What did we learn this year? A year end book review.
Ryder covers the best books he has read this year, highlighting the path of “let us THiNK about it” during 2021. Moving from paranoid to reparative reading, we discuss the sociology of how we got here to possible solutions.
The book review is from books read this year, not 2021 published books.
Ryder consumed over 50 books and about 200 podcasts in 2021. Walking through concepts of the origins of bureaucracy and how the protestant work ethic shaped corporations and consumer behavior, he moves into healthcare related to liberty, how to solve many problems on our way to utopia, and a model for transitioning away from capitalism into a nature-based economics.
2021 Book Review
Note: what I read this year, not books that came out this year 🙂
Dark, but required reading
- Timothy Snyder, Our Malady
- William James, Pragmatism + A Pluralistic Universe
- Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacrum + The Transparency of Evil
Best book on Race that I read this year
Best Economic solution book
Self Help + Behavior books
- Awareness, Anthony DeMello
- How to Take Smart Notes, Sonke Ahrens
- Atomic Habits, James Clear
- Noise, Daniel Kahneman
- Range, David Epstein
- So Good they Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport
Fiction, the fun and profound books
book review: My two favorites
“Moral Mazes” and “The Culture of the New Capitalism“
Both of these are sociology books about how the world has changed. They both reference Max Weber, discussing how bureaucracy came out of the military. They discuss how in America the Protestant work ethic became conflated with capitalism. This eventually led to conspicuous consumption and wealth as a signal of virtue.
$ = wisdom and salvation.
Moral Mazes, by Robert Jackall, focused on the life of middle managers in large corporations. The politics needed to survive do not align with the professed values. Often hard work does not pay off, but appearing to be a team player while brutally shifting blame and burning through company assets means you are a “go-getter”. As well, Jackall maps out how middle managers hide behind jargon. They can’t appear to not know what they are talking about (can’t look weak), which is overall bad for the company and morale. Considering legal repercussions they learn to use vague, coded language so as to be able to shift positions. Never be caught ought with a fixed stance, while always seeming to be decisive with strong opinions.
These are the guys/gals who make decisions with their “gut.,” Which means they keep perpetuating the same behaviors and stereotypes, but are crafty at the optics of appearing fair or sympathetic.
The Culture of the New Capitalism
Richard Sennett follows up on this offering broader examples of how capitalism effects the working class. He discusses the brain-drain on talent for “dumb factory labor.” Or why a nurse may stay at his/her job despite the terrible hours and mistreatment. Hint: people don’t work for jobs, they work in a place where they can make a difference. People need to know where they fit in the world and have relevance.
But they go to factories because they need a steady paycheck so they can get a mortgage from the bank, which means a competition to take the best from the labor pool, then put them to work doing mind-numbing labor: companies do not want innovation, they want subservient, blind loyalty from you. But they reserve the right to have no loyalty to the employees. Even the business owners now distance themselves, and hide at the first sign of responsibility and accountability, pushing it off onto subordinates and use technology as a distancing mechanism.
All in all, we have come to embody the whole “rational actor” of economic theory, which promotes selfish, transactional relationships rather than community. It rewards sociopathy.
Say you are a well-intentioned millennial, then you have been taught not to give voice to discontent. Your mental health is more important than job frustration. You simply exit. “Exit over Voice,” as Sennett calls it. Old people argue, which makes them a pain when a company demands unwavering, un-considering loyalty and any question is interpreted as dissent. Institutional memory and wisdom are liabilities, so companies hire those who will move on without a fight. Which means they only get task completion employees instead of deep consideration from their employees.
We all become mercenaries, who scream about politics, but (wisely) are afraid to lose our jobs because survival is not guaranteed in our country.
What both books point out is that our society is cutting itself off at it’s own knees, and feeding on them. It is like auto-cannibalism, where to be successful you must take risks, upending the stability that made our nation profitable (successful) in favor of destruction and precarity, just so you can prove “you have what it takes” or are as amoral as the leadership team you aim to join.
We burn down the world our great-grandparents built, and we do it behind a gold-plated mask of jargon. Faced with the specter of uselessness, we market and promote meaningless differences as highly important.
William James and Baudrillard
I read a lot of small snippets about philosophers or their viewpoints, but sitting down and actually working through multiple books? Only two authors this year. Though I did read some Deleuze, Nietzsche, Zizek, and Lyotard as well.
Reading Pragmatism by William James was great. We can argue about things all day, but he discusses moving beyond ideological or semantic quibbles into a practical reality, not being a slave to your position, but grounding ourselves and carving ourselves. Providing space for spirituality he says, swim up, touch the divine, and get some spiritual energy to direct your path.
Coming up with increasingly obtuse theories isn’t helpful. He was really pushing back against monism, or the notion of one fixed universal truth. Equally he wasn’t a fan of the notion that everything could be measured and figured, a type of determinism. He spoke a lot of a middle path, a middle road, a central corridor from which doors into other ideas can branch off, but you needn’t stay cloistered in there.
I think Baudrillard would suggest that these philosophies are fooling themselves. He might propose that they wouldn’t even know it. His work on the idea of simulacra and simulation would say we have lost the plot, lost the purpose, we are “a man adrift without a shadow,” and we can only keep simulating achievement.
But what if we have not lost the plot, but the story has already been written and we are merely enacting our roles? The memes and ideas of the world are moving us to claim “liberty” and “freedom.” We have none, no direction, so now simulate liberty, acting out of libidinal desire without understanding.
book review: The most optimistic this year?
“Utopia for Realists”
It is nice when someone spends the time to look at things like Poverty, or Universal Basic Income and says… wait a second, this doesn’t make sense. The world we live in keeps saying “pull yourself up by your own boot straps.” Taking a handout is a moral failing, or it is a lack of character to be poor? We need to punch through these moral myths that keep us imprisoned in pain. We end up with deaths of despair and the opioid crisis wiping out those who have been isolated in this competition where everyone loses.
Rutger Bregman proves multiple times over in “Utopia for Realists” that the government helping and protecting its citizens, (instead of profiteering) would stabilize the population at a lower cost than the current system bears. Which would help business, government, education, and other institutions.
Examples provided show Universal Basic Income, eradicating poverty, and making healthcare free you both grant human dignity and “it is cheaper” than the long-term costs of prisons, emergency room visits, rehab clinics, diabetes, police, etc… We should cut the well-fare system, too. No hoops to jump through to prove you are deserving of a handout: just give people cash. The simplest solution works: eradicate poverty not with systems, but with money. The vast majority of people will not take advantage of this, but will better their own lives.
book review: The darkest book this year?
As we just mentioned healthcare and human dignity, one of my favorite authors nearly died in 2019 or 2020 because of inept health care systems motivated by money over human concerns. Timothy Snyder’s Our Malady walks through how our inequality as a society leads to needless death, despair, and division. He also discusses the need to fluctuate between solitude and solidarity.
As a contemporary historian, his books walk us through how our fragility becomes a breeding ground for corrupt officials and corporations to continue abuse: when your health is at risk (or your family) you are a serf or slave, who can never voice dissent.
And so, when our journalism turns into an untrustworthy shit-show, and we rely on social media for news because we can’t trust anything, this is a symptom. If you can’t be honest because you will lose your job, and your insurance, then fear and survival win out over principled moral obligation. This is simply the logic of free-market capitalism’s “rational actors” or “economic agents” fulfilling the shallow logic of the market, eroding trust and long-term stability. This opens our nation to abuse and corruption, making us susceptible to tyranny.
book review: The best economic book:
Charles Eisenstein does a great job of reorienting us away from the faulty logic of the neoliberal capitalist myth. Pros vs cons… there is a cost to everything, and we need to look at this neoliberal capitalist train and wonder if the engine up ahead. We can’t see it thought. Has fallen into the ravine and is just dragging the rest of us into a fiery explosion? Is there still time to bail? And what does that look like?
Eisenstein maps out 7 steps, an interlocking system to ascend from our self-administered despair, using the bones of capitalism in which we sheltered to grow up… but I am simplifying it into 3 steps.
- realign money with natural decay (negative interest)
- alter the way land is used, letting it become the currency backing or capital as a communally shared resource, and
- letting pre-pollution taxing redirect innovation towards enriching a sustainable commons.
The point is, we don’t need more trinkets: we need a planet, a world, that works. We need to stop being selfish children or adolescents. We need to behave like responsible grown ups. Eisenstein brings up 2 great parables. The eleventh round to show how usury corrupts and the tragedy of the commons to show how “individual rational actors” destroy communion and solidarity.
A key point is that money is not evil, it is a technology. But we let it have unnatural properties and try to apply it to the natural world. We need policy that will realign money with nature, society with people, and make nature our capital that we depend on instead of extracting from.
book review: Best book on Race I read this year?
“The Racial Contract” by Charles Mills
It spoke to me in a way White Fragility didn’t. And even the fact that Mills had to couch his arguments and ideas in academic terms to get through to people like me is brought up in the book. Thanks to L for the recommendation on this one.
book review: Self Help and Behavior books
“Awareness” by Anthony DeMello
Best book maybe ever, but I didn’t podcast on that. I still hold it in too much reverence.
I read some self-helpy, achievement books like Atomic Habits and Judson Brewer’s The Craving Mind. Along with more behavioral science books like Noise by Daniel Kahneman. The most career oriented were So Good they can’t ignore you and Range, which fall into a kind of Malcolm Gladwell type of book, but less expansive, more like a field guide to creating an interesting career and life, not getting trapped.
But the stand out in this strange field of “make yourself better by having knowledge of knowledge” is How to Take Smart Notes. I highly recommend for anyone who wants to actually make use of their reading, wants to write or publish or podcast.
My favorite episode to make:
Free Guy was great because I got to really dig into pop-culture as a way to discuss pretty profound ideas of desire, identity, and Artificial intelligence as a type of government or state apparatus. We touched on Arendt’s work, action, labor distinctions, where the subject is turned into a cog. But we need differences for change, not similarity. One way to manifest “difference” is through radical repetition, which invokes the transcendence of Nietzsche’s eternal return.
book review: Bonus section!!
I finally finished David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this year. hooray. That took like a decade. Worth it, but I now feel like I need a book club or philosophy class to decipher all the depth and strangeness of it.
My favorite was The Overstory. It is long, but really worth it. The book reshapes the flaring human desires and personalities, their companionships, against the backdrop of ultra-long-lived trees under threat.
If you are looking for something fun, check out the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. If you want some good fantasy, check out N.K. Jemison’s stuff.
A type of Conclusion
Through the podcast these books are tools. We can use them to widen our perspective and better understanding of how we ended up here. In a type mirroring, having past knowledge also sparks ideas of how we can escape (or move beyond) the current predicaments we are in.
Or not, because humans are messy and things are complicated, but at least with this knowledge we aren’t subjected to basic binaries. We have graduated to advanced binaries. hooray!
Doing the show, over the last nearly two years, I feel a little bit better prepared to engage the world, to offer alternatives rather than nod along. Questioning long held assumptions is the podcast goal, and reading is the tool. None of these ideas are my own, they are just cobbled together from the wisdom of others. For the first time in a long time, I feel I am working towards a version of wisdom and richness of life.
I would like to thank you for spending some time with me on this journey.
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