Category Archives: Books

Thumbs up for the real digital revolution

Cover of Petite Poucette by Michel Serres
Petite Poucette, by Michel Serres. Editions Le Pommier 2012.

Saint Denis was beheaded on the hill looming over northern Paris now known as Montmartre. The legend is that he picked up his own head and carried it several miles north, before finally collapsing and expiring on the site of the present day suburb that bears his name.

It’s to Saint Denis that Michel Serres compares future generations of human beings in this remarkable little book (barely 90 pages long). Petite Poucette (“little thumb”) is his female avatar for today’s young people who, with their dextrous digits, carry their heads — their knowledge — on laptops, mobiles and tablets. This is changing everything, not just the way we learn, do business and enjoy ourselves. It’s changing human nature itself, and just as importantly, the way we live together.

I’ve been a Serres fan since writing about him in my very first blog three years ago. His reasoning is razor-sharp, and he writes with the radical clarity of someone very young and the wisdom of someone very old. Yes, he’s 83, French, and professor of something very intellectual at Stanford. But he’s no grumpy old don whingeing about porn-addicted kids with minuscule attention spans and the world going to hell in an online shopping cart. Believe it or not, Serres is optimistic about the future.

You might think only a conservative could be optimistic at the moment, but Serres reckons that if the powers that be aren’t trembling yet, it’s only because they don’t understand what’s hit them. “I see our institutions shining with a brightness similar to that of constellations that astronomers tells us have been dead for a long time,” he says.

With knowledge freed, existing power structures will crumble. It starts, says Serres, with education.

Why sit listening to a tired teacher reading “approved” excerpts from a book, when the whole book is out there, freely accessible from anywhere, at any time? Why accept the established interpretations when you can read and discuss the comments of thousands if not millions of people who’ve read it and thought about it?

Why sit with your ‘arse parked’ in serried ranks, when you can sit in the park, on the beach, in the pub? Why listen to this single narrow conduit of knowledge and power (the teacher at the lectern) when the whole world of knowledge is there in your hands? And why bother learning facts when you can bring them up under your thumb? The minds of Petite Poucette will be free to think and have ideas instead of being clogged up with remembering second-hand information.

This, says Serres, is the true birth of the individual. ‘Grumpy adults’ may see this as “selfish”, but weigh that egotism against where the “libido of affiliation” has got us in the last 100 years. In the name of abstract collectives like the nation, race and religion, hundreds of millions have died. Individuals rarely ask this of each other. And no one was ever asked to die for a virtual community.

Michel Serres
Michel Serres: “I would like to be 18 years old, since everything is to be remade, everything is left to invent.”

“To no longer build a community on the massacre of another or of oneself — this is our future life set against your history and your politics of death,” replies Petite Poucette.

And are the virtual communities young people have created any less “real” than the ones we have been taught to value? ’We adults have succeeded in creating no new social connections,’ says Serres. The “community”, the nation, the church, school, family, class, the market — where do they stand today? To Petite Poucette, they are just ‘abstractions flying overhead like cardboard mascots’.

Are the British and French “nations” any more “real” than a Facebook group? Do we “belong” to a social class, or the company we work for, more than the online communities we choose to join?

For thousands of years, from the pyramid of Cheops to the Eiffel Tower, the ‘global form’ of human society has been broad at the bottom and narrow at the top, with power, wealth and the control of knowledge concentrated in a few hands. New technology is set to change that, perhaps within a generation, says Serres. The real revolutionaries are not the inventors of this technology, but the users. They will turn the world upside down.

It’s a striking view of the future, both optimistic and disturbing at the same time. But unlike the zombie ideology of free market capitalism, young people don’t have to sit back and take it. It’s something that they can shape for themselves. Serres has no fear. ‘I like to be 18 years old,’ he says, ‘because everything is to be remade, everything is left to re-invent.’

Can’t get no satisfaction?

‘You can’t always get what you want,’ sang Mick Jagger in 1969. ‘But if you try sometimes, well you might just find, you get what you need.’ The Rolling Stones frontman isn’t mentioned in How Much is Enough, which is a shame since his lyrics encapsulate the failure to distinguish between needs and wants which is at the heart of this thoughtful assault on contemporary capitalism.

Buy How Much is Enough from WH Smith
How Much is Enough? The love of money and the case for the good life, by Edward & Robert Skidelski, Allen Lane, 2012.

Although they sound like a Scottish punk band, the Skidelskys make an unlikely pair of iconoclasts: Lord Robert, the acclaimed biographer of John Maynard Keynes, and his philosopher son, Edward. And it is from Keynes’s mistaken belief that the richer we became the less we would choose to work less that they take their cue. Keynes failed to understand, say the authors, how capitalism would continue generating endless wants which could never be satisfied. Indeed, neo-classical economics has abolished Jagger’s distinction between wants and need by subsuming both within the empty concept of ‘utility’. So we keep working longer and harder to afford more stuff which we certainly don’t need and may not even really want.

To make capitalism work for us rather than the other way round, the Skidelskys propose trying to meet our needs rather than our wants. To this end, they identify seven ‘basic goods’ which we need in order to live, in Keynes’s words, ‘wisely, agreeably and well’: health, security, respect, personal independence, leisure, friendship, and harmony with nature.

For this to work, we need to dispense with the modern Western idea that happiness is merely a subjective ‘state of mind’, which makes it worse than useless as a goal of public policy. The Skidelskys’ solution is to revive the Ancient Greek concept of happiness – eudaimonia –  as ‘a blessed or enviable condition’. Behind this lurks the idea that some modes of life are intrinsically better than others. Take friendship: who would disagree with Aristotle’s assertion that, ‘No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had the other good things’?

jagger_portraitThe Skidelskys cheerfully own up to ‘honest paternalism’, and you can hear Keynes’s echo in their suggestion that the good life is more about ‘strumming a guitar’ or ‘decorating furniture’ than ‘watching television and getting drunk’. Curiously, there is no discussion of democracy here, or how we might choose between different versions of the ‘good life’ without an Athenian-style panel of elders deciding for us.

Some of the Skidelskys’ policy prescriptions – a basic income for all citizens (working or not) and higher pay for public servants, for example – look like a dauntingly hard sell in the current environment. And it’s a measure of the capture of conservative thinking by free-market fundamentalism that ideas drawn from Greek and medieval philosophy, Christian social teaching and Edwardian patricians like Keynes are now only likely to find favour on the left.

‘Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money than to spend it. And we cannot just go on spending,’ the Skidelskys warn. Mick Jagger might have agreed with that in 1969. These days, I’m not so sure.

  • A version of this review was published in Public Service Magazine, Autumn 2012.

Baudelaire and our destructive obsession with change

‘The shape of a city changes too fast, alas!, for the heart of mortal man,’ wrote Charles Baudelaire in one of his most famous poems, The Swan. Baudelaire wrote it around 1859, when many of the narrow old streets of Paris were being bulldozed by Napoleon III’s henchman Baron Haussmann to make way for the grand boulevards we see today (though not the boulevard that bears Haussmann’s name, which dates from the reign of Louis XIV).

Charles Baudelaire: destruction isn’t always creative.

Like Baudelaire, many artists and writers have an ambiguous attitude to change: often voiciferous in demanding socal and political reform, but just as often lamenting the loss of traditional ways of life and old, familiar places, especially those remembered from childhood.

Baudelaire had stood on the barricades armed with a stolen pistol (it was just a pose really, he didn’t do much) during the revolution of 1848 which eventually brought Napoleon III to power. He hated the bourgeois values of his own upbringing, and despised the French establishment – both personified in the form of his loathed stepfather General Aupick. But in The Swan, he laments that ‘the old Paris is no more’ and compares the new city to ‘an empty tomb’, and himself to a captive swan, pining for it’s ‘native lake’ and unable to drink from a dry gutter.

As Baudelaire’s poem shows, ceaseless change is nothing new, especially in the city where the engine of capitalism fires on all cylinders. Full-blooded capitalism really came to France with Napoleon III – a spivvy property developer masquerading as a politician – but the French never took to it as enthusiastically at the Brits. It’s one of the reasons why when you go back to Paris, even after several years, your favourite bar or restaurant is often still there, sometimes even with the same staff. In London, nothing on the high street endures for more than five minutes before it is replaced, ‘under new management’ or somehow made-over into something different. This process seems to have acceleated since our return to turbo capitalism in the 1980s.

Many people on the left are embarrassed to oppose change – of almost any kind – for fear of being branded ‘conservative’. After all, isn’t progress supposed to be about change? And isn’t innovation the motor of cultural and economic life? In Britain, and increasingly in France too, no politician – left or right – can afford to be against change. In the UK, every area of public life has been constantly ‘in reform’ for at least 20 years. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the fact that not all change is good, and that innovation and change are not the same thing.

In the 1940s, Joseph Schumpeter coined the term ‘creative destruction’ to describe the way free-market capitalism requires ceaseless change – that goods, services, companies and even people are disposable and transitory – in order to generate the constant demand for new production on which the system depends. Left unfettered, this results in a world where consumers must never be satisfied, care and craftsmanship are for the birds, and work itself has no intrinsic value, since nothing endures and nothing should endure.

The philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who is director of innovation (note the title) at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, has written about how this ‘structural obsolescence’ in the things we buy and the things we produce, in the organisations we work for and the environment around us – makes people feel disposable themselves, to the point where they ‘lose the sense of existing’. It’s a more extreme and generalised version of Marx’s ‘alienation’, where we are not only estranged from the means of production but from the things that we own (workers in Marx’s day didn’t own much), the places we live in and, ultimately, from each other. We become, like Baudelaire, strangers in our own city – ‘exiles’ like Victor Hugo, to whom Baudelaire’s poem was dedicated.

At the root of this, is the little value we now place on work itself. In 1995, in his final speech to the UN, François Mitterrand warned against a world in which speculation ‘ruins in a few hours the work of millions of men and women’. This is – perhaps already was – the world we live in.

In a recent series of articles in the Guardian calling for ‘a new capitalism’, the British economic commentator Will Hutton was making similar points when he argued that ‘uncommitted tourist shareholders’ and the linking of director’s pay to short-term share price performance ‘have allowed a madhouse to develop’, where ownership and branding changes constantly but there is little real innovation. Shareholders have little engagement with the companies they own and the company itself has become ‘nothing more than a network of short-term contracts’.

In this environment, where no one has any patience or takes any long-term responsibility, there is little investment and precious little innovation. It’s hardly surprising that no one takes any pride or care in the products they make or the services they offer. After all, everything that’s here today will be gone tomorrow.

‘No game changing improvement in British investment and innovation is possible without a return to engagement, stewardship and committment,’ writes Hutton. ‘The company has become a dysfuctional organisational construct that needs root-and-branch reform.’

The effects of all this are not just economic, but social, cultural and even psychological. Constant, meaningless change leaves us feeling rootless, emotionally destitute, disorientated, even nauseous. Only people with substantial assets can afford to buy some permanence and stability in their lives. According to Stiegler, this has lead to the ‘general depressive state’ afflicting working people in most Western societies.

‘Paris changes! But nothing in my melancholy has stirred!’ wrote Baudelaire. Wandering among the ‘new palaces’ springing up on the site of the old neighbourhoods of Paris, with his ‘dear memories heavier than rocks’, he felt even then that nothing of real value was being created.

Creative catastrophizing

The last year has seen a glut of books on economics for general readers, feeding off the fears most people have about their future in the global economy. In fact, the dismal science has never been so popular – or indeed so dismal.

Catastrophe sells, so many of these books come with doom-laden titles and the sort of menacing predictions familiar from the days of the Cold War. In How the West was Lost, the Zimbabwean-born academic Dambisa Moyo predicts a grim battle between Chinese and American capitalism, from which the more muscular, state-controlled, Oriental version will emerge triumphant. The west has all but given up on saving, skills and innovation – the motors of economic prosperity – and lacks the political will to save itself. America’s only way out is unthinkable – putting up trade barriers and defaulting on its debt.

Will Hutton has always been willing to ask questions conventional economists won’t. In Them and Us: Politics, Greed and Inequality– Why We Need a Fair Society (now out in paperback) he asks if ‘fairness’ matters and, if so, why? (His answer is yes, and because unfairness is inefficient and socially destructive). And before you think, ‘leftie rant follows’, Hutton throws this at you: fairness is ‘capitalism’s indispensable value’. It is fairness that allows innovation to flourish, and innovation is the motor of capitalism (possibly the only thing on which Hutton and Moyo are likely to agree).

bernard-stieglerIf this seems a bit optimistic for the times, look to France for some gloomy abstract thinking. Philosopher Bernard Stiegler (also “director of innovation” at Paris’s Pompidou Centre, and you don’t get more avant-garde than that) has written a book that tramples all over the barriers between economics, philosophy and social psychology.Ce Qui Fait la Vie Vaut la Peine d’Etre Vécue (something like ‘What makes life worth living’) raises the alarming prospect that human beings may be losing their ‘taste for life’ itself. The ecological crisis and the failure of market economics is driving us into a ‘general depression’. Modern capitalism, Stiegler says, works by ‘creative destruction’ – the need to produce goods and services that are ever more disposable and ephemeral – which leaves human beings feeling useless and powerless, without really understanding why.

These are just three examples; there are dozens of others, offering diagnoses and prescriptions varying from fundamentalist free-market to somewhere out beyond neo-Marxist. What they have in common is a willingness to think beyond the sterile models and simplistic equations of conventional economics and tap into much richer veins of thinking. But you won’t hear any of this when the next talking head from Goldman Sachs pops up on telly to give their dry, self-interested view on the latest inflation figures.

In the 1930s, Keynes wrote that an economist should be ‘mathematician, historian, statesman and philosopher…no part of man’s nature or his institutions must be entirely outside his regard.’ Frankly, economics, has spent the last thirty years with its head up its own arse, and it’s high time it took it out and took a look around.