Saturday, November 18, 2023

Review: Not Enough by Samuel Moyn

Samuel Moyn’s Not Enough identifies a very interesting phenomenon: that discourse around human rights kicked off only as the USSR disintegrated and neoliberalism kicked off. Such an interesting coincidence deserves an explanation.

Over the last few decades, human rights have fit quite comfortably within neoliberalism. But should they? Neoliberalism takes little issue with the first twenty-one articles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR): these have to do with political freedoms and property rights, and have close kin in the UDHR’s predecessors, the American Declaration of Independence (1776) and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789). 

The next seven articles are harder to square within neoliberalism since they demand, among other social and economic rights, the right to shelter and food, to education, and even to paid holidays. These were sharply censured by one of neoliberalism’s leading thinkers, Hayek:

The conception of a ‘universal right’ which assures to the peasant, to the Eskimo, and presumably to the Abominable Snowman, ‘periodic holidays with pay’ shows the absurdity of the whole thing. (Law, Legislation and Liberty, 1979)

Moyn argues that human rights set merely a floor for basic needs, allowing limitless wealth accumulation for the few provided some allowances are made for bare subsistence living for the many. To address inequality — both between nations and within a nation — a new framework is needed. In this conception, indeed, human rights are exactly the fig leaf necessary for a return to the horrors of 19th century capitalism after the cannibalization of the welfare state. I agree with him that human rights organizations have largely prioritized political rights, and that the neoliberal era has made embarrassingly poor progress in the provision of shelter and food, education and paid holidays, globally. 

I am less convinced that it is so much an inherent failing of the tool of human rights than simply the doing of those wielding it. Article 27 demands “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Article 28 declares “Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.” Together, I think these rights demand that the technological progress of the Global North (high speed rail, internet, the most cutting edge cancer drugs, for example) be made available to all the people of the world regardless of their place of residence. The human rights movement under neoliberalism has not chosen to work towards these ends (and indeed this human right is also violated for many people residing in the wealthiest countries). 

Moyn argues throughout his book for the need of a distributive concept of equality versus ideals that aim only for a subsistence existence. However, he never dares to venture a positive vision of what that could look like — a privilege of the ivory tower, and not one a burgeoning state attempting to bring equality to its people can afford. Presumably, his conception of the rights due to all people would have to encompass a “share” of all wealth? It is interesting, therefore, that Article 27 (quote above) indeed provisions to all humans a share of science and technology. Simply declaring a right to a share evidently hasn’t been enough. So what sort of government permits that?

One of the neoliberal critiques of human rights is whether it is possible to satisfy them within a worldview founded on individual responsibility. Here’s Hayek again:

It is evident that all these ‘rights’ are based on the interpretation of society as a deliberately made organization by which everybody is employed. They could not be made universal within a system of rules of just conduct based on the conception of individual responsibility, and so require that the whole of society be converted into a single organization, that is, made totalitarian in the fullest sense of the word.

Moyn, likewise, is terrified of the “totalitarian” systems that chose an alternative to the welfare state in their efforts to eliminate inequality (i.e., socialism). It is not clear what system he calls for, nor how this system would avoid such “totalitarian” tendencies.

Moyn’s argument largely traces the intellectual history of the concepts of distributive equality versus subsistence allowances — particularly from an American perspective. He does not investigate the source of wealth inequality (although he nods briefly towards the devastation wrought by colonialism), nor does he ground his analysis in what sorts of interventions effectively reduced inequality (though there is a brief foray in how investment in education both satisfies a human right and reduces inequality). This is a blind spot: it is very difficult to tackle a problem without knowing what causes it and what has fixed it in the past. 

His treatment of intra-nation versus inter-nation inequality is simplistic. Political projects are largely judged by their intent to lift the very neediest in the globe out of poverty. In this way, the USSR’s accomplishments in dramatically raising literacy and life expectancy within its borders are dismissed because they aimed for “socialism in one country” (rather than addressing global inequality). (Nor is there curiosity regarding why the Soviets pivoted from their original goal of socialism across the world to just socialism in one country.) Similarly, heightened intra-nation inequality during the marketization of China is lambasted, although the wealth gap between China and the wealthier countries narrowed during this time for both its poorest and its better off citizens. Is it possible to reduce intra-nation inequality without, at least for some period, heightening inter-nation inequality? Because Moyn examines neither the source of inequality nor practical examples of addressing it (beyond the former colonial empires’ welfare states), he cannot answer this question.

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Review: They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers

Women have always been smart, able to make decisions for ourselves, creative and enterprising, and both interested in and capable of shaping the world around us to our own benefit — to the same extent as our male counterparts. Some social configurations limited the sorts of actions available to us, and we may not have received the same education and resources as our brothers did, but we were never simply passive members of society. Many of these decisions and actions we took, the ways we shaped the world, are not obvious from a more superficial reading of historical sources. This is true for the important roles women played in science and art and politics, and also for the less savory parts of human history, like the ownership and exploitation of enslaved people.

In this work, Jones-Rogers exhaustively documents white women’s autonomy and shrewdness in their roles as slave owners in the United States. She draws from sources as diverse as advertisements, women’s magazine advice columns, sales records and lawsuits to show over and over again how involved white women were in the institution of slavery. They made decisions to purchase or sell their human property, determined how to discipline them, how to get the most value out of their property, and other aspects of ownership. Jones-Rogers shows how important slave ownership was to the culture of this class: enslaved people were often parts of dowries, wills, coming-of-age-gifts and other markers of life. She discusses several instances of “power couple” slave owners, with husband and wife taking wildly different tactics to the care and discipline of their slaves. 

All this at a time when a woman’s property was considered to be her husband’s! In practice, women had say over their own property, and their property rights were enforced in court orders. Women would often sue their husbands for mismanagement of their (human) property, or sign premarital agreements governing the ownership and management of their (human) property. Other historical sources often overlook the role women played in slave ownership, and Jones-Rogers documents a number of factors that led to this under-count. For example, female slave owners were more likely to own female slaves, and female slaves were not recruited for Civil War efforts as male slaves were. When these slave-owners lined up for compensation for slaves taken from them during the war, women slave owners were therefore underrepresented. Women slave owners also used slave traders to a relatively greater extent than slave markets, compared to their male counterparts. They also often used (male) go-betweens to execute their wishes. Buyers and sellers may also be listed only with a first initial, complicating assessment of the individual’s gender. A superficial examination of limited sources might conclude that this practice was mostly a male affair.

The most interesting and unique chapter of the book was the chapter on wet nursing. This practice involves biology and culture, and exploits inequalities and prejudices about race and gender and class. It was a life-giving practice for many people, disgusting in its particular form of oppression, yet rarely features in history books. In my opinion, it works well as a stand-alone chapter, highlighting many of the other themes Roberts pulls at throughout her work.

The rest of the book is very detailed, and though it really brings to life the period and all its ugliness, it’s not a casual read but a scholarly work. I recommend it for those with an interest in the topic, but for the reader casually interested in race and gender in American history, I suggest Angela Davis' Race, Women, Class.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: Lenin Rediscovered by Lars Lih

Lih takes as his target western marxists that wish to exonerate Marx from his association with Lenin. This so-called “textbook interpretation” of Lenin’s 1901 What Is to Be Done?, favoured by academics and Trotskyist, takes a couple passages out of context and uses these passages to argue Lenin was dismissive of the intelligence and abilities of workers and that this pamphlet is a founding document of a party of a new type, one distinct from the socialism that sprung from Marx’s milieu and one that is more authoritarian. Although this interpretation requires dismissing thousands of pages of Lenin’s other writings, including passages from within the same text, it nevertheless predominated at the time of Lih’s writing of this book (2005).

Lih’s approach is to demonstrate the continuity between German Social Democracy and Russian Social Democracy in the last half of the 19th century, elevating particularly the role Karl Kaustky played in shaping social democracy. Lih supports his argument by quoting extensively from Kautsky and contemporaries to explain the “merger theory”, a concept that would have been very familiar to socialists across Europe during this era. Briefly, the scientific analysis of capitalism and proposals for a better socioeconomic order become apparent to socialists, who study the system carefully. However, they are few in numbers and cannot effect change on their own. Workers also become aware also of the flaws of the capitalist system through their experience as labourers, but without the ability to study the system in its entirety (due to the oppression of capitalism clawing away as many hours of their life as it can) are capable only of militant fights for economic and labour rights, but not for universal political change — i.e., they are limited to trade unionist politics. The merger theory describes the meeting of these two parties that need each other: the socialists with the workers, each mutually instructing each other on what is to be done. Far from dismissing the intelligence and abilities of the workers, the merger theory (and Lenin’s dogged defense of it in What Is to be Done?) hinges on the workers being rational, curious, coordinated, powerful. After reading Lih’s background, I realized how foundational this concept was to writing of the late 19th and early 20th century — much like how a modern television show wouldn’t bother explaining how the internet works, the existence of the merger theory is assumed knowledge rather than explained.

In bringing Lenin closer to Kautsky (I remain unconvinced that Lenin is uniquely passionate about Kautsky, rather than taking him as just one of many valuable instructors), Lih tries to distance Lenin from the Russian revolutionary tradition: Chernyshevsky, Herzen, Pisarev. This is a factual error: Lenin refers to these authors extensively in his writing — indeed also in this very book — and (according to his wife, Krupskaya, Chernyshevsky and Lenin) elevated them as inspiration to the level of Marx and Engels. It is also an error for those wishing to understand the course of history: 1917 was an anti-imperialist revolution, which necessitates a strong, shared vision of national identity.

Though I gnashed my teeth through large swathes of this book, I also found it to be very useful. Reading What Is To Be Done? without the intellectual history and historical context Lih provides would likely have been a far less productive experience. This book is too eurocentric and too overly long to recommend broadly. I wish there was a modern accompaniment to What Is To Be Done? that spent a little less time on Kautsky and a little more time looking forward to the ripples of this book and the debates featured within it. Still, for the reader eager to learn about movement building and hoping to turn to theoretical works from 120 years ago to do so, it’s an excellent read.

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

All of Nghi Vo’s works center around the same theme: the relationship between reality and the stories we tell, and how this relationship is modified by who tells the story. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, we re-learn the story of a famous empress through the eyes of her maid servant, and in this way learn about the untold sacrifice of the commoner that makes this noble woman’s heroic tale possible. In When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain, we learn humans and tigerfolk have told the same folklore tale from different angles, such that a tale of torture and escape becomes one of love and betrayal. This theme continues also in Vo’s novels outside of this series of novellas: in The Chosen and the Beautiful, we rediscover The Great Gatsby through the eyes of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, and Daisy becomes a more understandable yet tragic character; in Siren Queen, the racism and queerphobia of Hollywood impacts what stories get told, and these stories in turn shape how people from these groups see themselves. 

Into The Riverlands continues this theme, raising questions like: when should old stories be abandoned and replaced with something new? What makes for a satisfying end to a story? Why are all women in stories either ugly or beautiful? How do figures of history influence how stories are told about them? Can you keep your story to yourself, refuse to have it be told? But I don’t feel like these questions had satisfying answers and I think the reason is the story structure. 

The previous novellas in the Singing Hills Cycle series featured cleric Chi journeying to discover stories to take back home to their monastery, encountering a group or an individual on the way and hearing out their story. This frame story would interrupt the folktale story often, giving commentary, context, and discussing how the folk story conflicted with other versions of the tale. In Into The Riverlands, there is no one inner story, but several brief folktales, just a few pages each. Instead, the “frame story” was the main story. Part of my difficulty with this novella was expecting the formula to continue through this volume — enjoying the cozy setting and pretty prose, I kept waiting for the “main story” and it wasn’t until the 80% mark before I realized, oh, this is it! 

Another challenge here is that now Chi is the main character; suitably, for someone dedicated to telling stories, the questions raised are largely to do with how to turn real events into a story. The cohesion to all these questions about story-telling is granted by Chi's sudden change in relationship with the stories told to them. Chi is thrust into the position of not scribe but witness to Water Margin-like adventures of bandits and fighters. It will be up to them to turn the events into a story — but we don’t see them grapple or reckon with what this means to them in the context of their vocation. The novella reads like perhaps it is setting Chi up for a more active role in storytelling, leaving the conclusion of the character arc open for a subsequent installment in the series. Which I will absolutely read, despite my disappointment in this book.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Review: This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m partial to an epistolary tale — if Jane Austen’s Lady Susan is not in my top 3 Jane Austens it is because the competition is very good. Letters provide a window into the soul of the character, but always shaped by how that character wishes to show themselves to the addressee of their letter. It's a fun device.

The letters in this novel are wonderfully written. The characters’ observations about what it feels like to be in love feel both particular to the characters (as any love is particular to the two people it binds) as well as recognizable (“I have built a you within me, or you have. I wonder what of me there is in you.”). If the characters appear to tip too suddenly from respected adversary to romantic love, I think it is because love is perhaps like that — you hold yourself back, uncertain until all of a sudden it can’t be denied.

While the romance arc itself is straightforward, the world it is set in is convoluted and for all its flashy weirdness doesn’t contribute much to the relationship developed between the two characters. Our lovebirds, Red and Blue, are time-traveling non-human (or bioengineered beyond typical human biological impulses) secret agents on two opposite sides of a conflict that is waged across all the timelines of the universe towards no clear end. What principles and values do Red and Blue fight for? What are the final objectives of the war? How did the conflict start? Unclear — except for the two sides being irreconcilable and alien to each other. Towards the end of the novella, Red nearly begins to grapple with what it means to love someone not from her own people but from the opposite side of the war, but because the political differences between the two sides are so unexplored, it feels a little empty. (Blue’s team is more organic, while hers is… bionic?) One rather wonders why the authors picked this setting to tell this love story.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Review: Maladies of Empire by Jim Downs

Maladies of Empire tells the usually-untold story of how epidemiological and medical advances were made directly as a result of the institutional aspects of colonialism. The “told” story usually includes Onesimus, an enslaved man who told his master, an 18th century New England priest by the name of Cotton Mather, about the practice of inoculation against smallpox using exposure to a small quantity of the virus to prevent a more severe, systemic infection. Mather tested this process on some 250 enslaved people and eventually his own son, convincing the aggressively skeptical medical establishment of the validity of this Black “folk” wisdom. Good discussion of this episode in history is usually limited to the ethicality of experimentation on enslaved people (see Medical Apartheid). But there’s sort of a comforting aspect to this narrative too: Onesimus was a relatively well-treated slave, and that his master listened to him and learned from his cultural traditions plays into the story the Anglo empire likes to tell that cultural mixing was beneficial for itself and all the civilizations it conquered.

Where Maladies of Empire goes beyond this is to document how the very processes through which the British Empire colonized much of the world also enabled the medical field to understand the spread of diseases. The story starts with slave ships:market forces drove slavers to keep costs down as much as possible without hurting the sale price of their human wares. This captive population was carefully documented and experimented upon, and from here, the medical establishment learned about the minimum fruit or vegetable intake required to stave off scurvy.

The mechanisms of the spread of infectious disease, however, necessitated the aggregation of records from across the world. Who was living where? Where did these ship passengers come from? Where did they go? After how many days did symptoms start? The meticulous records through which the British Empire tracked their ships and military and subjects allowed medical doctors to track the spread of yellow fever and cholera. For the first time, scientists were analyzing data that others had collected, possibly from the other side of the globe. 

The birth of epidemiology is therefore also, in a sense, the birth of data science, and the dark sides of data science were present from the start. The individual names and stories of the people who contributed the data — often racialized or institutionalized or poor — are lost to the sands of time, while the knowledge gleaned from their data goes on to benefit the wealthy and white. Downs’ story-telling is up for a challenge: how do you bear witness to these lost narratives and humanize the individual subjects whose suffering taught us how to cure or prevent disease, without getting mired in details? I don’t think the result is fully successful — there were some episodes where I felt the main themes became a little lost in the weeds of names and locations. But the work is excellent for understanding how intimately linked the development of science was with imperialism.

We see similar beats today: the bureaucracy of institutionalized people supports medical advances. For example, the link between the Epstein-Barr virus and Multiple Sclerosis was shown quite definitively only because of the mandatory monitoring and testing of American military recruits (themselves an imperializing force).

Downs contrasts the racism of the British Empire in the 19th century with that of the United States. In general, the British were certainly white supremacist, but more accepting of belief systems that allowed for similarities between races. For example, see Florence Nightingale and some of her peers’ views of racial differences in disease susceptibility:

Although Florence Nightingale believed in racial difference, regarding the English as the finest race on the planet, she did not use race as an explanation for the spread of cholera or other infectious diseases. Even after germ theory became widely accepted, she insisted that unsanitary environments led to disease. She did not believe that the source of disease transmission could be found in innate characteristics of the patient (...). Similarly, while Gavin Milroy and other doctors working in the Caribbean certainly harboured racist beliefs, they too searched for the cause of disease in the natural and built environment. Milroy condemned Black people’s living conditions and blamed their high rate of illness on their failure to maintain clean homes, but he did not focus on racial difference as the cause of disease spread.

Because their economic system depended on enslavement (and later, subjugation and segregation) of the Black race, American doctors approached medicine quite differently, and sought to reify the impact of race in health. The answer to “why is disease more prevalent in slaves?” could not be that they were oppressed, and forced into terrible living conditions, since that was a threat to the social order:

Many doctors in other parts of the world were turning to the physical world and the built environment to understand how disease spread; they observed symptoms in a patient and then turned outward to housing, sewers, drainage, and crowded conditions to understand why patients were sick. USSC surgeons did the opposite. They turned inward to the patient, trying to find the answer to the illness within or on their body. While they considered the natural or built environment, they emphasized racial identity as the cause. 

This approach had a long-lasting impact on the medical establishment: while slavery ended with the Civil War, “the USSC resurrected slave-holding ideologies to amplify racial difference and to contribute to medical knowledge.” These were not the first scientists to seek to justify their pre-existing beliefs with “evidence” and refuse to consider alternative explanations, and they were certainly not the last.

A challenge with books of this sort is where they stop. The British Empire is no more, but the world is still scarred by imperialism. Science has developed into a far more robust practice, but is still often racist, and the fruits of its research are unequally distributed. The author set out to tackle this topic for a reason, and I would imagine it is because he saw similarities between this part of history and our world today. If so, I agree, and I have highlighted some of these themes above. But Downs never goes so far as to explicitly draw out the link, to comment on practices of the twentieth century and beyond. I suppose it is the careful conservative nature of most academics, who don’t dare step outside their field of expertise — but that just leaves me, with my considerably smaller extent of expertise, to apply what I’ve learned on my own.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Review: Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt

I think of invention as a long, arduous process of trial and error, where, if you know where to look, it’s easy to see the bolts connecting previous pieces of technology and the design choices made due to historical conditions or material limitations. This book does not operate under the same definition of invention, and its handling of the invention of human rights is much the worse for it.

The picture that Hunt paints of human rights is one where humanity somewhat suddenly (over the 1750s-1790s) realized human rights were a crucial concept, and then somewhat bumpily implemented them, compelled by this contagious consciousness. Briefly, the narrative goes something like this: over the 17th century, the rise of the novel (particularly in France and England) led people to empathize across class and gender boundaries and recognize others to also be humans with their own inner worlds. Society then needed to change to reflect this new understanding of the individuality and equality of humans. Once these rights were declared (particularly in France and the USA), and one group got the individuality and equality they asked for, it was extended from on high to other groups:

The logic of the process determined that as soon as a highly conceivable group came up for discussion (propertied males, Protestants), those in the same kind of category but located lower on the conceivability scale (propertyless males, Jews) would inevitably appear on the agenda. (p150) 

It’s a very western-centric view of the “invention” of human rights. I think Hunt is correct to trace (at least some of) the emotional impetus for European bourgeois propertied male demands for individual rights and equality through the novel, but we should then see mirroring phenomena for other classes (or, to use her language, groups or categories of people). It seems unlikely to me that the slaves in Saint Domingue were inspired to demand their freedom because they were reading Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela or were enthused about the positive example of the Parisian’s right to freedom of religion. That the decree emancipating the slaves quotes the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen is not sufficient to convince me it was a demand cascading from the French Declaration rather than a more spontaneous understanding that slavery really sucks, the negation of which was justified to the world with the hypocritical words used by its French oppressors. 

I think the root of my disagreement with Hunt about what human rights are is evident from this passage:

Human rights require three interlocking qualities: rights must be natural (inherent in human beings); equal (the same for everyone); and universal (applicable everywhere). For rights to be human rights, all humans everywhere in the world must possess them equally and only because of their status as human beings. It turned out to be easier to accept the natural quality of rights than their equality of universality. (p20)

While the equality and universality of human rights form the backbone of the remainder of Hunt's narrative, the issue of the naturalness of human rights is discussed only once, when summarizing the critique by Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism: 

Bentham objected to the idea that natural law was innate in the person and discoverable by reason. He therefore basically rejected the entire natural law tradition and with it natural rights. (p125)

This critique is not engaged with — his dismissal of human rights seems to be enough to stamp him as someone to ignore — and I’m left puzzled as to why it is so obvious that human rights are natural. After all, (paraphrasing Bentham) there is no gene that encodes the right to freedom of religion. If human rights are natural, then why is the book called Inventing Human Rights, rather than Discovering Human Rights

The title of the book is, ironically, an excellent way to frame this part of human history: human rights are indeed constructed. They are the product of the society that formulates them and enforces them, and they bear the marks of this process. This is a more useful lens: instead of a static, fully identified set of rules that society embarrassingly fails at applying sufficiently universally and equally, rights are the product of the battles and the concerns of the era.

Why was the era of capitalism the one that gave rise to demands for individual freedoms (the right to political representation, the right to freedom of religion), granted equally to all from birth? Those suddenly in power were no longer only men of noble birth. Their wealth came from the markets, and not from the pleasure of the King. Unlike the king, this new middle class had no need for the legitimation granted by the church, and so its authority too was weakened. Why were economic rights (the right to food and shelter, the right to work and to rest) added to the UN Declaration of Human Rights by the first ever Worker’s State? Those in power were concerned not only with political freedoms, which better enable the accumulation and enjoyment of wealth, but also with the economic freedoms, which enable the enjoyment of a fulfilling life without such wealth.

Because Hunt’s breezy overview of rights (excluding appendices, it is just 214 pages) emphasizes the slow stumbling process of recognizing the universality and equality of rights (rights in the abstract), the content of these rights and the specific relationships between these rights and the concerns and challenges of the people that demanded them is lost. It makes the invention of rights seem finished — in 1948 we declared there were 30 of them, and now we have only to implement them properly for a change. Why aren’t we adding to them to reflect our new understanding of what every member of society deserves, say, the right to a planet with an inhabitable environment?