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Ahistorical pomposity and gnostic sneering: why academics write deep crap about “neoliberalism”

By Lorenzo

Humanities and social science academics write a remarkable amount of nonsense about “neoliberalism”, typically understanding neither the reasons for the general shift in public policy nor the motivations and ideas behind it.

A nice example of such nonsense is provided in a post by philosopher Robin James:

neoliberals think everything in the universe works like a deregulated, competitive, financialized capitalist market.

No one believes this. For a start, no “neoliberal” believes the state works like that. Nor do they advocate abolition of the state–anarcho-capitalism is not a widely held position, particularly not among policy wonks, policy advisors or policy-setting politicians (what we might call policy makers). It is one thing to be struck by how remarkable it is that there is any economic order at all, it is quite another to think such is the template for all that there is.

I am aware of the ideas, constraints, and reasonings involved in the “neoliberal” policy shift because I was involved in “neoliberal” policy advocacy. I moved in such circles, read the literature, even wrote minor bits of it. So, I am familiar. Including with the policy context that policy makers have been wrestling with.

I do not much like the term neoliberal. It is usually used as a “boo” word, and boo words are always analytically suspect. Moreover, the term is often used in a very unclear way, in meaning and scope. Is it a period of history? Is it an ideology? Is it a policy program? If so, what specific policies?

To the extent the term has a useful meaning, neoliberalism is economic liberalisation in the context of an expansive state: either the welfare state (in the developed world) or the development state (in the developing world). Key underpinning ideas in the original “neoliberal turn” include Milton Friedman’s rehabilitation of monetary economics (pdf) and his critique of (pdf) policy reliance on a presumed trade-off between inflation and unemployment, Friedrich Hayek’s analysis of the uses of knowledge in society, the development of public choice theoryfeeding into (pdf) the analysis of rent-seeking (pdf), Ronald Coase’s development of (pdf) the concept of transaction costs and its application to property rights (pdf), and the development of supply-side ideas (pdf).  The Lucas critique (plus rational expectations) and Fama’s efficient-market hypothesis came along a bit too late to have much influence on the original “neoliberal turn”.

What these key ideas have in common is that they cast strong doubt on belief in the omni-competent state, either directly or by comparison with market-based alternatives. Hence the “neoliberal trifecta” of corporatisation (restructuring of state institutions), privatisation (transfer or creation of property rights) and de-regulation (reduction of transaction costs). Plus the adoption of inflation-targeting by central banks, as a way of operationalising their responsibility for inflation as a monetary phenomenon. The critique of the widely assumed omni-competence of the state also encouraged taking gains from trade more seriously, while the policy premium for economic efficiency (see below) put the issue of opportunity costs in sharper policy focus.

The policy debates in which “neoliberals” have been engaged in have been very much about boundaries between state and non-state action, but that is a very different matter than the sort of absolutist claim James claims as defining “neoliberal” belief. You only have debates about the proper boundaries between realms of social action if no particular realm is universal–whether as underlying reality, as created order or as ideal order. A nice example of such thinking, with included critique of overweening confidence in state action, is provided in a a recent blog post by economist Scott Sumner:

Intellectuals on the left go through the following thought process. First they observe a “problem.” Then they declare a “market failure.” Then they consider what sort of government policy could remedy the problem. What they often overlook is that the problem is usually the side effect of other government policies. That doesn’t mean the free market solution is always best; there may be cases where those other government policies are needed, and hence further regulation is required to overcome the side effects. The real problem is that it’s much easier to dream up straightforward government policies to remedy a situation, than to envision how a problem is the side effect of other regulations. Or what further side effects will result from your proposed solution. That biases pundits toward supporting far too much government involvement in the economy.

“Neoliberals” do typically believe that spontaneous orders do and can exist. But markets are only a form of spontaneous order, and only in a rather specific sense. Nature, red in tooth and claw, is a spontaneous order, but it is not a market. (Though it is a realm of budget constraints and trade-offs, as can be seen in the distribution of ecological niches: but, then, the state is also such a realm, but is not a spontaneous order.)

So, in the above purported definition of “neoliberal belief”, we have a complete misunderstanding, both of notions of spontaneous order and of the ideas and motivations of “neoliberals”. And this from someone who has been teaching a graduate seminar on that very subject. (I wonder if someone with experience and knowledge from within the reform movement has ever been invited to address said seminar? Indeed, how often such folk are ever invited to talk to any such seminars or courses?)

There is no great mystery as to why academics write such nonsense about so-called “neoliberalism”: it is due to ignorance and irritation.

Irritation
The irritation is straightforward: there was a comfortable sense in “progressive” circles that they knew where history was going. And then it wasn’t.

At the grand history level, there was an expectation that socialism was the direction of history. The dawning realisation from the 1950s onward that actually existing socialism was not the transformative manifestation of the logic of history that it had been assumed to be led to the rise of postmodernism. As philosopher Stephen Hicks explains in his lucid and revelatory Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (2004).

At a more mundane level, there was (and is) an expectation that (moral and social) “progress” means an ever larger role for the state. This notion that state=civilisation (and the more expansive the role and power of the state, the more civilised) is one of the oldest tropes in human history. It is often a highly misleading and self-serving one, as James C Scott explains in his lucid and revelatory The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2010).

The state=civilisation trope does have the advantage of simplicity. Bigger state, good; smaller state, bad is an easy principle to rally one’s sense of moral and cognitive worthiness around. (It would also make North Korea the most civilised society on the planet–since the state has entirely taken over its society: but perhaps the bigger=better is only operating as an indicator at the margin.)

Then along came the “neoliberal” policy shift of corporatisation, privatisation and de-regulation. Suddenly, history got de-railed. This was not how things were supposed to be going. So, there is an underlying hostility to “neoliberalism” in much academic writing: more, there is a presumption that such hostility is the morally and cognitively correct posture to assume towards this “neoliberal” wrong turn.

Hence David Harvey can write (pdf) (via):

The corporatization, commodification, and privatization of hitherto public assets has been a signal feature of the neoliberal project. Its primary aim has been to open up new fields of capital accumulation in domains hitherto regarded off-limits to the calculus of profitability.

This is a wildly ahistorical reading, since much of what was done in privatisation was to put back into the commercial order things which the state had previously removed from that order. But the very ahistorical reading displays the underlying belief in history as having a “proper” direction and the expansion of the state as progress,

The resulting presumptive hostility towards the “neoliberal” de-railing of history’s proper course is nicely expressed in the aforementioned post by philosopher Robin James:

Generally, people use the term “neoliberal” to denote things they don’t like about our historical situation. It’s a kind of shorthand for “contemporary society” with a “which sucks” inflection. This shorthand sense is where all the looseness and imprecision comes in. As Hegel said, “now” can be narrowly particular because it can mean any particular point in time. So, “neoliberal” gets used to mean “now,” which means something specific because it can refer to any specific thing.

But things suck for a reason. This reason lies in the deeper sense of “neoliberalism,” …

A clear message of much academic writing on “neoliberalism” is that if you don’t understand that neoliberalism is bad, you are clearly morally and cognitively deficient: not exactly conducive to engaging with, and so understanding, the phenomenon being studied. Especially if signalling one’s distance therefrom is a key part of the exercise.

If the state=civilisation, that implies that the only social interactions truly worth having are state mediated or framed. There is a fairly clear underlying notion within this literature that commerce is not civilising (or, at least, is not morally uplifting), which connects this line of thinking into a trope that goes back at least 2,500 years–that commerce is morally and intellectually vulgar.

Leslie Kurke’s delightful Coins, Bodies, Games and Gold: The Politics of Meaning in Archaic Greece examines the tension in Archaic and Classical Greece between the gift-exchange essentialist order of aristocracy and the functionalist, coins-and-commercial political order of the demotic polis. There is considerable affinity between modern progressivism and the aristocratic disdain for vulgar, demotic commerce expressed in Plato’s Republic and in some of Aristotle‘s writings. But, then, progressivist academics in particular feel themselves to be a moral aristocracy, even though such a self-identity is typically cast as simply moral concern. Nevertheless, the moral elite pretensions are clearly displayed in the reflexive contempt for those with views outside the “progressive” magic circle.

This reflexive contempt performs a moral-status-and-opinion-conformity signalling function–it expresses one’s cultural placement. Hence it applies to non-”progressive” Westerners (against whom the status games are played), but rarely to non-Westerners, no matter how wildly their views diverge from progressivist norms, as the non-Westerners are much more likely to function as moral mascots–people for whom moral concern is signalled. Thus, contrast how the views of US evangelicals are treated as distinct from the views of more emphatic Muslims. The former are people against whom status is signalled, the latter people for whom moral concern is signalled, even though the actual views of the latter are likely to diverge far more from progressive norms on matters such as gender and sexuality than do the former. (To put it another way, the US evangelicals are to be culturally defeated, the Muslims culturally “respected”: though such “respect” often glosses over winners and losers from various conceptions of what precisely is to be “respected”.)

Westerners involved seriously in commerce are also a status-signalling target. There is little doubt that the irritation with, and antipathy to, “neoliberalism” is deeply connected to longstanding antipathy to commerce and to those who make their living by it. Hence, that “neoliberalism” expands the ambit of commerce is one of its defining sins.

An emphatic statement of such irritation being when folk burble on about “the ruling class”. Few terms are so flattening of social and historical complexity as ruling class. To use an evocative example, that NSDAP funding was disproportionately from those traumatised by revolutionary socialism tells us much. Describing the Nazi Party as a “tool of the ruling class” tells us nothing: indeed, less than nothing, for it flattens and obscures reality rather than illuminating it.

In its manichean over-reaching, ruling class washes away the complexities of history and politics, and the rise of the bargaining state (known in its current dominant manifestation as liberal democracy)–where lines between private and public, between market and command, are part of said social bargaining. But, of course, using the phrase ruling class casts the user in a heroic role as fighter against oppression: it performs a status-signalling role. Such a pose by tenured members of the safest scholar class in history is beyond pathetic, but it fits in nicely with the moral aristocracy self-conceit.

Ignorance
The irritation is easy to understand, even if it is much more grounded in a sense of superior status than its participants are likely to openly admit. Especially as it is a reworking in modern guise of very old patterns of thought, so rather less worthy of pretensions of being “cutting edge” than is generally felt to be the case. (This a recurring pattern: e.g. the post-modernist plaything indeterminacy of meaning was a hot topic for Socrates and the symposium boys, as well as medieval theologians.)

What is less forgivable than said irritation, though it is also thoroughly understandable, is the deep ignorance the aforementioned nonsense is based on. Such academic commentary remarkably often does not understand the role of economic models or of the rationality postulate in economics. (Hint, it’s a postulate.) Vernon Smith’s 2002 Nobel memorial lecture (written version here [pdf]) is an accessible presentation of the role of rationality postulate(s) in mainstream economics. It is also very worth noting that said postulate(s) are typically applied to where such work best–to aggregate behaviour.

The role and nature of economic models is similarly misunderstood. Models are, indeed, “caricatures of nature” when applied to the biological realm, and caricatures of society (and people) when applied to the social realm. But, as this discussion of the use of game theory in biology demonstrates, they can be highly useful caricatures for aiding our understanding. Yes, they can be misused or overdone; yes, there are issues with formalism in mainstream economics. But the modelling map is not the cognitive territory and the endless variants in models used within economics, the arguments and permutations over which “stylised facts” are most appropriate where, are parts of ongoing search for useful models, not for purported direct descriptions of reality in all its complexity. One cannot take a model, or even modelling, and say “neoliberals believe that …”.

So when Robin James writes:

if each individual is modeled as an algorithm (which is not too far-fetched a claim: big data and government model individual users’ behaviour in this way)

there is a very unfortunate cognitive shift. An individual in a model is not an actual individual and their entire behaviour is not being modelled. After all, Amazon.com uses algorithms to connect past purchases from them to what you are likely to be interested in purchasing from among their products. They use algorithms because they work, but only in a fairly narrow, statistical tendency sort of way. That James ends up in a wave form metaphor for social harmony (so quite fundamentally misconstruing what “neoliberalism” is about, as we will see) just illustrates how not useful for understanding said cognitive shift is. (Lord help us, she is apparently writing a book on the “neoliberal” idea of social harmony.)

Underpinning this are more than a few hints of CP Snow’s “two cultures” (pdf). If your idea of social enquiry is based on the gnostic sneering of Marxism, then the utilitarian model play of economics will be mysterious. So mysterious that it will be recast in sense that make sense to you, while missing the phenomenon one is allegedly describing. (Marxism is gnostic in that it presumes knowledge of where history is going, and the “real” “underlying” forces driving said history; sneering in that it is full of terms – bourgeois, petty-bourgeois, lumpenproletariat – which are ways of sneering at entire categories of people under the pretense of analysis.)

This confusion about modes of social enquiry is made all the more problematic as, far too often, academics do not engage directly with “neoliberal” writings, but rely on hostile summaries of the same. Summaries which are often highly unreliable. Robin James cites Foucault on Gary Becker and “Chicago School” economics, for example: citing Foucault on history, or the history of ideas, is never a good sign. (Rictor Norton’s The Myth of the Modern Homosexual provides a witty take-down of Foucault on queer history.)

A particular difficulty is that the ideas behind “neoliberalism” flow from the Sceptical Enlightenment. French intellectuals generally do not “get” the Sceptical Enlightenment. The longstanding worship of French and German intellectualism among many Anglosphere academics has meant that many of them don’t “get it” either. One of the fundamental ways in which they don’t get it is, steeped in Radical Enlightenment notions of a perfectible society, they presume grand system when there is something much more like a conjunction of values, principles and ideas held to be true, or at least useful. If you like, a working acceptance of ambivalence. ”Neoliberals” very much embrace Kant’s dictum that, from the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight can be built. The classical liberal tradition, which is a key source for “neoliberalism”, famously views the state as a necessary evil: in what universe is that the basis for any strong expectation of social harmony?

It is true that some more “Austrian” folk can wax lyrical about the harmonising nature of unfettered markets. Nevertheless, as a matter of practical policy making, a rather more utilitarian presumption in favour of maximising gains from trade (and the employment gains and revenue flows therefrom) is a much more powerful underlying principle in the “neoliberal” policy turn.

Seeking dynamism
What “neoliberals” are typically about is recovering or achieving economic dynamism. This is very much not a social harmony goal, except in the sense of muting social conflict as sharing out a growing pie is much easier than struggles over a static (or worse) shrinking pie. A nice statement of the desire for (and conflict over) dynamism is provided by Virginia Postrel in her The Future And Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress. (Note that all this leaves plenty of room for self-interested political manouevring among interest groups, whatever the policy framework.)

The larger policy context for the “neoliberal turn” is relatively straightforward. There was a major expansion of the welfare state across the Western world in the postwar period, particularly the 1960s. The postwar welfare state represented the imperial Western state colonising its own societies, instead of other people’s. Of course, unlike the territorially-expansive imperial state, the policy subjects of the domestically-expansive welfare state get to vote for the politicians in charge, which makes the operation somewhat different. Though not entirely different, as this would-be small businesswoman’s interaction with the domestically-colonising Greek state illustrates:

But as happens so often in Greece, the bureaucrats had other plans. In a country where you are viewed favorably when you spend money but are considered a criminal when you make it, starting a business is a nightmare. The demands are outrageous, and include a requirement that the business pay taxes in advance equal to 50 percent of estimated profit in the first two years. And the taxes are collected even if the business suffers a loss.

I needed only 20 square meters for my baking business, but inspectors told me they could not give me permission for less than 150 square meters. I was obliged to have a separate toilet for customers even though I would not have any customers visit. The fire department wanted a security exit in the same place where the municipality demanded a wall be built.

I, like thousands of others trying to start businesses, learned that I would be at the mercy of public employees who interpreted the laws so they could profit themselves.

And so in the winter of 2013, my business was finished before it had a chance to take off.

If the Greek state spent less effort in frustrating potential gains from trade amongst it citizens (i.e. “capitalist acts between consenting adults”), it would be less fiscally stressed. But then said state would be far less useful for those who benefit from its colonising of its own society. (One of the signs of how vulgar commerce is viewed to be, is that folk who are very strong on freedom to engage in sexual acts between consenting adults so often take a very different view of commercial acts between consenting adults.)

Outside the Western world, the development state followed decolonisation. Except that said development states often replicated and expanded imperial colonisations of such societies, but this time by local elites of their own societies. With democratic constraints being less common. Again, a longstanding pattern. Thus, the revolt of the Spanish colonies in the 1820s seems to have been largely about constitutional shifts in Spain threatening to undermine local elite income extraction. (Not that income-extraction via the maintenance of slavery and wish to expropriate Amerindian land were entirely absent from the American Revolution, but the rebellious British colonies’s political institutions were already much broader-based than that of their metropole, as they were mass-settler colonies rather than narrow extraction ones.)

The celebration of the expanding welfare state (and the development state) generated new forms of the aforementioned state=civilisation trope. Where, as ever, resistance to the imperial state’s pretensions show a lack of moral understanding, show one to be lower on the ladder of civilisation, an enemy of progress and moral enlightenment.

There is more than a little sense that the small, pervasive decencies and comforts of bourgeois society lack the moral grandeur for such great minds. (Which, by the way, is by no means to cast any blemish on the wish to do better, including in a wider moral-order sense: much of the dynamism of Western society comes from precisely its openness to that.)

This frustrated moral grandeur is particularly clear when the deeper antipathy over conceptions of individuals choices and preferences comes to the surface. If you don’t like the choices people actually make, it is a congenial move to attack the entire notion of such choices as legitimate, to claim that any ideology which celebrates them somehow misses out deeper truths. Particularly if some profound social harmony is one’s goal, as the sheer messiness of individual choices and preferences do not sit well with such an aim. (De-legitimising the actual choices and revealed nature of actual people in favour of some conception of what they ought to choose, and what they ought to be like, is where the Radical Enlightenment takes its turn to tyranny.)

This sort of discounting-choices move underlies philosopher Leigh Johnson’s comment, in a post praising and responding to Robin James’ piece, that:

Of course, the great irony evident in neoliberals’ ubiquitous efforts at data-collection– their constant, relentless and mostly covert encroachment into our “private” lives– is that such efforts are justified on the basis of safeguarding our individual freedom to engage in the market according to our own interests, as those interests are freely determined by us.

Never mind that what an uncritical surrender to algorithmic analyses actually does– little by little, Google search by Google search, Facebook like by Facebook like, Amazon purchase by Amazon purchase– is eventually come to determine not only our interests, but also our “freely, intentionally rational” selections among them.

Never mind the conflation of lots of different things into one great “neoliberal” wickedness (hence her recurring use of the drone metaphor). The obvious truth that if one changes the context people choose differently is being used to discount choices folk actually make. This in societies of unprecedented freedom and prosperity.

Back in policy reality, starting in 1973, productivity growth, which had helped pay for the postwar expansion of the welfare state, stagnated (for reasons we still do not entirely understand). This put the expanding welfare (and development) states under rising fiscal, and broader economic, pressure. This gave economic efficiency a persistent policy premium. The “neoliberal turn” in policy is a response to this pressure and policy premium. (Which, of course, leaves plenty of room for debate about specific measures.)

Been here, done
We (the Western world) have been here before. Responses to fiscal stress by states that involved restructuring of state institutions (corporatisation), sale, creation or re-allocation of property rights (privatisation) and reduction of transaction costs (deregulation) extend back into history, into the medieval period.  For instance, an appropriate modern term for the medieval borough or chartered town would be enterprise zone just as the modern corporation has medieval origins. Henry II’s “creation” of common law was a classic transaction-cost-reducing regulatory simplification (while also extending the reach of royal authority).

A more recent historical precedent would be postwar Germany, where Ludwig Erhard‘s “bonfire of controls” was the original “big bang” deregulation. This was in the context of Ordo-liberalism developing a concept of a social market economy: in many ways a direct forerunner of what later became known as “neoliberalism”. Hardly surprising, as postwar Germany confronted the legacy of Nazism, massive wartime destruction, and Western occupation. So how to rebuild an economy to sustain a welfare state was a central policy question, leading to the postwar West German “economic miracle“.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there developed, in Andrew Norton‘s nice description, a policy coalition to tackle these economic stagnation and fiscal stress problems in the wider Western world. The overlapping aim within the policy coalition was to create a sustainable welfare state. While Thatcher and Reagan get a lot of attention, in fact centre-left governments were prominent in the reform process–such as the Hawke-Keating Government in Australia and the Lange-Douglas Government in New Zealand. (I touch on this in my essay on postmodern conservatism.)

Deregulation actually started under the Carter Administration with Senator Edward Kennedy’s airline deregulation. The first “economic rationalist” (aka “neoliberal”) reforms in Australia were tariff reductions under the Whitlam Government (1972-5). If the policy goal with the broadest support was a sustainable welfare state, then it was natural for centre-left government to be prominent in the “neoliberal turn”. It is the same principle that Scandinavian states are ranked high for economic freedom, because a large welfare state requires a high level of economic efficiency and an expanding welfare state requires a high level of revenue, and thus economic, growth.

At the core of the policy turn are boundary issues for state activity arising from knowledge limits and incentive problems. More gains from trade means more tax revenue and employment prospects. A better targeted welfare state is a more sustainable welfare state. “Neoliberalism” (or “economic rationalism”) was mostly the application of fairly mainstream economic analysis to public policy problems, shorn of the presumption that government action was inherently virtuous or otherwise superior.

For the expanded welfare (and development) state was done as the state does most things–clumsily. (A point that also applies to the reform processes.) The clumsiness of state action is discussed by Peter Shuck’s recent book Why Government Fails So Often: And How It Can Do Better, nicely reviewed by economist David Henderson (link here). The wider issues of the limits to state action are brilliantly analysed by James C Scott in his splendid Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999). (A September 2010 discussion between Scott and various liberal or libertarian economists and political scientists is here.)

That the anti-”neoliberalism” literature presents us with Western intellectuals and academics more hostile to expansion of private commerce, markets and private property than the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party is somewhat striking, but said Central Committee has to struggle with genuine policy problems. (Just as dependency theorist Fernando Cardoso engaged in economic liberalisation and privatisation as President Cardoso.) All the academics hostilely pontificating on “neoliberalism” have to worry about is their own glowing moral soundness. Where the failure of command economies also goes down the memory hole, creating no problem they have to wrestle with. These are people who are so tied up in a proper conception of History that they cannot see history right in front of them. (And folk who habitually analyse the motives of others in the most hostile and dismissive terms will, of course, be outraged at their own obvious moral nobility being treated somewhat sceptically.)

The loss of harmony
Which is where we come to the central sin of “neoliberalism”. A basic principle of the direction of policy analysis labelled “neoliberalism” is that there are things that the state does relatively poorly and so should not do. This means abandoning belief in an omni-competent state. Which means–in the absence of any rival implementing mechanism to the state–the end of belief in the perfectible society; the end of belief in a society of perfect social harmony; of a society which completely embodies particular virtues; a society without alienation. What, to its practitioners, in the aims that the policy coalition could coalesce around, was simply a way of making the economy work better, of having better targeted and affordable welfare policy, of better allowing people to go about their lives, was a massive assault on every Radical Enlightenment ambition.

(As an aside, radical Left politics and radical Islam both embody the appeal of this notion of virtuous harmony. Hence the various cross-overs between the two.)

The term “contradictions” being regularly applied to clashing social interests nicely expresses the underlying assumption that the proper society has harmony, rather than seeing conflicting interests as both normal and inevitable.

We are dealing with very different responses to the paradox of politics (or the paradox of rulership): that the state is the most dangerous social predator but need we it to protect us against other predators (in order to permit a certain level of social amenity). A paradox sharpened by the constant temptation to use the state for one’s own predatory schemes–from rent-seeking corporations blocking competition or seeking other special benefits to projects of social outcasting and exclusion. The Sceptical Enlightenment accepts that the paradox can never be resolved, just managed more or less well. The Radical Enlightenment lives in the false hope of final solution. The tension between the two has created much tragedy, but has also helped fuel the Emancipation Sequence. (Though, even there, the practical Sceptical Enlightenment goal of inclusion and normalisation has constantly triumphed over the grander Radical Enlightenment goal of subversion and transformation).

Trying to put the Radical Enlightenment project into effect via Leninism created tyranny, (state) slaveryindustrial serfdomhereditary elites and even hereditary God-Kings. (Kim III succeeds his father, an Eternal Secretary-General who succeeded his father, an Eternal President; what else would you call Kim II and Kim III other than God-Kings?) There is also plenty of what James C. Scott calls “cosmological bluster” and Xavier Marquez’s hyperbolic loyalty signalling. This strikingly atavistic array extends to fetishising the mummified corpses of leaders. Said atavism is a result of Utopia in Power‘s vanguardism, which generates both an enormous cognitive and power gulf between those to be harmonised-and-equalised and elite which does the harmonising and “equalising”–those who will prune and straighten the crooked timber of humanity–magnifying dramatically the project’s inherent reliance on, and celebration of, (state) command-and-control. Hence the project’s reversions to past patterns of command-and-control and grand cognitive posturing.

Those who are most under the delusion that they represent some escape from the constraints of history are those who most end up in thrall to its recurring patterns. (Something else the radical Left and Islam have in common.)  For they fail to interrogate the patterns of history with appropriate humility, confident in the notion that they have the key to break out of the same, so remain caught in its patterns. Such as recycling the millennia-old state=civilisation and commerce is the morally polluting action of lesser minds tropes. Or the “end of history” Soviet regime going through the entire ibn Khaldun cycle of rise, decay and fall in a single life-time. Or the aforementioned consequences of the Leninist dismissal of the “bourgeois” Sceptical Enlightenment wrestlings with how to restrain power; wrestlings which presume that ultimate social harmony is not ours to achieve, being made, as we are, of the crooked timber of humanity and that a free (and mass prosperity) society can only be based on accepting people as their nature is, not as you would like them to be.

Which itself can lead into the “eternal now” of conservatism–taking current circumstances as simply “reflecting” human nature rather than contingent historical processes, not all of whose constructing victories are morally worthy. Hence productive tension between Sceptical and Radical Enlightenment visions–which can run within as well as between people–being important in, for example, the Emancipation Sequence.

Ahistorical pomposity
One sign of being so wrapped up in the proper conception of History that the “progressive” academic critics of “neoliberalism” cannot see the history in front of them is the ahistorical pomposity, the redolent rhetorical overdrive, of much of the language used.

Consider, for example, this statement from Stuart Hall and others (pdf):

With the banking crisis and the credit crunch of 2007-8, and their economic repercussions around the globe, the system of neoliberalism, or global free-market capitalism, that has come to dominate the world in the three decades since 1980, has imploded.

No, there has been an economic downturn and financial crisis. These happen. The latter happen recurrently; indeed, for centuries now. Hence the recent examination of the same, This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly.

They go on to describe them as events:

whose catastrophic consequences are still unfolding.

Catastrophic compared to what, the Great Depression?  The market order survived the Great Depression, it will survive this. (Though hopefully not without some monetary and financial policy changes.) That your humble author lives in a country (Australia) which has been a strong adopter of “neoliberal” policies but avoided both the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession (indeed, is the country where the Great Moderation has not ended) makes the not-remotely-apocalyptic reality a little more obvious, but only a little more.

They also talk of:

the redistribution from poor to rich.

Actually, the poor have not got poorer, what has happened is that top income shares have expanded faster–not the same thing. It is useful to keep the perspective that mass impoverishment is the historical norm; it is mass prosperity, and the hope of mass prosperity, which is historically extraordinary.

A theme in the anti-”neoliberalism” literature is to be highly critical of the expansion of the financial sector. Yes, if you subsidise financial activity through IMF “welfare for Wall St” and “too big to fail” (what economists call injections of moral hazard), that will inflate your financial sector and the returns thereto while making subsequent financial crises more intense.  Yet many a “neoliberal” have been critics of such policies–Milton Friedman was a noted critic of the IMF on precisely those grounds.

In Australia, financial liberalisation has incorporated balancing prudential regulation: in the US, it did not, for political reasons which reflect recurring patterns in US politics that go back over a century (see Fragile by Design: the Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit). A political failure completely not inherent in “neoliberalism”.

It could be objected that, in quoting from Hall et al, I am citing a manifesto as scholarship. I am merely following Robin James’s original citation as such; and its rhetoric is intended to be persuasive to its audience, so a reasonable indicator of a world view or mentality.

Let us consider a more directly scholarly piece by David Harvey, also cited by Robin James, which refers to (pdf):

State interventions in markets (once created)

One way to elevate the political and the state is to treat markets as inherently “created” by states–as if stateless peoples never had markets and black markets never existed. And yes, of course markets usually rely on law, mediation and other state-supplied services (and black markets have all sorts of quality and violence problems precisely because they blocked from using the same)–but then we are back to the issue being the proper boundaries between state and non-state action.

Harvey at least understands the tension between falling revenues and rising social expenditure, even if he has no serious grasp of why the former. He tells us:

The restoration of fiscal discipline was essential. This empowered those financial institutions that controlled the lines of credit to the state. In 1975 they refused to roll-over the debt of New York City and forced the city close to the edge of bankruptcy. A powerful cabal of bankers joined together with state power to discipline the city.

Yes, the people the money was borrowed from stuck to the novel idea that things have to be paid for. (Especially if you ever want to borrow again at non-punitive terms.) But we are dealing with “neoliberalism”, so something evil and malign:

This amounted to a coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City

Which, of course, has to be paralleled to Pinochet’s coup against the Allende Government. Because we are dealing with a manichean world view, and it is all one vast evil really.  And a failed one, as Harvey cites (quite inaccurate) global economic growth figures:

Aggregate growth rates stood at 3.5% or so in the 1960s and even during the troubled 1970s fell to only 2.4%. But the subsequent global growth rates of 1.4% and 1.1% for the 1980s and 1990s (and a rate that barely touches 1% since 2000) indicate that neoliberalism has broadly failed to stimulate worldwide growth (World Commision, 2004).

They are so evil, they persist in failure. How wicked and stupid policy makers must be! Actually, the answer we are given is that they have not failed, because it all about making the rich, richer. (As if all consequences are intended.) Which make voters pretty stupid then. The answer is rather simpler–while global economic growth has not recovered to 1960s levels, global per capita economic growth has been trending up again.  It is also fairly normal in the anti-”neoliberalism” literature that the massive global exits from poverty are either ignored or glossed over.

On the matter of intention, the anti-”neoliberalism” literature is full of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as if consequences were always intended. But such knowing intention is, of course, another sign of “neoliberalism’s” manichean power. This is history without happenstance: thus surges in corporate profits cannot be an unintended consequence of the interaction between inflation-targeting and positive productivity shocks. There is no policy discovery process, no trial and error, because how things work is, of course, already known.

Harvey sees the “neoliberal” turn as being:

to restore or, as in China and Russia, to construct, an overwhelming class power.

What class power is relevant to the Chinese policy shift? Really, you are the elite in charge of a police state command economy which utterly dominates society and its resources in a way no market economy can come close to replicating and somehow economic liberalisation is going to increase your class power? In which planet is someone living when swapping the immense class power of a totalitarian state for the dynamic instabilities of free commerce is seen as “creating class power”? But to say that the policy turn might be about escaping from mass impoverishment would imply the “neoliberal” turn had a positive point, and we can’t have that, can we?

The comparative (and later absolute) failure of command economies in various “natural experiments” has no serious resonance in the anti “neoliberal” literature. Yet it was deeply influential in encouraging “neoliberal” policy advocacy.

Harvey does at least notice that “neoliberalism” accepts the state has having a role. One can only understand the “neoliberal” turn in policy if one grasps that it is really about what the state should, and should not, do because it is about what the state can, and cannot do, effectively. If you cannot enter seriously into the intentions, motivations, ideas and contexts of historical actors, you cannot produce anything beyond congenial rhetoric parading (falsely) as substantive analysis.

Rampant conflation
A common feature of this literature is that neoliberalism is conflated with globalisation. More openness to trade obviously fosters globalisation, but contemporary globalisation itself is mainly driven by falling communication costs (although falling transport costs also matter), just as C19th globalisation was mainly driven by falling transport costs (although falling communication costs also mattered). And there was no globalisation worth the name before the dramatic drop in said costs.

There is also often somewhat sneering references to “capital accumulation”–also known as mass prosperity. Since that is only possible with capital accumulation: indeed, the level of capital per person in a society is a basic indicator of its level of prosperity.

Watching the “neoliberal” Hawke-Keating Government (1983-96) labour mightily to create a sustainable welfare state makes the “threatened ruling class” spouting seem like the self-indulgent crap it is. And exactly how “threatened” was the Chinese “ruling class”? Once again, we are back in the realm of manichean analysis–never explain by the reality that things have to be paid for and economic stagnation is politically problematic when malign conspiracy can be invoked.

So much rests on how things are framed. So Harvey frames it thus:

In whose particular interests is it that the state takes a neoliberal stance and in what ways have these particular interests used neoliberalism to benefit themselves rather than, as is claimed, everyone, everywhere?

Serious, broad-based policy making, struggling with genuine issues, is excluded so that things can be framed in (malign) self interest.

Spontaneous, at the margin, revolt by developing world peasants, workers and students for property rights and commercial freedom also does not suit such narratives, where ordinary folk figure only as victims or dupes. That there might be good reasons by “neoliberal” governments were elected (and, worse, re-elected) passes them by, such good reasons being excluded by their framing. By excluding even the possibility of the “neoliberal” turn being a reasonable policy response, one is left with malign self-interest (even malign conspiracy) to “explain” it.

Just as so much of said “analysis” conflates disparate phenomena together according to what reflects their own hopes, fears and frustrations, not that which is actually in any analytically useful sense a common phenomenon.

This conflating operates at various levels. For harmonising is also homogenising; abandon the notion of final social harmony and the play of diverse identities becomes enchanting and natural rather than inconvenient and threatening.

Again and again, this literature presents us with ahistorical grandiosity. The term “capitalism” helps promote such overweening systematisation. The term becomes so easily an ahistorical abstraction. One that is rhetorically powerful, yet analytically fraught. Retreat to terms such as “state capitalism” shows how analytically empty. Leading to treating the state as some epiphenomenon (typically of class), which it is not. One cannot understand the Euro project, for example, without understanding that it is a deeply political, even (super)state building, project.

So much of the anti “neoliberal” literature is deep crap, because intellectual sophistication is well in evidence even while rhetoric overwhelms and blocks understanding. It is something I find distressing, because I enjoy reading scholarly articles, made so delightfully accessible by the internet. To have such persistent nonsense written about something I am personally familiar with generates worries about the scholarship I appreciate.

Though there is scholarship that can help us make sense of it. A paper by Dan Kahan and Donald Braman, Cultural Cognition and Public Policy, examines how people interpret evidence on the basis of their “cultural placement”. The paper alludes to the intensifying effects of cognitive conformity–Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent is an excellent presentation of the social science evidence on the powerful, and deleterious, effects of cognitive conformity. So much of the academic literature on “neoliberalism” is a case study of precisely that.

In the post praising Robin James’s original post, philosopher Leigh Johnson writes:

And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the “Invisible Hand” drone is a deadly effective weapon that basically works like this: defund or deregulate, make sure things don’t work, wait for people to get angry, then privatize.

Back to the manichean conception. (Manichean both in the sense of evil but also in the sense that it is a grand conjoined corporate-finance-Middle Eastern policy-managerialist evil.) The notion that politics is about contending interests just disappears behind some notion of evil, coherent manipulation of the commercial and political realm because history is not going the way it is supposed to. What is Johnson’s comment that:

the neoliberal imperative, shouted into the panopticon of our modern world and echoed off every wall by banks, political parties, corporations, families, nation-states, social groups and social media

but a wail of cognitive pain about history going wrong? Absent in this manichean wail is the sense that there might have been any legitimate difficulty to be wrestled with, that the welfare and development states suffering fiscal and economic stress might have produced serious policy responses.

The “neoliberal” phenomenon–being about a broad trend in public policy–sits at the intersection of the classical liberal tradition (including those elements that reach into the social democratic tradition), developments in economics and practical politics. People who do not understand these three realms of action and thought are not going to usefully write about the intersection between them.

What is so often portrayed as merely a fight over who controls the lever of the state, and which way it is pulled, is something much more fundamental than that. It is and was about wrestling with what is practicable to do with that lever, and at what cost to whom. The much more fundamental nature of what has been going on in the “neoliberal turn” is not faced because it is too confronting. Remaining within their dogmatic slumbers is much more comforting.

Hegemonic comfort
Hence we get the products of humanities and social science academics who rarely, if ever, meet, still less directly engage with, those involved in the above wrestling. SF author Orson Scott Card observed in a podcast interview with Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit) and Dr. Helen Smith (DrHelen) in November 2006 that military officers are generally more intellectually open and flexible than academics, as they have to deal with people with wide range of views; academics just vote against tenure of those they disagree with. It is much more congenial that way: particularly if you wrap your sense of personal identity up in a common notion of being morally and cognitively “sound”. So narrowness of range of views and perspectives becomes a feature, not a bug. It is much more congenial to be part of the progressivist hegemony of academe, rather than a trouble-making outlier. Particularly if you can parade as a morally heroic “exposer” of a malign, society-dominating, “neoliberal” hegemony.

(Pausing here, obviously I have lots of disagreements with Mr Card; that does not mean he doesn’t have a point. And that I have to engage in such hand-waving just illustrates how entrenched the judging-people-by-their-opinions-is. Note also that nothing I have written in this post implies that the actual policies chosen were optimal, could not be reasonably disagreed with, etc.)

I would say that said academics need to go and do the reading for themselves, but the barrier of their assumptions may well be invincible. The barrier of being seen to be “sound”, part of the comfortable progressivist hegemony, even more so.

It is not about reality, it is about feeling intellectually and morally comfortable. Or trying to recover some sense of such comfort by creating a set of intellectual fictions which both deny there is any serious point to the “neoliberal” policy turn and allow them to believe their ideological comforts can be unproblematically resurrected.

Just don’t mistake that search for cognitive comfort, and what it produces, for anything resembling serious scholarship. It utterly lacks the genuine engagement with its subject matter that such scholarship requires.

 

That measure, it does not mean what you think it means

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here

When trying to tease out what sorts of policies work and what do not, people often make cross-country comparisons of, for example, expenditure on education (such as, as a % of GDP). Trouble is, expenditure on education is a remarkably useless measure.

An obvious indicator of that is that expenditure on education and education outcomes are poorly correlated. But, particularly in a situation where most expenditure on education is government expenditure, there is nothing surprising about this. Government expenditure is merely the cost of inputs, and the cost of inputs does not tell you the value of something. Businesses seek to have the cost of their inputs be considerably less than the price they sell a good or service for and to avoid the cost of inputs being larger than what they can sell it for. While price is not a perfect measure of value, it is a great deal better than merely the cost of inputs. This is a petite version of the economic/socialist calculation problem and it afflicts all government expenditure figures which are not market-priced, merely input-costed.

A point that extends across the range of government expenditure. Do people, think, for example, that expenditure per ISIS fighter and expenditure per Iraqi soldier tells us anything about their relative military effectiveness?

Regarding education, comparing (say) Latin American expenditure on education and East Asian expenditure on education is almost completely useless. Family effort and expectations about education matter greatly.

Must get good score to get a good job and make my family proud.

Latin American societies are based on various levels of “social mercantilism”, where very uneven provision of public goods (such as property rights recognition) and bureaucratic approval systems are used to protect “insiders” against “outsiders”. While East Asian societies are noted for certain sorts of government interventions, they are more of the “market augmenting” type than of the “market controlling” type. And their markets are generally very open to firm entry (at least for domestic firms).

So building enough schools and legal environment so everyone can go to school is going to operate differently in a society with strong education attachment and expectations (East Asia) compared to a society where which family you belong to with what connections counts so much more (Latin America). To put it another way, expenditure on education in a low-Gini ratio society with markets open to firm entry are going to operate very differently than expenditures on education in a high-Gini ratio society riddled with bureaucratic barriers to entry.

You trying to tell us that it is not about who our family is?

Hence, comparing Latin American and East Asian (input) expenditures on education is going to be almost completely useless, given the vastly different contexts.

Much the same point counts with the term “government intervention”. Market-augmenting actions operate very differently than market-controlling actions, yet both count as “interventions”. The real measure is how much government actions raise or lower transaction costs, commercial risks or otherwise get in the way of/promote gains from trade, but you cannot tell that from merely calling government actions “government interventions”.

This is not to say that there is no point to trying to compare large numbers of cases statistically. On the contrary, it can be a great way to sift through possible explanations. The trick is to be aware of the weaknesses in data (generally avoid mere input measures), and how very much context matters.

Gee, can I be a Guardian pundit?

By Lorenzo

A US former special ops officer argues that ISIS is just using tactics (via) that al-Qaeda had previously used, which work against Arab forces, but not Western ones:

AQI/ISIL quickly learned to never use these tactics on the Americans. They regretted it in 2005 when they carried out a complex multi-prong attack on Abu Ghuraib prison – it was a virtual slaughter of all the attackers. On the other hand local Arab forces respond poorly these tactics.

Which provides an opportunity:

A massive defeat on ISIL could decimate their professional spearhead of veterans and break the image of invincibility. Just one drone and a Special Forces forward control team with a B-1 bomber package with could do that with ease.

Provided, of course, one can specifically target such.

Foreign trucks and weapons, local homicidal hatred.

 Jonathan Freedland, writing in Comment is Free on the Guardian website, identifies the success of ISIS as being primarily the result of the collapse of state power–in Syria and Iraq. In Syria because of the civil war, in Iraq because of the US overthrow of Saddam and the sectarian incompetence of the Maliki Government.

Which is also, of course, the US’s fault. Yes, getting rid of authoritarian dictators can let loose unexpected difficulties. But Iraqi PM Maliki has consistently refused to follow US advice. Which, as the elected head of an independent and sovereign state, he was free to do. Maliki’s incompetence is his fault. This making only Western/US agency count is a tiresome game. (Also, do we remember that Saddam’s wars killed far, far more people than the current unpleasantness?)

Now, whether the US should have committed itself to maintaining the backwash of European imperialism: probably not. But redrawing the Middle Eastern map in that way would have caused all sorts of diplomatic difficulties. Which would no doubt have been denounced by Guardian pundits as an outrageous use of American power.

Meanwhile, Freedland goes on to lament the lack of power on the world stage. So, the world system needs a manager–who promises not to do anything that a Guardian pundit might complain about. No responsibility and moral superiority too. Can I be a Guardian pundit?

Arab messes
The trouble is, whether the US directly overthrows a tyrant (Iraq), helps a populace overthrow its tyrant (Libya) or refuses to get involved in an attempt to overthrow a tyrant (Syria), it all ends up in a similar mess. Which rather suggests that the problem is not US policy, but Arab states not grounded in Arab realities.

 So, what should the US do? Provide military support for the Kurds and Maliki (the UK’s plan to attack ISIS’s fundraising has the right sort of target) and prepare everyone for breaking up Iraq. And probably Syria as well. But that would take more sense of history than is likely either in Washington or the offices of The Guardian.

There is, after all, not much evidence that the Obama Administration has either the perception or the stomach for such an approach. So, flailing around trying to shore up the backwash of European imperialism it seems to be.

 

On not seeing the Middle East

By Lorenzo

Two now well-established anti-Israel lines of rhetoric are that the Jewish State is “Nazi-like” (Zionism=Nazism) and the Jewish State is “an apartheid state“. What these lines of rhetoric have in common is that they attack Israel invoking comparisons which resonate in the West and Western political rhetoric, invoking comparisons which have no specific connection to the Middle East at all.

There is, of course, actually a political movement with an attached paramilitary wing which openly endorses genocide in its founding political Covenant and in its continuing rhetoric. That would be Hamas and it currently runs Gaza.

But the nature, methods and goals of Hamas seem to be just too hard for many Westerners to deal with. Consider this piece by former US President Jimmy Carter and former Irish President Mary Robinson. It is full of the rhetoric of conciliation and “please just be sensible” that Very Serious People use to show their Very Serious Concern. Rhetoric that is essentially completely interchangeable–swap the relevant nouns and it could be a call for peace, goodwill and conciliation about any endemic conflict anywhere around the globe.

But Hamas is not interested in peace at any price. It is interested in the establishment of Islamic rule and the obliteration of Israel: a Middle East not only free of any Jewish state, but free of Jews, that is Judenfrei. Just as ISIS is currently massacring religious minorities in pursuit of the same vision of Islamic harmony.

Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saluting Bosnian Muslim SS volunteers.

It is simply not possible for Israel to make peace with Hamas. All it can manage is truces of various duration until the next mini-war. If one cannot grasp that reality, one is engaged in acts of delusion, not understanding.

Folk in Israel grasp that reality, which is likely why Israeli opinion is hardening, widening the gap between Israeli opinion and Western opinion. Part of what is going on is that Israel is becoming a Middle Eastern state. The dynamics of conflict have been driving it towards insider-outsider ruthlessness that is so much a part of the dynamics of the region, leading to suggestions that the most recent Gaza conflict is simply an eruption of continuing enmity, with no greater underlying strategy.

Yet what has enabled Israel to survive, and even to thrive, is precisely that it is not a Middle Eastern state: that it is a liberal-democratic nation-state on the Western model, with Western levels of social cohesion and organisational effectiveness. This is perhaps the danger that the Netanyahu Government’s apparent strategy of Greater Israel does not grasp. That giving into the Middle Eastern dynamic may fatally erode Israel’s advantages in being in, but far from merely of, the Middle East. Gazing into the Middle Eastern abyss does mean that the abyss gazes into you. Indeed, the entire quote from Nietzsche is apposite:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

But Israel not being merely of the Middle East also feeds into its rhetorical isolation. First, Israel is judged as a Western liberal-democracy, and not as a Middle Eastern state. Second, Israel is treated as a “settler state”; a colonising and imperial intrusion into the region, thus casting the Palestinians as oppressed indigenes.  Which is again a case of not seeing the Middle East, given that about half of Israeli Jews come from the Middle East and are as every bit “indigenous” to the region as the Arabs. Indeed, in a sense more so, since their Middle Eastern identity is a great deal older than the Arab-Muslim one.

Hence the two-state solution. Recent events has thrown into very stark belief a fundamental problem with that. Arab states, they do not work so well (for reasons nicely summarised in this piece). Which raises serious issues about why would a putative Palestinian state be any more viable? (Ironically, the most hopeful answer is–because they have been observing Israel up close for 60 years.)

Which is not terribly hopeful, because it runs into the “taking on infidel models” problem that organisations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, etc are brutally committed to opposing. One of the fundamental problems of Palestinian politics is that hating Israel is both fundamental to Palestinian identity and the only common ground in Palestinian politics. It is likely why Arafat walked away from the best offer Palestine was ever likely to get: Ehud Barak‘s compensated borders proposal. He did not want to be Palestine’s Michael Collins or deal with disastrously divided “ordinary politics” toxically mixed in with frustrated hate.

The one-state “solution” would be even worse. The IDF is what makes Israeli Jews so much safer than any other Middle Eastern minority and there is no way they will voluntarily give it up. [Even French Jews are increasingly seeing the IDF as their preferred defenders.]

The problem with seeing the Middle East as it is, is that so much is so depressing. Hamas is a genocidal political movement whose only competitive advantage is well-organised hate who really was using dead Palestinians as a strategic lever. It is the real vector for Nazi-style ideas in the Middle East in a pattern that reaches back to the original leader of Palestinian rejectionism. But ideas that resonate by building on tendencies with Islam itself, including the problems of Arab society dealing with the modern world–in large part due to the dynamics of Islam.

Consider this example of Islamic jurisprudence from Sudan:

Meriam Ibrahim was born as the daughter of a Sudanese Muslim father and an Ethiopian Christian mother. The father deserted and Meriam was raised as a Christian by her mother’s family. She subsequently married Daniel Wasi, a Christian holding U.S. citizenship, with whom she had one child and was pregnant with another when she was arrested. The charge was apostasy and fornication. Under Islamic law the father’s religion determines the child’s, so Meriam is a Muslim. Unless she recants her professed Christianity she is guilty of apostasy. Marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman is prohibited, so her union with Wasi is fornication. She refused to recant her Christian faith. She was sentenced to death by hanging for apostasy, and for fornication to be whipped with one hundred lashes. Both sentences were to be suspended for two years after the birth.

There is no conception of an open public space where people get to make their own decisions and choose their own affinities or operate according to them. Sharia was, from its beginning, an imperial legal system, and that is still its in-built dynamic.

Seeing Hamas as the closest analogue in the Middle East to the Nazi movement gets in the way of a whole lot of comfortable Western assumptions and rhetoric. But it is hardly the only thing that does.

 

ISIS, ibn Khaldun and patterns in history

By Lorenzo

One of the benefits of reading Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies (which I review here and here) is understanding how much Islamic history shows recurring patterns. For example, how conflict between modernisers (we should learn from others), traditionalists (we should practice the religion as it is handed down to us) and reformists (we need to recover the purity of original Islam) is a recurring dynamic in Islam, going back to its first centuries. Note that modernising learning does not mean mere techniques or technology–both traditionalists and reformers are up for that, where it is useful to them–it means we should adjust our understanding of reality by taking in what outsiders have discovered.

Recurring Islamic patterns
The outcome of these struggles is also a recurring pattern–the modernisers lose, the reformers win but Islam reverts into inter-generational transfer that picks up cultural accretions on the way through. (I.e. traditionalism ends up with the numbers.) In our day, the Islamists and jihadis (overlapping categories) represent the reformers, liberals and secularists represent the modernisers while most Muslims remain traditionalists. As I have noted before, Islam does not “need” a Reformation–it has them over and over again. What Islam “needs” is an Enlightenment.

The trouble is, the logic of belief embedded in mainstream Islam militates strongly against any such outcome as it largely lacks even the precursors thereto. When Westerners talk about what Islam needs, what they really mean is “in order to be good neighbours in the modern world”. (To get away from Islam having “bloody borders”.) But, of course, an alternative solution is to make the modern world conform to the dictates of Islam. Which is precisely the project of the Islamists and the jihadis. They emphatically oppose adjusting the doctrine and practice of Islam to fit in with the modern world (the modernising strategy), they want to remake the world to fit in with (their understanding of) the doctrine and practice of Islam.

Let us leave aside whether they can achieve the power necessary to do that, is that an attainable goal at all? Is it possible to create a society that lives up to their concept of a properly Islamic society? (Remembering that Islam generates very complete rules of social order, far more so than Christianity or rabbinical Judaism.) The long term pattern of Islam–particulary the regular waves of purifying reformism–suggests not. Indeed, Daniel Pipes argued, in his Slave Soldiers and Islam (pdf) (the book of his doctoral thesis), that the distinctive Islamic use of slave soldier systems (such as the mamluks and the Janissariesflowed directly from Muslim polities being unable to live up to Islamic ideals, resulting in a withdrawal of most Muslims from political participation and a search by rulers for ways to recruit reliable military forces.

Even more paradoxically, adhering to Islamic principles (other than that of submission to Muslim rule) turns out to be much more common in non-Islamic countries, at least according to an economic index (pdf), composed for that purpose (full publication is available here, behind a paywall). In the economic index, (and apparently also in the final version) Northern European Atlantic littoral states (or former British colonies) score in the top 10, while the highest ranked majority Muslim country is Malaysia (also former British colony). As measured by said index, not being ruled by Muslims can get to you “Islamic” ideals more thoroughly. (The “Great Satan”–aka the USA–ranks better than any majority-Muslim country: apparently, those Muslims who claim you can practise Islam much more safely and thoroughly in the US than in majority-Muslim countries have a point.) Muslim rule is not so clearly the path to the Islamic-principles adhering society the jihadis fondly imagine they are fighting for.

But, of course, rule by Muslims is precisely what the jihadis are fighting for, not ticking doctrinal outcome boxes. What the jihadis and Islamists are interested in us whether you tick doctrinal adherence boxes and reconfiguring the social, cultural and religious environment according to such adherence. In other words, forcing the modern world to adhere to their understanding of Islamic principles, which emphatically means rule by Muslims (as they define it and them). Whether it is the Taliban enforcing the burqa and blowing up Buddha statues, or sub-Saharan jihadis in Mali or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) destroying tombs or “heretical” mosques, and enforcing religious subordination, the pattern is very clear. (And extends back to the original Wahhabi take-over in Arabia.)

Ecological frontiers
Human history is full of patterns, both general and specific, because of commonalities of human nature (both cognitive and physical), of human experience, because of geographical constraints and enduring belief. Islam in particular generates very strong, recurring, logics of belief which result in persistent patterns.

As do the interactions of institutions and geography in the deserts-mountains-river valleys belt from Morocco to the Ganges River; the region across which Islam has been dominant for centuries. The belt Islam has also had problems expanding beyond, apart from its mercantile spread to the Malay world and Africa’s Indian Ocean coast. (These being explicable in terms of the commercial advantages of Sharia and Islam’s appeal as an oppositional identity against European colonisers. Part of the general pattern of trade networks spreading religions.)

The Taliban, ISIS and Mali jihadis are also manifestations of a pattern classically delineated by C14th historical sociologist ibn Khaldun (Abū Zayd ‘Abdu r-Raḥmān bin Muḥammad bin Khaldūn Al-Ḥaḍrami: 1132-1406). High asabiyyah (social cohesion) groups from marginal areas attacking and even overwhelming urban-based polities.

The region from Morocco to the Ganges River is riddled with ecological frontiers. That is, areas which favour very different forms of social organisation. (Such ecological frontiers tend to favour [pdf] creation of empires.) The river valleys were, using the terminology of James Scott in his Seeing Like a State and The Art of Not Being Governed, generally highly “legible” to state power. Conversely, the mountains, deserts and steppes were not.  These favoured pastoralists where lineage systems provided protection, as explained in Philip Salzman’s Culture and Conflict in the Middle East (which I review here). Because Islam provides no bar to cousin marriages (so daughters were married back into the lineage, providing sons for the same lineage, not a different one), and failed to created high trust polities, use of lineages for support and protective services was favoured throughout the region, even in the farming river valleys.

Contours of trust
[Longstanding social patterns] gave Islam a very strong competitive advantage within the region, as it provided both a means and a motive to unite pastoralist warriors across lineages. Western social scientists talk of low-trust societies, but it is more apposite to think of them as variable trust societies. They may have a lower level of general trust, but they have pockets of much higher trust. This highly differentiated levels of trust provides means for higher trust networks to flourish–either commercially (e.g. overseas Chinese in South East Asia [pdf]) or militarily. Hence the powerful recurring pattern of Islam failing to create high trust polities encouraging waves of religious reformism uniting religiously motivated warriors whose high social cohesion (i.e. mutual trust due to intense signalling of common motivation) then overwhelm urban polity-troops lacking such cohesion.

Mali jihadis destroying a tomb in Timbuktu

As we have seen with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the jihadis in Mali and now ISIS in Iraq.

As an aside, while one can point to varying specific features of, for example, Arab culture affecting levels of military success, said features can be usefully understood as manifesting wildly divergent levels of general social cohesion compared to Western societies, which explains why Western forces typically find it almost ridiculously easy to defeat regular Arab armies. (Highly motivated insurgencies are a different matter.)

The politics of worldly salvation
Tying social cohesion to a particular belief system has problems for long term stability, however, and the more so the more “worldly” the ambitions of the ideology. One of the features that Islam (particularly political Islam) and revolutionary socialism have in common is the worldly content of their ambitions: they sell the politics of worldly salvation via achievement of unparalleled social harmony and success. The trouble is that performance inevitably fails to live up to the motivating claim–which then undermines the motivation.

Which is why the Soviet regime, in the space of its 74 years of existent (1917-1991: officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics from 1922 to 1991), managed to travel through the complete cycle of ibn Khaldun’s stages of rule from rise to collapse: a pattern that can be traced through its successive leaders. First, a group bound by common feeling (asabiyyah) seizes power (Lenin 1917-1924). Then the ruler separates himself from the original group to entrench his own power (Stalin 1924-1953). Then the regime slowly decays as group solidarity fades and corruption erodes social resilience and regime power (KhruschevBrezhnevAndropovChernenko 1953-1985). Until the regime finally collapses (Gorbachev 1985-1991).

The Soviet regime can also be seen as following an accelerated version of the cycles of peak-and-decay that the three “mandarin” Chinese dynasties (Song 960-1279, Ming 1368-1644, Qing 1644-1912) went through. The three rule-by-meritocratic-bureaucracy dynasties lasted similar amounts of time (312, 276, 267 years respectively) and each went through a similar peak-and-decline cycle, which can reasonably be seen (pdf) as a specific principal-agent problem.

Another way to put it is that the mandarin dynasties relied solely on command-and-control, which greatly limited their feedback mechanisms and social levers; with even the levers they did have dissipating as collusive networks spread (applying Mancur Olson’s analysis of the Soviet command-and-control system). The difference being that, unlike the command economies, the mandarin dynasties did not attempt to command-and-control everything, so the command economies were eaten away by corruption much faster, and in much sharper contradiction to their far more hubristic claims.

Nevertheless, I would put more emphasis on the social cohesion cycle, as the Soviet regime did follow ibn Khaldun’s pattern of dynastic rise and decay much more specifically, while seeing the single-lifetime speed of the cycle as the consequences of the effects of hubristic-in-aim-and-scope command-and-control.

Russian patterns
Tsarist Russia was very much a variable trust society: even more so once the Russian Civil War (1917-1922) was underway. While societies wracked by civil war are obviously highly variable in trust during the conflict, after the conflict is over, they will, after a recovery period which will be affected by the duration and intensity of the conflict, tend to revert to their long term patterns (e.g. England after the English Civil War 1642-1651, Switzerland after the Swiss Civil War 1847, the US after the American Civil War (1861-5),  and Finland after the Finnish Civil War 1918).

Russia went into the “Leninist deep freeze” with the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War, but has emerged out the other end a genuinely low trust society (that is, even family connections have limited trust value) due to the “institution-and-connection flattening” nature of Leninist rule. (Which also leads to the ironic spectacle of the officially Leninist Beijing regime pushing Confucianism, in part to revitalise family feeling.) Russia has the pretensions to the formal political mechanisms of Western societies (elections, rule of law, etc), but lacks the social cohesion to back them up, which makes the sort of authoritarian rule Vladimir Putin has established a likely social outcome. Adventurism in foreign policy to achieve a form of “success” useful for such rule is a recurring feature of such regimes. Which does much to explain the patterns of postwar Middle Eastern history.

Searching for cohesion
As does the fact that Middle Eastern state boundaries–notably Lebanon, Syria and Iraq–represent the backwash of European imperialism. Neither Syria nor Iraq have any serious common social cohesion to back them up, the states in question (currently fairly irrelevant lines on maps) being not much more than mechanisms for a dominant group to repress other groups. (Lebanon does not have any serious common social cohesion either, but the state is too weak to do much in the way of repression.) It would probably be stabilising for state boundaries to better reflect patterns of social cohesion–which suggests that breaking up both Syria and Iraq would be more likely to produce social stability.

But only up to a point. Not all significant social identities in the Middle East have territorial bases. Hence 800,000 to 1m Jews fleeing to Israel and the West from 1948 to the 1970s and the exodus of Christians from the Middle East, a pattern that has been notable for some time but has accelerated with recent conflicts. Israel has operate as a haven for Middle Eastern Jews (and Russian Jews and now French Jews). Lebanon failed to operate as a similar haven for Middle Eastern Christians.

ISIS fighters in Iraq

Nor would border re-arrangements solve the difficulties Islam has generating high trust polities. The traditional monarchies do comparatively well while Tunisia is a lonely Arab Spring (or is that Sunni Surge?) democratic success. But traditional monarchies can hardly be created ex nihilo and Tunisia has some rather specific advantages.

Relying on successful authoritarians to maintain peace and order in the Middle East was and is an entirely understandable temptation. Even more so when we contemplate what can follow the collapse or retreat of such rule (either disorder and chaos–as in Syria, Iraq and Libya–or mosque-rule–as in Iran–or the former from the attempt to get the latter–as in the Algerian Civil War) in a region which remains (outside the traditional monarchies) largely suspended between mosque and military.

But the authoritarians were never a solution (in the words of a famous essay of the same name the Shah always falls), just a holding action.  The trouble is precisely that groups such as ISIS and the Taliban are modern versions of recurring patterns that go back to the origins of Islam. Perhaps there is no solution, just various stages of the cycle: no better strategy than holding on until demographic collapse overtakes Islam. (Though that may make for even grander jihadism of desperation.)

 

 

Unhelpful dichotomies

By Lorenzo

I recently finished The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire by Kent Flannery & Joyce Marcus, a very accessible rendering for the lay audience of a huge amount of anthropological and archaeological data about the development of state societies. At the end of Chapter Twenty-Two (“Graft and Imperialism”), there is the following comment:

The rarity of laissez-faire market systems in early civilizations has fueled a long-standing debate among two kinds of economists: formalists and substantivists. Formalists believe that the laws of supply and demand usually determine what societies do. Substantivists, as exemplified by economic historian Karl Polanyi, believe that, on the contrary, the economy is embedded in society and constitutes a special form of social relations. Indeed, many substantivists would argue that economics began with the reciprocal gifts exchanged by hunters and gatherers and grew from there. …

Perhaps the best way to leave the debate is this: Substantivists can cite dozens of anecdotal cases in which cosmology, religion or cultural values restrict the interaction of supply and demand. The formalists, however, have produced all the sexy equations that might win you a Nobel Prize.

Apart from displaying the Nobel-envy of economics which is widespread among other social sciences, this is not a helpful way of thinking about such matters. Adam Smith, for example, believed that economic relations were embedded in society, but also held that analysis of supply and demand could get you a long way. Yes, there is a strong tendency and temptation towards narrow formalism in mainstream economics. But there is a wide range of mainstream economic opinion between the polarised dichotomies set out above.

What do you mean
Part of the problem is in that monumentally unhelpful construction laissez faire market systems. What does one mean by “laissez faire”. No regulation? Minimal regulation? Regulation of what? What does one mean by “market system”? Does there have to be a market system for there to be markets? (Well, no.)

The simplistic dichotomy rests on a now-backwards conceptual framework, where rhetoric from modern ideological struggles is invoked to create a simplistic analytical dichotomy. Yes, it is perfectly possible to find economic analysis which way over-simplifies–to a very misleading extent–the complexities of the past (Carl Menger on barter and money, for example). But the implied exorcism of anything resembling mainstream economic analysis as a useful tool in historical analysis is not a good way of advancing understanding of the past.

It is striking, for example, how many of the cited anecdotes turn out to be ways of dealing with risk, particularly variability in output. I would not, for example, characterise the internal economics of foraging bands as:

… reciprocal gifts exchanged by hunters and gatherers …

Admittedly, it is unclear whether the reference is to interactions within or between foraging bands. But, as the author’s themselves note in an earlier chapter, pooling hunted meat is an effective way of dealing with the high variability of hunting. Similarly, the reference to the development of a fixed price for copper in a particular set of long-distance trade arrangements strikes me, not as a “refutation” of supply-and-demand analysis, but as a risk-management device. Which, indeed, is what the author’s suggest it was. Adding in the risk-dimension enriches supply-and-demand analysis, it does not abolish it.

Harold Demsetz’s classic article on the development of property rights (pdf) makes it perfectly clear that social constraints will affect the weight given to particular problems and solutions. But his discussion of how property rights develop in response to changing possibilities and constraints is entirely compatible with the two authors’s discussion of how Mesopotamia seems to have developed the first private ownership of land. (Said discussion somewhat punctures the presentation of Mesopotamian economies in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years.)

Having previously done considerable reading on the economics of marriage, one of the pleasures of reading The Creation of Inequality is that the narrative provides very helpful explanatory context for concepts and conclusions in the economic papers discussing family forms. A case of archaeology, anthropology and economics all providing mutually supporting enlightenment. But, then, the aforementioned economic papers took the anthropological data as their starting point, so that is less than surprising.

Come Romanticise with me
Which gets back to the real problem–theorising poorly grounded in the empirical evidence. Often for reasons of ideological comfort. The authors’s citation of Karl Polanyi is particularly apposite, since Polanyi seems to appeal in direct correlation to both ideological affinity and empirical ignorance. As Deidre McCloskey points out:

Yet when Appleby thinks a little about earlier economies, outside her specialty, she turns Polanyist. Everyone tends to, because, to repeat, Polanyi gives expression to the nineteenth-century Romantic story on which we all were raised. We all revert to fairytales when we get beyond what we actually know, especially when the tales seem to support what we believe fervently to be politically true. It’s human nature, or social psychology, or ideology, or rhetoric. We adopt stereotypes about women or black people or medieval peasants or robber barons just when we actually don’t know much about them.

The trouble with Polanyi is that he was half right, and wholly appealing:

Some very perceptive scholars have fallen for Polanyi, because a big part of what he says — that ideology and rhetoric matter — is so obviously true and important. Therefore they have believed the rest of what he says — that societies were not organized by markets until the nineteenth century. The emotional pattern seems to be something like, “Polanyi, a leftist like me, says many true things, beautifully. Therefore his tales about what happened in economic history must be true.”

Part of the problem is the dreadful term capitalism.  The term capitalism is like feudalism–it is an analytical black hole from which the complexities of actual history rarely escape. People create an “ideal type” of the “system” and then impose it on a much more complicated historical reality.

Markets, markets, all over the place
Markets turn up very early. Some civilisations (Mesopotamia, the Aztecs) used markets a lot. Some (Pharaonic Egypt, the Incas) ran something more like command economies. But even they had local markets. (Somewhat like modern command economies had black markets, except that the rulers of the ancient economies were not hubristic enough to think that all markets had to be replaced.) Once flows of goods and services get too complicated to be handled by personal connections, markets will arise.

Both Macfarlane (The Origins of English Individualism) and Braudel (in his three volume Civilization and Capitalism) attempted to find that time when England was not a land of individualist property-owners engaging in truck, barter and exchange and could not find such a time. Which, if you look at various social mechanisms as operating on continuums of reliance, is not terribly surprising. The geography and institutional history of England militates strongly against the creation of early command economies or overwhelming reliance on personal connection.

About money
Another unhelpful dichotomy, though one rather more soundly grounded in actual analytical patterns than the above, is what economist Bruce Goodhart calls (actually rather helpfully) C-theory and M-theory (pdf) on the origins and nature of money. A lot of the problem here is the difficulties of what we mean by money. To start with, should we think of it as a thing, a noun–something is, or is not, money–or should we think of it as an adjective, a quality–things have varying degrees of moneyness? In a strict analytical sense, the latter. Alas, the money we use all the time pulls us much more naturally to think of it as a thing.

Most widely used form of money, across space and time.

The reason why Goodhart’s term C-theory is helpful, is because if we take the strict chartalist notion that “money is a creation of law” (or worse, the state), then we are wrong from the start. Things which can clearly be described as money (or having a high degree of moneyness) arise in non-state societies and operate across jurisdictional boundaries. But if we take note of the network characteristics of money, then C-theory is not without its insights. It is just not remotely the whole story, for which M-theory also has to be utilised.

In both cases, the problem is that thinking of social phenomena as operating in continuums is messy and ideologically unhelpful. We like our dichotomies, they are rhetorically and analytically much more comforting. But, alas, comfort is not truth.

 

Equalising consumption => lowering vulnerability

By Lorenzo

A comment on a previous post expresses a common set of views among conservatives:

Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.

This confuses natural selection with social selection, which are very different processes. Nevertheless, this view that historical selection (either in general or in some specific set of societies) selects for what works, so gives what we inherit presumptive legitimacy, is a common view within conservative and prudential liberal circles. (Western conservatives, especially in the Anglosphere, are generally mostly prudential liberal in outlook.) The general argument goes at least as far back as Edmund Burke, but was revitalisatised by Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott.

Limitations versus limiting
As a point about the limitations of human knowledge against Adam Smith‘s “men of system” (such as, for example, the disastrous official advocates of dogmatic laissez faire during an Gorta Mór, the Great Irish Famine), the argument has real power. The failure of the command economies–including the revolutionary socialist contempt for millennia of struggling with how to make political responsive to the interests of governed–provide an even more dramatic example.

But the power of the “product of historical selection” argument is easy to exaggerate. After all, every single form of oppression you might care to mention was the result of some social selection process. Mere persistence does not stop oppressive arrangements from being oppressive. It just makes them well-entrenched. The notion that, if people like you lost out in the past, you lose out forever–that history never selects for entrenched wrongs–puts enormous moral weight on the processes of historical evolution, which are morally a very mixed bag. The above argument could be (and was) used against democracy, for example, providing another case of the “eternal now” that conservative arguments often seem to live in.

The problem comes when the argument is used, not to highlight the limits of human knowledge, but to ignore or block knowledge; to actively limit knowledge. Specifically, the experience and aspirations of those who suffer from said oppression. It was precisely to convey understanding of that sort that the famous Wedgeword anti-slavery medallion and plate had a kneeling black slave with the words “am I not a man and a brother?”.

Raising possibilities
Which is why the equalising of consumption in Western societies since the onset of the Industrial Revolution has seen a series of longstanding oppressions lose their purchase on public policy.

Part of what is going on is simply that the lowering of Adam Smith’s “immediate necessity“:

A landlord, a farmer, a master manufacturer, a merchant, though they did not employ a single workman, could generally live a year or two upon the stocks which they have already acquired. Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year without employment. In the long run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him; but the necessity is not so immediate.

has seen the ability to organise politically spread throughout society. The rise of the union/labour movement was quite directly based on this, but so were all the emancipation movements, starting with the anti-slavery movement. (Which was more a product of the Commercial Revolution than the Industrial Revolution, as that did not get underway seriously until the 1820s.)

This ability rests on several aspects, starting with having a buffer against immediate need which gave both time and resources to organise. But it also rests on broadening access to all the things one needs to politically organised–including the ability to compose and disseminate one’s case. To spread the experience of oppression and social restriction more widely in politically effective ways. The more one’s experience can be ignored, the more socially vulnerable you are. And vice versa.

This change in the capacity of the hard-done-by to organise against the social restrictions and exclusions imposed on them by historical processes may also have been aided by a change in social outlooks; though disentangling the two effects is a somewhat analytically fraught exercise. Stephen Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature grapples with this question, though as part of a wider question over a much wider historical ambit. Equalising consumption may also have a role here: both in the sense of making lives more alike and more accessible–so easier to empathise with–and also being associated with more potential positive-sum interactions.

Note, I am not peddling some form of historical inevitability. As uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan intimates, that is condescending to the opponents and belittling to the supporting activists of the various emancipations. What the rising equalising of consumption did was create historical possibilities; activists for the various emancipations then struggled to make the possibility of equal protection of the law real.

Which brings us back to the problem with using the “result of historical selection” argument to actively block knowledge. We cannot understand the nature of social arrangements unless we are willing to consider all aspects of those arrangements, including the experience of those oppressed by them. Hence the importance of the “your experience does not count” premise–or, even more simply, “your experience is invisible to me” or “your experience is unconsidered by me”–in upholding traditional oppressions. It is a weaker form of the crippled epistemology (pdf) that Russell Hardin argued was a feature of political extremism.

As an aside, that is precisely the problem with “moral arguments against homosexuality”: even considering such treats millions of people as if their existence as “proper” form of the human is a matter for consideration and debate. Moral arguments against homosexuality extend the morality of acts so as to strip actual people of moral (and legal) protection. Given the centrality of love and companionship to human lives, arguments against homosexual acts are always also arguments placing huge burden on, and against, homosexual people. Hence the “sexuality is a choice” nonsense (really?, tell us all about when you chose to be heterosexual)–it is a way of pretending that such is not happening, of discounting experience and the burdens being imposed.

It is one thing to caution against over-confidence in our knowledge, in our understanding. It is quite another to use that injunction against over-confidence to block knowledge, to block understanding. To buttress an impoverished epistemology which denies inconvenient human experience and aspirations status or standing. A great thing about living in a society with expanding mass consumption possibilities is precisely the expanding ability to connect to each other; to both the like-minded and to the possibly persuaded.

 

Marriage is about …

By Lorenzo

A common argument against same-sex marriage is that marriage is “about” children. Or that the purpose of marriage is the raising of children. Or some similar claim.

Conservative philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson rebuts a certain class of arguments against the claim that marriage is “about” children here. But the claim he defends–that marriage is about children–strips marriage of its historical context. Marriage becomes an ahistorical entity, floating in an historically unanchored “eternal now”.

Why do we think marriage is “about” one thing? How do we work out whatever it is marriage is “about”?

If we examine marriage as a human phenomenon, then we will find that the only common defining feature of marriage across human societies is that it creates in-laws. Which suggests that marriage is about connection.

But, of course,”marriage is about” arguments typically does not do any such thing as taking such a broad, historically anchored, view. Indeed, such claims are often largely, or even completely, ignorant of the diversity of human marriage customs. What is actually meant is “in our society/civilisation, marriage is about …”.  Which then raises the question of why marriage in our society is like it is.

Because of a particular historical evolution. One of which was the deliberate suppression, on religious grounds, of same-sex marriage. Either in the pre-Christian history of the Mediterranean world or the pre-colonial history of societies subject to European settlement or conquest. In the rabbinical text the Sifra, the following appears (in Achrei Mot 9:8):

I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father’s fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, “and in their statutes do not follow.

Rabbinical literature included some very absolutist prohibitions on homosexual activity (between men) some of which implies (pdf) the existence of same-sex marriages. Such prohibitions fit in with the priestly and clerical interest in moral complexity and outcasting.

Nor was this rabbinical denunciation of folks same-sex marrying each other mere rhetorical invention. It is fairly clear that an early piece of Christian legislation in the Roman Empire banned (pdf) same-sex marriages (Th. C. 9.8.3):

When a man marries and is about to offer himself to men in womanly fashion (quum vir nubit in feminam viris porrecturam), what does he wish, when sex has lost all its significance; when the crime is one which it is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed to another form; when love is sought and not found? We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment.

This is the period when marriage laws took a very adverse turn for women (pdf): on religious grounds, but clearly about stripping women control over their fertility and shifting legal and sexual power and authority to men. Claiming that marriage is “about” children is not necessarily good for women.

Much of the contemporary “culture wars” are about reversing that Christianisation and reverting to much more Roman practices on matters of sex and gender. While retaining the moral universalism that Christianity added to the Classical heritage.

A multiply-married King greets visiting Queen.

Really, marriage is “about” what a given society collectively decides it is about. This is where the claims that marriage is “by definition” a union of a man and a woman are so silly. First, polygyny is clearly a form of marriage–the Bible says so, referring to “Solomon’s wives“. Second, polyandry is clearly a form of marriage–see the Mahabharata. Suddenly, marriage becomes “by definition” between one or more men and one or more women. The claim that it is not so in our society is true, but that is also a social choice. Marriage has been chosen to be “defined” that way.  As it can be decided to “define” it differently.

A multiply-married woman with her five husbands.

Monogamous marriage is about two people building a life together much more directly than it is about children. That is why infertile folk are allowed to marry and an intent to have children has never been a required attribute. It is also why it is a socially preferred vehicle for raising children. But it is the mutual commitment that makes it suitable, is not that having children magically creates mutual commitment.

After all, it is not as if same-sex marriages cannot also be “about” children. Once we permit adoption–accepting that conception and raising children are not the same thing, so avoiding sloppy use of the term “procreative”–then same-sex marriages can be every bit “about” children as opposite-sex marriages.

So, claims based on the alleged nature of marriage turn out to ignore a considerable amount of history. Once marriage is understood as two people building a life together, then two people of the same-sex committed to building a life together can be as thoroughly married as anyone else.

Which, presumably, is why popular sentiment has been shifting towards supporting same-sex marriage. Because that is how people actually understand marriage, they just needed to get used to the idea that same-sex attracted people are “just folks” too.  The subtitle of an excellent history of marriage is How Love Conquered Marriage. The arrival (or, more accurately, the return) of same-sex marriage is just part of that long historical process.

 

Modernity struggles: how priests and clerics are unreliable moral guides

By Lorenzo

Priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides, because their interests are served by complexity and differentiation.

Which is not to deny that, for example, Christianity has been a major factor in the distinctive achievement of Western civilisation.

The ambivalent civilisation
The late Kenneth Minogue argued that (via) the Enlightenment saw a shift among Western intellectuals from belief that we live in a fallen world to a belief that we live in an imperfect society. Which, if we find the correct system, could be made into a more perfect society.

This is a reasonable description of the radical Enlightenment, less so of the sceptical Enlightenment. The sceptical Enlightenment believed things could be made better, but focused its notion of better on people being able to go about their own lives.

Kenneth Minogue (1930-2013)

Minogue contrasts this notion of a future perfect society with societies which sought harmony via the one-right-order. So goodness is fitting in with order, badness is not doing so. (I would call this a chaos-order dichotomy.) Minogue cited Imperial China, Islam, Hinduism as examples of such one-right-order societies.

In the West, Minogue noted that there is acceptance of the notion that people have varied conceptions of proper order. There is even something of a taste for such diversity. We are, in his words, an ambivalent society. A society also one noted for a long history of war and violent conflict and the failure of unification via empire (i.e. Europe remained divided into many states). One-right-order societies tended to experience, or at least embrace, a notion of imperial unitary. And lacked much curiosity about other societies.

Europe came to be a very curious, then innovative and creative society. As Minogue noted, he is taking bits from various centuries and assembling a picture of the West. (Medieval Europe was highly adaptive of outside ideas, but Europe really only became inventive again late in Medieval period.) He argued that humans are naturally ambivalent to almost everything, but one-right-order societies force people to adapt to that order.

Hence, he averred, one-right-order societies can only really work if people are ignorant of the alternatives. (I.e. they either don’t know about them or massively discount alternatives.)  Hence also the continuing attempts of folk to leave such societies and live in the West.

Consequently, Minogue found political idealism to be a “deep threat” to how we live because it wants to substitute one virtue (such as benevolence or compassion or equality) for the ambivalence which is basic to how we live in the West and gives the West its power and appeal.

Historical Christianity
In the Q&A after the above talk, Minogue fingered Christianity as a crucial element in making the West different. In part because it was a faith, not a certainty.

It is reasonable to argue that Christianity was and is an individual salvation religion without an associated legal order in a fallen world militated against any notion of one-right-order. As Minogue notes, there is a serious difference between a religion of a crucified saviour (Christianity) and a religion of a sword-wielding Prophet (Islam). To put it another way, Christianity elevated personal salvation and failed to fuse righteousness and social order. (Or did so at best very incompletely: much of the Emancipation sequence has been a disentangling of Christian notions of righteousness from social order.) As Minogue points out, Immanuel Kant’s

out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made

is straight Christian doctrine.

Minogue cited Australian historian John Hirst’s notion that Western civilisation was built on three propositions–from the Greeks, that the world was a realm of logic and mathematics; from the Christians, that it was a fallen world; and from the Germans, that fighting was fun. Minogue would add in Roman law, but otherwise felt it was not a bad summary of the basis of Western civilisation.

Which points to a problem in fingering Christianity–to whit, many of the features he identifies about the West can be seen in Classical Greece. Certainly politics as something other than the dynamics of being or serving a ruler was almost entirely a Greek invention. Indeed, many of the features of Christianity came from arising in a society ruled by Roman law and which publicly reasoned in the language of Greek philosophy. And Greek Philosophy arose in societies where direct, active, public bargaining was the stuff of politics, so led to the development of rhetoric, logic, analysis: of public reason as an avenue for dispute.

What Christianity did provide was a moral universalism that had been alien to Greek and Roman thought. A sense of a moral order that pervaded the universe and which we were all individually responsible for upholding even if, in some ways especially if, we were fallen beings in a fallen world.  One reason why the sceptical Enlightenment was much more accommodating of organised religion than the radical Enlightenment was that the latter’s belief in a perfectible society both contradicted fundamental Christian viewpoints and competed with religion for a sense of ultimate meaning in a way that the former’s seeking to better allow people to live out their own lives simply did not.

Complexity and difference
Which brings us back to why priests and clerics tend to be unreliable moral guides. In seeking the authority of gatekeepers of righteousness, they have a vested interest in moral complexity, in conceiving of a moral order which is so far from self-evident that one needs priestly or clerical guides to navigate. Hence food, clothing, sex, gender, etc taboos. Along with that interest in complexity, they have a vested interest in moral differentiation, in dividing society into the right-path believers and the outcast unrighteous.

Which is why the tendency in the West (and arguably more generally) has been to discard religious moral complexity and differentiation in law and understanding of people and society. Part of that broad pattern of getting along with each other better that Stephen Pinker outlines in Better Angels of Our Nature. (His TED talk on the decline of violence is here.) Not so much within Islam, of course, though the rise of Islamic fundamentalism is an attempt to turn back that modernising tendency.

Which leads to a fascinating three-way struggle. Those in revolt against the moral cosmopolitanism of modernisation, who seek to create a new version of the Godly society.  Those who seek to fulfil the radical enlightenment vision of a perfect society. And those who embrace moral cosmopolitanism as a way for people to live out their lives as they wish.  The first two have a passion/commitment advantage, the last the broader appeal. (And sometimes these divisions are within people as much as between them.)

We have been here before. The Dictators’s War was one between the Counter-Enlightenment (the Nazis), the radical Enlightenment (the Soviet Union) and the sceptical Enlightenment (the Anglosphere).  Nowadays, the jihadis and Putin’s Russia are in the Counter-Enlightenment corner while the radical and sceptical Enlightenments fight it out within Western societies.

China is a fascinating case. Notionally, a radical Enlightenment (specifically Leninist) state, its regime seeks to avoid the failures of the command economies while remaining in power. Even flirting with a Confucian revival.  The Beijing regime wants the economic success of modernity while resisting its political implications. Or some of its religious implications, showing unease over the growth of Christianity within China.

Religion remains a very live factor in world affairs. After all, moral complexity and division is not all priests and clerics have to offer. Even though going down that path makes them unreliable moral guides, at war with deep tendencies in modern societies.

 

Short observations 2

By Lorenzo

Smartphones slow down the restaurant experience (via). Time constraint means scarcity will always be with us. (That is scarcity in the trade-offs-have-to-be-made sense. Hunger and famine need not always be with us.)

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I find the notion that people without a state cannot have money risible. They may not have their own coins, but coins are merely branded money. Transaction goods that can reasonably be called money existed for millennia before the invention of coins (around 600BC) and non-state money operated for millennia after their invention. For example, cowrie shells–by far the most widely spread form of money across time and space.

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Literacy preserves ideas but it also freezes doctrine. As the authors of The Creation of Inequality point out, the religious understanding of pre-literate societies could adapt to circumstances rather more fluidly than religions with written scriptures. Calling believers in the One God people of The Book may say more than is often realised.

The implication of the printing press in this is surely mixed. It made the loss of written knowledge much less likely–in a sense printing means we are in “the” Renaissance that never ended. But it also widely disseminated scriptures, making enforcement of a single orthodoxy easier within a hierarchy but rather harder in the wider society.

Robin Hanson posts on how modern society shows signs of the re-birth of foraging patterns. Perhaps the new religions within the modern West represent a form of recovery of foraging religious fluidity.

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This graph on the shift of opinion on same-sex marriage in the US by religious affiliation (via) expresses visually the obvious point–the objections to giving queer citizens equal protection of the law has always been overwhelmingly religiously based, however often allegedly secular reasoning is advanced to support it. Even the notion that there is something “unnatural” about being queer comes from monotheist re-interpeting of natural law philosophy.

Note also how US Catholics (like Western Catholics generally) increasingly largely ignore the Church on matters of sex and marriage. But the Church is about playing to its (rising) developing world flock, not its (shrinking) developed world flock.

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Conservatives often either live in an endless now–this is how things have always been–or otherwise valorise the past so those who lost out in past social changes somehow should always lose out. Accepting the contingency of the past rather gets in the way of using it as a source of validation.

The notion that queer folk have no history, that they are not really part of history comes from an lack of sense of history and difference. Being ignored or written out of history is not the same thing as not having one.

Thus, to assume some “natural” antipathy to homosexuality is to mistake a long history of monotheist outcasting and brutality for some human universal. One of the things that horrified the Spanish about Amerindian cultures was the positive esteem that “third gender” persons enjoyed. “Entrenched in the culture” is not the same as “natural”, but it takes a sense of history and difference to understand that.

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Journalists have to be generalists. Which is why it is unfortunate they typically no longer have generalist degrees. Leading to astonishing levels of journalist ignorance. Which is where political correctness comes to the rescue–they don’t have to know, still less understand, they merely have to sing-a-long. Political correctness provides a comforting framing without the effort of knowledge and understanding.

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One of the features of Muslims becoming favoured moral mascots among many progressivists is to display how not-even-skin-deep their commitment to feminism is. People holding beliefs much milder versions of which damn evangelical Christians to the outer moral darkness get embraced while Muslim women are thrown under the respecting-other-folk’s-traditions-and-culture bus without hesitation. (Evangelical Christians being potential competitors to be defined against rather than objects of moral concern and patronage.) Yet Western feminism was built on bursting through constraints of tradition and culture–and rather milder constraints than many Muslim women still labour under.

What makes this pre-emptive abandonment in the name of “respecting others” even sadder is that it was precisely awareness that other cultures did things differently which was part of the impetus to queer emancipation.  A point that has wider application: I suspect it is no accident that it is Ghanian philosopher (Kwame Anthony Appiah) who is so articulate on the virtues of cosmopolitanism, of mix-and-match cultural globalism. Of, actually, we’d like to start doing things differently.

But a lot of political correctness is about a sense of status–specifically, a sense of superior status–and there are few things more reactionary than that.

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The Arab-Israeli conflicts since 1950 are way, way down the fatality list of conflicts. They are even a tiny fraction of Muslim fatalities in conflict since that time. But the matter of Israel (and Palestine) is not about reality, but rather symbolism and scape-goating (“ignore the corrupt authoritarians ruling you, remember how much you hate the Zionist entity”). And some of that symbolism goes back a long way.

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One way to characterise the Israel-Hamas conflict is that Hamas seeks, and Israel fears, publicity. That is, military factors are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of Israel, political ones rather more in favour of Hamas. There is something to that. But Hamas has little to sell other than hatred, and the well of hate works better if periodically re-filled with recently-shed Palestinian blood. Dead Palestinians are not merely an instrument of Hamas’s strategy, they are an objective in themselves. It is not has if Hamas is not up-front in its embrace of Palestinian death as a strategy, to the extent that they may be losing ground politically.

But the whole “killing Jews” strategy (whether by mob before the creation of Israel or by terror afterwards) has been one long disaster for the Palestinian cause. It provides both cover and justification for Israeli policies which would stand in much more stark relief, and have less support in Israel and elsewhere, without it. David Ben-Gurion was correct, the long occupation has distorted Israel. But that relinquished territory becomes a basis for attacks on Israel just gives the expansionist sentiment more to work with it.

Each time the Arabs or Palestinians have rejected a partition deal (1947, Camp David Summit 2000) things have got worse for the Palestinian cause. But Palestinian identity has grown up anchored in hostility to Israel, and that identity is clearly more important than peace. Which then just aids the “creating facts on the ground” expansion policy, on the grounds that Israel will never get actual peace, so it should just grab what it can.

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I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the reparations-for-slavery notion for African-Americans. First, because they are clearly collectively a lot better off than West Africans. Second, because lots of Americans actually died fighting to keep the Union on a basis that ended slavery, and that counts. Third, because not all African-Americans are descended from slaves (President Obama is not, for example) or are not from American slaves (e.g. Jamaican immigrants), and trying to pick and choose would be ugly. Nor were all white Americans slave owners or participants in the slave trade, so who owes whom? Fourth, because at some stage, African-Americans have to just get over it. Fighting for fair treatment now is just fine, but the reparations push looks suspiciously like wanting others to fix things for you. Which, I am afraid, is never going to happen in any useful sense and it is not healthy to base any sort of social advancement strategy on that hope.

There is also a certain element of racism only counts if you are rich: there were a lot more Brazilian slaves, and why isn’t Brazil being asked for reparations?

ADDENDA On the matter of Brazil, apparently it is an issue. Using reparations for slavery as an excuse for land reform is a clever idea.