Dipping a toe in the sea of Marxist theory

I’ve just finished reading Peter Singer’s volume on Marx in the Very Short Introduction series. I’m a little embarrassed at having read something that’s so obviously a set of cliff notes, but at the same time I do think there’s a place for introductory volumes; books that are designed for someone who just wants to know a little. And as someone who’s had a book on Marxist economics sitting on their shelf for several years (without getting into it), it’s helpful to have a gentle introduction.

Karl Marx (courtesy of Wikipedia)

The big guy himself.

Singer does a fantastic job. The piece is easy to read, but you feel as though you understand the general outlines of some of Marx’s most important ideas. And sure – there’s a thousand other books that are out there with more information, and pages and pages of detail, context, subtlety and nuance that you’re missing out on – but that’s why you’re reading the introductory volume.

Singer covers a lot of ground – a little biography, a little context on the intellectual climate before and when Marx was writing, and then a quick skim through some of Marx’s key ideas, as drawn from different works. He wraps up with an assessment of Marx’s work, noting the specific predictions Marx made that haven’t come about (a subsistence wage for workers, the collapse of capitalism, and an increasing income gap between workers and capitalists). But he also highlights Marx’s significant contributions:

  • the first being a valuable critique of what’s conceived of as freedom in a capitalist society (which to my mind sounds a lot like the difference between positive and negative freedom).
  • the second is a new conception of human nature, as something heavily influenced, if not determined, by the underlying economic relationships.

Marx’s theory that human nature is not for ever fixed, but alters in accordance with the economic and social conditions of each period, holds out the prospect of transforming society by changing the economic basis of such human traits as greed, egoism, and ambition.

From there he goes on to the essential and unsurprising critique, that Marx’s conception of how human beings function was flawed. There’s an excellent passage he presents that’s worth quoting at length. Marx is writing in the margins of a piece by Bakunin, creating a faux dialogue:

Bakunin: Universal suffrage by the whole people of representatives and rulers of the state – this is the last word of the Marxists as well as of the democratic school. They are lies behind which lurks the despotism of a governing minority, lies all the more dangerous in that this minority appears as the expression of the so-called people’s will.

Marx: Under collective property, the so-called will of the people disappears in order to make way for the real will of the co-operative.

Bakunin: Result: rule of the great majority of the people by a privileged minority. But, the Marxists say, this minority will consist of workers. Yes, indeed, but of ex-workers who, once they become only representatives or rulers of the people, cease to be workers.

Marx: No more than a manufacturer today ceases to be a capitalist when he becomes a member of the municipal council.

Bakunin: And from the heights of the state they begin to look down upon the whole common world of the workers. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who can doubt this know nothing at all about human nature.

Marx: If Mr Bakunin were familiar just with the position of a manager in a workers’ co-operative, he could send all his nightmares about authority to the devil. He should have asked himself: what form can administrative functions take, on the basis of this workers’ state – if he wants to call it that?

At some point I’d like to read more, but I’m not sure where to start (if there was an area that this little book fell down for me, it was in the ‘further reading’ section). At some point in the future I’d like to get my hands on something well written on more contemporary Marxist theory.

Baboon metaphysics

I’ve just finished reading and enjoying Baboon Metaphysics, by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth. 

Yup, that’s a baboon. I didn’t really know what they looked like either, before I read the book.

This book is several things. It’s in part a description of their work studying baboons (including a fascinating series of experiments), part a broader survey of current research and conclusions about what baboons are and aren’t capable of; and then, partially, a linking of those conclusions to a broader set of questions about the evolutionary tree, and where human abilities like social intelligence, language, and tool use came from. 

Their notes on studying the baboons are a fascinating introduction to a very different kind of research. They essentially followed a single troop of baboons (as far as I know that’s the right collective noun – please let me know if you find something better) for about fourteen years, building on many years of research previously done with the group. They describe measuring chemical levels in fetal samples as a way of assessing stress, as well as the challenges in operating out of a remote site in a national park. One of my favourite passages was their description of the difficulty in getting supplies in to camp, and the dangers inherent in using a boat during flood season, including hippos that have “one emotional state-anger-and no faculty of reason.” 

There’s an extensive section of the book that goes into their observations of baboon society, some of the power structures involved, and their experiments with playing back recordings. I won’t go into any more detail on this, except to say that they make the experiments reasonably accessible (more so than the average psychology paper, certainly), and of linking them back to the key research questions. 

Their observations and experiments then set them up to make a set of conclusions about baboons’ cognitive capabilities. Specifically, that baboons maintain a complex and detailed social map that changes rapidly with new developments (changes in social rank, and so on), and can identify the noises made by other baboons as fitting into different categories, and belonging to different speakers. They connect this new information with what they already know (their existing social map), and are surprised by changes (or fake recordings the experimenters have set up). 

But Cheney and Seyfarth conclude that baboons don’t have a fully developed theory of mind – and again, they have the experimental results to argue that conclusion. One of the more tragic examples they present is mothers who seem to experience stress and grief on the loss of a child (some baboon’s will carry a child’s corpse in their mouths for days after it dies), but sometimes seem unable to grasp risks a child may experience, which will result in its death – particularly, when it comes to water crossings, mothers may not wait for their children. “She behaves as if she assumes that if she can make the water crossing, everyone can make the water crossing”, with tragic results:

“There have been several instances when young juveniles have failed to make the crossing, either because a predator killed them after the rest of the group had left, or because they drowned as they struggled to make the long crossing on their own.”

Finally, having argued that baboons have some kind of social intelligence, but not a full theory of mind, they go on to link this to a broader set of questions about intelligence, belief, and ideas. This is a set of issues they’ve introduced at the start of the book, with an excellent discussion of some metaphysical debates that were taking place when Darwin was writing, along with Darwin’s own (private) note that He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.

They then argue that social intelligence in its rudimentary form preceded a more complex theory of mind, which turn enabled language and tool use. I like their argument because I think that it’s a good effort in linking evolutionary pressures to a lot of things that are unique about humans. I’m reminded of a paper I came across a while ago (Ecological dominance, social competition and coalitionary arms races – and no, I don’t think coalitionary is a word either), which made what seemed to me a very plausible argument that if you’re looking for evolutionary pressures, after a certain point you don’t have to go outside an individual’s social group to look for evolutionary pressures. 

So, all in all, if you find evolutionary theory, psychology or baboons interesting, I’d recommend this one – it’s intelligent and accessible.



Whistling up a storm

Walking to work this morning I was whistling. Not a particularly great song (one of the top 40 pop hits that’s not particularly great), when somebody glanced over their shoulder. Balefully.

A second later he turned around again and shook his head, indicating I should stop whistling. He pointed up at the sky and said what I think was ‘Tenger’. So I apologized, and stopped (although I’ll confess that a hundred metres down the road I caught myself absent-mindedly whistling again).

I’ve read in different places that it’s not culturally appropriate to whistle inside a building – but this was the first encounter I’d had with the belief outside. It may have been relevant that it was a windy morning – I’m not sure.

UPDATE 1/04/2013: Yesterday it dumped more snow than I’ve seen at once in Ulaanbaatar – a good two inches of it, all over the streets.

This morning, walking home from the gym, the street sweeper who lives near my building wanted to say something. A few days ago I’d been whistling, and he’d said something that I’d understood to be to ‘don’t whistle’.

Today, he said something that I understood as (again, this is my loose interpretation/guess based on a few words and some contextual understanding): ‘Remember when you whistled? Now look!’

He has my sympathy, because there’s a lot of snow, and one of his jobs seems to be getting rid of it. I’m also intrigued at what it would be like to live in a world … or to believe in something like that. I find it far enough from how I think about things (or at least, how I think I think about things) that I have no real idea of what it would be like.

Economics articles from the Atlantic

I’ve just finished scanning through this piece from the Atlantic, The End of Middle Class Growth. What I find interesting about it is that a large part of it’s story is the relative returns to capital and labour – how one has grown, and the other hasn’t. I’ve yet to have a serious crack at reading Marx (Peter Singer’s introduction is on my list, but I’ve yet to order a copy). But soon.

Also from the Atlantic – a look at private sector debt levels – you should read the full report, which I’m doing now.


Once you start thinking about debt above a certain level as a drag on growth, it also feels natural to me to start thinking about it as a temporal transfer – higher consumption is paid back by lower growth (and consumption) at a future point. I found Rogoff and Reinhart’s This Time is Different to be just a fantastic piece of work (although dense at points) in looking at how the current sovereign debt crisis fits into a broader context (although when they were writing, the financial crisis hadn’t kicked into a fully fledged sovereign crisis), and how sovereign default (either outright, or through the printing press) isn’t that much out of the norm.

On a less serious note – the Australian Prime Minister reminds us that even if you’re a member of the G20, you’re still allowed to have fun.

Update: Now that I’ve finished the paper on private debt, it strikes me that they reach a broadly similar conclusion to Rogoff and Reinhart. Private debt (R&R look at the financial sector, whereas the paper looks at the private sector more broadly) increases – after the crisis government debt increases, as private debt is slowly (or not at all) paid down. Interesting too in that the conclusion the paper’s authors reach is a caution about jumping too quickly on the fiscal stimulus bandwagon, with a focus instead on debt restructuring (and careful caveats about moral hazard).

Niall Ferguson’s Empire

Niall Ferguson’s Empire came out in 2003, so I’m a little behind the times in getting to it now. But to be honest, I’ve only made it through part of the introduction, and I won’t be getting any further.

The only other thing I’d read by Ferguson was The House of Rothschild, where I enjoyed the chance to learn a little more about something I don’t know much about, but find interesting – nineteenth century finance markets. But this:

There is no need here to recapitulate in any detail the arguments against imperialism. They can be summarized, I think, under two headings; those that stress the negative consequences for the colonized; and those that stress the negative consequences for the colonizers.

I think there’s a problem in giving those two equal weight, given that they’re two very different sides of the situation.

In the former category belong both the nationalists and the Marxists, from the Mughal historian Gholam Hossein Khan, author of the Seir Mutaqherin (1789) to the Palestinian academic Edward Said, author of Orientalism (1978), by way of Lenin and a thousand others in between … the central national/Marxist assumption is, of course, that imperialism was economically exploitative; every facet of colonial rule, including even the apparently sincere efforts of Europeans to study and understand indigenous cultures, was at root designed to maximize the ‘surplus value’ that could be extracted from the subject peoples.

I’m left scratching my head here. Surely Niall Ferguson is aware, at some level, that one of the central parts of colonialism is that you are invading another country. Never mind slavery (apparently he does mention this later in the book), and systematic extermination of opposition. If he is aware at some level, has he really glossed over it that quickly? And if not, has he just forgotten about it, or not thought what it means? There’s a lot that I don’t know and have yet to learn about race, gender, cultural imperialism, and a lot of other things – but this is an enormous, gaping hole – the kind of thing you have to at least give a nod to, and say ‘here’s why I won’t be talking about that particular elephant standing in the corner’.

There are, of course, much better, more insightful critiques of both this book, and the author’s work more generally. Now that I turn to trusty google, I’ve found a few pieces that put this all in context – a fact check of the time Ferguson trolled everyone with a Newsweek cover story. Also, there’s a nice critique of several of his books.

Still, I am struck by the lack of something so blindingly obvious. How did Empire make it to the publisher without somebody asking where the emperor’s clothes were?

Wolf Totem

I’ve been reading Wolf Totem. And the timing, in reading it in Mongolia, is excellent.

A few people here have already commented on it – coworkers, somebody in the gym locker room – it’s quite popular here, despite being originally written by someone Chinese.

For those who haven’t read it, it’s an account by a Chinese student sent to work as a herder in an Inner Mongolian community in the sixties. He’s particularly interested in wolves – as animals, as ecological lynch-pins, and as a cultural symbol for Mongolian nomads.

There are a few obvious shortcomings. None of the characters are really developed in any real depth – in fact they’re largely used as props, to spout the somewhat repetitive talking points the author has on a) wolves are smart b) Mongolians have learnt a lot from them c) because they’ve learnt from and become like wolves, Mongolians are better than Han Chinese, and d) the steppe grassland depends on wolves.

But for all that, it’s still worth a read (particularly if you have any interest or are visiting Mongolia). He does a good job of talking about how the wolf, as a peak predator, holds a lot of the other steppe species in check – horses, marmots, field mice – that would otherwise wreak havoc.

It’s also one of the first person accounts I’ve read that captures a little bit of what it might be like to live in a Mongolian community. There are nice details about food preparation, about transportation, that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and what he wrote about arguments and drinking and the way people talk seemed plausible, from the little I’ve experienced.

Another interesting aspect was that he was writing as a Han Chinese person, living in a very different setting. While there wasn’t a lot of detail on that (more of a driving home of point d) above), it did reflect some interesting things. One was the way that they have such different cultures – I think outsiders often have a tendency to lump Asians into a single bucket – but he drew out some of the more obvious issues, the things that became contentious. Towards the end of the book there’s a somewhat tragic account of a new valley being opened up, only to be swamped by people, and ruined environmentally. Part of that process, as he describes it, is an influx of new settlers who come from farming communities, and have a different attitude than the nomads (whom he tends to idealise a little as these guardians of nature). It’s interesting noting, in his protagonist, the shift from being an outsider to being someone who identifies with the Mongolian nomads, and sees the new wave of incoming Han Chinese as outsiders. You feel, then, for someone who’s gone through a difficult transition that leaves them a little stranded between two settings.

The postscript (possibly final chapter? I forget) I particularly appreciated – it was an account of his visiting later, after he’s lived in Beijing for decades. It’s depressing – because of how different he finds everything – and honest, and makes for good reading.