July 31, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, July 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the sociology and industrial organization of intellectuals, political philosophy, or American history. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Allison Brennan, The Lost Girls, Make Them Pay, Breaking Point, Too Far Gone
Mind candy series mystery. As with many long-running series, the soap-operatic elements keep piling up, and I honestly enjoyed those less than seeing Lucy tackle the murder-or-kidnapping-of-the-week, but still fun. (Previously.) §
Daniel Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas
Popular social science. Drezner's main argument is as follows. He begins by distinguishing between "public intellectuals", who are critical and multi-sided, and "thought leaders", who have One Big Idea (if not One Weird Trick), which they push relentlessly. (I don't think the phrase "policy entrepreneur" appears in the book; the old-fashioned but apt term "projector" definitely doesn't.) Recent changes in the societies of the rich democracies have increased the sway of thought leaders, and reduced that of public intellectuals.
One of these is rising economic inequality ("plutocrats"): rich people are constitutionally more inclined to pay for advocacy, especially flattering or self-serving advocacy, than for critique. Here Drezner advances, without much fuss, some sensible-sounding notions about the relations between material interests and ideology. (I actually wish he'd elaborate a theory of ideology on this basis, but that would call for a different sort of book.)
A second change is the rise of partisanship. This makes it easier to ignore criticisms coming from the other side. (You will, after all, often be right in thinking that those criticisms are made ignorantly, in bad faith, or merely to posture before the critic's own side.) This is, of course, bad for reason and democracy.
The third change is the decline in trust in established institutions ("pessimism"). These have not been replaced by alternative gate-keeping institutions, but rather by more of a free-for-all scrum for attention. (Again: "Actually, 'Dr. Internet' is the name of the monsters' creator.") This exacerbates already-existing tendencies in intellectual life to highly-skewed, winner-take-a-hell-of-a-lot outcomes. His descriptions of the temptations to chase those rewards is vivid.
Drezner does little to address why plutocrats, partisans, and the plain people of the Internet should have such an appetite for intellectual fare. It's probably impossible for social animals of our sort to conduct our common lives without justifications and rationalizations (cf. Mercier and Sperber). That those rationales should be intellectual, that they should take the form of culturally-transmitted abstractions, general ideas, appeals to impersonal principle, appeals to evidence, attempts at logical argument, etc., is another matter and evidently far more contingent. Here I personally would gesture at the very high levels of education attained in all the countries Drezner is concerned with, and/or generations of the Flynn effect.
Drezner is careful to explain that the changes and prospects are not all grim. (There are real benefits to less gatekeeping, even for public intellectuals in Drezner's sense.) He's also careful to note that in many ways the social life of the mind has always been bad. (This is cold comfort, but at least avoids catastrophizing.) But he leaves me convinced that he's right about specific ways in which that social life has recently become dysfunctional than it was, with little prospect of improvement in the foreseeable future. §
Disclaimer: Drezner is a co-author of a co-author, and a fellow relic of the The Second Age of the Web early '00s blogging. But I don't think we've ever met, and I feel no obligations to read or to praise his books. (Especially not years after they come out...)
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West
Re-read in memoriam. This is a strange but effective fusion of truly ugly action and truly beautiful language. Revisiting after some decades, I can see how it's influenced a lot of other, later books I've read, some for the better, some very much not. (If it weren't for the dates, I'd think Stephen King's The Gunslinger was in the former set.)
Two thoughts: 1. As usual, it's a mistake to identify the opinions of characters --- even ones who are given a lot of room to opine --- with the opinions of the author. In particular, I see a lot of people quoting the judge's speeches as though they were Cormac's views, but the action of the novel makes it clear that the judge is a cunning, deceitful, possibly-inhuman villain! He is not to be trusted! (Reading is hard.) 2. Something about the narration's frequent recourse to the ancient, the primeval, to mysterious forces under the earth, etc., makes me wonder about what Cormac thought of Lovecraft. §
Disclaimer: I knew Cormac through SFI; not well, but well enough to call him Cormac.
Tommie Shelby, The Idea of Prison Abolition
This is a thorough and sympathetic, but ultimately very negative, investigation of case for abolition of prisons, from a view point that tries to meld analytical Marxism with what's come to be called the "black radical tradition" [1]. Much of the argument here proceeds by way of exposition and critique of the prison-abolitionist writings of Angela Davis [2].
Many self-proclaimed prison abolitionists seem to merely be expressing outrage at way we treat crime through hyperbole. But some of them mean it. (Some of them, I suspect, have been swayed by their own hyperbole.) In any event it's a morally serious issue, which deserves to be examined with some care, whatever one might think of some of its advocates. This Shelby does.
Shelby outright dismisses the idea that society might have a legitimate interest in meeting out retribution for crimes [3], but accepts interests in deterrence [4], in rehabilitation, and (I think) in incapacitation. He further explains that consequences for anti-social behavior will only deter if they are, in fact, unpleasant. This does not mean that those consequences need to be horrors, but unless people would rather not experience them, they simply will not work. Even if one wishes to emphasize gentler means that might better serve the aims of rehabilitation and (perhaps) incapacitation, those will need to be back-stopped by some kind of deterrence of those who are neither rehabilitated nor incapacitated.
Shelby tries his best to be fair to Davis's claims that the legitimate social functions of prisons can be better served without imprisonment, but ends up having to admit that there just isn't very much substance to those claims. I honestly doubted whether he was really being fair to Davis here, so at this point read her Are Prisons Obsolete?, and concluded that Shelby was being, in fact, far too generous.
To sum up, Shelby pretty convincingly demolishes the arguments for prison abolition, i.e., for thinking that prisons have no place in just societies. He is very careful to say that none of his arguments imply that current American prisons, or our criminal justice system more generally, are acceptable. §
Disclaimer: I met Shelby years ago at a workshop, where I was impressed by his presentation, and he was generous with his time in offering suggestions on work-then-in-progress. This contributed to my picking up his book.
[1]: Shelby elaborates on his conception of his own "Afro-Analytical Marxism" in this 2021 essay. Like most analytical Marxists, he seems more interested in fairly orthodox historical materialism and political economy --- the sort of topics someone shaped by the Second International, like Kautsky or Trotsky or Luxemburg, would've recognized --- than in the Frankfurt School. (Davis, of course, as Marcuse's student, owes more to Frankfurt.) Thus I think can continuing to view Joseph Heath as the world's leading, because only, rational-choice critical theorist. ^
[2]: Certain episodes in Davis's career go (tactfully?) unmentioned. ^
[3]: The dismissal is forthright, but perhaps a bit hasty. Those who are wronged by others, or their family and friends, will tend to seek retribution from those who have wronged them. In fact they will tend to seek disproportionate and intemperate retribution. Such excessive retribution is both unjust itself, and apt to set of a vicious cycle of feud and revenge. To prevent this, punishment of wrong-doers by the state must include, and be seen to include, reasonable and proportionate retribution. --- To be clear, I'm not saying this is unanswerable, just that I wish Shelby hadn't dismissed retribution so swiftly. ^
[4]: There is a disconcerting possibility about deterrence which Shelby doesn't discuss, but which his arguments do not, so far as I can see, foreclose. This is that punishing people for crimes they didn't commit would have much the same deterrent effect as punishing the guilty, so long as most people thought that they were guilty. Someone has to suffer in order to fulfill the legitimate public function of deterring wrong-doing [5], but it's trickier than I'd like to say why, ethically, it should be criminals who do the suffering. (Of course, the task becomes easier if one believes in retribution.) ^
[5]: Conversely, I could easily make a case for the authorities only convincingly pretending to punish anyone. But such a deception would be very fragile, with bad consequences when it unraveled; perhaps that's enough to rule it out. ^
Bryan Burrough, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence
A journalistic, but very thorough, history of violent left-wing radicals from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. (Right-wing violence during the same period is outside Burrough's scope, but it would make an interesting set of comparison cases.) Many of the figures he discusses --- including Davis! --- also show up in Shelby's book, albeit presented in rather different lights. §
Adolph Reed, Jr., The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives
If you like Reed's essays at nonsite.org (and I usually do), you will enjoy this, and if not, not. The marketing material from the publisher makes it seem vastly more ambitious than it really is, but Reed's introductory remarks make the scope clear. §
Simon Spurrier and Matías Bergara, Coda vols. 1, 2, 3
Comic book mind candy fantasy. Superficially, this is a cynical, post-apocalyptic subversion of the Matter of Middle Earth. In fact, the hard-bitten surface merely conceals a core which actually believes in epic fantasy, both in the content and in the classical form (a trilogy ending in a eucatastrophe). §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Beloved Republic; The Progressive Forces; Philosophy; Commit a Social Science; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Tales of Our Ancestors; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at July 31, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

June 22, 2023

On Shoggothim

Attention conservation notice: Self-promotion of a pay-walled piece which combines a trendy topic with what even I admit is a long-held semi-crank notion.

Henry Farrell and I have an essay in The Economist, riffing off the meme that every large language model is really a shoggoth. Our point is that this is right, because an LLM is a way of taking the vast incohate chaos of written-human-language-as-recorded-on-the-Web and simplifying and abstracting it in potentially useful ways. They are, as Alison Gopnik says, cultural technologies, more analogous to library catalogs than to individual minds. This makes LLMs recent and still-minor members of a larger and older family of monsters which similarly simplify, abstract, and repurpose human minds: the market system, the corporation, the state, even the democratic state. Those are distributed information-processing systems which don't just ingest the products of human intelligence, but actually run on human beings --- a theme I have been sounding for while now.

The piece is paywalled, but Henry has a Twitter thread that provides a good summary, and Brad DeLong has excerpts, along with thoughtful commentary. (I agree with Henry's response to said comments.) Update, 7 July: Henry links to the longer, older version we cut down for The Economist.

Some things we didn't include:

Update, 23 June: Small wording tweaks and additions. More important: insightful and generous commentary from Daniel "\( D^2 \)" Davies. (It's virtually a blogosphere reunion.) Incorporated (sorry) by reference: Beniger, The Control Revolution; Yates, Control through Communication; Ashby, "Design for an Intelligence Amplifier".

(I know I learned that the correct plural of "shoggoth" is "shoggothim" from reading Ruthanna Emrys, but I cannot now locate the passage --- it may just be in her Lovecraft Reread series with Anne Pillsworth.) Update: and indeed it was (tracked down by Henry).

Self-Centered; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Cthulhiana; The Great Transformation

Posted at June 22, 2023 12:45 | permanent link

April 30, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, April 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the biographies of 20th century tyrants, or the impact of the Internet on collective creativity. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Wislawa Szymborska, Poems New and Collected, 1957--1997
Donald Hall, Selected Poems
I observe National Poetry Month by reading poets I really ought to have read already. (I'd seen Szymborska's "A Word on Statistics", of course, IIRC from Thomas Lumley.)
Leigh Bardugo, Hell Bent
Mind candy fantasy / campus novel, in which Yale is literally a gateway to Hell. It's a sequel to Ninth House, and it'll be much more enjoyable if you read that first, but there's enough cluing-in for the new reader that it's probably not necessary. Ends in media res. §
Andrea Fort et al., Songs for the Dead: Afterlife
Mind candy fantasy, comic book flavor. A satisfying conclusion to the story. §
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Yes, I knew the story. No, I had never actually read it before. Yes, it's really good. §
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin, volumes I, Paradoxes of Power, 1878--1928 and II, Waiting for Hitler, 1929--1941
Writing an adequately-contextual biography of Stalin means, for Kotkin, pretty much writing a history of the world, as well as detailing the ups and downs of Ioseb Barionis Jughashvili. I think this is right, and am entranced at how well Kotkin tacks back and forth between different scales. One of the themes those constant changes of scale let Kotkin explore is the tension between large, structural forces or trends --- particularly the imperative pressure on any state that wanted to retain independence to industrialize (cf.) --- and fine-grained and contingent yet consequential facts of friendship and rivalry, of personality, even of sheer accident. (These are very non-Marxist books, which could only have been written by someone who had seriously wrestled with Marxist thought.) I very eagerly await the next volume (or volumes?). §
Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
Reading a 2010 book about the promise of the Internet for cooperation, especially for intellectual collaboration, in 2023 is, well, rather melancholy. Instead of carpooling, we have giant illegal taxi companies; instead of safe couch-surfing, we have giant illegal hotel chains; instead of sharing information about political violence, we have organizing political violence; and instead of sharing information about rare medical conditions, we have created multiple new forms of contagious hysteria.
One conclusion I draw from this is that Shirky was fundamentally right about how the Internet would unleash new forms of collective creativity, but far, far too optimistic about the value of that creativity. ("After all, to any rational mind, the greater part of the history of ideas is a history of freaks.")
The other conclusion --- one I've been tending to for a while --- is that as a teenager, I got caught up in a Utopian milieu, which somehow thought that integrating the Internet, and especially the Web, into civilized life would make things better. I spent my adult life in this environment, it was very good to me (and I daresay to Shirky). But, thirty years later... Well, I often find myself thinking on a passage from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reflecting on another such hangover:
There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning...
And that, I think, was the handle --- that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting --- on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave...
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark --- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.
Shirky was offering a view from the crest of the wave. This one didn't exactly break and roll back; it just left the same old rubbish as before in its wake, only sodden and salt-rimed. This is, perhaps, the best a utopia can hope to achieve. §
Disclaimer: I'd forgotten, until I was almost ready to post this, that back in the Second Age of the Web 2003--2004 Shirky and I were both parties to a discussion involving the exact shape of the degree distribution for weblogs. That dispute is irrelevant to the subject of this book, and has no bearing on my views of it. (For the record: he was wrong about the degree distribution.)

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Writing for Antiquity; The Progressive Forces; Linkage; The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts; Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monsters' Creator; Scientifiction and Fantastica; The Commonwealth of Letters

Posted at April 30, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

March 31, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on African-American political psychology, opinion-survey research, medieval Islamic Indology, or the history of the scientific revolution. Also, most of my reading this month was done while recovering from foot surgery and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm much less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Kel Symons et al., I Love Trouble
Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone, Shade, the Changing Girl
Cullen Bunn et al., Harrow County, vols. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Philippe Thirault et al., Miss: Better Living Through Crime
Kurt Busiek et al., The Autumnlands, vols. 1 and 2
Ryan North et al., The Midas Flesh, vol. 2
Comic-book mind candy, assorted. Autumnlands reminds me a little of Zelazny from the 1960s or 1970s. --- Previously for Midas Flesh; previously for Harrow County.
Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza, Black Pride and Black Prejudice [JSTOR]
The central question here is whether, among African Americans in the greater Chicago area circa 2000, higher levels of racial pride lead to higher levels of prejudice against those not in the race, especially (but not exclusively) against Jews. The authors addressed this through opinion surveys, including some ingenious survey experiments *.
On substantive grounds I have little to say here. What troubles me about this though is that the authors (and their critics) seems content to take few-level ordinal data and run it through linear regression after linear regression, endlessly permuting which variable goes on the left hand side and which ones are on the right. The ideas about validating measurements are hopeless, along the lines of the Zeller and Carmines book which so disappointed me (unsurprisingly, since Sniderman and Carmines collaborated). They are also prone to the fallacy of confusing "this regression coefficient is not statistically significant" with "this relationship is unimportant" **, and they never once look at their residuals to check their a regression specification. To be clear, I have no doubt that the survey was done as well as humanly possible; it's the analysis of the results which drives me nuts.
At some point, I confess, I wanted to make them shut down their statistical software, hand over the data set, and run the whole thing through pcalg myself, using the chi-squared test for conditional independence that works for categorical variables. (This would assume all the systematically-important variables are measured, but then, so do their regressions.) I would then hand them back the inferred graphical causal model, and let them use it to address their substantive questions. (This is of course a fantasy, because pcalg didn't exist --- but not such a fantasy, because TETRAD was a thing in 2002.) The upshot of my fantasy would be a comprehensible, reliably-constructed guess at how all their different variables inter-relate, allowing one to draw real inferences. The way they actually proceeded instead gave them an uninterpretable mush --- or, rather, a mush which demands interpretation rather than supporting calculation. In all this, of course, they are no worse than most quantitative social science. §
*: Reassuringly, including indicator variables for their experimental treatments makes no differences to the coefficients of other variables in their regressions. They do not appear to appreciate that this has to be true if the treatments were successfully randomized (so the treatment indicator is linearly unpredictable from the covariates). This would not be true if the treatment interacted with the covariates, but they never consider interactions anyway. ^
**: To repeat a teaching example: "Imagine hearing what sounds like the noise of an animal in the next room. If the room is small, brightly lit, free of obstructions, and you make a thorough search of it with unimpaired vision and concentration, not finding an animal in it is, in fact, good evidence that there was no animal there to be found. If on the other hand the room is dark, large, full of hiding places, and you make a hurried search while distracted, without your contact lenses and after a few too many drinks, you could easily have missed all sorts of things, and your negative report has little weight as evidence. (In this parable, the difference between a large [coefficient] and a small [coefficient] is the difference between looking for a Siberian tiger and looking for a little black cat.)" ^
Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, Alberuni's India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030 (trans. Edward C. Sachau, 1888; online in two volumes)
Biruni went to India in the wake of the armies of his patron/captor, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, and stayed for a dozen years or so, learning languages, studying the country, and assimilating Hindu learning. This is his attempt at summarizing what he thought was most important about Indian culture for a Muslim audience. It's encyclopedic, sympathetic, admiring, sometimes exasperated, occasionally baffled. I can't find a more recent translation into English, so this one from the 19th century had to do. It's mostly readable, though there are quite a few places where the translator calls for more research and this reprint, naturally, doesn't say whether it's been followed up *. In any event, I found this fascinating. One aspect which particularly struck me is Biruni's concern with convincing the reader that educated Hindus are really monotheists, drawing explicit analogies to Christian veneration of saints, "idols", etc. I think the goal here is to get the reader to not dismiss Indian thought as mere pagan superstition. (But might he be hinting that Hindus are really a People of the Book?) §
*: Sachau does have the odd habit of rendering some of Biruni's Arabic technical and philosophical vocabulary as (English renditions of) Greek words. I found this vexing, because he never explains whether this is because an Arabic term was itself a translation of a Hellenistic original, or whether he just thinks Greek would be more familiar to a Victorian audience, or what. I realize this is me tweaking a 19th century Orientalist scholar for insufficient philological exactitude, and can't wait to find out what form karma will take. ^
David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies
For the most part, this is a very able, even exciting, biography of Galileo, and a defense of him as a scientist and a natural philosopher from criticisms by the likes of Feyerabend. There are, however, one or two passages of truly wild psychoanalysis, so wild I can't begin to say whether Wootton means those bits seriously. So: mostly what I expected from the author of The Invention of Science. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; Islam and Islamic Civilization; The Great Transformation; Commit a Social Science; Enigmas of Chance; The Beloved Republic

Posted at March 31, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

February 28, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, February 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on the economic of socialism (whether actually-existing or hypothetical), political philosophy, the social organization and intellectual development of literary criticism, or participatory democracy in social movements. Also, most of my reading this month was done at odd hours and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Alec Nove, The Economics of Feasible Socialism (1983)
Alec Nove, Political Economy and Soviet Socialism (1979)
Alec Nove, Socialism, Economics and Development (1986)
Alec Nove, Efficiency Criteria for Nationalised Industries (1973)
Alec Nove and J. A. Newth, The Soviet Middle East: A Model for Development? (1967)
Nove was (as these titles might suggest) a British economist, the child of exiled Mensheviks, who made a specialty of studying the Soviet economy, and of advocating market socialism. He's best known for two works: The Economics of Feasible Socialism and An Economic History of the USSR. The former is a personal touchstone which shaped me deeply; the later is merely very good. Looking up something else, I happened to discover that a bunch of his books are now available through our library electronically, so I plunged in.
I'll start with the most important book first. The point of Feasible Socialism is to advocate for, and sketch, a socialist economy "which might be achieved within the lifetime of a child already conceived", i.e., not in some distant post-scarcity future. The first chapter explains why Marxism offers absolutely no useful ideas about how to actually run a socialist economy. (Here Nove summarizes Soviet debates on this matter in the early 1920s --- debates which have been little known since, and so often, in effect, re-run from scratch.) The second chapter looks at the entirely-negative lessons to be drawn from the Soviet experience, and the third at the mostly-negative lessons to be drawn from Cold War-era Hungary, Yugoslavia, Poland and China. The last two chapters lay out Nove's attractive vision of a market socialism, with lots of public provision of many goods, and workplace democracy where sensible and feasible. (He is sound on seeing that there is a tension between democratic control of an enterprise by its workers, and democratic control of that enterprise by the people-as-a-whole.)
On re-reading, I am relieved, chagrined, and exasperated. Relieved, because I still think this book holds up, and has not been visited by the Suck Fairy. Chagrined, because I've written a lot about socialism and planning over the years, some of it well-received, and on examination I have just been channeling a book I first read as a teenager. Exasperated, because we keep having the same conversations about the same bad ideas, without actually being able to retain and build on the better ones, like Nove's. (I have been making this complaint on this blog for nineteen years now.)
Since I have a weird completist tendency, I then proceeded to read the other four books here, since I hadn't read them before, and they were available.
The first two are collections of academic papers and essays; many of them are effectively studies for Feasible Socialism, not always in very obvious ways: Nove account of more-or-less self-inflicted economic crises facing Allende's government in Chile (observed as visiting faculty in Santiago) clearly informs his discussion of the transition to socialism. I also found very interesting his series of papers on the economic thought of the Bolsheviks (from before the revolution through the 1930s), and later Soviet economics of the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., Kantorovich and co. versus traditionalists).
Efficiency Criteria is a plea to think about why one would want a nationalized industry in the first place, as opposed to just regulating and taxing private firms.
The Soviet Middle East looks at economic development efforts in the Caucasus and Central Asia. The emphasis is on flows of money, machinery and trained personnel from the center to these regions. The environmental costs imposed go largely unremarked. That this was a project of imperial domination is on the other hand made very clear.
To sum up: go track down a copy of Feasible Socialism, if that side of what I write interests you at all. The rest of these are now of just-historical interest, though I'm glad I read them. §
Joseph Heath, Cooperation and Social Justice
This is an essay collection, loosely united by the theme that a (functional) society is an on-going system of cooperation, which has implications for what anything we might want to call "social justice" would look like, and how it might be achieved. (Indeed, Heath would say that principles of social justice are principles that help systems of cooperation work better. [Cf.]) This supposed unifying theme is most evident in chapters 1 and 5.
Chapter 1, "On the Scalability of Cooperative Structures", is mostly a response to G. A. Cohen's Why Not Socialism?, patiently pointing out that modes of cooperation which work in a small group of friends on a temporary camping trip do not, in fact, scale up to thousands or millions of people over lifetimes. The logical weakness here is that Heath never really explains why different modes of cooperation have the scales they do.
Chapter 5 is about reasonable accommodation for immigrants: they come to new countries because they want to join that country's system-of-cooperation, so it's reasonable to mostly expect them to conform to its ways, but reasonable accommodations for them are ones which don't, in fact, impair the efficacy of the system. Turned around, this provides Heath with an argument for border control, i.e., limiting who gets to participate in the system of cooperation, in order to keep it going. I'm not sure why this latter argument doesn't allow every city's current residents to restrict who can move there, or indeed any neighborhood. Those are fragmentary systems of cooperation, inter-dependent on larger ones, but so is any national economy.
Chapter 2 argues that the fact that corporations are only supposed to pursue profit doesn't lead them to anti-social behavior; the problem isn't profit, but inadequate regulation, and poor professional ethics. (He knows better than to suppose courses on ethics lead to better behavior.) I sympathize, but don't think he gives enough consideration to (people working for) corporations expending effort to shape regulations in their self-interest.
Chapter 3 is about the importance of status to our social lives, and the dilemmas this creates for egalitarians, since status simply cannot be equalized. Complex societies will have multiple status hierarchies (I once knew someone highly esteemed among his fellow collectors of rare fruit-company banana labels), but it strains credulity to imagine a situation where everyone is at the top of a status hierarchy they find compelling.
Chapter 4 defends stigmatizing bad behaviors, on the grounds that social stigma is actually an important resource people can draw on when attempting self-control. (This idea is briefly touched on, as I recall, in Heath's Enlightenment 2.0.) The question of which behaviors should be stigmatized is left open.
Chapter 6, finally, is about the "dilemmas of US race relations", and our attempts to "achieve Singaporean outcomes using Canadian methods" (p. 299). This is thought-provoking, not least for trying to put our difficulties into comparative perspective. (This chapter is an expanded, more scholarly version of a 2021 essay in a rather odd-seeming little magazine.) On the basis of these arguments, Heath ought to endorse a sort of counterfacctual black nationalism: it'd be a good idea, if only most black people were concentrated in one part of the US where they were numerically predominant, like the Francophones in Quebec.
As my remarks make clear, I didn't come away completely satisfied with Heath's answers or arguments in every case, but I always enjoyed the reading, and found a lot more to chew over than I have time to itemize. §
John Guillory, Professing Criticism: Essays on the Organization of Literary Study
This is a wonderfully rich book, but I will just point to Merve Emre's exposition in lieu of writing my own. It makes me want to read Guillory's Cultural Capital from the 1990s. Thanks to Scott Newstok for recommending this to me. §
Francesca Polletta, Freedom Is an Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements (2002)
The usual knock on participatory democracy is that it doesn't scale to large groups, and becomes increasingly ineffective as the group gets larger. (I have scribbled out thoughts along these lines myself.) Polletta, who sympathizes very obviously and strongly with participatory democracy, especially in its more left-wing * forms, explicitly tries to counter this critique by looking, primarily, at three mid-20th-century movements: pacifists in the 1950s, the SNCC, and SDS. (She's good on the historical inter-connections between her three movements.)
Polletta has extremely astute things to say about the way participants in these movements imagined their relationships to each other, and used those conceptions to help make participation work ** . She makes it absolutely clear that participatory democracy does have heuristic and strategic value. Even more, when it's working, it has moral and morale value; her striking title comes from an SDS members's recollection of what participation meant to her.
Despite all this, Polletta completely fails to undermine the it-doesn't-scale critique. In fact, when both SNCC and SDS did get large, they famously flamed out into utterly dysfunctional wrecks, and Polletta gives honest and insightful accounts of the beginnings of the disintegration in both cases. (She doesn't follow SDS all the way into the LaRouchies and Weather Underground, but she doesn't need to.) The 1950s pacifists, of course, never grew enough to have such problems.
The end of the book covers some contemporary-at-time-of-writing movements: a surviving branch of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Texas, and anarchists around David Graeber (who features as a native informant) who would go on to be key to Occupy. By Polletta's own account, that branch of the IAF seems like a perfectly ordinary class/ethnic political formation, dominated by the group's clergy --- doing good work for its members, but not really a direct or participatory democracy, whatever motions it might go through. As for what became Occupy, again, its career hardly argues for the scalability of participatory democracy.
To sum up, Polletta makes a strong case for the virtues and powers of participatory democracy in small groups bound by strong ties of solidarity. (I am tempted to say: groups which have 'asabiyya.) She also has interesting observations on the forms those ties can take. But beyond the small group, she is, if anything, underlining that the Iron Law of Oligarchy rules ok. §
*: Right-wing political movements of the same vintage (e.g., Young Americans for Freedom) go undiscussed. Maybe none of them aspired to the same sort of internal democracy as SNCC or SDS --- I honestly don't know enough about them to say --- but if any did, they'd make extremely informative contrast cases. ^
**: She's returned to this theme in later work, which I am eager to read. --- If I were smarter, I would try to connect this to John Levi Martin's mysterious-to-me claims about the need for social structures to be comprehensible to their members. ^

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; The Progressive Forces; The Beloved Republic; Commit a Social Science; The Commonwealth of Letters; Philosophy; Afghanistan and Central Asia

Posted at February 28, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

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