Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Description of the World - Part 57

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (Before the micros were the minis. When this book came out in ’81, personal computers could do next to nothing and took a very long time doing it. They didn’t do a heck of a lot more for quite a few years. I moved to the land of chips and software at about that time; and the serious techies I met were far more interested in Sun workstations than pc’s. The money was good, too. Flying through a blizzard in Pennsylvania while on a business trip, I shared a flight with a brilliantly drunk computer salesman who had just closed a deal with Harrisburg for six mini computers. “I sold a six pack! I sold a six Pack!”)

The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, ed. Max Hastings (Holocaust deniers sometimes cast doubts on the narratives of camp survivors.”If it’s so bad, how come you’re still here?” That’s sufficiently obscene, as Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard pointed out in the Differend apropos Faurisson; but a much milder version colors our understanding of war. All the first person accounts are written, if not by victors, at least by survivors. It would require a poet or perhaps a medium to produce a book of military anecdotes that began to reflect the reality of the thing itself.)

Steve Pincus, 1688: the First Modern Revolution (Pincus writes very well, but hefting the book again reminds me of the limitations of my efforts to get college educated people to read adult books. Unless you know a fair amount of the history of Glorious Revolution, by which I mean not only what happened but why people have been arguing about it for so long, you won’t be impressed by the depth and brilliance of this work. There are pleasures that must be earned. The just-so story about 1688 is that Protestant Britain could tolerate a catholic king but not a king with a catholic heir, that the nation more or less unanimously rejected James in short order once William and Mary came ashore, that the revolution was peaceful and civil, and that it didn’t involve fundamental changes in the British constitution. Pincus refutes or qualifies all of these elements of the received narrative, pointing out that even many English Catholics opposed the king, who stood for Louis XIV’s version of the faith against more ultramontain versions, that the Revolution resulted from a successful Dutch invasion, that there certainly was bloodshed even if you don’t count the Battle of the Boyne, and that the settlement that followed 1688 wasn’t a reversion to ancient practices but a genuine revolution.)

Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece (Before the 17th Century battle of the ancients and moderns, it was still possible to imagine that the Greeks and Romans had been as prosperous and even as militarily formidable as the nations of Baroque Europe. Ober isn’t exactly reopening that fight, but he does attempt to show that Classical Greece achieved a level of economic performance nearly on a par with, say, the Dutch Republic. He thinks that the broader participation of the population in governance explains much of this success. I’m more inclined to focus on the Greek ability to import food as a critical factor, but that’s perhaps a matter of emphasis. You can’t have the demographic growth experienced by the Greeks without lots and lots of Scythian and Sicilian wheat; and you can’t get that without the military and financial power made possible by democratization (in a broad sense) at home, i.e. by citizen armies and navies and high levels of professionalism and economic specialization. Under ancient conditions (if not ours), democracy and imperialism are a natural fit.)

Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and Making of American Capitalism (I suppose the most sensational claim in this book is that the productivity of Southern cotton production and therefore the enormous profits it made possible were literally beaten out of the slaves. Cotton picking wasn’t mechanized until after the Civil War. Before that time, its efficiency was a function of the skill of the pickers, who were “encouraged’ to gather more and more by the application of the lash to workers who didn’t make the ever larger quotas at the end of the day. The system worked. The same inputs resulted in more and more bales as disinterested cruelty was transmuted into gold over the first half of the 19th Century. The general message that slave labor underlie the great expansion of American wealth was not news to me. I was more impressed—or depressed—by what Baptist had to say about the Old South, the states further North where little cotton was grown but plantation owners could still tap into the bonanza by selling slaves down South. Before the cotton gin, the prospect of an end to slavey wasn’t very threatening to Virginia planters as the economic value of slaves diminished; but once the cotton rush was on, breeding slaves became a new source of wealth, a development that partly explains the difference between Thomas Jefferson, circa 1776, and the same man in1808 and why the Old Dominion signed on to the Confederacy. It’s vulgar Marxism at its rawest, but it sure looks as if a huge swatch of American history can be explained by the refusal of greedy men to give up a sweet deal.)