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Antifragile, By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
From the guru of the 'Black Swan' comes a passionate defence of tried and tested values
Boyd Tonkin is Literary Editor at The Independent. An award-winning journalist, he was formerly Social Policy Editor of the New Statesman and has broadcast extensively for BBC arts and current affairs programmes. He has judged the Booker Prize, the Whitbread biography award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the David Cohen Prize for a lifetime's achievement in literature.
Saturday 24 November 2012
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-born financial trader-turned-academic-turned-philosopher, in 2007 "foresaw" something very like the global blow-up of the coming year even though his entire method seeks to debunk predictors, forecasters and risk-assessors.
During the post-meltdown hangover, Taleb (predictably?) became the most fashionable thinker on the planet among the burnt and bruised elites of business and politics. Now, he has as little respect for journalists as he does for economists, bankers or professors. All belong to the sort of "phony profession" whose cheap, false talk about imaginary futures makes mischief but brings no downside to themselves. (His new worktakes a cudgel to top columnist Thomas Friedman, who cheerled for the Iraq war but "paid no price for the mistake".)
Nonetheless, the UK edition of Antifragile, his sprawling souk of a book about how we can "live happily" in a world that defies understanding, carries on its cover a quotation from a journalist about his breakthrough treatise The Black Swan. Since I happen to be the phony professional cited there, perhaps I may voice an opinion.
In the midst of the Black Swan cult, when randomness, volatility, extreme events and all the other horsemen of the Talebian apocalypse thundered out of probability textbooks and into workplaces and bank-accounts across our crisis-ridden economies, I called its author "a superhero of the mind". At the time, I was probably thinking of his giant intellectual leaps from subject to subject, framework to framework, as he argued that game-changing, epoch-making shocks and traumas beyond prediction had ruled and would rule our world. This proud son of Amioun spun finance, philosophy, mathematics and homespun Levantine lore into a surprise package that captivated and invigorated readers in the mood for an anti-theory theorist.
Yet superheroes have another signal quality: they don't exist. We invest them with the role of fantasy saviours who swoop to the rescue in moments of peril. So it is with the Batman of Beirut (or Brooklyn). Taleb is an exceptionally interesting mind and Antifragile, for all its trademark arrogance, indiscipline and sheer chutzpah, deserves to stand again in the spot-beam of success. Yet despite his mathematical prowess (on display in heavy-duty appendices here), it ought to alarm us that Taleb now not merely advises an investment consultancy rooted in "black swan" principles (Universa) and teaches "risk engineering" but even lends his contrarian wisdom to the IMF.
"I eat my own cooking," he insists. Unlike the bankers, pundits and politicians who wreck companies or economies and then walk away to reap more ill-gotten gains (take a bow, pet hates Gordon Brown, Alan Greenspan and Joseph Stiglitz), Taleb cleaves to the ancient-Mediterranean values of buck-stops-here courage, accountability and responsibility: "take risks and face your fate with dignity". He has (one of his bedrock concepts) plenty of "skin in the game". Translation: his ass is on the line. Well, chapeau bas, monsieur. But my worry concerns the transformation of this hugely gifted out-of-the-box thinker into the kind of policy-prescription guru against whom his whole oeuvre so passionately warns. You can already sign up for courses (not run by him) at an "Academy of Anti-Fragility".
It's a kind of category error. For he advocates exactly the opposite of busybody "naïve interventionism" - in health, economy, society - and celebrates instead the via negativa that aims to avoid harm and eliminate toxins. He pushes not so much a 12-step as a no-step programme: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Above all, Taleb excels at literary philosophy and aphoristic thought-bites that shake or skewer modern orthodoxies.
And the dandyish radicalism of his style tends to disguise the deep small-c conservatism - or better, sheer archaism - at his philosophical heart.He is the Nietzsche of Wall Street, not a calculating Warren Buffett-style rich man with a plan. Much as I love Nietzsche (whom Taleb quotes as saying that "Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the logician is exiled"), I wouldn't much care to see him at the side of Christine Lagarde.
Antifragile aims not merely to shockproof us, and our economies, against the unforeseeable upheavals of the age. Those techniques merely belong to the pursuit of "robustness" or "resilience", second-order virtues that in Taleb's comically macho idiom he finds "sissy". Rather, the holy grail of "antifragility" will mean that we grow through and profit from the random black-swan blows of a volatile and disorderly world. For Taleb, Mother Nature practises antifragility, as do her greatest interpreters: "Evolution loves disturbances… discovery likes disturbances."
He rings colourful variations on Nietzsche's "what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger" - noting bleakly that it kills off others, and thus progress occurs. From failed entrepreneurs, who merit honour as "dead soldiers", to the "empiric" trial-and-error medicine that outperforms Big Pharma, fools have heroically rushed in to improve systems and institutions. Antifragility, the capacity to benefit from twists of fate and history, thrives on tinkering, improvisation and bricolage, not on one-size-fits-all high theories that the next storm will flatten like matchwood.
From the Stoicism of Seneca to the Industrial Revolution and the New York trading floors, Taleb hammers home his nails. And the house he builds feels a deeply traditional place. Via fragments of memoir, we glimpse the exile whose "Levantine Christian world was shattered by the Lebanese war". Sure that "the old is superior to the new", this drinker of only wine, coffee and water who shuns even oranges ("post-medieval candy") praises Burke, Joseph de Maistre (scourge of Enlightenment idealism) and our own John Gray.
That last name indicates that Taleb's emotional conservatism has nothing to do with today's right-wing politics. He excoriates too-big-to-fail bankers and plundering corporations with all the vehemence of an Occupy insurgent. He can treat radical activist Ralph Nader as a "secular saint". Yet one always senses the stranded soul from a land of lost content: "We humans got a bit ahead of ourselves in this large enterprise called modernity."
Taleb can be vulgar, silly, slapdash and infuriating. To put it kindly, his scattergun rhetoric resembles the proliferating shapes of his friend Benoit Mandelbrot: "Everything in nature is fractal, jagged, and rich in detail, though with a certain pattern". Taleb is the ultimate fractal author. On many pages I felt the urge to fling this hefty volume (which of course he much prefers to the "fragile" modern rubbish of e-readers) on a non-random path towards his swollen head. Yet time and again I returned to two questions about his core ideas: Is he right, and does it matter? My verdict? Yes, and yes.
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