Archive for July, 2009

Moral Rejection

LRB · Eric Hobsbawm: C (for Crisis)

Certainly, the crisis produced agreement among the articulate classes that the system couldn’t go on as before, either because of the basic flaws of capitalism or because of ‘The End of Laissez-Faire’ announced by Keynes in 1926, but discussions on the future shape of the economy, whether socialist or governed by a reformed, more interventionist and ‘planned’ capitalism, were strictly confined to minorities: the first of up to half a million in and around the labour movement, the second probably of a few hundred of what Gramsci would have called the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the British ruling class. However, memory suggests that Overy is right in thinking that the most widespread reaction to the troubles of the economy among the king’s non-writing subjects, outside the new wastelands of the old industrial regions, was not so much the feeling ‘that capitalism did not work, but that it should not work the way it did’. And insofar as ‘socialism’ reached beyond the activists into the 29 per cent of the British electorate which voted for the Labour Party at the peak of its interwar success, it was the result of a moral rejection of capitalism rather than a specific image of the future society.

The book looks good.

The Simple Things You See Are All Complicated

Here I shall do something very crude. I am somewhat pre-empting the conclusion to my planned 400-part series on the evolution of the meaning of the word ‘bourgeois’ in mah brane, but I was thinking this morning about Angela Davis’s remark (I think it was her anyway) that any time George Bush said ‘democracy’ you should replace it with ‘capitalism’ to understand the real meaning of what he was saying. I propose that if you are reading any Irish newspaper, a great deal of insight is to be gained, when reading political comment and opinion, by replacing the words ‘Ireland’ or ‘our country’ or ‘the Irish people’ or ‘the State’, with the word ‘bourgeoisie’.

For instance.

Government to publish Nama legislation today – The Irish Times – Thu, Jul 30, 2009

“We cannot go back to exchanging beans. A banking system, an efficient one that meets the needs of a growing economy is needed,” Dr Bacon told RTÉ’s Morning Bourgeoisie.

“The bourgeoisie can’t afford not to have an efficient, functioning banking system. If we went that course the result would be a stagnant economy into the long term future,” he added.

Moment of truth is fast approaching on pensions – The Irish Times – Wed, Jul 29, 2009

The bourgeoisie cannot be expected to fund pensions for everyone. Private pension provision for those who can afford it offers the only prospect of alleviating the burden on the bourgeoisie.

Findings almost irrelevant as perceptions rule – The Irish Times – Tue, Jul 28, 2009

I’m a short-term governance consultant for the World Bank and regularly, to the point of tedium, meet the “And what is going on in the Irish bourgeoisie!” question. There is the monotony of anecdotes from colleagues who have been to yet another presentation about compliance with international financial and banking benchmarks and how embarrassed they would be if they were Irish bourgeois. And so forth.

Now I’m not saying it always works, because it doesn’t, and of course it’s more complicated than that. But you’d be surprised at how often it does.

More Boston Than Berlin, After All

A similar story pertains in these parts, but without the stimulus. Or socialist octupi in government.

Discreet Charms Part I

Reader, I cannot tell you precisely what ‘bourgeois’ means. I can only recount the history of my encounters with the word, and chart the evolution of its meaning in my head, in the hope that one might grasp my present predicament.

As I wrestled amid the recesses of my memory last night, I convinced myself I first came across it in the pages of 1984, which I read when I was 15. And I was probably right:

‘Lackeys!’ he said. ‘Now there’s a word I ain’t ‘eard since ever so long. Lackeys! That reg’lar takes me back, that does. I recollect oh, donkey’s years ago — I used to sometimes go to ‘Yde Park of a Sunday afternoon to ‘ear the blokes making speeches. Salvation Army, Roman Catholics, Jews, Indians — all sorts there was. And there was one bloke — well, I couldn’t give you ‘is name, but a real powerful speaker ‘e was. ‘E didn’t ‘alf give it ’em! “Lackeys!” ‘e says, “lackeys of the bourgeoisie! Flunkies of the ruling class!” Parasites — that was another of them. And ‘yenas — ‘e definitely called ’em ‘yenas. Of course ‘e was referring to the Labour Party, you understand.’

I read on, and concluded that totalitarianism was bad, and that it would be a very bad idea to have a surveillance society, but the thing I remembered most about the book was the second paragraph in which it said that the hallway smelt of boiled cabbage. Orwell’s implication was clear in my mind at least: a totalitarian society would have hallways smelling of boiled cabbage. This posed a problem for me. I liked cabbage. Granted, if waterlogged, it could be disgusting. But lightly salted with a little pepper and some butter and it could be delightful. But I did not like the idea of hallways smelling of cabbage.

So the concrete question of what bourgeois meant was still pretty far from the fore, and if it ever did surface, it would have been with a hint of cabbage.

The next time, I think, was on the pages of the NME. There was a regular feature by Alan Parker – Urban Warrior in which he said lots of funny things. Once he referred to his wristwatch as the ‘iron manacle of bourgeois oppression’. Which I thought was a funny thing to say. So I stole the joke. One morning in school the teacher was giving out about how a bomb scare had delayed him on the way to work, because there were army checkpoints on the road. I saw he had a nice watch, and so I said “nice iron manacle of bourgeois oppression you got there’, to which he replied “The army is the iron manacle of bourgeois oppression? I’ll tell you what’s real oppression: bomb scares that stop workers like me getting to work to teach people like you.” So it seemed he wasn’t listening, and it’s always bad to labour the joke, so I dropped the matter, no closer to understanding what ‘bourgeois’ might mean.

Disclaimer: the last paragraph might not be reliable. The operative word may not have been ‘bourgeois’ at all, but ‘capitalist’: I may be exhibiting revisionist tendencies. Just putting it out there, in case.

After that, I reckon it was in the introduction to Madame Bovary aged 17, which talked about how Flaubert did not like the bourgeoisie very much. It was at this point that I began to think that ‘bourgeois’ had something to do with France and the French. I may even have realised at this stage that ‘bourgeois’ had to do with bourg, having spent a few weeks in one. I should also clarify at this point that I was 17, and not reading a book titled Madame Bovary aged 17, which, as I understand it, was not written by Flaubert.

By comparison with previous encounters, Madame Bovary had a pretty profound effect on how I was to understand the word ‘bourgeois’. It was full of wicked jokes at the expense of its characters, such the backdrop of the huge spire of Rouen cathedral to show the dimensions of the desire of Emma’s lover. Anyway, the upshot of it for me was that the bourgeoisie was stupid, which was a sort of progress, I suppose. So I began to understand that ‘bourgeois’ could, in common parlance, be used as a synonym for ‘provincial’, as reflecting attitudes and general deportment very much at odds with the sort of enlightened stuff on display in modern metropolitan centres with running water and television, like Portadown. Using the word ‘bourgeois’ was rather like using the word ‘antediluvian’: it denoted a relic from a moment in history that had long passed.

Or did it? Only Part II, when I write it, would tell.

This is not a parable

I was thinking about economics. I shared a house for six months or so with a chap studying economics who was well known for having a ferocious intellect, at least in terms measured by other economists. His four brains now have a very prominent position in a very important financial institution.

I was struggling to write a history essay on Bretton Woods, and finding him in the kitchen I figured I’d pick one of his brains as I made myself a cup of tea.

“Can I ask you a question?”

I can’t remember what I asked him, he looked me up and down, hmmed and ha’d for a minute, then hit me with some analysis that made my ears glaze over. If I am honest, I didn’t really care what he was going to tell me: I just wanted to hear what someone who knew what he was talking about might sound like. Food for thought, I said, and thanked him.

“Now can I ask you a question?”


“What are you doing?”

“An essay on Bretton Woods for a history paper”

“No, I mean, what are you doing here?”

For a moment I thought that perhaps my poorly phrased question had revealed too much ignorance for him to stand my presence. Or, maybe he’d deliberately provided me with a completely nonsensical answer and my uncritical response had done the trick.


“What are you doing in my kitchen?”

“I live here.”

“Well, I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’ve lived here for months.”

“Really? I had no idea.”

A relentless focus on matters economic seemed to have narrowed his peripheral vision. Dude thought I’d broken into his kitchen to ask him an economics question.


The McCarthy Report made considerable mention of the need for ‘synergy’ in rationalising government departments. Here, the crack team begins its search for the appropriate private sector expert to promote said synergy.

I Did Not Meet A Traveller

Rhiannon Batten finds peace in Wales: ‘High summer – and I’ve got all this to myself’ | Travel | The Observer

“What I love about the Rhinogs is that you can walk among them and there are hardly any reminders of the modern world,” promised Sheena, meeting me at the start of the weekend with a bottle of cold ginger beer after my traffic-slowed, Friday afternoon drive from London. The Rhinogs, she explained, are essentially a neglected corner of Snowdonia national park, offering similar terrain to that of Snowdon to the north, and Cadair Idris to the south, but without the crowds.

The more I think of it, the more I am convinced that the fetish for spaces vacant of signs of human life requires a hatred of other human beings. If you really wanted to get rid of any reminders of the modern world, you’d strip buck naked and go off into the hills sans rucksack, hiking boots, foot cream, or any other modern invention. You’d spend a week living off nuts and berries and trying to beat the odd badger or stoat over the head with a rock for a bit of protein. It’d take a lifetime of practice though since the first few holidays would be taken up with trying to rub dried twigs together to make a spark, assuming you were able to ward off hypothermia.

The point being that the search for some intimation of a prelapsarian existence is of itself the product of its opposite: the demands and the vexations of civilisation, in particular the fact of having to work for someone else’s ends in order not to starve. But suppose you’re up a hill somewhere, I dunno, the Mourne Mountains, and some hiker makes his way into your purview. The sentiment expressed in this article implies that he would constitute a blight on your existence, having ruined your temporarily privatised tranche of nature. I mean, what the hell is wrong with striking up a conversation and sharing experiences?

There is, of course, a long established tradition of heading off somewhere wild in order to get your head together, the most famous example of which is probably Jesus. But in fairness to Jesus, he was doing so with a view to coming back and turning the world upside down, not so that he could come back and get stuck into the carpentry with a bit more vigour. And Ozymandias would be a pretty empty poem if the narrator hadn’t met the traveller. ADDS: on mature reflection, there is nothing in the content of that poem to indicate that the narrator met the traveller when he was out travelling. It is equally legitimate to imagine that what is being recounted is the upshot of an early 19th century equivalent of a coffee-dock conversation.

The Neo-Board Snip

Some rushed comments on An Bord Snip Nua.

It was remarkable how even the state broadcaster in its nightly news bulletins had taken to using the coinage of An Bord Snip Nua as though this were the official title of the exercise. The name has a mystifying function. First, the fact that it contains a reference to a prior event in the history of Ireland denotes a sense of continuity with the past, as though we are all talking about one more chapter in the history of the Irish nation. It thereby posits itself as part of a collective project. Second, the fact that it is a name in Irish connotes that this is a particularly Irish project, thereby concealing the transnational forces that have generated the demand for the cuts (in short, Ireland cannot borrow money unless it meets the demands of foreign investors, that is, to maintain a good business climate in line with neo-liberal orthodoxy, which means slashing public spending and weakening the bargaining power of workers). It therefore presents an illusion of national political autonomy at the very moment when such autonomy is being fatally weakened. An Bord Snip Nua, ironically, conceals the potential image -after John Ralston Saul- of national politicians as castrati.

By appearing as a project of the Irish nation, then, it contains an appeal to the suspension of class interest in the service of a higher patriotism, even though, at the same time, the people most egregiously affected by the project will be the weakest members of society: children, the sick, the working class.

Appeals to national solidarity on the part of the ruling class are nearly always part and parcel of neo-liberal politics. Not only do these appeals exist most obviously to browbeat the working class to accept measures that are not in its interest, they exist to arouse fervour among the ruling class to go about its business more vigorously. To give a very recent example: in the prelude to the coup in Honduras, a letter was sent from the Tegucigalpa Chamber of Industry and Commerce to its members, asking them for donations for a ‘civic and PR strategy’, containing an explicit appeal to the members’ ‘highest patriotic ideal’: their ‘love for Honduras’. (It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant here that when Brian Cowen made what fawning media had speculated was his ‘Obama moment’, he did so in front of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce)

As noted elsewhere, there is nothing in the content of the report that could not have been drawn up by the Department of Finance. Indeed, the Department of Finance set the parameters of the report in such a way that the end result -brutal cuts everywhere- would be a foregone conclusion.

But the creation of a special team, led by a neo-classical economist, lends the cuts a veneer of scientific objectivity, even though, as David Jacobson notes here, neo-classical orthodoxy underwrote the inadequate regulation of markets that had provoked the crisis in the first place. Not for the first time, the castrati pretended to seek the advice of independent commentators to give legitimacy to the savage programme on which they intended to embark, whilst shoring up their own privileged position.

First, they will allow a feeding frenzy in the media on the detail of the report, in which the public discussion will be framed in terms of just how much ‘savings’ (the actual cost to a person of insufficient medical treatment is not in the scope of the report) can be generated by this or that measure. Then, they will present themselves as interceding on behalf of the ‘most vulnerable’ in society, seeking to mitigate this or that proposed measure, so that in their mercy they will hear and answer us.

Best Wishes


The UK Libertarian Party – Take The Test

It must be noted that defining things as extreme or dangerous is a purely subjective activity.

You may choose to define that raging madman in the frozen food section riddling the shoppers with bullets as a dangerous extremist. I, on the other hand, may see him as helpfully clearing the way for me on my path to the toilet rolls. I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth. The bakery serves up a nice apple tart: I suggest we mosey on over there to discuss further.

I on Twitter

July 2009