Making sure our expectations for the future are sufficiently weird

As someone who is professionally required to at least occasionally issue prognostications about the future, I enjoyed this passage from Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, in which a character warns against the perils of straight-line extrapolations:

End-timers used to project our consumption levels forward, multiplying our population by our needed resources, and get to this point where we’d run out of planet in a generation and there’d be famine and war.

That kind of linear projection is the kind of thinking that gets people into trouble when they think about the future. It’s like thinking, ‘well, my kid is learning ten exciting new things every week, so by the time she’s sixty, she’ll be smarter than any human in history.’

There are lots of curves that start looking like they go up and to the right forever, but turn into bell curves, or inverted Us, or S-curves, or the fabled hockey-stick that gets steeper and steeper until it goes straight vertical.

Any assumption that we’re going to end up like now, but moreso, is so insufficiently weird it’s the only thing you can be sure won’t happen in the future.

That’s a fairly self-referential statement for a character in a science-fiction novel to make, but thankfully most of the characters in this piece of utopian fiction do not go around making speeches; Doctorow is very good at writing real, vivid people, not types or abstractions.

Perhaps the line is meant to highlight that the world Doctorow imagines in Walkaway is indeed very much like now, but moreso: it’s a straight-line extrapolation of rising inequality, increasing automation and declining labor participation. What he’s trying to imagine is the moment when that curve starts to turn into something else.


Varlam Shalamov’s prose of the future

For the last couple of weeks I have been steadily working my way through Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, a newly-translated collection of tales drawn from the author’s experiences at the most notorious outpost of the Soviet Gulag system. Perhaps not everyone shares my fascination with prison literature, but I found these stories remarkably fresh and closely observed.

One of the closest things to a statement of purpose from Shalamov comes at the opening of the 1960 story “The Necktie”, when the narrator asks himself how he can make his story “a piece of the prose of the future”:

In the past and at present a writer needs to be someone like a foreigner in the country he is writing about if he wants to be a success. He has to write from the viewpoint—interests, vision—of the people he grew up among and from whom he got his habits, tastes, and views. A writer writes in the language of those in whose name he speaks. And that is all. If a writer knows his material too well, the people for whom he is writing won’t understand him. The writer will have betrayed them and gone over to the side of his material.

You mustn’t know your material too well. Every writer in the past and the present had that defect, but the prose of the future demands something different. It will be professionals with a gift for writing who will speak out, not writers. And they will tell us only about what they know and have seen. Plausible accuracy is the force behind the literature of the future.

Shalamov was not a foreigner in the country of the Gulag: he was very much on the side of his material. In his stories he does not explain too much about the camp system, but simply recounts the actions of its participants, and this is usually all that is really required to understand how it works. As the translator, Donald Rayfield, observes in his introduction, “Despite his own assertion…Shalamov knew his material perfectly, and he wrote in a way that everyone can understand.”


Should China be in the Global North or Global South?

I’ve never been a big fan of the terms “Global North” and “Global South,” which in some quarters are used as synonyms for “developed” and “developing” economies. This is mainly because their actual meanings are too disconnected from their literal meanings. If the south of the globe means anything, it means the southern hemisphere. And yet the “Global South” is conventionally understood to include China, which is, let’s face it, in the northern hemisphere. To me, it doesn’t seem to clarify things to use a term from geography in a way that makes its geographical meaning incoherent.

So I was interested to come across William Polk’s new book Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand-Year War Between the Muslim World and the Global North (thanks to a nice review by Malise Ruthven), in which the conventional identities of the Global North and Global South are slightly altered. He calls the Global North “the relatively rich, advanced, and formerly imperial powers” and the Global South “the relatively poor, traditional, mostly former colonial peoples–here, specifically those of the Muslim world.”

Yet China and Russia are, in his view, unquestionably members of the Global North, along with usual suspects Britain and France. Not being a small-minded geographical pedant like myself, he does not focus too much on the fact that both are located in the northern hemisphere. What seems to matter for Polk is that they were clearly imperial powers, who acted toward Muslims in ways not very different from the imperialists of Western Europe. Here is an example:

When the Northern powers set out to conquer and control the Muslim South, they saw Arabic as a sort of defensive wall. It encircled nations and united generations. The Chinese, Russian, British, and French imperialists each tried to suppress it and to replace it with their own languages. …

In dealing with the Chinese-dominated Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia, Chiang Kai-shek went even further than the British and French imperialists. Following revolts in 1933 by the Kazakh peoples and the proclamation in 1944 by the Uyghurs of the short-lived East Turkish Republic, Chiang decreed that there were no such people as the Turks, even though the Chinese had a name for them, Chantou. He said that they were just part of the “greater Chinese race.” He tried to force Turkish speakers to give up their native language and learn Chinese. Chiang’s successors in the People’s Republic of China still employ his policy: they are linguistically “denationalizing” the Uyghur people.

At the same time as Chiang was suppressing the Uyghurs, Joseph Stalin was tightening the linguistic screws on the Asian peoples who had been conquered by the tsars. The better to dominate them, the Soviet Union divided what had been the common written language (Ottoman Turkish) “horizontally” by converting all written materials from the traditional (Arabic-based) script first to Latin in 1926– 1927 and then to Cyrillic in 1936.

I have to say that this grouping makes some sense to me. It is useful to recall that the only only major nineteenth-century imperial power whose borders are largely unchanged today is China.

China is these days unquestionably a great power, whose relationship with other developing countries is not exactly one of equality. The term “Global South” was originally coined in the 1970s, when it was more plausible to see China as differing from other developing countries mainly in its size. I wonder if Polk’s book might mark the beginning of a rectification of these names for groups of countries, for a time when it seems more appropriate to put China in with other large economies and great powers.


Pointless opinions about everything

Of late he had become especially tired of pointless opinions and was trying to get rid of them. He would catch himself thinking as everyone does: too hot, too cold, too green, too fat, too spicy, ugly building, old slippers, loud music, homely woman, fat man. Not, he thought, that one couldn’t discriminate but it had grown boring to get in a dither over rehearsing opinions about everything. To the degree that he had gotten rid of this propensity he felt a bit lighter and more fluid.

That is from Jim Harrison’s novella “The Man Who Gave Up His Name,” which is in his 1978 collection Legends of the Fall. I found this piece generally weaker than the other two novellas in the collection, “Revenge” and the title story, which are excellent. But I liked this passage, despite the fact that I am in the business of having and expressing opinions. Not all opinions are worth getting riled up about.

On reading ‘Alive in the Bitter Sea’

Fox Butterfield’s China: Alive in the Bitter Sea is the original China journalist’s book of the modern, post-Cultural Revolution era, and it holds up quite well today. Published in 1982, it captures China at a remarkable and delicate turning point: a time when the old system had lost all credibility thanks to the exhausting turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, but it was not yet clear what new system would come to replace it.

By his own admission, Butterfield completely missed the economic renaissance that was beginning to unfold during his time in China, possibly because he was prevented from traveling to the rural areas where the most dramatic changes were taking place. But for me this adds rather than subtracts to the book’s value, because it is not shaped by the false confidence of hindsight, and reflects all the doubts and uncertainties of the time. Given all the China-model triumphalism that is going around today, it is useful to recall that in 1980 no one knew that an economic miracle was about to unfold in China, least of all the Chinese.

But Butterfield was a good enough reporter that there are plenty of hints of what was to come in his interviews. One of many excellent anecdotes in the book is the following:

By lucky chance, on the night before I left China, a friend arranged for me to have dinner with a member of Mao’s family. My friend specified we could meet only if I agreed not to divulge the man’s identity–he lived a precarious existence–and I assented.

He turned out to be a dignified, reserved middle-aged man with a high forehead and swept-back hair reminiscent of Mao. Whenever he mentioned Mao, it was always as “the Chairman.” He wanted to talk with me, he said, because he felt there was misunderstanding about Mao. Mao was not a conservative, he insisted, he was always open-minded. He loved to read books–when he went on tours of the provinces, the one thing he took with him were cartons of books, and his bed was always half covered with unread volumes. …

When dinner was finished, Mao’s relative wanted to ask me a question. Why, he pondered, was China so backward compared to Japan? One hundred years ago they had been at the same level. “Is it because socialism is not as good as capitalism?” he asked.

It was an awkward situation. I felt embarrassed to evaluate China’s adoption of communism in front of a member of Mao’s family. But then he answered for me.

“In theory, socialism is excellent,” he said. “It provides for economic as well as political democracy. But in practice, it has shown weaknesses. We let the state and the bureaucracy grow too strong and prevented the development of individual initiative. China needs to find some way to combine the two systems.”

Would the Chairman feel the that way? I asked.

“The Chairman was always prepared to learn,” he answered.

Thanks to Lucy Hornby for recommending this book to me.



Timothy Snyder rehabilitates the state

Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning has been sitting on my list for a while, and I have benefited from finally reading it. The book is bracing, well written, and clearly argued.

In particular I found it a useful corrective to the conventional view of the Holocaust that I had absorbed, in which the Holocaust appears as the dark side of modern civilization, a result of state power and technology being applied to the gruesome business of ethnic extermination. Snyder’s key argument is that Nazi Germany was in fact a very different thing. The summation in his final chapter deserves quoting at length:

The dominant stereotype of Nazi Germany is of an all-powerful state that catalogued, repressed, and then exterminated an entire class of its own citizens. This was not how the Nazis achieved the Holocaust, nor how they even thought about it. The enormous majority of the victims of the Holocaust were not German citizens; Jews who were German citizens were much more likely to survive than Jews who were citizens of states that the Germans destroyed. … Not only the Holocaust, but all major German crimes took place in areas where state institutions had been destroyed, dismantled, or seriously compromised. The German murder of five and a half million Jews, more than three million Soviet prisoners of war, and about a million civilians in so-called anti-partisan operations all took place in stateless zones. …

Since the Holocaust is an axial event of modern history, its misunderstanding turns our minds in the wrong direction. When the Holocaust is blamed on the modern state, the weakening of state authority appears salutary. … On both the Left and the Right, postmodern explanations of the Holocaust tend to follow German and Austrian traditions of the 1930s. As a result, they generate errors that can make future crimes more rather than less likely.

On the Left, the dominant current of interpretation of the Holocaust can be called the Frankfurt School. The members of the group known by this name, largely German Jews who immigrated to the United States, portrayed the Nazi state as an expression of overgrown modernity. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, in their influential Dialectic of Enlightenment, began (as did Hitler) from the premise that “bourgeois civilization” was about to collapse. They reduced scientific method to practical mastery, failing (as did Hitler) to grasp the reflective and unpredictable character of scientific investigation. Whereas Hitler presented the Jews as the creators of bogus universalisms that served as façades for Jewish mastery, Adorno and Horkheimer opposed all universalisms as façades for mastery in general. The murder of Jews, they claimed, was just one instance of the general intolerance for variety that was inherent in attempts to inform politics with reason. It is hard to overstate the depth and significance of this error. Hitler was not a supporter of the Enlightenment but its enemy. He did not champion science but conflated nature with politics.

On the Right, the dominant explanation of the Holocaust can be called the Vienna School. Followers of the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek claim that the overweening welfare state led to National Socialism, and thus prescribe deregulation and privatization as the cure for political evil. This narrative, though convenient, is historically indefensible. There has never been a democratic state that built a social welfare system and then succumbed to fascism (or communism) as a result. What happened in central Europe was rather the opposite. Hitler came to power during a Great Depression which had spread around the world precisely because governments did not yet know how to intervene in the business cycle. Hayek’s homeland Austria practiced capitalism according to the free-market orthodoxies of the time, with the consequence that the downturn was awful and seemingly endless. The oppression of Austrian Jews began not as the state grew, but as it collapsed in 1938.

The main “warning” of the title is that the collapse of the state creates the conditions in which humanitarian disasters and mass killing are possible. If this was the lesson that had been learned from the Holocaust, perhaps it would have been easier to see how foreign interventions that destroyed functioning states without replacing them (Iraq, Libya) would lead to evil consequences for their people.

Snyder generally seems to want to emphasize the importance of the state’s Weberian role in maintaining the monopoly on legitimate violence, and preventing its widespread use against citizen. It is when the citizen-state relationship breaks down that violence overwhelms. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were thus ultimately alike in that their ideology subordinated citizenship and the state to their imagined struggles of class or race:

Yet in a certain respect Nazi Germany as a regime confirms everything that we know from decades of research on mass killing. On the one hand, social scientists have shown that ethnic cleansing and genocide tend to follow state collapse, regime changes, and civil war. On the other hand, historians emphasize that certain kinds of polities, communist party-states such as the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, are capable, in times of peace, of killing large numbers of their own citizens as a matter of deliberate policy. In these communist regimes the populations were not citizens in the traditional sense, since the party was the politically decisive instance, and could ordain that killing was required by the logic of history. These systems killed almost entirely their own citizens, almost exclusively on their own territory. Nazi Germany united these two logics of death, synthesizing order and chaos to produce the single most murderous outburst in human history. It was party-state that artificially generated state collapse in other countries, thereby creating a zone beyond its own prewar borders where a Holocaust was possible.



Mudde & Kaltwasser on populism

I found Populism: A Very Short Introduction by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser to be very useful and conceptually clear, a worthy addition to Oxford’s charming Very Short Introductions series.

The real contribution of the book is that it provides a definition of populism that is both conceptually clear and empirically useful–no mean feat. Here it is:

We define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people. …

Populism must be understood as a kind of mental map through which individuals analyze and comprehend political reality. It is not so much a coherent ideological tradition as a set of ideas that, in the real world, appears in combination with quite different, and sometimes contradictory, ideologies.

The points that populism is a set of ideas but not exactly an ideology, and that those ideas can mesh with both left-wing and right-wing political programs, seem to me clearly true. A lot of writing about populism or populist phenomena considers it to have some essential nature, but what I think this book is good at is showing how “thin” that essential nature is, and therefore how flexible and various populism is in practice.

The book is also good at explaining the relationship between democracy and populism, another fraught topic of late:

Populism is essentially democratic, but at odds with liberal democracy, the dominant model in the contemporary world. Populism holds that nothing should constrain “the will of the (pure) people” and fundamentally rejects the notions of pluralism and, therefore, minority rights as well as the “institutional guarantees” that should protect them. In practice, populists often invoke the principle of popular sovereignty to criticize those independent institutions seeking to protect fundamental rights that are inherent to the liberal democratic model. Among the most targeted institutions are the judiciary and the media.

In sum, I found the book to be a helpful aid in getting closer to an objective understanding of our present moment.