Review: The Courage of Hopelessness by Slavoj Zizek

As a philosopher there isn’t much more fun to be had than making further comment on a book by Slavoj Zizek. There is so much to be said. But my task here is a depressing one. In “The Courage of Hopelessness” it is the hopelessness that should be emphasized and Zizek, perhaps the most honest of socio-political and cultural commentators, fails to appreciate the gravity of just what it is that faces the global economy in the next 20-40 years. As usual, my full review of the book (published on Amazon) along with a link to the book itself is included below.

I begin and end with ecological and climate catastrophe, the elephants (yes two) in the room Zizek fails to appreciate. Of course he mentions them. He doesn’t much distinguish between them, adding them to the list of stressors on the global milieu. They are related but different. Ecological catastrophe refers to the collapse (partial or full) of the life web that sustains the higher animals like us. Ecology is changed and stressed by climate change (warming of the oceans) but the ecological catastrophe of interest here is also caused by pollutants dumped mainly in ways that get into the oceans and fresh water systems. Climate change adjusts eco-systems but mostly it extinguishes them only locally. Add human-caused pollution (solids, metals, radioactive, chemical, plastics) and what remains of a sustainable wider ecology can be put in jeopardy.

Mostly this commentary will be about climate change because the effects of it come on a little faster than does a broad ecological collapse. There is no escaping their dual inevitability to one degree or another. But the economic impact of climate change alone will be enough to sink the entire Western economic system. Zizek does not talk about this, yet it hovers over everything.  In this 2017 article (Science News) the real truth is revealed: “Even if humans could instantly turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gases, the Earth would continue to heat up about two more degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century…” In case you are wondering, this isn’t a recent discovery as this article from 1912 illustrates.

Our present ability to feed eight billion humans on Earth is utterly dependent on modern industry and transport. If we could “turn off all our emissions of greenhouse gasses” immediately five or six of the eight billion souls on Earth would die of disease and starvation within a year or two. Really it has been “too late” since the 1950s at latest. Had we fully converted all of our energy use to so-called renewable sources 75 years ago we’d have had a chance of genuinely forestalling the disaster; of affording it. Of course the technology wasn’t in place back in those days and now it is too late. See note below on the carbon cost of “renewable energy”.

The bottom line is that this economic doom faces us no matter who wins the next elections anywhere in the world or even if tomorrow we were all to wake up in the utopian true “universal (world) communism” that Zizek envisions! Climate-related-catastrophe is inevitable. Billions are going to die world wide, and billions more displaced. Our present global civilization (such as it is) is doomed. There are only a few issues yet to be settled. Will we try to spread the disaster out over the next seventy-five years or are we going to precipitate it in the next ten or twenty? If the disaster is now inevitable, what exactly will it look like? Will any mitigating efforts we make in the next human generation (twenty-five years) make any difference at all? In brief, some of my thoughts on these questions follows.

Let me be clear about this. When I say climate disaster dooms us I am not speaking of an extinction event. Human beings will survive albeit in much smaller numbers. The ecological disaster might bring us closer to extinction but that will happen long after climate change has already broken the system. Make no mistake though, while not an extinction event, climate change alone will be the end of our modern, industrial, technological, long distance, service oriented civilization. Eventually we will return to a lifestyle in which most people are once again farmers and these will be scattered into the smaller areas still conducive to growing food.

Countries that are poorer now will suffer sooner because they cannot afford the price of mitigating what is already happening. Crops and water resources will fail. Eventually even the rest of the world will be unable to generate the surplus food needed to feed starving millions. Refugees will flood out of the poorest areas first, putting more economic pressure on everyone else. But the worst case might be the broader Indian sub-continent now Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. In only a few more decades the Himalayan glaciers will be gone and a billion people will lack for water!  Food production will shrink everywhere (Canada and northern Russia perhaps exceptions). North America may be one of the lucky regions able to feed itself, but even this will not be easy.

In the rich countries the disaster will take a different turn, it will be first economic because at this time these countries are spending what capital they have doing exactly the sort of mitigation the poorer nations are unable to afford. America’s deficit is in the trillion dollar range. Already weather-disaster-related mitigation consumes some $50-$100 billion/year and that to rebuild $300 billion in losses that pile up more quickly from year to year. Eventually the number and destructiveness of extreme weather events will be beyond affording. Economic activity will begin to shut down because so much of the necessary infrastructure becomes unusable as we cannot afford to fix it quickly enough. Even if the United States financial system is not broken immediately by China calling in our debt, it will become impossible to afford not only disaster mitigation, but eventually, and as a result of the effects on infrastructure, the cost of transporting food, fuel, and products from one part of the continent to another.

Once this happens the nation will regionalize. The writ of the State will begin to break down. Even today, most of the “States” of the U.S. live on the Federal dole spending more than they take in on their own. The net effect will be a cascading collapse of the economy nation wide. Even the few “rich States” will grow much less rich as the cost of everything from food and transportation to clothing become prohibitive. The annual reconstruction cost each year already exceeds the capacity of the nation (private and federal) to cover it in one year! To add insult to injury, mitigating the immediate effects of these disasters releases even more carbon! Those helicopters don’t run on batteries!

Moving my focus temporarily, I get to the relation between this “elephant in the room” and the rest of Zizek’s incisive observations. On identity politics for example he is surely correct about its diffusing what little energy there is to be put into the left’s genuine “universal emancipatory project”. Some time ago I reviewed the book “Attack of the 50 foot women” by Cathrine Mayer 2017. Ms. Mayer is a crusader for women’s rights. In her book she notes that the rise of “identity politics” steals energy from the larger project of women’s rights more broadly. Why? Because an LGBT+ person who identifies as a woman puts more energy into “trans-rights” specifically than women’s rights in general. Zizek notes this also but in the broader context of labor (male, female, LGBT+ or what have you) versus the capitalist elite which is, for him, still the main problem (even besides climate change and eco-collapse) in the world politically, socially, and economically.

Is Zizek right about this theft of social energy? I believe he is, and he well notes that the capitalists themselves are happy to support LGBT+ movements for two reasons. First because they are happy to sell their products to anyone who can buy them, and happy to have productive labor no matter the sexual identification of the laborer. More significantly, the capitalists are aware that by doing this they contribute to the diffusion of social and political energy away from the more basic issue of capitalism’s unfairness. The left is the party of cultural tolerance (though some tolerance, for example honor killings, goes too far Zizek admits) and in this they find themselves, ironically, aligned with the capitalists! It is this present focus on identity politics that has eviscerated the new-left. He is right about this also. So where does he go wrong?

The main problem is human selfishness, greed, violent propensities, fear of “the neighbor”, and so on. As noted below in my review, Zizek criticizes three proposals to “fix capitalism” on the grounds that each requires a fundamental change in the nature of human beings. The problem is the same is true as concerns his “opening for the left” permitting a return to their broader project of setting right the disparity between capital and labor. When opportunities arise from the sudden breakdown of some existing political, social, or economic order (from Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1934 to the Arab Spring of the 21st Century, there are dozens of examples [most of Africa, Pol Pot] from the 20th Century alone) it is extremely rare (the American experiment being among the few and that in an unusually philosophical time) that a fairer system emerges.

To create something fairer than what preceded the defunct old-guard requires the cooperation of many individual power-centers with competing agendas. To create an autocratic system (or outright dictatorship) requires only that one power-center is well armed and vicious enough to justify its ends by any means. In contrast to Zizek’s claim that “the system cannot be fixed by tinkering” one could well point at England. The English system of political and social pluralism evolved by tinkering; six hundred years of tinkering from the Magna Carta in the 13th century to the Glorious Revolution in the 17th to its almost-modern plurality in the 19th. There was a civil war and a dictatorship in between there too, but the English aristocracy (the only ones with a “vote” at the time) didn’t break the system rather chosing a new King, one who would, at aristocratic behest, put them on the road to a wider plurality, namely themselves. It was tinkering.

This brings us back to the elephant in the room. we haven’t got six hundred years. Climate change will break us economically long before that. It will become economically exhausting! So what is to be done? If we do nothing, if the present economic elite is allowed merely to go on as they have the extreme right, Nazism, will once again win out, perhaps not throughout the world but almost certainly in the United States. Why? Because politically a significant percentage of the population already leans in that direction and that segment happens to be the best armed. They are the most vicious and xenophobic. They will not hesitate to kill (more and more as groups and not merely individuals as happens now) to have their way. As social and economic breakdown accelerates political paralysis will follow.

The army will be the only force standing opposed to the armed right, but that too could be under the control of a right wing xenophobic government (refugee mobs will by that time be pressuring borders all over the world). The government might simply use the right to do its bidding in a way analogous to what Chavez in Venezuela (albeit from the left) did with his Bolivarian Militia

Even if the U.S. government is not right-wing, eventually they will be unable to pay the army. Given the army, along with the population, is split along tolerant/intolerant lines, the combination of the intolerant army elements and the existing armed right will easily defeat the tolerant remainder.

What becomes important then is not right versus left or even capitalism versus everyone else, but cultural tolerance (capitalist and neo-left) verses intolerance (xenophobic and racist right)! What must be done, now, by the left, is opposite to what Zizek recommends. The left must strengthen the natural [tolerant] alliance between themselves and the capitalists. Both can agree that within limits (no honor killings) cultural diversity is worth having. The capitalist elite need not become unselfish, only a little less greedy. The left has to acknowledge that corporations (see Phillip Bobbitt “The Shield of Achilles”) will become the core of the State (such State as will remain) as anything more than a minimal over-arching administration under corporate control will be too expensive to maintain. Meanwhile, the capitalists must become only a little less greedy. A larger percentage of what would otherwise be aggrandized profit will needs be returned to labor or everyone will starve and no one will remain to produce or buy anything, even locally!

By contrast, if Zizek gets what he wants, an immediate collapse of capitalism, the economic disaster will occur immediately. This will not stave off climate disaster merely because industry more or less ceases. Instead, as the effects of the collapse gain momentum regional and local communities will be thrown back on whatever resources they command to produce energy, transport what little they have and so on. There may not be as much industry in real terms but what industry there is will become dirtier again as no one will be able to afford pollution mitigation. Our air and water will be poisoned even more quickly than they are being poisoned now.

The ecological collapse will be accelerated (who is going to protect nuclear waste?), and this by the [formerly] rich countries! Moreover, our (rich nation) capacity to even partly rebuild from climate events will cease now instead of twenty or fifty years from now precipitating an even more rapid social disintegration. There is no left-wing anywhere in the world prepared to take advantage of this except of course China. But in the U.S. it will be the armed right that will dominate. The United States could well become the post-apocalyptic nightmare envisioned in so many novels and films.

I perhaps am getting out into left field here, but what Zizek should recommend (has he read Bobbitt? He doesn’t mention him, could he bring himself to contemplate this?) is that the present left take the lesser “worst choice” and align with capitalism! The old left’s “emancipatory project” is doomed one way or another because climate change will render the change-over economically impossible or to put it another way, in the time we have left, corporate capitalism is the only standing system that can, starting now, organize and move resources (while we can still afford to move them) to mitigate individual disasters as they arise. By that I do not mean forestall the climate-precipitated economic disaster, now impossible. What I intend is to ensure the largest possible population survives to come out at the other end however long that takes. This move is already taking place in the U.S. as more and more of what used to be functions of the political State are privatized and spun off to corporations.

Existing corporations also, of course, will be mostly wiped out. No matter what we do many millions will die even in rich countries. The question is will it be millions or tens of millions!? Trade and economic activity generally, especially energy use will shrink geographically, roughly to where it was in 1800. The corporate-capitalist mechanism can [possibly] survive and provide what possible writ of law can exist in that future time. Corporations are, if nothing else, supremely good at resource organization. They can bring whatever resources remain to bear on the problem of climate disaster mitigation.

There is no guarantee that a universal left, even were it to emerge and fully consolidate itself in time (there are not many decades remaining) will focus itself on survival for as many as possible rather than (as is more likely) the survival of a small vicious elite. Corporations have motive that politics by itself has not. Capitalism requires a sufficient number of labor and especially consumers, the more the better. The “rich elite” cannot get or stay rich unless there are people making them the money.

I hadn’t intended this commentary to rest so heavily on climate change, but there isn’t much else to critique about Zizek’s book. As always his social and cultural commentary (occupying 75% of the book) is beyond reproach. The problem is, and this has been his problem in the last few socially-focused books, he treats climate change as merely one more stressor on the system overall. It is that today, only one more stressor. But this one will grow steadily now until it overwhelms all the others, or perhaps triggers them (xenophobia to nationalism to war to nuclear war) instantly collapsing the entire world edifice and killing almost everybody!

Other books I’ve reviewed by Slavoj Zizek

Less Than Nothing

Living in End Times

Trouble in Paradise

Refugees, Terror and Other Trouble with the Neighbors

[note: carbon cost of renewables] What does it take to make efficient solar panels, build a wind farm, drill for geothermal heat, or construct a gigantic solar farm in the desert? It takes mining and processing of rare earths, ships to transport it all, trucks to construct, and new electric grids (yet to be built) to replace the inefficient ones we have today. All of this new infrastructure then needs maintaining indefinitely. That too requires energy, carbon. Electric vehicles are only a partial answer. Those batteries powering modern electric cars, they have a carbon cost in manufacture and they don’t last forever. Sure we can recycle 90% of their components, but that too requires enormous amounts of energy both to transport and recycle the materials. What the batteries save us is only a fraction of the estimates given by our news outlets and industry pundits.

Zizek Courage of Hopelessness

In the last few years Slavoj Zizek has written the same book several times. He gives us the same argument backed up with different stories. The argument is (1) global capitalism is leading us down a road to disaster of many sorts, (2) the problem cannot be fixed ultimately by tweaking the existing system, but only (3) by destroying it utterly can something better (hopefully) emerge in its place. With each iteration of the argument (a new book every year or two) Zizek has plenty of new material ripped from the headlines upon which to comment. This book, written in 2017 has the fait accompli of Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and all the hysteria surrounding it. Thanks to how polarized our politics has become (and not merely in the left vs right sense) his task in this book is perhaps made a little easier. To put it another way, the more extreme things become, the easier it is for him to make his points, or to put it yet another way, the easier it is for us to grasp them.

The book begins with an examination of capitalism and three proposals (roughly economic, political, and social) to fix it. He points out that each of these three ideas fails for the same reason. All depend on human beings becoming better than they are now, for example that they become genuinely caring of “the neighbor” or lose the greed that characterizes the capitalist and many others as well. Zizek is, of course, correct in identifying this problem but he also admits (and states) that after all these things (selfishness, violence, and so on) have been problems for humanity long before capitalism existed. This then becomes the problem he never quite addresses. No matter how capitalism is adjusted or replaced the human problem will remain and the potential (even likely) consequences of this are dire. He should know that almost better than everyone.

Following the opening chapter there ensues a long (most of the book) digression into the modern social, political, and economic problem illustrated with news ripped from recent headlines. Refugees, sexual consent culture, identity politics, eco-disaster, fault lines on the political right (religious fundamentalism and social/sexual intolerance verses racism, xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, and so on) and on the left the complete abandonment of the “universal emancipatory project” in favor of political correctness and identity politics supported and welcomed by global capitalism itself! There is no better and more insightful social commentator today and no one, I mean no one, skewers political correctness quite like Zizek.

Throughout all of this commentary we get the usual Hegelian reversals. Nothing is quite as it seems. If one observation is prescient, something can usually be made of its obverse and this too gives us insight into the real situation. Zizek is a master at this (not to mention that third thing that stands for the difference between the first two and has a life of its own) and he delivers on it page after page. All the usual characters are present, Hegel, Marx, Freud, Lacan, and savy political, economic, and social movers and shakers (of the political right and left) present both in and out of our headlines. I do not know how Zizek has the time to find and collate all of this material between books written only a few years apart, but that is why he is the master!

Not until the penultimate chapter does Zizek fully return to the political sphere and lay out his program. Why did he favor Trump? Not because he likes him (his palpable dislike of Hillary Clinton is also on display) but because Trump will break everything opening up the space for the left to return to its “universal emancipatory project”, while Clinton would merely be tinkering around the edges as we slide complacently toward disaster. Zizek is here rather disingenuous, and for this reason I give him four and not five stars. Imagine you are a young person who would, under normal circumstances, live another forty or fifty years. But you have an incurable disease that will kill you in the next five to ten years. The best medical science can do is give you a normal life for that time in the hope that a cure can be found. Along comes Dr. Zizek who offers you the possibility of a full and immediate cure. If you take the medicine you will be either fully cured or you will die in moments and further, the probability of immediate death is 90%.

No one should know better than Zizek that when a social, political, or economic system (and all three are intertwined) is dismantled too quickly, there is a 90% chance that what follows from it is far worse for most than what went before. In one of his earlier books he admits as much. In this one, he mostly fails to mention it. Capitalism as an economic theory is not the problem. The problem is today’s capitalism given the nature of human selfishness. But the problem of selfishness remains no matter what one does with present socio-political and economic foundations (and the ecological catastrophe is inevitable no matter who wins elections), and that means the outcome of breaking the system will likely be very bad for almost everyone. Zizek offers us the 10% chance of a cure and the 90% chance of death; not only soon enough but immediately! I’m not sure I want to take that bet.

Review: The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

 

I publish this review without further commentary as it is already long and covers all the bases. This review was published in July 2015. I will say that this book fits in with a number of books recently read and reviewed broadly on the subject of “the world order”, and I link those reviews here. Among this set, Bobbitt’s books stands out because he is the only one to suggest what specifically “comes next”, namely “the corporate State” in various forms.

Richard Haass “The World in Disarray”

Henry Kissinger “The World Order”

Francis Fukuyama “The Origins of Political Order” and “Political Order and Political Decay”

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson: “Why Nations Fail”

Slavoj Zizek Various books all linked here

The Shield of Achilles by Philip Bobbitt

This rather long book seems to have been written with multiple goals in mind. First the author wants to connect up evolving military technology, guns and particularly artillery, with the political evolution of states from the renaissance in Italy to modern times. In particular, evolving technology and the tactics that deployed it, fostered certain directions in political evolution primarily for the purposes of being able to afford and utilize the new technology. In between the major wars were peace settlements that ratified and solidified the evolving political forms mostly of the victors. His focus is on this evolution in Europe, but as he approaches modern times he does more and more apply his insights to an interconnected world.

The book is divided into three books. Book I focuses on the link between military history and the evolution of the modern state beginning with the French invasion of Italy in 1494. In book II the primary focus is on the nature of the peace settlements that evolved from the over-arching conflicts of various periods. In book III he sets out to describe in some detail the newest (post 20th century) form of the evolving state.

Beginning with the “princely states” of Italy, the political forms evolved over 5 centuries into “kingly states”, “territorial states”, “state-nations”, “nation-states”, and today, following the “long war” that Bobbitt describes as encompassing most of the 20th century from World War I to the end of the cold war in 1990 (with the collapse of the Soviet Union) the evolution of yet a new form, the “market-state”. In all of this description (taken up in book I). Book II reprises all of this ground, but this time focusing on the peace agreements between the great-war periods and how those agreements reflected the relations (what today we call “international law”) between the newly evolved and evolving political forms of states. Bobbitt gets into quite a bit of detail here (he is a law scholar after all) even to describing the philosophies (in a broad sense) of some of the prominant jurists (or political philosophers) of each period always focusing on how these philosophical beacons interpreted the peace agreements for specific problems emerging between states during the inter-war periods. It is one thing to establish a treaty that provides for general guidelines of behavior. It is another to interpret those guidelines as they apply to specific situations, and then yet another, even after an interpretation is broadly accepted, for evolving polities to act or chose not to act at all. Bobbitt chooses from among the luminaries examples who are both apologists for the newly evolving forms of state, and also a few polemicists. Much of this description evaluates various interpretations of what “international law” consists as compared to law as understood within the boundaries of the state.

As a descriptive work it is an excellent and well balanced read. Bobbitt is sensitive to the fact that thoughout history the political model did not evolve at an equal pace throughout Europe never mind the rest of the world. Some state forms in some locations resisted further evolutionary pressures for some time. In certain places such resistance made sense given what the earlier form encompassed geographically and ethnically, but in every case, eventually and usually by war or more technically the peace settlement after the war these entities either evolved or were broken up into geographic chunks more condusive to that evolution. Bobbitt is also very sensitive to the fact that the way this evolution did work out is not the only way it might have worked out, and this is true of both the nature of the world’s political forms as well as of present interpretations of the relations between entities internationally. I applaud him here for his balance in all of this descriptive work. He takes no interest in how things might otherwise have been, but beginning now, that is at the end of the “long war” from 1914-1990 he does seem to relish his projection of what he takes to be the newest form of large-scale polity, the “market-state”.

As above with his recognition that history might have been otherwise, his explication of the newest turn in the political screw, the evolution of the market-state (the focus of part III), is balanced by a recognition that things might go otherwise but his argument is otherwise persuasive at least as concerns broad brush strokes. As with his historical explication he is more concerned with relations between states than what is internal to the state itself, but he needs (and does) to describe something of the internal as this form is not yet as familiar as the others. He is writing in 2002, 12 years after the end of the cold war. Some of his shorter term projections as concerns the relations between states are down right prescient, while others seem entirely fanciful. Some of his prose in this section seems written almost tongue-in-cheek. But nothing that has happened in the intervening 13 years invalidates his overall vision. As in the previous 5 centuries, the broad outlines of large-scale evolution only become visible over several generations at a minimum. In between there is much room for unanticipated variation even retrogression and Bobbitt knows this well.

But Bobbitt does come off a little intoxicated by what he takes to be the next turn of the political wheel. He describes the over-all demands that will be made by and impinge upon the new “market-state” including some issues that now belong to the global community. Some of these are unique (global environmental issues and weapons of mass destruction in particular nuclear weapons to take two examples) to the modern period because they simply did not exist in the past. The particular problems that emerged between states of the prior period made no mention of genuinely “global issues” because there weren’t any. There weren’t enough people to cause genuinely global environmental issues and communications and transport technology had not yet begun to build serious economic or military dependencies that ran around the entire planet. I have to applaud the author for recognizing that the newly evolving market states are internally more inconsistent than the nation-state they are beginning to replace. He distinguishes three broad forms of market-states, the entrepenurial, the mercantile, and the managerial. The first two are genuinely novel and as such are subject to potentially more radical social disconnections than the third which is much more an amalgamation of the old and new forms, but that very blending causes (or rather is projected to have) inconsistencies of its own. The raison d’etre of the nation-state is the welfare of its citizens taken broadly (I presume) to mean that everyone who makes any effort to participate in the economy and politics of the state gains enough thereby to live something of a healthy and self-determined life. Of course even among the late 20th century society of nation-states some have succeeded at this more than others, but at least the rationale has some metaphysical basis in that individuals having self-interests are real entities. By contrast, markets are oblivious to the cares of individuals except in-so-far as enough of them succeed economically to be consumers and producers and so keep the markets functioning. Bobbitt is aware that given any of the market-state forms (except the managerial whose own internal inconsistencies stem from raised transaction costs imposed on its own market entities) some individuals will be big economic winners while many more will be net losers. Today, 13 years after writing this book, his vision here seems to be among the more prescient. As with the first two parts of the book, Bobbitt tries hard to maintain his balance. He calls [future] history as he sees it evolving and makes no attempt to be either apologist or polemicist.

Turning back to the society of states (ever his theme here) Bobbitt sees no end to conflict (war) of one kind or another. It is not his task in this book to suggest how this might be otherwise, only in this case how it might be channeled into hotter or colder forms. Inherently international markets, even cut-throat markets, function best when the social collectives that are their producers and consumers are not hurling bullets at one another. As such market-states have a greater incentive to keep conflicts between states cooler rather than hotter and this might be helpful globally even if from a perspective internal to any one state many of its citizens are worse off than they were under the older form of nation-state.

All in all a good explication tying military history (particularly European) and international relations together through the peace agreements (and the ways they were interpreted) that intervened between the cycles of political evolution.

Review: Why Nations Fail

Picture of me blowing smoke

I’m developing something of a sub-section on social, political, and economic philosophy…

I said in the review (reproduced below) that the theory of this book very much compliments that of Francis Fukuyama also reviewed here. There are other books in this arena as well, one by Phillip Bobbitt and one by Henry Kissenger. Each of these books has something to contribute to the same subject, roughly the history of nations on Earth. What I didn’t say in the review is reflected in an early marginal note that appears in this book. I wrote that this theory of Acemoglu and Robinson, given their introduction of it, seemed “trivially true”. What I meant was that given equality of other things, a nation whose political and economic institutions were more pluralistic would, on the whole, do better economically than one whose institutions were less pluralistic. I think the authors mount a powerful argument for the theory. I think they are right. But I still think that on the whole the theory is but trivially true.

To begin, the authors examine and reject a few other theories purporting to explain why some nations are wealthy and others not so wealthy. In particular the “cultural” and the “geographic” theories are of interest here. The authors very much emphasize that the institutions of which they speak emerge through history. The process can and has taken hundreds of years in some cases and the results have always been contingent meaning that only a small difference here or there might have blocked such evolution (as it has in much of the world) or reversed it even once begun (something that has also happened). The authors emphasize that small differences between institutions in different states are magnified by “critical junctures”, events like the Black Death, the discovery of the Americas, or the invention of movable-type printing.

The authors trace these differences and how different nations (in 1600 all “extractive” as the authors term it) responded politically and economically. These responses are all broadly social, and the social fault lines are reflected by culture and in turn rest on geography. In England the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. It gave the nobility a little say over what the King did, but it was hardly inclusive politically as we would understand that today. The plague followed in 1348, 133 years later and shifted things a bit more by pure chance. A greater percentage of English nobility was wiped out than was the case for example in France, Spain, or Eastern Europe.

Four hundred and seventy three years intervened between the Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution (1688), almost nineteen human generations. The book covers much more of the intervening details for example the War of the Roses, the Cromwell experience, and the installation of William of Orange. This history is what set the culture of England and insured that the English response to events would be different from that of France or Spain.

Cultural differences are social and subject to contingent social forces. The only thing contingent about geography (used broadly and into which I am folding climate and mineral resources) is which nation ends up with which territory.  Rwanda, Burundi, and Ethiopia grow delicious coffee, among the world’s best. Their coffee growing potential has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with where they are situated in the world. But none of the three have any coast. To ship their coffee to world markets each must pay transit fees to other nations in order to reach some port. If Ethiopian coffee farmers are to reap the same economic benefit as say producers in Guatemala who also grow superb coffee and do have access to a coast, Ethiopian coffee must sell for a higher price than Guatemalan coffee. Even if Ethiopian and Guatemalan economic institutions were equally inclusive (or extractive) Ethiopian farmers cannot get the same price for their coffee if they (or their elites) want to compete (and so sell for the same price) with Guatemalan farmers.

To wrap it up, nations with pluralistic institutions generally become wealthier than those without and the historical path from extractive to inclusive institutions is contingent. But among the contingencies are the culture as it evolved through many generations, and the location of the nation on Earth which limits, magnifies, or otherwise impacts the cultural contingencies and the possible wealth that might be generated under different institutions.

In my Amazon review (below) I bring up the “other end” of the whole process, something that is not the author’s concern. They are interested in why nations are wealthy (or not) now, and not what happens when even inclusive institutions go on too long. They do note that when new groups become wealthy under inclusive institutions, these become “new elites” and begin to work, politically, to constrain future inclusiveness so as to lock in their new privilege.

In the present day, such behavior in the Western and more inclusive nations has resulted in something of an equilibrium between forces, but at any given time one or the other can be ascendant. It is clear from the flattening of U.S. wages and the increase in wealth inequality since the 1970s that since that time, the push back towards exclusivity is gaining ground; an observation the authors seem to deliberately avoid making.

Why Nations Fail By Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson 2012

When I stumbled on this book I wondered how it would compare to the work of Francis Fukuyama in “Political Order and Political Decay” also reviewed. As it turns out the two works are entirely complimentary, the work of Acemoglu and Robinson riding on top of Fukuyama’s. Like Fukuyama, the author’s here recognize that a prerequisite to the political and economic orders that evolve in modern rich nations as compared to poor ones is a State, with writ over its whole territory, capable of enforcing property rights (whether they do so initially or not) and a relatively broad base of economic interests not tied solely to the land. Another prerequisite for both is the eventual evolution of a polity supporting “rule of law” which is not the same as “rule by law”. The difference is that in the former, everyone (in theory) comes under the law while in the latter the elite typically do not. This prerequisite is, in general, a consequence of the broad based economic coalition.

What begins to drive such nations is a feedback the authors call inclusive institutions, a “virtuous circle” leading to yet broader, more pluralistic political institutions and economic institutions characterized by lowered economic barriers, technological innovation, and competition that drives a broad-based increase in wealth. The authors emphasize that a virtuous evolution is not foreordained. There are always forces working to try and coerce political and economic institutions into an extractive mode in which both political and economic institutions are organized for the benefit of a few. This is, in fact, what was the case over the whole world in 1600 and has remained the case in most of the world. Though specific institutions in these countries (Russia, most of South America) have changed many times, they remain extractive and this tendency, the tendency of elites to preserve their status at the expense of everyone else the authors call a “viscous circle”.

Many nations today labor without even the prerequisite of a State writ. Such nations cannot possibly develop inclusive institutions of any kind. But even extractive institutions can grow an economy if the State writ is present and there are resources in demand by the rest of the world. Extractive societies can grow relative wealth, for example Saudi Arabia, but the authors argue (citing case after case, exploring many individual national histories) that there are severe limits to that sort of growth. Like Fukuyama these authors also recognize that even among the most inclusive nations today (mainly Western Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and a few others with but one, Botswana, in Africa) are not immune from sliding backwards, particularly as concerns economics, into more extractive forms. Fukuyama, explores how this backsliding happens at the political level, while in this book, aside from the recognition that this can happen, such backsliding in the present is not specifically addressed.

This is well written and richly detailed exploration of political and economic institutions throughout the world. No continent (save Antarctica) is ignored. Acemoglu and Robinson make a fine case, and because the actual history of nations sets these outcomes much depends on how small initial differences are magnified by events out of anyone’s control (the Plague in Europe, the discovery of the Americas, the colonial grab for Africa) they recognize the limitations of their theory as well. The historical path taken by every nation or quasi-nation is unique. Emerging into the modern period there are endless variations. China is unusual in that economic institutions appear to be liberalizing while political institutions remain purely extractive. The difference, also the case in Russia, is that the State is compelled to find some solution to competition on the world stage. Chinese and Russian economic institutions remain broadly extractive and their growth will not continue for long.

The author’s point here is well made and well established. They do not, alas, address the gorilla in the room. Even if all the world’s nations were as inclusive as the wealthiest of today’s States, there are limits to growth. One problem with open-ended competition on a level playing field is that greater wealth ultimately comes down to greater resource utilization. There is only so much to go around. But this is not their problem. The goal here is to argue the case for wealth associated with both political and economic inclusiveness. I cannot find any weakness in that argument broadly conceived as the authors portray it.

The Difference between Erotica and Pornography

From the dictionary.

Erotica: Literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire

Pornography: Printed or visual material containing the explicit description or display of … activity intended to stimulate erotic rather than aesthetic or emotional feelings.

On various social media platforms I am in touch with writers, many of them, and a not insignificant portion of them (mostly women) write what they call “erotica”. I’ve read a smattering of these books, and what I have found was erotic certainly, but also pornographic. I do not mind pornography though like all other art I think there are better and worse examples of it. I thought it would be interesting to set down what I take to be the difference between the two. Perhaps some interesting discussion will ensue.

There are, of course, many sorts of both erotica and porn divided largely along the lines of who the characters are. I happen to be heterosexual and so my focus throughout will be books of that sort, but there is also some great lesbian erotica (and porn) with which I am familiar, and also male homosexual erotica (and porn) with which I am not. There must be, I assume bisexual, and transsexual variations to be found. The distinction between erotica and porn set out below applies equally to all of these.

Erotica is the broader term. “Erotic literature” is literature in which the story revolves mostly around the characters having sex. This is a general rule, but there are exceptions. Fifty Shades of Grey has a lot of sex in it, but the story is about much more than the characters merely having sex. It is still at least an “erotic novel” because there is enough sex in the tale, the main character dynamics revolve around it, to make it so. Also, like one of my recommendations below, its descriptions here and there touch the pornographic. There are grey areas (no pun intended) in the genre.

Pornographic literature (some would say porn is not literature but I would beg to disagree), like erotica, is mostly about sex. Unlike many stories that qualify as erotic however, pornography is almost always mostly about sex. Sex acts between the characters dominate the story. But what really distinguishes porn from the broader erotica is that the mechanics of the sex act are explicitly described.

In the better pornography I’ve read, the first few sex acts are described in considerable detail, while the description of later acts is shortened up. There is less detail, but also back references (there are various literary approaches to this) to the prior more detailed description with the link between them left to the reader’s imagination. This prevents the reader from getting bored. There are of course many variations in the sex act, but by in large they usually come down to the same core. Literally describing that same core over and over quickly becomes redundant.

That my friends is, in my view, the sum and substance of it. I’ve read many of both types of books, but I will leave you with a few recommendations. On the erotica side “The Education of Don Juan” by Robin Hardy is the greatest purely erotic novel, not pornographic, I’ve ever read. Every part of the story is tuned to sex, but the acts, though very stimulating, are never explicitly described. A close second is not strictly a novel but an autobiography of one very sex-filled year in the life of Anias Ninn. “Henry and June”, pushes the envelope a bit but only here and there briefly, sometimes a single explicit sentence, touches the pornographic.

On the pornographic side, I think much of the better literature was written in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” (John Cleland), known also as “Fanny Hill” was written in the middle of the 18th century and is considered the first great English pornographic novel. But the best, in my opinion, is “The Black Pearl” by Anonymous (not the other one by Scott O’Dell).

Written in the late 19th or early 20th centuries (its real provenance difficult to determine) it follows many characters who in the beginning have sex (the women) with the main protagonist (Horby, a man) and then go off on adventures all over Europe reporting back to the protagonist on their exploits via letters. Horby of course has his own adventures as well and there is a raft of other characters who were famous artists, play-writes, and others of the English upper classes in the 1880s and 90s. The description of these characters by the protagonist (the story is told in first person) suggests that he was in fact a real person of substance and knew these people intimately.

My favorite line in all pornographic literature comes from this book. One of the women finds herself embroiled in a Satanic cult. Having described (in a letter) in luscious but shortened detail her liaison with the cult’s high priest (witnessed by a circle of initiates, and in which she is a willing participant), she makes perhaps the most pragmatic assessment of Satanism I have ever seen: “Oh Horby!” she declares “This Satanism is just fucking with frills!”

I suppose now you want a few examples? Here are two

Erotica: Clothes shed they embrace. Falling on the mattress, entangled in one another’s bodies, he enters her…

Pornography: … entangled in one another’s bodies the tip of his tumescent gourd finds the moist outer petals of her flower and buries itself to the root in her soaking wet volcanic channel…

You get the idea?

This all leaves me with one further question. Why do women seem, at least in this time of global social media, to be more often successful authors of erotica and pornography than men? But I take leave to address it another time.

Adventures In Quantumland by Ruth Kastner: commentary and review

Picture of me blowing smoke

Ruth Kastner has made another effort to explain the “transactional theory of quantum mechanics”. My Amazon review of this excellent book is included below with a link to her text. In this commentary I address one technical aspect (or consequence) of the theory and separately her more speculative ideas in chapters 6 and 7 (both mentioned in the review). Her first attempt at explaining her ideas to a lay readership, the book “Understanding our Unseen Reality” 2015 is reviewed here.

The technical issue is I hope straight forward. In Dr. Kastner’s scheme, energy is not transferred, nor a spacetime event realized until a virtual or “incipient transaction” becomes a “real transaction”. Incipient transactions happen between any potential emitter of some quantum of energy, and all the possible absorbers of that quantum (the atoms that could absorb it) throughout the universe! They happen outside of spacetime and so their instantaneous virtual interaction throughout the universe is not at issue here.

What is at issue is that as I read her, no real transaction can begin until one of the emitter (offer wave) absorber (confirmation wave) pairs is promoted to a real transaction. A photon cannot be emitted until it has a determinate absorber destination! How does this idea work if the absorber is an atom in the detector of a telescope on Earth, and the emitter is a star in a galaxy 10 billion light years distant? How could there have been an actualized transaction between a star and a telescope that did not exist when the photon was emitted? I have identified two separate problems here.

First, the confirmation waves come from absorbers capable of absorbing the photon which, at the time of its emission, might have been an X-ray photon. But by the time of its real absorption by some atom in our telescope detector has been stretched way into the red end of the spectrum. It is possible that our red-capable absorbing atom could not possibly have produced a confirmation wave for an X-ray photon.

Secondly, at the time of the emission, the atom that ended up in the detector of the telescope might have been anywhere in the vicinity of the Earth/Sun system such as it was at the time, perhaps a just coalescing mass of hydrogen gas and dust swirling around a proto-star. How did that lucky atom end up in our telescope and not in the center of the Earth, or the moon or anywhere else in the solar system? Further the spatial relation between the proto solar system and our emitting star would be completely different than it is now 10 billion years later. But when we trace the path of our captured photon it always appears to have made a beeline (least time) path between the emitting star and that particular place in space where the Earth (and our telescope) just happen to be 10 billion years after emission.

I suspect Dr. Kastner has an answer here, or I am misunderstanding something about what she means about emission requiring an actualization between offer and confirmation waves. I hope she will address a query sent to her. If she does I will update this blog entry with her explanation.

In her chapters 6 and 7 she goes off the rails speculatively speaking. Her aim in chapter 6 is free will. There is nothing here that hasn’t been said before by others (broadly a theory called dual-aspect monism, see my “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”). Kastner begins by demolishing the anti-free-will arguments of David Dawkins and others of a similar type. She does a marvelous job from the viewpoint of the idea’s epistemological absurdity. If there is no free will, then Dawkins’ book isn’t really “his” and so on. In this she is entirely right even to pointing out that the view reduces us to automatons, something I have said for years (see my “Arguing with Automatons”).

Kastner points out that if nothing else, quantum mechanics shows the universe is not fully deterministic. Quantum mechanics “makes room” for free will. That’s fair enough. She also recognizes that “making room” and “the phenomenon” (free will) itself are two different things. Why? Because free will is not merely not-determined (indeterminate) but purposeful. Free will introduces teleology and if not for the universe as a whole then at least for the free-willed individual. Choice is always exercised “for a purpose”, and this is something quantum mechanics doesn’t address unless…

Kastner’s next move, the metaphysical move, is where she goes wrong. Perhaps, she says, quantum phenomena are not merely indeterminate. Perhaps they are also proto-volitional; there is in the phenomenon that which leads directly to the human sort of free will through some ascending volitional hierarchy? Something is “built into physics” that bears the germ of volition. She is, in effect, saying: we have a mystery here (free will) and we have a mystery there (Quantumland), perhaps one mystery is the explanation of the other? Now she emphasizes that this move is pure speculation but what is the point of it other than to fix a source of volition in a universe that is otherwise determinate and indeterminate at the same time, but not volitional.

No one (including Dr. Kastner) asserts that virtual quanta are conscious, but nor can anyone (including Dr. Kastner) tell us in what exactly, besides the non-teleological behavior described so well by mathematics, this proto-volitional consists! What is even a single “identity characteristic” of a proto-volition? In what way does (or even might) proto-volition contribute to quantum measurement outcomes? Where would a proto-volitional term fit into the equations of quantum mechanics? If there is no place for it why say it (volition) might be there other than the purely metaphysical need to have it start somewhere coupled with the metaphysical assumption that there is nothing more to the universe than the physical (including Quantumland).

To put the matter another way, Quantumland is speculation but not “empty speculation”. There are observables, particles communicating at seeming space-like distances and being in two places at once. A “foundation to macrophysics” outside of spacetime makes perfect sense in this context. Raw space and time can be seen to emerge from its seething processes. Quantumland explains a lot. It gives us part of the mechanism of spacetime emergence, and it removes the mystery from many of its emerging observables.

By contrast there is no observable that demands volition at the microscopic level. That volition (or proto-volition) is to be located there explains nothing about the mechanism of [much later] emerging consciousness. Free will is expressed only by or through consciousness (human or animal) as far as we know. The speculation here is empty of content. Nothing stands as an example of a property that ultimately adds up to consciousness or the volitional will of consciousness.

Quantum mysteries are encountered at just the point where they enter spacetime, but volition is not encountered in any obvious way until we reach all the way up to macroscopic brains. This is not to say that quantum phenomena are not involved in producing consciousness. It would surprise me if they weren’t! But this does not mean that quantum phenomena are themselves volitional or even proto-volitional there remains no teleology in physics.

This then brings me to chapter 7 where there is a related problem. The problem in chapter 6 is the emptiness of the speculation, the ad hoc quality of throwing volition into Quantumland because materialism has no other place to put it. In chapter 7 the problem is an induction fallacy. That Eastern metaphysics refers to a world beneath (or above or beyond) that of our physical senses, a world that is the source of the physical, does not mean they are talking about Quantumland! A Buddhist or Hindu using the word ‘energy’ and a physicist using the same word are not necessarily talking about the same thing (Dr. Jacob Needleman pointed this out to me a long time ago using “The Tao of Physics” [Capra], one of the books Kastner mentions in this chapter). Of course they could be talking about the same thing, and if you read enough of both you can cherry pick qualities from each that seem to overlap. Kastner does this in this chapter.

At the same time, Dr. Kastner gives herself the clue to their difference. The “spiritual traditions” all ascribe some sacredness to that which underlies our ordinary reality, but she doesn’t fully grasp the implications. Sacredness is intrinsically teleological. The source of our ordinary reality according to the “spiritual traditions” is purposeful, and being indirect products of it, we human beings have some relation, some responsibility to that purpose. But in no wise does it make sense to say we have any responsibility to Quantumland (nor does Dr. Kastner say such a thing), and this is precisely because Quantumland is not teleological.

Kastner must realize this implicitly as she reminds us multiple times that her ascription of volition to Quantumland (chapter 6) has no bearing on her physical theory as such. But nor is the traditional ascription of sacredness to “the other” some sort of mistake on the part of such traditions. It is a necessary quality of the other to which the traditions refer; a demonstration (as it were) that they are not speaking of Quantumland! There is nothing wrong with calling attention to the fact that spiritual traditions refer to “another reality” underlying our ordinary experience. Quantumland is also another possible reality underlying the macrophysical. But they are two different kinds of “other reality”.

If materialists wish to insist that the sacred sort of other doesn’t really exist, I can only say that until such time as there are observables that pick one theory out over another the same can be said of all the competing quantum others advocated by physicists and philosophers today.

I will leave things here because after all neither of these chapters bears in any way on the transaction interpretation of quantum mechanics as a physical theory. Unlike in her addenda to this latest book, Dr. Kastner isn’t resolving any paradoxes in these chapters. Indeed the misapplied logic (chapters 6 & 7) and misunderstood metaphor (chapter 7) is all on her side; though again and to repeat, none of this has ought to do with the explanatory value of the physical theory.

Adventures in Quantumland: Exploring Our Unseen Reality. Ruth Kastner 2019.

In (2015) Ruth Kastner, a physicist and philosopher, published “Understanding Our Unseen Reality”, a layman’s version of her earlier “The Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics” (2014). This book, “Exploring Our Unseen Reality”, is something of an addendum to that earlier work. It is really two books in one. The first half (roughly) is the book, while the last half is a collection of papers authored by Kastner, and sometimes collaborators, each addressing a specific (usually in more technical terms) issue covered in the book’s first half. Kastner frequently refers back (by chapter and page) to her earlier book. It isn’t necessary to have read the earlier book, Kastner makes her overall case perfectly well in this book alone using minimally more technical language (really symbols) to which she introduces us. On the one hand, this book’s explication of the theory’s main points and implications is brief. On the other hand, Dr. Kastner has had a lot of practice explaining the transactional interpretation and this latest attempt is clear and succinctly expressed.

Beginning with the basics Kastner moves us through subjects that are important to understanding her with a particular emphasis on the fact that her theory does not demand (I get the impression she encounters this idea a lot) that some mind be present to “collapse the quantum wave function”. To be clear, there are wave functions that minds do collapse. the ones that end in a quanta-absorbing event in one of our sensory neurons (and from there up the chain to our brains). In general, however, wave collapse is the result, the completion, of a measurement and that means a transaction between a quantum emitter and some absorber whether that absorber is in an eye, a brain, or the detector of some instrument.

The key to the theory is that the transfer of a quantum (measurable energy) requires an interaction between an emitter and absorber. There are two sorts of interactions here, incipient and actual. Incipient interactions happen between an emitter (an “offer wave”) and every potential absorber in the universe (“confirmation waves”), literally every atom that can absorb a photon of that particular energy. It doesn’t matter if these potential absorbers are near to or far from the potential emitter (in the incipient stage nothing has been yet emitted). Every incipient potential occurs instantly and simultaneously throughout the universe. One of these “offer wave/confirmation wave” (confirming that some emitter is ready to emit) “incipient transactions” wins out (remember this has taken place in zero time and across all space from our viewpoint in timespace) and becomes an “actual transaction”. The photon is emitted generating the beginning of a real singular timespace event propagating at the speed of light, and ends when the winning absorber receives the photon. The absorption constitutes a measurement because energy is transferred between the emitting and absorbing atoms. The transaction is complete.

If Dr. Kastner is right here, her theory has implications as revolutionary as the original insight (energy is quantized) resulting in the first generation of quantum mechanics. It would mean that no real photon can leave an emitter until a real absorber is selected out of the incipient possibilities. Personally I do not see how this can be. What if the absorber, the one that completes the transaction, is at the business end of a telescope while the [real not incipient] absorbed photon was emitted from a star 10 billion light years away; long before that telescope existed? There are several potential issues here and I suspect Kastner has an answer, but she does not explicitly address this. See my blog for further discussion.

In the final chapters of the book Kastner gets speculative about quantum mechanics and mind or more specifically the possibility of free will. This is not the “mind collapses the wave function” business, but its opposite. Not only does quantum mechanics give us an escape from absolute macroscopic determinism (fair enough) but rather that the quantum realm is somehow proto-volitional. The last chapter explores some speculations on the potential analogy between Kastner’s Quantumland (beneath spacetime) and various ideas present in ancient Greek and Eastern (Hindu and Buddhist) metaphysics. Kastner follows others, citing references, in all of these speculations. I have problems with both of these ideas, but this is not for a review and Kastner is sedulous about these being purely speculative, having no direct bearing on the transactional theory as such.

Following her last chapter, Kastner gives us an epilogue calling attention to (and thanking) her predecessors in the explanatory thread leading to the transactional interpretation, followed by an addendum in which she addresses several long standing “quantum paradoxes”. Her aim here is to show that they are not paradoxes at all, but bad interpretations of data even apart from the transactional theory, and that the transaction idea can make paradox resolution easier to grasp.

In summary an excellent if abbreviated explication of the “transaction theory”. In response to her previous book I said that Dr. Kastner’s theory is the only one I’ve ever encountered that “explains quantum mysteries without explaining them away”. Having read this book I see no reason to change my mind.

Why “One Size Fits All” Ontologies Never Work: Horgan, Harman, and DeLanda

There are three books from contemporary philosophers advocating for “one size fits all” ontologies. Each of them is strikingly different. In this commentary I’m going to focus on the meta-philosophical issue of a problem common to all of these ideas and by extension, all “one size fits all” ontologies. Ontologists do one of two things. They describe or catalog “what exists” or “what is real”, or they try to say something about the foundational qualities or properties of reality; what is “most fundamental” about what exists. All three of these philosophers are doing “what exists” sorts of ontologies.

As always, the three books I discuss are listed below with links to their editions on Amazon. Each title (except Horgan, I’ve linked my separate review of him here) is followed by the text of the review I posted to Amazon. I write these commentaries because their issues are out of place in a book review as such.

I’ll begin quickly with Terrence Horgan whose book “Austere Realism” I’ve reviewed separately (see link above). Horgan is the extreme minimalist. There is for him only one object that fully exists in the universe, and that is the universe in total (he calls it the ‘blobject’). Everything that we humans envision as existing (atoms, stars, animals, artifacts, and our own minds) exist only as affectations of language, a “fashion de parler”. As affectations, and for pragmatic purposes such “existence talk” is all well and good, but it is false to move from there to an ontological commitment; to the literal existence of any of these things. But Horgan is also a realist. The differentiation within the blobject (or of the blobject) are real. They are “mind independent differentiations” of the blobject. They are not “objects in their own right” but merely variations in the one object.

I’ve written before about Graham Harman here, and his collaborative work with DeLanda here. But I haven’t written about this particular book, “Object Oriented Ontology” in which Harman tries to address an issue I brought up in my review of other books, his “ontological idea” seeming to pop out of nowhere. In this book Harman describes more or less where his OOO idea comes from. It reinforces my idea that while proclaiming himself a realist he somewhat straddles the line between realism and anti-realism.

Harman’s approach is exactly opposite that of Horgan. Everything, stars, governments, ideas, relations between ideas or things, arbitrary sets, fictional characters, events, all real, all distinct objects. His is the ultimate ontological plurality but he is careful to say that while all are objects, not all objects are of the same sort. Some for example, like fictional characters, are real yet do not exist. Harman’s goal is a univocal causality. If rocks, governments, corporations, and ideas can be causes what does this say about the nature of causation in general?

Of the three authors, DeLanda’s ideas are the easiest to reconcile with common sense. Basically he observes that most differentiated things in the universe are composed of other things. They have parts that are extrinsic to the phenomenon of which they are parts. That means such parts can be removed and replaced by something similar (but not identical) and still retain their identity. In addition, these things composed of parts can become parts of other wider or larger things exhibiting new causal potentials.

As concerns ontological commitments, for Horgan, planets and governments do not exist as such, only the blobject actually exists but it happens to be differentiated into recognizable particulars that we can label in any way we see fit for pragmatic and scientific purposes. Horgan is interested mostly in what makes scientific discourse (say about stars) true even if stars do not, strictly speaking exist.

DeLanda agrees with Horgan that governments and stars do not belong in a strict ontology. What exists are assemblages each existing in a hierarchy of assemblages. Presumably the hierarchy goes all the way up to Horgan’s blobject, and all the way down to protons. But DeLanda does manage to clearly distinguish between social assemblages having physical expressions and potentials (governments, banks), and physical assemblages like stars and galaxies. What is important in both cases is that it is the assemblage that has ontological gravitas because it has causal potentials whether those are the potentials of a government or an asteroid.

Neither Horgan nor DeLanda are “essentialists” as concerns either what does or does not “strictly belong” in an ontology. There is no “hidden center” or essence to what belongs in ontology. If we had a complete description of everything (which for various reasons, linguistic, and perspectival, we cannot have) we would have fully exhausted being. Harman says no, that each object has an essence or being that we cannot even in principle ever exhaust. This includes “real objects” that do not exist like fictional characters. It is precisely this essence to which an object’s qualities are attached. Like objects have like qualities but their essence makes them individual. Objects are not merely “bundles of properties” described by a spacetime worm. Properties inhere in something and the being of that object, what makes it real, is whatever that something is.

Horgan is after the truth and meaningfulness of scientific discourse. He establishes this even in the face of his extreme ontological claim, and I believe this may be his point; “even given the blobject, science can be true”. Harman is after causation and he gets there but at the cost of an ontology as copious as Horgan’s is sparse. To make it all work, Harman’s objects must be divided up in various ways, much depending on what amounts to the classical distinction between mind and the mind-independent world. Harman does give us a nice account of fictional characters, but not really different from yet another “new realist” Maruzio Ferraris (reviewed here) who gives us the same account without the causal metaphysics. I am not sure how DeLanda would handle fictions. They surely have expressions in the physical (books, films) but I am not sure they could be said to have causal properties of their own. Certainly not outside minds that encounter and interpret the physical expressions.

Horgan and Harman are the two strictest “one size fits all” ontologists, DeLanda is less so, but even viewed as a one size fits all proposal, assemblages require little ad hoc maneuvering (Harman) or stipulation (Horgan and Harman) to fit in with most if not all of our experience. The common sense fact is that almost everything is made of other things. None of these views address mind very well though to be sure all are implicitly physicalist so brains are surely objects, assemblages, or proper differentiations of the blobject.

Harman, taking us back to Heideggar, claims that the contents of consciousness are all objects. This works fine as concerns sensory representations, even beliefs and memories. It is less clear how attitudes and intentions are objects. To the extent that both amount to ideas they have an object-hook. Both intentions and attitudes have causal properties. Ideas can lead us to actions. If that qualifies them for object-hood, so be it.

DeLanda’s ontology is “one size fits all” in the form of things and not the things themselves. He does not insist that literally everything real (fictional or otherwise) is an assemblage. By contrast Harman and Horgan do claim that their ontologies cover everything. That they likely do not is demonstrated by how they must each be twisted to make them work. For Horgan, scientific truth, even epistemology in general, floats free of the “true ontology”. For Harman, objects must be distinguished into partly overlapping classes or kinds, universals like existing and non-existing, symbiotic and dormant, real and sensual (both of these last categories real in the strict ontological sense), and so on.

Only Horgan claims there is literally but one existing thing. Harman counts literally everything (remember even thoughts and arbitrary relations) as real objects but must then divide them up into many categories to make the idea come out. Why not merely objectify the category and claim that these universals are the foundation of the real? For DeLanda it is a structure of relations that is [almost] universal, but what emerges from such a structure is, like Harman, both distinct and real provided we are careful to distinguish between the abstraction naming it (star, or government) and the reality (an assemblage) of its composition and history.

Horgan and Harman are “ontologies of the now”. Neither takes much account of time. Time is involved in the differentiation of the blobject (Horgan) of course and objects (Harman) come, go, and change through time, but neither theory demands time to make its basic point. Only DeLanda’s ontology demands time because both the coming-to-be of assemblages and their impacts have intrinsically temporal dimensions. Assemblages include as a proper part their own history and possible future effects on events, other assemblages.

Though each of these ontologies are different they all suffer from a species of triviality. If literally everything is an X, then to say that “only Xs exist” is a difference that makes no difference. Horgan shows that scientific truths can remain firmly grounded even in the face of a stipulated truth: “all is one”. Harman’s idea is also, ultimately, a stipulation. He can’t really deliver an equivocal causation, only one that can be “thought of” like that. If all cause lies between categories (the real and the sensual) that doesn’t tell us much about it. It also might be that there is something important about the difference between the categories and not merely the objects in them. Non-arbitrary categories (perhaps material particulars and some universals) might indeed exist, while arbitrary ones (random sets, trivially contingent relations — “taller than”) do not.

Harman’s distinction between the important and the trivial is also arbitrary. What appears dormant or unimportant from our perspective might be symbiotic from another. DeLanda’s triviality is a little different. Remember that each of these philosophers is a materialist and so ultimately, whatever should be both “real and exist”, it must begin with atoms that are surely assemblages. So while Harman and Horgan’s ontologies ultimately come down to stipulations, DeLanda’s, by contrast, is observational, and if he is right, if everything is some part of everything else (the universe at least), his observation must be true (at least of the material world) and so is also trivial.

In the end none of these “one size fits all” ontologies fit the universe of our experience because the universe is not a one size fits all arena. If there is a God then there are three fundamental mind-independent joints in reality (see Prolegomena to a Future Theology), spirit, mind (not individual minds but the phenomenon of mind in general), and matter — the material world experienced by individual minds. Even if there is no God and individual minds emerge only from the functioning of brains (i.e. brains are sufficient, a dubious proposition disallowed by physics — see Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind), it is prima facia absurd to assert that mind is material, even more absurd to say it doesn’t exist. Individual minds, once emerged, have an impact on the unfolding of events. Mind is not physical and yet causally efficacious notwithstanding that what propagates its causal effect in the physical is a physical body controlled by a mind.

Aside from these three authors (Ferraris does not try to construct a universal ontology) I haven’t encountered another “one size fits all” ontology. If I do in the future I am confident that like these three any truth it contains will be but a trivial truth.

——————

Austere Realism by Terrence Horgan 2008
See my review and commentary here

Assemblage Theory by Manuel DeLanda 2016

Manuel DeLanda’s book is a mature attempt at explaining what “assemblage theory” is and its relation to the philosophical sub-discipline of ontology. Assemblage theory can be applied to other philosophical domains but first you have to understand what it says about what there is. To put it in its simplest form, most things in the world are assemblages. They are (1) made of parts that might be exchanged for sufficiently similar parts (parts are “extrinsic”), (2) have properties and potentials that the parts do not have other than as the assemblage, and (3) they can, in turn, become parts of larger assemblages having novel properties and potentials in part made possible by the contribution of its sub-assemblages.

Assemblages are rather intuitive in fact. We are all familiar with many of them. We are a part of some of them, and it is natural to see in the world differently scaled phenomena (from atoms to galaxies, even the universe) that all appear to be assemblages. DeLanda then begins from a place that matches most intuitions about the world, and he does not insist that everything that is MUST be an assemblage. There are things of the world that are not, but by-in-large very much of our familiar world consists of assemblages.

DeLanda then explores many of these familiar things as encountered through human history. He explores tools (machines), people themselves, language, cities, society, wars, and so on. A particular point he wants to make is that every noun I used in the last sentence is a made-up “making real” (reification or “to reify”) of things that don’t really exist simpliciter. DeLanda understands that to make up these concepts is perfectly legitimate for ordinary discourse, but he is not committed to “their existence” as these things. Rather his commitment is to the assemblages from which they are composed and the higher-level assemblages they can and do contribute to composing. To understand an assemblage we name, “the government”, or “the market”, we really have to understand what it is made of (more assemblages) and how it comes to affect the wider world, other assemblages in which it participates. It is the assemblages and their expressions that “are real” as far as ontology is concerned.

The examination of human institutions is followed by a chapter on the doing of science; the best encapsulation of “philosophy of science” I’ve read! He moves down from social reality to particles, atoms, and molecules in order to introduce us to the concept of a “diagram” by which not only can assemblage be described (its history) but also what future paths in could (possibility) and is likely (disposition) to follow. DeLanda moves away from social phenomena for the sake of simplicity. Future paths for a molecule are vast but still restricted compared to that of a city or person. In theory it is simpler to understand what he is driving at on this level and its significance can be felt in philosophy and other disciplines. Importantly, the same principles apply whether we are talking about a protein or a nation.

He gets a little technical here in the last chapters. Simpler or not I could follow all of this only because I’ve had just enough mathematics background to get the difference between the levels and types of mathematics he talks about here. Some readers will have trouble with this though DeLanda nowhere USES mathematics; there are no formulas or mathematical demonstrations. His aim is to show us that there are mathematical tools that can be applied to assemblages describing their history as well as dispositions and possible futures. DeLanda is keen to show that assemblage theory as philosophy is (can be) firmly grounded in mathematics. Again as from the beginning, this makes intuitive sense. That mathematics can be applied to the regularities of the universe is well known. If those regularities are “qualities of assemblages” it makes sense that math can be used to describe them.

All of this then comes together very well in this book. I have read and reviewed others of DeLanda’s books, but this is the one to get if you want a grounding in his idea from the fundamentals on up.

Object Oriented Ontology by Graham Harman 2018

In reviews of earlier books by Harman I complained that his “object oriented ontology” (OOO) seemed to pop out of nowhere. He never (before) tells us how ideas preceding it, those of other writers, built up to his central insight. He seems to be making an attempt to correct that lacuna in this book. I think he succeeds in the effort to enlighten us about OOO’s origins, but my issues with the substance of the theory itself are not here resolved.

Harman begins by introducing a distinction between truth and knowledge along with their relation to the doing of philosophy. For him philosophy is not about truth or knowledge though it seeks and approaches both. Instead it is about reality which cannot, nevertheless, be approached directly but only indirectly. With this he begins to give the reader an introduction to his version of realism which is not very realist as I understand that term. But nor is Harman an anti-realist in the traditional sense. Rather he seems to straddle the fence.

The mind independent world is perfectly real and filled with particulars (objects), this being the realist thread. However we never encounter those objects directly but through their qualities, sensual qualities (he should have used the word ‘sensuous’ here not ‘sensual’ but I’ll let you look up that difference), which are qualities of the object as it is reflected in the content of our consciousness. The tree in the yard is a real object. The tree in my mind is its sensual counterpart. But neither the tree in the yard, nor the counterpart in our mind ever reveal themselves fully to us. They are “real”, but their core is always hidden. This is the anti-realist thread in Harman.

In Chapter two Harman gives us the key insight that also belies his Continental inclinations. Philosophy is metaphor and theater. He doesn’t mean here play acting. He means that to do philosophy the philosopher must replace the metaphor with herself to understand what it reveals about the real object. Even the metaphor never completely succeeds in exhausting the object, but it gets us further into it than does any literal or scientific statement. Harman knows that language is metaphorical. In fact (for Harman) the literal tells us less than the metaphorical. No word or collection of words captures everything about that which they denote. But he rejects the notion that language alone is responsible for failing to grasp everything. There is always more to the object, real or sensual, than we can ever know.

From this beginning he investigates social and political discourse and then returns to a more detailed view of objects (real and sensual), their qualities, and the relations between them. Harman divides his ontological universe into four different types, the real and sensual objects, and their real and sensual qualities. He does a pretty good job on the objects and the sensual qualities, but I have trouble understanding what a “real quality” can be since like the real object, real qualities also withdraw from direct contact. Harman does a good job of analyzing fictional objects, and we are introduced to his distinction between passive and symbiotic object-relations. Again (as in other of his books) Harman insists that symbiotic is not only about importance to humans, but in fact it always seems to end up being that in the final analysis.

His ultimate target in this part of the book is physical causation (like two billiard balls colliding, though the idea is supposed to apply to causation of all sorts). Even billiard balls do not make contact directly but through their sensual qualities. This part of OOO makes no sense to me unless “sensual qualities” are taken to be something independent of mind. I suppose this interpretation is possible, but Harman does not make his thought clear here at all.

The book moves then to challenge some of Harman’s peers who have accused him of stealing ideas from others. He focuses on Deleuze and Foucault arguing that their views, which some have taken to be foreshadows of OOO are not really that at all. Following this he reviews the work of a number of young philosophers who have broadly adopted an OOO orientation. Harman does a good job here of sketching both the similarities and differences between his work and the others reviewed.

It is not until here, near the end of the book that Harman lets drop his disdain for matter something strange for a realist. He explains himself a bit more in the last chapter, but his explanation fails to bridge a gap. It may be true NOW that there is no undifferentiated matter in the universe. Everything is differentiated and hence all are objects. But this was not the case in the opening Planck times of the universe when there was nothing but undifferentiated radiation. Harman’s ontology, even if it captures the universe’s present (and I don’t think it really does) misses its history, something for which ontology should surely account. In this latter part of the book he also lets slip that all relations between objects are also objects. He has said this in other books, but other than this one parenthetical aside, he doesn’t elaborate on this claim at all.

In the end, this book does the job of explaining the origin of Harman’s OOO idea and some (but not all) implications. I remain not a fan. There is too much about OOO that seems ad hoc to me, but after all, differences of opinion are what keep philosophy going and as Harman notes at the very beginning we do not get all the way to knowledge or truth, but only aspire to find ways to get closer to both.

Three Books on the World Order and its Undoing

There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.

Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.

To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.

Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.

Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.

What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.

What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.

The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.

A World in Disarray by Richard Haass 2017

Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.

In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.

Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.

On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.

The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.

World Order by Henry Kissinger 2014

Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!

Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.

Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!

In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.

Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.

In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.

I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green 2017

This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.

This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.

Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.

By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.

Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.

Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.