Saturday, 29 December 2012

Review: David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years

I think this has to be my Book of the Year for 2012. It is extraordinary in its scope, lively and original in its treatment, and displays an open-minded radicalism in the conclusions it draws or suggests. There is so much here that I never knew and so much that I had never before thought about.

The Library of Congress catalogues its subject matter as "1 Debt - History. 2. Money - History. 3 Financial Crises - History." The evidence is drawn world-wide from archaeology,  the founding texts of the world's religions, anthropology, the work of economic historians and much more. There must be a life-time's reading distilled here. Credit and money emerge in the context of social organisations and political and religious power - and violence. They take different forms as their context changes. The starting point is what Graeber calls "baseline Communism":

the understanding that, unless people consider themselves enemies, if the need is considered great enough, or the cost reasonable enough, the principle of 'from each according to his abilities, to each according to their needs' will be assumed to apply (page 98)

From this context, systems of credit emerge with most people most of the time creditors and debtors. The formalisation of such credit arrangements into calculable balance sheets takes different forms but pretty soon gets mixed up with organisations of power, which create more-or-less permanently indebted classes of people. Religious thought takes many of its metaphors from this world of credit and debt: debt and sin are closely linked and redemption is both the forgiveness of debt and the forgiveness of sin.

Money comes later and in non-friendly contexts: you need money to trade with people you don't trust and who don't trust you. It spreads when rulers discover that they can create coinage to pay soldiers who are then able to buy from people they don't know and who may have cause not to like them. They simply trade with them. Money does not emerge from previous barter systems - Graeber is scathing about the fairy stories told in Economics textbooks - nor does it replace credit systems. It's a qualitatively different phenomenon.

Graeber is fascinating on the early history and on the empires which developed in India and China and later in the Islamic Middle East, and on the empires in Latin America destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors.

When it comes to later periods, his most insightful thinking is to distinguish sharply between free markets, both in goods and in labour, and capitalism. And his most challenging claim is that :

It is the secret scandal of capitalism that at no point has it been organized primarily around free labour. The conquest of the Americas began with mass enslavement, then gradually settled into various forms of debt peonage, African slavery and "indentured service" (page 350)
Much of the later discussion hints at ways we should think about recent financial crises - about Greek debt and about mortgage repossessions, which in the long perspective Graeber adopts are very much repetitions of  stories already repeated  many times in history. But unlike a Marxist (say Terry Eagleton) who would point at his Book and say, "See, see Marx was RIGHT!" Graeber is both more the scholar and more the open-minded (liberal, anarchist) thinker who is always more interested in digging deeper than in announcing a final Truth.

At various points reading this book, I thought how much a psychoanalyst or psychotherapist would enjoy it. Feelings of indebtedness, of irredeemable sin and guilt, are things which lead individuals to the therapist's consulting room. Here we have such feelings set in the largest possible historical context.

And now, of course, I feel indebted to David Graeber ...

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Review: Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War

This book was originally published in 2005 with this American (Pegasus Books) edition appearing in 2007. I picked up a copy in a Bargain Bookstore. You can see why it might have been remaindered: though the binding and paper are of good quality, the text is reproduced by some kind of filmsetting and at times it wobbles disconcertingly.

It may also have been remaindered because it's not an exciting book. It's perfectly well-written but it's not much more than a solid military history of the three years 1918 - 20 narrating what happened on each of the (many) fronts between Bolshevik and White forces. There is no attempt to convey the feel of those years - the cruelty, the suffering, the sheer carelessness of human life - much of it simply continuing the story of World War One but now with civilians rather than uniformed soldiers as principal victims.

 In his Conclusion, Mawdsley (a Professor of History at Glasgow University) devotes a few pages to totalling up the deaths and injuries. Whenever you see a figure which says that soldiers were more likely to die of disease than wounds then you know are you looking at a conflict in which it was nightmarish to be involved.

The book has some use as a work of reference but since it is so much concerned with dates, it really should have included a time line Chronology as a separate Appendix.

As for Mawdsley's judgements, I found  most interesting the idea (picked up from Roy Medvedev) that had the Bolsheviks not introduced their Maximalist programme, but instead adopted something like the 1921 New Economic Policy back in 1918 and at the same time accepted the strength of the SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries] in rural areas, then they could have secured overwhelming popular support and much reduced the miseries of both the Civil War and of War Communism.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Review: Douglas Smith, Former People

This is an important and interesting book. It focuses on just two Russian families (large clans, really) - the Sheremetevs and the Golitsyns [Galitzines] - to tell the story of what happened to those Russian nobles who remained in Russia after 1917.  It is not a study of emigrés though they occasionally appear.

The best chapters are the early ones. Smith depicts a Nobility frustrated and disillusioned with Nicholas II - weak, incompetent, obnoxious. For the most part, the Nobility rallied to the Provisional Government after Nicholas's abdication. There was no serious movement to restore the Romanovs.

At the same time, the rural aristocracy was already under pressure from the peasantry. The peasants wanted land and, by 1917, they were willing to use any method to get it. In the year before the Bolshevik seizure of power, peasants were already burning, looting and killing in rural Russia - and rural Russia was most of Russia.

In response, the Provisional Government did not move fast enough. It made the mistake of pressing on with the unpopular war against Germany and it put off the question of Land Reform. But the peasantry was in no mood to "Wait for the Constituent Assembly". And the Provisional Government could not feed the cities.

During this period, violence was often extreme and deaths horrible - and it did not for the most part involve the Bolsheviks. As I read Smith, the Bolsheviks simply picked up and ran with the violent disorder of 1917, but channeling it and focusing it in the period of War Communism (beginning 1918 - beginning 1921).

Smith's narratives for the period of War Communism are some of the best parts of the book: there is detailed texture which gives a real sense of how the urban nobility began to be picked apart with arrests, executions, confiscations - and the rural nobility subjected to further - and now Bolshevik organised - repression. Likewise, Smith creates a vivid picture of what it was like to try to move about Russia - to escape from West to East, for example - during the period of War Communism when Reds and Whites and Czechs and psychopathic criminals like Semenov and Ungern-Sternberg all fought for control of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

From the beginning of the New Economic Policy [NEP] in 1921 until Stalin's consolidation of power at the end of the 1920s, the nobility in Russia enjoyed a period of respite - many of them finding jobs within the system and returning to former homes (or parts of homes). Their children began to orient themselves to the new order, not the old one.

But the 1930s brought renewed repression. Here Smith's chapters are less interesting because the story is less dramatic: it is about individuals being picked off, one by one, often repeatedly and eventually with fatal consequences whether before an execution squad or in the Gulag. By the end of the War, it is really all over for the nobility.

Despite his close focus on two families, Smith avoids sentimentality - as do most of his characters. I do have the feeling that there must have been more Bad Apples than he identifies - he has only one noble who denounces others to the Soviets and he has no plotters (perhaps there really were none). But these are quibbles in relation to a body of work which opens a new field in histories of the Russian Revolution.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Essay: Agnostics, Atheists and Abstainers - a case for Avoidance

This essay develops a line of thought mentioned but not developed in my review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic.

Teetotallers (sometimes called Total Abstainers) and Vegetarians are people who renounce something which they may well find attractive - in the case of alcoholics, too attractive. Though some vegetarians are repelled by the thought of eating dead animal flesh others - like Jonathan Saffran Foer - aren't. The smell of your barbecue wafting into their house triggers temptation not disgust.

I sometimes think of myself as abstaining from religion, both from belief and from practice. Some religious things I find repulsive but not all of them.

Start with practices. I won't attend an infant Christening. I think it's morally wrong - mildly abusive - to take your new born child and sign them straight up for something which ought to be a matter for considered choice.

I wouldn't attend the genital mutilation of an infant or a child, either, or a party to celebrate a mutilation. In fact, I think circumcisions - of both boys and girls - should be illegal. Children deserve state protection from such assaults on their bodies.

But I have always been willing to attend a church funeral service and, recently, I attended a church wedding. I wouldn't want either for myself but if other adults want such things, who am I to be the party pooper?

In terms of bodily mutilation, I am surprised when parents  want to pierce their infant children's ears. But since the result is reversible, I am not appalled by it in the way that a circumcision appalls me. I just think that babies and young children are such delightful creatures that I can't see why you would want to do anything other than take pleasure in them the way they are. They aren't toys and their bodies aren't yours. When a parent has to decide for their young child whether to allow (necessary or recommended) medical surgery, then I think they have a terrible decision to make.

What about Belief? My childhood experiences - I am talking about my mother - were of religious beliefs which were essentially punitive and which fed and watered eventually unbearable levels of guilt, anxiety,despair, melancholy. My mother's default state was to feel herself damned.

These were the kinds of belief into which it would have been easy to fall myself and from which I had - eventually - to make an effort to abstain. And I felt angry at the punitive religious culture, Victorian and Edwardian (my mother was born in 1907), which had burdened my mother for her whole life. The priests in black gowns who made it their business to induce such feelings in the vulnerable were to me loathsome creatures, monsters. They should be ostracised, put back in their boxes. The feelings have lasted a life time. When Tony Blair and Gordon Brown sucked up to the Pope sufficiently for him to deign to visit Scotland and England and when all the political class - without a single honourable exception - sucked up to him at Westminster, I just felt fury. Who is this man? A prissy professor who has dedicated his life to making things uncomfortable for those in his church who have tried to make it more humane.

I recall an occasion when a very troubled young woman, who you would have found coarse and aggressive and who would never have set foot in a church, confided to me that every night she prayed for those she cared about and for those who had harmed her (and they had certainly harmed her). It was a moving confession. It simply did not occur to me to play the Village Atheist. On reflection, I might have hoped that one day her troubles might retreat to such a degree that she was freed from the need for  fervent prayer. But that's all. What she did alone at night before sleeping caused no harm in the world. What she did had a dignity; it was honourable. There is nothing honourable about the Pope.

Religious organisations cause harm in the world. If a good God did exist, he would not wish us to believe in him any more. His name has been invoked to justify far too many crimes. The history of Catholicism is a history of  callousness and inhumanity, continuing to this day. You are a young woman miscarrying in a Galway hospital bed, the baby is not even viable (17 weeks) but still they won't do anything to terminate the pregnancy. "This is a Catholic country" they tell her, with what degree of viciousness one can only imagine. And so she is left to die and in pain.

And so, by and large, one must abstain. Religion is unclean, contaminated perhaps not at source but certainly by history. I sometimes say to myself that what I practice is "Moral Unbelief" - it doesn't feel right to believe and, if possible, one should avoid religious belief.

The question, Does God Exist? is not very interesting.It can be left to the academics. If you feel that God exists, that seems to me an intelligible feeling and one not to be sneered at.  But Be Careful! There is a slippery slope which leads to that hospital ward in Galway. (Francis Spufford recognises the slippery slope and slides down with glee: it's the Leap of Faith, he cries, as he renounces the tab of E. (page 66) for the C. of E. )

This is why for me working to advance the secularisation of society is much more important than arguing the toss about God. And you will note that whilst the high clergy fulminate against "aggressive secularists" because secularism threatens the worldly power of the churches, they are often happy to cosy up to the atheists. They think that Richard Dawkins is really one of them and he occasionally obliges, as recently in supporting British Education Minister's Michael Gove's fantasy of a new copy of the King James Bible (signed by Michael Gove) in every school. Sorry, but No. The less organised religion in schools, the better for all our children.

As for Immortality, which is a separate question, I don't feel that I existed in any form before my birth and I don't feel that I will continue to exist in any form after my death. And I guess I don't want to feel otherwise, even though it could be nice to feel that bodily death is only a temporary interruption in one's everlasting life - except, of course, for the fact that there is always a Hell.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Review: Francis Spufford, Unapologetic

"My daughter has just turned six. Some time over the next year or so, she will discover that her parents are weird. We're weird because we go to church" Thus Francis Spufford's opening sentence. It made me think back to the time when my daughters discovered that their parents were weird: they didn't go to church - except, of course, for the School Carol Service. Not to attend that would have been cruel.

As I read on and into Mr Spufford's splendid Trendy Vicar sermons ("Hey!" without irony) I continued to think of him as a parent - an emotionally exhausting one who always wants to choose the board game, and interpret the rules, and cheat.

In particular, he doesn't want to play any game selected by "Richard bloody Dawkins" (page 222). Here, I have some sympathy. I never finished The God Delusion finding it oddly random. And the question "Does God Exist?" doesn't really excite me. I can leave it to the academics. For me,  religious belief is more a moral than an ontological question. Spufford arrives at faith, "because it feels right" (p 68). To me, it feels wrong and that's how I arrive at unbelief. However tempting, one ought not believe. If a good God did exist, he (she, it - Spufford is Trendy on this point) would no longer wish us to believe in him; too many crimes have been committed in his name. 

Spufford feels that God is willing to put up with the crimes committed in his name but, curiously, does also believe that God did once - and once only - feel the need to intervene in the slaughterhouse of history. Yes, Jesus.

At page 19 he says "I am a fairly orthodox Christian" letting us know that he's a bum on a Church of England pew every Sunday. But it is only later that we get the whole truth.

Freud remarks in a footnote that writers often hide their most emotionally charged ideas in footnotes. Turn to page 164 - 5 and read the long footnote there:

is the damn story true?... whether it actually happened. Well, I don't know. I think it did, miracles, resurrection and all. But I don't know. [However, one can't just] assume the untruth of the story's own contention that there is a maker of nature who, this once, was able to alter nature's normal operations

So Spufford is a Biblical Fundamentalist; he believes in the literal truth of Scripture, at the same time acknowledging that he can't prove it. (And also passing over bits of Scripture which don't appeal to him).

Before you allow him to change the board game, pause at this point to consider just one of the difficulties of this historical truth version of religious belief. It leaves all those unfortunate enough to have died before or been a long way away from "Judea, AD 33, teatime" (his quotation from Monty Python, page 160) out in the cold. No one came along to show them how to deal with their fundamental HPtFtU ( the Human Propensity to Fuck Things Up - the trendy vicar's substitute for "Sin").

Well, isn't that just a bit unloving? A bit careless? Did God wait until he was sufficiently pissed off by human behaviour to break his silence and intervene (in a rather odd way, it must be said) and just once .... You can continue the argument, I am sure. Whether Spufford would want to is another question.

He picks up the Problem of Evil and runs with it (pp 87 - 104), not unintelligently, then simply dumps it. It's hardly fair to criticise him for this since it's exactly what other writers do. Many years ago I read Professor John Hick's doorstop thick Evil and the God of Love , an academic work which also just runs away into the sand.

But in context it seems to me that in the end, Spufford just keeps changing board games, perhaps recklessly (a word he would regard as a compliment): he has a religious experience - feelings that there is after all something, that there is something bigger than him, that there are ground for hope, even that help is at hand - and that gets him into the C of E and onto Biblical Fundamentalism. It's all too rash.

Nonetheless, this is a better stab at doing theology than much of what I guess comes out of state-funded Theology departments, already dusty with such irrelevance that I am not the only one not to read it. There are some terrific things in this book and I am pleased to have read it. The modern life of Jesus, "Yeshua" which occupies chapter 5 is a brilliant piece of  writing -  the account of the Crucifixion is  moving.

And on one point of theology, we probably agree:

What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention ... (p 222)
Paying attention is the natural piety of the soul (Malebranche). It may be helped when two or three are gathered together.

It does not require a State church and certainly not the one into which, back in 1947, I was baptized - my Godparents sent on their way with a little card headed "Take this child and nurse it for Me" and which reminds them:

         1. To pray regularly for my Godchild.
          2.  To ask myself frequently: Does my Godchild know, or is he being taught, the promises which he made by me [my Bold] at his baptism, namely: (a) To renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh? .... 

And on that subject, Mr Spufford, consider what you say at page 218, "You can't be a Christian and hold that the ends justify the means". Isn't that what infant baptism and faith schools are all about? Getting hold of the children before they can feel and think for themselves so that they are yours for life - even if for a decade or two they go astray?

Monday, 12 November 2012

Review: T.S.Eliot, Notes Towards The Definition of Culture

In 1948, T S Eliot won the Nobel Prize for Literature and published "Notes Towards the Definition of Culture". He was sixty years old and a Director of the London-based publisher Faber and Faber. This short book - 110 pages of text in its basically unaltered 1962 edition - has three aspects of which I approve.

It is written as a contribution to debate on topics which university teachers also concern themselves with but by someone who is earning his living otherwise and who is thus free from whatever constraints happen to impose themselves (at any given time) on academics. In 1948, such contributions by those not paid to produce them were more common than they are now -  and I would like to see them become more common again.

It is a contribution to the genre of belles lettres by which I understand non-fiction writing of a reflective, discursive or argumentative character which proceeds largely unencumbered by the dutiful footnote and bibliographic references which an academic writer is supposed to supply. Academics sometimes think that the main achievement of modern universities is to have killed off belles lettres.

Finally, with only a little stretching of the term, it is self-published like everything I write and most of what is published on the Internet.

The trouble is that after sixty four years, it does not stand the test of time. It is just awfully dated. Should someone submit it to Faber and Faber today, it would be returned without comment - unless, perhaps, an acid "Try writing when you are not holding a ruler between your buttocks".

But it is not dated in the sense that it is too closely tied to the European situation in 1948. It is dated for the opposite reason, that though it professes to engage with that situation - an Appendix to the book even consists of three talks given on post-war German radio - it is far too detached and coy about it. Eliot just doesn't engage with what has just happened in Europe and what is now happening all around him in England. Instead, he is nudging and winking all the way through the text to those who he thinks might share his prejudices - and, in particular, the prejudice that from now on,  unless we are very careful, it is going to be downhill all the way for the cultures we value. At one point, he  does simply admit that this is what it is all about:

there is no doubt that in our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards, and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects [ no need to say what they are - TP] by which the essentials of our culture - of that part of it which is transmisible by education - are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads [... etc etc TP].
The previous paragraph is to be considered only as an incidental flourish to relieve the feelings of the writer and perhaps of a few of his more sympathetic readers. (page 108)
Now this paragraph - despite the clunk of cliché - is actually much better than much of what surrounds it, since it calls a spade a spade and a rascal a rogue. It is the nudging and winking elsewhere which is exasperating.

Buried in the text are some quite carefully formulated  - and, in my view, at least partly true - claims about the nature of "culture" and in particular its organic, growing and unpredictable character and its connections to deeply embedded social groups - call them classes or elites if you like. Culture is not something you can administer or impose.  Banged up in a Mussolini prison, Antonio Gramsci formulated ideas which have a strong family resemblance. But he worked outwards from a paradigm case history, the development of the Italian national language over which, in the 19th century, a long and loud debate took place between those who thought you just had to decree it and teach it and those who thought a national language was something which would grow within the context of  other nationalising developments. Eliot could have written a stronger book if he had chosen a strong paradigm case example for his argument. Instead, we get too much hand waving towards "religion"  which only occasionally crystallises into something we can develop an argument around. And insofar as it crystallises around the Church of England, well, Eliot picked the wrong horse.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Review: Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Fortunate the writer who today could command hardback publication for 52 pages of text. And which I would buy - as I bought this book in 1969, new,  for twelve shillings and sixpence.

Freud starts from a Hobbesian vision of the relationship between Nature and Culture:
It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices which civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible. Thus civilization has to be defended against the individual ... (page 2)
Not only that, but this business of defence requires two classes of citizens,  rulers and ruled:
It is just as impossible to do without control of the mass [Masse] by a minority as it is to dispense with coercion in the work of civilization. For masses are lazy and unintelligent ... (page 3)
At this point, the bells of political correctness would begin to ring in the ears of a modern editor. Thank you, Dr Freud, but this is not for us.

Get past this, and quite soon Freud is arguing that religious ideas have arisen "from the necessity of defending oneself [psychologically] against the crushingly superior force of nature" (page 17) though this narrow basis is later expanded to include other experiences of helplessness:
the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood arouses the need for protection - for protection through love which was provided by the father; and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father ... Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the dangers of life; the establishment of a moral world-order ensures the fulfilment of the demands of justice, which have so often remained unfulfilled in human civilization .... (page 26)
But since wish-fulfilment of this kind plays such a prominent role in the origin of religious ideas - which are, in their nature, not susceptible to proof or disproof - then they are properly called illusions. Hence the title of the book.

And Freud thinks we would be better off without them, trying to accept our helplessness but, at the same time, realising that scientific progress can do much to mitigate it. It is simply a more dignified way of living.

There is a separate line of argument which emerges at the end: religion is actively bad for us:

Think of the depressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of a healthy child and the feeble intellectual powers of the average adult. Can we be quite certain that it is not precisely religious education which bears a large share of the blame for this relative atrophy? ...Is it not true that the two main points in the programme for the education of children to-day are retardation of sexual development and premature religious influence (page 43)

Mr Gove?


I would come at matters rather differently. Freud's "religion" is ill-defined and he makes no use of an obvious distinction between  religion as ideas, feelings, experiences in the mind of an individual and religion as organisations with buildings, bank balances and bureaucracies. We suffer from both, but more particularly the latter. 

Faced with allegations of abuse, for example, a Church behaves like an oil company looking at an oil spill. First, it denies that it happened. Second, it says it was a very small spill. And, third, it tries to minimise its financial liability by hiring lawyers adept at achieving such minimisation. If it thinks it is dealing with a weaker victim, then it simply bullies. In the very recent past, for example,  the Vatican decided it did not have to co-operate with enquiries in the much-abused Republic of Ireland. But it misjudged, was savaged, and responded with much gathering up of Nuncio skirts. The end result? The Vatican has recruited some new PR people. 

We know a lot about the Roman Catholic Church, even though it seeks to shroud things in secrecy. How much less do we know about Jewish or Islamic religious organisations - their funding, their operations, their internal disciplinary procedures, and so on. As for the one-man Churches created by American tele-evangelists - well, I suppose we do know that they are either financial scams or swingers' clubs: we may just not know which.

What we do know about the average religious organisation ought to lead decent governments to take an arm's length approach: keeping them out of  schools, hospitals, prisons; not favouring their representations over others; not giving them tax breaks ( remember that only recently Berlusconi did that to buy the Church's indulgence; it worked).

 As Lenin once said of his opponents, Don't listen to what they are saying; watch what their hands are doing.

What sustains an individual privately, in good times or in adversity, is no matter for states and governments. Even a good friend will hesitate to call someone's illusions illusions. But the public world of buildings, bank balances and bureaucracies - that is very much public business.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Review: Michael Sandel, What Money Can't Buy

Michael Sandel is Professor of Government at Harvard. Actually, he is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government. He's lucky. It could have been worse: Oxford has a Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication, currently Deborah Cameron whose well-known comic sensibility no doubt allows her to bear the burden lightly.

Sandel has a chapter "Naming Rights" on sponsorship (what universities prefer to call "endowment") which has the feel of a Miscellany of irritants at the end of a short book which is lively, provocative and underpinned by just a couple of simple claims: we should not allow markets in some things and specifically when to do so would be unfair or corrupting.

Sandel's starting point is to ask us to think about the kind of things which cannot be bought and sold in markets just because of the things they are. The paradigm case is friendship but Sandel gives other examples, like the Nobel Prize. If you could buy one, it wouldn't be worth having since the whole idea is that it is the unsought reward for exceptional merit. This simple picture gets complicated when you realise, for example, that an honorary degree bought for himself by some wealthy university benefactor still has some value precisely because other honorary degrees (maybe most of them) are not sold.

Sandel then asks whether some markets are inherently unfair and has a good discussion of queues and queue-jumping (paying someone to stand in line for you, paying for a fast track at passport control).

Then he gets us to see that some markets are prohibited (at least in the USA and Europe) because they are felt to be corrupting. Parents are not allowed to sell their children because it would corrupt [an ideal of ] parenthood. But it is perfectly possible to have a market in children and some countries do and many countries have done (the film Geisha begins with the selling of two children).

Sandel recognises that setting moral limits to the role of markets is a fraught question simply because there will be disagreements about what morality demands. Take the example of the sterilization of heroin-addicted women who otherwise give birth (often repeatedly) to heroin-addicted babies. In the USA financial incentive schemes exist to encourage heroin-addicted women to accept sterilization. Sandel is clearly uncomfortable with this; he does not think there should be a market in such things.

But he does not consider all the options and therefore misses the argument that in some cases a market may be a compromise - a second-best but better than the alternatives. Sandel pitches the choice between moral persuasion on the one hand (heroin-addicted women would see the light and voluntarily abstain from having babies, maybe in the context of rehabilitation schemes) and on the other, the simple deal in which a woman gets cash in return for accepting sterilisation. But there is a third choice: compulsory sterilisation. Just because it has a bad name ("Nazi eugenics") does not mean it can be ignored. There are probably quite a few doctors and social workers looking at heroin babies who would vote for it.

In a three-way choice, the market option may appear the least unattractive, especially when you face the reality that morality has so far failed to stop the birth of heroin-addicted babies (who in the UK are normally removed from their mothers at birth).

Likewise, Sandel does not follow through and discuss the fact that if you criminalise a market you immediately create criminals. This brings its own social costs. Suppose someone sells one of their kidneys for an organ transplant operation. And suppose that is a criminal act. So do we have a better society if we send the person left with one kidney to prison? Or should we only jail the person who received the other kidney? (Some countries jail prostitutes, some jail their clients. Both have no problem finding people to jail).

It's all very well preaching that there should be Moral Limits on markets. But Morals have a habit of turning into prison sentences. Does Sandel really think that American prisons are better features of American society than American markets?

In this context, I felt Sandel could have discussed the payment of Blood Money, a common practice in many societies but disallowed in America and Europe. Something is criminalised, a crime is committed and the punishment is severe. With the consent of the victim or the victim's family, the criminal or the criminal's family can buy their way out of punishment.

Now often enough Blood Money payments will come under Sandel's category of unfairness - rich people will simply pay off poor people for crimes committed against them. Poor people won't be able to buy their way out of trouble.

But is Blood Money corrupting? I can think of lots of situations where the answer is clearly No. In a stupid brawl, one man kills another. The dead man leaves a grieving wife and children who also now have no means of support. If you execute the killer, you then create another grieving wife and children. In this context, financial compensation does not equate to the loss of a life but it can protect two families from destitution.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Essay: America Cannot Continue Like This

I haven't reviewed any books recently - I have been giving up on books half way through and therefore -  under the terms of this Blog - cannot review them. This is true of Joseph E. Stiglitz's The Price of Inequality (Allen Lane 2012). I kept comparing it unfavourably with Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone - a book which Stiglitz does not mention.

The problem with Stiglitz's book is not its argument - which relates only to America - but in a decision to consign all the evidence to the footnotes. There are 290 pages of text and over 100 pages of footnote citations and discussions. This leaves the text uncluttered, but - unfortunately - dumbed-down and repetitive. I gave up.

But this is not at all to deny that growing inequality in America, combined with the weakness of the political system,  is a problem for us all and could become a pressing problem.  America surely cannot for long escape its own Arab Spring. Its rent-seeking (Stiglitz) or, as I would put it, extractive elites (the 1% who own and rule and don't pay taxes) have no intention of conceding any ground - indeed, they are still pushing for even more favourable treatment. And their grip over the media, the political process and the legislature has disillusioned citizens where it has not simply disenfranchised them. That is a recipe for civil disorder not orderly political renewal.

Wilkinson and Pickett's book contains many graphs correlating different kinds of Inequality with different social and economic measures. On most of those charts, the USA is an outrider - it has more Inequality and it has worse performance on measures of employment, health, security - you name it. It is never anywhere near the average. Some of those outrider figures surface in Stiglitz's book. We may in a sense already know it, but it is still shocking to read - for example - that "roughly one in three black men will spend time in prison in his lifetime" (page 70). That's a Gulag-like statistic and no society which achieves that outcome can be other than dysfunctional.

Here in Europe, serious newspapers and their serious readers looked at the Republican primaries with jaw-dropping disbelief. How do these nutters get to be front-runner Presidential wannabes? And when Romney finally emerged as candidate, the sigh of relief was quickly replaced by the fervent conviction that No Way, No Way do we want this man to become US President. That would be true across the political spectrum. Even the Conservative Party guardians of Britain's "Special Relationship" with the US pray each night for an Obama victory.

To tell the truth, they pray because they are scared. We are all just a bit scared and become a bit more scared every time some strange Congressman holds forth on Abortion or Evolution or Rape. These guys are Fundamentalists and they are Dangerous, make no mistake.

Whether they are scared in China, I do not know. But in China they are watching America carefully. It is only Chinese money which prevents America's financial implosion. If you think Greece has got problems, look at America's federal budget or its trade balance.

And back of it all, we know that America's war industry is lobbying for another War - and Romney knows that, if elected, he will have to give them one. It makes money and it makes jobs. That the War will be lost, just like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, is of absolutely no concern.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Review: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable

I took on the The Black Swan in the 2010 Revised edition but I only read the first edition material. This took me to page 300, by which time I had exhausted my enthusiasm for this bar-room brawl of a book. Maybe some other time I will tackle the second edition material (pages 305 - 379).

Taleb wants to convince us of the importance of the truly unpredictable in some of the most important areas of our life.

Apparently well-confirmed generalisations ("All Swans are White") can be upset by a single counter-instance, a pesky Black Swan. That counter-instance can be game-changing, as when the Thanksgiving turkey discovers that today he is not going to be fed but instead slaughtered. This is the old Problem of Induction from past to future: no matter how many confirming instances you can gather, they do not protect you from tomorrow's disconfirming upset.

Areas of life which are elaborately modelled - the behaviours of markets, for example - are in fact areas of massive uncertainty, vulnerable to the fortuitous event which may make (or more often) break the bank. It is utterly foolish to proceed as if this was not so. Taleb's most striking example comes towards the end of his argument (pages 275-76) when he casually tells us that on the US stock market over the past fifty years movements on just ten days account for half of the aggregate opportunity for making or losing money. Think a bit about that and you may soon come to the conclusion that the stock market is one of those things not worth getting out of bed for.

Worse, when we try to explain What Went Wrong in stock market crashes and such like, we promptly fall victim to the Narrative Fallacy believing that if we can seem to make sense of it then we have made sense of it. In this case, the sceptic points not to the problem of induction but to the problem of the underdetermination of theory by data [Quine, Goodman], the problem that for any set of data there are an infinite number of theories which will make sense of them (pages 185 - 88).

Taleb has a rococco Bibliography (pp 401 - 29) and it seems a bit unfair to quibble with him for skipping classes. Nonetheless, I often felt that if he had been a bit more patient with some of the philosophy of science of - say - the past fifty years, then he could have presented his arguments both better and with more acknowledgement of their vulnerability.

In particular, I would have like to have seen a clearer acknowledgement that philosophers of science have tried hard to get us to see the asymmetry of explanation and prediction. They have highlighted how different are closed and open systems in their amenability to "scientific method".

At the same time, they have acknowledged the very large problems created by the underdetermination of theory by data - with Paul Feyerabend going off in the anarcho-skeptic direction (much to the dismay of Popper's pupil, Imre Lakatos) and someone like Noam Chomsky using a Naturalist solution - which goes back to C.S.Peirce - to argue that well, we just are adapted to understanding the world around us (in Chomsky's case, this is the claim that children just are adapted to figuring out the grammar embedded in the limited samples of language output to which they are exposed). In effect, it's an evolutionary argument.

In the case of Taleb's "narrative fallacy" my own view is that the pastness of an event constitutes it as an event in a closed system - the passage of time closes the system. Hence, we can in principle hope to explain it in a way that we cannot even in principle hope to predict events in open systems (the future).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a sort of Philip Roth of Risk and Uncertainty. If you like Roth, you will probably like Taleb.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Review: David Satter, It Was A Long Time Ago And It Never Happened Anyway

David Satter lives in Washington DC where the FBI has its Headquarters in a J. Edgar Hoover Building which retains its name despite the fact that Hoover was a serial criminal. You can, of course, read all about it in Anthony Summers, Official and Confidential: the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover and to an outsider it's very strange that the FBI is still determined to keep Hoover's name on the front door, despite everything. It's like they have never repented of the past.

This thought occurred to me when I hit Satter's brief characterisation of Stalin's KGB bosses: "Yagoda collected pornography, Yezhov was a promiscuous homosexual, Beria a serial rapist" (page 21). He complains that Russia has failed to come to terms with its past, whether through repentance or reconciliation, and part of the evidence for that claim is that there are still statues of the bad guys all around and streets named after them.

The problem is that if you divide the world into Them and Us - as Americans do and as Russians do (which is very convenient if you want to have a Cold War with each other) but as we all do to some degree - then you inevitably get double standards. President Putin never misses an opportunity to bang on about the West's double standards: Satter gives an example at page 213. Putin is quite often right.

So though I read this book while Pussy Riot were being sentenced in Moscow and had a strong disposition to agree with Satter's main thesis - which that Trial well illustrated - I also felt that Satter's book is not free of tendentiousness.

Satter's main thesis is summarised in his Conclusion:
Russia differs from the West in its attitude towards the individual. In the West, the individual is treated as an end in himself. His life cannot be disposed of recklessly in the pursuance of political schemes, and recognition of its value imposes limits on the behaviour of the authorities. In Russia, the individual is seen by the state as a means to an end, and a genuine moral framework for political life does not exist" (pp 304-05)

It is true that Russia has known very little except centralised and unaccountable power since the Romanovs consolidated their hold - next year, it's their 400th Anniversary. It is also true that the Russian Orthodox Church has almost always positioned itself as an instrument of state power, so that the potential for religious inspiration to provide a "genuine moral framework" has been lacking. (Of course, there have been heretics and schismatics in Russia, sometimes numerous; the Romanovs generally exiled them to the periphery of their domains, thus removing the contamination they threatened).

It's also true that Russia has never really separated State and Government. Interestingly, Satter himself never makes use of this distinction.

What do I mean by it? Institutionally, countries which have a largely ceremonial head of state make it easy for individuals to position themselves as loyal to the state but enemies of the government of the day. In the United Kingdom, the political party out of power is known as "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition". It couldn't be clearer.

Likewise, any country with an independent judiciary provides its citizens with a potential source of values with which to oppose the regime of the day.

In Russia, the nearest equivalent to something supra-governmental is the idea of the Motherland which Stalin deployed to effect in World War Two, but which also potentially opened a space in which individuals could position themselves as loyal to the Motherland and hostile to the regime. But the Motherland was invoked at precisely the moment - the Great Patriotic War - when there was every reason to repress one's doubts about the regime in favour of the common struggle against an enemy actually worse than any caricature a regime propagandist could conceive.

If President Putin was reading this book, he would underline "life cannot be disposed of recklessly in the pursuance of political schemes" and comment, Vietnam? Cambodia? Latin America? Iraq? (And so that the Brits don't get off scot free, Diego Garcia?).In other words, "the West" defines rather narrowly which individuals benefit from being regarded as "ends in themselves".


In a rather erratic narrative which shifts between brief histories and contemporary journalism, Satter concentrates on the failure of the Russian state / successive governments to address the full horror of the Great Terror and the wickedness of the Gulag. He has interesting stories to tell about the activities of Memorial, and he travels well away from Moscow to document them. He charts the shifting responses of post-Soviet governments to demands for monuments to be put up or taken down and to demands to open the archives. He has interesting things to say about the Khruschev era and the Gorbachev years. He has one chapter (chapter 14) which reads likes special pleading for the CIA and which, had I been his editor, I would have challenged him to take out.

Though this book is published by Yale University Press, it's the foot-slog journalism which is its strength.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Review: Fyodor Vasilevich Mochulsky, Gulag Boss

In 1940, aged 22, Fyodor Mochulsky, candidate member of the Communist Party, graduated from the Moscow Institute of Railroad Transport Engineering and - having rejected the offer of a graduate studentship in favour of "practical experience" - was assigned to work on the northern section of the railway being built from Kotlas to Vorkuta via Pechora. The rail link was being constructed so that coal could be shipped south from the Vorkuta coal mines and, in the context of a possible conflict with Germany, was regarded of great strategic importance.

The railway was being built by GULAG NKVD and Mochulsky became an NKVD employee, working inside the Arctic circle, foreman and boss over a prisoner labour force. He continued with this work until 1943, when he was (unexpectedly) moved sideways into Komsomol work with civilian employees along the railroad. After the war, he was re-trained as a diplomat and served in China and at high levels in Moscow. He retired in 1988, aged 70, and shortly thereafter - and it seems before the collapse of the Soviet Union - wrote out this Memoir of his Gulag years. Later, in the 1990s, he added further reminiscences (Part III of this book). At some point before his death in 1999, and having failed to find a publisher in Russia, he handed his manuscripts to Deborah Kaple and asked her to translate and publish them as she has now (2011) done.

I got the feeling that he has not been well-served by Kaple - and not just because of the delay. The translation of his Memoir quite often made me wonder what Mochulsky had actually written; and I found Kaple's Introduction and Afterword unimpressive.

Equally, it seems without a doubt that Mochulsky is not a good writer in any ordinary sense. But it is this which partly makes his book so interesting.

Right at the beginning of his professional life, Mochulsky is hauled up before a Party meeting for fiddling his very first statistical returns from his work Unit, for which it is proposed he should lose his Communist Party candidate status (p 43). He is allowed to offer a defence, and he gives an account of himself ( 43 -44) which repeats what he has already (32 - 37) told us: on arriving at his first assignment in the Gulag, he finds his forced labourers sleeping in the open air in Arctic conditions. And they are dying. So he suspends work on the railway for two weeks while the men build themselves barracks. At the same time, he continues to report upwards that track laying is continuing at the scheduled rate. Then when the barracks are built, the labourers work doubly hard for two weeks to make up lost output. Mochulsky continues to report normal output. By the end of one month, the books are balanced. But the daily returns have been faked and that's why he is in trouble.

Mochulsky escapes punishment because he gives a good account of himself. Nearly fifty years later, he again gives an account of himself in his Memoir - and I suspect he still has this idea that being honest and forthright is the best way to get yourself out of a fix, whether with the Communist Party or your soul.

When I read the opening narrative just described, I thought Mucholsky was going to use his Memoir to make out a case for himself as a Gulag Schindler, but he doesn't. At no point does he suggest that his actions are primarily guided by humanitarian considerations. Kaple writes, "His family says that he often spoke about the Gulag and his work there because the experience deeply troubled him all his life" (page XX). That is as far it goes. And Kaple also writes, "In his talks with me, Mochulsky stressed the importance of patriotism. In the face of a war on Soviet soil, he said, a patriot would do any job the government needed to be done, to win the war" (179).

His employers early on recognised that if you gave Mochulsky a job, he would get it done. Ironically, in the context of Soviet bureaucracy, Mochulsky gets things done not just because he is technically competent and hard-working, but because he is willing to take decisions and take risks. He uses his initiative. And this in a system which often penalises that. On one occasion, for example, he only gets to do what he thinks he should do because he signs a chit "stating that I had been warned of the dangers and that I took the responsibility for any possible consequences" (59) - most likely, getting killed.

I do not know if Mochulsky's account is "warts and all" but he does write about things which clearly - at the age of seventy - make him uncomfortable. He does not like the loss of self-control involved in drinking, for example, and stuck in the Gulag he is both sexually frustrated and curious about sex. But despite his reserve, he gives an account of these things and hopes for the best.

The awkwardness of the prose is one of the things which makes him quite endearing, as well as opening up many more avenues for reflection than a more polished performance would permit.

This book could be read alongside Orlando Figes, Just Send me Word, reviewed here recently. Both books are centred on Pechora and the Kotlas - Vorkuta railway. It would be good to have Figes' thoughts on the book now under review.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Review: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan

Some Americans just shouldn't leave the country. Many more don't and so have no reason to know that getting a Visa (what's that?) may involve a visit to a Consulate (what's that?) (page 172). All think they understand foreign policy.

When it first came out, I read Chandrasekaran's devastating critique of American civilian rule in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City so when I saw this new book in the shop I bought it without even riffling the pages. Now I have read it, I think it confirms him as a brave man, a fine investigative journalist, a good writer, and a shrewd critic. ( His Bibliography, though, is rather short and does not include Braithwaite, Cowper-Coles, or Abdul Salaam Zaeff ).

The author got himself into Helmand as an embedded journalist with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade (page 335) and develops his analysis and critique very much out of his account of the Obama "surge" into southern Afghanistan in 2009. He details the problems which arose both from not having enough boots on the ground (the British failure in Helmand) and from having too many: the Marines ended up with outposts in places which simply weren't worth it, not least because the government in Kabul is neither able or willing to follow up successful counter-insurgency operations with the installation of its own civilian administration. In one instance, the Marines even end up in a village where they are greeted as Russians - no one from the outside world, apparently, having been there since the 1980s. (page 245 ). At the same time, key areas like Kandahar were repeatedly neglected.

Whatever the official policy, some soldiers did not believe in counter-insurgency (making friends with the locals, fighting the insurgents) so they just went their own way and killed anyone who didn't look like an American. Chandrasekaran describes one bad case in detail (pp 152 - 161) and indicates (but rather in passing) how damaging to America's war aims such things have been.

More central to his critique is the failure of Military (Pentagon) and Civilian (State Department) to work together effectively. I guess there is nothing new in this. It's as familiar as the old story of the FBI and the CIA. Chandrasekaran reserves his most powerful criticism for USAID which comes out as ignorant and incompetent. If you were running a poor country and read this book, I reckon you would immediately ask for a report on the local work of USAID and start wondering whether, like Mr Romney, these were people who really shouldn't have left home.

In the course of his critique, Chandrasekaran names and shames in a way which would not be possible in a British book on the abject British failure in Afghanistan: at page 182 - 84, for example, two named State Department officials are characterised in terms which, to me, are simply career - terminating.

The critique of USAID is the least nuanced part of the book and reminds me of the well-deserved trashing of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Imperial Life in the Emerald City. The more nuanced critique of the rest of the book is perhaps more valuable because it shows that though Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, had claims to be the "good" war it was never clear what the war was for. Or else, when that was articulated as "making Afghanistan ready for hand over to a good-enough Afghan government" then it became clear that there was no such government around or likely to become available in the near future. The Karzai regime, in many accounts (not just Chandrasekaran's) is just not going to step up to the plate.

It costs $1 million to keep one American soldier in Afghanistan for one year (page 324). You can see why Obama wants out. Reading this book written from an American point of view, with very little attempt to characterise "the Insurgents", you can also see why so many Afghans feel, "We don't want you here. We don't like you. Get the hell out" (page 238)

The final chapter of this book is titled, "What We Have Is Folly"

Friday, 10 August 2012

Review: Orlando Figes, Just Send me Word

The backbone of this book is provided by long extracts from correspondence between Lev Mischenko (1917 - 2008) and Svetlana Ivanov (1917 - 2010) during the eight years (1946 - 1954) when he was a political prisoner in the Soviet Gulag and she a scientific researcher in Moscow. They had met before the War as students and were courting each other when Hitler's invasion of Russia separated them: Lev was captured by the Germans in the summer of 1941 and spent the War in German Dulags, Stalags and concentration camps. For that, he was then sentenced to ten years in the Gulag (Article 58 - I(b)).

He survived and Svetlana waited - from 1941 to 1954, with short annual visits to him (at first, unauthorised) from 1947. After Lev's release in 1954, they married, had two children (Svetlana by then an elderly prima gravida) and lived into their nineties. Their correspondence between 1946 and 1954 comprises 647 letters from him and 599 from her. It is now held in the archives of Memorial in Moscow and "is the biggest known collection of private letters relating to the history of the Gulag" (Irina Ostrovskaya, page 297).

The work of transcribing, translating and making sense of these letters should not be underestimated; it was surely an enormous undertaking. But Figes has also spent some time researching the archives of the Gulag network in the Komi ASSR where Lev spent his imprisonment in the Pechora Wood Combine.

I guess that those archives were also hard to make sense of and in wishing there was more contextualisation in this book, I am aware that it is not something which is delivered to the researcher on a plate. Of course, we have Anne Applebaum's massive book Gulag (2003), but still ...

On the other hand, Lev's letters posted outside the camp to avoid censorship do provide a mass of detail about his daily life - about food shortages, about brutality, about lack of health care, about bribery and corruption. There are even significant photographs, partly thanks to a former Pechora camp inmate, Lev Izrailevich, who after finishing his sentence elected to remain in the area as a free worker and, for prisoners, a valuable link to the outside world (see notably pages 95 - 97 for his biographical details).

The book is highly readable: it's an extraordinary love story and also a story of extraordinary luck. Lev had many talents, and those helped him survive, but he also had strong outside support from able people willing to take risks on his behalf. Even so, at any point, things could have gone wrong and quite often it was a close shave.

Lev's biggest fear was that he might be moved to a camp - say at the Vorkuta mines, just a little to the north of Pechora - where life would be harder, the regime more strict, the opportunities for enlisting the help of free workers to act as couriers much more limited, and so on. In those circumstances, his chances of living out his sentence would have been much reduced. Svetlana, as a Communist Party member and involved in "sensitive" scientific research, ran considerable risks in maintaining a relationship with a "political".

In fact, the main limitation of the book is that it is about people so hugely untypical. The Gulag was a machine for destroying people, either physically or morally. You died, horribly, or you lost your hope or your reason. That was a much more common outcome and those millions to whom that happened leave us no voice.

So though this book can be placed alongside Applebaum's on the shelf, it also belongs with Martin Amis's very well-informed novel House of Meetings (2006) which takes its start from the fact at the end of the 1940s (1950 at Pechora - Figes, page 207) some camps provided facilities ( Dom svidanii) for brief conjugal visits.

The legacy of the Gulag does not end with the deaths of the last of its inmates. Lev and Svetlana had two children. One of them, Nikita, was able and willing to co-operate fully with Figes (page 293). About the other, Anastasia, Figes says only that she "suffered chronically from bipolar depression and was unable to work" (page 284).

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Essay: Writers, Intellectuals, Professors

One of the first things by Roland Barthes that I read was, "Ecrivains, Intellectuels, Professeurs" which appeared in Tel Quel (Issue 47, 1971) just as I turned up to enroll as Barthes' student at l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. It came to mind as I was reading Adam Phillips's On Balance (2010) - a book I can't review here because I didn't read it Cover to Cover: I skipped some of the book reviews.

Barthes (at least as I recall) carves up a space which can be occupied by different kinds of individuals (the ones he names in the title) and different kinds of writing (which, as it were, go with the job). Over time, the organisation of the space changes: roles and styles get (partially) interchanged; orders of dominance shift.

Nowadays, the professors and the academic style very much have the upper hand. The fundamental reason is economic.

Imagine. A Prof earns let's say 36 000 a year (dollars, euros, pounds- it doesn't matter) for a working commitment of 240 days (probably a bit less but it makes the arithmetic simple). So it's around 150 a day, before tax. Modest, but it pays the bills. In the United Kingdom, it would not be unusual for a third of those 240 days to be charged as "research". For a Prof in the arts and humanities, this is when he or she can read and write and get paid for it. Eighty days (plus whatever voluntary overtime you put in). And no one says (yet) into how many published words that must convert, though if no words are published then eventually the Prof will lose those 80 days back to teaching and "admin".

In contrast, the writer and the intellectual have to live off Royalties - which depend on number of books sold - and Fees - which usually depend on number of words commissioned. At the beginning of a career when you have no back list of publications generating continuing income, there is absolutely no way to make a living out of being a "writer" or "intellectual". Even many years later, only a few do. That is why you find novelists taking jobs teaching Creative Writing and critics taking jobs as Visiting Professors.

Adam Phillips is a figure to be honoured. Starting out as a working child psychotherapist (in the National Health Service), he has gone on to carve out a space for himself as a writer and (public) intellectual. He showed in his Fontana Modern Master Winnicott that he could do the kind of job only a very good academic could do; he has also done the kind of editorial work academics reckon is their job. But he has now worked for a couple of decades, without footnotes, exploring how we live our lives (or have them lived for us) in a way which is both creative and open-ended but also disciplined by an enduring commitment to a psychoanalytic paradigm - a paradigm which universities, at least in the UK, have never really endowed with salaries.

The pressure must sometimes feel immense.

Academics feel (peer - ) pressured to publish and end up finding outlets in unreadable (and unread) journals for work which is - what? - ninety percent of the time banal or simply repetitive of what they published in another journal last year. Unless they belong to a fraternity or sorority whose members swear to cite each other, the only person who will ever cite these publications is the author, in his or her CV.

Writers and Intellectuals look at their bank balances. The temptation to publish every last jot and tittle, if you can, must be considerable. The temptation to take on too much, ditto. Even in Adam Phillips there are times when I feel he multiplies his trade mark Questions because they provide the words on the page that he needs without consuming the hours it would take to craft considered Answers.

Roland Barthes had more elevated concerns in his essay than my Benjamin Franklin preoccupations, but he wrote as someone who himself made the transition from intellectual (writing newspaper columns even) to (rather uncomfortable) Prof.

In the year I studied with him, he was assigned a real theatre for his popular lectures. He sat modestly enough on the stage behind a small table, with a sign from the current production ("Le Petit Cirque" ) hanging in the background. But he abandoned the theatre for a seminar room the week after someone stood up in the Balcony and denounced his reactionary adherence to theories of Binary Opposition. Someone there was making a Category Mistake.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Review: Thaler and Sunstein, Nudge

There are Econs. There are Humans. And there is America. We need to talk about America before we talk about Nudge theory.

America is in many ways a failed state. It is enormously wealthy but a large part of its population lives in poverty. Ordinary people work longer hours, take fewer holidays, are in more insecure employment, and get paid less than their counterparts in other wealthy countries.

It spends more - publicly and privately - on health care than any other country but gets a lousy return for the money spent.

An ossified Constitution exaggerates the fissures of a deeply divided society where lobbyists and fundamentalists (of whom there are many) can block even the most sensible changes. It is massively indebted, runs a structural deficit and has no Plan A or Plan B to get itself out of the mess. Tacitly, it relies on the goodwill of China to prevent total meltdown.

America professes to value freedom but imprisons people (especially young black men) on a Gulag scale. Like North Korea, it has a truly massive military budget combined with a crumbling infrastructure (think, Hurricane Katrina).

It refuses to check or even acknowledge what economists call Exernalitities: the harms some people do to others. So for over fifty years the conduct of the War on Communism, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror have subverted governments, destroyed law and order, trashed infrastructure, reduced populations to poverty, and created an incalculable toll of human misery. On every occasion, America has walked away - often enough, in demoralised defeat - and has never paid up for the catastrophes it has caused. The calculations alone are terrifying: try Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes: The Three Trillion Dollar War. The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict (2008)

What is true for foreign military adventures is true for domestic policy: though China now leads the way, America's tolerance over decades for domestic environmental pollution was simply a refusal to even acknowledge externalities.

Externalities - quantifiable "harm to others" in J.S.Mill's terms - get just a couple of mentions in Thaler and Sunstein's book (page 50, page 194). They limit their attention to fields where, really, since there are few if any externalities everyone can be a winner - and those who don't want to play can simply walk away. This is what they call "libertarian paternalism": the State nudges people towards outcomes which are in their own better (longer-term, rational, sensible) interests but does not punish them or make them incur costs if they choose to opt out. Instead, with the help of clever psychologists, governments set out to create a "choice architecture" which guides (or defaults) people to good choices and away from bad ones. Who could possibly object?

Well, in America, they could and that is part of the problem. Our two Professors of Public Policy are constantly looking over their shoulders for a negative reaction from the fundamentalists. (They don't even mention guns).

So it is really an achievement in the depressing context from which their work emerges that they have things to say which are relevant to public policy choices in countries less blighted than the United States - even if, in the case of the United Kingdom, it is not for want of trying.

All the stuff on Saving for Retirement, for example, relates to a topic of enormous importance and what they have to say is useful and practicable. Ditto for mortgages (and remember that the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the USA triggered the 2008 global financial crisis). But when you hit the chapter on Prescription Drug Insurance Plans à la George W Bush (Medicare Part D) you are into the kind of weird world which makes me think that the USA is the galactic twin of North Korea.

It's an easy read; it has its enthusiasts outside the USA (Mr Cameron, though I am not sure he could tell a Nudge from a Shove); and it is probably the kind of thing that die-hard command-and-control politicians like President Hollande should read, as a corrective to the natural habitus of their thinking.

Postscript: A while back on my General Blog for 19 April 2012, I suggested that it would restrain democratic countries from wars of aggression if Campaign costs had to be funded from a separate War Tax imposed every time a country went to war. This would make the costs of war making transparent and remind voters who think of war as free prime time entertainment that it is not paid for from advertising or sponsorship but from their taxes. So I will now re-cycle this idea as an application of Nudge theory.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Review: Michel Houellebecq, La Carte et le territoire

The first two sections of this book, extending over 260 pages, tick all the boxes for a very good novel: the structure is there, the pacing is there, the style is there, the content is there. I read them with pleasure and anticipation.

Then comes a hundred page policier which starts abruptly in quite another place from where the first two parts ended. It casts Houellebecq himself as the murder victim and eventually incorporates the other central character of the novel, Jed Martin, into the plot and then - the story spilling over into the Epilogue - proceeds to a reasonable resolution. We end up with a satisfactory, but not outstanding, detective story.

The Epilogue then prolongs the story into the future. All Epilogues are risky ("Reader, I married him") and I thought this prolongation ill - conceived: it is contrived (it uses a naff Rip van Winkel device) and sentimental ("Reader, he died").

In the first 260 pages Houellebecq crafts a modern artist, Jed Martin, and very carefully charts the development of his artistic work. Just like Houellebecq, Martin is interested in the nuts and bolts of life (literally - his starting point is to photograph quincaillerie) and in the everyday: he photographs Michelin maps and this gives him his artistic breakthrough as well as a love affair. Houellebecq develops all of this patiently, in an undemonstrative style. Along the way he shows he can do knock-about humour (finding a plumber), develops a convincing portrayal of a difficult father-son relationship, and introduces himself as a character - Houellebecq is asked to write the Introduction to the catalogue for Martin's second exhibition. This allows a large number of themes about contemporary art and society to be developed. Houellebecq is no slouch: he is a very well-read, very thoughtful writer who knows how to express himself brutally and to effect.

So I read with pleasure and interest - and despite the fact that it is what I think of as a Metropolitan-Parochial novel: it's the kind of novel in which the chattering classes of Paris can recognise themselves. I am sure this is one reason it got the Prix Goncourt where earlier (and more unconventional and challenging) novels by Houellebecq failed to do so. (Les Particules Elementaires and Plateforme, which I read some years ago [the former in the English translation, Atomised], are surely at least as important as this novel).

Then comes the policier with Houellebecq as victim and Jasselin as the wife-loving and dog-loving flic, who retires with the murder still unsolved. (He asks his subordinate Ferber to call him if ever the case is resolved and the loyal Ferber does just that; it would fit well in the film).

There is quite a lot of sentimentality here, some of it expressed around Jasselin's wife and rather more around his dog. I can't buy into this. I am happy with Paris as a city of romance; I just wish it wasn't a city of romance and dog shit.

Houellebecq closes by following Jed Martin into the future. Like Houellebecq before his murder, he retreats to the countryside but encloses himself behind electrified fences. He exits his estate from a specially constructed road in order to avoid the awful village in which he lives. And then, suddenly, many years later he decides to venture out into the village he has avoided for so many years... and, Lo!, it is completely transformed. This is toe-curlingly bad (where was Houellebecq's editor: cut everything after page 384 and you have a better ending) and it is not retrieved by an account of Martin's artistic work in the final years of his life: this is now too little and too late.

My French is good enough for a novel like this (I just get stuck over acronyms and no doubt miss incestuous allusions), but not so good that I can read any-old 400 pages. A book has to engage my interest and this one did. He deserved his Prize for the first 260 pages.


Just one thing I cannot develop without re-reading the novel: I don't think the chronology is very secure. Over which period of years does the novel spread? And connected to this, why does it seem to me that Martin and Houellebecq and Jasselin are all characters who prematurely age? They are all old men before their time.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Review: Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking Fast and Slow

There is an awful lot of Experimental Psychology in the world; some of it must be true. Over the decades, the Military has been its biggest sponsor in search of ways to ensure that missiles are launched at the right targets; sometimes they are.

This highly readable, well-paced book is both autobiographical review of Daniel Kahnemann's life work as an experimental psychologist and a survey of the state of the field in which he is a dominant figure. The book gets better as it progresses and we get to the work in what is now called "behavioural economics" and which has undermined the assumptions of orthodox economics about utility, about risk, and about rationality (in the sense of coherence). The later chapters are, in fact, more argumentative than experimental and align with work on transitivity of preference and so on done by other Nobel prize winners like Kenneth Arrow.

Back in the 1970s, I stopped reading Experimental Psychology and turned my attention to Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence and theoretical Linguistics.

I had a number of doubts. In relation to Social Psychology, I got tired of reading tautologies which were independent of their supposed experimental support ("Extroverts are more likely to initiate conversation with strangers") but out of which whole textbooks were constructed.

And in relation to experiments to demonstrate how the mind works, I felt it likely that we were being shown how paid but under-motivated student "Subjects" responded to weird experimental requests and not much more. The experiments would not bear the weight of interpretation placed upon them.

I still felt that working my way through Kahenmann's opening chapters Specifically, I felt that if you brought to bear Relevance Theory (as developed by Dan Sperber and Deirdre Wilson out of the ideas of H.P.Grice) then you would get a different take on at least some of the key experiments Kahnemann (often in collaboration with Amos Tversky) devised.

Consider the apparently much-discussed Linda experiment (Chapter 15 in the book under review) . The core finding is that large numbers of undergraduates and even postgraduates can be got to say that

"Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement"

is more probably true than

"Linda is a bank teller"

despite the "obvious" set-theoretic logic that the class of feminist bank tellers is wholly included in the class of bank tellers and that therefore membership in the larger class is more probable than membership of the (presumably) smaller class.

However, when you look at the experimental set up, you see that a central element is the provision of information which sets a trap. Though setting traps is very much what Experimental Psychology is about (and we should "know" this by now), innocent students take the information they are given in good faith and proceed very much as Relevance Theory suggests we proceed in all contextualised language processing: we use least effort (Kahnemann's "System 1"), assume the relevance of everything that is said to us and try to maximise the informational yield from what is said paired with the context in which it is said.

So the students are told all this stuff about Linda's biography, they assume it somehow relevant, and they compute "Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement" as the maximally informative conclusion which can be derived from the information which has been ostended to them.

The students' mistake is not a mistake of logic; it is the mistake of assuming that the Experimenters are acting in normal conversational good faith. But they aren't. They are trying to prove that students are idiots and that is about all there is to it.

In support of this, look at two different descriptions which Kahnemann gives of the Tom W experiment, the twin of the Linda experiment. At page 147, Kahnemann gives us the information about Tom W. which was ostended to the student Subjects. It is preceded by the following contextual information, also ostended:

"The following is a personality sketch of Tom W written during Tom's senior year in high school by a psychologist, on the basis of psychological tests of uncertain validity:"

Then at page 153, after showing how the Trap succeeds, Kahnemann reprimands us,

"But you were explicitly told that the description should not be trusted".

"The description should not be trusted" is not synonymous with "tests of uncertain validity". In the Trap which has been set, the Subjects are permitted to accord some validity to the information ostended to them. They were not told to completely disregard it. In that case, what would be the conversational point of ostending the information in the first place? In terms of Relevance Theory, it would be wasted effort which invited more wasted effort.

Put more generally, I want to say that this kind of Experimental Psychology exploits the Trust Bias without which neither social life (N.Luhmann) or cognitive life is possible. It's like a Three Card Trick repeated through endless minor variations.

But as the book progressed, I felt Kahnemann's experimental set-ups increasingly escaped this line of criticism and I was convinced by his arguments about how we (and not just Subjects) approach gambles, risk assessments and choices which affect our wealth and health. It was an Ah Ha! experience to see how things like Nudge Theory ( Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Nudge) developed out of the kind of Experimental Psychology Kahnemann has done in the latter part of his career. And there are moments when Kahnemann rounds off an analysis with a dramatic flourish which really does make you sit up. So he concludes a discussion of preferences and preference ordering with the claim, " framing should not be viewed as an intervention which masks or distorts an underlying preference ... At least in this instance ... there is no underlying preference that is masked or distorted by the frame" (page 370)

I am not really in a position to judge whether, having neglected Experimental Psychology for forty years, I am now up to speed thanks to one book. But there is much of real interest in this book from the pen of a major theorist now at the end of his career and I don't regret the time it took me to work through its 418 pages (498 with all the add-ons).

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Review: Owen Jones, Chavs. The Demonization of the Working Class

This is a passionate, highly readable polemic. It makes a forceful case quoting from politicians in reflective mode, from Fleet Street stories and appallingly unreflective Opinion columns, and from informal person-in-the-Ashington-High-Street interviews.

Margaret Thatcher took on trade union power and won. But at enormous cost. She solved the problem of striking workers by closing down the mines and trashing manufacturing industry. Let them eat Benefits! She dealt with the solidarity of working class communities by attacking social housing, setting those able to buy under Right to Buy against those unable or unwilling to. She encouraged Every Man for Himself.

Her successors - Tony Blair included - ended up attacking the workless as shiftless and the inhabitants of the remaining social housing as feckless and feral. Chavs the lot of them.

The rich got richer (as both Thatcher and Blair intended) and the poor got poorer. The financial sector boomed until it (quite recently) busted. In place of manufacturing jobs, casualised, part-time and low paid service sector jobs were all that was on offer. Trade unions had no purchase on this new world of crap employment.

Largely ignored by New Labour, the C2DE classes eventually stopped voting, allowing power to pass to arrogant posh boys who don't know the price of a pint of milk. Some have bought into the argument that the jobs and the houses have been taken by immigrants but few have actually voted BNP.

The solution? A new class politics arguing and fighting for better jobs, affordable housing, a greater equality of income with differentials restored to the levels which prevailed from the 1950s to the 1970s,actual representation of working class people and their interests in Parliament and the media.

It's almost convincing, especially when twinned with something like Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's The Spirit Level.

One problem, it may be too late. The long-term damage has been done and cannot be reversed. And even if that is too pessimistic, things can only get better for a new generation in new places not for those still living in the old industrial and mining heartlands.

It is not enough to say that Margaret Thatcher trashed manufacturing industry and that New Labour ignored it. There is a very complicated history which involves much more than "globalisation". For example:

- for long periods, the UK maintained an overvalued currency which made exports uncompetitive and imports the opposite; it also enhanced the role of the City long before New Labour
- education policy never coalesced around any core commitment to maintaining high-quality technical and scientific education surrounding and supporting research, development and innovation in manufacturing industry; in some cases, factories failed because they had become museums of how things used to be done. Compare Germany! is the obvious thought.
- no government succeeded - though Labour in the 1960s tried - to achieve a compact between unions and employers which would ensure both a share in the profits to workers and secure production schedules to employers. Owen Jones does not go back far enough in his history to have to confront the sheer counter-productive disruptiveness of strikes, official or "wildcat". Once again, Compare Germany! is the obvious thought.

Another problem, which the market has strikingly failed to solve, is that people without jobs (Jones interviews several) live where there are no jobs and that people without affordable or decent housing live where there is not enough housing.

Between 1997 and 2010, no less than 2.12 million new jobs were created. That hardly sounds like skid row. Of those jobs, 385 000 were taken by UK-born people and 1.72 million by people born abroad. (pp 238 - 239) BNP vindicated? No.

The migrant workers who arrived in this period, largely from the EU, went to places where there were jobs and not enough people or qualified people to fill them. In practice, London and the south east, though in agriculture they would have spread more widely (Jones never writes about agriculture). The UK-born unemployed were simply living in the wrong places.

In coming to London and the south east, immigrants came to areas where housing was scarce and expensive. Meanwhile, up North, houses were being boarded up and demolished by the thousand.

But what could government had done? It could (let us suppose) have acted directively in one of two ways: it could have told unemployed people up North (where they had housing) to move South where there were jobs (but no housing). Thus Norman Tebbitt and unacceptable.

Alternatively, it could have told employers to move their jobs up North and employ unemployed people. Unfortunately, most of the jobs were not in manufacturing. They were service jobs required by London's economy. You cannot tell someone to move their posh restaurant from Mayfair to Merthyr Tydfil. There ain't going to be any customers.

So much as I admire Owen Jones' defence of people who have been wronged, I think that a new class based politics will have worse than an uphill struggle. It will be a labour of Sysyphus.

The United Kingdom is a country in long-term historical decline. Had it stayed more democratic, with high levels of intelligent popular participation, it might have avoided some of that decline. Had it had a better class of politician, ditto - but now we really are scraping the barrel. And decline is just that: in the end, you can see it all around you as Owen Jones has done.