The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt

This novel is beautifully written in places. Reflective, it glances at lives of suffering and endurance. It is based in part on the teaching work of the author. This had taken place at a psychiatric unit. However, the text is also a homage to the memoir of the writer’s father.

From this somewhat unpromising material, Hustvedt has constructed a story which had slightly too much in it. Nevertheless, the unnecessarily convoluted plot did not prevent the tale from shimmering with carefully chosen words.

Hustvedt has had poetry published and this is reflected in the quality of her prose. And she is able to leave the psychology alone long enough to quote some of the literary advice of Rainer Maria Rilke:

“For if we think of the existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down.”


John Maynard Keynes 1883-1946 by Robert Skidelsky

This biography of Keynes was of absorbing interest. However, like most biographies it has reflected many aspects of the author. This work has the subtitle of ‘Economist, Philosopher, Statesman.’ Undoubtedly, Keynes was many things. However, it was his remarkable contribution to political economy which stands out. The great emphasis which Lord Skidelsky has put on the non-economic elements of Keynes arguably has its roots in disciplinary competence. As a historian, Skidelsky has concentrated much of his efforts on the philosophy, personality, context and political activity of Keynes.

The approach which has been taken is therefore not always generous enough to Keynesian thinking. Skidelsky has been at times too ready to accept the tendentious arguments of its critics like Milton Friedman. Further, the deficits in thinking have surfaced in misjudgements about other giants of political economy. For example, Adam Smith was criticised for leaving “no scope for benevolent standards.” Smith was the author of a text called ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ and he criticised a trend in contemporary consumerism:

“How many people ruin themselves by laying out money on trinkets of frivolous utility? What pleases these lovers of toys is not so much the utility, as the aptness of the machines which are fitted to promote it. All their pockets are stuffed with little conveniences.”

Other gaps in knowledge and sympathy might mean that the text may not survive as an authoritative biography of Keynes. Whether such a controversial figure as Keynes could ever be captured in the definitive way attempted by Skidelsky remains an open question.

Althusser, Baldwin, Corbyn: the A B C of media matters

The philosopher Louis Althusser was adamant that the media should be viewed as an Ideological State Apparatus. He was convinced that it served as a non-repressive arm of the capitalist state. However, even significant Conservative politicians like Stanley Baldwin have bemoaned the influence of press barons. Baldwin once bitterly commented that Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere had obtained:

“power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

At the present time, Jeremy Corbyn has been perceived by some as a short-term threat to a few business interests in the UK. He has been on the receiving end of a variety of shrill denunciations in the press. However, it may be wise for radical media critics to remember that journalists can change their mind.

The economic policies advocated by Mr Corbyn are not extreme. If he survives the current media onslaught to make a reshuffle, he could promote the competent Angela Eagle. If she had a major post it might put those who have criticised the composition of the Shadow Cabinet on gender terms in a really awkward position. Such a switch would have to be made without sacrificing hardly any of the populist team’s hostility to austerity because excess moderation could cost them dearly.

Corbyn and Louise Michel: lessons from the Paris Commune?

The Paris Commune and the victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership contest might not have very much in common. Nevertheless, both could be interpreted as manifestations of class struggle. Furthermore, it is possible to see both events as moments where socialist values bubbled up in a way which threatened to disturb the power of hegemonic ideas.

In addition, the two events led to a situation where the movements which flourished under them were under immediate threat. The Paris Commune was threatened by military force on the ground, whereas Corbyn and his followers have been threatened by the power of the mass media. In both cases, political survival  became a priority.

Louise Michel was a veteran of the Paris Commune. The anarchist heroine continued her political activities after its unfortunate demise. Corbyn supporters should learn from her resilience and her love of the struggle. In her memoirs, Michel wrote:

“Yes, barbarian that I was, I loved the cannon, the smell of gunpowder and grapeshot in the air, but above all, I was in love with the revolution!”

Corbyn and 1968: lessons for the left?

The Corbyn victory in the Labour leadership contest has revitalised the left. By challenging the deadly discourse of austerity, he has threatened consensual politics in the UK. However, his strategy has also opened up historical discussion about the real mission of left politicians. While the Corbyn surge can be perceived as a populist challenge to a complacent establishment, it can also be viewed as a flowering of the values of 1968.

In 1968, capitalism was challenged in Paris, while state socialism was attacked in Prague. Both oligarchical systems were assaulted by determined democratic movements. The Corbyn insurgency has that same democratising flavour. Furthermore, the fact is that optimism is once again in the air.

However, the forces of reaction proved far too powerful in 1968. The elites survived. And the left struggled. One reason for its difficulties was its emphasis on identity politics. While it was necessary to challenge patriarchy and racism, identity politics evolved into a diversion from the issue of social justice. The election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party can be seen as a rejection of technocratic identity politics. However, his prospects of success are restricted by a variety of national and international factors. Hence the left has to analyse the situation with care as the media attempts to destroy his reputation.

Romeo and Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann

Shakespeare, despite the astringent criticism of Tolstoy, has continued to have a profound impact on cultural production. This has not been confined to the stage. Numerous attempts have been made to translate Shakespeare into efforts appropriate for films and television. One of the bard’s most enduring tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, was attempted by director Baz Luhrmann during the last decade of the twentieth century.

The extravagant visual extravaganza was a clear example of postmodernism. There was a playful abandon about the spectacle. The timeless narrative was broken up by a powerful soundtrack, unsubtle imagery, and framed as a story within a story. Despite the gallant diligence of Pete Postlethwaite, the actors struggled to achieve coherence amid the colourful chaos. The tragic element of the tragedy was almost drowned out by the style of the Miami-Rio carnival.

However, the inherent weaknesses of postmodernism are more evident from a contemporary perspective than they were then. The film was made when the political projects of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were still alive. Many ordinary people were taken in by the compromises those manipulative politicians made. The ostentatious display of wealth as shown in the movie was a reflection of a postmodernist perspective which did not see the selective gaps in its own metanarrative.

How the Labour Party could miss its Churchill moment

Winston Churchill was humiliated in the election of 1945. Much to his chagrin, the labour movement had caught the mood of the people. However, by 1951 he was back in power. By then, the Conservative leader was almost 77. The question is whether the decrepit Labour Party can learn from this example of never giving up.

Jeremy Corbyn has a wealth of political experience. He knows that it is necessary to talk to unsavoury characters to achieve political progress. He recognises that age is no barrier to achieving success. While his ideology might not be nearly as reactionary as the jingoism of Churchill, Corbyn has the charisma necessary to generate enthusiasm.

Labour has the opportunity to ignore the opportunity which Corbyn represents. It can retreat into its comfort zone. It can avoid a confrontation with the power of the press. It can take shelter in identity politics. However, if it turns its back on passion and principle, it will lose the momentum which the optimism of Corbyn has kindled. A diminished party would face a diminished country in 2020. And this disaster might be terminal, with alienated voters leaking to the Greens, to the Liberal Democrats, and to UKIP.