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Saturday 29 December 2012

Review: David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

I think this has to be my Book of the Year for 2012. It is extraordinary in its scope, lively and original in its treatment, and displays an open-minded radicalism in the conclusions it draws or suggests. There is so much here that I never knew and so much that I had never before thought about.

The Library of Congress catalogues its subject matter as "1 Debt - History. 2. Money - History. 3 Financial Crises - History." The evidence is drawn world-wide from archaeology,  the founding texts of the world's religions, anthropology, the work of economic historians and much more. There must be a life-time's reading distilled here. Credit and money emerge in the context of social organisations and political and religious power - and violence. They take different forms as their context changes. The starting point is what Graeber calls "baseline Communism":

the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost reasonable enough, the principle of 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs' will be assumed to apply (page 98)

From this context, systems of credit emerge with most people most of the time creditors and debtors. The formalisation of such credit arrangements into calculable balance sheets takes different forms but pretty soon gets mixed up with organisations of power, which create more-or-less permanently indebted classes of people. Religious thought takes many of its metaphors from this world of credit and debt: debt and sin are closely linked and redemption is both the forgiveness of debt and the forgiveness of sin.

Money comes later and in non-friendly contexts: you need money to trade with people you don't trust and who don't trust you. It spreads when rulers discover that they can create coinage to pay soldiers who are then able to buy from people they don't know and who may have cause not to like them. They simply trade with them. Money does not emerge from previous barter systems - Graeber is scathing about the fairy stories told in Economics textbooks - nor does it replace credit systems. It's a qualitatively different phenomenon.

Graeber is fascinating on the early history and on the empires which developed in India and China and later in the Islamic Middle East, and on the empires in Latin America destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

When it comes to later periods, his most insightful thinking is to distinguish sharply between free markets, both in goods and in labour, and capitalism. And his most challenging claim is that :

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labour. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery and "indentured service" (page 350)
Much of the later discussion hints at ways we should think about recent financial crises - about Greek debt and about mortgage repossessions, which in the long perspective Graeber adopts are very much repetitions of  stories already repeated  many times in history. But unlike a Marxist (say Terry Eagleton) who would point at his Book and say, "See, see Marx was RIGHT!" Graeber is both more the scholar and more the open-minded (liberal, anarchist) thinker who is always more interested in digging deeper than in announcing a final Truth.

At various points reading this book, I thought how much a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist would enjoy it. Feelings of indebtedness, of irredeemable sin and guilt, are things which lead individuals to the therapist's consulting room. Here we have such feelings set in the largest possible historical context.

And now, of course, I feel indebted to David Graeber ...

Thursday 20 December 2012

Review: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War

This book was originally published in 2005 with this American (Pegasus Books) edition appearing in 2007. I picked up a copy in a Bargain Bookstore. You can see why it might have been remaindered: though the binding and paper are of good quality, the text is reproduced by some kind of filmsetting and at times it wobbles disconcertingly.

It may also have been remaindered because it's not an exciting book. It's perfectly well-written but it's not much more than a solid military history of the three years 1918 - 20 narrating what happened on each of the (many) fronts between Bolshevik and White forces. There is no attempt to convey the feel of those years - the cruelty, the suffering, the sheer carelessness of human life - much of it simply continuing the story of World War One but now with civilians rather than uniformed soldiers as principal victims.

 In his Conclusion, Mawdsley (a Professor of History at Glasgow University) devotes a few pages to totalling up the deaths and injuries. Whenever you see a figure which says that soldiers were more likely to die of disease than wounds then you know are you looking at a conflict in which it was nightmarish to be involved.

The book has some use as a work of reference but since it is so much concerned with dates, it really should have included a time line Chronology as a separate Appendix.

As for Mawdsley's judgements, I found  most interesting the idea (picked up from Roy Medvedev) that had the Bolsheviks not introduced their Maximalist programme, but instead adopted something like the 1921 New Economic Policy back in 1918 and at the same time accepted the strength of the SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries] in rural areas, then they could have secured overwhelming popular support and much reduced the miseries of both the Civil War and of War Communism.

Monday 10 December 2012

Review: Douglas Smith, Former People

This is an important and interesting book. It focuses on just two Russian families (large clans, really) - the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns [Galitzines] - to tell the story of what happened to those Russian nobles who remained in Russia after 1917.  It is not a study of emigrés though they occasionally appear.

The best chapters are the early ones. Smith depicts a Nobility frustrated and disillusioned with Nicholas II - weak, incompetent, obnoxious. For the most part, the Nobility rallied to the Provisional Government after Nicholas's abdication. There was no serious movement to restore the Romanovs.

At the same time, the rural aristocracy was already under pressure from the peasantry. The peasants wanted land and, by 1917, they were willing to use any method to get it. In the year before the Bolshevik seizure of power, peasants were already burning, looting and killing in rural Russia - and rural Russia was most of Russia.

In response, the Provisional Government did not move fast enough. It made the mistake of pressing on with the unpopular war against Germany and it put off the question of Land Reform. But the peasantry was in no mood to "Wait for the Constituent Assembly". And the Provisional Government could not feed the cities.

During this period, violence was often extreme and deaths horrible - and it did not for the most part involve the Bolsheviks. As I read Smith, the Bolsheviks simply picked up and ran with the violent disorder of 1917, but channeling it and focusing it in the period of War Communism (beginning 1918 - beginning 1921).

Smith's narratives for the period of War Communism are some of the best parts of the book: there is detailed texture which gives a real sense of how the urban nobility began to be picked apart with arrests, executions, confiscations - and the rural nobility subjected to further - and now Bolshevik organised - repression. Likewise, Smith creates a vivid picture of what it was like to try to move about Russia - to escape from West to East, for example - during the period of War Communism when Reds and Whites and Czechs and psychopathic criminals like Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg all fought for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

From the beginning of the New Economic Policy [NEP] in 1921 until Stalin's consolidation of power at the end of the 1920s, the nobility in Russia enjoyed a period of respite - many of them finding jobs within the system and returning to former homes (or parts of homes). Their children began to orient themselves to the new order, not the old one.

But the 1930s brought renewed repression. Here Smith's chapters are less interesting because the story is less dramatic: it is about individuals being picked off, one by one, often repeatedly and eventually with fatal consequences whether before an execution squad or in the Gulag. By the end of the War, it is really all over for the nobility.

Despite his close focus on two families, Smith avoids sentimentality - as do most of his characters. I do have the feeling that there must have been more Bad Apples than he identifies - he has only one noble who denounces others to the Soviets and he has no plotters (perhaps there really were none). But these are quibbles in relation to a body of work which opens a new field in histories of the Russian Revolution.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Essay: Agnostics, Atheists and Abstainers - a case for Avoidance

This essay develops a line of thought mentioned but not developed in my review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic.

Teetotallers (sometimes called Total Abstainers) and Vegetarians are people who renounce something which they may well find attractive - in the case of alcoholics, too attractive. Though some vegetarians are repelled by the thought of eating dead animal flesh others - like Jonathan Saffran Foer - aren't. The smell of your barbecue wafting into their house triggers temptation not disgust.

I sometimes think of myself as abstaining from religion, both from belief and from practice. Some religious things I find repulsive but not all of them.

Start with practices. I won't attend an infant Christening. I think it's morally wrong - mildly abusive - to take your new born child and sign them straight up for something which ought to be a matter for considered choice.

I wouldn't attend the genital mutilation of an infant or a child, either, or a party to celebrate a mutilation. In fact, I think circumcisions - of both boys and girls - should be illegal. Children deserve state protection from such assaults on their bodies.

But I have always been willing to attend a church funeral service and, recently, I attended a church wedding. I wouldn't want either for myself but if other adults want such things, who am I to be the party pooper?

In terms of bodily mutilation, I am surprised when parents  want to pierce their infant children's ears. But since the result is reversible, I am not appalled by it in the way that a circumcision appalls me. I just think that babies and young children are such delightful creatures that I can't see why you would want to do anything other than take pleasure in them the way they are. They aren't toys and their bodies aren't yours. When a parent has to decide for their young child whether to allow (necessary or recommended) medical surgery, then I think they have a terrible decision to make.

What about Belief? My childhood experiences - I am talking about my mother - were of religious beliefs which were essentially punitive and which fed and watered eventually unbearable levels of guilt, anxiety,despair, melancholy. My mother's default state was to feel herself damned.

These were the kinds of belief into which it would have been easy to fall myself and from which I had - eventually - to make an effort to abstain. And I felt angry at the punitive religious culture, Victorian and Edwardian (my mother was born in 1907), which had burdened my mother for her whole life. The priests in black gowns who made it their business to induce such feelings in the vulnerable were to me loathsome creatures, monsters. They should be ostracised, put back in their boxes. The feelings have lasted a life time. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sucked up to the Pope sufficiently for him to deign to visit Scotland and England and when all the political class - without a single honourable exception - sucked up to him at Westminster, I just felt fury. Who is this man? A prissy professor who has dedicated his life to making things uncomfortable for those in his church who have tried to make it more humane.

I recall an occasion when a very troubled young woman, who you would have found coarse and aggressive and who would never have set foot in a church, confided to me that every night she prayed for those she cared about and for those who had harmed her (and they had certainly harmed her). It was a moving confession. It simply did not occur to me to play the Village Atheist. On reflection, I might have hoped that one day her troubles might retreat to such a degree that she was freed from the need for  fervent prayer. But that's all. What she did alone at night before sleeping caused no harm in the world. What she did had a dignity; it was honourable. There is nothing honourable about the Pope.

Religious organisations cause harm in the world. If a good God did exist, he would not wish us to believe in him any more. His name has been invoked to justify far too many crimes. The history of Catholicism is a history of  callousness and inhumanity, continuing to this day. You are a young woman miscarrying in a Galway hospital bed, the baby is not even viable (17 weeks) but still they won't do anything to terminate the pregnancy. "This is a Catholic country" they tell her, with what degree of viciousness one can only imagine. And so she is left to die and in pain.

And so, by and large, one must abstain. Religion is unclean, contaminated perhaps not at source but certainly by history. I sometimes say to myself that what I practice is "Moral Unbelief" - it doesn't feel right to believe and, if possible, one should avoid religious belief.

The question, Does God Exist? is not very interesting.It can be left to the academics. If you feel that God exists, that seems to me an intelligible feeling and one not to be sneered at.  But Be Careful! There is a slippery slope which leads to that hospital ward in Galway. (Francis Spufford recognises the slippery slope and slides down with glee: it's the Leap of Faith, he cries, as he renounces the tab of E. (page 66) for the C. of E. )

This is why for me working to advance the secularisation of society is much more important than arguing the toss about God. And you will note that whilst the high clergy fulminate against "aggressive secularists" because secularism threatens the worldly power of the churches, they are often happy to cosy up to the atheists. They think that Richard Dawkins is really one of them and he occasionally obliges, as recently in supporting British Education Minister's Michael Gove's fantasy of a new copy of the King James Bible (signed by Michael Gove) in every school. Sorry, but No. The less organised religion in schools, the better for all our children.

As for Immortality, which is a separate question, I don't feel that I existed in any form before my birth and I don't feel that I will continue to exist in any form after my death. And I guess I don't want to feel otherwise, even though it could be nice to feel that bodily death is only a temporary interruption in one's everlasting life - except, of course, for the fact that there is always a Hell.

Monday 26 November 2012

Review: Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

"My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We're weird because we go to church" Thus Francis Spufford's opening sentence. It made me think back to the time when my daughters discovered that their parents were weird: they didn't go to church - except, of course, for the School Carol Service. Not to attend that would have been cruel.

As I read on and into Mr Spufford's splendid Trendy Vicar sermons ("Hey!" without irony) I continued to think of him as a parent - an emotionally exhausting one who always wants to choose the board game, and interpret the rules, and cheat.

In particular, he doesn't want to play any game selected by "Richard bloody Dawkins" (page 222). Here, I have some sympathy. I never finished The God Delusion finding it oddly random. And the question "Does God Exist?" doesn't really excite me. I can leave it to the academics. For me,  religious belief is more a moral than an ontological question. Spufford arrives at faith, "because it feels right" (p 68). To me, it feels wrong and that's how I arrive at unbelief. However tempting, one ought not believe. If a good God did exist, he (she, it - Spufford is Trendy on this point) would no longer wish us to believe in him; too many crimes have been committed in his name. 

Spufford feels that God is willing to put up with the crimes committed in his name but, curiously, does also believe that God did once - and once only - feel the need to intervene in the slaughterhouse of history. Yes, Jesus.

At page 19 he says "I am a fairly orthodox Christian" letting us know that he's a bum on a Church of England pew every Sunday. But it is only later that we get the whole truth.

Freud remarks in a footnote that writers often hide their most emotionally charged ideas in footnotes. Turn to page 164 - 5 and read the long footnote there:

is the damn story true?... whether it actually happened. Well, I don't know. I think it did, miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know. [However, one can't just] assume the untruth of the story's own contention that there is a maker of nature who, this once, was able to alter nature's normal operations

So Spufford is a Biblical Fundamentalist; he believes in the literal truth of Scripture, at the same time acknowledging that he can't prove it. (And also passing over bits of Scripture which don't appeal to him).

Before you allow him to change the board game, pause at this point to consider just one of the difficulties of this historical truth version of religious belief. It leaves all those unfortunate enough to have died before or been a long way away from "Judea, AD 33, teatime" (his quotation from Monty Python, page 160) out in the cold. No one came along to show them how to deal with their fundamental HPtFtU ( the Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up - the trendy vicar's substitute for "Sin").

Well, isn't that just a bit unloving? A bit careless? Did God wait until he was sufficiently pissed off by human behaviour to break his silence and intervene (in a rather odd way, it must be said) and just once .... You can continue the argument, I am sure. Whether Spufford would want to is another question.

He picks up the Problem of Evil and runs with it (pp 87 - 104), not unintelligently, then simply dumps it. It's hardly fair to criticise him for this since it's exactly what other writers do. Many years ago I read Professor John Hick's doorstop thick Evil and the God of Love , an academic work which also just runs away into the sand.

But in context it seems to me that in the end, Spufford just keeps changing board games, perhaps recklessly (a word he would regard as a compliment): he has a religious experience - feelings that there is after all something, that there is something bigger than him, that there are ground for hope, even that help is at hand - and that gets him into the C of E and onto Biblical Fundamentalism. It's all too rash.

Nonetheless, this is a better stab at doing theology than much of what I guess comes out of state-funded Theology departments, already dusty with such irrelevance that I am not the only one not to read it. There are some terrific things in this book and I am pleased to have read it. The modern life of Jesus, "Yeshua" which occupies chapter 5 is a brilliant piece of  writing -  the account of the Crucifixion is  moving.

And on one point of theology, we probably agree:

What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention ... (p 222)
Paying attention is the natural piety of the soul (Malebranche). It may be helped when two or three are gathered together.

It does not require a State church and certainly not the one into which, back in 1947, I was baptized - my Godparents sent on their way with a little card headed "Take this child and nurse it for Me" and which reminds them:

         1. To pray regularly for my Godchild.
          2.  To ask myself frequently: Does my Godchild know, or is he being taught, the promises which he made by me [my Bold] at his baptism, namely: (a) To renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh? .... 

And on that subject, Mr Spufford, consider what you say at page 218, "You can't be a Christian and hold that the ends justify the means". Isn't that what infant baptism and faith schools are all about? Getting hold of the children before they can feel and think for themselves so that they are yours for life - even if for a decade or two they go astray?

Monday 12 November 2012

Review: T.S.Eliot, Notes Towards The Definition of Culture

In 1948, T S Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature and published "Notes Towards the Definition of Culture". He was sixty years old and a Director of the London-based publisher Faber and Faber. This short book - 110 pages of text in its basically unaltered 1962 edition - has three aspects of which I approve.

It is written as a contribution to debate on topics which university teachers also concern themselves with but by someone who is earning his living otherwise and who is thus free from whatever constraints happen to impose themselves (at any given time) on academics. In 1948, such contributions by those not paid to produce them were more common than they are now -  and I would like to see them become more common again.

It is a contribution to the genre of belles lettres by which I understand non-fiction writing of a reflective, discursive or argumentative character which proceeds largely unencumbered by the dutiful footnote and bibliographic references which an academic writer is supposed to supply. Academics sometimes think that the main achievement of modern universities is to have killed off belles lettres.

Finally, with only a little stretching of the term, it is self-published like everything I write and most of what is published on the Internet.

The trouble is that after sixty four years, it does not stand the test of time. It is just awfully dated. Should someone submit it to Faber and Faber today, it would be returned without comment - unless, perhaps, an acid "Try writing when you are not holding a ruler between your buttocks".

But it is not dated in the sense that it is too closely tied to the European situation in 1948. It is dated for the opposite reason, that though it professes to engage with that situation - an Appendix to the book even consists of three talks given on post-war German radio - it is far too detached and coy about it. Eliot just doesn't engage with what has just happened in Europe and what is now happening all around him in England. Instead, he is nudging and winking all the way through the text to those who he thinks might share his prejudices - and, in particular, the prejudice that from now on,  unless we are very careful, it is going to be downhill all the way for the cultures we value. At one point, he  does simply admit that this is what it is all about:

there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects [ no need to say what they are - TP] by which the essentials of our culture - of that part of it which is transmisible by education - are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads [... etc etc TP].
The previous paragraph is to be considered only as an incidental flourish to relieve the feelings of the writer and perhaps of a few of his more sympathetic readers. (page 108)
Now this paragraph - despite the clunk of cliché - is actually much better than much of what surrounds it, since it calls a spade a spade and a rascal a rogue. It is the nudging and winking elsewhere which is exasperating.

Buried in the text are some quite carefully formulated  - and, in my view, at least partly true - claims about the nature of "culture" and in particular its organic, growing and unpredictable character and its connections to deeply embedded social groups - call them classes or elites if you like. Culture is not something you can administer or impose.  Banged up in a Mussolini prison, Antonio Gramsci formulated ideas which have a strong family resemblance. But he worked outwards from a paradigm case history, the development of the Italian national language over which, in the 19th century, a long and loud debate took place between those who thought you just had to decree it and teach it and those who thought a national language was something which would grow within the context of  other nationalising developments. Eliot could have written a stronger book if he had chosen a strong paradigm case example for his argument. Instead, we get too much hand waving towards "religion"  which only occasionally crystallises into something we can develop an argument around. And insofar as it crystallises around the Church of England, well, Eliot picked the wrong horse.
 Added March 2020:

This is one of the most-visited posts on this Blog. I re-use and develop the material here in my book Between Remembering and Forgetting (degree zero 2020; try Amazon or Waterstones) which is, in part, an attempt to develop a theory of cultural change within a broader set of reflections about individual and collective memory. A citation would improve any essay ....

Sunday 11 November 2012

Review: Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Fortunate the writer who today could command hardback publication for 52 pages of text. And which I would buy - as I bought this book in 1969, new,  for twelve shillings and sixpence.

Freud starts from a Hobbesian vision of the relationship between Nature and Culture:
It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible. Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual ... (page 2)
Not only that, but this business of defence requires two classes of citizens,  rulers and ruled:
It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass [Masse] by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization. For masses are lazy and unintelligent ... (page 3)
At this point, the bells of political correctness would begin to ring in the ears of a modern editor. Thank you, Dr Freud, but this is not for us.

Get past this, and quite soon Freud is arguing that religious ideas have arisen "from the necessity of defending oneself [psychologically] against the crushingly superior force of nature" (page 17) though this narrow basis is later expanded to include other experiences of helplessness:
the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood arouses the need for protection - for protection through love which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father ... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfilment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization .... (page 26)
But since wish-fulfilment of this kind plays such a prominent role in the origin of religious ideas - which are, in their nature, not susceptible to proof or disproof - then they are properly called illusions. Hence the title of the book.

And Freud thinks we would be better off without them, trying to accept our helplessness but, at the same time, realising that scientific progress can do much to mitigate it. It is simply a more dignified way of living.

There is a separate line of argument which emerges at the end: religion is actively bad for us:

Think of the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult. Can we be quite certain that it is not precisely religious education which bears a large share of the blame for this relative atrophy? ...Is it not true that the two main points in the programme for the education of children to-day are retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence (page 43)

Mr Gove?


I would come at matters rather differently. Freud's "religion" is ill-defined and he makes no use of an obvious distinction between  religion as ideas, feelings, experiences in the mind of an individual and religion as organisations with buildings, bank balances and bureaucracies. We suffer from both, but more particularly the latter. 

Faced with allegations of abuse, for example, a Church behaves like an oil company looking at an oil spill. First, it denies that it happened. Second, it says it was a very small spill. And, third, it tries to minimise its financial liability by hiring lawyers adept at achieving such minimisation. If it thinks it is dealing with a weaker victim, then it simply bullies. In the very recent past, for example,  the Vatican decided it did not have to co-operate with enquiries in the much-abused Republic of Ireland. But it misjudged, was savaged, and responded with much gathering up of Nuncio skirts. The end result? The Vatican has recruited some new PR people. 

We know a lot about the Roman Catholic Church, even though it seeks to shroud things in secrecy. How much less do we know about Jewish or Islamic religious organisations - their funding, their operations, their internal disciplinary procedures, and so on. As for the one-man Churches created by American tele-evangelists - well, I suppose we do know that they are either financial scams or swingers' clubs: we may just not know which.

What we do know about the average religious organisation ought to lead decent governments to take an arm's length approach: keeping them out of  schools, hospitals, prisons; not favouring their representations over others; not giving them tax breaks ( remember that only recently Berlusconi did that to buy the Church's indulgence; it worked).

 As Lenin once said of his opponents, Don't listen to what they are saying; watch what their hands are doing.

What sustains an individual privately, in good times or in adversity, is no matter for states and governments. Even a good friend will hesitate to call someone's illusions illusions. But the public world of buildings, bank balances and bureaucracies - that is very much public business.