Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.
By this author
In the July/August issue of the Atlantic, David H. Freedman writes about "the war on stupid people." The culture at large increasingly despises them, while the much-vaunted "economy of the twenty-first century" has no room for them. Smart people know, in theory at least, that one is no more responsible for one's IQ than for one's looks or height. So why don't our attitudes, language, and social arrangements reflect this fact?
Well, it's happening: The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union, and British Prime Minister David Cameron has announced his resignation.
In a few hours we'll know whether the United Kingdom will remain a part of the European Union. The U.S. media has been full of arguments against "Brexit." Here are two good pieces in favor of it—one from the left (by a Briton who teaches political theory at Harvard) and one from the right.
People who warn about a future of "technological unemployment," in which most human labor has been replaced by machines, are often described as if they were Chicken Little, frantically predicting what others have frantically—and falsely—predicted for at least a couple of centuries. What if the more pertinent folktale was the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf? Such predictions have been false so many times before that we have been lulled into supposing they will always be false. What if one day, when we have almost ceased to believe in wolves, one finally arrives?
Of course, in the case of mass technological unemployment, the arrival is not likely to be sudden. It could be that we are already seeing the first signs of it. That is the possibility that Eduardo Porter considers in his latest column for the New York Times. Porter references the work of Wassily Leontief, one of the few economists of his time who was seriously concerned about the obselescence of labor. Leontief responded to those who dismissed this concern by reminding them of what had already happened to another species that once played a major role in the economy: the horse. Porter writes:
Horses hung around in the labor force for quite some time after they were first challenged by “modern” communications technologies like the telegraph and the railroad, hauling stuff and people around farms and cities. But when the internal combustion engine came along, horses—as a critical component of the world economy—were history.
Cutting horses’ oat rations might have delayed their replacement by tractors, but it wouldn’t have stopped it. All that was left to do, for those who cared for 20 million newly unemployed horses, was to put them out to pasture.
In 1915 there were about twenty million horses in the United States. By 1959 there were only four and a half million.
At the time, most economists dismissed Leontief's argument, and it isn't hard to see why. Human laborers can be retrained to do all kinds of jobs. Horses can do only a few kinds of physical work: they can pull and they can carry—that's about it. But the force of the analogy doesn't depend on the very limited similarity between human labor and horsepower. It depends on the similarity between the disruptive force of the internal combustion engine and that of machine learning. Because of the engine, at a certain point machines could do more efficiently almost everything horses had done. Today, many economists who have reflected on the potential of machine learning worry that robots will one day be able to do most jobs that human beings do now, including many white-collar jobs that have long been considered immune to automation.
Why should economists worry about this? Whatever our feelings about horses, do we really regret the advent of tractors and automobiles? Didn't life become much better when work horses were put to pasture?
From the current issue of n+1, George Blaustein on Antonin Scalia and American Religion:
Of all the events related in the New Testament, the Ascension is one of the hardest to imagine—and, at least as commonly imagined, it may be the hardest to believe. It is, in a sense, Jesus' last miracle. It is also the miracle that seems most like myth: a man rising like a rocket and disappearing into the clouds. Paintings about the Ascension can be very beautiful and very moving, but they almost never seem like representations of an event in history. They seem, instead, like the deus ex machina resolution of a story that had to end in a shroud of mystery—either a literal cloud (as in Acts) or a narrative fog (as in the Gospel of Luke).
All of which is to say, it is the kind of incident about which it would be very easy to write a bad poem and very hard to write a good one. Denise Levertov managed to write a good one. Last year I posted her poem for Holy Saturday, "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell." That poem, too, dares to take up an event most of us find very hard to imagine, and it introduces themes that Levertov also explores in "Ascension": the frictions between spirit and matter, the connection between Gospel triumph and surrender.
After the jump, the poem.
In the London Review of Books, Perry Anderson on "The Crisis in Brazil":
From the Washington Post, John Bellamy Foster on socialism and the American Dream:
Socialism has always been part of American culture. It would no doubt disturb today’s Republican Party to learn that one of Lincoln’s favorite political writers was Karl Marx, European columnist for Horace Greeley’s paper, the New York Tribune.
THE QUESTION “WHITHER EUROPE” has been asked so often that it has become a clichéd subcategory of another cliché, the headline writer’s “Whither X?” A Google search for “Whither Europe?” turns up more than six thousand uses of the phrase. People were asking the question after World War I and again after World War II; they asked it at the birth of the European Union and have been asking it, again and again, in the wake of debt crises that have threatened to tear that union apart. Last May the historian James J. Sheehan tried to answer the question in the pages of Commonweal—although the editors fastidiously avoided the word “whither” in the headline (we settled for “A Continent Adrift”).
The title of George Steiner’s recent book is The Idea of Europe, but there is a strong whiff of “whither” in the book’s nervously elegiac tone. When Steiner, who is generally the kind of writer one would expect to use that archaic word without embarrassment, finally arrives at his modest speculations about Europe’s future, he settles for the more demotic “What next?” But most of this very short book is about Europe’s past, not its future—about what has set the Continent apart from the rest of the world, including America. Steiner’s method here is impressionistic and idiosyncratic: his list of “five axioms” that have defined Europe is a hodgepodge of suggestive observations and monumental truisms. It is nevertheless an interesting list. Steiner makes it interesting by dint of style and erudition. It does not quite amount to a systematic theory of Europe, but then, Steiner does not promise one. As his title indicates, he is content to offer an idea—or several ideas.
His list of things that make Europe Europe starts with the concrete and becomes gradually more abstract. Item one is the café or coffeehouse. “Draw the coffeehouse map and you have one of the essential markers of the ‘idea of Europe.’”
A cup of coffee, a glass of wine, a tea with rhum secures a locale in which to work, to dream, to play chess or simply keep warm the whole day. It is the club of the spirit and the posterestante of the homeless…. Three principal cafés in imperial and interwar Vienna provided the agora, the locus of eloquence and rivalry, for competing schools of aesthetics and political economy, of psychoanalysis and philosophy. Those wishing to meet Freud or Karl Kraus, Musil or Carnap, knew precisely in which café to look, at which Stammtisch to take their place. Danton and Robespierre meet one last time at the Procope. When the lights go out in Europe, in August 1914, Jaurès is assassinated in a café. In a Geneva café, Lenin writes his treatise on empiro-criticism and plays chess with Trotsky.
According to Steiner, cafés have the kind of cultural importance in Continental Europe that pubs and bars have in English-speaking countries. But American bars, he insists, are very different in both function and atmosphere:
[T]he American bar is a sanctuary of dim lightning [sic], often of darkness. It throbs with music, often deafening. Its sociology, its psychological fabric are permeated by sexuality, by the presence, hoped for, dreamt of, or actual, of women. No one writes phenomenological tomes at the table of an American bar (cf. Sartre). Drinks have to be renewed if the client is to remain welcome. There are ‘bouncers’ to expel the unwanted.
That’s well observed, even if cafés, and a kind of café culture, have been part of metropolitan American life for a long time now—and even if Steiner’s description of bar culture seems based more on Raymond Chandler novels than on personal experience. Even an uncouth American from the wilds of Arizona can acknowledge that a good European café is a wonderful thing; and, at least in it’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century prime, it really did serve as an agora, “a locus of eloquence and rivalry.” But most of that is history, even in Paris and Vienna. The cafés remain, some of them anyway, but their social significance is not what it once was. Which is why there is something slightly pathetic about Steiner’s promise that “so long as there are coffeehouses, the ‘idea of Europe’ will have content.” If the idea of Europe depends on the survival of places called cafés—rather than the idea of the café, as Steiner conceives it—than Europe’s future is secure, but that security is trivial. After all, if China took over all of Europe tomorrow, it’s a safe bet the cafés would remain open.
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