Marx’s Capital; Kurt Andersen’s Evil Geniuses; and…some other books

Reading Marx’s Capital, I feel envious of his command over philosophy, economics and classical literature—like what kind of person has read the speeches of Isocrates or the histories of Diodorus. But on the other hand, Marx didn’t have to read Marx, so that’s where he had a major advantage over me. 

The man is a powerful writer—a wonderful union of continental and Anglo-American tendencies. He develops grand systems, spinning them up out of first principles, but he also isn’t shy to tie them to concrete circumstances and to create examples. Like, you’d never catch Kant illustrating a point with an example. It’s no surprise that Marx caught on so powerfully. 

I’m simultaneously reading the writings of an easily anarchist, Malatesta, and he simply didn’t have the same union of theory and practice. His principles are powerful, and he spins appealing visions about what the future under anarchism will look like, but he doesn’t attempt to prove or demonstrate his principles. Marx, whatever his faults, developed a falsifiable theory that contained concrete predictions about the future, based on clearly explicated principles. There is nothing vague about Marx. 

You know when bush was in office there was this cottage industry of comedians writing books about how terrible he was (I think it was started by Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them). My dad bought six or seven of these books, and I read them all. Since then I’ve realized a lot of these books tell the same story: these people are personally dishonest, immortal, corrupt hypocrites who are manipulating public opinion for personal gain. 

I recently listened to Kurt Anderson’s Evil Geniuses, which is about our country’s rightward turn over the last fifty years, and it purports to prove that all of this was engineered by a small cabal of billionaires and the right wing intellectuals they funded. It was convinced, but these books always are. 

Reading the book at the same time in reading Marx I can’t help thinking how frustrated he would be by such critiques. Marx would see what’s happened in the last fifty years as being inevitable. The moment economic growth began to falter, it would mean increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of owners of capital (because the historical condition is that the return to labor always exceeds the return to capital) and this in turn would mean increasing political power for the owners of capital. 

Andersen segues in the last part of the book to talking about mechanization and AI and how those things are putting people out of work and hollowing out the middle class, which means the returns from productivity growth no longer go to workers (because productivity growth is inevitably accompanied nowadays by reduced labor needs). Marx predicted this too, saying over time the capital investment in an industry grows larger and larger, precisely because of its effects on labor: capital needs there to be an excess of labor in order to keep wages down. 

So while I understand the critique Andersen is making (and he repeatedly contrasts America to Europe and the Nordic countries, which have less inequality of labor), one is tempted to wonder whether what we are seeing is less an evil cabal and more the natural operating of our economic system. I have absolutely no idea. But I still enjoyed the book for its small details regarding how all this was carried out, including the very minor public policy points republicans used to alter our tax system (e.g. little details about which part of our income is taxed for social security, etc). Definitely worth a read if you enjoy this genre of book. 

Finished my book on The Byzantine Economy. Probably one of the most informative books I’ve ever read. It’s astonishing how even fifty years after historians started talking about the importance of ordinary people and institutions and ideas, when you read a history book, it’s still mostly a chronicle of wars and Emperors. I felt much more solidly grounded in the Byzantine Empire after reading this book. Many, many questions were answered. For instance, how was it possible for Constantinople to have 400,000 citizens even during times when the Empire was so much shrunken and Europe was so poor. I mean, it was because of the Black Sea and Aegean trade, obviously, but there’s more to it than that. During the tenth century, when Constantinople reached its height (or, rather, reached them again), the state was heavily involved in the economy: it essentially turned into a machine for bringing grain surpluses to Constantinople. The command economy, composed of tax levies and the produce of the vast imperial land-holdings, co-existed for centuries with the market economy that eventually displaced it.

What usually happens to me when I read a book like this is that I get very hopped up and start imagining ten or fifteen more books on economic history that I could read. I splashed out money buying a bunch more, which would probably take me most of the year to read, and meanwhile I have to get back to Capital at some point. Next on the list is one about the invention of coinage in Ancient Greece, and then I’ve got one about the economy of the Carolingian Empire. It’s too much, I know.

Writing is great. You know, before you sell a book, writing is simple. You sit down, you write something, you polish it, you send it out. But after you’ve started selling books, it becomes such a scattered process. I’ve got edits due on my YA, which means I’ve got to return to it after being away from it for four months. During those four months I mostly worked on a sci-fi novel, which I put on hold to work on a proposal for a non-fiction book, and then on a proposal for another YA novel. And now after I send in the YA novel edits I’ll go back to the sci-fi book, and then I’ll send that out to some friends for comments, and during the month it takes to hear from them, there’ll be some other thing to work on.

And then your book comes out, and you’re like, when did I write this? I don’t even remember a point when I sat down and wrote this book. Because it happened in stages, several months apart, and you never gave it your continuous, devoted attention for longer than two months. And that’s writing these days!

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