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As Turkey Enters Syria

2016 August 24
by Ian Welsh

and takes Jarablus, one wonders what Turkey is doing in Syria.  As with everyone, it claims to be there to fight ISIS, and Jarablus was held by ISIS. The ostensible goal is a security zone south of the border, the sub voce goal may be to stop further expansion of the Kurdish YPG mini-state from growing any further, and the fear may be that it will turn on the YPG forces.

The YPG has been working with both the US and Russia, however, and Turkey has been making up with Russia recently even as its relationship with America has soured since the abortive military coup which Edrogan blames on Gulen, who lives in America, and which many Turks believe had American support.

At the least Turkey believes that the Kurds are a major threat to it, and in the past it has very much wanted an end to Assad. Turkey has been a major supporter of ISIS, not its enemy, so it may be wise to see just how much it winds up doing against ISIS, whom it has officially blamed for a suicide bomb attack on a Kurdish wedding.

It’s not clear to me what Turkey’s actual goals are here but I do think the most important thing is that Turkey had made many gestures of goodwill and reconciliation with Russia recently, so one presumes the plan is not to go all in and take out Assad (which Turkey has the military strength to do).


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The Need to Believe in Goodness

2016 August 23
by Ian Welsh

wolf sheep clothingSome of my best friends have been assholes.

I have known they were assholes, and they were still my friends.

I have voted for politicians who were a lot worse than assholes: they were monsters.

I knew they were monsters and I voted for them because I considered the alternative worse.

One of the most dangerous mental algorithms is as follows:

I am a good person.

Good people do good things.

If I do something it is a good thing.

Therefor anything I do is good.

The specific election version is as follows:

I am a good person

Good people do good things

If I vote for someone they must be good

Therefor whoever I intend to vote for must be good.

Yeah. No.

It is quite possible that you are voting for a bad person. In fact, in the context of the current US Presidential election it is certain.

The lesser evil argument is all very nice, but here’s the problem: the candidates are evil in different ways.

Different.  The most obvious is on foreign policy and Russia, where Trump wants to be friends with Russia and Clinton wants to ramp up Cold War II (and maybe go hot, given her desire for a no fly zone in Syria after the Russians were there).

Trump has all sorts of issues with race and deportation and so on.

Evil in different ways.  Bad in different ways. Different groups of people will suffer more under Trump and Clinton.

What I see, all day, are people who deny the real problems with their candidate.  The real evil their candidate has done or is likely to do if elected. The argument is not “well, they’re good on A, B & C and bad on X, Y and Z.”  It is “they’re basically good people and the other candidate is basically a bad person.”

Russ Feingold is not running for US President. Neither is Jeremy Corbyn. An argument can be made that Sanders was basically good (that his good substantially outweighed his bad, which is virtually always there for a career politician.)

But Sanders is not on the ballot. Democrats (and it was Democrats, independents wanted Sanders) didn’t want someone basically good to represent their party.

On the Republican side there was no one basically good running. A case might be made that Trump was the lesser evil (spare me on Bush, the man who fixed the Florida election for his brother and thus directly responsible for all the evil of the Bush II regime). The case can also be made that Trump is some sort of fascist (and has been, ad nauseum).

Whatever the case, both Presidential candidates are bad people. In terms of actual damage already done one has to give the contest to Clinton (by a mile).  In terms of who will be more damaging once President, the case is less clear.

But both are bad.

I run into this implicit algorithm all the time.  I often admire Putin’s competence, or say I understand why he does what he does and in some cases would do the same thing. I also say he’s an evil man.  People freak out, they cannot hold the idea that Putin has done some really terrible things in their mind alongside the idea that he has also done some entirely reasonable things, and that he is terrifically competent.

People are not of a piece. My friends who were assholes often weren’t assholes.  If you can’t understand that statement, you can’t understand human beings. My father was a fucking asshole, a monster to his family and to many other people He also did great good in the world, which is better for him having lived, even if I spent much of my childhood wishing various other people were my father.

To actually understand the world you must be able to hold facts which appear to be contradictions (but which, in fact, aren’t) in your head. People can do both really bad things and really good things.  Pure Saints or pure Devils are rare. Even Hitler was a person, who desperately loved his mother, for example.

Realistic appraisal of opportunities and risks requires the ability to “contain multitudes’ and to seemingly contradict oneself.

I admire Putin greatly. I also admire Genghis Khan greatly. (Don’t quote this out of context, idiots).  I also think both have committed evil acts (though clearly Genghis far more so).  It is possible to admire someone’s vast competence and disagree with how they use it. It is possible to say that Hitler was a great rhetorician and still disagree with what he did and believe he was evil.  It is possible, conversely, to admire a public figure like FDR while saying he was absolutely in the wrong to lock up Japanese Americans.

We can say that Trump wanting friendly relations with Russia is a good thing (they have a lot of nukes), while condemning other policies. We can say that Clinton’s greater support for women’s rights (yes, she has wavered on long term abortions) is good, while noting that she pushed for what amount to a huge war crime in Libya.

At the end of the day we still often have to make judgments. We have to say “both these people are monsters, but I prefer A to B, because of X, Y and Z.”

Making these judgments well requires us to be able to say “Putin did engage in some truly heinous policies in Chechnya” but I still think that as a Russian leader he’s done a pretty good job in the following ways, while failing in these other ways.”

That’s the world. To understand it, you can’t allow your overwhelming need to think of yourself as a good person mean that you think anyone you support or identify with also a good person by your standards. If you do so, you live in delusion, the world in your mind so far removed from the actual world that you’re dysfunctional.

You can support bad people. You do. You can be friends with people who are sometimes assholes.   You probably do (and if you don’t, you probably have family who are, and if you somehow truly have only wonderful friends who are never assholes and a shining family full of Angels, well, understand most people don’t.)

The real world sucks. But it’s the one you live in.


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Review of “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key,” by Randall Collins

2016 August 18
by Ian Welsh

Max WeberThis is my second review of a book by Randall Collins, the sociologist. You can read the first, on Non-Obvious Sociology, here.

Max Weber, the subject of this book, is generally considered one of the three founding fathers of the discipline of Sociology, along with Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim.

Early Life and Translators

Weber was raised by a father who was involved in moderate German politics and by a mother who was an extremely pious German Victorian involved in the progressive Christian politics of the time. This meant feeding the poor and an absolute abhorrence of sex.

Weber was a brilliant student, but did no interesting academic work until after he had a breakdown. He had married a woman his mother was fond of, and they had a celibate marriage, and many commenters, including Collins, think that the conflict between his mother’s progressive values (including his celibacy) and his father’s more worldly ways led to Weber’s breakdown.

Weber was to engage in an extra-marital affair and it was during his convalescence, that he first started writing the impractical work for which he is still read.

Weber’s most famous work in the English speaking world is the “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” which is unfortunate, because it does a disservice to his overall corpus, it being his first book and representing only a small part of his mature thought. In general, Weber was ill-served by his early translators (such as Talcott Parson), who chose the pieces they thought would help their own academic and political persuasions. Parsons, in particular, was quite conservative and had an organic view of society in which everything had a purpose. This does violence to Weber’s analytical model, which is far more conflict prone.

Weber worked copiously, but I am going to pick out two major pieces of Collins’ precis on which to concentrate: rationality and the preconditions for rational capitalism and the industrial takeoff.

Rationality and Rationalization

Though Weber uses the term “rationality” in a number of different ways and never firmly defines it. The two most important forms of rationality appear to be: instrumental, or, mean rationality Zweckrationalitat) and value rationality (Wertrationalitat).

Instrumental rationality means calculating how to achieve an end. You have a model of the world, you have an end, you use that model to figure out how to get to the end.

Value rationality is an action that is an end in itself. Even if God does not answer prayers it may be good in itself to pray to him. Even if your protest against a government policy may not change the government’s policy it may be right to protest that policy. Going to jail to oppose an immoral war is the right thing to do–even if it won’t change the war’s outcome in the slightest.

These types of actions are different from two others: traditional action, in which we do what our ancestors have always done, and emotional action, in which we just do what feels good.

Traditional action, through the course of world history, may have been the most widespread type of action. While it’s not rational as Weber uses rational, it is rational in the sense that making changes increases risk, and when the chances for survival are razor thin, doing things how they’ve always been done makes sense; these methods may not be the best, but they obviously work.

Remember that these are what Weber called ideal types. Nobody is entirely values rational or means rational or traditional or emotionally driven, and neither is any society. I could want lots of money because that’s what people in my society do (tradition). I could want it because I believe having lots of money means I’m a “winner” (values driven). I could want to be filthy rich so I could have coke-fueled orgies every weekend (emotional) or I could want lots of money for… wait, there is no purely instrumental reason for having money—you always want money for some other reason. Money is an instrumentality to obtain other goals. Or is it?

Instrumental rationality always starts off as being for some other reason, until it forgets what it is doing.

Let’s go back to the Protestant thesis, not in the strict sense of the book, but in the broader sense Weber used it throughout his work.

In traditional religions, like Catholicism or most Buddhism or Hinduism, the highest, most ideal religious life is something only a few people live: There are monks or hermits who live that life and the role of lay-people is to support them.

Monks in monasteries pray and perform rites, priests make sure that sins are forgiven and perform the key rituals and all lay people can do is give them money, confess, and ask them for the key rituals at the right time.

Most forms of Protestantism change this: You read the Bible yourself, you don’t need priests, the monasteries are abolished, and you are called to live a Godly life. The idea of “being called” doesn’t mean anything is good, however. You should still not sin, but it emphasized that work is holy so long as it is not immoral work.

Capitalism before rational capitalism is gambling: Merchants send out their ships and convoys, they make big loans, and when the results come in and they win, they take the money and splurge. Often, indeed, they buy a patent of nobility and stop being merchants.

In the Medieval world, there is little sense that work is good, or holy, or anything but a PITA. Nobles don’t work. Monks may work the land, but their primary duties are prayer and ritual.

Protestantism changes this, or rather, it extends the late Medieval monastic revolution, because it’s not quite true that monks don’t work. The early Cluniac-style monastics certainly do some work, but the late Medieval monastics make work their thing: Monasteries improved the land, worked it hard, and became rich, because hey, they amounted to corporations which never die, never disburse funds, and are immune to taxation.

Protestantism breaks up the monasteries, transfers that attitude to hard labor (it’s holy and good, you’re not gambling, you’re making your toil an offering to God) and extends it to society.

Importantly early merchants are generally considered untrustworthy, but religiously motivated merchants are not. They want regular small profits, they don’t cheat their customers, they are fair and honest.

This is a chunk of the larger Weber religious (Protestant) thesis. He deals with this in multiple studies, including of Chinese Buddhism, Hinduism, and Ancient Egyptian religion.

Protestantism is not a radical break, it is an evolution.

The irony is that as the clerics became rich (this extends far beyond monasteries, into the Church as a whole, a huge enterprise), they were corrupted by their wealth. That corruption led to the Protestant revolution. Then Protestants became rich themselves, and were corrupted.

Meanwhile, the Catholic counter-reformation, though it did not adapt all of the Protestant reforms, adapted enough that the world changed.

Value rationality, in this case the idea that people must act holy, is one of the factors which has led to honest dealing, hard work, and a wish for a sort of business based on large volumes of low profit transactions.

That leads us to…

The Preconditions for Rational Capitalist Takeoff (Mass Industrialization)

Rational Capitalism: Capitalism in its  modern form is different from traditional capitalism. Many societies have had capitalism: the ancient people of Mesopotamia certainly did, the Romans did, the Greeks did, the Chinese, and so on.

They had markets, those markets relied on price signals, and provided goods.

Rational capitalism is bulk capitalism. Modern capitalism requires:

  1. That people buy what they need on the market
  2. That people are available to be hired by the market
  3. Rationalized capital
  4. Rational technology
  5. Calculable law

Most people, for most of history, and in most societies, have not been available for hire. They have not needed to buy their necessities on the market, nor even much of their entertainment.

The capital required for rational capitalism was not available in most places: Capital went to merchant gambling, kings, or to kin. It was not liquid, but bound up in land and chattels.

Technology was bound up in the heads of a few people and a few books, handed down through apprenticeship systems and often tightly guarded. When it was not, the principles by which it worked were not widely understood. In the beginnings, modern patent law was not an attempt to reward those who knew technology, it was an attempt to get them to share their secrets by assuring them a share of the profits (in general, they received much shorter periods of assurance than we currently provide).

And, for much of history, the law was capricious and not suited to mercantile endeavours. Law was created and enforced by people who were themselves not merchants, and because merchants were regarded as scum by almost all traditional societies- including China, Japan and Europe–they were not treated fairly.

Good mercantile law arose in Europe in the free cities, run by merchants. It arose in Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate because the Samurai didn’t want to dirty themselves by regulating such trash, so they allowed the merchants to mostly regulate themselves.

In general, modern capitalism is rational: Calculations are made of profit or loss. They are made of cost inputs and likely markets and predictions are made of the future. The larger the enterprise, the more this is the case. Merchants rely not on windfall profits due to a few large transactions or having one’s “ship come in,” but on millions to billions of small transactions at low profit.

This is, again, an ideal type. It is how rational capitalism is supposed to work, and deviations generally show pathologies (as with broadband companies getting near 100 percent returns).

The larger point here is simple: The conditions for modern capitalism and markets did not exist for most of history, and it took rather a lot of historical happenstance for them to occur.

Modern markets are rationalizing in the Weberian sense because their rules, while arbitrary (go to the highest profit), destroy those who do not obey. When markets become the predominant form of social organization, to fail to act as they dictate leads to you becoming weaker than those who do, and eventually those who make the most profits will buy you out or you will be reduced to poverty by bankruptcy.

Rational systems, in this regard, are not kind, but they are totalizing. Once these systems are put in place, they drive towards their ends relentlessly.

That does not mean they always “work” or are rational in the larger sense. Capitalism may well destroy itself by being unable to prevent climate change, for example. As noted, the wealth gained by Christians who sought the holy life in their works destroyed their faith, just as wealth destroyed the Catholic Church’s moral position and the faith that had truly made them powerful.

History is full of such ironies and catastrophes. Systems work until they don’t, but while they are working, to move against them is tantamount to moving against natural law. So long as humans believe in modeling behaviour on profit and rewarding such behaviour, those who don’t are meat for the gears. Those who tried to resist the Medieval church were cut out from the most advanced part of the Medieval economy and were often prosecuted fiercely. To be a Roman politician in the later Republic who did not believe in foreign wars was to be defeated by those who did, as the latter would have the loyal soldiers, the popularity with the mob, and the vast loot that comes from war.

Concluding Remarks

Weber tends to be misunderstood in the Anglo-American world because of an emphasis on the Protestant Ethic, and a history of partial translations calculated to support translators’ positions. His work is one of the cornerstones, however, for understanding why capitalism arose when and where it did. It is a very long answer to the old question of, “Why not in China?” and, indeed, Weber wrote a book on just that question.

The meta-theme of rationalization and how it both drives forward and dies is important to our own situation, here, near the end of one form of capitalism.

Of course, there is much, much more. I have not touched (though Collins does) on Weber’s analysis of power (class, status, political party) or many other threads. But this should give you a taste for the sort of thought Weber did engage in, far beyond the single thread of the Protestant Ethic.


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Posting to Resume & Corbyn (Open Thread)

2016 August 14
by Ian Welsh

Due to a combination of sickness and hardware troubles I’ve been offline a few days and mostly out of commission.  The “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key” review will be published later this week.

In news from across the Pond I see that the right of members who joined British Labour after January 12th to vote in the leadership election has been taken away again by the High Court on appeal (they had won in the original ruling); their right to appeal refused and the court insisted the five new members who launched the court pay thirty thousand pounds of court costs to the Labour party within 30 days.

I was surprised when the original ruling went in Corbyn’s favor.  This is a particularly spiteful ruling, however, and exactly in line with my reading of the British ruling class.  Corbyn will still win, I expect, but the British ruling class keeps making the case for (non-violently) purging them.

Feel free to use this as an open thread.

(Article corrected to reflect that May wishes to expand Grammar schools, not “public” schools. (aka. took that bit out. Thanks to commenter MFI for the correction.)


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John Negroponte Endorses Clinton

2016 August 10
by Ian Welsh

And Clinton is pleased.

Negroponte, for those who don’t know, ran the US’s support for Latin American death squads, though that’s rather an understatement. Without him, there would have been a lot less death squads, and a lot less murder, rape, and torture.

As with Clinton’s love of Kissinger, this is not a good thing.

Here’s the thing about Clinton, she’s not qualified. Not qualified. Not qualified.

Having done the job or been in that world means nothing if you fucked up repeatedly and have bad judgment, and have learned nothing.

Clinton still thinks going into Libya was the right thing to do, because doing something is better than doing nothing. She wanted to set up a no-fly zone in Syria AFTER the Russians were there. She supported the Honduran coup. Etc, etc. She is heavily supported by the NeoCons who got the US into Iraq, because she believes in their worldview and Trump, crazy or not, does not.

(Trump: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had good relations with Russia?”)

Clinton says she now regrets the Iraq war, but her stances on Libya and Syria say that she has learned nothing. Her most important enemy? Iran.

Perhaps Trump is worse because he’s unpredictable. But Clinton is predictable. A LOT of people are going to die under a Clinton presidency. A hell of a lot. Her anti-Russian rhetoric and cold-warrior ethos even make a nuclear exchange possible.

Trump may be crazy, but Clinton is crazy in a much more controlled way. Wanting to set up a no-fly zone in Syria AFTER Russia is there is insane. It is batshit insane. It is beyond fucking crazy. It is potentially-Armageddon insane.

This isn’t an article about Trump, it is simply pointing out that, however bad Trump is, Clinton is crazy and dangerous too. The lesser evil calculation in this election is “Cthulhu or the King in Yellow (Orange)”?


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Corbyn’s Plan

2016 August 9
by Ian Welsh

This is post-WWII liberalism, updated for social justice:

  1. Full employment and “an economy that works for all.”
  2. “Secure homes for all” by building “at least 1m” new homes over the next five years.
  3. Stronger employment rights and an end to zero hours contracts.
  4. End NHS privatisation, integrate NHS and social care.
  5. A free national education service and universal public childcare.
  6. Commitment to a low-carbon economy and green industries.
  7. Expand public services by renationalising railways and local leisure and sports centres.
  8. Shrink the gap between highest and lowest paid via “progressive taxation.”
  9. Act to end discrimination based on race, sex, or disability.
  10. Conflict resolution “at the heart of foreign policy.”

I find nothing radical here. Corbyn has also suggested a six hour work day, which is long overdue. The nations which work the longest aren’t the most productive nations; we might as well share jobs, and for people over 40, productivity drops radically after 30 hours a week anyway.

Jeremy CorbynI have little patience for all the Brits who are wringing their hands about Labour and parking their votes in the Conservative party. This is a good, non-radical plan that will work. It is a plan of a government that wants to be good to the poor and the young. Corbyn is entirely credible regarding the lot of it, as he’s stuck by these principles all through the Thatcher and Blairite years.

If you’re planning to vote Conservative in the UK, when this is on offer, you’re just an asshole, an “I”ve got mine, fuck you Jack,” or someone who has bought so far into neoliberal ideology that your political actions make you indistinguishable from an asshole, whether or not you think neoliberal policies “work.” (Especially as all the evidence is that they only work for a  minority, presumably a minority which you belong to.)

Brits have something which most of the rest of us don’t in most of the Western world: The opportunity to vote for a government which is not the lesser evil, but which is actually good. If they blow it, as far as I’m concerned, the majority blame will be on Brits, not on Corbyn. This is a character test: Do enough Brits still want a government which tries to take care of everyone?

Remember, the Conservative government, among other policies, cut a program which gave disabled people things like wheelchairs. That resulted, literally, wheelchairs being taken away from cripples. That’s what you’re voting for if you vote Conservative, and yes, you should be judged on that.

So, Brits have Corbyn to vote for. (He will defeat this revolt, there is no question in my mind, especially as the Courts have restored the voting rights of members who signed up since January and his supporters swept the NEP elections).

This is the potential first crack in the Anglo-world: The end of the neoliberal monopoly on power. Let’s see if the British are ready for it.


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Book Review of Sociological Insight, by Randall Collins

2016 August 7

Randall Collins has probably influenced me more than any other writer. A sociologist who concentrated on theory, with an encyclopedic knowledge of world history and in particular intellectual history, I regard him as a candidate for greatest intellectual of the 20th century whom no one outside his field knows.

Sociological Insight is a short book, subtitled “An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology”.

The dig against sociology is that it mostly discovers stuff that any idiot already knew: It is reified common sense. (A friend and I used to joke that if we ever started a consultancy we’d call it RCS, and not tell anyone what it meant.)

Collins wrote this small book to explain to students considering sociology, and to non-sociologists, why sociology was worth studying. The book is clearly written, divided into short chapters and clocks in at under 200 pages. Used copies are cheap, or you can probably still find it at your local university or college library.

If you read only one book of the books I’m going to review this year I suggest it be this one, or “An Introduction to Weberian Sociology,” also by Collins.

Enough preamble, into the meat. Each section of the book covers one subject, I will precis some of them, but not all.

The Pre-Rational Basis of Social Trust and Solidarity

Collins covers the Durkheimian argument that it is always rational at some point to betray trust and that trust is therefore non-rational. This sounds like game theory, but Durkehim made this point long before game theory. The idea is simple enough, as a game (society) accumulates assets, at some point it is better to betray and grab them all. The long term gains do not necessarily outweigh the what you’ll get from betraying.

If this is true, and it seems to be, then why do we have societies at all? The answer is that trust isn’t rational. The more interesting question is: How trust is formed? The Durkheimian answer is: “Through rituals.”

People assemble, they put their attention together on the same sacred object, they move together, and their emotions move together. There is emotional effervesence, and the symbols become charged with the feelings generated by the ritual. We feel a force larger than ourselves, we feel awe (awesome), we feel as one with the group.

These rituals can be small (the rituals of greeting, the rituals of dating) or they can be huge. You can see the sacred effect in fans of football and fans of rock bands, but also in how people become outraged when a flag is burned, or in how people thinks it makes a statement to burn a flag.

Trust is shared belief and sense of belonging. Ritual groups re-enact it regularly when they meet as groups, we re-enact it every day when we treat each other ritually, which we always do. (Just don’t say goodbye to a close friend; instead, walk away without saying a word. See how that feels for both of you.)

Collins goes into all of this in far greater detail than I can, touching on the caveats, the counter-arguments, the cult of modern individuality, and the creation of the self by the group. The entire section is worth reading because it rebuts the common idea that we are in any way self-contained, or self-created individuals.

Power

Collins then moves on to a discussion of how social power is created: through force, through money, and through solidarity. He discusses the limitations and benefits of each. Force gets you the least cooperation, but you give the least in return; money buys you cooperation, but not enthusiasm; letting people “in” and giving them power to speak and act on the part of the group generally gets you enthusiasm, but it also requires you to share actual power, which you may not wish to do.

Coercion, by the way, requires surveillance, which Collins meant in the old-fashioned sense of “someone watching you” as opposed to all-out electronic surveillance (which is still, eventually, someone watching you), and its effects on conformity, group think, and submission. High-surveillance societies are really coercion societies, and they produce people who appear dull and without any initiative.

This is something everyone should read and think on because we are moving from a low-surveillance society back to a high-surveillance society; perhaps the most high-surveillance society in history, in certain respects. Understanding what it is likely to do us is important.

Crime

Collins covers two theories here. The first is labeling theory. Most adolescents do something that would be considered a crime, but most aren’t caught doing it, let alone given a record. Those who are become criminals, because, once labeled a criminal, your options for doing anything else tend to shut down, while your options for being a criminal open up (not least because of all the contacts you make in prison.)

On top of this, most crimes are not “natural” crimes, i.e, like violence crimes, those recognized by essentially all societies. By making something a crime, we create criminals.

Collins cites the experience of Denmark in WWII, when the police were locked up for a year. What happened? Property crime increased tenfold. Violent crimes did not increase at all.

Collins thus states Crime seems to fall into three categories: (1) Victimless crimes, like drug use, which would not exist if society did not make them a crime; (2) Property crime, which would exist no matter what, and; (3) Crimes of passion which are largely unaffected by the criminal justice system at all (if someone’s so worked up they’re going to assault, murder, or rape, deterrence doesn’t work).

As part of his argument, Collins does cite “socialist” societies like Russia as having no property, but still having property. This is one place I differ with him, I think Communist countries only got rid of property in theory, not practice. Societies which really did have almost no property, like hunter-gatherer bands, also had essentially no property crime. In many such societies, if someone has something you want, you admire it and they give it to you. Of course, some time later someone admires it and you give it to them…

Collins goes on to talk about how crime is useful in a ritual context: If laws are about enforcing ritual categories of sacred and profane, society needs scapegoats, to reinforce the bad/good dichotomies upon which it rests.

Marriage, Love, and Property

Here, Collins makes a strong argument that marriage is about sexual property, or about who has the exclusive right to have sex with other people. There is a section on how dating is a negotiating process and ritual used to create strong emotions, which we regard as love.

There is a hardheaded look at power in marriages, with a note that as women gain resources outside the household, their relative power increases. In the traditional marriage, where the woman is dependent on her husband, she is essentially a servant, with the added side of official sexual duties (and remember, up until very recently in most countries, the law was that a husband could not rape a wife, she had already given consent to sex at any time or place or under any condition.)

This section is historical, moving from the Victorian household and marriage revolution through to the 60s and 70s revolution in dating and mores and is worth reading in the whole, though you may find it has disenchanted romance somewhat for you, even as Collins avers that the rituals do produce love.

Concluding Remarks

There is also a chapter covering what sociology offers to the project of making an AI (a lot, actually, and Collins suggestions are eerily prescient to what is just now happening with social robots), that I’m not going to cover.

What is important about this book is not the specific subjects covered, but that it can teach you how to think like a sociologist. Core assumptions are hammered in: Humans are almost entirely non-rational; personality and character come from the outside, not the inside. Understanding society means looking at variations: If the behaviour is thus here and now, is it different in another time and place? If so, it is not essential, it is social (for example crude studies insist breasts are sexual, but traditional Japanese society viewed them as related to child-bearing and thus disgusting and non-sexually attractive.)

You can only learn about your own society by looking at other societies, and you can only understand individuals by looking at the larger groups which created them.

Sociology is a discipline which is widely despised. Sometimes there’s good reason. But because hardly anyone outside of sociology takes it seriously (unlike, say, economics), sociologists have a higher frequency of doing astoundingly useful work than in other social sciences, save anthropology and archeology.

Reading this book, and indeed anything written by Collins, will pay back your time and open intellectual vistas most people weren’t even aware existed.


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As Trump Melts Down

2016 August 3
by Ian Welsh

Notice that the narrative for if he loses is being set up. It will be a stab-in-the-back storyline, as follows:

Republican leaders and billionaires turned on him when he could have won, flocking to Clinton, and there was voter fraud.

The first is true, the second will be believable (Clinton’s proxies did purge voter rolls and so on to help Clinton win the primary), and the hardest core of Trump’s support base will believe that his loss was due to betrayal and cheating.  Of course, the fat cats went against him, he was trying to “help the ordinary guy.”

I have a feeling that, should this play out, some Republicans who went publicly against Trump will pay a price.

This is the founding myth of a movement.

While I thought Trump could win (and I still think it’s not over), I have always believed that if he fails, he will simply be the first, and that those who come after him will be far more disciplined and dangerous.


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Book Review: “Max Weber: A Skeleton Key” On Sunday August 14th

2016 August 2
Max Weber

Max Weber

This is another small book by Randall Collins, one of the great intellectuals of the 20th century, though he’s virtually unheard of outside Sociology.

Weber is known primarily for Capitalism and the Protestant Ethic, the thesis that Christian ideas and practice, and especially Protestant ideas, led to capitalism.

But the Protestant Ethic was only a small part of Weber’s huge output, and in other places he treats other parts of the equation, including raw power and material circumstances, at length.

This survey book deals with Weber as an idealist, but also with his overall theory of the conditions required for industrialization, his writings on power in general, and his wider religious writings, which included an analysis of religion in ancient Egypt, China, and Judaism. It also deals with his theme of rationalization (bureaucratization), which some take as his actual master thesis.

You will get more from this book than any other I am reviewing this year, save perhaps Collins other small book on “non-obvious sociology.”


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The Uncertain Future and the American Election

2016 August 1
by Ian Welsh

Globe on FireI want to say something simple about Clinton and Trump as President, and about the future this election cycle presages.

With Clinton, you know pretty much what you’re going to get. She has a track record: She’s a neoliberal, neo-conservative. She’ll throw the left some bones, especially on identity politics issues, but basically she’s the status quo candidate. Slightly to the left of Obama on domestic issues, but well within the neoliberal consensus, significantly to his right on foreign policy issues.

Trump has issues he keeps hitting again and again. Trade and immigration are the big ones. Generally, Trump looks at most issues as profit-loss statements. “Is America winning from this trade deal? Is America spending more on NATO than it is worth?” But Trump’s said a lot of things, and his track record from private business says less about how he’ll run things than one might like, especially as his long term strategy is to “hire the best people,” and who knows who those will be?

Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan, has pointed out that people at the bottom or people who are heading there under the status quo and have little cushion, need volatility. If you’re at the bottom or near, and you can’t stand the status quo (aka, things getting slowly worse for you), then taking a flier on someone like Trump is a rational decision.

On the other hand, if you still have something to lose, or you feel that Trump threatens you directly (because you’re brown and think he’ll be worse than Obama on such issues (remember Obama has deported more people than any President)), well the status quo is preferable to change; to volatility, whose direction you can predict.

It’s not that Trump’s trade policy is insane, or that NATO is wonderful as it stands (it’s made us more likely to get into a nuclear exchange with Russia), it’s that Trump himself seems unpredictable. You don’t know who the “best people” are, and so on

But none of that matters if your life is already unbearable. You need a chance, any chance, and you know you won’t get it from Clinton. You might from Trump. He is more likely to cause substantial changes than Clinton, and thus change the matrix of winners and losers. You might be a loser who wins under Trump.

This is the calculus behind Trump. It will be the calculus behind the next nativist populist if Trump fails or fails to deliver. The more people there are whose lives are trash, or who see themselves in inevitable decline, the more people there are who are willing to take a flier on something–anything–which will upset the current way of doing things.

This is much of why Sanders, a Socialist, did so well. It is why Brexit. It is why Jeremy Corbyn in England. It’s why so many Scots want to leave the UK, or Catalonians, Spain.

People whose lives suck, or whose lives are facing near-to-certain decline, will take a flier on anyone who seems genuinely committed to changing the status quo.

Trump is far from the buffoon people make him out to be, but he is also a very flawed candidate. If he fails, he will be replaced and the people who compete to replace him (and there will be many), will include amongst their numbers some who are very disciplined and who understand that all the gifts the status quo bankers and hedge-funders and so on can give them are nothing compared to pure power, the adulation of the masses, and the sight of those “lords of the universe” on their bellies crawling to lick the boots of their new master. (The contempt with which Putin treats oligarchs who do not do as he wishes is instructive.)

I believe it is now too late to “self-correct.” We are going to have one of three outcomes in most countries:

  1. An oligarchical, dystopian police state reminiscent of cyberpunk novels, if the status quo wins
  2. A right-wing populist government of some form or another
  3. A left wing populist government of some form or another

This is only the beginning. I am amused by just how worked up people are over Trump, because the sequence of events made inevitable by 40+ years of neoliberal policy is only beginning to unfold.

You can have your cyberpunk dystopia, you can have your right-wing populist, or you can have someone like Corbyn or Sanders.

There aren’t any other options, yet, on the table.


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