The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

This classic text is unlikely to have been read by Donald Trump. Many affluent men perceive women as trophies to be won, but the President of the United States is particularly prone to judge a book by its cover. However, Wolf shows that this cultural trend has an economic base.

We all know about the injustice of the gender pay gap. We all appreciate that men typically shirk their share of chores. But lots of us forget the full extent of the pressure exerted on females to look their best. This force breeds unnecessary competition. Furthermore, it means that substantial discretionary spending is wasted on keeping up appearances.

Perhaps Wolf was slightly too passionate at times. Maddened by the social disasters of anorexia and unnecessary plastic surgery in the United States, she did make an unfortunate comparison with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the author did produce a compelling argument. She was generous towards other feminists and paid a warm tribute to Virginia Woolf:

“Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own had a vision that someday young women would have access to the rich forbidden libraries of the men’s colleges, their sunken lawns, their vellum, the claret light.”


Constructing the democratic economy by Professor Andrew Cumbers

This presentation raised many questions. Democracy is one of those concepts which can be interpreted variously. The emphasis here was on public ownership. However, Professor Andrew Cumbers was interested in putting limits on it. He was also enthusing about the potential for participation.

Professor Cumbers has a lot of empirical data to support his arguments. He is also thinking about the production of an index of economic democracy. This would permit international comparisons to be drawn. The relevance of this process may depend on the criteria selected for measurement.

It was in the realm of theory where the approach seemed least convincing. Many people want a greener and fairer economy. They may be prepared to vote for it. In unusual circumstances, citizens might rise up and demand it. But it is Utopian to expect that ordinary people have the time, interest, skills and patience to participate in complex economic institutions on a regular basis. Technocrats are a necessary part of a modern system because we lack the expertise to make important things happen. Professor Cumbers was full of praise for the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, but social life has become more complex since the publication of On Liberty.

We live in an age where Utopian and reactionary thought are on the increase. It is vital that political discourse matches with economic possibilities. In the UK, the disaster of Brexit is unfolding. This illustrates the dangers of simplistic optimism. People cannot eat flags, regardless of nationalist rhetoric. Nor can they consume hope. The Labour Party must be pragmatic, internationalist and flexible if it comes to power.


Marx against Morality by Allen Wood

The complex philosophical legacy of Karl Marx is debated to this day. His copious output has influenced contemporary understandings of history, geography and economics. But the massive problems which have affected Marxism in practice have sometimes prevented people from appreciating the value of his work.

One difficulty has arisen because of the hostility which Marx possessed with regard to conventional morality. This distaste flowed from three sources. Firstly, Marx was aware of the contradiction between what bourgeois moralists said and what they did. Secondly, Marx was conscious of the some of the hypocrisies associated with religion. Thirdly, Marx contended that ordinary morality was linked to the capitalist mode of production. In other words, many people lived within an ideology that misled them about the changing meanings of rights, justice and freedom.

Allen Wood has defended Marx with regard to his controversial perspective on morals. This does not mean that some later Marxists have not betrayed their movements by unjustifiable behaviour. Clearly, Marx might well have been a victim of Stalin if they had lived during the same historical period. For Wood, the ideological issue was central. He wrote:

“When they are motivated by ideologies, people do not understand themselves as representatives of a class movement; but they are just the same.”

Till Time’s Last Sand by David Kynaston

This history of the Bank of England is recommended reading for anyone who wants to understand the modern political economy of the UK. The institution in question has attracted lots of criticism down the centuries. It has adapted to change, and it has remained at the heart of the Establishment. Given that modern capitalism is a different beast from the economy of 1694, the fact that the Bank of England has survived deserves some explanation.

The story of British capitalism is a complex one. The country has become much less significant in global terms since the First World War. But the City of London retains importance on the international scale. Hence the relative economic decline of the UK has rarely been attributed to the Bank of England. While the institution might have made significant errors, major crises of capitalism have often impacted on other countries too. Regardless of whether the Bank of England has been in the public sector when mistakes have been made, elected politicians have usually been held to be responsible for economic failures.

The economic crisis of 2007-2009 may have been exacerbated by the inappropriate performance of the Bank of England. Its officials could have been more aware of the impending catastrophe. It should have acted sooner to assist Northern Rock. It would have been better if it had adjusted interest rates more swiftly to address the emerging recession. However, it was New Labour which had established the Financial Services Authority and which had tasked the independent Bank of England with focusing on inflation. Therefore the responsibility of Governor Mervyn King must not be exaggerated.

Understanding capitalism is about appreciating continuity as well as change. This means that institutional analysis can be valuable. Nevertheless, an absence of developed theory does make it difficult to comprehend what might have been done differently. David Kynaston downplays the preference of the Bank of England for the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Given the counterproductive economic policies of Chancellor George Osborne, this is a significant choice. However, Kynaston remains balanced enough to cite the liberal Paul Krugman on the apparent bias of the institution:

“‘the point is that if you’re going to have an independent central bank, the people running that bank have to be careful to stay above the political fray.'”


The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice

Radio can take the listener to troubling places. The Dark Tower by Louis MacNeice is a journey worth taking. Combining the psychological and the political, the play raises existential questions. A dark humour can be discerned, but a seriousness is never absent.

It is no coincidence that Albert Camus wrote La Peste in the same historical period. Both writers were trying to come to terms with the ruin of Europe. They were concerned with what fascism had done to people. Neither thinker was dogmatic, but both individuals were unable to leave politics to politicians.

MacNeice was a poet who understood that certainty could be a terrible thing. His ambivalence was one of his strengths. And yet he could not feel isolated from the political fray. He knew that leaving history to its own devices could cost the world. His message resonates in the era of Trump, Brexit and casino capitalism.

Britain and Palestine 1917-2017: a century of broken promises?

In the midst of the First World War, the imperialist power of Britain made a significant intervention for the Middle East. The Balfour Declaration of 1917 has aroused much controversy and a recent conference in Liverpool was held to debate the sensitive issues. The discourse of anti-Zionism has featured in discussions about possible racism within the current British Labour Party, but many of those who attended were unafraid to consider a troubling history.

Without assessing what is going on in the modern Labour Party, it is possible to think about what happened nearly a hundred years ago. The Balfour Declaration was typical of the imperialist mindset. European powers were unafraid of pursuing divide and rule policies around the globe, often acting in a seemingly arbitrary fashion.

For Lenin, imperialism was driven by economic imperatives. Cultural factors might have influenced specific decisions, but it was a capitalist logic which formed the basis for the majority of the territorial acquisitions and so on. While some contemporary activists are passionate about the impact of the Balfour Declaration, others may agree with the intellectual Edward Said who once wrote:

“There is not much use today in lamenting such a statement as the Balfour Declaration. It seems more valuable to see it as part of a history, of a style and set of characteristics centrally constituting the question of Palestine as it can be discussed even today.”

Estates by Lynsey Hanley

This text is a personal response to living in council housing. As the housing crisis has risen up the political agenda in the UK, it is worth looking back at the history of the topic. There is an ideological consensus which suggests that building council houses must be part of the solution to the current social problems, but the lessons of the past should not be ignored.

Lynsey Hanley largely focuses on the difficulties associated with council housing. In particular, she looks at the impact of class-based housing on educational attainment. Further, she examines the influence of council houses on antisocial behaviour. For Hanley, the lived experience of being a resident of a troubled estate is isolating.

Nonetheless, Hanley does admit that her family did benefit from council housing. She is astute enough to situate her negative perspective within the thinking of her own generation. However, the national conversation has moved on since her nuanced intervention as homelessness has risen. Despite these issues, her correct reaction to Labour’s Frank Field stands out:

“My bones chilled briefly when I heard the comment made by Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, that the small number of ‘problem families’ in the near-derelict north end of the town ought to be made to live in steel containers underneath the flyover that leads out of the Mersey tunnel.”