Poetry and politics out of San Francisco

Ferlinghetti and Hirschman, and remembering also the Turkish writer, Ahmet Altan

Back in the 1950s and 60s people were living on the edge, as they are now, in Covid times. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. And by the 60s many of us were engaged in a fully-fledged protest movement. But we could be out there, talking, drinking, smoking, demonstrating. And a whole lot more.

I’ve been reading two San Francisco poets, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Hirschman. Back in 1953 Ferlinghetti founded the City Lights Bookstore, and in 1956 he published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and after he was prosecuted famously won a court case asserting the right of free speech under the First Amendment. Some forty years later, in 1998, he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate. Hirschman, in 2006, was the fourth.  

I had a Hirschman book on order… this was last Monday. The following day there arrived an email from a friend over in the States with a PS – had I seen the news, Ferlinghetti had just died. Aged 101. I’m sad, really sad, he’s gone. Amazed he was still alive.

Remember Howl? OK, you don’t remember. We weren’t alive or we were too young. But it’s a manifesto for anarchy, of a very 1950s and 60s kind. Not the destructive anarchy of the New Right of our own time. It’s the dream anarchy that the world will somehow set itself right. It’s just that ‘America’ is getting in the way.  Ginsberg celebrates ‘the best minds of his generation’, they’re ‘angel-headed hipsters … who poverty and tatters and hollowed-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz’. It’s political – but it doesn’t have a prospectus. It just wants you to know that it scorns the whole crazy moneyed apparatus of society.

Ferlinghetti also had the anarchist instinct but he was a practical guy. Founded the bookstore, published Howl, won that court case. But he also knew how to hit home: his is a ‘concrete continent/ spaced with bland billboards/ illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness’. (A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958)  Come 2007 he was more relaxed, the gentrification of San Francisco a big issue. But he was still campaigning for ‘poems that say something supremely original and supremely important, which everyone aches to hear, poetry that cries out to be heard, poetry that’s news’. Maybe the mass media might just print it, if it was ‘a new kind of news’. Though maybe ‘poets would still be ignored by our dominant culture, because they’re saying what our materialist, technophiliac world doesn’t want to hear’.

He was also asking that big question – what exactly what is a poet? He’s like an acrobat ‘on a high wire of his own making/ … a little charliechaplin man/ who may or may not catch/her fair eternal form’ when she comes swinging toward him. That’s from ‘A Coney Island’. His ‘Challenges to Young Poets’ from forty years later keeps it simple: ‘Write short poems in the voice of birds.’

Hirschman was something else, a Street not a Beat poet, a radical communist. (His book, ‘All That’s Left’, arrived yesterday.) ‘It was the Street poets who united with common causes…’ He celebrated SF’s Cafe Trieste, where you’d find ‘local radiances like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’, and ‘the older Beats and Baby Beats and the commies, the surrealists, the anarchists, the socialists, the jazzmen, the urban screwballs, the walk-in weirdos’. From another age he remembered ‘Federico, who would die for poetry’ – Lorca was a hero. ‘The sinking house of the setting sun’ was how he characterised New Orleans after Katrina. And, remembering the Virginia Tech massacre of thirty-two people, he wrote, ‘and now you know what a market/in old Baghdad feels like.’.

By contrast, the latter-day Ferlinghetti could be whimsical, a poet to smile and relax with in poems such as the ‘Green Street Mortuary Marching Band’. But he was still the same man. ‘To the Oracle at Delphi’ talks of America as a ‘new Empire … with its electronic highways/carrying its corporate monoculture/round the world’. (San Francisco Poems, 2001)

Hirschman never let up – hasn’t I’m sure to this day. You may or may not appreciate his encomium on Fidel Castro. But in the case of Mumia (Mumia Abu-Jamal) he drills his message home. Black Panther background, sentenced to death for murder in 1981, commuted in 2001, still in jail, many still arguing his case and his cause. Mumia has studied, taken a degree, written books, and inspired, all from jail. Hirschman imagines his final victory – ‘your victory will be the priceless uplifting of the human spirit’.

He refers to Mumia as the ‘Nazim Hikmet/of the American grain, that Turkish poet who/spent 26 years in prison…. No amount of bars/or shackles can chain/the revolutionary impulse/of the human heart’.

Mumia’s case still divides America, along party lines, Right and Left. I am, over in the UK, in no position to comment on the rights and wrongs of his conviction. But the reference to Nazim Hikmet does strike home.

In our own time, as some of us are planning holidays in Turkey, we have the extraordinary and vicious incarceration of Turkish journalists and writers (and teachers and lawyers and many others) under the Erdogan regime. One is the writer Ahmet Altan, arrested in 2016, then released and re-arrested the same day. Now serving a life sentence. In his book (smuggled as extracts from jail), ‘Never will I see the world again’, he writes:

‘Never again would I be able to kiss the woman I love, embrace my kids, meet with my friends…I would not be able to listen to a violin concerto or to go on a trip or browse in bookstores or buy bread from a bakery or gaze at the sea…’

It’s a long paragraph. And it hit me hard.

Getting yourself noticed

My recent reading has as always taken in various reviews, articles, books. One day last week they seemed to come together, on the theme of ‘getting noticed’. But not in the sense of shouting from the rooftops. This blog is after all combining ‘zen’ and ‘politics’. In politics you do have to make yourself heard. Zen exists below the radar. And ‘getting noticed’ doesn’t mean you won’t be as quickly forgotten.

Mary Wollstonecraft did get noticed in her own time. And then she was all but forgotten. Proto-feminist, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’, resident in Paris during the Terror, she was also mother of Mary Shelley, by William Godwin. (Grandmother of Frankenstein you might say.) She died in 1797. Godwin’s biography of his wife published the following year did her no favours. The opposite. ‘The more fully we are presented with the picture and story,’ Godwin wrote, ‘the more generally we shall find ourselves attached to their fate, and a sympathy in their excellencies.’ He was wrong, desperately so. Robert Southey accused Godwin of ‘a want all feeling in stripping his wife naked’. (See Richard Holmes’ This Long Pursuit.) That was mild compared to other execrations.

It’s taken two hundred years, but in our time she’s celebrated.

For someone totally different – I chanced on Hans Keller, refugee from Hitler, BBC musicologist, influential post-WW2 and through to the 1970s. Keller was in the Reithian BBC tradition, which had as its aims to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Classical music was party of that educative purpose.

Wollstonecraft has found herself on the right side of history. Not so Keller. He wrote in 1973: ‘If we can bring ourselves to learn and practise the art of not listening to the radio, of turning it off… radio can become a cultural force of unprecedented potency.’ ‘As Nicholas Grace reviewing a new biography of Keller concludes: ‘Keller’s island of Reithian paternalism was soon to be swept away by a digital tsunami.’ (London Review of Book, February)

He may be all but forgotten, but how we listen to music, and how we concentrate when listening, they are still issues, and extend well beyond the confines of music.

Wollstonecraft and Keller brought to mind a few heroes of mine. The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, who became a leading Civil Rights campaigner in the USA. George Orwell of course. He understood the absurdities of power better than anyone. It’s why he remains a point of reference for so many of us today. One example in my reading from last week. ‘Nationalism,’ Orwell wrote in 1945, is ‘the political doctrine of a delusional fantasist.’

People had hopes back then that we’d seen the back of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. But nationalism still rides high. And Orwell remains as relevant as ever.

This is where where I could so easily veer away from Zen, from the pursuit of wisdom, if you will, to raw politics. I could list the hyper-nationalists of our time. From Putin across and down. Or the petty nationalists. I could include the UK reducing its foreign budget, and that would take me right back into the mire.

Also, in an earlier version of this blog I had Ed Miliband and Keir Starmer not getting heard. Rafael Behr in the Guardian suggesting that part of Starmer’s problem lay in ‘a lack of rudimentary storytelling’. In UK politics Covid and Brexit are the dominant stories. The story of the old Toryism of Major, Heseltine and Clark has all but disappeared: no-one is doing the telling.

They will find their way into future blogs. This blog has been about under the radar. We could all add the names of poets and novelists and adventurers and scientists. Just for now, Wollstonecraft and Keller, Orwell and Merton must suffice.

Fog and politics

A single bird was in unusual and glorious voice in thick fog at the top of the Common this early morning.  It’s the first day of February. I slowed my run, and listened. As if to a nightingale in the silence. Also this morning a coup in Myanmar, and by lunchtime indications that the South African version of the virus has touched down in the UK. We’ve incipient vaccine wars with the EU, who I want to support, but who’ve made fools of themselves, turning on Astra-Zeneca, and threatening UK supplies.

Back home, after breakfast I take refuge from all that’s happening and about to happen by putting, with my partner, Hazel, a few more pieces into our 1000-piece jigsaw. Jigsaws like early-morning runs (pilates for Hazel) can be surprisingly therapeutic.

I needed a little therapy. It’s a morning when the news gets you down. Might the answer be to walk away from it all? Does politics, as a discussion in the current edition of Prospect, has it, really matter? Academic Freya Johnston is pitched against old-school politician, Malcolm Rifkind.

Politics for Johnston is inseparable from the public dislike of politicians. ‘One reason that polls demonstrate indifference to politics is the public contempt for politicians.’ Rifkind accepts, as I do, that ‘normal people are more interested in their own well-being than by what happens on the national stage’. But on the plus side he quotes the vision of the politicians behind the launch of the NHS. Johnston ripostes that ‘rather, it responded to increasing social and cultural pressures’. Politics is of course the interplay between the two, politicians and public. Aneurin Bevan, who championed the NHS in parliament, was a good guy, and a hero. (We do need more like him.)

The exchange was depressing, with both sides reduced to quoting Jane Austen. Johnston needs reminding we are in a world of stark dualities, good and evil, compassion and cruelty, and, yes, liberal democracy and various forms of often brutal autocracy (and Trumpian shades inbetween). We can take nothing for granted. Public opinion does need to engage, whether it likes it or not.

Both the Economist (23rd January) and TLS (8th January) have featured a new book, ‘Out of the Ordinary’, by Marc Stears, which doesn’t shy away from voters’ disdain for politics and politicians. On the one hand we’ve the ‘technocrats’ of the Blair/Cameron era, on the other the ‘ideologues’ and zealotry of the Labour left. In both cases it’s ‘direction by others’. (Brexit has landed us instead with the zealotry of the Tory right, and their market obsessions.)

Stears argues for another approach, ‘the politics of the ordinary’. He likes the JB Priestley of ‘English Journey’. Nothing sentimental. Ditto George Orwell. We’re reminded of the Orwell aphorism that ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’. Community engagement is fundamental to the picture, but I’d argue it’s not enough. Nor is the top-down, vote-buying capital investment the Tories talk about.

A genuine change of direction won’t come about by asserting that good sense and communitarian spirit will somehow win out in the end. But it would be helped by connecting ordinary folk, the you and me, and the next road, and the estate beyond the main road, with the economic and business as well as the social life of a community.

It would require a revival of a style of local government and local engagement that underpinned our politics until quite recent times. It would also involve short as well as long supply lines. Local suppliers employing local people to provide goods produced at a local level, alongside local services. Creating a landscape, a literal landscape, of SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises, with government money supporting local business in a way people can connect to.  

It’s a direction of travel, not an easy answer. And it doesn’t discount the need for political and economic expertise, elites if you will. But it does require, and here I’m with Stears, that elites aren’t self-referential and self-serving, that they’re always connected, and don’t automatically renew.

I’m not arguing we turn our backs of the global world, or that we shouldn’t trade with Japan or South Korea or even China, but we do need a fundamental shift in the balance.

In this context I can’t let Freya Johnson get away with her ridiculous statement that ‘indifference [to the business of government] isn’t necessarily something to be lamented. It might even be strength’.

A few old-style ‘tribunes of the people’ might help. Marcus Rashford as he might be in a few years time. Trade unionists, remember Ernie Bevin and Jim Callaghan, brought hard experience from street and factory floor to government. It’s not so easy these days, but it’s that kind of connection from the street level via councils and other assemblies right up to parliament and the Cabinet that we need. I’m not against the occasional toff – we just need to mix them up with a few folk who’ve cut their teeth at a local level, and can bring a certain street-fighting capability to the business of government.

The obfuscations of 24-hour news, the miseries of Murdoch and Fox Media, the oddities of the Daily Mail – we have to do better. We thought the half-truths of social media were bad enough. Then came alternative truths, with conspiracy theories hot on their heels. We need an entirely different route, and disengagement Freya-Johnston-style from the process would be utterly foolish.

She’s an easy target, Freya Johnston, and I should dwell on her. Best to end by repeating that Orwell aphorism, ‘to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.

Orwell in our own time

‘Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest.’ (A quote from Orwell’s essay, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941).

We ask the same question today. And too often come up with the same answer.

And we’ve Orwell on the subject of Boys’ Weeklies (a remarkable essay from 1940), which pumped into boys ‘the conviction that … there is nothing wrong with laissez-faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern that will last forever’.

So what indeed is new. We have to assume, to judge from their actions, that the current crop of right-wing Tories grew up reading similar material.

I enjoyed Wizard and Hotspur and Eagle and the like as a child. I did absorb creaky ideas of Empire, but happily it was Roy of the Rovers (front pages of Tiger magazine) who was my hero.

Though, come to think of it, Orwell wasn’t too keen on football … The Moscow Dynamos team had just visited the UK. This was 1945. He hoped we’d send a second-rate team to Moscow that was sure to be beaten, and wouldn’t represent Britain as a whole. ‘There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.’

He got this one wrong. An introduction to Marcus Rashford might have helped him.

But, football apart, he usually gets it right. He set himself a high standard, not least in language itself. ‘What above all is important is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way round.’  (Politics and the English Language, an essay from 1946.) He put down six ground rules, one of which is ‘never use a long word where a short one will do’, and another (and this one’s a serious challenge), ‘never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’

And his final ‘rule’: Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’ Orwell was writing in 1946. The war was over, but the totalitarian state still very much a reality.

He concludes: ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties …, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and murder respectable.’

Michael Gove take note. (I’m not, I should point out, accusing Michael Gove of murder…)

**

Zenpolitics – I argue in this blog for compassion, for seeing the other person’s point of view. Against anger and cynicism, as if they could be avoided by the exercise of good old English common sense – by following a few of Orwell’s rules.

But it’s not always so easy.

Read Orwell, and the anger is there, and all the more powerful for not being overt: ‘One thing that has always shown that the English ruling class is morally fairly sound, is that in time of war they are ready enough to get themselves killed.’

No longer. And how do we define ‘ruling class’ these days? By a readyness to shelter in tax havens, or on ocean-going yachts?

**

We have to take sides.

Our opponents are angry, we trade accusations. We will be flattened if we hold to the moral, un-confrontational high ground. We have simply to make our arguments better, and more cogent. We have to take sides.

How do we respond to China’s persecution of the Uighurs, its suppression of Hong Kong liberties  … to Huawei – partner or threat? … to our decline from being a key and influential operator within Europe to being a lackey of the USA … to indifference to Russian hacking … to the way ‘free trade’ arguments high-jacked Brexit … to the inadequacies of our response to Covid 19?

To focus on Covid – does it help to accuse? Yes, it does.  If we don’t have a ‘mission’ to investigate, then an investigation will not happen. (Or, as Boris Johnson would wish, we’ll have it a few safe years down the line. Preferably after the next election.) And anger will course come into play – linking tardiness of response and lack of preparation to the numbers of lives lost.

Mrs America, the splendid American TV series about Phyllis Schlafly and her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, features two of the great early advocates of feminism, Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) are debating on TV, and Friedan loses her cool. Steinem (Rose Byrne) had wanted to avoid confrontation, which she saw could work to Schlafly’s advantage – give her publicity. But Steinem came to realise that Friedan was right. The debate had to be polarised. You had to take sides.

We have, in the here and now, the ‘cancel culture’ debate, which is all about taking sides. Do we call out statue-retainers – or supporters of JK Rowling? Is now the time to strike out once and for all for the rights, the absolutely equal rights, in all areas of life, of black people and white people, and likewise for transgender rights? Many of us are in ‘take no prisoners’ mode.

It’s at this point in an argument that we wonder if we should step back. Maybe taking sides isn’t as easy as we thought. Anger generates resistance. We may believe in an outcome, but want to bring a wider public along with us.

How would Orwell have responded?  There’s a book to be written on that subject! By putting over facts and argument as clearly and cogently as possible – his starting-point in the ’30s and ’40s has to be our starting-point now.  We will know pretty quickly what side we’re on. 

How will they see us fifty years from now?

Impute a moral basis to society and you’re immediately on dangerous ground. If it’s hard to define morality in individuals how much harder is it to define morality in society. To keep the subject at a practical level I’m taking the UN declaration on human rights (see below) is a starting-point. But, as the issue of climate change exemplifies, it is only a starting-point. We have a responsibility to our own generations – but also to future generations.

American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in ‘Hope in the Dark’ (new edition 2016) asks ‘how human beings a half century or a century from now will view us … when climate change was recognised, and there was so much that could be done about it .. They may … see us as people who squandered their patrimony … regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.’

She may be right, but new generations have always had the ability to adapt to their circumstances. Their world is the ‘new’ normal. Radicals will challenge it, as ever. And conservatives defend, as if the world had always been this way.

We must always beware complacency. Politics (not society as while) has over the last forty years lost its moral narrative. So many would argue. Some on the political right would counter that society shouldn’t have a moral narrative: the market, the free market, is the best determinant of human fortunes, and the state should interfere in only the most minimalist of ways. This also includes any attempt at world governance, so the United Nations and its various agencies, the WHO and the like, will always be suspect.

The Preamble to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a reminder of how moral purpose was defined in 1948 – and a marker against which we can judge our present society.

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, … Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations

(NB The Preamble refers to ‘peoples’, not ‘nations’.)

Steven Pinker (psychologist, and author of ‘Enlightenment Now’, published in 2018) might not dissent, but he has an optimism which many of us wouldn’t share. He sees the progress in reducing inequality around the world (primarily in China and developing countries) as proof that moral purpose is still embedded in our society. Looked at in numerical terms there’s also been a massive reduction in violence (see ‘The Better Angels  of Our Nature’, published in 2011). This, he’d argue, is the working out of reason, the highest Enlightenment ideal.

There are powerful counter-arguments against both positions.  Inequality, and indeed poverty, and violence are still deep-woven into our society. Natural or man-induced calamities could have catastrophic consequences.

Reason, for Pinker, underpins progress and progress is essential, and sustainable. Take the environment as an example. He sees the damage done by carbon emissions, but the answer, he argues, is not to rail against consumption. Consumption is tied to many human goods, not least keeping cool in summer, and warm in winter. To quote from Andrew Anthony’s 2018 interview with Pinker in The Guardian, ‘how do we get the most human benefit with the least human damage’.

Pinker is right. We need, all of us, to take great care in lambasting consumption. Most people might well agree in principle, but demur when it affects them. We cannot avoid in society as currently constituted the kind of focus on science and technology, working in a capitalist context, that Pinker would advocate.

But how does Pinker imagine we got to where we are now? He rests too comfortably in the present. His argument for reason of necessity plays down the role the passions have played in driving social progress over the more than 250 years since the ‘Encyclopedie’ was published in 1750s France.

The old working class has to a great degree been ‘brought into the community – as voters, as citizens, as participants’. (See ‘Ill Fares The Land’, by the historian, Tony Judt, 2010) We didn’t get there simply by the exercise of reason. We avoided revolution, in Western Europe, but not by much. Post-war society addressed the five wants (squalor, want, ignorance, disease, and idleness) highlighted in 1942 by William Beveridge head on. But we’re now faced with what Judt described as ‘the social consequences of technological change’, as the nature of work changes radically. Judt was prescient. The historian, Peter Hennessy, has recently put forward five wants for a post-Covid times: solving social care, social housing, technical education, climate change, artificial intelligence.

Finding answers will require passion and moral purpose, and the application of enlightened and far-sighted ideas. Consumption will not get us there. (Though high levels of consumption are imperative if we’re to keep the economy firing at the level it will need to do if goals are to be met. High ideals, in the old phrase, butter no parsnips.)

Yes, capitalism will drive the foreseeable future as it has the recent past. (How it might be reconstituted is a whole other subject.) But it will challenged by, and ultimately will have no choice but to come to terms with, crises of inequality, population, resource exploitation and climate which could spell the world’s demise.

Pinker is not wrong: we have made progress in the context of human values and living conditions. But we are also radically dis-connecting from the natural world, changing permanently our ways of communicating, and our environment. We are heading into territory we don’t understand. We may or may not have the wherewithal to deal with this new dispensation when we get there. Dis-connect is high risk. Having the wherewithal doesn’t mean it will in any sense be a good place.

Science in this sense cannot be morally neutral. And does sometimes get on a roll, and head in directions which are high risk.  The theory of evolution took on a life of its own. The splitting of the atom opened a Pandora’s box we have no way of closing. Neuroscience and AI are working in tandem toward higher forms of intelligence which may yet radically change who we are as human beings. *

Rebecca Solnit imagined an observer in fifty tears time who is very much a replica of a typical individual in our own time. But we may be moving into very different spaces by that time.

Back to the UN Charter and its focus on ‘the dignity and worth of human person’. We vest in them specific meanings which we cannot take for granted.

—- —- —-

* The Economist, referring to academics who worry about existential risk, which could be super-eruptions, climate collapse, geomagnetic storms and the like, comments that they ‘frequently apply a time-agnostic version of utilitarianism which sees “humanity’s long-term potential” as something far grander than the lives of billions on Earth today: trillions and trillions of happy lives of equal worth lived over countless millennia to come’.   The Economist is referring specifically to Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute.  We should indeed be engaged deeply  in such matters. But while doing so let’s never forget – the worth and the moral worth of each individual in the here and now has to be our starting-point.

Distant rooftops

I watched Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats last night, via YouTube and The Show Must Go On.  I loved it – for its music, its singing, dancing, choreography, characterisation. The whole things knocked me out.

I’m taking it as my stepping-off point on a very different subject. From musical theatre to hard-core political theatre.

There’s a revealing short article, part of a feature on trade, by Liz Truss (Minister for Distant Rooftops) in the current edition of Prospect.

She highlights the many long international supply chains ‘with little resilience to shocks’. The answer is, she believes, ‘not isolation and self-sufficiency – neither of which are credible in the interdependent world we live in. Instead we should broaden our range of trading relationships, so we are not limited to just one country, bloc or continent. We can then begin to achieve the kind of diverse supply chains that will safeguard us against future crises.’

This is what you’d expect from one of the authors of that cheerful libertarian document, Britannia Unchained, and trailblazer of the dream world of Global Britain.

(I’m reminded of Dick Whittington, a cat from another time and place, seeking his fortune – but this time in China.)

I’d like to pitch against that, as a down-home example, Preston’s policy of prioritising local suppliers. Two radically different paradigms. Preston’s is compatible with global trading relationships. But not with a libertarian free-market paradigm, whereby you source the cheapest goods and services, regardless of origin. Boris Johnson has indeed singled-out Preston for back-handed praise: recognising its success but making it clear it isn’t the way forward for the country.

(Boris, our absentee prime minister: ‘Whatever time the deed took place,/Macavity wasn’t there!’ Only, in Boris’s case, he too often hasn’t been there in the first place.)

It should be self-evident, but sadly isn’t to the current Cabinet, that local and international need to work in tandem.

Diversified supply chains, even if they are achievable in Truss’s romanticised world, will not safeguard us against future crises. The further we reach beyond Europe, and the more we’re exposed to issues of distance and transport, and all the problems that arise from political and military conflict, the higher the levels of risk.

The latest edition of The Economist is on the same page, though not quite the same tack, as I am: ‘The pandemic will politicise travel and migration and entrench a bias towards self-reliance. This inward-looking lurch will enfeeble the recovery, leave the economy vulnerable and spread geopolitical instability.’

No-one is arguing against global trade. The reverse. Pursue it as hard as we can. But it’s essential we secure our base, and that is our local and national economies – and indeed European economies. That need not be ‘an inward-looking lurch’.

I shouldn’t push parallels with Cats too far. But – secure your own rooftop, then your wider patch. Don’t rely on Mr Mistoffelees, aka Dom Cummings, to magic your way out of trouble.

An obsession with global trade is especially bizarre from a government which secured its election on the basis of an appeal to the country’s insular instincts. But that’s taking us back to old arguments.

‘… a new day will begin,’ as Elaine Page sings. It won’t come the way we’re going now.

 

 

Big ideas for the future

There are big ideas about the future out there, about seizing the moment – now is the time for radical change. Two of many examples:

The Committee on Climate Change would like the much lower carbon emissions during lockdown as a stepping off point. And Wolfgang Munchau argues in The Spectator for a bout of creative destruction. Letting ‘failing’ industries and businesses go to the wall.

The aviation industry would be in the firing line on both counts. We’ve already seen Flybe go the wall. And Virgin withdrawing from Gatwick, while BA has stated that ‘there is no certainty as to when or if these [Gatwick] services can or will return’.

Nick Timothy in his new book, ‘Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism’ (reviewed in the London Review of Books by Colin Kidd),  has a different take. Both Boris Johnson and Timothy ‘would claim to want to revamp the interest of the British economy in the interests of workers as well as bosses’. That is indeed very much the mandate on which the current government was elected. But creative destruction can’t take account of workers’ interests. So we’ve a clear and present conflict here.

The Thomas Cook collapse was a recent example. How many businesses, I wonder, would be allowed to go the wall? How much unemployment could the government countenance? Where would the new jobs, many if not most at the high-tech end of the spectrum, be located?

Munchau damns the EU for being ‘good at protecting existing interests’, and for ‘stifling innovation in the process’. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) would hold back ‘an unparalleled opportunity for the artificial intelligence industry’. Again, we’ve a conflict – between the interests of the wider public and an open-field approach to AI.

We owe the term ‘creative destruction’ to the economist Joseph Schumpeter. It is in the very nature of enterprise and capitalism. New businesses opening up new territory. Old businesses go the wall, and workers lose their jobs.

But Munchau and his like treat creative destruction as a gospel. Likewise commentators in the Telegraph. Brexit is the great new opportunity to throw off fetters. New businesses will rise up and even as the world turns in on itself we will find major new markets which will transform our economy. The theory is excellent. The practical outcome is likely to be disastrous.

What I would like to see is a new dispensation at a European level. Retaining data privacy. But encouraging innovation – with new market opportunities open to all member states. For the UK radical approaches to innovation are far more likely to work out operating at a European level than worldwide. For Europe and the EU trading relationships are in place. On our own we’ll be one amongst a plethora of countries potentially pursuing radical business ideas, and it won’t be easy to stand out from the crowd.

Munchau fears that the EU will put constraints on, for example, an innovation fund he’d like to see set up. He may, or may not, be right. That indeed is the challenge for the EU. I don’t want to re-fight Brexit here. But I do want to see punctured some of the pie-in-the-sky hopes that some, including Munchau, have for a WTO (World Trade Organisation)-rules post-Brexit world.

Above all, his hope that UK industry unshackled from the EU and newly ‘energised’ will finally break out of the cycle of low productivity. This involves a multitude of presuppositions. If we do break out it certainly won’t be because we’ve waved a Brexit magic wand. 

The assumption now is that with an economy in crisis we’re already halfway to a new radical dispensation. But this isn’t like World War Two. People will be expecting their old jobs back, and government won’t be wanting to have them as a drain on resources any longer than it can help it.

My gripe against Nick Timothy is another one, an old one. He’s a Brexit go-it-aloner. The enemy: ultra-liberals and international elites. (‘Citizens of nowhere’, the phrase with which he landed Theresa May, he now claims refers to that elite – not to Remainers. If that’s the case he didn’t tell Theresa.)  Let the new Tory party identify with the working class, not assume that everyone’s aspiration is to rise out of it. It’s ordinary folk who should call the tune. I’ll go along with him on that. (With strong reservations about how opinion is manipulated.) Cameron conservatism assumed people would live with the elitism implicit in its attitudes. Brexit proved they won’t.

His book was written before the Covid crisis but let’s assume that he too sees big opportunities now post-crisis. They will bring a new statist, big-spending, austerity-a-dirty-words approach to the economy. Social conscience won’t be a dirty word. But social conservatism will be the dominant mood. A closed-world mentality at one level, Global Britain at another. How this will play out, who knows. The Conservative party has an old and dreadful habit of equating its own interest with that of the nation. But which interest? The market economy and the old Ayn Randian ideas, on the one hand, pitched against the big state of Joseph Chamberlain and his avatar, Nick Timothy, on the other.

Chamberlain was the great advocate of imperial preference. That idea is still there. A touch of the old divine right. But post-Brexit it will be a hot sweaty world in the engine room. We no longer rules the seas. And big ideas too easily run aground.

Big state will be important post-crisis. So too big ideas, big innovation. Building out from a world which may or may not be changed forever. But if we imagine we can do this alone, without Europe, we’re badly mistaken. Yes, we could become a fifty-first state. Some may prefer this. But going it alone should never be an option. We need that agreement with the EU by 31st December.

Munchau argues that ‘compared to the great lockdown, the effect of a WTO Brexit would be small’. True, but it assumes people at large will be prepared to accept that the economy doesn’t get back to its pre-virus levels. That they won’t mind us limping along for a while, in the vague hope of a new wider prosperity further down the line. It looks to me dangerously like using the virus as a cover for the economy under-performing.

We’re on dangerous ground here. But an economy and overseas trade operating on WTO rules looks to be what we will have unless a new wisdom prevails before the end of the year.

A great sadness will be that we miss the great opportunity of working with like-minded people across Europe to build a better post-Covid world. Anyone who imagines a sudden tiger-economy-style breakthrough is simply in cloud-cuckoo-land.

Zen and democracy

How might Zen, and Zen practice, connect with democracy? 

Let Zen be clarity, clear-thinking. That space, in Zen terms, that original space, before thoughts crowd in, and one thought leads to another, and back, and tangentially to others. We lose track, surrender judgement, make easy moral judgements, and take the short cuts that characterise a cynical mind. Hamlet had it right: ‘… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

Zen, and Buddhism more widely, puts other people on a par with self. Recognises compassion as our pre-eminent instinct. And once you escape self, and all the anxieties that attach, something akin to joy is revealed as innate. Not a manic or euphoric joy. Not a high, which presupposes a low to follow. You don’t have to badger yourself into being positive. It comes naturally

It’s Sunday morning. So let the sermon end here.

How might Zen connect with politics? Must it be political? First and foremost, Zen is democratic. It consults the interests of everyone. Democracy so defined is not the least-worst form of government, but as near to a miracle as you can get. And it is our ultimate challenge. How can we build out from family and locality, where we meet and consult and agree (that of course is a challenge in itself!), to national and international platforms? That will always be our challenge, renewed with every generation, with no neat Social Darwinian conclusion. No paradise, no for-all-time solution, awaits us. But it takes out our biggest enemies – the cynical mind and the lazy mind.

They are not always easy to spot. Julian Fellowes, who we all love as a conjuror of a romanticised past (and I’ll be watching Belgravia tonight), had a rant recently about how ‘the BBC, the National Theatre, the National Trust … have all been speaking with one voice. They are the left-of-centre metropolitan elite.’ ‘A kind of Hampstead voice.’

So easily does good sense get dismissed. But he claims not to take sides in these social battles. ‘I just watch people behave and how they respond… enjoy watching … human situations play out’. So, it seems, our lot takes sides, and they don’t. What depresses me is that Fellowes is a Tory peer. We need Tory politicians of the old school, who engage with ideas. Fellowes too casually allows the new-wave of doctrinaire small-state Tories take over the field. (One of the things that impressed me reading Peter Hennessy’s Never Again, about the early 1960s, is the way Harold Macmillan engaged with issues, and brought to bear the kind of intellect so obviously lacking now.)

Small state – that takes me back to my last post. We’ve a new Labour leader, with commitments to re-nationalising. He may or may not be right. Hard-core free-market economics, notionally ‘rational’ markets, matched against the beneficent hand of the state, which may, or may not, be the slippery slope which Friedrich Hayek warned against in The Road to Serfdom. It may just be that the way forward is that accursed ‘Hampstead’ weighing of arguments, seeking out a middle ground, which allows the wisest decisions – whereby, maybe, we re-nationalise railways, or in some way ‘re-involve’ the state, and subsidise the Royal Mail, but allow public utilities to stay private, under closer supervision. Or more or less, or all or none, of the above.

Big state, or small state. Both are predicated on dominant leadership. Which isn’t the same as strong leadership, which every democracy needs. British democracy is accountable democracy. That’s why it has inspired the world. I read an interesting article (Hal Foster, London Review of Books) recently about Albert Jarry’s wild and subversive play, Ubu Roi. Forgive the Freudian references. I liked it because it took me close to the dangers a cult of the leader can pose for democracy.

Ubu is ‘a travesty of sovereignty… both father and baby, both sovereign and beast; he represents the authoritarian leader as monster infant…akin to the “primal father”, the almighty patriarch who is shame-free to boot … we submit to the leader as authority and envy him as outlaw. Trump is one part Pere Ubu, one part primal father; so are Duterte, Bolsonaro, Putin…’  I’d add Xi Jinping. Boris needs to be wary he doesn’t head down the same path.

Mention of Boris reminds me of his alter ego, Dom Cummings. I’m a believer in disruption. Climate change, conservation of natural habitats and water supply, farming methods, demographics, all need radical and change-making thinking. Such matters are secondary for Cummings. He loves disruption for its own sake, and imagines he has answers where no-one else does. Pride and presupposition are dangerous attributes. Backed by big money and a loud-mouthed media they can turn a democracy. And vested interests then seek to ensure the turning is entrenched, and becomes a new normal.

And finally – the virus. How do you deal with pandemics? We were, arguably, too slow to respond in this country, and thousands of unnecessary deaths may be the consequence of that. The decisions government made were ‘science-based’. But other nations have interpreted the ‘science’ differently and acted more quickly. How much did politics influence the science? Did an instinct natural to this government cause it to delay intervention, ‘with the idea (quoting David Runciman) that hasty government intervention is often counter-productive’. This may, or may not, make for an interesting, and important, discussion in future.

Over the pond we have Trump, worried that damage to the economy could damage his re-election chances. Democratic governors are being pilloried as too cautious. In this country there is a high degree of unanimity about putting public health first. In the USA the virus has become just another part of the Great Divide.

If I wanted to cheer myself up writing this – cheer you up – I’ve failed. Democracy isn’t an easy path. And you can’t simply turn over a stone and find joy bubbling away underneath. But putting the other guy first,  looking for the common ground rather than pandering to someone’s personal ambition – they are useful starting-points.

The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton – and the UK

‘…the best commentary on the principles of government ever written’.  (Thomas Jefferson)

That marvellous musical, Hamilton, has taken me back to the Federalist Papers, not normally the subject for an Englishman. They are remarkable in every way – high principle and skilled argument, without any apparent pressure of faction or dominant individuals (though that was there of course), arguing for a sustainable and, for the standards of its time, remarkably representative republic.  The very nature of the post-revolutionary America was at stake: a nascent republic pitched against a powerful anti-federalist movement.

There were extraordinary men to meet the challenge, not least Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, the two principle authors of the Papers.

I quote passages from the Papers below. They are desperately relevant, and readily overlooked, in the USA today. They are also directly relevant to the UK.

Hamilton asks at the beginning of Federalist 1 ‘whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice [my italics], or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force’.

Madison in Federalist 10 argues for a representative body, defined as a republic, as appropriate ‘for  refining and enlarging  the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations’.

What has suffered terribly over the last three and a half years in the UK has been the popular right to representation. We have been obliged by a rogue referendum to marry an emotion-driven and ill-argued and mis-represented referendum with the ordinary process of representative and consultative democracy. The two cannot and will not go together. Support for referenda by the leaders of political parties was predicated on the inevitable victory of their point of view. They were wrong. In the language of the Federalist Papers there were factions at work, not least the popular press and rogue elements of one political party, who demonstrated that faction can stir up a population, and win the day.

None of this is to argue against the real resentments over inequality and alienation felt by wide sections of the population. Representative government has been found wanting – failed in the essential requirement of engaging and looking after the interests of all sections of the population. But it is for representative government to reform itself. There is no other way.

Brexit itself, the severance at worst, long-term disruption at best, of our links with Europe, is a consequence of that failure of government. But in no way can it be an answer to that failure. But to argue this is not the purpose of this post.

I will let the passages from the Federalist Papers speak for themselves.

(Federalist 1, author Alexander Hamilton)

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficiency of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America … It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.

(Federalist 10, author James Madison)

From this view of the subject it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction … such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention …

A republic, by which I mean a government in which the scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect, and promises the cure for which we are seeking…

The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which the latter may be extended.

The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

(Madison’s second point of difference, highlighting the benefits of a larger over a smaller republic, with the representation of a wide range of interests and points of view, and the difficulty therefore of any faction in disrupting government, is not directly my subject here.  Though always relevant.)

Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019 – part two

Back to Cheltenham. It’s now the second weekend and I’ve returned for a few more events, including (and all referenced below):

Simon Schama (as himself)

Booker Prize 2019  shortlist preview

The Times Debate: ‘The best and worst prime ministers’

The Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?

India Now

I’m staying with my earlier theme of language. I have no choice after listening to Simon Schama (promoting his new book of newspaper and magazine articles, from the last few years,  mainly from the FT, entitled ‘Wordy’). He has, as he put it, ‘always loved literary abundance’. He quoted Erasmus, and a book which had escaped my knowledge, ‘De Copia’ (of copiousness), from 1512. Think of words ‘surging in a golden stream, overflowing with an abundance of words and thoughts’. With the qualification that all this abundance should not be confused with’ futile and amorphous verbosity’.  Richness of imagination and elasticity of argument should be the key. 

A strict Zen approach might argue for less is more! But I love listening to Schama, and there’s not a word wasted. He loves lists, and they take you down surprising byways. (For example, the multitude of colours available to an artist’s palette, and their provenance.) Explore these byways, and you learn. Stuff you don’t need to know, or didn’t think you did. Schama has a facility of memory, and a certainty of recall, and a sureness of argument that is unusual. Maybe your dad reciting Shakespeare and readings Dickens to a young child helps a little.

Someone with a similar facility mentioned by Schama is Salman Rushdie. Rushdie’s love of lists and popular culture can wear you down, but, again, nothing is wasted.

Another event at the festival, the following day, was the Booker Prize 2019 shortlist preview, and Rushdie is on the shortlist. His new novel has a 1950s American quiz show as its setting-off point. Schama chucks in a few references to popular music, but high art is more his focus. On Rembrandt he is peerless.

Talking of lists, Lucy Ellmann’s Booker-shortlisted book is ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, and that is one long list, each item beginning with ‘The fact is that…’, all one sentence over 1020 pages plus. Surprisingly easy to read, and non-repetitive, but a 1020 pages list is a stretch…

But I’m one day ahead. After Schama I had one of those events that you don’t have to go to. But it sounded fun. ‘The best and worst prime ministers.’ Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist (who I used to read before they put the Times online behind a firewall), Anthony Seldon, biographer of every prime minister since the year dot, including Mrs May, and Deborah Mattinson, one-time pollster for Gordon Brown, and now running ‘Britain Thinks’. And what does it think? How do we define leadership – dominant, assertive, quick-witted, on the one hand, listening, engaged, persuasive, on the other – these may not quite be her categories. But close. You can place PMs on a spectrum extending between the two. Churchill comes out top as best PM, of course, Attlee, in the second camp, not far behind. Blair doing well pre-Iraq. Brown, as Anthony Eden, cursed by an over-long wait, and an urge to make an impact when he finally took on the role. The worst – Goderich, who cried when making his resignation speech after seven months in office. Bonar Law.

Gladstone got a mention – but what about Disraeli? The original one-nation Tory. Jewish, becoming PM against all the odds. The great sparring partner of Gladstone.

What wasn’t directly addressed was the effect that the pursuit of power, and the exercise of power, has on people. Has on prime ministers. Success in politics has a short timespan, it’s normally a response to events – to war, to the unions (in Thatcher’s case), maybe a new vision which the public buys into (Blair). Cameron might have refashioned the Tory party had the imperatives of austerity (as he understood them) not got in the way. Callaghan, the last of the old-school trade unionists politicians, wise, avuncular, but brought down by the unions. Harold Wilson, presiding over a powerful cabinet, but sterling was his undoing, and it’s his ministers who these days get the accolades.

I missed an intriguing panel discussion on PMQ – prime ministers’ questions. The worst, of British politics, or the best? Adversarial, a bear pit … but also a game, and a good one, played within the rules.  But now played out for media soundbites.  And, back to my theme of language…

… what of a PM who uses terms likes ‘surrender’, to the EU, and ‘collaboration’, with an enemy, the EU, and sees no issue with the glib use of wartime language. In the way that Trump uses terms like ‘traitor’ and ‘spy’ of his opponents in the impeachment proceedings. This crosses a threshold.

The one-time (and still?) journalist who is happy to mis-speak, and shrug it off, thinks he can still play the same game in high politics, as PM, no less.

Not only have we lost integrity – we’ve also lost oratory. Does that matter? Back to Schama. The ability to use language, to inspire, and at the same time to put over arguments cogently, and honestly. Passion and intelligence. Churchill had it. Michael Foot had it: you listened, you might not agree – but you listened. Where are they now? The orators. The Obamas. Do we have any? It’s impressive to strut up and down a stage, speaking without notes, but it’s a feat of memory, not oratory. Parliament should be a place for oratory. Maybe not PMQ – but PM and opposition leaders who could rise above point-scoring – that would be a transformation.

Inbetween all this I tried an oddball item. There are many such at Cheltenham. ‘The role of the poetry critic.’ I am no wiser.

Back to politics, and our big event on the Saturday, the Times Debate, ‘Is the party over?’ A pollster from Populus, Andrew Copper, placed parliamentary seats on a grid, with income levels one axis, and social attitudes from liberal to small-c conservative on the other. The analysis was intriguing. ‘Recent polling has shown that voters identify more strongly as Remainers or Leavers than with the two main parties.’ The Tories are now chasing the lower-income socially-conservative vote, they’re on Brexit Party territory, Farage territory. They may win traditional Labour seats, with new-style more socially-conservative MPs – and where then the more open social agenda Johnson talks about. Five, make it six, parties are in contention – more if we include Northern Ireland.

This was simply the best panel discussion I’ve been to – at Cheltenham or Hay. Chaired by Justin Webb, with acuity and affability. Philip Collins provided perspective, and Jess Phillips and Rory Stewart were the politicians. Jess Phillips out of tune with her leadership, but in tune with her constituents in Birmingham. And open and honest because that’s the only way she knows. Leave her party? She’ll hang on in there, hoping it will switch back from its Momentum ways to something still socialist but within the old parameters of parliamentary discourse. Rory Stewart has given up on his party. He’s now standing as an independent candidate for London mayor. Intelligent and totally on the ball. And damn it, like Jess, likeable. And like Jess, not playing games with the audience, and trying to be something he isn’t. As either Andrew or Philip remarked, he’ll get a ton of second preferences, and may win on a run-off as the second-favourite candidate. Sadiq Khan is weighed down by Corbin as party leader, the Tory candidate by Boris. Rory is a free agent. (It seems I’m on first-name terms with everyone!)

As Jess pointed out, she couldn’t do anything like that. Abandon party, stand as an independent. Rory has the dosh. He’s an old Etonian. If he may/may not have the money, but he has the connections. He can build an online base with ease. Jess has no such advantages, save for her political and personal skills. She literally couldn’t afford to re-invent herself.

As someone said – it would be good to see the two of them in the same cabinet. Sanity would prevail. One hopes.

Language – focus on language – in life and politics. The ability to express yourself cogently and honestly. We all fall short.  The danger is now that were all so inured to misuse and abuse of language that we go along with it. With Boris, a small-scale operator, for now, and maybe always too innocent – and Erdogan, Modi, Trump on a rising scale. And Xi Jinping at the top, with ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ now forming the preamble to China’s constitution.

That takes me to Narendra Modi and a panel discussion on India, entitled India Now, chaired by the director, Robin Niblett, of the think-tank, Chatham House. My friend, Hazel, wa,s in the meantime, enjoying the ‘Sunday Times Culture Discussion with Andrew Lloyd Webber’. Would have been – and was, I gather – fascinating. But politics came first.

The tenor of the discussion was well-caught by the title of book by one of the panel, Kapil Komireddi, ‘The Malevolent Republic’. Modi didn’t come off well. A Hindu nationalist wanting to re-shape India as a Hindu state, creating a hostile environment for dissent, building a personality cult, undermining the open democracy which India has, despite its size and convoluted history, managed to maintain, revoking the status of Jammu and Kashmir as a province, an unconstitutional act, upping the stakes in the hostilities with Pakistan. Playing the populist, embracing, literally, Donald Trump.

It would have been good to have someone on the panel just a little bit more onside with Modi: the growth rate is still 5%, could go higher, he’s strong in infrastructure projects … And we should remember, India will soon be, at 1.4 billion people, the most populous nation on the planet. Put against that – the question I’d meant to ask and didn’t – will India be able to feed itself in future, and water itself – will the rains and aquifers hold out?

Where are we, the UK, in all this? We were advised by the panel that, yes, there’s still a kind of fondness for things British in India, but the idea that the old ties of Empire would help us ease our way to post-Brexit deals with India is patently absurd.

I’ve hardly mentioned Brexit. The festival by and large avoided it. Negotiations this week may or may not conclude with a deal, which may or may not pass parliament. And that is all there is to say.

Cheltenham has been a wonderful few days. It rained and it poured, and the tents fluttered in the occasional big gust. But the place was teeming. And we had fun.