A young Christopher Hitchens outside the offices of the New Statesman, where he was hired in 1973. Photograph: Rex Features.
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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

A tribute to a brilliant essayist, orator and wit.

"I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me," wrote Christoper Hitchens in his most recent essay. But today, after 18 months, his duel with cancer ended. He was 62 years old. The world has lost one of its most outstanding and prolific journalists and a wonderful polemicist, orator and bon vivant. Hitchens could write brilliantly about an extraordinarily wide range of subjects and people: the death penalty, religion, Leon Trotsky, Evelyn Waugh, the British monarchy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, George Orwell, Saul Bellow, the Elgin Marbles, North Korea, the Balkans, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Paine and Philip Larkin.

In recent months we had sad cause to add cancer to that list. The series of essays Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair about his illness stands as the finest writing on the subject since John Diamond's C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. Without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality, Hitchens confronted his fate with pure reason and logic. "To the dumb question, 'Why me?'", he wrote, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?' " Nor did his humour desert him. To a Christian who insisted that God had given him "throat" cancer in order to punish the "one part of his body he used for blasphemy", he replied: "My so-far uncancerous throat . . . is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed." And to those who insultingly suggested that he should embrace religion, Hitchens's flawless riposte was: "Suppose there were groups of secularists at hospitals who went round the terminally ill and urged them to adopt atheism: 'Don't be a mug all your life. Make your last days the best ones.' People might suppose this was in poor taste."

I interviewed Hitchens for the New Statesman in May 2010 during the UK leg of his Hitch-22 tour. Over several glasses of Pinot Noir and Johnnie Walker Black Label, we discussed, among other things, religion, neoconservatism ("I'm not a conservative of any kind"), his time at the NS, Zimbabwe (his biggest regret was that he hadn't been tougher on Mugabe in the 1980s) and the euro. Hitch was on form that day, calmly eviscerating the likes of David Cameron ("He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' and my answer is: 'He doesn't make me think' ") and Sarah Palin ("I think she's a completely straightforward cynic and opportunist and I think she's cashing out . . . She's made a fortune and she'll make another. But she's not actually going to do the hard work of trying to lead or build a movement"). Two days later he returned to the US. A month later he was diagnosed with cancer. He never returned to the country of his birth.

It was the United States, where Hitchens lived for more than 30 years, that he came to call home. By the end of the 1970s, he had tired of Britain ("Weimar without the sex" was his verdict on the Callaghan era) and longed for the bigger stage of America, moving first to New York and later to Washington, DC. He struggled at first, eking out a living writing a biweekly column for the Nation magazine and relying on the kindness of friends such as the radical journalist Andrew Cockburn. But the move paid off when he landed a column for Vanity Fair in 1992, greatly increasing his income and his readership. It was also there that he met his adoring second wife, Carol Blue, who once remarked of him: "I was just glad such a person existed in the world." He is survived by Blue, their daughter, Antonia, and two children from his previous marriage to Eleni Meleagrou, Alexander and Sophia.

"I believe in America. America has made my fortune," declares Bonasera in the opening line of The Godfather. Hitchens's allegiance to the US (he became a citizen in 2007) had more to do with its secular constitution and its commitment to free expression but America did make his fortune. By the end of his life, with regular slots in Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and Slate, several bestselling books and a lucrative place on the lecture circuit, Hitchens was earning nearly $1m a year.

His extraordinary output – 12 books, five collections of essays – was suggestive of a solitary, bookish man, rather than a compulsively social hedonist. In resolving this apparent paradox, Hitchens was aided by two attributes in particular: his prodigious memory (as Ian McEwan once remarked: "It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard") and his ability to write at a speed that most people talk. The late, great Anthony Howard, who as New Statesman editor hired Hitchens in 1973, told me last year: "He was a very quick writer . . . Hitch could produce a front-page leader, which would take me a couple of hours, in half an hour."

In his final interview, with Richard Dawkins (published in the current issue of the NS), Hitchens reflected, with touching modesty, on his status as an essayist. After Dawkins told him that he could think of no one since Aldous Huxley who was so well read, he replied:

It may strike some people as being broad but it's possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn't have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word "polymath" came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who's interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I've got good memory retention. I retain what's interesting to me, but I don't have a lot of strategic depth.

A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I'm in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I'm not. But it's something to at least have had the comparison made – it's better than I expected when I started.

Hitchens's modesty was unwarranted. In this age of high specialisation, we will not see his like again.

It was God Is Not Great, his anti-theist polemic, that sent him supernova. While Dawkins's atheism is rooted in science, Hitchens's was rooted in morality. He was repelled by the notion that people do good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward. The question he often posed about believers was: "Why do they wish this was true?" Heaven, for Hitchens, was a place of "endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self; a celestial North Korea".

It is Hitch the controversialist that many will remember. The man who said of Jerry Falwell, "If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox," and of Ronald Reagan: "Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife." But as John Gray wrote in his NS review of Hitchens's fifth and final collection of essays, Arguably, he was no mere provocateur or contrarian. Throughout his career, Hitchens retained a commitment to the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and pluralism. His targets – Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, God – were chosen not at random, but rather because they had offended one or more of these principles.

Over the past decade, many on the left came to regard Hitchens not as a friend but as an enemy. Tariq Ali, a fellow soixante-huitard, wrote: "On 11 September 2001, a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the Twin Towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again . . . The vile replica currently on offer is a double." And yet, contrary to reports, Hitchens did not perform a crude midlife swerve from left to right (also known as doing a "Paul Johnson"). Unlike Johnson, a former New Statesman editor who became a reactionary conservative ("Pinochet remains a hero to me," he wrote in 2007), Hitchens did not give up everything he believed in. He maintained, for instance, that the US invasion of Vietnam was a war crime, that Kissinger belonged behind bars (see his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger for a full account of the former US secretary of state's "one-man rolling crime wave") and that the Israeli occupation of Palestine was a moral and political scandal.

His support for the "war on terror" was premised not on conservative notions but on liberal principles. As he wrote in a column for the Nation published on 20 September 2001, "What they [the 9/11 attackers] abominate about 'the west', to put it in a phrase, is not what western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state."

He was wrong, badly wrong about Iraq, but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of a long-standing solidarity with the country's Kurds (see his long, 1992 piece for National Geographic, "The Struggle of the Kurds", collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime ("a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it"). It was not an attempt to ingratiate himself with the neoconservatives, whom Hitchens had fought and continued to fight with on issues from gay rights to the death penalty to Israel. But he was too casual in dismissing the civilian casualties (estimated at anything between 100,000 and a million) that resulted directly or indirectly from the invasion of the Iraq and, as he later conceded, too optimistic about the Bush administration's ability to stabilise the country. In his boisterous advocacy of the war there was more than a hint of the Marxist belief in the necessity of violence in order for history to progress. As Lenin once grimly phrased it: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

Yet those who stopped reading Hitchens after 11 September 2001 are all the poorer for it. They have not read his haunting account of the US's deadly legacy in Vietnam: "Some of the victims of Agent Orange haven't even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn't shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs will do." Or his unrivalled indictment of capital punishment: "Once you institute the penalty, the bureaucratic machinery of death develops its own logic, and the system can be relied on to spare the beast-man, say, on a technicality of insanity, while executing the hapless Texan indigent who wasn't able to find a conscientious attorney." Or his unique denunciation of waterboarding: "I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.' Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

The tragedy of Hitchens's illness was that it came at a time when he was enjoying a larger audience than ever. Of his tight circle of friends – Martin Amis, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie – he was the last to gain international renown, yet he is now read more widely than any of them.

In his later years, Hitchens was fond of quoting his late mother's assertion that "The one unforgivable sin is to be boring". Today, as I realise I will never hear that resonant baritone again, that Hitchens's mighty pen is still, I feel certain in saying that the world has become a more boring place.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty
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Is Switzerland about to introduce a universal basic income?

A referendum on 5 June, triggered by a 100,000-strong petition, will determine whether the country transforms its welfare state with a monthly no-obligations cash handout available to all.

The Office Cantonal de l’Emploi (OCE), Geneva’s unemployment administration, is what you might expect of a modern bureaucracy. Not exactly Kafka-esque, it moves slowly but rationally: take a ticket, wait your turn, learn which paperwork is missing from your dossier, repeat. Located in a big complex of social administration behind the main train station, the office is busy for a region with an unemployment rate between 5 and 6 per cent, well below the European average. The staff, more like social workers than bureaucrats in dress and demeanour, work hard to reinsert people into the job market: officials can be responsible for over 40 dossiers at a time.

Objectively, Switzerland is a good place to be out of work. For a low-tax country the welfare system is robust. On condition of having worked and paid taxes in the state for over 12 months, a newly-unemployed is assured 70-80 per cent of his previous salary for a period up to 2 years: ample income in a country with some of the highest average wages in the world. In practice, the system is a hybrid between the OCE (which tries to get people back to work) and union-allied social insurance bodies (which take care of monthly payments) and is complex but effective. There are welfare trade-offs – easy firing, expensive healthcare – but Switzerland is far from a free market machine without a safety net.

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It seems strange that such a well-oiled system could soon be obsolete. On 5 June, Switzerland will hold a referendum on an initiative to introduce a universal basic income (UBI): a guaranteed, no-strings-attached, monthly payment of 2,500 Swiss francs (£1,784) for each legal resident. Driven by a popular initiative which collected the requisite 100,000 signatures, the UBI would revamp the welfare state by streamlining its core into this single monthly cash transfer. No more obligations to apply for a certain number of positions per month in order to “qualify” for your handout: you could choose to continue working and earning, or you could lead a life of leisure. The existential fear associated with finding, and maintaining, employment would disappear.

Last month, a “robot rally” was held in Zürich to drum up support for the initiative. Hundreds of badly-disguised campaigners paraded through the city advocating a futuristic social contract between man and machine: according to these robots, as they become more advanced, displacing more and more blue and white-collar jobs, the only solution is a UBI allowing for dignified coexistence. Robots must be our friends, not our foes, they claimed. This common refrain of digital disruption is a core tenet of the campaign and echoes a zeitgeist debate in Switzerland around the future of work and technology. The concept of a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, championed by Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the Geneva-based World Economic Forum, has risen from soundbite to serious topic. Schwab says that current shifts in AI and connected technologies amount to “nothing less than a transformation of humankind”, one which will need solutions guaranteeing some sort of a minimum-income for all.

A record-breakingly large poster in the Pleine de PlainPalais, Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty

But the ego of an epoch tends to historical self-aggrandisement. Hasn’t technological change always been an issue? In the opening scene of the 1986 Only Fools and Horses episode “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie”, Rodney complains about computers and mass unemployment in Thatcherite Britain: “How many people have been put on the dole by a robot what [sic] can build a car?” Digital advances aside, this is hardly the case in Switzerland, where the average unemployment rate is 3.7 per cent. Che Wagner, spokesman of Basic Income Switzerland, the organisation behind the popular initiative, concedes that the country is not suffering from any “emergency problem”. Yet it is precisely the triad of “political stability, economic wealth and a strong liberal culture of self-determination” which makes Switzerland an ideal testing ground for opening the debate. Whereas welfare politics have traditionally aimed to solve problems, this initiative is a more positive affirmation of how best to organise an affluent society of the future. The key goal is more philosophical than economic; he is determined to “decouple the concepts of labour and self-worth”.

In this sense the initiative is a radical departure from both “welfare-politics-as-usual” and neo-liberal proposals for basic incomes. Che and his colleagues make up an independently-funded, wilfully apolitical group which eschews traditional concepts of left and right. There are no Marxist hangovers in the proposal (“we don’t want to take anything from anybody to give it to somebody else”), yet there is also no indication that they support a radical rationalisation of taxation and wealth creation implied by liberal economists like Milton Friedman. The UBI would not negate certain benefits guaranteed under the current welfare system – disability allowances, for example – and is not Randian model of eradicating poverty to let the wealth creators run free. The core raison d’être is an individualistic, humanist empowerment; any socio-economic reorganisation which would be bound to arise is secondary.

This reflects the messy international debate, which has come on the agenda in recent years and attracted inputs from across the spectrum. Both Yanis Varoufakis and Joseph Stiglitz have voiced approval. Slavoj Žižek, the loud Slovene philosopher of the far left, wants a reconceptualisation of UBI to recognise that “in a knowledge-based economy, collective productivity of the ‘general intellect’ is the key source of wealth” – a similar idea to Paul Mason’s vision of a “post-capitalist” socialism for a digital age. Unsurprisingly, the companies and tech evangelists who reap the largest benefits from this data-based economy are also concerned. Some are researching liberating models of “seed money for everybody” which would have the dual-advantage of reducing annoying government bureaucracy and mitigating the possible backlash against future technological gains. In true internet-emancipatory fashion, they also want to liberate people’s latent creativity by replacing the obligation to work by the incentive to innovate.

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It is difficult to argue with the idea that people should work because they want to, not because they have to. But Swiss referendums are not won and lost on philosophical niceties. Direct democracy depends upon an engaged and pragmatic population which deliberates more earthly concerns: is our society ready for this? What would happen to the Swiss economy? Most importantly, how would it work in practice? Unfortunately for the “yes” side, these matters have proven more difficult to communicate.

One opinion poll conducted in January found that just 2 per cent of the population would quit their jobs if the measure came into effect. This is far from any imagined society of freeloading slackers which people seem to fear (ironically, one-third of the same respondents said that they expected that others would leave their jobs). But in a nation where, like elsewhere, the education system is designed to train people for specific professions and the social expectation is that you are what you work, it is difficult to see beyond a vanguard of creative or entrepreneurial youth who might embrace the freedom. Of course, those working part-time positions paid little more than 2,500 Swiss francs would have little incentive to keep working, but elsewhere it may be business as usual. My local kebab vendor told me that he had been working since he was 14, so he would see no reason to stop now.

What the experiment would do to Swiss GDP is also unclear. According to the initiators of the plan, the extra cost to the exchequer to pay a UBI to all those currently under the 2,500 Swiss franc level would be a meagre SFr18 billion (the federal government puts this at SFr25 billion). This shortfall could be met by imposing a small tax on financial transactions, they suggest. Savings could also be made through the rationalisation of the welfare system, and VAT hikes have also been mooted. Under current conditions, then, the scheme would be feasible. But this is without factoring in various known unknowns: possible outsourcing of some industries due to less competitive wages, or a global reduction in GDP due to many workers reducing - if not eliminating - the hours they work. “A step too far in the right direction2, was how economist Tobias Müller put it recently in the daily Le Temps, echoing the consensus of the Swiss political class.

At the practical individual level, finally, how it would affect the pockets of the Swiss middle class is unclear. For those earning more than the minimum amount, the only difference would be that the first SFr2,500 of their salaries would be “re-packaged” as UBI. Being presumably tax-exempt, the measure therefore would mean an incremental gain but ultimately a maintaining of the status quo. An employee in an international organisation complained to me about the lack of clarity communicated both by the campaign and the government on the initiative: the actual vote hinges on three short constitutional amendments to ensure a “dignified” minimum income for the population, but details are scarce. Although she is “of course in favour” of the suggestion, she will thus vote against it. The middle and upper classes of Swiss society simply haven’t been convinced of the need for such radical change, she said. Who benefits?

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Ultimately, at all levels of politics and society, the strength of the proposal is also its weakness. Its vague, normative nature has attracted interest, but the lack of clarity around how it would work concretely and how it would affect the income of the majority of Swiss people has undercut any chance of success. Current indicators suggest it will be roundly rejected. The always out-on-a-limb Greens are the only political party to announce support. A recent opinion poll found that 72 per cent of the population were opposed to the measure.

The amount of air-time and attention it has received will nevertheless be perceived as a success by proponents. The broad nature of the proposal and the sometimes flamboyant campaign (last week they unveiled the largest campaign poster in history in Geneva (see above); the Guinness Book of Records was on hand) highlighted that their major goal was not to meticulously rewrite Swiss legislation but to kickstart the debate on their terms. The first rule of negotiation theory is to bid high. That the direct democracy system here allows for such radical proposals (whether progressive or lamentable, like some previous votes on immigration) is a boon for the international efforts to raise awareness of this future reordering of welfare.

As referendum season continues elsewhere in Europe, there may be a lesson for campaign strategists. Emotive issues are sure to attract commentary and vocal support, but the silent majority is more pragmatic than they are often given credit. It is one thing to aim for Marx’s vision of an economic system allowing us to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticise after dinner”: voters want to know how the hunting rights and fish quotas would operate before signing up.