book cover imageCapital: A novel
by John Lanchester.
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2012.
Hardcover, 527 pages, $27.

This sprawling account of a year in the lives of a variety of people connected in some way to a London neighborhood in the period leading up to and into the global financial crisis purports to focus on the neighborhood itself. As Lanchester writes in the prologue, “The houses were now like people, and rich people at that, imperious, with needs of their own that they were not shy about having serviced.” This interplay between the human actors and the features of their physical environment on Pepys Road provides an intriguing entry point into a book that explores in engaging fashion the dynamics of wealth, work, culture, and success in modern life.

As the prologue concludes, “Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich. It was the first time in history this had ever been true.” Capital is a compelling tour through the lives of these nouveau riche and the various ways in which changes of fortune impacts their lives.

One of the key realities that Capital communicates about wealth is that it does not in itself change who we are. The flaws of our character cannot be erased by an addition of material wealth. No cosmetic surgery can address the defects of our souls. If anything, wealth enhances our defects, allowing us a broader area of influence in the world in which to manifest our own shortcomings. To the extent that the material culture on Pepys Road gains any agency, it is only as an external expression of the realities of the individuals who live there. The houses become proxies for the moral and spiritual status of their residents.

The moral challenge of affluence is something that animated the career of the sociologist Robert Nisbet, who worried about the fraying of the “social fabric” that created individuals loosened from relational bonds of family, neighborhood, church, and broader community. “What sociologists are prone to call social disintegration is really nothing more than the spectacle of a rising number of individuals playing fast and loose with other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility,” he wrote in The Present Age (1988). The spiritual isolation of fallen human beings is perhaps most visibly expressed in the physical isolation of suburbs and gated communities, but the development of Pepys Road in Capital manifests these antisocial realities as well.

Indeed, little connects the residents of these various houses other than physical proximity. The slight interaction that occurs is mostly at the commercial level. Zbigniew, a Polish construction laborer, enters the story because of the services he provides. The same is true for the Hungarian nanny Matya. They both become attached to Pepys Road not by living there but by providing services to one of the families, Arabella and Roger Yount. The connections between families like the Younts and others on Pepys Road are simply occasional. The Kamals, an immigrant Pakistani family who run the neighborhood’s corner store, only interact with the Younts in the context of market transactions.

The truth of Jesus’ observation that “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12.15) reverberates throughout the book, and is particularly salient in the case of the Younts. Roger works in the financial industry, and it is through his occupation that the travails of the beginnings of the global financial crisis begin to hit Pepys Road—in American vernacular, to affect Main Street as well as Wall Street. Of all the families on Pepys Road, the Younts are the only ones whose affluence predates the rise in property values. Arabella is a vain, shrewish materialist, and the Yount marriage is troubled. Their treatment of their two children, who are treated essentially as obstacles to the fulfillment of epicurean pleasures (particularly by Arabella), underscores the reality of Michael Novak’s contention in The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism that “parents brought up under poverty do not know how to bring up children under affluence.” These children are foisted off into the charge of the Hungarian nanny, and the way in which the children flourish under her attentions shows just how starved for familial affection they are.

We are given a hint at the kind of adults such children, nurturedon examples of conspicuous consumption and bereft of spiritual guidance, will become in the character of Roger’s deputy manager, Mark. Mark is the embodiment of the homo invidiosus, the envying man, and his actions to undermine and outdo his boss at the investment firm are a catalyst for the reversal of Roger’s fortunes and those of many others. Likewise stands Parker French, a sometime assistant to an infamous London performance artist. French’s movement from the vice of envy to ill-will to malfeasance provide a key backdrop for the movement of the narrative.

The perceived unfairness of the kind of lottery that has rewarded people who live on Pepys Road inspires a foreboding sense of social unrest and instability. One of the things that does actually bring the neighborhood together is a series of increasingly destructive and violent acts of vandalism, captured in the recurring phrase, “We want what you have.” Community meetings are held and concerns are aired. The perception that the wealth of the Pepys Road residents is unearned and therefore unmerited provides a veneer of legitimacy in the complaints from various parties at unequal treatment and oppression. But in the end this amounts to a rationalization for envy rather than a legitimization of it. Classical observers of the philosophical and theological virtues and vices have recognized the antisocial nature of envy as “a horrible monster, a most dreadful plague.”

A different response to inequality, both real and perceived, is to work positively toward remedying that which is lacking in yourself rather than in attempting to seize from others or in destruction. Zbigniew personifies this positive response particularly well, as he sees in London a land full of opportunity to earn a living, even if success is only achievable by hard work.

As Lanchester writes of Zbigniew, “A boy who grew up in a tower block on the outskirts of Warsaw could not fail to notice marble worktops, teak furniture, carpets and clothes and adult toys and the routine daily extravagances that were everywhere in this city.” Likewise Zbigniew sees “the expense, the grotesque costliness of more or less everything.” For the frugal Polish laborer, this reality depresses and yet simultaneously inspires him to action: “There was in Zbigniew’s opinion something fundamentally wrong with a culture that had all this work and all this money going spare, just waiting for someone to come in and pick it up, almost as if the money were just left lying around in the street—but that was not his concern. If the British wanted to give work and money away that was fine with him.” Indeed, in this regard this is precisely “the reason he was here” in London: to work and get the money that the British were too lazy, stupid, or decadent to pick up themselves.

“The commercial virtues are not,” Michael Novak has observed, “sufficient to their own defense.” The commercial virtues rely on the character forming power of institutions like the family and church. As Victor Claar has also noted following Stephen Landsburg, the family is where we can learn the positive rather than the destructive response to envy and perceived unfairness. As Landsburg writes in his Fair Play: What Your Child Can Teach You about Economics, Values, and the Meaning of Life, “I have never, ever, heard a parent say to a child that it’s okay toforcibly take toys away from other children who have more toys than you do…. We do, of course, encourage sharing, and we try to make our children feel ashamed when they are selfish. But at the same time, we tell them that if another child is being selfish, you must cope with that in some way short of forcible expropriation.”

In this way Capital provides a richly textured and challenging narrative of the challenges of affluence, the temptations of materialism and envy, and the need for true human community expressed in a variety of social institutions. Augustine once wrote of the human race that “there is nothing so social by nature and so discordant by its perversion.” Capital wonderfully captures this dynamic of sociality and discord in its particular expression in the contemporary world and the multifaceted challenges of affluence.  

Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality.