Book(s) of the Week: Playing Catch-Up, Part 1
I'm a little behind on my Book of the Week entries. I have been reading, I just haven't been writing. So, let me try to briefly catch you up on some the books I've read.
Book 25: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka
This is the first of two books on capitalism I read this year in an attempt to better understand how American Christianity and capitalism overlap. This first book is more philosophical in nature, asking what capitalism is and how it works. For Kocka, capitalism has at least three essential principles: decentralization, commodification, and accumulation. By decentralization, Kocka means the dispersal of property and the championing of the individual. This closely relates to commodification, or the valuation of everything from time, to labor, to raw material, and means of production itself. Finally, capitalism is characterized by accumulation, particularly the accumulation of credit that can be invested in the future.
Kocka's history of capitalism begins with mercantile capitalism in pre-industrial Europe, and in part, owes its early growth to Arab sources, not European (which were largely held in check by the Church). The story he tells weaves through industrialization to the present, which he calls the financialization of capitalism, a type of capitalism that driven by investor returns more than it is by consumer interests. The result is unwieldy indebtedness in both the public and private sectors.
Kocka is critical of capitalism, but he is not anti-capitalist. In the balance, capitalism has generated greater prosperity for larger numbers of people, and yet it continues to present challenges for human flourishing in places.
Book 26: The Relentless Revolution by Joyce Appleby
This second book on capitalism is a more thorough history of capitalism, written by a professor at UCLA named Joyce Appleby. Generally, Appleby is sympathetic to capitalism; however, she does attend to a number of legitimate criticisms that are raised by Marxism. She also considers the potential that capitalism has to be self-cannibalizing if it is not guided by its better angels. Basically, her thesis is that "the relentless revolution" of capitalism is always replacing the old with the new. While this has a disrupting effect on the status quo, it enables technological innovations that are obviously good. For example, food security was basically stagnant, limiting the world's population and demanding that virtually all of one's income be devoted to securing the future of the next year's food sources. But Dutch technological innovations in crop rotation enabled families to generate greater food security at a lesser cost, which subsequently enabled people to take this excess income and invest it in developing new inventions and testing out new ideas. This is the beginning of capitalism: the investing of one's excess resources into new possibilities.
For Appleby, capitalism is a distinct moment that occurs when innovation allows for the existence of excess resources that can become investments (or, capital). This is different from Kocka to the extent that she largely considers the rise of global trade as pre-capitalist.
Book 27: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's first novel was a critical success. My wife picked up a signed copy of it at Patchett's bookstore, Parnassus, in Nashville. I had very little interest in reading it because I knew that it was about opera and I thought it wouldn't hold my interest. I was wrong.
This book is not about opera. Sure, the protagonists are mostly opera-lovers and they've gathered in a South American country to hear a famous opera diva. The concert abruptly ends when the power goes off and the Vice President's residence is stormed by guerrillas looking to take the president hostage. In a twist, the president cancelled his appearance and the guerrillas find themselves improvising. They decide to take the opera diva and the many distinguished guests hostage instead.
The remainder of the novel tells the stories of the various hostages and captors who occupy the Vice Presidential residence. Over time, they become genuine friends by settling into their new lives and suspending the reality of the inevitable end. In the end, their lives cannot go on together.
I like this novel because it examines the various similarities and desires that exist amongst people with very different cultural, religious, class, and linguistic barriers between them. When those things are all removed, there is a real connection that is made between captors and captives. The captors threaten to kill the captives the achieve their ends, but no one really believes that they are capable of it because they've befriended each other. In the end, when the government soldiers finally storm the compound to free the captives, they are only concerned for the lives of their captors, who are now in grave danger for their actions. Its hard to tell the difference between genuine friendship and Stockholm syndrome.
This book has apparently been made into a movie that will be released in the next few months.