Category Archives: Books

James Kwak – Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality

Economism

James KwakEconomism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality (2017)


Probably everything readers need to know about James Kwak’s book Economism comes from this quote by Richard Wolff (which, incidentally, pre-dates the writing of this book):

“over the last 50 years, the major debate in mainstream economics has been between neoclassical devotees of laissez-faire and Keynesian devotees of government economic interventions. From the Great Depression through the 1960s, Keynesian economics prevailed and neoclassicals were marginalized. Since then the reverse situation has obtained. The crisis since 2007 shifted some influence back to the Keynesians, but the old debates continue. While both sides disagree on much, they do both endorse capitalism as ‘the best’ economic system and they do both cooperate to exclude Marxian economists from their debates, discussions, journals, and campuses.”

Kwak is kind of a “new Keynesian”, so naturally he fights against neoclassical monetarist economic theocracy, at a time when Keynesian have regained some prestige, while subtly joining with them to declare “there is no alternative” to their shared capitalist assumptions.  What is most embarrassing about his book is that the title, “Economism,” is a term coined by Marxists like Lenin to describe bourgeois economists who sought to exclude class struggle from discourse and pursue trivial reformist trends.  In other words, Lenin would have excoriated Kwak as guilty of “economism”!  Then again, Kwak is quite explicit that he would consider a democratic, Bolshevik-style revolution to be terrible — an outcome to avoid at all costs.  Anyway, Kwak’s book is pretty superfluous.  There are many, many books like this already in print.  Kwak’s is very readable, maybe more so than some others.  Yet the way it tries to paint neoclassical economists as ideologues while implying that its new Keynesian perspective is non-ideological is a joke — Kwak can fairly be accused of promoting ideology masquerading as a critique of ideology.

Don Hazen & Jonathan Taplin – The Massive Monopolies of Google, Facebook and Amazon

Link to an interview of Jonathan Taplin, author of Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy (2017), conducted by Don Hazen:

“The Massive Monopolies of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and Their Role in Destroying Privacy, Producing Inequality and Undermining Democracy”

Bonus link: The People’s Platform

Bonus Quote – Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates:

“[Adapting a statement of Lenin regarding central banks,] can we also say that ‘without the World Wide Web socialism would be impossible . . . . Our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive?” (p. 293)

“However, does capitalism really provide the ‘natural’ frame of relations of production for the digital universe?  Is there not also, in the World Wide Web, and explosive potential for capitalism itself?  Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting this monopoly through the state apparatus (remember the court-ordered splitting up of the Microsoft Corporation), would it not be more ‘logical’ simply to nationalize it, making it freely accessible?  So today, I am thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin’s well-known slogan ‘Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets’: ‘Socialism = free access to the Internet + the power of the soviets.’  (The second element is crucial, since it specifies the only social organization within which the Internet can realize its liberating potential; without it, we would have a new version of crude technological determinism.”  (p. 294).

On Criticism (3)

There is an old saying the newspaper business.  Although it has been formulated different ways through the years, the most concise may be, “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.”

When it comes to criticism, there is a real question as to whether it is mere advertising and boosterism, or something else.  In that category of “something else” fall a few things.  One is the insertion of the personality of the critic.  In other words, the critic inserts or attaches himself or herself into the work.  The critique becomes, in part, about the critic.  Another aspect is the reproduction of social relations.  This arises most often through editorial decisions, as published criticism is as much about what is excluded and included within the attentions (or “gaze”) of the critic.  But it also arises through a frame of reference, enforcing certain points of view (or “habitus”).

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan – How to Write About Music

 How to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers

Marc Woodworth & Ally-Jane Grossan, EditorsHow to Write About Music: Excerpts from the 33 1/3 Series, Magazines, Books and Blogs with Advice from Industry-leading Writers (Bloomsbury 2015)


The implicit premise of the book is really “how to get paid to write about popular music in a journalistic setting“.  This is not a book that talks about how to publish a book about music (biography, academic text, etc.).  It does not deal with getting a job writing the text for programs to euro-classical orchestral concerts, as just one more example.  While much of the book admirably tries to offer tips on the mechanics of writing for newspapers, magazines and large web sites, readers should bear in mind the underlying assumptions of the editors who put this together.

It is inevitable that all critics write from a certain cultural perspective.  Readers either share (or aspire to) that cultural perspective, or they don’t.  But more than that, professional critics for newspapers and magazines tend to get caught up in the economics of a popular music industry that, as a whole, makes money hyping one fad after another, covering the release of new recordings in order to generate demand for live performances.  The biggest problem this cultivates in critics is a tendency to foster a kind of privileged clique of insiders who are “up to date” on the latest fads.  Their writing accordingly spends as much — or more — effort developing and maintaining that sense of insider elitism as it does explaining and contextualizing the music that is ostensibly the focus of their written pieces.  A few contributors here acknowledge this and describe it as reasonable and inevitable.  But of course, it is neither of those things.  Yet writers do need to either choose the path of “professional” writing laid out in this book, or reject it, and only by overcoming the underlying assumptions and dictates of “capital”, that is, the large media businesses that pay professional music writers, can writers actively reject such dictates.  Of course, some writers are just shills who will say just about anything for a sufficiently large paycheck, or too dim-witted to comprehend what is going on.  But more insidious are those who simply internalize the dictates of their industry, constrained by dependence on their salary to not say anything against industry interests.  That can fairly be called “drinking the Kool-Aid.”  On the other hand, it is worth remembering that most critics who eschew remuneration do what they do to advocate for certain music against the commercial marketplace.  Critics often want to praise was has yet to or may never garner commercial success, which doesn’t necessarily reject elitism but merely shifts focus from an economic sphere toward a cultural/symbolic sphere.  So they don’t get off the hook so easily either.

Another aspect of this book is its liberalism.  Liberalism describes the political outlook of nearly all the contributors, and especially the editors.  There is a pervasive belief that the post-WWII golden years of the working class — the time when pop/rock journalism was first created — represents the norm.  Such an outlook is the embodiment of liberalism.  People on both the political left and right of liberalism see the post-WWII years in the global West as a historical anomaly — but with different subjective reactions.  On the Right, the post-WWII welfare state was a tragedy, and they make attempts to return to a new gilded age, or even to outright feudalism.  On the Left, there is a desire to re-attempt a Paris Commune or other egalitarian utopia, which the welfare state was an attempt to stave off.  While in places some contributors acknowledge that popular music criticism of the type the book emphasizes is a uniquely post-WWII creation, it definitely stops short of acknowledging any sort of coherent theory of why that is.  So questions like the following are outside its scope: is popular music largely a creation of the working class and, if so, wouldn’t bourgeois capital therefore want to suppress or undermine working class aspirations in the long-run by under-funding and co-opting musical criticism?  Before WWII, there was something known as the “Cultural Front” and the theories of “Cultural Hegemony” or a “Culture Industry,” or even of a “Leisure Class” that drew connections like this on the political left.  On the flip side, around WWII and the dawn of the welfare state, you have people on the political right like Ayn Rand writing The Fountainhead to advocate for toppling an existing aristocracy to (de facto) install another, with a firm insistence that the reasons for doing this cannot be questioned (because “A is A” and this is “objectivism”, among other nonsense retorts), followed after the war by the open attacks of the McCarthy witchhunts that eliminated almost all viewpoints to the left of centrist liberalism.  With the ascendancy of conservatism during the neoliberal “austerity” age, the working class base for music criticism has shrunk along with the sort of journalistic outlets that went along with it.  In short, the economy as a whole has shifted away from the one that for a brief window of time supported a robust middle and working class base interested in “legitimate” popular music criticism (i.e., from a working/middle class perspective), and critics and readers seeking to bolster it during its decline necessarily see the conservative shift as a negative, while still retaining the elements of professional elitism that largely keeps them at a distance from the political left whose militancy once arguably brought about the conditions for it in the first place.

Anyway, the contributors to How to Write About Music surely have the editor’s implicit assumptions in mind.  Numerous contributors, for instance, mention writing on an amateur basis for free on a web site of your own creation.  Some even go so far as to praise the “democratization” that web sites provide in that respect (other contributors are clearly threatened by it).  They mention these things as they chafe against the narrowness of the questions posed to them by the editors of this book.  It is to the credit of the editors that they leave these things in the book.

A number of contributors here make the same joke: in order to survive as a music writer, you should have a trust fund.  In other words, the means for making a living doing professional music criticism are limited at best.  Give up hoping against the odds!  But those jokes kind of avoid the larger implications.  Mostly, this book is about the mechanics of the current music industry: how to submit a successful proposal to an editor, how to take notes for a concert review, examples of the most common formats for the most common things editors publish.  And much of that discussion is pretty shallow.  Most writers will intuitively understand that you can prepare to write a concert review by bringing a notepad to the concert and scrawling some notes, expanding upon them later.  The more interesting of these discussions of industry mechanics describe the editorial process and the various defenses of the status quo offered by editors who retain a large degree of control in that arena.  The short take home message, once summarized obliquely by David Graeber, is that you only get to do what you want (write about music!) if before and above that you are a salesperson.  If you can’t “sell” (pitch) to editors effectively, you will be denied access to the largest mass-media publishing platforms.  End of story.  Those parts of the book resemble Chad Harbach‘s MFA Vs NYC The Two Cultures Of American Fiction, which detailed the two leading commercial hubs in the United States for fiction publishing (see also the companion e-book, Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of The Art of Fielding by Keith Gessen).  The editorial pitch process is driven by emotional “gut” reactions, not rational decision-making, and there is absolutely nothing like a meritocracy in play.  The editors of How to Write About Music do not intend to make that topic the focus of this book, and certainly never question editors who go along with that regime, but at the edges this emerges and the occasional statements along these lines provide some of the most valuable information documented here.  Yet implicit in much of the book is a crude and tentative attempt to disabuse readers of the myth of a meritocracy in the world of published music writing.

The writing samples, culled from books, magazines, etc. are generally underwhelming. This reviewer has been largely unimpressed with the 33 1/3 book series, which seems to range from tedious drivel to the mediocre, with a few exceptions.  It is therefore unsurprising that a book by and about music writers this reviewer finds to be mostly bad or mediocre would have limited appeal.  Even excerpts drawn from places beyond the 33 1/3 book series are no better, and tend to be from the likes of Alex Ross and other writers working for urban liberal publications, especially a few web sites like The Quietus (which this reviewer has largely dismissed as uninteresting liberal multiculturalist blather).

So, on the one hand, readers who accept the basic premises of this book may actually find a lot they like.  On the other hand, readers should very much question the basic premise of the book and what it represents.

Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky – The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine

Link to a video narrated by Amy Goodman about the “Propaganda Model” of Edward S. Herman & Noam Chomsky:

“The 5 Filters of the Mass Media Machine”

(Incidentally, this video helpfully updates the “anti-communism” filter of the original version of the theory).

 

Bonus link: Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty

Slavoj Žižek on Populism

Slavoj Žižek from In Defense of Lost Causes (2008):

“Populism is ultimately always sustained by ordinary people’s frustrated exasperation, by a cry of ‘I don’t know what’s going on, I just know I’ve had enough of it! It can’t go on! It must stop!’ — an impatient outburst, a refusal to understand, exasperation at complexity, and the ensuing conviction that there must be somebody responsible for all the mess, which is why an agent who is behind the scenes and explains it all is required.  Therein, in this refusal-to-know, resides the properly fetishistic dimension of populism.” (p. 282)

***

“for a populist, the cause of the troubles is ultimately never the system as such but the intruder who corrupted it (financial manipulators, not necessarily capitalists, and so on); not a fatal flaw inscribed into the structure as such but an element that doesn’t play its role within the structure properly. For a Marxist, on the contrary (as for a Freudian), the pathological (deviating misbehavior of some elements) is the symptom of the normal, an indicator of what is wrong in the very structure that is threatened with ‘pathological’ outbursts. For Marx, economic crises are the key to understanding the ‘normal’ functioning of capitalism; for Freud, the pathological phenomena such as hysterical outbursts provide the key to the constitution (and hidden antagonisms that sustain the functioning) of a ‘normal’ subject.” (p. 279)

 

Two contrasting examples of these very principles:

Thomas Frank: “Donald Trump doesn’t really reflect the moral values of middle America. He is a consummate city slicker, a soft-handed, foul-mouthed toff who lives in a 58-story building and has been identified with New York City excess his entire life. But people in rural areas are desperate these days. Many of them chose Trump, despite his vulgarity and his big-city ways, because he promised to make them ‘great again’. *** Why? One of the men present told me you could summarize it with a single word: ‘Hillary!’ “

Kshama Sawant: “Because this is not only about Trump.  It is this predatory system of capitalism, in decline and crisis, that has given rise to Trumpism.”