A Head Full of Ghosts

Derived Absurdity
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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #50

Postby Derived Absurdity » Thu Aug 29, 2019 3:27 am

The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power (Steve Fraser) - The title purports to answer a question I've been wondering for half my life, namely: why the fuck is everyone just okay with the fact that all our lives are actively being ruined by an openly malevolent and criminal plutocracy? Where are the mass demonstrations, the radical organizations, the violent protests, anything at all? Any tiny hint of class consciousness, any sign whatsoever that people are angry that their quality of life is being annihilated in front of their eyes by a tiny cabal of morally empty ruling class sociopaths? Or if you want to take a more dispassionate structural view, through a less individualized lens, the picture is still the same: the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, wages are stagnating or declining, life expectancy is going down, rents are going up, student loans are going up, everything is getting more expensive, working hours are either staying the same or lengthening, job security is worsening, unions have disappeared, suicide and drug abuse are rising, gun violence is rising, loneliness is rising because our social lives are becoming more atomized, the police are state-sanctioned thugs who murder people in the streets for giving them attitude, climate change is barreling down on us, five companies own our media, one evil megacorp owns all our entertainment, the general structure of our society is getting more predatory and exploitative and cruel, and everything is getting worse. Ever since the seventies everything has been on a downward trend. Why is the American public just taking all this? Not only are we not doing anything, there's little sign that many people even want to do anything. We elected Donald Trump and next we're going to elect Joe Biden. A billionaire child rapist just got nerfed in a high-security prison cell right before he was going to rat out members of the ruling class for raping children, and we all talked about it for like two days, and that was it? Revolution, to put it mildly, is not exactly in the air. What happened, did we just give up?

In the thirties and forties there was mass revolutionary consciousness everywhere. Unions, communist and socialist parties, wildcat strikes, go down the list. The rich ruined everybody's lives, and people were rightly pissed off about it, and they actually tried to do something about it. FDR had to almost break the capitalist class in half just to get people to calm down. Before that, in the late 1800s during the time of the robber barons, there was the same thing. Strikes and riots. The Knights of Labor. The Pullman strike. The Populist Movement. Massive nationally recognized organizations calling for workers to own the means of production and the end of wage labor. Now the only recent flashpoints have been the rise and immediate fizzling out of Occupy Wall Street and the campaign of Bernie Sanders. That's it. We live in a second Gilded Age, very similar to the first one, with one crucial difference: people were actually angry during the first one. So why aren't they now?

This book takes a stab at answering. It actually offers several speculative hypotheses, but none of them are really persuasive. The first, most compelling one, is that the first Gilded Age happened when industrial capitalism and mass wage slavery were still scary and new, and very wrenching and disruptive to traditional ways of life. Production was then largely an agrarian and household affair, not organized by industrialists and oil barons and whatnot for private profit. Financialization also expanded to put small farmers in debt to distant unseen bankers during industrial capitalism's violent gestation period. So there was a fairly brand-new problem with fairly brand-new and clear villains. Now we have more than a century of industrial capitalism at our backs and it's not scary anymore. Our new Gilded Age isn't particularly wrenching or disruptive, just kind of slowly and imperceptibly corrosive in a frog-in-a-boiling-pot sort of way. Our way of lives aren't radically changing, just getting worse, so our resistance is slower. The second one is that we don't even know, precisely, who the ruling class even is anymore, which I find amusingly stupid, but might have a grain of truth. In the last few decades we've been misled by everyone from tech-bro entrepreneurs to high-rising celebrity criminal investment bankers marketing themselves as anti-establishment rebels to right-wing populists to finger the "ruling class" as mid-level government bureaucrats sticking their noses where they don't belong and cosmopolitan "limousine liberals" rather than billionaires and Wall Street moguls and defense contractors, and the shift from capitalism from a largely industrial mode to a largely financialized mode, which makes it a bit more opaque and ephemeral, has made outlining the problems more difficult and the villains less clear-cut. The third explanation is that we've all been pacified by unprecedented material abundance, which doesn't really work since the first Gilded Age was marked by unprecedented material abundance as well. In fact that was kind of the point of the era - material prosperity for many coupled with radically unjust and severely predatory hierarchies in wealth and power. There are some other points he touches on - the demoralizing effect of the death of the labor movement, how languishing in debt has allowed people to keep up the pretensions of living a middle class lifestyle for decades, how neoliberalism has slowly strangled our collective imagination so that we can't conceive of a world structurally different from this one, and above all how the massive rise in consumerism has kept up the illusion of freedom and dignity among Americans by giving them a dizzying smorgasbord of meaningless choices and material goods, with the ruling class even managing to tie the American Dream to it, and so on - but those are the basic three as far as I can tell.

I don't know, maybe that is the big answer. Doesn't seem enough to me, but I might be expecting too much. After all, humans have been remarkably pliant to coercive and self-evidently unjust structures of authority for a long time, long before capitalism. People are okay with being subjugated as long as they think there are other people who are being subjugated worse, or if they get to entertain fantasies of themselves doing the subjugating someday. It's more emotionally compelling to have one grand unifying explanation than a bunch of small disparate ones that add up, but less realistic, so I'll take it.

About the book itself, it's fine. Nothing you haven't really heard. Like none of these explanations you can't work out yourself. It's basically a whistlestop tour of American history, an engaging and passionate mix of historical analysis with polemic in the same manner as Howard Zinn or Chris Hedges or Chomsky. He weaves through different focal points, applying varying degrees of analytical heft to each, attempting to connect them in multiple ways, writing passionately, but extremely overwroughtly. Not sure I would recommend it. It's really really fucking long and only intermittently incisive. It's engaging, but incredibly overwritten and stuffed with unnecessarily fancy vocabulary; very dense in history and information if not ideas or insights, and it doesn't attempt to answer the subtitle until the last two chapters.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #51

Postby Derived Absurdity » Thu Aug 29, 2019 2:56 pm

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (David Graeber) - based on this infamous essay, which I recommend if you haven't read it: https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;. Argues that many jobs are completely pointless and psychologically destructive. Makes several interesting points. One is that in recent decades these jobs have mostly proliferated and expanded among the upper middle class, whereas the working class mostly still have jobs that are actually useful and productive. They're shitty, and terrible, and miserable, but they're actually contributing to society, for the most part, while the most prototypical bullshit jobs, the ones that don't need to exist and which wouldn't affect the world negatively if they just disappeared, are things like corporate lawyers, private equity CEOs, hedge fund managers, actuaries, telemarketers, ad execs, and so on. The upper crust. The working class can get by with the knowledge that they're being productive if nothing else, while the upper middle class, even though they have more material comforts and social prestige, often feel like shit because they know deep down that what they do is pointless and worthless. This leads to the weird result that the usefulness of your job is inversely correlated with how well-respected it is (and you are) and how well-paid it is. In our fucked up society, statistically the more obviously and self-evidently useful your job is, the shittier it is, the less respect you get for doing it, and the less it pays, but if you're one who has to twist yourself into knots to explain what you actually do and why it matters, you're likely to be well-compensated for it. The few vivid exceptions just prove the rule. This makes the upper middle class act all guilty and defensive and double down on their derision for the working class to make them feel better about themselves.

Another point is that on paper the exact opposite of all this is supposed to be happening. You would think a capitalist enterprise wouldn't want to waste money on employing a bunch of people who just take up air. Capitalism is supposed to be all about ruthless efficiency and cost-cutting. But that is indeed what happened, and what is happening. Your average office has people who only get about two to three hours of work done in any given day. The health and education sectors in particular are currently ballooning with administrators who mostly just man desks all day long and fill out insurance forms and schedule meetings and walk around pretending to be busy. This is obviously an unbelievably colossal waste of resources, but it probably helps the egos of the super-rich to have more people working under them than the other guy does, and social climbing is much more ancient and fundamental to human nature than ruthlessly efficient cost-cutting. This wasn't supposed to be this way, obviously - we were all supposed to be working only three hours a day by now, but the darkly hilarious thing about it is that in reality we actually mostly are, just not officially. We're getting the worst of both worlds here. We're only productive for about a dozen hours a week, but instead of the rest of our time being devoted to leisure like it was supposed to be, it's devoted to a kind of living hell of meaningless pointless worthless make-work under a tyrannical unaccountable dictatorship. It's amazing how much modern corporate capitalism looks like all the caricatures of Soviet command communism we were all supposed to be terrified of - the stifling and demoralizing bureaucracy, the unaccountable hierarchies, the pointless make-work, the unbelievable waste and inefficiencies. We all live in a communist dystopia, and people are just too stupid to notice.

The third point is that this is profoundly horrific to the human soul. A few surveys suggest that something like 40% of people think their jobs might qualify as bullshit. That really is deeply nightmarish if you actually sit down and think about it. The one thing humans are really supposed to be good at is creating meaning out of things. Psychologists say our biggest fundamental skill is detecting patterns, which is just another way of saying we create meaning. And yet almost half of us can't apply this basic innate skill to our fucking jobs? That thing you earn a living from? That thing you spend forty hours a week doing? That thing which is supposed to validate you as a person and give you worth, according to society? Almost half of us can't manage to spin a story even to ourselves that they're useful or meaningful? That's extremely fucking bleak, folks.

The book itself mostly functions to informally categorize the bullshit jobs the essay outlined. There's the flunkies, jobs that only exist to make someone else feel good; the goons, who just push other people around on their employers' behalf, a kind of second-order bullshit job which performs a useful function for industries that shouldn't exist; the duct-tapers, who fix problems that should never have come up; the box-tickers, who use paperwork to pretend that a company is doing something it's not; and the taskmasters, who give people work they don't need or supervise people who don't need supervision. Then there's basically a bunch of anecdotes to hammer the point home. At the end he anemically advocates, predictably, a universal basic income, which doesn't seem proportionate to the magnitude of the problem. It doesn't seem to me like anything less than a complete and totalizing overthrow of the entire system would even begin to do anything to ameliorate this problem. But then I would say that, wouldn't I? It was good.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #52

Postby Derived Absurdity » Sat Sep 14, 2019 8:34 am

Utopia for Realists (Rutger Bregman) - this is the book by that Dutch guy who got famous a few months ago for berating a bunch of billionaires at Davos for not paying taxes and who called out Tucker Carlson a short while later for being a phony populist. Its big idea is that the left's major problem is that it lacks ideas and vision, and so it lays out three - a universal basic income, a fifteen-hour work week, and open borders. It's a very short, almost pamphlet-like book, at least compared to what I've been reading, and only covers these ideas broadly, so nothing new for me. You won't be surprised that I liked the fifteen-hour work week part best. It does a nice job of presenting these ideas, I guess. For being a "radical" book, there's nothing here that's very subversive or antagonistic to the powers-that-be; Silicon Valley plutocrats, for example, are famously open to the ideas of both basic income and open borders, not for the right reasons, and they'd probably be tolerant of a shortened workweek too. This book has no mention of anything approaching class conflict or power or structural violence or imperialism or anything of the sort; it seems you have to eschew those types of things to be acceptable to the Vox and NPR crowd. A radical the corporate media can like. Marxists can say stuff exactly like this, only they would probably mention class and structural violence and so probably wouldn't be granted interviews on The Daily Show and the BBC. But if it opens up some peoples' minds I guess it's not bad.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #53

Postby Derived Absurdity » Tue Nov 05, 2019 9:14 pm

The People's Republic of Walmart: How the World's Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism (Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski) -

When people say "socialism doesn't work", what they usually mean is "large-scale top-down economic planning doesn't work". One of the biggest takeaways from the twentieth century is supposed to be that markets are much more efficient at allocating resources than planning could ever be. And yet one very obvious but never acknowledged fact is that there are many examples today of large-scale, country-wide economic planning of the Soviet type working exceptionally well, better than almost anyone could have foreseen - namely, those exemplars of corporate capitalism, Walmart and Amazon, who undergo economic planning on an absolutely massive scale to unprecedented, extraordinary success. Walmart by itself is the 38th largest economy in the world and is pulling in more than the Soviet Union did at its height in the early 70s, all with absolutely no internal markets, and in fact precisely because it was a pioneer in adopting efficient supply chain management through internal cooperation rather than competition. The book takes a detailed look at the inner workings of Walmart, and it shows that it does pretty much exactly what socialism's critics have, for over a hundred years now, been saying can't be done - everything, from the manufacturers to the suppliers to the distributors to the retailers, is coordinated and organized with extreme precision from the top down. It's a planned economy in all but name. The US Department of Defense is also the single largest employer in the world, and conservatives would be reluctant to disagree that it's pretty good at what it does, despite it being a centrally planned non-market public sector operation, and the People's Liberation Army is second, which also seems to be working fine. (Britain's NHS is fourth, also a publicly planned service, and it routinely outpolls every other institution in popularity, including the monarchy.)

You can contrast Walmart with Sears, which destroyed itself a few years ago due to its libertarian CEO's decision to disaggregate its different divisions into competing units, or create an internal market. Apparels, appliances, human resources, IT, branding, and everything else were to work as autonomous businesses, with their own board of directors and statements of profit and everything. It was complete chaos, it seems, "dysfunctionality at the highest level", and resulted in Sears losing half its value in a few years. Turns out there's a reason pretty much all firms operate by planning and top-down coordination rather than anarchic market competition. In fact, planning takes up the vast bulk of capitalism: the volume of transactions that takes place within firms, the interlocking nodes of capitalism, is as great or greater than the volume carried out between them. The problem is that, as traditional economists have been steadfastly ignoring and socialists have been pointing out for literal centuries, is that this planning is authoritarian and coercive, with firms operating as little "islands of tyranny", in Chomsky's words, even and especially concerning the labor market, the only "market" that could be said to take place within them. The "theory of the firm" is the open question in economics that asks, if the free market is so great, why are all of its most central nodes resolutely organized as non-market? But the better question is the other way around: if top-down planning is so great, and it takes up the bulk of our system anyway, why even bother with markets.

Amazon in particular is a good rejoinder to the idea that socialism/planning can't provide consumer goods. I'm pretty sure it can. There's a lot of planning that goes into the operation of Amazon. Of course, it still distributes its good partly via the market/price signaling, but it's easy to imagine a scenario wherein that particular part of it could work similarly to, for example, an online public library catalogue, which can theoretically build data-heavy models of consumer interests and demands and recommendations just like Amazon without any price mechanism. Prices are not an indispensable part of Amazon's functioning.

As for the market being the only source of investment and innovation, as libertarian true believers seem to somehow think, most innovation is already driven by the public sector. The public sector, and primarily the Pentagon, has been responsible for the Internet, Google's search engine algorithm, the iPhone, computers, jet aircraft, nuclear energy, lasers, much of modern biotechnology, and roughly two-thirds of the groundbreaking "new molecular entity" drugs discovered in the past decade. What's more, the state has a history of overseeing economic planning when it feels it necessary, particularly during World War 2, when it oversaw everything from fixing production quotas to resource distribution and price setting, and it was directly responsible for the invention of both the atomic bomb and the first antibiotic, penicillin. It seems that when shit starts getting real, the government all of a sudden doesn't feel the private sector is up to the task.

As for the Soviet Union, it's not a very good example of economic planning, partly because it didn't really start out with a comprehensive blueprint in the first place, but mostly because Stalinism basically distorted it out of all reason. The lesson to take from the USSR is not that planning doesn't work, but planning with arbitrary nonsensical coercive authority structures, radically incompetent and pointlessly brutal leadership, all management petrified of doing anything innovative or taking responsibility for anything for fear of being gulaged, lack of honest communication for fear of sending accurate-yet-unwanted information and (again) being gulaged, and above all, all the specialists and experts necessary to run a country mass murdered, doesn't work. Just to take one example, the government sent volunteers to the peasants' villages during collectivization to encourage them to increase productivity, but when they (the volunteers) realized that the procurement quotas needed to be immediately reduced, they were condemned as "saboteurs" and mostly gulaged. Also it's pretty hard to switch from agrarian feudalism straight to communism with no actual plan or blueprint even without Stalinist stupidity, which is why it probably shouldn't be tried.

So large-scale planning works. It works, empirically, despite the century-old arguments from von Mises and Hayek that it, in theory, shouldn't. It's a reversion of the cliche - socialism, clearly, works in practice, even though it shouldn't in theory. The problem is that, right now, it only works for the benefit of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to actual socialist planning that should work for everyone. Amazon, Walmart, and the Pentagon are, to put it lightly, not very socialist or democratic, so we should put a bit of a spin on the historical MO of Marxists and seize the means of large-scale planning from the Waltons and Bezoses of the world and democratize them so that they can be be used for the benefit of the many and not for the few. Exactly how this is to be done, the book doesn't say. But unlike socialist revolutionaries of the early twentieth century, we don't need to invent a country-wide planning system from scratch - we have plenty already here just waiting to be seized and repurposed.

It was good. The book was good. It successfully made its case that large-scale planning, empirically, can work. 21st-century socialism can work. All the shit for it is already available. We just need to make use of it. My only minor gripe with the book is that, despite its title, it doesn't talk about China very much, with its weird form of top-down market socialism. You know, a country ruled by a one-party state with the vast bulk of its economy planned that managed to pull like a billion people out of poverty in thirty years might deserve a mention in a book like this. Like, maybe even just a footnote. But I guess not. Kind of a weird little gap.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #54

Postby Derived Absurdity » Fri Apr 17, 2020 5:03 am

Animal Farm (George Orwell) - I always enjoy reading this book. The last chapter never fails to move me. Even though it's largely clunky and overwrought, it's effective. I have some pretty major problems with it, though. Starting with the fact that it radically misrepresents what happened after the Russian Revolution. The book shows that the animals effortlessly overthrew the human beings and they lived in paradise forever after until Napoleon and the pigs ruined everything, when in reality the Russian people suffered massive waves of trauma over and over again as soon as the Bolsheviks took over, dealing with everything from famines to invasions to civil wars to a world war to severe state repression, all of which are necessary preludes to understanding why the revolution turned out the way it did. A materialist analysis is essential for any accurate interpretation of the Soviet experiment, as well as anything else, as any socialist should know, yet this book doesn't attempt to provide that.

I suppose this isn't a big deal, since Orwell's only true purpose in writing it was to show people that the Soviet Union was bad, not explain how it turned bad. But it gives an explanation anyway, and it's pretty silly. The Soviet Union turned bad simply because all the party members were secretly bad, and the Russian proletariat were just profoundly stupid farm animals that mindlessly let themselves be led around by them. There were no true believers among the Bolsheviks, except, I guess, maybe Trotsky and Lenin; they were all just power-hungry and unscrupulous, and they were able to fuck over the workers simply because they were several orders of magnitude more intelligent than them, and that's the answer. Again, this isn't a very socialist explanation. A basic socialist tenet is that materialist forms of organization and production shape and influence all historical events and phenomena, and the internal structure of the Soviet Union certainly counted as that. Capitalism isn't bad simply because individual capitalists are mean, there's a whole system to it. Similarly, the Soviet Union wasn't bad simply because most individual Party members were bad. There were larger structural forces at work. Yet that's the impression you'd get from this book.

It's also extremely elitist in its attitude toward the Russian proletariat, and I'm not sure why that aspect is always ignored. They're represented by Boxer, presumably, who can't learn the alphabet past the first four letters and who is constantly outright referred to as dumb. It's also repeatedly taken as a fact that the pigs are more intelligent than the other animals, by a lot. It's a very strange kind of socialism that sees the working class as uniformly stupid and the ruling class as uniformly smart. I mean, many socialists secretly think that, but generally, it's not an opinion you're supposed to show openly if you're a socialist. Most socialists attempt to keep their elitist prejudices on the down low for PR purposes.

Beyond that, my only comments are questions. Such as, what the hell is up with the cat. The cat is by far the most mysterious and enigmatic character, and it disappears about halfway through the book like a ghost with nary an explanation, never to be seen again. It has to represent something. It's way too memorable and specific a character to just be a meaningless throwaway. It's probably my favorite character, though.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #55

Postby Raxivace » Fri Apr 17, 2020 7:57 am

It's been something like 15 years since I last read Animal Farm (Looking at my copy right now it seems as if it could fall apart any moment), and I don't really know enough about the Russian Revolution in general either to really talk about that much. When we were taught Animal Farm in school, we focused more on just following the plot about these wacky farm animals trying to run a farm lol rather than any allegorical aspects.

I will say I think allegory in general leads to at least somewhat simplifying and therefore possibly distorting whatever it is a writer is trying to create an allegory about to begin with though, which may be the cause of some of your issues in addition to different views you and Orwell may have about the Russian Revolution to begin with.
"[Cinema] is a labyrinth with a treacherous resemblance to reality." - Andrew Sarris

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #56

Postby Derived Absurdity » Sun Apr 19, 2020 9:15 pm

Raxivace wrote:When we were taught Animal Farm in school, we focused more on just following the plot about these wacky farm animals trying to run a farm lol rather than any allegorical aspects.





[none]



... were you taught it in, like, kindergarten

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #57

Postby Raxivace » Sun Apr 19, 2020 10:13 pm

Actually, I never even went to Kindergarten. [laugh] It was...7th Grade that we read Animal Farm, I think, give or take a year. The English programs in my township frankly were not very good- though looking back, its hard to blame any individual teacher for that really and not how screwed up school systems in general can be.

Perhaps this makes more sense if you know that I'm from Indiana originally, the state that thought electing Mike Pence as governor was a good idea.
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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #58

Postby Derived Absurdity » Sun Apr 19, 2020 11:48 pm

I mean, to be fair, that's at least better than how it's often taught, which is that it's somehow pro-capitalist or anti-socialist.

People still hold up Animal Farm as a reference for why socialism is bad.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #59

Postby Raxivace » Mon Apr 20, 2020 1:03 am

Yeah, from what I can remember at least I really don't know how you could get pro-capitalism/anti-socialism themes from that book. If anything, its once the farm animals straying from socialist values (Going from "All animals are equal" to "Some animals are more equal than others" etc.) that things start really going to shit.

Like at best you might say that it's a reminder that even good political ideas/movements can get hijacked or misused by bad actors (Though if this is meant to map onto real world historical figures that's where I start becoming unsure of myself with what the book is saying), but I don't think that's the same as being anti-socialist per se.
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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #60

Postby Derived Absurdity » Mon Apr 20, 2020 4:24 pm

I suppose some people think it shows that all attempts at egalitarian or building a freer world are doomed to fail because power-hungry sociopaths will always corrupt it and ruin them, and in that general sense it's "anti-socialist", because it shows that's where all attempts at making socialism will inevitably end up. Even if the book did specifically portray the revolution itself as a good thing and the capitalists as exploiting monsters, that much more general anti-socialist message still gets through.

Even if Orwell didn't mean for that message to be taken from the book, I think he still shoulders the blame, because that's basically how it portrays things. There's a very strong aura of inevitability about the events in it. Like some people just fuck everything up because they're bad and that's it. The Soviet Union wasn't bad because of any underlying materialist or structural factors (maybe something to do with Marx's explicit warning that you can't transition from agrarian feudalism straight to communism, maybe?), it's just because some people actively chose to ruin it. Humans just suck, that's how it be. And if that's the case, what's the justification for thinking that won't always happen every single time anything quasi-socialist is tried?

Orwell, being a socialist, clearly couldn't have thought that. But that's kind of what the book says anyway, and it's why I think it's silly there was no attempt at providing an actual explanation for what went wrong besides "some people suck, lol what are you gonna do."

It's hard for me to comprehend what a hopelessly, nihilistic misanthropic attitude one must have to genuinely take away from this book the idea that humans are so awful that we can't ever do better than capitalism. I'm misanthropic, but I try to be realistic about it. Sure, people suck, but we don't suck that much that we can't eventually build something better than capitalism, even if it's not a utopia.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #61

Postby Derived Absurdity » Tue May 05, 2020 8:14 am

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson) -

This is an unapologetic peon to social isolation and anthropophobia, very apropos in these trying times, although in my case are pretty timeless themes. This book captures the feeling of extreme social aversion really well, although in the case of our protagonist, Mary Katherine Blackwood, her social aversion goes far beyond even most sufferers and she has several dozen other psychiatric disorders that kind of overshadow even that. Mary Katherine Blackwood is easily one of the most bizarre and memorable characters I've ever read. She's supremely creepy - she's psychotic, completely disconnected from reality, and speaks like a precocious and disturbed nine-year-old even though she's supposedly eighteen. She has violent fantasies of killing virtually everyone she meets. Her older sister, Constance, the only important thing in her life, is just as supremely creepy as she is in her own understated way.

The story is that these two live with their uncle in a secluded mansion of sorts, and it turns out the rest of their family, the Blackwoods, were all murdered six years ago by poison, which everyone blamed on Constance, who got off, so now all the yokels in the town hate them. Even though it's implied the hatred the townspeople have for them is rooted in something a bit deeper and older. Such as the fact that they, the Blackwoods, are rich and powerful and they're not. Mary's dislike of them are definitely partly class-based, even though it seems to be mostly subconscious. Nothing much happens for a while, except Constance and Mary keep being extremely weird, until Charles, a greedy family member, shows up and ruins everything. Mary thinks he's literally a demon, for no real reason other than he dares to interrupt her perfect idyllic eternally unchanging little world, and tries to get rid of him.

There's a lot of Shirley Jackson's real life reflected in this story, considering that she was fairly well-off social recluse who hated other people. I'm a social recluse who hates other people, only not well-off, so I don't really get the privilege of not interacting with others if I don't want to. But I did sympathize with Mary, despite her class snobbery and multiple psychoses, as she described my inner experiences with a lot of accuracy and sympathy. Not just the social exclusiveness, but the aggressive hostility I always perceive in everyone I meet, the incessant and debilitating fear of judgment, the neuroticism, the general dislike of the external world, and even the love of changelessness and stability and extreme regularity characteristic of autism. Shirley Jackson wrote all that pretty well.

The amusing thing about this book is that it basically ends with her anthropophobia being justified. The townspeople really are terrible. Charles really is awful. Mary and Constance really are happy together, or at least they think they are. Apparently social isolation really can be a good idea sometimes. Although I realize the ending is supposed to be, at minimum, ambiguous.

I quite liked it. I think I liked it better than Hill House. It's only when you reach the end and think about it that you realize that there was nothing supernatural in it, or anything even hinted at being supernatural, and still managed to be pretty unsettling, which shows you how extremely well-written it was. Shirley Jackson was an excellent writer and I'm not sure why she's not more generally well-known, despite the recent cinematic and televisual reinessance of sorts her work is undergoing.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #62

Postby Faustus5 » Tue May 12, 2020 4:09 pm

Derived Absurdity wrote:Shirley Jackson was an excellent writer and I'm not sure why she's not more generally well-known, despite the recent cinematic and televisual reinessance of sorts her work is undergoing.


I've always known about her, even before some of her short stories were assigned in high school. You don't generally like biop's, but there's a Shirley Jackson movie coming out staring Elisabeth Moss.

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Re: A Head Full of Ghosts   Reply #63

Postby Derived Absurdity » Fri May 29, 2020 5:02 am

I've known about her for as long as I can remember. Yet it still seems she's largely overlooked compared to other classic 20th century authors.

The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Ellen Meiksins Wood) -

The premise here is that most conventional (or bourgeois) accounts of history purporting to explain the origin of capitalism do nothing of the sort, as they unthinkingly presuppose its latent existence before it actually shows up. They take its underlying reality in primordial form in most ancient societies for granted, not only in towns but in agricultural tribes, as it's assumed to be the ultimate and inevitable manifestation of the timeless natural human inclination to (in Adam Smith's words) "truck, barter, and exchange". Capitalism has no origin, according to conventional accounts; at best, you can "explain" its development by describing how obstacles to its progression were removed at some places. These obstacles are mostly purported to be feudalism and authoritarian limitations on free commerce (both of which lasted for a remarkably long time for supposedly being just random accidental deviations from human nature), which were thrown off by bourgeois revolutions. In some more progressive accounts, European imperialism is given focus to describe why Asian, African, and Native American societies didn't develop as quickly, but that still leaves the basic underlying idea intact, just given an anti-racist flavor. Marxism's primary contribution to historiography is the idea that capitalism is a very specific mode of social and economic operation, that started in a very specific time and place, can only function in specific conditions, and therefore has a conceivable end. Capitalism was an unprecedented transformation in forms of social relations of property, which was a radical disruption in human society, a severe quantitative break, not simply a continuity of ancient trading practices. It's the difference between profit-making via commercial trading and profit-making via accumulation, between the market as an opportunity and the market as an imperative, between mere processes of technological development and the unending compulsion to improve labor productivity. Capitalism is a system subject to specific "laws of motion": unending pressures of competitive production and profit-maximization, the compulsion to constantly reinvest surpluses, and the relentless need to improve labor productivity. These laws of motion got started only recently and in a specific place, and they're not continuous with anything that existed before.

It's been assumed that commerce in ancient cities was the natural progenitor of mature capitalism, yet through history there have been a vast number of cities and a great deal of trade that never gave way to capitalism. There were "high" civilizations in Asia, Africa, and North America with advanced cultures and highly developed commercial systems that far surpassed those of medieval England, yet they didn't develop into capitalism. Commerce was based on trade and circulation, not competition, and the main commercial advantages and rivalries were "extra-economic" (or non-economic) like superior shipping and domination of transport routes. Markets always existed, but they were peripheral adjuncts to the larger economy and to peoples' lives. The market existed as an opportunity to increase surplus, not as an imperative. No class anywhere depended on it for their survival or production. Under capitalism, every single thing is subordinate to the market, and every single class is dependent on it for their own reproduction. Workers sell their labor power on it as a commodity, and capitalists depend on it to buy labor power (as well as the means of production), and to realize their profits by selling what the workers produce. On the flipside, there were also producers and expropriators since time immemorial, but the expropriators extracted surplus through "extra-economic" means, like direct coercion through privileged access to political or military force. Under capitalism, expropriation is mediated entirely by the market. So how did a system where both production and distributed are mediated entirely by the market originate?

This system was ultimately birthed in the countryside in England, with the enclosure movement, starting in the 1500s. England at this point was a largely centralized and unified monarchical state, much moreso than its Continental neighbors, which meant that its ruling bodies had comparatively less autonomous extra-economic power with which to extract surplus from the peasant population. On the other hand, land in England had been unusually concentrated in big landholdings, which meant that direct producers were often tenants instead of autonomous peasant farmers. These two facts together meant that appropriators in England had more means and incentives to extract surplus through compelling their tenants to increase productivity rather than direct coercion. Tenants could lose their means of subsistence if they were out-competed by more productive tenants, which meant they were dependent on market forces for their livelihood. At the same time, the English ruling classes were obsessing over "improvement", which meant at the time cultivating land for monetary profit, rendering land profitable and productive, especially in regards to enclosure and eliminating "waste". Enclosure wasn't just the fencing off of open fields; it entailed the elimination of ancient customs that the landholders saw as interfering with the most productive use of land, most notably "use-rights" which many peasants depended on for their livelihood, making land not just private but exclusive. The nobility succeeded in capturing the state in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution, which led to Parliamentary Enclosure, which did away with inconvenient property rights that interfered with accumulation directly.

The ideology justifying all this was mainly developed by John Locke with his labor theory of property. God gave the land in common to all, but men own themselves, and their labor belongs to them, according to Locke, so whatever they "mix their labor" with becomes theirs. Public land becomes your land if you "mix your labor" with it. Un-laborered land is a waste, so anyone who removes it from the common and "improves" it with his labor has not only not stolen from humanity, but actively gave to it. In fact landholders and appropriators have a divine mandate to do so. This also justified American colonialism and the specific capitalist form of imperialism - one of not simply territorial expansion, but one where land is commodified and expropriated for profit.

None of this involved wage labor very much, which might make one wonder whether it should be called capitalist, but it was still the originator of the laws of motion and forms of property relations that would come to characterize capitalism. The English agrarian sector was more productive than any other in history, which makes sense for a system based on wringing as much productivity out of people as possible via threat of dispossession. Market competition and enclosure caused waves of propertyless vagabonds to move to the nearest city, London, where they were coerced to sell their labor to employers for a wage, resulting in the mass industrial proletariat that would form the new basis of class struggle. And this highly unique system has enveloped the world because of its equally unique laws of motion, its incessant expansionist drive for accumulation and profit, its compulsion to turn all natural resources and labor into commodities, its unquenchable need to constantly reinvest surplus and transform the methods of production to increase productivity, and so on, not because it happens to be the manifestation of human nature.

Most Marxists have recognized the enclosure movement in England as essential for the development of the industrial proletariat as a class, but this necessarily means that its role in developing capitalism was seen as indirect: it led to mass displacement, which led to proletarianization, which led to capitalism. The insight of this book, the way I see it, is in recognizing that it was, in reality, extremely direct. It originated the laws of motion and forms of property and social relations that led to capitalism directly and straightforwardly.

So if you want to know where the horrific Lovecraftian abomination that engulfs us all came from, here you go.


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