Battle not with Hayek (Review: The Road to Serfdom ~ Hayek)

…lest you become a Hayekian also.

I laughed when a friend gave me The Road to Serfdom for my birthday. I had been a determinedly vaguely left-wing person for years now, why on earth would I read anything from the high priest of evil capitalism?

“Open-mindedness,” she said. I realised that part of the point of university was the whole ‘challenging preconceptions and considering new ideas’ thing, so decided to make my main man Fred top of the reading list.

Things started well. The introduction was full of irritating lazy capitalist arguments, and dodgy reasoning, and I think until about the second chapter, things stayed that way.  I was seething like I hadn’t seethed in a while, which was quite pleasant. Then it all went to pot. Hayek started making sense. His arguments were simple and pretty undeniable, and you couldn’t really resist following their logic inexorably to the conclusion that he was right. I’m sure you’ll appreciate what a world-shaking blow this has been. Not only was I forced to concede that he wasn’t an idiot (I mean, he was only a Nobel Prize winning economist, what does he know?) but that he was also talking a lot of sense.

What helped the most with this was the values and ideals he chose to defend and the disadvantages of collectivism he chose to highlight were not the usual ones. It wasn’t the traditional neo-liberal mantra of “public bad, private good”, not quite. The key advantage of the market, which I hadn’t really considered, and he makes a lot of in the book, is that it is neutral in a way that human power can’t be. So while inequality is always resented, it is easier to bear if it is an the result of impersonal forces than the decision of planners, because they will have had to, for whatever reason, actively choose to disadvantage one person or group in favour of another. I don’t want to get into a paraphrase of the book too much, because my expression of his arguments won’t have the same persuasiveness as his, but the other point I’d like to repeat here was how economic planning is incompatible with democracy. Seeing as economic planning requires a defined goal, it requires a consensus as to what that goal should be which is quite impossible to attain. When democratic politicians fail, as they must, to agree on a plan for the economy, calls are likely to mount to take economic planning out of their hands in favour of a more decisive leader.

But as I say, with room to breathe and develop, his arguments are far stronger, more thorough, and developed, so don’t take my word for it.

I think quite soon I’ll have to look up some leftist critiques of Hayek just to see if I can be brought back into the fold, but at the moment, while my revulsion at right-wing politics persists, I am more suspicious than I’ve been in a while of big-state nationalising socialism (which, in my view, Hayek unfairly equates with all socialism). In fact, I feel an anarchist phase coming on again.

Two other interesting things occurred to me during the book. One is that the majority of the people he quotes to show the worrying political discourse that was taking hold of Europe at the time (with British authors echoing the arguments of their German counterparts twenty years earlier) are entirely unknown to me, while Hayek has clearly lived on. Which made me feel like maybe Hayek was picking on the weak, I don’t know. Keynes went entirely unmentioned, which, considering how frequently they are set up as supreme intellectual adversaries, seems bizarre.

Also, I was struck by the possibility that Hayek would be no more a fan of Thatcher and Cameron than of Attlee and Miliband. Which, in terms of maintaining my vicious political prejudices, was quite reassuring.

Now, I think I am all the more determined to make my detour back into my Premiere French Literature class and resupply at the fountains of Voltaire and Camus. International and national politics are doing my head in and just generally leading me to despair. So I feel like doing a sort of Descartes thing – stripping away everything I’m not really sure I can believe in or support until I reach something I’m absolutely certain of, and then starting again from there.

Or I’ll keep up my attempt to care about football again until I become a legit football fan, and then boom, who needs politics?

EDIT:

Oh George.

“Capitalism leads to dole queues, the scramble for markets, and war. Collectivism leads to concentration camps, leader worship, and war. There is no way out of this unless a planned economy can somehow be combined with the freedom of the intellect, which can only happen if the concept of right and wrong is restored to politics.

Both of these writers are aware of this, more or less; but since they can show no practicable way of bringing it about the combined effect of their books is a depressing one.”

Review by OrwellThe Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek / The Mirror of the Past by K. Zilliacus Observer, 9 April 1944

As ever, Orwell seems right on the money.

Welcome to the real world.

I’ve just finished a temp job (acquired, naturally, through pretty nepotistic means: cue much hand-wringing) actually when I was contracted to, and not after a month when they finally got sick of me. So that was nice.

The job was inputting reading test results into a spreadsheet from 10 till 6 every day for eleven days. I realised about three days in, that I had never done one task for eight hours in that way. At school, not only were my longest days… well, now I do the maths, they sometimes hit 8h15, but generally, they were broken up into different lessons, with room changes, etc., so it always felt like you were doing different things. This was eight (well, seven, one has to eat after all) hours of the same task, in the same room, same chair, and man, it was dull.

This is all starting to make me nervous about work. This job was by no means bad, it was actually pretty great – well paid, I like the people in the office, dad was on hand to provide free food, it was near UCL, and, since the data input required so little brainpower, I could listen to stuff while I was doing it. So I listened to plenty of Radio 4 dramas, BBC panel shows, Ricky Gervais Shows, Stewart Lee gigs, LSE Public Lectures, Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, and many concerts.

Yet despite all that, I didn’t look forward to it. I didn’t have exactly the same level of dread I used to get before leaving for work at the call-centre, when I’d actually seriously contemplate not going at all. But just a general “Oh for fuck’s sake.” And I’m worried. Because if I even get that for a job I didn’t mind, is that just what life is going to be after graduation? A pervasive sense of “Oh for fuck’s sake, work tomorrow.”? I don’t like the sound of that.

Maybe this is just me receiving, in the immortal words of Lonely Island, a “welcome to the real world, jackass”. 

Review: The Rites of Spring ~ Ekstein

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The Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age – Modris Eksteins, 1989

One book down on the summer reading list. This was a hangover from exam revision, and also a recommendation from my high-school history teacher. I had read a short chapter on the July crisis before the exams, and then set the book aside, knowing I’d have to come back to it. I am very grateful I did.

Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Spring is at times an almost breathaking book. Starting in the turn-of-century artistic environment in Venice and Paris, with the rise of the Russian ballet and the growing avant-garde, moving through the Great War, and culminating in the rise of Nazism and the Second World War, Eksteins traces one of the most convincing threads through the first half of the European 20th Century I’ve seen. Rites of Spring starts out as a book of art history, which made it a bit difficult to get into. Indeed, I considered giving up as I was given more information than I’ll ever need on the establishment of the Russian ballet in Paris. The book does presuppose a certain level of culture – I was constantly having to Google Latin translations, for example, and what I assume are probably basic notions of the different arts discussed (architecture and dance were important at the start) are given without much explanation. Nonetheless, I managed to follow. Fortunately, as it turned out, because the ideas introduced with the art history of the first chapters are what tie the book together.

Taking the avant-garde movement as a symptom of a malaise in Europe, Eksteins argues that the Great War was not only born of that same malaise, but lived as the consequence of it  – by civilians and soldiers on both sides of no man’s land. While I’m usually suspicious about grand pronouncements of national culture and consciousness, Eksteins makes a very convincing case for their importance, especially Germany’s sense of its modernising purpose.

Expressed in its bare bones, the argument isn’t particularly revolutionary – WW1 -> WW2 isn’t really that inspiring as far as narratives go. It’s the detail that really makes this book stellar, the little insights. In between the chapters on WW1 and on the rise of Nazism, Eksteins discusses the significane of Charles Linderbergh’s solo transatlantic flight at length, and some of the points made are fantastic.  In general, the anecdotes, works of art, and symbolic moments that Eksteins chooses to demonstrate the broader cultural context of Europe, and its history, are what make this book so effective – much like Anthony Beevor’s history is so powerful because of its focus on the experience of individuals.

In fact, I was reminded of Beevor during the portion of the book on the Great War, which are very moving and at times, harrowing, but also filled with insights into the different psychologies of war and how soldiers related to it. Given that the Great War is the lynchpin of his argument, this is no surprise.

Finally, a word on modernism. Having spent significant portions of the past three years studying modernist literature, I was delighted to find I could pretty much engage with Eksteins’ arguments on modernism, and compare them with my own understandings, and, best of all, whenever he would quote The Wasteland, I’d feel a little smug glow of recognition. I suspect this is what being cultured feels like.

Fin.

I’m starting to pack up all my stuff in preparation for moving out of halls and into my Dad’s guest room for what promises to be a long, long summer. So this is probably about as close as I’m going to get to deciding this is definitely the end of the year. I was planning to write one of my self-indulgent “end-of-an-arbitrary-period” posts which have value and interest only to me. But they say a picture is worth a thousand words – if you’ll indulge me, I have three.

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That pinboard has held all sorts of tat – anything to convince myself I’ve done stuff this year. Now it’s empty. There are things to be said about the transience of all human achievements and stuff, but that would be pretenti-

“Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains.”

– sorry.

Been a hell of a year.