The Writing on the Wall by Will Hutton

This book grapples with the economic and political prospects of China. However, its thesis that China is particularly unstable does not convince the reader. Since its publication, the economies of the West have had to resort to unorthodox monetary and fiscal policies to avoid collapse. Further, the European project has become controversial due to the crisis in Greece. And the legitimacy of the USA has been challenged by Occupy Wall Street.

Despite tensions in Hong Kong, it has been hard to see cracks in the hegemony of the Chinese Communist Party. While the economy of China has endured a sticky patch, experts like Martin Jacques remain confident that muddling through will permit stabilisation around a more sustainable growth rate.

The problem with the analysis is that it is based on wishful thinking which does not respect Chinese orthodoxies. Many of the values of the Enlightenment are laudable. Nonetheless, the relevance of Enlightenment philosophy to understanding the way we live now is controversial. This is partly because of the divergence in thinking between Enlightenment figures. Further, Hutton depends too much on late Habermas when making fuzzy policy prescriptions.

In a world of competing interests, environmental crises and major economic contradictions it seems unrealistic to expect that practical politicians in China or the United States will put aside their ideologies in exchange for unproven musing based on questionable assumptions about human nature.

The Snail by Henri Matisse

This bold piece of art was created in the early post-war period. It consists of pieces of paper with gouache paint on them. It is a large work and its striking colours are eye-catching.

Matisse came up with the concept for the bright object. However, his assistants played a significant role in painting the paper by hand. A short film at an exhibition in Liverpool highlighted the fact that his assistants were often attractive females. Coupled with the presence of female nudes, this raised the question of whether or not the great artist exploited women. French women first exercised the vote in 1945, and perhaps it is unsurprising that the elderly Matisse does not appear to have been a feminist.

After all, Matisse was born back in 1869. While feminism has made much progress since then, change has been gradual in many periods. This serves as a reminder that the snail is the subject of the iconic semi-abstract.

The Nephew by James Purdy

This short novel is slightly reminiscent of the early work of Gore Vidal. There is something compelling about the early part of the book. Initially, the pages turn swiftly.

Nonetheless, the narrative is a dated one and the characters eventually collapse into colourless stereotypes. There is even a possible whiff of racism in the tale of small town disillusionment.

It is important not to judge a novel by contemporary values, but this story fails to escape from the hegemonic prejudices of the last century. As a result, the reader is divided, unable to give it classic status, but unwilling to condemn it entirely. Purdy could use words well, but readers of this book might not give him another chance.

Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou

This short selection of interesting texts has been sold in the UK under a misleading title. The translator Bruno Bosteels has confessed that the French version of the texts was called ‘The Enigmatic Relationship Between Philosophy and Politics’ and this wording conveys the subtle tensions within the works. Badiou follows in the footsteps of Althusser by reviving the spirit of Marx through questioning the assumptions made by dogmatic Marxists.

Badiou writes against parliamentary democracy, but his thinking is flavoured by democratic thought. He states:

“Philosophy assumes that the search for truth is open to all. The philosopher can be anyone. What the philosopher says is validated (or not) not by the speaker’s position, but solely by the spoken content.”

However, the basis on which Badiou assumes “capitalo-parliamentarism” is unethical remains somewhat elusive. The eloquence of the thinker can deflect from critical analysis of his arguments. While the status quo could be viewed as unsatisfactory in several ways, Badiou does not appear to entertain the idea that things may have improved in some respects. As a result, dogmatism may have been questioned, but it might not have been abolished. This does not mean that scepticism should be put on a pedestal, but it does imply that moving from the abstract to the concrete and back again is an inherently complex process.

Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano

This classic text about imperialism retains much of its power decades after it was penned. The anger that motivated the author did not prevent him from putting together coherent analysis. His thesis about the phenomenon of underdevelopment is still worthy of consideration in a world apparently dominated by hegemonic powers and rampant multinational corporations.

Galeano wrote:

“Underdevelopment isn’t a stage of development, but its consequence. Latin America’s underdevelopment arises from external development, and continues to feed it.”

Despite the political progress achieved by the populist left in countries like Venezuela, the economic problems of South America have not gone away. The price of oil is causing havoc in that nation. Populist governance has also struck economic difficulties in Argentina. Certainly, it might be tricky to argue that the commodities of these countries get fair prices in the current time.

Further, political interference in the region by the USA has not ceased. This was highlighted by the response to the coup in Honduras a few years ago. Changing the world is a problematic and uneven process, and it often seems like capital flows to those who need it least.

Ashenden by W. Somerset Maugham

This colourful entertainment is based on concrete fact. However, it is completely preposterous. The contradiction between the historical and the absurd is one of several in the uneven text. For some readers, the self-conscious nature of the writer can be seen as a redeeming feature.

Certainly, Maugham sets out his anti-realist agenda clearly. He attacks the work of the imitators of Chekhov. For them, a story could be about a moment, an atmosphere or a character. Taking the reader towards truth or beauty was their objective. In contrast, Maugham worshipped plot. His Ashenden tales have obvious beginnings and middles, clear arcs and sharp climaxes. Style aside, the Maugham philosophy hit huge problems politically.

As a patriotic spy, Maugham lacked the empathy essential for the production of high art. His brutality, snobbishness, misogyny and nationalism undermined his real gifts. The basic things which saved him from simplistic cruelty were his sense of humour and his hard work:

“It was a fact that he could talk with interest to persons commonly thought so excruciatingly dull that their fellows fled from them as though they owed them money. It may be that here he was but indulging the professional instinct that was seldom dormant in him; they, his raw material, did not bore him any more than fossils bore the geologist.”