Seven Years Solitary by Edith Bone

I have a friend who’s a rellie of Edith Bone and as a consequence discovered her story which is truly astonishing, every bit of it that we know and no doubt the parts that will continue to unfold as classified documents from MI5 and Soviet counterparts are made more available.

But for now, looking at only her period of isolated imprisonment, I offer this from wiki:

In 1949, Bone was acting as a freelance correspondent in Budapest, affiliated with the London Daily Worker. She was accused of spying for the British government when leaving Hungary, arrested by the State Protection Authority (AVH) and detained in solitary confinement without trial or a prisoner identification number for seven years. During her detention, Bone managed to avoid the mental instability or insanity that typically accompanies isolation. She developed a series of mental exercises, including reviews of geometry, the several languages she knew and vocabulary. She mentally reconstructed the plots of all of the books she had read, made a comprehensive list of all of the characters in Shakespeare she could remember, and made letters out of the dense black bread she was fed; out of these she composed poetry. Perhaps most stunning was the weeks-long effort she put into to removing a very large nail from the iron-hard oak door of her cell. To accomplish this, she slowly removed single threads from towels and wove them into a solid rope with which to work the nail. After weeks of straining effort to get the nail to begin to wiggle and then loosen, she finally got the nail out. She then sharpened it on the concrete floor and used at as a drill to create a small peephole in her cell door so she could finally see out of her cell. She used these projects to keep her mind stimulated, to fill her time with goal-oriented actions, and to keep her sanity during her long period of extreme isolation.

Bone was freed during the last days of the revolutionary Nagy Government in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A student group had seized control of the Budapest political prison where Bone was held, and processed political prisoners for release.

I’m sure it’s true that the Hungarians intended her to die as a result of her privations. Apparently they couldn’t actually kill her directly as it was known she had disappeared, though the British did precious little to get her out. Why doesn’t that surprise me.

There will be more of her incredible life to come. I will end by noting that Aung San Suu Kyi gained her inspiration to survive from reading her book as a teenager.

Edith Bone wrote her own epitaph:

Edith Bone (1889-1975)
On Myself

Here lies the body of Edith Bone.
All her life she lived alone,
Until Death added the final S
And put an end to her loneliness.

Incident at Vichy by Arthur Miller

I can’t see that we are ever so good that this play can be missed. At its most obvious it’s about what the Germans and their collaborators did to Jews and other inferior types. But even to extrapolate to present day is an inadequate representation of what it’s about.

It is a discussion of the human condition, its wretchedness, and the capacity of a few to rise above it. The amazing Hora, who did much to see to the shaping of the philosopher Raimond Gaita in Gaita’s younger years, believed that always

…even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved….

Hora and his migrant friends had lived through WWII in Europe. This play, Incident at Vichy, captures one of these moments. An Austrian aristocrat, caught in a roundup meant for not the likes of him, is sitting with Jews and a Gypsy waiting to be interrogated. We know that most, if not all of them, will never be let out. Whilst waiting, they share their various views on the nature of the Germans and whether it is really possible that the things they don’t want to mention are really happening. One says it’s a ridiculous idea, that the Germans would want to kill them. The Germans are rational. Of course they simply want them for labour. No biggie.

The Austrian prince passionately explains what is really happening. How could you be so stupid as to think it is about being rational. These people are nothing and they make themselves something by what they do, by what they believe in. What they are doing, the mass murdering of Jews is a moral principle.

At some point he gives a great speech where he too says the same as Hora. It is a tiny number of people who redeem the rest of us. Unfortunately I don’t have the play, or I’d share it. And then, at the end, and I didn’t see this coming though I should have, he turns out to be that man. He goes in second to last, reappears with a get out of gaol free card and gives it to the waiting French Jew so that he can escape. We assume that the prince will be killed in his place.

And all this made me remember a book I have, a book of little consequence I expect.

Gutmann, Moritz Ritter v.
Konradin der letzte Hohenstaufe: Tragodie in 5 Acten
(Mahr.-Ostrau: Druck und Verlag von Julius Kittl: 1891) Decorated cloth lettered in gilt pp. 87. A play about the short-lived but famous Konradin, this is the Author’s inscribed copy to his cousin Flora.

Gutmann was an extremely wealthy Austrian, Jewish, related to the Rothchilds. He bought and lived in Vöslau castle from 1901. He died in 1934.

To my mind I would have expected this to be a big story in the newspapers and it could be that I have been bad at finding it (thanks to Matt for helping me look for info!) But in Austria things had already been really bad for the Jews for years at the point of his death. Maybe this was why. I assume Vöslau stayed in the family until: ‘In the course of the Aryanization, the castle was acquired in 1940.’ I don’t know if that’s just bad google translate, it doesn’t seem like the most politically correct way of describing that process. In Austrian (German?): ‘Im Zug der Arisierung wurde das Schloss 1940 von der Gemeinde Vöslau erworben.’

At any rate, presumably due to the extreme difficulties already presented by being Jewish in Austria, by the time Gutmann had died, The NY Jewish Daily Bulletin reported, the rest of the family had all become ‘non-Jews’ by marrying non-Jewish people. As we know, they may have thought that was the effect of their marriages, but it certainly wasn’t what the Nazis thought.

I have not yet found out what happened to his relatives past his death.

Going back to Miller, his Austrian prince, a cultured man who abhorred what was happening, in giving his life, seemed to me to be giving it for this other cultured family of whom I can find no lasting trace.

We saw the play at King’s Head Theatre Islington, a rerun after a season at The Finborough. Both fantastic upstairs from pubs theatres, stunning stuff, tickets cheap as chips. I think that this one could easily go wrong. It needs a stellar cast to pull it off, a group of men sitting on a bench waiting for a buzzer to sound. NEXT. The buzzer really should have had a place in the credits, it was horrifying.

I wish this play was seen as eternal rather than issues-driven and therefore relevant today. If it was, it is one of those things, like the books of Raimond Gaita about Romulus, that could influence us in major ways for the better.

If you are reading this and in London it’s on for another couple of days. I was disappointed that the small theatre was only about half full when we went (admittedly a matinee and a ‘nice day for London’) It got a standing ovation from me and that rarely happens.

After Romulus by Raimond Gaita

If you thought that this was obvious, a sequel, cashing in, you couldn’t be further from the truth. This companion to Romulus, My Father is the product of, on the one hand, the needs of the philosopher Gaita to process various ways in which the consequences of this book affected him and on the other, the needs of everybody who read it. Although I complained in my review that Romulus, My Father had been ignored by the world at large, it deeply moved Australia.

So you write a book, a philosophical – because you are a philosopher – account of the life of your truly heroic and brave and encompassing of all the best human virtues, father and his friend. You write of your life in the Australian countryside, where nothing happens except madness and the aftermath of madness. You make the prose sing like a poem, but still, it is just a book about a migrant and other people around him going mad. And it becomes such a thing, that before you know it a movie is being talked about. And eventually is made.

Gaita warns the reader at the start of this book that it is hard to read. To paraphrase the xkcd cartoon ‘Stand back, I’m doing philosophy’. Things could get dangerous. And certainly difficult. At that they do. I put my hard hat on and my brain still got a bit of a battering. Clearly there are, as Gaita himself advises, chapters that need to be reread and rereread as he talks about Romulus, My Father from a relatively formal philosophical viewpoint.

But Gaita wants nothing more than to be there with the reader every step of the way. It might hurt, but I’m holding your hand, see? And much of it is straightforwardly interesting. By a complete coincidence just before I started reading this, I had put about 200 volumes of autobiography/biography on the shelves. I didn’t know why, given that it is not something I ever read. But his discussions of memory and understanding have given me some perspective on that now. Perhaps I will learn something about the process of writing this sort of thing from reading the books I’ve gathered together.

The musings on the nature of memory continue on in a different form. He discusses at length, partly because he has been asked to by his readers, the making of the movie. Very few people will have seen this movie outside Australia, it was a typical Australian triumph, small movie, small budget, big effect if one cared to watch. Some of you will even have heard of the actor who played Romulus because it was The Hulk. The making of the movie was an incredibly painful process for Gaita. Much as he highly praises it, (and certainly I thought it was wonderful, having watched some years before reading the book) it could never be the same as what was in his mind. Worse, though, it changed things. There were many discussions about this, much angst. The film still stays true to the soul of the book and the changes are minor in general, but how each one must have ripped a little of Gaita’s innards apart.

Imagine it is your memory being played with here. You go to the movie and from the moment you start watching your own true memories are being contaminated. It must be so hard. Everybody remembers things others don’t. We are surprised when our friend can’t remember x, he is equally mystified that we have no recollection of y. But sometimes, do you not find, that somebody else’s memory of you becomes more than just his memory, it becomes yours. I’m scared when that happens, it isn’t just adding to you in some way, it’s changing you. How does Gaita see his life now except through those movie scenes?

He talks of poetry. The important of the book being poetic. The movie capturing that. But above all it is this gift of more of his father and his father’s extraordinary friend Hora. If everybody lived like this two great men, the world would be okay.

I have this idea in my head now that Gaita is the antidote to the world as it is travelling at the moment.

Chapter one on Hora:

When I was fourteen and fifteen we often went sailing in the boat he built with my father. He told me stories as we sailed. Usually they were stories of men and women who had been persecuted or ridiculed for their beliefs or who had resisted tyranny. He spoke in a resonant voice that held me spellbound as we sailed our small boat. Sometimes he spoke with hushed tones about the men and women he admired. Always, he said, even in the most appalling circumstances, there has been a handful of men and women who redeemed humanity by the nobility of their vision and their courage to be true to it. He told me this often. Each time he paused, visibly moved, sucking hard on his tightly rolled cigarette.

 

 

 

 

Romulus, My Father by Raimond Gaita

It’s a complete mystery why Gaita’s two Romulus books are so little read. Perhaps if he’d called them #1 and #2, with the hope for people that there would be a #7 and a #34.

I cannot do justice to this book, an elegant but simple, sorrowful but not, self-contained whilst being wide open to the world, recollection of his father. I guess the general unknown of this outside Australia is a spurning of the edge of the world in part. But most problematic is that people only want to read biography of Important People. The Importance can be the way of utter triviality, but it has to be public. Big.

Romulus, however, isn’t Important. He is only important. And apparently that doesn’t cut it. I’m not going to write about the book, I could not possibly do justice to it, a point on which I have brooded over the past months since reading it. So, to resort to vulgarity, it’s a fucking amazing book and anybody who reads it must come out the other end a better person. If enough people read it, at the end the world would be a better world.

Update: 1 February 2017 I return to Gaita thinking if there is something in the world to neutralise that evil we see playing out around the world now, it is surely his works.

The rest I wrote some years before I managed to read the book.

Update: 26 March 2011 walking around London. The Westminster city council has decided that homeless people should find somewhere else to be. So, as well as declaring that the homeless will no longer make the city their home, the Council has told charities that they aren’t allowed to feed the homeless any more. My friend S-L who told me this said that the Council did that to get rid of pigeons, now they are doing it with human beings. Attention Londoners, no feeding the homeless.

Lady Di is quickly forgotten. I don’t they they would have dared do this if she were alive.

————————

Lost on the way to the theatre this evening, a chap stopped to direct us. After we moved on, Henrietta said how nervous she was, the guy was a drug addict. He looked like a perfectly ordinary chap to me, but she insisted. Maybe because I’ve shared my life intimately with drug addicts from time to time, I see them differently. If a drug addict wants to rob you, which was her fear, it is only because society for no good reason cripples these people financially. If drugs were ‘free’ or thereabouts, nobody would be robbed to pay for them. It seems to me a reason to be outraged on their behalf, rather than scared of them.

As we were walking along I talked to her about my experiences on Grey St, St Kilda. It was a street I travelled up and down daily for six months or so while I was living at one end of it, my PO Box at the other. It is a strip full of crazy people, mostly men, and to begin with I felt as nervous as she did. It didn’t take long for me to realise, however, these were human beings. Ordinary human beings. Strange to think that we fear people simply because they are powerless, that we somehow invest power into their powerlessness. Strange to think we are scared of people because they have nothing and live on the street. So, before long, these were people I knew, not in any intimate way, but in that sense you do people you see every day. We’d smile, nod, say hello. I might add that these people were empathetic. They were quite capable of ignoring you if they felt that is what you wanted.

As I’m telling all this to Henrietta, who believes not one word of it, I was regretting not walking along there anymore. I’m now torn between thinking that would be a lovely thing to do, but wishing to stay away from a place that has memories that are sometimes painful to evoke. I seem to be scared of making the trip.

Back from the theatre, I continue something I’ve been doing the last couple of days: reading what I can of Gaita online, having watched the film Romulus, My Father over a couple of nights. I come to this point. The Sacred Heart Mission is in the heart of Grey Street and accounts for the nature of the street’s inhabitants:

In the same week that Romulus, My Father received a literary award, with all the glamour attached to such ceremonies, I read from it at the Sacred Heart Mission, in St. Kilda, reluctantly, for I was aware that people came for lunch, not for literature. At one stage a man, obviously mentally ill, called for me to stop. He raised his head, which he had held in his hands and exclaimed “God is in this book!” Remembering the times I had worked in mental hospitals, I was anxious about what he would say next. “I mean, that it’s filled with love”, he explained. His words moved me deeply. I remembered the day when my father and Vacek visited me at school. That tribute, by a man destitute of all worldly goods and achievements, quite without status or prestige and also quite mad, moved me, gratified me and convinced me of the worth of what I had done more than all the accolades the book has received.

I hope you all now understand that you must see this movie, read this book. And take a walk down Grey St if you can.

The Affair by CP Snow

Whitaker put up the challenge here recently (comment 7):

Hands up those of you that have allowed a deeply held and cherished viewpoint to be changed by someone whose views are opposed to your own. Hands up those of you who have publicly contradicted someone whose political views closely align to your own on most occasions and did not end up paying a price for that. Ultimately, the majority of us are tribal.

It could scarcely have been more apposite to find myself at the time reading my first CP Snow The Affair which deals in a small closed world with just this situation. A scientist disliked by all in his Cambridge college is accused of and found guilty of fraud by the internal mechanisms of the college. Next, one of the very people who had first investigated the claims comes upon a piece of evidence that indicates there must be serious doubts as to the guilty verdict. To make it worse, not only would the College Seniors have to accept that they had been wrong, but overturning the verdict would by implication incriminate a now deceased scientist of impeccable credentials.

The book describes in minute detail the machinations that ensured, the motivations of the various players, the belief structures, both religious and political that inevitably have some sway, not to mention the notion of tradition and even what one thinks of so and so’s wife.

It is sort of like Twelve Angry Men but whereas that was a jury, and a diverse collection of individuals all strangers to one another, The Affair is a situation where everybody goes way back and the differences between people are much smaller, though they loom large in the story.

Both have at their heart data which looks one way to begin with, but which can be interpreted in quite another as the stories transpire. Both look at the efforts by some to change the minds of others. Some of those ‘others’ are good people who do see that they must change their minds, others are not. I went to see Twelve Angry Men last year and as we went into the theatre we were each given a number, that of one of the jurors. The idea was simply that you followed the play from that person’s point of view. Got under his skin. I enthusiastically took on that challenge, only to become increasingly uneasy as I discovered Ed, Juror 10, was a straightforward bigot. It wasn’t an altogether untimely exercise, as he seemed to be the sort of character we at least stereotype as the one who got Trump in.

There was no way Ed was going to change who I am. But – no, not even any buts. He just didn’t. Somebody, however, got under his skin. He hung out til almost the end, but despite his abhorrent, aggressively held opinions, he ungraciously conceded at some point.

The story is pretty much the same in The Affair but instead of a dowdy jurors’ room with no aircon on a sweaty sort of a day, here the scene is the fusty elegance of a Cambridge college, no matter that it is a made-up place, it is entirely to the point. No doubt that makes for some of the attraction of Snow’s novel. You know that every bit of it is true, the way the characters think and act, the importance of ritual and status. In the best scientific tradition, one of those who originally was certain of the culprit’s guilt, discovers new evidence and has no question at any point but that the original decision must be overturned. Not for one moment does his personal distaste for that man affect his conviction, nor the impact it will have on his relationships, already tenuous, with his colleagues. Others are not so high-minded. The consequence is a fascinating refined argy bargy with an ending leaving nobody happy.

It’s my first Snow, acquired by chance, and likely to be followed by more should I happen upon them. I’m curious to know if his use of French expressions reflects upon him as a writer – or his social class of writer, as I imagine he is part of one – or whether it is part of the makeup of his characters. It seemed to me to be old-fashioned, but then again, I picked up a Julian Barnes, as it happened, shortly thereafter and he is similarly afflicted. I would love opinions about this!

Confabulations by John Berger

Supposing writers and painters have their different ways of arriving at their understandings, in Berger we have both. One can expect a breadth and depth in his observations of the world, whether picture or text. He wrote this near the end of his long life and yet it is full of the artist’s curiosity and thoughtfulness about life. He is is a philosopher, but totally committed to being a politicised one. It is impossible to imagine otherwise with Berger. Politicised and energetic, oh to be as connected with the world at that age. It’s a slight work, but there should be more of those. It says a lot and enough.

He takes small things, the shape of a flower, deaf people signing on a train, and turns these into reflections of a grand scale, but most simply stated, about the world and our part in it. How we listen and act, use language, relate to music and God. And overarching all this, always there, the glue that connects everything in his understanding of the world, our position of slaves, the position of our masters.

So, he may write of the song:

A song, as distinct from the bodies it takes over, is unfixed in time and place. A song narrates a past experience. When it is being sung it fills the present. Stories do the same. But songs have another dimension which is uniquely theirs. A song while filling the present hopes to reach a listening ear in some future somewhere. It leans forward, further and further.

But at the same time, he has this limitless capacity to combine such observation of the world with political commentary which is ever strident, even though it can be elegant and moving as well.

…today, the ever expanding human poverty and the ongoing pillaging of the planet are justified in the name of a utopia to be guaranteed by Market Forces, when they are unregulated and allowed to operate freely, a utopia in which, in Milton Friedman’s words, ‘each man can vote for the colour of the tie he wants.’

In any utopian vision happiness is obligatory. This means that in reality it’s unobtainable. Within their utopian logic compassion is a weakness. Utopias despise the present. Utopias substitute Dogma for Hope. Dogmas are engraved; hopes flicker, by contrast, like the flame of a candle.

Immediately I wonder if this should inform my reading of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed. To read any Berger is to be given new armoury with which to set out into the world, new measures against which to weigh the words of those who claim to be the makers of our fortune.

History is important. Yes, Berger, thank you for insisting upon that, and for explaining that much we think is new now and disconnected to the past, is not.

All this comes together  in his concluding piece called ‘How to Resist a State of Forgetfulness.’ It reads in part:

During the last week I’ve been drawing, mostly flowers, motivated by a curiosity which has little to do with either botany or aesthetics. I have been asking myself whether natural forms – a tree, a cloud, a river, a stone, a flower – can be looked at and perceived as messages. Messages – it goes without saying – which can never be verbalised, and are not particularly addressed to us. Is it possible to ‘read’ natural appearances as texts?

For me there is nothing mystical in this exercise. It is a gestural exercise, whose aim is to respond to different rhythms and forms of energy, which I like to imagine as texts from a language that has not been given to us to read. Yet as I trace the text I physically identify with the thing I’m drawing and with the limitless, unknown mother tongue in which it is written.

In the totalitarian global-order of financial speculative capitalism under which we are living, the media ceaselessly bombard us with information, yet this information is mostly a planned diversion, distracting our attention from what is true, essential and urgent.

Much of the information is about what was once called politics, but politics have been superseded by the global dictatorship of speculative capitalism with its traders and banking lobbies.

Politicians, of both Left and Right, continue to debate, to vote, to pass resolutions, as if this were not the case. And, as a result, their discourse refers to nothing and is inconsequential. The words and terms they repeatedly use – such as terrorism, democracy, flexibility – have been emptied of any meaning….

Another chapter of the information which which we are bombarded concentrates on the spectacular: on shocking, violent events wherever they occur across the world. Robberies, earthquakes, capsized boats, insurrections, massacres. Once shown, one spectacle is replaced by another, deprived of context, in numbing succession. They come as shocks not stories. They are reminders of the unpredictability of what can happen. They demonstrate the risk factors in life.

Add to this the language used by the media to present and classify the world. It is very close to the jargon and logic of management experts. It quantifies everything and seldom refers to substance or quality. It deals with percentages, shifts in opinion-polls, unemployment figures, growth rates, mounting debts, estimates of carbon dioxide, et cetera, et cetera. It is a voice at home with digits but not with living or suffering bodies. It does not speak of regrets or hopes.

And so what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.

Meanwhile, around us, the planet is over-heating. The wealth of the planet is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands; the majority are underfed, junk-fed or starving. More and more millions of people are being forced to emigrate with the slimmest hopes of survival. Working conditions are becoming more and more inhuman.

Those who are reading to protest against, and resist, what is happening today are legion, but the political means for doing so are for the moment unclear or absent. They need time to develop. So we have to wait. But how to wait in such circumstances? How to wait in this state of forgetfulness?

Let us recall that time, as Einstein and other physicists have explained, is not linear but circular. Our lives are not points on a line – a line which is today being amputated by the Instant Greed of the unprecedented global capitalist order. We are not points on a line; rather, we are the centre of circles.

The circles surround us with testaments addressed to us by our predecessors since the Stone Age, and by texts which are not addressed to us but which can be witnessed by us. Texts from nature, from the universe, and they remind us that symmetry co-exists with chaos, that ingenuities outflank fatalities, that what is desired is more reassuring than what is promised.

Then, sustained by what we have inherited from the past and what we witness, we will have the courage to resist and continue resisting in as yet unimaginable circumstances. We will learn how to wait in solidarity.

Just as we will continue indefinitely to praise, to swear and to curse in every language we know.

I hope he is right and that the circularity of the centre of a rose will save us, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to visualise. We have let evil men take over the world, in the large main the politicians of all types get fed enough scraps by their Masters to make them happy to be compliant. These evil men already own the natural resources of the world, we have even let them buy most of the world’s water. When Google and the rest of them have finished developing AI to an appropriate level, which must be just around the corner, most of us will be entirely redundant. A small number might exist as  the provider of organs for harvesting.

Are there enough good smart young people to work against the Dark Side? Does Google get them all? Do none of them have enough of a sense of morality to go another way?

I find it hard to believe that twenty years ago this would have been science fiction, but now it is just the version of the present we are most likely heading towards. Do we have time? I so hope that Berger is right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fear of Falling by Barbara Ehrenreich

When I picked this up in the sale bin of East Ave books in Adelaide for $1 I was hoping to get insight into the surreal nightmare of the US’s current state. A better dollar I will never spend. It was published early 1990s, which was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want a hindsight constructed narrative. Trump is no more than a casually mentioned billionaire of a type towards the end of Ehrenreich’s account of the middle class and its relationship to the other classes in the US during the course of the twentieth century. She explains the rise of the new Right in the US as well as the new Left. The book is highly readable whilst being dense; it’s both deeply and widely researched. I will be reading all her books. I think everybody should read this one.

The story she tells in this one is painful. She shows the rise of the middle-class, how they made themselves a financial and politically important group based on professionalising what they did and excluding others. She talks of its permanent insecurity as a consequence. Even though I’ve always known about it, her analysis of the exploitation of the educated youth and their university-student-led rebellion of the sixties and seventies when university students were actually mowed down by troops in the US was particularly illuminating and excruciatingly sad; staff in universities trying to protect their status from the questioning of the kids who were expected to work at derisory rates in their young professional years. Staff more or less on the side of the troops. None of this has changed, one might add. She documents the discovery by the middle class, to its great astonishment, that there were poor people in the US and she examines the way in which the middle class then set about categorising them and determining how to relate to them. She shows the fabulously patronising attitudes to those below them and the trouble it has ultimately caused.

I am really baffled and scared and disappointed by the way small ‘l’ liberals around the world (whom I tend to refer to as ‘nice white people’) treat certain groups as nothing but scum and even when that scum attempts to have a voice we as a whole have treated it with nothing but the utmost disdain. You’d think, for example, that Brexit might have had the impact in the US election of making the Democrats wary of going the same way and yet, there we had Clinton and her party not even ‘just’ treating the supporters of Trump as morons but calling them that in public as official policy, one might say.

I can see, however, from this history of the middle class in the US and its relations with others that it is perhaps inevitable that this is how things are, the liberals treating poor working class people as scum at worst, as people to be patronised at best, and being hated for it. (There is a presumption that these people are white in the US, a presumption which is obviously at odds with the facts, but so much of how the middle class sees the world about it is not in accord with reality.) Ehrenreich for example discusses the impact of TV, which made middle class Americans thinks that all white people had what they had, there wasn’t anything else on TV, whilst at the same time making white working class people both aspirational and angry that there was no representation of how things really were. Fascinating to read.

And there is the question of where exactly all this started, the ruthless ruination of the working class by the middle class which is still being played out, though the middle class is discovering its own capacity to be ruined by the same thing, really. Technology. To quote at length a key passage:

The profession of management was born on the front lines of the early twentieth century battle between labour and capital, and its story illustrates the tensions between the working class and the emerging middle class. Since the story has been so well told elsewhere, I will be recklessly brief: until the early twentieth century there was no profession of management – or for that matter of engineering. The reason, as the virtual inventor of scientific management, Frederick Taylor, later observed ruefully, was that ‘the shop was really run by the workmen, and not by the bosses.’ Manual and mental labour had not yet been sorted into distinct occupations; skilled craftsmen dominated both the technology and the organisation of the work process. This left the employer in the vexed situation of being unable to comprehend or control the labour he paid for. Only the workers could judge, for example, how long a given job should take, and hence how much they should be paid.

Taylor’s contribution was to show how the intellectual command of the production process could be stripped from the workers and concentrated in a more reliable cadre of middle class managers and engineers. Through a careful analysis of the production process, the complex and intellectually demanding work of the craftsmen could be broken down into simple repetitive motions to be divided among less skilled workers. Henceforth, no mere worker would be able to comprehend or control the entire process; each would be reduced to a few repetitive motions such as turns of a wrench. Meanwhile the manager or engineer, armed with a stopwatch, now oversaw the work process, determining who would do what and, crucially, how fast it should be done.

Henry Ford’s assembly line sealed the new division of labour into the hard steel of heavy machinery. America’s working class began to be transformed into an army of wrench turners, required neither to think nor to create – in fact, usually required, not to think or create. The creative functions (such as designing new products were removed from the shop floor to the engineer’s work station; the day to day decision making was lifted into the clean and quiet offices of management. This ‘rationalisation’ of production did not succeed in taming the working class, which rose up with a new burst of militance in the 1930s. But it did greatly enhance the day to day power of employers over their blue collar hirelings, while – not incidentally – providing employment for growing numbers of educated white collar men.

Outside of the industrial workplace, other professions consolidated themselves by offering to ‘mediate’ class conflict or by usurping skills that had belonged to the working class. Social workers and teachers provided invaluable services to the urban poor, but in an ideological context that stressed ‘Americanisation’ (patriotism as opposed to class or ethnic identity) and middle class gentility – or as they insisted on calling it, ‘right living’. Medicine achieved its professional monopoly in part through a campaign to discredit and outlaw indigenous healers, especially midwives, who had played a key role in every ethnic working class community. (This was dubious ‘reform’, since as late as 1910 mid-wives were achieving lower rates of still births and maternal mortality than the profession physicians who sort to eliminate them.) Public health officials introduced the sanitary measures that eventually curbed epidemics of infectious diseases, but they also incurred lower class resentment by their heavy handed policing of immigrant ghettoes.

As it happens I am reading Gaita’s wonderful After Romulus at the moment and this passage in Fear of Falling brought into mind nothing so much as this, by Gaita. It is in the context of talking about goodness in the world and the hours Hora would spend telling stories of good people.

Simone Weil, when she was a radical activist working at the Renault factory in France before the war, said that only the very greatest literature was good enough for those who suffered the afflication of soul-destroying work. She read her translations of Greek tragedies to large groups of workers. When I hear talk of elitism in discussions about literature and art more generally, I remember that, and I remember my father and Hora in the kitchen filled with cigarette smoke and the smell of slivovitz. After Romulus pp. 23/4

Nice white people: it may be that we are moving into a period where in the same way we have destroyed the lives of poorer people in our society, people who would do physical work if we were prepared to pay them to do it, we too will largely be destroyed by technology. It could be that we will be part of a world we ourselves have not only permitted, but positively nurtured, of a handful of multi-billionaires who own everything, who live in gated ghettoes with the secrets of medicine and DNA and pure water whilst the rest of us live Orxy and Crake style, or even worse, most of us won’t live at all. We won’t even be needed, after all, as beasts of burden.

But hoping for the best that this isn’t going to happen or that people still have the power to stop it in its tracks, we have to find ways to live with our neighbours. Our actual physical neighbours, the poor people we have created out of our own greed and aspirations. It isn’t enough to buy freetrade coffee whilst treating one’s neighbours as scum because they are white and poor. There are reasons people are both these things, and we can look at ourselves for the explanations.

This is the note that Fear of Falling ends on, exhorting the middle class to do the things it needs to do to stop the fall. Going on for 30 years later, one can see that she has been paid no heed. I find Gaita inspirational, his belief in goodness. However, I do sometimes wonder, when I watch nice white people’s relationship to other white people, if it is symptomatic of needing to detest and look down on somebody and who, after all is left? One may no longer be racist or sexist. That pretty much leaves other white people. Ones that aren’t like us.

I hope that isn’t true.