Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Review: Nietzsche, The Aristocratic Rebel by Domenico Losurdo

This is a 1000-page book about Nietzsche. This might seem like a lot of pages to read about one single philosopher (and it is a long book!), but it’s also an in-depth journey into late 19th-century philosophy, battles that shaped the ideology behind World War I and then later World War II as well as (from an opposite perspective) the 1917 October Revolution and then later the mid-20th century wave of national liberation movements. You come away from the book with not only a close familiarity with the evolution of Nietzsche’s thought over his ~20-year career, but also an understanding of origin myths and national identity, nihilism and the critique of religion, metacritique and an outsider’s critique of status quo ideology, judeophobia and antisemitism, eugenics and imperialism, masses and elites.

Losurdo argues that the consistent project in Nietzsche’s otherwise contradictory body of work is one of anti-communism and counter-revolution. Nietzsche held the creation of art and culture to be of the highest value, and something that could be achieved only by individuals afforded complete leisure and spared from mind-numbing toil. The maintenance of this class necessitated the enslavement of the rest of humanity, enforced by violence and eugenics and ideology. Socialism — in its declaration that all humans are equal — was a threat to this world order.

Nietzsche’s philosophy is repugnant, and Losurdo does not shy away from calling it so. But this book is not a 1000-page screed against a terrible philosopher. Throughout the book, it is clear how much Losurdo respects Nietzsche for his intellectual rigour and his ability to find new ways of interrogating the ideology of his world. The target of this tome is not so much Nietzsche but left Nietzscheans, or those who would wish to use him to socialist (or even liberal) ends. Losurdo renders this position ridiculous; he shreds attempts to interpret Nietzsche metaphorically or as a dreamy innocent distorted by a conniving sister. 

A common pattern in this book is to establish the contemporary discourse on a particular topic — education, the military, the poverty of the masses — and show Nietzsche’s continuities with conservative and liberal thinkers of his time, and then examine the ways Nietzsche was able to radicalize these critiques, to transcend the limitations of Christian or liberal thought, and recognize the full implications of their consistent application. I am left with more respect (as well as more repulsion) for him than I expected, and have a better sense for what it means to do “good philosophy”.


For a more detailed, academic review of the contents and approac, I like this one by Matt Sharpe.

Sunday, January 7, 2024

Review: Washington Bullets by Vijay Prashad

This book is a whirlwind tour through 20th- and 21st-century Washington-led initiatives to bring to heel nations that would chart their own course (socialist or non-aligned movement), establishing what has been called the US century or US hegemony. It is a lengthy list of imperialist interventions, though its more comprehensive approach to naming interventions and its concise length entail a sacrifice in the depth of analysis compared to other books in this genre, such as Bevins' The Jakarta Method (focused on Indonesia, Chile and Brazil and the "military coup" recipe), Parenti's To Kill a Nation (focused on the interplay of economic coercion, media narratives, and NATO military involvement in breaking up Yugoslavia), and Herman and Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent (emphasizing the role of media in US interventions in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Nicaragua, Bulgaria).

In a way, the title is a bit of a misnomer: where Washington bullets powered the first forays (for example, the overthrow of Guatemala's popular anti-imperialist and economic-nationalist government in 1954, or the overthrow of the democratically-elected Indonesian communist party in 1965), political and economic considerations have pushed the US to adopt alternative strategies over the last 40ish years. Economic instruments, like IMF-enforced economic "restructuring", or legal approaches to deposing an unfavourable government (like the 2019 coup in Bolivia), are easier to sell to its citizens at home and save face during diplomatic negotiations abroad. There's a mirror here in how coercion went from violent and overt to economic and less visible over time in international relations as well as economic production. Once, masters used violence to coerce their slaves. Now, labour is coerced through economic means.

The most helpful part of the book was the list of commonalities Prashad calls the "manual for regime change". These steps were as follows: (1) lobby 'public' opinion, (2) appoint the right man on the ground, (3) make sure the Generals are ready, (4) make the economy scream, (5) diplomatic isolation, (6) organize mass protests, (7) green light, (8) a study of assassination, (9) deny. Structure like this makes it easier to interpret and remember historical events. Unfortunately, once presented, the structure wasn't rigourously used to present conflicts. I think it would be really effective to go through the list for a small handful of conflicts over and over, highlighting how different aspects of this "manual" change over time as modes of coercion become less straightforwardly violent and more complexly legalistic.

A last drawback of this book is that I doubt it will change minds: those who already believe the US is imperialist will be delighted to be walked through scores of examples of its imperialism; those who believe the US is indeed highly concerned with autocratic governments in general and not just those that oppose its interests are unlikely to be convinced otherwise. Prashad breezily dances around the globe, highlighting patterns in US-led regime change, but I can imagine a resistant reader decrying "no, it wasn't like that at all!" I think a more effective tactic is to present the opposing arguments in detail and investigate their claims, demonstrating their internal inconsistency. Examples of this approach include the three books listed above, as well as Losurdo's books on liberalism, Stalin and Hegel. For this reason, I think this book is harder to recommend for a general audience, and see it as most suitable for someone new to anti-imperialist perspectives who wants a broad overview.

Thursday, December 28, 2023

Review: Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Our current society is particularly ill-suited to tackle climate change. Fixing climate change will require two things: (1) knowledge spanning disciplines as diverse as economics, agriculture and physics and (2) massive scale and multi-pronged collaboration between teams and countries. This presents a challenge for fictional stories of humanity solving the climate crisis: our current mode of storytelling is best suited for internal emotional journeys, following a handful of characters setting out to achieve one goal, with little prior background knowledge required. But we need fiction to handle this topic: fiction has long played a role in how humans understand value systems and social expectations, examine complex emotions, and envision large-scale collective achievement. 

In Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson presents a unique way to overcome this writing challenge. Narrative chapters are interspersed with expositions on energy technology, gini coefficients, the Bretton Woods financial system, the carbon cycle and other pertinent topics. The narrative follows two main characters (Mary and Frank) most closely, but we see through the eyes of scores of other characters that are navigating the devastation of climate change (memorably, climate refugees who spend years in camps, a lone survivor of a village wiped out by a heat wave, and a kayaker who rescues Los Angelinos during a record flood) or trying to fix it (memorably, farmers in India and scientists in antarctica). In this way, the book succeeds at conveying information the author feels is necessary to prevent humanity’s pending extinction (addressing point 1 above) and presents a realistic and collective effort at harnessing all the tools available to society towards this end (addressing point 2).

Because of this unusual structure, I hesitate to call it a novel; Tolstoy rejected the label for War and Peace, which intersperses philosophy and history with narrative, if less disjointedly than Robinson’s work. I was a fan of this technique for War and Peace, and I found it to be compelling and enjoyable in Robinson’s less deft hands too. However, from discussions with others and from perusing book reviews for both literary efforts, I might be the only reader with this opinion. Climate change sci-fi authors are therefore recommended to further innovate on this approach to achieve broader appeal.

Robinson has clearly thought through possible paths towards maintaining a livable planet, and therefore I think his political and technological solution deserves some commentary: it sucks.

Briefly, his solution rests on blockchain financial instruments funded by modern monetary theory, although he engages with none of the critiques of MMT (and there are many). Through a convoluted system of privacy-focused social media networks (really!) and carbon coins, technological solutions arise magically due to competition. Sure, a weird techno-utopian neoliberal solution, I could have anticipated that much based on my reading of Red Mars. But what surprised me was its full-throated defense of terrorism (and the lack of mainstream critique he has received for this!).

The story begins when Frank kidnaps Mary at gunpoint, and this event causes her to radically shift her view on her role as a high-ranking official in the branch of the UN charged with addressing climate change (the Ministry for the Future). It is quite clear that without this act of terrorism, the reforms she ultimately implements would never have come to pass. Several chapters center around the actions of the Children of Kali, a terrorist group who, by attacking cattle and airplanes, very effectively terrorize the planet into no longer eating carbon-intensive foods or flying in carbon-emitting planes. This terrorist organization is even secretly supported by the UN itself! These terrorists are portrayed with bottomless empathy, and are largely rewarded for their actions, which are presented as critical for humanity addressing climate change. It is hard to imagine what a more pro-terrorist science fiction work would look like, and that others don’t seem to view this political work in the same way leaves me feeling a little rattled.

Review: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

This novel surprised me! The opening scene features the protagonist, Robert Jordan, laying out his plans to blow up a bridge to enable to Spanish Republicans to take a city over from the fascists, and I assumed this would be the inciting event to kick off the wave of action that the rest of the book would ride. Instead, the novel spans the two days leading up to the attack, every moment of the day catalogued in detail, from the typical thrilling events of an action movie (like scoping out enemy watch shifts) to the very mundane (sitting around campfires over dinner and talking). The slow unfolding of events gives space for an intensely realistic portrayal of life behind enemy lines (based on Hemingway's experiences in the Spanish Civil War, the book was a favourite among Cuban revolutionaries for its realism), and philosophical meditations on leadership.

Of the aspects of leadership explored, my favourite was the argument for strategic decision-making guided by science and engineering over impulsive action guided by blood-lust and vengeance. Repeatedly, Robert Jordan reins in his allies, who, in their desire to kill some fascists, might jeopardize the bridge objective. Repeatedly, he is proven correct, ultimately tragically correct. This kind of theme feels rare in war stories, which often feature story arcs in which the best laid plans of mice and men give way to heroic actions driven by gut feelings. It seems rare outside of action movies too: evidence-based long-term planning does not scream "gripping plot" and even the stories we tell about real world events are usually re-framed to emphasize in-the-moment decision-making and big personalities over careful team coordination and discipline in sticking to long-term goals despite temptations.

The philosophy was, however, a mixed bag: Robert Jordan's school of ethics was proudly eclectic. For him, philosophy is a matter of faith: you pick what you choose to believe and discard the rest. I would have preferred a protagonist who is as systematic in his philosophical thinking as he is in his assessment of how to place explosives or identification of men not up to the task of leading a rebel party.

The portrayal of women was abysmal. Although matriarch Pilar was quite fun, I gritted my teeth through the scenes with Maria (of which there were many). Maria, we are repeatedly told, would have been ever so beautiful if it weren't for the fact that her hair was short. Despite the disfiguring length of her hair, she has every man in the camp slobbering over how sexy she is, although she falls in love at first sight with Robert Jordan. She quickly dives into bed with him because she is told that sex with this complete stranger will cure her of her trauma from being violently sexually assaulted. She is very young, and naive to the ways of the world, and wants nothing more than to sexually please Robert Jordan and wash his socks. They agree to marry, and mother figure Pilar gives her helpful advice like "don't eat potatoes so you can maintain your figure", and Robert Jordan agrees with her on the importance of not getting fat and not eating potatoes. Insoportable.

The language of the story deserves commentary. I've seen elsewhere it has been criticized for its unnatural phrasing, but I loved it. The story is set in Spain but although it was originally written in English, it reads like an awkward translation from Spanish. The characters use "thou" and "you" for the informal and formal "tu" and "usted" as befitting their social relationships, and their speech is peppered with false-friend translations ("I could not support it" instead of "I couldn't stand it", taken from "no puedo soportarlo"). The main character, a Spanish teacher, muses at times on the fidelity of translation and the way etymology shifts across the european continent. Lots of fun easter eggs for fans of languages and people learning Spanish (i.e., me).

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Review: Beowulf, translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

The rhythm of the translation was almost distractingly delightful to read over audiobook. The alliteration and assonance and word play were often very fun. However, I found many of the very-modern translations a little jarring: "hashtag blessed", "dude" (although I like "bro" and "swole"--they bridge modernity and antiquity better), and "no shit". I appreciate the author's avoidance of anachronistic archaic words like "betwixt" but it was too much for me. This passage perhaps best encapsulates the highs and lows of the translation:

They cornered it, clubbed it, tugged it onto the rocks,
stillbirthed it from its mere-mother, deemed it
damned, and made of it a miscarriage. They
examined its entrails, awed and aggrieved.
Meanwhile, Beowulf gave zero shits.

The translator set out to bring to life the women in the story, and I think she succeeded well at this. The most memorable passages were the battle with Grendel's mother and with the (female) dragon. Who, really, were the victims versus the monsters in the tale? These women wielded power in their own right, they had motivations of their own and justifications for their actions.

Old stories prompt reflection of changes in storytelling and morality. The pacing of the poem feels off for modern senses: the first battles happen very quickly, and don't follow the typical incite/failure/reflection/success pattern expected of a hero's journey. The battles are unexpectedly brief relative to the lavish scenes of gift giving or funeral rites that follow them. This difference in emphasis is a good peek into how important kin bonds and rewarding loyal armsmen was to the social structure of the time. The Odyssey is similar in this way, but Emily Wilson's modern, feminist translation is much better.

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.