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A Great & Frustrating Read   4 comments

December 4, 2017 – Review a book you’ve recently read.
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So, I read a lot, but lately, the only fiction books I’ve been reading are the yet-to-be-published manuscripts of friends who are fellow authors. I don’t want to review their books before they’ve even published.

One of the most exciting, and frustrating, books I’ve read in 2017 is James Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (Yale 2017). In prehistoric times, how did human beings discover how to feed themselves? How did we decide to become settled in one spot rather than move around as hunters and gatherers? Which leads to the biggest question (for me at least), where did the state come and why?

Scott’s fascinating argument is a fundamental challenge to the conventional theory of life on earth circa 15,000 to a half million years ago. Civilization is normally thought to have come into existence with the appearance of agriculture, sedentary living, and stable states. Scott, however, draws attention to the downside of states — taxes, the cruelty of classes, institutionalized castes of elites, merchants, tradesmen and serfs, disease, war, slavery, and so on — and argues that they might have diminished the quality of life as compared to what came before. What if life was better before the coming of what we call “civilization”?

Scott is a borderline left-anarchist and he shows this trait when he argues that there is no real relationship between settled living and “civilization”. Humankind resisted living in one place for many thousands of years precisely to avoid being trapped by states. We just wanted to be free. Scott also suggests that hunter-gatherers had it pretty easy: a good diet, plenty of exercise, and leisure. By comparison, agricultural life was pretty terrible overall and human health declined.

It’s easy to assume that Scott is advancing a Rousseauian fantasy about the blissful state of nature, but he really is trying to come to terms with the evidence as it stands, and assess the impact of state creation on human life. I think he’d find agreement with some Hayek fans — life was better when humans resisted organizing themselves and declined once they permitted themselves to be rounded up and regimented by a ruling class.

Unfortunately, I sense a whiff of primitive socialism in Scott’s premise when he suggests we should be living off the land, moving around a lot, and avoiding property ownership. I could be wrong about my assessment, because in an interview with Vox, Scott asserted that life is much better today than 10,000 years ago. It’s just that he seems to have a problem with the division of labor.

Modern industrial life has forced almost all of us to specialize in something, often in mundane, repetitive tasks. Specialization is good for economic productivity but not so good for individual self-fulfillment. Moving from hunting and gathering to working on an assembly line has made us more machine-like and less attuned to the world around us because we only have to be skilled at one thing.

Yup, that sounds lot like Karl Marx, who fantasized of a communist society where people would be free to move from task to task, able to sample all sorts of jobs, without concern for feeding themselves or keeping a roof over their heads. Of course, we all should know that actual communism (as opposed to Marx’ theory) didn’t quite work that way.

This is where I got frustrated with reading this otherwise challenging and enjoyable book. Scott does not seem to have a sense practical economic considerations, particularly as they pertain to the greatest invention of all, private property. His oversight here simply cannot be deliberate because it is so pervasive. Scott appears to be uninterested in private property as a technology of production. He actually goes out of his way to almost deny the historical importance of the emergence of private property norms. He seems to overlook a basic fact. Even if there was a time when nature provided enough for our needs without having to create additional wealth, humanity came to a point where it needed to find a way to overcome the scarcity of resources. We had to learn how to add to the store of available wealth to house, feed, and clothe ourselves. Scott omits resource scarcity as significant factor in human evolution.

I found that oversight frustrating because he has such insight into human history. Consider his moving observation on the discovery of fire:

Fire [first controlled by hominids 400,000 years ago] was the key to humankind’s growing sway over the natural world–a species monopoly and trump card worldwide…. Fire powerfully concentrates people in yet another way: cooking. It is virtually impossible to exaggerate the importance of cooking in human evolution. The application of fire to raw food externalizes the digestive process; it gelatinizes starch and denatures protein. The chemical disassembly of raw food, which in a chimpanzee requires a gut roughly three times the size of ours, allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it. The effects are enormous. It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before: plants with thorns, thick skins, and bark could be opened, peeled, and detoxified by cooking; hard seeds and fibrous foods that would not have repaid the caloric costs of digesting them became palatable; the flesh and guts of small birds and rodents could be sterilized.

Who did the fire belong to? How did these early humans divide up the cooked food. What were the rules and who established them? These are all property ownership issues. Without rules governing them, there would be nonstop conflict, which a dictator or tribal leader might resolve with some informal rules, but would be really hard to enforce in a spread-out and mobile tribe.

Because I’m mainly reading books like this to improve my apocalyptic series, I was curious about how private property came into play, but Scott pretty much ignored the question.

 

He writes with passion and vigor about the 4,000-year gap between the domestication of grains and animals and the eventual settling down of humans into organized and sedentary communities. But nowhere does he discuss what innovations in the rules of property claims made this change possible.

In all honesty, looking at reality, at some point, people had to stop stealing each other’s stuff, get smart, and come to agreement. As people, we have to trade our stuff for their stuff, which gives rise to the division of labor. Economic complexity grew from that. Despite what anarcho-communists might wish, that’s how the real world we live in works. I don’t steal your stuff, you don’t steal my stuff — if we want to get each other’s stuff, we have to trade for it. Welcome to civilization!

I’m going to hazard to guess that Scott’s personal ideology blocked him from consider these issues very seriously, which is too bad, because his book would be great if he’d been willing to look at scarcity and how it might drive a mobile tribe of hunters and gatherers into becoming creative and inventing the norm of mine and yours and applying it to land and the products of production.

Scott’s empirical account does not contradict this thought, but his premise seems to identify statism with ownership, trade, the division of labor and the rise of civilization.

Except for that flaw, I’d love to have Scott for a history professor and to delight in his discussion of all the stuff that matters, but he fumbled the ball by avoiding the problem of scarcity and property. Scott claims to be an anarchist — or at least advocates for looking at history through an anarchist lens, which made this book a delight, but his failure to grasp a fundamental economic principle makes me wonder if he truly understands what anarchism is all about.

 

 

Lela Markham – The Independent Author Network   Leave a comment

Willow Branch Blue White Recreation CoverRaised in a house built of books, Alaska novelist Lela Markham told stories as soon as she could talk. Mostly working the speculative fiction realm, her character-driven tales draw you into atmospheric realms of imagination.

Daermad Cycle

The Willow Branch – Amazon, Barnes & Noble & Smashwords (25% off this month) w Coupon Code SSW25). Also available in paperback – Amazon & Createspace

Mirklin Wood – Amazon.

 

Transformation Project

Life As We Knew It – Amazon

Source: Lela Markham – The Independent Author Network

Posted July 3, 2016 by aurorawatcherak in Book Review

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Dark Future   Leave a comment

To celebrate getting all of my books out of boxes (for the third time since moving into our house 14 years ago), I’ve been reading some old favorites and last week’s discussion about the science fiction I read as a teenager got me over in that area of the shelves, reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation

If you’re unfamiliar –.

Hari Seldon knows with certainty that the galactic Empire will soon fall apart, ushering in a thousand generations of chaos. Hari also has a plan to keep the chaos to a mere 1,000 years, assuming things go right. He’s gathered a large group of scientists, and sets them up on a backwater planet called Terminus, where they will create the most extensive and comprehensive encyclopedia in human history.

Of course, this being science fiction and Asimov not being a utopian, Hari Seldon has not told them everything.

This book actually consists of five novellas, each seperated by several years of events. The first is about Seldon’s work and plan for The Foundation. The second and third share a common protagonist, Salvor Hardin, though they take place about 30 years apart. The fourth and fifth are about traders and merchants.

When I read Foundation so many years ago, I was engrossed in the science fiction of it all and didn’t really notice that the “good guys” were really pretty evil. Such is the maturity of age and wisdom of experience. There are two types of characters in this collection – hyper-competent good guys and extremely foolish bad guys. Present the good guys with a problem and they will MacGuiver their way out of any crisis. The bad guys aren’t really villainous, but they are portrayed as greedy, violent and lacking in vision. Normal folks are largely portrayed as wallpaper that follows the leader and women might as well not exist.

My anarchist senses began ticking over as I read. What were the real differences between the good guys and the bad guys? Both were determined to conquer and control people and maintain their power base. The Foundation used different (perhaps kinder and gentler) methods, but tyranny by another name still strangles.

Asimov was an atheist, so religion plays a very cynical role in The Foundation.

Terminus is the last remaining beacon of nuclear power as neighboring societies degrade. They set up a religion around nuclear power, complete with a deity called The Galactic Spirit. Terminus is advertised as a holy land where a priesthood is trained in maintaining nuclear power plants without really being taught much of anything. Religion becomes simply a means by which The Foundation expands its power and influence — a “conquest by missionary.”

In the third story, the Kingdom of Anacreon wants to attack Terminus, so Hardin uses this priesthood and the beliefs they have instilled in the people as a weapon. Hardin doesn’t believe in the Galactic Spirit and the Foundation leaders of the religion do not believe any of the religious aspects they teach. but they are quite happy to make use of it to manipulate the gullible people for their own ends.

When other planets’ kingdoms send people to Terminus to learn about nuclear power, the knowledge is dressed up in the trappings of a fake religion that The Foundation created. Hardin explains it, “I started that way at first because the barbarians looked upon our science as a sort of magical sorcery, and it was easiest to get them to accept it on that basis” (page 92).

He puts a more plainly a few paragraphs later:

“The best men on the planets of the kingdoms are sent here to the Foundation each year and educated into the priesthood. And the best of these remain here as research students. If you think that those who are left, with practically no knowledge of the elements of science, or worse still, with the distorted knowledge the priests receive, can penetrate at a bound to nuclear power, to electronics, to the theory of the hyperwarp— you have a very romantic and very foolish idea of science. It takes lifetimes of training and an excellent brain to get that far.” (page 92)

In Asimov’s world, religion is merely a weapon. If a weapon ceases to give the desired results, it is to be discarded, as it begins to be in the last story, when the Kingdom of Corell wants nothing to do with missionaries and the religion of the Foundation. The protagonist in that story, the trader Hober Mallow, says this to the ruler of Korell, “…I’m a Master Trader. Money is my religion. All this mysticism and hocus-pocus of the missionaries annoy me, and I’m glad you refuse to countenance it. It makes you more my type of man” (page 190).

Some aphorisms caught my attention, in part because they had stuck with me in a vague way for three decades. One is “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent” (page 90). They define “violence” very narrowly. To me, “conquest by missionary” is as much an act of violence as conquest by an invading army. Being robbed by identity theft (or taxation) is just as much an act of theft as being robbed at gunpoint. Intellectuals like Hardin may not want to use violence in the most literal sense, but he’s quite happy to make use of the threat of violence in the events that concluded the third story.

Hardin is quoted as saying, “Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!” (p. 143). What a great summation of relativism! It assumes we can determine right and wrong without morality and suggests that what is right might possibly be immoral.

The Foundation series continues from where I ended reading the other night, but I don’t have those books on my shelves. A lot of my paperbacks were picked up from used book marts, so I would guess I never ran across the others before my interest moved onto other genres. I read all of Isimov’s original Foundation stories by checking out books from the library. So I won’t speak on those.

Maybe the Foundation stories get better in later books, but I was surprised to find this first book filled with shallow and undeveloped characters and buffoonish bad guys being outsmarted by clever good guys. Hari Seldon has an almost God-like presence as the man who predicted almost everything. The Seldon Plan has a messianic feel to it. The characters will keep it going whether they understand it or not. If lies and manipulations are needed to keep the plan on track, HOO-HA.

If mankind’s only hope is a group of elites leading it to some made-up promised land, then I’d like to get off the bus now, because that version of the promised land will only be another disaster. Asimov may have discarded God, but what he uses to replaces Him is not something thinking people could realistically worship.

Review of Agency Rules: Never an Easy Day at the Office   1 comment

Khalid MohammedDuring our interview, Khalid asked if I would be interested in reading and reviewing Agency Rules. Anyone following this blog knows that I don’t do a lot of reviews. They take time and I would much rather write my own books, but I’ve been interested in Pakistan from a political science point of view (my college minor was political science with a foreign policy focus) so I agreed. It took me a couple of months to read this book, not because it was hard to read — Khalid was American-raised and writes wonderful English — but because it was so well-written that I risked culture shock if I read too much of it at one time. I highly recommend this book and will be posting my review in lots of places. If you want to understand the role of Pakistan in world events today, it pays to have a Pakistani point of view. The big-takeaway for me was the confirmation that the western media is not telling us the whole story. The book can also be read as fiction with full enjoyment.

 

Agency Rules Never EasyAgency Rules: Never An Easy Day at the Office is a gripping exploration into a world most westerners do not know and a refutation of much of what our media tells us about Pakistan. Khalid Muhammad, an American-raised Pakistani, has both intimate knowledge of Pakistan and a command of the English language to write a highly entertaining book that is also very educational. Following the exploits of a special forces soldier, it takes you into the hot dusty alleys and cool secretive caves of Pakistan’s Mujahideen, the ragtag force that broke the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Kamil Khan emerges as a different breed of warrior – a precision sniper, an invincible commando, and a clandestine operative working to end the plague the Mujahideen have become in Pakistani society.

This first book in the series follows Kamil through his training and his first couple of assignments. It’s well-plotted and engaging and introduces the reader to a quagmire of government inefficiency and political intrigue that complicates efforts to neutralize a growing threat within the nation’s borders. The book contains a treasure trove of historical detail to better understand Pakistan’s position in world events today. Muhammed took me into a culture I was not familiar with and made me feel like I was there, following Kamil through the difficulties he faced. It made me what to learn more about Pakistan, but it also made me want to read the next book because I want to find out what happens to Kamil, but also because I am now very much interested in what happens to Pakistan.

Posted February 10, 2015 by aurorawatcherak in Book Review

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