Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Review: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

This is a book for those who enjoy overtly political fiction. Those who treasure world-building and the mechanics of magic systems will be profoundly disappointed. The main character, Hank, is bonked on the head and inexplicably sent back to the sixth century. Having just as inexplicably memorized the date of every total eclipse going back over a millennia, Hank uses the knowledge of a conveniently-timed rare astronomical event to make himself King Arthur’s official court wizard, deposing Merlin.

And thus Mark Twain quickly gets all sorts of inconvenient plot necessities out of the way (the kind of power-struggle or magic system exploration that might have kept a Robert Jordan-type occupied for some 4000 pages), allowing us to focus on the real topic at hand: education is absolutely crucial for a mass social revolution.

Armed with the knowledge of the nineteenth century, Hank embarks on a modernization of the kingdom, from a patent office to telephone lines to newspapers. It quickly becomes clear that the barrier to creating a “civilized” society is not (solely) technological, but social. The feudal society is nearly alien to him in their understanding of truth and justice.

Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine. I had mine, the king and his people had theirs. In both cases they flowed in ruts worn deep by time and habit, and the man who should have proposed to divert them by reason and argument would have had a long contract on his hands.

Hank finds himself repeatedly frustrated trying to reason with people about how they should go about making the world better for themselves only to be met with self-sabotaging superstition.

The painful thing observable about all this business was the alacrity with which this oppressed community had turned their cruel hands against their own class in the interest of the common oppressor.

The principal target of Twain’s polemic is the feudal system and the religious institutions that accompanied it. In 2024, it seems like a dead horse that doesn’t need further beating, but I suppose the horrors of nineteenth century capitalism had Twain’s contemporaries romancing the chivalry and bucolic villages of an imagined dark ages, just as 135 years later we romanticize some good, kind capitalism that never was.

Twain’s story shows its age in other facets too; Hank initially repeatedly refers to the sixth century denizens as animals, and once as “white indians”, in need of civilizing. These aspects felt rather uncomfortably colonial (and of course, Twain was writing at a time of American colonialism). On the other hand, Hank wasn’t using economic and military means to force a people to submit: the victims of his authority and his superior ballistics were all aristocrats, the beneficiaries their oppressed and imprisoned serfs. If anything, in his role of transforming society through enlightenment, Hank was more of a missionary. Slowly, Hank learns to relate to the people around him, and his language ceases being quite so derogatory. His friendship with his apprentice, Clarence, was quite cute.

Though the premise and some of the humour is really very silly, the novel bursts with incisive and empathetic observations about oppression, violence, leadership and political education that will linger in my mind for a while.

Sunday, June 2, 2024

Review: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is incredibly 19th century: it is preoccupied with the need for the emancipation of women, the commodification of relationships under capitalism, the ever present threat of destitution and debt in a callous and selfish society, the salvation promised by emigration to the Colonies. These themes are explored from multiple angles, with similar beats striking the lives of two or three characters. Though each man charts his own path and can only rarely count on the goodwill of others, Dickens seems to suggest, the tragedies and heartbreaks of the modern era happen in every other household. Though his characters and readers might feel alone, they aren’t.

This novel’s ability to weave together so many plots and stories is perhaps all the more remarkable because it is told from a first person perspective from a single point of view. That one of the most compellingly explored themes is the plight of women in marriage is similarly surprising given our point of view character is male. David’s mother marries while legally an adult but emotionally still a child. She is widowed early and left nearly friendless, and struggles to adapt to her new life. Her second husband emotionally abuses her until she becomes an anxious shell of herself, and she dies of childbirth and depression. David’s step-father goes on to repeat this process with a second victim. 

As a young adult, David falls head-over-heels for Dora, ignoring every red flag about her lack of emotional maturity. David tries to encourage his wife to learn accounting and other practical household management tasks and become an intellectual partner to him, but Dora finds herself inept and ill-prepared for all such tasks and retreats into a child-like state void of responsibility. She asks David to call her his “child-wife”; “you should think of me that way,” she begs him. Their marriage is unhappy for both of them, and she dies of a miscarriage and depression.

One of the few independent women we see is David’s aunt, Betsey Trotwood. She uses her comfortable fortune to support David’s education, and rescues Mr Dick, a neurodivergent man who would otherwise be sent to some institution and who she treats with the dignity and respect not typical of the era. But like David and his mother (and other unfortunate characters, like Emily, a lower class woman who ran off with upper-class Steerforth without a marriage), we eventually learn that Miss Betsey was also swept up in a “first mistaken impulse of an undisciplined heart.” She, however, wisely separated from her husband, a spendthrift.

These unhappy impulsive loves are contrasted with three positive marriages: David and Agnes, Miss Peggotty and Mr Barkis, Traddles and Sophy. In each case, the marriage is happy because the husband and wife contribute to the relationship as partners; the wife supports the husband’s professional endeavors and manages the household, the husband makes wise financial decisions and cares for the wife. It is the paragon of bourgeois notions of love.

Though this is a narrow prescription for romantic love, Dickens is far more flexible in familial configurations. The most warm and loving family is that of the Peggotties, an ensemble of orphaned children and the adults that care for them. David’s step-father and step-aunt are charged with his care, but are unloving and abandon him to factory work. He instead finds support and guidance in the home of his aunt and Mr Dick, and in his old nurse, Miss Peggotty. The family you make is more important than the one defined by the law.

Interestingly, while cross-class relationships David forms in his childhood stand the test of time, David ceases to form close relationships with the lower class as an adult. Perhaps this is unintentional (the book introduces nearly every character within the first quarter or so—David’s England seems to have a population of just thirty people), or perhaps it is a commentary on how the financial relationship between two adults precludes real friendship.

Throughout the story is an ever-present fear of being financially taken advantage of. Around every corner lurk scammers. As a child, a penniless David is scammed and swindled. As an adult, his servants steal from him and storekeepers overcharge him. The climax of the story comes with the revelation that Agnes’s father’s clerk, Uriah Heep, has defrauded him. Our characters also struggle to protect their finances from the cruel claws of the bank. Debt haunts David’s father figure Mr Micawber and Miss Betsey’s estranged husband. 

The optimization of profit over the well-being of others, the cruel and impersonal nature of law over individual charity are emphasized at each devastating tragedy. A suddenly penniless David begs his boss, Mr Spenlow, for part of his deposit to be returned to him, against the terms of their contract. Mr Spenlow sighs and says that of course he would love to be merciful but his partner Mr Jorkins “is not a man to respond to a proposition of this peculiar nature.” Mr Jorkins in turn blames Mr Spenlow's objections for his inability to return David’s money.

Although the world is lonely and selfish and dangerous, the book strikes an optimistic tone: the underhanded and insincere are punished (Heep, and Steerforth if forces of nature count as justice) and the hard-working and moral are rewarded (Traddles, Agnes, David, Pegotty). In true nineteenth century fashion, much of the hope for a better life exists in the Colonies: Emily and her family emigrate to Australia to escape the social shame of her elopement; Mr Micawber and his family emigrate to Australia in search of the stable financial existence they have failed to find in England; Steerforth’s butler Littimer had hoped to escape to America with his master’s valuables but instead is transported to Australia. (Similarly characteristic of the nineteenth century, the ills of settler colonialism and imperialism are not explored.)

The book was beautifully written; I loved the intricacy of the plotlines and the way they rhymed, the mix of humour and emotional sincerity, and the charming child’s perspective of adult concepts in the first act. But the hopes and fears explored in the book, its political pleas, all felt more of a time capsule than some other books I’ve read of the era. Elizabeth Bennett, Anna Karenina and Jane Eyre feel like kindred spirits in their struggles for independence and recognition and love despite our separation of centuries, David Copperfield and the David Copperfield cast read like empathetically-portrayed historical curiosities.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Review: A Political Economy of Contemporary Capitalism and its Crisis by Sotiropoulos, Milios, and Lapatsioras

One incorrect view of the world is that capitalism was going swimmingly until finance came in and distorted everything. As the authors trace in this book, financialization was present centuries ago (there is an amusing story about 18th century Genevan bankers speculating by identifying young women of good life expectancies and purchasing lifetime annuities for them from the French state). More importantly, the different classes of capitalists cannot be so neatly separated from each other: debt and futures and other financial tools are crucial for the smooth functioning of a firm, and industrial capitalists invest their gains in financial instruments as part of a balanced portfolio. In place of this notion, the authors present a better way of understanding the role of finance in neoliberal capitalism: one of risk commodification and the leveraging of risk to organize capitalists and states to the benefit of capitalists.

The book is a challenging read: the intended audience is unclear, the argument is poorly organized, and its main points are often stated more than proven or fiercely defended. It spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the genealogy of “finance as parasite” ideas, coyly pointing out how each is wrong without fully laying out their argument. When it finally comes time to put forth the thesis of the book (by Chapter 7-8!), it lands with more of a whimper than a bang. Still, I thought it highlighted some useful ideas (many taken from Marx and other writers), which I will attempt to summarize below.

  • Finance is inherent to capitalism, and is necessary for the efficiency we see today. It turns every last bit of savings (personal, state, or other source) into profit-generating capital, and more rapidly punishes failing capitalist enterprises and rewards successful capitalist enterprises. 
  • Finance is fetishistic: capital is the reification of social relationships, and commands the behavior of everyone in the economy.
  • Finance is rational: individual actors make rational decisions based on incomplete information. Finance plays a role in gathering information (on company fundamentals, etc), but also in creating information (demand, response to demand, etc). The value of financial instruments is not based on the whims or delusions or “animal spirit” of the market, but on a consensus (and ideologically-rooted) understanding of risk and future returns.
  • Finance commodifies risk: via derivatives, without which financialization would be “incomplete”, separate components of risk are split apart and rebundled and traded. 
  • Risk, rather than being understood as a quantification of the probable range of expected returns, should be understood as playing a normative role: firms (or states) that deviate from the behavior seen as correct under capitalist (or neoliberal) ideology will be priced as risky. This in turn makes it more difficult for these firms (states) to raise the funds needed. As a result, states and firms are disciplined into behaving according to neoliberal norms (austerity, union-busting, etc). Society is thus efficiently organized into a structure that most effectively exploits labour to accumulate capital.

Or, summarizing it in the authors’ own words:

The big secret of finance is that the valuation process does not have to do only with some competitive determination of the security price, but primarily plays an active part in the reproduction of capitalist power relations.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Review: Revolutionary Education, edited by Nino Brown

This PSL publication is a collection of essays linked to political education. It's an uneven read.

Chapters 1-3 are the high notes of the collection. They lean on works by Vygotsky and Freire to present key considerations in education: build onto the base of what people already know, act as a guide as they venture into the unknowns; education is constantly happening, it's not limited to the classroom; education is a dialogue between people with different types or levels of knowledge, not a power hierarchy between those who know and those who do not know; link the topics you are learning to their broader context.

The remaining chapters suffered from being weakly related to the theme (the role journalism plays in education was not the subject of the chapter on journalism; there is an even more unrelated overview of Amilcar Cabral's life in Chapter 5), or a little low in content for a more advanced audience. Chapters 6 and 7, which deal more specifically with what organizing looks like and what mistakes organizers sometimes make, might be useful for getting other PSL members all on the same page, but don't present anything new, and don't present it particularly compellingly.

It's an easy read, however. Little knowledge is assumed. Each chapter is short and divided into short subsections. The language and arguments are straightforward. This book has a place on some reading lists, but not all.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Review: Elite Capture by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

There is a grating tendency among anti-capitalist academic books that this effort manages to avoid, which is viewing the duty of the writer to be that of detachedly observing the system. Táíwò is present in his own narrative, using his perspective as a Black man raised in a Nigerian diaspora community to show some of the pitfalls and limitations of “deference politics”; deference to those who managed to make it to the “room where it happens” takes for granted that such rooms should exist rather than addressing the needs of all those who didn’t make it to the room. Táíwò also emphasizes the need for action over mere description of the world. Although Marx may have said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” many Marxist academics remain focused on interpretation. To be clear, I am grading Táíwò on a curve here; his passionate polemic on the need for constructive politics (over deference politics) is vague in implementation. But he does at least view the world as changeable, and addresses an audience that hopes to change the world—another distinguisher from many academic books, which seem aimed at other academics.

It’s perhaps a poor indicator that I opened this review with “Well, it’s a bit better than a lot of academic books.” There isn’t all that much to this book; it is short, but despite its brevity it is a padded version of his 2020 essay. The extra pages lightly touch on works by other writers and organizers (Jo Freeman’s essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness, Amilcar Cabral and Paulo Freire on liberation and self-government, Nick Estes on indigeneity and trauma, etc.) but his treatment of these other topics neither bolsters his own argument nor sheds insight into these other works. During the process of publishing the book, someone made the decision to change the title from the at least descriptive one the essay took ("Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference") to one that suggests a thorough historic analysis that the book doesn’t deliver on (“Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics”). Still, it’s an approachable book that brings up a number of important political questions, and could be a good springboard for a chatty book club.

Review: The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Some people learn best when information comes in the form of numbered rules one ought to follow. This guide is for them. 

Other people resent rules passed down from on high when the explanations for these rules are sparse, subjective or arbitrary. Perhaps more provocatively, I propose this guide is also for them! 

Strunk & White are very opinionated in which phrases or words should be discarded altogether ("In the last analysis. A bankrupt expression.") but in making the resentful reader conscious of the vacuity of many commonplace phrases and defending their favourites to themselves, the reader will nonetheless become a more conscious writer.

This style guide is from a different era, and shows its age. The authors often lean on biblical verses as examples of good writing, presuming the reader is familiar with this material. There is a lengthy section advising the reader in how to best take advantage of a word processor and how to avoid its pitfalls. Written communication has changed with the evolution of technology (see Gretchen McCullough's Because Internet) and there are aspects of effective communication in the 21st century that are not covered--formal communication from an employer to its employees may even include emojis. That said, advice like "omit needless words" is timeless, and applies more than ever in the character-limited domain of twitter.

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Review: The Black Jacobins by CLR James

The leaders of a revolution are usually those who have been able to profit by the cultural advantages of the system they are attacking, and the San Domingo revolution was no exception to this rule.

 It is the tragedy of mass movements that they need and can only too rarely find adequate leadership.

CLR James wrote The Black Jacobins with a clear goal: providing black people in the Americas with the knowledge and confidence they need to challenge the governments that oppress them. How do you identify a political opportunity, which political alliances should you make and which should you avoid, how do you identify leaders from amongst you? This goal imbues the book with a sense of high stakes and urgency, complemented by the book’s vivid writing. It’s a perspective of the Haitian Revolution from below, and I liked both the angle and how clear the author was about the angle: the way to counteract narrative after narrative of a historical event “from above” is not to craft a “neutral” history.

The strong suit of the book was the portion before the revolution. James lays out a careful analysis of the complex ways race (mulatto versus black versus white), property ownership (dispossessed, small capital, plantation owners) and freedom (enslaved versus free) intersected, and how the relationship between San Domingo (Haiti’s former name) and its colonizer, France, shaped the politics on the island. San Domingo springs alive: a bustling island rich in resources and rife with contradictions. The colonial powers are pushed to the sidelines for a change: France, Spain, England and a nascent United States haunt the island, vying for power and wealth in the area. The framing throws into sharp relief the validity of the brief, heated moments of retaliatory violence conducted by the former slaves against those who brutally exploited them for centuries and then slaughtered them in cold blood during the war. Interestingly, for all the book’s nuanced investigation of race, imperialism and class, it was surprising that gender oppression was nearly absent from the book. 

The middle section of the book was more middling. James details the movements of various military troops, and the correspondence between various political figures, and I found myself getting a little lost in the names and dates. Woven between the military history, we see Toussaint L'Overture moving up through the ranks, leading men, and making shrewd decisions. For example, he kickstarts San Domingo’s recovery after the war by taking advantage of the skill sets of white property owners. James lifts Toussaint up as an inspiring role model, but portrays him as perhaps too heroic, too out of reach: the pages overflow with phrases like “the range and sensitivity of Toussaint’s untaught genius.” 

The final portion of the book landed like a disappointing plot twist. Having built up Toussaint as this kind, thoughtful, brilliant, sensitive man, James narrates his great betrayal of the masses at the hands of their leader: “Once more the masses had received a shattering blow—not from the bullets of the enemy, but from where the masses most often receive it, from their own trembling leaders.” Toussaint’s failing (and the lesson the reader should apply to their own political work) was to leave unexplained his strategy and the need for collaboration with other classes:

But whereas Lenin kept the party and the masses thoroughly aware of every step and explained carefully the exact position of the bourgeois servants of the Worker’s State, Toussaint explained nothing, and allowed the masses to think that their old enemies were being favoured at their expense.

I agree with James, of course, about the importance of communication. My disappointment was with how little James dug into why this brilliant leader—who dined at the hearths of old black women and lived among the people as much as he could—suddenly failed to communicate with his supporters. James insists the solution was obvious and simple: “With Dessalines, Belair, Moise and the hundreds of other officers, ex-slave and formerly free, it would have been easy for Toussaint to get the mass of the population behind him.” Toussaint “destroyed his own Left-wing, and with it sealed his own doom” and yet “the tragedy was that there was no need for it.” The closest we get to understanding this fateful shortcoming of Toussaint is that he was “a naturally silent and reserved man” and that he was educated—Dessalines, who “saw no further” than his own nose was for that reason able to more clearly understand the threat of the French.

Then, perhaps aware that this nearly divinely effective leader built up throughout the book was at odds with the tight-lipped misguided man of the final chapter, James assures us ”It is easy to see to-day… where he had erred. It does not mean that [his generals] or any of us would have done better in his place.” One wonders if one can really learn from Toussaint at all: an untaught genius, doomed to fail, to betray the masses.

The masses play a strange role in James’ retelling. They are, in large part, the protagonists of the story—The Black Jacobins is a popular history, and the event it portrays was a popular revolution. But in this telling, the masses become a sea of people from which emerge a few leaders, and it is through these leaders that we see the twists and turns of the revolution. James’s primary material guides this perspective, to some extent; we have the correspondence of military officers and diplomats, but presumably fewer contemporaneous records written by ex-slaves. But James writes with certainty regarding the convictions and passions of the masses, treating them as monolithic and often instinctive beings:

The masses thought he had taken Spanish San Domingo to stop the slave traffic, and not as a safeguard against the French.

The masses were fighting by instinct. They knew that whatever party the old slave-owners belonged to aimed at the restoration of slavery.

The Russian masses were to prove once more that this innate power will display itself in all populations when deeply stirred and given a clear perspective by a strong and trusted leadership.

How did consensus arise among the masses? How did knowledge disseminate amongst the masses? How was conflict resolved? What messages resonate and how did the “strong and trusted leadership” revise their communication strategies to adapt to the needs of the masses? None of these questions are explored.

The Tragedy of Toussaint is that communication between the leader and the masses failed. What does good communication look like? A holy communion between masses and leaders, for all we know. Why did Toussaint fail to communicate? Similarly unexplored. The Black Jacobins is an instructional history missing crucial lessons we need to learn.