No Fixed Abode by Charlie Carroll

This odd book is about being a tramp. Decades ago, the experience of being a tramp was not an unusual one. Nowadays, being homeless is unfortunately common, but the tramp era has largely passed in the UK. The confused narrative of Charlie Carroll partly explains why this is the case.

Mr Carroll never felt homeless because he had a home to fall back on. He never felt futile because he had a book to write. Nor did he feel without power. As a result, he was confident enough to speak with Jeremy Paxman, Boris Johnson and the police. While Mr Carroll endured considerable deprivation and fear, his literary experiment remained just that.

The hostility of Mr Carroll to the Occupy Movement is illuminating. As someone who pitched a tent near St Paul’s, he was in a great position to try to engage with the politics of the protest. However, Mr Carroll  is always reluctant to engage in the economics behind increasing homelessness.  So it is no surprise that there is no real attempt to get to grips with important debates about capitalism, austerity and the financial crisis.

The text is an interesting one to read, but Mr Carroll went on an arduous journey that taught him more about survival than it did about life. He wrote down what he saw and heard, but he did not reflect on the biases which shaped his work. As homelessness has mounted across the UK since his publication was released, his book has dated quickly. This is because he looked at broken individuals instead of trying to understand the evolving society which had shaped their awful lives.

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No Place to Call Home by Katharine Quarmby

Katharine Quarmby is a formidable journalist who has worked for The Economist and several newspapers. This text tackles overt discrimination against travelling people in the UK. It highlights examples of political skulduggery by local authorities, while examining how tough life can be for those with a nomadic cultural background.

Quarmby does not simply stress negative experiences like mass evictions. She also pays attention to the rich tapestry of Romany culture. Careful to go beyond the stereotypes perpetuated by the mass media, she gives an insight into the lives of people who have a rich heritage.

Sadly, overt discrimination against the Roma has not been confined to the towns and cities of the UK. The populations of Eastern Europe have sometimes shown little compassion to the ethnic group in question.  The long shadow of the Holocaust also lingers.

At a time when international fascism seems to be on the rise, learning more about the way travelling people are treated is timely. Quarmby may not have composed a particularly theoretical work, but her careful research packs an authentic punch.

Economics edited by Saugato Datta

This text, subtitled Making Sense of the Modern Economy, is composed of material produced by The Economist. Karl Marx once described the publication as “the European organ of the aristocracy of finance”, but it has changed with the times. Instead of featuring a series of debates among entitled and affluent experts, the focus is on defending and promoting a particular brand of liberal economics to a wider audience.

This 3rd edition is of real interest because it looks at the period after the financial crisis. It also aims to deflect criticism from those economists who may have been partly responsible for the meltdown. Furthermore, it seeks to portray the evolving discipline in a positive way.

Perhaps the aspirations of the writers were too high. Namedropping famous economists and providing plenty of data was never going to restore confidence in a profession that had taken such a battering from reality. Some of the pronouncements lacked any empathy for those impacted by the Great Recession. And a description of studying the economics of prostitution in New Orleans managed to seem uninformative and unpleasant:

“In many respects, the paid-sex industry is much like any other business. Pricing strategies are familiar from other settings. Despite evidence of a myopic attitude towards risk, there have been plenty of examples of that in the finance industry too.”

Reshuffling the Cabinet in the context of heightened ‘power dependency’

Academic Martin J. Smith wanted to explore the reality of the British core executive (1999). He was critical of those who viewed the top of the state in terms of fixed powers. More power does not necessarily flow to the Cabinet when a Prime Minister is weak. Nor does authority automatically pass to civil servants or special advisers if the politicians are in trouble. Power is not a zero-sum game.

Obviously, the complexities of Brexit and the general election result have combined to make Theresa May vulnerable. However, during a reshuffle a prime minister can use their power of patronage to reassert their authority. Nevertheless, changing the composition of a team can lead to a lack of discipline from disgruntled individuals on the backbenches down the track. As May lacks an overall majority without the influence of the DUP, she cannot afford to offend too many delicate egos. Furthermore, a refresh should not be purely symbolic. In a democracy, a government must have a compelling agenda to generate renewed support for its policies.

Due to some of the friendly media, May will probably get some praise for being able to carry out a reshuffle at all. However, this political capital will dissipate if her new team does not do more than simply look the part. Many voters feel utterly disenfranchised. Large sections of the electorate think that the social fabric of the country is being torn up. While the fortunes of the unbalanced economy will prove to be important for the fate of her administration, May must hope that she can learn not to shoot herself in the foot going forward.

 

Socialism and coats- from Marx to Sanders

Basic commodities have been important to socialists for a long time. And the prosaic coat has featured in debates about nineteenth and twenty-first century socialism. When Karl Marx wanted to understand the inner mechanisms of capitalism in 1867, he turned to the coat:

“The coat is a use value that satisfies a particular want. Its existence is the result of a special sort of productive activity, the nature of which is determined by its aim, mode of operation, subject, means, and result.”

He added the slightly underwhelming observation:

“Coats are not exchanged for coats, one use value is not exchanged for another of the same kind.”

In the modern day, populist Bernie Sanders has been accused of wearing an expensive coat. It may have been a slow news week, but the politician does not seem to have committed the crime of the century. His supporters would probably purchase him an even more expensive coat if it would aid the veteran orator. Backers of Sanders will know that it is the contents of a coat that are significant. As long as a coat has a real use value, we should not worry too much about its exchange value.

 

Don’t Foucault Iran

“It is often said that the definitions of an Islamic government are imprecise. On the contrary, they seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. “These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary,” I said. “Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led.” But I immediately received the following reply: “The Quran had enunciated them way before your philosophers, and if the Christian and industrialized West lost their meaning, Islam will know how to preserve their value and their efficacy.”

Michel Foucault

One of the most cited academics in the world, Michel Foucault, was misled by the Utopian rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. Foucault was opposed to Marxism, and was desperate to see something that was fresh emerge from the wreckage of imperialism. Decades later, the temptation for Western observers to impose their own thoughts on the struggle in Iran is strong.

The current protests may well have economic roots. But they have serious political implications. It is not for Westerners to understand what these might be. The media is not a reliable source of information about what must be a confused picture on the ground.

There is an imperialist pattern of intervention in the region. Those who see fast profits to be made will always rush to judgement. Reflective people would do well not to be dragged into the position of Foucault. It is easy to misread situations at a distance, regardless of how progressive one thinks one is.

Respectable: the Experience of Class by Lynsey Hanley

This book is about a personal journey. Triumphalist in tone, the text describes how an individual has moved up the social pecking order. It focuses on social mobility, culture and work . While it is neither dull nor dumb, it buys into the idea that the competitive accumulation of cultural capital should be taken seriously. In other words, it suggests that keeping up with the Jones intellectually is a worthwhile project.

When reading this somewhat solipsistic narrative, which is laden with academic jargon, one is taken back to the brilliant class-based satires of the past. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray illustrated the ruthlessness of social climbing and was composed at the peak of the Victorian class system. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend captured the class-based growing pains of the neo-liberal 1980s. Of course, one can take one’s life as seriously as one wishes, but the world is under no obligation to take anything seriously.

Reading Pierre Bourdieu, Friedrich Engels and Juliet Mitchell may help one to understand where one comes from. There is nothing wrong with using academic understandings of class. But to understand class through the prism of one’s own history is to miss the point. Class is about being a tiny part of a contradictory class structure.