Philosophy

The Books I Read in 2015

I'd originally set myself a goal of reading one book per week this year, but only completed 22 - though I am in the middle of reading Raoul Vaneigem's "The Revolution of Everyday Life" (phiosophical gems amongst somewhat hard going) and Avishai Margalit's "The Decent Society" (clear and thought-provoking). In the order I read them, with some notes:

1. The Road - Cormac McCarthy. A bleak, bitter portrait of two humans in a burnt-out, desolate and cruel land. Others have called the ending wrenching and draining, but to me it seemed apt - the final extinguishment of hope in a hopeless world.

2. The Republic - Plato. Penguin has just released a new translation of this, by Christopher Rowe, and I found it made this foundational work of western philosophy leap off the page. Astonishing that ideas written over 2,000 years ago can still have currency.

3. How to Find Fulfilling Work - Roman Krznaric. I read this when I was pissed off at my job. I recall it seeming interesting at the time, but when I write this months later, nothing really sticks in my mind.

4. Antifragile - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Along with The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, this forms part of Taleb's "Incerto", which has rightfully reconfigured a lot of thinking about probability and risk. Antifragile looks at the response of systems - economic, biological and technical to risk and stress, and has changed my thinking about the world. This is probably the only book in this list I will re-read.

5. For Whom The Bell Tolls - Ernest Hemingway. Months later, I still recall the vivid characterisations - particularly the women. And the ending. A monument to the futility and cruelty of war.

6. In Defence of Food - Michael Pollan. Maybe this book would seem more radical in the United States, that land of florescent orange cheese and unrecognisable processed meat products. To anyone who eats decent meat and decent vegetables that they cook themselves, it will confirm but not surprise.

7. Nagasaki - Eric Hayes. A slim, but powerful novel that comments on the ever-growing loneliness of society - particularly in Japan. Depressing, but necessary.

8. Empire of Illusion - Chris Hayes. This book really impressed me - it's a series of essays about America, focussing on the surreal, the corrupt and the violent. The one that really stands out is the chapter where he carefully and convincingly draws out the violence now ubiquitous in pornography.

9. The Black Swan - Nicholas Nassim Taleb. You don't know what you don't know. And unless you know that, you may find yourself at mercy of a black swan: events that fall far outside the ability to foresee them and models to predict them, with consequences - both good and bad - to match.

10. Utopia of Rules - David Graeber. Graeber is probably one of the most interesting voices in the world today. One might associate bureaucracy with socialist governments and Terry Gilliam films, but Graeber shows that it is a product of capitalist governments and corporations as well. Why do we have all these rules, and who do they serve?

11. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde. Come to think of it, this might explain why some of my friends never seem to age. I found it most interesting to read for the implicit references to homosexuality, which seem to form a part of Dorian's tortured and cruel soul.

12. Platform - Michel Houellebecq - Houellebecq is the literary equivalent of fast food - nasty, greasy, bad for you, but sometimes it just tastes so good. Depravity, misanthropy, cynicism and even a hint of racism.

13. Explore Everything - Bradley Garrett. This was, I think, the standout book I've read this year. A magisterial treatment of urban exploration, with a mix of tense recounting of actual infiltrations and perspicacious philosophical discussions of the nature of private and public space. 

14. The Catcher in the Rye - J. D. Salinger - I'd read this in high school 20-odd years ago, so decided to read it again. Holden Caulfield is still a knob.

15. The Lucky Country - Donald Horne - For a book written more than 30 years ago, it is breath-taking how relevant it is to modern-day Australia. Horne has found some of the essence of Australia, as a fundamentally good country that has succeeded less through effort and skill, and more through luck.

16. Zero to One - Peter Thiel - There is a view, that I share, that capitalism as now practised is tending towards a system of rent-seeking and wealth-concentration, rather than a system of innovation and wealth-creation, as imagined by Schumpeter (and, for that matter, Marx). So it was refreshing to see a venture capitalist put forward ideas for the second type of capitalism.

17. Siddhartha - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, short book, rich in images and meaning. A reminder that intellectual pursuits aren't everything, and sometimes you need to simply experience the world.

18. Look Who's Back - Timur Vermes. In 2011, Hitler suddenly reappears in modern-day Berlin, and - of course - becomes a YouTube sensation. Fantastically written, with a number of brave and trenchant jokes that had me laughing out loud.

19. Affluenza - Oliver James. Imagine that materialism and sociopathy is some sort of virus, and our societies infect us with it, causing us to be unhappy even as we're richer than ever. Not a bad idea, but James ruins it by his stretched and tortured virus metaphor, and the digressions into neo-Freudian psycho analysis make this book downright weird. A waste of time.

20. Mammon's Kingdom - David Marquand. The United Kingdom fascinates me, as a country I've lived in, and the country perhaps furthest along the road of capitalism. Marquand is deeply concerned, giving a portrait of "a society sleepwalking towards a seedy barbarism". I'm not sure he was that effective, as I can not remember much of what he said even a few months later. Something is wrong in the UK, but this isn't it.

21. Consolations of the Forest - Sylvain Tesson. Now this was fantastic, even more so because it was true. Sylvain Tesson, a French writer, goes to spend 6 months in a cabin in the Siberian taiga, a sort of modern-day Thoreau with crates of vodka. Pithy, rough and I think revealing of some of the substance of life.

22. The Martian - Andy Weir. A bit of light sci-fi to round out the year, and a thoroughly enjoyable bit at that. I like sci-fi like this, where every last bit rings technically true, and I don't have to suspend my disbelief at all. Tense, realistic and funny.

On Labor and Sell-Outs.

Guy de Bord, writing in 1968, though he could have easily been describing the modern-day Australian Labor Party:

“The elevation of socialist journalists and parliamentary representatives above the rest of the movement encouraged them to become habituated to a bourgeois lifestyle (most of them had in any case been recruited from the bourgeois intelligentsia), while industrial workers who had been recruited out of struggles in the factories were transformed by the labor-union bureaucracy into brokers of labor-power, whose task was to make sure that that commodity was sold at a “fair” price. For the activity of all these people to have retained any appearance of being revolutionary, capitalism would have had to have turned out to be conveniently incapable of tolerating this economic reformism, despite the fact that it had no trouble tolerating the legalistic political expressions of the same reformism. The social democrats’ scientific ideology confidently affirmed that capitalism could not tolerate these economic reforms, but history repeatedly proved them wrong.”

– Guy Debord, “The Society of the Spectacle”

Compulsion

The capitalist is not forced to buy labour-power on a continuous basis. He does it only if it is profitable to him. If not, he prefers to wait, to lay off workers, or even close his plant until better times. The worker, on the other hand (the word is used here in the social meaning made clear precisely by this sentence, and not necessarily in the stricter sense of manual labourer), is under economic compulsion to sell his labour-power. As he has no access to the means of production, including land, as he has no access to any large-scale free stock of food, and as he has no reserves of money which enable him to survive for any length of time while doing nothing, he must sell his labour-power to the capitalist on a continual basis and at the current rate. Without such institutionalised compulsion, a fully developed capitalist society would be impossible. Indeed, once such compulsion is absent (for example where large tracts of free land subsist), capitalism will remain dwarfed until, by hook or by crook, the bourgeois class suppresses access to that free land.

- Ernest Mandel’s introduction to Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx.

“…the life which is unexamined is not worth living”

Socrates addresses the jury about to sentence him to death:

Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you? Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living – that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you.
— The Apology, by Plato

What would you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

I was browsing the self-help books in Foyles’ on the weekend, more out of a cynical curiosity than the expectation of genuine insight, and I came across a workbook full of exercises to help the reader reach their goals in life. Within this collection of philosophical trivia, there was the expected exercise to assist the reader to find their passion in life. One of the four questions it asked – and the others were so banal that I can’t even remember them – was this:

What would you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

Now, as these sort of questions go, this isn’t too bad. Most of the things we do are concerned with mere survival: we need to ensure food, shelter, medical care and the like for ourselves, so by deftly putting these things to one side, this question gets quickly to the real stuff of life.

For me, if I could transcend the grubby struggle for survival, I’d travel as much as possible, and I’d learn – something concerned with pure knowledge, say theoretical physics or pure mathematics, perhaps another language or two. Education is now not seen as an intrinsic good, worthwhile for no other sake but its own, but instead as an investment from which we expect a return.

But even this might just be a reaction to my present situation: do I only want to travel because I find it a wonderful escape from the drudgery of work, and only want to learn because my job lacks intellectual stimulation? Tom Hodgkinson, in How To Be Free offers another solution:

And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as your possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique, useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. Most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, stop trying. Career is a try-hard notion. The free of spirit have stopped trying and instead let things happen.

I think this offers a practical way forward: as I’ll have to deal anyway with the problem of meeting expenses without wage slavery (if possible), it seems that by dealing with this first, a space will follow naturally in which I can properly and responsibly address the freedom that follows. But even this is tinged with doubt.

It was Hegel, I think, who wrote that the familiar becomes invisible, or something alone those lines, and there is indeed something so familiar in both the above formulations of the same question that it’s invisible: the assumption the person asking it is a free agent, and that the proper object of anyone’s of life is themselves.

This raw individualism has not always been the case; until the reformation, the Catholic Church recognised the ability of the individual to find salvation through good works (or, ahem, through indulgences), and so that became virtuous in such God-fearing times. Here, the object of a person would be God and not themselves. After the reformation, the Calvinists with their notions of predestination didn’t really allow free-will: your fate was determined by God before you were even born, as were your actions, so you may as well work for yourself since your fate after death is already decided. From this, unsurprisingly sprung modern day capitalism.

(This must also be one of the few examples in history of the Catholic Church being more intellectually honest than its enemies.)

Outside of Christianity, there’s the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who said that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”, another statement of purpose casting doubt on the idea that we should concern our lives purely with ourselves. I thus propose a slight modification to my original question, which I think provokes more insightful answers:

What should you do, if you didn’t have to do anything?

I admit I find this difficult to answer, because to do so I must address myself to virtue, rather than desire. Should I seek pleasure as the greatest good, like the Epicureans would advise, or aim instead for the arrogant benevolence of the magnanimous man, as suggested by by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Perhaps a more Stoic approach is best, seeking virtue above all (and especially mere material things), or Gandhi’s ethic of service?

I need to think a whole lot more about this.