Tag Archives: globalization

Flawed Ideal

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit:

What’s Become of the Common Good (Farrar Strauss and Giroux)

 

“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.”  This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”  In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

Renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not about to make that argument.  But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy today, primarily in the United States and secondarily in Great Britain.  Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by acknowledging that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office.  “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” he writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it” (p.119).

But in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work” (p.14),  Sandel writes.  They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due” (p.59).  The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves” (p.14).  The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves” (p.59).   Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity” (p.25).  Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1.  One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered” (p.17).   Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer” (p.17-18).  It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind” (p.17).

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility” (p.85).   Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability” (p.117); it does not reduce inequality.  This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve” (p.117).  To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” (p.33), dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart” (p.155).    To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” (14), Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

* * *

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring a  sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree.  Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life” (p.73).

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” (p.95), Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles.  The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards” (p.89).  Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life.  It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash” (p.104).

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them?  Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators.  Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants.  But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher?  Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 “The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges.  Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder.  But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes” (p.11).  Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials” (p.188).   He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields” (p.77).  Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League” (p.191).  That sentence more than puzzled me.

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit?  Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas?  This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hypercompetitive, elite American colleges and universities.

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service.  The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions.  But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree, a surprising 70% of the adult American population.  His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives.  Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then.  Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good” (p.205), implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another.  Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, then market wages are a “good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want”  (p.208).

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking.  A civic definition is “inescapably contestable” (p.214), Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives” (p.208).   Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed” (p.214).

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos.   Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

One place to start lies in changing tax policies.  A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor” (p.218).  A consumption or “VAT” tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy” (p.219).  A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million.  Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit.  More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt).  Sandel mentions each briefly.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could in turn provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work.  The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

* * *

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads — inescapably in my mind — to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half.  Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a (Sandel-led) philosophy seminar at Harvard, but with little likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 23, 2022

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics

Exploring Joseph Conrad’s World

Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch:

Joseph Conrad in a Global World (Penguin Press) 

               Joseph Conrad, born Konrad Kurzeniowski in 1857 to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, spent most of his adult life either at sea or writing novels in his adopted homeland, England.   Conrad is one of a handful of authors in the last two centuries who have made their mark writing in an acquired rather than their native language (others include Vladimir Nabokov and Arthur Koestler; I reviewed a biography of Koestler here in 2012).   In The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World, Maya Jasonoff aims, as she puts it, to explore Conrad’s world “with the compass of an historian, the chart of a biographer, and the navigational sextant of a fiction reader” (p.9).  Jasonoff, a professor of history at Harvard University,  skillfully uses each of these tools to produce a masterful account of the late 19th and early 20th century world that shaped Conrad’s personal life and literary output.

Conrad set his novels in the late Victorian period, a time when the British Empire was at its height and Europe’s powers were scrambling for territory in Africa and Asia.  He offered stories about places that his English-speaking readers considered exotic, in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  But they were discomforting stories that in different ways highlighted the darker side of imperialist adventures.  His most famous work, Heart of Darkness, detailed a boat trip into what was then known as the Congo Free State, a trip in which the lines between savagery and civilization, madness and sanity, seemed to blur.   Conrad developed similar themes in The Secret Agent and Nostrodomo, novels about Asia and a fictional Latin American country that resembled Paraguay.  Jasonoff concentrates her study on these works, along with The Secret Agent, a novel about Russian anarchists operating in London.

Jasonoff recognizes a form of international connectivity — globalization — emerging in Conrad’s lifetime.  By the first decade of the 20th century, she writes, there had “never been such global interconnection – and never such manifest division” (p.285).  Democracy advanced, as liberal revolutions challenged autocrats and women stormed for the vote.  “But imperialism intensified as a handful of Western powers consolidated their rule over the majority of the world’s people. Rising prosperity went with increasing inequality. More conversations across cultures came with more elaborate theories of racial difference” (p.285).  Conrad grasped this interconnectedness and elevated it to a central motif for his writings.  Wherever he set his novels, Jasonoff writes, Conrad “grappled with the ramifications of living in a global world: the moral and material impact of dislocation, the tension and opportunity of multi-ethnic societies, the disruption brought by technological change” (p.11).

Jasonoff, who took her own tour down the Congo River as part of her preparations for this book, divides the work into four parts: “Nation,” focusing on Conrad’s youth; “Ocean,” his years at sea; “Civilization,” an ironic reference to Conrad’s trip to the Congo in 1890 and writing Heart of Darkness nearly a decade later; and “Empire,” how Nostrodomo reflected Conrad’s late life views about a globalized world of empires and competitive nation-states.  Throughout, she shows her stripes as an historian with concise,  ingeniously detailed treatment of the times and places depicted in Conrad’s novels, juxtaposed with her analyses of the novels themselves.  As an able biographer, moreover, she does not neglect her subject’s enigmatic personal life.

* * *

               Konrad Kurzeniowski’s father Apollo was a member of the Polish landed nobility, the szlachita. But Apollo was also a fervent Polish nationalist, a political activist who dedicated his life to the cause of independence for Poland, which had been partitioned between Austria, Russia and Prussia in 1795.  The young Konrad’s mother Ewa died when the boy was eight and Apollo passed away when he was 12, leaving the task of raising the orphaned lad to his uncle, Tadeusz Bobrowski. To Tadeusz, Apollo had been “feckless, quixotic, and fatally incapable of supporting his family” (p.45). Tadeusz hoped to shape the young Konrad into a “pragmatic Bobrowski, not a dreamy Korzeniowski like his father” (p.45). Uncle Tadeusz continued to support Konrad financially until the young man was well into his adult years (throughout much of the book, Jasonoff uses the birthname “Konrad” interchangeably with “Conrad”).

As Konrad neared twenty, he felt a need to get away from from Kraków, where he was living with his uncle, and especially from the ruling Russians, who were looking to conscript him into military service.  He had grown up “obsessed with the idea of becoming a sailor.”  Sailing may have seemed a “completely fantastical notion for a young man who’d been raised hundreds of miles from the ocean.”  But Konrad had been “adrift his whole life. Going to sea just made it official” (p.49). Surprisingly, Uncle Tadeusz allowed him to leave for Marseille, where Tadeusz had connections with the extensive Polish diaspora there, including a cousin who owned a shipping company.

Bureaucratic hurdles prevented Konrad from working on French ships, and the young man experienced one of the lowest points in his life.  He ran out of money, tried unsuccessfully to get it back in casinos, and even attempted suicide.  Uncle Tadeusz went to Marseille and tried to convince Konrad to return to Kraków.  When the young man refused, he and his uncle decided that he should try to join the English Merchant Marine. Konrad had a bad experience on one ship, the Mavis, left it and departed for London, never writing again about Marseille or this part of his life.

The young man arrived in London in 1878 without a firm command of the English language.  His initial impressions upon arriving in London were “as if he’d wandered into a novel by Charles Dickens. Everything he knew about London he’d learned from Dickens” (p.62).  His Dickensian vision “lit the way from Konrad Korzeniowski, the bookish son of a Polish writer, to Joseph Conrad, a critically acclaimed English novelist . . . On the rare occasions that Conrad wrote about his early life, it was these first years in London that he most often recalled” (p.62).  In an insightful passage, Jasonoff shows how London at the time of Conrad’s arrival was already the center of a globalized empire and a melting pot offering many freedoms that distinguished it from Eastern Europe.  Conrad never lived more than an hour or two from London again. But he spent most of the next decade and a half, to 1894, in various capacities as a professional mariner.

More than in London, it was at sea that Konrad Korzeniowski “turned into Joseph Conrad” (p.93), Jasonoff argues.  For over fifteen years, Conrad sailed to the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Africa on some of the longest routes that sailing ships regularly plied.  He learned to speak English on British ships, where native-born Britons were usually in the minority.  For Conrad, a sailing ship represented a “distinctive – and distinctively British – sense of ethics” that called for “experience, training, courage, perception, creativity, adaptability, and judgment” (p.109).  Conrad “transformed the British sailing ship into a gold standard for moral conduct.  It became for him what Poland had been for his parents, a romantic ideal that served as a guide for life” (p.94).  Sometime toward the end of the 1880s, Conrad started to write fiction – “the beginning of a lifetime of writing about sailors, ships, and the sea” (p.94).  But Conrad resisted the label of “sea writer.”  Stories about the sea were, for him, “stories about life” (p.108).

* * *

                    Conrad’s most famous story about life, Heart of Darkness, was based on his own trip in 1890 down the Congo River as captain of a Belgian steamer.  Conrad kept an extensive journal of what he observed, most of which worked its way into the story he started to write in December 1898.  None of Conrad’s other works of fiction, Jasonoff notes, could be “so closely pegged to contemporary records of his experience” (p.205).  The novel was published in 1898.  Its narrator, Charles Marlow, tells the story to friends aboard a boat anchored on the Thames in London of his effort to locate Kurtz, an ivory trader in the Congo.  Marlow discovered that Kurtz, a “prophet of civilization” who “promised civilization while snatching ivory,” had become a “savage lord” (p.204).

On its face, Heart of Darkness appeared to be what Jasonoff describes as the “quintessential river story, running from here to there: a journey from Europe to Africa, overlaid by metaphorical journeys from present to past, light to dark, civilization to savagery, sanity to madness” (p.205).  But by nesting Marlow’s experience in Africa inside the telling of his story in England, Conrad warned his readers against the complacent notion that “savagery” was far from “civilization.” “What happened there and what happened here were fundamentally connected. Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark” (p.237).

The extent to which Conrad’s fictional portrait of the Congo accurately depicted its actual conditions did not become fully known until years later.  But Jasonoff captures well the “appalling greed, violence, and hypocrisy” (p.3-4) of the regime of Leopold II, King of the Belgians.  She colorfully describes Leopold as an “outsized man, usually the tallest man in the room, with a nose like a mountain slope and a beard like a waterfall foaming over his chest” (p.173-74).  Determined to be a geo-political player on par with those from the larger European powers, Leopold sought to “open up to civilization the only part of the globe which it [had] not yet penetrated, to pierce the darkness in which entire populations are enveloped” (p.173-74).

From 1885 to 1908, Leopold privately controlled and owned what was known as the Congo Free State, about 75 times larger than Belgium.   He used his personal control to strip the county of vast amounts of wealth, especially ivory and rubber.  These labor-intensive industries were serviced by locals who were forced to work through torture, imprisonment, maiming and terror.  Beneath a veneer of idealistic principles, the Congo Free State was, in Jasonoff’s words, the “most nakedly abusive colonial regime in the world” (p.205).

                 Lord Jim, published in serial form in 1899-1900 and in hardcover in 1900 was based loosely on the scandal of the S.S. Jeddah, a British-flagged, Singapore-owned steamship that perished at sea in 1880, carrying Muslims from Singapore to Mecca.  The story revolves around the abandonment of a ship by its British crew, including a young British seaman named Jim.   Jasonoff likens Jim to the main character of Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel, The Red Badge of Courage, a man who had “‘dreamed of battles all his life’ only to run away from the field the very first time he fought” (p.145).  Lord Jim remained Conrad’s most popular work for so long that, twenty years later, he “complained about critics who measure his new books against it” (p.144).  The novel appeared at a time “when Europe and the United States had colonized virtually all of Africa and Asia” (p.144-45).  It told of Europeans in Asia “not from the veranda of a British colonial bungalow, still less an armchair in a London club – but as Conrad had seen them, from the steamer’s deck” (p.145).

Although Nostromo was Conrad’s only major work about a place he had never been, Jasonoff prefers that we look at it as a “novel about every place he’d been” (p.283).  The novel came out in book form in October 1904, with the sub-title, “A Tale of the Seaboard,” a tale of the coast (the novel started out being about Italian immigrants in Argentina; the title is a clumsy translation of  “our man,” nostro unomo, in Italian).   A coast was something new in Conrad’s work, Jasonoff writes. The “border of land and sea, a coast could be both barrier and meeting place – a voyager’s point of departure, the place where an invader lands.”  In Nostromo “outsiders, conspiracies, and families” met the “themes of honor, community, and isolation he had [previously] set at sea” (p.278).

                  Nostromo takes place in Costaguana, a New World creation that Conrad made up, based primarily upon what he had read about Paraguay. The main storyline concerned the poisoning impact of the San Tomé silver mine on individuals and corporations, particularly British and American. Charles Gould, a native of Castaguano of English ancestry, believed the mine could bring peace to a war torn country.  But the extraction of silver only heightened the country’s unrest.

The secret to Nostromo’s “extraordinary prescience,” Jasonoff argues, was that Conrad “folded between its covers his own ‘theory of the world’s future’” (p.283). In Nostrodomo, Conrad anticipated the “ascent of an American-led consortium of ‘material interests,’” which would “dictate the fortunes of new nations” and “make imperialism continue to thrive whether or not it had the word ‘empire’ attached to it” (p.283).  Jasonoff finds it “ironic if not surprising” that Costaguana, a place Conrad had fabricated, “felt so stunningly real to readers.  Conrad had fashioned his ideas of Latin America from precisely the same kinds of books and newspapers his audiences might have read.  Nostromo thus confirmed their stereotypes” (p.279). Readers and reviewers in the United States in particular read Nostromo as a “vindication of all their prejudices about Latin America” (p.279).

                    The Secret Agent was set in London and dealt with anarchists, the only major Conrad novel not set at sea. Based loosely on the plot to kill Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, The Secret Agent was Conrad’s “tribute to his beloved Dickens” (p.70-71).  More than anything else Conrad wrote, The Secret Agent “mapped the contours of his early life” (p.81) – the novelist Joseph Conrad writing about Konrad Kurzeniowski, as Jasonoff puts it.  Some critics characterized The Secret Agent as a novel written by a “foreigner,” criticism that stung Conrad badly.  The Secret Agent captured an irony of Conrad’s life: he couldn’t go back to Poland, yet he worried that he didn’t really fit into his adopted country either.

* * *

                   Conrad’s major novels conspicuously lack meaningful roles for women. There are no contemporary clues, moreover, whether he had sexual relationships with any women during his sailing days, in Europe or beyond, Jasonoff indicates.  He had one odd attachment to Marguerite Poradowska, a widow living in Brussels whose recently-deceased husband was a distant cousin of the Kurzeniowski family.   Their relationship appears to have been primarily on paper, in “effusive, emotionally charged correspondence between the two” (p.165).   Eight years older than Conrad, and in a way part of the family, the new widow was a “‘safe’ repository for Konrad’s intimate confessions, and in the coming years he poured them out in sometimes dozens of letters per year.  Marguerite became the first woman with whom the adult Konrad formed a sustained emotional relationship” (p.165).

Then, suddenly, their correspondence ended and, seemingly out of nowhere, Conrad announced “solemnly” (p.227) in a letter in 1896 to another woman he had had his eye on that he was about to marry Jessie George, an 18 year old working class girl from Peckham, nearly twenty years younger than her future husband.  In a letter to a cousin in Poland, Conrad described George as “small, not at all striking-looking person (to tell the truth alas – rather plain!) who nevertheless is very dear to me” (p.228). Marriage did not frighten him, he indicated, because he was “accustomed to an adventurous life and to facing terrible dangers” (p.227).

Conrad’s friends “couldn’t believe he had married such an uneducated, unrefined person” (p.230).  But the marriage worked.  George had qualities that Conrad “needed and craved: an even temper, good humor, patience, an impulse to nurture” (p.230).  The couple had two sons, Borys, born in 1898, and John, born in 1906.  During Conrad’s peak years as a writer, the family lived together in genteel poverty in rural locations outside London (Conrad had long since spent the inheritance he received from his Uncle Tadeusz, who died in 1893).

In the summer of 1914, Conrad took his family of four back to Poland, at precisely the moment when European-wide war broke out.  His son Borys later served in the war.  He was gassed and shell-shocked in the last weeks of the conflict and came home to convalescence.  As an expatriate living in Britain, Conrad became increasingly involved in Polish affairs during the war years and their aftermath.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Conrad sought to protect Poland from what he termed “Russian barbarism” and Germany’s “superficial, grinding civilization” (p.292). He wrote a formal note to the Foreign Office in 1917, advocating “an Anglo-French protectorate” as the “ideal form of moral and material support” (p.297) to defend Poland from its more powerful neighbors.

In April 1923, Conrad arrived in New York for his first visit to the United States, where he was surprised to learn what a celebrity he was. Despite his concerns about American imperial overreach, he enjoyed the visit and appreciated the Americans whom he met.  He died in August 1924 at his home near Canterbury, at a time when the entire family, including his first grandchild, had fortuitously gathered for Bank Holiday weekend.

* * *

               Jasonoff sees many similarities between today’s globalization and the iteration Conrad wrote about.  Ships and sailing remain central to the world’s economy.  Today, “Internet cables run along the seafloor beside the old telegraph wires.  Conrad’s characters whisper in the ears of new generations of anti-globalization protesters and champions of free trade, liberal interventionists and radical terrorists, social justice activists and xenophobic nativists” (p.7-9).   Conrad’s world thus “shimmers beneath the surface of our own” (p.7), she writes.  Conrad’s world may have been  one where cynicism, hypocrisy and cruelty too often prevailed.  But through her formidable use of the tools of the historian, biographer and fiction reader, Jasonoff manages to cast much light on the darkness of that world.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

May 20, 2019

7 Comments

Filed under British History, History, Literature, World History

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

Judt.1

Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

.
      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

* * *

      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

***

      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, European History, France, French History, History, Intellectual History, Politics, Uncategorized, United States History, World History