The Sense of an Ending

This short novel was the book chosen by my The_Sense_of_an_Endingbook club this month. I am doubly thankful for this. Firstly because it is an excellent novel and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it,  and secondly as it is a book which sticks in the mind and prompts many questions which will benefit from discussion in a book group.

The title both  references Frank Kermode’s book of the same name and also the intention of this novella – to explore how we make sense of our lives and the stories we create for ourselves. The title may also humourously allude to the feelings the reader may have on finishing the story.

As we expect from Julian Barnes, it is well written – dialogues are believable and uplifting, difficult and weighty topics are handled with ease and often with genuine humour,  emotions are conveyed with accuracy and empathy. There are few writers who handle the English language this well.

Not wishing to spoil the story it is difficult to give much information. It concerns itself with life, love and memory, with yearning and regret. However, it touches on many, many things, as it is reported in the novel :-

“The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls.”

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’

The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress

I have read very little science fiction. 51mski9o2bl-_sy344_bo1204203200_I recall, when a teenager, reading some futuristic tales but these were usually the those in the intersection between science fiction and dystopian novels, such as Brave New World. I thought, therefore, as part of my New Year’s resolution that I would broaden my reading and dip my toes in the science fiction pond. After a short browse it was clear that Robert A. Heinlein was highly regarded and that “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” was considered one of his best. Hence it became my first novel of the year.

This prove to be a very wise choice as I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It works at many levels. Firstly there is a standard action-adventure story which is fast paced and rewarding. It was no surprise to hear that  the film of the book is in the pipeline and if it remains faithful to the book it should be a success. But more than this it is also a work of science fiction and consequently it discusses broader philosophical points. One of the major themes is the development of sentience by computers and machines, will artificial intelligence cross this divide ?  This is discussed interestingly and also with humour. Indeed, the biggest and most pleasant surprise reading this novel was the amount of comedy it contained. There are many genuinely funny scenes.

Heinlein describes himself as a “rational anarchist” and much of this novel is an exposition of his views. Sometimes this is done by giving his protagonsits moral questions to debate, such as .. ..

‘For example, under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?’

or

what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”

while in other passages there are fairly straightforward explanations of his views .. ..

“a rational anarchist believes that concepts such as “state” and “society” and “government” have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world …”

However, some of the best explanations of his desire for minarchy are seen in the whimsical advice his revolutionary leader offers to his fellow conspirators :-

‘I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent – the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.’

This is an excellent piece of fiction, provocative, funny and exciting and one you can approach in many different ways. It is well worth anyone’s time and I have no doubt I’ll look back on it as my entry point into a wider range of reading.

 

 

‘I, Pencil.’ L.E. Read

This is an excellent short read. More a pamphlet27831931 than a novel, it is  the autobiography of an HB pencil. By looking at the birth and ancestry of the pencil  a complicated topic of economics and knowledge theory is made easily understandable. As individuals we have only a tiny fraction of the sum of human knowledge and planning, not one of us is able to make a pencil by ourselves. But by our cooperative endeavours every one of us can own and use a pencil.

We are, in part, successful because  we don’t need to know everything about everything. We can specisalise in what brings us most pleasure, and that which plays to our strengths,  in the knowledge that others will be doing liklewise in different areas. By this, knowledge is distributed between all of us and is much more than the sum of its parts. When we act cooperatively, in a dispersed and decentralised manner we achieve much more than we ever could when we work under central guidance.

As the pencil decribes it :-

“This is not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”

and

“None of the Robespierres of the world knew how to make a pencil, yet they wanted to remake entire societies.”

“The Corporation” by Joel Bakan

wp-1482403875580.jpgThis is a difficult book to review. Not because it is poorly written, far from it, it is well written and easy to read. But rather because it is a book of three parts. The first part, where he analyses the source of the problem is well written and researched. The middle and last part are unfortunately much poorer.

In the opening third of the book Joel Bakan describes the genesis of corporations. How the development of ‘limited liability’ and the amalgamation of capital permitted large scale projects, often withe the public good in mind. Though many of the early changes were recognised, at the time,  as dangerous (as they were seen as potentially interfering with the freedom of the market) with the risks of promoting rent-seeking behaviour  diluting the power of shareholders. He noted Adam Smith’s concerns that “negligence and profusion” would result from the development of corporations and recorded other concerns at the time that limited liability would “enable persons to embark in trade with a limited chance of loss, but with an unlimited chance of gain” encouraging “a system of vicious and improvident speculation“.

The regulatory changes that were necessary for the development of corporate capitalism are well described and referenced. The risks were also well recognised and described. The fact that most of these risks have come to fruition is clearly demonstrated. So far so good. The book is a useful text with valuable information and insights. Then the book changes and deteriorates.

The middle portion takes the theme of the corporation having ‘personhood’. This portion concerns the negative social and environmental impacts of corporate activity and the corporation acting as a “externalizing machine” as it transfers the costs and negative impact of its activities onto others. While the examples given are valuable and well researched it quickly changes to viewing coroporations as “psychopathic personalities”. At this point we drop into psychobabble  which does not lead us much further forward. We are in a circular loop that ‘bad things are done by bad people’ and, in as much as corporations can be thought of as persons,  then ‘corporations doing bad things mean they are bad people’ or “psychopaths“.

The final portion, which looks at possible solutions, is the most lacking. While he recognised how corporations have used regulations to ensure close links to government, to benefit from rents from government agencies, and to protect their capital from free competition he simple proposes more, but different, regulations to control the situation. He does not seem to be aware of alternative strategies which may  promote commerce and free markets. He hopes bigger, more powerful, nation states (taking more areas under public control) will counter the worst excesses of crony capitalism.  Though he himself noted “Without the state, the corporation is nothing. Literally nothing” he did not take the logical steps in questioning how to weaken and reduce the state’s role in all of this.

I suppose we could excuse some of the latter limitations as the book was written in 2004 before the global crash which saw nation states rushing to prop up their banks and financial institutions with public money. Large financial organisations, once again, made sure that states sheltered them from the free market. Banks being deemed “too big to fail” were bailed out by taxpayers proving George Bernard Shaw right when he described the situation as ‘socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor’

Property is Robbery

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I have just finished reading Proudhon’s “What Is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and Government”. I am sorry I have left it so late in life to discover this book. Years misspent reading Marx and Engels gave me myopia for other contemporary authors who I’d argue are considerably more lucid and prescient.

We all know his call “WHAT IS PROPERTY! may I not likewise answer, IT IS ROBBERY” and the book is very persuasive with regard to the issues of property (not possessions, only property) and the problems that arise as a consequence. He also appears to consider very topical concerns of a universal wage or of Land Based taxation to counter these.

Though I had not read the book I was aware of these arguments but, I have to say, they are better expressed in the original text than by people who have subsequently summarised him.

He appears an interesting polymath and presents as a ‘Christian Atheist’. This was perhaps the most interesting part of the book. His call for a moral revolution. He hold the moral views of the Christian religion and has a clear grasp of theological issues but rejects any idea of a deity. He interestingly call for religious people to review their thoughts recognising that “To restore religion, gentlemen, it is necessary to condemn the Church.” He views religion as a tool that humanity evolved to deal with moral problems and dilemmas in justice and that the religious revolution had effected useful change for mankind. However, he feels further moral revolutions are required and thinks that the current religious organizations will not supply this.

“The need for a moral revolution is suggested by the recognition of the work of Jesus Christ and the early Christians the SEEDS SOWN BY THE SON OF MAN, having fallen into idolatrous hearts, had produced nothing save innumerable discords and a quasi-poetical mythology. Instead of developing into their practical consequences the principles of morality and government taught by The Word of God, his followers busied themselves in speculations as to his birth, his origin, his person, and his actions; they discussed his parables, and from the conflict of the most extravagant opinions upon unanswerable questions and texts which no one understood, was born THEOLOGY,—which may be defined as the SCIENCE OF THE INFINITELY ABSURD.”

Many current authors have tried to salvage the good from the wreckage of our religious bodies (e.g. Don Culpitt, Alain De Botton) but I feel few have managed so clearly. Well worth reading from this standpoint alone.