May 9, 2017

A shadow chancellor sheds some light


Now that’s how you shadow chancel.

Jeremy Corbyn, head of the UK’s opposition Labour Party, has been accused of numerous shortcomings, from an excessive devotion to bean-eating to an inadequate devotion to cookie-eating. He has also, like British opposition leaders before him, formed a shadow cabinet, which sounds cooler than it is, with economic and financial policy managed by a shadow chancellor. Shadow chancellors are respected in British society and sometimes even get their own holidays.

Anyhow, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor is John McDonnell, a non-Bolshevik who nonetheless favors raising taxes on the richest five percent of UK households, instituting financial regulation modeled on the US’s Glass-Steagall Act, and other polite steps to move humanity just slightly farther from the brink of total immiseration. He’s also a colorful guy, who once protested Conservative MP George Osborne’s extreme concessions to Chinese trade demands by throwing a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book at him, and who not too long ago described his agenda as “socialism with an iPad.”

McDonnell is back in headlines this week, thanks to comments he recently made on BBC One’s “Andrew Marr Show.” According to reporting by Francis Elliott and Henry Zeffman in the Times, McDonnell was asked whether he’s a Marxist, and replied:

“I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading Das Kapital, yes, of course there is, and that’s been recommended not just by me but many others, mainstream economists as well. I also believe in the long tradition of the Labour Party which involves people like GDH Cole, [RH] Tawney and others.

“You put that all together and you have, I think, a direction for our economy based upon sound principles and fairness.”

When, in an attempted gotcha! moment, the host reminded McDonnell that Das Kapital predicts the downfall of capitalism, he replied, “That’s where Marx got it wrong.”

There’s an irony here. This week began with many (rightly) expressing relief that the workers of France (or, as they call it, La France) will be resisting the policies not of a fascist monster, but simply of a thirtysomething former investment banker who cut his teeth overseeing the curtailment of employment benefits and labor protections. His election is also being read as a vindication of French commitment to the European Union; meantime, the UK’s vote last summer to withdraw from the body—in which the working class proved crucial—severely scrambled McDonnell’s efforts to make the UK
“the technological as well as the financial centre of Europe.” That same vote has also prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to call a general election next month, and voters are mulling their options. It’s an ideal time for the opposition to reconsider its relationship with the nation’s workers — to whom, it appears, the hastening downfall of capitalism has become embarrassingly obvious.

At the very least, we can ask this: why does Capital remain one of a very small number of books regularly called in English by its foreign title? It’s a teensy company that includes the Qur’an, the Torah, the Dao De Jing, and, arguably, Anna Karenina. Makes you think, anyway.


Update: Still thinking about this. Here at Melvillainy HQ, we’ve come up with two additions to this list: Les Misérables (which seems to have been called by its French name even before it was a smash Broadway musical)—thanks to translator Shelley Frisch for tweeting that one to us—and, with thanks to Valerie and apologies to Karl Ove, y’know, Mein Kampf.



Ian Dreiblatt is the former Director of Digital Media at Melville House.