Review: “Warren Buffett and the business of life”

Review: “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the business of life” by Alice Schroeder

 

“The Snowball” is an enjoyably thorough journey through the life and times of Warren Buffett, the man who Schroeder gloriously deems the “All American, Pepsi quaffing, investing fundamentalist, one who plied his trade in glorious solitude, far from the Lucifer’s of Wall Street”. The idea that Buffett is a class apart from the Wall Street crowd, with avarice dripping down their walls, is a central theme throughout, and a huge part of his appeal. He loves the battle of business. Buffett is a principled man, always sticking to his rules. He constantly espouses the value of the “inner scorecard” that his father taught him and he religiously sticks to his “circle of competence”. He uses these tools to guide him ethically and financially through life. Schroeder’s 2008 biography  details how he made his fortune, his interest in politics and much more. “The Snowball” takes us behind the scenes of the greatest investor the world has ever seen. Although he would be too humble to see it that way. All he wanted was to emulate his mentor Ben Graham, author of the investing bible “The intelligent investor”.

 

Snowflake to Snowball:

 

  • Aged 12: buys his first stock. 12. Makes a profit but is disappointed that he did not sell later for a higher value.
  • Aged 14: Fills out his first-year end tax return. He had $1,000 at this point. Money he saved from doing his paper run. In the run up to the 2016 presidential election campaign, he released every tax return from this year on when Trump indirectly accused him of being economical with the truth of his tax returns.
  • Aged 15: he buys a farm and has $2,000.
  • Aged 16: he has $5,000. This is equivalent to approx. $55k by 2016 numbers.
  • Aged 21: he has almost $19k saved.
  • Aged 26: he has $126k and considers retiring.
  • Aged 34: $1.8m.
  • Aged 39: $24m.
  • Aged 47: $77m.
  • Aged 55: Becomes a billionaire.
  • Aged 63: $8.5 billion.
  • Aged 78: becomes the richest man in the world.

 

Ethics:

 

Buffett’s ethics are critical to understanding the man and Schroeder reflects this from the outset. He warned about the dangers of selling equities as far back as 1982, writing to Congress to highlight how dangerous they were. No regulation or action was taken.

He foresaw the 2007 financial crisis and spoke to numerous senators about the risks the markets were taking by not regulating the sales of derivatives, dubbing them “financial weapons of mass destruction”. Again, nobody heeded his advice.

His legendary frugality is dissected in comprehensive detail. Schroeder had extensive access to interview Buffett and separates the myth from reality. He used to purchase second hand magazines – – just as they were going out of date to save money on subscription fees! When he began turning around the corrupt Salomon company, he set about changing the culture, primarily through leading by example. Out went the exorbitant stretched limousines and expensive restaurants for their executives to be replaced by the coke and hamburgers for dinner and taking the subway to work.

Maybe the best example of Buffett’s morals was when he told his traders, “lose money for the firm and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm and I will be ruthless”.

His wife Susie did lots of important charity work. She always pushed him to give away more. However, Buffett knew if he kept increasing his Snowball exponentially, he would be able to bequeath a much larger fortune and help more people. His 2006 announcement that he would give most his fortune to the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is wonderful news for the world. He may just end up saving a lot of lives and creating opportunity in the world.

His work ethic is inspiring. He says that 80% of his day is spent reading. Anything and everything. Newspapers, Science journals, books, sales information for any industry. He would toil in libraries to learn as much as he could about a certain company. Frequently he would ensure that he had more information, more of an edge, before making an investment. He constantly tried to better himself, to learn more. I find this more inspirational than the amount of money he makes. His vaguely meliorist philosophy makes appeal.

 

Politics:

 

It was wholly natural that his zeal for doing the right thing in life and in business meant that he took a deep interest in politics. Not that he got into that sphere because of his burgeoning wealth. His father Howard was a Republican Senator who firmly believed that Communism was the root of all evil. Warren started out being the captain of the Young Republicans. His father was such a deep believer in the aims of the Republican Party that Warren was afraid to tell him that he had switched to becoming a democrat before he died! He would avoid conflict at any cost. It was the Democratic parties embrace of the civil rights movement that made Warren switch allegiances. He could not abide by the racism embedded in his Fathers party. He shunned Reagonomics as his economic strategy was based on borrowing and increasing debt. Something Warren could not justify in his personal life.

He is a believer in a progressive tax system where the highest earners should pay more, warning of the dangers of Neoliberalist economics. In 2001, he went to the Hill and spoke to 38 senators about what he saw as the increasing economic policy of “government by the wealthy for the wealthy”. He recognises plainly that capitalism does not work for all and tried to offset its effect as best he could.

 

Rejection and improvement:

 

Buffett was spurned by Harvard Business School. They did not see him as a “leader”. He persevered and graduated from Columbia. In typical Buffett fashion, the connections he made in Columbia ended up being more valuable in the long term.

He made it his mission to learn from his lecturer and mentor Ben Graham, thinking him the best in the business. He was determined to work for him, even offering to go unpaid. His offer was turned down multiple times before Graham finally relented.

His first wife Susie did not see him as suitable at first. Intuitively knowing how brilliant she was, he was relentless in his wooing of her.   Like Graham, she eventually succumbed.  Failure was not an option.

 

Wisdom:

 

Some nuggets of advice from the book that I had to share:

  • “Quickened pulses and self-delusion were the major causes of mistakes”.
  • He was a firm believer in having a “circle of competence”. Do not try to be an expert in more than 3 areas. Master these areas and success will come easier.
  • Save your credit. It says a lot about you.
  • “Be content with moderate gain” when doing business.
  • “Spend less than you make and don’t got into debt”.
  • Learn to float upwards with intelligent people to better yourself. This will improve you. “It just works this way” he advises.
  • Buffett and Gates both said their number one rule for being successful is “Focus”.
  • Looking after, yourself mentally and physically. Buffett gives a great analogy in the book. You are 16 and must choose one car for the rest of your life. You don’t know which one it will be but you can never get a new one. How would you look after it? With great care. Same with us as people. So many do not look after ourselves though.
  • Always have two income streams.

 

Conclusion:

 

Buffett is a hardworking, intelligent, meticulous, moral, compassionate and loyal person. He is not someone who “spent his whole life at the withdrawal bank”. Schroeder: “He’s the master of the win win but never does anything that isn’t win for him”. When he released all his tax returns since the age of 14 during last year’s US Presidential election, it was impossible not to contrast his integrity and candour with the dishonesty of the current President. Reading about his life made me revaluate my own. Am I being smart with my money? What can I do better? Should I read more widely? Like all truly great people, there is a lot to learn…

Posted in Biography, Book, Book review, Books, Business, Investing, The Snowball, Warren Buffett | 1 Comment

Book review: “Horror in the East” by Laurence Rees.

Laurence Rees highlights some of the Twentieth Century’s most egregious human rights abuses in his 2001 book “Horror in the East”. It is a difficult read,  shedding some light on lots of previously unknown and almost unbelievable historical events – from cannibalism to deliberate starvation of POW’s. Rees attempts to delve into the mind-set of the soldiers who committed the atrocities and find out their motivations. From their unflappable belief in the divine emperor to their desire to save “face” at all times, Rees documents the horror and endeavours to comprehend it. The level of barbarity raises some complex moral questions. The United State’s completely unjustified dropping of two atomic bombs on innocent civilians to effectively end the war has always troubled me. Given the Japanese were in the process of surrendering, why did they do it? Whilst those questions throw up their own compound issues, when I read Ree’s book, it gave me a new understanding of the insanity the US was dealing with. This is in no way to justify their indiscriminate nuking of two cites. It just provides more background information. I do not remember being taught in school that dropping the atomic bomb was morally wrong or to be condemned. It felt opaquely justified in order to win the war. 

 

Emperor Hirohito:

 

Rees places a fair amount of the blame at the door of Emperor Hirohito, the longest serving in Japanese history. Like the current situation in modern day North Korea, where ordinary citizens are forced to treat Kim Jong-Un as a quasi-deity, the Japanese soldiers – and many of the public at large during the War – saw Hirohito as a divine being. He was a God on earth to them. Rees quotes soldier Masaya Enomoto as evidence of this: “I didn’t feel any guilt because I was fighting for the emperor. He was a God”. Further proof is chronicled throughout from numerous other former Japanese soldiers testifying to the same thing. They believed they were fighting for a higher power and would do anything to honour him. When you combined the general obedience of the average Japanese at the time, it became a lethal cocktail. This willingness to be mannerly and follow orders manifested itself in an extreme form of “saving face” within Japanese society. Used constructively, this can have many benefits. Visiting Japan some years ago, Iseult and I found it to be the most clean and orderly country we had ever set foot on. However, during war time in the Japanese military, it lead to some soldiers proving how far they would go in their show of loyalty to the Emperor. New recruits were put in a position where they had to prove that they would do likewise. This unique “situational psychology” had a domino effect and created a violent culture where nobody drew the line of what was acceptable.

It was not just the soldier’s belief in Hirohito that was the root cause for the violence. He was directly involved in authorising War Crimes. On the 28th July 1937, he specifically “sanctioned the use of poison gas”. The Allies showed a genuine moral failing by never prosecuting the Emperor for his crimes as they did with the rest of the Japanese war time cabinet. It is inconceivable to me that he continued ruling as Emperor until 1989.

Then again, were the Allies really in a moral position to prosecute anyone after dropping two nuclear bombs? Surely not. Yes, the Japanese were the aggressors and their vision of society was wrong. However, this does not justify the Allies deliberately attacking innocent civilians. If the World is to be consistent in truly condemning War Crimes, then the US should have been prosecuted for Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Being on the winning side and having the right intentions does not justify crimes against humanity.

 

“Chancorro”:

 

At the turn of the Twentieth Century the Japanese viewed their Chinese neighbours as inferior in every way. This belief became so extreme that they were viewed as “Chancorro” or sub human. This was the era of colonialism and powerful countries believed they could rule nations they perceived to be inferior. The Japanese followed the British colonialists lead and believed that they had a right to invade China. This decision was clearly wrong on any moral standing. After they began their unjust occupation of mainland China, the level of violence meted out to the native Chinese people remains incomprehensible to this day. Japanese soldier Hajime Kondo spoke about how he killed six innocent farmers with a bayonet. When asked why he targeted innocent people, he said he felt like he “had to prove his worth”. Another clear example of Japanese soldiers trying to save face in front of each other.

 

War Crimes:

 

When the Japanese captured the city of Suchow in China, it left the city with only 500 people, from a pre-war population of 350,000. Chinese soldiers were killed on the spot. The occupying forces raped thousands of innocent Chinese women. Two sixteen year olds were raped to death. There were mass shootings of innocent civilians.

Unit 731 was a notorious Japanese unit that experimented on people to develop biological weapons. They killed up to 250,000 people during the occupation of China. Most their victims were civilians and prisoners of war who were infected with diseases such as Tetanus, Typhoid, Syphilis and Cholera (often without anaesthesia). They were stripped of organs and female prisoners underwent forced pregnancy. They kept their test subjects in cages and often raped the women who had been infected with diseases. When reading the stories of some of the victims who survived, it is difficult to comprehend how this occurred. It remains a stain on the US that they did not try the members of Unit 731 for war crimes, instead offering many of them clemency in exchange for the information they had on biological warfare.

After the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, hundreds of British soldiers surrendered but were massacred nonetheless. The ones that survived were treated to inhumane conditions. Innocent British women were raped after the Japanese took the Island. As in Suchow, the population fell from 1.6m to 750,000 as the Japanese killed and tortured prisoners of war and civilians with impunity.

 

Treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs):

 

Similar levels of cruelty that to that observed in Hong Kong were inflicted upon POW’s everywhere the Japanese conquered. In the Dutch West Indies, multiple women were raped by the Japanese army. Japanese solider Karashima was prosecuted and killed for torturing and starving POW’s while needlessly transporting them.

Of the 1800 Australian POWs that were kept at Sandakan and forced to build a runway strip – only 6 survived. There were 700 British POWs at the same camp and every one of them was killed. Rees quotes Peter Lee, one of the 6 who survived: “nobody at the time had any idea that such a thing could possibly occur in what is called a civilised world”.

In New Guinea, things were even more insane. The Japanese army ran out of food supplies as one of their ships was cut off by the Americans. They began cannibalising the POWs whom they had in captivity. They ate one POW a week, sometimes hacking off a leg whilst the prisoner was still alive. There were also accounts of Indian POWs being used as live targets for new recruits to practice on. Like the Chinese, the Japanese soldiers treated their POWs as sub human. As Professor Tanaka said in his study of the Japanese cruelty during the war, this cannibalism was “unparalleled in history”.

Rees does contextualise the treatment of POWs with some numbers. The Nazis killed 57% of the Russian POWs that it captured during World War Two(an astonishing 3.3m of 5.7m captured). The Allies killed 4% of its POWs whilst Japan was in the middle at 27%.

 

Conclusion:

 

Rees dismisses the notion that the Japanese were somehow “inherently cruel” and details the factual reasons for their actions. The belief in their emperor, who authorised war crimes. The soldiers desire to save face in front of their comrades, which created a culture that violence of any degree was acceptable. Rees argues how this unique “situational psychology” that the Japanese soldiers encountered is partly responsible. He quotes a German who lived through the Third Reich as evidence of this phenomenon: “The trouble with the world today is people who haven’t been tested go around making judgments about people who have been tested”. Japan was so determined to never allow the circumstances occur that let people behave in such an inhumane way, that they created article 9 in their post war constitution, which outlaws them using war as a means to settling disputes. Now if we could only get every country in the world to follow suit and truly embrace a peaceful world without war.

Posted in cannibalism, Crimes against humanity, Democracy, ICC, Japan, US, War Crimes, World War Two | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Nineteen Eighty-Four” by George Orwell.

When I first read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, I remembered visualising the “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard and their roofs with corrugated iron, their crazy garden walls sagging in all directions” and being thankful that a world at constant war with itself could never exist. It was the late 1990’s and it felt like the planet was on a linear trajectory towards a peaceful and democratic future. Orwell’s bleak vision felt fascinating, compelling and a warning from an imaginary, cruel totalitarian future where Hitler and Stalin had won the day. It is still a reasonable opinion to suggest that we are evolving. As Obama said in his article in the Economist before leaving office, if you had to be born at any time in history: it would be right now. However, it is undeniable that elements of Nineteen Eighty-Fours’ dystopian vision of the future have increasingly come to pass. The “Fake News” phenomenon surely being the most obvious one. Re-reading the book in 2017, it resonates more than ever. I found several themes worthy of discussion this time. Namely the role of alcohol in society, Democracy, Fake News / Propaganda, the weaponization of language and violence.

 

 

The job of Alcohol in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

 

 

The differing strata of society are identified by what liquor they consume:

  • The Inner Party members drink wine.
  • The Party members drink bland gin.
  • The Proles drink beer.

At the beginning, Winston “gulped down gin like a dose of medicine”. He consumes it to self-medicate. It is the only way he can cope in the vicious and violent society where “war has been continuous”.

It is instructive that, after falling in love with Julia, Winston “dropped his habit of drinking gin at all hours. He seemed to have lost the need for it”. Just as he begins to experience the joy of falling in love with a partner and experiencing a caring, peaceful life outside of the tightly controlled state apparatus, he does not need to drink to excess.

Fast forward past Winston’s Assad style dehumanisation at the hands of the Party. He spends all day drinking himself to death at a “corner table with ever-flowing gin”. The “tears welled up in his eyes. A passing waiter noticed that his glass was empty and came back with the gin bottle”. He has become a fully blown alcoholic to erase the memories of his torture at the hands of the Party. His situation becomes so bleak that he cannot even sleep without drinking to excess: “It was gin that sank me into a stupor every night”. He forces down alcohol to suppress his thoughts and emotions.

The “cheap and plentiful supply of synthetic gin” is a pointed policy from the oppressive Party to numb the citizens. Everything else is rationed – coffee, tea, cigarettes, chocolate. Not alcohol though. It is a tool utilised by the Party to keep its population under control.

 

 

Democracy:

 

 

Goldstein, the arch enemy of the Party throughout, is consistently “denouncing the dictatorship of the party, advocating freedom of the press, freedom of thought”. For this he becomes the focus of “Hate week” and is ridiculed as somebody so far beyond the school of normal discourse that he must be ostracised. The party cannot even consider people thinking about ideas like this. Any free thought or speech must be curtailed so that the Party can copper fasten complete control over its people.

In this drab wasteland, “democracy was impossible” since “the Party was the guardian of democracy”. They take the concept, twist it, crush and destroy it and force people to forget it ever existed. Any opposition to the Party running the state with a vice like grip is so miniscule that Julia “refuses to believe that it exists…or could exist”. The majority of people have no say in how the system is run. Like his other great novel, Animal Farm, Orwell holds up democracy as the only just way to run a society. With democracy version2017 spewing out some unwelcome results, this lesson stands out as clearly now as in 1946. Think of the 2.7 billion people currently living in theocratic and authoritarian regimes.

Orwell warns repeatedly about the dangers of “all the main currents of political thought being authoritarian”. When he is being brutalised by O’Brien, Winston has the clarity of thought to cry out “You are ruling over us for your own good. You believe that human beings are not fit to govern themselves”. He tries to speak for the individual voice, which has been annihilated in the Party’s absolute domination over even the most miniscule boot print of individuality.

Democracy will always permit more personal liberty than communism as it permits disparate, individual ideas. One of the great benefits of the introduction of Capitalism, was the right people had to own their own property. The state could not control it. You see that in the apartment Winston and Julia rent. It is the only place they can relax. In their own private abode, they enjoy their happiest moments. Everywhere else, they know the Party will subsume them. The tragic irony being that even that miniscule secluded space in the apartment is an illusion of freedom in a totalitarian communist regime.

“Where there is equality there can be sanity”. Democracy is not a panacea. It does not guarantee success, but it does mean that the will of most of the people is carried out. So, on the surface, sanity might not seem a lot to ask for. Yet there are still countries on our planet that more closely resemble Nineteen Eighty-Four than civil, tolerant societies. North Korea for starters. A state which prioritises equality will at a minimum be sane.

Winston clearly identifies the proles as the best shot we have of an equitable system. He rejoices in the fact that they may someday have a voice. It is the only route he can see out of the madness of the world he is living in. He understands that most people must buy into a collective decision on the future of society to kill the nightmare that endures in a totalitarian state.

Of course, the Party understand this threat: “Perhaps you have returned to your old idea that the proletarians or the slaves will arise and overthrow us. Put it out of your mind. They are helpless, like the animals”. The language used here is deliberate and pointed. The party thinks of would be contributors in a democratic system as “animals”. They must dehumanise Winston – and any dissenting voices – to maintain their power. I think of Animal Farm as the rise of totalitarian communism and Nineteen Eighty-Four as taking it to its logical conclusion.

 

 

Fake News / Propaganda:

 

 

Fake news, in 2017, is designed to create an air of uncertainty where people lose their critical faculties and are unable to decipher what is real or fake. People become lazy and assume that all politicians lie and this plays into the hands of dictators like Putin who feed off the uncertainty. He gets people to think: what is the difference between a dictatorship or a democracy? People are hoodwinked into believing there isn’t any.

Orwell foreshadowed this phenomenon. Take Winston – his job is to change the facts of the past to suit the present. To lie professionally every day. The propaganda peddled by the Party in nineteen eighty-four leaves Winston unable analyse the ethics of the Party: “At these moments, his secret loathing of Big Brother changed into adoration, and Big Brother seemed to tower up, an invincible, fearless protector”. He is confused – and he works for the Party! The misinformation has killed his ability to discern the truth.

The editors and programmers of Russia’s state run TV station, Russia today, must get authorisation from their superiors when deciding what stories to run with. Likewise, the writers in the Times newspaper in Nineteen Eighty-Four when they are made to “rewrite it (an old article) in full and submit your draft to the higher authority before filing”. They are both media that serve the illusory purpose of providing objective information, when in reality they are communicating what the regime authorises them to. Granted, the modern Putin version is slicker and more imperceptible. So much so that it has tricked many intelligent people in free and open Western societies.

Fake news is not solely a problem in closed societies. The volume of corporate money has also clouded the issue in democratic Western countries. It creates an institutionalised form of media bias in that it tends to side with the party in power. Winston dreams in his diary of “a time when thought is free, to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone”. He craves the truth, but cannot get it. Nineteen Eighty-Four is a warning not to take a free press for granted. Furthermore, not to let too much money pollute it either. As biased as corporate media has become, there is an important distinction to mention: that there is the freedom to choose between types of media in a free society. Not so in autocratic regimes. At least, you can choose in open democratic countries.

On the topic of “Fake News”, let us consider for a moment the amount of lies that Trump has told in 2017 and the brazenness with which he denies them. For example, the levels of obfuscation that he and his team went to deny the real number of people that were at his inauguration, despite the photographic evidence being definitive. It is almost as if his team were trying to “thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, IT NEVER HAPPENED”.

Trump’s strategy is straight from the Putin handbook – to use Fake News to confuse people. Consequently, they cannot tell when he is lying – or, eventually, do not care. Then he can lie without fear of reprisal. He intends to dazzle people with Real and Fake news. Think about the passage about who invented the aeroplane. Winston knows that they were invented before the Party but – as there is so much misinformation out there – he cannot recall the truth of the matter. “It was true, for example, as was claimed in the Party history books, that the party had invented aeroplanes. He remembered aeroplanes since his earliest childhood. But you could prove nothing. There was never any evidence”. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the lines between fact and fiction are blurred to an extent that nobody can tell what is real. Worryingly, in 2017, the leader of the Free World is attempting the same nefarious trick, to throw people off the scent of his corruption.

 

 

Doublethink, Newspeak and the weaponization of language in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

 

 

One of the themes that runs through Orwell’s writing is how totalitarian states learn to control and weaponize language. It happens constantly throughout the book. It is telling that the Telescreens, the primary mode of communication, contain “strident military music”. The news is repeatedly reporting on all matters related to the military. You can see this in the modern day Chinese media too. Watch any of their “CCTV” stations of an afternoon and you will be bombarded with images of tanks, nukes, giant bombs, marching soldiers etc.

The concept of having different editions of Newspeak is intriguing.   Language is so tightly controlled that certain words are banned. I have written about this occurring in modern day China in other articles. The Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four goes further than controlling them- it wants to kill them! “We’re destroying words – scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone”. They endlessly try to prune language to its plainest, most effective level: “The eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete”. Reducing the vocabulary limits the creativity of the individual too, keeping them on the tight leash of the Party. Similarly, when it is said “What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word?”, we know the real intended consequence is control.

They do not want to merely weaponize current language but all past versions too: “The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist in Newspeak versions”. If the Party cannot control the message, they destroy it.

 

 

Violence:

 

 

Violence is so widespread that it scorches people’s receptors to feel, it bleaches their ability to decipher what is good or bad, what is love and what is violence. When Winston first meets Julia, he wants to “flog her to death with a truncheon”. He has a “desire to kill” because society has taught him this is the way to gain power and earn respect.

Winston: “I hated the sight of you…I wanted to rape you and then murder you afterwards. Two weeks ago I thought seriously of smashing your head in”. Citizens go to public hangings to cheer on the killing of traitors. Violence has replaced love as the emotion that is necessary to function.

The torture that Winston endures while he tries to maintain his independence brings to mind modern day Syria. When we learn of his emaciation at the hands of the party, it is difficult not to picture the images of the prisoners at Saydnaya prison – many of them deliberately starved and tortured to death. Like Fake News, torture at the hands of brutal regimes is still happening in the world in 2017. Sadly, we have not evolved past this as a global community.

 

 

Conclusion:

 

 

Re-reading Nineteen Eighty-Four created more questions than answers for me:

Should the world have regimes that demand “complete intellectual surrender” in 2017? What should we be doing about countries such as North Korea?

Should countries like China have the right to own language? Do the inevitable consequences of this lead to regimes deleting words such as “HONOUR, JUSTICE, MORALITY”?

As regimes blur the lines between Real and Fake News, do we need to “believe that reality Is something objective, external, existing in its own right”?

Orwell may not have the answers but, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, he articulates a clear vision of the future in totalitarian states: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever”.

Posted in Democracy, George Orwell, Totalitarianism | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Ernest Hemingway: “For whom the bell tolls”

I must confess that I am not an unbiased reader of Hemingway as he is one of my favourite authors. His direct and distinctly lyrical style, even when documenting the violent and harsh side of life, is inspired. Frequently whilst reading Hemingway, I imagine his gravelly grey head reading each line aloud. On a recent business trip to London, I re read “For whom the bell tolls”. As with so much of his writing, it is impossible to separate the Hemingway the man from the story. Robert Jordan is surely a personification of his experiences fighting Franco’s fascists in Spain.

 

The dehumanising effects of war:

 

We learn that people cannot think to a sufficient extent during times of war. They are reduced to focusing on surviving the daily onslaught of violence. Robert Jordan tries to ruminate and intellectualise events, but is always brought back to the base task of living. “Turn off the thinking now, old comrade. You’re a bridge blower now. Not a thinker”. Pre-war, he could contemplate life, evolve, conceive, create, write. During war time: exist.

Robert Jordan frequently sees himself as an artist, a thinker. His interaction with Pilar is important. He feels a duty to articulate her story “If that woman could only write. He would try to write it”. Hemingway tries to salvage a speck of humanity in the war by writing about the whole mess and sorting through it.

Anselmo, the moral centre in “For whom the bell tolls”, predicts the type of justice that would latterly be created in the form of the International Criminal Court, supposing that there must be a “great penance done for the killing” that has taken place on both sides throughout the war. He continues that “all may be cleansed” after the war. A devout Christian – and good man, Anselmo despises violence in all forms saying that “There was no purity of feeling for those who survived the fighting and were good at it”.

The gypsy character represents how war seeps into every part of society. There is no escape. We know that he is a “conscientious objector” but are told that “they aren’t exempted in the war. No one was exempted. It came to one and all alike”. Peaceful people are tied down on the rail tracks as the train of violence hurtles towards them.

Jordan has an ongoing battle with himself throughout the novel to decipher how to act ethically in a time of bloodshed: “But you have behaved O.K. So far you have you have behaved all right” he ponders, again trying to employ his intellect to interpret the war-mongering he encounters throughout.

 

Politics:

 

Hemingway is scathing about religion throughout. It is a damning indictment of the Spanish Catholic Church that they allied with fascists and he is not short of decrying them for it. How could a religion that teaches people to do good ally with Franco and co?

Hemingway was a firm believer in democracy as a just political system: “Muck everybody but the people and then be damned careful what they turn into when they have power”. After a year in which the liberal world order was turning, spinning, spiralling on its head, these words are more relevant than ever. Democracy is crucial, but just as much – holding people in power to account.

On communism: “You’re not a real Marxist and you know it. You believe in Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. You believe in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. Hemingway is clear that communism’s ideals are laudable but do not work. It stifles the individual.

 

Absinthe Escapism:

 

Robert Jordan must imbibe copious amounts of absinthe, his chosen tipple, to cope with the senselessness surrounding him. “It cures everything” he says, describing the liquor. “If you have anything wrong, this will cure it”. His description of drinking it is striking, both in its style and intent: “One cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, of all chestnut trees that would be in bloom now this month, of the great slow horses of the outer boulevards, of book shops, of kiosques, and of galleries, of the Parc Montsouris, of the Stade Buffalo, and of the Butte Chaumont, of the Guaranty Trust Company and the Ile de la Cite, of Foyot’s old hotel, and of being able to read and relax in the evening: of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming stomach-warming, idea-changing liquid alchemy”. This is one of my favourite pieces of prose from the man. A good friend of mine brought back a bottle of absinthe from Prague while I was in London. We shared a couple of shots before going to Fabric. I must admit that I do not get his romanticizing of absinthe. It tastes like an alcoholic cement mixer to my tongue – give me Guinness any time! Yet his wonderful description of how it “curls around inside of you” typifies the genius of the man.

 

Writing Style:

 

One of my favourite put downs of all time is when Hemingway introduces the superb character Pilar into the novel: “What are you doing now, you lazy drunken obscene unsayable son of an unnameable unmarried gypsy obscenity”. Also, cogitate Joaquin’s retort to her after she says “I shoot no one”. “You don’t need to. You scare them to death with your mouth”.

The opening of Chapter 13 is mesmerising, hypnotic and absorbing: “They were walking through the heather of the mountain meadow and Robert Jordan felt the brushing of the heather against his legs, felt the weight of the pistol in the holster against his thigh, felt the sun on his head, felt the breeze from the snow of the mountain peaks cool on his back”. Visceral.

His depiction of the cave where the rebels live reminds me of the end of the “The Dead” by Joyce: “It was so quiet in the cave, suddenly, that he could hear the hissing noise the wood made burning on the hearth where Pilar cooked. He could hear the sheepskin crackle as he rested the weight on his feet. He thought he could almost hear the snow falling outside. He could not, but he could hear the silence where it fell”.

 

Conclusion:

 

Ultimately, at the end of “For whom the bell tolls”, Hemingway concludes that fighting is only half the solution. “We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it”. Timely words. Even if society labels many non-fascists as such, thereby making it difficult to identify the truly dangerous ones, For whom the bell tolls serves as a reminder that education, discussion and peaceful dialogue remain the best ways to stop the birth of true tyrants and totalitarian regimes.

Posted in Book review, Ernest Hemingway, For whom the bell tolls | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: James Bowen “A Street cat named Bob”

We know that late twenty first century capitalism is unequal and does not work for everyone. Too many of us fall through the cracks into rough sleeping and drug use. The homeless crisis came to my front door in Dublin when I noticed that a man had begun sleeping on a park bench less than twenty feet from the apartment where I live. Ireland has been in the dark grip of a homeless crisis the like of which I naively believed our society had evolved past. People in Dublin felt so powerless that several activists joined forces to take over a disused building, Apollo house, to enable forty homeless people to take respite from the cold over the winter. Bowen’s tale takes us right into the daily life of a man who became destitute in London. It is a harsh and harrowing tale at times, but also essential for people to understand what it is to slip through the cracks and haul yourself back up. Kudos to Bowen for turning his life around.

He does so with the help of a little feline friend whom he encounters meowing outside his basic abode. Bob and Bowen’s lives become intertwined and they help each other to get through some dangerous times. Bowen always had a soft spot for cats but became a certified ailurophile!

Society did not look at Bowen as a person when he was on the streets. People avoided eye contact and breezed straight past him while he busked around London. It is harrowing to hear how dehumanised and worthless he felt. When he began busking with his new sidekick, the public suddenly start to look at him as a person again. This highlights a strange sense of how society has been conditioned in modern times to empathise with animals more than human beings in some instances. Think of Tony Soprano crying over the ducks at the end of the first episode of the series. He has this paradoxical empathy with animals yet, concurrently, had his minions meting out brutal violence to people.

Have we learnt to just walk past homeless people and ignore it? I tried to help the homeless man outside where I live by feeding him and calling the public services that would get him into a hostel, which he refused on multiple times. I failed to get him indoors. Despite this, I still believe we could all empathise more. Miniscule gestures of benevolence can make the difference. Do we want to end up with a world where we just ignore fellow human beings who needs help?

Bowen was on a methadone programme to get clean. There is no doubt that as people saw him as a part of society again, it helped him to turn his life around: “No one had engaged me in conversation on the streets around my flat in all the months I’d lived here. It was odd, but also amazing. If was as if my Harry Potter invisibility cloak had slipped off my shoulders”. Perhaps, we could all learn a little from his experience and treat the worst off among us equals? Say hello, give them food. Help in any way you can. We never know, it may just turn somebodies life around.

Posted in homeless | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Gambler”

Dostoevsky’s novella had several themes I thought worthy of a blog post: degenerate gambling, national identity, class and love. He is a lyrical writer, the prose sinuous and elegant.

 

Degenerate gambling:

 

The Dickensian name of the town where the casino is based is pure genius: Roulletenburg! This is where fortunes are won and lost. He observes the irrationality of gambling aptly: “They sit with papers before them scrawled over in pencil, note the strokes, reckon, deduce the chances, calculate, finally stake and -lose exactly as we simple mortals who play without calculations”. The casino does not rely on luck, only the players.

Of course, a lot of players know the house always wins but still get involved. Polina, for example, has the “strange and mad idea” that she will win at the gambling table. Based on nothing more than a “belief” that it will get her out of her debt. This belief that they “must” win is what brings everyone to the table. The reality, as it plays out in the book, is that everyone loses in the long term.

Alexei twice works his money from nothing to a huge stake and, both times, loses it all. The real tragedy is the granny’s story. The house of cards in the “The Gambler” is primarily constructed through her: she is expected to bail out the other characters – the General, the Frenchman etc. who are in debt due to betting. Inevitably, she loses the biggest of them all, after getting a taste for it and is the moral lesson in the story. She gets sucked into the vortex of the addictive world of continuous gambling after one big win hooks her. Dostoevsky poetically describes the descent: “When once anyone is started upon that road, it is like a man in a sledge flying down a snow mountain more and more swiftly”. He is brilliant at chronicling the fits of madness, the rushes of blood that overcomes the gambler, enabling them to override the logical decision to stop, whether winning or losing: “gamblers know how a man can sit for almost twenty four hours at cards, without looking to right or to left”. It is an insider’s insight.

Daniel Kahneman, author of the hugely influential “Thinking Fast and Slow” comes to mind when analysing the mental state that the gambler undergoes. He says that our brains operate in two distinct ways: system one is for instant decisions – what we have for breakfast etc. and system two is for more complex tasks like reading. It is more deliberate and considered. Clearly, if a gambler were being logical about every bet they placed, they would not take the reckless decisions they do. System one takes over in a form of temporary insanity. Alexei says he is “afraid of nothing” as he works his stake from virtually nothing to a sizeable amount. He says that he can scarcely “remember” anything from the whole night when he wins big. System one has taken over. He is in a form of temporary insanity. The casino’s know they win when their customers enter this trance like state. They lose control of their senses and cannot walk away. Visit any casino or bookmakers and you will see system one in action.

At least Granny gets out. She has her fit of insanity, but she does manage to leave Roulletenburg. In a sense, Alexei never does. The next bet is always on his mind. He becomes completely destitute by the end of the story and admits he is “worse than a beggar”.

 

National identity:

 

There is a fascinating undercurrent of nationalism in the story. As a Russian national, his thoughts on his own race are especially interesting:

“Though a great many Russians go in for the gambling, they are no good at the game”. I am intrigued to know why he thought Russians were bigger losers than other races. I would have assumed it the percentage of winners and losers would be rather steady globally. But, no, Dostoevsky says: “I think that roulette was specifically designed for the Russians”. Is this some sort of fatalistic interpretation of the Russian psyche? When pressed on it, he talks about the “Virtues and merits of the civilised westerner”. Odd. He pushes it to say that the Russian is “incapable of acquiring capital”.

He views the Germans as diametrically opposed to the Russians. Think of the strange esteem that the elderly Germanic couple that Alexi insults is held in by everyone. He details the “German method of heaping up riches” and how the predictability that they live by “makes my tartar blood boil”. He writes that the Germans have “patience, intellect, rectitude, character, perseverance” in their quest to better themselves and amass some wealth. He contrasts that with his own outlook as the gambler, “I would rather grow fat after the Russian manner or squander my whole substance at roulette”. Maybe Dostoevsky is using the stereotypical caricature of the gloomy, pessimistic Russian’s national identity to justify his own gambling habbits. The Germans always win, the Russian always lose. Therefore, he rationalises his own losing because, fundamentally, they are just not as capable as the Germans.

On the French: “De Grieux was like all Frenchmen; that is, gay and polite when necessary and profitable to be so, and insufferably tedious when the necessity to be gay and polite was over”. There is plenty of humours insights in his prose. De Grieux lives up to the stereotype of the arrogant Frenchman when he says it is “true…with a self-satisfied air” that Westerners are in some way “superior”.

 

The gambler as a love story:

 

When Alexei goes on a betting rampage and loses his mind, he forgets about Polina. This is the second egregious tragedy of the book. His brain becomes so addled with thoughts of winning and losing money that he neglects the personal side of his life. He finds out that Polina has loved him throughout their time together but that she thought he was an “ungrateful, unworthy, shallow and unhappy man”. Here we see the double negative effect that Alexie’s time at the roulette table has had. He says that his love life and his financial life have both been “destroyed”. He is so emaciated by his constant thoughts of visiting the Casino that “As soon as I hear the clink of scattered money I almost go into convulsions”.

Also, think how the Generals debauched loss of money coincides with nearly destroying his relationship with Mlle Blanche. She goes to Paris with Alexie after she learns that the young man has money. The General could not provide for her.

 

Conclusion:

 

The Gambler is a superbly written tale of sailing too close to the edge of madness. It is a short but vital read. It may not be Dostoevsky’s best work, but it is a revealing story about gambling. A topic not too much literature has been written.

Posted in Democracy, Dostoevsky | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: “Broken Vows. Tony Blair. The tragedy of power”.

I was 17 when Tony Blair first got elected in that magnificent landslide in 1997. I was transfixed by the jubilant and ecstatic celebration of democracy; that sea of red flags. Blair was young, articulate and in touch with an evolving Britain. Like Obama in 2008. Yes, 10 years of governing would change that completely but Bower does a pretty poor job of articulating the feeling at the time. “Broken promises” is, as the name suggests, a critical review of Blair. 600 pages of analytical and scientific research with interviews with over 200 civil servants that worked with him. Although, crucially, he did not have access to any of the key players. Bower starts off with his take on that heady era: “He won three successive elections…and that meant he was successful. But, for others, there is a difference between success at the polls against weak opponents and success in government”. Fair enough. Although it seems harsh to gloss over this. 

 

Immigration:

 

It is fascinating reading the book through the lens of Brexit etc. and Bower goes to painstaking detail to lift the lid on the Blair policy on immigration, or lack thereof. Blair was telling Jack Straw right from the beginning that “we need immigration, it is not an issue -even the Daily Mail isn’t talking about it”.

The Home Office took advice from several people who agreed with them. Sarah Spencer was among them, “Her assumption that the British would unquestionably accept hundreds of thousands of migrants was underpinned by BBC’s general categorisation of critics of immigration as racist, which had censored public debate”. Blair banked on this sentiment throughout his premiership. He thought that, like Spencer, who “disdained white Britain’s glorification of British history and identity. British society could be transformed, she hoped, by relaxing the home offices immigration controls”.

This was the initial Labour strategy, if you could call it that and it continued after the 2001 election when Blunkett replaced Straw. After blaming him for not doing a whole lot, Blunkett does much the same thing. Labour had targeted a level of immigration of 100,000 in 2001 but 500,000 came in. As Europe expanded the number of countries that would be allowed into the free movement area, Britain had a chance to add some controls but Labour and Blair were more worried with the optics of “being good Europeans” and promptly kept going. Even the Germans wanted to impose some basic initial controls.

Fast forward to 2004. 350,000 immigrants have come in. Blunkett says on Newsnight: “there is no obvious upper limit on immigration”. Bower highlights how Blair would occasionally discuss vague aspirations on immigration but never had any clear vision of how to control it and was content to let it increase to virtually any number. It has now become apparent that this strategy is not sustainable over the long term and was a large part in the UK leaving the European Union in 2016.

 

Education:

 

Blair is proud of his legacy in this area but Bower argues that a lot of what Blair deemed good results were achieved by spinning the facts to make the results better than the reality. In 2005, the OECD released a report where England had fallen from 13th to 22nd for education measures. Blair and Campbell spun the news as much as possible and Blair gave a speech selling the positives of the Labour strategy. Bower says he was always looking for the quick fix that he could sell with a cheap soundbite.

When Blair built lots of Muslim faith schools as it was a cheaper alternative to the expensive, multidenominational state ones, he was told of the risk of creating areas where immigrants would not mix together cohesively. He pushed on and refused to contemplate any downside.

 

Political Philosophy:

 

Blair was an admirer of the “Third way” and a firm believer in centrism. The benefits of this are obvious. Cherry pick the best of right and left, and mould them into an effective policy, pleasing everyone. The drawback is that you do not stand for anything and change policy when it does not suit. For Blair, he often referred to the innate “belief” that he had. “I only know what I believe” he would utter. Bower also alleges that he was not well educated on pre-1939 history. The picture he paints is of an uneducated leader who frequently acted due to his “feelings” on key issues. As he had no moral ideology, he increasingly relied upon what he believed was his innate sense that he knew the right course of action, even when the evidence was not backing up his point of view. When it was put to him that invading Iraq would contravene International law, he said “There are many views on international law”. This indicated the worst of Blair: a leader spinning objective facts to suit his own belief. A toxic combination.

 

Foreign Policy:

 

Blair did not fund the British army adequately at any stage during his time as Prime Minister. This was at odds with how he saw Britain in the world. He wanted to step up their global involvement and was pro-intervention. However, when members of his own defence cabinet were telling him that the soldiers “lacked the necessary body armour”, he ignored them. This was irresponsible. Bower highlights how he got caught out in an obvious lie when he testified at the Chilcot hearings and said that money was never an issue.

His philosophy on foreign policy was coming from the Ed Burke school of thought of evil flourishing when good men do nothing. Indeed, he repackaged this quote for a speech he gave to the commons. He saw himself as Churchill, not Chamberlain. Blair was instrumental and persuasive in stopping Milosevic slaughtering civilians in Kosovo. An example of where intervention was justified. Bower’s take on it: “He had taken a gamble and won”. This is where Bower does not seem to be objective about Blair. 

He believes Blair used the initial victory in Kosovo to validate future foreign policy excursions. When the British army managed to prevent a civil war in Sierra Leone in 2000, this further bolstered him that his “belief” system was right.
There are some revealing insights into Blair’s psyche post 9/11 and pre-Iraq war in the book. He quotes Christopher Meyer: “He was more Neocon than the Americans”! He glibly ignored Middle East experts Peter Rickett’s and Michael Williams advice that Saddam Hussein was the only thing holding the Sunni and Shia divide together, saying “That is the past, not the future”. There is also something very odd, suspicious and arrogant about the way that Blair stopped inviting Richard Wilson and David Omand from meetings involving Iraq. Says Bower: “Blair’s position was unprecedented. No other British prime minister had planned to start a war while distrusting his chief of defence, the permanent secretary at MOD, the cabinet secretary, the foreign minister, the defence secretary and most of his cabinet”.

Blair chose to ignore the increasing evidence to say that Saddam had no WMD’s. Nigel Inkster, from MI6, flew to Jordan and reported, categorically, that there were none in Iraq. Once again, Blair acted on his belief and said that he “felt the hand of fate on his shoulder”. Strangely, leaders in the UN, France and Germany did not “feel” the same way.

During the Iraq war, with the army stretched to breaking point, Blair sent troops into Afghanistan. This was after Blair had ignored a plea for an extra 3,000 more troops to help the worsening situation in Iraq from Walker. Again, he did not heed the advice from his generals and pushed on with what he believed in. The intervention here did not even have an objective, something even the disastrous Iraq war had had. There were some shocking reports of the army not knowing how prevalent the Taliban were in the district etc. In some ways, it seemed more chaotic than Iraq. There was no vision, plan or exit strategy. £38 billion was spent and 400 British servicemen needlessly killed.

 

Health:

 

Most independent observers would admit that the NHS was left in a substantially better condition in 2007 than 1997. Whilst Bower does not outright deny this, he is reluctant to acknowledge it. His logic is that Blair changed tactics and key personnel multiple times, destabilising the department. Furthermore, he concludes that what Blair really did, especially when encountering issues, was to throw more money at the problem. That it was the money and not the reforms that really improved the service. Bower reflects on how the soundbite was always the key point for Blair. He was a salesman who wanted to show what he was doing. He did intend to reform but was never fully invested in this. He would always choose the former. It is an interesting critique and brings to mind the wise words of Rosa Luxembourg: “The most revolutionary thing that one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening”. Bower does not seem to give Blair any credit for this. He does not acknowledge that Blair’s real genius was in his ability to clearly articulate what was happening.

 

The post 2007 years:

 

Whilst in power, Blair spoke about ridding the world of despotic tyrants but then, once out on his own, he cosied up to them for his own financial gain, exposing him as a hypocritical opportunist. He advised Cameron to let Gaddafi into Britain when he was looking for refuge after the Libyan people revolted against him. He gave Nazarbayev, the vicious Kazak autocrat, advice on how to manage the press after he massacred 14 of his own people in the Zhanaozen massacre. In 2013, he suggested removing Assad from power and then in 2014 he changed his mind and said the West should work with him. Backing Gaddafi, Assad and Nazarbayev is completely unacceptable. Unsurprising then that he had no qualms about doing business with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait too. As Bower says – when it came to lining his own pockets, morality did not come into the equation for Blair. 

When he started his role as peace envoy between Israel and Palestine, he said to the British consulate in Jerusalem: “I’ve solved Ireland. This is just another problem”, displaying a stunning mix of arrogance and ignorance. When he wore a yarmulke to Peres’  funeral he discarded any vestiges of impartiality he had had in the process, incensing the Palestinians.

We further learn that Blair has spent £25m on property. £25m. This despite him setting up numerous legal and financial ruses to stop the public learning exactly how much he was earning.

 

Conclusion:

 

Bower minimises and dismisses the positives of Blair’s time as Prime Minster. There is no discussion of Britain’s economic growth in the book. The UK grew at an average of 1.4% every year for 10 years in a row. This was a phenomenal achievement. Doubtless, it was not all Blair’s doing but it seems a little unfair not to mention it. They outstripped the growth of the other G6 nations during this time and were a benchmark in steady economic growth.

Blair’s legacy will most likely not be as negative as is portrayed in “Broken Promises” nor as positive as the one that he likes to spin himself. The truth is somewhere in the middle ground that Blair loved to occupy. Just a pity that Bower could not find it. We still await the definitive Blair biography.

Posted in Democracy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment