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Black boxes, the rectification of names and the revival of slavery

By Lorenzo

The Chinese sage Kong Qiu (551-479 BC) (Kongzi ”Master Kong”), known to the West as Confucius–which is derived from Kong Fuzi ”Grand Master Kong”–had a doctrine Zhèngmíng, normally translated as “rectification of names“. There is a straightforward statement of the doctrine in the Analects:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect. (Book XIII, Chapter 3, verses 4-7).

Even without the current progressivist penchant to police language, there is a problem applying clear and correct naming to matters Islamic because the term Islam can apply both to a religion (submission to Allah) and a civilisation. Where we can talk of Christianity (the religion) and Christendom (the civilisation or Christian territories), there is no similar linguistic distinction available in English, despite attempts to use Islamdom and Islamicate to make a similar clear distinction between Islam the religion and Islam the civilisation.

Islam, Muslim and linguistic ambiguity

There is a similar problem with Muslim: do we mean a follower of Islam or someone raised in the civilisation of Islam? This is not a small point; the tendency to treat Muslims as if their religious identity is automatically central to their sense of identity is a besetting sin of much commentary and even public policy. It is not something that either commentary or public policy is likely to do with Jew or Christian. While Westerner essentially implies no religious identity at all, except an increasingly weak association with Christian origins. Even the coinage Judaeo-Christian is a manifestation of weakening religious associations, given the historically antagonistic identities it jumbles together. Western civilisation has, after all, pagan Graeco-Roman roots and pagan Germanic roots as well as Judaeo-Christian ones. Moreover, religious conservatives in the West have been losing cultural batters for many decades now, hence the gulf on matters regarding sex and gender which has opened up between the West and Islam.

Person of Muslim heritage is often a preferable usage to Muslim, but is inherently more linguistically cumbersome. As feminists, secularists and humanists of Muslim heritage regularly point out, treating religion as the central feature of Muslim identity plays into the hands of the most conservative elements in Muslim communities, and Islam, and even more into the hands of Salafists and Islamists, who most definitely want to insist on the centrality of religious identity, and a religious identity they wish to be able to define (or, indeed, redefine via “purification”).

Black boxing the inconvenient

Along with these elementary difficulties of linguistic usage, there is also the “black box” problem. It is a feature of ideological perspectives that they generate “black boxes”; areas of human experience which are either not opened up and considered seriously in their own terms or are considered only in superficial and convenient ways. So Western conservatives will typically not open up the “black box” of queer experience, because that will reveal perfectly ordinary folk who have been systematically treated like crap for no good reason. Failing to look seriously into the “black box” of queer experience does not remotely stop such conservatives from commenting freely and passionately about such matters. Indeed, it makes it so much easier to do so, because then said matters can be construed to fit in with congenial framings without awkward reality getting in the way.

Hence the way ideology generates “black boxes”. Thus, it is so much easier to comment passionately yet conventionally on the Palestine-Israel conflict if one does not look under the “black box” of Palestinian politics. It is so much easier to comment on current events if one does not look under the “black box” of Islam and Islamic history (including contemporary persecution of Christians in Muslim-majority countries) or the “black boxes” of Islamism or the Salafi or Deobandi movements. Hence the tendency of the “contentless identity” whereby religious identity is assumed to be central to the self-understanding of Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) yet it is somehow illegitimate to inquire critically into Islamic doctrine or patterns or to consider them as having any awkward implications.

If, for example, one is going to seriously comment on matters Islamic, one really should do all the following:

  • Read the Quran.
  • Acquaint oneself with a collection of hadiths. (These are available online, for example here and particularly here.)
  • Read a biography of Muhammad by a believer (such as Tariq Ramadan, The Messenger), so one gets a sense of the role of Muhammad “from the inside”.
  • Read a comprehensive history of Islam (such as Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies).

Clearly, it would be preferable to expand one’s reading beyond that, with various scholarly articles and useful texts. There are also useful online sources, such as the blog Ballandus (a particularly useful source) while economist David Friedman (who teaches in a law faculty) provides an excellent introduction to Sharia. Islam is a genuinely distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions, and it is necessary to inform oneself of said distinctive patterns and underlying presumptions before one can comment usefully (rather than propagandistically).

Alas, lots of folk comment quite passionately on matters Islamic and Muslim without bothering to do any of the above. (Yes, I have done all the above.)

But refusing to look under the “black box” of Islam then makes it so much easier to construe events and issues according to whatever framing one finds congenial. Indeed, the more passionately one is attached to one’s framing, the more that is so.

“Black boxing” also means it becomes so much easier to use morality and moral claims as a club to denigrate and dismiss dissent (no matter how much better informed such dissent may be; in some ways the more so the more such dissent is genuinely informed). Which so adds to the attraction of “black boxing” the potentially awkward.

Similarly, if one is going to comment on Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi (encompassing what is often labelled radical Islam), one should acquaint oneself with a sample of such writings. Sayyid Qutb‘s Milestones (aka Signposts) is a classic Islamist text, but there are plenty of other sources, such as the jihadi strategic “how-to manual” The Management of Savagery (available here [pdf]).

One needs also be aware the Salafism, for example, comes in various flavours which overlap with (say) Saudi Wahhabism but are not identical (pdf) and which includes a “quietist” tradition that is quite hostile (pdf) to Islamism (especially its takfiri tendencies) and its prioritisation of political engagement. While Islamism–in the general sense of political Islam–has Salafist versions.

Civilisational crisis

Political scientist Samuel Huntingdon’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, launched originally in a 1993 essay (pdf) in the magazine Foreign Affairs, was correct in identifying that Islam “has bloody borders” (and it continues to do so). But his wider thesis simply has not come to fruition; partly because cultural affinity making deeper forms of cooperation easier has turned out to be quite asymmetrical in its implications–it does not have anywhere near an equivalent effect in configuring conflict. With a conspicuous exception, the international order continues to be a state order with major and minor states interacting in terms of their interests and perceptions, which are not usefully “civilisational”. To take an obvious example, that Vietnam and China are civilisationally similar does not change a recurring constant of Vietnamese policy–to stay out of China’s control or domination. Nor does civilisational affinity draw Ukraine and Russia together. On the contrary, it drives Putin’s Russia to prey on Ukraine to stop it becoming a disturbing counter-example.

The conspicuous exception is Islam, where we are witnessing a conflict that is as much about breaking states as it is about state power. The phenomena of Islamist authoritarianism, of Salafist jihadism (and Deobandi jihadism) are, in a sense, a violent temper tantrum from within the civilisation of Islam against modernity (one historian Bernard Lewis noted 25 years ago in his 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage); a temper tantrum that no other civilisation is coming close to manifesting any equivalent of. Either in its heartland or in any diaspora.

Even so, plenty of Muslims are just fine with modernity, both individually and collectively. Which, in fact, does much to drive the homicidal temper tantrum by those who are not fine with modernity. Those within Islam who are reacting with violent hostility to the social trends of modernity are particularly horrified and enraged that their fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage) seem all too willing to go along for the ride. It is no accident that the victims of radical Islam in recent decades are overwhelmingly fellow Muslims (/people of Muslim heritage)–though a little less overwhelmingly than folk sometimes acknowledge, given the persistent persecution of (particularly) Christian minorities in majority-Muslim societies. Though said persecution is, in part, also a symptom of the wider religious revival within Islam that radical Islam is the “pointy end” of.

The eruptions into the West of this homicidal temper tantrum are just that–extensions into the West of programs of assassination and massacre than have been going on within Islam for decades. While the current round of massacre of religious minorities in the Middle East is a upswing of a pattern that extends back to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s, through the ArmenianAssyrian and Pontic-Greek genocides into various interwar massacres and down to contemporary events.

Again, there are complexities: the reasons that jihadis find recruits within Iraq and Syria, for example, have continuities with why any insurgency is able to recruit–such as deep alienation from the state ruling them. (Which, given the closer one is to the Islamic State the more unfavourable the view has to be pretty powerful alienation.) The structure of the particular insurgency project they are recruited for, however, is always more specific.

Slavery, Sharia and polygyny

As it turns out, the explicit revival of slavery in the Islamic State, and the earlier, more surreptitious, revival of slavery in Islamist Sudan, provides a revealing case study of the connection between traditional Islamic jurisprudence, patterns within historical Islam and contemporary Islamic “purifying” revivalism.

Islam is a polygynous civilisation because it is a religiously defined civilisation and Sharia allows polygyny–a male believer can legally have up to four wives. As Sharia is central to so many of the patterns of Islamic history (leading to various historical patterns), it is important to understand that religious law is not a good translation of what Sharia entails or implies. David Friedman’s excellent introductory paragraph to the aforementioned chapter on Sharia sets out the matter clearly:

The first and most important thing to realize about Islamic law is that, seen in its own terms, it is the law of God not of man. No society, now or in the past, could enforce Shari’a, because no human had complete and correct knowledge of its content. Strictly speaking, what traditional Islamic courts enforced was not Shari’a, God’s law, but fiqh, jurisprudence, the imperfect human attempt to deduce from religious sources what the law ought to be. That fact helps explain how Sunni Islam was able to maintain four different but mutually orthodox schools of law. There could be only one correct answer to what God wanted humans to do, but there could be more than one reasonable guess. According to a widely accepted tradition, a Mujtahid, a legal scholar deducing the law from the Koran and the traditions of what Mohammed did and said, got one reward in heaven if he got it wrong, two if he got it right.

The key point here is law of God not of manSharia is the law of Allah, the Sovereign of the Universe. As such it covers everyone, as we are all subject to Allah’s sovereignty. Hence it seems perfectly reasonable in contemporary Islamic states to make apostasy (and blasphemy) a crime, even a capital crime. Something that the weakening of religious identity in the West has either long seen abolished or reduced (in the case of blasphemy) to a lingering dead letter.

Sharia absolutely claims to legislate for non-believers, in a most emphatic way, and has always done so. To paraphrase the aphorism commonly attributed to Trotsky, you may not be interested in Sharia, but Sharia is interested in you.

So, when jihadis kill Westerners for insulting the Prophet, they see themselves as applying Sharia to people who are already under its ambit. In terms of Sharia jurisprudence, non-believers who submit to Muslim rule are thereby acknowledging that they are under Sharia rule, but they are not changing whether Sharia properly applies to them, only how it does so.

The Islamists in particular are very specific on the rightful ambit of Sharia. In the words of Sayyid Qutb:

The defeatists should fear Allaah lest they distort this religion and cause it to become weak on the basis of the claim that it is a religion of peace. Yes, it is the religion of peace but in the sense of saving all of mankind from worshipping anything other than Allaah and submitting all of mankind to the rule of Allaah. This is the religion of Allaah, not the ideas of any person or the product of human thought, so that those who promote it should feel ashamed to state its ultimate goal, which is that all religion (worship) should be for Allaah alone. When the ideas that people follow are all produced by human beings and the systems and laws that control their lives are all made up by human beings, then in this case each idea and each system has the right to live safely within its own borders so long as it does not transgress the borders of others, so the various ideas and laws can co-exist and not try to destroy one another. But when there is a divine system and law, and alongside it there are human systems and laws, then the matter is fundamentally different, and the divine law has the right to remove the barriers and free people from enslavement to human beings …

The term religion of peace means something quite different to Islamists (and jihadis in general) than what Westerners might understand it to mean.

That Islam really is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive underlying presumptions and patterns, is crucial. In particular, the defeat of Aristotelianism in medieval Islam with the triumph of al-Ghazali had some profound consequences. One of which is that it became firmly established in mainstream Islam that there was no moral realm beyond revelation. In Christianity and Judaism, God does things because He is good. In Islam, things are good because God does them. Sharia, as the laws of God, become the moral realm. A viewpoint that Islamism, Salafism and Deobandi all very much adhere to but still has powerful resonance in Islam more generally, intensified by the ongoing Islamic religious revival. Islamic states are the only states which felt motivated to issue their own version (1990) of the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948); and their Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam is very much about Sharia being moral trumps. It makes it harder in Islamic societies than for post-Enlightenment Western societies to move away from legislatively imposing religious doctrine (and the latter have found it hard enough).

Sharia is a civilisational legal system: it does not require a state to operate it. Indeed, until the later C19th, typically the most significant role of any Islamic state in the legal system was to appoint the qadi, the judges who made their rulings by applying the evidence of the case to rulings (fatwas) by religious scholars. (The Ottoman state was a partial exception.) One of the roles of Sufi orders (tariqa) was to provide legal services in non-state settings, such as among pastoralists.

The nature of Sharia as civilisational law that does not require a state to operate is why Muslim immigration can pose a distinctive enclave problem, as there is a ready-to-use structure of law which can be used in opposition to the law of the local state and which claims trumping legitimacy over said law.

That trumping legitimacy is central to a network of interlocking ideas which can be characterised as Islamic supremacism; that adherence to Islam, being of Islam, puts one in a morally superior position to anyone who is not so, a superiority which is manifested in any “proper” social order. A Hamas leader angrily denying that the West has any right to preach to Hamas because it gives rights to homosexuals is a manifestation of this. The aforementioned ongoing pattern of massacres represents Muslims becoming homicidally enraged at the idea that non-believers could be the equals (particularly the legal and political equals) of believers: the cosmopolitan equality which is a clear and powerful tendency within modernity offers the insult of equality to the assumed, and deeply embedded, pattern of believer superiority.

After all, if revelation is the moral realm, of course those who adhere to the path of revelation are morally superior to those who do not. And even without necessarily adhering completely to the whole doctrinal package, a perspective is engendered that seeps into habitual, ingrained patterns of thought. Hence the persistent persecution of religious minorities in Muslim-majority countries.

The implications pervade, and lie under, so much of the dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. While the founder of the Palestinian national movement, Haj Amin al-Husseini, may have adopted a virulent version of Jew hatred partly (but only partly) based on imported European conceptions (remembering that Islam encompassed heartland genocide decades before the Holocaust), the underlying refusal of most Palestinians to seriously contemplate acceptance of Israel is profoundly based on the embedded assumptions of Islamic supremacism (hence the “right of return“), making any peace treaty impossible. Meanwhile, the response of the Swedish foreign minister to the Paris attacks (referring to the ”desperate situation” of the Palestinians) shows just how Pavlovian “black boxing” “blame the Jews Israel” has become. A response that was offensively ignorant, given Islamic State forces specifically attacked the Yarmouk camp.

There is a further implication which follows from the nature of Sharia. David Friedman describes how fiqh, Islamic jurisprudence, operates:

The scholar started with the sources of revealed knowledge—the Koran and the words and acts of Mohammed and his companions as reported in hadith, traditions. From that information a sufficiently learned religious scholar, a mujtahid, deduced legal rules. Over time, the scholars separated into four schools, each consisting of multiple generations building on the work of its predecessors, each identified with the name of a particularly distinguished scholar thought of as its founder. The schools were generally similar but differed in the details of their approaches to interpretation and the rules they deduced; each regarded the others as orthodox.

The implication of which is that the definitive source for understanding the normative principles of social order is C7th Arabia. A social order that included slavery and raiding.

The dynamics of polygyny

Polygyny itself engenders persistent patterns. Sharia may permit up to 4 wives, but obviously, not every male believer can have more than one wife. Indeed, the dynamics of polygyny are quite clear. If the top 10% of males in a society have, on average, 2 wives then the bottom 10% of males do not get any. The more wives taken by elite males, the larger the group of low status males without wives. In polygynous societies, women become markers of status for intra-male competition, even if a large number of men only have one wife.

A recent comprehensive review article (pdf) on monogamy and polygyny notes that:

… the greater the percentage of unmarried men in the national population, the greater the rates of rape, murder, assault, theft and fraud, controlling for the same variables in the regression described above. The percentage of unmarried men is a highly significant predictor of all these crime rates, except assaults where it is only marginally significant. In fact, the percentage of unmarried men is the only predictor that is consistently important across all five felonies.

The article notes that monogamy (as a comprehensive marriage strategy) increases social cooperation and reduces violence: not exactly surprising results. The article also identifies a longstanding social mechanism for dealing with the wife shortage generated by polygyny:

In many non-industrialized societies, young unmarried men form groups of marauders who go on raids to steal wealth and wives, while raping and pillaging. Polygynous societies engage in more warfare, often with the goal of capturing women.

Sharia both sanctified and motivated such raiding. First, because non-believers are given three choices–(1) conversion, (2) submission to Sharia (i.e. Muslim) rule as manifested in payment of the jizya, or non-believer tax, or (3) war (including death and enslavement: though temporary truces are also permitted). The three choices come straight from a hadith and so the words of Muhammad:

When you meet your enemies who are polytheists, invite them to three courses of action. If they respond to any one of these, you also accept it and withold yourself from doing them any harm. Invite them to (accept) Islam; if they respond to you, accept it from them and desist from fighting against them. Then invite them to migrate from their lands to the land of Muhairs and inform them that, if they do so, they shall have all the privileges and obligations of the Muhajirs. If they refuse to migrate, tell them that they will have the status of Bedouin Muslims and will be subjected to the Commands of Allah like other Muslims, but they will not get any share from the spoils of war or Fai’ except when they actually fight with the Muslims (against the disbelievers). If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the Jizya. If they agree to pay, accept it from them and hold off your hands. If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them (Sahih Muslim  4924).

Christians are people of the book, but are often taken to be polytheists because of the Trinity. Demands for payment of jizya are alive and well in contemporary Islam; with the update that receipt of welfare payments has been claimed as jizya (and so a sign of non-believer submission to believers).

Second, while only 4 wives were permitted, a believer could own any number of women slaves for sexual use. This comes straight from the words of Allah (as the Quran is the word of Allah, not of Muhammad) in Sura 4:24:

And [also prohibited to you are all] married women except those your right hands possess. [This is] the decree of Allah upon you. And lawful to you are [all others] beyond these, [provided] that you seek them [in marriage] with [gifts from] your property, desiring chastity, not unlawful sexual intercourse. So for whatever you enjoy [of marriage] from them, give them their due compensation as an obligation. And there is no blame upon you for what you mutually agree to beyond the obligation. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.

The phrase “what your right hand possess” is about what the sword hand takes. There is explanatory hadith (i.e. words of Muhammad) clarifying the point:

Having overcome them and taken them captives, the Companions of Allah’s Messenger (may peace te upon him) seemed to refrain from having intercourse with captive women because of their husbands being polytheists. Then Allah, Most High, sent down regarding that:” And women already married, except those whom your right hands possess (iv. 24)” (i. e. they were lawful for them when their ‘Idda period came to an end) (Sahih Muslim 3432).

Thus, being non-believing women captured by Muslims on jihad were not protected by their marriages to non-believers; making them as much “fair game” sexually as any other non-believer woman so captured.

Slavery as motivator

Muhammad presiding over the massacre of the men of the Banu Qurayza. (Their women and children were sold into slavery.)

So, Islam was established as a polygynous system, meaning it created a wife shortage among believers. But raiding non-believers who do not submit to Muslim rule was sanctified and taking their women for your sexual use was also sanctified. So, sexual frustration generated by Sharia marriage rules was then explicitly directed outwards towards the non-believers who have not submitted to Muslim rule. The ghazis raiding across the frontier into “the lands of unbelief” which were such a feature of the borders of Islam for over a millennia represented Islam sanctifying (and so intensifying) patterns of typical of polygyny; polygyny that it also sanctified.

The Ottomans incorporated the “holy raiders” into an effective military system. Ghazis would be incorporated into Ottoman forces as akinci, who subsisted on plunder from raids. They would degrade the (in their case Christian) society on the frontier by their constant raiding, driving people away, depressing economic activity, weakening the ability to resist. (And yes, current jihadi attacks are understood in analogous ways, specifically targeting the will to resist.) The main Ottoman army would then move in, occupy the territory, the ghazis and akinci would move to the new border, and the process would repeat. Using this basic pattern, the Ottomans chewed their way across Anatolia, through the Balkans and up to the gates of Vienna. The process was only brought to a halt by the adoption of the grenzer system of (substantially Orthodox Serb) militia farmers in the Military Frontier of the Habsburg lands. (The grenzer system was quite similar to the fubing militia system of Western WeiSui and Tang China; but they also had to deal with horse-riding raiders.)

What was old is new again

Which brings us back to the revival of slavery by the Islamist regime of Sudan and by the Islamic state. Both regimes have been endemically at war with those who do not accept their rule, including non-Muslims (whether actual non-Muslims or those defined by the regime as such). Both regimes are based on literalist ideology–that is, a “purification” of Islam by returning to its original nature and adherence to its texts. Those texts permit polygyny, slavery and war against those who do not submit to Muslim rule. More specifically, they permit sexual enslavement of women who have not submitted to Muslim rule. So, reviving slavery both shows adherence to original Islam and helps motivate (and recruit) fighters. It is an operationally rational return to original Islam; reviving a pattern that was operationally rational for Islam for centuries.

An essay by an (anonymous) official with wide Middle East experience in the New York Review of Books expressed puzzlement over the foreign fighter phenomenon:

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. … these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.

Nor was the surge in foreign fighters driven by some recent change in domestic politics or in Islam. Nothing fundamental had shifted in the background of culture or religious belief between 2012, when there were almost none of these foreign fighters in Iraq, and 2014, when there were 20,000. The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them. If the movement had not seized Raqqa and Mosul, many of these men might well have simply continued to live out their lives with varying degrees of strain—as Normandy dairy farmers or council employees in Cardiff. We are left again with tautology—ISIS exists because it can exist—they are there because they’re there.

No, actually, they are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets. Create a territory where the longstanding returns to “holy raiding”are firmly established, and they come. (Polygyny may generate systematic male sexual frustration, but modern society can do a certain amount of that too and, however powerful the sexual motivations, it hardly exhausts what being a ghazi offered.)

Islam has generated ghazis from its earliest days. And it can still do so, because those beliefs still have power. Especially if one’s unashamed literalism recreates the full range of motives.

But to understand this, one has to look under the “black box” of Islam and of Islamism.

Islam is a distinctive civilisation, with distinctive patterns resulting from distinctive presumptions. There are religious and civilisational reasons why it is the only civilisation generating such a spectacular and recurring homicidal temper tantrum against modernity, let alone a rage against modernity which has killed so many people in so many (mainly Muslim) countries.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Bloody Scandinavian model yet again

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.


There is a continuing line of commentary among social democrats, democratic socialists and progressivists generally to laud the Scandinavian model (aka Nordic model) as something for the US or Australia to follow. Matt Yglesias, following up from comments in the recent US Democratic Presidential candidate debate, continues this tradition (although, as one expects from Mr Yglesias, intelligently and well-informed).

Even so, I wish people would stop. Yes, looking at how other countries do things can be revealing and useful. But policy regimes evolve for specific reasons and, unless you understand those reasons, you are not going to be able to usefully apply any such lessons.

Let us leave aside whether the Scandinavian model has been oversold (pdf) (and that Nordics do even better in the US), or whether advocates understand the model as well as they think they do. Citing the Scandinavian model as a policy regime to adopt makes no sense for Australia, let alone the US.

If you are small, geographically contained, ethnically homogenous country of course you can run a social model that relies on congruent social bargaining at a relatively high tax-public good(+ extras) tradeoff. And, given the ease of information flows between officials and citizens and strong congruence in preferences and expectations, run the trade-off fairly efficiently.

None of these features apply to Australia or the US. Both are much more geographically varied (and if you don’t think that makes a difference for public policy, I invite you to take a tour around either the States of either, or the Provinces of Canada). Both are much more ethnically varied. (Over a quarter of Australians, 28%, are foreign born; around 13% of US residents are foreign born [pdf].) And ethnic diversity reduces social trust, with reduces the ability to centrally coordinate.

The biggest single public policy failure area in Australia is indigenous policy, and if you do not understand that poor information flows, divergent preferences and expectations–all due to profound differences in cultures and experiences–are central to said policy failures. you have not been paying attention. [Besides, Australia does as well as the Scandivanian countries on most indicators of well-being, including the Human Development Index, so it is not as if there is powerful motive to dramatically change policy regime.]

Togetherness we find easier to do.

One also notes that the more the US federal government does, the more popular respect for its institutions tend to fall. Over-reach beyond its useful coordinating capacity in such a large and diverse nation might have something to do with that. (And the latest substantial expansion of US federal involvement in healthcare has not been a popular success.)

Of course both US and Australia have evolved lower tax-public good+ trade offs. Indeed, as Sweden has become more ethnically diverse, Sweden itself is having increasing trouble making “the Scandinavian model” work.

The notion that public policy evolved in a way that suited the nature of the countries in Scandinavia but somehow weirdly went off the rails in Australia and the US does not make a lot of sense.

No, the Scandinavian model is not a good policy regime model for Australia or the US however much individual policies may be revealing and useful, even adaptable, to very different conditions.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Nowadays, the presence of white Americans is generally good for African-Americans

By Lorenzo

If the key problem for African Americans was white racism, then they should do better the less contact they have with whites. But the reverse is true — African-Americans tend to do better the more they have contact with whites.

They do better in education — lots of research indicates that minority students do better in integrated schools. Having a white mother largely eliminates (pdf) the disadvantages of being African-American, likely partly because the sons of white mothers get more access to white networks. At the most global and most dramatic indicator, applying US census data (pdf) to World Bank rankings African-Americans are the second richest sub-Saharan African so-descended population in the world — apart from Bermudans. With much higher average incomes than West Africans. [The difference between African-American high school graduation rates and overall graduation rates by US State is strongly (-0.73) negatively correlated with the African-American share of the population -- that is, the more embedded the local African-American population is in the local white population, the higher its high school graduation rates.]

So, whatever costs contemporary white racism imposes on African-Americans (white racism that is a pale shadow of its former self), its effects are swamped by the positive effects for African-Americans of interacting with white Americans. Yet African-Americans have lower average incomes, lower levels of completing high schoolentering and completing college and much higher rates of homicide and other crime than white Americans and Asian Americans.*

Interacting factors

A lot of these factors are interactive: if you are less likely to complete high school, you are less likely to enter college. If, on top of both of these, you are also less likely to complete college, then the combined effect will be lower average incomes. Especially as you will participate in various professions at a disproportionately low rate. [An effect exacerbated by the higher the level of education the more group differentiated incomes are.]

Higher rates of homicide and other crimes interfere with every stage in the above process. Whether due to increased risk of violent death or injury, increased risk of incarceration, or undermining social networks due to reduced social trust.

Given African-Americans have much the same homicide rate as a weighted average of Afro-Caribbean jurisdictions and West African jurisdictions, the elevated homicide rate of African-Americans is likely to do with their African-ness, not their American-ness. Given that African-Americans have a considerable and variable rate of non-African genes, genetic explanations are not likely to get us far.

Nevertheless, African populations do have lower levels of patience, which is not good for institution building, long-term networking, or human capital development but does encourage more impulsive (including more criminal and violent) behaviour. African-Americans have lower average IQ (pdf) than other Americans, and lower IQ tends to lead to lower incomes, lower levels of social cooperation and higher levels of criminal activity.

Honour cultures

Changes over time and large variations in, for example, homicide rates between Afro-Caribbean and West African states means that we should not despair that any particular pattern is pre-determined. But it does mean that we have to look at the right places to make things better. White racism is not the right place.

Discount factors measure how you value the future.

The effect of honour cultures on violence is one much better place, especially as we know from European history that shifting from an honour culture to a dignity culture makes a serious downward difference (pdf) to homicide rates. That shift seems to be connected to moving out of being medieval societies, where the state simply has a dominance of organised violence, to post-medieval societies, where the state has an effective monopoly of organised violence. In the US case, that is more the shift to a post-frontier society; as on the frontier the American state very much did not have a monopoly of organised violence.

The point of honour cultures is a willingness to (if necessary) violently defend one’s personal autonomy — both physical space and reputation. (A nice summary of honour cultures, dignity or guilt cultures and face or shame cultures is here.) Honour cultures typically operate if the state is effectively absent, does not have a monopoly of organised violence, is seriously mistrusted or some combination thereof. In different ways, all three factors tend to operate within African-American communities — the police are more distrusted and the “war on drugs” create a range of assets which are not state-protected and income flows which are state-threatened.

So, getting rid of the “War on Drugs” coupled with more accountable (and much less militarised and revenue-seeking) police forces with better local outreach (a model for which is provided in the successful efforts to suppress gang warfare in LA) would very likely help African-American communities transition away from a destructive honour culture amongst young African-American males.

If the protective dimension of a dignity culture is an accountable state which handles protection of life, person and property tolerably well, the income dimension is commerce. The lower the level of human capital, social capital, income and wealth among a community, the more burdensome is intrusive regulation on their commercial opportunities. So, premiums on bureaucratic approval (from occupational licensing, land use regulations, etc), compliance costs, etc need to be significantly lowered.

The third dimension of the dignity culture is a culture of personal responsibility. If you can always blame everything on “the man” then there is no path of learning, there is no path of doing better and better in relations to others and yourself.

Shrieking “racism” by those whose moral certainty exceeds their social understanding** as the catch-all explanation of different social outcomes between African-Americans and other Americans is simply empirically wrong and socially destructive. Because it not only blocks searching for other (much more important) causes but it actively gets in the way of necessary changes if things are to improve.

But that is the difference between signalling how Virtuous you are and actually being serious about improving the circumstances of those whose social outcomes make them such splendid moral mascots or sacred victims.


* The much higher rates of homicide in particular generates a major disadvantage for other Americans from the presence of African-Americans; which, even without historical legacies, would be enough in itself to generate residential segregation.

** Given how swamped we are with information and complexity, it is possible that moral certainty is acting as a substitute for, and a pretence of, social understanding.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Immigration and social order

By Lorenzo

The entire debate over immigration, particularly illegal immigration, turns on the issue of social order — specifically, its value and cohesiveness. Those who think there is simply no issue — that no people who make the effort to go to another country to live can be a threat to the social order they are entering, no matter what their numbers or characteristics — thus see immigration (legal or otherwise) as a very simple moral issue. People have a right to live where they wish and societies should willingly accept anyone who wants to live there. The worse the conditions or dangers they are fleeing, the more that is so.

Of course, it never occurs to some that there could possibly be a social order issue. If confronted with such concerns, they are either uncomprehending, dismissive or hostile. They posit — without apparently noticing that they are doing so — that the receiving societies are unproblematically adaptable to any particular influx, no matter what the scale.

Not accepting concern about any effect on social order as valid, it is then easy to “read” raising such concerns as oppressive (racist, xenophobic, etc). This is the three languages of politics issue, where progressives see blocking migrants as oppressive, while libertarians see it as coercive.

Conservatives, by contrast, have social order concerns at the centre of their political worldview. So they tend to read tolerance for illegal immigration in particular as either deliberately subversive or stupidly naive.

(And there is a line of thought which takes the view that any harm done to the host societies is well-deserved; what is rather nicely labelled ethno-masochism. As the new arrivals would likely also be negatively affected by such increased dysfunction, it is an attitude based on deep despite, not genuine concern for others.)

De-legitimising debate
Given that journalists and academics and related professions are strongly progressivist in their ideological outlook, and (based on US evidence) remarkably homogeneously so, there is a serious problem if even raising concerns about immigration is regarded as illegitimate. If wanting less immigration, or wanting to discuss selection criteria for migrants, is “anti-migrant”, “xenophobic”, “racist” etc, then it is not possible to have a free and open debate about immigration.

Which, of course, may be the point of the exercise — the notion that “our moral project is so important that dissent is wicked” is a view that is clearly alive and well: that this “error has no rights” view is one of the key premises of totalitarianism either does not strike such folk or they don’t care.

A comment on the Via Meadia blog expresses the use of terminology to try and close down debate nicely:

Take “anti-immigrant,” for example. We hear that a lot. What, exactly, does it mean? As far as I can tell, its popular political meaning is this: anyone who suggests fewer immigrants be let into one’s country, no matter what reason they give, is automatically “anti-immigrant.” So the “debate” never even gets started because there can be no debating someone who is “anti-immigrant,” right? Another is xenophobia. This is a favorite because it has overtones of erudition, being a Greek word and all. So if one is concerned about hundred of thousands, millions or tens of millions of immigrants from vastly different cultures entering one’s country, one therefore fears strangers?

Such de-legitimising also means cutting out of the debate anyone with such concerns or views. The narrowing of debate has become increasingly pervasive. Thus, I could not post the picture opposite on Facebook(tm): apparently any negative reflection on refugees is verboten.

As being concerned about, sceptical of, etc to immigration turns out to be large proportions of electorates, such pressure to narrow debate becomes a serious problem for the health of democracy. And if mainstream politics will not address the concerns of significant numbers of voters, then that provides an opportunity for less (or non-) mainstream politics to do so. What I called in my previous post the “angry voter” effect.

Immigration policy provides an opportunity for a large-scale use of the Curley effect, whereby one seeks to bring in migrants expected to vote for you — it has been suggested that the former British Labour Government had such a strategy. An effect which is increased if one also drives out people not expected to vote for you. (The effect is named after a Mayor of Boston who encouraged rich Protestants to leave while mobilising poor Irish Catholics.) Leaving aside the moral issues, the operational trouble with any such policy on a national scale is that migrants take a while to become voters, so there is the danger of driving up the “angry vote” quicker than you increase your own.

The frustrated popular sentiments being captured by the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump surges in US Presidential politics are nicely expressed by conservative intellectual Yuval Lugan:

But in their different ways, they are actually pointing to some shared frustrations: Both Trump and Sanders are calling attention to those political debates in which the inherent cosmopolitanism of modern capitalism is most deeply in tension with the inherent populism of modern democracy—especially, but by no means exclusively, immigration and trade.

The Trump insurgence in particular is expressing a populist frustration which is also manifesting in such things as the surge in the National Front in France, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, the UKIP in the UK and so on. All tapping into notions among voters that their government is supposed to be on their side, looking out for their interests.

Especially as the net benefits of immigration tend to be correlated with how much capital (including human capital) one has — that is, the benefits tend to be positively correlated with how much capital one is backed by, the costs negatively correlated (i.e. high capital folk tend to get most of the benefits, low capital folk most of the costs). [For example, a recent paper (pdf) found that the sudden arrival of largely unskilled immigrants from Cuba in 1980 seriously depressed the wages of those in Miami who had not completed high school for years afterwards.]

Thus the costs of immigration vary considerably among social groups. It is therefore not surprising that, in the UK, polling suggests that Labour voters are quite hostile to immigration. The fear that immigration can overstep popular tolerance is a perfectly reasonable one. Especially as the scale and rate of inflows matter. When, for example, long time renters start getting evicted to make way for refugees (and that in a country with relatively strongly responsive housing supply), it is not likely to help social acceptance.

But modern progressivists typically don’t socialise with those who disproportionately bear the costs of migration. As talking about such costs — let alone considering the possibility they may vary with different migrant groups — becomes BadThink, the interests of those citizens who disproportionately bear the costs become themselves de-legitimatised. Instead, we see a tendency to sneer at such concerns from considerable social, and self-defined moral, distance. (Social distance that has been increasing over time, at least in the US.)

Virtue signalling
Any highly moralised perspective that is dismissive of dissent is made for Virtue signalling. Virtue signalling itself gets a great deal more power from maximising the wickedness of those who dissent — who are then bullied with systematic attacks on their motives and moral character (something social media is made for). Such Virtue-signalling leads to the sort of mindset which is happy to negotiate with (or, at least consider the alleged grievances of) terrorists, but not with sinner fellow citizens sceptical about, or hostile to, the Virtue signal of endorsing the obvious and overwhelming urgency of letting refugees in. Besides, if much of the point of the exercise is to signal Virtue, then alienating lots of voters becomes a good thing — it gives so many more folk to signal Virtue against. Thereby applying a basic principle of modern progressivist politics: I am superior to you because I am more committed to equality than you.

Though being outraged at the notion that public debate should be wide enough to encompass the concerns of large numbers of fellow citizens does show a deep not getting of what this democracy thing actually means. The EU is currently demonstrating the difficulties of systematically excluding widely held concerns from normal democratic political bargaining.

The entire point of the flows of people into Western societies is precisely that Western societies are very successful societies; that is why folk want to live there. But valuing Western success is not a noticeable feature of the Virtuous mindset.

The ostentatiously Virtuous typically have no idea how narrow their moral vision is (nor how narrowly self-serving it is), blinded as they typically are by their own moral self-satisfaction and their (often deeply hypocritical) burblings about tolerance and diversity (which typically do not extend to tolerance and diversity about divergent opinions or inconvenient concerns). It is one thing to argue the costs of large-scale migration are worth bearing — it is quite another to treat any discussion of such costs as illegitimate.

Much of Virtue signalling is based on ignoring or downplaying inconvenient facts. Which becomes even more of a problem if such cognitive blinkers seep into reporting, analysis and commentating because of high levels of moral conformity — particularly Virtue-signalling conformity — among journalists, academics and similar professions (thereby pushing reports of problems into more rambunctious media). It is precisely such blinkering, and consequent intensifying of narrowness in perspective, which makes cognitive conformity so dangerous for decision-making.

Gains from trade and other economies
Economists of an open borders bent point to the overall improvement in human welfare from migration, given that the income of people moving to the better organised (i.e. more productive) societies will be raised–which is, of course, a major motivation for moving to such countries. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan provides a representative example of such enthusiasm for open borders.

The economist-libertarian argument about welfare gains due to moving to countries with higher productivity provides an example of gliding over social order concerns. Which is particularly easy for libertarians, who tend to take the view that social outcomes are state+private transactions, hence there is no problem from any level of migration because the state will continue to operate as before and there will be more gains-from-trade private transactions.

If, by contrast, one takes a broader view of the importance of social capital, and of possible impacts on (pdf) the operation of the existing state, then the libertarian argument becomes rather less impressive. It is both funny and sad to read an open-borders enthusiast wrestling with the idea that a billion entrants might change the US political system. The notion that entrants who have done nothing to show any commitment to the society they are resident in will follow the expectations and rules of their new society is hardly something to be just assumed. Especially if no pressure is put on them to do so.

Democracy and rule of law — particularly accepting different-but-equal and not nepotistically colonising institutions, to take two examples whose lack explains much about the contemporary Middle East — are ideas and patterns of behaviour that folk have to be socialised into. (After all, helicopter-dropping democracy into Iraq, without dividing it into its constituent communities; that worked so well.) Such socialising requires a slow enough rate of immigration for it to occur; and the more divergent the patterns of behaviour and belief the originating societies are from the outlooks and behaviours that democracy and rule of law are based on, the slower the rate of immigration needs to be.

One of the remarkable features of the Virtuous mindset is that it holds that Western societies are seething with hateful thoughts and beliefs that desperately require laws against “hate speech”, academic speech codes and institutional codes of conduct; all to block, repress and transform said hateful thoughts and beliefs. Yet to suggest that there might be problematic patterns of belief and behaviour among actual or potential migrant groups is wicked BadThink.

But the point of Virtue signalling is to elevate one’s status against one’s fellow citizens and one’s own society; neither of which Virtue signalling is served — indeed both are undermined — by critical examination of non-Western patterns of belief and behaviour. So, non-Westerners become moral mascots, to use Thomas Sowell’s language, or sacred victims, to use Jonathan Haidt’s, and thus morally protected groups; critical consideration not allowed.

As Haidt points out, sacredness involves abandoning trade-offs. The sacred victims are not placed with other mere mortals within a web of trade-offs between moral principles, but elevated to a special moral purity such that critical examination itself becomes a sin against Virtue.

Fiscal costs and policy adjustments
There is an argument about the cost of immigration for welfare systems. In the US, poor immigrants seem to access welfare at a lower rate than the locally born poor. But this is a pattern which will depend on national rules about eligibility and the make-up of immigrants. It becomes a potential issue if the increase in welfare expenditure from immigration is greater than the increase in revenue from increased economic activity from immigration: which does not seem to be a significant problem anywhere. But that is a fiscal cost argument which has no particular connection to social order concerns and which, in libertarian hands, is more likely to be an argument for scaling back welfare provision.

The libertarian case for open borders is typically also bound up in arguing for the necessary policy adjustments — that labour markets be liberalised to encompass the new entrants, that land use regulation be liberalised to provide housing at reasonable prices and so on. The evidence is that such things are not likely to occur. Indeed, one of the sectional advantages of immigration can be to drive up the value of existing houses in supply-constricted markets. Such immigration can also make it easier to restrict the supply of housing for land, because a larger proportion of housing market entrants become new arrivals — so non-voters — skewing the electoral math even more towards market restriction and so creating “insiders” and “outsiders” (with migrants being “outsiders”). Nor is there any reason such a “more market entrants are non-voters so blocking market entry becomes electorally easier” dynamic could not operate in other markets.

Indeed, one sign that the Virtuous posturing on immigration is just that is that they can be relied on to oppose and denounce any of the market liberalisations which would have to be enacted to enable reasonable economic participation by large numbers of new migrants. Just as they would oppose and denounce any attempt to have education systems encourage loyalty to the new country or anything resembling open and critical debate about what might or might not work well in the new social settings compared to what folk are fleeing from. [Yet acknowledging such an over-arching identity and focus of loyalty also provides paths to integration for migrants.]

If the path to signally moral Virtue is taking a critical stance towards one’s own society, not only does that mean ignoring its strengths but it also undermines any real incentive to minimise social dysfunction that does not directly affect folk like oneself, because such social dysfunction then provides more things to signal Virtue against. The pose among the Virtuous about being “subversive” is at least in part about preserving their sense of moral purity by not taking responsibility for anything unfortunate. Econblogger Noah Smith has coined the nice term of “Haan history“:

Injustice anywhere, under Haan thinking, invalidates justice everywhere else. …
What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.
Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.

A view which suits Virtue signalling, as it maximises sensitivity to moral imperfection to better signal one’s own superior Virtue.`

Population variance
Given their heightened sense of the fragility of social order, conservatives tend to think it obvious that large-scale migration is potentially degrading or destabilising of a social order built up on developed social habits, framings and perspectives that incoming migrants do not share and have not participated in. (Including comparisons with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.) Historian Michael Burleigh articulates that sort of concern, that mass, uncontrolled migration:

… raises questions whether one can simply uproot people from entirely different cultural universes and expect them to thrive in societies that may subscribe to other values, with radically different expectations of their citizens.

Illegal immigration is particularly disliked, since it inherently involves breaking the laws of the country being entered.

If, as libertarians and progressives tend to hold, there are no legitimate or substantive social order problems with immigration (legal or otherwise), it then becomes a reasonable question to ask what is different from that and simple armed invasion? To which the answer would be that armed invasion involves the application of coercion and the clear intent to impose a new social, or at least political, order.

An answer that does not take us nearly as far as it might appear. The obvious case is Israel and the alleged Palestinian “right of return“. It is blindingly obvious that if Israel stopped being a majority Jewish state, then the safety of Jews in Israel would be greatly degraded. (If it was not obvious before–though it was, for those with eyes to see–the present state of mutual massacre in the Middle East has made it so.)  While it is a refreshing change to see Israel’s amazing record of taking in refugees lauded, it is also a useful to remember they were specifically Jewish refugees, overwhelmingly likely to be committed to the Jewish state, strongly motivated to its success and embraced by those already there as contributors to state-building in hostile environment.

Human groups can have seriously varying values, framings and perspectives. [Thus they can vary dramatically in levels of pro- or anti-social behaviour, extending to cooperation personality types (pdf) and such factors as levels of patience.]

And in reactions to the same: there is a lot more popular scepticism about Muslims than Jews in Europe. Scepticism that is hardly empty of things to be concerned about. The Front National (FN) in France is picking up considerable gay and Jewish support in polling precisely because both groups feel (not unreasonably) somewhat threatened by the dominant migrant group in France. A milder manifestation of the same issue is that the security guards one sees at synagogues and Jewish schools in Australia are not there because of concerns with the Anglo-Celtic majority, nor any postwar European migrants, nor more recent East Asian migration, but due to a specific set of migrants.

Honour cultures, diversity and crime
Social orders are not independent of the people who constitute them (though living in particular social orders can affect how people see social possibilities). Thus, evidence suggests that, while migrants in general tend to have significantly lower crime rates than locally-born residents, importing significant number of migrants from honour culture societies is likely to raise one’s crime rate; something that European history makes very plausible (pdf). Muslim countries are honour culture societies.

Moreover, as increased ethnic diversity reduces trust, and reduced social trust tends to increase crime, importing large numbers of migrants can increase crime in localities (pdf) even if the migrants are less likely to commit crimes than the locally born; more so if they are.

All migrant groups are not the same. Moreover, if patterns of behaviour, thought and belief are not conducive to embracing the social success of the countries they are coming to, then assuming that everything about their cultures of origin is just fine, and nothing needs to change, actually inhibits participation in said social success. It is very plausible, for example, that a persistent honour ethics has much to do with the elevated African-American homicide rates (6 times the US average) and why they are so similar to Afro-Carribbean and West African rates. More hopefully, divergent embrace of such ethics may help explain the wide variance in homicide rates within the two latter groups of countries (i.e. different propensities to adopt dignity, rather than honour, ethics). Evidence suggests that among the current wave of would-be migrants to Europe, some are bringing their conflicts with them:

But insults, threats, discrimination and blackmail against Christian asylum-seekers in particular are a regular occurrence, according to the Munich-based Central Council for Oriental Christians (ZOCD).
“I’ve heard so many reports from Christian refugees who were attacked by conservative Muslims,” said Simon Jacob, of the Central Council for Oriental Christians (ZOCD).
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, the ZOCD board member told DW: “The number of unreported cases is much higher.”

Not a good start for entry into historically Christian countries.

The notion that social orders are infinitely adaptable to any level of voluntary migration from any source is deeply implausible. The more dysfunctional the social order folk are coming from, the more implausible that is. Especially if there are, for example, religious reasons which may lead to clinging to causes for said dysfunction. No country is under any obligation to import social dysfunction.

Variant framings
Even without such concerns, deeply variant framings and perspectives can make operating a common political order more difficult. Muslim countries dominate the top origin countries for asylum seekers in the UK, for example. But Muslims are also the only potential migrant group where the mainstream position of the civilisation they come from has been that there is no moral order beyond revelation, a result of the defeat of Aristotelianism within mainstream Islam and the triumph of al-Ghazali‘s approach.

That is a very different framing than that the social orders of Western societies have been built on; or the social orders of any other group of potential migrants. Which is not an argument against Muslim migration per se (especially as some groups, such as the Ismailis, do not buy into the problematic patterns): but it is very definitely an argument that the scale of Muslim migration matters.

For Muslim men (note, not Muslim women: gender dynamics are a key part of the issue) are a unique migrant group — they are the only migrant group who tend to become less integrated with their host societies over time. The key difficulty being that the position of mainstream Islam is that God ordains that male believers should be at the apex of the social order. Which, of course, Muslim men (particularly young Muslim men) in Western societies are clearly not, nor likely to be. Which just sets things up for them becoming disproportionately alienated from their host society — and the more so in particular if societies regulate their labour markets to protect insiders against outsiders (as is very much the normal pattern in Continental Europe, particularly France) and the larger Muslim-dominated enclaves become. The former increases alienation, the latter intensifies cognitive-conformity effects.

Thus there is reason to believe that it makes a difference what proportion of the population is Muslim, and that raising the proportion amplifies problems rather than solving them [and also]. Australia has a strikingly successful migration policy, but the one notably problematic migrant group has been Muslim Lebanese in Sydney — partly because Sydney is Australia’s most socially dysfunctional major metropolis (including highly restrictive land use regulation) and because Muslim Lebanese were imported in a rather large “lump”, by-passing the normal filters and safeguards. (The Christian Lebanese, by contrast, have been no trouble — they adapted the existing Catholic networks and do not share the above framing problems.)

At one level, the fuss over foreign fighters for ISIS:

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. … in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system.

shows a lack of historical perspective — they are just ghazis with aeroplane tickets. The real question is, why is Islam still producing ghazis? Because those aspects of the belief system that has generated ghazis for 1300 years still have power.

In other words, the most problematic migration flow in the modern world is large numbers of single Muslim men, particularly young Muslim men. But if your moral perspective not only does not permit distinguishing between possible migrant groups, but even discussing the possibility is illegitimate, then this all becomes one long exercise in BadThink and the Virtue-signalling shrieking begins. For part of Virtue-signalling is chocolate box multiculturalism — where only Westerners can have wicked, dangerous or problematic beliefs.

It is particularly inappropriate for Australians to urge Europe to accept large numbers of refugees, given that doing so in current circumstances will involve utilising none of the features which have made Australian migration policies successful. On the contrary, it will be overwhelmingly a very large case of the least successful example of said policies and in societies much less set up for migration and with much less successful records in dealing with it.

Context and perspectives
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland are only accepting Christian refugees from Syria. Given that they are not settler societies, are not set up for large-scale immigration, and have very definite ethno-linguistic identities, an understandable decision. The Gulf States are not accepting their fellow Arabs as refugees because they are worried about upsetting the social balance of their societies. (The Middle East is the leading region for the trend towards border fences.)

People from Anglosphere countries particularly should not sneer at the concerns of people from small  European countries. The US (pop. 321.6m, area 9.2m km2), Canada (pop. 35.7m, area 10m km2), Australia (pop. 23.9m, area 7.7m km2) are settler societies insulated by large oceans and, along with New Zealand (pop. 4.6m, area 268,000 km2) and UK (pop. 64.5m, area 242,000 km2) make up an ocean-insulated, deeply culturally compatible Anglosphere of 450.3m people inhabiting 27.3m km2. (The entire EU is 508.2m people inhabiting 4.3m km2.)

Hungarians (pop. 9.9m, area 93,000 km2) do not have another Hungary to play with. Slovaks (pop. 5.4m, area 49,000 km2) do not have another Slovak Republic to play with. Czechs (pop. 10.5m, area 79,000 km2) do not have another Czech Republic to play with. And so on.

Migration is not part of the national identity of such European countries, they are not set up to be settler societies; becoming multicultural would not change as much as, in a real sense, abolish their national identity. Moreover, German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly stated that the multiculturalist approach had failed in Germany. British PM David Cameron has also been harsh in his criticism of “state multiculturalism”. Multiculturalism does not come close to being widely supported policy even in large European countries.

The issue of Muslim migration in particular has particularly unfortunate cultural baggage for Hungarians, given a great national tragedy was their defeat at Mohacs (1527) and the conquest of most of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire under Sultan and Caliph Suleiman the Magnificent; not remotely a pleasant historical memory [which Hungary's Prime Minister has specifically invoked].

This is the sort of context that Megan McArdle misses in her “but think of what they will contribute” upbeat reporting on refugees. (In her case, reflecting her libertarian inclinations.) While the answer to the question is what is different about walls keeping people out compared to walls keeping people in is just a bigger version of why people are allowed to fence their properties in the first place — to preserve what they are entitled to preserve.

It is moral imperialism to insist that small European countries issue what is effectively a blank cheque for entry of people who they share nothing with; not even the experience of migration. (Not, at least, in remotely useful historical memory — the Volkerwanderung was a long time ago now.) But none of this is likely to register as anything other than BadThink among folk whose moral certainty exceeds their social understanding.

Mass migrations of the C19th
Libertarians are likely to invoke as evidence for their confidence in open borders the halcyon days of the mass migrations of the C19th, particularly to the US. But that example is much less straightforward than might appear. First, the difficulty of travel in the C19th provided something of an inherent filter. Both in selecting for initiative and encouraging commitment to their new home once folk arrived in their new home. As transport costs have trended down, the implied filter weakens (across both dimensions).

Second, such immigration was a great deal more contested than is often remembered. Considerable efforts were made to block tropical labour flows from going to the temperate zone settler societies. Much of the tension in the pre-Civil War US was fuelled by the politics of immigration and the downward pressure on the living standards of existing residents the massive flows of migrants provided, fuelling strong nativist sentiments that the new Republican Party finessed by redirecting resentment to “the slave power”. And we know where that led. (Which is not saying that immigration caused the American Civil War, slavery was far more important; merely that pressures from mass immigration were definitely part of the explosive mix.)

Disrupting order
In his recent Daily Mail article, historian Michael Burleigh points particularly to political alienation among voters as a threat from mass migration:

… [that] could splinter the Continent, fostering xenophobic nationalism, as immigration swamps individual countries. …
The inability of governments to get a grip on the problem is benefiting parties on the populist Right which exploit immigration.
And it’s not just Ukip’s huge tally of votes at the last British General Election; recent elections in Denmark, where the Right-wing Danish People’s Party won the biggest share of the vote in its 20-year history, and Finland, where the nationalist Finns Party is now part of the coalition government, are also cases in point. …
As we have witnessed in various European countries, the anger this engenders quickly assumes political forms, with the rise of neo-Nazi parties. What on earth do Europe’s leaders imagine is driving this angry populism, including that of established legal immigrants? The common fisheries policy?

Burleigh specifically points to the danger to the welfare state:

Uncontrolled migration impacts unfairly on benefits, education, housing and public transport in ways that destroy any notion of the contributory element that lies at the heart of European welfare states.

This is not a concern over fiscal costs as such, but a concern over a welfare state as a common enterprise. This is a historically valid fear; it is very clear that a sense that one group is continually (as in, over decades) subsidising another can be deeply corrosive of a sense of commonality. The rise of the Lega Nord in Italy, and of Flemish nationalism in Belgium, substantially come from such corrosion.

As Burleigh notes, the costs of large-scale migration are not evenly distributed. In particular, the costs tend to fall most heavily on those least connected into Virtue signalling processes.

Refugee floods
We live in an age of record levels of refugees: a high proportion of which are fleeing the consequences of political Islam. The only significant return of refugees in recent years was the flow of Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan after the NATO invasion: but political Islam, in the form of the Taliban, then generated another refugee exodus.

More recently, Afghan refugees in Pakistan have come under strong pressure (to put it politely) to return to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, ISIS appears to be recruiting among refugees, both in Turkey and in Europe.

If you open the doors, they will keep coming; not as a one-off wave but as a continuing movement. Opening the doors does not solve the refugee flow, it just encourages it. The UN currently sees no end in sight to the flow towards Europe.

These refugee flows are very different from the post WWII refugee flows in Europe. That was a response to a specific (if enormous) disruptive event and was mostly a matter of people moving to countries of people they shared an ethnic identity with or abandoning Europe for settler societies dominated by European-descent populations. (Neo-Europes, in historian Alfred Crosby’s useful term.) The current refugees are fleeing more endemic dysfunction to places they have no shared identities, historical continuities or experiences with.

And they will keep coming in leaky, over-crowded boats with tragic but predictable consequences. Adopting on the way through whatever ever claimed identities will get them in. Australian experience is quite clear on this — the only way to stop the drownings at sea is to close the doors for those coming by boat. If there is no [functional] supply (of entry via boat) then there is no [expressed] demand for such boat travel.

It is also obvious that a certain amount of target selection is going on, as in reports of “asylum seekers” who find that Finland is not to their taste. But, then that was also part of the Australian experience, as “asylum seekers” bypassed many jurisdictions and a large section of the globe to get to their preferred destination. Smaller (and poorer) European nations in the path of the mass migration are attempting to play ”pass the parcel”, with mixed success.

In 1950, the population of the Middle East was 18% of Europe’s: it is now 65% and is expected to surpass Europe’s population in the next 20[30] years. In 1950, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa was 33% that of Europe’s: it is now 130% of Europe’s and is likely to be twice that of Europe’s by 2040[2035]. In the light of the dramatic change in relative populations, an open door policy is a policy of Europe becoming an extension of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Not an outcome likely to be embraced by the voters of Europe.

Sovereign entitlement
Sovereignty is fundamental to democracy, because if a state cannot choose to act, then the votes of its citizens have no power.  [Asking ordinary voters to be comfortable with large-scale illegal -- i.e. unchosen by democratic processes -- immigration is asking them to be comfortable with having their powerlessness publicly flaunted.] Moreover, as Peter Hitchens notes, no country is under any obligation to import social dysfunction. Either via people who bring social dysfunction with them, or whose presence generates it, or whose unwanted entry stresses the receiving political system.

It is perfectly reasonable for Jewish or queer citizens to be deeply sceptical about importing large numbers of migrants who are disproportionately likely to make their lives in their own societies worse. It is perfectly reasonable for people to be adverse to running genuine risks of increased crime. Or downward pressure on their incomes. Or upward pressure on the costs of housing. Or undermining a sense of common loyalty and shared, compatible realm of political bargaining. It is not evil to have these concerns, and it is not moral to dismiss them with contempt.

Around 70% of the incoming migrants are men (13% women, 18% children) and around 80% of incoming migrants are Muslim. EU countries have not done very good jobs of integrating their Muslim residents and citizens. Thus Germany is beginning to experience “problem zones” for police and emergency service personnel, like France and Sweden before it. (I am avoiding the “no-go zone” terminology, as that generates diverting semantic controversy from what is a real and growing problem; the issue is not religious blocks on civilian entry but problem areas for the movement and operation of police and other emergency services.)

Remembering that Middle Eastern Muslims in particular come from a tradition of distrust of state authority, bring their own system of law which — as the law of the Sovereign of the Universe — trumps mere human law, engage in high levels of cousin marriage because lineage provides many of the protective and coordinating services Western tradition gives to the state and other formal bodies, and have a history of non-kin religious organisations also providing coercive services — to the extent of either founding their own states or helping others to do so.

Contesting the operation of infidel states in their own territories has a range of ready-to-use social mechanisms. So it is quite plausible that increases in the Muslim population share can see significant shifts in behaviour patterns [and also].

Importing large numbers of single Muslim males — the most problematic migrant group in the most problematic form — is simply not a good idea. Refugee families from the oppressed minorities of the Middle East are, by contrast, much better prospects for integration.

(And the moral posturing of the Virtuous can be dismissed, given that they would bitterly oppose and denounce any attempt to move EU countries towards a policy mix that might actually have some chance of dealing successfully which such an influx.)

More broadly, a migration policy that, given the underlying demographic patterns, if continued with, means an effective abolition of one’s current national identity is also not a policy any country is under any moral obligation to embrace.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The EU’s downward spiral

By Lorenzo

Econblogger Bryan Caplan is rightly sceptical of “it will end in civil war(s)” claims about the European Union‘s (EU) current travails, and is moreover prepared to put his money where his blogging is; hence he will accept bets on the issue.

Nobel memorial laureate and economic historian Robert Fogel argued that pressures over mass immigration were a significant aggravating factor in the lead up to the US Civil War. Nevertheless, there is nothing remotely resembling slavery as a sufficiently explosive issue to spark civil war within EU member countries.

While civil wars within EU countries are not at all likely prospect, that does not mean that the EU is not in some serious trouble.

Kratos without demos
The EU lacks a demos; it lacks a common arena of public political bargaining encompassing the entire citizenry. Instead, it has 28 member countries, each with their own demos.

The European Parliament is, in practical terms, an arena for political display without effective political power. European voters clearly treat it as such, both in the serially declining voter turnout and the “treating it as a giant by-election” voting habits.

Lacking an EU demos, there is something of a “divide and conquer” pattern, where the central institutions of the EU — notably the European Commission – get elite agreement on policies and then manoeuvre their implementation with little or no effective input from voters, directly or indirectly. [As a British minister recently admitted.] Hence concern about the EU’s democratic deficit. Ideas that elite folk are attached to but lack popular support (or even provoke popular antipathy) can be implemented in continual “end runs” around popular preferences.

This is such an excellent mechanism for getting things past voter resistance, that it has been expanding into a range of international organisations in the increasing internationalisation of policy-making — not to be confused with globalisation, which is quite different. (Globalisation is the massive increase in international transactions, creating global markets and information networks.)

Broad political bargaining
The trouble with this approach is that there has been a strong tendency over recent centuries for expansion in both ambit and participation of the realm of political bargaining for good reason; such bargaining both engages broader social groups in the political process and forces policy-makers to pay attention to concerns and to factors they might otherwise discount or ignore. Such broadened political bargaining encourages policy more conducive to creating and maintaining productive and stable social orders that increase the ability of states to expropriate and mobilise resources.

So, one might expect that, if EU policy making is driven by narrow political bargaining, that there might be some tendency for policy-making to be not conducive to creating and maintaining productive and stable social orders. In particular, that there might be increasing signs of popular dissatisfaction, even voter anger.



Which is exactly what we see — an increasing “angry vote” across EU countries. An “angry vote” which is not necessarily particularly ideological — so it can be picked up by both “left” (SyrizaPodemos) and “right” (Front NationalSweden DemocratsUKIPFreedom PartyGolden Dawn) political parties, the pattern depending on the dynamics of particular countries — but which manifests in increasing support for previously not mainstream political parties and movements.

Narrow bargaining as dysfunction
The narrow-bargaining policy dynamics of the EU helps explain why the EU tends to be dominated by a combination of bad ideas of the left with bad ideas of the right. Start with labour markets regulated to protect job-incumbents, creating labour market insiders and outsiders. Import migrants not chosen for their ability to contribute to their new societies — who are very much labour market outsiders — while resisting notions that they adapt to their new societies (bad idea of the left). Add in monetary policy which obsesses over non-existent inflationary dangers and cannot tell the difference between hard money and sound money (bad idea of the right).

The interaction between these policies then amplifies their negative effects. Said negative effects, and the patent disregard for popular concerns, then amplifies voter alienation — especially as European countries are very much not settler societies and there is a lot of popular scepticism about, or even antagonism to, immigration.

Healthy polities have mechanisms for correcting surges in angry votes. Thus Australia experienced an  ”angry vote” upsurge in the Pauline Hanson/One Nation phenomenon. A mixture of making the case to voters (notably by Tim Fischer, head of the National Party), attack politics (led by an outraged Tony Abbott, who felt deeply personally betrayed when it turned out one of his staffers had also been organising for One Nation) and de-fanging policy adjustment (John Howard‘s “But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” rhetoric and stop-the-boats policy) popped that particular “angry vote” surge.

This successful strategy may have worked with the voters, but generated a great deal of antipathy among progressivists. Since the fundamental principle of much contemporary progressivism is I am morally superior to you because I am more committed to equality than you, by the perverse dynamics of virtue signalling (see also here and here for earlier analyses), blocking popular preferences when they contradict the demands of such signalling have also become part of contemporary progressivism — which makes contemporary progressivists in general ill-equipped to deal with “angry votes” but quite good at generating them. (Which then gives them even more people to signal superior virtue against.)

Discounting popular sentiment
But the EU is not a health polity in the above sense, and not only because it is not fully a polity at all. The original motivating idea of the EU is that nationalism is the great sin and problem of European history. It is quite false: Europeans have never lacked reasons to kill each other (religion, class, ethnicity, language, … ).

The great problem of European history has been unaccountable power. The solution to which is accountable power; political bargaining which encompasses the entire citizenry and makes those holding power in the state agents of said citizenry.

But if one diagnoses nationalism as the great sin, and given that nationalism is a popular sentiment, then popular sentiment is “the problem” and so one creates mechanisms for frustrating “dangerous” popular sentiments.

Or, in other words, another form of unaccountable power. Which has all the attractions of arrogance, status and convenience that unaccountable power offers its possessors.

So, we get policy making by an insufficiently accountable elite who regards popular sentiments as a source of dangers. This leads to policy making that generates “angry votes”. The elite can then say to itself “see!, popular sentiment is dangerous — look who people are voting for”.  This derision of popular concerns, and continuation of “unaccountable business as usual”, continues the pattern of policy making which annoyed many voters in the first place, which then increases the “angry vote”, and so it goes.

This is a downward spiral that is not going to end well.

Unless some corrective mechanisms finally kick in. If they don’t, then, while civil wars are not likely, the EU itself fracturing will become increasingly likely.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

States start with violence and expropriation

By Lorenzo

I came across this passage in a collection entitled States and Development: Historical Antecedents of Stagnation and Advance (pdf):

A realistic, even if stylized, account begins with the coalition building in which the elites of an emergent state are likely to engage, both with other power holders and with economically successful interests (p.11).

It is in a similar vein to this from a working paper entitled The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy (pdf):

When the propertied elite can rule on their own they establish an autocracy that protects their (property) rights and little else. This has been the usual outcome throughout the long arch of history (p.2).

Mehmet II entering Constantinople 1453.

Friedrich Engels had a similar conception in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (Chapter 9) 1884:

The state is, therefore, by no means a power forced on society from without … Rather, it is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society has become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, these classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power, seemingly standing above society, that would alleviate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself above it, and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state.

As conceptions of the alleged inherent nature and origin of states, they are nonsense. States were frequently “power forced on society from without”–every time a pastoralist people conquered a river valley people, for example. All the (broadly Germanic) states created out of the ruin of the Western Roman Empire were forced on the subjugated peoples. Islamic states regularly took the form of “power forced on society from without”. Any imperial conquest is “power forced on society from without”. Even if the conquest is from within the society, as with Leninist states (those that were not themselves creations of imperial conquest from without).

A mamluk.

An extreme case of a state not being a product of its society was medieval Egypt. From the Fatimid period (969-1171) onwards, the most significant persistent state in Islam until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, was based on the Nile valley. There was a state in Egypt, but there was not an Egyptian state; the state’s ruling elite was overwhelmingly foreign—Arabic-Berber under the Fatimids, Kurdish-Turkic under the Ayyubids (1171-1260), Turkic-Caucasian under the Mamluks (1260-1517). Indeed, the Mamluk elite was exclusively foreign, with the children of Mamluks being forbidden to hold tax-grant fiefs [at least in theory]. Moving into the local society moved them out of the state apparatus; at no stage during these centuries was the state in Egypt a product of the society it ruled.

For long periods, the state ruling Egypt was part of a larger empire originating somewhere else: Achaemenid (525-402BC & 343-332BC), Roman & Eastern Roman (30BC-620 & 630-641), Sassanid (621-629), RashidunUmayyad and Abbasid Caliphate (642-969); so very clearly not a product of Egyptian society. Even when the relevant state was centred in Egypt, the dynasty was foreign and deeply influenced by external models: notably the Ptolemaic dynasty (330-30BC) and Alawiyya dynasty (1805-1953). Egypt had not been under the rule of a local dynasty since the defeat of Pharaoh Nectanebo II in 342BC, nor would locals seize supreme power again until the Free Officers coup of 1952, over 2200 years later.

Expropriation first, other rules later
The origin of states starts with multi-generational authority and specialisation in violence — a ruler and a bunch of warriors (perhaps soldiers, if matters are sufficiently organised)* — able to expropriate local production. A process which was something of a series of political experiments until patterns and structures that worked could be developed.

The production of enough stored food able to be so expropriated is basic to the development of ranked societies, and social hierarchy more generally. Thus states evolved where (pdf) cereals (which are highly seasonal, so have to be stored, so can be expropriated) or seasonal tubers (potatoes, so ditto) dominated farming and not where non-seasonal tubers (which don’t have to be stored, so can’t be sufficiently expropriated) dominated farming. Hence also, for Malthusian reasons, such expropriation dominated the persistent creation of social surpluses (income above subsistence) until the outbreak of the Growth Revolution (aka Industrial Revolution), as noted in my previous post.

The state is the structure by which the ruler and warriors (or ruler and agents more broadly) routinely expropriate resources from those subject to their control. That is, subject to that routinised and expected control we call authority. There is nothing that requires any particular state to be, in any strong sense, a product of the society it rules. Nor is rule making other than a derivative function of the control and expropriation which makes a state, a state.

The first, and arguably greatest, of historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) defined royal authority as follows:

Royal authority, in reality, belongs only to those who dominate subjects, collect taxes, send out (military) expeditions, protect the frontier regions, and have no one over them who is stronger than they. This is generally accepted as the real meaning of royal authority (p.152).

Notice the total absence of any reference to making, or even enforcing, laws. Ibn Khaldun does discuss the preference of royal authority for social tranquility, but that is derivative of its nature, not central to it.

Cortez organising the replacement of the Aztec state.

Any rule-making engaged in by the state, including recognition of property rights, is dependent on the mechanics and exigencies of said expropriation. Thus, for example, whether farming was irrigation-dominated (so production was highly transparent to ruler or local elites) or rainfall-dominated (so production was much less so) directly affected who (pdf) was the effective owner of land: farmers, local elites or the ruler.

In Egypt, production was highly transparent to central authority (to the extent that revenue could be calculated by how high the annual flood reached on the Nilometer) so Egypt was a pioneer, and persistent example of, highly centralised state, with the ruler (and designated agents) being the effective landowner(s) because of their role in the state, not the other way around.

The degree of transparency of production to the state is a central dynamic. In the modern era created out of the Growth Revolution, increased transparency of production to the state, due to the rise of documented employment relationships, has greatly increased the state’s ability to expropriate, mainly via making every firm into agents of the expropriation process.

Rules applying to the wider society are so not basic to the operation of the state that in Islamic states, law was dominated by Islamic clerics (Sharia) and in Hindu states, it was dominated by Brahmins (Manusmrti). While the Chinese state developed a remarkably minimalist approach to law because of the limits on the number of officials (pdf) the ruler could usefully supervise by the command-and-control mechanisms which dominated the operation of the state after the Song dynasty‘s (960-1279) establishment of examination as the only route to office holding.

Again and again, the “class structure” of a society was driven by the dynamics between local geography (hence dominant mode of production), the demands of expropriation, the transparency of production to any state and enduring religio-cultural constraints. States were far more drivers of social structures than creations of them as expropriation so dominated the creation of persistent social surpluses. (Especially when we consider the role of states in spreading religions.)

Types of states
In terms of the locus of decision-making, states can be divided into three types.

(1) Apparat state: the locus of political decision-making is entirely within the state apparatus itself — any social bargaining is, at most, limited to the operation of state institutions, not their structure or form. Islamic states from the Abbasid Revolution until the later C19th, the Song, Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasty states of China, and Leninist states are of this type.

(2) Bargaining state: bargaining with interest groups outside the state apparatus is extensive enough to affect the structure, form and operation of state institutions. Medieval and Early Modern European states were typically of this type.

(3) Participation polity: social bargaining has become so extensive as to dominate the state apparatus such that the key decision-making officers of the state are agents of the political nation. Functional democracies are of this form, but so were states such as the Serene Republic of Venice and many Greek polities.

The notion that the state is, by its nature, an instrument of the wider society (or the elite members thereof) is a product of a civilisation where the participation polity was either the dominant type of state in practice or normatively, the rest being bargaining states.

It is quite clear, reading Ibn Khaldun, that he has no such expectation whatsoever of the state being an instrument of the society it rules. Why would he? He lived under, and worked for, apparat states his entire life. Apparat states moreover whose standard pattern, which he brilliantly analysed, was of invading pastoralists conquering and ruling sedentary coastal and river valley dwellers, with the resulting state being their instrument of rule.

Laws and states
There were rules, even law (generally customary law), and property rights before there were states. But that rather reinforces the point; rules and the delineation of property rights are not basic to the operation of states. Typically, they are, at best, convenient for their operation. A state is not a rule-making club as implied by the above quotes, it is a structure of organised violence which supports itself by expropriation. Even in the modern world, the easier the expropriation, the larger the revenue of the state.

In his magisterial The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History, constitutional law academic Philip Bobbitt writes:

Law cannot come into being unless the state achieves of a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (p.6).

Mathilda of Tuscany, presiding.

Which is simply false. First, because law need not be a product of the state; stateless societies can have laws, albeit of a customary nature. Second, because even if there is a state, use of violence by folk or bodies which are not agents of the state may still be accepted practice. Duels, self-defence, armed retinues are all features of those franchised warrior states we call medieval (or, rather unhelpfully [pdf], feudal).  Note that Ibn Khaldun does not assume a monopoly of violence by royal authority, merely dominance therein.

Any rule making, recognising or enforcing engaged in by a state flows from the state’s fundamental basis of a structure of organised violence which supports itself by expropriation. Historical images of rulers giving judgement usually incorporate some reference to their ability to wield organised violence. But it is the organised violence sufficient for routinised expropriation which makes a state a state, not “a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence” and not law making. Thus ibn Khaldun is far more correct when he refers to “no one stronger than they” — that is, being the dominant, as distinct from only, wielder of violence.

Stable social order is generally convenient for the expropriation of production by states–even preferable, as social stability generally increases the stream of resources available to be expropriated as well as the ease of expropriation. In particular, the more stably routine the expropriation, generally the better for the expropriators. (And the less overt the reliance on organised violence.)

Hence the paradox of politics or paradox of rulership:

We need the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators.

Which Ibn Khaldun was expressed as:

[The residents] are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself (p.97).

This nature as social-predator-which-also-protects flows from states protecting in order to expropriate. There has always been an implicit protection deal attached to state expropriation, as live-and-productive farmers provided so much more to expropriate than dead-or-devestated ones.

So state societies (societies with a dominant wielder of violence) were safer than non-state societies and societies where the state was the effective monopoly wielder of violence have tended to be safer still. Yet the protection originates in the extraction, not the other way around. Hence, the more unrestrained the state is, the more predatory it is.

States do typically concern themselves, directly or indirectly, with ensuring social order. But they do not exist to create or sustain social order; anything they do create or sustain such social order comes first out of the needs of sustaining themselves through expropriation. Nor are they inherently products of the society they rule.

Which is why it has been such a struggle to develop states which are instruments of their society and do (usefully, and particularly broadly) serve social order and the inhabitants thereof, rather than imposing whatever is convenient. But that is not where states start, and simply assuming such an endpoint is no way to analyse the operation of states. Doing so is a classic example of looking back without realising that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. To usefully analyses states, one has to start with their core nature, their core origin; not some retrospective fairy tale about the same.


Warriors own their own equipment and owe personal service; their reputation is based around honour. Soldiers use equipment owned by whom they serve; their reputation is based around duty. Soldiers are thus armed employees and require more centralised logistics than do warriors. 

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

History and surplus: 10,000 years in one blog post

By Lorenzo

Human history has largely been driven by the creation and use of surplus production — that is, production beyond subsistence. (Subsistence meaning sufficient to sustain life and reproduction.) The change from prehistory to history is very much a matter of the generation and use of surplus production.

There are essentially only three ways for such surplus to be created.

(1) Labour scarcity
If the scarcity of labour compared to land and capital increases, then the return to labour rises as the marginal productivity of labour increases (since there is more land and/or capital per unit of labour) and so labour income can rise above subsistence. A demographic disaster such as the Black Death creates such labour scarcity.

Given the historical norm of low levels of capital in human societies, such labour scarcity as did occur was predominantly increased scarcity relative to available land. For most of human history, demographic disaster was the dominant way for labour scarcity to occur, apart from a sufficiently quick increase in the ease of calorie production (such as the introduction of potatoes and other crop transfers from the Columbian Exchange) raising the productivity of land.

Sufficiently quick because, in the normal course of events, any labour scarcity would be (literally) eaten away by increased production of babies. What is known as Malthusian dynamics. (The most accessible discussion of Malthusian dynamics is in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms; though see Deidre McCloskey’s response to his [pdf] explanation for the onset of the Industrial Revolution.)

Historically, most labour scarcity generating occurrences were once-off events with, due to Malthusian dynamics, temporary effects on labour scarcity. Hence, after the Black Death, across most of Europe (but strikingly not in NW Europe), wage rates declined back to their pre-Black Death level.

Until the Growth Revolution (i.e. the Industrial Revolution and associated changes), growth in production mainly went into increased population. That is the essence of Malthusian dynamics.

There were some exceptions, periods of economic efflorescence that various scholars have noted: the Greek city states; the Roman Republic and Early Empire; early Abbasid MesopotamiaC18th Qing China; Tokugawa Japan; early modern NW Europe. But these periods and places were historically unusual (and are matters of lively debate among scholars) and were generally followed by return to Malthusian norms. Long-term population growth was very low — slightly over 2 surviving children per woman.

Increased labour scarcity (relative to other factors of production) is the only mechanism for increasing average returns to labour other than increasing productivity of existing factors of production (which historically mean land, as capital was so limited) through technological change (e.g. increased calories production via new crops).

(2) Capital intensity
If resources are set aside from consumption, capital (the produced means of production) can be created. That setting aside creates an initial surplus. It can be done as a setting aside from reproduction — say, to support religious devotions. It can also be done as a deliberate investment in higher quality children (i.e. with more human capital) rather than simply more children.

Whatever the motive for the original setting aside, capital so created can then generate surplus production and do so for the owners of the capital (for, if it does not, there won’t be much capital creation). It, however, will only generate a surplus for the holders of capital unless the production of capital is of such a scale as to increase general labour scarcity.  (I.e. sufficient capital per unit of labour to raise labour productivity, giving labour a scarcity premium above subsistence.) Even then, the production of capital will only have a continuing effect if the resultant increase in the ratio of capital to labour is persistent: if the labour force is growing, that then requires capital to be created at the same, or faster rate, than the growth of the labour force.

 Central to the Growth Revolution was capital being continually created at a higher rate than the growth in the labour force; including investment in higher quality children. The latter effect eventually led to the demographic transition – a dramatic drop in fertility rates. Especially as a drop in child mortality rates encouraged greater investment in child quality, rather than more children, while the increased role of capital in production, and concomitant increased labour scarcity, led to expanding economic role and status for women (who disproportionately bear the costs of child rearing; so giving them more say and options can be expected to lower fertility rates). The expansion of the importance of human capital further broadened benefits from capital deepening and increased capital complexity; both effects then moving societies even further away (pdf) from any worker-capitalist class dynamic.

As Adam Smith famously noted with his example of division of labour in pin manufacture, specialisation increases production; this, of itself, does not increase incomes above subsistence, apart from some initial labour scarcity effects eaten away by normal Malthusian dynamics. If specialisation does increase incomes above subsistence in any persistent way, it is usually to the owners of the capital involved, and may also involve some combination of human capital, specific-location resources, advantages in information and risk management. Specialisation increases the scope and scale of production and, typically, of markets but does not, thereby, increase labour income.

Note: one should generally not use the term capital accumulation to describe the process of expansion of capital. Capital does not ”accumulate” like dust bunnies under the bed. Capital is the produced means of production; someone has to make the conscious decision to use resources to produce capital rather than simply consuming the resources; and to produce some specific capital. Who is making such a decision, why and in what circumstances is not some mere bagatelle, it is utterly central to understand any process of capital formation. The phrase capital accumulation does not put capital into history, it takes it out of history–that is, out of the realm of contingent human action.

Note also: in the Growth Revolution, innovation hugely dominated allocation. That is, it was not merely that resources were set aside for the production of capital, it was that–due to the invention and application of technology that we call innovation–the range and productivity of capital (and thus labour) that could be, and was, produced hugely expanded; notably through the expansion in access to, and use of, energy. The increase in the range and productivity of capital then further encouraged the further creation of capital and innovation, creating a reinforcing upward spiral.

It was not merely the “piling up” of capital that counted, but the institutions and habits for the expanding creation, and effective use, of capital. (The importance of effective use is a major reason why foreign aid has often had such disappointing results–including the, often dreadful, incentives it generates for authoritarian rulers.)

Economic historian Deidre McCloskey has written extensively on how innovation, and the habits and institutions thereof, came to dominate allocation; but the more general point of innovation hugely dominating allocation in explaining growth and expanded capacities of the Growth Revolution is widely acknowledged by those who attend seriously to the history of such matters. In Gregory Clark’s words:

investments in knowledge capital that generate efficiency growth not only explain most modern economic growth at a proximate level, they explain all modern growth (p.207).

Thus, given any significant degree of potential technological dynamism, the costs of any scheme which sacrifices innovation for allocation (including redistribution) will expand dramatically over time.

NBThis section has been slightly expanded to (hopefully) clarify the importance of efficiency growth in the Growth Revolution.

(3) Expropriation
The third way to generate a surplus is to seize production before it can be use to support reproduction. That is, to expropriate it.

Mere increased production does not generate a surplus above subsistence. The normal historical effect of increased production is simply to support more babies. Expropriation allows production to be seized and diverted (pdf) before it supports more babies, thereby creating a social surplus.

Across human history, from the development of farming around 11,000 years ago until the Growth Revolution, what was the dominant way to create a social surplus? Expropriation.

Leaving aside low level thievery and brigandage, by far the dominant expropriators were wielders of organised violence. Which is why the history of major human constructions prior to the Growth Revolution is utterly dominated by such wielders. Either the rulers of states, or their agents, or those holding expropriation franchises under them.

Hence also, the production of enough stored food able to be so expropriated is basic to the development of ranked societies, and social hierarchy more generally. Thus social hierarchies, and ultimately states, evolved where (pdf) cereals (which are highly seasonal, so have to be stored, so can be expropriated) dominated farming and not where non-seasonal tubers (which don’t have to be stored, so can’t be sufficiently expropriated) dominated farming — potatoes, being seasonal, had the same dynamics as cereals.

All of which meant that elite social position tended to be much more about one’s (direct) relationship to the process of expropriation than to (what might be a quite indirect) relationship to the means of production. Thus, in medieval societies, that mounted armoured warriors were capable of dominating (and expropriating surplus from) local peasants was much more central to their social position than simply holding land–especially as, in the case of Islamic societies, they held tax grants, not land as such. (Tax grants were used rather than land grants, as owned land would be subject to Sharia inheritance laws, requiring division between heirs into holdings not large enough to support a mounted armoured warrior).

But even those who were directly involved in production had their lives profoundly affected by the processes of expropriation. Indeed, anthropologist and political scientist James C Scott has written a brilliant book on how basic mode of production (farming, horticulture, foraging), and even cultural identities, resulted from different social strategies regarding the process of expropriation. (Seriously, if you have any interest whatsoever in historical dynamics, one really should read Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.)

Expropriation could also be a way of blocking labour from enjoying the benefits of labour scarcity–through operation of human bondage (i.e. slavery or serfdom).

Providing so as to extract
It would be incorrect, however, to think that expropriation was merely extraction. To have stable expropriation, a certain amount of public goods had to be provided to establish and maintain the social order needed for routine expropriation.

State societies (societies with a dominant wielder of violence) were safer than non-state societies and societies where the state was the effective monopoly wielder of violence tended to be safer still. There was an implicit protection deal attached to state expropriation, as live-and-productive farmers provided so much more to expropriate than dead-or-devestated ones.

That the state both expropriates and protects (and protects in order to expropriate) is the basis of the paradox of politics or paradox of rulership. The fundamental idea was expressed by Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406):

[The residents] are thus prevented by the influence of force and governmental authority from mutual injustice, save such injustice as comes from the ruler himself (p.97).

The paradox can be expressed more generally:

We need the state to protect us from social predators but the state itself is the most dangerous of social predators.

A paradox that can never be solved, only managed more or less well. (Lebanon represents the technique of avoiding state predation by having a state so weak it fails to provide basic public goods.) The delusion that one has solved the paradox of politics typically just leads to much greater levels of state predation, since said delusion generally leads to abandonment of checks and balances on wielding state power. (The entire history of Leninism is one long, dreadful, series of examples of this principle.)

The struggle over expropriation
Until the Growth Revolution, production was overwhelmingly dominated by land (i.e. farming, fishing, mining); expropriation dominated the creation of social surpluses; and organised violence dominated expropriation. Therefore, violent struggles over land productive enough to support expropriation were a hardy perennial of human affairs. Even in our time, high value production fixed in location (such as oil or diamonds) is disproportionately important in promoting armed conflict (pdf).

Historically, trade complicated but did not transform matters. Trade was potentially mobile, so it was a somewhat more difficult expropriation problem than fleecing stationary standard-crops farmers, as trade typically required more specific provision of public goods.

But precisely because trade could swell or shrink in ways sensitive to state action (such as provision of public goods of what quality over what territory), and given its nodes-and-routes network structure and effects, trade almost certainly had positive economies of scale for revenue collection–unlike land, whose revenue possibilities likely simply scaled up proportionately for any given quality of land. Trade was thus likely disproportionately important for the size and scale of state activity; as revenue from trade counteracted diseconomies of scale in costs of control over territory while revenue from land generally did not. (Even gold and silver mining mostly got its revenue benefits from the value of gold and silver as trade goods.)

But taxing trade was not so much more difficult an exercise than fleecing stationary farmers that states did not also use organised violence to seize key trade nodes and attempt to dominate trade routes. This was the world aptly described by Nicolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) in his Discourses on Livy:

… it is not gold, as is vulgarly supposed, that is the sinews of war, but good soldiers; for while gold by itself will not gain you good soldiers, good soldiers may readily get you gold.

A transformed dynamic
The Growth Revolution‘s dramatic increase in the role of capital, especially given the diverse (i.e. heterogeneous) nature of capital, did transform matters. Expansion in the ways of producing social surplus made expropriation much more derivative in accessing any surplus, as it became much more about taxing surplus production after it was generated rather than creating surplus by seizing production before it was used to support reproduction.

But becoming more derivative did not mean that the return to expropriation declined. On the contrary, the Growth Revolution’s expansion of documented employment arrangements has massively increased tax’s share of total production (especially in societies which have adopted the full Growth Revolution deal), by making production much more transparent to the state and turning firms into agents of the expropriation process. But that is about accessing surplus production, not creating surplus by removal, so seriously shifts the expropriation incentives in dealing with those from whom production is to be expropriated.

Thus, the potential return to production-fostering (rather than production-seizing) government greatly increased (with the caveat about fixed-location resources noted above; though even there a certain competence in managing the resource is also required). Effects that have been further increased by innovation dominating allocation in expanding production. All of which has encouraged a strong tendency to broadening of political bargaining and participation.

The shift to taxing income (much of it labour or human capital income), the increased density and complexity of production, the political organising and bargaining implications thereof; all increased dramatically the return to linguistic homogeneity, and ethnic homogeneity more generally, for states. Linguistic and ethnic homogeneity increased the costs of exit, allowing higher taxation. Ethnic homogeneity reduced diversity in framings and preferences, allowing more efficient public good provision; while linguistic homogeneity improved the ability to negotiate taxation-public good trade-offs.

In other words, abstracting from other factors, the more ethnically homogeneous the citizens of a state are, the higher the taxation-expenditure trade-off can be expected to be; the less ethnically homogeneous the citizens of a state are, the lower the taxation-expenditure trade-off can be expected to be.

One of the inherent problems of the EU is that — due to its ethnic and linguistic diversity — it lacks a functional demos, a shared realm of political bargaining among citizens.

It is not surprising that the first political-organisation effect of the Growth Revolution — massive increases in trade due to railways and steamships — led to a surge in imperial expansion (i.e. territorially larger states) while the second political-organisation effect of the Growth Revolution — particularly given the massive expansion in literacy-based markets – was a dramatic surge in nationalism.

The latter effect, combined with the dramatic drop in the relative importance of land per se as a revenue source, then massively undermined territorial imperialism.  That is, territory became both less specifically important and more problematically differentiated (at least in the sense of resident populations): though a solution to the latter has been population exchange so as to achieve ethnolinguistic homogeneity.

More recently, globalisation of culture and the evolution of English as something of a global lingua franca has weakened these effects, at least in the developed democracies.

Expansion of political nations to include all adult citizens has tended to make such democratic states more squeamish about casualties from warfare. While the expansion of welfare states meant that colonisation of their own societies came to massively dominate colonisation of other societies as a source of expropriation-funded career paths (especially given externalisation of the welfare model — i.e. foreign aid).

But, even among authoritarian states, the decline in the return to seizing land in general, and linguistically divergent populations in particular, probably has something to do with the general drop in violence, particularly wars, as well as the shift in wars being much more intrastate (i.e. fighting over access to, and direction of, existing expropriation processes) than interstate (disruptively seizing production). One notes that regions where various states share a single language, often without much deeper history as states (the Middle East), or where borders have a high rate of failure to match ethno-linguistic patterns (Africa) have been prone to higher levels of violent conflict.

It is also not surprising that states organised to expropriate labour surplus (i.e. all command economies)* have been more highly militarised than states with broader production of social surplus (and the politics that tend to evolve with that).

On the other hand, the decline in the material return to violence tends to make other motives more salient in the violence that does occur; motives such as status (notably avoiding or achieving domination) and search for transcendence (whether secular or religious).

Even so, that we live in a world where the production of social surpluses above subsistence is not dominated by expropriation (and violent struggles over the same) is just one of several ways we live in a very different world than did those before the Growth Revolution.


* Command economies control prices and wages. That means that prices and wages can be set so that basic wages are below subsistence, but “bonuses” from extra production push wages above subsistence, increasing the systematic extraction of labour surplus beyond simply paying subsistence wages. (Public choice economist Mancur Olson explains the mechanics nicely in his posthumous Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist And Capitalist Dictatorships.) Hence command economies typically blocked exit–all labour surplus extraction systems rely on blocking alternatives for workers. (So, yes, exit-blocking command economies are in the same game as slavery and, especially, serfdom.) It is also why states that continue to have Leninist regimes (China and Vietnam) open their borders as they move away from being command economies; (1) they extract revenue from a widening range of transactions, so wish to expand the number of transactions, which closed borders militate against and (2) the less they rely on extracting labour surplus, the more the benefit in blocking exit declines.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Open and closed state systems: the geography of regional unification

By Lorenzo

Recurring periods of unification were a notable feature of the history of China; notably the Qin-Han (221BC-220), Sui-Tang (589-907), and Yuan-Ming-Qing (1271-1912) periods of unification. (The Northern Song [959-1126] arguably do not count as a full unification, since they never controlled the northern regions, which was under the control of the Liao dynasty [907-1125].) Indeed, of all the major civilisation centres, China was unified more frequently than any other.

Conversely, Europe was never unified and the Mediterranean basin was unified only once–under the Roman Empire. So, why was China repeatedly unified, while the Roman Empire was a one-off?

Unification propensities

The first thing to note, is that we are looking at different propensities to be unified. There were centuries-long periods of Chinese history when it was not united: nevertheless, compared to other civilisation centres, it showed a relatively high propensity for unification. Conversely, the Mediterranean basin had a low propensity to being unified (it was unified once) and Europe as a whole effectively no propensity to being unified (as it never was).

The size of largest and second largest empires.

Note also that propensity to unification is not the same as any more general propensity to large states or mega empires. The former is about the propensity for a specific region to be ruled by a single state, not mere state size or capacity. (Though, of course, state capacity matters in the sense that the region has to be within the possible ambit of control by a single state, given the level of organisational capacity achieved by states in a particular time period.)

Both historical demographer Peter Turchin (here) and historian T. Greer (here) have posted on the contrast between China and Europe. Both of the them reject what Greer calls the fractured land hypothesis, which Greer describes thus:

… they suggest that China’s political unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity are reflections of the unbroken terrain of the first and the disparate geography of the second. Two prominent examples can be found in Paul Kennedy’s Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Powers and Military Change, 1500-2000 and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Society.

Turchin and Greer both argue that the geography of China is more similar to Europe’s than the hypothesis requires.

I completely agree with them, the fractured land hypothesis is not at all a satisfactory explanation of the different propensities to unification. Greer concludes his post with:

A close examination of the geography of East Asia suggests that there is no geographic feature capable of explaining the divergent paths of European powers like Germany, France, and the Netherlands that cannot be found in China. Chinese unity did not come because of its geography. It came in spite of it. 

While completely agreeing with the unsatisfactory nature of the fractured land hypothesis, I completely disagree with Greer’s wider conclusion. China’s geography does explain why it had a relatively high propensity to unification–provided we look at in terms of the interaction between geography and state systems.

State systems: how bounded?

In using the concept of a state system, I am adopting the terminology and definition of historical sociologist Charles Tilly in his seminal Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1992:

States form a system to the extent that they interact with each other regularly, and to the degree that their interaction affects the behaviour of each state (p.162).

To explain varying propensities to unification, we have to examined how open or closed, how bounded, a particular state system is. A state system is completely open if it has no borders without effective states (or power projection by states). The contemporary global state system is completely open, it has no such geographical borders. But we have not always had a global state system: in fact, far from it.

A state system is completely closed if it is bounded on all sides by borders without effective states (or power projection by states). Apart from some early periods of state formation in various regions, this has essentially never been the case. A state system can be relatively closed, however. If, for example, all but one border is without effective states (or power projection by states).

The closed and controllable state systems of China

Which is precisely the situation that China was in for most of its history. Until the C19th, no state projected significant state power across its coasts. With the exception of the relatively brief Tibetan Empire (618-842)*, no state projected significant state power into China across a South-to-West-to-North arc from the Vietnam border to the steppes. For most of its history, the only open border for the projection of state power into China was the steppes border.

The interaction between the people of the plough (the Chinese) and the people of the bow (the pastoralist nomads) has been central to Chinese history. But it has been central to Chinese history precisely because, for the overwhelming majority of Chinese history, it has been the only open border across which external state power was projected into the farming lands of China. And that was most emphatically been a product of the geography of China. That its agrarian heartland is a series of river valleys bordered by coasts, jungles, mountains and deserts across which state power was not seriously projected from outside (with the above noted relatively brief Tibetan exception) and by the steppes, across which it was.

Why does that matter for the propensity to be unified? Because the area that is so bounded was able to be controlled (given the transport and communication technology available) by a single state. So, in a period of disunity, if and when one state gained a military advantage over the others, the geography of China meant that the period it needed to sustain that military advantage to roll up the other states in the bounded state space was relatively short. Short enough to generate China’s relatively high propensity to be unified. And, since there was effectively only one border across which rival state power could be projected, there were considerable economies of scale in military effort to be reaped once unification was achieved.

As we are looking at the interactive dynamics of state systems–that is, their movement through time–both military and administrative technology matter. In particular, what level of resource mobilisation states in the relevant state space have the organisational capacity to do, matters. It may take considerable time before one participant develops the organisational capacity to overwhelm the other states in the relevant state space. Hence centuries of disunity even in the case of China. Since we are looking at varying propensities, while geography remains essentially a fixed constraint, only explanation in terms of dynamics–specifically, state system dynamics, given that we are looking at the propensity for the state system to evolve into a single state–has any chance of explaining the pattern.

The Roman exception

If we look at propensity to unification in terms of characteristics (and the dynamic possibilities and patterns therefrom) of state systems, we can see why Europe had effectively no propensity to unification. Once state formation had spread beyond the Mediterranean littoral, it was never a closed state system in the above sense. There were too many borders across which state power could be (and was) projected into too large an area for establishing and maintaining unified control. Which meant too many directions from which unity could be blocked and (especially) military dominance blocked (as a series of would-be hegemons found).

The centuries earlier Mediterranean world that the Roman Republic confronted was quite different. There were no states beyond the Mediterranean littoral, except in the East. The forests of Europe, the deserts of the Sahara, were either empty of states or too much of a barrier for effective projection of state power. Only eastwards–in particular, the Iranian plateau–were there state(s) able to project state power into the Mediterranean littoral. Which was not enough to block Mediterranean littoral unity if one state had enough of a military advantage for long enough.

The Mediterranean littoral was a large area, even given the utility of the Mediterranean itself for transport and communication. So, a state had to sustain a significant military advantage for a significant period of time to roll up all the other states and unify the Mediterranean littoral. But, if a state did, then the only border confronting significant state power was with the Iranian plateau. A geographical pattern which could generate significant economies of scale in military effort, if and when unification was achieved.

Which it was, because the Roman Republic did sustain such a military advantage for a long period of time, winning every external war for about three centuries. Long enough, indeed, to roll up every other Mediterranean littoral state and unify the entire Mediterranean littoral under one state.

Success that blocked replication

But the very success of Rome ensured that such a unification was a one-off, as the example of Rome spread the techniques of state formation beyond the Mediterranean littoral, which never again became a closed state system.  The Umayyad Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire made notable attempts at unifying the Mediterranean littoral, but it was precisely the Sahara-flanked region of the Mediterranean littoral–not that bordering the now too-deep European state system–which they united with the Middle East. Though neither controlled the entire African coast of the Mediterranean for as long as the Romans did.

So, I agree, the fractured land hypothesis does not explain the relatively high propensity for unification of China and the effectively zero propensity for unification of Europe; or why the Roman Empire was a one-off. But the interaction between geography and its effect on the dynamics of state systems does very definitely explain those patterns.

Geography matters in history; particularly before the Growth Revolution (to use T. Greer’s nice phrase) from the 1820s onwards: for geography provided powerful, continuing constraints on human affairs. Only with steamship and railroads, from the 1820s onwards, (along with the development of telegraph systems from the late 1830s onwards) did humans develop any significant technological capacity to overcome the constraints of geography. It is not surprising that a recent study found that, prior to said Growth Revolution, geography appears to have dominated institutions in explaining the average long-run incomes of regions.

China was a relatively closed state system, with blocking boundaries, so had a high propensity to unification. The Mediterranean basin stopped being a relatively closed state system, so never repeated the Roman unification. While, once there was a European state system, it was never sufficiently bounded to be unified. All the results of the interaction of state system dynamics with geography.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* The period of the Tibetan Empire coincided with the Sui-Tang unification, so China was already unified.

Lenin, Luxemburg and Gorbachev’s failure (a Vladimir, Rosa and Mikhail story)

By Lorenzo

Vladimir Lenin gave his name to Leninism, a way of operationalising revolutionary socialism. In fact, essentially the only way that has proved effective, based on adopting the Jacobin model of political action. That is, totalist politics–no limit on the range, or means, of political action in pursuit of a specific political project.

Lenin was happy to adopt the title of Jacobin:

A Jacobin who wholly identifies himself with the organisation of the proletariat—a proletariat conscious of its class interests—is a revolutionary Social-Democrat (1904).

And also:

Bourgeois historians see Jacobinism as a fall (“to stoop”). Proletarian historians see Jacobinism as one of the highest peaks in the emancipation struggle of an oppressed class. The Jacobins gave France the best models of a democratic revolution and of resistance to a coalition of monarchs against a republic. The Jacobins were not destined to win complete victory, chiefly because eighteenth-century France was surrounded on the continent by much too backward countries, and because France herself lacked the material basis for socialism, there being no banks, no capitalist syndicates, no machine industry and no railways.

“Jacobinism” in Europe or on the boundary line between Europe and Asia in the twentieth century would be the rule of the revolutionary class, of the proletariat, which, supported by the peasant poor and taking advantage of the existing material basis for advancing to socialism, could not only provide all the great, ineradicable, unforgettable things provided by the Jacobins in the eighteenth century, but bring about a lasting world-wide victory for the working people.

It is natural for the bourgeoisie to hate Jacobinism. It is natural for the petty bourgeoisie to dread it. The class-conscious workers and working people generally put their trust in the transfer of power to the revolutionary, oppressed class for that is the essence of Jacobinism, the only way out of the present crisis, and the only remedy for economic dislocation and the war (1917).

Lenin was also clear on what that political approach involved:

Of course, the application of this principle in practice will sometimes give rise to disputes and misunderstandings; but only on the basis of this principle can all disputes and all misunderstandings be settled honourably for the Party. … The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and full freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action; it rules out all criticism which disrupts or makes difficult the unity of an action decided on by the Party (1906).

In shorthand terms, Leninism was Karl Marx + Robespierre.

Revolutionary Marxist Rosa Luxembourg famously disagreed with Lenin’s approach to political organisation:

Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. Not because of any fanatical concept of “justice” but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege. …

Public control is indispensably necessary. Otherwise the exchange of experiences remains only with the closed circle of the officials of the new regime. Corruption becomes inevitable. (Lenin’s words, Bulletin No.29) Socialism in life demands a complete spiritual transformation in the masses degraded by centuries of bourgeois rule. Social instincts in place of egotistical ones, mass initiative in place of inertia, idealism which conquers all suffering, etc., etc. No one knows this better, describes it more penetratingly; repeats it more stubbornly than Lenin. But he is completely mistaken in the means he employs. Decree, dictatorial force of the factory overseer, draconian penalties, rule by terror – all these things are but palliatives. The only way to a rebirth is the school of public life itself, the most unlimited, the broadest democracy and public opinion. It is rule by terror which demoralizes.

When all this is eliminated, what really remains? In place of the representative bodies created by general, popular elections, Lenin and Trotsky have laid down the soviets as the only true representation of political life in the land as a whole, life in the soviets must also become more and more crippled. Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously – at bottom, then, a clique affair – a dictatorship, to be sure, not the dictatorship of the proletariat but only the dictatorship of a handful of politicians, that is a dictatorship in the bourgeois sense, in the sense of the rule of the Jacobins (the postponement of the Soviet Congress from three-month periods to six-month periods!) Yes, we can go even further: such conditions must inevitably cause a brutalization of public life: attempted assassinations, shooting of hostages, etc (1918).

Looking back on the history of Leninism, Rosa Luxemburg seems absolutely vindicated, prescient in her criticism of Lenin’s approach to politics.

Both correct

The problem is, this was a dispute where both disputants were correct. Yes, Lenin’s approach led straight to the brutalising dictatorship and rule by Party-bureaucrats, so Rosa Luxemburg was correct.  But Lenin was also correct; the Jacobin model of totalist politics was (and remains) the only way to make revolutionary socialism operational.

The arrest of Robespierre.

Which makes the entire revolutionary socialism project deeply problematic. Given that revolutionary socialism has been reduced in Western capitalist countries to undergraduate parlour politics, a few academic fossils and some lingering tiny networks of activists without supporting masses to activate, that seems to be a widely held judgement about the lessons of history.

One of the earliest obituaries on Lenin’s project was delivered in July 1920 by former radical socialist Benito Mussolini:

Lenin is an artist who has worked men, as other artists have worked marble or metals. But men are harder than stone and less malleable than iron. There is no masterpiece. The artist has failed. The task was superior to his capacities.

Coming out of the same revolutionary socialist milieu as Lenin (they even both had been in exile in Switzerland; Mussolini as a draft-dodger from 1902-4: Lenin as a political exile 1903, 1904-5, 1907-8, 1913-1917), Mussolini was an informed and acute observer of the Bolshevik Revolution.

The collectivism of nation

The experience of the Great War convinced Mussolini that the collectivism of nation was more powerful than the collectivism of class. This led Mussolini to create Fascism, which was Mazzini + Ropespierre by way of Charles Maurras‘s “integral nationalism“; identifying nationalism with the power of the state. In Mussolini’s words:

All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state (1928).

The citizen in the Fascist State is no longer a selfish individual who has the anti-social right of rebelling against any law of the Collectivity (1928).

If the 19th [century] was the century of the individual (liberalism means individualism), you may consider that this is the “collective” century, and therefore the century of the state (1932).

And by way also of Georges Sorel on violence as activism and ideology as energising myth. As Mussolini was quoted as saying:

I owe most to Georges Sorel. This master of syndicalism by his rough theories of revolutionary tactics has contributed most to form the discipline, energy and power of the fascist cohorts.

As Mussolini’s project of Italian national greatness was a much more limited project than Lenin’s, the death toll of Italian Fascism was a tiny fraction of that of Leninism.

Uncooperative nature

In the 1920 quote on Lenin’s failure, Mussolini puts his finger directly on the problem of the revolutionary socialism project–to work, revolutionary socialism required human nature to be malleable in specific ways. For Leninism to work, human nature has to be malleable by Lenin’s vanguard Party. Neither was true, hence Lenin’s project failed in its own terms and, in so failing, fulfilled Rosa Luxemburg’s predictions, becoming a vehicle for brutalising dictatorship and rule by party-bureaucrats, the nomenklatura.

In the case of North Korea, Leninism even became a vehicle for dynastic rule under the Kim dynasty. (We shall see if Cuba is also going to be a case of Leninist multigenerational dynasticism, depending on who succeeds Fidel Castro‘s brother Raul Castro.) There is nothing stopping the control of the mechanisms of totalist politics being captured by a particular family. The would-be transformers of human nature are as caught in its consistencies as is their project–hence what their project becomes.

Failed reconciliation

That Lenin and Luxemburg were both right also, ironically, framed the end of the Soviet Union. Historian Stephen Kotkin, in his Armageddon Averted: the Soviet Collapse 1970-2000, argues that Gorbachev was both much the cleverest political operator in the Soviet Politburo and a sincere Leninist. Indeed, his actions make much more sense if we see Gorbachev as someone who wanted to reconcile Lenin with Luxemburg. That is, he wanted the transformational project of Lenin without the problems presciently analysed by Luxemburg.

It is possible that Gorbachev envisaged something like a Leninist “Deep State” on the Iranian model. That is, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) would continue to set the boundaries of political action, within which more freedom and openness would operate. If that was so, there was a series of basic problems for any such project.

The first was the burden of history. When Ayatollah Khomeini set up the Supreme Leader system, the Islamic Republic of Iran was a new state (in the sense of a new constitutional order), fresh out of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. It had all the excitement of a new revolutionary project without any burden of past failure.

By contrast, that Gorbachev was trying to change so much was a massive signal that the CPSU had a legacy of failure. Why would anyone believe in its capacity to guide Soviet society when the entire enterprise of reform, of perestroika and glasnost, was an admission of failure? As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, the most dangerous time for a bad regime is when it attempts to reform:

The regime which is destroyed by a revolution is almost always an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and experience teaches that the most critical moment for bad governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform.

Not only is there the burden of past oppressions and failures–which the attempt to reform itself is an admission–but there is also the signalling effect between people, as Tocqueville also noted:

It is almost never when a state of things is the most detestable that it is smashed, but when, beginning to improve, it permits men to breathe, to reflect, to communicate their thoughts with each other, and to gauge by what they already have the extent of their rights and their grievances. The weight, although less heavy, seems then all the more unbearable.

Which steadily and increasingly became a problem for Gorbachev; particularly as national identities and grievances came to the fore. That national identities had far more enduring power than Soviet identity would have surprised Mussolini not at all. People simply did not believe in Leninism: at least not insofar as it was built around the vanguard role of the CPSU. Conversely, in Iran, Islam has continued to have the coordinating power of shared belief.

Loss of asabiyyah

After the coup attempt of August 1991, Gorbachev had a much more personal problem. The leaders of the coup were the people he had picked, and they had attempted to overthrow him. Nor could he take credit for the defeat of the coup. Boris Yeltsin, who could and did, mercilessly and publicly used that Gorbachev himself had appointed the coupists against him. Gorbachev’s personal authority was fatally undermined, and with it any lingering notion of a Leninist “deep state” melted away.

Indeed, so weak had the power of Leninism as a coordinating belief system become, even the coup plotters themselves were pathetically unable to act effectively. As Rosa Luxemburg had predicted, the only “live” element left in Lenin’s project was bureaucracy, and it turned out that bureaucratic self-interest alone simply could not provide the coordinating impetus needed in a crisis situation.

Leninism is a secular philosophy, promising transformation in this world. After 73 years of the CPSU’s failure to achieve any such transformation, why would anyone believe in it or its motivating ideology? Even if their own position rested on that claim. (In some ways, especially so–at least in a crisis situation.)

Gorbachev might had believed, since it buttressed his authority, but it could no longer provide him with the necessary number of sufficiently dedicated cadres. Not least, because his policies were so overtly a departure from the past, that it became very unclear where he was leading people to.

Ibn Khaldun (Cairo).

To use the language of the first (and arguably greatest) of historical sociologists, ibn Khaldun, the asabiyyah of the Party-State elite had dissipated and so the regime crumbled. (A nice discussion of ibn Khaldun’s concept is here.) Especially when Gorbachev’s own policies allowed folk to publicly signal how much they did not believe, while propaganda was no longer signalling the strength (pdf) of the regime.

The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to be able to use Shia Islam as coordinating belief for its necessary controlling cadre running the ”Deep State”. The contrast with “we are the end of History” Leninism is a rich irony for those familiar with modernisation theory.

A doomed project

But the any project of trying to marry Lenin with Luxemburg was doomed. The project of social and human transformation requires such a concentration of social power that any attempt to bridge the gulf between those doing the transforming and those being transformed must fatally undermine the entire project. For if those being transformed have sufficient standing to have a serious say, how can the transformers possibly have the knowing authority to undertake the transformation? If mechanisms are created that give those being transformed as serious say, how can those doing the transformation have sufficient power to do so?

Which is why Lenin and Luxemburg were both right. Yes, that level of concentration of power is needed for the project to be attempted (Lenin) but doing so creates brutalising dictatorship where bureaucracy (the power of the Party-State apparatus) becomes the only “live” element (Luxemburg). So, you have to pick one. You either go with the Jacobin model as updated by Lenin and give up any notion of significant popular participation in politics. Or, you accept the human costs are too high and accept the primacy of popular participation in politics–the Social Democratic option. Which, given the limitations of command-and-control for economic coordination, means going down the capitalist road of market economics.

Though there is, in fact, a third option. You keep the political domination that totalist politics involves but give up the transformation project; accept the limitations of command-and-control for economic coordination and go down the capitalist road without popular participation in politics. The path that the People’s Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are on. Both are states with ruling Leninist parties presiding over market economies but retaining their political domination. A path where national greatness rather than social transformation becomes the central political project.* Hence contemporary China resembles the vision of Chiang Kai-shek far more than it does that of Mao Zedong. [See also.]

Mussolini would approve. He would also feel vindicated. For that is precisely how he built Fascism–accepting the totalist model of politics Lenin had updated but changing the political project. You might even call it the Third Position.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Of course, Slobodan Milošević of Serbia also went down that path. Wasn’t that fun.

Serfdom versus slavery

By Lorenzo

Slavery remains a live issue, as discussed in the Global Slavery Index. The Index uses the following operational definition of slavery:

Slavery is the possession and control of a person in such a way as to significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty, with the intent of exploiting that person through their use, management, profit, transfer or disposal. Usually this exercise will be achieved through means such as violence or threats of violence, deception and/or coercion (p.11).

That is a definition of labour bondage, rather than slavery as such, but as all human bondage is an offence against people as moral agents, one can understand the attraction of slavery as catch-all term. Especially as the inaugural edition of the Index (conservatively) estimates that 30 million people are in such bondage world-wide.

The economic scholarship on slavery and serfdom usually starts with Evsey Domar’s classic article (scroll down), summarised here by Paul Krugman. See an updated version of Domar’s model. (And further.)  Economic discussions of the choice between slavery and serfdom tends to be somewhat unsatisfactory, as the key factor–whether the source population for the labour in bondage is local or imported–is rarely given the significance history suggests it should have. The American experience of mass multi-generational slavery, along with the myth of no slave smuggling, perhaps distorts perspectives.

Return to labour

Historically, labour bondage (from slavery through to serfdom and similar arrangements) occurred when the return to labour was sufficiently high that the policing costs of bondage were more than covered by the reduction in the cost of labour from imposing bondage compared to the cost of free labour. (The effects of coercion on productivity is a more complex issue.) Typically, this occurred due to either a drop in the population (e.g. the rise of the coloni in the Roman Empire after the Antonine plague and the plague of Cyprian) or to an expansion in land available for farming (e.g. after the advent of gunpowder weapons led to the retreat of the pastoralists in Eastern Europe). In these cases, the return to labour increased because it became relatively scarcer compared to land: to put it another way, labour’s marginal productivity went up because there was more land per provider of labour. So coercion blocked labour’s ability to get the full return therefrom.

The expansion of export markets (also a factor in the Eastern European en-serfments), so an increase in the demand for the products of labour, and development of gang (or other easily-supervised) production methods (increasing the output for a given level of coercion) could also encourage use of labour bondage. In the former case, increased demand for the product increased the return to labour. In the latter case low supervision costs increased the return to bondage.

Pre-industrial mining and cotton harvesting were both often done by slaves or other bonded labour. In both cases, the resource was unpleasant to gather but said gathering was easily supervised. Sugar harvesting (which was particularly easily supervised) was even more prone to use of slave labour.

So, effort-intensive (unpleasant but relatively simple) production was much more prone to bondage, particularly slavery. Care-intensive (more attention complex) production tended more towards serfdom or free labour; although an “open” slave system (i.e. freed slaves then integrate into the society) would allow care-intensive slavery–such as the labour market of (pdf) the Roman Empire. It would even permit slave agents if a lack of corporation law or equivalent made free-but-controlled agents problematic. In the words of (pdf) economic historian Stefano Fenoaltea:

Another of the principal consequences of the slave’s legal incapacity is that the slave is legally an extension of his master, so that a sum paid to the slave of Titius is considered paid to Titius himself. Nowadays, this would matter little: legal intermediation by an agent is not difficult, and in any case most of our bills are paid not directly to individuals but to abstract legal persons (which in substantive terms are also intermediaries). In classical antiquity, on the other hand, both legal agency and abstract-legal persons were restricted to very special cases where they were recognized at all; but an effective substitute for the nonhuman person or the legal agent was found in the human nonperson, who was legally but his master’s instrument. Slaves thus also had a specific advantage in the role of agents, and slave agents were common even where slaves were generally scarce (p.657).

Economic historian Peter Temin makes a similar point (pdf):

As [Sir John] Hicks noted, slavery was the most common formal, legally enforceable long-term labor contract in the early Roman empire. A person with a long-term relation to a principal would be his or her most responsible representative. Slaves were more valuable than free men in that respect. Witness the frequent references to literate, skilled slave agents in the surviving sources (p.536).

Slave-serf spectrum

The difference between serfdom (in its various forms) and slavery is that a serf is bound to the land or workplace (the Soviet Union operated a system of workplace industrial serfdom from 1940 to 1956) while a slave is property. That distinction seems clear enough, except that (pre-revolutionary) Russian serfdom was perilously close to slavery in several senses–serfs were bound to owners more than land, and could be bought and sold (or, at least, the right to their labour could be). Forms of bondage have been historically so varied that the distinction between owning a person (slavery) and owning their labour services (serfdom) is not always very clear-cut.

Another difference between slaves and serfs is that serfs could legally own property, slaves could not (being, themselves, property). Russian serfs could own property, for example. Except that distinction is more de jure than complete. Slaves could have economic property rights (i.e. effective control over goods or attributes thereof), even if said property rights were not legally recognised or protected–otherwise slaves would not be able to buy their freedom, as some did. (The point also works in reverse: inmates of labour camps may not be legally slaves, but they functionally are.)

Both serfs and slaves could be born such. Indeed, serfs were typically born into serfdom. This was less true of slaves, who were often enslaved, as slave populations generally did not fully reproduce themselves. Roman slavery had significant slave breeding (pdf). Indeed, judging by the age data of slaves, it is possible that a significant proportion of Roman slaves purchased their freedom in part by raising children to replace them. There was also significant slave breeding in the Antebellum South, hence it received a relatively small proportion of enslaved Africans transported across the Atlantic, even including smuggling (mainly via Cuba).

That both systems had significant slave breeding was true despite Roman slavery being an “open” slave system (relatively high levels of manumission with ex-slaves being integrated into the wider society as full citizens and economic participants) and American slavery being a “closed” slave system (very little manumission and ex-slaves were not integrated into the wider society).

But it is highly doubtful either slave population was able to fully reproduce itself. The claim that the slave population of the Antebellum South was an exception to this principle seems to be based on ignoring or downplaying the (apparently considerable) smuggling of slaves.

That the family status of slaves had no standing, so they received little or no economic benefit in extra labour or provision for old age from raising children–remembering that children have to be not only brought to term, but then nurtured–militated against full internal reproduction of slave populations.

Serf populations never had that drawback. Serf populations had little difficulty reproducing themselves, having the normal economic incentives for raising children (extra labour and provision for old age) given that they could own property and their family status was fully recognised.*

Local or imported?

The clearest difference between serfdom and slavery is that serfs were local populations bound to the land, while slaves were (at least originally) imported. If the supply of bonded labour is local, that means:

(1) things have to be arranged so that the population continues to locally fully reproduce itself; and

(2) the costs of reducing said population to being property will be particularly high, due to the size and propinquity of the population. (This will include possible threat to the legal status of other members of that society.)**


Binding people to the land or workplace was a lot cheaper and safer than stripping them of all legal rights and standing–given that most of the advantage of bondage is gained simply by blocking the ability to offer their labour elsewhere. Which led to the further advantages of requiring significantly less ongoing policing while allowing said population to unproblematically locally reproduce itself. Thus, while debt slavery did occur (selling yourself or your children into slavery to pay a debt), debt bondage is more commonly a form of serfdom–due to reduced policing costs and much increased possibility of multi-generational labour services.

Conversely, if the supply of bonded labour is foreign or otherwise scattered:

(1) the process of enslaving will have already stripped them of rights and standing;

(2) the expectation of further imports will reduce any need to arrange for full local reproduction of the slave population; and

(3) the more tradable they are, the more the cost of more complete stripping of rights will be ameliorated.

Policing costs will be higher, however, and the cost of the enslaving will be reflected in the purchase price. So slaves will have to be more productive than serfs to be profitable, reflecting the higher acquisition and enforcement costs. Which, in return, requires either extracting more output or doing so at lower cost, or both. (Use of slave labour to reduce the costs of oppression–as in the labour camps of totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union or North Korea–is a somewhat different case.)

Serfdom will therefore dominate slavery, as the policing costs of serfdom will be substantially lower and acquisition costs will be entirely contained within the return to the serfs, who will retain the normal reasons in farming societies to have children. So, the more use of serfdom (or its cognates), the less use of full slavery. Which is what we observe historically.

Since serfdom dominates slavery, slavery–particularly mass slavery–will typically occur when some effective constraint blocks the enserfing of local population. Such as a simple lack of such population; as in the Americas after the disease catastrophe of the Columbian exchange. (Though a form of serfdom was enacted while and if significant indigenous populations remained.) Or substantive political constraints–such as wanting poor locals to row warships or serve in the army, giving them the status and bargaining power to avoid bondage (classical Athens and Rome). The very notion of citizenship militates against enserfing.

Conversely, Sparta did not use mass slavery, as it already had an enserfed local population–the helots.  (It is notable that the coloni of the later Roman Empire evolved after Roman citizenship had become universal, so of much less moment, and the Roman Empire was on the defensive, so fewer slave imports.)

Imported bonded non-slave labour did occur–in the case of “blackbirding” and other indentured labour in the colonies. A little surprising, since the importation costs would at least partly replicate enslaving costs. But slavery being illegal would give space for use of imported “serfs”. And importation costs may not fully equal enslaving costs, especially if lower policing costs also operate, given that these indentures were often entered into quite voluntarily, looking to a desired outcome (such as being paid to move to a society with improved income prospects).

Where the possibility of imported bonded-but-not-enslaved labour exists as an alternative to slavery, other factors may play a role. If there is a mode of production–such as gang-production–where the return to using slaves more than compensates for extra policing costs, then slavery will be favoured. Moreover, if the bonded labour is ethnically distinctive, that reduces policing (and psychic) costs of slavery. So, if physically distinct slaves are available, but physically distinct serfs or other bonded labour is not, slavery will also tend to be favoured (as the policing costs advantages of servitude over slavery is reduced). Thus, in most American colonies of European states, (African) slavery was comparatively favoured against (European) servitude.

Even so, indentured labour was imported into the more northerly British American colonies even while slavery was entirely legal and slaves were available. The key factor seems to have been the nature of production: indentured labour was preferred for care-intensive production (typical of the small farms and businesses of the northern colonies) while the balance of advantage shifted towards slavery when the expansion of gang-production methods made slavery more economic for various crops in the southern colonies.

The enserfment that did not happen

One of the historical puzzles about the use of labour bondage is the (re)enserfment that did not happen after the massive population loss of the Black Death (1346-1353). Here was a society which had had extensive labour bondage confronting a sudden labour scarcity (since lots of people had died, but the land and capital was still there). There was a clear increase in wages as a result of said labour scarcity. Yet the attempts to re-impose bondage failed.

Looking at the historical record, two elements seemed crucial:

  1. The landlord cartel was insufficiently coherent because there were too many alternative ways of deriving income from land.
  2. The crowns had become much less dependant on landlord military service, so lacked sufficient interest in enforcing such a landlord cartel (which is what mass enserfment essentially is).

A paper on the economics of labour coercion (pdf) suggests that my intuition was on the right track but not quite broad enough. The paper argues that effort and coercion are complements; that is more coercion means more production. But the paper also argues outside options are crucial, because that affects the alternatives available to coerced labour.  In the words of the paper:

Labor scarcity creates a labor demand effect: it increases the marginal product of workers in the coercive sector, and thus encourages employers to use greater coercion and extract higher effort from their workers. It also creates an outside option effect: it increases the outside option of the workers in the noncoercive sector, and reduces coercion because employers demand lower effort and use less coercion when workers have greater outside options. … Whether the labor demand effect or the outside option effect dominates simply depends on whether the population change has a larger direct effect on the market price or the workers’ outside options (Pp587-8).

In post Black Death Western Europe, the paper argues that the relatively high degree of urbanisation increased the outside option effect, reducing the use of coercion. While, in Eastern Europe in the early modern period, the lack of urbanisation meant a minimal outside option effect, increasing the use of coercion.

Which is fine as far as it goes, but it was not merely urbanisation. Western Europe also had commercially more complex economies, which also increased the outside option effect. A commercial complexity that was in part a result of more extensive states, able to mediate and facilitate such complexity: a point which particularly applies with the comparison to Russia (which had much fewer officials per given number of population), where serfdom lasted longest.

As for my above point about what the crowns wanted, at the deepest level, it is the same point; that the societies had become sufficiently commercially complex also meant that armed forces were increasingly dominated by monetary taxes and payments independent of the return to landlord coercion. And it is enforcing (or not) the landlord cartel which is the key element. Not merely to block shifting between landlords but also to block alternative contracts (as the basis of mass bondage is that essentially the same conditions are imposed across controllers of labour), as both effects reduce outside options and make coercion more profitable.

Constraints and returns

So, slavery, particularly mass slavery, will occur when there some effective constraint blocks the enserfing of local population and the option of imported “serfs” is not suited to the mode of production, has insufficient advantage in policing costs or is otherwise not practical. For example, because passage is too risky to be attractive or contract enforcement is too problematic. A West African labourer had no capacity to contract with a potential American employer and, when slavery was legal, no protection against being enslaved on route. Conversely, moving from one part of the British Empire to another as indentured labour had much better contract enforcement possibilities.

Hence the slavery versus serfdom choice–in a situation where labour bondage is practical, and the return to bonded labour is positive–will be primarily a matter of the source of the population on which bondage is imposed. If the source population was local, serfdom (or some cognate) would be used. If the source population was foreign in origins, then (with the caveats noted above) slavery (i.e. being reduced to merely property, so more tradable) would be used to compensate for the increased acquisition costs, despite the increased policing costs of slavery over serfdom.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

* Slavery implied sexual bondage, as family status was not recognised; serfdom did not, as family status was recognised. This provides a particularly clear contrast between being property oneself and having one’s labour services owned (in part or full). [Added footnote in response to a Facebook discussion.]

** As Yoram Barzel points out (pdf), this made slavery most problematic when it threatened the legal status of members of the domestic population. Unless, of course, such threat was the point–as in labour camp slavery. Modern servitude (amounting at times to slavery) among illegal immigrants operates precisely because they are isolated from the domestic population.