issue 140 October 1984
The North holds the purse-strings. But what if the South found a way to retaliate?
We review a novel that could be prophetic - and two suggestions for averting confrontation.
The South retaliates
Cataclysm: The North-South Conflict of 1987
by William Clark
Sidgwick & Jackson (hbk) £10.95
As I write, the London Times carries the headline: ‘Mexican leader says debt repayment is crippling development’. It is only a small step from here to the situation conjured up by William Clark in his new novel Cataclysm, in which he has the Mexican President proposing ‘a moratorium and freeze on all international debt from noon this day’. This is the trigger. The issue of international debt leads directly to a full-scale conflict between North and South in which the survival of the planet is at stake.
Cataclysm is set in 1987, but — like all prophecies from the Book of Ezekiel to 1984 — it uses the future tense to talk about the issues of the present. Clark’s intention is to clarify the vexed question of interdependence, by imagining in fine detail what would happen if the North tried to go it alone — pursuing its own development without any regard to the interests of the South. Clark was instrumental in setting up the Brandt Commission, and his novel is a colourful way of restating its conclusion: interdependence or else.
What makes Cataclysm more subtle than earlier examples of this genre is the strategy of the South. Clark has the ‘Solidarity of the Poor’ movement rely not on nuclear terrorism (as in Ronald Higgins’ The Seventh Enemy), but on a campaign of disruption and non-co-operation by what Clark calls ‘the millions of emigres from the South’ whose labour and expertise underpin the affluent world. ‘If this worldwide proletariat could be organised first to withdraw their collaboration from their oppressors, and then to derange the electronic robot system which was beginning to replace them, it would be possible to bring the sophisticated plutocracies to their knees.’ So Wall Street can be crashed by signals to a satellite from its ground station on the equator; an Israeli nuclear power plant can be brought to melt-down by telephone hackers from another continent reprogramming its computer control system. Global Television is another battle-ground as programmes are effortlessly interrupted to carry the message of the militant South.
The North takes an increasingly isolationist line - an electric fence along the Rio Grande, and in Britain a chilling announcement by the PM that ‘camps and residential areas with special schools for immigrant children would be set up for those immigrants who preferred to move out of mixed areas into locations where they could enjoy their own way of life.’ But for the North there is no protection to be had — least of all from its nuclear weapons, since the ‘enemy’ is everywhere. The North is learning the hard way that it cannot expect the prizes of an advanced, global society without the willing cooperation of all its citizens.
With so many global chestnuts to pull out of the fire, Clark has little time for subtleties of plot or characterisation. The action moves from the fall of white South Africa, to the Soviet Union’s alliance with the North and a military coup in Israel in as many chapters. Clark’s personal position is out in the open. It is reflected in his surprising choice of British heroes (the Queen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a former Conservative Prime Minister) and in his deus ex machina - ‘the grand design for a World Central Bank ... the key to the restructuring of the global economy’. Clark was deputy to McNamara at the World Bank.
Cataclysm is worth reading as a compelling account of a world that could well be only three years away — from someone who is peculiarly well informed.
A Matter of Life or Debt
by Eric de Mare
Available from The Old House, Middle Duntisbourne, near Cirencester, Gloucestershire GL7 7AR, UK.
Revolution in the Affluent Society
by Eric Dammann
Heretic Books (pbk) £4.95
‘Why when millions are hungry, should wheat be burned, milk be poured down drains, calves be shot and buried, and farmers be paid not to rear pigs merely to maintain prices?’ asks Eric de Mark in A Matter of Life or Debt.
Among other excursions, de Mare traces the growth of civilisation from the discovery of flints to the development of microprocessor chips, which ‘are a great improvement on human beings because they do not grow tired, or bored, or go on strike’. Eventually micro-processor power machines will, he believes, take over most labour, giving people abundant time to pursue fulfilling work of their own choosing. De Mare sees the value of micro-processors to the developing world allowing people to maintain their culture and environments, while jumping over the industrial squalor of the West’s last countries. It’s an optimistic view, to say the very least.
Erik Dammann, conversely, precludes poor countries from having micro-processors, since his Revolution in the Affluent Societyrequires the pioneering nations’ ‘liberation from any international trade that constantly forces new technology on them’.
Dammann founded Future In Our Hands, a Norwegian co-operative movement of various social interest groups. He calls for a revolution that is non-violent an anti-dogmatic, developed from below by the people concerned, ‘without elite cor control’ — a revolution that puts ‘human fellowship and spiritual consciousness higher than materialism’ without ‘denying all value to the material’.
Dammann finds the basis for his revolution in Marx’s Capital, but he formulates no programme for change: ‘Complete ideologies inevitably produce elite control.’ He cites failures of programmes developed from above, for example, in education:16,000 technical advisors went to poor countries in the early 70s, while ‘40,000 graduates from the Third World emigrated to higher paid jobs in the rich world’.
Although it’s remote that the various groups in Dammann’s movement will ever form the united majority he theorises, his book contains insights, like this statement from a trade-unionist at Chrysler in Britain:
‘When you spend eight hours a day standing by an assembly line making cars; and then, after work, you have to walk quarter of a mile past 200,000 unsold cars to your own car; and you sit in a traffic jam for an hour on the way home to where you live, which is by a noisy motorway in an environment poisoned with exhaust fumes; all this so you can pay the instalments on the car and buy consumer goods; which make it possible for you to forget what a hellish job you have; then it isn’t really so strange, is it, if sooner or later you react against the insanity of it all?’
The value of both books lies in the issues raised: Thor Heyerdahl says in his foreword to Dammann’s book, ‘People don’t think enough...It is in oneself that one must seek riches.
The Catcher in the Rye
... being the book that explored the heroism of the loser
WHY DOES a book about a spotty 16 year old, and a spoiled, rich kid from New York at that, melt so many radical hearts? Holden Caulfield’s chief activity seems to be flunking out of expensive boarding schools because he doesn’t bother to study. He hasn’t a clue about politics. He’s probably never heard of the Third World. And yet almost everyone, from teenage rebels to 50-year-old Oxfam supporters, seem to fall in love with the hero of J D Salinger’s famous first novel, The Catcher in the Rye. Some people press the book tenderly against their cheek as they reminisce about it — quite unconsciously: it clearly has a powerful emotional impact.
I suppose it’s because, despite the superficial differences, Caulfield’s experiences are so familiar to us all: they are an exaggerated version of what we have all experienced ourselves. Caulfield’s favourite word, for example, is ‘phoney’ — he has a gift for seeing through the veneer of conventional adult politeness to the nastiness beneath. He hates the principal of his school for the way he smiles charmingly at all the parents -- but only condescends to spend his valuable time talking to parents who are chic. ‘If a boy’s mother was sort of fat or corny-looking, and his father was one of those guys that wear those suits with very big shoulders and corny black and white shoes’ — in other words, if they are vulgar or declasse, — they’ve got to make do with that phoney smile.
Snobbery makes Caulfield writhe. As one of the rich, he feels trapped. He is horribly ashamed of his privileges — but is also a creature of his culture, as fastidious and hypersensitive as the princess on the pea. Take his discomfiture about suitcases. Suitcases really get to Caulfield. His own are genuine cowhide, terribly expensive. His room-mate’s are cheap and synthetic — and look it, when they are placed on the luggage rack beside Caulfield’s. So the embarrassed room-mate hides his cases under his bed. Caulfield, just as embarrassed, hastily hides his cases under his bed. All well? It’s not that easy. Next thing, the room-mate takes Caulfield’s cases out and puts them back on the rack. He wants visitors to think the plush cases are his.
The suitcase episode is just one comic moment in a book that’s consistently funny. But the humour is always black-edged: despite the satire the book veers nearer tragedy than comedy. Caulfield’s rejection of insincerity is a fight against impossible odds: he finds hypocrisy everywhere. Almost everywhere: his relationship with Phoebe, his 10-year-old sister, is one of the most memorable and plausible accounts in fiction of a genuine, unsentimental, deeply affectionate contact between two people.
There’s no way Caulfield can explain to anyone clearly what he finds so soul-destroying about his environment. He hasn’t the political vocabulary to explain the power games. All he has are sensitive nerve-endings that can’t bear the pain.
So he opts out. We meet him as he is about to flunk out of his fourth school. His withdrawal at least secures his integrity: he hasn’t colluded with a phoney social system that runs on egocentricity, competitiveness and money. He is, in his way, heroic — but with the heroism of the vulnerable, the ‘loser’, not the heroism of the confident, aggressive rebel. Caulfield represents all those of us who recognise that society should not be allowed to continue as it is, but shrink nervous and helpless from engaging with it.
Salinger expresses the boy’s hunger for integrity in scenes of increasing subtlety as the book progresses. And towards the end of the book he explores another aspect of Caulfield’s idealism that will strike a sympathetic chord with NI readers: the longing to be a ‘rescuer’. If the world is full of distress, it is not enough to insulate oneself from its jarring. There is a passionate longing to rescue others from hurt.
The title of the book points to this purpose. Caulfield hears a little boy singing ‘If a body catch a body comm’ through the rye ...‘ and is struck by the words. The misquotation (it should have been ‘If a body meet a body...’) is felicitous: it throws up in Caulfield’s mind a vivid image of a field of rye, with thousands of little children running around in it. But Caulfield can see what they cannot see: that there is a cliff at the edge of the field. His job is to catch the children as they race off the edge. He is the catcher in the rye.
‘That’s all I’d do all day,’ he says, ‘I’d just be the catcher in the rye. I know it’s crazy, but it’s the only thing I’d really like to be.’
Caulfield is aware not only of avoidable, human-made pain (evident in snobbery, or sexual manipulation) but also of existential pain: he is pre-occupied with the meaningless death of his much-loved younger brother Allie. Salinger’s feat is to convey the discomfort of this sensitive, idealistic adolescent in an autobiographical style so frank and immediate that the reader is charmed and held from the opening line.
The Catcher in the Rye
by J. D. Salinger (1951)
UK: £1 .75
Aus: $4. 95