Thursday, December 31, 2015

The year at this blog in retrospect

The Middle East was a main focus here this year.  Among other developments, the Iran nuclear deal, the ongoing Syrian civil war (including the question of strategy against ISIS), and the resurgence of violence on the West Bank (engaged in by both sides though conditioned by the seemingly now-permanent occupation) received some attention.  The four guest posts by Peter T. were a highlight: see here, here, here, and here.     

Other posts from this past year perhaps worth mentioning include a note about Machiavelli and mercenaries and a reflection on 'critical junctures'.   

Finally, thanks to the readers and commenters whose contributions produced some good comment threads in 2015

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The "subjective impact" of inequality

In discussing post-1949 China in her classic States and Social Revolutions (1979), T. Skocpol quotes (on p.274) a passage from a 1975 article by Martin K. Whyte on how post-revolutionary China addressed the issue of inequality.  The Chinese regime, according to Whyte, aimed not so much to eliminate income and other inequalities as to "mute [their] consequences."  In this 40-year-old article, Whyte wrote:
People in high positions in China are viewed as entitled to certain kinds of differential rewards and authority, but at the same time flaunting authority or engaging in conspicuous consumption is tabooed. There is thus a concerted effort to blunt the subjective impact which existing inequalities might have on the initiative and dedication of the have-nots in whose name the revolution was fought.
The notion of the subjective impact of inequalities clearly relates to inequality's tendency, in some cases, to undermine the social bases of self-respect (as discussed in the comment thread attached to this post).  My impression is that conspicuous consumption is no longer especially discouraged in China; some might consider that one of the acceptable prices to pay for having escaped the more destructive aspects of Maoism, but it's interesting that, 40 years ago at any rate, Chinese policy was apparently very conscious of what Whyte labeled the subjective impact of inequality.  

Though Skocpol thought China was different from post-revolutionary France and Russia in this respect, I'm not so sure.  The addressing of pretty much everyone as "citizen" after 1789, to take one example, might have been one way in which the new French republic tried to, quoting Whyte in this different context, "mute the consequences" of the inequalities that remained after the Revolution. Just a stray thought...

Monday, December 28, 2015

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Weber and the switchmen

The title of this post could be the name of a rock band, but it's not.  Earlier today I was looking briefly at an almost decade-old review (by Peter Thomas in New Left Review, Sept/Oct 2006) of Joachim Radkau's 1000-page biography Max Weber: die Leidenschaft des Denkens [the passion of Thought] (and don't get the idea that I have any German because, regrettably, I really don't).  And just now, in writing a comment at another blog, I was prompted, perhaps (though who knows) because of having looked at the Thomas review this morning, to mention the passage in "The Social Psychology of the World Religions" in which Weber compares ideas to "switchmen."

Since this post doesn't have much of a point, you can file it under 'inconsequential stuff that your blogger thought he might as well throw onto the interwebs before 2015 shudders to a close'.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Book reviews at this blog, 2009-2015

This is a list of the book reviews that have been posted here since the blog's beginning, in chronological order starting with the earliest.

Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (2009), reviewed 9/9/09

Joshua S. Goldstein, Winning the War on War (2011), reviewed 1/16/12

Jack Knight & James Johnson, The Priority of Democracy (2011), reviewed 12/23/12 [this wasn't presented as a formal book review, but for all intents and purposes it is a review]

Srinath Raghavan, 1971: A Global History of the Creation of Bangladesh (2013), reviewed 1/16/14

Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution (2011), reviewed 3/14/14 [again, this wasn't presented as a book review, but it comes pretty close to being one]

David A. Bell, The First Total War (2007), reviewed 9/22/14       

James T. Johnson, Sovereignty (2014), reviewed 6/5/15 [the author is a different James Johnson than the one mentioned above] 


There have been a few other posts discussing a particular book in detail, but I think the above list will do.  The (regrettable) absence of female authors from the list is accidental not intentional; however, I'll try to be more attuned to that in the future.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Book note

Have just become aware of a book that might be of interest to some readers of this blog: John Judis, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.  The paperback edition came out last February. (Amazon link.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Sunstein is writing about what?

P. Campos at the LGM blog:
How did Star Wars become such a big deal, culturally speaking? Why does the franchise...  have such a vast and fanatical following? Why, for example, is Cass Sunstein, of all people, writing a book about Star Wars?
Oh, I know the answer to this one: it's the natural outgrowth of Sunstein's Harvard senior thesis on Samuel Beckett, written in 1975.

You're welcome. Next question. ;-)

ETA: Some blathering by me on the question of Star Wars and 'empire' can be found here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Climate links

I'm not going to write about the climate agreement because I don't follow the issue(s) closely enough, but A. Gilbert has some relevant, or so it appears, links here.  

Sunday, December 13, 2015

A note on two scholars

The Internet is full of discussion of the death of Benedict Anderson (see, e.g., Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber, Corey Robin at his blog and also at CT, and Robert Greene II at the USIH blog).

Although I've read (parts of) Imagined Communities and admire it and was just looking this morning at a section at the end of the 1991 revised edition (where Anderson takes off from Renan on forgetting to discuss the paradoxes attending the ways in which national histories are retrospectively rewritten to emphasize "fraternal" quarrels), I can't say the book had an enormous effect on me.  Its wide influence, however, is of course undeniable. 

A book that deals partly with nationalism and had a bigger impact on me is Rogers Brubaker's Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992), not so much for its details (about 95 percent of which I've forgotten) or even for its main thesis, but rather because of the meticulous care with which it was researched, organized, and written.  Today, many books published even by top-line university presses are littered with typographical and spelling errors and in some cases awkward or ungrammatical sentences; many of them are not written carefully, and they are not copy-edited or proofread competently. (Note: I'm saying "many," not "all.")  

Citizenship and Nationhood, which was based on the author's dissertation, is the exact opposite: excellently written and virtually devoid of the small errors that bespeak a carelessness and haste and that are rampant in scholarly books today.  I'm quite sure -- in fact, I'm positive -- that some of the arguments of Citizenship and Nationhood have been challenged since its publication, but the care that went into that book is obvious from the first page to the last.  It's no surprise that the author, who has written a lot of other things since that book, has had a highly successful scholarly career.

Added later: I also liked, to some extent, Anthony Marx's Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism, which I read more recently.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sanders on 'realism'

Bernie Sanders in conversation with Ezra Klein.
Excerpt -- close paraphrasing (not verbatim):

Klein: Turning to foreign policy, is there a school of foreign policy you identify with - are you a realist or ...
Sanders: I don't know what the word means. I think we're all realists...
Klein (smiling): I'm not sure we are.
Sanders (repeating): I don't know what the word means.
Would have been a bit better, I think, if Bernie had said the word was unhelpfully vague instead of saying he doesn't know what it means.  But this is a nitpick, admittedly. I didn't watch the whole interview, but the parts I watched were interesting.

Added later: Note also the exchange near the beginning where Klein asks about global poverty, immigration, and 'open borders'.  Sanders's reply is substantively more or less what one would expect him to say, but it perhaps could have been framed a bit better.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Obscure uprisings"

I'm starting to read Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (2013).  This passage appears in the Introduction:
Marx's life, his systems of thought, his political strivings and aspirations, belonged primarily to the nineteenth century, a period of human history that occupies a strange place in relation to the present: neither evidently distant and alien, like the Middle Ages, nor still within living memory as, for instance, the world of the age of total war, or communist regimes of the Eastern bloc in the years 1945-89.  Every once in a  while the nineteenth century suddenly emerges into the present, with an eerie clarity and familiarity.  A prime example are [sic] the revolutions of 1848, whose rapid spread from country to country within a few months was a central political event of the nineteenth century, but since then have been known only to historical specialists.  All at once, these obscure uprisings seemed current and familiar during the fall of 1989, as revolutions moved through communist Eastern Europe, or in the winter of 2011 as they raced through the Arab world.  Much the same can be said about the relationship of Marx's life and thought to the present: there are moments of familiarity, but more often than not, I am struck by the differences....
Would it be nitpicking to point out that if the 1848 revolutions were indeed "obscure uprisings" known only to specialists they really wouldn't have been able to seem "current and familiar" in 1989 and 2011?  What Sperber intends to say here is clear enough, but he's not saying it particularly well.  A copy editor probably could have fixed this in about fifteen or twenty minutes; however, the number of publishers using good copy editors seems small.
In fairness to Sperber, I have about 550 pages to go, and a preliminary glance through the book suggested that the overall quality of the writing is high.  It remains to be seen whether my preliminary judgment will be borne out. 

Monday, December 7, 2015

Questions about inequality

In the last several decades, inequalities of wealth and income within many countries (especially, though not only, 'developed' countries) have been increasing, even as aggregate income and wealth gaps between countries have been tending to decrease somewhat (though still leaving wide disparities).  Within-country inequality has reached a point where it has now become an issue in, to take one of many possible examples, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Is inequality of income and wealth objectionable because it produces other harms, or at a certain level is there something intrinsically objectionable about extreme inequality, irrespective of any possible consequences?  Why should people care, say, that, given current trends, the top 1 percent of Americans will soon hold more wealth than the bottom 99 percent (as I have seen asserted): is it because the very wealthy exercise disproportionate political power, thus distorting or nullifying democracy, or is there something inherently offensive and objectionable about the disparities?  Similarly, should the extreme disparity between CEO pay and the pay of a median worker be of intrinsic concern?  Or, to cite an example from the previous post on Lagos, is the existence of slums in close physical proximity to wealth objectionable in itself, or is it objectionable only or mainly because the basic material needs of those living in the slums are not being met in an economy that is operating well for the upper layer(s) of the population?

Many are probably familiar, either from first-hand experience or from photos, with the phenomenon of upscale houses or apartment buildings built right up against slums in cities in 'developing' countries; by contrast, in cities in 'developed' countries there tends to be more physical distance between poor neighborhoods and affluent ones.  (ETA: Of course, one can also find that distance in certain cases in the developing world as well.)  Is inequality more morally objectionable when wealth and poverty exist in close physical proximity, or is that simply an aesthetic, for lack of a better word, consideration?  Are poor people injured in some additional way by being physically confronted, as it were, on a daily basis by the existence of people who are enormously better off than they are?

More questions.  Is it "better" to live in an urban slum than in rural poverty, or does it depend on individual preferences?  Is that sort of like asking whether someone would prefer to be executed by injection or by firing squad?  Or does it depend on the particular circumstances of each case?  (I think probably it does.)  The continuing movement of people especially in the developing world from rural to urban areas is well known, but how many move back in the other direction?  (I assume rough figures are available for particular countries, but I'm not going to look for them right now.) 

In sum, I'm not altogether sure of the answers to many of these questions, but they strike me as worth asking, perhaps especially by those who think of themselves as egalitarians. 

ETA/update: See the comment thread for, among other things, a helpful comment by js. on what it means to say that something is "intrinsically" objectionable.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Poverty and wealth in Nigeria

Extreme inequality is certainly not unique to Nigeria, but this report, which aired on the PBS NewsHour a couple of nights ago, vividly depicts the economic disparities in Lagos.  It's part of a series on Nigeria that is exactly the sort of thing public television should be doing.*   Note, incidentally, Bill Clinton's appearance toward the end in the section on Eko Atlantic City.

(*I watched it online, as I don't have a working TV setup, as I've mentioned before.)

ETA: As discussed in the comment thread, the issue is not inequality per se, but rather the failure to meet the basic needs of a large portion of the population despite economic growth. 

Wednesday, December 2, 2015