Marxism

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged iPad App

Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged iPad AppThe Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged book app for iPad has been awarded the App Fiction prize in the 2012 Publishing Innovation Awards. The award was handed out at the recent Digital Book World Conference.

In addition to the novel itself, the app “includes some of Rand’s lectures, additional articles for further reading on Rand and her philosophies, a timeline of events in Rand’s life as well as the works she published, and other materials.” If you own an iOS device, you might want to check it out, but it will cost you $14.99.

In related news, filming for Atlas Shrugged: Part Two is scheduled to begin in April. The first film was not great (see Matthew Alexander’s review) and didn’t do so well financially. It doesn’t bode well that the second film will have a smaller budget and a new director and may have some central characters recasted.

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But back to Apple-related news, one P.J. Rey over at The Society Pages: Cyborgology has an interesting article about “How Cyberpunk Warned against Apple’s Consumer Revolution.” There are at times anti-corporate progressive and Marxist overtones in the article — Rey even references Marx’s notion of “false consciousness” — but nevertheless Rey’s criticism of Apple in light of cyberpunk’s tendency toward individualist anarchism should be of interest to radical libertarians of all stripes.

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BOOK REVIEW | For The Win by Cory Doctorow Thumbnail

Cory Doctorow’s latest YA novel, For The Win, just might be the Jungle of the digital age — a depiction of the plight of professional gamers and their struggle to unionize and extract concessions such as better pay, shorter hours, and safer working conditions (?!) from their employers through collective bargaining. Not being an avid gamer myself, much less a professional gold farmer, I’m left to wonder if it is as poorly researched and inaccurate as Upton Sinclair’s piece of socialist propaganda fiction. I expect left-libertarians will tend to like this novel but other libertarians will not. As for myself, I struggled to finish it and do not recommend it — as much because of the writing style and quality of writing as the subject matter.

For The Win opens with a gifted Chinese gold farmer — a working gamer who plays to collect game money and items to sell for “real” money to “rich,” lazy, mostly American gamers — in China who just happens to have the Western name of Matthew. He’s attempting to strike out on his own but is visited by Boss Wing’s goons and taught a lesson. Then we meet an American Jew in Los Angeles who goes by the Chinese name of Wei-Dong and moonlights, against his parents’ orders, as a gold farmer with some online buddies in China. Next, we’re introduced to Mala, aka General Robotwallah, a poor Indian girl with a talent for strategy and leadership, who is hired by a mysterious man to use her “army” to harass gold farmers in-game because they allegedly disrupt the game for honest, paying customers.

Before long we’re introduced to Big Sister Nor, a mysterious new figure on the scene who is out to organize working gamers into a union to fight corruption and improve their circumstances. As the novel progresses, we’re introduced to more characters, mostly in China and India, where the bulk of the action takes place. Perhaps the most notable is a female Chinese underground radio host who caters to the factory girls, giving them advice and urging them to stand up for themselves, while she dodges police raids, moving from safe house to safe house under a series of false identities.

One of the themes of the novel is how difficult it has been historically for workers to organize and how the internet (including social media and online games) provide game-changing tools for organizing labor. There is much truth to this, though I am skeptical that even the myriad tools of the internet can allow a voluntary global union to pull off anything like the ambitious scheme Cory’s protagonists endeavor to carry out in the novel. Although Cory has characters voice the usual skeptical objections to the efficacy of a voluntary global union, I don’t think he adequately addresses the difficulties such a union would face even in the digital age. Without state-backed coercion (directed at businesses, scabs, and their own members), how much power would a union really have, particularly spread out over the globe? Sure, gamers have an advantage in that they all work virtually in the same place — but still…

To Cory’s credit, however, he does depict a truly voluntary union whose leaders welcome freely competing unions in the market. The International Workers of the World Wide Web (IWWWW) or Webblies, as they call themselves,1 even eschew a formal hierarchy. The de facto head of the union at one point exclaims to her followers, “I’m not magic. … You all lead yourselves.” They also, admirably, do not seek compliance with their demands through legislation or regulation. Instead, they engage in self-help. Libertarians may find some of their methods questionable, however.

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  1. These terms were coined by Ken MacLeod, based on the real Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobblies), and borrowed by Cory Doctorow. 

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Dr. Uchronia

Dr. Uchronia

The history that didn’t happen can be just as interesting as the history that did.

This article is a small example of its own topic. Except by chance, I wouldn’t now be writing it. Not finding what I wanted while browsing in our library’s magazine aisles, I came across mention of “uchronie” in Le Nouvel Observateur. The philosopher Charles Renouvier chose this word as the title of his novel of 1857 and 1876; he coined it from Greek roots meaning “no time.” He was following the pattern set by St. Thomas More, whose Utopia derives from roots meaning “no place.” Utopia is a place that does not exist; uchronia is a time that did not exist. Uchronian works — to introduce the English adjective — are also called “what-if,” alternative, conjectural, or counterfactual history. They consider what would have happened if something else had chanced to happen.

Such works fall into two categories. The distinction is fuzzy but useful. Writings of the first kind, unlike actual history or a standard historical novel, are sheer fiction. They are not speculations about real events; they are stories that stand on their own. The Star Wars movies and Tolkien’s tales are good examples. Another is Islandia, a novel by Austin Tappan Wright, published posthumously in 1942. Wright describes events and personalities in a country on a fictional continent in the Southern Hemisphere before World War I. The people of Islandia, while highly civilized and advanced in philosophy and psychology, prefer their old ways, rejecting railroads and most other modern technology and narrowly limiting contact with the outside world. The reader (this one, anyway) drifts with the author into sympathy with the Islandian way of thinking.

Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1887) projects an opposite vision, one intended as backward only in an ironic sense; it imagines a prosperous and happy socialist utopia of 2000. This uchronia actually exerted some influence in its time, converting many readers to socialism because they wanted to live in the world of Bellamy’s vision.

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REVIEW ARTICLE | Henry Hazlitt, Literary Critic Thumbnail

The Anatomy of Criticism (1933)Remembered mostly for his contributions to economics, including his pithy and still-timely classic Economics in One Lesson (1946), Henry Hazlitt was a man who wore many hats. He was a public intellectual and the author or editor of some twenty-eight books, one of which was a novel, The Great Idea (1961) — published in Britain and later republished in the United States as Time Will Run Back (1966) — and another of which, The Anatomy of Criticism (1933), was a trialogue on literary criticism. (Hazlitt’s book came out twenty-four years before Northrop Frye published a book of criticism under the same title.) Great-great nephew to British essayist William Hazlitt, the boy Henry wanted to become like the eminent pragmatist and philosopher-psychologist William James, who was known for his charming turns of phrase and literary sparkle. Relative poverty would prevent Hazlitt’s becoming the next James. But the man Hazlitt forged his own path, one that established his reputation as an influential man of letters.

In part because of his longstanding support for free market economics, scholars of literature have overlooked Hazlitt’s literary criticism; and Austrian economists — perhaps for lack of interest, perhaps for other reasons — have done little to restore Hazlitt’s place among the pantheon of twentieth-century literary critics. Yet Hazlitt deserves that honor. He may not have been a Viktor Shklovsky, Roman Jakobson, Cleanth Brooks, William K. Wimsatt, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, or Kenneth Burke, but Hazlitt’s criticism is valuable in negative terms: he offers a corrective to much that is wrong with literary criticism, both then and now. His positive contributions to literary criticism seem slight when compared to those of the figures named in the previous sentence. But Hazlitt is striking in his ability to anticipate problems with contemporary criticism, especially the tendency to judge authors by their identity. Hazlitt’s contributions to literary criticism were not many, but they were entertaining and erudite, rivaling as they did the literary fashions of the day and packing as much material into a few works as other critics packed into their entire oeuvres.

Hazlitt became literary editor of The Nation — a position once held by Paul Elmer More — in 1930. At that time, formalism was the dominant school of literary analysis in Russia, and the New Criticism was in its nascent stages in America. The former scrutinized supposedly invariant linguistic patterns or grammars of poetry and sought to divorce authorial biography from textual criticism. Formalism also sought to break down literature into its constituent elements: form, irony, meter, voice, plot, point of view, and so forth. Proponents of Russian formalism included Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Yuri Tynyanov, Boris Tomashevsky, Vladimir Propp, and Roman Jakobson. Each of these men produced idiosyncratic works that have in common a certain attention to the manifest structure of language. Each considered syntactical systems as imperative to the organization and meaning of artistic works. In 1930, the same year in which Hazlitt assumed his position at The Nation, Shklovsky renounced formalism, which had come under assault by socialist and communist ideologues who insisted that criticism tow party lines and tolerate no dissent. It would be another three decades at least before Russian formalism received extensive critical treatment in America — except among small Slavicist academic circles — but the commonalities shared by formalism and the New Criticism reveal something (what, exactly, is debatable) about the global trajectory of literary criticism during a topsy-turvy era.

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