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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.

Frustrated status and bigotry

By Lorenzo

Bigotry (in the sense of prejudice-by-category) is a form of moral exclusion–one excludes some group from the moral consideration and standing given to other people. As I have noted before, bigotry is always and everywhere a moral claim–a claim about some category of people’s moral status or standing. A claim not based on specific individual actions against others, but on either some alleged essential flaw they all share or some shared transgression against a conception of social order or human nature. (A classic formulation of such bigotry is Carl Schmitt‘s aphorism that not everything with a human face is human.)


There are three basic motivators for such moral exclusion.  One is social cartels–blocking the excluded group from social participation available to others; typically so as to stop the excluded group from competing for social goods or so as to derive some other (typically exploitive) benefit from said exclusion. The “cleanliness of the blood” laws of Christian Iberia blocking Jewish converts to Christianity from holding various positions or receiving various benefits were a classic example of the former. Jim Crow laws in Southern US States provided both the former and the latter, as it increased the ability to extract income from disenfranchised African-Americans.

Certifying not being of Jewish descent for the requisite number of generations.

Slavery is a particularly invidious form of social cartel, allowing the extraction of labour surplus from an entire category of people. Its effect on bigotry is more complex, depending somewhat on whether it is an “open” or a “closed” slavery system. In an “open” slave system, there are relatively high levels of manumission, with ex-slaves being integrated into the wider society as full citizens and economic participants; Ancient Rome ran an “open” slave system. There was some prejudice against freedmen (ex-slaves) but not their children. In a “closed” slave system there is very little manumission and ex-slaves were not integrated into the wider society: the Antebellum South ran a particularly intensely “closed” slave system. This both manifested and reinforced that slavery across a colour line is a powerful generator of bigotry.

The second motivator for moral exclusion is creating and maintaining the authority to exclude–what I call being “gatekeepers of righteousness”. Priests and clerics are classic examples of such, though secular clerisies are hardly immune from either the temptation or the role.

Righteousness in this sense is a normative claim to override basic moral considerations. Deuteronomy 13 6:11 is a classic text of such righteousness:

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known,  gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.

Frustrated status

The third motivator for moral exclusion is social status; a sense of superior status both generating, and generated by, said exclusion and so accruing to the non-excluded with little or no effort on their part. Thus slavery across a colour line is a powerful generator of bigotry precisely because it separates physically distinct people into such starkly distinct categories–”real” people and property. The more stark the felt status gap, the more the “insult of equality” potentially arises: that people can feel actively insulted in being treated as the equals of the excluded group, in being subject to the same rules and treatment as the despicable, or at least “obviously” lesser, them.

I have previously suggested that low status people are particularly drawn to the effortless virtue (which is effortless status) of bigotry. A better formulation would be frustrated status–that is, people whose functional status in their society is significantly lower than the status they believe they should have; the disjunct being a source of negative emotions, with the level of emotional intensity generated being the key factor.

After all, it is eminently possible for people to be of low status without investing in effortless virtue. Conversely, people of some (or even considerable) status in society can well experience intense status frustration if they believe such status is nevertheless significantly lower than the status due to them.

Note this is not a point about some status merely aspired to, but status that one feels one is, in some sense, entitled to. The effortless virtue, the effortless status, of bigotry can provide a substitute sense of status. Although, ironically, if those regarded as morally excluded are nevertheless socially successfully, that can set off, and intensify, a further spiral of negative emotions as the morally excluded group’s success becomes even more of an insult to an aggrieved sense of status.

A question and answer on Razib Khan’s gene expression blog is pertinent to the power of frustrated status. A commenter asked, regarding a documentary on escaping ISIS slaves:

…concerning ISIS, I just don’t get what makes people who have grown up in Western democracies join a movement whose members openly brag about having re-introduced slavery.

Razib Khan replied:

they’re in the country, but not of it. they feel marginalized. islamism provides a cultural exit strategy to being members of a society that can’t/won’t/isn’t able to absorb them or the way they insist on being (the second is key, because there are plenty of people of muslim background who are assimilating into european norms). a lot of the radicals of the late 19th century were from jewish backgrounds. they were outsiders, and millenarian political radicalism offered a way to make an end around the system.

Yes, quite. Particularly the way they insist on being point. One of the striking feature of the Islamic world, particularly of Middle Eastern Islam, particularly Arab Islam, is the continuing strength of various moral exclusions–Jew-hatred, misogyny, xenophobia of various forms, even anti-black racism. The last being (yet another) example of the poisonous legacy of slavery. Within the West, Muslim communities are epicentres of the upsurge in Jew-hatred.

While forming social cartels (reserving various social goods for male believers, for example) is something of a factor, most of the excluded groups are already so marginal that there is not much gain to be specifically had from such social cartelisation. Apart, that is, from gender-exclusion; but that perhaps says more to how systematic misogyny tends to be, rather that its comparative emotional power.

The authority to exclude is a much more lively factor. Islam is such a part of the public life in Muslim countries and communities, that Muslim clerics are both in a position to act as effective gatekeepers of righteousness and to have their social authority enhanced by doing so.

But it is frustrated status which has the real kick. Islam is easily read as saying that male believers are not merely entitled to be at the top of the human social pyramid, but mandated by God to so be; moreover, not merely mandated locally, but globally.

Clearly, they are not. Hence frustrated status. Which Islamic clerics can both generate and exploit. The problem with living in a global village is that some may decide (and clearly have) that they have a divine mandate to take over that global village–Allah being the sovereign of the universe and Sharia being His law, so applicable everywhere and to everyone. A status of local and global dominance that beckons, but is so patently not how things currently are.

Indeed, I would put frustrated status at the centre of understanding the violent pathologies within Islam, particularly within Middle Eastern Islam. Thus, the success of Israel–the Jewish state–becomes a cosmic insult, rubbing the noses of believers (particularly male believers) in how much they are not the top of the human social pyramid in their own region of the world. But so much of our globalised world conveys such a message about the contemporary world as a whole.

Much of the complaints about “Islamophobia” are in fact claims for a protected, indeed superior status, for Islam. Hence, as historian Bernard Lewis points out in his classic 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage, many Muslims:

… demand for Islam a degree of legal protection which those countries no longer give to Christianity and have never given to Judaism. Nor, of course, did the governments of the countries of origin of these Muslim spokesmen ever accord such protection to religions other than their own. In their perception, there is no contradiction in these attitudes. The true faith, based on God’s final revelation, must be protected from insult and abuse; other faiths, being either false or incomplete, have no right to any such protection.

As for the patterns of violence and massacre within the Middle East (and elsewhere), lashing out violently not merely assuages rage, it expresses on-the-spot dominance in the most visceral fashion. In the case of the revival of slavery, the appeal of slavery to such status-mongering is obvious. That is so even without the social cartel of slavery allowing for exploiting those stripped of most basic legal standing; and so stripped on righteousness grounds.

The current cycles of massacre are part of a larger pattern going back to the Hamidian massacres of the 1890s and directly connected to an ongoing sense of insult that non-believers could be considered legal, social and moral equals of believers; especially within Dar al-Islam.

Women signalling religious piety by wearing restrictive clothing that goes well beyond anything specifically mandated in Quran or hadiths appeals to, and reinforces, the sense of proper social order being the dominance of male believers.

The use of violence to police public space–and to do so globally, from the Charlie Hedbo killings to hacking to death Bangladeshi bloggers–is also a statement of “proper” dominance.

This is likely why the conveyer belt model of jihadi recruitment works at best weakly as a description of the path to jihadi recruitment. [Or not at all, really.] There are too many direct paths to the energising and viscerally dominating violence of jihadism; extending to its role as a pathway to eternal superior status in Paradise.

A civilisational trap

Islam has an interlocking series of problems. The medieval defeat of Aristotelianism within Islam, with the triumph of al Ghazali‘s critique, meant that mainstream Islam came to hold that revelation defines the ambit of the good, that there is no realm of morality beyond revelation. Hence the Islamic states being the only collection of states who felt compelled to issue their own version of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.

It is that much harder to argue for a secular public space if the very notion of moral principles not anchored in revelation is deemed to be against Islam; indeed, an offence against Islam–as in the case of the targeted Bangladeshi bloggers but extending to intellectuals, journalists and cartoonists through out Islam and beyond. As Bernard Lewis notes in The Roots of Muslim Rage:

The war against secularism is conscious and explicit, and there is by now a whole literature denouncing secularism as an evil neo-pagan force in the modern world and attributing it variously to the Jews, the West, and the United States.

The medieval defeat of Aristotelianism also meant that mainstream Islam accepted the view that there was no inherent causal structure to the universe, that everything we see is just the habits of God. When Muslims say “if God wills it” (or some similar formula) it is not merely a pious formula, it has an embedded metaphysical claim. In Wikipedia’s useful summary of al-Ghazali’s formulation, that:

There is no independent necessitation of change and becoming, other than what God has ordained. To posit an independent causality outside of God’s knowledge and action is to deprive Him of true agency, and diminish his attribute of power. In his famous example, when fire and cotton are placed in contact, the cotton is burned not because of the heat of the fire, but through God’s direct intervention

It is that much harder to sustain a notion of science, of secular knowledge, if all action in the universe is understood in such a theological fashion. Ideas have consequences.

As noted in my previous post, the state history of Islam militates against well developed habits and patterns of institutionalised bargaining: so Islamic politics has tended to fail to provide countervailing patterns. On the contrary, scapegoating “enemies of Islam” (most obviously, the “Zionist entity”) has tended to be used to pander to, and reinforce, such patterns.

All of which leads to a pervasive sense of frustrated status–a sense of not having proper (even divinely mandated) social dominance–fuelling the politics of hate and violence. Egged on by Muslim clerics all too eager to claim the role of gatekeepers of righteousness. Such preaching extends, at worse, to the implicit or explicit condoning of violence but, even without that, rejects inclusive and egalitarian values which itself narrows the possibilities for social bargaining.

The dominant issues and patterns here are not Western policy, globalisation, the existence of Israel; it is the history and internal patterns of Islam. It there that the explanations of the continuing power of moral exclusions within Islam lie. As Bernard Lewis notes in The Roots of Muslim Rage:

The Muslim has suffered successive stages of defeat. The first was his loss of domination in the world, to the advancing power of Russia and the West. The second was the undermining of his authority in his own country, through an invasion of foreign ideas and laws and ways of life and sometimes even foreign rulers or settlers, and the enfranchisement of native non-Muslim elements. The third—the last straw—was the challenge to his mastery in his own house, from emancipated women and rebellious children. It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel, and incomprehensible forces that had subverted his dominance, disrupted his society, and finally violated the sanctuary of his home was inevitable. It was also natural that this rage should be directed primarily against the millennial enemy and should draw its strength from ancient beliefs and loyalties.

Gender dynamics are so much at the heart of current patterns within Islam, that feminists of Muslim heritage–writers such as Karima Bennoune (Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here) and Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Teheran)–are indispensable to understanding what is going on within Islam; both in Muslim countries and in Muslim communities.

Patterns specific to Islam

Regions outside Islam experienced Western colonialism, live in a predominantly capitalist global economy, have migrant communities within Western states; they do not manifest the specific homicidal pathologies that emerge out of Islam (including among converts to Islam). The narcissistic sense of divine entitlement that Islam is prone to generate; the sense of frustrated status such gives rise to; and the embrace of being highly differentiating gatekeepers of righteousness that so many Islamic clerics are so keen on, are key factors.*

Islam’s history of states weakly integrated with the societies they rule, with very limited histories and institutions of social bargaining, has led to states which often fail to provide compensating social mechanisms while readily adopting modern techniques of social control and repression–repressive security states as modern substitute for the slave warrior states of the past.

Emerging from this fraught history neither has been, nor will be, an easy process: for Islam or the rest of us, their global neighbours. But pretending that the fundamental dynamics arise from anywhere other than within the religion and civilisation of Islam does not, to put it mildly, help.


* Palestine provides a microcosm of all this; particularly the ludicrous “right of return” whereby Palestinians–alone of all the myriad displaced peoples of the C20th–get to be hereditary refugees with claim to reside in the territory of someone else’s sovereign state that somehow should be (in that one and only case) taken seriously. While Palestinians cling to this delusion (itself driven by a sense of entitled status) Israel can quite reasonably infer that no serious peace is possible, so it may as well continue to, slowly but steadily, grab what it can.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

The hollow states of Islam

By Lorenzo

Reading Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, it struck me how much Islamic states–across most of the history of Islam–resembled the fluid warlord states of Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, but did not resemble the institutionally resilient Christian states of the later medieval period. These divergent paths came from the very different internal dynamics of Islamic and Christian states, particularly, the very different roles of law within the two civilisations.

Subjects but not participants

Once the Abbasid revolution (750) had broken the link between the Arab tribes and the Caliphate, by establishing the common status of all believers, Islamic states became very poorly linked to the subjects they ruled. Law was overwhelmingly the province of Islamic scholars, so Islamic states could not use law as an integrative mechanism. Sharia mandated the division of inheritance among heirs, which blocked the creation of substantive warrior aristocracies or powerful merchant families. Sharia did not recognise juristic persons, which blocked the creation of corporate bodies able to bargain with rulers. As law was overwhelmingly the province of Islamic scholars, but derived from the words and example of Muhammad, that meant there was no group of people who could sit down and change the law.

So Islamic rulers did not face powerful interest groups outside the state apparatus with whom they could bargain (or be forced to bargain) while what they could putatively bargain over was hugely attenuated. Thus Islam remained dominated by ruler-and-agents states where political processes and decision making were essentially entirely interior to the state apparatus.

Hence, until the late C19th, Islam never moved (with the exception of the Ottoman Empire, of which more below) beyond the fluid warlord states analogous to those of Christian Europe in the centuries immediately after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. For example, there was continuously a state in Egypt; the FatimidAyyubid and Mamluk states from the Fatimid conquest in 969 to the Ottoman conquest in 1517. But the ruling dynasties, their soldiers and warriors were all overwhelmingly (and continually) foreign. There was a state in Egypt, but there was no Egyptian state.

Which was the typical Islamic pattern, especially anywhere slave soldiers were used in significant numbers (mamluksghilmanjanissaries). But not only there. Thus, whenever the dominant Islamic state in Iberia collapsed, it would fracture into the small taifa states. There was none of the institutional resilience or continuity of a kingdom of England, or France or, for that matter, a kingdom of Castile or Aragon.

Which gave the Christian states a decisive and continuing advantage over the Muslim warlords, hence the Reconquista. But Christian rulers dealt with warrior aristocracies, continuing merchant families, legal persons, had states with specific laws and could bargain with all the former over the latter.  Of course the Christian states were much more resilient; they had far deeper institutional links with the societies they ruled.

Ottoman (partial) exception

The Ottomans were able to develop a state that balanced sipahi tax-collector mounted armoured warriors with royal sipahi household cavalry and Janissary slave soldiers. The Janissary corps was founded in 1383 and abolished in 1826. It was primarily recruited (until 1683) by the devşirme child-levy.

The Ottoman state was organised in its internal operations by Kanun (state law operating in the silences of Sharia). The combination meant that the Ottoman dynasty and its agents could organise a state large and durable enough to successfully compete with Christian states. So successfully, that the Ottoman Empire advanced steadily into Europe until the disastrous Battle of Vienna in 1683.

Especially by using ghazis on the borders to continually soften up Christian borderlands by raiding (including slave raiding) them. Once the population and revenue of the Christian borderlands had been degraded or driven away, invasion and incorporation into the Ottoman Empire would follow. Whereupon the ghazis moved to the new border and the cycle would repeat.

Which worked fine, until the Serene Republic of Venice and the Habsburg Monarchy recruited grenz Serb peasant militia to hold the border, the Military Frontier. After that, the superior institutional power of the Habsburg monarchy (and the Romanov monarchy) were able to continually push the Ottomans out of Europe. Eventually, even relatively minor European states could do so. Processes which essentially replicated the dynamics of the Iberian Reconquista, except that the Ottoman state never fractured.

Note that I am not claiming the Ottoman state was more or better institutionally engaged with its subjects than other Islamic states; merely that the Ottoman state apparatus itself was more capable and resilient than was normal for Islamic states. Indeed, a recent paper (pdf) found that being ruled by the Ottoman Empire after the signing of the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699) has persistent (negative) effects today in higher rates of corruption and lower economic development.

Institutionally attenuated

All of which meant that Islam did not indigenously develop the institutionally resilient, social bargaining states of Christendom. Indeed, significant strands of Islamic thought reject the entire approach. In the words of the most prominent Salafi scholar of the C20th, Muhammad Nasir-ud-Din al-Albani (1914-1999):

Elections according to democracy are unlawful, and parliaments that do not govern in accordance with the Qur’an and the Sunna [orally transmitted traditions of Muhammad], but rather on the basis of the majority’s arbitrariness, are tyrannical. Parliaments cannot be recognized and Muslims can neither seek nor cooperate to found them, for they contend (combat) God’s revelation. And they are a Western technique made by the Jews and the Christians, who cannot be legally emulated (p.37).

It is harder to develop democracy when the entrenched habits of social bargaining are, at best, only weakly developed and significant strains of belief reject the entire enterprise. The point is not whether many Muslims support democracy–they do, which is precisely what horrifies and enrages the Salafi. The point is whether the social habits and institutional patterns exist to support the politics of broad social bargaining and how strongly.

Not very, which does much to explain the serial conflicts and tyrannies of the Middle East. Though the examples of Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia all suggest that Islam can get there, eventually.


ADDENDA: Not only was law not a mechanism that Islamic states could use to integrate their societies, it tended to work against such integration because the actions of rulers were often seen as against the letter or spirit of Sharia, of God’s law. As the great Muslim thinker Ibn Khaldun wrote in The Muqaddinmah:

Royal authority … requires superiority and force, which express the wrathfulness and animality (of human nature). The decisions of the ruler will therefore, as a rule, deviate from what is right (p.154).

Lacking means to engage in compensating social bargaining, this tended to encourage withdrawal by pious Muslims from political life. Historian Daniel Pipes argues that the conflict between what Muslim rulers did and what Sharia rule was supposed to entail encouraged the development of slave warriors (pdf) by Muslim rulers, as they could not induce systematic loyalty from local Muslims. I would argue that the gulf between rulers and subjects had broader causes, but would agree that said gulf did encourage developing slave warriors: warriors whose scale of use, and status, were very much distinctive to Islam.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The three ages of trade and the distorting retro-perspective of the modern

By Lorenzo

The history of long distance trade can be broadly divided into three periods: the globalisation or mass trade period (from the 1820s onwards), a transition period (in an integrating Atlantic economy, from the C16th onwards) and the pre-globalisation or network trade period (prior to the 1820s outside the Atlantic economy).

What drives the transition from one period to another is communication and transport costs. Prior to the development of steamships, railways and the telegraph, communication and transport costs were so high, one cannot talk with any seriousness of an economically globalised economy. There was simply no significant convergence of prices for commodities in different regions; so one cannot talk about global markets for, as economist Deirdre McCloskey points out:

The only relevant standard for “one market” is similarity of price.

Instead, there were series of trading networks linking local markets with divergent prices.

For example, as soon as significant trade connections were established between the Mediterranean world and China, the tendency was for silver to flow from the Mediterranean world to China, because there was no world price for silver; silver remained much more scarce compared to output in China than in the Mediterranean world, so silver flowed from where it was cheaper to where it was more expensive, and did that for roughly two millennia.

A PSFM world

Where specie (gold or silver) was the dominant medium of exchange, if you were buying more goods and services than you were selling (a negative trade balance), specie would flow out. If you were selling more goods and services than you were buying (positive trade balance), specie would flow in. In such a world, David Hume‘s price-specie flow mechanism (PSFM) makes sense: indeed, describes what happened.

So PSFM describes the pattern of Eurasian trade from at least Roman times onwards. The pattern was particularly intense under the late Roman Republic and Early Empire, when the Roman state had access to major silver mines. A key driver of the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284) was the exhaustion of said silver mines which massively undermined the trade flows that many states relied upon.

Said crisis was much wider than just Rome’s difficulties. In rapid succession the Han dynasty collapsed (220), the Parthian Empire was overthrown (224) by the House of Sasan, the Kushan empire declined (c.230),  and states around the Indian Ocean (the main conduit for trade between the edges of Eurasia) declined (such as the supplanting of the early Tamil dynasties by the Kalabhras dynasty c.250). Indeed, the remarkable thing was that the Roman Empire survived, albeit profoundly institutionally altered. (There was, however, some continuity between the Parthian and Sasanian empires.)

The silver-for-goods pattern became intense again when the development of better pumps and silver-lead-copper smelting led to large increase in the output of Central European silver mines (pdf) from the late C15th to the early C16th followed by–with the looting of the Aztec and Incan empires and the discovery of the Potosi silver mountain in the C16th–a flood of American silver into what was now the Atlantic economy. The silver-output ratio in the Atlantic economy made Atlantic goods even more silver-dear, and Asian goods comparatively silver-cheap (and silver goods-cheap in the Atlantic ecomony and goods-expensive in the Asian economy).

Silver was the main medium of exchange in the Eurasian trade networks and Atlantic economy, as it had been for centuries in the Eurasian trade networks, so goods flowed from Asia (particularly China) into the Atlantic economy and silver flowed from it to Asia (particularly China). That was the main driver of trade in (what were now) global trade networks up until the 1820s.

The one major exception was sub-Saharan Africa, which mainly used gold as a medium of exchange and mainly exported slaves–to Islam (as it had done for centuries) and across the Atlantic, to the Americas significantly emptied of local labour by the disease catastrophe of the Columbian exchange. (I.e. the importing of the entire Eurasian disease complex effectively all at once to populations with no immunity.) So, to the horrors of the trans-Saharan slave trade was added the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The Atlantic transition

There were only relatively minor improvement in transport and communication technology up until steamships, railways and the telegraph (i.e, the 1820s). But, as military folk say, quantity has a quality all of its own. The Atlantic economy saw a massive increase in the scale of water-borne transport, both via canal-building as well as coastal and oceanic sailing vessels.

Such a massive increase in the supply of transport services, even without major improvements in technology, allowed significant convergence of prices within the Atlantic economy. Thus, as economists McCloskey & Zecker point out (pdf), wheat prices expressed in silver within the Atlantic economy narrowed from a range of 6.66:1 around 1400 to a range of 1.88:1 around 1750.

The world economy was still not globalised, was not in an era of mass trade: but the Atlantic economy came to be somewhat so. In such a situation, the price-specie-flow mechanism increasingly became irrelevant within the Atlantic economy–specie prices adjusted within what was effectively a common specie market rather than quantities shifted between distinct specie markets. That is, there came to be something close to common gold and silver prices in the Atlantic economy. It is striking that, as economist David Glasner notes in this comment (links added):

... it seems that Adam Smith, David Hume’s very good friend, seems to have rejected PSFM even though in his Lectures delivered about a decade before the Wealth of Nations [1776] was published, he gave an accurate rendition of PSFM, but completely ignored PSFM in the Wealth of Nations. So even in Hume’s time, it may be questioned whether PSFM was the right theory.

I would say, PSFM was the right theory for the global trading networks (though that would stop being true from the 1820s onwards) but already the wrong theory for the Atlantic economy (or any mass trade system). This being a major indicator of why one can talk of a transition period before genuine economic globalisation because of the depth of trade interactions in the Atlantic economy.

Economic globalisation

Once steam technology starts driving down transport costs (on sea and and on land) and the telegraph drives down communication costs (ditto), then we are in the world of mass trade (i.e. globalisation). Including the politics of mass trade and so of globalisation.

Trade in goods becomes sufficiently large, and prices sufficiently converging, that trade began to seriously affect general factor of production (land, labour, capital) incomes. Creating the politics of globalisation: specifically, mass politics of mass trade (pdf). Not the patronage politics of network trade one had had earlier, with its licences and monopolies.

With the scale of trade that economic globalisation entailed, scarce factors of production attempted to restrict in the inflow of goods in order to protect their scarcity premium. Plentiful factors of production sought access to global markets to broaden their income sources (i.e. reduce their plenty-penalty).

How could one tell if a factor of production was scarce or not? If you imported it, it was scarce; if you exported it, it was plentiful. In the case of land the indicator was whether you exported (plentiful) or imported (scarce) its products. Thus, Britain exported labour and capital; hence labour and capital allied to force free trade on scarce land. Germany exported labour and imported capital; so scarce land and labour [capital] allied to force protection on plentiful labour. The settler societies (such as the US and the Antipodes) imported labour and capital; so labour and capital allied to force protection on plentiful land.

As modern economies became services-dominated economies, the above effects became increasingly muted, since participants in such (largely not internationally traded) industries benefited from access to cheaper goods from access to world markets without (usually) being threatened by imports from the same.

The period of globalisation had its own sub-periods in terms of the general barriers to trade (pre 1914, 1914-1945, post 1945) and wider patterns. The wider patterns being whether international trade was dominated by mass commodities following generalised comparative advantage, or by more narrow, specific goods and industries patterns due to economies of scale. To put that another way, shifts between production and trade reflecting generalised geography versus path-dependent, geographically much narrower, specialisation of production.

Such a shift splintered factor of production effects on income from expanded trade. That, along with the expansion of the importance of services in developed economies, encouraged the retreat of trade protection and expansion of free trade.

If you want to understand the patterns of trade in a globalised world, I recommend listening to Paul Krugman’s 2008 Nobel memorial prize speech. (In fact, if you are interested at all in how to do social science research in general, I recommend listening to the speech here.)

Network trade versus mass trade

It is a great mistake to look back on the history of trade without grasping how very different pre-globalised trade is from trade in a globalised economy; how different network trade is from mass trade. With the partial exception of the Atlantic economy noted above, pre-globalised long-distance trade was a matter of networks. These networks ran through and between localised farming economies whose activities were only minimally affected by said trade networks. (Pastoralist economies were more deeply penetrated by trade, but they were also much smaller in population, much more dispersed, with lower transport costs.)

Trade mattered, however, a great deal to states, because revenue from trade was relatively easy to access (involving, as it did, foreigners and specific nodes and routes) and had positive economies of scale (that is, tended to go up faster than the expansion in territory controlled). So the scale (both extensively in their territorial extent and intensively in penetration of territory controlled) of agrarian states was strongly affected by levels of trade. Hence the mass collapse and decline of states when the Roman Empire’s decline in silver production led to a major reduction in Eurasian trade networks in the early C3rd.

Trade mattered to states, state elites and (if the state forbore sufficiently from expropriation) non-state elites. It was not an engine of broad economic growth: as there essentially was no such thing before the Industrial Revolution (with the possible exceptions of early modern NW Europe, Yangtze River valley and Tokugawa Japan). Even in those cases, trade was not a driver of growth: it simply was not a big enough factor to be so. (Or, for that matter, the right sort of factor.)

Localised, not integrated

But that [importance for states and elites] is not to be confused with societies being deeply penetrated by long distance trade. Agrarian societies were overwhelmingly localised farming societies where most people never ventured beyond local areas. The larger the area considered, the more dubious is seeing the localised farming communities therein as constituting a single, coherent “society”. Precisely because production was overwhelmingly so local (in production and consumption) and movement by people so limited, religion and language were the main connecting forces, not commerce.

The cycles of agrarian life and production were common across localities in the sense of being repeated in many localities, but were not common in the sense of connecting across localities. Religion encouraged convergence by providing framings and identities not bound by localities: particularly if it had strong institutional structure (the Catholic or Orthodox Churches) or strong social role (Islamic scholars with Sharia, Brahmins with Manusmrti).

States themselves were, at best, limited integrating agents because it was entirely possible to have states whose rulers and agents did not come from where they ruled while said rulers and agents dominated (or entirely monopolised) political decision-making. Islamic and Hindu states were particularly weak integrating agents as provision of law was dominated by clerics, not rulers.  Trade was even less of an integrating agent because it relied not at all on converging of said localised economies in some larger coherent society and, even during periods of heightened trade, was a small part of total economic activity regardless of how important it was to states and elites.

Being a denizen of contemporary societies–highly urbanised societies with mass literacy, massive levels of international trade and pervasive communication with strongly integrating states–is to live in a very different social environment. The, largely unthinking, assumptions that come from living in such societies are a very poor guide to understanding the social realities of highly localised farming societies in the pre-globalised world of thin trade networks.

The Industrial Revolution, once it gets seriously underway from the 1820s onwards, is a transformative experience in so many ways. It takes considerable effort to not bring its profoundly different perspectives to the study of the past.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

Ethos and welfare

By Lorenzo

The OECD Secretariat released recently (November 2014) a revealing summary (pdf) of public social expenditure by OECD countries. The database the study is based on is available online. (Private social expenditure–i.e. private charity–is not covered by this post.) Social expenditure being defined as:

Social expenditure comprises cash benefits, direct in-kind provision of goods and services, and tax breaks with social purposes. … To be considered “social”, programmes have to involve either redistribution of resources across households or compulsory participation. Social benefits are classified as public when general government (that is central, state, and local governments, including social security funds) controls the relevant financial flows.

I was struck by the graph adjacent, covering specifically paid-in-cash benefits, which indicates that Anglo, Dutch and Scandinavian welfare states are strongly downwardly redistributive (i.e. the bottom income quintile receives a larger share of social expenditure than the top income quintile; and the former can be reasonably assumed to pay less tax than the latter) while the Mediterranean states are strongly upwardly distributive (i.e. the top income quintile receives a larger share of social expenditure than the bottom income quintile: one cannot say upwardly re-distributive, because that requires look at share of tax revenues). And, regarding present debates over fiscal austerity in the Eurozone: cutting public expenditure in states with downwardly redistributive social expenditure is likely to mean something rather different than doing so in states with upwardly distributive social expenditure.

There seemed to be some patterns in the data, so I downloaded said social expenditure data, added in data on economic freedom and (via Wikipedia’s useful lists) on religious adherence as % of population and was able to generate various, somewhat striking, correlations.

Using the bottom quintile’s share of social expenditure less the top quintile’s share of social expenditure (in % points of total such expenditure) as an indicator of how downwardly distributive social expenditure was, there was no significant correlation (0.18) between the total level of social expenditure (as a share of GDP) and how downwardly distributive total social expenditure was. So, the level of public social expenditure as a share of GDP tells us literally nothing about how focused on helping low income folk such expenditure is.

Regulation fairy stories

There was quite a strong positive correlation (0.59) between the level of economic freedom and how downwardly distributive social expenditure was. Now, if you believe in the state-as-regulation-good-fairy story (the state typically regulates to improve overall social and economic outcomes), this may be a surprise.

If, however, one accepts that a significant amount of regulation is to favour selected groups and that, generally speaking, the higher the level of regulation the more this can be expected to be so, then this result will be unsurprising. (Not least because, as mechanisms of transparency and accountability are not infinitely elastic, so the more they have to cover the weaker they can be expected to operate.) Especially as the better connected, resourced and organised an interest group is, the more it is likely to be able to bend regulatory policy in its favour.

So, taking economic freedom to be an indicator of “neoliberalism“, then the more neoliberal (other things being equal) your economic regime, the more downwardly distributive public social expenditure it tends to be. Shocking only if you accept the “bad fairies” theory of neoliberalism: which so many academics do; but, then, much of what academics write about neoliberalism is crap.

The deserving poor

There was quite a strong positive correlation (0.60) between the Protestant share of population and how downwardly distributive social expenditure was and a stronger positive correlation (0.64) with the no-religion share of population.  (It was clear from the sources that, depending on context, people would nominate both a religious identity and as being of no religion: I took that to mean they were culturally Protestant, Catholic, etc.) So actual and cultural Protestants, and folk with no religious belief, apparently tend to believe in the deserving poor: i.e. that welfare expenditure should be downwardly re-distributive.

This was capturing something specific, because the correlations between between the Protestant share of population and the level of economic freedom (0.47) and between the no-religion share of population and the level of economic freedom (0.36), though positive, were not as strong.

Protestantism I would characterise as “naked before God” religion, since one has direct access to the basic religious authority (Scripture) and is entitled to make one’s own judgement about it. Folk with no religion can be expected to generally also believe in a strong sense of individual moral sovereignty.

So, my tentative hypothesis would be that a confidence in one’s own moral judgements (and the sense of moral sovereignty that flows from that) apparently encourages social expenditure to be downwardly redistributive: what perhaps might be called a strong sense of the deserving poor. Perhaps because it encourages considering people by fairly direct, and directly identifiable, notions of worthiness (in this case, lack of income).

Preserving rank

A very different result was gained if the Catholic+Orthodox+Muslim share of population were added together, because then there was a strongly negative correlation (-0.70) between said share of population and how downwardly distributive social expenditure was.

Again, something specific is going on, as the correlation between the Catholic+Orthodox+Muslim share of population and economic freedom, though negative, was not as high (-0.48). In keeping with the level of social expenditure not being a key factor, there was no significant correlation (-0.08) between the Catholic+Orthodox+Muslim share of population and public social expenditure as a share of GDP.

Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Islam I would characterise as “priests and clerics give detailed instructions” forms of religion. They involve both hierarchical notions of moral authority and complex moral maps–since it is in the interest of gatekeepers of righteousness to promote moral complexity, as it inflates their role. You probably don’t need a priest or cleric to tell you that murder is bad; you probably do need them to tell you whether you need to wash your hair every time after you have sex or how to expiate specific sins.

The combination of moral complexity and moral hierarchy apparently leads to public social expenditure which reflects, even reinforces, existing social rankings. Thereby leading to much less policy weight being given to such a direct characteristic as (low) level of income. Remembering that complexity of any sort is a great way to obscure who is receiving what.

Ethos matters

So, ethos appears to matter, given that there is such a vast difference between the apparent connection between Protestantism (religious or cultural) (0.60) and no-religion (0.64) on one side, and Catholic+Orthodox+Muslim share of population on the other (-0.70), and how downwardly distributive public social expenditure tends to be.

One possible mechanism via which religious roots of cultural perspectives could matter is different perspectives on time. The work of psychologist Philip Zimbardo and others on time perspectives (pdf), suggests that higher self-trusting, future-oriented Protestants might be more likely to think that the state should concentrate on those who need help. Conversely, lower self-trusting Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims who are more past or present oriented may think the state should do more for everyone regardless of current situation.

The former will lead to more downwardly distributive social expenditure, the latter much less so. Especially as, once it is accepted everyone should receive, the better organised and connected are much better place to, well, so receive.

Whatever the actual mechanism by which the observed effects happen, the data does clearly suggest that policy, over time, reflects the choices of the voters. Choices that appear, in turn, to significantly reflect what moral ethos is dominant among voters.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

The Rotten Heart of Europe

By Lorenzo

Bernard Connolly‘s The Rotten Heart of Europe: Dirty War for Money is a jeremiad against European monetary union first published in 1995. Its publication led to the author’s sacking from the European Commission, where he had been senior monetary and foreign exchange economist. This is not, as Connolly a matter of saying the “Emperor has no clothes” but that, in his words, the Emperor is “ugly and sickeningly malodorous”.

It is entirely within keeping with the book’s analysis that the European Court of Justice referred to the book as:

aggressive, derogatory and insulting.

Apparently the Court took, in the words of the above news report:

particular umbrage at the author’s suggestion that Economic and Monetary Union was a threat to democracy, freedom and “ultimately peace”.

While the Court did not ultimately go there, the Court had been invited to consider the book analogous to blasphemy. (No, I’m not making this up.) Europe, with a capital EU, really is a substitute religion, a secular Faith.

A new of edition of The Rotten Heart of Europe was issued in 2011, with a new introduction. The ongoing Eurozone crisis puts Connolly in the position of Robert Conquest (at least as suggested by Conquest’s friend Kingsley Amis): I told you so, you fucking fools. The author notes in said introduction:

That no-one dared to attack the book’s economic analysis but that the book’s author was subjected to a concerted campaign of vilification says much about the nature and purpose of monetary union.

The book reads very much as an insider expose, because Connolly was very much an insider. It is fairly obvious he can describe various meetings and events so vividly because he was there (or worked with people who were: as a former policy bureaucrat, I can testify such folk are incurable gossips).

The book is an enlightening, if depressing, read. Depressing for an outsider living in an economy which has avoided so much of this nonsense; if you and yours actually had to live through the ill-effects, it might make you as angry as the author.

The book does lurch into hyperbole at points (particularly in the introduction written for the 2011 re-issue). But hyperbole is the vice of the impassioned, and the author has plenty to be angry about. Since it is about monetary policy and the effects thereof, the book could have done with an introductory primer–following the balance of payments, interest rates, etc interactions is a bit of an ask for a lay reader, even though Connolly is a clear writer and, if you persevere, explanations are generally forthcoming.

ERM as Euro precursor

The book covers the rise, operation and collapse of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and the use of the ERM as a springboard to Monetary Union–i.e. the Euro. It is a “how did we get here?” book, for the ERM, in its creation, reason for existence and operation was completely the precursor to the Euro: monetary union was always the aim. The ERM was the Euro, mark 1: the Euro is the ERM, mark 2. All the problems, failures and difficulties of the Euro were already on display with the ERM; but not as bad, because the Euro is far more constraining and the democratic deficit now bites even deeper.

The Euro is far more constraining because, while one could leave the ERM with a press release, leaving a common currency is much harder, as the Greeks are wrestling with. But that made the Euro more attractive to the Europeanising networks, not less, for it insulated their power-and-connection games against external disturbance.

A floating exchange rate is an economic shock absorber, a fixed exchange rate an economic shock transmitter. The stability of the Australian economy since the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) adopted a broad inflation target in 1992-93 has been based on the ability of (changes in) the exchange rate to absorb economic shocks, making it much easier for the RBA to keep total spending on goods and services in the economy on a fairly even path.

That is why Optimum Currency Area (OCA) theory considers what alternative shock absorbers economies have (specifically factor mobility and fiscal coverage) in examining how suitable territories are to share a common currency. That is why economist Paul Krugman entitled his paper on the Euro debacle Revenge of the Optimum Currency Area (and added financial integration to needed shock absorbers). As Connolly writes in his 2011 introduction:

The great … mistake … was that monetary union simply converted currency risk (the risk that a certain government’s bonds might be devalued, in terms of another currency) into credit risk (the risk that a government might simply be unable to pay its creditors).

Hence the Greek tragedy.

The European Faith

The “coordinated” exchange rates of the ERM again and again magnified economic shocks, to the detriment of participating economies. Rather than the failure of the ERM leading to a rethinking of the project, the European elite “doubled down”, going all the way to the Euro. Creating, if somewhat delayed, a much worse set of difficulties, problems and failures. Fairly clearly, they will not willingly abandon the Euro project, but want to “double down” again, using the ongoing crises to create an even higher level of policy, financial and political integration.

All of which is based on a deep interweaving of faith and interest. The faith is A Single Europe; the interest is the status, career paths, financial handouts and poorly (or simply un)accountable power the EU system provides. What Connolly refers to, in his 2011 Introduction, as:

a self-serving transnational nomenklatura made up of interlocking political, bureaucratic, business, financial, academic and media elites.

The book makes it clear, as it had long been to those with eyes to see, that the European Union’s democratic deficit is not a bug, but a feature.

Connection uber alles

One of the perennial questions amongst folk who prefer their economic policy to be of the liberalising kind is how does France manage it? It seems to continually “break the rules” yet create a successful society and economy (well, mostly successful; let’s ignore the suppurating social sores of the les banlieue). Reading The Rotten Heart provides useful basis for understanding how it is managed; through technical excellence, insider meritocracy, and corporate life operated as one vast insider trading exercise.

  • If the French builds something, it works.  This simple technical capacity provides a pervasive advantage and support for the broader system.
  • Their grande ecole system produces extremely well-trained, skilled and self-confident (indeed, somewhat ruthless) bureaucrats. Bureaucrats embued with a deep belief in, even reverence for, the State.  A reverence that easily translates into faith in Europe and the European superstate being built.
  • Networks and connections are keys to corporate life. The return to information (particularly regarding policy action) and certification comes from connection. As does ability to affect policy decisions in advance.

Which is why the masters of the system tend to loath the “Anglo Saxons”: not merely their success but their “casino markets” and excessive democracy.

The 2005 riots: many local unpleasantnesses.

It is not merely, as Connolly rather savagely puts it, that:

the French Establishment has never forgiven the Anglo-Saxon world for liberating the homeland from the Nazi occupation their incompetence and decadence had permitted (Ch.9).

(Just as, as their moral pretensions swell, the European elite cannot forgive Israel for the Holocaust.)

The combination of “Anglo-Saxon” economics (accepting the dynamism of open markets) and of “Anglo-Saxon” politics (governments as seriously responsible–British version–or accountable–Washington version–to their voters) is doubly subversive to the French elite’s entire modus operandi. The “Anglo-Saxons” provide an identity to define oneself against and, in the case of the US, a counterpoint to seek to surpass. (One cannot really say “rival” because the US fails to feel threatened by European unity–indeed, actively promotes it; which is, if anything, even more infuriating.)

Open markets tend to dissipate the advantages of connection. Closed or restricted markets can accentuate it. For example, the difficulty in dismissing employees under French law raises the risks of employing new people and thus increases the advantage of certification and being in the correct networks. As Connolly writes of the French technocratic elite:

For them, economics is not only a subject invented and developed by Anglo-Saxons, it is a subject fit only for Anglo-Saxons and their decadent liberal democratic societies. The servants of the enarque state have no need of economics: they possess power instead (Ch.12).

I wonder if an Anglo-Saxon economist of working class origins found dealing with the such folk a bit wearing. On the other hand, he is talking of folk he dealt with professionally, for years. His is an informed antipathy.

Admirers of the Bundesbank might also profit from reading his informed, but jaundiced, view of its operations and performance. Having read Richard Hetzel’s two (pdf) articles (pdf) on the history of German monetary policy in the C20th, I found Connolly’s critique plausible but not surprising, though his observations on how much the Bundesbank relied on essentially managing (and stunting) the Frankfurt financial market were striking. (Which would make it somewhat similar to–but not, on Connolly’s description, as bad as–the way the Japanese Finance Ministry does the same to the Tokyo financial market.)

Continental European corporations more generally have a level of state support and political cushioning that American corporations strive to achieve but ultimately fall short of. In Europe, particularly continental Europe, connection trumps, and generates, money. A game the French technocratic elite plays better than anyone else because they are so well trained to play it and believe in it so passionately.

EU as French state multiplier

The pattern of connection trumps, and generating, money is extended and reinforced by the EU; partly because said elite labours so mightily to make sure it does. As Connolly notes:

For France (as for Germany), a “level playing field” in the Single Market had always meant a slope steeply in their favour — the result of the ERM and the Social Charter impositions, both intended to keep the ‘peripheral’ countries of the Community in a state of economic weakness and political dependency (Ch.13).

Flexible exchange rates allowed countries to evade the anti-competitive effects of the Social Charter and other EU regulations by devaluation. The ERM, and even better Monetary Union, cut that option off. As Connolly writes:

For the French elite, money is not the lubricant of the economy but the most important level of power (Ch.1).

Moreover, the less say the general public has over important matters of policy, the higher the return to connection and insider status is. So, elections are managed so both sides of politics (with the occasional backsliding) play the key games the same way.

(One of Syriza‘s fundamental flaws is that they actually want to play the same game too–that even more be done via state networks is not subversive, it is the pretence of it–yet the massive Greek indebtedness which brought them to power also casts them as supplicants; they get the attention of the Top Table folk, but not in a good way. Margaret Thatcher was more threateningly subversive of the EU than Alexis Tsipras could ever hope to be.)

Hence we get ‘Corporatism in One Continent’ as Connolly nicely labels it (Ch.2). Something which favours the established but provides no avenues for the up and coming (Ch.3). Hence also the attraction of monetary union:

Fix the exchange rate, neuter monetary policy, and then use the fear of macroeconomic instability as an excuse to stifle the dynamism of the capitalist process (Ch.3).

Thus the effort invested in the ERM then and the Euro now. If reversion to independent floating currencies occurred:

… more than just ‘monetary Europe’ could be lost to France’s corporatist, fonctionnaire, industrialist and financier class: ‘Europe’ itself, with its promise of ‘Corporatism in One Continent’ in which bureaucrats, indigenous multinationals and trade unions could hold at bay the tide of the Anglo-Saxon market economy could be at risk (Ch.9)

The creation of a remarkably unaccountable central bank, as the European Central Bank (ECB) is, was very much not a defect of Monetary Union: despite differing conceptions of final outcomes between German and French EU-elites, they both found that highly desirable.

First the French manage the Germans (and vice versa) and then they manage everyone else, for:

The Franco-German axis is the Community, and the role of other members of the European Council is to give a ceremonial benediction to what the French and German leaders want to do (Ch1.).

One of the themes of the book is other countries trying to be “core” and not “periphery”. But that is a status decided by the Franco-German connection, according to the interests thereof.

Accountability (or, rather, the lack of it) is at the heart of the problem. Particularly when one gives such power to an unaccountable central bank:

… politicians have at some point to confront the consequences of their mistakes; their unaccountable central bankers do not (Ch.10).

While the ECB embraced inflation targeting originally pioneered by New Zealand, the full New Zealand model of an explicit (indeed, performance-based) contract between central bank and elected government horrified European central bankers. Connolly warned:

… the trend toward greater interference by central bankers in explicitly political affairs, set in train by Maastricht, will be hard to arrest as long as the fools’ paradise of EMU beckons (Ch.10, fn10).

The fools’ paradise has arrived, and so has the predicted pattern. A pattern that has not fully run its course, and which Connolly feared, for:

an ECB would be a totally anti-democratic institution that hastened the decaying of political life in ‘Europe’ and a probably precursor to an authoritarian reaction to mounting chaos (Ch.13).

We are not there yet, but nor has the working out of the implications ended. Connolly summarises the ERM thusly:

The rules of the system were, from the outset, more important than its results, for the framing and interpretation of the rules determined the distribution of power between and within — perhaps even over — the Community countries (Ch.11).

As with the ERM, so also with the Euro.

Another theme of the book is that Britain can never really be at “the heart of Europe”, in part because of a seriously divergent political culture:

For most people in Britain, politics is seen as providing a framework within which the constant balancing of the interests of different groups, or for that matter of different regions or countries, can proceed in legitimacy and reasonable harmony … That idea of politics is, literally, foreign to French technocrats. What they are interested in is power — first imposing their will on France and then imposing their conception of France’s will on everyone else (Ch. 14).

The Church of Europe

Reading this analysis of how the EU works, one is reminded of late medieval (“Renaissance”) Catholic Europe and its interplay of doctrine and interest. Now the doctrine Is Ever Greater Union, and heretics (such as Connolly) are to be hunted down, denounced, and thrown into the outer darkness. (Actually, in Connolly’s case, he seems to have had a nice post-Eurocrat career as a exchange rate analyst.) As Connolly puts it in his 2011 Introduction, the EU has no demos but

‘Europe’ has a right to arise because of its supposedly superior ethos and supposedly necessary telos.

Nor has his righteous anger abated:

the absence of a European demos implies, given the strains produced by the efforts to create and maintain a monetary union, a ruthless, deceitful, malignant anarchy-imperial ethos reflecting a telos devoted to destroying law, democracy, accountability, legitimacy and to emerging victorious in a ‘clash of civilisations’.

Go on, tell us what you really think.

Meanwhile, in counterpoint to the Church of EUrope, the Eurosceptics and enraged nationalists are the oikish Protestants, daring to want to decide things for themselves. Of course, those damned Protestants actually did rather well for themselves; as, in the long run, the combination of more open cognitive systems, nakedness before God and personal sovereignty created increasingly more dynamic societies.

It was a bit of a revelation to discover that “growth-positive fiscal austerity” was originally ERMonomics, just as it has now become Euronomics. As an aside, countries such as Australia, Norway, Denmark, the UK have unusually downwardly redistributive (pdf) welfare states: fiscal “austerity” implies something rather different in such societies than it does in the upwardly distributive Mediterranean states. (The share of GDP spent by government on welfare is actually a very poor measure of how redistributive a welfare system is.)

Though the blogosphere metaphor of Calvinism (i.e. rigid theologising) to describe those who insist that everyone is to blame, and everything is to be done, except examine the role of the ECB and the entire Euro project, comes across as even more appropriate. Connolly argues that an underlying notion of the ongoing General Will is used to trump mere elections. Hence the response to the (narrow) rejection of the Treaty of Maastricht by Danish voters in June 1992:

The Treaty of Rome be damned, they said in effect, a few thousand Danish votes one way or another could not be allowed to stop the March of History, to frustrate the General Will as decided by the political bosses in the countries that really mattered (Ch.6).

Framings for ignorance

Reading Connolly’s book, I am struck by the power of Scott Sumner’s point that so many people–including policy makers–simply do not understand monetary economics:

… monetary policy failures are not about special interest politics. There is an almost mindboggling lack of understanding of monetary theory at the top levels of government. The entire world economy is resting on the hope that a few sane people like Haruhiko Kuroda can keep their head and keep NGDP chugging along while the rest of the political establishment careens recklessly from one extreme to the other.

But policy makers do have framings through which they view the world, so they just apply the framing to matters of monetary policy that makes sense to them on other grounds.

So, in the absence of genuine understanding, those who worship at the altar of the state apply those framings to monetary policy. Those who get wrapped up in signalling Virtue apply that framing to monetary policy. Supporting the ERM and Monetary Union was the way, par excellence, to signal what a Good European you were.

Hence also conservatives tend to instinctively go for hard money policies, because it fits in with their social order concerns–they naturally think that devaluing money (so undermining proper order) is the worst thing you can do to it. (Not even close to true, but then you would have to understand monetary economics to realise that hard money and sound money are very much not the same.) There is quite a history of economically liberalising (or at least liberal) right-of-centre governments being brought down by hard money obsessions.

Which is part of the story Connolly has to tell–how Thatcher’s otherwise very able Chancellor of the Exchequer (1983-89) Nigel Lawson‘s obsession with having the Pound Sterling shadow the Deutschmark stoked the boom-and-bust that helped fatally weaken Thatcher’s Premiership. Connolly clearly admires Lawson, who comes across as the tragic hero of the story.

Margaret Thatcher, who proved to be entirely correct about the problems of the ERM and of the proposed Monetary Union, is the book’s fallen hero and martyr, since her fall made the path to disaster all but inevitable (and, Connolly argues, was at least partly engineered by Europeanising networks). Bundesbank President (1991-93) Helmut Schlesinger is admired for his commitment to German national interests, sense for German public opinion, and his strategic skill (particularly as he used it to effectively destroy the ERM).

The book has too many villains to count. Though Banque de France chief Jean-Claude Trichet is treated with thinly veiled contempt and Thatcher’s successor John Major with open contempt.

As an Australian reader, the constant political and policy dramas, the twists, distortions (and at times outright lies) engaged in to “defend” some particular exchange rate just seems mad. Which, if your goal is good economic policy for people in your society, it is. But the combination of portentous ignorance, faith and self-interest operating in a milieu of sabotaged accountability produced this madness, fed on it, and spiralled it up to even grander madness. Leading to the Eurozone having to beware of Greeks bearing debts and forcing deals which not only won’t work, but can’t, even in theory. But what is elementary economic and fiscal logic to Faith in Europe?

Though some mordant humour is to be had:

The Bonn summit was a classic example of international economic ‘coordination’: one country agrees to something that is bad for it on condition that another country does something equally bad for it (Ch.2).

Or, on the Major Government’s ultimately failed attempt to be in the ERM:

Instead, the government resorted to the tried, tested and failed methods of the 1960s and 1970s: bravado, declarations of undying and irrevocable commitment to the parity, insinuations that sterling would soon enter narrow bands, sneering denunciations of anyone who suggested a change in policy on the exchange rate (Ch.6).

Needless to say, the final outcome was–a change in policy on the exchange rate (ejection from the ERM and a floating exchange rate).

But, as Connolly notes of international coordination:

‘The masters of the world’ inevitably prefer ‘coordination’ to competition as a way of arriving at the desired result, simply because the processes of international ‘coordination’ increased their own influence, prestige and insulation from political accountability (Ch.7).

Not that Connolly was a perfect predictor. The ECB proved to be much tougher on inflation than he expected, and much more independent of the French politicians than he (or, for that matter, folk such as Mitterand) expected. But that was the outcome of French and German elites managing each other.

Cognitive closure

What comes across strongly in the book (and the history of the Euro since) is what a disastrous engine of cognitive closure signalling Virtue can be. Conservatism is prone to its own forms of cognitive closure: in recent decades, they have tended to matter much less since conservatives have so little role or influence over educational, academic, cultural, literary and intellectual life. In the case of the ERM and the Euro, many conservatives were very much wrapped up in signalling being Good Europeans, so ended up helping to build bricks in the wall of cognitive closure.

A wall of cognitive closure from which a constant public barrage was mounted, leading Connolly, in his introduction to the 1995 edition, to quote political scientist Leonard Schapiro’s famous analysis of propaganda:

the true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.

And dissent against Virtue is wicked, so need not be engaged with, merely denounced as signs of a deformity of moral character. As Connolly writes in the final sentences of his book:

On this question, as on every other question about the ERM and monetary union, the propaganda steamroller attempts to flatten analysis. For analysis can only mean dissent. And dissent cannot be tolerated.

Cognitive closure indeed. And yet, all those Virtuous Europeans were so wrong, and Margaret Thatcher was so right.

But only if you care about economic consequences; particularly the way mass unemployment blights lives.* But the Good Europeans clearly don’t (or they care about others things a whole lot more). The have their Faith and their Connections and that is clearly more than enough for them.

If you want to see their ugly and shockingly malodorous world in operation, then The Rotten Heart of Europe is a guided tour therein.  The book is 20 years old, but still explains so much of what is happening in Europe now.


*A lot of which is caused by supply-side restrictions, but they are also part of the EU game, as played variously in different countries. And post-2008, by the policies of the ECB.

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

When the three languages of US politics get in the way

By Lorenzo

Economist Arnold Kling, who blogs here, has provided a useful framing of American political debate as divided into three languages of politics. He discusses his framing with economist Russ Roberts here, and his analysis is usefully discussed here. The three languages are:

  • the conservative barbarism-civilisation axis,
  • the progressive oppressors-oppressed axis, and
  • the libertarian freedom-coercion axis.

None of them provide a useful way of thinking about the overall situation of African-Americans in the US. Certainly there are elements of the experiences and circumstances of African-Americans which the various languages can get some hold of; but that is actually a negative, because it invites conflation of that one element into becoming the entire perspective on the overall situation of African-Americans.

One-frame progressives

Starting with the typical progressive approach (since it tends to be the noisiest), the issue is racism–oppression of African-Americans, the oppressed–it is always racism and if you don’t see that it is always racism then you are probably a closet (or not so closet) racist yourself. For if you are disagreeing with the analysis that it is all about racism–which it so “clearly” is–then you are condoning racism.

Since racism explains remarkably little about the current overall patterns and dilemmas of African-Americans (however much to do with how we got here–not the same thing) yelling “racism!” constantly is mostly enormously unhelpful for any other purpose than signalling Virtue. But since it is very, very useful for that, there is no sign it is going to stop any time soon.

I have previously argued that slavery and its legacies explain much more about the present situation of African-Americans than racism–especially as American racism itself is very much part of the legacy of slavery. And slavery is, of course, a system of (profound) oppression. That there is a long history of oppression of, and racism against, African-Americans does provide a clear oppressor-oppression narrative about African-Americans. Alas, it really does not actually explain nearly as much as its propounders believe. The legacy of past oppression can be, and is, a lot broader than the current, remarkably pale, shadows of the same. Nor is oppression the only theme or factor in African-American history: still less in their current circumstances.

There is a sub-version of the progressive position which adds in “culture of poverty”–African-Americans are oppressed by a culture of poverty which is a legacy of racism and slavery. This approach goes back at least to the (later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s 1965 report The Negro Family: the Case for National Action (pdf): though his report is rather more specific and empirically grounded.

Now, as I have previously posted, I am not keen on the culture of poverty explanation either as it appears to answer the question before asking and because, like racism, it is analytical “silly putty”–it can be shoved into any shape to cover the required analytical hole. Besides, it is largely rejected as an explanation among progressives in place of, you guessed it, racism.

One-frame conservatives

Conservatism have their own answer to the situation of African-Americans–more civilisation, less barbarism. Now, there is variance between those who think essentially all African-Americans are barbarians who have to be kept in line (a widespread view once upon a time, rather less so now: it was strongly part of the rhetoric justifying Jim Crow and segregation) and those who think the African-Americans community suffers from too many barbarians, which more civilisation would keep in line.

A sophisticated version of this would be that African-Americans have not fully been through sociologist Norbert Elias‘s civilising process. Which may well have something to it, particularly regarding the high levels of violence (and that it is much the same among African-Americans and jurisdictions of majority African slave descent as the African west coast source population). Especially so, given that African-Americans have hardly experienced American history and the American state as have other Americans–a point conservatives (and quite a few libertarians) tend to be very poor at grasping. As the (later Justice) Clarence Thomas pointed out to the Cato Institute: that freedom had been eroding since the Revolution was not how history had been experienced by African-Americans.

If we consider African-Americans as a particular ethnicity, shaped by common experiences–which is analytically much more fruitful than thinking of them as a racial group (especially given the rising migration of people of African descent who do not share those experiences)–then applying Elias’s analysis is well worth considering. Especially as current African-American homicide rates are positively sedate by medieval European standards and unremarkable by C16th and C17th European or North American colonial standards.

Returning to current conservative views, a very clear manifestation of this civilisation-versus-barbarism outlook is this discussion (pdf) of what it is like to teach black kids. It is massively stereotypical in its language–full of whites do this and blacks do that–but it is pervaded by the language of civilisation (white) versus barbarism (blacks). (If one gets past it being far too black-and-white, it is also a rather depressing testimony.) Another former teacher reacts to the article by talking more neutrally of the difficulty in teaching black kids while a selection of comments to the original piece is here.

So, just as with the the problem is racism response, there are certainly things to point to give the civilisation versus barbarism response some legs. But not nearly as much as proponents think. Consider this example of successful reduction of gang violence in California. It is much more a process of broad civic engagement than imposing civilisation or “being tough” with the barbarians. (A version of which was previous LAPD policy, and a comprehensive failure it was too.)

The biggest single problem with this approach is the same as that with the oppression-oppressor axis; it excludes consideration of alternative factors. Such as, for example, that the African-American experience of American history and the American state has been very different from that of other Americans.

When there is yet another problematic incident with police in the US, the standard conservative response to the claims of racism! will be a “soft on crime” response: police have to impose order, you are getting in the way of that, you are being “soft on crime”, risking the lives, person and property of the wider society. Having decided that racism is not a factor, then any invoking of the same will be labelled “race-baiting”. The possibility that the US might have a broader problem with feral law enforcement gets excluded (as it also does, of course, with cries of “its racism!”). Which is surely the take-away point about those incidents which also involve black police officers or white civilians.

In both cases, the proponents cry their equivalent of “wolf!” way too often and way too loudly, which gets in the way of being more broadly persuasive when they do have a point: sometimes it really is racism, sometimes there really is a threat to civilised order.

The libertarian half-answer

One group who are more likely to approach the performance of law enforcement in the US with precisely such broad scepticism are libertarians. When they do pay attention to the situation of African-Americans (it is not exactly a hot topic among libertarians) their response is likely to be along the lines of too much state coercion: in particular, that the “war on drugs” is much of the problem.

Well, yes, the war on drugs has particularly adverse effects on the African-American community. But pointing to the war on drugs hardly explains why. Talking about African-Americans as living in more vulnerable communities just raises the question of why this is so: which the war on drugs point provides no basis for. Given that slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), and Jim Crow overturned by the Civil Rights Acts, talking about African-Americans as victims of past state coercion (while certainly true) is not much help in tackling present problems.

Indeed, as David Boaz points out, that history is often something of an embarrassment to US libertarians, who have their own heroic narrative of American history: though their’s is typically one of decline from a more gloriously free past which, for African-Americans (and lots of other folk) just ain’t so.

No way in

So, the preferred framings of progressives, conservatives and libertarians in the US are each quite poor at providing a full picture of the social patterns and dilemmas of African-Americans. Worse, they tend to be used to blot out what parts of other framings do have value and to wildly exaggerate the coverage of their own. No wonder public debate in the US is both so polarised and keeps “circling the drain” when it comes to the problems and prospects of African-Americans.

From here: uses median household income rather than average income. African-Americans tend to have smaller households than Hispanics.

From here: uses median household income rather than average income. African-Americans tend to have smaller households than Hispanics.

But it is worse than that, because African-Americans are not merely seriously badly served by public debate in the US, they are also seriously badly served by the political process in the US. Part of the problem is obvious: they essentially have a monopoly political provider–the Democratic Party. They overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and seem to be thoroughly “rusted on” Democrats: indeed, appear to be the most thoroughly “rusted on” group. (With Southern whites the next most “rusted on” group–but to the Republicans.) So Republicans have little or no incentive to seriously consider African-American issues.

But it is worse than that. Not only do African-Americans effectively have only one political provider, they tend to live in one-Party jurisdictions: that is, metropolitan areas where the Republicans are not competitive. Ironically, the decline in overall levels of crime have helped make the Republicans less competitive. So Democrats also do not have much incentive to seriously consider African-American issues–they get their votes anyway, with only concerns about turnout to provide some edge to that.

Republicans may be competitive (even dominant) at a State level, but have little incentive to apply themselves to urban issues of the large metropolises. Precisely the places where African-Americans tend to live. With teacher and other public service unions key providers of money and activists to the Democratic Party, there is even less incentive from the political class of large metropolises to look critically at the supply of public services to, and the effects of policy on, African-Americans. Especially as blaming racism at every opportunity provides splendid displacement and cover.

So, dominant frameworks of public debate which narrow what is considered and by whom; having an effective monopoly political provider across all levels of politics; and living in one-Party jurisdictions at a metropolitan level. There are not much grounds for optimism that public policy will start working better for African-Americans.

Wanted: a discovery process

Surely the most impressive political mobilisation in C20th US politics was the (overwhelmingly black-led and organised) civil rights movement. But it had a clear focus and plenty of entirely righteous passion to back it up.

What is needed now is not that single-minded focus, but a discovery process where different policies, efforts and means are experimented with, to see what works and what does not. There is always some of that going on–the US is a large and diverse country. But discovery cannot happen if choices are constrained by monopoly-interest politics and closed cognitive frameworks.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

The poisonous legacy of slavery and the US race tangle

By Lorenzo

In his book War, Peace, War: The Life Cycle of Imperial Nations, historical demographer Peter Turchin argues that the mass slavery of the Roman Empire–which was at is most intense in Sicily and Southern Italy–is still depressing the social capital of the area centuries later; that the socially disintegrative effects of mass slavery can persist long after the institution has been abolished. When I read it, I thought it was a big claim. In looking into American homicide and the history of American racism, I have come to have rather more sympathy for the claim.

It is not merely that the anti-black racism of the Americas and the Arab world originates in slavery and slavery across a colour line creates racism, and of a particularly invidious sort. (Racism does not cause slavery, as slavery long predates anything we might call racism.) It is that the legacy of slavery continues to poison societies and human interactions.

I have no patience for the claim that the US Civil War was not about slavery–a simple reading of the Confederate Constitution disabuses one of that canard. (Particularly a clause-by-clause comparison.) What is slightly more odd is conservative resistance to the notion that slavery might have enduring effects. Surely much of the central point of conservatism is that cultural effects can be resilient and unexpected, hence being cautious about major social changes.

About culture

While I have long been sceptical about cultural explanations (“the last refuge of the analytically bereft”), especially as they can be used as the analytical equivalent of “silly putty“–put in any shape wanted and shoved in to fit any required analytical use–I have become more sympathetic to use of cultural explanations, if done carefully. In particular, when one looks at cultural friction effects–difficulties in communications and lack of shared expectations and preferences (see my post on problems with South Asian call centres)–and if one takes a careful and precise approach–as was done by Kenneth Pollack and his Ph.D dissertation (The influence of Arab culture on Arab military effectiveness) turned book (Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991) culture can be a useful explanatory tool. (Though see here for a more critical take on Pollack’s analysis.)

There also seems to be a difference between those aspects of culture which respond (often surprisingly quickly) to changes in incentives and those which are more resistant to change. A point emphasised by economist Deepak Lal. First, he tries to get some precision into the concept of culture (pdf):

… culture remains a murky concept. I have found particularly useful a definition adopted by ecologists (Colinvaux 1983). They emphasize that, unlike other animals, the human one is unique because its intelligence gives it the ability to change its environment by learning. It does not have to mutate into a new species to adapt to the changed environment. It learns new ways of surviving in the new environment and then fixes those ways by social customs. These form the culture of the relevant group and are transmitted to new members (mainly children) who then do not have to invent the “new” ways de novo for themselves.

Noting that:

This conception of culture fits in well with the economists’ notion of equilibrium. Frank Hahn (1973) describes an equilibrium state as one in which self-seeking agents learn nothing new, so that their behavior is routinized. It represents an adaptation by agents to the economic environment in which the economy “generates messages which do not cause agents to change the theories which they hold or the policies which they pursue”. Such routinized behavior closely resembles the ecologists’ notion of social custom, which creates a particular human niche.

Lal goes on to distinguish two levels of culture:

It is useful to distinguish two major sorts of beliefs about the environment: the material and the cosmological beliefs of a particular culture. The former relate to ways of making a living and encompass beliefs about the material world, particularly about the economy. The latter are related to understanding mankind’s place in the world; they determine how people view the purpose and meaning of their lives and their relationship to others. There is considerable cross-cultural evidence that material beliefs are more malleable than cosmological ones. Material beliefs can change rapidly with changes in the material environment. There is greater hysteresis of cosmological beliefs, that is, of ideas about how, in Plato’s words, “one should live.” Moreover, the cross-cultural evidence shows that these worldviews correlate more closely with language groups (and thus with cultural origins) than with environments (Hallpike 1986).

A striking manifestation of culture mattering is a study comparing (pdf) US children of African descent raised by white mothers with those raised by black mothers. There is no reason to assume that African-Americans have the same cultural and social capital as wider American society, and much reason to think not. Having a white mother is likely to change both the (cultural) presumptions brought to child-raising and the networks one has access to (a large part of social capital) compared to being raised by a black mother. The study finds that being raised by a white mother massively reduces black-white differences in education and employment. That the study only compares African-Americans raised by white mothers with those raised by black mothers limits what one can infer from it. But it is highly suggestive.

Also highly suggestive is the success of Afro-Caribbean migrants and recent African migrants, and their children, in the US and the UK, as noted in this piece. I find the evidence on that much more interesting than the argument over IQ tests and the hereditary influence on intelligence (also, the piece does not understand regression to the mean).

On the other hand, the focus on ethnic groups is much more sensible than tired and pointless general racial comparisons–and the long-established African-American population in the US is clearly a specific ethnic group with a specific history and selection processes, an example of ethnogenesis. (They have a much longer grounding as a specific ethnic group than do, for example, Palestinians as a nation; which Palestinians clearly are now but weren’t in, say, 1919.)

The success of Afro-Caribbean migrants and recent African migrants, and their children, in the US and the UK also gets in the way of racism as a blanket explanation for problematic social outcomes for the long-established African-American population: or even of reading too much into the observable phenomenon of unconscious discrimination and familiarity preference.

Note that racism is a classic analytical “silly putty”, as it can be shaped to fit just about any pattern of observed differences by race or ethnicity. Something that its cachet in signalling Virtue exacerbates, though its precisely its apparent analytical ubiquity which makes it so useful in doing so: a utility which may well extend into published academic studies.

West African coast versus New World post-slavery homicide rates

The paper comparing African-American children of black and white mothers suggests one mechanism for having a white mother making such a difference in speech patterns. Using distinctive African-American speech (aka “ghetto talk” or, more positively, ebonics) reduces employment opportunities because it signals difference from employers, their likely staff, clients and customers. It also invokes unhelpful associations. The most notorious of which is the much higher homicide rates for African-Americans–around 6 times higher than for other Americans: the differentiation between black and non-black teenagers being higher still (around 20 times higher).

Looking at comparative statistics on homicide rates, I had a strong suspicion that the legacy of slavery had a lot to do with the elevated African-American homicide rates. Looking more closely at the data, that does not seem to be the case.

If we look at homicide rates of the 11 countries from which over 80% of African slaves in the US came directly from (Angola 10.0 per 100,000, Cameroon 7.6, Congo 12.5, Gambia 10.2, Ghana 6.1, Ivory Coast 13.6, Liberia 3.2, Namibia 17.2, Nigeria 20.0, Democratic Republic of Congo 28.3), then African-Americans (15.2 per 100,000) have a higher homicide rate than all but three of those countries.

Yet the slavery-source countries have a population-weighted average homicide rate of 17.9, as the Democratic Republic of Congo (77.4m) and Nigeria (174.6m) are the demographic giants, accounting for two-thirds of the total population of the 11 countries and with the two highest homicide rates. So, on that basis, the African-American homicide rate looks rather more like that of their original source populations.

Even if we cast our comparison wider to the homicide rates of the 18 jurisdictions with a majority African slave origins, many of which have very small populations (Anguilla 7.5 per 100,000, Antigua & Barbuda 11.2, Bahamas 29.8, Barbados 7.4, British Virgin Islands 8.4, Bermuda 7.7, Dominica 21.1, Grenada 13.3, Guadeloupe 7.9, Haiti 10.2, Jamaica 39.3, Martinique 2.7, Montserrat 20.4, Saint Kitts & Nevis 33.6, Saint Lucia 21.6, Saint Vincent 25.6, Turks & Caicos 6.6, US Virgin Islands 52.6), 8 such jurisdictions have higher homicide rates than African-Americans.  Nevertheless, the weighted average homicide rate of said jurisdictions is 16.5 (driven by Haiti–66% of the population–and Jamaica–19%), much the same as the African-American homicide rate and also rather like that of the source populations.

So, if not evidence for a slavery effect and its persistence, it does appear to be evidence for the importance of the source population in homicide rates. I would be sceptical, however, of any strong claim of genetic effects, as slavery was a very specific selection process, so it is very unlikely–even presuming a strong hereditary element in intelligence and other traits–that we could just infer across from source to slave populations. Conversely, even with the socially pulverising effect of slavery, culture would be significantly transferred. Social capital much less so, and would have to be rebuilt from a very low base after the abolition of slavery (1804 in independent Haiti, 1833-8 in British colonies, 1848 in French colonies, 1863 in Dutch colonies, 1865 in the US, 1869 Portuguese colonies, 1873 in Spanish Puerto Rico, 1886 in Spanish Cuba).

What it is clear evidence for, however, is that the elevated African-American homicide rates have little or nothing do with racism. Not only are they in line with jurisdictions with majority African or African-descent populations, they are compatible with jurisdictions which have had full black participation in political life for well over a century. Even in the US, they also occur in cities which have high levels of African-American participation in politics and policing.

On the other hand, the wide variety of homicide rates between jurisdictions and shifts over time suggest that there is nothing inevitable about the homicide rates experienced (another mark against genetic explanations). Merely that factors specific to the social dynamics of African-American communities are going to have to be identified and tackled if their homicide rates are going to be reduced.

Residential segregation

The wildly variant homicide rates between African-Americans and other Americans are sufficient, on their own, to explain residential segregation by race–indeed, enough to do so even if racism, unconscious discrimination or familiarity preference played no roles at all. Consider: you are a family living in a previously non-black neighbourhood. Black families start moving in, with this much higher average level of violence. Do you and your children continue to live in the neighbourhood, or do you leave? The question answers itself.

In the US, preferences on house size and proximity can lead to significant residential segregation by political outlook (the urban liberal/rural conservative effect). How much more powerfully will highly differentiated homicide rates lead to residential segregation? Zoning laws in the US partly had their origins as mechanisms of racial separation (pdf): while racism had a considerable amount to do with that history, current patterns sadly look more like rational parental concern.

Which goes how complex and tangled these issues are in the US.

Entrenched patterns of disadvantage

This does not mean I am buying into some “culture of poverty” explanation. That is just another form of analytical “silly putty”. Not only do what characteristics one means have to be carefully delineated, the label provides a putative answer before asking the question. Especially as African-Americans are not predominantly poor even by US standards and are certainly not so by world standards.

African-Americans do have average incomes significantly lower than white Americans, yet higher than Hispanic Americans. According to US census data (pdf), African-Americans had a per capita income 68% of the overall US per capita income (for non-Hispanic whites 116%, Asian-Americans 112%, Hispanics 58%). Applying that percentage to World Bank data, that gives African-Americans about the same per capita income as Japan–or around 26th of the 185 jurisdictions covered by the World Bank data–and more than that of Italy, Spain, South Korea and Israel.

Nevertheless, there are clearly entrenched patterns of disadvantage: African-Americans are much more likely to live in communities with high levels of poverty and find it much harder than white Americans to escape from such communities. Much of African-American disadvantage is a African-American male disadvantage. The elevated homicide rates are overwhelmingly elevated male homicide rates. An unusual feature of African-American IQ results is that women do better than men. African-Americans males have a persistently low (if rising somewhat) college graduation rate of 35% in 2005: up from 28% in the early 1990s. African-American women have a college graduation rate of 46% in 2005: up from 34% in the early 1990s.

The African-American disadvantage in graduation rates continues. Which then feeds back into lower income opportunities and average incomes. Even though historically black colleges actually do a better job of getting students through than their intake demographics would suggest. Again, these issues are complex and tangled.

Particularly when one looks at school graduation rates, which are generally rising but with the gap between blacks and white males widening as that between white and Hispanics males is narrowing (remembering that Hispanics have significantly lower average incomes than African-Americans):

Since the last report in 2012, the gap between the four-year graduation rate for black males and white males widened from 19 points in the 2009-10 school year to 21 points in the 2012-13 year. For Latinos, the gap shrunk to 15 points from 20 during that same period, according to the report.

The national graduation rate for black males was 59 percent, 65 percent for Latinos, and 80 percent for white males for the 2012-13 school year, according to the report. Particularly striking was Detroit where only 20 percent of black males graduated on time in the 2011-12.

Detroit: the social disaster that just keeps rolling along. Given that the city is 83% African-American, it is again hard to blame racism for that disastrous school graduation rate.

Where to look

Cultural factors and low social capital are much more plausible contenders. Especially as the higher levels of violence, particularly amongst male teenagers, disrupts social capital formation and education participation (the much higher homicide rate among black teenagers can also be expected to translate into a tendency for more disruptive behaviour in class) while also being a product of the same: once again, complex and tangled issues. There is, to put it mildly, not the same culture of courtesy and educational attainment one sees among East Asians or South Asians, for example. The disruptive effects of entrenched violence is likely to matter quite directly, as cooperation and networking are crucial to social capital and its formation (pdf).

Lower levels of school graduation mean lower levels of college entry and job opportunities. Lower levels of college entry and lower levels of college graduation have compounding effects in reducing African-American entry into professional and other high income jobs. Which means fewer examples of same, and so it goes around.

It also means that persistent negative stereotypes of African-Americans, while suffering the generic problem of stereotypes (people are not categories), are not entirely without foundation–which, of course, makes them harder to shift.

Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates had a revealing exchange over African-American history and disadvantage. In his responses Coates made some telling and powerful points but, once again, without some fairly precise delineation, his pointing to white supremacy is every bit analytical “silly putty” as culture of poverty. His essay The Case for Reparations tells of the grim history of American racism. Yet it is, in the end, looking for external redemption.

Slavery’s poisonous legacy

The American South has lower levels (pdf) of social capital than the rest of the US. That is surely the legacy of slavery. Mass slavery is much longer ago in Italy, but social capital is also much lower in southern Italy. This is likely both an origins and a subsequent developments story, but part of that story is surely that previous structures affect future paths.

Then there is slavery and income inequality: the US has high income inequality by developed world standards, low inequality by the standards of former slave societies. There is evidence of persistent effects of slavery on unequal human capital formation. In a summary of another study:

In other words, the share of slaves in the population in 1860 is also correlated with current racial inequality in school attainment. Since the quantity of human capital is the main determinant of earnings, it follows that the schooling gap has immediate repercussions on income inequality across races.

Having a white mother means having a mother who is not part of that legacy.

Depending on where you are in the Americas, race or skin tone or some combination of both matters for income inequality (pdf). The authors note this shows the multidimensionality of race identities; but it also raises what is being signalled or is associated with what: remembering the effect of having a white mother.

Post-revolutionary Haitian society was promptly taken over by its mulatto and freedman elite, particularly after the massacre of the remaining white population (something which then fed into Southern fears in the lead up to the US Civil War). It is clear enough, however, that slavery has a persistent legacy and it is a socially divisive one.

The legacy of slavery also continues to retard (pdf) economic development decades later: and not just through initial unequal distributions of factors of production but through continuing effects–such as discouraging social capital formation and human capital acquisition.

For slavery’s poisonous legacy in the US is also a bad faith story. American patriotism is based on heroic narratives, and slavery gets in the way of those narratives. As does Jim Crow and the history of American racism generally.

Amerindians and African-Americans were, along with American Tories, the big losers from American independence.  The triumph of the North in the Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, the civil rights struggles, leading to the Acts of almost a century later, can somewhat repair the narrative, but they are easily countered, given that the Reconstruction Amendments did not deliver what they implied and African-Americans remain mired in patterns of disadvantage and outright repression.

American society does not bind across its history, it divides, and divides racially. That baggage still affects interactions between black and white Americans; an Australian going to the US can find that saying “g’day” a lot can elicit changes in responses from black Americans as they shed that legacy of expectations.

The combination of residential segregation, divided experiences, seriously different and differentiating expectations all combine to make social capital further racially differentiated. Another legacy of slavery and its effects down the decades.

It is easy to notice signs of a racially divided society and say “that’s racism!”. Yet it is hard to see what change in white behaviour will change a 20% black male school graduation rate in a city that is 83% black. It is hard to see what change in white behaviour will change African-Americans having a homicide rate 6 times that of other Americans, or the 20-fold difference in homicide rates between black teenager and white teenagers.

Even more so if having a white mother turns out to eliminate much of the education and employment disadvantage–people who deal with you don’t see your mother. Even more so if having two black parents but being a recent Caribbean or African immigrant does the same.

Yes, it is very easy to take any pattern of racial difference–particularly of racial disadvantage–and way “that’s racism!” Racism is analytical “silly putty”; you can shove it in to explain any such difference. Alas, it is not that simple, however comforting it might be to think it is. And perhaps a little condescending–because it also turns whites into the obligated redeemers of blacks. Informed understanding and equity in behaviour and policy–which definitely should be sought–not being quite the same thing.


[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]