Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A modest proposal for solving the crisis in 'special education' by next Tuesday


The story of Ava Crager isn’t at the top end of discrimination and neglect against children with disabilities in New Zealand. After all, it resulted in her missing a single week of school, when there are children who miss months or even years – to say nothing of those who attend regularly but are marginalised, secluded or excluded from the curriculum and the social life of their schools. The ministry of education doesn’t keep data on any of these outcomes, so the stories we hear must always be treated as the tip of a very large iceberg.

This iceberg has been floating at the edge of the public consciousness for over twenty years, since the introduction in 1995 of the current regime for delivering what used to be called ‘special education’. The phrase is in bad need of updating, but I’m going to use it anyway – albeit in scare-quotes – for it is essential for understanding the institutional logic at work.

And that is the virtue of Ava’s story: not that it is more appalling than others or has resulted in greater discrimination and hardship than others, but precisely that it is so common, so quietly absurd, as to fully illuminate the workings of the current system – and why it needs to be dismantled not just as a matter of justice, but also of basic decency and sanity.


Here’s the story, then, briefly, as told this week by Radio New Zealand reporter Laura Dooney.

Ava is a 12 year wheelchair user who relied on the ministry of education’s taxi service to go to school. Back in March, she moved with her family 5 minutes down the road. The parents knew ahead of time that they needed to fill out a whole new application for the taxi service in order for the car to come to the new address, and allowed 20 days for processing. The ministry took 7 weeks to approve the ‘new’ taxi service. When the family asked what was taking so long, they explained that Ava wasn’t the only child on the waiting list. The school provided transportation at its own cost, so Ava ended up missing one week of attendance. The Cragers were left feeling lucky that their situation was resolved, knowing very well that other families are routinely put in even more stressful situations.

This story has a bit of everything. The institution normalising its failures, and passing the blame on to disabled children for existing (‘there are many others in your daughter’s situation’). The odd mix of relief and gratitude felt by the family when the entitlement was eventually restored – a feeling that everyone who has spent any time in the system knows so very well. And, above all, the Kafkaesque contortions of the rationing mechanisms, which generate costs both human and financial at every turn under the guise of fairness and accountability. Specifically, and most obviously: the ministry’s complaint that its own waiting lists are so crowded fails to address the fact that this is due in part to families like the Cragers having to reapply for the taxi service every time they move to a new place. (I heard this week from a family who had to do it after moving within the same street). Asked by Dooney to explain this fact, the ministry answered by repeating the question (‘every time a family moves, a new application must be lodged to verify their eligibility’), a clear indication that they have lost any sense not just of their purpose, but also of reality.

As things stand, the current system consistently fails to address the needs of the children under the ministry’s care. As not just countless human-interest stories but several government reviews have documented, it is discriminatory, tortuous, wasteful, and has damaged the educational prospects of entire generations of disabled students. We have known these things for years. And while the new ministers in charge of education and disability seem aware of the magnitude of the problem, and well-intentioned in their call for a comprehensive overhaul, I want to sound a couple of notes of caution.

Firstly, the Clark government also came in with good intentions and did nothing beyond conducting a review and then ordering a second review which was completed under National. Further to that, they had nine years – there is no guarantee that this government will last as long. (The other lot doesn’t think there even is a problem.)

Secondly, I worry that the overdue and sacrosanct realisation that the problems are wide-ranging and systemic could become a recipe for inaction. Case in point: besides a raft of budget measures that pumped more money into a bad system, the government hasn’t announced any actual plan outside of Chris Hipkins’ vision for long-term reform of the entire education system. But again, we don’t know that the government will last long enough to see any of it implemented. And in the meantime, obvious, elementary steps such as finally funding the management position of learning support coordinator in every school are being tied to the current round of industrial negotiations between the ministry of education and the primary teachers’ union, NZEI. Meaning that teachers will have to give something up so that disabled students are better included in their schools. This shouldn’t be the union’s job.


So, here’s my proposal. We’re all sick of waiting. So fucking sick of waiting. And our children can’t afford to wait any longer – we are wasting so much potential, so many lives. Time’s up. From now on, every need is to be automatically provided for with fully funded supports unless the ministry of education can prove that the need doesn’t exist. I say my child has autism, or is in a wheelchair, or has a learning impairment. Her teachers and – if applicable – the local DHB concur. You disagree? Fine. Prove that she doesn't. In the meantime, cough up the money for the supports that are needed in order to remove the barriers to her full inclusion at her local school. Let’s see you fill out some forms for a change, spend some of your own money on private psychologists and consultants. Let’s see if you are still eligible to call yourself a Ministry of Education, and not the Ministry for Educating Some of the Children.

Are you worried that opening the floodgates – that is to say, eliminating all your neurotic requirements for compliance – will make you spend too much money? I’m not sure that it will. Besides, whose money are we talking about? Pretend the money Ava’s school spent on getting her to class for six weeks came out of your budget. Pretend it was you who filled out the forms her parents had to fill out. Pretend it was you who spent the 35 hours it takes on average to fill out an ORS application. It is you who has to assess it. It is you who has to defend the families’ appeals. But all of this is money and time spent by New Zealanders. It is all of us. You’re costing us too much, in order to achieve far too little.

And then so what if costs should balloon? It will force you to finally sit down with the disability community and the teachers and the researches to design a better system. A system that pools knowledge and human resources and invests more rationally while still ensuring that all children receive a quality education. Besides, you saved money that didn’t belong to you for over twenty years. It belonged to some of our most vulnerable students. It’s time to give it back.






Thanks for reading this. Early feedback has included some people despairing that we could ever implement something of this sort, that it's too far from what we have now. Nonsense. It's up to us to create practical utopias in local schools - show how things could and should be done - and demand the changes that are needed for those utopias to become the norm. My model for what can be achieved is the mental health reforms in Italy, which went much further in a much shorter span of time. I wrote about them recently for Overland and if you feel overcome with pessimism (as we all do from time to time) I suggest you take a look that bit of history. It's something that happened, and it was a struggle from below. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Inferno XVIII: A place there is in Hell called Malebolge


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge
A place there is in Hell called Malebolge

We could spend this week’s post talking about this one line. Not c’è un luogo but luogo è, not ‘there is a place’, but ‘a place there is’. A declarative statement bearing a timeless, universal truth, which is also a sentence (in the judicial rather than grammatical sense). Like those words carved into the architrave of Hell at the beginning of the third canto, when Dante and Virgil first ventured into the cavern, which culminated in the famous exhortation to abandon all hope, ye etcetera.

That was just a few hours ago. In the meantime, the two poets have met scores of damned souls, a throng comprising perhaps the majority of the people who had ever lived up to the turn of the fourteenth century. Their numbers included not just the lustful or the avaricious and so forth, but also heavier sinners such as usurers, thieves, heretics and murderers. Yet we’re only halfway down. From here on in, things will get progressively worse, just as the upside-down cone that is Hell becomes smaller, and progressively less populated.

As Dante-the-narrator utters those words – luogo è, – Dante-the-pilgrim is actually there, at the entrance of Malebolge. We, as readers, occupy the space between the writer and the character. Modernity has stretched this space beyond measure – we can speculate, reinvent, historicise – whereas for a medieval, Christian reader, that space would have been far narrower. For one thing, few (if any) of Dante’s early readers would have doubted the existence of the larger place that contains the smaller place, Hell itself. Secondly, they – like Dante – would have placed Hell somewhere in the actual world. Although their geography mixed the symbolic with the concrete, this was a location someone could travel to, if they only knew where it was.

What of the second part of the line? What is ‘Malebolge’?

Hell is never mentioned in the scriptures. It was a medieval addition, sanctioned by the Church and filled over the centuries in the popular imaginary by demons drawn in part from classical literature and folklore, and in part invented anew. However, this ‘invention’ is not an invention in the modern sense, a flight of fancy. Remember: Dante knew the things he imagined to be true. Both literally true, to an extent, but to a larger one – and far more importantly – also figuratively, spiritually, metaphysically true.

As far as scholars can tell, ‘Malebolge’ is a word made up by Dante. Male of course means bad or evil (think of the word malevolent), whereas a bolgia is a large ditch. This place called Malebolge is a series of ten concentric moats, descending gradually towards a central well. It houses the fraudulent, divided into many groups: here, in the first ring-like circle, it’s pimps, seducers and flatterers. This last group is literally swimming in shit, as if all of the worlds’ latrines were fed directly into their ditch (vidi gente attuffata in uno sterco / che da li uman privadi parea mosso.)

All this is invention, but invention of a kind. If Hell is a real place on Earth, as Dante most surely believed, and if the hierarchy of sins is dictated by the prevailing theologians as of necessity, following God’s logic, then Malebolge, too, could be real, is real. It takes two words – luogo è – for Dante to declare the truth-value of his vision, and to make his vision true. It’s an incantation.

Let’s round off the tercet:
Luogo è in inferno detto Malebolge,
tutto di pietra di color ferrigno,
come la cerchia che dintorno il volge.

A place there is in Hell called Malebolge,
all made of stone and iron-like in colour,
⁠as is the circular wall that surrounds it.

Illustration (possibly by Giovanni Britto) from the 1544 edition curated by Alessandro Vellutello

There follows a 15-line description through similitude of the ditches or moats connected by bridges, as if part of a series of inter-linked fortifications. In later cantos, Dante gives some dimensions: the tenth circle is 11 miles long, while the ninth is 22. Each ditch is half a mile wide. This would make the first circle over one hundred miles long, and the diameter of the crater of Hell at the depth reached by Dante and Virgil some 35 miles.

We are used nowadays to imaginary worlds being described with minute precision. However, in Dante’s case this apparent concreteness or realism leads right back into metaphysics, for each measurement suggests a hidden symbolism or relationship with other numbers. Invention, again, is both constrained and sanctioned by the logic it is seen to obey.

For now, all we need to know is that a place there is in Hell called Malebolge. We’ll spend the next twelve cantos here.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Inferno XVII: Of flying beasts and student loans


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It’s been a while since I attended to this with any regularity, so it may pay to state when and where we are.

It’s the early morning of 9 April 1300, a mere hours after the beginning of Dante’s journey into Hell. The place is the third and lowest ring of the seventh circle, where those who committed the sin of violence against god and nature serve their sentence. More precisely, we are situated next to the drop where the river of boiling blood which runs through this circle – the Phlegethon – turns into a crimson fall. And since there is no apparent staircase or passage for Dante and Virgil to descend safely into the next circle, the pair have just summoned a flying beast by throwing Dante’s belt into the abyss.

Like uber, but for winged demons.


Except Geryon, the beast in question, is not described as having any wings. Not for the first time, an illustrator of the poem (in this case, Doré) has failed to read it properly. Indeed the first thing that Dante notices, as Geryon perches on the edge of the cliff, his tail dangling into the abyss, is that la faccia sua era faccia d’uom giusto – ‘his face was the face of a good person’. Deceptively, for Geryon is the allegory of Fraud, and is thus the appropriate vehicle for transporting the two poets among the most wretched and culpable of all the damned.

The wingless monster has the body of a serpent, the tail of a scorpion, and the legs of a lion, covered in fur. His torso, back and sides dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle, are ‘decorated with knots and circles’, in the manner of Arabian tapestries, but far more intricately. His way of perching, as if preparing for an ambush, reminds Dante of the beavers that lie on the river banks of Northern Europe, waiting to catch their prey.

Instead of pointing out to him that this is really not how beavers work, Virgil encourages Dante to move towards a small group of souls that is standing nearby, while he negotiates with Geryon the terms of their ride.

Illustration by a 14th Century Neapolitan illuminator

Another reminder: all souls which have retained their human form are naked folks. These few are no exception, save for the fact that they are carrying colourful purses around their necks. But otherwise their skin is exposed to the burning sand under their feet, and to the fiery rain that falls everywhere on this circle, except along the path that Dante is allowed to tread. The twin torment gives the souls no rest, and the purses adds to their contrappasso. For on them par che ’l loro occhio si pasca – roughly, their eyes seem to be feeding, meaning: they gaze at them with constant, insatiable hunger.

These purses or pouches are emblazoned: one with a blue lion on a yellow background; one with a white goose on a red background; one with a blue sow on a white background. The owner of this last one breaks from the small group to address the poet, gruffly. He says he hails from Padua, while his companions are Florentines. Together, they await a chap called Vitaliano. But instead of telling Dante about his sin or circumstances, as we have come to expect, the nameless soul cuts proceedings short but poking his tongue at him, obscenely, come bue che il naso lecchi – like an ox licking its nose.

Thus ends the short scene, leaving just enough clues for Dante’s contemporaries – and for scholars thereafter – to figure out the context and fill in the blanks. We know that we must be among usurers, because we were told to expect them in this circle six cantos ago, and Dante and Virgil are about to leave for Malebolge. Those emblazoned purses must contain gold, or IOUs, but above all the all-important ledger of the debtors, main tool of the usurer’s trade. And while it’s not absolutely clear who might have counted as an usurer in Dante’s eyes – whether anyone who lent money to anyone, as canonical law dictated, thereby including all bankers, or just those who lent money at disproportionate interest (the most likely answer being closer to the former) – at least we know the business of these particular ones, thanks to those blazons. They belong, respectively, to the families of the Gianfigliazzis, the Obriachis and – the guy who speaks, with the yellow sow or scrofa – to the Scrovegnis. And if it’s a Scrovegni and a usurer, it’s going to be Rinaldo, innit?

We met Rinaldo Scrovegni before: he’s the father of Enrico Scrovegni, who built a chapel in Padua and had it painted by Giotto with the possible intention of atoning for his father’s sins, or at least converting part of the money he made into a magnificent and lasting public relations exercise. Giotto painted the chapel in the very same years Dante was writing the Divine Comedy. How cool is that? This is Enrico:


Both the Obriachis (in Bologna) and Rinaldo Scrovegni (in Padua) were in the same business: lending money to university students. Those two cities have the honour of being regarded as among the birthplaces of this modern institution, but what may not be equally well-known is that even in those early days not all university students came from wealthy families, and that many students – rich and poor – relied on loans from the very beginning, under terms dictated by the cities that hosted them. Beyond that, there was the unregulated market of the usurers, and clearly it was a booming business that kept you into chapels. Then sent you to Hell.

(Though interestingly one theory about the genesis of the Scrovegni Chapel is that Enrico thought that his father must have been sent to Purgatory, and was trying to ‘buy him’ a discount. It’s kind of commerce that eventually precipitated the Reformation.)

Sandro Botticelli
It’s time to go: Dante is afraid that Virgil might be losing his patience, and re-joins him to find he’s already sitting on Geryon’s back. He instructs him to sit in front, so that the beast won’t be able to poke him with his presumably poisonous tail. Dante obeys, but he’s shaking, as if in the throes of a quartan fever. There is a tender moment, when he confesses to the reader that he planned to say to his guide – but for his voice failing him – Fa che tu m’abbracce, ‘put your arms around me.’

There’s no time. Geryon takes off. As per Virgil’s entreaties, he doesn’t dive headlong, but rather flies in sweeping circles, following the perimeter of the crater that is Hell.

How do you conceive of or describe a human flying in the fourteenth century? The sun is dawning, but offers no light at these depths. Maggior paura non credo che fosse… che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta ogne veduta fuor che de la fera. ‘Never was fear, I think, greater than mine, when I saw that air was all around me, and that there was nothing to see save for the beast.’ This fearful uncertainty, this disorientation, is matched by the reticence we have come to expect at the end of these cantos, as Dante stops short of setting the scene with which the next canto will begin. He has landed, but where?



Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Inferno XVI: Dante's Tomb


The full text of the canto in Italian/English

It is heartening for the mortal to learn that not even Dante Alighieri got everything always right, and that the sixteenth canto of the Divine Comedy is something of a dud; little more than the B-side of the fifteenth. Dante meets more sodomites, and not in the fun way. They converse. They go their separate ways. Then at the end something unusual and rather mystical happens which I’ll get to at the end of this post. But seeing as I don’t want to go into the full details of the canto, I’ll tell you a little bit about Dante’s tomb, which I visited during my recent trip to Italy.

Entering the 'zone of silence'
Dante was as adventurous in death as he was in life. As you might recall, he wrote the Comedy whilst in exile, and was never allowed to return to his native and beloved Florence. He was in Rome when the sentence was issued, in 1302, and spent the rest of his life travelling from court to court in search of employment and protection. He lived in Verona, Treviso, Padua, the region known as Lunigiana, and finally Ravenna, where he completed the Paradiso some time before 1321. He died there at the age of 56, following a diplomatic mission to Venice, and was laid to rest in a Roman-era sarcophagus near the basilica of Saint Francis.

Then the Comedy became a hit, and Boccaccio started lecturing in Florence about it, and soon the city decided they would like to take him back after all. They made a first attempt in 1396, but were rebuffed, then again in 1428 and 1476. Finally, tired of asking politely, they got Pope Leo X – a native of Florence and son of Lorenzo de' Medici – to issue an order for the transfer of Dante’s body to his native city (Ravenna at this time was part of the Papal State). Michelangelo was at the ready, anxious to sculpt a monument in honour of the great poet. But when the Florentine envoys opened the sarcophagus, they found that it was empty. It transpired that the local Franciscan monks had stolen the body from inside the sarcophagus by drilling a hole on the other side of the wall against which it rested, Ocean’s Eleven-style. The envoys had no authority to order Franciscan monks around, and so Dante’s remains were placed under their protection.

And that would be fine, except the monks moved him around so many times that eventually they lost him. It happened some time after 1810, when the body was removed from the sarcophagus in its recently built new chapel for fear that Napoleon’s troops might steal it, as was their wont. The body was placed in a wooden box and hidden inside a wall but the monks didn’t keep good records and the precautionary shift was soon forgotten. So for the best part of the 19th century everyone simply assumed that the empty sarcophagus still contained Dante’s remains.


The box was found by accident in 1865, during the restoration of the chapel, and a student was quick enough to read the words “Ossa Dantis” (Dante’s bones) on the inscription before the find could be labelled as a generic bag of bones and placed in a common ossuary.

We’re not done. Dante was moved again during the Second World War, for fear that the tomb might be bombed, and placed in the adjoining cloister, under a plaque that still commemorates this fact.


Most recently, the tomb was found to have been included among the Italian targets of ISIS, which is mad at him for his depiction of Mohammed in Canto XVIII (maybe we’ll get there this year). It is now protected by a camera, installed in 2016 not just for security but also for counting visitors, including those who just pop their head past the rope to take a quick peek.


Today, Dante rests in a small, unassuming chapel, far less pompous than the cenotaph that the Florentines built in 1821, when they still harboured some residual hope that he might be returned to them. The sarcophagus still bears the epitaph dictated by Bernando da Canaccio in 1366, in a rather inapposite Latin, and that describes him as ‘Dante, exiled from his native land, born of Florence, a mother who loved him little.’ The chapel is lit at all times by a small lantern, fuelled by olive oil donated by the Florentines every year during a special ceremony on the second Sunday in September. I find this detail quite tender – his city rejected him, but they still light his room – as I do the fact that Dante’s Tomb is part of a special “zone of silence”, whereby the adjoining streets are kept quiet by the city’s authorities as a mark of respect.


We have come to the end of the sixteenth canto of the Inferno. It is less than 24 hours since Dante’s journey began. Virgil and Dante have reached a waterfall – except it’s not water, for the Phlegethon (remember?) runs with the blood of the damned. There is no apparent passage for travelling safely out of the seventh circle and into the eighth. Instead, Virgil asks Dante to pass him the cord he keeps around his waist and throws it over the fall. This strange incantation soon bears its fruit, as Dante begins to discern through the spray a meravigliosa figura (‘marvellous figure’) that – always loving a cliff-hanger – he stops just short of naming or describing.


Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

‘We need a revolution’: Carla Ravaioli interviews Guido Rossi


What follows is my translation of an interview that Marxist journalist and author Carla Ravaioli conducted with law scholar Guido Rossi in 2010, in the early stages of the eurozone’s crisis. Rossi was an unlikely person to call for Leninism or revolution: he had spent his career as a financial regulator and business law expert, overseeing major banking acquisitions and working for a time for ABN Amro. Most recently, he had stepped down as chairman of Telecom Italia, and would soon become ‘ethical watchdog’ of Consob, Italy’s securities and exchange commission.

At the time of the interview, Rossi was 79, while Ravaioli was 87. I note their ages to place them within a generation that thought through several, often dramatic iterations of the word revolution.

The interview was originally published on Il Manifesto, 31 October 2010. This translation was first published at Overland.


Recovery, economic revival, boosting the GDP, promoting growth… These are the tools that economists, company directors, industrialists, politicians insist upon to come out of the crisis. What are your thoughts?

My opinion is very definite. I believe there really is a fundamental error in the final goal of all politics, which is economic progress. As you said, it’s all that economists think about: boosting production and productivity, at all costs. So that which used to be the engine of capitalism, economic progress, has become the engine of every system, and market capitalism has been joined by state capitalism. See, for instance, China: where all the usual things are happening, to the detriment of the weakest. In the meantime, those that Norberto Bobbio used to call ‘second- and third-generation rights’, with this acceleration of economic progress at all costs, are brutally trampled upon. As Robert Reich said in Supercapitalism, the defence of citizens’ rights has been replaced by the defence of consumers’ rights. Now the goal is to create more and more benefits for consumers to the detriment of the traditional rights to employment, work safety, superannuation. Consider how economic development as the foundation of human activity is cited even in Ratzinger’s latest encyclical, in which he claims that globalisation is the key to an economic progress that spreads amongst all nations. Which isn’t true. Nor is it true – as people say – that ideologies have disappeared. It’s just that a new one has arisen, and it has killed all the others.

This wild pursuit of growth continues whilst the ecological crisis (which is due in turn to a productivism that is unsustainable both in terms of quantity and of quality) is reaching levels that may not be reversed, as the entire scientific community is saying. How is it possible for prominent personalities – powerful managers, great industrialists, world-renowned economists – to overlook all this?

The problem is precisely that the priority hasn’t ceased to be growth and economic development, to which everything else is sacrificed. But, you see, what is sacrificed are not only the issues to which you alluded, but also problems like world hunger. Which since 2007 has got steadily worse: now there’s talk of one billion undernourished people worldwide; and no-one deals with it. Truthfully, the ideology of economic development erases each and every problem that concerns quality of life and human rights, as well as creating senseless wars… The result is a society whose only goal is the duty to grow economically: what’s more, on the basis of parameters that are completely absurd, such as GDP, which has nothing to do with quality of life.

But, even if we conceded that these people are completely disinterested in the social, what do they think that cars, computers, mobile phones, skyscrapers and weapons are made of… Can’t they see that they are ‘made’ of nature, and that if nature dies, the same thing will happen to their production?

No, they can’t see it. And I’ll tell you why. Because it’s a problem that concerns the future, whereas the present is all about growth and immediate profit…

Yet this too is imperilled by the most recent events. The consequences of the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico are just as much economic as ecological.

Without a doubt. I agree on this point too. When a catastrophe comes, they notice. But then what do they do? They insist on the same patterns that caused the catastrophe: they have nothing else on their minds. Apocalyptic literature describes all this. Some books of this genre have perturbed me. For instance, Achever Clausewitz (‘Finishing Clausewitz’) by René Girard, who says this: ‘the warming of the planet and the rise in violence are absolutely linked.’ The confusion between the natural and the artificial is perhaps the strongest message of these apocalyptic texts. Martin Rees, the great Cambridge astronomer, author of Our Final Century, doubts that the human race will survive the current century, precisely because it is destroying the planet. And Posner says similar things in his book Catastrophe: with a world population that, according to estimates, will amount to over 9 billion people in 2050, the risk of famines will be appalling. Earth cannot give more than what it has.

These things are well known. There are also economists that criticise capitalism to some degree, for instance with respect to the great social inequalities, the gap between the salary of executives and the salary of workers… But nobody thinks to question the system, with a view of changing it…

Because ideology forbids it. It’s a matter of faith. These are Talebans, you cannot change their minds…

But the problem with this way of conceiving capitalism as an immutable fact of nature is that it seems to be shared also by the Left.

Of course, because it opted for reformisms, and that’s the ideology that prevailed. It is an ideology that spreading even within the religions: this is why I mentioned the latest encyclical by the Pope.

Because they also think that growth will bring well-being to everyone. But this has proven not to be the case. If 1 per cent of the population owns 50 per cent of what is produced…

Yes. But you forgot something. Namely, that 51 per cent, or by now even more, of the global wealth is held by the corporations, and the economy is no longer governed by states: states no longer count for anything. So, who’s in charge? Big business. It controls the majority of the planet’s wealth: it must survive and be in command. So, then… Look at what happens to the outsourcing of industries that, in order to survive, do all sorts of things, trample entire economies and all rights, without a care in the world… The retreat of politics is due precisely to this: that economics has achieved total dominance.

At this point shouldn’t the Left – which in spite of everything continues to laboriously exist – face this reality, reflect upon it? Perhaps remembering past mistakes; such as the fact that, for fear that technology would lead to unemployment, they gifted progress to capitalism: while the threat of a growth without work could have been used to fundamentally reconsider the relationship between production and life… But they left everything in the hands of capital.

After all it was capital that invented progress, and it won’t let go of it.

Well, actually it was invented by science…

Which is governed by the same ideology…

Also because they need the grants. But behind great technological transformation lies the idea of a scientist…

We shouldn’t forget in any case that there are intellectuals who are discussing these issues. Amartya Sen for instance says that democracy cannot be reduced to voting… that we need a democracy made of broad discussion. He says in fact that discussion would help us avoid natural catastrophes.

Natural catastrophes – as you said with great clarity – cannot be avoided as long as the gross product continues to grow. This is why I’m surprised that not even the few people who are aware of the gravity of the ecological situation find the courage to say: we must stop growing. That is to say, we must abandon capitalism.

We must abandon capitalism. But to replace it with what? Nobody has any idea. That’s the issue.

Yet today it may not be impossible to find one. Globalisation is a fact that nobody denies anymore. And of course there is an economic globalisation, as well as a cultural globalisation created by the mass media. But there is no political globalisation.

And there is no juridical globalisation, either. This is the great difference with the globalisation of the Middle Ages, that was regulated by the famous Lex mercatoria, which was a system of rules developed by merchants, and not by a single state: and through those rules, commerce worked. Now the great corporations deal amongst themselves. There is no juridical system that regulates their behaviour: with regard to world hunger, exploitation of the lower classes, child labour, safety at work – which according to [then Italian Finance Minister] Giulio Tremonti is a luxury. And, naturally, not even with regard to the planet.

Is this not also due to the fact that the Left used to be opposed to all this, and no longer is? Or rather, they are opposed only in some instances, which at any rate cannot be solved without changing the overall context. As we said earlier, globalisation is a reality governed by big business. But nobody tries to regulate it, nor to understand it. Including the Left.

There’s a reason for that. The Left kept reflecting for as long as there was Communism, which was an ideology opposed to capitalism which in some ways offered alternative solutions. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. Politics has disappeared, economics has taken over and is asserting itself as politics. The Left has abandoned Marxism.

So, an organised Left with some clout doesn’t exist. But there is a multitude of movements, of small and large grassroots groups, that, in spite of operating independently of one another, nonetheless denounce the worst iniquities and injustices that surround us, which can be all traced back to the logic of capital. Pacifism, feminism, environmentalism, which focus on single aspects of each problem (water, nuclear power, the war in Afghanistan, rape, youth precarity, etc.): don’t you think that taken together they might constitute the base for a large-scale revival of an effective opposition? But the Left is not even trying…

It’s not trying because it lacks a unifying ideology. Marxism was born when capitalism ceased to be mercantile and became industrial, and Karl Marx developed a wholly new ideology. In the last few years, similarly, there has been a new revolution, the financial revolution. To oppose it, we need a new ideology. The Brazilian law scholar Roberto Mangabeira Unger, in an excellent book entitled High-Energy Democracy, says that instead of guaranteeing the false contractual freedom that underpins the financial revolution, we need a world authority capable of imposing new rules and creating the base for a different sort of structure, with a global reach.

Don’t you think, then, that the Left should think of something like this, perhaps promoting a meeting between the few intellectuals who considered this issue? I’ve thought for a long time of a Bretton Woods for the twenty-first century…

But it’s no longer enough. Do you want my opinion? At the cost of being accused of Leninism? We need a revolution. The Russian Revolution is what changed the ideology of industrial capitalism. If we don’t do a proper revolution, what are going to do?

If you talk about revolution, everyone will think about cannons… according to the historical model…

Which is no longer possible, obviously…

Exactly. This is why I mentioned Bretton Woods, in the sense that we need a worldwide initiative, with the authority of dealing with these problems, which are well-known but nobody faces up to.

Yes, it needs to come from the United Nations, I’ve written about this many times…

Because the UN after all has made some serious attempts. Concerning the environment, towards the end of the last century it promoted a couple of big conferences, much more effective than the ones that came after… And many times, in its reports on human development, it took positions against consumerism, against the GDP as measure of well-being, against war as a solution to our problems… Ban Ki-moon has even expressed a wish for a reduction of GDP…

Well, yes. After the Declaration of Human Rights by the UN General Assembly in 1948, something happened, as it did after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. Only something like that could change the situation: a global revolution, organised by the United Nations, capable of defining the real rights, the principles for a different life to that which is mandated by the economic powers, therefore a life oriented by politics rather than economics. They’ll accuse me of being a utopian. But I believe that utopia is preferable to the apocalypse, which is the alternative that awaits us.



Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation


When I was 6 or 7 years old, a newsstand opened right outside my apartment building. I can’t tell you how happy this made me. The previous closest newsstand was two blocks away. Not very far. But a newsstand right outside my door was something else. I would be able to check for new issues all of my favourite comics at a moment’s notice, and greatly increase the impulse purchase of sticker packets for my Panini albums.

The newsstand almost always came in the form of a small kiosk, with displays of magazines on three sides and a shop front on the fourth featuring all of the high-volume items, as well as the operator, who may or may not also be the owner.


The newsstand was a crucial piece of our cultural infrastructure. Italian city libraries seldom catered for children at the time, so the bulk of our reading material had to be purchased, and most of it came from newsstands. Activity books and very simple comic books, at first, then more complex comics and our first chapter books. This is the material on which I learned to read. Then newspapers, of course, and magazines. But also novels – romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction – which were sold as periodicals. For instance: the reason why thrillers and detective mysteries in Italy are known as gialli (‘yellow books’ or films for that matter) is that for decades their main publishing channel was a fortnightly series of books with yellow covers issued by Mondadori.

No single publication was more central to my early to mid-childhood than Topolino. It was Italian artists who revived the comic book story centred around Disney characters after the war, and the country is a major supplier of Disney stories to this day. The weekly magazine had a bit of everything: stories, yes, but also trivia, puzzles, and various kinds of informative columns of the kind one might find in a magazine for grown-ups.


The comic book offering in our new-stands was hardly confined to young readers (Tex, Diabolik and – later – Martin Mystère are notable examples), but equally the newsstand was the place for young adults and above to keep up with the latest offerings in genre fiction. I read every giallo from the age of 10 or thereabouts, but my favourite was Urania, the science-fiction series also published by Mondadori. It introduced me to writers who rate among my favourites to this day. For instance: I was about to go on holidays, in the summer of 1980, when I first encountered Douglas Adams.


Ah, yes, the holidays. The thing about the holidays was, it might be hard to find a newsstand. At the campsites where we typically stayed, the shop might stock the odd newspaper, but rarely more than that. So one of the first orders of business was to locate the newsstand in the nearest town or village – which, outside of the main cities, might be an actual shop, which often also sold stationery. You might find one near the main church. Alternatively, there would always be one by the train station, if the town happened to have one. You would instinctively know where to look, anyway.

This act of finding was crucial because newsstands were the Wi-Fi of my generation. They didn’t just connect us with the news – a transistor radio could do that. Much more importantly, like the web, they were hyper-saturated with all kinds of information packaged as entertainment. Without newsstands, we would have to spend a lot more time talking to one another. (It was hell. You weren’t there, man.)

While I’m drawing a comparison with the world wide web, I really need to mention the porn. There was so much porn. The habits of the operators varied, but I would estimate that at least half of all kiosk-shaped newsstands had one of their ‘blind’ sides devoted to displaying hardcore pornography. It was conveniently placed at child-height, and because it was a blind side no-one would see you standing there, and the covers were often little self-contained pornos. It’s quite amazing, in hindsight, the stuff we were carelessly exposed to.

Looking through the photographic archive of my trips back home, I see that the newsstand outside my apartment building was put on sale some time in 2010.


It seems that nobody was willing to purchase it, because now it’s gone.


Growing up, I always thought the children of newsstand owners or operators were the luckiest on earth, having free access to all of that printed bounty. Evidently, I thought they could just help themselves to the entire stock for free, including the sticker packets for the Panini albums. But how marvellous it would be to operate such a marvellous store! It was only later that I realised how hard the job actually was – having to get up before dawn to collect the newspaper deliveries, being trapped in that kiosk all day without a bathroom and with few breaks, in all kinds of weather.

The newsstand as an institution still exists in Italy, but many things have changed. Most obviously, we have actual wi-fi now, which has dispensed with the need for a great deal of low-value publications. Topolino still exists. So does La settimana enigmistica. So do I gialli Mondadori and Urania, although they are published half as often now. Supermarkets are cutting in on the business of the operators, and profit margins must be lower anyway, which explains why newsstands such as our local are closing. As always, I say this without nostalgia: but merely to remember that such a thing existed, and was an intimate part of the fabric of our everyday lives. So much so that you might forget it was there.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

We aren't astronauts (a holiday album)


The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. It seats over 500 people on two decks, and can travel on routes of over 15,000 kilometres without refuelling. Last month, this monster of the skies took my youngest son and I on a near-18 hour flight towards Europe.

The view of Mount Taranaki as we travelled from Wellington to Auckland

I had been on one of those extra-long hauls once before, but had somehow forgotten how punishing they can be. It was worse for Ambrose, as the dozens of personal television screens around him played on his ASD, proving a significant source of anxiety. We arrived in Dubai sleep-deprived and already teetering, our three-week holiday threatening to fall over at the very first hurdle. We are not designed for this, I told myself as we took our second dose of clock-resetting melatonin. We aren’t astronauts.

I would rather not, Air New Zealand

The second flight, a mere 8 hours long, took us the rest of the way to London. In the space of one day, somehow, we recovered. Ambrose had just received his first phone for his tenth birthday, a cheap model with a nonetheless remarkably good camera - better than the trusted compact digital I used to take on my earlier trips, a short decade ago. Unfortunately, it took us some days to realise the lens was covered by a piece of protective blue film, so his very first pictures look like heavily filtered postcards from another era.


He  was especially fascinated with the tall buildings. The gherkin, the shard, the walkie-talkie (his favourite). He couldn’t get enough of them and snapped them from every angle, whenever they peered in-between other buildings.




In stark contrast with my last visit, London was grey, cold and wet. I got sick immediately. Nevertheless, we saw friends, caught up with my sister, visited the Tate Modern and the British Museum. We enjoyed an array of excellent soups. We stopped by at Highgate to pay our respects to a great man.

...grandpa?

While London was a sure-fire hit, I didn’t know what the boy would make of Italy, a place of antiquities that – I feared – would have no meaning for him. His older brother, at the same age, was easy to persuade of the historical and aesthetic merits of monuments. I knew with Ambrose it would be different, in ways both delightful and unpredictable.

As it turns out, I need not have feared. By far the most treasured moments of our journey have to do with the time we spent with family and friends, and aren’t pictured here. But the places themselves, which he was seeing for the first time (including the inside of churches, along with the very troubling images of Christ on the cross), made their impression, although I was not always able to communicate to him the conventional sense in which they could be said to be special, unique.

What follows is a gallery of those impressions, through his eyes and mine.

We both thought this London street sign was a kiwi seen from behind.


London frieze.


Piazza del Duomo, Milan.


Responding to street art, Milan.


In my home town we stayed in an old typical casa di ringhiera ('guard rail house').


'Look, behind you!' (At the museum of Natural History in Milan. Here Ambrose was re-enacting a photo taken years ago by his older brother.)


A diorama at the Museum of Natural History.


Posing fiercely in front of the fierce Saint Ambrose, patron saint of Milan.


The two of us outside the church where my parents got married, in Pieve di Coriano.


Ambrose spent an afternoon with his cousin's Year 3 class in Quistello, and left with this rather wonderful card.


The astonishing flooded crypt of the church of San Francesco in Ravenna.


Urbino.


This cat.


This horse at the church of San Giovanni in Urbino.


Ambrose did his best to play with every dog on the Italian peninsula (this is Pongo).


Outside Santa Maria Novella, in Florence, Ambrose saw his first swallows. Here he is, trying to photograph them and demonstrating how there are things that are more important than the Italian Renaissance.


Small boy meets tall tower, Florence.


Cicli Pieraccioni, Florence.


Ponte Vecchio.


Neptune under wraps. 


Street art, Florence.


Pisa is 30 people posing for pictures like these at any one time.


Eating pizza in Piazza dei Miracoli.


The wonderful worn-out marble steps of the tower of Pisa.


A boat off the Ligurian coast.


Camogli put on a show for us.



The next day was the first warm day of the year, and we had the place practically to ourselves.


What do you even say about San Fruttuoso?




Liguria was magical and we didn't want to leave. I love this photo of the sea that Ambrose took, and I might as well end there.