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Book Review corner

I’ve just finished reading a book by the Australian economist Steve Keen, which I liked very much. It’s lumbered with what I’d call an unnecessarily combative title (“Debunking Economics“, ye gods and bollock harnesses), but it’s bloody good on a number of technical points relevant to those parts of this weblog which I like to think of as “the ludicrous incoherent rants on poorly understood minutiae of what Piero Sraffa said in 1928”. If I’d read it before subscribing to the “Post-Keynesian Thought” mailing list, rather than after, I think I could have saved myself many weeks of mute incomprehension.

I’ve also been reading Straw Dogs by John Gray, my old university prof. Looking back on my undergraduate education, it’s quite easy to understand how I ended up with a somewhat bizarre Weltanschaung (“world-view” for the Readers’ Digest set, use it in a sentence three times today and it’ll be yours forever). I was educated by three fine men of British letters: John Gray, Galen Strawson and Don Hay. Gray is now the Professor of European Thought at the LSE, biographer of Hayek and Isaiah Berlin and most famous for False Dawn, an anti-globalisation diatribe which has as good a claim as any to have pioneered the current Klein/Monbiot/Hertz industry in such things. Galen Strawson’s most famous work at the time (he’s probably written a lot since, but I haven’t kept up) was Freedom and Belief, a systematic destruction of the philosophical concept of free will and a proof that there can be no such thing as moral responsibility. Don Hay’s best known work was the thumpingly good but painfully rigorous industrial economics textbook known to its sufferers as “Hay and Morris, but he also was (and remains) the doyen of Christian economics. So basically, from Gray I learned that everything’s going to hell and there’s nothing anyone could do about it, from Strawson I learned that that everything’s going to hell and there’s nobody you can blame for it, and from Hay I learned that I, personally, was going to hell and that if I didn’t show up for Industrial Economics lectures he’d send me there. Actually that joke is a horrible calumny on Hay, who was an utterly nice man and never threatened me with hellfire, even in the face of severe provocation.

But anyway, enough of this sickening nostalgia. “Straw Dogs” is a great book. It’s rather like the film of the same name in its bleak view of the prospects for humanity, although anyone hoping to see Dustin Hoffman going apeshit with a shotgun in Cornwall will be disappointed. Basically, John Gray asks the interesting question; what if we take seriously the fact that humanity is just one more type of animal on the face of the planet. The answer is that, we end up being brought face to face with the fact that an awful lot of things which over the years we have seen fit to kill each other over, end up looking pretty freaking silly.

The really good news for me is that Gray has finally found a prose style that works. I’ve been a fairly loyal buyer of his books over the years, and have always marvelled at how someone who gave such interesting lectures could write such constricted prose. I have a copy of his “Liberalisms” that is basically mint apart from the first fifteen pages, because I’ve never been able to read any further without wanting to drill a hole in my head to release some of the pressure. But he’s been reading (and apparently, hanging round with) JG Ballard of late, and it shows. He’s now setting out his philosophical arguments in simple declarative English sentences (harder than you’d think) and using imagery that contributes to his unique and bleakly pessimistic view of the world, rather than parodying it. As a work of philosophical literature, I think it’s right up there with Marshall Berman’s “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air“, and I think I’ve said that about precisely zero books before.

So, for people who give a floating shit what I think about anything, there’s a couple for you. Thanks to the reader (you know who you are) who recommended the Keen book.

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