Saturday, May 8, 2021

When Tocqueville and Marx agreed

 While writing the chapter on Marx and on how he thought about inequality for my new book, I reread most of his writings (and read some that I have not read before). Because Marx’s discussion of class structure –crucial also for his understanding of inequality—is most clearly exposed in the discussion of the 1848 revolution in France contained in The class struggles... and The 18th Brumaire…, I reread them. The class struggles is a compendium of articles, written during the Revolution, for a German newspaper. The 18th Brumaire is Marx’s analysis of the rise and fall of the proletarian power between February 1848 and the assumption of dictatorial powers by Louis Napoleon at the end of 1851. On my new reading The 18th Brumaire seemed much better than I remembered it, perhaps because reading one after another The class struggles and The 18th Brumaire allows to follow the events described by Marx much better, and thus to understand his analysis and conclusions.

It is unfortunate that the English edition that can be found on Amazon is old, with the translation dating from 1897, and with a number of typos and odd turns of phrase. The book absolutely cries out for a new translation and a good editor, because many events mentioned there are not well known and  Marx’s numerous allusions to historical or mythical parallels are difficult to follow unless one knows very well both the French history and Greek myths.

Reading Marx on 1848 reminded me that I read many years ago Tocqueville’s Souvenirs that cover the same period. Moreover, both Marx and Tocqueville write “à chaud” as the events proceeded. Tocqueville’s Souvenirs were written in 1850 and 1851 and published only in 1893; Marx’s The 18th Brumaire was written and published in 1852.

In an excellent introduction to the French edition of Souvenirs and an equally remarkable postface, written respectively by Fernand Braudel and J. P. Mayer (the editor of Tocqueville’s collected works), they both make direct  comparisons between Tocqueville and Marx. J. P. Mayer finds Souvenirs “infinitely superior” although he admits that Tocqueville was never as close in his social analysis to Marx as he was here. Tocqueville (unlike Marx) “does not judge his time using the norms that were not those of the time itself”; moreover, “Tocqueville was a realistic sociologist, Marx was a utopian” writes Mayer. Braudel is not so sure in the comparison, avoids a direct judgment, and seems to put the two works ex aequo.

            Our two authors (Marx and Tocqueville) start from almost opposite personal and ideological positions. Tocqueville was a member of parliament until the 1848 Revolution, and remained in Parliament after the Revolution, having won in his ancestral region (by garnering 110,000 votes out of 120,000) in the first election with a full adult male franchise in history. In 1849, after the second wave of the revolution was crushed, he became briefly the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Marx, thirteen years younger, was a revolutionary exile in France, soon to be expelled to England. Tocqueville directly participated in the events; Marx was an observer and during much of the period in Germany. Tocqueville's Souvenirs are obviously a personal and insider’s view of the revolution; Marx’s are a study done by a revolutionary outsider. Tocqueville was against the revolution, Marx in favor.

            There are three elements however where their views fully converge. They are the nature of the 1830 Louis-Philippe regime, the politics of Parisian proletariat, and the role of peasantry.

            The 1830-48 regime  was, for Marx, the rule of “high finance, large industry, large commerce, i.e. [of] Capital with its retinue of lawyers, professors, and orators…. [It] was but the political expression for the usurped rule of the bourgeois upstarts” (p.26). The power was held by an “aristocracy of finance” legitimized by a monarchy.  

Tocqueville, while being an MP for almost ten years during Louis-Philippe reign and bitterly opposed to the 1848 Revolution, has only damning things to say about the rule of the bourgeoisie between 1830 and 1848:

The particular spirit of the middle class became the general spirit of government; it dominated foreign policy as well as internal affairs: an active spirit, industrious, often dishonest, generally orderly, bold out of vanity and egoism, timid by  temperament, moderate in all things except in its taste for comfort, and mediocre; a spirit which, mingled with that of the people or of the aristocracy, can do wonders, but which alone, will never produce but a government without virtue and without grandeur. (p. 40)

Because it is a very personal book (after all, it is Souvenirs) and because it deals with contemporary France, Tocqueville expresses more clearly than elsewhere his anti-bourgeois aristocratic prejudices. It is notable that the only unambiguously positive portraits in the book, which contains many, are of those socially inferior to Tocqueville (peasants in his ancestral village who are shepherded by Tocqueville to vote en masse for him, and his own man-servant) while the short sketches of the ruling bourgeoisie, other MPs, Tocqueville’s friends and even of his sister-in-law (as well as of Louis-Philippe and Louis Napoleon) are often “deadly” in their detail, where every personal virtue mentioned is followed by a much more serious vice.

The second thing on which Marx and Tocqueville agree is the egalitarianism of the Parisian proletariat. In The 18th Brumaire,  which presents a uniformly negative description of all social groups except for Parisian proletariat, its egalitarian spirit is exalted; in Tocqueville, it is considered unrealistic and dangerous, born of “cupidity and envy”: “I saw in Paris, a society split in two: those who had nothing united in a common envy [convoitise]; those who possessed something, in a common worry [angoisse]” (p. 162).  Yet, Tocqueville makes two extremely important points.

First, he argues that after all other social privileges, from class-based legal inequality to differential taxation, had been abolished by successive revolutions, inequality in property has remained in many people’s minds the only visible obstacle to full equality:  

…and [unequal property] remaining the only obstacle to equality among men, and seemingly its only obvious sign, wasn’t it necessary…that it should be abolished in its turn, or at least that the idea of abolishing it came to the mind of those who did not enjoy it [property]? (p. 130)

The elimination of inequality in property, and perhaps even the very elimination of private property, remained, for some, the last and necessary step toward full equality. Tocqueville, of course, does not approve of it, but notes the logic of political developments leading in that direction.

     Then, in just two paragraphs below he makes an even stronger statement:

I am tempted to say that what we believe are necessary institutions are just institutions to which we are accustomed, and that in matters of social organization, the field of the possible is much vaster than men living in any given society can imagine. (p. 131).

One could just copy that sentence and put it into The 18th Brumaire and nobody would notice anything strange.

The third topic of agreement is the role of peasantry. Marx does not have nice thigs to say about French small landholders who tasted the pleasures of private property after the land was distributed widely after the 1789 Revolution.

The allotment farmers are an immense mass, whose individual members live in identical conditions without however entering into manifold relations with one another. Their method of production isolates them from one another, instead of drawing them into mutual intercourse. This isolation is promoted by the poor means of communication in France, together with the poverty of the farmers themselves. Their field of operation, the small allotment of land that each cultivates, allows no room for a division of Labor, and no opportunity for the application of science; In other words it shuts out manifoldness of development, diversity of talent, and the luxury of social relations. (p. 78).

He argues moreover that they were the main supporters of Louis Napoleon when he decided to take power.  Tocqueville does not cover this last issue because it falls outside the chronological limits of his book, but he agrees that the opinions in the countryside were very different from those in Paris.

A certain demagogic agitation reigned among the city workers, it is true, but in the countryside, the property-owners, whatever was their origin, their antecedents, their education, their very property [biens], became closer to each other…Property, among all those who enjoyed it, became a kind of fraternity. The richest were like older cousins, the less rich like younger cousins; but they all considered each other like brothers, having all the same interest in defending their inheritance. Because the French Revolution [of 1789]  has extended the possession of land to infinity, the entire [rural] population seemed to be included in that huge family. (p. 146).

            Thus despite markedly different preferences and points of views, the convergence between Tocqueville and Marx on these three important points in the study of the same historical event is remarkable--and worth noting.

-------------------------

The references are from Tocqueville, Souvenirs, Gallimard, 1978 and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, translated by D D L,  September 1897, no publisher.

 

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Marx in Amerika

   Karl Marx is back in the West. After having done a tour du monde that took him from a German émigré philosopher to a maître à penser of German social-democracy to global revolutionary thinker, his influence is back in the parts of the world that he studied and where he lived. The current crisis of capitalism, provoked at first by the financial sectors’ swindles (something which would not have surprised Marx), and then exacerbated by rising inequality, pandemic and seemingly unsolvable climate issues is making Marx’s readings more relevant than they were to several past generations, and his ideas more attractive to the young.

But is Marx’s capitalism at all similar to the capitalism of today? Can his ideas be relevant now, more than a century since they were formulated and during which time the world’s per capita income was multiplied by seven, and US per capita income by more than eight times?

The main differences between the classical capitalist world of the 19th century and today is not however that wages are higher (Marx would not have been much surprised since he held that wages reflect “moral-historical” conditions of each country) or that the welfare state is much broader. The main differences are in the nature of the ruling class, and the effects on the middle classes in the globally dominant countries.

Today’s top of income distribution in advanced economies consists of people who have high incomes both from labor and capital. This was not the case in the past. Landlords and capitalists were the top class under classical capitalism, and they hardly had any incomes other than what they derived from their property. Many of them would have probably found it unthinkable or even insulting to complement their incomes by wages.

This has changed. Currently, among the richest ten percent of Americans, one-third also belong to the richest capital owners and richest workers. Less than fifty years ago, that share was less than one in five; previously, probably even lower (Berman and Milanovic). This makes the class conflict very different from what it was. There are no longer two groups, markedly different by their income levels and the origin of that income, whether it was obtained through work or property; only the former (inequality) remains, and in an attenuated state. Moreover instead of the books dealing with the leisure class (Thorstein Veblen, Nikolai Bukharin), coupon-clipping elite (“to grow richer was nothing more than a passive activity for the wealthy”, wrote Stefan Zweig about the pre-World War I European rich), the top class today is more likely to be chided for working too much: “[t]oday’s Stakhanovites are the one-percenters” in words of  Daniel Markovits in “The Meritocracy Trap”.

The hard-working rich who either inherit their original capital or build it up through savings over their working lives, marry each other, and play an increasing political role through political donations, are a new elite. They wish to transmit their advantages to offspring by paying expensively for the best education. That they have succeeded is seen in numerous studies that find decreasing inter-generational income mobility. Thus both the origin of elite’s income and their behavior are different from the capitalist class with which Marx was familiar.

The second major difference is international and has to  do with globalization. In the latter part of the 19th century, British real wages were increasing. Marx’s explanation for the increase was largely based on hegemon-led globalization, the Pax Britannica. The British elite was willing to share some “crumbs from the table” from its imperial plunder with lower classes, and to use workers’ rising standard of living as a tool to exact quiescence or sullen acceptance of the existing order.

Would not then Marx think that the US elite, exercising today a similar role to that of the British, would pursue similar policies? He would have been surprised that it did not. The American elite was however largely indifferent as its own county’s middle class was hollowed out by globalization, and middle-class incomes kept stagnant. Unlike the British elite, the American elite probably did not think that its political power could be challenged from below. Whether it thought so because it believed that it would be able to manipulate the political process or because it thought that the losers of globalization would never be able to get organized, or perhaps because it was blinded by its ideology, is impossible to tell. All elements, and probably many more, played a role.

But the awakening came in the form of so-called populist protests in France, Spain, UK, Germany and in the United States too where Donald Trump mounted, perhaps largely by accident, a coalition of malcontents. It took a special effort by the elite and a worldwide pandemic to take the control back.

These two developments show how much today’s capitalism in leading capitalist countries has evolved. The developments are ambiguous, from political or philosophical perspective. Breaking the explicit class distancing and having an upper class that does not privilege its own nationals, could be considered an advance. But having  an upper class whose position is invulnerable to the movements in the labor market (because it can fall upon its capital assets) and in the stock market (because it has high level of skills and high labor earnings), and is keen to transmit these advantages across generations, may show the same developments in a much less positive light.

 

Monday, April 19, 2021

From a people’s game to a game fit for the rich only

 I should feel happy. I got it right. The entire Chapter 5 of “Capitalism, Alone”  is an exposition of increasing commodification of everything, including our leisure time and ordinary lives. In last November’s conversation with Forbes magazine, I said that a pan-European soccer league is inevitable: clubs are run as pure money-making machines, there is just too much potential money lying around, and the top clubs will insist on getting more exclusive, and mostly playing against equally strong teams. I also thought that it is only a matter of time until the international football dies. Club owners do not want to expose players for whom they have paid millions of euros to unnecessary effort and possible injures playing in games that matter little and financially bring nothing. Why should we expect that some parts of our lives would remain not entirely commercialized, when everything else is, and we ourselves eagerly participate in this huge commercialization? We do it by renting our homes, cars, signing prenuptial and non-disclosure agreements (with the latter thus selling our right to free speech—for the right price).

Is football/soccer any better? The answer is “no”. It is exactly what we want it be: commercialized to an extreme. It is doing exactly what the relentless expansion of hyper-commercialized capitalism requires.

So, should we give up complaining?

Perhaps. But even if we do so, we cannot not realize that what the twelve clubs are proposing to do is still a quantum leap in that regrettable (and to some extent shameful) direction. While increasing commercialization of soccer has been going on for several decades, soccer has tried, at least formally, to preserve the pretense of openness. Even when the Champions’ League (CL) changed its format from being open to best clubs of all European countries equally, to allocating more spots to the top leagues, it did not entirely shut the door. Small clubs in big leagues could still hope to make it to the CL through good performance in the home league; big clubs in small leagues could still hope, that, after several grueling stages of classification, they could make it to the CL. The door was largely closed to an equal competition between big and small clubs, but it was not entirely shut.

Now, it is sealed.  We shall have 12 or 16 or 18 teams compete forever amongst themselves, without a fear of relegation and without incentive, or rather possibility, for anyone else to make it into this august group. It is unnecessary even to point out how far it is from what football/soccer has meant in the past century, more exactly from its very codifications as an international sport. It was often the vehicle for political, social, economic or national aspirations; it was the meeting place when all other venues were closed; it was the place where you could chant anti-government slogans when elsewhere you would be chased by the police or thrown in jail. It was a place for social mobility if you were a player, or for social mixing if you were on the stands. It was a place where people would stand for a couple of hours under the rain or snow to watch players they loved. It created not only great footballers, but valued people with individuality, with opinions and beliefs. Maradona was not only great because he scored many amazing  goals (including with his hand) but because he refused to shut up, to play the game of extreme commercialization where players are paid to run around and never to utter any opinion. When they are role models the way that automatons are.  

The beginning of the Super League puts a formal end to all of it. It formalizes indeed the stage to which soccer has regretfully come. It is not a strike out of the blue; it is just a much predicted and foreseen storm. We shall have, like in tennis, a league of robots, controlled by their international kleptocratic pay-masters. They will play only in selected countries (four in the case of tennis, perhaps three or four in football), in selected stadiums, in front of selected audiences, permitted to say only the most trivial platitudes. It will be the end of football as it tried to be for more than a century. It will be a sort of a game that we can play on our computers, with players who just seem to be live creatures.  

Monday, March 29, 2021

License to kill: “The World Turned Upside Down”—a laudatory review

 Yang Jisheng’s “The world turned upside down” (whose methodological approach I reviewed here) is an extraordinary rich book. The ten-year period that it covers, from 1966 to 1976, was an amazingly turbulent period in Chinese history, with implications that do not carry over only for China to the present, but that have resonance  (and precedents) in the rest of the world.

When it comes to the narrative alone, Yang’s book is fascinating. It is impossible to describe in a short review the chaos wrought by the Cultural Revolution that Yang studies not only chronologically, but in various parts of China. A part of the challenge of describing what was happening lies with the decentralized nature of anarchy and violence that engulfed the whole country. The reader often thinks of analogies with Stalin’s Great Terror, but the differences are perhaps even more telling. While the Great Terror was a centralized terrorization of certain groups and individuals, often specifically selected by Stalin, the Cultural Revolution was a decentralized permission to settle scores given to everybody. Thus the nature of conflict varied from one locality to another, from one town to another.

The beginnings in the Summer of 1966 were limited to high-school and university students and were almost entirely Beijing-based. It was a permission, even encouragement, given to high-school kids to take over schools and universities, berate and humiliate teachers, and do as they please. If one were to do the same thing anywhere in the world, the results would have been the same: the kids would enjoy “turning the world upside down”, as the young Nero and Commodus did. At that early stage, the attacks were mostly directed against “the five black classes”. Offspring of high government and party officials (all studying at various Beijing universities) were often in the lead, using a bizarre “blood lineage” theory that, they argued, gave them the right to rule in virtue of being of the right class (and genetic) background.

The escalation was not only geographical, as the student movement widened to cover all of China, but “sectoral” as well. Mao first authorized the movement to spread among workers, and encouraged the alliance of revolutionary students and workers (a thing which, by the way, eluded the “revolution” in France only a year later), and finally –despite the strong opposition from the military—allowed the “support-the-left” movement to sow havoc in the Army as well. The military was asked to supply weapons to the left factions, or to ignore such factions’ stealing or simply taking the weapons themselves.

The country thus within some twelve months descending into a full chaos created a bewildering number of factions with quasi identical names (e.g. “The Red Alliance” against “The Revolutionary Alliance” in Daoxian, p. 351) all fighting each other in order to further Mao Zedong thought. “Thousands of large-scale armed conflicts throughout the country resulted in deaths of more than a hundred thousand people” (p. 228). At the risk of simplification, it could be said that the factions can be divided into two groups, and Yang uses the two groupings consistently through the book: rebel and conservative factions.

The rebel faction was originally started by the children of the nomenklatura but then gradually was taken over by malcontents, low-paid workers, and those with grievances, or just a taste for violence, that is, those who had most to gain from anarchy as well as by those who ideologically believed in “the continuous revolution”. As Yang explains,

“A genuine rebellion requires taking  political risk, but the old Red Guards [the original rebel faction] with their privileged backing, had little to fear from attacking teachers…When the situation of the Cultural Revolution changed and the parents of the Red Guards were attacked as capitalist roaders, the old Red Guards openly protected the cadres and attacked the rebel factions, and in that way become a conservative faction in name as well as practice, however they might  disavow the label” (p. 151).

Was the rebel faction people’s faction? The negotiations in Shanghai between the rebel faction of the workers and the city government eerily resemble those between Solidarity and Polish government, some 13 years later. So, workers in Shanghai and workers in Gdansk united? The difference was that in Shanghai workers had the support from the top, namely from Mao, who in 1967 “allowed China’s people to enjoy the freedom of association enshrined in the constitution, [and] mass organizations proliferated” (p. 149). So, revolution of freedom, or “revolution because of lack of freedom”? Moreover “The Sixteen Articles [the CPC rules on handling the Cultural Revolution] prevented party committees from attacking the rebel masses, while giving the masses the freedom and confidence to rebel, and the higher the rank of the leader denounced, the more revolutionary the critic was considered to be” (p. 154).

Against the rebel factions were arrayed the conservative factions, supported by most of the top military (old marshals whom Mao alternatively cajoled and berated), the government apparatus, health and education workers, factory managers, and all those who wanted to impose some kind of order over a society that was looking more Hobbesian by the day.

Yang’s unstated, but clear, objective in the book is to overturn the current official narrative. The officially-sanctioned view of the Cultural Revolution is that most of the crimes were committed by the “rebel faction” and that eventually the country was saved thanks to those who managed to ensure the return to normal life. But, Yang writes, “mainstream public opinion has blamed all the evils of the Cultural Revolution on the rebel faction, but the vast majority of victims died while the rebel faction was suppressed under the new order of military and administrative bureaucratic control” (p. 230). In that revision of official history neither Liu Shaoqi, who initially, whether for opportunistic or genuine reasons, supported the Cultural Revolution, nor (especially) Zhou Enlai are spared at times scathing comments. (Deng Xiaoping hardly appears in the story.)

The “new order”—which basically means a major turning point in the Cultural Revolution—occurred when Mao himself personally witnessed the chaos of pitched armed battles in Wuhan in August 1967, and had to flee the city. It was followed by investigations and suppression of the rebel faction, linked to the May 16 [1967] incident when the rebel faction directly accused Zhou Enlai.

The three central chapters of the book (chapters 16-18) describe in gory detail the enormity of the massacres. “The cleansing of party ranks” gives a review of local campaigns against various class enemies (who in many cases were the same people who previously themselves conducted campaigns of cleansing of the enemies); the next chapter describes the cases of famous victims, mostly scientists and old party members (in a way strongly reminiscent of Roy Medvedev’s “Let History Judge”) and the most gut-wrenching chapter describes the appalling massacred conducted at the local level by whatever faction managed to do it against neighbors. The randomness and brutality of killings (including ritualistic murders and cannibalism) is both shocking, and not entirely unexpected for those who know, from history, that humans freed from any constraint and given a license to kill, will often do so. We are not there in the presence of a systematic targeted killing, as performed by the Nazis and Stalin’s Great Terror, but of decentralized massacres common to civil wars.

It is a book that anyone interested in Chinese or communist history should read. But it is a book whose main messages are about the role of government, freedom from constraint, and human nature.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

"The World Turned Upside Down"—a critical review

 This may be the most difficult book review to write. I have decided to break it into two parts. Writing it is difficult because one has to have huge admiration for Yang Jisheng, a former journalist, now a historian, who has amassed an incredible amount of information about the political maneuvering, personal relations, events and, most importantly,  victims of the Cultural Revolution and presented all of this in his new book “The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Cultural Revolution” (published in English only two months ago). Yang reminds me of those few courageous authors, indignant by the  inequities of communism who, beginning with Djilas, then the Medvedev brothers and even Solzhenitsyn himself, or Volkogonov in his biographies of Lenin and Stalin, have written valuable testimonials about the system.

But, alas, most of them were almost fully ignorant of political science, economics and historiography. Yang is perhaps an extreme example: on the one hand, extraordinary evidence that he has collected (I think that the book must contain several thousand names of people involved), and on the other hand, equally extraordinary absence of any thinking about that evidence. The book is thus a succession of events, many of them tragic, conferences and rallies, gossip and innuendoes, intrigues and betrayals. Yang is the type of writer whom  Cicero two thousand years ago dismissively called “narratores rerum”.

So, in my first review I will focus on these defects and problems.

Yang’s explanation for many events during the Cultural Revolution, including ritualistic vows of fealty to Mao, is “totalitarianism”. It is repeated a number of times. It is a cool word to say, but the Cultural Revolution was anything but totalitarianism. It might have been started by Mao (although I will explain later that Yang never tells us why) but while totalitarianism is absence of agency by individuals, the Cultural Revolution was the opposite: millions of individuals had agency. They had too much of it. The Cultural Revolution was not totalitarianism, but its very reverse: Hobbesian world where everyone fought  everyone else. The most tragic revelation about the Cultural Revolution (an observation that Yang does not make) is that it shows us what the withdrawal of the state and government does: it reveals human nature at its worst. Without state’s monopoly on violence, we would simply go out fighting each other. Forever. Imagine the United States, when suddenly the President, Congress, all politicians, judges, and police simply decide to go home and never return to their jobs. Within a week, the country would be in a “Cultural Revolution”. (Actually, with Katrina, it took less than a week for New Orleans to descend into the “Cultural Revolution”.) China during the Cultural Revolution was not Stalinism redux, but Libya today.

Under totalitarian regimes, every individual, spontaneous action is proscribed. Writing on your own a letter of support to Stalin was as likely to land you in jail as writing a letter criticizing Stalin. Not so under the chaos of the Cultural Revolutions: everyone wrote big-character posters, organized rallies, attacked “traitors”, called themselves a follower of “Mao Zedong’s line”. It is just that nobody knew what that line was today or what it might become tomorrow. Neither did Mao.

But if not totalitarianism, was it autocracy? That too is difficult to justify in standard terms. Mao did not rule like an autocrat; he ruled like a God; which meant that he appeared just from to time, when needed. Yang shows that Mao, uninterested in management of the country and the economy, and even in foreign affairs, simply delegated all of day-to-day running of the country to various people, mostly to Zhou Enlai. But even saying “delegated” is an exaggeration. Mao just ignored the running of the country, and whoever managed to get to it, did. If, in this management, “the delegate” did something that eventually displeased Mao, he could end up dismissed, expelled from  the party, wearing a dunce hat, being driven to suicide or pushed by mob from a tall building. But Mao’s ruling style was not the style of a usual autocrat. Mao was neither a Stalin who worked 12 hours per day and personally authorized (or ordered) executions during the Great Terror, nor a Hitler with his obsessive control of every detail. People were persecuted or killed without Mao having had the slightest idea what is happening to them.  In daily affairs of government, Mao’s involvement was significantly less than, for example, the involvement of Joe Biden, Angela Merkel, let alone that of an autocrat like Vladimir Putin. He would disappear for weeks, sometimes for months; would come to Beijing without his “closest collaborators” being aware of it. We do not even seem to know how Mao was spending his days: was he writing poetry, editing Central Committee’s communiques, sleeping, having long meals, sharing bed with mistresses—but whatever he was doing he was not running the government in the way governments are commonly run by autocrats.

Perhaps the closest parallel that we have is the power of a prophet (Weber’s charismatic power?). The prophet does not need to show up dally—perhaps it is even better for him than he does not. But prophets are not normally prototypes of autocratic leaders.

Then, why did he start the Cultural Revolution? Yang does not tell us. There are some very vague hints that it was a revenge for Mao’s  relative loss of power after the failed Great Leap Forward. Was it a pay-back time for Peng Zhen and Liu Shaoqi? But to get rid of the two, Mao did not need to turn 800 million people upside down, nor to have Collective No. 6 fight Collective No. 5 with sticks and stones (and at times firearms) in X’ian or Shanghai. Another possibility is his fear of being replaced by a within-Party coup as happened to Khrushchev in 1964. It is possible, but we are never provided any evidence nor a narrative why the Cultural Revolution might have been a solution to that fear. It is also possible, Yang mentions in passing, that it was sheer idealism: “permanent revolution” and the desire to recreate the Paris Commune. But many lovers of the Paris Commune (Lenin was buried wrapped up in its flag) did not see the need to start the war of all against all in order to replay it.

Since this is a critical review, let me just end in the same spirit. The book suffers from many editing problems. There is, for example, a direct quote from Mao that is, midway, suddenly interrupted by the introduction of the third person, “Mao observed”. There are typos. There are statements in the introduction that are plainly contradicted by the text. The quality of American publishing has steadily deteriorated—probably under the pressure of time and money-making. This was a super difficult book to translate and edit (the translators had to convince the author to drop four chapters from an already very lengthy book). I can only hope that the translation was better than the editing.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

“The Byzantine Republic” and the Chinese Empire: Some similarities?

 Several years ago, Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics, published a book with an intriguing title “The Byzantine Republic”. The book attracted my attention, not the least because of its title, when I saw it at my publisher’s offices; for my refereeing services I was paid in kind—by that book.

I liked the book although I was not convinced by its main theses. What are they? Kaldellis argues that the Eastern Roman Empire (often known as the Byzantine Empire) does not naturally follow ideologically from the “troubled century” of civil wars and defeats of Romans where most of the links to the “old” Roman empire were broken. It does not represent a shift towards a new Christian and autocratic government. According to Kaldellis, on the contrary,  when the Roman Empire was stabilized thanks to Constantine in the 4th century, it went back to the seemingly “republican” rule that existed not only in Republican Rome but also during the Principate. Kaldellis uses the term “republic” not in its current meaning of non-monarchical rule, but in its etymological meaning of the rule of the people. Thus defined republic is indeed, as Kaldellis writes, invoking among others Cicero, Cassius Dio and Rousseau (“la volonté générale”), compatible with monarchical rule. In such terminology, the Netherlands is a republic, but North Korea is not. (Note that the idea survives in today’s United States when people quote Benjamin Franklin by saying—especially during the Trump era to remind the then-president--“we are living in a republic”. They do not thereby mean a trivial fact that the US is not a monarchy, but a more substantive one that it is ruled by people.) In fact, to the term “republic”, Kaldellis prefers its Greek equivalent “politeia”.

Terminology is the easy part of Kaldellis thesis. A more difficult part is to argue for a continuity between the Principate and the Empire after year 313.  And the most difficult part is to argue that Eastern Roman emperors were constrained by popular will. Continuity is hard to prove, and also counter-intuitive given the enormous revolutions that occurred during the chaos of the 3rd century and under the “oriental-despotic” Dominate. Unlike the definition of the Byzantine Empire which sees it as “Christian by religion, Greek by language, and Roman by government”, Kaldellis insists on its Roman (Latin) character—by pointing out to the official use of Latin well into the 11th century, and the population’s self-description as “Romanoi”.

The second part of the thesis (popular mandate) is demonstrated by Kaldellis by the frequency of imperial changes (often violent), and the attention that was at least verbally proffered by the emperors for their subjects’ feelings or opinions. Here, in the absence of any formal mechanism which made emperors subject to popular will, Kaldellis’ approach seems to me the weakest. One could argue that similar “checks and balances” in the form of rulers being killed or overthrown, or rulers claiming a popular mandate, were the “bread and butter” of every autocratic rule. It is difficult to see—despite Kaldellis’ best effort—how it was different in the Byzantine Empire.

But I would rather defer to other, more competent and knowledgeable, critiques such as here and here. The book is certainly iconoclastic (may one use the term in this context without sounding a bit silly?) and has attracted, and will attract, lots of attention.

What the book made me think however is the similarity between Byzantium and China in both (1) Keldellis’ idea of a politeia and the “mandate of heaven” and (2) social structures. Now, the Byzantine Empire lasted for at least 900 years, and the Chinese Empire for more than 2 millennia. So what exactly to compare? It may be useful, perhaps, to focus on the Byzantine Empire under the Macedonian dynasty, and especially at its peak under Basil II (around the year 1000) and on China under the Sung dynasty. How similar/different were Constantinople and Hangzhou?

I have written about Basil II Byzantium here, creating the first social table for Byzantium and trying to calculate the subsistence basket, overall real income and  to estimate income inequality. The table on p. 465 gives the social structure of Byzantium. Let me summarize it. In urban areas (around 10% of overall population and a quarter of total income): (1) beggars and “marginals”, (2) unskilled workers, (3) qualified workers, professional solders and craftsmen, and (4) important officials, judges, “strategoi” (high military officials) and wealthy merchants. Group (4) that accounted  for about ½ of a percent of the total population included civilian and military nobility that were constantly vying for power with emperors (and this leads us to Kaldellis’ hypothesis). Their per capita incomes were some 50 times the estimated mean income; for comparison today’s top ½ percent in the US has an average (after-tax) income that is nine times greater than the mean.

In rural areas (90% of total population), there were (1) small landholders (most numerous but decreasing in numbers), (2) tenant-farmers, (3) owners of latifundias, (4) wage workers on latifundias, and (5) slaves. The social structure in rural areas was, in the 10th and 11th centuries, rapidly changing in favor of large landholders. Because of excessively high taxes peasant-owners were abandoning their farms to become tenants on large estates. Landholders were taxed on their land, but once they became tenants they were tax-free; although obviously they had to pay land-rent. But it seems that for many small farmers this was cheaper than paying taxes. There were even laws that prevented, or tried to reverse, the trend toward land concentration.

This was a very unequal social structure—such that practically the entire surplus above the subsistence was appropriated by high income classes. But this structure is, I think, fairly similar to China’s under Sung. The emperor on the top, surrounded by civilian and military nobility (exactly like in Byzantium), a mandarinate (again similar in its function to bureaucracy in Byzantium), and lots of small land-owning peasantry interspersed with merchants and large landowners.  In neither society was there the standard structure of West European feudalism: serfdom (that is, very few land-owning peasants) and a nobility relatively independent of the ruler. Bureaucracy which emanates from the emperor and rules the realm was, probably, much stronger in both Byzantium and China than in Western Europe (e.g., France or Spain). This is somewhat contested in the case of Byzantium by authors who believe that the Empire was “feudal” or was moving in that direction.

As I argued here, there were probably no endogenous forces of capitalist development in Byzantium—or for that matter in the Roman Empire (a point argued more or less forcefully by Moses Finley, Michael Rostovtzeff, Walter Scheidel, Bob Allen, and Aldo Schiavone but disputed by Peter Temin).  If there were, a millennium would have been, one guesses, a sufficient time for them to emerge. By analogy one may wonder if such forces existed in medieval China. But beyond that question, a more thorough comparative study of China and Byzantium would be, I believe, highly useful and might yield new insights.  

  

 

 

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The influence of the Soviet economic model and the lessons for China

 In 1967, at the half-centennial of the Russian Revolution, the Royal Institute of international Affairs (RIIA) in London published a book “The Impact of the Russian Revolution” with a star cast of authors. The book’s objective was to assess how internationally influential was the Russian Revolution. A very long and brilliant introduction was written by Arnold Toynbee. Neil McInnes wrote about the Soviet influence on trade unions and political parties in Western Europe, Hugh Seton-Watson on nationalism and imperialism, Peter Wiles on economic influence of the Soviet model, and Richard Lowenthal on the political (authoritarian party) influence of the Bolsheviks.

It does not seem that being published by RIIA was unrelated to some of the themes running through the book. Several authors (including Toynbee) tend to regard the communist ideology, the modified Marxism as defined by Lenin, as a particularly mischievous trick whereby Russians were able to appeal to the colonized nations of the world and bring the British Empire to an end.  The Russian Revolution is seen as an episode of the Great Game. As Toynbee writes: “Marxism affected the mood of the non-western peoples when these were ripe for revolting against the western dominance. It is a creed of western origin that indicts the western establishment. It is thus able to express their will to revolt against the West in terms that, being western, have prestige”.

Although the authors seem melancholic about the outcome (the British Empire being, In their view, a preferred option to independence), they do have a case. Lenin’s reconfiguration of Marxism to combine left-wing policies with anti-imperialism, including the alliance with national bourgeoisies, so long as they were anti-colonialist, was probably one of the most important events in the 20th century (a century not lacking in important events). The discussion of the relationship between the original Marxism, its modification by Lenin, Lenin’s “Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism” and the role of China—as the most important country where communism, beginning in the 1920s, played its anti-imperialist card both with the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China—is present in all five contributions.

The level of that discussion, as well as of the others, is very high. Hugh Seton-Watson, a renowned student of nationalism, has an excellent chapiter on Marxist approach to the “nationality question” and how it was “solved” (as we know now, through dissolution of the countries) in the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Peter Wiles, who likewise had studied communist economies for years, has a first-rate, if whimsical, chapter (which I will discuss below). Richard Lowenthal discusses the model of the Leninist totalitarian state. Neil McInnes’ chapter on the Soviet influence on Western European politics is well informed but marred by his excessive anti-communist zeal.  A Soviet is being seen under every bed, a nefarious hand of secret agents present in every strike.

I would like to cover in greater detail Peter Wiles’ economics chapter. Let me start with his most interesting point. Overall, Wiles argues, Soviet influence was very limited and the main reason is not that the product was badly “packaged” (the main lines of the economic “product”—nationalize, centralize, plan—were very clear) but that “the salesmanship” was dishonest: those who wanted to apply the Soviet model were not told by the Soviets what were the real pitfalls and problems, things to beware and fix, but were presented a sanitized version of events that was not helpful at all. Contrasting American and Soviet influence in the Third World, in a language that may be considered somewhat ribald in a more puritan world of today, Wiles (I think rightly) summarizes it thus:

[The Soviet technician] keeps himself apart after hours, haunts his own embassy, and generally fails to enter into the spirit of things. His descriptions of the life back home are constrained and peculiar. Compared with the drunken, bottom-pinching, tax-dodging, and perhaps racist American technician, his behavior is faultless, and this is just what is wrong.  

 

Where, according to Wiles, Soviet experience did have an influence was  in placing economic growth at the forefront, not only through the first-ever macro models of growth that were developed in the Soviet Union, but because success in growth informed the competition between the two systems.

Wiles then reviews several concrete policy experiences as to study the extent to which Soviet example mattered. The most important influence was on Mexico, on Lazaro Cardenas’s agricultural cooperatives (ejidos) that mimicked Soviet kolkhozes even if their importance was always small: at the time of writing, only 4% of agricultural labor force worked in collectivized ejidos. The complicated relationship between Cardenas and the Soviet Union is nicely analyzed—including  such interesting, and rather unlikely, details that Cardenas managed to be Trotsky’s protector, to condemn Soviet attack on Finland in 1940, and then to become the laureate of the Stalin Prize in 1956 (under Khrushchev).

The second example of the Soviet influence is on UK nationalizations after the War. Physical target planning by Labour in 1946-47 is seen as directly following the Soviet model. As Wiles writes: “The choice of things to nationalize—coal, iron and steel, railways, the central bank, gas and electricity, much of road transport—resembles strongly Lenin’s choice in 1917 (not [emphasis in the original] the wholesale nationalizations of 1918)”. However that influence quickly waned because the use of physical targets proved inefficient.

The next case is India. The point in case is the famous First Five-Year plan and the use of Marx’s schemes of extended reproduction and his two-sector model (production of the means of production, and of consumption goods). That influence came through a common, both to the early Soviet planners and people around Mahalanobis, interest in economic growth as a way to catch-up, and most effectively to do so through investment in production of the means of production.   Other international influences however were  more important: Charles Bettelheim, Ragnar Frisch, R. M. Goodwin, and Oskar Lange.

The next two cases (Ghana under Nkrumah and Guinea under Sekou Touré) are not taken very seriously, the Soviet conditions being substantially different from those in Africa. “The economy [in Ghana] just ran on as it had under British rule, with much more government expenditure and corruption, and rather more nationalization”.

Wiles’ discussion of the Soviet influence (fifty years after the Revolution) is instructive not only for historical reasons—especially now when the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia is capitalist, but because it helps us think about the potential Chinese influence. The main problem faced by Chinese “export” of its model to the rest of the world is, as I argued in “Capitalism, Alone”, the difficulty of “packaging” it into several simple and mutually-reinforcing policies. The reason for that is that the model was developed heuristically, by trial-and-error and reflects specific Chinese conditions that are difficult to replicate elsewhere. To see that compare (whatever you think of it) the simplicity and internal logic of the Washington Consensus to any possible policy combination suggested by the Chinese experience. To say that the state should have a greater role in the control of credit or that it should stimulate ICTs does not really tell to (say) Tanzanian government anything new nor does it explain how it should do it.

China might have benefited from its experimental approach where reforms were tested in different areas (e.g., dual-track pricing policy) or different territorial units, but that was made possible by the size of the country and at the same time ability of the Party to keep centralized control. This is what Chenggang Xu called “Regionally Decentralized Authoritarianism”. But how can Laos, Egypt,  Paraguay or Serbia apply such an approach? It is not at all clear. So far only Ethiopia seemed to have benefited from Chinese experience. If China plans to “export” its model, the way that the USA and the Soviet Union did, she needs to define it in a way that, at least in principle, may be applicable under very different conditions.

It is here that we encounter the main difference between the Soviet Union then and China today. The peak of Soviet influence was from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The model was consistent, but the sellers were dishonest (as argued by Wiles). After around 1965, it became obvious that the product itself was deficient, so the demand declined. For China, however, we all observe that the product works. But we do not fully know why, nor how to apply it elsewhere. And the seller is not really telling us much as he insists on “Chinese specificities”. So long as one puts “Chinese” first, and not “general”, the model may be admired, but it will not be imitated.