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The EU’s downward spiral

By Lorenzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

States start with violence and expropriation

By Lorenzo

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

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

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

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

Mehmet II entering Constantinople 1453.

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

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

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

A mamluk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cortez organising the replacement of the Aztec state.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathilda of Tuscany, presiding.

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

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

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

Hence the paradox of politics or paradox of rulership:

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

Which Ibn Khaldun was expressed as:

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

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

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

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

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


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

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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

By Lorenzo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paradox can be expressed more generally:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Open and closed state systems: the geography of regional unification

By Lorenzo

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

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

Unification propensities

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

The size of largest and second largest empires.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State systems: how bounded?

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

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

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

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

The closed and controllable state systems of China

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

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

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

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

The Roman exception

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

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

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

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

Success that blocked replication

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

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

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

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


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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

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

By Lorenzo

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

Lenin was happy to adopt the title of Jacobin:

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

And also:

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

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

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

Lenin was also clear on what that political approach involved:

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

In shorthand terms, Leninism was Karl Marx + Robespierre.

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

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

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

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

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

Both correct

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

The arrest of Robespierre.

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

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

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

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

The collectivism of nation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uncooperative nature

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

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

Failed reconciliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loss of asabiyyah

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

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

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

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

Ibn Khaldun (Cairo).

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

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

A doomed project

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

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

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

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


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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

Serfdom versus slavery

By Lorenzo

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

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

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

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

Return to labour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slave-serf spectrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local or imported?

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The enserfment that did not happen

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

Looking at the historical record, two elements seemed crucial:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constraints and returns

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

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


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

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

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

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.]