Sunday, 28 April 2013

A little light reading

Email sent by Chris to the Severn Valley Authors ( on 14/04/13:

Dear all,

Please find attached latest extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving. It consists of the first quarter of Chapter 7. Driver and truck are heading towards Moscow, where the armed guard is to be collected for the onward journey to Kazakhstan. As ever I need to know whether or not the blending of the journey with a stream of consciousness works. As ever, I suspect you will suffer from the disadvantage of not having read preceding chapters (only extracts which have since been reworked). I hope that nevertheless you will get the general gist. 

Email sent by Rob Ronsson ( to the Severn Valley Authors on Monday 22/04/13:

Hi SVAers

I'm afraid that Kidderminster Harriers did not end up on Saturday as champions of the Blue Square Premier League and that this means that they are now competing in the play-offs for promotion to Division 2 of the Npower League (I'm providing all this detail for the benefit of the non-soccer types among you). The first leg of the Harriers play-off semi-final (two legs) is away at Wrexham FC tomorrow (Tuesday) kick off at 7.45 pm. I'm going to the match and therefore won't be at the meeting. Sorry, but this is a once-in-a-season-game and as a keen supporter I feel that I have to be there for the team. I'm sure you all understand. Please accept my apologies for tomorrow. Chris, I'll read your piece and send you my thoughts in writing. Tony, thanks for the kind offer of a lift, but I'll be singing myself hoarse in Wales when you are pulling up outside Izzie's. Have a good meeting, everyone. Come on you Reds!

Email sent by Chris to Rob (CC other members of the SVA) on Tuesday 23/04/13:

Hi Rob

Are you sure that the football is the real reason for your absence this evening? Didn't you just take one look at the extract from Karl Marx and Careful Driving and bottle it?  Seriously though, I'm very interested in your opinion (as the only reader in the group of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) as to why Pirsig's book 'works' for you and so many others, and what I need to do to KM&CD to make it work in a similar way. Is it to do with the differences in structure? Perhaps the greater frequency with which I switch the narrative from the journey to the stream of consciousness and back is overambitious, but I wanted to achieve an ever-presence sense of physical movement to match the mental restlessness. Or is it that the stream of consciousness itself (the application of the philosophies of Plato and Marx to medieval and Soviet history, and to present-day Europe) fails to hold the reader's interest? Do some sections actually work? If so, which and why? Which sections don't work, and why don't they work? Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, wondering if KM&CD is going to be the biggest load of bollocks anyone has ever written and that I'm throwing away my life on a project that will never work. I suspect that Pirsig might have experienced very similar feelings. I trust that you weren't responsible for those disgraceful scenes at Aggborough on Saturday evening. Give the Harriers a cheer from me.

Shift 7: Wednesday 21 July
Safonovo (RUS) – Ryazan (RUS): 342 miles

‘It is …the fundamental principle of all political right that people have given themselves chiefs in order to defend their liberty and not to enslave them.’ (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Discourse on the Origins of Inequality)

Karl Marx divided the labour process into three: firstly, the activity of the worker; secondly, the purpose of the work; and finally, the instruments of labour.[1] The instrument of labour is the conductor of the worker’s activity and can consist of mechanical, physical or chemical procedures by which he accomplishes his tasks.[2]
A truck qualifies as an instrument of labour. A similar method to Linnaeus’s classification of living matter might be employed to describe the machine I’m driving:
Category: Road Vehicle.
Use: Commercial.
Purpose: Carriage of Goods.
Engine: Compression Ignition.
Manufacturer: Volvo.
Model: F12 400 Globetrotter.
Country of Manufacture: Sweden.
Registration Number: K123 YOF.

The sunshine of the last few days has been replaced by a steady downpour of rain, covering the roads in a film of mud and rendering surfaces treacherous and slippery. The little I can make out beyond the metronomic arc of the windscreen wipers is limited to the secretive walls of birch forest to either side of the glistening grey ribbon of road and the occasional sodden village.  

Use: Commercial. Purpose: Carriage of Goods. Jean-Paul Sartre declared that the purpose of manufactured items is never in doubt because their essence (or function) precedes their existence: a pen is created to enable people to write, and a chair is manufactured to take the weight off your feet.
Every component part of the Volvo fulfils the specific purpose for which it was designed. Battling to keep the rain off the windscreen, the wipers have three settings: intermittent, normal and fast. Heater elements behind the glass are clearing the mirrors of water droplets. I have directed the fan heater at the windscreen to prevent it from misting up.

Plato stated that both natural and artificial products are judged by their performance of the specific function for which nature (God) or man designed them.[3]
  In medieval Europe your position in the feudal hierarchy was assigned by God – and you had a duty to remain in it. Your inherited purpose was never in doubt because your God-given essence (or function) preceded your existence.
Born in a more secular, sceptical age, Jean-Paul Sartre claimed that in a Godless universe we have no predefined purpose. Unlike the components of an engine, people aren’t precision engineered to fulfil a specific function within the whole: existence therefore precedes essence.  
. I went to university because it was expected of me but I drifted through the four-year course without any clear idea of an essence or purpose. Translating texts and studying French literary philosophy didn’t provide any answers; neither did experimenting with alcohol and recreational drugs. Every summer I took to the road alone with a rucksack containing a minimum of gear to spend three to four months hitch-hiking the length and breadth of Europe. I slept rough in woods, fields and ditches and became fit and suntanned. If I needed an academic justification I could argue that I made extensive use of my conversational French and Spanish when chatting to drivers. During the occasional lift in a mighty Volvo, Scania or Pegaso I would question the pilots about the way of life and watch in fascination as they juggled with twelve-, fourteen- or sixteen-speed gearboxes. The international truck driver continued to present a powerfully romantic figure and I yearned to be piloting big rigs to France, Spain or Portugal, or even to Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

Yet again I am short of sleep. The fortissimo dialogue and drunken laughter of the two Poles in the DAF parked alongside the Volvo in the TIR park formed a counterpoint to the din issuing from the truck’s cassette player until the small hours. Sometime after I finally managed to nod off I was woken by a knock on the door. I ignored it but whoever it was persisted. Never less than infuriating, these interruptions to much-needed slumber are frequent occurrences throughout the Eastern Bloc. Sometimes, as on this occasion, the rap of knuckles heralds a prostitute touting for business; or it might be a police officer demanding a parking fee or some unspecified bribe. Most irritating of all are the shadowy figures who knock on the cab in the small hours and wait expectantly outside for no apparent reason whatsoever. After a short, angry and mutually incomprehensible exchange they usually disappear, leaving me trying to calm jangling nerves and wondering what possesses people to wander around parking areas and lay-bys at two in the morning knocking on cab doors.

Existence precedes essence: when applying Linnaeus’s classification to myself as an individual example of Homo sapiens I described my purpose as ‘unspecified’. In the absence of A Great Engineer In The Sky we are obliged to seek our own purpose. I have discovered mine in the solitary command of a big truck on an empty road. Despite – or perhaps because of – the risks, I derive satisfaction from doing a demanding job well; not everyone would cope with the frustrations, the isolation and the long hours.
Justice in Plato’s ‘society of all societies’ is defined by each individual’s decision to stick to the single task most appropriate to them and not to meddle with others’ business. The Ideal State is a rigid structure in which each person’s vocation – butcher, baker, candlestick maker; tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor – is apparently as clearly defined as the tasks performed by the parts in an engine: all working in perfect harmony and unison for the benefit of the community.

The perfect timing of an engine is strangely compelling. I’ve calculated that the Volvo’s six-cylinder, four-stroke turbocharged and intercooled engine generates a mind-boggling 4,500 detonations per minute when running at a cruising speed of 1500 revolutions of the crankshaft per minute. Essence precedes existence. Hundreds of components (crankshaft, connecting rods, cogs, timing belts, camshaft, tappets, rocker arms, compressor, fuel, oil and water pumps) are performing an indispensible service to a perfectly functioning and united whole.

Self-discipline in Plato’s Ideal State was to manifest itself in the form of a ‘harmony’ or ‘concord’ existing between the three classes about which of them was the most appropriate for the task of government; a mixture of nature (natural intelligence) and nurture (the best education and training) was to endow a ‘superior minority’ with the expertise necessary to govern the ‘less respectable majority’.[4] A discordant note is struck by Thrasymachus, a member of Socrates’ entourage, who (in terms echoed by Marx over two thousand years later[5]) defines ‘justice’ as whatever happens to be the interest of the most powerful. Every government enacts laws that are in its own interest rather than the interest of the governed. Those who fail to act according to the whims of the ruler are defined as criminals and punished.[6]
     The Republic’s narrator, Socrates (for whom theory is closer to truth than practice), gives Thrasymachus short shrift. If a doctor acts in the best interests of his patients and a ship’s captain in the best interests of the crew, he argues somewhat unconvincingly, a ruler will act in the best interests of the ruled. Tellingly perhaps, Socrates pays little further attention to the activities of doctors and ships’ captains, or to the quest of the class of businessmen and workers to discover their respective roles in the Ideal State; The Republic is henceforth devoted almost exclusively to the task of identifying and training ‘the superior minority’ for the task of government. This appears to be a tacit admission not only of the importance but also of the difficulty of discovering people with a natural aptitude to govern. Socrates goes on to concede that the Ideal State will never enter the material world until philosophers become rulers or rulers become philosophers.[7]

The few vehicles on the Moscow highway are barely discernible behind a barrier of spray, due in part to the apparent reluctance of Russian drivers to use lights. Perhaps the lights don’t work.

Thrasymachus was not describing justice but the law which, as a reflection of the ruling will, often turns out neither to be fair, appropriate or just because Plato’s conceptual ruling philosophers have been conspicuous by their absence from the corridors of power here in the material world: people with a ‘natural aptitude’ for government, those who embody the Ideal State’s cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, self-discipline and justice, seldom gravitate to the appropriate positions.
During the fifth and sixth centuries Christianity replaced the Roman State as the unifying force that bound the peoples of Europe together. The closure of Plato’s Academy in Athens in A.D. 529 by the Emperor Justinian (on the grounds that it was a Pagan establishment) reinforced Roman Catholicism’s monopoly of education, reflection and worship throughout the former Roman Empire. It was left to the Islamic civilisations in North Africa and the Middle East to build on Ancient Greek progress in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy and medicine.
The Soviet state’s laws served to enforce ideological conformity. All independent newspapers were shut down in the summer of 1918 and a central bureau of censorship, Glavlit, was set up in 1922. ‘Enemy of the people’ was a label attached to anyone who opposed government policy. Differences in interpretation of the Marxist gospel according to Saint Vladimir led to the persecution of heretical sects such as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries. Instead of acting as independent bodies representing the interests of their members, Trade Unions were nationalised. Foreign travel was prohibited for all but high-ranking party functionaries for fear of ideological contamination. The church was suspected of harbouring counterrevolutionary elements, and journalists, writers and artists were unable to practise their art without fear of imprisonment.

The hum of the engine, interspersed with the regular clonk of the wipers as they complete each semi-circular sweep, is scarcely audible above the hiss of fourteen tyres on wet tarmac. The power derived from the expansion of burning gases in the combustion chambers of the Volvo’s engine is being transmitted to the crankshaft via six dutiful pistons and their connecting rods, each downward thrust of a piston applying rotary force (or torque) to the crankshaft.

The obedient connecting rod has neither passion nor personality. It responds in an entirely rational way to the combination of fuel and air but society isn’t an engine and its egotistical components don’t behave like connecting rods. Every new ruling class, claimed Marx, has to present its ideology as the will of the people in order for its interests to be accepted as being of benefit to the entire community.[8] Ruling minorities depend upon the endorsement of a religion or ideology, a Magnificent Myth to persuade the masses of the legitimacy of their rule. Power without the authority of a supporting myth is usually short-lived.
As soon as they realised that the myth of Divine Justice, in which the wicked were punished and the virtuous were rewarded, was absent from the imperfect and changing material world, Christian leaders transferred divine reward and retribution to a Perfect and Eternal Conceptual World to which each immortal soul would migrate following death. The postponement of divine judgement until the hereafter failed nevertheless to stem the tide of earthly punishments meted out to transgressors, including confinement in dungeons, torture and execution. In A.D. 546 hundreds of Pagans were murdered in Constantinople for refusing to convert to Christianity.
            Successive leaders of the Soviet Union pledged that universal peace, prosperity, justice and brotherhood would be the reward for those willing to sacrifice the imperfect present for a Perfect Future. Hadn’t the Great Prophet himself identified the necessity of a transitional phase of revolutionary dictatorship to supervise the transition from capitalism to communism?[9] Communism was indefinitely postponed by the Ruling Guardians of the Communist Party and the transitional phase – in which the state rather than the filthy bourgeois exploited the workers and peasants – was to endure for seven decades. Those who expressed doubt in the Magnificent Myths of Soviet socialism were consigned not to the eternal flames of hellfire but to an infernal cold. The damned of the gulags laboured in the icy wastes of Siberia until their lives were ended prematurely by exhaustion, malnutrition or exposure.

[1]‘The elementary factors of the labour-process are: 1) the personal activity of man, i.e., the work itself, (2) the object of the work, and (3) its instruments.’ (Karl Marx: Capital)  
[2]‘An instrument of labour is a thing, or a complex of things which the labourer interposes between himself and the object of his labour, and which serves as the conductor of his activity. He makes use of the mechanical, physical, and chemical properties of some substances in order to make other substances subservient to his aims. Leaving out of consideration such ready-made means of subsistence as fruits, in gathering which a man’s own limbs serve as the instruments of his labour, the first thing of which the labourer possesses himself is not the object of labour but its instrument.’ (Karl Marx: Capital)
[3] ‘And isn’t the quality, beauty and fitness of any implement or creature or action judged by reference to the use for which man or nature produced it?’ (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[4]‘...the simple and moderate desires, guided by reason and right judgement and reflection, are to be found in a minority who have the best natural gifts and best education. ...the desires of the less respectable majority are controlled by the desires and the wisdom of the superior minority.’(Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[5] ‘...the State is the form in which the individuals of a ruling class assert their common interests...’
[6] ‘Justice or right is simply what is in the interest of the stronger party. Each type of government enacts laws that are in its own interest, a democracy democratic laws, a tyranny tyrannical ones and so on; and in enacting these laws they make it quite plain that what is “right” for their subjects is what is in the interest of themselves, the rulers, and if anyone deviates from this he is punished as a lawbreaker and “wrongdoer”. That is what I mean when I say that “right” is the same thing in all states, namely the interest of the established government; and government is the strongest element in each state, and so if we argue correctly we see that “right” is always the same, the interest of the stronger party.’ (Thrasymachus to Socrates in Plato’s Republic)
[7] ‘The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become kings in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands, while the many natures now content to follow either to the exclusion of the other are forcibly debarred from doing so.’ (Socrates to Glaucon in Plato’s Republic)
[8] ‘For each new class which puts itself in the place of the one ruling before it, is compelled, simply in order to achieve its aims, to represent its interest as the common interest of all members of society, i.e. employing an ideal formula, to give its ideas the form of universality and to represent them as the only rational and universally valid ones.’ (Karl Marx: The German Ideology)
[9] ‘Between the capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other,’ Marx declared in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. ‘There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the State can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.’

The feedback from my fellow scribes was surprisingly encouraging. They haven't always been kind about my struggles to blend philosophy, history and truck-driving memoir - but honesty and constructive criticism is prized more highly in our writing group than kindness

Best of all, they all understood it, despite a lack of familiarity with previous chapters. I sensed that they even shared some of my excitement about the project. There were nevertheless the usual reservations that the journey risks being swamped by the stream of consciousness. The task of the next and (hopefully) final re-write will be to pare down the history and philosophy - possibly by as much as a quarter or even a third. 

Tony suggested that I approach a few agents with covering letter and sample chapters. The excellent Writers' & Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published by Harry Bingham states that although subject-led non-fiction can indeed be submitted before the manuscript is complete (or even without a single word having been written) this is not the case with narrative-led non-fiction such as memoir and travel writing. KM&CD is both subject-led (philosophy and history) and narrative-led (journey), but since agents and publishers rarely permit authors a second chance once they've rejected a proposal, it has always made sense to me to make sure that the manuscript is pretty nearly as perfect as I can make it before submitting a proposal to agents or publishers. So for the time being I must continue to keep working at it and be patient.

To followers of this blog, I apologise for the extremely long intervals that exist between posts. Writing a book like Karl Marx and Careful Driving leaves precious little time for blogging. If there are any of you left out there I would welcome comments on the above extract. Remember that honesty is more important than kindness - although both would be great!