Liz Truss is a belter.

The formless nought. That was my thinking when I heard Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kwasi Kwarteng mentioning ‘the people,’ ‘the people’ he talked to, ‘the people’ he listened to, ‘the people’—

Not my people. Not me.

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, friend of Queen Victoria,  leader of the Conservative Party and twice Prime Minister but also a writer. Sybil (1845), for example, brought the two nations argument into dining rooms. The working class, of course, did not need to read about it in novels they couldn’t afford to buy, we lived it.

‘Two nations: between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.

You speak of… the rich and the poor.’

 PM Liz Truss and her chancellor no longer are going to implement a 45p tax rate for top earners, equivalent to Thatcher’s hated poll tax, but worse, because that possibility remains.

Liz Truss puts her faith in trickle-down economics. Also called supply-side economics, or monetarism as opposed to Keynesism. Thatcherism. Reaganomics. Trumpism. Lowering taxes and cutting regulation will promote economic growth.  A coded form of letting the rich grow rich. 

Margaret Thatcher, Conservative Party leader but not yet Prime Minister in a speech given in early1975, to The Institute of Socioeconomic studies in New York, outlined her philosophy in her ‘Let the Poppies Grow Tall speech’. ‘I would say, let our children grow tall and some taller than others if they have the ability in them to do so’.

Greed is good. Money trickles down the economy and everyone wins. But some more than others. There’s not much trickle down from King Charles III’s conservatively valued £10 billion of art work. But he gets to put his mugshot on our notes and coins. Its value goes on rising as the economy goes into triple-dip recession. He’s looking down on us. Sterling tanks, allied to the economic folly of Brexit which knocks around five-percent off Gross Domestic Product. The price of money goes up. Mortgages go up, the value of our homes fall, for the first time since the financial crisis, but not too far. There’s a safety net for investment. Demand for housing outstrips supply. The oldest, most costly and least energy-efficient housing in Europe (50% built before 1965, most of it council stock, 20% built before the end of the first world war, housing for heroes). Price, in theory, will find a new equilibrium under Alfred Marshall’s original supply and demand diagram. The free market will have done its job of allocating scarce resources.

The Tory government refused to let the Office for Budget Responsibility audit these tax cuts. But According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies, only taxpayers whose earnings are £155 000 or more would have paid less tax in the government’s mini-budget. Millionaires would, nominally, become £40 000 per annum better off. Spending and welfare payments to be cut, and not to rise with inflation, which is another way of penalising the poor.  Austerity the answer for one of the two nations. Withdrawing free child care for three-to-four-year-olds marked down as a saving. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, 800 000 children living in England are missing out on free-school meals and going hungry.  Ten-to-fifteen percent, the amount house prices are likely to fall next year according to analysts. Eight million households struggling to pay telecom bills, according to Offcom, a record.

Fredrich Heyek (1944) The Road to Serfdom argument that a central bureaucracy will lead to militarism and fascism. Council houses equals fascism. British Rail equals fascism. Public control of water companies equals fascism. Health Care and the NHS equals fascism.

Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, the class enemy of Thatcher’s government. 85 000 coal miners and then there were none.  His mantra that not a seam of coal would be left in the ground has much the same ring as Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Right Honourable Jacob Rees-Moggs’s claim that no untapped gas should be left in the North Sea. No great surprise that deniers of manmade climate change and deregulation have the same office and same ideology.

BP, which used to be owned by the taxpayer, who like other energy companies have had a good war in Ukraine, and enjoyed massive windfall profits with sky-high oil prices, chief executive, Bernard Looney was paid £4.46 million in 2021. Like his colleagues in Shell and British Centrica, top ups range from around £75 000 to just over £550 000. More is on the way for less.

The Rand Corporation in the United States shows decades of tax cut and deregulation of labour markets have taken around $50 trillion in wage growth from the bottom 90% of earners and given it to the top 1%.

We talk about subsidising Putin’s war by buying Russia’s oil and gas. We are familiar with sanctions against Russian oligarchs who have supported the Conservative Party. But we remain wilfully blind to who helped the moron’s moron get Trump elected in the United States in 2016, supported Nigel Farage and engineered Brexit. We’re talking Moscow.

  But as James Meek argues in Private Island, the free marketeers in selling off public assets at knockdown prices effectively subsidised other nation’s public sector, privatised and taken back into state control. The French state energy company EDF is a good example. The company we hoped would build new reactors for us with Chinese partners. Our government ditched the Chinese for political reasons. EDF ditched our government for financial reasons. There wasn’t enough cash in it for their private monopoly. Win-win for them.

Meek tells the reader what we already know about privatisation.

‘The Spanish economist Germa Bel traces the origins of the word to the German Reprivatiserung, first used in English in 1936 by the Berlin correspondent of The Economist, writing about the Nazi economic policy in 1943.

‘The Nazi Party facilitates the accumulation of private fortunes and industrial empires through “privatisation” and other measures thereby intensifying centralisation of economic affairs in an increasingly narrow group.’

Ironically, Karl Marx’s dictum that all value comes from the surplus value of labour shows best how deregulation worked in concentration camps that benefited the national socialist elite and their eugenic philosophy. Heinrich Himmler, a leading architect of the holocaust, had a sign over the entry to Auschwitz: ‘Work makes you free’. He benefited from the unit cost of labour. Worker’s wages were driven down. Uniforms, housing, and food were provided by the SS. They acted as a modern employment agency where workers were replaceable parts. The commodity price of labour fell to the bare bones with sick days limited and near to zero. A right-wing paradise and the trains ran on time. Even Amazon or Uber would find it difficult to beat such benefits.

Surplus value. The gap between the price the worker can sell his or her labour for and the price of the commodity on the free market widens. Win-win for efficiency and the capitalist mode of production. The hidden cost of labour is taken out of the equation. Low cost labour labelled workshy or lazy by the right-wing media or lacking the prerequisite skills, until we’re told to clap them as they worked throughout the pandemic. Now those same workers are labelled greedy and unreasonable for not agreeing to inflationary pay cuts.     

 Thatcher did not have a patent on privatisation.  The Common Lands used for the good of communities was made uncommon. Those that owned the land owned the people on the land.

Unchained Britannica, the cabal of free marketeers who seized power committed themselves to the same path as Cameron and Osborne’s austerity budgets or Johnson’s levelling-up agenda. Taking money from the poor and giving it to the rich (the reverse-Robin Hood, I’ve been saying that for ten years or more). But they talked about it in the wrong language. They scared Tory voters. And they scared the markets they claimed to understand better than anyone else. George Soros bought sterling and sold sterling. Black Wednesday, 16th September 1992, wasn’t black for him. He made billions of dollars. Sterling’s weakness  was regarded as a snapshot of the economy by trading markets. Hedge funds are similarly piling into the pound, borrowing to bet it will fall to parity with the dollar. Money for nothing. Who works for it?

Chrystia Freeland (2013) in the introduction to Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super Rich noted the super-rich, or the one-percent, didn’t like being called rich. They prefer the term affluent. Winners and losers. We’re all in it together rhetoric of David Cameron. Bumps in the economy ahead. A 2011 experiment conducted by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School with behavioural economist Dan Early, Duke University showed people the wealth distribution of the United States (top 20% own 84% of wealth) and compared it to Sweden’s (top 20% own 36% of wealth), and asked them where they would like to live.

The predictable answer is Sweden wins, even as it is becoming more right-wing, insular and moving towards the American model. Ironically, the Swedish model of wealth distribution was similar to the American model and indeed the British model of the 1950s.

What happened?

‘The skew towards the very top (accelerated after the moron’s moron, Trump took office in 2016) is so pronounced that you cannot understand economic growth figures without taking it into account.’

Trussonomics and the Tory Party, and the magic money tree, follow this model of deception based on nominal economic growth. After the 2008, $700 billion banking bailout in which unregulated (which they termed self-regulation) money men were given public money, which was mirrored in Britain and around the world at no cost to the rich. Boom and bust for some. Greed is indeed good. All the gains, none of the losses. America’s economic recovery in 2009-10 of 2.3% of GDP could be considered impressive out with China and Asian economies.

Economist Emmanuel Saez had a closer look at these growth figures. ‘99% of American’s incomes increased by 0.2%. Incomes for the top 1% rose by 11.6%.’

Tweets, President Joe Biden: ‘I am sick and tired of trickle-down economics. It has never worked. We’re building an economy from the bottom up and the middle out.’

Thomas Piketty (2014) The New York Times Bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century was based on fifteen years of research. He acknowledges the empirical data provided by Simon Kutznet and compared him to Karl Marx. Kutznet’s theory could be summarised in a single sentence spouted by President Reagan, ad-libbed by numerous politicians, the latest being Prime Minister Liz Truss.

‘Growth is a rising tide that lifts all ships.’

Kutznev, like Piketty, was measuring income distribution. Who gets what, without providing the why as Marx did.

‘He (Kutznev) noted a sharp reduction in income inequality in the United States between 1913 and 1948.’

America was becoming a more equal society. Income equality would follow the path of the Kutznet Bell Curve. Inequality was shrinking as Americans and the world became more middle-class.

Freeland compares Alexis de Tocqueville’s prediction to Kutznet’s, which sounds very like a justification for the modernity of colonialism and the white man’s burden. He was writing in the early years of the industrial revolution, when the wealth and status of landowners was being undermined by industrialists who poured labour into the coal mines, shipyards and sugar plantations (that’s not to claim that many industrialists weren’t also aristocratic, the two aren’t mutually exclusive) and took out vast sums of money or capital.

‘If one looks closely at the world since the beginning of society, it is easy to see that equality is only prevalent in the historical poles of civilisation. Savages are equal because they are equally weak and ignorant. Very civilised men can all become equal because they all have at their disposal similar mean of attaining comfort and happiness. Between these two extremes is found inequality of condition, wealth, knowledge—the power of the few, the poverty, ignorance and weakness of the rest.’

Piketty worked with other economists to analyse, like Kutznet, wealth distribution and inequality in around twenty nations using historical and contemporary data such as income tax returns. His findings are clear. Hayek believed we were on the The Road to Serfdom. Much the same road as Marx envisaged in his theory of infinite accumulation. Wealth increasingly flows from the poor the rich, who use their resources to deregulate and create an environment in which inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient, like global warming, reaches increasingly new highs, which become the new norms to further pauperise society and call for more tax cuts for ‘the people’. We lost the propaganda war. Fox News is no news. Plutocrats might not like to be called rich or super-rich. No bell-shaped Kutznet curve, but the hockey stick of man-made global warming shooting up year on year, running in tandem with the wealth of the super-rich and growing inequality. In our new gilded age, the must have is a bolt-hole away from common humanity and the coming apocalypse. Liz Truss could play her part as being the useful idiot that builds a fence to keep out the poor. Inside the gilded escape pod, the problem of labour returns in a familiar form. How do we keep the servants servile? How do we keep labour labouring? Discuss, Liz Truss.         

Ryszard Kapuscinski (1993) Imperium.

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born in 1932 and grew up in the Polesie region on Poland (today Belorussia). Pinsk was liberated by Soviet troops in 1939. From what wasn’t clear. He learned the Cyrillic Russian alphabet as school from a single copy of Stalin’s Studies in Leninism, watched arbitrary mass deportations to Siberia and starved with his family. He remained liberated for most of his adult life and witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  The unravelling of the Imperium: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn 1992.

The system that governs us is a combination of the old nomenclatura, the sharks of finance, false democrats, and the KGB. I cannot call this democracy—it is a repugnant historically unprecedented hybrid, and we do not know in which direction it will develop…[but] if the alliance will prevail they will be exploiting us not for seventy, but for one hundred and seventy years.   

We do know the direction Russia took under Vladimir Putin. Kapuscinski marks out the direction of travel. He speaks of the old native Russia. His reading and understand of Bierdayev’s book as a student at university who tried to outline what the Imperium was and the paradox of what does a Russian think when he is somewhere such as the shore of the Yenisry.

He can walk along for days and months and always Russia will surround him. The plains have no end, nor the forests, nor the rivers. To rule over such boundless expanses, says Bierdayev, one had to create a boundless state.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace showed the hubris of Napoleon and the triumph of Mother Russia. The Great Patriotic War as the Second World War was called was when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic defeated the Nazis (that had an alliance with until 1942). There were two superpowers in the world when the war ended and America was the enemy. They fought proxy-wars, Korea at the beginning of the 1950s. Communist China, a pauper state, under Chairman Mao provided unlimited manpower and around one million troops. Soviet MIG fighters protected ground troops. General McArthur, holed up as proxy-Emperor of Japan wanted to fight on, go all the way to China, all the way to Russia. War weary, General, later President Eisenhower, divided Korea. Both superpowers had nuclear weapons. China acquired them from Russia.

The Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction. John F. Kennedy at the end of 1962 called the Russian’s bluff over Cuban missiles. I was too young to remember. Now we’re too old to care. Then Putin, 24th February 2022 threatens nuclear war for interference over his invasion plans of Ukraine.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia for eight years. It used to be the breadbasket of Russia and exported grain to Germany, now it exports its crops to China. Its soil was so fertile it was said that if you left a stick in the ground a tree would bloom. Yet, during Stalin’s purges millions starved. Putin’s military has annexed Crimea. The second day of their full-scale invasion and troops surround the capital Kyiv. But with amphibious landings on Mariupol and Donbas.   

Kapuscinski reminds us of falling into the abyss. The massacre of around 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey in 1915, the greatest mass genocide until Hitler. Regarded as traitors and infiltrators. In Putin’s terms neo-Nazis and drug addicts.    

‘Nationalism is the forbidden fruit.’

The Chechen Wars were good wars for Putin. The use of overwhelming military force, mass murder and torture quelled the North Caucasus. Puppet government.

‘A state that does not have a state seeks salvation in symbols. The protection of the symbol is important to it as protection of borders to other states. The cult of the symbol becomes a form of the cult of the country. Protection of the symbol becomes an act of patriotism.’

Look at the map, Kapuscinski says of Aremenia, but he could also be speaking of Ukraine.  The Russian bear wants to swallow it up. But he offers another lesson.

Look at the history books, ‘A magnificent ascent, and then, a dispiriting fall’.

The West (by which we mean President Joe Biden) offers overwhelming sanctions against Russia, but not if it pushes up the price of petrol for the average American. I wonder when the backbiting will start about the four million refugees not coming into Europe, because they’re already here. Are we sliding down the same road, taking sides, picking allies? Imperium is an insider account of a refugee that’s not a refugee in the old Soviet Socialist Republics Putin thinks still exist. Keeping your mouth shut doesn’t guarantee you’ll be OK. Not taking sides is taken sides. I’m not taking sides. I hope Ukraine wins, whatever that means. But I doubt its people will. Putin will win—for now.  I don’t know what that means either.   

Charles Egan (2017) Cold Is the Dawn

When people talk about literary merit, I wander away to the pub to have a pint. Since the pubs are closed, and I get smashed by a snifter of poitin, or indeed three pints, perhaps slightly more (when I’m watching Celtic) I’ll hang about. Literary merit is just a fancy way of asking if you liked the book. I don’t finish books I don’t like. Cold Is the Dawn is 427 pages. So you do the maths of how much I liked it.

If like me, you have a manuscript (or indeed manuscripts) lying about in various stages of distress then you note who publishes them. Cold Is The Dawn is published by SilverWood Books. I had a look at their business model. They help self-publishing authors publish. Something I’ve been thinking about. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but point 11 of Frequently Asked Questions: I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?

https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/faq

You know when Oliver Hardy pokes Stan Laurel in the eye (you need to be a certain age to remember Laurel and Hardy) and stamps on his toe, then they accidentally bump heads with a knocking sound. And then they sing The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, by the trail of the lonesome pine, because it makes more sense than I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?   

I guess a book deal with SilverWood Books costs an author around £10 000. An Unbound Book costs much the same. That’s the market rate if you’ve got that kind of dosh. So Charles Egan invested his cash, put his money down as an investment in literary merit. What did he get for his money?

The cover of a group of miners (if that’s what they are) staring at the camera, with the superimposed image of an older man in a flat bunnet looking on—passable. The white font of white on black for the author’s name and the title of the novel stands out. The reader is told it’s ‘A novel of Irish Exile and the Great Irish Famine’.

The Irish Holocaust interests me, because I’m part Irish and I’m thinking of writing about it. The current population of Ireland is almost five million, with more citizens living in Dublin, than all of the other areas combined.  https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ireland-population/ If we go back to the 1960s the Irish population dipped under three million.

Ian Gibson writes in the foreword The Great Famine, Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845-51, that out of a population of around eight million people, about a million people died, and around another one-and-a-half million emigrated, but there were no exact figures, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many of the poorest weren’t registered and included in official data. They did not live in Dublin and were wholly dependent on the potato crops.

Charles Egan’s way into carrying the weight of such history is by concentrating on Luke Ryan’s extended family and their fortune in the aftermath of the potato blight. County Mayo, where Michael and Eleanor, Luke’s mum and dad, have a farm and quarry was one of the hardest hit regions in Ireland.

This is home territory, for Luke’s wife Winnie and their son, Liam, before they sail across the Atlantic to join Luke in New York and later Pennsylvania, where the couple starve in the new world.

Luke’s younger brother, Pat, is the bridge to England. Irish farmworkers often made the journey across the water to help harvest crops in England and send money home to pay the rent to rapacious landowners. But Pat returns to Mayo to work compiling reports on the effects of the famine.  This allows the reader to travel with him as he charts the impact of ‘The Exterminator’, Mayo’s largest landlord, Lord Lucan as he cleared the land he owned of tenants.

In the Preface, Egan tells the reader of the Railway’s boom and bust.

‘Of the estimated two hundred thousand navvies working on the railway construction in 1847, one hundred thousand were without work by the middle of 1848. For labour contractors on the railways, many of them Irish, this was an excellent opportunity to exploit hungry Irish workers.’

Egan places his characters in the middle of this moral quagmire. Luke’s aged Uncle Murty Ryan (he’s around my age) works on the construction of the English railroads. But to begin with he works as a clerk. Murty Ryan’s eldest son Danny is a contractor, hiring and firing Irish labour, shipped in directly from the workhouse in Mayo. And shipped back home by Bradford and Liverpool workhouses when they were no longer needed. They regarded Irish people as a pestilence and a plagued nation. But relief efforts were a fraction of the sum spent on The Crimean War.

Egan makes use of news reports to add ballast to his fiction. London, Morning Chronicle in November 1848, for example, reported, as an opinion piece that might  have been written by a Nigel Farage of yesteryear.  ‘We say therefore that we grudge the immense sums which we appear likely that we have to pay this year to Irish Unions very much indeed, because we know that it will be thrown into a bottomless pit, and because we feel that money, thus wasted, would be better in removing them than feeding in idleness the people of Mayo—in getting rid of the burden, than in perpetuating it.’

Murty Ryan’s eldest son, Danny had established a foothold in the railway construction business, before he committed suicide. An Irish man he was an exploiter of his fellow man. Something Murty abhorred. When his youngest son steps into his elder brother’s shoes he proves even more ruthless. He pays them even less than Danny and charges them rent for shacks. He pays them in script that can only be exchanged in company shops. In other words, Murtybeg is a good businessman that exploits needy labour. In modern parlance, he creates jobs for his fellow countrymen.

A subplot involves Murtybeg being played off by Irene, who claimed to be his elder brother’s common-law wife, and therefore in control of the company they created. Murtybeg, being merely a paid employee. He gets an immediate rise in pay of three shillings a week, but his workload increases accordingly. Irish navvies working for the company make do with a shilling a week. Murtybeg is both exploiter and exploited by Irene, but he’s far above the Irish navvy class. He’s almost gentry.  Facing off against Irene to take control of the company Murtybeg seeks legal advice. It’s not Charles Dickens Jarndyce and Jarndyce, (a book I haven’t read) but the way in which it was resolved had me thinking of another novelist. Emile Zola’s La Terre had a woman raped and falling in love with her rapist, which in a different era tied up plot points.

Exploitation takes many forms. Egan’s novel runs on rails and touches on the horrific and short lives that many lived, with children under ten, for example, working in Bradford mills, or pushing coal trucks in the fictional town of Lackan in Pennsylvania, where Luke holes up with Winnie and their child. His novel spans the old world and the new industrial order. It touches on the historical events such as cholera epidemics, fever epidemics, typhus epidemics, repeal of The Corn Laws, the rise in trade union activity, and the search for universal suffrage. The Molly Maguires get a walk on part, as does the less secretive Hibernian associations that tried to the poor Irish, especially those landing in New York harbour and fresh off the boat for exploitation.

Much of the novel relies on conversations between characters to carry the narrative. And like many modern novels can read more like a screenplay. Egan’s problem is characterisation. Luke Ryan, for example, has two lives. One in New York and in Pennsylvania. His backstory about being a gaffer and hated, because he had the power of life and death during an earlier famine, and the rate-funded road-building programme is relevant and stands out. But I couldn’t pick Luke Ryan out in a police line-up. I don’t know what he looks like. His friends and companions, say six in each region are interchangeable doodles. Different clothes, same person. Similarly, major characters such as Pat, Murtybeg, or Murty also carry the weight of another six, sometimes more, minor characters that are also doodles. Egan in going for greater breadth of worlds has given his characters less depth.

Pat, for example, slaps the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s eugenic views were on par with ‘The Great Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, who was sure it pleased God that his troops had massacred 3000 men, women and children at Drogheda, with only a handful escaping.  Carlyle may have been in Mayo. Few would argue he needed slapped (add the moron’s moron Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to my list, fling in anyone that identifies as One-NationTory) but Carlyle seems smoke and air, and little of substance.  Where I  overwrite my characters, Egan underwrites.

Charles Egan has tapped into the Irish holocaust and the cultural heritage of The Great Famine at home and abroad. It did change the new worlds. Around 40 million Americans with Irish roots and the current President Joe Biden brings that message home. Capitalism in its rawest form and xenophobia combined. Somehow it seems a familiar tale of rich men and poor men, only one group dying of hunger, labour fodder for the new industrial age. I’m sure with global warming, the worst is yet to come.