Book reviews, Comments, Culture, In Focus

Teach your children well

The trio Crosby, Stills & Nash released their second album, Déjà Vu, in 1970 and one of its memorable songs was “Teach your children well”.


Sean Sheehan


Nearly fifty years later, two books take up the theme of the song’s opening lyrics:

You who are on the road

Must have a code that you can live by

And so become yourself.

The past is just a good-bye.

Teach your children well

“Talking to my daughter about the economy: A brief history of capitalism” is by the Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis. His daughter is living in Australia and he begins by posing the question of why the aborigines of that continent became the victims of colonialism instead of the other way around.

Why didn’t aborigines explore new lands, establish settlements elsewhere and set about exploiting the resources they might have found?

“Communism for kids” by a Berlin-based social theorist, Bini Adamczak, addresses the same issue: how did feudalism first develop into capitalism in England around half a millennium ago?

Both books respond to this question in their own, quite different ways but their conclusions are similar. Both authors are concerned with the nature of the market and the centrality of exchanging goods and services.

Adamczak writes in a deliberately naïve style, as if speaking to the very young, but “Communism for kids” is not so much a children’s book as a story that adopts, as the author puts it, “a language of lightness and simplicity” in order to awaken “the availability and desirability of radical dreams”.

The theoretical epilogue that makes up the last third of the book is strictly for adults only.

Varoufakis maintains a highly engaging style of writing throughout his book and his story of the market and economy is told with a wonderful lucidity.

The discovery of agriculture leads to surpluses of products; writing is invented to record stored quantities and what we would call credit notes; bureaucracy, ideology and technology develop. The result is now the commodification of almost everything: exchange values rule in a market society.

The account in “Talking to my daughter about the economy” of how banks work – creating money at the stroke of a keyboard – is unsurpassed. It allows Varoufakis to explain how banking led to the economic crisis of 2008 and he turns to the ancient Greek myths of Icarus, Sisyphus and Oedipus to help illustrate what took place.

Both books address the future. The need to democratize the money supply and exercise economic control over a world that threatens to commodify bodies and enslave minds comes across strongly. As Crosby, Stills & Nash put it in their song:

                        And you, of tender years, can’t know the fears

               that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,

               they seek the truth before they can die.

“Talking to my daughter about the economy”, by Yanis Varoufakis, is published by Bodley Head.

“Communism for kids”, by Bini Adamczak, is published by The MIT Press.

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