Nothing But a Circus: Misadventures Among the Powerful by Daniel Levin – review

This exposé of global movers and shakers is entertaining – but why is the author so surprised to learn that such people are often corrupt?

“Shanghai, Mumbai, Dubai or goodbye”: remember the phrase? It denoted the world of stateless spivs who would travel from one mega-metropolis to the other in search of deals. Or to put it another way: globalisation, the “end of history” and the victory of unbridled free markets.

Now that so much of this appears to be in tatters – I won’t say “is” for reasons I’ll explain – I wonder whether Daniel Levin’s journey hasn’t suffered the fate suffered by some unlucky nonfiction books – that of being overtaken by events. (Reading at the same time Alain de Botton’s book on the power of global news organisations, The News: A User’s Manual, I had the same sneaking suspicion, but at least that was published in early 2014.) A lawyer and adviser (a term that means everything and nothing), Levin has written a series of accounts based on his experiences that are in turns hilarious and painful. From the Bible-basher looking to revive a small-town university in Texas to the Russian faux oppositionist who turns out to be a Putin stooge; from the Chinese state bully businessman who doesn’t realise his vintage bottle of Chateau Pétrus has gone off, to uppity African officials at the UN, the common characteristics are hubris and dodginess. To the victors the spoils, no matter how the victory was achieved.

Levin draws attention to the good guys, too, the ordinary people he saw fleeced, or the corporate types involved in some of the chicanery but who at least had a basic sense of right and wrong. The most unprepossessing members of this rogues’ gallery are the politicians in Washington and their many advisers and assorted hangers-on.

The trivial is the most telling – the insolence of the secretaries, the unsolicited calls made by congressmen, during which the receiver is ordered to hold for 30 minutes. I would have told them to get stuffed. Yet Levin keeps on going back, waiting in five-star hotels around the world, asking for more.

In my various travels, I too could tell similar tales: the creepy European who claims he has special access to Sheikh Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai, or the sinister government official in Angola. As for Russians eating breakfast on the veranda of a hotel in Cap Ferrat, that is such a common sight it’s hardly worth noting.

Which brings me to two essential weaknesses of this book: I keep on wondering why the author is so surprised or even upset by his interlocutors. What was he expecting? Maybe I have a tendency to misanthropy, but I work from the assumption that the people who operate in these kinds of networks do not have a finely honed sense of ethics or humility.

The bigger question lurking in this otherwise entertaining account is whether this circus denotes a particular moment in history, the decade or so either side of the millennium. And if so, did the financial crash of 2007-8 mark the first dent, which was followed up by Brexit, Trump and the other associated shocks about to befall us?

Last autumn, Theresa May stated in her party conference speech: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” Some saw this as a rebuke to the connected, environmentalist, European internationalist, and a return to the flag-waving little Englander. However, there is a more positive aspect to this: the first challenge since the financial big bang to the worldview that drives the subjects of Levin’s book. Even if it is mere rhetoric, just the fact that politicians are talking about the “divided society” and the “left behinds” and wondering out loud about the excesses of the nomadic super-rich is progress.

And yet no sooner do I write this then I think of the incoming US president; he would have felt exceedingly at home in the pages of Levin’s lunch companions.

• Nothing But a Circus by Daniel Levin is published by Allen Lane (£20). To order a copy for £15.99 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


John Kampfner

The GuardianTramp

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