Friday, 21 May 2010

The Lesson of History

"Hello chaps." I said, as I walked into the warmth of the library. Henry appeared at my elbow as I lowered myself into my chair, with my drink on a silver salver.

Travis motioned at me to keep quiet as there was a fairly heated discussion going on about the recent general election. I had been looking forward to this evening. One of the advantages of being a member of a club where the main membership requirement is an attitude of cynicism, is that a good evening's conversation is guaranteed after watching our mighty democracy being unable to make up it's mind.

Treworthy seemed quite agitated about the stories that a considerable number of people had been unable to vote due to there being a late rush toward the end of the evening.

"I can't see why they couldn't just keep the polling offices open until they had collected everyone's vote."

"It's because the rules stated that all polling stations should close at ten o'clock." said Abrahams.

"Well the rules clearly need changing. I mean the whole system is practically Victorian anyway." countered Treworthy.

"That's as maybe - I'm sure that after the enquiry changes will be made, but until that time, the current rules stand."

"Oh I know, I know, but it is a bit embarrassing, isn't it. I mean the election in Iraq seemed to be better organised. Maybe they should look into the possibility of on-line voting."

"God help us," said Manton, as he gestured furiously at Henry for another drink. "The introduction of postal voting has been responsible for some of the biggest abuses of the system in my lifetime. Can you imagine the chaos if all the votes were just collected in a huge database without any paper trail to back it up? The government's record on databases isn't particularly good."

"But it would be a very simple database, technically." said Abrahams.

"Yes, but it's not the technical aspects that doom these projects to failure, it's the human aspects. 50% of the people that they get working on these things seem to be completely useless, adding nothing of value."

"Oh come on, Manton, next you'll be saying that 50% of all people's jobs are useless too."

"I do, my dear fellow, I do. I'm thinking of writing a short monograph on the subject."

"Well what about the result itself?" said Treworthy. "A hung parliament. It's not good for the country."

"I don't see why not," I said. "I can see why the parties don't like it, but it is clearly the will of the people."

"Yes, they will have to actually keep talking to each other, rather than blindly following the party line. I wonder how long the coalition will last?" said Abrahams.

"I can't believe any of them actually want power." said Travis. "I mean, you do realise what sort of spending cuts are going to be introduced soon, don't you? Any manifesto promises are going to have to go out of the window. It's going to make the 1970s look like a picnic in comparison."

"I've always considered people who seek out power to be fairly deluded anyway." said Manton.

"Why do you say that?"

"Because they are. Who in their right mind would wish to shoulder the burdens of high office, especially at the moment?"

"Ah Manton, ever the misanthrope." I said.

"Not at all. I would put it to you that in the vast majority of cases, lust for power over others is the sign of a highly dysfunctional personality. Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot - how many names do you want?"

"Yes but you are picking the biggest monsters in history. There are exceptions."

"Of course. There are always exceptions but not many."

"Nonsense. There have been some good rulers."

"Yes, but how many of them actually wanted the power? There have been some who extremely reluctantly took on he mantle of responsibility, remained full of doubts as to what was the right thing to do, and shed the responsibility as soon as they were able to, but I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about the ones who can't wait to start ordering people about, and design nice uniforms for them, and who want to make the trains run on time."

"Funny you should say that Manton," I said, "but just last night I watched the film 'Downfall', about the final days of the third Reich. I found it fascinating. You see Hitler admiring his wonderful model of the new Berlin, whilst outside the city is being reduced to rubble as the Russians advance from the East and the Allies from the West. The officers in charge of the final remnants of the defence force are summoned to the bunker and they find themselves in a mad hatter's tea party. Their senior officers are all constantly drunk, or on drugs, and Hitler is completely losing touch with reality. You can see him turning in on himself, being forced for the first time to look within, and finding nothing but a gaping void. When his generals tell him that he is condemning his own people to death, he simply screams at them that it is their own fault, and that if they are not strongly enough to withstand the invaders, they all deserve to die. It's rivetting stuff."

"That's exactly what I mean. In the end, the only thing he can do is either admit to himself that he has made hideous mistake, and that he has lead the entire nation into the abyss, or commit suicide. And of course, he chooses the latter. He's got nowhere left to go. Typical case of someone who thinks that power can fill the inner void."

"I've heard of that film." said Travis, excitedly pulling out his smartphone. "There are lots of clips of it on Youtube, where people have put satiric subtitles onto it. Here, I can show you some." Having just bought it, he would try to demonstrate its features to anyone and everyone at the slightest opportunity.

A look of infinite pain flickered across Manton's face, as he waved the gadget away with a feeble paw.

"The point is, it is this gaping void within that actually creates the desire for power. The thing that makes them least suitable for the role is the thing that makes them most want to do it. It's the lesson of history."

"Oh come on Manton, you can't condemn all those that seek to improve the lot of their fellow man?" said Treworthy.

"You know full well my feelings towards my fellow man, Treworthy. We all live lives of brain-numbing banality, blind to the consequences of our actions, refusing to think about the social dysfunction, environmental impact and appalling suffering that our society has created."

"Well, thank god that not all are as nihilistic as you Manton, that is all I can say. I, for one, intend to give the new coalition my full support."

"Treworthy, did you know that the last government spent £163 billion more, per annum, than they raised in taxes? Even by slashing public spending to levels not seen since the 1970s, we cannot hope to bridge that gap. Every country in the Western world is living way beyond its means. California is in a far worse financial state than even Greece is at the moment."

"Oh come on Manton."

"I'm serious. Why is this so difficult to understand? I don't know if the world is blind, deaf or just stupid. We've given billions to these people .... did you know that each of the big hedge fund managers is getting about $3 billion in bonuses EACH. $3 billion!"

"They are saying that the recession is over." said Abrahams.

"Well it certainly is for them. For the rest of us, it is just beginning. Our money has been stolen from us, forcing us to pay, against our will, for the lifestyle of the super-rich, while our health services, transport services, education services and just about every other pathetic attempt to make our lives more livable is going to be effectively destroyed in the attempt to pay off the debts they've created. And do you know the best bit? We are going to be told by these same people that we must become more efficient, that it is all caused by the inefficient practices of all these public services. We are going to be a third-world country in all but name."

"You can't really believe that."

"Why not? I don't understand why people aren't more angry. In the past, the super-rich tended to be a bit more discreet, but maybe they feel that they don't need to be any more. They will probably pretend to be surprised and horrified when the cities finally erupt into violence, like they have in Greece, and refuse to see any connection between their inconceivable levels of wealth and everyone else's suffering."

"Well what would you do about it?"

"I'd pass laws to restore the separation between high street banks and merchant banks. I'd pass laws to institute a maximum wage, or a maximum differential between the lowest and highest paid. I'd outlaw derivatives and all the other insane methods of setting up fictitious markets. That would be a start."

"Manton, the city would never wear it. You would cripple their ability to make money."

"They aren't making money, they are making debt. What do you think caused this latest crisis? All these financial tricks are simply ways of enabling money to generate more money without any useful work being done. The world can support a certain amount of that, but not if everyone is trying to do it. You can't have economic growth forever. They've attempted to keep it going by finding new markets, but there are only so many manufacturing companies that you can invest in. So what happens is that they start to invest in more abstract things, that don't necessarily provide employment for others. Stocks, shares, intellectual property rights, land, water, housing and other property. They make money out of them by trying to ensure that they always increase in value."

"Well, I'm not complaining," said Treworthy, "my house is worth twice what is was when I bought it."

"Yes, but it has the side effect that, eventually, most people can't afford those assets - how can the price of something keep rising if no one can afford it? So what do they do? They create totally fictitious markets, like Carbon Trading. And they make the idea of personal debt completely normal - something that would have been anathema to my Father's generation. They draw us into their mess by telling us how we must all have a mortgage. You can't go on strike if you have a mortgage. Better still, have a credit card. In fact, why not have both?"

"But that's a good thing, Manton." said Travis. "You can't deny that everyone's living standards have gone up."

"Yes, but that could have been achieved by increasing everyone's wages. Why do it by placing everyone into debt? Simply because it turns us all into an investment opportunity for the rich. They will give us credit - at a rate of interest, of course. And so we get turned into cannon fodder for whatever their next great scheme is for transferring our money into their pockets." Manton paused, and then said quitely, as if to himself, "It's all wrong."

The room was silent, as it usually was after one of Manton's tirades. The only sound was the ticking of the Grandfather clock in the corner.

"Sorry about that chaps." said Manton, after a while. "You know what I'm like once I get the bit between my teeth. Henry! Drinks for everyone - put them on my account."

"Oh, that's alright Manton, it would be a dull evening without you holding forth on some topic or other." said Travis.

"It sounds to me like you might be turning into a Marxist." added Abrahams, jokingly.

"Do you know, it's funny you should say that. I've always fancied having a crack at Das Kapital, to see if I could get my head round it. Just to see if it makes any sense purely as an economic theory."

"Didn't he write it at your place of work, Manton?" said Treworthy.

"Yes. Well, I don't know if he wrote it there, but it's true that he did most of his research at the British Library. I quite like the idea, for some reason."

"If my memory serves, sir," said Henry, "there is a copy of the first volume of Das Kapital in the club library. Would you like me to get it for you?"

"No, no, you see to the drinks. I'll get it."

"Very good sir."

By the time Henry had brought our drinks, Manton had located the book and was leafing through it.

"Good Lord", he said, in a stunned voice.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's a first edition. Signed by the author."

"Signed? Isn't it a club tradition that members who have written a book..."

"Henry," interrupted Manton, "does this mean that Karl Marx was a member of the Diogenes Club?"

"I would have to consult the membership ledgers before I could say for certain, sir. However, if I may be permitted to make an observation...."

"Of course, Henry."

"A person who stated in 1867 that capitalism would inevitably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, would probably be considered to be enough of a cynic to be eligible for membership."

"I think I had better start reading," said Manton. "I've got some catching up to do."