John Lanchester on London in the Age of Inequality

Economic inequality is still on our minds after last week’s show with MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Rolling Stone editor Matt Taibbi. Here’s an interview we recorded with John Lanchester in 2012 after the publication of his novel Capital.

My sense of this period and of the decade or so ahead is that it’s going to be one with — if we’re not careful, and I see no signs of us being careful — the same theme dominating conversation and politics everywhere. And that will be about inequality. It’s a very striking thing that a society like China, which only had private property 10 minutes ago, had effectively — this is a very broad-brush thing to say, but — had effectively abolished inequality. You know, there was a tiny crust of elite, but in essense for ordinary people China was a complely equal state. That came at a very, very high price. They moved away from that to astonishing economic growth, growth of a sort that the world’s never seen, numerically — that number of people being raised out of poverty so fast, hundreds of millions of them. And in the process they in effect invented inequality. Talk to people in China: inequality is a huge issue for them in this coming decade, the gap between coast and the center, between cities and the country. China has on a huge scale winners and losers in a way it never did before. Same thing in India. Same thing in Latin America — lots of countries that went broke and then recovered, with a new class in charge. That’s usually what happens. Old middle classes largely got wiped out. You have a new class of economic winners. Obviously inequality is a huge issue here in the States. It’s a huge issue in Europe and in the U.K. — summed up by the Occupy movement’s thing about the “one percent.” We’re just noticing this thing — everyone’s noticing it at the same time. And yet the trends that are propelling that gap are continuing. One of the reasons I thought it was an interesting moment to write about London is that there’s a global thing taking place there. And I think the world doing the split is part of that.

John Lanchester with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 20, 2012

John Lanchester has written a sprawling neo-Dickensian novel CAPITAL about London in the age of funny money and the crash of 2008. He got the germ of it five years ago, noticing a parade of “florists, dog-walkers, pilates instructors” on his own once-modest street south of the Thames, being radically made-over for bankers and the blooming investment-services class — “manifestly symptomatic,” as he says, “of a boom that would turn into a bust.” Like Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend, CAPITAL has what the Brits call a “state of the nation” feel, delivered in the voice attributed to Dickens of the “special correspondent for posterity.” But of course he’s illuminating an affliction gone global by now, describing life as lived in New York, too, or Shanghai, or Boston for that matter. One moral that Lanchester has given his tale is: “We are not in this together,” inverting the Tory slogan. In conversation he adds a touch from the Gospel of Mark: “To them that hath shall be given.” I marvel at how casino capitalism and its costs come clearer, stranger, more ridiculous, more destructive, more outrageous in fiction than in fact – how the right novels can feel truer than the news.

John Lanchester is eminent also as a non-fiction economics correspondent, a main contributor over 25 years to the London Review of Books. He’s been steadfast against the fictions of market doctrine, and strong in his underlying judgment: “The financial system in its current condition poses an existential threat to Western democracy far exceeding any terrorist threat,” he wrote in the LRB last April. “We have at the moment this monstrous hybrid, state capitalism… This is a parody of economic order, in which the general public bears all the risks and the financial sector takes all the rewards – an extraordinarily pure form of what used to be called ‘socialism for the rich’. But ‘socialism for the rich’ was supposed to be a joke. The truth is that it is now genuinely the way the global economy is working.”

In conversation, John Lanchester is extending our thread on the late Tony Judt‘s parting shots in Ill Fares the Land:

Judt makes very important points, I think, about the tragic loss of belief in our ability to act collectively for the good. Let’s gang up, get together, figure out the thing we want to change for the better, and then go ahead and make that change. It seems entirely true when he says the younger generation has entirely lost that sense. I’m writing now about the Underground in London for the 150th anniversary of the Underground next year, the first underground trains. The Victorians were obviously very different from us in lots of respects, but one of the crucial things, I’ve come to think, was their morale. When they were building the Underground, they knew it would change the city forever, for generations to come, and they were certain they that that change was for the better. It was risky, and it was expensive, and it was difficult, and it was right on the edge of what was technologically possible, and they were inventing new techniqes to make the Underground as they did it. But they knew it was going to completely remake the city, and that was the whole point. And I was just thinking: what do we see around us that has that equivalent thing: that you know: we’re doing it and in a hundred years’ time they’ll be using it every day. In London, we’re using Victorian sewers, power networks, holes the Victorians dug. They actually made that world that we’re living in. And that confidence where you can make the world of the future — it’s very sad to have mislaid that, and I see no good reason why we feel we have. It’s just somehow that the frame of the debate has shifted, so that it’s all kind of managerial. You can tweak this and tweak that, but you can’t really change anything. And I wonder: who wrote that rule?

In London or the world, I’m wondering, what corresponds to the Underground, as an artistic or architectural monument of this time?

I think it’s in the rash of buildings trying to be iconic. A thing that’s very much of the moment is these buildings that are trying to be free standing, these buildings that are almost their own brand. Lorenzo Piano’s Shard. Or what’s known as the Gherkin, the Erotic Gherkin, a Norman Foster building which does look indeed like half a gherkin, half a penis, 40 stories high. It’s from the idea of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim-Bilbao, which I think is a wonderful building. But I think it started a trend for the idea that the building is a sort of picture, an icon. It’s not much to with the place; it’s not much to do with anything. It sums itself up and is its own logo, in a way. And we’re seeing an awful lot of those, so I think that’s going to be this moment — the idea of a slightly self-contained, self-reflexive, anti-humanistic building because they look worse when you put people in and around them. They’re better without the humans. And when you interact with them you feel like one of those tiny model figures in an architect’s diagram, and you’re meant to. So there is an anti-humanistic aspect to those guys’ buildings, and I think that’s the kind of thing we’ll look back on and say: oh well, that sums up that period.

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