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Book Review: Mark Kingwell’s On Risk

A sobering analysis from a U of T philosophy professor
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The book explores the often overlooked politics of risk redistribution. COURTESY OF BIBLIOASIS (left)MARK RAYNES ROBERTS (right)
The book explores the often overlooked politics of risk redistribution. COURTESY OF BIBLIOASIS (left)MARK RAYNES ROBERTS (right)

You began with childhood, with a time-honoured board game that took up weeks of your summer, poring over an absurdly carved map in feverish conquest. You record the state of the game on a nearby scrap of paper before retiring to bed so that you can continue tomorrow.

You may even end with doomsday, though the chance of it happening can only be binary — it either absolutely happens or absolutely doesn’t — so no need to panic. 

All that flanks and lies between these scenarios is the terrain of risk, anti-cartographic by definition, and, perhaps more troublingly, very anti-human. Such is how Mark Kingwell’s new book, On Risk, unfolds. The book can easily be praised for its timeliness — a compliment somehow less cheap than clairvoyance — but to do so would be next to meaningless. 

Kingwell, renowned writer, essayist, and philosophy professor at UTSG, was interested in the politics of risk and risk-assessment models for some time before the proliferation of COVID-19 this past December — what soon became the everyday tragedy of our pandemic, where “all thoughts of life risk were reordered.”

As Kingwell observes, risk permeates our lives no matter the time or place. The indifference of everyday risk and the much-less neutral field of risk-redistribution in the global political economy were both long overdue for relitigation, whether in sickness or in health. 

Risk is, and has always been, a matter of life and death — no matter how very ‘normal’ we remember feeling almost a year ago. Although it may be perceived as a supposedly neutral phenomenon, decisions around risk-redistribution are anything but.

Kingwell initiates his critique through characteristically lucid stories of his ‘military brat’ childhood in which the previously implicated board game, Risk, served a major part, as well as an erudite catalog of film, fiction, and music. Philosophy, of course, serves throughout as his grounding discipline.

Kingwell dedicates the first chapter, sardonically titled “The Game of Risk,” to the very inability to ‘game’ or master the elements of risk. In acknowledging unexpected life lessons from the titular game — which he describes as “a strange cultural symptom of the Cold War paranoia” — Kingwell notes: 

“My friends and I were victims of hope over experience. We would begin each game with a sense of optimistic, even bloodthirsty, martial ambition. Soon, though, the power struggles would bog down in negotiations, attacks, and counterattacks, and a seemingly interminable flow of power back, forth, and across the cartographic globe.”

He also emphasizes, with some discomfort, that “the action is governed by the appropriately revealing arbitrariness of dice rolls.”

While a critique of risk where the duly-named board game is put forward as evidence might seem a familiar entry point, Kingwell makes sure to adequately upset those comforted by homespun memories of global domination. 

The full title of the book is actually On Risk: Or, If You Play, You Pay: The Politics of Chance in a Plague Year — a deceivingly reassuring subscript that offers us the false choice of not playing, should we find the incumbent terms disagreeable. However, Kingwell’s most troubling yet sobering point is that we are always playing, whether we chose to or not. 

“The house will always win in the end — that’s what the house does — but maybe we can scrape together a few winning hands or rolls along the way,” he wrote at the close of the first chapter.

Kingwell’s analysis proceeds into the supposed realms of luck, chance, and theodicy — the question of divine intervention, or lack thereof, in human justice and morality. In order to mitigate ‘luck-generated inequities’ — or ‘acts of God’ as humourlessly termed in actuarial reporting — we must first acknowledge their arbitrary essence and then tackle the systems of capital that redistribute losses with such abject proficiency. 

As Kingwell puts it: “The application of statistical analysis to human risk, including the formal study of actuarial science, was motivated in large measure not to eliminate or even predict risky outcomes, but to manage our expectations about them.”

This leads to the question of political risk, which Kingwell considers its most pressing form: “Risk… is racial, cultural, and political, just like all status functions.”

To this point, On Risk is easily differentiated from other forms of philosophical and cultural critique — such as those popularized by Slavoj Žižek — by imparting explicit policy proposals in the final chapter, such as drastically reformed taxation schemes, reparations for historically persecuted groups, regulation of social media, universal basic income, and an end to corporate bailouts at the expense of taxpayers.

These policies serve as ways of mitigating the unjust risk-redistribution that Kingwell observes in societies governed by a form of classist casino ethics, where ‘gamers’ play and ‘gamblers’ pay  — the necessary corollary to his main argument.

I would argue here that the tonal change from critique to prescription in the last chapter is felt most vividly in the context of the single-sitting reading, or something proximal to that, and is entirely worth the few silent hours.

In the last chapter, called “Death and Taxes,” Kingwell wrote with startling clarity and pathos about our way forward, with brilliant assertions. “When your calloused hands get to work out of recognition of bleakness and catastrophe, hope becomes radical,” he wrote. “Bet on that, friends, with some post-apocalyptic political hope coiled into your next roll of the dice or spin of the wheel.”

As Sartre dramatized, “les jeux sont faits” — the games are made; the chips are down — so why not play to win and divvy up the pot a bit while we’re at it?