Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Murray Bookchin: two images of technology

July 8, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).

chapter nine – two images of technology.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin examined the current disillusionment with the idea of technological progress.  This is something fairly new, he notes.  In the early 20th century, even radicals such as Woody Guthrie celebrated giant engineering feats such as Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There is a big difference, he wrote, between the ancient ideal of the good life and the modern ideal of the abundant life.

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle believed that the good life was an ethical and balanced life lived within limits and within community.  A skilled craftsman, according to Aristotle, had understood well not only how to do his work, but the reason and purpose for his work.

Modern industrial production is the opposite.  It defines efficiency in terms of quantity and cost.  Workers are not required to understand their work, only to follow instructions.  “Living well” is defined as consumption and material comfort apart from work.  Industrial workers, unlike laborers in preceding ages, do not sing work songs.

Bookchin said the modern industrial system is not a result of technology.  It is a result of peasants being uprooted from the land and their communities, and having no choice but to work for merchants and capitalists.  Originally this was done by piecework in the home, but “factors” insisted in assembling workers in common workplaces so that they could be better controlled.

Industrial technology developed to fit the already-existing factory system, Bookchin said.  Mindless labor is not a product of mechanization, he wrote; it is part of a process of subordination and control.

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Ramanujan and the nature of genius

June 25, 2016

Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar was a poor Hindu with only a basic mathematical education who, as a young man, made important mathematical discoveries.  He impressed the great British mathematicial, G.H. Hardy, who invited him to join him at Cambridge University in England, where the two had a brilliant and fruitful collaboration, cut short when Ramanujan died young.

ramanujan9781476763491_mti_cover-210I read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan after seeing the movie based on the book.  The movie does justice to the spirit of the book and mostly conforms to fact, but cannot duplicate Kanigel’s richness of detail.

Both the movie and the book gave me food for thought on the nature and sources of genius.  I once thought of mathematical discovery as a logical, step-by-step process, but I now realize it depends as much on inspiration as anything else.

Some of Ramanujan’s theorems came to him in dreams, sometimes on scrolls held by Hindu gods.

Since I do not believe in the Hindu gods myself, how do I explain the fact that Ramanujan’s visions of the gods have him true mathematical theorems and also good advice on major life decisions.

I have to believe that his visions were manifestations of his subconscious mind.  Brain scientists tell us that most cognitive activity takes place below the level of consciousness.  I believe that most inspiration and creative thought arises from subconscious  sources, and that the conscious mind performs an executive function—deciding which intuitions have a basis in reality.

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Looking for meaning in all the wrong places

June 24, 2016

I recently finished reading MIND & COSMOS: Why the Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong by Thomas Nagel.   If I only read or thought about politics, I’d go crazy.

The book reminds me of a saying of the late, great H.L. Mencken, who once wrote that when you try to combine science and religion, you wind up with something that isn’t really scientific and isn’t really religious.

Nagel9780199919758(RGB)While Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection explains the origin of species, including the human species, Thomas Nagel pointed out that it does not explain the origin of life, consciousness, human reason or morality.

He hopes for a new theory that will not only explain all these things, but give them meaning.  He is not a religious believer, and he looking for things in science that are to be found in art, literature and religious and spiritual practice.

His basic argument is the improbability and implausibility that human life as we know it could ever arise from the blind working of physical and chemical laws.

The problem with the argument from improbability is that in an infinite, or near-infinite, universe, anything that is possible, however improbable, will happen not once, but many times.

And the problem with the argument from implausibility is that most modern people already accept scientific conclusions that are highly implausible in terms of common sense—for example, I would find it hard to believe the earth goes around the sun, let alone the Big Bang and expanding universe, if I had not been taught so in school.

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Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

June 24, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin

bookchin-endquote

chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traces the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

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Murray Bookchin: justice—equal and exact

May 17, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin.   His ideas about the evolution of human society are conjectural, but I think much of what he wrote is true, most of it could be true and all of it makes me see the world in a new light.

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how concepts such as “freedom” and “justice” came into being as counterpoints to domination

The first human communities, which he called “organic societies,” practiced what Bookchin called equal treatment of unequals—what Marx later called the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

Over time this changed into what Bookchin called the unequal treatment of equals—impersonal laws that treated everybody as if they were the same—what Anatole France called the law that in its majesty forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal loaves of bread.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In organic societies, Bookchin wrote, there were no laws, judges or punishments.  Instead there was solidarity within the group.  In such societies, it didn’t matter whether you were a mighty hunter or somebody who could barely keep up.  Everybody was entitled to what they needed in order to survive.

Limitations on choice were imposed by circumstances—the weather, the availability of game, sickness and health—not human domination.

If you endangered the survival of the group, you might be put to death (as among Eskimos) or severely beaten (as among Crow Indians).  Other than that, there was free rein for eccentric behavior, sexual freedom, personal ambition (to be a “big man”), religious visions and the exercise of skill and courage.

Bookchin wrote in previous chapters how the elders of organic societies reinvented themselves as shamans and then as priests, while young warriors made blood oaths that took precedence over loyalty to the tribe.   As sacred kings emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia, priests and warriors provided teachings and coercive force to support their rule.

Within the original small organic societies, everybody knew each other personally.  The larger kingdoms had need for impersonal laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi.   Legal obligations and punishments were different for nobles, common people and slaves, and for subjects of the kingdom and for strangers.

As empires expanded, the idea of impartial and universal justice emerged.

The Mosaic law in the Hebrew Bible, for example, deals mostly with obligations of the Jewish people toward one another, and distinguishes between Jews and strangers.  But the law contains other passages—inserted later?— prescribing the duty to be as just and kind to strangers as to one’s own.

There seems to be an evolution here.  Likewise, Yahweh is described at first as a jealous God and then as a just God.  What seems to be emerging is a need to morally justify the religion.

Ancient Greeks strongly believed that only they were free men by nature (Greek women weren’t free) and non-Greeks were naturally slaves.  Athenian democracy did not apply slaves, freed slaves, women or foreigners.

The conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors broke down this distinction.  They created empires that came and went, without resting on any fixed traditions or making any.

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Murray Bookchin: epistemologies of rule

May 7, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).

chapter four – epistemologies of rule

Murray Bookchin says the great enemy of human well-being is hierarchy.  The reason hierarchy persists, according to him, is that that hierarchical values rule our minds—discipline, renunciation, the work ethic, sexual guilt and obedience to rules.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this chapter, he speculated as to how these values came to rule us.  In the previous chapter, he spoke of how old people in “organic” societies may have protected themselves from being regarded as expendable by reinventing themselves as shamans and priests, and how young men then may have replaced the ties of family and clan with oaths to the warrior’s blood brotherhood.

The first cities of the ancient Near East did not grow up around marketplaces, according to Bookchin; they grew up around temples.  People were ruled mentally by priesthoods, backed up by the power of warriors.

Community property, once controlled by families, clans and village elders, came to be placed at the disposal of the ruling gods.

This rule, however, was not complete.  Bookchin noted that there were popular assemblies in ancient Sumeria, the prophets of Israel denounced the sins of their kings and, even in Egypt, village life continued independently of the all-powerful Pharoah.   Ancient rulers were oppressive, but they did not interfere with the daily lives of their subjects.

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How Hillary Clinton used liberalism to justify war

May 3, 2016

Hillary Clinton’s has been a steadfast proponent of aggressive war throughout her career in national politics.  The interesting thing is how she has justified this in the language of liberalism, humanitarianism and human rights.

As unofficial adviser to her husband, President Bill Clinton, she pushed for military intervention in the former Yugoslavia.  As a U.S. Senator, she joined with Senator John McCain in pressing for military confrontation with Russia.   As Secretary of State, she talked President Obama into the disastrous intervention in Libya.

Unprovoked attacks on foreign nations were defined by the Nuremberg Tribunal as a war crime.   But Clinton and other militaristic liberals have found a way to justify such crimes in terms of preventing crimes against humanity.

Diana Johnstone

Diana Johnstone

Diana Johnstone, an experienced American freelance journalist living in Paris, has written a new book,  QUEEN OF CHAOS: the Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, which is about Clinton’s foreign policy record.  I read it last week.

Johnstone has one chapter each on Secretary of State Clinton’s support of a brutal military coup in Honduras, the destruction of Libya and military confrontation with Russia.

But the heart of the book is her account of the Bill Clinton administration’s intervention in the former Yugoslavia, and how this constituted a field test of methods used by subsequent administrations for leading the American and European publics into support of war.

The key step on the path to war, according to Johnstone, is Hitlerization—designating an enemy as a new Hitler who has to be dealt with as the original Hitler was.  This goes along with charges of genocide.

Western public opinion agrees that the Holocaust of the Jews was the ultimate crime.  Public opinion mostly agrees that all the mass killing in World War Two was justified because it was necessary to prevent the ultimate crime.

But what the crime consisted of was the attempted extermination of a people based on their race, religion and culture.

It follows from this that any attack on an ethnic or religious group is in a different and higher category of evil than, say, killing labor leaders or bombing cities because the latter are not potentially genocidal.

It also follows from this that, once you have identified a situation as genocide, any attempt at peacemaking represents appeasement, as at Munich.

If one side, such as the Hutus, is equivalent to the Nazis, and another, such as the Tutsis, is equivalent to the Nazi’s victims, compromise is not only impossible, but wicked.  Fighting has to go on until Nazi-equivalent side is crushed.

Furthermore, since the nations of Eastern Europe, the Near East, South and Southeast Asia and Africa are patchworks of different nationalities and religions, often lumped together within arbitrary boundaries down by colonial powers, there is always some ethnic conflict going on almost anywhere.

The path to war includes (1) a propaganda campaign against a foreign leader, who is identified as the equivalent of Hitler, (2) funding and arms for discontented groups, who are identified as victimes of genocide, followed by (3) economic sanctions and maybe (4) protests from human rights organizations or (5) some sort of resolution from an international body.

Any international body will do, but the best outcome would be an indictment by the International Criminal Court (even though the USA does not recognize the jurisdiction of the ICC) because diplomacy becomes a matter of law enforcement.

Economic sanctions almost always fail, and rebel groups almost never win, so next comes (6) a “no fly” zone and then (7) a bombing campaign.  If and when they fail, as is probable, there seems to be “no choice” but to send in troops, rather than give up.

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The seeds of America’s culture wars

April 29, 2016

David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America is a ground-breaking 946-page book I never got around to reading, and probably won’t.  But I think I got the gist of it by reading a review by Scott Alexander on his Slate Star Codex blog.

Fischer’s argument is that basic patterns of American culture were set by migrations of four very different groups of migrants from the British Isles:

  • Albion'sSeedhek32xef_largePuritans to New England in the 1620s.
  • Cavaliers to Virginia in the 1640s.
  • Quakers to Pennsylvania in the 1670s.
  • Borderers (aka Scots-Irish) to the Appalachians in the 1700s.

Those who came after, he said, had to adapt to social systems established by these four groups—the moralistic Puritans, the aristocratic Cavaliers, the tolerant Quakers and the warlike Borderers—even though the biological descendants of these groups ceased to be in the majority.

It’s interesting and, I think, at least partly true.   Alexander’s review is long for a blog post, but much shorter than the book, and even those uninterested in his basic theme will enjoy reading his lists of fun facts about each group.

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Murray Bookchin: the emergence of hierarchy

April 26, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

bookchin-quote

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

In the dawn of recorded history, the human race was in the midst of a social, political and technological revolution.  Agriculture has started to replace hunting and gathering.  New technologies such as the wheel, the pottery kiln, the metal smelter and the loom generated increased wealth, making possible societies with much larger populations than villages and hunting clans.

Hardly any of this, however, went to improve the overall human material standard of living.  Instead the increased means of power and wealth went to support emperors, priesthoods, aristocracies, armies and merchants.   Human beings gained both increased power over nature and increased power over other human beings.

Studies of grave sites indicate that the average human in ancient civilizations was in poorer health and was more poorly nourished that the so-called savages living in hunting and gathering societies.

Most historians, including Marxist historians, recognize this, but they think it was a good thing, not a bad thing.

If the increased wealth had been spread among the populace, they say, it would have resulted only in a moderately prosperous mediocrity.  The concentration of wealth made it possible to create science, philosophy, literature, the fine arts and more new technologies, which is turn allowed humanity to advance through stages to the good life we enjoy today—or, according to the Marxists, create the material basis for a utopian society of the future.

Murray Bookchin disagrees.  For one thing, he does not believe that history proceeds in pre-ordained stages.  He believes that the different periods of history offered choices of roads to take, some good, some bad, most of them mixtures of the two.

The rejection of hierarchy would have been a good choice, he wrote.  There are many non-Western societies in which people, in Gandhi’s words, have enough for their need, but not their greed.  Such societies are rich in tradition and culture, and people are at least as happy as modern Americans and Europeans.

I am not as sure as Bookchin that such a choice was feasible.  Once one civilization devotes itself to militarism and acquisition, the rest must submit or find a method of defense, and the most obvious method of defense is to become militaristic and acquisitive themselves.

This is a dilemma that still exists today, and which thinkers such as Gene Sharp have tried to find answers for.

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Murray Bookchin: the outlook of organic society

April 23, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005)

chapter two: the outlook of organic society

Drawing on archeological evidence, mainly from the Near East, and anthropological research, mainly among American Indians in the Southwest, Murray Bookchin constructed a picture of human society before the emergence of hierarchy.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_He saw primal human societies as “organic”—one in which everybody shared, nobody gave orders and all regarded themselves as members of an extended family.

He gave the example of the Kintu Indians, who have no words for “have,” “take” or “rule.”  A Kintu mother does not “take” a baby with her, she “goes with” it.  A Kintu husband does not “have” a wife, he “lives with” her.  A Kintu leader does not rule, he “stands with” his people.

People in organic societies typically see plants and animals as living things like themselves, Bookchin wrote; they seem themselves as part of the natural world and not separated from it or dominating it.

They have private property in that each person has their individuals have personal claims to tools and other possessions.  But they typically have usufruct—the right to take anything you need for survival.

Nobody in an organic society would deny anyone food, clothing or shelter, no matter what their work contribution.  In a community living close to the margin of survival, this would be the equivalent of a death sentence.

Bookchin wrote that organic societies have a sexual division of labor.  Women bear children and raise them.  Because of this, they have less mobility than the male hunters and warriors.  Instead they are gardeners, potters and keepers of the hearth.

Kinship was based on descent from common mothers.  Bookchin did not believe that organic societies were  matriarchal, in the sense that women gave orders to the men, but he did believe they were matricentric, in their unity was based on kinship, and because they honored the values associated with hearth and home.

Organic societies extended their sympathies by extending family ties—by intermarrying with other kin groups, or by adopting strangers into their own kin group

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The Ecology of Freedom: introduction

April 11, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2007).  Introduction

I am coming to realize that  Murray Bookchin, whose name I first heard a year or so ago, was one of the great thinkers of our time.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_His book, The Ecology of Freedom, is a profound work that is worth studying closely.  I intend to do this by reviewing the book chapter by chapter, partly to stimulate interest in his ideas but more to clarify my own thinking.

His basic idea is that human domination of nature and human domination of other human beings are part of the same thing.  This sounds simple.  What he does in this book is to describe the history of how this has played out in all its cultural, political, economic and religious aspects, and map paths to a better future.

My basic political principles are the ideas of American freedom and democracy that I was taught as a small boy.  My ideals have changed little in more than 70 years, but my ideas of how the world works have changed a lot, especially in the past 10 or 20 years.

State socialism based on command economies haven’t worked.  A tiny group of masterminds, even if they have good intentions, are not qualified to make decisions for the rest of us.  The kind of capitalism we have now doesn’t work either.  So I am interested in learning about alternatives.

Born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bookchin was a labor organizer in the 1930s and 1940s and a participant in the anti-nuclear and radical Green movements in the 1960s and 1970s.  As a young man, he was a Communist.  He later became a Trotskyite, then an anarchist, and, in this book, espoused a philosophy he called social ecology or .

The Ecology of Freedom begins with introductions to the 2007, 1991 and original 1982 editions, in which he expresses his disappointment with the environmental movement’s failure to live up to its original promise because of the failure to develop an adequate political philosophy.

One current of the environmental movement became a mere lifestyle option, based on consumer choice.  The Deep Ecology movement and part of the population control movement decided that human beings as such, rather than oppressive governments or exploitative corporations, were the problem.

Many self-described environmentalists identified being anti-rational, anti-science and anti-technology with being in harmony with nature, which was one of the teachings of fascism.

ecological-crisis-quotes-2All these things, Bookchin wrote, indirectly helped prop up the status quo.  Environmentalists did accomplish important practical victories in individual situations, for which they deserve praise.  But they did not change the overall direction of society because of the lack of a unifying vision, which he called “social ecology”.

That vision is a symbiotic relationship among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of nature.  This doesn’t mean passivity, or abandonment of the human-made environment to wilderness, he wrote; it means to work with natural processes and with human nature rather than trying to override them.

This seems to me very much like the Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle, which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

###

NEXT: chapter one: the concept of social ecology

chapter two: the outlook of organic society

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

chapter four: epistemologies of rule

chapter five: the legacy of domination

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

chapter seven: the legacy of freedom

chapter eight: from saints to sellers

chapter nine: two images of technology

LINKS

MURRAY BOOKCHIN’S COLLECTED WORKS

The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

Society and Ecology by Murray Bookchin.

Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement by Murray Bookchin (1987)

Libertarian Municipalism by Murray Bookchin (1991)

What Is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin (1993)

Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism by Janet Biehl.

Murray Bookchin: The Man Who Brought Radical Ecology and Assembly Democracy to the Left by Janet Biehl

Remembering Murray Bookchin by David Rosen for Counterpunch.

Another way of looking at things

April 5, 2016

Murray Bookchin is a leading anarchist thinker whose work I had never thought about until I learned that he is, of all things, respected by the Kurdish people in the Middle East.

The Kurds have struggled for decades for independence for decades against the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  They are the most effective fighters in their region against the Islamic State and the successors to Al Qaeda in their region.

In all this, they have not engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians.  They respect the rights of women, and even have women in their fighting forces.  Although mostly Sunni Muslims, they gave refuge to people of all religions, including Christians, who suffer religious persecution.

remakingsociety369096Of course all this does not necessarily stem from their admiration for Murray Bookchin, but I am intrigued that this American thinker finds admirers in admirable people in a (to me) unlikely part of the world.

Bookchin is an anarchist, which means that he is opposed both to capitalism and to state socialism, a point of view I have come to share, late in life.  Some other anarchist writers I admire, and have posted about, are David Graeber and James C. Scott.

I just finished reading Bookchin’s Remaking Society, a quick and readable, but somewhat superficial, outline of his views.  I have started reading his earlier and longer book, The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, which is more detailed and profound, but more difficult to follow.

Bookchin is opposed to hierarchy as such.  He thinks all domination is connected – political domination, economic domination, racism, patriarchy and the domination of nature.

His ideal is the “organic” society, in which people cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and seek to understand natural processes rather than override them.

He thinks organic societies existed in pre-historic times.  Tribes based on kinship worked together for the benefit of all.  Persons of superior ability became leaders, but not rulers.  They had prestige, but not the power to coerce.  Men and women had different functions, but neither ruled the other.

Their principle, he said, the equal treatment of unequals, which sound to me very like the Marxian principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.  Our present capitalist society, he said, is based on the opposite principle – the unequal treatment of equals.

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Philip K. Dick’s greatest hit

April 2, 2016

Philip K. Dick was a science fiction writer whose main theme was the fluid boundary between illusion and reality, and sanity and insanity.

Sadly his insights were partly due to his own drug use and mental illness.  This may have been the reason so many of his novels and stories lacked coherence.

It also may explain why movies based on Philip K. Dick novels and stories – The Adjustment Bureau, Blade Runner, Imposter, Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly and Total Recall – were all better than the originals.  I say nothing about other Philip K. Dick movies because I haven’t seen them.

man-castleI recently saw the Amazon Prime series based on The Man in the High Castle, which was excellent, and I went back to the original out of curiosity.  Unlike the others I mentioned, the novel is better than the TV series, both as a novel and as a science fiction novel.

Both the TV series and the novel depict a world of 1962 in which the Axis has won the Second World War.  The Nazis occupy the United States east of the Rockies, and the Japanese occupy the U.S. Pacific Coast, with the Rockies a neutral buffer zone.

There are three plots in both.  One is an attempt by hardscrabble Americans in San Francisco to make and sell fake art objects to sell to rich Japanese antique collectors.  Another is an attempt to head off a conspiracy by a Nazi faction in Berlin to launch a nuclear first strike against Japan.

The third is a search for “the man in the high castle.”  In the novel, he is the author of a underground novel set in a world in which the Allies won, which, however, is different from the real world (I almost wrote “our” world).  In the Amazon Prime series, he has mysteriously obtained actual newsreels of the real world.

The novel is better because it is more realistic, and because the characters have more psychological depth.  The Amazon Prime series has an anti-Nazi Resistance movement, which is not in the novel, and characters undecided about their true allegiance, which wouldn’t be tolerated either by real Nazis or real anti-Nazi fighters.

The excellence of the novel and the TV series is in showing how living under Nazi and Japanese occupation could come to feel normal, and in developing realistic and memorable characters.

One is Mr. Tagomi, the humane Japanese bureaucrat whose life is guided by the I Ching.  Another is Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, who appears in the TV series but not the novel.

I look forward to Amazon Prime’s second season in the series, which will take the characters beyond the scope of Dick’s novel.

Do you need religion to give your life meaning?

March 31, 2016

In LIFE AFTER FAITH: The Case for Secular Humanism (2014), Philip Kitcher argues that religion is not necessary to lead a happy, meaningful and ethical life.

PhilipKitcherLifeAfterFaith41M561fKDdL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_His argument is obviously true, as far as it goes.  I know of many people, through personal aquaintence and reading who aren’t in the least religious, but are happy, wise and good.

But there also are saints and heroes whose religious faith enables them to go beyond what average human nature is capable of, as well as many seemingly ordinary people for whom faith is a source of quiet serenity and unpretentious goodness.

Others are hurt by their religion.  Their faith fails them in times of crisis.  Or they are tormented by a sense of sin because they can’t obey certain rules or accept certain beliefs.

Religion certainly makes life more dramatic.

If I believed, and internalized the belief, that my life was a high-stakes test, leading to either eternal bliss with God or eternal pain without God, my life would be much more intense and meaningful than it is now, but not better.

I would have to struggle to stop myself from thinking about why a merciful and loving God would condemn people to infinite pain for sins committed during a finite life or, even worse, for choosing the wrong creed.

One way to have the satisfactions of religion without being chained to harsh dogmas is through what Kitcher calls “refined religion,” such as Unitarian Universalism, Ethical Culture or Reformed Judaism.

“Refined religion” puts theology on the same level as art, literature, philosophy and science—part of a treasury of human wisdom on which we can draw as needed.

“Refined religion” is not far from Kitcher’s own “soft atheism”, which doesn’t claim that science and philosophy have all the answers and which sees much of value in religious tradition, but sees no basis for affirming that religious beliefs are objectively true.

He admits that both refined religion and secular humanism are weak tea compared to the powerful emotions evoked by the great religious traditions and rituals.

But the great religions traditions have thousands of years’ head start, he wrote; there is no reason in principle why secular humanism cannot evolve rituals and traditions that are just as compelling.

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Why was (and is) Bill Clinton so popular?

March 17, 2016

Thomas Frank has published another excerpt from his new book, Listen, Liberal., which I look forward to reading.  This one is about Bill Clinton, and why he is still so popular among working people and minorities despite having done so little for them when in the White House.

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for—you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president.   Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him—apart from his obvious personal charm, I mean?

Bill Clinton in 1992

Bill Clinton in 1992

It proved difficult for my libs.  People mentioned the obvious things: Clinton once raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit.  He balanced the budget.  He secured a modest tax increase on the rich.  And he did propose a national health program, although it didn’t get very far and was in fact so poorly designed it could be a model of how not to do big policy initiatives.

Other than that, not much.  No one could think of any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation.  His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery—he basically rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

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Les Leopold on runaway inequality

January 2, 2016

I grew up and spent my early working years in the golden age of capitalism, which was from 1945 to 1976.  Almost anybody—as least, any white American man—who was willing to work could get a decent job sufficient to support a family.

Then a lot of things turned bad as once.  Worker pay no longer kept pace with productivity, but the pay of CEOs and wealthy investors grew much faster.   Manufacturing declined and high finance expanded.  Hourly wages declined and debt increased.  What went wrong?

LesLeopoldRunawayInequality51uuYumpldL._SX319_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished reading a book, RUNAWAY INEQUALITY by Les Leopold (recommended by my e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey) that explains what happened as well as anything I’ve come across.

He blames America’s current woes on the adoption of what he calls the Better Business Climate model of economic policy.

This model is based on the argument that the key to economic prosperity is economic growth, that economic growth depends on investment, and that investment depends on business profitability, and that the way to increase business profitability is lower taxes, lower social spending and fewer regulations.

0.9265We used to call this Reaganomics.  Now we call it neoliberalism.   Many people thought it was a plausible response to the economic stagnation and high inflation of the late 1970s.  I myself thought it was worth a try (more fool I).  I wouldn’t have objected to making rich people richer if everybody else had benefitted in the long run.

But this isn’t how things worked out.  Instead:

  • Wage increases stopped keeping pace with productivity.
  • The CEO-worker wage gap took off.
  • The financial sector grew at the expense of manufacturing.
  • Wall Street profits skyrocketed.
  • The income gap between the super-rich and the rest of us widened.
  • Corporate debt, consumer debt and government debt rose.

What went wrong?

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Book notes on Jurgen Habermas

September 10, 2015

This is an archive of my notes written over the years on the works of the philosopher Jurgen Habermas.

THE SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION OF THE PUBLIC SPHERE: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society by Jurgen Habermas (1962) translated by Thomas Burger with the assistance of Frederick J. Lawrence (1989)

I read this book as part of an informal seminar organized by my friend Paul Mitacek.  I don’t claim to have fully understood it.  Habermas wrote in a highly abstract style, but his style was not an attempt to obfuscate, but rather to integrate complex ideas.

Jurgen Habermas

Jurgen Habermas

Habermas’s subject was the evolution of what’s considered public and what’s considered private.  His focus was on Germany, France and Britain, which I found interesting because it showed that the changes he described were not specific to the United States.

In the age of absolute monarchs, Habermas wrote, royalty lived their lives as a public spectacle, while the common people lived private lives in obscurity.  What we now think of as the public sphere arose in the mercantile middle class—hence “a category of bourgeois society.”

Merchants organized shared newsletters and foreign correspondents to get accurate information about business conditions.  Out of this evolved the press as we know it, which reported on politics and culture.  Coffee houses in Britain, salons in France and Germany provided means by which middle-class and upper-class people could meet, talk freely and form public opinion, which in the 18th century was a new concept.  There arose an ideal of governance based on free public discussion and exchange of ideas.

Advocates of democracy in the 19th century hoped that the mass of the people could be assimilated to this ideal. Instead the mass media arose, and the mass public became passive consumers of culture.

Ordinary people only to got to choose which newspaper or magazine to read, which political party to vote for and which soft drink to consume, but communication was downward, not upward.

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How heroin came to middle-class white America

August 13, 2015

DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones is the story of how heroin addiction spread through rural and suburban white America.

Dreamland was the name of a popular swimming pool in Portsmouth, Ohio, a small city on the Ohio river that once was the center of the U.S. shoe manufacturing industry.

The pool closed as the shoe industry declined, but Portsmouth gave birth to a new industry—the mass prescription of  legal but addictive pain medications such as Purdue Pharmaceuticals’ OxyContin.

Regular practitioners were misled into thinking that OxyContin, a biochemical twin of heroin, and related were harmless, but industry really took off with the spread of “pill mills”—medical practices that were limited to the prescription of pills for alleged pain/

DreamlandQuinones51pEBThe business of addictive prescription drugs is one part of the story Quinones told.  The other more startling part is how poor people in the small Mexican town of Xalisco (population about 20,000) created a nationwide distribution franchise system which spread their locally-cooked black tar heroin across the United States.

The Xalisco Boys, as police came to call them, did not carry weapons, did not use drugs themselves, and never sold to black people (whom they thought were violent).   They emphasized product quality, good customer service and competitive prices, with discounts for new customers.

They created an equivalent to a pizza delivery franchise, in which customers could call a certain number and have heroin delivered to a certain spot.   The drivers were inconspicuous, kept out of trouble and drove nondescript vehicles.

They put heroin in balloons, which they kept in their mouths.  When police stopped them, they swallowed the balloons, which they were later able to recover, with the heroin intact.

As they moved out from their original base in the San Fernando Valley, they avoided areas where violent drug gangs operated. Instead they moved into areas where prescription painkillers such as OxyContin were heavily sold, and offered their product as a cheaper and easier-to-obtain substitute.

The Mexican drug cartels and urban criminal gangs are responsible for much of the heroin sold in the United States, Quinones wrote.  They control the heroin trade in Chicago, Atlanta, northern California and many other urban centers, he said; very little heroin comes from Asia any more.   The Xalisco Boys took heroin where the established traffickers never thought to go.

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The world outside our heads

July 31, 2015

Matthew Crawford’s new book, THE WORLD BEYOND YOUR HEAD: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, is a good follow-up to Taylor’s Modern Social Imaginaries.

Crawford attacks what he calls “freedomism”—the idea that individuals can or should be free not only of external coercion, but of external influence of any kind.

This is the philosophy of thinkers such as John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who sought to free people from the moral authority of kings and priests.

51YMx.crawford.worldbeyondyourheadThe fact is, Crawford said, is that human beings are born into a world of people and things which are objectively real, and which can be understood only after a long period of learning and apprenticeship.

The fact that one’s individual desires do not, in and of themselves, change things is the first thing a baby learns, but which 21st century Americans sometimes forget.

Crawford makes custom motorcycle components as a business.  His work involves individual creativity, but is based on mastery of pre-existing knowledge of materials and technique, and is expressed in solving real-world problems.  He feels validated only when a customer—especially one who understands motorcycles—willingly pays his bill.

In different parts of the book, he discusses techniques by which people master arts and vocations—hockey player, martial arts fighter, short-order cook, glassblower, motorcycle rider, racing car driver.

Masters in all these fields have the ability to focus their attention on what is important, and to train their reactions, in ways that can’t necessarily be articulated, so that they respond appropriately to the situation at hand.

For Crawford, we are what we pay attention to.  Freedom consists in the right to choose to focus our attention on worthy objects.

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The biggest book in the world

July 24, 2015

largest book 1Source: Kuriositas.

The biggest book in the world is an edition of the Pali Canon, a scripture of Theravada Buddhism, inscribed on marble by order of King Mindon of Burma in 1860.

Located in Mandalay, it consists of 1,640 marble pages, each 3.5 feet wide, 5 feet tall and 5 inches thick, sheltered by its own pagoda, and arranged around the central golden Kuthodaw Pagoda.  Only one page is devoted to King Mindon’s own deeds.

The project was completed and opened to the public in 1868.   Tended by Buddhist monks, it is still visited by pilgrims and tourists.

King Mindon believed that books were the most valuable creation of civilization, and he hoped his edition of the Pali Canon would last 5,000 years.

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Wall Street as the co-government of the U.S.

June 23, 2015

I’ve written many posts about the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, and how the U.S. government puts the interests of the financial oligarchy above the interests of the American public.

I’ve just finished reading a book that shows how far back in American history this goes.

 ALL THE PRESIDENT’S BANKERS: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power by Nomi Prins (2014) is a narrative history showing the interdependence of the Presidents and the Wall Street banking and financial community from the early 20th century to the present day.

Nomi Prins showed how American Presidents from 1910 to 1970 had to take the interests of Wall Street banks into account in implementing their policies, and then how, from 1980 on, the banks freed themselves from governmental restrictions to engage in ever-bigger speculations, from which they had to be bailed out.

Her story begins with the Panic of 1907 with President Theodore Roosevelt standing by helplessly while J. Pierpont Morgan summons bankers to his mansion and arranges a bailout to prevent financial collapse.

The Federal Reserve System was created in 1913 in order to prevent such a situation from recurring.

This was a major turning point in American history.  It gave the United States a financial stability and financial resources without which it could not have been a world power.  It made possible U.S. participation in the world wars, the projection of American global power and the great expansion of federal government activity—none of which could have been paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis or with foreign loans.

At the same time, it formalized the position of the great American banks as a kind of fourth branch of government.

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Why I am not a population bomber

May 11, 2015

In 1968 I read a book entitled The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich which began as follows:

The_Population_BombThe battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…

via Wikipedia.

Ehrlich argued that the world’s fundamental problem was that there were too many people in the world, and that the only solution was by means of birth control if possible, but not by relief of poverty or increase of food supply.

At the time he wrote, there were 3.5 billion people in the world.  Now there are 7.2 billion, but there is less hunger and starvation in the world than there is today.

Nowadays Ehrlich admits he exaggerated for dramatic effect, but he says it was for a good purpose, which was to alert people to the danger of overpopulation.

I don’t agree it served a good purpose.  I think Ehrlich put obstacles in the way of people such as Norman Borlaug who sought to increase food production and relieve famine.  What good was it, people asked, if it results in more people being born who eventually would starve to death anyway?

Mathusianism has long been used as an excuse to let people starve.  The British government used this excuse for failing to relieve famine in Ireland in the 1840s and in India in the 1940s.   It is still used as an excuse for failing to relieve famine in Africa.

The great economist, Amartya Sen, has pointed out that there never has been a famine in a democracy, because in a democracy, public opinion will not permit allowing a large percentage of the population to starve.

In modern times, the problem has never been that there was not enough food to go around, he wrote.  The problem was people who were too poor to buy the food that was available.

Yet Ehrlich’s ideas still have wider circulation than Sen’s, at least among people I hang out with.  I still hear people say, when we’re talking about some social problem, that the basic underlying problem is that there are too many people in the world.

And sometimes this is followed—and this makes my blood run cold—by the remark, “We’ve got to thin the herd.”

The best thing I can say for people who talk like this is that they don’t realize the genocidal implications of what they’re saying.

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George Orwell is the writer I most admire

April 30, 2015

George Orwell is the writer whom I most admire.

George Orwell

George Orwell

He is not the writer with the greatest insight into things, he is not the most brilliant literary stylist, and he is not the writer who gives me the greatest pleasure.

He is the writer I would have most liked to resemble—in his honesty, in his fearlessness, in his clear writing (which is partly a product of his honesty and fearlessness) and in his affirmation of common life and ordinary people.

He is remembered for Animal Farm and 1984, but his essays and journalism are just as interesting.

He was a radical, but not the kind of radical who, like George Bernard Shaw, wanted to re-engineer human life into something unrecognizable, while leaving existing concentrations of wealth and power undisturbed.

Here is a passage from The Road to Wigan Pier, which is about the lives of unemployed coal miners in the north of England in the 1930s.  He wrote about what he saw from the window of his train as he returned to his home in the south.

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Poor nations and the new world order

April 28, 2015

One of the things I’ve come to realize in recent years is that institutions exist that constitute a kind of world government.

I always thought that for a world government to exist, it would have to have its own army.  But the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the investor-state dispute settlement judges in international trade agreements don’t need armies to enforce their—unless you consider the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to be their army.

PrashadPoorerNations97818I just finished reading  THE POORER NATIONS: A Possible History of the Global South (2012) by Vijay Prashad, which is about how international institutions came into being to fight nationalistic governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America—the Third World.

These international institutions are greatly from the world government envisioned by the idealists who created the United Nations.

I’m worried about how the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and other proposed trade agreements would create rules to protect international corporations and investors against national laws to protect labor, public health and the environment.  But for Third World nations, as Prashad showed, this is nothing new.

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What could a new kind of labor movement be?

April 10, 2015

Sam Seder’s interview of Thomas Geoghegan is about 45 minutes long. 

The rest of the running time is a repeat.

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

Thomas Geoghegan says American labor needs a new strategy, which would include the following.

  • The right to join a labor union or engage in labor action should be a civil right.
  • Workers should have the right to form unions that represent only their members, instead of a government-determined bargaining unit.
  • On the other hand, unions should strive for works councils in big organizations, which would represent all the employees and not just the union members.

American labor unions have been unable to stop “right to work” laws from being enacted in state after state—even in Michigan.

only_one_thing_can_save_us_finalThese laws forbid labor-management contracts in which an employer hires only labor union members, or requires new employees to pay dues to a union.  Yet, by law, the union contract must cover all the employees in the bargaining unit, regardless of whether they join or pay dues.

Thomas Geoghegan wrote in Only One Thing Can Save Us that it may not be possible to stop right-to-work from becoming national law.  To the average person, it doesn’t seem right that they should be forced to join an organization or make payments to it against their will.  And as fewer and fewer people have any experience with unions, the counter-argument becomes harder to make.

But if unions lose that battle, as well they might, all is not lost.  It is much easier to make the case for the right to join a labor union if there never are any circumstances in which union membership is compulsory.

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