SIMON BROWN: I’m chatting with David Buckham [CEO of Monocle Solutions]. He’s the author of a second book – in fact, we chatted to him earlier this year on his first book, ‘The End of Money’. His new book is ‘The Age of Menace – Capitalism, Inequality, and the Battle for Dignity’.
David, I appreciate the time today. Your book came out in early October, about a month after Liz Truss came to power in the UK. I’ve got to say, watching the whole budget with Kwasi Kwarteng (UK’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer), and the fallout, initially Liz Truss said, no way, we won’t U-turn – and of course now we have a new UK prime minister. I couldn’t help thinking about your book as this was rolling. It’s not maybe that you foretold it, but about you writing about what happened in the UK.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes. Thank you for seeing it that way, Simon. I think of the book ‘The Age of Menace’ as a kind of a lens or prism through which to interpret this crazy world that we live in. I also watched Liz Truss and this crazy mini-budget that Kwasi Kwarteng put together and kind of [thought] how it has come about, that smart people running a country are saying such silly things? It comes through very strongly in their desire to appease a kind of populism rather than thoughtfully governing a country, and that’s part of the theme that we try to get across in ‘The Age of Menace’.
SIMON BROWN: It is that, it’s the populism. It’s happening the world over. It’s happening both on the left and the right. In the olden days – and the olden days might be only 10 or 20 years ago – sort of your politicians, your leaders, were truthfully boring and that was kind of not bad. Now they really are populist and they take it to those extremes. We’ve got Turkey, where central bank independence [is] out of the window; [the] response to inflation is to cut interest rates. It has never worked.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes, a hundred percent. Turkey’s a really good example, Simon, of a country that is a member of Nato, that is harbouring Russian yachts and is helping countries evade the sanctions, and therefore the sanctions aren’t working to some extent. But yet it is a part of Nato. Whereas you get other outliers such as Saudi Arabia, which is authentically a regime, which you know murders people – in many cases visibly. …if one thinks of the world 30 years ago, [there] was definitely a massive and accelerating increase in authoritarian states. But, worse than that, almost, is the eradication of a central narrative that people can hang on to what you might call the Western liberal mindset.
So you’ve got this very sharp divide between the left and the right in academia, in leadership. I would argue that this is worse than it’s been before, because of the psychological aspect of it.
SIMON BROWN: Is that almost a polarisation that you talk of – that we’ve always had left and right. We’ve always had people who disagree. That’s not the new part. The new part is that we all seem to be going to our extreme corners. I remember the Berlin wall coming down in November 1989, and a sense that we were going to be talking more, whereas actually that kind of rang a bell and we are talking less.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes. To prove to people who don’t necessarily agree that this time is worse, I’ll give an example such as ‘cancel culture’.
Never before in my lifetime has it been okay to simply dismiss a person whose views differ from yours.
So, for example, JK Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, getting cancelled because of a tweet that she did on the issue of how she used pronouns to some extent.
We’ve become very fearful, and particularly on the left wing ….
We’ve always had intolerance on the right, but there’s major intolerance on the left. And between these two polar opposites is a big gulf. This is the concern.
And this is I think why we have instances like Liz Truss and then Rishi Sunak getting up now, I think in the last 24 hours, and trying to explain to the British population what is going on and why they’ve run so off-course – because it’s difficult for Rishi Sunak to explain. It’s a very divided country.
SIMON BROWN: You mentioned Rishi Sunak. Someone on Twitter made the point that he’s the first prime minister who’s been richer than the king – or previously the queen. It’s also the billionaires. We’ve always had billionaires. I think back to the oil, the railroad barons of the early 1900s, the late 1800s. These days it’s [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos and [Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon] Musk, most exemplified by their space rockets. But it’s the billionaires who kind of [say], ‘I’ve got some money, I’ve got a lot of money. That just makes me super smart about absolutely everything and I intend to wade in’, [such as] Musk trying to negotiate peace between Putin and Ukraine.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes. For me this was a fantastic example and it occurred after we had already sent the book to print, so we couldn’t include it in the book. But it’s been a great example. You can’t make it up, Simon.
Here is a guy who believes that it’s worthwhile for him to weigh in on the issue of what to do with Crimea, to solve the Ukrainian problem, which is a problem for him because of his Chinese factories, his Chinese Tesla factories.
So [he is] completely selfishly suggesting that they give up Crimea, to which [Ukraine President Volodymyr] Zelensky and a bunch of generals reacted very badly. And then Musk kind of was in his corner feeling like people weren’t liking him any more, so he was going to withdraw funding for the satellite network that he had funded, the Starlink network for $20 million, where this guy’s worth $150 billion. It’s literally the West versus the Russian invasion, and [he] claimed that he was funding it all, when in fact he wasn’t, because the US government was also funding part of it.
And then someone must have chatted to him and said, ‘You need to calm dow’” – and he’s withdrawn the fact that he wishes to withdraw funding. You can’t make it up.
SIMON BROWN: You can’t. We’ve been talking here around billionaires, around politicians, but perhaps at the [nub] of this – you talk around 30 years ago, the Berlin wall was 33 years ago or so – is the fact that we have just come out of our first pandemic in a hundred years. We have inflation at 40-year highs, we have interest rates which, in developed economies have been low, in cases [even] negative.
Austria did a hundred-year bond at a zero interest rate just a couple of years ago. We are at a point where it is an inflexion point, almost, economically. And then on top of that we have these billionaires, we have these politicians. I suppose we could put them together and say ‘people with power’.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes. I think we have lived the last 30 years in an age in which we took for granted the concept of freedom and individual [rights] … basically we took Western liberal ideas for granted. And we have an eroded mindset now in which we elevate people who’ve made a lot of money to a status of unelected leadership. The world unfortunately has a kind of ‘Come to Jesus’ moment coming up, which is [that] there’s something that’s got to reconcile.
In my opinion we have a great hope with the war in Ukraine and the way that Western countries have come together, and we have hope in Nato. This is one of the points that we make through the book.
I think we are becoming more aware of how intolerant culture has become and people are starting to fight against it. So I would argue that we we’re at a low, we’re at a kind of cultural low, and there is hope.
This is a much more hopeful book than ‘The End of Money’.
SIMON BROWN: I agree with that. As I was reading it, it was sort of emotionally ups and downs. But also at the end of it hope. But also at the end of it what you and your colleagues didn’t do was put a neat bow on it, in a sense, and almost guide me to my answer. You [said] earlier you gave us a lens to look at the world over – and I hadn’t thought of those words – but that’s what I realised the book was doing. You’re not giving me the answers. You’re giving me I suppose, guidance.
DAVID BUCKHAM: Yes, Simon. This is a really important point. One of the dangers that one faces in commenting in a kind of public sphere about geopolitics is to be asked the question: ‘Okay, it’s all doom and gloom, so what is the answer? You must have a solution.’ And then you get to this point where you find yourself inadvertently writing a manifesto.
It’s similar to [French economist] Thomas Piketty. His latest book is basically a manifesto. And if you think of communism, it came out of the communist manifesto. Also think about the September 11 attacks, out of that came laws, the US Patriot Act that was written in a space of six weeks. Out of the 2008 financial crisis came the Dodd-Frank Act, 2 000 pages – most of it unintelligible to most people and hard to implement.
So it’s very dangerous, in my opinion, to make manifestos. The point of this book is to enlighten to some degree, if I could put it like that, or at least to give a perspective – which is through a kind of shattered glass perspective, broken stories – and to show, not tell, what the problem is. Once the problem becomes evident to people, I believe that the solutions will come more naturally, rather than to write down a manifesto.
SIMON BROWN: It is shining that light on the issue. And, as you say, once we see the problem, we are better predisposed to resolve it.
We’ll leave it there. That’s David Buckham. The new book is ‘The Age of Menace’. The book late last year was ‘The End of Money’. Both cracking reads. David, I appreciate the time.
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