Category Archives: Books

Power and Powerlessness in the Georgia Senate Race

In the closing weeks of the Georgia Senate runoffs, Republicans charged that the Democrats would cancel Christmas, ban hamburgers, and destroy the fabric of America. Democrat and preacher Raphael Warnock would be “America’s first Marxist senator”; his fellow Democrat Jon Ossoff was compromised by the Chinese Communist Party. Now, I’m no expert on Christmas, hamburgers, or fabrics, but I am somewhat of an expert on Chinese Communism and Marxism—so I can say with some confidence that these claims are, in technical parlance, completely bonkers. 

Republicans Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, despite being incumbents, are not running for something; they are running against the impending onslaught of socialism, which, by their telling, is basically already here. (This would be news to the DSA, but nevermind.) With only rare exceptions, the Republicans’ campaign is about warding off the arrival of some sort of invasive species that feeds on the blood of innocent Americans and will overrun the state of Georgia in copies of Das Kapital and veganism. Nevermind that Loeffler is a billionaire whose husband owns the New York Stock Exchange and Perdue is a millionaire corporate executive whose policy priorities of promoting outsourcing are anathema to rural Georgians. Loeffler and Perdue (and Donald Trump) claim that they are on the side of Georgians against “people who don’t share your values.” In other words, as one of their mailers says, “Joe Biden, the Hollywood Elite, and DC Liberals Want to Steal Your Future.” 

Regardless of who ultimately wins, the fact that such bonkers claims carry such power is worth trying to understand. Why are Georgia voters, especially rural voters, receptive to these messages, and to believe wholeheartedly in the imminent death of Santa and meat-based cuisine? And why do liberals and Democrats have such trouble gaining political traction or combating these attacks? The political dynamics at play call to mind multiple episodes in John Gaventa’s excellent book Power and Powerlessness about coal miners in rural Appalachia. Rather than attribute support for exploitative local elites to condescending assertions that rural citizens have a “false consciousness,” Gaventa argues instead that understanding power requires thinking harder about powerlessness. Power corrupts the powerful and shapes their worldview; in the same way, powerlessness shapes the way that those on the outs of society come to understand the world. Similar to Gramsci’s idea of hegemony or studies of how colonized populations often end up accepting colonial ideologies, this understanding of powerlessness creates conditions in which the ideological narratives of local elites become the prevailing “common sense” of society, shaping the field of what is believable to the powerful and powerless alike.

Miners in the communities Gaventa studied in Appalachia faced terrible conditions and were completely at the whim of large mining companies, yet workers only rarely pushed back. More often, they actively supported the dominance of exploitative local elites. Multiple waves of social reformers who tried to help the miners failed miserably as local elites portrayed attempts to empower grassroots society as the work of hostile outside forces. Local citizens believed these claims, often made on the basis of cultural affinities, and fought to preserve the ideology that supported their powerlessness. 

At the time of the Great Depression, unrest in the coal mines attracted national attention from writers, journalists, relief organizations, and other nonprofit groups. Local elites, threatened by these rebellions and the outside attention, had to rely on a new ideology to frame these events in order to maintain their power over the miners. Gaventa writes: 

The ideology which emerged appealed to the forces of law and order, respectability, and patriotism as opposed to the forces of disorder, anti-religion, and anti-government brought in by the outsider. ‘Communism’, as interpreted to the population by ministers and government officials, meant belief in the principles of: 1) hatred of god, 2) destruction of property, 3) social and racial equality and class hatred, 4) revolutionary propaganda leading to the stirring up of class hatred, advocating of violence, strikes, riots, etc.; destruction of all forms of representative and democratic government and the rights of liberty guaranteed under the American Constitution—the right of free speech, free press, and the freedom of worship; 6) world­wide revolution overthrowing all capitalist government and the re­ establishment of the dictatorship of the Soviet proletariat, with head­quarters in Moscow and with the red flag as the only flag.

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The Paradox of Bureaucracy and the Politics of the Left

Nobody likes talking about bureaucracy anymore. (Ok, there are some people, but they never get invited to fun parties.) Talking about bureaucracy is passé; the main studies of bureaucracy in America were all written at least thirty years ago. The marketization and privatization of everything, and the subsequent dismantling of the administrative state over the last forty years, has made bureaucracy seem irrelevant.

David Graeber thinks we’re doing it all wrong. In Utopia of Rules, he argues that we have entered an era of “total bureaucratization”: rather than disappear, the political foundations of bureaucracy have metastasized into all aspects of life. Privatization has not defeated bureaucratization but rather joined forces with it “in a way that public and private bureaucracies finally merged together in a mass of paperwork designed to facilitate the direct extraction of wealth.” Bureaucracy is more important than ever; we just don’t even realize it.

Graeber’s critique is particularly provocative when it comes to the relationship between bureaucracy and left-wing politics. We often think of the political Left in America as defenders of a benevolent bureaucracy, protecting welfare state programs against the predations of right-wing politicians hellbent on shrinking the government. Yet Graeber suggests instead that the fundamental assumptions of Left politics make it incompatible with bureaucracy. 

“The social movements of the sixties were, on the whole, left-wing in inspiration, but they were also rebellions against bureaucracy, or, to put it more accurately, rebellions against the bureaucratic mindset, against the soul-destroying conformity of the postwar welfare states,” he writes. That “the mainstream Left has increasingly reduced itself to fighting a kind of pathetic rearguard action, trying to salvage remnants of the old welfare state,” is indicative of how American politics has lost its way.

Bureaucracies are arrangements of rules, a particular arrangement of social order that prioritizes predictability, stability, and order. “Cold, impersonal, bureaucratic relations are much like cash transactions, and both offer similar advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand they are soulless. On the other, they are simple, predictable, and—-within certain parameters, at least—-treat everyone more or less the same,” he writes. Bureaucracies, then, can be highly effective in certain circumstances—-but they are so only by removing as much humanness as possible.

The departure from human impulses is what makes bureaucracy incompatible with foundational elements of a left political project, he argues, which must be grounded in the idea of imagination. In those youth rebellions of the 1960s, bureaucratic authority represented the fundamental stifling of the human spirit, of creativity and conviviality. The bureaucratic mindset is the rejection of human imagination; a revulsion toward the fetters of bureaucracy is inextricable from the core energy of what motivates a true egalitarian. “The Left, in its essence, is a critique of bureaucracy, even if it’s one that has, again and again, been forced to accommodate in practice to the very bureaucratic structures and mindset it originally arose to oppose.”

Graeber invokes Marx to promote an idea of the political imagination as the inherent human capability of envisioning a better world. In Marx’s terminology, Graeber says, this is production: the ability to envision things, and then bring them into being, unconstrained by the notion that we are limited by what the world currently is.

Imagination does not—-and should not—-be relegated to utopian fantasizing and attempts to use force to impose visions of society from above. It should be a bottom-up project, grounded in the basic creativity of regular individuals. The ability to imagine is not something that is reserved for the prodigies or high-powered elites, while the masses labor purely with their hands and without their minds. Rather, the imagination he speaks of is “the practical common sense imagination of ordinary cooks, nurses, mechanics, and gardeners.”

The combination of the bureaucratic mindset plus the neoliberal belief in markets and individualism creates an environment that seeks to limit the human imagination as much as possible. Graeber’s focus on the importance of political imagination and his sharp critiques of the elite managerial classes echo the more radical writings of George Orwell: “The ultimate imperative of those running the world is choking off the possibility of any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that will be fundamentally different than the world today.”

Even the most benevolent bureaucracies are really just taking the highly schematized, minimal, blinkered perspectives typical of the powerful, turning them into ways of limiting that power or ameliorating its most pernicious effects. Surely, bureaucratic interventions along these lines have done an enormous amount of good in the world…But at the same time, in taking forms of willful blindness typical of the powerful and giving them the prestige of science—for instance, by adopting a whole series of assumptions about the meaning of work, family, neighborhood, knowledge, health, happiness, or success that had almost nothing to do with how poor or working-class people actually lived their lives, let alone what they found meaningful in them—it set itself up for a fall. 

In many arenas, most notably academia, radical critics of the status quo often cling to the strictures of bureaucracy to root out existing networks that favor the well-connected and the closed-off, patronage benefits they promote. Bureaucracy is juxtaposed with a feudal system and arbitrary personal authority. Yet, Graeber notes, the comfortable embrace of bureaucracy is dangerous: it adds more rules and limits creativity, but it doesn’t necessarily upset the order of authority. Channeling his anarchist forebears like James Scott, he argues that bureaucratization 

had to take what had always been a subtle, nuanced form of procedures and turn them into an explicit set of rules. In effect, they had to turn custom into a kind of board game….Such reforms may aim to eliminate arbitrary personal authority, but of course they never actually do. Personal authority just jumps up a level, and becomes the ability to set the rules aside in specific cases.

The tension between Left politics and bureaucracy was perhaps most apparent in Maoist China. The antithesis to true mass politics was bureaucracy and its associated diseased ideologies was “bureaucratism” and “formalism”—when bureaucrats become too distant from ordinary people and enslave themselves to rules rather than what people need. Bureaucracy won out in the post-Mao era, and the contemporary Chinese bureaucratic state is beset by the key feature that Graeber attributes to the bureaucratic mindset: a fear of arbitrariness, and, thus, an embrace of power that is deeply wary of uninhibited human creativity.

Against Neo-Pessimism: George Orwell on James Burnham

The political ideas of James Burnham lodged themselves in George Orwell’s mind, horrifying and challenging him, refusing to let go until Orwell could refute them with sufficient authority to declare them fully vanquished. Orwell dedicated three long essays to Burnham’s works, each one painstakingly unpacking the myriad ways in which Orwell saw Burnham’s theories as flawed. In his writing about Burnham, Orwell explains why he rejects what he calls “neo-pessimism”—a line of thinking about global politics that dismisses any possibility of positive change.

Burnham argues that capitalism is a failed system of the past and socialism is unworkable; instead, the world is lurching inevitably toward a new ruling class of the managerial elite. In Orwell’s reconstruction, Burnham believes that “this new ruling class expropriates the capitalists, crushes the working class movements and sets up a totalitarian society governed by the concept of efficiency.”

Burnham’s arguments contain many trenchant insights. Orwell writes in “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” that Burnham has correctly identified some trends underway: 

For quite fifty years past the general drift has almost certainly been towards oligarchy. The ever-increasing concentration of industrial and financial power; the diminishing importance of the individual capitalist or shareholder, and the growth of the new ‘managerial’ class of scientists, technicians, and bureaucrats; the weakness of the proletariat against the centralized state; the increasing helplessness of small countries against big ones; the decay of representative institutions and the appearance of one-party régimes based on police terrorism, faked plebiscites, etc.: all these things seem to point in the same direction. 

Yet Burnham’s ideas, Orwell argues, are based on a fundamental error: he believes that the way things are is the way they will always have to be. He uses the animal kingdom to highlight Burnham’s pessimistic and short-sighted obsession with the status quo. “Burnham sees the trend and assumes that it is irresistible, rather as a rabbit fascinated by a boa constrictor might assume that a boa constrictor is the strongest thing in the world.” 

The neo-pessimist claims that a belief in a better future is an act of self-delusion, an exercise in utopian fantasy. He identifies two sources of this flawed line of thinking: the notion that politics must be the same at all times, and that political behavior is the same as any other type of human behavior. In The Machiavellians, Burnham’s follow-up to The Managerial Revolution, Orwell points out the gaping hole in Burnham’s inevitability thesis. “The argument implied all the way through the book is that a peaceful and prosperous society cannot exist in the future because it has never existed in the past. By the same argument one could have proved the impossibility of aeroplanes in 1900.”

To Orwell, the assumption that politics must be the same in all ages ignores the importance of economics—namely, the power of scarcity. What is particularly galling about modern society is that it is, for perhaps the first time, humans existed in a world of relative abundance: it is now technically possible to guarantee a baseline quality of life for all people. Politics in the absence of the fear of poverty must be different from that of the past. “The justifications for class distinctions, if there is a justification, is no longer the same, because there is no mechanical reason why the average human being should continue to be a drudge.”

Orwell rejects the “realism” of neo-pessimism on the grounds that it leaves no room for genuine human decency. If all behavior can and should be reduced to machinations for power, and there are no other forces besides those of power, politics becomes devoid of any sense of humanity and is thus pointless as a human exercise. The realist rejects any positive vision for politics to create a better society; intellectuals strutting around the halls of high society believe it not because it is true, but because it seems “smart.”

Any theory which is obviously dishonest and immoral (“realistic” is the favorite word at this moment) will find adherents who accept it just for that reason. Whether the theory works, whether it attains the result aimed at will hardly be questioned. The mere fact that it throws ordinary decency overboard will be accepted as proof of its grown-upness and consequently of its efficacy.

Orwell is obsessed with Burnham’s ideas because he sees the neo-pessimist school as deeply dangerous. In a separate essay, he associates the power of neo-pessimist thinking, and its misguidedness, to the allure of its temporality. It resonates with those who can only think in the shortest of terms and want to flaunt their superiority.

The danger of ignoring the neo-pessimists lies in the fact that up to a point they are right. So long as one thinks in short periods it is wise not to be hopeful about the future. Plans for human betterment do normally come unstuck, and the pessimist has many more opportunities of saying ‘I told you so’ than the optimist. By and large the prophets of doom have been righter than those who imagined that a real step forward would be achieved by universal education, female suffrage, the League of Nations, or what not.

The neo-pessimist position is incompatible with Orwell’s view of a more equal, more just, and more decent society—socialism, as he saw it. For the socialist project to have any chance, it would have to overcome the deceptive allure of the neo-pessimists. 

In Praise of Epistemological Skepticism: On Alfred Hirschman (plus obligatory thoughts on the failure of Chinese liberalism)

To say that Jeremy Adelman’s Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman changed my life is not an exaggeration: after lugging the enormous 740-page hardcover book back and forth to Asia, I finally convinced myself that it was time to buy a Kindle. In 21st century America, this is a major life step.

Given that I did not produce an “annual list of unsolicited book reviews for the best books I read this year” in 2018 (a sincere apology to all zero of my readers), and that it is already halfway through 2019, I will replace a list of unsolicited book reviews for one unsolicited book review. I read plenty of books in 2018—I’m a graduate student, after all—but Adelman’s biography of Hirschman stands out. Adelman’s book is a chronicle of both an extraordinary life and of a powerful, action-oriented liberal worldview that allowed Hirschman to see through the facades of conventional wisdom while remaining both humble and sane.

Hirschman is a clear contender for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World” (see also: Simon Leys). Born into a secular Jewish family in Germany in 1915, Hirschman was active in the youth socialist movement and opposed fascism with such visceral force that he opted to join a regiment of non-Spaniards fighting against Franco in the early days of the Spanish Civil War. (Adelman’s retelling of Hirschman’s experiences fighting for the socialist POUM in Spain mirror those of George Orwell, who detailed the internecine battles between socialists and communists on the anti-Franco left in Homage to Catalonia. Hirschman, like Orwell, survived the war, but not unscathed: both came away with injuries and a deep distrust of Communist dogma. “It was no surprise that the Nazis were awful,” he noted, “But to see people whom one expected to contribute to one’s own struggle turn into the opposite was in some sense worse” 138). Hirschman then wrote a dissertation on international finance while casually helping smuggle 2,000 Jewish artists and intellectuals out of Europe. Hirschman is an atypical economist for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious of which is that he is simply not boring. (No offense, economists. Ok, a little.)

When Hirschman finally made it out of Europe, he launched a career as an economist in the United States—only to be stymied by Cold War fears, which, in opposing anything possibly communist, could not differentiate between communism and Hirschman’s anti-communism. (As the story goes…) Hirschman’s efforts to save European Jews doubles as an excoriation of mid-century America: not only did U.S. policy make it impossible to find safety across the ocean without incredible acts of subterfuge, once they arrived in the U.S., no good deed would go unpunished. Hirschman volunteered to fight for the U.S. army once again in an effort to defeat the scourge of European fascism, but, he was shunted away from the main action; then, upon returning to the U.S., unsubstantiated suspicions of communism prevented him from moving up the ranks as an economic adviser within the U.S. public sector. Needing a job, he wound up moving his wife and two small children to Bogota, Colombia, to do research. He would spend his entire life globetrotting, mixing work, leisure, and a keen sense of observation wherever he went. Where Simon Leys found a home on the high seas, Albert Hirschman found one anywhere on land, wherever there were projects to observe and people to learn from.

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Second Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read (2017)

At the end of 2016, I vowed to read at least 50 books in the coming year. This would be an unachievable goal for anybody except in the most exceptional of circumstances; namely, that they are either Vaclav Smil or are enrolled in a humanities or social sciences Ph.D. program in the United States. I am not Vaclav Smil, but as of September my book count shot skyward with no signs of changing course in the next five to seven years, plus or minus a handful of nervous breakdowns.

The benefit of academic study is first and foremost the realization that there are far more excellent books already in existence than you ever thought possible. The thought that, hey, maybe someone should write a book about that – they have, and it’s yours to peruse at your leisure until some obnoxious undergrad “recalls” it from the library and forces you to return it post haste.

This year’s list of book recommendations that nobody asked for will thus be economized into a few select recommendations. If this year’s batch of obscure essays on Chinese politics and the 19th century trajectories of the British and American trade unions doesn’t quite fit meet your interests, let me assure you that next year’s selections are bound to be more esoteric and even less applicable to normal human beings.

Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell
Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
George Orwell: A Life in Letters, by George Orwell

Unsolicited review: Orwell, “the conscience of a generation,” is the greatest Anglophone essayist of the 20th century (don’t argue with me). I say essayist because his essays are better than his novels; and even his novels are essays, in the sense that, as Simon Leys astutely distinguishes in Broken Images, the essay tries to convey a clearly formed idea while a work of fiction succeeds only when it creates room for multiple interpretations. Homage marks a transition in Orwell’s politics and contains the seeds from which his later hallmark essays and novel-essays grew: the perpetual unreliability of elites in the struggle to empower the working class. Although Down and Out is far from a masterpiece, the anthropological deconstruction of the workflow of a hotel restaurant in Paris alone makes the rest of the book worth reading.

The Chairman’s New Clothes, by Simon Leys
Chinese Shadows, by Simon Leys
Broken Images, by Simon Leys
The Burning Forest, by Simon Leys
The Analects, by Confucius (translated by Simon Leys)

Unsolicited review: The ghosts of Orwell (and Lu Xun, “China’s Orwell“) pervade the writings of Simon Leys—so much so that I couldn’t write a description of Orwell without citing Leys at least once. The scholar of Chinese art and poetry, frustrated by Francophone intellectuals heaping praise on Mao from the other side of the world, penned what became a tetralogy of essay collections unmasking the destruction taking place during the Cultural Revolution in China. Maoism eventually fell out of fashion, but Leys’s writings have not—they stand the test of time not only as political polemics but also paragons of lucidity and elegant prose.

River Town, by Peter Hessler

Unsolicited review: When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books before moving to China, I thought it was decidedly mediocre. When I read one of Peter Hessler’s books after living in China for a few years, I took back everything negative I ever said. What is striking about reading River Town twenty years after it was written is that much of the cultural attitudes Hessler describes remain omnipresent today, even as China’s economy and physical infrastructure have undergone a complete
makeover.

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First Annual List of Unsolicited Book Reviews for Books I’ve Read in 2016

If the year 2016 were a novel, any reasonable editor would reject it for its unrealistic plot lines. An insecure bankruptcy-loving real estate scion insults or offends hundreds of millions of people, admits to paying basically no income tax for two decades, is caught bragging about sexual assault on camera, and is still elected to the most powerful position in the entire free world—helped, in part, by an unrelated investigation into a disgraced former congressman’s lewd texts to a 15-year old girl and Russian hackers. Not to mention, of course, an unrelated and even more ridiculous story: Pokemon Go. That was a thing. Really.

Books come in handy for making sense of this world we live in, for retreating from the craziness when it becomes overwhelming, and for killing insects. It also helps me read more if I write things down. Here’s some of what I read in 2016, accompanied by brief reviews that nobody asked for. Continue reading