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!’
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.
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.