A Mad Catastrophe

A Mad Catastrophe
Geoffrey Wawro

An excellent account of the opening phase of the First World War, focusing on the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire was the real sick man of Europe in 1914, and when war came it quickly experienced a total moral and material collapse (the two were intertwined, as morale tends to sink when you have no ammunition, clothes, or food). One wonders, however, what options there were. In today’s parlance we would speak of the Empire facing an “existential crisis,” especially facing a rising power in Serbia that was determined to stir the Balkan pot. That said, the response was short-sighted as well as vicious. As her last foreign minister put it: “we were bound to die; we were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible.” Giving up power is something few people do willingly. The death of an old regime is almost always messy. This was yet another example of that general historical rule.

The Age of Illusions

The Age of Illusions
Andrew Bacevich

Andrew Bacevich’s brief history of post-Cold War America is at least consistent and coherent. In brief, the end of the Cold War gave rise to great expectations of a spectacular peace dividend, which Bacevich imagines as a vision of Oz’s Emerald City. The United States would adopt a political “consensus” consisting of four elements: global neoliberalism, military empire, individual freedom, and presidential supremacy. The hubris this consensus was founded on would lead, with the swiftness of fate, to extreme inequality, endless war, anomie, and Donald Trump.

The overarching theme of the book is that of hubris. Greed, the use of military power, the exercise of personal choice, and Donald Trump (the id unleashed) would each, ultimately, reject all restraint. Such hubris was not created by Trump, or the media, but was instead the expression of public longings. “When all is said and done,” Bacevich concludes, “presidents don’t shape the country; the country shapes the presidency.” Responsibility for what happens next rests with the people. Readers may take what comfort from that they will.

The Age of Increasing Inequality

THE AGE OF INCREASING INEQUALITY: THE ASTONISHING RISE OF CANADA’S 1%
By Lars Osberg

In 1981 Lars Osberg wrote a book on economic inequality in Canada. At the time it wasn’t a subject that attracted a lot of interest because levels of inequality had been stable since the end of the Second World War.

Since then, however, a lot has changed. Inequality has become a hot topic because (1) it has been increasing; (2) there’s a general consensus that this is not a good thing; and (3) there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it.

Osberg’s new book provides an excellent overview of the subject. Acknowledging that “inequalities matter differently, at different parts of the distribution of income” he divides his analysis into three main parts, looking at how inequality is measured and how its effects are felt in the lower, middle, and upper classes. He then considers some of the impact inequality has more generally as well as what is driving it and where it is being driven.

His prognosis is not cheery. The post-Second World War golden age of capitalism is now viewed as “a happy accident of history” and not a norm. Meanwhile, Osberg’s suggestions for at least ameliorating the ill effects of the coming Age of Robots are only tentatively advanced. They are made, he admits “with the recognition that some big trends affecting economic inequality are likely to continue, regardless.” That is, regardless of any political will, should any be discovered, to stem the job-killing tide of technology and globalization.

In other words, don’t expect the current trajectory to change very much. This is something that will make at least some people happy. “Many things have changed in Canada over the last thirty-five years, but it is still true that [here Osberg is, I believe, quoting his earlier work] ‘the Canadian industrial structure is, to a very large degree, dominated by foreign ownership and a relatively small number of great family fortunes.'” Even many of the names are the same: Thomson, Weston, Irving, Desmarais. There is a ratchet effect to economic inequality that makes it very hard to go backward once a fortune has been made. The effect of a ratchet, however, may be to squeeze things too tight. One wonders if or when we’ll come to that point.

Notes:
Review first published online February 6, 2020.

Falter

Falter
Bill McKibben

I really dislike Bill McKibben’s use of the game analogy to speak of human civilization. It’s both unnecessary and problematic. “I call it a game because it has no obvious end,” he writes. Then, later: “This ‘human game’ I’ve been describing differs from most games we play in that there’s no obvious end.” So it’s a game because it has no obvious end, but because it has no obvious end it’s unlike other games? He also says that “even if it has no ultimate aim that doesn’t mean it lacks rules, or at least an aesthetic.” Then, only a few pages later, “I said before that the human game we’ve been playing has no rules and no end.” I wish he’d never brought the matter up.

If we just put the metaphor (if that’s what it is) to one side, Falter is another decent if somewhat unfocused overview of a situation that I think is pretty well understood by now (at least by people who read). McKibben wants to offer up some reasons for hope, but I found these to be the least convincing parts. The bad in our present situation is very bad, and probably worse than we think, while the optimistic slant is mostly wishful thinking.

The Storm Before the Storm

The Storm Before the Storm
Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan’s account of “the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic” actually covers a bit more ground than that subtitle suggests, taking us from 146 BCE and the final destruction of Carthage up to Julius Caesar’s arrival on the scene. That’s where the story usually starts, but as Caesar himself put it, by then the Republic was only a name.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and it didn’t fall in a day either. A long view helps underline the gradual inevitability at work. Various reforms of the Republic were attempted, but things kept heading in the same direction. Elites don’t give up political or economic power willingly, so revolutions and coups became serial until power was consolidated in one man.

This is very much a book in the Tom Holland vein of popular history, and indeed you could read Holland’s Rubicon as a sequel, as it pretty much picks up where Duncan leaves off here. As popular history there’s no original research presented, or new insight, but the ground is well covered in a brisk, easy-to-read manner and it’s a story that is as relevant as ever.

Fall; or, Dodge in Hell

FALL; OR, DODGE IN HELL
By Neal Stephenson

Exposition, or the background explanation necessary to make a fictional plot understandable, is often seen as the bane of narrative: usually introduced in a clumsy fashion and bringing the action to a halt until the reader is brought up to speed.

This is not the case in a Neal Stephenson novel. Exposition is Stephenson’s métier. There is nothing he likes better than to have his characters break into mini-TED talks and go into full explainer mode.

But these discursions are never a drag on the story. Stephenson’s lecturing has the same energy and imagination as his descriptions of nail-biting action. He is as informative as he is entertaining when dealing with just about any subject.

Such as, for example, the next step in our digital evolution.

Fall; or Dodge in Hell is a book with a lot of explaining to do. As things begin, Richard “Dodge” Forthrast, the billionaire videogame developer we first met in Stephenson’s 2011 novel Reamde, dies during a routine medical procedure. But, being a titan of tech and having more money than God with the hubris to match, death no longer has to be the end.

Cheating death by having one’s consciousness digitized is currently a hot topic in silicon circles, and it provides the launching pad here for an epic account of just how such a process might work and what a digital afterlife might look and feel like to the saved and uploaded.

It’s an ambitious agenda for any author to pursue, but Stephenson has never been one to shy away from epic undertakings. And with Fall coming in at nearly 900 pages, he’s again given himself room to approach his subject from many directions: scientific, social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical.

With all of this, we’re 300 pages in before Dodge’s brain gets a reboot and awakens in the digital dimension known as Bitworld (the virtual counterpart to Meatspace). Bitworld is a blend of SF and Fantasy, mythology and science, that may be the next generation of cyberspace, an outmoded construct Stephenson sees as being badly in need of a conceptual update anyway.

As Milton put it, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” And if we replace the mind with a connectome in cyberspace? Bitworld, like any imagined afterlife, is the product of a certain culture or historical moment, casting its creators into a heaven or hell of their own making. A scary thought for the rest of us.

Notes:
Review first published in the Toronto Star, May 31 2019.

American Carnage

AMERICAN CARNAGE: ON THE FRONT LINES OF THE REPUBLICAN CIVIL WAR AND THE RISE OF PRESIDENT TRUMP
By Tim Alberta

Over the past few years I’ve probably read a couple of dozen books trying to explain the election of Donald Trump. Tim Alberta’s doesn’t come at the subject in the usual way, by looking at the election itself and asking the question “What happened?” Instead he focuses solely on what he describes as the civil war inside the Republican Party, which ended in Trump’s hostile takeover of that institution. How did that happen?

In part because Republican voters turned against their party. In particular they embraced what Alberta reveals as Trump’s core political ideology: a rejection of globalization. Trump was angry, and voters wanted angry.

What Trump also rode was a wave of celebrity and show-business values. Though manifestly stupid and incompetent, he was also outrageous and entertaining. This helped in the age of social media and an attention economy. Meanwhile, the donor class were only paying for a tax cut, which is exactly what they got. They couldn’t have cared less about the clown show.

The donors (and foreign powers) provided the financing, but what drove Trumpism was the Republican base. Alberta speaks to a host of eminent figures in the Republican establishment who openly despise Trump, but time and again the base would have his back. Trump himself would be surprised by this blind loyalty. “This is the end of my presidency,” he declared on the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his complicity with Russia in the 2016 election. “I’m fucked.” And well he should have been. But the base held.

Bobby Jindal would complain in 2013 that “We’ve got to stop being the stupid party!” but that train had already left the station and the course was set. With Trump things were only going to get worse:

More enduring than Trump’s appointment of judges, or his signing of a tax law, or his deregulating of the energy industry, would be his endorsement of America’s worst instincts. The levees were leaky long before he descended the gilded escalator, and certainly other bad actors contributed to the breakage. Yet it was Trump who used his office to flood the national consciousness with fear and contempt, with suspicion and resentment, with ad hominem insults and zero-sum arguments. In so doing, he not only enslaved one half of the country to his callousness, but successfully bade escalation from the other half, plunging all of American and its posterity deeper toward perdition.

“Rarely,” Alberta concludes, “has a president so thoroughly altered the identity of his party. Never has a president so ruthlessly exploited the insecurity of his people.”

Who was the Trump voter? Hillary Clinton was pilloried for referring to them as a basket of deplorables, but as time has gone by that has come to seem a fair and accurate assessment. Trump’s base was fashioned by Fox News: made stupid with lies and disinformation, nihilistic with regard to all claims of truth or morality, and whipped into a hate-filled frenzy with wild conspiracy theories. The most radical Republicans would come from seats made safe by this electorate. As with the president, their base would immunize them from all responsibility. As with the president, they were free to say or do anything. This was clear as early as Trump’s peddling of the “birther” claims about President Obama. “Trump’s true beliefs, his intentions, his motivations – none of it really mattered. The fact of it was, he could say whatever he felt like, whenever he felt like it, and suffer no consequences.”

That blank cheque would be tested many times during Trump’s presidency. As Alberta’s chronicle concludes he describes the testimony of Trump “fixer” Michael Cohen before the House Oversight Committee.

Republicans on the panel did not challenge [the] accusations about the president’s conduct. In fact, they asked hardly any questions about Trump at all. Instead, they took turns attacking Cohen’s credibility, portraying him as a jilted, star-seeking grifter who was headed to jail for lying to Congress already.

They had every reason to do so: The witness was an admitted perjurer, someone whose testimony under normal circumstances wouldn’t be taken seriously. Yet these were not normal circumstances. And for all the reasons to remain skeptical of Cohen, here were powerful members of the legislative branch, presented by a witness with damning claims of misconduct by the head of the executive branch, showing not the slightest interest in examining them.

It was a chilling dereliction of duty. And it was rooted in the same motivation that Cohen says kept him shackled to Trump, doing his dirty work, for the previous decade: a fear of disloyalty.

As with any book on the Trump administration, recent events have quickly outstripped this historical record. The chilling dereliction of duty by House Republicans would be continued in the impeachment inquiry a year later (and after Alberta’s book had gone to press), where there would again be no interest at all shown in Trump’s alleged misconduct but only a desperate attempt to smear the whistleblower, the witnesses, and pretty much anyone else.

The fear of disloyalty, however, takes us back to Trump’s base. That is the force that really scares the Republicans, and which has led to their moral and intellectual collapse. Alberta mentions the whispers that Mike Pence must have been blackmailed by Trump to have turned so quickly into such a bootlicker, but the same suspicions of blackmail material, or kompromat, have been whispered about other figures (Lindsey Graham being the most prominent), up to and including Trump himself. This may be mistaken. What really seems to have happened is that the Republican Party was blackmailed by its base. They granted immunity to the radical right only so long as their representatives would continue to perform a scorched earth mission on the U.S. government. In the words of Karl Rove, “We went from wanting people who were experienced and qualified to wanting people who would throw bombs and blow things up. The ultimate expression of that was Donald Trump.” Or Eric Cantor: “Conservatism was always about trying to effect some progress toward limiting the reach of government. It wasn’t being a revolutionary to light it on fire and burn it down to rebuild it. But somehow, that’s what the definition of ‘conservative’ became.” Or Trent Franks: “I’m convinced he [Trump] came along at a time when the country needed someone to punch government in the face.” Trump’s followers are often described as constituting a cult, but one doesn’t sense a great deal of personal loyalty to him among his base. Rather, his very ignorance is taken as a kind of weaponized buffoonery, a force designed to take down the government by way of sheer incompetence.

Alberta makes clear that in all of this Trump was only a symptom of a wider malady. “It’s imperative,” Alberta writes, “to assess Trump not as the cause of a revolutionary political climate, but as its consequence.” From everything that he has done it seems clear now that Trump’s only goals in becoming president were to make money and use the legal protections that come with the office to stay out of jail. His election was only a case of riding a growing wave of anger. “Decades of a widening chasm in incomes, a diminishment of factory work, a shredded national identity, a dissipating sense of societal cohesiveness, a vanished sense of postwar unity – it was all blurring together in an abstract expression of outrage.”

The final shape that outrage will take isn’t known yet. Trump has, however, done his worst to prepare the canvas.

Notes:
Review first published online December 9, 2019.