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Socialism Today 155 - February 2012

Capitalist morality laid bare

Lost Illusions (Les Illusions Perdues)

By Honoré de Balzac

Published by Penguin Classics

Reviewed by Linda Taaffe

"SUCH MEN are rare and sparse in this fermenting wine-vat… as rare as honestly-acquired fortunes in the financial world, as rare as a man of integrity in journalism". Written yesterday? Last month? No. One hundred and seventy years ago the celebrated French author Honoré de Balzac penned these lines in his novel, Lost Illusions. This novel in three parts belongs to La Comédie Humaine, the famous collection of stories about the rich tapestry of French society in the early part of the 19th century.

In 2012, as the lid is lifted on the dodgy deals in the boardrooms of the banksters and other city slickers, and as the sickening revelations of the Murdoch press’s phone-hacking scandal sear their way into the consciousness of every worker, how true those words ring today.

Balzac, one of the founding fathers of realism in European literature, tells a captivating narrative of love, desire, ambition and tragedy. It is a great read. The story is alive with passion, intrigue and moral dilemmas. At the same time, Balzac’s genius is to transport this story to a much higher level. Not only does he take a microscope to life in the aftermath of the French revolution – where the hard-nosed, victorious bourgeois trample everyone and everything in their drive to accumulate money and build empires – but Balzac is also judge and satirist. He penetrates deep into the attitudes of the various representatives of the bourgeoisie, newly released from the shackles of the old aristocracy.

The revolution, which cleared the way for these calculating ‘worthies’ to become the dominant force in society - through the audacity and sacrifice of the starving masses of France - took place ten years before Balzac’s birth. Power struggles were still being played out. Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself emperor and pursued a military campaign to conquer Europe. Counter-revolutionary forces restored king Louis to the throne. The ingredients for the 1848 revolutions across Europe were developing. Friedrich Engels explained that Balzac’s "sympathies are with the class that is doomed to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathises most deeply – the nobles".

Engels and Karl Marx took a keen interest in Balzac – their lifetimes overlapped. The economist David Harvey says in his book, The Companion to Marx’s Capital, that Marx had aimed to write a study of La Comédie Humaine after he had written Capital. You can see why.

At a crucial point in the tale the author describes a supposedly simple transfer of money, 1,000 francs, from one town to another. The transfer becomes a bank transaction and incurs a fee. It incurs another charge as there were no funds to cover this amount. The return account adds an extra charge. Balzac sets down a detailed list that reveals additional fees for commission, brokerage, stamp for redraft, postage and interest. The bankers who know how to use "these instruments of torture" turn 1,000 francs into 1,028. All of this is "authorised by a certain clause in the Commercial Code, and an explanation of them will show how many atrocities are concealed behind the terrible word legality". So, extrapolates Balzac, "multiply by three the average of these return accounts and you reach an income of 30,000 francs drawn from fictitious capital".

This is exactly one of the phrases for which Marx is famous. Fictitious capital describes how capitalism builds wealth not only based on the production of real goods, but how the very workings of its system produce value that is both there and not there! Capitalism can exist (for a period) on this spiralling frenzy of wealth that has no solid foundation. At the present time, when industrial production is declining, speculation in the bond markets is rife, and debts are parcelled up and sold on, fictitious capital is being exposed for what it really is – fictitious. And, just as for the character David Séchard in Lost Illusions, ruination is inevitable. While penury looms for Séchard, that annual income for the boss of 30,000 francs pays for his wealthy madame’s box at the opera, her carriage and cosmetics.

What is different today? The Observer (23 October 2011) carried similar detail on how paying for a lunch abroad by bank card jacks up the bill by this and that legal scam by the time it is eventually taken out of an individual’s account. Multiply these legal scams on a global scale and this is the same kind of operation that brings workers down to misery. At the same time, a handful of rich wallow in luxury.

Balzac is quite specific. He is "against capitalist greed". He makes all manner of criticisms of the lies and deceit that goes with the money-grubbing capitalist system. What he says through the voices of his characters would not be out of place in the occupations of Wall Street or on a pensions’ demo. He also condemns the forces that keep capitalism in place, like the judiciary: "These hypocrites know full well that by sentencing the burglar the judges are upholding the barriers between rich and poor… whereas the bankrupt, the clever rogue who diverts an inheritance, the banker who brings a business to ruin to line his own pockets, is merely an instrument by which fortunes change hands".

Is this not the same sort of treatment that the British judiciary was advised to hand out in sentencing thousands of young people who rioted last summer? While bankers wallowed in state-sanctioned bailouts, and grasping MPs made off with generous expenses out of taxpayers’ money, the rioters, mostly poor and disadvantaged young men, were slapped in jail, some for years, precisely to uphold the barriers between rich and poor.

Balzac condemns landlords for the squalid houses of Paris that were let out for rent: "Such beehives are called investment properties by notaries". Lawyers get lambasted for the outrageous charges they demand for the simplest procedure. Above all, Balzac deals in graphic detail with the crimes of the press and publishers as participants in, and upholders of, the capitalist system.

The main character in the story is Lucien Chardon, a poet forced to leave the cultural desert of the provinces. He heads for Paris seeking fame and love. He has illusions that his honest literary efforts will be recognised. In the meantime, however, he has to earn a crust so turns his hand to journalism. Newspapers at the time produced all manner of publications, from a few pages to literary criticism, and were in deadly competition with each other.

The claim that publishing in its infancy was once a noble profession, and that it has only recently been corrupted by monopoly proprietors, is completely exposed as a fallacy. There never was such a golden age. From their establishment, newspapers as honest purveyors of truth were the exception rather than the rule. Publishing was every bit the fierce and dirty enterprise it is today. Lucien’s friends in the fraternity of the Cénacle warn him about entering "those intellectual brothels called newspapers", which "rot our intelligences by selling us their mental firewater every morning". Does this not bring to mind the press at present, especially the red-top tabloids, that daily dish up the mind-numbing firewater of celebrity gossip and titillating tales, laced occasionally with poisonous lies?

Often the stories are not even original. Identical reports with the same phrases are lifted and used by various papers without checking the facts. The authors are sometimes scathingly referred to as ‘churnalists’ because they mechanically churn out the material. Journalists and editors can be used for propaganda purposes, with potentially dire consequences. The daily droplets of firewater are used to mould public opinion, like the complicity of the Observer in the promotion of the Iraq war.

At first, "Lucien was reluctant to believe in so much hidden corruption". But, as he gets drawn into journalism, the full horror of the practices is revealed. Lucien "could see them at work disembowelling their foster-mother…" How near does this grotesque metaphor come to describe the horror of Rupert Murdoch’s press today in relation to phone hacking?

Real mothers, like those of Milly Dowler and Madeleine McCann, gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry into phone hacking about how they felt when discovering what journalists had done, simply to get a story to sell. Their painful statements turned the stomachs of every listener, viewer and reader. We can only imagine how they felt to be on the receiving end of such torture. In the final analysis, as Balzac quotes Napoleon, "in corporate crimes no one is implicated". Balzac adds: "A newspaper can behave in the most atrocious manner and no one on the staff considers that his own hands are soiled".

Journalists under pressure vie with each other to come up with ever more sensational scoops. Lucien’s model is a "journalist par excellence, a two-legged tiger whose claws rend everything as if his pen had rabies". Balzac describes "one of the secret pleasures known to journalists, that of whetting the epigram, polishing the cold blade which finds a sheath in the victim’s heart and carving the handle of it for the readers’ delectation". It is like "a dual fought with an absent person who is killed from a distance with the shaft of a pen".

How many individuals, from celebrities to ordinary workers, have been subjected to horrific innuendo? In times of increased class confrontation it is trade unionists and class fighters who get this special treatment, just like Tommy Sheridan. After having led the magnificent anti-poll tax struggles in Scotland, and actually winning a court case against Murdoch, the bosses’ knives were out for him in a big way. While Tommy is in jail, the murky truth about the rats – like former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, who helped put Tommy away – is slowly emerging.

And it is not only the journalists who come in for condemnation for corrupting their profession and talents, but also the proprietors and publishers who set the tone and pay the wages. If they want someone put down they have no compunction about unleashing scurrilous articles on them. This can be individuals, like Tommy Sheridan, but even governments are not off limits. Through one of his characters, Balzac reveals: "If the cabinet is so stupid as to step into the arena, we have got it on the run. If it gets riled we inflame the discussion and stir up the masses against it. The press never runs any risk, whereas the government stands to lose everything".

This exactly explains why the Tory and Labour leaderships, particularly in recent years, have been at pains to keep the Murdoch press on side. They understood the role played by Murdoch’s empire in defeating Labour in the 1983 general election. Tony Blair abased himself abjectly before Murdoch and his ilk when he came to power – probably more willingly than reluctantly. More recently, Coulson was drafted into prime minister David Cameron’s office: "The newspaper has become a political party weapon".

Despite proclamations from august media bodies that the press is society’s guardian of the truth, that is patently not true and never has been. One of Balzac’s characters says that "a newspaper accepts as truth anything that is plausible. We start from that assumption". This is not a million miles away from the quip about tabloid writers: make it short, make it snappy and make it up! Turn any flimsy shred of a story into a feature, even if it means destroying a real person, like Chris Jefferies who was hounded for being questioned in the murder of Joanna Yeates last year, even though he was completely innocent.

Lucien, despite his discomfort at the corruption and the way he has to debase himself to get on, nevertheless is enticed by the rewards, money and status of mixing with important people. He tries to get his own attempts at poetry published, and to rationalise his situation. But to no avail. Eventually he hits the buffers. His illusions shattered, he attempts to redeem himself.

There are several layers to this marvellous story, and the interplay of the characters could give rise to many separate discussions. Apart from the press and other literary characters, there are businessmen scheming to build empires, and scientists searching for cheaper ways to manufacture paper. There are aristocrats hanging onto their possessions and status, all the time aware that their position and income are slipping. And, of course, there is passionate love and love lost, dalliance and romanticism, friendship and betrayal. Balzac is a master storyteller, and a superb commentator on human life.

Marx and Engels, as scientific socialists, also studied society in the same period, but concentrated on economic relations. Balzac, as an artist, examined human relations. He placed his characters in a social context and exposed them to the utmost scrutiny. In a world of struggle where the capitalist class was striving to imprint its own morality on society, he did not shy away from telling the truth about the brutal effects of the capitalist system on real people. Lost Illusions is an interesting read for anyone. For a socialist, it is an affirmation of the rotten and corrupt mores of capitalists and nobles – and for the need for change, so that human relations can develop in a truly humane way.


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