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.”

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.

‘Missing’ wealthy bondholders…

Somebody was explaining the politics of British austerity economics yesterday. They were right to say that the selective and cumulative attacks on the poor by the Tories were unnecessary in economic terms. Clearly, few economists would view the international economic crisis of 2007-2009 as the consequence of the incompetence of Gordon Brown. Nor would an experienced analyst of the labour market necessarily agree that the answer to low productivity is to exploit the poorly paid.

The individual suggested that the Treasury had been influenced by public choice theory. They also pointed the finger at the initial architects of neoliberalism. Listening to them, austerity is a completely irrational response to a crisis of capitalism. Why would the ruling class pursue conscious cruelty if there was no pay off in economic terms?

The missing piece in the jigsaw is that the policy is repaying affluent holders of bonds. There are real beneficiaries of austerity measures. The ideological project may involve the shrinking of the state, but analysis has to highlight the winners from the process. It is a commonplace to suggest that quantitative easing has boosted share prices. It is straightforward to work out that low interest rates have helped those on the property ladder. But the unearned income flowing to the holders of bonds is not always highlighted by those who are keen to articulate that austerity is a political choice.

The Marxist geographer David Harvey did mention the role of prosperous holders of bonds at an earlier phase of the protracted crisis. It is not necessary to be a Marxist to admire his clarity. If ordinary people do not recognise why the system is rigged against them, they will find it hard to understand why their suffering is prolonged.

This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

“The environmental crisis- if conceived sufficiently broadly- neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”

This lengthy text focuses on the need to be more assertive in the fight against climate change. Naomi Klein is unafraid to link the crisis to the international political economy. She makes a persuasive case against ‘business as usual’ solutions.

Klein is at her best when she attacks the emergent research on geoengineering. Clearly, it is not in the public interest to explore solutions which would exacerbate the crisis. Moving towards a sustainable future should not involve adding untested and risky initiatives into the mix.

Towards the end, the argument apparently loses some of its sharpness. This is because of the significant stress on the personal life of the writer. While the narrative about her son is far from dull, there is something uncomfortable about its location in the wider story. As climate change is an international dilemma, the inclusion of an innocent individual in the discussion seems slightly incongruous.

Should Labour learn from the SNP?

“Lesson-drawing addresses the question: Under what circumstances and to what extent can a programme that is effective in one place transfer to another. Searching for fresh knowledge is not normal; the…stimulus to search…[is]dissatisfaction with the status quo.”

Richard Rose

The academic literature on policy transfer is a mixed bag. It highlights the difficulties of basing programmes on what seems to work elsewhere. There may be cultural barriers to success. Even in adjacent territories which seem similar, institutional disparities might make implementation problematic. Despite these telling points, the temptation to imitate popular measures is always present.

The electoral achievements of the SNP means that the Labour Party should monitor their policies closely. Labour will require an updated manifesto if it is to improve on its recent general election result. When the time comes, some inspiration could flow south. Nevertheless, Freud’s “narcissism of small differences” might inhibit Labour as it puts its policy package together.

Corbyn was attacked from the left at the SNP conference. But nationalism is not a leftist ideology. His team could consider the effectiveness of the left policies which the SNP advocates, without being sucked into a populist competition. Ultimately, it is the hegemony of the Conservative Party which must be contested, throughout the UK.