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

Book Reviews in My 2016 Series

The $6,000 tier for this year’s fundraiser was a series of book reviews. I haven’t decided which of all the books I will review yet, but I have chosen some. For those who wish to read them before the review and discussion in comments, they follow.

Justice, by Michael J. Sandel

Sandel divides the world’s ethical traditions into three. Maximizing welfare, freedom, and virtue. Utilitarianism, “the most good for the most people” is a welfare tradition. Both anarchism and libertarianism (and classic liberalism) are freedom traditions. Aristotlean ethics are virtue ethics, as are classic biblical ethics “don’t be greedy, prideful, or gluttunous,” do be kind, charitable, and brave. Victorian society was also big on virtue ethics, and schools and society were expected to make students and citizens virtuous.

This isn’t a book which creates a new system, it is a book which delineates and explains traditions which already exist and shows where they break down and conflict. It is the clearest book I have ever read on ethics.

The Economy of Cities; Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs

I consider these two works to be one book split in two. Jacobs offers a theory of how new work; new economic activity is created; places the creation of new work in cities; and offers a theory of how economically vital cities (not all cities are) are created, sustained, and affect the rest of the world, including non-economically active cities and non-city areas.

This is a compelling view of the world, and includes an essentially complete view of how trade should work. It also says something about how the world should be divided up into political and economic units and what areas should have their own currencies. It has not been properly appreciated and Jacobean principles offer a pretty complete set of rules for how the world should be set up to maximize economic activity. Combined with her other works, it adds principles for how to make this world work ethically and in the details of every day life, so that human welfare is maximized.

For all that Jacobs is a well-known writer, her work has still not been properly understood for what it is: A complete world view which could organize a global society. I read her as a far greater thinker than many who have had far more impact thus far (like Friedman), and as someone whose principles, added to a properly ecological view of the world, could be the basis for a new world.

Sociological Insight, an Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology

Max Weber, a Skeleton Key, Randall Collins

I will most likely review these two books together. Collins emphasizes a different Weber than most are familiar with. He does not consider “The Protestant Ethic” to be the most important of Weber’s works.

As for non-Obvious sociology, it includes a sociological understanding of the difference between natural and man-made law; a theory of religious belief and a sociology of power and control.

These two books together, along with Collins’s much longer “Credential Society” and “Conflict Sociology” were probably the most important books I read in the early nineties when I was at York University.

Society, contra-Thatcher, does exist, and while it doesn’t bat last, it controls most of our lives.


I am tending towards H. G. Creel’s Confucius and the Chinese Way. It is old, published in 1948, and it may be difficult to find, but of the rather large number of English books on Confucius I have read, it is by far the best at untangling what Confucius was actually trying to accomplish, how much worked and how it was later perverted.

That it was published in ’48 is not surprising, Confucius was still taken very seriously then; his star has fallen since the Communist Party’s victory in China. But Confucius was one of the most important social philosophers in history, and the most important cultural area and empire, for most of history, ran, in large part, based on his ideas.

How he did it, how it succeed, how it went wrong; this all matters. The same pattern is repeated in many other great social philosophers, most of whom were far less successful than Confucius. Or, as Marx said, “I am not a Marxist.” I doubt Confucius would think much of most Confucians past about the fifth Emperor, and would have loathed the neo-Confucians.

Power and Prosperity, Mancur Olson

I’ve written of this book a few times, most particularly in my article on the fall of Communism. Olson looks very practically at the strengths and limits of centralized power; on how feedback works and is perverted; on how faction saps central strength, and so on.

This work is applicable both to Communism and Capitalism. It is also key to understanding the elites’ hopes for the surveillance state. The surveillance state, which includes such things as micro-monitoring of employees by enterprises such as Amazon, is about overcoming the limitations on central power and Taylorism identified by Olson.

If it succeeds, it will usher in a world of such minute control of everyday life as the world has never seen; a technological dystopia of terrifying scope and one which may be nearly impossible to overthrow.

This is an important book.

Descartes’ Error, by Antonio Damasio

We do not make rational decisions. We make emotional decisions. Many people have written a book saying so, but, of these, Descartes’ Error is my favorite. The point is vastly important if we are to understand how and why humans act. Without a model of human nature, nothing we do in the social sphere will truly stick. Every great social philosopher, including the great religious figures, has had a model of human nature, even if they didn’t call it such.

Rational animal is a fine thing to call humans as long as you write it “rational ANIMAL.” We will discuss that.

Further Reading

As I choose further books, I’ll let you know. Likely candidates include The Sovereign Individual by Rees-Mog and Davidson; something on industrialization (probably Polanyi’s Great Transformation); something on the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture (Pandora’s Seed is the current front-runner) and something on European Imperialism (possibly Wolf’s Europe and the People Without History).

A proper discussion of early money and markets is needed, including Mesopotamia, because an understanding of money is seriously lacking (and no, MMT does not cut it, it is too particular). I may use Graeber’s Debt, if I can’t find anything shorter and better, or I may put together a few papers for people to read.

Kuhn’s scientific revolutions is likely, and I may review Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Something on ecological industrialization is also needed, and I will likely use Natural Capitalism, mostly because it shows that even by the late 1990s we had most of the technology necessary to do what was needed.

Read Along

Your enjoyment of the reviews will be enhanced by actually reading the books. Of course, you may wish to read them after the reviews, using the reviews to help you decide if they are worth your time.

I am not touching here on all the vastly influential books you should have already read. You know you should read the Bible, even if you don’t believe, right? Shakespeare even if you don’t like him, and so on. Instead, these are books which have massively influenced myself and which I think are important to others. In some cases, I will use more recent books than the ones which first introduced me to important ideas (for example, Pandora’s Seed is not where I first read about the effects of going from hunter-gatherer societies to agriculture, but it is shorter, clearer, and more available than the alternatives.)

The world is kludge. It is an accretion of ideas and stories and oughts which we have made real by instantiating them through our physical culture or the roles we choose to play. We have made this world by our collective choices, and we can neither understand the world nor change it consciously for the better if we do not understand this process and its unintended side-effects.

How that has happened will be sketched out in my booklet “The Construction of Reality,” but the book reviews are also related to this project. All donors will receive a free copy of the Construction of Reality, but it will also be available for purchase (and there will be a free excerpt).

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


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  1. Brian

    I’ve been wanting to read Death and Life of Great American Cities for a while, but these other Jacobs’ works you suggest sound promising as well. I was also looking at Dark Age Ahead recently and that also intrigued me. Where would you recommend getting started with her work?

  2. Compound F

    As far as Damasio goes, his book, The Feeling of What Happens, is also quite good, as it deals extensively with the nature of consciousness based upon an onion-like consciousness of which feeling (qualia) as opposed to emotion (display) is central. I haven’t read it in many years, but it ranks with Edelman’s Neural Darwinism as a modern hypothetical neurobiological treatise. Indeed, they seem quite compatible, e.g., Edelman’s primary and secondary repertoires of biological robots.

  3. Ian Welsh

    Death and Life is a long slog. I’d start either with “Economy of Cities” or with “Systems of Survival” depending on whether economics or ethics interests you more.

    I didn’t like The Feeling of What Happens nearly as much, though it’s been so long since I read it that I couldn’t tell you why.

  4. Compound F

    Eh, His essential theory didn’t change between books. In both , he swapped Descartes cogito (I think) for “i sentio” ( I feel). I feel, therefore I am. the second was merely building upon the first. I’m not looking to squabble about any minor difference between books. Both were fine, and credit to you for bringing it up. You’re a fine contributor to humans et al.

  5. Compound F

    Let me add the subtle, yet seismic shift: I think (implying rationality) versus I feel (implying a universal solidarity with life itself). Subtle, yet YUUUGE, to quote Sanders. Thinking v. Feeling. Such a contest should be right up your alley as a pan generalist.

  6. Robert Dudek

    Maybe I am missing something but “Descarte’s error” and “human’s” – are these deliberate errors? If so, why.

  7. Tony Wikrent

    I’ve read parts of Graeber, and parts of John Kenneth Galbraith, Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went (1975) You can consider Galbraith’s book if a quicker read is desired that lacks most of the anthropological and much of the sociological background Graeber provides.

  8. sdf

    I doubt Confucius would think much of most Confucians past about the fifth Emperor, and would have loathed the neo-Confucians.

    Neocons are bad news, in any era…

  9. nihil obstet

    I request as much lead-time on the date of each review as you can easily give us, to facilitate getting and scheduling the reading of the book.

  10. markfromireland

    Erich Fromm’s “The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness” is worthy of consideration. I’ll happily buy it for you if you don’t have it already.

  11. alan

    I am tending towards H. G. Creel’s “Confucius and the Chinese Way”. It is old, published in 1948, and it may be difficult to find, but of the rather large number of English books on Confucius I have read, it is by far the best at untangling what Confucius was actually trying to accomplish, how much worked and how it was later perverted.

    I found Herbet Fingarette’s Confucius: The Secular as Sacred inspirational on these matters,especially the notion of synthesizing a past to serve as a model for the future. For us USians, the Iroquois might serve.

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