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Book Review: The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All by Martin Sandbu

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/09/2020 - 11:57pm in

In The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for AllMartin Sandbu seeks to address the extent to which many citizens of western democracies feel ‘left behind’ by recent economic changes, proposing a detailed plan for creating a just economy where everyone can belong. While finding this a highly readable and carefully argued book that offers a number of persuasive policy prescriptions, John Tomaney questions whether it provides a fully convincing programme for the left-behind. 

If you are interested in The Economics of Belonging, you can listen to a podcast of author Martin Sandbu discussing the book at an LSE event, recorded on 17 June 2020. 

The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All. Martin Sandbu. Princeton University Press. 2020.

Over recent years, readers of Martin Sandbu’s thoughtful Financial Times column, ‘Free Lunch’, have watched his attempts to wrestle with the backlash against globalisation that has swept across liberal democracies. His ideas have now been brought together in The Economics of Belonging: A Radical Plan to Win Back the Left Behind and Achieve Prosperity for All. In conceiving the political upheavals in the west in terms of ‘the end of belonging’ (8), Sandbu seeks to capture the way that many citizens of western democracies have been ‘left behind’ by recent economic changes, no longer feeling they have a place in the economy and consequently lending their support to a politics of ‘illiberalism’. Sandbu’s aim is to defend an open, liberal-democratic, market-based order against its detractors. While critical of recent policy directions, like John Maynard Keynes he comes not to bury capitalism, but to save it.

For Sandbu, the period after the Second World War in the west saw the extension of individual rights, the rule of law, free elections, the social market economy and political and economic ‘openness’, in ways that underpinned broadly rising living standards, declining inequality and assured security and social respect for the working class. Now we see rising inequality, declining incomes and slowing productivity growth. Within a generation, a radical redistribution of global income has occurred at the expense of western workers, providing the basis for a ‘populist’ politics of ‘usurpation’, which declaims that the right to earn a living has been stolen by ‘foreigners’. Sandbu’s purpose is to defend globalisation, claiming: ‘Economic openness is not just compatible with a domestic economics of belonging; with the right policies, more globalisation can make it stronger’ (208).

Economic changes, rather than shifts in cultural attitudes, explain the rise of populism in this account. Being economically left-behind creates psychological stress that erodes personal control, propelling voters into the arms of populist leaders, which helps to explain why electoral revolt is concentrated in places vulnerable to restructuring. It is not globalisation that has driven these processes, according to Sandbu, but structural change and (national) policy. The shift to a service economy and the decline of collective bargaining has undermined the post-war social settlement, while tax reforms favoured higher income groups and the owners of assets. Economic risk was transferred to the individual and created the conditions for the emergence of a precariat. The global financial crisis of 2008 – the consequence of a bloated and poorly regulated financial sector – precipitated a steep fall in living standards, exacerbated by austerity, leading to the unravelling of the economics of belonging.

But globalisation, in Sandbu’s telling, is the scapegoat for other causes of our present predicament. Skill-biased technological change and the shift to a knowledge economy are a bigger cause of manufacturing job loss than trade; immigration has little impact on jobs and living standards; and financialisation, while destructive, is not constitutive of globalisation.

Sandbu offers a paean to the Nordic model, where the survival of collective bargaining limits income inequality, wage compression is the motor of productivity growth and high quality training facilitates shifts between jobs as industries expand and contract. While replicating this model in detail is impossible, extending its principles is realistic, Sandbu argues, making a case for implementing high minimum wages, universal basic income, limiting monopoly power and strengthening workplace rights. He proposes reforms to the banking system to enable a shift from credit lending to equity financing to encourage more productive forms of investment. For Sandbu, policymakers overlook the costs of weak effective demand, especially on the left-behind, and he accuses central banks of ‘learned helplessness’ in macroeconomic management (165). In the realm of taxation, he advocates net wealth taxes, more effective corporation taxes and higher taxes on negative externalities (notably, carbon emissions), and he proposes a trade regime based on common labour and environmental standards to promote ‘economic togetherness’ (8).

Particular attention is paid to ‘left-behind’ places where the populist revolt is strongest, and Sandbu calls for compensation for places affected by economic restructuring, measures to connect them to successful agglomerations and physical and financial investments to maintain aggregate local demand. In particular, he calls for targeted business extension measures, customised job training, new roads, public transport and better broadband, improved ‘social infrastructure’, investments in cities to attract knowledge workers and efforts to ‘globalise’ lagging regions by nurturing their export potential. He acknowledges that not all places will benefit from this approach, which raises the question of what happens to those that are left even further behind. The reference to ‘social infrastructure’ is undeveloped, but it is suggestive of debates about the ‘foundational economy’.

The Economics of Belonging is an important contribution to the debate about the ‘left-behind’. Sandbu offers a highly readable and carefully argued narrative, which marshals evidence adroitly and proposes a range of policy prescriptions, many of which are persuasive and deserve serious attention. But does it amount to a convincing programme for the left-behind? Among the obvious gaps, Sandbu has little to say about the contemporary geopolitics that are reshaping patterns of international trade. China and Russia currently present themselves as ‘civilisational states’ with strategic interests that may limit the effects of his proposed policies. Crucially, Sandbu never really presents a clear definition of belonging: the term does not appear in the index. In practice, his analysis rests on a methodological individualism in which utility-maximising individuals respond to (social) market signals. He overlooks the affective and collective dimensions of belonging and the complex ways people form attachments to place and the uses they make of them.

Sandbu’s analysis also rests on assumptions about the essentially ‘illiberal’ culture of left-behind communities arising partly from an overdrawn distinction between the economic and cultural. In fact, we lack deep, qualitative understandings of the complex interplay of cultural and political change in such places. Left-behind places come in many shapes and sizes and this will likely confound well-meaning technocratic solutions. Bruno Latour has argued recently that belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of rethinking. That rethinking must include listening to what the ‘left-behind’ actually want from the economy and polity.

Image Credit:Image by MetsikGarden from Pixabay.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 


Book Review: Employment in India by Ajit Kumar Ghose

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/09/2020 - 9:30pm in

In Employment in India, Ajit Kumar Ghose offers a concise guide to understanding different aspects of employment in India, written using accessible language for a general audience. With the book’s analysis supported by rigorous empirical work and up-to-date data, Varsha Gupta recommends it to researchers of labour economics. 

Employment in India. Ajit Kumar Ghose. Oxford University Press. 2020.

Employment in India by Professor Ajit Kumar Ghose is a primer to understanding the Indian employment scenario since Independence. Part of the Oxford India ‘Short Introductions’ series, it’s a concise guide to different aspects of employment in India, written using accessible language for a general audience. The insights and facts presented are up-to-date, using the 2016 employment data, while the epilogue provides statistics using the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) 2017-18 data.

The book is divided into five chapters, with the first two chapters introducing the various definitions and concepts used in the book to underline the nature and characteristics of employment. The third chapter is empirical and charts the trends for six decades using four sources of data: the Employment-Unemployment survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO); annual data on employment by the Labour Bureau; organised sector data by the Directorate General of Employment and Training (DGET); and the Census. In the fourth chapter, the reasons behind the trends are explained, while the concluding chapter outlines an optimal strategy to meet the employment challenges of India and discusses the future.

The author begins by outlining the growth strategy since Independence, which has been more inclined towards the service sector and is driven more by domestic demand than exports. The Indian economy skipped the growth in manufacturing where returns to scale are higher and positive spillovers can be attained. Before delineating the employment patterns using data, the second chapter discusses the various terms often used in labour studies and this book, including the modern sector, the traditional sector, wage and self-employment as types of employment, the formal and informal sector, structural change etc. It provides the reader with clarity on these concepts before they are used in further analysis. Details on the Lewis model (which shows that as a country develops, there is movement of labour from agriculture to the modern sector), the interlinkages between the modern (formal) and traditional (informal) sector and the role of employment in connecting economic growth and development constitute the rest of the chapter.

In the third chapter, trends of employment indicators are brought out for the period 1950 to 2016, alongside a list of all the various data sources used. It is an exhaustive list for early career researchers in labour economics. It is highlighted that the low unemployment figures, which are often taken to be a positive reflection of the labour market, do not present a bright scenario in a developing country like India as it does not indicate full employment. Being unemployed is a luxury here, and only a few can afford it; the rest take up whatever employment is available to them. Three pieces of information emerge from the analysis; the unemployed in India are less poor and more educated; the rate of unemployment increases with education level; and it decreases with age as some individuals get employed while others leave the workforce altogether.

In addition, on pages 53-54, the author talks about low female employment and the reasons behind it. Reduction in distress participation (work undertaken in times of economic hardship) along with poor demand for female labour are major factors. The author mentions that ‘withdrawal from poor jobs did not have to mean withdrawal from the labour force’, pointing towards the unavailability of better jobs for women.

Furthermore, trend analysis on pages 57-80 draws out the structure of employment. Self-employment has gone down, while the share of wage employment has increased in total employment. This is in line with the iron law-importance of agriculture in employment declines and wage employment’s share rises as a country experiences economic growth. The share of formal employment in India went up until 1973 and declined thereafter. It went up again between 2005 and 2012. The Employment Quality Index, developed in the author’s previous work to statistically measure employment conditions, is calculated for the period 1955 to 2016 and on average presents a slight decline.

In the fourth chapter, the author explores the relationship between economic growth and employment. While growth hasn’t been poor in India, employment indicators reflect a poor scenario. Decent growth was experienced by the Indian economy, especially after liberalisation reforms in 1991 were introduced, due to overseas finance and remittances. The service sector took the lead: an enigma which is peculiar to India. The process of structural transformation, brought about by growth in the modern or non-agricultural sector, did not occur in India. This is reflected in the statistical indicator ‘employment elasticity’ (percentage change in employment associated with a 1 percentage point change in economic growth) of non-agricultural growth. It declined during the period 1978-2000 and 2000-12, implying that labour was not pulled out of agriculture at a fast rate. The failure of the manufacturing sector and the low employment intensity of the service sector are two factors behind this. Within the service sector, the skills-intensive areas of ‘communication, finance and business services’ led the growth. This eventually led to slow absorption of the abundant low-skilled labour available in the country.

After drawing out the employment situation in India and the explanations for it, the author provides a roadmap to achieve development via employment generation in the last chapter. India needs to create 12.5 million jobs per annum with a focus on low-skilled workers in order to enable the economy to reach the point where there are no surplus workers (the Lewis turning point). While research often highlights the significance of employment creation for the educated and the skilled, the author places emphasis on low-skilled employment. Employment generation in the non-agricultural modern sector and productivity increases in existing jobs in agriculture are required. A structural transformation process where growth is concentrated on manufacturing rather than service-led can bring the desired changes in the Indian job market (138-40). The concern regarding automation replacing low-skilled labour in manufacturing is also discussed. Up until now, this has occurred primarily in capital and skill-intensive sectors of manufacturing. So, the strength of manufacturing in employment remains, even in the twenty-first century.

This book offers a comprehensive analysis of employment in the Indian economy. The nature of the employment challenges faced by India and the growth pathway required to meet them are summarised. However, it’s a long read for a non-specialist reader. Since it touches upon the various aspects of employment using data, this can detract from the larger narrative for the reader. That being said, the information provided in various boxes is useful for researchers in labour economics, with definitions given for various concepts and indexes used in the analysis. Throughout the book, the analysis is supported by rigorous empirical work and the epilogue updates it with the latest available data. Employment in India is recommended for students in labour economics.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Banner Image Credit: Working professionals in a co-working space in Delhi. Copyright ILO/L. Mitul 2018 (ILO Asia-Pacific CC BY ND NC 2.0).

In-text Image Credit: Image by Nandalal Sarkar from Pixabay.


Book Review: Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage by Luuk van Middelaar

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 28/09/2020 - 9:19pm in

In Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage, Luuk van Middelaar argues that recent crises since 2010 have transformed the European Union, which has moved from a politics of technocratic rule-making to a politics of improvisation in response to uncertainty and events. This is a sharp and refreshing analysis of European crisis politics, writes Zbigniew Truchlewski, that deserves to be read alongside other classic studies of the EU. 

Alarums and Excursions: Improvising Politics on the European Stage. Luuk van Middelaar. Agenda Publishing. 2019.

In Alarums and Excursions, Luuk van Middelaar offers a sharp and refreshing analysis of European crisis politics since 2010, which comes in the wake of his brilliant book, The Passage to Europe (2013). His approach is original because he eschews traditional ‘-isms’, instead opting to use political theory to shed light on the transformations of the European Union (EU). Among other thinkers (Hannah Arendt, Montesquieu, Alexandre Kojève), Machiavelli is revisited in a stimulating manner. But this theoretical approach should not fool you: van Middelaar is not only a distinguished philosopher who writes in a very accessible manner, collaborating with scholars including Amartya Sen, Philippe van Parijs, Jürgen Habermas and Pierre Rosanvallon. He also witnessed most of the events he analyses first-hand as a speechwriter to former European Council President, Herman van Rompuy.

For van Middelaar, the crises of the 2010s transformed the EU. The EU moved from a politics of technocratic and depoliticised rule-making (i.e. building the single market) to a politics of events, uncertainty, improvisation and power politics (i.e. dealing with unforeseen crises). Interestingly, some EU players themselves do not understand this essential transformation. In the introduction, van Middelaar remembers how, during a seminar, EU officials were at pains to see the difference between the quiet politics of fish quotas in the 1980s and the tumultuous politics of refugee quotas in the mid-2010s. This is dangerous because, as shown later in the book’s chapter on the refugee crisis, such a mindset can lead to technocratic overreach.

Switching European politics from rules to events requires re-inventing the ‘performance space’ of the EU: the EU moved from the depoliticised space of committee politics to the more open and transparent space of summitry and parliamentary elections. Van Middelaar calls the latter an open stage where improvisation becomes the norm.

Another key idea of the book revolves around the emergence of a new authority in Europe. Here, van Middelaar leverages the writings of other philosophers (Hegel, Kojève) in another brilliant application of political theory to current politics. In short, the crises have created a new authority structure in the EU where the European Council plays first fiddle because it is the only institution that has joint authority (derived from European voters) to improvise during unforeseen crises. As a result, the EU has become a ‘confederal’ structure, more akin to the United States or Switzerland than to the imaginary strong federation (e.g. with a president, foreign minister, treasury) preached by some pro-Europeans.

The book has two parts. The first analyses four recent crises in as many chapters: the Euro crisis; the crisis in Ukraine (2013-15); the refugee crisis of 2015; and the Atlantic crisis (the 2016 election of President Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK). Although there is a significant amount of publications on each of these topics already, scholars of these crises will find many thought-provoking insights.

In analysing Article 50 and Brexit, van Middelaar argues that the EU killed the idea of its own perpetuity. But this could be a good thing for democracy: in van Middelaar’s words, the EU ‘could no longer rely on a ‘’yes’’ at the altar but needed the support of unpredictable populations, day in, day out’. Making the EU more ‘perishable’ seems to make it also more democratic. At the end of Chapter Six, van Middelaar also points out that breaking away from universal perpetuity by thinking and moving ‘into the river of time’ will allow Europe to think more strategically: it will force it to consider how to be prepared for unforeseen events by switching from regulation to capacity building.

The main analytical action happens in the second part of the book. The author explains why moving from the politics of rules to the politics of events is a Machiavellian moment for Europe. What is at stake is getting a grip on historical reality (virtù) and letting go of the religious incantation of ‘ever closer union’ (fortuna). In this sense, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words about taking destiny into ‘our own hands’ and emancipating Europe from its own history of salvation is Machiavellian.

But this is not such an easy thing to accomplish for several reasons. One is that it is hard to find compromise among states that define events differently. Here, the author could have gone further in showing how problem pressures and the differences in initial conditions (e.g. the centralisation of power in France vs. decentralisation in Germany) lead to coordination problems in the face of unexpected events like the Euro, refugee or the COVID-19 crises. Other hurdles on the stage include the habit of depoliticisation, the weight of the community method (that is, the governing method of the EU in which, in contrast to intergovernmental decisionmaking, supranational institutions like the European Commission or the European Court of Justice play a leading role) and the taboo of talking about national interests.

Still, EU actors have managed to change the way they operate on the European stage. The most important development is the emancipation of European executives through the establishment and development of the European Council. The Council deals with ‘Chefsache’ (issues that have to be dealt with by ‘the boss’) when there is urgency, when existing frameworks have to transcended, during deadlocks or when the fundamentals have to change. From this vantage point, van Middelaar implies that the European Commission is the great loser from the advent of event politics because it cannot derive political authority for dealing with uncertainty from simple legal competences, while the Council can derive it from democratic legitimacy.

Another new actor is the opposition. This is one of the most stimulating chapters in the book: it argues that because there is no clear government in Brussels, no clear opposition could emerge. As a result, if opposition cannot happen within the EU, it will happen against the EU (for example, Brexit). This problem is a powerful self-undermining mechanism for a polity; counter-intuitively, letting opposition organise is one way to strengthen the EU. But what kind of opposition does the newly emancipated power in the EU create?

Van Middelaar discusses several options: functionalism (backstage depoliticisation or introducing politics in rule-making processes); federalism (frontstage politicisation through the European Parliament); and confederalism (frontstage politicisation through national leaders). Each of these solutions has its own problems: for instance, how to introduce opposition in a setting like the Council where consensus is the rule? Even though van Middelaar does not give a clear-cut solution, his discussion is worth mulling over.

The book has some minor shortcomings, such as observation bias: one wonders whether once crisis politics recedes, the authority and political structure of the EU will revert to traditional rule-making politics. Van Middelaar assumes that the change is permanent, but this premise is never really discussed. These minor quibbles notwithstanding, this original and well-written book deserves to be read together with many other thought-provoking classic EU studies such as Stefano Bartolini’s Restructuring Europe or Jan Zielonka’s Europe as Empire, to name just a few.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

Image Credit:(Thijs ter Haar CC BY 2.0). 


Book Review: Kept From All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century Literature by Kari Nixon

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/09/2020 - 9:27pm in


book review

In Kept From All Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century LiteratureKari Nixon offers a new literary history exploring how late-nineteenth-century authors represented the conflict between the risk of contagion and vital social contact in a period which saw germ theory rise to public prominence. This is a skilled literary analysis for our time, writes Jodie Matthews, and is fascinating reading for anyone hoping to put the current COVID-19 pandemic in historical context. 

If you are interested in this book, you may like to read an LSE RB interview with the author, Kari Nixon.

Kept From all Contagion: Germ Theory, Disease, and the Dilemma of Human Contact in Late Nineteenth-Century Literature. Kari Nixon. SUNY Press. 2020

Kept From All Contagion takes its title from Grant Allen’s 1895 novella, The Woman Who Did, usually read for its association with the figure of the fin-de-siècle ‘New Woman’. The idea of being ‘kept from all contagion’ stands in for author Kari Nixon’s broader hypothesis that many authors of the late nineteenth century represented the conflict between the risk of contagion and vital social contact in ways that would have been immediately obvious to contemporaneous readers. This conflict is, of course, supremely legible in 2020.

In the period on which Nixon focuses, the theory that living microorganisms, spread from person to person, were the true cause of infectious disease was rapidly gaining in authority. This ‘germ theory’ displaced previous ideas such as miasma theory. As Nixon demonstrates, germ theory did not immediately and fundamentally alter medical responses to disease, but it did frame human contact in new, and often disturbing, ways.

In this book, Nixon achieves the difficult balance between a rigorous scholarly tone and engaging and always appropriate comparisons with contemporary culture. Those comparisons – with anti-vaxxers, or with Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance – demonstrate the power of reading ‘for today’, as renowned literary critic J. Hillis Miller terms it, rather than the strictly historicist method of reading with a ‘period mindset’ that has sometimes beleaguered the academic monograph in this discipline.

That Nixon allows us to read literature of the nineteenth century for today is crucial for a book about contagion, when ‘today’ is defined by a global pandemic altering every facet of her readers’ lives, one that the author could not have predicted as the manuscript was put to bed. It is impossible to read about disease and human contact, no matter the century, without seeking out the lessons, the hubris and the hope that find meaning now.

The contagion explored in this book includes plague, cholera, syphilis, tuberculosis, typhoid, puerperal fever and smallpox – a list that, even now, causes a shiver down the spine. Nixon’s twenty-first-century point of comparison is Ebola, especially the ‘Dallas Ebola Outbreak’ of 2014.

Nixon’s book asks us to think about the politics and cultural effects of ‘contaminated connectivity’. This is pushing at an open door in a world where there are mass demonstrations about wearing face masks. The more complicated idea to navigate at the moment, depending on one’s COVID-19 outlook, is ‘that to reject risk is to reject real connection with others’. Risk for a character in a nineteenth-century novel is one thing; I’m all for it – bring on the risk! Negotiating how much life to live during a real and present pandemic is quite another matter. Certainly, one’s reaction to Nixon’s conclusions will depend on precisely where and when one reads it. In full lockdown? The day that schools reopen? During a second or third wave? I hope that I will feel very differently about contaminated connectivity in a less urgently contaminated future. Ultimately, Nixon concludes that what she calls the ‘“messy” engagement with the biosocial amalgam of humanity is not about a desire for disease, but about a desire to engage with the human community that takes precedence over other, baser fears’. This certainly puts a different spin on the behaviour of those who contravene public health regulations, but also provokes a rethink of the ebb and flow of COVID-related anxiety.

There is one character from Nixon’s nineteenth-century cast who very effectively embodies the risk/community conflict of his time (and, indeed, the risk/economy conflict that we face today). That is Dr. Stockmann from Ibsen’s 1883 play, An Enemy of the People. Stockmann discovers what he believes to be typhoid-fever-causing bacteria in the water of a therapeutic spa – on which the economy of the town relies – and asserts that the baths must be closed indefinitely. He assumes he will be crowned a public health hero, but is instead hounded out of town by a mob shouting ‘En folkefiende! En folkefiende!’ – the ‘enemy of the people’ of the title.

Nixon considers the lasting interpretations of Stockmann which have been surprisingly kind to the character. He espouses, she writes, ‘the isolationist imperatives of germ theory’s insistence on quarantine and purity’, but Stockmann also takes his certainty a step further than other commentators on public health. He asserts that an intellectual elite must rule ‘the common herd’. He, and one or two other scientists, are the only ones who are capable of making decisions, the only people in the right. He presents himself as ‘the sole savior of a society and the single source of progress and change’. Authoritarian as this is, we know now how many people look for a sole saviour of society, whether medical, economic or libertarian, in a public health emergency. Stockmann might equally find a group defending him as hounding him in the twenty-first century (he would certainly be trending on Twitter).

Intriguingly, Stockmann’s view that ‘majority truths’ are a ‘moral scurvy’ is put in line with some of the other texts Nixon discusses: for instance, in the way that constricting social norms around marriage and female sexual propriety are viewed as diseasing society. This is especially true of Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887) and Jude the Obscure (1896), as well as Ibsen’s own Ghosts (English debut 1891). Questions of risk and contagion are, Nixon shows, at play in wider discussions of how we behave as individual decisionmakers in a connected society.

Kept From All Contagion is undoubtedly a skilled literary analysis for our time. Its timeliness may have been partly unwitting, but it is open to its heightened relevance because of the author’s transhistorical approach to historical texts. The book certainly deserves a COVID-19 postscript in a later edition. Its audience may once have been primarily scholars in the field of medical humanities, and those in the humanities interested in transhistorical approaches. Now, however, it is fascinating reading for anyone hoping to put our current predicament in historical context. It lends profound insight into the anguished risk analyses of human contact we currently make every day.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Tuberculin syringe, England, 1901-1940. Science Museum, London. Tuberculin is injected into the skin to see whether a person has been exposed to the bacteria that cause tuberculosis. (Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0).


Book Review: Let There be Light: Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Electricity in Colonial Bengal, 1880-1945 by Suvobrata Sarkar

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 23/09/2020 - 8:55pm in

In Let There be Light: Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Electricity in Colonial Bengal, 1880-1945Suvobrata Sarkar examines the emergence of electricity between 1880 and 1945 in Bengal, exploring the impact of its arrival upon industry, entrepreneurship, the education of engineers and the professionalisation of engineering. Thoughtful and impressively researched, the book pushes the boundaries of the historiography of science and technology in India, writes Tirthankar Roy.

Let There be Light: Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Electricity in Colonial Bengal, 1880-1945. Suvobrata Sarkar. Cambridge University Press. 2020.

From the nineteenth century, many scientific ideas and technologies that had transformed material life in Western Europe and America entered India. An extensive railway system revolutionised transportation. The electric telegraph made communication cheaper and faster. Textile mills using steam-powered machines emerged in the port cities. In the early twentieth century, cheap household gadgets like the sewing machine and bicycle, as well as an office machine, the typewriter, shaped middle-class ideas of a better life.

The diffusion of electric power from around World War One was another example of the transfer, but one that had a different order of impact. For one thing, electricity had diverse uses. Industries and mines wanted to switch to a cheaper form of energy. Entrepreneurs recognised that electricity promised new business opportunities. Electric lighting lengthened the working day. Consumers wanted electric light for the home. For another, the production of electricity needed a business system to enable the enormous investment required. India’s cosmopolitan business milieu could rise to that challenge to some extent.

The process of transfer of technology from Britain to India raises several questions. A large and relatively recent body of scholarship attempts to answer these. Most historians who write on the topic seem to hold that the production, use and operation of these technologies changed in character in the process of the transfer, that a sort of indigenisation or Indianisation of Western ideas was at work. A subset of recent studies also claims that the emergence of science and engineering education in late-twentieth-century India owed to this indigenisation that began in colonial times.

Electricity has so far been an overlooked example in this scholarship. Suvobrata Sarkar’s new book, Let There be Light, changes that. A significant part of the book deals with electricity and the impact of its arrival upon industry and entrepreneurship. The material and the arguments go beyond this one example, however. The education of engineers and the professionalisation of engineering are the main interest of the study. With turn-of-the-century Bengal as the context, the book presents an engaging narrative on that dual process.

The story has two parts. The first part runs from roughly 1847 (the start of the Thomason College in Roorkee) until World War One. In these years, indigenous engineering education was limited to specific needs for civil engineers to build bridges and canals, and mechanical engineers to operate the railways. The British colonial government of India supplied a sparse framework for education, and those who decided on the pedagogy were torn between making competent apprentices and making graduate engineers. There were mental blocks to doing much more. The colonial government did not think much of the aptitude of middle-class Indians for technical work. British industry relied heavily upon on-the-job training rather than polytechnics. And an open border to skilled migrants had ensured an easy supply of foreign workers for the technical jobs inside the factories and mines.

Despite resistance from the top, a change had begun on the ground. A government college had appeared in Shibpur near Calcutta in 1856, which functioned as a semi-autonomous engineering college from 1880 (then named Bengal Engineering College, now the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology). As Calcutta industrialised, both the industry and the people who ran the college pushed for increasing the supply of locally trained technical personnel. Industrial needs demanded diversification into electrical, chemical and mining engineering. While a limited expansion did happen, the government also pursued the idea that Indians would be better off going on a scholarship to Europe. Several Bengali young men took these scholarships and excelled in their studies and jobs. Their return, in a few cases to Shibpur itself, added to the credibility of the demand for indigenous education.

The second phase of the Indianisation story unfolded in the interwar period. World War One ended with a vague British promise to do more for Indian development, which translated into educational initiatives. As political power decentralised, Indian politicians and intellectuals lobbied hard for industrialisation on Indian terms. They wanted training, education, institution-building, skill development and reduced reliance on foreign technicians. Industrialisation and Indianisation became interlinked demands. Together, industrialisation and Indianisation became an ingredient in Indian nationalism. Interestingly, the indigenous entrepreneurs who had moved into offbeat fields and needed a specially trained workforce had mixed views about the role of education and research. They were torn, as were administrators a generation before them, between the apprenticeship model and the research-lab model.

Educationists readily embraced the second model. As the story ends, in the 1940s, the second model had found a credible expression in the College of Engineering and Technology, Jadavpur. A nationalist association was behind the start and growing reputation of this landmark institution. The inspiration was no longer artisanal Britain, but the research university of the USA. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) recognised the Jadavpur degree as an equivalent of its own.

Through these pathways, the indigenisation of engineering education progressed in the interwar period. By the time independence came in 1947, the indigenous component in the technical and engineering workforce, both in public service and in private enterprises, was so prominent and so vocal as a lobby, that they could push the case for more public investment in engineering education. Independent India’s pursuit of industrialisation, with a heavy accent upon chemicals, metals and machinery production, would not be possible without these preconditions.

Let There be Light tells this story over five substantive chapters, and an introduction and conclusion. Sarkar delves deep into a variety of sources, including the archives of the Public Works Department, contemporary writings in English and Bengali periodicals, biographies and reports. These sources mesh into five case studies. The Shibpur college, the College of Engineering and Technology, Jadavpur, and the emergence of a discourse on indigenisation of engineering occupy Chapter One. This is followed by studies of two influential entrepreneurs, Sir R.N. Mookerjee (an alumnus of Shibpur) and Sir P.C. Ray, who held different views on what type of personnel the Indian industry needed (Chapter Two). Chapters Three and Four explore the electrical utility industry and the expanding uses of electricity, and Chapter Five examines the coming of age of the demand for engineering education with an Indian face in the 1940s.

The book offers many interesting statements on the legacy of the colonial times for postcolonial India. One wished for a more systematic treatment of the subject. The assertion that ‘the pattern of technological development (or underdevelopment?) of post-independence India depends […] upon its inherited structure of techno-science from the British Raj’ (2) is credible but intriguing. What is ‘underdevelopment’ doing in this sentence? I have a speculative answer to offer based on what I read in the book.

I am fascinated by an obsession with ‘quality’ of education, the accent on being world-class, that animated the discourse in the colonial times, both among the Indian nationalists and the British imperialists. The word ‘quality’ appears many times in Let There be Light. International contact and comparisons were needed for that emphasis on quality. Delivering quality in a world where most innovations happened outside Indian borders required constant comparisons. I suspect that as India adopted a heavily protectionist developmental regime after 1947, the international connection and comparison were not so important anymore, and quality dropped down in priority. Technical universities turned into mass-producing degree-giving teaching shops.

In 1945, the Bengali intellectual and nationalist Binoy Kumar Sarkar called Jadavpur ‘the Indian MIT of today’ (234). In 2020, MIT was the world’s number one university, and Jadavpur ranked 651-700. One cannot help thinking that a strength that derived from India’s cosmopolitanism in the colonial times was squandered away by an insular, occasionally xenophobic and overconfident, nationalist educational policy. This is not a criticism of the book. I hope to provoke the historians of technology to rethink the postcolonial without illusions.

What it sets out to do, Let There be Light does with competence and skill. It is a really good book. The narrative is fascinating, and the direct writing style does justice to the story. Thoughtful and impressively researched, the book pushes the boundaries of the historiography of science and technology in India, in that part of the emerging world that had once been ruled by the European colonial powers.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit:Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash.


Book Review: Project Europe: A History by Kiran Klaus Patel

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/09/2020 - 9:21pm in

In Project Europe: A HistoryKiran Klaus Patel offers a new critical history of European integration, focusing on the period between 1945 to 1992. This book offers many fresh insights on the ways that European nations have cooperated and integrated in the post-war period and is a great read for academics and general readers alike, writes Jacob van de Beeten.

Project Europe: A History. Kiran Klaus Patel. Cambridge University Press. 2020.

Deconstructing conventional narratives of European integration

Anyone who has visited the House of European History, located in Parc Léopold just behind the European Parliament (the driving force behind the museum’s creation), will have noticed the implicit narrative present in the building’s architecture. Starting off on the dimly lit ground floor, visitors are guided through the historical developments of European nations, with special attention on the atrocities of both World Wars as well as fascist and communist ideologies. Only on the top floors, where natural light increasingly shines through, does the history of the European Union (EU) commence.

For a long time, historians have presented European integration using these tropes of light and darkness, creating a narrative in which the European continent progresses from the dark ages of nationalism to the bright present and future of Europeanism; from an age of war and destruction to a time of prosperity, peace and supranationalism. European integration is depicted as a linear, progressive development. And it is precisely these narratives that seem increasingly in question after a decade of crisis and as we approach the withdrawal of one of the EU’s largest member states, the UK.

As a self-styled ‘critical history of European integration’ (the original German subtitle), Kiran Klaus Patel’s book, Project Europe: A History, distances itself from these traditional narratives, providing a new way of looking at the history of European integration. Covering the period between 1945 to 1992, Patel adds nuance to the EU’s overly positive self-image and argues that the current crises are not as unique as we might think. In dispelling myths about the EU, Patel simultaneously takes aim at many of the contemporary criticisms of the EU. He does this in a book that has eight well-written and illuminating chapters, which focus on a range of different topics – from peace and security to the question of technocracy and disintegration. Patel himself recommends his readers start with the first chapter, but read the other chapters in no particular order. For this reason, rather than trying to summarise the book as a whole, I will draw out several of the lessons I have taken from this work.

One of Patel’s main arguments is that to understand why the effects of European integration are so far-reaching today, we must look back to the 1970s and 1980s. These decades are often regarded as a time of ‘euro-sclerosis’ in which no major institutional developments took place. Patel asserts, however, that it was precisely in this period that the European Communities (EC) – the EU’s predecessor – first acquired a significant role both within Europe and in relation to the rest of the world. Looking back to this period is thus indispensable in understanding where we are today.

The first chapter of Project Europe shows how European integration became the most potent international organisation in post-war Europe. Contrary to conventional beliefs, it was by no means clear at the time that the European Coal and Steel Community (ESCS), and later the EC, were destined to become Western Europe’s primary forum of international cooperation. In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, the ESCS barely stood out. It had to compete with a whole range of other organisations – such as the Western European Union (WEU), The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the Council of Europe and the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) – which were not only founded much earlier than the ESCS, but also had more members and more ambitious goals.

Patel explains how three characteristics of the EC allowed it to surpass many of these other international organisations in the long run. First, the initial narrow economic focus allowed European integration to extend to ever more areas through spillover effects from one policy area to the other. Establishing a Common Market inevitably raises questions about environmental and hygiene standards, consumer protection and social policy. Secondly, contrary to the other organisations, the EC had a binding set of rules which were directly implemented in national legal orders. Finally, the EC had far greater financial resources at its disposal than other Western European organisations.

Crucially, however, Patel points out that it was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the EC emerged as the most potent and versatile Western European organisation. From then on it started to take over many of the functions that previously were performed by those other organisations; Patel shows how this led to the first calls for differentiations or ‘Europe à la carte’. Moreover, this development also made the EC more crisis-prone. In the author’s words: ‘if everything that matters is brought under one roof, the firewalls that once separated different organisations are lost.’ By bringing these other organisations back into the picture (Patel elsewhere calls this  ‘Provincialising the European Union’), Patel is able to show there never was a masterplan or a blueprint to integrate Europe. Rather, historical contingencies, strong personalities and external influences created the EC – and, by extension, the EU – we know today.

Many of the following chapters take up this theme, with a particular emphasis on the role of the United States in the integration of Western Europe – a fact that is often conveniently forgotten (even though the term ‘integration’ was brought to Europe by US politicians and academics). In the chapter on peace and security, Patel shows how maintaining peace in Western Europe was one of the initial motivations driving European integration, with the particular aim of defusing Franco-German tension. However, the effect of peace as a motive was very modest and should not be overestimated. Economic and geopolitical interests and concerns often dominated the decision-making process, which in any case was heavily influenced by the US.

Patel therefore concludes that the EC profited more from relative peace in Europe than it practically contributed to it. However, to those arguing that the peace motive can no longer legitimise European integration, he responds that over the decades the role of the EC as a guarantor of peace has become ever more prominent. Since the 1970s and 1980s, the EC has considerably widened its range of instruments to promote peace in Europe and beyond – think, for example, of the EU’s contemporary development and neighbourhood policies.

Patel uncovers a seemingly similar paradox when it comes to prosperity. The existence of the EC was often legitimated for contributing to the reconstruction of post-war Europe. Surveying the existing literature on the impact of the EC on the economic growth of its member states, Patel finds that initially this contribution was very modest. He concludes that the ‘economic role of the EC during the trente glorieuses [the period of uninterrupted economic growth in Western Europe between 1945 and the mid-1970s] should not be overstated’. On the other hand, in the following decades, he finds that the EC was of greater importance, ensuring stability during the oil crises in the 1970s and the recovery period that followed. Again, we see that what starts out as myth turns into more than that over time.

Of the two most interesting facts that Patel conveys, one directly concerns the UK. The first fact is that while more and more people on the continent started to identify the EC with ‘Europe’ during the 1970s, in the UK the term ‘Common Market’ was preferred. Secondly, and more importantly, Patel convincingly argues that Brexit is not as singular and unique as often thought. In one of his most lucid chapters, Patel discusses the departure of first Algeria, and later Greenland, from the EC. Due to limited space, I will briefly discuss the latter.

In the 1980s Greenland organised a consultative referendum, in which a small majority of 52 per cent of the population voted to leave the EC. Those advocating exit attached particular importance to regaining control over Greenland’s fisheries. Sounds familiar? Patel not only shows how even after exiting the EC Greenland had no choice but to keep its waters open (protocols specifying the future relationship were concluded on exit), but also that in later decades the ties between Greenland and the EC actually deepened.

This episode thus tells us that long before Brexit, European integration turned out to be a potentially reversible process, despite the rhetoric regarding its ‘irreversibility’ and the march towards ‘ever closer union’. In many aspects, Patel thus offers a comforting message: integration and disintegration have always gone hand in hand. Disintegration should be seen as part of political normality, rather than as a catastrophic event with the potential to break the EU apart.

In sum, Project Europe offers many fresh and lucid insights on the ways in which European nations have cooperated and integrated in the post-war period. It is a great read for academics and general readers alike, adding much needed historical facts and figures to debates in which mythmaking on both sides of the argument prevents a clear view on the past, present and future of the EU.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: (Rock Cohen CC BY 2.0).


Book Review: Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets and Business in Southeast Asia by Florian Weigand

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/09/2020 - 9:02pm in

In Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets and Business in Southeast AsiaFlorian Weigand explores the links between armed conflict and transnational crime by focusing on four conflict-affected border areas in Southeast Asia. The book offers a cogent and compelling study of both the connections and disconnections between crime and conflict in Southeast Asia, writes Alessandro Ford, encouraging readers to recognise how binaries of state and organised crime, licit and illicit, can obscure complex phenomena. 

Conflict and Transnational Crime: Borders, Bullets and Business in Southeast Asia. Florian Weigand. Edward Elgar Publishing. 2020.

A favoured truism of any twenty-first-century war scholar is that ‘conflict has changed’. Since the supposedly history-ending fall of the Soviet Bloc, wars have become about dollars, not doctrine. Conflicts have transformed from military engagements to be won into ‘mutual enterprises’ to be prolonged while both sides feed off the lucrative war economy. Clearly this isn’t always the case, but it often is. One intellectual response has been surging interest in the so-called ‘crime-conflict nexus’: the idea that conflict and organised crime increasingly intersect and benefit one another, with the line between criminals and insurgents becoming blurred.

This discourse was reinforced by the post-9/11 construction of the ‘narco-terrorist’, a hypocritical and imprecise concept. The Taliban, ISIS, the FARC, Myanmar’s UWSA: the list of political armed groups accused of being apolitical criminal bands is extensive, but in most cases (perhaps excepting ISIS), more nuance is needed. Likewise, conflict zones, particularly borderlands, are widely portrayed as undeveloped, ‘ungoverned spaces’ where chaos and criminal insurgencies abound, a narrative that presents a dual solution of statebuilding and macroeconomic growth. Combined with the alleged criminal/insurgent amalgamation, this creates a rigid framework that strictly divides ‘centre’ and ‘borderland’, state and criminal enterprise, legal and illegal. Yet neither these intellectual demarcations nor their territorial analogues correspond to the realities on the ground in Southeast Asia.

This is the essence of Florian Weigand’s new book, Conflict and Transnational Crime: that so many of our political, economic and territorial distinctions are incoherent and in need of revision. Weigand analyses four conflict-affected border areas: the Thailand-Malaysia border, the Myanmar-China border, the Myanmar-Bangladesh border and the (maritime) Indonesia-Philippines-Malaysia border. In each one, he investigates how different forms of smuggling in the area interact with the armed conflict, be it licit (petrol, rice, coffee) or illicit goods (drugs, arms, people).

In Thailand’s Deep South, an indigenous low-level Islamic insurgency that dates back to the 1960s continues, bolstered by cultural and economic marginalisation as well as by the harassment of the local community by the 50,000 Thai soldiers stationed there. In northern Myanmar, a series of tenuous ceasefires contain violence between the country’s powerful ethnic-minority armed groups and Myanmar’s government forces (and paramilitaries) in what is the world’s longest ongoing civil war. In western Myanmar, detention camps and burnt out villages testify to the government’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims that began in 2017, which is estimated to have killed over 6,000 Rohingya and forced another 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh. In the vast Sulu-Celebes Seas between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, Islamist armed groups operate, some as political entities seeking greater self-determination and others as financially motivated criminal bands. In each of these areas, large-scale smuggling of licit and illicit products takes place.

Such smuggling constitutes a lucrative revenue stream to any conflict-involved party, funnelling millions into war chests. But who really benefits? The dominant narrative within the ‘crime-conflict nexus’ claims it is non-state armed groups – after all, they are already illegal enterprises that require smuggled arms and supplies to operate. Not so, writes Weigand. For though these entities may have a strong incentive to smuggle (being often without alternative funding via taxes or foreign donors), they often lack both the ability and desire to do so, since they possess limited territorial control and can suffer loss of local legitimacy by engaging in certain forms of crime. In fact, it is states who benefit most from smuggling, both through individual and systemic corruption. State authorities are also ideal partners for any smuggling network: they control territory and, given their broader base, are unconcerned about alienating a segment of the local population through their criminal acts.

Nor do smugglers particularly benefit from conflict, at least not in the ways assumed. Conflict zones actually make for terrible economic corridors: production of illicit goods tends to be disrupted, transport infrastructure is damaged and there is the constant threat of poorly aimed shells. Even in conflict zones where illicit production or smuggling does take place, it overwhelmingly occurs in calmer areas. Rather, conflict is useful to smugglers and states alike because it makes it ‘easier to hide both institutional involvement of states within the smuggling economy and corruption within the state apparatus’ (40). It also reduces the state’s level of public accountability, thereby offering opportunities for corruption on a much larger scale, as well as camouflaging the use of criminal violence against activists and journalists. Such collusion should not be surprising. The very idea of ‘smuggling’ requires the nation state and is defined in opposition to it: without fixed borders, ‘smuggling’ would just be ‘trade’.

In a way, of course, it is trade. In many parts of the world, ‘smuggling’ is the traditional way of doing business across arbitrary borders ‘drawn by colonial powers through closely connected communities’ (130). Smuggling should not, therefore, be seen as some shadowy, corrosive phenomenon, but as an important part of the global economy. Smugglers follow market demand and structure their businesses much like legal companies, as entrepreneurs and enterprises that seek to make a profit. How professionalised and organised smuggling networks become depends on state policy. The ‘hard borders’ of the US and European Union (EU) have professionalised human smuggling/trafficking, placing it in the hands of organised crime. The porous ‘soft borders’ of Southeast Asia have not and so people smuggling remains small-scale and loosely organised there. The same cannot be said for the drug trade, however, which in Southeast Asia, the US and the EU has been heavily criminalised, leading to its monopolisation by transnational organised crime.

Conflict and Transnational Crime is a cogent and compelling study of both the connections and disconnections between crime and conflict in Southeast Asia. It forcefully carves through the standard rhetoric of ‘narco-terrorists’ and ‘militia-mafias’ to offer a vital dissection of state involvement in illicit markets. In doing so, it laudably manages to instigate conclusions with global implications while remaining firmly tethered to its regional context. It also lays another brick in the road to recognising how binaries of state and organised crime, licit and illicit, merely obscure complex phenomena: among them, ‘the crimes committed by state authorities’ (138).

This perhaps constitutes the book’s main omission: that it rarely gives names or provides specific evidence for state collusion. Rather, Weigand focuses on theory over practice and on general references to ‘army-owned companies’ over detailed exposé. However, for an academic book, this is entirely understandable – Weigand is not an investigative journalist. In a sense, therefore, Conflict and Transnational Crime raises as many questions as it answers, presenting an open-ended challenge to activists, journalists and judicial authorities. For them, the path to contesting corruption, collusion and the alleged ‘crime-conflict nexus’ is underpinned by works like this one.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: 170630-N-PD309-042. Cropped image of US and Philippine navies conducting coordinated counter-piracy patrol, Sulu Sea, 30 June 2017. US Navy photo byMass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Leigh Ellis/Released (COMSEVENTHFLT CC BY SA 2.0).


Book Review: Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form by Sianne Ngai

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 18/09/2020 - 8:45pm in

In Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist FormSianne Ngai explores a pervasive and relatable aspect of everyday life under late capitalism: the ubiquity of the gimmick as a form that both seduces and repels. Tracing the gimmick through close readings of theory and case studies drawn from literature, art and film, this book is an incredible resource for understanding the relationship between aesthetics and labour in capitalist society, writes Helen Lewandowski.

Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form. Sianne Ngai. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 2020.

The gimmick — we love to hate it. I myself have encountered it ad infinitum working in the arts, where having a shtick forms an essential part of art’s marketing ploy, whether in the commercial or public sphere. In the years following the 2008 financial crisis, I worked at a contemporary art museum in New York during an exciting time for performance and participatory art. Marina Abramović’s The Artist Is Present (2010) was all the rage. While I was exasperated at the thought of people undertaking hours of marathon-like queueing on top of a pricey ticket to silently face the artist, there is something undeniably seductive about the gimmick.

Like Sianne Ngai’s previous works, Theory of the Gimmick: Aesthetic Judgment and Capitalist Form has tapped into a pervasive and relatable aspect of everyday life under late capitalism. Indeed, initially, Theory of the Gimmick might seem a continuation of her influential Our Aesthetic Categories (2012), which names three categories (zany, cute and interesting) through which we can understand ‘how aesthetic experience has been transformed by the hypercommodified, information-saturated, performance-driven conditions of late capitalism’ (OAC, 1). Yet Ngai takes pains here to establish that, though there are similarities within these terms, the gimmick is neither an extension of the ‘zany’ nor another category to add amongst her others: ‘The gimmick is not its missing fourth category but an undercurrent running through all three — and indeed, all of capitalist culture’ (32).

At the heart of the gimmick is a mismatched judgement of labour, time and value compared to the appearance of its form. It uniquely conjures ‘an abstract idea of price’ (5). And, also unlike Ngai’s previous categories, this judgement hinges on the idea that someone else exists who disagrees, who is suckered in by it. The slippery nature of the gimmick, as Ngai outlines in Chapter One, produces myriad contradictory responses and ideas:


The gimmick saves us labor.

The gimmick does not save labor (in fact, it intensifies or even eliminates it).

The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too hard.

The gimmick is a device that strikes us as working too little. […]

The gimmick makes something about capitalist production transparent.

The gimmick makes something about capitalist production obscure. (72)


Ngai expands our understanding of the gimmick from a byword for ‘rip-off’ to its supposed etymological origins as an anagram of ‘magic’ and general contrivances in both techniques and ideas. This presents a wide breadth of material that could be drawn upon, and the author is clear for the rationale behind the works — largely high culture art forms — that are the core case studies in her book. Although pop cultural references are mentioned in passing with considerable amusement (ranging from Google Glass and Hamburger Helper to the Fyre Festival), Ngai argues that the ‘gimmick haunts art in a more intense way’ due to its ‘equivocal status as capitalist commodity and the uncertain relation of artistic to value-producing labor’ (48). Her examples consist of mostly British and North American literature from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries in addition to contemporary art and films. Ngai further highlights works that ‘not only reflect on the gimmick but riskily instrumentalize it in the service of doing so’ (41). These are works that pointedly use contrivances in order to create a particular effect and to purposefully undermine themselves, whether successfully or not.

Ngai’s analysis is most vivid and engaging in her close reading of literature — unsurprising considering her position as a Professor of English. The last chapter on Henry James’s patterns around labour and secrecy presents a convincing link between James’s reliance on female labour and the representation of service in his works. Theory of the Gimmick also benefits from unexpected readings and comparisons — my favourite was Chapter Four’s look at Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story ‘The Bottle Imp’ (1891) and director David Mitchell’s feature film It Follows (2014), both created following financial crisis.

Close readings of Immanuel Kant and Karl Marx also serve to foreground Ngai’s theoretical framework. Her analysis of Kant emphasises that judgement is an act or performance of conveying aesthetic experience. Her application of Marx to labour, the logic of commodity and finance varies from straightforward to dense and poetic: Chapter Five spends time re-examining the translation of ‘congealed’ in describing abstract labour, while Chapter Seven draws a comparison between the vivid colour in the films discussed and Marx’s ‘quip’ that the price of labour is ‘just as irrational as a yellow logarithm’ (182, 226).

As an art historian, I was drawn to Ngai’s discussion of modern and contemporary art. In Chapter Two, which looks at technique, we come across the expected references to Marcel Duchamp and his provocative readymades as well as to contemporary art critics such as John Roberts and his writing on deskilling. Ngai sets up the idea that the relationship between art and criticism have reversed, with criticism preceding art. When this happens, she argues, art becomes ‘fundamentally gimmick-prone: concern about fraudulence becomes essential to its ontology’ (94).

When we get to Chapter Six, however, not all of these ideas follow through. The chapter on Torbjørn Rødland’s photography seems materially different both in style and content from the rest of the book — as it happens, the text originally served as a catalogue essay for Rødland’s touring exhibition, Fifth Honeymoon (2018). While it is well-researched like all of Ngai’s work, it lacks the rigorous analysis the reader has come to expect, handling the subject matter more gently. The link between critic and artist mentioned in Chapter Two isn’t developed here — odd considering the natural connection. The emphasis on judgement, present in other chapters which focus on the reception of the device, is also largely absent. In contrast, the following chapter on artist Stan Douglas’s film Suspiria (2003), which appears to be written especially for this book, builds off Ngai’s Marxist framework in a rewarding and productive way, incorporating the tepid or mixed reception of the work in understanding how it functions. It was a shame, however, not to have any colour illustrations in the book — particularly for the Douglas chapter, as colour itself is discussed at length.

Nevertheless, Sianne Ngai’s Theory of the Gimmick is an incredible resource for understanding the relationship between aesthetics and labour in capitalist society, and it will undoubtedly be a much-consulted book for students and researchers in the humanities. The first half of the book is dedicated primarily to the theory of the gimmick, with the second half more focused on case studies. Most of the chapters in this latter half are self-contained and could be read individually without the first half as they include a summation of the gimmick in each. This could be a bit repetitive, but as the reader is likely to use this as a reference book, consulting the sections which are relevant to their studies, these recaps are also quite useful. At a time when contemporary art seems rife with the gimmick, Ngai helps us to understand why.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Photo by Don Agnello on Unsplash.


Book Review: The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes by Zachary D. Carter

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/09/2020 - 9:18pm in

In The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard KeynesZachary D. Carter offers a new intellectual biography tracing the life and legacy of the influential economist, which argues that in the years since Keynes’s death, Keynesian economics has been stripped of Keynesian thought. Weaving together a dazzling array of Keynes’s private letters, journalistic works and academic research, this accessible book may help to hasten Keynes’s revival, writes Stephen Paduano

The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes. Zachary D. Carter. Penguin Random House. 2020.

In the long run, economists will be like dentists, according to John Maynard Keynes. This was one of the loftier aspirations of the great economist’s 1930 essay, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’. Surveying the recent wonders of technological innovation and the ‘power of compound interest’, Keynes proposed that in 100 years the living standard would have improved eight-fold, the working week would have collapsed to just fifteen hours and the ‘love of money’ would be revealed as a ‘disgusting morbidity […] semicriminal, semipathological’. Under these conditions, economics would be akin to dentistry, he claimed, an apolitical field whose ‘humble, competent’ practitioners would do little more than set the odd problem straight. Needless to say, in order to arrive at this ‘destination of economic bliss’, one must listen to Keynes.

There is little denial that the world has lent Keynes its ear, and there is little debate that some of his economic policies have been broadly accepted. Generations of economists have organised themselves around and in response to his work. Central bankers and policymakers continue to turn to Keynes when recession looms. With US President Richard Nixon having declared that ‘We are all Keynesians now’, and US Vice President Dick Cheney allegedly agreeing that ‘Deficits don’t matter’, it would seem that even the most recalcitrant conservatives — Keynes’s lifelong opponents — have been converted.

But the bliss that Keynes envisioned has not yet arrived. Why?

In The Price of Peace: Money, Democracy, and the Life of John Maynard Keynes, Zachary D. Carter argues that much to the detriment of the economics discipline and the world, Keynesian economics has been stripped of Keynesian thought.

The story of how this has happened is a riveting and maddening tale about textbook selection, tenure appointments, financial browbeating, presidential politics, elite conspiracies and more. All in all, it would take not only the death of Keynes but also the actions of McCarthyists in Washington, investment bankers in New York, craven university administrators across the United States and a proto-Koch Brothers furniture magnate named Harold Luhnow in Missouri to silence Keynes’s students and suppress his philosophy.

But to understand Keynes’s thoughts and vision, the philosophical essence that has been removed from his more formulaic work on macroeconomics, The Price of Peace begins with an enchanting biography of the man himself. It traces Keynes’s intellectual evolution, from his time as a proud imperialist studying at Eton and Cambridge to a peacenik, leftist visionary who debated with the likes of Bertrand Russell (a mentor of his at Cambridge) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (with whom he kept a correspondence about the philosophy of science even as the Austrian-born logician fought on the frontlines of World War One). It follows Keynes’s avant-garde adventures with the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ and his desire to be accepted by this irreverent friendship group of authors and artists, Virginia Woolf among them, who were often dismissive of Keynes’s lifework. To round out the portrait of a man often at odds with his times, the book also shines light on Keynes’s love affairs, his well-catalogued trysts with men, followed by a runaway romance with Lydia Lopokova, the celebrated Russian ballerina, whom he married in 1925 and with whom he was able to make sense of the emerging Soviet Union.

Weaving together a dazzling array of Keynes’s and his acquaintances’ private letters, journalistic works and academic research, Carter demonstrates how Keynes shaped the world that was born in the volatile beginning of the twentieth century, with his outsized contributions to the field of economics, US and UK domestic politics and the international monetary system. Endearingly, Carter goes on to show how the dramatic events of those years reshaped Keynes, making him and his ideas more ambitious, benevolent and radical at every turn.

Although Keynes wanted his discipline to become like dentistry, at its core his economics was a sweeping, far-reaching philosophy. ‘Not so much a school of economic thought as a spirit of radical optimism,’ Carter writes. Keynes hoped to make the world not only fairer and more prosperous, the standard domains of economists on the left, but also more peaceful and more beautiful. To do so, he argued that nations could and should spend their way to such a blissful future. ‘Were the Seven Wonders of the world built by Thrift?’ Keynes asked in A Treatise on Money. ‘I deem it doubtful.’

But then, on Easter Sunday 1946, Keynes died, and his vision, Carter recounts, died too.

The assault on Keynesianism began a year after his death, with the not-famous-enough saga of Elements of Economics. This was the first and most important textbook of Keynesian economics, published by Lorie Tarshis in 1947, which immediately became verboten during the Red Scare, the period of McCarthyist anxieties about Communist infiltration and subversion in the US that ran from the late 1940s through to the late 1950s. Soon Elements of Economics was renounced and discarded by universities throughout the US and replaced by a new (and approved) textbook: Economics by Paul Samuelson. Samuelson’s alternative offered a ‘neoclassical’ compromise between Keynes and his critics, swapping out Keynes’s emphasis on the irrational ‘animal spirits’ of the market with an ultra-rational, profit-maximising model. It would serve as an economics beginner’s manual for decades to come.

With Wall Street bankers and McCarthyist fearmongers chasing Keynesians out of politics and academia, a new generation of market fundamentalists was born. Behind this transnational assault on left economics and the aggressive propagation of more conservative ideas was an unlikely figure: the heir to a furniture fortune in the Midwest, Harold Luhnow, who helped to found the free-marketeer Mont Pelerin Society and financially supported the careers of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ludwig von Mises, among others.

But some good ideas are too good to be discarded. Low interest rates and fiscal stimulus in times of recession, as opposed to Hayek’s competing prescription of starving the market to allow the business cycle (and suffering) to go on unimpeded, happened to be irresistible after the Great Depression of 1929-39. And when such stimulus could take the policy form of ramped-up military expenditures as it did during World War Two, or upper-class tax cuts as it did under US President John F. Kennedy, even warmongers and plutocrats could cosy up to Keynes. Hence Nixon could say, only mildly sardonically, ‘We are all Keynesians now’, having put (unlawful) pressure on Federal Reserve Chairman Arthur Burns to slash the discount rate from 6% to 4.5% between 1970 and 1972 in an attempt to juice the economy and fix the 1972 Presidential election.

Likewise, US President Ronald Reagan would run record deficits, hitting $221 billion in 1986 (482), through a combination of tax cuts and increased military expenditures, not only in service to his political vision but also to revive the economy after the recession of the early 1980s. When the purportedly small-government, balanced-budget Republicans returned to office in 2001, they too revealed themselves to be adherents to a Frankensteinian philosophy of ‘Reactionary Keynesianism’, embracing deficit spending as they cut the top marginal tax rate from 39.6% to 35% and embarked on foreign wars.

‘Keynes’ pleasant daydream was turned into a nightmare of terror,’ warned Joan Robinson, a trusted academic colleague of Keynes at Cambridge and, to my mind, the undeclared heroine of the book. With the Republicans’ spending priorities and war habits, the ‘nightmare of terror’ was indeed becoming clear. But throughout The Price of Peace, what is portrayed as a greater disappointment is how Democrats perverted and abandoned Keynes all the same.

Following Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, when Keynes’s influence made its debut and reached its high-water mark, and after US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Great Society’, when a valiant if diluted strain of Keynesianism re-entered the scene, Democrats have gradually become not only less ambitious, but also less sure of their intellectual legitimacy, Carter argues. This is not to say there is a shortage of collegiate elitism in the Democratic Party, but rather that the Party’s collegiate elites have abandoned what knowledge Keynes gave them and embraced a garden variety of conservative economic values: belt tightening, budget balancing, private-sector efficiency and, above all, artificial limits on the possibilities of economic policy.

Through to the present, Carter laments, the Democratic Party has had a habit of resisting the insights of philosophically ambitious and academically rigorous economists. Instead, party leaders often turn to those whom Paul Krugman, the Keynesian, Nobel-Prize-winning economist, calls VSPs — ‘Very Serious People’. The Democratic Party’s VSPs are the tough but fair business elites and pundits who just give the facts, which often come in the form of opinions about runaway inflation in the event of government spending, capital flight in the event of new taxes and other legislative excuses for why this or that just won’t work. When former Delaware Senator Ted Kaufman, a confidante of Joe Biden, recently batted down the idea of a sustained COVID-19 stimulus programme by saying, ‘When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare’, he was Very Serious indeed.

At times, Carter plunges the reader into a deep intellectual depression and gives the sense that Keynes was and will be another one of history’s Cassandras—always right but never believed. Why didn’t US Treasury official Harry Dexter White adopt Keynes’s supranational currency, ‘bancor’, at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference? Why didn’t Winston Churchill listen to Keynes before his ruinous decision to reinstate the gold standard in 1925? (For what it’s worth, Churchill would later quip, ‘Everybody said that I was the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that ever was. And now I’m inclined to agree with them.’) And why oh why didn’t UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George just trust Keynes on dropping German war reparations in 1919, the impossible financial obligations that stoked the flames of German nationalism before World War Two? In the long run Keynes was dead; the arch-conservatives and capitalists killed him off, Carter writes. But in the short run his ideas, no matter how true and good they were, weren’t particularly alive either. What could bring Keynes back today?

Taking a page from Keynes’s ‘radical optimism’, Carter remains hopeful that Keynes, his economic insights and his philosophical ambitions may yet return to the left in the US. ‘In the long run’, Carter concludes, ‘almost anything is possible’. He is not wrong. In recent years, the growing and unflinching US left has shunned the Democratic Party’s VSPs and brought in post-Keynesian thinkers, living and dead, to make sense of the country’s (and the Party’s) problems. But it is early days for this movement, and it would be premature to rejoice in Keynes’s revival. For him to come back, he must be brought back. Fortunately, The Price of Peace, accessible for general readers, academics and VSPs alike, may help hasten Keynes’s return.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Cropped photograph of Assistant Secretary, US Treasury, Harry Dexter White (left) and John Maynard Keynes (right), honorary advisor to the UK Treasury at the inaugural meeting of the International Monetary Fund’s Board of Governors in Savannah, Georgia, US, 8 March 1946 (IMF Public Domain).


Book Review: Quagmire in Civil War by Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 15/09/2020 - 9:09pm in

Contrary to popular belief, quagmires in civil war are made, not found. This is the argument of Quagmire in Civil WarJonah Schulhofer-Wohl‘s new account of the phenomenon of quagmire in civil wars that outlines how particular interactions and strategic choices can lead to this political trap. This is an essential theoretical study of international-domestic strategic interactions and their consequences for civil wars, writes Jacob Fortier.

Quagmire in Civil War. Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl. Cambridge University Press. 2020.

When one thinks of foreign interventions in civil wars, one immediately considers the spectre of quagmire. To get bogged down in a civil war is indeed the outcome that foreign interveners seem to fear the most. It is also one of the main justifications for not intervening in a civil war: think of former US President Barack Obama warning Russia that it would get stuck in a quagmire in Syria, or European leaders’ reluctance to send troops into Rwanda in 1994 because ‘active involvement could lead them into a bloody quagmire’. But what exactly is a quagmire? How does it happen? Is there any escape from this political trap or is it the inevitable fate of all foreign interventions in civil wars? These questions have so far remained largely unanswered, even though they are crucial to understand the unfolding of civil conflicts and the impacts of foreign engagement.

Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl fills the conceptual vacuum around this phenomenon in Quagmire in Civil War. Quagmires, he claims, emerge from the strategic structure of the conflict. More precisely, a civil war will experience quagmire when at least one of the belligerents undergoes an entrapment situation in which the costs of fighting exceed the expected benefits, but withdrawing will increase rather than avert those net costs (4). The ‘mired’ belligerent therefore continues fighting past the point at which fighting can generate strategic gains and subsequently becomes unresponsive to its opponents’ war-fighting strategies. Consequently, the quagmire ends up spreading and affecting all warring factions, since each actor’s decision-making calculus is embedded in the decisions of others. One belligerent’s entrapment thus impacts on the fate of all actors involved in the conflict (5).

The causes of quagmire in civil war are multiple. Schulhofer-Wohl lists several characteristics of a conflict that might shape the balance between the costs of fighting and the additional costs of withdrawing. Domestic politics and asymmetry in a belligerent’s time horizon can generate quagmires, as can guerrilla strategies that seek to exhaust the political capital of a stronger opponent by ‘bogging down’ the conflict (Andrew Mack, 1975). The author wishes, however, to demonstrate that quagmire ‘is made, not found’. It is not intrinsic to a certain type of conflict, but rather related to the belligerent’s decisions that interact to produce the trap. Contrary to popular belief, one does not simply stumble into a quagmire; one generates it.

The book’s central theory thus identifies how external support affects the belligerent’s costs structure and decision-making, thereby making quagmire more likely to occur. The model presents two mechanisms to account for the risk of quagmire. The first illustrates how foreign assistance can expand the conditions under which belligerents are likely to carry on fighting, since external backing subsidises the costs of ongoing participation in the war. Foreign assistance thus pushes the belligerents to continue fighting despite rising costs and the declining stakes of conflict.

The second mechanism similarly predicts that belligerents facing increased costs are likely to move from territorial warfare to non-territorial warfare rather than withdraw from the conflict since foreign backers partially absorb the cost of their combat operations. By the end, belligerents find themselves mired in a situation in which either escalating the conflict in order to achieve victory or withdrawing from it are less attractive than pursuing foreign-backed, non-territorial and low-cost warfare. In other words, foreign assistance provides just enough to convince the belligerents to keep on fighting, but the belligerents do not strategically benefit from the continuation of hostilities, and neither, obviously, does the country at war – ‘quagmire compounds the tragedy’ (210).

In order to test the theory with an empirical case, the author dedicates the third and fourth chapters to an analysis of the Lebanese Civil War (1975 to 1990). He underlines how the belligerents’ strategic interactions with their respective foreign backers and opponents plagued any peace agreement for more than a decade. The analysis, supported by field interviews with former combatants, highlights some turning points in the war during which weakened factions chose to continue fighting due to foreign assistance and the possibility of de-escalation to non-territorial warfare. For instance, despite a clear trend of losing ground to their opponents, rightist factions decided in January 1976 to deepen their participation in the war by relying on external support and moving between types of warfare. The same phenomenon occurred on many occasions during the following decade, thus leading Lebanon down a path of long-lasting and inextricable conflict.

Always scrupulous in doing good social science, the author adds some external validity to the book’s theory in Chapter Five where he conducts a cross-country statistical analysis of 140 civil conflicts between 1944 and 2006.  Having identified the civil wars that experienced quagmires as those that lasted longer than would be expected according to a comprehensive analysis of war duration, the author tests whether foreign interests, the cost of escalation in fighting and the stakes of conflict are associated with the presence of quagmires across civil wars. The results provide evidence that the two main mechanisms of the theory are positively correlated to the presence of quagmire.

Despite the originality of the research design, one can nevertheless raise some criticisms concerning the operationalisation of the dependent variable (the presence of quagmire). The operational definition expects quagmires to occur in wars whose actual length exceeds the duration predicted by the analysis. However, the duration model omits important variables, such as the technologies of rebellions (Stathis N. Kalyvas and Laia Balcells, 2010), United Nations arbitration (Karl De Rouen and David Sobek, 2004) and third-party interventions (Patrick M. Regan, 2002). These are all factors that are likely to affect conflict duration.

Moreover, the concept of foreign support is somehow ill-defined. Particular strategies for intervening might have different effects on the expected length of a conflict and the likelihood of quagmire. For instance, does providing shelter to rebels increase the risk of quagmire as much as providing them with arms and financial resources?

Another gap in the quantitative model concerns the power asymmetry between the state and the rebels, and the strategic equilibrium that results. For example, an aggressive and powerful government may force weaker rebels into hiding, paradoxically increasing the duration of the war since it raises the costs of escalation and forces the rebellion to move between types of warfare. In this case, the prolongation of hostilities is neither due to a quagmire situation nor to the duration factors identified in the model. Finally, a chapter on how quagmires end could have been interesting. Is the model able to explain how the strategic impasse is somehow resolved? Are the mechanisms accounting for quagmire also central in explaining conflict resolution?

Quagmire in Civil War is nevertheless of great academic relevance. It lays out the foundations for a completely new research agenda concerning the incidence of quagmire in civil wars and provides us with the first definition of quagmire. The richly evidenced sixth chapter condenses all of the arguments of the book into a very convincing comparative analysis, and the author compensates for the limitations of the quantitative analysis by taking into account more explanatory factors. Quagmire in Civil War is an essential theoretical work for the study of international-domestic strategic interactions and their consequences for civil wars.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics.

Image Credit: Image by skeeze from Pixabay.