Of Soothsayers and Evangelists
August 23, 2017 - David Buckham CEO of Monocle
There is a new and growing genre in bookshops that conceptually sits somewhere between Politics, History and Economics. It should properly be called Polemics, but the purveyors of the written word will generally place this new material either on their History shelf or on their Economics shelf – possibly through a misunderstanding of the purpose of the books, or simply because they do not have Polemics as a dedicated section.
More likely, however, it is because polemical writing is usually about something, or more specifically about undermining something – such as politics – rather than being something in and of itself. Its underlying topic – if all polemics were to be grouped in their own section of a bookshop – would be a smorgasbord of confusing subjects. You would have Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness sitting alongside the holocaust denialist David Irving, rather than finding their books in the Economics and History sections respectively.
As it stands, Nassim Taleb is generally to be found beside luminaries such as Joseph Stiglitz, truly a case of putting the cat among the pigeons; and Irving’s Hitler’s War, insultingly, will be found sandwiched between David Stevenson’s The History of the First World War and Philip Short’s Pol Pot. Or worse, even in a respectable bookshop, it is not an impossibility to find Irving’s Goebbels: Mastermind of the Third Reich – a study in historical revisionism and a sycophantic nod to one of history’s worst psychopaths – hugging the jacket of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the definitive tome on how it was possible for Germany to allow the dominance and banal evil of Nazism to overcome them.
In the case of Nassim Taleb, whilst his books on the surface would appear to be about the financial markets and risk prediction, they are really and truly purely polemical pieces of invective against all – really all – economic modelling, infused with a sociopathic dislike of most economic thinking. They are frustratingly inconclusive and unhelpful in their results, appealing to a mysticism of perspective, and at best invoking little more than fear. In Irving’s case, despite the distasteful position he adopts, there is at least some academic basis, but his work quickly falls prey, both in its arguments, and in its facts, to his undeniable anti-Semitism. His purpose is no different to that of Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon, previously the chairman of Breitbart News, and about as right-wing a commentator as one could find in a liberal democracy at present. His purpose, clothed as academic history, is really a political purpose, a manifesto.
It is therefore one of the ironies of bookshop browsing as a casual activity that the observant browser will, on occasion, be able to identify the polemics amongst the historians, the economists, and the politicians. The ‘art’ of vociferous argument, infused with sarcasm, fraught with diabolical assumptions, aggressive in tone, and dismissive of scientific balance as a genre of writing, is often scattered, unbeknown to most, throughout the bookshop, like the spies who were embedded in European cities such as Berlin and Brussels, posing as artists and journalists, and clerks, during the height of the Cold War.
To further confuse matters, one needs to stress that there is a distinction to be made within the genre of polemical writing itself. A lot of it is bad, and some of it is good. There is nothing wrong per se, in taking on, right from the start, a strong position in one’s argument, and pursuing that argument with vigour, whilst also acknowledging the existence and roots of the thinking and philosophies one is attempting to undermine. That is a very different matter, however, to writing a pure manifesto, picking one’s ‘truths’ out of context, perhaps even taking things further and engaging in the new and oddly accepted art of ‘post-truth’, exemplified by the phenomenon of President Trump’s tweets.
When an esteemed long-in-the-tooth publication such as Time magazine finds it necessary as recently as April 2017 to publish an issue on a solid black background cover, with the words only ‘Is Truth Dead?’ in the colour red, then it is apparent that there is value in making the distinction between good polemics and bad polemics. Good polemics inherit their value from the art of polemical writing, a genre and form of entertainment, and an essential part of the history of academic debate going all the way back to the Forum in Greece three thousand years ago, from bad polemical writing – the writing of unadulterated lies in an effort to justify, and to recruit, and to cloud better judgement. The worst forms of polemical writing are no different to the pamphlets distributed at right-wing rallies, preying on fear, urging immediate and thoughtless action. To a large extent, the trouble lies in the value of truth one ascribes to the published word, irrespective of its true agenda.
Good polemical writing has a long history, stretching back to Greek and Roman literature, but in its modern form – post World War II – it finds its most strident voice in writers like Christopher Hitchens. In the passage of his oeuvre one can trace his transformation from war reporter, to essayist, to activist, and polemicist and finally, in his dying days, to biographer. If one is looking for something written by him, one is going to have to look in several sections within the bookstore: to find Hitch-22, his confessional autobiography which eclipses in excellence all his previous work, is easy – just go to Biography. Whereas to find his vitriolic attack on Mother Theresa – titled The Missionary Position just to give an idea of its tone – is far harder. It could be anywhere – in History, in Politics, in Religion, or even in Economics.
This is the trouble with the new genre within a genre of left-leaning political writing that has emerged out of the ashes of the liberal agenda – in the wake of the political sharp right turn that has overtaken western democracy in the past eighteen months. It is writing that is infused with the anger that is felt by the democratic middle-class and whose mantle is carried by the left-wing, primarily US-based, academic. One thinks here of Edward Said, whose career has been spent deconstructing the Western notion of the Middle East. It is intelligent, insightful, factually accurate writing – but it is also angry.
Another US-based author, whose intelligence and academic credentials allow her to adopt a vitriolic style without descending entirely into the realms of political manifesto is Naomi Klein. Her two most significant contributions have been The Shock Doctrine – The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and This Changes Everything, her diatribe on climate change. In both cases an academic style, rooted in fact and analysis, is not intrinsically directed to add to a growing body of analysis and argument in a traditional scientific sense, but is rather a full-blast attack on our sensibilities, aiming, as per her title, to shock us towards change.
The entire purpose of her work is to achieve social and political change through her word, rather than to be canonised in a literary sense. She is capable of the latter, but her purpose is the former. This is a genre that includes at its roots Karl Marx’s Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. To give an idea of the extent to which polemical writing has become mainstream, one only needs to look at the praise The Shock Doctrine received. Tim Robbins as an example said of the book, “It could very well prove a catalyst, a watershed, a tipping point.”
When picking up a book like Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: How a Secretive Group of Billionaires is Trying to Buy Political Control in the US, one should ready oneself for a political speech rather than an enjoyable historical discourse or a reasoned argument. Naomi Klein called Mayer’s book “utterly brilliant and chilling”, and that is precisely how we are meant to feel: terrified. The generic argument goes something like this: since World War II and the Bretton Woods Agreement, since the establishment of NATO, since the imposition of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and other untold evils imposed upon the world, the rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer.
What is worse, Mayer argues, is that we have been duped – we have bought into the notion of capitalism and we have forgotten that it is not necessarily married to democracy, that the two can be separated. And meanwhile – other than impoverishing the Third World, and replacing jobs with robots – we are also destroying the planet. If we don’t stop now, it will all end in Armageddon. Mayer’s take on the topic is to veer towards conspiracy theory and conjecture, digging deep into specific organisations and shaming the individuals who have profited from the political control they wield through economic domination.
Reading this type of book can sometimes feel like that conversation you find yourself in with an old friend from university you haven’t seen for a while. They used to be a little intense, but you had no idea that over the ten years since you’d last seen them they had become evangelical – either towards Fundamental Christianity or towards climate change.
Climate change evangelists are no less vigorous in their proselytising than Fundamentalist Christians, or Tea Party right-wingers for that matter. You come away feeling that you are given no time to consider your options – agree now immediately and adopt the mantle, or you will be cast away as a victim of mainstream oppression. And there is no shortage of such evangelical and angry writing in the new literature of economics: there is Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? and there is also Yanis Varoufakis’ And the Weak Suffer What They Must? In Varoufakis’ case, to be fair, his brief stint as Minister of Finance during Greece’s battle with the IMF over the question of austerity is enough reason to give his book more than a cursory glance. Streeck’s book, despite its academic prowess, and its innumerable facts and figures, never actually answers its eponymous question.
In this vein of academically-based work, angry and immediate in tone, and on the topic of the apparent failure of capitalism, Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, makes for interesting reading. Rather than focusing on the notion that through exposing the ills and evils of the modern capitalist framework readers will be more informed – and therefore more active in their resistance to capitalist oppression – Mason takes on a far more ambitious task. His book truly is a manifesto: it argues essentially that the battle between socialism and capitalism is already over – that socialism is not the only alternative to capitalism, that capitalism is already failing and is being replaced with what he terms ‘postcapitalism’. He argues that the ideals of postcapitalism can achieve a more equal world only if his specific steps and milestones are followed.
The skeleton of his manifesto is clearly laid out in the preface to the book. He writes, “So, I want to propose an alternative: first, we save globalisation by ditching neoliberalism; then we save the planet – and rescue ourselves from turmoil and inequality – by moving beyond capitalism itself.” Whilst it is not entirely clear what this would mean – insofar as moving beyond capitalism is concerned, even in the later chapters – he is at his clearest when describing the forces that will drive this change. The kernel of his idea is that a ‘networked economy’, exemplified in his idea of ‘networked individualism’ rather than in the old notion of the ‘community-based’ worker – and driven by new technology-enabled capabilities – will achieve the benefits of postcapitalism.
Once again, these benefits are, at best, opaque – even after a thorough reading. Of course, there are throughout the book the use of broad-stroke statements in respect of reduced inequality, and enhanced individual efficiency and a new kind of government. But there is little that one can really call a defined outcome. Where he is most insightful, however, is in his analysis of the processes he claims as the key driving forces behind postcapitalism. Specifically, in describing the three impacts of the ‘new technology’ on the old notion of the market-driven neoliberal economy, he is fascinatingly original.
“First,” he argues, “Information technology has reduced the need for work, blurred the edges between work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages. Second, information goods are corroding the market’s ability to form prices correctly. Third, we are seeing the spontaneous rise of collaborative production: goods, services and organisations are appearing that no longer respond to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy.”
His third point is palpable already in every aspect of our lives, from the way the consumer purchases goods online, to the rise of peer-to-peer lending, to the use of cryptocurrencies as viable exchange alternatives. Probably the best example of ‘collaborative production’ is Airbnb, which breaks and transcends international boundaries, personal space boundaries, and has significantly upended not only the hotel industry, but also the entire tourism and travel industry. In respect of his second point, it is easy to think of examples in which market prices are no longer correct – at least for periods of time. There are, after all, well-documented cases in which market prices have been significantly manipulated by individuals and firms that have cynically corroded the market system – the prices of oil or aluminium as examples, or LIBOR for that matter.
Mason, however, is at his best when dealing with his first point – that technology has radically and permanently altered the nature of work itself. In describing the opacity of distinction between working within a community, and living and existing for oneself, couched in the term ‘networked individualism’, Mason cites the work of London School of Economics professor Richard Sennett. Sennett specifically studies the impact of greater job flexibility within the new highly-mobile hi-tech workforce.
Mason, paraphrasing Sennett, writes compellingly: “If work rewards detachment and superficial compliance, values adaptability over skill and networking over loyalty… this creates a new kind of worker: s/he is focused on the short term, in life as in work, and lacks commitment to hierarchies and structures, both at work and in activism.”
It is worth going further and quoting Sennett directly. He writes: “The conditions of time in the new capitalism have created a conflict between character and experience, the experience of disjointed time threatening the ability of people to form their characters into sustained narratives.”
And this really is the trouble with the new polemicists, and with economic and political writing in general – that one has to sift and wade through mountains of words, most of it banal or arrogant or reductive, to come across this nugget of pure gold. What an especially compelling and insightful observation to bring to the lay reader’s attention: that new technology and the phenomenon of social media, in tandem with the erosion of a stable work environment, has created an individual who lacks character, who is fragmented.
And this is why we find ourselves in the midst of an all-out battle to save the ideas at the heart of liberal democracy – choice, freedom, courage, community, empathy, truth – in a world of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage. We are not overcome by political forces that peddle fear, who shut borders, who threaten violence, who feed on distrust – because they have good ideas. We are overcome by them because we have become fragmented by the very technologies and changes that we long ago accepted and embraced.
We are an Instagram, selfie generation. We post ourselves and our lives on Facebook, but mainly we post ourselves. If there is any doubt in anyone’s mind of the extent to which this is true, simply observe the following: as of writing the value of Facebook is USD 420 billion, whilst the value of General Electric, which differs in that it is a company that makes many useful things from refrigerators to jet engines, is valued at USD 250 billion.
Of course, it would be tremendously naïve to nostalgically wallow in dreams of a previous time. That would be to forget that those same times had their own post-truths – the imminent Russian invasion, the space race, the segregated US South, and of course apartheid – but Mason’s hidden nugget of truth is a blow to the gut. Of course we lack conviction in community, and of course we lack empathy. There really is no space in our lives for activism when we are so enamoured with ourselves in such a fragmented reality. There are various versions of ourselves: the one who goes to work, the several on social media, and the one in which we are part of a community. And in blending them, we have become less significant to others, and more significant only to ourselves.
It is a pity really that there is such a plethora of impassioned – yet unbalanced – writing on a topic as important as our political and economic future. And it is a pity too that there is such a dearth of reasoned analysis that would provide cogent proposals for change – proposals that would not necessarily require the adoption of an evangelical stance. There is danger in crowd psychology, and the adoption en masse of simplistic ideologies.