Degrowth from the Left

Oliver Eagleton in The Ideas Letter:

Intra-Marxist debates are famously irascible, even when their stakes are low. Yet in recent years this intellectual tradition has been further fractured, at the same time as it has been focused and reanimated, by the gravity of the climate crisis. The character of a future egalitarian society, and the most viable way to get there, have been contested by two environmentalist camps: degrowthers and eco-modernists. The first argues that capitalism’s drive for perpetual expansion is the cause of planetary breakdown, and demands a slower, “steady-state” alternative based on less production and consumption. The second claims that this expansionism has created the technological preconditions for a sustainable society, which the working class must now bring to full fruition, rather than aiming for any aggregate contraction. It remains to be seen whether these positions can be reconciled. Yet in broad terms, it is clear that they are clashing expressions of the same phenomenon: the reemergence of a utopian sensibility on the left – one that is determined to identify history’s direction of travel following the premature announcement of its end.

The degrowth school, which has long asserted that humanity’s material impact exceeds the planet’s biophysical capacity, has gained ground with several recent eco-socialist tracts. Kōhei Saitō’s Capital in the Anthropocene (2020), which sold half a million copies in Japan and has been translated into English as Slow Down (2024), describes an apparent shift in Marx’s late thought: away from a naïve faith in the infinite potential of technology towards a sober recognition of ecological limits. The contemporary environmental movement, writes Saitō, must heed this rejection of Prometheanism and abandon the notion of developing the “productive forces” (which, in the lexicon of historical materialism, means the machinery and infrastructure used in the production of goods). It should rather advocate a reduction of resource use in the Global North, establishing a new model of democratic planning to decide what’s needed and what isn’t.

More here.

Good Enough

Sam Adler-Bell in The Baffler:

THERE’S A GAME my girlfriend and I sometimes play. Well, really, it’s more of an argument: “Fuck, Marry, Kill” with the past, present, and future. My answer, which I take to be a good, solid American answer, is fuck the present, marry the future, and kill the past. My reasoning is that you should always want to fuck the present, to live in the moment (as the advertisers say), screw every hole of the now. Likewise, marrying the future is admirable, like monogamy, and prudent, like monogamy; it’s a wish, and a promise, for stability and grace. You have to believe in the future, be loyal to what comes next, to what and who you are always becoming. And that leaves only the past to kill. Which, so what? It’s the past. It’s already passed.

My girlfriend—who is also an American, but an American writer and lover of fiction—has a different answer. She says you should fuck the future, marry the past, and kill the present. I definitely see the appeal of fucking the future; it’s where the action is, the excitement, the unknown. The future is a stranger, and we all want to fuck strangers. And for her, the past is too precious and monumental to kill. Memory is a repository, a treasured burden worth bearing; it’s what you can’t seem to get rid of, even if sometimes you want to. So, you marry it. But here’s where the trouble starts: I can’t allow her to kill the present. When we get going on this topic, she says, “Well, what’s the present? Isn’t it always slipping away? Isn’t it gone the moment you try to do something in it?” And I say, “No! The present is this,” slicing my hand through the air, as if to catch it. “Isn’t this precious?”

More here.

Beyond Athens and Jerusalem

Suzanne Schneider in Strange Matters:

When John McCain selected former Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate in 2008, it was the gift that kept on giving to the United States’ media and entertainment establishment.

For the mostly liberal chattering classes, her folksy mama bear affect, ignorance about basic geopolitical facts (the existence of two Koreas among them), and possible illiteracy were far more interesting than John McCain’s platform. Fifteen years later, Palin’s candidacy is far less amusing than it was to noughtie-era Daily Show writers, recognized instead as a pivotal moment in the emergence of movements that today constitute the New Right. From the Tea Partiers and Obama birthers to Trump stans, white nationalists, and anti-vaxxers, Sarah Palin walked so they could run (into the Capitol).

Outside observers peering into the abyss that is the New Right often envision it as a coherent force. The real divide, we hear, is between the conservative establishment – “respectable” Republicans of the George W. Bush type – and upstarts like J.D. Vance and lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene. If you’re able to forget the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq, CIA black sites and the routinization of domestic surveillance, one might indeed prefer the oil-painting ex-president to Greene’s fleet of Jewish space lasers. But this divide is not the only fault line that runs through contemporary right-wing politics. Indeed, we find that the coalition of New Right Forces – a motley crew of techno-libertarians, America Firsters, post-liberals, economic nationalists, monarcho-fascists, vitalists, social conservatives, conspiracy theorists, incels, racists, and anti-Semites – is hardly proceeding in lockstep formation. In the words of one of its leading funders, Peter Thiel, the New Right is “a very ragtag Rebel Alliance. It’s like we have diversity on our side.”

More here.

Communication Breakdown

Mitch Leslie in Science:

The tails were a clue. As some kinds of mice get old, their tails can stiffen and kink. But the aged rodents in the lab of molecular biologist Shin-Ichiro Imai at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis sported tails that were limber and nearly straight. The genetically altered mice seemed to defy aging in other ways, too. They were more robust than control mice and spent more time scampering in their exercise wheels. Most dramatic, the animals lived about 7% longer than their normal counterparts, gaining an extra 58 days of life, Imai and colleagues reported earlier this year in Cell Metabolism.

The genetic modification the researchers had made boosted a key communication signal from the animals’ brain to their body. Thanks to the tweak, a specific group of neurons in the hypothalamus, a physiological control center deep in the brain, remained active as the animals got older. Imai’s team discovered that those neurons send signals to the animal’s fat stores via the sympathetic nervous system, a network of nerves carrying messages from the brain throughout the body. In response to the signal, the mouse fat burns lipids and secretes a long-distance signal known as NAMPT that forestalls aging-related damage in other parts of the body, including the hypothalamus itself.

More here.

Inside MAGA’s Plan to Take Over America

Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times:

Despite Steve Bannon’s Wall Street pedigree, his taste for five-star hotels and billionaire-owned yachts, he is truly a man of the people — that, at least, is the impression he strains to convey each time he appears in “Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy,” a new book by Isaac Arnsdorf, a journalist at The Washington Post. As far as Bannon is concerned, anyone who complains that Donald Trump’s far-right supporters are on the fringes of the fringe, an extremist minority bent on undermining what most Americans actually want, is just a whiner who can go cry some more. As he put it at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the summer of 2022: “All they talk about on MSNBC is ‘democracy, democracy, democracy.’ We’re gonna give them a democracy suppository on Nov. 8!”

The line was classic Bannon: gleeful, bombastic, mildly disgusting. It would also turn out to be wrong. The “red wave” that he and other MAGA enthusiasts envisioned for that year’s midterm elections never materialized; a number of Trump’s handpicked candidates had sailed through their primaries but struggled to prevail in the general election. Still, Bannon would not be deterred. In the book, he keeps insisting to Arnsdorf that most of the country is MAGA, even if some of those MAGA supporters don’t know it yet. “Bannon believed the MAGA movement, if it could break out of being suppressed and marginalized by the establishment, represented a dominant coalition that could rule for a hundred years,” Arnsdorf writes.

More here.

In My Time of Dying by Sebastian Junger

Simon Usborne at The Guardian:

One might feel short-changed to read a book about death by Sebastian Junger that did not include some battlefield drama. After 1997’s The Perfect Storm, his bestselling account of a trawler disaster that became a blockbuster starring George Clooney, the American writer received even more acclaim for his war reporting. His narrative gifts earned him comparisons with Hemingway.

Sure enough, bullets do fly in Junger’s seventh book, a gripping exploration of the liminal space between life and death. In Afghanistan, he hid behind a meagre holly bush while “bits of leaves drifted down from bullets that were chopping through the foliage over our heads, and gouts of dust erupted around my feet”. There’s also an account of the death, in Libya in 2011, of British photo­journalist Tim Hetherington, the colleague and friend with whom Junger had just made Restrepo, an Oscar-nominated documentary for which they spent a year at a US army outpost deep in Taliban territory.

more here.

Everyone Wants a Piece of Kafka

Benjamin Balint at the NYT:

In his novella “The Prague Orgy,” Philip Roth has a Czech writer say: “When I studied Kafka, the fate of his books in the hands of the Kafkologists seemed to me to be more grotesque than the fate of Josef K.” Just as Franz Kafka’s prose both demands and evades interpretation, something about his legacy has both solicited and resisted claims of ownership.

Despite his astonishing clairvoyance about the impersonal cruelty of the bureaucratic state and the profound alienation of contemporary life, Kafka could not have foreseen how many admirers would read and misread his enigmatic fictions after his death, nor how many would-be heirs would seek to appropriate him as their own in the century since. Competing claims began to swirl almost as soon as Kafka died of tuberculosis, 100 years ago this June, a month short of his 41st birthday. Max Brod — close friend, betrayer of Kafka’s last instruction to burn his manuscripts, heavy-handed editor of his diaries and unfinished novels, and author of the first Kafka biography — depicted him as a modern-day “saint” whose stories and parables “are among the most typically Jewish documents of our time.”

more here.

Saturday Poem

Latent Prints

I don’t know how people live
without me. No, really. Everyday
I live with myself.
I’ve never not.

In the living room I cut
Aliya’s hair, and when she stood
a dark crescent moon
outlined where she sat.

Everything leaves something
behind, I’m told. Rope fibers,
gunshot residue, boot prints in mud
and muddy boot prints. If I were to step

outside my body and walk away,
I could see what shape
my absence takes.
Surely, it has a shape.

by Madusen Gummer
Bodega Magazine

Friday, May 24, 2024

A Theoretical “Case Against Education”

Scott Alexander at Astral Codex Ten:

There’s been renewed debate around Bryan Caplan’s The Case Against Education recently, so I want to discuss one way I think about this question.

Education isn’t just about facts. But it’s partly about facts. Facts are easy to measure, and they’re a useful signpost for deeper understanding. If someone has never heard of Chaucer, Dickens, Melville, Twain, or Joyce, they probably haven’t learned to appreciate great literature. If someone can’t identify Washington, Lincoln, or either Roosevelt, they probably don’t understand the ebb and flow of American history. So what facts does the average American know?

More here.

A New Chapter in the Quest for a Longer Life

Emily Cataneo in The Undark:

IN 2023, tech mogul Bryan Johnson revealed that he had been receiving blood plasma exchanges from his 17-year-old son, in the hope that siphoning his son’s young blood into his middle-aged body would help him combat aging and cheat death. Johnson might be an extreme outlier, but his quest exemplifies a common human trait: denial about our mortality. As Venki Ramakrishnan writes in his new book, “Why We Die: The New Science of Aging and the Quest for Immortality,” searching for the secrets to longevity has “driven human civilization for centuries.” Humans may be unique among animals in our ability to understand and anticipate death, and ever since we evolved into this awareness, we’ve struggled to accept it. We espouse religious beliefs about reincarnation or the everlasting immortal soul, we attempt to live on through offspring and legacy, and, of course, since antiquity, we have searched for eternal life.

Ramakrishnan, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry who has spent his career studying how cell proteins are made, is primarily occupied with that last coping strategy in his fascinating book. For much of the 20th century, serious scientists dismissed gerontology, or the study of aging, as the provenance of cranks and loons. But in this century, it’s become a major research priority. In the past 10 years alone, Ramakrishnan writes, more than 700 startups have invested billions of dollars into solving this greatest human problem.

More here.

A Revolutionary Story Of Eggs, Evolution And Life On Earth

Leon Vlieger in The Inquisitive Biologist:

Jules Howard is no stranger to sex. A science writer and zoological correspondent, his gleefully amusing 2014 book Sex on Earth is particularly relevant to the topic at hand. Even there, however, eggs were just a sideshow. And therein lies the problem. Likely, the first question to be asked when eggs come up in conversation is how you like them for breakfast, or some hackneyed joke involving chickens. Focusing on the oology in zoology, Infinite Life retells the history of life, this time from the perspective of the almighty egg.

Howard’s approach in Infinite Life is to take the reader chronologically through the history of life, one geological period per chapter. Familiar as that framework might be for readers of popular evolutionary history books, it is the subject matter that is engrossing; eggs really have been a neglected topic so far.

More here.

“Spice: The 16th-Century Contest that Shaped the Modern World” by Roger Crowley

Peter Gordon in the Asian Review of Books:

Although it is the Silk Road that captures most of the contemporary attention and discussion, it was in fact spices, not silk, that drove Western Europeans to seek routes to Asia. “Lightweight and durable, spices” writes Roger Crowley in his new history (appropriately entitled Spice), “were the first truly global commodity … they could be worth more than their weight in gold.” 

And it was, for the most part, not China, Japan or India that was the object of Western fever dreams but a handful of tiny, now relatively obscure islands in what is now Indonesia:

Five microscopic volcanic islands – Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian and Bacan – were the only places on the planet where clove trees grew. Four hundred miles south another three islands – the Bandas – were the unique source of nutmeg.

The Moluccas, he writes, “were destined to become the epicentre of a sixteenth-century great game that literally shaped the world.”

More here.

Friday Poem

To Love Somebody

There’s a light, a certain
kind of light that has never
shone on me—

Nina’s version.
Not the Bee Gees
or even Janis Joplin,

but the way Nina
sings it, almost a plea.
Not the studio
version either. No, her
performance in Antibes.
Her earrings

dangling their own mute
musics, her silk headwrap
an aureole of sorts.
The sheen of her face
a thesis in Black glamor
sui generis.

I want to be glamorous
in the way she was
glamorous. The way
women I knew growing
up were glamorous: campy,
yes, but regal.

If I knew of Nina then
I would have drawn
her. Drawing being
how I coped
with the expurgated chorus
of my childhood.

I drew women then
because I could not be
one. Nina knew
a life of could-nots
too. Little girl blue rejected
from music school.

Read more »

The Prophet Who Failed

Emily Harnett at Harper’s Magazine:

Like many, I had assumed that her name, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, was an alias or affectation. Given what I knew of her—of the strange books she wrote, of the strange church she led—it seemed a little on the nose. But in fact it was her actual married name: her second husband, Mark, came from a long line of Prophets, and Elizabeth—his soulmate, his twin flame—remained one long after his death. In a way, her first name belonged to him, too. As a child, she went by Betty Clare; Mark preferred Elizabeth, so Elizabeth she became. But Betty was how she was known to her parents and, later, to her enemies.

As for the people who knew her, who loved her, who still believed in her—they called her Mother. This is what Pamela calls her when I meet her for the first time, on Ridge Avenue in Philadelphia. The room is purple, and Pamela herself wears purple: purple pants, purple sweater, purple T-shirt beneath it. The carpet is purple, too.

more here.

Quantum Dialectics

Jim Baggott at Aeon Magazine:

The quantum revolution in physics played out over a period of 22 years, from 1905 to 1927. When it was done, the new theory of quantum mechanics had completely undermined the basis for our understanding of the material world. The familiar and intuitively appealing description of an atom as a tiny solar system, with electrons orbiting the atomic nucleus, was no longer satisfactory. The electron had instead become a phantom. Physicists discovered that in one kind of experiment, electrons behave like regular particles – as small, concentrated bits of matter. In another kind of experiment, electrons behave like waves. No experiment can be devised to show both types of behaviour at the same time. Quantum mechanics is unable to tell us what an electron is.

More unpalatable consequences ensued. The uncertainty principle placed fundamental limits on what we can hope to discover about the properties of quantum ‘wave-particles’. Quantum mechanics also broke the sacred link between cause and effect, wreaking havoc on determinism, reducing scientific prediction to a matter of probability – to a roll of the dice.

more here.

The Casual Villainy of Greek Heroes

Claire Heywood in The Millions:

In the early fifth century BC, the Olympic boxer Kleomedes was disqualified from a match after killing his opponent with a foul move. Outraged at being deprived of the victory and its attendant prize, he became “mad with grief” and tore down a school in his hometown, killing many of the children who were studying there. Kleomedes managed to escape the angry mob that soon pursued him, and disappeared without trace. When the community sought answers from the oracle at Delphi, they were told that Kleomedes was now a hero, and should be honored accordingly with sacrifices. This the people did, and continued to do for centuries to come.

This story, recorded by the ancient writer Pausanias, feels bizarre to modern readers. But to the ancient Greeks who honored Kleomedes, even after he had murdered their children, the oracle’s answer may not have seemed strange at all. Many of the most famous Greek heroes had, after all, committed similar acts of violence. Herakles, son of Zeus, had to complete his famous labors as penance for murdering his own wife and children in a fit of “madness.” (Unsurprisingly, this detail didn’t make it into Disney’s Hercules.) Ajax, a great hero of the Trojan War, went on a murderous rampage against his own Greek allies, though it was thwarted by Athena. The reason for Ajax’s violent rage? He was denied the right to inherit Achilles’s prized armor, which he took as an insult to his honor.

More here.