A famous epigrammatic nugget of wisdom appears in The Leopard, Lampedusa’s great novel about a noble Sicilian family’s fortunes: ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.’ I thought of the novel as I was driven up to Gstaad during last week’s heatwave. Disembarking in Geneva, I felt I was back in Nairobi, circa 1970, on my way to Mombasa and a romantic interlude among the elephants and wildebeest. The old continent now looks like Africa, especially in airports and public spaces. But things will have to change if we want things to stay the same, I told myself again and again.
In the coolness and quiet of the mountains one can think clearly about important things, such as ambition and lack of it, or the conundrum of whether one declines to try out of a false sense of decorum, or just plain laziness. Personal doubts aside, right now the great question seems to be the economic inequality generated by capitalism and free enterprise, and the egalitarian drive bursting out in anti-capitalist demonstrations and militant rage, as in London this week. Mind you, the impression I got from looking at British television was that Jeremy Corbyn had won the election, and that the Tories, in a fit of pique, had allowed the fire at the Grenfell estate to get out of hand and burn Africans and Muslims alive. Talk about the power of the idiot box and the irresponsibility of leftie hacks.
Britain now resembles Central America, where the loser, immediately after an election, declares it null and void and demands a repeat performance. What is the difference between John McDonnell’s call for a million people to take to the streets and a banana-republic electoral loser’s call for civil disobedience? The temperature, I suppose. Never mind. My social schedule is rather full, starting next week, and I thank the Almighty that I no longer go to Ascot to keep company with glorified hairdressers and other such nice folk.
I know, it sounds snobby as hell, but I’ve had it with this smouldering class resentment in Britain. We will always have differences in looks, intelligence and bank accounts, and if that causes outraged shrieks among do-gooders and phonies, too bad. Such is life. Immediately after the last world war, with all the large pleasure boats having been requisitioned by the warring states, I walked about the various marinas in the south of France and saw only tiny sailing boats or fishing vessels. Shipyards didn’t start to build pleasure yachts until well into the 1950s. Hence all bathers looked the same, although I do remember King Farouk being held up by two flunkies on account of his weight. Then the yachts began to appear, separating the men from the boys. And the men did get to pick up women while the boys kept to their swimming. Life, after all, is unfair, and a man with a yacht has a better chance of picking up a tart than a man whose only asset at sea is his bathing suit.
Am I going all Ayn Rand on you? God, I hope not. She was too awful a woman, an arch capitalist and a man-eating cougar if ever there was one; not the most attractive of females. She did for selfishness what the saints did for altruism, and then some. But she had some very good points. When she was asked by her publisher to cut John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged — a long paean to runaway capitalism and individualism — she snapped, ‘Would you cut the Bible?’
Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism was the greatest way of organising society ever invented, having experienced hunger and oppression and the loss of all her family wealth in St Petersburg to the communists. Once in the land of opportunity, Rand changed her name from Rosenbaum and took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to make sure people knew of her love of capitalism. The one problem Rand had were the businessmen she met. They did not match up to the Übermenschen of her imagination, or those she created in her fiction. In fact, Rand had no more reverence for real capitalists than fellow intellectuals did. At the end, her individualism owed more to Nietzsche than to Adam Smith, but never mind. We could use someone like her in the capital this week, especially when the ‘militants’ rage up and down central London screaming Tory scum and other such intellectual put-downs.
I suppose the best medicine for those consumed by rage against the system would be a bit of collectivism à la North Korea. The Corbynites have never seen collectivism up close. This is why Poles and Hungarians and others who suffered so under communism have such adamantine confidence in the free-enterprise system. And it is why we would have the last laugh if, God forbid, people such as Corbyn ever came to power and turned this green and pleasant land into one of misery and poverty. But enough of thinking seriously. Time for a drink, and perhaps more than just the one.