From Russia, with confusion
“Confusion is Power” is David Runciman’s commentary (LRB, 7 June) on Ferdinand Mount’s book : “The New Few, Or A Very British Oligarchy, Power And Inequality In Britain Now”. “Power in Britain”, writes Runciman, “is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and so is wealth”. “Could it be that, without knowing it, we have been hatching our own oligarchs?” However, observes Runciman, “The people who are running the show seem as confused as anyone about how we got here.”
This is in sharp contrast to the Russian variety (of oligarchs) who appear to know perfectly well how and why. “The Russians symbolise the kind of society we have become, not because of what they have been doing over there, but because of what they have been doing over here”. There is no shortage of what that is, from the buying of football clubs, “schmoozing” with “our politicians”, and “fighting it out in our law courts”. Quoting Mount: we are not really “a full blown oligarchy”, but a “flabby, corroded type of liberal democracy in which the oligarchs have been enjoying a free run”. This makes “British democracy seem not so much as corrupt as incompetent and weak”.
So how did we get here? “We don’t have ex-oligarchs”, writes Runciman, and we don’t send anyone to Siberia”, referring to the fate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. “Why bother?”
“British politics”, he explains, “has always been an haphazard affair, presided over by people who weren’t entirely sure what they were doing, plenty of them with a penchant for spending time on other people’s yachts. So what’s different now?” There is simply no alternative room to the top in Britain, whereas the Russians “came from next to nowhere”. One difference though, between, say, thirty years ago and now, is globalisation. “There are two stories that can be told about this”, writes Runciman, “one says that globalisation has simply exposed societies like ours to the hard winds of global competition. This has driven wages down at the bottom but driven rewards up at the top, because in the hyper-competitive global market for executive talent, success is at a premium.” The problem with this explanation is that “too many of the new rich seem to have had the money given to them regardless of what they do. Their reward is for being at the right place at the right time.”
This realisation is a sharp reminder of that other Russian truth, underscored in “Collapse is the Crucible”, Tom Wood’s survey of the consequences of marketisation’s advance through the ruins of the USSR (NLR 74). “The transition to capitalism offered the Soviet elite the opportunity to convert power into property – and so become a bona fide possessing class.”
Runciman describes the subservience of the British political class towards international finance, threats of relocation (from the City of London) acting as excuse for “passivity in the face of rising inequality”. Unfortunately, “the finance executives don’t really know what they are doing” either, “as we have discovered in the last few years. But they have created a world that no one understands either, which gives them all the freedom they need.” Perhaps there is, after all, a good reason for Siberia?
“For nearly six decades, the figure of George Kennan has loomed large over US foreign policy” writes Jackson Lears, commenting on George Kennan’s biography by John Lewis Gaddis (LRB, 24 May). Kennan is credited for the conception of policy of containment of the USSR pursued by the US during the Cold War, that was “set out in a 5000-word telegram he sent from Moscow to the US State Department early in 1946.”
According to Lears, Kennan himself was not convinced about containment, and saw its costs as disastrous for both the US and the USSR. “Kennan was appalled by the way his ideas were used, and became a major critic of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race”.
As a follow up, Mr Bruce Jennings, in a letter to the LRB on “what Kennan saw”, wrote: “Unaddressed in Jackson Lears’s review… is the view that Kennan formed about Russia as it emerged after 1991…” Quoting a memo from Kennan:
“It will see the disappearance of the militant spirit, of the immediate, concrete objective, of the ready-made philosophy. Totally untrained to think for himself, unaccustomed to fighting his own mental battles and facing his own problems, guided neither by tradition, example, ideals, nor the personal responsibility which acts as a steadying influence in other countries, the young Russian will probably be as helpless and miserable as a babe in the woods. Introspection and mental perplexity will make short work of his self-confidence, once his faith in the mystic qualities of communism is ruined. From the most morally unified country in the world, Russia can become overnight the worst moral chaos”. Kennan’s memo was written from Riga, in 1932, he was 28.
Back to Russia
Tony Wood is not perplex as to how Russia got where it is. In his analysis of the Reforging of Russian Society he summarises the process of mass pauperisation that unfolded under Yeltsin. “The context… was one of economic catastrophe and social crisis for the vast majority of the population: GDP contracted by 34% from 1991 to 1995 – a greater decline than in the US during the Great Depression – while over the same period real wages dropped by more than half… The crime and murder rates doubled in the early 90s, and public health deteriorated with incredible speed: male life expectancy… shortened by five years between 1991 and 1994… An ILO study (in 1992) claimed that 85% of Russia’s population now found themselves below the poverty line.”
Indeed there are good reasons for being where we are, over here and over there.
I can’t read any other Sunday paper. The Murdorchy press dominates the Sundays, and The Observer is the only decent alternative. One bonus is the New York Times selection of articles included in each issue. Today (Sunday 3 June) I noted one savoury piece on how “Monster Nabs Whale”, or how Mr Weinstein, “a wunderkind of the New York hedge fund world”, spotted the antics of a certain Bruno Iksil, ensconced in the office of the mighty JP Morgan Chase & Co in the City of London. The rest will soon be history – and what is two or three USD billions between friends anyway?
By the way, Mr Weinstein’s outfit is aptly named “Saba Capital Management”, Saba is Hebrew for “grandfatherly wisdom”.
- The New Few, or A Very British Oligarchy (guardian.co.uk)
- George F Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis (guardian.co.uk)