America, The Farewell Tour
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.
The Great Leveler
What a disappointment. The thesis sounds interesting, but Walter Schiedel is a dull, academic writer, making the exposition nearly unreadable. Despite all the charts and graphs, I also found the point being made rather vague. Only violent events lead to significant reductions in inequality. On the one hand that’s obvious – power is rarely relinquished voluntarily. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it, drawing on the example of the French Revolution, it’s a “firm rule” that “People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage.”
But Schiedel stretches this across too wide a swath of history (“from the stone age to the twenty-first century”) for it to mean very much. War, revolution, state collapse, plague: why render all these as “violence”? What is meant, I think, is more along the lines of collapse. In any event, the question then becomes what it will take for our own unbalanced, dysfunctional society to correct its course. As a more complex and advanced civilization, will we require a bigger bang, or a smaller? I suspect something smaller, but leading to even greater consequences. Interesting times ahead!
The Death of Truth
As the chief book reviewer for the New York Times for many years Michiko Kakutani had one of the most prominent platforms in the English-speaking world for her literary opinions. Despite this, I never found her reviews very original or insightful, and even referred to them as book reports on occasion. The Death of Truth is very much more of the same, reading like a summary of the vast and ever increasing field of Trumpology. Judged on its own it’s just another piece of wood on the pile, offering up an anthology of observations made by other authors, all saying similar things in different words, with little attempt at any deeper analysis or explanation.
Kakutani, who seems to have at least skimmed a lot of books, suffers from the curse of student writing, which is to quote a source or authority for everything she says, no matter how obvious or banal an observation it may be. Her conclusion, that truth is important for the proper functioning of democracy, is important, but a platitude. What we’re left with feels more like a research paper or review of the literature than a rallying cry.
The Locomotive of War
Why the “locomotive of war”? The expression is attributed to Trotsky and refers to the way war provides an engine for social change or revolution. Peter Clarke begins by invoking it ironically, seeing the First World War as having had more progressive results than Trotsky envisioned, at least in the English-speaking world. Aside from that initial reference, however, it’s not clear how the image fits with any larger argument Clarke is making.
Instead, this is less a book with a theme than a series of historical-biographical sketches of some of the leading British and American personalities of the period: Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George, and John Maynard Keynes. There seems to be a point Clarke wants to make about the moralistic bent of Anglo-American policy, with later politicians taking the grand old man Gladstone as a model, but this is not very well developed. One suspects Clarke didn’t want to be seen as only writing another centenary book on the First World War, but that’s pretty much what he got.
The Great Class War 1914-1918
Jacques R. Pauwels
So much has been and continues to be written about the First World War that it’s hard for any general history to stand out. The Great Class War does stand out for the directness of its thesis: that European elites deliberately planned the war, looking for imperial gain in the form of colonies abroad and attempting to roll back the growing threat of democratization and revolution at home.
Pauwels insists that we see the First World War as having two fronts: consisting of a horizontal war between nations and a vertical war between classes. Needless to say this is painting history with a broad brush, but there’s enough in the record to give such a thesis some validity. I think things were a lot more complicated than Pauwels makes them out to be, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
The Red Word
In his book The Once and Future Liberal Mark Lilla has a line about the so-called culture wars where he describes the process through which “the retreating New Left turned the university into a pseudo-political theater for the staging of operas and melodramas.”
That’s something that came to mind when reading Sarah Henstra’s The Red Word, which is a campus novel about a group of activist college feminists in the 1990s whose greatest coup de théâtre is presenting a rape (that’s the red word) as an act of performance art.
A Separate Peace for the MeToo generation? Henstra is a smart writer and must have been aware of the danger. I don’t think she entirely avoids it either, but The Red Word is raw and complex enough to avoid going too far down that road, indulging instead its own version of the mythic method and managing to address the politics of the moment without being political itself in any of the usual, obvious and programmatic, ways.
The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics
I’ve remarked before on how narcissism has become an all-purpose diagnosis for society’s present ills. (See, for example, my review of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys.) I don’t think Mark Lilla ever uses the word in this pointed little book, but his “hyperindividualism” means much the same thing. Either way, the result has been to fragment the once great mountain of progressivism into isolated caves of identity: an identity politics not only opposed to the previous liberal dispensation’s commitment to solidarity but near indistinguishable from the guiding philosophy of the neoliberal world order.
As it now stands, liberalism has become a pseudo-politics focused on theatrics and symbols. The antidote Lilla proposes is a more practical liberal politics built from the ground up around local organizations. Is that still possible? I don’t think “social” media is going to be any help.