Aspidistras and Money

Contains spoilers.

Two weeks ago I finished reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, published in 1936.  As with most things he wrote, the issues he raised in the novel have lingered in my mind long since returning it to the library.  It focuses on the life of Gordon Comstock, a part-time bookseller and poet who descends into a life of squalor and poverty.  While not as revolutionary or powerful as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – Orwell admitted that, somewhat fittingly, he wrote the book largely because he was in need of money and claimed to be dissatisfied with the final edit – I would argue that it takes a critical look at society just as effectively.

The main theme of Aspidistra is, of course, poverty.  Never one for subtlety, Orwell shoehorns in references to the topic wherever possible, but the nature of poverty allows him to get away with it.  Throughout the novel are constant repetitions regarding Gordon’s lack of money; he is ever-aware of the coins in his pocket, he does mental calculations for every transaction he makes – every aspect of his life is ruled by money.  Through such basic repetition, Orwell gets his point across that we live in a society ruled by what he terms ‘The Money Gods’.   How shocking it is to have the dream of capitalism pulled away to reveal the murky truths hidden belief.  To follow a lifestyle where Gordon must turn down almost all social invitations, including pub gatherings, journeys to the countryside or meals, because they require him to spend money he doesn’t have.  For those of us who have never been at such a poverty line it truly is horrifying to consider how prevalent worries about money can be.

Arguably, Aspidistra is written as a comedy.  The way in which Gordon becomes obsessed by money is so unrealistic as to be comical, yet it does highlight how consuming poverty can be.  The most interesting part of the book is when Gordon unexpectedly gets sent a cheque from a magazine he sent poems to.  He begins rationally, planning to save and repay his debts, but by the day’s end he has squandered it all; on alcohol, transport, his girlfriend Rosmary, a prostitute – even his wealthy friend Ravelston – and finds himself in prison the next day.  As someone incredibly scrupulous with money I find this behaviour difficult to comprehend, yet it’s utterly realistic and the sort of actions I’ve seen displayed time and time again.  It’s not a case of “the proles can’t handle money,” but the result of handing someone the opportunity of a brief, glimmering escape from crushing poverty.  Therefore, it can be surmised that poverty breeds self destructive behaviour.  Never is this clearer than in Gordon’s eerily prophetic yearnings to see London destroyed by foreign bombers.

There are a couple of flaws with the book, however.  Most notably is that Gordon’s poverty is self-inflicted, as he actually once had a decent job working for an advertising company and throughout the novel faces the possibility of returning.  Fair enough, I can appreciate his disgust for such a job and his reasons for leaving in an attempt to defy the defy the Money God, but this does, in my opinion, somewhat limit the impact.  Is is true poverty if you have an escape route?  Much better to have had Gordon suffering from rapid unemployment and poor working conditions, I’d have thought.  It comes across less of a criticism of capitalist economics and more the character study of a slightly deranged man.

Also, I take issue with the suggestion that only two options were open to Gordon: that he could either live by the Money God or reject the system and live in complete poverty.  Orwell’s message is almost ruined by the resolution of the novel – Gordon returns to his job at the advertising company, and therefore has to submit to the Money God, symbolised by throwing his poetry manuscripts into a drain and buying an aspidistra, that symbol of middle-class money worship.  What is Orwell trying to say?  A Democratic Socialist to his death, as a person he clearly wouldn’t have supported Gordon’s decisions yet he never provides any condemnation through the narrative.  Thing is, life rarely works in absolutes and I believe Gordon didn’t have to take such an extreme route either way.  Why couldn’t he have returned to the job but continued with the poetry in his spare time, resolved to resign the moment he could make a decent income from writing?  While most of the novel is brilliance, after reading the ending I could see why Orwell was ashamed of the book.

The only other option vaguely mentioned is Ravelston’s vague Marxist theories of tearing down the capitalist system altogether and establishing a Socialist State.  This, I suspect, is closer to Orwell’s own views, yet it’s discredited whenever mentioned.  I accept that political apathy is another byproduct of poverty and this is a point Orwell expressed well, but to expand on this option for Gordon would have gone some way to giving the conclusion the depth it lacked.

Criticisms aside, it’s remarkable how relevant Aspidistra remains today.  One opinion it has caused me to rethink is the morality of tipping.  It was actually another of Orwell’s books, Homage to Catalonia, which first made me wonder whether tipping is right.  He described the Communist/Anarchist (the ideologies were diverse and vague) revolution in Barcelona where, among other rules, tipping workers was banned.  This supposedly coincided with the emancipation of workers, whereupon tipping would be considered a bourgeoisie insult.  It has always been my opinion that the introduction of, say, a living wage would be much more preferable than making people rely on tips for an income.  Of course I do tip because I know how underpaid many workers in the service industry are, and Aspidistra has reinforced this for me.  It’s very much like giving money to beggars in that we shouldn’t have to do it, that there should be provisions from the state to make such actions unnecessary, yet until that happens to do nothing would be even worse.

Overall, Keep the Aspidistra Flyingis a very engaging book which can truly change your perspective on society and economics.  I wonder how long it will continue to be relevant for?

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Is the News Bad for You?

I came across this infuriating article a week or so ago, and have been meaning to write a response to it, but lost track of priorities and it slipped back.  In the article, the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli makes his case that exposure to the news is harmful for us in a variety of ways.  He gives 10 reasons as to why he believes this:

News is misleading.
Dobelli uses a variety of examples to expand on this point, some of which, I agree, may be valid.  The first, of how the news would distort a story of a bridge collapse involving a car, is incredibly generalised, and any important issues – like the general structural safety of bridges – would be marginalised.  Sure, The Daily Mail would spew forth some headline like “BENEFIT SCROUNGER IN BRIDGE TRAGEDY, 12 CHILDREN ORPHANED” or whatever, but one would hope a more decent source of news, like The BBC or The Independent, would look into the wider issue at hand – in addition to reporting the tragedy itself.

I do agree that news causes us to have the ‘wrong risk map’; that news can make us overemphasise the threat of terrorism, etc.  But this isn’t the fault of the news.  What should news organisations do?  Not report it?  Or is it better for individuals, having abandoned the news, to simply not know about terrorist attacks?  Is our potential lack of ability to contextualis news stories really a convincing reason to deprive ourselves of information?

“We are not rational enough to be exposed to the press. Watching an airplane crash on television is going to change your attitude toward that risk, regardless of its real probability.”

That’s rather a condescending statement.  Some people may base their decisions on stories they see, but I would like to think most people would reason whether there would be an effect on their own lives.  Once again, is the solution to “cut yourself off from news consumption entirely” really any better?  I’d rather make a flawed judgement based on information than a flawed judgement blind.  I’m not keen on following advice which begins by doubting my reasoning abilities, but perhaps that’s just me.

News is irrelevant.
This is a huge bugbear of mine.  Oh so often, I’ll be raving something along the lines of, “Hey, guys, France now has a Socialist President!” or “Did you hear about the Curiosity Rover’s latest discovery?!”  More often than not, I’ll be received by glazed looks and some comment as to why I care.  I’ve even had the “it doesn’t affect you” spiel before.  My response is: if we go through life only ever taking notice of things which affect us directly, we would live in a very self-absorbed and greed-filled society indeed.  Alright, perhaps the Venezuelan election really doesn’t matter, but I think it is worth knowing how people in the rest of the world live.  If we don’t have information, or worse, if we don’t care, how can we be expected to engage in the letter-writing campaigns, petitions and donations which increasingly have a positive impact for millions across the world.

Say an earthquake happens to strike San Francisco, which is predicted to happen one day again in the future.  There are many casualties, and there is a desperate appeal for donations to help with aid.  If people didn’t read anything irrelevant, they would have no way of knowing what was going on.  I can somewhat agree with Dobelli in regard to the majority of crass ‘human interest’ stories – the type you would find in tabloids – but, to be honest, I rarely define these as news anyway.

News has no explanatory power
I am becoming ever more certain than Dobelli has had particularly bad experiences with the news.  If you ever watch a good documentary on Al Jazeera, or, say, on the BBC’s Panorama, or even manage to get past the first few pages of most decent newspapers, you’ll find layer upon layer of analysis and discussion.  I can see his point when it comes to slow, hidden movements, but even these are often newsworthy; demographic changes, updated opinion polls, changing employment patterns and environmental studies, to name a few, are very often in the news.

News is toxic for your body.

“It constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress. High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections. The other potential side-effects include fear, aggression, tunnel-vision and desensitisation.”

Uh.  I’ll take his word for that one.  I personally find learning new bits of information quite relaxing, but I appreciate I may be in the majority for that one.

News increases cognitive errors.
Basically, this point says that we look at news from the perspective of our pre-conceived biases, and interpret stories in such a way.  This is true, I must admit.  Reading news about a study into the failings of wind power won’t dash my enthusiasm for renewable energy; I’d simply brush it off as flawed.  But this isn’t true in every occasion.  If someone I have a lot of respect for, like Al Gore or Caroline Lucas, were to dismiss a section of renewable energy – or even just particularly damning statistics – I’m sure I would allow my beliefs to be challenged.

News inhibits thinking.
In the age of Twitter and soundbites, there may also be a point to this one.  “News is an intentional interruption system.”  Does it limit our patience for long, spanning articles?  This must vary from person to person, and I can only talk about myself; I’m a big user of Twitter and I tend to read lots of articles in short spans, but this doesn’t stop me being able to read and learn from long, spanning essays.

News works like a drug.
This is true for me; I am addicted to information.  I’m proud of this fact.  But to claim that “most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books” is a massive, unproven and, frankly, ridiculous generalisation.  In today’s globalised world, virtually everyone is a news consumer.  Does this mean virtually everyone struggles to read long articles and books?  Of course not!

News wastes time.
I have already determined that news is both worthwhile and relevant, so therefore I reject the idea that gaining information is ever a waste of time.  Like anything else in life, it’s about balance.

News makes us passive.
Fair enough, news can depress us and make us feel helpless.  On the other hand, we can feel spurned into action.  This also depends on the type of person you are.

News kills creativity.
As a writer, who is currently experiencing a deficit of creativity, this did make me pause, but I soon realised this is far more likely to be due to current school stresses than my reading of the news; my creativity flourishes during holidays.  Thing is, he claims to know nobody who reads the news and is also creative, whereas I know plenty of people who do and are both.  We evidently inhabit very different spheres.

Hugo Chavez Dies of Cancer

I’ve just come off the stage after a relatively successful but terrifying performance to be greeted with the huge news that Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, has died.  At the age of 58, Venezuela’s very controversial leader (first elected in 1999) has been announced to have succumbed to the cancer he has been battling for many years.  He has seen strikes, coups, referendums to be removed, yet his socialist ‘Bolivarian Revolution’ has seemed to surmount the insurmountable, and with it vastly dividing opinion.

I don’t know how I react to this.  On one hand, his socialist policy really do seem to have helped reduce poverty in Venezuela.  I have no figures to hand (just rushing this) but I do remember reading impressive statistics.  He’s acted as an antithesis to US imperialism across the world, providing a necessary balance to worldwide opinion.  However, this has come at the downside of cozying up to dictators like Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad and Castro.  His human rights record is shady at best – I don’t think this article by Human Rights Watch would be his preferred obituary – and Venezuela currently lies at the bottom end of ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom House’s 2013 report (the same grade as Egypt, for comparison).

The loss of a beloved leader for the people, or the passing of a power-crazed dictator in the making?  I’ve long been unsure myself over how to classify Chavez; it seems now I won’t have to.  Whatever his legacy, there is no doubt that he has profoundly shaped the course of Venezuela’s history.

A History of Communism: From Idealism to Tyranny

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The idea of Communism means many things to many people, and has evolved considerably since it was first developed by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto of 1848.  Marx saw Communism as a solution to the mass poverty and class structure which the capitalist system had created.  Most significantly, and this is where he parted from various socialist and liberal ideas, Marx believed the implementation of Communism had to be revolutionary.

I’m not an expert on his beliefs, and I’ll confess I’ve never read The Communist Manifesto – though it’s definitely high on my list of books to read.  However, I believe he advocated a state which would possess supreme power over the people in order to liberate the workers from extreme poverty and their ‘bourgeoisie’, upper class rulers.  To do this it would be necessary, if not desirable, to create a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, which would, in essence, follow the idea of a ‘benign dictator’.  Communism would not follow immediately, but this dictatorship would work towards the world revolution and eventually develop a stateless, classless world.  This is what Marx perceived to be true Communism.

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A depiction of revolutionary chaos in Berlin.

However, despite being formed in the euphoric hope of the doomed 1848 Revolutions, Marx’s ideas gained little traction during his lifetime.  He died in 1883 with the cause making little headway, though Marx maintained his belief that socialism was an inevitable stage in human development.  As the Europeans carved up Africa and created alliances, the ideas of Communism must have seemed fanatical.

Then, in the worldwide chaos caused by the First World War, everything changed.  In February 1917 the Russian monarchy collapsed after centuries of power in a complex series of events which, I will again admit, I have not deeply studied.  As German and Austrian soldiers advanced further and further into Russian territory, the people and soldiers protested and mutinied in what became a mass uprising against Tsar Nicholas II, who was forced to abdicate.  This was not a Communist revolution; Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Communist party, lived in exile and returned upon hearing the news.  It was in a second revolution during October 1917 when the Communists took advantage of the power vacuum which followed Tsar rule and seized power in a coup.  Not, as future Russian propaganda would have you believe, in a united empowerment of the proletariat demanding Communist rule.

Lenin worked to introduce Marx’s ideas and established a Dictatorship of the Proletariat – with himself as chairman, of course.  A bloody civil war ensued, as the Communists (‘reds’) fought European-backed reactionary forces (‘whites’), resulting in a red victory.  The formation of the Soviet Union was complete, and the world’s first Communist State entered the world stage.  Half of Europe had been set ablaze during the First World War – in addition to the Russian Empire, the war saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire.  Dozens of new states were created and in this revolutionary chaos thrived many short-lived Communist governments, but as the dust settled Russia stood the only country in which Communists had managed to keep their grip on power.  (There was also a Communist government in Mongolia, which achieved independence with the help of the ‘Reds’ during the Russian Civil War, though this had very little influence).

So the Soviet Union stood alone.  Lenin died in 1924 and, after a struggle for power, Joseph Stalin became leader.  This struggle fractured a split in the Communist Party, as two sides formed led by Stalin and a man called Leon Trotsky.  Trotsky believed that socialist policies could not work alone in Russia, that Marx’s doctrine clearly stated a worldwide revolutionary was necessary to create Communism.  Stalin, in contrast, was throughout his life an extreme paranoiac and believed the Soviet Union vulnerable against its capitalist enemies, so felt the focus should be on building defences.  Stalin won and Trotsky was sent into exile, eventually to be assassinated on Stalin’s command in 1940.

Stalin’s Soviet Union saw unprecedented industrial, technological and demographic development.  The Soviet Union became the first state to lead an organised Industrial Revolution, in which the country worked by ‘Five Year Plans’ to determine the focus of development.  This led to a much faster development than the random and uncontrolled forces of capitalism which had driven development elsewhere in the world.

More significantly, in my opinion, Stalin’s rule marked the transition between idealism and tyranny in Communist belief.  This need not have happened.  Stalin’s paranoia led to the creation of a totalitarian state and a cult of personality, in which human rights were non-existent and a level of devotion close to worship was expected for the Communist Party and for Stalin himself.

The rise of Communism coincided with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1920s and 30s.  Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, and many other countries fell to the sway of Fascist leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini, imposing vast military rule upon their people and creating similar cults of personalities for the leaders.  It is said that if you could get Hitler and Stalin, bitter enemies, in a room together and avoid talk of economics, they would find much in common.  The creation of such brutal Fascist regimes created parallels with Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, with many critics labeling the Soviet Union as a Fascist regime itself.  There is certainly a strong argument for this claim.  Though not on the scale of The Holocaust, Stalin’s purges of anyone he perceived a threat led to the executions of millions of people.

This was how Communism would be defined during the second half of the century.  Once again it took a world war to make Communism a reality in many countries.  After the fall of Nazi Germany, Europe was carved up between the Allies and the Soviet Union.  The Soviet Union set up a series of puppet states making up the Eastern block, comprised of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.  To the east, Communists in China had won a bloody civil war after Japanese defeat in the Second World War, and the Korean War split Korea into two states, the north of which became ruled by a Communist government.  Communist also began spreading to the French colonies of southeast Asia, which would lead to the famous Vietnam War.

This spread of Communism led to a ‘Cold War’ forming between the liberal, capitalist forces of ‘The West’ headed by the USA, and the tyrannical, Communist forces of ‘The East’ headed by the Soviet Union.

Communism at its greatest extent in 1983.

The middle classes and landowners in capitalist countries were terrified of a Communist takeover, fearing land repossessions and reprisals, perhaps even threats to their lives.  And so a global war of power spheres, espionage, technological advancement and fear would define the 20th century; a war in every aspect besides the fighting.

And then, suddenly, Communism collapsed.  There are too many reasons for this collapse to go into in this blog, particularly as my understanding will be very limited.  I think the most significant factor was an economic crisis which brought the entire fragile system crashing down.  The Eastern block crumbled, ironically, during mass revolutions, and the Soviet Union split into a series of successor states not long afterwards.  Other than a handful of Communist States which survived in Asia, mostly reliant on China’s growing influence, and also Cuba, Communism has died a swift death.  Even these countries are increasingly accepting capitalism as a road to success.  Occasionally a Communist party will join a coalition government in some small country somewhere in the world, but as a major political force it is utterly spent.

So what are my thoughts on Communism?  If I had lived during the turmoil of the 20s following the First World War, in a period marked by extreme poverty, I would undoubtedly have been a Communist.  However as the totalitarian nature of Communist states became clearer, the Liberal within me must reject Communism.  It is an incredible idea, but human history has shown that whenever an individual is given power, however benevolent the reason, they will become corrupted.  Very often Communist states have exacerbated the poverty they were created to solve, while well-fed dictators think only of war and power.  Left-leaning institutions such as the welfare state have proven an effective means of lifting the majority out of poverty without imposing the extremes of Communism and this, I believe, is the path we ought to continue to follow.  Think of it as a diluted, safer form of Communism, achieving the same goals without the idealistic insanity.