills. It comes from a place of belief, in God or perhaps from what psychologists call ‘core beliefs’ that become entrenched quickly through experience. I wonder if the reason these stories keep playing themselves out is that our core beliefs dovetail so easily with religions and cults? Jordan Peterson, explaining his infamous lobster theory, backed up his dog-eat-dog view of life with Matthew 25:29: ‘to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.’ Peterson adds: ‘You truly know you are the Son of God when your dicta apply even to crustaceans.’

I thought of this, in turn, when I was arguing with a Jehovah’s Witness on my doorstep (this was the latest of several visits from the Witnesses and I was trying to persuade them, in the nicest possible way, to cross my house off their list and never come back) and the woman said: ‘It will be okay – when Jesus returns, he will save the good people, and the wicked will be destroyed.’ That is the reason for the persistence of faith – rather than creating an alternative, more spiritual space in the contemporary jungle, religion offers a strong Darwinian survival mechanism. ‘I believed I’d always live,’ says Will, ‘along with the people I loved.’ The wicked and the lost souls go to the wall, and the point is not to be one of them.

So perhaps The Incendiaries is about how faith and ideology can sustain, or destroy, a life – and the lives of others. It isn’t clear from Kwon’s novel how we find better ways of surviving – but the task surely should be attempted.

The Old Stone House

November 8, 2018

Everyone says the new House of Cards series is terrible. True, it’s truncated and improbable and has the score of a Wagnerian meltdown. I tuned in anyway out of curiosity for the Claire Underwood/Hale presidency and because, having watched the show from day one, I didn’t feel I could abandon it now.

Where did House of Cards jump the shark? Maybe when Frank hurled his secretary of state down a flight of stairs. Maybe when Frank died, perhaps on the way back to his home planet. But for a long while it was a fine drama about two people who want to rule the world and will do just about anything to get there. Congressman Frank Underwood seems like another political hack on day one, but he has clearly defined goals and even a philosophy of sorts.  To choose wealth over power, he says, is a schoolboy error. ‘Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years,’ he says. ‘Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.’

Seasons one and two featured Frank fighting it out in the congressional trenches as House Majority Whip. By season three, he has achieved his ambition of becoming president, and that’s where the pace began to slow. I recall Jonny Geller wrote on Twitter that ‘House of Cards s3 takes a long time to say – that having power is not as much fun as getting it.’ But I liked the more low key and reflective style. Having Frank get exactly what he wants exposes his limitations. Critics complained that the Underwoods’ enemies were vanquished too easily. The point was that the halls of Congress were Frank’s natural home. He’s a hustler and a plotter, not a leader. In the glare of the Oval Office he can’t fake it so easily. Frank would have thrived as a lord or baron in feudal England but is completely unsuited to the 21st century, 24-hour cycle political America. And it shows.

A key theme in the third season is symbolised by the monks who work in the background of the White House to create a sand mandala. Claire is transfixed by their work. The sand mandala puzzled me for a long time until I read this quora thread – I take my hat off to the quora commenters, they worked this out long before I ever could:

Starting from the creation of the mandala (beginning of show, for Frank and Claire) and ending with its completion (them as President, First Lady): they (both the monks and the Underwoods) had to make a lot of frustratingly small, painstaking, tedious, yet well-planned moves to get where they are now.   These monks may not know each other well initially, but they’ve come together under a common goal to create something worthwhile; Frank & Claire have as well- nothing explicit has been stated but during the Season 2 interview it was alluded to that they could have at least started off as a marriage of political convenience.  When they’re finished, they’ve each created something remarkable- their work has paid off as we see the results of it.

However, despite these similarities, striking differences are apparent- the monks work knowing full well that when they are finished, their work will be destroyed; contrast this with Frank, who constantly speaks of ‘power being the stone building that lasts centuries’ and what it means to leave a legacy.  Ironically, the knowledge that the mandala will be destroyed is exactly what allows the monks to work in peace.  Even in terms of how this episode was shot, we see multiple scenes of Frank and Claire juxtaposed with the Tibetans, frantically scrambling past the monks, who work in harmonic peace, to maintain their power. Frank and Claire have finished their mandala, but, different from the monks, they’re trying to preserve theirs.

This is it. Frank is obsessed with legacy and empire building. He doesn’t understand that the McMansion and the old stone building will both be so much sand, in time. Political thinkers dislike this line of argument, because it diminishes the importance of political achievements, and careers. And of course we must all make something of our brief lives. But it is surely helpful and natural to have a wider perspective. Claire realises this at several points during series three, and gradually understands that – for all her high poll ratings as First Lady, and appearances on the world stage – it’s all so transient, except perhaps her moment of connection with the American prisoner in Petrov’s dungeons. Even Frank, when he opens the Underwood Library at his old college in season one, has a moment of transcendence while drinking with his old friends. ‘The library doesn’t matter,’ he says, ‘but I want to think this place did.’ All too soon though Frank comes back to earth, and gets back into the grind.

Another illustration of this is Frank’s lieutenant Doug Stamper. Doug is Frank’s faithful Smithers, devoted to his boss even after death. He becomes obsessed with a sex worker named Rachel Posner, who Frank and Doug use to bring down a congressional rival. Inevitably Rachel outlives her usefulness, and Doug is dispatched to track her down in New Mexico. Posner argues for her life, and is so convincing that Doug lets her go. But a moment later he changes his mind, and runs her down on a desert road. Doug is a recovering alcoholic, who has just fought off a messy relapse. He goes on in the AA way about how much he has changed, but all he’s really done is quit drinking. It would be the act of mercy, of letting Posner live, that would signify the deep, lasting change.

In All the Kremlin’s Men, his taxonomy of Vladimir Putin’s court, Mikhail Zygar writes that Putin advised a colleague ‘to watch two American TV series: Boss and House of Cards. ‘You’ll find them useful,’ the president recommended.’ Zygar adds that the shows ‘affirmed his belief that Western politicians are all cynical scoundrels whose words about values and human rights are pure hot air and simply a tool to attack enemies.’ The show therefore feeds into a Putinesque troll-state authoritarian view of the world – that life is the struggle for land and resources, and every civilised law and democratic precept is just this struggle by other means. But I wonder what Putin and his advisers thought of the sand mandalas, or the Pussy Riot episode, or Tom Hammerschmidt’s tenacious pursuit for the truth, or Claire’s presidency.

There are worse political dramas you could be watching.

The Beautiful Acausal

October 28, 2018

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes place in a near future where the red planet has been colonised. It is a multicultural democracy full of cities and commerce. The Mars project is led by John Boone and Frank Chalmers, two powerful personalities as different as darkness and noon. John is the brave handsome space pioneer who is always trying to do the right thing. Frank is a volatile intellectual brimming with repressed passions. Inevitably, they begin as friends but end as rivals. The prologue of Red Mars begins with John making a speech on a planetwide party night. ‘We were on our own; and so we became fundamentally different beings,’ John says. ‘All lies,’ Frank thinks. Using the cover of the festival, he arranges a hit on his old colleague. John is set upon and beaten to death. Doctors labour for his life, but to no avail. Frank hangs around at the hospital, says all the right things, and then walks out into the night thinking: Now we’ll see what I can do with this planet. 

Among other things, Kate Mascarenhas’s novel develops the same theme – that technology can’t fix human nature. She begins with the invention of the time machine. Time travel is a very broad and elastic theme and SF writers learn to set rules. Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife dismissed the idea of changing casuality very early on, instead focusing on the love affair between her two leads. Mascarenhas’s rules are a little more liberal. You can’t time travel before 1967 (which is when the protagonists, four women in a remote Cumbrian lab, first perfect the technology) and you cannot travel beyond a few hundred years in the future. There seems little opportunity to alter the course of events.

Another departure is the social aspect of Mascarenhas’s vision. Time travel, invented in the UK, quickly becomes the preserve of a technocratic elite. The technology is based in the Conclave, a gated community outside the law – like the City of London with space rays. As with all the top professions, entry into this world is extremely difficult. Seasoned time travellers sleep around, play pranks and games, and look down on the ’emus’ – the mass of unenlightened civilians, who plod through life one moment at a time. New people entering the Conclave are subject to nasty hazings: they have to tell children when exactly their parents will die, or fire bullets into a time-travel box that can ricochet to wound the initiate, or some hapless passerby in another time. And like so many English institutions the Conclave is aggressive in its secrecy. Anyone who leaks secrets is dealt with by the Conclave’s internal justice system, and its penalties include execution. An emu reporter, trying to investigate the organisation, receives future photographs of his dead family through the mail.

Mascarenhas builds her world in deft comprehensive steps. You buy it, and then start focusing on the characters. The Psychology of Time Travel is about the impact on human beings of chaos and disorder. When the four pioneers invent time travel, the impact drives one of them crazy. Barbara Hereford takes a short journey through time – a mere hour into the future. But the cost is substantial. When the pioneers appear on TV that evening, Barbara becomes agitated and starts babbling nonsense. She is sectioned that night. Her colleague Margaret (very much the Frank Chalmers of this story) is enraged that Barbara’s mental breakdown has made the time travel project seem eccentric. She takes control of the project and screens future applicants carefully for any sign of mental disorder (a table of psychometric tests is included in the novel’s appendices). But Margaret builds the Conclave along the lines of her own toxic personality, so mental distress still proliferates. Time travellers drink hard, and dream scary dreams. Finally one of the book’s protagonists is brave enough to denounce Margaret to her face:

You think you’re entitled to people’s compliance. You try to enliven your loveless world by inflicting pain on others and sensation-seeking with games like Candybox roulette. The Conclave is dysfunctional because anyone who doesn’t fulfil your narcissistic needs is eliminated, or self-selects out. You’ve made the whole organisation narcissistic. Convinced of its specialness or distinction from everyday people, obsessed with novel and high risk activities, and blunting its members’ empathy from the first day of their employment.

Mascarenhas leaves an open question whether the Conclave can redeem itself. Is its evil simply a failure of empathy and organisation? Or is there something about time travel that disassociates people from the world and time, killing their fellow feelings and undermining their sense of reality? We don’t know. But The Psychology of Time Travel is a bold and marvellous read. It gives you an appreciation for all things mortal and unknowing and brief.

(Mascarenhas has some amazing diorama art from the novel on her own site, and the Zeus website)

This Undone England

August 4, 2018

I kind of gave up on Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time when I read this long essay by Christopher Hitchens, a fan of the conservative novelist. Hitchens had recently seen a TV adaptation of the grandee author’s twentieth century epic and found it wanting – in all respects but one:

It inserted only one incident that occurs nowhere in the work. As Jenkins watches a Socialist/Communist parade of unemployed ‘Hunger Marchers’ into Hyde Park, and notes with amused contempt the number of modish and fashionable dons and scribblers who have attached themselves to the procession, a gang of Blackshirts rushes forward with knuckle-dusters and truncheons and falls upon the subversives. It isn’t simply that the Mosley element makes no appearance at this point in Dance. It is more that the Fascist and crypto-Fascist element in upper-class British society makes no appearance at all. The only actual Blackshirt who is mentioned even en passant is the unnamed daughter of a Soho Italian restaurateur.

No disrespect to the fellow, but doesn’t that omission make it harder to take Powell’s work seriously? For a great social writer of the war and interwar years, the absence of ‘a Unity Mitford or a ‘Chips’ Channon or a Lord Halifax’ would be gaping. It’s like – even Wodehouse had Roderick Spode!

Now of course this kind of thing is historical fiction. There is a certain kind of historical novel that really sells. A country house between the wars. Gorgeous views of the fens and valleys. Families, friends, their own idiosyncrasies and secrets, a whisper of murders and infidelities.

This sort of thing sells for the same reason that crime fiction and Downton Abbey sells: we like the idea of sliding into some long, winter country night – and we like the assurance that everything turned out all right in the end. Okay, a lot of people in the BUF and the Peace Pledge Union were jolly bad eggs, but at the end of the day we did the right thing, won the war and banked our peace dividend on a liberalish society that has worked reasonably well to this day. I am thinking of D J Taylor’s The Windsor Faction – such a well realised novel that explores British sympathy for appeasement, but if you’ve read it, you’ll know that everything is resolved rather too easily. It feels rather pat.

After the Party brings a chill wind through this kind of complacent summer afternoon. True, Cressida Connolly uses many elements of the country-house novel. There are balls. There are lovely descriptions of the Sussex countryside, pre motorways and housing estates. There are married couples who sleep around.

A big departure is in the prose. After the Party clocks in at 260 pages and change – and when you consider the acute sympathy and observation of her characters, her uncanny sense of time and place, and the ton of historical research she must have got through, the fierce economy of Connolly’s book is all the more remarkable. In an age of literary maximalism it’s quite something – it doesn’t feel like a fingernail-clipping, it could be as long as Powell’s Dance and you would still polish the thing off in a day and a half.

The book begins in the late 1930s. Phyllis Forrester returns from many years living abroad with her naval commander husband. She buys a house in the country where her two sisters have already established themselves, one a high society hostess, the other a hard-headed community organiser who ropes Phyllis into the summer camps and village-hall talks. Except this isn’t just any community. This is from Phyllis’s first meeting:

Gradually the room filled. Phyllis had expected that most of the audience would be working men and was surprised to find that this was not the case, for none of the audience appeared to conform to any particular type. There was a group of young women who arrived all at once, chattering like starlings: clerks, perhaps, or shop girls. Three rather distinguished-looking women came in, two of them wearing fox-tippets despite the summery weather. With pronounced hauteur they made their way straight to the front row of seats and installed themselves, each with one ankle tucked politely behind the other, just as Phyllis and her sisters had been told a lady must always sit.

The speaker turns up. He talks passionately about the livelihood of small shopkeepers. He laments the British high street, squeezed out by retail giants. You agree with him. Fascism doesn’t come to the ball as fascism. It doesn’t come to the ball saying ‘Heil Hitler’. It comes to the ball saying ‘Straight talking, honest politics,’ or ‘Take back control’.

Seamlessly Phyllis and her friends are sucked into an authoritarian if not totalitarian enterprise. Phyllis’s daughter paints ‘PJ’ (or ‘Perish Judah’) on a community hall: it is youthful high spirits. The Leader himself, Sir Oswald, favours the community with frequent visits – more than one person comments that the Sussex village always gets fair weather when Mosley comes to town, reminding you of Unity Mitford’s impression that sitting beside Adolf Hitler was like sitting beside the sun.

Yet it somehow doesn’t feel that way. Connolly’s characters are so likeable and real that their descent into fanaticism takes the reader as much by surprise as it does Phyllis Forrester. She is a kind, smart woman who loves her family. When she is finally interned, you feel the wrench, and her solidarity with other inmates in Holloway. You feel the shame, when she is released, and the old certainties fall away from her in a drift of social shame.

It’s only decades later, when Phyllis looks back on her life, that you hear the thunder of jackboots:

I don’t regret my politics, I don’t see why I should. I think history has proved us right. Look at the state of the country, now! Endless power cuts, grave-diggers on strike so that bodies lie unburied, no one collecting the rubbish so there are rats in the streets… it’s a disgrace. People freezing to death in their own homes because the electric’s been switched off. Socialist infiltrators picketing outside our hospitals and fire stations. All these foreigners taking over our little shops and whatnot… We used to be a great nation, a great Empire, and now look at us. Sir Oswald would never have let things come to this.

But this variant of pathology always comes to this – always ends in bitterness and nostalgia. But the strength of this wonderful book is that we realise that your situation is not necessarily all you are, your ideology is not all you are, and that at some point we were better, and free, even if we didn’t realise this. Politics makes us into strange shapes. The world turns us into other people – rich and strange.

Connolly has an amazing few lines from something called the ‘General Confession’:

We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us. There is no health in us.

Phyllis’s main regret is for her enigmatic friend Sarita. Who was that strange man she met in Paris: was she just a morphine junkie or some kind of Allied spy? Read this awesome book and decide for yourself.

Bret Easton Ellis and the Hangover

June 9, 2018

Last month there was an interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the TLS that I’ve been thinking about, by the novelist Natalie Olah. I’ve read it again and these for me are the standout passages:

Nathalie Olah: There’s a sense of culture really becoming strangled recently by this pervasive tone or moralizing and preaching, helped along by social media and the consensus culture of likes and retweets.

Bret Easton Ellis: It’s terrible. And it’s a terrible way to live as an artist. You see it affecting the arts on a vague, vague but vast scale – where is the taboo? Where is the Other? So what if it’s offensive? Good! Where is this bizarre idea of art created by committee, by a democracy, coming from? Art isn’t created by a democracy! And there seems to be this thing, especially on social media, of group-approved art, that’s chilling.

I don’t believe utopia is in our DNA. I think we’re deeply flawed animals with a sort of sexual lawlessness, that we are violent, that we want to be on top, that we want to be in control of things. We obviously don’t want to be killing each other in the streets, but we’ve got to get realistic about who we really are and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a gay man.

I wouldn’t have been the writer I am if I’d been raised in a very safe, no-bully environment with a nice mom and dad who looked after me and made sure everything was ok. I was talking to Laura Jane Grace, who’s a transgender singer from a band called Against Me!. She’s a powerful songwriter. When she finally became Laura Jane Grace the songwriting jumped up a hundred notches. She made three great records with the band. But she said there is no way she would have ever done any of it had she had a normal childhood with parental love and acceptance from her friends. I think your experiences of pain and alienation and people marginalizing you is what forces out this expressiveness. I think we’re becoming a society that wants to erase all of that. Put everyone into this safe group that is all taken care of and everyone’s the same and no one’s different and we all love each other and we’re eradicating all pain and it’s all very nice and it’s all very utopian; I just don’t think that’s who we really are and I don’t know what the end game of that is.

How much there is to unravel here! I love Ellis, but there’s a familiar tone in his remarks, that of the older maverick intellectual who no longer really understands how the world is changing and retreats into defensive cynicism and outrage seeking. It’s far more common in England where we have a very strong tradition of anti-modern disillusionment (beginning with Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, maybe even before them). With contemporary shock columnists like Rod Liddle and James Delingpole, there’s a sense they are trying to tap into this High Church aesthetic. There’s the US counterpart as well – the Grand Old Man of the counterculture, obsessed with ethnic struggle and complaining about the crazy students at Harvard these days.

Ellis’s points about virtue culture are obviously well founded but what Ellis (and many other adversarial commentators) never take into account is the backlash to that kind of culture. For every woke left virtue signalling tweet there’s a very clever man online who will spend hours deconstructing it. There’s a cottage industry now of ‘lol SJWs’. This industry has its own vanity (‘look how clever, and rational, and unemotional I am!’) and its own sensitivities. The latest thing is the phrase ‘gammon’ to describe a certain kind of reactionary, middle aged fellow. No sooner had this term entered usage then the other side of the culture war mounted its high horse, and damned the term as offensive towards white working class people – or people with hypertension, I can’t keep up.

My point is that virtue culture and SJWs used to dominate discourse but it’s darker and more complicated than that now. I am convinced that more and more people are getting turned away from political discourse because it is so toxic and full of this kind of self aggrandisement. Perhaps that is the point. But writers don’t often say so, because the poetry of fighting SJWs has a strong simple lure of its own.

What does all that say about social justice? Like Ellis, I don’t think utopia is in our DNA. We’re wired up for survival rather than happiness and the realisation of this is a huge psychological boost, it has been for me anyway. Where this feeds into Ellis’s points about generational cultures is, again, where it gets more complicated. Millennials tend, in my experience, to be more hardy and practical than older people – they have learned to manage without the welfare state and full employment that older generations took for granted.

Does that explain ‘why there isn’t a Great Millennial Novel. Or The Great Millennial Novelist’ as Ellis asks? Who knows, I can’t name an epic Augie March style defining book for millennials, although there have been fine books by millennials and perhaps that epic definitive work will come. It is – contra the envy trope that writers have to be hot, young and marketable – not easy for young people to get stuff published.

Utopia is not in our DNA. What is there is a striving for positive change and positivity, and it comes, incrementally and gradually. Bad experiences may make you stronger, or more creative, but more often that not they leave nothing but bad memories. Like Ellis says, who knows what the end game will be or what tomorrow will bring? Perhaps safety and happiness is an illusion – but it’s worth looking for, all the same. And the search may be our one reliable instinct.

Everything Old Is New Again

May 14, 2018

If I had to recommend a historian on the twentieth century terrors to someone who was coming new to it, I would probably choose Timothy Snyder. His Bloodlands is a masterful study of how the Nazis and Communists half destroyed Europe. The follow up, Black Earth, was derided on publication, but I think in time it will get its due as an evocation of how scarcity of food and other resources brings about the preconditions for fascism. Of course there are many other historians who write about the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. But none have the compelling urgency of Snyder’s prose. He writes beautifully, even lyrically – as lyrical as anyone can write of such dark periods. In The Road to Unfreedom Snyder turns his fire on our own time.

It’s customary to look back with a rueful chuckle to 1989 and the declaration of the end of history and the years before the market crash. How naive we all were. Conventional wisdom held that people would be happy with their smartphones and their credit cards and their cheap mortgages. We forgot that there are darker passions in human history that don’t go away: disregarded, also, that the Long Boom wasn’t a boom for everyone and that millions suffered in poverty during those years. Snyder calls this complacency the fable of the wise nation: the idea that we had learned our lesson from history and that nothing more could go wrong. Another phrase of his is the politics of inevitability: ‘the future is just more of the present, that the laws of progress are known, that there are no alternatives, and therefore nothing really to be done.’

The Road to Unfreedom is a very macro, international book, but you can see, with hindsight of course, how its ideas work on smaller scales. Let’s look at my own country, the UK, and how it did in the book’s timeframe of the 2010s. In May 2010 a Conservative-led coalition took power here. David Cameron and George Osborne were classic inevitability politicians with a catchy narrative: ‘there is no money left’. Previous social democrat governments had run up a huge deficit with welfare programmes, and it was the job of the Tories to sort out the nation’s finances. The Conservatives went to town with a slash-and-burn programme.

Within years, the effects were visible. When I left the city of Manchester in 2013 it was a thriving metropolis with few social problems. By the middle 2010s it had food banks, tent cities and drug epidemics. Cameron and Osborne talked like liberals, but people starved. Then Cameron made his final blunder. He had been harried for years by the far right UKIP party, which sold a competing narrative of grievance and victimhood tied to Britain’s membership of the EU. By calling a referendum on Europe, Cameron believed he could call the opposition’s bluff and end the argument about identity and migration forever. Look how well it worked.

The optics would be familiar to anyone living in Putin’s Russia in the 2010s. As Karen Dawisha explains in her startling book Putin’s Kleptocracy, he rose to become Russia’s president against a background of oligarchs ripping off the country’s wealth and resources in the messy post communist years. By the time the former KGB colonel reached power, the EU had expanded eastwards. Countries that once lived under the Soviet Union acceded to a democratic bloc. For the reactionary traditionalist Putin, Russia was a pure and changeless country menaced by decadent godless Europe, with the American superpower right behind it. Putin spoke the language of traditions and values under ceaseless attack. Victimhood is essential to the authoritarian philosophy. George Orwell recognised it. On reviewing Hitler’s Mein Kampf he wrote that ‘The initial, personal cause of his grievance against the universe can only be guessed at; but at any rate the grievance is here. He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds. If he were killing a mouse he would know how to make it seem like a dragon.’

In Bloodlands and Black Earth, Snyder showed how totalitarian forces destroy populations. In the twentieth century they did it by dismantling the state apparatus and civil society that kept citizens safe from harm. In countries that had sovereign infrastructure, persecuted individuals had a chance to escape. In places like Poland or Ukraine, that didn’t, far more people ended up in the concentration camp or the mass grave. To defeat Europe, Snyder explains, Putin had to make it more like Russia: not an alliance of sovereign democracies but an empire ruled by strong leaders. Russia did this by encouraging puppet leaders to rise in fragile democracies, and encouraging far right nativist elements in European countries. Ukraine was the first main battleground. It was in talks to sign an association agreement with the EU as a first step towards full membership.

Russia’s preferred leader in Ukraine was President Yanukovych, a kleptocrat crass even by Putin’s standards. Reporter Shaun Walker, in The Long Hangover, describes that after the revolution, ‘There was both marvel and anger as people discovered how their leader had lived: the overwrought palatial interiors of the main residence, the garage packed with vintage automobiles, the petting zoo with ostriches and llamas in residence, and the ersatz Spanish galleon moored on the president’s private lake.’ Yanukovych vacillated over the association agreement, and his heavy-handed bumbling led to spiralling protest. Here Snyder touches on the human element of the Maidan protests: people building barricades out of snow and wooden pilings, the makeshift civil society that sprang up on the square (there were even Maidan weddings) the elderly protestors who donned their best suits before going to the demonstrations, in case government snipers killed them that night. It was a forgotten populist revolution where ordinary people risked their lives for democracy.

Putin’s circle still thought of Russia as a colony, but that doesn’t entirely explain the invasion. The Maidan was the threat of a good example in practice. The philosophy of the Russian state in the 2010s wasn’t about the rule of law or sovereignty or human rights. It was about faith and flag and the weak being enslaved by the strong. Crank ideologues of the twentieth century – Lev Gumilev, Ivan Ilyin, Julius Evola – were resurrected and their ideas became surprisingly influential. (It took hard work to adapt these ideas for a modern audience. Gumilev claimed that some nations became more powerful than others because they could absorb patriotism in the form of cosmic rays. A French thinker, Jean Parvulesco, argued that everything depended on how close you were to the sea: ‘the Americans and British yield to abstract Jewish ideas because their maritime economies separate them from the earthy truths of human experience.’)

The intellectual patina of such authors was not inherited by modern Russian state propaganda, which operates like a clickbait factory. Oliver Kamm reports that ‘On March 6, two days after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, the [Russian] Embassy felt so little horror at the attack or sympathy for its victims that it issued a press release condemning ‘a new phase of the anti-Russian campaign’ and called for an end to ‘the demonisation of Russia’.’ Of course you’re not supposed to believe that MI6 organised the Douma chemical attack, that the EU is run by gay Nazis, or any of the other stuff RT puts out. The point is the knowing smirk, the manufacture of liberal outrage, and the display of raw power. Crime writer Sophie Hannah defined a scary adversary as someone who will lie to you, knowing you know it’s a lie, and daring you to contradict them. Putin’s Russia is that adversary on state level.

Snyder has a blistering chapter on Donald Trump, an incompetent real estate tycoon who went to the Russian banks when he finally ran out of credit in his own country. You can debate the extent of Trump’s ties to Russia and Putin. (My edition of Red Mafiya, Robert Friedman’s 2000 book on Russian mob activity in the US, claims that the fearsome coke kingpin Vyacheslav Ivankov was eventually run to ground in a Trump condo: ‘A copy of Ivankov’s personal phone book, which was obtained by the author, included a working number for the Trump Organisation’s Trump Tower Residence, and a Trump Organisation office fax machine.’) Putin’s appeal to Trump was obvious anyway: a fellow authoritarian strongman who shared a love of power, and an aversion to people of colour, assertive women, free expression, and critical media. The Trump model has unlikely imitators. The Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn is seen as a kindly socialist but with its antisemitism, its love of strong leaders and its dislike of uppity women and journalists, his movement is basically Trumpism with sandals.

For all that The Road to Unfreedom is a macro book, Snyder has great sympathy with ordinary Americans struggling with low incomes and economic anxiety, and highlights the inequality and oligarchism in America as much as Russia. The question is implicit: if Trump, Farage, Putin are populists, why are they so bad at delivering results for the common man? The average Trump or Brexit voter has a raw deal. Instead of a better future, they get only a lament for lost countries. They see meaningful work replaced with the gig economy and meaningful arguments replaced with culture-war spectacle. The conclusion of Snyder’s exceptional book is: people deserve better.