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Separate Bills, Separate Politics

A socialist and an investor sit down for dinner

“If I was a manager of a large corporation, would I care about the environment instead of maximising profits? No. Of course not. Of course, I have boundaries. Like slave labour,” said John, a member of the St Andrews Investment Society, whose real name I have changed to preserve anonymity.

A few days earlier, I met up with Alice, an anonymised member of the St Andrews Socialist Society. “I feel like the redistribution of wealth would go into the trillions, over a long, long period of time,” she said. 

Over a week in early February, I met John and Alice twice, each separately, for a pre-interview and debrief interview. Between each, the pair met for dinner. I sat across the restaurant and occasionally came by with envelopes filled with questions, but sat out of earshot for the actual conversation. When they met at the restaurant, they both clocked that they already vaguely knew each other (this is St Andrews, after all). But they'd never sat down and properly thrashed it out before, and nobody knew how the dinner would go.

Would they convince their fellow diner? Would they change their own views? "Definitely neither,” said Alice. “I'd be surprised if we can find common ground on anything.” John thought the same. The most he hoped for was to understand the other side better. Neither diner was necessarily representative of their club — they both stressed that their respective societies had a broad spectrum of members. 

Where Alice grew up in the Southern U.S. and (although he left Russia four years ago) John grew up in Moscow, both felt they had comparable childhoods. 

Alice was raised in a working-class family — her mum is a teacher and her dad is a mechanic who illegally immigrated for a better life. “Not to cry myself a river,” she said, “but [...] there was never really an opportunity for me to experience nepotism.”

At first, John wasn’t well-off either. “For the first eight years of my life, I only saw my parents on weekends,” said John. “I used to go to [... ] a sh*tty government school." 

But then the pair diverged. Alice came from a family that struggled to make ends meet, while John was whisked away from his Moscow public school to a string of elite boarding schools. 

Both experiences have shaped Alice and John’s politics. “[People here ask] ‘Did you go skiing over the summer?’ No, no, I didn't,” said Alice. “I was hanging out with my family. And I went to a waterpark. That's what I did. And even then that was a splurge.” She loathes overconsumption: “I've seen it all the time, especially since my time here in St Andrews,” she said.

John’s childhood shaped his current views very differently. “I never want to go back to the lifestyle I had before,” he said. “That's why I'm so capitalist."

Surprisingly, they both agreed on quite a lot. For instance, neither was sold on liberal democracy. Alice described how, at the dinner, John argued for an aristocratic system, where a “select group” of “the most educated, the most well-mentioned” lead. Alice reckoned that was quite a common opinion for someone of John’s background: “I guess he’s just saying the quiet part out loud.”

“I said I f***ing hate democracy," John told me. “An average person doesn’t devote themselves to thinking about economic and political problems, […] they just follow whatever’s going on." He pointed to British politics, too. “The people I've talked to — almost every single one of them does not understand why somebody would vote for Brexit.”

In the pre-interview, a week before the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in jail, I asked John what he thought about him. “I hate Navalny,” John said. “He knew how Russia operates, right? He prompted people to go protest, which resulted in many of them going to jail. [...] He’s just a guy who just screams, but doesn't do anything.”

Alice was generally more optimistic — “Overall, we are on a steady [incline],” she said — but still sceptical about liberal democracy. While she identified as a moderate socialist, she was a “radical sympathiser." Revolution is “just not a risk worth taking,” she said, but she’d “hear arguments for it."

Both agreed that the West was hypocritical. In particular, Alice thought that American involvement in the developing world was cynically motivated. The “ulterior motive” of multinationals who invest in the Global South is “to make them more productive workers, to exploit them more and create these sort of Andrew Carnegie-style factory-worker cities,” she said. “It's just feudalism.”

John thought it was hypocritical how differently the West treated immigrants depending on their home country. “If you’re accepting refugees, then you should be equally accepting everybody,” he said. 

The last question envelope I gave them asked which politician they would ask out on a date. “Liz Truss,” said John. “She basically just secured her retirement in 47 days.” “AOC,” said Alice. She could understand Truss, though. “She was a girlboss, she got her bag and she's chilling. [...] That’s fair enough.”

As the meal wrapped up, I came by and asked Alice and John if they felt they’d made progress. “We have the same principles, but we interpret them differently," said Alice. She thought the dinner had gone well. “I could at least open him to a perspective where he can be more empathetic towards people and not immediately — as he told me before we talked  — ‘smash the libs,’” she laughed. 

In Alice’s final interview, we talked about the children of despots and oligarchs who come to live in the West. Are they responsible for their parents? Should they use their privilege for good? “Do I think they should?” Alice said. “Yeah. Will they? Probably not. Definitely not, actually." The question hadn’t been discussed at dinner, so I asked Alice to guess how John might have replied. “Take whatever chances [you] can get, because it's a cruel world," Alice said. 

A few days later, I met John for his final debrief. Navalny had just died in prison. “In Russia, […] I don’t think the people have any kind of influence,” John said. “There [were] big protests — did they have any influence? No. What did it achieve? Just people getting jailed.”

I asked for John’s thoughts on the children of despots. Do they have moral obligations? “They haven’t done the things their parents did," John said. I think they should do whatever they want with their money.”

I said that Alice had predicted that reply. John thought for a second. “Depends on the person,” he said. “It’s a very individual decision. Somebody might feel morally obligated.”

I found that funny, as his second reply seemed more optimistic than Alice’s. John laughed. “To an extent, maybe,” he said.

“Alice is very compassionate,” John said. “Me, on the other hand? I don't care. I'm very callous.” I asked if that might stop him from living a fulfilling life. “The definition of fulfilment is very different for everyone else,” he said. “Perhaps there will be a point in my life where I discover that I am unfulfilled with the current lifestyle. But then I can just change my lifestyle.” 

I asked, what if he never realises he’s unfulfilled? Then am I not happy?" John said. “If I never figure that out, and I think I’m happy, am I not happy?” 

Illustration: Isabelle Holloway


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