‘We need permanent revolution’: how Thomas Piketty became 2014’s most influential thinker

Owen Jones in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_931 Dec. 27 22.08For a man with the unlikely description of “rock-star economist”, there is nothing rock’n’roll about Thomas Piketty’s cramped, book-lined office in a nondescript Parisian office block. By his feet are scattered various foreign translations of his publishing sensation, Capital in the Twenty-First Century: Greek, German, Japanese, and so on. There are 20 foreign editions already published, he tells me with evident pride, and another 37 to come. It must be rather surreal, I suggest: one doesn’t normally expect a French economist to become a global superstar. “Is there something particular with being French, or economists in general?” he jokes in a thick Parisian accent, effecting a faux wounded Gallic pride.

Piketty’s book is surely the most influential published by an economist in a generation, infuriating the right as much as it delighted an intellectually starved left. Using a mass of data, the book sought to expose why modern capitalism is an engine of exploding inequality: the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate at which the economy grows, he argues, and wealth is becoming ever more concentrated at the top of society.

More explosively, he proposes a global wealth tax as a check on this process, even though he has conceded this is “utopian”. He has been feted by political leaders across the western world – Ed Miliband among them – and beyond. I ask the boyish 43-year-old if his life has been thrown upside down. “Not so much. Sure, it was much more successful than I could expect – it was a gradual process, I had time to get accustomed … it’s not like a huge shock from complete anonymity to complete stardom. I’m still a little star!”

More here.

American Racial Boundaries Are Quite Distinct (For Now)

Razib Khan in The Unz Review:

41AFhg61TZL._SY344_BO1204203200_-194x300Geneticists are people of their time. I’m rather sure that if Charles Davenport had written a book with the title Race Crossing in Jamaica today it would end with a far different moral, because the dominant Zeitgeist in regards to racial admixture in the United States is far different nearly 100 years on. In my post below where I review interesting aspects of the new study from researchers in David Reich’s lab and 23andMe, The Genetic Ancestry of African Americans, Latinos, and European Americans across the United States, I didn’t cover the variation in admixture in black and white Americans too much in detail. Partly that’s because this study only improved the bigger picture on the margins, and with finer geographic grain (though these were interesting obviously). We knew that the vast majority of white Americans who are not Hispanic do not have detectable non-European ancestry. It has also long been reported and verified that a substantial minority of the total ancestry of black Americans is of European origin, with a small Native American fraction as well. Additionally, this non-African ancestry in black Americans varies by geography as well as individual to individual a great deal.

So I have to take issue when The New York Times posts articles with headlines such as White? Black? A Murky Distinction Grows Still Murkier. What genetics is showing is that in fact white Americans are shockingly European to an incredibly high degree for a population with roots on this continent for 400 years. If we removed all the history that we take for granted we’d be amazed that the indigenous peoples had so little demographic impact, and, that the larger numbers of people of partial African ancestry did not move into the general “white” population. This is in fact the case across much of Latin America, where many self-identified whites,blanco, have African and indigenous ancestry. But we do know the reasons for why North America was unique, a combination of a smaller indigenous population which underwent a mass die off, and folk migrations on a huge scale previously unimaginable in human history. Whole villages in Poland and Norway, not just working age males, decamped for the New World.

More here.

Teaching Iguala


Thomas Rath in Berfrois:

On 26 September, the municipal police of Iguala, Guerrero, shot dead three trainee teachers from Ayotzinapa. One body later turned up with the eyes gouged and skin flayed. Later, the police kidnapped 43 other students and, reportedly, handed them over to a gang of narcos (drug-traffickers) who executed the students before incinerating their bodies and throwing what remained into a river. This crime disgusted Mexico, and national and international protests soon mushroomed. The events in Iguala have made me, like many people, alternately sad, angry and – once protests began – oddly hopeful. As a historian I’ve also been fascinated to see interpretations of the event slowly emerge, and think about the different versions of Mexico’s recent past underpinning them.

The events certainly undermine the florid boosterism of the Peña Nieto administration. President Peña Nieto is a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which ruled Mexico through a careful blend of co-option and violence from 1929-2000. The PRI finally lost a presidential election in 2000, but was then voted back to power in 2012. The president portrayed himself as an economic modernizer unlocking Mexico’s latent potential with sweeping market-driven reforms, dumped the militarized rhetoric of his predecessor Enrique Calderón, and downplayed levels of violence.

Much of the international press lapped this stuff up. In The Economist, Peña Nieto claimed it was “Mexico’s moment“. The cover of Time magazine announced that Peña Nieto had “changed the narrative“, a weird, but appropriately vapid headline. All of this sounds pretty hollow now; perhaps it always did in Mexico, at least outside of Los Pinos, gated communities or, say, Monterrey’s hi-tech business parks. What good are 44 free-trade agreements or renewed oil production if your loved ones rot in one of the hundreds (probably thousands) of mass graves perforating the country?

But the stakes are larger than one administration’s rhetoric. The Iguala scandal has engulfed the entire political class: Iguala’s mayor, suspected of ordering the killings, is a member of the nominally left-wing opposition party; the disastrous war against narcos was launched in 2006 by the right-wing Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), in which at least 100,000 have been killed or disappeared. These are levels of violence comparable to those in Iraq over the same period. It has also raised larger questions about where Mexico has been in the last few decades and where it’s going.

More here.

A Very Kautsky Christmas


Loren Balhorn in Jacobin (image Lucas Cranach, The Law and the Gospel. 1529):

Reading Karl Kautsky at the tail end of 2014 is a peculiar undertaking. For starters, there is the burning question of “who actually reads Kautsky?”

Vilified by the Bolsheviks and their descendants for, in their eyes,betraying the Marxist principles his writings had done so much to popularize, yet still too Marxist for comfort in the rightward-moving Social Democratic Party of Weimar Germany, the “Pope of Marxism” has largely been consigned (along with Georgi Plekhanov, Bruno Bauer, and others) to the pile of seemingly-important authors one should at least have read about, but is not obligated to actually read.

Once we move beyond this first peculiarity, we are confronted with the second: namely, that a lot of what Kautsky writes is quite good. Sure, his work is riddled with over-simplifications and teleological projections that hold little water a century after the fact. But to reduce his Marxism to these shortcomings alone is to ignore one of the most important socialists of the twentieth century.

Kautsky’s most significant contribution — namely, systematizing classical Marxist theory into a series of easily understandable, digestible works fit for mass consumption — brought socialist theory and politics into the hearts and minds of millions of European workers at the turn of the last century. Kautsky was considered a “Pope” not due to unassailable ecclesiastic authority or backroom intrigues within the upper ranks of the SPD, but rather because he represented one of the main authorities on Marxist theory in an age where the spirit of revolution was sweeping up the German working classes like never before (and never since).

He sat at the pinnacle of an expanding workers’ movement, whose promises of inevitable socialist transformation seemed plausible and within reach. He wrote for an audience of millions of eager, attentive militants, and no doubt felt a sense of responsibility to use his authority to imbue the spirit of class consciousness in his readers.

This spirit runs through Communism in Central Europe at the Time of the Reformation, in which Kautsky traces the revolutionary egalitarian impulses of subaltern Protestant currents in the Middle Ages, identifying both an “egalitarian communism” of the poor and downtrodden masses, as well as an intellectualized “Utopian communism” of the educated upper classes.

More here.

The story of Germany

0b4ece16-8a4c-11e4-9b5f-00144feabdc0Quentin Peel at The Financial Times:

There is no single German story. Political centralisation came early to Britain and France; Germany, by contrast, assumed something like its modern form less than 150 years ago. Prior to this, it was a hodge­podge of little kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms, for many centuries owing a loose allegiance to the ramshackle Holy Roman Empire. German history, according to Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, is “a composite of different, sometimes conflicting, local narratives . . . inevitably, enrichingly and confusingly fragmented”.

The existence of such multiple narratives explains much about the behaviour of modern Germany: its instinctive federalism and commitment to European integration, its readiness to compromise combined with a stubborn insistence on fiscal discipline, its deep-rooted pacifism and, above all, its unwillingness to lead. Nationalism came late to Germany, and led to the disaster of the 1930s. It is a lesson the nation has learnt more bitterly than any other. In three recent books that reflect on how Germany’s past is shaping its future — MacGregor’s Germany: Memories of a Nation, Stephen Green’s Reluctant Meisterand Hans Kundnani’s The Paradox of German Power — this fragmentation and belated nationhood provide the backdrop.

more here.

Bringing bribery out into the open

Nabila Rahhal in Citiscope (via Digg):

BriberyA few months ago, a tiny car carrying a big message rolled into 26 cities and towns across Lebanon.

The Smart car was covered with images of a driver’s license, diploma, utility meter and a gavel, and embossed in Arabic, Dek kenet el balad (“The city’s store where everything is for sale”). The drivers would park the car in front of government administration offices, to shine a light on the corruption that greases almost every government transaction here.

The Kabseh car (it means “surprise visit”) was the work of a new NGO here called Sakker el Dekkene (“close the store”). Their goal was not just to shame bureaucrats. It was also to collect data. Sakker el Dekkene has launched a smartphone app, website and telephone hotline for citizens to report when they’ve needed to pay a bribe in order to conduct government business. People exiting the government offices stopped at Kabseh to report 920 bribes, including some they’d paid just moments before.

Sakker el Dekkene’s crowd-sourced platforms give Lebanese their first means of quantifying a scourge that is all around them. Citizens report the city where their bribe took place, which government office was responsible and the amount of the bribe. While the data are far from comprehensive and hard to verify — most users opt to remain anonymous — the reports paint a grim picture. In six months, nearly 1,550 reports have been filed, with the total value of bribes paid adding up to 2.1 billion Lebanese Lira ($1.4 million U. S.).

Read the rest here.

Porochista Khakpour’s audacious coming-of-age novel

Hermione Hoby in The Guardian:

PoroFor the last 13 years, any New York novel in the realist mode has had a problem on its hands: how to write about an event whose significance is so huge that it is known by a date rather than a name? To ignore 9/11 entirely would be too conspicuous an omission, but repurposing it in fiction is both stylistically and morally tricky. Porochista Khakpour’s audacious second novel, which has been much acclaimed in the US, is set during 2000 and 2001, and the impending attacks are foreshadowed explicitly. First, there are the premonitions of Asiya, an anorexic, mentally unstable young artist who obsessively photographs dead birds and who becomes ever more convinced that something terrible is about to happen to Manhattan. Second, there are the delusions of Silber, an ageing celebrity magician, intent on pulling off one final stunt to crown his career. After wowing audiences with the illusion of flight he craves something bigger, and alights upon the idea of “disappearing” the World Trade Center.

Khakpour’s imagination is similarly ambitious in its scope. The narrative is not Silber’s, or even Asiya’s, but belongs to the young man who fascinates them both – Zal, the last and 19th child of Khanoom, a demented woman living in a small village in Iran. Zal’s mother is so horrified by her son’s paleness, by this “sickly yellow-white thing in her arms”, that she calls him “White Demon” and locks him in a cage in her aviary. There he grows up (if his stunted early life can be described thus) eating bugs and birdseed and mimicking the shrieks and squawks of the canaries that surround him. As the novel’s preface indicates, this is a reimagining of one of the most famous tales in theShahnameh, the epic Persian poem in which an albino child’s parents are so horrified by his whiteness that they abandon him on a mountaintop, where he’s raised by a huge mythical bird.

More here.

Why Homer Matters

Bryan Doerries in The New York Times:

King“Homer has become a kind of scripture for me, an ancient book, full of urgent imperatives and ancient meanings, most of them half discerned, to be puzzled over. It is a source of wisdom.” So begins the third chapter of Adam Nicolson’s highly accessible new book, “Why Homer Matters,” in which he compares his relationship with epic poetry to a form of possession, a “colonization of the mind by an imaginative presence from the past.” The world needs more Adam Nicolsons, unabashedly passionate evangelists for the power of ancient poetry to connect us with our collective past, illuminate our personal struggles and interrogate our understanding of human history.

…Nicolson contends that the epic poems reflect “the violence and sense of strangeness of about 1800 B.C. recollected in the tranquillity of about 1300 B.C.,” though not captured in writing until roughly 700 B.C. And so he believes that whoever wrote the poems down belonged to “a culture emerging from a dark age, looking to a future but also looking back to a past, filled with nostalgia for the years of integrity, simplicity, nobility and straightforwardness.” It is difficult to assess Nicolson’s theory, which is based on a conjecture that the “Iliad” describes a pre-palatial warrior culture that seems to align well with the “world of the gold-encrusted kings buried in the shaft graves at Mycenae,” now dated to the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. But as a thought exercise, it is often gripping and, at times, electrifying. According to Nicolson, “Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.” The purpose of epic “is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.”

More here.

Sunday Poem

To Live in the Bordlerlands

To live in the Borderlands means you
are neither hispana india negra espanola
ni gabacha, eres mestiza, mulata, half-breed
caught in the crossfire between camps
while carrying all five races on your back
not knowing which side to turn to, run from;

To live in the Borderlands means knowing
that the india in you, betrayed for 500 years,
is no longer speaking to you,
that mexicanas call you rajetas,
that denying the Anglo inside you
is as bad as having denied the Indian or Black;

Cuando vives en la frontera
people walk through you, the wind steals your voice,
you're a burra, buey, scapegoat,
forerunner of a new race,
half and half – both woman and man, neither –
a new gender;

To live in the Borderlands means to
put chile in the borscht,
eat whole wheat tortillas,
speak tex-mex with a brooklyn accent;
be stopped by la migra at the border checkpoints;

Living in the Borderlands means you fight hard to
resist the gold elixir beckoning from the bottle,
the pull of the gun barrel,
the rope crushing the hollow of your throat;

In the Borderlands
you are the battleground
where enemies are kin to each other;
you are at home, a stranger,
the border disputes have been settled
the volley of shots have shattered the truce
you are wounded, lost in action
dead, fighting back;

To live in the Borderlands means
the mill with the razor white teeth wants to shred off
your olive-red skin, crush out the kernel, your heart
pound you pinch you roll you out
smelling like white bread but dead;

To survive the Borderlands
you must live sin fronteras
be a crossroads.

by Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua
from Borderlands -The New Mestiza
Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, CA

Antonio Muñoz Molina: Narrative Across Time

51w2fQt7tiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_James Santel at The Hudson Review:

The handy metaphor for time is a river: the swollen rapid that hurls us forward, or the placid current that rolls along, barely noticed until we find ourselves deposited far downstream. The comparison serves a few purposes. It captures our sense of time as continuous. It assures us of the present’s connection to both past and future, and therefore of our current selves’ connection to the people we have been and the people we will become. Above all, the metaphor confers a teleology upon time, makes a narra­tive of it. And narrative, of course, implies logic.

By virtue of his vocation, the Spanish author Antonio Muñoz Molina relies on narrative. But in the latest of his novels to appear in English, In the Night of Time(beautifully translated by Edith Grossman), Muñoz Molina is interested not in time’s flow but in its rupture.[1] In the Night of Time fixates on time not as an organizing principle, but rather as a partition that cordons off one period of a life from another with cruel suddenness.

more here.


Qdx7nub6gaxoqe77m493The Editors at n+1:

FOR MORE THAN TWO CENTURIES, time has been felt to be passing more and more quickly. Scholars tell us that since the twin revolutions of the 18th century — industrial and political — a general sense of time speeding up has been recorded with regularity in documents of all kinds. Political and technical progress somehow meant that people were always losing ground, unable to keep up, out of breath. Rousseau spoke in Émile of the encroachingtourbillon social irresistibly overtaking everything, and the enduring popularity of Waldenno doubt owes something to its condemnation of the way we squander rather than savor our time. Marx’s bourgeoisie, of course, “cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the means of production,” and toward the end of the century, Nietzsche diagnosed the malady of the modern age in “the madly thoughtless shattering and dismantling of all foundations, their dissolution into a continual evolving that flows ceaselessly away, the tireless unspinning and historicizing of all there has ever been by modern man, the great cross-spider at the node of the cosmic web” — lines that come from the aptly titled Untimely Meditations.

So, naturally, reformers and revolutionaries sought to show how a better future would deliver us from relentless acceleration. In the hands of socialists, utopia became depicted not as beyond time — Thomas More’s was intended to be a timeless idea, not a prediction — but as something located in the definite future.

more here.

Jean-Luc Godard’s 3D film Adieu au langage

Adieu-au-langage-TrailerPhilippe Theophanidis at berfrois:

There’s no doubt that Adieu au langage, like many of Godard’s previous films, has the potential to feel “baffling”, “incoherent”, “irritating and often incomprehensible”, as some critics have suggested. American film theorist David Bordwell remarks about Godard’s work in general: “The brute fact is that these movies are, moment by moment, awfully opaque.” Borrowing from Proust, one could say that Adieu au langage is a film that resists the viewer’s gaze. It offers images “which the eye cannot penetrate”.

A simple way to understand this experience would be through the title of the film. Could Godard be suggesting, in his idiosyncratic style, that we must bid farewell to language as a means of communication? After all, it is nowadays a rather common observation: the world has become incommensurable to the various means of expression we have at our disposal. The words we could use to account for the ongoing mutations are failing us. In one of his previous films, Éloge de l’amour (2001), Godard has one of the characters reciting a line from Jean Cocteau’s diary: “Too many changes are in the air that still lack a means of expression” (1988:299; my translation). In Adieu au langage, a similar idea is conveyed by a quote from a book by Alain Badiou:

What is happening to us in the early years of the century – something that would appear not to have any clear name in any accepted language? (2012: 1)

more here.

The Royal Commoner

By Ullekh NP in Open The Magazine:

Kumud singhKumud Singh has had an unusual childhood. Born into the royal family of Darbhanga, also known as the Khandavala dynasty, in the early 1980s, her early childhood memories are of growing up on an estate of 51 bighas in Bargoria, now in West Bengal, along with three elephants and some 100 people, including members of the family, extended family, numerous house helps, hangers-on and bodyguards. Over the next decade or so, she saw her home shrink rapidly and all the elephants and most dependants disappear. “Many of the orderlies and bodyguards got richer than us,” she recalls. A descendant of a family that once commanded the destinies of people spread across more than 6,000 sq km, including parts of Bihar and West Bengal, a family which owned the Rambagh Palace, the Lakshmeshwar Vilas Palace, the Nargona Palace, the Bela Palace, as well as properties in almost every prominent city in British India, by the time Kumud was a young adult, there was no television, refrigerator or computer at home. “I learnt the uses of all these only after I got married in 2002. I had never watched television programmes before,” says the bespectacled lady, seated attentively in the verandah of her husband’s modest home in the quiet Sri Krishna Puri locality of Patna.

Her father Nandeshwar Singh, now 59, lives with her mother and a few relatives on what now remains of the estate in Bargoria. “There are not more than five people who live in that home where I grew up and the family doesn’t even own a bicycle now,” Kumud Singh says ruefully, with a tinge of wounded pride. Singh never went to school because even in the 80s the family had a sheltered existence and it wasn’t considered wise for girls of the dynasty to sit alongside other children, that too in a school founded by her ancestors. Instead, she was given private tuition at home and was educated to the level of the 10th standard exams. “I am currently pursuing my 11th through the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) programme,” she says, as her two children, Tesu Trishna (like her, Kumud’s daughter is also named after a flower) and Bhusit, run past playfully.

Kumud Singh is not exactly a good conversationalist, but is aggressive and direct in her interactions on Facebook where she has begun to play a pivotal role in a discourse meant to resurrect what she terms as “the good deeds” of her family that many, including local historians, claim are not acknowledged and recorded. In the process, she has also reinvented herself from a homemaker to the editor of what is arguably the first weekly news portal in the Maithili language, Esamaad.com.

Read the rest here.

Why American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

Adam Chandler in The Atlantic:

LeadThe circumstances that birthed Jewish Christmas are also deeply historical, sociological, and religious. The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, “Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups” at the turn of the century. So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food “reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,” she explained. Estimates of the surging Jewish population of New York City run from 400,000 in 1899 to about a million by 1910 (or roughly a quarter of the city’s population). And, as some Jews began to assimilate into American life, they not only found acceptance at Chinese restaurants, but also easy passage into the world beyond Kosher food. “Chinese restaurants were the easiest place to trick yourself into thinking you were eating Kosher food,” Ed Schonfeld, the owner of RedFarm, one of the most laureled Chinese restaurants in New York, said. Indeed, it was something of a perfect match. Jewish law famously prohibits the mixing of milk and meat just as Chinese food traditionally excludes dairy from its dishes. Lee added:

If you look at the two other main ethnic cuisines in America, which are Italian and Mexican, both of those combine milk and meat to a significant extent. Chinese food allowed Jews to eat foreign cuisines in a safe way.

And so, for Jews, the chop suey palaces and dumpling parlors of the Lower East Side and Chinatown gave the illusion of religious accordance, even if there was still treif galore in the form of pork and shellfish. Nevertheless, it’s more than a curiosity that a narrow culinary phenomenon that started over a century ago managed to grow into a national ritual that is both specifically American and characteristically Jewish.

More here.