Thursday, October 23, 2008


No doubt about it - atheism is a good thing. I'd even go as far as to say that I believe in it. But, even the most devoted of atheists must admit that what this lacks in imagination, confident curiosity ("probably"?!) and timing ("stop worrying and enjoy your life" indeed...), it makes up for in petulant, childish smuggery.

It reminds me of a piece Zizek wrote a decade or so ago, about the bullying coercion that we should all stop worrying and bloody well enjoy ourselves:

Now that Viagra can take care of the erection, there is no excuse: you should have sex whenever you can; and if you don’t you should feel guilty. New Ageism, on the other hand, offers a way out of the superego predicament by claiming to recover the spontaneity of our ‘true’ selves. But New Age wisdom, too, relies on the superego imperative: ‘It is your duty to achieve full self-realisation and self-fulfilment, because you can.’ Isn’t this why we often feel that we are being terrorised by the New Age language of liberation?

The bus purports to be liberatory and permissive, but actually it achieves the opposite effect. Its real message is: stop worrying, stop whingeing, there's nothing to be scared of, just think positively and everything will be ok. It's difficult to think of a less liberating message.

It needn't have been like this. Savonarola suggests some alternative slogans here. It's my vision of the perfect utopia: a bus with "I shit on God, if he does not do my bidding" daubed over it...

Saturday, October 18, 2008


It is said that anti-capitalists are inflexible, that they rely too much on crude determinism. Nevertheless, their critics will be forced to admit that two cliches about chronology and capitalism have once again come to pass. The first is that centuries as we know them generally take between five and 15 years to get going (the "short twentieth century" began in 1914, the twenty-first appears to be starting now). The second, a combination of Kondratiev and Mandel, is that the capitalist cycle of prosperity-recession-depression-improvement generally lasts around 30 years.

To prove the Kondratiev-Mandel rule, the most pertinent novel for our times is Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age, published in 1977. It is my favourite sub-300 page novel.

The Ice Age revolves around Anthony Keating, clergyman's son and Oxford arts graduate, who marries early, becomes a father soon after, works as a journalist for the BBC, votes Labour and thinks that there must be more to life than this.

Palling up with men of vision, enterprise and money, Keating buys a small plot of land on the Thames riverbank and becomes a property developer. But as the economy melts down midway through the 1970s, as interest rates and inflation soar and as the value of his property and investments plummet, Anthony Keating, his colleagues, friends and family turn anxiously to the mercy of an irrational and unforgiving world. One is jailed for fraud, another returns to the bedsit from which she came; a step-daughter is banged up in an Eastern bloc prison. Keating himself has a heart-attack, as though the antagonism of social-mindedness and a need for hardnosed excitement tears the organ apart. While he is recuperating in his second home in Yorkshire, he ponders his lot.

He remembered the Diggers, who had dug up Richmond Hill. He thought of the enclosure of the Commons. He thought of Shelter, and the homeless, and vandalised council property, and large houses with burglar alarms and guard dogs and barbed wire around them, and of the beaches of the Riviera, parcelled out and cordoned off and sold. Public and private. Locke - he thought it was Locke - had said that we make our stake to the land by working it: was that why he, guilty, owning far more than his fair share, tried ineptly to grow woody carrots?

Keating and the people associated with him are utterly alienated, from themselves and the world. They are frozen, trapped, unable to move. Drabble tells the story of this microcosm of society with some amusement, but it is the neurotic amusement of her own characters.

I think, thought Alison, that I would rather die, than lose my foot ... what happened to Kitty's foot? Where was it? Incinerated? And had it been blown off, or cut off? And if cut off, what with? A knife? Leaving what? A stump? And what did one cut through> Bone, tendon> Or did one find the joint as in a chicken? I would sooner be dead, thought Alison. But I know why. It is because I am a vain, a wicked woman, who thinks too much of this world, and of her own body. I am not humble, I cannot face old age, I cannot face ugliness and decay. She shivered. She was afraid. A large, a terrible fear gripped her. Of death? No, not of death. To die in one's sleep, to fade away, seemed easy enough, as a prospect. Of mutilation? Why, of mutilation? Nobody had ever threatened her with it, so why, so unnaturally, so wastefully, at least so prematurely, face it, fear it?

The actors in her story are clearly culpable, responsible for their situation. Anthony Keating and Len Wincobank and Giles Peters all fly too close to the sun. But they are not blamed for their actions. In a way, each does what he must do.


Likewise, we know that graduates working in the City have been on £45,000 a year, with a £10-12,000 bonus guaranteed. We know that Sir Fred Goodwin, former Chief Executive of RBS, pocketed £5.375 million in 2008 before bonuses. We know that £64.7 billion has been paid to city workers in bonuses during the last seven years. But it is not greed alone that has caused the financial system to collapse.

Without their stupidity and arrogance, their hubris in investing other people's money into risky financial products or untimely expansions, the bankers may not have found themselves swimming in quite the depths of shit that they do today. But without such extravagance, there would be no bankers, no traders, no investors. Capitalism itself is driven by recklessness. The inflation and deflation of bubbles is only another way of describing boom and bust.

That the market has burned its wings is primarily due to the subprime crisis. So, we are told, with some butting back, some toning down, a little more regulation, all will be well. But we must take care not to treat production and finance as entirely separate entities. The main thing that a 19th century economist like Marx would notice today is that in a globalised economy, Western companies have shipped their productive labour overseas, and that Western nations now rely on the financial sector to deliver profits.

A consequence of this, and the rise of monopoly capitalism, is the changing role of banks. Banks act as the motor force of capitalism by enabling the flow of capital. But Marx would notice that, in the last 30 years or so (since the end of "the golden age" and the beginning of neoliberalism), large companies use retained profits for investment, rather than borrowing credit from banks. Banks have therefore sought their profits by primarily lending to individuals. But since real-term salaries have declined in the last 30 years, banks and other financial institutions have turned to the housing market.

During boom times, banks lend money more and more freely, and begin to look for growth in places where they hadn’t before. In this case, the growth area for American financial institutions was in lending money to poor people whom they wouldn’t previously touch. The banks didn’t exactly go skipping around trailer parks handing out leaflets offering Buy One Get One Free mortgages – except that they did, sort of. The great thing about these poor people was that because their credit history was poor to non-existent they could be charged extravagantly high rates of interest.

Credit-worthiness was measured by rationalised tools which were often designed to produce a positive result - after all, lending increases the prices of assets, which is good for the economy - for a while. Meanwhile, banks packaged these dubious loans together into Collateralised Debt Obligations - potentially lucrative but highly complex and risky instruments - which then pervaded the world market. These packages of debt became dangerous when US interest rates went up and people became unable to pay off their mortgages. This BBC report shows that one home in ten in Cleveland, Ohio has been repossessed.

The CDO virus, coupled with the explosion of labyrinthine instruments called derivatives, so crippled the market that banks stopped lending to each other for fear that, like our own Northern Rock, their assets might be toxic.

Nobody can know if the international bail-outs will pump sufficient cash into the system to get banks lending again. If not, the entire capitalist economy could be staring into an abyss. Tthe dramatic and chronic slowdown in production since the mid 1970s has caused capitalism to rely on the finance sector, which we now know is highly unstable. Iceland, who created a financial, credit-based veneer without any productive foundations, has found this out the hard way.


"This is not a time for celebration," said David Cameron last week. He is right on two counts. Firstly, no British political party, all neoliberal to their cores, would have ever wished to be dominant shareholder in four major banks. Secondly, Cameron and the Tories have responded to this crisis feebly, dimly aware that it is of their own making.

The City's administration of the State has been politically, economically and culturally awful. It has replaced rational planning with a mysticism whose truths have eluded even its most devoted and educated of disciples. That the State is taking over the reins again is a good thing, but the left should not be satisfied with nationalised banks or drip-drip Keynesianism. It must not lose nerve. Unlike previous battles, it can fight this one with the utmost confidence - confidence that its critique has been proven right, and that it truly speaks for the majority of people.


Or “the buildings what I saw on my holidays”.

My darling Darling Vicarage and I actually arrived back in London well over a month ago, after a dismal coalition of, Easy Jet, Prague International Airport, UK Immigration Control and Southern Railways conspired to rile and delay us. DV had been to Prague before, in 2001, but the city has changed so much that she began to doubt whether she had been at all. The Czech Republic’s entry into Europe has been bought at a high price.

Prague is a city of many aspects. I spotted three of them. The area around Wenceslas Square is awash with strip-bars and puking Englanders; apart from admiring the Radio Free Europe building from the safety of public transport, we avoided it altogether.

Off the beaten-track is Zizkov, a working-class neighbourhood named after the old Czech warrior Jan Zizka, who fought against the doctrines of orthodox Catholicism in the reign of good King Wenceslaus. On the hill where the Hussites defeated the Crusaders in 1420, there is an enormous statue of Zizka sitting on a horse whose veins pop out of its skin. Behind Zizka and his horse is a rather grim National Monument, erected in 1927, and later used to house the Czech Communist leader Klement Gottwald, who died of syphilis and alcoholism five days after attending Stalin’s funeral.

Much more fun, though not much less Stalinist, is the Zizkov TV tower. The guidebooks tell you that the tower exemplifies Communist megalomania. Well, maybe. I can’t imagine that anybody took the design and construction of a building that so closely resembles a space rocket entirely seriously. It reminds me of an article Ballard wrote for Vogue in 1977 about the rise and fall of the space age.

Looking back, we can see that far from extending forever into the future, the space age lasted for scarcely 15 years: from Sputnik 1 and Gagarin’s first flight in 1961 to the last Skylab mission in 1974 – and the first splashdown, significantly, not to be shown on television. After a casual glance at the sky, people turned around and went indoors.

The Zizkov TV Tower was completed fifteen years after Ballard wrote his article for Vogue. It proves him wrong and right at the same time: wrong because the taste for space travel post-dated his article by several years, and right because the spaciest construction in Europe at the end of the Cold War period has nothing whatever to do with space travel.

The Czech artist David Černý has covered the tower with enormous babies with punch-bag faces who crawl up and down its sides, but on a 216 metre high space-rocket, such attention-seeking postmodernist touches are rather superfluous.

Never mind the cosmological Brutalism of the Stalinists; the Baroque churches and cathedrals of the old town are far more explicit in their politics. They conceal their despotism behind a mask of rich decoration, so that today they appear merely extravagant. St Nicholas’s Church in Malá Strana is an especially extraordinary confection. It was built during the late 17th and early 18th Centuries, when Prague had returned to absolutist Catholic rule.

From the outside it is much less ornate than some of Prague’s other Baroque churches and cathedrals, and at a first glance the inside appears merely cakey, even rather beautiful in a grotesque sort of way. “Isn’t it gorgeous,” asked an American lady to nobody in particular, but once she sat down on one of the wooden pews and looked up to the fresco on the ceiling, her complexion paled.

St Nicholas’s Church does not inspire reverence, it inspires fear. It makes one tremble in fear. It is a place of worship, but it is also an overtly political statement. We took a seat in a caustically small pew, and DV explained the impulses and techniques of counter-Reformation architecture; how it distorts perspective in order to confuse reality, to create vertiginous heights and depths, to generate the illusion that the architecture extends beyond the Church. This effect, called quadrattura, makes you submissive and unsteady and sickly, and it is achieved with magnificent skill in St Nicholas’s Church.

The quadrattura ceiling par excellence is at the church of Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Campo Marziot in Rome, but the Last Judgement fresco painted on the ceiling of St Nicholas’s Church is almost as effective. DV got vertigo when looking up at the ceiling, and I did too. The perspective of the fresco and the curve of the ceiling lead the eye up towards the heavens, but the figures in the scene appear to be slowly falling down upon the timid worshipper, and all the time one feels as though one is being pulled towards the centre of the scene (i.e. God). The implications of this magnetism in a scene of the Last Judgement could not be clearer.

Decoration flourishes on a massive scale in St Nicholas’s Church, and most of it is rather repulsive. A diminutive Christ is surrounded by gigantic statues of Saints – St Basil the Great looks absurdly dumpy and psychotic; St Cyril, who as Pope purged Alexandria of its Jews, pokes a lean, golden spike through the throat of a victim. The statues stand on cold red or pink marble bases. There are Ionic columns, also of reddish marble, which are topped with volutes of solid gold. Chapels and altars are decked with artificial marble and gold. The Baroque organ, built by Tomas Schwarz, was added later and is enormous in sound and appearance.

The Reformation had suggested that the word (and, in particular, the Scriptures) was privileged over the image. The word required no intermediary between the individual and God, whereas the image was itself an intermediary. The Jesuits of the counter-Reformation were extraordinarily successful for many years at denying this claim, at reaffirming art over the word. St Nicholas's Church bullies the worshipper, so that it crosses the line from the sacred to the profane.

The TV Tower in Zizkov, at least, wears its profanities on its sleeve.