The Great Degeneration

THE GREAT DEGENERATION
By Niall Ferguson

For many years now it’s been clear that our political glossary has been in need of some updating. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative,” which have always had very different meanings in the United States, Canada, and the U.K., now seem obsolete. Liberal has been superseded by neoliberal, while conservatives clearly don’t want to conserve anything, aside perhaps from networks of established privilege. What do the familiar labels of right and left-wing, an inheritance of the French Revolution, mean anymore? If even leaders of political parties in the U.S. are freely described by the acronym RINO or DINO (Republican or Democrat “In name only”) is it worth keeping the name? What exactly is the “party of Trump”?

For a while now it has seemed to me that the most meaningful political divide, whatever name you want to give the different sides, is that between a party of the state and a party of the anti-state. I prefer anti-state to private sector because I think it highlights what is the more important principle at work. Here is what I had to say about this latter group in my review of Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk:

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

As I went on to say in that review, the intellectual foundation or political philosophy of the party of the anti-state was, in the context of American politics, best outlined by Thomas Frank in his book The Wrecking Crew, which came out in 2008. Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration is an expression of the same ideas Frank describes, albeit presented by one of their champions and not a critic.

Ferguson takes as his starting point the fact that after a few hundred years of Western triumph over “the Rest,” sometimes referred to by historians as the Great Divergence, the rest of the world (meaning, mainly, Asia) is now not only catching up but overtaking Europe and North America. “My overarching question is: what exactly has gone wrong in the Western world in our time?”

His answer, to simplify an already short and simple book, is government. Specifically he criticizes moribund – or (it comes to the same thing) “stationary” – political, legal, and economic institutions. It is “institutional degeneration” that leads to decline. What this means in practice is government getting in the way. Like all apologists of the anti-state party Ferguson is a proponent of radical laissez-faire, making him a neoliberal, or libertarian.

As usual, Ferguson presents his case with some sleight of hand, misleading rhetoric, and a few signature moments of eyebrow-raising contrarianism. Public debt, for example, is a great evil, “the single biggest problem facing Western politics.” Ferguson, however, says he doesn’t want to address questions of debt and “sterile arguments between proponents of ‘austerity’ and ‘stimulus’.” Instead he thinks the real issue is the breaking of an intergenerational contract. This then leads him to the embarrassing line that “If young Americans knew what was good for them, they’d all be fans of Paul Ryan.” That is, they would vote for austerity (or “entitlement reform,” as the euphemism has it), but get a massive tax cut to big business that would blow the debt sky-high.

Of course a ballooning debt is not good for young Americans, but Ryan’s politics have always been more about destroying the state than solving existing problems. In working toward that end, his tax bill was an essential bit of legislation, a way of crippling the government if not administering to it a mortal blow. The rest of The Great Degeneration follows the same anti-state line. Did you think that the 2008 financial crisis was caused by a failure of regulation? This is to buy into a statist myth, Ferguson reveals. The global mortgage meltdown was the result of too much regulation! Is technology what’s driving the decline in participation in various civic groups and our going bowling alone? Again, not at all. It is “Not technology, but the state,” which is “the real enemy of civil society.” Is there a cure for a flagging educational system? Yes: more private educational institutions.

“It will be clear by now,” Ferguson writes near the end of his book, at a point where it is indeed very clear, “that I am much more sympathetic . . . to the idea that our society – and indeed most societies – would benefit from more private initiative and less dependence on the state. If that is now a conservative position, so be it. Once, it was considered the essence of true liberalism.” By “true liberalism” what is meant is what most people today would call neoliberalism, the essence of which is an attack on the power of the state to do anything other than fight wars and (perhaps) provide a police force. This latter is a point Ferguson wants to underline. “From an historian’s point of view” (or that of a neoliberal think-tank member), “the real risks in the non-Western world today are of revolution and war.” Risks, that is, to the West. So we’d better be ready to deal with the restive Resterners when they start getting jumpy. If the government has a role it’s to provide guns, not butter.

In all of this I am not attacking Ferguson’s ideas so much as trying to properly classify them using a more accurate political terminology than we currently have. My own feeling, however, is that his ideas are very bad and will lead not to an arrest of the great degeneration he describes but an acceleration of the same, particularly in so far as it relates to greater inequality. Ferguson likes to draw an analogy to Darwinism for his analysis, and as far as I can tell he is in effect a modern social Darwinist. He sees the struggle for survival as being the only route to growth. I doubt that growth will be the outcome of such a struggle though, and in any event it’s that very struggle and the random violence of its outcomes that people fashion government to protect themselves from. The idea that getting rid of government will free us all is to take debunked notions of supply-side economics and turn them into not just a panacea but a theology. I also suspect it’s a disingenuous argument, along the lines of championing Paul Ryan’s plans to starve the state or drown it in the bathtub under the guise of creating a more just society.

By being more open as to what they’re all about (as, to their credit, many members of Frank’s wrecking crew are), pundits like Ferguson would do their side a favour and present us with a more honest choice of alternatives than the facile distinction between less government or more government, good government vs. bad. I have nothing against those of Ferguson’s persuasion arguing against the state in all things. They need, however, to be more forthright about just how society in the absence of any effective government is going to work, and for whom.

Notes:
Review first published online December 10, 2018.

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Death by Video Game

Death by Video Game
Simon Parkin

With a title like this, taken from the spate of news stories about people dying after marathon sessions playing video games, I was expecting a book more critical of the addiction issues surrounding gaming. Instead Simon Parkin has written a fulsome appreciation of gaming and all of their many positives. There is nothing wrong with this, and I think Parkin’s book is excellent at what it does, but it really does present a slanted case that soft pedals the dangers and risks involved. In the chapter “Hiding Place,” for example, games are held out as ways to escape from a grim or damaging reality that seem to me little different than drugs or alcohol. Also missing is any discussion of the way game designers and the industry in general consciously seek to create addictions in players, using techniques even more insidious than cigarette companies. Maybe it’s just my usual pessimistic outlook, but I think the story is a lot darker than Parkin makes out.

A Generation of Sociopaths

A GENERATION OF SOCIOPATHS: HOW THE BABY BOOMERS BETRAYED AMERICA
By Bruce Cannon Gibney

I have a favourite bit of social-historical analysis. It comes from John Kenneth Galbraith and he lays it down as a “firm rule” when considering the cycles of history: “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”

Galbraith was talking about the French Revolution and the failure of the aristocratic old order to reform itself, but his firm rule has been verified countless times since. In our own day I find it an adage that’s useful to keep in mind when considering things like what sacrifices we can expect people of wealth, power, and privilege to make in order to, say, combat dangerous levels of economic inequality or to fight climate change. The answer is no “material part of their advantage.” In other words, nothing at all.

Bruce Gibney takes the elite and makes them into an age demographic with absolute political power in this passionate polemic directed at what has been fairly dubbed the most spoiled generation in the history of human civilization. These are the children of the Baby Boom, who were born into a well-managed world of peace and prosperity and are leaving behind a toxic crisis of debt, collapsing infrastructure, and environmental destruction. Gibney has a nice image: “The Boomers inherited a productive family farm with a modest mortgage. In twenty years, their children will take over a crumbling estate leveraged to the hilt.” Fully aware of what they have done, they have no regrets. Indeed, they want more, to continue looting society’s till with no thought for a future without them. Their goal has been “to wring every last dollar from the system, and any investment that could not be fully realized within Boomer lifetimes was to be avoided.” The Boomers “simply ignore problems whose greatest effects will fall outside their lifetimes and are of correspondingly little concern.” So, for example, in terms of foreign and domestic policy “All that is required is to avoid wholesale military collapse during Boomers’ golden years, while continuing to channel the budget into retirement and health programs whose gains can be harvested today.”

As with the French Ancien Régime, the sociopathic or narcissistic Boomers cannot be expected to go quietly. Will they surrender any part of their material advantage? Not one bit. They’ve had a great run and now want to throw one hell of a retirement party, come what may. Any change, which will most assuredly be far too little, will not come voluntarily:

There is no surefire treatment for sociopathy at the individual level, and therapists generally wait around for a spontaneous remission. America doesn’t have the luxury of patient optimism and nothing about Boomer behavior or pathologies recommends anything less than coercion by the state, democratically authorized. Boomers have been getting their way for decades and expect to continue doing so. They are not about to swing open the doors of Congress to let in the forces of social orthodoxy, rainbows streaming down from heaven, doves rising up to meet them, and a chorus of hosannas all around. The Boomers are too old, and benefit too much from their policies, for any of that.

Gibney’s diagnosis for this kind of behaviour is sociopathy (ego-centrism, lack of concern for others, disinhibition) but we could just as easily call Boomers narcissistic assholes, an increasingly common label used to describe our present mental-health epidemic (see my reviews of books like The Narcissism Epidemic and Selfish, Whining Monkeys). The essential point, however, is that whether we’re talking about sociopaths or narcissists there is no cure for what is a terminal condition.

Complaints about the Worst Generation have been growing in recent years, and, for many of the reasons Gibney lays out, they are understandable. To some extent they are inevitable when living in a period of crisis and long-term decline. Still, I think the problem is inherent in human nature and systems of political power rather than characteristic of any particular generation. Yes, the Boomers are awful, a combination of being poorly raised (Gibney blames television and bottle-feeding) and having been spoiled by a historical moment that they opportunistically seized. What’s more, they’re getting worse. But most people presented with the same windfall would have behaved the same way.

Meanwhile, perhaps the greatest damage done has been to the cultural environment, the enshrinement of an ideology (sometimes rendered as neoliberalism) championing individual greed and short-term thinking over any sense of a common purpose (“there is no such thing as society”). Future generations will have a hard enough time living in a world the Boomers made in their own image. What will make everything so much worse is the fact that we may be trapped in their heads for a long time as well.

Notes:
Review first published online November 6, 2018.

Natural Causes

NATURAL CAUSES: AN EPIDEMIC OF WELLNESS, THE CERTAINTY OF DYING, AND OUR ILLUSION OF CONTROL
By Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book in 2007 called Dancing in the Streets that was about the expression of collective joy. I mention this only because it is such an outlier in what has been a delightfully gloomy corpus of bestselling cultural criticism: on trying to get by working low-wage jobs (Nickel and Dimed), on the futile pursuit of the American dream (Bait and Switch), on the false promises of the happiness industry (Bright-sided) and, in this latest broadside, on the challenge of facing up to our own mortality.

Having realized that she is now “old enough to die,” Ehrenreich has turned her attention to the inevitability and randomness of death. That may make Natural Causes sound like it’s going to be a bit of a downer, but it’s not. Instead it’s a snarl in the face of the long arc of history that bends toward personal and cosmic annihilation.

It may seem obvious to say that death is inevitable but that hasn’t stopped whole industries growing up dedicated to forestalling death as long as possible and even trying, in some cases, to deny it entirely. Indeed finding a “cure for death” has become a hobby of American billionaires. It seems unfair that people with so much money should still have to die.

Despite being a bit of a gym rat herself, Ehrenreich sees a lot of these projects as misguided. Wellness has its limits. In the case of the spread of some cancers, for example, our own cells may be working against us. Most of Natural Causes is taken up with a discussion of these matters, and how wrongheaded it is to think of our bodies as holistic systems whose malfunctioning can be cured with better programming or technology.

What Ehrenreich offers instead of pipe dreams of immortality is a program of “successful aging.” This turns out to be something almost spiritual: a wilful release of notions of the self and a submersion into something greater than the individual: a “larger human super-being” and a living universe.

If that sounds a little vague and even whimsical it is at least optimistic and represents a death that I think most of us could live with.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star July 13, 2018.

The Fifth Risk

THE FIFTH RISK
By Michael Lewis

What is it that has so successfully united the right in the politics of our time? There is little in common between oil company CEOs, country-club conservatives, Tea Partiers, and white males without a college degree or disunionised labour when it comes to economic or even cultural concerns. Instead, what they share is a hatred of the government and an open wish to see it destroyed. Not shrunk, as in previous conservative dispensations, but done away with entirely. Taxes not lowered but abolished. Not less regulation but none at all. The right doesn’t like government and certainly doesn’t see a need for it. Any sort of government action is immediately labeled as socialism. We should just let the market do its work.

Thomas Frank has done a good job of explaining this line of thinking, especially in his book The Wrecking Crew. I won’t go over his analysis here but it’s important to keep in mind when reading The Fifth Risk, where Michael Lewis lays out how such an ideology has blossomed thanks to a widespread ignorance of what it is government actually does and the sorts of dangers it protects the public from. It was, for example, an eye-opener for me to learn that roughly half of the Department of Energy’s annual $30 billion budget is spent on maintaining and guarding America’s nuclear arsenal, and that over half of the Commerce Department’s budget goes to the National Weather Service. I’m guessing these facts aren’t well known by the people who actually pay the bills. And it gets worse. According to one study more than 40 percent of Americans receiving Social Security and/or Medicare benefits in 2008 did not believe they had used a government social program. I believe it was Alexander Hamilton who thought that over time Americans would come to like their government more as they recognized all the good it did. Given their profound ignorance of that good they have, in large numbers, turned against it.

The question then becomes whether anti-government types are even interested in correcting the record.

Lewis thinks they aren’t. Ignorance of the things government does makes it easier to hold to the position that all government is bad. Lewis calls this the “Trumpian impulse – the desire not to know”: in order to preserve “a certain worldview” budget cuts to government services are “powered by a perverse desire – to remain ignorant.” This wilful blindness is where the danger comes in, because it’s what you don’t know and perhaps can’t even imagine that destroys you.

“One day someone will write the history of the strange relationship between the United States government and its citizens. It would need at least a chapter on the government’s attempts to save the citizens from the things that might kill them.” What makes the relationship strange is that such protection is so resented. Any authority exercised by government is viewed as paternalistic and demeaning at best, tyranny at worst. And so it doesn’t matter if Trump is corrupt or incompetent or some combination of the two, since his only role is to discredit and dismantle the state. How did we get here?

Notes:
Review first published online October 16, 2018.

Foe

FOE
By Iain Reid

When Iain Reid’s debut novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things came out in 2016 its over-the-top psycho-thriller plot drew a number of apt and complimentary comparisons to the films of M. Night Shyamalan. These are likely to continue with the publication of Foe, a very similar but deeper work.

Both Shyamalan and Reid are masters of suspense. Foe reads like a house on fire, and is almost impossible not to finish in one sitting. The story has a gimmick to it, but it’s one that works. You know that twists are coming, but they’re not easy to figure out. Only when it’s over, and you have time to catch your breath, do you start to raise objections in your head as to whether any of it made sense.

Without spoiler alerts only the basic set-up can be described. Foe is set some time in the future, on a farm operated by a young couple: Junior and Hen (short for Henrietta). As the story begins a stranger named Terrance arrives with some disturbing news: Junior has been selected to be part of the work force on the construction of a space station. While Junior is away, the organization Terrance works for doesn’t want Hen to be left alone and so offers to provide her with a duplicate Junior to keep her company.

The details are left deliberately vague, which adds to the unease. There is an air of comic menace reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play, with characters that seem drawn from the same paranoid matrix. Terrance is the threatening but nerdishly comic bully who drops in out of nowhere, Junior is the frustrated, increasingly desperate Everyman who has his comfortable domestic life turned upside-down, and Hen is the oddly passive woman in the middle who gives the impression of knowing more than she’s letting on.

If Foe were just a thriller it would be a catchy beach read, but it’s not a book without further layers.

It may, for example, be read as a parable about the blurring boundaries between ourselves and our technology, especially when we see Junior being gradually reduced to a pile of data collected by the organization. Why does he find it so hard to resist? To what extent is he complicit in his own undoing? These are questions we’ve all had to face.

Another angle to the story has to do with Junior and Hen’s relationship. How well do they really know one another? How well do any of us know our partners?

While Junior enjoys his life down on the farm, Hen feels herself to be in a rut. Then, as Terrance insinuates himself deeper into their lives they drift even further apart, while paradoxically the bond between them grows stronger. Even after the final reveal we’re left to wonder at the weird mix of dependency, trust, and affection in their feelings for each other.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Foe, however, is something it shares with I’m Thinking of Ending Things: the way Reid takes the familiar gothic setting of the isolated farmstead, which has been a weird enough place in Canadian writing going back many years now, and turns it into an otherworldly hothouse of introversion and fantasy. The rural routes of our national unconscious are getting creepier even as they become the roads less traveled by.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star August 3, 2018.

America, The Farewell Tour

America, The Farewell Tour
Chris Hedges

The America Chris Hedges lives in is not a happy place: locked in terminal decline while ruled over by vicious and exploitative elites and soulless corporations, it seems ripe for revolution. Government has proven to be worse than useless: “a motley collection of imbeciles, con artists, thieves, opportunists, and warmongering generals.” Donald Trump is only “the grotesque visage of a collapsed democracy,” “what lies behind the mask of our professed civility and rationality – a sputtering, narcissistic, imbecilic, megalomaniac.”

Though America, The Farewell Tour is a scattershot book, jumping about crazily even within its different thematic chapters, there is a coherence to the argument. A malaise not restricted to America (there is a “single discontent” that spans the globe) has been brought about by global capitalism and its neoliberal ideology. Instead of directing anger at their oppressors people fall into despair and pursue various highly-addictive avenues of escape, from opium to porn to gambling. In all of this “we flee toward the promise of magic, unchecked hedonism, and perpetual stimulation. There is a pathological need in America to escape the dreary and the depressing.”

“The whole earth is our hospital / Endowed by the ruined millionaire.” It’s a famous line that could use some updating. We’d want to make it an endowment from a billionaire today. And not a hospital but a hospice. Attached to a prison.