Friday, 2 August 2013

What Money Can't Buy

One of the residual joys of the offline newspaper is the sardonic juxtaposition, when one article subtly comments on another through close proximity. A fine example in today's Guardian was the news that the UK government has blocked the export of Jane Austen's ring, bought by an American sleb, which butted up against the hindquarters of a 3-page expose on the USA's funding of GCHQ. The supposition is that our domestic spooks have gone beyond providing a tap on the Atlantic fibre and are now carrying out analyses of American citizens' online data in order to get round the legal constraints on the NSA and other US agencies. But, despite being kissing-cousins, we draw the line at letting them buy our heirlooms.

Doughnut   Ring

It shouldn't come as a surprise that CGHQ, along with the rest of the public sector, has been infected by the ideology that requires them to "build revenue streams" and "seek commercial partnerships", even if they're understandably reluctant to hawk their wares on the open market. The asymmetrical relationship between the British and American secret services after WW2 meant that there were few actual intelligence assets of any value in British hands by the time that Harold Macmillan talked of "selling off the family silver" (in respect of Thatcherite privatisation) in 1985. The assets today are a mixture of the legacy of empire (listening posts in the UK, Cyprus and Ascension Island) and an apparent willingness to act as subcontractors on a no-questions-asked basis. The opening lines of Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife", seem apposite.

Austen is a still-relevant guide to privacy and secrecy. Her plots often hinge on communication and misunderstanding; secrets are regularly imparted, held and sometimes revealed; while the milieu is one in which propriety and due process coexist with the callous abuse of rights, notably of virtuous but poor relations. In Northanger Abbey, she describes the country as one "where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies", which sounds almost East German. But her real value as an observer is her tendency to reveal the financial basis of the action, how the "possession [or lack] of a good fortune" determines plot and character. For this reason, she has more in common with Balzac than with Dickens.

The other event of the week that is worth viewing through Austen's sardonic prism is the announcement of new peerages. Despite using Doreen Lawrence as cover, it is clear that this is a largely financial transaction, where donations buy consideration for businessmen and the slavish loyalty of party hacks (and a willingness to do the graveyard shift on Newsnight) is rewarded. As the number of peers in the House of Lords heads towards 800 (there are 650 MPs in the Commons), some observers fear that growth may continue unchecked. This is blamed on the convention of seeking a party-affiliation split that broadly reflects the vote at the last general election, but this is disingenuous. A peerage is nothing more than a means of bypassing democracy and rewarding services rendered. It has become commodified, hence turnover has increased.

The current system is one of pure patronage, with a dash of human interest for the headline writers, and would have been readily understood by Jane Austen and her contemporaries. I've been reading about Austen recently in the context of Vladimir Nabokov's Lectures on Literature. I've now moved on to volume two, his Lectures on Russian Literature, and specifically Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, which triggered another topical connection with the news that the dead have been voting en masse in Zimbabwe.

The richer appreciation of politics enabled by art was the theme of an article today by Martin Kettle, lamenting that while Angela Merkel attends the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, "In Britain too many politicians are philistines" and this is "a sign of a failed society and a failed culture". Naturally, he included a gratuitous dig at Lenin along the way (Angela will have been pleased). The idea that Britain is going to the dogs is the sort of nonsense you expect in August from newspaper commentators planning a month in Tuscany or the Dordogne. The caricature of self-satisfied stupidity is eternal and can be found from Aeschylus through Austen to Amis. Gogol's masterpiece is a sustained satire on the Russian flavour, known as poshlost.

Perhaps Kettle's despair is emerging guilt for his part in pushing the neoliberal hegemony during the Blair years (but then again, perhaps not). The point that Kettle is reluctant to concede is that in a society where the market is the default mechanism, and therefore everything has its price, we should not be surprised if politics becomes transactional. Cursing philistinism, as a stand-in for venality, is a dangerous tactic that can lead to an anti-democratic and elitist misanthropy. Keep doing that and you'll end up in the House of Lords.

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