Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Irvine Welsh, Sam Harris and George Dyson.

Skagboys by Irvine Welsh

Skagboys examines how Welsh’s original Trainspotting anti-heroes - Renton/Rent Boy, Simon/Sick Boy, Danny/Spud, Frank/Begbie, Tommy et al - succumbed to heroin, or "skag". Theo Tait, writing in the Guardian, is critical of Welsh’s “rehashing” of his original masterpiece: “the reader has a vivid sense of a great talent tamely revisiting his glory days”. Moreover, “Skagboys is also just too long: it essentially goes over the same ground as Trainspotting, but it's about three times the size”. Yet, Tait concedes, “there are many unforgettable episodes, such as the visit to a squalid shooting gallery, where one large hospital syringe passes round the room from junky to junky, like the angel of death. Even at his weakest, Welsh performs the mysterious feat of making you think that his characters are real”.

The Telegraph’s Keith Miller is unconcerned by the repetitive nature of Welsh’s prequel: “With such a crew, anybody would be hard pressed not to repeat themselves a bit”. Likewise, Arifa Akbar writing in the Independent suggests, “the success of Skagboys comes from its similarities to Trainspotting. It offers more of the same, though excellently constructed more of the same”. “It can't have been easy”, he notes, “for Welsh to colour in the lives of characters created nearly two decades ago, and the endeavour could have resulted in unintentional pastiche. So it is an achievement that they retain a sense of authenticity”. He goes on to describe their stories, as “filled with pain, sadness, and the bewilderment of young lives going wrong”. However, Akbar, too, observes that several of the characters are undeveloped, that they are “characteristically themselves”, and “become nothing more, treading water in their roles rather than gaining dimension”.  He also acknowledges Skagboys' lack of “the political urgency [that characterises] its predecessor”. Instead, he praises its “absorbing, energetic writing”, concluding: “Its banter, outrage and razor wit sing off the page”.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

In New Atheist Sam Harris’s latest book, now out in paperback, he attempts to apply science to morality arguing against the claim that the scientific worldview has nothing to say on moral questions. Jules Evans, writing in the Observer, describes the results as “mixed”: “It's a pity the book is so bull-headed, because Harris's topic is an interesting one, and he himself is an interesting figure who brings together the disciplines of science, moral philosophy and contemplative religion. Unfortunately, he seems to see this as a zero-sum game, in which the competition must be killed. In fact, as Harris must know, the great religious traditions have interesting things to tell us about wellbeing, if we stop trying to punch their lights out”.

In the New York Times Kwame Anthony Appiah, reviewing the hardback in 2010, was also unsure of Harris’s argument. “What he ends up endorsing,” Appiah concludes, “is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?”.  However, he praises Harris’s ideas regarding neuroscience: “He says much that is interesting and important: about the limits of functional magnetic resonance imaging as a tool for studying brain function; about the current understanding of psychopaths; about the similarities in the ways in which moral and nonmoral belief seem to be handled in the brain." However, he found himself “wishing for less of the polemic against religion”, and wanting “more of the illumination that comes from our increasing understanding of neuroscience”.

Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

The Observer’s Evgeny Morozov gives a positive account of George Dyson’s history of the modern computer, which recalls an “important chapter in the convoluted history of 20th-century computing”. “Alas”, Morozov goes on, “the book is not perfect. Dyson ... bombards the reader with a mind-boggling stream of distracting information that adds little to his tale. We get to learn of the discrepancy between the British and Canadian war records of Jens Fredrick Larson, the architect of the institute's main hall; the price of oysters served at lunch meetings of its building committee; the price of nappies in Los Alamos hospitals in the 1950s”. He is also sceptical about the “slew of untenable generalisations” that result from Dyson's efforts to connect Von Neumann's cold war computing to today's Silicon Valley: “Is it really true,” he asks, “that "Facebook defines who we are, Amazon defines what we want, and Google defines what we think"?” Moreover, notes Morozov, “occasionally, Dyson makes mystical claims that no serious historian would endorse. What to make of his statement that "only the collective intelligence of computers could save us from the destructive powers of the weapons they had allowed us to invent"?”. Yet overall he praises Dyson’s effort as “engrossing and well-researched”.

In the Telegraph Manjit Kumar is also concerned about the amount of jargon in Dyson’s offering, “faced with the tricky task of balancing technical details with keeping the narrative accessible for the non-computer buff, Dyson ends up probably not giving enough detail to satisfy the aficionado but too much for the lay reader”. However, Kumar acknowledges the “years of research and writing have enabled him to bring to life a myriad cast of extraordinary characters each of whom contributed to ushering in today’s digital age”. “Dyson,” Kumar notes, “has done the difficult job of reminding us of how much we owe [Neumann and Turing] and how far we have come in such a short time”.
The jacket illustration for Irvine Welsh's Skagboys.
Photo: HANNAH MCKAY/REUTERS
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The lure of Lexit must be resisted – socialism in one country is a fantasy

Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes.

Lexit, the left-wing case for leaving the EU, is rising from the dead. Its hopes were best captured in 1975. In the run up to the first referendum on EU membership, E P Thompson, the historian of the early English working class, published his clarion call to leave what was then called the Common Market. Doing so would see “Money toppled from power” as Britain moves “from a market to a society”.

“As British capitalism dies above and about us”, Thompson asserted, in a revealing passage worth quoting at length, “one can glimpse, as an outside chance, the possibility that we could effect here a peaceful transition – for the first time in the world – to a democratic socialist society. It would be an odd, illogical socialism, quite unacceptable to any grand theorist…  But the opportunity is there, within the logic of our past itinerary. 

"The lines of British culture still run vigorously to that point of change where our traditions and organizations cease to be defensive and become affirmative forces: the country becomes our own. To make that leap, from a market to a society, requires that our people maintain, for a little longer, their own sense of identity, and understanding of the democratic procedures available to them…”

Thompson spoke for the majority of the British political left at the time, from the then numerous Communists and Trotskyists through to the conservative-wing of the Labour Party and trade unions via the Bennites. All were hostile to sharing sovereignty with the capitalists running the rest of our continent. All believed that just as Britain was the birth-land of the industrial revolution so it could create a unique socialism across its land by going it alone.

I expected a resurgence of a similar left anti-Europeanism in last year’s referendum, and a renewed advocacy of a British road to world progressive leadership. Instead, with few exceptions, the inherently right-wing nature of Brexit bore down on advocates of left-wing politics. Owen Jones, with his family roots in that past history, flirted with Lexit. He has described how his comrades across Europe, such as those in Podemos in Spain, were appalled at the prospect and he wisely backed away.

Labour Leave was mainly business-oriented in its call for UK democracy. The decisively working class vote for Brexit was neither socialist nor social democratic. It simply and understandably rejected the all-party consensus that things should carry as hitherto. Given a chance to say what they thought of ‘the whole lot of them’, millions of Labour voters displaced their disgust with Westminster onto the EU.

The event that resuscitated the Anglo-Lexiteers was not the referendum result but this year’s UK general election. On the summer solstice, two weeks after its astounding outcome, the Lexit-Network posted its first blog entry. It’s aim to help steer a future Corbyn government. In parallel, the New Socialist website, with its strapline for “robust debate and intransigent rabble rousing”, launched a week before the election, also gives voice to Lexiteers.

Prominent among them are sirens from across the Atlantic: Joe Guinan and Thomas M. Hanna and Harvard’s Richard Tuck. They draw on the outstanding work of Danny Nicol who has shown how the EU’s constitutional structures embed neoliberalism. Their arguments – often published in the New Statesman and openDemocracy – pre-existed the referendum. But only as opinions. Now they are gathering energy with the prospect of a Corbyn-transformed Labour Party taking power.

The underlying dream of ‘socialism in one country’ may be potty. But it is essential to recognise the core issue that could give legitimacy a left-wing call for Brexit, a democratic argument anchored on the moment that changed British politics, the launch of Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.

The June 2017 general election was a political watershed. The outcome was due to combination of the 5 “M”s. The man, the movement, the manifesto, May and McDonnell. Of the five, the keystone was the manifesto, whose architect was John McDonnell. In the first place, however, it was “the man” who was crucial.  

Jeremy Corbyn was the personal embodiment of unbroken resistance to the military and financial priorities of Blairism. His personal vision, however, is mostly limited to opposition to tangible injustices and he is not a natural leader. But the outrageous presumption of his unsuitability by a failed New Labour establishment and the torrid injustice of the media contempt unleashed a surge of support. The blowback to the ruthlessness of the assault upon him generated the credibility of the call for a halt that he personified. With poetic justice, the elite aura of entitlement provoked a wave of solidarity that crystallised around Jeremy. A movement was born that took a new form suitable to the age of the platform capitalism of Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Thanks to Momentum, Corbynism became a social-media driven ‘social movement’ independent of Labour officials and MPs. The confinement of politics to parliamentary routines permits the corporate acquisition of policy. The hysteria around Momentum signalled the pain of a genuine threat to its domination.

Even so, the combination of the man and the movement was incapable of moving public opinion. Especially when it seemed that the Tories under May, with the Brexit breeze filing their sails, were now a party of ‘change’. The local election results on 4 May this year saw Labour crash to 27% support, with the Tories establishing an 11 per cent lead and making gains after seven years in office. The general election had already been called. What turned things around was Labour’s Manifesto. It was leaked shortly after the local elections (probably to ensure it was not filleted by the party’s executive) then published. It turned the tables on a Tory party whose leader had foolishly decided to present herself as the allegory of ‘stability’.

After two decades of the wealthy stealing from the rest of us, Labour set out how it proposed to take a little from the rich to help the poor. After decades of rip-off privatisation, it proposed nationalising railways and water to remove them from what are in effect a publically subsided form of taxation by profiteering monopoly suppliers. In the face of an acute rise of indebtedness among the young, it proposed free university education. A neat contrast of the winners and losers was posted by the New Statesman’s Julia Rampen.

The key to its success was that Labour’s manifesto was not an opportunist response of unfunded promises concocted in response to the surprise challenge of a general election that the government had repeatedly pledged it would not call. McDonnell told Robert Peston on the Sunday following: “We geared up last November. As soon as the Prime Minister said there would not be a snap election we thought there would be”. The result was a fully-costed, professional challenge to the outrageous inequity of the neoliberal consensus. By contrast it was Theresa May’s manifesto that was composed in secret, bounced on the Cabinet, contained amateurishly formulated commitments and had to be promptly disowned by the Prime Minister herself.

The outcome was the most dramatic upset in the history of general election campaigns and, more important, a reversal of the terms of Britain’s domestic politics, grounded on Labour’s well-judged pledges. As Jeremy Gilbert argues, “The June 2017 UK General Election was a historic turning point not just because it marked the full emergence of the Platform Era. It also marked the final end of neoliberal hegemony in Britain” – although not he emphases, neoliberalism itself.

It follows that quite exceptionally for the platform of a losing party, Labour’s manifesto has an afterlife. This poses a fundamental question with respect to Brexit. If the UK were to remain in the EU would a Labour government be allowed to carry out the nationalisations and redistribution that its manifesto promises? If the answer is ‘No’ then the democratic case against continued membership is immeasurably strengthened. Whatever the immediate costs, it would be essential to leave the trap of an EU in order even to start to build fairer and more just 21st century society. 

The Lexiteers claim exactly this. That the EU would prevent Labour from renationalising, under its rules favouring the private sector. The argument quickly becomes technical and clearly there are ways that EU membership restricts a government’s freedom of action. But it does not prevent the exercise of all self-interested national economic measures.

In July, to take the most immediate example, the still fresh President Macron nationalised shipyards about to be taken over by an Italian bidder. In the same month, in his barbaric speech in on how Europe should belong to Europeans, Hungary’s Prime Minister Orban claimed he had achieved, “clear majority national ownership in the energy sector, the banking sector and the media sector. If I had to quantify this, I would say that in recent years the Hungarian state has spent around one thousand billion forints on repurchasing ownership in strategic sectors and companies which had previously been foolishly privatised."

Both the French and Hungarian measures are right-wing forms of national takeover to which the Commission will be naturally less opposed than a Corbyn one. But the Lexiteer argument is not that there will be resistance, there will be plenty of that here in the UK as well, but that EU membership makes nationalisation illegal and therefore impossible as beyond politics. The only response to the EU, therefore, is Leave!

The tragic reality is that the UK political-media class, especially the Tories, made the EU a scapegoat for their domestic policies. They hid behind the EU to claim they were powerless to prevent unpopular policies they were in fact themselves pursuing. The most egregious example was immigration. But the UK is not powerless within the EU. Brussels would not be able to prevent Labour from implementing a social-democratic reorientation of the economy to ameliorate the gung-ho marketisation that is the legacy of Cameron and Osborne’s six disastrous years.

But what about red-bloodied socialism? Could this be allowed by the corporatist constitution of the European elite? Of course not. But, however much this might be McDonnell’s and my own dream, it is hardly on the immediate agenda. The stated priority for Labour is securing jobs, preserving the benefits of the EU’s single market and reversing the acute regional inequalities that have made the UK the most territorially unbalanced society in the whole of the EU (mapped by Tom Hazeldine in New Left Review).

Absurd as it may seem, however, the lure of Lexit is a belief that a Corbyn majority can unleash British socialism while the EU groans under the austere regimentation of the Eurozone.

For example, Guinan and Hanna writing in New Socialist assert that Labour can “seize upon the historically unique opportunity afforded by Brexit to throw the City under the bus”. Apparently the ‘opportunity’ of a Commons majority created by first-past-the-post means a Labour government can snap its fingers at the House of Lords and the monarchy not to speak of the media and the banks, to use the imperial British state to “assert public control over finance, and rebalance the UK economy”. No consideration is given the fact that the ‘opportunity’ is likely to be based on considerably less than 50 per cent support amongst the voters. Meanwhile, the country’s largest export market will, apparently, despite its ineradicable neoliberal character, sit idly by as the path to socialism is pioneered on its largest island.

Perhaps we should be grateful to brazen Lexiteers for being carried away when others, such as the Guardian’s Larry Elliot are less candid about the logic of their views.

It hardly needs the genius of a Varoufakis to grasp that the UK is made up of European nations and when it comes to the dominant economic system this will be changed only through a shared European process that defies EU corporatism, or not at all. Much of the left still must learn that the existing British state is the prison of their hopes and will never be the instrument for their delivery.

Back in 1975 when E. P. Thompson hurled his diatribe against the ‘grand theorists’ of socialism he had Tom Nairn in his sights, whose fine polemic, The Left Against Europe had recently scorched every corner of anti-European prejudice. Against the fantasy of socialism in one Britain, Nairn had argued:

“The Common Market—Europe’s newest ‘constitutional regime’—represents a new phase in the development of bourgeois society in Europe. To vote in favour of that regime ‘in a revolutionary sense alone’ does not imply surrender to or alliance with the left’s enemies. It means exactly the opposite. It signifies recognizing and meeting them as enemies, for what they are, upon the terrain of reality and the future. It implies a stronger and more direct opposition to them, because an opposition unfettered by the archaic delusions of Europe’s anciens regimes”.

Nearly 50 years later the terrain of reality and the future is still shunned by the Lexiteers as they cling to the fetters of the old regime. 

Anthony Barnett’s “The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump” is published by Unbound

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left