In 2017 Mallorca received 10 million visitors, up from 6 million in 2010. Only a two hour flight from Northern Europe, it has been jokingly referred to as the 17th Federal State of Germany. Most signs are in Catalan, German, English, and Spanish – in that order.
The largest of the Balearic Islands, its popularity with weekending Northern Europeans belies its size. It is over 100 kilometres on its East-West axis and it is more than an hour by car from the main airport at Palma de Mallorca (the capital) to the island’s east coast.
The shining white roofs stretching as far as the eye can see down the coasts either side of Palma suggest few feel the need to venture further afield. With only three days, I contented myself with the five kilometre circle that is the old city, with one afternoon excursion down beyond the empty blocks waiting for tourists, who will not come, to a small beach an hour from the city.
What has stood out most for me has been the number of real estate agencies. By the end of the second day, as I sit writing this, I have counted 22 within the old city. Many, like Engel & Völkers target Germans, but I have spotted others in Russian and Swedish. They outnumber any other shop type except clothes and food.
A quick google map search reveals
14 hits in English 15 hits in Spanish 10 hits in German
The use of colour is bracing. Two tones, usually a light yellow offset by green shutters, are the norm and many are not shy about a splash of red or pink. Combined with colourful tiles, courtesy of Al-Andalus, it gives Palma a vibrancy whose absence, in the glass and monochrome minimalism of home, I am only now appreciating.
Watching the Godfather 2 the other night I was struck by the scene where the young Vito Corleone arrives in New York Harbor as an immigrant from Italy. As the Statue of Liberty comes into view, the passengers rush to the side and stand in rapt wonder. The camera pans past faces looking on in awe. The scene is an incredible demonstration of American power and self-confidence.
Compare that to the plot of any number of post 9/11 films, from the Green Zone, to Syriana, to Sicario. Compare it to American Carnage.
Now consider Wolf Warrior 2, one of the highest grossing films of all time that you’ve probably never heard of. The villain, ‘Big Daddy’ is the American leader of a ruthless group of mercenaries Dyon Corps. He is eventually defeated by none other than the Wolf Warrior himself, Leng Feng. The trailer is well worth watching.
Another wonderful piece in the LRB today about the French Resistance during the Second World War. I found a British agent’s reflection on the people he served with particularly moving:
What I shall try to get across,’ he told a symposium in 1973, ‘is the complete and crushing ordinariness of the people I worked with in France.’ Among them were a barber, a man who made bicycle bells, a village butcher, a bank clerk, a saddler, a retired schoolmistress, a baker and his wife. These were, as he puts it, unheroic working-class and middle-class families, not particularly less selfish, greedy or willing to follow orders than their neighbours, and yet capable – in the hour of trial – of sacrificial courage. That, to Harry, was the reason their ordinariness
The piece ends with Harry returning to France many years later to meet with old friends and comrades:
And then, ‘one evening, some old comrades organised a gathering in Harry’s honour, but they showed no interest in what he had been doing for the past four decades, preferring to slap backs and complain in loud voices about Arabs and Vietnamese, and also about their wives, and women in general, with the exception of Margaret Thatcher.’ He found this ‘phoney, oppressive and grotesque – “like Buñuel”, as he put it once we had made our excuses and left’. And yet, it’s hard not to feel that his hosts were demonstrating exactly the point he kept trying to make: their ‘complete and crushing ordinariness’. The times had changed; they had changed with them. Perhaps they could no longer imagine how they had once done such things. But Harry could not forget that they had once been extraordinary, and the memory hurt.
I was tempted to label this post the banality of good in reference to Hannah Arendt’s famous description of Eichmann. There seemed a cursory resemblance in the disconnect between the sheer moral weight of their actions and the plain bodies which carried them out. Were the people Harry worked with no more angelic than Eichmann was demonic?
After reading into the Banality of Evil a little more closely, I jettisoned the allusion. Any surface resemblance ignores the question of consciousness. Eichmann was banal because he had abdicated all empathy or thought. He commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong. It would be wrong to think him an amoral cog because that kind of abdication is itself a moral choice.
To me at least, in their hour of trial, Harry’s comrades were able to do the exact opposite of Eichmann, to find within themselves the sentience and will to make the right moral decision and stake everything on it. That they were not everyday Supermen only made these rare acts more exceptional.
Reading through one of Arendt’s original New Yorker pieces from her time in Jerusalem I discovered the shocking reference to the reluctance of West German authorities in the 1960s to prosecute war criminals:
For the first time since the close of the war, German newspapers were full of stories about trials of Nazi criminals—all of them mass murderers—and the reluctance of the local courts to prosecute these crimes still showed itself in the fantastically lenient sentences meted out to those convicted. (Thus, Dr. Hunsche, who was personally responsible for a last-minute deportation of some twelve hundred Hungarian Jews, of whom at least six hundred were killed, received a sentence of five years of hard labor; Dr. Otto Bradfisch, of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units of the S.S. in the East, was sentenced to ten years of hard labor for the killing of fifteen thousand Jews; and Joseph Lechthaler, who had “liquidated” the Jewish inhabitants of Slutsk and Smolevichi, in Russia, was sentenced to three years and six months.)
This final quote of Arendt’s, taken from Brain Pickings, felt appropriate:
“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not… No more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”
From a piece in the LRB on ‘company-states’ like the English East India Company:
Out of every ten men the company dispatched to Africa, six died in their first year of service. Only one in ten survived to return home with whatever profits they had managed to accumulate
Company employment as an occupation had a 90% fatality rate. Compare that to this data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Logging is the most dangerous civilian occupation and has almost 100 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. A fatality rate of 0.1% (I used a calculator).
More interesting for me was the regard in which employees of these private ‘company states’ were held, from an account from the late 19th century (where I was surprised to discover these ‘company-states’ still active, although in reduced form)
Those involved found that they were often vulnerable to expressions of contempt on the part of officials of the German Empire. When a former vice-admiral assumed the position of supreme plenipotentiary of the New Guinea Company, he was ‘deeply offended when German naval officers failed to salute him on the grounds that officers did not salute those from private companies’
What is jarring is not the refusal to salute, which i expect persists, but the contempt public officials held for those employed by the private sector. Rightly or wrongly, it is the opposite in many cases today.
Inflation, Employment, and Debt (IED) are three of the most important macroeconomic variables and unlike manufacturing output or GDP, they are also highly tangible for people. The first job and the first mortgage are customary rights of passage in many countries. We interact with prices constantly, usually to complain about how they’re rising.
As a result of their prominent place in the public consciousness, IED each have an associated ‘folk tale’:
For Debt it is the familiar story of the ‘household budget,’ where governments, like households, must keep their budget balanced and not live beyond their means. Government borrowing is like excessive use of a credit card: high risk and prone to catastrophe. The story usually involves mentioning your personal share of the debt ($69,060 in 2019 for the US), inter-generational debt slavery, imminent crisis, and the word ‘trillion’ as many times as possible.
For Inflation the story is hyperinflation. Whether Zimbabwe, Argentina, or Weimar Germany, inflation is always and everywhere a genie in a bottle. A wheelbarrow of money becomes less valuable than the wheelbarrow itself and bank notes are used as kindling.
The Employment story has two sides. For the (well) employed it is a narrative of individual success. Your high salary, your promotion, and your position are the product of your intelligence and hard work. The antagonist is the welfare recipient, who by the same logic refuses to work or apply themselves. Whether the ‘ ‘welfare queens’ of the US or Australia’s ‘dole bludgers,’ the story is the same; people are only a welfare check away from kicking back on the sofa with a can of beer.
These folk tales are more than just harmless stories. The idea that stories matter would have have been a controversial claim in economics even a few years ago (much to Keynes chagrin). Today, it has found support in Nobel Laureate Robert Shiller’s work on ‘Narrative Economics.’ His research, which has focused on large meta narratives from ‘labor saving machine’ to ‘confidence,’ shows that the stories we tell each other dramatically effect economies by changing our collective behaviour.
The question then is how to construct more accurate and helpful folk stories around IED, because the current crop are not fit for purpose. The German government is clearly not a household when investors are willing to pay for the privilege of lending to it. The Coronavirus has exposed millions of people to the awful reality of involuntary employment. Two decades of deflation in Japan should be the folk story we turn to when someone mentions inflation, not Zimbabwe.
Time to think about the next generation of stories.
From a discussion at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference between the US and the UK about what was to be done about rising Japan.
It could not be denied that they were a growing nation who had industriously exploited their own territory and needed room to expand. They were refused outlets in ‘any white country,’ in Seiberia and in Africa. Where were they to turn? ‘They had to go somewhere.’ Balfour did not question this fundamental premise of the age. Dynamic populations needed space into which to expand.
What is so enjoyable about Tooze’s history is how it forces the reader to take the assumptions and beliefs of historical figures seriously. In doing so he shakes off the inevitability with which events can appear in retrospect and shows history full of contingency.
A similar point is made at a more profound level in a wonderful review piece in the LRB on the ontology of history. In short the author argues that historians should abide by the truth standards of the world’s they study:
an ontological turn would require historians to abide by very precise truth standards, albeit those of the particular worlds they are studying, not those of our own Western modernity
He uses the example of the supernatural in Ancient Greece. Instead of starting from our own assumptions about the supernatural and assuming that the Ancient Greeks were easily duped, saw their gods as symbolic entities or were cynical believers, we must imagine:
If one of us was approached by what appeared to be a god, chances are that we would want to carry out a few reality checks, so we tend to imagine the Athenians would have too. But perhaps we should consider more closely what the world would have to be like such that episodes of this sort didn’t appear silly or insipidly metaphorical.
The question is what are the fundamental beliefs of our time? As a starting point, some of the differences with Ancient Greece:
the oppositions public/private, nature/culture and sacred/secular, or the idea that the material world is objective, or that the primary way to understand human beings is as distinct individual entities rather than as transient parts of bigger entities such as ‘the family’, ‘the inhabitants of Athens’ or ‘the people’.