Philip Resnick’s review of Éric Zemmour, Le suicide français (Paris: Albin Michel, 2014) appeared in Inroads 37 (Summer/Fall 2015). Rather than revisit Zemmour (now a candidate for the French presidency), he has chosen to highlight Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).

When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century appeared in 2014, it became a publishing sensation. Its key argument was that capital had been growing at a far higher rate than other factors of production in Western societies in recent centuries, with the singular exception of the period between 1914 and the 1960s when labour was successful in securing a more equitable share of economic wealth. The book, a densely packed study of over 600 pages, replete with tables and well-honed literary references, caught the attention of the mainstream media and financial press and went on to become an international best-seller – quite exceptional for a serious work in economics.

Since then, Piketty has not been sitting on his laurels. As a professor in the Paris School of Economics, he has helped form a whole generation of graduate students working on issues of equality, inequality and social justice. He has also been a frequent intervenor in public debates within France and the European Union. And in 2020 he released a new volume entitled Capital and Ideology – this one exceeding 1,000 pages, footnotes included.

While his latest book has not received the lavish attention showered on his first, it is no less worthy of attention. For it extends his analysis of the rise of capitalism and of some of its contradictions and limitations by working on a broader canvas than before.

He goes back to the Middle Ages in his discussion of a trifunctional order of society based on the nobility, the clergy and a third estate. He then goes on to map the emergence of a proprietarian order in Europe and in much of the world which it came to colonize. What is new is the key place he now gives to ideology, no less than capital, in coming to terms with the broad sweep of historical development.
In comparison with his 2014 book, his geographical horizons have broadened too, as he embraces Russia, India and Japan and pays attention to Africa and Latin America, thus engaging in a version of global economic history. In doing so, he was clearly aided by an army of research assistants, his own graduate students, a full hundred of whom are acknowledged in the preface to the book. The scope of many of the chapters reminds me of the great French economic historian of a previous generation, Fernand Braudel, and his multitome study of Civilization and Capitalism.

Capital and Ideology

However, it is Piketty’s analysis of recent developments that is likely of most interest to readers of Inroads. He examines the course of social democracy but emphasizes its ultimate failure, despite important contributions to improved social welfare, to address structural problems of inequality. He is sharply critical of Communist societies for their political as well as economic failures, which in turn help explain the revival of nationalism in the post-Communist societies of eastern Europe. And he sees the current phase of globalization as one of hypercapitalism, with the financial wing of capitalism in the ascendant.

Among his most pertinent observations is his analysis of the conflict between what he calls the “Brahmin left” and the “merchant right” – that is, between the highly educated, urban-based professionals and middle class of first-world societies and the plutocratic element in capitalist society. The Brahmin left has paid much less attention to the concerns of the lower 50 per cent of society than an earlier left. Identity politics has come to displace a more class-based politics. Combined with disparities based on unequal access to education, the upshot has been large sections of the traditional working class gravitating to the populist politics of the right. Voting patterns in recent elections have largely reflected this.

Piketty maintains that we should be thinking about economic, fiscal and political initiatives to help create a just society. This leads him, in perhaps the most arresting chapter in the book, to propose what he calls a participatory socialism. He calls for a progressive wealth tax, a Capital Endowment Fund for the young, increased power sharing within firms, a progressive inheritance tax, progressive taxation of carbon emissions and increased allocations for the least advantaged primary and secondary schools.

Given the strongly market-infused era in which we live – and this despite the depredations and rethinking of priorities that COVID-19 has entailed – Piketty’s proposals would strike many as dreaming in Technicolor. They are certainly not about to be introduced holus-bolus into society as we know it. Yet one is struck by survey after survey of young people in Western societies who are disillusioned with capitalism. The cost of housing is prohibitive for many living in major urban agglomerations. Dead-end jobs that can follow years of higher education don’t help. The climate crisis bearing down with ever greater severity leaves little room for rose-tinged illusions.
Piketty may not be where the zeitgeist seems centred at the moment. But 25 or 50 years from now, he may turn out to have been a true prophet of the failures of hypercapitalism.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels.

Philip Resnick has a number of poetry collections to his credit, including his most recent book Pandemic Poems, covering the period from the outset of the pandemic to the end of 2020 (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2021). The pandemic is still with us, but Philip Resnick’s muse has also directed his attention to other subjects, as the following selection of poems illustrates.

Happy Slaves Day

May 27

“Happy Slaves Day,”
the graffiti an Azeri dissident,
Bayram Mammadov by name,
had dared to scrawl
on a monument to the founder
of Azerbaijan’s reigning Aliyev dynasty.
Condemned to ten years in prison
on a trumped-up drugs charge
– the fashion in matters of raison d’état –
he was pardoned in 2019,
or so it seemed,
living ever since in exile in Istanbul.
On May 4 of this year,
the body of the twenty-five year old,
fully clothed,
was found floating in the Bosporus,
as the Internationale of Autocrats
scored yet another hit.

As the Earth Turns

July 11

As the earth turns,
heatwaves trail drought,
cyclones and typhoons
generate devastating rainfalls,
mutations of the virus
leapfrog through the Cadmian alphabet,
wreaking havoc in every time zone they visit.
Perhaps there are simply too many of us,
almost eight billion and counting,
pillaging the seas,
plundering the landscape,
elbowing other species into extinction.
Perhaps the fault lies in our insatiable nature,
our recourse to conquest and to war,
irreconcilable divisions over ethnicity,
religion, political orientation,
an incessant desire for more.
Perhaps the gods,
who the faithful claim
first moulded us out of clay,
should have rethought the blueprint of creation,
entrusting a species
with far too big a brain for its own good
with custody over the planet.

Those*

July 28

Those who are forced to migrate
and those who are not,
those who perish in the waves
and those who do not,
those who flounder along the way
and those who will not,
those who can live and die in peace
and those who could not.

* inspired by Claudio Lomnitz, Nuestra America
(New York: Other Press, 2021)

Thirty-eight Million

August 24

The population of Canada,
an election underway,
its outcome unlikely to sway
the course of daily life in any major way.
The population of Afghanistan,
a major cross-roads breached,
as twenty years of Western intervention
turn into ignominious defeat.
Fate decrees that some will savour modernity
with its virtues and its flaws,
and others languish where a desert creed
dictates a harsher moral code.

What If?

August 31

What if we could undo
the last twenty years of cyber-wars,
terrorist attacks and retaliatory strikes,
return COVID to the lab or bats
whence it emerged,
turn down the global temperature a notch or two,
get failed states back on track
and the population bomb under control,
learn – at least the affluent in our planetary mix –
to live with less,
remember that community precedes and supersedes
the unchecked libido,
that civility is not a secondary trait
to functioning democracies,
that no religion or ideology has a monopoly on truth.
What if?

Pandora Papers

October 4

In the papers … I read little that comforts me.
— Ingeborg Bachmann, Autumn Maneuvers

Hegel, in one of his more effusive moments,
characterized morning newspapers
as a form of morning prayer.
Perhaps they are
– or what remains of them in a digital age –
if one confines oneself to the sports pages,
crossword puzzles, recipes,
feel-good stories about locals getting ahead.
But of late,
the news is grey on grey, black on black,
with little levity to outweigh
endless accounts of ICUs overrun,
longevity in retreat,
drought and food shortages
the lot of the destitute left behind,
even as the potenti of the earth
merrily go about stuffing their ill-gotten gains
into fiscal paradises,
beyond mortal reach.

Monuments

October 20

History is argument.
— Simon Schama

They seemed innocent enough,
Kings on mounted steeds,
Confederate generals in public squares,
Prime Ministers who had fostered residential schools.

To which one could add
slave-traders and colonizers of every sort,
whose names adorned the streets and towns
of every corner of an empire
on which the sun refused to set.

Well set it has,
and with a thud,
as the global South comes into its own,
though the legacy of empire lives on,
in banking firms with roots in the opium trade,
in states still formally tied to a foreign crown,
in racial biases that never seem to fade.

So what should one do
with the history we teach,
the monuments some want to keep,
the self-image we hasten to project?

Welcome to another quarrelsome age.

Meanwhile, Here in B.C.

November 15

First a heat dome,
the aged and infirm
gasping for their every breath,
next raging fires,
felling dwellings and woodlands in their path,
now diluvial rains,
mud slides shutting highways,
threatening properties in waterlogged terrain.
All this within six months
of a single year,
before the climate gauge
goes into overdrive.

Calais

November 26

The town besieged by Edward III,
its burghers with ropes around their necks,
surrendering the key
and with it their liberties
in an episode from an endless war
immortalized by Auguste Rodin.

Now the site of would-be migrants/refugees
from the global South
desperate to reach by any means
the chalk cliffs overlooking Dover Beach
where Matthew Arnold famously rued
an old world yielding to an unfamiliar new.

In the background
the festering sore Brexit has unleashed
as yesterday’s adversaries square off again
and we learn, as though we’d never really known,
that island and continent can never meet.

For more of Philip Resnick’s Poetry, click to read Pandemic Poems – Year II.

Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash. Edited by Inroads Journal.

As the pandemic has continued its course, Philip Resnick’s muse has continued to inspire his poetic reflections. Here we present a selection from the last six months. Philip’s book Pandemic Poems, covering the period from the outset of the pandemic to the end of 2020, is now available from Ronsdale Press in Vancouver.

Nov. 13, 2020
November 13th

Friday the 13th,
an inauspicious calendar day,
heralding disaster on every front.

As though we haven’t had our share,
this annus horribilis,
the burning Austral bush to set it off,
the plague – a tiny far-off blip when it began –
escalating to pandemic size on a global scale,
an election dramatic enough
to keep one in perpetual suspense.

Yet somehow I take comfort on this day.
The numbers are well enough aligned
to ensure power will be transferred in the end,
however much the demagogue and his enablers bray.

The sound of mandolins on the radio
as I sip my tea
evoking Vivaldi’s Venice
and tales of plagues that ultimately fade away.

And the biscuit I dip into my cup
summoning up memories of happier days,
of why life, despite its treacheries,
remains the greatest gift we can receive.

The Ancients
November 29th

Knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future.
— Thucydides

We scorn the ancients at our own expense,
confident that ours is a vastly superior civilization,
with its industrial heft, technological prowess,
material abundance,
beggaring all that had preceded.

There are many more of us
on this beleaguered planet,
of every race, tribe, and ethnic description,
and the common lot,
at least in the more privileged corners of the globe,
has attained a living standard
that the helots or plebes of old
could only have envied.

But the ancients knew that hubris
– in great empires as in petty city-states –
came at a price,
that wars and plagues and civil discontents
were not one-off events
but part and parcel of the human disposition,
that what had once occurred
could haunt our future days.

We scorn the ancients at no small expense.

Through a Looking Glass
December 17th

Back then,
when we could greet each other
with a friendly gesture or an embrace,
engage in conversation face to face,
not have to give a second thought
to droplets in the air that might do us in
or set us back for weeks and months on end,
we were unaware a time might shortly come
when to interact would take place behind a mask
if peradventure we found ourselves in a common space,
but just as frequently through a looking glass,
in a parallel universe
where things were never quite the same.

Frailty
January 11th

If we were inventing gods,
as the Greeks were prone to do,
we might want to consecrate frailty too.
Democracy, as we have seen in recent months,
bears all its marks,
threatening to yield
whenever the impulses of the losing side
seek to sweep aside institutional barriers
in victory’s path.

As for our body parts,
we who take pride
in our species’ superior status,
heart, brain, lungs, pancreas and spleen,
limbs, lymph, arteries and veins
remain vulnerable to infection and collapse,
even without the pandemic to perform a victory lap.

And then there is the earth,
Gaia to recall her ancient name,
buffeted by forces from without and from within,
cosmic ones that in a flash could do her in,
stochastic ones like the fossil fuels driving climate change,
exterminationist ones implanted in our genes.

The Clock
January 12th

Souviens toi que le Temps est un joueur avide
Qui gagne sans tricher, à tout coup ! c’est la loi.
— Baudelaire, “L’horloge”

As the pandemic enters its second year
and fresh confinements weigh
like a grounded albatross with its leaden wings
or slate grey days without a glimmer of light
to brighten their melancholic charge
and we are forced to focus yet again on the steady movement of the clock,
on inveterate memories of things lost
and states beginning to fall apart,
we half surrender to the spirit of the age,
sensing that resistance would be in vain,
as time ticks down the hours
and perfidious actors swarm the stage.

Year II
January 30th

We are becoming islands,
sheltering within our respective shorelines
and the narrower compass of homesteads
and familiar surroundings,
flights point south suspended,
travel within regions a risky undertaking,
as the second wave engenders a third,
with mutations the new year’s greeting card.
But though the numbers soar
into the hundred millions
and death seems posted
at every thousandth door,
we are suddenly old hands
at navigating the pandemic’s inner channels.

Globalization: Mark 2
March 1st

It began with Wuhan,
bats and pangolins,
quickly spreading into every nook and cranny
on the planet.

Then came mutations in the spike protein,
the English variant, aka Kent,
the South African,
the Brazilian from Manaus on the Amazon,
its P1 variant facilitating a wave of reinfections.

Little by little
the virus is displacing capital
as the free vector
in the globalization game.

Brazil – Ordem e Progresso
March 13th

Covid is taking over: Brazil plunges into deadliest chapter of its epidemic
— The Guardian, March 13, 2021

Like stations of the cross –
20, 19, 18 –
they’re lined up with tubes and ventilators
in rows of field hospital beds,
teams of health care workers monitoring vital signs
just outside their reach.
A picture from a sports coliseum in Santo André,
on the outskirts of São Paulo,
as COVID marks a sober anniversary
and a new surge of mutations and infected,
many in their middle years,
opens a more sinister round
in a land where order and progress
has morphed into political disaster.

As the Pendulum Swings
April 8th

Cycles have their own strange dynamics,
much like the tribal gods one used to worship,
or the phases of the moon.

Only yesterday austerity was the reigning mantra
as monetarists, neocons, and globalizing gurus
buried the Keynesians of a previous era.

As for the Marxists,
with their predictions of recurring crises,
Friedrich List with his defence of national economics,
the mercantilists with their specie fixation,
Clio had long since dispatched them to the garbage bin.

Surprise, surprise,
a little virus out of nowhere
has turned economic thinking topsy-turvy,
with state expenditures overflowing,
corporate rapacity an object of derision,
inequality and sovereignty subjects back in fashion,
climate change a burgeoning concern,
as blustery winds blow through the firmament.

Death is the Only Truth
May 1st

Uttered by a Hindu priest
presiding over 36 pyres in concrete cremation pits,
convinced that heaven awaits,
the phrase is meant as consolation.

But for relatives
searching in vain for canisters, placebos,
anything to relieve the anguish and breathlessness
of the stricken,
little solace from such priestly ministrations.

The heavy hand of Shiva has descended on Mother India
in this second wave,
and the boisterous talk from the Modi sycophants
and Hindutva crowd
cannot erase a single death.

The Poor Empress
July 12th

You work on paper which is smooth, supple and offers no opposition to your imagination or pen. But I, a poor Empress, work on human skin which is rather irritable and sensitive.
— Catherine the Great to Diderot

Pity the poor Empress
who must contend with human frailty
while seeking to weave, almost against nature,
a far-flung and discordant empire together.

Pity the Party Secretary
who has reason to fear
the duplicity of his rivals
and the resistance of an exhausted populace
to promises of a glorious tomorrow.

Pity Presidents and Prime Ministers
who must sacrifice their privacy
to the full glare of prying eyes
and the pursuit of personal gains
(or so they claim)
to the blandishments of power.

Pity the poor subjects
whose skin and bones so often pay the price
for what those who wield dominion over them
determine to be their fate.

On a Passage in Dante
July 13th

Rejoice, Florence, since you are so great that you beat your wings over sea and land, and your fame spreads throughout hell.
— Inferno, xxvi, 1–3

America, the beautiful,
the free, the powerful,
the most envied state on earth,
unflappable in its self-confidence,
a league or two above its would-be rivals
in technological prowess, in material abundance,
in its approximation to El Dorado.
Florence had been no backwater in its day,
its commerce spreading far and wide,
its artisans justly esteemed,
its architects, painters, sculptors, literati
setting the gold standard for the Renaissance.
But the exiled Dante in visiting the Inferno
noted how many of its illustrious denizens
had ended up down there,
their self-preening the flip side of the disaster
which endless conflicts between Guelfs and Ghibellines
and factions within each could not allay.
So with America in the year of the pandemic,
its failures too conspicuous to conceal,
its racial tensions, its venal rulers,
its overweening rich
amidst a sea of hapless losers,
its divisions even more bitter
than Dante had ever had reason to record.

In Illo Tempore
July 23rd

It doesn’t matter if you’re stupid or smart, if you’ve got money or not, if you’re handsome or ugly. The earth swallows us all.
— Miguel Braga, São Paulo gravedigger

Some lock themselves
behind concrete walls and gardened villas,
others throwing caution to the wind,
party as though there were no tomorrow,
a few seek solace in jogging for hours,
others in yoga or stern meditation,
myriads suffer from hunger, others from gorging,
some from solitude, others from crowding,
experts declaim on the need for strict measures,
white coats compete for a miracle cure,
tensions show no signs of abating
as infections keep surging and reprieves prove hollow,
and despite the bromides one hears from one’s leaders
the gravediggers prove the wisest of all.

A Global Age
August 17

Crafty inventions, subtle beyond believing, now onto evil bring them, now onto good.
— Antigone, 364–5

It seemed a global age had dawned,
consumer goods to adorn the shopping malls,
connectivity reducing the barriers of space and time,
air travel for a song, exotic holidays,
a burgeoning middle class’s dreams fulfilled.
Multinational corporations had proven more powerful than states,
wooing politicians with the glitter of high tech,
promises of jobs in droves,
tax havens with their pots of gold.
Journalists and academics, the paparazzi of the age,
made the rounds of global entrepôts,
touting a fail-proof economic model,
a perpetual motion machine,
destined, in the ripeness of time,
to lift les misérables from the planetary slums.
Like a Sunday sermon to the faithful,
globalization had become a generation’s credo.
Yet nature held a trick or two in store,
ice sheets melting in the polar regions,
the atmosphere overheating,
ever fiercer tornadoes, floods, desertification, droughts,
with zoonotic interlopers driving markets to a halt.
Only for a brief intermission, to be sure,
for the push to economic growth and global domination
would inevitably resume,
with continuing rivalry between contending powers,
the intrepid lifting themselves off the ground
as they had always done,
convinced that they too could become
masters of the universe
and put the lie to doomsayers of old
warning that overarching ambition
heralds an ignominious fall.

Shedding
September 17

Slowly we have learned to shed
simple verities we took for granted,
easy intercourse with strangers, friends
now that the very air had become a lethal conduit,
venues where we had turned for simple satisfactions –
restaurants, bars, gyms, cinemas or sports arenas –
the workplace with its endless bustle,
subway lines, airport hubs,
vacation getaways, family celebrations.

We have come to face
new trials and tribulations,
clouds of locusts,
wildfires of surreal proportions,
surging seas with cyclone after cyclone,
diluvial downpours from the pages of Gilgamesh.

Peeling away layer after layer,
we have discovered how little we had progressed
from civilization’s earlier foundations,
from the Cro-Magnons who had preceded us,
from when sheer survival as a species
sweeps away all sundry preoccupations.

The Second Wave
September 24

It was tough enough adjusting
to incessant calls to wash your hands with soap,
avoid touching your face,
remember to mask up,
stay as far away from strangers in your path
as safe distancing dictates,
work from inside your domicile when possible,
help your kids negotiate
the bargain basement classes on the screen,
and keep your sanity intact.
Now comes a second wave,
perhaps less lethal than the first, perhaps not,
where congregating together, eating out in groups,
rallying in numbers for some cause,
praying communally to some god,
are once again taboo.
This time the young, or young at heart,
are designated as the carrier group,
as overstretched hospitals and staff
prepare for yet another round of testing sites,
improvised wards and ICUs,
the mood out there darkening with the autumn sky
as folks who thought the virus was a one-season pest
learn that visitors like this
have come to call our species home.

One Million
September 29

The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.
— Stalin

COVID-19 has passed the official one million mark,
though we know it is a good deal higher,
for statistics are lacking or suppressed in scores of countries,
and many who die outside of hospitals and nursing homes
will not be properly reported.
Those who have lost a loved one
can pin a face, a life story,
a tragic turn of fate,
to their disappearance.
As for the millions who may be lost
in the carnage still underway
 – the little father of the people was an expert in such matters –
we struggle to think of them
as more than a statistic,
given the challenge to our constricted human minds
to grasp the full significance of seven-digit numbers.

Masks
October 1

An uninvited stranger masked in red,
crashing the survivalists’ retreat
in Poe’s macabre tale,
Verdi’s masked ball,
where jealous rivalry
does in a reigning king,
a geriatric on a Kyoto bus,
spine contorted,
face masked from hostile gaze,
Halloween revelry
as squealing kids, suitably disguised,
weave their way
along toffee-dappled streets,
and now a universal presence,
bedecking rich and poor alike
in one bold planetary sweep.

Hermit Crabs
October 7

You must catch the October sun between 10 and 2,
before it begins to wane
as fog descends on the beach once again
and a breeze off the sea
sends shivers through the spine,
forcing you to hurry along.
For if temperatures are surprisingly mellow
for this time of the year,
you sense this is but a side-effect
of climate change,
even as the virus continues to eat away
at familiar things,
turning us into hermit crabs,
self-absorbed in the only world we still know,
the one contained within our shells.

M
October 17

You wake as the infection rate or R
ticks up another notch,
even as the morale index or M
incrementally continues to collapse.

The Horror, the Horror (For Samuel Paty)
October 16

Like a scene out of the Reign of Terror,
a decapitation in broad daylight
in a quiet suburban town
of a high school teacher who had dared to show
a caricature of the prophet Muhammad
as part of a classroom discussion of free speech
in what passes for a secular republic.
Knowing what had preceded
 – the Charlie Hebdo massacre,
the rampages of ISIS and its associates
through Africa and the Fertile Crescent,
9/11 and its aftermath –
should we be in shock?
Intolerance seems to be the mantra of our era,
not only of the religious sort,
but political, ethnic and racial as well,
and one more horrific martyr
will do little to stem the spiral.

Pandemics
November 5

Violence pandemic like a new disease.
— W.H. Auden, “Sonnets from China,” XIX

For leaders right and left
we are at war with a pandemic
which unchecked would put our hallowed civilization
– GDP, consumer goods, jobs,
health care and vaunted pension plans –
into meltdown mode.
And well it might,
for who but a few Cassandras on the battlements
might have foretold
what zoonotic transfers might unleash?
What of the other kinds of war,
the ones that marked the century now passed,
with their mangled corpses in the muddy fields,
their incarcerated bodies,
their starving masses and burned-out towns
or closer to our age
the civil wars that rage
from the sands of the Sahel to the Afghani hills?
And what of the lies
with which puppet-masters
with their fake blond hair, military swagger,
wooden sloganeering Maoist-style,
arrogance of Sultans from yesteryear
hold populations in their sway?
So many pandemics to endure.

Covid-19
February 28th

Plague has always had a fascination
for those who map the subterranean, the macabre,
black bile overflowing, feverish gaze,
bloated corpses, tumbrels rolling through medieval towns,
death in Venice,
love in the age of cholera.
So it is with the conoravirus,
spreading its bat-like wings across the planet,
transforming species that had become our prey
into avenging angels,
hugging the elderly to their chests,
surfacing where least expected,
turning the global economy topsy-turvy
and the best-laid plans of empire builders
into crumbling sand.

The End of Time
March 19th

For centuries, apocalyptical and Old Believers prostrated themselves,
lacerating flesh and entrails,
convinced the great upheaval around them
had some higher purpose,
that out of chaos and destruction a New Jerusalem,
for those who had abjured their sins,
would ultimately emerge.

Subsequently, as traditional beliefs were cast aside,
new credos arose with their adherents,
having beheaded kings and overthrown czars,
certain a new age could begin
and humanity shed the vices
that ignorance and accumulated privileges
had instilled and petrified.

Now that such beliefs have also bitten the dust,
and a new globalist disposition come to the fore,
seers amongst us and myriads suddenly living in fear,
sense climate wars, droughts, and unleashed pestilence
foreshadowing the end of time.

Globalization’s Children
March 23rd

We later civilizations – we too know that we are mortal.
— Paul Valéry, 1919

It seemed obvious enough,
for those who had bloodied themselves in the trenches,
seen the swath of carnage
bell-towers and market squares had endured,
millions dying from the accursed flu,
as though a vengeful god
were calling in a sinful continent’s debts.
What about us, globalization’s children,
spared the previous century’s major wars,
wearing our affluence like a fashion statement
from a new-age couturier,
convinced the arrow would always point in one direction, upwards,
and the merry-go-round would never stop
for us lucky ones who’d managed to embark?

On a Passage in Lenin
March 25th

There are decades when nothing happens,
and there are weeks when decades happen.
— Lenin

True enough where revolutions are concerned,
the French, the Russian for starters.
No less true for financial crises,
1929, 2008, to name two of the biggies.
Plagues too have had their cataclysmic high points,
the Black Death, the Columbian Exchange, the Spanish flu.

Still early days for the coronavirus,
no seers at the city gates or on distant Judaean hilltops
able to foretell
just how or when it will evolve or peak,
or how much of the societal carapace will crumble underneath.

But we sense,
much like animals before a hurricane or tsunami,
that sometime in mid-March
the earth turned on its axis
and that those living through it
will never knowingly efface the moment.

Contagion
March 26th

Into the notable city of Florence there came the death-dealing pestilence
which had some years before appeared in parts of the East.
— Boccaccio, The Decameron

“Of what use is the past?” the moderns asked,
secure in the comforts of the present day
and the promise of a future still at hand.

“Of what use the aged,” the millennials chimed in,
“they who have enjoyed the earth’s fruits these many years,
and refuse to clear the way for those now come of age?”

“Of what use the homeless and the poor,” the well-off complained,
“they who spread vermin in their clothes and hair
while we must take shelter behind the ramparts of our homes?”

“Of what use your pristine beaches and winter holidays” the ascetics railed,
“when the pillars of your temples and pleasure palaces
have come crashing down?”

“Of what use your lamentations?” the sybarites replied,
“let us drink and eat and copulate our fill
while we party through the night.”

Fear
March 27th

You see it in their faces,
in the quick manoeuvres to step aside
on sidewalks and on trails,
in the panicked emails,
the endless stories in the papers
or posted on the Web.

Pandora’s box has been pried open,
spectres one had thought wrestled to the ground
by scientific research, biotech,
haunt the deserted boardrooms and chancelleries
from one OECD capital to the next.

Half the planet has gone into hibernation,
even as the other half, the poorer half,
awaits its turn,
hospital wards already overflowing
with the prostrate, the skeletal, the short of breath.

Through the ages fear has worn many masks,
conquering armies, devastating famines,
despots doing in their subjects with a mere flick of the wrist,
but its most primal form as always
remains the fear of death.

Nemesis
March 28th

There had been intonations of a bubbly stock exchange,
target cities – Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam –
besieged by tourist crowds,
cruise ships too big to dock,
real estate markets too frothy for mere proles.

The game seemed so humongous it would never cease,
the moneyed folks too powerful to fail,
their chains of command spanning continents and seas,
dwarfing nation-states along the way.

True, climate change frayed at the edges,
a host of civil wars raged on,
fraught refugees and asylum seekers
vying for a brief fifteen minutes in the sun.

So when the virus made its first appearance
in the then little-known city of Wuhan,
it seemed a minor nuisance,
a freakish zoonotic passage from bats to humankind.

The rest is history
as the global skein unravelled,
country after country falling prey
to a long forgotten scourge, the plague.

Nemesis, vengeful goddess,
through a tiny agent
was stirring from the depths,
sending the global circus careening to a close.

The Lucky Generation
April 4th

We called ourselves the lucky generation,
in many ways we were,
spared the wars, the dole,
the diseases, the back-breaking toil,
that has been our predecessors’ lot
and that of the myriads who had come before them.

There was comfort in knowing we could choose
which college to enrol in,
which profession we might enter,
what city or country to put roots down in,
where we might holiday winter or summer
or retire to when our working lives were over.

There were passing clouds in the sky,
Islamic disruptions here and there,
the occasional economic downturn,
hints of glaciers melting or sea levels rising,
but for the large part problems
the millennials and their offspring would have to bear.

And suddenly we learned how quickly the script could be rewritten,
carefully constructed stage sets taken down,
the myths of exponential growth,
globalization as some kind of magic key,
affluence as a guarantee of personal immunity,
reduced to tatters.

The old Greek precept which Solon had first uttered
had stood the test of time:
“Do not count yourself fortunate until your final day.” 

Confinement
April 14th

Half the planet, including its perennial high-flyers,
courtesy of the spiked intruder,
has discovered the fine points of social distancing,
of living in a closed space, 23/24 on 7,
even as the sun is warming up the earth,
the trees and shrubs are burgeoning,
and normality of a sort
will eventually reemerge from its cocoon.
A mere facsimile
for what the unjustly imprisoned
would have taken to be their lot,
zeks with their infected lungs in the Gulag’s frigid wastes,
les damnés de la terre the Internationale had once extolled.
For a brief moment,
the Gatsby set has met the lower depths.

In the Season of the Plague
April 20th

In the season of the plague
a global assembly was convened
with eminent philosophers, theologians
and assorted illuminati
to guide humanity out of its downward spiral.

Sitting a row apart from one another,
the first intervenor held up The Qur’an
with cries of Allahu Akbar reverberating through the hall,
the second The New Testament
with echoes of the Matthäus-Passion as a refrain,
next an angry tribune, abjuring hedge funds
and rapacious bankers, waved a copy of Das Kapital,
with a more smartly dressed opponent
preaching the gospel according to Adam Smith,
followed by a poker-faced emissary extolling The Prince
along with choice bits from Kongfuzi’s Analects,
even as a dissident freshly released
trumpeted The Social Contract’s enduring beliefs.

So the debate raged on for days,
ecologists, virologists,
semiologists, psychologists joining the fray,
until the assembly by now much depleted,
having reached no agreement, was duly disbanded,
as a lowly cleaner, a Dalit by birth,
disinfecting the cavernous hall and latrines,
scattered herbs from her village and chanted full-throated
mantras to exorcise the abominable plague.

A Litany of Plagues
April 22nd

The Athenian plague 430 BCE.  100,000 dead
that did Pericles in
The Justinian plague 541–2 CE.   25–100 million dead
that helped do the Roman Empire in
The Bubonic plague 1347–51
that did 25–50 million Europeans in
The Cocoliziti plague – perhaps TB – 1545–8
that did 15 million indigenous Mexicans in
The great plague of London. 1665–6. 100,000 dead
The plague of Marseille.  1720–3.  120,000 dead
The Russian plague.  1889–90. 1 million dead
The Spanish flu. 1918–19. 20–50 million dead
The Asian flu. 1956–8. 1–3 million dead
AIDS. since 1981. 32 million dead
SARS, MERS, EBOLA – tiny numbers as their toll
COVID-19
Humanity has had a long-time fling
with lice, rats, marmots, pigs, and bats
and the bugs always win.

(Inspired by an article and chart in Le Point, “Et les puces precipitèrent la chute de l’empire romain,” April 16, 2020)

Checks and Balances
June 2nd

In the ideal republic,
quoth Polybius, Montesquieu or Madison,
power must check power.

The kingly one is too dangerous
to entrust to an unchecked figure
all too quick to trample
over both sacred and profane
with a praetorian guard at his command.
The legislative, with too weak an authority in control,
can quickly overswell its banks
and divvy up within its own encrusted ranks
the spoils of office.

Judges for their part,
given too free a rein,
can use the instruments of self-interested interpretation
to impose rules
where lawmakers never deigned to venture.

A fine doctrine for fair-weather times.
But when the times are rife
with strife, pestilence, and fear,
and citizens too bitter and divided
to recall the underlying need
to show a minimum of regard for one another,
how easy for the demagogue, the providential leader,
to overwhelm the forces of restraint
and impose an iron rule
from which republics cannot easily recover.

At the Imperial Court

The emissaries had been warned
to watch their tongues
for what was said in jest
during a visit to the countryside
or to the stables
where the imperial thoroughbreds were kept
would soon enough be relayed back.
Now word had leaked
that an emissary from a distant province
had spoken lightly of the imperial line
and even hinted that the emperor
might not be divine.
His tongue had been ripped out,
his body flayed,
and he had been sent home
with an order to his province
to double its tribute in rice and in wine.
Ever since the emissaries eye each other warily
whenever they congregate in the court
or lift a glass in drinking
to the emperor’s eternal health.

Auctoritas

If kings of yore were prone
to adorn their courts with ceremonial rites,
what is one to make of the lot
who have since taken their place?
They seem so much in love
with the ornate trappings of Versailles,
the Kremlin’s dizzying spires,
military parades,
assembled press corps waiting on their every word,
one half expects the skies to open
and a voice to cry out,
“All hail, these earthly gods!”
Puppeteers are hard at work
pulling at the strings,
and as before mere mortals
are meant to marvel at their craft.

The Mayan Route

(Banampak, Yaxchilan and Palenque)

To wander amidst these ruins,
grandiose each in its own way –
stelae sketched in the immortal ink of stone,
the ruler of a city-state,
his lineage in hieroglyphic script,
frescoes rescued from the elements,
trumpets, drums marking a ritual event,
blood offering to the gods
with spirits from the underworld
speaking through a serpent’s mouth,
mighty walls and endless hewn steps
that meld into the mountaintops,
a playing field
where mastery of a rubber ball
determines life or death,
captives prostrate at a ruler’s feet,
the head of a beheaded king –
is to recall old lessons
regarding rise and fall,
antiquity’s hubris that ends in cruel defeats,
the jungle ever-ready to reclaim its own,
vicissitudes of fate that weigh us down.

Port of Call

What do we know about each other,
the British tourists on a yacht
who stop to swim in the cove,
briefly step on shore,
and then take off to their next Aegean mooring;
the French couple here for a week
to consummate their vows;
the Serbs who like Damouchari
because it isn’t Croat
and the fault line between Orthodoxy and Rome
runs deeper than the postmodern set might suppose;
Israelis who come in droves
because Greece is close
and there aren’t places in their immediate neighbourhood
to feel at ease;
northerners who love the beaches
and the pace of life of the Mediterranean south
but would not trade in their GDP
and ordered lives
at any price;
the restaurant staff,
mostly Albanians here for the season
with the odd African
who has slipped in between the cracks;
disco jockeys and hotel operators on the make,
local fishermen and cultivators of olive groves,
the gypsy vendor with his fruit,
kayakers churning the waters of the coast
like would-be Argonauts
in search of the golden fleece;
and you, unofficial scribe,
treating this port of call
as a writer’s retreat?

Desert Camp, Merzouga

The Bedouin in you stirred
at the sight of undulating dunes
and camel caravans waiting
to take their charges across the sands.

The guttural sounds of a Semitic tongue
drifted across the compound where you sat
wondering whether this evening
a voice might yet resound.

You had come in search of something more
than a swanky desert camp
or a glimpse of one more sunset
atop an ochre-coloured land.

You hankered for a message
from across the pale of time,
a fragmentary image
to reconnect the dotted lines.

Sahara Nocturne

If you come to the desert with longing
the longing will pull you in
for you carry deep within you
the cold swooshing of the wind
and the memory of distant soundings
from an ancient threnody
along with words once uttered
which you never scribbled down
doubting that you’d been chosen
to return from whence it began
if but for the briefest of moments
before the desert turned longing to sand.

Messengers

Messengers who flash warnings
of what the end of time portends,
messengers who whisper cryptic lines
of life’s mysteries and the great beyond,
messengers who ride off on a camel’s back
in search of a holy land,
messengers who lose their footing in the dunes
and cross sanity’s fatal bounds.

She’s been a friend of many years,
loyal and steadfast almost to a fault,
but when the subject turns to Macedonia
and the faltering attempt to resolve
a lingering dispute about a country’s name
all measure disappears.

The Macedonians given half an inch
would soon claim the whole of northern Greece,
the Bulgarians would join in
gobbling up both bits
and only the greatest vigilance by patriotic Greeks
can forestall a catastrophe foretold.

Naively you had thought the Balkan Wars
had ended a century ago.

— Philip Resnick

Atavisms

Everywhere you look, they’re sprouting,
Shiites, Sunnis
rekindling the prophet’s spirit,
Orthodox in countries which had abjured religion
rediscovering connections long forgotten
which their autocratic rulers nourish,
retro-Catholics in Poland
merging the Black Virgin of Czestochowa
with intolerance for their opponents,
Hinduvistas dreaming of a purified  homeland,
Jewish zealots of a reconsecrated Temple Mount,
Buddhist incendiaries in Myanmar,
evangelicals in the New World,
a veritable smorgasbord of beliefs
which a scientific age
had prematurely dismissed.

The Minders

Her talk is fluid/fluent,
the ups and downs of relations between Europe and the Porte
over two centuries,
a Sultan journeying to the West,
wars, atrocities,
mirror images and stereotypes to this day.
And through it all
– though the speaker is careful
how she weaves her tale
to not dwell overtly on the new Sultan,
his prisons overflowing,
the bleak Islamic turn his regime now takes –
three figures in sober attire from the Consulate
noting carefully every word she states,
lest she cross the invisible boundary
that spells dissent.

One part of us knows all too well
the risks of doubling tanker traffic through the port
and what an oil spill like the Exxon Valdez
would represent.

The other part knows equally well
just how dependent we have all become
on the bloodstream of an industrial age
and how quickly we would feel the pinch
without a drop of oil.

The valiant and romantic part,
NIMBYish in its way,
dreams of a green-red pact, a pristine coast,
and unadulterated ocean views.

The pragmatic part
feels a larger national vision is at stake
and tradeoffs the price
of keeping two quarrelling provinces aligned.

And so the kettle-drums beat on,
waiting for a prince to lay down the law.