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Making Capitalism Fit For Society
Making Capitalism Fit For Society
by Colin Crouch
Edition: Paperback
Price: $18.95
42 used & new from $13.90

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Let Markets Work For Us, October 19, 2013
Colin Crouch's new book follows on from his previous Post-Democracy and The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalism. The latter, in particular, analysed how Neoliberalism has managed to survive, indeed thrive, even in these times of financial crisis. It went on to propose how a defence could be mounted against the privations of this all-conquering 'One True Faith' but, as he acknowledges at the start of this book, his proposals lacked any real concrete agenda, relying on a rather nebulous 'civil society'. In this volume, not only does Professor Crouch strengthen and deepen his analysis of the global dominance of Neoliberalism, he also comes up with a much clearer set of pathways and objectives to finding a way between the Scylla and Charybdis of actually existing (and failed) state socialism and the total corporate dominance of the global agenda.

To start with, Professor Crouch identifies three forms of Neoliberalism. These are:

'...[P]ure neoliberals, who believe that society will be at its best when the conditions of perfect markets can be achieved in all areas of life...This does not imply a weak state; it is strong in protecting property rights, extending the role of markets to ever further areas and guaranteeing competition.' (P23-4)

'...[T]hose who, while accepting the value and priority of markets in the economy, are aware of their limitations and deficiencies, in particular their inability to cope with externalities and public goods. They also believe that the market is not appropriate in some areas of life and wish to protect these from it.' (P24)

'...'actually existing' neoliberalism, which refers to the amalgam of corporate lobbying of governments and the deployment of corporate and other private wealth in politics that today usually accompanies introduction of the neoliberal agenda.' (P24)

The first sounds to me very much like classic Austrian or Hayekian neoliberalism.

The second, while accepting the basic tenets of Neoliberalism, see its almost viral-like spread as essentially corruptive - Michael Sandel's 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets' springs very much to mind, especially with its emphasis on 'moral limits'.

The third is, as Professor Crouch states, pretty much what we have got. It is perhaps at its most overt in the US (see, for example, Thomas Frank's excellent discussion of the power of corporate lobbyists in Washington. A current example would be the debacle over the 'Affordable Care Act', opposition to which has been largely funded by the Koch brothers).

Professor Crouch takes the second position. A free market is the best way yet devised to avoid the pitfalls of an over-arching and all-powerful state. However, an all-conquering free market almost by definition leads to the loss of competition, the emergence of cartels and (along with globalisation) corporatocracy, oligarchy, kleptocracy etc. It is only the development of a strong social democratic movement that can balance the demands of individual and corporate 'freedom'.

Clearly, this approach risks being seen as a 'middle way', New Labour's 'Third Way', as compromise, as essentially defensive. But Professor Crouch strongly rejects this defensive posture, instead developing his ideas into what he terms an 'assertive social democracy' - asserting the rights of those who work within, and who may fall victim to, a rigorous utilitarian free market (and its guiding 'invisible hand') and a burgeoning and manipulative corporate transnational Neoliberalism.

This is an almost wholly convincing approach. Somehow, he largely manages to avoid the vaguely religious/spiritual proselytising of writers such as Roberto Unger, the Skidelskys and Jeffrey Sachs in favour of a reformulation of social democracy as 'The Highest Form of Liberalism' (P134). He can, like Guy Standing, actually call for greater commoditisation as a way of getting employers to pay a true and fair price for labour, by putting a price on the negative externalities caused by industry and by enforcing the 'rules of the game'. But Professor Crouch does not following Standing in proposing a 'basic income', preferring instead the flawed but still suggestive 'flexicurity' systems developed in Denmark and the Netherlands - providing a high degree of income security and opportunities for personal development (training etc.) as a counter-balance to the employment 'flexibility' (read 'hire and fire') demanded by a fast-moving global free market. This does sound a bit like Roberto Unger's view that the European left:

'...has retreated to the last ditch defence of a high level of social entitlements giving up one by one many of its most distinctive traits, both good and bad. The ideologists of this retreat have tried to disguise it as a synthesis between European-style social protection and American-style economic flexibility.' (P172)

But Professor Crouch, by emphasising the 'assertive' nature of his social democratic model (and its roots in the very neoliberalism it proposes to both sustain and ameliorate) avoids, to my mind, both Unger's critique and the critique levelled at Unger by Zizek, in that Crouch is not denying the 'underlying Real of capitalism' but is seeking a way to couple this Real with the Real of the human social animal. As an aside, it has been pointed out by many that so much of the supposed inventiveness and innovation of the free market is based on the 'pure' research carried out, or at least paid for, by governments - the Internet, the World Wide Web, discovery of DNA, many pharmaceutical breakthroughs, IT and advances in microchips etc. etc. etc.

There are many, many dangers ahead. The current crisis is giving rise not just to greater pressure from corporate lobbyists, but to xenophobic and racist right-wing movements, from the Golden Dawn party in Greece, to the apparently more socially and politically acceptable face of UKIP in the U.K. Professor Crouch suggests that, in the case of these right-wing parties:

'...neoliberalism wants unfettered global markets; if mass populations are engaged in mutual suspicion and intolerance, they are also unlikely to accept the transnational regimes that are the only institutions that might regulate these markets.' (P4)

Apart from reading virtually like a definition of UKIP, this also points out the crucial importance of transnational organisations in the development of a new 'assertive social democracy'. As Professor Crouch later suggests, in relation to the EU:

'The most straightforward means of democratizing the EU and encouraging parties and governments to work constructively would be a formally very simple rule that said that the Commission should be elected by the European Parliament and not nominated by member states. That would transform the Commission into being a government of Europe and would lead parties of all kinds to develop serious cross-national programmes and to take elections seriously.' (P187)

Professor Crouch knows perfectly well that this is not going to happen as the national governments are not going to give up their power to appoint commissioners, but, as he suggests, it is important to 'place the simple proposal on the agenda, as without that it will never even be debated.' (P187)

This short book is packed with ideas, with practical proposals, with clear insights and with a degree of theoretical underpinning which, although I do not agree with 100% (being a bit of an old Marxist), I am sufficiently a 'left libertarian' (whatever that is) to feel a huge amount of sympathy with. O.k. people - this is What Needs To Be Done - let's get on with it.


The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science
The Serpent's Promise: The Bible Retold as Science
by Steve Jones
Edition: Hardcover
4 used & new from $30.10

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gödel, Escher, Jones, July 8, 2013
Steve Jones' new book is sub-titled 'The Bible Retold as Science'. It takes a section or theme from the bible, new or old testament, and explores the theme in the light of current scientific knowledge.

In the beginning we have - the beginning. An enjoyable summary of the current state of Big Bang theories and, more locally, the history of the Earth. Leading on from that is a discussion of theories of the origin and development of life on this planet.

Moving on, 'The Battle of the Sexes' looks at the development of ideas about sex, both initially from the bible - where there is an awful lot of 'begatting' - and as it has developed within Christianity. The discussion is closely informed by a discussion of the parallel development of biological, cultural and demographic approaches to sex and population. Of course, the two - science and religion - intertwine when apparently arcane questions such as whether identical twins may share a soul, whether a clone may have a soul at all and, rather more pointedly, whether stem cell research and similar studies are 'morally acceptable'. If discussions of souls sounds a little antiquated, Jones' example of a recent pronouncement by the EU Court of Justice relating to 'proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos' suggests not:

'In the hallowed halls of Strasbourg, with plentiful advice from the Church, the ancient argument about clones has been brought back to life and the soul now has the full protection of European law.' (P167)

There follow chapters on growing old (Methuselah), natural disasters (Noah's Ark), disease (lepers feature prominently here), food and food taboos, transcendental experiences and finally, morals, ethics, the bible and Darwin.

The book is, then, not simply just a look at the 'errors' of the bible, about how modern science can explode the myths and reveal truth obscured. It recognises where the two rub up against each other, how they conflict and, to a degree, what this says about both.

In the end Steve Jones is a scientist. He interprets the world from a scientific perspective - a 'natural' perspective as opposed to a 'supernatural' perspective. And, as a scientist, he privileges the natural over the supernatural. But there are some niggles here.

In the preface, Jones says that the book is 'about dry fact, not theology (nor, God preserve us, philosophy)'. (P14)

A bit further on, he suggests that science's enquiries:

'know no limits, none of its explanations is complete, and authority, divine or otherwise, is never enough. Sometimes, as in the downfall of Newton's ideas as the foundation of physics from Higgs boson to cosmos, a whole subject collapses in the face of new evidence, but those whose temple has been thrown down do not wring their hands over the ruins, but dust themselves off and build a new one.' (P14)

So science has its temples too, it seems. The difference, I suppose, is that religion has faith in eternal verities whereas science perhaps has 'faith' in the provisionality of it all, right down to the quantum level. Now science is trying to probe to a 'time' before the Big Bang, to places outside the universe, in order to explain the development and contents of this universe, which is all starting to sound a bit like Gödel's 'incompleteness theorems'.

This book is, in a way, an example of science again attempting, or at least indicating progress towards, a Theory of Everything, as opposed to the biblical theory of everything. While admitting that everything is not known, science still promises the possibility of such omniscience. I can't help thinking of John Gray's comments:

'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (The Immortalization Commission, P 224)

The book, for all its wonderful exploration of the current state of scientific knowledge and the direct comparison of that with biblical teachings, falls into that scientific (maybe scientistic) evangelising trap. 'The Bible Retold as Science' - is still a bible.

Gray goes on:

'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (Ibid P 227)

It's a shame that Steve Jones seems so adverse to philosophy ;-). Still - a good and thought-provoking read.


The Left Alternative
The Left Alternative
by Roberto Mangabeira Unger
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.25
45 used & new from $5.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Let a hundred flowers blossom", May 20, 2013
This review is from: The Left Alternative (Paperback)
I only recently came across Roberto Unger - thanks to a BBC Radio 4 Analysis documentary entitled 'Vulgar Keynsianism' (3rd March 2013). It appears that he is having quite an impact on thinkers of the 'left of centre' which, of course, includes the Labour Party.

The book was first published in 2005, but this edition has been updated and revised; in part to take account of the current crisis of global capitalism. The original hope was to present left alternatives in the face of an all-conquering neoliberalism without the need for one of these regular crises. However, since 2008, the left seems determined to let this crisis go to waste, so to speak, and so Unger's ideas take on rather more urgency as neoliberalism seems still to hold sway, as Colin Crouch, amongst many others, has pointed out.

Unger suggests that, in Europe, the Left:

'...has retreated to the last ditch defence of a high level of social entitlements giving up one by one many of its most distinctive traits, both good and bad. The ideologists of this retreat have tried to disguise it as a synthesis between European-style social protection and American-style economic flexibility.' (P172)

The growing split between high- and low- or no-skill jobs has resulted in the Left relying on compensatory measures to soften the economic polarisation of society. And as we have seen, this 'compensatory culture', for want of a better term, is increasingly under severe attack, even as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. We have what Unger refers to as 'the dictatorship of no alternatives' (P1), or, as Thatcher put it 'There Is No Alternative'.

Unger does not want to 'humanize society'. This, he suggests, is what 'compensatory measures' have tried and increasingly failed to do, simply trying to lessen the egregious extremes of capitalism. Unger's aim is:

'...less to humanize society than it is to divinize humanity: to bring us to ourselves by making ourselves more godlike." (P 153)

The aim is, then, to develop the individual, to diminish 'the contrast between the intensity of our longings and the paltriness in which we waste our lives' (P 153), and to remove the sense of alienation and disempowerment felt by the vast majority of people.

Unger is a Christian and clearly draws much inspiration from his beliefs. While extremely critical of consumer capitalism, he is also rejects Marx and Marxism, on one page dismissing them as historicist, on another as shallowly structuralist and deterministic. This is, in my opinion, a pretty superficial view as even a quick read of, for example, David Harvey would show.

So - what does Unger see as 'the way forward'? Well, for a start, his desire to 'divinize the individual' inevitably leads to an emphasis on education. But more than that, Unger wants to: '...anchor social inclusion and individual empowerment in the institutions of political, economic and social life.' (P 20)

He wants to put in place mechanisms to allow a huge variety of experimentation to take place. He cannot predict which particular forms will be the most liberating and empowering for the individual, but he recognises that the individual is nothing outside of 'political, economic and social life' and thus for individuals to be able to develop to their fullest and most 'divine' extent, many alternatives must be given fertile soil in which to grow, develop and evolve. This is far more than simply regulating the existing capitalism, this is about trying to provide a multiplicity of opportunities where before there only appeared to be the dreaded T.I.N.A.:

'It means to radicalise the experimental logic of the market by radicalising the economic logic of free recombination of the factors of production within an unchallenged framework of market transactions. The goal is a deeper freedom to renew and recombine the arrangements that compose the institutional setting of production and exchange, allowing alternative regimes of property and contract to coexist experimentally within the same economy.' (P 21)

He goes on to consider this aim with reference to class ('...the working class, the small business class, and even the rank and file of the class of professionals...are safeguarded from destitution and excluded from power.' P 45), developing countries, Europe, America, the so-called BRICS and globalization. But at core, Unger's aim is always, as already stated, the 'divization of the individual'.

It sounds inspirational, it sounds idealistic and when faced with a 'lost Left', it sounds hopeful. But it does not sound realistic. As Zizek points out:

'...the politics advocated by many a leftist today, that of countering the devastating world-dissolving effect of capitalist modernization by inventing new fictions, imagining "new worlds" (like the Porto Alegre slogan "Another world is possible!"), is inadequate or, at least, profoundly ambiguous; it all depends on how these fictions relate to the underlying Real of capitalism - do they just supplement it with the imaginary multitude, as the postmodern "local narratives" do, or do they disturb its functioning?' (In Defense of Lost Causes - Zizek, P 33).

I do not believe that Unger's ideas will truly 'disturb its functioning'. Capitalism has shown again and again its ability to co-opt, absorb and re-interpret oppositional elements, to even turn a profit from them. Like Skidelsky père et fils, Unger seems to look towards a religious impulse to transform economic relations. But, as Cyndi Lauper once pointed out, 'Money Changes Everything'.


The Serpent's Promise
The Serpent's Promise
by Steve Jones
Edition: Hardcover
5 used & new from $19.41

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gödel, Escher, Jones, May 18, 2013
This review is from: The Serpent's Promise (Hardcover)
Steve Jones' new book is sub-titled 'The Bible Retold as Science'. It takes a section or theme from the bible, new or old testament, and explores the theme in the light of current scientific knowledge.

In the beginning we have - the beginning. An enjoyable summary of the current state of Big Bang theories and, more locally, the history of the Earth. Leading on from that is a discussion of theories of the origin and development of life on this planet.

Moving on, 'The Battle of the Sexes' looks at the development of ideas about sex, both initially from the bible - where there is an awful lot of 'begatting' - and as it has developed within Christianity. The discussion is closely informed by a discussion of the parallel development of biological, cultural and demographic approaches to sex and population. Of course, the two - science and religion - intertwine when apparently arcane questions such as whether identical twins may share a soul, whether a clone may have a soul at all and, rather more pointedly, whether stem cell research and similar studies are 'morally acceptable'. If discussions of souls sounds a little antiquated, Jones' example of a recent pronouncement by the EU Court of Justice relating to 'proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos' suggests not:

'In the hallowed halls of Strasbourg, with plentiful advice from the Church, the ancient argument about clones has been brought back to life and the soul now has the full protection of European law.' (P167)

There follow chapters on growing old (Methuselah), natural disasters (Noah's Ark), disease (lepers feature prominently here), food and food taboos, transcendental experiences and finally, morals, ethics, the bible and Darwin.

The book is, then, not simply just a look at the 'errors' of the bible, about how modern science can explode the myths and reveal truth obscured. It recognises where the two rub up against each other, how they conflict and, to a degree, what this says about both.

In the end Steve Jones is a scientist. He interprets the world from a scientific perspective - a 'natural' perspective as opposed to a 'supernatural' perspective. And, as a scientist, he privileges the natural over the supernatural. But there are some niggles here.

In the preface, Jones says that the book is 'about dry fact, not theology (nor, God preserve us, philosophy)'. (P14)

A bit further on, he suggests that science's enquiries:

'know no limits, none of its explanations is complete, and authority, divine or otherwise, is never enough. Sometimes, as in the downfall of Newton's ideas as the foundation of physics from Higgs boson to cosmos, a whole subject collapses in the face of new evidence, but those whose temple has been thrown down do not wring their hands over the ruins, but dust themselves off and build a new one.' (P14)

So science has its temples too, it seems. The difference, I suppose, is that religion has faith in eternal verities whereas science perhaps has 'faith' in the provisionality of it all, right down to the quantum level. Now science is trying to probe to a 'time' before the Big Bang, to places outside the universe, in order to explain the development and contents of this universe, which is all starting to sound a bit like Gödel's 'incompleteness theorems'.

This book is, in a way, an example of science again attempting, or at least indicating progress towards, a Theory of Everything, as opposed to the biblical theory of everything. While admitting that everything is not known, science still promises the possibility of such omniscience. I can't help thinking of John Gray's comments:

'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (The Immortalization Commission, P 224).

The book, for all its wonderful exploration of the current state of scientific knowledge and the direct comparison of that with biblical teachings, falls into that scientific (maybe scientistic) evangelising trap. 'The Bible Retold as Science' - is still a bible.

Gray goes on:

'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (Ibid P 227)

It's a shame that Steve Jones seems so adverse to philosophy ;-). Still - a good and thought-provoking read.


Fix
Fix
by Damian Thompson
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from $0.98

16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Might as well face it, you're addicted to..., September 1, 2012
This review is from: Fix (Hardcover)
Damian Thompson's new book is about addiction - 'the fact or condition of being addicted to a particular substance or activity' (OED). It is, he repeatedly assures us, not a 'disease'. He believes that we are creating for ourselves a social environment:

'...in which more and more of us are being pulled towards some form of addiction, even though we may be unaware of the fact and never become full-blown addicts'. (P2-3)

So his definition includes both chemical and physical addictions - from heroin and alcohol, through gambling and on to computer games, Apple computers and smart phones.

The central linking element of addiction, he suggests, following Craig Nakken, is '...the progressive replacement of people by things' (P6). And this rings true, at least to me.

The first chapter, 'Cupcakes, iPhones and Vicodin', provides evidence for this wide definition and suggests that no-one is immune from potential addiction. But by spreading the definition so widely, making it such a 'one size fits all', I think he runs a risk of diluting his ideas and maybe lessening the impact of his points.

However, things get more interesting in the second chapter 'Is addiction really a disease'?'. He thinks not. And he thinks this because, even though, as he admits, some people may have a pre-disposition towards addiction, it is not something that you 'catch', there is not a (neuro-)physiological condition that forces a person to start taking, for example, heroin. Given his definition of addiction, it's difficult to disagree - I certainly don't know anyone with a physiological condition that requires them to stay glued to their iPhone. But is it helpful? If you are in a social environment in which a large part of social interaction is determined by some form of addiction, unless you wish to remove yourself entirely from that social milieu, it is difficult to see how one might not be severely tempted to partake. Additionally, his answer to addiction seems to be 'just say no'. Yes, as functioning and reasoning human beings, we can all 'say no'. But given the mixed results of the 'Just Say No' anti-drugs campaign in the US during the 80's and 90's, it clearly is not a full answer. And given that babies born to drug-addicted mothers may themselves be born addicts, the idea that addiction is not something that you catch may not be as clear-cut as he suggests.

Following on from his 'just say no' stance, he suggests that:

'...the greater the availability of a drug in a society, the more people are likely to use it and the more likely they are to run into problems with it.' (P52)

On the face of it, this is simple common-sense. As evidence, he cites the number of soldiers returning from Vietnam addicted to heroin who, once back in familiar and safe surroundings with severely restricted access to heroin, simply gave up. He does admit that not being in continual danger of immediate violent death was also a factor, but his main point is that the reduced availability meant that these veterans could successfully 'just say no'.

In the following chapter, 'Enter the Fix', he does look more at social factors. He suggests that people:

'are most likely to run into trouble with a drug if it is economically, socially and psychologically available to them.' (P87)

As an example, he suggests that the availability of cheap gin and the appalling social environment of Victorian cities meant there was an 'epidemic' (his term) of alcoholism. Later, however, he suggests that even when availability is reduced - by police drug seizures, for example - addicts will still crave their fix. The only solution is to permanently restrict the supply. Only that way will demand fall. Which strikes me as a version of 'supply side economics'. The fact is that every society throughout history has had some way of 'getting out of it' - be it alcohol, coca leaves, kat, cannabis or whatever. Science has provided refined, stronger versions of these, as well as adding to the repertoire of psycho-active substances, but simply reducing supply simply means, as he later admits, that people merely switch to an alternative means of intoxication.

He goes on to talk of some of these 'designer' drugs - in particular Ecstasy. He links Ecstasy to 'Meth' or methamphetamine:

''Meth' is one of the nastiest street drugs known to man, and its (originally) middle-class derivative Ecstasy has a similar capacity to cause long-term brain damage by overstimulating serotonin and dopamine'. (P148)

I think this is a highly disputable connection. Just google 'ecstasy and brain damage' to get some idea of just how contentious this statement is. Predictably, and rather depressingly, opinion seems divided along political affiliations, with the Daily Mail claiming that 'Ecstasy tablets are far more damaging than previously thought' and the Guardian suggesting that 'Ecstasy does not not wreck the mind'. Thus, to state a clear and unambiguous link without any caveat is misleading, to say the least.

Thompson moves on to non-drug related addictions, examining on-line gambling, porn and gaming. He looks at self-help sites for addicts of the World of Warcraft game, quoting messages from one. As he says '[t]he messages reek of desperation, loneliness and helplessness' (P191). Here, perhaps, we see not addiction replacing people with things but things making up for a lack of social relations. Whereas drugs such as Ecstasy may be associated with a social setting, on-line addictions perhaps makes up for a lack of society, for empty lives. His examination of lonely and isolated priests addicted to on-line porn seems to also suggest this.

In the final section, 'Deliver us from temptation', he returns to drugs, again suggesting that restricting availability is the key. He admits that the legalisation debate 'really bores' him, disputing Portugal's policy of decriminalisation as a success:

'...the flip side of this tolerance is that the number of people receiving treatment for addiction has grown by about a third, from 23,500 to 35,000.' (P234)

I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to prove. If the figures proved that the number of addicts had increased, he may have a point, but merely suggesting that a growing number of addicts are coming forward for treatment surely does not invalidate Portugal's policies.

Thompson does make some telling points. As he says, in relation to both drugs and consumerism, we have gone from 'liking things too much to wanting things too much' (P257), a point made very clearly in 'How Much is Enough?' where Robert and Edward Skidelsky contrast the replacement of 'needing' with 'wanting' as a product of a voracious consumer capitalism. But the tricks, ploys and manipulations of a huge marketing industry need far closer examination than is presented here. A better examination of that is provided in 'Sold on Language: How Advertisers Talk to You and What This Says About You' and for a rather more detailed and, in my opinion, more accurate (although perhaps equally contentious) assessment of drugs, see 'Drugs - Without the Hot Air: Minimising the Harms of Legal and Illegal Drugs'.

Finally, Thompson suggests that:

'[t]he modern consumer economy is partly fashioned around our inability to exercise willpower. That economy preys on us but also rewards us, since we are part of it and depend for our livelihoods on other people's vulnerability to temptation...The multiplication of choice, the expansion of the free market and the stimulation of greed are so tightly interwoven as to be indistinguishable from each other.' (P258)

Agreed.


Jack Glass: The Story of A Murderer (Golden Age)
Jack Glass: The Story of A Murderer (Golden Age)
by Adam Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.47
74 used & new from $0.78

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Stuff!, August 10, 2012
This is most excellent stuff, this triptych of 'locked-room mysteries'. Inspired by both the 'Golden Age of Sci-Fi' and similarly classic whodunits, Adam Roberts has fashioned a Space Opera that satisfies both the imagination and the intellect.

This is one story, with three distinct sections. The first brought to mind not only Mr Roberts' earlier work but also perhaps the 'The Stainless Steel Rat' and maybe even the redoubtable Gully Foyle. Blood and butchery are here, but they play a part in the tale; there is nothing gratuitous about them, unlike, for example, the exploits of Takeshi Kovacs. And, not only do we find the solution to the 'howdunit' (the 'who' is obvious), we also find out why Jack is known as Jack Glass.

The second, longest, section, presents us with another 'locked room mystery' but this is not only different in resolution but also different in kind, more subtle, more devious, more 'psychological' - helping not only to further the story but to build the picture of our eponymous hero. Here, Mr Roberts starts building a world, a complex and believable scenario, with echoes too from his 'By Light Alone', but spanning a Solar System. The writing has Mr Roberts usual slightly 'baroque' style, but is tempered with some sly and clever humour ('Dunronin' indeed!) The thing is, though, under or through all this is a really powerful plot, hanging everything together, building to an excellent dénouement.

There are some wonderful characters - some appearing for far too short a time. The gruesomely horrible Ms Joad, for example, reminded me of Michael Moorcock's Miss Brunner or possibly Philip Pullman's Mrs Coulter while the policeman/bounty hunter Bar-le-duc came straight from a Western. And there is a complex, believable and sustaining society behind it all. In fact, there is, at the back of the book, a glossary and I admit I read that before embarking on the story - and I would recommend doing so. When faced with Gongsi and the Sump, Lex Ulanova and MOHsisters a little preparation enhances the fun.

Yes, there are a number of typos which sometimes makes the reading a little gritty; there may even be the occasional hiatus in the narrative, but nothing to spoil the trajectory of a very fine story. I hope, very much, that we will meet Jack Glass again. All in all, a multi-layered, clever, comic, mind-expanding and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 13, 2012 12:05 AM PDT


How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life
by Robert Jacob Alexander Skidelsky
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.94
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81 of 87 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enough is Enough, July 1, 2012
John Maynard Keynes believed that there would come a time when capitalism would be able to provide for all our needs. When that time was reached, there would be no further reason for growth. Capitalism was a necessary but temporary evil - 'a transitional stage, a means to an end, the end being the good life' (P17). Unfortunately, as we have seen, this 'end' has actually been the triumph of an aggressive and consumerist capitalism that has swept all before it, capturing us in a seemingly endless spiral, not of 'needs' but 'wants'. We are caught in an 'insatiability trap' and 'the good life' appears to be receding into dreams and sitcoms.

This book tries to explain just how this all came about. And, after exploring the roots of what more and more people are recognizing as our global dilemma, attempts to put forward some solutions and new ways to define and move towards this 'good life'.

The book starts with Keynes. Keynes believed that the average number of hours that people worked would slowly diminish as technology became more and more efficient. In reality what we have seen is instead of four people being employed for ten hours a week, one person works for forty hours a week, leaving three people unemployed. At the same time, capitalism has increasingly 'monetized' and commodified everything it can, as Michael Sandel, amongst many others, has shown. Monetizing things changes how they are valued - not only do they become comparable in money terms, but their very nature is altered. For example: '[e]ducation...is increasingly seen not as a preparation for the good life but as a mean to increase the value of 'human capital''.

The result of this depressing utilitarianism is all around us. Not just a growing number of people unemployed, but also a growing number of people forced down into what Guy Standing refers to as 'The Precariat', semi- and temporarily employed, while the gulf between the poorest and richest is now wider than it was in the so-called 'gilded age'.

What is it in the nature of capitalism that makes it at the same time so productive and yet so destructive? The authors believe that capitalism was 'founded on a Faustian pact'. (P68) Whereas previously usury and avarice were considered evils (Croesus, Midas), it was agreed that these sins were acceptable for the time being in order to release the productive powers of capitalism, on the understanding that once having 'lifted humanity out of poverty', the evils would be banished. But:

'Experience has taught us that material wants know no natural bounds, that they will expand without end unless we consciously restrain them. Capitalism rests precisely on this endless expansion of wants. That is why, for all its success, it remains so unloved. It has given us wealth beyond measure, but has taken away the chief benefit of wealth: the consciousness of having enough.' (P69) Capitalism has overturned the meaning of greed - it is now 'good'.

It turns out that capitalism has overturned the meaning of the word 'happiness' too. The authors in 'A Very Brief History of Happiness' (P97) show how the old idea of a 'happy life' or a 'happy people' has gradually changed from an external, social concept to a highly individual and internal state. To make people happy then does not necessarily require changes to society but to the individuals. Along with this individualisation comes a sense of paternalist liberalism - not yet perhaps handing out the 'soma' but not very far off.

So what are the limits (if any) to growth? The authors consider both natural and moral aspects of this question, in particular considering the various 'green' approaches. In 'The Ethical Roots of Environmentalism' (P132) they trace a fascinating path from romanticism through Heidegger and then to Adorno and Horkheimer, Marcuse and the modern day green movements. They suggest that:

'...mainstream environmentalism has continued to frame its case in the utilitarian language of sustainability, though its profounder influences remain ethical, aesthetic or even religious. This has led to a tension in the movement between so-called 'deep' and 'shallow' ecologists, the former valuing nature as an end in itself, the latter valuing it as an instrument of human purposes.' (P134)

The point the authors wish to make is that we really cannot base a critique of capitalism on either 'deep' or 'shallow' environmentalism. 'Nature is neither raw material to use as we please nor a strange god demanding sacrifice...[but]...the mute bearer of the same life that has come to consciousness in us.' (P 144) In that sense, the 'good life' must by definition be bound up with a harmonious relationship with nature as with ourselves.

So what is the 'good life'? The authors try to define it by identifying 'The Basic Goods' (P150), the indispensables. By goods, of course, is not meant necessarily material goods but the aspects of life that go to make a happy state, a state of happiness and a life well lived.

And finally they look to 'Exits from the Rat Race' (P180). It is clear that there really is no existent political party that has 'the good life' (in the sense the authors mean) as their goal. Their proposals are both varied and specific. One is the provision of a 'basic income' (this is a central demand of Guy Standing's too). Another is 'Reducing the Pressure to Consume' (P202), including reducing the impact and all-pervasiveness of advertising. Yes another is a temporary halt to globalisation. They bluntly point out that '[n]o country has become rich under a free-trade regime.' (P214) Underlying all this is a belief that we need to re-examine just what wealth is for. And here they look for inspiration to Catholicism and to the 'religious impulse' more generally. Materialist philosophies have failed, they believe. Politics has failed. And economics has failed. One way or another we need to re-imagine the 'collective good life'.

The authors' views clearly coincide with those of Jeffrey Sachs - searching for an Aristotelian 'middle way' - and of Michael Sandel - there really are things that money shouldn't buy. And maybe that's a weakness - money (commoditisation) really does change everything and it is very difficult to change things back. Neoliberalism is still alive and well, as Colin Crouch has pointed out, and a well entrenched oligarchy continues to dominate the global agenda.

Nice ideas though.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 4, 2012 10:06 AM PST


The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class
The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class
by Guy Standing
Edition: Paperback
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Precipice, June 24, 2012
The imposition of neoliberal economic policies and the globalisation of trade, finance and increasingly labour over the last 30 years has resulted in some pretty devastating changes. And some of the biggest changes have been in the class structures of many modern states. It is increasingly difficult to identify a 'proletariat' in the sense of a homogeneous class of people involved in factory-based mass production. Even in the burgeoning manufacturing sectors of countries such as China, the nature of the 'traditional' classes has fundamentally changed.

Guy Standing considers that we are now in a 'tertiary time', that societies have undergone a process of 'tertiarisation'. No longer is time divided between work, play and rest. And no longer is our geography divided between workplace, home and leisure. Everything, in Zygmunt Baumann's term, has become more 'liquid', less hard-defined. And in this post-modern and thoroughly commodified era, the homogeneous classes have given way to something far more fluid, heterogeneous and potentially dangerous.

There are now essentially four classes. There is a numerically tiny super-rich elite whose relationship with the rest of humanity appears fleeting at best. Then there is the 'salariat', still maintaining their career privileges of pensions, holidays and other employment benefits. Alongside the salariat there are the professional technicians, or 'proficians' as Standing terms them. Often working as highly-paid consultants and contractors, they do not conform to the old 9 to 5, jobs-for-life pattern but move from job to job, company to company as desired/required. Below them are a dwindling number of manual workers in the older sense of the term, the former bastions of 'old labour'. And then there is the 'precariat'.

To simply say that the precariat is just 'everyone else' is unhelpful. However, it is difficult to clearly define and delineate such a heterogeneous 'class' - not least because the grouping does not recognise itself as a 'class-for-itself'. At the same time, the group is growing. It is first and foremost a result of 'commodification':

'This involves treating everything as a commodity, to be bought and sold, subject to market forces, with prices set by demand and supply, without effective 'agency' (the capacity to resist). Commodification has been extended to every aspect of life...' (P26)

Standing would, I think, agree with the sentiments expressed by Michael Sandel in his book 'What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets'. Everything now, it seems, can be bought and sold. The neoliberal project of marketising everything, the sweeping away of all barriers to marketability, has meant that any collective barriers to exploitation have been removed in the name of individual freedom - but the result is that if you have nothing to sell, you have no value. In the interests of the market, labour flexibility - the ability to hire and fire at will which is the ultimate commodification of labour - has been, as Standing says 'the major direct cause of the growth of the global precariat.' (P31)

This 'labour flexibility' has meant that the precariat is increasingly made up of women and older people. Both women and older people are cheaper - pushing down the real value of wages. Young people have fewer and fewer opportunities for developing skills and careers. Faced with shortages of meaningful employment, many may stay in education - but here the process of commodification means not only that education is increasingly expensive but also that the range of courses on offer is dictated more by marketing and the need to attract fee paying customers than any desire to develop human potential.

Another group forced most visibly into the precariat is, of course, migrants. The inclusion of this group illustrates the difficulty, not of defining the group, but of the class identifying itself as a class. So often migrants are used as scapegoats, accused of helping to push down wages but also as an excuse for identifying the indigenous precariat as racist:

'Capital welcomes migration because it brings low cost malleable labour. The groups most vehemently opposed to migration are the old (white) working and lower middle class, squeezed by globalisation and falling into the precariat.' (P103)

This argument is also strongly made by Owen Jones in his book 'Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class'.

The end result of all this is a huge group of people continually scrabbling along, always on the look out for the next job, always aware that their current job may not last, always hovering between paid employment and state benefits. And too often those benefits are in reality subsidies for frankly bad employers. This precarious existence is exhausting and hugely time-consuming, making the acquisition of new skills and the development of existing ones far more difficult. And the line between legality and illegality becomes increasingly blurred too. So the class may appear feckless, unambitious, even stupid (see again Owen Jones). Which results in an increasingly 'liberal paternalist' and 'panopticon' society where the rulers 'nudge' people into what they consider to be better ways, while watching, monitoring, measuring and evaluating every move.

All this is hugely depressing but so, so accurate. And it is also, as Standing points out, so dangerous too. Many have pointed to the economic similarities between now and the 1930s. But the rise of far-right groups suggests that the parallels go further than just the economic. This diverse class, if it cannot recognise itself as a class, may be politically exploited. It is perhaps interesting to note, in this respect, the recent elections in Greece - where generally speaking the youth voted for the left-wing Syriza party and older voters supported the more conservative parties including, of course, the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party. Similarly, the rise of the Tea Party movement in the US reflects the feelings of powerlessness and alienation of the so-called 'squeezed middle' - so squeezed that increasingly they are, of course, no longer in the middle.

Standing does, in the end, put forward some concrete proposals for not only averting the dangers inherent in this class but also for alleviating the growing hardships and deprivations experienced by it. One major strand is the provision of a 'basic income':

'The core of the proposal is that every legal resident of a country or a community, children as well as adults, should be provided with a modest monthly payment.' (P171)

This truly universal benefit would have far reaching consequences. For a start, it would mean that the precariat would actually have time - time to consider what to do next, to plan and consider and not always to be worrying about job security, about where the rent money is coming from. It would also change the nature of employment. Instead of the increasingly oppressive workfare schemes which emphasise that work - any work at all - is better than idleness, resulting in deep resentment and frustration, it would mean that employers would have to offer more than simply the minimum wage, effectively subsidised by state benefits. In fact, Standing goes on to suggest that labour should actually be even more 'commoditised'. If no-one wants the job an employer is offering, that employer will be forced to offer better wages until someone does take it, or until the employer is forced to reconsider the nature of the work on offer.

In many ways this is a pretty depressing book as I see the evidence Standing cites all around me every day. But his proposals, although initially seemingly radical and utopian (he refers to them himself as a 'Politics of Paradise') do make sense. And he has added his voice to a growing chorus of writers and thinkers who point out that the current situation is simply unsustainable, in every sense of the word.


Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution
Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution
by David Harvey
Edition: Hardcover
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Aux armes, citoyens! Encore..., May 30, 2012
In 'Rebel Cities', David Harvey re-examines and interprets the basis of capitalist accumulation to show its essentially urban roots. This is certainly a wide and sweeping project and it is largely convincing.

He starts with 'The Urban Roots of Capitalist Crises', looking at the bases of the current malaise from a Marxist perspective. Too often, he suggests, Marxist analyses of the crises of capitalism parallel or mirror bourgeois economics, considering exploitation of the proletariat within a national economy. Harvey suggests that:

'[t]he role of the property market in creating the crisis conditions of 2007-09, and its aftermath of unemployment and austerity (much of it administered at the local and municipal level) is not well understood, because there has been no serious attempt to integrate an understanding of processes of urbanization and built-environment formation into the general theory of laws of motion of capital. As a consequence, many Marxists theorists, who love crises to death, tend to treat the recent crash as an obvious manifestation of their favoured version of Marxist crisis.' (P35)

Harvey goes on, therefore, to address this lack and to explore the role of housing and the built environment in the current crisis. Much of this will be familiar to anyone who has taken even a moderate interest in current affairs - the rise of predatory lending, the housing asset bubble, political pressures on state supported institutions such as the US Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, years of low interest rates and the supply of 'cheap' money all leading to the final collapse of the asset bubble. But he extends this account to consider the longer term 'capital accumulation through urbanization' (P42).

By emphasising the geographical specificity of class struggle, Harvey breaks away from the more 'traditional' bases of analysis at national or supra-national level. This makes a lot of sense with the demise of any easily identifiable proletariat (except in, as he points out, parts of China and India). By stressing the struggles within the urban environment, he can view class struggles in, to my mind, much wider and more dynamic terms. Whereas Zizek might talk of 'proletarianisation' in order to weld together 'three fractions of the working class: intellectual labourers, the old manual working class, and the outcasts (unemployed, or living in slums and other interstices of the public space)' (The Idea of Communism, P226), Harvey takes the public space itself as the basis for the class struggle. Rather than the usual emphasis on the control of wages, by looking at class relations from 'the other side' so to speak, allows Harvey to:

'recognise how easily real wage concessions to workers can be clawed back for the capitalist class as a whole through predatory and exploitative activities in the realm of consumption.' (P57)

Capitalism is, therefore, fundamentally bound up in the forms of urbanisation that we see around us. In order to combat this exploitation, it is fundamentally necessary to do it precisely from within these forms. This will inevitably cut across more 'traditional' views - clearly such an approach cannot simply be based on an industrial proletariat but must include cultural workers, immigrant workers, it must cross gender lines and even include those dismissively labelled the 'lumpenproletariat'.

In Chapter 4, Harvey examines 'The Art of Rent' or the ways in which capitalism attempts to take over, amongst other things, the common spaces and cultural production in the process of commodification. Sounding at times reminiscent of Thomas Frank, he still sees the city and the urban environment as the place where opposition to this commodification may most easy and effectively be mounted.

After this thorough grounding in theory, Harvey looks, in Section 2, at 'Rebel Cities' (P113). From the Paris Communes to the role of Barcelona in the Spanish Civil War to the Prague Spring and the recent rebellions and revolts in Cochabamba, Tahrir Square and El Alto, the urban environment is where active resistance to the counter-revolutionary neoliberal forces happens.

To put it another way, you do not step out of the class struggle when you leave work - it is all around you, in the (urban) environment and the relations that this implies - and so to ex- or abstract these movements from consideration within a greater class struggle is not only to ignore powerful and progressive forces but is also to irretrievably weaken analysis of the situation. If you don't realise this, the capitalists certainly do:

'It is in fact in the cities that the wealthy classes are most vulnerable, not necessarily as persons but in terms of the value of the assets they control. It is for this reason that the capitalist state is gearing up for militarized urban struggles as the front line of class struggle in years to come.' (P131)

This review is by no means comprehensive. At times, this book is hard work, but it is really worth the effort. It fits in well and extends David Harvey's previous analyses, but it does more than that. Apart from a sound theoretical underpinning, it also explores and suggests alternative means of social organisation, looking to the work of, amongst others, Murray Bookchin. And in 'The Party of Wall Street Meets Its Nemesis' the book ends with a rousing and powerful call to action.


End This Depression Now!
End This Depression Now!
by Paul Krugman
Edition: Hardcover
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not for the Swabian Hausfrau, May 20, 2012
Paul Krugman's purpose in writing this book is to:

'...go over the heads of the Serious People who have, for whatever reason, taken all of us down the wrong path, at immense cost to our economies and our societies, and to appeal to informed public opinion in an effort to get us doing the right thing instead.' (Intro, Pxii).

He starts out by analysing just what has gone wrong. Many, many writers have already done this, of course - David Harvey, Nouriel Roubini, Massimo Amato to name but a few - but Krugman's analysis is still really useful. He draws exact parallels between the Great Depression and the current so-called 'Great Recession', not only in terms of cause and effect but also in the variety of responses. His central thesis, however, is that:

'...this doesn't have to be happening [italics in original]...the problem isn't with the economic engine, which is as powerful as ever. Instead, we're talking about what is basically a technical problem, a problem of organization and co-ordination.' (P22)

We have reached a 'Minsky Moment' - as an economy expands, debtors and creditors are happy to borrow and lend until, suddenly, something pops. At that point, we all look down and discover that, like Wile E Coyote running off a cliff, there is nothing holding us up, and the whole edifice comes crashing down in a 'debt-deflation spiral' (P48) Debtors are desperately trying to pay off their debts (de-leveraging) while creditors are extremely wary of lending any more - even when interest rates are virtually zero, nothing is moving. This is the liquidity trap:

'A liquidity trap happens when even at a zero interest rate the world's residents are collectively unwilling to buy as much stuff as they are willing to produce. Equivalently, the amount people want to save - that is, the income they don't want to spend on current consumption - is more than the amount businesses are willing to invest.' (P136)

And the solution is simple - print more money:

'The answer lies in depression economics, specifically in what I hope has become the familiar concept of the liquidity trap, in which even zero interest rates aren't low enough to induce sufficient spending to restore full employment. When you're not in a liquidity trap, printing lots of money is indeed inflationary. But when you are in one, it isn't; in fact, the amount of money the Fed prints is very nearly irrelevant.' (P152)

In fact, getting some inflation into the system would actually be beneficial. While deflation exacerbates the debt problem, inflation can do the opposite - and can price workers back into jobs as the real value of their wages is reduced in comparison to competitors.

There is a real sense of exasperation running through the book - to Krugman, the Keynesian solutions are there, ready and waiting. We could get out of the current depression within the space of about two years if we simply learnt from the past. But his kind of 'salt water' economics (east and west coast universities) are not in fashion and haven't been for some thirty years. Instead, the current orthodoxy is taken from the 'fresh water' Chicago school and the 'Austerians'. The battle, then, is not simply between differing macroeconomic theories, but inevitably between political ideologies too. At this point, Krugman echoes Thomas Frank and Jeffrey Sachs in talking about the 'revolving door' between the regulators and those they are supposed to regulate. He sounds again like Thomas Frank (Pity the Billionaire) when he suggests that:

'...saltwater - freshwater is about pragmatism versus quasi-religious certainty that has only grown stronger as the evidence has challenged the One True Faith.' (P104)

This rather reminded me of Ronald Suskind's 'faith-based versus reality-based America'. Krugman is first and foremost a pragmatist.

Towards the end of the book, Krugman turns his attention to Europe. Again, we see the insistence on 'austerity measures' really not benefitting either the economies or, more importantly, the people of Europe:

'If you look at what Austerians want - fiscal policy that focuses on deficits rather than job creation, monetary policy that obsessively fights even the hint of inflation and raises interest rates even in the face of mass unemployment - all of it in effect serves the interests of creditors, of those who lend as opposed to those who borrow and/or work for a living. Lenders want governments to make honoring their debts the highest priority; and they oppose any action on the monetary side that either deprives bankers of returns by keeping rates low or erodes the value of claims through inflation.' (P207)

And that is precisely what we are seeing in Greece, Spain, Ireland - countries Krugman refers to as 'GIPSI's (perhaps slightly more attractive than 'PIIGS'). Prioritising the repayment of debt over the welfare of the people of Europe will simply prolong the pain and do nothing at all to promote growth.

This is a powerful and extremely timely book. Finally, we are hearing calls for growth over austerity from some quarters - but we are still, here in Europe, faced with both Swabian hausfraus and those that think that 'unemployment is a price worth paying.'

At times, the writing style is a bit irritating - I don't really need to be advised to go watch Stagecoach to learn about bankers. But, quibbles aside, this book goes a long, long way in debunking the 'One True Faith' and provides an immediate way forward by learning from, and not simply forgetting or ignoring, the past.

The book is dedicated 'To the unemployed, who deserve better.'
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 23, 2012 12:19 AM PDT


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