What Americans need now is a cheery book that assures us how our global power and hegemony are destined to last, if not forever, for a good deal longer. This is not that book. The Fate of Empires is an obscure work, by an obscure man. Yet it apparently still has a following today, because quite frequently, I am asked to read and discuss it, most of all the relevance of its analysis of empire to the present American moment. And to be sure, as America flails impotently in a doomed effort to maintain global preeminence, a discussion of how empires end seems particularly timely. So I figured, why not?
For twenty years, our rulers have propagandized us with two contradictory claims. First, that the West is locked in an existential conflict with Islam, justifying any spending, any killing, and any erasure of our ancient liberties. And second, that no Muslim, as a Muslim, is any threat to anybody whatsoever. Resolving the contradiction is not hard, but why bother, because what American cares about global Islam now? As the American empire collapses inward and America’s divisions are elucidated ever more clearly, our internal conflicts have superseded any conflict with Islam. Still, maybe conflict will return when the West is reborn, or replaced, and as always we can learn a lot from studying the past that may yet be useful in the future.
Peter Turchin leads a recent academic movement to quantify and mathematize human history. That is, instead of analyzing history thematically, or engaging in broad analysis of happenings and trends, he aims to use processed data to prove hypothesized truths about our collective past. Turchin calls this new science cliodynamics (after the Muse of history), and I thought this effort was largely successful in his Ages of Discord, in which the focus was cycles of stability and instability. I think the effort much less successful in Ultrasociety, which tries to explain all of human history as inevitable cultural evolution towards cooperation, but still, it’s an interesting, if bumpy, ride.
I am skeptical of those who predict the future by looking at the past. It’s not that history follows a random walk, like the stock market. Quite the contrary—it is easy to show certain patterns in history. But predicting how and when those patterns will yield any particular result in any given society seems like astrology. Peter Turchin, however, offers a very convincing, and very well-supported, tying of patterns to data. I’m still not sure it’s not astrology, but I’m half convinced. And this is a good book to read in January 2020—because right now is when Turchin predicts, in America, the swelling discord of the title.
Economic inequality is, and has been for several years now, the talk of the town. But most of this talk is political—of economic goods today, and whether and how our society should change who owns them. Little mainstream attention has been paid to the history of inequality, and here Walter Scheidel offers an exhaustive look into the past. The Great Leveler is a good book, if pretty dry, but the author only offers statistics and graphs, and does not consider inequality philosophically. He merely concludes that society-wide inequality can only be reduced, and that just temporarily, by death on a massive scale. That’s probably true, but it does not tell us whether, focusing more narrowly, we can reject bad inequalities while keeping good inequalities.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe!, they cried. Hans-Hermann Hoppe! They told me that if I read his books, it would change my life. This is not the first time I have heard that promise; it has been made to me of many books, from Frédéric Bastiat’s The Law to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. The promise has always failed me, but each fresh tomorrow brings the possibility that next time, it will not. Thus, I read this book, which aspires to give the history of man in one hundred and fifty pages, as an introduction to Hoppe’s thought. It was interesting enough, but I have gone away sad, for that looked-for tomorrow is not today.
Sapiens is a book of history, but its main thrust is philosophical. It explores, or tries to explore, the conundrum that if man is built to seek meaning, but under modernity there is no meaning to be had, what is man to do? Since the author, Yuval Noah Harari, rejects all meaning as myth, yet makes meaning the focus of his book, his book has a split personality. But if you take Sapiens simply as longitudinal history, ignoring Harari’s sophomoric musings, and if you don’t mind the superficial nature of much of his history, you’ll have a reasonably good time.
We have all heard of the fad for DNA ancestry testing. Being a paranoid, I haven’t joined the crowd, because all testing companies are happy to hand over the results to the police, and what if I need to keep quiet some heinous crime I commit where I leave my DNA behind? Not to mention, what those tests claim to reveal about you is limited, in many cases, by inadequate comparison data, which the companies fill in with lies. But that lack of comparison data is swiftly being remedied, both in the present, and in the past, which is the topic of this book.
This long but smoothly written book, by the very recently deceased John Julius Norwich, scion of English nobility, covers more than a thousand years of Venetian history. Nowadays Venice is mostly known as an overloaded tourist destination, or as a victim of environmental degradation, rather than as the world power it was for most of its history. Norwich, who loved the city and talks in detail not only about its past but also its architecture, often tying the two together, ably restores the place of Venice in history. And in so doing, he manages to both be interesting and to show us viable alternatives to the dead end into which “liberal democracy” has led us.
I am almost ashamed to review this book. It is like reviewing Fifty Shades of Grey—the mere fact that someone publicly admits he has read it degrades both him and his listeners. My only defense is that Steve Bannon has repeatedly stated this book is a major influence on his thought. He’s a clever man. So I sought wisdom by following his lead, but instead, I got a rotten egg. While I still have a great deal of respect for Bannon, having read this book, the Respect-O-Meter has dropped by roughly 60%. He may gain the respect back, for example by correctly predicting the results of, and the impact of, this coming May’s elections to the European Parliament. But it will be a task, after subjecting me to The Fourth Turning.