Written at the peak of his “born again christian” phase, Cash’s first autobiography can be a bit heavy on the proselytizing. Unlike his second autobiography, this one doesn’t bear as much influence of a ghost writer, so it seems. It skips around his life a lot, leaving plenty of gaps. But if you want to find out about personal struggles Cash faced, get a feel for his touring schedule, or identify working projects he was proud of (particularly those with religious content), you’ve found the right book. Most readers will probably prefer his second autobiography from the 1990s though, which thanks to ghostwriter Patrick Carr is a snappier read.
Nobert Häring and Niall Douglas – Economists and the Powerful: Convenient Theories, Distorted Facts, Ample Rewards (Anthem Press 2012)
An interesting book on a topic that needs more widespread discussion. Häring and Douglas address the biases and fallacies that are pervasive in mainstream economics (long dubbed “the dismal science”), and gather evidence as to how those have developed and been reinforced because they favor the powerful. It’s a good effort, though a few limitations also deserve discussion due to the criticality of the topic. On the spectrum of political economists, the authors are highly supportive of Irving Fisher, and the post-Keynesian Australian economist Steve Keen who recently revived some of Fisher’s theories, as well as Daron Acemoğlu and a few others. On the whole, they somewhat self-consciously take a “centrist” or “compromise” approach that insists capitalism needs to be reformed in order to save it — a tactic sometimes referred to as “economism”. This leads them to primarily discuss the work of economists who utilize the same methods as the dominant neoclassical schools that favor neoliberal politics but reach conflicting, non-neoliberal conclusions. They devote little space to discussions of wholly different theories that might merit further empirical study. A number of times they stress that they are not advocating for socialism, and that nationalization is not necessary. Curiously, they offer no support whatsoever for those conclusions. One can speculate why they take such an approach. It is clear that the book is a critique of dominant ideologies, and not a critique of marginalized ones. But when they do offer policy proscriptions, their preemptive dismissal of some possibilities raises some doubts about the veracity of the claims. The most glaring aspect of that problem is that throughout the book the term “neoclassical” is used, as are “vested interests” and even “conspicuous consumption”. These are all terms coined by American economist Thorstein Veblen roughly a century ago. Yet Veblen is never mentioned by name, even though he was the first major economist to raise many of the critiques presented here. The first three chapters are the best. The last few come across as a bit less clear in their analyses, draw a few more dubious conclusions, and in general seems to suggest that even heterodox economists are a few steps behind sociologists, philosophers and maybe even some anthropologists on the topics of political processes, labor dynamics, and the like. For instance, at the end of the final chapter, they take an instrumentalist approach and suggest that the United States needs a constitutional reform committee to re-think legal structures that favor the rich and powerful. While they acknowledge that such a process could be captured by those same rich and powerful interests that need to be constrained, the very suggestion of such a constitutional committee is not tied very closely to anything discussed elsewhere in the book, and comes across as somewhat naïve. Sociologists like Frances Fox Piven and G. William Domhoff have explored such topics over entire careers, and neither makes such naïve proposals. Even Machiavelli said that the laws are the means by which the powerful oppress the weak. The preemptive dismissal of any solutions that might sound “revolutionary” remains the major limitation of the book when it tries to make recommendations. It is best when it offers a more readable and less technical explanation of some of the major flaws of mainstream (neoclassical) economics — making this perhaps more accessible to general audiences than books like Steve Keen‘s Debunking Economics: The Naked Emperor Dethroned, which tackle much the same issue. As a final note, another missed opportunity here — well within the confines of the authors’ thesis — involves a discussion of the accuracy of economic predictions and reliance on those predictions in the mainstream press. I recall a study someone did (the specifics and the citation elude me) that claimed the economists cited in the mainstream press were correct some tiny percentage of time (like 3%), and yet those same economists keep being cited for further predictions. Such evidence supports the notion that such economists are tools of the powerful (“useful idiots”), because otherwise economists with such poor track records of predictions (worse than, say, a weatherman’s record on forecasts) would have been discredited long ago. It also echoes a quote frequently attributed to Donald Berwick (among others): “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
Patrick Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass 2002)
Patrick Lencioni is a business consultant guru and he has written a number of books on business management. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a sort of self-help book, with a separate workbook, DVD and facilitator’s “field guide” available to accompany it for implementation in actual businesses. It is written in two parts. The first is the “fable”, an entirely fictional story of a group of executives at a start-up software company that just demoted its previous CEO and appointed a new one. The second, much shorter part of the book is an explanation of the author’s theory that there are five dysfunctions of a team, as were purportedly illustrated in the preceding fictional story. The second part of the book also provides brief (one paragraph) suggestions for how to redress each dysfunction.
The book is absolute rubbish — let’s make that clear from the outset. It provides absolutely no justification or empirical evidence for any of the its assertions, and the fictional story is so poorly drawn and unrealistic that it has only a negative value for the entire book. Even taken together with the available supplemental materials, the package is really meant to accompany a session with a paid consultant (“facilitator”) who, one hopes, will contribute something useful not found in the book or related written materials.
“Most [books like this] have one simple, enduring message that echoes through the ages: ‘Pay to see me speak at the Ramada’.” (online review)
When someone offers advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of structuring a team, it seems immanently reasonable to demand something more than idle conjecture. Is Mr. Lencioni’s book an attempt to provide an easy-to-grasp narrative illustration of theories that others have empirically tested? No. Does it even fit within a particular school of thought on leadership — generally or at least within a business context? It is hard to say. There is not so much as a bibliography included. No attribution is given to anyone as having originated or at least influenced the concepts discussed in the book. This is problematic, to say the least.
“How does Patrick Lencioni know there are five dysfunctions and not three or seven? Answer – he uses his own experience, and nothing more.
“What research does he cite in support of his thesis that the most important dysfunction is an ‘absence of trust.’? The answer is none.
“I could continue but sympathetic readers will understand my point. This is yet another anecdotal, pseudo-scientific business book, of questionable accuracy and limited use.” (bookstore customer review)
No doubt, it would be easier to swallow some of the advice contained in the book as “common sense” or some such thing if the “fable” part of the book had even a whiff of believability. Sadly, no.
“One of the main characters in the case (Kathryn) would rarely be hired into a mid-size company. There is no chance that her resume would hit the desk of a multinational corporation. Climbing through the ranks with Kathryn’s credentials is fiction. The author tends to suggest that an extremely uncommon event (that is, retaining an executive with Kathryn’s inexperience and lack of academic pedigree) has some relevance into corporate management at the executive level. It does not. Someone of her caliber may come into the company as a Manager, Director or other middle management hire – but not the lead executive. No way!” (bookstore customer review)
So, the new CEO (Kathryn) sets up the premise of the fable in a totally implausible way. But, setting that aside, what about her interactions with the other executives?
“The huge egos of company vice presidents crumble under the matronly 7th grade teacher whose husband is a high school basketball coach. Characters are unrealistic and you can’t help but want their company to fail so they find themselves selling Starbucks lattes for a living.” (bookstore customer review)
While the comment immediately above smacks of misogyny — the corporate world needs more “matronly” attitudes as desperately as anything else — and hints at social ostracism based on background — does the occupation of an employee’s spouse really matter to his or her job competence? — the problem with Lencioni’s narrative is that the almost uniformly hard-nosed attitude of most higher-level executives would never let them “crumble” as they do in this fictional account. The fact that the characters do crumble is revealing about what this book is really about, and why it is so popular — and it is immensely popular. Here we start to get to the crux of the problem with this book: its ideology. One “exposé” of business management gurus had this to say:
“Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class. *** [A]ll economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off.” The Management Myth
So, this looks like a book that is nothing more than a weapon of choice for CEOs or other management trying to reinforce a hierarchy of power within a company.
“This book was completely absurd. It was written to sell and tells CEO’s exactly what they want to hear — that their managers are paranoid children who cannot behave like adults and must be spanked into submission, (though he offers absolutely NO solutions on how to do this).” (bookstore customer review)
Many bookstore customer reviews sharply criticize this book as pushing a “socialist” idea of teams, perhaps also asserting that the supposed benefits of collaboration is empirically false. There is a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013) in which old Soviet film is discussed and compared to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, which was dismissed by Soviet leadership as a few troublemaking individuals not representative of The People — the mythic force of historical necessity used to give the leadership credibility. There is an analogy here. This seems precisely to be what Mr. Lencioni is doing with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. There is this mythical notion of an Effective Team, which is never really delineated — this book focuses only the supposed dysfunctions without really ever setting forth what an effective, non-dysfunctional team would look like or what ends they pursue. The only thing we are left with at the end of the book is a reassertion of the control of the CEO. Whether the company actually succeeds once the CEO has control of the team is not really part of the book, which, lest we forget, is justified only by pure fiction. This is not “socialist” but authoritarian (that documentary illustrates how the same ideologies show up across the political spectrum, used by communists, fascists and capitalists alike). Really, if this book were “socialist” (it manifestly is NOT), or even if it really took seriously the democratic implications of teamwork, why is it all about executives operating off on their own without input from rank-and-file employees? This is the major fault of the book. It stresses teamwork, but only within certain unquestioned boundaries, all the while offering a stern lecture about how everything, boundaries and all, need to be discussed. This is a profound hypocrisy.
Anyway, the criticism of Lencioni’s advocacy of “teamwork” rests on two key points. One is that working collectively on a “team” is more effective than working individually or competitively. This is an empirical point. Lencioni does not address it. The other is that there is an agreed upon way to measure success that allows such an assessment of effectiveness. Stock price? Err, does anyone really believe the “efficient market hypothesis” that stock price actually tracks the “real” value to a company anymore? Stock price aside, this latter issue really gets to the crux of the problem with Lencioni’s book. What it obfuscates is the question of power. Who gets to decide the metrics that matter to a business? After all, accountability (“avoidance of accountability” is one of his “dysfunctions”) presupposes a format for measurement. Lencioni’s theory rests on a curious definition of teamwork. That is, it is a non-democratic form of teamwork. The CEO decides the metrics. Period. If a CEO has bad ideas, perhaps a “coup” of sorts by other, lower-level executives to mire the leadership in circular infighting has a benefit to the company, by preventing the implementation of idiotic plans from an incompetent CEO that the other executives have no power to remove — making them somewhat like Bartleby, the Scrivener. Here, Lencioni’s “fable” gives the company’s board, which fired the previous CEO and hired the new one, a complete pass. Their decision is non-reviewable. But shouldn’t accountability flow up to them too? Oh, wait, accountability in this model implicitly flows, like shit, only downhill.
In a business context, there is always a default to saying that profits matter. But, of course, Lencioni’s book doesn’t provide data like that as a judge of success — not that any such data in a fictional story would have any persuasive value whatsoever. And yet, there are other intra-company dynamics at work too. Why does anyone care about profits? Why should anyone subordinate their personal interests for the pursuit of profits for someone else? Lencioni offers a very naïve analysis — really a dismissal — of these things. Yet sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have documented such fields of struggles (The Social Structures of the Economy) in a way much more compelling than what is offered here. This also fits squarely within the theory of historian Alfred Chandler, Jr., whose The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business won many awards on its release for its delineation of how business management behaves like a distinct “class” acting in its own interests quite apart from concerns of shareholders or even for long-term profitability of the firm (really an older idea that comes from the likes of Adolph A. Berle if not earlier, and was later backed up by an investigation by Edward S. Herman). What is difficult to swallow is that the sorts of theories like Lencioni’s look like attempts to justify inequality (here, of power) on the basis of meritocracy, something that at least one observer has noted “conveniently places management consultants … at the very pinnacle of the new order.”
Most executives enter business and go into management for social status, either due to the prestige of their position and the power that it offers, or as a byproduct through the salary or wages it provides. Lencioni’s narrative would have us believe that such an executive would demote himself for the betterment of the team! Historians and sociologists have developed considerable evidence that suggests this is quite unlikely.
There are some vague hints at useful concepts implied here. For instance, the idea that people in business try to save face is an interesting concept. It is not discussed in any detail though. Other consultants have brought up that point too, though many also flounder when it comes to offering any actionable advice around it.
Lencioni does suggest that a significant problem teams face is that the people involved won’t discuss real issues. Anyone who has worked in a corporate setting will immediately appreciate this problem. Lencioni is by no means the only person who has made this point. But he offers very little in the way of techniques to uncover subtle obfuscation of the “real” issues in business settings, and in some ways perhaps distracts from such insights. And his suggestions to overcome this fall very flat. In this book, his suggestions are so limited to be almost non-existent. More is provided in the DVD and workbook — oh, did you buy those too?
Lencioni’s accompanying workbook includes a bunch of silly exercises that try to build “trust” by encouraging executives/management to reveal personal details of their life to build trust in a work setting. This approach could easily be empirically tested. Like everything else in this book, it isn’t. It is also a dubious proposition just on a theoretical level. It seems reasonable to think that people may trust each other as friends, on a personal level, and still not trust each other in work-related capacities, or vice-versa. If this is not a fair belief, it could be empirically disproved, but you would need to look elsewhere than a Lencioni book.
One prescient comment from an online review is that this book tends to be trotted out by corporate “leaders” who themselves are the major problem in an executive “team” using the book to insist that the problem is everyone else:
“The real truth in our case — the poobah who is making us read this book is the dysfunction of our group. This person has a physical ailment that causes emotional instability — but is too high up the ladder for anyone complain about without being fired. Now we have this book to tell us how it’s actually our fault for not being a good enough team.” (bookstore customer review)
A much better way to look at problems in business settings is simply to ask the question that Roman censor Lucius Cassius used to ask (this analysis was cited approvingly by Cicero), “Cui bono?” (“to whose benefit?”). Is management simply reasserting its power over other employees in a company? Is that the ultimate object of improving “teamwork”? Are executives simply re-positioning themselves relative to each other, or relative to other firms, in a hierarchy of social status? Also, as Lencioni does eventually mention, there are tools from psychology that can help mediate purely interpersonal interactions. Of course, Lencioni only mentions this stuff on psychology in passing, and without any citation to even a single resource. You would need to look elsewhere on your own for any useful information in that regard. But, purely within a “leadership team” setting, Lucius Cassius’ question tends to rise above all others. Most executives are smart and/or educated enough to not be put off by minor frictions between different personality types, though most executives are also so motivated by status that they constantly reinforce — consciously or unconsciously — the reproduction of certain habits of thought and hierarchies of power and prestige.
“Seriously, if your boss is making you read this, it’s already too late.” (online review)
Indeed. If you work at a company where the management believes this book to be useful, you should start looking for other employment immediately. Sadly, though, it might be hard to find anything outside this paradigm.
With Žižek, you sort of have to take the good with the bad. Event falls into the category of the “bad”. He explains the philosophical concept of the “event” as developed primarily by Alain Badiou — though Badiou is only mentioned briefly toward the end as the person who largely developed this view of “events” 25 years ago. Anyway, an “event” is “[a]t first approach, . . . the effect that seems to exceed its causes” (p. 5) but it is further “the surprising emergence of something new which undermines every stable scheme” and jumps from one point to another through pervading deadlocks, (p. 7), in which “reality includes fiction (or fantasy),” and “the right choice only emerges after the wrong one.” (p. 95). Such an “event” is not inherently good or evil, it has no specific content.
Žižek typically alternates between “big” and “little” books, with some newspaper pieces and other miscellany interspersed. His last “big” one was a reinterpretation of Hegel, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (2012). His last “little” one, aside from mere collections of interviews, was The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (2012). As usual, he borrows quite a lot from his prior works, I spotted bits lifted from In Defense of Lost Causes (2008), Less Than Nothing and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously without really looking that carefully.
Although his “little” books are often more readable, due to less space for aimless digressions and uninteresting turf wars with other academics, this one lacks that readable quality. He addresses points he has made elsewhere, often verbatim, but shortens them to the point that they will hardly be comprehensible unless you have read his other works, possibly even multiple prior works.
So, like Badiou, Žižek works out the position of continental philosophy that “ideology” has supremacy over “facts”.
“In an event, things not only change, what changes is the very parameter by which we measure the facts of change, i.e., a turning point changes the entire field within which facts appear.” (p. 159).
His arguments here seem flimsy most of the time. This is strange because he’s made these arguments before, more convincingly. There just does not seem to be a good reason for these arguments to be so curt and thin, conclusory even. He moves on to the next before it seems like he’s finished his prior thought.
A book like this just encourages the man’s critics who label him a charlatan. It is for the most part uninteresting and superfluous. To the extent that there are a few small new ideas, better to wait until the next time, when Žižek recycles and expands them to the point where they are interesting and defensible. The man still has interesting things to say (take, for instance a recent newspaper op-ed, “ISIS Is a Disgrace to True Fundamentalism”). Some of that wit makes brief appearances here, like comments on how weird and lewd acts in public are not part of some sort of “regression” to an animalistic state but a continuation of the privatization of public space (akin to the “enclosure of the commons”) — it is public space that is disappearing, not private space. Event as a whole, however, seems like a throwaway.
Alain Badiou is among the more vital philosophers alive today. Not that many care. He appears in Godard‘s Film Socialisme delivering a lecture to an empty hall on board a cruise ship (Godard insists he listed Badiou’s presentation on the ship’s social itinerary). It is worth mentioning this because Badiou references the film project in this book, In Praise of Love, but also because the book draws its title from another Godard film of the same name.
Badiou begins the slender — and highly readable — volume critiquing the role philosophers have or have not played in investigating love. He finds the sexless, lonely philosophers who make up a basic course in the field somewhat poor in experience.
For Badiou, love is about “see[ing] the world from the point of view of two rather than one.”
“[W]hat kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? This is what I believe love to be.” p. 22
He calls this a “Two scene.” It is “the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.” It is something more than the concerns of a single individual.
“[Love] is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentered point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity.” p. 25
This is a proposition that requires, most fundamentally, a risk. In his own philosophical jargon, mentioned in the book but also explained in plain terms, this initial encounter is an “event” (a concept he laid out in Being and Event [L’ être et l’événement] (1988)). An “event” is something that is only authentically possible when it seems to exceed its causes, a rupture in what seems possible under prevailing norms giving rise to a fleeting subjective decision point about how to experience the world. There is just something likeably good about this thesis. But even if there might be widespread agreement on this point, for Badiou, it is only a starting point.
Drawing from Arthur Rimbaud‘s line in A Season in Hell [Une saison en enfer] that “love needs to be reinvented” he stresses the need to continually choose to construct the “Two scene”. This, in Badiou’s jargon, is a “truth procedure.” In the face of changing events he sees a need to reinvent the “Two scene” in the context of each circumstance, which is to say moving from point to point, to replay the initial declaration and “find the terms for a new declaration.”
“Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.” p. 32
Badiou denigrates the view of love in a typical theatrical play being about and culminating with marriage, the sorts of stories in which the wedding takes place at the end and we are to assume that therefore “love” has been achieved, and is over, complete. He instead, somewhat provocatively, points to Samuel Beckett as “a writer of the obstinancy of love.” Perhaps another example beyond those given by Badiou, within the limited range of Hollywood movies, is the film The Five-Year Engagement (2012), in which the main characters initially try to sort out their lives before getting married only to repeatedly choose to view their lives in terms of a being a couple.
Badiou even applies his ideas of love to politics. He sees it as a way to limit identity politics, and “integrate the most extensive divergences” in a kind of internationalism that permits real equality. He contrasts that project of “love” with the “reactionary project” that “is always the defense of ‘our values’, . . . as the only possible identity.” This is his perspective on multiculturalism, and continues his support for secular states in which people of different religions, cultures and ethnicity can live together.
Some of the specific examples illustrating the concepts tackled in the book may be highbrow, or at least very French. But Badiou frames his discussion of love in terms that are freed from the contexts of his examples. Badiou’s thoughts on love are at once immediately understandable and uniquely his own. He is most concerned with what sustains a way of subjectively experiencing the world. He sees “love” as an important process for doing so that is more than just a one-time declaration, or a finish line. It is an unstable thing. This is what makes it so vital. Philosophy is all about asking better questions. Badiou is asking questions that confront everyone. He’s put the question forward in a way that has a curious blend of practicality and theoretical weight. Curious readers should give his ideas a chance.
With Making Money, Ole Bjerg presents a philosophical — and psychoanalytic — analysis of contemporary economics and finance. He draws explicitly from the theories of Slavoj Žižek. What he delivers is one of the most coherent offerings yet on the nature of contemporary economics. The first parts of the book map out the basic philosophical/psychoanalytic concepts being applied, and briefly traces their roots. Primarily, these involve assessments of the “orders” of the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary. These are concepts that Žižek imported directly from French psychiatrist/philosopher Jacques Lacan. From that foundation, the theories are applied to explain the origins and conception of money itself. This is among the most enlightening parts of the book. Many others have explored this topic (notably, David Graeber‘s Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2010), among others). But this telling is rather concise, with much of the space in the book devoted to a theory of money that is scrupulously consistent with a single theory, rather than just a patchwork of isolated, if compelling, commentaries that stop short of articulating a unifying theory. Then, in the final parts of the book, Bjerg tackles the elements of the recent crisis in the financial/banking sector, and concludes, briefly, with essentially a single policy recommendation. Overall, he’s written one of the most compelling and cohesive accounts of modern economics and finance. Although, no doubt, his reliance on the continental philosophy of Žižek for his analysis will rekindle all the usual disputes about the utility of continental philosophy.
The title of the book derives from the observation that banks are quite literally given the nearly unique privilege (aside from increasingly impotent governments) of “making money” from thin air. In order to clear accounts between clients, and between themselves, banks use “fractional reserve” policies to loan out far more “credit money” than they possess (reserves) in terms of government-issued cash, gold, or the like. This is sort of the basis for Bertold Brecht‘s quip from The Threepenny Opera, “What is the robbing of a bank compared to the founding of a bank?” Bank (credit) money now dwarfs government (fiat) money. But in that empirical shift toward credit money, Bjerg also detects a philosophical shift. Credit money fuels derivatives trading — the practice of banks and financial institutions making bets (default swaps, futures, etc.) derived from the “risk” associated with other financial activities (price movements on bonds or stocks, etc.).
The key narrative is an explanation of how money serves a symbolic function, and the modern world permits banks to create “credit money” independent of governments and ordinary citizens. This narrative allows Bjerg to offer some quite substantial commentary on one of the most fundamental (and fundamentally unresolved) questions of economics: what is “value” and how is it determined? Applying Žižek, Bjerg concludes that there is economic “value” that is a hard kernel of an unknowable truth (the Real), represented only by purely symbolic representations of “price”. In the contemporary age, the imaginary “fantasy” in finance and economics is of “being in the market”, which posits that the mere ability to offer (symbolic) prices in the a market is the desire (ideology – in the imaginary order) that drives the economy. In neoclassical economics, statistics (math) and the “efficient market hypothesis” are the dominant ways that “being in the market” is expressed.
Bjerg faults “efficient market hypothesis” models for what Žižek has called (in In Defense of Lost Causes, referring to a Donald Rumsfield speech) “unknown knowns” in the four-part schema of kinds of knowledge: “known knowns”, “known unknowns”, “unknown unknowns” and “unknown knowns” (the last being the one that Rumsfeld neglects to mention). The “unknown knowns”, according to Žižek, are “the disavowed beliefs and suppositions we are not even aware of adhering to ourselves.” This recalls Charles F. Kettering‘s quip, “It ain’t them things you don’t know what gets you into trouble, it’s them things you know for sure what ain’t so.” Bjerg states that “risk management” embedded in models built on the “efficient market hypothesis” disavow the existence of systemic risk, and refuse to acknowledge the volatility and risk that they engender in the really-existing economy of the present:
“The knowledge that the model does not conform to the nature of actual reality is not incorporated into the model itself. It remains an unknown known.” (p. 229).
More specifically, Bjerg states:
“the unknown known of financial markets [is] the notion that prices in financial markets behave in a way that makes them subject to probabilistic reasoning. This form of reasoning in finance presupposes the distinction between known unknowns (the direction of future price movements) and known knowns (the historic price volatility of an asset). The unknown known is the very distinction between these two categories of knowledge.” (p. 228).
This offers a strikingly clear explanation for how neoclassical economics can create complex mathematical formulas to model economic activity that fundamentally break down due to a lack of connection between their variables and the real world — an effort to act as if the symbolic is the real, in Žižek’s/Lacan’s terms. The denial of the ideology that desires “being in the market” facilitates and reinforces financialization of the economy.
There is a kind of dual causality in modern finance and economics that places money further away from “real value”. Symbolic constructs (financial derivatives) are piled on top of symbolic constructs (prices, risks), with the “belief in being in the market” seen as the endgame. This sort of thinking ties the two symbolic constructs together such that each legitimates the other, while marginalizing the role of “real value” (production, etc.). The inherent limits of “real” production imposed by scarce labor and raw material resources is sidestepped to allow theoretically unlimited “credit money” creation. This sort of thinking also basically sidesteps the notion of conscious political objectives beyond the mere creation and maintenance of “a market”. A few examples in the book highlight this. Right after the 2007-08 financial crash, Ben Bernanke claimed that “we won’t have an economy on Monday” without a government bailout of the financial sector, which reveals a mode of thinking that only recognizes a desire for financial markets to exist (“being in the market”) and no discernible desire for other political ends, such as equality, public health and welfare, etc. Rather than an explicit discussion of the desires that political processes should pursue, the desire for “being in the market” is disavowed — assumed away.
The analysis in Making Money is meant to be a purely philosophical proof. This is the book’s single greatest strength. If you come to it looking for a catalog of citations to other writers, particularly economic ones, who have reached the same (or different) conclusions, then you are looking in the wrong place. There have been, indeed, quite many economists who have reached essentially all the same conclusions as Bjerg (Veblen, Hudson, Keen, Hossein-zadeh, Nasser, etc., etc.). But many critical economists, all “heterodox” ones who work almost entirely outside the realm of mainstream recognition, sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to write griping tracts that wallow in a sort of “sour grapes” mentality. They bemoan that how no matter how correct they are, no matter how logically superior their arguments, no matter how many facts support them and contradict competing theory…no one listens — going so far as to even suggest that mainstream economists get where they are precisely because they are wrong. Bjerg cuts through all of that. He provides, in a sense, an independent proof. He is able to step partially outside the fray, and describe the key aspects that bound the fray, because he resorts to psychoanalytic techniques. Making Money places continental philosophy and psychoanalysis alongside anthropology (Graeber), sociology (Bourdieu), physical science (Soddy), and maybe a few other academic disciplines lining up against neoclassical economics, which is looking increasingly isolated from all other academic disciplines and rather nakedly aligned with the finance/banking sector and their political parties in a strictly partisan way.
That recommendation Bjerg makes at the end of the book? Well, Bjerg arrives at the same conclusion that Nobel prize winning chemist Frederick Soddy arrived at almost a century ago: elimination of fractional reserve banking. This sole policy proposal is about denying banks the ability to create “credit money”. However, Soddy is not mentioned here — nor, for that matter, is Marx and Engels‘ demand in The Communist Manifesto: “5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.” Instead, Bjerg cites Irving Fisher‘s “100 percent reserve” proposal, and latter-day economists who endorse Fisher’s proposal (which was adopted from Soddy). Whatever Bjerg’s reasons for citing the people he cites, this has the implicit effect of downplaying Soddy’s reputation as a “crank” and accentuates Fisher’s status as a respected pillar of conservative economics, thereby allowing Bjerg to proffer a grand compromise between politics of the left and right to reform finance. More than likely, Bjerg will be ignored just as much as Soddy, Veblen, and all the others. That is too bad, because at a conceptual level this book is far more compelling than anything dealing with economics that touches the bestseller lists.
But there is something else useful about Bjerg’s critique. His appeal is at the level of psychology. He is not directly politically attacking the captains of finance as being “bad actors”, though the result of his proposal would be to completely remove the greatest windfall privilege of the banking and finance sector and thereby decimate the finance sector as it really exists today. Rather, he is trying to reveal what the banking sector desires through their economic theories. At this level, anyone can ask: is that what I desire too? It is hard to change desires. But psychoanalysis posits that it is possible. Bjerg is suggesting that it is better to work to desire something (anything) in the “real economy” of production than to merely desire “being in the market”. The elimination of fractional reserve banking would be the most direct policy approach in making such a change. It would allow the question of how money is created to be politicized, that is, put forward as a topic for explicit political debate.
Link to an essay by Frances Fox Piven excerpted from the book Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA (2014):
Richard Brody, Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books 2008)
Two biographers have written substantial books on filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. Despite a common focus on the same biographical subject, and a shared belief that Godard is one of the most important filmmakers of his time or maybe ever, the two writers take markedly different approaches with equally different levels of success.
Godard, of course, was a Swiss-French filmmaker who transitioned from a circle of post World War II cinephiles to a leading director in the French nouvelle vague [new wave] movement in the late 1950s. His cinematic style was revolutionary. His ideas about the nature of cinema were inscribed into his works. He broke all the rules of cinema, from editing to framing, in a kind of ongoing scientific analysis of the form itself that restated classic cinema with streaks of modernism. Like many of his nouvelle vague compatriots he worked largely with low budgets, to preserve a degree of artistic freedom from producers. He shot mostly on location and with scripts often devised during shooting. After a series of critically lauded films through the mid-1960s, many starring his first wife Anna Karina and filmed by cameraman Raoul Coutard, Godard entered a militant period in which he rejected commercial cinema. He made collaborative films with French Maoists, then turned to television and video projects in the mid 1970s. He “returned” to commercial film in the late 1970s, and has remained a critically lauded outsider as he became an octogenarian. His audiences had dwindled. Yet he continued to provoke and expand the possibilities of his chosen medium with new projects. Among his notable later works was a massive and sui generis video project on the history of cinema and the history of the 20th Century released in the late 1990s. An irascible and sometimes misunderstood person, the recent biographies offer impossibly different accounts of the man behind the films. Only one ultimately proves reliable though.
MacCabe brings a comprehensive classical education to bear on Godard’s work. He places Godard in a deep fabric of artistic and political endeavors stretching back centuries. Most fundamentally he provides an explicit analysis of the ideologies Godard adopted in his work, and relates them to his influences and the times and places in which he lived. Personal details are provided only to an extent minimally necessary for an understanding of Godard’s attitudes and ideals. Though perhaps a few possibly unflattering details are omitted. MacCabe also proves an eloquent writer. Take his statement on the motivations of directors like the young Godard:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the history of the cinema is the history of a plot by shy unprepossessing and sex-obsessed men to surround themselves with heartrendingly beautiful women.” (p. 123)
MacCabe elucidates the way Godard the film critic established the framework of his cinematic vision, one that is fundamentally an analysis of the nature of cinema. He highlights Godard’s writing while at the journal Cahiers du Cinema that, in hindsight, posits the truth of Godard’s personality (TiNe) and worldview (gauchiste). Discussing one such article, MacCabe probe’s Godard’s conception of cinema in relation to reality:
“What Godard emphasizes — a point that [André] Bazin makes in his almost exactly contemporaneous article on Stalin — is that the cinema is not just a representation of reality, but becomes part of the reality itself.” (p. 72)
This point tends to attract people like Godard. It is a restatement of a point elaborated at length by Alfred Korzybski, who formulated the issue thusly:
“The map is not the territory; the map doesn’t cover all of the territory; and the map is self-reflexive (it becomes part of the territory).” Science and Sanity (1933)
Portions of the book on Godard’s formative experiences establishing new grounds for film criticism with staff of the journal Cahiers du Cinema and his engagement with Henri Langlois’s famous contextual juxtapositions through screenings by the film archive Cinémathèque Française simply crackle with energy. One feels Godard’s excitement. But this reveals also the concepts that his cohorts imparted to him and his work. Crucial is a new view of authorship in cinema, which separated Godard not only from other filmmakers and critics but also made a unique contribution by cinema to the arts as a whole. In it, the audience’s perspective steps forward.
“One locates one’s author not by ignoring the specificity of his artistic medium, but by emphasizing it. . . . Cahiers’s author theory is the only theory of the author which is formulated from the point of view of the audience, and indeed explicitly formulated as a method to move from the position of the audience to that of the artist.” (p. 75)
This concept returns later in the book, transitioning to the legal and political sphere where audience rights are not recognized.
“Godard precisely understands copyright as a crucial artistic and political issue. Most legal discussions turn around differences between the French and the Anglo-Saxon systems, with the French being held to favour the author, while the Anglo-Saxon favours the owner of the copyright. What differences there are pale into insignificance beside the fact that neither system allows the audience any rights whatsoever.” (p. 301)
Brody, writing with MacCabe’s book already published, focuses on factual detail. While Brody did interview Godard (* read on), most of the contents of Everything Is Cinema come from archival research and a few new interviews, mostly of those who lived and worked around Godard. His book therefore functions most effectively in cataloging existing materials on Godard, organized chronologically around Godard’s various professional projects. There are chapters addressing each of Godard’s films. Readers can locate relevant sections in relation to particular works, as they are viewed, and review the citations to find relevant materials. This is quite unlike MacCabe’s approach, which unabashedly favors certain films with longer, more in-depth treatments, and mentions others only in passing. Footnotes are minimal. Another thing that Brody does is draw out (and embellish?) the more lurid details of Godard’s personal life, which MacCabe largely passes over. There is something of a prudish tabloid quality to Brody’s treatment that MacCabe explicitly tried to avoid. And Brody’s tone is like much other writing in The New Yorker magazine (where he is a film critic and editor), burdened with the same arrogant, self-satisfied, self-important conservatism masquerading as mildly left-of-center liberalism that is taken entirely for granted.
Brody’s presentation tries to extrapolate the larger meaning of Godard’s work from very selective factual detail of Godard’s private life. In this way, Brody attempts to remove Godard’s own perspective from the analysis of Godard’s work. MacCabe, in complete contrast, tends to see Godard’s private life as offering little directly useful information about his professional work (with a few notable exceptions for his pre-professional youth, at a high level, and certain later incidents where his public and private life merge), and instead directly engages the public side of Godard’s work on its own. To the extent that Brody draws conclusions, he draws them from the catalogued facts as filtered through his own ideological position. He seems to make his case by drawing a conclusion first, picking only the facts that support that conclusion, and then drawing a “connection” from that subset of facts to the predetermined conclusions. The reasons he draws his initial conclusions are not probed in any meaningful way. Brody’s approach is overarchingly to try to associate Godard with disfavored groups. Critic Adrian Martin wrote that Brody seems to have an axe to grind, and his research focuses only on supporting certain accusations (namely, alleged anti-semitism and misogyny) but not testing them against potentially contradictory facts (or recognizing a lack of factual support). This is the central basis for the (many) claims by critics that Brody tries to smear Godard.
On the substantive analysis of Godard’s work, many have complained that Brody overextends himself in viewing all of Godard’s work as an expression of autobiographical fiction. A damning review by Bill Crohn dismisses Brody’s biography as “cultural journalism”, and cites a New York Times letter to the editor that castigates Brody’s “ideological simplifications and biographical reductivism”. Crohn also details a host of factual errors and blatant factual distortions, along the lines of Martin’s critique. But the complaint about reductionism is at the heart of the matter. Brody returns endlessly to his thesis that Godard’s films should be viewed as strictly autobiographical:
“King Lear gathers in one film all of Godard’s preoccupations from this period, and does so in an extremely original, albeit elusive, form. It . . . was centered on Godard’s self-mythologizing in and through cinema and his recuperation and redefinition of the grand tradition of art by way of the cinema. As such, King Lear is something of a personal manifesto . . . .” (p. 491-92)
This very much recalls the work of lesser biographers, like Terry Teachout with Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (2009), which can be viewed as writing a biography as a book-length argument that jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s anachronistic later recordings like “Hello, Dolly!” are important, or Joseph Dofman’s Thorstein Veblen and His America (1934), which has been, somewhat belatedly, criticized for projecting the biographer’s own insecurities onto his biographical subject by extrapolating from dubiously selected facts from Veblen’s private personal life. No one will doubt that there is an autobiographical element to Godard’s work. Yet Brody’s one-dimensional, reductionist approach takes it as just about the only element that matters. It seems like an excuse to justify Brody’s own taste amongst Godard’s works — a bit like Teachout with Armstrong, he seems to want to build up a reason why his personal favorite works are “really” Godard at his best. Brody is entitled to his opinions, but opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. Brody’s views fizzle on their own. Alongside other views, the self-interested moralizing of Everything Is Cinema becomes much more clear. The claims of anti-semitism are one such area. Brody seems to have a difficult time separating anti-zionism (which is not anti-semitic) from anti-semitism. This is Brody’s failing, not Godard’s (who has explicitly drawn this distinction). People with personalities like Godard love to mock those they consider intellectual inferiors by forcing them to read between the lines with veiled insults. To that end, when Brody visited Godard in Europe to interview him, Godard snubbed him, and sarcastically mocked his poor interviewing skills. Reviewer Bill Crohn went so far as to say that Brody’s mean-spirited and distorted bio may have been framed as revenge against Godard for that incident.
MacCabe instead tries to convey Godard’s ideological position, and to contextualize it, and through that filter restricts the raw volume of historical facts presented. There is never any feeling that more facts would alter MacCabe’s conclusions, because his perspective aligns with the basic course of Godard’s work and career. This is what is most strikingly different in Brody’s account as compared to MacCabe’s. Brody does not engage his own ideology explicitly. In his relentless provision of “facts”, usually relating to the private sphere of his subject, he rarely if ever explains the nature of his own frame of reference. In attempting to adopt a neutral and “objective” journalistic stance, he makes a play to impose his subjective position on the reader through an emphasis on lurid gossip of doubtful reliability. This does not sit well.
MacCabe is prone to sweeping statements to elaborate ideological positions, conflicts, and milestones, in cinema and other arts. For instance, his take on modernism as an element in Godard’s work and a factor that shapes the disposition of Godard and his place within the fabric of the artistic world, provides a unquestionably succinct summary:
“Modernism is most familiarly known as the turning of the focus on to the form and medium of art itself. *** The paradox of modernism is thus that it offers a totally democratic view of art — the determination to turn every aspect of both world and self into matter for art — in forms which require a level of attention and commitment which limits the audience to a mere handful.” (pp. 278-79).
But statements like these are explicit in MacCabe’s writing. And they dazzle and delight with their wit and cutting insight. He presents them in the context of ongoing debates. The reader can agree or disagree, complete with some sense of where to look for contrasting viewpoints.
MacCabe is direct in stating that he is an unabashed Godard partisan. He writes in the first person to explain his favorite films and to recount periodic interactions with Godard. He thinks Godard’s best works are Passion (1982), Le Mépris [Contempt] (1963) and Histoire(s) du cinéma (1998), with a sentimental attachment to Made in U.S.A. (1966). Brody states that he thinks Godard is among the best film directors, but clearly despises the man himself and spends most of his biography dredging up (if not fabricating outright) tabloid “dirt”. He favors King Lear (1987) (having identified it as the very best in his list of the ten greatest films ever, while MacCabe says it fails to integrate some excellent constituent parts) and Eloge de l’amour [In Praise of Love] (2001) (which he rates as the best film of its decade). Notice how MacCabe separates out his own views and sentimental attachments from an independent context of critical significance, while Brody posits that his personal views are what defines critical importance? This is why MacCabe’s writing is superior. In all, Brody’s book may serve as a useful chronological bibliography, but as an overview of Godard’s career it is unreliable and biased. MacCabe has offered a very impressive biography, one that captures Godard’s life and work as well as any might. Skip Brody’s tedious tome (I couldn’t even get through it cover to cover) and seek out MacCabe’s wonderful book. Of course, among other writing on Godard, another crucial reference remains the collection Godard on Godard (1985). Godard started as a film critic, and there is a tremendous amount of the filmmaker’s own writings available that shed much light on his manner of thinking and his cinematic work as such.
If you have time for just one economist today, Michael Hudson would make an excellent choice. The central premise of The Bubble and Beyond is that “the miracle of compound interest” has for all time tended to exceed growth of the “real” economy, which invariably leads to excessive credit claims that cannot be paid. He cites Richard Price‘s famous example of how a penny invested at 0 BC with 5% compound interest would have by Price’s time (1772) become a solid sphere of gold reaching to the orbit of Saturn — obviously unpayable! Part of the problem today lies with the self-serving tendency of mainstream economics to exclude analysis of finance (particularly the closely-related finance, insurance and real-estate or “FIRE” sectors) from the analysis, which Hudson attempts to incorporate into a more inclusive model. All past economies (excepting ancient Rome) burst such financial bubbles to wipe out bad debts. But Hudson has shown that the ongoing financial bubble organized by the Washington Consensus (Alan Greenspan being the most recognizable face of the phenomenon) has resisted debt write-downs by fueling further debt pyramiding (paying debts with more debt). Building on his landmark book Super Imperialism (a must-read), he shows how the Washington Consensus has adopted tactics not unlike those of a suicide bomber, threatening to destroy countless economies if demands (from the USA, the world’s largest debtor) are not met. But further, he does not shy away from illustrating how countries that do not toe the line are routinely invaded by military forces or subject to “color revolutions”. Hudson is spot on in his analyses, in a way that is refreshingly accessible, reasonable and reliable. He provides summaries of the history of economics that demonstrate how many of the concepts he is now restating have been known — if marginalized — for centuries. Yet many past writers could not have anticipated the sheer magnitude of the present bubble economy, or the ways in which vested interests would successfully stave off reasonable solutions. Much of the problems revolve around tax policy, in Hudson’s view, with a clear need for a more progressive income tax, especially with higher rates for “capital gains”. Oh, and there is a need to deal with financial fraud too, by sending criminal banksters to prison. But those policy prescriptions have a successful history in modern Western states that debt write-offs do not enjoy. It is there that Hudson goes the extra step. He says bankers need to take a loss on bad loans, and he backs up that claim with historical examples that go back to earliest recorded history in Mesopotamia. This historical grounding demonstrates that current tactics are fundamentally inadequate, from the historical perspective. There lies his most important contribution. He provides context for the way dominant think today deviates from accepted wisdom of the past. This allows the reader to step outside the economic paradigm of the present to envisage another, more stable and equitable one.
This is a good book, and an important one. But due to the importance of the topic, it is worth pointing out a few areas where the book is lacking — or simply where a second edition could make some simple improvements. First, as many other reviewers have noted, this book is basically a self-published collection of materials from pre-existing articles. As always follows in such cases, the editing and proofreading is abominable, with typos, duplicate paragraphs, and tedious repetition endemic throughout the book (particularly where disparate articles were making the same or very similar points). This man deserves a good editor!! Second, there is a general lack of adequate citations. Hudson spouts off numbers without revealing where they come from, and talks about things like the ancient Roman economy while only mentioning historians like Plutarch in passing near the end, many chapters later. Of course, there are portions of the book that include a rich set of citations, and those wonderful efforts cast somewhat of a pall on the chapters that lack them. Moreover, he talks about things like bank “keyboard credit” without adequately explaining his use of such terms (Norbert Häring and Niall Douglas’ Economists and the Powerful does a superior job explaining that point, for instance). Third, Hudson gets bogged down in a bit of a “sour grapes” tone when deriding mainstream economics, particularly the “Chicago School Monetarists” like Milton Friedman. Hudson is absolutely right that those mainstream schools of economic thought are really no more than lobbying efforts on the part of financial interests, not objective “science” or anything approaching it. But the endless repetition of the accusations does get tiresome, and what would have had quite an impact in a single chapter gets dulled somewhat when revisited over a dozen or more. It also would have been interesting if Hudson elaborated on the ways ignored economists like Frederick Soddy and Thorstein Veblen wrote about many of these exact same topics 80-125 years ago (he occasionally refers to his other books when discussing Simon Patten, but few besides Patten get adequate treatment in these pages). Moreover, while Hudson laments how the economics discipline has been hijacked by hacks shilling for Wall Street, he doesn’t really explain why a sociologist like the late Pierre Bourdieu could write a microeconomics book like The Social Structures of the Economy that dovetails well with Hudson’s macroeonomics. Why continue to think in terms of the narrow confines of provincial, silo-ed academic specialties, thereby reinforcing them?
Minor flaws aside, this is the sort of work that better deserves the attention lavished on Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. At the least, readers should investigate some of Hudson’s articles for Harper’s Magazine (incorporated into the book), which provide some important general summaries, or read up on the citation-rich chapters showing how Karl Marx repeated claims by protestant reformer Martin Luther that are even omitted from anthologies of Luther’s works! There’s a host of valuable material here and the world would be a better place the more widely its concepts were known.
Jim Collins – Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Random House Business 2001)
Read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig for an absolutely devastating debunking of Good to Great (or the “peer review” by Matthew Anderson). I won’t repeat what is readily available in Rosenzweig‘s book, or elsewhere, but will say that Rosenzweig systematically picks apart how Collins seems to have no understanding how to conduct proper research and how many of Collins’ theories don’t hold up to scrutiny. Much of Good to Great sounds maddeningly like the kind of “science” relied upon by climate change/global warming deniers. In fact, if you read the collection of Albert Einstein‘s writings Ideas and Opinions, in numerous places he states that science cannot involve deducing theory from evidence, which happens to be precisely what Collins claims he has done with Good to Great and Collins calls it the physics of business/management. Everything you need to know about Jim Collins and his ilk can be summed up by recognizing that probably no union has ever organized workers to demand that management gurus like him be brought in. This is not neutral stuff. It is partisan rhetoric used to consolidate power with a management class, and strip it from ordinary workers. In more concrete terms it is about selling feel-good myths to top corporate management, to justify shake-ups and layoffs, and the pay-for-performance regime in executive compensation, for example. There are a few good points in here, but mostly they are reworkings of existing concepts assigned useless new buzzwords by Collins. As many others have made clear, it is sort of amusing to see how many of the companies that Collins trumpets have since gone under (Circuit City), been involved in massive fraud (Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo), or are just plain slimy and corrosive to public well-being (Philip Morris). He seems to defend this in a crude way, simply implying that businesspeople should be sociopaths… Anyway, the bottom-line myth behind this is the idea that MANAGEMENT holds the key to the success or failure or a business. Read Confronting Managerialism by Robert Locke and JC Spender for a useful (and quite different) historical perspective on that. Indeed, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “‘Management Theory’, a literature produced by business schools for business schools, fulfills a function identical to that of the writings of the European jurists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, in the guise of describing the state, contributed to building it: being directed at current or potential managers, that theory oscillates continually between the positive and the normative, and depends fundamentally on an overestimation of the degree to which conscious strategies play a role in business, as opposed to the structural constraints upon, and the dispositions of, managers.” (The Social Structures of the Economy).