The Utopia of Rules

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This is an important, lucid and powerful book. Not because David Graeber is saying something radically new and exciting; it’s important because of how he says it.

The Utopia of Rules is a collection of essays that explore the themes of bureaucracy, play, technology and the ugly truth of how our society works. It’s a sobering, yet electric breath of fresh air. The suffocating rhetoric of American politics – probably at its all time worst at the moment – is swept away. And that is what makes this book so damn good.

Clearly elucidated, cleverly explained and well laid out, Graeber is able to take the last sixty years of Critical Theory and make it easily accessible to “normal” people. That is, people who haven’t spent years absorbing the history and vocabulary of Theory or pouring through volumes of unbelievably dense and obtuse academic verbiage.

The dualistic quality of American politics – the “on message” narratives that each party peddles (rather shamelessly) is put in a proper perspective. Graeber shows us the truth: we live in the most bureaucratic society that has ever been. And we love it. Bureaucracy is hardly the monopoly of the government; rather it has become the essence of how we think; how we do things. Bureaucracy has always been around; just look at the ancient Babylonian tables that endlessly catalog harvest statistics. Far from a result of the welfare state, it has far more to do with Reaganomics (neoliberalism) and the alliance between management, CEOs, and shareholders. In a nutshell industry went from making things to really only making profit. And this has made bureaucracy go from bad to downright sinister-insane.

The problem is that “market” solutions are not actually reducing bureaucracy because the simple truth is that markets are not self-regulating. Even neoliberal economists like von Mises admit this. And despite decades of the utter failure of neoliberalism the blinding rhetoric of Adam Smith and moralistic arguments about work keep Americans supporting “market reforms”. It’s a vicious cycle, where increasing desperation for reform expresses itself in populist rage that supports “market reform”.

Ultimately, however, its about play oddly enough. Graeber introduces the concept of “interpretive labor”. This is simply the idea of empathy, or “putting yourself in the other’s shoes” expresses as a sociological term. Basically, people in power, be it men over women in the ’50s, or CEO’s over their employees today or say a Roman Emperor over his subjects do little “interpretive labor”. They don’t have to understand (i.e. care) about those they control. Yet the flipside, the ’50’s housewife, the antebellum slave towards the owner, the minimum wage employee engage in a huge amount of “interpretive labor” towards understanding their social/economic/political overlords. The result is that those in power are effectively cocooned from the brutal reality they have created.

Ultimately, Graeber says, it’s about play. Everybody both wants clear rules, yet wants to play fast and loose with them. It’s paradoxical and very human. Bureaucracy’s impersonalness – the fact that we don’t have to care what your check-out clerk at the grocery store thinks about your questionable socks – is it’s biggest emotional selling point for us. As we work more hours and sacrifice more of our mental, emotional and physical health for this neoliberal economy, the more we will depend on the emotional break that bureaucracy allows us to take. This is the truly terrifying thing about the whole dreadful processes.

Graeber also throws in an essay about the new Batman series – especially the extra explicitly conservative The Dark Knight Rises; it’s incoherent portrayal of the Occupy movement. His conclusion is that the Right is always fuelled and supported by those who only understand and depend on violence. It’s a brilliant analysis of why the last one was by far the worst of the three Batman movies; he manages to convince you it’s because of Christopher Nolan’s conservative ideological incoherence.

This is one of the most important, relevant books you will read this year, maybe this decade.

A Review of Child 44

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I’ll say right out that I have not seen the movie, but I’m quite surprised to hear that the movie itself flopped.

Because Child 44 was written, it seems, for the screen.

It’s Stalinist Russia in the early ’50s. The main character is a hero of the Great Patriotic War and a member of the MGB – the Stalinist secret police. He believes in his work; he believes in the Soviet Union. But his life unravels when he makes a connection between the gruesome deaths of children as the work of one man; a serial killer.

Child 44 sets up a classic police procedural/serial killer thriller, but instead of slick science labs, lawyers, and SWAT teams, it’s one man against the entire Soviet system.

I was deeply intrigued by the idea of a thriller set in the Soviet Union: watching a secret, totalitarian police organization chase down a serial killer seemed to me a brilliant re-invention of the whole serial killer trope; it’s much more interesting when you have no idea what you are up against. There was also the ideological under-pinnings of the book; because the Soviet system cannot admit that it has real crime (the logic being that because The People own everything, there is therefore nothing to steal), how can it mobilise itself against this dark individual?

This poster for the movie below does a great job of selling the hook here:

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Alas, I’m afraid it doesn’t quiet live up to its own expectations, nor the movie poster.

Tom Rob Smith is a very direct writer; you are never left to think for yourself for very long before he comes along and explains everything right away. Do you detect that things are strained between the main character and his wife? Tom Rob Smith will let you know exactly what’s going on in the very next sentence; the book reads like a screen play with heavy, heavy narration.

What Tom Rob Smith should have done was read Franz Kafka, taken very close notes from Graham Greene and then have The Prisoner on in the background of when he was writing when he did Child 44. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Child 44; it just doesn’t attain brilliance. At no point did I feel afraid for the main characters; I got no further than a sort of “well, that’s a tight spot to be in”. The secret police is evil; there is torture but the whole effect isn’t surreal or sinister. The whole terror apparatus of the Soviet State comes crashing down around them, but you never really notice.

Very enjoyable, and a decent introduction to the reality of Stalinist Russia.

The Siege of Krishnapur: A Review

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The Siege of Krishnapur is the second of a trilogy of novels written about the British Empire by J.G. Farrell. I have a bad habit of reading books out of order, but I strongly suspect that these books stand alone quite well. It’s about the folly of empire; the masks that imperialism forces us to wear – masks that we grow into (apologies to George Orwell here).

It’s set in India under the rule of the East India, during the Great Mutiny of 1857. Sepoys – muslims, hindus, and sikhs trained in the western style of warfare revolted against the British, ostensibly because the grease used in the issued rifles were driven from cows. After a few months, the revolt was put down. But not before the whole thing entered the Victorian subconscious, and lent itself for any number of romantic novels.

Farrell adopts this basic conceit: a recently arrived British officer courts a beautiful lady, there is danger, but it all ends happily ever after. But what Farrell does is treat this episode with irony. Those of you who are familiar with the Bronte books or Kipling, or Sherlock Holmes will know what to expect.

“Civilisation” is a major topic of conversation in The Siege of Krishnapur; the characters or obsessed with it. They attempt to justify themselves and the rule of the East India Company by the rhetoric of “the white man’s burden”; the idea that their rule is more than military domination, it is genuinely beneficial. There is a typical cast of English characters: the chaplain, various jocular officers, young ladies obsessed with marriage, the romantic poet – a deliberately typical Victorian cast. It’s Kipling turned on its head.

Farrell is a master – a minor deity even – of everyday human psychology. He perfectly captures the way people feel and think through the course of the little ups and downs of their daily lives. What are you thinking about while you wait in line at Starbucks? J.G. Farrell knows, and can describe it brilliantly. Each character is a little bit of stereotype, yet is treated so humanely, that each character seems aware of their own stereotypical-ness. I know that this sounds tough to pull off, but I promise that Farrell does it perfectly.

Farrell is also quite able with his symbolism. His is a light touch here – mostly taking the form of irony (which is rarely pointed out and is therefore up to you to find). For example, during the siege, the two of the major characters are firing a cannon in defence of the little British enclave. To protect themselves and their cannon (which is killing hundreds of sepoys) they have removed giant busts of Plato and Socrates from the top of a nearby building. The effect is thus that the purity of and wisdom of the philosophers is also a death dealing gaze; the busts become pock-marked with bullet holes and thus take on a diseased aspect. Brilliant.

Lastly…this book made me laugh out loud. It’s quite humours. Even at it’s darkest, it’s funny. It’s hard to describe. Passages or jokes which maybe deserved a small smile left me chuckling for minuets on end – much to my wife’s displeasure.

I would not say that this is one of the best books that I have ever read, but I would say that it is one of a handful that I wish to reread (along side The Road to Oxiana and The Quiet American).

Highly recommended – but only to those who enjoy and appreciate the Victorians.

No End to War: A Review

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Walter Laqueur’s 2004 contribution to terrorism studies, No End to War: Terrorism in the Twenty-First Century, poses itself as a hard-nosed, realistic, hands-on, no-nonsense, gritty analysis of the history of terrorism, its present and future. He opens with salvos against intellectual “shibboleths” of the past which contribute only to misunderstanding the terrorist threat. “Put down that book on dialectical materialism,” he seems to be saying, “and follow me down the rabbit hole of the reality of terrorism”. He talking about how complicated terrorism was; simply coming to a definition of terrorism was anything but simple. “Put aside your shallow ideological perspective, and come see the truth,” Laqueur seems to be saying in the introduction.

And at first, I respected this. Because I literally going around telling people all the time that things “are complicated”. I warn people about accepting simple, feel-good answers to terribly difficult and vexing questions. I own “complicated” and so at first I was quite happy about this book.

Walter Laqueur is full of shit, I’m afraid to say. It’s really only one shibboleth he’s on about: the critical theory/dialectical materialism/leftist multiculturalist perspective. His own shibboleth, neoconservativism, he likes just fine. He is totally blind to how much his ideology blinds himself. His is this black-and-white world of an almost mystical faith in American military power and general way of doing things; he defines America and expects you to follow it. He feels totally comfortable designating certain leftist newspapers as “anti-American”. Right wing news organs and terrorists groups get no such treatment. He doesn’t hesitate to see vegetarians, bicycle enthusiasts, and PETA activists as “potential terrorist breeding grounds”.

Laqueur “…holds the Kissinger Chair for International Security Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC.” This means that he is a DC military-industrial complex insider who needed to write a book after 9/11 telling everybody how he’s an expect in terrorism. It’s meant to be read by army officers, some academics, and think-tankers. Holding the Kissinger Chair implies only to me that he subscribes to a “realist” view of foreign affairs, and a conservative view of domestic affairs. It’s a suck-up book to the Bush Administration.

Here is what I liked about this book. It’s good background and history. It’s stuff that’s good to know. He doesn’t get bogged down in certain quibbles that could have made the book drag on, and he is not focused merely on Islamic terrorism; he has much to say about the classics: the Russian anarchist/nihilists, the Tamil Tigers, Baader-Meinhof Faction, and the Shinning Path (richest terrorist group in the world, by the way), all the classics.

Even though I appreciated a lot of the facts and perspectives, I felt that Laqueur was largely incapable of grappling with the larger issues.

A left leaning academic person will tell you that terrorism and poverty are related. The logic here being “if you want to get rid of the mosquitos, drain the swamp”. Laqueur thinks this is laughable and he promptly goes on to show that most terrorists are from middle class backgrounds, often with some kind of technical training, and are from countries that are medium-poor. The poorest of the poor countries have almost no terrorism (though they often wind up harbouring terrorists). Thus, declares Laqueur triumphantly, terrorism is not related to poverty.

Never mind that he spends the rest of the book referring to refugee camps, high unemployment among young men, low levels of education, failed states and economic downturns: poverty is not related to terrorism. So remember that. In all seriousness, I feel like this is one of the best examples of how he has failed to understand or grapple with the issues at hand. It seems like he has taken the argument “poverty causes terrorism” very literally. What I would argue is that the breakdown in traditional societies, due to the systematic nature of capitalism, is fundamentally linked to terrorism. Poverty here means more than simply crude statistics of the number of cars and TVs owned.

What I am referring to is the cohesiveness of society. Think of it like this. Let’s you lived on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean about a hundred and fifty years ago, in what is now Lebanon. Your life was good. It’s the Mediterranean, for heaven’s sake. The Ottomans were corrupt and useless, but relatively beneficent. The trading coastal cities would have been cosmopolitan and open. Jews, Christians and Muslims lived for the most part in peaceful co-existence.

All that is gone now. Traditional Muslim society has broken down in ways beyond materialistic calculations. Fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, funded by Saudi Arabia (in turn, funded by oil sales) now dominate across the Middle East; most education is primarily religious. Islamic societies are more desperate, more extreme, more prone to conspiracy theories.

Terrorism is borne of poverty and the breakdown in societies. Desperate men to desperate things; the act of terrorism relies on certain social situations. Ideology and religious fanaticism is definitely a prime motivating factor, but we are also talking about people with weak personalities, psychopaths, etc. I think there is definitely an element of mental illness at work here. It’s also important to acknowledge that most of the 9/11 attackers were essentially immigrants to western Europe; what’s at work is the power of alienation. It boils down to lonely, angry and unemployed young men searching for easy answers in a complicated, messy world. Fundamentalist Islam gives them both hope and a scapegoat for their troubles.

Laqueur is man who came of age during Vietnam and drew the conservative interpretation from this era. One get’s the sense that he has a bit of a chip on his shoulder against leftists for making connections that he was unable to make. Too many pages are devoted to trashing liberal academics for Laqueur to be taken too seriously. He’s too comfortable with wishing that Western governments should have cracked down on Islamic extremism sooner. His answer to the mosquito problem is just spraying chemicals, if you allow me to proceed with this metaphor a bit further.

I’m not going to recommend this book. If you want to know more about terrorism, I would point you in the direction of psychology, rather than the dusty academic theatre of international affairs which seems to increasingly lack the depth to really engage with terrorism. It’s like reading The Economist: it’s very informative and frank, and yet it totally misses the point (and then you realise that it is meant for a very specific audience) and easily winds up sounding like defending the indefensible.