Thursday, May 7, 2009

Crime fiction and the paradox of capitalism

There, I knew that title would grab your attention.  The phrase 'paradox of capitalism' was actually taken from an interesting article in today's Guardian by Timothy Garton Ash.  Ash's article, about the status of global capital, touches on many issues, including the semi-serious proposition that those responsible for the curent financial crisis might be accused of 'bankslaughter'.  His conclusion, drawing on Max Weber and Daniel Bell, is that there is a fundamental tension at the heart of capitalism, in that "the production side depends...hard work, punctuality, discipline and a readiness to accept deferred gratification" whereas  "the demand side...depends on [people] being self-indulgent, expansive, pleasure-seeking and given to living in the now".

It's an interesting argument, but I was more struck by a passing comment, earlier in the article, about the financial crisis: "not for the first time, novelists (such as Tom Wolfe) and filmmakers (such as Oliver Stone with his Wall Street, featuring Gekko) were ahead of economists and political scientists in identifying the disorder".   From my recollections of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Wall Street, I'm not entirely sure whether Wolfe and Stone really identified the disorder, or were simply joining in the party.  But Ash's comment did ring a bell in respect of some of the crime fiction I've been reading recently. 

In preparation for attending the Crimefest convention in Bristol (14-17 May, details here), I've been proving that I'm not entirely "self-indulgent, expansive, pleasure-seeking and given to living in the now" by dutifully reading books by as many as possible of my fellow panelists.  Not, of course, that it's in any sense a duty as, without exception, the books have been thoroughly enjoyable. 

But, particularly in reading reading books set in disparate parts of Europe such as Yrsa Sigurdardottir's My Soul to Take (Iceland) or Anne Zouroudi's The Taint of Midas (Greece), I've been struck by the premonitions of the financial crash.  Both of these books were, I presume, written before the worst of the downturn and so make no explicit reference to the crisis.  Both books, though, appear aware of the fragility of a bubble which, as it turned out, was on the point of popping.  Interestingly, too, both books address the paradox that Ash describes.  Sigurdardottir's highly entertaining book is set in a struggling new age health spa which wonderfully embodies all the dysfunctionality of a society which has accrued more money than sense.  Zouroudi's equally enjoyable novel explores a financial corruption that depends on the exploitation of free-spending tourists.  Both books contain plenty of barbed commentary about a species of capitalism which, as we now know, was teetering on the edge of collapse. 

It'll be fascinating to see where crime fiction goes next.  Wherever it is, I suspect we'll be a step or two ahead of the politicians. 


1. Peter said...

Poor Yrsa was at a crime-fiction convention when her country's banking system crashed, I think.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home">href="">

2. Michael+Walters said...

Possibly one of the better places to be, in the circumstances! I was intrigued by the prescience of some of her nicely barbed asides about financiers. I'm looking forward to her tackling the subject in a future book.

3. Martin Edwards said...

Agreed, though I think we'd have to accept that their expenses claims prove that MPs do not lack in creativity!
Look forward to seeein gyou in Bristol.

4. Michael Walters said...

Very true, Martin. And likewise looking forward to seeing you at Crimefest.

5. Peter said...

This time I’ll ask her how she feels about the possibility of her country joining the EU. Maybe I'll even ask her about crime fiction if the subject comes up.
Detectives Beyond Borders
“Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

6. Michael Walters said...

Interesting - I imagine that the EU has become a more attractive option for Iceland. On the other hand, for the moment at least, membership of the Euro has only heightened Ireland's problems. Perhaps we should all just lose ourselves in fictional murder and mayhem instead...

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