Book Review: The Meaning of Freedom

The Meaning of Freedom book cover

I stumbled upon Angela Davis’s book The Meaning of Freedom And Other Difficult Dialogues in the basement of the City Lights bookstore. It seemed like a great find at the time – I’d love to hear what Angela Davis has to say! And although something like the “meaning of freedom” is a huge and slippery topic, I’d expect Davis to make some profound contributions.

Unfortunately, this book disappoints. Rather than being one book-length discussion of freedom, or even a progression of inquiries, it is a collection of speeches Davis has made over the last twenty years. Each speech is remarkably like the others, which is fine if you’re taking one speech and tailoring it for different audiences and developing it over time as you tour. But it doesn’t make for a great book of essays read one after the other.

I’m in general agreement with each essay. Davis problematizes our understanding of freedom by focusing on questions of race, racism, and incarceration in the US. (She also explores a little bit how the US model of incarceration – the prison-industrial complex, we call it – has been exported to the rest of the world.) In particular, she shows how the prison-industrial complex functions to keep black Americans, in particular, as less than full citizens. She speaks often of prison abolition by analogy to the abolition of slavery, and considers incarceration the modern-day incarnation of slavery. She makes a lot of connections between the “civil death” of prisoners and that of slaves.

These are ideas I’d heard before, but it was useful to absorb them laid out the way Davis does. It would have been much better, however, for her to distill her thoughts down in a small booklet, rather than have similar points repeated so many times.

Book Review: Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe

Imperiled Life cover: the Statue of Liberty with waves above her waist

It seems my lot in life is to slog through badly written books. The Specter of Sex was informative, but a bit painful to wade through. Conscious Capitalism was truly horrendous, both in content and form, but I read through to the end for the greater good.

Javier Sethness-Castro’s Imperiled Life: Revolution Against Climate Catastrophe is a book I really wanted to like. I’ve been thinking for a while of posing the question “Can capitalism save us from climate catastrophe?” honestly, not as a leftist already knowing the answer. I’m inclined to believe the answer is no, but if it can, by all means, show me.

This book is definitely an attempt to preach to the choir, but color me an intrigued chorister. In addition, the author is a good speaker, and he and I have a mutual friend. So I was ready to enjoy this book.

The problem is that the book is absolutely awful. It’s basically a PhD thesis about the Frankfurt school smashed into mini-book form. It’s loaded down with references to and quotes from Adorno, Horkheimer, Adorno, Marx, Adorno, Kant, Adorno, Marcuse, Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Adorno, and others. We get it. You’re a fan of Adorno.

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Book Review: Conscious Capitalism

Conscious Capitalism book cover

At first glance, Conscious Capitalism looks like just another business book from an egotistical CEO. John Mackey has had great success running Whole Foods Market, and now he wants to share his learnings with the rest of the business world in self-serving, boldly self-assured, and dreadfully written prose. But his aim is higher than just giving business tips or recounting war stories – with co-author Raj Sisodia, he wants to revitalize the entire economic system and provide a “richer and more ethically compelling narrative” about capitalism. Their subtitle, without any trace of irony or humor, of course, is “Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business”.

The combination of the title and the subtitle gives it away. What we have here is a very contemporary collision of values: a New Age libertarian how-to. Eckhart Tolle meets Adam Smith – The Secret for the haves.

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Book Review: The Specter of Sex: Gendered Foundations of Racial Formation in the United States

Specter of Sex book cover: woman in 19th century dress

I’m a well-off, well-educated, straight, white man living in the US, so I sit in the intersection of pretty much every dimension of privilege. I’m also a radical committed to real freedom and equality for everyone, for the destruction of all these systems of oppression. So the question I’m often faced with is: what should I work on? To what specific struggles should I contribute?

Over the years I’ve become more and more convinced that patriarchy is a linchpin hierarchy, upholding many others. It’s also historically ancient: even among the most egalitarian, classless, aboriginal societies anthropologists have reported on, most have some degree of patriarchy, and this seems to have gotten distinctly worse with the rise of agriculture, settlements, and class structure.

Accordingly, I have, for example, worked on campaigns for LGBT rights, because I believe that attacking homophobia and discrimination against LGBT people is fundamentally feminist: the basis for these kinds of discrimination is that men and boys should act certain ways, and women and girls should act certain other ways, and there are no exceptions. I can see from years of living in San Francisco how a queer-friendly environment allows even the straightest, most gender-conformant people freedom from gender and sexuality norms that don’t suit them.

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Book Review: Debt: The First 5000 Years (in-progress)

David Graeber’s Wikipedia entry starts with “David Rolfe Graeber is an American anthropologist and anarchist“. Already you know things are going to be interesting.

I first heard of this book and Graeber in connection to the Occupy Wall Street protests. Apparently he played some part in starting them. He also was involved in the anti-corporate globalization protests of the late 1990s. Then I heard a reference to this book from none other than a Financial Times reporter. Okay, then. If the business press is interested in reading a book on money and debt by an anarchist anthropologist, I’ll bite.

I loved the cover. It’s a very effective illusion – I really thought that the cashier had placed my receipt on the book itself.

The book’s size looks intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. About a quarter to a third of the book is endnotes, and the main text is very straight-forwardedly written, which is a pleasure. Graeber covers a ridiculous amount of ground, but does so fairly thoroughly and entertainingly. Near the end, the quality craps out a little bit, and it seems a bit more hand-wavy. This, along with the rather large number of typos, leads me to suspect that the book was rushed out the door. The book is timely, to say the least, and so I can forgive it those flaws.

I’m marking this as in-progress because I read the book quickly, and I mean to re-read it more carefully and talk in more detail about the book’s contents. Until then, I’ll just say that the book talks about the following:

  • that the State and the Market were born together
  • that world systems have shifted between debt and coinage
  • that coinage and precious metals coincide with war and plunder
  • that debt is related to slavery
  • various non-monetary cultures, and
  • how daily life is a mixture of market relations, small non-monetary debts, and communism.

I highly recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in the current economic crisis.

You can find it on isbn.nu.

If you are intrigued by this review, you can read Graeber’s essay Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, which has some of the ideas of _Debt_ in an embryonic form.

Book Review: Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes

Daniel Everett went to Brazil as a missionary to convert the Pirahã, a tiny (<400 members) Amazonian tribe. Instead, the tribe effectively converted him into an atheist. He then became a professional linguist and anthropologist, and has continued to study the tribe.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is fascinating for its description of the Pirahã culture/language, which is so dramatically different from ours as to radically challenge our notions of language and even what it means to be human. They lack numbers, words for colors, Gods, and creation myths. They don’t have words for “right” or “left” – instead, they might refer to your “upriver” leg. Their tonal language has three vowels and eight consonants (seven for women), although they can whistle and hum the language, useful for hunting and talking while your mouth is full, respectively.

Their language has no recursion, which makes Noam Chomsky cry. One can only legitimately talk about things one has directly experienced, or things that someone who directly experienced them told one. This made Everett’s proselytizing very difficult, since he had never met anyone who had seen Jesus. Because they don’t have numbers, they can’t do arithmetic. At all. They have the simplest kinship system known, no war, and like many hunter-gatherers, no system of private property.

The book also includes some very lively anecdotes about river traders, malaria, etc., but for me the overwhelming value was as an ethnography that made me marvel at the diversity of human culture.

You can find it on isbn.nu.

Book Review: Emergence by Steven Johnson

Emergence by Steven Johnson book cover

Both my experience reading this book and my experience writing this review were quite interesting. I loved both Where Good Ideas Come From and The Invention of Air, also by Steven Johnson, and read each in a short period of time. I expected the same from this book, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software.

‘Twas not to be, however. I read about halfway through the book, got fed up, and left it for a few weeks before finishing it. It took me a couple weeks to start writing the book review. I wrote most of one, then threw it out. Now, several weeks later, I am starting over.

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