From the category archives:

Books

Limitarianism update

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 13, 2024

Since my book Limitarianism: The Case Against Extreme Wealth came out, first in Dutch at the end of November, and then in the US and in the UK a few weeks later, I’ve given more than 60 media interviews and talks. Among them was a long interview in The Observer, a summary of the argument in The Nation and an OpEd in the LA Times, and interviews for the Brian Lehrer Show, Sean Illing’s podcast The Grey Area at VOX, The Majority Report with Sam Seder, Stuff – Tova’s political podcast in New Zealand, and many more. Recently I started giving interviews to German and Austrian journalists (and the first one got published here), as the German translation will be out in less than 2 weeks from now.

Bruno Giussani, curator of TED Countdown, wrote about my book “It’s curious how a book that should have unleashed a furious debate since it was published two months ago has gone almost unnoticed.” Personally, I am not at all unhappy with the interest by the media. The Atlantic recently published a book review that captures very well ‘the spirit’ of the book – that is, as I think it should be read (and that is: not as a policy to be implemented tomorrow, although there is a set of less radical policies that we should fight for today). Still, Giussani’s comment does contain some truth, because most interviews and bookreviews have been published in progressive outlets. The non-progressive mainstream media prefer to ignore the book, except in the Netherlands and Flanders where almost all quality newspapers published long interviews with me, including the business newspapers. There are a few exceptions, such as a dismissive bookreview in The Economist, which was not particularly impressive, as I will argue in my next blogpost. [click to continue…]

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The making of Icehenge

by Henry Farrell on April 12, 2024

Last year, I received an email asking if I would write an introductory essay for the Tor Essentials reissue of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Icehenge. It took me approximately thirty seconds to convince myself that this was not some kind of hallucination, and another three or four to type YES! OF COURSE!!! and hit reply. It was the most delightful email I’d gotten in years. Stan is now a friend, but the request had its origins in a conversation years before I’d met him. At least a decade ago, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I were chatting about his books, and I said that Icehenge was both (a) his best novel in my opinion, and (b) criminally under-appreciated. Patrick, who recently stepped down as editor-in-chief at Tor, somehow remembered this, and asked me to pick up on the notion many years later. So how could I do anything but seize the chance?

The book is out in June, and I’ll have more to say then. When I was writing the introduction, I talked to Stan about how he had come to write Icehenge, and what it had meant to him as a writer. There was a lot about modernism! When the British Science Fiction Association’s journal, Vector put out a call for submissions on SF and modernism, I made inquiries, and they said they’d love to publish the conversation. A cleaned up version is available in the new issue (which has a ton of other great content). It’s published under Creative Commons, as is pretty well everything that Vector publishes, so I’m republishing it here. I simply can’t say how happy I am about all of this, and how much I’m looking forward to the book itself – out in just a couple of months.

There are some spoilers in the below – so if you prefer to wait for the book, wait for the book! [click to continue…]

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Ready for American readers!

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 16, 2024

I should have posted this much earlier, but it just dawned on me that I should have invited all our NYC-based readers to the book launch of the US-edition of my book on Limitarianism. I guess my best and most truthful excuse is that I’ve been too busy with media requests since the Dutch version of my book came out at the end of November. Especially in Belgium, where I was on the main talkshow on TV, the idea that we should limit how much personal wealth each of us can have, has led to a lot of debate (in fact, the same talkshow scheduled limitarianism again as a topic for debate among some politicians the next day, as apparently they had seldomly received so many reactions but also questions from their viewers). There are a few interviews lined up with American and international media – I’ll post links to some of it in due course for anyone interested. [click to continue…]

Limitarianism: academic essays

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 28, 2023

Over the last year, I’ve been working on a trade book on limitarianism (USA, UK, NL), on an edited volume on pluralism in political philosophy by bringing various (including ‘non-western’) perspectives together around questions of economic and ecological inequalities (forthcoming with OUP but not quite there yet), and on an edited academic volume with political philosophy papers on limitarianism.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I strongly advice anyone not to follow that example: one book to work on is already more than enough to concentrate on. The circumstances that created this situation in which I found myself editing two books and writing a third one are probably rather rare – trying to deliver outcomes promised in a grant application against the background of a pandemic, combined with some significant professional disruptions beyond my control etc. But while I felt like a juggler for some time, the good news is that the first and the third are now done (though the trade book is not out in English before February 1st), and I’m happy to share with you the link to the open access, hence free to download, book with academic philosophical papers on limitarianism. It’s a combination of reprints and new material, and the essays generally assume some background knowledge in contemporary normative political philosophy. I’m hoping this will be interesting for students and scholars of the philosophy of distributive justice, and related areas. Also, the entire volume is currently being translated into Spanish, and will also be published Open Access before too long. The trade book – although very broadly on the same topic, is a very different beast, about which more some other time.

I did something both awesome and ill-timed. Well, first I should back up and remind you of something I told you before at some nebulous time in the past, and that is that I am an immersive daydreamer. I said that I was a maladaptive daydreamer but I didn’t even think that was right, because I was just having a great time. I have spent countless hours—wait, no, first I should back up further and say, remember the Belle Waring Unified Theory of American Political Life: Fuck You, It’s Racism Again? Looking pretty prescient now, hmm, isn’t it?

Plain People of Crooked Timber: Lovely to see you and everything, Belle, but haranguing us about racism with ever-more-extravagant uses of profanity is not actually the thing we miss about you.
Me: That’s hard cheese, brother.

Getting back to the plot, I have spent my life making up thrilling stories for an audience of one, usually; of two, for my brother starting when I was six and he three, and going up until I was thirteen and called it off, to his agony; of three, when I played “talking games” with the girls, the last round played when my elder was nineteen. My brother and I just called it “talking,” but with a significant accent, and it may have saved my life. We lived in Georgetown in D.C., in a narrow brick house. I was upstairs in my brother’s room having a sleepover so we could “talk,” for what would be the very last time, when someone broke in through the basement door into the room where I would have been sleeping. The fact that the man [makes unfair sexist generalization about burglary] was an idiot who only stole a lot of Indian-head nickels and was then scared away by the cockatiel is not evidence that he might not have hurt me, because people who commit that crime are desperate, violent morons.
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In the Zone: Quinn Slobodian’s Crack-Up Capitalism

by Henry Farrell on June 1, 2023

Quinn Slobodian’s new book, Crack-Up Capitalism is an original and striking analysis of a weird apparent disjuncture. Libertarians and classical liberals famously claim to be opposed to state power. So why do some of them resort to it so readily?

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“Red Team Blues” and the As-You-Know-Bob problem

by Henry Farrell on April 27, 2023

I’ve just finished reading Cory Doctorow’s great, fun novel, Red Team Blues, and I’ve been thinking about how well it exemplifies one of the strengths of good science fiction. Back when we ran our seminar on Francis Spufford’s novel, Red Plenty, there was a back-and-forth between Francis and Felix Gilman. As Francis described it post-hoc, he wanted to write the novel of the socialist calculation debate, in part because of the challenge:

I was positively attracted to the whole business of being the first person in thirteen years to consult Cambridge University Library’s volumes of The Current Digest of the Soviet Press; and in general to the challenge of taking on the most outrageously boring subject matter I could find, and wrestling it to the floor, and forcing it to disgorge its hidden jewel of interestingness

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How much should we read?

by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2023

I had a little exchange on twitter and Mastodon yesterday on reading habits. The initial cause of the exchange was the claim that book reading is in decline, and I asked for some evidence of this, which my interlocutor duly provided in the form of a link to a survey of British readers by Booktrust from 2013. The survey documents the reported reading habits of British people, showing them to be correlated with things like age and socio-economics status, with some worrying drop-off in book reading among the young. I’m sure that the advent of TV and even the radio also brought some declines, and it is always hard to know how seriously to take such worries: young people may be reader shorter pieces of writing on the internet, they aren’t just watching TikTok videos.

However my attention was caught by another statistic: a claim that 6 per cent of respondents, “bookworms”, get through around 12 books per month (or 144 per year). Now I read a lot – as I perceive it – and I complete between 50 and 60 books most years. When I read Les Misérables, albeit in French, that took up nearly a quarter of my annual reading. Ulysses, which needed a lot of looking up, reading on the side etc, took me about a fortnight, and I think I went too fast in places. My guess is that most of these super-readers are not reading such works, or the Critique of Pure Reason, but but rather short thrillers and the like. I can get through a PG Wodehouse in a day (and what a joy that is!), so that would be a way to boost the numbers if boosting the numbers alone were something worth caring about, which it isn’t.

There’s also a question about the density and complexity of the text: how fast should you read? Many literary texts demand close attention at the level of the sentence and below, whereas some genre fiction does not. Literary texts also require digestion and contemplation, which in turn demands time away from them while your brain does the processing. Sometimes they call for re-reading in the light of later passages that draw attention to the significance of an earlier element. So, no, having flinched at my inadequacy compared to the 6 per cent of super-readers, my considered view is that my own consumption is about right, if not a little too high.

Book note – The Persuaders, by Anand Giridharadas

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 28, 2022

I recently listened to the new book by Anand Giridharadas, who is well-known for his previous book Winner Takes All. That book was about how (some of) the superrich are happy trying to contribute to some of the world’s problems, but never ask any questions related to why the world is so unequal as it is, what power and the workings of capitalism have to do with all of this, and whether their capitalist strategies are at all suited to address these problems. I thought that was a great book.

So I was looking forward to his new book. It is called The Persuaders. Winning Hearts and Minds in a Divided Age. It is a book about why we shouldn’t just give up on people who have political or social views that we find wrong, perhaps even horrible. The book presents a series of cases, the activists involved, and the techniques or strategies they use – interspersed with some insights from social psychology and other sciences on what works (and what doesn’t) to make people change their mind in a non-manipulative way.

My take-away from the book is that there is no point in believing you are right (or have the right policy, or the right analysis on what needs to happen on matter X), and believing the only thing that is needed for change is airing those views and that analysis. It’s just not enough. We need to actually spend time and effort to persuade others that this is the right analysis/policy/direction, and this persuasion cannot be merely cognitive; it requires understanding “where people are”, what makes them believe what they believe, and showing respect for them as a person at the outset. All of that requires listening, and being willing to engage in a genuine conversation, and finding out why people believe what they believe. Just believing I am right (and having all the arguments sorted out in my head) and airing my views, is not enough to also make a difference in the world, especially not in deeply divided societies. And, very importantly, trying to persuade others, and being willing to be persuaded, should be an essential part of any democracy. Thus, this book is also, at a deeper level, about what contemporary democracies need. [click to continue…]

Audio-books

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 16, 2022

Once in a while, I listen to a book as an audiobook, rather than reading it on paper or on my electronic device. Especially during the pandemic, when I was walking a lot, I loved listening to stories while walking. And clearly, for people who are dyslectic, or who for another reason can’t read easily, they are a real blessing.

But I’ve noted something weird with audio-books that I can’t quite grasp – so perhaps someone here can help me understand what is going on. [click to continue…]

Book launch! Connected in Isolation

by Eszter Hargittai on November 8, 2022

A while back I posted that I was writing a book about Covid. Today is its official launch date!

I’m super excited about and proud of this work, because I don’t believe we’ll ever be able to capture people’s experiences during a global pandemic the way collecting data about it at the height of initial lockdowns allowed us (my research team) to do. Below the fold I explain what the book covers. In short, it has material of interest to those curious about misinformation, social media, and digital inequality.

Also, how awesome is this cover?! I can’t take credit for it, but am super grateful to its designer Ori Kometani for capturing the experiences of the time so well.

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Yesterday I attended/watched four talks on climate action. The first three were at a festival in Amsterdam where Chris Armstrong, a new branch on our crooked tree, was also speaking, on his book on oceans politics. First I attended two talks by some Dutch-speaking people (including David Van Reybrouck, famous author of the colonial histories Congo and Revolusi, who is now fully dedicated to working on ecological causes). Then I attended Andreas Malm’s talk on how to fight in a world on fire. Nothing special to report for those who have read the book – but given the pretty critical discussion of my bookreview of his work here recently I’d thought I should mention that he came across as more nuanced than [how I read] his book. For example, he stressed that the vast majority of the climate movement will remain peaceful, and that those who want to move to sabotage must carefully choose their targets – focussing on targets that are part of the problem, and as part of an action that doesn’t alienate people but instead lets the climate movement grow.

But the most interesting talk of the day was by Greta Thunberg, who launched The Climate Book at the London Literature Festival. Thunberg has put together a one-stop-volume on climate change and climate action. You can watch her speech and subsequent interview here (it effectively starts at 14’35”). In essence, Thunberg believes that governments are not going to do what is needed without millions more climate activists putting pressure on those governments, so that they speed up action and put the interests of ordinary people central. At some point, she mentions that so many individuals have the opportunity to be an activist, but don’t. She clearly sees this as a [moral, political] duty (she also uses the word “burden” at some point), and calls upon everyone to join a local activist group. [click to continue…]

The Death of God and the Decline of the Humanities

by Eric Schliesser on October 29, 2022

The decades long decline of the Humanities – the academic study of texts and/or the academic practice of criticism* – is often blamed on the latest fad in it, or its faddishness, when such diagnosis is not altogether ground in ideological, political, or theoretical culture-war score-settling (with structuralism, deconstruction, queer theory, critical race theory, etc.) To be sure, in North America and Europe, the decline is very real when measured along a whole range of intrinsic and extrinsic measures: relative undergraduate enrollments, the hiring of freshly minted PhDs, starting salaries of its college graduates, and cultural prestige.

By contrast, I suggest that the decline of the Humanities indicates a more general shift away from the cultural significance of texts in our societies. And put like that allows the real underlying culprit of the decline of the Humanities to come into view: it is fundamentally due to the declining significance of the Bible and of getting its meaning right among those that seek out higher education and social forces that are willing to sponsor the academy. The unfolding death of God — understood (with John 1:1) as the Word — is the source of the decline of the Humanities.

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Caring, growth and choice

by Chris Bertram on October 21, 2022

In any society, certain needs have to be catered for, either socially or privately. At a minumum, those unable to work, because they are too young, too old, or too sick have to be cared for. Of course, they can be cared for in ways that are better or worse for them, but caring there must be, and that is going to take someone’s time, labour, and money.

I’ve been thinking about these rather obvious facts over the past few days partly because a report came out showing how many people – mainly women – are being driven out of the the UK workforce by the need to care for relatives, given that the social care system is broken. At present, there are also a lot of people out of the UK labour market either because they can’t work due to COVID and its after-effects, or because the underfunded National Health Service has been shattered by the pandemic and they can’t get the treatment they need in a timely fashion for other health problems they have. If left languishing, the skills these people have will atrophy. Many of them will never work again.

At the same time, our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister has been pushing her “pro-growth” agenda, which largely consisted of tax cuts, and her now-former Home Secretary mocked the anti-growth coalition of “Guardian-reading, tofu-eating, wokerati”, of which I am proud to consider myself a member.

Their central assumption is that growth is best served by a low-tax economy and that public spending needs radical reduction, with the fat-cutting exercise of the last twelve years now to be extended to the bones. Well, I hope readers can see the problem. You don’t get growth by pursuing policies that effectively force people to give up productive work either through their own sickness, or in order to care for other people. If these needs are not met socially, they will be met privately, and, again, because it bears repeating, in ways that are disproportionately damaging to women.
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The democratic theory of “A Half-Built Garden”

by Henry Farrell on September 7, 2022

Ruthanna Emrys’ new novel, A Half-Built Garden is out (Indybound, Amazon). If you want to know whether you should buy it, the answer is yes, if you like sociologically and politically sophisticated sf, if you are looking for a realistic but hopeful take on a post-climate change future, if you want a different kind of first contact story, or any combination of the above. If you’re looking for a proper review, go here.

This post does something quite different – it singles out just one of the political threads from the novel. In other words – read the book too or first to get the bigger narrative that gives it proper context. I do try to avoid big spoilers, but I can’t help giving some sense of the book’s background.

Short version: A Half-Built Garden thinks through the relationship between AI/machine learning and democracy from a very different perspective than our current one. It asks a question that very few people are asking, but that is plausibly pretty important. What would online democracy look like if AI/machine learning was used to counter individual bias rather than exacerbating it?

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