Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | January 7, 2015

Book Reviews

1. At Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell reviews Peter Mair’s Ruling The Void: The Hollowing Of Western Democracy (Amazon; Powell’s):

There’s plausibly a structural story behind the inability of conventional leftwing parties to challenge conventional orthodoxies and respond to the needs of their traditional constituency. They haven’t really relied on this constituency for a long time. Peter Mair’s Ruling the Void hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that it deserves, perhaps because it came out after its author’s death. But Mair – an expert on the evolution of political parties and party systems – makes a strong case that leftwing parties in Europe today have become profoundly disassociated from their voters. This is in part because of ordinary people withdrawing from political parties – the membership of mass parties has collapsed over the last few decades. However, it is also because the elites of parties don’t rely on mass membership to provide resources – instead they rely on resources from the state and networks where they are firmly embedded with other elites. The result is that European political parties rather than representing their constituents to the state, tend to represent the state and its imperatives to their constituents.

2. In the NYRB, Ann Applebaum reviews Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? Applebaum:

Instead of attempting to explain the failures of the reformers and intellectuals who tried to carry out radical change, we ought instead to focus on the remarkable story of one group of unrepentant, single-minded, revanchist KGB officers who were horrified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the prospect of their own loss of influence. In league with Russian organized crime, starting at the end of the 1980s, they successfully plotted a return to power. Assisted by the unscrupulous international offshore banking industry, they stole money that belonged to the Russian state, took it abroad for safety, reinvested it in Russia, and then, piece by piece, took over the state themselves. Once in charge, they brought back Soviet methods of political control—the only ones they knew—updated for the modern era.

That corruption was part of the Russian system from the beginning is something we’ve long known for a long time, of course. In her book Sale of the Century (2000), Chrystia Freeland memorably describes the moment when she realized that the confusing regulations and contradictory laws that hog-tied Russian business in the 1990s were not a temporary problem that would soon be cleaned up by some competent administrator. On the contrary, they existed for a purpose: the Russian elite wanted everybody to operate in violation of one law or another, because that meant that everybody was liable at any time to arrest. The contradictory regulations were not a mistake, they were a form of control.

Dawisha takes Freeland’s realization one step further. She is arguing, in effect, that even before those nefarious rules were written, the system had already been rigged to favor particular people and interest groups. No “even playing field” was ever created in Russia, and the power of competitive markets was never unleashed. Nobody became rich by building a better mousetrap or by pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Instead, those who succeeded did so thanks to favors granted by—or stolen from—the state. And when the dust settled, Vladimir Putin emerged as king of the thieves.

(H/T: Chris Blattman, who adds: “There’s a nice parallel here to the failures of foreign aid. Western observers, especially the donors, look at the collapse of democracy and growth in the 70s and 80s, and the rebound in the 90s and 00s, and give blame or praise to aid policy and institutions like the World Bank. All the while ignoring the mismatch between the institutions and policy reforms on paper, and the actual incentives and sources of power that drive politics.”)

3. In The Nation, Vivian Gornick reviews The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, edited by Georg Adler, Peter Hudis, and Annelies Laschitza:

Rosa Luxemburg’s letters have been published in English before, but this collection, of which about two-thirds are newly translated, has delivered to us a real, recognizable human being. In the previous volumes, Luxemburg often seemed uniformly heroic; here we have her in all her strength and all her frailty. And it is in the letters from prison, more than in any others she wrote, that she emerges as one of the most emotionally intelligent socialists in modern history…

(H/T: 3 Quarks Daily.)

4. Judge Kopf reviews Jailhouse Doc, by William Wright (Amazon; Powell’s):

Wright “retired” from his speciality surgery practice, and then, out of boredom, took a job being a doctor at a Colorado maximum security prison. When offered the job of running a jail medical facility closer to home and one which paid better, Wright took the offer.

Remember now, Wright was moving from a maximum security prison to a jail. How hard could that be? Jails are run by county sheriffs, right? Go ahead, picture Andy of Mayberry. WRONG.

If you are a lawyer, a judge, or an inmate, you know the difference between prisons and jails. By comparison, prison are relative islands of tranquility and normality when compared to the utter chaos and abject craziness of jails.

Most of the time, jails hold prisoners for a short time. Frequently, thirty or sixty days is the length of stay, although a fair number stay a longer as they await disposition of felony charges. Think of an Army MASH unit. There is a never-ending stream of patients.

Please do read the review in full.

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