Recent reads, January/February 2018 — March 1, 2018

Recent reads, January/February 2018

bad math graphics. I guess it's polyhedra being sucked into topological 'holes'?

  • David Richeson, Euler’s Gem: The Polyhedron Formula and the Birth of Topology

    Pretty cool book, much of which was lost on me; it’s a popular-ish math book, and I think I placed too much emphasis on “popular” and not enough on “math”. The secret of reading math books is that you don’t read them like you’d read a novel. You need to sit down, do proofs, write code, come up with counterexamples, try to visualize things, etc. I couldn’t do this when I was lying on the beach.

    Regardless, even at the fairly shallow level at which I approached this book, there’s a lot of interesting stuff. The book centers on the Euler characteristic, the very beautiful observation that any convex polyhedron (think cube or pyramid) which has V vertices, E edges, and F faces satisfies V-E+F=2. This is the earliest example of what we now call a topological invariant — a property of a mathematical object that remains unchanged even if you distort the object in various approved ways, like stretching. Other topological invariants include the genus of a shape, i.e., the number of “holes” it has, which is how we end up with the notion that a coffee cup and a doughnut are topologically identical: you can deform the one into the other without tearing, and the number of holes remains the same.

    Topology is, in this way, a “global” view of a shape, but the global view can be used to prove theorems about local attributes of that shape. The book contains some elegant proofs that use the Euler characteristic, for instance, to prove theorems about the interior angles of a polygon, or to prove that there exist only five Platonic solids.

    The book contains applications, too, not just examples from the domain of pure mathematics. Here it samples from graph theory, which is a branch of mathematics you touch every time you use Google Maps, and from differential equations, which are the lifeblood of physics. One of the more famous topological results proves that every continuous function on a space that’s topologically equivalent to a sphere has a fixed point — a consequence of which is, for instance, that at any moment there is always at least one spot on the earth at which the wind is not blowing.

    I need to reread this, and reread it better. The author’s appreciation for the beauty of his subject is palpable. I saw him speak recently at an MAA event in D.C., where he went over some of the classic mathematical impossibility results; a book is apparently forthcoming. If it’s anything like the other work I’ve seen from Richeson, it’ll be a must-read.

funny cartoon image of a stereotyped 1950s family in a stereotyped 1950s car driving through a floral arch with Hebrew lettering on it

  • Rachel Kranson, Ambivalent Embrace: Jewish Upward Mobility in Postwar America

    This is a fascinating look at American Jews’ discomfort with their increasing affluence after World War II. The shtetl looms large in American Jewish ideology: when they were poor, goes the mythology, they had more character, built a stronger community, and paid more attention to religious studies; American affluence made them lazy and weak. At the same time, American Jewish identity drew heavily on Lower East Side socialism — another identity that had a hard time surviving as American Jews grew wealthy and moved out to the suburbs. And the part of Jewish self-identity that centered around Jewish intellectualism suffered as Jews headed into “the professions” and became grubby company men.

    One of the allures of the new state of Israel, then, was that Jews could return to a tougher, more authentic version of Judaism. The stereotype of American Jews as weak and nerdy could be replaced by the stereotype of the Israeli soldier. Hence the allure of the Birthright trip to Israel, and of the kibbutz.

    The idea of the shtetl’s being baked deeply into Jews’ self-image is fascinating to me. I wonder whether similar “life was better when we were poor” ideas exist in other religions. Does the Irish-American self-image, for instance, contain a belief that they were more authentically Irish when they were suffering during the potato famine or traveling to the United States in steerage?

    Kranson embeds this Jewish conversation in a broader conversation, happening at the same time, about postwar conformity and suburban homogenization. Outside of Jews, did any other ethnicities address this conformity by venerating the poverty and suffering from their recent pasts?

    Overall, this book is a fascinating look at what happened to Jews as consumerist 20th-century America closed in on all sides.

    (Full disclosure: Professor Kranson is a friend of mine. I would have found her book delightful even if she weren’t.)

some generic nature scene

  • George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

    I don’t get what the fuss was about. This was the It Book of 2017. In it, we see Lincoln visiting his dead son’s body as it awaits burial, the ‘bardo’ being a waiting room for souls on their way from this world to the next. The souls arrayed around him flit about, discussing what will become of little Willie Lincoln. Eventually … without giving anything away, the souls decide that something must be done to ensure that Willie leaves the bardo and enters his permanent afterlife, and A Man Learns To Move On.

    This book is trying and failing to do something. It’s some combination of sci-fi/fantasy, an attempt at being affecting, and a bit of silliness (the souls sometimes engage in frenetic group copulation). I found it deeply pointless.

the top-left and bottom-right quadrants of a circle, for some reason

  • R.R. Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution

    This is certainly the best book I’ve read thus far on the (low point of the) French Revolution, namely what we today call the Great Terror. On the one hand, it doesn’t skimp on moral censure against the Committee of Public Safety, which famously made such liberal use of the guillotine. On the other, Palmer takes care to note the very real threats that the Republic was under from all its neighbors, who thought France’s chaos and weakness gave them a lovely opportunity to invade. At the same time, the country was by no means internally unified: the famously Catholic French did not all support nationalizing church property and building a new currency on the stolen lands. Much of western France was in an armed uprising against the Revolution. So the twelve members of the CPS were trying to re-establish a government in the Weberian sense: a monopoly over legitimate violence in a defined area. Under the circumstances, I can understand why they’d see no difference between ideological disagreement and treason. It’s a short jump from there to the revolution’s devouring its children.

    My historical imagination runs into a bit of a wall right there. Because identifying ideological disagreement with treason is interlaced with some ideas of Rousseau’s, which were thick on the ground at the time. As any number of authors have mentioned (I think here of Russell’s History of Western Philosophy), Rousseau believed in something called the “general will,” which was not to be confused (I gather) with anything so earth-bound as a poll of the real people’s opinions. Instead, the general will seems to be some spiritual, almost Platonic, aspect of an idealized people. By definition, the will of the people was indivisible. Says Palmer: “It was a cardinal principle of the Mountaineers (and of the Girondists, too, who in their time had been Jacobins and were still Rousseauists) that the people, the real people, could not be divided in its will.”

    I have a very hard time understanding what that could possibly mean, or why — if I attach a reasonable meaning to it — anyone could believe it. If “the people” means … well … the people, then anyone who has ever interacted with other human beings will recognize that disagreement happens (even within one person!); wills are divided. If, on the other hand, “the people” means something more idealized, then why does it matter what this idealized people believes? That way lies Cartesian parody.

    You can see how this notion of The People (capitalized) could lead to a lot of people (lowercase) losing their heads. Again to quote Palmer, “Robespierre easily identified with foreign conspirators anyone who deviated from the program of the Mountain.” If the French People is, by definition, as one, then disagreement with the French People is, by definition, anti-French.

    I need to get inside the heads of these people. I need to get inside the head of Robespierre, in particular. How does this sort of ideology begin? How do others become part of his movement? They can’t all be insane. They can’t all be power-mad.

    In any case, Palmer tackles the twelve in the CPS as well as you could hope for: a single chapter for each of the twelve, each of which is a vigorous character study. And the characters—the haughty, incorruptible Robespierre, whom I can only imagine with his lantern jaw raised heavenward; the fiery ideologue Saint-Just; the great orator Danton; Carnot, the engineer of the revolution—are all worthy of these sketches. The French Revolution, if nothing else, is a gripping story. And the CPS, in particular, needs a sympathetic reading, which Palmer provides.

    Finally, Palmer’s attitude reminds me a lot of E.P. Thompson—specifically Thompson’s refusal to reduce all human action to the mechanical, ineluctable movement of the dialectic. Thompson and Palmer are both humanistic, in the sense that they believe the goals of people and of movements matter. This might be the ultimate source of their historical imagination, their sympathy, their attention to detail, and their eye for storytelling. It makes their books a pure delight to read.

Some painting of 1848, I think. Prussian? I'm too lazy to go look it up.

  • Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

    Hard to think of anything to say here that you don’t already know. Maybe the only point worth emphasizing is how much Marx and Engels admired what the English bourgeoisie had accomplished in such a short time.

Hardly more than the words in the title on the cover. Actually, one more thing: a small orange band, running horizontally from the right side of the cover to maybe 90% of the way across, to tell us that this is a publication of Monthly Review Press Classics

  • E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays

    The title essay is a sustained attack on the Marxism of Louis Althusser, about whom I knew nothing when I started the essay. It’s more sarcastic and vitriolic than some of the other Thompson I’ve read, but the heart is the same: a belief that humans matter, and that anyone who tries to reduce social movements to mere abstract social forces is doing violence to the movements. Here Thompson goes a step further, denouncing Althusser as a barely closeted Stalinist, when the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Khrushchev’s “cult of personality” speech of the same year should have permanently emptied the world of Stalinists. Thompson ties the evils of Stalinism, in part, to the mechanistic view of history, which turns individuals into mere cogs in a machine. If people don’t matter, and if history is going to move according to its own logic, then the blood drains out of the movement and it hardly matters whether we liquidate the kulaks.

    At the base of Thompson’s alternative view is his understanding of class, about which he writes in The Making of the English Working Class:

    I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

    You can see how this understanding of class would shape his understanding of everything that rides on top of it. If classes aren’t immutable or predefined, then the movements of people into and out of classes, and their understanding of who stands against them, are also not immutable or predefined. To my eye, understanding class in this way leads to a much more supple and rich eye for history. Indeed, The Making of the English Working Class itself wouldn’t have had much at all to say if it had flattened the English working class along Althusserian lines.

    The other essays in the collection are bound by a similar humanism. “Outside The Whale” begins with someone else’s sarcastic description of a speech by Bertrand Russell, in which the 83-year-old Nobel laureate pleaded with the public to vote Labour in order to prevent nuclear annihilation. It continues into George Orwell’s scorn for anyone, it seems, who feels that anything in this world matters. Thompson is on the side of those whose conscience still burns.

    In “The Peculiarities of the English”, Thompson defends his countrymen against those orthodox Marxists who fault the country for ideological impurity. Again, this is of a piece with the book’s general iciness toward continental-European Communists, whose theory didn’t account for the humanitarian disasters of actually existing Communism. French Marxism, in Thompson’s eyes, was intellectually corrupt and had managed, besides, to weaken real labor movements.

    It’s a beautiful, engaging book, though I admit that a lot of it was taking place on topics about which I know nothing (beyond what Thompson educated me on). The only Marx I’ve read is the Communist Manifesto (see supra), and dribs and drabs here and there (e.g., “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”). I’ve not read Marx enough to know which ideas were his, and which were inventions from later on.

    Though I’m not sure whether it matters who invented what; as a general matter in my life, I’m inclined to think it doesn’t matter. To take a totally unrelated topic: it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus’s teachings were a misreading of Judaism, or whether modern Christian practice was a misreading of the New Testament, or whatever. At one level, sure, it matters intellectually that someone misread a book and built a movement from that misreading, but by this point the movement is more important than the “true” meaning underlying the text. Fussing over true original meanings is both fundamentalist and utterly beside the point.

    So I’d like to read Marx, not to understand what “true Marxism” is, but just to understand the conversation. Then maybe I’d read Althusser, though Thompson certainly suggests that leaden philosophical French prose is not for the faint of heart. Or maybe I’d read others for whom Thompson has more respect. The point is just to get into the conversation; outside of that conversation, Thompson doesn’t make much sense. I suspect he’d want me to engage with the texts and then get back to him, and so I shall.

A painting of someone -- maybe a goddess? -- in the middle of battle holding aloft the tricolor

  • Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man

    I read this as a followup to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, as indeed it was; I read it also as the foundation (so E.P. Thompson tells me) for a good century of British labor-movement mobilization. It’s hardly a close call: Paine got the better of this argument with Burke.

    When he’s not defending tradition for its own sake, recall, Burke is telling the French that their king isn’t such a bad guy. Paine begins by demolishing that point, like so:

    Every place has its Bastille, and every Bastille its despot. The original hereditary despotism resident in the person of the king, divides and sub-divides itself into a thousand shapes and forms, till at last the whole of it is acted by deputation.

    The French system of government wasn’t just corrupt at its head; corruption had worked its way into the remotest tendrils of the empire. Hereditary monarchy was the original sin that led to all the others. Hereditary power bore no connection with merit:

    the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet laureate.

    Hereditary monarchy, in England as well, had become a device for impoverishing the people in order to fatten Walpole and his cronies:

    In reviewing the history of the English Government, its wars and its taxes, a bystander, not blinded by prejudice nor warped by interest, would declare that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes.

    So Paine’s book wasn’t just a defense of his brethren across the Channel; it was a sustained attack on the wisdom of any inherited monarchy at all. And pace Burke, this wasn’t a matter of airy theory overturning a system that had generally worked well for centuries; it was a matter of unaided human reason, available to everyone, finally realizing that the emperor wore no clothes:

    certain am I, that when the people of England come to reflect upon them they will, like France, annihilate those badges of ancient oppression, those traces of a conquered nation.

    No wonder Burke was terrified. According to Thompson, the entire English ruling class shook at the earthquake Burke initiated.

    Stylistically, too, Paine is running circles around Burke:

    How dry, barren, and obscure is the source from which Mr. Burke labors! and how ineffectual, though gay with flowers, are all his declamation and his arguments compared with these clear, concise, and soul-animating sentiments! Few and short as they are, they lead on to a vast field of generous and manly thinking, and do not finish, like Mr. Burke’s periods, with music in the ear, and nothing in the heart.

    I’m genuinely curious if anyone found himself or herself convinced, in the late 18th century, by Burke as against Paine. From this vantage, a couple hundred years on, that would be hard to believe.

    I wonder, finally, whether Paine’s book initiates a particularly “American” style of writing, as against Burke’s late-18th-century British style. The Burkean style is one I’ve always had a hard time stomaching: rather than go from fact to fact and then jump to an abstraction, it basically starts and ends in abstractions. I’m sure there’s empirical Hume out there, for instance, but the habit of dealing in pure abstractions—about the nature of man or what have you—drives me a little mad. I’m much happier with the Paines of the world.

A great many African-American people sitting on their front stoops and hanging out of balconies, presumably in some big urban neighborhood (Harlem, maybe)?

  • Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

    Absolutely gripping, and indeed “epic”, story of African-Americans’ Great Migration from the South to the industrial cities of the North, stretching from World War I through the mid-1960s. Wilkerson tells this story through four specific people—selected from among hundreds of people whom Wilkerson interviewed—who made the journey from the South to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and to New York. Through Wilkerson’s storytelling, I was there with them as they told only one or two people about their plans to leave their homes—keeping the story quiet so that they wouldn’t be lynched on the way out of town. It made for almost unbearably tense reading.

    There are some ground-level details that I never would have thought about, had I not read Wilkerson’s book. For instance, trains traveling south to north would eventually reach a point where segregation ended. Going north to south, blacks who had been sitting comfortably among whites would now need to move into segregated passenger cars; the switch would happen right around Washington, D.C., the unofficial boundary of Jim Crow. This is just an impossibly odd transition, and it’s hard to imagine decades of American life during which it was treated as a frustrating but regrettable necessity.

    The book’s strength is in the personal stories, though it also takes some time in each chapter to scale out and examine what was happening nationwide. I could have appreciated some more on, say, redlining in the north, or white flight, but those would have made this a much different book. As it is, Wilkerson’s ability to keep the macro and the micro in focus at the same time is a great feat—as when she describes a black man’s creation on a small scale of a labor union within a single orange grove, which he can do because so many blacks have left the South that few are left behind who are willing to do agricultural work.

    There may be other books that cover other aspects of the Great Migration, but it’s hard to imagine Wilkerson’s book ever being surpassed in its storytelling ability. And as those who were alive during the Migration slowly disappear, her book may turn out to be the last great oral history of the era.

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act — October 29, 2017

E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters: the Origins of the Black Act

Men in knight attire with their dogs. Maybe they're law enforcement?
This is another magic trick by the author of the magisterial Making of the English Working Class. The book plays itself out to the reader as a little historical mystery: why did the English government care enough about the theft of deer to make it, in the early decades of the 1700s, a crime punishable by death?

The book opens with explorations of individual cases in minute detail, and in the hands of a lesser author this might be exhaustingly tedious. To his credit, Thompson is both too good an author to let this happen, and aware enough of what ordinary readers are like to understand that we might feel that way. The cases are dealt with briskly and dramatically; Thompson is an excellent storyteller. The stories are mined for as much ore as they’ll offer up, because the data on the Black Act are apparently sparse: early-18th-century England was heavily censored, seemingly in part as a way to enforce stability after the Hanoverian succession. So few people wanted to come out and say that the Black Act was impossibly Draconian.

The Act wanted to label those accused of ‘blacking’ (i.e., dressing up in disguise, painting their faces black, and hiding off in the woods at night) members of what we today would call ‘gangs’ or ‘terrorist cells’. If they were tarred as a group, and their actions were perceived as a criminal conspiracy, it was easier to throw the book at them. In this way the parallels to the modern ‘terrorist’ label are fairly striking. The “blacks” did, in fact, act as small groups in many cases: attacking a landlord’s house at night, firing into his windows, and stealing deer as a group. But they don’t seem to have been a widespread movement with any actual leadership, apart from a perhaps mythical figure named “King John”. Instead, they were sporadically organized deer thieves across a couple counties in England.

So why, again, were Walpole and others so concerned to suppress the blacks up to the point of sentencing them to death? In the second half of Whigs and Hunters, Thompson throws back the curtain on the era and on the story of the blacks. In his description, the first decades of the 1700s in England sound a lot like the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union: rapacious capitalists had rushed in and were siphoning off public funds into their private bank accounts. Georgian England, in particular, was in the middle of the enclosure movement, whereby land that had been owned in common since before the memory of man was now given over to the highest bidder. In the grand arc of history, maybe this was better in the long run, but in the meantime it was depriving peasants of their livelihoods.

On that score, Thompson’s book begins with a detailed exploration of what forests are used for. Again, just as in Making of the English Working Class, he pulls off this feat of being as richly detailed as necessary, while never taking his eye off the larger story. Today a forest seems like, basically, a nice place to spend a few contemplative hours where the air is nice. To early-18th-century England, it was a source of food in the form of deer, a source of heat in the form of wood, and the scene on which community life played out. Now, under George I, all this was being torn from beneath the people who’d lived there for centuries, all so that Walpole and his cronies could get wealthy at the public trough.

It’s Thompson’s great magic trick to acknowledge the scantiness of the data on the specific case of the blacks, while embedding that case within a broader history of the 1700s by which the blacks suddenly make perfect sense.

His peroration — which Jeet Heer mentioned thusly:

— is what led me to read this book. It’s a plea to recognize that the law isn’t, as a certain strain of Marxists would say, a mere fig leaf over ruling-class interest. While Walpole and others may have profited off the common wealth, and while they may have crafted laws that punished the lower classes, it’s important to note that they felt the need to do this through the vehicle of the law. Their power was not unbounded: there’s a difference between the unlimited power of the totalitarian and the limited power of a ruler within a society of laws. Thompson’s defense of the rule of law is timeless, beautiful, and in the context of the larger work, rather surprising.

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class — October 19, 2017

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class

A (presumably British) working man, photographed from the nose down, the image tinged red. The working man is carrying a lunch pail or something similar, and he wears a soiled apron.

This is really an extraordinary book, quite unlike anything I’ve read before. Normally my problem with books written by British historians — here I’m thinking of Hobsbawm and Gellner, both of whose books I recommend without hesitation — is that they meander seemingly at random around the topic. I’m probably wrong about this, and the problem is probably that they optimistically assume I know more than I do. In any case, usually when I read them I imagine an old, doddering, amiable professor standing at the front of the lecture hall, back turned to his class as he stares with some puzzlement at the blackboard silently for a few minutes, until eventually his disorganized eyebrows perk up and he declares loudly to the class, “Yes! Yes, we shall discuss the Napoleonic Wars” in a course about the Blitz.

Thompson’s book has some of that, but it is thoroughly under his control. Whenever he encounters an interesting historical bend in the road, he stops, lays the groundwork, examines that bend, and always returns promptly to the path he was on. The Making of the English Working Class is a monumental work of ornately carved detail and breathtaking scope all at once. It took me a good month to read it, and I’m so glad I did.

I learned a lot. First was probably this outline of the path Thompson planned to draw:

I do not see class as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships. … class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.

This helps explain a subsequent observation:

Popular movements in London have often lacked the coherence and stamina which results from the involvement of an entire community in common occupational and social tensions.

That is, it’s much easier to form a class and set it against its antagonists when, for instance, you’re in Sheffield and your neighbors all specialize, as you do, in manufacturing cutlery, than when you’re in a heterogeneous metropolis like London.

But let’s start much earlier, before the Industrial Revolution was even a glimmer in James Hargreaves’s eye. Thompson begins coalescing the threads that eventually became the British working class at least a century earlier, with John Wesley’s creation of the Methodist church. The strictly organized hierarchy of the Methodist church, says Thompson, taught workers a thing or two about organizing groups of people, which they put to good use in the later labor movement. (Thompson mentions “Halévy’s famous thesis that Methodism prevented revolution in England in the 1790s.” I know not of this thesis, though looking in here for the word “Jacobinism” gives an intriguing taste.)

Mid-1700s radicalism centers on a British notion of the “free-born Englishman”, which I gather I’m supposed to know about, because I’m supposed to know about the English 17th century. Turns out I don’t know about the English 17th century, though I’m working on it. What I infer from reading Thompson is that English rhetoric of the 17th century sounds a lot like American rhetoric today: that anyone who wants to invent a new right had best pretend that he’s not inventing this right, but merely recovering it from the ancient rights of his ancestors.

And then the French Revolution came, and with it a new justification for the rights of man — embodied, on the English side of the Channel, in Thomas Paine, and specifically in his Rights Of Man. Thompson says that The Rights Of Man was a very big deal, “establish[ing] a new framework within which Radicalism was confined for nearly 100 years, as clear and as well defined as the constitutionalism which it replaced.”

It’s of course well known that radicalism on the Continent scared the dickens out of the English ruling class; if this isn’t well known to you, Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind is a good treatment of the topic. I was not aware, though (clearly having forgotten my Robin), that Paine himself was so central to the formation of an entire way of thinking. I know as much about Paine as the next American schoolboy: I learned a sentence or two about him, then picked up another from the Hamilton soundtrack. Burke, and then Rights of Man, go on the queue.

Reading a book about the coming of the Industrial Revolution in Britain from the corrupted perspective of an early-21st-century American, steeped as I am in far too much classical economic dogma, I’m tempted to ask: despite the dislocations and the vile urban poverty, isn’t this better for everyone? After all, if filthy 19th-century London was so bad, then why did people choose to leave their villages for it? Certainly the villages must have been even worse, no? This observation, or something like it, must be in Glaeser. And it’s by no means an academic question: how you perceive the London slums will affect how you perceive, say, the favelas, or the Bangladesh factory collapse. I confess that the Glaeser approach to these problems has infected me.

Thompson’s response makes me feel stupid. Yes, the rural areas were even worse than London, but only because the rural areas were emptying out as people moved to the metropolis. That is, there came a point when enough people had emptied out the villages that there was no home to return to. This is a classic collective-action problem: maybe those who’d moved to London would have preferred to have moved back to the country, but by this point their collective behaviors had made that impossible. In general, it seems to be the case that “consider collective action” is a catch-all, completely correct, answer to most naïve libertarian economics.

We’re all so sullied by libertarian economics — well, I can’t speak for you, but I speak for myself — that we tend to view most economic dislocation through the eyes of this degraded libertarian calculus. Glaeser, for instance, repeatedly advocates helping poor people, not poor places. Were it up to Glaeser, I imagine we’d abandon Detroit, and that we would have abandoned New Orleans after Katrina. The humane response to Glaeser seems almost painfully innocent: places have meaning. A city isn’t just a collection of economic transactions bound together by a shopping district; it’s where generations of people lay down roots. The corrupt libertarian ideology seems to treat preservation of the basic social structure of a place as a needless sidebar to economic maximization. When I read Ruskin, I perceived him as hopelessly naïve, standing as he was on the other side of that chasm. On the contrary, it is I who was naïve; Ruskin was watching the destruction of the land and of his society, whereas I’m standing at a vantage point from which all the destruction has been smoothed away.

This historical empathy lets us view the Luddites more sympathetically:

the conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the “freedom” of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship.

In many ways Thompson’s book is a fleshing-out of Karl Polanyi. The story arc of Polanyi’s book is that every society which has undergone capitalist economic transformation has tried to do something to arrest that change. The point isn’t to stop economic liberalization, but rather to slow it down so that the social structure can keep up. Economics is an important sphere of human life, but it’s not the only such sphere. A good bit of Thompson’s book is expanding on this idea down to fine (and finely rendered) detail in the English context.

Thompson’s style in delivering this detail is to quote exhaustively from primary sources: from the pamphlets of proselytizers like Cobbett and from the petitions of angry assembled workingmen. The result is just overpoweringly persuasive. And then scattered throughout are his absolutely ice-cold daggers into the libertarian orthodoxy, as here when he demolishes the idea that libertarian “freedom” was a natural outcome of the market’s magical powers:

In the weavers’ history we have a paradigm case of the operation of a repressive and exploitive system upon a section of workers without trade union defences. Government not only intervened actively against their political organisations and trade unions; it also inflicted upon the weavers the negative dogma of the freedom of capital as intransigently as it was to do upon the victims of the Irish famine.

The Making of the English Working Class is what happens when a man’s moral outrage is channeled into icy, careful intellectual vengeance — for instance, this:

Finally, it is suggested, with tedious repetition, that the slums, the stinking rivers, the spoliation of nature, and the architectural horrors may all be forgiven because all happened so fast, so haphazardly, under intense population pressure, without premeditation and without prior experience. “It was ignorance rather than avarice that was often the cause of misery.” [citing Hartwell — SRSL] As a matter of fact, it was demonstrably both; and it is by no means evident that the one is a more amiable characteristic than the other. The argument is valid only up to a point — to the point in most great towns, in the 1830s or 1840s, when doctors and sanitary reformers, Benthamites and Chartists, fought repeated battles for improvement against the inertia of property-owners and the demagoguey of “cheap government” rate-payers. By this time the working people were virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves, and the middle-classes demonstrated their real opinions of the industrial towns by getting as far out of them as equestrian transport made convenient.

This same deeply moral man observes that “one writer [Salaman — SRSL] has surveyed the issue [of child labor] with that air of boredom appropriate to the capacious conscience of the Nuclear Age.”

Thompson’s book is an exquisite antidote to the bloodless economic morality that we’ve all become accustomed to. He takes his time mapping out an 18th- and early-19th-century English world that lies so far on the other side of an economic chasm that we’re mostly unaware that it was ever possible:

The classic exploitive relationship of the Industrial Revolution is depersonalised, in the sense that no lingering obligations of mutuality—of paternalism or deference, or of the interests of “the Trade”—are admitted. There is no whisper of the “just” price, or of a wage justified in relation to social or moral sanctions, as opposed to the operation of free market forces.

He takes enough time painting his portrait of pre-Industrial Revolution English life that it becomes just possible to feel historical empathy — to place ourselves in the shoes of those living in an economic and social system vastly different from our own. That historical empathy alone makes this book worth the price of admission.

To get from that side of the industrial chasm to this one, we had to cross over a point where people were fully aware of what they were destroying, and what they were to gain from the destruction. The very soul of man had to be reshaped, so that he viewed himself as an appendage of the machine:

“Our intention,” said one Assistant Commissioner, “is to make the workhouses as like prisons as possible”; and another, “our object … is to establish therein a discipline so severe and repulsive as to make them a terror to the poor and prevent them from entering”.

We left behind a world that operated at a humane tempo rather than a mechanical one:

A whole pattern of family and community life had grown up around the loom-shops; work did not prevent conversation or singing.

Questions about the benefits of economic “liberalization” do still nag at me, though, as when Thompson writes:

Between 1806 and 1817 the number of gig mills in Yorkshire was said to have increased from 5 to 72; the number of shears worked by machinery from 100 to 1,462; and out of 3,378 shearmen no less than 1,170 were out of work while 1,445 were only partly employed.

Their labour was replaced by that of unskilled men and juveniles.

(internal footnote omitted) What were the unskilled men doing before the Industrial Revolution began? Perhaps he answers this question somewhere within this magisterial volume, but I couldn’t find it. Even if the answer is “they were living on poor relief”, that doesn’t undermine Thompson’s (and Polanyi’s) thesis: there were real victims of the Industrial Revolution, and it will not do to hand-wave that an omelet requires breaking some eggs.

The arc of Thompson’s story runs from the intellectual foundations in Methodist 18th-century England, all the way through the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. Along the way, the story drives relentlessly toward the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, which is seemingly a pivotal moment in the English labor movement. Perhaps it’s similar to the Pullman strike? I’m afraid I know about as much about American labor history as about English labor history.

Thompson’s book is an astonishing entrée into the history. He places the reader’s mind and heart into that era; it must set the table perfectly for subsequent readings about the time — many of which I’ve queued up. I’d urge you to read it, both as important history and as the work of a historian in absolute control of his art.