Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Cover on Goodreads

Status anxiety is “the price we pay for acknowledging that there is a public distinction between a successful and an unsuccesful life.” In this book, de Botton explores our social lives from the perspective of status, and arrives at a remarkably comprehensive account of human society, that is erudite as it is entertaining. Essentially, the book is a story of our love affair with society: “Every adult life could be said to be defined by two great love stories. The first—the story of our quest for sexual love—is well known and well charted, its vagaries form the staple of music and literature, it is socially accepted and celebrated. The second—the story of our quest for love from the world—is a more secret and shameful tale.”

The book points out how important status is for our balloon-like ego that suffers from every ‘pinprick of neglect’. In our current meritocracy, failure is not attributed to bad luck, but it is our own fault. Falling short of our expectations results in a culture of anxiety penetrating all aspects of life, from the economy to politics to art and religion. De Botton discusses these themes systematically in this essay, that reminds me of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. The first five chapters discuss the causes of status anxiety (lovelessness, expectation, meritocracy, snobbery, and dependence) whereas the second half offers solutions (philosophy, art, politics, religion, and bohemia). De Botton’s erudition is enjoyable, albeit – oh sweet irony – anxiety-inducing for writers who have similar ambitions.

Our postmodern age has produced a modest literature criticizing mindless consumerism, and De Botton’s book is a welcome addition to it. As somebody who strongly dislikes conspicuous consumption, I enjoyed the reference to the broader idea of ‘bohemia’ and Thoreau (“man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without”).

This is a dense book, that I would recommend a second read.

Review: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton was originally published on Meandering home

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Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

Image from goodreads.comPrisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall has been a very exciting read for me, and many readers on Goodreads agree (there are 1400 reviews available). It is the best book on geopolitics that I have read so far and it has helped me consolidate what I already knew and taught me a lot of new things as well.

The book is organized in ten chapters on different regions and this way of storytelling made it amazingly easy to remember facts. Weeks after reading this book, I had retained 90% more than I would have retained from a book without geographical organization, and I attribute this to the loci technique of memorizing.

It opens with Russia’s geographical prison, namely its vulnerability because of the Northern European Plane and the absence of a warm-water port. It discusses the inevitability of the US rising to become a world power as a two-ocean nation. It shows what we can expect from China’s rise and why Tibet is important for geological reasons (origination of the great rivers).

Marshall gives an account of the complicated relationship between the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, and the issue of Pakistan. He explains the strategic importance of a divided Korea, the rise and fall of Japan, an island nation with very little natural resources. Geography also explains convincingly why Africa never developed like Western Europe: no navigable or connected rivers (except for the Nile in Egypt), no deep water ports, and too many infectious diseases. He also reminds us of one of the most horrible yet underreported conflicts of our time, that in the DRC Congo. Similar arguments are made for Latin America, so we can understand the limitations of Brazil’s economy and the strategic importance of the Chinese-planned Nicaragua canal. By the time the book closes with a detailed account of the Arctic region, we understand its importance for the contesting nations (Russia, Canada, US, Norway, Denmark).

The book constantly reminds us of the importance of geographical features such as navigable rivers, warm-water ports, tall mountains, impenetrable forests, fertile land, straits. It makes the reader feel like a little expert on geopolitics.

I recommend this book to everyone who wants to understand the current geopolitical situation – even a few years after its publication.

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka

This is the first of some short book reviews here on creativechoice. I love reading and will share my thoughts about the books that I are think are worth my readers’ while.

Cover from goodreads.orgThe short book Capitalism: A Short History begins with a concise discussion of the most important figures in the history of the concept of capitalism: Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Josef Schumpeter. Kocka also mentions other thinker such as Karl Polanyi.

The book has a wider view of capitalism than Marx, who looks mainly at the mode of production and the way labor is organized. Kocka shows that the merchants of the Middle Ages already operated in a capitalistic way because they were profit oriented and seeking expansion. Apart from what is generally considered the heartland of capitalism, he sketches the development of proto-capitalism in the Arab world (where profit seeking was, unlike interest, compatible with Islam) and China (where it was politically controlled and embedded).

Kocka tells the story of the inevitable expansion of capitalism. He discusses colonialism and the plantation economy, pointing out that the mode of production of capitalism does not require free labor. The Joint Stock Companies such as the VOC and the beginning of finance capitalism is discussed. The book shows how in mining, agrarian capitalism and proto-industrialization capitalism encroaches on the domain of labor.

The expansion eventually led to managerial capitalism in which the manager is no longer the owner of the enterprise, like during the Industrial Revolution. Kocka identifies the ‘autotelic character’ of capitalism:  “the concentration on goals of profit and growth coupled with a simultaneous indifference to other goals” (p.  114). This trend had started with managerial capitalism but reached new heights in financialization.

The book concludes with some thoughtful reflections about the current state of affairs and how capitalism is always embedded in a social, cultural and political context – and its reform is a ‘permanent task’.
 

Review: Capitalism by Jürgen Kocka was originally published on Meandering home