Six Capitals, my obsession with accounting – and how I went from Leo Tolstoy to Keanu Reeves

Venice

Venice

Three years ago my obsession with Venice, art and mathematics and my fascination for a Renaissance monk, mathematician, magician and teacher to Leonardo da Vinci – Luca Pacioli – metamorphosed into a book about accounting (Double Entry), just because that monk also happened to have published the world’s first treatise on double-entry bookkeeping. And thus Venice, art and mathematics spawned my obsession with accounting.

The publication of Double Entry only fuelled my obsession. It led me Alice-like – or perhaps Persephone-like – into the underworld of the global economy: the realm of 21st century accounting, where I found that nothing was as it had been and that everything was changing at breakneck speed. And so I now find myself the author of a second book about accounting, Six Capitals, which tells the story of this world in flux.

Because literature is my first love, I seem always to need bookish touchstones while submerged in the strange realm of accounting. While I wrote Double Entry, Tolstoy was my companion. Apart from being one of my all time favourite writers, Tolstoy’s novels are concerned with many of the implications of double-entry bookkeeping as it evolved to govern commerce during the industrial revolution.

In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, set in 1870s Russia, the hero and landowner Levin relishes the fact that Russian merchants and farmers continued to conduct their business using an abacus, without proper account books, and certainly without Italian bookkeeping, as double entry was then known. For Levin, this arrangement among Russian farmers preserves a sense of the sacred calling of tending the earth and keeps farming from becoming just one more commercial activity.

He muses about the ancient ways which still prevail in Russian farming and are so unlike the ‘Italian bookkeeping’, as he calls it, which is taking over Europe: ‘Yes, it’s a strange thing … The way we live like this without reckoning, as if we’ve been appointed, like ancient vestals, to tend some sort of fire.’

Through Levin, Tolstoy expresses his general unease with the encroaching ‘rationalisation’ of life – the measurement of time and space of which double entry was a part – brought by science, accounting and the new forms of production that spread across Europe in the 19th century. Tolstoy was just one of many writers and artists who were deeply suspicious of such modernisation. The English Romantic poets took a similar view – captured vividly in William Blake’s ‘satanic mills’ – as did Dostoyevsky, one of whose characters says in The Idiot ‘the whole spirit of the last few centuries, taken as a whole, sir, in its scientific and practical application, is perhaps really damned, sir!’

Agent Smith

Agent Smith

But if Tolstoy and Levin kept me company while I wrote Double Entry, there were no novels or poetry I could call on while writing Six Capitals. Instead, aptly enough given it’s about a 21st century revolution in capitalism, more and more on my morning runs, and then throughout my long days of writing, images and whole scenes from the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix started to appear. Especially this line from my favourite character Agent Smith, brilliantly played by Hugo Weaving:

‘I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realised that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. And the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You are a plague and we are the cure.’

And as a counterpoint to Smith’s cure are Neo‘s heroic attempts to manipulate the code of the Matrix, among other dazzling things.

Keanu Reeves being dazzling as Neo

Keanu Reeves being dazzling as Neo

Six Capitals is about accounting in the 21st century – which also turned out to be a story of rampant viral (non human) persons and two paradigm-shifting attempts to rewrite the code of the global matrix.

I’ll be talking about Six Capitals – and why writing it made me think of The Matrix – on Thursday 6 November 2014 at 6pm for 6.30 pm at Gleebooks, 49 Glebe Point Road, Glebe, Sydney. I’d love to see you there.

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4 Responses to Six Capitals, my obsession with accounting – and how I went from Leo Tolstoy to Keanu Reeves

  1. Mark Runnalls says:

    Hi Jane, I would like to congratulate you on a marvelous new book. I obtained a copy of Six Capitals from my uni library – my PhD supervisor sent me a link and I have just finished it. I am not an accountant, despite being once a partner in EY. My PhD, my research and now my re-entry into corporate life, is all about re-imagining the corporation and the challenges that traditional accounting poses to that possibility. I am writing an article, as part of my PhD on the failure of NFPI as an alternative to traditional accounting, despite much effort and comparing it to the success of Enterprise Risk Management in becoming widely adopted by accountants. Accountants are a powerful mediator in any attempt to innovate the corporate world. I found many provocative insights in your work which I will try to work in to my article although of course as you know, academics much prefer peer reviewed journal references to books! Congratulations on what I would have hitherto thought an impossible task – a thoughtful, provocative yet accessible review of the uses and misuses of accounting and what the future may hold. I wish you every success with the book
    Kind regards

    Mark

    • Thanks so much for your message, Mark, it’s wonderful to hear that you found my book provocative and useful. Interesting too what you say about academics and peer reviewed journal references … 🙂
      all best wishes to you and your work (I’d be interested to see your article when it’s done). Cheers, Jane

  2. pennyjw says:

    Really forward to reading this new book, D, and hope to be at the launch, but for just a few moments I thought, from the title, that you might now be tackling alphabet capitals – because Pacioli and Divine Proportion is chiefly known to me and all other wives of letter cutters because of his alphabet. 🙂 (Although not everyone agreed with its beauty at the time: http://www.motivegallery.nl/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/BCRaphaelFR.pdf )
    Love and congratulations.

  3. Oh yes, how perfect P. I didn’t know you were the wife of a letter cutter – I love the Divine Proportion and fact its M is the M of the Metropolitan Museum. And thanks for the link, will follow it up, especially if it’s about reception of Pacioli’s alphabet as it promises to be. xx

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