Review of Mat Coward’s “Acts of Destruction” (2013), by Sean Gabb


Review Article
Acts of Destruction
Mat Coward
Alia Mondo Press, Norwich, 2009, 264pp, £10.00, pb
ISBN is 978-1-4401-6322-7
Available via Amazon or from www.matcoward.com

Acts of Destruction is a semi-humorous crime novel set about twenty years into the future. Its underlying premise is that shortages of oil and other raw materials put an end, after about 2010, to the global economic order as we presently know it. The United States collapses into a predictable mix of centralised fascism and armed separatism. The European Union avoids the full horrors of America, but turns inward and becomes more overtly authoritarian and state capitalist. The British response, however, is to reset the political and economic clock to 1945, and to complete all the unfinished business of the Attlee Government.

In Mr Coward’s Britain of about 2030, a new constitution called “The Agreement of the People” has collectivised the economy and radically decentralised politics. Most government is local and controlled by direct democracy. The remaining central government is balanced by strong localism and by frequent referenda. At every level, there is an obsessive regard for procedural fairness and transparency, and for many kinds of personal freedom. Increasing numbers of people work in collective enterprises. Self-employment is tolerated, as are larger private enterprises that do not employ more than fifty people, or are not engaged in work of patriotic importance. People grow much of their own food. Many other things are rationed. Most transport is public, and everything is recycled. In a generally awful world, Britain has managed to become a country at peace with itself. It preserves its independence by an armed citizen militia.

It would be dishonest for me to pass over this scenario and move straight to a discussion of the plot and the technical quality of its narrative. In more ways than one, reading Acts of Destruction was a trip down Memory Lane. Almost every second page, I found myself looking up to recall the old libertarian analysis of socialism that I last set out at length before the end of the Cold War and the emergence of new threats to liberty. I will not make this review into an economic tract, but I do feel the need to make some comment.

The Britain described by Mr Coward is impossible. Without markets and market pricing, there can be no economic coordination except through a rigid structure of command. Even this will be starved of necessary information. Individual preferences and valuations are always subjective, and usually unspoken, and they can change from moment to moment. It is the same with knowledge of where to find things and what to do with them. No planning authority is capable of gathering and updating and using such information. Actual coordination must rely on the preferences and valuations and knowledge either of a planning committee or of a still smaller group to which the committee reports. Except in the most formal and probably illusory sense, there can be no room for democratic supervision. Democratic or decentralised economic planning is as much an impossibility as expecting several hundred participatory soldier committees to have organised the D Day Landings. There are things that must be done and not done. There is a necessary balance between the things that must be done, and a correct sequence in which they must be done. To avoid chaos, whoever is planning an economy must have reasonably despotic control over activity – control that is not democratically unaccountable, save perhaps after the event, and not subject to the normal rule of law.

Moreover, unless a community is fighting a war of survival or coping with an overpowering natural disaster, many planning decisions will be opposed. Because local knowledge cannot be taken into account, they will also be perceived as inefficient – and will be actually inefficient in terms of measurable output and quality of output. Direction will, therefore, need some kind of police state to ensure obedience to apparently meaningless or perverse orders. This will be accompanied by lies about the wisdom and goodness of those in charge, and by more or less hysterical campaigns against foreign or domestic saboteurs. Forget about the headline promises in Mr Coward’s Agreement of the People, and the formality of local democracy. The reality of his future Britain would have to be mass-poverty, administrative corruption and brutality, and a ruling class able, and eventually willing, to arrange lives of secret luxury for its own members.

Add to this that Mr Coward’s Britain is noticeably multi-racial – though not, it seems, multicultural. People of different races can live together in peace in two kinds of political arrangement. They can live under a government that has no economic privileges to hand out, and that does not interfere in matters of religion or education or private life. Or they can live under a government that has ruthlessly terrorised every self-defined group out of existence, and rules over a mass of atomised individuals. Mr Coward’s political arrangement will bring about all the evils described above, within a territory filled with competing ethnic mafias.

The standard reply to this critique is to insist that socialism will create a “new man” with different and more noble motivations. But I see no reason in the abstract why this should happen; and our actual experience of mid-twentieth century collectivism provided no evidence to the contrary.

This is the limit of my critique. Though it has to be stated I see no reason to carry it any further. On the one hand, the sort of collectivism von Mises and Hayek did so much to analyse is unlikely to be tried again. On the other, I am reviewing a novel, not responding to a socialist manifesto. This being said, I will proceed with my review.

For me, the main excellence of Acts of Destruction is its technical skill. I have written an alternative history novel, involving a Britain radically different from Mr Coward’s own utopia. I have written a post-apocalyptic novel set in a Britain that is also radically different from Mr Coward’s. I have also written half a dozen historical novels set in an age of which most of my readers know hardly anything. Each time, I have faced the challenge of how to explain the background to my narrative. This is a challenge that readers do not generally notice, but how it is met by a writer largely determines whether he can be regarded as a competent novelist.

There are, broadly speaking, three ways of meeting the challenge. You can interrupt the narrative with long authorial digressions. You can make your characters speak to each other in pamphletese. Or you can integrate all necessary information about background into the narrative.

Let me illustrate these various approaches. Here is an example of the first:

It was now thirty years after the repulse of the alien invasion. The sudden and apparently total unity of the human race created by the first Vegan attack did not long survive the destruction of their Death Star. Within months, Jews and Arabs were back to arguing about Palestine. The Indians and Pakistanis were marching up and down their disputed borders. The British remained semi-detached Europeans. The Americans were once more preaching their own version of “human rights” to people who neither understood nor desired what was on offer. Men still murdered their wives for the insurance money. Conmen still robbed old ladies of their life savings.

At the same time, the vaporising of every large city, and the need for every able-bodied adult to be trusted with weapons, had brought lasting changes to the lifestyle and the moral outlook of humanity….

Here is an example of the second:

John looked up from his newspaper. “It was necessary to kill them all,” he said flatly.

Janet poured another cup of tea, and seemed unwilling to respond. Then: “I still don’t like the way our parents’ generation rounded them up and dissolved them in the sea. At least, we could have spared the young in their cocoons. Could we not have studied them? They are the only alien life forms we have encountered. We could have learnt so much.”

“No!” John shouted, banging the table. “As Generalissimo Patel said, ‘Kindness to the enemy is treason to ourselves.’ Once we had discovered their weakness, we had time for only one strike. The world of competing nation states and races and religions that our children once more see as natural and inevitable may not be perfect. But can you imagine the possible consequences of allowing one strand of Vegan DNA to remain in being once Carmichael and Shitzu had made their desperate and suicidal attack on the Death Star?”

It was time for John to set out for the office….

Here is an example of the third:

The old man was looking shifty again. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered.

I smiled and lit a cigarette. “Look, Mr Trimble,” I began in a more reasonable tone of voice, “of course I know the history of the War, and I have your military record in front of me.” I stabbed the forefinger of my left hand at the tablet screen. I waited for the relevant paragraph to enlarge. “The big counterattack began on the 3rd October 2022, and you were one of the first men into the liberated holding camp outside Leicester. It was messy stuff, and you don’t have to go into the details of what you found in the Vegan implantation centre.” I leaned forward. Not speaking, I continued by putting each word one at a time in my own head. “My question is how a bullet fired from your rifle found its way into Professor Sanderson’s back, and what you were doing alone for fifteen minutes in the transmuting room.”

For just the tiniest moment, he failed to conceal that he’d read my mind….

The first method is entirely legitimate. It was used extensively by Walter Scott and by Disraeli, to name only two classic writers who come to mind. It was used by Isaac Asimov. I used it myself in my first historical novel, and had no choice but to use it for geographical information in my latest. It can be overused. It then slows down the narrative, and tends to make the characters into something like the figures in a tableau. The second is hardly ever legitimate. People do not speak in this way. As given above, it is the sure sign of an incompetent writer. I sometimes use a modified form in my historical novels, but only where the whole drift of a conversation allows one of the characters to start a lecture. In one novel, I let my narrator explain something complex to an illiterate slave who needs to be put in the know. It cut out the need for pages of military and political narrative. In another, my narrator is answering a child’s questions. This let me give a potted account of the Persian and Islamic wars in 7th century Byzantium. Even so, it is a method that must be sparingly used. Once again, it can slow down the narrative.

The third method is the best, and you can sweat for hours over a single paragraph to make the giving of information sound natural. No synoptic account of your world will ever be given. The account emerges instead from a reading of what your characters say and do. Some things will not be explained at all. Others will be compared to things outside your reader’s imagination that still say something about your world – for example: “It was about the size of a self-charging television battery.” This is Mr Coward’s preferred method, and it shows either a natural talent for narrative, or great care and labour. Take this:

When Greg, Catherine and four local uniformed officers arrived to serve their search warrant, they found the McFarlanes watching TV coverage of the final ODI between Afghanistan and Britain, live from Edinburgh.

“We were expecting a visit from the police,” Alicia McFarland told Greg, “but we weren’t expecting a search warrant.”

“I’m sorry about that, but it was a necessary precaution. I’m sure the officers will be careful to return everything to its proper place.”

“They’d better be,” said Andrew McFarlane, with what Catherine took to be an attempt at a brave smile for his wife. “I know most of their parents.” [p.125]

What you have here is four paragraphs of mixed action and dialogue that both advance the narrative and explain the background. If you read nothing else in the novel, you see the nature of Mr Coward’s utopia.

The story itself is unremarkable. It is a tale of everyday policing in a world somewhat different from our own. The police are investigating two murders and a missing child. There is also a series of thefts from factory rooftop gardens, and a cartload of junk that has not been recycled but dumped into a flood pond. Calling the story unremarkable is not a criticism. My own taste in plots is rather more spectacular: I write under the joint influence of French grand opera and Hollywood science fiction of the 1980s. In Acts of Destruction, I might wish that the capitalist conspiracy had been woven deeper into the main plot. I certainly think that Austin Molloy, the American refugee, could have been given a bigger role and made more sinister. For me, the novel does lack a villain. But there is an advantage in keeping to the more prosaic side of life in a socialist utopia. It makes everything more real – and, I will confess, more attractive.

I come back to the politics of the novel. I repeat that Mr Coward’s utopia is a dream that falls to pieces the moment any tool of economic or political analysis is applied to it. It strikes me, though, as a jolly place in which to be alive – rather better than our own sub-Orwellian nightmare state. I dislike the idea of locking rifles away when not used for militia practice – better, though, than a having a population of disarmed and therefore terrified sheep. I dislike the idea of licensed prostitution and licensed production of recreational drugs – better, though, than attempts at prohibition. I dislike the idea of compulsory purchase of any business with more than fifty employees – better, though, than the virtual ban we have on self-employment for the poor and unskilled. I dislike the idea of any curbs on religious proselytism, and there is no offset here. Then again, I do appreciate Mr Coward’s full libertarianism on other issues. Even his female characters smoke pipes. The authorities encourage pubs and communal drinking. And here is Mr Coward on the health fascists:

“At one point,” said Catherine [in the bad old days], “some schools banned Marmite, because it was considered too salty.”

“They banned Marmite?” For Erin, it seemed, an interesting historical discussion had just become personal.

“Marmite.” Catherine nodded. “On the same list as switchblades and heroin.”

“That’s right,” said Bob. “It all became very competitive – who could go farthest, either as an individual, or corporately.”

“Yeah, but why did the government get involved?”

“I think it goes back to the 1980s,” said Catherine. “There was this new ideology that said that governments shouldn’t interfere with running the country. All that – the economy, housing, jobs, even health and education – to the free market to sort out. But of course, government still existed, we still had politicians. They just didn’t have anything to do – everything had been privatised.”

“But they had to do something all day other than snooze,” said Bob. “And nature abhors a vacuum, so they devoted themselves full-time to telling people what they could and couldn’t eat, how much of each food they were allowed per day…” [p.237]

He makes a fair point. Ministers who were up to their ears in trying to run the railway network, and persuade the coal miners not to go on strike, never found the time to tell us whether and where we could smoke, or how much salt to put in our boiled potatoes. My only disagreement is that the modest and temporary retreat of the British State in the 1980s should have been accompanied by systematic cuts to the apparatus of government. Politicians should control neither the railways nor our diets. But, if I had to choose, social democracy is better than micromanagement of our lives. Nationalised railways usually work well enough. Even the National Union of Mineworkers could be jollied into digging out coal most of the time.

Indeed, the main trip down Memory Lane that I mention is the sense of return to an age that I am just old enough to have seen at its end. This was the age that opened in May 1940 and faded away a few years before or after the 1979 election. When I was a young boy, men wore hats. They often wore ties at home. They smoked without any sense of guilt or alarm. They were restrained in their language, and easy in their relationships with women and children. Most inequality of income was within a narrow band, and it was expected that this band would continue narrowing. Nearly everyone felt secure in his job. The word “unemployment” conjured up black and white images of men in flat caps and with no back teeth.

Like every other good Tory Boy, I railed against the Attlee Settlement as if we were on the verge of Stalin’s Russia. There were problems. We had a second rate political class, unable to balance the budget and establish a stable place in the world, given the decline of our relative national power. We had a largely third rate business class, unable to provide decent goods and services and to deal with a trade union movement that was rightly suspicious of its competence. Because of flaws in the Keynesian and Beveridge scheme of things, I think the whole system was doomed in the long run. Looking back, though, it had much to recommend it. More than that – it was the best time in all of British history to be alive.

Imagine you could go back to about 1965 and bring forward an intelligent man in his forties. Show him round modern Britain. No doubt, he would be astonished by the wonderful electronic toys we can all have, and by our gigantic shopping centres. Then describe to him how, a year after his death, the headstone was pulled off Jimmy Savile’s grave, ground smooth of its inscription, and then smashed up for landfill – all because the man may have touched up some slightly underage girls a generation earlier. Show him the endlessly revolving scares about child sex abuse and global warming, and speech codes that do nothing to help their stated beneficiaries, and much to shut down debate. Tell him that, while the Soviet Union eventually collapsed without raising a hand against us, we cower in fear before the formal or informal rulers of places like Afghanistan and Yemen, and that we fight our wars with them by sending unpiloted aeroplanes to bomb women and children. Explain to him how, one after the other, our industries were taxed or regulated out of existence, and that the children of those who used to work in them are – if lucky – now employed as casual skivvies, or as minor functionaries of a vast and out of control regulatory state.

Do all this, and your friend from the 1960s will soon feel nostalgic for his Post Office telephone and bad coffee, and for cars without air conditioning. Equally, I think the great majority of people in this country would, if given copies of Acts of Destruction, wish that Mr Coward’s utopia could be made possible. Many, I have no doubt, would be prepared to take a chance on its possibility.

Now, something comparable is possible, though not currently on any mainstream agenda. There must be market pricing and competition. The State must leave people alone in all their choices. There must be no attempts at economic direction – no belief in a stable trade off between unemployment and inflation, or nonsensical talk of aggregate demand and multiplier effects. But cooperatives, and personal dignity, and a broad equality, and a revival of genuine communities – these are entirely consistent with a freed market. Much local production would probably flourish in a world without transport and infrastructure subsidies, and wars to subdue or stabilise foreign markets. Freed of a choice between life as a “human resource” in some global corporation and rotting on the dole, people would feel secure enough to stand up for their legal rights and to protect those of their neighbours. So long as it does not encourage parasitism, and can be made self-liquidating with the increase of wealth, there is even some room for state welfare. The world as we have it is not the only possible type of capitalism. It is not even a place of reasonably free markets.

The great failing of the libertarian movement – certainly in this country, almost certainly also in America – has been its partiality to corporatist big business. I think, for example, of organisations like the Adam Smith Institute. For a third of a century, it has shamefully used libertarian rhetoric to justify abominations like the Poll Tax and the Private Finance Initiative, and privatisations that have been little more than transfers of privileged monopolies from state to formally private ownership. Much of the reason for this is that the movement has been dominated by intermediaries between privilege-hunting businessmen and well-intentioned but mercenary writers. Otherwise, it is filled with men the foresight of whose parents allows them to participate in the market purely as consumers, or with men who are doing well in one of the City casinos, and who think they have earned their wealth by untrammelled market exchanges. Not surprisingly, the growing immiserisation of the working classes is ignored or seen as a moral failing.

The kindest judgment anyone can pass on traditional socialism is that it was tried and it failed. Even the mixed economy welfare state in which I grew up was unsustainable, and would have been with much better management. But there is nothing ignoble or inaccurate about the moral outrage that gave socialism its hold over the imagination. At all times and in every place, ruling classes have behaved badly to those under them, and they have always been largely or wholly unnecessary. It would be nice if, in his future novels, Mr Coward could join his denunciations of the present with a more accurate analysis of why it is so bad, and of how it can be made better. It would be nice if, instead of speaking in terms of “left” and “right,” and attacking each other for what we may not actually have said, we could all speak simply of “us” and “them.”

But this takes me beyond my review of a novel that I heartily commend to anyone who likes original and thoughtful and well-constructed fiction. Acts of Destruction deserves to be read far beyond the socialist movement for which it was written.

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9 responses to “Review of Mat Coward’s “Acts of Destruction” (2013), by Sean Gabb

  1. Sean, that was a great review. Your understanding of the socialist imagination was very insightful. Maybe you could have linked it with land policy. Most “libertarians” claim high land prices are the free market – ignoring the constant pumping up of the property market to help the banks, the various schemes that pander to buy-to-let landlords like housing benefit, the removal of taxation from land to labour and capital, the role of immigration, the unavailability of longer tenancies, etc etc – and claim that those who are on £6 an hour and can’t afford to buy their own place deserve their lot in life. Our economy is increasingly skewed in the interests of those with money and the older generations. The ownership of land is not an investment, but a speculation in a common resource that is not the result of anyone’s creation, and J S Mill rightly saw a tax on land as the only beneficial form of taxation. Outfits like the Adam Smith Institute and the IEA seem to support a skewed market in property because it benefits all the right people – claiming that this is just the free market…

  2. “I have written a post-apocalyptic novel set in a Britain that is also radically different from Mr Coward’s.” Has this been released?

  3. Quite true to libertarian form, you shy away from the most salient, painful and intractable issues, immigration and race. Actually, in the UK this is one issue; two in the US. It’s okay, I understand the stocks and the flogging and other more severe penalties inflicted on them who touch the tribal taboos and desecrate the totems. But at least say, “One other major difference exists between the days of yore and today, and I wish I could discuss it, but things have progressed in a progressive way to a point where such a discussion is no longer possible.” And at least hint that “laissez faire” in matters of borders and immigration is another major — the major — libertarian failing.

  4. Great article. I agree with Sean Gabb that

    “But there is nothing ignoble or inaccurate about the moral outrage that gave socialism its hold over the imagination. At all times and in every place, ruling classes have behaved badly to those under them, and they have always been largely or wholly unnecessary.”

    I think an idealist is naturally struck by the wealth and greed of the ruling class of his republic or kingdom. I wrote an article on Socialism as a Reaction to State Corruption showing how a people like Plato, Moore, Rousseau, Shaw reacted to the ills of their time.
    http://mises.org/daily/4686
    Unfortunately they fail to realize the solution is liberty.

  5. If this story is meant to be set in Britain, can I point out that “switchblades” is an Americanism for “flick-knives”?