Saturday, August 28, 2010


I will preface my comments by noting that all the environmentalists in the world have not done nearly as much damage over the last few years as the inflation hawks on the Federal Reserve Board. Watching patterns from the 1930s being replicated leads one to despair of the capacity of people to learn. (And some to assign central planning of the money supply to the ever-expanding list of failures of central planning: a particularly clear post on current monetary issues and why they matter by someone who does not take that option is here.)

There is, alas, a lot of evidence that facts are subordinate to frameworks. Indeed, that the more highly educated and knowledgeable you are, the less open to changes in outlook you are likely to be. That, for example, having left-of-centre views makes one more prone to believe economic fallacies may be amusing to those of us not on the left but, at another level, is deeply depressing. (Since it implies that those engaged by helping the marginalised, and those with a good grasp of how to help the marginalised, are disproportionately likely not to be the same people.)

The failures of central banks over the last few years (but not, we in Oz can be grateful, the Reserve Bank) are a manifestation of powerful cognitive insularities. How like-minded folk in networks of various kinds (and organisations are a form of network) can reinforce frameworks in a way that makes it very hard to challenge those frameworks. Such challenges are, after all, very cognitively unsettling and it is natural to prefer reassuring agreement to being cognitively unsettled.

The recent surge in the Green vote in the Australian federal election has led to a lot of Green triumphalism at various levels. Voting Green has come to be seen as a major moral statement—particularly among the inner city folk who are my friendship networks.

Since I judge public policies by their likely effects, not their stated intentions—effects are what people live with, stated intentions may never be fulfilled, they can be self-delusion or simply cover (or both)—I am vastly less impressed by this. I am particularly unimpressed if people dismiss concern for what the Greens policies actually are as some irrelevancy or minor detail. If Greens are elected to Parliament, those policies are what they are committed to pushing public policy in the direction of. (Unless, of course, you think they do not really mean their stated policies, which makes the alleged moral statement involved in voting Green a thorough triumph of display over substance.)

I am particularly unimpressed given that the alleged moral statement is so often accompanied by contempt for other people’s perspectives and concerns. Insistence that one’s own views are obviously worthy of respect, but other people’s are not (and, indeed, represent a failure of moral character), may make for a great status claim, but massively fails the principle of reciprocity.

It can have legs if one then carefully examines consequences. But this is precisely what is not done—either in terms of likely effects of stated policies or of the effects of such easy dismissal of differing views.

The danger of contempt
This is particularly of concern when such concerns are majority concerns. It is simply not healthy for democracy if a highly educated, well-connected, generally well-paid, generally-in-secure jobs elite feels that its moral perspective is so obviously superior that the concerns of the majority of their fellow citizens can just be dismissed as not merely wrong-headed, but as illegitimate. If, through holding the institutional high ground in organs of public debate, such folk drive such concerns out of the political mainstream, then those will become fodder for political entrepreneurs outside the political mainstream. They fester rather than being usefully engaged and break out in all sorts of ways.
Which, in different ways, was the lesson of both the Redfern and Cronulla riots. Both were ultimately driven by failures of policing. But if one can see that a black minority might riot for understandable reasons, yet if white folk get riled up, it must be because they are raging racists with illegitimate concerns, then that is precisely the outlook which gave racist demagoguery its “in”.

This is what worries me about the entire “boat people” controversy. Even leaving aside that seeming to be an “easy touch” for entry clearly encourages people to pay to get into leaky boats on long ocean voyages, the attitude that concerns of the resident working class can just be dismissed as “racist”—and so they should be excluded from having any say about migration policy—mixes powerlessness and contempt together in a very dangerous way. (And the conspicuously compassionate can show a level of contempt for their fellow citizens that an ancien regime aristo might envy.) The fact that the Howard Government, and Abbott Opposition, broke with the elite logjam on the issue may affront the inner city, but it has also taken a lot of the genuine social danger out of the situation (and restored the popularity of the migration program, though attitudes to migration unsurprising vary by education level—i.e. how much your income is based on capital compared to labour, since education creates human capital).

This goes to a point political scientist Jonathan Bernstein makes about the use of the term “left” and “right” in democratic politics:
once you have a democratic republic, it's not clear that "left" and "right" mean anything -- because as the constitution-makers of revolutionary and post-revolutionary Americans discovered after 1776 and through the 1780s, in a democratic republic there's only people.
It is one thing to use the notion of being “progressive” to engage with helping the less fortunate, connected, the more marginalised. It is something quite different when it is better connected, better educated, more job secure, higher income folk using their public debate advantages against fellow citizens who have less of all these things, even if done on behalf of refugees (real or pretend). This is the paradox of progressivism in a particularly noxious form.

It does not help that the same inner city benefits from a high migration policy. High migration (in conjunction with land use control) drives up the value of their properties and increases the scarcity value of their human capital. The resident working class faces increased competition and increased crowding costs (congestion, crime, higher rents, etc). I have no problem with the inner city speaking up for policies that are in its interests: I have a big problem with parading that as moral superiority and dismissing other groups sticking up for their interests as illegitimate.

Environment matters
In particular, I have no problem with environmental concern. As our numbers and capacities have grown, this generates serious issues that deserve to be seriously dealt with.

Which is my big problem with Green display. The best argument for not voting Green is precisely that the Green movement has such a regular penchant for environmental failure.

I am not talking here of the Tasmanian dams issue—there is a reasonable argument that the Tasmanian hydro strategy had reached its use-by date—but of issues such as water and forest management. It is madness that Victoria, for example, has had a 30% increase in (mainly urban) population without any significant new dam being built. If the urban population shoots up but we do not invest commensurately in water infrastructure, then (particularly if prices do not reflect the induced scarcity) you will get water shortages.

Why were there no new dams? Because politicians were not willing to face Green demonstrations on the issue. The resulting water shortages then become an “environmental problem” which is seen to vindicate Green concerns.

Yes, of course, the failure to invest in any new dams with a 30% increase in population is an "environmental" (specifically “climate”) problem! (Not.) By sabotaging sensible policy, an “environmental problem” is created which politically rewards the saboteurs.

This is, as we say, a negative selection process.

The same with forest and other fire risk management. A Victorian Legislative Council committee report (which seems to have disappeared off the web), and the recent Victorian Bushfire Royal Commission report both made clear that the excessively passive fire-risk management of the national parks and other public lands was a major contributor to the scale of the bushfire disaster. As the Victorian Government relaxing restrictions on property rights indicated that over-control had been a problem. That passive management and over-control was due to Green pressure. So, by sabotaging effective property management, we get much higher risk of catastrophic bushfires. When we get a massive bushfire, this is an “environmental problem” which politically rewards the policy saboteurs again.

It is in the interest of the Greens that environmental management be made worse, not better, so we have high profile “environmental problems” which justify voting Green. Just as it is in the interests of the progressivist inner city that private sector activity be undermined so that the government/education/NGO/welfare sector (and clients) gain greater weight—there is a reason that the Greens do best in the ACT and Tasmania

Selection processes
This does not have to be a conscious process. I used the term “negative selection process” quite deliberately. All that is needed is a series of false, but strongly adhered to, premises which then set up the relevant selection processes.

Including providing psychic rewards for adopting the outlook based on such premises. Such as, for example, getting a sense of belonging to a moral elite.

The premises are really quite simple. That people are the problem: their wishes, wants, aspirations, actions. Hence the solution to environmental issues is human withdrawal and passivity. No dams, no active burning, no private control.

There are various grander versions of this, of course. None of which work. It is, for example, nonsense to claim that, when it comes to the environment, “capitalism” is the problem. Command economies have much worse environmental records than do liberal capitalist states. For triple-whammy reasons: first, they are much more impervious to popular concerns. Second, command economics is a systematic pattern of the producers also being the regulators, with all the conflict of interest that involves. Third, command economies are a mass of official discretions, which leads to poor incentives—in both productivity and the husbanding of resources—and (fairly rapidly) massive corruption (corruption being the market for official discretions, so is worse the more—and the more valuable—such official discretions are).

These problems cannot be fixed within the framework of command economics: they are endemic to it. For example, one cannot have free politics in a situation where the state (and thus officials) control all significant resources. Indeed, it is an open question whether a certain level of dependence on the state does not lead to a downward demographic and public debt spiral—as arguably is happening in much of Europe.

It is also nonsense to claim that, when it comes to the environment, “prosperity” is the problem. Prosperous societies have better environmental records than poor ones, in part because environmental concern is very much a “luxury good”: in a situation where your big concern is whether your children will eat tomorrow environmental concerns are not going to loom large. Even in developed countries, polling indicates that environmental concern goes up in booms and down in recessions and is stronger the higher up the income scale you go.

But that capitalism and prosperity per se are not to blame goes against the notion that people are the problem (rather than poor institutional structures and the poverty such entrench). If people are the problem, then people have to be controlled and their “wrong” aspirations frustrated and denied. Which means embracing restrictions on economic activity, and on property rights, which means expanding the ambit of state action and official discretions. Which empowers the progressivist inner city—their perspectives, their jobs, their career paths. Which creates powerful selection processes in favour of such perspectives.

This is particularly so in the government (and government-dependant or engaged) sector, since the coercive power of the state—especially taxpayer guarantees—is a powerful insulating force. (Even negative selection processes in markets often have strong public policy elements.)

The silly notion of “food miles” for example, is not merely a reworking of the C19th German idea about “local food” (a food romanticism which sneered at the urban working class desire for cheap food and justified protecting the Junker estates from foreign competition, just as the modern version comes out of the EU of the Common Agricultural Policy). It is part of a general tendency to denigrate (on “environmental” grounds) the rural, provincial and suburban folk who make a living creating or moving around stuff compared to inner city folk who make living manipulating symbols. If you live by manipulating symbols, environmentalism is a great basis for making status claims against those who make a living via grubby “Gaia-damaging” stuff.

Even better if it is all about having the right ideas (in a sense, manipulating symbols in the "correct" way). For what these outlooks have in common is that other people, and their perspectives, are the problem and they, and their ideas, are the solution. This is clearly much more powerful than any learning about what works and what does not.

Particularly if one’s networks do not include contact with relevantly different perspectives—such as working class folk, farmers, people whose own capital is at stake in their businesses, etc. Or, if they do, such individuals fail to “rock the boat” because it is not worth the social bother of cognitively unsettling people.

As political scientists Jonathan Bernstein (here) and Ron Replogle (hereZ) have blogged about recently, there are reasons for ideologies to select according to common networks. But, in Replogle’s words:
Ideologues have perfectly good reasons for running in packs. They only get into intellectual trouble when they run in herds.
And cognitive comfort, and even more status, can give strong reasons for herd behaviour.

Policy learning (or not)
Which gets in the way of realising that there has been a lot of public policy learning experience over the last few decades—both within Australia and around the globe. What is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the perspectives underlying Green sentiment is how dismissive it is of all that. Which, of itself, suggests that the alleged “concern” isn’t really.

For we have seen negative selection processes of the form I pointed out above before in Oz—in indigenous policy. Classing “racism” as THE problem, and indigenous “identity” as the solution, led to a series of disastrous policy errors that, in many ways, made things worse for many indigenous communities. But the more failure one gets, the more the analysis that the problem is “racism” and “lack of respect for indigenous identity” can seem vindicated, setting up a disastrous downward spiral.

In fact, the big problem for indigenous people is moving from hunter-gatherer societies to industrialised society in so few generations. It is pathetic to claim that it is all important to respect indigenous culture and then dismiss any notion that culture might have consequences. (In, for example, attitudes to housing.) It took Europeans thousands of years to travel from hunter-gatherers to industrialised societies, and we have had plenty of bumps and derailments along the way. Doing it in less than 200 years is hard and has proved so in every society that has had to confront the problem.

So, in a sense, lack of respect for indigenous identity is central, but not in the way that inner city progressivist sentiment means.

The romanticising of indigenous identity, just like the romanticising of “local” food, is part of a general movement towards romanticism. The romantic idea is a heroic idea: hence artist-as-hero, writer-as-hero, thinker-as-hero and so on. It also came in a militarist vision: soldier or warrior as hero. Nowadays, we get activist-as-hero. The anti-modernist historian Christopher Beckwith writes of:
the elimination of the dichotomy between the elite, which strived for perfection, and the ordinary, which strived for the commonplace (p.293).
But a heroic drive for moral perfection can be a grand form of elitism.

Alas, if becoming more like mainstream Oz society is the solution, then status from critiquing that society is not the solution but a problem. In both the environmental and indigenous policy cases, the error in thinking is from seeing existing society as problem, not as a source of solutions—because the latter gives the “wrong” status effects. It undermines the romantic vision of heroic moral perfectionism (and the romanticising of nature, indigenous identity and asylum seekers that underpins it). A romantic vision that creates a sense of moral heroism via a process of moral inflation—a process seen in such moral extravagances as claiming Tony Abbott becoming PM would be some great moral disaster.

Wrapping up one’s preferred public policy in status claims is dangerous. It makes learning what actually works that much harder, sets up negative selection processes in politics and public policy and poisons public debate. The trouble is, it can be a great source of cognitive comfort.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The lucky country

When Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, the title was an ironic indictment of mediocrity. And one can point to fortunate things about the land of Oz, more commonly called ‘Australia’. The rich resource base. Being settled by the British rather than by, say, the Spanish.

But a resource base can be squandered. And one may inherit an institutional structure, but it is what one does with it over the long term that matters. Luck only takes you so far. Over the long haul, other things matter much more.

Australia has done well with its good fortune. For example, the Australian stock market had the highest returns and the lowest volatility of any stock market in the world over the last 100 years. While other countries face serious public debt problems, we have one of the lowest levels of public debt in the developed world. Where other countries had the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession, we did not even technically have a recession. Due in large part to our Reserve Bank performing significantly better than other central banks. The Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank recently spoke about Australia’s world-beating economic performance:
"The period since 1991 is the longest period of growth that Australia has recorded for at least the past century," he said.
The next longest period during which year-ended growth remained positive was the 13 years between 1961 and 1974."
The period when Donald Horne wrote his book.

All this while successfully absorbing lots of foreign migrants. Australia has a very high proportion of foreign-born residents (much higher than the US, for example). Of 29 cities around the world with a more than 25% foreign-born population, 3 are in Australia. (19 are in various former parts of the British Empire: 20 if you count Muscat.)

It was reasonable to complain about the limited substance in the recent Federal election campaign, and the hung Parliament result made its own statement about the lack of defining content in the election. Yet, we also had two personable, intelligent, public-spirited people on offer as Prime Minister. Leading proposed ministerial line-ups of generally sensible and experienced people. (Claims that there is some great moral urgency that one or other lose or win, or that one or other becoming PM is some grounds for moral despair, tell us far more about the folk indulging in such extravagances than Julia or Tony.) The election campaign was fought with a lack of violence we take entirely for granted but would be regarded as a miracle in large parts of the globe.

Even the hung Parliament may prove to be something of a blessing. In the US, for example, periods of gridlock (when different Parties control the Presidency and the Congress: and so the politicians constrain each other) show higher stock market returns than periods when the same Party controls the Presidency and the Congress (so politicians are less constrained: average stock market returns are, in fact, negative across such periods since 1973).

Since 1983, we have generally had competent federal governments which have brought public finances to a much sounder basis than most developed democracies, have delivered reforms which provided an astonishing period of continuous economic growth and unemployment levels which most developed economies would envy. We have low levels of corruption: what corruption there is, fairly predictably, is where official discretions have high “resale” value (land use regulation and “vice” regulation). Complaints that the performance of our politicians over the last quarter-century represent some moral disaster again tell us much more about those indulging in such moral extravagance than the reality of things.

There are some obvious problem areas. Indigenous policy has been a long-term disaster, with conditions in many indigenous communities deteriorating over recent decades. But, revealingly, indigenous policy has typically been based on maximising differentiation from the rest of a highly successful society rather than building on its successes. Our housing prices have reached madness territory, due to official discretions creating ludicrous artificial shortages in land for housing. Having the populations of Sydney and Melbourne increase by 30% without any significant new dams, while having water prices that do not reflect resulting scarcity, has, fairly predictably, created water shortage problems. Investment in transport infrastructure has seriously lagged population increases. All these fit into the “could do better” category.

Our politics has its low moments, as a recent book on NSW Labor details. Yet, even at its most pathological, our politics still works so much better than that of so many other countries. It is not some weird accident that Australia regularly rates in the top three countries in the UN Human Development Index.

Australia is a highly successful society and highly successful polity. Any perspective that does not grasp that will tend to undermine that success rather than build on it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Using Auschwitz against Israel

A rhetorical ploy that I have found disturbing and disgusting whenever I have come across it are attempts to use Nazi analogies against Israel. It has always seemed such an offensive metaphor to use against the Jewish state that I struggle to see how anyone can even begin to deploy it: indeed, if it comes to seem reasonable, then that in itself is surely evidence that you should re-assess seriously your reasoning and perspectives.

A recent essay by Yoram Hazony Israel Through European Eyes (via) has proved to be greatly enlightening in explaining how the spectre of Auschwitz can be used against the Jewish state: indeed, how a certain conception of what Auschwitz represents fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of the Jewish state.

Not that the essay has changed my mind about how repulsive use of Nazi analogies against the Jewish state is. Hazony, a citizen of Israel, seems to have written the essay to try and understand what seems so self-evidently offensive.

A clash of paradigms
Hazony argues that the problem for Israel is not an issue of the facts of the matter. Events fluctuate back and forth:
Yet the international efforts to smear Israel, to corner Israel, to delegitimize Israel and drive it from the family of nations, have proceeded and advanced and grown ever more potent despite the many upturns and downturns in Israeli policy and Israeli PR.

Exhibit A of this is:
Nothing could make this more evident than the Jewish withdrawal from Gaza and the subsequent establishment there of an independent and belligerent Islamic republic 40 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Israelis and friends of Israel can reasonably be divided on the question of whether this withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, or the parallel withdrawal from the security zone in South Lebanon in 2000, was really in Israel’s interests, and whether the Jewish state is today better off because of them. But one thing about which we can all agree, I think, is that these withdrawals did nothing to stem the tide of hatred and vilification being poured on Israel’s head internationally. Whatever it is that is driving the trend toward the progressive delegitimization of Israel, it is a trend operating more or less without reference to any particular Israeli policy on any given issue
The problem is how facts are construed, the paradigm through which events are viewed.

Hazony cites the model of belief provided by Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigms. Since Hazony is discussing the sociology of belief, I have no problem with his use of Kuhn’s theory (attempts to build philosophy of science on it are an entirely different matter). The key point is:
As Kuhn points out, even a mountain of facts will not change the mind of a scientist who has been trained in a different paradigm, because the fundamental framework from which he views the world is different: The facts themselves mean something completely different to him.
This describes the endless frustration of political debates quite well. Political facts are rarely “brute”: the same events can be seen quite differently depending on what views of human nature and of social causation and possibly lie behind responses to them.

In Hazony’s analysis, the old paradigm is that of the nation-state. That national self-determination was a norm worthy of respect within the international order. That Israel is the Jewish state is precisely the basis of its legitimacy, part of a surge in national self-determination as the old imperial orders were dismantled.

One notes that this principle still has power within the educated elites of the West. Tibetan self-determination, or Palestinian self-determination, are still worthy causes. As, indeed, are (for example) Welsh or Scottish self-determination, (though within the European Union, not against it).

As Hazony points out, it is also a principle with a lot of (European) history behind it—notably French, Dutch and English:
What made the defeat of the Spanish “Armada” by Elizabeth in 1588 a turning point in mankind’s history was precisely the fact that in turning away Phillip II’s bid to rule England, she also made solid the freedom (or “self-determination”) of peoples from the Austro-Spanish claim to a right to rule mankind as sole protector of the universal Catholic faith.
In the end, it is a principle with too much history. The European Union had its origins, after all, in a determination to end the cycle of Franco-German enmity that had spawned two megacidal wars in European in the space of four decades.

Rejecting the nation-state
The alternative paradigm to that of the nation state, Hazony traces back to Immanuel Kant’s 1795 assault on the legitimacy of the nation-state in his Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch. Kant took direct aim at the pretensions of unimpeded national sovereignty:
each state sees its own majesty … precisely in not having to submit to any external constraint, and the glory of its ruler consists in his power to order thousands of people to immolate themselves …
A point that had greater power in a Europe that had blasted itself apart in the Dynasts’ War followed by the Dictators’ War.
Kant’s solution was:
There is only one rational way in which states co-existing with other states can emerge from the lawless condition of pure warfare…. They must renounce their savage and lawless freedom, adapt themselves to public coercive laws, and thus form an international state, which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the people of the earth.
In other words, go down the path of the European Union and the process of internationalisation it has fostered—such as the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Kant’s claim did not resonate during the C19th or early C20th. After 1945, however, it very much did. (But, of course, the post-1945 period has seen quite a surge in Kantian, or neo-Kantian thought.) In particular, the Nazi scourge was seen as the “rotten fruit of the nation-state”, in Hazony’s words.

Not that Hazony agrees with this reasoning:
For the record, my own view is that this line of argument is preposterous. The heart of the idea of the nation-state is the political self-determination of peoples. The nation-state is a form of government that limits its political aspirations to the rule of one nation, and to establishing national freedom for this nation.
The Nazi aim for lebensraum was a bid for a racial-imperial state that was the greatest offense against the notion of national self-determination inflicted on European peoples. (An experience which, on the way through, did so much to discredit the imperial idea among Europeans.) As Hazony writes, far from manifesting national self-determination:
The Nazi state, on the other hand, was precisely the opposite of this: Hitler opposed the idea of the nation-state as an expression of Western effeteness. On his view, the political fate of all nations should be determined by the new German empire that was to arise: Indeed, Hitler saw his Third Reich as an improved incarnation of what he referred to as the First Reich—which was none other than the Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs! The Nazis’ aim was thus diametrically opposed to that of the Western nation-states. Hitler’s dream was precisely to build his empire on their ruin.

Quite (even if Nazi ideology stressed the allegedly German nature of the first Reich).

Needless to say, this take on Auschwitz—that it is first and foremost a manifestation of the nation-state—is not the typical Jewish take on the Shoah:
For most Jews, Auschwitz has a very particular meaning: It was not Herzl’s Zionist Organization that succeeded in persuading nearly all Jews the world over that there could be no other way but to establish a sovereign Jewish state. It was Auschwitz and the destruction of the six million at the hands of the Germans and their sympathizers that did this. From the horror and humiliation of Auschwitz, this inescapable lesson emerged: That it was Jewish dependence on the military protection of others that had brought this about.
On this, I am definitely with the Jews. The first principle of Zionism was that Jews were not safe in Europe: that turned out to be true. The travail of the Jews was precisely that no state was there to defend them. It is monstrous to use the horrors of Jewish powerlessness to argue for depriving Jews of the one state that does exist to defend them.

But Auschwitz has other victims than Jews. Moreover, so many Jews were caught in the Nazi power as a result of a war waged by nation-states. Hence:
It is a little-discussed fact that the Jews are not the only ones for whom Auschwitz has become an important political symbol. Many Europeans, too, see Auschwitz as being at the heart of the lesson of World War II. But the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those drawn by Jews. Following Kant, they see Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism. On this view, the death camps provide the ultimate proof of the evil that results from permitting nations to decide for themselves how to dispose of the military power in their possession. The obvious conclusion is that it was wrong to give the German nation this power of life and death. If such evil is to be prevented from happening again and again, the answer must be in the dismantling of Germany and the other national states of Europe, and the yoking together of all the European peoples under a single international government. Eliminate the national state once and for all—Ecrasez l’infame!—and you have sealed off that dark road to Auschwitz.

There are many things wrong with the analysis Hazony describes, but what I find most offensive is that any such analysis insists on the central importance of the German particularism of the Nazi state but strips the Nazi state’s most hated victims of their identity: they become generalised victims of the nation state. Their Jewishness becomes irrelevant to the moral lessons of Auschwitz.

Yes, of course Nazis had other victims. Nevertheless, anyone aware of the history of Jew-hatred cannot be other than appalled at tying the ultimate pogrom—which is what the Shoah was—as some crime specific to the nation-state. Jew-hatred, including murderous Jew-hatred, long predates the nation-state. One can have anti-Jewish progroms without a nation-state. In terms of the history of Jew-hatred, it is far more important that most of the key organisers of the Holocaust were born and raised Catholic, than that they were Germans. Particularly as Hitler, for example, was Austrian.

Yes, Europeans slaughtered each other for national reasons in the C20th, but Europeans have slaughtered each other for many reasons over the centuries—notably religious ones. There is no specific evil to national identity as a basis for tyranny and slaughter.

Ideological slaughter
Consider the other megacidal ideology of the C20th, Leninism. To cast the meaning of Auschwitz as some specific manifesation of the nation-state is to deny the crimes of the Soviet Union, and the other murderous tyrannies of Leninism, moral significance and analytical resonance. There were crimes against nations involved in such, but the slaughters and wilful starvations of Leninism were not crimes for nationalist reasons, but class ones, in pursuit of a thoroughly universalist ideology.

There are many reasons why the crimes of Leninism have not resonated within Western Europe—and particularly the European educated elite—as the Nazi ones do: none of those reasons is respectable, if the concern is to understand the basis of such slaughters and guard against their recurrence.

Particularly if Auschwitz becomes a symbol of the evil of nation-states waging war. Then analysis of the causes of the great Wars of mutual European slaughter is turned into an analysis of mass murder in a way which, when we consider the Leninist killings, clearly does not work.

It could reasonably countered that the issue is not the nation-state as such, but the notion of the absolute sovereignty of the state, however constituted. But, unless one is going to embrace anarchism and the abolition of the state, there is still going to be the issue of where the trumping authority resides, where power lies.

Still, if one wants to create a European order such that the states of Europe can never war against each other, then national identity does become “the” problem, for one has to create a supranational European identity that trumps national identity. Hence:
Notice that according to this view, it is not Israel that is the answer to Auschwitz, but the European Union: A united Europe will make it impossible for Germany, or any other European nation, to rise up and persecute others once again. In this sense, it is European Union that stands as the guarantor of the future peace of the Jews, and indeed, of all humanity.
But, why would a supranational identity somehow be automatically safer? ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’, ‘proletariat’, ‘Aryan’ are all supranational identities in whose name slaughter and tyranny has been engaged in.

Indeed, the unwillingness of European politicians to deal with Islamic militancy has made Jews in Europe feel increasingly unsafe. That the EU “guarantees” safety is a very large claim to make—particularly as it is clearly not true for Jews outside the EU and increasingly seems somewhat dubious for Jews inside the EU. The central issues is still what claims, and how strongly, people can make on power and how: this is true in a world of nation-states or supranational states.

The problem of irresponsible power
And how responsible power is, and to whom. Consider a different analysis: both the continent-wide wars, and the megacidal slaughters, of C20th Europe were not the products of the nation-state as such, but of irresponsible power. The fundamental dynamic which drove the European states to war in 1914 was that the three imperial states—Hohenzollern Germany, Habsburg Austria-Hungary and Romanov Russia—had ruling elites who were threatened by demotic claims—both democratic and national—and used war and the threat of war to justify their continuing authority: a fundamentally unstable structure that fell into war. None of them were nation-states: they were imperial orders which rested (to varying degrees) on denying various national aspirations, aspirations which generated a significant part of the tensions which drove their strategies that collided in war.

If the European Great War (aka World War One) was, at bottom, the Dynasts’ War then the Eurasian War (aka World War Two) was very much the Dictators’ War. It started in Europe with an agreement between two dictators—Hitler and Stalin—to divide Poland and the Baltic States between them in gross violation of the principle of national self-determination. Its course in Europe was driven by the ambitions of the various dictators—Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin. It was a massive, and monstrously destructive, manifestation of irresponsible power.

Which suggests the real solution is responsible power. Even the critique of the notion of absolute state sovereignty is, after all, a critique of power without constraint.

If the European superstate is a structure of taming, reducing and eliminating irresponsible power, then it is a solution to the spectre of war, and of Auschwitz and Kolyma. Which is the problem, for that is what it is not. The EU does insist on democratic governance for its member states, yet its own structure subverts democratic governance through the democratic deficit. Worse, its attempt to export its “solution” through internationalisation is a process of exporting the democratic deficit globally.

The misdiagnosis of “the” problem of European history as being nationalism is both convenient and disastrous. Convenient, because nationalism is a popular sentiment, so, if one has pretensions to be Platonic Guardians, the notions that a moral and cognitive elite has to “guide” the benighted masses away from the “curse” of nationalism generates a sense of superior status and of justifying new forms of, well, irresponsible power. The democratic deficit becomes, not a bug, but a feature.

Yet the notion that the Eurasian War was created and driven by popular sentiment is nonsense. The German people did enjoy the string of military victories after the War began but, in the lead up to war, Hitler found their preference for peace extremely frustrating. War was what he wanted (if not quite the War he got), not something the German people, in any sense, drove him to.

Certainly, warmongers manipulate popular sentiments, but that is easier to do the more irresponsible power they have. The issue remains irresponsible power, not national identities and sentiments.

Unless, of course, such sentiments are a barrier to new forms of irresponsible power. The well-established nation states of Europe form political communities in which popular will can cohere at least moderately successfully. The only political community in supranational Europe is the political community of the European elite. It thus becomes an excellent forum for power without responsibility.

Irresponsible internationanlism
Which is even more true for the internationalist elite. The real problem for the International Criminal Court (ICC), for example, is not the idea that people should be responsible for their actions, but that it is based on an authority not genuinely responsible to anyone. American rejection of the ICC is entirely logical, since it represents a clear denial of the principles of the American Revolution. And it is so in a very specific way, as its founding treaty claims to the right to have authority over Americans without the consent of Americans. Europeans treating the notion of the consent of Americans to be governed as a mere triviality is, after all, how and why the the Ameican Revolution began and the United States came into existence.

Which is, or should be, another one of those warning signs. That it does not even seem to occur to the EU elite that they are claiming the right to abrogate the American Revolution is, in itself, very revealing.

For the failure of the EU to be any more than a deeply flawed response to the problems of European history is manifested in the attitudes of the EU elite. If one wants to be a member of the moral “cutting edge” in the EU, one is expected to manifest a range of attitudes, including:
• Hostility to Israel;
• Strong support for EU-driven internationalisation;
• Hostility to much American policy (particularly military policy);
• Strong support for the structures of the EU, including its overriding and supplanting of national sentiment.

In other words, the attitudes that make on a “good European” can be summarised as:
• Blame the Jews.
• The world would be better if run according to our perspectives.
• The colonials are vulgar brutes.
• The masses should defer to their betters.

The notion that these represent some radical “new departure” in European attitudes would be sad if it was not so pathetic (indeed, contemptible). But irresponsible power needs justifications: claims to superior status, identification of corrupting groups and ideas to oppose work very well for that.

[In particular, if bad ideas--such as nationalism and identification with the nation-state--lead to evil, then good ideas--ideas that create the “compassionate society”--grant authority. The issue becomes empowering those good ideas by empowering the people who embody them.]

The common market aspect of the EU is very valuable. Its insistence on democratic governance among its member states has been a genuine boon to democracy in Europe. Nevertheless, there is a canker at the heart of the EU project that may yet bring it all crashing down. The canker being its creation of new patterns of irresponsible power and—even worse—its attempt to export such globally.

And the use of Auschwitz against the Jewish state is a manifestation—for those with eyes to see—of that moral corruption, of that self-serving failure of understanding.

ADDENDA Fidel Castro gives an excellent example of using Nazi analogies against Israel.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The people have spoken, working out what they said will take some time

Australia just had a federal election. As PM Julia Gillard said in her speech on the night, quoting Bill Clinton, the people have spoken, it will take some time to work out what they said.

The likely result is a hung parliament. We have not had one of those federally in Australia since 1941. It is vaguely possible we might have a majority Coalition Government. It is vaguely possible we might have a ALP Government with a majority based on the support of the new Green member for Melbourne. It is much more likely that neither side will have a majority, in which case the three ex-National Party Independents in the Parliament (all re-elected with substantial swings to them) will become Very Important Members.

Winners in the election: Tony Abbott, Bob Brown and (it seems likely) the Independents.
Tony Abbott came from winning Liberal Leadership by one vote when the Opposition was fractured, the incumbent PM was riding high in the polls and a nasty result for the Coalition at the next election looked likely. Eight months later, he has seen off an incumbent PM and deprived a first-term Government of its majority--something that has not happened in Australian Federal politics since Scullin in 1931. (And Scullin had a Great Depression and an acting Treasurer who defected to lead the Opposition: for those who like historical parallels, Scullin had won election campaigning against industrial relations reform, with the sitting PM losing his seat just Kevin Rudd did in 2007 against John Howard and WorkChoices.) Tony Abbott might still end up PM as a result of the election.

The Greens have clearly done well with about 11% of the House of Representatives vote. A lot of their 3.7%pt swing was grumpy ALP voters, but it is still a good result for them. A notable success was winning the seat of Melbourne, giving them their first House of Representatives seat won in a general election. Bob Brown will likely control the balance of power in the Senate.

Julia Gillard starting the election with a 17-seat majority and ending up possibly with less seats than the Coalition would normally tag her a loser, but she campaigned well in extremely difficult circumstances. She was easily the best thing going for the ALP.

I was at my business partner's place, watching the various election coverages on the "big screen". The Nine network coverage was the most lively and entertaining. A highlight was an ALP politician (Nicola Roxon, my local member) being much fairer about the performance of Tony Abbott and the Coalition than a journalist, Christine Wallace, who tried to seriously argue that Abbott had failed because he had not won Government (which no Opposition has done against a first-term Government since 1931) but what really mattered was the Green vote. 11% with a 3.7%pt swing is a good result, but not a remarkable one for a third Party in an election campaign that did not excite folk. The ALP did rather better when it was the third Party, as did the Country Party, the DLP and the Democrats in their turn. The notion that the Greens are some great moral bellwether--that the 11% who voted for the Greens count SO much more than the 43% who voted for the Coalition, for example--is just tedious inner-city arrogance but well in line with the first principle of modern progressivism: the more absolute one's commitment to equality, the higher one's status.

So, the result is, we do not know the final outcome of the election, and will not until the pre-polls and postals are counted. The campaign was pretty boring and did not excite folk (I cannot remember being so indifferent about which side won a federal election: this would appear to a common outlook), but the outcome is proving much more exciting.

One of the gay couple who owns a local cafe, Seddon Deadly Sins, said of the result:
At least the Parliament is now well hung.
Which brings up the issue of the Independents.

The three rural Independents, all of whom have been re-elected with substantial swings to them--Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott--are all former members of the National Party and are all experienced MPs. They do not represent natural Labor electorates, which may make supporting a Labor Government difficult. On the other hand, they are all ex-Nats, which brings its own baggage. But they are serious, experienced politicians and Parliamentarians. It is hardly some disaster if a Government has to rest on their support. Indeed, it may be good for the political process and the health of the Parliament.

That all the incumbent Independents in Federal Parliament represent rural seats is hardly a surprise. Rural seats have local media (including local radio and TV) that a local MP can use effectively to gain and keep a local profile. This is generally not true in urban Australia.

Except inner urban Australia where, if you are a Green candidate, you do have local media. It is called the ABC and, in Melbourne, The Age, in Sydney The Sydney Morning Herald. Apart from a few "country change" niches, the mainland Green vote is overwhelmingly an inner city phenomena. (Making the Greens--particularly given their effective alliance with the ALP--a sort of reverse National Party.) Hence the Greens doing best among all the States and Territories in the ACT. Hence also winning the seat of Melbourne (inner city Melbourne) and being a chance in Grayndler (inner city Sydney).

Their next best performance is in Tasmania. Which may (stress may) have elected a former Green as Independent MP for Denison, though that very much depends on how the preferences flow. The Constitution guarantees every State at least five seats in the House of Representatives, so Tasmanian seats have significantly fewer voters than mainland seats. Tasmania also has some very particular dynamics and issues, so is not exactly an exemplar for the rest of the country.

The inner city may be terribly impressed with the success of the Greens, but it is a set of rural MPs who are likely to have the big sway on the floor of the House if neither side can get a majority. And given Green policy is so much about destroying jobs and degrading property rights in rural and provincial Oz (they really are a reverse National Party), the outcomes might be a lot less to inner city satisfaction than folk expect. Whichever side gets the nod.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (3): barbarisms, real and imagined.

This is the third part of my review of Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Part one is here and part two is here.

The modernist assault
Once the Silk Road system was destroyed by the conquest of the last steppe nomad states by peripheral empires (Romanov Russia and Qing China), the history of Central Eurasia became the by-product of events elsewhere. Particularly the various radical modernist revolutions, as Beckwith labels them—the 1911 Chinese Revolution and, after the disaster of the First World War (made more disastrous, Beckwith points out, by its peace treaties) the the Russian, German and Turkish Revolutions. Such disturbances spread to Central Eurasia, with the only bright side being Tibet achieving 50 years of independence (Pp266ff).

With the destruction of the First World War, the economic punishments inflicted on Germany and Austria, the closing of the Soviet Union to world commerce (and the shrinking of the Soviet economy under Stalin’s command economics):
it is not surprising that the Great Depression, a worldwide economic recession worse than any previously known, struck at the end of 1929 (p.273)
and persisted for years. A sense of the existing order being hopelessly corrupt, to be redeemed only by war and/or revolution was pervasive (Pp273-4).

Then came the Second World War, which started with Japan’s aggression against China. Apart from the crushing Soviet victory of Nomonhan (Khalkhyn Gol) against the Japanese, eastern Central Eurasia was largely spared conflict until the successful Soviet conquest of Manchuria at the end of the War. Western Central Eurasia was caught up in the titanic Soviet-Nazi struggle, with ethnic groups who welcomed the Germans as liberators from brutal Soviet oppression then being brutally punished by the triumphant Soviet regime (Pp278-9).

India achieved independence as did Pakistan, a creation that ensured regular war and dispute thereafter (P.280). The success of the Communists in the Chinese Civil War brought the second Chinese Revolution. Its armies suppressed the Eastern Turkistan Republic and then Tibetan independence while many non-Han in Inner Mongolia fled across the border. Under Maoist rule, Chinese settler colonialism made non-Han people—notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans—minorities in their own countries (Pp280-1). Part of a process that had been a long-term trend in Chinese history.
The Tibetans rebelled and were brutally suppressed:
The terror imposed on the innocent, peaceful people of Tibet by China was unprecedented in the modern history of Central Eurasia (p.282).
But it was part of a larger trend where:
The extreme Modernist terror of the Cultural Revolution (ca. 1966-1976) in China devastated especially Tibet, East Turkistan, and Inner Mongolia (p.282).
In Iran, Pahlavi rule meant that:
By the early 1970s, the country had far surpassed all the nations around it in prosperity, stability and the speed of its growth (p.283).
The power of the hyperconservative Shi’ite clerics over the previously illiterate masses was threatened by such change, while the authoritarian rule of the Shah offended rising educated aspirations (Beckwith notes the former but slides around the latter) leading to the Iranian Revolution. The rule of the ayatollahs meant that:
religious fundamentalists ruthlessly eliminated all those who opposed their rule, clamped down on the merchant class that had foolishly supported them, and isolated Iran from the civilised world (p.284).
Maoism and its derivatives devastated large parts of Asia, a range of bitter wars (often civil wars, but with extensive foreign involvement) were also fought as various forms of modernism fought for dominance:
When radical socialism (communism) swept across Eurasia like a new Black Death, it infected all the cultures it touched. Central Eurasians were forced to give up their traditional life-styles, dress, culture, everything. Some changes were good—the spread of hygiene, education in the sciences, secular government, and so on, is surely to be applauded. But too much was destroyed (p.287)
Central Eurasian culture suffered the most of any region of the world from the devastation of Modernism in the twentieth century (p.288).
This leads into Beckwith’s passionate critique of modernism and its effects, previously discussed. But, precisely because he is an historian of Central Eurasia, Beckwith can see the patterns more starkly, for there the destruction of any elite culture, with its striving for perfection (or, at least, excellence) and sense of harmonies ultimately derived from the inherent structure of things to be found and celebrated has been most complete. It seems a bit odd for Beckwith to talk of “the terrible wars of the nineteenth century” (p.290) in analysing the military, industrial and urban changes that moved power away from aristocratic elites, but disasters such as the Taiping rebellion dwarfed the limited wars of C19th Europe.

One of the great ironies of Modernism is that, however much it may be rhetorically based on elevation of the ordinary humanity, it produces aesthetics that most of its alleged beneficiaries dislike or even despise. But, of course, it does not actually represent the abandoning of elite claims, just the shifting to a form anchored in nothing but its own pretensions.

The particular tragedy of the Central Eurasians is that they experienced modernism as totalitarian colonialism, imposed by outsiders wielding overwhelming power and largely out of the sight of the wider world:
Because Modernism was not so much a philosophy or movement as a total world-view, it was applied to all aspects of life … The destruction of almost all aspects of traditional culture, including material artifacts, by the despotic Russian and Chinese communist rulers, though resisted by the Central Eurasian peoples was ultimately successful (Pp300-1).
The result was much more thorough in its devastating effects than, for example, in Western Europe:
In Central Eurasia … only a few famous monuments were not destroyed , and only a tiny percentage of the once vast numbers of old books were preserved. By the end of the twentieth century, the evil done in the name of Moernism and “progress” left Central Eurasians bereft of much of their past (p.301).
Hence an historian of Central Eurasia being such a passionate critic of modernism and all its effects.

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought independence “suddenly and quite unexpectedly” (p.305) to the Central Eurasian republics. Rapid economic growth in the new European Union spread to China, India and Russia as they adopted “capitalist” (i.e. pro-commercial) policies. But Central Eurasia remained mired in poverty. Culturally, religious communities and buildings revived, while full artistic modernism spread to the newly independent societies and the triumph of political modernism was complete since (with a few isolated examples) all the politics claimed to be democracies, even though they were mostly dictatorships or oligarchies (Pp304ff).

The originating region
But Beckwith does not wish merely to rescue the past of Central Eurasia, or even to make outsiders more aware of it. He wants us to understand how much our civilisation derives from it and its achievements. For modern culture does not derive from the Nile, Mespotomian, Indus or Yellow River valley cultures:
It comes from the challenging marginal lands of Central Eurasia.
The dynamic, restless Proto-Indo-Europeans whose culture was born there migrated across and “discovered” the Old World, mixing with the local peoples and founding the Classical civilisations of the Greeks and Romans, Iranians, Indians and Chinese. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance their descendants and other Central Eurasian peoples conquered, discovered and investigated, and explored some more, creating new world systems, the high arts, and the advanced sciences. Central Eurasians—not the Egyptians, Sumerians, and so on—are our ancestors. Central Eurasia is our homeland, the place where our civilisation started (p.319).
What Central Eurasia’s prospects now are, is a very open question.

The barbarians
A huge barrier to acknowledging Central Eurasia as the heartland of civilisation and progress is the concept of “the barbarian”, particularly the brutal and destructive horse-archer barbarian. In his epilogue to Empires of the Silk Road, The Barbarians, Beckwith savagely critiques the concept of “the barbarian” (Pp320ff).

Living in marginal lands, in contact with lots of different cultures, the Indo-Europeans “possessed a powerful dynamism” (p.320) that they passed on, sometimes by direct conquest. Leaders need to support their sworn warrior band with luxurious gifts created a commercial dynamism. Steppe states had commercially-minded warrior classes and rulership.

A hardy and dynamic warrior class becomes, in the histories of the peripheral empires, a people of natural, but brutal and violent, warriors. This becomes their central defining features even though any violence by Central Eurasians can be precisely matched by equivalent violence by “civilised” peoples (Pp322-3). But the former is “defining”, the latter is “particular happenstance”, even the “triumph of civilisation and order”.

What Beckwith is attempting to do is to enable us to see the steppe cultures as being ones of trade and order, not chaos and violence. In particular, the notion of “needy” steppe nomads who had to get various necessities from “civilised agrarians” is fiction. All the steppe states either incorporated or were based on stable relations with agrarians based on trade and taxation. The steppe peoples were generally bigger and healthier than peripheral agrarians. They were also highly productive, producing:
their own everyday clothing, jewels, tools, wagons, housing, horse gear, and weapons and were skilled metalsmiths (p.325).
The Chinese attitude to the nomad peoples, for example, precisely paralleled their dismissal of the European “barbarians” and—this is Beckwith’s point—we should pay the former no more credence than we do the latter.

Indeed, Beckwith is able to point to centuries of references by people from the peripheral empires—from Romans, Chinese and others—which acknowledge that the life of the steppe nomads was easier, freer and more prosperous than that of the peasants of the agrarian peripheral empires. The urgency of control of the frontier for peripheral empires was not raids from the nomads (though such did happen) but to control trade and block the loss of taxpayers. Given the enormous cost of such walls, raids were hardly enough to justify them. Add in controlling trade, stopping loss of taxpayers and holding acquired lands, and the enormous engineering effort the walls represented become much more plausible propositions (Pp332ff).

Beckwith points to the infrequency of serious nomad conquest of peripheral empires and how, when such did happen, it was typically due to internal division (Pp334ff). No doubt “barbarian” rule was offensive and “unnatural”, but it was also infrequent.

Even raids were probably far more common during periods of division, since they were also periods when trade goods were far less available.

There is a contrast to be made here with Middle Eastern history, where patterns of nomad conquest were much more frequent. But this is a product of geography: the river valleys of the Middle East were far more surrounded by pastoralist peoples—walls, for example, where not a practical option. This made it far easier for agrarian rule to decay to a point of vulnerability: hence ibn Khaldun’s cycles of history.

When we look at Roman, Iranian and Chinese history, it is division and weakness within these empires that create the danger to outside conquest. When the Empires were united, they were far more a danger to the steppe peoples than the reverse. Indeed, a pattern of predatory contempt continuing when relative power could no longer sustain it marks the lead up to serious problems with steppe “barbarians”. Such as Roman mistreatment of the Goths prior to the crushing Roman defeat at Adrianople and Song dynasty of the Mongols prior to the Mongol conquest (a process that took 45 years).

Over the longer term, the territory of the steppe peoples shrank from the middle of the first millennium BC until its final disappearance in the C18th (p.338). The steppe nomads had various critical weaknesses, including small populations, the vulnerability to bad seasons (due to difficulty in storing food), the consequent disaster involved in losing major battles or herds and that the urban and agrarian areas were on their periphery and so vulnerable to capture, as well as the greater power of well-organised infantry armies (Pp.339-40).

They were not “needy” nomads. Central Eurasia included considerable towns, cities and agrarian areas. They were, however, over the longer-term, vulnerable. Hence the long-term history of the shrinkage of Central Eurasian system and the advance of the peripheral agrarian empires (Pp341ff):
It seems to be widely overlooked that the act of unilateral establishment of a border (invariably far beyond the previously established border), construction of fortifications to hold the new frontier (the unilaterally proclaimed “national territory” of the aggressor), and closing the border and cutting off trade relations with those outside it, are overt acts of war (Pp343-4).
Trade was useful to peripheral empires, it was vital to steppe peoples. To cut off trade was an act of war, and interpreted as such. But the aristocratic/scholar classes of the peripheral empires combined anti-commercial prejudices with the “barbarian” stereotype to turn the behaviour of steppe nomads into mere brutality and violence while the actions of the peripheral empires was the advance of “civilisation”. (That many of the inhabitants of the realm of “civilisation” might prefer the life of the “barbarian” was even more offensive.)

The division of social existence into “civilised” and “barbarian” is one of those irregular constructions—we are civilised, you are barbarians. Given the problems with the distinction, Beckwith argues forcefully that historians should stop using it (Pp356ff).

Since the steppe nomads were so vitally interested in trade—particularly trade with market towns—classing them as beyond the process of “city-isation” (which is what ‘civilised’ literally means) does not seem a reasonable division. Classing brutality, aggression and violence by them as defining—and that by peripheral peoples as “civilising happenstance”—is, if anything, even more offensive.

Literacy might be a bit more of a division (though there was plenty of literacy in Central Eurasia). It was also true that “barbarian” rulers did not always know how to make what they had conquered work as well as previously. But peripheral ignorance (and, even more, arrogant indifference) to how and what made Central Eurasia work was even more total. Non-literate “barbarians” may have created dark ages in the Eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Bronze Age and in Western Europe after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but they are extraordinary conjunctions of circumstances, hardly the normal product of steppe peoples—as the longevity of the peripheral empires, the cultural glories of Central Eurasia and steppe empires promotion of trade all attest.

Chinese “centre of the universe” arrogance marches with European memories of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, hence historians’ readiness to interpret Chinese sources on the steppe peoples as if the Chinese framings are reliable. If we consider them as xenophobic, status-protecting, self-justification (a sort of more elegant Pravda), things may look a little different. Particularly given the long history of Chinese massacres of steppe peoples.

Beckwith may overreach at times—he may, for example, downplay the issue of nomad raids more than is justified. He also has some extremely unfashionable opinions. Nevertheless, Empires of the Silk Road is a much needed corrective. Indeed, that it so usefully puts European commercial imperialism in context as a by-product of its analysis illustrates just how enlightening it is.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (2): the rise of the maritime empires

This is the second part of my review of Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present. Part one is here.

The rise of the maritime system
Around 1500, a new pattern in Eurasian and global history emerges: the European Atlantic states create various “coastal” empires based on maritime trade and spanning the globe. Meanwhile, Central Eurasia becomes dominated by various Central Eurasian “gunpowder” empires: the Ottoman Turks, the Safavid Iranians, the Romanov successors to the House of Rurik in Russia, the Mughals in Northern India and the Manchus or Qing dynasty in China and Eastern Steppes. Beckwith argues that the Portugese and Spanish empires effectively replicated the patterns of the nomad empires of the steppes in their search for trade, and seizure of trade nodes and territory, except using ships and cannon rather than horses and bows while, like the steppe empires, utilising local expertise as expedient (Pp204ff).

The great revolution in world history of the triumph of littoral states begins with the Spanish conquest of Granada and the Iberian expansion across the Atlantic and into the Pacific and Indian oceans:
The subsequent history of European colonial exploration and empire building is marked by the success of the major Atlantic littoral states—Portugal, Spain, Holland, England and France—to the exclusion of nearly all other contenders. There were to be no important Swedish colonies, German colonies, Austro-Hungarian colonies, Italian colonies, and so on. Even though all these were seafaring nations too, their maritime tradition was almost exclusively local in nature (p.207).
While that drama was being played out, a great age of empire building was underway in Central Eurasia, with the Ottomans essentially recreating the Eastern Roman Empire before the Arab Conquests (p.208) while the Safavids recreated the Iranian empire of the Parthians and Sassanids. The Mughals created, lost and then recreated an empire in Northern India. Meanwhile, the Muscovite destruction of their former “Tatar” overlords—having unified most of the Russian principalities—began Russian expansion across the northern forests (particularly in pursuit of the fur trade), avoiding the steppe peoples on their home ground. Ivan IV, descendant of the Paleologi had himself crowned czar (‘ceasar’) proclaiming Moscow to be the “Third Rome”, with all the imperial pretensions that went with that (Pp222ff). A little later, the Manchus overthrow the failing Ming dynasty, founding the Qing Empire (Pp225ff). It was this Romanov and Qing empire-building that was eventually to conquer the steppe and (brutally) extinguish the last of the steppe states, bringing a cycle of history that had started with the Scythians millennia before to a close.

When it came to brutality, duplicity and exploitation, the Europeans were hardly some moral low point. While modern accounts often portray folk such as Vasco da Gama fairly harshly, Beckwith points out that da Gama, and other European adventurers, were themselves preyed upon by those they interacted with (p.211). Indeed, the Europeans were often less violent and predatory against Asians than they were to each other, both in Asia and back in Europe (p.212). Many of the local outposts were established via agreement with a local ruler (again, replicating a Central Eurasian pattern). As Beckwith points out, the replication of such patterns is hardly surprising, since trade and taxation motivated both expansions. Indeed, for the first two centuries, European expansion in Asia was dominated by trading companies (Pp212-3).

Meanwhile, local traders were ruthless in their opposition to competition and mobilised their influence and, in the end, entire fleets to throw the Portugese out: an attempt that failed due to the superior European maritime technology and established a pattern that, despite local setbacks. led to increasing European maritime dominance (Pp214ff). (Or, as we have now, neo-European maritime dominance by the American fleet, which guarantees expanding global trade just as the Royal Navy did from 1815-1914.)

Armed with his understanding of the Central Eurasian economic and rulership system, Beckwith is able to put European maritime dominance in context. Thus, he rightly critiques dismissive analysis of European commercial activity as “luxury goods”, since it is exactly the same massively-missing-the-point belittling of the Silk Road economy as concerned with “luxury goods” (p.216), which he also critiques, pointing out that much modern trade is also “luxury” goods for the same reason—high unit value makes them worth the effort (p.417n87).
Beckwith notes the vast difference in prices in the traded goods between Asia and Europe, hence the enormous potential profits to be made (p.216). Partly this was a relative goods-scarcity issue (due to distance and lower scarcity of Asian “luxury” goods in the Asian economic system) but it was even more due to the silver-scarcity issue in the other direction. Particularly after the Spanish and Portugese gained the silver mines of the Americas, silver was hugely more plentiful in the (smaller) European economic system than the (much bigger) Asian one, so Asian goods were silver-cheap and European goods silver-expensive. Beckwith points to the importance of silver in promoting the Spanish commerce with Asia:
They sent their galleons across the Pacific to Manila and on to China, where they spent as much as 20 per cent of their New World silver. This trade not only enriched the Spanish and paid for their empire’s European wars, it flooded China with immense quantities of silver (p.219)
Hence the Europeans could feed the apparently endless appetite of Asia for silver and profit off the apparently endless appetite of European markets for Asian “luxury” goods. The exchange was of precious metal for “luxuries” and yet it increasingly drove the global economic system.

The European dominance of the main medium of exchange (silver) gave them a great commercial advantage (even though it priced most of their manufactures out of Asian markets): which would simply have made them victims if they had not had the maritime technology to defend and utilise it. (It is typical of current Western academic prejudices that this exchange for mutual benefit can be dismissed as a sign of the “failure” of European manufactures: though a major economic historian labelling it as some sort of Asian “prejudice” against European goods is even more bizarre.)

Not that Europeans entirely failed to sell to Asia: cloth, glass products, clocks and other mechanical devices and firearms, swords and other weapons were sold into Asian markets (p.219)—goods where the European products were either much better, had no competitors, or much more plentiful in particular forms, than local products. The Europeans also took over the maritime traveling trade, selling goods from one Asian market to other Asian markets: particularly after the Ming Great Withdrawal from maritime activity eliminated Chinese competition (p.220).

As it was, Beckwith points out that there were plenty of attempts—both official and semi-official—to prey on the Europeans, who (just like the Central Eurasians) often had to resort of violence and threat of violence just to get diplomatic and commercial relations going (p.217):
In short, in order to be able to participate in international trade, the Europeans needed to stabilize the trade routes and port cities by establishing their political dominance over them, exactly as the Central Eurasians were forced to do over and over for the two millennia that the Central Eurasian economy flourished—the period of the existence of the Silk Road (p.218).
The Europeans settled for outposts until the decay of Asian rule opened the door to further expansion:
It was only when the peripheral empires became feeble, or actually collapsed, that the Central Eurasians attempted to set up new governments or otherwise stepped in to stabilise things. This is just what the Europeans did in India and China in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In both the Silk Road and the Littoral System cases, only gradually did the Central Eurasians and the Europeans, respectively, become involved in attempting to govern directly (p.218).
(Now, about Iraq and Afghanistan …)

While the Qing were consolidating their rule in China (the last legitimate claimant to the Ming throne not being caught and executed until 1662) and the Romanovs were still pursuing a forest-and-rivers strategy across the north of Eurasia, the Junghars had constructed the last great steppe empire by the 1670s (Pp226ff). There was also, from the C15th, a major cultural renaissance in Central Eurasia in art, architecture, poetry and philosophy (Pp229ff).

The road is closed
The Qing developed a careful strategy to achieve the power of their Jurchen ancestors that included destroying any Mongol threat by incorporating Mongols in their imperial system—to the extent of playing naming themselves ‘Manjus’ and adopting the same forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Warfare within the Mongols aided their cause, but spilled over into violence against the Junghars, who retaliated by smashing the Eastern Mongols, undermining Qing control.

The Qing had some frontier military clashes with the Russians. These were resolved by a 1689 treaty which set boundaries and trade relations between the two empires until the mid C19th (p.235). With relations towards Russia regularised to both empires mutual satisfaction, the Qing now had great freedom of manoeuvre against the Junghars. The result was a pattern of periodic Qing assaults, with very unsettled Tibetan politics providing much of the excuse for conflict (both realms acknowledged the spiritual authority of the Dalai Lama). The Junghars, as per normal for steppe empires, promoted trade. But, in the mid C18th, natural disasters (particularly a smallpox epidemic) and civil war weakened the Junghar state. The Qing intervened, establishing their dominance. Attempts to re-establish Junghar independence were treated as rebellion. The Chi’en-lung emperor ordered the effective extermination of the Junghar people in 1756-7. With destruction of the Junghar people, and the subjection of Kalmyks, Qing dominance of the Eastern steppes was established (Pp233ff).

Qing dominance coincided with the economic decline of the steppes. With Qing, Russian and British expansion—including tight border control—Central Eurasia effectively disappeared. Trade dropped precipitously after the destruction of the Junghar Empire, impoverishing Central Eurasia. But the global economic system had an alternative structure of goods transmission—the Littoral maritime system, no matter how little the continental powers may have understood it. Asian economic activity became increasingly dominated by great port cities that fed into, and were part of (sometimes the creation of) the European-dominated maritime system, which became the sole operating international economic system (Pp241ff). The forced opening of Japan, and its decision to join the European Littoral system—aided by high levels of literacy, the slow assimilation of European learning through the “open port” of Nagasaki and that Japan was already a maritime society—completed the maritime dominance of the Asian economic system (Pp243ff).

Maritime trade
While economic activity increasingly centred in the great Asian port cities, the Middle Eastern economy declined, if not as disastrously at the Central Eurasian economy. The Ottoman Empire was in slow decline while, after the collapse of the Safavids, Iran became resolutely reactionary (as it has remained, with the brief exception of the Pahlavi dynasty). Eurasian inland cities generally became centres of conservative or reactionary movements, while the port cities became increasingly integrated in the global maritime economy (Pp 245ff).

This division, indeed dominance, of trade and commercial activity by maritime centres was very much a new departure in Asian affairs. The traditional focus of rulership was control of land—focused around fortified cities—generating a region of control. Merchants preferred to function at the frontiers, away from official attention and control (p.254).

Geography discouraged the creation and maintenance of large empires in some regions (Western Europe, Arabia Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia) creating more frontiers and encouraging maritime trade. But large maritime empires were not a feature of such regions. So, while littoral trading routes had existed for millennia:
they were politically and culturally unimportant … It was only when the Europeans established trading posts and began reaping huge profits from international trade that the Littoral zone became truly significant (p.255)
The bulk of the maritime trade before the Europeans was relatively local.

The Silk Road system
The same was true of the Silk Road, with Sogdia dominated by local city-states rarely under unified rule:
Rarely did any of the little kingdoms consist of more than one important city. Left to their own devices, therefore the politics and commerce of the Central Eurasian towns were as unimportant and unconnected as they were in the towns of the Littoral. That is why the cities shrank physically and in every other way, and the Central Eurasians passed out of historical consciousness, several times in premodern history. The cause of this loss of connectedness, and resuling economic decline, is evidently that there was no steppe-empire suzerain. Without the steppe peoples’ infrastructure and careful tending and nurturing, the Silk Road tended to wilt (p.257).
Trade through the Silk Road flourished when a strong steppe nomad suzerainty was established, and withered when it was absent.

So, when the peripheral empires:
became too powerful and conquered or brought chaos to the Central Eurasian nomadic states, the result for Central Asia, at least, was economic recession (p.257)
The peak of this pattern was the Romanov-Qing conquest and division of Central Eurasia:
the economic devastation they wrought within Central Eurasia itself was so total that even at the turn of the millennium in AD 2000 the area had not recovered (p.258).
The only reason, Beckwith argues, that the entire Eurasian economic system did not collapse as a result is that the European-managed Littoral system could, and did, replace it. (Though one could reasonably argue that both the Romanov and Qing imperial systems weakened their own positions, since they thereby destroyed the one international economic system where they were geographically advantaged.)

The steppe empires were not pure nomad states: agrarian and urbanites were indispensable parts of all steppe empires. This structure the peripheral empires did not understand and, when they finally succeeded in eliminating the system’s owner-operators—the steppe nomads—they killed it.

Beckwith’s thesis is that Central Eurasian nomads managed trade across “the sea of grass” just like the Europeans came to manage trade across the oceans of the world. This is why there turns out to be so many parallels between trade-driven European maritime imperialism and trade-driven steppe nomad continental imperialism. In both, merchants were central to the system, and the interests of the ruling elites, and were seen to be so (Pp258-9).

Being at the intersection of the transcontinental and maritime trade systems supported imperial orders in Iran, Egypt and Anatolia down the millennia, from the Achaemenids to the Ottomans. It was only with the coming of the Europeans that the maritime system supported imperial orders directly: prior to that it was always an adjunct to the wider trade system (Pp259-60).

Local colonial officials reporting to distant capitals far away from Central Eurasia were a pathetic shadow of the local elites who had previously managed trade and stimulated demand (p.260). Neglect led to collapse leading to more neglect. Qing war and mismanagement ruined everything it touched in the region: an imperialism of arrogant failure that remains largely un-noted. Romanov and Soviet performance was hardly much better (p.262).

Beckwith denies that the Central Eurasian collapse was caused by the rise of the Littoral system:
deprived of its independence and its commercially minded local rulers, Central Eurasia suffered from the most severe, long-lasting economic depression in world history. It declined into oblivion, while the coastal regions of Eurasia, nurtured by the commercially minded European navies, prospered as they never had before (p.262).
It makes one appreciate the value of the American navy—and the Royal Navy before it—and makes one aware of how much the disastrous period 1914-1945 was the gap between the fading of one maritime hegemony and the rise of another.

The Silk Road was not, like the maritime trade prior to the European expansion:
an interconnected system of regional transportation networks … the Silk Road was … the entire Central Eurasian economy, or socio-political-cultural system, the great flourishing of which impressed itself upon the people of Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and the records and remains of which impress even the people of today (p.264).
A structure that was the equal to anything else that existed across the globe.

Living as we do in the time after Central Eurasia’s long disaster under Romanov, Soviet, Qing and Maoist rule, it is hard to grasp its achievements. But that disaster, and Central Eurasia's role in the origins of Western civilisation, as well as the problems with the concept of 'barbarians', are covered in the third, and final, part of my review.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Empires of the Silk Road (1): from Scythians to Tamerlaine

Christopher I. Beckwith’s Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present is a history of central Eurasia that anyone interested in the wider patterns of world history should read. It is a book with the “barbarians”, the steppe nomads, at the centre. In reconfiguring Eurasian history Beckwith, almost as an afterthought, puts European imperialism in the context of Eurasian history far better than anyone else I have read—even those who were deliberately, even ostentatiously, trying to do so. He also engages in passionate critique and denunciation of modernism and postmodernism, but I have already discussed that.

Beckwith states his purpose quite clearly in his preface:
my aim has been to write a realistic, objective view of Central Eurasia ad Central Eurasians (p.xii).
The book was sparked by calculations finding that the trade in luxury goods must have constituted a major part of the economy of central Eurasia with subsequent study finding that:
the appearance, waxing and waning, and disappearance of Silk Road commerce paralleled that of the native Central Eurasian empires chronologically (p.xii)
with the book evolving significantly from its original conception due to Beckwith’s developing understanding as he assembled the materials for his book.

Beckwith laments the lack of scholarly depth (or even elementary coverage) on much of Central Eurasian history. He attacks the stereotypical view of the steppe nomads as distinct from agrarians and city-dwellers and as warlike, poor and hard-to-defeat natural warriors. A view he regards as comprehensively wrong (Ppxii-xxiii). In particular, agrarianism and urbanism were both part of the steppe empires.

Trading warriors
The central economic dynamic in the interaction between steppe peoples and the agrarian peoples was trade. Trade within the steppe empires and trade with the “river valley” empires. The most salient and lucrative being the trading of nomad horses for Chinese silk. An imported horse cost between 25 and 38 bolts of raw silk (p.22). China was unable to raise enough horses for its own needs (apparently due to a lack of Selenium in its soil). The vast majority of steppe silk came from trade and taxation, not war and extortion (p.23). Beckwith’s identification of trade as being the central dynamic in interactions between nomad pastoralists and urbanised agrarians replicates Salzman’s analysis.

Beckwith identifies the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex as a link across cultures and times:
The most crucial element of the early form of the Central Eurasian Culture Complex was the socio-political ideal of the heroic lord and his comitatus, a war band and his friends sworn to defend him to the death (p.12).
A pattern that extends at least as far back as the Scythians and from the Anglo-Saxon huscarls of Britain (an archipelago off the coast of north-west Eurasia) to the Japanese samurai (inhabitants of an archipelago off the coast of north-east Eurasia). Since a leader was expected to provide his comitatus with luxurious gifts (p.26), trade was central to the warrior and leadership culture in the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex from the Norse, right across Eurasia (Pp165ff). As later developments from this original source, samurai Japan developed a vigorous mercantile culture, just as knightly Europe did.

A colleague of mine suggested that the Germanic cultures developed feudalism when the Celtic cultures did not because a German warrior was permitted to sell his loyalty. The same point applies the samurai of Japan (who adopted the model, probably while in Korea [Pp90-1, 106]). In both cultures, oath-breaking was heinous, as one would expect. A contractual culture can only work if contracts are taken seriously and the binding of leader and warriors (or of warrior to warrior) was the central “glue” of the society—blood brotherhood as the substitute for the “automatic” brotherhood of blood relations. (And chosen connections according to evolved rules have rather different implications than the automatic associations of lineage: there is, for example, much less reason to develop binding institutions outside of lineage if lineage connections trump all.)

In a similar vein, Beckwith argues that the Germanic conquests represented the “re-Central Eurasianisation” of Europe and the “feudal revolution” of Europe was the product of that (Pp109ff).

Beckwith argues that the comitatus was imported into Islam as the mamluk or ghulam system, which he denies was a slave soldier system (p.25). The suggestion of importation of the concept makes sense, particularly given the historical connections Beckwith points to. While the original cases may well have been free warriors, that they did not become slave soldier systems seems more dubious. The Janissaries clearly were, for example. Given how extensive Islamic slaving and slave-trading was, slaves provided an obvious recruitment method: particularly after initial connections to recruitment sources faded and given the lineage-based loyalty systems in the wider society.
Beckwith argues firmly that the chariot was a Central Eurasian development, from about 2000BC, given the domesticated horse preceded the chariot there, while it appears with the chariot in the river valley civilisations from Shang China to Mesopotamia and Egypt, its ritual and prestige use flowing from its hunting and military use(Pp50ff). The C17thBC saw a wave of war-chariot peoples seizing control of Central Anatolia (the Hittites), Upper Mesopotamia (Mitanni) and Greek Aegean (the Mycenaeans). The war chariot was a light and manoeuvrable vehicle, unlike the earlier four-wheeled ox-wagons. The development of running javelin throwers to disable horses, chariots and charioteers brought the military effectiveness of chariots to an end during the Bronze Age collapse , though their prestige (and racing) uses lasted much longer (Pp56-7).

Intellectual zing
Beckwith notes that there is an outbreak of intellectual ferment in the fifth and fourth century BC in the Hellenic, Indic and Sinic worlds centred around archetypal figures such as Socrates (469-399BC), Plato (427-347BC), Aristotle (384-322BC), Guatama Buddha (c.500BC), Panini (c.C4thBC), Kautilya (c.321-296BC), Confucius (c550-480BC), Lao-tzu (c.late C5thBC), Chuang Tzu (C4thBC). While tracing many specific borrowings has been difficult, Beckwith points out that:
… there are some, and it must furthermore be considered odd if such distant areas as East Asia and the Aegean … should have started arguing not only about their actual governments but about government in general, asking questions about their existence, and talking about logic and looking into the way the human mind works. … The asking of question about the questions themselves was new, and it is difficult to find the precedents or motivation for the development in each case (Pp73-4).
Beckwith notes some common features—each culture was divided by large number of states, none dominant (what economists call competitive jurisdictions), they shared in the increase in world trade due to the rise of the nomadic empires (with the consequent growth of a commercial class and spread of ideas). Any connection was by land and went through Central Eurasia.

Beckwith notes that, in the C6th and early C5th, the entire northern steppe zone and much of the Central Asian zone was Iranian speaking. Anacharsis the Scythian visited Greece in the 47th Olympiad (591-588BC). Demosthenes was the grandson of a Scythian woman. Zoroaster likely came from pastoral Iranian society. There are references to Confucius suggesting Central Eurasians had answers. Whatever the reason why such widely separated cultures showed such a striking surge in intellectual creativity in the same period, it is surely likely to involve the cultural realm that linked them—Central Eurasia (Pp73ff).

Steppe nomads generally led longer, more prosperous and easier lives, than the inhabitants of agrarian cultures (p.76). This would certainly provide the basis for their own intellectual surge. Moreover, by being link cultures—that is, being in contact with a range of different civilisations—that may well have encouraged asking more basic questions, given the range of cultural outlooks they were confronted with. That, after all, was the experience of early Islam, as it surged across the Middle East and North Africa, and of post-medieval Western Europe, as it surged across the globe.

The trade imperative
Beckwith argues forcefully that the notion of barbarian nomads raiding and pillaging victimised agrarian cultures is a result of accepting uncritically the self-justifying propaganda of the great imperial agrarian empires. On the contrary, he argues, the steppe peoples were far more often subject to aggression and disruption by the imperial states. This could be ultimately self-defeating, as encouraging instability and division among steppe peoples undermined the flow of trade:
The aggressive foreign policy successes of the Chinese and Roman empires had disastrous consequences. The partial closing of the frontier to trade by other empires, and their destabilisation of Central Eurasia by their incessant attacks, resulted in internecine warfare in the region. The serious decline in Silk Road commerce that followed—observable in the shrinkage of areal extent of Central Asian cities—may have been one of the long-lasting recession that eventually brought down both the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Han Empire… and with them the end of the end of Classical civilization (p.92).
The cooling weather and spread of disease may also have been factors, of course.

In the C3rd, a great wandering of peoples roiled around Central Asia, Northern China and Western Europe, spreading the Central Eurasian Cultural Complex from Spain to Japan (p.94). The most dramatic manifestation being the rise and vanishing of the Hun empire, though the destruction of the army of the Eastern Roman Empire by the Goths at Adrianople was the most cataclysmic single event. Beckwith points out the persistent pattern of Roman duplicity in dealing with the Central Eurasian peoples (Pp94ff). When things (eventually) settled down, Germanic warrior cultures manifesting the Central Eurasian Culture Complex dominated remnants of Mediterranean Classical Culture (with a Judaic religious overlay):
The resulting blending of the Central Eurasian Germanic peoples and their Romanized subjects laid the foundation of what eventually became a distinctive new European civilization (p.101).
Beckwith examines the incentives and imperatives driving the Central Eurasian peoples. Beckwith notes that:
All empire builders, whether ruled by nomadic or agrarian dynasties, attempted to expand as far as possible in all directions.
But the steppes are lands without natural borders and herds do not have the same attachment to specific territory that farming does, so
… from a Central Eurasian point of view borders were meaningless. As a consequence, when a winning clan was extraordinarily successful, the new nation would rapidly expand across the entire expanse of the Central Eurasian steppe zone right up to the walls and fortresses of the peripheral empires (p.108).
The archetypal examples being Scythians (or Northern Iranians), the Turks and the Mongols.

Imperial instability
The decline of Rome and Han China encouraged migration. The economic difficulties of the border lands of the Empires encouraged nomad rulers—wanting trade goods to bind their comitatus—to move closer to the wealthy centres of the Empires, setting in place destructive spirals that consumed the Western Roman Empire, though the (somewhat reduced) Eastern Roman Empire and Persian Empires managed to survive (Pp108ff). The consequence for the rest of Europe was the creation of warrior rule leading to the “feudal” (peasants work for knight, knight protects peasants) system and the creation of medieval Europe (Pp110-1).

Beckwith sees the reforms of Heraclius and his grandson Constans II (the last Roman consul)—creating the system of themes—and the loss of Syria and Egypt to the Arab Conquest as marking the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and the beginning of the Byzantine Empire (p.122). If one is going to make such a division, that is a good place to make it, even though its inhabitants continued to consider themselves Romans and they were named such by the cultures around them.

The pattern of brief and bloody unification under the Qin followed by long reign of the Han was repeated with a brief and bloody unification under the Sui followed by the long reign of the T’ang, a dynasty with strong Central Eurasian antecedents and connections (p.124). Turks had been invited by various contestants for power during the turmoil that saw the T’ang replace the Sui, and this “aggression” was used as an excuse to expand into Turkic territories as part of the T’ang desire to emulate and outdo the Han and establish the greatest empire yet (p.125). The T’ang allied with the Arabs to break a Turkic-Tibetan alliance that raised the perennial Chinese fear of “being cut off” from the trade to the West (p.134) (i.e. having to deal with a single jurisdiction in its landward trade).

Beckwith notes the attention given by surrounding civilisations to Central Eurasian affairs in this period, due to concern for trade and because of a common ideology of a single legitimate ruler (their own: whether Roman Emperor, Caliph, Son of Heaven or whatever). Contact via Central Eurasia helped force awareness of other empires and led to some almost amusing diplomatic circumlocutions. Yet, despite the constant warfare this ideology of single legitimate ruler encouraged, trade continued to expand across the Silk Road until the middle of C8th (p.139).

Religious branding
Religions played their own role in this mix: the Frankish Empire with Catholicism, the “Byzantine” Empire with Orthodoxy, the Islam of the Arab Empire, the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, of the Uighurs to Manicheanism and the Tibetan Kingdom to Buddhism (Pp148ff). The T’ang empire adopted Taoism (to the disapproval of the Confucian mandarinate) and became increasingly severe towards other religions while the “Byzantine” Empire had a series of Iconoclast rulers, who supported this unusual diversion from mainstream Orthodoxy with torture and murder (p.150). (Though, of course, there had been plenty of torture and murder in the establishment and maintenance of said Orthodoxy in the first place.)

With these religions went literacy—sacred texts generally being central to them—and the result was a great flowering in literary and graphic art from Japan to Europe (p.156).

The late C8th saw a decline in international trade for reasons which are unclear, though Beckwith points out the systematic Chinese massacre of Sogdians (men, women and children) “and anyone who looked even remotely non-Chinese” after the suppression of the disastrous An Lu-shan Rebellion could hardly have helped trade relations (p.157). The T’ang Empire suffered continuing economic decline, with barter increasingly replacing money, and apparently pulled the international trading system down with it (p.156). The T’ang massacred the Uighurs, exterminated Manicheanism and went on to attempt the same with Buddhism, ending the T’ang cultural revival and going into a spiralling decline that led to the collapse of the dynasty within 50 years (p.160). The Frankish, Tibetan and Abbasid empires broke up leaving the “Byzantine” Empire as the remaining large state in or around Central Eurasia (Pp161ff).

The decline of powerful secular states left religious authority to fill the vacuum. Tibet became dominated by Buddhist monasticism, which also spread across China, Korea and Japan. Christian monasticism flourished in Europe. The Sufi brotherhoods provided an Islamic equivalent. Monasticism spread literacy, but also spread religious orthodoxy. A climactic downturn encouraged southward migrations from the northern steppes, a major disturbing factor in Central Eurasia. The Rus Norse-Slavic culture, and nomadic dynasties in northern China, both straddled the geographic boundary between nomadic and agrarian cultures, spreading agrarian urbanisation into the Western and the Eastern Steppes (Pp163ff).

At first, the relatively small size of individual states “limited the evil that governments and politicians could do to individuals” (Pp176-7) as artists, philosophers, scholars and thinkers could move to more amenable polities: the competitive jurisdictions effect once more. But the consequent intellectual flowering in Islam failed under the assault of religious conservatism led by al-Ghazali, who used the techniques of the philosophers against them in the service of dogma. Averroes (ibn Rushd) rebutted his arguments, but he was on the periphery of the Islamic world in Spain while al-Ghazali operated near its centre. Averroes was very influential in Latin Christendom, had almost no influence in Islam and “saw the destruction of Islamic intellectual life by rabid religious conservatives in his own lifetime” (Pp178-9).

Just as Islam was turning it back on reason, Latin Christendom was in an intellectual ferment from the interaction with Islam in Spain and Outremer (Pp180ff). One reinforced by the (albeit temporary) Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

Eventually, the Mongols—who had remained animist during their great imperial expansion—adopted Buddhism (P.194). The pax Mongolica promoted trade and movements of people. Which also promoted movement of disease. The Black Death started as a pandemic in northern China, killing possibly 90% of the population, spreading across the trade routes to Europe, where it killed perhaps a third of the population. It had a disastrous effect on the Mongol successor states. “The Calamitous Fourteenth Century” was so throughout Central Eurasia (Pp195ff).

The spread of the plague also had a disastrous long-term effect on the mamluk regime in Egypt: medieval Europe, on the other hand, was given a major impetus (back) on the path of economic development through capital-substitution which the great expansion in European population up to the Great Famine of the early C14th had threatened to derail.

Beckwith places Tamerlaine very much as a Central Eurasian figure: a dynastic founder with armies of cavalry and infantry, expert at conquering cities operating off a base that was substantially urban and agrarian (p.200). Beckwith notes the positive effect Mongol rule had for trade and transmission of ideas and techniques, including art and literature, but downplays the notion that it was some transformative event in world history: the ethnic patterns that outlived it already existed (Pp202-3) while the promotion of trade had been a perennial aim of Central Eurasian nomadic peoples.

But, with the passing of Tamerlaine and the failure of his dynasty to produce anything other than squabbling (and shrinking) local principalities, the old patterns were about to be transformed by a revolution in world affairs, covered in the next part of this book review, which concludes in a third post.