Book Review: David Torrance – The Battle for Britain

In 1995, George Robertson, Labour shadow secretary for Scotland, predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ In modern British political history few words have rung so hollow. This year, a decade and a half after a devolved Scottish parliament was established in Edinburgh, Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave Great Britain.

Viewed from this side of the Irish Sea, the drive for Scottish self-determination can seem quixotic, but September’s referendum is as much a product of realpolitik as romantic nationalism. The vote ‘has not come about because of a groundswell in support for independence’, as writer and journalist David Torrance notes in this excellent guide to the current debate. Instead the SNP’s sweeping – and unexpected, even to themselves – victory in devolved elections in 2011 left the party with no choice other than to offer a referendum on their flagship policy.

torranceTwo years is an eternity for a political campaign and, with nine months to go, Scotland’s has managed to be ‘both arid and acrimonious’. (In 2012, Martin McGuinness jokingly offered the Edinburgh and London governments the use of Stormont for ‘peace talks’). It is a huge credit to Torrance, a biographer of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, that he is able to animate dry policy detail and myriad questions about post-independence Scotland with so much energy.

Historian Tony Judt wrote that the Scots ‘sense of self’ rests upon ‘a curious admix of superiority and resentment’. But identity has largely been conspicuous by its absence from the Scottish referendum debate. If anything is it the unionist campaign – built on a ‘we are all in this together’ sense of Britishness – that has relied most heavily on overt appeals to patriotic sentiment. Scottish nationalists might, however, be advised to start playing the tartan card soon – most independence votes are won on emotion.

But the SNP’s success so far has largely been down to technocratic competence. In government they managed to distance themselves from an unpopular government in Westminster and to plot a reasonably distinct course north of the border in areas such as healthcare (free prescription, no privatisation of the NHS) and education (free tuition fees).

Nationalists could be victims of their own achievements, their prowess in government persuading Scots of the value not of independence but of further devolution. Opinion polls suggest just a third of Scots want to leave the union. Even the SNP propose to keep the Queen as head of state and to continue to use Sterling after independence.

It is on economics that Torrance is most critical of the nationalist vision of independence. The SNP has ‘yet to make up its mind about whether it believes in the neo-liberal or the social democratic model’. Salmond is still trying to live down the infamous 2006 ‘arc of prosperity’ speech in which he compared Scotland to boom-time Iceland and Ireland.

The result in September is not a foregone conclusion. The unremittingly negative unionist campaign could yet push voters into the nationalists’ arms, especially if they suspect that promises of further devolution will be reneged upon. A strong UKIP performance in European elections this summer, coupled with the prospect of a Conservative government in Westminster might also be the spark for a surge in support for going it alone.

Even a ‘no’ in September is unlikely to settle Scotland’s constitutional question for long. As Norman Davies has noted, ‘the political architecture’ of the UK is ‘inherently unbalanced’. Demands for greater autonomy will continue to come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, England. (Torrance does not dwell on the issue, but the impact of a ‘yes’ vote on Northern Ireland, and particularly embattled unionists, could be seismic.)

Scotland’s independence referendum is likely to be one of the major international news stories of 2014. Which is just as well, because this lively, perspicacious account of the historic vote deserves a wide audience. Brimming with historical antecedents and insightful analysis, and written with an easy style and no little wit, The Battle for Britain is likely to be required reading long after the ballots have been counted in September.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 20, 2104. 

Book review – Austerity: A History of a Dangerous Idea

The discovery of an error in an academic economics paper – even one authored by a pair of Harvard dons – is hardly most people’s idea of a headline grabbing news story. But that’s exactly what happened, in April, when a professor at the University of Michigan and an undergraduate student published data that revealed a serious coding mistake in a spreadsheet in Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogof’s paper 2010, ‘Growth in a Time of Debt’.

Why was this headline news? Because Reinhart and Rogof’s research – which putatively showed that economic growth falls off a cliff once a state’s debt exceeds 90 per cent of Gross Domestic Product – provided the intellectual ballast for the on-going waves of ‘growth friendly fiscal consolidation’. That’s austerity, to you and me.

But, as Mark Blyth shows in this timely, authoritative account of the history of ‘cuts for growth’, the economic rationale for austerity was pretty diaphanous long before Reinhart and Rogof’s Excel boo-boo was unearthed.

austerityFor Blyth austerity (‘voluntary deflation’) is ‘a dangerous idea’ because ‘it doesn’t work in practice, it relies on the poor paying for the mistakes of the rich, and it rests upon the absence of a large fallacy of composition that is all too present in the modern world.’

After World War I, austerity was the policy of choice on both sides of the Atlantic, a process accelerated after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The result, as any Junior Cert student can tell you, was, eventually, war. (In Germany, the Nazis were the only party opposed to austerity policies being pursued in the interwar years. They pledged to take the country off the gold standard and to actively increase employment. They did this — by building a war economy.)

Why then, 80 years later, when the global financial system went into meltdown, did world leaders turn again to austerity? The answer is that in narrow (but influential) circles, particularly in the US, the core ideas of austerity, inspired by rightwing Austrian economists – a minimal role for the state, cutting government spending, relaxing labour laws – never went out of fashion. And in one European state a version of austerity was being practiced for decades: Germany.

Tracing the lineage of the ‘the German ideology’, in Blyth’s homage to Karl Marx, is one of the book’s most useful contributions. Teutonic ‘Ordoliberalism’ has become the economic dogma of the continent, and particularly in the Eurozone. Which is great, as Blyth notes, ‘so long as you are the late-developing, high savings, high-technology, and export-driven economy in question’. For the peripheral PIGS, it’s awful and, worse, pointless. No matter how much it drives down wages and cuts back government services, Greek exports will never be able to compete with German exports.

Blyth has a terse explanation for the current economic travails: they ‘started with the banks and will end with the banks.’ The crisis unleashed in 2008 had nothing to do with government spending – Ireland’s net debt was 12 per cent GDP in 2007, this year it is expected to top 117 per cent – but arose from negligently over-leveraged banks hitting the wall. The cost of bailing out the banks was a sovereign debt crisis that we are still wading through with little prospect of shore in sight.

Austerity is often presented as TINA: ‘there is no alternative’. Blyth, however, has no truck with the ‘we all partied’ line and the moral puritanism that sees a post-bing purge as necessary purification. Instead he draws on reams of economic history to show that austerity as a road back to growth has seldom, if ever, worked.

He also has a good rummage around in austerity’s ideological baggage, from its roots in the Scottish parsimony of John Locke, David Hume and Adam Smith (the author himself hails from a working class household in Dundee) through to the impassioned anti-statism of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Economically austerity is self-defeating, since if we all reduce spending at the same time we all grow poorer. What it has done is consolidate wealth in the hands of the already rich: in the United States, the top seven percent saw their average net worth increase by 28 percent between 2009 and 2011. For the remaining 93 per cent it dropped by 4 per cent.

So if austerity makes most of us poorer and only prolongs recessions, what is the alternative? Blyth is a respected academic economist, as the pages of footnotes attest, and he wisely counsels against pain-free solutions. His proposals – higher taxes and ‘financial repression’, such as capping interest rates on government debt – would not be without their opponents. But, as this timely book shows, austerity isn’t working, and it’s not about to start.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post

Book Review — The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Lykes Corporation of New Orleans announced that, by the end of the week, it would close Campbell Works, the largest mill in the blue collar Ohio city of Youngstown. That day, which became known locally as ‘Black Monday’, was the latest in a long line of body blows for a once prosperous city.

By the late 1980s, Youngstown, with a population of less than 100,000, was among the top ten cities in the United States for homicide. It led the country in the murder of black women under 65.

Youngstown’s story epitomises what New Yorker writer George Packer calls ‘the unwinding’: a historical epoch in which old political, social and economic models break down, where ‘everything changes and nothing lasts’.unwinding

Crisis, as the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci noted, ‘consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ Packer’s is a reporter’s journey into this material and existential crisis as it unfurls across the US, from the derelict lots of Youngstown, Ohio to the foreclosed dream homes in the sun in Tampa, Florida, via the Ayn Rand acolytes in Silicon Valley and the corridors of power on Washington and Wall Street.

Packer has been consistently among the world’s top non-fiction writers and ‘the Unwinding’ is his tour de force, uncoiling over 400-plus pages to reveal the inner workings of modern America through the stories of three very different characters. Dean Price grew up in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where everyone ‘had Scotch-Irish names that fit neatly on a tombstone’. The son of a racist tobacco farmer, Dean has an epiphany in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – oil will run out, eventually. His life becomes a battle to convince skeptical Piedmont Republicans of the virtues of alternative energy and small-scale, local industry.

Dean loses everything – his house, his family (more than once), his business – but never his optimism. ‘[T]o me this is the greatest economic explosion that’s ever going to hit in our lifetimes, because all the money that’s being concentrated at the top, with food, fuel, clothing – what else do they control? banking – it might go back to little towns. I can see that happening.’

Occupy Wall Street appears late in the book – in a expertly weaved chapter about the disappointments of life in corporate banking and, ultimately, in the encampment at Zuccotti Park – but the protestors’ ‘We are the 99 per cent’ mantra provides the Unwinding’s unspoken leitmotif. The closest any of Packer’s central characters get to the omnipotent top percentile is in the form of Jeff Connaughton.

As a 19 year-old at the University of Alabama, Connaughton is inspired by a speech from a young Delaware Senator named Joe Biden. After law school, Connaughton – who describes himself as ‘the perfect number two’ guy – slowly begins to immerse himself in Washington: working on Biden’s ill-fated 1988 and 2008 presidential campaigns (with little thanks from the current vice-president); enriching himself as a lobbyist; eventually winding up as a senatorial aide opposing Obama’s appointment of the same Wall Street scions who had overseen the crash to clean up the mess. Jaded, Connaughton quits DC and moves to Savannah, Georgia where he spends his days writing about his time in Washington. The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins was published last year.

Finally there is Tammy Thomas, a pugnacious Youngstown African-American who overcomes a heroin-addicted mother and a teenage pregnancy to secure a “job for life” in the factory. She raises her kids drug-free in a city choked by crack. She loses her job when the factory was asset-stripped, and is defrauded of most of $48,000 savings. But she remains indefatigable: building a new life for herself, and her neighbors, as a community organizer.

Subtly, yet relentlessly, Packer constructs his individual characters, and through them the character of his homeland. Here real incomes have not risen since the 1970s.  ‘As wages stayed flat, debt kept more and more families afloat’.

This new America needed new idols, too, and Packer supplements his character’s stories with pen portraits of Sam Walton, Jay-Z, and others. Most effective is the opening pair, Newt Gingrich – the New Right doyen who was among the first politicians to understand ‘the new rules of celebrity’ – and Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah’s motto (‘Go, girl. Go for it.) was an open invitation to her millions of viewers. And if they don’t manage to emulate her success? “[S]ince there was no random suffering in life, Oprah left them with no excuse.’

The Unwinding is a fascinating journey through an America that has largely remained hidden from a view. There are echoes of Don DeLillo’s Underworld in the scope of Packer’s vision and his deft eye for language and detail. There is a lugubriousness to this book, too, despite early protestations that ‘the unwinding brings freedom’.

It is not “Morning in America” any longer; the question now is whether the gloom is a precursor to a new dawn, or a long dark night.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Book Review: The Oil Road

The Oil Road: Journeys from the Caspian Sea to the City of London by James Marriott and Mika Minio-Paluello.

These are straitened times for BP. The oil giant faces a slew of civil and criminal suits arising from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. In October, Azerbaijan’s autocratic president Ilham Aliyev chastised the company for its failure to meet production targets in the Caspian Sea. BP’s ‘grave mistakes’ have cost the oil-dependent Caucasus state $8.1bn in lost revenue over the past three years, the Azeri president claimed.

Azerbaijan is in the midst of an oil boom, as anyone who watched the coverage of year’s Eurovision song contest from the Azeri capital Baku will attest. The once-rusting Soviet city is now dominated by shimmering skyscrapers, funded by profits from Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli, a huge field 120km off the coast of Azerbaijan controlled mainly by BP. Oil from ACG constitutes around 1 per cent of total global production.

Part-travelogue, part-reportage, the Oil Road is a powerful – if slightly repetitive – account of how a valuable natural resource can turn a tiny elite into plutocrats, destabilise nations and ruin the lives of ordinary people. Told through a series of vignettes and diary pieces, the book traces the journey of Azeri oil, from its extraction in the Caspian Sea all the way to the City of London, where BP’s financial power is consolidated.

Channelling the spirit of Wilfred Thesiger and Paddy Fermor, the authors follow the route of the 1,100-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, known as BTC, which connects the fecund Caspian fields with container ships on the edge of Europe. ‘What is shipped from the BTC terminal is a raw commodity in bulk, extracted from weaker nations and transported to the most powerful.’ It’s a journey that takes them overland from Azerbaijan to Turkey before finally arriving in Bavaria, where ACG’s black gold powers the industrial furnaces of Central Europe.

Marriott and Minio-Paluello show time and again how the oil industry has captured putatively sovereign states. Legislation is passed at the behest of BP executives, at times with the direct assistance of Western politicos.

In Turkey, one of the authors is detained near the pipeline. A secretary for energy and environment at the British embassy in Ankara calls, not to assist but to warn the writers against visiting villages affected by the pipeline without permission. No such prohibition exists in Turkish law. ‘[A]s in Azerbaijan and Georgia, the arbitrary power of the state is being utilised to prevent BP’s pipeline being scrutinised.’

For the next four decades villagers living near the BTC are forbidden from building anything within 40 metres of the pipeline. Although two Turkish children die while playing on a construction site adjacent to the pipeline, ‘(q)uestions about compensation are met with a snort of derision.’ In Georgia, locals whose homes were built near the route complain that BP, ‘send the police force instead of coming to meet us themselves.’

Western interest in the Caucasus has long been mediated by oil. From the 1870s to the 1900s, Azeri crude was the bedrock of a flourishing kerosene industry. By the turn of the 20th century, the Oil Road’s exports fuelled factories across Europe and Asia. So dependent were the British that after World War I they sent troops to support the short-lived anti-Soviet Centro-Caspian Dictatorship. ‘We are not here to put down Bolshevism, but to guard British capital sunk in the old fields,’ a Corporal in the expedition wrote to his mother in July 1919.

The Oil Road was a busy nexus at the crossroads of much 20th century history. We meet Stalin, or Koba as he was originally known in Georgia; the Futurists in the fascist city-state of Fiume; the Nazis; and the Red Army Faction.

This is no dry historiography, however. References to Lermontov and Marco Polo, Kemal and Ruskin pepper a highly readable text (Although some slipshod editing has left a lot of unnecessary and distracting repetition).

Unlike the Silk Road, which the title consciously echoes, the contemporary Oil Road is haunted by the spectre of climate change. Despite BP’s rebranding as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, less than one per cent of its turnover comes from renewable energy. Indeed, the company supports groups in the US that actively deny global warming.

Earlier this month, Ireland-based oil and gas company Providence Resources announced that a field at Barryroe, off the coast of Cork, is expected to yield 280million barrels of oil. Irish politicians, and citizens, would do well to heed the OilRoad’s cautionary lesson: without proper social and environmental oversight, oil can be a boon for a powerful few and a disaster for everyone else.

This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.

Book Review: Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, by Elaine Byrne

As is the case with unhappy families, every corrupt state is corrupt in its own way: in Ireland, an entrenched, localized “parish pump” political system; weak regulation;
devout deference to authority; and a predisposition to denigrate whistleblowers as “informers” all contributed to widespread malpractice in public office. Consequently, Irish corruption, as Elaine A. Byrne writes, “operated within a system rather than a mere aggregation of isolated illegal acts. It had become a market, which, as in the case of every functioning market, has developed internal rules governed by the laws of supply and demand”.

It was not always thus. The generation of political leaders that fought for – and won – Irish independence, possessed a “puritan revolutionary ethic”: Michael Collins, who
was both Minister for Finance and IRA Intelligence director from 1919 until his death in
1922, excoriated ministerial colleagues’ failure to submit half-year estimates for their departments during his tenure in office.

Paradoxically, this radical zeal contained within it the roots of future corruption. Adopting a narrow definition of corruption as the exchange of public goods for private gain, the Free State’s early leaders saw no need to legislate against conflicts of interest. In 1946, in the wake of a tax scandal, one Irish TD told a sympathetic Dáil that the Ten Commandments and “the ordinary principles of decency and good conduct” were sufficient to ensure probity in Irish public life.

The first substantial piece of legislation on political corruption was not introduced until
1995. By then the damage had long been done. The McCracken Tribunal, established in 1997, estimated that the former Taoiseach Charles J. Haughey received at least £9,106,369 in political donations between 1979 and 1996. Haughey was not alone; from the 1950s on vested interests exerted ever increasing degrees of undue influence over
Irish policy-making and regulation, to the point where, in the recent boom, tens of thousands of houses were built without access to amenities or, as in the Larry Goodman scandal, the Irish taxpayer was underwriting fraudulent beef exports to Iraq.

A political scientist at Trinity College Dublin, and a prominent commentator in the Irish media, Byrne has produced a perspicacious, highly readable account of the way Irish corruption morphed as the state’s political, economic and social structures changed. In the wake of Ireland’s loss of economic sovereignty, the book’s central message – that only a vibrant, transparent political culture offers effective protection against the corrosive power of corruption – seems particularly vital.

This review originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.

Junot Diaz — Dominican-American Psyche

Interview with American-Dominican novelist, appeared in the Sunday Business Post, September 2. 

Growing up in 1970s New Jersey, Junot Diaz was a self-confessed ‘book slut’. The young Dominican immigrant — his family arrived in the United States when he was just six — read everything from Richard Adams and Enid Blyton to graphic novels.

At the age of eight, the voracious Diaz worked his way through all 25 installments of a series entitled the Young American Biographies. ‘They were these hundred page things about famous white, almost all male Americans,’ he recalls some four decades later, perched on a white plastic garden chair on the lush grounds of the Edinburgh book festival. ‘I thought, ‘If I read these I will seem more American’. Not realising that nobody knew any of these people, and reading them made me seem even more of an alien.’

The ‘Otherness’ of the immigrant experience, the disjuncture between the origin country and the destination, has been a hallmark of Diaz’s fiction since he emerged, seemingly fully formed, onto the American literary scene over fifteen years ago. His first book of short stories, 1996’s Drown, explored the childhood and early adult life of Yunior, an intelligent but misogynistic Dominican-American, through a series of snippets and brief glimpses written in the idiosyncratic Spanglish hybrid for which Diaz has become renowned.

Drown was succeeded in 2007 by The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao. A multi-faceted tale of modern life in the Dominican Republic and the US, Oscar Wao is, in the words of New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, ‘so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets “Star Trek” meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West.’

The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao, which Diaz won a Pulitzer Prize for, was narrated by Yunior, and the writer has returned to the same character for his new collection, This Is How You Lose Her. In the book’s opening story, ‘The Sun, the Moon, the Stars’, Yunior’s girlfriend discovers that he has been cheating on her and, after an ill-fated holiday in the Dominican Republic, breaks up with him.

What follows is a series of interlinked tales of Junior’s dysfunctional relationships with a string of women and, as he enters his 40s, a realisation of the hurt he has caused others slowly dawns upon him. The book culminates with The Cheater’s Guide to Love, an expertly drawn dissection of Yunior’s growing sense of shame about his behaviour set amid the backdrop his own corporeal failings.

Yunior’s relationship with Diaz — and Diaz’s with his most famous literary creation – is one of the most interesting aspects of both his writing and his personality. A short, well-built man with dark-rimmed glasses, Diaz looks younger than his 44 years. He wears a tight t-shirt, blue demins and running shoes. He speaks in the same sharp, rapidfire sentences that he writes in, but his tone is less snarky, more circumspect. When our hour-long conversation turns to Yunior, as it often does, Diaz talks as one would a close family member or old acquaintance. There are certainly many similarities between  the puppeteer and his puppet: both Diaz and Yunior are Dominican Americans, both went to Rutgers, both are unmarried and childless, both are now professors teaching in Boston (in Diaz’s case, at MIT).

‘I always think of Yunior as the supreme imposter. He fits the bill close enough that he could borrow all my clothes, he could live in my apartment without the neighbours noticing, but in reality it’s a different person’ says Diaz. ‘(Yunior) takes elements of myself and distorts them, puts them under such torsion that no matter how much he borrows my clothes and borrows my vitae, none of my friends would ever say ‘this person is you.’

The character and its creator may be discrete entities, but Yunior often acts as a conduit for Diaz’s concerns and experiences, including the novelist’s acceptance of his own mistreatment of women. Diaz, whose speech is a curious mix of the profane and the prolix, describes growing up ‘in a universe where a lot of dude’s didn’t think of women as people’. Yunior’s journey in This Is How You Lose Her ‘was modelled on that same recognition in my own life where I realised that ‘yeah, you might not like seeing people being hurt but you think of (women) not as being people, and you walk all over them’.’

For Diaz, this attitude towards women is intimately bound up with immigrant, and particularly the colonial, experience: ‘One doesn’t need a history of colonialism to be fucked up towards women but I think it must play a role. One of the aspects of being a colonial subject is its emasculation.’

Whether an acknowledgement of what Diaz calls ‘colonial masculinities compensatory relationship towards women’ actually leads to behaviour change is more uncertain. In The Cheater’s Guide to Love, Yunior finally recognises that he was wholly responsible for destroying his relationship with his fiancee, but would he – or, indeed, Diaz – make the same mistakes all over again?

The author, who has recently started a new relationship, is guarded about the specifics of his personal life but admits that it is ‘much harder to alter your behaviour and face the truth than it is to just go back to being who you used to be.’ Now in his 40s, Diaz is finding the cumulative effect of such destructive, masculine behaviour increasingly burdensome. ‘The accumulation (of memories) has gained a mass where it’s making the forgetting impossible,’ he says, wearing a look of weary resignation. Diaz ‘always envied my friends who didn’t run out of rope’, who could continue cheating on their girlfriends and acting the traditional male with impunity, but like his leading man, Yunior, he ‘found himself backed into a corner. I got tired’.

‘Some of us run the fuck out of rope. We’re not any better but we don’t have the psychic elasticity anymore. Suddenly something about us breaks. If I’d had more rope I’d have probably kept on going but I didn’t.’

Diaz locates the origin of his behaviour in the ‘thin, very, very thin’ ethical imagination he, and other immigrant boys, grew up with. Central to this socialisation was his family, especially his father. ‘My dad fucked us up,’ Diaz laughs, echoing Philip Larkin’s earthy adage about parents’ Freudian impact on their offspring.

The Dominican Republic that the Diazes left in the 1970s was an extremely militaristic society. Diaz senior fought in the army during the 1965 revolution, which followed the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing government, and lead to the installment, with the CIA’s backing, of the regime of Joacquin Balaguer. The pater familias instilled in his children an adoration of the military – ‘in our household it was what one aspired to.’

Diaz’s reels off his family’s army ties: a brother who served in the Balkans, two more cousins in the US military, a sister that married an army man. His elder brother was on course to enlist before he died of cancer at an early age.

As a bookish child with no interest in military life, Diaz was the ‘febrile black sheep’ in his staunchly working class New Jersey immigrant family: ‘It was very difficult for me, all my brothers used to box. I was terrible at it. My older brother all the time would accuse me of throwing matches because I hated to see people getting hurt.’

Diaz is no longer in contact with his father, who lives in Florida, but he remains very close to his Dominican roots. He returns to Santo Domingo three or four times a year. Although he now divides his time between his apartment in Harlem, in New York, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, he regularly returns to his native New Jersey, where many of his friends and family still live.

Growing up in a Latino neighbourhood in the 1980s — surrounded by refugees from conflicts in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — was a deeply politicising experience. ‘The average American had no news from the wars in Central America but we were watching Spanish language networks where it was non-stop. My ‘80s were so different to everyone else’s ‘80s. Every time they massacred a village it was on the news.’ Diaz soon found himself caught up in the anti-Reagan moment spreading across the American left, a place on the political spectrum he still calls home.

A career as a writer gestated, indirectly, from his youthful political exposure. Majoring in history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, he intended to embark on a career as a historian but found that he lacked the necessary ‘punctiliousness and exactitude’. Besides, ‘all the things I was interested in were impossible to describe outside fiction’.

At university, Diaz’s specialist subject was genocide – as if to demonstrate his knowledge, he tells me, with supreme authority, that the Guatemalan conflict ‘was the only war that United Nations declared a genocide’. His fiction shares this interest in the absent, the untold and the untellable. ‘There is always something missing in an enormous way in my work, the characters are always revolving around this aporia.’ The lacuna in This Is How You Lose Her is Yunior’s fiancee, who features only as reported speech, as a figure on the edge of the narrative.

Diaz knows all too well what it feels like to be on the cusp of multiple stories and places. An immigrant who has found acceptance at the heart of the literary establishment; a Dominican raised in the US; a male struggling with his familial and colonial baggage, Diaz is nothing if not, in one of his favourite words, simultaneous. ‘I trouble Dominicans in Santo Domingo as much as I trouble Americans. They don’t like liminal figures.

Book Review — How Much is Enough?

In 1928, the scion of 20th century British economics John Maynard Keynes addressed a room full of Cambridge undergraduates on the subject of ‘economic possibilities for our grandchildren’. Keynes – a far more radical thinker than contemporary caricatures of him as the stolid grandfather of ‘tax and spend’ economics suggest – told his audience that, thanks to economic growth, the West was on the verge of having sufficient resources to satisfy all human wants.

By the time Keynes redrafted the Cambridge lecture for publication, the Wall Street had hit – but the catastrophe did little, if anything, to dampen the great economist’s expectations. In ‘Economic Possibilities’, published in 1930, Keynes predicted that, in a hundred years time, standards of living in the West would increase four to eight times in a hundred years time, based on estimates of capital equipment growth by 2 per cent per annum and an annual increase in ‘technical efficiency’ of 1 per cent.

Keynes’ growth predictions have proved remarkably accurate (albeit not always for the reasons he cited): today GDP per capita is, on average, around four times higher than it was in 1930. But the increased wealth has not been a harbinger of Keynes’ state of ‘Bliss’: instead of the vaunted three-hour working day and the advent of the leisure society, working hours have fallen only a fifth in the last 80 years, and among the wealthy have risen sharply.

‘Considered in relation to our vital needs, our state is not one of scarcity but rather of extreme abundance.’ So why do many of us work long hours in the desperate pursuit of a life packed with consumer goods but with precious time for physical and spiritual enrichment? If ‘the good life’ is materially possible, why are we so far from achieving it? These questions are at the core of Robert and Edward Skidelsky’s thought-provoking attempt to divine just how much is enough for a satisfying, fruitful life.

Pater familias Robert is an economist and author a three-volume biography of Keynes. His son, Edward, is an academic philosopher. How Much is Enough?, bears the hallmarks of both disciplines: among the reams of economic data and discussions of Smith, Marx and Friedman are chapters devoted to that most Socratic of questions, what is the good life and how can it be realised.

The authors’ primary target is the cult of growth for growth’s sake (‘a kind of Prozac’). The festishisation of GDP statistics – notoriously poor indicators of citizens’ wealth within a given country – are one symptom of a malaise. Another is the rise of ‘happiness’ as a nostrum for the 21st century.

Politicians across the Western world, most notably David Cameron in Britain, have embraced the new ‘happiness economics’, pioneered by Richard Layard. Happiness, in this calibration, can be measured on easy to administer 11-point life satisfaction surveys, often producing the most anodyne of results. (a recent government-funded study in the UK found that people were least happy in the deindustrialised, unemployment black spot of South Wales.)

The Skidelskys have no time for the ‘false idol’ of happiness metrics, turning instead to Aristotle and the ancient Greek notion of eudiamon (oft translated as ‘happy’, but in reality a more complex concept involving harmony between action, character, deliberation and circumstance). Crucially Aristotle’s conception of the good life included a sizeable chunk of schole, or leisure, a facet conspicuous by its absence from so many modern working, and indeed non-working, lives.

So why do we work so much? The answer, the Skidelskys argue, is a dyad of inequality and the drive to consume more. Since the 1980s inequality of wealth and income has grown hugely in the US and the Britain (and in Ireland). Rising inequality has a knock-on effect on hours worked as we strive to compete with one another: Britons work, on average, 1,650 hours a year, in the US the figure is 1,800. In Holland, it’s 1,400.

As well as setting out their seven elements of the good life (health, security, respect, personality, harmony with nature, friendship and leisure), the authors propose a series of policy reforms to hasten an exit ‘from the rat race’. These include an unconditional basic or citizen’s income (a fund along these lines in Alaska has made it the most equal of all US states); a version of traditional sumptuary laws to reduce Veblenian conspicuous consumption; and a significant reduction in advertising.

It’s an avowedly paternalist formula, and, at times, one that privileges a particularly middle class sensibility (not least in a tautologous argument over why wine contributes to the good life while crack cocaine does not). But the greatest criticism of the book is the Skidelsky’s lack of a concomitant political vision for how their many credible propositions might actually be enacted.

How Much is Enough? makes a cogent philosophical and economic argument for the good life – but almost a hundred years on from Keynes’ Cambridge lecture making ‘Bliss’ a reality remains as elusive as ever.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in August 2012. 

Book Review: The Boxer and the Goalkeeper by Andy Martin

In December 1946, the French polymath and bon vivant Boris Vian, and his wife, threw a soirée in their Paris apartment. It was a boozy, bawdry affair, an intentional throwback to the all-night parties that raged in Occupied Paris. In one corner sat phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, across the room was his bête noire, the author Arthur Koestler. Simone de Beauvoir was there, so too her long-time partner, Jean-Paul Sartre, and her some-time lover, Albert Camus.

As the evening wore on – and the drinks flowed – a quarrel broke out between the Marxist Merleau-Ponty and the avowed anti-communist Koestler. Camus, a supporter of his fellow writer Koestler, got involved. So too did Sartre, on the side of his philosopher friend Merleau-Ponty.

Koestler and Merleau-Ponty’s battle was a proxy for the real war, that between Sartre and Camus. The leading literary voices of wartime France had grown distant in the postwar penumbra. Once close, their relationship was already at breaking point, but that night at the Vian’s snapped it irrevocably. Camus, who found no place for Marxism in his rugged individualism, walked out on the party. Sartre, by now a leading figure in global Communist thinking, stayed behind. Their friendship would never recover.

The relationship between Camus and Sartre is one of the most fascinating in twentieth century philosophy. In many respects, they were unlikely colleagues. Camus: good-looking, phlegmatic, abstemious (at times). Sartre: ugly, loquacious, a drinker and a drug-user.

For a spell – mainly between 1943 and 1945 – what united Camus and Sartre was greater than what divided them: both men grew up without knowing their fathers, were significant writers and philosophers; were serial womanizers, often sharing girlfriends, most famously de Beauvoir.

Both were keen sportsmen too, a fact alluded to by the title of Andy Martin’s engaging if at times uneven account of their conflictual relationship. As befitted his combative nature, Sartre was a fan of pugilism; Camus, more considered and more solitary, was a keen amateur goalkeeper in his native Algeria (although as Martin points out,pace the urban legend, the author of the Outsider was never a professional footballer).

The similarities and differences, which eventually divided Camus and Sartre, provide the structure for much of the Boxer and the Goalkeeper. As the narrative progresses from a teenage Martin’s first illicit, teenage experiences with a stolen-copy Sartre’s notoriously dense philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness, to the two writer’s first meeting in Paris in 1943, the distinctions between the two most famous proponents of existentialism (Camus rejected this label) come sharply into focus.

Camus was, in his own eyes at least, a man of action, Sartre, a man of words. (Indeed, Che Guevara was later to say mockingly, ‘Let Jean-Paul Sartre philosophize about revolution; we who carry it out have no time for theories).

During the German occupation of Paris we find a portly Sartre, pipe in mouth, writing subversive plays, having earlier used a forged medical certificate to ‘escape’ from a prisoner of war camp. Camus, on the other hand, risked his life daily to edit Combat, a Resistance magazine.

When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957, he fretted that he was unworthy of such an honour (a concern shared by his then 20-year-old son, who said he was father was ‘an insignificant ‘writer about nothing at all’’). Sartre, on the other hand, had no doubts about his own suitability when Sweden came calling. His only regret on turning down the prize in 1964 was forgoing the 250,000 kroner cheque that accompanied it.

A popular book about philosophy and philosophers is a testing brief, and the Boxer and the Goalkeeper struggles at times to find its voice. In the early chapters, Martin is a consistent presence, imagining conversations between his protagonists and speculating on their thoughts and motivations (the word ‘perhaps’ recurs). Bum notes are hit: Sartre’s phizog ‘abolished the duality of the real and the apparent’; Camus smoking is ‘exhaling himself’.

As the book progresses, however, Martin slips to the background. Historical fact and material gleaned from epistolary exchanges replace speculation and the book’s tone and the style improve dramatically. The last hundred pages – by which point Camus and Sartre have terminally diverged – are by turns gripping and revealing.

Sartre and Camus’ ‘whole relationship’ was ‘more like a collision, a slow-motion car crash, than a collaboration’. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper suggests it could never have been any other way.

 This book review appeared in the Sunday Business Post in July 2012.

Book Review: Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie.

‘Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see,’ Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie cautions, midway through this delicate, thoughtful collection of essays. ‘That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.’

Jamie, an acclaimed poet and essayist, has made attentiveness her mantra. Having trained herself to observe the mundane, Jamie is adroitly placed to bear witness to the wonder: Leach’s petrels swooping over Rona, a blustery, long uninhabited isle 40 miles off the Scottish mainland, or a fibreglass whale jawbone that sits 600-metre high atop Berwick Law, on Edinburgh’s picturesque purlieus.

Sightlines, like her previous collection, 2005’s Findings, comprises a series of carefully constructed essays on the living world. Findings was a remarkable book, and one that defied categorisation: does a Scot writing about winter on Orkney or corncrakes on a Hebridian island constitute travel writing? Nature writing? Memoir? All three? Sightlines retains its predecessor’s unusual shape and structure: there are knowledgeable essays about the whale rooms in Bergen’s Natural History Museum and orca spotting off Shetland, all accompanied by artful black and white photographs.

But Sightlines is an altogether more self-conscious work than its antecedent, aware that it is, in a more definite sense, nature writing. Jamie is also more self-consciously a nature writer. The two opening essays – the weakest in this short collection – find the writer among icebergs off Greenland and shadowing a pathologist in Scotland, respectively. The word nature, and what this slippery term, means is a recurring concern in these early essays. Nature, says Jamie, is ‘not all primroses and otters’; pinning down what exactly it is proves more difficult.

‘The Woman in the Field’, an essay, largely, about a teenage summer spent as a ‘digger’ at an archaeological site, finds Jamie on safer, more revealing ground. Personal, observant and occasionally darkly funny, as when she describes the unwanted attention of ‘Pete the Lech, a patchouli scented, lank-haired hippy, lustily hopping from dig to dig in the late 1970s.

Like Seamus Heaney, Jamie sees a symbiosis between archaeology and poetry, a shared unearthing what others would rather left alone: ‘The opening of the cist under that thunderclap was thrilling, transgressive. So, in its quiet way, was writing poems’. Until Findings, Jamie was best known as a poet and, at times, her spartan, evocative prose could easily pass as poetry. School children filing past the whale room in Bergen are ‘a quick bright shoal darting through’. Stringy sinews from a patient’s liver, ‘reminded me of climbers’ gear abandoned on a rock-face.’

Jamie has said in interviews that British nature writing ‘vanished’ in the 1960s, but in its themes and approaches Sightlines often calls to mind the work of Richard Mabey, the septuagenarian naturalist and author. Both share a strong, almost elegiac, environmentalism that goes beyond conservation into a concern about the future of the planet.

Written in the first person, with a great deal of reflexivity, ‘nature’ is never conceived of as something ‘other’, something ‘wild’ or ‘remote’ – indeed the very notion of the remote is thrillingly deconstructed in a brilliant, searingly honest essay on St Kilda, a rugged island in the Atlantic abandoned by its population in 1930, which has since become a poster child for the unkempt wilderness.

There is a pleasing domesticity to Jamie’s writing, too. Half a short essay-cum-prose poem on the lunar eclipse is spent coaxing her teenage children to look out the window; refurbishing whale bones in Bergen is like ‘spring cleaning your bedroom’.

As in Peter Davidson’s Idea of North, the chimerical north is a constant presence in Jamie’s writing, and her travels: Iceland, Greenland, the Shetlands, the Hebrides all recur. That such places, ‘with such long human histories’, are ‘remote’ is balefully rejected. ‘Remote from what? London?’ Sightlines is of a piece with the recent social and cultural recalibration of Scotland, away from the south and towards the north and Scandinavia in particular, a move that, for many, necessitates political independence, too.

But Jamie’s politics is a far more personal affair. It is a call to arms to watch the world around you, to never forget that non-humans have as much right to the earth as we do, if not more. Sightlines forces you to think anew about your surroundings, to study them with fresh eyes, to take nothing for granted. For that alone, it is well worth reading.

Book Review: David Harvey – Rebel Cities

Last January 25, over 50,000 people occupied in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo, in protest at the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Less than a week later, the number of protestors in the square and surrounding streets had swelled to more than one million. On February 11, Mubarak resigned as president of Egypt.

On May 15, thousands took to the streets of Madrid and Barcelona to campaign against corruption, bank bailouts and a proposed law restricting internet access. As in Cairo, the demonstrators were mainly young, well-educated and under-employed. Within two days ‘indignados’ had appropriated over 30 public spaces cities and towns across Spain, in a wave of occupations that was to inspire similar movements everywhere from Wall Street and Oakland to Dame Street and Lagos.

‘There is something political in the city air struggling to be expressed’, David Harvey notes midway through this thoughtful, prescient collection of his recent essays and articles. Harvey, a British Marxist geographer based at the City University of New York, has spent a lifetime interrogating the nexus between capitalism and urbanism.

Rebel Cities sees Harvey bring the full force of his analytical mind to bear on the question of just what this inchoate ‘something’ might be, and why it is emerging most prominently in cities.

The slight collection is framed by Harvey’s twin interests in the urban: cities are pivotal sites for capital accumulation and investment, but yet are also, and increasingly so, the location of social and political struggles. This loose division of intellectual labour – between capital accumulation and class struggle – frames the book’s two halves. In the opening chapters (leaning heavily on his theoretical lodestars Karl Marx and French social theorist Henri Lefebrve) Harvey outlines why cities are so important for capitalism. The latter sections are devoted to identifying why cities often make the ideal incubators for ferment and, ultimately, rebellion against the status quo.

Harvey is a committed Marxist who was never seduced by New Labour and Anthony Giddens’ Third Way. From his 1973 work Social Justice and the City to 2010’s The Enigma of Capital: And the Crises of Capitalism, Harvey has consistently exhibited a flexibility and innovation of thought conspicuous by its absence among many of his contemporaries, inside and outside the academy.

Indeed he is one of the few writers on economics to emerge with his reputation enhanced by the global meltdown. Commenting on the proliferation of mortgage debt in the United States in his 2003 work The New Imperialism, Harvey wrote, ‘what happens if and when this property bubble bursts is a matter for serious concern’.

In Rebel Cities, Harvey’s central tenet is that cities are integral to capitalism: it is only by construction and ‘creative destruction’ in urban centres that surpluses can be profitably deployed. Urbanisation solves – or at least appears to solve – the problem of over-accumulation. Constructing, say, airports or apartment blocks delays a crisis of over-accumulation by putting immediate surpluses to use and shifting returns into the future, in the form of expected profits.

It doesn’t take a distinguished scholar to appreciate the dangers of this ploy. As more and more ‘fictitious capital’ is submerged into speculative activity, the threat of an even greater crisis of over-accumulation grows: ‘Speculatively, the asset markets constituted by housing and land have a Ponzi character without a Bernie Madoff at the top.’

When the emperor is revealed to be naked all along – as in Ireland after the 2008 credit crunch – house values plummet amid rampant over-supply and crisis ensues.

The deepest economic crisis for 80 years has created the material conditions for urban tumult on a scale unparalleled in living memory. Meanwhile, the organized left, from trade unions to political parties, has struggled to articulate a creative route out of this impasse for the growing legion of jobless graduates and the unemployed.

One reason for this, as Harvey recognizes, is that an insecure, low paid workforce that is disorganized and predominantly urban has largely usurped the traditional industrial ‘proletariat’. Think of the twenty-somethings with their laptops camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York. This new ‘precariat’ have little time for hierarchical politics, but are forming new alliances around issues as diverse as working conditions and the environment.

Written in terse, economical prose, Rebel Cities is a readable (and timely) introduction to the work of one of the world’s most influential social thinkers. While the chapters on urbanization and monopoly rent had this reviewer reaching for his dusty copies of Marx’s Capital, anyone who has ever wondered why cities look increasingly similar will find the discussions on the role of cultural producers in, often unwittingly, aiding the homogenization of urban space engrossing.

Harvey acknowledges that ‘what we academics so often forget is the role played by the sensibility that arises out of the streets around us.’ It is an omission that Rebel Cities goes a long way to addressing.

This book review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post.