Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.

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The Size of the State

Ayn Rand meme

The idea of ‘small government’, taken at face value, might sound appealing. Nobody much likes the nanny state telling us how to eat, or enjoys trying to fill out bureaucratic government forms.

John Redwood, Conservative MP for Wokingham, certainly set out a fairly decent-seeming vision for the small state in this 2010 blog post:

The Conservative manifesto today points us in a better direction – towards smaller government, towards a world where government is more the servant of the people and less the master.

Under it people will be able to set up their own school with public money diverted from state schools, vote for a Police Chief of their choice, run parts of the public sector as co-ops or employee led private companies, get a share in the state owned banks, vote on the level of Council Tax, see their Council freed from much of the Whitehall regulation that currently controls it, and exercise more choice over access to public services. It offers some lower taxes to create more jobs. It wants to help more people own a home, participate directly in the business or service area they work for and to save for the future.

There will be a Bill to cut regulation and abolish some busybody quangos. Many people want to see an end to too much political correctness, some reversal of the surveillance society, and deployment of the thought police to more useful tasks.

Aside from the ‘PC gone too far’ guff, parts of this sound sort of… vaguely leftist? Co-ops? Employee-led companies? Not bad!

But hold up a second, bucko. We know that what actually ended up happening was austerity. Not a fan of that. There’s something more complicated going on here.

Under the basic folk narrative, the size of the state is like a dial – turn it to the left for a bigger state that taxes you to the gills and watches you sleep through a drone, turn it to the right for a smaller state that lets you get on with your day while quietly catching security threats in the background.

But a state isn’t a singular entity. It includes a wide range of departments and functions. It’s rare to find anyone seriously arguing for making all those things small or big. Even anarchists (leftists who want no state!) are more nuanced on this than you might expect. Anarchists still want some of those necessary functions carried out, but by communities themselves through bottom-up non-hierarchical means. And Chomsky argues that:

In today’s world, I think, the goals of a committed anarchist should be to defend some state institutions from the attack against them, while trying at the same time to pry them open to more meaningful public participation – and ultimately, to dismantle them in a much more free society, if the appropriate circumstances can be achieved.

Similarly, right-wing libertarians sometimes make good points. Here’s an article in libertarian magazine Reason which mentions the hypocrisy of conservatives calling for small government while upholding military interventionism:

Even the record of Ronald Reagan, that eloquent spokesman for limited government, was disappointing. Whatever progress he made in limiting the growth of domestic programs was offset by enormous hikes in the Pentagon’s budget that helped set the stage for the last 30 years of costly American military adventurism.

So, let’s go back to John Redwood and take a gander at his voting record.

  • Social issues: being ambivalent on the smoking ban and against the hunting ban is consistent with a ‘small state’, though I like being able to breathe and not having toffs slaughter foxes for no reason. But why vote against gay marriage and the right for the terminally ill to die as they choose if you don’t want an overbearing big gubbermint telling people what they can and can’t do? Curious, that.
  • Foreign policy: generally voted for UK military intervention and the Iraq war. What! I thought you wanted a small state! The military is a state apparatus!
  • Welfare and benefits: consistent voting against a strong welfare state. Fits with a ‘small state’, but cruel and unnecessary.
  • Taxation: this is very intriguing. Redwood has voted for raising the threshold on paying income tax, which is nice. But by voting against increasing the rate on income over £150,000, against a banker’s bonus tax, for more regulation on trade unions (oh, so you like state-imposed regulation then?), and for increasing the rate of VAT (which tends to raise the tax burden on the poor), it’s clear what angle he’s taking in terms of class, isn’t it?

I won’t go through the entire list; there are things I like and things I don’t. But it’s revealing to look at some of the areas where he voted to shrink the state, and some of the areas where he voted to enlarge the state.

When the right has power, it turns out what the talk of ‘small government’, ‘low taxation’, and ‘cutting red tape’ really means in practice. It means shrinking the welfare state, while not cutting down on military misadventures or the surveillance state (c.f. the Snooper’s Charter). It means cutting taxes for the wealthiest, while raising taxes that impact the poorest most and cutting services on which the poor rely. It often means cutting regulation that hinders corporate power and profits, while enforcing regulation that hinders the power of the workforce.

The concept of small government is appealing on the surface, because everybody likes freedom and nobody likes being told what to do or paying more tax. But we should be cautious. What exactly is getting shrunk, and what ends up getting expanded? Easily digested narratives are very good at concealing more than they reveal. They conceal the ideological project and social goals that are really in play.

In practice, this narrative of freedom is used to con us. It’s more freedom for the sort of people who hunt foxes, and less for the much larger group of people who don’t.

Book Reviews (8)

Books 8

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

PI Doc Sportello investigates a plot to kidnap a real estate mogul at the close of the sixties in California, becoming caught up in a complex, colourful tangle of hippies, cops, and criminals.

He’s a convincing and complex character, an analytically-gifted dope fiend steeped in counterculture, scornful of the LAPD and authorities – concerned the lifestyle he knows is slipping away as political tides shift. The large, diverse cast is well-realised, but with many characters slipping in and out fluidly, and many plot layers forming, it can be hard to keep track. Some plot threads seem to not quite come together – but perhaps this reflects the effects of Doc’s own recreational habits.

There’s brilliant humour and wordplay, like the ‘plastricrats’ living off credit, and Pynchon somehow managed to keep weed-culture humour fresh and funny. The absurd events and trains of thought provide a psychedelic romp atmosphere to this tie-dye noir, though someone who remembers more of the period would pick up on jokes and references I didn’t.

I couldn’t believe this came out in 2009 – Pynchon’s nostalgia for this time seems so strong. But was it really as rosy a period as it’s presented through Doc’s eyes? There’s a strong current of objectifying women here, for a start. The book’s stances on police wrongdoing, American foreign policy, etc, seem to come packaged with a not particularly critical view of the excesses and flaws of Doc and his associates.

The writing is amazing; the plot a bit knotty but balanced with levity; a time, place, and spirit evoked to entertain us while also challenging our own time and priorities.

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

I found ‘Who Rules the World?’ a bit long, while this could have used being a little longer. It’s a little book packing a lot of content: discussing the ideas of key anarchist thinkers; the Spanish Revolution; the disagreement with state socialism; responses to various questions and concerns; and how classical liberal ideas, taken to their conclusions, can actually imply anti-capitalist or anarchist perspectives.

The word is commonly associated with ‘chaos’, conjuring images of masked mobs throwing bricks, but this has nothing to do with the philosophy. Chomsky describes the core of it as being that ‘the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.’ In the case of capitalism, he points to ideas from the 19th century labour movement in America, which responded to early industrial capitalism as ‘wage slavery’ in which a worker rents themselves to factory owners for a wage, and had ‘the assumption, just taken for granted, that those who work in the mills should own them.’

For Chomsky traditional anarchism is ‘an antistate branch of socialism, which meant a highly organised society, nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally.’

What’s here is compelling and readable – there just isn’t quite enough of it. Some points could use more elaboration. If you’re not already fairly far to the libertarian left, you’ll have questions and disagreements that Chomsky doesn’t take much time to address in detail. However, this is a very good introduction to powerful ideas, worth reading for an exposure to the Spanish Revolution alone.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

This is an excellent book, examining how class war has been waged by the elite against the majority from Thatcher through to Cameron and New Labour: looking at regressive policy, the media’s demonising stance, and the realities you won’t find in the Daily Mail.

With the demise of industry and crushing of the unions, millions lost reliable work, falling into unemployment and under-employment in exploitative service-sector roles. As social problems naturally resulted in formerly bustling areas, an anti-social minority (‘chavs’, an inherently classist slur) were unfairly cast as representative of whole communities.

[As] our society has become less equal and in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. […] What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? […] if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it [but] if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom.

Successive governments peddled the idea that aspiration isn’t about workers as a whole improving conditions, but about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class – leaving behind, supposedly, a feckless, wilfully unemployed, benefit-cheating rump.

Problems caused by neoliberalism and austerity were blamed on individuals. Rare instances of depravity were signal-boosted in the media to suit a narrative – while the larger crimes of the wealthy were minimised. This provided justification for the welfare state to be further undermined to incentivise hard work (whether or not opportunities were actually available!), making inequality worsen.

Jones says that, ‘it was the might of the working class that was once mocked and despised. But, today, with their power smashed into pieces, the working class can be safely insulted as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell.’ He has hope that this power can be restored, the class war waged back: making suggestions along the lines of a Green New Deal, a national programme to build socially owned housing, more progressive taxation, more co-operatives, and bringing back the ability of unions to really stand up for workers.

Passionate and deeply researched.

The White Book – Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)

It’s difficult to summarise this. Biographical prose poetry? Each short chapter shines with evocative imagery and crisp prose, brimming with beauty, grief, and thoughtful reflection on life. The narrator thinks back to an older sister that died just after birth, and how if she had lived then the narrator wouldn’t have been born – a life possible because of that loss. A present rooted in the past, the present continually falling away into an unknown future as one branch of possibility is selected instead of all the others.

That sounds really heavy, but the writing is delicate and meditative, focused on simple images and moments. Just because this is experimental and has deep themes doesn’t make it at all hard to read or appreciate. The translation retains a sense of the original Korean, representing some idioms literally, which is a nice touch.

Fat Cat Friday

Trickle down economics

By the 4th of January, the average CEO of a FTSE 100 company had already earned the average yearly wage.

Executive pay rose 11% in a year, while most people’s wages are still lower than ten years ago.

Is this a fair reflection of people’s contributions? Did executives step up their game by 11% and the rest of us slack off for a decade? As Owen Jones says:

we should snap out of thinking that they somehow deserve these vast sums: they don’t. And that forms the basis for arguing that far more of that money should end up in the paypackets of their workforce, reinvested in their companies and invested in the nation’s public services and infrastructure.

The government boasts about high employment, claiming work is the route out of poverty. But when the wealth generated in work is funneled to the top rather than to those who produce it, this is a fantasy. UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK shows the hard truths.

The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. An elected official added that there is no extreme poverty in the UK and nothing like the levels of destitution seen in other countries. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country.

People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, “I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.” Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck. […]

The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But being in employment does not magically overcome poverty. In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works. There are 2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child. One person told me “I know people who are working five jobs to make the national minimum wage, which isn’t a living wage.”

Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty. […] Jobs aren’t even a guarantee against people needing food banks. The Trussell Trust told me that one in six people referred to their food banks is in work. One pastor said “The majority of people using our food bank are in work…. Nurses and teachers are accessing food banks.”

This is the context in which Fat Cat Friday is happening. There is a choice to be made: the greed of the few, or the need of the many.

Back when Morgan Stanley called Corbyn a threat, he responded in kind: ‘we’re a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few’.

This prompted pearl-clutching from some quarters: you can’t stand up to these people. Some people who privately feel the same feared that saying so openly was too adversarial.

Let them pay themselves more and the workforce less, cut public services and their taxes, smile to the camera when you open a food bank: ‘pragmatism’. Make even the slightest move to do the opposite: ‘this is class warfare and all the rich people will leave and we’ll be stuffed’.

I do appreciate that, pragmatically, there are limits to what can be done within capitalism. But something must be done. If you actually look into Labour policy it isn’t that radical – it presents no reason to fear catastrophic capital flight. The interests of a tiny group of people shouldn’t hold such sway over our lives and the range of our thoughts that even increasing corporation tax to 2010 levels conjures images of James Dyson sailing away to flee the Leninist vanguard.

It’s like we’re being held to ransom. The insatiable greed of a handful of people is a threat to the most vulnerable people in our society, but we can’t do anything too radical about it for fear of the global race to the bottom kicking in.

The underlying theme here is appeasement. This doesn’t seem like a healthy or sustainable way to have a society run.

Richard D. Wolff points out that, in the US, FDR implemented the New Deal (How many who fear Sanders as a radical think FDR was a great president?) – under the mass pressure of organised labour. It is possible to fight back, to meet the class war of greed with the class war of justice.

There is a point where pragmatism becomes cowardice and capitulation. Hungry children is not an acceptable price for higher executive bonuses. People will not stand for it forever.

The Myth of Pre-Trump Civility

Drone

I’ve discussed the topic of civility before, but I’ve realised I could have gone further. Here goes…

So, I really don’t like Trump.

I see a lot of people nostalgic for Obama. To them he represents a better time, when Americans were less divided and reasonable discourse reigned. People look back to charismatic Obama, then think, ‘how did we get here?’. I can understand that.

I can understand the nostalgia for Obama – though I think his administration needs to be viewed much more critically. What I can’t understand is nostalgia for Bush.

As Nathan J. Robinson says:

This view of Bush as a “likable and sincere man who blundered catastrophically” seems to be increasingly popular among some American liberals. They are horrified by Donald Trump, and Bush is beginning to seem vastly preferable by comparison.[…]

Nostalgia takes root easily, because history is easy to forget. But in Bush’s case, the history is easily accessible and extremely well-documented. George W. Bush did not make a simple miscalculation or error. He deliberately perpetrated a war crime, intentionally misleading the public in order to do so, and showed callous indifference to the suffering that would obviously result. His government oversaw a regime of brutal torture and indefinite detention, violating every conceivable standard for the humane treatment of prisoners.

Robinson says elsewhere, I think rightly, that ‘The Bush presidency caused the deaths of 500,000 Iraqis. I don’t miss it, I’m never going to miss it, and nor should anyone else.’

(As a Brit, Blair also belongs in prison. Please don’t think I’m just savaging the US and exempting my own country. My underlying points apply on both sides of the pond.)

But what about Obama? Obama was surely better than Trump… but I think an excessively rosy view of his administration is quite disturbing. He was a capable figure who said and did some good things during his time in office, but the bad things ought to be shocking to anyone with a conscience.

For example, a ‘torture ban’ sounds great, but the approach doesn’t quite square up under scrutiny. As Allan Nairn wrote at the time:

When President Obama declared flatly this week that “the United States will not torture” many people wrongly believed that he’d shut the practice down, when in fact he’d merely repositioned it.

Obama’s Executive Order bans some — not all — US officials from torturing but it does not ban any of them, himself included, from sponsoring torture overseas. […]

What the Obama dictum ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under US patronage.

Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.

His Executive Order instead merely pertains to treatment of “…an individual in the custody or under the effective control of an officer, employee, or other agent of the United States Government, or detained within a facility owned, operated, or controlled by a department or agency of the United States, in any armed conflict…” which means that it doesn’t even prohibit direct torture by Americans outside environments of “armed conflict,” which is where much torture happens anyway since many repressive regimes aren’t in armed conflict.

And even if, as Obama says, “the United States will not torture,” it can still pay, train, equip and guide foreign torturers, and see to it that they, and their US patrons, don’t face local or international justice.

This is a return to the status quo ante, the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more US-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.

And any criticism of his administration has to mention the looming beast of drone strikes and assassinations. Obama dropped the equivalent of a bomb every 20 minutes for 8 years. Here’s Chomsky commenting on this enormous topic:

Military analyst Yochi Dreazen observes in the Atlantic that Bush’s policy was to capture (and torture) suspects, while Obama simply assassinates them, with a rapid increase in terror weapons (drones) and the use of Special Forces, many of them assassination teams. Special Forces are scheduled to operate in 120 countries. Now as large as Canada’s entire military, these forces are, in effect, a private army of the president[…]

Jo Becker and Scott Shane, reporting on drones and the ‘kill list’ in the New York Times in 2012, disclose a staggering piece of information:

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.[…]

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

Obama was better than Trump, sure. But can’t the moral bar be raised above the level where torture and extrajudicial assassination are acceptable so long as you aren’t a blatant bigot, so long as you ‘act presidential’, so long as the body count isn’t too high?

As Trump points out, ‘anyone can act presidential’. Here he is putting on the gentleman act. He’s an awful idiot, yet he’s recognised something that seemingly escapes the entire liberal media class. Does the civil mask really make a difference? No.

Many liberals see Trump as a diversion from previously respectable norms – ‘this isn’t normal! This isn’t America! Cheeto Man bad!’. But I don’t see Trump as an aberration from ‘normal, civil, respectable’ presidents before him. His recent predecessors followed a broadly similar right-wing economic programme abandoning citizens to poverty for the sake of Wall Street, and oversaw similar imperial and domestic crimes. The difference is a matter of scale and civility. He doesn’t have the grace to keep the mask on, he says the quiet part loud, he’s that notch more outrageous.

The Trump spectacle is utterly reprehensible. But turning back the clock to what came before him is not the answer. It wasn’t so great, and after all, it led to him!

America, when Trump leaves office, please don’t settle for a neoliberal warmonger who performs bipartisan civility, sigh in relief, and say ‘things are back to normal’.

Links Post

Some things I’ve found interesting lately:

UK politics/economics – are the Tories really the party for economic responsibility? Not according to this research, The Tories’ Economic Incompetence, or Economics Professor Simon Wren-Lewis in Why are the Conservatives so incompetent at running the economy? (go on, tell us what you really think!).

Philosophy Tube puts out a lot of great content – here he is in Transphobia: An Analysis, introducing the very helpful concept of ‘yer dad’ as the well-meaning liberal who doesn’t quite grasp it.

ContraPoints is well worth listening to for insights and laughs: e.g. her critique of Jordan Peterson, which contains maybe the only good explanation of post-modernism out there.

Briahna Joy Gray features in Current Affairs and The Intercept. In How Identity Became a Weapon Against the Left she discusses the misuse of identity politics, and the ‘Bernie-bro’ narrative’s erasure of lefty women and POC. She addresses similar themes in Beware the Race Reductionist, arguing for real intersectionality.

‘Venezuela!’ is being used as a catch-all response to anything even slightly left. Watch Argument ad Venezuelum for a more sophisticated look at the country’s woes.

Current Affairs’ Nathan J. Robinson writes from a libertarian-socialist perspective. Here’s How To Be A Socialist Without Being An Apologist For The Atrocities Of Communist Regimes. ‘If your society manages to have impressively low infant mortality and impressively high literacy, but tortures political prisoners, we might want to adopt your literacy program while declining to recreate your secret police.’

Go a bit more to the bottom left of the political compass than Nathan J. Robinson, and you get to anarchism, an intriguing but widely misunderstood perspective. Here’s Part One and Part Two of an explanation in the form of a response to a Marxist-Leninist.

Positive Republicanism

Buckingham Palace

I’ve hinted at anti-monarchist views on here before. There’s a lot I could say about why I don’t find the tourism argument for the monarchy convincing, the ‘imagine we didn’t have a monarchy and someone was using your arguments to make the case for one’ argument, the link to Empire, clearing homeless people away from royal events like they’re human rubbish, etc.

But I’m putting all those arguments aside for now.

Republicanism (by which I mean just ‘wanting to not have a monarchy’) is often met with comments about how royal weddings, births, and such are cheerful events that bring people together, something in the news that isn’t glum or scary for a change. The anti-monarchist’s ‘piss off, who cares, they’re only people grow up’ reaction is preaching to the converted – to people who approve of the monarchy, we can come across as downers.

My aim here is to point at a positive vision of republicanism, to show that it isn’t just about tearing down something other people enjoy.

If you have warm feelings for the royal family as people, then you should want to scrap the monarchy for their sake. It isn’t good for someone to grow up in an unblinking media spotlight because of who their parents are, or to have a stark division drawn between them and the masses. Even other children of famous people don’t have so many of their photos in the tabloids, every life event reported on and analysed by media correspondents specifically focused on their family.

A standard republican sentiment is to abhor unearned privilege, which I do very much agree with, but a different angle could be freeing children from this maelstrom. In time the cameras would turn away, and it would be easier for them to take part in society as normal people without an entourage.

If you want positive events to bring people together, monarchy is not necessary for that. Millions of Brits really don’t care for them anyway. It shouldn’t be that difficult for the United Republic to come up with a regular event that actually does bring people together. Like, the Pride of Britain Awards exist now and are quite good. Yearly, celebrating the deeds of normal people nominated by normal people, much less divisive than royal events. That’s one idea that already exists, which we could possibly expand on.

Also, one of my issues with the level of fuss around royal weddings and births is its implicit devaluing of normal people’s. A stranger’s good news should be a cheerful thing whether they’re descended from historical-so-and-so or not, right? Their ancestry shouldn’t matter.

When I say of a royal event, ‘they’re only people’, I’m not saying to not be happy about the good news of strangers. Part of what I’m really saying is, ‘we should take some of this fervour and spread it on anybody’s good news.’ Ordinary people in their masses have nice things going on far more than any single family, and are just as important. Scrapping the monarchy doesn’t imply never celebrating things.

Getting rid of the monarchy wouldn’t, as some might fear, rob us of history: the buildings and artifacts would still exist, and be even more accessible to tour around. But it would be a positive step for our national identity in the future. Joining everyone else in Current Year in letting go of this vestige of feudalism.

Do we want to be a country where someone can be head of state because of a line of succession, where some are born with titles; or a country committed to ideals of democracy and equality? Of course republicanism alone doesn’t forge an egalitarian utopia – cough, the US – but letting go of the monarchy would have a profound symbolic power.

It would indicate a shift in the national spirit. Not a denial or forgetting of history, but a moving forward from it. The idea that we are all human beings born with the same status and dignity doesn’t mix well with maintaining an official aristocracy. Which is more inspiring?

And if we must have a national anthem, we could have a much better one.

There’s a lot more I could say about my issues with monarchy. But hopefully this post has shown that republicanism isn’t just a sneer club for cynics who hate weddings and kids. It’s perfectly consistent with a warm and humanitarian outlook.