In the Critics this week

John Gray on capitalism's future, Ryan Gilbery on Stoker, Leo Robson on Coetzee and Crace, and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan. “The assumption underlying Mulgan’s analysis,” Gray writes, “is that … capitalism is the only game in town”. The problem with Mulgan’s thesis, Gray continues, is that his definition of capitalism detaches it from “any particular mode of production”. And we know from recent history that “an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market’s excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society”. Mulgan, argues Gray, has not eluded the logic of market-based thinking. “Where [his] argument is problematic is in accepting that all human relations can be understood as forms of exchange and that we can enjoy the market’s benefits without any of its hazards”.

Also in Books:

Novelist and critic Philippa Stockley reviews Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of former American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (“Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs”); David Shariatmadari reviews Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (“Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment”); Leo Robson reviews new novels by J M Coetzee and Jim Crace (“The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee’s most freewheeling work so far, might be seen as a homage to Beckett … The most seductive and enthralling of Crace’s novels, Harvest is also likely to be his last … Ending is its theme – or if not ending, then the destructiveness inherent in change”); Olivia Laing reviews The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman (“[T]he true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them”); and Rachle Bowlby reviews Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier and her sisters (“Daphne du Maurier was one of three sisters but the Brontes they weren’t, however much this book tries to present a picture of collective creative achievement”).

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Park Chan-wook’s new film, Stoker (“This [film] left me stoked”); Rachel Cooke watches Sue Perkins’s comedy Heading Out and ITV’s Glorious Food, hosted by Carol Vorderman (“Vorderman … appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off”); Antonia Quirke bemoans the quality of football phone-ins (“programmes such as … Radio 5 Live’s 606 are increasingly hard to listen to”); Jason Cowley reviews Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth, with James McAvoy in the title role (“Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen”); Alexandra Coghlan hears Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan at the Barbican and Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore Hall (“The quality of [Vengerov’s] playing … is a rather mixed bag”).

Plus:

Meeting Peter Porter a Year After His Death, a poem by Tim Liardet, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Nicole Kidman at the London premiere of Stoker (2013, Getty Images)
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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage