the guardian Fri 08 July 2011
The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism, by Colin Crouch (Polity, £14.99)
The term "lobbying" pictures the envoys of business importuning politicians in public corridors, yet, as Crouch points out, lobbyists are "right inside the room of political decision-making. They set standards, establish private regulatory systems, act as consultants to government, even have staff seconded to ministers' offices". With "lobbying" and other Unspeak ("campaigning", "privatisation", "consumer welfare"), vocabulary draws a veil over the corporate corruption of democratic politics, which is one of the themes of this highly approachable and illuminating argument in political economy.
Crouch sketches the history of "liberal", "social democractic" and "neoliberal" ideas, the last found wanting by the global financial crisis. The opposition between "state" and "market", he argues, fails to credit the importance of companies, particularly "giant" ones (or "transnational corporations"), as a third force that can be in conflict with one or both of the others. The only remedy for our present ills, apparently, is "civil society" in an always uneasy four-way counterbalance with state, markets and firms. The story is packed with thought-provoking reframings: financial irresponsibility is now a "collective good"; and "the idea of a 'job'" now seems very weird to me indeed.
Stage, Stake, & Scaffold: Humans & Animals in Shakespeare's Theatre, by Andreas Höfele (Oxford, £30)
Off the "job" in Shakespeare's day, I might have wandered to the South Bank to unwind with the "pleasant sport" of bear-baiting, a spectacle that "delighted" the Spanish ambassador. In this diverting study, Höfele argues that the architectural similarity of the playhouse, the bear-baiting arena, and the scaffold of public torture and execution invited each to play deliberately on its similarities with the others. (Gloucester in King Lear and Macbeth both compare themselves to staked bears, and the killing of Coriolanus is that play's "final baiting scene".)
The book is also a study of Shakespeare's animal imagery more generally: bottled spiders, dragons, curs and all the howling rest. There are a few improbable abstract claims and odd failures of interpretation, but a chapter bringing together Montaigne, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and cannibalism is pretty tasty. Finally, Höfele links the judicial prosecution of pigs with Edison's electrocution of an elephant at Coney Island, and thence moves swiftly to denounce modern meat production, at which point I no longer quite felt like a bacon sandwich.
I Remember Nothing, by Nora Ephron (Doubleday, £12.99)
Good job that I wasn't the proprietor of a bacon-sandwich shop. "There are many problems with owning a restaurant," we learn here, "not the least of which is that you have to eat there all the time." In this collection of memoirish fragments, the writer of When Harry Met Sally complains amusingly about ageing and forgetfulness (the impressive list of "people I met that I remember nothing about" includes Groucho Marx, Cary Grant, and Dorothy Parker), but does remember her early career in journalism: "I loved the [New York] Post. Of course, it was a zoo. The editor was a sexual predator. The managing editor was a lunatic. Sometimes it seemed that half the staff was drunk."
Ephron also relates the time her mother threw Lillian Ross out of the house, and attacks fads, eg for egg-white omelettes or Thomas Friedman. Some of the shorter pieces here are thin, but a lovely style (of the kind wrongly called "conversational") goes a long way. On journalism, again: "I didn't know much about anything, and I was in a profession where you didn't have to." Not everything has changed, then.