Twilight of the Elites

TWILIGHT OF THE ELITES: AMERICA AFTER MERITOCRACY
By Christopher Hayes

In Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost, after the fallen angels have built their palace of Pandemonium, Satan takes his magnificent place at their head:

High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Show’rs on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit rais’d
To that bad eminence.

As a student I remember some time spent in discussion of what sort of merit Satan possessed to have risen to that bad eminence. Would it not have been bad merit? And what would that be?

This is a point that’s often recurred to me when considering the meritocracy, a word I always feel like putting in quotation marks because I don’t know how merit is being defined or what value is being placed on it.
In most respects I think what qualifies as merit is only what makes the most money. As such, there are a number of problems with it. In the first place, it has no moral basis. In this sense Pandemonium is a meritocracy. If Satan had been a professional athlete, can we doubt he’d have been taking performance enhancing drugs? And who would or could accuse him of doing anything wrong? Gaming the system is itself part of the game. Then there is the matter of what happens when incentives and compensation are out of whack. One can blame elites for the collapse of Enron or the 2008 financial crisis, but the people in charge were just competing for the showrooms of beautiful prizes to be won by those with the greatest merit. Meaning the best ability to play a particular game. And finally there is the matter of inheritance. The merit in a meritocracy is the possession of a single generation, but given how systems of social and economic inequality lock in, “merit” can, and indeed usually does, become nothing more than a class signifier.

In short, a meritocracy, like any oligarchy, can only be expected to get worse over time. As Lewis Lapham put it:

oligarchies bear an unhappy resemblance to cheese, and over time even the best of them turn rancid. The government might delay the procedure by making as difficult as possible the concentrations of wealth that inevitably fall to the lot of individuals equipped with financial talent, military genius, or noble birth – but not even the strictest tax or sumptuary laws can nullify the logic of compound interest or postpone indefinitely the triumph of vanity. Sooner or later the men become pigs. An oligarchy the might once have aspired to an ideal of wisdom or virtue gradually acquires the character of what Aristotle likened to that of “the prosperous fool” – a man, or class of men, so bewildered by their faith in money that they “therefore imagine there is nothing it cannot buy.” Once the oligarchy has been made stupid with insolence and greed, it’s only a matter of time – maybe two or three decades, never more than three or four generations – before the government reformulates itself under a new row of statues and a new set of glorious truths.

Regulatory capture is the name given to this last part of the process. The larger transformation, or decline, of the oligarchy or meritocracy into an elite clique of locked-in privilege is what Christopher Hayes describes in his book:

extreme inequality of the particular kind that we have produces its own particular kind of elite pathology: it makes elites less accountable, more prone to corruption and self-dealing, more status-obsessed and less empathic, more blinkered and removed from informational feedback crucial to effective decision-making. For this reason, extreme inequality produces elites who are less competent and more corrupt than those in a more egalitarian social order would. This is the fundamental paradoxical outcome that several decades of failed meritocratic production has revealed: As American society grows more elitist, it produces a worse caliber of elite.

The function served by the language of meritocracy is nothing new. Observing the vogue for social Darwnism in the late nineteenth century, a time of booming economic growth and terrible inequality, John Kenneth Galbraith noted how well its American gospel “fitted the needs of American capitalism”:

The rich man was the innocent beneficiary of his own superiority. To the enjoyment of wealth was added the almost equal enjoyment which came with the knowledge that one had it because one was better.

And so the gospel of meritocracy. These are stories elites like to tell themselves.

Hayes does a good job covering the ground and explaining how the practice of meritocracy got into trouble in the 2010s, or what he calls “the fail decade.” Time and again elites were shown to be corrupt, self-serving, incompetent, and dangerous to the rest of society. But did all of this mean that they were no longer a meritocracy? Again one has to ask what their merit was supposed to consist of. If it was only something to advance themselves economically then none of the charges that Hayes brings against it matter. The elites were operating precisely as they should in getting rich and increasing their power by any means necessary. If their objective failures led to a “crisis of authority” during these years, that would only benefit them as well. There’s a lot of money to be made in the ruin of a country.

Notes:
Review first published online February 7, 2021. A little point that stuck out while reading: in his discussion of political consensus Hayes observes that “over the last several decades, partisan affiliation has generally weakened, with a large percentage of voters identifying as independents or moving back and forth between designations.” I was under the impression that the exact opposite was happening, a process of polarization analysed in such books as Ronald Brownstein’s The Second Civil War and Steve Kornacki’s The Red and the Blue. Unfortunately, Hayes doesn’t provide any source for the weakening of party affiliation he sees.

Reaganland

REAGANLAND
By Rick Perlstein

Reaganland is the final volume of Rick Perlstein’s chronicle tetralogy on the rise of the modern American right, or New Right as I think it is more properly styled. The previous books were Before the Storm, Nixonland, and The Invisible Bridge, and as time went on they became even more exhaustively immersive, to the point where I can see why Perlstein felt he couldn’t go on. But the question he leaves us with is if there would be any point in continuing the story further. To put it another way, with the election of Reagan, was our present course set?

Reagan really did mark a revolution in the GOP, which was no longer the Republican Party of Eisenhower or even of Nixon and Ford. As Paul Weyrich, one of the architects of the New Right, put it, the movement was not meant to be conservative but radical, involving a total restructuring of the political and social order. The winners in this restructuring would be the newly class-conscious financial and business elites, a group Kurt Andersen dubbed “evil geniuses” and Perlstein “boardroom Jacobins.” The basic ideology would be neoliberal, which is to say opposed to government in nearly all its forms with a kind of religious intensity. Perlstein even renders a sermon delivered by James Robison in all its full exclamatory glory, wherein “God’s Angry Man” condemns government as “a confiscator! And a consumer! And a disperser of your wealth. It! Produces! Nothing! And it functions best when it functions least!”

That sort of rhetoric is still with us, and indeed the question Reaganland leaves us with is how much of a through line can be drawn from Reagan to Trump. What later came to fruition was present at the end of the ‘70s in Robison’s outraged tirade of bottomless anger and grievance. Then there was the politicization of social issues (something Reagan was early to recognize the value of), the branding of “Make America Great Again,” the racism inherent in the Republican “Southern strategy,” the blithe indifference to facts or the truth, all of this would be dialed up in the years to come but it was nascent in everything Perlstein describes. The capstone was Fox News and social media as a way to make people even angrier, so that forty years later mobs would be storming the capital.

Reagan, like Trump, would be a figure drawn from the glamorous world of show business, while Carter could only play a sort of Beverly Hillbilly, sermonizing not on the evil of government but about public sacrifice. Is there a dirtier word in modern American culture? Carter did not understand yet that, as a later president would put it, the American way of life is nonnegotiable.

Essential reading then, for a deeper understanding of today’s politics. Perlstein’s eye for the telling detail and anecdote is exquisite, and the amount of material he has trawled through is truly impressive. He must have lived in a library for years My only complaint would be that I have never seen a book, at least from a major press, with this many typos in it. Was it rushed into print? Perhaps it was, being published during the run-up to the 2020 election that saw the dismissal of Trump. As events have shown, however, the New Right is continuing on the same trajectory even post-election, and the U.S. is still very much Trumpland. America’s rightward turn is describing a long arc indeed.

Notes:
Review first published online January 30, 2021.

Evil Geniuses

Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America
Kurt Andersen

I don’t know why Kurt Andersen keeps going on about nostalgia. He talked about it a lot in his previous book, Fantasyland, and does so again in Evil Geniuses, though in both cases it has only a tangential relation to the political and cultural phenomena that are his subject. Here, for example, nostalgia is simply a “comorbidity” of the redesigning of the American economy by big business, leading to deepening social inequality as the culture fails to renew itself and simply retrenches. It is a feeling, and political technique, that’s characteristic of our time, but finally ambiguous and hard to pin down.

The point being made here is fairly simple. Since the 1960s, and it’s a force that has only been picking up steam, there has been a “quite deliberate reengineering of our economy and society . . . by a highly rational confederacy of the rich, the right, and big business.” Because why wouldn’t they? It was a plan that took no great genius either to figure our or execute. Indeed, the economic theory part was a joke. What enabled it though was infighting among the left while the economic right only had their “one big, simple idea — do everything possible to let the rich stay rich and get richer.” I seem to remember Gore Vidal making the same observation many years ago. By now we’ve seen where the political philosophy that “government is bad” (morphing into “democracy is bad”) takes us, and it’s not the capitalist utopia of Galt’s Gulch.

Twilight of Democracy

Twilight of Democracy
Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum adds quite a lot in this little book to the vast literature trying to understand the Trump phenomenon and the rise of right-wing authoritarianism elsewhere in the West (in addition to the U.S. she also looks at developments in Britain, Poland, and Hungary).

I wonder, however, if we might say something in defence of the Trump voter. To be sure, the authoritarian personality is not very congenial, and the rage and resentment that fueled the rise of would-be strong men can get pretty ugly. As Applebaum notes, the new right “is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass, or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists.” Including, most broadly, democracy and the rule of law.

But they have their reasons. For what has become the politics of grievance, some of the grievances are legitimate. It is a rigged system (in championing merit and competition Applebaum doesn’t appreciate how diminished a role these now play in the economy). The media is biased, albeit more in ways that favour their own penchant for alternative facts and divisiveness. Democratic politics has become unresponsive and unrepresentative, its only business being the servicing of elite interests. The irony is that the right-wing response to this dysfunction has been to “destroy what exists” by voting for even more corruption in government, and following media that only traffic in the most outrageous lies.

As for Trump, the person who hates everything became the perfect vehicle for the hate of so many. As that hate grows, there is sure to be someone to take his place.

Alexander the Great and Before and After Alexander

ALEXANDER THE GREAT: HIS LIFE AND MYSTERIOUS DEATH
By Anthony Everitt
BEFORE AND AFTER ALEXANDER: THE LEGEND AND LEGACY OF ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Richard A. Billows

Every generation, it seems, creates its own Alexander the Great. Or, as Anthony Everitt puts it at the beginning of his new life of Alexander, “their accounts reflect the concerns of their own age as much as they do of his.”

Alexander was a giant figure interpreted in various ways even while alive. Following almost immediately upon his death in 323 BCE there were two schools of Alexander biography, often described by scholars as the official and the vulgate. We’re more sophisticated today, but among contemporary historians there are still profound divisions. In the twentieth century the big divide was political, ranging from seeing Alexander as a progressive, unifying figure (Sir William Tarn) to a cruel dictator (Ernst Badian). More recently the split has been between those who accept Alexander as being truly great and others who try to diminish his accomplishments, usually by building up how much he inherited from his father Philip.

I wonder how much, and what, this most recent development in Alexander studies makes him more our contemporary. But I won’t speculate about that here. Suffice it to say that for Richard Billows, in the critical camp, he is “one of the most overrated figures in world history.”

The truly great man was Alexander’s father Philip, and credit belongs too to the generals – Antigonous, Ptolemy, Seleucus – who took on the role of governing the lands Alexander had merely marched through and fought battles in, and turning those lands into viable empires with Greek cities and Greek culture. Without their efforts, the history and civilization of the lands and cultures of western Asia, Europe, and north Africa would be very different than they are today.

There’s a lot I could push back against here (obviously Alexander didn’t have the opportunity to turn his conquered lands into a viable empire), but given that it’s the final paragraph in Billows’ book it might be better to just quote from the conclusion of Arrian’s biography. In classical times Alexander had his detractors as well, and Arrian wants to fire back at them.

Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are.

Like most scholars in the pro-Philip camp, Billows spends a lot of time talking about the innovations Philip made to the Macedonian army, and he does a first-rate job of this that I think even people who have read around a lot in the area will learn something from. He also goes into the story of the Diadochi (or successors to Alexander) in some depth, which is a complicated story that’s easy to get lost in (though it did get a solid book-length treatment recently in Ghost on the Throne by James Romm). Some of the supporting material, however, is third-rate. The pictures are drawn from Wikimedia Commons, and the introductory maps have mistakes like “Macadonia” and a note saying that Alexander died “in what is present day Baghdad” (Alexander died in Babylon, a city on the Euphrates River, some 80 km south of present-day Baghdad, which is on the Tigris).

I’m not sure we need more biographies of Alexander, but he’s a subject, like Napoleon or Lincoln, that just keeps cruising along. And as I’ve said, each generation has to make a new one, fashioned to some degree in its own image. This started as early as the Alexander Romance, wherein Alexander became the son of a pharaoh to the Egyptians and the brother of Darius to Persian readers. We can all pick and choose. Among modern biographies, I’m very fond of the books written by Peter Green and Robin Lane Fox, each well-written, learned, and opinionated in instructive ways. I don’t think either has been bettered, but Everitt is game for “a new look” that “reflects our own twenty-first-century hopes and fears, most particularly about the nature of power and the fascination – and impermanence – of military success.”

I wouldn’t have thought those concerns particular to the twenty-first century. Indeed, I would have thought them far less particular than they were to the century just passed. Instead, what makes Everitt’s book most of its time is its breezy voice. Everitt is starting to sound a bit like the popular historian Tom Holland, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. The breezy style makes him easy to read, but it also carries a lot before it. “His [Alexander’s] life was an adventure story and took him to every corner of the known world.” This is the second sentence. It is not true. Even if we take “the known world” to just mean the Mediterranean Alexander obviously never visited the half of it. Rome and Carthage remained far outside his orbit. But “every corner of the known world” sounds good. Then, on the next page, we’re told, in what I’m sure is a typo, that Cyrus the Great founded the Persian Empire in the middle of the fifth century, which is off by a hundred years.

I think undemanding, general readers will enjoy Everitt’s book. It tells the story in a lively, contemporary fashion. Dramatic action is highlighted, like the scene where the general Cleitus saves Alexander’s life by cutting off the arm of an enemy who was about to administer a coup de grâce. Personally, I don’t think this happened, but it’s a great war story. Then there are chapter titles like “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A Passage to India” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home.” As far as interpretation goes, it seems fair enough, but again tends to blow past any caveats. Is it a “fact” that Alexander, facing a mutiny on the Indus, “never had any intention of marching to Ocean”? I think he might have kept going.

We’ll never know. What we do know is that the Alexander of history has kept going, and likely will continue to do so for many years to come. I am concerned, however, not so much at the picture of Alexander that is being drawn as the general quality of the biographer’s art. In terms of their scholarship and readability neither of these books seem to me to be an advance on Green or Lane Fox, which are now fifty years old. We’re marching on, but is it an advance?

Notes:
First published online December 29, 2020. For more on Alexander see my joint review of Guy MacLean Rogers’ Alexander and Paul Cartledge’s Alexander the Great.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Jaron Lanier

I’ve been online for over twenty years, but I’ve always been unsure about calling what I do “social media.” Some people tell me it is, others say it isn’t. I’m not, however, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any of those platforms, so I think I’ve preserved a kind of innocence.

The arguments for staying off social media are, by now, well established. Basically it manipulates us for its own profit, making us mean, miserable, and isolated (the “social” is a bitter joke) in ways that tend to be self-reinforcing, leading to “an explosive amplification of negativity in human affairs.” The “shit machine” of social media creates a world (an economy, a culture) where “the crudest, most selfish, and least informed people” rise to the top, while “anyone who isn’t an asshole gets hurt the most.” It isn’t politically oriented right or left but “biased downward.”

We know this, but it’s like knowing all the very good reasons for becoming vegetarian and never getting around to it because so much of our environment (the economy, the culture) runs on other fuel. Jaron Lanier is a smart guy but a sketchy writer. His acronym BUMMER (for Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent) is anti-mnemonic, though he does score points for calling Facebook “an existential mafia.” But I’m left wondering how many people his arguments will persuade. Social media is an addiction, and its incentives are all skewed the wrong way. It will take quite an intervention to break the habit now.

The Death of the Artist

THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST: HOW CREATORS ARE STRUGGLING TO SURVIVE IN THE AGE OF BILLIONAIRES AND BIG TECH
By William Deresiewicz

A lot of what William Deresiewicz has to say in The Death of the Artist isn’t all that new. The collapse of the arts economy, mainly as a result of the digital revolution, has been well documented in such earlier books as Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? and Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash. Still, it’s an important transformation that needs to be recorded and analyzed, and I welcome any fresh perspective on the ongoing crisis.

Deresiewicz gives us that fresh perspective mainly through a series of interviews with artists who are trying to make it in the new entertainment order. These aren’t all tales of doom and gloom, though most of them are and the few success stories only underline just how much has changed. In talking with musicians, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers Deresiewicz shows us how real lives have been impacted by our culture crash, as well as what coping/survival strategies have been adopted. While fascinating in their own right, such stories also relay some practical information relating to what is “the central question that is raised by this book as a whole: how to keep your soul intact and still make a living as an artist.”

Lanier has already made one dark prophecy, that in the future art may be the sole preserve of the privileged. But while Deresiewicz is alert to the danger of the arts becoming merely “a rich kid’s game,” that may be too pessimistic. There are plenty of rags-to-riches stories out there. Unfortunately, while “success” (the word has different meanings) in the arts may be open to all, it is only so as a lottery. This being the preferred word of many interviewees to describe the current economy, and the one I would adopt as well.

Where I found the book most interesting is the stress that is (correctly, I believe) put on the way these transformations are tracking the widening inequality in American life more generally. “As institutions tremble and crumble, professionals across the board are losing their autonomy, their dignity, their place. Wealth is moving upward everywhere, and everywhere the middle class is disappearing.” The arts are very much part of that “everywhere,” which means “the devastation of the arts economy . . . is rooted in the great besetting sin of contemporary American society: extreme and growing inequality.” Now ask yourself when you see such a trend being reversed.

This leads to the next important point. If things continue, as I think they will, on their present trajectory, what will the future of art look like? As Deresiewicz puts it, “What kind of art are we giving ourselves in the twenty-first century?”

We might not be surprised that Alexis de Tocqueville was here before us. Surveying the American literary scene in 1831 he wrote of how Americans “like books that are easily procured, quickly read, and that do not require scholarly research to be understood. They insist on facile beauties that are self-evident and that can be immediately enjoyed; above all, they demand the unexpected and the new.” “Need I say more?” he continues. “Who cannot guess what is to follow?” But we really don’t have to guess. We’re familiar with it already:

Taken as a whole, the literature of democratic centuries cannot present the image of order, regularity, knowledge, and art that literature exhibits in aristocratic times. Form will usually be neglected and occasionally scorned. Style will frequently seem bizarre, incorrect, exaggerated, or flaccid and almost always seem brazen and vehement. Authors will aim for rapidity of execution rather than perfection of detail. Short texts will be more common than long books, wit more common than erudition, and imagination more common than depth. An uncultivated, almost savage vigor will dominate thought, whose products will frequently exhibit a very great variety and singular fecundity. Authors will seek to astonish rather than to please and to engage the passions rather than beguile taste.

Deresiewicz doesn’t mention Tocqueville, but I find this vision of the future of American writing fits the contemporary scene pretty neatly, and not just in terms of its literary productions.

In attempting to define the spirit of the age (at least in the arts) Deresiewicz settles on the word “producerism,” which makes central the twin ideas that art is now just content and that everyone is an artist. However, while rejecting the latter notion as absurd (even if this runs the risk of making him appear “a snobbish old asshole”), I don’t think he addresses how much sense it makes within a lottery economy. In a lottery everyone has a chance to make it, and so everyone is an artist. Dan Brown. Stephenie Meyer. E. L. James. Are these not authors? Artists? By present standards I think we have answer that they are. Indeed they are the most successful – and so representative? – of the new paradigm. As Deresiewicz recognizes, it’s crazy to say that the cream is rising to the top. But whatever it is that is rising to the top of a flooded zone (one can’t resist referencing how shit floats), that’s where we’re at. Bad art drives out good. Which means it isn’t bad.

Or at least so the poptimists would tell us. Criticism has gone the way of the arts. Today’s reviewers and critics have little left to do aside from offering superficial commentary on the vagaries of celebrity while reporting on the rankings of box office and bestseller lists. Art appreciation is all about liking things, and how it is we like them.

So, just as everyone’s an artist, everyone is now a critic. And like the corpses caught in the web of the monster haunting the sewers of Derry in Stephen King’s It, everyone floats. In 2018 YouTube’s top earner was reported to be someone named Ryan, who generated over $20 million in income. Ryan, you may be surprised, is a critic. His YouTube channel is a review program. He was also, in 2018, 7 years old, and his reviews consisted of opening up boxes of toys and playing with them. Need I say more?

Notes:
Review first published online December 12, 2020.

The End of Tsarist Russia

The End of Tsarist Russia
Dominic Lieven

I thought this was a great account of Russia’s “march to World War I and revolution,” and would recommend it to anyone. It covers the terrain very well, emphasizing the importance of the Eastern front (“the war was first and foremost an eastern European conflict”) and providing interesting commentary on such matters as the reception of Ivan Bloch’s work in Russia and Russia’s nationalism/patriotism deficit (at least compared to the other major powers). I’m less inclined to the view that Russia solely or primarily collapsed from within in 1917 and was still holding steady on the front. That was the case only, I would say, where they were facing the fading Ottoman Empire. In terms of both will and material I think the Russian army was licked, even without a mutiny in the trenches. The collapse was general, leaving the Bolsheviks to, as Lenin put it, pick up power where they found it lying in the street.

The Horror! The Horror!

The Horror! The Horror!
Jim Trombetta

American horror comics, at least of the notorious pre-Code variety, didn’t have a particularly long run. All of the examples in this weighty survey, less an anthology than a exhibition catalogue, were published between 1950 and 1954, the terminal date being when the Comics Code Authority was established.

Despite their all-too-brief flowering, the place these comics have in pop culture is hard to overstate. Was the 1952 story “Dungeon of Doom!” from Chamber of Chills an inspiration for John Carpenter’s They Live? I think it might have been.

The commentary by Jim Trombetta is a bit random, drawing from figures as diverse as Northrop Frye and Melanie Klein to introduce the different thematic sections. But what’s said is of interest, sometimes in unexpected ways. I particularly liked Trombetta’s commentary on the trope of shrunken heads.

The real meat of the book, however, consists of the reproductions, which are beautifully reproduced in all their full-colour glory — albeit tending to be yellowy with age, and sometimes suffering from those chromatic shifts brought on by the sloppy production process used to create the originals. Not that I would want any of this cleaned up. This is a volume worthy of classic trash.

The Braver Thing

THE BRAVER THING
By Clifford Jackman

In his widely heralded 2015 novel The Winter Family Clifford Jackman mixed pulp fiction with broader social and historical speculations as he told the story of a brutal gang of American outlaws. In his follow-up The Braver Thing he does something similar with the crew of the Saoirse, a pirate ship in the eighteenth century, though it’s a book that sails into different waters.

To be sure, the genre elements are all in place. This is a pirate novel so there’s a captain with an eye patch, a talking parrot, and sea battles that see men “pulped into tripe” with grapeshot and “hacked into meat” by swords. There are treasures lost and won, storms and duels and mutinies, and maybe even a giant sea beast at the end.

But in addition to all this swashbuckling there is a political theme introduced, signaled by an epigraph from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and chapter headings announcing the different forms of governance that are attempted on the Saoirse.

The ship of state is an ancient metaphor that goes back to Plato’s Republic, but it’s put to an extreme stress test here. That’s because these are men for whom violence isn’t a last resort but a profession and entire way of life.

As it sets out on its voyage the Saoirse is likened to “a wooden world . . . a parasitic nation at war with all the world, enemies of all mankind.” The crew are warrior monks of the sea: men without women, or much in the way of any human bonds at all. There are no female characters in the novel, and though lip service is paid to the notion of pirate brotherhood they are not a family. Real family being one of the few social units Winter presents as giving life purpose and meaning.

As with the gang of Winter desperadoes, the pirate ship in The Braver Thing is a radical anti-polis more than a microcosm of any sort of functioning society. The Gentlemen of Fortune and Honest Fellows, though bound together by articles of service and given to holding lots of shipboard meetings and votes, have little sense of loyalty or a social contract. The shipboard state, to use the language of political science, is prior to the individual.

What identity the crew have is submerged in rank and function. This is especially so at the top, where the isolation and burden of command results in self-flagellating pathologies. It’s not that absolute power corrupts so much as it breaks men into pieces.

The Braver Thing isn’t a novel that goes deep into the heads of any of its characters. There’s more a sense that anyone is expendable, with even the captains of the Saoirse coming and going almost by accident. But that is by design. Winter is less interested in psychology than he is in the behaviour of the group and the timely question of how to get by in a world where politics has gone mad and the ship of state is plunging into the blackness of darkness. Pro tips: keep your head down, do your duty, and you might get out alive.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 4 2020.