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.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Review: Left of Karl Marx by Carole Boyce Davies

Sometimes I wonder what compels someone to write a book. This one seemed like it was written out of a genuine and deep admiration for Claudia Jones, and a desire to impart that joy with other academics. 

For all the author’s high regard for Claudia Jones, the author does not seem to be writing for the next Claudia Jones (there is an interesting aside in the Introduction where the author justifies her use of non-academic (communist!) sources, such as Jones herself). The book is missing a sense of urgency (Jones certainly considered her writing to be of pressing importance) and of scale — it is nearly claustrophobically focused on Jones, failing to ground her writing in the thinking of her time or to much extent explore her influence on the writers and political movements that came after her. 

I’m not convinced that the author really even understands Jones in her context. For example, in Jones’ famous 1950 International Women’s Day speech, Jones affirms solidarity with people facing all types of oppression, linking their struggles with the socialist movement. This, the author claims, is something “more radical than communism”, despite it aligning fully with Lenin’s 1902 work, What Is to Be Done?, a work Jones, as a self-identified Leninist, would have read but that the author seems unaware of. (Relatedly, the title of the book is an allusion to the location of Jones’ gravestone relative to that of Marx, and not a political statement the author argues effectively.) When we come to Jones’ well-documented beliefs with which the author particularly disagrees—Jones’ alignment with the CPUSA’s positions in the 1950s, for example—the author insists this smart, well-read, well-traveled woman has been naively deceived. 

Yet for all the minute focus on Jones, it isn’t even an exhaustive one-stop-shop for understanding her experience as a Black socialist woman. Her exclusion from the CPGB due to racial prejudices is briefly mentioned and the reader is pointed towards a work where some other scholar has elaborated it. Academic convention prevents you from stepping on other people’s toes, I suppose. Someone with fewer constraints should write a book on this very deserving thinker.

As a stand-alone chapter to see if you will enjoy the book’s approach to Jones’s writing, I suggest Chapter 4 (“Deportation: The Other Politics of Diaspora”).

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Review: Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes

Marketing did Natalie Haynes’ delightful Medusa retelling dirty. From the reviews, it appears readers went in expecting Madeline Miller’s magnificent Circe except with snakes for hair. I get it: the subtitle “Medusa’s Story” hints towards an intensely intimate perspective of a woman grappling with being the sole mortal among her gorgon sisters or working through the trauma of her violation in Athene’s temple. It’s not that book. It’s a different book. It’s good at what it sets out to do, and, unsurprisingly, fails at accomplishing what it doesn’t aim to do.

So what does it set out to do? Well, here my empathy for the misled readers ends because it is laid out fully from the very first page:

I see you. I see all those who men call monsters.

And I see the men who call them that. Call themselves heroes, of course.

I only see them for an instant. Then they’re gone.

But it’s enough. Enough to know that the hero isn’t the one who’s kind or brave or loyal. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – he is monstrous.

And the monster? Who is she? She is what happens when someone cannot be saved.

This particular monster is assaulted, abused and vilified. And yet, as the story is always told, she is the one you should fear. She is the monster.

We’ll see about that.
Stone Tears is a story about what makes someone a monster. It is about Medusa, yes, but it is also about the “men who call [her] that” and who “call themselves heroes”. It is about “all those who men call monsters.” The second page takes us soaring above the world we are about to explore, a literal birds-eye view of a world structured around patriarchal dominance: gods over mortals, kings over subjects, men over women. Each of these power relations, we will see, creates monsters. The next chapter zooms into one such relationship: Zeus, king of the gods, hunts down and rapes the minor goddess Metis and then swallows her whole. It’s an intense chapter, the monstrosity of it is vivid. 

Readers waiting for “Medusa’s story” will have to wait until the 10% mark to hear through her eyes for the first time. Medusa is raised by her Gorgon sisters. It is a tiny isolated community: the three women live alone, lovingly tending a humble flock of sheep. The egalitarianism of it contrasts the scheming, power-hungry gods and monarchs of the surrounding chapters.

Medusa’s principle foil is, of course, Perseus, re-imagined as a Brock Turner or Brett Kavanaugh type: immensely privileged by birth, given help at every step of the way, whining as he fails upwards, and almost unbelievably cruel. Narratively, Perseus’s story is structured as a classic Hero's Journey—because of course it is in the classic retelling. Haynes deftly plays on our expectations with this trope, showing Perseus follow the expected steps of embarking on a quest and seeking wisdom and playing roguish tricks on a trio of three wise women, then taunting the reader for sympathizing with someone so carelessly cruel, so monstrous.

So perhaps when you’ve finished congratulating Perseus for his quick tricks, you might spare a moment to think about how the Graiai lived after he was gone. 

Blind and hungry.

With Medusa’s deadly head retrieved, Perseus wanders through the world killing indiscriminately and remorselessly, leaving the narrative for the last time laughing after turning his bride’s extended family to stone, musing how he will let others clean up his mess. 

But it is not just Perseus who is a monster. We see monstrous behavior in the gods’ egotistical violence: Zues’s rape and consumption of Metis, Poseidon’s rape of Medusa, his collective punishment of the Ethiopians for the vanity of their queen, Athene—powerless to take aim at her true target, Poseidon—cursing Medusa. We see other humans acting monstrously: a father who locked up his daughters out of fears of prophecies, a king forcing his brother’s life partner to marry him. Over and over, the true monster is patriarchy and its agents.

The horror of these figures of Greek mythology, varyingly beautiful or at least not portrayed as physically monstrous, is contrasted with the warm, caring sisterhood of the Gorgon sisters. Sthenno and Euryale’s loving reflections on the surprising delights and unsettling fears of motherhood are so human you forget they have tusks, wings and talons.

The hero/monster reversal is a very fun angle for a Greek mythology retelling. It’s satisfying terrain to explore here in the West as we reconsider Western myths from the colonization of the New World to which of the Allied forces was chiefly responsible for the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. Haynes is at times didactic in her calling out to readers the monstrosity of her characters—I don’t begrudge her for it, the monsters of history and popular books attract far too many fans. Haynes tells the story from a creative array of characters: Medusa, Perseus, Athene all get their say, but so too the individual snakes that make up Medusa’s hair, and Medusa’s decapitated head. Perspective influences your definition of a monster, after all. 

Those looking for a more serpentine Circe should look elsewhere. Those with some tolerance for somewhat Marvel-y dialogue interested in a feminist retelling of a half dozen interwoven episodes from Greek mythology will enjoy Stone Blind.