Book Reviews (16)

Books 16

Earthsea: The First Four Books – Ursula Le Guin

Fantasy set on an archipelago world, with magic rooted in true names and the balance of the natural world. The first trilogy – A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore – covers the heroic exploits of the mage Ged, who starts out as a gifted, impatient, arrogant goat-herder. There’s action in there, but it’s a chill pleasant read. Would’ve liked more of the school on Roke. Le Guin’s Daoist influence is used well.

Tehanu changes tack in interesting ways. It’s good overall – the turn towards ordinary life and women counterbalances elements of the first books, and a weaker writer would’ve forced a way around The Farthest Shore’s ending. But the pacing is choppy, and sometimes it feels a bit like an essay poking through.

The character and worldbuilding are high-class.

Why You Should Be a Socialist – Nathan Robinson

Robinson’s arguments for democratic socialism emphasise core principles – solidarity, concern about class structures, commitment to democracy in the economy (e.g. the workplace) as well as in the usual political sphere. As with his work in Current Affairs, he draws a sharp divide between his politics – based in libertarian socialist  ideas – and the more gulag-y stuff.

One weakness is a lack of a clear distinction between social democracy and socialism, linked to his excessive reticence to define terms. He veers between arguing for (good) reforms within capitalism along the lines of Bernie Sanders – pointing out the successes of individual socialist mayors, etc – and calling for more radical systemic change. Many liberals could come out of this thinking ‘okay, the Democratic party needs reform and it might be good to have a few socialist voices here and there, but I’m still not convinced about seizing the means of production.’ But hey, that’s not a disaster.

He does, though, make a lot of good points for newcomers, especially hammering the points of real commitment to democracy beyond the limits of liberalism, that public ownership needn’t mean state ownership, and that libertarian socialism is a thing.

It’s very obvious, given that we live on a planet with finite resources, that endless growth is impossible. And yet we have created [corporations] that exist to pursue endless growth[.] This is a recipe for civilizational suicide.[…]

Whether people are free depends not just on whether they own themselves, but whether others have power over them in practice.[…]

We should probably focus less on the question of whether something is in [the public sector or private sector] than on questions about who gets the benefits and who holds decision-making power.[…]

Liberty without socialism means rule by CEOs, socialism without liberty means rule by bureaucrats.[…]

I can never understand why using an iPhone means you cannot object to the conditions under which iPhones are produced and sold and advocate for changing them. […] If a resident of the Soviet Union had gotten a free education in state schools and a job in the state bureaucracy, would they be a hypocrite if they criticized [the] structure of the Soviet economy?

The Toll – Neal Shusterman

At first I was a bit concerned about how this trilogy would be finishing – the initially ambiguous gap in time from Thunderhead was confusing, the Tonist interludes seemed too out-there, some fast perspective hopping, and thoughts of ‘really, this is a super-intelligent AI’s plan?’

But it does all come together! It’s a lot of fun, and works back through questions raised by the first two books to tie up in a story of enormous scale. Greyson and the Thunderhead have a great weird dynamic, all the characters are enjoyable (though Goddard is a little ‘mwah-ha-ha!-y’), the conclusion wraps up in a satisfying way without being too sugary. But I find it weird that people still struggle to understand people like Jeri?

A good ending to a refreshing, fast-paced take on (u/dys)topia and AI, with nice worldbuilding around post-mortality – albeit the themes on that are nothing new – and an interesting cast.

Diversity is Necessary But Not Sufficient

Johnson Cabinet
Photo by Aaron Chown – WPA Pool/Getty Images

In my thoughts on Theresa May’s resignation announcement speech, I said in response to her comment on being ‘the second female prime minister’ that ‘The Tories love using Thatcher and May to virtue-signal about gender equality, even as their policies materially harm women and a high proportion of Tory MPs are men.’

Now new PM Boris Johnson (yikes!) describes his cabinet as a cabinet ‘for modern Britain’: ‘Mr Johnson has appointed four full cabinet members from BAME backgrounds (17%) as well as two ministers who will attend cabinet – a record for any government.’

To be clear, that representation is a good thing. It’s not as though it would be better somehow to not have it. It is better to have proper diversity than not.

But nor am I a trained seal, clapping mindlessly at these sorts of gestures. Diversity is necessary but not sufficient.

If a cabinet perfectly reflects every demographic but still maintains regressive policy, by what measure is it ‘modern’ or ‘progressive’, aside from in a shallow symbolic – even tokenistic – sense? ‘But there’s PoC in it’ can be an institutional version of the classic ‘I’m not racist, I have a black friend’.

For me, the prime example of the importance of representation vs. the importance of a firm critique of material conditions is the Obama presidency.

I don’t deny the symbolic power of the first black presidency for race relations. It made a lot of racists very mad, which is definitely a sign something good is happening. Many people found it profoundly significant to see themselves represented in the highest office of the land for the first time.

But as Matt Breunig and Ryan Cooper point out, Obama’s neoliberal policy made black Americans materially worse off:

Between 2007 and 2016, the average wealth of the bottom 99 percent dropped by $4,500. Over the same period, the average wealth of the top 1 percent rose by $4.9 million.

This drop hit the housing wealth of African Americans particularly hard.[…]

Because African Americans were disproportionately victimized at all levels of the housing and foreclosure crises, they stood to gain the most from better policy. But because Obama’s approach failed cataclysmically, the first black president in American history turned out to be a disaster for black wealth.

Because of its unwillingness or inability to take a good look at class, liberalism loses sight of the material issues impacting the very demographics it is so vocal about in the cultural sphere. Similarly, white Clintonite winemoms will insist that (cringy quote) ‘black twitter ain’t havin’ no Bernie’ despite many of the PoC they’re patronising actually supporting Sanders because his policy would help their lives.

To a lesser degree, the same principles apply over here with the Johnson cabinet. In our case, it’s conservatism deciding to like ‘identity politics’ as and when it can be used to score cheap points.

Two high-profile examples of Johnson’s cabinet ‘for modern Britain’ are Priti Patel (Home Secretary) and Sajid Javid (Chancellor).

Not that long ago, Priti Patel was led to resign as International Development Secretary after holding secretive meetings with Israeli political and business figures while on holiday. Her voting record is pretty dire by any progressive standard.

As for Sajid Javid, his recent past is, uh, a little concerning:

The man whose company produced the insulation panels on Grenfell Tower has a second job advising the Government on building regulations.

Mark Allen, a technical director for the UK arm of Saint-Gobain, is also a member of the Building Regulations Advisory Committee.

The body makes recommendations about building regulations to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

Saint-Gobain is an owner of Celotex, which produced the RS5000 insulation panels used on Grenfell Tower.

His voting record is a bit better, but still pretty bad.

It’s a good thing, not a bad thing, to have diversity in government. But that by itself doesn’t make a government woke, and to say otherwise would be immensely patronising tokenism.

We’ll see commentators crowing about the racial diversity of Johnson’s cabinet one minute then decrying ‘identity politics’ the next; ignoring that cabinet’s corruption and malicious impacts on ordinary Britons while claiming to love the ‘modern Britain’ it ‘represents’.

Beyond electoral politics, diversity is necessary but not sufficient in other areas. There’s a common leftist quip of ‘more trans CEOs!’ and ‘more lesbian drone pilots!’ – the point being that while transphobia, misogyny, etc, etc, are bad and worth addressing in their own right, making corrupt systems and institutions more diverse should never be the end goal.

Yes, end the misogyny behind the glass ceiling. Yes, diversity in boardrooms is a sign of progress. But let’s not end at that low bar – what is the company doing, how is it structured, what sort of economy is it situated within? How are its janitors? Is a company with a trans CEO woke if it sells arms to regressive regimes, or hires death squads to assassinate union leaders?

Shouldn’t nobody be an ICE agent? Shouldn’t nobody help bomb civilians? Shouldn’t companies not be structured like authoritarian governments?

There’s an interesting tendency sometimes to talk as though reality is a turn-based game. ‘You want to do thing! But we need to do other thing!’ Fortunately, it’s possible for a global population of billions to do more than one thing at a time.

In the case of diversity-related cultural issues and of class-based material issues, it’s completely plausible to address both of them together. And if we don’t, we won’t do either of them justice, because they are two sides of the same coin.

Fat Cat Friday

Trickle down economics

By the 4th of January, the average CEO of a FTSE 100 company had already earned the average yearly wage.

Executive pay rose 11% in a year, while most people’s wages are still lower than ten years ago.

Is this a fair reflection of people’s contributions? Did executives step up their game by 11% and the rest of us slack off for a decade? As Owen Jones says:

we should snap out of thinking that they somehow deserve these vast sums: they don’t. And that forms the basis for arguing that far more of that money should end up in the paypackets of their workforce, reinvested in their companies and invested in the nation’s public services and infrastructure.

The government boasts about high employment, claiming work is the route out of poverty. But when the wealth generated in work is funneled to the top rather than to those who produce it, this is a fantasy. UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston’s report on poverty in the UK shows the hard truths.

The government told me that there are 3.3 million more people in work than in 2010, that so called “absolute poverty” is falling, and that the social support system is working. An elected official added that there is no extreme poverty in the UK and nothing like the levels of destitution seen in other countries. But there is a striking and almost complete disconnect between what I heard from the government and what I consistently heard from many people directly, across the country.

People I spoke with told me they have to choose between eating and heating their homes, or eating and feeding their children. One person said, “I would rather feed my kids than pay my rent, but that could get us all kicked out.” Children are showing up at school with empty stomachs, and schools are collecting food on an ad hoc basis and sending it home because teachers know that their students will otherwise go hungry. Many families are living paycheck to paycheck. […]

The government says work is the solution to poverty and points to record employment rates as evidence that the country is going in the right direction. But being in employment does not magically overcome poverty. In-work poverty is increasingly common and almost 60% of those in poverty in the UK are in families where someone works. There are 2.8 million people living in poverty in families where all adults work full time. Families with two parents working full time at the national minimum wage are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child. One person told me “I know people who are working five jobs to make the national minimum wage, which isn’t a living wage.”

Low wages, insecure jobs, and zero hour contracts mean that even at record unemployment there are still 14 million people in poverty. […] Jobs aren’t even a guarantee against people needing food banks. The Trussell Trust told me that one in six people referred to their food banks is in work. One pastor said “The majority of people using our food bank are in work…. Nurses and teachers are accessing food banks.”

This is the context in which Fat Cat Friday is happening. There is a choice to be made: the greed of the few, or the need of the many.

Back when Morgan Stanley called Corbyn a threat, he responded in kind: ‘we’re a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few’.

This prompted pearl-clutching from some quarters: you can’t stand up to these people. Some people who privately feel the same feared that saying so openly was too adversarial.

Let them pay themselves more and the workforce less, cut public services and their taxes, smile to the camera when you open a food bank: ‘pragmatism’. Make even the slightest move to do the opposite: ‘this is class warfare and all the rich people will leave and we’ll be stuffed’.

I do appreciate that, pragmatically, there are limits to what can be done within capitalism. But something must be done. If you actually look into Labour policy it isn’t that radical – it presents no reason to fear catastrophic capital flight. The interests of a tiny group of people shouldn’t hold such sway over our lives and the range of our thoughts that even increasing corporation tax to 2010 levels conjures images of James Dyson sailing away to flee the Leninist vanguard.

It’s like we’re being held to ransom. The insatiable greed of a handful of people is a threat to the most vulnerable people in our society, but we can’t do anything too radical about it for fear of the global race to the bottom kicking in.

The underlying theme here is appeasement. This doesn’t seem like a healthy or sustainable way to have a society run.

Richard D. Wolff points out that, in the US, FDR implemented the New Deal (How many who fear Sanders as a radical think FDR was a great president?) – under the mass pressure of organised labour. It is possible to fight back, to meet the class war of greed with the class war of justice.

There is a point where pragmatism becomes cowardice and capitulation. Hungry children is not an acceptable price for higher executive bonuses. People will not stand for it forever.