Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/28 February 2009 12:37/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too".
AUTHOR: James K. Galbraith
PUBLISHED: August 2008, hard cover, pp 221, £16.99


Neoliberalism and neoconservatism are central concepts in left-of-centre explanations of what has happened in history since World War II. The story runs roughly like this: Franklin D Roosevelt and his New Deal saved capitalism from itself and inaugurated a period of social democratic consensus that lasted from 1945 until the early 1970s, when two oil price crises and the resulting inflation destabilised social democratic/liberal governments throughout the Western world. This opened a door for neoconservative parties advocating neoliberal economic policies to achieve power, lead in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan a year later in the USA. They proceeded to dismantle the New Deal institutions, with the result of increasing economic inequality and reducing welfare provision.

James K Galbraith challenges the simplicity of this story, claiming that the forces responsible for increased inequality over the last 30 years are conservative neither in name nor in policy, and that far from dismantling the institutions of the New Deal they have rather hijacked them and turned them into the instruments by which a corrupt elite has "asset stripped" the state and the economy. Galbraith is Professor of Government-Business Relations at the University of Texas, and the son of J.K.Galbraith, famous exponent of Keynesian economics. James Galbraith is perhaps better described as a post-Keynesian populist or a Scandinavian-style social democrat, who adheres to some central Keynesian doctrines like regulation and welfare spending but takes a political position more radical than such a description would suggest. He recommends policies more vigorous than anything New Labour or the US Democratic party has dared to propose - high, state-enforced minimum wages, economic planning, universal trade unionism and a strong welfare state. He appears to be immune to the free market virus.

"The Predator State" is organised into three parts. The six chapters composing Part One, "Another God That Failed", demonstrate that the wing of the US Republican Party that calls itself conservative is nothing of the sort. It preached an end to state intervention while growing the state to wage foreign wars, and paying for it by ever-increasing budget deficits. The intellectual and electoral collapse of US social democracy ("liberalism" in US terms) during the 1970s enabled conservatives to camouflage their real policies behind a smoke-screen of free market rhetoric which brow-beaten liberals are still barely able to contest today, as witnessed by Obama's tussle over his stimulus package. Galbraith persuasively reveals the emptiness of the Right's triple rhetorics of Free Market, Free Trade and Budget Balance: "From the early 1970s onward, one [ie. a nation] did not trade in order to pay one's bills; one espoused the doctrine of free trade in order to draw credits that would make it unnecessary, in the short or medium term, to pay one's bills."

In the four chapters that make up Part Two, "The Simple Economics of Predator and Prey" Galbraith dismantles the trickle-down theory with which "conservatives" opposed income redistribution and justified rising inequality. Inequality is Galbraith's specialist subject (he directs a research group on it at Texas U) and he analyses the example of Denmark to demonstrate the fallacy of Hayekian arguments that egalitarianism automatically leads to impoverishment. He contends that the Democrats under Clinton oversaw the biggest increase in inequality, by stimulating an IT-based bubble that ended with the crash of 2000, and he shows that the USA was never during this period a free-market economy, but an advanced postindustrial economy with a public sector responsible for well over half of economic activity (and with its manufacturing outsourced to China and Korea).

Chapter 10, "The Rise of the Predator State" is the one I found most illuminating. Galbraith's title is not mere hyperbole, and has nothing to do with Hollywood horror movies. Predation is a technical term employed by Thorstein Veblen, the Norwegian/American economist mostly remembered for his 1899 book "The Theory of The Leisure Class". It refers to a great division Veblen saw running through all human cultures, between those who take what they want (hunters, aristocrats, rentiers, robbers, gamblers, financiers) and those who have to work (everyone else). Paradoxically it may be Galbraith's reading of Veblen that makes him more radical than the Repentant Marxists of New Labour, because he's unencumbered by residual dogmas about class struggle and historically inevitable victory of the proletariat. It was Veblen before anyone else who saw that capitalism would adapt itself and defuse labour radicalism through consumption.

Galbraith's father, in "The New Industrial State", described a post-war capitalist world ruled by three big beasts - the big corporation, the big labour union and big government - which fought each other to a fairly peaceful compromise that lasted for 30 years. This interaction he called "countervailing power." Galbraith fils now describes how big labour disappeared (7% of Americans in the private sector belong to a union) and the big corporations were severely weakened by incompetence, international competition and a huge increase in the power of financiers. They became reduced to vehicles for the greed of a top management clique motivated solely by personal enrichment and ego fulfilment. Only big government still exists, but the power of lobbyists makes it no longer a countervailing power: instead it works for the executive clique that runs the surviving corporations (the likes of Dick Cheney). From such a perspective incidents like the Enron scandal, Hurricane Katrina, the subprime fiasco and many others fall into place. The Bush administration appeared incompetent in these affairs because promoting the idea of government incompetence is what it did, part of its camouflaging rhetoric. Not only did it not care to save New Orleans, but it taught the lesson that in future New Orleanses must look out for themselves.

In Galbraith's view: "Predation is the enemy of honest and independent and especially sustainable business, of businesses that simply want to sell to the public and make a decent living over the long run. In a world where the winners are all connected, it is not only the prey (who by and large carry little political weight) who lose out. It is everyone who has not licked the appropriate boots. Predatory regimes are, more or less exactly, like protection rackets: powerful and feared but neither loved nor respected. They cannot reward everyone, and therefore they do not enjoy a broad political base."

To general surprise the Republicans reaped the truth of this in the November 2008 presidential election, but it's too soon to know whether the Obama administration is prepared, or able, to go as far to stop the rot as Galbraith recommends in Part Three, "Dealing with Predators". Mindful of the wage and price controls his father administered during the war, he fearlessly calls for direct state intervention and planning in strategic areas of the economy: "You want higher wages. Raise them. You want more and better jobs. Create them. You want safer food, cleaner air, fewer carbon emissions. Pass laws and establish agencies to achieve this. Enforce the laws, staff the agencies, give them budgets and mandates... Politics may stand in the way, but economics does not. And there is nothing really to lose, except 'free-market' illusions." All to be paid for by extending the same budget deficits that conservatives railed against so stridently while practising behind their backs.

I can hear a chorus of tutting already, but the world economic crisis has deepened alarmingly since this book was written and policies that would have been dismissed as hopelessly discredited by 1970s experience (such is the penetration of Friedmanite dogma) no longer appear so unthinkably anachronistic. In fact they feel closer to current US government policy than at any time since the New Deal.


Dick Pountain/November 25, 2008/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years"
AUTHOR: Vaclav Smil
PUBLISHED: September 2008, hard cover, 320 pp, £19.95

“What is the likelihood that Islamic terrorism will develop into a massive, determined quest to destroy the West?” “What is the likelihood that a massive wave of global Islamic terrorism will accelerate the Western transition to non-fossil fuel energies?” Two questions, plucked from a late chapter, exemplify both the style and the substance of Vaclav Smil’s impressive and important review of the factors that will shape our global future over the next half century. Firstly there’s that word “likelihood”, which for Smil is a quantitative concept, something we must try to measure to the best of our ability while not kidding ourselves about how good our answers are. Secondly, the questions seek to relate two separate disciplines, politics and energy usage. Smil’s answer to both questions is that we don’t know and that our best guesses provide “at best some constraining guidelines but do not offer any reliable basis for relative comparisons of diverse events or their interrelations”.

Smil is not a proponent of any grand theory about how the world works, but neither is he a passive agnostic wallowing in history-as-a-torrent-of-accidents, nor yet just a smug empiricist. He believes we have a duty to extract all the information we can from past events using the methods of science (particularly statistics intelligently applied), and that even where we can’t know for sure we can often put a figure on the extent of our ignorance. But he’s acutely aware that risk assessments based only on figures fail to capture the psychological dimension: how unsafe we feel is as important politically as how unsafe we actually are. 
Global Catastrophes and Trends is a review and interpretation of nearly 800 recent papers in economics, demographics, environmental and political science, but Smil’s book goes well beyond mere collection or even distillation. Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba and himself an acclaimed expert on the energetics of complex systems (those ~800 papers include 15 of his own), largely succeeds in imposing on this mass of technical material a uniform and rational framework for thinking about risks and challenges. We are currently living through a period of doom and gloom in which we face not only a variety of real threats – economic recession, terrorism, climate change, political instability – but also a constant bombardment of sensationalized predictions from our attention- and sales-seeking mass media that make it very difficult to think straight about such threats. Smil is determined not to join this babble and so eschews forecasts and scenarios: you will find no predictions here that “X will happen by year Y” or that “trend X will peak in year Y”.

Instead Smil starts by drawing a basic distinction between fatal discontinuities, that is low-probability events that could “change everything” like a huge volcanic eruption or collision with an asteroid, and persistent, gradually unfolding trends that might have equally profound effects over the long term, like global warming. He establishes common units for assessing and comparing the probabilities of such threats and for quantifying the damage they would cause. Chapter 2 attempts to compute the probabilities of various fatal discontinuities, concluding that the least unlikely – and the ones we can do something about – remain nuclear war (accidental or deliberate) and virulent influenza pandemic. It is worth spending money on vaccines and antiviral drugs, and also on astronomical surveys of asteroid orbits, but otherwise resources are better spent to avert more gradual threats like global warming. Chapter 3 discusses gradual trends, which covers both the transition to an economy based on non-fossil fuels and the rise and decline of the most prominent nations over the next 50 years. He is skeptical about the prospects for alternative energy sources – on scientific grounds based on energy density which he explains with great clarity – and for carbon sequestration, concluding that our best hope of slowing global warming is to reduce overall energy consumption through more efficient usage and serious lifestyle changes. Smil’s approach to environmental degradation avoids moralizing and ideology, usefully pointing out that the carbon cycle is not the only one with whose operation we are interfering, and that the nitrogen cycle is even harder to mend.

His summary of the prospects of each competitor for global supremacy is equally devastating: Europe and Japan are doomed to runner-up status by ageing populations; Islam is too divided to achieve the New Caliphate despite high fertility; US power is already waning (here Smil preempts and confirms the recent National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2005) thanks to its decline of manufacturing relative to China and colossal trade deficit; China itself has insuperable environmental problems and lacks “soft power” thanks to language and restricted intellectual freedom. He expects a turbulent next 50 years without a single hegemonic power, and with many conflicts over resources and dominance.  

Smil writes prose that is mercifully jargon-free, though unavoidably rich in technical terms: he makes judicious use of well-chosen graphs, but I should warn non-mathematical readers that familiarity with logarithmic scales, in particular log/log graphs, will help in following some of his arguments. He quantifies risk starting from the central fact of human life, general mortality (we all die eventually) which he assigns a value of 10­-6 deaths/person-exposure-hour: in the West, one person in a million dies every hour on average. Other risks are compared to this baseline value on a log/log scale, which chillingly suggests that death in hospital from preventable medical error is a greater danger than smoking, terrorism or car crash, and that young black male citizens of Philadelphia actually reduce their chance of gunshot death by serving in Iraq rather than staying home. For me the book’s most significant omission is that Smil doesn’t quantify the risk of not living in the affluent West…

Any bookie will tell you that we’re pretty poor at estimating risk, but our behavior suggests we have an innate grasp of general mortality because we only accept risks within around one order of magnitude of it in everyday life – say when we travel by car (10­-7 d/peh) rather than safer train or plane (10-8), or smoke cigarettes (2x10-6, about the same as hang gliding). Only a handful of thrill-seeking extreme sport nuts will embrace a 10-2 risk like BASE Jumping for fun. However such figures only tell part of the story: psychological factors like Understanding, Exposure and Dread are equally important. A citizen of Baghdad faces the same statistical risk of death from bomb or kidnap that a New Yorker does from car crash, but risks we understand like car driving are better accepted than inexplicable acts of random violence; the Baghdadi is exposed 24 hours a day while the New Yorker only 1-2 hours; and the idea of being blown to bits is peculiarly horrible. Politicians pay more attention to this psychological dimension than to the underlying physical risks, leading to the paradox (also remarked in David Runciman’s recent book Good Intentions) that the more responsible the politician, the more rather than less likely they are to over-react to crises like terrorist attacks.

I found this book an enormously refreshing, if demanding, read. In place of the untestable scenarios presented by most “futurologists”, Smil offers hard facts where they are available and sensible cautions where they are not. He offers few concrete policy proposals but rather a rational method of assessment that ought to constrain and guide thinking about policy. Smil ends on this note: “There is so much we do not know, and pretending otherwise is not going to make our choices clearer or easier. None of us knows which threats and concerns will soon be forgotten and which will become tragic realities. That is why we repeatedly spend enormous resources in the pursuit of uncertain (even dubious) causes and are repeatedly unprepared for real threats and unexpected events”. I think Smil should probably be set as homework for every member of parliament, and there will be a test later…


Dick Pountain/12 March 2008/12:21/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "On Deep History and the Brain"
AUTHOR: Daniel Lord Smail
PUBLISHER: University of California Press
PUBLISHED: November 2007, hard cover, pp 286, £12.95

The title of Daniel Lord Smail's very readable little book, dangling from those two keywords "History" and "Brain", may not appear immediately relevant to readers of a political journal, and indeed the first two-thirds of the book in which Smail justifies the study of Deep History will be of interest mostly to historians or historically-minded politicians. However it's that remaining third, in which Smail applies some recent findings from neuroscience to the study of society, that may spark the imagination of political scientists. In a nutshell Smail suggests that the manipulation of brain chemistry is one of the crucial factors that determine the shape of human cultures. If that conjures up images of of test-tubes and hypodermics, think again: brain chemistry underlies all of our behaviour, from sex via economics to warfare, and you modify your own individual brain chemistry every time you smile or frown. Mass agents of brain chemistry modification include alcohol, religious ritual, pornography, sugar, tobacco, opium, theatre, political demagoguery and most importantly, terror. Karl Marx was more literally right than he knew when he labelled religion "the opiate of the masses".

So does that make Smail a chemical reductionist who wants to explain every cultural form or historical conflict in terms of brain chemistry? Very far from it. On the contrary he devotes a large part of chapter 4, "The New Neurohistory", to a detailed and nuanced rebuttal of reductionist versions of evolutionary psychology that are currently so fashionable, whereby a gene is sought to explain every aspect of human behaviour. Smail contends, following the philosopher David Buller, that the environment in which human intelligence has evolved is not that of raw nature at all, but mostly of human society: our minds have adapted to compete with other human minds, and among the tools we've learned to use in that competition are agents that modify brain chemistry.

But this is to skip too quickly to the conclusion. In his first three chapters Smail lays out a case for studying Deep History - more or less what used to be called Prehistory - despite the lack of written evidence. He argues that modern history, by making the invention of writing its starting point, must inevitably overlook some of the most formative factors. (Indeed, after that great 19th century opening-out of historical time by Lyell and Darwin, 20th century history has narrowed history's span again to start from the Renaissance). His solution to the absence of written evidence in Deep History is to bring to bear archeological, archeo-botanical and DNA evidence, interpreted in the light of recent breakthroughs in neuroscience given that basic human brain structure has changed little between the Paleolithic and the present.

Very crudely summarised this is the picture that emerges. In many types of animal society, from ants to wolves to bonobos to humans, the twin psychotropic mechanisms that Smail dubs "autotropy" and "teletropy" - the ability to modify the brain chemistry of oneself, and of other people - are important organising factors. Teletropic actions cause the release of hormones and neurotransmitters in their recipients, with the intention of altering their behaviour in ways beyond their voluntary control. For example dancing and other courting rituals stimulate dopamine and oxytocin release, increasing the chance of mating (or "pulling" as we now call it). Some religious services induce trance-like states, via altered serotonin or norepinephrine levels, that may lead to anything from spontaneous preaching to signing up as a suicide bomber. And all the way from baboon and chimpanzee hierarchies, through medieval robber barons, up to the Iraqi car bomber, terror is a proven way to subdue and subjugate its victims, due to the debilitating effect of corticosteroid stress hormones it releases.

 Smail further distinguishes between symbiotic and exploitative forms of psychotropy. Symbiotic modes involve people banding together in mutual interest to modify their collective mood, with or without the assistance of stimulant substances, as in a religious ceremony, a film or theatrical performance, a sporting event, even gossiping in a cafe. In exploitative modes, a gang boss, or a sergeant-major, or a school teacher, might frighten his subordinates to make them more pliant. Nevertheless the same religious service that could be seen by a believer as symbiotic (soothing the anxieties of the congregation) might to a Marxist look exploitative (inculcating false consciousness to mask the realities of economic and political oppression). As Smail puts it "One person's symbiosis, clearly, is another person's exploitation. The psychotropic approach itself is neutral with respect to these sorts of interpretations."

 Put otherwise, this is not a reductionist program but merely one level in a multilayered explanation that offers insights into the mechanisms that aggregate individual behaviour into mass political forces. In advancing it Smail joins a growing band of what I call the "New Materialists" who seek to include a material explanation of mind in their view of politics and economics, rather than attempting to exclude mind entirely as vulgar Marxists, behaviourists and free market economists so disastrously do. Perhaps Keynes was the founder, but later scholars as varied as Steven Jay Gould, Jared Diamond, Frans de Waal and Antonio Damasio have all contributed threads to this new fabric.

 As for its relevance to contemporary politics, just consider the most pressing political concerns of the New Labour years: we've been drafted into the US's War on Terror, but our own Home Secretaries continue to frighten us into obedience using everything from tanks at Heathrow to a ban on explosive face cream and baby bottles on aeroplanes. Social engineers beaver away to deprive us of autotrophic consolations, from alcohol binges to tobacco, cannabis and Ectasy. While all the time the advertising lads are working every bit as hard to addict us to electronic gadgets, fast cars, face-lifts and roll-on deodorants. Everywhere you turn they're trying to mess with your brain amines...


Dick Pountain/15 March 2007/09:39/Political Quarterly

TITLE: The Politics of Good Intentions: History, Fear and Hypocrisy in the New World Order.
AUTHOR: David Runciman
PUBLISHER: Princeton University Press
PUBLISHED: Jan 2006, hard cover, pp 216, £18.95

"Moralising, ruthless, self-serving, pious, visionary, partisan and thoroughly self-aware". Which British Prime Minister is David Runciman talking about? Both Tony Blair and Gladstone actually. In this excellent little book Runciman explores the notion of Blair as ethical politician, at least as concerned with his own rectitude as with the fate of party or country. Moreover he stresses that this is no personal quirk of Blair's but the product of a structural feature of modern politics. There are politicians cast from this same mould wherever you look, from George W Bush to Silvio Berlusconi. Runciman's argument takes off from a famous lecture Max Weber delivered in 1919 in Munich as the German state was collapsing all around him, concerning the role of conscience in politics. Weber set out a distinction between the irresponsible and responsible politician: the former operates solely on personal conviction, believing that only good can come from good and evil from evil; the latter knows that good intentions often produce bad effects but is prepared to take responsibility and suffer in silence when plans go wrong. Runciman, who clearly respects Blair's extraordinary political skills, does not merely lump him into either of these categories, but more subtly claims that he exemplifies both traits at once, and that this is no coincidence but the result of a deep duality within modern politics.

For Runciman the central problem of modern politics has always been how to hold the state together against the centrifugal forces of rising individualism. In earlier times the personality of the Prince provided the glue, but modern politics must be always split between the personal and the impersonal, the charisma of strong leaders and the dull, techno/administrative chores of actually running a complex state machine. Successful democratic politicians need to strike a delicate balance between these modes, neither tipping over into demagoguery nor allowing the voters become totally disengaged from bureaucratic policies. The ten chapters of this book (seven of which are expanded versions of articles originally published in the London Review of Books) trace the winding of this split through areas that include the Iraq War, the War on Terrorism and the role of risk in politics, while later chapters bring to bear the ideas of other thinkers from Hobbes and the Abbe Sieyes to Philip Bobbit and Robert Cooper on this state question.

One of his themes is the importance of risk analysis to contemporary politics. He demonstrates that, faced with the post-9/11 terrorist threat, such analysis is vital and needs to be objective but - as we saw so clearly in the run-up to Iraq - politicians never dare place its raw results before the public without a bit of cosmetic surgery as to do so might make them look either heartlessly calculating or, worse still, not in control of events. Runciman portrays Blair as a supreme master at operating within the confines of this double standard: normally risk averse, but when in serious difficulty preferring to stake everything on a single throw (an unusual, effective, but dangerous combination of character traits).

One of the manifestations of this personal/impersonal split is conflict between executive and legislature in time of crisis: between the initiative of politicians (personal) and rules laid down by judges (impersonal). Runciman's argument in the chapter 'Who Knows Best?' is both original and illuminating, devoting serious attention to James Surowiecki's 'Wisdom of Crowds' hypothesis and toying with the unorthodox 'terrorism futures market' proposed by DARPA, before returning to sober reflections about the details of the balance between executive discretion, public opinion and judicial review. Runciman concludes that our politicians don't cope well with the threat posed by modern terrorism because it forces them to deal with events with low frequencies but severe consequences. This inclines them to do too much, too often - surrounding Heathrow with tanks, confiscating babies' bottles - in order to escape blame when occasionally the bomber does get through. Another, more cynical, inclination is to exploit the atmosphere of public fear to sneak through things you couldn't get away with under normal conditions, like invading Iraq.

Runciman has a deft touch when weighing contemporary events like 9/11 and the Iraq War against earlier crises such as Disraeli's Abyssinian adventure, Suez and the rise of Nazism, never falling for the easy parallels favoured by more polemical critics. His chapter comparing present-day Iraq to the Weimar Republic identifies as many differences as similarities, a most significant one being that under Weimar reactionary nationalists and revolutionary internationalists fought each other, whereas in Iraq they've come together to fight the occupation.

Having dealt with history and fear, Runciman awards hypocrisy a final chapter to itself. The Coalition of the Willing employs shamelessly double standards when evaluating lives and regimes: in his words "The democracies of the West are to be protected against terrorism at all costs; yet no amount of terrorist activity in a country like Iraq can be set against the value of democracy there". This double standard lends an air of unreality to the war on terror that he describes in terms which veer close to Debord's concept of spectacle. The war on terror is to be prosecuted without conventional limits, for an indefinite time and can never be won because there will always be terrorists lurking. And yet at the same time is held out the vision of a world without terrorism, where universal freedom reigns.

An altogether refreshing analysis. Free from the rhetoric and ad hominem attacks most war critics indulge in, deeply serious about politics, clear-headed and cool- (but not cold) blooded, Runciman seeks to preserve politics itself from forces that threaten its ruin. Respecting the difficulties faced by contemporary politicians, he pulls off the tricky feat of chastising them without further undermining politics.


Dick Pountain/24 May 2006/10:55/Political Quarterly

TITLE: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
AUTHOR: Daniel C. Dennett
PUBLISHED: Feb 2006, hard cover, pp 448, £25.00

The current resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical religiosity in both the Christian and Muslim worlds is a source of great worry and puzzlement to secularists (present reviewer included) who had thought such beliefs on the wane in the face of a triumphant science. What's perhaps most surprising is how ineffective the leading style of Darwinist/Rationalist counter-argument - as for example expounded by Richard Dawkins, Francis Wheen, or the author considered here, Daniel Dennett - is proving against this new strain of belief. So feeble it is that a leading Intelligent Design proponent, William Dempski, recently thanked Dawkins as "one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement..." This debate is of more than academic interest, since a fierce ideological war currently rages between secularists and evangelicals for control of the US school curriculum.

That Homo sapiens is not a wholly rational animal has been known for several thousand years, by the pre-Socratics through Shakespeare and Nietzche up to Freud. If we were indeed rational animals then belief in God could only be an error, even an illness, that could be cured by scientific education, and it's hardly surprising that many people find this attitude at best patronising and at worst threatening. The fact is that US evangelicals may reject Darwinism but they still drive cars and use the Internet, while al Quaeda activists reject western secular culture but deploy heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. Neither has any trouble distinguishing the material from the spiritual worlds, but unfortunately our current cheerleaders for rationalism and secularism appear to have.

In 'Breaking the Spell' Daniel Dennett sets out to naturalise religion - that is, to explain why people feel a need to believe in a supernatural world in terms of evolutionary survival value. His explanations are tentative and complex, and never become so crass as to suggest that there is a simple 'God-gene'. He quotes much solid research and often describes experiments that need to be done, but haven't yet. The mechanisms he proposes operate at a more abstract level than any particular instance of religion. For example there's clear survival value in being fascinated by causes ('why did that rock land on my head') and therefore an impulse to invent causes where they're not yet known. The power of the Placebo Effect is only just now becoming understood by scientific medicine, but for thousands of years it was the only anaesthetic humans had, hence belief in healing shamans and spirits. The tendency to band together and conform to a common code of behaviour has enormous survival value, and far the most effective way to achieve it is to impose some supernatural Big Brother who watches us all. (Indeed, modern secular states still struggle against the nihilism that arises following his banishment).

Eventually we arrived at the stage of reasoned theology, which like science tries to explain the world, but in moral rather than material terms - how it ought to be, rather than how it is. The 20th century witnessed disastrous experiments in secular morality, all of which collapsed into perverted theisms (worshipping Stalin and Hitler, Mao and Kim Il Sung). Following World War II the advance of secular, science-based, social democratic cultures in the Western world looked as if it might finally relegate religious belief to a matter of private conscience, but more recently the moral perspective has been regaining the upper hand. That this turn is occurring alongside a revival of laisser faire capitalism and a global widening of economic inequalities is unlikely to be pure coincidence.  

Dennett broaches this subject through the device of distinguishing 'belief' from 'belief in belief'. The former actually imagines a grey-haired father figure in the sky watching over us, while the latter merely thinks that belief is a good idea because it makes people behave well (presumably agreeing with Pascal when he recommended that you "bend the knee" and faith would follow). However Dennett shrinks from following this line to its conclusion, namely that religion is often politics in disguise. Running through the history of Christianity (and probably Islam too) is a streak of millenarianism, a desire for class revenge, the notion that the rich might enjoy the privileges of this world but they would burn in hell in the next. US evangelicals rebel against the 1960s liberalism of the East and West Coast Media Elites, whose drug-taking, free love and abortion happen to coincide with a monopoly on the best-paid jobs; Islamic fundamentalists, despairing of justice for Palestine, invoke the Wrath of God only because the Wraths of Nasserism and Baathism proved corrupt and impotent. Dennett's patronising brand of rationalism can barely scratch the surface of such passions. 

'Breaking the Spell' is ultimately disappointing on several levels. Its Darwinian themes are too shallow to satisfy, and it's too often timid about upsetting the religious reader when it needs to be tough, but patronising where it ought to be sympathetic. It also suffers from certain infuriating tics: he coins the repulsively complacent term 'brights' to describe secular-minded people like himself (tempting me to convert to Wahabism), and deploys Dawkins metaphor of the 'meme' to explain the spread and evolution of religious ideas. I lack the space here to argue against the meme theory: suffice to say that in my opinion it confuses the mental and material realms in a way that no half-bright country vicar would dream of. Setting out from a view of religion as false consciousness, Dennett fails to capture those needs it fulfills that purely scientific accounts of the world leave unsatisfied. That wisest of naturalist philosophers, George Santayana, once said "Everything is a miracle, until we call it natural": if we secularists are to ever convince the religious, implying they're stupid is not a winning strategy.


Dick Pountain/31 January 2006/12:16/Political Quarterly/

TITLE: "Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War".
AUTHOR: RETORT collective (Ian Boal, T.J.Clark, Joseph Matthews, Michael Watts)
PUBLISHED: June 2005, paperback, pp 224 , £9.99

When Guy Debord published 'The Society of the Spectacle' in 1967 it was the most radical critique of modern consumer capitalism to date (and this in a decade marked by Sartre, Lefebvre and Marcuse). Debord's thesis, to brutally condense it, was that  the worlds of capitalism and Soviet communism were converging toward a single system in which advertising/propaganda were colonizing the very human imagination. An ahistorical world in which appearance dominates reality, whose inhabitants become spectators on their own lives, lived vicariously through worship of celebrity and self-definition via brandnames. His was not a conspiracy theory: although the spectacle serves the interest of owners/bureaucrats by absorbing dissent, they are as much mesmerised by it as everyone else. Debord's Situationist International had its brief moment of glory during the Paris events of 1968, but he dissolved it in 1972 on the grounds that it had itself become part of the spectacle. After publishing a darkly pessimistic footnote to 'The Society of the Spectacle', in 1994 he shot himself through the heart in his Auvergne farmhouse.  

'Afflicted Powers' by the RETORT collective of Berkeley, California, asks whether Debord's thesis is still capable of throwing light on our present post-9/11, post-Iraq conjuncture, and concludes that with some modifications it can. The authors are well qualified to answer, at least one of them having known the Situationists first hand, and despite modest disclaimers to the contrary, they recapture Debord's caustic, laconic and pithy tone with surprising success (a welcome contrast to the post-post-structuralist treacle of so much modern commentary). Describing the present state of the world as one governed by 'the contradictions of military neo-liberalism under conditions of spectacle', the book begins by posing three central questions:
1 To what extent did '9/11' usher in a new era?
2 Are we to understand US actions since 9/11 as an historical regression to naked force?
3 Do the concepts 'society of the spectacle' and 'colonization of everyday life' still have explanatory value, or are we now facing a cruder, older kind of statecraft?

The book does not claim to fully answer these questions, but merely to open them up to further debate, as a precondition for rebuilding any sort of coherent left opposition (the title 'Afflicted Powers' comes from Paradise Lost, used by Satan in recounting his failed rebellion). The book takes off from two striking (ie. spectacular) images, al-Qaida's devastating attack on the Twin Towers and the grotesquely hooded Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib prison. RETORT contends that al-Qaida fully understands that US military power is now based as much in spectacle as material firepower, so it committed an outrage that while itself confined within the spectacle (that is, which could achieve no conceivable political goal), still inflicted great damage on the spectacle of US power. RETORT most definitely does not sympathise with al-Qaida: on the contrary, in a well-argued chapter they explain how Revolutionary Islam outmanoeuvres its secular progressive rivals using a vile mixture of the worst aspects of Leninist/Guevarist vanguardism with anti-modern religious fundamentalism.  

Empires have always depended upon armed force, originally to conquer and plunder territory directly, then to protect trade routes and extort improved trade terms, and finally to support and enforce the rule of colonist elites. The classic Marxist theorists of imperialism, Lenin and Luxemburg, described a world divided between the capitalist and pre-capitalist, in which Great Powers fought each other for control. However 20th century nationalist revolts rendered this sort of empire no longer tenable, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union the entire world is - tiny pockets apart - now under capitalist production. Under these circumstances empire works differently: companies invest in subordinate countries and repatriate their profits; governments loan money to subordinate countries to develop export industries, and use the resulting debt as a lever of control. In an excellent chapter called 'Blood for Oil?' RETORT analyses this system in some detail as regards the Iraqi oil industry, contradicting those vulgar Marxist critics who claim that invasion was launched only to grab the oil fields. They describe a complex circulation of oil, construction services and arms sales between the US and Middle East, in which oil companies prefer to buy the oil (and being major producers themselves don't always seek the lowest, but rather the 'right' price).      

This new wholly capitalist empire cannot be directly ruled by a single imperial power, but is instead administered by a plethora of sovereign nation-states, each of which separately maintains the rule of law and property relations necessary for global capitalism to flourish. However a single hegemonic power has taken upon itself the policing of these nation states to prevent any of them going off the rails, turning rogue - and of course that power is the USA. When the rogue is a Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or Soviet aggressor in Europe, then liberals see this policing as a good thing, whereas when it overthrows democratically-elected left governments in Latin America it's a bad thing. There's a strong case though for seeing it as always the same thing, at least since WW2 and possibly since WW1, and regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans are in power. The US has built up the largest army in history for complex reasons (including crypto-Keynesian economic stimulation and plain pork-barrelling) but mostly to provide a show of irresistible force that will deter any other state from even attempting to rival it.

Hence I found the chapter on 'Permanent War' mostly persuasive: defence of the 'just war' is no longer necessary, and wars don't now even need a clear objective or exit strategy, but merely to project a convincing image of US invincibility. 9/11 punctured a blazing hole in that image, hence the hasty and deceptively-excused Iraq War. The term preferred by neocon military planners is the 'demonstration effect', aka Shock and Awe, and it operates as much on America's friends as on its enemies. For example the status quo in Korea suits US hawks rather well, permitting them to keep troops there to deter Japan from becoming a modernised military rival. An occasional firefight is required though to keep such lessons convincing.   

What I find wholly unconvincing is RETORT's characterisation of modern privatisation as a historical regression to Marx's 'primitive accumulation'. Certainly enclosures and forcible expropriations persist - in the Chinese countryside or the Brazilian rainforest for example - but Enron's plunder of its shareholders or Putin's crude re-theft of GazProm from the oligarchs took place under the rule of modern law. Rather than helping, this notion clashes with their argument that violence is becoming spectacular rather than appropriative in purpose. They're on stronger ground when describing the other contradictions at the heart of the US's imperial role: modern weapons, smart or not, are so extremely destructive that they lay waste the very infrastructure necessary for capitalism to flourish; and equally important, the US public, while still fired with nationalist fervour, has largely lost its taste for sacrificing its children and will not tolerate casualties for ever. Bush remembers well that the televised spectacle undid the US army in Vietnam and has taken good care to censor coverage of Iraq, but you can't hide all the body bags all the time.


Dick Pountain/Tue 23 November 2004/2:12 pm/Political Quarterly

TITLE: What's The Matter With America
AUTHOR: Thomas Frank
PUBLISHER: Secker & Warburg
PUBLISHED: May 2004, paperback, pp 306, £12.99

TITLE: Neoconservatism
EDITOR: Irwin Stelzer
PUBLISHED: October 2004, hardback, pp 328, £19.99

On US election night CNN's presenters seemed mesmerised by their animated map of the country, as it unfolded the picture of a solid red Republican heartland, barely wrapped to the east and west by a thin blue rind of rootless cosmopolitan Democrats. I was struck for the first time by the ironic way this colour symbolism reverses itself as you cross the Atlantic: in Europe red stands for Left and blue for Right. However after reading Thomas Frank's 'What's the Matter with America' I'm no longer so sure that this is irony at all. Frank makes a persuasive case that the Republicans have captured the votes of a majority of the American working-class by mobilising the very forces of populism that the Left used to exploit so successfully in the late 19th century and during the 1930's New Deal. (Incidentally, the US edition was called "What's The Matter With Kansas" and its content is entirely drawn from that state; the UK publishers substituted "America", which was commercially shrewd but risks overstretching the generality of Frank's argument).

Frank demonstrates how the Bush camp's clever blend of neoconservative and evangelical Christian rhetoric touches a raw nerve among Middle-American voters whose real standard of living has been in decline for a decade and who have deep concerns about a failing educational system and the excesses of popular culture. This rhetoric very effectively diverts attention from the economic to the moral realm, persuading plain folk that their real enemies are the latte-drinking, porn-addicted, Volvo-driving liberals of New York and California, rather than the corporations that closed down their factories (or re-staffed them with non-unionised immigrant labour).

There are several real ironies at work here. Those blue coastal sanctuaries of decadence of course do really represent the frontlines of late capitalist development: the TV, film, music, publishing, advertising, communications and computer industries. They really are where all the smart money has gone, and they really do, by-and-large, look down on the 'redneck' farmers and factory workers of Kansas. George W. Bush holds together a coalition of traditional Republican Big Business, neoconservative think-tankies and evangelical Christians which draws its electoral support from patriotic, free-market and family loving citizens of the suburbs and the heartland. The Democrats are losing their purchase on this constituency not only because they are perceived as too liberal and 'anti-family' (e.g. on abortion and gay marriage), but because - thanks to Clinton's 'triangulation' strategy - they no longer offer any credible alternative on the economy. Kansans no longer believe that voting Democrat will save their jobs, so they vote with their hearts.

Frank traces the Democrats' decline in his home state in a scathing, witty and readable style, illustrating with scores of episodes from history - starting from the original 'Free Soil' settlers who moved there to stop slavery spreading west, all the way to the collapse of the 1990s telecomm boom and the retreat of aircraft building. A central plank of his argument is that  " understand the United States we must understand the backlash". The Great Backlash is Frank's term for the moral revulsion of Middle Americans away from that liberalisation of social values that remains the legacy of the 1960s 'counter-culture'.

The principal theorists behind this backlash are the neoconservatives, whose main ideas are admirably explained in a new essay collection of that name edited by Irwin Stelzer. There's a strong tendency in Europe, particularly on the Left, to conflate the neoconservative and religious elements of Bush's coalition, and to indulge in conspiracy theories about the shady 'cabal' of neocons who are the power behind Bush's throne. The essays in this volume ought to dispel such confusions and make possible a more rational critique of neoconservatism, but I won't be holding my breath...

Several of the essays, especially those by Irving Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick, sketch the origins of neoconservatism. The first neocons were liberal Democrats who in the 1970s became alarmed by the nihilism and moral relativism of the radical Left, particularly in its attacks on academic freedom. When McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign appeared to endorse this disorder, these pioneers, including Norman Podhoretz and Kirkpatrick, moved toward the Republican party. Neocons first achieved significant political influence during the Reagan presidency, and some like Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams served George Bush Sr. When George W. appointed several prominent neocons, including Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, they at first seemed rather peripheral to the 'compassionate conservatism' that got him elected - until the colossal shock of 9/11 made their hard-line doctrines look like his most appropriate response.

 Adam Wolfson's essay on page 213, 'Conservatives and Neoconservatives', perhaps should have started this collection as it lays out neocon principles and their differences from other Republican factions with admirable clarity. Wolfson explains that the neocons aim to reform the Republicans into a party fit to manage a modern superstate, which means repudiating some other conservative factions: the 'traditionalists' with their nostalgic hankerings after a vanished genteel past and distaste for mass democracy; the 'libertarians' whose uncritical worship of the free market leads effectively to anarchism in social matters; and 'paleoconservatives' who seek to construct an ugly, isolationist, barely-concealed-racist order under the confederate flag. For Wolfson the crowning difference is that neocons put politics, rather than the economy (libertarians) or culture (trads) at the helm.
A clever and convincing essay by Max Boot demolishes many of the canards promulgated against neoconservatism by its enemies, including what might be called the 'Likud Libel' (that the neocons are a clique of Jews who serve the interests of Israel rather than the USA), or that they're all sinister disciples of an esoteric cult of the philosopher Leo Strauss.

Neocon policy prescriptions aim to dismantle the 'permissive society' and promote a new sense of civic virtue, based on a rehabilitated patriotism and respect for American democracy. Unlike traditional and libertarian conservatives, neocons are not afraid of the state and don't seek to reduce it to impotence - largely because they need its military might to project their foreign policy ambitions. If they favour tax cuts to promote economic growth (and thus quench any egalitarian strivings), then they're happy to run deficits to pay for them: Robert L. Bartley's essay 'The Dread Deficit' leans further toward Keynes and Ricardo than to Milton Friedman. Few neocons actually share the evangelicals' religious foundation for the return to morality they promote: it's a (strictly heterosexual) marriage of political convenience. 

In foreign policy neoconservatives oppose all attempts at world government - they sort the nations into friends and enemies, then aim to reward the former and punish the latter. The ultimate goal, as William Kristol and Robert Kagan describe it in 'National Interest and Global Responsibility' is to spread American democracy throughout the world, and many (though not all) of them regard multilateral organisations and groupings like the UN or even the EU as obstacles to this goal. Essays in this collection by Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair (billed as "friendly dissenters") seek in their different ways to moderate this US unilateralism while ostensibly offering support. 

Whether this will amount to Empire in the old sense is a question that's split the neocon world, and the invasion of Iraq - which most of them strenuously urged Bush to launch - merely crystallised the problem. Was it an exercise in punishing an enemy, a serious attempt to spread democracy, or something botched in between? George F. Will in this volume ('The Slow Undoing') opposes all hubristic attempts at nation-building, the EU included, taking the Burkean position that nations are complex products of history and circumstance that cannot be fabricated. Neocon superstar Francis Fukuyama - who doesn't appear in this volume - has fallen out with his erstwhile comrades by opposing the invasion. 

The neocons are conspicuously more erudite and cosmopolitan than traditional right-wing thinkers and delight in head-to-head combat with liberal orthodoxies. For me the most provocative essay is 'Broken Windows' by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which is ostensibly about police foot-patrolling of neighborhoods, but whose subtle, penetrating analysis leads you oh-so-gently into a plausible apologia for vigilantism. Indeed many of the essays share this same clarity, intensity and suave (even glib) assurance that was once a strength of writing from the Left, but has been notably absent from it in recent decades.

These are not people out to conserve anything, but rather out to overthrow an existing order that they detest, only they've substituted the Declaration Of Independence for the Communist Manifesto. And as in older revolutionary tracts there's a certain reticence about real outcomes: jobs lost, people thrown off welfare or taken out by air-strikes. Beneath the muscular, hard-headed prose there lurks a thread of purest Idealism, and like all Idealisms it's destined to be brought low eventually by the diversity and perversity of human nature. 


Dick Pountain/30 May 2005/08:45/Political Quarterly

TITLE: "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive"
AUTHOR: Jared Diamond
PUBLISHED: Jan 2005, hard cover, pp 576 , £20.00

"... [B]ecause we are rapidly advancing along this non-sustainable course, the world's environmental problems *will* get resolved, in one way or another, within the lifetimes of the children and young adults alive today." Had this sentence appeared at the beginning of Jared Diamond's massive new work one might possibly have read it as a statement of optimism. Appearing as it does though in the very last chapter it can only be read as the most deeply-qualified realism: throughout the previous 500 pages Diamond has painstakingly explained, on the basis of copious scientific evidence, what that sinister little 'another' might be. Most civilisations have believed themselves to be the only or the ultimate goal of human history, destined to persist for ever, but few have ever reached even a hundred human generations. In 'Collapse', Diamond examines the reasons why societies fail and disappear, and extracts certain lessons that he thinks may be of use to us in our present environmental fix.

What raises this work above the level of typical popular scaremongering is Diamond's meticulous investigative method, honed in his previous Pulitzer-winning book 'Guns, Germs and Steel'. In that work he sought to explain the relative rates of historical development of Europe, the Americas, Asia, Oceania and Africa from basic geography, geology and biology as they affected the domestication of plants and animals, the spread of technologies and fatal diseases. In 'Collapse' he again condenses and sifts all the latest archeological data to explain why certain previous civilisations - including the Maya, the Greenland Vikings and the statue-builders of Easter Island - came to sticky ends. Some of Diamond's critics accuse him of environmental determinism, but that charge is even less true of 'Collapse' than it was of 'Guns..' What certainly is true is that Diamond is a materialist (and, I'm coming to believe, perhaps the most rigorous one since Karl Marx). Diamond is no Marxist though because he doesn't accept 'determination in the last instance by the economic'. On a shallow reading he might seem to believe in determination in the last instance by geography and climate, but this he explicitly denies. In fact he relies on multiple causes - five are employed throughout this book - any one of which might become determinant at some particular place and time. The factors he implicates in social collapses are: human impact on the environment; climate change; friendly neighbours (trade); hostile neighbours (war); and the human response to such threats (politics, religion and culture). More subtly, one factor may cause another to become dominant in any particular case, so for example in mediaeval Greenland climate change determined that the Norse settlers' conservative cultural outlook would undo their society, while Inuit living in precisely the same environment developed a sustainable economy.

Diamond trained in biology, geography and history and his facility with figures, while not making for a light read, ought be a model for other social scientists. Acutely aware that historians and geographers are denied the possibility of true experiment, he uncovers natural experiments thrown up in the spread of human settlement, for example the 'island-hopping' expansion of the Polynesians throughout the Pacific between 1200BC and 1200AD. He seeks from such 'experiments' the variety of data made possible by modern forensic techniques, including radiocarbon and tree-ring dating, oxygen isotope analysis of ice cores (to determine past temperature), palynology (pollen studies that reveal changes in flora), garbage/midden archeology to reveal diet, and carbon isotope analysis to distinguish seafood from land food. By integrating all these data Diamond builds up a picture of the impact of humans on their environment as this varied over time. Note that term 'impact': it's not population numbers per se that determine the fate of societies but total environmental impact - that is, population multiplied by impact-per-person. For example the environmental impact of each modern US citizen (water, food, energy and materials consumed) is 30 times that of an average African.

Using these methods Diamond seeks the ultimate and proximate causes of the collapse of Easter Island and Pitcairn societies, the pre-historic Anasazi civilisation of South-West USA, the Maya and the Greenland Norse settlements. He then applies the lessons learned to modern times by considering the genocide in Rwanda, the current plights of Haiti and the Dominican Republic (a most illuminating contrast), and the future prospects for China and Australia. Certain repeated tropes emerge from his analysis. Afforestation is crucial: in ancient times wood was the building material for both homes and transport, and also the principal fuel. Cutting too many trees leads to soil erosion and disruption of water supplies, which in turn reduces the ability to grow food. Nowadays we Westerners rely on other fuels, but we still cut trees for paper and furniture. Cyclic climate change intervenes in a most particular way: during warm epochs food is plentiful and population rises; environmental impact increases, leading to soil depletion; the climate turns nasty, population growth doesn't slow, they can no longer feed everyone, they fight over food and water (and in surprisingly many cases turn to eating each other...) The first English farmers to settle Australia had "... the misfortune to arrive during a string of wet years", a misfortune because had they arrived during a more typical drought they would have formed a more realistic impression of what the land could support. 

I suspect that one aspect of Diamond's work that rattles liberally-inclined critics is his remorseless naturalism: Homo Sapiens is another animal species, not physically so removed from others, and despite our advanced intelligence, no less subject to environmental pressures (the birthrate in 18th and 19th century Japan rose and fell precisely in phase with the price of rice). This is not to say that Human Will counts for nothing and we have no choices. On the contrary our intelligence lets us identify causes like those in Diamond's book, and deploy them in making good or bad choices that affect our destiny. Unfortunately though there is not, and never will be, a simple formula we can slot these variables into that will pop out the 'correct' answer. Human values don't work that way: they're often incommensurable and force us into difficult and groundless choices despite all available evidence. The Greenland Norse saw themselves as Christian Europeans (who hated the taste of seal meat) and in the end preferred to hang onto that identity rather than assimilate to Inuit ways, even at the cost of all their lives. The most provocative aspect of 'Collapse' is the question it raises whether democracies like the EU and USA can ever be induced to make the horrible choices needed to avoid our own collapse, submitting to very significant decreases in living standard to ensure long-term survival. Diamond's examples of success in impact control - Japan's forestry management, China's one-child policy - were all imposed by despots (enlightened or otherwise). But as he cheerfully observes "... in the long run rich people do not secure their own interests and those of their children if they rule over a collapsing society and merely buy themselves the privilege of being the last to starve..."


Dick Pountain/Tue 23 March 2004/10:08 am/Political Quarterly

BOOK: 'World On Fire'
AUTHOR: Amy Chua
PUBLISHER: William Heinemann, London 2003
ISBN: 0-434-01220-3

The current state of the world presents us with a number of paradoxes, not least of which is that the deeply conservative administration of George W. Bush appears to be cleaving to a Whig interpretation of history. Bush supporters are apparently convinced that the whole of history so far has been leading us toward the present triumph of free markets, democracy and multiculturalism, which must now be accepted without question as our greatest virtues. Since the collapse of Communism that culminated in the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, it's been almost universally assumed that any continuing advance of history (pace Fukuyama) must be brought about by exporting these virtues to the rest of the world: that is, to those countries we refer to as the 'developing' countries which lack one or all of them. Most of the principal political parties throughout the Western world now subscribe to such an interpretation, included both main parties in the USA and the UK. Bush's stated objective is to impose them through military action in certain pathological cases. 

However virtues are inadequate for understanding today's world, partly because they, by definition, lie beyond criticism, and partly because they obey a seductive but false arithmetic in which applying two virtues together always results in another one. The bigger problem is of course that they don't actually exist. What exist are flesh-and-blood people and their institutions, whose messy variety cannot be contained by such simple abstractions - in the arithmetic of the real world, applying democracy on top of a free market sometimes results in wealth and happiness, but sometimes results in genocide. It takes some courage to point out this fact in the present hysterical climate, because to question multiculturalism can get one branded a racist, while to question whether free markets and democracy are a universal panacea is seen as unreconstructed Communism or Trotskyism. Amy Chua, in her persuasive book 'World On Fire' finds her way out of this Platonic cavern without falling into any of those three deadly sins.
Chua is neither a political scientist nor an economist but a professor of international law at Harvard, and perhaps it's the unsentimental detachment proper to that profession that allowed her to notice, where so many seem to have been blind, that the introduction of free markets and democracy in many developing countries has not automatically produced good effects. The reason she deduces is rivalry between ethnic groups, which can be exacerbated enormously when a free market enriches one group at the expense of others - and if the others happen to form the majority, democracy offers them the opportunity to take power and exact bloody revenge against their exploiters. Chua did not need to dig far for her raw materials, merely to harvest them from the newspaper headlines: massacres of Chinese in Indonesia in 1998; land-grabs in Zimbabwe from that same year up till the present; the hellish genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia; and so, sickeningly, on.

That this connection has not been made so clearly before may well be because it's hardly respectable to talk about ethnicity at all in many circles, because someone is bound to accuse you of, at best, essentialism and at worst racism. In this respect Chua has a valuable advantage in her own Philipino-Chinese descent, and perhaps in her female gender too (it's worrying to ponder how differently this book might have been received had it been written by a white Anglo-Saxon male). 'Ethnic' was originally adopted as a euphemism for 'racial' but is incapable of suppressing the dangerous ambivalence that surrounds the whole subject and has split under the tension to become on the one hand a category of consumerism (ethnic jewellery, restaurants, furniture, fashion) and on the other a category of terror (ethnic cleansing). Chua takes a no-nonsense approach to the term, refusing to become bogged down in definitions of ethnicity. For her purposes an ethnic group is one which defines itself so: "I will assume that ethnicity is not a scientifically determinable status". She treats ethnic identity instead as "a sense of belonging to a people, that is experienced 'as a greatly extended form of kinship'", which is not static but constantly shifting, and most importantly, is malleable and manipulable by ideologues. For example the division between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda was a vague and permeable one 200 years ago, with much intermarriage, but the Belgian colonists deliberately entrenched and inflammed it by issuing ethnic identity cards on the the basis of nose-length and and head-size.

Such Deweyian pragmatism pervades the whole book, which is therefore refreshingly free of post-modern jargon. Chua only employs two terms that might be called jargon, both of which are crucial to the exposition of her argument. A 'market-dominating minority' is a social grouping (self-defined, or sometimes defined by its opponents) that concentrates ownership of a nation's wealth out of proportion to its numbers, and 'ethnonationalism' is a type of ideology similar to nationalism but applying only to a sub-group within a nation, such as the Hutu Power movement in Rwanda or India's BJP. Note that 'market-dominating minority' doesn't presume an ethnic definition, so it can equally be applied to classes such as the industrial and media-owning classes of the USA, or even to a political clique like the nomenklatura in the old USSR. Chua's argument is that is precisely in those places where a market-dominating minority is *also* a separate and identifiable ethnic group that the combination becomes explosive. Relatively poor majority populations often tolerate the enrichment of their 'own kind' - in the USA they even welcome it as evidence of the possibility of social mobility for all. However where the wealth is all in the hands of an ethnic 'them', the conditions for a genocide may arise, because class and ethnicity pulling in the same direction exert sufficient force to break a society.

In many of the countries that Chua discusses, a clear historical progression can be seen to lead up to civil disturbance or genocide, the stages of which go something like:
a) During the mid to late 20th century, nationalist or socialist goverments expropriate the assets of a market-dominant minority
b) As a result the national economy all but collapses.
c) In the 1990s or 2000s privatisation is introduced to revive the economy.
d) Under privatisation the old minority prospers even more disproportionately than before.
c) Mass democracy brings the party of the impoverished majority to power.
Such scenarios don't alway lead immediately to genocidal confrontation. Sometimes, as in South Africa, a charismatic leader (Mandela) can engineer a 'soft landing'. More often a form of 'crony capitalism' emerges where the leaders of the party of the majority are bribed by the market-dominating minority to keep the lid on, the Marcos and Suharto regimes being prime examples. In all cases though, the underlying situation remains unstable and combustible.

Chua mostly wields her two abstractions - market-dominating minority and ethnonationalism - in a sensitive and pragmatic way, seldom forcing examples to fit into her template. By doing so she can explain a lot of the violence in the world that might otherwise appear as purely irrational. In the case of Weimar Germany, she is at pains to point out that Jews were not in fact a market-dominating minority in the same way as the Chinese are in Indonesia, the Ibos in Nigeria or the Lebanese in Sierra Leone. However the Nazi party falsely and fatally succeeded in *portraying* them as such, because they were visibly numerous in a few professions like banking, medicine and law, which chimed with historical anti-Semitic prejudices. Chua always resists crude economic determinism and is eager to concede that multiple factors may be at work, going to some lengths to find counter-examples to any overly-simple application of her own schema, such as the complications of Latin America or the oddly-peaceful Thailand. (In the latter case she suggests that a far-from-democratic programme of forced assimilation promoted by King Vajiravudh in the 1930s left its Chinese population less separate, identifiable and vulnerable than in neighbouring states).

Her scheme has its limitations though, of which she is for the most part well aware. Of necessity she must skim over detailed differences in the different social formations she examines. Are the economically-dominated groups factory workers, slash-and-burn subsistence farmers or agricultural labourers? Is land or industrial capital the asset that is being monopolised? Of course the whole point of an abstraction is that it enable us to glimpse the big picture through such details, but it always will leave the argument open to attack in specific cases where a detail doesn't fit. But in a few cases Chua takes big risks by using her abstractions in a metaphorical rather than literal way, which opens her up further to such attack. For example she proposes at various points that immigrant Koreans could be viewed as a market-dominating minority within US inner cities (rather than the whole nation), or that Israel could be seen as a market-dominating minority within the whole Middle East region (rather than within its individual nations) and even, finally, America as the market-dominant minority for the whole world. It's possible to see what Chua is getting at by such metaphors - the hatred that these minorities engender has a similar psychological structure regardless of geographical scale - but such discipline-defying leaps can only attract trouble. The Israeli comparison is particularly touchy and earned Chua a sharp rebuke from Vijay Joshi and Robert Skidelsky in the New York Review of Books (March 25 2004), though elsewhere their review is less than fair to her arguments: pointing out that China's wealth is not concentrated by an ethnic minority can hardly be held against her since she never suggests that it is. 

Perhaps the most cogent objection to 'World On Fire' (also advanced by Joshi and Skidelsky ) is that Chua makes no serious attempt to explain why, in those cases where a minority has seized the wealth, the majority permitted it to happen. I'm inclined to cut Chua a great deal of slack in this matter, because to attempt such an explanation would be both extremely difficult and far, far more inflammatory than the existing book. What Max Weber did for German capitalism in 'The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism', Chua would have had to do separately for each minority/majority combination as there are few universal principles that can be relied on (save that we must emphatically reject the colonialist and racist explanations that these people are merely 'lazy', 'feckless' or 'childlike'). Instead there are just lots and lots of historical and cultural contigencies - old tribal hierarchies, religious taboos, pastoralist and nomad ethics that despise menial work, hunter/gather sexual divisions of labour, slavery, ritual drug use, and so ad infinitum. I think she was very wise to leave this as someone else's mess.

Some may also object that Chua offers little in the way of concrete policy solutions to ethnic strife that is exacerbated by free markets and democracy, which would be true but harsh since it's by no means clear that such solutions exist: it must be said that she has done an invaluable service merely by pointing out and analysing the problem. The USA is now the world's only superpower and its governments, of either party, are wholly committed to spreading free markets and democracy as the cure-all for the rest of the world's problems, based on a belief that these two institutions form a virtuous circle that will sweep away the cultural obstacles to universal enrichment. While Chua herself is in favour of both free markets and democracy, she thinks that faith in this virtuous circle is misplaced, for the reasons she sets out in this book. Furthermore, she sharply observes that the nations of the West never actually followed their own prescription: capitalism and markets predated the inauguration of universal suffrage by centuries in most of them; not one of them tolerates the crude laissez faire capitalism that they prescribe for developing countries, but all (even the USA) ameliorate it by some degree of redistributive taxation and a welfare state; and in all of them, majority rule is tempered by a vast civil society of long-established and robust institutions that help to safeguard minorities rights but simply do not exist in the developing world.

Such solutions as Chua does present are anodyne and hardly dramatic. The Western nations need to be far more circumspect in their advocacy of free markets - past performances like the IMF's enforcement of deflationary measures that further impoverish the indigenous majorities, or the disastrously skewed privatisations in Russia and Eastern Europe need to be avoided. Democratisation means far more than simply shipping out ballot boxes and observers, and in some cases might be better delayed (as perhaps in China) until markets have done their work of creating a middle class. Market-dominant minorities themselves should become more aware of their vulnerability and reduce it by eliminating corrupt practices and by voluntary charitable works. Their majority governments might introduce affirmative action to help defuse ethnic tension, despite its current deep unfashionability in the USA.

It's unsurprising, if disappointing, that Chua doesn't explicitly suggest that the free market system that we're so keen to export might  benefit from a little more redistribution and regulation at home, and that ideological laissez faire be replaced in the museum of economic history where it belongs: Keynes might never have lived as far as Chua's book is concerned, but she is to be warmly congratulated for having broken free of our *other* greatest taboo.

Dick Pountain


Dick Pountain/17 March 2001 15:12/Political Quarterly/Tom Frank

TITLE: "One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy"
AUTHOR: Thomas Frank
PUBLISHER: Secker and Warburg, 414pp
PRICE: £18.99

"The men, for their part, wore four and five-button leisure suits, corporate goatees and nose rings. One group of Planners periodically donned bright red fezzes while another set wandered around the proceedings in camouflage." 

The event that author Thomas Frank was witnessing was not a film premier nor a record launch but an Account Planning conference for the US advertising industry: these were the bright young people who invent and nurture new Brands and guide them "under the radar" of increasingly sophisticated and resistant consumers. Brands are those all- valuable but abstract entities that have taken over from old-fashioned, gross material entities like products (and workers), which Naomi Klein has dissected in her best selling 'No Logo'. This fascinating, if chilling, volume by Frank could be read as a powerful supplement and corrective to Klein, which documents the bizarre revolution that has so far gone mostly unnoticed this side of the Atlantic, but which underpins both the '' bubble and the rise of Brand-lead marketing.

I do not use the word revolution lightly here but in its most literal sense, a great overturning of the way things have so far been. Frank's contention, crudely summarized, is that the extreme free-market fringe of American politics has succeeded in turning the world upside down in a most remarkable way by stealing the clothes of the radical left; by preaching the destruction of all 'conservative' institutions (oddly enough this means trades unions, public services and federal regulators); by proclaiming that the will of the people is sovereign (expressed not by voting, but by purchasing shares); and by browbeating down all criticism of the market, the profit motive, or popular culture as the work of 'elitist snobs' and 'naysayers'. In short, the Republican Right has appropriated the very Populism that was its undoing after the depression of the 1930s - the Populism that powered Roosevelt's New Deal - and has turned it against itself.

This phenomenon, which Frank dubs Market Populism, has provided the highly-combustible fuel for the greatest Bull Market of all time, from 1982 to March 2001, and has, at least for a while, persuaded the majority of the US population that the market will take care of all their needs if only they will kick the State out of the way. Stock prices appreciated hundreds of times over (86% in 1999 alone) while at the same time job security and union membership fell to long-term lows and the ratio between top management and blue-collar salaries increased from 85:1 to 475:1 in one decade - and all of this with the enthusiastic consent of the governed (and a six-fold increase in incarceration of the ungoverned). Frank analyses the unfolding of this hijack in painstaking detail - indeed, some may find it repetitive - using as evidence the reams of books, newspaper and magazine articles produced during the 1990s by a loose coalition of free market evangelists. Here are the stock hypers of the Wall Street Journal; the mutual fund gurus; the little-old-lady stock pickers of Idaho; the quack management theorists like Tom Peters ("If you can't say why you make your company a better place, YOU'RE OUT!"); the techno-evangelists of the Internet and the Account Planners with their goatees and nose rings. The academic cultural studies movement is shown to have colluded in the process, discovering in popular culture a 'radical politics of difference', 'trangression' and 'contestation' which could be simply lifted by the Market Populists to provide grapeshot for their cannonade against the 'elitist snobs' of high culture. The market is always and everywhere right, so if Eminem outsells Mahler, all argument is over. The sneering Market Populist slogan "If you so smart, how come you ain't rich" found itself a respectable academic defence.

We are shown the hesitant first steps by which the free-market Right detached itself from the religious Right during the early 1990s, realising that cultural attacks on permissiveness, liberalism and the legacy of the sixties were not working, and that the very radicalism and hedonism they had been attacking could be hijacked to support their ultimate end, namely the undoing of the last traces of the New Deal, the unfettered reign of the market and the obtaining of a true popular consent for capitalism that it had never quite achieved. The ultimate battle should have been fought out over the policy of privatising the US Social Security fund, though as I write (in March 2001) the frightening gyrations of the stock market have made this less of a certainty than it was even three months ago.

As to what Frank himself stands for, he is very open: he is an American labour-movement radical, in favour of union rights and government regulation, who finds his golden age in the period from World War II to the 1970s when the US working classes were employed, organized and affluent (a period he pointedly calls the "middle-class republic"). In other words he is what we would call a left social democrat this side of the Atlantic, and consequently homeless given the current state of US politics. Anyone who has passed even close to the European Marxist tradition may find his elision of middle-class and blue collar cavalier, but those are the terms of debate in the USA, accepted by all participants. My own cavill is that Frank displays some ambiguity as to whether Market Populism is a conscious and cynical ploy or a genuine conversion, a sort of belated "tuning in and turning on" of right-wing ideologues to the "creativity" of the market. However this slight uncertainty of tone cannot detract from the fact that he has written a persuasive and provocative book which will be deeply unsettling to anyone who has had trouble making those accommodations with the market that are required to support New Labour. I almost shaved off my goatee.


Dick Pountain/14 September 2000 13:57/Political Quarterly/Book Review

TITLE: "Cyberselfish"
AUTHOR: Paulina Borsook
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown
PUBLISHED: June 2000, paperback, pp 276, £14.99

Question: What do the computer and entrepreneurs of America's Silicon Valley have in common with the survivalist militias of Montana?
Answer: They both profess to want an end to all government.

That answer may surprise you as much as it did me. I've worked in the computer industry for almost 20 years and had become used to regarding it as almost part of the public sector, with a great deal of input from academia and a prevailing interventionist political outlook that stemmed from the important role that government sponsorship had played in building the industry. (After all, the Internet, the source of so much new wealth, was originally built entirely using US government, mostly defence, funds). However that familiar attitude is now being swept away by a tide of extreme libertarianism, as documented by Paulina Borsook in her interesting - if often infuriating - book 'Cyberselfish'. Borsook is a self-confessed counterculture activist from the '60s who turned to computer journalism and wrote for a while for Wired, the house journal of the hip new Internet culture. As such she has known or interviewed all the major players, from Kevin Kelly and Louis Rossetto to 'cypherpunk' heroes like John Perry Barlow and Eric Hughes. However as a woman and a feminist, Borsook has become alarmed by and alienated from the culture she describes here, in which very clever and very wealthy people formulate a view of the world that she finds to be lacking in human empathy and ultimately frightening.

Borsook begins by describing the ideas of the Bionomics Institute, a body founded in the early 1990s by computer and net intellectuals in San Francisco who wanted to explore biological metaphors for the workings of society: they liked explanation in terms of 'self-organizing' complex systems and ecological niches, the message always being that these systems are too complex for any human to understand, let alone to intervene in. One theme that emerges again and again throughout her account is the way these people distrust the political, seeking wherever possible to explain social phenomena at an anthropological or biological level: it's tempting to see this a consequence of the demise of Marxism, which would once have been the way that such very-clever-but-unconventional people would try to apprehend the world. The Bionomics Institute's ideas meshed perfectly with the economic schemes of those monetarists and free market theorists who seek to remove the 'dead hand of government' and allow the market economy to develop in perfect freedom. Indeed so good was the fit that the BI eventually merged with the conservative Washington think-tank, the Cato Institute, of which Rupert Murdoch is a trustee. Borsook suggests wryly that this extreme form of techno-libertarianism is almost indistinguishable in its practical consequences from an older religious form of non-interventionism, namely that God Will Provide, and notes that indeed several of the key participants are born-again.

She goes on to present a fairly detailed account of the cypherpunk movement, which arose to assert the right to privacy on the Internet in the face of central  government's determination to maintain its capacity for surveillance. Borsook notes that this issue more than any other has converted perhaps a majority of regular Internet users into libertarians (though the significance of the desire for anonymous access to pornography does not escape her). She is at her most provocative and perceptive when describing the paranoid 'nerd' mindset that prevails among so many of the more vocal Internet users, suggesting plausibly enough that the computer presents a safe and controllable microcosm that may be attractive to persons who lack wider social skills, and illustrating with plenty of examples from the dialogues and 'flame wars' that take place within Internet newsgroups. These are people who prefer manipulating bits to atoms because it requires less distresing social interaction. Another chapter is devoted to the rise and rise of Wired magazine and the reasons for her falling out with it, in which she documents the increasing grip of libertarian ideas on its editorial policy. This is followed by a chapter on the new importance given to charity-giving among the Internet billionaires: in short they see it as a potential replacement for, rather than a supplement to, state funding.

All this material would be useful to anyone wishing to gain an insight into the minds of this new sector of the US economic elite, were it not for one great drawback - Borsook's gratingly sesquipedalian prose style, which combines the worst of computer journalese and cultural studies jargon into a barely-readable stew, at once chatty and verbose. I put the book down more than once and had to force myself to continue. It was worth persevering though, because these ideas might come to affect us all were the Republicans to regain the Presidency (or indeed either way, since Al Gore is a personal friend of some of the characters mentioned here). An unfortunate effect of the book might be to awaken any latent tendencies the reader has toward conspiracy theorising: I'll confess that I shuddered when I learned of the connections between the quasi-fascist ideas of Ayn Rand, these new techno-libertarians and the head of the Federal Reserve Bank who was once a Rand disciple. Borsook herself espouses a measured, broadly Democratic politics, readily conceding for example that a government may well need to intercept communications in the interest of national security and fighting organised crime. After reading this account, one is tempted, almost blasphemously, to pray for a short and very sharp recession that might both dry up the sources of almost-unearned wealth that induces these libertarian fantasies, and at the same time restore some faith in the supportive powers of government. But that would be wrong.

Dick Pountain