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.

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.

Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin
Peter Ackroyd

Not all biographies are of much help in understanding or interpreting an artist’s work, but in the case of Charlie Chaplin some knowledge of where he was coming from is useful. The man’s creative output was a direct consequence and reflection of his unhappy childhood. Raised in poverty, with an alcoholic (soon deceased) father and a mad mother, he quickly had to shift for himself by going on stage. And so in later life he would be obsessed with money and mistrustful of others, becoming a distant father and a self-directed control freak. He was also hard on women (who he both sentimentally idealized and lusted after). As Peter Ackroyd points out, there was much of Dickens here, and a little of Hitler as well. An auteur — and Chaplin was as total an auteur as one could imagine — is a dictator. Ackroyd briskly covers the bases in this short bio, though he avoids any penetrating critical judgments. In preferring to be suggestive, however, he suggests enough.

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible

Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible
Peter Pomerantsev

The most disturbing line in Peter Pomerantsev’s account of his adventures in modern Russia comes right at the end, in an interview with a lawyer fighting Russian corruption. “We used to have this self-centered idea that Western democracies were the end-point of evolution,” the lawyer explains, and that in their interactions with countries like Russia the West would be negotiating from a position of strength. The Cold War was over, after all, and it was the end of history.

But in fact the West has proven to be highly vulnerable to exploitation by the anti-democratic, anti-liberal, anti-rule of law regimes of the post-Communist world. Indeed, it is the condition of modern Russia that many in the West now openly aspire to: a “postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends.” This is all very sad, and more than sad.

Pomerantsev’s Russia is mainly Moscow, a city that seems to be both imploding (with construction projects competing to be ever closer to the imperial centre of the Kremlin) and spreading everywhere at the same time (Pomerantsev works in the television business, TV being “the only force that can unify and rule and bind” such a giant nation). I suppose today we’d also want to include the Internet, but in any case Moscow is where the magic happens. Black magic to be sure, but it’s still not clear how any society can fight the real fake media.

On Saudi Arabia

On Saudi Arabia
Karen Elliott House

Karen Elliott House has several different ways of imagining Saudi Arabia. It is, for starters, “a family corporation,” one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. It is also likened to “a grand hotel,” with Saudi citizens checking in at birth and being kept in an artificial but luxurious lifetsyle by an army of poorly-paid foreign workers. And finally it is a 747 jet, “richly appointed but mechanically flawed . . . losing altitude and gradually running out of fuel.”

Each of these reflects a different characteristic of the truly bizarre Saudi political regime. The real question then becomes how such a dysfunctional state has managed to keep going for so long. There are obvious answers: oil wealth, for starters, and the fact that nobody wants to see the state fail. But House also indicts the character of the people: a “somnolent and passive” population without any tradition of individual initiative or enterprise. In both politics and religion submission to authority is paramount, and freedom is undervalued, when it is given any value at all. House thinks many Saudis find freedom frightening. There is something in this that is more ancient or antique than medieval, but in either case it’s anti-modern and suggests a terrible reckoning when the plane inevitably runs out of gas.