Monday, 4 January 2016

Required reading

Over Christmas I have been reading Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Number 11. Like John Lanchester’s Capital, which I ‘reviewed’ on this blog, it can be read as a ‘state of the nation’ novel (Coe even makes a joke about this) and, via five interlocking sub-stories, it reprises some of the themes of his earlier books, especially What a Carve Up! and The Closed Circle. Overall, I would characterise these themes as being about the unwinding of the post-war welfare state and its accompanying collectivism, and the ongoing consequences of individualization, privatization and – a key one in Number 11 – monetization (in the sense of putting monetary value on things like education which might otherwise be regarded as valuable in themselves).
The title Number 11 carries several resonances: the address of Britain’s finance minister; the number of the circular bus route that a character rides so as to be warm without heating her home; the number of subterranean floors being dug below an uber-rich family’s London home to extend their already commodious residence. For it’s a satire – sometimes almost judderingly heavy-handed, other times almost painfully delicate – that often addresses some of the themes of this blog, especially those of inequality, tax avoidance, the pitfalls of choice, the politics of ‘austerity’ and, even, the perils of twitter.
The section that spoke most profoundly and personally to me is entitled ‘The Crystal Garden’ which tells of the doomed attempt of Roger, an Oxford academic of about my age, to track down a short film he had seen as a child:
“Roger was convinced … that life was better, simpler, easier, in the past … it wasn’t just a hankering for childhood. It was bigger than that. It was to do with what the country was like … in the sixties and seventies …. For Roger it was about welfarism, and having a safety net, and above all … not being weighed down by choice all the time … he loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted.” (Coe, 2015: 176)
It’s important to understand that this isn’t about nostalgia, or at least not just about nostalgia. It’s about a rupture that animates – in very different ways – the politics of both nationalists and socialists across, at least, Europe. In France, Les Trentes Glorieuses, Jean Fourastié’s term for the 1945-1975 period of economic growth and social security, captures the same sentiment that Coe expresses. This rupture is described in my book in terms of the shift in the 1970s to the new capitalism (pp. 104-120) and so, of course, present in the book I most heavily draw on in that section, Richard Sennett’s (2006) The Culture of the New Capitalism. And it’s no coincidence that at the heart of Roger’s memory was “waiting for his father to come home from work – from the same place he worked for forty years” (Coe, 2015: 176) because stable employment was at the heart of the economic and social security of those years. As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, the erosion of that security constitutes the most pressing political issue of the present time in Western societies, in ways well-captured (for all that it is startlingly inattentive to the ‘critical management’ literature that says much the same thing) by Boltanski and Chiapello’s (2007) The New Spirit of Capitalism.
We can understand this in conventional political terms: the social democratic consensus of North and West Europe and, to an extent, the USA in the post-war decades was about the best economic and social arrangement that has so far existed (even if it did not always seem so at the time). But perhaps it is better understood without thinking in terms of economic or political theory. Bill Bryson’s humorous memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid expresses it well as regards the United States; David Lodge’s novel Nice Work captures the beginning of it in the UK, especially as regards academic life. And Coe’s book is the latest example of the powerful way that art and humour can illuminate social science.
In a somewhat related vein, another Christmas read was Douglas Board’s novel MBA. This is not nearly so well-written (but, to be fair, whereas Coe is a well-established professional novelist Board is a coaching and leadership consultant who has turned his hand to fiction) and it’s a fairly clumsy satire, if not farce, of business schools. Still, it does hit what are for me some familiar targets in terms of the corporatization and even corruption of the contemporary business school, including the hubris of high-flying deans (see Parker, 2014 for a real world example). And there are some acute insights along the way about, for example, the enmeshment of business schools and politicians in the marketization of the public sector that also get a look-in in Coe’s book. MBA certainly isn’t a great or even a good novel, but it’s the first that I know of that tackles the business school. I feel sure that this setting is ripe for the attention of a latter-day Malcolm Bradbury or David Lodge campus novel.

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