This Book Challenge Has Gone Straight to Heck…

I completely forgot about doing a monthly update for September, which is just as well, as I’ve very little to say on the subject.

I still haven’t even hit 160, which means it’s time for some hard math.

Hard because I might not be able to crank this out over the next three and a half months.

There are 157 days left in 2019, which means to finish 200 books in 2 years I need to polish off one title every 3.65 days.  Given the demands of work and family life, that may not be possible, to say nothing of trying to cram in all the writeups that ‘prove’ I actually read the damn things.

But, we will see, I’m certainly going to do my best to get it all done, some serious buckling down will carry me right into the 160s, and from there on, who knows?

 

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200 Books in 2 years monthly update

Jeez, I can’t believe it’s a month already.  Technically after midnight on the 2nd (happy belated Garcia day to all,) I’ve even missed the deadline for this.

Grim news on the book front, I’ve only finished 3 in the month of July, and on writeups I’ve done even worse; I didn’t finish even one of those all month.

Being required to get a smartphone means a new level of experience with pointless distraction as a constant companion, to the detriment of both reading and doing writeups, though at least I haven’t put any games on the damn thing.

I will also soon need a laptop or tablet, which will mean my capacity for doing writeups ‘on the clock’ will soon increase, so that’s something, maybe that will mean I can catch up.

In any event, I’m not much further ahead than I was at the last update, though I am within 25-30 pages of finishing up at least one book (a good thing as it was due back to the library on Monday!)

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200 Books Update

It’s been a few weeks, so I figured I’d post a quick update…

I just started a new job, so I’ve been busy with that, and haven’t gotten much of a chance for any posting, and not much reading either.

The good news is once the job gets rolling I should have enough down time to get some books read and posts made, but in the meantime I’m definitely not going to hit my ‘push goal’ of being caught up on writeups by 1 August.

At this point I’ll still try to stretch and get to 130, which would leave me 30 behind, but there’s quite a few titles coming up for writeups that I own, which means I didn’t do a great job of taking notes out of them, and a couple of the library books were 6-800 page monsters which means a lot of commentary will be needed for the writeups to take shape.  120 is probably a bit more realistic, but we shall see how I do.

As far as reading, I’ve got 7 titles currently in progress, 3 more taken from the library but not started yet, and stand at 150.  So if I can knock off a few over the next few days here,  I will stand in good stead, I think I have to be at 158 or 159 to be ‘on schedule.’

Then I’ll read a bunch of poetry in August and get way ahead so I can take it easy in the fall.

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200 Books in 2 Years – Monthly Update

July 1 is upon us.  I was hoping to get entirely ‘caught up,’ that is having finished 150 books by the halfway point of 2019.

I didn’t quite hit this goal, I have about 5 pages left in book #148, and will finish that after I go to bed tonight, (techincally the evening of 6-30.) I have another dozen or so titles I’m ‘actively reading’ in that I’ve picked them up at some point in the last 2-3 days at least once, and other 4-5 that I’ve started and stopped at some point during this process (and intend to take up again.)  I’m not particularly near the end of any of those, though I am past halfway on at least one

I had a good run at doing the writeups, but hit a snag with the most recent one (which was quite long,) and then found it’s followed by a string of books with either long writeups or potentially short ones for which I gathered very little material (these are mainly from books I own, but nonetheless, it means more work is required to start cranking them out.  And I was really making a push for 150.

I just did some math, there are 183 days left in the year, and 52 books to complete, therefore I must finish one book every 3.5 days to complete the challenge.  So in the 31 days of August I will need to finish both reading 8.5 books, and also around 55 writeups to meet my previously stated goal of being entirely caught up on the whole project.

Recent circumstances (a couple of serious family illnesses and the rapidly-approaching start of a new job) have interfered a bit with my time to work on this, but still, I think I’ve gotten a real handle on it and should be able to keep it up for a few more months.  Considering I was only at 86 of 100 for the first year, I don’t think I’m unjustifiably proud of having gotten to 148 in the span of 6 months.  (That’s 62, or one every 3 days, and I’ve knocked off some serious doorstops during the process.)

I’ve managed to read a lot of really neat stuff too, and that’s the most important point.

I usually set a goal in these posts, so I will do that – 157 titles complete by the end of July, plus getting caught up in writeups will be my ‘stretch goal.’  I’ll re-evaluate in mid-July and see how I’ve managed to catch up on the book reports, something like 145 may be a more realistic ‘stretch.’  But we will see…

 

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Book 113 of 200 – Counterrevolution and Revolt by Herbert Marcuse

I chose this because I was hearing so much about this ‘cultural Marxism,’ that I decided I’d better read up on it to see what all the fuss is about.  (It’s right-wing fearmongering, mostly, along with a heaping helping of anti-Semitism, but the Frankfurt school they blame for it actually once existed, though it had little to do with pushing political correctness as a covert substitute for Marxism, etc….)

If one member of the Frankfurt School was anything like what’s described as the quintessential ‘Cultural Marxist’ boogeyman, it would have been Herbert Marcuse, and this book was recommended as a good introduction to the ideas of the German philosopher, an update of some of the ideas in his classic One-Dimensional Man, (which I currently have en route via interlibrary loan, so more on that later.)

This book is basically a re-evaluation of the idea of revolution and what it means in the face of the bourgeois retrenchment of c. 1945-1970.  Important to his analysis are the changing status of production and labor, and the theory that the revolutionary class may not be the proletariat after all:

Within this dependent mass, the hierarchy of positions in the process of production makes for persistent class conflicts…And yet, the separation from control over the means of production defines the common objective condition of the wage and salary earners: the condition of exploitation – they reproduce capital.  The extension of exploitation to a larger part of the population, accompanied by a higher standard of living, is the reality behind the facade of the consumer society; this reality is the unifying force which integrates behind the back of the…underlying population.

This unifying force remains a force of disintegration…capitalism cannot satisfy the needs which it creates.  The rising standard of living itself expresses this dynamic:  it enforced the constant creation of needs that could be satisfied on the market; it is now fostering transcending needs which cannot be satisfied without abolishing the capitalist mode of production…

This transformation appears in the fight against the fragmentation of work, the necessity and productivity of stupid performances and stupid merchandise, against the acquisitive bourgeois individual, against servitude in the guise of technology, deprivation in the guise of the good life, against pollution as a way of life.  Moral and aesthetic needs become basic…If the New Left emphasizes the struggle for the restoration of nature, for public parks and beaches, for spaces of tranquillity and beauty; if it demands a new sexual morality, the liberation of women, then it fights against material conditions imposed by the capitalist system and reproducing this system.  For the repression of aesthetic and moral needs is a vehicle of domination.

(15-7)

Of course, this does feed into the contemporary right-wing claims a bit.  “See, he said that environmentalism and free love ‘fight against…the capitalist system!’  Gotcha!”  (Of course, he’s merely claiming that there’s no way to have these things and not fight against capitalism, a claim which I’m not certain holds up today.)

What does hold up today is the following, with one quibble I’ll address below:

One knows one can live otherwise.  Acts of individual and group sabotage are frequent.  Absenteeism has reached tremendous proportions.  Among salaried employees, indifference – even hostility – toward the job are conspicuous: one doesn’t care.  “Efficiency” is outdated; the thing goes on anyway.  Previously, during the period of free competition, the functioning of capitalism depended largely on the responsible identification of the person with his job…Today, when a whole sector of the economy (agriculture) and a large sector of industry depend on government subsidies, bankruptcy is no longer a threat.  (21-22)

The part I’d quibble with in the above has to do with the ‘bankruptcy is no longer a threat.’  Debt was something of a blind spot for Marx, and it seems to be for Marcuse as well, few would have foreseen in 1972 that the upper echelon of the capitalist class would take over the government, slash taxes and public programs, and then loan the money back to the 90% to pay for the programs that used to be free, while also passing anti-union laws, cutting public education (especially in the poorest areas, etc.)

The consumer society raises the specter not only of an economic but also of a cultural revolution…This change is foreshadowed, in an ideological form, by the counterimages and countervalues with which the New Left contradicts the image of the capitalist universe. The exhibition of a noncompetitive behavior, the rejection of brutal ‘virility,’ the debunking of the capitalist productivity of work, the affirmation of the sensibility, sensuality of the body, the ecological protest…articulate the deep malaise prevalent among the people at large…But precisely these countervalues, this counterbehavior, isolate, in open hostility, the radical movement from ‘the people…’ Liberation…appears as a threat: it becomes taboo.  And the taboo is violated by the political as well as the hippie sector of the New Left.  There is an internal connection between the two sectors…the libertarian features reflect moral and aesthetic qualities of socialism which have been minimized in the development of Marxian theory itself.  They “anticipate” on an individual and small group level the “utopian” aspects of socialism.  Within the existing society they appear as the “privilege” of outsiders – unproductive and counterproductive (which indeed they are and ought to be in terms of capitalist productivity.) (31-32)

While I agree that the hippie movement and the counterculture it spawned (which still exists to date, and is possibly as strong as ever,) are inherently leftist and revolutionary, capitalism managed to adapt, in multiple ways.  First of all, as Marcuse identifies, through consumerism which served to commodify many of the taboos that were being violated by radical movements (and in fact you could even argue that commodifying taboos gave them a certain legitimacy, by identifying themselves with commerce and business, which has proven an even more powerful force than Christian religion among ‘traditionalist’ conservatives.)

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Book 112 of 200 – The Irish War by Tony Geraghty

Subtitled ‘The Hidden Conflict between the IRA and British Intelligence,” this book is many things.  I’d characterize its tone as ‘anti-IRA and pro-British Security Forces,’ but that takes away a fair bit of the nuance that Geraghty achieves.  As the cover flap states, he was ‘the first journalist to be charged with violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act in twenty years’ following a 1998 arrest for revealing some of the data collection programs Geraghty describes in the book.  (And he repeatedly points out the potential effects of the use of those programs against a free society, rather than (supposedly) in its defense.

The first half of the book contains chapters about the modern conflict, from the late 60s to the present (that is the late 90s,) and details the tactics and equipment of both the SAS and the IRA, and ends with a chapter on the Loyalists that is anything but sympathetic.  The second half is a critique and revisionist history of the Irish Republican ideological perspective, interrogating Nationalist accounts of the Williamite Wars, Wolfe Tone’s rebellion, and the Easter Rising.

Here he makes a trenchant critique, quoting the Daily Express’ account of the IRA Warrington bomb:

“a bomb meant, primarily, to damage property is no less an attack on society than one meant to kill and maim men, women and children.’…Geraghty comments ‘the IRA campaign was now becoming a matter of financial arithmetic as well as body-count. (218-9)

That is the PIRA, with its ‘socialist’ ideology (which seems to have been more nominal than other socialist groups,) hitting the British in the pocketbook.  The IRA were able to maintain their campaign because they held a moral high ground in places like the USA.  Too much socialism could definitely have jeopardized that, but on the other so could have too much killing.

As stated, in the second half Geraghty examines the ideology of Republicanism over the years, in his telling a movement usually quite divorced from the sentiments and interests of the majority of Irishmen.  He cites the Easter Rising as a catastrophic failure as a revolution and a military operation, but notes its lasting propaganda value:

Popular journalism combined with government propaganda to create a public appetite for atrocity stories.  The stories coming out of Dublin were not fabrications; they were to have a profound impact on Irish politics for the rest of the century  (326)

Later Geraghty exposes what Winston Churchill, who so many Americans seem to love for his leadership of the defense against the Nazis in the Second World War, had planned for Ireland if they did not accept the Free State arrangement:

The planned British response, had the deal been refused by Griffith and Collins, (i.e. the treaty of 1921,) remained secret until 1993.  On 21 October 1921, a War Office paper was presented to the British Cabinet proposing another 50,000 troops for Ireland – effectively an army of occupation – as well as death sentences for possession of arms; martial law throughout Southern Ireland (but not Ulster); a blockade of Irish ports; internment of 20,000 suspects; press censorship and movement of soldier’s families to England.  (342)

While my background puts me in the camp antithetical to Geraghty’s, he does a pretty fair job of picking on both sides and opposing similar behaviors committed by both sides.  It’s a legitimate question, at what point, if any, does use of force become a morally justified response to colonization and oppression?

 

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Book 111 of 200 – Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber

Like Graeber’s previous book Debt, this is a wide-ranging study of an economic phenomenon, this time the tendency for ‘late-stage’ capitalism to create ‘meaningless’ jobs, essentially devoid of useful content for the sake of earning a living.  Along with that he examines attitudes about work etc.  The book grew out of an essay in which he observed that economists in the mid-2oth century thought that technological advances would mean we ended up with a 15-hour work week, but if anything technology has created more work, more and more of it regarded as meaningless by those who do it.

The first quote I took down was just some general anti-capitalist ‘these guys are all sociopaths’ observation:

Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University economist most famous for having designed the ‘shock therapy’ reforms applied to the former Soviet Union…Sachs’s testimony is especially valuable because, as he kept emphasizing, many of these people were quite up front with him because they assumed (not entirely without reason) that he was on their side:

Look, I meet a lot of these people on Wall Street on a regular basis…And I am going to put it very bluntly: I regard the moral environment as pathological.  [These people] have no responsibility to pay taxes; they have no responsibility to their clients; they have no responsibility to counterparties in transactions.  They are tough, greedy, aggressive, and feel absolutely out of control in a quite literal sense, and they have gamed the system to a remarkable degree…the financial markets are the number one campaign contributors in the US system now…what it’s led to is this sense of impunity that is really stunning, and you feel it on the individual level now…I have waited for …five years now to see one figure on Wall Street speak in moral language.  And I’ve have (sic) not seen it once.

So there you have it (13)

(of course this is part of a discussion about how at the top of the financial system these are not bullshit jobs (though I can think of another sense in which they are bullshit, but not in the sense of meaningless as Graeber uses it.)

I wasn’t sure how to do nesting quotations, so the block quotes below are offsetting someone that Graeber was quoting, and what’s in the block quotes is Graeber himself:

(Graeber quotes Patrick, a college student with a work study job at the Student Union:)

The very worst thing about the job was that it gave you so much time to think, because the work was so lacking in any intellectual demand.  So I just thought so much about how bullshit my job was, how it could be done by a machine, how much I couldn’t wait for full communism, and just endlessly theorized the alternatives to a system where millions of human beings have to do that kind of work for their whole lives in order to survive.  I couldn’t stop thinking about how miserable it made me.

This is what happens of course, when you first open the entire world of social and political possibility to a young mind by sending it to college and then tell it to stop thinking and tidy up already tidy shelves. (76-77)

This comes as no surprise:

The first historical evidence we have for the notion that certain categories of people really ought to be working at all times, even if there’s nothing to do, and that work needs to be made up to fill their time, even if there’s nothing that really needs doing, refers to people who are  not free: prisoners and slaves, two categories that historically have largely overlapped (85)

What Graeber describes is part of the general ideological hegemony of capitalism, the right has really done well (as covered in several volumes I’ve read for this project.

Much of the confusion that surrounds debate about social issues in general can be traced back to the fact that people will regularly take these different explanations as alternatives rather than seeing them as factors that all operate at the same time.  For example, people sometimes tell me that any attempt to explain bullshit jobs in political terms is wrongheaded; such jobs, they insist, exist because people need the money – as if this consideration had never occurred to me before. Looking at the subjective motives of those who take such jobs is then treated as an alternative to asking why so many people find themselves in a position where the only way they can get money is by taking such jobs to begin with.

It’s even worse on the cultural-political level.  There has come to be a tacit understanding in polite circles that you can ascribe motives to people only when speaking about the individual level.  Therefore any suggestion that powerful people ever do anything they don’t say they’re doing, or even do what the can be publicly observed to be doing for reasons other than what they say, is immediately denounced as a ‘paranoid conspiracy theory’ to be rejected instantly.  Thus to suggest that some ‘law and order’ politicians or social service providers might not feel its in their best interest to do much about the underlying causes of homelessness, is treated as equivalent to saying homelessness itself exists only because of the machinations of a secret cabal. Or that the banking system is run by lizards. (154-5)

And the entrenchment of bullshit jobs, because god forbid we allocate resources in such a way that people can be truly productive, rather than performing senseless busywork just to earn sustenance via their paycheck, goes all the way to the top.

After quoting President Obama talking about how the insurance and paperwork that single-payer healthcare would eliminate would also eliminate jobs, Graeber notes :

He acknowledges that a socialized health system would be more efficient than the current market-based system, since it would reduce unnecessary paperwork and reduplication of effort by dozens of competing private firms.  But he’s also saying it would be undesirable for that very reason. (157)

I would have said, ‘a pretext,’ rather than ‘the pretext,’ but no argument otherwise:

Managerialism has become the pretext for creating a new covert form of feudalism, where wealth and position are allocated not on economic but on political grounds – or rather, where every day it’s more difficult to tell the difference between what can be considered ‘economic’ and what is ‘political’ (181)

Well, at least we’ve done away with the ‘leisure class’  (haha, yeah right…)

There seems a broad consensus not so much even that work is good but that not working is very bad; that anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person, a scrounger, a skiver, a contemptible parasite unworthy of sympathy or public relief.  Even more strikingly, the same values are now applied at the top…Nowadays [audiences] are more likely to be regaled with stories of heroic CEOs and their dawn-to-midnight workaholic schedules.  (215-6)

Lee Atwater had something to say on this once, at least the first part of it:

In America, stereotypes of the lazy and undeserving poor have long been tied up in racism: generations of immigrants learned what it means to be a “hardworking American” by being taught to despise the imagined indiscipline of the descendants of slaves…Nowadays mainstream media is usually obliged to be more subtle…but most people do seem to accept the basic logic of the contemporary moralists: that society is besieged by those who want something for nothing, that the poor are largely poor because they lack the will and discipline to work, that only those who do or have worked harder than they’d like to at something they would rather not be doing, preferably under a harsh taskmaster, deserve respect and consideration from their fellow citizens.  As a result, the sadomasochistic element in work described in Chapter 4….has actually become central to what validates work itself (242-3)

The right has assiduously cultivated the attitude in the above passage, along with the jealousy felt by white working people who’ve ‘followed the rules’ without complaining, only to see minorities (especially black, but also women, immigrants etc. get ahead of them through ‘special treatment,’ while those at the top have undertaken a massive transfer of wealth from the mass of Americans to those in the top 1 percent.

The Republicans have managed to turn most of the ire of working people towards Democrats, who coddle the various ‘out’ groups that used to be (justifiably) persecuted in the ‘good old days,’ but I still wonder how many Dems are in on the con.

The employed are encouraged to resent the poor and unemployed, who they are constantly told are scroungers and freeloaders.  Those trapped in bullshit jobs resent workers who get to do real productive or beneficial labor, and those who do real productive or beneficial labor, under paid, degraded, and unappreciated, increasingly resent those who they see as monopolizing those few jobs where one can live well while doing something useful, high-minded or glamorous – who they refer to as ‘the liberal elite.’  All are united in their loathing for the political class, who they see (correctly) as corrupt, but the political class, in turn, finds these other forms of vacuous hatred extremely convenient, since they distract attention from themselves (247-8)

Later, Graeber asserts that underneath the ideology that claims to value greed and gain, there’s a realization that it’s all a smokescreen:

One thing it (ie value vs values) suggests about capitalism more generally, is that societies based on greed, even that say that human beings are inherently selfish and greedy and that attempt to valorize this sort of behavior, don’t really believe it, and secretly dangle out the right to behave altruistically as a reward for playing along.  Only those who can prove their mettle at selfishness are afforded the right to be selfless….if you suffer and scheme and by doing so manage to accumulate enough economic value, then you are allowed to cash in and turn your millions into something unique, higher, intangible, or beautiful – that is, turn value into values. (255-6)

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve read some version of the last sentence of this passage on Democratic websites…

It was exactly at the same time that these same parties self-consciously rejected any remaining elements of their old working-class constituencies, and instead became, as Tom Franks has so effectively demonstrated, the parties of the professional-managerial class…If (workers) protest too loudly, they will simply be told they have no choice but to accept bullshitization, because the only alternative is to surrender to the racist barbarians of the populist right. (268-9)

This last passage is from a chapter where he details the effects of bullshitization on the modern welfare state:

Any system of means testing, no matter how it’s framed, will necessarily mean at least 20 percent of those who legitimately qualify for benefits give up and don’t apply…The entire archipelago…bureaucrats who write the rules, the DWP, enforcement tribunals, advocates, and employees who work for the funding bodies that process applications for those NGOs that employ those advocates…are part of a single vast apparatus that exists to maintain the illusion that people are naturally lazy and don’t really want to work…even if society does have a responsibility to ensure that they don’t literally starve to death, it is necessary to make the process…as confusing, time-consuming, and humiliating as possible…Thousands of people are maintained on comfortable salaries in air-conditioned offices simply in order to ensure that poor people continue to feel bad about themselves. (273-4)

 

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