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“Punching down” and other moral inanities

By Lorenzo

In the ever-widening world of PC word taboos, there is “punching down“, as in one should not “punch down” (i.e. verbally attack or make fun of folk who are less privileged or empowered than oneself). It sees to have originally started in the field of comedy, so the origins of the term probably has some connection to punch line (though possibly not). But if it did, it has rapidly lost any such connection.

Clearly, the notion of “punching down” is deeply connected to the idea that entertainment, culture and literary effort should be moralised in a very particular way. In particular, with a very particular set of rankings. If one meant the point literally, then no comedian earning $X amount annually should ever make fun of any earning $<X annually. The more money you make, the fewer people you could make fun of.

Obviously, that is not what is meant.

If not, why not?

Because we are dealing with entire categories of people who can allegedly be ranked in terms of privilege. This is problematic in so any ways that it is hard to know where to begin. For example, social advantage can play quite differently in otherwise similar societies: the common (and tedious) American assumption that their particular set of social advantages/disadvantages are shared by everyone does not actually work for the rest of the Anglosphere, let alone anyone else. (This is nicely discussed here.)

The second, much bigger problem, is that the proposed categories are way too crude to bear the moral weight being loaded onto them. SF author Larry Corriea zeroes in on this little difficulty:

I only say that because I grew up with all that fancy Portuguese Dairy Farmer Privilege, where I got to have an alcoholic mother and a functionally illiterate father (who is way darker skinned than Tempest), where I got to spend my formative years knee deep in cow shit at 3:00 AM, so that I could later work my way through Utah State (only after getting a scholarship for my freshmen year because I knew a whole lot about cows), to then spend my adult life working corporate drone jobs of increasing difficulty and skill requirements, all while writing on the side while I supported my family, until I could make it as a professional author.

Lecture us more about privilege, Tempest. It’s fascinating.

A comment on Reddit:

The entire punching up/down concept appears to be nothing more than an attempt at a caste system.

Has a certain amount of truth to it. As is so often the case within the PC-universe, we are dealing with a word-obsessed vulgar (very vulgar) Marxism of very broad categories which are nevertheless highly moralised. Comedy is a particularly poor vehicle for such crude categorising, as it so depends on context.

In the specific case of satire, the entire approach is even more wrong-headed as the essence of satire is surely targeting absurdities wherever they lie.

Part of what is going on here is a public discussion about good taste. But, as that is an “elitist” conception, it has to be passed off as “concern for the oppressed/underprivileged/disadvantaged” for people who cannot seem to make a substantive moral judgement if it is not on the oppressor-oppressed axis (from the three-axes model of political discourse). This post seems to be groping towards “folks, it’s just bad form”. By comparison, this post really cannot get out of the oppressed/oppression rut, to the extent that not getting labels right is “oppression”.

One has to live in a very open and tolerant society if issues of labels are matters of “oppression”. In fact, it is a rather indecent moral inflation, given the amount of serious oppression that exists in the world today. (Overwhelmingly, of course, outside the West.)

One takes it that satirising Christianity would not be “punching down”, but satirising Islam  apparently is, or is likely to be, or something. (Even though Christians are far more likely to be subject to religious persecution in the world today, just not in the West.) This is some of the crudest categorising of all, given the great diversity of perspective among actual Muslims/people of Muslim heritage (Islam being both a religion and a civilisation). As this post alludes to, bundling Muslims/people of Muslim heritage together gives aid and comfort to genuinely oppressive religious forces (who are, as I have said elsewhere, the Nazism of our times).

Murderously oppressive, as instanced in the recent murder of Bangladeshi-American atheist blogger and writer Dr. Avijit Roy; the murder a few months ago of a Bangladeshi sociology professor, Professor Shafiul Islam, who opposed full-face veils; previous murders of (warning–violent images), and assassination attempts on, atheist bloggers and writers: all murders in a single Muslim country by people who think words terribly important–because they want to control public space, to control what can be said–and are very willing to murder to do so.

Torchlight procession in honour of slain writer and in protest at his murder.

There is another indecent moral inflation which struck me when I came across the term “punching down”. That is conflating words with violence. If one makes words terribly, terribly important–particularly if one starts using terms which allude to violence (“punching down”, “micro-aggression”)–then that has the effect of minimising the difference between words and actual violence. The effect is to lower the moral weight of actual violence–moral weight not being an indefinitely expandable resource, given human cognitive limits and time constraints.

It is the difference between saying “you just don’t kill people over words and cartoons” and “but we have to consider the particular words and cartoons”. No, actually we don’t. And that the more PC you are, the less you get that is a sign of how political correctness’s serious over-weighting of the importance of words actually degrades, rather than elevates, moral understanding.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The Nazism of our time

By Lorenzo

A recurring theme of Algerian-American law academic’s Karima Bennoune‘s moving and informative Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism is the disastrous consequences of pandering to Muslim fundamentalism. For example, Karima Bennoune’s Pakistani interlocutors note how important the “Islamisation” program of Zia ul-Haq‘s regime was in encouraging fundamentalism (p.241). The British in Egypt played the Muslim Brotherhood against the secular nationalists, the Algerian regime played the FIS against democratic secularists, Israel played Hamas against FatahSadat and Mubarak played the Muslim Brotherhood against the liberals, Pakistan partly created the Taliban as an instrument to dominate Afghanistan and has used jihadis against India, the US funded fundamentalists against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The list goes on.

While political or strategic expedience was part of what was going on, one also wonders if the baleful effect of the Hegelian fallacy of modernisation theory was not also in play–the presumption that history has a direction, so serious religious belief is a thing of the past; thus “wave of the future” liberals, democrats, nationalists, secularists are the more “serious” threat. It surely plays a role in so many Western intellectuals, journalists and politicians being unable to take religious motives seriously.

One is reminded of the original “Red-Brown” alliance–the Stalinist KPD functionally helping the Nazis to bring down the Weimar Republic on the grounds that as “mere reactionaries” the Nazis were doomed by History. That turned out very badly for the KPD and while, in the longer run, the Soviet Union was able to expand, it only survived the consequences of the Nazi-Soviet Pact through the Anglo-Americans diverting key German forces (such as much of the Luftwaffe) and massively subsidising the Soviet war effort. 

The nature of the project

Another theme in the book is that the operational choices of Islamists vary far more than their underlying aims. Which puts into context the dramatic tactical shifts the Tunisian Islamist Party Ennahda has engaged in, for example (Pp272-3). In his 1993 piece Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible, Algerian left-wing educator Salah Chouaki, gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, wrote:

[Egyptian philosopher Fouad] Zakariya identified and analyzed the following pattern: the Islamists occupy the socio-cultural terrain, then the politico-ideological terrain. They exert a multiform pressure on the society and the state. The latter makes concessions to them, and even ends up trying to outdo them so as not to allow itself to appear less Islamist than the Islamists. Thus, the state introduces Islamism in school, in the cultural realm, in institutions, in different spheres – including the economic one – thinking or pretending to think that it is promoting Islam as a religion. The Islamists profit from all of this, re-investing their gains in all manner of renewed pressures which win them yet more ground, and then they repeat this pattern again, at ever higher levels.

It is very much about a “long march through the institutions“; positively Gramscian indeed. All of which reinforces my point that the jihadis are the Islamic equivalent of the Nazis–a modernising revolt against modernity, adopting the operational techniques and total politics of Leninism for a very different political project; emphasising heroic, warrior virtues (whose appeal Susan Sontag memorably analysed in her Fascinating Fascism essay) in an explicitly atavistic project. Though theirs is a project of master believers rather than a master race. Still, Susan Sontag’s closing comments are remarkably apposite:

Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.

The jihadis are the SS without the tailoring:

the SS seems to be the most perfect incarnation of fascism in its overt assertion of the righteousness of violence, the right to have total power over others and to treat them as absolutely inferior. It was in the SS that this assertion seemed most complete, because they acted it out in a singularly brutal and efficient manner; and because they dramatized it by linking themselves to certain aesthetic standards.

Where loading up beheadings and brutality on YouTube replaces uniform aesthetics as the way to make one’s statement about valorising violence. For:

fascism—also stands for an ideal, and one that is also persistent today, under other banners…the fetishism of courage, the dissolution of alienation in ecstatic feelings of community; the repudiation of the intellect; the family of man [believers] (under the parenthood of leaders).

The cult of the homicidal self-immolation of slaughtering “martyrs” is most certainly a fetishism of courage. When German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen infamously said of the destruction of the Twin Towers that it was:

the greatest work of art ever. That characters can bring about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely, fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we, composers, are nothing.

And British artist Damien Wise told the BBC that the attacks were:

visually stunning artwork: The thing about 9/11, is that it’s kind of like an artwork in its own right. It was wicked, but it was devised in this way for this kind of impact. It was devised visually. . . . Of course, it’s visually stunning and you’ve got to hand it to them on some level because they’ve achieved something which nobody would ever have thought possible. . . . So on one level they kind of need congratulating, which a lot of people shy away from, which is a very dangerous thing.

They were vindicating the continuing relevance of Sontag’s analysis.

The ambitions of the Muslim fundamentalists are, however, much more grandiose than those of the Nazis. The Nazis “merely” wanted a Lebensraum empire to the Urals which would be (amongst other “purifications“) Judenfrei. The Muslim fundamentalists are thinking much more global. In the words of the Islamic State’s spokesperson:

“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women,” Adnani, the spokesman, promised in one of his periodic valentines to the West. “If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market.”

What is the “root cause” of a multi-generational ambition for global domination? Or is salvation-through-seeking-global-acceptance-of-submission-to-the-sovereignty-of-Allah its own reward? Both in this world and the next.

Dilemmas of opposition

Secularists in the Islamic world are often in very difficult positions. Fewer more so than Palestinian secularists, caught between Hamas and Israel (p.325). And the corruption of Fatah.

As an aside, Karima Bennoune manages a lovely demolition of Jerry Falwell:

On the tenth anniversary [of 9/11], I thought a lot about the victims, like Father Mychal Judge, a gay Franciscan priest who was a Fire Department chaplain and died in the lobby of Tower One. Father Mike had administered to AIDS patients and alcoholics and was a fan of Celtic rock band Black 47. Rushing to comfort victims of terror, he became one. Christian fundamentalist Jerry Falwell said of 9/11 a few days later that the feminists and gays and all who tried to secularise America “helped this happen”. Though he subsequently apologised, Falwell was clearly unable to understand Father Mike’s life or his death (p.265).

Though, in a through-the-looking-glass way, Falwell was right, in that it is a wish to have, and a determination to block, the sorts of social freedoms that Westerners take for granted as experience and aspiration which has so riven the Muslim world. Karima Bennoune is right to wonder why Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left–who are so quick to denounce the politics of Western religious fundamentalism–seem so blind and mute about its (much worse) Muslim equivalents. Leftists of Muslim heritage, such as Fouad Zakaria and Salah Chouaki, can grapple critically with Islamic history:

In each and every case, it is fundamentalism that succeeds in re-orienting the positions that take hold in these spheres in its favor. This is because of the enormous scientific and cultural lag that affects these countries. It is also because the balance of power within religion, as shaped by our history, has erased the brightest pages of our Arabo-Islamic cultural patrimony – those which carry the seeds of rationality and of modernity. This historical dynamic has promoted the domination of the most conservative and obscurantist interpretations.

They are simply (mostly) ignored. Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka said on International Day of Peace in 2012 about Boko Haram:

We have an organisation which closes down schools, shoots faculty teachers…and turns most of the north into an educational wasteland. How can we reach children there? We must first get rid of Boko Haram. (p.266)

Karima Bennoune continues:

Movements like Boko Haram and Al Qaeda are so bent on the destruction of human beings that the only possible response is to abhor them–not the individuals in them but their collective political organisation and what it does. (p.266)

Boko Haram being another viciously murderous organisation operating in a social context free of substantive connections to the Cold War, Western intervention or the Israel-Palestine conflict. None of which ever explains why Muslim fundamentalists mainly kill fellow Muslims, use such recurring techniques of massacre, murder and brutality or engage in recurring forms of social and religious repression.  The “root cause” of jihadi terror is Muslim fundamentalism: looking for congenial-to-framings social causes is like looking for the “root cause” of the Holocaust in the unemployment of the early 1930s.

As an aside, the fumbling foreign policy cluelessness of President Obama and his Administration (how is that “reset” with Russia going?: no, actually ISIS is deeply–indeed obsessively–Islamic: as for a jobs program for ISIS, words fail) shows a depressing lack of sense of history. Likely based on a fairly extensive ignorance of it.

Regarding the nonsense about ISIS et al being “not Islamic”, a comment on a typically sensible piece by Julian Sanchez is on point:

Arguing ISIS isn’t Muslim is like arguing the Habsburg or Swedish army in the 30 Years War wasn’t Christian.

Even their execution videos are laden with Islamic references. An Egyptian journalist is quite blunt about the genuine dilemmas within Islam:

Was Abu Bakr [first Caliph] morally wrong to burn that man [Fuja'ah Al-Sulami] alive? Nobody dares to say so. So we are left in this vicious circle, and you can expect more barbarity, because all this barbarity is sacred. It is sacred. This barbarity is wrapped in religion. It is immersed in religion. It is all based on religion. Your mission [as a cleric] is to say that while it is part of our religion, the interpretation is wrong. Do not tell people that Islam has nothing to do with this.

The suggestions of those interviewed by Karima Bennoune (300 people in 30 countries) about what to do about Muslim fundamentalism are many and varied (p.332). What Karima Bennoune herself seeks is popular mobilisation against Muslim fundamentalism and an empowering of civil society (Pp 332-3). Both their violence and their ideology need to be opposed:

there can be no successful strategy to combat terrorism that does not involve a commitment to ending the relentless fundamentalist attacks on civilians in Muslim majority contexts…

…the problem is also the discriminatory and hateful ideology that underlies it, the yeast that makes its beer. (p.336).

There are no useful “moderate” Islamist allies or partners for peace. There is:

a need to sometimes be uncompromising in facing off with fundamentalism. The attempts by some governments, by some academics, by some in civil society, and even by some Western feminists to accommodate some Muslim fundamentalist views about things like equality and the role of religion in public life help advance Islamist goals and undermine the people whose efforts are chronicled in this book (p.341).

Karima Bennoune cites Salah Chouaki, the aforementioned Algerian left-wing educator gunned down by Muslim fundamentalists in 1994, who wrote in his 1993 article Compromise with Political Islam is Impossible:

There is an unresolvable contradiction between support for the idea of a modern society and the belief…that it is possible to ‘domesticate’ the totalitarian monster of fundamentalism. …

The best way to defend Islam is to put it out of the reach of all political manipulation. The best way to defend the modern state is to put it out of the reach of all exploitation of religion for political ends. (p.341)

As Karima Bennoune writes:

The world is messy and defies simple paradigms. That is what the fundamentalists cannot tolerate, but their opponents must. (p.312)

But they are master belief totalitarians; which it is why it is necessary for decent folk to see them for what they are and revile their entire awful project. Reading Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here is an excellent step in intellectual hygiene and celebrating a certain basic moral decency.


[This is an adapted extract from my two-part review of Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here, published here and here.]

Justification versus motivation

By Lorenzo

As more than one commentator has pointed out, much of the contemporary intellectual and political Western elite does not understand, or give much weight to, religious motives. Using religion to justify actions they have a more of a grip on, than doing things for religious motives.

The controversy over President Obama’s prayer breakfast comments show this quite well.  In the most controversial passage, he slides from motivation to justification:

Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.

For the Crusades and the Inquisition, religious motives were definitely crucial. US slavery and Jim Crow were justified within explicitly Christian frameworks, but were hardly motivated by Christianity. By comparison, attempts to reintroduce slavery in Sudan and the Islamic State seem to be substantially motivated by religious claims.

In overwhelmingly Christian societies, in times when Christianity remained the dominating moral framework, almost anything was justified within explicitly Christian frameworks–thus, both slavery and the opposition to it; both Jim Crow and the opposition to it. Use of religious justifications tell us almost nothing, except that religious framings have resonance in that society: or, at least, among the target audience. Indeed, given that opposition to slavery and Jim Crow had a larger dose of altruism than support thereof, the opposition likely had a stronger dose of religious motivation.

Which is why, for example, Ta-nehisi Coates defence of President Obama’s comments, and his pushback against the President’s critics, falls flat. Coates writes about justification rather than motivation. Indeed, he implicitly denies that the Islamic State is about religious motives:

Now, Christianity did not “cause” slavery, anymore than Christianity “caused” the civil-rights movement. The interest in power is almost always accompanied by the need to sanctify that power. That is what the Muslims terrorists in ISIS are seeking to do today, and that is what Christian enslavers and Christian terrorists did for the lion’s share of American history.

Yes, ISIS uses religious justifications, but to imply that all they are about is religious justifications is nonsense on stilts. I have called volunteering to fight for ISIS psychopathic sex tourism, but I did not mean to imply by that religious motivation is not important. It is not merely that Medinan Islam is the framing for their actions, it is quite clear that religion is a very powerful motivator for their actions. A particular conception of Islam, to be sure, but one well within the historical parameters of that faith. Islam is not always like this; not even close. But it is recurrently like this.

Even regarding the Crusades, the Christianity-Islam analogy is dubious. There were four great areas of crusading activity: the Prussian and Livonian marches, Iberia, the Levant and North Africa. The Crusades on the Prussian and Livonian marches were straight aggression against pagans, both motivated and justified by religion (with some anti-Orthodox aggression added in). The Crusades in Spain were part of the Reconquista–the reconquest of Iberia after the Muslim conquest. The Crusades in the Levant (Outremer) were a (belated) response to the Muslim advance through Anatolia after the Eastern Roman disaster of the Battle of Manzikert. Like the North African crusades, they were attacks on formerly Christian lands. Indeed, none of the anti-Muslim crusades were other than attacks on formerly Christian lands, conquered by Muslim religious aggression. All part of how very lost in the modern secular mind The Lost History of Christianity is (which philosopher Michael Walzer provides an excellent example of).

The reverse is not remotely true. Historically, religiously motivated Christian attacks on Islam are dwarfed by religiously motivated Islamic attacks on Christendom. Which remains very much true.  Apart from anything else, in the contemporary world, Christian persecution of Muslims is dwarfed by Muslim persecution of Christians.

Moreover, most contemporary Christians do not live in Europe and North America. How much are the Crusades and the Inquisition part of “their” history for African and Asian Christians?  It is one thing to point out that Christians-as-people and Muslims-as-people are, as people, equivalent in their capacity for violence and brutality.  It is quite another to pretend that Islam has not been the more violently aggressive religion, nor that it is not so in the contemporary world.

Much of the pushback against President Obama’s remarks are precisely due to folk comparing contemporary Christianity with contemporary Islam and thinking that the President’s remarks miss the point. Even in their selective sense of history, the remarks rather do. But, in their gliding over the difference between justification and motivation, they do so even more.

Ta-nehisi Coates definitely wants to move away from considering religious motivation:

That this relatively mild, and correct, point cannot be made without the comments being dubbed, “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime,” by a former Virginia governor gives you some sense of the limited tolerance for any honest conversation around racism in our politics. And it gives you something much more. My colleague Jim Fallows recently wrote about the need to, at once, infantilize and deify our military. Perhaps related to that is the need to infantilize and deify our history. Pointing out that Americans have done, on their own soil, in the name of their own God, something similar to what ISIS is doing now does not make ISIS any less barbaric, or any more correct.

But if you see what ISIS does as merely justified by religion, rather than also motivated by it, you miss much of the point. And one can see how contemporary Christians could be offended by the President’s remarks without any spectre of racism: Ta-nehisi Coates seems much more comfortable importing bad-faith-about-racism motives to fellow Americans than religious motives to foreign Muslims; in large part because, one suspects, because he is not comfortable with the notion of religious motives: still less where taking them seriously might lead us.

He much prefers to put religion back in a box:

Obama seemed to be going for something more—faith leavened by “some doubt.” If you are truly appalled by the brutality of ISIS, then a wise and essential step is understanding the lure of brutality, and recalling how easily your own society can be, and how often it has been, pulled over the brink.

You see, it’s all about us, really.  As if the contemporary West–or, for that matter, contemporary Christianity–has not learned anything. Thereby missing the point hugely. Yes, of course, humans are capable of much brutality (there is plenty of brutality in Western history, including modern Western history). But they are also capable of getting better, of learning, of increasingly listening to, and acting on, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Which is why the joyous, uploaded-to-Youtube, brutality of ISIS or Boko Haram is so confronting: it is so very atavistic. They really do want to take us to a world where C7th Arabia is the epitome of moral and social understanding, and to do so for religious reasons and religious motives. They appeal to folk precisely because they provide religious justification and motives for, most flagrantly, enthusiastic brutality. But also that promise of an end to alienation, to grand unifying purpose, that intense political–and especially religious–movements provide. One cannot analyse them solely in religious terms, but if you do not understand the seriousness of their religious motivations, you do not understand them.

And, no, it is not all about us. People are not being massacred, enslaved and oppressed for us to draw banal moral lessons. That is just looking at us so we do not have to look at the uncomfortable them. Where near sins and past sins are so much more comfortable lessons for virtue than present brutalities.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

ADDENDA: This Atlantic piece is particularly clear on the seriousness of the religious motivations behind the Islamic State.

The revealing differences of returns to origins

By Lorenzo

Attempts to compare Christianity and Islam often involve citing Scriptures or specific doctrines. The problem with doing so is that, within any faith, people often ignore inconvenient Scriptures or doctrines, vary dramatically in how they read them, in what Scriptures and doctrines they focus on, etc. The logic of belief is not necessarily the logic of believers: as witnessed by the Theological Incorrectness phenomenon.

I tend to be more impressed by historical patterns, as they indicate what social logics are operating within a religion and what persistence (if any) they have.

Contemporary Islam and Christianity both have very significant movements within them which seek to return to the origins of the religion. A comparison of such is quite revealing.

I am not talking here of religious fundamentalism, which is a modern, even modernist, movement. Modernism seeks to eliminate the detritus of the past on the basis that new is (always) better. While fundamentalism may be about “seeking the fundamentals”, in practice it is very modernist.

I mean attempts to go back to the origins of the faith in life and spirit. In their rejection of tradition, such movements can overlap with fundamentalism, but they are not identical.

Of course, in one sense it is impossible to return to the origins of any religion; the river of history has moved on, changing context and understanding. Thus, once the European Enlightenment happened, Westerners could never really be actively pre-Enlightenment, only Counter-Enlightenment.  Nevertheless, the desire to return to origins of faith can be a powerful one.

Returning to origins

The dominant such return-to-origins movement within Christianity is Pentecostalism. It is phenomenally successful–from a few hundred adherents around 1900, it had about 250 million by 2000: at that rate of growth (a large assumption), there will be a billion Pentecostals by the middle of this century.

If you seek to go back to original Christianity, what do you do? A lot of preaching, a lot of attention to the Gospels’ you seek to have the experience of the Holy Spirit indwelling (hence Pentecostal, from the original Pentecost), speak in tongues, and engage in congregational togetherness. There is a strong aspect of collective self-help in Pentecostalism, as there was in early Christianity. Hence much of its appeal to the wretched of the Earth, both the materially wretched and the spiritually wretched.

If you want to go back to original Islam, what do you do? If you are following the received Muhammad of Medina–the flight to which is the Islamic Year Zero–then you seek to conquer territory to establish Sharia rule, destroy the holy places and religmous artefacts of non-believers, massacre male unbelievers and enslave their women and children and behead those who write nasty things about you. Which should all sound terribly familiar. How much of this follows the received example of the Prophet? All of it.

Islamic history is full of violent, purifying movements who seek to follow the example of the Prophet and go forth and conquer. They have the Medinan Suras and the life of the Prophet (“the walking Quran“) as conqueror and ruler to inspire them.

The Meccan-Medinan cycle

Islam also has extended periods of intellectual and artistic ferment and tolerance. The Islam of the Meccan Suras. The Islam of pragmatic tolerance, of live and let live (as long as Muslim dominance is not threatened). The Islam of the Umayyad (661-750) and early Abbasid Caliphates (750-C11th), of early al-Andalus, of the Central Asian Enlightenment, of the great Mughals.

 The problem is, Meccan Islam is always followed by Medinan Islam. Cosmopolitan al-Andalus was overwhelmed by the Almoravids and Almohades. The Seljuq Turk advance imposed a much more rigid and intolerant version of Islam. An anti-tolerance counter-reaction which became even more intense in response to the Mongol onslaught, finishing off the Central Asian Enlightenment. Islam under stress typically reacts by being much more Medinan.

Alas, stress can simply mean slights to Muslim self-image (particularly male self-image); as historian Bernard Lewis famously discussed in his essay The Roots of Muslim Rage.

Nor is stress necessary for the switch to occur. Even the periods of tolerance were punctuated by episodes of massacre and repression: either because some ruler shifted to the Medinan approach or due to clerical incitement. Or such “Meccan” periods are simply ended by such shifts. The period of Mughal tolerance came to an end when Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707) took the throne, though it had been declining somewhat under his father, Shah Jahan (r.1628-1658). The death of Meccan Islam is always an in-house killing: it is murdered by Muslims, not outsiders.

Needless to say, the jihadis are Medinan Islam.

It is not good enough to point to Meccan Islam and say “that is Islam”. Medinan Islam is also Islam: and Islam regularly returns to it. The contrast between Pentecostalism and the jihadis does tell us something about the difference between Christianity (particularly Christianity in the contemporary world) and Islam.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The revolutionary status quo Power

By Lorenzo

Based on a comment I originally made here.

The US is at once both a revolutionary and a status quo Power.

It is a revolutionary Power in the straightforward sense that it is the only contemporary state seriously trying to export its revolution, apart from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is also a revolutionary Power in a somewhat more subtle sense, in that it produces so much of the technology that continues to transform the world. Which puts the US in a similar situation during its Pax Americana, as Britain during the Pax Britannica: being the premier source of transforming technology while trying to foster international stability.

But the US is also a status quo Power, in that the current arrangement of world affairs suits its interests–as the major economic, financial, trading and military Power. It tends to act as the central manager of the international system–its performance as such is very much affected by its own interests, because that’s what Powers do. But precisely because the US has a bigger stake in international stability than any other polity else, it tends to be more active in trying to maintain that stability.

But being a status quo Power is not very compatible with being a revolutionary Power. And even more so, vice versa. It would be hard to argue that its attempts to export its Revolution to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush have been exactly stabilising, even as it sought to create a (new) stability.

A hardy perennial in (failed) US policies has been ignorance of history. Both the US as status quo Power and US as revolutionary Power tend to encourage history-fails. A status quo Power has a tendency to live in an eternal now. A revolutionary Power has a tendency to fixate on its own framing of social patterns and desirable outcomes. Add to that American exceptionalism, and you have a recipe for serial history-fails.

As has been particularly obvious in US interventions in the Middle East.

As Somaliland shows (the successful, formerly British, bit of the former Somalia), a House of Elders (in other words, a House of Lords) would very likely have been sensible policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as it would have connected government into traditional social structures. But hereditary and religious legislators, can’t have that! Because we’re Americans and we don’t think like that! Our Revolution is explicitly about no hereditary government, and separation of church and state, so a House of Elders (or Shura Council, or whatever) becomes unthinkable and unthought.

And holding a vote on whether to restore the king in Afghanistan (pdf) would also have been sensible policy. But we’re Americans and we don’t think like that!

Yes, but those folk you’re trying to help: they’re not Americans and they don’t think like you. Alas, American exceptionalism and the US-as-revolutionary-Power trumps trying to understand the local societies in their own terms and building something that might work for them.

Similarly, Iraq should have been divided into three, as any “Iraqi” identity was too shallow to survive any serious stress. But the US is a too much of a status quo power (and a little too ignorant of Middle Eastern history) to think like that either.

Being at the same time a status quo and a revolutionary power is a difficult double. Alas, it is also very well set up to create serial policy failure.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Plan or strategy?

By Lorenzo

In Austrian school economics, and economics influenced by the same, there is often talk of entrepreneurs as making plans. This turns up, for example, in Mark Casson’s entrepreneurial theory of the firm (pdf).

As someone who is actually in business, I find the notion of plan somewhat problematic. The business I am a principal of does not make plans in any strong sense, it adopts strategies. It is not about a planned-out sequence of steps, but making decisions about purchases, procedures and communication. Yes, they are aimed at achieving certain outcomes, but in a flexible and operational way.

I suspect the plan usage is something of a holdover from when manufacturing was the dominant mode of private production. Making things does involve a certain amount of planning (and the bigger the thing being made, the more than is true). But, even manufacturing, firms are engaged in commerce, so are about (if they are to be successful) connecting to customers, and you do not control your customers or your competitors. So, the planning of manufacturing is still embedded within commercial strategies.

This is more than a semantic point. Operational strategies are more flexible things than plans. Strategies typically do not regiment decision-making, they coordinate it. The trick is not to target a precise outcome, but to have an outcome within the ambit of success for your commercial strategy. Which procedures such as, for example, just-in-time logistics make easier to achieve.

At a macro level, this makes coordination between commercial strategies somewhat easier. It also makes the entrepreneurial function less like something bureaucratic and more what it is–something very hard to replicate in a highly bureaucratised environment.

Which is my other objection to the plan usage. It does not make clear enough that what goes on in commerce and what goes on in the apparatus of the state tend to be significantly different.

ADDENDA:  The plan usage may also be, as Nick Rowe suggests in a comment, a response to socialist planning claims. In fact, that is more likely.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Good appeasement and bad appeasement

By Lorenzo

Appeasement–in the form of conciliatory concessions–can be a perfectly reasonable way of dealing with folk. It entirely depends on how limited their aims are.

Mixed past
So, the Middle Realm‘s Sons of Heaven used appeasement successfully for centuries in dealing with the steppe nomads to their north, the only open border of a unified China (with the partial exception of the Tibetan Empire) until the Europeans started projecting state power across China’s coasts in the C19th. The steppe rulers wanted resources to support their social position, particularly to pay their beholden warriors. The Sons of Heaven regularly obliged with extensive “gifts”, thereby purchasing border peace much more cheaply than did serious military campaigning.  If anything, there was some under utilising of appeasement: the Southern Song did rather mishandle the expanding Mongol Empire, for example.

The Son of Heaven has been generous again, no raiding his lands this year.

The reason appeasement has such a tainted reputation is because of the failure of the policy of appeasing Hitler. The problem was that Hitler’s aims were much grander than the Anglo-French Alliance were prepared to concede. Unifying Germans into a single Reich was a limited aim. Achieving a lebensraum empire in Eastern Europe, not so much. Since that really was the aim of Hitler’s policy, indeed, his entire economic and military management of Germany, no policy of appeasement would have avoided conflict between Germany and the Democratic Powers unless the Anglo-French alliance was prepared to hand over all of Eastern Europe to Germany. Which they were not, with British public opinion in particular shifting strongly against further appeasement after Hitler’s occupying of “Bohemia and Moravia” clearly demonstrated that his aims extended well beyond just unifying Germans into the Reich.

Good or bad?
The Western democracies are currently running a policy of appeasement on the cultural front. It is perfectly fine to satirise, lampoon and critique Christian and Jewish religious beliefs and sentiments as much as one wants. Doing the same to Islamic religious beliefs and sentiments, not so much.

Nor is there any mystery why. There are some Muslims perfectly prepared to assault and kill in the name of enforcing “respect” for Islamic beliefs and sentiments. The process may be selective, but the reality is clear.

So, is this good appeasement (conciliation that avoids conflict by giving folk enough of what they want) or bad appeasement (concessions that only encourage further demands)? Well, it depends on what the aims of the jihadis are, since they are the “pointy end” of the violence, the conflict attempting to be avoided.

 Working out the aims is not hard for the jihadis are, like Hitler, clear about their ultimate aims. Just as reading Mein Kampf excellent insight into the aims of Nazi policy, so do the statements of the jihadis. For example, to them the Reconquista, the loss of al-Andalus, is a grievance that should be redressed. The existence of Israel is obviously a grievance. To Osama bin Laden, Australia supporting the independence of (Catholic) East Timor from (overwhelmingly Muslim) Indonesia was a grievance. The notion of democracy not subordinated to Sharia is a grievance. And that we do not accept Sharia as our law is a grievance. (Their conception of Sharia, obviously.)

So, the short answer is no; the aims of the jihadis are not sufficiently limited that appeasement is going to work.

So, what about the current cultural appeasement, treating Muslim religious sensibilities with greater sensitivity than Jewish or Christian ones? Simply by killing a relatively small number of people, and implicitly and explicitly threatening to kill a few more, a fundamental principle of Sharia is seeping throughout the Western world–that Islam is entitled to superior treatment in the public arena than other religions. I would call that a win for both the jihadis aims and their chosen operational methods. Indeed, from their perspective, an inspiring win, given that lots of Muslims support giving Islam special status.

So, does the current cultural appeasement fulfil the jihadis full aims? No. Does it represent progress towards their aims? Yes. Is such appeasement going to work? Only in the sense of appeasement of Hitler “worked”–it will inspire them to keep doing what they are doing. So, the cultural appeasement will have the opposite effect regarding conflict–it will not lead to less, but to more. For the aims of the jihadis are too grandiose for appeasement to work. (And note that nothing in the above is an argument against Muslims having equal protection of the law and being accepted as citizens.)


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Don’t mention the inconvenient

By Lorenzo

So, a black guy with a long criminal record, a history of mental illness and attempted suicide, attempts to murder his girlfriend, kills two cops in Brooklyn and then shoots himself. A mainstream newspaper provides details on his life, ignoring an obvious one; he was Muslim (his name being Ismaayil Abdullah Brinkley is something of a hint).

There are some fairly obvious similarities with the Martin Place hostage taker. Violent misogyny: check. Homicidal self-righteousness: check. Terroristic grandstanding: check. Since police killing unarmed blacks (or civilians generally) is not a currently prominent issue in Australian society, that does not seem to be the link between the two homicidal grandstanders, despite the enormous rhetorical fuss made over that aspect of the Brooklyn killings in the US. Some of which commentary is stunningly innumerate and almost all of which is a case of just don’t go there. (And a black man walks up and kills two cops: that will of course do nothing to reinforce police fears of black men–this is John Wilkes Booth level of homicidal stupidity.)

Juan Cole insists that the media should not parade lone-wolf nuts as “Muslim terrorists”. (He is apparently getting his wish in the Brooklyn case, where it is being fitted into the preferred narrative of reaction to homicidal racist cops.) I think a much more interesting question is; why are there such similarities  between two “lone wolf nuts” who happen to be Muslim from opposite sides of the globe?

Not all “lone wolf” terrorists are Muslim, but a disproportionate number are, with the disproportion increasing in recent years. Radical Islam seems to becoming the strongly preferred framing for grandstanding de-personalised homicide.

Something of a pattern

In the case of the Martin Place grandstander, it was not a case of no warning signs. The hostage-taker was someone whose dangerous qualities were presciently identified in a 2009 piece by an ABC religious affairs reporter. More recently, a SMH reporter was a little less prescient: she was, however, following Juan Cole’s preferred approach.

The Martin Place tragedy has now brought down the NSW Opposition Leader. But the late unlamented Man Monis is a perfect icon for culture war dispute–an asylum seeker, on welfare and out on bail as an accessory to murder. So, someone the Australian state let in, paid for and then let out. With all the rhetorical power, and statistical pointlessness, a single recognisable case provides.

The question of commonalities is even more interesting because of a somewhat similar case that occurred in Broken Hill a century ago and because such behaviour is being engaged in on an organised basis. With extras: is not part of the appeal of the Islamic State homicidal psychopathic sex tourism? With self-righteous religious rhetoric to match. An appeal than cannot be said to be entirely random; there are now apparently more British Muslims fighting for the Islamic State than in the British Army. Probably also true in Australia, although Australian jihadis are apparently being killed about the same rate as new recruits. The Syrian civil war has attracted thousands of foreign fighters, many of whom have ended up fighting for the Islamic State.

 The jihadi movement considers democracy blasphemous or heretical–since it presumes for mere humans to take on the law-making prerogatives of God–engages in violent misogyny, Jew-hatred and queer-hatred while using modern technology (such as social media) to promote a violently atavistic warrior ethos which extols the triumph of the master-believers over all others. To the point of massacre, slavery and teaching children courses in beheading, with practice on (temporarily) live victims.

Atavistic counter-reaction

It is the contemporary version of Nazism: like it a violent atavistic counter-reaction against the stresses of modernity. As if to emphasise the point, there is a nasty cat’s cradle of links between Nazism and both Arab nationalism and radical Islam. Hitler, unsurprisingly, thought Islam a better religion than Christianity:

Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers–already, you see, the world have fallen into the hands of Jews, so gutless a thing is Christianity!–then we should have in all probability have been converted to Mohammadism, that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so (p.667).

Taunting a captured Iraqi officer.

The jihadis are even more explicit in their violence and brutality than the Nazis. It is not wildly unreasonable to suggest different religious framings might be a factor here: the teachings and actions of the Gospel Christ really are profoundly different from those of the Received Muhammad (who had folk who said bad things about him beheadedmassacred defeated males and sold their women and children into slavery–all of which may sound vaguely familiar).

On the face of it, the jihadi movement is a violent denial of everything Western progressives are supposed to stand for. And their collective inability to confront it in any useful way extends at times to active protection of, or even implicit collaboration with, its adherents and advocates. Going with the principle that any sin indicts Western civilisation or Western capitalism or Western whatever and no sin indicts Islam.

It is, as Nick Cohen puts it, the great betrayal. And yes, the generic indictments are bunk, but it is the selective willingness to engage in, or tolerate, them that is revealing. When lone wolf killers are white supremacists or extreme nationalists, going for general indictments is all the rage among progressives. If a lone wolf killer is a Muslim, that fact gets downplayed or simply ignored and general indictments are furiously denounced.

It is striking how intellectually impoverished modern progressivism has become: when real Nazism was stalking the world, progressivists did not attempt to frame the debate as “let’s not be nasty to Germans”. Nowadays, in the face of the homicidal reality of the jihadi movement (the overwhelming majority of whose victims are, in fact, Muslims), it appears that the only framing that is seriously adopted is “let’s not be nasty to Muslims”.

The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem saluting the Waffen SS Handschar division in Yugoslavia in 1944. In a speech he apparently stated that there were “considerable similarities between Islamic principles and National Socialism”.

Apparently, anything resembling Nazi evil can only be committed by folk with white skins. A moral infantilising of the non-white on a massive scale. Not anti-racism at all; just massive purblind condescension passing itself of as compassion and anti-oppression while averting eyes from inconvenient victims (which, in the case of the Middle East, seems to be any minority except the one which is a majority elsewhere–the Palestinian sub-group of Arab Sunnis). Parading as modern moral bwanas ”protecting” their mascots of the moment.

A betrayal with consequences. Do folk really think that the attack on Sony over the film The Interview has nothing to do with the Mohammad Cartoons affair or the Satanic Verses fatwa? Demonstrable ability to be intimidated–or, worse, side with the intimidators–just encourages others to play the game (or pretend to, it is a bit murky what precise game was being played). Which, yet again, has been shown to work, at least to some extent.

 And yes, the neocons and fellow travellers have demonstrated amazing capacity to be blundering fools or worse. But if they are the only “willing to do something” game in town, they will end up being the people turned to when the next mass attack happens. Nick Cohen makes a similar point about the British state’s predictably ham-fisted response to the domestic manifestations of radical Islam. (A somewhat similar point was also made by Marcia Langton and Noel Pearson {pdf} about the Northern Territory Intervention and progressivist aversion from issues of simple functionality in indigenous communities.) When public speech primarily becomes a game of “I am more virtuous than you” dealing with issues that profoundly affect people’s lives gets lost in the game-playing.

Not that anywhere in the Anglosphere has gone anywhere to the extreme of Sweden in blocking free speech and basically “rigging” national politics to make (Muslim) immigration an absolute non-topic, even as the Swedish police have released a map of 50 “no-go” areas and the ambulance union demands military-style protective gear to enter such areas.

OK, let’s not be nasty to Muslims generically. But let’s actually have an open debate about strains within Islam (both as a religion and as a civilisation), let’s not engage in the massive condescension of refusing to critically examine ideas held by non-white folk, let’s critically consider using religion to project viciously nasty ideas (other than, and much worse than, conservative Christians) and accept that evil is not limited to folk with white skins. Especially as, in the world today, Christians are disproportionately the victims of inter-religious violence.

Let’s also not hide inside a Condescension Virtue Bubble, congratulating oneself on moral courage and perception and the wickedness of dissent; an impoverished perspective that does not seem to have anything to say about homicide, massacre, slavery and vicious misogyny beyond “let’s not be nasty to Muslims”.

Really folks, how would “let’s not be nasty to Germans” seem at the time, or in retrospect, as a preferred response to Nazism?


 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Culture and rationality: or why South Asian call centres can be so infuriating

By Lorenzo

I recently read Kenneth Pollack’s Ph.D dissertation on The Influence of Arab culture on Arab Military Effectiveness (which later became a book). It is a very fine piece of social science which, alas, I doubt any important member of either the Obama or Bush II Administrations has read. The burden of his analysis is that Arab culture strongly militates against having effective junior offices or tactical flexibility. Arab armies can be stubborn in defence (until breakthroughs happen), and can execute meticulously planned and rehearsed offensives, showing considerable individual bravery and unit cohesion. But they are typically very bad at any sort of free-style manoeuvre, innovation or coping with the unexpected. In particular, information flows can be stunningly unreliable, as people hide failure behind false reports.


Providing the Iraqi army with lots of American equipment and training still dramatically failed in the first military test in much the way one might have expected, if anyone in either the Bush II or Obama Administrations had read Pollack’s dissertation. (Particularly the discussion of how the Libyan Army was defeated by Chadian forces.)

I used to describe cultural explanations as the last refuge of the analytically bereft. I am still dubious about cultural explanations which are not properly “fleshed out” but simply “thrown at” analytical problems as sort of analytical “silly putty”–something that can be used to fit any required (analytical) hole. But, as Pollack’s dissertation shows, cultural explanations–done carefully–can be enlightening.

In his conclusion, Pollack makes the following observation:

It is a peculiarly American cultural trait that we dogmatically refuse to accept the importance of culture as an influence on behavior. Only Americans could assume that all men and women are purely rational beings upon whom societal values have only minor influence. For this reason, Americans have tended to dismiss culture as a potential influence on military effectiveness. We assume that any given state will conduct its military operations in exactly the same fashion as we would because we assert that our own behavior–at least in military operations–are governed entirely purely by reason and the objective conditions of our situation, but not by cultural values. As a result, we consistently misread the capabilities and intentions of foreign powers and are baffled when they consistently conduct military operations better, worse, or just different from our own (p.764).

This failure is not so surprising. Those who migrate to the US typically do so to play the game of being American, a game which is open to anyone to play. So, Americans see folk from many different cultures (14% of American residents are foreign born) coming to be Americans and learn to discount culture; or, rather, to expect a generalised “rationality” which cannot see its own emotionality and particularity. (Contemporary scholarship on the history of emotions–Australian centre here–has been revealing how Western post-Enlightenment concepts of rationality are somewhat more emotionally based and culturally particular than is often realised: Hume‘s dictum that reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them has great force.) Australians are perhaps a little more inclined to see differences–if only from an awareness of not being Americans–but some of the same effects apply, as Australia is even more (proportionally, 28% of Australian residents are foreign born) full of people coming to play the game of being Australian.

Cultural exasperations

Which brings me to South Asian call centres. Companies use them because South Asian labour is much cheaper than US, Australian or other Western labour and because modern telecommunication is so cheap, that the saving in labour costs dwarfs the expense in international calls.


There are, however, some (inter-related) problems with this. One is that South Asian labour is also less productive than Western labour. Second, the folk in the call centres simply do not have the same life experiences as the Westerners they are dealing with. Third, differences in culture can lead to very unhappy customers. The notion that one just pays South Asians to do “the same job” as would Westerners falls down if, for cultural reasons, they do not see things the same way as their Western customers: i.e. they do not share a common “commercial rationality”. Such as not actually seeing “the job” itself in the same way.

Indian commercial mythologist/chief belief office Devdutt Pattanaik, in the course of a TED talk on culture (transcript here), says of culture that:

Culture is a reaction to nature, and this understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation from generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals, which are always indifferent to rationality. And so, when you study it, you realize that different people of the world have a different understanding of the world. Different people see things differently — different viewpoints.

He contrasts one-life cultures with many-life cultures:

Take a look. If you live only once, in one-life cultures around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardization, absoluteness, linear patterns in design. But if you look at cultures which have cyclical and based on infinite lives, you will see a comfort with fuzzy logic, with opinion, with contextual thinking, with everything is relative, sort of — (Laughter) mostly. (Laughter)

Reading Kenneth Pollack’s dissertation happened to coincide with both my business and a friend having very annoying experience with two Australian telco’s using South Asian call centres.

Telco non-communications

Case 1:

My business is part of a complicated arrangement with Optus. Last year, we moved our office. We have found it is apparently quite difficult to tell modern corporations your business has moved. Which leads to bills not being sent to where they will be paid, so they aren’t. I had got some calls from Optus, and I kept telling them I was not the person to talk to, since I did not handle those aspects of the business. One Monday, my business partner spent two hours on the phone with Optus and was assured, at the end of the conversation, everything was now fixed.


The next day (Tuesday), Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found later my phone had been cut off. I rang back (on another phone, since my would not connect to Optus), getting a nice lady who could not work out what was the problem, put me on hold and said she would get someone from the Finance area to talk to me: I was on hold for a while (too long, apparently) and dropped into another call centre person, who said the account as fully paid up and re-connected my phone.

The following Monday, Optus rang me while I was driving (so I did not pick up). I found subsequently that my phone had been cut off. I was on the way to a job, so could not deal with it. I got one of my fellow presenters to text my business partner and then, at lunch time, used another presenter’s phone to ring my business partner who was very aware of the problem since his wife’s phone had also been cut off (being part of the same plan), this while deeply personal things were happening and friends needed to be contacted. Our office manager spent a couple of hours on the phone with Optus and was assured at the end of that that everything was fixed. She rang me and told me that if I powered off my phone, it should be fine when I powered it back up. Verily, this was so.

The next day (Tuesday) Optus rang me. For once, I was not driving. We had a pointed discussion about telling them not to ring me and that we had been assured everything was fixed. I gave him my business partner’s phone number, who later texted me back that he had a “pointed discussion” where he was assured everything was fixed (by my count the fourth such assurance in a little over a week) and he assured them that, if there was any recurrence, we were going to the Ombudsman.

So, our experience with a telecommunications company that apparently cannot communicate or handle communication. How much cultural issues played in the recurring screw-up, hard to say.

Case 2

Meanwhile, a friend of mine was moving between states. She rang her telecommunications company, Telstra, to tell them she was moving (and gave them the dates) and enquire about getting internet at her new (non-metropolitan) address. She later found her internet had been cut off (extremely inconvenient given how much information searching, ticket arranging, etc one nowadays does over the net). She rang Telstra and was told that it had been cut off because she was moving. She informed them that yes, but she had given them the dates and still needed internet access. After bouncing around South Asians who were not helpful, she finally got an Australian lady who reconnected her.


She subsequently found that, once again, her internet had been cut off. After more bouncing around South Asians at a call centre, where she had to explain the problem, over and over again, she finally got the same Australian lady who expressed puzzlement about what folk (in Telstra) thought they were doing, and reconnected her.  So, in the middle of packing and arranging an inter-state move, she spent hours on the phone simply because her telco couldn’t apparently cope with the idea of moving at a date they had been informed of. Another telecommunications company that apparently cannot handle communication.

But, of course, communication is more difficult when people do not have the same life experiences; not merely individually, but also collectively. (I am guessing that Indians moving probably do not do very much arranging matters over the internet.) What my friend found added an extra level of annoyance was that the call centre folk she talked to did not use the language of responsibility; she got no sense at all that they thought of themselves as representatives or agents of Telstra. She found talking to the Australian lady much more satisfactory, as she used the language of being responsible representative and then acted on the same.

Culture matters

But that is also a matter of life experience and culture; the things that affect the way you see the world and think about it, other people and yourself in relation to same. Devdutt Pattanaik again:

Indian music, for example, does not have the concept of harmony. There is no orchestra conductor. There is one performer standing there, and everybody follows. And you can never replicate that performance twice. It is not about documentation and contract. It’s about conversation and faith. It’s not about compliance. It’s about setting, getting the job done, by bending or breaking the rules — just look at your Indian people around here, you’ll see them smile; they know what it is. (Laughter) And then look at people who have done business in India, you’ll see the exasperation on their faces. (Laughter) (Applause)

Remembering that even the concept of “the job” can be culturally specific. Kenneth Pollack defines culture as:

as the set of learned, shared values, patterns of behavior, and cognitive processes, developed by a community over the course of its history. … it is acquired behavior, learned by members of the community over the course of their lives (p.38).

Culture matters for individual behaviour because:

Culture influences an individual’s preferences and priorities. By defining what the individual is likely to consider important, culture shapes an individual’s preferred outcome in a given situation. … Similarly, culture will shape the courses of action and methods an individual is predisposed to employ to secure a goal. Culture has a tendency to suggest that certain ways of doing things are better than others, thus culture shapes both ends and means. Finally, culture may actually shape the way in which an individual thinks and how he or she approaches different situations.

In addition to its impact on the individual, culture also influences the behavior of groups by shaping interpersonal behavior. It teaches members of a society how to treat other people and how the individual should behave when part of a group. It establishes what is permissible and what is desirable behavior in public or within smaller groups (Pp38-9).

So culture establishes tendencies in behaviour rather than rigidly determining individual actions; tendencies that, as Pollack points out, will be clearer the larger the groups of people, and the longer the time frame, being examined.

Devdutt Pattanaik talks of one-life versus many-life cultures. But one can also talk of limited versus generalised morality, nicely defined by economists Avner Greif and Guido Tabellini as clan versus city (pdf):

In a clan, moral obligations are stronger but are limited in scope, as they apply only toward kin. In a city, moral obligations are generalized towards all citizens irrespective of lineage, but they are weaker, as identification is more difficult in a larger and more heterogeneous group.

Christianity and Buddhism encourage generalised morality, Confucianism and Hinduism encourage limited morality. Islam is a limited morality with universalised ambit. What folk in the West think of as “common sense” rests to a significant degree on generalised morality and putting yourself in the other person’s situation. Limited morality cultures tend to not have the same “common sense”.


A way to think about culture is a set of economising heuristics where the alignment of one’s perspectives, expectations and preferences with those of others decreases cognitive effort and reduces social friction (i.e. transaction costs). The more said heuristics align with social success (marriage, income, reputation; i.e. have strategic complementarity [pdf]) the more they will be reinforced, and so persevere.

Conversely, persistent and socially significant shifts in pay-offs will lead cultures to change (as they do).

So, you hire folk who continue to live in their culture to deal with practical and personal aspects of people’s lives who live in a quite different culture with quite different collective life experiences. How is that going to work out, in the customer satisfaction stakes?

Helping to create telecommunication companies that handle communication really quite badly, apparently.


 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Domain states, tax states and fiscal states

By Lorenzo

Have been reading a Ph.D dissertation by Wenkai He on the consolidation of a modern fiscal state in C18th England and late C19th Japan and the failure to do so in late Qing China. (The dissertation has since become a book.) The dissertation references history of public finance literature I was previously largely unaware of. The literature covers domain states and fiscal states (what Joseph Schumpeter apparently called tax states). Wenkai He further divides the fiscal state into the traditional and the modern fiscal state. I would prefer to talk of domain statestax states and fiscal states, defined as follows:

The domain state: draws income primarily from state-owned property or enterprises such as estates, forests, mines, railways, monopolies, factories, etc.

The tax state: draws income primarily from taxing economic activity, using its tax revenue mainly as income to meet its current spending, with any borrowing limited to short-term occasional expedients.

The fiscal state: draws income primarily from taxing economic activity, using its tax revenue as a means to leverage more financial resources, either through issue of paper notes or through long-term borrowings or both.

In other words, fiscal states both rely primarily on taxing economic activity and can deficit finance in a significant and recurring way. The first fiscal states were Song China, the first state to issue paper notes, and the Serene Republic of Venice, which issued the first public bond, the prestiti.

There are no longer any tax states. It was an historical form which, with the universal adoption of paper/plastic notes and development of global capital markets, is now extinct. The Roman Empire, the late Sassanian Empire (at least after the reforms of Khosrau I), the Abbasid Caliphate, the Ottoman Empire, were all tax states. As were Ming and Qing China, as the large scale use of paper notes lapsed after the experience of hyperinflation at the end of the Yuan dynasty and of inflation in paper notes at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.

Ruling domains

The domain state was the original form of the state. Pharaonic Egypt, Mesopotamian palace-and-temple complex states, the Khmer Empire, were all domain states. But so was the Spanish Empire after the discovery of the Potosi “silver mountain” and other silver mines. So was the Soviet Union. So are Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela. So are Cuba and North Korea. The domain state is far from extinct.

The odd thing is, I had come to various conclusions about domain states without being aware of the term, though having the term is usefully clarifying.

Domain states come in two basic types; those reliant on a single resource (silver, oil) and those reliant on the extraction of labour surplus (agrarian and industrial domain states).

Both forms are [likely to be]* highly ideological and are the more ideological the more the state dominates economic activity. That is, both have a set of ideas that express the status and dominance of the ruling authority, with public adherence to said ideas signalling loyalty to the authority that is economically dominant (and thus has very extensive power to reward or punish by giving access to, or cutting off access to, the revenues it controls). While cults of personality provide a way to signal loyalty when said loyalty is effectively compulsory. Failure to signal loyalty in the required way is likely to make one a target; a useful and public target for signalling the error of not publicly adhering to the status and dominance game of the ruling authority. Said status and dominance being all the stronger as the ruling authority–due to the scale and independence of its revenue–typically has little need to conciliate or bargain with other sectors in the society.

So, if the domain state is religious, it is likely to be very religious–hence the persistence of the Spanish Inquisition and the particularly virulent religious police of Saudi Arabia and Iran. If secular, it is likely to be intensely ideological–as in the Chavismo of Venezuela, the Castroism of Cuba, the Juche of North Korea. Or the Leninism and Stalinism of the Soviet Union, the Maoism of the People’s Republic.

Extracting surplus

Jayavarman VII likely used his face on his monumental temple.

Domain states reliant on the extraction of labour surplus do so by paying labour well below its marginal product. Pre-industrial (i.e. agrarian) domain states typically did this by tying peasants to the land, although extraction through labour service or corvée was also often used. Hence agrarian domain states are typically addicted to monumentalism: labour service cannot be “stored” from one year to the next, thus it has a “use it or lose it” quality. So a continual series of autocrat-controlled labour service projects signals, manifests and preserves the authority of the autocrat; especially as the monuments themselves typically represent in stone the status and dominance of the autocrat, either directly or by expressing the status-and-dominance symbology.

Industrial domain states extract labour surplus by controlling the borders and blocking exit. Since the state owns all the enterprises, it can ensure that workers are paid below their marginal product. Which means they can clearly do better elsewhere, hence they have to be blocked from leaving so that they can be paid well below their marginal product. It is exactly the same principle as serfs being bound to the land (whether Spartan helots, late Roman coloni or medieval serfs), except on a much vaster scale.

Which is why, when former domain states transition to fiscal states, they open their borders, even if the same regime remains in power (as in China and Vietnam). No longer reliant on paying people below their marginal product, they are no longer anywhere near as motivated to block exit but very keen to encourage transactions that can be taxed–including cross-border transactions. So, Leninist regimes running fiscal states open their borders, while Leninist regimes running (industrial) domain states close them.

States making societies

The state is not an epiphenomenon of society, but a fundamental moulder of it. States make societies, and societies make states. And the more the former is true, the less the latter is,

Stateless societies either pre-date the state or are created in refuge from it. An option which is no longer open. (Sufficiently cheap space travel–if that is possible–may recreate it; but not if the experience of European colonialism is any guide.)

But the tax, and later the fiscal state, has an interest in encouraging transactions to be taxed. Which (along with various factors in organising military force) eventually led, in Europe, to the creation of the bargaining state. Which was so successful, the idea developed that states were an epiphenomenon of society. But that was a false inference from profoundly anomalous experiences in profoundly unusual (in terms of human history) societies.

It is one of the great historical ironies, that the philosophy (Marxism) which most expressed this notion that the state was an epiphenomenon of society–that it reflected and served the interests of the “ruling class”–in its Leninist variant expressed most completely how false this notion was, as Leninist states created the societies they wanted. Not wanted in the sense of some perfect ideological vision, but wanted to serve the interests of the ruling authority of the state. It was control of the state which made them the ruling authority, they did not control the state because they ruled. Their state made their society. Up to the limits of rival states.

The emergence of the state was the emergence of surplus-extracting hierarchy able to mould society into a form that could support it. States originally made societies rather more than societies made states. Since then, the degree to which states made societies, or societies made states, has been highly varied; but states have never been a epiphenomena of society.


* [Small city-states not so much, since they have a de facto cosmopolitanism more or less imposed on them.]

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]