by Beth Plutchak
When Timmi asked me to write a blog post for the annual series on reading pleasures for this year, I panicked. I wished I were one of those people who keeps a list of everything I’ve read during the year, maybe notes as I read, maybe reviews on Good Reads. I don’t do any of those things. I don’t have a neat list to share. Everything I read is related to everything else and related to the things I am working on. I didn’t read much science fiction this year. I did reread Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler.
Since the election we all have been living on the Edge of Chaos. It’s felt like, as my Mom used to say, a real kick in the teeth. I needed to know what we were in for, also how it all comes out in the end. Spoilers—the way through and the way out is to build community and control the narrative.
I didn’t even complete a lot of nonfiction books this year. I’m currently working on a project using complexity theory to explain the failure of progressivism. Are you interested in what I’m reading for that? It’s mostly politics, economics, and social justice. I read mostly online. Twitter has never worked for me, I’m on Tumblr for the Michael Kitchen fandom, and LiveJournal is as good as gone. So, like many of my cohorts I spend a lot of time on Facebook. I follow writers who link to their own longform pieces elsewhere as well as provide analysis and links to interesting articles. Ooh, that’s a list.
Here is who I read on FB: Kat Tanaka Okopnik, the author of the ongoing Dictionary of Social Justice; Ijeomo Oluo, “Come for the feminist rants—stay for the selfies and kid quotes. Inclusive feminism here”; Son of Baldwin who links to and provides analyses of issues of racial and gender injustice; Jim C. Wright for rural left politics and a touch of sardonic humor; David Gerrold even though I ; and Mary Anne Mohanraj because she is so eclectic and the food. All these people are probably active on Twitter if that’s your jam. I don’t know.
I have a lot to stay on top of. I’ve added magazines to the mix this year. I now subscribe to the dead tree version of the often problematic The Atlantic. I’d like to see fewer articles that humanize Nazis for the white voter, though (I see you, too—New Yorker), and more articles that humanize people of color, because apparently white people need that. Now if we were willing to say ‘Hey, I have more in common than I thought with those people in the black community,’ for example, we might get somewhere.
I’ve subscribed to the digital version of The Washington Post. I’ve gone back and forth on The New Yorker, but still am able to read what I want within the free articles per month. I’ve added Bill Moyers Journal to my feed-reader.
People often ask me which economists I follow (seriously, they really do) and these are my go to sites at the moment: left, mainstream economists include Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker, Econbrowser—for Menzie Chin, Economists View—for Mark Thoma, the little bit lefter Robert Reich, and the left libertarian Yves Smith.
I’m also following a few that are specifically concerned with complexity economics.
In a November 17th interview with Ursula K. LeGuin in The Los Angeles Review of Books, she is asked “You once clarified your political stance by saying, ‘I am not a progressive. I think the idea of progress an invidious and generally harmful mistake. I am interested in change, which is an entirely different matter.’ Why is the idea of progress harmful? Surely in the great sweep of time, there has been progress on social issues because people have an idea or even an ideal of it.
“[Le Guin:] I didn’t say progress was harmful, I said the idea of progress was generally harmful [emphasis mine]… I was thinking of the idea of history as ascending infallibly to the better—which, it seems to me, is how the 19th and 20th centuries tended to use the word ‘progress.’ We leave behind us the Dark Ages of ignorance, the primitive ages without steam engines, without airplanes/nuclear power/computers/whatever is next. Progress discards the old, leads ever to the new, the better, the faster, the bigger, et cetera. You see my problem with it? It just isn’t true.”
This is as good an example as any of the Hegelian Mistake (thesis plus antithesis leads us to synthesis and leads us to a progressively better place). Complexity Theory is based on how change happens in the biological sciences, which is never straightforward, and never never predictable. An example of change states is boiling water. Water is changing from liquid to gas. We cannot predict which individual molecules will make the change. We only know that if we don’t keep applying heat or pressure, change as a whole will never be completed. Complexity scientists call this state the Edge of Chaos. I think it is more than a metaphor for where we are in the world today. I think it is the truth of it.
The economists working on this can be found at Evonomics-The Next Evolution of Economics and The Institute for New Economic Thinking. But books, was I supposed to be talking about books? A good place for the lay reader to start in understanding complexity economics is Eric D. Bonhoeker’s, The Origin of Wealth. I first read this ten years ago, but I return to it often. From the book: “Historically, science had taken a top-down reductionist approach, breaking the universe into ever smaller pieces…in search of ultimate laws… while this approach had been extraordinarily successful, many of the hardest problems in nature are “complex systems” that have collective or emergent characteristics.”
This year I decided I wanted to find out more about the Santa Fe Institute where much of this theory was first developed. And yes, I do follow the Santa Fe Institute on FB, as well as The Edge of Chaos, the lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham tasked with solving “wicked problems.” So, this year I read Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, by M. Mitchell Waldrop. This book, as well as deepening my understanding of complexity theory has lots of history about the founding of the Santa Fe Institute, where the work of complexity science continues. Unfortunately, much of the research on economics has been squandered on making better stock market predictions.
Thinking about complexity economics has lead me to thinking about the failures of neoliberalism and late-stage capitalism. Paul Mason, an economics reporter for The Guardian, wrote Postcapitalism A Guide to Our Future. This book provides a comprehensive breakdown of the failures of neoliberalism, why Marxism won’t fix them, and what needs to happen and in some cases is happening. Basically, as finance and intellectual property appropriate the place in the economy that was formerly held by manufacturing, GDP and income can no longer be in sync. Jobs and wages will never again create the standard of living that baby-boomers thought inevitable.
This lead me to Next: The Future Just Happened, by Michael Lewis. Like all of Lewis’s books, this one is an easy, gossipy read. It leans a little too heavily to the AI-are-taking-over- our-jobs argument; however, if you can read past that and read it in conjunction with Mason’s book, you have the beginnings of an argument of how we need to be thinking about economics. I’ve started The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin, which goes further into an analysis of the internet of things, the collaborative commons, and the eclipse of Capitalism.
Together these books lean a little too heavily on the experiences of those who are already privileged in white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and can be read as economic solutions for millennial technocrats. I urge you not to do so. The problem isn’t that the outlook in these books is wrong, it's that it’s limited. The piece that’s missing is the experience of marginalized people in moving through society and in creating communities.
People on the margins are, have been, speaking up about how to survive in America. This year I got around to reading Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay. I’ve long said that the reason feminism seems irrelevant to young people is because we lost. We lost. We owe young people an apology. We need to get out of their way.
I also read The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 11: Trials by Whiteness, edited by Jaymee Goh. The WisCon Chronicles have historically provided a forum outside of the mainstream press and academia to provide analytic insights born of people’s lived experiences. This is the missing piece, my friends. How do we get from here to there? We listen to, we support, we follow those who have never been included.
Beth Plutchak is a writer and consultant. After a twenty-year career in commercial banking she started her own business doing economic development and marketing consulting. Economics and social justice inform all of her work. She was the editor of the WisCon Souvenir Book for WisCons 21 through 29. Aqueduct Press published Boundaries, Border Crossings, and Reinventing the Future earlier this year and will publish her collection of short fiction, Liminal Spaces, in early 2018.