The Thin Man

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This classic of detective fiction, a beacon of hard-boiled, noir-esque mystery, is both entertaining and curiously dated.  Set in the early ’30s, this series of murders surrounding a brilliant – yet possibly quite mad inventor – is really a comedy of manners disguised in an endless parade of drinks, speakeasies, shady characters and cops.

The hero – dry, dapper and endlessly correct Charles, hovers – cat like, mixing an endless series of drinks at all hours of the day and night – in nearly every scene; the book is almost about how much people like Charles than it is a about multiple homicide. He is paired with his just as charming wife, the two forming a perfect, completely irresistible couple. The rest of the characters form a collection of bad stereotypes, left helpless and foolish in the wake of Charles. By the end, the big reveal of the murder comes more as a relief from hall-of-mirrors effect that Hammett creates in order to create the mystery.

But it is thoroughly enjoyable none the less. Part of the appeal of Hammett is his unique writing style: a sort of debonair minimalism, ultra-dry wit attempting to appear “hard-boiled.” The result is that you spend a lot of the book trying to figure out – along with literally the rest of the characters – what Charles is thinking.

A breeze – half the fun is the long lost world were it is socially acceptable to be truely drunk literally at all times of the day and night.

 

The Strange Story of the Survival and Resurgence of Conservative Politics Since WWII

It’s 1945, and right wing politics – globally, and here in the US – is on suicide watch.

And for good reason. The Great Depression destroyed faith in the capitalism system; the Western world is saved by various brands of Keynesian-style socialism. Here in the US, we know this as FDR’s New Deal.  Fascism exploded onto the scene following the Depression, but between the horrors of the Holocaust and WWII, was completely discredited. Traditional conservative causes like royalism, religion and that general notion of “we need to get back to the good old days” was intellectual bankrupt and in total abeyance.

Trump’s election in 2016 is the culmination of the survival and complete return of right wing politics in a global sense. Placing Trump as the cap stone amongst figures like Theresa May, Nigel Farage, Erdogan (president of Turkey), Szydio in Poland, Orban in Hungary, and Duterte in the Philippines,  we are living at a rather startling resurgence of right wing politics. Putin pre-dates this crop of right-wingers, but as a classic authoritarian kleptocrat, he necessarily finds himself at home with Trump, whose political essence, ideology and rhetoric aside, is fundamentally the same.

Why? How?

The crucial movement, the key time period were conservatism is resurrected from the trash heap of history is the stretch in American history that starts with the Red Scare and McCarthyism and closes with Nixon’s election. I’m calling this “the Cold War” and by Cold War I am not referring to the military and political containment of Soviet Russia, I am referring to the Cold War as a cultural phenomenon on the US.

To be blunt: our government, in collusion with big businesses and the military-industrial complex – what Eisenhower warned us all about – makes the conscious decision to promote conservative and religious groups both in the US and across the globe to fight communism.

To be clear, conservative ideas are intrinsically linked to a) power/money/privilege and b)certain psychological and emotion orientations. This means that conservatism was always going “to come back” from 1945. But this is quite separate from how it was consciously saved and promoted by the US government and how small groups of wealthy conservatives consciously set out to make the US a Christian, white, capitalist country. In 1945 the US is a ‘revolutionary’ country, distrustful of the old European imperialism; by Nixon, we are the imperialist power; and this goes beyond a simple consequence of being by far the most powerful country at the time.

Put another way, the best thing to happen to capitalism and conservatism ever – literally ever – is communism. Even today, vague and uninformed references to communism/Stalinism/Soviets is enough to chill conversation and debate over our economic system. It’s still a real bogeyman, and that is not a coincidence at all.

The hegemony of Keynesianism, socialism and communism in the post-war world allowed conservatism and laissez-faire capitalism to rebrand itself. FDR’s New Deal and the public spending of WWI created a truely middle country – economic equality had never been higher, but the spectre of the welfare state at home and totalitarian communism abroad allowed people like Frederick von Hayek – his fundamental insight being that a centrally planned economy simply could not keep up with the complexity of human society – and other outsiders like Ayn Rand to lassez-faire capitalism as a fundamental component to human freedom; a freedom under threat from the welfare state. The American Libertarian Party today is a direct result of their ideas. Corporate power was able to increasingly pose as an agent of choice and of liberty.

Shifting to domestic American politics, the Republican Party in the early 40’s was the party of monied interests, lost in the wilderness from the Great Depression – the legacy of “do-nothingism” dies hard. FDR had left the US the most powerful and respected nation in the world after a decade in power, the stark reality is that the Republicans would have to defeat the new Democratic president Truman or fade away from the national scene. It’s the Cold War that saves them. McCarthyism marks the point where the Republicans cease to be a party of loyal opposition and because a truely right-wing party.

This basic shift leads to America’s first right-wing president: Nixon. Sometimes this is referred to as the “Southern Strategy” – pandering to Souther racism and insecurity to back up the monied and military interests of the rest of the party. The larger point here is that in order to justify the sustained level of military spending to fight the Cold War, our government green-light a widespread culture of fear-mongering and conformity. It’s no coincidence that Reagan got his political start as the face of General Electric’s propaganda show. The ’60’s counterculture is as much a reaction against the Cold War conformity – the great moulding of America into either lily-white cowboys or evangelical businessmen  – as against anything else.

So we have the conscious decision of the US government to quite literally save conservative circles – be it military cabals, business consortiums, ex-nazis, etc – by providing surprising amounts of financial and ideological support. This succour went on for decades. This also cut they other way. For example: figures like Ho Chi Min (his declaration of independence for Vietnam was basically copied word for word from our own) were forced into the hands of the Communist block.

I think it’s important to examine why conservative, authoritarian politics has returned. Since neoliberalism gained real power in the ’80s with Reagan and Thatcher, economic inequality has exploded. Privatisation, austerity, trickle-down economics, free-trade all boil down to a sustained attack on the idea of the public good by corporate combines with resources and concerns which exceed the confines of individuals and nations.

The generic name for all this is “capitalism,” but this would be inaccurate; the reality is an increasingly globalised system of private corporate power which has utilised a rhetoric of “free trade” to leverage votes, promising prosperity (a prosperity strangled by regulation and laziness). The stark reality is that these companies are profitable because they escape the tax burden and are the beneficiaries of governmental policy. The US’ effective policy is for Americans to drive cars; oil companies receive massive tax breaks. Or Wal-mart effectively taking advantage of welfare policy to under pay its employees. The result is impoverishment of the society at large. If you need more proof look at Russia: the largest privatisation and corporate giveaway of all time.

The basic pattern here is that the system which we all roughly refer to as “capitalism” siphons off wealth away from the larger society, obviously leading to a period of crisis. During the last cycle (the ’30s), government enacted the welfare state and taxed the ultra wealthy and corporations. These protections have been worn away with the obvious result that we have today.

 

The Spanish Labyrinth

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Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is one of the best known works on the Spanish Civil War. It is a impressive example of specialist’s history that instead of being stuffy, arcane and pedantic, achieves a clarity of thought and style which reaches the general public. Labyrinth manages to make what to most would be obscure details into important, powerful and relevant narrative.

In this period in American politics, it strikes me as quite timely to read a book about the socio-economic and political history of a country’s run up to a civil war. Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth is a deep dive into the reasons behind the Spanish Civil War. At once an examination of the Spanish character and experience, as well as a detail of the ideological forces – the Anarchists, the Socialists, the Carlists and the Falange, etc – that played out in the war.

The Spanish Civil War is not just a historic event, it is a focal point of the world crisis of the 1930s: the ultimate lab for the ideologies of the time. It is also cool. The sheer drama, mixed with Spanish panache and the overwelming sense of everyone casting aside their masks, all set in the style of the 1930’s. Hemingway, the International Brigades, Hitler and Mussolini looming in the background, fascinating characters like Queipo de Llano (a fascist general, famously drunk, who bluffed his way to take over an entire city and spent the rest of the war haranguing Spain with a nightly radio broadcast), Azana (the majestic and competent prime minister of the Republic; the ultimate good guy) and Durruiti (an anarchist leader who both made decisions and led from the front in the most literal sense in battle).

Labyrinth only touches on the actual events of the Spanish Civil War in the closing chapter, and rather focuses on the run-up to the war. Of particular note is the chapter on Spanish Anarchism, probably the major example in history of actually existing anarchy in practice. The rendering and evaluation of Spanish Anarchy is fascinating considering that “anarchy’ is such a scary and confusing word for most people.

Insightful, well-written: this book will make you think about where we are right now as a society and where we are headed.

L.A. Confidential

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James Ellroy writes brutal crime-noir thrillers set in 1950’s Los Angeles. Dramatic, savage, soaked in gore and lust and slang, Ellroy’s books are both grimy realistic and flights of pure mythology.

L.A. Confidential  – I actually have not seen the movie – is set around three cops and their role in tracking down a serial killer, in a hunt that lasts decades. More than a simple hunt for the murderer, this book is steeped in the personal psyches of its characters, the politics, culture and mythos of the L.A. PD, and the illusions and ideology and lies that lie at the heart of society.

Yes, part of the thrill is the police procedural side, the politics of crime  and the interdepartmental feuding. Yes, part of the thrill is the simple backdrop of ’50s, L.A. It is Ellroy’s mastery of mystery and his ability to weave a unreadably complex web of lies, truths, stories, and theories which make for a truely epic book. Watching as three detectives slowing unravel the thread of truth and eventually put it all together at the end of the book is more than entertaining, it strikes me as a major feat of literature which I would truely despair of ever coming close to achieving.

The real hook for my is Ellroy’s ability to link the specific instance of “crime” – the murder, etc – to the larger crime of society; the instance of crime is a symptom, an expression of a deeper, larger crime. The sense that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and the heroes are drawn inexorably toward this core rottenness. The very characters which represent the Great and the Good are revealed to be the origin of the crime; they stand out, Cronus like, as the purveyors of the founding lies that community so often seems based on.

My only complaint is that Ellroy’s commitment to slang – especially slang that is a frankly antiquated – and his writing style which often comes very close to stream of consciousness often makes for slow, hard reading. Most of the time this adds “flavour” but every so often it results in a complete breakdown in the reading ‘flow’.

I enjoyed L.A. Confidential much more than Black DaliaConfidential, as not based on real events, allows Ellroy to explore both the “police procedural” side and the “mythology” side a little bit better. Dalia struck me as going a little too deep into the personal pathos of its characters.