When my wife and I were in London last summer, I spent a few days at the London School of Economics, buried in the Graham Wallas papers. Wallas was one of the cofounders of LSE, and while I’ve spent a fair amount of time in London, I’d never been to LSE before.
I really liked it.
The library is quite nice.
I had a great table in the archives, and found lots of cool material.
Ironically, most of it didn’t get cited in the book, but I am working on a piece on Wallas that I hope I can place in some scholarly journal— he deserves to be remembered by more people than just me!
Unfortunately, I didn’t get to spend any time with people there, which is a shame, because LSE seems never to have quite given up its interesting status as both a training-ground for capitalists and a center for critical thinking about capitalism. It’s not your classic business school, though I’m sure the pressure to become more like a Wharton or Stanford GSB is always there. They have some really sharp, critical thinkers, like Judy Wajcman, whose latest book Pressed for Time, on technology and time pressure, is really great, and David Graeber, whose recent piece in The Baffler on “despair fatigue,” a state of being “bored with hopelessness,” is awesome. He thinks became the default setting in British political life for years, but is showing signs of receding:
For nearly half a century, British culture, particularly on the left, has made an art out of despair. This is the land where “No Future for You” became the motto of a generation, and then another generation, and then another. From the crumbling of its empire, to the crumbling of its industrial cities, to the current crumbling of its welfare state, the country seemed to be exploring every possible permutation of despair: despair as rage, despair as resignation, despair as humor, despair as pride or secret pleasure. It’s almost as if it’s finally run out.
He’s relentlessly critical of both the Tories and Blairite Labour party, which he sees as hardly any better; and he’s also very sharp about how the argument that government austerity and cuts to social welfare has proved a hollow distraction from the reality that the government should have restructured the banking system and created disincentives for the rich kids to crash the cars. But for me, the thing that pushes this essay into Stephen-Curry-what-a-shot territory are a couple offhand comments:
a billionaire in Qatar or Mumbai can make a call to his broker in London with only a few hours difference; in New York, let alone California, it’s likely to be the middle of the night. What’s more, the same billionaire can speak to a broker with a familiar, reassuring Oxbridge accent, giving him the pleasant feeling of now having the grandson of his country’s former colonial officials at his beck and call.
Those who have investigated the situation find that London’s appeal—and by extension, Britain’s—rests on two factors. First of all, Russian oligarchs or Saudi princesses know they can get pretty much anything they want in London, from antique candelabras and high-tech spy devices, to Mary Poppins–style nannies for their children, fresh lobsters delivered by bicycle in the wee hours, and every conceivable variety of exotic sexual service, music, and food. What’s more, the boodles will be delivered by a cheerful, creative, and subservient working-class population who, drawing on centuries of tradition, know exactly how to be butlers. The second factor is security. If one is a nouveau riche construction magnate or diamond trader from Hong Kong, Delhi, or Bahrain, one is keenly aware that at home, something could still go terribly wrong: revolution, a sudden U-turn of government policy, expropriation, violent unrest. None of this could possibly happen in Notting Hill or Chelsea. Any political change that would significantly affect the most wealthy was effectively taken off the table with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
In other words, the historical defeat and humiliation of the British working classes is now the island’s primary export product. By organizing the entire economy around the resultant housing bubble, the Tories have ensured that the bulk of the British population is aware, at least on some tacit level, that it is precisely the global appeal of the English class system, up to and including the contemptuous sneer of the Oxbridge graduates in Parliament chuckling over the impending removal of housing benefits, that is also keeping affordable track shoes, beer, and consumer electronics flowing into the country.
“Defeat and humiliation… is now the island’s primary export product.” That’s harsh, and cutting, and it strikes me as really insightful.
Graeber contrasts this Merry Poppins/Paul Bettany-supporting-character strain of British culture to the more rugged, small-shopkeeper-and-trade-union version, and not surprisingly, finds the latter as the more impressive. He even manages to suggest at the end, in a layup that brings in an Industry 4.0 reference, that this culture could be the salvation of England still:
If we really are moving toward a future of decentralized, small, high-tech, robotized production, it’s quite possible that the United Kingdom’s peculiar traditions of small-scale enterprise and amateur science—which never made it particularly amenable to the giant bureaucratized conglomerates that did so well in the United States and Germany, in either their capitalist or socialist manifestations—might prove unusually apt. It’s all a colossal gamble. But then, that’s what historical change is like.
He doesn’t actually use the term Industry 4.0 by name, but this is where he’s going.
Anyway, well worth reading in full.