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Book Review: Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics by William Bonner and Lila Rajiva

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Bill Bonner and Lila Rajiva team up, in Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets: Surviving the Public Spectacle in Finance and Politics, to peel the layers of glittering wool from our eyes so that we may see the world of politics and financial markets for what they are. They show us the poor players upon the stage, to paraphrase Macbeth for a moment, as they strut and fret their hour upon the stage, telling tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. And what a show it is! Cocks, with their long bright tail feathers, strutting down the runway. Big-horned deer duking it out on stage. That's what it all comes down to, the authors observe. In the end,

it's all sex and lies. Everything: Romance. Cars. Jobs. The debt bubble. The real estate bubble. The trade deficit bubble. The American Empire. They are useful only as evidence of conspicuous consumption; they wink to the opposite sex that the animal is fit for procreation and game for a little hanky-panky. If he can carry around all that extra baggage and still survive, he must be tough.

Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets is a tragi-comedy, full of sharp observations, delivered with equally sharp wit. This book's dark and disturbing revelations could leave one depressed and disillusioned, were it not so damn funny.

But Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets isn't merely about sitting back in our seats to laugh at the poor saps on stage. They aren't blaming the actors either. Well, not entirely. Most of them are otherwise intelligent, responsible, rational individuals who have simply been caught up in the public spectacle and the irrationality of mass mentality. So along with the sharp observations and disturbing revelations are some pointers for the thinking individual — individual is key — to use the knowledge gleaned from the show to avoid getting caught up in the public spectacle and maybe even make some money to secure his or her future.

BonnerBill Bonner is the founder and president of Agora Inc., a consumer newsletter and book publishing company and is the creator of The Daily Reckoning, a contrarian financial newsletter delivered via e-mail. Bonner has also written, with Addison Wiggin, Empire of Debt: The Rise of An Epic Financial Crisis and Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century.

Rajiva_2Lila Rajiva is a contributing writer and editor at Agora, and her work can also be found at Lew Rockwell, Counterpunch, Money Week, Dissident Voice, Himal South Asian, and Rational Review, among others. She is the author of The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media, and blogs at the Mind-Body Politic.

The first chapter, "Do-Gooders Gone Bad," is perhaps the lightest, but its opening paragraph hints at the central problem with which the book is concerned, whether in politics or in finance, and its dark humour sets the tone for the rest of the book.

It is a shame that the world improvers don't set off some signal before they go bad, like a fire alarm that is running out of juice. Maybe some adjustment could be made. Instead, the most successful of them — such as Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler — actually gain market share as they get worse. Their delusions are self-reinforcing, like the delusions of a stock market bubble; the higher the prices go, the more people come to believe they make sense.

Bonner and Rajiva don't put much stock in do-gooders and world improvers, nor in the over-bloated and fickle financial markets.

But how can you talk about figures like Mussolini and Hitler, some people may rightly ask, and crack jokes? The answer, I suspect, is that humour is a useful distancing tool. They are not making light of the suffering caused by these figures, but they think about things most people prefer not to. In the context of the inevitable and very devastating U.S. housing bust on the horizon they remark that they make it their business "to think about precisely what most people can't bear thinking about." And to think about these things to understand why they happen again and again and again, and why the masses inevitably get caught up in the momentum no matter how nasty things get, one must "get close enough to see how things work — like a prairie dog peering into a hay bailer — but not so close that you get caught up in it yourself."

The authors cover a lot of ground in Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets. They discuss modern world-improvers-cum-dictators like Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot. Empires intent on improving the world — Greek, Arab, Assyrian, Frankish, British and now American. Terrorism in the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries created in large part by European Crusaders who decided to "bring the blessings of Christian governance to the desert tribes" to terrorism today inspired by America's attempt at bringing "freedom and democracy" to the Muslim world. They cover mass hysteria and paranoia from the witch hunts in the late Middle Ages to the McMartin Satanic child abuse trials across America in the 1980s. They discuss the players in the financial world, from incompetent and grossly overpaid CEOs, to multinational corporations sucking the land dry in far-off countries, to advocates of globalization and the flat earth, to the IMF, World Bank, and the Federal Reserve, as well as the debt, real estate, and trade deficit bubbles. And then, of course, there is the role of propaganda and the media, from Germany to Britain to China and once again to America.

"So many humbugs, dear reader, and so little time," the authors remark at one point. And as for all the efforts of world improvement, they have this to say: "[t]he negative consequences at the end of an effort at world improvement are roughly equal and opposite to the positive aspirations at the beginning." The problem is that otherwise reasonable, intelligent individuals, be they "[i]mperialists, anti-imperialists, capitalists, communists — as soon as they get a grand scheme into their heads, a pet project for world improvement, they all seem to end up in the same place — bungling, botching, and butchering." If you "put them at a head of a country or an army, then they are off on some fool mission — bringing civilization to the barbarians, making the world safe for democracy, or ushering in the proletarian revolution."

To get at an answer for why this happens, the authors turn to the work of the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Dunbar has studied the human animal, as also other primates like monkeys, chimpanzees, and baboons, and has come to the conclusion that there is a "maximum number of people and things with which the human brain can cope effectively." Though humans are very social animals, being in possession of a well-developed neocortex to deal with complex reasoning, we really have the capacity to effectively deal with only about 150 people. Dunbar has studied 21 different hunter-gatherer cultures and found the average number of people in their villages to be 148.4. And groups in modern societies seem to have picked up on this as well, from communal groups like the Hutterites to cohesive fighting units in militaries from the classical Roman army to the modern army company.

This is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and crucial to the central argument. "Human beings, according to the sociobiologists, cannot understand much more than the things about which they are concerned for their daily existence." Yet in our modern society individuals are put in positions in which they are asked to plan for millions of people and deal with dollar figures in the billions and even trillions. Dealing with all manner of things outside of their immediate circle, people are liable to accept inadequate or wrong explanations. "The human brain," the authors argue, "is just not big enough for the big world. In order to think, people are forced to start simplifying and eliminating a lot of detail. They have to abstract … theorize … generalize." And that's how mob mentality begins. And the problem with the mob, with crowds, is that "[t]hey can only feel and act. They can't think, because they have no set of facts solid enough on which to build." And at that point, the authors warn, "[s]logans replace reason. And the private world of right and wrong has been replaced by the public spectacle, which knows no moral authority beyond its own desires."

Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets returns again and again to the public spectacle. The thinking individual, whether engaged in politics or finances, must avoid being caught up in it. The last two chapters of the book attempt to help the thinking individual steer clear of the public spectacle. Reading closely, there are some very helpful tips. The most important lesson, of course, is that independent thought will get you much further than following the masses, believing everything you read in the newspapers, or even looking for specific investment advice to follow in this book.

Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets is a great read for the independent thinker with a well-developed, and perhaps somewhat morbid, sense of humour. Readers looking for easy answers without being willing to work hard and think independently will likely get little or nothing out of it. And readers without the sense of humour to sit back and laugh at the public spectacle as it unfolds, and as it is reported in the media, will likely be offended and put the book down. The sharp wit and dark humour, as much as some of us may enjoy it, is perhaps the greatest potential drawback of this book. For readers who are willing to think independently, but don't share the sense of humour, a more serious approach might be necessary. For the rest of us, Mobs, Messiahs, and Markets is a serious and hilarious guide to surviving the public spectacle in finance and politics.

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About Abram Bergen

  • Heloise

    I happened on this book in the library last month, when I had money in the markets. It was a bit scary to read. I read other books on the market at the same time and all said one thing: You can’t beat the market, it will beat you first. That said, buy stocks like you buy groceries, a little at a time from stores you trust.

    Heloise