In this week’s New Statesman: Brazil erupts

Isabel Hilton reports on Brazil’s biggest protests in 20 years. PLUS: Nicholas Shaxon exposes the secret world of London’s hedge funds.

Football, riches and protest: Can the World Cup host country hold it together?

For our cover story this week Isabel Hilton, the editor of chinadialogue.net and former Latin American affairs editor of the Sunday Times, reports from Brazil on the largest protests in the country since the revolt against the corrupt presidency of Fernando Collor de Mello 20 years ago. Hilton describes how demonstrations that started as a “complaint about a small hike in bus fares became a nationwide movement”, rapidly engulfing 100 cities and attracting a million people – half of them under the age of 25:

In the week leading up to the airport blockade [on 21 June], the city suffered serial heart attacks as protesters targeted its arteries, turning São Paulo’s flyovers and urban motorways into temporary protest playgrounds. But who are the protesters?

The answer, Hilton discovers, is a frustrated and angry middle class – people who are tired of corruption and resentful of an elite “cocooned by privilege”:

For the well-heeled elite, Brazil is already better. They are the beneficiaries of the past decade of high growth, wealthy enough to buy their way out of the daily inconveniences inflicted on the less well-off by chronic corruption, creaking infrastructure and high taxes.

She shows how football, the national obsession, has become a barometer of public feeling:

So deep is the discontent that the unthinkable has happened. In this most football-crazed nation, at a time when Brazil is hosting the Confederations Cup, the mood has turned against an event that the government anticipated would secure its place in the hearts of Brazilians for good: next year’s Fifa World Cup. We need schools, not more football stadiums, the marchers are chanting.

Hilton is left in little doubt that the country has experienced a political sea change over the past fortnight:

If these events signal the beginning of a Brazilian revolution, it is a revolution of rising expectations, born among people who have benefited from the PT’s [Workers’ Party’s] redistribution of wealth.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE MAGAZINE

 

Nicholas Shaxson on the zombies of Mayfair

In this week’s NS Essay the author and business journalist Nicholas Shaxson penetrates the murky world of Mayfair hedge funds. Some of the activities of the private equity industry are well known to us:

...asset-stripping, outsourcing, layoffs, busting the unions and borderline legal behaviour, not to mention their lobbying, their devious offshore tax shenanigans and their risky debt-loading.

But Shaxson argues that one crucial fact has been overlooked:

...the private equity industry is, collectively, a gigantic waste of investors’ money . . . Mayfair would be far more economically productive if it were turned into a giant waste-disposal centre. This is the trillion-dollar question: why are investors – who probably include your pension-fund manager – still pouring cash into the Mayfair money machine?

So why do investors fall for it? Shaxson suggests that some are simply attracted by the perceived glamour of the sector:

How piteous is that? The manager of your pension fund is throwing your money at these hucksters because it makes him look cool and because it’s more fun.

Should we be worried? Shaxson thinks so:

Above a certain size, financial centres turn bad and start to reduce growth. Britain passed this point long ago . . . Hedge funds and private equity are like the zombies that won’t die. The investors keep coming and getting screwed. It’s time to stop mollycoddling them with tax subsidies and invitations to Downing Street.

 

Susan Greenfield: What makes us human?

Following in the footsteps of Mary Robinson and Caitlin Moran, the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. For Baroness Greenfield the key to human nature lies in our ability to create and use metaphors:

Although chimps can solve problems, use objects around them, communicate with each other in sophisticated ways and, above all, learn, they still lack our ability to see a thing in terms of something else. So, could it be this particular ability, seemingly exclusive to our species, that is the clue to the essence of human nature?

 

Rafael Behr: There is a new consensus about the economy and – believe it or not – Labour called it first

In the Politics Column this week, Rafael Behr highlights how the Conservatives and Labour are in consensus on challenges such as infrastructure investment and the duty of the state to foster growth – though neither camp dares concede it:

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives dare admit that their economic views are converging. The fortification of opposing trenches, separated by boggy no-man’s-land (aka the Lib Dems), has become a strategic necessity and a source of intellectual comfort. Yet the proximity is obvious to anyone outside the two tribes. Labour has accepted that budgets must be cut, as the Tories said all along. The Tories are borrowing to keep the economy afloat, as Labour predicted they would.

Read in full online now.

 

Paul Morley reviews “Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life”

Paul Morley, a native of Stockport and the author of The North: and Almost Everything In It, reviews the L S Lowry show opening at Tate Britain today. Morley recalls fixating as a teenager on the “new glamour” of modern developments, eschewing the Stockport Viaduct and other “mighty Victorian buildings” immortalised by Lowry:

Lowry’s paintings stopped well short of imagining the future; they were a flat, unevolved reminder of a disgraced world, studies in unglamorous endurance.

Time and age turned his dislike into reverence, for Lowry and for Lowry’s subjects. “I marvel at my childish ignorance and teenage blindness,” he begins:

The epic [Stockport] viaduct became for me a route to the unknown power of Lowry . . . It took me further and further into a northern heart of darkness, into a vital, often unsettling dreamscape, disorientating and chock-a-block with stimuli. To an artist tracing the broken contours of an antiquated labyrinth, examining the once very strange and modern on the dirty road to extinction.

 

PLUS

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett on Generation Rent: “I don’t want to die in an attic”

Jane Shilling explores the new English nature writing

Sophie Elmhirst reviews two new political memoirs – This Boy: a Memoir of a Childhood by Alan Johnson and Strictly Ann: the Autobiography by Ann Widdecombe

Ryan Gilbey reviews three contemporary documentaries – The Act of Killing, Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer and Stories We Tell

Will Self slimes his way down to the Slug & Lettuce

 

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era