Posts Tagged ‘capitalism’

Lea Ypi: Free

July 11, 2022

     I have a rather strange relationship with Albania, and I have never been there. Some forty or more years ago, during the days of would-be socialist nations, I discovered the nightly English propaganda broadcasts on Radio Tirana, which were preceded by the strident call-sign With Pickaxe and Rifle, and always ended with the words, “Goodbye, dear listeners!” followed by a rousing version of the Internationale. The broadcasts were so over-the-top that they caused much amusement. And there was the Albanian Shop, purveyors of propaganda and the party daily from a basement shop in a Covent Garden back street. Then I discovered the astonishing novels of the only Albanian novelist I’m aware of, Ismail Kadare. You will find reviews of some in these pages, if you care to look.

I think I’ve also read some travel writing about the country. So this book, about growing up and coming of age in Albania at the time of the transition from the age of socialism to the age of capitalism, caught my attention, and it’s both an interesting and a disturbing read. It seems to have received many positive reviews, not all from readers who seem to have understood the complexity or the subtlety of what appears to be Lea Ypi’s message.

The first part, which is at times annoying to read as it’s from a child’s perspective and written in the present, describes the last days of the old regime and the demonstrations and transition to something new and different; the second part is after the change and the attempts, in many different ways, to come to terms with it. It is strange to read of a young person and her family discovering ‘our’ world, the ‘real’ world, learning its ways for the first time and interacting with it, as well as gradually discovering truths which had been concealed in her past, in many ways and for all sorts of reasons… the importance of ‘biography’ which only becomes clear as the author learns about her family’s real past and bourgeois origins.

The weirdness of the country’s isolation is striking, as is the innocence of an 11 year-old and her perspective and the lack of it, from inside the regime. There is a sense of utter confusion as changes begin, there are no anchors, there is no reliability in anything: the craziness is portrayed from within, with a naive yet questioning tone behind it all; there are serious potential consequences if a child is overheard saying the wrong thing. We can see how people within the system came to think, to rationalise and to explain things to themselves, and the compromises they had to make to remain safe. It’s a bizarre, looking-glass world that makes perfect sense when seen only from within, exactly like our own, if you just stop to think about it.

The author’s tragedy is that she, as an 11 year-old, believes in that now crumbling world, in which it seems that the adults were only going through the motions. The consequences of ‘freedom’, ‘shock therapy’ are truly awful; huge numbers try to emigrate. They were heroes when they were fleeing ‘communism’, but fleeing capitalism they are an unwanted nuisance. You see how millions of innocent and naive people were fleeced by capitalist plunderers, taken in and fleeced by spivs because they were naive and gullible; all sorts of Western plagues and diseases – like AIDS – arrive: we see the meaning of ‘freedom’, and its price.

The author is older now, and she reflects on the new, and different, dilemmas those close to her are faced by. Her family are among the hundreds of thousands ruined by various pyramid selling schemes: how were they to know? And then there is a civil war, frightening from a young person’s point of view but which I remember hearing almost nothing about.

It’s a thought-provoking book, a challenging book, which faces us with the two sorts of freedom we are never really aware of here in the rich West, freedom from and freedom to: each has its (very different) price.

Karel Čapek: War With The Newts

April 28, 2021

     I came back to this well over forty years after first discovering it, and it had me realising just how much a small country – that was Czechoslovakia – has punched above its weight in literary terms in the twentieth century. As well as Čapek’s RUR which I wrote about here, there was Franz Kafka (although I know he wrote in German) and the incomparable Jaroslav Hašek in the inter-war years, and then during the communist era the country produced writers such as Milan Kundera, Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Klima and the wonderful Josef Skvorecky.

War With The Newts is a curious piece, a mixture of many genres, science fiction, satire, mock documentary and a lot more besides. Initially it has a Conradian feel to it, partly because of the Java setting and the sea-captain who starts the whole thing off by discovering an intelligent race of newts who can learn, and who boost his wealth by fishing for pearls for him, in exchange for things they want. The captain is a well-developed character, who tells a humorous and rambling tale about how he has taught, trained and armed the newts as he develops trade with them; he eventually makes a deal with a rich businessman and we are on the road to disaster…

The story is interspersed with all manner of pseudo-scientific documentation, and news reports, board meetings and accounts of the greed of businessmen who ultimately end up selling the entire human race and its future in the quest for profit, in a version of capitalism that is as crazy as anything currently going on.

It becomes evident that the relationship between human businessmen and the newts is a replication of the slave trade of past centuries, as a craze develops for building new continents and land-masses to make money. Ultimately we move into similar territory to that which the author also explores in RUR: are the newts intelligent, human almost? Do they have rights? How ethical a species are we in the ways we treat them?

At this point the story does move quite definitively into satirical territory; it is evident that despite the profits to be made, humans are creating a problem for the future. Eventually there is confrontation: the ever-expanding newt population needs more shallow sea in which to live and this is directly in conflict with what humans want, so war ensues. It helps to remember that Čapek was writing at the time when Hitler was demanding more lebensraum for the German people…

Of course, as profit is to be made from selling machinery and weaponry to the newts, businessmen continue to do so, and the newts rapidly defeat human attempts at limiting and containing them, and begin systematically to demolish entire countries and continents to create their living space. And even when there are peace negotiations between the two sides, it transpires that human beings represent the newts.

In the end, sadly, Čapek’s message is one that echoes today: human beings really aren’t a very intelligent species. There is no hope where there is greed, capitalism and profits for the few. Evidence of human stupidity abounds…

Manuel d’économie critique

March 11, 2017

rubon2669-948ffSome regular readers will know I read Le Monde Diplomatique, a left-wing French current affairs magazine whose awkward title hides a wealth of detailed commentary and analysis, and which has an English-language edition. Another thing the magazine does is publish occasional one-offs on specific themes, and this was one of them. It seems to be aimed at the equivalent of sixth-formers or undergraduates: it was quite a challenging read but very informative and had some excellent graphics.

As I’ve grown older I’ve noticed that what I read tends to fit in with my existing opinions, and this was no exception: it confirmed my long-held conviction that our economic system is utterly insane, and geared to helping a relatively small number of people to continue to grab the largest slice of the pie while the rest of us fight over the crumbs. What I get from reading things that chime in with my opinions is usually more evidence, as well as prompting to think more deeply about an issue.

The idea that economics is in any way a ‘science’ worthy to sit alongside fields like chemistry or physics is thoroughly debunked; we are regularly reminded that the ‘Nobel Prize’ for economics isn’t actually one of Alfred Nobel’s awards at all but a later invention by the Bank of Sweden who thought it would be a good idea to name their award ‘in honour of’ Nobel… Orthodoxies are evidenced, challenged and demolished in this excellent book. And it’s made clear how, increasingly, non-orthodox economists and their analyses are being squeezed out, excluded from academia, from media interviews and presentations by the current hegemonic neo-liberal orthodoxies. Indeed, recently economics students at the University of Manchester protested about the narrow range of what they were being taught.

The mantra of ever more growth being either possible or desirable is challenged, as is the myth of ‘green capitalism’; the myth of business as the creator of wealth is debunked, too, along with an examination of the negative aspects of charity and volunteer work.

I felt there were flaws in the work, though: it suffered from the currently common failing of trying to present every topic in a double-page spread, which meant that some key topics and ideas were insufficiently explored and explained. This led to it feeling rather ‘bitty’ at times. Does every text aimed at a school or college readership really need to have everything finely chopped for short attention-spans?

Reading the entire book does work on the macro level, though: so much of how the economy ‘works’ (ie is supposed to but doesn’t) is clearly contradictory, not making sense as a whole, and thus it becomes clearer exactly why we are in such a mess at the moment: there is nothing coherent about how the present system works at all, and why would there be when the system is basically snouts in the trough elbowing everyone else out of the way? What I finally learned and understood after many years was how the banking system, and money-creation system currently operates: clear explanations and excellent graphics helped here.

I wish the British press went in for publishing ventures like this one: the French do seem to believe in the mission to explain and inform citizens, and surely this can only be good in a democracy?

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