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Letters

Vol. 41 No. 15 · 1 August 2019

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Apropos

In June 1934, Sir Eric Phipps, then British ambassador to Germany, reported on a visit to Hermann Goering’s hunting estate on the occasion of the opening of his new bison enclosure. His account would become known in the Foreign Office as the ‘bison despatch’.

The whole proceedings were so strange as at times to convey a feeling of unreality; but they opened, as it were, a window on the Nazi mentality, and as such were not, perhaps, quite useless. The chief impression was that of the almost pathetic naivety of General Goering who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds, his shooting-box and lake and bathing beach, his blonde ‘private secretary’, his wife’s mausoleum and swans and sarsen stones, all mere toys to satisfy his varying moods, and all, or so nearly all, as he was careful to explain, Germanic. And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent, though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit with the same childlike glee.

The confidential report started to circulate more and more widely and eventually was read by Goering himself, who from then on refused to talk with Phipps. One wouldn’t want to make any gratuitous historical comparisons, but it is interesting to note that at the time there appears to have been no inclination on the British government’s part to appease the Nazi rulers by having Phipps resign.

Clemens Driessen
Wageningen, Netherlands

Universal Basic Income

Let us accept the need, acknowledged by John Lanchester, for a new economy that will reverse the frightening momentum of neoliberalism and avert climate catastrophe, tax global corporations and the rich, even cut military spending (LRB, 18 July). How is Universal Basic Income any kind of solution to these problems? There are many different versions, as Lanchester says. But there is a core idea: UBI is a programme giving every citizen or resident a regular income for life, with no strings attached, which is enough to live on and provides ‘security’. It is not about handing out cash to rough sleepers. It is not Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme. It isn’t even Alaska’s Permanent Fund, since $1400 a year is not enough to starve on, let alone enjoy security. Nor is it any of the various plans, from the UK Royal Society for the Arts scheme or Andy Stern’s US plan or Philippe Van Parijs’s start-low-and-see-how-it goes €200 idea.

All extant pilots, experiments and plans are partial. They give money to selected groups of people or they give a little bit of money to everyone and then usually payments cease after a limited period. Insofar as there is evidence that any of these schemes ‘work’, it is only on their own, limited terms. So what is all the fuss about? The key is that they are all promoted as way stations to a Big Idea that will transform our lives and politics. But then we encounter two fundamental issues: cost and the very desirability of UBI as the end goal of progressive politics.

Lanchester concludes that ‘many forms of UBI are more affordable than you might think.’ But the most affordable are those he correctly labels as ‘dystopian Mad Max’. It is not ‘odd’ that the origins of UBI lie with Hayek and Friedman, quite the opposite. Eliminating all collective infrastructure and services while giving the poor just enough money to survive and expecting them to purchase all life’s necessities in the market is a perfectly rational neoliberal project.

Lanchester provides no estimates of the costs and benefits of the ‘full fat’ welfare state plus UBI option. The 2016 Compass scheme for the UK is admirably honest in this respect: despite raising income tax rates by 5 per cent, abolishing personal tax allowance and extending National Insurance contributions to all employees, the Basic Income achieves tiny falls in pensioner and working-age adult poverty and reduces the numbers reliant on means testing by only a fifth. Luke Martinelli, after exhaustive modelling, concludes: ‘An affordable UBI is inadequate and an adequate UBI is unaffordable.’

So, in truth we cannot have a full UBI and at the same time safeguard and build the social infrastructure of a generous welfare state. This crucial insight has led some of us to argue for universal basic services (UBS), a collective programme for meeting needs we all share – an alternative that is far more affordable and effective.

Most serious is the political vacuity of UBI as a progressive slogan for the left. The overriding tasks today are keeping within planetary limits – addressing climate breakdown, species extinction and other existential challenges – while at the same time shifting from a greed-driven to a need-driven economic system. The central slogan should be a ‘just transition’ from the present to a future green, equitable and sustainable world. There are other movements and programmes out there that would help realise this vision, such as the Green New Deal.

Anna Coote; Ian Gough
New Economics Foundation, London SE1; London School of Economics, WC2

The most compelling and radical case for UBI emphasises its role in pursuing ecological as well as social aims: to lessen individuals’ dependence on paid work, but also to reduce social labour overall and shorten the working week, in an economy redesigned to deliver sustainable sufficiency instead of endless growth. If today’s left does its ‘intellectual prep’ on UBI, as John Lanchester urges, it must rediscover this perspective, associated especially with André Gorz, whose Paths to Paradise: On the Liberation from Work (1985) remains essential reading on the relations between labour, free time, economic security and the sustainable use of global resources.

The mainstream left, including the British Labour Party, has paid scant attention to these arguments so far. The Green Party has been more receptive. It was Caroline Lucas who tabled an Early Day Motion in January 2016 calling for research into Basic Income, and it was Lucas who as recently as 10 July spoke in Parliament on the need to measure prosperity in terms of human and environmental well-being rather than economic growth.

Martin Ryle
University of Sussex, Brighton

Barbarism begins at home

In his review of Keith Thomas’s In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England, John Gallagher suggested that the ‘most noticeable’ of the ‘shortcomings of the Thomas method’ was a habit of ‘leaping across centuries’ (LRB, 4 July). By omitting any reference to authors who lived in the centuries before the 16th, Gallagher ensures that he isn’t vulnerable to that line of criticism. But when dealing with a concept that has ancient roots in words such as civilitas and urbanitas, it’s a risky way of proceeding. Only his determination to ignore all previous centuries (both ancient and medieval) allows Gallagher to make statements such as: ‘Distinctions between the civil and the savage or barbarous were made from the moment European encounters with the Americas began, and they underpinned imperial structures of thought.’ For someone writing about England, the fact that Christian Europeans should have stigmatised transatlantic non-Christians is much less remarkable than that centuries earlier the English had got into the habit of referring to their fellow Christian Scots, Welsh and Irish as barbarians, as less advanced along a civilising road than those whose lands they were invading. When quoting Edmund Spenser’s assertion that Anglo-Saxon Britain had been ‘very like to Ireland as it now stands’, he might also have remembered that William of Newburgh had made exactly that comparison – just four hundred years previously.

Had Gallagher done this, he might have thought twice before beginning his review with the assertion that ‘civility as a concept, or as an ideal, didn’t take hold in England until the 16th century.’ Much depends, of course, on what is meant by ‘take hold’. Nonetheless it is clear that ideas of civility in all the various senses discussed in Thomas’s book had been familiar in elite circles in England for more than three hundred years before the 16th century. True, the languages in which they were framed were Latin and French, not English, but as a consequence, in order to gain access to continental ‘traités de savoir-vivre’, readers did not have to wait for translations from French and Italian, the medium on which so many of Gallagher’s authors depended. After some centuries during which, in Michael Clanchy’s words, ‘ideally’ ladies (and gentlemen) should have been ‘able to read in three languages at least: Latin, French and English’, the triumph in England of the language of Chaucer marked a return to the relative isolation which had characterised pre-Norman England. How far down the social scale people were at ease with ideas of refinement initially expressed in French or Latin is plainly hard to assess, but the concepts themselves were unquestionably there. Imagining that they had not been has contributed significantly to the notion of an ‘early modern’ beginning in the 16th century.

John Gillingham
Brighton

John Gallagher quotes Keith Thomas, writing in his book In Pursuit of Civility, to the effect that ‘civility’ could refer to‘the most desirable condition of organised human society, what would come to be called “civilisation", the opposite of barbarism’. I wonder whether Thomas touches on the distinction between ‘barbarous’ (cruel) and ‘barbaric’ (foreign, outlandish), which is in the process of disappearing. In contemporary discourse ‘barbaric’ is used to describe such barbarous actions as burning people alive, possibly to emphasise that the writer, or their nation, could never do such things.

Ian Gowans
London W14

What will save us?

Lorna Finlayson agrees with some of the central claims in our book, Feminism for the 99 Per Cent: A Manifesto: that the dominant feminism of the recent past took a wrong turn by defining gender issues in ways that excluded the processes that have made the lives of the vast majority of women worse; that by reducing women’s emancipation to the attempts of professional-managerial women to climb the corporate ladder, this iteration of feminism discredited our movement in the eyes of many victims of neoliberalisation, some of whom now support right-wing strongmen; that feminists need to change course now by rejoining the broader fight for social justice (LRB, 4 July). But Finlayson doubts that this requires challenging capitalism. We hold, by contrast, that sexism is deeply entrenched in capitalist society, which separates ‘people making’ from ‘profit making’, while assigning the first job to women and subordinating it to the second. A feminism that fights for ‘the 99 per cent’ must reverse that perverse priority and put things right side up – for the sake of women and of everyone else.

The task is pressing. We face an acute crisis of social reproduction, as investors demand both reduced public services and more of women’s time for low-paid work. This is the context in which to appreciate the significance, that Finlayson misses, of the recent wave of feminist strikes, which turned 8 March into a massive global platform for defending social reproduction and opposing austerity – aims that are also driving the worldwide strikes of teachers and nurses. The result is an emerging alliance of feminists with labour unions, migrants, radical environmentalists, anti-militarists, anti-imperialists and opponents of racial oppression. No mere laundry list of ‘identities’, such an alliance is the sine qua non for envisioning and achieving a new post-capitalist society. And that is the only way to wrest the chance for liveable, even joyous, lives from a social system that is hurtling towards the abyss. Finlayson may be right that a non-patriarchal capitalism is possible in principle, but that merely hypothetical possibility will not save us now.

Cinzia Arruzza, Nancy Fraser; Tithi Bhattacharya
The New School for Social Research, New York; Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana

Lorna Finlayson writes: Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser read me as denying the need for feminists to challenge capitalism. In fact, I share their view that ‘sexism is deeply entrenched in capitalist society’, and that this entrenchment manifests itself not least in the subordination of those forms of labour, such as care work, disproportionately performed by women. I also believe that capitalism is generally bad for humans and for the rest of life on the planet. I therefore oppose it not only as a feminist, but as a human being and living creature.

What seems to have given rise to the misunderstanding is the passage in which I argued that the analysis of the role of women’s ‘reproductive’ labour in capitalist society by socialist and Marxist feminists of the 1970s does not ground, and probably was not intended to ground, the conclusion that capitalism and gender equality are strongly incompatible, in the way that capitalism is incompatible with the overcoming of class exploitation, for example. In retrospect, I think I dwelled too long on this point, and may have created the impression that I look to the possibility of a non-patriarchal capitalism for salvation. In fact, I agree with Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser that this possibility is at present largely hypothetical. And to the question I raise in the essay, of whether a gender-equal form of capitalism would be worth fighting for, my own answer would in any case be ‘No’. My point was that this is the really important question, and not the question of whether capitalism could or could not eventually be purged of patriarchy.

In so far as the view I advanced differs from the one taken by Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser in their book, it is perhaps only in our relative measures of optimism and pessimism about the present and future. I did have some pangs of guilt over my seemingly rather dismissive treatment of the Women’s Strikes. I did not mean to indicate that I don’t support and participate in them – I do – but merely that I have less confidence than some in their prospects, their cohesiveness and strength; naturally, I hope I am wrong about this.

Casualties

Didier Fassin states that during the recent protests in France ‘dozens of peaceful demonstrators, journalists and medics have lost an eye or had a hand ripped off’ (LRB, 4 July). While numbers vary considerably between sources, on 28 April Le Monde reported an announcement from a collective of those who had suffered serious injuries at the hands of the French police that 22 had lost an eye and five had lost a hand.

John Krige
Atlanta, Georgia

When DDT Was Good

Raymond Clayton rightly states that DDT played a valuable role in controlling insects for several years after the Second World War (Letters, 4 July). But by omitting to mention the main reason it is no longer used, he may inadvertently have fed the myth, still actively propagated by libertarians, that by encouraging a ban on DDT Rachel Carson was guilty of causing immense human suffering and loss of life. The real reason DDT is no longer employed is that its very success and consequent overuse gave rise to DDT-resistance in the insect species it was targeting. This effect was already evident in 1962, when Carson wrote Silent Spring, in which she provided detailed evidence of the rapid build-up of resistance not only to DDT, but also to the substitutes developed to overcome it.

Rory Allen
York

The Bloodstains Never Dried

Mike Jay’s engaging account of the execution ritual of Colonel Despard includes the claim that he was the last felon convicted of high treason who was ‘drawn’ to his scaffold on a carriage or sled (LRB, 18 July). In fact, 14 years after Despard, the three ringleaders of the Pentrich Rebellion (the so-called ‘Derbyshire Rising’) were drawn around the prison yard at Derby’s Nun Green before mounting the scaffold for execution. Like Despard, the men were spared quartering – an act of ‘clemency’ by the prince regent – but went through all the other parts of the sentence. Their bodies were decapitated with an axe on an executioner’s block which is still held by Derby Museums; contemporaries claimed that the bloodstains never dried on the block but such remains are invisible to the modern eye. Like Despard, the heads of the three men, Jeremiah Brandreth, William Turner and Isaac Ludlam Senior, were displayed to the assembled crowd with the exhortation ‘Behold the head of a traitor,’ but unlike him they were buried in a common, unmarked grave at St Werburgh’s churchyard, which is now lost to view (archaeologists may consider exploring the adjacent multi-storey car park, described as ‘the safest in England’, as their possible resting place). Like Despard, the three men formed part of E.P. Thompson’s ‘heroic age of radicalism’. However, perhaps the most telling link between events in 1803 and 1817 is the fact that Brandreth, who went to his doom demonstrating the same sort of inscrutability that characterised Despard’s conduct on the scaffold, claimed to have been in the crowd that witnessed Despard’s execution.

Richard Gaunt
University of Nottingham

Mistake

Owen Bennett-Jones’s piece on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme in the issue of 18 July cited tweets from what we were too late to recognise was a fake account. Apologies: we should have realised. The opening of the piece has been altered in the version that appears online.

The Editors

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