Thursday, 26 March 2009

Anti-capitalism: really, why bother?

Last night on Channel Four News there were some clips of anti-capitalism protesters preparing for their demo against the G20 meeting. One of them showed people doing what is known as 'brain-storming' (or 'barn-storming' as my Dad more attractively describes it) with the assistance of some bullet points on a whiteboard, featuring non-words such as 'skillsharing'.

What is the point of abolishing capitalism if you are going to retain white boards, bullet points and jargon bollocks? Surely these are the acme of capitalist evil?

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Happy for the Paddies

I had a funny, conflicted feeling on Saturday. Wales (my team) lost by a couple of points in the very last seconds of the deciding Six Nations match. Far from being gutted I felt guiltily pleased the Irish had won and in doing so collected their first Grand Slam for 61 years. If Wales had won (and incidentally collected a Triple Crown) I really couldn't have enjoyed it, knowing that all those poor Paddies had missed out again on this elusive (for them anyway) historical achievement.

I wondered whether this was down to (a) my not being patriotic enough, (b) feelings of Celtic brotherhood, (c) rugby's traditional ethical approach (i.e. winning's not everything), or (d) generally being a bit sentimental and soft hearted?

It was only on Sunday when I compared notes with other Wales supporters that I discovered my guilty pleasure was universal. I also heard that the Irish were pretty much feted in Cardiff on Saturday night. Isn't rugby a nice sport?

Further proof that nationalism is often a secondary consideration is the institution of the British and Irish Lions. Like everyone interested in rugby and capable of forming an opinion I have a Lions selection. Here it is:

1. Gethin Jenkins - as a prop he has got it all
2. Jerry Flannery - looks an evil little fucker, which is a lot of what you want in a hooker
3. Adam Jones - a massive cornerstone for the scrum with fantastically deft touches in the loose
4. Alun Wyn Jones - was outplayed by POC on Saturday but still worth a place
5. Paul O'Connell - despite BOD getting the plaudits, he was the main reason Wales lost: you can't play without the ball
6. Tom Croft - very quick and gets in the way of the opposition (bit worried he may be too light)
7. David Wallace - I can't believe I haven't selected Nugget but I fear he's too light for the Boks
8. Andy Powell - should perform well on the hard grounds in SA
9. Mike Phillips - reaching match-winning peak form
10. James Hook - I know he can't run a game but the only way the Lions are going to win is if they can pull off the unexpected and the other fly-halfs in contention are too predictable
11. Shane Williams - outplayed Habana in the Autumn, don't forget
12. Gavin Henson - the other reason Wales lost on Saturday is that he was moved from inside centre (why didn't Jamie Roberts go to full back?). Hugely underestimated by rugby ignoramuses who get distracted by his hair cut and tan
13. Brian O'Driscoll - back to his best
14. Tommy Bowe - looks unstoppably sharp at times and a big fella to boot
15. Lee Byrne - imperiously good for two seasons now

No Jocks, one Saes, five Paddies, nine Taffs.

I would also tip the following for places: Euan Murray (because everyone says he's really good), Lee Mears (a buzzing livewire), Nick Easter (rarely fails to cross the gain line and has good hands), Martyn Williams (the best classic open side in the world), Ryan Jones (back to his best), Riki Flutey (good stepper but not sure his defence is tip-top), Ugo Monye (very, very quick), Jamie Roberts (big and quick so should bear up against the Boks).

Let's hope the boys are in with a shout. NZ last time was a very depressing experience. However, I have to say I'm pessimistic: those Boks are not only very big, as usual, but have extraordinary pace throughout the team.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Black sunflowers

Last week I took the boys to visit my friend Mark Alexander and his wife Yuko. Mark is an artist and one of the purposes of the visit was to see his new work. 

It was a wonderfully sunny day and as Mark and Yuko live in a cottage on Sir Evelyn Rothschild's Ascott estate we took a leisurely walk through the grounds to Mark's studio. The gardens in springtime and the sweeping southerly views across to the Chilterns were a stirring preparation for what we were to see.

Mark's work is difficult to categorise. Whilst working very much in the fine art tradition his work is also highly conceptual. At the moment he's working on a series of paintings which are exemplary. He's taken Van Gogh's Sunflowers and copied them via a monochrome screen print. He's then overpainted the flowers with black dilute oil paint.

The effect is extraordinary. The screen-printed background because of its sketchy feel has fragility and simplicity. This gives the works a sort of disarming intimacy, heightening the effect created by the flowers. These are rendered in a way that is unfamiliar to me, achieving an effect which is uncanny.

The black oil paint has been diluted with oil and applied thickly so that when it dries it results in a surface that can be variously dripped, wrinkled, stippled or creased. The stamens, petals, stalks, leaves are all picked out in different ways using this technique. This echoes Van Gogh's effects. But, more, the paint's application means that the flowers possess an element of  unpredictability in three dimensions, intensifying their organic quality.

However, the uncanniness arises from the combination of this organic effect with their absolute blackness. The flowers writhe with life but being black must be dead. They're like little volcanic explosions but also delicate, as if seen from space. Ebony filigree.

The frames, specially commissioned from German craftsmen, are worth seeing for themselves. Their grey-cream and black echoes the pictures, with the black picking out elliptical indentations on the surround in the shape of one of the petals.

This is what they look like, beautiful but eery. As to what may be their art historical significance, I'm not qualified to say. Two things strike me though.

Firstly, they have a freshness that would appear unlikely given the almost cliched nature of the originals. Executing them in a new way seems to have restored the freshness of the originals, making one see them anew.

Which leads me onto my second observation. Unexpectedly, you discover that most of the power of the originals is to be found in the draughtsmanship rather than the colour. The explosive ellipses of the petals and the writhing stalks contain so much energy that you hardly miss the striking yellows and oranges and the dusty greens. 

Mark had completed some other remarkable pieces, which I don't have space to describe. But they can all be viewed at Haunch of Venison's Berlin gallery (near the Hamburger Bahnhof) from May.

By the way, do try to get to Berlin for a weekend if you haven't already. I had one of the best weekends away ever there.

UPDATE: Mark and Yuko at the opening of his show at Haunch of Venison, Berlin.

Here's the link to the show.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Let's abolish capitalism

There's a piece in March's New York Review of Books by Amartya Sen. It is a typically carefully reasoned argument entitled 'Capitalism Beyond the Crisis'.

His basic proposition is that the current economic crisis does not necessitate the creation of a wholly new system, underpinned by new ideas. What we do need, however, is the proper application of the good old ideas that somehow fell by the wayside in recent years: managing the shortcomings of the market through regulation and selective state provision. He traces the belief that the market is insufficient all the way back to Adam Smith.

The piece is particularly interesting to me as he questions the usefulness of the term 'capitalism'. I've thought for a while that the idea that there is a capitalist 'system' not particularly helpful.

'Capitalism' is defined as a situation where there are property rights and market relations governed, to some degree of effectiveness, by the rule of law. This now describes practically all of the world, with very minor exceptions such as North Korea (more of a weird cult-state than an alternative model). As such it doesn't really have any descriptive purchase.

A good way to test whether the term describes anything useful is to consider the improbability of its absence. Despite the headlines about the 'end of capitalism', I don't believe anyone is seriously expecting the abolition or demise of property rights and market relations. It's like describing our economy as one based on the breathing of air and expecting this to reveal something significant.

The whole idea that there is something called 'capitalism' was only really tenable whilst there was an alternative which could be presented as potentially viable and successful: Soviet Communism. And the Soviet experiment now looks like a journey down a dead end. So twenty years after the collapse of capitalism's 'other' I think the word's retirement is long overdue.

Why is this worth doing? I believe if we stopped using the concept we'd see the options ahead of us more clearly.

In particular, when we look at things through the prism of capitalism we lose sight of the moral framework that should govern behaviour. This is because, just like communism and socialism, capitalism is an all-encompassing system and, as such, self-justifying. Its logic and, implicitly, its morality is inherent.

However, I would argue that we need to make decisions about how resources are distributed with reference to an independent moral framework rather than to how the system should work for the sake of consistency. Such a morality is not intrinsic to the market (or indeed to business) but must govern it. The market cannot justify (or damn) itself. It is a morally neutral but highly effective tool. 'Capitalism' as a concept muddies this point.

Rather, Ralf Dahrendorf in his 'Reflections on the Revolutions in Eastern Europe' argued that we need to get away from the primacy of economics, that we should stop looking for all-encompassing systems. The important thing is for there to be an open society (as per Popper). This will ensure there is the best discussion and application of what morally appropriate rationale be brought to bear on the distribution of resources.

Don't get me wrong, I'm in favour of a vibrant market and a limited state. It's just that I don't believe capitalism really exists. There's just you and me and what we believe to be fair and efficient. That's the best basis for arguments about how we organise our society and economy.

Friday, 13 March 2009

The coming British holiday boom

Not a particularly original view but a few anecdotes and opinions from friends and relations combined with a few salient facts lead me to predict a massive boom in holidays and breaks here in the UK. Here's why:

1. Exchange rates. It's obviously more expensive to travel abroad than before and, did you know?, everyone's now broke.

2. More interest in the provenance of UK food meaning a lot more local food tourism.

3. Better quality food and accommodation in the sticks (not often great but certainly better than in the olden days).

4. The horrors of Ryanair. It's just getting worse and I would argue it's got so bad it's sufficient to put you off travelling abroad (especially with kids).

5. Fear of sunshine. Even on freezing Cornish beaches I've seen the kids' all-in-one bodysuit and kepi sported. But there's less of it here than over there.

I'm not sure how one would transform this observation into an investment opportunity - unless you decide to become a hotelier or restaurateur somewhere leafy or with a beach (how old fashioned these occupations sound). Or perhaps it's the next buy-to-let craze, buy-to-holiday-let?

Anyway I'm really looking forward to the faded resorts of yesteryear looking all spruced up and thronging.

Monday, 9 March 2009

What they didn't have in the olden days

We play a game with our three-year old where you take it in turns to say what they didn't have in the 'olden days', which for some reason he finds endlessly interesting. I don't really need to tell you that the list includes planes, street lighting, trains but not shoes, pens, food (well in most instances anyway).

We've been away for the last couple of weeks during which time I read 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin ('DKG') about how Abraham Lincoln succeeded in part because he co-opted his greatest rivals into his administration. It's a fascinating story about some compelling characters during a dramatic period of American history. But incidentally it made me realise how one thing they didn't have in the old days was sexual obsession. And what they did have was an incredibly ingenuous and passionate approach to romantic love and friendship. (Not that I'm going to include these observations in one of our games).

For instance can you imagine the incessant fuss that would ensue if it was revealed that public figures were regularly sharing double beds? (In fact, I believe a Tory politician in the Major Government had to stand down when he was forced to admit sharing a bed with a fellow on holiday once).

In the Old West this used to happen regularly. Given, there was pressure on living space so it was something of a necessity but nevertheless can you imagine the following incident happening today without some sort of public insinuation and gossip?

Lincoln as a young man arrived in Springfield, Illinois, where he'd decided to make a new life. He had no money so when he went to the general store to try to buy furniture to furnish a room he hadn't yet managed to let he asked whether he could get any credit. The storekeeper having heard him speak the day before suggested he had just as well bunk up with him in the double bed upstairs. Lincoln took up the offer with alacrity and they ended up sharing the bed for the next four years, becoming dearly intimate friends as a consequence. It is impossible to imagine this arrangement being thought generally unremarkable and without a sexual subtext in our day.

Another instance is the way close friendships were conducted. To take but one example, the friendship between William Henry Seward and a fellow New York politician Albert Haller Tracy. The latter wrote to the former: "It shames my manhood that I am so attached to you. It is a foolish fondness from which no good can come". Seward expressed a "rapturous joy" that they shared this feeling about each other, a feeling that can only be described as one of being in love. Although this is perhaps the most extreme version of this sort of intense friendship something like it is replicated again and again in the book.

It wasn't just the men who were being so emotionally intense with each other either. It is difficult to imagine married couples communicating today in such unabashedly emotional and romantic terms as are found in DKG's book.

DKG subscribes to the theory that 'fiercely expressed love and devotion' between men was a social norm in the era and sexually innocent, that the 'preoccupation with elemental sex' reveals more about later centuries than about the nineteenth. But this 'preoccupation' is surely relatively recent.  

In a small way I can vouch for the sexual innocence of what I guess we can call the pre-1960s generation. I remember once visiting my great auntie Gwyneth with my nain (Welsh for grandmother), Blodwen. They were sitting in the garden and I was indoors. It was a hot day so I could overhear their conversation through open windows. It concerned something Blodwen had been reading about it that day's newspaper:

Blodwen: 'Look Gwyn, what is it these gays actually do?'
Gwyneth: 'Well, Blod, you know...[pause for effect]...they stick it up the anus!'
Blodwen: 'Ooo...oohh' [difficult to transcribe but will be familiar to anyone who has come across the inimitable Welsh old lady's whoop of shock and disbelief]

And after all Eric and Ernie were still sharing a bed on prime time TV into the 1980s.

It all makes me think that our self-image as emotionally and sexually liberated is not quite the full picture. Sex may have been liberated from its private places but at the cost of overwhelming everything it can be associated with, including intense male friendship. Has the price we've paid for our sexual liberation been a devaluing and repression of the romantic? Is sexual innocence its essential corollary?

Moreover, has making sex a legitimate topic of general interest devalued the words that hedged it around, made them commonplace? Just today I've read about how 'passionate' people are about things as boring as building repairs and sandwiches. When sex is all around us, the associated passion loses any specialness and can be co-opted to describe our attitude to pretty much anything, no matter how quotidian. I hate companies being passionate; it's quite cynical and pathetic.

Whilst not wanting to give up what we've gained in terms of liberty and equality one is bound to feel a bit wistful for a more innocent and genuinely passionate age. Awareness of sexual issues was much more narrowly channelled but this seems to have freed up emotions making them both more openly expressed and deeply felt.

BTW Roger Scruton has written much, much better than me about a lot of this stuff but taking a whole-heartedly negative attitude to the impact of sexual liberation. Which I do not.