Friday, July 31, 2009

The Origins of Virtue

Matt Ridley is a noted populariser of the discoveries and insights of the developing science of human evolution. His The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation is a very engaging and accessible short book on the evolution of cooperation given that genes are passed on by individuals, not groups.

Ridley is a good populariser. His prose is clear, his examples vivid and he is happy to weave the insights of various disciplines together. Moreover, in the areas I have prior knowledge of, his renditions are clear and accurate.

The book covers so much, despite being a mere 265 pages of text, that I will not attempt to cover it all. I particularly liked his discussion of trade and property, demonstrating that both are well-developed in hunter-gatherer societies (so completely predate any sort of state, which can as readily undermine them as support them). Ridley notes studies of 40 hunter-gatherer societies only found one where women hunted. That one exception was a case where the “hunter-gatherers” traded with local farmers for plant products (i.e had become specialist hunters). Having men hunt and women gather was a rational division of labour. Homo sapiens are not particularly good hunters or particularly good gatherers. But if the larger gender hunts and the smaller gender gathers, the combination creates a viable ecological niche. And provides a cheap and easy sorting device for allocating training.

Again and again, common patterns—such as humans eat (and share food) in public but have sex in private—are shown to have understandable evolutionary sources. Evolution in the human case being understood as creating both an inherent nature and a capacity for culture.

Even the asides are entertaining. Ridley provides a nice summary of political correctness as reversing the naturalistic fallacy. Instead of inferring oughts from is (the naturalistic fallacy), PC tends to infer is from oughts. (E.g. it ought to be the case that men and women are identical in nature and range of capacities so it is the case that they are. Ridley’s suggestion is compatible with the virulence with which contrary factual assertions are denounced—they are moral affronts.)

Ridley shows that we are groupish rather than group-orientated—i.e. like to congregate together but remain individualists. Hence conformism. (It is notable that those who make most of a fetish of cooperation are usually particularly conformist within their group.)

Ridley examines the public policy disasters that flowed from Garret Hardin’s misanalysis of common property. Hardin had claimed that medieval village commons were unowned and therefore subject to overgrazing—the tragedy of the commons. Hardin was drawing attention to a very real problem (consider problems with overfishing). The flaw in his analysis was that the medieval village did not function as Hardin implied. The medieval commons was at the centre of a network of property rights that acted to stop overgrazing. Practices that had analogues all over the world. As Ridley shows, fortified by Hardin’s (misanalysis) of customary rights and contemporary Western intellectuals typical obsession with state action (given that such action increases the value of abstract intellectual capital and the likely status of the possessors thereof, but that is me not Ridley), the normal aggrandising tendencies of state bureaucracies created local disaster after local disaster around the developing world as functional customary rights were abolished and replaced by nationalisation run by sub-functional bureaucracies which then created tragedies of the commons were none had existed before.

Ridley identifies cases where customary/common property rights arrangements are not likely to work. Typically, moving resources that do not involve repeated interactions with the same folk. (Those fish again.) Ridley has an extra take on environmentalists typical disdain for property rights beyond what I would suggest (property rights are generally disliked by those whose identity centres around the possession of intellectual capital, since they elevate the decision making of the vulgar masses and undermine status claims based on possession of abstract intellectual capital). Ridley suggests that anti-property rights environmentalism—responsible for perennial creation of public policy disasters, many of which Ridley elucidates—tap into deep human instincts against hoarding. (Which fits in with a longstanding line of critique against socialist and collectivist thinking as being fundamentally primitivist.)

An enjoyable and enlightening work.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Last Samurai

Mark Ravina’s The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori is a splendid biography of the historical figure who inspired the character of Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe, in the film The Last Samurai.

Ravina is particularly good at conveying the ins and outs of Japanese politics in the period before, during and after the Meiji Ishin (Meiji Restoration). He is equally good at dealing with context and characters, so one doesn’t lose track of either who is who or the structures within which they are operating. The highly federal nature of Japanese government under the Tokugawa bakufu is brought out very clearly.
It is also fun seeing what incidents the film makers used to put together The Last Samurai. Tom Cruise’s character seems to have been completely made up. French and later Prussian (after Prussia won the Franco-Prussian War) military advisers were used to train Japanese troops but Ravina makes no mention of Saigō capturing any foreign military advisers. There was a rebellious group of samurai who refused to use modern weapons and stormed a government fort, but they were put down after a few days and were not directly connected to Saigō Takamori’s own rebellion. Even though his rebellion was in part motivated by concern over the loss of status of the samurai. Indeed, precisely as the film intimates, due to concern of loss of virtue based on honour. Nevertheless, Saigō Takamori’s own forces during his final rebellion used modern weapons, but were greatly handicapped by having no modern base of logistical support for them. He also had a commanding physical presence, was a noted teacher, greatly interested in classic literature and a poet.

Just as Katsumoto is clearly Saigō Takamori, Minister Omura is clearly based on Ōkubo Toshimichi, who wasn’t dismissed by the Meiji Emperor but rather was later assassinated by vengeful samurai from his (and Saigō Takamori’s) home domain (han) of Satsuma. He did, however, go on an overseas mission, was an avid moderniser, did dominate the government and was instrumental in a ban on samurai wearing swords in public. And, along with Saigō Takamori and Kido Takayoshi (who was responsible for the education of the young Meiji Emperor) was one of the three great nobles responsible for abolishing the bakufu and creating the Meiji Ishin.

The sage status the film gives Katsumoto is very much in line with the view of Saigō Takamori in his own lifetime and, even more, after his death. Indeed, the film The Last Samurai’s greatest homage to Saigō Takamori’s role in Japanese popular culture may well be precisely its reinterpretation of events to provide a more congenial image.

Ravina begins and ends his book with a discussion of what happened to Saigō Takamori’s head. A somewhat macabre subject matter one may think, but one which Ravina uses very deftly to illustrate the complexities of Saigō Takamori’s life and role in Japanese culture. He was at once a major figure in the modernising of Japan and very concerned about—indeed, in the end, violently resistant to—the modernising of Japan. Display of heads of defeated opponents had been a traditional feature of samurai warfare. After his assisted suicide, Saigō Takamori’s head was hidden by a friend but later recaptured and placed on his body. This seemed all very unsatisfactory a narrative, so the events have been since reworked and re-imagined so that it is represented that his head was washed, displayed and cried over. Thus Ravina frames his continuing discussion of the contradictory pressures that beset Saigō Takamori and which he ultimately resolved by “dying for principle”.

The book is a complete biography, so Ravina takes us through the entire course of Saigō Takamori’s extraordinarily eventful life, incorporating dramatic rises, dramatic falls, a failed suicide, periods of exile, periods of great power and, throughout it, increasing cultural prominence. He weaves the sourcing of evidence neatly into the narrative, along with deft discussions of the historiography. A highly readable and informative biography.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Weather matters

Climate trends frame the context in which human action takes place. They are therefore a significant factor in history. Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History 1300-1850 does an excellent job of putting (European) history in the context of the Little Ice Age. He is particularly good at giving vivid descriptions of the tragedies of everyday life that climate and climate change could create. But he is also very well aware of institutional differences – C18th England and France confronted essentially the same climate, but England’s institutions dealt with resulting stresses a great deal better than did ancien regime France.

My major criticism is his use of the ‘hockey stick’ presentation of the world temperature trends, which purports to show that the warming in the last 100 years is much faster and greater than in the previous 900. Actually, it is quite clear from Fagan’s text (e.g. pp 16-17) that the C12th-C14th was warmer than the world is today.

Despite Fagan’s fashionable greenhouse-ism, which his open-mindedness saves from being too dogmatic (for example, his discussion of evidence, p.216, that fossil fuels are not the major problem), the book is a good read. He puts the French Revolution, for example, in very revealing context.

Fagan's description of An Ghorta Mor, the devastation of the Irish potato famine is heart-rending, not least when he notes that Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the 1782/83 famine, the Earl of Carlisle, acted with a prompt intelligence in banning grain exports and placing a large (100,000 pounds: roughly equivalent to $70m, on the 100pds=$70,000pa income basis) bounty on wheat and oat imports, which contrasted appallingly with the theory-bound inadequacy of Peel’s Government in the 1840s. But Ireland still had its own separate government in 1783, which it did not after the Act of Union. Still, desite Fagan's vividness, Tom Bethel’s The Noblest Triumph contains the best analysis of the Irish disaster I have read (and, yes, the English were to blame, but primarily for the institutional structure they created which impoverished Ireland).

So, climate sets context but does not determine: institutional responses matter and matter rather more the more our technology and organisational capacity improves. A good read.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An historian on truth

Historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s short book Truth: A History and a Guide for the Perplexed is a witty guide through how people down the ages have understood the concept of truth.

Partly he is concerned with broad social understandings and partly with how thinkers (mainly philosophers) have understood truth. Fernandez-Armesto is not a philosopher and one can quibble with his rendition of the thought of particular thinkers or doctrines. Though his comments are often striking:
the pious, poetic mind of Plato, who thought too well of thoughts to believe they could be of human devising (p84).
Of course, the other way to think of that is it shows how little Plato tended to think of most people (Aristotle is much more people-friendly).

Nevertheless, Truth is an excellent starting point for the general trends, and different ways, of understanding truth. Fernandez-Armesto does this, as he says, by concentrating on the various truth-finding techniques adopted at different times and places (p.5). He brings a certain robust common sense to the discussion, such as in his demolition of the children=primitives metaphor (pp16-17) or his discussion of how Uzbek villages played patent games with the patronising researchers they were dealing with (pp91ff). He notes how important feeling has been to common understandings of truth (pp26ff) and tend, if anything, to err on the side of coherence (pp30ff).

He has a nice turn of phrase (the discussion of mysticism—pp40ff—is entitled Once More With Feeling: how truth-feelings work). He discusses oracles as being seen as direct avenues to a truth-world we cannot normally reach (pp54ff), the common reliance on authority (such as Pius IX, in 1864, forbidding Catholics to be liberals [p.74]). The types of social elites which elevate the power of reason to find truth:
Reason favours a master-class distinguished by education and mental prowess, not exceptional sensibility, visionary clairvoyance, riches or physical might (p.85).
Reason also tends to come after, and subvert, truths you feel and truths you are told.
While at some pains to dismiss notions that Western thought was peculiarly logical, Fernandez-Armesto still (with caveats) accepts that the Greek achievement was exceptional (pp96ff). He carefully distinguishes truth-though-the-senses from science, even though they are obviously closely related (pp124ff). He also notes that what is clearly at the very least is proto-science—careful attention to evidence and inference from the same—can be seen even in pre-literate societies (pp.128ff). He suggests that science parts company from magic when the concern becomes to understand nature itself, rather than as an instrument of control (pp140ff). Science becomes a powerful metaphysic when folk stop seeing action in nature as purposive, so any explanations that do not get at alleged underlying purposes are not persuasive (p.144ff).

The big breakthrough strikes me as being when science stops being something that seeks to explain what technology can do and becomes something that can actually lead directly to new observations and new technology. A point reached first by Western civilisation, in the C16th and C17th. That then came to displace purposive/consciousness-saturated view of the universe as a way of understanding how things work—nowadays, even creationists pretend to be scientific: that’s what Intelligent Design is all about. (The question of what things mean—mythos rather than logos in Karen Armstrong’s terms—remains a rather different, and much more contested. matter.)

The last part of the book is about, as Chapter 5 is entitled, The Death of Conviction, the growth of scepticism about truth. How truth-through-senses overwhelmed truth one feels and truth one is told—at least in elite discourse—resulting in a undermining of the concept of truth itself. (Which, after all, cannot be justified in terms of the senses.) A result Fernandez-Armesto regards as an intellectual and cultural disaster:
Without confidence in the concept of truth, listeners are disarmed against lies (p.165).
It is no longer a matter of defending truth from scepticism but of rescuing it from what scepticism has wrought.

Fernandez-Armesto regards the triumph of scepticism as beginning with Descartes and the doctrine that self-discovery (cogito ergo sum) is the basis for constructing knowledge “from the ground up” because doubt is the demon to be defeated. Kant critiqued Descartes, dethroning Reason but replacing it with Intuition—hardly a genuine escape from Subjectivism. Particularly given his notion that we do not actually apprehend the real world.

My old philosophy teacher said of Kant that he asked powerful questions: questions that, once confronted, are hard to stop considering, but no-one can ever remember his answers.

Existentialism and Pragmatism just continued Subjectivism in new forms, even more destructive of truth. In the latter case, this is particularly clear in the work of Richard Rorty.

As the physical universe that science revealed became stranger and stranger, the sense of uncertainty became greater and greater (pp181ff). Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle elevated the effect of science having undermined truth other than through the senses, and then undermining the senses themselves, even further. Along came Kurt Godel, who demolished any concept of a complete system.

Strangeness, uncertainty and incompleteness: all from logic and science: a bit of a problem for confidence in truth.

Scepticism about language on the grounds of the indeterminacy of meaning, particularly as a way of conveying truth, becomes a natural move. Once you are there, confidence in objectivity—even as something to be aspired to—cannot be sustained (pp.196ff). Truth—the sense that some claims are wrong and the other right—can be a disturbing thing in a “global village” of many cultures and religions. Blessed become the relativists, for theirs in the way of multicultural peace (p.206).

Fernandez-Armesto is at pains to point out there is little new in relativism. Indeterminacy of meaning was a hot topic among Socrates and the boys. Particularly in responding to Protagoras’s claim that:
Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not.
It is the loss of cultural confidence that makes such scepticism powerful (pp168 et al).

Fernandez-Armesto outlines the three currently popular ways of trying to escape from Protagoras: to find life after doubt. First (the one he has least respect for), fundamentalism—seeking authority in texts. Second, looking to oriental traditions to find truths impervious to the corrosions of Western thought, epitomised by the success of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Third, applying the technical resources of philosophers.

The notion that texts—with all their difficulties of translation, contradiction and interpretation—are solutions he just thinks patently silly. The notion that oriental thought is in some special, superior, category he has not much more time for. The range of perspectives and doctrines one finds in Chinese and Indian philosophy are, he argues, much the same as in Western philosophy. He is not a relativist, and he is certainly not a relativist about the implications of arguments and doctrines.

As for the technical responses of philosophers, they start in the midst of doubt that the general public does not share, so fail to resonate (pp216ff). Davidson’s
truth ought to imply something about reality
may be daring to contemporary philosophers, but surely strikes most lay folk as hopelessly insipid. Lay folk see truth as a declaration of what is (if you doubt that, consider the role of perjury in court proceedings): modern philosophy sees it as a property of an expression. The reality question (what is) and the truth question (what does it mean to say what is) are separated.

To rescue truth from relativisation, three ways have been proposed (pp216ff): correspondence (a proposition is true if it fulfils the conditions for being true), coherence (a proposition fits in the network of propositions) and consensus (what enough folk agree is true). Fernandez-Armesto dismisses the first as ending up in banality, tautology or both. The second ends up without anything outside itself to test its claims. The third to a community of understanding—intrasubjectivity as a substitute for objectivity: but whose intrasubjectivity? When is the required threshold reached? (And that threshold is justified how exactly?)

In his conclusion (pp222ff), Fernandez-Armesto notes that the four truth-finding methods—the truth you feel, the truth you are told, reason and sense-perception—have always been around, they just fluctuate back and forth in importance. And the successful criticisms have been made from within those techniques. He agrees with the relativists that truth-telling techniques and the concept of truth underlying them do change from time to time. With subjectivists that individuals have no guarantee of the authenticity of assertions. With deconstructionists about the limitations of language—that meaning is never quite trapped by words, that
the gap between terms and the realities they are meant to refer to seems to stretch beyond our power to span it.
But changes in truth are
oscillations within a single system for The truth-quest is always the same: the unwavering search for signs to match reality.
We cannot see things from no point of view, but we can imaginatively enter into other points of view and can build at least some level of objectivity from that. While using language to deny its power is self-contradictory, just as any repudiation of truth is. Language is not cut off from reality, because it is part of it.
Whenever we get an intimation of truth – whether we feel it, listen for it, sense it or think it out for ourselves – we should expect it to talk to us and we should be able to try, if we like, to express it for others.
Which hardly solves all the problems of truth, but at least expresses confidence they can be dealt with.

I am inherently friendly to the notion that examining the history of a problem is a useful way of proceeding to understanding it. Having some longstanding philosophical intuitions and thoughts pertinent to what Fernandez-Armesto is grappling with, and being very sympathetic to his broad concerns, I very much enjoyed his clearly-written study and found reading it intellectually stimulating and fruitful.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Rational depression

I had already worked out that much of what people suffering depression do—no matter how destructive—can be understood as a rational response to managing pain. Dorothy Rowe in her challenging and insightful book Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison argues that it goes further than that. That the constructed prison of depression itself is a rational response to the gap between the story we tell ourselves about who we are and how life works and what actually happens to us. Thus, for example, she argues that the crucial thing is not what parents did to us (if that is the original source of our depression, which she clearly thinks is often the case), but how we interpret what they did (p.212).

To take an example from my own life, children presume their parents love them. But, if their parents never show any affection to them, it is natural—given parental love is presumed—to assume that there is something deeply wrong and unworthy in oneself, for that explains why such wonderful, loving parents never showed any affection in terms the child could understand. Children infer love, not affection and certainly not their own worthiness.

Dorothy Rowe—a clinical psychologist who worked for many years as a therapist—rejects the “biochemical” explanation of depression. She points out there is no such test for depression and that we do not use such an explanation for other mental patterns. For her, depression is always and everywhere about beliefs we have about ourselves and the world around us. It is a prison we have constructed, which means it is a prison we can leave.
Some of the book is very challenging, since Rowe argues strongly that patterns of depression can be a way to avoid responsibility, to give ourselves an out. That depression is a self-constructed prison based on reasons. Turning those reasons around means that we can dismantle the prison. But to that we have to give up our pride, our demand that our mental map is completely correct and events must be construed so as to uphold its correctness. The sufferer from depression would prefer to be right and suffer than wrong and happy (pp160-1). Pride stops us repenting and repairing our errors. When Gwyneth Lewis asked fellow poet and depression sufferer Les Murray what was the cure for depression his instant response was the truth (p.240).

But there is a deeper point, that the beliefs underlying depression have often developed in us long before we had any chance to examine them effectively, or even be aware of them. She writes movingly and insightfully of the suffering depression causes. The metaphor of depression as a prison is not used lightly.

Rowe argues that it is easy to construct the prison of depression. Just hold the following propositions as Real, Absolute and Immutable truths (p.17).
1. No matter how good and acceptable I appear to be, I am really bad, evil, valueless, unacceptable to myself and other people.
2. Other people are such that I must fear, hate and envy them.
3. Life is terrible and death is worse.
4. Only bad things happened to me in the past and only bad things will happen to me in the future.
5. It is wrong to get angry.
6. I must never forgive anyone, least of all myself.
These are strong versions of each proposition. Holding weaker versions of them strikes me as eminently sufficient. For example, you might fear people’s anger or bad opinion without hating them. You might feel yourself to be unworthy, that you do not matter, without thinking you are evil.

Rowe puts it too much in the moral dimension of conceptions of good and evil. I entirely agree that depression is built on the belief that, in some important sense, you are a bad person. But bad does not only mean evil. It also means incompetent, poor quality, unworthy, low value, don’t count for much. Either is enough to generate an incapacitating sense of helplessness.

Rowe is very much about seeing the structure of meaning we have created in our lives and then building a new one. She regards sufferers being able to tell their story as being very important, citing much evidence that sufferers from depression often literally have no one they can talk to seriously. Someone they have confidence in who will actually listen. Story first, examine later is clearly her preferred path.

Rowe is very critical of the hostility to religion and religious sentiments among psychologists and psychiatrists, pointing out that religious sentiments are often quite central to how people construe events in their lives. Religious sentiments can help build the prison of depression, or they can be part of the path of leaving it and not going back. Rowe appreciates Zen Buddhism in particular, as she appreciates is concept of being in the now and stilling the mind. Rowe regards an unbalanced sense of time as being basic to depression (a past of woe, a future of worse). But she also understands the bottomless sense of fear that underlies the resistance to “letting go” and stilling the mind (p.232).

Rowe can have an arresting way of putting things. For example, Suicide is an act of violence against the part of us that wants to go on living (p.58). She writes with considerable insight into the problems of the imposition of other people’s expectations. The need to feel in control of our life. The way the Yes But, game can be played to block attempts to get better. How domestic self-sacrifice does no good—it merely encourages other folk to behave badly (or undermines their sense of competence). And the self-serving aggression that often lies behind such smothering “concern”.

Rowe notes that people have been writing about depression (previously known as melancholia) for centuries, and the persistence of the recommended cures for depression (p.216). She quotes extensively from other people’s writings about their experience of depression. I was particularly struck by one sufferer who reported that the worst time in some ways was when he was getting better, and had to deal with the detritus of what he had done while in the depths of depression.

Rowe provides some deeply practical advice about how to deal with therapists (giving various indicators of the sort of therapists not to bother with). Extending to a very informative and intelligent discussion (pp 253ff) of hospitalisation and therapy: what to look for, what to insist on, what to avoid or refuse. Including some very perceptive criticism of cognitive therapy as too ready to label patterns of thought disfunctional and not sufficiently interested in the stories the sufferers themselves have to tell. (The book itself is based on personal construct therapy.)

While she clearly does not regard them as cures, she argues that anti-depressant drugs can give us psychic space in which to heal. They are aids, not cures (Pp.222ff).

Reading the book first time, it struck me that I had the notion that love was something that either was “poured into” you from someone or that “poured out” of you to someone. If I wasn’t in either of those situations, if there was no such someone, then there was a howling emptiness. But, having achieved the “imbalance flow” metaphor, I thought about the Buddhist concept of compassion, which is something that just is. Something that is just there if you let it be. Since then, I have found it much easier to go to the calm, compassionate place. And emotions can become much easier if you offer no resistance, just let them have their moment and flow through. To the extent that I found one can even get a little emotionally “drunk” on the calm, arriving late at a school because the normally worry-worry mechanisms I used to constantly check time were not operating.

There is much rationality in depression. Indeed, that is where it gets most of its dreadful power, its imprisoning logic. While depression may be rational, it is not wise. Nor truthful.

It is important to avoid the trap that one cannot change’s one’s construction of one’s self and reality. That somehow there are not better and more truthful ways of looking at yourself and the world. It takes time, but creation of a new structure of meaning is eminently possible. Which does not make it easy, because habits of mind can be so dreadfully easy to fall back into.

I found Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison an extremely useful book to read. I came upon it when I was nowhere near the depths of depression I had been, but it helps provide understanding and to consolidate and build on the gains achieved. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: classic cultural analysis

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, for the next four years, the Western Allies were at war with an enemy who engaged in suicidal tactics and often refused to be taken prisoner.

Commissioned to examine the nature of Japanese culture, anthropologist Ruth Benedict—through wide reading and extensive interviewing of Japanese-Americans and Japanese POWs (why there were so few of the latter was one of the cultural puzzles American officials were interested in)—produced her classic study of Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture

Her discussion (Pp77-97) of the Japanese insistence on hierarchy—basic to the culture such that Japan’s war was legitimate because it was seeking its proper place in the hierarchy of nations—and celebration of the power of the will over the weak materialism of the West, has a particularly familiar ring to it.
It is hard to read the book without making comparisons with Iraq. Benedict clearly thoroughly approved of General Douglas Macarthur’s approach as head of the occupation (remembering the book was published in 1946, so was written very early in his tenure). She particularly approved the decision to govern through Japanese state institutions. She clearly judged the approach, from the treatment of Hirohito on down, to be well-calibrated to deal productively with the Japanese. Of course, she had been originally hired to help the US authorities understand and deal effectively with the Japanese, so there was clearly a we want to understand mindset. While Iraq is a much more divided society, with much more corrupted state institutions and a less adaptable set of cultures (Benedict is very informative on the nature of Japanese pragmatism), so was a much harder case generally, the comparison is still fairly sad. (If you come across as more arrogant than Douglas Macarthur, you have a real problem.)

Others have also been making the comparison between Iraq and Japan.

Benedict was at pains to point out how different Japanese culture is to Chinese and other mainland Asian cultures. Japanese culture is concerned with immediate family, entirely lacking the extended clan networks of Chinese culture. Japanese sensitivity to personal reputation is much higher than in mainland cultures. The traditional Japanese concepts of obligation are quite different from Chinese notions. The first two points make Japanese culture much more like Western cultures than other Asian cultures. Even the last, though quite distinctive, obviously developed in the context of competing power centres.

Benedict was also at pains to point out how different Japanese culture is to (American) culture. Such as in the life-time trajectory of freedom and obligation (from social freedom to increasing obligation back to freedom). In its eschewing of moral absolutes (which, she argues, makes acceptance of defeat and the need to do things differently now, easier).

Benedict is particularly perceptive in the way she only touches briefly on bushido. Apart from its use as part of militarist ideology in the period ending in 1945, it played much the same role in Japanese culture as chivalry does in Western culture. (And even the militarist role of bushido was not without Western analogues for the use of chivalry.)

Benedict correctly predicted that a Japan freed from spending 50% of its GDP on Army and Navy would be able to achieve a strong economic revival (p.314). Her common sense on this point is also reassuring. Perhaps in no area has more guff about Japanese culture been written than its alleged influence on economic performance. Japan had private property, markets, rule of law, basically sound institutions (which had something of a “going over” during the American occupation), stopped spending up to half its GDP on the Navy and Army and a national consensus in favour of economic development. Given minimally sensible public policy, its strong and sustained economic growth performance up until 1973 is hardly surprising. It was precisely the attempts to see something “special” in Japan’s postwar economic performance that looked so silly after the bubble economy collapsed at the end of the 1980s. The factors folk tended to cite to “explain” Japan’s economic performance presided over a massive (up to 50%) collapse in Japan’s net national wealth followed by sustained economic stagnation that has only recently showed any signs of coming to an end—Japan had the most bureaucratically managed financial markets in the Western world: it also had the most corrupt (many of the big international financial scandals centred on the Japanse financial market) and poorly run financial markets in the Western world; not exactly a coincidence. (Indeed, Botswana has showed a higher rate of per capita economic growth overall since 1960.)

But, leaving aside my longstanding annoyance over Japan-boosting, the above only touches some of the depth and range of Benedict’s analysis.

Benedict’s methodology was to read all the available written material (from the footnotes, particularly memoirs) and then rigorously interview as many Japanese (both PoWs and Japanese-Americans) as she could. (The foreword notes that many of her subjects found it quite a confronting process as Benedict delved into the details of their feelings and experience.) It was clearly a very effective approach. The book is 60 years old now, but it is still a revealing read and classic cultural anthropology. It is particularly remarkable for what is essentially a product of war.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Serfdom and slavery

Having previously posted on these matters, have also done some useful reading on serfdom and unfree labour. Notably, Evsey Domar’s classic article (scroll down), summarised here by Paul Krugman. Also found an updated version of Domar’s model. (And further.)

Basically, if labour is scarce compared to land – as it was in the New World, in Europe from the late Roman Empire to high medieval period, and in post-gunpowder Russia as the former nomad-dominated lands opened up – then if labour can be controlled suitably cheaply, it pays to use unfree labour (i.e. reducing labour costs to subsistence levels), even after any loss of productivity.

As population increases (i.e. labour becomes less scarce), the cost of free competitive labour falls (in the absence of any countervailing technological improvement or other capital accumulation) and the cost of control increasingly consumes any benefit in having unfree labour, leading to the replacement of unfree by free labour. So, as the population of medieval Europe rose, the "control premium" fell, resulting in the phasing out of (that vast array of bound labour-service arrangements we call) serfdom.

The question then becomes: why didn’t the Black Death (which made labour scarce again and thus free labour expensive) result in the re-imposition of serfdom in Western Europe? There were some attempts in that direction, but they were defeated.
There doesn’t seem to be any scholarly consensus. It is clear enough from the economic models that large magnates have other ways to extract rents from land than imposing unfreedom – it is harder to leave their territories, they can provide a wider range of services, they have more bidding resources, etc. Hence the boyar magnates in Russia fought against imposing restrictions on the peasants, and the English magnates, for example, don’t seem to have been as keen to re-wind peasant conditions as the smaller landlords. The Black Death was also highly variable in local occurrence, which helped break down landlord collusion further.

In the case of Russia (and the Polish Commonwealth, etc), the Crown need for the military services of the pomestia servitors made it rule in their favour when the defeat of the “Tatars” greatly increased the land available, reducing the value of land and increasing the cost of free labour. (Indeed, restrictions on sale of land to ensure military servitors preceded those on labour).

In Western Europe, the C14th English Crown – which had already largely monetised military service, which also used yeoman longbowmen and received judicial rents from court cases involving free peasants – lacked such incentives. These factors also operated to some extent on the continent (substituting crossbows for longbows: either way the coercive balance was not as much in favour as landlords as it had been). The vigorous commercial life of the cities, disproportionately important for royal tax revenues, provided complicating competition for labour services. The increased ability of the late-medieval Crown to raise taxes also provided it with a further interest in expanded economic activity. The comparative technological dynamism of medieval Europe may have provided some opportunity for capital substitution (in the case of England, particularly the sheep trade) and certainly provided other ways of extracting incomes from peasants. Representative legislative bodies provided avenues for landlords to restrain Crown demands and gain other trade-offs. Tenant contracts were more enforceable in Latin Europe, particularly England, than in Russia.

Again, the models suggest relatively small price changes can tip the balance of action one way or another. Jonathan Conning’s aforementioned update of Domar’s model is extraordinarily fruitful. It makes the process of development of latifundia much clearer. In particular, aspects of development in Roman agrarian society which had always puzzled me – notably the tendency for small holdings to fall below viability – were greatly clarified.

The rise of demand for a staple crop – wheat in the Classical era, feeding Rome and other cities; wheat in Eastern Europe feeding the cities of Flanders; sugar, rubber and cotton in the New World – can also provide the necessary income to make imposing unfreedom worthwhile.

There is also the issue whether free labour is available at all. In Classical Greece, for example, it is not clear that much alternative was available than slaves for labour to feed the demands of a growing commercial society, given the rules were made by citizens proud of their status, able to provide coercive power and unwilling to work for fellow citizens.

In the case of the coloni of Late Imperial Rome and the serfs of medieval Europe, their landlords also provided forms of public goods, notably protection (in the former case, against the increasing depredations of the Roman state; in the latter against all and sundry). To a significant degree, these were in fact what we would call protection rackets, but they were not entirely such. Presumably, the existence of a genuine trade-off made unfree arrangements more bearable and gave peasants a collective interest in being forced to pay. (In Russia, collective tax obligations had similar effect, since if peasants left their tax liability fell on the remaining peasants until the next census). As the late-Medieval state became more able to provide public goods such as protection, this factor also dwindled.

I am particularly interested in the difference between slavery and serfdom (by which I mean any variety of bound labour-service tenancy). Slavery has, with some exceptions for state slaves, standard characteristics. Serfdom is much more variable and much more common as a mass condition. While slavery as a condition is very historically widespread (and still exists), only five mass slave societies have occurred in history – Classical Greece and Rome, colonial Caribbean, Brazil, the antebellum American South (though significant levels of state slavery were used by various Islamic states, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and other Leninist states).

Slaves are property, fully and completely. They have no family rights, they cannot legally own property (though there can be practical limitations on that) and, with the sole exception of the antebellum American South (which took in only about 7% of the 9.9m slaves transported across the Atlantic, but note this caveat), no mass slave population has ever fully reproduced itself, so they need regular replenishing. The antebellum American South was thus the only slave society to make slaves reliable long-term investment assets (hence its politically powerful slaveowners put up by far the strongest resistance to emancipation, as slaves involved a significant amount of the South’s capital).

Generally, the products of serfs are only partly monetised (or may not be at all). With the interesting exception of Russia, serfs were not directly saleable, being attached to the land, so the market did not extend to serf-labourers. Unlike slavery, which always entails a market in labourers (unless the state is the only slaveowner: though Nazi Germany engaged in contracting-out arrangements).

Serfs can own property, they do have family rights and they do reproduce themselves. They also entail lower costs of control, requiring both less supervision and having better incentives than slaves.

Serfdom and slavery are, to a significant degree, mutually exclusory. If serfdom rises, mass slavery declines, a result that the updated Domar model predicts in cases of concentrated land ownership. The only Greek polity without a significant private-slave population was Sparta – which had the helots. As the coloni increased in number in late Imperial Rome, slavery declined. Once the Roman State had sufficiently devalued citizenship that non-slave bound labour became significant, slaves tended to be replaced by a more cost-effective alternative, and had never been as widespread in the eastern sections of the Empire, where ancient forms of bound-peasantry persisted. New World slavery got its value from the lack of a suitable serf population and the economic efficiency of the gang-system. Differential skin colour made enforcement of slavery cheaper and provided a basis for rationalising obvious contradiction against the principles of the American Revolution.

Even though mass slavery is historically unusual, so is mass free labour (though less so) and a mass free peasantry (though less so again). It is very likely that the most common social form in agrarian societies, below a given population density, was a peasant owing some form of labour service. In such societies, labour was scarce compared to land and elites had both the power and the incentive to extract a surplus by some form of service-binding.

The only attempt to revive serfdom in a modern industrial economy – in Stalin's Soviet Union – was abandoned. Though various forms of bonded labour continue to exist. Slavery also persists in the modern world, both in the forced labour camps of Leninist states (most infamously in North Korea), but in various private forms. While people can be directly controlled, and a surplus extracted large enough to exceed any loss of productivity plus the cost of control, it will persist.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Politics in the Ancient World

Sir Moses Finley’s Politics in the Ancient World—he meant Greece and Rome, societies where there was genuine politics rather than merely seeking the favour of some autocrat—is an excellent and revealing read. Finley was engaged in a similar exercise for ancient history as Susan Reynolds (notably in Fiefs and Vassals) has done with medieval history—telling colleagues to stick to the evidence and stop believing entrenched notions. But, unlike Reynolds, Finley is a very clear writer and conveys an excellent sense of the wider society he is writing about. By contrast, in Fiefs and Vassals, Reynolds rarely rises above annotating antiquarianism and one is often required to stop and re-read to try and work out what she is actually saying.
To be fair, I enjoyed Reynolds’ Kingdoms and Communities, though much of what she says there is already in Bloch.

Finley takes us on a tour of different aspects of ancient politics. I found his discussion (Pp 122ff) of the absence, in the Ancient world, of any notion of political legitimacy (since the medieval period, a central concept in political discourse) fascinating. Similarly, his discussion (Pp 127ff) of the almost total lack (Cicero and Sallust aside) of political reflections by Romans of the sort Greeks had been producing since the fifth century BC. But, as he says, Romans did not have to deal with the complexity in political forms that Greeks did. (Conversely, Roman military forms evolved to be far more flexible and effective than Greek ones precisely because Rome had to deal with a more diverse range of enemies: but that is not Finley’s concern here.)

Finley offers no reason for the lack of any discussed notion of political legitimacy. I suspect it was partly a result of a lack of any sense of universalism. Power did not have to be justified to foreigners (they didn’t count ethically or politically: they were the people you conquered, dispossessed and enslaved -- who cared what they thought? And they didn't speak the language) while a form of pragmatism (what worked and for whom) carried the rest of debate (which was entirely internal).

I particularly like the way that Finley is extremely unsentimental about the limits (in the case of Rome, the severe limits) on popular participation in politics without then lapsing into the notion that such participation was merely empty. He is also prepared to say political beliefs matter in a causal sense – the book concludes with
when the ideology began to disintegrate within the [Roman] elite itself, the consequence was not to broaden the political liberty among the citizenry but, on the contrary, to destroy it for everyone (p.141).
This is where Finley is so much a better historian than Reynolds and far more persuasive. Finley understands that evidence speaks in context, that what we have is the sparse leavings of people dealing with a various problems. (Medieval haircuts, for example, make more sense once one starts wearing helmets.) Reynolds is dealing with a society where literacy was extremely limited and manuscript expensive, yet she is very limited in how much context she places documents in. She can go as far as talking about what a particular figure was trying to deal with and what is not happening, but the wider context is left murky. But that context is precisely what the documents were created out of and spoke to. Finley, dealing with an area of history with far more limited sources, precisely because he is wide-ranging in his use of evidence and never loses sight of the fact that we are dealing people in a society, says far more, far more usefully, far more clearly, with a lot less words.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Growth Recurring

Historically, mass poverty is the normal human condition. This has naturally led to attempt to explain those historically rare instances of sustained economic growth leading to mass prosperity as being somehow special. Not merely in being, before 1900, rare but also involving some very particular human motivations, institutions or discoveries. A common scholarly pattern has been to equate serious growth with industrialisation.

In Growth Recurring: Economic Change in World History, Prof. Eric Jones looks at the matter the other way round. He assumes that all human societies had within them folk who were interested in bettering their material condition (an analytical condition that is, as he says, universalist but not universal). Why was it that this pressure for growth broke through into sustained growth in living standards so rarely?

This seems to be the correct way to look at the problem. I would be even more parsimonious: we can take it as being a widespread feature of the human condition that most folk in most places wish to reduce the chance of them and their families starving to death and will generally act accordingly. So, why did it take so long to achieve societies where famine was no longer a significant threat?
Support for Prof. Jones’ approach comes from study of human longevity. We used to look for what was special about those places where folk notoriously lived to great ages. As human life-expectancy has continued to climb, it has become clear that, provided one gets reasonable amounts of exercise, has reasonable nutrition and avoid contagious diseases (including from food or water) then the normal human life expectancy is that previously associated with rare, generally mountainous (and therefore disease-protected), regions. It was the foreshortening of life expectancy which was normal, not the lack of the capacity for long lives.

Prof. Jones is quite explicitly interested in the history (mostly the lack of it) of intensive growth. That is growth per person: rising living standards. He is explicitly not interested in equating that with capitalism or the history of capitalism. Nor in seeing the Industrial Revolution as more than a phase in long-term intensive economic growth already underway in European societies. (I particularly liked his point that zeroing in on the Industrial Revolution tends to produce would-be explanations merely of a certain form of modernity already passing, or even passed.)

Prof. Jones notes that, on the evidence, there have been several, diverse, episodes of intensive economic growth: the early Abbasid Caliphate, Sung China, Tokugawa Japan, Western Europe (I would add in the early Roman Empire) yet, with the exception of Japan and Western Europe, all these episodes came to an end.

Technological change is not the key variable. On the contrary, it is clear that a general, low level, of technological advance is common to human societies down the millennia and occurred across Eurasia—that impetus not to starve. But such advance generally led to extensive economic growth (supporting more people) rather than higher living standards. Technological change tended to speed up in societies with intensive economic growth, but that is effect (or at best interactive reinforcement) not cause.

Gently taking the reader through a consideration of cases and the scholarly debate, Prof. Jones concludes that politics is central. What was needed was rulership strong enough to provide appropriate public goods, but not so strong as to appropriate any resulting surpluses for itself. Japan and Western Europe both evolved competitive jurisdictions where authorities competed to provide public goods while such competition also placed a check on their predatory behaviour. Once intensive growth was underway, rulers could see the revenue advantage of fostering trade and commerce and, in somewhat erratic fashion, tended to do so.

Prof. Jones points out that Western Europe and Japan both avoided the Mongol scourge, an advantage not so much because of the direct costs of conquest (high though those were – Chinese casualties from the Mongol invasions and conquest was in the order of 35 million dead while areas of Iran never recovered from the Ilkhanate and Timurid invasions) but the institutional flattening that followed. He also points out that this is hardly a complete explanation in itself, since Southern India and SE Asia were also spared without achieving intensive growth. Avoiding Mongol conquest was a good thing (despite established Mongol rule’s trade-fostering tendencies) but not sufficient in itself.

Prof. Jones makes the excellent point that ancient empires had, by our standards, ramshackle governments: providing little in the way of public goods and with limited capacity to follow direction. This strikes me as a competitive pressure point: rulers provide the convenient (to them) level of public goods. If you dominate a large area, the convenient level is generally not very high. If, however, you are surrounded by comparable competitors, you may be spurred to do better. Particularly if your territory and theirs are relatively mutually permeable for ideas, skills and capital.

In Japan, while the local daimyo competed for skills and capital for their local han (competition that Prof. Jones points out aspects of Tokugawa rule encouraged in a market-friendly direction), the Tokugawa bakufu kept the samurai system in place because they had no particular competitive pressure to do otherwise: samurai were ample to keep the peasants in place. As soon as Commodore Perry forcibly inducted Japan into a competitive (even rapacious) international state system, the impetus existed to modernise. So the samurai went the way of the knights replaced, as the knights had been, by tax-paid peasant armies armed with guns. With the key point that Japan’s institutions already had sufficient similarity with those of the West that modernisation was a far easier process for them than any other non-Western society.

Prof. Jones offers his analysis as the beginnings from which to develop a more rigorous model. In which regard I kept thinking of two books: one – Ibn Khaldun’s great work – written centuries before the first edition of Growth Recurring, the other – Mancur Olson’s posthumous book – published just after the second edition of Growth Recurring.

Ibn Khaldun developed a model of predatory rule that has the striking feature that the history of the Soviet Union conformed to it. First, a group bound by common feeling seizes power (Lenin), then the ruler separate himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin), then the system slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (Khruschev to Chernenko) until it finally collapses (Gorbachev). Olson developed the stationary bandit model of government, which is somewhat congruent with Ibn Khaldun’s model. If one takes Olson’s stationary bandit model, flesh it out more with principal-agent theory and expand the consideration of selection pressures, then it seems to me you have something that looks very much like what Prof. Jones is pointing to.

The paradox of politics is that we need government to protect us against predators but rulership is itself the most potent of social predators (given rulership is coercive monopoly). The key question is where the balance between predation and (public good) provision will lie. It is a notorious problem of infrastructure (that is, network) industries that, having irreducible externalities, they lack “definitive” solutions within economic theory (i.e. outcomes cannot be fully specified even with the full gamut of standard economic assumptions so there is no clear, fully-specifiable preferred solution, one symptom of which is their long-run tendency to move back and forth between private and government ownership).

Government is the ultimate case of an infrastructure industry with irreducible externalities. So it will also lack a definitive solution even in theory. (Indeed, that government action cannot be bound is a major factor in encouraging public ownership of infrastructure industries, as they are particularly vulnerable to government appropriation.) The paradox of politics can never be solved, it can only be managed at various levels of success – with the delusion that it can be solved being particularly disastrous. (A delusion that the Jacobin model of totalist politics in general, and Leninism, in particular, is based on and whose results can be seen in the current North Korea disaster.)

So I agree with Prof. Jones that the balance between predation and provision is the key factor and that how things turn out is very path dependent. Most of the time, the selection pressures for predation have been stronger (particularly given difficulties in fully controlling officials) than the selection pressures for provision. So intensive growth has either not happened, or been stymied. In one set of societies plus an outlier (North-Western Europe and its settler offshoots plus Japan), the selection process for provision stayed stronger for long enough for intensive growth to get underway, to then provide positive feedbacks, and so for rising living standards to become permanently established. Providing a model that is now spreading. Hence the world we live in.

But apart from all the examples and insight, what I most enjoy about reading Prof. Jones’s books are not the vast erudition – though the breadth of his reading and citations are intimidating – but the intellectual good sense. He is happy to take insights from anyone and anywhere, judging them on their congruence with the evidence, not the congeniality of their implications or the philosophical outlook of their proponent. In a world where far too much academic output has predetermined conclusions, healthy, informed, intelligent, open-minded scholarship is all too rare. In a world where the safety of specialisation discourages even the seeking the general patterns and the common causal agents it is always good to see a scholar willing to ask big questions and seek big answers. And whose prose is delightfully clear: no small point. Enjoyed the book greatly.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dreams of binationalism: fisking Judt

Historian Tony Judt wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books advocating the merging of Israel into a binational state. There are a few problems with what he says.

The dream of an appropriately sited Jewish national home in the middle of the defunct Turkish Empire had to wait upon the retreat of imperial Britain: a process that took three more decades and a second world war.
Compresses a great deal of history, since Jewish settlement of Palestine started in the 1890s. Indeed, the British authorities turned out to be, in many ways, more hostile than the previous Ottoman authorities to Jewish immigration. Also, the influx of population, skills and money increased wages and job opportunities, encouraging Arab migration to Palestine. (Many Palestinian families are as recent arrivals as Israeli families.)
The problem with Israel, in short, is not—as is sometimes suggested—that it is a European "enclave" in the Arab world; but rather that it arrived too late. It has imported a characteristically late-nineteenth-century separatist project into a world that has moved on, a world of individual rights, open frontiers, and international law.
Which world has moved on? The Turks, with their treatment of the Kurdish minority? The Arab states, with their effective expulsion of their Jewish minorities? Their authoritarian, tyrannical regimes? The Balkans? Israel may be an affliction to those who would like to delude themselves that ‘the world’ has moved on, or that common perspectives within the Western intelligentsia are becoming universal, but that’s a different matter.
There are indeed Arab radicals who will not rest until every Jew is pushed into the Mediterranean, but they represent no strategic threat to Israel, and the Israeli military knows it.
It is always dubious to claim that a group (especially a violent, well-organised group tapping into serious sentiments in a larger population) will never be in control. Hamas et al enjoy a much higher level of support among the Palestinian population than did the Nazis in Germany in, say, 1928. Moreover, the dissolving of Israel would be seen as a tremendous victory and encourage further action, not forestall it. It would also require the dissolving of the Israeli military, which would enormously change the strategic equation.
Washington's unconditional support for Israel even in spite of (silent) misgivings is the main reason why most of the rest of the world no longer credits our good faith.
US support for Israel has never been unconditional. And the US tends to be driven back to Israel by the difficulties, at times impossibility, of dealing with Arab (particularly Palestinian) alternatives. Such as President Clinton’s fury after Arafat’s no-offer, no-response-but-“No!” performance at the Camp David peace talks Clinton brokered at the end of his Administration.
For many in the current [i.e. Bush II] US administration, a major strategic consideration was the need to destabilize and then reconfigure the Middle East in a manner thought favorable to Israel.
No evidence is offered for this: nor have I seen any evidence cited for this frequent allegation (which often becomes a fairly direct attack on the patriotism and loyalty of Jewish officials within the Administration. I wouldn’t have thought Tony Judt would want to be caught echoing Pat Buchanan.)
The true alternative facing the Middle East in coming years will be between an ethnically cleansed Greater Israel and a single, integrated, binational state of Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians.
There is an argument that this is so. Unfortunately, it can only be made by looking Palestinian intransigence square in the face, which Judt doesn’t do, because it fatally undermines his own conclusion. After all, Palestinians are, almost certainly, the population in the world today most marked by Jew-hatred. What Israeli Jew in his or her right mind would want to put their entire social existence in the hands of such a population, especially as it would probably rapidly become a majority in the putative state? A population a large percentage of which clearly endorses murder of Jewish women and children as a legitimate political tactic? Especially given that 1300 years of Islamic tradition says that Jewish political activity (except in a very second-class subject sense) is illegitimate while the only rival ground of political action is Arab nationalism, that the Palestinian national identity has been entirely created around opposition to Zionism and that the most obvious fact about Arab democracy, with the partial and unhappy example of Lebanon, is its non-existence. Indeed Lebanon – an Arab nation divided by religion – is not an encouraging example.

Moreover, given the comparisons with apartheid that are frequently made, it is useful to compare the tactics Nelson Mandela endorsed against the apartheid regime and those undertaken by Palestinian groups. Mandela was always in favour of limited action, at least in part for the eminently practical reason of, when it was all over, blacks and whites would have to live in the same South Africa. By contrast, the tactics of Palestinian ‘armed action’ clearly pay no heed to such concerns whatsoever.
Israel is an oddity … because it is a Jewish state and no one wants the Jews to have a state; but because it is a Jewish state in which one community—Jews —is set above others, in an age when that sort of state has no place.
Which is back to what ‘moderate’ critics of Zionism have always said; the Jews are safe, they need no special refuge. It turned out to be hollow before the Holocaust, it sounds hollow in a time of rising anti-Semitism. Judt does talk about the Holocaust and its implications, but he doesn’t really face a central fact about Zionism: its first proposition was that Jews weren’t safe in Europe, and that turned out to be true. One of the Europundits outlines the history Judt glosses badly.
The depressing truth is that Israel's current behaviour is not just bad for America, though it surely is. It is not even just bad for Israel itself, as many Israelis silently acknowledge. The depressing truth is that Israel today is bad for the Jews.
If only the Jews will do X (convert, speak the language, don’t make a fuss, blend in …), people will stop hating them. Sorry, that has again and again proved to be false and anyone with a knowledge of the history of anti-Semitism would be aware of it.
In a world where nations and peoples increasingly intermingle and intermarry at will; where cultural and national impediments to communication have all but collapsed; where more and more of us have multiple elective identities and would feel falsely constrained if we had to answer to just one of them; in such a world Israel is truly an anachronism.
That is a very Western-intelligentsia perspective. ‘The world’ is not even close to all like that, the West is like that, and those who have been following election returns will see that, even in the West, there is angst about it. Again, Judt fails to distinguish the way he would like to think the world is, or is rapidly becoming, and how it actually is.

Judt likes to pretend he is being tough-minded. In fact, there is a disingenuous sentimentalism running right through his piece. He treats Israelis as Westerners, and judges them accordingly. This would be more impressive if he attempted to be as critically acute about the Palestinians and the Arab world but – as is too often the case among the contemporary Western intelligentsia – his critical faculties seem to stop at the border of the West. This fatally undermines his argument.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Global modes: Europe and the People Without History

The late Eric Wolf produced (including a revised edition before his death) a notable study on the response and interaction of non-European peoples to the rise of European dominance, Europe and the People Without History. It is a fine piece of global historical anthropology (if a little dated in some aspects due to the way understanding of global interactions has progressed).

Wolf uses concepts from Marx in his analysis, though he is clearly attempting to do so in a thoughtful and considered, rather than dogmatic, way. Despite my qualms about the mode of production concept, I like Wolf’s delineation of the kinship mode of production and of the tributary mode of production, the latter having a continuum from highly centralised to highly decentralised forms. It is a striking way of thinking about social differences (although I do not think Wolf entirely grasps how much of the tribute exchange is a “deal” of service-for-public-goods—notably protection). Nevertheless, one can see how distortions to thinking get smuggled in at the “ground floor”, something which is particularly obvious when he attempts to describe the capitalist mode of production (Pp 77ff).

I generally find the notion of class too “hard-edged” and simple a social grouping for analytical utility. I prefer to talk about social roles, understanding that folk have several different social roles and different ones can be salient at different times.
Thus, it is important to grasp that, in an industrial society, average wages are set by the capital/labour ratio. But when it comes to actual people, sellers of labour can also be owners of capital. Moreover, neither group acts as a unified historical actor. If the class-centred unequal-bargaining-power notion was correct, the larger the capital share of the economy, the more “powerful” would be the “capitalists” and the lower wages would be. In fact, the opposite is the case—the greater the level of capital, the higher wages are because the more relatively scarce labour is, as owners of capital “bid” for the use of relatively scarce labour. The (patently false) immiseration thesis flows from a false view of class which also means not grasping the nature of factors of production.

Thus Wolf clearly does not notice that wages are set by capital/labour ratio: so capitalists’ gains are treated as if they are automatically worker-losses. In the capitalist mode of production concept, wages are, by implication, controlled by capitalists (e.g. pp 354ff). Similarly Wolf doesn’t really grasp that economic surpluses are produced by labour applied to land or capital, not by labour. Workers without a factory produce nothing. Workers with factory without contacts produce nothing effective. The false understanding of capital, labour and value in the concept of the capitalist mode of production is a bit of a problem.

The existence of gains from trade are only dimly grasped.

But the biggest problem for his analysis is that the notion of the operation of risk is missing from the mode of production concept. Enterprises do not automatically make profits. A lot of economic behaviour makes so much more sense—including trading behaviour Wolf is particularly concerned with—if one considers the existence of risk. But that is rather difficult to do if labour, treated as being what determines value (I have discussed why this is not so), is the only “real” factor of production.

It is also very conspicuous that Wolf’s language treats the tribute mode of production much more benignly than the capitalist mode. Similarly, his tone is different in writing about non-Europeans behaving exactly the same way as Europeans (buying low, selling high; using war as an adjunct to trade …) as when he writes about Europeans doing such things. Capitalism is bad, so has to make things worse. This makes, therefore, the abolition of slavery a bit of a puzzle for him. Rising prosperity and dispersion of political power under capitalism also do not get mentioned. It is a rather selective view of European society and civilisation we are presented with—European experience except as exploiters and rulers barely get mentioned.

While I agree the systems do have logics to them, and there are patterns in history, I am not comfortable with Wolf’s official notion of historical agency—social action in aggregate being directed “by capitalism”.

There is nowadays little Left economics of any intellectual seriousness (as distinct from economics by folk on the left)—just frustrated whining about liberal economics. Considering the above problems, it is not hard to see why.

I do not wish, however, to give the impression that Wolf has written a bad book. On the contrary, it is a very enlightening book. It contains a mass of information on interaction between Europeans and non-European societies, with enormous coverage across geography, ethnicity, social forms and networks. Wolf is persistently too serious a scholar to let his flawed theoretical schema get too much in the way of his historical anthropology. And he grapples quite intelligently with issues of methodology, particularly regarding action and thought about action.

His discussion of why structures based on tribute will tend to find merchants a worrying group (pp84-85) is particularly enlightening. As is his discussion of the operation of Iberian models of officialdom where control (including pay-off jobs) operates as a substitute for consent (pp142ff). While too “systemic” in his approach, though he does not put it like this, he also has some grasp of the difference between capital as the produced means of production and as fully-exchangeable produced means of production. As well as that circumstances are very different once the capital/population ratio has overtaken the land/population ratio as the determinant of living standards (p.298). Besides, he is surely correct to see much of the interaction between Europeans and non-Europeans—whose range, complexity, variety and development he discusses so lucidly, with a mass of revealing details—as being cases (in part) of social systems and sub-systems with different logics interacting (pp 354ff).

A book whose intelligence and empirical value, conveyed in lucid prose, more than compensates for difficulties in its theoretical gloss.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Spirit and the Flesh

Walter L. Williams' The Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Cultures is a precursor to, and covers much of the same ground as, Will Roscoe’s Changing Ones.

The Spirit and the Flesh is based on years of field work. Indeed, Williams stresses that Amerindian sources became much more likely to open up to him precisely because he was homosexual and therefore not likely to be condemnatory. (And more likely to ask the appropriate questions without hostile presumptions.)

Williams notes early that Amerindian patterns nowadays covered by the term berdache are confusing to Westerners, since they mix our notions of male and female (p.2).
Williams starts by examining how Amerindian myths, use of visions and dreams and concepts of nature permit the variant to be accommodated. He particularly examines the use of teasing and ridicule. He moves on to notions of them having mystical power and their use in ceremonial roles followed by their economic and social roles, particularly within (extended) families.

Having set the scene, the next two chapters explore the gender role (as a third/mixed gender) and the sexual roles (as sexual or even marriage partners of men) of the berdache. The final chapter of the first Part of the book examines the husband of berdache and how having sex with, or marrying, a berdache did not change the gender role of the male partner. Williams concludes:
Generosity and spirituality, not homosexual behaviour, are what underlie the social prestige of the berdache from the Indian viewpoint, but these qualities are emphasized without denying the sexuality of the beradache. Spirituality, androgyny, woman’s work, and sex with men are equally important indicators of berdache status (p.127).
Part II looks at the change in the roles of berdache since the coming of the Europeans. Brutality, repression, incomprehension and quiet survival are the major themes. The first chapter looks at the Spanish campaign against “sodomy” and its effects in Latin America. The second at pirates, seafarers, cowboys and other folk living in frontiers outside the normal social constraints, including hints about their interactions with berdache. The third at the way Bibles and Bureaus operated to repress the berdache traditions in a process of acculturation.

Williams then looks at patterns of resistance and survival (including simple refusal to talk about the special folk among them to outsiders). His also considers the influence of reports about third gender roles in other cultures at Western understandings of sexual variance.

The growth of a gay male culture provided one avenue for Amerindians who would previously have been berdache. But so did revival of berdache traditions as part of a revival of confidence in traditional Amerindian culture. This chapter is a nice study of cultural survival, resistance and evolution.

In Part III, Williams tries to draw some more general implications about issues of identity, variety and social constructionism. First by looking a gender-divergent females in Amerindian culture. He then concludes with a chapter on how cross-cultural perspectives can help us to understand and think about human variety and the fluidity of social roles, including gender roles.

The picture that Williams and Rosco draw of the typical expectations about berdache in Amerindian cultures is remarkably similar to the picture of contemporary gay men and their patterns of behaviour that David Nimmons charts in his Soul Beneath the Skin. Which suggests that some notion of a specific variety of the human is appropriate, since the berdache and contemporary gay males grew up in very different cultures with very different cultural assumptions.

There is a line of commentary which says that simple awareness of cultural diversity is somewhat subversive, since culture often operates most powerfully when its embedded assumptions are either invisible or taken as basic truths built into the structure of the universe. Being aware that other assumptions are possible, indeed viable, indeed may even work better, can undermine cultural assumptions. Reading studies such as Williams’ and Rosco’s certainly allow one to see the truth of that back onto Western culture, rather than only operating the other way.

And to expose the cultural arrogance and ignorance of some commentators: such as Charles Krauthammer claiming that:
Yet until this generation, gay marriage had been sanctioned by no society that we know of, anywhere at any time in history.
Which either rests on an archly restrictive use of the term gay marriage or is simply false.

Of course, being confronted with the reality of diversity can lead to a withdrawal in a more rigid, “purist” conception of one’s own culture. One can see that in the jihadi approach to the menace of modernity. And the growth of religious fundamentalism more generally.

I found both Roscoe and Williams’ studies informative and enlightening. And blessedly free of jargon and obscurity.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A question of revolutionary praxis

Question: why do trees make the best post-modern revolutionary mascots?

Answer: because, unlike the workers, they cannot answer back.

Daily Life in Charlemagne’s Empire

Pierre Riche’s Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne is an enjoyable, and comprehensive, survey of society within the Carolingian Empire. The ‘first Europe’ as Riche labels it, the first genuinely European (as distinct from Mediterranean) civilisation.

The book is divided into four parts—the physical and human setting, the powerful and the people, technology and domestic occupations, cults and cultures.

The book is full of tidbits—size of monasteries (p.40), the frequency of famine (p.48), the use of concubines and prostitutes (pp52-3) price lists (pp 118-9)—and revealing anecdotes, used to enliven informative and accessible surveys of various aspects of Carolingian life. Canon law strictures against abortion are cited, it being treated as homicide (p.50) noting that poverty was a militating circumstance (reducing the penance from seven to three years).

An anecdote that particularly struck me was Gerald of Aurillac came across a woman working in the fields. Upon querying her, he found that her husband was sick and the work needed to be done. Gerald gave her money to engage a day labourer because
women should not do the work of men, for God has a horror of what is against nature (p.108).
As fine an example of nature meaning accepted background constraints (or the assumptions I am comfortable with) as one could hope to find
The Orthodox Church required a priest be present at a wedding from the C4th onwards, the same requirement not being imposed in Latin Christendom until the C16th. But Riches notes the steps the Church took to enforce the consensual nature of marriage, such as annulling marriages where the woman had not given her consent (p54) and that barrenness was never grounds for a divorce (p56), which establishes that the Church held to a concept of marriage which did not require it to be procreative, in line with clear teaching in the Gospels (Matthew 19:3-11).

We learn about the requirements (and costs) for the equipment of the emerging class of, for want of a better word, knights and their training (Pp 74-75). Riches takes an implication from this that contemporary medieval historians seem to overlook somewhat:
it is easy that it required endowments of important estates to assure the recruitment of heavy cavalry (p.74).
The advent of primogeniture, for example, makes perfect sense if landholdings had to be a minimum size to support the standing of being a knight. One can see the implications for social arrangements playing themselves out as various capitularies by Charlemagne and his successors progressively moved from a universal requirement of freeborn males to bear arms and serve when summoned to increasingly permitting folk to combine to support one of their number to serve thereby ensuring they had adequate equipment.

The booty of war was a major source of aristocratic wealth (p.80). Priests and prelates accompanied the army into battle (particularly against pagans and infidels). While the military aristocracy had a sense of moral inferiority to the clerks, which was answered by various texts of edification explaining to them—the bellatores, the milites, the militia saecularis—that they should practice the virtues of their position. One can clearly see the beginnings of chivalry and the concept of social orders—those who pray and those who fight (pp80-83): however, as other times and places found (such as ancien regime France or early medieval Japan), the mixing of royal and aristocratic status with the monastic ideal ended in the undermining of the latter (pp 87-9).

Regular assemblies of magnates were a basic element in the governing of the Carolingian realm (pp 93ff). Monarchs were not yet founts of honour and the aristocracy regarded itself as a hereditary caste—the king could grant liberty but not nobility—and was jealous of its right to counsel the monarch (p.99).

We get discussions of typical peasant houses, the joint decision about harvesting and sowing, the use of assemblies of peasants presided over by the count or his delegates to decide matters of justice, the veto right against any newcomer who might wish to share the common resources, the use of the church as also being the social centre—for example, for dancing (pp 108-9): also the multiplicities of laws and the use of ordeals (p.260).

Aristocrats sought out suitable craftsmen, especially blacksmiths (pp 146ff), a noble interest in fostering useful commerce which was to prove enduring—the notion that interest in trade pollutes noble status is very un-medieval. (It was being required to labour with one’s hands to support oneself which de-nobled.) Blacksmithing was particularly prize for its military uses: Louis the German preferred the iron weapons of Norse ambassadors to their gold.

Fear of paganism was very real (pp 181ff), the struggle against it enduring (such as lack of statues in churches, too idol-like). Great brutality was practised against those who backslid into serious pagan practices and in the wars against pagans.

Riches is very sensible about the Carolingian intellectual revival:
Let us leave definitions of the term “Renaissance” to the debates of the erudite and be content to say that in the middle of the eighth century to the end of the ninth century, literary production was greater than it had ever before in the northern domains (p.203).
This being the cultural revival that was more or less bound to occur as soon as political order advanced to a degree that resources became available for intellectual activity beyond (or even not up to) preservation. (Europe experienced another one after the Viking age passed and the new knightly order settled down: and yet another after the disasters of the calamitous fourteenth century were recovered from.)

The creative tension between Scripture and Classical heritage is very evident during the Carolingian cultural revival, as it was in the following two as well. Charlemagne himself could read, but not write (p.219), and was very to promote the liberal arts. Improved typefaces encouraged more productive copying of texts, Riches giving us considerable detail about the process of creating books (Pp206ff).

Riches covers well the sheer shock and dislocation caused by the Norse raids (he refers to them as Normans: the installation of the Normans in Normandy in 911 is the last date in his time line at the end of the book, rather than the end of the Carolingian dynasty almost 80 years later).

Riche discusses (Pp265ff) the forces that ate away at royal power. The use of local support groups—self-protection “friendly societies”—to provide mutual protection was a sign of problems in establishing and maintaining order. We see the use of vassus to mean a free man in service another. The tendency of benefices (land given in return for service) to become inheritable, a mixture of convenience (to ensure continuity when the person who was granted the benefice died) and weakness (to encourage support). The willingness of poorer folk in reduced straits to put themselves in bondage in order to receive protection and support (p.266). Knightly society is clearly emerging.

Monasteries functioned as retirement homes for those who could purchase their support (p.270): while the aged sick or “broken” poor could be recognised as dependants of the Church (p.272).

Riche gives a good sense of change over time. For example, the way that gifting of children to the Church became binding rather than allowing such children an “out” when they reached their majority (pp 211-2ff). Again and again, he stresses the essentially Germanic nature of Carolingian society, the base upon which Christianity and (far more thinly) Classical heritage rested.

Riche provides such an immense amount of revealing detail, that I have only touched on it. (He seems to have read just about every text from the period.) But it is detail provided very lightly: a very enjoyable and enlightening excursion into the life of the past.