When my partner declared a few weeks ago that he’d just ordered a copy of Marx’s Capital (vol 1), my immediate response was something along the lines of:
Really? It’s a bit long. Can’t you read a summary? Surely it’s a bit out of date nowadays anyway? Isn’t reading the whole thing cover to cover only for those radical lefties? Isn’t Marx a bit extreme? Good luck with that.
And I suspect for many of you reading this right now, something similar comes to mind.
Now, I’m a fan of AOC as much as the next person; I’m outraged when I see companies like Uber, Tesla and Amazon treat their workers horrifically; and I’ve never been able to understand how anyone can vote Tory.
But as much as I have always identified as being ‘on the left’, and despite always thinking of accumulation of capital for its own sake as ‘wrong’ somehow, I guess I’ve also seen companies and markets and division of labour/owners necessary somewhat.
I’m not writing this to tell you I’ve had some ‘coming to God’ moment, but because recently I’ve been reading more, and thinking more, and seeing ever more problematic behaviour and systems, and it’s made me realise - frankly - how little I’ve really thought about how much of what I believe is based on certain underlying assumptions brought about by unconscious socially-constructed ideas throughout my life.
When really challenged, I couldn’t really give a good coherent answer for why I didn’t understand why people voted Tory in years gone by (is it just because culturally in Scotland it’s more of a no-no or something deeper?), or why AOC is so great (what does it mean to think someone political is awesome when I can’t fully express my foundational political beliefs?), or why these companies were so bad (ok that one was more obvious…)
And I wonder if maybe it’s the same for you.
In high school, we had a class called Modern Studies. I hated it. I thought of politics as boring, as something that didn’t really affect me, as something way too subjective (I ended up studying pure maths at uni, if that helps give an indication of where my head was at). The only things I took away from that Modern Studies class is learning about the death penalty in the US, and - crucially (worryingly, in hindsight) - that democracy and capitalism are inextricably linked, and socialism is communism-lite.
And to be honest, I’ve never properly unpacked these unqualified axioms of sorts I had floating unconsciously in my mind, which I suspect have had more of a role in forming my views on society than I’d like to admit.
I’ve been following the social democratic movement for the last few years like the rest of us, cheering it on and adding my hope to the movement, but I’ve had this nagging thought at the back of my mind: ‘this can’t really work, though, can it?’
Working on a book over the last few years that was about unpacking the system of science and tech means I’ve spent a lot of time researching, thinking about and questioning why and how ‘progress’ happens the way that it does. And throughout this time, I’ve become more and more aware of how broken so many societal systems are at their core, and how no matter how much reformation happens in science and tech, it all comes back to something bigger, somewhat outside its control, outside its expertise and outside those of us commentating on its’ level of knowledge.
I haven’t had the language to express properly what I think in a meaningful way; my political understanding hasn’t been strong enough to really lay out my arguments sufficiently; I don’t have the foundational academic understanding to clearly think through and communicate what’s been there nagging at me. These paragraphs are vague for a reason.
Which brings me to Marx.
(Well, to a few other books and articles and writers and podcasts and academics first, but it doesn’t take long to end up at Marx when you start questioning how and why society right now ‘isn’t working’.)
I made a decision a few weeks ago to properly educate myself. About markets and economics and politics and value and philosophy and all that stuff those in power learn about in their Oxford PPE lectures. This maths nerd was going to embark upon something us maths and science grads tend to scoff at…a journey into ~the humanities~
And I don’t mean that no maths or science grad understands this stuff - heck, I’ve had a good enough understanding until now, probably better than average I suspect, through the books and films and podcasts I’ve been consuming over the years, through the jobs I’ve been in, and through my more general curiosity.
It’s not revolutionary to say ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’, but it is to take it to heart and apply it to yourself.
I know that I don’t know a lot. And I’d now like to learn it. Not just for fun (though I am having a great time) but so I can better form my thoughts, better argue my moralistic view of the world, better debate with those I disagree with, better understand the political factions and what they’re really campaigning for, better come to terms with what I think the next steps for society really are, and better challenge why I believe some things as opposed to simply for the purpose of justifying existing ideas.
I think many of us think we know a lot - the last year has made me realise how much I have to learn. Admitting that here to you, frankly, isn’t very easy. It’s like admitting that even though I’m meant to be an ‘expert’ on science and tech, and that I’ve wrote a whole book on underlying systems, that I’m some kind of ‘imposter’, really.
But I suspect that’s why many people don’t bother trying to really understand the world. It feels like an exposure of themselves as unknowing. It feels uncomfortable to be faced with ideas and knowledge and research and data which undercuts things you’ve believed for years; which confuses you; which perhaps makes you feel guilty or complicit.
It’s what’s been stopping me, if I’m to be really honest with you.
And so here I am, just finished Chapter 1 of Capital (alongside David Harvey’s A Companion to Marx’s Capital, which I’d be lost without, and a pal who also decided to dive in at roughly the same time with whom I’m doing a wee reading ‘group’ with).
Not only do I feel my understanding of the world has deepened in only 100 pages, but I already understand why that lesson in Modern Studies has blinkered me all this time. I’m not saying one book (or even one chapter) has flipped my worldview on its head (especially as I already agreed with the inherited principle of the book), but instead that the very act of diving into something which feels difficult and alien and outside my expertise; and perhaps scary and confronting too…feels really bloody good.
I’m writing this essay as I’ve felt reading from others going through similar journeys to be immeasurably helpful - in helping me come to terms with central ideas of mine crashing down in front of me. Maybe it’ll do the same for one or more of you.
There’s one more thing I’ve nicked from my partner beyond his copy of Capital, and it’s his astute summary of what I’m trying to say here:
“You feel you agree with some social and political principles, but you’re worried you’ve culturally inherited those ideas, and are very aware that you haven’t done the work. You’ve listened to people who have done the work but you’ve taken in their interpretation. So you need to grasp what your foundational beliefs really are, and to do this, you have to do the work for yourself. You have to work out which of those beliefs actually match the words you’re giving to them, and whether you’re dismissing ideas incorrectly, you need to learn what those beliefs and ideas are at their core and where they’ve come from.”
I don’t know if that will speak to you - now, or ever - but if it does, I hope you’ll get in touch with your favourite independent bookshop right now and order yourself some Marx (or whatever your version of Capital is) and also embark on this perilous but ultimately so fulfilling journey of beginning to really understand what you think about the world.
📌 Tip Reel 📌
Currently reading (beyond Marx…):
The System, James Ball (proof)
Notes From An Apocalypse, Mark O’Connell
The Creativity Code, Marcus du Sautoy
I started watching the Epstein documentary on Netflix last night - Filthy Rich - so far so horrific (I’m midway through episode 2), but ‘enjoying’ it all the same.
Brilliant piece from Brian Merchant over one OneZero, where he reads works “from the Bible to ‘Epidemics and Society’ to ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ to help predict our post-pandemic future”.
Afropean by Johnny Pitts won the annual Jhalak Prize for writers of colour this week. I’ve placed my order. It’s also been one of the books on the reading list for this great new book club on Instagram run by the wonderful Symeon Brown: @goodreadersclub - this Sunday they’re discussing An American Marriage. It’s one of the few online book clubs that has really excited me.
This essay by Madeleine Dunne on the cost of personal writing is fab and I think you should give it a read.
🕯 What I’m Up To 🕯
Science Disrupt podcast
I’m really proud of our latest episode (iTunes / Spotify), which is us laying down a bit of an explanation of what we mean when we talk about ‘disrupting science’ and why we need and want to be much more honest, open, upfront and realistic about what’s happening in tech and science. (I have a mini rant about VCs and the recent Clubhouse deal). Next week, we’re publishing our interview with Sabine Hossenfelder, which I’m SO excited for you guys to hear!
Smoke & Mirrors
Next event I’m speaking about my book Smoke & Mirrors will be at CogX at 5.30-6pm on the 9th June - I’m being interviewed by Matt Clifford of Entrepreneur First about hype in the cutting edge startup world. I’m also interviewing a personal hero of mine (he is part of the reason I ended up studying maths at uni…) Marcus du Sautoy, about creativity and intelligence earlier the same day (10am).
-> I have a bunch of free passes to the whole festival if you want to join - use code: SPCXSFP100
Book Writing YouTube Series
I was interviewed by Anne-Laure Le Cunff about my book writing process - we totally nerd out about post-it notes, online tools and Scrivener (complete with screen sharing!) You can watch it now if you fancy peeking into the actual ins and outs of gathering research, knowledge and interviews and then somehow turning that all into a book..! (My YouTube channel has a few videos on book writing, including how I got my agent / publisher etc, which you can find here).
Currently Working On
Currently working on a piece to do with the ‘economy of experts’ in terms of gurus, public intellectuals, academics, advisors, consultants…and what the internet has done for credibility, ‘expertise’ and trust.
Gemma Milne is a science & tech writer, author of ‘Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It’, and is co-host of the Science Disrupt podcast.