Thursday, December 30, 2010


Keith Richards wrote a book. A month ago, at least, you could find it on the front shelf of the Barnes & Noble, next to the Glenn Beck.
I haven't read the book, but I did read David Remnick's review in The New Yorker. I was struck by this bit:
In the teen-aged imagination, the virtue of being a member of the band is that you end the day in the sack with the partner, or partners, of your choice. Not so, Richards says: "You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you're thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell's going on."
One could preach a whole sermon on that text. To begin with, that's what it is to be an artist, isn't it? It's work, hard work, and you're always working. Or as the man says:
Labour time cannot remain the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. ... Labour becomes the individual's self-realization, [but this] in no way means that it becomes mere fun, mere amusement, as Fourier with grisette-like naivete, conceives it. Really free working, e.g. composing, is at the same time precisely the most damned serious, the most intense exertion.

And there's nothing more satisfying than that exertion. That's what Keith Richards says, anyway. All the varieties of consumption the world can offer -- and it offers them all to the rock star -- can't compete with the need to produce, in this case to produce music. The development of capitalism has certainly increased the number of of people who can get some of the satisfactions of consuming like Keith Richards, but has it increased the number who get the satisfaction of producing like him, freely and creatively?

This need to be doing productive work, and to do one's work well, what Michelet called "the professional conscience" is, it seems to me, one of the most fundamental but one of the most neglected human drives. You can hear it from Richards. You can hear it from people like the stonemason interviewed in Studs Terkel's Working:
There's not a house in this country that I built that I don't look at every time I go by. I can set here now and actually in my mind see so many you wouldn't believe. If there's one stone in there crooked, I know where it's at and I never forget it. Maybe 30 years, I'll know a place where I should have took that stone out and redone it but I didn't. I still notice it. The people who live there might not notice it, but I notice it. I never pass that house that I don't think of it …. My work, I can see what I did the first day I started. All my work is set right out there in the open and I can look at it as I go by. It's something I can see the rest of my life. Forty years ago, the first blocks I ever laid in my life, when I was 17 years old. I never go through Eureka that I don't look thataway. It's always there. Immortality as far as we're concerned
Or you can hear it from the sailor Stanislav in B. Traven's The Death Ship, explaining why he took a grueling, barely-paid job as a stoker on the titular vessel when he was living comfortably as a petty criminal on land:
You get awfully tired and bored of that kind of business. There is something which is not true about the whole thing. And you feel it, see? ... You want to do something. You wish to be useful. I do not mean that silly stuff about man's duty. That's bunk. There is in yourself that which is driving you on to do something worth while. Not all the time hanging on like a bum... It is that you want to create something, to help things going.
This is what liberals, who think that human wellbeing consists in the consumption of goods and services, cannot understand. Capitalism piles up consumer goods but deprives more and more of us of the satisfaction of genuine work. A good trade, when it's a question of meeting basic needs. But once they are met -- and they are met; they are finite, tho liberals, from Mill to DeLong, deny it -- all the bacchanals in the world are no substitute for the knowledge that one has produced something worthwhile by one's own free efforts. Or as that other guy said, It's not that which goes into the mouth, but that which comes out of it, that defiles people. Or that exalts them.

EDIT: Thanks to (I think) Chris Mealy, this has quickly become the most-read ever post on Slackwire. If you like it, you might also appreciate this one and this one.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010 Books, Part 2

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.)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010 Books, Part 1

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.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Singularity Is Over

So I've thought for a while. I even wrote a post with this title a couple months ago, which I couldn't quite get to congeal. But Cosma Shalizi gets it exactly right:

The Singularity has happened; we call it "the industrial revolution" or "the long nineteenth century". It was over by the close of 1918.

Exponential yet basically unpredictable growth of technology, rendering long-term extrapolation impossible (even when attempted by geniuses)? Check.

Massive, profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity, extending to our ecology, mentality and social organization? Check.

Annihilation of the age-old constraints of space and time? Check.

Embrace of the fusion of humanity and machines? Check.

Creation of vast, inhuman distributed systems of information-processing, communication and control, "the coldest of all cold monsters"? Check; we call them "the self-regulating market system" and "modern bureaucracies" (public or private), and they treat men and women, even those whose minds and bodies instantiate them, like straw dogs.

An implacable drive on the part of those networks to expand, to entrain more and more of the world within their own sphere? Check.
"Capital" is more precise than "self-regulating market system," but otherwise I wouldn't change a word.

One should only add that despite the pieties about ever-accelerating change, the past half-century has, by any reasonable metric, seen a slower pace of technological innovation than any prior 50-year period since the end of the 18th century..