Let’s Admit, We Trump-Haters Want a Coup

For eleven minutes this morning, Donald Trump was powerless – cut off from his followers by a disabled Twitter account.

That’s how coups used to start in Latin America. The army would cut the phone lines, seize the radio stations and blockade the newspapers, detaching leaders from their popular base. I heard tales of this era when I was a boy, my grandfather having served as Her Majesty’s ambassador to Venezuela in the 1950s. One story, told by my mother, remained with me with particular tenacity.

Fresh out of Oxford, she went to stay with her parents for a few months while she awaited her marriage to my father. 1950s Caracas was a city on the move, in the throes of an oil boom. Migrants were flooding in from the countryside, and from around the world, eager for opportunities. Skyscrapers and modernist architecture mushroomed as the government celebrated the country’s new-found prosperity.

But, as with most oil booms, the riches flowed unevenly. Those with the skills required in the new economy made big money, but the sector killed more jobs than it created. My mother got a glimpse of this emerging divide one day when flying above her neighbourhood in the embassy’s small, twin-prop Dove. In a city where crushing poverty was already prevalent, she saw row upon row of backyards behind stately homes, each with a pristine swimming pool, its shimmering surface broken but once a day when the man of the house returned from work.

This past Monday morning, I scrolled through the Twitter-feed that had come off the #MuellerMonday tag overnight. It read like the excited night-before-Christmas fantasies of liberals reliving their childhood, unable to sleep as they counted down the hours to the newsbreak. ‘I feel like I should leave cookies out for Mueller tonight.’ ‘Retweet if you hope Jared Kushner is woken up by a swat team at 3 AM tomorrow.’ ‘Wonder how @realDonaldTrump feels that the whole world is waiting eagerly in anticipation of his downfall to begin.’ ‘Tomorrow is the beginning of the end!’ ‘More excited for #MuellerMonday than the Super Bowl and World Series combined.’

Faced with this onslaught of progressive delight, I felt like the jaded romantic who’s still regretful at the discovery Santa Claus isn’t real (sorry, should have put a spoiler-alert in there). Look, I’ve exhausted my thesaurus trying to find words that express my disgust with the Donald: uncouth, puerile, ignorant, misogynistic, abusive – but also, unfortunately given the US constitution’s zany ways, the people’s choice.

Today in Venezuela, the scions of that privileged and complacent middle class, the same people who made so strong an impression on my mother, are living under the boot of those they once neglected. Under an autocratic and corrupt reign of populism, their lives have become a daily horror: empty shops, unsafe streets, blocked opportunities. Like so many populists, the Venezuelan regime enriches a well-connected few, talks a good line and throws enough pearls the way of its supporters to keep them from abandoning its ship. And why would they? Where else would they go? Back into the arms of a class that wants only to return to its pristine pools?

We use the same language that was used by Latin American coup plotters in my mother’s day: that Trump is a threat to national well-being, the constitution and the Western alliance. We’ll settle for any means of removing him from office. But when polls suggest that two-fifths of the population still approve of his job, to think we can just lick this problem with a surgical strike at the top overlooks the fact that even if we get rid of Trump, we’ll be stuck with Trumpism. The only way the left should be looking to eliminate that, is to eliminate the need for it.

And that brings home the uncomfortable truth: we, the middle classes of the West who rode a wave of prosperity in the global age, are that Venezuelan middle class of the 1950s. The rebellion against our happy rule was a long time in coming. Christopher Lasch wrote of the revolt of the elites in the 1990s, warning that the retreat of the middle classes into a smug, self-satisfied liberalism, one which found its home in New Labour or America’s New Democrats, was dividing society. Happy to return home each day to our metaphorical (and sometimes actual) shimmering swimming pools, we turned a blind eye to the suffering neoliberal globalisation was causing the working class: stagnant real wages, rising debt, growing hopelessness. While many of us still remember the 1990s as a golden age – Hillary Clinton all but campaigned on it – the reality for many was different. As I write in my most recent book, our gilded age was a dark one for many others.

Sorry folks, but we built this cross, and we’ll have to bear it. We must fight right-wing populism, but we must fight it in the trenches, not with a drone strike from five miles up. And unlike the ‘listening tours’ carried out by liberals who seem only to be listening to one another, we have to get out among the people we neglected so long, and really hear their stories. We won’t like everything they tell us, but that is the essence of democracy: finding a way to live with people we might not particularly like.


Getting Used to Terror

I posted this article two years ago, in the wake of a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Paris. Re-reading it after yesterday’s attack in New York, it seems as relevant to me now as it did then. Donald Trump would probably like America to go the Japanese route, but he won’t tell his followers the truth – that to do so, they would have to give up any hope to ‘make America great again’ (by which he means, richer). The choice is far more difficult than that.

Japan does not have, and is not likely to ever have, a problem with terror. It will almost certainly never suffer an attack like France’s weekend tragedy. But is also a nation that is in inexorable economic and demographic decline. That appears to be the trade-off all Western nations face: peace or prosperity.

Like all Western societies, Japan reaped the fruit of economic prosperity and is now, for reasons I discussed in an earlier post, declining both economically and demographically. One in four Japanese citizens are older than 65, and sales of adult diapers now surpass those for babies. The impact of this demographic shift on the economy, and on the lifestyles of the working-age population, is everywhere to be seen. Its workforce shrinking, Japan’s economy has more or less ground to a halt. The rapid increases in compensation for working Japanese are now a thing of the past as austerity forces employers to cut back pay. Most recently, the government has had to begin raising taxes on employed Japanese to support its expenditure on the elderly. A generation ago, young Japanese could look forward to a lifetime of rising incomes. Today, only the elderly still feel that optimism.

In its decline, Japan leads other Western countries by a couple of decades, but we’re virtually all on the same path. Some countries, like Italy and Germany, have already begun their demographic declines. Even those whose populations are still growing healthily, like Canada, can thank immigration for this. Take newcomers out of the picture, and even Canada would be contracting.

The relative openness to foreigners of Canada, the USA or Australia mean that even as their economic growth rates slow, long-term prospects look promising, not least when compared to Japan’s. But these are countries built by generations of immigrants, who helped develop their countries’ expertise at integrating newcomers and enabling them to make homes in their adopted countries. Two years ago, after two decades away, I spent some time lecturing in Canada. I marvelled at the way my students, a mixed bag who represented the whole planet, related to one another. Veiled young Iranian girls, Ethiopians in hoodies, Jamaicans in button-down shirts and Brazilians with strong Canadian accents all hung out together, played hockey and interacted on Facebook, expressing a degree of attachment to their homeland that humbled a lapsed Canadian like me.

Yet while Canadians like to say that the world could solve its problems if everyone just became more like them, it’s not an easy thing to pull off. The country, often derided by foreigners for being boring, got that reputation because its national culture is pretty vague, subdued and indistinct. Beyond ice hockey and perhaps Tim Horton’s donuts, there’s not a lot that Canadians would say defines them. The result is that the country allows newcomers a wide berth when it comes to grafting their own practises onto a constantly-evolving national culture.

Contrast that with European countries, where rich and centuries-old cultures define life. To be Italian is not just to like pasta and speak the language, and many Danes or Dutch don’t think veiled women can really be considered nationals. I used to lecture in France, and I recall conversations with the children of North African immigrants who, despite looking, sounding and behaving French to me, would say that they would still get asked where they were ‘from’ — and Marseille wasn’t the answer their interlocutor was looking for. The suburbs of French cities are filled with vast, depressed housing estates brimming with discontented minorities who often feel they don’t get a fair hearing.

Osaka, November 2015

Osaka, November 2015

When it comes to Japanese policy menu, on the other hand, immigration is simply not an option. Aware their country is on a path of economic and demographic decline, most Japanese seem to have accepted this with equanimity. They might encourage the vast army of stay-at-home mothers to enter the work force but, aside from letting in the odd highly-skilled specialist, they don’t intend to increase immigration to boost their labour supply. To judge from the subtle racism Japanese show towards all ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) — the spaces, patronising remarks to correct the supposed ignorance of foreigners, the common lack of interest in overseas travel, the rarity with which even educated Japanese people speak or understand any foreign languages — they prefer their country to die Japanese than to rebirth itself with new inputs.

However, an obvious consequence of Japan’s consequent homogeneity is a high degree of order around shared norms, a degree of stability that remains the envy of other Western countries. Crime is very low, and a single woman can walk home late at night with little fear. Children as young as three can be seen in school canteens, serving one another first before serving oneself. At a shared meal, nobody eats the last item on the dish. Formal gestures of respect govern all interactions. Thus, in- and out-groups are not really a feature here, and there is no obvious source of discontent driving marginalised groups to rebel against societies they feel reject them.

Europe faces a choice. Does it go the Canadian route, accept more immigrants, and take the risks that go with that — either to its stability or, if it is to go the Canadian route and allow immigrants to change their societies, to its cultures? Or does it go the Japanese route, close its borders, and slide into irreversible decline? What do we love most, money or identity? Material prosperity or our cultural and spiritual endowment? That’s a tough choice, with no obvious answer.

European governments, which by and large tell their citizens they will both preserve their cultures and make them richer, are avoiding the dilemma. Until they face it, their citizens may have no choice but to get used to terror.

The Weinstein Syndrome

‘I came of age in the 60s and 70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different’ Harvey Weinstein told the New York Times after news of his chronic sexual harassment broke. ‘That was the culture then.’ Actually, no it wasn’t. The mores haven’t changed much. Your power did.

I once worked in an environment where this sort of thing was rife – a university, where most of the students were women and most of the teachers, men. The students were in the full flower of youth and the teachers, well, were not. But they had something more potent. The authority and aura that go with scholarship sometimes suffice to bring young students tumbling into a lecturer’s lap; but for those who lack charisma or charm, there is plain power. They determined grades, they assigned scholarships, they controlled promotions. And enough of them were ready to use that power to impose themselves on reluctant young women that it became what Weinstein called ‘the culture.’

I recall one day, working in my office, when I heard a rapid knock at the door. It swung open, one of my female students stepped inside and closed the door behind her. At once, she began complaining about ‘that greasy old man’ who had just tried to press himself on her, when who should open my door but the man in question.

One of my superiors, he had come to discuss a routine academic matter when, upon seeing the young woman, he stopped. He smiled at her, turned to look at me, and with eyes that communicated his displeasure, said we’d talk some other time.

Nothing further was said or done about the matter. After he left, I suggested to my student that if she wanted to make a complaint, I would back her up. She said it wasn’t worth the trouble. Besides, she’d suffered worse at the hands of others of my colleagues, one of whom once cornered her in his office after closing the door, then pressing up against her and telling her ‘I want you and you know you want me.’ Trying to inject a bit of levity, she winked at me and added it was ironic that the one lecturer she and her classmates wanted to make passes at them was the one who wouldn’t do it.

In fact, I was not alone. Many of my colleagues did not partake of this culture. But they generally kept their heads down, because nothing could be gained from publicly opposing the old boys’ network. Once, after I had called out a colleague on an unrelated matter, a senior member of staff pulled me aside and said ‘you realize your career here is now over.’ He proved prescient. I never got another promotion, research grant or sabbatical. As another female student told me one day in a tutorial, ‘you know they hate you; it’s because the girls like you.’

Some women played the game, and if they got ahead, often became part of the structure which maintained this power imbalance. ‘Lighten up,’ they’d counsel young women who did complain, ‘it’s just boys being boys.’ One of my students even reported being raped, and was brought up on the floor by a senior woman in administration for tarnishing the institution’s reputation by complaining publicly about it. ‘We could have sorted this out ourselves’ she admonished the young woman, who ended up leaving the university.

But here’s the thing. I never recall anyone actually justifying this behavior. When the topic of sexual harassment arose in faculty meetings, everyone said the right things about how inexcusable it was. Those who harassed students always made sure to do so in situations where they were alone with them, so that any complaint would turn into a he-said-she-said testimonial before a sympathetic jury. And on the rare occasions when a man was openly challenged about his behavior, invariably, he denied it in the most strident and righteous terms, not infrequently marrying it to a profound declaration of devotion to his long-suffering wife.

Which is to say, all the perpetrators understood they were doing something wrong. They did it only because they could. Things gradually began to change only when the institution got its first female principal. The culture of harassment didn’t stop. But men knew they had to be even more discreet once they feared women might get a hearing at the top.

Sorry, Harvey. The culture didn’t change. Instead, women mustered the power and courage to speak out. Over the last few years, we have begun to see men who once thought themselves untouchable getting dragged into the court of public opinion, and even hauled before the courts. We’re probably just seeing the start of this, because as I can attest, Hollywood isn’t the only place where this has been endemic.

If the day comes that some faculty meetings grow uncomfortable, I, recalling the young woman who came to my office that day, shaken and distraught, won’t shed too many tears for the men who find their world suddenly upended.


My new book, Twilight of the Money Gods, got its UK release this summer: ‘Imagine one day you went to a cash-machine and found your money was gone. You rushed to your branch, where a teller said that overnight people had stopped believing in money, and it all vanished. Seem incredible? It happened, and it could happen again.’

Germany’s Election: As Bucolic as the Country

If the past year’s elections in the US, Britain and France have been reminiscent of adolescents at an amusement park, Germany’s are more like the parents waving from the ground. Sunday’s results will likely resemble any other German Sunday: relaxed and uneventful.

Germany sometimes feels like a land of small towns and contented burghers because, well, it is. Berlin may have the feel of a bustling global city, but it almost stands apart from the rest of the country. For a nation of its size, there are few large cities, and the share of the population that lives in rural areas and small towns is among the highest of the developed world.

That’s a product of the country’s history. Formed in the nineteenth-century when over 400 different states, united only by a common language, joined to become one, Germany’s constituent regions have long insisted on retaining their powers and identities, along with their major centres. This colours most everything about the country.

Take its schooling, for instance. I’ve spent the last few months as a visiting professor at the University of the Marburg, and have been struck by the widespread distribution of the country’s higher learning. If a way could be found to ascertain the average quality of a country’s universities, Germany’s would, despite years of government cutbacks, come near the top of the global table. But there are no Oxfords, Cambridges or Sorbonnes here. There are just a lot of good universities, many of them, like Marburg’s, located in provincial towns.

And small towns like a slow pace of living. Coming from London, it’s a shock that first Sunday when you dash out to pick up dinner and find out that everything is closed. There’s no need to wait at crosswalks, as you can mosey across four-lane thoroughfares. I’ve come to spend my Sundays here in a sort of enforced idleness, hiking along alpine paths and then lounging in the ebbing evening warmth and listening to the breeze wax and wane like a languid conversation. Even if you want to work, you can’t.

Nevertheless, Germany’s refusal to board the twenty-four-seven, flexwork bullet-train hasn’t cost them – at least not yet. German labour productivity remains high, its manufacturers are world-beaters, and it runs a healthy trade surplus with the rest of the planet. With the economy recovering well from the Great Recession, almost everyone who wants a job can find one. Along with the affordable cost of living and universal health care, that means life is good for the average German.

So who would want to rock this boat? In a country whose post-war history has been dominated by long-serving Chancellors, Angela Merkel looks set to top them all this Sunday when she leads her Christian Democratic Party to yet another victory. To judge from his recent speeches, the Social Democratic leader Martin Schultz seems to have resigned himself to this outcome, and is just positioning himself for a place at a coalition cabinet table. To Mrs Merkel’s village-banker, he is the insurance-salesman, telling his supporters to vote for him to keep her honest.

It bears little resemblance to the bomb-throwing of other recent polls. Still, such complacency has its risks. Beneath the contented surface there is anger bubbling at the edges of German politics. It’s a bit like a London football stadium: they’ve managed to make the main stand a family-friendly place of pretzels and beer, but the adults have to cover their children’s ears whenever the chants start in the supporters’ ends.

Despite the general stability of the German system, the two main parties have seen their combined share of the vote diminish steadily over the last three decades, like an iceberg that is dwindling amid rising heat. Parties of the extreme left and right are enjoying a late surge in the campaign and may take as much as a fifth of the seats in parliament. The discordant voices in the glee club, they won’t be able to frustrate or affect the policy agenda for now. But they will stand as a reminder that if the ruling parties fail to deliver, German politics might begin to look less like a Bavarian singalong and more like a Ramstein concert.

Equally, Germany’s current prosperity rests on a foundation which is showing some cracks. Built on a bedrock of mid-sized, family-owned business, the economy is nonetheless starting to look a bit long in the tooth. As anyone who has wandered from café to café trying to find a decent Internet connection can attest, Germany’s infrastructural development has lagged in recent years. Meanwhile its administrative structures tend to encourage continuity rather than innovation.

So the good times will roll in Germany, and the beer will flow – and I, for one, can’t get enough of it. This is Germany’s moment in the sun. But that’s no guarantee that the next time around, the weather will remain this clement.


Image: Social Democratic Party leader Martin Schulz campaigning in Marburg

Ten Years After: We Blew the Great Crash, Let’s not Waste the Next Crisis

‘Recovery now complete’ declared the newspaper headline once the worst had passed. The financial crisis had brought dire warnings of the collapse of Western civilization. But thanks to swift and decisive action by our political and financial leaders, catastrophe was averted. So today, that headline probably serves as an apt summation of the official narrative about the management of the Great Crash of 2007-2008: thanks to the astute response of our leaders, what could have been another Great Depression, ended up being just a short and relatively shallow recession, and we’re now back on track.

Except that headline was from 1930. And I’m willing to bet that in time, the self-congratulation of today’s leaders will come to look as ill-founded as the complacency of 1930. Our leaders haven’t solved anything. They’ve simply redefined success as the forestalling of failure.

One day at the height of the financial crisis, I was in a meeting with some corporate CEOs. As share prices collapsed across the globe, the mood was glum. One man present, watching as his fortune evaporated, groaned that his world was ending. Nevertheless, as he spoke, the political and monetary authorities were furiously working out a rescue plan. Governments soon took on the bad investments banks had made in the run-up to the crash, and central bankers flooded the markets with cheap money.

A few months later, when I bumped into the same gentleman, the spring had returned to his step. Share prices were rising once more, and property prices would follow suit in a couple of years. How different it all was from the 1930s. Back then, after share prices in New York had lost 90% of their value, consumption plummeted, and the Great Depression began. This time around, the authorities were ready. By shoring up assets, they restored consumption. Instead of the collapse of the 1930s, at which time the US economy shed a quarter of its output, the Great Recession of 2007-09 shaved only some 3% off output. And now, the economy is growing again, with unemployment at record lows.

But flip the telescope, and see how different things look. A dozen years after the 1929 Crash, the US economy was growing by double-digits. Today, it’s bumping along at one or two percent a year, with little prospect of change.  As for unemployment, it’s low because productivity is so bad, which means real earnings have kept falling. At this rate, our recovery from the Crash of 2008 will leave us no better off, relatively, than we were a decade or so after the Great Depression.

Now I don’t want to overstate the comparison between two very different periods in Western history. Nevertheless, a couple things bear noting. First, the Great Crash of 1929 had a levelling effect. One of the periodic episodes of wealth destruction which Thomas Piketty argues reduces inequality, it helped forge a consensus for the New Deal. Because everyone, rich and poor, suffered dire losses, everyone agreed a new social compact was necessary. Contrast that with today, where the small proportion of asset-owners has grown richer, and the majority poorer, and there is no consensus for change. Elites are happy, the masses angry. Ergo the polarized, populist politics now wracking the West.

Second, the 2007-2008 Crash may have made some people despondent, like my corporate CEO. But there were other conversations going on at the same time which were markedly less gloomy. With everything suddenly cheaper and the old guard now weaker, young entrepreneurs began envisioning new possibilities. New magazines and blogs, with radical and exciting visions of how we might remake society, began appearing, and there were bold experiments in such things as the sharing economy. These might have transformed our economic model in such a way as to enable a wider distribution of its fruits. But instead, because our leaders rescued finance capital, enabling it to launch its rearguard, we were left with Uber or Airbnb – a model which has enriched a few but done little for the many (whether by driving down wages or crowding out renters).

John Maynard Keynes said the euthanasia of the rentier class was a necessary step towards emerging from Depression. We haven’t euthanized the rentier class. We’ve put a moribund and low-productivity sector onto life support, and are draining the blood from young people and entrepreneurs in order to keep it alive. The effect has been to shore up some of the least productive segments of society while inhibiting entrepreneurship. Amid the consequent rising asset prices but sluggish productivity growth, all we’ve done is inflate another bubble.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Keynes wrote the General Theory in order to enable capitalism to save itself by winning over the working class. Today, we saved capitalism by winning over the rich. Whether today’s bubblenomics leads to another crash, or instead to a chronic sluggishness that yields deepening austerity and worsening inequality, it will end badly. Today’s intellectuals thus need to come up with a better blueprint, one that will lead to a new future, and not cling to a dying past.

On Thursday, The Mint magazine will be hosting a day of events at the RSA to mark the tenth anniversary of the start of the Crisis of 2007-2008. I will be speaking about my new book Twilight of the Money Gods, so if you’re in London, do come join us!


Madness and Marginality

‘Why,’ someone once asked me after a walkabout in Brixton, ‘do we have so many crazy people here?’ I said there was no more mental illness in Brixton than elsewhere. It was just that in Chelsea or Mayfair, families had more resources to look after their sick, whereas here they ended up on the street.

My answer was only half-true, though. Mental illness is not only more visible, but often more common, in poorer communities since it can induce downward social selection. Unable to find or keep decent work, for instance, people with mental illness frequently end up falling down the income-ladder.

Recently, while I was picking up something in a Brixton department store, a woman began following me around. Mumbling inaudibly, she tracked me closely, and I finally turned around and asked if I could help her. ‘I heard what you called me,’ she said. Accusing me of addressing her with a racial epithet, she began a long monologue about how racism was illegal now, that she was going to report me to the store manager, to the police, to the prime minister, that it was all caught on video. On it went.

At first, I tried reasoning with her, inviting her to join me for coffee while reassuring her that I never said, nor would say, any such thing. But it quickly became apparent that I was not dealing with someone who was fully ‘there.’ She wasn’t psychotic. Her narrative was coherent, as if she’d practiced it; and despite her rising volume the staff took little notice, as if they were used to her. But, realising that I couldn’t mollify her, I finally told her that if it made her feel better, I’d join her while she made her report to the store management.

So off we went. I accompanied her as she marched purposefully through the store, never relenting in her stream of criticism. Yet as we turned this way and that, it gradually dawned on me that we weren’t headed to any manager’s office – or anywhere in particular for that matter. We were merely prolonging this conversation.

I then recalled another peculiar feature of Brixton that an old friend of mine, the Jamaican novelist Kei Miller, once put me onto. It is that Jamaicans here – and Brixton is the heart of Jamaican Britain – display an unusually high degree of schizophrenia. Just why is a mystery. Some research, including that done by my former University of the West Indies colleague Fred Hickling, attributes it to their own historic marginalisation in British society. The social isolation caused by racism may induce the sort of stress that aggravates the onset of mental illness, while the experience of marginalisation may reinforce paranoid tendencies that might otherwise remain latent and subdued in a less unfriendly environment.

But Kei added an interesting observation. He speculated that mental illness surfaces when Jamaicans arrive in Britain because back in Jamaica, it can find relatively safe spaces in which to express itself. He reminded me of the ways in which people who suffer hallucinations which are diagnosed as psychotic episodes, are sometimes credited with prophetic or mystical powers in the religious landscape of Jamaica.

Early in my conversation with this woman, I’d ascertained that she was neither Jamaican, nor from the Caribbean. But she was clearly someone who felt marginal, even in this community. Moreover, it was obvious to me that whether or not she believed her accusation, she got a sense of power from stopping someone – someone who she regarded as more powerful, perhaps better-connected – and making him listen to her and take her seriously for a while. I finally told her I’d go wait for her in the café while she went off to find the manager, knowing full well as I walked away that would be the last I would ever see of her. My departure had put an end to her moment of power.

Investing mental illness with power isn’t necessarily a more enlightened approach than treating it as a disorder. One man’s prophet is another’s demon, and Kingston street people often bear the scars of attacks from people who misunderstood their psychotic outbursts. But it does reveal the social dimension of mental illness – that diagnosis is aimed not merely at helping the individual, but with regulating their public behaviour.

I once had a colleague who, after repeated psychotic outbursts, was forcibly interned and put on medication. He also happened to be a genius who, during his episodes, sometimes experienced moments of stunning insight during which he produced brilliant mathematical formulations. He refused his medication, saying they’d kill his creativity. Told he was a threat to others, he pointed to his small frame and asked them to produce a police record of an incident in which he hurt anyone. Told then he was a threat to himself because he’d invite the sort of retaliation that maims some Kingston street people, he said that was his risk to take.

And here’s what struck me. When he accused his psychiatrists of behaving like medieval exorcists, their exasperated ‘But you’re not well!’ didn’t sound to my ears all that different from the ‘But it’s Satan speaking!’ of a Jamaican preacher.


Image: Storm clouds gather over the Lahn, Hessen, Germany

I Know Who Washed My Dishes

We’ve all heard the story about the American military psychiatrists who discovered that helicopter pilots in Viet Nam suffered greater stress than bomber pilots, even though the latter caused more destruction. Helicopter pilots could see the faces of the people they were killing.

Concentration-camp inmates during the Second World War were given numbers, because removing their identified made it easier for their guards, many of whom otherwise thought of themselves as moral beings, to put distance between themselves and their victims. Research on mass sadism like the Holocaust or Rwandan genocide also stresses the role played by ideology in dehumanising the targeted victims. By feeding people a steady propaganda diet depicting the victims as inhuman, otherwise decent folk can be persuaded to engage in horrendous deeds.

Nevertheless, the most important way ‘moral monsters’ have found to give themselves carte blanche is to use that ancient bit of wisdom: out of sight, out of mind. In his study of the Holocaust, Tzvetan Todorov concluded that there were surprisingly few such monsters in Nazi Germany. Instead, what paved the way for the commission of a monumental evil was that most people were persuaded to look the other way.

You’d be surprised how common this is. I lived much of my life in the developing world, in Africa and the Caribbean. There, the lower average wages and high cost of imports put many of the conveniences we take for granted in the West beyond the reach of all but a few. However, the one thing which was relatively affordable was, obviously, labour. Thus, instead of having a dishwasher in your kitchen and a vacuum-cleaner in your cupboard, you had a housekeeper.

Many of the visitors who came from back home would blanch at the sight of someone being paid to wash my dishes. ‘We’ve evolved beyond having servants’ they would say, their principal exposure to domestic employees hitherto being in British Edwardian period pieces or the whispered tales of hedge-fund households with their nannies and housekeepers (the new serfdom, as one Atlantic writer put it a few years ago). I, however, would always point out that the only difference between me and them was that I knew the name of the person who washed my dishes. They had hired some factory-worker they would never meet in a far-off city they might never visit, and paid them to build a dishwasher that ran on the electrical power-supply yet another stranger maintained.

Marx described this as commodity-fetishism: assigning intrinsic value to an object in such a way as to conceal the labour – and more importantly, the identity and personality of the labourers – which went into producing it. Certainly, in the developing countries I’d lived in, I came across many domestics who were underpaid, abused or mistreated by their employers. Indeed, it happened from time to time that I came across a moral monster of sorts who seemed sadistic or even sociopathic in the way he or she delighted in exploiting or degrading the household staff.

But ask yourself, when was the last time you bought something – say, a mobile phone, or a new item of clothing, or some perfume – but first inquired of the working conditions of those who made it? We’re not that different from the wartime German villagers who reckoned something potentially troubling was going on in that camp up the road, but preferred to not to ask questions since doing so was inconvenient. In fact, we’ve perfected the art of dehumanisation, distilling the identities of all those who laboured to produce our goods into serial numbers. Got a problem with a product with a flaw since some sleep-deprived worker’s eyesight was getting worse? It’s now between you and a customer service department.

The difference between us and the Third-World employers we criticise for their poor treatment of labour is merely that they see the faces of those they exploit. We’ve figured out how to out-source exploitation, thereby creating a veil of contented ignorance. That, in turn, has enabled us to intensify our exploitation. For instance, as I write in my latest book, the nineties US boom which progressives remember so fondly as the fruit of Democratic policies was due in no small measure to the punishing austerity the Clinton administration imposed on poor countries after the Asian financial crisis – policies which enabled Americans to literally party as, and because, others died.

The populist turn against globalisation we now see across much of the West is largely a negative force. However, were it to bring us closer to those who produce our goods, it might yet yield a more moral – if somewhat poorer – world. A promising instance of this renewed localisation has been the shift, particularly noticeable among millennials, towards what is sometimes grandly called the ‘locovore’ movement, whereby people try as much as possible to buy local foods. That means paying a premium, which some are willing to do because they feel better knowing the farmer has a decent life.

It’s a modest step. But so too were the casual looks the other way during Nazi Germany. Small steps can make a huge difference.


Image: At home in London