Something of a book of two halves, with the first half an absolute cracker – tense, gripping and relevant. The second half I’m afraid is something of a damp squid, except for a clever twist at the end, which I must confess I should have seen coming but didn’t. The first half of Preston’s story, I assume largely autobiographical, tells the exhilarating story of an ordinary sort of bloke making it good in the City of London until, you guessed it, the big crash of 2008. After the crash come the bankruptcies, the suicides and the disillusionment. The second half of the story gets bogged down in relationship stuff which is not, to be honest, Mr Preston’s literary forte. But the twist at the end makes it all worthwhile and leaves the reader with much to ponder. There is no Hollywood ending here unless you consider the mathematical algorithms swirling around the financial institutions in the City as a beautiful end in itself. I don’t but I can see how some might.

What are the questions that Preston asks us to consider? Firstly and fundamentally this book poses the question, what is the point of it all? What is the point of amassing great wealth if you are still miserable as hell?  What is the point of devoting every waking second of every day to manipulating the markets if you go home at the end of the day existentially empty and exhausted?  Good question. But even more, or at least of equal importance is the question; is any of this financial stuff in any way remotely useful. What are the social benefits of the so called ‘financial services’ if any? It’s almost a rhetorical question these days because the answer is becoming increasingly obvious to anyone with even a few brain cells still working. Even some bigwigs in the City are declaring the whole financial services industry, socially useless, as indeed they are.

If capitalism is such a great system then why, even in the citadels of capitalism, is there so much unemployment, so much personal and corporate debt, and such a chronic shortage of affordable housing. If the system, with all its sophisticated mathematical models cannot provide for the basics of life then clearly the system is not fit for purpose. Preston never really gets past the personal dimensions of these questions. A pity, because an exploration of the social dimensions would have turned a reasonably good story into a great story.

If capitalist markets continues to fail so spectacularly in the advanced capitalist countries, what can be said about their performance in the developing world? That is not so simple a question as might first appear. Capitalism and its trading markets in the developing world, across Asia and Africa, are  producing both massive levels of human suffering and debilitating inequality while at the very same time, dragging hundreds of millions of citizens into a consumerist middle class. Is this a step forward or a step backwards? Tricky question. Marx himself was at pains to point out the revolutionary nature of capitalism. He understood with brilliant clarity that capitalism like no other preceding system, is capable of sweeping away all the old decaying vestiges of feudalism and antiquity. Only capitalism can accumulate capital with such speed and in such an efficient if brutal way. Looks like the Chinese Communist Party bosses have taken this wisdom aboard. They’re all at it these days; the Chinese, the Vietnamese and even now the once steadfast Cubans.         

So maybe, just maybe, as the head of Goldman Sachs proclaimed, his bank and capitalism generally is ‘doing god’s work’. Maybe, despite its unfailing ability to create endemic inequalities capitalism is a necessary evil at this moment of our collective development. And what is the alternative anyway? State run capitalism with its miserable track record of corruption, inefficiency and stultifying bureaucracy? Why bother to even contemplate state capitalism when the markets can do the job that much more effectively?  This is the sort of logic that the proponents of the ‘free market’ consistently come up with. But this free market logic has one underlining flaw; there is no such thing, and never has been, as a ‘free market’ operating anywhere on the planet.

 Everywhere one looks, the so called free market is propped up with massive subsidies from public taxation. Everywhere one looks, if one looks closely and dispassionately enough, the so called free market is being subsidised  by public infrastructure, public health and public education, and of course, direct public bailouts when things go pear shaped. So it turns out, when the books are balanced fairly and openly, that these days it is not the capitalist ‘free market’ that is super-efficient but rather state planning and regulation. For all its past bureaucratic idiocies and criminalities, state planning has a far better track record for actually gets the job done in the most equitable and efficient manner.

The collapse of the old Soviet Union is probably still too recent a phenomenon for a fair and ideologically free assessment of the success or otherwise of state planning. But when history is able to offer an objective account of these matters, we may be surprised to learn that Soviet planning was rather efficient in mobilising and distributing resources. That it was sucked in to  a black hole of an arms race with the western military industrial complex simply obscures the remarkable successes of state planning over and above that of anarchistic capitalist markets. So successful was the model of state planning that advanced capitalist countries like Britain, and France were obliged, post war, to copy that model, creating state funded health and education systems in defiance of the capitalist markets. And it should be added that with today’s level of computerisation and information technology, state planning has the technological capacity to succeed where earlier attempts faltered.

A slight digression from Preston’s story perhaps but a logical digression nevertheless. In returning to Preston’s novel, what can we accurately say about this ‘bleeding city’ of ours? Well, we know that the City of London itself is one of the major, if not the major money laundering capital of the world. Drug money, people smuggling money, prostitution money and illegal arm sales money; it all ends up sooner or l;ater being laundered through the City of London. Much of it goes into real estate in what has become popularly known as the  ‘buy to leave’ phenomenon.  Tens of thousands of luxury apartments sitting empty along the Thames corridor while London is in the grip of a prolonged and chronic housing shortage. And the capitalist markets are having a wonderful time of it. This bleeding city indeed.

What else do we know? Certainly that a deliberate social cleansing is afoot. If you’re on housing benefits and  you can’t afford to buy a tiny, half million pound, two bedroom apartment, then it’s off to Hull, Halifax or Hastings for you. Grubby lumpen proletarian families are simply not required in this gleaming new city of glass and steel. On yer bike. Jog on.

We know also that the air is increasingly toxic in this bleeding city of ours. The statistics are truly shocking. In the fifty worst pollution hot spots in the capital, the air quality is two or three times below the recommended European level. And what is the corporate response to this toxicity? To try and bulldoze through a third runway at Heathrow adding another 400,000 flights over the capital every year. And what will the passengers on these extra flights be confronted with when they disembark? Hideously congested roads, cattle truck conditions on the trains and accommodation suitable only for millionaires. And they have the nerve to talk about the efficiency of the capitalist market!

Al;ex Preston’s anti-hero tries to escape this capitalist dystopia for a simpler life. Does he succeed? You’ll have to read the thing to find out if escape is even possible. Of course there are still many, many pleasures to enjoy in London – its vast patchwork of parks, woods and forests, its enchanting network of canals and rivers which, at the time of writing at least, are still free. And then there is the amazingly  diverse cultural life that is perhaps unequalled anywhere on the planet. So the question is not whether London, ‘this bleeding city’ has its plusses and minuses, but rather which way is the pendulum swinging. The portents are not good.

End JPK Copyright 8/3/15

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 March 2015 11:10 )