The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Month: November 2021 Page 1 of 4

A Few Words About the Omicron Covid Variant

We don’t know a great deal about this with any certainty yet.

It appears:

  • To have milder symptoms in the young. We don’t know if it does in the old.
  • To be more transmissable.
  • Less cough, no loss of taste.

Many are suggesting this is a good variant: mild, everyone gets it, gets immune — or it turns into a new flu.

Maybe. (“Appears” is the word I used for a reason.)

What I want to know is how deadly it is for the old, how long any acquired immunity lasts, and whether it spawns long Covid.

If it does spawn long Covid, how does that work? If you don’t get Long Covid the first time, can you get it another time? If you can, and Omicron is chronic and widespread, the odds of eventually getting Long Covid go way up.

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And, of course, if Covid, in general, continues to mutate fast, will a high virulence variant lead to other variants? If so, the next one might be high virulence with worse symptoms.

In the meantime, I’d suggest being careful, still. N95 masks, and let’s see how this plays out.

That Poisoned Land

Mary Stewart was a best-selling author for much of the 20th century. I first stumbled across her as a child, reading the “The Hollow Hills” and the “Crystal Cave,” two of her books about Merlin, but most of what she wrote were adventurous romances, often described as “Nancy Drew for adults.” Recently I read her book “Airs Above The Ground,” written in 1965. She was a master at landscape description, and I felt this scene of a meadow in the Alps was worth sharing:

The grass was thick with familiar meadow flowers – harebells, thyme, eyebright, and, where the scythe had not yet passed, the foaming white and yellow of parley and buttercups. What was not so familiar was the fluttering, rustling life of the meadow: the whole surface of the field seemed moving with butterflies – meadow browns, blues, sulphurs, fritillaries, and a few of my own Vanessas, the red admirals and tortoiseshells. Their colours flickered among the flowers, each vanishing momentarily as it clung and folded, then opening to its own bright colour as it fluttered on. Even the green roots of the grass were alive, as countless grasshoppers hopped and fiddled there. The air droned with bees, all zooming past me, I noticed, on the same purposeful track, as if on some apian Autobahn of their own. They were all making for a little hut, the size of a small summer-house, chalet-style and beautifully built of pine, and as full of tiny windows as a dovecot. It was, in fact, a bee-house, a sort of collective hive for several swarms, each one with its own tiny bee-door, behind which it made its honey in candle-shaped combs. Amused and interested, I watched the laden bees aiming like bullets, each for its own door, remembering how, even a few years ago, in my own childhood, the English meadows, too, had been alive with wings, and how quiet now was the poisioned countryside. .

I think it would be hard for most moderns to write such a passage, even if they had Stewart’s eye and skill; we’re almost all from the city, and we just don’t know birds and the flowers and the insects the way her generation did.

But, of course, it’s that last line that caught my eye -— such a beautiful paragraph, ends with “the poisoned countryside.”

And it has become worse. Many have noted that “bug splat,” where driving through the countryside would leave windshields absolutely plastered with dead insects, is a thing of the past.

It’s harder and harder to remember just how alive the world once was, with plants, insects, birds and animals. We can only wonder at, say, stories of the old Grand Banks off the east coast of Canada, where you had only to dip a bucket into the water and it would come up with fish. In my childhood, almost any beach in British Columbia had enough clams for a meal, but now they’re gone. Vietnamese immigrants took too many to sell commercially, and destroyed the beds.

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The long, lost passenger pigeons used to fly in flocks so large they genuinely did blot out the sun, and it was unimaginable to early settlers that one day they would be no more; and many are the accounts of how the Bison flocked in their millions, filling the prairies to the horizon. The prairies themselves were entirely different from what we now know; they had a covering which protected the soil which Europeans removed so they could farm, and thus the soil blew away and lost its fertility.

As a child in the 30s, my (honorary) Uncle Jack would take a hook and line, walk ten minutes out of town on the British Columbia coast, and have a fresh salmon in ten minutes.

All of this we have denuded, poisoned, destroyed. In exchange, we have food that has less nutrients every generation, that you can eat and still feel hungry, and we have a lot of sugar, corn-syrup, salt, and foods made to purposely addict us, so various folks could be rich.

I remember a fantasy book where the hero had traveled to another world at the end of WWII, then returned around 1970, and his description of eating some beef, “it tasted like something had been removed, and something had been added.”

In so many ways, we live in a marvelous cornucopia. I can go to the supermarket and buy a wild variety of food, unavailable to prior generations, but it is a hollow bounty, built on destruction, a heating of the house, by burning it down.

We might as well enjoy it, but the price is being paid already and will be paid even more in the future. We have traded a world that was alive and bounteous, for an artificial cornucopia, and for many of us, that cornucopia will come to an end before we die.

Groups and Coalitions: Politics Chapter V

Previous: Identity

(Introduction and Table of Contents)

Politically active groups form because of ideology and identity: they have beliefs about how the world should be; those beliefs are emotional and create both identification with other people who have the beliefs and shared desire to change the world or keep the world in line with the ideology’s prescriptions.

Identification is necessary, but without ideology there would be no direction: a group wouldn’t know who should rule or what they should do. Should we convert everyone to our religion and dis-empower or even kill those who espouse the wrong way to know and worship God? Or alternatively, is religion something which should be kept separate from politics? Should we elect our leaders, or should they be the sons of those who had power before? Who should be allowed to be a leader? Men only? Property holders only? Members of the aristocracy? Religious officials? Once in power should they try to make everyone equal and help those in need, or should they work to keep power and wealth only in the hands of those worthy of it, like the nobility?

Should you be able to buy land on the market? For much of history almost all land could not be bought. Should people buy their goods in the market, or make it themselves as part of group activities and distribute it based on something other than money? Again, for most of history, most good goods, including food and housing, have not been sold for money.

And so on. Ideology is the content of what any group wants. You can see it today in the differences between conservatives, liberals, socialists, identity politics, social democracy, fascism, and so on.

The power of groups is multiplied by their organization and their self-identification. An isolated union has only a small amount of power, but if there are many unions and they won’t cross strike lines and will support strikes, all of them become much more powerful. When unions make up almost half of all workers, as was the case in most Western countries in the 50s thru 70s, they are obviously more powerful than when they make up under 20% as is the case in many countries today.

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The more cohesive a group is ideologically, the more power they have. This means agreement on goals and methods. If some union members are willing to cross strike lines, unions are weak. If almost all unions or almost everyone in a major political party agree that women should or shouldn’t be able to work, feminism is far more powerful or far weaker than if a group is split on the issue.

If a group is split ideologically on important issues, in fact, it really isn’t a group; it’s a coalition: groups work together when they agree or don’t agree; coalitions and alliances work together only on specific goals they hold in common.

Just because there is disagreement, however, doesn’t make a group a coalition: if group members disagree but once a decision is made will pull together for a goal anyway, they’re still a group, at least politically. If, on the other hand, they will work against each other, they’re a coalition. You saw this in the 1972 American election, where powerful liberals inside the Democratic party actually worked against the party nominee, George McGovern^, because they disagreed with what they considered his radical agenda. To him them, McGovern wasn’t a legitimate candidate, he didn’t believe the right things, therefore he wasn’t a “real Democrat” and opposing him was fine. As a result, McGovern lost to Nixon and that split can be seen to presage the loss of the Democratic party’s status as the ruling party of American politics in 1980, which lead to the Republicans taking power, and the new ideology of neoliberalism becoming the hegemonic ideology of not just America, but of the West in general.

Small groups and homogenous groups; groups whose members have many similar characteristics are easier to keep coherent and to organize. As a result, elite factions are always powerful, not just because they have more money or power in the current system, but just because they are small and members have so much in common, they coordinate with one another easily.

You can see this fairly clearly in both Britain and the United States, where elites tend to go to the same private schools and then the same universities: the Ivy League and a few small private liberal colleges in the US, and Oxford and Cambridge in Britain. Elites in both country were raised and educated together in very similar fashion and they know each other personally. It is no wonder they can act together to create a world in line with their ideology and perceived interests. (Remember that perceived interests are based on ideology.)

Even small groups that aren’t elite, but are homogeneous and organized can punch well above their weight. In America think of New York’s orthodox Jews, or Miami’s Cuban exiles: they are solid voting blocs and are pandered to, because they can deliver votes and resources, including money.

At some points such groups included medieval guilds, unions, Masons and other fraternal societies, and Indian Zoroastrians (the Parsi) and so on.

Marxists emphasize class, but classes often aren’t political groups. Marxists who talk about class consciousness recognize this: a class (industrial workers) is only a political group when they identify with each other and have a common ideology, and they are only an effective political group when they have some form of organization, as was the case with unions from the mid 19th century. American farmers up until World War II organized not just thru political parties, but through fraternal (and in some cases sororal) lodges which had vast power and could mobilize money, political workers and voters.

The most effective groups are all what are known as mobilized groups: they are conscious of themselves as groups, have shared identity and ideology and have some form of organization, whether formal or informal.

Often enough people’s political groupings are not horizontal: not class based class-based, but based on vertical alignment. Married women are more conservative than unmarried because they vote with their husband, who they identify with and who is often the primary provider: what is good for him is good for them. People may want what is good for their industry, and so oil workers may vote the same as their bosses: the vertical ties to their superiors is are more important than the horizontal tie to workers in other fields.

In everyday life, a workers who wants to be promoted finds their closest competition isn’t the boss, it’s their co-workers, who they must “beat” to impress the boss. Workers cohere together, in part, when they see that most of them won’t be getting promoted and that their best chance for a raise isn’t to beat other workers, but to beat the bosses.

Such perceived interest is two-way: it is informed by ideology and identity, but it also informs identity and ideology. Movement of individuals between self-perceived groups and changes of ideology and identity happens. In a society with multiple ideologies, identities and political groups, it can only take a relatively small shift to shift the ruling ideology. In 1980 so-called “Reagan Democrats” gave Reagan his margin of victory, just as in 72 anti-McGovern democrats gave the election to Nixon. In neither case did most Democrats shift, just a minority.

Since the Reagan Democrats had changed their ideology, however, they became a permanent vote for neoliberalism, and to get some back Bill Clinton himself became a neoliberal. Such shifts are part of the causal chain of ideological shifts.

But, without the oil shocks, inflation and high unemployment of the 70s: without it being seen for over a decade that post-war liberalism was failing to deliver on core promises, there wouldn’t have been enough Reagan Democrats to flip the sub-ideology.

Coalitions of groups are most effective when they have the policy of war allies: no separate peace. In such situations, groups in a coalition won’t cut ^side-deals that go against their allies core interests of their allies.

In the US, as of this writing, the Republican party could be seen ^as an alliance between traditional fiscal/corporate conservatives, libertarians and conservative “populists”. They vote together and can rarely be broken apart: they rarely make a separate peace with Democrats. The Democratic party, however, has some neoliberals who will make separate peace, and since the Senate is 50-50, that means Biden can’t pass his agenda since he can’t hold all 50 votes, while Republican leader Mitch McConnell can hold all 50 of his votes.

This is to a large extent based on legitimacy: to neoliberals doing left wing things like give poor people money and fighting climate change isn’t legitimate: it’s not how government should act. Left-wingers shouldn’t be in power, they aren’t the right type of people, and the policies they want are just wrong. It’s OK to stop them.

The Democratic party itself is at best lukewarm to progressives: Bernie Sanders, who ran for the nomination was an independent, and while independents preferred him, registered Democrats did not. The split in the party is real, and to neoliberals left-wingers don’t have legitimacy.

But many of the ideas that progressives push are just what would have been mainstream during the New Deal and post-War liberal periods: the ruling ideology has changed, and along with it legitimacy and with those shifts so also has changed which party is dominant, and how strong the internal alliances within the parties are. (These shifts happened over time, there used to be more members of both parties willing to vote for the other side’s agenda.)

What caused the change in ideology and identity and legitimacy, cascading to groups and then to government control was in large part a change in the environment. Not just oil shocks, but much more.

All ideologies are influenced by their environment, and it is thus environment to which we turn next.


Next: Political Environment


Reading List

A few years ago someone asked me for a reading list. I recently came across it again when someone else asked, and I thought I’d share it with everyone.

I wouldn’t necessarily read this exactly in order, and what you need to read will will depend on your background, the person asking had very little in the social sciences and humanities.

Writers who had an outsize affect on me compared to how others view them are Randall Collins, Jane Jacobs and Damasio.

“Conflict Sociology” is dense and long and many would be served by skipping it, but it’s also the book I read that no one else has that has done me the greatest service. “Debt” is also long.

“Cities in Civilization” is long, but each chapter is on one city and it can be read in gulps, and it’s excellent.

The List

To start in Philosophy I would read A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russel, it’s a bit dated so you won’t get a lot of 20th century, but excellent for the rest, just remember he has a point of view.

I would read the two Collins books I reviewed: Max Weber, A Skeleton Key” & An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology.

If you like those find a 1970s copy of Conflict Sociology, and read Interaction Ritual Chains by Collins as well.

I would read Jane Jacobs Economy of Cities & Cities and the Wealth of Nations“. If you like those the next two would be Death and Life of the Great American Cities and Systems of Survival.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of scientific revolutions – short, to the point

Justice by Michael Sandel – reviewed on my site

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Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity (be careful to see how this applies to more than the USSR.)

Confucius and the Chinese Way by Creel (older book)

I would read some Freud, because you can’t understand the 20th century, especially mid 20th century, without him. Three or four of his early books. They’re short and well written.

Wealth and Democracy by Kevin Phillips

Pandora’s Seed by Spencer Wells — an understanding of the effects of the agricultural revolution is necessary

The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus (be sure to google the critiques of it, particularly with respect to women’s religion.) Dense, very dense, but fascinating.

Bad Samaritans by Ha-Joon Chang.

The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi, in the commons, you can probably find a *.pdf, but it’s long.

Debt, the first 5,000 years by Graeber.

Medieval Cities, their Origins and Revival of Trade — nice short book, .pdfs available

Sun Tzu, The Art of War. (Get one with commentary)

If you have time on your hand Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization will reward you, it’s about much more than cities.


Machiavelli, The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Do not skip Livy, the Prince is all most people read and it gives a skewed vision of Machiavelli’s thought. Discourses is longer and more important.  Remember that Machiavelli gets a lot of history wrong, but it doesn’t really matter.

If you don’t have much background in them, Karen Armstrong’s books on Buddha and Muhammed are decent introductions, bearing in mind that Armstrong clearly doesn’t understand meditative accomplishments, so it’s an outsider look at Buddha.

Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, largest land empire in history, probably good to learn about it, and Genghis Khan was an amazing leader.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner (despite behaviouralism’s issues, it really does describe a lot of human behaviour very well, and you can easily apply it to mental events even if behaviouralists frowned on that.)

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (I got a lot out of this back in the day. It’s light in some ways, but still worthwhile)

Descartes Error by Anthony Damasio (I found his other books weak, this one is very important.)

There really should be more on India, and China but the topics I consider most worthwhile there are hard to find good introductions that aren’t misleading to people who don’t have a background. In particular Buddhist/Hindu metaphysics and epistemology is very strong, but also very hard to read and understand.  Pagan religion is missing, Roman history and culture, etc, etc.  Obviously if you haven’t read the New and Old testament’s you should, ideally with a very annotated version to guide you in the meaning where it’s less than obvious.  There’s a fair bit to be said for reading some Plato (especially the early stuff) and Aristotle, as well as Cicero, but I’d read Russel first, to get some background. Philosophy tends to be a pain to read until you learn the lingo of the specific type/period of philosophy; it seems harder than it is.

What are some books that had a huge influence on you?

Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – November 28, 2021

by Tony Wikrent


Strategic Political Economy

Destroying Democracy Is Central to the Privatization of Public Goods

[Jacobin, via Naked Capitalism 11-22-2021]


How Delaware Became the World’s Biggest Offshore Haven

[Foreign Policy, via Naked Capitalism 11-21-2021]


The American Ruling Class Has Never Let Us Build Back Better

[Jacobin, via The Daily Poster, November 21, 2021]

The defeat of Reconstruction was the nation’s first failure to build back better, and it set the stage for the failures that followed. American austerity politics found their first full expression during this period, pivoting on an ideological turn to classical liberalism within the Republican Party. The events of the 1870s created a pattern of missed opportunities and reactionary blowback that has since been repeated time and again.”


Fighting the Inflation Profiteers

David Dayen, November 24, 2021 [The American Prospect]

Companies are raising prices well above increases in their costs. The only antidote is to finally take action against corporate power….

“Executives are seizing a once in a generation opportunity to raise prices,” reads a Wall Street Journal story explaining that around two-thirds of the largest publicly traded companies are showing profit margins higher today than they did in 2019, before the pandemic. Over 100 companies show profit margins of 50 percent or more above those 2019 levels…. Corporate executives are not hiding their handiwork; instead, they’re boasting about it in financial disclosures and earnings calls. “We have not seen any material reaction from consumers,” said the chief financial officer of Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest consumer goods company, which has hiked prices three times in the past year. “What we are very good at is pricing,” said Colgate-Palmolive’s CEO. “We find that taking several small price increases is more effective than one large price jump,” added the CFO of Unilever. Dollar Tree, a discount store which has the word “dollar” in its name, has decided to permanently set its price point at $1.25, stating specifically that the move is “not a reaction to short-term or transitory market conditions.”


Class war and economic disequilibrium

Big Business Declares War on Lina Khan

Matt Stoller [BIG, via Naked Capitalism 11-22-2021] A must-read (and especially insightful on factional conflict in the Republican Party). L 11-22

Open Thread

Please use to discuss topics unrelated to recent posts.

Fundraising Update

A little over 1 week in, and we’ve raised approximately $2,400. The first tier is at $5.000:

A longer article on the collapse of the USSR, putting everything I’m aware of together. In particular I want to discuss the steps Gorbachev took which seem like either gross stupidity or intentional destruction. The fall of the Soviet Union was studied in great detail by the Chinese Communist Party, and has informed their actions since.

Donations this year have been the slowest I remember, probably both because of Covid and doing the fundraiser around Thanksgiving. Of course, if you’re barely scraping by this year, you shouldn’t give, but if you can afford like my writing and can afford to, I’d appreciate it greatly.


A Few Words On Thanksgiving

We all know the American myth of Thanksgiving: Pilgrims and natives feasting together, the natives having helped the Pilgrims survive.

We all know what came afterwards; the land theft, the blankets sick with smallpox, the ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Some years ago, I wrote a Thanksgiving post called “The Silver Lining of Thanksgiving Past.” I had done some research on the betrayal of the natives by the Pilgrims and found something interesting: the Pilgrims at that feast had opposed the evil done of the natives, some to such an extent they were excommunicated, a big deal in that time and at that place. It was new immigrants from England who, not remembering the help given by the natives, who had pushed thru the evil done against them. To these newcomers, the natives were pagan savages, but to those who knew them well and had feasted with them, they were friends and allies.

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So much has happened since then; so much evil and degradation. But perhaps when enjoying your Thanksgiving, remember the real spirit of it, that even at cost to themselves, the Pilgrims the natives helped tried to protect them.

Even if they failed, it matters that they tried, and is worth remembering.

Thanksgiving should be about the good things we are grateful for, even small ones In particular this year I’m glad that coffee shops are open again and that I’ve gotten back to reading books every day.

If there’s anything that’s been good for you this year you’d like to share, drop it in the comments.


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