British Politics is now Immigration vs Inequality (December 2014)

Needless to say, the opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Two topics are competing to be the Big Arguments of our times: immigration and inequality. They are starting to suck most other issues in British politics into their orbit. Here’s why inequality will win. 

Blair called it a Big Argument. Others talk about narratives or frames. But the point is similar: in politics, if you can tell a story that seems to explain most of what’s going on, you’ve got a better chance of shaping the debate and winning the day.

So it was, for example, that Blair did his best to make the 1997 election about underfunded public services, so that by election day every hospital wait and leaky school roof felt like a symptom of eighteen years of Tory rule. And Cameron did his best to make the 2010 election about the deficit. It works because, as neuroscientists like Drew Westen and linguists like George Lakoff remind us, we’re wired to notice and care about only those facts which support what we already believe. Most of the time, the facts that don’t bounce right off. That’s why Guardian articles don’t tend to change Telegraph readers’ minds, and vice versa. If you have a Big Argument and you successfully use it to change the story and show how the facts support it, you’ve got a better chance of winning peoples’ votes.

Since the last election, not one but two themes have emerged: immigration and inequality. They’re now competing with each other to explain most other domestic issues. You can see them bubbling up in the political rhetoric, in comments on articles below the line and in conversations in homes and pubs around the country.

The immigration drumbeat has got ever louder with the rise of UKIP, and it was given a boost when Lynton Crosby told David Cameron to talk about it to try to win back their supporters. We all know the familiar notes by now – crowded island, pressure on public services, immigrants holding pay down and pushing house prices up – and how it often comes with unsavoury mutterings about crime, the EU, benefits tourism, human rights, Muslims, foreignness, change. Its standard bearer in British politics is, of course, Nigel Farage.

It’s a similar story with inequality. You know the familiar proof points here as well: living standards, energy and train prices, zero hours contracts, bankers’ pay and financial scandals, food banks, perhaps even the fact that the average FTSE 100 executive is paid 130 times that of their average employee. Its drumbeat has got louder in recent years too, driven by Barack Obama’s calling inequality the defining challenge of our time, the Pope’s saying similar, Pikettymania. Each year, IPSOS Mori asks people what they think is the most important issue facing the country. This year, more people said poverty and inequality than at any other time since they started asking about it in 1997. Inequality’s standard bearer in British politics is Ed Miliband. His zero-zero speech was his clearest statement about that yet.

Of course, concerns about immigration aren’t confined to the right and those about inequality aren’t confined to the left. But in the last few years immigration has given the right power, energy and a unifying theme, as inequality has done on the left.

Evidence

But there is one significant difference between them: evidence. Most of the most common fears about immigration don’t survive contact with it. Most of the most common fears about inequality, though, emerge enhanced. In our current national debate, the dangers of immigration have been overstated, but the dangers of inequality understated. As a cause of other problems, immigration has been overdiagnosed, inequality underdiagnosed.

And that matters in the long-term because while today’s news cycles might be full of immigration-related fear, pumped up by Kippery electioneering and Tory pandering, they probably won’t be two or three years down the line; a populist panic can’t survive on hot air alone unless it points to some genuine problems that can be fixed. But when politicians and policymakers try to respond to peoples’ worries about immigration, they tend to find that it’s not a straightforward thing to do. Many of the things people fear the most are myths. No policy can fix a mirage.

With inequality, it’s the opposite: many of its consequences are real, measurable, harmful, and worsening.

Immigration

Let’s take immigration first.

The actual fears about it are real, of course. If you’re disorientated to hear so much Farsi on the bus, see so many Polish shops on your street, or if you just feel in your gut that the England you knew is now no more and you never had a say in it, politicians should have the decency to hear you out.

And yes, some of the things people fear about immigration are real problems: caste discrimination, for example, and job displacement in certain places and sectors, as Ed Miliband has said.

But most just aren’t. And that argument deserves a hearing too.

I know stats don’t win hearts and minds, but they’re a handy way to set some boundaries of rational debate. So, to take a sample: do immigrants automatically get a council house? No. But can they jump the queue for one? No. Is the British population now 31% immigrants and 21% Muslim, as people seem to think? No, and no. The figures are 13% and 5% respectively.

Do EU immigrants take British jobs on aggregate? No. There have been many studies on this, and when the Civil Service did a study of the studies it concluded that “there has been little evidence … of a statistically significant impact from EU migration on native employment outcomes.” Is the problem that one more job for a foreigner means one less job for a Brit? On aggregate, no. The average immigrant is more likely to start a company than the average UK national, so immigrants probably create many more jobs than they fill.

What about benefit tourism, the hordes of foreigners crowding onto planes to milk our benefits system? Funnily enough, the European Commission recently asked the government to give evidence – any evidence would do – that benefit tourism was a real problem. They couldn’t. Instead, they countered that the Commission was ‘placing too much emphasis on “quantitative evidence.”’

What we do know is how many Brits and non-Brits apply for a National Insurance number, and the House of Commons Library has tried to use those figures to work out where benefit claimants come from. It turns out that the vast majority – 92.6% – of people of working age who claimed benefits this year are British, and just 7.5% not. And what about the tax credits? 84.8% of claimants in 2013 were British, just 15.2% not. The idea of a mass influx of benefit tourists is just a lie.

But surely, the nativists argue, immigrants take up school places and hospital beds? But they don’t just go to hospital and send their kids to schools. They also work in them and fund them through taxes. In fact, immigrants pay more in tax than they cost, so fewer immigrants means worse-funded public services: even fewer school places and hospital beds. That, or higher taxes.

What about rising house prices? Plenty of intelligent people believe that they’ve shot up because so many new immigrants want to buy them. But again, the evidence just isn’t there. The research on skilled immigrants from outside the EU found that even after five years in Britain, most are still renting. Even when they bought, they were only likely to have added 1% to house prices over five years. And even if they did push up house prices, it’d be another argument for building more houses. After all, the price of mobile phones, package holidays and other things hasn’t shot up because so many more immigrants are buying those, because supply just adjusts. But housing is different: in the short-term, housing supply can’t adjust so that everyone who can afford one gets one (let alone adjusting so that everyone who needs one gets one). Government – especially local government – needs to get involved to see that more houses are built.

The nativists are probably on strongest ground with the claim that immigrants have held down real wages: here at least the evidence is mixed. But immigration isn’t the main culprit. After all, real median wages have stagnated or fallen in the USA, Japan, and across the Eurozone. There are many reasons for that: productivity hasn’t improved enough, competition from globalisation has held wages down and moved jobs abroad, technology has replaced jobs, there might be a shortage of good investment opportunities, certainly there’s a political culture of weak labour bargaining power. Maybe all of them. But the bottom line is that we don’t know that immigration is the cause, but we do know that inequality is the consequence.

When you try to pin the problems of immigration down, most of the time you find yourself chasing shadows.

Inequality

Inequality, on the other hand, is a policy problem. And once you start to recognise the symptoms, you see that it’s as underdiagnosed as excessive immigration is overdiagnosed. Many will counter that it’s a wonk’s issue. But even if nobody’s talking about it in the pub, nobody in the pub would turn down a payrise.

It’s worth pausing here to get David Cameron’s argument out of the way first. He says inequality isn’t rising because the gini coefficient – the economist’s traditional measure of inequality – is the same now as it was in 1986. But that misses the wood for the trees. Firstly because the big picture is that inequality has risen roughly from Thatcher’s election until the banking crisis. Then it stopped – but not because anybody got better off, but rather because real wages fell while the safety net protected the poorest. It is now rising again and is expected to continue to rise. These years of stagnant wages are a blip in the trend towards rising inequality. Secondly because this blip isn’t thanks to what his government has done, but despite it: his budgets have overwhelmingly taken from the poor and given to the rich. And thirdly because Cameron ignores inequality of wealth, let alone the kinds of inequalities of opportunity and power which any self-respecting meritocrat should really care about.

The long-run trend is that the rich are getting richer much, much faster than everyone else. And, like immigration, inequality is sucking other issues towards it.

That includes the familiar inequalities, like life expectancy, crime, literacy, health. To quote a recent Leader of the Opposition, “research by Richard Wilkson and Katie Pickett has shown that among the richest countries, it’s the more unequal ones that do worse according to almost every quality of life indicator.” That was David Cameron, in his 2009 Hugo Young lecture. He went on to recognise that inequality made more of a difference to these things than GDP per capita. (Cameron talked the talk. If Miliband wins, he’ll walk the walk).

It also includes issues of living standards. Complaints about energy bills, train ticket prices, even the rent, aren’t just about rip off prices and greedy rent-seeking. They’re also symptoms of the inequality of this growth: earnings at and around the median haven’t kept pace with earnings at the top for a decade, as the Resolution Foundation has documented. Between 1994 and 2010, the poorest 50% of households’ share of national income after taxes and benefits went down while the top 1%’s went up. Clearly, the problem goes back a long way. Real median wages remain stagnant or worse.

And the symptoms of that trend can be brutal. When we says that one in five families in Britain bring in less than £423 a week, that one in five families can’t afford a day trip to the seaside, that more than 100,000 people a year have to get into debt just to pay for a family funeral, or that most teachers say they see kids coming into school too hungry to learn, the problem isn’t just poverty, as some inequality deniers want to argue. It’s also a problem of inequality of growth. The gains from growth – because there have been plenty – have mainly gone to those who already earn the most.

But the main reason why the inequality drumbeat is likely to carry on getting louder in the coming years is because there are so many other issues which turn out to be about inequality when you scratch beneath their surface.

Why, for example, is the economy reviving so sluggishly compared to previous recessions? A big part of the problem is weak demand. Real disposable income fell between 2007 and 2013. Consumption per head fell between 2005 and 2013. Too many people don’t have enough money to spend.

There are many reasons for that. But with that backdrop, is it any wonder that it’s harder for business to find good investment opportunities, or that shops are struggling to find customers? No wonder, for example, Tesco is losing out to discount retailers when their customers have got less money in their pockets. This didn’t used to be a problem. Demand deficiency never affected the headline growth figures back when growth translated into rising wages. If you’re wondering why the economy is recovering so slowly compared to past recessions, a big part of the answer is: inequality of growth.

It’s a similar story with low interest rates. Many older, richer people with savings are wondering why it’s taking so long for interest rates to rise. But here again, it’s inequality of growth that’s to blame: if incomes were rising decently at and below the median, chances are we’d have enough inflation for rates to have risen by now. And it’s a similar problem with bubbly asset markets. Inequality of pay growth causes restrained interest rates, which causes a higher chance of bubbles, which means a higher chance of a crash.

And then there is everything else that inequality makes more difficult. Closing the deficit, for example. In the last year or so, it’s beginning to dawn on some on the right that the reason why it’s so hard to close the deficit is because so many of the new jobs are so low paid that they bring minimal tax into the Treasury. Complaints about the government not closing the deficit boil down to complaints about the government not doing the kind of reforms – like more and better training and apprenticeships – that encourage better paid jobs.

Then there are tax credits. They were always designed, lest we forget, to top up the income of the low-paid. And they do. But the money comes from the exchequer, so each new lower paid job helps deficit reduction less than each new higher paying job. Encourage companies to raise wages, and you don’t just dent the inequality of growth, you also make it easier to close the deficit.

The reason so many issues are likely to be pulled into the orbit of inequality is because so many turn out to be a symptom of it. Take housing affordability. Sure, it’s mainly a housing supply problem, but it’s exacerbated by a ‘too-many-salaries-not-rising’ problem: rising house prices would be less of a problem if incomes were rising with them.

Take the issue of London pulling away from the rest of the country: the Spectator devoted a cover story to the issue, written by one of George Osborne’s advisers, back in 2012. That’s really a right wing magazine writing a cover story about the growing divide between the rich part of the country and the rest.

And those on the right who are outraged by such a high percentage of the tax take being paid for by the rich should note that it’s not mainly fiscal drag or tax rises that are doing it, it’s the rich earning that much more than everyone else. Or as we like to call it: inequality.

Inequality even distorts the meaningfulness of the GDP figures; the more unequal we get, the less important GDP becomes. After all, the only reason anyone really cares about GDP is as a rough and ready proxy for how well off we are as a country. But when the labour market begins to split into two lumps of the high paid and the low paid – as it is increasingly doing in developed countries around the world – then GDP doesn’t really work as a proxy for our how well we’re doing as well as it used to. Median salaries become more representative.

And then there’s wealth. For the last thirty years, house prices have gone up about four times faster than wages. That skews incentives. After Cathy Colston left her senior job at Boots, she got into buy-to-let property investment. Within four years, she was able to replace her salary. Meanwhile, a third of us don’t even have one house, let alone a portfolio. This isn’t the kind of property-owning democracy Margaret Thatcher had in mind. We all know that being a buy-to-let landlord isn’t actually harder work than helping to run Boots, much as we know it’s not actually harder work collecting the rent from the Duke of Westminster’s land than, say, cleaning his house. But we turn away from these thoughts because they remind us of the unpalatable fact that in a world where assets return that much more than work, reward is ever less commensurate with skill and effort. When owning returns so much more than earning, the happy idea that work is the best way to get on in life begins to look hopelessly naive. Having assets becomes the best way to get on in life. Work is just for those who don’t yet have any. And that, it seems, is the way we are going.

I don’t blame Ms Colston for choosing to do up houses over helping Boots sell pharmaceutical products: those are her incentives. But I do blame a tax system that compounds those incentives. And that is what this means for British politics: if we’re serious about tipping the balance back away from wealth and towards work, then the case for taxing income weakens and the case for taxing wealth strengthens. It shouldn’t be a surprise that some polls find 72% support for the mansion tax.

But in the end, none of these are the biggest charges I’d lay against inequality. Because perhaps the most corrosive things inequality does are exactly the three things the nativists accuse excessive immigration of doing.

They say it changes the look and feel of our towns and cities. But inequality does too: each year there are more Ferraris on the streets, more bearded men poking through the bins.

They say immigration changes how we relate to each other, but inequality does too: each year that more of us live in gated communities or have to sleep in doorways we risk becoming a little more numb to the extremes, a little more likely to dismiss them as the way of the world.

And they say immigration changes our sense of who we are. Well, I say inequality changes who we are.

I didn’t used to give too much thought to inequality. Not because I didn’t see it, but because I just felt it had two big arguments on its side: firstly that it might be ‘fair’ inequality: some people work harder or have more valuable skills than others, so of course they end up richer. And secondly, that the medicine – whatever we did to reduce inequality – might well be more harmful than the disease.

But the crash made me think again. It showed that many of the best paid people in the country weren’t actually so talented or skilful or wise or smart: all those long hours and that incredible brainpower turned out to be dedicated to running financial institutions into the ground. And that’s not their problem, it’s our problem: it brought on a recession in which we all suffered and blew a hole in the public finances that we’re all paying for. That’s not fair inequality. It’s dumb inequality.

Because inequality changes who we are by changing our incentives: what we think it’s worth dedicating our lives to, the skills we collect, the careers we choose and so the people we become. Any vocation where pay rises more slowly than it does in finance becomes a little less attractive each year. And finance itself – such an important tool when managed right – with its PPIs, its LIBORs, its FOREX scandals, its bubbles and bailouts – becomes the ultimate choice; a pied piper enticing those who would otherwise devote their ambition, talent, energy, and time to engineering, say, or medicine, public service, or entrepreneurship, towards the big money instead. If this is the disease, maybe the medicine’s not so bad.

Conclusion

But even if you accept that immigration is something of a panic in search of a problem, and inequality the other way round, you still might simply think that there’s nothing we can do to disrupt rising inequality. And I’m not about to tell you I’ve got a blueprint under my arm. 

But this much I know.

The first step is to win the argument. It will need all the real stories and lived experience we can throw at it. Most inequality deniers normally speak from self-interest: either because they fear they’ll lose out from policies to remedy inequality, or because they’ve somehow staked their identity on arguing that it’s not a problem and are too embarrassed to change their minds.

But the tide is turning. The old arguments that inequality is inevitable, useful, or benign are rapidly losing ground. Case in point: for decades, right wing economists have confidently asserted that redistribution normally impedes growth. In April, the IMF threw them into disarray by pointing out that that assertion had never actually been grounded in good, comparable, cross-country data. When they used a new, bigger dataset which covers “as many countries and as many years as possible,” they found that apart from in extreme cases, “redistribution appears generally benign in its impact on growth.” That’s a massive deal. It’s an evidence-based stake through the heart of the argument that the medicine is always worse than the disease. Slowly but surely, the burden of proof is moving towards those who want to do nothing about inequality.

Secondly, it should be pretty clear by now that the government spending of the Blair years was a palliative, not a fix. It didn’t do much about the underlying trends towards greater inequality. Spending has its place, but it’s the structural changes like changing the tax system, the minimum wage, and better training that do the heavy lifting. If and when people get round to defining ‘Milibandism,’ I think this idea should be seen as one of its starting points.

Third, wealth and income gains don’t trickle down by themselves. You only get them by bargaining for them, and bargaining structures matter.

But let’s not forget that inequality has been brought down before, after the war. Reasonable people can debate the best way to deal with it in a modern, open economy. But each year that pay is stagnant, good jobs remain scarce, and demand remains deficient is another year that inequality inches towards beating off immigration to become the central issue of British politics.

And then the real work can begin.

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On Argentina (February 2011)

On the morning I arrived in Argentina, I could tell something strange was going on. Roads in central Buenos Aires were blocked off. Taxis weren’t running. In the first few hours of the day, as I walked round the city with my backpack, crowds of people began to line the streets – holding placards and flags, but standing serenely, as if waiting for something.

I bought a paper. Ex-President Nestor Kirchner had died the day before. Today was his funeral.

I didn’t know much about him, to be honest. I knew that he had dominated politics for the last decade. I knew that his wife Cristina was currently the President. I had the impression that he was a gently corrupt, nepotistic, oligarchic smoothie. But he didn’t seem like someone who Argentineans had taken to heart, or would be likely to mourn or miss.

And yet, the day was proving me wrong.

Buenos Aires came to a standstill. People gathered along the windy streets, waving Argentinean flags and improvised banners with messages like “Thank you, Nestor,” and “Fuerza, Cristina.” Balconies and windows filled with people looking down at the crowded streets, breathing the air of national event. The gates of the Presidential palace filled with Diana-style bouquets of flowers, posters and cards of love and adulation. Hard-hatted construction workers came down from their scaffolds to form neat lines by the side of the streets along the route his hearse was expected to take. All the TV channels seemed to be showing chat shows mourning the man and analysing his legacy. The state channel would go on to show over-precious documentaries about his life on repeat, for days afterwards. Even hours before his coffin had started making its way towards the cemetery, the TV had started to show the rain-swept route it was about to take, from multiple angles, like grand prix coverage without any cars. When it finally went on its way, it was mobbed by so many passionate mourners that orange-shirted police had to move in to help it pass.

I sat, jet-lagged, in a restaurant. As his car passed by the window, most of the diners spontaneously stood up to get a better look, or to pay their respects. Even though the best view of the car outside was on the TV in the room right in front of me, I found myself standing up too.

At least in death, it seemed that Kirchner was massive. For one day at least, this man, who had been almost unknown ten years earlier, was an Argentinean idol. He was Maradona, Evita, Gardel, Peron. He was all of them, rolled into one. He was above the allegations of mismanagement and corruption, above politics, above Argentina.

What was going on? Why did so many people hold this man in so much reverence? Clearly, Argentineans saw something in him which I didn’t understand. Over the next few weeks, I was to solve the puzzle, and in the process, learn a few things about the heart of the country’s identity.

Phone photo of the TV in the bus station on the day I arrivedPhone photo of the TV in the bus station on the day I arrived

 

The Argument of the City

Another thing which puzzled me about Argentina was its place in the world. Is it a developed or a developing country? In the great playground-style scramble for status between countries, where does it stand?

It’s not as idle a question as it might sound. Economist Simon Kuznets, one of the founders of development economics, used to say that there were four kinds of countries: developed, developing, Japan, and Argentina. Certainly, these are questions which seem to preoccupy Argentines themselves a great deal.

Over six weeks, we spent some time in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia. The Brazilians we met were mostly full of confidence that Brazil is a rising, developing country. Bolivians, on the other hand, had no problem with the idea that their country is poor, nor Uruguayans with the knowledge that theirs is small.

But Argentineans, it seems, didn’t seem to know where Argentina stands. Certainly, it has many of the qualities of a fully developed, rich, stable, peaceful, sophisticated nation. But they coexist alongside other characteristics of a developing, unstable, sometimes even despotic, banana republic.

As I got to know Buenos Aires over the next days and weeks, I began to see that tension written into its streets and monuments. As if Buenos Aires was the argument that Argentina was having with itself about its place in the world, expressed in city form.

At first, it feels like you haven’t left Europe.

It’s Paris: elegant street cafes, wide boulevards, an expanse of parks, a metro system adorned with art nouveau, and even a designated square for protests.

It’s Rome: cute ice cream parlours, immaculate pizzerias, even a monthly designated Day of Gnocchi. People from Buenos Aires are called Porteños because so many got off the boat and settled in the port. Many migrated from Italy, and it shows – when they talk their arms swing around charismatically, and their Spanish sings just like Italian.

It’s London: In the Victorian era, Britain mentored Argentina, and that shows too. Stand in the main rail terminus, Retiro station, and you may as well be standing under the grand Victorian roof of St Pancras. Retiro was actually built in Liverpool and then reassembled in Argentina. In the square just outside it is a British clock tower. And the Puerto Madero neighbourhood was explicitly modelled on London’s Docklands, and recreates its distinctive combination of brick, water, and finance. Also, for some reason, polo is massive.

But it’s also Washington DC: the National Congress looks just like the US Congress, only slightly grubbier, and the architectural centrepiece of the whole city – the Obelisco – is a dead ringer for the Washington monument. (Although Americans would never let the Washington Monument wear a giant pink condom. That, I suppose, is the joy of having a city populated by monuments with American-style design but people with an Italian-style sense of humour).

With its wide boulevards and handsome parks, it was as if the whole city was designed by people expecting the country’s moment of greatness to come any day soon, and wanting its capital to look the part. As if it was eager to convince the visitor that Argentina is a developed, rich, successful country. ‘Anything you can do’, it says, ‘we can do too’.

And it can. There is impeccable cuisine, good theatre, great comedy, and all the culture you could want. There are even far more psychoanalysts per head than any other country in the world – surely one of the more underrated measures of a country’s development.

There are also some peculiarly Latin American institutions, like the transitorio – a pay-by-hour hotel room for young couples old enough to have a hot date but young enough to still live with their parents.

Or the ubiquity of cosmetic surgery. It seems like everyone’s wearing a body part they weren’t born with, and everywhere you go, you see women with brand new noses or lips which make them look like cartoon fish. In this respect, Presidenta Cristina Fernandez is a true woman of the people.

But there are also the parts that it doesn’t want you to see. Jog a few blocks round the back of the central rail terminal, and you see the start of the poverty-stricken barrios which stretch for miles and miles around the city. The centre of Buenos Aires might be Paris, but its outskirts may as well be Bolivia.

 

Recoleta Cemetry

By pure luck, we wangled a flatswap in Recoleta, Buenos Aires’ answer to Saint-Germain-des-Pres. It’s a neighbourhood where dapper old men sporting trilby hats, pressed trousers and handkerchiefs – ironed and tucked into their breast pockets – shuffle daily to the post office or take an afternoon coffee under the sun, and tall, elegant women strut down the streets like they’re catwalks, looking like they hope to be photographed for one of the country’s innumerable celebrity magazines.

The neighbourhood contains one of Buenos Aires’ most famous attractions: Recoleta cemetry, a city-within a city of big marble mausolea, with its own manicured streets, trees and lamp-posts – a sort of gated community of the dead. A place where you can die like a king.

Buried here are the great and the good, the civic-minded, the statesmen and their wives. But also, the merely very wealthy. You could almost smell the nail polish on the corpses. Rich people who, having done nothing to merit society’s fond recollection, decided to at least buy a big mausoleum, so that decades after they died and would otherwise have been forgotten, tourists could come, look and point. There is, of course, a waiting list.

Recoleta is a good tourist attraction. Also, it’s a cemetry; I shouldn’t mock it too much. But its problem is that each grave seems to be trying to be more dignified than the last. Collectively, this gives the place an air of undignified social competition. It smells of an overriding concern to get the biggest tomb, the most expensive marble, the best-known architect, in short: a comical kind of posthumous social climbing, as if these people saw no reason why death should interrupt their lifelong jostle for status.

Often, looking at another gaudy grave, I found myself wondering whether there was any living person, any real flesh and bone in the country, who recalled its occupant as fondly as the grand stones in front of me wanted me to believe.

This concern for status is Argentina in miniature.

It has always been a country with big dreams for itself. Even its idols are typically people who make Argentines feel that their country can be more, bigger, more important than they currently are: Maradona, latterly persuading Argentines they can win the world cup again or deifying a mundane handball as ‘The Hand of God.’ Or Evita, with little more than world-class glamour and a social conscience to offer, loved by her followers for uttering such grandiloquent vacuities as “If I fall, look out for the crash. There won’t be anyone left standing.” Is it a surprise that Argentina’s idols tend to be verbal alchemists, people who take hot air and turn it into potential, grandeur, hope? Whatever anyone else says, in its heart, Argentina knows that its destiny is to be a prosperous, respected, premier league country.

 

Potential

But you can see why. Its potential is awesome.

Firstly, it’s big. It’s the eighth biggest country in the world by area, almost the size of Europe. It’s not hard to imagine Argentines in the nineteenth century looking at their country on the map and feeling that surely in the twentieth, its time would come to dominate the south of the continent economically in the same way the United States would dominate the north.

Secondly, it grows a lot of food. A nineteenth century Argentine President said “it would be fun to make an offer to England, just to see how much … cotton it would give to own these plains of Buenos Aires.” It must have seemed that as long as there were people in the world to buy and eat its bread, beef, sugar, and soy, Argentina would always be rich.

Thirdly, it has been a rich, proud, fully developed country in the past. By the early twentieth century, immigrants were pouring in, it had been a constitutional liberal democracy for fifty years, and the average Argentine was richer than the average Frenchman or German. Like China today, Argentina felt that it was destined to power its way up the league table of wealth and development, and that surely it was only a matter of time before it took its rightful place among the big players of the world.

But it didn’t happen.

 

The Argument of History

That same argument that’s written in the streets of Buenos Aires – the push and pull between developed and developing, democracy and autocracy – is also written in the story of Argentina’s recent history.

In living memory, Argentina has been rich and poor, a poster-child for both the global right and the global left, a horrifically repressive dictatorship and a beacon of democracy. It’s as if the country has tried to wipe the slate clean and start again from scratch almost at the rate of once per decade, in a cycle of increasingly desperate striving for self-improvement. Like a Russian doll, each government’s attempts to solve the problems of its era only revealed a new set of problems.

In the early seventies, armed guerilla groups looted, bombed, kidnapped, and assassinated, in a blur of militant leftist, anti-authoritarian, and sometimes nihilist rhetoric.

In March 1976, a military junta took power. At one o clock in the morning, the President, Peron’s widow, found herself looking into the face of a military general, and being told “Madam, the Armed Forces have decided to take political control of the country, and you are under arrest.” “The majority of the population,” according to historian Luis Alberto Romero, “received the coup with immense relief and high expectations.” The junta believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was a democracy. It was democracy which had wrought chaos, and it would be dictatorship which would bring order. They argued that only when ‘the cancer’ of dissent was cut out, could Argentina finally show the world it was ready to take its rightful place as a respected, fully developed nation. The 1978 World Cup in Argentina was the perfect propaganda vehicle. Its slogan was the tellingly eager “let’s show the world what Argentineans are like.”

But the regime’s method of bringing this ‘order’ was by ‘disappearing’ people who it saw as enemies. Guerillas, radicals, union leaders dissenters – even, at one point, a group of schoolkids who had protested that their school bus fares too high – were a target for disappearance. Soon, there were families all over the country with a vacuum where a dad or a sister should be.

Slowly, the country’s image began to erode. The regime’s good friend Henry Kissinger was replaced by new President Jimmy Carter, who talked with ominous warmth about human rights. A UN resolution condemned the disappearances, and so on. The dictatorship was finding that the methods they had used to try to normalise Argentina in the eyes of the world had only isolated it.

In 1981, General Galtieri became the new leader of the junta. He was a man who believed that the regime’s problem was that it was unpopular, Argentina’s problem was that it was seen as weak, and that capturing the Falkland Islands would solve both. As he saw it, taking the Malvinas – as they are known to Argentineans – would unify the country, make it the standard-bearer of anti-colonialism in the region, but most of all: prove that Argentina had the cojones to rank as a first-rank power. The invasion was all the aspirations of the country in microcosm.

Incredibly, it seems that Galtieri wasn’t actually expecting the army to need to fight; the possibility of meeting resistance didn’t occur. The military strategy, if it can be called that, was simple: send some soldiers there, have them stand on the rocks. That’s it.

And, for the first fifteen days afterwards, he seemed to have succeeded. There were crowds in the streets singing the national anthem. For those two weeks it seemed that Argentinean history would record that Galtieri was the man who brought Argentina to its destiny. His speech to a jubilant crowd in front of the Presidential palace spoke of recovering Argentina’s national honour and showing America the strength of Argentina’s will.

When Britain did recapture the islands, Galtieri was so discredited that he had to resign. The regime fatally weakened, his successor gave in to the national clamour for elections, and Argentina was a democracy once more.

And so, in 1983, Raul Alfonsin was elected President. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it had been a dictatorship. Democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and national reconciliation were the solutions which would bring Argentina closer to its destiny in the ranks of the free, developed countries of the world. He is best remembered for his quote that ‘the house is in order’; this time around it was dictatorship which represented chaos, and democracy which represented order. But Alfonisn didn’t just advocate democracy – he embodied it. Brazil, Peru, and Uruguay were also making transitions to democracy in the eighties, and Argentina’s President became a symbol of democratic aspirations all across the region.

But with democracy came freedom to petition the government, and nobody was shy about using it. Half of business wanted less intervention – a freer market – and the other half wanted more intervention – bigger subsidies and cheaper loans. Both threatened to eject Alfonsin at the next election if they didn’t get what they wanted. The unions wanted bigger wage increases, and launched thirteen general strikes in just four years.

And with money flowing freely to business and labour, everyone knew that people had more to spend, and started putting prices up fast, to take advantage. In 1985, inflation averaged 100% per month. “It was no longer possible,” wrote Osvaldo Soriano, “to buy anything at night for what it had cost that morning.”He described how you would get to the end of your taxi ride, and have trouble figuring out whether the fare was millions or hundreds of millions.

The fighting factions, the inflation, the coups, and the strikes together made for a new kind of chaos. Democracy, it seemed, was not the panacea Argentina had hoped for.

 

In 1989, Alfonsin lost the Presidency to the corrupt, philandering, and depressive Carlos Menem. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was too closed. Its destiny as a developed country lay, as he saw it, in calming the inflation and opening up the economy to the rest of the world. His solution: one Argentine peso would from now on always equal one US dollar. Argentina couldn’t want a better symbol of its aspiration for parity with the superpower.

And in the early years, it worked: prices calmed down. And over the nineties, as Argentina cut spending for the poorest, sold its state-owned industries, and let its companies struggle to survive against better-organised international competitors, Argentina became the darling of the neoliberal right. It was growing, inflation was down, and loans were pouring in from international financial institutions. Every right-wing economist, every financial brochure, and every besuited bond trader looked to Argentina as an example of how to get an economy back on track.

 

But the problem was that once again, the very plan which symbolised Argentina’s newfound status – having one peso always equal one dollar – undermined it. The dollar went up. So the peso went up. So Argentinean goods got more expensive. But at the same time, Argentina’s competitors got cheaper. By the end of the decade, the rest of the world was asking itself why it should buy from newly expensive Argentina when it could buy from newly-cheap Mexico or Brazil?

Alongside this, all the money which the dollar-eyed global financiers were lending the Argentine government began to add up. The bigger the debt got, the more it looked like Argentina wasn’t ever going to be able to pay it. The more it looked like Argentina wasn’t going to be able to pay it, the riskier it became for financiers to carry on lending it money. The riskier it became to lend to it, the more money Argentina had to promise the lenders in the form of promises of ever higher interest rates, to get them to carry on lending. But the higher the interest rates it promised, the more money it cost to repay the debts it already had. It was a vicious circle. By the early noughties, everyone knew that Argentina wouldn’t be able to pay back its debts… except Argentina.

Like the Falklands fiasco, the crash back down to earth was sudden and devastating: in 2002, it defaulted. It was the biggest default in the history of the world. The dollar-peso equivalence was abandoned, and in days the peso fell to an eighth of its value. Unemployment and inflation skyrocketed, and riots broke out; 20,000 people started looting shops and destroying restaurants and banks in Buenos Aires.

I met a Spanish woman who said she’d been working in Buenos Aires at the time. She said she’d never seen queues like the ones she saw that week – round blocks and down streets. People were desperate to get into their bank and get their money out as soon as possible, to change it into dollars. For every moment they queued, their savings were worth less and less. Peoples’ life savings were decimated to an eighth of their previous value in days – and they wanted to get them out of the bank and buy dollars, before they got any poorer.

 

And in 2003, Nestor Kirchner beat Menem to the Presidency. He was a man who believed that Argentina’s problem was that it was too open. Open to borrowing foreign money, open to letting foreign companies buy Argentinean ones, but most of all: open to foreign neoliberal ideas about how to run an economy. Its destiny as a fully developed country lay, as he saw it, in turning inwards.

He renegotiated the country’s loans to much less than what they had been and paid them off in one go with a flourish. Whereas in 1995, Argentineans had seen their big borrowing as a symbol of how the world trusted it to repay, just like a proper, fully developed, world power, ten years later they saw their big repayment as a symbol of how they could stand on their own two feet without needing foreign loans, just like a proper fully developed, world power.

Over the noughties, Argentina became the darling of the antiglobalisation left. Every left-wing economist, every radical pamphlet, and every hash-smoking idealistic student around the world looked to Argentina as an example of how neoliberalism can ruin a country. And Argentina played the part. It started to take better care of the poorest in society, nationalised some of its companies, and tried to keep money inside the country by making it difficult for its companies to trade abroad. Whereas in the nineties, Argentina had borrowed from the IMF, now it borrowed from Hugo Chavez.

And once again, it thrived. For a while, Buenos Aires offered Parisian living standards at almost Guatemalan prices. Argentina’s sudden cheapness bought investment and tourism, and it grew fast.

 

I hope that nothing undermines Argentina’s current bid for fully developed country status this time around. But despite its progress, the menu of problems which might do is long. Cronyism, corruption, weak rule of law, bad enforcement of contracts which discourage new investment, the government’s habit of taking peoples’ pensions money, and assaults on the freedom of the press, are just some of the possibilities. Kirchner’s government, followed by that of his wife, seem to have a nasty habit of helping their friends’ companies to trade but making it hard for their enemies’. And when inflation started to return – I had never before seen a restaurant menu with a sticker on it saying “please add 25% to all these prices” – Presidenta Cristina tried to fight it by simply asking the Office of National Statistics to release fake figures in the hope that people would think that prices weren’t really going up. That’s like trying to fight climate change by changing the numbers on the thermometer. I don’t know how, exactly, Argentina gets from here to the world status it dreams of. But it’s not like that.

So today, Argentina’s position in the world is much as it was a hundred years ago. The tensions in Argentinean identity are written as much in its recent history as in the Buenos Aires streets. It is a country which still has to measure its progress not by its achievements, but by the diminution of its problems.

Why? What is it doing wrong? What’s the constant factor which explains its status as the world’s perennial underachiever? Why has it never quite been able to convert its assets into sustained wealth or power like other countries did?

The Spanish woman on the plane had her own theory.  “The problem with Argentina,” she said, leaning in closer, “is the Argentines. If you give an Argentine one peso, he’ll spend two.” I liked the line. But blaming a country’s problems on the people that live there is a bit too deterministic for my liking.

The real answer, as with all these things, is complicated and messy. Argentina originally allocated land only to a small elite, it didn’t industrialise fast enough, it opened up to international competition before nurturing its companies to competitiveness, it has a crazy regional budgeting system which keeps its government in debt… Every economist, historian and taxi driver can give you their own answer and be partially right.

But I think that part of the problem is its culture of belief in the quick fix itself. All too often, the quick fixes designed to bring order have brought chaos, the ones designed to make the country richer have made it poorer, and the ones designed to make it more independent have made it more dependent.

Argentina wants a strong currency, but why, it thinks, should it spend decades nurturing its economy to competitiveness when it could just peg its currency to the dollar? It wants stability, but why should its government consolidate a solid set of political institutions when they could just buy friends? It wants higher public spending, but why should it pay when it can borrow? It wants to stop inflation, why not just fix the figures? Like its inhabitants, it goes for the cosmetic surgery every time.

And in this way, it remains the aspirant, the contender, forever falling just short of the premier league status it has dreamed of for over a hundred years.

———

The Disappeared

But even after we had been in the country for nearly three weeks, if I was honest, I still didn’t feel that I completely understood the place. Then, something happened which led me towards finally making sense of the puzzle.

A few days before we left, another man who had dominated national life was also buried. The contrast with the burial of Nestor Kirchner couldn’t have been starker. His funeral was empty, details kept from the public to avoid protests. I didn’t notice anything of it on the news or in the papers. In fact, I only heard about it at all from an obituary in an English-language magazine.

But this obituary chilled me. With facts alone, it hit deeper than any poetry. The picture it painted was to change how I viewed the country, the people, even the buildings.

Like Kirchner, Emilio Eduardo Massera had been at the apex of power in Argentina. He was the Commander In Chief of the Navy and the most forceful member of the three-man military dictatorship. When it became apparent that people were going missing from families up and down the country, somebody must have put the question of what was going on to the head of the dictatorship, Jorge Videla. “They have disappeared,” he responded, and the name stuck.

In one way it was an accurate description: the people were gone, and would not be coming back. But it was also woefully inadequate: its passivity and its vacuity don’t begin to describe the reality of what happened. The victims didn’t just disappear. At some moment of some day, someone made the decision to murder them. Someone who exercised the absolute power of a dictatorship of a modern state, with its military behind them, appointed himself prosecutor and executioner at the same time, safe in the knowledge that any possible appeal for mercy could only be considered also by himself – in his additional role as judge.  The victims were not ‘disappeared’ by some impersonal force, as Videla implied, but by the conscious decision of a man who sat next to him each day, who took the explicit decision to abduct, to arrest, to torture, and finally to kill. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that for these years in the nineteen seventies, this proud country was run by psychopaths. And Emilio Eduardo Massera was their leader.

Privately, General Videla had said that “as many people as necessary must die in Argentina so that the country will again be secure.” But it was Admiral Massera who decided that the victims must be tortured too, and who took it upon himself to become the state’s torturer-in-chief. Soon after the junta was installed, he went down to the cells himself to show his fellow naval officers how it should be done. At the time, of course, this was a secret. The ‘disappeared’ were just absences: colleagues, friends, relatives; faces suspended in family photos, forever dressed for 1977. But now we know enough about what happened to them to be able to paint quite a full picture.

Imagine you’re on an empty street, pavement reflecting grimy yellow light from the streetlight. You share the street only with a green Ford Falcon which crawls a few paces behind you. In 1970s Argentina, this was a sign that you were about to be abducted, bundled into the back of the car, and driven away. For most, it was the last they would ever see of the outside world.

The victim was then taken to one of the three hundred and forty ordinary buildings around Argentina which the dictatorship had turned into secret military prisons. The most notorious was the Navy School of Mechanics, a smart white building in Olivos, a well-to-do neighbourhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. It is said that passers-by – like Jorge Luis Borges, who lived in the neighbourhood – could hear the screams from the basement as they went about their business. And that when Argentina won the World Cup final at the River Plate Stadium a kilometre away, the victims in its basement could hear the crowd’s cheering over the agonised howls of the prisoners.

Under Massera’s direction, the dictatorship turned this building into a torture laboratory, a human abbatoir, a little suburban Auschwitz.

 

Do you remember the film Marathon Man, in which Laurence Olivier’s sadistic dentist has Dustin Hoffman tied to a dentist’s chair in a dank room underground, held down, and then leans over him, asking him questions he doesn’t understand, with the everpresent threat of a brutal dental ‘operation’ if he gives the wrong answer? In the same year that American cinemagoers were squirming in their cinema seats at it, thousands of Argentineans were experiencing something very similar for real. Victims were left in solitary confinement, without water to wash or access to toilets, certainly without the possibility of seeing a doctor. They were often stripped naked, hooded so they could not see, and systematically beaten. Many were sexually abused, made to swallow electric beads which shocked horrifically inside the body, or wear an electrode-studded helmet. They were often held for months. Sometimes the naval officers charged with the torture would pretend to be about to execute them, or play them tapes of their children, husbands or wives pleading for mercy. The aim was simply to impress upon their crushed minds that there was nobody to save them.

The officers gave the rooms in the Navy School of Mechanics pet names, like ‘The Operating Theatre’ or ‘The Room of Happiness.’ Many of them carried on eating and sleeping in the building, even while the torture was going on.

Familiar objects of Argentine daily life were twisted into gruesome symbols of torture. The green Ford Falcon – then one of the most popular family cars in the country – became a symbol of state terror, a macabre ambulance-in-reverse. The submarino – a drink of hot milk and dunked melting chocolate – became a way of holding a victim’s head under scummy water so he thought he was drowning. The parilla – barbecue – became the name of the metal rack to which victims were shackled. And the electric cattle prod – common in a country with so many cows – became an instrument of torture, used to cut and burn the body, often on the victims’ genitals or teeth, to cause the maximum agony.

The Navy School of Mechanics even had its own ‘maternity unit,’ as it was known, on the third floor, where pregnant female prisoners were brought to give birth. Officers developed the practice of stealing the newborn babies from their mothers as soon as they were born, taking them away, and giving them to military families to bring up. In this way, hundreds of babies were stolen, redistributed, and left to be brought up by the colleagues of their parents’ torturers.

And then there was the administration of death itself. Those prisoners who died under torture, (what their executioners called “staying on”), would sometimes have their corpses burned in ‘barbecues’ on nearby sports fields, or left in a pile in the street as a warning to the rest of the population. And those who didn’t were the victim of the regime’s final act of psychopathic creativity. They were taken to the ‘medical ward’ and drugged until they were barely conscious, tied to concrete blocks, and then loaded clandestinely into planes. The pilot would then fly them out of Buenos Aires, out over the cold dull expanse of the Atlantic ocean, open a hatch in the plane’s underbelly, and drop them down into the water, to sink to their deaths.

All in all, the dictatorship murdered about 30,000 people. It was genocide.

 

——

The dictatorship ended in 1983. For the next twenty-two years, Argentinean politicians fought over a question as basic as whether or not these mass murderers should be brought to justice. This was worse than a fight over the rule of law: it was a fight over whether murdering someone by, say, putting them in a plane and dropping them into the sea should even be considered against the law.

The democratic government set up a military tribunal which sentenced Massera and the other leaders to life imprisonment. The army repaid him by trying to launch coups to regain power three times. But a few short years later, the next President, Menem, pardoned them all and let them out of prison.

And it was only in 2005 that President Nestor Kirchner allowed Massera, Videla and the rest of the ringleaders to be tried again, and punished for what remained of their lives. Thanks to him, the development of the court cases of those who remain alive is now a regular feature of Argentinean news. A few weeks after we left, the dictator Videla himself was sentenced to spend the remainder of his life behind bars.

And it was this, I think, which explains the puzzle of the rapturous reception of Kirchner’s funeral hearse on the streets of Buenos Aires on the day I arrived. Kirchner, like most Argentineans, knew that as long as these genocidal crimes went unpunished, their country could never be ‘normal.’ How could it be? Some of those sweet old men taking afternoon coffee in the Recoleta sunlight could have been the ones who, thirty-odd years ago, flew the planes full of woozy near-corpses to their deaths over the South Atlantic. Perhaps the many psychiatrists aren’t a symptom of sophistication at all, but of having so many who still have so much to confess. Every so often, in households in far-flung corners of Argentina, another man or woman of about my age learns that not only were they adopted, but also about the part that the people they’ve been calling mum and dad all of their lives played in the dictatorship. And so the national trauma plays out as a human trauma, in private, through into the present day.

One of the best remembered images of his era is Kirchner presiding over the ceremony to take down Videla’s picture from the Navy School of Mechanics. And I think this is the solution to the puzzle. The reason the streets were full for his funeral was because he took the country one important step towards the normality it craves. In this respect at least, he represented a part of their recent history of which Argentineans can be proud.  For all his faults, Nestor Kirchner took Argentina closer to exorcising its demons.

———–

I was inspired to write this first and foremost by Ann Wroe’s shocking obituary of Massera, the best obituary I’ve ever read. I also recommend this piece by football writer David Winner about Argentina’s dubious victory at the 1978 World Cup under the dictatorship.

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On Stornoway (May 2010)

Stornoway are one of the best bands I’ve ever heard.

They make me feel like a teenager. I don’t just want to buy the album when it comes out. I want to pore over the lyrics, the artwork, the liner notes, and inhale the spirit of the songs. That hasn’t happened since my teens. Nor have I known even before I buy an album that I’m going to play it until I know every second of every song, every nook and cranny of the stereo field, every tootle of trumpet and snap of the snare. Not since then has a band made me want to wake up early on the day an album comes out to go buy it. I’m even thinking of going to an independent record shop just to get the free vinyl edition. I don’t even own a record player.

How have this band turned me into such a besotted fan?

Start with the melodies. They have a simple, clear-eyed, crystalline quality. They are beautiful without being fussy, catchy without being flat. Like all the best melodies, you feel that you know them after hearing them once, but you still want to hear them again after hearing them twenty times.

Then there are the lyrics. Much has been made of their folksy, rustic quality. But I think more central to their charm is the spirit or personality which shines through them. There is a lot of fear there, but a lot of wonder too. A sadness offset by stoicism.

Many of the songs have an almost formal symmetry to them. Over its three verses, ‘The Coldharbour Road’ gives us a trio of relationships – bird to ocean, town to volcano, and mind to memory – implicitly setting us a riddle: find the connection. One of their best songs, ‘Fuel Up’, follows a character at neat nine year intervals, curled up in the back of the car as a boy, driving to his girlfriend’s house as a teenager, and driving home as a man, as he grows from passenger to driver of his own life.

Always, the words and sentiments thread effortlessly through the melodies. Not just on a micro level of individual phrases; you will never hear a stray syllable pulling a melodic phrase out of shape, something much harder to pull off than it seems. But also on a macro level, in the wax and wane of whole song structures. Listen to how the rhythmic gusto of ‘Fuel Up’ recedes as the protagonist reflects on the lost years he’ll never get back, before he pulls himself together for the chorus, and tells himself to ‘fuel up’ for the rest of his life’s journey. Or how ‘I Saw You Blink’ stops and stands still when the singer stops walking to stand on top of the hill. They make this combination of micro and macro musical and lyrical symmetry look like baby steps.

Their adult steps are mesmerising. For me, the five-minute epic, ‘On The Rocks’ is nothing less than a complete sound mural, painting a detailed picture of a river flowing from source to shore.
It starts with a thin trickle of guitar – top few strings only – as the spring bubbles out of a brook. The first gentle curve of electric guitar, when it arrives, (0.39) is a stream winding its way gently downhill, just before the lyric “I’ll send my love downstream.” When it begins to rain, they don’t just sing “the rain came down back in December,” they paint it. That’s that patter of cymbal you can hear (1.32) and almost audibly liquid droplets of guitar (at 1.38). Beyond the “swirls and eddies,” something on the surface finds its way downstream, bumping against rocks of snare drum (2.18 and 2.21). And after the river, suddenly we are at sea, hearing waves of fuzzy guitar crashing against the rocks (2.36 and 2.43).

Is this all deliberate, or just my imagination? I don’t think it matters. The song works its magic. I can’t say how many times I have listened to it, but it still winds me with its ambition and beauty.

But it’s not just this that explains how Stornoway have turned me into such a fan.

It’s also because of what their songs and their success say directly to me. Not just because we have a mutual friend, or because I used to live in Cowley, the place they mention in ‘Zorbing’, or because they show that if the songs are good enough, geekiness will be no impediment in such an image-conscious business.

I think that at the heart of it is a delicious ambiguity, a symmetrical pull in two opposing directions.

On the one hand, I remember what it felt like to want to write songs for a living. Seeing them do it, I feel a kinship.

On the other hand, the sheer quality of their songs shows me just how much I still have to learn. When I hear the a song like ‘Fuel Up’, lyrics poised between melancholy and hope, the specific and the general, the picture and the message; every syllable laden with meaning but none overloaded, a melody which you can imagine being sung equally by fans at a festival this summer or a drunken crowd at a roadside inn one dark night two hundred years ago, it is a sweet and powerful reminder of how incredible music can be.

It is as if this wonderful band reached inside me, grabbed the deepest dreams and ambitions I had for my own songs, then gently set their own in front of me, as if to say “this, my friend, is how it should be done.”

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On Securitisation (December 2008)

Once upon a time there was a field mouse.

Each day, before anyone else was awake, he would wake up and scamper up the Big Hill, further than any of his friends ever dared go. He liked to stop at the top of the hill to nibble at the wild blackberries and catch his breath. For there, stretched out before him, were acres and acres of wild mushrooms.

The first time he had ever reached the brow of the Big Hill and seen the mushroom field, he had found an old mouse with gnarled whiskers and thin striped boots resting on a stone. His eyes must have widened at the sight of all the mushrooms below, because the old mouse had chuckled and said

“Now sonny, if you’re going to go picking mushrooms, take my advice. You can’t just pick any old mushroom. You have to make a bit of extra effort, and find the mushrooms that are safe to eat. If you see a mushroom with nasty purple veins and oozing yellow puss, that’ll poison you. But if you see a mushroom that’s clear, it’s safe for you to eat.”

“I have to check every mushroom?” the mouse protested, “but that’s so much extra work!”

“That it is,“ said the old mouse. “That it is.”

Since then, every morning the mouse had run up the Big Hill. He didn’t want to get poisoned or poison his friends, so he carefully checked all the mushrooms, picked as many clear mushrooms as he could carry, and took them back to his field to sell. He did very well.

But today was different. Because today, on the brow of Big Hill, he came across a mouse with a Dick Wittington pouch and a slow, weatherbeaten expression.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“I’m a traveller mouse,” said Wittington, “I travel. Here and there.”

“Do you want to buy some mushrooms?” said the mouse.

“I don’t eat mushrooms” said Wittington, wrinkling his nose, “and I can’t carry enough to sell ‘em one by one.”

The mouse wiggled a finger in his ear and gnawed at a blackberry, thinking. Suddenly, he had a brilliant idea. “I tell you what,” he said, “I’ve got lots of mushrooms to spare. How about I bake lots of them together into a pie, and sell it to you?”

Wittington looked confused.

“That way,” explained the mouse, “you pay me now for one mushroom pie. And when you meet other mice on your travels, you can sell the pie to them, and make money for yourself.”

Wittington said he didn’t see why not, and then stretched out on the stone for a nap. So, rubbing his paws together in anticipation, the mouse picked lots of safe mushrooms, ran home, baked them into a pie, sold it to Wittington, and went to sleep that night a very happy mouse.

This went on for many months. Soon he was no longer picking any mushrooms to sell himself. Rather he was picking the mushrooms, baking them all together into pies, and selling all the pies to Wittington to sell on to mice from other fields.

One day, stopping at the brow of the Big Hill to catch his breath, he looked down at the field of mushrooms ahead of him. ‘The funny thing is’, he thought to himself, ‘now that I don’t sell any of the mushrooms myself, checking every single mushroom feels like a real hassle. Would it really be so bad if I don’t check them? After all, the poisonous mushrooms and the safe mushrooms all look the same when they’re baked in a pie – nobody will be able to tell the difference. And besides, once I’ve got the money from selling the pies to Wittington to sell to other mice, it makes no difference to me if some of the mushrooms in the pie are poisonous…’

And so, he filled the pies with a mixture of mushrooms – some safe, some poisonous – and sold them to Wittington as normal. Next time they met, he searched Wittington’s face for any signs that anything was wrong.

“Was everything ok with those mushrooms last time?” he asked.

Wittington shrugged. “I sold ‘em,” he said. “Same as normal. No problem.”

The mouse smiled. This carried on for many more months. But as summer turned to autumn and the leaves started blowing off the trees, reports started reaching the field of some kind of epidemic plaguing the community of mice in fields far and wide. Many said that some mice had eaten so many pies that they had begun to die, and that that soon whole fields of mice would be dead.

The mouse kept himself to himself. He didn’t want to find out anything that would make him feel too guilty. Eventually, he decided that he had to talk to Wittington. The next time they met, he summoned all his courage, and explained that sometimes, just some of the mushrooms in the pies had maybe been poisonous.

“But you put them all in the same pies!” protested Wittington.

“Well,” he said, shuffling his feet, “yes.”

Wittington whistled under his breath and shook his head sadly. “Wow,” he said. “There goes the field mouse community.”

*****

Once upon a time there was an investment banker.

Every morning, before anyone else was awake, he would wake up and scamper into the Big City. There, he would survey the vast array of investments stretched out before him.

He mainly lent money to people so they could buy houses. When he started out, an old banker with gnarled whiskers and a pin-striped suit had taken him aside and said to him:

“Now sonny, if you’re going to go picking people to lend money to, take my advice. You can’t just lend to anyone. Before you lend, you have to make a bit of extra effort, and find out who’s likely to be able to pay you back. If someone has a bad credit history, if they can’t tell you where they’re going to get their money or they used to be bankrupt, they’re less likely to be able to pay you the money back. But if their credit history seem fine, then the loans are safe to make.”

“I have to check every single person who wants a loan?” the banker protested, “but that’s so much extra work!”

“That it is,“ said the old banker. “That it is.”

The banker didn’t want to lend any money to people who wouldn’t be able to pay it back. So, he carefully checked the credit histories of all the people he lent to, and lent to as many people with good credit histories as he could find. He did very well.

But today was different. Because today he had a meeting with an executive from another big investment bank.

“Look,” he said to the executive. “I’ve lent money to lots of people. Now they all owe me money. Do you want to buy one of those loans, so that someone will owe a bit of money to you instead?”

“I don’t deal in loans,” said the executive, wrinkling his nose.

The banker drummed his fingers on the table and tapped at his BlackBerry, thinking. Suddenly, he had a brilliant idea. “I tell you what,” he said, “How how about I mix lots of loans together into one pie, so to speak, and sell the pie to you?”

The executive looked confused.

“That way,” he explained, “You pay me now for the one pie with all the loans in it. Then you can sell the pies on to other banks, and make money for yourself.”

“OK,” agreed the executive. “There’s just one thing. We can’t call it a pie. It sounds completely ridiculous.”

“Oh, the name really makes no difference. We can call it whatever you like. A ‘security,’ perhaps? Or if you don’t like that, how about a ‘special purpose vehicle‘, a ‘special investment vehicle’, or an ’off-balance sheet entity’?”

The executive didn’t see why not. So, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, the banker pooled all the loans together into a security, sold it to the executive, and went to sleep that night a very happy investment banker.

This went on for many months. Soon he was no longer lending any money to people so that he would get it back himself. Rather he was making loans to people, putting all the loans together into securities, and selling all the securities to the executive to sell on to other investment banks.

But one day, looking at all of the work he had to do to check all the credit histories, he had a thought. ‘The funny thing is, now that I don’t get any of the money from the loans back myself, checking every single person before I lend money to them feels like a real hassle. Would it really be so bad if I don’t check them? After all, all the loans look the same when they’re all together in a security – nobody will be able to tell the difference. And besides, once I’ve got the money from selling the securities to other banks, it makes no difference to me if some of them were to people who won’t be able to pay it back…’

And so, he filled the security with a mixture of loans – some loans he had made to people who probably would be able to pay it back, and some to people who probably wouldn’t – and sold them to the executive as normal. Next time they met, he searched the executive’s face for any signs that anything was wrong.

“Was everything ok with those securities last time?” he asked.

“I sold ‘em to other banks,” the executive said. “Same as normal. No problem.”

The banker smiled. This carried on for many more months. But as the third quarter turned into the fourth, and the leaves started blowing off the trees, reports started reaching the bank that some of the people the banker had lent money to couldn’t afford to pay it back. So some of the investment banks which had bought the securities with all the loans in weren’t getting the money they thought they would get. And that was a lot of money. Many said that some of the banks had bought so many, that they had begun to go bust or need bailouts, and that soon millions of people around the world would lose their jobs.

The banker kept a low profile. He didn’t want to find out anything that made him feel too guilty. The next time he met the executive, he summoned all his courage, and explained that sometimes, he hadn’t checked that the person he lent to would be able to pay it back.

“But you put them all in the same securities!” protested the executive.

“Well,” he said, shrugging, “that’s securitisation. Everyone does it.”

The executive whistled under his breath, and shook his head sadly. “Wow,” he said. “There goes the world economy.”
——–

If you’re interested, there´s more information here.

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On al Qaeda (October 2008)

Imagine you’re on youtube one day when you find an interview with John McCain in which he says he is going to tell Osama bin Laden how to defeat the United States once and for all. Imagine then that he goes on to outline one of the most thoughtful, original, articulate and ingenious pieces of anti-American strategic thinking which you have heard in a long time. For ninety minutes. You look at the date on the video and see it was made a year ago and you realise that somehow, the media hasn’t found it at all. How would you feel about it?

Well, the other day I found myself in pretty much exactly that situation – the other way round. I found this article by a top terrorism expert at West Point US Military Academy. In it, he explains, with a charming mixture of scholarly distance and unscholarly incredulity, that a top Al Qaeda leader called Abu Yahya al-Libi has made a video telling the USA how to beat it.

Like John McCain, Abu Yahya is a hardliner. Like John McCain, he speaks with the authority of combat experience. Like John McCain, he has been imprisoned and escaped, in his case, from the American Bagram prison in 2005. And whereas there’s a good chance that John McCain will be the next man to lead the global war on terror, there’s a good chance that Abu Yahya will be the next man to lead global terror; he has been called ‘the heir apparent to Osama bin Laden.’

So, what’s young Yahya’s advice? And perhaps more importantly, what the hell is he doing?

Well, he advises the USA and its allies to to use al Qaeda’s weaknesses against it. And its biggest weakness is that it has to persuade recruits to kill not just innocent people, but also themselves. However much potential radicals may hate the West and what it does in the Islamic world, persuading them to kill themselves will always be really hard. Of course, they justify it using a radical interpretation of Islam, which most Muslims disagree with. So Yahya recommends discrediting that interpretation, and the jihadis who use it.

He suggests sowing ‘seeds of doubt’ among radicals by making a big deal of senior ex-Jihadi scholars who retract their views. He argues that if the media interviewed them and reviewed their books prominently, it would be more credible than if governments did. He also suggests exaggerating jihadi tactical mistakes, like trying to attack the hajj pilgrimage, defaming it in the Muslim world, for example by alleging that they kill members who want to quit, and emphasising their internal disagreements. He also suggests that qualified theological teams help deradicalise jihadi prisoners, (which has worked in Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, and has now been adopted in Britain). All these ideas, you might notice, are either cheap or free.

But it’s the question of why he’s giving this advice at all that’s really interesting. The theory is that he feels safe to give this advice because he knows that America won’t take it, because it goes against the grain of how the Bush administration has conceived the war on terror.

The objective of most American policy is: killing Islamic terrorists. But the objective of most of Yahya’s advice is: making people not want to be Islamic terrorists. And in this, surely he’s absolutely right. In the short run, imprisoning terrorists, cutting off their money, and making sure they don’t have safe territory to work in will help. But in the long run, all those things will probably motivate more terrorists. That’s not a winning strategy.

Of course, the idea that the fight against Islamic terrorism is ultimately a war of ideas is old news. Lots of people have been saying it for years. What Abu Yahya adds is the insight that governments can’t win that battle, and shouldn’t directly try. They can’t persuade anyone that violent fundamentalist interpretations of Islam are wrong, because they’re not Islamic scholars. They’re not credible. It would be like having a propaganda campaign against the Ku Klux Klan organised by the Saudi royal family. They would shrug, at best.

His contribution is that the battle isn’t between a western ideology and theirs. It’s between an interpretation of Islam which justifies terror and one which condemns it. And if you were a young Muslim teenager leaning towards radicalism, you might be influenced by a respected religious scholar’s opinion. But George Bush? Not so much.

The really galling thing is that academics researching counterterrorism, policing, and deradicalisation now agree that the war of ideas is key. Every year we learn
more and more about how to reduce radicals’ motivation. So there’s really no excuse for governments to argue that traditional military operations will beat terrorism in the long-run. Decades from now, when the history of this period is written, the biggest question will be: if they wanted to tackle terrorism, why didn’t they use the best expertise they had – like Abu Yahya’s – about how to do it?

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On Cuba (August 2008)

I’ve just come back from backpacking around Cuba. As the washing machine spins three weeks of dirt from my clothes, I thought I’d write down my impressions before they fall away too.

It’s a beautiful Caribbean island with lush green mountain ranges and beaches of fine sand and clear warm turquoise seas. This time of year, it is hot every day until around five or six, when you have the daily electrical storm for two or three hours.

The people, too, are incredibly warm, happily revealing details about their lives in a first conversation which might take years to unlock from a Briton. One man in whose house Irenea and I stayed sat with us after dinner and, after showing us how he could roll a perfect cigar from tobacco leaves without glue, talked happily about petrol prices (about 50p a litre since Cuba’s deal with Venezuela), new economic reforms (to give fruit growers an incentive to grow more than the quota they must sell to the state, they are now allowed to sell any surplus they have for personal profit) and the horrors of having a menopausal wife (“she recoils even just when I touch her!”).

Many people also showed us so much generosity that it was humbling. At one point, we wanted to camp on a beach. We were staying in a tiny poor rural village, at the house of a friend of friend of a friend, who, without even really knowing us, cooked us an extravagant and delicious dinner and insisted we sleep in their own bedroom. On the morning of our journey to the beach, they diligently packed our stuff into two bags, tied them onto their horse, and had their twelve year-old son Julio lead us the hour and a half journey through the crab-filled woodland to the beach, where he helped us put up the tent, light a fire, and showed us how to keep the water bottles cool by burying them in the sand. The beach was completely deserted apart from crabs and the occasional poor fisherman going out in small wooden boats. One gave us some of his lunch of freshly caught and fried fish, and another – despite probably being the poorest person we met in the country – gave us special wood to burn to keep mosquitos away overnight, petrol to get the fire going, and came back in the morning to check we were ok and wave us off. Overnight, we watched an electrical storm light up the beach in spooky flashes of silvery light.

As we travelled, we wondered how much peoples’ generosity is a by-product of the political system. Since its revolution in January 1959, Cuba has been a socialist country. It was on the Soviet side in the Cold War, and from 1970 to the early nineties had a Soviet-style communist economy. I’d never been to a communist country before, and was intrigued to see its effects.

“From now on,” announced revolutionary leader Fidel Castro in the year of the revolution, “the children of the peasants will have schools, sports facilities, and medical attention.” And so they do. Two years after the revolution, he launched one of the boldest social campaigns I have ever heard of. The goal was quite simple: to teach everybody in the country to read, in one year. The regime organised for 100,000 young teachers, many of them teenagers, to travel across the country teaching the illiterate 40% of the population, many of them poor peasants in the remote countryside. It was a smashing success. The early years of the revolution also saw the construction of 3,000 new schools, the recruitment and training of 7,000 new teachers, and 300,000 new pupils in school. Today, a World Bank report is able to say that “in many ways, Cuba’s schools are the equals of schools in OECD countries, despite the fact that Cuba’s economy is that of a developing country.” Education in Cuba is badly politicised, but it is world-class and free.

Healthcare in Cuba was good before the revolution – with more doctors per head than Britain, France, Holland or Japan – but now it is excellent, free, and available in the remotest parts of the countryside. Even in the tiny countryside village we visited there is a clinic, and all over the country, you see people going around with slings, bandages, eye-patches, and wheelchairs, as if eager to show off the generosity of their country’s healthcare system. And it has worked. The woman of the family we stayed with in Havana had needed four rounds of chemotherapy to beat her cancer, and knew that she might not have survived if she had lived in another Latin American country. According to CIA figures, a Cuban’s life expectancy – 77 – is close to the OECD average for rich countries, and its infant mortality rate (5.93 babies dying per 1,000 born) is better than the US’. Not only that, but Cuba has built schools in the countryside so that medical students from other Latin American countries can train in Cuba, completely free. We stayed over at one with Paulo and Jessica, some Ecuadorian friends studying there. Paulo explained to me that the schools were built in such remote places so that if the US ever attacked the country, they could be used as refugee hideouts.

Apart from that, the revolution has seen the longest period of stability and racial harmony in Cuba’s history, hunger and extreme poverty have been eliminated, crime is low, the streets are safe, and there is a real sense of community and cooperation. Cuba has produced some award-winning state-subsidised movies, great music, and has more Olympic gold medals per head of the population than any other country in the world. As our cigar-rolling friend mused, “some countries in the world are richer than Cuba, some are poorer, but here, life is good.”

But he wouldn’t know. One of the aspects which I found disturbing about the Cuban system is that the government controls all the information which reaches the population. There are only state newspapers, state TV; the state vets books and restricts the internet. After a while, this made me feel sick. You simply can’t get good information. Catching sight of a man holding a pile of copies of ‘The Times’ inside the British Embassy felt like catching a tantalising glimpse of water in a desert. Landing in Europe and seeing a newsstand heaving with newspapers and magazines, I experienced the novel sensation of wanting to hug it. Even the slightly cartoony music to the nightly news programme on state TV took on a sinisterly patronising quality after a while – “bringing you all the news that the government doesn’t mind you knowing” it seemed to say. (If you’re interested, it’s here).

I soon found myself unable to trust anything anyone told me which was outside of their own personal experience, because however intelligent and well-intentioned they were, the only information they can get is politically selected. As a Cuban author or scholar, you know that anything you might want to write that is not in the spirit of the revolution won’t be published, so there is no freedom of speech, no free competition of ideas, no freedom to express anything which might encourage people to think independently. Natural human curiosity stays within the bounds of what the state lets you know exists. After browsing the second hand book stalls on Havana’s beautiful old square and finding them full of the same-old material which you find everywhere else in Cuba – Castro’s speeches, the history of the revolution, biographies of Che Guevara, the history of the CIA’s secret war against Cuba, battered copies of the Soviet Constitution and the occasional book on some non-offensive topic such as the Roman Empire or European Renaissance Art – there was nothing to do but sit down and continue reading the history of Cuba I’d bought from London, and feel bloody lucky to come from somewhere which allowed its historians to write equally about Castro’s mistakes as well as his successes.

The state also owns almost every business and pays every worker, badly. One guy told me how he worked a seventy hour week in one of the state bakeries for the equivalent of $8 a month, most of which went straight back to the state in utility bills and food costs. Since Cuba has done a deal with Venezuela exchanging doctors for oil, he explained, Cuban medical care has got worse because so many doctors abscond. They don’t want to come back and carry on earning $15 a month.

Although it’s starting to change now, earning a personal profit has been illegal for the last forty years. Despite this, I got the feeling that there was incredible human potential in Cuba, and a natural, unselfish, workaday desire to just get on and make some money. You see little hints of aspiration everywhere. Cycling through the countryside, a man popped up from under a roadside bush and shouted ‘Cigars!’ at us, in the hope that we might stop and buy. In 1996, the government tentatively allowed people to open private cafes. As my straight-faced history book put it, “these proved so successful that Castro almost immediately ordered them to be closed.” These days, you can own a cafe, as long as it is family-run and only has twelve tables. A communist government, it seems, is in a uniquely bad position to see that there are many things the market does better than the state, and the Cuban people are the worse off for it.

State products, meanwhile, are sometimes comically uniform. Walking past some girls in the street carrying slices of cake, we noticed it looked identical to the other cake we had seen being sold in the city and around the country. And then we realised why: it was state-cake.

Communist inefficiencies are met with Caribbean languor. Our cigar-rolling friend told us breezily that he hadn’t been able to do his day job as a taxi driver for a year because his car had broken down, and he was still waiting for the state to repair it.

Because there are no private companies, there are no adverts, no billboards, no posters, no branding, and no promotions. And at first it’s quite refreshing. Instead, though, there’s propaganda, on posters, painted on walls, on TV, or on little improvised cardboard signs, advertising the only brand in the country – the revolution. Most of it looks quite jolly and features slogans which are quite inspiring at face value, such as “Never lie and be good – that’s the ethics of the revolution;” “’We will make the fairest socialism in the world’ – Fidel;” or “Sport – the right of the people.” But after a while, the appeal of the sentiments pales compared to the ugliness of their overbearing ubiquity; no alternative sentiments are available, anywhere.

The propaganda creates a sense that the state is everywhere. But for ordinary Cubans, the state really is everywhere. People are afraid. They feel watched, and they’re normally right. Trying to get a cheap taxi to another town, we have to slink down the street unobtrusively so that our driver isn’t seen by a policeman letting tourists get into a car which has no air conditioning – the state doesn’t allow it. Trying to get a cycle-taxi into central Havana from the outskirts, the petrified driver urges us please not to speak English – he’ll be in trouble if he’s found driving tourists in this part of town – the state doesn’t allow that, either. Paying for things is normally done furtively round dark corners so as not to arouse suspicion.

On every block in every town there is a base for the ‘Committee for the Defence of the Revolution.’ This is normally a regular family of party loyalists whose job it is to organise stuff like vaccinations, recycling initiatives, parties, and a kind of neighbourhood watch scheme. But their main task is to keep notes on anyone in the block who doesn’t show enough enthusiasm for the regime, and report them to the authorities if need be. Many Cuban houses have an open-backed section where families eat and talk. I rarely got the feeling that anyone talking politics over a meal at home felt at liberty to speak their mind. (The only exception to this was the dedicated party member who kindly put us up for a few nights and made us a fantastic supper. Asked how Cuba would deal with a US invasion, she unflinchingly replied, “the people would annihilate them.” This, it turns out, is also official government policy. In 1983 when the Soviets told Cuba that they couldn’t afford to guarantee its military security any more, the regime adopted a new defence policy of ‘a people’s war’. In other words: we all fight like hell). Most people, though, phrase any criticism delicately with a well-practised ease. “Private property is something relative in Cuba,” said our hosts in Havana. They were talking about their state-owned house.

Cuba is a one-party democracy. That literally means that people can vote for absolutely any citizen at all, but only to represent their opinions to the regime. Asked about being a dictator (in the film ‘Comandante’), Castro protested that he had always tried to get his way by persuasion. This is true. But it nicely misses the point that real democracy normally prevents its leaders getting what they want any other way. Cuba is second only to China for the number of journalists it holds in prison, and still occasionally uses the death penalty. I doubt that anyone has heard of the human rights to free association, assembly, privacy and movement, to know that they are denied them. It seems telling that Castro has developed the long-winded air of a man who hasn’t been interrupted very often in the last fifty years.

The thing I found most saddening, though, was that on top of all this, Cubans can’t leave. They may temporarily visit a foreign country if they have a letter of invitation – my baker friend talked to me wistfully of his time in Manchester – but he knew that the authorities rarely let people leave for good.

He also told me how the way Cuba is developing now brings new inequalities to the country. Essentially, Cuba used to rely on selling sugar to the USSR. The Soviet Union was literally its sugar daddy – a richer, older, dowdier communist regime hooking up with a poorer, younger, more glamorous one – subsidising the occasional indulgence such as international guerrilla expeditions, and in return sharing some of the early left-wing adulation in which the revolution basked. Anyway, this reliance on sugar alone meant that the Cuban economic planners didn’t have to worry too much about the inequalities which might arise from one industry growing faster than another.

Since 1995, though, Cuba’s main source of income has been tourism. Tourism has been good for Cuba; it has brought in money that the country needs. But the country needs to diversify. Its over-reliance on tourism is making it more unequal. For example, to get the most out of tourists, the government has instituted two currencies, an expensive one in which to charge tourists and a cheap one in which to pay Cubans. This has created two separate economies working side-by-side. This stops the wealth that the tourist industry generates from spreading to people who don’t work in it. My baker-friend’s government wage could not begin to pay for a meal at most cafés in his town, because they are priced in tourist pesos, as are more and more goods. The effect is that most people can’t afford most things, and forty-nine years after a revolution which took power to combat excessive inequalities, they are opening up again. Teenagers are beginning to ask why they should study for their medical exams when they could earn so much more in tourism. Sadly, to be a tourist in Cuba is to further prise apart the gap between the rich and the poor.

Another result of having two currencies is the growing apartheid between Cubans and tourists. You want to get some food? Ah, you’ll need the other copy of the menu, the one with the tourist prices. You want to catch a bus. Well, step this way – to the section of the bus station with aircon, a TV and a security guard. You want to rent a car? Well, Cubans may be driving either Soviet Ladas or reconfigured pre-1959 classics, but for you, something right up to date. The effect is hierarchical and ugly.

Perhaps there is a sorry metaphor here between the development of the revolution and that of its most famous icon, the photo of Che Guevara from 1960. It was once an icon of anti-imperialist aspiration and resistance, held up by successive generations of protestors against Vietnam, capitalism, and much else. But now you can get Che posters, t-shirts, hats, key-rings, fridge magnets, glasses cases, cigarette lighters… even a Che air freshener. It’s almost as if Che’s face is now an icon of the commodification of the ideals for which he fought.

But to an extent, hasn’t the same thing happened to his revolution itself? Once young, passionate, idealistic and idealised, it stood against imperialism, injustice, poverty, and corruption. Now, though, it gets by on money from tourists like me, who want to pay to sit on the beach and see the communism, many seeing it as a kind of ideological themepark, a communist Disneyland. Cuba’s over-reliance on tourism is eroding the ideals for which the regime came to power.

My overall impression was of a regime whose achievements were in the distant past and which had long since been doing the people more harm than good. Many of the revolution’s ideals were admirable. But in the end, a political regime should be judged on the quality of the daily life it delivers before the nobility of its ideals; after all, daily life is where most people live, most of the time. Che didn’t die for endless forms in triplicate. He didn’t die so that every time a household appliance broke you had to wait for the National Ministry for Fixing Household Goods to fix it. Whatever good it has done for Cuba, if the revolution’s legacy includes inescapable low pay, repression of initiative, and fear of speaking your mind in case your neighbour’s listening, we shouldn’t be too misty-eyed to condemn it.

What is especially sad about Cuba is that by improving Cuba’s education, health and infrastructure so well, the regime has given perhaps the best opportunity in the continent for people to fulfil their individual economic potential, if they want to. But it has then gone on to crush almost every suggestion of enterprise, because it doesn’t believe in individual economic potential. And all the while persuading them that it is the best political system going. I wanted to shake the country by the scruff of the neck and tell it ‘you have good education, you have great healthcare, and nobody lacks for food or shelter. The regime has told you that because these were political ends in the past, they are all the ends you will ever need. It’s a lie! They’re also means, preconditions for aspiration and enterprise! You can do better! Unchain the internet, put the education to good use with a free press, turn every block’s Committee for the Defence of the Revolution into a polling station! And let a new generation take power, one brought up unsatisfied with the political achievements of yesterday, and which aspires to solve the political problems of today.’

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On Larkin’s Life (June 2008)

I hadn’t finished reading Larkin’s last collection of poems, High Windows, when I knew I wanted to read his biography. That’s strange, I thought. Why read about Larkin’s life, already? Surely his life is only significant because of the poetry it produced: why not read more poetry? It felt like I was less interested in trying to understand the universal ideas and feelings which might emanate from his poems, and more interested in trying to understand the particular ideas and feelings Larkin had put into them. In short, I was interested in Larkin. Why?

I read the biography. Unlike most people who merit biographies, poets need not have done anything particularly exciting. Even so, Larkin did less than most. His life was marked less by what he did, and more by what he avoided. The list includes noise, spending, abroad, marriage, commitment, and other people. A case in point was Larkin’s growing fame as a poet. It is not easy for the biographer, Andrew Motion, to depict, as there’s simply nothing much to say about how it changed him. He certainly didn’t move house, leave Hull, or leave his job as chief librarian at its University. All there is for Motion to describe is how Larkin’s fame increased the threats to his solitude. It meant more people to avoid, invitations to decline, speeches to fear, honours to reject, and money to worry about not having spent. (“Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:/ ‘why do you let me lie here wastefully?”). All Motion can really do to leaven his descriptions of the effects of Larkin’s growing reputation is provide occasional updates on the changing ways in which he was seen by others. As Larkin’s stature and crabbiness grew year by year, you can practically picture each intake of students hanging around the Hull issue desk more diffidently than the last.The story of much of Larkin’s inner life is deeply conventional too. It is a story of a man drawing identity from his day job (“…give me my in-tray/ My loaf-haired secretary…”), caring for his widowed mother, growing more reactionary as he ages, and allowing friendships formed in youth to fall away as age draws each personality further into itself. Motion’s unobtrusive and illuminating style makes it a joy to read about Larkin’s life. Certainly, you feel that you’ve had a lot more fun reading it than Larkin had living it. But its brute facts alone didn’t seem to be what I was looking for.

The answer seemed to have something to do with his arrestingly bleak attitude to life, and the personality which gave rise to the poems in which he expressed it. What I really wanted to get at was how the external stimuli of his life were filtered through the layers of personality to result in the poems. An explanation of where his poetry came from. In short, the action I was looking for was inside Larkin’s head.

This is exactly what Motion’s biography gives us, and it is this which makes it quite so good. It is a rich and emotionally intelligent portrait of one man’s mind as it evolves over a lifespan. It illustrates how different aspects of the poet’s environment interacted with different aspects of his personality at different times. It is as close as we can get to listening in to Larkin’s mind as he wrote the poems we have come to know.

And what we hear, of course, is the sound of various different shades of gloom. Larkin’s whole oeuvre can be seen as a celebration of misery. The biography reveals that certain small things, like seeing his work in print for the first time, did make him happy every so often, but that he didn’t really seem to enjoy it. Misery was where his heart lay. I found this both frightening and funny. Frightening, that the whole of a man’s life can be so harshly oppressed by the prospect of its end. But funny because, like most of us, Larkin was feeling his way towards a certain kind of happiness, that of becoming a successful poet. The fact that, unlike most of us, he achieved it many times over – he was probably the country’s greatest living poet by the end of his life – would, I thought, make misery harder and harder to justify. What I found funny was that his muse would, in theory, be threatened by the success of the very writing it inspired.

But this was a misunderstanding on my part, of course. His misery was mainly existential; it was on much firmer ground than any pleasure he might derive from mere worldly success. Martin Amis put it neatly when he explained Larkin’s attitude towards the towering success of his poetry as “well, that’s not going to be any bloody use to me when I’m in the grave, is it?” There’s a moment in the biography where Larkin has been offered an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. As the day of the ceremony approaches, he becomes more and more terrified of the attention it will entail. He wrote to a friend: “my secretary says it’s all in my mind and I must practise positive thinking. I say if I’m getting it for anything at all it’s for negative thinking. Oh dear.”

But even this is only half the story. True, Larkin may have been constitutionally gloomy, but he did have choices. Another man would have married one of the three women who showed him devotion, spent more of the fortune he earned, had children, seen more of the world, socialised more. And so the obvious question is: why did he not at least try to be happy?

Motion’s answer to this question is that to a great extent, it was because he regarded all of life’s choices through the prism of what would be good for his poetry writing. And that was solitude, time, a day job which gave him the financial independence to be able to stop writing if he didn’t have any good ideas, and an involvement in emotional entanglements which stopped short of commitment. With the poet’s feel for the metaphor, Motion describes how Larkin was only able to write to his satisfaction during periods of the right emotional ‘weather.’ To a great extent, he relentlessly avoided conventional happiness, the better to preserve the boredom, misery and fear which he knew stoked his talent. It is this which I find so fascinating about Larkin. His life can be read as a story of a titanic struggle between artistic fulfilment and simple human happiness.

He chose art. He chose writing about unhappiness over seeking happiness. He opted out of the normal human pursuit of happiness, and in doing so, made misery his raison d’être. In a sense, his life is a story of a man preserving a unique distance from happiness, the better to fulfil the potential of his talent for expressing misery.

'Loaf-haired'

‘Loaf-haired’

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