Monday, April 24, 2017

Why there is so much nonsense spouted about fascism

If you are going to invoke the interwar period, particularly the 1930s, please do so intelligently.

By which I mean, non-propagandistically. And by interwar period I mean the phenomenon of fascism and neo-fascism.

Despite self-serving (look at me, I am opposing fascism!) shrieking, there is not a lot of fascism or neo-fascism in contemporary Western politics. Fascists and neo-fascists do, of course, exist but mostly as sad and nasty fringe groups--Golden Dawn in Greece is the most locally successful of the breed, as was the MSI in its early days in Italy (where it got much of its support as an anti-Mafia vote), though nowadays it is post-fascist as a necessary element in mainstreaming itself.

What has become conspicuous is a lot of shrieking-and-pointing about alleged fascists and neo-fascism. (E.g. treating Pauline Hanson, for example here, and Geert Wilders as neofascism and Marine Le Pen's National Front in France as fascism.) This has mostly been a result of intellectually impoverished frameworks interacting with moral grandstanding; in particular, the moralised cognitive tribalism that is such a feature of postmodern identity progressivists (PIPs) and their fellow cognitive tribalists.

Militarisation of politics
The reason there is not much fascism or neo-fascism in contemporary Western politics is because there is remarkably little militarisation of politics. By militarisation of politics, I do not mean being pro-military spending, extolling the worth of military service or supporting military intervention. Hillary Clinton and other folk supporting various military interventions are not examples of the militarisation of politics.

Actual Fascists, doing fascist politics. 
Mussolini marching on Rome, 1922.
By militarisation of politics, I mean something much more domestic and much more pervasive: seeing politics operationally and rhetorically in military terms; taking military virtues to be the central virtues all society should be directed to creating; seeing military service as the apotheosis that all true men should seek; glorifying military conflict itself.

The appeal of Italian Fascism and German Nazism was deeply pervaded with appeal to the heroic virtues of military service and conflict. It is no accident that both movements had their own paramilitary wings. Mass display of uniformed militarised masculinity was a key part of their political aesthetic, their operational methods, their motivating ideology, of their political branding. It was also no accident that both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were aggressive powers: it was something their entire mode of politics was inherently directed towards. (It is also a sign of Franco not being a fascist, rather a traditionalist authoritarian who used some fascist rhetoric and props, that he made the achievement and maintenance of peace a key justifying prop of his regime.)

As peacetime systems of rule, neither Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany were remotely as murderous or systematically oppressive as various Leninist regimes. But peacetime was not their time. It was particularly not in the case of Nazi Germany; lebensraum was Hitler's political aim, the object the policy of his Reich was directed towards. It was in the removal of normal constraints that war entails which let loose the true megacidal horrors of Nazism.

Nazi politics, 1928.
Indeed, as systems of domestic politics, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were relatively unremarkable tyrannies. Nazism was terrible because it exported its viciousness into war and then used war as a cover to let its full megacidal ambitions loose. Italian Fascism was less so in every sense, but engaged in its own, smaller, imperial military adventures and then made itself a co-conspirator in the grander horror.

There do most certainly exist in the modern world analogues of Fascism and Nazism; movements glorifying violent conflict and heroic virtues in grandiose imperial ambitions--the jihadis. Within Western politics, however, not so much.

Militating against
Nor is there any surprise in the lack of such militarisation of politics within the contemporary West. First, is the association of war with horror and vast risks (particularly as a result of the war that Nazi politics let loose), a factor reinforced by low fertility rates (the prospect of war looks very different to a society of families of 5-10 children than a society of families of 1-2 children). Second, it represents a grotesquely failed model of politics even in its own terms. Third, having paramilitary wings is an easy legislative target and a promise of the threat of disorder which is precisely the opposite effect you want to have to get mass political support in the contemporary West. Fourth, there is no issue in contemporary politics with mass appeal that such militarisation represents any sort of even vaguely plausible response to.

Thus, it is no accident that both the National Front in France and the MSI in Italy moved away from their neo-fascist roots in their drive to become more electorally successful: a form of the taming of the extremist fringe which is supposed to be part of the virtue of electoral politics.

Threat levels, then ...
Which leads to the other way such contemporary pointing-and-shrieking comprehensively fails to grapple with past and present political reality--in refusing to consider how much the appeal of Italian Fascism and German Nazism rested on the threat of Leninism and Stalinism. In other words, refusing to consider the dynamic nature of politics, its action-and-response nature.

That Fascism was a response to Leninism was both explicit in Mussolini's thinking and in how his movement was able to generate such high levels of support--the prospect of a Leninist revolution in the Kingdom of Italy in the immediate aftermath of the Great War seemed very real to many. With 20-20 hindsight, whatever risk there had been was in sharp decline before Mussolini's March on Rome, but that was not how it appeared to many at the time. Without Leninism as a model of total politics (which Mussolini adopted and re-directed) and Leninism as a multi-dimensional threat to social order (which Mussolini posed as the true defender against), Fascism's militarisation of politics would have seemed grotesque and threatening to the very support base it relied upon. With such a violent revolutionary threat, however, invoking the role of uniformed protectors had much more resonance.

Nazi-Communist street fighting, Berlin, 1930s.
The same points apply to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s. In the prosperous 1920s, the NSDAP was a fringe Party precisely because its (para)militarised politics was disruptive and threatening. When the insane Bank of France, aided and abetted by a feckless US Federal Reserve, turned the interwar gold standard into a system of economic devastation such that the proudly Stalinist KPD began to electorally overtake the SDP, threatening to bring to Germany the confiscations, totalitarian tyranny, mass starvations and killings of Stalinism, and ordinary politics seemed incapable or unwilling to do anything effective, then the Nazis could point to a problem to which their militarisation of politics could be presented as an answer. Without Stalinism as a model of total politics (which Hitler followed and surpassed Mussolini in adopting and re-directing) and Stalinism as a multi-dimensional threat to social order (which Hitler posed as the true defender against) the NSDAP's militarisation of politics would have remained a grotesque and threatening folly to the very support base it needed for electoral success.

... and now
The nationalist populisms of our time (notably, One Nation, National Front, Sweden Democrats, Party for Freedom, Flemish Interest, Alternative for Germany, etc) are not Fascist or Nazi, or even neo-Fascist or neo-Nazi, in any useful sense. They are responses to the way globalisation is dividing Western societies into anywheres and somewheres (David Goodhart), into cosmopolitans and parochials (Katharine Betts), with increasingly distinct experiences, perspectives and interests; to contemporary progressivist politics, and to failures of the mainstream centre-right, but they are much less feral responses than Fascism or Nazism because they are not responding to things anywhere near as violently threatening as Leninism in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution, and its various copy-cat risings, or Stalinism in the context of widespread, intense, and apparently entrenched economic misery.

The contemporary version:
Hezbollah swearing-in ceremony.
For the 1930s Depression was not enough in itself to generate such politics. Fascist politics remained fringe throughout the Anglosphere, despite the depths of the Depression in the US and Australia particularly. Without mass Leninist or Stalinist Parties, plus rural votes profoundly alienated from the centre-left, there was nothing anywhere near directly threatening enough to create any breakthrough into mass voter support for the militarisation of politics.

There still isn't in the contemporary West. (Unless relations with the growing Muslim communities in Western Europe continue to spiral downwards.)

What there is, are remarkably arrogant and insular globalist elites who use their sense of moral superiority as a socio-cultural club against any concerns they deem beneath their moral consideration. Folk who display a massive sense of moral entitlement in demanding absolute respect for their moral concerns while habitually displaying complete contempt for the moral concerns of other citizens. Sheer exasperation with their condescending self-involvement is driving working class voters in particular to embrace various forms of populist nationalism. (Or, in Spain and Greece, various form of populist socialism.)

Such populists are pushing nationalism (ethnicity politics) instead of patriotism (polity loyalty), and nationalist politics have all the nasty implications that identity politics do. But if the language of cultural placement and affirmation is not only abandoned by mainstream politics, but actively excoriated, then it creates a massive opportunity for nationalists. Just as if support for migration become a marker of membership of the oh-so-moral cognitive elite, so that any discussion of the downsides and costs of migration (and both exist) is deemed illegitimate, that creates a political opportunity too.

Politics as dynamic interaction
One cannot understand the rise of populist nationalists without understanding the dynamic nature of politics. But that would require the PIPish cosmopolitans to look critically in the mirror, and their entire mode of political, intellectual and cultural operation has become all about signalling their tribal membership and their multidimensional cognitive and moral superiority. So, no mirrors for them.

On the contrary, one signals one's cognitive tribal membership by blaming folk who display their intellectual and moral culpability by dissenting from progressivist signalling pieties. Which leaves us back to pointing-and-shrieking about fascism and neo-fascism. It's self-serving nonsense. (Consider, just for a moment, the vast gulf in methods, operations, ambitions and policies between the jihadis and the populist nationalists.) But it is very revealing self-serving nonsense. Unfortunately, the longer PIPish cosmopolitans remain trapped in their self-serving blindness, the greater the number of exasperated and infuriated voters is likely to become. (Because, of course, constantly shouting racist!, xenophobe! is such an excellent way to be persuasive and is not at all about displaying one's moral superiority.)

The AntiFa idea of being the opposite of fascists:
organised violence with improvised uniforms
to block other people's peaceful assembly and free speech.
If the ostentatiously morally concerned were really concerned with the rise of populist nationalist politics, they would stop pointing-and-shrieking about fascism and neo-fascism and start listening and considering. But that would involve sacrificing their profound sense of superiority, and the indications are they are happy to ride that indefinitely.

It is also a very old pattern, whereby a socio-cultural elite agrees furiously amongst itself how horrible the rustics/plebs/peasants/proles are. (As is pretty explicit in this post.) Made all the more blindly self-righteous in the contemporary West by the pose of being "subversive" and their addiction to explaining social outcomes as being the result of the malice of their fellow citizens (i.e. as being caused by racism, misogny, [fill in the blank]phobia ...) who, because they are the malicious, cannot be debated with, only shrieked at.

For the problem with turning moral beliefs into markers of status and tribal membership is that they become too precious to (re)consider, leading to an increasing hostility to reality and inability to deal with difference. The PIPish cosmopolitans are relentlessly, often viciously, tribal (which makes this post hilarious in its self-blindness). The pointing-and-shrieking fascist! fascist! is a symptom of the cognitive xenophobia, the inability to cope with difference in concerns and perspectives, among those holding the cultural and intellectual "commanding heights" in Western societies that is doing a great deal to make Western politics much more dysfunctional.

So, the fascism! pointing-and-shrieking is not only bad history, it is part of a wider, destructive, self-serving, pattern which is new in details but is otherwise tediously oh-so-been-here-before.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History Hidden Heroines

Archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball's Warrior Women: An Archaeologist's Search for History's Hidden Heroines is book mostly about the fun and experience of being an archaeologist. As such, it is a lively and engaging memoir.

It is also refreshingly free of cant and jargon. It is clearly written for a lay audience, but that the author came late to academe (she got her Ph.D. at 49) after what could only be described as a broad range of life experiences--three marriages, six children, surviving breast cancer, and what she describes as:
a varied resume that included stints as a nurse in Idaho, an administrator in a convalescent hospital in southern California, an English-language teacher in Bolivia and Spain, and a failed cattle rancher in South America (p.xii)
likely helped the easy-to-read and practical tone of the work.

The book wears its scholarship lightly but pervasively. There are boxes (ranging in size from half a page to three pages) providing background on matters touched on in the main narrative and the text is extensively footnoted and referenced.

The rhythms, discomforts and joys of archaeological endeavour are nicely brought to life. Much of her archaeology was in the former Soviet Union, concentrating on various kurgans or burial mounds, and the "joys" of dealing with Soviet agencies and suspicion of outsiders are woven into the narrative. Though it turns out that the contemporary People's Republic of China is worse, with Chinese officials going as far as to insert a (headless) museum exhibit mummy into a dig site as part of the official disapproval of interest in the Caucasian features of said mummies (p.140).

Davis-Kimball also interweaves current observation of steppe nomads with the archaeology, partly in the hope that the lives of the former might shed light on some of the finds of the latter (which, on at least one case, it did). Indeed, the observations about the life of steppe nomads are of interest in themselves. The book is something of a treasure trove of information on the archaeology, ethnology and history of the steppe nomads and is worth reading for that alone.

The warrior women of the title are only one of several themes in the book. The most striking passage on warrior women is early in the book, when the characteristics of the 194 adult skeletons found in the Povkrovka kurgans are listed. 94% of the men were buried with weapons, 3% with a clay pot or two, 3% with a child (though none of the women were). Roughly 15% of the women were buried with weapons, 7% with artefacts that suggested they were priestesses, (3% fell into both categories), 3% with chalk whorls too fragile to be of practical use and 75% were buried as hearth women (Pp46-7).  The percentage of women buried with weapons is within the range of Scythian, Saka, Sarmatian burials more generally.

Davis-Kimball's book is full of striking details, though at times I would have liked a bit more interweaving with general patterns. Low population densities societies tend to teach women to fight (the men might be away) and (as Davis-Kimball notes, p.62) the horse archery of the nomads made imbalances in upper body strength and physical size less of a problem than other styles of fighting. Since it took a lot of grass to support animals, and a lot of animals to support people, and pasture is effectively a given, there would also be less pressure on women to give birth early, allowing a warrior stage of life in one's teenage years among early nomad peoples (most of the women warriors found died in their teens, p.60). There is not much evidence of women actually fighting with armies among later nomad peoples (and limited evidence for the early nomads, p.65), though more intense competition for pasture (and trade) may have shifted the balance against incorporating women in armies, rather than as last-ditch home guard. Even with these early nomads, Davis-Kimball suggests that women warriors may have been largely auxiliary or home defence forces (p.65).

Davis-Kimball is interested in all of the roles of women in these societies. Their apparent domination of religious activities is striking. Those men who seem to be of religious or shamanistic significance seemed to have cross-dressed (Pp180ff), part of the wider pattern associating queer folk with shamanistic roles. A considerable part of the text examines the role of women in spirituality and religion, religious rituals and belief in goddesses, particular a Mother Goddess.

A 12th century sheela na gig on the church
at Kilpeck, Herefordshire, England.
The two chapter segue into the myths and archaeology of Ireland towards the end of the book at first seems to be just about being an archaeological memoir but she relates both back to the archaeology and history of the steppes. (Davis-Kimball clearly favours the steppes as the origins of Indo-European languages and culture.) That the genealogy of Irish heroes is always traced through the female line suggests a matrilineal past (p.210). She also points out that these were oral traditions until written down by Irish monks seems to have affected their transmission, with the role of women becoming more dependant and more morally perverse the later the transcription (Pp196ff). (She actually uses the term patriarchy correctly, as authority being centred in certain males, which is good to see.) There is also a discussion of those oddities, the sheela na gig's (Pp205ff).

The role of women in Norse (Viking) society is also discussed, including how archaeology supports Ibn Fadlan's claims about the rich adornment of their women: indeed, the archaeology suggests that women might have had more role in commerce than the men (Pp216ff). There is also a nice discussion of the series of powerful women in Mongol history--that the Mongol elite was highly polygynous did not seem to stop wives being regents in the interregnum between the death of one khan and the election of the next (Pp220ff). The contrast with Islamic history on this matter is striking, likely reflecting steppe women being taught to fight and the absence of religious-based relegation of women.

The final (short) chapter provides a summary of what has been traversed in the book, noting the historical downward shift in the standing of women when patriarchal priesthood-kingship models were adopted but ending, where she began, with the sheer fun of archaeological discovery.

Jeannine Davis-Kimball's Warrior Women is both an informative journey and a fun read. A good starting point or way station to understanding the varying gender dynamics of human societies in history.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sultans of Rome: The Turkish World Expansion

Some works of history are excellent introductions to the history of a period, region, people. Others are much better read only if you already had some background knowledge -- either because they assume such knowledge, or because the author has such a pronounced point of view that background knowledge is desirable to balance out what is being written, or not written.

Sultans of Rome: The Turkish World Expansion by archaeologist Warwick Ball falls into the last category.

Which is not to say that I did not find it a useful and informative work of history. It gives an excellent overview of Turkish history, informatively covering the centuries before the Seljuks conquered much of the Middle East. The difficulty comes with the coverage of the Ottoman Empire (Chapters 7 - 10).

A European State
The author is at pains to point out that the Ottoman Empire was, from very early on, a European state. The Ottomans first took territory in Europe in 1354. The movement of its capital from Bursa to Edirne (formerly Adrianople) in 1363 meant that its capital was in Europe for the rest of its history, until the abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in 1922 and the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923. With Selim I's conquest and abolition of the shadow Abbasid Caliphate in Cairo, this location history meant that the Sunni Caliphate was resident in Europe for over 400 years, though the Ottomans put much more emphasis on the title once they started losing Muslim-inhabited lands to European states, particularly Russia.

Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent --
being positively Roman in its use of client states.
At its height, the Ottoman Empire controlled about 20% of the land area of Europe (p.7). It was clearly a part of the European state system. Even the phrase used of its latter years, the sick man of Europe, acknowledged that. So, yes the Ottomans were a European state, indeed a European Great Power an acknowledged (though not original) member of the Concert of Europe. So it is easy to have fun with various historians and commentators who talk of the Ottomans as being somehow exterior to Europe and to being European; and Ball does have such fun.

The trouble is that Ball is so concerned to score points in current controversies--former French President Giscard d'Estaing's comments about Turkey not being part of Europe are clearly a particular annoyance--that his text systematically minimises differences, and emphasises similarities, between the Ottoman state and European states.  In doing so, Ball does make several useful corrective points. But he also pushes his book into the realm of polemic.

Ottoman astronomers, C16th.
The notion of a clash of civilisations based on Team Christian versus Team Islam is easily demolished. Not least because there was often such vicious hostility between Catholics and Orthodox on one side, and Sunni and Shia on the other. Selim the Grim's expansion of the Ottoman Empire by 70% with, among other things, the conquest of Mamluk Egypt, completely (if temporarily) shifting the axis of advance of the Empire from conquest of Christian lands to conquest of Muslim lands, was largely motivated (or at least justified as being) to block the advances of the rabidly Shia Safavid dynasty which had conquered Iran and brutally converted it to being Shia.

And the Ottomans were ever opportunistic, making alliances with Christian states when it suited them, incorporating Christian forces into their armies, having Christian vassal states. The border lands between civilisations are noted for such patterns. But that does not mean they are not border lands between civilisations.

But a civilisational divide
To talk of the Ottomans not being a European Power is geographic nonsense. But to talk of them being of a different civilisation than the Christian states is not. The advance of the Ottomans into Europe was the advance of a civilisation from outside Europe into Europe. As the Ottomans imperium lost ground after 1683, so that was the retreat of a civilisation from Europe.

Skull tower at Nis, Serbia, erected by
the Ottoman commander to contain skulls
of defeated Serbian rebels, 1809.
That there were non-Muslim minorities in Muslim lands did not mean that Muslim-majority countries were not lands of Islam as a civilisation. Just as the leaving of Muslim minorities in Christian-majority countries did not stop those being lands of a different civilisation. Nor was being a majority required for a civilisational divide, who controlled the state in a territory was sufficient. The border of the Ottoman Empire was a civilisational divide, one that not only represented a different established religion, but different marriage systems, understanding of law, basic institutions and metaphysical presumptions.

Jihad as system
When Ball writes "the perceived Holy War symbolised by Kossovo--was simply not an issue to the early Ottomans" (p.98) he is being less than accurate. The Ottomans turned jihad into a system. A system operated for their benefit, but a system nonetheless. (Indeed, creating systems to expand and buttress their rule was the Ottoman genius.) All the first nine rulers of the Ottoman state called themselves ghazis (holy warriors).

Serbian historian Srdja Trifkovic, in his The Krajina Chronicles: A History of the Serbs in Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia (which I review here) provides a useful summary of how the Ottomans used jihad, (and his work is a useful corrective to Ball's Ottoman spruiking more generally). Raiders devastated border regions, promoting flight and reducing economic activity (and thus long-term ability to resist) while the spoils of raids (already sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence) motivated and maintained the raiders. Larger armies periodically probed the borders. Eventually, conquest of a new region would be accomplished, the surviving inhabitants would be subject to the jizya poll tax on non-believers, Muslim warriors were settled as “tax-farmers” in the newly-conquered region and the process would roll on from the new (expanded) borders.

Mehmet II triumphal entry into Constantinople
(painting by Benjamin Constant).
The Ottomans could be very pragmatic in how they interpreted non-believer submission to their rule. Hence their extensive use of Christian vassal states and Christian warriors. But that same pragmatism used jihad quite ruthlessly as a means and justification for imperial expansion. The Ottomans were never a jihadi state, but they were certainly a state that used jihad, and did so quite systematically. They saw themselves as expanding dar al-Islam; as, indeed, they were. During the long imperial retreat, they were defending dar al-Islam.

An Islamic Empire
As Ball points out, it was only after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8 that Muslims became a majority of the Empire's subjects (p.158). The balance of pragmatic consideration then moved to harsher treatment of what were now clearly non-Muslim minorities. This culminated in Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s and the Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic-Greek genocides followed during the Dynasts War. While admitting to the slaughters, Ball is at pains to blame European factors--the rise of nationalism (p.156), the push of the Christian Powers to protect Christian nationalities within the Empire (p.158). This represents a sadly typical "I will now signal I am a good and sophisticated person" move of allocating the "real" agency for anything bad to those bad "white" people. Ball having systematically glided over awkward bits in his Ottoman narrative makes it easier to do.

A photograph, taken by the American W. L. Sachtleben,
depicting the victims of a massacre of Armenians
 in Erzerum on October 30, 1895, being gathered
for burial at the town's Armenian cemetery.
The reality is that the Ottoman Empire was always ultimately an Islamic state. The Ottoman dynasty prided itself on being a defender of Sunni Orthodoxy and Sharia, albeit with typical Ottoman systematic finessing, was the dominant law of the Empire. (In accordance with Sharia, the various millets each operated their own law, but only as subordinate to Sharia.) With a majority of their subjects being non-Muslims, of course the Ottomans were pragmatic in their treatment of non-Muslims. But Muslim supremacy was always the bedrock the state was built on.

The balance of tolerance and oppression
There is a recurring pattern in history of states with established and legitimating religions being pragmatic when the dominant group is a minority and then becoming increasingly oppressive as the dominant group's proportion of the population shifts to being a majority, with that intolerant oppressiveness worsening as their dominant group's proportion of the population increases further. We can see this pattern in Norman Sicily, where the treatment of Jews and Muslims was relatively tolerant when the Christians were a minority, tending to worsen as the Christians became a majority and culminating in the expulsion of the remaining Muslims (and later the Jews). We can also see the pattern in Spain and Portugal during and after the Reconquista, culminating in the expulsion of the Jews and later of the Moriscoes.

Similarly, the treatment of Jews in Christian Europe was often worse than in Islamic Europe because Jews were typically the only significant religious minority in Christian states, and a relatively small one at that, while Jews were part of a wider mosaic of religious groups in Islamic realms. (Not that Jews did not also suffer massacres and pogroms in Islamic lands.)

Selim III receiving foreign dignitaries,  1789.
But the wider pattern also occurs in Islamic lands. Indeed, is continuing to this day, with the flight of the Jews after 1948 and the current steady erosion of Christian populations in the Middle East. The Ottoman massacres and genocides were a particularly vile manifestation of the wider historical pattern. (The Habsburg Monarchy also had ethnic minorities of dubious loyalty in a time of rising nationalism, with Russia posing as protectors of Orthodox groups: but the Habsburg state did not resort to massacres and death-marches as a response, not even under the stress of the Great War.)

So, there are some serious weaknesses in Ball's treatment of the Ottoman Empire. But there is also plenty of useful and striking information. And even folk being polemical can make useful points. The discussion of the Ottoman attempt to incorporate the Roman heritage, for example, is enlightening.

The real strength of the book is in its treatment of the wider Turkish history, which extends centuries before the Seljuk and Ottoman Empires.  The Turks are no longer the folk who suddenly appear out of the steppes as conquerors in the C11th, but as a people with a rich and complex history before that. So, a useful book, but not one to be read as a stand-alone, particularly not regarding Ottoman history.