A 1918 double bill: pathos and perfect slapstick followed by a mind-expanding account of the Russian revolution

Mabel Normand and Vladimir Lenin, together at last

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


Two photos joined together - in the bottom photo actress Mabel Normand in her 1918 film Mickey. She's dressed for a party, with flowers in her her. Her head rests wistfully in her hand. In the top photo Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin stands in an open space, looking to the right of the frame, hands in pockets, He's wearing his distinctive cap

So, in the second and fifth of the films I’ve reviewed here, from 1914 and 1917, we met the first America’s Sweetheart (for there have been several), Mary Pickford. Now we’ll meet the greatest female comic of the early cinema and a kind of tragic mirror to Pickford – Mabel Normand.

We’ll also meet a genius from another tradition all together, perhaps as far removed from Normand’s generous comedic charm as it’s possible to get in the cinema – Dziga Vertov, the genius who brought us Man with a Movie Camera.

All the (probably fairly unreliable) lists I’m relying on for this journey through the top-grossing films of all time list Mabel Normand’s ‘Mickey’, directed by F. Richard Jones, as the top film of 1918 but one has another, with an implausible gross of $9,685, in the top spot: ‘Anniversary of the Revolution’ (????????? ?????????) by Soviet era genius Dziga Vertov. I can’t explain what this Soviet propaganda film is doing on the list – was it the biggest movie of the year in the communist world?

Anyway, it’s clear that ‘Mickey’ was the real commercial hit here, but I’m very happy to introduce the first film from outside the emerging Hollywood system to our top-grossing list. First, though, the genuine blockbuster.

Mickey – a prequel for Greta Gerwig’s whole acting career

I’m just going to say it. I love this film. Normand, born Amabel Ethelreid Normand in 1893, is a rubber-faced, double-jointed physical comedy genius who can act (she’d also been a director for years and produced this film). In Mickey, a grown-up, 93-minute feature, there’s pathos that never tips over into mawkishness and all the standard devices of the melodramas of the period are deployed cleverly and with irony. There’s a sophisticated awareness of the form – I’m prepared to swear on a bible that Normand winks directly into the lens at least once, throwing the whole artifice of the thing in the air spellinbindingly.

Jones gives us gentle slapstick, with stunts performed by Normand herself (she’s school of Mack Sennett). She hangs from a roof, falls from a window, leaps onto a horse, shins up drainpipes and trees with abandon. The cast – including well-known native American comic actor Minnie Devereux (credited here, with the casual racism of the day, as Minnie Ha-Ha) as a resourceful housekeeper and the man who would later become Mabel’s husband Lew Cody as cad Reggie Drake – is universally brilliant. Acting is breezy, always self-conscious and slyly comic, even in dramatic scenes.

Mickey’s story is the fairytale Cinderella transposed to the folklore United States of worked-out gold mines and snooty East coast plutocrats. There’s a scene where Mickey, recently shipped in from the mine to the Long Island mansion of her aunt’s family, is set to work sweeping the hall of the great house. She gives us pure joy and mischief with the insouciance and the absolute formal discipline of Buster Keaton (others have spotted the Greta Gerwig of Frances Ha here, too). That she is Keaton’s equal, even Chaplin’s, quickly becomes obvious. That she is not as well known is a tragedy (but there’s plenty of actual tragedy to blame for that too).

Anniversary of the Revolution – a prequel for the Soviet Union

I’m going to say it here too. I love this film. It comes from another world, of course. Dziga Vertov (born David Abelevich Kaufman in 1896), who was still eight or nine years from principle photography on his masterpiece Man With a Movie Camera, was 23. He’d been a year younger at the time of the October Revolution. This whirlwind montage of newsreel footage from the period between the February revolution and the beginning of the civil war was his first feature.

Thirty prints of the film were made in 1918 and they were worn to shreds doing daily business on the agit-trains – the hypermodern steam-powered travelling propaganda machines that toured the country during the civil war. It seems unlikely anyone was paying to see it so how you’d calculate a gross for this one is a mystery to me – but I’d love to know if it had a cinematic life in the West. Were people paying a nickel or sixpence to see this movie in New York or London?

The film was considered lost for a century, anyway, so no one saw it in full after about 1919. It’s a documentary that’s almost two hours long, assembled from 3,000 metres of newsreel – a lot of it was probably shot and edited by Vertov on its first outing too – he’d been a newsreel monkey for the Moscow Film Committee for the whole period. It’s been called the first feature-length documentary. That seems plausible – it was worn out and forgotten by the time Nanook of the North came out. I’m sure it’s the first feature film assembled in this self-conscious way using many others as source material.

Vertov’s big edit is a vivid prequel for the Soviet Union. In his film we’re in a country still boiling with revolutionary fervour, about to fight for its survival – against multiple foes, still years from the decades-long retrenchment and retreat from its ideals, ten years before the routine brutality of the Stalin years began and 20 years before the terror.

These are the men and women who brought into being by the force of their will – and against the greatest odds imaginable – capitalism’s only ever viable opponent. They stand around blinking in the sunshine, smoking, getting in and out of ramshackle cars, shouting from improvised platforms. They’re awkward, probably exhilerated and frightened. Improvising a new nation in real time, with excitement and without the knowledge that it would collapse into pain and grief only a few years later.

So the material, by definition, is breathtaking – every figure of any importance from the whole revolutionary period is here, all the people you’ve heard of – Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Kamenev, Lunacharsky, Kollontai – plus dozens of others, many soon forgotten. They’re usually entering or leaving a building – presumably for another interminable committee meeting or a workers’ assembly – or smoking in a courtyard.

But we also see the marches and protests, the vast gatherings on Moscow and Petersburg streets, the milling and circulating proletariat – the revolutionary subject coming into being in squares, on bridges, in railway yards. And some extraordinary, heartstopping events. On the Field of Mars, the dead of the October revolution are interred in a vast mass grave, one coffin after another stacked in a neat pattern while men with clipboards record names and locations. There are riverboats, cars, trucks, armoured cars – we’re conscious of the sweep of the territory, of the pace of events. Trotsky addresses a crowd from a train on his way to the front in the civil war. He stands on the bridge of a river boat, posing like a matinee idol (what exactly is he wearing here? A leather sailor suit?).

Men wave their hats, stand around, staring at the newsreel camera, open-mouthed. Kids run around with school holiday abandon. Soldiers and policemen stride around trying to assert their authority. Horses and dogs are everywhere. What’s the name for the shiver of awe that watching these extraordinary scenes causes? For the uncanny collision of intimacy and unbridgeable distance that these smiling, frowning, laughing, shouting faces produces? There honestly isn’t a second of this film that’s not astonishing or surprising.

Right before your eyes

Vertov, our 22 year-old, in assembling material from hundreds of individual newsreels (aspect ratios vary throughout, it’s chaotic), was innnovating in real time. There’s obviously no consistency as to shot angle or composition. Sometimes framing is wildly off, sometimes the operator swings back and forth across a scene, as if to make sure they didn’t miss anything on the first pass. Scenes begin and end ragged, unresolved.

One of the mind-expanding joys of the thing is the way Vertov cuts the footage of these important figures (many men with big beards and/or big hats) – usually captured on the stairs up to a building, against the gloom of an entrance. He resists the obvious edit – the one that any naive human would grasp at – to top-and-tail the scenes neatly, to remove the comings and goings, the quick departures, the rushing off into the gloom. So in these scenes we have something more open-ended, provisional (something quite YouTube about the way these shots trail off, in fact).

In these cuts Vertov somehow captures the indeterminate nature of the wild Soviet experiment (feel like I ought to make my own edit of all these little endings) and in so doing invents a new form. Every self-conscious film with an ironic take on the material – every doc that makes the process visible, that involves the creator, allows its making to bleed into the narrative – has its origin in these decisions, in Vertov’s willingness to leave the end of the shot in the edit.

A fairytale, a comedy, a fantasy – and a Disney princess 20 years before Snow White

Mary Pickford was famed for playing childlike parts, flighty young women with spirit. In 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl, she broke new ground by playing an actual child.

I’m watching every year’s top-grossing movie, since 1913. You can get these chronological reviews in your inbox over here.


An animated GIF of silent movie actor Mary Pickford covering her mouth as she giggles in the 1917 film The Poor Little Rich Girl

Pickford turned 24 a month after the film was released but in The Poor Little Rich Girl she plays a child – to the perfect satisfaction of the rapturous audiences who made this one of the top-grossing movies of 1917.

The actual top movie of the year was Cleopatra, a huge Theda Bara historical romance that apparently cost half a million dollars to make (about the same as 1916 blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) but it’s apparently lost, which is kind of heartbreaking.

Here, we’ve already encountered the on-screen energy and the off-screen business mind of the amazing Mary Pickford – in 1914’s Tess of the Storm Country. We know that by the time of this movie she’d already been a big star for years – since before actors were even named in the credits, in fact – and was essentially an exec on everything she was in, with huge influence over every decision. She’d weary of playing these childlike roles but she was a very pragmatic businesswoman and played essentially the same plucky adolescent until well into her thirties, by which time she was a very rich movie executive.

As in Tess of the Storm Country, Pickford dominates every scene she’s in (other actors must have had mixed feelings about joining any Pickford production – knowing they’d be definitively overshadowed but with a decent chance of a hit). In this film, directed by Frenchman Maurice Tourneur, the overshadowed roles are terrific. They have a real fairytale charm – carefully-crafted storybook archetypes: funny, sinister, cruel, playful, stern.

There are some lovely street urchins, a charming organ grinder, various prickly and supercilious servants, some authentically remote and aristocratic grown-ups. There’s no wooden line-reading here, no static theatricality. In one scene, a dozen servants, in all the costumes of a great house – chef, maid, gardener, butler, chauffeur – enter a scene in a kind of pantomine procession, snaking around the furniture in a way that’ll make you giggle. In another, those urchins party riotously in the house’s fancy garden – a place of shadows and narrow pathways and low-hanging trees – street kids but also nymphs at play.

Still from 1917 fairy tale film The Poor Little Rich Girl. May Pickford, playing a child, a tall man in a top hat, a crystal ball, a person dressed as a donkey
From the dream sequence

Pickford’s Gwendolyn spends essentially the whole of the second act in a kind of coma (for she has been drugged). The resulting dream sequence is delightful – full of proper childhood dread plus also angels and wooded glades and staircases and top hats and crystal balls and other lovely things – double-exposures and back projections are convincingly magical. She’s accompanied by a friendly plumber from real life (he keeps a length of pipe over his shoulder as a reminder) and they encounter a group of hilarious bears, a splendid pantomime donkey, two of the nasty servants who’ve been punished, one with huge ears and one with an extra scary face on the back of her head. You’ll want to watch it all again.

The movie’s visual style is spookily like a Disney film from twenty years later. Walt was 16 when this movie was released. Presumably at this point he was busy soaking up the surreal, fairytale aesthetic of this and other (mostly French?) films. Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo – they’re all brought to mind in the magical interiors, the light and dark of the big house and garden, the (multiple) dream scenes and in the innocence and waywardness of our ‘princess’. The director’s artful play with shadow – and with bizarre imagery – must have run in the family – Jacques Tourneur, his son, was also a brilliant stylist of light – he made the 1942 Cat People and I Walk With a Zombie.

When Gwendolyn regains consciousness and is finally released from her confinement in her family’s fancy home in the city (it’s another archetype so we don’t know where it is but it’s basically a Park Avenue mansion styled as a fairytale castle) to the countryside, audiences must have breathed a big sigh – the atmosphere lightens, the light floods in. It’s a joy (and there’s lots of fun in the mud, tree climbing and so on).

Mary Pickford was in hundreds of films – sometimes shooting two or three per week. I’m no expert but I haven’t seen a weak one yet. They must exist but there’s obviously something about this actress that makes it almost impossible to make a bad film with her in it – and her contribution is always essentially the same: generosity, vivacity, charm. Pickford was screen gold of the kind any studio would treasure.

This review turned into a disquisition on underwater storytelling

This adaptation of Jules Verne’s great submarine romance was the top-grossing film of 1916and it wasn’t even the first movie version

A poster for 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A huge octopus wraps its tentacles around a circular image of captain Nemo and crew members. Two divers, one on each side of the poster, wear old-fashioned diving helmets

UPDATE, 11 October 2023. I found an absolutely gorgeous restoration of 20,000 Leagues, also on YouTube. Watch that one instead of the horrible one linked below!

The project continues. I’m watching the top-grossing movies of every year since 1913. I’m up to 1916 and it’s a vastly ambitious (and ruinously expensive) Jules Verne adaptation.

Look, it’s not a great film – in many ways it’s horrible – but it’s a landmark in all sorts of ways, not least because of these two lads.

The Williamson brothers – what a pair of sorts

The Williamson Brothers, George and Ernest – “who alone have solved the secret of under-the-ocean photography” it says in a card at the beginning of the film – had invented a way to shoot under water (it was based on a patented invention of their father’s). It took them years to perfect it – by the time this project came around they’d shot tens of thousands of feet of film under water and released two or three one-reelers of their own using the kit in 1914 and 1915, to the amazement of audiences everywhere. This film, an early Universal production, was directed by Brit Stuart Paton, but this is really the Williamsons’ movie.

These guys are the Douglas Trumbull or George Lucas of their era – geeks who love film. The little video at the top is from the opening credits of the movie, which tells you something about their status in the project – not mere technicians. There’s a real commitment to the new tech here. The Williamsons knew that audiences were eager for new sensations and ownership of a whole new category – stories set beneath the waves – might make them some serious money. They developed a slightly unhinged, multi-year obsession with making it work. I’d like to know more about the Williamsons and suspect there’s a pretty good film in their inventiveness and their lunatic drive – perhaps made by the Coen Brothers.

A page from a 1913 Scientific American explaining the operation of the Williamson brothers' underwater filming aparatus in a series of eight photographs

The Williamson method involved a patented 30-foot long, collapsible tube (“a portable hole in the ocean“, they called it) with an iron chamber at the bottom end of it. The chamber was cranked down into the water with a camera operator crouching inside it, presumably praying the studio’s insurance was up to date (some accounts of the tech suggest it was all done with mirrors – which seems to be untrue. The detail here is pretty convincing). Specially developed film stock meant the Williamsons could achieve an exposure of 1/50th of a second, making shooting moving pictures perfectly feasible at 16 frames per second. The operator used a conventional camera and shot the undersea world through a thick glass window. No one had to get wet and no special cameras were needed. Scenes were shot in shallow, sunlit water so lighting wasn’t needed – The effect is impressive – and must have been mindblowing in a darkened cinema in 1916. Huge sharks, schools of smaller fish, a reef and a ship wreck are all seen with amazing clarity.

Look! Sharks!

The way the great sharks in particular circulate in the dappled light of the shallows and then loom menacingly out of the haze is beautiful and chilling. The intertitles use the language of the unmotivated shark attack, man-eaters, killing machines, suggesting that the irrational fear of these beasts long pre-dates Jaws – a whole new genre of fiction is proposed right here.

Later in the film, scenes are shot on the sandy bottom as if on a studio soundstage. Actors (stunt performers?) in big diving suits are directed in an awkward analogue of the dry-land process. Shooting began almost 40 years before the invention of scuba diving so these are not the diving scenes we’re all familiar with now in which actors move naturally, oriented parallel to the surface, kicking to achieve smooth motion and exploring with the freedom of a baracuda or an eel.

So the undersea action doesn’t take place in the magical unanchored world of the water column, with free movement in all directions. It all takes place in the two-dimensional setting of the sea bottom. Motion is achieved by literally walking from mark to mark (in weighted boots). Everything’s basically shifted sideways (and down a bit) to the bottom of the ocean.

Meanwhile, Paton’s artful adaptation of the Jules Verne – he blends the storylines from the original book and its sequel ‘The Mysterious Island’ and develops Nemo’s Indian Prince back-story. Also, balloonists from the Union Army, escaping a civil war ambush, crash on the island (I kid you not). There’s a strange and unsettling sequence where a ‘child of nature’, played by Jane Gail, who was already a big star (and was in 1913’s top-grossing Traffic in Souls, which I reviewed here) is bothered by various boorish and/or murderous blokes until we learn that she is actually Nemo’s daughter and the story begins to resolve itself in the standard melodramatic way. In one bizarre scene, Gail, blacked-up and wearing an inexplicable leopardskin shift, is shown how to wear trousers and a nice white shirt. She quickly takes to the new duds.

A man tries to explain clothing to a woman dressed in a leopard skin shift
Your arm goes in here

There’s much in Verne’s stories about Imperialism, liberty and self-determination. Nemo flees India after an unsuccessful uprising against British rule, he sacrifices all for the liberty of the undersea world. I can imagine a viable, low-budget remake – a festival hit with a post-colonial technofuturist vibe. Nemo was transposed, between the first book and the second, from Polish to Indian. Might he be further transposed to the role of undersea warrior for the Global South? A deep-sea superhero with an agenda?

In this film, which simplifies the geopolitics, let’s face it, the freedom idealised is not the ideal of the book’s French Republican author or even the dippy 20th Century freedom of the nature-worshipping scuba diver but the purposeful freedom of the 19th Century adventurer-explorer – conquering an unknown terrain by just walking off into it with a gun (the divers carry weapons that look like Winchester rifles from a cowboy film – we learn they’re powered by compressed air). There’s a hunting scene in which Nemo and his amazed guests stalk sharks in the manner of big game hunters on safari.

The unconstrained motion, the fish-like propulsion and the elegant forward movement of a scuba diver would have seemed weird, alienating, to audiences in 1916, as these straight-backed hunters walking the underwater range seem odd to us. If you studied the way the undersea imaginary in the movies has evolved since this film you’d presumably locate some kind of pivot – from ungainly and upright to elegant and unconstrained – in the motion of cinematic divers. But when did it occur? 1930s? WW2? Jacques Cousteau’s 1960s’? And was there a resistance to the idea that divers ought to set aside humanity’s pretty well-established bipedal mode for the swishing to-and-fro of a lower species? We’re used to it now but is there something fishy and inhuman about the movement of a scuba diver?

Pioneer scuba diver and documentary-maker Jacques Cousteau under water in a scuba diving suit
Cousteau doing his thing

20,000 Leagues wasn’t the first film set on a submarine. Interest in undersea adventures and submarine warfare was heightened by the first world war, in which both allied and German forces had used terrifying, high-tech submarines. Only a year before this film was released, 1,200 people had died when a German U-boat sank the ocean liner Lusitania off the coast of Ireland.

An illustration showing the sinking ot the ocean liner RMS Lusitania - the ship has just been struck by a torpedo and is listing dramatically to starboard. Passengers on deck are clinging to rails.

Shipping was under constant attack from the huge German submarine fleet which treated all trans-Atlantic shipping as a legitimate target. These events must have been present to cinemagoers everywhere. A submarine was a source of wonder and of dread – the autonomous drone of its day. A marauding agent of hypermodern maritime destruction (30% of the world’s merchant fleet was sunk by German U-boats during the war).

Appropriately Nemo’s submarine is run on naval lines, uniformed sailors salute and parade on the top deck (they wear a natty oversized floppy beret). The elements of the submarine narrative are all already here: hatches and airlocks, bulkheads, valves and dials. Ratings rush hither and thither with messages. There’s a periscope and a realistic torpedo room and a shiny steel torpedo (carefully polished by the crew before launch).

Illustration of the submarine Nautilus from the 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
The 1954 Nautilus was a pretty grand vessel

But this Nautilus is not really Verne’s fabulous, exotic vessel and definitely not the buttressed undersea gothic cathedral of the 1954 Disney film (this is the adaptation that’s meaningful to people of my generation – it was a fixture at Saturday morning pictures throughout my childhood). For the 1916 film a working (but non-submersible) submarine was built. It’s impressive but it’s basically a cigar-shaped boat.

The submarine Nautilus, a life-sized vessel built for the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, on a calm sea. On the top deck a group of five me stand around.

And it’s not grand – the only concession to Nemo’s flamboyance is a saloon draped with fabrics and hung with artefacts from his past as an Indian prince (Allen Holubar, who plays Nemo, is, uncomfortably, blacked up for the role and brings a kind of Santa Claus meets Jack Sparrow energy). Nemo’s saloon is also the location of the big, round observation window at which his guests gather to watch the action outside.

And speaking of action outside, the other dramatic centrepiece of Verne’s book – the battle with the terrifying giant octopus that threatens to envelope Nautilus and swallow it whole – is here rendered as a – frankly pathetic – man-sized flapping rubber toy, something from Spongebob Squarepants – apparently controlled from the inside by an operator (and also patented by the Williamsons – these guys were the Jobs and Wozniak of silent cinema).

The movie may have cost $500,000 – enough to make a pretty professional narrative film even in the present day (almost five times the budget for D.W. Griffiths’ 12-reel epic The Birth of a Nation, released in the previous year) – but it lacks the intoxicating strangeness of the original. It’s a technological testbed for production methods that would one day become routine but it’s also a clumsily-told story and a cheesy orientalist fantasy. Performances are never better than routine and mis-en-scène is awkward and flat (although I reckon this might be more to do with the essentially impossible challenge of matching the interior narrative sequences with the sensational stuff going on through the big window out on the sea bottom). Poor Stuart Paton.

Technofeudalism, neofeudalism, political capitalism and old-fashioned capitalism

It is possible for geniuses to explain things in ways that non-geniuses can understand but sometimes they need to switch formats to do it.

Microverses: Observations from a Shattered Present – a book by Dylan Riley

I’ve spent a stupid amount of time trying to understand Marxism – political science in general, in fact. I ought to have just gone to college or something but it’s too late for that so I buy books and subscribe to periodicals and so on. I follow interesting lefties on Twitter, I read Substacks and listen to podcasts. I’m all over it. But to be honest it’s not really working. I mean it goes in one ear and out the other.

The best I get is a very gradual – almost undetectable in fact – improvement in my understanding. Pretty much the same kind of glacial change I’m seeing in my ability to write poetry (which I’ve also been doing for years) or to construct decent-looking shelves for all the fucking books. This has got to do with my age obvs but also, it’s clear, to do with the fact that I’m doing this in the piecemeal, unsystematic way of a distracted hobbyist.

My kids went off to university and studied this stuff for three years and now they explain it to me like I’m an idiot. I obviously envy their comprehensive, organised understanding, given to them in the time-honoured way by experts and, in fact, by geniuses. But I’m still here, trying to figure it all out.

This guy, Dylan Riley, is one of the geniuses, a big brain who teaches sociology in California and writes books and papers and long articles about Marxism and society and so on. He came to my (disorganised) attention last year when he co-wrote a piece for New Left Review – with an even bigger genius called Robert Brenner (who has a whole area of disagreement named after him) – about the emergence of something they call ‘political capitalism’.

I won’t try to explain it in any detail – I’d certainly get it all wrong – but it’s a fascinating idea that seems to account for the way investors and corporations continue to make increasing profits even as the return on investment declines almost everywhere. The piece has been influential beyond lefty circles and the ideas contained in it have begun to show up in mainstream politics and journalism.

Political capitalism – the delivery of economic outcomes by non-economic means – is known by others as ‘neofeudalism’ and sometimes ‘technofeudalism’. French economist Thomas Piketty has made a career out of explaining this phenomenon and written several enormous books about it, including Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Some Marxists, though – perhaps the more orthodox ones – are dismissive of this whole discussion – where the proponents of political capitalism see a new terrain of accumulation and exploitation, they see only more capitalism. Evgeny Morozov, another genius whose specialism is a Marxist reading of the Internet and computing, has written a very comprehensive and quite sceptical survey of the various flavours of technofeudalism.

Anyway, the piece – and the other stuff he’s written that I’ve dug out since then – is full of deep insights and lofty ideas, as you’d expect, and a lot of it goes whoooooosh over my head while I wrinkle my brow. So I was kind of intrigued to learn that Riley had also written a little book made up of tiny, informal notes that he wrote to himself – in longhand in an actual notebook – during the pandemic.

To be clear, these are not the notes (“400 rolls of toilet paper, 20kg spaghetti”) that I was writing during the pandemic, they’re notes about the genius stuff – and in particular they’re reflections on Covid, lockdown, the bail-outs and so on. So I thought “that’s going to be right up my street, it’s going to be accessible Marxism that I can get my head around, in small chunks that aren’t going to put me off and make me feel stupid.”

And it is. I mean it’s still full of big ideas and a lot of assumptions are made about the reader’s understanding of politics and sociology (get ready for a lot of Durkheim) but it’s also full of nifty, two- or three-line insights – aphorisms, I guess – that genuinely illuminate the whole scene, the whole post-pandemic, end-of-the-end-of-history, collapse-of-neoliberalism thing – but also Trump, music education, the economics of slavery, socialist utopia…

Riley’s language is never less than academic and can be po-faced. He never doesn’t take himself seriously, which is something I also kind of envy, actually. I mean the confidence to lay down idea after idea without at any point feeling the need to make a joke at your own expense or understate your intelligence or whatever.

Like, for instance, demolishing the whole idea of democracy in four lines:

To imagine a postcapitalist political order is to imagine an order without sovereignty—and therefore without the metaphysics of sovereignty and its terminology, such as “democracy”—but with coordination and rationality.

Or illumating the present moment via the ancient state:

The state is an object of struggle among competing political-capitalist cliques. In antiquity two models emerged: the universal monarchy, which to some extent disciplined these groups; and the unstable republic, which allowed them to run rampant. Are there not analogues in the current period? Putin’s Russia could be thought of as the Roman universal monarchy, and the United States the unstable republican form.

That kind of thing.

And it’s one of those books that make you think “come on, geniuses, why don’t you do this in all your stuff? If you can make big ideas clear in a flash and in about 300 words of pellucid prose in one format, why can’t you do it when you’re filling a big, fat book?” Is there something about the stylistic liberty provided by the informal layout that permits these more relaxed, generous, explanatory insights and something about the academic format that inhibits them?

Anyway, Riley’s book is a jewel – and it’s so short you’ll read it in a couple of days – or, since it’s not in any way linear, you can just keep it by the toilet.