Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Fall of the Roman Empire (the barbarians did it)

Working out the reasons for the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the C5th is a hardy perennial. As a commenter correctly pointed out on a different blog:
The problem with the debate about the fall of the Western Roman empire (or 'transformation' in more postmodern terms) is that you get a real lack of information and evidence. Which creates a large vacuum. Into which folk project their own ideologies, pouring into the historiography like barbarians over the frontier.
Analysis of the fall of the Western Empire has to pass various tests, starting with fitting the available evidence (which archaeology has filled out to a considerable degree). It also has to be compatible with the continuation of the Eastern Empire. It has to identify what was different about the fatal crisis of the C5th compared to the (survived) crisis of the C3rd. And it also has to explain why the Western Empire succumbed in the C5th when the (much smaller) Roman Republic survived the threat of Hannibal in the C4th BC.

Blaming Christianity a la Gibbon fails the ‘Eastern Empire survived’ test. As does blaming the reforms of Diocletian or of Constantine the Great or resource depletion (whether silver mines or forests). Citing climate change has to explain why the Western Empire suffered worse than its opponents. Making the battle of Adrianople some sort of marker has to explain why the loss of the major field army of the Eastern empire led to the collapse of the Western empire decades later.

Peter Heather teachers at Worcester College, University of Oxford. He has written a very thoughtful and informative account of the fall of Rome, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians which manages to pass these tests.
Like Ward-Perkins, Heather zeroes in on the superior geographical position of the Eastern Empire to explain its survival. While its Balkan provinces were ravaged by barbarians, notably by both the Gothic incursion of the 370s, which led to the disaster at Adrianople, and by the Huns in the 420s and 430s, the land walls of Constantinople and the water barrier of the Bosphorus meant that most of its tax-producing provinces were not subject to barbarian incursions. This explanation gains added weight when one considers the disaster of the Arab explosion of the C7th from a much less easily defended frontier.

If geography is crucial, then simple internal decay is not. Heather argues strongly and, when conjoined with the archaeological evidence that Ward-Perkins assembles some of which Heather also refers to, convincingly that internal economic decay was not a noted feature of the Roman system. He contrasts the Western Empire with the Carolingian Empire as one that did fall apart for internal reasons.

What is particularly attractive and informative about Heather’s analysis is careful consideration of what was going on outside Rome’s borders. Again, the increase in archaeological evidence provides a much better basis for historical understanding than has existed previously.

The first process was a lessening of Roman economic primacy. Interaction with the Mediterranean economic world seems to have stimulated increased economic activity beyond Rome’s imperial borders. The technological sophistication and population levels of the various barbarian tribes seem to have been definitely increasing, particularly by the C4th.

This process also saw a lessening of Roman technological superiority. Something that made the Hunnic incursions from the 420s onwards such a shock is that the Huns were, from the start, able to take walled cities and forts: something previous barbarian incursions, such as that of the Goths in the 370s, had not been able to do. Barbarians, such as the Vandals under Geiseric, who could take walled cities, were much more of a permanent threat than those who could only ravage the countryside.

The Roman Empire was also the Sole Big Target. It was by far the greatest and most extensive concentration of wealth around. This made it a perennial target of the border-raiding that empires always suffer. But if larger groupings could be put together, then the Empire was the desirable happy hunting ground in a much more extensive and permanent way.

There were two features that particularly encouraged such combining beyond the increased chance to get hold of Roman wealth. One was the eruption of the Huns onto the Caucasus steppes and then the Hungarian plain. The other was a reaction to long-standing Roman habits of punitive retaliation and playing groups off against each other.

Heather sees the rise of the Sassanid Empire, replacing the more loose and quiescent Parthian Empire, as crucial to causing crisis of the C3rd. What the crisis showed was that “Romanisation” had created the need for the spoils of patronage across the entire empire if usurpations were to be minimised. This, combined with the slowness of communications and the need to deal with a rival Persian ‘superpower’, is what led to the division of the Empire into Western and Eastern halves. Heather is particularly informative about how the Roman system functioned. How social systems work is obviously of great interest to him: there are some very perspicacious and informative discussion of the problems of control in a pre-industrial agrarian empire, the nature of landowner politics, the nature of nomad pastoralist society and politics.

He sees Diocletian’s massive expansion of the bureaucracy as more a replacement of political forms (primarily local city politics) than some great burden. (I wonder about this, given it likely reduced local commitment to the Empire.)

The rise of a Hunnic superpower had a range of effects. First, it drove the Goths into their 370s incursion. Valens’ military disaster at Adrianople was, for example, not a significantly greater defeat than the destruction of three legions at the Teutoburger Wald. The more serious effect was that it was one of series of defeats on long-standing Roman territory that led to a far less complete victory than was the norm in that the Goths retained independent existence within the Empire. A sign that the Roman advantage over the barbarians was declining.

The Huns seem to have been similarly responsible for encouraging the various incursions in the first decade of the C5th that led to the establishment of various unassimilated barbarian groups within the Empire.

The various direct Hunnic incursions from the 420s to 440s caused further damage and, of particular importance, frustrated a serious attempt to reconquer North Africa—a key source of revenue for the Western Empire—from the Vandals. The Hunnic Empire also concentrated various barbarian groups close to the Empire and, when the Hunnic Empire collapsed, had created a region where habits of combining together for common military action had been established. Habits that various groups then engaged in to seize the wealth of the Empire.

In the end, it was a case of one damn thing after another. A particularly successful Roman general, a Flavius Constantius or an Aetius, could stabilise things for a while, but there was always something else coming along.

Once a final joint Western-Eastern attempt to retake North Africa had failed in 468, there was no longer the tax base to support a Roman Empire in the West and even the pretence of such an Empire came to be seen to serve no purpose.

I have a couple of quibbles. First, although Heather admits that the level of social collapse in Britain was precipitous, he seems a little too sanguine about how much continuity there was in the rest of the Empire, though his point about military prowess replacing literacy as the basis for political advancement is well-taken. The barbarian kingdoms clearly did want the goodies of the more successful society they were occupying. This is a common feature of newcomers drawn to such a society. But retaining said goodies is only possible if the newcomers replicate and reinforce the patterns of behaviour that produce those goodies. If, on the contrary, they continue the patterns of behaviour that produced the less successful societies they are coming from, they will undermine (even destroy) the benefits they are after. Which, despite the initial adoption of Roman government forms, is clearly what happened: if less precipitously than occurred in Britain.

Second, Heather’s comment at the end about the barbarians becoming more effective as a result of ‘unbounded Roman aggression’ (imperialism as its own rewards) seems a little too precious. That imperialism may have a tendency to create more effective opponents is a striking idea. But Roman punitive expeditions, no matter how nasty, were rarely, if ever, gratuitous. The consequences of failing to maintain dominance over the barbarians were sufficiently horrific to suggest the Romans may have had a point in such policies.

On the other hand, though he does not consider the comparison directly, there is more than enough in Heather’s analysis to pass the test of why the larger Western Empire was not able to survive its terminal crisis when the, much smaller, Roman Republic was able to survive and, eventually, triumph over Hannibal.

Maintaining Roman rule over Western Europe for 450 years is a hugely impressive achievement. But it is also clear enough that, in a crisis situation, the late Empire had less comparative ability to mobilise resources and contain political rivalry than did the Roman Republic at the time of Hannibal.

One of the damn things that kept happening was murderous political rivalry within the Roman system, up to the point of civil war. Civil war was a periodic feature of the Roman system for centuries, right back to Marius and Sulla. But continuing the habit while repeated barbarian incursions and occupations were occurring was not conducive to survival. The imperial system so concentrated political power and its benefits that there was no forum for managing tensions except fighting it out until some strongman emerged victorious.

The other was the military implications of the specialisation Ward-Perkins draws attention to. Military skills were essentially concentrated among paid professionals. If local field forces were defeated and, over the longer term, the tax base to support the paid professionals was undermined, the Roman citizens were extremely vulnerable. This was quite a different social contract than that which had sustained the Roman Republic. There citizenship and military prowess went hand-in-hand— the “deal” of citizenship was military service in return for legal and political rights. As a result, the Roman Republic could, within its much smaller population, draw upon a proportionately much larger pool of motivated and skilled soldiers. In a prolonged crisis, this—along with the ability to contain and manage political tensions—made the (much smaller) Roman Republic of the C4th BC much tougher than the much larger Western Empire of the C5th. Which is not to deny that Western Empire still showed considerable powers of resilience. Just not enough to deal with one damn thing after another.

I found Heather’s analysis extremely informative and generally persuasive. It is, however, best read in conjunction with Ward-Perkins’ study.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Is It A Choice?

Eric Marcus’s book Is It a Choice? Answers to the Most Frequently Asked Questions About Gay & Lesbian People is a very accessible Q&A book about gay issues. (Including all the silly questions, like the one used in the title.)

It is the ideal book to give or loan to parents, siblings, friends etc if you are gay because it is so accessible, friendly, matter-of-fact and informative.

It is obviously based on lots of experience garnered from doing the rounds publicising his other books on gay issues. Marcus explains writing the book as being motivated by having a spray about all the stupid questions he gets asked to a sophisticated straight couple who he had known for years. When he got to the silly question he got asked most, is it a choice?, one went red and said they didn’t sound like stupid questions and the other said it isn’t a choice? (No, no, we minimise our range of possible partners, put up with not being treated as legal equals and maximise our chance of being treated with hatred and contempt just for the fun of it. Now, tell me all about the moment when you chose to be heterosexual.)

Hence the book. Which, by the way, is never anywhere near as snarky as I have just been.

It is organised into sensible chapter groupings that cover the full gamut of life. At no point did I cringe or strongly disagree. Much in it I found informative. Recommended.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilisation

The traditional view of the end of the Western Roman Empire and its aftermath is relatively straightforward. Rome was overrun by the barbarians and it was a bad thing because it was the end of a glorious civilisation and followed by the Dark Ages.

More recent historiography has tended to take a somewhat less categorical approach. The Western Empire did not so much fall as get transformed, it is not quite kosher to talk about a decline (but rises are always OK), certainly not the end of the civilisation and the Dark Ages is not a sensible term.

So it is refreshing to read a book by a serious historian and archaeologist saying, actually, no, the Western Empire was overrun by the barbarians, it was a very traumatic time, it was the end of a civilisation and what followed it was a period of decline and loss (particularly of literacy).

It is also provides reassuring support that the picture we have been presenting to students in our Weapons and Armour presentation (1000 years of history in 50 minutes) is supported by the archaeological and other evidence.

The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilisation is a short, clearly written book by Bryan Ward-Perkins, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford.

Ward-Perkins starts by outlining the shift in the dominant view about historians mentioned above. In Part One, he then goes through various written sources from the period to talk about the horrors of war as the Western empire is overrun and carved up into various Germanic kingdoms. He analyses the road to defeat (why the Western Empire fell and the Eastern Empire did not) as a result of the Western Empire having poorer leadership and (due to simple geography) a harder task. He notes that the Crisis of the Third Century showed that keeping the Empire functioning against a strong external challenge was no easy task. He then examines the Germanic takeover as being a genuine take-over, with the locals having a clearly inferior position.
In Part Two Ward-Perkins goes through the archaeological and other evidence about the level of comfort and sophstication that existed under the Empire (particularly as indicated by the widespread, standardised and high quality pottery) compared to the dramatic economic, cultural and population decline in the West in the C5th to C7th which has no parallel in the Eastern Empire until the wars of the C7th.

In Roman Britian, the decline upon the withdrawal of the legions is precipitous. The evidence (including such things as the average size of cows) is that the decline was to a lower level of technology and cultural sophistication than had existed in Iron Age Britain prior to the Roman conquest. He also points out that the "most backward" areas of the Western Empire (Wales, Brittany, Asturias) actually held out better. (I liked his comment that the last bit of the Western Empire to fall to the barbarians was when Wales was conquered by Edward Longshanks in 1282). This was because those areas had less economic specialisation so a more widespread level of basic skills in the population.

The peace and common jurisdiction of the Empire allowed the building up of great networks of economic specialisation. This meant a high level of convenience and comfort, and not only for the elite. Once war and rapine disrupted that, the high level of specialisation became a high level of vulnerability. Pottery (and other production) becomes much less common and cruder, the population falls, literacy levels collapse. What follows was clearly worse than what had preceded it: a collapse from sophisticated complexity to survival-focused simplicity.

Ward-Perkins concludes with a (very polite) discussion of why current events (particularly the rise of the EU) had led to the creation of a historical view that nuances away overthrow, decline, conquest and collapse. I would go a bit further than Ward-Perkins does. After all, the traditional view meant that the Roman legions really were defending civilisation, and both the EU specifically—and contemporary academe in general—has a great dislike for the idea that “thugs in uniform” really can have a positive social role.

I found it a very sensible, very well-written and very enlightening book.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deliver Us From Evil

Amy Berg’s documentary on priestly child-abuse Deliver us from evil is extremely well done. Apart from occasional short statements up on the screen, there is no narration. Victims, their families, their helpers, a paedophile priest and excerpts from depositions by senior clergy speak for themselves.

So, watching it, one alternates between disbelief, horror, rage, sympathy and a certain numb awareness. Having read Betrayal, the Boston Globe book on the priest scandals, I was aware of the background but there is an immediacy to listening to the slow build up from families and victims, interspersed by comments with Oliver O’Grady (“Father Ollie”), a paedophile priest, which is very powerful.

The lack of narration and the slow build-up makes the recounted experiences more vivid. A psychologist who specialises in dealing with victims of clergy abuse pointed out the importance of the lack of sexual experience, and family ties, within the hierarchy in explaining the pattern of evasion and cover-up. A lawyer who has years on such cases tells us that, having spent 23 years listening to depositions, he has encountered evasion, deceit, lies and perjury from cardinals, archbishops, bishops and senior clergy.

A priest and canon lawyer who is an advocate for the victims and their families points out that the monarchical structure of the Church—and the ambition of members in it—is central to understand the cover-ups. The scapegoating of homosexual priests is mentioned in passing: the psychologist points out that most paedophiles are heterosexual. (That is, sexual interest in children of whatever gender is a different matter from the direction of adult sexual interest.) The point is also made that, as all sex was forbidden to priests, it was all just "bad sex": the nature of the victims did not differentiate in the eyes of the hierarchy.

Father O’Grady was a priest in California, in the diocese of Stockton whose Bishop—Cardinal-Archbishop of Los Angeles—was clearly ambitious for higher office and continued the pattern (seen again and again by Catholic hierarchs in cases of paedophile priests) of simply transferring O’Grady to a new parish every time there was a “problem”.

Deliver us from evil is a very powerful film about an appalling problem and deeply entrenched institutional moral failure.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

My Life as a Traitor

My Life As A Traitor by young Iranian exile Zarah Ghahramani, assisted by Oz writer Robert Hillman, is another book about how crap it is to be a woman under the rule of the mullahs. So it has obvious resonances with Reading Lolita in Teheran, resonances all the greater since Zarah also experiences literature as a liberation. But Zarah is much younger than Azar Nafisi, and is a student not a teacher. Her experiences are also more grim. But both books convey the oppressive misogyny of the mullah’s regime, an intimate part of a larger pattern of oppression. Not without a certain amount of humour: but that is also a weapon and a defence, a statement of life. Such as Zarah's comments on the regime giving power to teenage boys (pp.75ff).

Which, however much humour she injects into the discussion, is still a nasty form of oppression in itself. Her discussion (pp 81ff) of the high rates of female suicide (especially among young woman—very different from the Western pattern) is particularly grim. The lead-in is a young country cousin who, at 15, married a much older man from Teheran. A few months into the marriage, she attempted to kill herself by setting herself on fire. An attempt that was eventually successful, after she lingered on in hospital for some time. There is even a region in Iran where such self-immolation has become a local tradition as if to say, as Zarah says, my motive is the same as she who went before. As we read of the oppressive misogyny, it is again clear how grounded the official and pervasive misogyny is in the erotophobia of patristic monotheism where sex (unless it is procreative) separates us from God, from the divine, and—given religious authority is male—female sexuality is particularly threatening.
As an aside, average age at marriage is a good indicator of the status of women: the younger the average age at first marriage, the more such decisions are parental and the lower the status of women; the older the average age at first marriage, the more such decisions are the couple’s and the higher the status of women. Draw a line from Trieste to St Petersburg and the average age at first marriage is higher North and West of that line and lower South and East of that line. A pattern that evidence suggests predates Christianity but continued after it, and broadly still does.

Zarah was born after the Iranian Revolution. Her father is Kurdish (therefore Sunni rather than Shi’a) and was a general in the Shah’s army, but escaped any post-Revolutionary retribution. Her mother is a Zoroastrian. One of the themes of the book is Zarah wrestling with her parent’s outlook and history.

The book’s chapters interweave two narratives, each successive chapter moving to the other narrative. The first narrative is her experience of incarceration, interrogation and torture in Evin prison: formerly where the victims of SAVAK under the Pahlavi regime were “dealt” with, now where the victims of the mullocracy go. It is brilliantly evocative of the horror and helplessness of such incarceration.

The second narrative is her life. Growing up, going to school, discovering ideas, books, memorable teachers who encouraged their students to think, socialising, discovering boys, becoming political. The prose is simple, clear and very evocative. The things she describes come alive. She both describes and wrestles with how one lives in an oppressive regime.

Each narrative ends with a car ride. The prison narrative with the drive to freedom, the life narrative with being snatched by the police.

There was a backlash against Reading Lolita in Teheran, as if President Bush II’s hostility to the Iranian regime was the most important thing to be undermined and resisted, even if it means attacking eloquent witnesses to oppression. The nasty side of “criticise ourselves first”, where the reality that the US is, as it was throughout the C20th, better than its enemies (just as, in the Middle East, Israel is better than Hamas, Hezbollah, Ba’athist Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Fatah, etc.) has to be obscured to sustain the “correct” moral perspective.

But the Iranian regime is vile and oppressive and My Life as a Traitor is a vivid and highly accessible rendition of that reality. It is also an invocation of the power of good teaching, even in very trying circumstances. The dedication at the start of the book reads
This book is dedicated with love and esteem to my friend Akbar Mohammadi, whose bravery, which so greatly exceeded my own, cost him his life.
The acknowledgment at the end ends with,
… and her secondary school and university teachers are asked to accept her gratitude, for reasons that will be apparent to any reader of this book.
As they are.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The nature of social democracy

Andrew Norton posted the question of why there were not any great social democratic thinkers. He was responding to a comment in an article by Tim Soutphommasane:
… social democracy has never had a political philosopher who has succeeded in offering a comprehensive articulation of principles.
… But social democrats arguably lack a political philosopher of the same stature as John Locke (classical liberalism), John Stuart Mill (progressive liberalism), Friedrich von Hayek (libertarianism), or Edmund Burke (conservatism).
The closest we get to an authoritative statement of social justice is the one offered by American philosopher John Rawls. Even then, his two major works, A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, at best offer highly influential statements of an American Left-liberalism whose application elsewhere is limited by the vagaries of American constitutionalism.
The following is a more extended version of the comment I made on Andrew’s post.

Social democracy is a merging between liberalism and socialism. It starts with one strand of socialism taking on political liberalism (elections, Parliamentarianism, etc) in the later C19th, rejecting revolutionary politics. The “revisionism” of Eduard Bernstein represented the embracing of such politics within German social democracy. In places where the revolutionary tradition had little hold, it was natural for socialist and union activists to embrace a version of electoral politics: which is to say, in that context, a form of political liberalism, even if their mode of operation was generally more collectivist than that of the established political forces.

Then, at various times, forms of social liberalism (essentially, extending equality before the law to Jews, women, blacks, gays, etc; removing restrictions on aspects of personal life such as censorship, availability of contraception, etc) have been embraced by social democracy. As Andrew pointed out in reply, the focus in doing so has remained on equality. This seems correct to me: my point is not that social democracy is a form of liberalism, but that social democrats have increasingly adopted liberalism. (Since what the US nowadays calls 'liberalism' seems to be essentially politically cross-dressing social democracy, it also makes any differences between the two ever more minor.)

Since the mid 1950s, social democracy has taken on various aspects of economic liberalism (abandoning further nationalisation, later moving to deregulation and privatisation motivated by a concern to have an economically and financially sustainable welfare state). The idea of nationalizing the economy has been abandoned. The difficult issues now are how much nationalizing households is effective or needs to be retreated from.

Essentially, social democracy took on aspects of liberalism either because socialism did not have anything specifically useful or because of widening realisation that such socialism did not really work. The “romantics” have always claimed that each step is some sort of sell-out of socialism or social justice ideals. The reality is that brute experience has been driving policy in a liberalising direction is much less palatable. (Hence, for example, the denunciations of “neoliberal” policies.)

A case in point was listening to an ABC radio presenter give a very soft interview with Indian writer Arundhati Roy, who complained about the rise of Hindu nationalism, treatment of Indian Muslims and the growth of “neoliberal” policies. In the interview (really, mutual agreement) during the discussion of the last, neither the “Hindu rate of growth” or the Permit Raj warranted any mention. Yet the change in Indian policy cannot be understood without that context—especially relevant given Roy’s apparent nostalgia for the economic policies of the pre-1991 era.

To return to the original observation, if social democracy is a process of socialism retreating and liberalism advancing, an evolving merger of political traditions, it is hard to see how it could generate any great thinkers.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Understanding the Process of Economic Change

Douglass C. North is a leader of the transaction cost revolution in economics. His work contains much that is highly abstract and theoretical and he tends to pack a lot into his paragraphs, so his works are not light reading.

That being said, they remain deeply informative reading. Understanding the Process of Economic Change represents further development of his interest in institutions and economic change—Notth very much is about putting the dimension of time back into economic analysis. It also represents his grappling with the discoveries of modern cognitive science and how they might be incorporated into economics.

The last is much more an attempt to point the way rather than a satisfactory analysis. And, though North commends Barzel’s work, I am not sure his approach to institutions fully absorbs the implications of transaction cost analysis in terms of transactions and patterns of transactions being the subject of analysis.

The sections I enjoyed the most are Part II of the book when he discusses specific historical processes. North points out what has to be a key factor in understanding European success—the sheer diversity of states and policy choices. Selection processes had more to work on, so were more likely to achieve striking outcomes.

His discussion of the collapse of the Soviet Union I found particularly enlightening. Even though his language continues to be a bit challenging at times:
Adaptive efficiency entails an institutional structure that in the face of the ubiquitous uncertainties of a non-ergodic world will flexibly try various alternatives to deal with novel problems that continue to emerge over time. In turn this institutional structure entails a belief structure that will encourage and permit experimentation and equally will wipe out failures. The Soviet Union represented the very antithesis of such an approach (p.154).
Compare Milton Friedman making much the same point:
I have always said the essence of a free-market system, which tends to be called a profit-and-loss system, is that the loss component is more important than the profit component. You need the discipline of the loss in order to keep the system going.
North also exemplifies what many other social science and humanities academics find highly irritating about economists. A persistent tendency to see the West in general as a successful civilisation (as he discusses in his chapter on The Rise of the West) and the United States in particular as a successful society (as North does, particularly with his compare-and-contrast with Latin America in his chapter on Sources of Order and Disorder). Which is, of course, just wrong. North, like many economists, gets excited about things as tending to get better (with more knowledge, longer lives, higher income, etc: his chapter on The Evolving Human Environment is full of such data). And economists tend to like markets and private property and think they might have something to do with the aforementioned—even worse.

North concludes with a discussion of the importance on genuinely attempting to grapple with what makes societies work better or worse. A difficult book at times, but also often an enlightening one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Medieval Idea of Marriage

Christopher Brooke’s The Medieval Idea of Marriage is a highly readable inquiry which includes a very sensible consideration of the nature of historical sources and an engagement with the phenomena of marriage itself.

Brooke has a strong sense of having to be careful about motives in looking at sources – particularly in what people put into records of sex and tax. This is nicely put – Brooke notes that people tend to live in fantasy worlds regarding sex and love (p.21). After all, documents are often, at best, just frozen memory. Even more difficult, it is often the most fundamental customs which are the most difficult to trace, since their very ubiquity makes recording them seem pointless at the time (p.251).

There is, of course, no single medieval idea of marriage. Brooke sets out very clearly how ideas evolved and how customs of marriage varied. What The Medieval Idea of Marriage is mostly about is the Church take-over of marriage law and the development of the medieval Christian view of language.

This was a two-element process: the process of this authority moving to the Church and the Church evolving a set of legally workable doctrines. The latter involved lots of boundary decisions, such as that marriages between slaves and with heathens were legitimate (p.52). St Augustine’s definition of the good(s) of marriage was an important source of doctrine: those goods being being fides, proles, sacrumentum (fidelity, children and a binding union broken only by death: p.276).

Brooke manages a nice irony on St Augustine
In Augustine’s capacious mind it was possible to hold together the notion of woman as temptress, inferior to man
with children being the first good of marriage (p.55).

St Augustine’s dislike of the carnal element in such unions was very influential. He also wrestled with the fundamental question of doctrinal dispute on marriage—was consent alone enough or did marriages have to consummated?
Basic to the Church take over was the C11-12th revolution in celibacy, legitimacy and sacraments (p.57). As Brooke notes, celibacy served the anti-simony reform (p.70). St Augustine’s antipathy to the carnal was given further boost by St Peter Damian's horror of sexuality (Pp71,135).

Brooke engages in a long discussion of authenticity of letters of Heloise & Abelard and of their content. He notes evidence that a canon could have concubines but not marry (p.107).

Brooke is clear on the need to explain Church takeover of law of marriage (p.126). This was in opposition to self-regulation of marriage (p.127). The result was an evolving concept of marriage (Pp129-30) with local custom being moulded into common rules (p.130). The Church provided clarifying commonality in a situation where primogeniture was evolving as a solution to maintaining family power and status, so the Church's legal takeover was highly desirable if it made hereditary transfer of property work more clearly and definitely (Pp.142,154).

Brooke takes us through the interaction between doctrine, doctrinal dispute and popular pressures (p.131). Impotence and consanguinity—given the amazingly restrictive definition of what counted as “incest”—were the main grounds for annulment. In the C11 and C12th, the marriage ritual coheres (p.139). The now-defined sacrament of marriage was performed by the couple (p.141), typically not inside the church but on the church doorstep or porch. There is lots of evidence that the church door or porch as the normal place of a marriage (p.248). (Brooke spends a chapter on the architecture of marriage.) Again custom could vary: notary weddings were apparently common in Toulouse, for example (p.253).

Brooke also notes that the Inquisition arises in the wake of rising church legal power. Brooke is good at ironic perception. Such as the lengthy nature (taking years) of Catherine of Aragon's divorce made execution a much more expedient method for Henry VIII for getting rid of later unwanted wives (p.169).

The consent-only or requiring-consummation-as-well issue bedevilled Church decisions on marriage. Was marriage a current promise or future intent completed by consummation (p.171)? Brooke provides a nice summary of later theology of marriage (p.195).

Brooke also uses literary sources—considering very intelligently their limitations and advantages: as he says, great literature is not the domain of naturalism or realism (p.229). Nevertheless, it does expose what contours of thinking were operating. I was particularly struck by the couplet (p.207) from the converted heathen queen Giburic in Wolfram’s Willehalm urging against the slaughter of defeated heathens:
Hoert eins tumben wibes rat,
Schont der gotes hantgetat

Hear the counsel of a simple woman,
And spare God’s handiwork
Brooke’s discussion of literary sources concludes with Shakespeare. Including the sensible observation that Shakespeare's women are typical more mature than his men (p.239).

Brooke notes that the Papal recognition of slave marriages (in 1155) undermined slavery (Pp264-5) and the continuing importance of the “one flesh” doctrine from the Gospel expression. Brooke then revisits the defining of the sacrament in the C12th (Pp273-4), noting marriage’s odd status as the non-universal sacrament (p.274).

His discussion of some particular cases finishes with Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage, seeing the painting as a statement over time about marriage, not a “frozen moment”. Brooke concludes by bringing together the various themes in his book, after making some quite personal observations about the nature of marriage.

I found The Medieval Idea of Marriage to be an engaging and informative work of history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Explaining Hitler (but who remembers the Armenians?)

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler: the Search for the Origins of His Evil is a fine exploration of what scholars have written about Hitler and the Holocaust. Rosenbaum talks to the scholars (those that were still alive at the time) and reads their works, taking the reader steadily through the range of approaches to explaining Hitler and the Holocaust, which vary greatly.

So this is a book wrestling with the nature of evil, the nature of historical explanation, the nature of causality in history. Big issues, very well handled.

Eliminationist ideas
Perhaps the most important thing in analysis is to ask the right questions. Reading Explaining Hitler, I had a persistent sense that the debate over Hitler and the Holocaust suffers greatly from not asking the right questions. First, too many contributors seemed to be too focused on the killing of Jews. The death camps killed Jews, but also gypsies, gays, Slavs, ideological opponents. Second, participants regularly had too great a sense of the Holocaust as something unprecedented.

The sad fact is that killing people wholesale, even killing Jews wholesale, is not unique to the Holocaust. What is distinctive about the Holocaust is mass killing being adopted and implemented as a policy by a major European state (counting Russia as being semi-European). The Holocaust displays the power of the modern state in a hideous way. In particular, the technological facility and bureaucratic capacity of the German state. But Stalin (a comparison that does get mentioned in Explaining Hitler) and particularly Mao (who does not) killed in comparable numbers. While Pol Pot killed far more of the people he had available to kill.

It is the common “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” framing that bothers me. Some notion that being European, being advanced, being civilised, being something somehow guarantees that “people like us” will neither do nor suffer such things. Demonstrably not true and the Holocaust does not get some extra ontological oomph from proving it is not true. Nor should it be treated as if it does.

In wrestling with the how? and the why?, there are layers of causal questions. When did Hitler decide to kill the Jews? Why did Hitler decide to kill the Jews? How did killing Jews get to the implemented policy of the German state? What was the role of Hitler in that? Adding in the other victims of the Holocaust changes the questions. Not including them makes any answer that cannot also cover them clearly wrong.

The notion that society would be improved by elimination of categories of people was very much part of modern European thought. Eugenics aimed to breed them out, but elimination by murder was also in the air. Consider Engels writing in the Neue Rheinsiche Zeitung edited by Karl Marx in January 1849:
The next world war will result in the disappearance from the face of the earth not only of reactionary classes and dynasties, but also of entire reactionary peoples. And that, too, is a step forward.
The entire Marxist enterprise was about eliminating whole classes. It is all very well to say that was a predicted historical process, but if you say the goal towards history is directed, and properly so, is a classless society, then simply killing the members of classes who are “surplus to requirements” is a perfectly logical step. As Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc demonstrated.
But one can go further back still. The notion of God the virtuous exterminator—who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because He was so horrified by men having sex with men—dates back to Philo of Alexandria’s welding of natural law theory to Scriptural Revelation at the time of Christ. The medieval Church even promoted the notion of God as virtuous-exterminator-by-category:
In that night our Blessed Lady and Mother of God was delivered of our Blessed Saviour upon the hay that lay in the rack. At which nativity our Lord shewed many marvels. … And it happed this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame. Whereof Saint Austin saith that, it lacked but little that God would not become man for that sin.
A fascinating transmutation of the Gospel of Love.

About lebensraum
The notion of lebensraum does not get considered in Explaining Hitler yet, as Tooze has shown, it was central to Nazi policy. Indeed, it was central to the program laid out in Mein Kampf. The Nazi program of killing can be understood as a territorial “clearing” and a social “cleansing”. So Slavs were killed (particularly their elite), for they occupied territory the Aryans were to have. Jews and Gypsies were killed, for they “polluted” the territory and society the Aryans already had and “needed” to be “cleansed” from their new lands. Homosexuals were killed, for they “polluted” Aryanness itself and undermined the breeding of warriors. Ideological opponents were killed, for they obstructed the Aryan cause. Killing “genetic defectives” to “strengthen the race” was, in fact, the forerunner program of Nazi killing: the one that gassing was developed for. (That the program was closed down due to public, Church-led, opposition is revealing in itself, particularly regarding whether more could have been done to oppose the slaughters.)

Nor did only Germans (and Austrians) do the killing, a central problem with Daniel Goldhagen’s thesis about Germans being specifically infected with “eliminationist anti-Semitism”. Putting the question as “why did Hitler lead Germans to kill Jews?” is simply the wrong question. Indeed, it gives Hitler the posthumous victory of agreeing with him that the Jews (and Germans) have some distinguishing quality. It is utterly wrong to deny that Hitler hated Jews, and that killing Jews was a central feature of the Holocaust. But slaughter-by-category was a much broader feature of the Nazi empire.

One aspect of Explaining Hitler which does touch directly on lebensraum is the discussion of the Nazi fixation on Genghis Khan. Hitler is famously quoted as citing Genghis Khan with approval in his “secret speech” prior to the attack on Poland. Himmler had a few years earlier distributed a biography of Genghis Khan to the SS (p.174).

This makes perfect sense. The entire notion of geopolitics, quite central to Mein Kampf, operated on the basis of empires of the Eurasian “heartland”. Prior to the advance of the Russian Empire, these were essentially nomad empires. Killing peasants to clear them off grazing land was an active element in the public policy of nomad conquerors—as Hitler was invoking in the “secret speech”.

Any attempt to characterise lebensraum as some sort of “cover” for killing Jews seems just too fixated for words. It is much more plausible that the idea of taking land from other “races” for the benefit of Aryans was a program of slaughter that fitted with achieving the aim of a Judenfrei, and otherwise “cleansed”, Aryan society through mass murder.

Virtue and hate
If slaughter was inherent in the logic of the program of lebensraum, volkisch race theory had an appeal in itself. For it made every “Aryan” an “aristocrat of blood”—and did so effortlessly. It gave a sense of place and identity in an uncertain world. Including various categories people to define oneself against. “Designated hate receptacles” to use an anachronistic, but felicitous, phrase. Anti-Semitism particularly worked in such a fashion.

Anti-Semitism, defined in a “by the blood” way, had a strong history in Germany, Austria and France: indeed, across Catholic (and Orthodox) Europe, since both Churches put considerable effort into promoting Jew hatred. If anything, anti-Semitism was stronger in France (where Republicanism excluded conservative Catholics) and Austria (where Germans felt threatened by a Slav majority), both overwhelmingly Catholic countries, than in Germany (substantially Protestant). Key organisers of the Holocaust (Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich) were born and raised Catholic or grew up in predominantly Catholic areas (Goring, Eichmann). Eight out of ten concentration camp commandants were Austrian and as many of 40% of the camp SS personnel (so almost certainly Catholic).

Of the scholars Rosenbaum talks to, Hyam Maccoby sees the Holocaust as ultimately a Christian phenomenon, but his indictment is so all-embracing as to lose any connection to specific historical events. Yes, Jew-hatred had been part of Christian thinking. But it waxed and waned and manifested very differently in different places. Prominent English Catholics had even made pests of themselves publicly speaking up for Jews against the Vatican, but they knew what it was like to be an excluded religious minority.

Jew-hatred had a long history, but much more pertinent was the way the Catholic Church (and Russian Orthodox Church) used Jew-hatred as a tactic to shore up support in troubled times—such as using treating Jews as equals as a reductio ad absurdem of liberal modernity. (Much as Catholic and other Christian apologists and priests and ministers do now with gay equality.) By focusing on Hitler and Germany, this wider but specifically relevant history is largely overlooked.

The purposes of Hitler
Explaining Hitler is focused on wrestling with the character and the role of Hitler. In what sense was he evil? Did he mean it or was he playing a role? Why did he hate Jews? When did he come to hate Jews? When did hating Jews come to mean killing them wholesale?

While the issues are fascinating, I found the debate about Hitler more frustrating. After all, lots of people hated Jews. Hitler was hardly unusual in that. Clearly, also lots of people were willing to kill Jews. Balancing the general and particular is inherently difficult, but there is a difference between seeing Hitler as extraordinary in the extent of the horror he unleashed and seeing him as extraordinary in the beliefs he had, or his willingness to engage in slaughter. Anti-Semitism and volkisch, “blood and soil”, nationalism were both widely held systems of belief, which typically went together. Nor, in a century that produced Lenin, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, can we really see Hitler’s willingness to engage in slaughter as being something sui generis.

We are perilously back to that very dubious “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” question. Are we really willing to say, after Year Zero, that the Holocaust was some unique horror?

There is a real tension in analysing Hitler-as-successful-politician and Hitler-as-ruler with Hitler-as-unleasher-of-horror. The first two are things to be done for any politician and ruler. Then the Holocaust bumps us somewhere else.

The question “how come Hitler unleashed such enormous destruction?” is about will and power. Hitler’s achieving power, his willingness to go to war, for what purposes, and the power his military success gave him. Which gets into his interaction with domestic and foreign opponents and questions of responsibility for failing to frustrate him. It is difficult, to neither ignore the Holocaust nor get mesmerised by it.

And it is certainly easier to think of the Holocaust as being about Germans, Jews and Hitler. Or even just Germans and Jews, as Goldhagen would have it. But, the grim fact is, that is not how it was. It was about mass killing as public policy, killing of various categories of people carried out and abetted by people who were not only Germans from wherever.

But admitting its more general nature then runs the risk of turning into something so “functionally” analysed that individuals who chose to act (or not) get swallowed up (and thereby, in a sense, excused) in broad categories. Or else turning into an indictment of such broad phenomena as “Christianity” or “Western Civilisation” or whatever.

But only one third of Germans voted for Hitler in a free election. Many people refused to take part in the killings (even in the SS: Himmler was clever enough to allow his SS personnel to work in the areas they were comfortable with—which makes those who took part in the killings even more culpable). Millions fought Hitler. Many sheltered Jews and other potential victims. We cannot get away from individual responsibility—particularly as the logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers. It is just that we also cannot see something that thousands, or millions, did or believed as somehow extraordinary about Hitler himself.

I also found some of the debate Rosenbaum reporting seemed to want too much coherence in Hitler, or too little. People can have various aims and projects they want to carry forth which rise and fall in urgency depending on circumstances. Waiting for the opportunity does not prove lack of intent. But nor does it prove that was always the central aim. That Hitler early on conceived Jews as His Enemy and sought their destruction seems clear. How complete a destruction he conceived of and when, is less clear. But that his vision of lebensraum had no place for Jews (or gypsies, or Slavs …) is also clear. At whatever point mass murder was decided upon, it was always inherent in the project. As in, for example, Wehrmacht planning for the attack on the Soviet Union incorporating simply taking food from Ukraine (thereby repeating what Lenin and Stalin had previously done): mass starvation was part of the plan. This inherent tendency to slaughter also fitted in with the somewhat haphazard nature of the killing, the varied interactions of opportunity and willingness.

One of the great virtues of Explaining Hitler is that Rosenbaum looks into those who opposed Hitler at the time. Particularly those Munich journalists who sought to expose him. The stand out among these was Fritz Gerlich. He was a conservative nationalist, a convert to Catholicism during his period of opposing Hitler. Early on, he had been interested in a possible alliance with the Nazis, but ended up on the wrong side of Hitler’s manoeuvring during the Beer Hall Putsch and transmuted into Hitler’s most bitter enemy. Precisely because of where he came from ideologically, Gerlich knew exactly where to put the knife in. A two-part newspaper piece he did based around a photomontage with Hitler as groom to a Negro bride speculating whether Hitler had Mongol blood is set out at some length. (Which included the point that neither would matter to any genuine Christian.)

Gerlich’s aristocratic circle was, in many ways, Hitler’s most dangerous enemies since they later were later also key instigators in the July 1944 Bomb Plot. Gerlich himself paid for his opposition: as soon as Hitler came to power, SS goons smashed the plates of his last expose and dragged him off to be murdered in prison. The SS mailed his spectacles, covered in his blood, back to his wife (p.167). One of those moments which reveal so vividly the nature of Hitler’s regime.

Hitler the personage
There is a great deal of picking over Hitler’s personal history. Rosenbaum brings out how much of this is obscured and contentious. Personally, I find examining Hitler’s sexuality (about which there is no consensus), his family history (did he fear Jewish ancestry?, did he blame his mother’s Jewish doctor for her agonising death?), the suicide (or was it murder?) of his half-niece Geli Raubal and so on, of limited historical interest. Attempting to do psychological profiles of him so often tell us much more about the profilers than the subject, given there is such a limited stock of hard evidence to go on.

That Hitler was a malignant narcissist is surely fairly clear. A telling moment is when he is giving his story to the detective investigating Geli Raubal’s death (found shot in his apartment). The report says Hitler said:
Her dying touches his emotions very deeply because she was the only one of his relatives who was close to him. And now this must happen to him
Yes, it is all about you Adolf.

Nor is that his staff liked him all that startling. Narcissists can often be quite charming and their job was to serve him.

So much of this seems to be about seeing Hitler as extraordinary on the grounds that his evil was extraordinary. Or even that he was so evil he cannot and should not be explained, as some contend. Really? Let us consider Pol Pot again. That very dubious “but how could this happen in the Germany of Goethe and Schiller?” question keeps lurking.

Understandable in a way, for those caught up in the horror. A whole set of comforting assumptions got smashed: perhaps too many for clear analysis.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, in an aside, observed that Herman Rauschning’s (another conservative turned bitter Hitler opponent) “sensationalist” The Revolution of Nihilism proved, in hindsight, to provide a better understanding of Hitler and his regime than many more “sophisticated” pre-war analyses (p.xxviii). We can get too “clever” in our analyses, allowing our sense of “sophistication” to become a shield of illusions.

But who does remember the Armenians?
Hitler was famously quoted as asking who remembers the Armenians? The first mass murder of the C20th was of a dhimmi group in a Muslim empire. No Germans, no Jews, a non-Western state.

“Who remembers the Armenians?” is a question that still lurks over Hitler and the Holocaust.

It is a tribute to Rosenbaum’s efforts that the debate over Hitler and the Holocaust is conveyed so vividly in Explaining Hitler. My qualms about that debate are certainly not qualms about this excellent book.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Predation and property

That (Western) Europe’s economic ascension began in the medieval period seems now well established –Maddison, Jones, Gimpel, Landes (amongst others) all make the same point in different ways. That Japan is the other standout is also clear (a point made very clearly by Maddison, Jones, Landes, Powellson and others). The Roman order turned out to lead to social stagnation and decay(*), the knightly order (which came to cover more of Europe than the Roman Empire) led to dynamism and growth, rivalled only by the samurai order of Japan. But Japan shared with Europe competitive political pluralism in a geography which militated against political centralisation, an agriculture which encouraged self/family/village-reliance, experienced sufficient institutional stability to permit long-term social learning and sufficient cultural commonality to intensify ‘bidding’ competition for skills, capital and ideas.

In both Europe and Japan, local rulers faced competition for moderately mobile capital and skills. This tended to drive rulers towards lower levels of predation and higher levels of public good provision, in slow-motion ‘auctions’ for capital, talent and labour.

Having an elite who were genuine landlords, with recognised property rights (which became extended to their tenants), so had incentives to invest and husband resources (human or otherwise), was far more stably economically productive than, as in the rest of Eurasia, having elites who tax-farmers – at best decayed into insecure landlords ruling insecure tenants – seeking maximum returns over minimum time-scales with minimal incentives to invest or husband resources.

Or, to put it another way, the vast majority of human states have been primarily structures of social predation. Domestic predation providing the bulk of the returns and public goods (law, order, defence, roads, etc.) being provided to the extent needed to extract higher returns. In both Europe and Japan, structures evolved which limited domestic predation while increasing the extent and quality of provision of public goods. In the rest of Eurasia, anytime society seemed to be evolving in such a direction, some bunch of nomads would rage through and level institutions back to insecurity-through-predation.
The first stage of evolution towards secure property rights was lowered central control, which increased vulnerability to external conquest. It is probably no accident that the areas that displayed the strongest evolution towards the Western model of strong property rights and representative government had significant geographical barriers to external conquest (Switzerland, Netherlands, Scandinavia, British Isles). Spain, which also has such barriers, suffered from the curse of silver.

Of course, this is an understanding of the state based on history extending beyond Western experience. An example illustrates the insecurity effect. British rule in Ireland led to insecure landlords and insecure tenants, creating “Asiatic” poverty – C18th and C19th Ireland was notoriously the poorest region in Europe – culminating in a very “Asiatic” (potato) famine. The Irish reputation for fecklessness is part of a much wider pattern: insecure servile labor, insecure tenants, indigenous people under ‘protective’ regimes, all acquire reputations for fecklessness – all manifesting the (dis)incentive effect of insecurity on effort. Collectivised peasants, welfarised indigenous peoples, socialist workers and government employees acquire similar reputations, due to the separation of return from effort. (Slaves suffer both insecurity and no returns, which is why they are competitive only in circumstances of tight control, typically rote production where control is easiest. Despite comforting analytical myths to the contrary, however, slavery can be quite competitive in such situations.)

During the late C18th and C19th—living in the least domestically predatory and highest provider-of-public-goods states in human history—the idea arose among the Western intelligentsia that the state was naturally a vehicle of human liberation, so that the more it did, the better: a delusion flatly contradicted by millennia of human experience. But what was mere human experience against their splendid theories, their secular gnosis, their liberating knowledge? Even worse, they came to focus their analytical animus on precisely those institutions that most limited state predation (particularly secure property rights). Serious prosecution of this delusion created the most megacidally internally predatory states in human history. That the first of said states – the Soviet Union – revived state slavery through its labour camp system (and, indeed, a form of serfdom) was the pinnacle of grim irony. That a state based on rejection of ‘exploitation’ proceeded to become, under Stalin, the most ruthlessly efficient extractor of surplus from its population in human history was an even greater one.

‘Exploitation’ being, of course, the dreadful danger someone may be making a profit. Which is not the way the intelligentsia typically makes its money – if private profit was how most of the Western intelligentsia received its income, we’d never hear the end of what a wonderful thing it is. After all, when the intelligentsia (and their audience) was dominated by people deriving income from their own property, or from the patronage of property-owners, the virtues of private property was all the rage. As intelligentsia (and their audience) became dominated by those paid like other employees, property became wicked. The more paid for by taxes the intelligentsia (and their audience) became, the more inherently wonderful state action became. (And, yes, there are obvious exceptions in other directions; it is the overall tendency that is significant.)

This delusion of state-as-natural-vehicle-of-human-liberation had clear appeal in places where the notion of the state being something other than primarily a vehicle of social predation was something of a revelation. It also seemed a simple path to modernity. This, alas, turned out not to be true.

Meanwhile, those societies that, eventually, decided to do (broadly) what the West had already done, surprise, surprise, proceeded to catch up with the West. Those who took the oh-so-cutting-edge advice to do something completely different from what the West had done, did not (to put it mildly). Some of the latter, such as China and Vietnam, have since switched back to adapting Western experience, thereby showing a capacity for social learning. History can teach us things, but only if we look at it sufficiently broadly.

* The ‘deal’ of citizenship traded political and civil rights for military responsibilities. When the Roman Imperium became effectively a universal state, the trade-off was no longer required. So the Roman state decayed towards the normal pattern of domestic predation, with the typical long-run consequences of that (declining efficiency due to diversion of resources to a growing layer of corrupt officials, culminating in takeover by warrior-pastoralists).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Undoing of Thought

If one is puzzled by “progressive” Western opinion’s nonchalance in the face of fascism with an Islamic face, with how racist its anti-racism so often seems to be, with its apparent indifference to the plight of Muslim women or Muslim gays, then read Alain Finkielkraut’s The Undoing of Thought and all is revealed.

Finkielkraut takes us through the intellectual history, and its underlying logic, whereby Enlightenment universalism became transmuted into its opposite.

In Part One—The Roots of the Human Mind—Finkielkraut starts, much like Benda (to whom the book is part homage and part continuation and updating), with Herder and de Maistre. A combination of German Romantics and French Theocrats who, by appealing to unconscious affinities against Enlightenment rationalism, were involuntary innovators who founded the human sciences (p.28).

Well except for, one notes, economics: but, like Benda, intellectual debate for Finkielkraut is a Franco-German affair. Apart from Franz Fanon and de Maistre—who both wrote in French—all the thinkers he cites are French or German. The Anglosphere—apart from, as with Benda, Shakespeare—is an intellectual no-go area.

Yet it is perverse to discuss modernity, even in terms of history of ideas, so utterly unconcerned with the Anglosphere. The Anglosphere creates modernity. Key Franco-German thinkers (such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Marx) are clearly reacting to—and deeply influenced by—their experience and understanding of the Anglosphere. The French Revolution itself—the archetypal “modern” political upheaval—is, in all sorts of ways, a consequence of, and reaction to, the American Revolution. (Even though, in crucial respects, both Revolutionaries and Counter-Revolutionaries fail to understand it—a continuing theme in European intellectual history.) The Continentals are so often much more parochial than they realise.

Like Benda, Finkielkraut sees the Alsace-Lorraine dispute as crucial in its influence on intellectual debate. In particular, by reawakening the debate between nation-as-contract and nation-as-spirit (p.30), which Finkielkraut regards as a crucial dichotomy.
He discusses the case of Goethe who, on reading a Chinese novel, was struck by how accessible the characters and their motivations were. Thereby completing his journey away from his earlier German Romanticism to seeing ideas and language as providing a more universal bridge across cultures (pp35ff). The artist (or thinker) may be born in a culture, but what they do should is to aspire to transcend it. Goethe had rejected Herder.

But, in German intellectual circles, Herder won. The acquisition of Alsace-Lorraine by the Gernan Reich helped make the cult of origins a patriotic duty. Nation-as-spirit won over nation-as-contract. With the later, brutal consequences that, as Finkielkraut notes, Benda predicted (p.46).

Part Two—Generous Betrayal—is about the intellectual reaction to the horrors of the Second World War and colonialism. Finkielkraut starts with the setting up of UNESCO which seemed to be motivated by the universalism of the philosophes. But this soon became very much not so. The reaction against the most brutal particularism of all was not a re-invigorating of universalism but an even more intense worship of particularism. The Second Death of Man (p.59) done in the name of A Dewesternized World (p.53). What began as a critique of fanaticism became a critique of Enlightenment thinking.

Finkielkraut takes a statement by Claude Levi-Strauss commissioned by UNESCO in 1951 to be a sign of the shift (pp55ff). The universalism of the Enlightenment was criticised as an instrument of imperialism, and thus oppression. It was, Levi-Strauss said, ethnocentric. The war against barbarism became a war against the concept of barbarian. With anthropologists leading the way:
Once [anthropologists] had flattered Europe’s vanity. They set about henceforth to nourish its guilty conscience. Savagery, barbarism and primitive man: these were just so many hateful and condescending stereotypes whose intellectual validity anthropology had undermined (p57)
The war against ethnocentrism pervaded the human sciences (again, economics is ignored). The discipline of History broke the notion of historical continuity, telling us not to see ourselves in the past (pp59ff), which became another country. Sociologists stressed the pluralism of our fleeting culture (pp60ff).

Finkielkraut lists the ways this new perspective meant agreeing with Herder. With a major divergence:
Herder had spoken above all for his own people; the philosophers of decolonisation speak for the Other. Compounding, as it were, for the sins of their own tradition … (p.65)
But mirroring the logic still replicates the logic. So we have, in A portrait of the Decolonised World the result that:
There has been no place for such a collective subject in the logic of colonialism; now, in the logic of cultural identity, there was no room for the individual (p.68).
With monotonous regularity these liberation movements have thrown up repressive regimes. This is because they have based themselves on the mystical notion of collective fusion rather than on the juridical conception of contract. They have drawn on political romanticism and conceived liberty as a collective attribute rather than as individual possession (p.70).
Now, one can well argue that ideas do not have such overwhelming causal primacy. But they can aid or resist trends.
Of the two European versions of what a nation is, the Third World has massively opted for the worse one, and done so with the active blessing of Western intellectuals (p.73).
... for culture as task … they substitute culture as origin (p.79)
part of
the great transformation of culture into cultural identity (p.81).
Finkielkraut considers the mixed role of Marxism in all this. Marx deplored nationalism but also denied any notion of social contract, insisting the key feature of society was conflict (p.71). Leninism (particularly under Stalin) resurrected national identity. But in Marxist terms—of something determined by the underlying processes of life, not something that was in anyway chosen. Having undermined the notion of nation-as-contract, Communism's death took with it the notion of a world common to all (pp 72-73). Which leaves nation-as-spirit free reign.

And so the strange convolutions of “anti-racism”.
The word racism, in fact, is deceptive. It brackets under the same label two sorts of outlook whose genesis, logic and motivation are completely dissimilar … The former holds that civilisation is unitary: the latter maintains that there are multiple ethnicities that cannot be compared. It may be true that the first outlook leads to colonialism; but the second culminates in Hitler (p.75).
With the substitution of the cultural for the biological conception of the collectivity, racism has not been abolished: it has simply returned to its starting point (p.77).
the annihilation of the individual is called “liberty”; and the word “culture” serves as a humanist standard for the division of the human race into collective, inaccessible and irreducible entities (p.83).
Where Benda was more inclined to see material interest and status-seeking, Finkielkraut is more concerned with the logic of ideas and more intellectual motives. But they are not incompatible perspectives—patterns of ideas, for whatever reason they are adopted, do have inherent logics to them. Finkielkraut discusses the effect on education and notes the irony in Claude Levi-Strauss, having helped set the trend off, then causing offence in a later lecture (to UNESCO in 1971) because he fails to shift his ground (p.78). For:
The more the anti-racism of today resembles the racism of yesterday, the more the word “race” itself become sacrilegious (p.81).
Either way, the pattern of modern intellectuals displaying their moral and intellectual superiority by proclaiming their critical distance from their own culture, and then displaying their moral and intellectual superiority by extolling other people’s attachment to their cultures, is certainly dissected in highly informative way. Since the universal really is inherent in serious intellectual activity, but universalism itself is denied, one gets this Janus-like shifting of ground whereby one's own culture is critiqued in the name of universal principles but other cultures are endorsed in the name of the denial of universalism. Particularism as a universal principle. So criticising Muslims is Islamophobia while criticising Christians is just what sensible folk do.

Despite having been written in 1988, Finkielkraut’s essay is greatly illuminating about the apparent blindness of so many intellectuals in the West to fascism with an Islamic face. Particularly the puzzle of why, among progressivists, derivatives of Hitler’s ideas (studiously repackaged—such as shifting from the Jewish people being the world’s most problematic folk to the Jewish state being the world’s most problematic state) seem to have more sway than derivatives of Lenin’s. Such as insisting on the primacy of identity and culture; romanticising nature; particularising science—contemporary “anti-capitalism”, is much more like Hitler’s than Lenin’s. Indeed, Lenin’s ideas mainly still have influence where his and Hitler’s overlap—such as the notion of a vanguard, the most obvious area where Lenin’s ideas still have influence (and, indeed, greatly influenced Hitler), or contempt for Christianity. But Hitler understood modernity a lot better than Lenin did, since he had to grapple with it much more complexly.

Part Three—Towards a Multi-Cultural Society—extends the critique to multiculturalism. Finkielkraut’s headings summarise his argument rather well: The Disappearance of the Dreyfusards (p.90)—i.e. those who decried xenophobic particularism in favour of chosen allegiance and individual dignity—A Pedagogy of Relativism (p.93), Culture in Pieces (p.99), The Right to Servitude (p.102).

Part Four—We are the World. We are the Children—extends the critique to postmodernism. The thesis, as his first heading says, that A Pair of Boots is a Good as Shakespeare (p.111). Where multiculturalists are about cultural fixity, the postmodernists are about cultural fluidity: a mix-and-match consumerist cosmopolitanism. But with no sense of anything universal, we are left with His Majesty the Consumer (p.118) and “A Society Which Has Finally Become Adolescent” (p.123), one engaged in the worship of youth (pp 125ff). Finkielkraut quotes Fellini:
Only a collective delirium could have led us to regard fifteen-year olds as embodying all the master virtues (p.128).
But if the past has no authority, why not worship the ignorant energy of youth?

Surely Finkielkraut is correct to note that those who decry consumerism have been most avid in undermining the supports for any genuine alternative. Ever since it arose out of the wreckage of Classical civilisation, the intellectual and cultural basis of Western civilisation has been structured around a shifting oscillation between Christianity and the Classical heritage. If both are rejected, what remains? A shifting parade of meretricious moralism, constantly repackaging itself as “cutting edge compassion”, the better to preside over status-seeking self-interest. A shallow intellectual consumerism that replicates and encourages what it professes to despise and has no serious sense of its own origins.

(There is certainly not any concept of Truth to appeal to: that is outmoded and oppressive.)

The final part is a single paragraph, entitled The Zombie and the Fanatic (p.133). The Fanatic being the person locked into their own culture under theories that refuse
access, under pain of high treason, to doubt, irony or reason—that is to say everything which would help him break free of the collective matrix.
The Zombie being the person who is also bereft of access to higher aspirations, but enjoys a leisure industry that reduces culture to the production of entertainment.

Intellectual activity giving way to a terrible and mocking encounter between those who refuse see their own culture and civilisation as having any claims, nor accept any universalism that might be appealed to, and those who insist on the primacy of their religious prescriptions sanctified as “culture”: a nice summary of Europe’s current predicament, written almost 20 years ago.

The Undoing of Thought is an essay that does give one most furiously to think.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Iron Cage

Part of the problem of reading histories of the contemporary Middle East, and particularly of Israel and Palestine, is that one has to know the history in order to read the history. The questions inspire such passion, and involve such complexities, that it is very difficult indeed to find genuinely accurate histories. And dangerous to rely on any without enough background knowledge to assess what they are leaving out.

But read enough different histories and a more complete picture begins to emerge. Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage: That Palestinian Struggle for Statehood is an intelligent and literate Palestinian history. It has some fairly dramatic flaws, but it certainly expands one’s understanding of the history of the Palestinians. And how Western support for the representative principle in the Middle East has always been subordinate to strategic considerations.

Khalidi is writing against Abba Eban’s classic bon mot that
the Palestinians never miss a chance to miss a chance
arguing strongly that the Palestinians were greatly constrained and disadvantaged by external constraints and internal fissures. Starting with the British refusal to institute any sort of elective politics in Palestine. He succeeds in making one much more aware of the constraints Palestinians were operating under.

On the other hand, he also argues strongly that the Palestinian cause has persistently suffered from poor leadership, particularly compared to their Zionist opponents. Indeed, he is often highly perceptive about the failures of Palestinian leadership and the reasons therefore. This does, however, rather end up suggesting that Eban’s bon mot has more force in it than Khalidi is prepared to explicitly acknowledge.
While Khalidi is very aware of the power of the post-Holocaust anti-anti-Semitism “narrative” in working in Israel’s favour in the West, is quite blunt that any solution is going to have to take into serious account the concerns and fears of Israelis and clearly admires the energy and efficiency of Zionist leadership, Khalidi still ends up being somewhat patchy in his analysis of Jewish-Arab interactions in Palestine. For example, Khalidi notes that Palestinian society under the British Mandate was more economically developed than in Syria or Egypt. He notes the huge influx of capital and skill the Jewish settlers brought with them. No connection is made between the two facts.

His points often are often less convincing than they might be because he leaves out aspects of the context. For example, even if the British had been full bore on the representative principle, why would it have had different outcomes in Arab Palestine than it did in the rest of the Arab world? He notes that Palestine and Lebanon are the only two Arab countries that have experienced a peaceful change of government via elections. Which begs the question of why?

He sees the crucial advantages of the Zionist movement being well-organised international support—it was originally a manifestation of Western society and well-connected within it, unlike the Palestinians. A much greater level of skills and resources—Zionism was very much a manifestation of modernity, again unlike Palestinian society. With a clear focus—a Jewish state that was a secular democracy. Again, the appropriate political form was never a settled issue in Palestinian politics (and still isn’t). This allowed the Zionist cause to triumph, despite being outnumbered within Mandatory Palestine prior to 1947.

Khalidi’s history cuts in and out. He is very informative on matters up to 1935 (leaving aside issues such as his very bland presentation of the various anti-Jewish riots). For events from about 1935 onwards until the 1980s, The Iron Cage is not really a history, because too much is left out. The Arab Revolt happens, but how and why is not explained. Its consequences are dealt with. Khalidi is very careful to delineate how partial Arab military support against the Zionist cause was in 1947-48.

After the catastrophe of 1947-48 until the 1980s, what we get is thematic observations. So, for example, yes, the notable class was (largely) eclipsed, but not as completely as suggested. Not least given Yassir Arafat himself, whose origins are not dealt with at all and whose rise to prominence is dealt with extraordinarily perfunctory.

Khalidi is very perspicacious about the consequences for the PLO of its expulsion from Lebanon in 1982 and the isolation and aging of its leadership in Tunis. He notes that terrorism as a tactic has great moral and political costs for the Palestinian cause. Though he fails to connect that explicitly with the degree of support that the US provides Israel. He notes how Bush II’s administration, despite Bush’s explicit support for a Palestinian state (the first US President to do so) has, conversely, been the most pro-Israeli US Administration. Yet that level of support was surely precisely because of the Bush Administration’s conception of the War on Terror.

He argues that the PLO explicitly accepted Israel’s existence from the late 1980s onwards, though he notes that there was sufficient ambiguity—not least in the persistence of terror attacks on Israel—to give those sceptical about such acceptance things to point to. Khalidi argues that the continuation of Jewish settlements on the West Bank is, in fact, making a two-state solution less and less viable. But he doesn’t draw the connection that the presentation of such settlements as a defensive measure gains power, particularly within Israel, precisely because of the continuing terror attacks on Israel. Nor does he distinguish between the creation of a Jewish Jerusalem and other settlements.

He sees Western hostility to the Hamas government as an attempt to destroy Palestinian democracy. A deeply implausible claim, since the financial boycott has support even from the EU—not normally a source of pro-Israeli policy—and is entirely predicated on Hamas accepting Israel’s existence.

He claims that Barak’s offer at Camp David during the waning months of the Clinton Adminisration was a “take it or leave it” one, yet makes no comment about Arafat’s failure to make any sort of counter-offer. A failure that lead to the complete collapse across the US political spectrum of any interest in dealing with Arafat and gave the claims of Sharon and Olmert that they had “no one to negotiate with” plausibility. (Claims that the election of the Hamas government gave new life to.) Though Khalidi does admit that Arafat’s political style worked very well in Arab politics, but badly in a Western context.

Even though Khalidi is often dramatically selective, he can also take Israeli perspectives and concerns seriously. That the huge wave of Jewish refugees to Israel meant that fewer and fewer Israelis had any memory of events before 1948 strikes me as a telling point. Of course, there is still the interesting question of why Jews fled Arab lands in such astonishing numbers.

I would certainly recommend that anyone interested in understanding the Israel-Palestinian dispute read The Iron Cage. And Khalidi’s argument that a two-state solution is becoming increasingly less viable due to Israeli policy, yet there is a dramatic lack of serious thinking about the alternative, makes for sombre reading. But it is also very much a book to read critically: it is only partially a history and is a partial history.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Welfarism as a substitute for imperialism

(This is an expansion of a comment I made here.)

That imperialism and capitalism have no particular connection to each other is perfectly obvious from history. The Soviet Union was an imperial state, as was Mao's China.

What capitalism—a system where the means of production are substantially exchangeable in markets—did do is make imperialism easier. Capitalism is very good at producing capital, the produced means of production. The more resources—particularly, the greater the organizational capacity—a society (and more particularly the state) has at its disposal, the easier various forms of public policy become. What is striking about Western imperialism is both its extent—controlling most of the globe at its height—and its comparative ease. Western states conquered most of the globe even though their armed forces were mostly kept at home facing off other Western states. They could do so because their effective organizational capacity—the technology they could use, the control they could exercise, the resources they could deploy—was greater than the peoples they dealt with, even without disease advantages.

Even more to the point, imperialism is simply what rulership typically does if it can. From the earliest days, when rulership developed, it would seek to increase its control of peasants, trade nodes and trade routes to increase its power and wealth. The notion that there is a "proper" territorial limit to states—beyond just their capacity to control territory—is something of a modern invention.

What we lack is much sense that there is a proper internal limit to the ambit of state action. Welfarism is, in a sense, internal colonialism. Indeed, the sort of people who built careers in imperial administration and spruiked for imperialism are not so very different from those who build careers in welfare bureaucracies and spruik for expanding public social welfare programs. And foreign aid programs.
The period when "de-colonisation" began was also the period of the Marshall Plan, of LSE socialism in the UK which fed into, for example, India’s permit raj. As de-colonisation marched along, it did in conjunction with the postwar expansion of welfare states. It is hardly surprising a very state-led notion of development became dominant. After all, a very state-led notion of the way to social improvement was dominant in domestic public policy too.

So, as Western states abandoned the notion of imperial expansion, or even imperial control [imperialism have been particularly discredited when Europeans themselves experienced the Nazi version of it], and retreated back to their “proper” territorial boundaries, they expanded their ambit within their own societies. The former imperial states became welfare states colonizing their own societies.

The notion of welfarism as internal colonialism may seem confronting, even offensive. (Though, perhaps, less so to those who have read some of Theodore Dalrymple’s jeremiads.) So, let me give an example where the pattern of internal colonialism is patent.

In Richard Trudgen’s Why Warriors Lie Down and Die—which should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in indigenous policy—there is the illustrative tale of the Galiwin ’ku fishing industry in the Northern Territory of my own country.
The Galiwin ’ku fishing industry consisted of several small fishing boats made from local timbers at Galiwin ’ku by the Yolηnu and mission staff. The Yolηu named these boats with holy names from their clain or riηgitj nation alliance. The boats were owned by the mission but were skippered and crewed by different clans. Some small clans would come together in a riηgitj alliance to make up a crew. …

These clan groups would use the boats and sell their catch to the mission for processing and re-sale to other places. The people clearly understood that what they caught was theirs until they sold it to the mission and they benefited directly from their catch. From the point of sale on, it belonged to the mission. This arrangement satisfied the legal requirements of both the Yolηnu and Balanda systems of law.

When the mission at Galiwin ’ku handed the fishing industry over to the Yolηnu council in 1974, everything proceeded well for a while because the mission staff also transferred to the council. For most Yolηu nothing really changed. Then in 1975 it was decided to get a loan from the government to develop the industry. The Aboriginal Development Comission ‘decided’ to bring in a consultant to look at the viability of the loan and how it could increase the efficiency of the industry. Following the consultant’s recommendation, one big, modern fishing trawler replaced the small boats. In the dead of night, the small boats were burned on the beach and one was cut adrift, to ‘convince Yolηu of the need to move up to the big boat’. Within six months the whole fishing enterprise at Galiwin ’ku had collapsed and Galiwin ’ku became an importer rather than exporter of fish products.

… from a Yolηu perspective the collapse happened because the separate clans and nation alliances found it impossible to work under one Balanda boss on the trawler, as the trawler captain now had to be licensed. Moreover, Yolηu were insulted and grieving over the destroyed boats. With no clear lines of ownership the people could not see that any authority had passed to them.

To expect all the clans at Galiwin ’ku to believe they collectively owned the fishing company was like telling twenty-six Balanda companies that they collectively owned an industry incorporated as an association. … But this is not how community structures were set up. … The Yolηu fisherman did not see themselves as working for their own gain anymore; in fact, many now thought that the captain of the new trawler would reap the dividends. They had just become wage earners, and the incentive to work and build the industry for their own benefit was gone.

On top of all this, people had become confused about where these wages came from. In the past they saw a clear trade with the mission—so much fish for so much money. This trade was what the Yolηu were used to. Now they got wages no matter how many fish were caught. The steps in the development of a cash economy, with its system of wages-for-labour, are many. The Yolηnu were catapulted into the cash economy with little preparation.

With all this confusion, only conflict could occur, and economic development through industries like fishing was lost. (pp47-8)
By any measure, that is “development” colonialism at its worse, and it was done by the government of a very successful liberal democracy to its own citizens. (As it continues to do.)

Limits to the effective internal ambit of state action exist: if we learn nothing else from the history of the Soviet Union and the failure of Leninism, we should learn that. But, just as in the heyday of imperialism those who attacked imperialism as fundamentally wrongheaded were often a despised minority, so it is today that those who cast doubt on the effectiveness and appropriateness of welfarism are dismissed as wrongheaded. The notion of wise and beneficent officials bringing benefits to the needy and benighted is a beguiling one. What, after all, is foreign aid but welfarism for foreigners (with much worse accountability than the domestic variety: hence its appalling record of failure).

Welfarism has had some apparent success in reducing aged poverty: success elsewhere has been less notable. Almost 130 years of welfarism in Germany, for example, has failed to eradicate poverty. (Via norm, who categorises the issue as a failure of capitalism, a common outlook that insulates "good intentions" welfarism from effective accountability [since without acknowledgment of the possibility of failure there can be no accountability].) One notable study found reasonable evidence that increased public spending up to 1960 (which was mainly on various forms of infrastructure) seemed to be associated with improved socio-economic outcomes: spending since 1960 (which has increasingly of a transfer variety) has been much less clearly beneficial.

One can also wonder about the other effects of welfarism. For example, murder rates in England have been declining for about seven or so centuries. Since the 1950s, they have about doubled (pdf). As the British state has expanded its ambit of operation, its performance in a basic public good (protection from crime) has clearly deteriorated. Doing more and more is not conducive to maintaining levels of accountability in any particular area. That is without considering whether policies are working at cross-purposes, something more likely to occur the wider the ambit of state action.

Not that critics of (domestic) welfarism have had no sway at all. Welfare reform in the US could not have happened unless critical voices had some persuasive effect. But the US is unusual among developed democracies in the openness of its policy debates, the extent to which domestic policy is subject to public pressure and the richness of its social analysis research. Moreover, such reform was mainly concentrated in areas where most citizens did not feel themselves to be actual or potential beneficiaries.

Rulership tends to expand its ambit until it meets some constraint. If people believe the state has unlimited capacity to “do good”, then there is no limit to its proper ambit of action. It is only a sense of limits to state action—either moral limits or capacity limits—combined with the willingness and capacity to enforce such limits, which can stop rulership doing what comes naturally to it: expanding. The welfare state is a manifestation of that principle. Democracy does not stop that principle operating. On the contrary, by identifying state action with the popular will it undermines the legitimacy of limiting state action. Though the notion that democratic accountability is both so complete, and so elastic, that it can function with equal facility no matter how large the ambit of state action gets, hardly bears much in the way of serious consideration.

Someone once said that history does not repeat, but it does rhyme. That the age of Western imperialism was followed by the age of Western welfarism (both domestic and foreign) is not as much of a change in underlying dynamics as people might think.

ADDENDA Additions in [square brackets].