“The distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers,” remarked Thomas Piketty, in a work noted for its regular references to the novels of Austen and Balzac for insights into wealth and inequality in the nineteenth century. Contrary to the claims to scientific objectivity made by mainstream economics, issues of power and money inevitably have a subjective, psychological and hence political dimension; “democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts”, and it is the imaginative artists who can depict the effects of inequality and the workings of the economy ”with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match.”
Piketty confines himself to ‘classic’ literature as a supplement to sometimes patchy historical sources, rather than engaging with contemporary evocations. Perhaps there is also the implication that contemporary writers are rather shyer of, or more oblivious to, such themes (I seem to recall an article by John Lanchester, the obvious exception to any such observation, to the effect that literature has failed to engage with the current financial crisis). The Easter vacation has given me the opportunity, finally, to finish reading another attempt at an imaginative response to the current state of the world, Elfriede Jelinek’s rein GOLD (2013), which reads the climatic confrontation of Wotan and Brünnhilde in Act 3 of Die Walküre through a prism of Wagner’s revolutionary politics, lots of Marx and Engels and a bit of Freud.
The opening is great: “So, Papa had this castle built,” says Brünnhilde, “and now he can’t pay the mortgage. The same situation as in every second family.” The great themes of the Ring are explicated in this new context, above all the sacrifice of love for money and power. “Love is a mistake!” says Wotan. “It dies, as it comes into being, just as capital dies, if it brings no more interest. Then it is eaten up, through itself, by itself, like love.” Brünnhilde rages against the idiocy and perversion of the whole system, such as Fricka – promised to the giants as payment for building Valhalla – becoming “woman in commodity form, woman as commodity form.” Wotan bitterly explains that this is simply how the world works, such that even god cannot stand against the sorcery of money; everything solid evaporates, everything holy is defiled…
Look, here you see the transformation of goods into money and the retransformation of money into goods. Sell, in order to buy. Something flows into the goods, something flows into the treasure, yes, the treasure also flows, it flows into the Rhine, but into it, the treasure, the hoard, flows something else, something incorporeal, spectral, that however on the other side is again completely normal, one just has to turn it around…
Not even profit is important, nothing is important, only the restless gains, the restless movement of profit, its restlessless, not to travel, but to increase. The capitalist becomes money. The possessor becomes his treasure.
I really wanted to like this book; how could a fusion of the best lines from the Communist Manifesto and Capital with the mythic power of Wagner’s operas not be great? Well, for a start if it’s presented through long stream-of-consciousness soliloquies that even Wagner would have cut drastically after the first couple of pages; by half-way through, the only things keeping me reading were sheer stubbornness and a feeling that this must be extremely good for my German. There’s no narrative development to speak of, but I also got little sense of any intellectual development in the exchange of arguments; the book describes the ceaseless circulation of capital and its transformative power in terms as abstract as any work of economics, rather than bringing them to life or dramatizing their effects. Marx and Wagner can undoubtedly be mutually illuminating, but not just through having Wagnerian characters paraphrase bits of Capital – and in a work so utterly lacking in humour throughout, chucking in a reference to the Valkyries being replaced by a “BEAR, the Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot” doesn’t actually improve things.
As a reward for making it through to the end, I then started on a new Krimi (the usual way in which I seek to improve my German), Wolfgang Schorlau’s Die blaue Liste (2003) – and was pleasantly surprised to encounter a much more engaging and suspenseful development of some similar themes. Georg Dengler, newly established as a private investigator in Stuttgart after resigning on a matter of principle from the BKA, is hired by Christine Stein to find out whether her father, an economics professor, is still alive – he had been confirmed killed in a plane crash in Thailand in 1991, except that he had phoned her from Bangkok airport to say that he’d missed the plane… Dengler quickly finds a connection to one of his old cases, the assassination a few months before the crash of the President of the commission responsible for managing the transition of East German industry to capitalism; this had been pinned on the Red Army Faction, and the suspected killer was shot dead while resisting arrest two years later, but it becomes clear that others had an interest in putting the two men out of the way – they were considering a radical alternative to privatisation, which went against the interests of West German, British and American concerns, including other members of commission. As one of them explains:
His ideas were dangerous, very dangerous. If his theory had been put into practice, it would have started a forest fire. We would never have been able to close down a single unprofitable business, because the people would have wanted to carry it on under their own direction… People with ideas, with ideals, are per se dangerous. Utopians are terrorists. Like the Taliban, or whatever those lunatics in Afghanistan with the beards are called. Man strives after money. That’s the way he is; he thinks only of himself, perhaps of his children, but that’s it. Some think that’s a shame, but it makes him predictable. Stein wanted to do something for others. That made him completely beyond reckoning. How are you to talk to a man about business, who’s worried about the welfare of humanity?
It’s already become clear to the reader, through a (rather unnecessary) parallel narrative, that the assassination was in fact orchestrated by Germany’s deep state, so there is little surprise when indications are found that the plane crash (which took out a whole group of Professor Stein’s colleagues) was due to sabotage, nor when Dengler tracks Stein down to a hideout in Siena, and a group of professional killers, presumed again to be secret service, turn up to kill him. After the obligatory shoot-out, Dengler realises that they must have been betrayed by Christine Stein’s partner, a banker, and this brings him to the final confrontation with Dillman, a powerful international financier whose villainous character was established by his appearance on breakfast television right at beginning of book arguing for drastic cuts in welfare spending.
“I would like to talk to you about money.”
“About money? What money?”
“Money, yes… You see, money is a living thing.” He fixed Dengler with immovable blue crocodile eyes. “It has needs, it suffers from hunger and thirst, and experiences emotions, just like any other creature.”
The man is crazy, Dengler thought.
Dillman went on: “But money has a problem, which distinguishes it from humans and animals. It has neither arms nor legs, and above all it has no mouth with which it can speak and express its desires.”
“Nevertheless it has these needs. And like any other species, first and foremost money wants to grow, to become more powerful and to multiply… How should money put its will into action?” the banker went on. “I assure you, it has an absolute will to survive, as strong as that of a lion.”
Or a hyena, thought Dengler.
“The answer is simple… Money seeks out men, who can speak for it. Men, who put themselves as sensitively as possible into the being of money, who feel more than they know what it needs – the bankers… We put into words what money tells us to. The banker, you know, doesn’t consider himself to be important. He is a servant, a servant of money. The more he empathises with the nature of money, the better he practices his business.”
“And from time to time money commands you to murder or mass murder?”
“The things of which you speak, Herr Dengler, happened more than twelve years ago. At that time, money was completely out of control. The piece of meat that suddenly lay in front of its nose was too large, too raw. It couldn’t hold back… An entire country, countless factories and workers, valuable property… just imagine that. Normally we control this creature. We make sure that everything follows the normal rules, that the laws are kept and so forth. After all, we are civilised men… But in the years after 1990 money was no longer under control…”
Besides his obligatory alcohol problem, messy divorce, estranged son and cultural quirk (a love of the blues of Junior Wells, acquired when hunting down another RAF terrorist), Dengler clearly has complicated relationships with both money and the system. He comes from a poor farming family; his father died when he was young, he saw his mother gradually having to sell off their cows and dreamed of gaining enough money to buy them back. His first relationship was with a medical student in Freiburg, who taught him basic Marxism at the same time as sex: “‘The first thing you have to learn, my noble peasant warrior, is that capitalism has not always existed and will not endure for ever,’ she whispered, and bit him softly in the earlobe.” But she was committed to free love and to another relationship with a student radical, and so instead he joined the police. His search for Christine Stein’s father was clearly driven by own unsolved cases and his sense that the entire system is corrupt, as well as by his feelings for her – and in the end he agrees with Dillman to keep everything quiet provided that nothing happens to Prof Stein. It’s difficult to escape the sense that this simply replicates his original failure to pursue suspicions that the RAF man he arrested was actually being framed, and that this is going to come back and bite him – but for that I’m going to have to get hold of the next volume in the series.
This isn’t the greatest Krimi I’ve ever read, nor even the best fictional account of the tangled relationship between left-wing terrorism and the German state (that remains Ulrich Ritzel’s The Black Edges of the Embers, and I really must try to get on with my translation of that…). But it’s undoubtedly unusual to find one that spends half a chapter expounding the benefits of worker cooperatives as a form of industrial organisation, and in which not only individual capitalists but the system of capitalism itself, its restless hunger for profit, are so clearly the enemy. It doesn’t offer any more of a solution or an alternative approach than Jelinek does; the radical (well, relatively radical) Brünnhilde is put to sleep and imprisoned in flames, Wotan resigns himself to the way of the world although he foresees Götterdammerung, Dengler allows himself to be bought, fails to phone his mother and instead sets about chatting up his client. But where Jelinek seems to get caught up in the bewitching play of money and theory, Schorlau clearly maintains his anger at the way the decisions of the civilised people who think in such abstracts have real consequences…