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Global Affairs

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Chronicles of Brazil

Perhaps coincidentally, diplomats feature prominently among writers from ‘emerging’ countries such as Brazil and India. Yet unlike, say, Vikas Swarup’s ‘Q & A’ (better known through its movie adaptation ‘Slumdog Millionaire’), Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s recent novel ‘His Own Man’ (first published in Portuguese in 2010, and translated into English in 2014) does not let the — often messy — politics fade into the background of a human-interest story. ‘His Own Man’, writes BRB reviewer Julian Murphy, sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values, yet calling the book a ‘personal’ account would do the book a disservice: It is also undoubtedly a contribution to a public record of a dark era — between 1960 and ca. 1985 — of South America’s history.

Who Owns Germany?

‘Who owns Germany?’ What might look like a polemical question, intended to incite envy, is in fact a valid concern that merits attention from social scientists and policy-makers. On average, a German household owns wealth to the tune of more than two-hundred thousand Euros. But wealth is unevenly distributed — which is why half of the population owns barely 1.4 percent of total wealth, whereas two thirds of Germany’s wealth are in the hands of the top 10 percent. In his eponymous book, ‘Who Owns Germany?’ (Westend, Frankfurt 2014), Jens Berger traces the origins and the consequences of uneven wealth distribution, its hidden mechanisms and those profiteer from policies that continue to channel wealth from the bottom to the top. Throughout, writes reviewer Patrick Schreiner, Berger maintains a measured tone and displays a keen attention to detail and an awareness of the social realities — from the casualization of labour to the malfunctions of the international financial markets.

Crunch Time for Food Policy

How do we feed an ever growing world population in an environment of increasing scarcity? In their book ‘Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch: From Soup to Nuts’ (London: Routledge 2014), investment bankers Julie Hudson and Paul Donovan liken the current overuse of the environment to the over-borrowing that ultimately led to the credit crunch in the global financial markets in 2008/09. Yet, argues reviewer Heiko Fritz, this perspective is ultimately limiting, and says more about the mindset of those trained to look at the world’s problems through the lens of financial markets, than about the challenges of food policy under conditions of environmental degradation. This is why, ultimately, the authors converge on the misguided conclusion that, as Fritz summarizes their views, “the hunt for technical efficiency is the most pressing problem of global food production”.

Optimists Beware!

Geoengineering — the idea that humans should deliberately engage in planetary-level interference with the Earth’s natural systems, in an attempt to partially reverse anthropogenic climate change — is a contentious idea, which nonetheless has quickly spread in policy circles and in the public’s imagination. Partly this is the result of the dismal failure of the global community to agree on, and enact, mitigation measures; partly, it is fuelled by a desire to see human beings as ‘in control’. Adding to several recent books on geoengineering, Clive Hamilton in ‘Earthmasters’ (Yale UP 2013) surveys the types of technologies being talked about under such labels as ‘solar radiation management’ and ‘carbon dioxide removal’, and inquires into the reasons for our collective inaction on climate mitigation. While much of the terrain has been covered elsewhere, reviewer Rose Cairns argues, Hamilton succeeds in bringing to the fore the issue of the enormous scale of the infrastructures that would be required to deploy any of the geoengineering techniques currently being explored.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake

Two and a half years after the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011, a number of books have appeared which explore the impact of the events on Japanese politics and policy-making. In ‘After the Great East Japan Earthquake’, published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, based in Copenhagen, a number of contributors analyze those policy areas most likely to be affected by the tragedy – politics, economics, energy, climate, agriculture and food safety – and describe how the sectors have been affected and what the implications are for the future. This adds up to a useful set of additional perspectives, according to reviewer Hansley A. Juliano, in this review originally written for the LSE Review of Books.

The Culture of the “As If”

The last few years have witnessed a resurgence of political mass movements and revolts — ranging from the West’s ‘Occupy’ movement to the Arab Spring and recent protest movements in Turkey and Egypt. Participation in these movements is heavily skewed towards the urban, educated classes. Two recent books — one in German, the other in French — approach this phenomenon at a theoretical level, though from different disciplinary perspectives. As reviewer Thorsten Botz-Bornstein describes in his essay review of Wolfgang Kraushaar’s ‘The Revolt of the Educated’ (Hamburg 2012) and Roland Gori’s ‘The Impostor Factory’ (Paris 2013), both books identify a dissatisfaction with a particular style of governance and formal-instrumental style of rationality as one of the reasons behind these protests. Whereas Kraushaar gives an empirical-historical reconstruction of the figure of the “new global protester”, Gori — in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Jacques Ellul — analyzes the psychological potency of various techniques of ‘normalization’. Together, both books amount to a powerful critique of the social and political impostures that are being performed through false abstractions and misguided claims to universality.

Can the Market Speak?

The market, we are told, has moods and desires, is ‘jittery’ and ‘sends a message’. We are told to listen and anticipate its every move, preempting adverse ‘verdicts of the market’ through shrewd political decision-making. In his short (81-page) essay, ‘Can the Market Speak?’, Campbell Jones investigates the conceptual assumptions that underlie the idea that the market has intentions, consciousness, and the ability to speak to us. Yet, argues reviewer Mark Bergfeld, by solely focussing on the personification of the markets, Jones reveals a contradiction in capital’s attempt to paint the markets as behaving rationally: The supposed rational actors inside of the markets are themselves guided by “the invisible hand of the market”. In other words, underlying the very rationality of the market one finds irrationality and superstition.

Exchange of Glances: Florence and Baghdad

In his new book, ‘Florence and Baghdad: Renaissance Art and Arab Science’, German art historian Hans Belting re-examines the dual use of perspective, as a transformative device of depiction in Western Art and as a form of geometrical abstraction in Middle Eastern Islamic art. While the theory of perspective was first formulated in eleventh-century Baghdad by Ibn al-Haithan (Alhazen), it was in Florence that its potential as a mirror of the human gaze was fully explored. However, writes reviewer Jerry Brotton, in re-evaluating the origins of perspective in Western art, Belting stays clear of clichéd arguments about how Arab and Islamic thinkers ‘got there first’ in the discovery of perspective. Instead, he asks the more profound question of why Alhazen developed the visual principles of perspective but did not translate them into an artistic theory. Central to his answer is the recognition that, on Alhazen’s account of vision, images were thought to originate in the imagination, not the eye: In other words, they could not be made visible because they did not occur in the external world.

American Foundations and the Politics of Philanthropy

In his book ‘Foundations of the American Century’ (Columbia University Press 2012), Inderjeet Parmar provides a wide-ranging study of the influence American philanthropic foundations have exerted on world politics and the ‘soft power’ that comes with cultural hegemony. The mutual penetration of state and society, notest Parmar, is ‘so deep and comprehensive – physically, politically, ideologically, psychologically, and organizationally – that it is almost impossible to say where one ends and the other begins’. Parmar’s book succeeds, writes reviewer Houman Barekat, because he studiously avoids the trap of implying an unmediated vertical relationship between the philanthropies and the political and economic elites whose goals they ultimately served. Nuanced and well-researched, Parmar’s study provides a healthy antidote to simplistic critiques of US ‘elites’, while bringing out – through case studies of Indonesia and Chile – how the initiatives of ‘philanthropic’ organizations dovetailed with and complemented those of the American state.

Right to the Olympic Village

Most visitors to London’s Olympic Park will need to enter through a narrow passageway next to Westfield Stratford City, a gigantic retail and entertainment venue. The Olympic park itself is not accountable to any of the London boroughs and councils within which it is located. Combine this decline of the idea of public space with the curious opening skit that featured ‘James Bond’ and the Queen, and the idea of the Olympic Games as a celebration of the human body and spirit takes on more than a whiff of, as Lewis Beardmore puts it in his review of David Harvey’s ‘Rebel Cities’ – ‘the sinister securitisation and spatial control surrounding the emplacement of the Olympic Games in East London’.