The Power Broker

Robert Caro is the author of the wonderful Lyndon B Johnson biographies, of which there is one more instalment to come.

The Power Broker – a Pulitzer winner – came first. Its subject is Robert Moses and the story is relentlessly one of the awe-inspiring, and terrifying exercise of bureaucratic power. Moses became the most powerful – and for a while the most popular – figure in New York state despite never achieving elected office.

Screen Shot 2015-05-02 at 01.06.54Unsurprisingly the parallels between Moses and Caro’s subsequent study, LBJ, emerge frequently. Both possessed huge intellects, knowledge of the law – which they used to selectively break it – and a willingness to employ huge sums of money in their cause. (Unlike Moses, LBJ also had charm, good fortune and none of Moses’ conceited sense of noblesse oblige).

In 1934, Caro writes, Moses featured in New York papers more than J Edgar Hoover, the sensational mobster-busting FBI chief. He was the subject of 29 flattering New York Times editorials and hundreds of articles that year.

In those years Moses was a genuine reformer with a shrewd understanding of how to, well, broker power. Gradually that skill would become all-consuming. It took too long for newspapers to realise that the man they had built up was busily tearing New York City apart.

And it took too long to put the brakes on his perverse vision of urban development, which accounts for a fair chunk of New York City’s problems to this day. Through his public authorities Moses accumulated all the power of high elected office, including the power to evict tenants and raze whole neighbourhoods to the ground to make way for ugly highways, with little accountability.

Those public authorities, quasi-state entities, were initially granted by elected lawmakers as efficient means to get infrastructure built. Moses turned them into his own multi-billion dollar empires – all the while projecting an image as a frugal public servant. The special status provided by U.S. law to bondholders’ rights left those authorities, and Moses, immune to outside pressure for decades.

I’d recommend the book – at over 1,000 pages, it’s a summer project – to those interested in cities or power or both.

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Mafia State?

From periodically peering into Russian affairs through the British press one could be forgiven for understanding Putin’s Russia as a ‘police state’.

That’s inaccurate, says Luke Harding in Mafia State. It’s a crime state. 

Luke Harding is The Guardian‘s senior international correspondent. He’s recently been hopping in and out of Assad’s anarchic Syria, but made his name as its Russia correspondent between 2007 and 2011. Famously, after peeving the Kremlin a bit too much he became the first Western correspondent since the Cold War to be expelled from Russia. Frustrated, irritated and exacerbated he did the only thing he could do – tell everyone about it.

Harding gives the FSB – the Russian Federation’s successor to the Soviet Union’s KGB – a tough rap. It is a law unto itself. Its agents – some 200,000 strong by Harding’s reckoning – are immune from any sort of prosecution. They are the clients of multiple powerful interests, of which the Kremlin is just one. Scary stuff.

Earlier last month Harding visited Oxford to talk to the Oxford Media Society, which I help out with. A few of us were lucky enough to have dinner with him beforehand. (Disclosure: Luke insisted on paying for all our meals at Quod – so I was already a big fan of the guy) He then gave a humorous and spirited talk that was nonetheless intensely serious in character.

Some of the FSB stunts Harding fell victim to do seem “fairly innocuous”, he explained. But really they’re not. A pornographic sex manual was left on the bedside table in the marital bedroom; a page on achieving orgasm had been bookmarked. Hilarious, if spooky.

Less funny: Harding returned to his 10th floor flat one day to find a large window, that had been double-locked when he left, swung wide open above the courtyard far below. That window was by his young son’s bed – the unambiguous message: an accident might just happen. Similarly, having since moved to a suburban dacha, the family returned home one winter’s day to find their boiler had been inexplicably disconnected. In -20 degrees Celsius, that is no laughing matter.

Mafia State is less than 300 pages. But in that space it successfully marries a chilling – if charming – personal account with an angry inditement of the monolithic kleptocracy that Putin has fashioned.

I enjoyed the book for three reasons. First, it’s a good book: as the New Statesman and LRB attest. Second, I liked the author. The passion with which the book has been written was conveyed all the more forcefully to me having learnt what Harding was about. And third, I’m overwhelmingly sympathetic to his conclusions. I’ve heard a lot from professional Russia-watchers who, whilst knowing their subject much better than I do, seem to quick too equivocate and explain, even justify, the Russian system. ‘Russia has never known democracy’ they say, ‘autocracy is in its DNA’.

[It’s a fair point. Russia’s brief flirtation with democratic institutions and an open economy in the 1990s ended in disaster. Putin brought stability and a degree of shared prosperity to the country; his clique of KGB strongmen seemingly delivered what democracy could not. If there’s one important omission in Harding’s book then this is it: how does he answer the claim that Putin’s authority derives from the recovery from those turbulent years?]

But Harding doesn’t equivocate, he doesn’t empathise and he doesn’t attribute any noble purpose to the Russian regime. Putin and his clan are in it, chiefly, for their own profit. The WikiLeaks cables indicate that Putin has personally accumulated billions in assets; the burgeoning bureaucracy of the Russian state has similarly enriched itself. Putin has established authority through channeling oil&gas revenues into social projects, all the while creaming off most of the profit for the plethora of powerful interests that keeps the whole show on the road.

And in any case Harding reckons that that authority is crumbling. The condescension with which Putin treated the Russian people in the casual May job-switch with Medvedev, returning to the Kremlin after 4 years basically running it from the White House, was obvious for all to see. It has sparked the first set of mass anti-Putin protests since 2000. Increasingly the smart money is on Putin being ejected from the Kremlin in some way before his two-terms expire in 2024. I wouldn’t bet on it.

Book Review: Dancing on the Frontier

This is a review of a travel book, reproduced from Cherwell, written by my friend Nico Hobhouse about his year-long journey in China. 

 

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Devising a travel novel that people actually want to read is tough. It’s clearly necessary to communicate the great and the good; the bad and the ugly, sure. However a discourse that is solely descriptive, even in beautiful prose, can get tedious. ‘What I did on my holidays’ is nice enough for an article, but downright dull for a book. Nico Hobhouse, a second-year Classicist at Trinity, is therefore wise in his attempt to marry colourful description with spirited polemic in his self-published book Dancing on the Frontier: Travels by Land through China and Tibet.

Dullness is absolutely not Hobhouse’s problem. Some randy passages hit you like a bus, especially since they come from nowhere. Fresh from describing a Buddhist monastery in Tibet, Chapter 11 takes a sudden and inexplicably lewd turn: “Down one narrow alley I spotted two donkeys rutting. The female seemed less eager and pulled away. The male trotted after her, his member still primed to go…The poor jenny was having a rough day.” These entertaining but stand-alone remarks are far from atypical. More than once the reader is thrown off the scent of what he thinks is an emerging theme by a slightly wacky observation.

The paragraphs are short and fairly punchy; it is an easy read (mostly: I confess to having to look up ‘somnolent’) though the images Hobhouse evokes are nonetheless vivid and varied. However the overall effect is diminished by numerous typos and an episodic structure that leaves the passages disjointed. And once in a while the language is a bit clumsy: in one instance he suggests that the ‘lack of [political] openess in China…is as alive as ever.’ Can an absense of something be alive? Probably not. It’s one of the areas in which self-publishing – otherwise a fantastic blessing for first-time authors – falls down.

The typical passage – which provides an original story followed by a fascinating insight – works well. There is a well-scripted section about his experience of the visceral antipathy felt by otherwise sophisticated Chinese urbanites against the Japanese. Staying in Nanjing, the sight of a brutal massacre at the hands of Imperial Japan in 1937, Hobhouse movingly describes the sensation of Western guilt as “more powerful that disgust at what I saw. I felt ashamed that I had not known about the incident before I had come to China. The scale and horror of the massacre were comparable to the Holocaust and yet I had never really cared back home in England.”

Occasionally though the formula breaks down; the weakest parts of the book generally crop up when it does. Anecdotal, albeit unusual, tit bits are used to draw predictable and not especially profound conclusions: “I saw two toads copulating – a reminder that early spring was approaching – and reflected that nature was losing out in a big way to China’s urbanisation.” Ew. Is this really what Hobhouse, observing the amphibian fornication, thought at the time? Or is he indulging in a bit of post hoc analysis that matches up his travelling experiences to the well-established assertions commonly bandied about in The Economist?

By contrast the strongest sections occur when he is more modest in his ambition. Sharing a minibus, with an elderly monk, trundling through Tibet Hobhouse recounts the monk’s contradictory behaviour. “The senior of the two took out some prayer beads…[A]fter chanting for a long time he took a few swigs from his bottle of water. When he had finished, to my astonishment, he casually tossed the empty bottle out of the window. He had a fake Tissot wristwatch…and a mobile phone on which he took my photo.” The reader does not need to be explicitly told what Hobhouse is implying: that the monk’s contradictions betray a disconcerting truth about modern China. The effect is immensely satisfying.

One final groan: Hobhouse clearly takes his liberalism seriously. From Bautou to Beijing, Shanghai to Lhasa, he strikes up an argument about the virtues of Western democracy vs. authoritarian capitalism with just about every poor chap he meets. Each time he presents the dispute fairly crudely, though given the fact that he had to conduct these Socratic dialogues in Mandarin we can forgive him for that. The issue is rather that when it comes to the book he keeps banging on about it without saying anything new each time. Travelling alone, off the beaten track, meeting bucolic village folk who had perhaps never spoken to a white man before, Hobhouse’s account really should have been stronger in explaining how China understands itself, as well as the world it will shortly dominate.

Yet the final result is really quite impressive. Hobhouse has taken a year of his life that is tough to characterise in any one definitive way, and has turned it into a thoroughly readable, thoughtful and playful journal. Were he to write a second travel book, as I am told he is planning to, I suspect he would avoid most of the mistakes made in Dancing on the Frontier. Through it Hobhouse has nonetheless cultivated an authentic tone and an inquiring style that will serve him well into the future.

‘Dancing on the Frontier’ is published by Xlibris. A paper copy can be purchased through Amazon or alternatively as an eBook through W.H.Smith