Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Book note: The Making of Global Capitalism

May 30, 2017

International financial organizations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization have come to be a kind of world government, dictating policy to supposedly sovereign governments.

I recently read a book, The Making of Global Capitalism (2012) by two Canadian leftists named Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, on how this came about.   I thank my friend Tim Mullins for recommending it.

It’s quite a story.  It is not well understood.

The first part of the story is the U.S. New Deal.   President Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress gave the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve System the authority they needed to stabilize the crumbling U.S. financial and banking system.

The second part is the 30 years following World War Two.   Under the leadership of the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve, international financial institutions were created that duplicated the U.S. system.  They presided over the era of greatest peace and prosperity that North Americans and Europeans had ever since.

The third part is what happened after that.  The world’s financial system endures a series of ever-greater financial crises.   To deal with them, international financial  institutions demand the surrender of gains made by American and European workers and the middle class in the earlier era.

The irony is that a financial governing structure created by American power is now stronger than ever, while the actual American economy is rotting away beneath it.

Panitch and Gindin described in great detail how this happened, step-by-step,.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with democracy

May 24, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, in her new book, The Trouble With Reality: A Rumination on the Moral Panic of Our Time, claimed that the election of Donald Trump reflects fundamental flaws in human nature and in the very ideas of democracy, free speech and freedom of the press.

Brooke Gladstone

To her credit, she doesn’t take her argument to its logical conclusion, which would be to empower gatekeepers to filter the news and opinions available so the rest of us aren’t exposed to anything the gatekeepers consider fake.

Many others, in fact, do go that far, so I will try to sum up her argument and then engage it.   Here’s her argument:

  • Truth is subjective Everybody lives in their own unique reality.   Since our ability to understand is limited, we make decisions based on stereotypes.   All human beings are emotionally committed to stereotypes and experimental psychology shows that our brains react negatively to whatever challenges our stereotype.
  • Knowledge of facts is not enough Any given set of facts is subject to multiple interpretations.  We the people filter facts according to own various assumptions and biases.
  • Appealing lies beat inconvenient truths John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill claimed defended free speech by claiming that truth would defeat falsehood in a free and open encounter.  This is bogus.   We the people don’t have access to full information about important public issues, nor the time or ability to evaluate it if we did.
  • Democracies foster demagoguesSince we the people cannot make rational decisions, we tend to prefer demagogues who offer us appealing fantasies rather than intellectuals who tell us inconvenient truths.

Here’s my answer.

The expression that “truth is subjective” or “we all live in different realities” is highly pernicious.

It’s true that we all have our own unique experience of reality.  As Gladstone notes, humans can’t imagine what it is like to experience the world as a bat or a bloodhound does.  But a human, a bat and a bloodhound all live in the same actual world.  We are all burned by fire and drown in water.   If our perceived reality is wrong, the real reality will sooner or later catch up with us.

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Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

May 23, 2017

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?

∞∞∞

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.

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Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’

May 17, 2017

A Man for All Seasons is a play about Sir Thomas More, a scholar, humanist, statesman and devoted husband and father, who also was a hero who went to his death rather than swear to a false statement.

It may be my favorite play.  Offhand I can’t think of one I like better.  It was first performed in London in 1960.

I saw it in Washington, D.C., in the early 1960s.  Recently I took part in a reading of it organized by my friend Walter Uhrman.

The things I liked and admired about the play are its language and characters; its staging and lighting, which gave it a timeless relevancy; and its non-banal affirmation of human dignity and integrity.

More was beheaded on the order of King Henry VIII for his refusal to affirm that the Pope was wrong in refusing him permission to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn.

The play is about More’s struggle to find a way to stay alive without sacrificing his integrity, and his final decision to choose integrity over life.

There is a passage I particularly like about the rule of law—the principle that nobody is above the duty to obey the law and nobody is below the right to protection of the law.

   WILLIAM ROPER:  Arrest him.
    SIR THOMAS MORE: For what? ……
    MARGARET MORE: Father, that man’s bad
    THOMAS MORE: There’s no law against that.
    ROPER: There is!  God’s law!
    THOMAS MORE: Then God can arrest him……
    ALICE MORE (exasperated): While you talk, he’s gone.
    THOMAS MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.
    ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil the benefit of law.
    THOMAS MORE Yes.  What would you do?  Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
    ROPER:  I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
    THOMAS MORE (roused and excited)  Oh? (advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil himself turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (he leaves him)
    This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil himself the benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Here is another passage I like.

     SIR THOMAS MORE: … If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good and greed would make us saintly. And we’d live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes.
     But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose, to be human at all, why then perhaps we must stand fast a little… .

 In the play, there are two opponents to More’s point of view.

One is Thomas Cromwell, the ruthless Machiavellian power-worshiper, who is tasked with the mission of forcing More to give him or, failing that, providing a justification for sending him to his death.

The other is a figure that Bolt calls the Common Man, an actor who introduces each scene and also plays the part of More’s servant, a boatman, a jailer, a juryman and, in the last scene, the headsman.

He represents the common sense view of the ordinary person, who tries to stay out of trouble and who goes along to get along.

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An SF writer’s diagnosis and cure for capitalism

April 27, 2017

In the opening of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new SF novel, New York 2140, two unemployed financial software engineers known as Mutt and Jeff—unemployed because they refuse to design a possibly illegal program for high-speed trading—contemplate a flooded lower Manhattan from atop the former Metropolitan Life building.

One of them says he has figured out what’s wrong with capitalism.

The basic problem with capitalism, he says, is that the forces of the market forces producers to sell products below cost.

How can you sell below cost and survive?  By offloading your costs onto someone else—onto customers, onto neighbors, onto taxpayers, onto the wider community and onto future generations.

This enables an individual enterprise to survive (sometimes), but, in the long run, leads human society into bankruptcy.

In the novel, global warming has taken place, sea levels have risen and lower Manhattan is under water.  Skyscrapers such as the Met Life building are still survive amid a kind of new Venice.  Uptown Manhattan is 50 feet higher in elevation, and is dry.  In the middle is a tidal zone, where the poor and homeless congregate.

Some environmental problems have been solved, or at least are being coped with.  Gasoline, jet fuel and other fossil fuels no longer exist.  Air travel is by dirigible, ocean travel is by sailing ship and land vehicles are electric.   But the financial structure and distribution of income are more or less like they are now.

New skyscrapers—”superscrapers”—in uptown are owned by the world’s wealthy elite, as investments or as one of multiple homes, and are often vacant.

A hurricane late in the novel leaves many homeless.  They try to storm the vacant uptown towers, and are turned back by private security forces, who outgun the New York Police Department.

Rather than attempt a violent revolutionary overthrow, the common people attempt a political and economic jujitsu.

They join in a nationwide debt strike.  On a given day, they stop paying their mortgages, student loans and credit card balances.  The financial system is go highly leveraged with debt upon debt that it comes crashing down, just as in 2008.   So the financiers go to Washington for another bailout, just as they did then.

But this time, the President and Federal Reserve Chairman, who are in on the plan, act differently.  They tell the banks and investment companies that they would be bailed out only on one condition—that the government be given stock of equal value to the bailout, as was done in the bailout of General Motors.   Those who refuse this deal are allowed to fail.

Now the federal government has the authority to force the banks to act as public utilities.  And the huge profits that once flowed to the financial elite now flow to Washington, which makes it possible to adequately fund public education, infrastructure improvement, scientific research and all the other things the country needs.

And so the American people live happily—not ever after and not completely, but for a while.

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A culture of honor, violence and poverty

April 5, 2017

Ex-Senator James Webb wrote a book, Born Fighting, (which I haven’t read) about the Scots-Irish settlers of the Appalachia plateau.  If it hadn’t been taken, it would have made a good title for C.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Trouble.

Appalachian mountaineers were the product of a culture of honor which also was a culture of violence.   They believed in standing by their word and by family friends and family; they believed in never showing fear, never backing down and always avenging in any insult or injury.

These values enabled them to survive in the lawless Kentucky wilderness frontier.   Vance in his book argues that this same heritage is inadequate to help them survive in a declining industrial America.

The book is worth reading because his experiences and family history show how patterns of behavior that can trap people in poverty and misery, and also ways of breaking out of of those patterns.

He grew up in Middletown, Ohio, but his family roots are in Jackson, Kentucky—in “bloody Breathitt” county, known for its feuds.  His maternal grandparents, Jim Vance, then aged 16, and Bonnie Blanton, then 13 and pregnant, fled Kentucky for Ohio in 1950, and eventually settled down in Middletown.

At the age of 12, his grandmother shot a cattle thief and would have finished him off if somebody hadn’t stopped her.

Once she told C.D.’s grandfather that if he ever came home drunk again, she’d kill him.  He did come home drunk once again, and, a woman of her word, she doused him with gasoline and set him on fire.  Remarkably he escaped with only minor injuries and this did not destroy their relationship.

She once warned C.D. that if he continued to hang out with a classmate who smoked marijuana, she would run over the classmate with her car.  He found that a credible threat.

His grandmother and her husband, who never went anywhere without loaded guns in their pockets or under their car seats, flouted conventions of middle-class behavior.  But they were honest, hard-working and self-reliant; they were able to look out for themselves and their loved ones.

Not so C.D.’s drug-addicted mother.  His life with her and a succession of men in her life was one of unremitting emotional violence.  Here’s what he said he learned at home about marital relationships:

Never speak in a reasonable volume when screaming will do.  If the fight gets a little too intense, it’s okay to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first.  Always express your feelings in a way that’s insulting and hurtful to your partner.  If all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.

His childhood left him with permanent scars.  He said he still has to struggle to escape the conditioning to immediately retaliate for any affront, no matter what the consequences.   He reminds me of the black writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and his accounts of growing up in violent inner-city Baltimore.

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The case against the Internet

March 29, 2017

Double click to enlarge. Source: Visual Capitalist.

Andrew Keen’s book, The Internet Is Not The Answer (2015), which I recently finished reading, is a good antidote to cyber-utopians such as Kevin Kelly.

Keen says the Internet is shaping society in ways we the people don’t understand.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, but all are out of control.

Like Kelly, he writes about technology as if it were an autonomous force, shaped by its own internal dynamic rather than by human decisions.  Unlike Kelly, he thinks this is a bad thing, not a good thing.

He does not, of course, deny that the Internet has made life easier in many ways, especially for writers.   But that is not the whole story.  He claims that—

  • The Internet is a job-destroyer.
  • The Internet enables business monopoly
  • The Internet enables surveillance and invasion of privacy.
  • The Internet enables anonymous harassment and bullying.
  • The Internet enables intellectual property theft

Keen quotes Marshall McLuhan’s maxim, “We shape our tools, then our tools shape us.”

What he doesn’t quite understand is that the “we” who shape the tools is not the same as the “us” who are shaped by them.

Or to use Marxist lingo, what matters is who owns the means of production.

Technology serves the needs and desires of those who own it.  Technological advances generally serve the needs and desires of those who fund it.

Advances in technology that benefit the elite often serve the general good as well, but there is no economic or social law that guarantees this.   This is as true of the Internet as it is of everything else.

Let me look at his claims one by one—

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Why and how Britannia ruled the waves

March 16, 2017

One hundred years ago, the British Empire and Commonwealth comprised one-fourth of humanity.   There were British colonies on every continent, and nations on every continent with whom Britain was their greatest trading partner.

Yet this power was largely an illusion.   Britain no longer had the industrial and financial power to maintain a global empire and, 50 years later, it was no longer a world power.

Today the United States is seemingly as supreme as Great Britain was then.   The USA has more than 800 military bases in 160 countries; it can project its military power to places as far from home as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet this, too, is largely an illusion.   Our American industrial and economic power is as hollow now as Britain’s was back then.  I don’t think it will take as long as 50 years for this to become apparent.

A few weeks ago, I happened to pick up Paul M. Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (1976, 1983) in a second-hand bookstore.  Kennedy has a deep understanding of the relationship between military power, economic power, technology and geopolitics, and the ability to explain complex matters clearly.

His book is fascinating for itself, and for its implications for American power.   His story begins in the 16th century, when England depended on sea power, diplomacy and a balance of power to preserve its independence from the powerful Spanish Empire and French Kingdom.   The English Navy was under-financed and under-paid; it used privateers and buccaneers as a kind of guerrilla navy.

In the 17th century, Britain was torn by internal conflict, including a full-scale Civil War.   The British avoided conflict with France and Spain, the great European powers, but built up their merchant marine and fought three wars with the Dutch for rule of the seas.

The British established naval bases worldwide and founded colonies in North America.  Maritime commerce became a source of national wealth and power.   By the end of the century, Britain had subdued Scotland and Ireland, and overcome its internal religious divisions.

Theaters of Britain’s war with France, 1754-1763

From 1689 to 1815, Britain fought a succession of wars against France, all of which (except the French-backed U.S. War of Independence) left Britain richer and more powerful and at the point of becoming the world’s only global power.

The growing British merchant marine added not only to Britain’s wealth, but her number of seamen and access to naval stores.  Wars on French commerce enriched British merchants and shipowners.  Victories added to her colonies and naval bases.   Britain’s new wealth, plus its commercial spirit and resources of coal and iron, gave rise to industrial revolution.

In the 19th century, British supremacy at sea was unchallenged.  There was a kind of naval-industrial complex.  The British Navy created a market for the shipbuilding industry, iron industry (for cannon) and other products, and spurred industrial innovation.

As the first industrial nation, Britain was for a time the workshop of the world.   Industrial power reinforced sea power, and sea power helped open markets for the products of British industry.

During all this time, as Kennedy noted, Britain never tried to dominate the continent of Europe, and could not have done so if it tried.  Instead it tried to maintain a balance of power among the great European countries.    The British could not avoid fighting in Europe, but were unable to win without the support of allies, often financially subsidized allies.

The 19th century British tried to make their world empire acceptable to other European nations.   The British Navy suppressed piracy and the African slave trade (which had been a big source of British wealth in previous centuries).   It financed scientific expeditions, laid oceanic telegraph cables and public navigational charts–all to public benefit.

But in the middle of the 19th century, technological developments shifted the advantage from sea power to land power.

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Bertrand Russell’s shortest book

March 4, 2017

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Click on HISTORY OF THE WORLD in epitome (for use in Martian infant schools), and scroll down, to read the text and illustrations.

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Ancient Greece and the meaning of democracy

February 22, 2017

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What is democracy?  Does democracy consist of free elections?  Is democracy based on inalienable human rights?  Is a democracy a government of laws and not of men?  Does democracy require political parties, checks and balances and separation of church and state?

The classicist Paul Cartledge pointed out in his new book, DEMOCRACY: A Life (2016), that ancient Athens and the other Greek city-states lacked all these things.   Yet, he argued, it was they who best represented the ideal of democracy and we Americans and British who have fallen away from it.

Democracy in ancient Greece had a complicated history.  Cartledge derived from the fragmentary historical record how the common people over time wrested power from kings, aristocrats and the rich.

At the high tide of democracy, the main governing bodies were Assemblies were chosen at random, by lot, as juries are today.

The Athenian Assembly had a membership of up to 5,000 to 6,000, chosen from a citizenry of about 30,000, and they all met for important decisions.

The Assembly met almost continuously; it passed laws, set policy, tried important legal cases and decided on whether to exile (ostracize) troublesome citizens and politicians.

The Assembly did elect an administrative Council of 500 as well as generals and treasurers.  Other governmental positions, including juries for minor cases, were chosen by lot.

There was no bright line dividing the legislative, executive and judicial function.   An Athenian citizen might propose a military action in the Assembly one day and be named to command the troops to carry out that action.

There was virtually no limit to the power of the Assembly.  You could call it a tyranny of the majority.  You could even call it a dictatorship of the proletariat.

But you couldn’t deny that the people of Athens and the other democratic Greek cities ruled themselves in a way that contemporary Americans and Britishers don’t come close to doing.

Aristotle defined democracy as the rule of the poor (meaning workers) and oligarchy as the rule of the rich (meaning property-owners who don’t do manual labor).   Any Athenian in the time of Pericles would call the modern USA and UK oligarchies, based on the influence of the rich on public policy and the lack of participation by the mass of the citizenry.

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Steve Bannon’s wars, at home and abroad

February 13, 2017

Steve Bannon is President Trump’s most trusted adviser.   He is the second most powerful person in the Trump administration.

He is guided by a dangerously wrong philosophy.

He thinks that Judeo-Christian civilization is at war with the Moslem world abroad, and with secularists and Muslims at home.

He expects a shooting war with China and as well as a shooting war in the Middle East.

He sees himself as part of a global nationalist movement that includes the United Kingdom Independence Party, the National Front in France and similar movements across Europe.

He has expressed admiration for Lenin and Karl Rove, and has compared himself to Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors.

Trump owes him.  He and Jared Kushner, through their skilled use of data mining and social media, are responsible for Trump’s victory in the 2016 Election.

His idea that Americans are engaged in both a civil war and a global war could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

∞∞∞

Steve Bannon, born in 1953, has had a varied career as U.S. Naval officer, mergers and acquisitions specialist for Goldman Sachs, and executive producer in Hollywood.  He has degrees from Virginia Tech, Georgetown University and Harvard University.

He was a little-known but influential figure even before he joined the Trump campaign.  Among his films are documentaries on Ronald Reagan, Michelle Bachman and Sarah Palin and an expose of Occupy Wall Street.  He was on the board of directors of Breitbart News and became executive chair when founder Andrew Breitbart died in 2012.  Another Bannon organization sponsored opposition research on Hillary Clinton which resulted in the book, Clinton Cash, and many articles in mainstream newspapers about the Clintons’ conflicts of interest.

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The revolutionary power of early Christianity

January 25, 2017

QUO VADIS by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1896)  tells a story of the coming of Christianity to Rome in the time of Nero.  It depicts the discontinuity between Christianity and the Greco-Roman pagan world, and what happens when people actually live by the Sermon on the Mount.

This would be a revolutionary moral change today.   It was an even more revolutionary change then.

quovadis41daeylwxl-_ac_ul320_sr224320_Unlike in Christianity, worship of the Greco-Roman gods had nothing to do with morality nor with hope and heaven.   The pagan gods were regarded as powerful supernatural beings who had to be appeased with worship and animal sacrifice for the sake of one’s family or one’s city or nation, but who otherwise did not care about you.

Many of the Roman upper classes had come to believe that religion was a useful superstition for keeping the common people contented.

This had nothing to do with leading a virtuous life, which was the province of philosophy, and only a select few were followers of philosophy.

Christianity represented a moral revolution.  St. Paul, St. Peter and the Christians depicted in this novel practiced universal love, unconditional forgiveness and the sharing of all wealth and property—something unprecedented in any mass movement.

The Christian missionaries taught that in the Kingdom of God, there was no distinction between rich and poor, free and slave, man and woman or Roman, Greek or Jew.  They created communities whereby poor people could band together and provide for their own needs, independently of the oppressive and indifferent Roman state.   The collision of the pagan and Christian view of life is the subject of this novel.

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400 years of poor white people in America

January 17, 2017

When I was a boy in western Maryland in the 1940s, I sometimes heard people say things like, “The Negroes aren’t so bad, compared to the poor white trash.”

The underlying meaning was that it was part of the nature of things for black people to be poor and marginalized, but there was something deeply wrong with white people who let themselves sink to the same status.

9whitetrash-iisenberg780670785971I just finished reading a book, WHITE TRASH: the untold 400-year history of class in America by Nancy Isenberg (2016), that tells how these attitudes go back literally to the first settlements at Plymouth Rock, Jamestown and before, and persist today.

Today’s poor rural Southern white people of today may literally be lineal descendants of the convicts, debtors, beggars, orphans, homeless vagrants and unemployed vagrants who were shipped to England’s North American colonies in the 17th century.

Many were victims of the enclosure movement, in which wealthy landowners privatized common lands formerly used by small or tenant farmers, leaving them without an obvious means of livelihood.  These displaced poor people were regarded as useless—much as workers replaced by automation are regarded by economists and corporate executives today.

The prevailing attitude then was that families were “the better sort” or “the meaner sort,” that they were “well-bred” or “ill-bred”.   Today we think of “good breeding” as applied to individual persons as meaning the person has been taught the proper way to behave.   Back then, roughneck poor people were regarded as inherently inferior.

Our American tradition is that the seeds of our nation were planted by freedom-seeking New England Puritans and adventurous Virginia Cavaliers.  This is true, but only a half-truth.    The ships that brought them to the New World also brought penniless, landless English poor people, who were regarded as surplus population.

What set the English poor white colonists apart was that they were not given land.  They were intended to be servants and field workers.  When black African slaves turned out to be more efficient and exploitable workers than indentured English servants, they lost even this role.

Even so some of the poor whites acquired property and a measure of social status.   White Trash is about the descendants of the ones that didn’t.

They fled to the western frontier of settlement.   But the wealthy and well-connected had already obtained title to most of the frontier land.  Poor whites became squatters.  They contended that clearing, improving and planting land gave them the right to have it; title-holders disagreed.  This was the source of much conflict both in the colonies and the newly-independent United States.

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Learning about (and from) the Spanish anarchists

December 29, 2016

Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid.   They reject government and corporate bureaucracy and the profit motive.  They champion personal and political freedom.  I find this highly appealing.

Writers and thinkers I respect—Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, James C. Scott and David Graeber—self-identify as anarchists.

spanishanarchists-bookchin-51vdq4ymscl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I’d like to believe such a philosophy is feasible.  The problem is the scarcity of examples of anarchists in power.

That’s why I recently read three books about the Spanish revolution of 1936.   The three books were Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: the Heroic Years, 1868-1936 and To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, and Frank Mintz’s Anarchists and Workers Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain.

In the Spanish revolution, ordinary workers and farmers took over factories, businesses and landed estates and operated them on anarchist principles.  By one estimate, some 1.8 million Spaniards (workers and their families) participated in rural and industrial collectives.

I learned from reading these three books that anarchism can work well—provided there is a hard core of capable and strong-willed people dedicated to making it work.

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David Brion Davis on the history of slavery

November 2, 2016

One of the things I’ve come to realize is the central importance of African slavery not only in the history of the United States, but of the whole New World and the British, French, Spanish and Portuguese empires.

My understanding has been greatly helped by the historian David Brion Davis.   He wrote about slavery as a moral issue—how it was justified in the first place, and how the Western world came to turn against it.

I’ve read his principal books—The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966), The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution (1975), Slavery and Human Progress (1984), Inhuman Bondage: the Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006) and his latest book, which I finished reading last week, The Problem of Slavery in The Age of Emancipation (2014).

davisslaveryemancipationbwoakes02161391905742Slavery is a problem because in Western culture because of the heritage of the Greeks and Romans, who regarded freedom as necessary to human dignity, and because of the Christian religion, which taught that all human beings are equally children of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, there were two kinds of slaves—debt slaves and war captives.  Selling yourself or your children into slavery was the ultimate form of bankruptcy, and it exists in the world today.  I read somewhere that the world’s largest concentration of slaves are debt slaves in India.

Ancient armies did not have facilities for keeping prisoners of war.  Their choices for dealing with defeated enemies were to kill them (or at least kill all the adult males) or to enslave them.

When the Atlantic slave trade began, the rationalization was that the African slaves had been defeated in war in their own homelands and already forfeited their lives.

The first white opponents of Western slavery were the Quakers and other peace churches.  Since war was anti-Christian, the Quakers believed, then slavery, as the fruit of war, also was wrong.

Quakers were leaders of the anti-slavery movement in both Great Britain and the United States; many and maybe most white members of the Underground Railroad were Quakers.

Another strain of opposition to slavery came from the rationalistic thinkers of the 18th century, who opposed hereditary privilege and believed that government should should be based on recognition of human rights.

They were not as wholehearted as the Quakers.  Slaveowners such as Thomas Jefferson admitted that slavery was in theory a great evil, but insisted that the times and conditions for emancipation weren’t right.

The invention of so-called scientific racism was in part a response to qualms of people like Jefferson.  If black Africans are not as human as white Europeans, then slavery does not have to be justified.  There is no reason not to treat enslaved people as if they were livestock.

This argument did not touch the Quakers and other religious opponents of slavery because they opposed slavery on moral grounds, not scientific grounds.

Black people, both free and enslaved, meanwhile fought for their own liberation, in slave uprisings and in appeals to white people for the abolition of slavery.   Without their struggle, the majority of white people might have been able to ignore the moral issue indefinitely.

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Dickens vs. Trollope

October 31, 2016

I read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  We read it after reading the six novels in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series and the six in his Palliser series.

Trollope was a good storyteller.  I got a lot of pleasure out of reading his novels.  But reading Dickens after reading Trollope gives me an added appreciation of the greatness of Dickens.

Both Dickens and Trollope created memorable and believable characters, whom we talked about as if they were real people.

charlesdickensbleakhousemd19091475224Trollope’s characters were like people I know, if the people I knew had grown up in Victorian England.  The women in the reading group said Trollope was remarkable for knowing how women talked among themselves when there were no men around.

A few of the Trollope characters were completely villainous, but were mixtures of good and bad, and Trollope regarded them with amused tolerance.

Dickens’ characters were much more extreme—the good ones were much better, the bad ones were much worse, the eccentric ones were much more strange, but they all were memorable and believable.

Both Trollope and Dickens were keen social observers.   Trollope was a keen observer of the middle and upper classes.  In fact, one of his protagonists was a Prime Minister.  But he treated the lower class as comic characters.

Dickens did not reach so high in his observations, but described the lives of the poor as sympathetically as the lives of the middle class.

He depicted characters on every level of society, from aristocrats to paupers in the slums, some caring and responsible, some hypocritical and self-deceiving and some cunning, manipulative and cruel.

He thought that no matter who you were, your moral choices made a difference, and he accordingly was much more judgmental than Trollope.

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Bible Christianity and social justice

October 19, 2016

One of the distinctive things about the Forward Together social justice movement led by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II in North Carolina is that it is based on religion.

He believes that politics has to be based on morality and his morality is based on religion—not religion in general, but specifically the Bible-based conservative African-American church tradition.

And even though that tradition puts its stamp on all of Rev. Dr. Barber’s People’s Assemblies and Moral Mondays, he is able to rally people of many different religious traditions and of no specific religion at all.

Now, I don’t think it should be surprising that a progressive political movement should arise from a theologically conservative form of Christianity.

After all, the followers of Jesus and St. Paul were people, most of them poor, living under an oppressive government.  In the Gospels, the presumption is that a rich man or a government official is a sinner unless shown to be otherwise.

St. Paul taught that in Christ, there are no distinctions between rich or poor, free or slave, male or female, Greek or Jew (and presumably white or black).

wbarber-3rdreconstruction978-080708360-4Christianity is rooted in Judaism whose lawgiver, Moses, who forged a nation consisting of fugitive slaves.   Later Hebrew prophets denounced rulers of Israel for oppression of the poor.

Now, although the early Christian communities were models of what a just and compassionate society would look like, neither Jesus nor St. Paul was a revolutionary or a social reformer.  Furthermore Christians developed a priesthood which, like almost all priesthoods in history, allied itself with the rich and powerful.

But the basic Christian teaching of justice and compassion for the poor never died out.   And down through history, there have been Christians who have taken the next step—to attempt to create a just and compassionate society instead of simply waiting for the Last Days.

Rev. Barber grew up in that tradition.   “I cannot remember a time when I did not know God to be both real and to be about bringing justice into the world,” he wrote in The Third Reconstruction.

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Time for another Reconstruction?

October 14, 2016

Black people in the South were liberated during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.   It was followed by a white backlash and the Jim Crow era, in which most of their newly won rights were taken away.

Then came the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s, which the Rev. William J. Barber II, leader of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, calls a second Reconstruction.  Another white backlash attacked the gains from that era.

wbarber-3rdreconstruction978-080708360-4Rev. Dr. Barber says it is time for a third Reconstruction.   Like the first two, he said, it requires fusion politics—blacks and whites working together for the common good.   The backlash succeeds only when they are divided.

To see what he means, take a look at the Constitution of North Carolina, originally drafted in 1868 and retaining much of its original wording.  It is a very progressive document, even by today’s standards.

It states that not all persons created equal and have the right not only to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but to  “the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor.”

It guarantees free public education as a right.  It states that beneficent provision for the poor, the unfortunate and the orphan is among the first duties of a civilized and a Christian state.   It guarantees all the rights in the U.S. Constitution and eliminates property qualifications for voting.

All these provisions are the result of Reconstruction.  North Carolina’s present Constitution was drafted at a constitutional convention immediately following the Civil War.   The 133 delegates included 15 newly enfranchised African-Americans and 18 Northern white men (so called carpetbaggers).

It was ratified by a popular vote in which 55 percent voted “yes”.   As a result, more African-Americans were elected to public office in North Carolina in the following period than at any time since.

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Moral Mondays and the new fusion politics

October 13, 2016

A Bible-believing black minister in North Carolina is the leader of a new movement called that has brought tens of thousands of people of different races, creeds and backgrounds into the streets in support of social justice.

He is the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.  Firmly rooted in the African-American church tradition, he brings together people of all races and many creeds.

wbarber-3rdreconstruction978-080708360-4I read about his work in his new book, THE THIRD RECONSTRUCTION: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics and the Rise of a New Social Justice Movement.

He wrote that the histories of Reconstruction following the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which he calls the Second Reconstruction, show that black people achieve their goals only through “fusion politics”—white and black people working together for their mutual benefit.

In 2005, soon after being elected president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, he joined with Al McSurely, an experienced white civil rights activist, to organize a meeting of a broad cross-section of reformers in the state—advocates of education funding, living wage, health care, affordable housing, environmental justice, immigrant justice, criminal justice reform and many others.

He had each group draw up its goals on a big sheet of butcher paper and then, on another sheet, list the obstacles to achieving those goals.

The goals were diverse, but the obstacles were the same—North Carolina’s state government and the corporate interests that controlled it.

This was the birth of a new movement called HKonJ, which stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, the location of the state legislature in Raleigh.  Each year they bring together a People’s Assembly, which hears testimony of victims of injustice and speakers about how injustice can be remedied, and then closes with a sermon and prayer.

Then they march on the legislature to make their voices heard.  Because they represent such a large cross-section of North Carolinians, it is hard to dismiss what they say out of prejudice against a particular group.

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The Ecology of Freedom: epilogue

September 30, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Epilogue.  This concludes my chapter-by-chapter review of Murray Bookchin’s great work, which I began last April.  I could and should have completed this project in a few weeks.   But the exercise was worth doing from my standpoint, and I will be pleased if I have stimulated interest in Bookchin’s ideas.

Western philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to the European Renaissance, maintained that human values should be rooted in nature.  Their problem, according to Murray Bookchin, was that they called upon an external factor—God, Spirit, what Henri Bergson later called the “vital force” to bring them together.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The truth is, according to Bookchin, that no external factor is necessary.   Mutualism, self-organization, freedom and awareness are present in nature, and evidently were latent in the universe from the very beginning.  Matter has self-organizing properties that cause it to become more complex.  Life has self-organizing properties that generate fertility, complexity and interdependence.

The evolution of life is as much a matter of developing new forms that fit in with the whole as it is competition between individuals and species.

Some biologists think that the biosphere itself is like a huge organism, which is able to regulate its internal processes and keep itself in balance.

The cruelty of nature is exaggerated, Bookchin wrote.  Wolves bringing down a sick or aged caribou is part of the cycle of life.  There is nothing in the natural world that is comparable to organized human warfare.

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Murray Bookchin: the ambiguities of freedom

September 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 eleven – the ambiguities of freedom.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, aka the Age of Reason, who hoped that reason, science and technology would lead to human liberation, and why this hasn’t happened.

This is a difficult chapter, and I’m not sure I fully understand it.   I’ll try.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early philosophers of science, such as Francis Bacon, emphasized an important truth, which is that reality is whatever it is, regardless of anybody’s desires.

They thought that if you want to know how things really are, you stick to logic and facts, particularly facts that can be measured, because these are the only things that are objectively true.

Fantasy, art, imagination, intuition, illumination and inspiration are merely subjective feelings, and can be ignored.

What’s left is what’s called “instrumental reason,” which tells you how to achieve goals, but does not tell you what goals to set.  “You can’t get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’,” as the saying goes.

By default, instrumental reason becomes a tool of government, business, the military and other structures of power.  Reason defeats itself.

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Newton Knight and the free state of Jones

September 6, 2016

I read THE FREE STATE OF JONES: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by Victoria Bynum after seeing the movie, “The Free State of Jones,” which I liked, in order to see how much of the movie is based on fact.

freestateofjones.bynum.amazon-fsojThe movie dramatized the true story of Newton Knight, a white Mississippi farmer led a guerrilla revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War, and was never captured or defeated.

He took his grandfather’s slave as a lover and became the patriarch of an interracial community which continued to exist down tinto the middle of the 20th century.

Victoria Bynum’s book begins with the origins of the families who fought in the Knight Company.  In colonial times, they lived in the backwoods of the Carolinas, and opposed rich plantation owners in the political struggles of those times.

Racial lines were not drawn so strictly in those days as later, and some sons of poor white indentured servants felt they had more in common with black slaves than with slave owners..

During the American Revolution, many wealthy planters such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were rebels, and many poor backwoodsmen were Tories.

After the Revolution, many backwoodsmen migrated into the lawless frontier region that later became the states of Alabama and Mississippi.  They endured great danger, hardship and isolation, particularly the women, but rejoiced in being their own masters.

Slaveowners adopted, taught and enforced a rigid ideology of racism. to a degree previously unknown, Bynum wrote.

Anybody with “one drop” of Negro “blood” was considered black.  White men had a duty to preserve the chastity of white women, lest white “blood” be contaminated.  This was supported by a religious practice that condemned dancing, alcohol and sensuality.

No doubt the slaveowners sincerely believed in these things, but they served a function of keeping the black slaves isolated and preventing them from joining forces with whites.

But, according to Bynum, not all white people followed the accepted code.  Some enjoyed feasting, dancing and drinking, sometimes among black companions.  Some preferred charismatic, revival meetings, sometimes led by women, to the stricter and more authoritarian religion.  There were those who became lovers across the color line.

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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 noted.  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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