Monday, January 17, 2011

Two Book Reviews

A Biography of Muhammad, PBUH; Plus, All You Can Eat of Samaric Democracy

By John Taylor; 2011 Jan 17, Sharaf 18, 167 BE

A mixed bag of books recently completed...

I am very much a slow reader; it takes years and determination to get through many books I read. I often forget the start by the time I get to the end. What is worse, lately when it comes to a choice between a screen and a page, too often I choose the former. So when I complete a book it is an event that I detail here on the Badi' blog. Often lately, I prefer to audit a book rather than read it, since listening to a narrator read aloud on an iPod or other portable medium encourages me to take the dog on longer walks. It reduces boredom while getting more exercise.


Recently, libraries around here have been trying out the "Playaway" format. I listened to a science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clark on a Playaway mini player, which has a very simple interface that I found that I much prefer to an iPod or MP3 portable player. The latter require much more fumbling with buttons, and often jumps into other recordings on their own. My iPod died recently anyway, so the question is moot. There is still a pretty sparse selection spoken Playaway books in that section of the library, so I was fortunate to come across one I really liked. It was:

"Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet," by Karen Armstrong, read by the author. The latest paperback version is published in 2001, by Orion Publishing.

I have read several biographies of old PBUH through the years and, as far as the women's point of view goes, this is by far the best. Male biographers really mess it up; in fact this is the only biographer to make it clear at all what was going on with all those wives, and the amount of pressure Muhammad lived under in Medina, and the complexity of the Muhajiroun and the Ansar all their tribal relationships. It makes clear many obscure points and verses in the Qur'an, why and where they were revealed. I had no idea, for instance, that the wives of PBUH got together and asked why women were not in the Qur'an. The response was a verse that provoked a surprising reaction among the men, and that in turn provoked another verse that had always puzzled me. The Wikipedia article about this book points out another good aspect of Armstrong's approach,

"The book gives a comparison between the three major monotheistic religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism. It also derives relevant examples from Buddhism and Hinduism. It does not only speak about the life of Muhammad but also discusses the relationships and conflicts between the Western and Islamic worlds. The book also discusses the effect that Western attitudes have had on the Muslim psyche and attempts to explain the diverse attitudes of many modern Muslims towards the Western world today."


I highly recommend this book, especially if the details of His Holinesses life are getting misty in memory, as they were in mine; if a hard copy version of it ever comes into my hands, I will snap it up and put it in my personal library for sure -- however hard you listen to these spoken books it always happens that outside noises make you miss sentences and whole sections, so I would like to read it again.

Another book recently completed was:

Linda McQuaig, All You Can Eat; Greed, Lust and the New Capitalism, Penguin, Viking, Toronto, 2001

Her promotional literature calls McQuaig "Canada's Michael Moore," and that pretty much sums her up, except that she is not as fat -- in fact she is a bit of a babe -- nor is she as funny as Moore, but she has a lot more substance intellectually. I got this copy of her book in a "dollar for a bag full of books" sale, so I did not value it as I should have.

I read the first few chapters and it sounded like little more than your usual leftist rant against the North American free trade agreement and how companies can overrule sovereign nations trying to protect their citizens. Read something like that for a while and depression will take over and you will start to long for Michael Moore's humour. So I set it aside on my huge pile of "books being read" and, last month, which was several years later, I read the rest of it. She had really saved the best for the last.


First a bit of background. Our neighbours to the south have a single party system run by business, finance and the military. Unlike a bird, which has a left and right wing, this party has only a right wing. We Canadians, proud as we are of our maple trees, look at their ruling party as a sort of samara, otherwise known as a maple key. This one winged seed does not fly forwards the way birds do. The samara spins around on a single wing. If it goes around fast enough it will be caught by the wind and hopefully land far from the mother tree. In the case of the American political party, if all goes well its samara will land in the right pockets.

Anyway, the business party offers its corporate customers two sides of the samara, the "R" party and the "D" party. Depending on the whim of the breezes, the leading edge of the samara's wing is called "D" or "R," depending on which party raised the most money. The job of the thinner trailing edge, be it "D" or "R" at the time, of the samara's right wing is to steer all motion and all discussion in a single direction. The more it is buffeted by contrary winds of opinion, the faster the samara spins. This spin the natives call "democracy," and it works quite well for what it sets out to do.

When "All you can eat" was written, the wing's leading edge was called "R." It took me so long to read this book that now the "D" party has its moniker on the leading edge -- they got there by doing an end run on the R's; the R's had been funded and staffed by corporations, but the D's learned to do the same with the financial industry, which is more flush with cash.

Another way the R party distinguishes itself from its rival D's is that they are for free trade and the D's are all for protectionism. It is a subtle difference but it has a big effect in a little pond like Canada. As the U.S.'s largest trading partner, Canadians reap great benefit financially from free trade. That is why, although we dream of there being a left wing to the samara, our present government still leans more towards the R name being put on the samara's cutting edge than that of the D's.

Anyway, that explains why the complaints in the first part of All You Can Eat are now largely moot. But what surprised me in the second half of the book, and what grabbed me so that I actually finished reading it is that free trade is not at all what the book is about. In fact, if you read the brief summary in Wikipedia of the contents of All You Can Eat, you will be deceived completely. Clearly, the wikipedian responsible did not get past chapter four either. As she makes clear towards the end of the book, finally, is that what she is really trying to do is popularize the thought of a great economic thinker, Karl Polanyi.


McQuaig persuaded me that this fellow is important, although ignored by those sitting on the samara right now. I will not try to summarize Polanyi's life or ideas, she does a good enough job of it half way through All You Can Eat. It is indeed a dramatic story. Polanyi's masterpiece, "The Great Transformation," looks intriguing. Reading it might help improve my book in progress, Cosmopolitan Earth. In Wikipedia's words,

"The Great Transformation ... became a model for historical sociology. His theories eventually became the foundation for the economic democracy movement."

Economic democracy is very important to cosmopolitan thinking, so yes, I have got to get this book. But I do have one quibble about how McQuaig presents Polanyi's ideas. She goes through a whole mini-history of the reductionist tendencies of modern economic theory while herself reducing humans to non-religious beings.

She talks about the three century long history of the enclosure movement in England, which is the granddaddy of modern market liberalism, and does not once mention the role of religion in the "holistic" vision of the old, medieval system of mercantilism. For example, in and around the following passage she talks about how the system was based on common use of land. Peasants and the poor were allowed to go through fields after harvesting to pick out the leftovers. This forage was called "gleanings," a term familiar to my Baha'i readers. Anyway, the law of leaving the gleanings to the poor is straight out of the Bible, a fact that she does not mention at all. Even if she hates religion, she should mention this fact. It is right here, in the book of Deuteronomy:


"You shall not wrest the justice [due] to the sojourner, [or] to the fatherless, nor take the widow's clothing to pledge; but you shall remember that you were a bondservant in Egypt, and Yahweh your God redeemed you there: therefore I command you to do this thing.

When you reap your harvest in your field, and have forgot a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to get it: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow; that Yahweh your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow.

When you gather [the grapes of] your vineyard, you shall not glean it after you: it shall be for the sojourner, for the fatherless, and for the widow. You shall remember that you were a bondservant in the land of Egypt: therefore I command you to do this thing." (Deut 24:17-22, WEB)


Very annoying and, frankly, unjust for secular scholars and socialist imitators of religious teachings not to give credit where credit is due.


Anyway, I will close with this selection from All You Can Eat, which shows how, as religious strife pushed the church away from economic involvement just after the English Revolution of the 18th Century, it was replaced by an alternative: the precedent of bare faced bigotry by judges against God's blessed poor. Same thing is still taking place today with market liberalism. It is little more than a wolf of haughty greed dressed up as liberal outrage.


Linda McQuaig, All You Can Eat, on the insolence of the poor.

When workers defy the market, they risk ending up unemployed. And if that happens, it's their own fault, according to market supporters. There is no unemployment, they argue, when workers do as the market demands. In this view, which prevailed throughout much of the Depression, it is up to workers to lower their expectations when the market requires it. There can be no intervention by the state that would allow labour to escape the harsh realities of the marketplace. The efficient operation of the market demands nothing less than full human submission to market dictates -- that is, full acceptance by people of their status as commodities.

Given the scope of the market's demands, it's understandable that humans would instinctively seek protection from its dictates. The counter-movement, then, was to a large extent about people organizing themselves into labour unions or forming other sorts of pressure groups to force the market to make concessions to human needs. The resulting legislation left them less vulnerable, and therefore in a position to be more demanding about wages and working conditions. That was the whole point -- to remove human labour from the orbit of the market and return it to the realm of human decision making, in order to safeguard its humanness.

So Polanyi adds an interesting twist to the idea that the market is an artificially constructed system based on man-made laws. Not only is it artificial, he suggests, but the market might actually be at odds with the natural human instinct for self-protection and security. This would seem to present an interesting challenge to John Locke. Rather than asserting that the market and private property rights are rooted in natural law, as Locke and other market supporters would have us believe, Polanyi makes the case that the market is an institution that is contrary to some of our deepest natural human urges. While it is right in tune with our natural instincts for material gain, the market is antithetical to our equally powerful instincts for self-protection.

Rather than being based on natural law, the laws that create the market seem to be based mostly on the narrow self-interest of the propertied classes, who have everything to gain by excluding the rights of others. This was evident in some of the early legal decisions that helped establish the market system. Judges in eighteenth-century England unabashedly rejected common rights simply on the basis of how much "inconvenience" they caused (although presumably not to the people possessing them). In an important case in 1788, Mr. Justice Heath decided to discard the long-established right of the poor to pick up grain left in the field after harvest. As he noted, the "inconvenience arising from this custom being considered a right by the poor would be infinite.... It would raise the insolence of the poor."

The judge had a point; it undoubtedly raised the "insolence" of the poor -- that is, their sense of entitlement and empowerment -- to be assured of this "gleaning" right, which had enabled them to feed their families. Better simply to remove this right than to risk insolence -- which is exactly what the courts did.

Another judge, Mr. Justice Wilson, lending support to Justice Heath's opinion in the gleaning case, made sweeping conclusions about the property owner's natural rights in another case. "The soil is his, the seed is his, and in natural justice his also are the profits." As E. P. Thompson notes,

"It is difficult to think of a purer expression of capitalist rationality, in which both labour and human need have disappeared from view, and the 'natural justice' of profits has become a reason at law."

The honesty of the judge's position was at least refreshing. There were no soothing bromides here about how the poor, deprived of the rotting grain left in the field, would develop more character. Stamping out the insolence of the poor was the sole reason for taking away their rights, and the judge stated this simple truth without the layers of dissembling rhetoric we so often have to wade through in political debate today.

Ultimately, these rulings seem to reflect nothing more than naked class bias. They certainly reveal the ability of the judges to identify with the property owner, and their total inability to identify with the guy scrounging around in the field for bits of leftover grain.

(passage from All You Can Eat, chapter: The Master, The Servant, The Horse and the Grass, pp. 208-209)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So this posting is more useful for me, because I deal with people engaged in the further development and expansion of these market forces, here in suburban Japan. They are in the heights of their mental and physicals powers of dedication and enslavement and they are partially aware of it but it is the course that was laid out for them a long time ago. One way to reach these people are through a bridge of wisdom that explains the beginnings of things they take as much for granted as the air, or to show them where current trends are heading by pointing out conditions in places where situations are further along.