From the Ruins of Empire — a review

Books On Asia asked reviewers to pick their top books for 2020. I submitted my four along with the other contributors and gave a short comment. Below is a more fleshed out review. For more reviews, check out booksonasia.net


Pankaj Mishra delivers a sweeping account of the intellectual history of anti-colonial thought in the early years of Western colonialism. He builds this narrative through mini-biographies of two lesser-known intellectuals: Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Liang Qichao. These early thinkers diagnosed the challenge of Western imperialism faced by Asia. The evolution of their thought is influenced by historical milestones such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a failed uprising to gain independence from the West, and the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, where an Asian nation defeated a Western military power for the first time. Japan’s victory was a turning point for optimism in the oppressed Asian psyche, celebrated by anti-colonialists like Gandhi, Ataturk, and Tagore. Here was an Asian country beating the West at its own game.

This part of the nineteenth century was a cosmopolitan moment for Asia. The subjects of Mishra’s work were inveterate travellers, moving throughout the Islamic, Indian and East Asian worlds. This is in contrast to Western political intellectuals at the time who philosophized about Asia almost exclusively from the comfort of their comfy overstuffed chairs. From the Ruins of Empire follows both Asian intellectuals on their travels where they meet with and influence one another as well as a new generation of activists like Sun Yat Sen. The author also traces how their thinking on Pan-Asianism transforms, from initially advocating for Asian nations to modernize by mimicking the West and adopting its scientific and industrial advancements, to their horror at the First World War, which turned them away from so-called “Western progress.” This frames the ultimate dilemma facing Asia in the book: to be more like the West (which is what Tsushima teaches) or to progress with Eastern alternatives which are more suited to the multi-ethnic, multi-religious reality of Asia—modernization sans Westernization.

Despite the successful anti-colonial movements in the post-World War II era, the story Mishra tells is ultimately a tragic one. Asian nations may have won out over political colonialism, but lost against intellectual colonialism. India and China are very adeptly wielding the power of centralized nation-states, effectively replacing the role previously occupied by Western imperial overseers. The “South to South” dialogues by the intellectual network described by Mishra did go on to inspire later revolutionaries. Mishra makes these connections, showing for example how the ideas of al-Afghānī have been twisted into the narrative of political Islam. 

This book originally came out in 2012 amidst the Arab Spring and Colour Revolutions. That time also saw a surge of revisionist histories of empire by writers like Niall Ferguson which helped to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the Ruins of Empire demonstrates how people can be motivated by humiliation, and in it you can see the seeds of Mishra’s later book Age of Anger (2017) centering on the politics of ressentiment, so prevalent in our era.

Reading From the Ruins in Empire in 2020 I was amazed at some of the nearly 200-year-old critiques of the West. You could copy-and-paste them directly into today’s media. Mishra has done a brilliant job excavating these perspectives and tying them together with his usual smooth writing skill. The authour offers no specific solutions, but reading about such intellectual journeys outside the standard one of Western progress with everywhere else trying to catch up, is fascinating. This was probably the most thought-provoking book I read this year. With the waning of liberalism and democracy described by Luce and others, it feels like we are at another turning point. Discussions of what happens next are occurring worldwide, but what does the fall of liberal internationalism mean for Asia? What are the indigenous intellectual legacies that might fill the void? From the Ruins of Empire shows that there can be imagination outside the box of Western political thought, alternatives rooted in history, that are possibly more viable than completely new and alien systems.

Symphonic society

In many Buddhist traditions monks and nuns depend on the support of the surrounding community to survive. Thai Forest Monastery monks will walk to the local village with alms bowls in which villagers will place rice and fruit — which will be all a monk will eat for that day. Furthermore, monastics are not allowed to do many mundane tasks such as drive or handle money, and thus are dependent on the laity for non-spiritual support, as the laity depends on them for spiritual support. Thus, it is amazing to see successful monasteries (like Birken here in BC) and abbeys (like Sravasti in WA) operate with the support of their local communities, even though we are in a larger social context that barely acknowledges the existent of such places. Running a traditional monastery in rural Canada has fundamental challenges when compared to Thailand or Sri Lanka.

On his podcast, Ajahn Sona (abbot of the monastery where I do my retreats) uses the symphony orchestra as an illustration of how society supports endeavours of excellence. Listen to the short clip below:

This example can be extended to other endeavours, of course. I was reminded of this on the weekend watching an interesting documentary on the construction of the Kyoto State Guest House. The craftsmen involved we not just asked to complete a task (“put up a building”) but were respectfully asked to bring all of their expertise and creativity to bear — and they themselves wanted to create something that delighted people and would leave a legacy. As in Ajahn Sona’s example, it requires many different parts of society working in symphony: the buyer respects the craftsman’s experience and is willing to pay to support; the viewing public is willing to educate themselves thereby reinforcing respect for the craftsman, and also raising the awareness of quality within society; and of course the craftsman is willing to spend decades honing his craft, and to outdo himself every chance he gets. It is the complete opposite of society whose only values are convenience and cost performance. And it isn’t just limited to craft and art… think of health and education and the climate crisis as more examples that require a symphonic society, yet we are sorely out of tune.

Infliction of Self — a review of The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society is a collection of essays reviewing famous thinkers’ (Deleuze, Freud, Arendt, Ehrenberg, et alia) thinking about the ailments of society in an attempt to diagnose what ails now. Each essay builds towards an argument with a number of subtle nuances. At only 72 pages, this is the perfect book-club book as I am sure it would provoke much discussion despite the linguistic armour that so much German philosophy enshrouds its critical ideas in (an armour that I cannot claim to have pierced, but I still found this book to be very thought-provoking).

The argument centers around Han’s concept of the individual as a “late-modern achievement-subject” that is:

  1. self-deluded into thinking just because they are not dominated by a person or by duty, they are free;
  2. the highest expression of freedom is to produce which is exactly what the capitalist system wants,
  3. therefore people are self-exploiting themselves and thus burning out.

It is a damnation of the hyper-individualization/atomization of society. Some key quotes:

Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.

The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.

and some zingers:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress.

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

(ahem, follow me on Twitter…)

Most of the book serves to contextualize the factors that lead to such an ill society.

Why I liked this book

Even though this book can be glibly summed up as “late-stage capitalism is bad,” I found the discussion valuable, especially Han’s arguments for boredom and the vita contempliva. His whole discussion about humans being reduced to animal laborans and feeling that they need to “Just do something… anything!” hits me as I come out of a meditation retreat where we were encouraged to “do nothing … really good.” In fact, my years of “mastering” information overload, of being an “efficient” consumer (eg. listening to audiobooks/podcasts while doing other tasks), is a good example of the symptoms that ail burnout society. It is “deadly hyperactivity” as Han puts it. He reminds us that:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.

and:

… deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Furthermore, it does not lead to a good life. He uses an Aristotle quote to remind us that the capitalist society is not concerned with the Good Life, that it “absolutes survival” turning you into an animalistic machine, scratching out a mere existence of socially prescriptive productivity. Putting it bluntly he states:

In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside.

Well, I am off to meditate and try and turn that “work camp” into a garden of happiness.

Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way

“Canada is a multicultural patchwork quilt, a country of immigrants.” These are common refrains about our country. Canada is home to over 200 ethnic groups, and has an official multicultural policy since 1971 (instituted by Trudeau the elder). Yet xenophobia and racism still remain, and multiculturalism is still a hot debate. The debate is not just between the natural-born and the immigrant, but also among the immigrants themselves. That is the topic I would like to explore below.
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Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path

Since the age of 3, I have been interested in other peoples. Apparently that was the age when I toddled up to the television, pointed to the evening news, and stated: “I am going to Tokyo.” All throughout my travels and my education I have pursued some understanding about “how the world works,” about human interactions, about how communities navigate a world filled with other communities.

With two people you have a conversation, with three you have a society.

I don’t know the origin of that saying, but it lies at the heart of how I try to understand our world: war, technology, economics… each boils down to politics — not the electoral kind, but the interpersonal kind.

So, in my study of Buddhism, it is natural that I should approach it from a political perspective, especially since so much of our common (Western) understanding of Buddhism seems apolitical: people shaving their heads, retiring to isolated mountain monasteries and renunciating the world. Surely Buddhist political thought cannot simply rely on “social transformation through personal transformation”? Surely they do not believe the way to bring about a more equitable world is for everyone to  become Buddhist?

Beliefs such as those have literally caused wars.

I became curious to find out the Buddha said on how society should be structured. The enlightened one had great advice for sickness, old age and death. What advice did he have for the social, economic, and political ills society suffers from?

Continue reading “Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path”

Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

Younghusband_bio

If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.

Why NOT Uber?

What do people really want when they say they want Uber to come to their community?

Once they learn about all the scandals, lawsuits, riots and demonstrations, the many lists of reasons not to use Uber, most people come away with a nuanced opinion. But typically, at first blush, many people have a very positive reaction to Uber. Why?

One reason could be the marketing. Uber is a poster child for the “sharing economy” — a feel-good marketing term that is inaccurate and “needs to die.” In his excellent book What’s Yours is Mine: Against the Sharing Economy author Tom Slee digs into the hopes and promises of the new rash of sharing economy companies, and shows how they fail to deliver and can actually damage our society.

A key objective of marketing is generating demand. Recently in Kelowna Uber Canada held two information sessions to “gauge interest”. Uber is really good at this. They turn their users into lobbyists, use social media effectively (see the recent province-wide #bc4uber hashtag campaign), and they get local governments to lobby on their behalf. As of last summer they had 250 lobbyists and 29 lobbying firms registered in capitols around the US. Earlier this year our provincial political leaders jumped on the bandwagon and spent money on their own ad campaign for the sharing economy.

Uber is able to get many people on its side through marketing, but that cannot be the only reason people like (at least the idea) of Uber. There seems to be some deep-seated dissatisfaction with the state of transportation as it is today.1 Let us examine some of these arguments.

Often Uber proponents say 1) taxis are expensive and there is no competition; 2) that they can never get a taxi when they need one; and 3) the Uber experience is better.
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Recommended reading: Religion and neoliberalism

James Chappel reviews four books in the Boston Review that dig into the link between neoliberalism and religious institutions. I found this piece enlightening just from its perspective on the rise of neoliberalism in general. The idea that neoliberalism is merely “sophisticated common sense” explains its common appeal… just like religion.

Below are a number of choice quotes from the piece, but I recommend reading the entire thing.

“A specter is haunting the academy—the specter of neoliberalism. In response to assaults on racial, gender, and economic equality, scholars from multiple disciplines are turning to neoliberalism as the culprit.”

This is the conclusion I have come to with regards to tech. Continue reading “Recommended reading: Religion and neoliberalism”

The superficiality of living small

Downsizing (or minimalism) is often portrayed as anti-consumerist and eco-friendly. Living small means you buy less stuff, produce less trash, and have a smaller environmental footprint in terms of heating/cooling your home. Plus, if you position your home close to amenities, you walk/bike more and drive less. Secondly, living small is about removing oneself from the current trend of financialization — getting off the mortgage hamster wheel, removing debt dependance, and not participating in surveillance capitalism by using credit cards and the like.

These are all good reasons for downsizing, but is the tactic wrong? It depends on what you are trying to solve for.
Continue reading “The superficiality of living small”