The Mandibles: Lionel Shriver’s liberal dystopia is a must-read

I have recently finished reading The Mandibles, the latest novel by Lionel Shriver, whom I chiefly know through her novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I haven’t actually read. The new book is set in the US in the future (2029 to 2047), and the core of the book’s meaning is in economics and politics. It is a must-read for anybody interested in either.

I don’t want to spoil the plot too much. I will say nothing about the interplay of the characters, which is very well done, in the first two-thirds of the book anyway. This may be strong enough to entice even readers not interested in the wider narrative, if it wasn’t for rather long passages of explanatory text in the first part of the book, thinly disguised as conversation. I found the economic explanation fun, of course, but it does slow things down in the first part of the book. Ms Shriver is very skilled at understanding how different the world looks from different points of view, and how this breeds misunderstanding. She also has a wry sense of humour, which is never very far away.

I will instead talk about the economic and political context which she sketches out. The book is in two parts. The first part (which is about two thirds of the text) is set in the years following 2029. In it the US economy suffers an implosion when the rest of the world turns on it. This follows from three trends which are clearly visible in the current US scene. First, the country can get away with huge net indebtedness to the outside world because the US dollar is the top global reserve currency. This allows it to sustain large trade and fiscal deficits, which “Keynesian” economists suggest is not an urgent problem; Ms Shriver suggests that liberals will never get round to taking it seriously. And second, the political liberals will come to dominate US politics, in the way they have Californian politics, through the rise of Hispanic Americans. And third demographic change will exert a growing pressure on state finances with rising demands on the state to deal with the needs of aging baby boomers.

So the US deficits persist until the rest of the world decides that it has had enough, and no longer wants to keep piling up US currency debt. They launch a coordinated coup to replace the US dollar as the reserve currency with a new currency that they create for the purpose. To cut a long story short, the US government reacts badly and the US economy collapses. I will leave the details for those who want to read the book. The striking thing to me is the plausibility of it all. Notwithstanding the elegant arguments put by one of the characters, who is a Keynesian economist, which at times sound very similar to the sorts of things I say in my blog (especially his hatred of gold).

The second part of the book takes the scene to 2047, after the US economy stabilises and recovers, and takes up a much diminished place in global terms. In terms of drama this part of the book is much weaker. The cast of characters is greatly reduced, and the main focus is on just two of them (one of whom, is Ms Shriver’s alta ego, a by then nonagenarian novelist), and much less actually happens. From purely a novelistic point of view, this section probably wasn’t necessary. But it is essential for the development of Ms Shriver’s political message. She sets out the US as a sort of liberal (in the US sense) dystopia. There is a wall along the US border with Mexico; it is built by the Mexicans to keep US refugees out. The demographic balance has become so out of kilter than the tax rates have to be raised sky high – and the government creates an insidious method of ensuring compliance – planting a chip in each citizen’s head that records all their financial dealings.  Again I will spare you the details: read the book.

Ms Shriver’s political standpoint is clearly a libertarian one. She values individual freedom ahead of collective social obligations. Her novel’s message is that social democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction, and will either collapse, or undermine the liberal ideals that many of its supporters hold dear. I have to say that her alternative does not look much better: wellbeing seems to depend on inheriting wealth to create a degree of personal capital.

So why should somebody like me, who has very different political values to Ms Shriver’s, give so much time to this novel? Firstly, those ideas are presented in a digestible way. The second part of the book may drift into one–sidedness occasionally, but Ms Shriver’s great gift is to understand differing points of view, which makes her case much more accessible.  Secondly we must resist the tendency for modern political discourse to be tribal. Liberals like me do spend quite a bit of time in dialogue with those on the left of the political spectrum, but not nearly enough trying to understand the right. That is a dangerous thing.

It is dangerous because so much of politics and economics is a matter of balance. It is not a matter of finding the right ideas and taking them to an extreme, but understanding the dangers of different policies and plotting a way between them. Too many on the left have an excessive faith in “Keynesian” economics (I use quotation marks because this economic philosophy has drifted so far from the flexibility of mind that characterised Maynard Keynes himself). The fact that many developed countries can easily afford high levels of government borrowing is not to say that such borrowing does not present longer term dangers. And high-tax high-public service societies have their attractions, but present major challenges for the longer term, which the political right see more clearly than we do. Above all the novel serves to show how fragile the foundations of modern middle class society might be.

So this book should promote a bit of healthy self-examination among those on the liberal left. As well as being a well-written and very enjoyable read.



2 thoughts on “The Mandibles: Lionel Shriver’s liberal dystopia is a must-read”

  1. “So the US deficits persist until the rest of the world decides that it has had enough, and no longer wants to keep piling up US currency debt. They launch a coordinated coup to replace the US dollar as the reserve currency with a new currency that they create for the purpose. To cut a long story short, the US government reacts badly and the US economy collapses.”

    I must say that I haven’t read the novel but I did hear Lionel Shriver talking on the radio about it. I thought this is just neo-liberal nonsense. Short of some natural calamity like the Yellowstone volcano erupting there’s no possibility of the US economy crashing if it is properly managed and kept out of the hands of gold bugs like Ron Paul.

    The US runs a deficit in trade , or current account deficit, of about 2.3% of GDP. The UK runs nearly 6%. So what does the so-called reserve currency status of the US$ have to do with it? The debt to GDP ratio is similar in both countries and less than half what it is in Japan. The Yen isn’t a reserve currency either.

    And so what if the Chinese decide they are going to accumulate US$ any longer but they are going to spend them instead. Its possible that the US will go from having a small deficit to a small surplus. The US can live with that. Why not? They have before.

    If the Chinese want to spend their accumulated dollars on the wrong things, or too quickly for US comfort, the US can pass laws to stop them. They probably exist already to stop them buying up defence companies for example. If there is too much foreign demand for exports the US can apply an export tax. Who’s going to stop them?

    I don’t believe any of this will happen BTW. If there is a problem it will be self inflicted by the Americans. They’ll fret too much about their 20 trillion debt as if they owe it to Mars! In truth they owe it mainly to themselves and they are only worrying about their own financial assets.

    1. You actually sound so much like on of Ms Shriver’s characters that it is rather funny. She is projecting a situation quite a long way into the future, when the current situation is exacerbated… What I will say is that she may be a libertarian at heart, but she has spent more time than you or I thinking her ideas through – and in order to answer your specific points it is best to read the book. Suffice to say I have greatly over-simplified the plot in order not to create too many plot spoilers. I would suggest that you read the book, but you might well find it to be too annoying. Her main point is that if you bend any system too far it will break. And that break is distinctly non-linear and takes people completely by surprise when it happens.

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