Capitalising on Human Capital

In Capital we read of “an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour — power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force”. Not, of course, in John Lanchester’s amusing and moving new novel, but in Marx’s massive work of economic and social philosophy, the title of which Lanchester has reused for his own work. It was not a casual theft. Lanchester’s Capital is no work of doctrinaire Marxism — how could any true novel be that? But nevertheless some of Marx’s ideals animate, and some features of his analysis of capitalism haunt, its pages.

Marx’s method was dialectical materialism, which required the analysis of the totality of the object under examination, not a fragment. Here the novelist is unable to follow the philosopher all the way, but Lanchester’s approximation is to focus on the people who live in a particular street.  Pepys Road is “an ordinary-looking street in South London”, but one which illustrates the course of economic history since Marx wrote his hybrid work of analysis and prophecy. Built originally for “the respectable, aspirational no-longer-poor” during the property boom of the late 19th century, the houses in Pepys Road have since become home to, and locale for, a much more miscellaneous tribe. Petunia Howe, a widow of many years, is a remnant from the period before Pepys Road became gentrified, her house a time-capsule from the Fifties. She is visited occasionally by her grandson, a worthless conceptual “artist” who goes by the name of Smitty and, when she falls ill with a brain tumour, by her daughter Mary. The Kamals are first-generation immigrants from Pakistan who run the local convenience store. Freddy Kamo is a prodigiously gifted young footballer who has come to London from Senegal with his father Patrick to play for a club which sounds suspiciously like Arsenal, and who lives in the Pepys Road house of his minder, Mickey Lipton-Miller. The Younts are upper-middle class English. He is an investment banker, she a monstrous incarnation of unreflective selfishness and consumption, so it’s truly a match made in hell. And then there are the people who just pass through Pepys Road: that recent and indispensable fixture in every middle-class English suburb, Zbigniew, the Polish builder; Quentina Mkfesi, the Zimbabwean illegal immigrant who has found work as a traffic warden; Matya, the lovely Hungarian nanny to the Younts; Iqbal, the Belgian radicalised Muslim who crashes for a while with the friend he made in Chechnya, Shahid Kamal.

The thing that has drawn this heterogenous group together in the capital is, of course, capital. Twenty-first century London, as Matya notices, is now, whatever different or more humane thing it may have been in the past, just money-money everywhere, distributed with blind caprice, withheld from the deserving, lavished on the worthless, moving around in what looks like obedience to general laws; laws which, of course, remain finally elusive, especially from those who claim to be its adepts (like the soon-to-be-sacked Roger Yount, and also his sackers, who are themselves also soon to be sacked when their firm collapses in the aftermath of the fall of Lehmans). London is the home of money, and so everything in London requires lots of it. As well as being home to the Younts and the Howes and the Kamals, London is the home, too, of the £5 sandwich and the £30 taxi ride. Most are drawn here to make money; others, such as Iqbal, are drawn because money and the things it builds are a legitimate target in the jihad. But for all of them, it’s capital that imparts magnetism to the capital. So it is richly comic when cards bearing the menacing but also obvious message “We Want What You Have” begin dropping through the letter-boxes in Pepys Road, and no one seems to understand why. Londoners, our novelist is saying, allow me to introduce you to the real reason you are here. 

Capital, like Capital, focuses on the moment when money, originally a mere facilitator of economic activity, has cuckoo-like ejected its siblings from the nest, and become nothing less than the end of economic activity. Marx’s Capital drew its indignant strength from an incipient nightmare — its author’s apprehension that capitalism was nothing less than a gigantic process of dehumanisation which would transform human beings into instruments for the accumulation of capital. Lanchester’s vision is softer-oases of human contentment are still possible, notwithstanding the malign influence of capital, as Matya and Zbigniew discover. But at once the question arises: is this consolation substantial, or merely a translation of the content of the novel form?

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