Black Swans, Algorithms, and the Human Factor

Andrew Coyne recently argued (National Post, July 25), that the Lac Megantic disaster was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime event which, however horrifying, left no real ‘lessons’ for governments and regulating bodies. He feared politically-motivated, hugely expensive, and probably futile ‘runaway regulation’, what British journalists call ‘SMBD’ [‘Something Must Be Done’] action SMBD is nearly always ill-considered, of little real value, and carrying all kinds of bad effects of its own. Coyne made some good sense, bit I think he went too far in his dismissal.

Deregulated transportation since the 1980s has been turning into something quite different from what it is still largely imagined to be, by both its mainly economist advocates and its mainly politically leftist opponents. ‘Free market’ economists have long maintained that the whole broad political wave of deregulation has been an almost unmixed blessing, replacing obsolete, inefficient, and badly-run state-imprisoned enterprises, and unleashing the innovative potentialities of competitive private enterprise. There is no doubt that the change has brought many visible successes. While especially associated with the political leadership of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, deregulation was largely continued in the era of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Some journalists, Andrew Coyne among them, have also cheered on the new dispensation. In fact, Coyne has several times lambasted the Harper Conservatives for failing to go far enough in cost-cutting and shrinking the size and role of government..

Opposition to the worldwide deregulating turn has come mainly from the trade unions and the radical environmentalists. They have been raising their voices noisily again since the 2008 Crash, not only holding deregulation responsible for what went so wrong in the financial markets [where they at least have a case of sorts], but claiming that the whole development was a mistake. This more general attack has not had much impact; it is very hard to defend the idea, for example, that the monopolistic and tightly-regulated telephone companies of the first seven decades of the 20th century should have been preserved. On the other hand, economic libertarianism has sometimes acquired its own touches of ideological dogma, taking for granted the assumption that all issues, political, social, and cultural as well as economic, can be readily resolved by appealing to Hayekian or Friedmanite principles.

But as the 2008 Crash in the financial markets demonstrated, there can be major problems in ‘industry self-regulation’, not problems that can really be fixed by a tangle of new lasws and regulations, but requiring some serious ‘rethinking’ in the industries themselves. In particular, modern commercial transportation of all kinds does not now merely show the effects of competitive private ownership, but of the rise of computerized mathematical algorithms as a means of integrating land, sea, and air transport in a way that was not even possible as recently as 1980. The full implications of this change are only gradually being understood, even by the designers of the algorithms. They are as large in their own way as those from containerization for ship and land cargo.

Algorithms are step-by-step ‘recipes’ that can be applied to almost every kind of changing but partly repetitive commercial activity, from the pricing and trading of financial instruments to the scheduling and ‘optimal path’ for ocean and coastal shipping, trains, trucks, and air freighters, all now coming to be seen as part of giant interconnected networks. Until around 1980, the mathematics sometimes required looked too daunting, even for professional mathematicians. Their difficulties can be illustrated by a classic algorithmic issue, the ‘Travelling Salesman Problem’. The idea is to find the most time-efficient or ‘optimal path’ for a series of deliveries on a transportation route. The number of routes increases factorially with the number of stops. Simple enough with three stops, for which there will be 3 x 2 x 1 = 6 routes. However, for only eight, there will be 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 = 40,320. At twelve, there are already over 5 billion routes, and even at only twenty, there are over 100 quadrillion possible paths.

Nonetheless , what teams of mathematicians using superfast computers were eventually able to do was design algorithms which can produce an ‘optimal tour’, with no shorter one possible, for any specific example provided, even one involving thousands of stops. These are now being applied more and more to scheduling, to loading and unloading of goods, and to making possible communication systems between central offices and large moving collections of ships, trucks, and trains The algorithms have been spreading like cellphones. UPS, for example, was still working out its ‘same day deliveries’ by rules of thumb and pins on a map at the start of the 1980s, but after 1982, when it had to accommodate itself ton next-day air delivery, scheduling became far more complicated. The company quickly realized that it needed project managers who knew how to use algorithms, and by 1986 bought a ‘logistics’ company to help them.

This new world of computerized algorithms was a major factor making it possible for hard-driving railway executives like Paul Teller, Hunter Harrison, and Ed Burkhardt to buy, sell, and re-organize large new combinations of railway companies made out of the corpses of old giant lines. Burkhardt, who most Canadians had never heard of a month ago, and not fondly regarded at the moment, had previously been accustomed to being hailed in the transportation world as a leading star of this new world, and holds all kinds of railway companies in his fief along with the ill-fated Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic, also advising Communist on how to create their own efficient privatized lines. But it appears that Burkhardt, and railway executives in general, may have failed to learn the lessons that the algorithmic project managers at UPS have.

UPS found that getting their fully algorithmic program working was far harder than they had at first assumed. What they had first thought would take a year to work out instead took a decade, and the work is still not completed. They gradually realized that they did not merely have to be concerned with the mathematics of scheduling, numerical distances, and delivery or transfer points, but with the sometimes irrational and habitual behaviour of their clients and drivers. Emotional factors, it was found, changed things like truck driver behaviour on their routes. One major trucking company even applies ‘predictive analysis’ of when drivers have a greater risk of being involved in a crash. A divorce, a drop in pay, even a sudden and unexpected demand to make a large route change, may lead to frequent speeding and rapid lane changing. Trucks are simple, and can be stored anywhere, while drivers are complicated, and like to go home at night, or at least not sleep in their trucks. It matters whether they are happy.

At UPS, Yellow Freight, and other major transportation companies, they have been learning more and more about how to use mathematical algorithms. But equally important, they have been learning how important ordinary human elements still are. What the tragic derailment at Lac Megantic appears to have shown is that this element was being given inadequate weight in the modern system of deregulated ‘lean’ railways that replaced the old tangle of bankrupting lines. This had not just applied to MM&A, but, as Ed Burkhardt himself commented after his return to his Chicago offices, throughout the whole industry.

So Coyne was right that it is unlikely that new Canadian government regulation will produce much benefit, even in safety. A future train catastrophe could be of an entirely different kind than the Lac Megantic one, like the recent high-speed passenger train disaster in Spain. But such events are still likely to have a large impact on the assumptions previously held by railway executives and their company shareholders on the way they can direct their computerized, algorithm-directed transportation networks. The MM&A crash may also have a long-term influence on the political and economic appeal of oil pipelines, on the maximum tolerated size of trains, and on just what rolling stock and tracks can still be assumed to be useful. Whatever kind of perfect storm of possible errors by the Nantes firefighters, brake failures, and so on, it was still clearly an event that had a great deal to do with the behaviour of the missing engineer. It was the people of Lac Megantic who paid the most terriible price for the ‘systemic failure’, but Burkhardt and all those modern railmen grown too used to thinking of their railway business in terms of electronic maps in central offices have also had to learn that even the most automated and computer-sophisticated systems still have to allow for the human factor. No algorithm can eliminate that. Free market economists need to keep that in mind as well.

A Great Canadian Not Remembered Enough

A once reasonable interest in food has lately evolved into a full-blown ideology, complete with quarrelling camps of rival bestselling commissars. Anathemas have now been hurled on almost everything we like to eat and drink, and the ultimate evil has now been identified: wheat. A Californian doctor named Joseph Davis now claims it is the real cause of the ‘obesity epidemic’ and of a wide range of infirmities. He describes himself as a ‘preventive cardiologist’, and seems to have at least some familiarity with real research, but web analysts of his current bestseller, Wheat Belly, have demolished his use of sources. That may not much damage his sales, however. The anxious chubby masses who devour such books have the gullibility of the perennially hopeful.

Canadians seem to show a sensible resistance to the most recent madness from California. However, we are also too apt to put up with the synthetic heroes and vacuous celebrities that the mass media provides. We need to be constantly reminded about just who were the Canadians who really made the country and the world a better place.

My own favourite example of this kind of real hero was Charles Edward Saunders, one of the creators of scientific research to agriculture, who hence did much to provide Canada and the world with the wheat now strangely drawing this new dcietary condemnation. Saunders was a complex and often surprising man, who did not initially want to follow in the footsteps of his father, Sir William Saunders, an important Ontario botanist in his own right. Charles, born in 1867. although taking an honours chemistry degree from the U. of T., soon following it with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, wanted to be a musician, and kept a passionate interest in music all his life. In his first years of university chemistry teaching in the U. S., he studied flute with both the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.

He even set up as a music teacher in 1890s Toronto, but found he couldn’t make a living at it. He had always worked with his father from childhood studying plant pathology, so he went back to it. By 1910, his father, in charge at the Dominion [now called Central] Experimental Farm in Ottawa, had him made ‘Dominion Cerealist’, and he quietly began to change the world.

Canadian farmers desperately needed a hardy wheat that could survive in thin topsoil. They already had a pretty good one called Red Fife, developed in Upper Canada by a Scottish farmer. But it matured slowly, so that crops could be frequently damaged or destroyed by heavy rainfall well before harvest time. To find a remedy, Saunders had to make hundreds of ‘crosses’ and yield tests. He eventually made a successful cross of Fife with an Indian wheat called Red Calcutta. But the first result, while promising, did not reproduce uniformly, and he had to carry out hundreds of additional crosses and careful experimental tests. He tested for gluten content by taking a few kernels and chewing them over and over again. He finally emerged triumphantly with a wheat called “Marquis’. It had a rust problem not entirely solved until 1947 (the successful rust-proof replacement was named after him). But it was still a vastly improved wheat, terrific for both quantity and quality. It was used on 90% of Canadian farms by 1920, and reached almost equal popularity in the U. S. It fed much of the world for the first half of the 20th century.

Saunders used his methods of crossing strains and applying close chemical analysis to improve the quality and yield of barley, oats, peas, beans and flax. He suffered a breakdown in the 1920s, to which he responded in a very unusual way. He quite his university position, moved to Paris for three years with his wife, and used the time to study French literature at the Sorbonne. He moved back to Toronto, and while keeping up his interest in both agriculture and music, he also published a book of essays and poetry in French, that was widely praised. He was knighted in 1934, one of the last Canadian knighthoods, and his death drew tributes from all over the world, much of which had been fed by his work. Flute player, writer of French poetry, a great agricultural scientist who didn’t even first want to be one, but kept plugging away. He did come to be revered in his own lifetime, but not enough Canadians know anything about him today.

The Philosopher as Journalist

Hannah Arendt is a sufficiently interesting and dramatic film to be well worth seeing, although not, as the brief title suggests, a biopic, or even a condensed version of one.. While there are a few brief flashbacks to Arendt’s youthful life in 1920s Berlin, as a brilliant student and eventual lover of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, nearly all of the film is set in the first years of the 1960s, mostly in a few months in 1961. In the previous year, Israeli agents had kidnapped, off a street in Argentina, Adolf Eichmann, the top Nazi who had been directly in charge of arranging the mass murder of European Jews. The Israelis had chosen to try him in open court, appearing in a bulletproof glass booth, inviting representatives of world media, as much as a means of recalling and publicizing the overall story of the Holocaust as to demonstrate Eichmannn’s own special responsibility. Arendt wrote about the trial in a series of long articles for The New Yorker, appearing two years later as as a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her account produced a largely hostile sensation, and ended some of her closest personal friendships. The film might better have been called Hannah Arendt and the Eichmann Trial.

Margarethe von Trotta, the director, and Barbara Sukowa, who plays Arendt, have teamed before, and are long-established as stars of the highbrow German cinema. Rapturously received by most film critics, Hannah Arendt is very much presented as an ‘intellectual’ film, almost all talk, in English and in German with English subtitles. But the talk is lively, and occasionally profound. It is a mixture of Arendt’s intimate personal conversations with some of her college lectures; they are used to illustrate both her personal character, and something of her ideas. While never boring, the largely hagiographic character sketch is far more successful than the exposition of her ideas.

Arendt’s character is portrayed through her relationships with her husband, Heinrich Bluecher, her literary friend Mary McCarthy, her academic colleague, Hans Jonas, a Zionist friend in Israel, Kurt Blumenfeld, and various other people. Bluecher and McCarthy remain Arendt’s strong supporters during the tempest of criticism aroused by her articles, while Jonas and Blumenfeld turn against her. McCarthy, as a very American kind of ‘cultural critic’ intellectual, also provides an often amusing counterpoint and contrast to Arendt’s very serious, ‘Germanic’ approach to thinking and reflecting on public matters.

The film unfolds four overlapping ‘Arendt stories’. The first is about Arendt the person: shown as warm, convivial, sometimes humorous, chain-smoking, wine-tippling, a loving wife and refugee-turned-liberal-arts-college academic, already famous for her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The second purports to be about Arendt the philosopher, or to use the label she herself always insisted on, ‘political theorist’, passionately dedicated to her vision of truth, devouring vast quantities of documents and typing her New Yorker articles in a kind of frenzy.

The third is about Arendt the centre of controversy and public sensation, including the painful ending of her friendships with Jonas and Blumenthal, and something of the wider criticism she received from many other Jewish intellectuals in Israel and America. Finally, the last minutes of the film show Arendt, in trouble with her academic colleagues but still well-received by her young students, presenting a defence of her arguments to them (as she had refused to do with the media, against the advice of McCarthy), summarizing her portrait of Eichmann as a bureaucratic nobody, and expounding her more general theory about ‘the banality of evil’. This defence does not entirely refute the charge of many of her critics that she had appeared deficient in feeling, but suggests that this had only been a consequence of her pursuit of truth through hard thinking and fearless writing.

In a summer in which the multiplexes are even more packed than usual with mechanical blockbusters about comic book superheroes and soap opera vampires, it may appear unjust and cruel to attack anything about Hannah Arendt, rather as if one elbowed one’s way through a pack of large and yappy mongrels, trying to avoid their copious turds, only to kick a sleek and handsome little dachshund. Sukowa’s performance is terrific, and she is backed by an excellent supporting cast. The story is intrinsically dramatic, and moves at a brisk pace throughout. I expect many people will enjoy the film, just as a quite satisfactory entertainment.

But I think the film seriously misfires at a more fundamental level, because it is apparently intended to be more than entertainment; a serious work about a serious thinker. But it is not. It is in many ways what used to be called a ‘woman’s picture’, meaning very heavy on the Feelings and Relationships, while rather tone-deaf about the Big Ideas, with which it is apparently proposing to grapple.

I thought this was especially ironic in dealing with a philosophically-learned and very German academic intellectual , made a compulsory e’migre’ to American groves of academe, in some ways competing for public attention with other such figures, as different as Leo Strauss and Herbert Marcuse. Von Trotta seemed to take it for granted that literate audiences everywhere regard, or should regard, Arendt as an admirable and distinctive genius in all her enterprises, and especially in making sense of the great horrors of the 20th century. But even giving her credit for intellectual courage and deep learning, that grand acclaim is open to many objections.

The 1951 book that made her famous, The Origins of Totalitarianism, only cited in a single sentence from William Shawn, the New Yorker editor, as ‘brilliant…but abstract’, was built around a highly speculative interpretation of the way in which 19th century sociopolitical antisemitism, European overseas imperialism, and state bureaucracies had laid the groundwork for an almost identical Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. Its very favourable immediate critical response was partly due to its combination of moral passion and ingenious reasoning, but also because it was especially appealing to the strongly anti-Communist but still somewhat ‘Trotskyite’ New York intellectual community gathered around Partisan Review.

These were almost all native American Jews, some rather intimidated by the learning of the e’migre’s.. Dwight Macdonald used to joke that he and Mary McCarthy, the only exceptions, had become ‘honorary Jews’. The Origin showed more of their ‘revisionist Marxism’ than of the existentialist philosophy Arendt had studied under Heidegger and Jaspers in Germany three decades earlier, and it was very rapidly refuted as a prophetic work. It was really one of many briefly much-lauded ‘books for the moment’, like Strachey’s The Coming Struggle for Power (1932), Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution (1941), or Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man (1964). Lots of theory, prophecy, and memorable aphorisms, usually the most durable survivals.

Similarly, Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann was also highly theoretical and ‘abstract’. Not attending the entire trial, and too ready to accept Eichmann’s own defence of himself as a bureaucratic nobody merely ‘following orders’, she never seemed to consider the possibility that her idea of ‘the banality of evil’ might apply to a great deal of the 20th century’s mass murder, but not necessarily to all of it, with plenty of malignant and active hatred and cruelty involved as well, including in Eichmann’s case. She sometimes appeared quite naive and uninformed. While poring over the documents used in the trial, she seemed to have learned little, for example, from the Nuremberg trials almost fifteen years earlier.

She also declared herself ‘astonished’ to find nothing of the ‘demonic’ in Eichmann. But after all, Hitler, the central ‘demon;, was long dead, along with most of his top associates. If Josef Goebbels or Reinhard Heydrich had survived the war and been caught fifteen years later, they might more satisfactorily have met all demonic requirements. But The Origins of Totalitarianism had far earlier indicated that she was not much looking for demonism anyway, not even in Hitler. She had little sense of ordinary empirical history or economics, and had been, by her own later account in interviews, someone who started out as a very naive and unworldly human being. until shaken by the Nazi takeover in Germany, and the experience of forced migration to the U. S.

Even then, she retained many conventional prejudices, like a common German Jewish intellectual disdain for East European Jews, an acceptance but permanent discomfort with Zionism, and above all, an excessive confidence was all that was needed to make her a superior kind of political journalist. She was undoubtedly courageous, imaginative and literarily gifted, and determined to be painfully honest. In The Human Condition, her best book, she made a fine comparison and analysis of classical and modern political theory. But as a journalist, she just didn’t prove all that talented at getting things right. That prosaic objection seems to have entirely sailed by Margarethe von Trotta, and it leaves Hannah Arendt as a good movie, but not a really satisfactory assessment of her place in history.

The Spy Who Came Out in a Rage

A 50th anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold will appear this August, John LeCarre’ providing an introduction,, ‘Fifty Years Later’, already published in The Guardian in April. Coinciding with a new novel from him (A Delicate Truth), both The Spy and its author will probably gain renewed attention fir the rest of the year. It may be difficult for people under forty to understand the likely fuss, even if they should happen to see the superb film version, in which Richard Burton gave an unforgettable performance as Alec Leamas, the burnt-out spy. But the ghost of Leamas haunts all of us, for reasons that still matter.

LeCarre’ himself has a mild preference for his later trilogy about the spymaster George Smiley, also memorably filmed as a British television series, with Alec Guinness as Smiley. But The Spy was a great deal more than a brilliant espionage novel, unlike past British spy classics by Buchan, Maugham, or Ambler, or even Graham Greene, an obvious influence. No work of Greene had anything remotely like the impact of The Spy. The only near-contemporary who made a comparable splash was Ian Fleming, whose Bond thrillers sold in the tens of millions, the cinematic Bonds long outliving the original author.

But while Fleming had his own kind of talent, even his best books, which have their own touches of irony and self-mockery, portray a conventional hero fighting conventional villains. LeCarre’ has suggested that the astonishing success of his own book (international sales of over 15 million copies), was probably because ‘I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote’. Half a century later, he sadly recalls that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the general public had instantly come to see him as a real spy who had written a book, an identification he would never later escape. He had always hoped to be recognized simply as a novelist, who had drawn a few useful things from a series of minor, and not very exciting or dangerous, posts in M.I.5 and M.I. 6 for a little over a decade, mostly in the 1950s, when he was in his twenties, But unlike other British writers who had spent some years in the cloak-and-dagger world, he was never to escape being seen as ‘the spy who wrote The Spy’.

But there was more to the book’s reception than that. If readers were really just seeking a ‘Bond antidote’, they could be as well served by Len Deighton, whose working class spy hero lived a deflation of Bond’s beau monde existence. Deighton and LeCarre’ did both belong to a much younger generation than Fleming, the one just a little too young to have taken part in World War II, but forever in its shadow. The two younger writers also wrote explicitly, unlike Fleming, about a post-imperial Britain in shabby and impoverished decline. All three never entirely lost their hostility to booming postwar West Germany and its frequent Nazi hangovers in the intelligence world, and they all accompanied this with occasional expressions of dislike for now dominant American power.

But The Spy, both as book and film, had an immense, immediate and enduring force on the overall preconceptions of the Western world that was, and remains, unique. It changed the fictional portrayals of spies forever; the 21st century Daniel Craig version of Bond has become more like Burton’s Alec Leamas than Sean Connery’s suave assassin of decades ago. But the impact in the world of ideas was far wider. The novel of past decades that most resembled it in effect had been Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler’s bleak Dostoievskian portrait of a Stalinist inquisition and moral dialogue. Koestler, who had himself been a Communist and sometime secret agent throughout the 1930s, brilliantly encapsulated the disillusionment of a whole generation of leftist intellectuals after the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. First published at the start of World War II, the book drew limited attention in the war years of the Big Three Alliance, but became a major intellectual weapon in the Cold War after 1945. It was being read all over the Europe in which LeCarre’ worked for M. I. 6, read covertly and dangerously even in the countries under Communist control..

Koestler, a cosmopolitan Hungarian Jew turned German and then Englishman, led a much more picaresque and sybaritic life than the diffident LeCarre, a very English Englishman. But they still had a major similarity Both had written forgettable earlier books before their big bombshell, and many quite good but rapidly forgotten ones for years after it. But what gave unique power to their most famous books was not just that each writer found a historical, political, and above all, moral situation. about which they could contrive tragedies of almost Shakespearean proportions.

What they were also able to do was to transform their unhappy personal biographies into single unique moments of sublime creation. Koestler, the fortunes of his Hungarian family ruined by the First World War, was compelled to leave his planned youthful career as an engineer, never ceasing to be a scientist manque, and switching from liberal journalism on Weimar Germany to peripatetic Communist espionage in the 1930s, lived with a permanent identity crisis, never later removed by a third successful career in England as an anti-Communist man of letters. Darkness at Noon was the work of a man ‘in transit’, still able to fully imagine the dream that became a nightmare. In his later years, he pursued an odd variety of later interests, from the history of cosmology to ESP. He retained a fondness for dramatic dichotomies, his later books having titles like The Yogi and the Commissar, The Lotus and the Robot, The Ghost in the Machine.

As Le Carre’ also eventually made clear, his own tortured personal psychology owed less to his actual Secret Service experiences than to being abandoned by his mother in childhood, and raised by a father who was a personally charming but highly dishonest conman, and a war profiteer in World War II. Furthermore, while he continued to write at least moderately successful spy novels right up to the present, he has never found post-Cold War themes on which he could write with anything remotely like the power and depth of The Spy and the Smiley novels.

By the end of his life, Koestler was coming to be seen as a mildly interesting crank. While LeCarre’ has been more successful in writing novels that sell well, he has had the same difficulty in continuing to make his personal anger and confusions into the stuff of art. He was arguably justified in his 2003 explosion of rage about the invasion of Iraq (‘The United States of America has gone mad’). But he has since then come to sound more and more like standard model English left-wing curmudgeon in the Harold Pinter mold, unconvincingly integrating dislike of American capitalism, dislike of American foreign policies too glibly linked to the same capitalism, and dislike of the England of Tony Blair and his successors. He now resorts to far cruder stereotypes than could ever be found in his fine Cold War novels. In ‘Fifty Years Latet’, after first evoking the ruthless reasoning of his own fictional M. I. 6 ‘Control’ character in The Spy, he continues:

Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.’

This almost suggests that even the most ruthless real M.I.6 agents of the 1950s somehow kept a touch of decency in their bad teeth and inferior suits, and that the CEOs of modern large corporations are the same people as American gun-loving populists, among other scattered laments. It is just his variation of the eternal wail of the 73rd Psalm: ‘Why do the wicked prosper while God’s people suffer?’ LeCarre is justifiably proud of the skill with which he presented this cry in his most famous book, but does not seem to realize that it gave him no special permanent qualifications as an analyst of present discontents. He wants everyone now to meet LeCarre’ the man, but might have learned from Koestler’s warning that wanting to meet a writer because you like his books is like wanting to meet a goose because you like pate’ de foie gras.

The Apostle of Chemical Warfare

The evolutionary biologist and crusading atheist Richard Dawkins is not as singular as the mass media makes him appear. To anyone familiar with the intellectual history of modern England, he is just the latest example from a long tradition, stretching back to Victorians like T. H. Huxley and W. K. Clifford, of what might be called establishment dissenters or godless Calvinists. Dawkins is a near-reincarnation of John Burden Sanderson (‘J. B. S.’) Haldane (1892-1964). The Selfish Gene, the book that first brought wide fame to Dawkins, is largely an extension of earlier scientific work done by Haldane. Both men are Wykehamists, products of New College, Oxford, actually one of Oxford’s oldest, which has a record of producing notable graduates in everything from mathematics (Freeman Dyson) to politics (Richard Crossman, Oswald Mosley), and as these examples also show, a fondness for iconoclastic contrarianism.

J. B. S. did his most important pure research on the ‘neo-Darwinian synthesis’ of statistical population genetics, but he was most widely known as a polymath, popular interpreter of science, and scourge of God. He was one of the alarming utopians that C. S. Lewis had in mind when he coined the term ‘scientism’ to describe their characteristic ideological predilections, and both Lewis and Haldane’s friend Aldous Huxley satirized him in fictionalized portrayals. Huxley apparently also got his idea of the test-tube babies of Brave New World from Haldane. The most joyously provocative essayist of his time, J. B. S. left even Bertrand Russell at the post. From the 1920s to the 1950s he turned out a steady stream of newspaper articles, pamphlets, books, and BBC broadcasts about science and public affairs. He often took on Christian thinkers in formal debates, and for two decades of his life was also a defender of Marxism-Leninism, sometimes in strange ways: he claimed to have been cured of chronic indigestion by a reading of Lenin, and tried, conscientiously but without much success, to apply the doctrines of dialectical materialism to his own scientific researches and explanations.

Like Dawkins, Haldane mixed very good scientific observations and explanations with amateurish and unpersuasive theological disputation. But he also had some unique aspects. One was his sheer physical impact. He was large, aggressive, and loud, recalled even by close friends as intimidating, and, when enraged, terrifying, Another was the great industry and energy he put into a mixture of polemic and popular education. He wrote hundreds of science columns for The Daily Worker, but also addressed articles and books to the British intellectual elite of his time. In the first half of the 20th century, he could reach almost all of the latter. A great deal of the British intelligentsia still moves within a small circuit defined by family relationships, education at one of the famous Public Schools, and university studies at a handful of Oxbridge colleges. But that network has now grown far larger, more specialized, and more diffuse. Haldane learned most of his biological science from his father, and actually took his undergraduate degree in mathematics and classics, a very improbable background for any biological scientist today. His intellectual contemporaries were highly individualist and idiosyncratic, even when, like Haldane, adopting Marxism. They had lots of quarrels, political and personal; nonetheless, English writers, philosophers, and natural scientists socialized frequently, read each other, and absorbed ideas from opponents as well as friends.

Haldane had a third quality, not so strange among dissenting Wykehamists, of pursuing arguments to their logical end, unconcerned with the strange results. that this would sometimes produce. His Marxism, more royalist than the king, more Catholic than the Pope, was typical. He was not unusual in men of his generation in also going to war, but he responded to it far differently than most. He had gone through plenty of battlefield experience as a Black Watch officer in the First World War, and unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, scientist or non-scientist, he treated this as one more source of interesting observations, and even claimed he had enjoyed the experience, which had included shelling, small arms fire, and gas attacks. Both then and throughout his life, he showed an astonishing level of stoic acceptance, even indifference, in subjecting himself to extreme physical dangers and punishment of his own body. It seems to have been true even when, still a boy, he had accompanied his father when making physiological investigations of mining accidents; at the other end of his life, when contracting colorectal cancer requiring major surgery and a colostomy bag, he wrote and published a comic poem about it.

Haldane’s combination of egoism, physical sturdiness, omnivorous scientific intellectual curiosity, and cheery iconoclasm was displayed above all in a little 1925 monograph called Callinicus, or a Defence of Chemical Warfare. Only H. G. Wells, and only in his most speculative and fantastic science fiction, ever sounded remotely similar, but Callinicus (the title taken from the name of a Syrian who was possibly the first to introduce ‘Greek fire’ in the 7th century A. D.) was no fantasy, but a ferocious exercise in scientific Hobbesianism.

He was unremarkable in pointing out that, horrible as the effects of gas could be, so were the effects of high explosives, metal shrapnel, incendiaries,, and flamethrowers, several ‘chemical’ in their own way. At moments, he could sound like an absolute pacifist: ‘if it is right for me to fight my enemy with a sword, it is right for me to fight him with mustard gas; if the one is wrong, so is the other.’ But Haldane was not remotely like a pacifist, and what was really singular about the book was that he also maintained that gas could be a more humane weapon than more conventional ones. He reminded his readers that, until the appearance of several debilitating but non-fatal gases like tear gas, the only way that police or military authorities could deal with a group of armed and violent enemies who had successfully barricaded themselves in a building or settled in a well-entrenched military position was to destroy them completely. either by blowing them up or completely incinerating them.

Thirteen years later, for the Left Book Club, he published A.R.P. [‘Air Raid Precautions’], as useful advice for Englanders facing another likely general European war. By then, he also knew of the use of gas warfare by Fascist Italy against Ethiopia, and had also observed another savage conflict closeup, the Spanish Civil War, to which he had gone to assist the Republican forces. He was mistaken in some respects about what another world war general war would be like, but was prescient in many ways. This time, he expressed doubt about the effectiveness of even the most poisonous and vesicant gases, whether used against military forces or civilians. Unlike almost everyone else, from Neville Chamberlain and his military advisers to the mass circulation newspapers, Haldane did not expect gas to be a major factor in the coming war, partly because even deadlier new gases may rapidly disperse. With his characteristic ‘rational ruthlessness’, he argued against gas because he simply considered that high explosive was a more efficient way of killing people.

When the war came, he subjected himself to physically agonizing experiments in a closed chamber with high pressure/high CO2 to figure out what had happened to the trapped crew on a submarine that had gone down on its maiden voyage. He became disillusioned with Communism after the war, due to Stalin’s murderous application of the crackpot biological theories of Trofim Lysenko, but he remained on the left. He was so angry at Britain’s behaviour in the 1956 Suez crisis that he became a citizen of India. He remained to the end a great English eccentric, sometimes brilliant, always courageous, often, despite his Marxism, sounding almost like the fascist intellectuals of his time, consistently contrarian above all.

Sometimes he seemed to mock even himself. When he wrote an attack on the science fiction trilogy of C. S. Lewis for a Marxist periodical, he signed himself, ‘Auld Hornie, F. R. S.’ The initials made clear that he was a Fellow of the Royal Society, the ‘Auld Hornie’ was the Scots Gaelic name for the Devil. More like an occasionally Satanic imp, J. B. S. demonstrated that a very powerful intellect, an iconoclastic tradition, and a thoroughgoing rationalism offers little in the way of enduring wisdom. What he argued about chemical warfare was not so much entirely fallacious as a reminder that a ruthless application of logic to the dilemmas generated by war and frightening weapons is seldom of much practical assistance. This ought to be kept in mind in evaluating overconfident punditry of both the left and right today about how to respond to the escalating and possibly increasingly ‘chemical’ war in Syria. Sometimes there are no good options, and ‘rational analysis’ is only really informative about the individual who advances it.

More Than Brave: Margaret Thatcher and her Era

Margaret Thatcher’s courage, both personal and political, shone like a diamond held up to firelight, naturally emphasized in countless tributes since her death. But few of these tributes really looked at the singular way her character and actions played out in the wider story of British and world politics in the last third of the 20th Century.

I started picking up pieces of this story when living in England in the early 1970s. As a McGill history Ph.D. student, I was then doing three years of research there, living in North London with my wife and two children. We were watching a large upheaval then rapidly taking place in British secondary education, as the Heath Conservative government was attempting to replace a multi-tiered system of secondary schools with a more unified ‘comprehensive’ one. We lived in Finchley, and Thatcher was not only then the Minister of Education, but also our M. P. It didn’t mean I got to know her, but she came and spoke at one of the secondary schools I was checking out, so I saw and heard her close up.

She was then in her mid-forties, and quite attractive. She had a somewhat hectoring, ‘firm schoolmistress’ manner of speech, although she later learned how to moderate this a little. However, I thought she more than compensated for any deficiencies in mellifluous tone by her forceful, articulate, informative, no-nonsense delivery. In that small gathering, she was also a great deal more charming and pleasant than she usually appeared in her highly combative speeches on the hustings or in the Commons. But I was most impressed by her complete command of her brief.

It never crossed my mind that she could become party leader and Prime Minister by the end of the decade, nor that it would be as a free market revolutionary, that stance then more assocated with Enoch Powell and Keith Joseph, although I later learned that Joseph was one of her political and economic mentors. I had already concluded, however, that the Britain of the time was in very serious trouble, including in its current political leadership. My recognition of a deep malaise was shared by my fellow graduate students who I met regularly at the Institute of Historical Research, British and American as well as Canadian. From other English people I met, of otherwise widely varied political views, I heard the same bleak assessments, some close to compete despair.

I had lived in England a decade earlier, and had already seen that the Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home governments, although led by intelligent aristocrats of the noblesse oblige traditional Conservative elite, seemed unable to ‘connect’ with postwar, less deferential, more irreverent, welfare state Britain. They had been succeeded in 1964 by Labour’s Harold Wilson. Wilson, probably impressed by C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, a popular buzzword book of the 1960s, at first tried to portray himself as the leader of a’white-hot, technological revolution’. He did not aim at the ‘cloth-capped’ working class, but ‘the man in the white coat’. However, he soon had to give all of his attention to industrial strife and inefficiency, and a declining pound sterling. His England looked more grey, lethargic, and fretful than white-hot.

The Conservatives had been returned at the end of the decade, by then under Edward Heath. The early 1970s were grim for all Western economies, not only due to spillover effects from the Vietnam War and OPEC’s 70% increase in the price of oil, but because of what had once been thought impossible: a combination of rapidly rising inflation and high unemployment. Richard Nixon, already being felled by Watergate, was complaining that international and domestic gridlock had turned the U. S. into a ‘pitiful, helpless giant’, but Edward Heath’s England looked worse; not just helpless, but sick, even terminally sick.

Like Wilson, Heath was a middle class Oxford graduate in economics. Neither seemed to have benefited much from this. Like Thatcher, Heath was also the offspring of a grocer, but had not inherited a comparably steely spine. His big idea was to commit the country fully to the European Common Market, fondly imagining that, once in, Britain would ‘lead’ it. His ‘pro-Europe’ politics drew him into a domestic tangle with both public opinion and with the House of Commons. ‘Europe’ has been consistently popular with the political centre in both the major parties, but has always been bitterly opposed by their more hardline wings. Heath had to contend with Michael Foot and Richard Crossman on the left and Enoch Powell on the right, all three far more articulate than he was. But he failed most spectacularly in his inability to withstand the economic paralysis being perpetuated by the giant trade unions, especially the Transport and General Worker’s Union, the world’s largest, and the unions of the engineering workers and miners. Their leaders were bloody-minded enough, but the unions’ worst effects came from the power of the militant and Marxist shop stewards, who regularly called not just strikes, but illegal and uncontrolled ‘work stoppages’, ruinously expensive for industry, interfering with train and truck freight, ship docking, and ordinary provisioning for food, shelter, and heat.

There is an irony now forgotten in the rise of Thatcher in her party and the country. Harold Wilson had not been entirely wrong in recognizing the rising political importance of graduates in science and technology rather than in the hard knocks schooling of their working class and lower middle class forebears, or in the liberal arts studies of the traditional political elite. But it turned out that the future had not belonged to dirigiste technocrats, what Malcolm Muggeridge called the Abominable Snowmen. The new arrival was not the man in the white coat, but an iron lady in one. Thatcher was not just the first, and so far, only female British Prime Minister, she was the first, and so far only, P. M. educated in natural science. More ironically, although she only managed a Second Class in her Oxford degree, in her final year of chemistry, she studied X-ray crystallography under Dorothy Hodgkin. Hodgkin, like her own mentor in crystallography, the Cambridge Marxist-Leninist John Desmond Bernal, was on the far left. She was also one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, using crystallographic research to map the internal structure of penicillin, vitamin B12, and, eventually insulin, later winning the Nobel Prize. She accomplished this in spite of being stricken, in the 1930s when only 24, with severe rheumatoid arthritis. By 1947, when she taught the young Margaret Roberts, she had been confined to a wheelchair for many years, hindered also by badly crippled hands, but persevering nonetheless.

Even the youthful Margaret was never influenced by Hodgkin’s politics; she had already become President of the Oxford University Conservative Club by the time she got to know her remarkable scientific mentor. But she clearly admired her; she had a portrait of Hodgkin installed at 10 Downing Street in the 1980s. It will be interesting to see how much attention the new Thatcher biography by Charles Moore will assign to this influence. Crystallography requires very close observation and attention to detail, not usually a strong suit among politicians. But whether the direct influence was major or minor a quarter of a century later, Thatcher’s science background probably helped explain what the Conservative Party at first thought they were getting in Thatcher: a voice of both men and women ‘in white coats’, in a more ‘classless’ England. She was also influenced by reading Friedrich Hayek in her young years, but that may possibly have been true of Heath, perhaps even Harold Wilson. The difference was that Thatcher had far more confidence that it was not only possible to learn valid and non-subjective truths about the world, but to act effectively on this knowledge as well.

Thatcher could be more cautious than many people realize by now. While she introduced some individual choice and market discipline innto the Nhs, she did not directly confront the whole National Health system, and actually left a great deal of the British welfare state in place. But by doing things like giving union members the power to vote by secret ballots, and using police to defend the rule of law and counter the remaining use of violence and the intimidation of ‘secondary picketing’ (which had brought down Heath), she did a great deal more than win what had been previously regarded as a hopelessly snarled and unending industrial conflict. She restored confidence in democratic government, and in the possibility of making beneficial changes in the social and economic structure. She was as effective in standing up to IRA terrorism, and the wailing of an army of academic economists about her policies.

That kind of achievement makes most of the carping about her look silly. Thatcher was not infallible, and not all of her policies were good ones, but four decades ago she was as indispensable as Churchill had been in 1940. She was certainly courageous above all, and as fiercely determined, but that was inseparable from her penetrating intelligence and recognition of what had to be done. The present world could certainly use some more of that combination.

Demography as Tragic Destiny

Demography has been been much in the news lately. This March brought yet another popular book on declining fertility, What To Expect When No One’s Expecting (Encounter Books), by the conservative American journalist, Jonathan Last, largely a breezy update of a 2004 one, Philip Longman’s The Empty Cradle. In Canada, the media are still mining stories from the 2011 census, but widening public interest for over a decade now has also been largely the achievement of just two men: David Foot, a professor at the University of Toronto; and Mark Steyn, a popular right-wing pundit with an international audience. Quebec radical nationalists, on the other hand, have a more obscure hero of their own, a former mathematics professor named Charles Castonguay, who predictably showed up a couple of weeks ago to make one of the presentations heard by the PQ government’s committee hearings on Bill 14. A closer look at all three reveals a great deal about demographic explanation in general.

The Australian-born David Foot has been quite famous since his 1996 Canada-wide bestseller, Boom, Bust and Echo. His articles and numerous TV interviews have drawn lots of attention ever since. The general public had never heard of Foot before B, B. & E., but a small audience had formed a high opinion of him well over a decade earlier, on the basis of an unjustly neglected 1982 monograph, Canada’s Population Outlook. It was published by a Toronto thinktank which closed down in 1984, and is now too obscure for Google, and makes only a brief and uninformative appearance on Google Chrome. But in it, Foot, who applied mathematical analysis to several alternative scenarios for changing birth, death, and immigration rates, also showed the surprising convergence of their predicted consequences, and pretty much got everything right. At the time it appeared, both the U. S. and Canada had been giving far more popular attention to Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, a 1968 bestseller that remained in print for many years, and which Ehrlich, a Stanford biologist and environmentalist, was still defending in this century, despite getting as many things wrong as Foot got right. Foot is not infallible; no demographers are. But while he has a flair for entertaining exposition, he is fundamentally cautious, and always ready to recognize quickly unexpected shifts in the latest data available.

No one would ever describe Mark Steyn as being cautious. He is himself a bit of a demographic patchwork. Born in Canada of affluent English and Irish parents,, he received an upper-class formal education in England, but never took a university degree. He had a youthful career as a disc jockey, becoming an authority on American popular music; his first book was Broadway Babies Say Goodnight. A decade ago, he was writing mainly for Conrad Black’s Canadian and English newspapers, but now, living in New Hampshire but with continued world travelling, he writes mostly as an American political pundit. He is a unique combination of witty cosmopolitan sophisticate, cheerily vulgar reactionary, and Spenglerian prophet of doom. Doom fills his columns and his two books, America Alone (2006), and After America (2011), partly from awaiting the reckoning expected from current American and and European levels of debt. But his favourite theme is what he sees as a low birth rate death spiral of Western societies, and a probably irreversible takeover by future generations of high birth rate Muslim immigrants.

Steyn’s fearlessness and often very funny irreverence have won him an army of right-wing fans throughout the English-speaking world, and he is as cordially detested, especially by Canadian leftists. While mostly sputtering incoherently in response to his best political writing, they can mount a real case against him as an amateur demographer. His numbers and percentages have often been shown to be wrong, or at least undermined by more recent data, and he is fond of rhetorical overstatement all the time. Even many of his friendly readers now think that applies to some of his gloomy demographic projections. He is very good at punching large holes in the punditry and policies of the left, but he is too inflexibly assured about the fixed assumptions that he applies to an area of social analysis that is more like long-range weather forecasting than geometry. Steyn’s unabashedly partisan journalism made him welcome even at the White House in the Bush era, but it reduces his impact even on the right now, including in his dark demographic projections, because he lacks the academic credentials, and perhaps the real expertise, to be entirely persuasive in this area, save to his most worshipful and uncritical readers. Many of his claims are credible, but they simply lack authority.

Charles Castonguay, a former professor of mathematics at the University of Ottawa now in his seventies, is the opposite of Steyn; he has some academic authority, but makes political inferences that are quite incredible. While his 1970 McGill doctoral thesis on the philosophy of mathematics was later published, he produced no more work in that area, but instead spent decade after decade publishing articles and testifying before federal and provincial government committees on his one and only demographic preoccupation: the continuing decline of French throughout Canada (and lately, in ‘the key Montreal area’) due to the much greater assimilating power and associated ‘language shift’ to English among both francophones and immigrants.

From these defensible observation he derives his insistence that only an essentially unlimited ‘territorial’ protection of French, only partially achieved since the 1970s by Bill 101, which he sees as inadequately complete even at its present level, can ‘save’ French in the future. His most scholarly defence of this position appeared in Policy Options years ago (vol. 20, 1998: ‘French is on the ropes; why won’t Ottawa admit it?’). That article used many statistical tables drawing on the 1996 federal census, but he had been making it for two decades earlier, and has never stopped making it since, including in his March 20 presentation to the Bill 14 committee.

Castonguay, born in Ottawa and sent by his parents to French Catholic primary school, only studied English from the secondary level. Nonetheless he always describes himself as a native English speaker when appearing before government committees. The Gazette’s Phil Authier even headed his story on Castonguay. ‘Bilingual status is detrimental, anglo argues’, also describing him in the article as ‘an anglophone from Gatineau’. ‘Anglophone’, perhaps, but calling Castonguay an ‘anglo’ was rather like describing Audrey Hepburn as a Belgian.

Authier also wrote that, in a document presented to the committee, Castonguay ‘[fired] a scud missile at those defending bilingual status’. His numerical tables, one assumes, were what Authier saw as the scud. His comments to the committee and in an interview he gave Authier were more like anti-personnel grenades. Any bilingual status in Montreal was ‘perverted’, the fruit of ‘Trudeauist ideology’, producing ‘nests’ of anglophones on the West Island and in West Quebec.’. His message to the nests: ‘Don’t pretend that you’re being martyrized…don’t try and make the francophones feel rotten…because they want to be able to speak French.’
Buried near the end of the story, Authier finally added: ‘Castonguay appeared as a member of the hardline language group Syndicalistes progressistes pour un Que’bec libre (SPQ-libre)’, but Castonguay is probably summarizing views widely held among many nationalist Quebeckers, who would also endorse expressions that Castonguay uses over and over again: ‘French is on the ropes, not English’, ‘Get the facts straight’, the menace of English ‘door to door’ or ‘wall to wall’.

Castonguay may be right that federalist professional demographers have downplayed fading use of French by francophones in Canada overall, most likely because they are well aware that free countries, and even most dictatorships, can do little about the factors that make such things happen. He is so devoted to his ‘language transfer’ statistics that he seems to have refused to understand that, contrary to Francis Bacon, knowledge is not always power. In the case of Quebec itself, for example, he never seems to recognize that English-speaking communities here have their own histories and purposes that have nothing to do with unwillingness to ‘respect’ French politically and socially, but simply with trying to survive in their own ancient ‘nests’; McGill and Concordia, for example.

His strange logic suggests that Quebec can not achieve what he desires even with separation, even with an attempt to become a totalitarian state, and that, meanwhile, any level of state discrimination it can apply is defensible to serve a utopian purpose, even a purpose not grasped with much enthusiasm by countless real French Canadians. Quebec birth rates are now at 1.74, still below replacement, but above the overall Canadian figure, and not that low in current world terms. And Castonguay scarcely seemed to consider that his kind of Quebec unilingualism is itself a large disincentive to immigrants, even many potential francophone immigrants. He is not really calling for the ‘respect’ of Quebec anglos for French, which they have been demonstrating for decades, but for their elimination. Foot is the demographer of cool analysis; Steyn compels even his sceptical readers to think. But Castonguay appears more as a classic kind of ‘intellectual’; that is, someone who tries to turn a personal neurosis into a national catastrophe.

The Fatal Attraction of Hugo Chavez

All political pundits now must suffer the compulsory assistance and thunder-stealing rivalry of Wikipedia: freely available, assured, anonymous, pseudo-authoritative. That has been even more obvious than usual in most Canadian thinkpieces on the death of Hugo Chavez. They suggest a familiarity with Latin America largely based on holidays in Castro Cuba, sometimes with at least a qualified sympathy, if not fawning admiration, for the Fidelista worldview. Tempering bien-pensant adoration with Wikipedian ‘balance’, obituary writers have usually settled for praising with faint damns. Typical was the full-page tribute in the March 6 Gazette, a Bloomberg News reprint, ‘The man who remade Venezuela’.

The article did offer one major point of substance. Its authors noted that the price of Venezuelan crude increased over 1000% from its $9 a barrel price when he took power to over $120 a barrel in 2009, which surely had as much to do with Venezuela’s ‘remaking’ as Chavez’s share-the-wealth populism. Venezuela sits on what is possibly the largest single pool of oil in the world, and since big oil has at various times greatly enriched, and as frequently destabilized, everyone from Oklahoma Indian tribes and Arab Bedouin to Alberta high school dropouts, it was not really all that remarkable that Chavez and previously impoverished Venezuelans should join the great global gravy train. Chavez might tell the United Nations that George Bush, was the Devil incarnate, and form a rhetorical alliances with Castro, Ahmedinejad, and even Robert Mugabe, but he did not stop selling oil to the Satanic kingdom and its indispensable Luciferian army of automobile owners. Fidel Castro, however much warmed by Chavez’s adoration, must surely have been green with envy. Himself having only large exports in sugar that he could transfer from the U. S. to the Soviet Union, his own all-day speeches had to paper over an impoverished reality. Chavez has been more like a tenured academic Marxist, able to spout the language of revolution while clinging to capitalist comforts.

There is something dissatisfying about the speciously evenhanded media tributes, as there also is about the furious ‘good riddance’ sendoffs provided by miscellaneous American neoconservative pundits. These latter could find plenty of ammunition in the increasingly totalitarian ‘remaking’ of Venezuela, but could not confidently claim they were saluting ‘the end of a hated tyrant’. Chavez has just remained too popular. He has long been disliked by most of the Venezuelan middle class, but Latin American middle classes, sometimes themselves at first carried along by the siren songs of revolution, have never been very consistently successful at providing a ‘North American’ version of middle class liberal democracy. Even when it has been achieved, it has constantly proved vulnerable to the chronic instability and unpopularity of the region’s boom-and-bust export trade in commodities, usually dominated by foreign business giants, and by two centuries of romantic, theatrical, and tragicomic political history.

That history, richly mythic, has frustrated many of the most intelligent and perceptive Latin Americans themselves, never mind pundits in the U. S. These latter have frequently tried to ram some of the most anarchic peoples to be found on earth into one of two Procrustean beds: the disastrous model of Marxist ‘class struggle’, or the less appalling but not much more successful inverted, or ‘capitalist-friendly’ Marxianism, found in the 1960s ‘Alliance for Progress’, expected to display the ‘Stages of Economic Growth’, rehashed in not much different neoconservative nostrums that arrived by three and four decades later.

Chavez was not alone in loudly rejecting North American ‘neoliberal’ or ‘neoconservative’ ideas. His combination of macho paratrooper bravado and booming oil revenues made him an especially noisy, extreme, and confident exponent of Robin Hood economics for all of Latin America, tied as well to a ‘Bolivarian’ dream of a larger union of South American states. But even quieter and more centrist regional politicians have found it expedient to offer admiring words for Chavez and even for Castro. While rhetoric is usually all they really want to offer, its perceived necessity arises from a fundamental division in European liberalism that emerged in the first half of the 19th century.

American neoconservatives are lineal descendants of the ‘Cold War liberal’ theorists of 1945-1990, who held up the Anglo-American liberal tradition as the one true path to both freedom and democracy. Their current emulators have tried to maintain this, arguing not only that Marxist economic policies are inefficient, inevitably dictatorial, and ultimately evil, for which there has always been a good case in the long run, but by liberal definition, undemocratic. That term could certainly be used justifiably about the Soviet Union and China, as it could about the eastern European countries forced into ‘the socialist camp’ after 1945. But when Latin Americans, from Nobel-Prize-winning novelists to the illiterate poor use words like ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ they do not often give them the same meaning that they commonly have in the Anglosphere. They may not instead mean, as Americans have often too casually assumed, just the hypocritical boilerplate of Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, but they do apply a concept of ‘democracy’ that comes not from the law-bound ‘propertarian’ democratic order launched by the American Revolution and gradually broadened in scope and international impact.

They more commonly have thought in terms of the ‘democracy.’ claimed by the French Revolution, and above all the France of Napoleon Bonaparte. That was ‘democracy’ conceived of in terms of a Rousseauist, even Hobbesian ‘general will’, expressed, even ‘legitimately’ expressed, through the thought and action of a new and popular philosopher-king. This kind of ‘democracy’, not necessarily friendly to American interests, may actually have majority support in some countries, and especially in Latin America.

The great hero of all of Latin America is Simon Bolivar, a gifted, complex, and frequently frustrated hero, seen as a Washington, Jefferson, and Napoleon, all rolled into one. And like Napoleon, he was also a Caesar, in the sense of the popular authoritarian political leader who maintains his power through a combination of personal charisma, mass appeal, and constant adaptation to an ever-changing revolutionary project. To Bolivar’s credit, he was not all that happy playing Caesar, or engaging in Robin Hood economics; he remained a romantic but genuine liberal, in the early 19th century sense.

His own ‘Caesarism’ came mostly from trying to assert control over regional chaos after the fall of the Spanish Empire. But while he died in 1840 when only 57, both his tumultuous military and political career and his voluminous writings left an immense and ambiguous heritage, to which almost any Latin American national leader can claim lineal descent by selective citation. None of them, Chavez included, have been very persuasive as reincarnations of the mythic hero. Bolivar came from a very wealthy and very old South American family, and was educated as a polished aristocrat. As a young man he had witnessed Napoleon’s imperial coronation in Paris, and admitted to being very impressed by it. But Bonaparte impressed him more as a monarchial reformer than as a voice and champion of impoverished masses. In fact, Bolivar’s writings have been drawn on frequently by Latin American conservatives.

However, Chavez has tried to claim the revolutionary Bolivar as his own model and ideal, actually renaming his country ‘the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, erecting a gigantic Bolivar statue in Caracas, and, in a fine melodramatic touch, even having the famous liberator’s bones dug up for chemical tests to find whether there was any truth in a conspiracy theory that, rather from dying of tuberculosis, Bolivar had been poisoned by Columbian enemies.

It could as well be said that neither Barack Obama nor his main Republican opponents are much more like the American Founding Fathers than Chavez is like Bolivar, and citizens of Obama’s America, with its own Robin Hood and police state enthusiasms, are no longer in as strong a position as they once were in holding up American political and legal freedom as an ideal for all others to emulate. As well, they now live in a society with too many pundits and policy advisers who are, like Chavez and Obama themselves, graduates in political science, with little knowledge or understanding of history, and thereby of the historical and cultural factors that have shaped different kinds of successful and unsuccessful political ideas. Hence the ‘Mediterranean’, Catholic, macho, sexy, and above all, theatrical and bella figura politics south of the Rio Grande is now little more comprehensible to many members of the American political elite than the joyous entrepreneurial capitalism of Silicon Valley has been to the Liberation Theology monasteries and convents of Central America.

A genuine reincarnation of Simon Bolivar is not very likely, but there will probably be many more versions of Hugo Chavez, long a much more familiar type from ancient times to 1930s Louisiana, to present Ecuador. They may quote Bolivar as well, but not one of his saddest late observations: ‘All those who served the revolution have ploughed the sea.”

Groucho Marxism

Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, has a flair for spotting ideas of coming importance, or at least importance for CBC employees and those who depend on the CBC to provide them with their enlightened opinions. So it was not all that surprising that he chose the 165th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto to mull whether Marx and Marxism were now going through an improbable revival.

He began the show with a dramatic flourish, a scratchy old recording of Lenin thundering to some 1920s Soviet audience, but leaped nimbly past the next seventy years of Lenin’s handiwork and that of his followers. What Enright wanted to talk about was Marxist ‘thought’ today, not in any of the past embarrassing instances of its actual governmental application. As an initial explanation of why a 21st century version was germinating, he first pointed out that the Great Crash of 2008 had led to a renewed interest in the idea of Marx the prophet.

To help prove the point, he observed that, since the Crash, copies of Das Kapital have been ‘flying off the shelves’ in Germany. However, that may just show that young German university students are maintaining their great tradition, not just of devouring bad ideas from their professors, a habit as common among Canadian and American students, but unlike the latter, actually trying to read, or at least skim, even the dreariest works placed on their class reading lists. Millions of past Marxists worldwide, from murderous revolutionaries to mild academic blowhards, undoubtedly used to read and drew their ideas from the Manifesto, a forceful polemic pamphlet, which the youthful Marx and Engels whipped off in under 300 pages. But Das Kapital, only ‘Volume I’ of Marx’s never completed magnum opus of almost twenty years later, is not only three times as long, but as a laboured synthesis of 19th century English political economy and the tortuous dialectics of Hegelianism, regularly defeated even his fanatical worshippers, and belongs on that long shelf of books which are much admired but not read.

Enright deftly navigated the minefield of voluminous writings by Marx and Marxists by throwing out a few questions to his three interview guests: Leo Panitch, a York University professor of political science, editor of The Socialist Register, and co-author of a recent book on The Making of Global Capitalism; Ursula Huys, another political science professor, from the University of Hertfordshire, who writes mainly on the new working world of outsourcing and call centres, and who has published a book on The Making of a Cybertariat; and Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old editor of a New York City magazine called Jacobin. It is unlikely that many Canadians had previously ever heard of them, although all three were clearly legends in their own minds. Enright, a little like Scrooge’s midnight visitors, may have chosen Panitch to represent Marxism past, Huys as Marxism present, and Sunkara as Marxism future.

Panitch, who speaks in the measured tones of a well-fed bishop of his church, is one of that army of ‘social science’ academics who largely rewrite ordinary media stories in what might be called Marxian demotic. That is, he takes familiar current political and economic news and rewrites and restates it with a ‘class analysis’, that provides nothing not already obvious, but in much more splendidly pretentious form. For example, he daringly admits that Lenin’s theory of economic imperialism can not be used to describe how international capitalism works today, since American corporations actually invest far more in places like Great Britain than they do in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he notices that British capitalist enterprises also invest in the U. S., explaining this as the ‘interpenetration of capitalist imperialism’. Give him a few more years, and he may make the still more exciting discovery that this is what is called ‘trade’.

Both he and Huys give the impression of trying very hard to offer an avant-garde of socioeconomic interpretation, but like Wallerstein, Hobsbawm, and similar lifelong Marxist academics, they just sound like unusually cranky readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, constantly tripping on the Protean nature of the Great Beast. You can’t really blame them; the reporters and analysts of the WSJ and FT have to work harder and faster than these academic bad poets limping along behind them..

Consider Silicon Valley alone. Five of the six biggest websites in the world are there (one is Chinese). The two Google founders are tied for 13th richest person on earth. Tens of thousands of young technical workers in the Valley work long hours, but make well over $100,000 a year. That may do nothing to solve the unemployment problems of young and old living in rust belt cities, but whatever this means in the longer run, it hardly fits any of Marx’s own prophecies about the ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’, or even the Marxian glosses being provided for the American economy a few decades ago, which were all about ‘alienation’, not the arriving information revolution. The present Marxists like Panitch and Huys have been as forced to ‘go global’ as the corporations they bewail, in search of a shape-shifting ‘working class’.

Marxists still sometimes indulge in the joys of ‘dialectics’, a kind of flimflam to escape tight corners, but a sense of irony is not their strong suit. Ursula Huys is an even better demonstration of this than Panitch. He has now spent three decades at York University, which was created at the very beginning of the 1960s, and has kept several departments in 1960s aspic ever since. Hertfordshire is a quite different sort of place, beginning as a modest Hatfield Technical College, on land provided by the once-famous Dehavilland Aircraft Co. It became a university only in the early 1990s, and retained a strong connection to engineering and technical education right into the present. It also keeps winning awards for being an unusually innovative and ‘entrepreneurial’ school. Since Professor Huys has been there since the 1970s, she may very well participate in its ‘entrepreneurial’ innovations and take pride in them, apparently little bothered by the thought that Marxist and socialist past policies have been about as beneficial to entrepreneurs as a compulsory diet of cyanide.

Huys claimed that Marxism is ‘just a toolbox’, although apparently containing a mighty hammer. She talked to Enright about the possibility of eliminating the capitalist system through a general ‘withdrawal of consent’, a syndicalist dream sounding more like Georges Sorel than Marx, or even a kind of inverted version of Atlas Shrugged. But undoubtedly the Marxist for the age of i-phones and Gangnam Style was Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old American son of prosperous Asian immigrant parents who dropped out of university to create Jacobin, first an online periodical that began getting many hits (elegant web page, topics much more lively than those found in old Marxist periodicals like Monthly Review), and has now become a quarterly periodical based in New York City.

Sunkara’s growing little enterprise appears to be bound on the same course as the one followed by the British Marxism Today a few years ago. That is, to become a venue for bright young leftists, mostly of upper-crust background, whose ‘Marxism’ is essentially a Whig aristocratic pose, not at all revolutionary, and not even very friendly to dogmatist keepers of the sacred Marxist flame, able to find in the ‘toolbox’ almost anything they want. This is a Marxism at last fully emancipated from its fierce revolutionism and romance of the stubbornly unrevolutionary proletariat; not the path to a political party, or even a moral program, but what is most of all an aesthetic stance. Contributors, once reaching middle age, may very well evolve into solidly reactionary curmudgeons. In the meantime, it will probably be useful for conservatives to read Jacobin – occasionally. Almost everything Marxists still apparently believe about their ‘toolbox’ has been shown to be hopelessly wrong, not just by the past horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but by repeated refutations from major thinkers through the whole 20th century, many of the most acute critics being themselves ex-Marxists. But the world today is undoubtedly in a new kind of mess, with governments, banks, and corporations generating feeble economic growth mostly through borrowing more and more money. Libertarians and conservatives make more sense than Marxists, but are little more confident about what should be done next. So both may learn something by reading each other. Those who really want to know what Marxism is all about, as filtered through a great mind, should read the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, especially his Main Currents of Marxism. Jacobin is probably just a preparation for Vanity Fair.