From the other end of the modern

Italo Svevo and Adam Tooze (and Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng)

Trieste, by Russell Davies

So, in his book about the real hero of modern literature, historian Franco Moretti put me on to Italo Svevo’s 1922 novel Zeno’s Conscience. It’s a brilliant and prophetic book. With our hero, businessman Zeno Cosini, we walk the streets of Trieste, a port city at the edge of a collapsing empire and at the edge of the unfortunate 20th century, the most annoying and loveable (and most unreliable) unreliable narrator you’ll ever meet.

This narrator is a very up-to-date Austro-Hungarian. He’s an enthusiast for the latest Viennese fad psychoanalysis—we learn that he’s writing all this down for his analyst in Vienna (Doctor S, probably Sigmund Freud, who actually treated Svevo’s brother). He’s a hypochondriac who knows all the latest ailments and treatments, a chemist who knows the composition of all the new remedies, apparently in robust health but surrounded by sick people. An egomaniac – but only in the sense that you would be too, if you were writing everything down for your analyst.

And, in the text, Zeno’s right there, on the cusp of the modern, at the beginning of the long 20th century; all that revolution, industrialisation, despoilation, globalisation—and war after war—just over the horizon.

He’s a modern man, a complicated subject like you or me, a secular bourgeois. He’s superstitious but not religious, a terrible businessman who prospers by accident. In the book he becomes a kind of comic avatar of the emerging scientific capitalism of the late 19th Century. The whole petty theatre of modern business is here: awkward foreign trade, company law, buying and selling shares (in Rio Tinto, supplier of copper to the hypermodern boom industries of electricity and telegraphy – he’s at the bleeding edge), fiddling the books (and worrying about getting caught fiddling the books), surplus stationery purchased in error, shipping and warehousing, HR dilemmas…

There’s a huge stock market loss (and an unlikely recovery), a catastrophic purchase of 60 metric tons of Copper Sulphate from a company in England, a sequence of terrible deals made from Zeno and his brother-in-law’s comically badly-run office (apparently staffed by the cast of the Carry On films—Carmen is Joan Sims, Luciano Jim Dale and Guido Kenneth Williams—prove me wrong).

The story ends with an intriguing perspective on the catastrophe of the Great War from the other end of Europe—from the complicated, multi-party territorial war over Svevo’s beloved Trieste. I won’t spoil the ending but it brings the story to a grand and moving conclusion.

Anyway, I’d just finished Zeno’s story—buoyed by his optimism, his readiness to transcend the darkness of war and death, to enter a rational new world of telephone calls, intercontinental travel, electric light and nation states—when I read Adam Tooze’s latest Substack. It’s about the latest explosion of stupidity and venality in British politics and the ripples it’s caused in the world economy in the last ten days. I experienced an unaccountable tingle of connection between the two stories.

Tooze starts with a fairly close-up view of events in Westminster and the City but his essay quickly spirals out through British and world markets and winds up in a very big (and quite bleak) picture indeed:

The hazards that we face in the global financial markets are entirely human-induced, macro-risks. They are the results of a contradictory, incoherent and hazardous profit-driven system, which the status quo underwrites.

‘The bond market massacre of September 2022’, Adam Tooze

I feel like every time Tooze sits down to document a new human catastrophe these days he can’t help observing that whatever the latest planet-scale fuck-up is, it’s actually also a symptom of something bigger and more final. His last two books documented the financial crisis (Crashed) and the pandemic (Shutdown). The next one will be about the global collapse triggered by Kwasi and Liz’s sixth-form science experiment in the UK economy. It’ll be called ‘Spavined’ or ‘Wrecked’ or ‘Knackered’ and it’ll have a big picture of the pair of them gurning in hard hats on the cover.

Svevo, who was a pal of James Joyce, documented Europe’s entry into modernity. Tooze is observing the way out.


George Osborne revives ideology


I sat in the front row at Demos this morning for shadow chancellor George Osborne’s speech to the think tank (I’m an associate of Demos). Osborne was personable and relaxed. His speech was intelligent and fluently delivered. The man’s a natural. Much that he said was also rather persuasive (but this isn’t the blog post where I announce my conversion to the Tories). He highlighted three types of fairness: fair reward for hard work, fair access to opportunity and (interesting, this one) ‘intergenerational’ fairness.

The whole thing was couched in some proper, old-fashioned ideology: the state cannot guarantee fairness, only a free market operating within a social and legal framework can do that. Osborne made the first explicit reference I’ve heard in many years to Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and for balance he provided a reference to John Rawls (and Osborne’s phrase ‘fair equality of opportunity’ is obviously borrowed from Rawls).

I asked if these traces of ideology might mean we’re in for a bit of argy-bargy—a contest of ideas between the major parties—between now and the election. Osborne’s reply was hardly encouraging: he acknowledged that in some areas it might be difficult to tell the difference between his position and David Milliband’s, for instance. I’m hopeful, though: I’d like to see the parties taking up real positions for the next election—as an antidote to the enervating political paralysis of the Brown era.

Steve Richards has a better account of the speech in The Independent: he’s sceptical about Osborne’s approach to achieving fairness in the context of an out-of-control market.