Category Archives: Book review

How evil happens

BOOK REVIEW

Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours, Author: Noga Arikha.
Eichmann in Jerusalem, Author: Hannah Arendt.
The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, Author: Simon Baron-Cohen.
Home Fire, Author: Kamila Shamsie.

By Noga Arikha – The ‘sapiens’ in Homo sapiens does not fully describe our species: we are as violent as we are smart.

This might be why we are the only Homo genus left over in the first place, and why we have been so destructively successful at dominating our planet. But still the question nags away: how are ordinary people capable of such obscene acts of violence?

Today, biology is a powerful explanatory force for much human behavior, though it alone cannot account for horror. Much as the neurosciences are an exciting new tool for human self-understanding, they will not explain away our brutishness. Causal accounts of the destruction that humans inflict on each other are best provided by political history – not science, nor metaphysics. The past century alone is heavy with atrocities of unfathomable scale, albeit fathomable political genesis.

The social neuroscientist Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig in Germany defines empathy as the ability to ‘resonate’ with the feelings of the other. It develops from babyhood on – as imitation at first, then joint attention – into the ability to adopt the point of view of another, along with a shift in spatial perception from self to other, as if one were literally stepping into another’s shoes.

This requires an ability to distinguish between self and other in the first place, an aspect of the so-called ‘theory of mind’ that one acquires over the first five years of life.

But while empathy ensures the cohesion of a group or a society, it is also biased and parochial. Revenge thrives on it. more>

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The Temp Economy and the Future of Work

BOOK REVIEW

Temp: How American Work, American Business and the American Dream Became Temporary, Author: Louis Hyman.

By Gabrielle Levy – The way people work is changing. Machines and computers reduce the need for labor. Companies have shifted to hiring relatively few permanent staff and opting instead to strike temporary contracts with outside workers.

Uber, the ride-sharing behemoth, is perhaps the best known of these modern companies, with its thousands of drivers operating as independent contractors, but it did not invent the form. The roots of the gig economy go all the way back to the years after World War II, with the creation of the first temp and consulting agencies, including Manpower Inc. and McKinsey & Co.

We will see work become less tied to a particular employer in lots of ways. For some people, that’s fantastic, If you’re a consultant or independent contractor and you have lots of control over your life and you get paid pretty well, then this is a fabulous turn. And if you are a gig worker and you are running errands for somebody else, it’s kind of a nightmarish turn.

Do people really want full-time work? Do they want secure work? And the answer is, yes and no.

Everybody likes to work when they want to work, just like every employer wants workers who will start and stop as needed.

How do we create a system where work can be flexible but we can still have a baseline level of security for our health and our families that allows us to take risks and be entrepreneurial and explore new economic possibilities? more>

What did Max Weber mean by the ‘spirit’ of capitalism?

By Peter Ghosh – Max Weber’s famous text The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) is surely one of the most misunderstood of all the canonical works regularly taught, mangled and revered in universities across the globe.

We use the word ‘capitalism’ today as if its meaning were self-evident, or else as if it came from Marx, but this casualness must be set aside. ‘Capitalism’ was Weber’s own word and he defined it as he saw fit. Its most general meaning was quite simply modernity itself: capitalism was ‘the most fateful power in our modern life’.

More specifically, it controlled and generated ‘modern Kultur’, the code of values by which people lived in the 20th-century West, and now live, we may add, in much of the 21st-century globe. So the ‘spirit’ of capitalism is also an ‘ethic’, though no doubt the title would have sounded a bit flat if it had been called The Protestant Ethic and the Ethic of Capitalism.

Weber supposed that all previous ethics – that is, socially accepted codes of behavior rather than the more abstract propositions made by theologians and philosophers – were religious. Religions supplied clear messages about how to behave in society in straightforward human terms, messages that were taken to be moral absolutes binding on all people. In the West this meant Christianity, and its most important social and ethical prescription came out of the Bible: ‘Love thy neighbor.’

As a guide to social behavior in public places ‘love thy neighbor’ was obviously nonsense, and this was a principal reason why the claims of churches to speak to modern society in authentically religious terms were marginal.

The ethic or code that dominated public life in the modern world was very different. Above all it was impersonal rather than personal: by Weber’s day, agreement on what was right and wrong for the individual was breaking down. The truths of religion – the basis of ethics – were now contested, and other time-honored norms – such as those pertaining to sexuality, marriage and beauty – were also breaking down. more>

Why bad technology dominates our lives, according to Don Norman

By Don Norman – We have unwittingly accepted the paradigm that technology comes first, with people relegated to doing the actions that the machines cannot do. This requires people to act like machines, ever ready to take over when things go wrong.

As a result, we require people to do tedious, repetitive tasks, to be alert for long periods, ready to respond at a moment’s notice: all things people are bad at doing. When the inevitable errors and accidents occur, people are blamed for “human error.” The view is so prevalent that many times the people involved blame themselves, saying things like “I knew better” or “I should have paid more attention,” not recognizing that the demands of the technology made these errors inevitable.

We need to switch from a technology-centric view of the world to a people-centric one. We should start with people’s abilities and create technology that enhances people’s capabilities: Why are we doing it backwards?

We have turned the positive trait of curiosity into two negative ones. One is that of distraction, leading to accidents; the other is that of following the trails on enticement leading to addiction. We have our priorities completely wrong. more>

In extremis

By Nabeelah Jaffer – to understand what has led someone to extremism it is not enough to point to ideology. Ideas alone did not bring Mair to leave his home that morning with a sawn-off shotgun and a seven-inch knife. The accounts that emerged in the weeks after Cox’s murder dwelt on many details of Mair’s previously blameless life.

‘Loneliness is the common ground of terror’ – and not just the terror of totalitarian governments, of which Hannah Arendt was thinking when she wrote those words in The Origins of Totalitarianism. It also generates the sort of psychic terror that can creep up on a perfectly ordinary individual, cloaking everything in a mist of urgent fear and uncertainty.

Totalitarian ideas offer a ‘total explanation’ – a single idea is sufficient to explain everything. Independent thought is rendered irrelevant in the act of joining up to their black-and-white worldview.

Becoming an ‘idealist’ assuaged these fears (the word is perhaps better read as ‘ideologue’). After all, if you sign up to the idea that class struggle, racial competition or civilizational conflict is absolute, then you can achieve meaning and kinship as part of a race, class or civilization without ever requiring two-sided thought – the kind of thought that involves weighing competing imperatives and empathizing with a range of people. more>

Towards The Disappearance Of Politics?

BOOK REVIEW

The Human Condition, Author: Hannah Arendt.

By Valerio Alfonso Bruno – Today, erosion of the public sphere is once more a harsh reality, as is particularly evident in the current weakness of “Western Democracies.”

The substantial risk of leaving democratic institutions only formally alive, but significantly lacking any content, is encouraging a deep reflexion on the reasons behind this erosion of the space for public debate and active political action.

However, some frequent arguments are employed by different people (belonging to political parties, policy-makers, academia, analysts, media) to justify the impossibility of developing a comprehensive political debate within contemporary democracies. At least four main orders of arguments can be identified that are used to justify the shrinking of the Vita Activa:

  1. technical complexity,
  2. global issues,
  3. trivialization of politics and
  4. ideological taboo.

Open, pluralistic, debate within democratic societies is unfortunately the first victim of the current political environment, as seen recently in the US and Italy.

The limitation of the public debate by reason of technical complexity and growingly global issues, or trivial generalization and ideological taboos, is dangerously forcing democracies’ citizens into political passivity, narrowing de facto the window of alternatives to an extreme degree, and resulting is an increased polarization. more>

The Globalization Backlash: It’s Both Culture and the Economy, Stupid

BOOK REVIEW

Euroscepticism and the Future of European Integration, Author: Catherine De Vries.
Globalization represents a “trilemma” for societies, Author: Dani Rodrik.

By Catherine De Vries – While many thought the process of greater cross-border cooperation to be irreversible, in part because it was expected to lead to a universal acceptance of liberal and capitalist values, isolationism, nationalism and protectionism are back on the political scene with a vengeance.

While Donald Trump’s slogan to “Make America Great Again” is at the heart of his campaign and current administration, Nigel Farage’s mantra of taking back control (“we will win this war and take our country back”) dominated the Brexit campaign.

A fierce debate has developed about the origins of these developments. Are they the result of economic grievances of those who feel threatened by globalization (a term for increasing international cooperation and increasing interdependence), or do current developments represent a cultural backlash based on immigration fears and prejudice.

Opposition to globalization is gaining such a foothold in the political and public domain in advanced industrial democracies, precisely because processes of economic interdependence have coincided with increasing migration flows.

Although current societal and academic debates are mostly framed in either economic or cultural terms, it is important to realize that these types of explanations are not mutually exclusive. We should focus more of our efforts on trying to understand how cultural and economic fears interact and fuel the recent popular backlash against globalization. more>

The Overlapping Crises Of Democracy, Globalization And Global Governance

BOOK REVIEW

Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need It Most, Authors: Thomas Hale, David Held, Kevin Young.

By David Held – The crisis of contemporary democracy has become a major subject of political commentary. But the symptoms of this crisis, the vote for Brexit and Trump, among other things, were not foreseen. Nor were the underlying causes of this new constellation of politics.

The virtuous circle between deepening interdependence and expanding global governance could not last because it set in motion trends that ultimately undermined its effectiveness.

Why?

There are four reasons for this or four pathways to gridlock: rising multipolarity, harder problems, institutional inertia, and institutional fragmentation. Each pathway can be thought of as a growing trend that embodies a specific mix of causal mechanisms.

To manage the global economy, reign in global finance, or confront other global challenges, we must cooperate. But many of our tools for global policy making are breaking down or prove inadequate – chiefly, state-to-state negotiations over treaties and international institutions – at a time when our fates are acutely interwoven.

The result is a dangerous drift in global politics punctuated by surges of violence and the desperate movement of peoples looking for stability and security. more>

Against metrics: how measuring performance by numbers backfires

BOOK REVIEW

The Tyranny of Metrics, Author: Jerry Z Muller.

By Jerry Z Muller – More and more companies, government agencies, educational institutions and philanthropic organisations are today in the grip of a new phenomenon. I’ve termed it ‘metric fixation’.

The key components of metric fixation are the belief that it is possible – and desirable – to replace professional judgment (acquired through personal experience and talent) with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics); and that the best way to motivate people within these organizations is by attaching rewards and penalties to their measured performance.

The rewards can be monetary, in the form of pay for performance, say, or reputational, in the form of college rankings, hospital ratings, surgical report cards and so on. But the most dramatic negative effect of metric fixation is its propensity to incentivize gaming: that is, encouraging professionals to maximize the metrics in ways that are at odds with the larger purpose of the organization. more>

Why the Red Hen incident so troubles us as Americans

By Mark Penn – The United States of America is creeping toward creating a more imperfect union, one dominated by the power of the online mob that is threatening to disassemble more than 200 years of learning.

It was in “Federalist 10” that James Madison, the father of the Constitution, discussed the human tendency to divide into factions, which he defined as groups of people “who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens” and to the community. He warned how the zeal for certain government policies, for passionate leaders and for different religions could lead us to a society inflamed “with mutual animosities.”

Welcome to America 2018. Madison’s solution then was to tame the forces of the moment through a republic as opposed to a pure democracy.

This is done by electing the people’s representatives from across the country who would be more sensible and objective. They would face periodic elections, but were to be freed from the easily inflamed mobs that would be quick to trample the rights of others.

But in the modern age, as I document in “Microtrends Squared,” people are increasingly divided into factions, and whether it is through their news channels or their Twitter feeds, the ability to whip up crowds quickly and with slanted information has never been easier, or more dangerous. Forget about the Russians dividing us, we have to worry about us Americans doing the job of tearing the nation apart. more>