Review of “The End of the Free Market” by Ian Bremmer

The title of this book, The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War between States and Corporations? (by Ian Bremmer, 2010, published by Penguin), could have been, “Alternatives to the Free Market”, or “Challenges to…”, or “Competitions to the Free Market”, or something along those lines. The book is organized with reference to the distinction between free market capitalism and command economy, and then he places the third approach “state capitalism” in between the two poles. State capitalism refers to an approach to economy and governance, whereby the forces of free market are supervised and harnessed by the state. The state becomes a participant (though a disproportionately strong participant) in the market. If we use the sports metaphor, the role of the state is a hybrid role between a player and a referee (or rule-maker). Aside from that general commonality, each state develops its own particular style based on its priorities and the tools at its disposals, and this prevents giving a general account of state capitalism.

In Bremmer’s book, we read about why state capitalism has emerged: national interests (e.g., with respect to natural resources), fast emerging markets (in Brazil, Russia, India, and China), having to decide what to do with the wealth of a nation, and crises (especially those originating from the United States, casting doubt on the relatively unsupervised free market). The book helps us distinguish is between different forms of state capitalism. Government regulations are driven by different motives, which could be economic (support of national products, job, and economic growth) or political (consolidating state power). In both cases, state capitalism protects something (economy or politics) and in both cases, an act of regulation/protection will necessitate more protection, more supervision, in the future. In addition to reading about China, Russia, UAE, and several other countries, we also read about the Scandinavian states and their style of regulating free market (and their dissociation between corporations and states) is useful in understanding the subject-matter of the book, and why it is presented the way it is, i.e., a challenge, and with the emphasis on the developing economies.

The book clearly presents an American perspective, and it is published 11 years ago, but despite those features the book is interesting and engaging, especially against the backdrop of what I normally read. When you read a book like this, you get a glimpse of the larger world, and of how much is going on the world, at the scale of nations and international exchange. Of course, with these topics, our view is always limited and distorted, but even a limited view of the world economy and its history can inform us about what is possible, the types of planning, the forms of organizations, and the styles of management that can arise across the world. If you’re used to thinking at the psychological scale, like me, the sheer enormity of the subject-matter makes this type of book stimulation.

Let’s end by looking at the table of content: after an introduction, the book is divided into six chapters: (1) The Rise of a New System, (2) A Brief History of Capitalism, (3) State Capitalism: What It Is and How It Happened? (4) State Capitalism Around the World, (5) The Challenge, (6) Meeting the Challenge. Chapter 4 is the longest chapter of the book, and includes detailed accounts of various countries, and I like the author’s reliance on concrete examples (as opposed to general political and economic theory). Some of his accounts were incomplete, for example in reference in Iran (which I know a little about). Namely, Bremmer blames the Islamic Republic for providing national subsidies on oil and other resources, neglecting the more significant–and much more problematic–government spendings on military conflicts outside of the country. Reading his account of Iran made me a little skeptical about the accuracy of the book with respect to other countries. In the last chapter, the challenges were framed from the perspective of a free-market advocate (or more crudely, in terms of an East-West conflict). I think the problem could be better formulated in terms of relatively better and worse styles of supervision. Some regulation and supervision of the free market is unavoidable. When we regress back into debates about free versus unfree markets, we miss the more useful and practical discussion about styles regulation, aims of regulation, and the long-term prospects of regulations.

The book was worth reading. I’d be interested in reading a more up-to-date version of this book. If you know a comparable book, written and published after 2018 (perhaps even outside of the USA), let me know.

Note: The link to the book is an Amazon affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission from a qualified purchase, with no additional cost to you.

Review of “The New World Economy” (R. C. Epping)

The New World Economy: A Beginner’s Guide; Demystifying Everything from AI to Bitcoins to Unicorns and Generation Z (by Randy Charles Epping, 2020, Vintage), promises to be a beginner’s guide in the sense that it defines or clarifies a set frequently used words and concepts, which are part of the current discourse about world economy. (terms like: trade wars, isolationism, digital economy, sharing economy, blockchains, cryptocurrencies, etc.). The proliferation of these terms is happening at pace that is difficult to keep up with. The book isn’t only about new terminology. It also covers older concepts, such as investment, venture capital, hedge funds, and hot money. You might find the book useful if you’d like to learn about and review these concepts against the larger landscape of current world economy.

The book consists of thirty-six short chapters, each addressing a topic or question. A small sample of chapter titles: Chapter 9 is called, “How Do Populist Leaders Use Our Economic Illiteracy to Gain Power?”, Chapter 10: “Globalization—Problem or Solution?”, Chapter 20: “What Is the Internet of Things?”, Chapter 21: “Is Data the New Gold?” The topics covered in different chapters relate to each other and, indeed, a major task of the book is to show how everything is interconnected. Thus, to understand economics, even at this quite superficial level, it is impossible to avoid addressing politics, international relations, the populist movements in different parts of the world, and the on-going battles over democracy, just as it is impossible to avoid technology, artificial intelligence, new ways of being connected, new ways of working, investing, learning, and sharing, all enabled by technological development. The book succeeds in showing the dizzying interconnectedness of our (economic) lives with so many other factors; it also succeeds in highlighting the movement/change that is going on in the world (among these changes is the growing economic inequality among segments of societies); the book also does a fine job at introducing a set of core concepts and showing how to think with them.

The limitation of the book, aside from its upfront superficiality (which shouldn’t be criticized, since it is called, “A Beginner’s Guide”), is that the author frames the discussion in terms of his own stance on major issues, e.g., with regard to politics, economics, and international relations. This is a limitation because the reader will learn only how, for instance, a concept like globalism is used by someone who is in favor of it, and not by a critic of globalism (we could extend this to other topics, free trade, neoliberalism, and immigration). In general, the meaning of a concept that is at the center of a debate is adequately grasped only when we see how people on different sides of a debate understand the concept. In this sense, the book isn’t just superficial, but also slightly biased in its presentation.

Now, a few words about why I decided to read the book. With my academic background in psychology, learning in other topics is highly inefficient (it costs me more time and energy to learn a little economics, compared to the relatively lower cost that could go into learning something new in psychology), but there is an important reason to study other disciplines. If you learn a little psychology, a little politics, a little economics, a little literary theory, you will notice the ideas that can travel across these domains. Equally important is noticing ideas that do not travel across these domains. My interest in psychology becomes narrower when I learn a little politics. Why would I remain concerned with parts of psychology that are only relevant and interesting to specialist areas within psychology? Why would I be concerned about parts of psychology that don’t travel out of psychology? My wife recently described this is by saying that we remain grounded if we maintain reference to multiple disciplines (grounded in the common ground that is shared by the disciplines). Thus, even if you follow my content for reasons related to psychology, I’d encourage you to join me in occasionally going out of our way to read an introductory book about some other topic. If nothing else, it could renew and narrow down your interest in your main area (in my case, psychology).

My final criticism of this book is that it doesn’t provide a list of recommended readings. That is reasonable to expect that from “A Beginner’s Guide”. One book that might offer a balancing perspective to Epping’s book is called “The End of Free Market” (by Ian Bremmer, 2010), which I have just started reading. Though it is slightly dated, it is written with more sophistication and I’m enjoying it so far. My next review might be of Bremmer’s book.

Note: The link to the book is an Amazon affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission from a qualified purchase, with no additional cost to you.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (Adam Phillips)

If you are interested in discussing the book, Missing Out, by Adam Phillips, and if you’re free this weekend, consider joining our online book club discussion (here is the link for more information).

Adam Phillips is a practicing psychoanalyst and has written and co-written many books (including On Balance, Becoming Freud, Unforbidden Pleasures, and the forthcoming The Cure of Psychoanalysis). Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life (2012) is the first book I have read by him, and I have found it very impressive. As the title suggests, the book is concerned with that side of life we often recognize as unlived: the paths not taken, missed opportunities, the potentials that haven’t and will not become actual. This idea applies to a wide range of situations, including the relatively mundane (e.g., missing out the fun at the party you couldn’t attend) and the more serious and tragic situations (e.g., the thought that one might be missing out the life experience of a “normal”, “sane”, “successful”, or “respected” member of a society). The relevance of the topic shouldn’t deceive us into thinking that the book is easy to read or that it contains a set of practical tips on how to deal with the feeling of missing out. This isn’t a “self-help” book (which isn’t to say it won’t be helpful). What Phillips offers us is an exploration of several interrelated themes. The result of his exploration is a richer (fuller) view of human experience. In particular, his exploration illuminates what it means to be a grown-up, a responsible adult, someone who is interested in (contact with) reality, including the reality of other people, and the reality that is reflected in our own feelings. He also offers an understanding of some aspects of contemporary culture, which urges us to live paradoxical lives and constantly seek win-win, sacrifice-free decisions, to never miss out on anything. Isn’t it true that our contemporary culture, our style of imagining and reasoning about our lives, has made a taboo out of missing out?

The book is divided into a prologue, five main chapters, and an appendix. The main chapters are titled, (1) On Frustration, (2) On Not Getting It, (3) On Getting Away with It, (4) On Getting Out of It, and (5) On Satisfaction. Considering frustration, Phillips invites us to see how this feeling isn’t just a demand for what we lack, but results from knowledge and (tacit) decisions. It arises from the way we have settled matters for ourselves: That person frustrates me! She could give me what I need, but she is choosing not to! This situation frustrates me. It can and should work out for me, but it’s not! If I am frustrated by my friend, that implies that I am confident about what my friend can do for me. Maybe I’ll be lead into believing that my friend is choosing to frustrate me. Phillips reminds us: “Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration.” After reading his treatment, we are reminded that there is always more to frustrations than what appears to us at first, and that frustration is unavoidable in so far as we must live in the real world, i.e., outside of our fantasies.

Not getting it, the topic of the second chapter, explores the reasons why we want (and need) to “get it” (get what someone means, get the meaning of a situation, get the joke, get the poem, and so forth), and why we might consider living a life in which not getting it can also, at least some of the times, become an aim. In connection to this idea, Phillips brings in Freud and psychoanalysis, as a liberating project.

Psychoanalysis is, in fact, the treatment that weans people from their compulsion to understand and be understood; it is an “after-education” in not getting it. Through understanding to the limits of understanding — this is Freud’s new version of an old project. Freud’s work is best read as a long elegy for the intelligibility of our lives. We makes sense of our lives in order to be free not to have to make sense.

from On Not Getting It

In the third chapter, On Getting Away with It, we read about the new morality of our age, according to which we aren’t supposed to take the type of responsibility that challenges the rules overtly, while also avoiding the type of responsibility that follows the rules. We are encouraged to constantly find loopholes, to have our cakes and eat them, too, to find how we could make an exception of ourselves. The fourth chapter, On Getting Out of It, introduces us to a way of thinking, and a way of reading literature, that aims at getting out (a method for actively missing out on what we hate; cf. “lines of flight” in Deleuze & Guattari). A related, and very interesting, line of thought in this chapter is about how confident we often feel about knowing what we is beyond our experience:

… sometimes–perhaps more often than note–we think we know more about the experiences we don’t have than about the experiences that we do have, ‘frustration’ being our word for the experience of not having an experience. I am struck, for example, by how much people talk in psychoanalytic treatment about the experiences they have not had in the experiences that they have had; and how authoritatively, with what passion and conviction, they talk about what they have missed out on.

from On Getting Out of It

You might expect Phillips, being a psychoanalyst, to use examples from his case studies (people who come to him for analysis), but he almost uses no examples from his experience as an analyst. That might be because he positions himself primarily as the analysand. I am inclined toward this way of thinking about his writing, based on his free-associative style, and the way he follows images and literary fragments. The examples in the book are mostly from literature, and those are mostly from Shakespeare. So if you enjoy thinking about Shakespeare’s plays and if you enjoy reading commentaries (and commentaries on commentaries) about Shakespeare, especially from a psychoanalytic perspective, you’ll enjoy this book. The appendix (“On Acting Madness”, based on a lecture Phillips gave about theatre at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) can be read before or after the rest of the book. This essay is a fresh look at the ideas discussed in the main chapters, bringing in new ideas about performance (self-presentation), what it means to have an audience, the notions of sanity and madness, the distance that is at once (and paradoxically) eliminated and extended in confronting madness (the utterly foreign intimacy of our confrontation with madness), and the lessons we can learn from theatrical displays of madness about the psychology of everyday life.

Having read the book twice, so far, I’m not sure whether I’ll read another book by Adam Phillips next or whether I’ll just read this book one more time (the third option is going to Shakespeare!). I’d recommend Missing Out to you if you are interested in psychoanalysis, if are familiar with Freud (and Lacan), and if you’re interested in looking at literature and culture through a psychoanalytic lens. If you’re not familiar with Freud, a better place to begin could be The Penguin Freud Reader (edited by Adam Phillips).

Note: The link to the book is an Amazon affiliate link, which means I’ll receive a small commission from a qualified purchase, with no additional cost to you.

The Atheist Neighbor

A big part of the motive behind reading, thinking, and talking is the wish to be a good neighbor. Who is a good neighbor? A good neighbor is someone who doesn’t antagonize you, someone who doesn’t scare you (at least not intentionally), someone who doesn’t stigmatize or pigeon-hole you. I imagine a good neighbor wouldn’t irritate you with their loud (untimely) music, and in general he or she doesn’t force their taste into your awareness. At the same time, the good neighbor isn’t excessively secretive. They probably won’t go out of their way to hide their form of life, their preferences, or their values. There must be a balance between showing oneself and keeping things to oneself. A good neighbor knows that he or she is part of your ecology and will likely not insist on being invisible at all time. Instead, they try to be a part of your ecology in a way that is responsible, conscientious, and self-aware.

I recorded my previous video “On Atheism” about two weeks ago, but didn’t upload it until last night. The reason was because I wasn’t sure whether it would go against the balance of visibility/invisibility. I thought about a few religious friends (neighbors) who watch my videos occasionally. I thought of Jonny, Sam, Greg, Mary Margaret, and I thought of others wondering what they would think, whether they would feel hurt by my insistence that atheism must be understood on its own terms. I received very encouraging comments in response to the video, comments that demonstrated understanding. I’ll have to respond to some of them in future videos. Here, I’d like to go a few steps further toward neighborly visibility, to show where my concerns are coming from.

Is my history important in my discussion of atheism? Shouldn’t I just offer impersonal arguments? Who cares about my personal history? Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher, has popularized the scene from Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Ninotchka, where the protagonist orders coffee-without-cream but is instead offered coffee-without-milk (He is told by the waitress, Sorry, we are out of cream, can I bring you coffee without milk, instead?). The point he is making is about negativity and history. It’s not enough for a coffee to be black coffee. It’s important to know what element was intentionally not added to it. If this example doesn’t bring out the point, think of two single men. One of them has always been single, while the other one was once engaged, but then broke off his engagement due to a personal crisis. These two ways of being “single” aren’t the same.

Now, my atheism is a response to Islam. It’s a coffee without Islam, not coffee without Christianity or any other religion. It’s an atheism that I regard as a necessary component of my culture of origin, Iran. My country has suffered a lot from not permitting atheism, not giving voice to it, downplaying it, repressing it with the excuse of good manners. By repressing it, it repressed the necessity to seek common ground (the secular common ground) with the religious minorities. Let me use an example to visualize how I think about the misuse of religion in Iranian culture/politics. Imagine being at a funeral and having to behave extra politely because the people at the funeral expect you to behave according to their norms. Then a person starts going around and stabbing people with a knife and everyone continues to be silent and “well-behaved”. This nasty person keeps going around and stabbing people, but everyone keeps quiet because we are still at the funeral and convention dictates that we shouldn’t fight (back) or shout or react in a way that is appropriate to someone who has just been stabbed. The evil person is taking advantage of convention, because the convention hasn’t yet accommodated to counter-convention. People don’t recognize–they don’t have a place–for the type of person who doesn’t take the convention seriously, who is willing to act inappropriately at a funeral, sing, draw cartoons of the deceased, etc. etc. The culture hasn’t accommodated atheism. Some of my own family members will perceive my atheistic expressions as impoliteness. That isn’t their personal stupidity, it’s a cultural blindness. The same kind of blindness that led to the hijacking of the 1979 revolution in Iran (They hijacked it in the same way that imaginary person stabbed people at the funeral, taking advantage of good manners and cultural blindspots).

I can imagine someone objecting: What you’re complaining about is politics, the political misuse of religion, not religion itself. Working with the imagined funeral scenario, the (obvious) weapon used by the evil individual was the knife, but the more powerful (hidden) weapon was the willful silence of the group, their collective submission to a convention. That is how religion can be weaponized. To neutralize it, we need counter-convention. We need to have at least the possibility of being impolite. This isn’t the impoliteness of a stranger, a passer-by, with whom you exchange insults and then you never see each other again. It’s the impoliteness of a “neighbor”. It needs a little more charity and patience.

So please keep these notes about personal history in mind, if you decide to listen to my future discussions about atheism and religion. I am grateful to everyone who commented on the previous video! Let me end with another note about being a neighbor. The word for neighbor in Persian is ham-sayeh. It consists of the prefix “ham-” (meaning common) and “-sayeh” (meaning shadow). A neighbor is someone who has a common shadow with you, someone who shares a shadow with you. If we turn our attention to the ground, to what is underneath, we see how we are the same.