I have a long review up at Boston Review of three books by Yanis Varoufakis: The Global Minotaur, And the Weak Suffer What They Must?, and Adults in the Room. Here’s the start:
In the spring of 2015, a series of debt negotiations briefly claimed a share of the world’s attention that normally goes only to events where celebrities give each other prizes. Syriza, a scrappy left-wing party, had stormed into office in Greece on a promise to challenge the consortium of international creditors that had effectively ruled the country since its debt crisis broke out in 2010. For years, austerity, deregulation, the rolling back of labor rights and public services, the rule of money over society, had been facts of life. Now suddenly they were live political questions. It was riveting.
Syriza was represented in these negotiations by its finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis. With his shaved head, leather jacket, and motorcycle, he was not just a visual contrast to the gray-suited Eurocrats across the table. His radical but rigorous proposals for a different kind of Europe—one based on meeting human needs rather than rigid financial criteria—offered a daily rebuke to the old refrain “there is no alternative.”
The drama was clear, but the stakes were a little obscure. Why did it matter if Greece stayed in the euro? Orthodox economic theory, after all, gives little role for money or finance. What matters are real wants and real resources, for which money is just a convenient yardstick. University of Chicago economist John Cochrane probably spoke for much of the profession when he asked why it made any more sense to talk about Greece leaving the euro than about Greece leaving the metric system.
But money does indeed matter—especially in economic relations between countries, as Varoufakis himself has convincingly shown. In his three books—The Global Minotaur (2011), And the Weak Suffer What They Must (2016), and Adults in the Room (2017)—Varoufakis offers a fascinating lens on the euro system and its masters. While the first two books chart the history of the international monetary system from World War II up to the debt crisis, his last and most recent book is a reflection on his five months as Greek finance minister. Taken together, they read as if Varoufakis is the protagonist in some postmodern fable, in which he is transformed from a critic of the play to one of the main characters in it. …
Read the rest there, and then comment here if you are so inclined.
I didn’t read very many books this past year. Can’t claim this guy as an excuse, he was only present the last month of it.
Here are some I did read; I might be forgetting one or two.
Przeworski – Capitalism and Social Democracy. I’m not sure what the author’s political trajectory has been; nothing encouraging, I’m guessing. But I got a lot out of this history of European social democracy as a concrete political phenomenon. He’s asking the right questions: how is it that wage-earners, “workers” in the broader or narrower sense, constitute a constituency for the purposes of electoral politics, and how in practice do avowed socialists govern a capitalist economy? One insight of the book was the importance of Keynesian demand management as an answer to the latter question. For the first generation of electorally successful socialists, there was a seemingly unbridgeable gap between managing an economy based on private ownership, in which maintaining business confidence was critical; and using the state as scaffolding for the construction of the cooperative commonwealth. Until “aggregate demand” became a way of talking about public spending, every step toward the latter tended to undermine the former, so that — it seemed — the gap had to be crossed in one big leap or not at all.
Rothermund – The Great Depression in Global Perspective. One of several books I read because I assigned it. (Teaching economic history is great for this purpose.) It does what it says on the tin: describes the depression of the 1930s as a global phenomenon, with as many pages devoted to Latin America or South Asia as to the United States or Western Europe. It’s a short book and readable — worked fine for my undergrads — but a dense and systematic one. Rothermund is particularly attentive to the ways in which the 1930s collapse in agricultural prices played out differently in countries specializing in different kinds of commodities – staples versus luxuries, small farm products versus plantations. He also has some interesting things to say about the way in which the impact of the Depression in the colonial world — most of humanity at the time — was shaped by the specific institutions of imperial rule, with for instance regimes based on land taxes, head taxes and excise taxes responding to global deflation in different ways.
Grandin – Fordlandia. Did you know that in the early 20th century, Henry Ford bought up a tract of the Amazon bigger than Delaware, built a substantial city there on American lines, and hoped to source all the rubber for his cars from it? This is the book about that. It’s a great piece of history, artfully crafted and readable, on an episode that I (certainly) and you (probably) had never encountered before. I have to say, though, that the whole is a bit less than the sum of the parts. Grandin himself has serious left politics but this book presents itself as almost explicitly anti-Marxist. It insists that we think about Ford’s rainforest outpost not in terms of any objective need for a reliable source of industrial inputs, but some deep-seated desire to recreate an idealized American small town out of virgin material.
I have to say, I’m not happy with this thesis. Economic imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as I understand it, generally involved control of the upstream parts of commodity chains – efforts by both states and firms to substitute direct control over input production for sourcing in open markets. And it involved efforts to gain more direct control over labor – to replace direct producers with control over their own labor time and recognized rights to the land and the its products, with forms of labor somewhere on the wage work-slavery continuum that could be more directly managed. Fordlandia fits both of these patterns perfectly. It’s true, of course, that the effort to create an American-style small town from scratch was not a typical imperial project, which normally would rely more on the coercive powers of local political authorities. (It’s also true that the project failed to generate any significant rubber for Ford’s factories.) But I think Grandin’s preferred story should be seen as overlaying the basic economic logic, rather than an alternative to it.
On the other hand, the book itself does not really support the thesis. It provides plenty of evidence that however sincerely Ford and his lieutenants may have believed in their vision of Normal Rockwell on the Amazon, Fordlandia was fundamentally about managing labor and assuring a stable supply rubber. Perhaps these two criticisms cancel out. In any case, it’s a fascinating story, and the book itself reads like a novel.
O’Malley – On Another Man’s Wound. I read this after watching The Wind that Shakes the Barley – a great movie on the Irish war of independence and civil war – and realizing I knew almost nothing about this history. When I was first becoming politically aware, in the 1980s, northern Ireland was still sometimes mentioned alongside South Africa, Palestine and Central America as a frontline in the war against Empire, but in general Irish politics has never been something that one needed to know much about. Anyway, someone online (in a Crooked Timber thread, I think, years ago) had suggested O’Malley as the thing to read on the Irish independence struggle. As it turns out, it’s a wonderful book – from a literary standpoint, the best thing I read this year.
Apart from an opening chapter on O’Malley’s childhood, the book is limited tothe period of fighting against the British from 1917 to 1921. (A sequel, which I’m reading now, covers the Irish civil war, in which O’Malley was a leader of the Republican or anti-Treaty side.) It’s a first-person story of a mid-level leader in the countryside (and, in some late chapters, of British prisons) so it’s better for the texture and day-to-day experience of the war than the big picture questions a historical account would focus on. There are also long lyrical passages on the Irish countryside, which O’Malley travelled through on bicycle while organizing IRA units in various towns and villages. They make a striking contrast with the descriptions of fighting and brutality. One thing I especially liked about the book was how much attention it gives to the problems of building a political movement – recruiting leaders and activists, establishing reliable forms of collective decision-making; in the book O’Malley is as much an organizer as a soldier. I also appreciated the limited place of actual fighting in the book. There are a couple of brilliant set-piece battle scenes, but many more descriptions of attacks that had to be called off at the last minute, or encounters between Irish and British forces in which somehow no one ended up using their weapons. O’Malley’s last act in the war is typical: the matter-of-fact execution of two British officers who were captured by accident, without a shot fired. I have a feeling this is what most war is like.
Mark Wilson – Creative Destruction. Read my review here. My dad says: I liked your review, but I can’t say it made me want to read the book. Which, yeah.
Koistinen – Arsenal of World War II. If you’re interested in the subject matter of the Wilson book, this is the book you should read. From my point of view, it has two great virtues that Wilson’s book lacks. First, it talk about conflicts within the federal government – in particular the gradual displacement of New Deal officials by a coalition of military leaders and “dollar a year men” from industry – rather than treating the state as a unitary actor, as Wilson does. Second it gives a comprehensive account of how wartime planning actually worked – what kinds of claims on inputs were assigned, to who, by who, on what principles.
Harrison – Economics of World War II. Like the Koistinen, I read most of this in the course of reviewing the Mark Wilson book. Possibly this was overkill. It’s a useful comparative overview of economic management and performance in all the major belligerents.
Beckert – The Monied Metropolis. I read this because I was so impressed with Beckert’s magnificent Empire of Cotton. The subject here is how the American bourgeoisie constituted itself as a class, through the lens of New York. Posing this question is I think one of the distinctive strengths of Marxism: People have a variety of material interests that overlap in various criss-crossing ways: Which ones become politically salient depends on political, cultural, or more broadly ideological structures; and the existence of shared interests doesn’t by itself create the capacity to act on the collectively. In the concrete case explored by this book, it wasn’t obvious, in early 19th century New York, that ownership of capital as such defined a politically relevant category of people. Merchants and traders had little in common, socially, culturally or politically, with bankers, and even less with master manufacturers, even if they all showed up as property owners in the census. Beckert’s project is to show how by 1880 these different groups had come to constitute a coherent, self-conscious bourgeoisie. He looks at where they lived; what churches they went to; who they socialized with, who their children married; as well as the more directly political questions of what parties and politicians won their support, on what kind of basis. One striking bit, on that last point, is how much the New York elite embraced an explicitly anti-democratic program — restricting the franchise, limiting the powers of elected bodies — into the 1880s. It’s fascinating stuff, and all carefully organized around the central question.
I do have some criticisms. First, Beckert obviously has awesome files of archival material at his disposal, and understandably, he wants to use it. But in practice this means that he never gives one example when four will do. There’s a section in chapter five on how the post-Civil War New York rich, embracing a new aristocratic identity in place of their old stern republicanism, began to marry their sons and daughters to European nobility. Fine – but I swear he devotes two full pages to listing one of these marriages after another. More substantively, I’m concerned that the before-and-after frame of the book telescopes together longer processes, especially in the post-Civil War decades. Reading the book, you could get the impression that wealthy New Yorkers in 1880 mostly owned stocks and bonds rather than businesses directly; but this wouldn’t be the case for another two decades. Finally, there’s the scope or focus of the book, which is very much the American bourgeoisie in New York, as opposed to the New York bourgeoisie. It’s striking that in Beckert’s typology of capital – finance, trade, and manufacturing – real estate doesn’t appear; and real estate owners hardly make an appearance. Especially in the later section, the interests at play are almost entirely national, in which wealthy New Yorkers have the same stake as wealth-owners anywhere else in the country. There is a great deal on the political interests of capital vis-vis New York city and state government, but almost nothing on the local development and land-use issues that are the overwhelming concern of wealth-owners with respect to local government today. I suppose it’s possible that in the 19th century land was relatively abundant even in New York and real estate didn’t constitute an important category of wealth or material interests; I think it’s much more likely this just wasn’t where Beckert’s interests lay.
Still, it’s a great book. It’s not Empire of Cotton, but what else is?
Varoufakis – The Weak Suffer What They Must? I read this in order to write a review essay on Varoufakis three recent books, of which this is the second. The review is now very late but will show up eventually.
Goodwyn – The Populist Moment. Another one I read for teaching. (I’d read part of it in college.) The book is a classic and deservedly so. It is sort of the flipside of Moneyed Metropolis: It asks how a section of small farmers and laborers came to constitute themselves as a class in the late 19th century – a much more fragile and transitory development but in some ways parallel to the one Beckert describes. The central thread of the book is the growth and decline of the People’s, or Populist, party in the Plains and South. It’s worth noting in passing that this is the only historical movement that explicitly used that label – yet with its detailed and explicit program, absence of charismatic leadership, and embrace of black participation, it fits very little of what gets called populism today.
The interest of the book is, first, simply that this movement existed, with institutions, mass membership, and its detailed program for nationalization of key industries, regulation of prices, and redistribution of land, developed from the bottom up. There’s a tendency in looking back at American history to see these sorts of mass movements as either absent, or else as inchoate, reactionary explosions. Second, there’s Goodwyn’s main argument, about the conditions that made this movement possible. For him, the key thing was the concrete experience of exercising political power, the first-hand practice in collective decision-making that came from running cooperative stores, crop marketing arrangements and so on. It was this experience of democratic decisonmaking in meeting immediate needs that laid the foundation for a broader democratic politics. Where electoral programs came first, Goodwyn argues, they were soon taken over by professional politicians or demogogues.
Kelley – Hammer and Hoe. Another book about political organization by small farmers and agricultural workers, set a generation after Goodwyn’s story — in this case, the surprising success of the Communist Party among African Americans in Alabama during the 1930s. Like Goodwyn, it’s a useful complement to Beckert — the one serious weakness of Empire of Cotton, in my view, is the almost complete absence of political activity among the direct producers of cotton, except in the form of James Scott-style passive resistance. As these books make clear, there was also organized, radical mass politics in the countryside, even if its successes were limited and temporary. I don’t know anything about Kelley’s other work, but Hammer and Hoe is a magnificent piece of scholarship, about a story that should be better known. A central fact in American history is white supremacy. One group of people, one of the few, who have recognized this, and fought it even at moments when it seemed like an unchangeable fact of nature, were American communists. It’s important not to forget that.
O’Brien – Going after Cacciato. Perhaps I’ve forgotten something, but as far as I can tell, this is the only novel I read in the past year. I wouldn’t recommend it over The Things They Carried, but there is something profound and compelling about its overarching metaphor of the war as a permanent fact, with fantasies of escape from it always eroding around the edges as reality seeps back in.
Here are some books I’ve read recently.
W. Arthur Lewis, The Evolution of the World Economic Order
This little book may have the highest insights-per-page density of any economics book I’ve read. This isn’t an unmixed blessing — what you’re getting here are the distilled conclusions of a lifetime’s work in development economics, without any of the concrete material that led to them. The central theme — among many fascinating side-trips — is a basically Ricardian vision of a three-class society in which conditions in agriculture fundamentally determine the possibilities for capitalist development, and landlords are the great enemies of progress.
Among the book’s many virtues is the way it demonstrates how Ricardo’s theories of trade has much more radical implications than the free-trade-is-good bromides it’s usually deployed in support of. As Lewis points out, the Ricardian model clearly shows that it is in the interests of the rich countries that poor countries develop their capacity to produce goods they are already specialized in (i.e. follow their comparative advantage). But it is in the interest of the poor countries themselves (except for the landlords) to develop their capacity to produce the goods currently produced by the rich countries.
Charles Sellers, The Market Revolution
Originally I’d picked up some other history of the pre-Civil War United States. It referred dismissively to the idea that resistance to wage labor and to production for profit had been important to political and social developments in the early United States, and referenced The Market Revolution as the leading example of this now-discredited view. Ah, I thought, that’s the book I should be reading. I was not disappointed. The transition from use-value production by family units to market production by wage (and slave) labor turns out to be a very effective tool for organizing a general political and social history of the US from the end of the War of 1812 to the 1840s.
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor’s Tale
I’d had this sitting around for ages and for some reason picked it up when I was unpacking a box of books. It’s a history of evolution, told through the conceit of a pilgrimage from modern humans back to the origins of life. Each pilgrim represents the last common ancestor of us and some other group of organisms. It may not be obvious at first but there is a definite number of such meeting points, no more than a few dozen, though obviously there is quite a bit of uncertainty about the more distant ones. It’s a very effective device for telling the story of evolution in an unfamiliar way, and, thankfully, Dawkins’ cranky politics are confined to a few footnotes.
Richard Werner, Princes of the Yen
Someone recommend this book to me in comments on this blog. It’s an original retelling of the story of Japan’s long postwar boom and long post-1980s stagnation that puts monetary policy at the center of both.
The basic argument is that the distinctive features of Japanese capitalism are a product of wartime mobilization, not some ancient features of Japanese culture; Werner’s claim that 1920s Japan was as liberal as the US or UK on most economic dimensions is consistent with other things I’ve read. The central feature of wartime planning that was preserved after 1945 was direct allocation of credit by the state — not officially, but via “window guidance” to banks on the desired volume and direction of lending. Initially this was controlled by the Ministry of Finance but in the 1980s, Werner argues, the Bank of Japan became increasing independent, and the key decisionmakers there — the “princes of the yen” of the title — saw their control over credit as a tool to dismantle the distinctive features of postwar Japanese capitalism. His claim that the crisis was deliberately provoke and prolonged in order to push through a broader agenda of liberalization is highly relevant as a precedent for what’s happening in Europe today — though I have to admit that his evidence for it is more suggestive than dispositive.
Ray Madoff, Immortality and the Law
I stole this from Mike Konczal when I was visiting him last year; he was using it for a piece in The Nation. It’s a fascinating discussion of a question I’d never thought about much before — the legal status of dead people.
The argument is that the US is an outlier, in that it grants dead people no rights over their bodies — instructions about the disposal of remains have no legal force — but grants wealthowners almost unlimited freedom to dispose of their property however they wish. In most European countries, by contrast, children and other family members are entitled to a substantial share of the estate regardless of the wishes of the deceased. Piketty, incidentally, is critical of these rules, on the grounds that they reinforce inherited wealth, but the US has its own ways of maintaining fortunes across generations. As Madoff points out, the “rule against perpetuities” now exists only in law school classrooms. While at one time it was possible to leave wealth in trust only for named individuals, it is now perfectly possible to set up a trust to benefit your decendents unto the last generation. Even better, you can keep your property itself in the trust, allowing your heirs only an income, or the use of it (as with a house); this protects it from the taxman, your children’s creditors, and their own spendthrift ways. Of course the law is not the whole story here; whether the US has the norms and institutions to actually maintain such perpetual wealth remains to be seen.
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction
If you’ve read Kolbert’s pieces on climate change in the New Yorker then you know what this book is like. It’s a good, readable summary of what we know about the mass extinction currently underway. There’s nothing really new here, but one thing I did learn from it is how much of what’s happening is due to factors other than warming per se. Ocean acidification is responsible for the extinction of coral, which may be completely gone by the end of the century; invasive species and the dissemination of pathogens is the main factor in the decline of bats and amphibians. No matter how familiar you think you are with this stuff there’s always something that hits you. I remember my fascination and disgust as a child when I learned there were frogs that swallowed their eggs and hatched the tadpoles in their stomachs. It turns out there aren’t anymore.
Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism and Shame
The central claim of Boehm’s previous book is that all the small bands of foragers we know of — the closest analogues to the societies that existed for 99 percent of human history — are strictly egalitarian, with no one (among adult males) allowed to assume authority over anyone else. This contrasts with the modern world of kings, cops and bosses, and even more so with the rigid dominance hierarchies of our nearest primate relatives. And yet there is a striking parallel between the alliances that dominant chimpanzees form to defend their top spot, and the alliances that entire groups of human beings form to prevent anyone from occupying the top spot in the first place.
Boehm’s idea — which I like a lot, though I don’t have any expertise — is that the same basic behavioral patterns, presumably with the same genetic underpinnings, can produce dramatically different kinds of society. An intense dislike of having people above you, plus the ability to form alliances against anyone who tries to move up in the ranks, are the ingredients for a world of chimpanzees, baboons, mafiosos and orcs, where everyone is jealously guarding their spot in the hierarchy and ready to violently retaliate against usurpers who try to cut ahead of them. But the same vigilance against anyone trying to put themselves above you can equally give rise to the absolute democracy of hunter-gatherer bands, or today to political movements like Occupy Wall Street.
The main thing the newer book adds to the story is a more explicit argument that egalitarian norms arose through natural selection, along the same lines as people like Bowles and Gintis. I am not sure this evolutionary turn is a step forward. Like all evolutionary psychology, this consists largely of speculative just-so stories. And it loses one of the most interesting ideas in the earlier work, that the same behavioral building blocks can give rise to both hierarchical and egalitarian forms of society.
As for fiction, I’ve recently read:
It’s a Battlefield, by Graham Greene
Q, by Luther Blissett
The First Bad Man, by Miranda July
The Lists of the Past, by Julie Hayden. (See Laura Tanenbaum’s review here.)
The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers
The Progress of Love, by Alice Munro
Going after Caciatto, by Tim O’Brien
The Hunters, by James Salter
Cities of Salt, by Adulrahman Munif
Crow Fair, by Tom McGuane
My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, by Elana Ferrante
I liked all of them a lot, would recommend them all. Maybe I’ll write mini-reviews in an another post. Or maybe not.
Some books I read this year:
Chaos and Night, by Henry de Montherlant. This short novel from the 1950s is best known for the line, “I accuse the Americans of being in a continuous state of crime against humanity.” Though it’s spoken by Don Celestino, the book’s central character, it’s almost always attributed to Montherlant himself, which is a little odd since the conservative author hardly shares his protagonist’s curdled leftism. Besides anti-Americanism, Montherlant is also known for — at least it’s where I first encountered him — Simone de Beauvoir’s savage attack on the misogyny of his novels. (“For Montherlant it is first of all the mother who is the great enemy; … it is clearly seen that what he detests in her, is the fact of his own birth.”) It’s true that Celestino’s daughter Pascualita, the novel’s only female character, is vain, superficial and rather stupid. But she comes off much better than the protagonist himself, a delusional, rage-filled and hypocritical Spanish ex-anarchist. Though the book is constantly echoing Don Quixote, Celestino is a rancid parody of Quixote — his fantasies are repulsive as well as unreal. It’s about the least sympathetic portrayal of an old radical I have seen, a brutal travesty of the revolutionary intellectuals of the early 20th century.
So, why read such a thing? Mainly because it’s an very nicely constructed little book, written in a perfect style and with a whole series of brilliant little set pieces. And Don Celestino, vicious and self-pitying, is one of those unignorable personalities who takes over the page, with his rage against the whole world, from America to his few friends down to the pigeons he goes out of his way to drive from their crumbs. Personally, I was hooked from the monologue that opens the book: “To the north, there’s England, an incomprehensible country, and the Scandinavian states, incomprehensible countries. To the south there’s the Vatican. The dome of St. Peter’s is the candle-snuffer of Western thought… To the west there’s the United States. The United States is the canker of the world…”
The American Political Tradition, by Richard Hofstadter. I picked this up after Seth Ackerman — a very smart guy and good comrade, even if I don’t share his political vision — mentioned it here. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it earlier, it should be required reading for any halfway educated USAnian. The central theme is the fundamental conservatism of American political thought: With the partial exception of the abolitionists (represented here by Wendell Phillips), there’s never been a popular anti-systemic politics with any real access to state power. At the highest levels it’s just been a choice of conservatisms. Hofstadter has clear preferences among these. He likes best the reluctant radicals who under the pressure of events are prepared to change everything so that everything can remain the same, like FDR and Lincoln — though as he pointedly notes in the case of Lincoln, this meant that he spent most of the Civil War seeking to restore the conditions that had produced the war in the first place. (This is always the problem for conservative reformers.) Much worse are the principled conservatives like Calhoun — or more unexpectedly Grover Cleveland, who out of pure principle favored business over labor even more than the most venally pro-business Republicans of the Gilded Age. Worst of all are the populist conservatives like Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. TR’s is the most thoroughly repulsive of the generally unflattering portraits in the book, combining smug thoughtless aristocratic privilege with brutal petty-bourgeois resentment. He frankly said that the only good Indian is a dead Indian, and eagerly hoped that every strike would finally let him haul out the Gatling guns, or at least bring his “cowboys” around to smash some workers’ heads. After reading this, it’s hard to walk through the lobby of the Museum of Natural History without feeling a little queasy.
Not Entitled, by Frank Kermode. The thoroughly charming memoir of the critic and English professor. Somebody said that if we wrote about lives the way we experience them, there’d be a dozen chapters on childhood, two or three on adolescence, and a brief afterword covering the rest. Kermode more or less follows this formula, with almost half the book devoted to his childhood on the Isle of Man, and another third to life in the British navy during World War II; there’s a couple short chapters on his postwar flounderings, and he passes over his long and successful academic career in a rushed handful of pages, as if embarassed by them. Which he probably was: The title of the book refers to what sailors were told on payday when they had incurred enough fines to cancel out their whole salary, but it’s also the attitude Kermode takes toward his whole life. His successes were fortuitous and unearned; more deserving people missed their chance for no good reason. Even writing in his 70s, he describes himself as feeling always like the youngest one in the room, unprepared, the newcomer, off balance and out of place, having arrived late and trying to find his place in a conversation already under way. Traa dy lioaur, “at the heel of the hunt,” in the Manx phrase his mother used to use of him. It’s a long time since I’ve read a book in which I’ve found such a kindred spirit.
What the Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain. I won’t lie, I picked this up to help me talk about teaching on the academic job market. But it’s really good! It was recommended to me by Prof T., to whom it was recommended, I think, by some other teacher; it seems to be kind of a cult thing that way. Bain’s central point is that we should think of classes in terms of what students do, not what the instructor does. Teaching isn’t a matter of pouring “material” into students and hoping they “retain” it, it’s about creating an environment in which they can actively engage in the same kind of work and critical thought that professionals do. (The same spirit someone like Andrew Lawrence brings to guitar teaching.) It’s an insight I’d been stumbling toward on my own but which is much more fully developed here and backed up with research and case studies. This book goes on the short shelf with other pieces of everyday utopianism — A Pattern Language, Cziksentmihalyi’s Flow. It’s a slighter book than those but the spirit is the same — we don’t have to just carry out our daily activities the way they always have been, but we also don’t have to revolutionize them according to logic of profit. It is possible to think clearly, freely and genuinely about how to do things right on their own terms.
Man Gone Down, by Michael Thomas. A first novel by someone you’ve never heard of; he doesn’t seem to have published even a story before this. It was recommended to me by my father when it came out a couple of years ago; I resisted reading it then because I knew it had a 9/11 subplot, and I’m allergic to WTC sentimentalism. But that’s only a small part of the book, which as it turns out I like very much. It’s a bit hard to say why. After all, it’s an entry in the justly reviled struggling-writer-in-Brooklyn genre. And while I generally prefer a clean austere style, Thomas is a writer of compulsively detailed descriptions — a single golf swing takes half a page. (Think Updike on Doritos.) Now one obvious difference between Thomas and “all the sad young literary men” is that he is African-American. It’s treacherous to think that any work of art can allow you to really understand a subjective experience foreign to your own (but isn’t that always what we hope for from art?) but this feels like a convincing picture of (one kind of) life as a black man in post-civil-rights America. In tone it’s somewhere between Nathan McCall’s memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler and the lovely Medicine for Melancholy. It’s significant that, as a “type,” the unnamed (but clearly autobiographical) protagonist is arguably a black man only second, and a struggling artist first. Why can’t you have all the angst that goes with that just because you’re black?, is one of the main themes of the book. There’s a nice scene about halfway through where he plays a set at an open-mike night and, after doing various old blues songs ends with “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The white hipster running the thing is disappointed: “I thought you were going in a different direction.”
It’s also a book about being broke, about alcoholism, and most distinctly, about blue-collar work. The narrator, who needs to earn money very quickly to preserve his marriage, has set aside his novel and returned to his old work as a carpenter. Thomas’ overflowing, almost compulsive descriptions are so much more interesting when they’re not about golf swings, but about the specific tasks and relationships involved in renovating a building. (So it’s a book about gentrification too.) At one point the narrator finds himself in a nice restaurant, and all he can think about is how superb the dry-walling is. (This goes in the labor-as-man’s-highest-need file, next to the poor hatmaker in Mrs. Dalloway, whose favorite activity in her walks around London is admiring the workmanship of ladies’ hats.) That so much of the loving description is of manual labor rather than middle-class consumption rituals is one important thing that sets this book off from Updike and from the Jonathans. But setting aside all that, it’s just beautifully constructed, it achieves what fiction is there for, it engages you emotionally. When the narrator finally has some bills in his pocket and seems set to squander them, when he seems set to give up in his fight against alcohol, you want to push your head through the page and shout, No.
Michal Kalecki, Theory of Economic Dynamics. Kalecki is important (the hostility classical Marxists in the Shaikh/Dumenil-Levy vein feel toward him is something I’d like to understand better) but except in format this doesn’t really count as a book. More like reading a couple articles. So it’s only here for completeness.
Peter Laslett, The World We Have Lost. Classic social history of England around the year 1600. Laslett has some odd tics as a writer (like hi one-of-a-kind approach to footnotes) but this is a remarkably rich book given how accessible it is. It really does, I think, give one a sense of how the lived experience of the premodern world was fundamentally different from ours. “Time was when the whole of life went forward in the family, in a circle of loved, familiar faces, known and fondled objects, all to human size. That time has gone forever. It makes us very different from our ancestors.”
Cormac McCarthy, The Road. Maybe I read this last fall, I can’t remember. What an experience — for days afterward, I found myself struck by astonishment when I saw that stores were open, houses inhabited, people alive. A.’s husband S., who reads everything, says it’s the first book of McCarthy’s in over a decade that wasn’t worse than the one before. I can’t agree — Cities of the Plain was awful and No Country for Old Men was at least OK. Anyway, you don’t need to hear about this book from me. It’s on all those “Best of…” lists for a reason.
Lorrie Moore, Self Help. Another story collection whose merits have been obscured for me by Miranda July.
Walter Mosley, Six Easy Pieces. First Moseley I’ve read. Reckon it won’t be the last.
Daniyal Mueenuddin, In Other Rooms Other Wonders. Stories of feudal Pakistan, beautifully executed. These are lovely stories, Joycean in the best sense, but also the most profoundly conservative of any contemporary fiction I’ve read. Mueenuddin is a Punjabi landlord scion himself, regardless of his almost supernatural empathy for everyone up and down the feudal hierarchy. It’s hard to think of a memorable work of fiction from the 20th or even 19th century that is so attentive to the social order and its hierarchies, and yet takes their permanence and morality so completely for granted. (It’s what Tom Wolfe tries, and fails, to do for the US.) “They eat his salt” is a characteristic metaphor for the dependence of retainers on their master; that it might better be turned around never occurs to any of the characters, nor, seemingly, to the author.
Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Not sure why this was my year to read Flannery O’Connor. These are fascinating stories. They’re a little too rigid and theological — a little too manipulative of their characters — to have quite the emotional force, at least for me, of Carson McCullers, who O’Conner can’t quite displace from the top of my pantheon of mid-20th century Southern writers. But considered as moral puzzles, they’re insidious. Every one is a document of a moral failure and its punishment, and you find yourself turning them over and over in your head as you struggle to understand what kind of justice is involved.
Kim Phillips-Fein, Visible Hands. A history of business conservatism by an old comrade. The chapter on labor and the workplace is really, really good. With the rest, she might have gotten a little too close to her subject — there’s not much in the histories of institutions like Heritage and AEI that, I reckon, their inmates would object to. And it’s sorely lacking any situating of the rise of the specifically business-based Right in a larger historical context — except, oddly, in the bibliographic notes at the end. The narrow focus of the book on the maneuvering of political entrepreneurs leaves one wondering things like, Were business elites right or wrong to feel as threatened by the New Deal as they did? Were there larger structural forces favoring their victory in the 1980s, or did they just play the game better than the liberals? Did the specific political groups she writes about represent business opinion as a whole, or only some segment of it, and in either case, how were they accountable to them? Did the mass base of the conservative movement constrain the peak institutions, or was it all basically top-down? Ah well, maybe in the next book.
George Saunders, Pastoralia. H.’s ex, A., recommended this one. The title story is not bad and the the third one is better than not bad; the rest probably could have stopped at the workshop. In style it’s sort of a fusion of Raymond Carver and Garcia Marquez, blue-collar types being emotionally strangled in a sur- or hyper-real world. (Maybe this is a new thing, magical social realism?) I approve the concept but he tries a bit too hard.
W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz. A very strange novel, recommended to me by G. I wonder if some of the things that make it read so strangely, like the lack of paragraphs (or chapters or other breaks) and the indirect dialogue, are more common in German-language fiction? In any case, it’s about an older man in England who was evacuated from central Europe as a child and his effort to recover his forgotten childhood and family — a powerful metaphor for the irrecoverable void in the past of central Europe (or maybe in all of our pasts). The book, especially the opening scenes, is written with jewel-like precision, but I’m not sure how widely I would recommend it — it’s a tour de force that feels almost more like a brilliantly-executed exercise, a demonstration of technique, than a book in its own right.
Jonathan Sperber, The European Revolutions 1848-1851. A general history of 1848. There are probably better ones, but it was useful to me.
Alain Supiot, Homo Juridicus. Maybe the richest and most challenging book I read this year. It’s a series of meditations on the relation of law to society, written in that distinctive elliptical French-theorist style. At the broadest level, it’s a defense of positive law, against intellectual currents that would reduce law to a special case of economics, or biology, or administration. In this sense he’s a liberal, but Supiot (like Carl Schmitt, in his own way) shows how there are elements of the political vision of liberalism that socialism needs to build on and not just transcend. Another book that really needs a post of its own. Meantime, there’s a good review in NLR (subscription only, unfortunately).
Peter Temin, Did Monetary Forces Cause the Great Depression? Why is it that in American economics, the only subject where you’re allowed to merge history and macroeconomics is the Depression? In any case, for my money, this is how economics should be written. (The answer to the title question, if you’re wondering, is No.)
Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged Everything Burned. The second-best short-story collection I read this year. Like Saunders, he’s taking the emotional tone of the the Carver-era American story and placing it against a heightened background, in this case not by departing from reality but by seeking out less familiar bits of it. So the guy going through an ugly divorce also collects tropical fish (or has to pick his ex-wife up from a yoga retreat), the man who’s left home after a fight with his mother’s new husband finds himself in the company of a pedophile at a prize-pig contest at a county fair, the man who can’t get past his feud with his brother is also speculating in real estate in Maine. Or, in the title story, the working-class guy just trying to get by happens to work as a Viking raider in medieval Norway. One wants to hate this guy because he’s followed the Brooklyn-writer script so exactly — the MFA, the prizes, the old-money name. But he writes so well!
B. Traven, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Just read this one, off of Geert’s shelf. Adventure stories in revolutionary Mexico, with an anarchist-socialist edge. And funny, too. Can’t argue with that — I’m starting The Death Ship now.
(Not much economics, huh? Partly, see the tag. But it’s also the case that economics mostly doesn’t come in book form.)
Some books I’ve read in the past year:
Perry Anderson, The New Old World. The guy must be 90 years old, and he is still turning out these huge, deep, beautiful, important books. Someone said that no one writes Latin in English like Anderson does, and while I don’t know much about Latin that has the ring of truth: His style can’t be described as anything but “classical.” The substantive argument here — if you fish it out from all the clever apercus and brilliant asides — is that the EU is the European elites’ end-run around popular movements, which continue to be stronger there than in the US or in most of the rest of world, but are inherently national.
David Archer, The Long Thaw. Climate change in the long view, not the next hundred years but the next thousand, hundred thousand, million. Yes, we’ve fucked up the planet that badly.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. I read a lot of graphic novels (or comics, whatever) but this is the only one I’m including here. A lovely book. A lot of us grow up in families that look,in retrospect, more or less insane, but few of us are able to describe both the insanity and the way that, from the inside, our families nonetheless worked. And she’s an iconic lesbian and all that, but this book would rock regardless.
Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection. This is a fun book. I’ve recommended it to several people and it’s been a hit every time. It’s a sort of magical-realist satire of the detective novel, bringing out the way that the detective’s central mystery is always his own fragmented self … but who cares what I think. Read it yourself and you’ll have your own strong views. It’s a book that demands theorizing.
Sean Carroll, From Eternity to Here. Physicist striving to explain the nature of time. Not the worst pop science book I’ve ever read, and not the best. I have some substantive thoughts about it but they’ll wait for another post.
John Cheever, Bullet Park and Falconer. Why did I decide to read Cheever this year? A. lent me Bullet Park; it’s a fascinating artifact, a paperback from the early 70s in the small mass-market format, announcing itself a best-seller on the cover; can’t imagine a similarly literary novel looking like that today. Cheever! Well, let’s say, first, he writes brilliant, perfect scenes but they don’t scale; he gets too sucked into crazy monologues and bizarre, over the top set-pieces. (So maybe he’s a short-story writer…) And second, that he is the Chinua Achebe of the suburbs, in that his stories combine measurable tragedies governed by the understood rules of the world, with incomprehensible irruptions from outside.
Paul Davidson, John Maynard Keynes. Everybody hates Davidson. Why? I think there’s some good stuff in here.
Lydia Davis, Break It Down. A lot to like, probably, but this book was completely eclipsed in my mind by Miranda July.
M. I. Finley, Aspects of Antiquity. Essays on Greece and Rome, good stuff. Finley wrote The Ancient Economy, which gives you a sense of what to expect.
Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong. Critique of Darwinism from the left. Gestures at a lot of important arguments, like the circularity of “fitness”, but don’t really make them in any systematic way. I wish this had been a better book.
Tom Geoghegan, Were You Born on the Wrong Continent? This was a good book, in its way. Tom — a friend of mine, once upon a time, tho I haven’t talked to him in years — has a loopy, confessional, faux-naive writing style, all asides and exclamations, that’s uniquely seductive, or offputting if you’re expecting a conventional argument. Here it’s deployed to argue that the European model is better not just for the poor but for the middle class. It’s very convincing, for familiar and less familiar reasons — for him workplace democracy is at the heart of the German model. It’s an important argument that more people should hear — but a hard one to make just as the Euro system is falling apart and his beloved Germans seem to be to blame.
Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript. Bruce Sterling has a short story about a future where poets and artists are the dominant class in society and businessmen and engineers exist in a marginalized demimonde. This strange little book sort of argue that the Soviet Union actually was such a world — that it genuinely realized socialism in the sense that it was a society governed by language rather than quantities. Even its failure was a success, in this sense, because it ended not due a quasi-natural process of economic breakdown, but by conscious conscious choice.
James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren. Did I say we’ve fucked the planet? No, no, we’ve really fucked the planet. The section on the Venus Syndrome in this book is the scariest thing I’ve read this year, and that’s including The Road.
Bernd Heinrich, Ravens in Winter. Observational science is awesome.
Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Best book I’ve read all year. If you read fiction at all, you need to read this book. I’d like to write a full post about July. But suffice to say, she somehow manages to discover human situations no one has written about before, or at least to write about them as if no one else has. So reading her stories you feel like you’re discovering our emotions, our relationships, for the first time, fresh. The two best stories here — “Something That Needs Nothing” and “How to Tell Stories to Children” — are nothing less than miraculous.
Part two is here.
This looks like an interesting book.
She’s arguing, as I understand it, that science cannot be ontologically complete, that it always coexists with other kinds of truth:
There is always ‘room left’ for alternative ontologies in cognitive-intellectual space, a realm that is neither cramped nor finite but, on the contrary, appears – both historically and for humans individually – exceedingly and perhaps infinitely elastic. … For many people … accepting, applying, and/or producing scientific knowledge and being religiously observant are no more in conflict than would be, for any of us, both playing the violin and practising law.
Interesting, maybe, as a bare assertion; more for the particular argument. Let’s say, on the one hand, that we accept a scientific view of religion. It’s a pattern of human behavior created by the interaction of our biological brains and our social environment; the potential for it was favored by its usefulness to our savannah ancestors and its actual existence by its usefulness for some social-political purpose today. Group cohesion then, the ploys of the Jesuits now, something like that.
The problem with this isn’t that it isn’t true; it is true, within some limits. The problem is that it explains too much. Every human belief system is the product of our Darwinianly-evolved brains and our social environment. You can fully explain religion, in principle, by a combination of genetic predisposition and practical advantage, but you can just as fully explain science, or anything else that people do. After all, we’re natural beings in the natural world; everything we do has a natural explanation. The most you can say in this framework is that science has displaced religion from many areas of life because of its greater utility; but by the same token you have to concede that religion has held on in other areas thanks to its greater utility. A purely naturalistic account of human beliefs has no place for them being true or false. People adopt them all for the same kind of reasons.
(Sraffa to Wittgenstein: “If the rules of language can be constructed only by observation, there can never be any nonsense said. This identifies the cause and the meaning of a word. The language of birds, as well as the language of metaphysicians can be interpreted consistently in this way. It is only a matter of finding the occasion on which they say a thing, just as one finds the occasion on which they sneeze.”)
On the other hand, almost anyone who cares about science prefers to believe it corresponds to some external truth about the world. One can’t object to this (Thomas Nagel, in this review, accuses Smith of objecting, but I suspect he’s got her wrong), but it’s not consistent with science being ontologically complete. A scientific account of scientific beliefs can offer various reasons for why people happen to hold them, but it has nothing to say about whether they are true. You may believe, if you like, that Betelgeuse would be 630 light years from the Earth whether anyone had measured the distance or not; but in a naturalistic account of why people do believe that, it all comes down to the measurements; independent of those the “objective” distance has no effect on anyone.
Put it another way: science offers heuristics for sorting beliefs into relatively confirmed and relatively falsified piles; but it doesn’t, and can’t, tell you why should prefer to hold the beliefs in the confirmed pile. Oh, say the new atheists, because they’re more useful. But right there they’ve conceded that if someone finds some social or psychological advantage in being religious, that’s as justified as anyone’s belief in science. To get along with your neighbors, to be free of angst about The Point of It All: aren’t those useful too?
Galileo is a hero of science and of civilization for eppur si muove. But what’s he saying? With respect to the heavens, he’s asserting that the demands of reality take precedence over what we think is right. But with respect to the earth, it’s just the opposite: He’s insisting on the priority of abstract right over concrete reality. After all, if he applied the same unromantic empiricism to his life as he did to his astronomy, he’d take one look at the instruments and conclude that practical experimentation revealed that the Earth goes around the Sun. (As did Brecht’s Galileo.) A belief that’s liable to get you tortured to death is pretty clearly less practically useful than a belief that leaves you torture-free. Galileo’s insistence that one should believe in science, come what may, is entirely unscientific, and — Brecht struggled with this — so much the better for Galileo.
The thing about the contradiction between the scientific method and belief in science is that it can be resolved either way. Nagel thinks that Smith is trying to apply the naturalistic, constructivist view of human beliefs “all the way down”. Me, I prefer to think she’s showing that’s exactly what you cannot do.