This vivid drama, inspired by Shakespeare, has a claustrophobic quality. It explores the complexities of identity and concealment. At the same time, it questions the social role of money and debt. Whilst the action takes place centuries ago within the Venice ghetto, the themes of persecution and assimilation remain relevant. Naomi Alderman has constructed something which might last.
It was Prime Minister Theresa May who aimed to charm the Conservative Party Conference of 2016 with her troubling assertion that, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” It is one thing to question the logic of economic globalization, it is another to define cosmopolitanism out of existence.
In the modern world, identities may be multiple and fluid. This does not mean that we are unaffected by identity-related awkwardness. But it does mean that there is an escape from the manipulative control of those who want to put us in a box. As individuals we might not manage to get out from the prison of debt, but we can help others to discover that other worlds are possible.
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.
“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.”
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.
This collection of texts illustrates how the world has been shaped by imperialism, socialism and nationalism. It includes fragments of writing by those involved in national liberation struggles. However, it also features revisionist histories which form controversial takes on what has gone before.
Many readers will be thrilled to encounter the thought of Ho Chi Minh, Frantz Fanon and Kwame Nkrumah. They will be fascinated by how socialist doctrine helped people to challenge Western imperialism. Further, they may be grateful for academic commentary on imperialism which questions the certainties of Leninism. Nevertheless, the book does threaten to lead to disillusionment.
The lack of enthusiasm that may greet the reader of the later sections has real causes. The trouble with a struggle of national liberation is that it ends with just another flawed nation. One problem is that nationalists largely failed to build on their socialist principles in office. The immense courage which allowed them to defeat imperialists was rarely sustained after victory had been attained. However, it is important to realise that history could have been otherwise. If Ho Chi Minh had not contrived to succeed in his nationalist project, Vietnam would not be where it is today. It would not have strong economic growth or an elite which can navigate the capitalist world order. Perhaps more respect should be paid to the secular faith of Ho Chi Minh:
“There is a legend, in our country as well as in China, of the miraculous ‘Book of the wise.’ When facing great difficulties, one opens it and finds a way out.”
Paul Mason argues that the idealism of Shakespeare should be used to dilute the materialism of Marx. As a post-Marxist, Mason wants to distance himself from economic determinism. In The Guardian, Mason paid tribute to both thinkers:
“Another 150 years would pass until merchant capitalism, based on trade, conquest and slavery, would give birth to industrial capitalism. For this reason, whenever I want to stop myself being too Marxist, I think about Shakespeare. Armed with a few history books and a profound humanism, he described the society around him with peerless insight, and tried to explain to his audience how they’d got there.”
However, Karl Marx was an admirer of Shakespeare himself. His daughter revealed how often the dramatist was mentioned in the household. The writings of Marx were brightened by literature. In his letters, Marx paid attention to the role of accidents in history. In 1874, he also discussed the importance of the ideas to which socialist leaders adhered:
“The progress of the German labour movement (ditto in Austria) is wholly satisfactory. In France the absence of a theoretical foundation and of practical common sense is very evident. In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced them at the Hague Congress I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, slander, etc, but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there people are beginning to see that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty.”
The point of this argument is not to maintain that Marx was right about x or y. However, it is to suggest that Mason has not read Marx properly. If post-Marxists have not analysed Marx with sufficient care, their own general theories may be flimsy. Marx was not the kind of thinker to promote simplistic determinism and it is a comedy if people maintain that he was. Close reading is always necessary, even if the relevance of a philosopher to contemporary capitalism is contestable.
Euston London declared homeless people can use it at Christmas. Liverpool City Council announced that it will make a better effort to address homelessness. Celebrity Ed Sheeran recently revealed that he supported socialist Jeremy Corbyn. The Guardian has launched a campaign on behalf of the destitute. Surely the UK is a country with superb philanthropic values? Isn’t compassion the flavour of the month?
Wake up! It is only days ago that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was threatening to fine the homeless for tent usage. Universal Credit Full Service is being rolled out across the nation causing rent arrears, misery and fear. Many employers are exploiting their staff shamelessly via low pay. The food banks are full of desperate people who are doing their best to get by.
Every country likes to feel good about itself. But Brexit underlined the fact that the UK has become an intolerant and divided place. There may be lots of compassionate people about, but the state is facilitating a brutal variant of capital accumulation. And Third Sector’s Rebecca Cooney has confirmed that generosity is actually weakening in the UK:
“The UK has continued to slide down the list of the world’s most generous countries, the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index 2017 has revealed. The UK fell three places from eighth in 2016 to 11th position on this year’s list, which gauges the generosity of countries by combining how much the public donate to good causes, how much time they spend volunteering and how likely they are to help strangers. The UK was in sixth place in the 2015 index.”
Some books are simply strange. A curate’s egg of a concept in theory can become an omelette upon completion. This text is intended to stimulate thinking about a fair society. Nevertheless, the provocative illusions of the writer simply underline the divides he seeks to challenge.
Hutton does engage with those philosophers who have thought about equality. However, his critical take on Karl Marx is revealing. He approves of Marx’s pragmatism about the period before communism could be attained. He cites the opinion that in a post-revolutionary society the immediate slogan should be:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.”
Gender issues aside, Marx is writing about a transitional period in which capitalism is being rolled back. In contrast, Hutton is situated in a period of capitalism where genuine socialism is hardly to be seen. The powerful elite is running the show like it did during the late Victorian era. Hence Hutton’s confused appreciation of Marx takes place in an ideological space outside of history.
Hutton then proceeds to listen to the most reactionary voices of the current century. In his eagerness to have an influence over contemporary politics, he forgets that a progressive thinker should try to challenge discourses of exclusion. He writes to defend nationalist resentment against immigration:
“Gordon Brown’s election campaign blunder- when he dismissed Gillian Duffy as a bigot after she had expressed her reasonable concerns about immigration, while always maintaining a sense of fairness- was so damaging because it encapsulated everything that is wrong.”