Looking back

Goodbye, Eri is a one-shot manga about a high school boy who is obsessed with making movies. The first film he makes is a predictably tearjerky documentary about his terminally ill mother. However, at the end he’s unable to join his mother for her final moments and instead runs away, but in his film he adds a special effect to make it look like the hospital is exploding as he flees.

The story begins as he shows his creation at the school festival, where it sinks like a lead balloon. Almost everyone in the school thinks the ending of his film is stupid except for one girl who insists that there was the germ of an interesting idea in there and he just needs to watch more movies to learn what works. Of course, he will be watching the movies with her, since she needs to make sure that his cinematic education proceeds appropriately.

A series of comic book panels showing a girl in a school uniform speaking passionately into the camera. "Your movie . . . was super awesome! But it was just as frustrating as it was good! I was the only person in the gym who was crying! Everyone else used it as material for their jokes! And that really pissed me off! That's why . . . you're going to make another movie! From tomorrow on, for the next year, you're going to increase your input by watching loads of movies. Then in the next year, you'll shoot a movie and show it at the school festival."
A series of comic panels showing a girl in a school uniform leaning back in a chair with her legs propped up on the desk in front of her as she gives instructions to someone off-camera. "During class, I want you to summarize the five movies we watched yesterday in only one sentence each. Once you've managed that, break their stories down into exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution, in a way you can explain them to me. I'll listen to your answers after school."

Voice from off camera: "If I do that I'll be able to make a good movie?"

Answer: "This is how they do it in Hollywood. Don't you trust Hollywood?"

The girl is not manic, but she definitely looks pixie-like and is certainly the kind of film buff a movie nerd would wish for (i.e., almost a full MPDG).

The boy eventually comes up with an idea for his next movie, which will be about a boy who showed a movie about his terminally ill mother which was received poorly by his fellow students, but who then met a girl who constantly watched movies with him and taught him about making a good film. Also the girl is a vampire who’s terminally ill.

Written out like that, the movie sounds earnestly dumb, but it comes across as rather sweet from the perspective that we see, which is entirely from the point of view of the mock documentary that the boy is shooting.

As you can guess, the story plays with ideas of the fourth wall, with unreliable narrators, with constructed images and artifice, and even with death and how the people we’ve lost are still alive and with us anyway. I don’t really want to spoil too much of the story, as it’s best enjoyed without too much foreknowledge, but I do recommend it as being a surprisingly deep exploration of a lot of emotional territory from the guy who wrote a manga about a teenage boy who transforms into a demon made out of chainsaws who uses his powers to hunt other demons (Chainsaw Man, though that manga was also a lot deeper than the bare description would make you think).

Anyway, that’s what I’ve been reading recently.

The Living Vampire

I saw Morbius. It’s actually not as bad as people say. I think the main issue is that audiences are approaching it as a superhero movie when it’s actually horror. I mean, a scientist accidentally invents vampires after trying to cure his rare blood disease, that’s a solid horror setup. And the parts where the protagonist goes nuts with his vampire powers are greatly entertaining, just tearing throats open and grabbing people from above and whatnot.

But I don’t blame people who expect a superhero movie because the movie itself mixes superhero stuff in, to its weakness. Yeah, okay, the protagonist is horrified by his monstrous transformation and tortured by the guilt of the lives he’s taken, that’s perfectly fine horror movie stuff. But why is he fighting a random counterfeiting ring he stumbled across? The movie is only 1 hour and 44 minutes long but there were scenes that still didn’t need to be there. I really wish the movie just unabashedly went full horror and gave up any superhero trappings. For example it had several Dracula references, but instead of only being cute little Easter eggs, I would have preferred that it really cranked up the parallels to the classic vampire story. Or just make it about a dumb smart guy who inadvertently unleashed vampires on the world. Mad scientist + vampires, what’s to hate?

Anyway, it was an okay movie, but I can see a much better movie hiding in there, and I wish they’d made that one instead.

The Dark Knight gets on TikTok

The Batman is good. Like damn, those 3 hours flew by. It’s nice that we skip going through Batman’s origin one more time, and it’s certainly novel that the first villain we get to in a Batman reboot is The Riddler, but it works in this movie.

Politically, the movie kind of covers the same territory as in The Dark Knight Rises since it’s about gross inequality and popular reaction to it, but it handles the issue a lot better than the earlier film since it actually has an idea of what it wants to say on the issue. Bane’s live action introduction had a confused and ambivalent reaction to the Occupy Wall Street protests that were ongoing when it was made. However, the world that created The Batman has had over a decade to think over the Occupy movement’s ideas, as well as a global pandemic and a summer of BLM protests. In fact, I would characterize this particular reboot as a post-BLM ACAB version of the Batverse, inasmuch as it can be in a fictional setting where the protagonist’s main problem with cops isn’t that they’re violent but that they’re not directing their brutality toward the right people (i.e., criminals).

The pundit Anand Giridharadas has a quip about billionaires and how they whitewash the terrible reputations they earned while amassing their wealth by giving back some scraps from their fortunes in the form of charity: “Batman is what all these plutocrats do. You cause problems by day, in the way you run your company, and then you put on a suit at night and pretend you are the solution.”

The movie is essentially that quote presented in dramatic form. The problems of Gotham are caused by Bruce Wayne’s family, by their peers, and by the people who enforce their rule – cops, lawyers, mobsters, and so on. Bruce Wayne, ignorant of the larger context, tries to fix things with a child’s understanding of the situation by beating up poor people who’ve turned to crime. It’s not even a band-aid solution, since the worst that a band-aid can do is be ineffective, whereas in the movie, Batman’s example inspires other people to fix their own problems with violence. Of course, socioeconomic inequality isn’t a problem you can punch into submission, and it’s striking how one of the takeaways from this superhero movie is that almost everything heroic that we watch the protagonist do is completely useless and ineffective.

But the movie can only go so far in this critique. The superhero story is rooted in private actors using violence to impose order on a chaotic society. It’s a worldview conducive to being “tough on crime” and unswerving support for the police. Fundamentally, a superhero movie is pro-cop. Which is why, after a supervillain-caused natural disaster, Batman ends up letting go of his original mission of cowing the people of Gotham into submission and instead helps in relief efforts with the US military.

In the end, Catwoman asks Batman to run away with her, but he refuses and instead chooses to stay and help Gotham. She notes that his mission will never end and she ends up walking away from the disaster of trying to save a city that’s actively trying to commit suicide. Batman’s decision is presented as a noble sacrifice, of placing duty over love, but ironically, Catwoman’s proposal that she and Batman spend their lives robbing hedge fund plutocrats probably would have done more to address Gotham’s fundamental problems than Batman’s idea of punching street thugs and the occasional crooked cop.

Anyway, it’s nice when a superhero movie gives you something to think about besides the fight scenes.

Enter the Matrix

I finally saw Matrix Resurrections. It’s a lot better than sequel #2 and 3, which I know isn’t saying much. It’s because it’s actually about something. While the first Matrix was about capitalist exploitation, alienation, trans identity, and escaping Plato’s Cave, Reloaded and Revolutions were about fighting killer robots with kung fu and machine guns (except those movies wouldn’t admit that they were shallower than they thought).

However, the thing that Resurrections is about is suffocating nostalgia for a time when the audience was 20 years younger and didn’t have as much grey hair and wrinkles. But it doesn’t examine this idea in any meaningful way and something like 20 percent of the movie is watching clips from the older Matrix films. It reminds me a lot of Trainspotting 2 in that it’s an unnecessary sequel about old people terminally obsessed with their youths.

Yes, I know this movie was forced on Lana Wachowski. That doesn’t mean I have to like it. But I don’t even hate it. I think Resurrections is okay. The fight scenes feel perfunctory and I never went “wow” like I did in the first movie, but I’ve seen worse on a Saturday afternoon.

However, now I’m curious how the studio-mandated sequel without Lana Wachowski would have turned out. I know that studio oligarchs are terrified of losing money and would probably have made a mediocre failure like the sequel to Pacific Rim, but there’s a non-zero chance something really dumb could have been produced. What if Warner Brothers just gave in to every filthy lust they had and created something of the purest, crassest commercialism, with the first Matrix only slightly updated for modern audiences? What if Neo teamed up with Spider-Man to fight Mark Zuckerberg, and as a sop to philosophy fans they have Slavoj Zizek in the lower right corner of the screen providing a running commentary on the action? Because I wouldn’t watch that, but I’d laugh my ass off at the headlines, so it would have at least been a worthwhile commercial endeavour.

Welcome to the new world

I’m reading Civilizations by Laurent Binet. It’s an alternate history novel about the conquest of Western Europe by the Incas.

It starts with a different end to the Viking expeditions to Vinland and continues centuries later with Christopher Columbus getting his just desserts from the Taino. Decades after that, the bulk of the book covers the Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s conquest of Western Europe, and then there’s a substantial epilogue covering the young mercenary Miguel Cervantes’ adventures across the Mediterranean.

The book gives a lot of lucky coincidences to its protagonists, while the indigenous Americans adopt and invent new technologies too quickly, but I’m not complaining since otherwise the story wouldn’t exist. The realistic outcome would have been the one that actually happened in our world, and who needs to run over that again? We can just handwave all that science stuff about Eurasia’s larger disease pool and virgin soil epidemics and whatever.

Anyway, if you’re familiar with Spain’s conquest of the New World then a lot of the Inca section is basically that with the parties reversed. In our world Atahualpa’s father the emperor died from smallpox and a civil war broke out, with Atahualpa defeating his brother to become emperor.

However, here Atahualpa loses and is chased out of the empire with his last 200 followers. They desperately repair Columbus’ wrecked ships and escape east to unknown lands with a Cuban princess who learned Spanish from a certain enslaved Genoese captain.

They end up in Portugal immediately after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1531. The chaos gives them a chance to survive and they end up meeting the queen of Spain. However, they’re forced to attack and capture the queen and kill 3000 of Toledo’s Christians after learning that the Inquisition is planning to kill them. There’s a short detour to the centre of learning, Salamanca, for the group to learn about this New World, but the Toledo massacre marks the beginning of a series of escalations that ends with Atahualpa capturing the king of Spain.

The small band had only been doing what they needed to survive each succeeding crisis, but after making contact with Atahualpa’s brother and making peace, they gain the resources to aim higher. Atahualpa uses the gold, silver, and gunpowder supplied by his brother, in exchange for technology and various cultural products (wine, trompe l’oeil paintings, honey, and so on) to become first king of Spain, then Belgium and the Netherlands, and then eventually he unites Germany to become Holy Roman Emperor. Along the way he triumphs over the pirate Barbarossa, takes half the North African coast, and is dubbed conquistador.

Atahualpa’s success is due to the radical reforms he enacts, somewhat by accident and somewhat by design. After first taking the Spanish crown, he guarantees freedom of religion to reward his first European followers, the oppressed Moors and Jews of Spain, but also to allow space for the Incan worship of the sun so central to their rituals and politics. Ending the Inquisition is a popular move and converts quickly flock to a religion backed by a victorious conqueror.

Atahualpa’s second radical reform involves Germany, where by now he has gained a reputation as a champion of the poor, thanks to implementing in Spain certain quasi-socialist Incan political structures (taxes paid in labour, housing provided free by the state, abolition of serfdom, and various radical changes that accord with historical records from our world). Germany has seen repeated peasant revolts over the years and the downtrodden see in Atahualpa their salvation. In turn, Atahualpa is glad enough to invade various German states at the invitation of the residents in his lust for Charlemagne’s throne. A complicated public dialogue with Martin Luther ensues so that Atahualpa can secure the votes of the Protestant electors, but it breaks down and the peasants rise up in anger that their greatest chance has been lost. The electors beg Atahualpa for help and he imposes order and becomes Emperor of the Romans.

Thus, in this alternate world Atahualpa has forestalled Europe’s Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany, enacted the Peace of Westphalia a century early, and sidestepped the enclosure of the commons that was to come in later years.

Anyway, this book is pretty fun if you’re familiar with the history it changes. It’s just deliciously clever at developing a world that parallels but doesn’t mirror our own. I probably missed a bunch of stuff in the Cervantes section since I’ve never read Montaigne, who appears as a character, but oh well.

The book is translated from French but I didn’t really notice anything awkward because of this. The vast majority of translated works I read are Japanese, Korean, and Chinese comics, but now that I think about it, the few translated novels I read tend to be French.

So yeah, I recommend this book for aficionados of history.

Read any good books lately?

So, herewith is a recap of my summer (and now fall) reading history.

The first book I’m discussing is Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones by David Moscrop, a Canadian former political scientist and current op-ed columnist. It’s about the psychological short hand that people in Western democracies use to vote and the tricks that political parties and governments use to try to guide those same voters to preferred outcomes. The book is actually quite easy to read and replete with personal anecdotes and examples from psychological studies to demonstrate the principles being talked about, as well real world examples drawn from US, British, and Canadian politics. However, I can tell that I actually know more than the author about the psychological side of things (or he’s content to keep things at an introductory level for his audience), whereas I’m also something of a news junkie and a poli sci nerd and so am already familiar with what he’s talking about on that end. So the book is a good introduction on these topics but not really something I personally found educational.

The second book is one I really enjoyed reading, which is Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott. Scott is also a political scientist, but in addition he trained in anthropology and specializes in comparative politics, especially with regard to peasants and agriculture. The book itself is about the historical transition from hunting and gathering to state societies, as well as the people who refused to join the state (a.k.a. the barbarians). The whole thing is completely my jam. Scott is an anarchist, so he’s of course got a low opinion of the state, but his description of how human misery increased once people took up agriculture is old news among anthropology circles (and probably familiar to anyone who read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel).

However, Scott goes quite a lot into the comparative details and argues that the state is inherently an unstable formation that requires incredible amounts of resources to keep going, but which is also doomed to fail thanks to the unsustainable demands it makes on the environment, the punishing taxes and labour it demands of its people (usually to fund wars to capture more territory where workers live which in turn demands more wars to capture even more workers in an endless race) which drive the citizens to escape into the hinterlands or revolt, and the regular return of lethal epidemics that are cooked up thanks to all the animals that agriculturalists live with and the cities and trade networks of a complex state society that concentrate and spread pathogens. Scott even argues that the collapse of a civilization might be better termed a reconfiguring, since it’s basically the people of a territory reorganizing themselves into a less precarious status quo.

Of course, preying on the states are the infamous barbarians, which Scott points out weren’t necessarily just alien societies robbing from the civilized. In fact, when the workers of historical states – the peasants, serfs, slaves, and everyone else who’s not an elite at the top of the social pyramid – get fed up with forever being drafted into wars and literally breaking their backs working the fields, they always had the option of joining the barbarians. Why bust your ass when you can have someone else do it and then take their stuff? In turn, a state had the option of repelling the barbarians or paying them off, but either way, it was another state expense. So a state inevitably had its barbarian “dark twin” (more than one sometimes) which grew when the state flourished and disappeared when the state did.

But alas for the barbarians, technological progress ended their viability, since you can’t exactly build Maxim guns out on the great plains, otherwise the Navajo might have forced the early US to cough up protection money like for example how the Uyghurs did to the Chinese or the Celts did to the Romans (though the Chinese usually called this tribute “gifts” and pretended that it was all from the emperor’s munificence).

Anyway, my one criticism of this book is that it just abruptly ends. It goes into the barbarian thing and then that’s it, no closing chapter, no summary, no discussion of the argument that was presented. But otherwise I’d say this is my favourite book of 2021.

Finally, the last book I’m covering is actually the first three books of the Giants series by James P. Hogan: Inherit the Stars, The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, and Giants’ Star. I actually read the manga adaptation first and wanted to know how the original compared. Well, you can tell that these books were written in the 1970s because of the incredible amount of sexual harassment in them. I’ve read lots of Asimov and Heinlein and others of that generation – who all came before Hogan – and I don’t remember these other authors having this much sexual harassment in their works. I wasn’t tracking it, but I think every female character in the story is sexually harassed at least once, whether it’s the gals in the stenography pool being seduced by the married physicist, or the telephone operator being pestered for a date, or the secretary whose incredible ass the protagonist admires as she bends forward to look at a computer monitor.

There’s also a lot of smoking and drinking, which especially stood out in the scene where the protagonists are smoking some after-dinner cigars on a spaceship with presumably limited supplies of oxygen (and this is set in the near-future, not some Star Trek utopia with limitless energy and whatnot). So yeah, it feels very Mad Men. But whatever, I remember when smoking indoors was a thing, I can get past that. It really is the sexual harassment that’s the most notable thing about this series to me.

The story itself is about a mummified astronaut being discovered on the moon, the scientists investigating this mystery, and the interplanetary journey to find the truth behind all of the secrets hidden in the past. Anyway, the books are clearly from a certain old school style of science fiction writing because the characters have barely any personality and mostly just jabber about science at each other. Which is mainly why I kept reading, because sometimes I just want to read about nerds arguing over theories of human evolution.

But this paper-thin characterization explains the sexual harassment, which quite frankly feels jarring when it’s inserted into the story, because it’s a clumsy attempt to humanize the male characters. Yes, this was how Hogan thought he could bring his characters to life: by giving his readers something they could relate to. Obviously, he took it for granted that his readers were all men.

I did appreciate how much better the 2011 Yukinobu Hoshino manga adaptation was, not least for removing the sexual harassment, but also adding the worthwhile female and non-white characters into the story that a white British engineer from the 70s would never have done. It even fixed up some of the science stuff that the original books messed up and moved stuff around so the plot was more engaging.

So yeah, the Giants series. That was a thing.

Anime and the Future of the NEET

Reposting from elsewhere:

Cover of the Welcome to the N.H.K. novel showing Misaki sitting outdoors, a tree in the background and a blue sky above, smiling at the camera
I actually bought this novel the second I saw it in the book store. I think it was $14.

I remember asking during PodCastle in the Sky‘s One Punch Man episode what the future of the NEETs in anime would be. You see, NEET is a British term referring to those unemployed youth who are Not in Education, Employment, or Training, and in the podcast I asked whether anime in the future would be about grown up NEET protagonists worrying over not having a pension. Art must cater to its audience, and if there are so many Japanese people stuck in a pit of economic despair, won’t they want their lives reflected in the stories they consume?

It’s a few years later and I think I’d like to expand the question to include those who are horrifically underemployed in Japan. As the title of a Bloomberg article from 2020 reveals, Japan’s Lost Generation Is Still Jobless and Living With Their Parents. The article’s description of the Japanese job market is painful in its inequity.

The doors open only once. That’s how people often describe Japan’s hidebound hiring system, in which college students have their best shot at landing a coveted salaried position in the year approaching graduation. Those who successfully navigate the arduous corporate recruiting process will be rewarded with a secure place on the corporate ladder, along with regular raises and promotions. The rest are largely condemned to flit from one low-paying job to the next, with little avenue for advancement and zero job security . . . Japan’s 2015 census revealed there were 3.4 million people in their 40s and 50s who had not married and lived with their parents.

So here is Japan, here are its young people, and here is the miserable life of bare survival that they suffer through. What can anime say to this audience? How can it be relevant, especially when the makers of anime are also living through the same misery? (And when I say misery I mean misery: in 2019 it was possible for a new animator to make an annual income of 668,000 yen, which is around $6600 USD. Yes, there is no missing zero in that figure. There’s a crowdfunding project just to subsidize housing costs for the ones who make the anime we consume.)

I would say there are two ways for anime to deal with life in late-stage capitalism. The first is to acknowledge its barbarity. However, the logic of modern life is so crushing and inhumane that to depict it realistically is too much to bear for the artists and for the audience. The solution is to turn to comedy to soften the blow.

If we were to name the works of anime capitalist realism that are most well-known, we would not do worse than listing the classic series Welcome to the NHK!, which is about the people unable to compete in the marketplace of labour, or Aggretsuko, which is about the ones who did enter the ranks of the wage slave but who found no better life anyway, or Recovery of an MMO Junkie, which is about abandoning the existential despair of being alienated from your labour. For the present season of anime, we could point to Uramichi Oniisan, except it’s not very good and in fact rather painfully blah.

The second way for anime to grapple with the weight of modernity is more reactionary. Instead of meeting the real, the anime takes the opposite trajectory of escape. The escape might be through returning to a better time – see all the series where the protagonist wakes up as their younger self like Remake Our Life! or gets de-aged like ReLIFE – or it might be a literal escape to a better world. Yes, I’m talking about all the isekai shit that comes out every season, some of which are embarrassingly frank about being nothing but vehicles for wish fulfillment.

Those wishes being fulfilled might be as innocuous as being able to sleep in and work whenever you want and at whatever you want for as much or as little as you want, like in all those isekai series about farming in a fantasy town or whatever (see Restaurant To Another World for an example involving opening a small business in a fantasy land with absolutely no problems whatsoever). Or those wishes could be darker and more disgusting, such as indulging a sexual slavery fetish like in How Not to Summon a Demon Lord or Death March to the Parallel World Rhapsody (and yes, the protagonist is invariably a man enslaving women).

It may sound like I think anime about the real world’s unhappiness are better for facing up to the truth, but in reality I think both the path of acknowledgement and the path of escape can lead equally to nowhere. Obviously hiding from society’s problems make one less likely to help in fixing them, but merely knowing things suck doesn’t do anything either. Without a call to action, outrage leads only to frustration and then to resignation and apathy.

So even in our fantasies we can’t escape the inequity of our world. The rank unfairness of existence circumscribes the stories we tell and haunts the dreams that we create.

However, we should not slip into nihilism. I will remind you all that better conditions existed not very far back in time and can do so again, and perhaps be better, for even those older times had their own miseries. Our dreams can point us to another path so long as we remember that dreaming is not an end in itself.

So let us struggle for a better world: what do we have to lose?

The Future of Capitalism

Well, I’ve finally been out of graduate school long enough that I can read stuff related to my former scholarly interests again.

The first book I’m covering is Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World. Milanovic is a Serbian-American economist who kind of deals with similar global income inequality stuff as Thomas Piketty. I don’t know enough about him to definitely say what his politics are except that from this book I feel he’s a “reform capitalism with redistribution” type.

Anyway, the book is mostly about present-day capitalism, but it necessarily covers two older kinds first in its survey: the classic robber baron kind of 19th century capitalism and the post-war kind where the bosses and the unions made a pact to play nice for a bit. Of course, he then covers the breakdown of that unwritten agreement with the rise of massive inequality and the hollowing out of the state, which he calls liberal capitalism, though which many others simply call neoliberalism. This is of course the mode of Western capitalism today, but he contrasts that with what he calls state capitalism, which is of the type exemplified by China, where captains of industry are given some leeway so long as they never challenge the primacy of the state.

Anyway, I live in Canada and am already familiar with how our kind of capitalism is fucking everyone over, so I didn’t find anything revelatory in the discussion of the Western economic system. I suppose it’s somewhat novel that Milanovic discovered the term “assortative mating” from biology – it refers to a type of mating pattern where individuals tend to mate and reproduce with those who are similar to them more than otherwise. He brings this up to contrast the old capitalisms with the present kind. Specifically, he provides charts and stats showing that assortative mating was more common among high-income individuals in the past than now (he doesn’t mention what this actually looked like but I assume it’s bosses marrying their secretaries and such). This compares to today, where the university-educated tend to marry each other and where lawyers marry CEOs. Milanovic also brings up that while wealthy individuals in the past were mostly people who didn’t work (i.e., the owners of capital), today many of who we would point to as wealthy might only make money through work (see certain software engineers, management consultants, etc).

But what of state capitalism as developed by and exemplified in China? This part is what I found the most interesting since I never knew much beyond the broad strokes of how exactly the Deng Xiaoping reforms turned the China of the Cultural Revolution into the China of Alibaba and Tencent. The main thing is that economic growth became the guiding principle of the state. Local Communist party groups (and by that I mean extremely local) were allowed to implement practically any policy they wanted, and so long as it succeeded in driving growth then it was given the green light for other regions (and if it failed then the sponsors would be sacked). In theory the sponsors would need to make a case for the policy changes not conflicting with socialist ideology, but in practice the sponsors could just make up some bullshit and it would be accepted so long as it sounded vaguely like socialism, so long as it actually got results. Milanovic points out that China after market reforms somewhat resembles China before the Communist Party, with the very large exception that landlords have been greatly curtailed in the countryside.

Now, Milanovic makes clear that the capitalism of China is similar to ours in that there’s also shocking inequality. There are billionaires and there are oppressed workers, same as here. In fact, the National People’s Congress is the richest parliament in the world, with a combined net worth of $700 billion from all members in 2018. The main difference between their capitalism and ours is that theirs is more nationalist. The wealthy elites are not automatically hostile to the government and do not think of themselves as being separate – in fact, they consider themselves as being participants in the project of China (which may sound a tad megalomaniacal but vaguely resembles France in the 70s). The state is supreme and corporations and capitalists are allowed some leeway so long as they never forget that fact. Of course, when so much money is involved and when the regulators collude so closely with the regulated, corruption and abuse of workers naturally springs up. This is why the Chinese government regularly and publicly punishes various officials for corruption. It’s not a show, exactly, as real punishments are doled out (up to even executions), but one big reason for the punishment is showing the masses that the top 1% are keeping in check the 2-5%. Since the government is institutionally incapable of systematically preventing this kind of thing from cropping up, then it must make regular public demonstrations instead.

But I think the biggest thing Milanovic says, and the most controversial, is his argument that the biggest contribution that communism has provided to the world is providing the development to former colonies that their colonizers were unable to do, allowing the Third World communist countries to build themselves up so that they could effectively join the capitalist system as China and Vietnam have done. In effect, he argues that communism is a transition state to capitalism. It’s an interesting thought, though I would argue that colonizers weren’t incapable of developing their colonies but were uninterested in doing so, as the whole point of them was to transfer the resources of the colonial periphery to the metropole. Postcolonial states didn’t necessarily need to be communist to develop, they just needed to break out of sending their resources elsewhere and instead invest them at home, but seeing as how the leaders of non-communist postcolonial states tended to have strong ties to their imperial masters then we can say that it was probably better to go communist than not if you were in the Third World. And Milanovic points out that, Cold War 2.0 rhetoric aside, it’s a good thing that China is loaning development funds to African countries even if there are strings attached, since it’s not like anyone else is offering them any funds.

I do have to say that there are a bunch of things Milanovic wasn’t good on, especially when he tried his hand at sociology or literary theory. One thing that stood out for me was that he took it for granted that the populations of Western countries would inevitably be hostile to too much immigration, which despite being economically and demographically necessary is too much for domestic populations to accept culturally. The solution he proposes is to create tiers of citizenship, which sounds to me like existing systems of guest workers and temporary residents but perhaps he envisions more levels of participation and obligation.

The biggest thing that I disagree with Milanovic on is something that he implies by never mentioning it: he accepts that there is no alternative and that capitalism is our only option. I increasingly feel that anyone today who writes of capitalist development as an unqualified good without mentioning the hard limits our environment imposes on us – the negative externalities, in the language of economics – is doing us all a disservice. But perhaps that is a story for another day. As it stands, I feel Capitalism Alone was kind of an okay book to get back to reading stuff with lots of academic verbiage and statistics and shit, but I don’t think it was a banger. 7 out of 10, if I were to give it a rating.

A Life in Books

A certain website asks How Many Books Will You Read Before You Die? It estimates your lifetime total by using a life expectancy calculator and 3 different levels of reading consumption: 12 books per year for average readers, 50 for the voracious, and 80 for the super-readers. The website says I have something like slightly over a 1000 books left in me.

This exercise made me realize I haven’t been reading much lately in 2021. After counting up the physical and electronic books I’ve borrowed from my library and the webnovels I’ve read so far (I’ve bought zero books), I think I’m only at like 9 or 10 books this year. I’m not counting all the manga issues I’ve read because that would easily push my total into the hundreds.

Anyway, I’m really surprised at my 2021 total since like 10 years ago I specifically counted how much media I consumed annually and it came to something like 80 books for that year (after checking it was actually 83). I think it’s because back in the old days I would read during my subway commute and in the lounge during lunch, whereas now that I’m at home I’d probably be washing dishes or something. I suppose I should really pick up my pace if I want to race against the grim reaper and finish more of the books in my various to-read lists.

Turn of the century

I don’t know why but I’m watching Martian Successor Nadesico and Outlaw Star. I guess maybe it’s because both series came out back when you could have more than 13 episodes in a season and could actually spend time with the characters, but not like in the 80s when you’d have 300 episodes where nothing at all happened in each one. I like Outlaw Star more because it’s better at the cliffhanger ending which makes me want to keep watching, but both series are pleasantly unchallenging to watch.