'Crass Struggle' exposes pretensions of the one per cent

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Happy is the person whose hour has struck. Tom Naylor's hour has struck. It is the hour of the 1 per cent.

Naylor's day job is as an economist at McGill University in Montreal. But his secret identity -- about as secret as any superhero's -- is Muckraker, a heroic figure reaching back to crusading journalists during the robber baron age in the U.S. Their Canadian avatar was Gustavus Myers, also an American, with his acidic A History of Canadian Wealth (1914). Naylor rakes Canadian and global muck joyously yet assiduously -- not a contradiction if you're happy in your work.

Thirty-six years ago he wrote The History of Canadian Business during its formative phase, arguing it acquired its fatal habits of subservience to foreign money from the start. Lately he's written on organized crime, calling it mostly disorganized, and debunking the myths of the Mafia. What really riles him is the criminal (or should be) activities of high international finance today. The robber barons at least produced real things that people used. Today's banksters and hedgies produce only "instruments" and "derivatives." They're the scammiest.

His new book, the one that chimes with the times, is called Crass Struggle. It's based on "a quantum leap in sheer numbers of those loaded with loot. The emergence of this band of socially insecure parvenus vying for status with an established überclass dramatically intensifies the traditional competition for 'bragging rights' that propels the market for collectibles (and other luxuries) forward." That's an example of the vigour of his writing. The appalling esthetics and detestable ethics of the 1 per cent seem to energize, not deplete him.

It's a brilliant strategy: focusing not on their depredations, but their pretensions: the cant of high-income con men full of their own superiority who try to prove it with their haute tastes and styles, like "the 25-year-old financial whiz kid waxing eloquent over the bouquet of a 1945 Mouton-Rothschild or a 1947 Cheval Blanc in a glass he waved under a nose whose septum had been burned out by cocaine." Or like an epicure I know who proudly serves you "the third most expensive Chablis in the world." Feel free to add your own version of the archetype, based on personal experience. Dwelling on affectations rather than their (almost never prosecuted) felonies, is a delicious form of revenge.

There's nothing puritanical or ascetic in this. In fact Naylor sounds like a bit of a sybarite himself, who'd enjoy a good wine, cigar or work of art, all of which he writes chapters on. It's the monetization, posturing and often sheer fakery or fraud concerning these goods (think about the word) that make him heave. As often with a relentless exposer and scourger, a romantic idealist lurks under the surface. What really bothers him in the art scams, for instance, is the waste and disparagement of true creativity and beauty that genuine artists can reveal.

If he didn't write these books he'd probably self-combust with rage and despair: over the fact that billionaires increased in number by 25 per cent in the year after the crisis of 2008, or all five $2.67 million Bugattis sold out at the 2010 Paris Motor Show. Chronicling this stuff with attitude is like a tonic for what ails him. In person he comes across as a basically happy guy who seems to enjoy life.

He loves the details. Ages ago, I occasionally edited magazine pieces he wrote; once in a while I'd suggest he might have overstated his case. He'd immediately drown me in specifics that he hadn't wanted to bore anyone with but which proved he had, if anything, undersold his point. The relatively spare footnotes make up about a fifth of the text in Crass Struggle.

He apologizes for leaving out chapters on spoliation of precious hardwoods (teak, rosewood, mahogany) or fake high-end antiques (Stradivarius violins, suckers). There wasn't time but he'll get to them. Muckraker's work is never done.

I present this as an early suggestion for a Christmas present, in the tradition of jumping the gun on the season and in the rapacious spirit that motivates Naylor (to write, not accumulate). It's an appropriate gift to any of the 99 per cent. Merry Onepercentmas.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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