Karl Polanyi

Michel de Montaigne and the Independent Commission on Banking

The Memory Chalet

A must read this year is Tony Judt’s posthumous collection of essays “The Memory Chalet” reviewed by Thomas Nagel in this issue of the NYRB.

“The articulate recreation of the active life that he has lost, writes Prof. Nagel, is Judt’s answer to his imprisonment and impending death, and it gives him a more personal posthumous existence than do his historical and critical writings, important as they are. These eloquent personal recollections are infused with historical consciousness, but they also explain and reflect the strong opinions and attitudes that marked Tony Judt as a distinctive presence among us, unforgettable to those who knew or read him. Wary of group identity, he was an Englishman but exceptionally cosmopolitan, a Jew who became an outspoken critic of Zionism, and an egalitarian social democrat who was also an elitist and a defender of meritocracy.”

From the White House to Michel de Montaigne

I am not altogether desperate to uncover the identity of the author of “O: A Presidential Novel” but enjoyed Mark Lawson’s piece in the Guardian (22 January). Of particular interest to this reader were the references to Vivian Grey and to the lineage of the ” model political novel”. Disraeli, Trollope, R. Penn Warren and Allen Drurry… forbears indeed…

In the same Guardian issue Saul Frampton’s delightful extracts on Michel de Montaigne and the “true language of human nature” reminded me to push “When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?” to my trolley at the next opportunity. Another must read.

The Road to Serfdom

No surprise yesterday in the speech of John Vickers, chairman of the Independent Commission on Banking. Inadequacy of “Basel III”, nefarious effect of the disappearance of any barriers between ” retail” and so-called “investment” banking (remember “Big Bang”?), costs to society of bailing out the speculators, all have been debated to saturation since the onset of the what started as the “sub-prime” crisis. What is striking, on both sides of the Atlantic, is governments and regulators’ apparent incapacity to bring the “big banks” to any serious commitment to real changes. This appears equally to extend to any commitment to small businesses from the four largest UK banks (Preston’s Picks of 22 January). The choice is ever clearer: finance capital or society, them (obscene profits, speculation, derivatives of derivatives, plunder and wastage) or us (the real economy, households and businesses, our children’s futures).

From Guadalcanal to Downing Street

Media-wise our household is eclectic. We are in turn Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Times and even, occasionally (LOL), Daily Mail readers. As Lili Allen said: I look in the Sun, and look at the Mirror… Yet this reader tends to focus on Le Monde Diplomatique, and as you could guess from the blogroll, the LRB. Still yesterdays’ issue of The Telegraph had interesting insights.

Neil Tweedie spoke with Sid Phillips, one of the five survivors of H Company, 2nd battalion of the 1st US Marine Regiment, the one at Guadalcanal. Sid engaged in the US Marine Corps in 1942, on the wake of Pearl Harbor, aged 17. He’s now 85, and one of the four soldiers who inspired Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ “The Pacific” tv series. I rarely have cause to regret not paying due to the Murdoch empire, but this is perhaps one such occasion. The battle for Guadalcanal raged from August 1942 to February 1943, coincidently also the pivotal moment in the battle for Stalingrad on the other side of the world. After the war Sid Phillips turned to the medical profession in his native Alabama . He returned once to Guadalcanal, in 1977, with other veterans: “Gads! This place still stinks”. Like in Verdun and Volgograd, the smell of Death never leaves the loci of its triumphs. We salute you, Sir.

The same issue opened its columns to David Cameron’s “personal manifesto”, My Vision, Your Choice. Although a distinguished great child of Hayek’s school of neo-liberalism that has now prevailed across western political life since the late 70’s, I respect David Cameron’s views, since, contrary to many, he is at least loyal to his principles. David writes that “from (his) mother, a magistrate, (he) got an enduring sense of community, responsibility, obligation.” David continues “it is unfashionable (sic) these days to talk about public service, but she taught (him) life was about more than making money.”

Can’t agree more, though the extent of public service talk being “unfashionable” depends of course on where you are born, and on your income… Regretfully I cannot concur with Mr Cameron that “the state” should not “infringe on the freedom of the individual”, if doing so is the only way to offset gross inequalities and injustice. This of course is why, even if I could, I would be unlikely to become a Cameron’s supporter. My party is that of Karl Polanyi and the Great Transformation, rather than that of the Road to Serfdom.