Saturday 12 September 2020

Weekend Reading: 3 Heavyweight Offerings

A break from Saddam Hussein this weekend, and back to the future.  A couple of excellent reads here (a couple of which, if you get the same BTL google-prompts as I do, you may have already seen, if not opened).  They feed into all manner of those frivolous themes we often visit hereabouts:  the future of capitalism, the rise of China, the decline of liberal democracy ...

A.  Why Fukuyama was right all along: an essay by someone called Aris Roussinos

Everyone remembers The End of History, right?  Well -

nearly thirty years later, reading what Fukuyama actually wrote as opposed to the dismissive précis of his ideas, we see that he was right all along. Where Huntington and Kaplan predicted the threat to the Western liberal order coming from outside its cultural borders, Fukuyama discerned the weak points from within, predicting, with startling accuracy, our current moment. In The Last Man, the under-discussed addendum to The End of History, Fukuyama took his intellectual cues from Nietzsche rather than Hegel ... With all his demands met and material wants assuaged, will the last man be content at last, pausing the endless revolving wheel of history? “Left to themselves,” Fukuyama asks, “can those stable, long-standing liberal democracies of Europe and America be indefinitely self-sustaining, or will they one day collapse from some kind of internal rot, much as communism has done?” Beyond the demands for absolute equality, freedom from want and overarching authority which underlie the politics of liberalism, Fukuyama contends, “lies the question of whether there are other deeper sources of discontent within liberal democracy - whether life there is truly satisfying...

Anyone leveraging intelligently off the penetrating analyses of Nietzsche is going to get attention from me.  Having thus far only read this essay, and not the book, I'm lazily depending on secondary stuff.  But it's certainly interesting, including some points that Chairman Xi may wish to ponder.   

Fukuyama's Nietzsche-prompted ideas include, on the one hand - vis-à-vis external threats - “perhaps most critically, [liberal democracy] would be unable to defend itself from civilizations that were infused with a greater spirit of megalothymia, [the need to be recognized as superior to others - a Fukuyama coinage] whose citizens were ready to forsake comfort and safety and who were not afraid to risk their lives for the sake of dominion”. 

On the other - threats from within - “modern thought raises no barriers to a future nihilistic war against liberal democracy on the part of those brought up in its bosom.”  Fukuyama predicts, “if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause because that just cause was victorious in an earlier generation, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words, out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle. And if the greater part of the world in which they live is characterized by peaceful and prosperous liberal democracy, then they will struggle against that peace and pros­perity, and against democracy.”

Heavy stuff.  And no less weighty is

B. Why Growth Will Fail: another book review

The book, Rise and Fall, is by Robert Gordon ("handsomely produced, at nearly eight hundred pages it weighs as much as a small dog"): the sub-heading of the review reads: 

For most of human history, economic progress moved at a crawl. Then, according to standard calculations, the world economy took off.

The centrepiece is a review of  the “special century” from 1870 to 1970—in which living standards increased more rapidly than at any time before or after - "unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once ... A central aspect of Gordon’s thesis is that the conventional measures of economic growth omit some of the largest gains in living standards and therefore underestimate economic progress. A point that is little appreciated is that the standard measures of economic progress do not include gains in health and life expectancy. Nor do they include the impact of revolutionary technological improvements such as the introduction of electricity or telephones or automobiles".

We do all need to understand the detail behind these points, and the review usefully does that for us.  Why do we need to understand?  Because, as many a green will say, we have become utterly addicted to growth as the basic remedy for all ills: whatever's wrong, we expect eventually to grow our way past it, as we've become accustomed to.  You don't need to be Malthus to find that in need of revisiting.  History doesn't move, Whiggishly, only in one direction, as the thousand-year hiatus in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire shows us.  

Oh, and apparently Gordon has no time for the thesis that super-intelligent computers will just take off into the distance and leave us quite differently situated (though the reviewer thinks we ought to be a bit more open-minded on that).   Finally:

C.  Meritocracy Has Betrayed The Working Classes; a book-related interview

The third book is The Tyranny of Merit  by philosopher Michael Sandel.  I found it rather easier going than the two reviews and I reckon many will enjoy his insights on corrosive leftwing individualism

By championing an “age of merit” as the solution to the challenges of globalisation, inequality and deindustrialisation, the Democratic party and its European equivalents, Sandel argues, hung the western working-class and its values out to dry … “Tawney argued that equality of opportunity was at best a partial ideal. His alternative was not an oppressive equality of results. It was a broad, democratic ‘equality of condition’ that enables citizens of all walks of life to hold their heads up high and to consider themselves participants in a common venture. My book comes out of that tradition.” 

(So, incidentally, does the British Army.)

*   *   *   *   *

There you go, that's social-distancing Sunday fixed for you.



dearieme said...

"a broad, democratic ‘equality of condition’ that enables citizens of all walks of life to hold their heads up high and to consider themselves participants in a common venture".

My father phrased that as "We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord". He meant it metaphorically - no God-botherer he. But he meant it.

A favourite Scottish aphorism makes the same point: "We're a' Jock Tamson's bairns".

dearieme said...

"Nor do they include the impact of revolutionary technological improvements such as the introduction of electricity or telephones or automobiles".

The same's probably true of the first century of the Great Divergence, say 1770-1870. The canals, the railways, the idea of going to the beach or the countryside for leisure, the telegraph, the steamship, the clothing cheap enough, and washable enough, to yield improved comfort and hygiene, the clean water supply and effective sewerage, the nationwide distribution of newspapers, the subscription libraries, the circulating libraries, and finally the public libraries, the cheaper coal and food, ...

Don Cox said...

For the late 19C I suggest reading "Hodge and His Masters" by Richard Jefferies.

It wasn't exactly Welfare State.

Even today, there seem to be many people who are paid benefits by the government which are supposed to be enough to live on, but who are really struggling. I suppose expenditure rises to meet income (Parkinson's Second Law), so the sunny uplands are always just over the brow of the next hill.

Don Cox

Matt said...

Hm, "unrepeatable because so many of its achievements could happen only once" - true perhaps, but only in the "first world".

We are still living through this "special century" as the 2nd and 3rd world are rapidly being lifted out of poverty right now.

Yes, that has meant a (relative) decline the the living standards of the Western world but humanity as a whole is still benefiting.

We are the richest the world has ever been where "rich" is a blend of both monetary value and leisure time. The later is something that has been liberating (especially for women) as the time spend "running the household" is significantly less than it was even in the 1970s. All those kitchen gadgets mean we have time to do other pursuits.

So, I think the basic idea is sound, but only in so far as the "conventional measures of economic growth" are the one's the media can semi-understand so are likely the one's the general public is exposed to.

Elby the Beserk said...

"A. Why Fukuyama was right all along: an essay by someone called Aris Roussinos"

Contention - whilst this may be so, he also notes that any destruction of the West may come from within. Correctly - given that a central tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood is that all they have do is to encourage the West to destroy itself.

I'd say they were spot on.

Elby the Beserk said...

the late 19C I suggest reading "Hodge and His Masters" by Richard Jefferies.

It wasn't exactly Welfare State.

Even today, there seem to be many people who are paid benefits by the government which are supposed to be enough to live on, but who are really struggling. I suppose expenditure rises to meet income (Parkinson's Second Law), so the sunny uplands are always just over the brow of the next hill.

Don Cox

Benefits are NOT paid by the government. They are paid from money take from you and I.


dearieme said...

"It wasn't exactly Welfare State." Actually the late 19C was welfare state - free schooling for the kiddy-winkies.

Charlie said...

The English are forever doomed to spend any increase in their incomes on inflating house prices.

Anonymous said...

Where is the political philosophy of Trump in this. He represents those that want him to represent them and his actions are totally transactional from that viewpoint.

When tasked with making those transactions fit with a "rule-based" or democratic system, he either changes the rules or withdraws if it is not in the interests of his core vote.

All he needed to do was to identify the self-interest of a sufficiently large segment of the population - not nationalism, nor democracy, nor rule-based. Just the deal.

Powerful, simple and direct - and only in America.

andrew said...

On the end of history,
You do not need to read Nietzsche to understand that is you aren't done in by barbarians, you rot from within, or run out of resources.

I got that from Into Deepest Space (g. hoyle) and later on as a teen, Watership Down. (Perhaps I am a little dismissive :)

On Why Growth Will Fail
Big changes are often only visible with a lot of hindsight.

That economic growth is hard to measure is underlined by
"Over the 20 years from 1998 (when Krugman said this) to 2018, real per capita US GDP grew at an average rate of 1.3%/year. By contrast, between 1978 and 1998 it grew at 2.0%/year. Whatever the effects of the Internet are, they do not show up in any statistical analysis of GDP"

(i read some articles in Alphaville on measuring growth by measuring complexity and access to energy and this sounded interesting - but just moves the problem on, does not solve)

The value of a flushing toilet is clear now, but got lost between the fall of the roman empire and much later and (as per the internet) it would be hard to spot its effect in GDP figures.

And this is the key point for me (where I agree): The definition of what 'growth' is changes over time. flushing toilets dropped in value for a while.
Since 1870, badger baiting has dropped in value.
Being able to talk to your mum across thousands of miles is important and 50 years ago no-one cared as there was no such thing as a gap-year.

Where I disagree is that there will (necessarily) be a period of 'slower' growth.
Slower growth (imo) is due to the increasing concentration of wealth in the top x% (x is small but arbitrary) and the consequential hollowing out of the middle classes who both create new things and as a mass market buy them.
This is a political and societal choice.

There is also little evidence that the rate of 'only once' things will drop off.
Just because the author (and I) cannot see the next 'only once' does not mean it is not already here, but unevenly distributed

DJK said...

In other philosophic news, I see that Edinburgh University has renamed the David Hume Tower. In future it will be 60 George Square, David Hume apparently holding unacceptable views on race, and being "heavily involved in the slave trade". I wonder if Edinburgh council will now tear down the rather handsome statue of Hume that was erected on the Royal Mile in, I think, about 2010?

Nick Drew said...

DJK - yes, I saw that. Utterly, utterly bonkers. Hume! A pillar of humanist enlightenment!

dearieme said...

Edinburgh is one of the nine educational institutions that write to my household begging for money.

They won't get a penny. And once Oriel takes down Rhodes it won't get a brass farthing either.

In fact if there's anything left over at the end it might go to a donkey sanctuary or a hedgehog rescue charity. Come to think of it, is there a charity that supports badger culls? Or killing all those verminous deer and foxes?

Anonymous said...

'fraid Hume was pretty bonkers himself, or at least his philosophy was. If we buy his denial of causality (which follows from his denial of Aristotelian final causes), it means nothing is ever predictable. Literally nothing. Reacting hydrogen and oxygen could produce water, or it could produce a chocolate bunny in the shape of Tony Blair's teeth: you could never know. The fact that it has only ever produced the former outcome in the past means nothing for Hume. Similarly, he denied diachronic identity, including his own -- in which case, we have no reason to take anything he, or any philosopher, says seriously, because there is no thought behind it, or no brain behind it, because there is no person behind it.

How he, or Anglo*-Enlightenment philosophy more generally, can ever be thought to be 'conservative' in any sense of the word is beyond me. It is just as radical, and just as nutty, as anything the French came up with in the 18C.


* I mean English-speaking, not necessarily of England

Nick Drew said...

EC - well, you've started something there ...

but actualy I don't think I have the time

Kant is only the most famous of those who take Hume's challenges (for that is what they are) as a start-line - they are as fruitful a contribution as any in the history of thought

as for diachronic identity, well, the whole of Buddhism explores the same line of thought - as well as a great deal of modern scientific and epistemological work on consciousness (and of course my old favourite, Nietzsche ...)

= = = = =
"Hume was a man of his time in some ways, but we don't read him to figure out whether we should invest in the slave trade. We read him because he transcended his time, because he touched the fundamental questions about what it is to be a human being in the world: what do we know, what should we value, what is there really? In that regard, he is like Plato, the enemy of democracy, and Aristotle, the defender of slavery, as well as Hobbes, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche: he speaks to all human beings, despite his parochial prejudices.

That these analysts of human being should be erased from the landscape, because of their local prejudices, is a symptom of our times, not simply of the narcissistic stupidity of "identity politics" and the craven spinelessness of academic administrators, but, more importantly, of the reactionary forces of the moment which will love nothing better than the erasure of the cosmopolitan ideals we have inherited: the forces of reaction, after all, are committed to vindicating the local traditions and prejudices and customs. They can happily join forces with the identity narcissists in eradicating those thinkers concerned with the human."


Anonymous said...

@anon 12:39 - nothing wrong in taking even objectively incorrect philosophies seriously.

Philosophy and ideology need to be kept distinct from politics, the first two welcome to inform and influence the latter, but most definitely unwelcome to constrain it.

I read the unherd article a little while back, and having never read End of History, it was somewhat abstract about the tome itself for me, but I found a lot of the article itself reasonable. There has been plenty written about the power of a common purpose in binding people together, but less about the reverse, and would seem to me that if you wish your civilisation to persevere the key is always about teaching your kids to think and ensuring inequality is boundaried. If you have a lot of inequality, and train your society to consist of worker drones, then the enemies within have a rather large pool of potential foot soldiers they can persuade more easily.

As for growth, makes sense that it slows, there are always paradigm shifts to be found that will cause serious growth of some kind, but you need the stars to align for it to be economic growth mostly as it needs to scale in some form. The industrial revolution allowed us to scale up to planet level, and so growth is constrained by that and territorial conflicts arising from it.

The next level is solar system scale, and I've no idea what technologies will make that viable - certainly cheap and safe ways of exiting gravity wells, but there also needs to be something worth the investment. Possibly low-g materials where the cost on Earth would be exorbitant to do at scale compared to creating them off-world, something similar to metallic hydrogen would be worth it for example.

andrew said...

"The next level is solar system scale, and I've no idea what technologies will make that viable - certainly cheap and safe ways of exiting gravity wells, but there also needs to be something worth the investment. "

Staring into my crystal ball and seeing something that looks like a distorted finger pointing down...

Sort of disagree
Short of a space elevator (built of unobtanium) the cheapest way of getting people up and out is to breed them up there. Of course radiation etc and assumes a critical mass of capability that lets you drink / eat/ breathe / not die.
but ivf is already used to weed out genetic disorders.

people emigrate for many reasons (yes, money), but some of the biggest drivers at an early, risky stage is people wanting to get away from persecution or looking for the promised land (religious refugees).

polidoriredux said...

"...and the craven spinelessness of academic administrators..."

As an ex-administrator may I humbly request that you do not blame administrators for the craven cowardice of the academic community. We administrators don't court popularity with children, and so we tend to stand our ground.

BlokeInBrum said...

I wonder if I'm not the only one hugely surprised and disappointed that there hasn't been a moon-base built and (wo)manned already.
The technology exists, as do the resources. The only thing lacking seems to be the vision and the motivation.
One of the few valid reasons to move in to space would be to pursue scientific advances.

The large hadron collider and others of its ilk, would benefit hugely from being in space. The next frontiers in physics require particle accelerators an order of magnitude larger than what we could do on Earth.
There are other interesting avenues of scientific research that would benefit from a zero, or low G environment, such as metallurgy.

Andrew mentioned that the religious and the persecuted tend to be early pioneers, well how about the stubborn individualist, determined to succeed or fail on his or her own terms, without an army of bureaucrats or hangers on to hold them back. Reckon that used to describe the American Dream rather well.

Anonymous said...

@andrew - you don't seem to be disagreeing at all there! :D

Space elevator won't happen, for starters we'd need to anchor an asteroid nearer to Earth than anyone is going to be able to get away with. I wouldn't put it past someone like Musk having a crack at it, but their life expectancy would start heading south at a greater rate than one of Putin's critics.

Space elevators are a thing you can do after you've already got the tech that makes them redundant. Realistically it's about getting rocket tech commodified.

Moving into space is also something, but it's not quite the same as shifting between continents. Realistically we're going to have meet the environs half way, so I can see that happening when there's a willingness to have kids engineered to improve their ability to survive.

If a diaspora from Earth ever happens, it'll make the migration from Africa seem like nothing, rather than a few differences altering things like skin colour, there'll be actual drift into new species, and mostly on purpose.

Anonymous said...

I'd argue that Hume (and Descartes, from the opposite direction) severed philosophy from reality, and Kant took this a step further. There was something of a recovery in the 20C with analytic philosophy, but by then the early-moderns had done their damage on the wider culture.

The trouble with Hume's denial of causality and diachronic identity is its manifest dishonesty: nobody really believes it. Nobody really thinks science is merely the cataloguing of regularities that have been observed up to this point, without predictive power. Nobody disbelieves in his own existence (or disbelieves in the existence of trees, or hydrogen atoms). In both cases, you'd be nuts to act as though these things were true. It's not the start-line, but the finish-line of thought, at least insofar as it engages with reality. Hume wasn't nuts; as Elizabeth Anscombe says, he was a brilliant sophist, but no more.

At least so I think. I'll shut up now, and just observe that Hume's statue being toppled is another example of the revolutionaries devouring their own :).

- EC

Anonymous said...

PS As for the Buddhists and Nietzche, they are/were at least honest enough to see where this stuff led, and are/were honest enough to deny that reason can tell us anything about reality. Hume is merely using reason to undermine reason. IMHO.

Nick Drew said...

a brilliant sophist

fair enough

but you need that line of reasoning out there, as well-developed as possible, as a starting point

severed philosophy from reality

I suggest there are many earlier candidates for that prize