With Usura: Dante (Pt.1)

This is turning out to be a little too long for one post, so it’s coming as two (I hope).

When I first thought of this piece, the intention was to provide a historical look at prevailing historical attitudes towards usury through an analysis of the Inferno. This is still my intention, but it is done with an important caveat.

There are two mottos every self-respecting literature student should hold dear when it comes to textual analysis: ‘no man is an island’ and ‘there is nothing outside the text’. Art is fundamentally contextual in its creation and its interpretation. Of no author is this truer than Dante, and of no author’s work is interpretation more complicated. The extant biographical information on Dante, whether from contemporary accounts or his own poems, is extremely patchy; his wife and children (the number is still contested) for example, are never mentioned in his poetry, while Beatrice, his muse and objet d’amour with whom he was not on particularly intimate terms, is obsessively elevated to mythic standing in his early dolce stil novo works. Regardless, one of the few facts agreed upon by all scholars is that some time between late 1301 and early1302, Dante was exiled from his native Florence, and remained in exile until his death in 1321. The events of these years form the most pertinent backdrop with which to contextualise The Divine Comedy, the work that secured Dante’s place in the Western canon.

So where is the problem? All good art is a fascinating interaction between the creative individual and wider society, and, as this terribly brief biography highlights, Dante’s was particularly fraught. To read the Comedy in light of this singular event exposes its extraordinarily polemical nature. We think of the Comedy primarily as a fictional-theological work; as a startlingly imaginative cosmology delineating hell, purgatory and heaven; perhaps even as a theodicy of sorts, justifying the ways of God to man. But while it may be all of the above, it is also testament to the anger and bitterness the author felt regarding the political, social and religious situation of the day.

Therefore the caveat: like Milton’s Paradise Lost 300 years later, Dante’s epic religious poem is also an intensely personal sublimation of his politics, and, like Milton, politically he may not have been in the majority. To describe Dante’s politics as self-serving would overstep the mark; to describe it as coloured by a set of extraordinary circumstances and a desire for recrimination would, I think, be accurate. The Comedy is densely populated not only with mythical and historical figures, but also with the great and the good of Florentine society and one cannot help but feel that he had a score to settle. This may seem like a statement of the blindingly obvious: art is always a subjective endeavour. Nevertheless, personal circumstance seems to seep into The Divine Comedy on such an all-encompassing scale that it was a statement of the blindingly obvious I felt duty bound to make.


Hi-ho, Hi-ho, it’s off to (unpaid) work we go

Please pardon the blogging hiatus. I can’t speak for all of us, but this week I found myself particularly detached from the news I so often love to question. I could list several reasons (read excuses) for not posting this past week, but let’s be honest, none of them would hit the mark satisfactorily. You see, my dear reader, I’ve recently started a work experience position and, upon returning to the work schedule of the real world, I have found little energy to question my surroundings.

It is exactly this experience, though, that caught me off guard when listening to Cameron’s speech this Thursday about the economic state of the UK. Though there are several issues I would love to delve into, the one that struck me most (and consequently got me writing again) was his comment about “snobbish attitudes” towards business with respect to education. He raised an interesting point when he argued: “Put a young person into college for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s hailed as a good thing. Put a young person into a supermarket for a month’s learning, unpaid – and it’s slammed as slave labour.”

Let’s flush out these ideas a bit. I cannot write-off the idea of internships and work experiences, as I do genuinely believe them to be of value for people interested in getting exposure to an industry of interest. However, the comparison Cameron makes here is to me, at best, unsettling. Forgetting the insensitivity of carelessly comparing unpaid internships to “slave labour”, and, skipping over the month-long time frame for college education that in itself provides fodder for criticism, let’s look at the “unpaid” aspect of both forms of education.

Rarely does a student get paid to study at university. For the lucky few, scholarships might offset the costs entirely, but most actually pay to go. Why then is this acceptable, whereas interning for free (let alone not having to pay for the experience) can inflame a population? I think Cameron may have missed an important difference: the service a university provides is directly related back to its students, shaping their opinions, providing experiences and allowing them to grow. Don’t get me wrong, academia is a business too, but I can’t think of a case whereby my time and energy spent within the university’s walls were [profitable when] sold to a third party.

How does the reverse translate? An intern who works for free at a supermarket (keeping in mind that others are paid to do the same job) is getting exposure to what exactly? It may help a wayward young adult decide this isn’t the industry for him. It may provide contacts for future jobs or simply provide much needed structure to daily life. But while what a student learns at university is invariably his own, the labour he provides while learning on-site is directly profitable to the business. Is it really snobbish then, to say that unpaid work, though definitely a learning experience, is one that can be deflating, if not altogether demeaning? If we understand our value to the company as reflected by our salary, then being paid nothing is equivalent to being worth nothing. And while the work can be instructive and formative, isn’t it always so for those employees who are paid to do it too? I must admit, I’ve had my fair share of jobs where it seemed as though paid employees were, in fact, paid to stop learning.

Perhaps worst of all, though, is the endemic expectations the system creates. It isn’t so much that unpaid work is branded bad a priori, but rather becomes bad due to the underlining assumption that we must all submit ourselves to various unpaid stints—that without these our CVs lack substance, and by extension, so do we.

So thank you Cameron for awaking me from my lethargic blogging ways. But please do try to be more careful in choosing your comparisons. The only “snobbery” I can see in this particular case lies with the politicians—so far removed from the reality of policies which they debate, yet insistent that they know better than those complaining (that is, those whom they actually affect).

Christ! Not again

After attending a lecture at LSE this Monday evening about how Keynes and Hayek continue to influence the political left and right today, the immediate reaction was to look at the news and see the abuses disciples of both these economic thinkers are committing in the name of political-economic ideology. Maybe they haven’t fully read the works they claim to support; maybe they haven’t understood them. Either way, there is proliferation of annoying inconsistency with how economic and socio-political issues are combined. Most recently, these haven taken shape in the UK, as in the US, with regards to religious intolerance that is supposedly occurring in the respective states. While the approach varied, the underlying message was the same: religion is under attack.

Lady Warsi on 'militant secularisation'

My initial reaction was to see this as a ploy by the Neo-Conservatives to revert back to tactics of fear. But the bigger picture, one painted by the lecturer Mr. Nicholas Wapshott on Monday, was that of larger historical trends. Counter-Enlightenment style tactics have reared their ugly head once again. And despite warnings from thinkers such as John Gray, who outlined the rise of utopian ideals being pushed from political extremes into the mainstream in his book Black Mass, we see politicians such as the UK’s Lady Warsi decrying “militant secularism” and the US’ Rick Santorum vehemently opposing Obama’s “antireligious” contraceptive healthcare plan.

How does any of this tie into economics or the Keynes/Hayek debate? Both economists were also very cognisant of the political repercussions born of economically induced desperation. Both men witnessed the degradation of hope in the economic and political system brought about by too harsh a sentence for reparations following WWI, and they knew that the results of dire economics gave way to radical politics. For Keynes, it was largely a question of unemployment: cutting public sector jobs during high unemployment yields extreme politics because it encourages contempt for the current political parties and/or systems. Hayek, being Austrian and seeing the effects of hyperinflation affect his own family, also recognized that economic woes could dictate political climates and hoped to find a (in his mind, more sustainable) way to stabilise the economy.

So why are conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic turning their attention to religion? Are they afraid that social issues have suffered at the hands of overwhelming media exposure to the economic climate? Is it a deliberate ploy to redirect attention away from an issue to which they don’t have a solution? At a time in which the population has lost hope and faith in its liberal democratic system, do they seek to benefit by filling that void? Or are they simply not aware of the contradiction? After all, Hayek wrote in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that, “The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals.” How, then, can forcing religion back into a predominant role in society be seen as anything other than an attempt to control civilisation?

Then again, maybe my sneaking suspicion that this is a NeoCon ruse was right. If that’s the case, let’s be sure to remind ourselves that when times are hard, we’re susceptible to lots of bad ideas and easy outs. Let’s not fall once more for scare tactics that only ever temporarily gives us a sense of purpose.


The Tea Party: Credit Where Credit’s Due

Those of us who place ourselves on the political left, love nothing more than to denounce the insane, right wing zealotry of movements like the Tea Party. It makes us feel better, it gives vent to our frustrations about the dire state of society, it gives us a villain to deride, it allows us the rueful smile of smug satisfaction. In a recent, highly patronising, article for the Guardian, George Monbiot highlighted a Canadian study which has found a connection between low intelligence and the more extreme end of the right wing political spectrum. ‘Nothing new there then’ you might say; remember this, or this, or even this? Regardless, when Monbiot finishes debunking some of the crazier aspects of right wing doctrine, the article does touch upon something far more important: where are the left in all of this?

All politics demands faith. We judge our elected representatives on the things they say and the policies they promise to push. Once they have been elected, barring serious misdemeanours, they have their term regardless of whether they live up to their promises in parliament or not. Just look at the discontent amongst both sides of the coalition government in the UK, where some Tories feel they are being emasculated by the Lib Dems and some Lib Dems feel that they are aiding the Tories in the implementation of regressive social policies. To a greater or lesser extent, we too take what we read in the media or hear from politicians as truth; we too are coloured by ideological convictions which we are unwilling to give up. As much as we may like to think that politics is the preserve of reason and logical argumentation, this is simply not enough; the pragmatist is always devoid of principle, and the principled always devoid of pragmatism. More than that, democratic politics is a communicative business, and statistics and reason, rarely seduce us in the same way as a bit of good, old fashioned rabble-rousing. We quickly forget the double standards that mean the skilled orator of the Republican right is more often than not seen as a populist tub-thumper, while when Obama makes Democrats swoon with a rhetorical flourish he is the reincarnation of Cicero.

Politics should sell us hope, and this is what movements like the Tea Party have done. Yes their policies are often bigoted and narrow-minded, and they have utilised, with stunning success, the politics of fear, so well developed on both sides of the Atlantic during the war on terror. But the left has utterly failed to create an equally seductive alternative.

The left has always had its problems. Since the very beginning it has been marred by the sort of schisms that religion would be proud of. Perestroika though, was the tipping point. Once all could see the body count of communist dictatorship, it busied itself with the humble hand-wringing that befits a rudderless ideology. Now it is the far right that has the answers. The left has backed itself into the corner of being able say only what it is against; it is remarkably negative in nature and allows the right to set the agenda. The left is still inside a moment of existential crisis like Gregor Samsa in Metamorphosis, and therefore producing articles such as David Miliband’s for the New Statesman, trying to establish what the Labour Party are about. Instead of engaging with movements like the Tea Party it is too concerned with its own navel, and dismissively sniggers, telling itself that these people have lost touch with reality and are not worth the effort; they reject the very people they should be striving to help and wonder why they are in decline. Before we, on the left, smirk patronisingly at these groups, we should take a long hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘if these people really will believe anything, why don’t they believe us?’

The Death Of Literature

Declarations on the death of literature in the electronic age seem to be a common strand of thought amongst pessimistic souls. But in reality, doubts about the place and value of literature have arisen ever since its beginning. When Terence proclaimed that ‘nothing is said that has not been said before’ in the 2nd Century BC, he hinted at a fundamental truth of art.

Earlier this morning I came across this article on Jonathan Franzen and the e-book. It struck me that in an age when novels like Freedom, (no more than an above average trouble-in-suburbia yarn) are decisive moments in Western civilisation, (between the discerning reader and I, Revolver was always the real masterpiece), comparable to Proust or Kafka, the temporality of the medium is the least of our concerns. For me, like Franzen, a real page-turner rather than a virtual one is a necessity, because a book is a physical and aesthetic experience as well. But the words are always more important. A far more interesting question, I think, is how literature needs to evolve to make sense to a reader in a digital medium.

Only six years ago I used to write everything by hand; I have an aversion to computers to this day. Now when I switch back to pen and paper it is a completely different experience. The writer’s fear of the blank page is all the more acute somehow when there are no distractions; no excuses. There is an overpowering need for accuracy and immediacy at the same time, coexisting within the individual hand across virginal paper. Of course writing is writing and words are words, but the act of writing on a computer comes with a change in the mental process of writing. To write long pieces by hand becomes almost impossible, for me at least, because it requires a great deal of patience and forethought, which have all but gone.

This logic can be extended to reading in a different medium. E-books provide a different experience to the printed word, which cannot be reduced to equivalency. Moreover, e-books may well be the future of literature. As ever greater parts of our daily life become digitised, who is to say that in fifty years the book as we know it may be extinct?

Novels have always projected theories of self. We can see this if we compare ancient literature such as Beowulf with the forms of today. What becomes clear is that in literary forms such as Beowulf, character does not exist as such; they are wholly secondary, ciphers exploring broad themes. With the advent of the European novel, the representation of character becomes holistic, meaning that the story works on two levels: on the level of plot and the level of the individual. Even the most basic, plot-driven thriller requires a character with a personal life and inner feelings.

Gradually, this process of evolution has displaced plot in modern literature. Think for example, of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway where the plot, insofar as we can call it that, is simply Mrs Dalloway’s preparation for a party; or Kafka’s The Castle in which the hapless land surveyor K, is sent to the castle only to find that due to a bureaucratic error, (or rather the lack of one), he has no job to perform. Even the realist novels of the nineteenth century, concern themselves far less with plot, which tends to be formulaic, in return for a greater realism of setting and self.

If, then, the job of the novel is to represent an individual’s inner-life, how does this translate to the twenty-first century? Who are the practitioners and in what form do they work?

The pace of change into digitisation has been remarkable; perhaps too quick for the invention of a new literary style that can accommodate it. It is almost as if literature is waiting for it to settle before it dips its toe in the water. That is of course not to say that there have not been developments, but writers such as W.G. Sebald and Herta Müller read almost like a coda to a time long gone. Recent efforts to chronicle modern life such as Franzen’s Freedom have been commendable, but conventional works in the Great American Novel tradition of Philip Roth. To my mind no writer has begun to fully explore 21st Century man or the possibilities of 21st Century mediums; in short what great art should do. Could, for example, Satie’s musique d’ameublement have come to be without the availability of the gramophone or without an understanding of contemporary life?

The prolonged fin-de-siècle that we are currently experiencing has hung over some of the ‘classical arts’ far longer than any fin-de-siècle should. The flexibility, interactivity and even the disposability of digital mediums are all aspects of the modern landscape which need to be explored in order to rejuvenate modern literature.

Bonuses busted

Oliver’s post highlights something that has been annoying me for some time now: “Europe” has assumed a negative connotation in the GOP debates. I want to re-examine Americans’ recent inclination to distance themselves from our closest political, economic and social allies. Why are we isolating ourselves in a time of rapid growth and further interconnectedness?

I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer lies in economic principles we’ve borrowed, albeit unfaithfully, and, like so many in this dire economic climate, cannot afford to repay with interest. Allow me to skip the past 200 years of incorrect assumptions or blatant half-truths about our “Smithian” economic model of laissez-faire and jump to debates that are currently raging in London, the financial capital of the world. This weekend’s Financial Times was filled with articles addressing the front-page caption “Banker bashing.”

It appears our economically inferior allies are charting uncomfortable territory that we Americans, by preemptively painting a bleak picture, wish not to confront; bankers, and the bonus culture, are being called into question while taxpayer money funds economic recovery via “too big to fail” banks. I find it amusing, if not ironic, that Europe should be so negatively viewed right now for a few reasons.

GOP candidates continue to tow the religious line. Fair enough. Religiosity is something not soon to leave the socio-political landscape in the US. However, arguments made about America’s moral predilection to enshrine rights not because the state deems them worthy, but because the state is seen as the safeguard of rights bestowed by a higher power, must ultimately prompt questions of morality in general. Funny then, that Adam Smith, a moral philosopher by trade and Scotsman by birth, should fall into that negatively branded “European” stock conservatives have come to despise. Better yet, it’s serendipitous that these debates in London should revolve around none other than the RSB (Royal Bank of Scotland) and Stephen Hester, its chief executive.

Stephen Hester, RBS' chief executive

Hester has been the center of attention as of late for being offered, and ultimately refusing (either out of moral rectitude or public humiliation) his £963,000 annual bonus. As far as I know, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but talk of forfeiting annual pay-outs is so far unheard in the States. True, Obama is now looking for ways to prevent future bonuses from occurring to the same extent they have in the past. But no news has broken this side of the Atlantic that a single executive has forgone his or her annual bonus, let alone a hand full of them.

More interesting are the questions this debate raises, and perhaps ultimately conservatives fear having to tackle back State-side. Is a culture that prefers the proverbial carrot to the stick too over-fed? In other words, can we continue to rely on a system of incentives when those incentives are either not in line with performance and guaranteed from the onset? The particular issue here in London is that the RBS is now largely government owned (83% to be precise) and tax-funded, and private sector incentives and public sector incentives have never really matched. More importantly though, it’s brought to a head the issue of entitlement, questioning whether people are doing what their job demands of them, or doing so exceptionally well they deserve a bonus (which often times in the banking sector is already promised when signing a contract). Attracting and retaining the best talent in a globally competitive world seems to outpace the contributions a person can do for even the most internationally lucrative company.

Before we lament over Europe’s economic woes due to, what the rhetoric can only imply is inherent, problems of its social liberalist inheritance, perhaps we ought to applaud deeper commitment to the morality of capitalism that, for better or worse, continues to crop up in London headlines. Are we afraid that becoming European (and yes, the UK is European enough to justify this argument, if for no other reason than Americans placing it unconditionally in the European pool due to vague proclamations of social liberalism) means reevaluating our economy, our morals or both?

Gone is The Age of Reason?

During the recent GOP debate in Florida, the television audience was treated to such awe-inspiring moments as Newt Gingrich’s promise to “pray for guidance and stop the war against Christianity that is being waged by the “secular elite,” and Rick Santorum’s solemn declaration that he never “bought into the global warming hoax.” Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin are muttering to themselves, extremely puzzled by the course of history. While the – previously discussed – government of Viktor Orban attempts to disassemble the democratic institutions of the third Hungarian Republic, Santorum waltzes on stage and proclaims that rights come from God, not government. Holy shit indeed.

While vibrant modern democracies have considerable room for a variety of social and political conservatism in public debate, the current wave of conservatism that has spread throughout the West is nothing short of regressive in its political ambitions. In terms of political ideas, the GOP debates have been nearly bereft of interesting or original thoughts (that is, with the exception of Ron Paul, whose failure to do better in the face of such poor opposition only brings up uncomfortable questions about American democracy). Meanwhile, the Canadian government – once paraded as a leader in climate change and transparency – suppresses its media and threatens NGOs over tar sands criticism, pulling out of the Kyoto pact while denying the connection to its lucrative yet environmentally harmful extraction process. Difficult economic times have seen the abdication of political principles before, but the real trouble is that we may not be quite sure what those political principles are anymore. Globalization and the free market have teamed up in the right wing to cloak themselves in the guise of unqualified positives, and conservatives worldwide have presented economic efficiency as the only reasonable form of governance in the “free world.” This is what allows mind-bogglingly prominent figures like Santorum to question fundamental scientific and political convictions like global warming and secular government. Three hundred years ago Franklin and Jefferson would have laughed him out of town.

While not wishing to lump Enlightenment ideas into a convenient category, or deny the important influence of counter-Enlightenment thought, it must be said the political values of our global world order, and certainly those of Western nations have been formed in accordance with Enlightenment ideals, namely those of rational political organization, secular government, tolerance, and an internationalism, or cosmopolitan sense of cooperation. Will Hutton, in a recent op-ed for the Guardian, comments on a new conservatism that departs from this tradition as embodied by Messrs Santorum and Orban: 

“The dynamic element on the political right across the west is giving up on the Enlightenment. No longer does it want to embrace tolerance, reason, democratic argument, progress and the drive for social betterment as cornerstones of society.”

While I find Hutton’s criticism a little heavy handed in that it brands all parties on the right with broad strokes of anti-Enlightenment while treating the Enlightenment itself somewhat monolithically, he expresses a central concern of mine in a very short article: political regression is very possible, especially at a time like this. The tendency to regionalism, regressive political ideas, and extreme conservatism becomes heightened in times of crisis, and is responsible for the increased inability of multilateral bodies to find solutions to global problems. It is no coincidence that Europe has become a bad word in the US elections. The EU’s financial struggles have made them a scapegoat for the welfare state, and even worse, multilateralism. Both Obama’s attempts at instituting a functioning health care system, and his desire to work on multilateral solutions to international affairs have inspired the GOP candidates to accuse him of trying to “turn the United States into Europe.” When did the West become so fractured that the word Europe has become an insult in American elections? And how are the major arbiters of international relations to maintain a united stance on global issues while so divided? Moving forward, I will continue to discuss the threat to Enlightenment ideals, and the dangers of political tribalism in the West. It is my feeling that the continuing crisis exacerbates these problematic political phenomena, and that a renewed commitment to progressive political values can come from a reflection on Western political and intellectual history. Hutton illustrates this feeling nicely:

“On issues big and small, we need to get better and cleverer at understanding our Enlightenment legacy and turning it into policies and institutions whose value is obvious to all. The Enlightenment is, with all its imperfections, what drove the rise of the west and will continue to do so if allowed. There is no long-run happiness nor well-being in organising our economies and societies around blood, ethnicity, blind faith and the tribe. The Enlightenment is under siege around the world. It is time to rally to its defence.”