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.


How Chinese Communism is like religion: an anthropological analogy

This is really quite brilliant:

Despite their explicit atheism, Marxism, socialism and communism are often compared to religions. They require conversion and unquestioned belief in dogma and provide a full eschatology that gives sense and purpose to what has to be done here and now. This continues to be an essential insight but misses one crucial point that is particularly salient to contemporary China.

Viewing these ideologies as such is predicated on a Western understanding of religion modelled on Christianity. Cross culturally, however, religion is not about dogma and belief or how one expresses this belief. Religion is not even necessarily about the supernatural; rather, it is about the privileging of certain aspects of one’s environment, life and experience as sacred, that is, as special and set apart from the normal, profane domains of life. This distinction exists in any society quite independently from what it is exactly that is considered sacred.

If religion is simply about distinguishing the sacred from the profane, it can exist without any dogma and belief, or a material representation and awe of supernatural powers. In his study of the Giriama in Kenya the anthropologist David Parkin has developed this point further. Parkin demonstrates that the Giriama define themselves as a distinct people by reference to a remote, largely uninhabited but nevertheless sacred place of origin called the Kaya. This ‘sacred void’, as Parkin calls it, is kept pure and sacred through periodic acts of cleansing and purification to ensure the fertility and continuity of the Giriama people.

The concept of a sacred void, I would argue, travels rather well to contemporary China. Leninist principles set the CCP apart from society and represent its rule as a sacred mission regardless of any of the beliefs, dogmas or ideologies that it professes. Just as Giriama elders move secretly in and out of the Kaya, with only the occasional elder identified as having broken some rule, so it is that Party leaders are beyond scrutiny and only occasionally get purged. …

The sacredness of CCP politics is why the Party maintains an elaborate edifice of largely vacuous ideological innovations and resists the scrutiny of democratic principles and procedures. Jettisoning ideology would turn CCP rule into an ordinary dictatorship that visibly has no other mission than its own perpetuation. Introducing democracy would crowd the sacred void with the profanity of electoral politics that citizens of democratic countries might deplore, yet fully expect and take for granted: deceitful politicians, greedy interest groups and media theatrics.

It is, therefore, too simple to think that the CCP resists democratic elections and accountability only out of fear of losing power to competing parties. Its resistance to democracy runs at a much deeper indeed religious level. Democracy would expose the inner core of CCP politics to the gaze of ordinary people, stripping the Party of the mystery and sacredness that have rendered its rule unquestionable and untouchable for so long.

The quote is from Knowing China: A Twenty-First Century Guide by Frank Pieke, the chair professor in modern China studies at Leiden University, and an anthropologist by training.

I didn’t intend this post as a commentary on the news about the removal of term limits for Xi Jinping, but it feels appropriate nonetheless.

Perhaps because of its European origins, this 2016 book does not seem to have gotten much notice on this side of the Atlantic, which I think is a criminal oversight. In fact it is one of the clearest and most original summaries of how to think about the Chinese political economy that I have come across. Thanks to Dorothy Solinger for the  recommendation.



A close encounter of the Sun Ra kind

The next rehearsal was Friday, the day before the show. Surprise, surprise: Sun Ra opened more musical cans of worms. Songs he’d written hours before—or made up on the spot.

Don surely sensed our collective nervous anger, and his anxiety must’ve dwarfed ours. Ticket sales were beyond any previous concert (by show time, the hall would be sold out), and we had virtually no charts prepared. Diplomatically, Don suggested we work on tunes we’d tried before, and Sun Ra, without much fuss, agreed. But even when we summoned forth the riffs as we remembered them, something inevitably wasn’t to his liking. The closer we came to repeating what we’d learned in previous sessions, the faster Sun Ra switched what he was doing.

“Y’all seem so worried,” he said, “about playing the notes. But you can play more than just notes on a page, you know. You can play the wind or the river. You can play the sun rays.”

A cop-out, I thought. If anything goes, nothing needs perfecting.

But fine. He was the visionary.

And so when, with a toss of his hand, as if scattering birdseed, he signaled for the next song to start, I decided to play precisely nothing the way we’d learned it. I’d find a novel way to mutate every note: coming in a millisecond ahead of or behind the beat, tonguing hard or slurring through a half-valve. I’d like to say I did this out of open-minded virtue, but cussedness was closer to the truth. If he was hell-bent on undermining our book-learned perseverance, it seemed only fair to try to beat him at his game.

But, strangely, my mischief-making failed to wreck the music. Sun Ra was accompanying us, as usual, on piano, and for every note I sabotaged, he seemed to change his playing, widening the song’s sidelines so I always stayed in bounds. Could it be? I tried again—a purposely sharpened note—and Sun Ra’s fingers danced into a new configuration, his chord seemingly built on my suggestion. Back and forth we went in our loony musical leapfrog, till I was convoluted with amusement.

Sun Ra flashed a smile at me—not gloating but in gratitude—and now I saw this kind of sport was the goal. You’re right, it’s a game, I imagined him saying, but all of us are on the same team. I couldn’t say we sounded great, or that I fully “got” it; I still searched for handholds in the din. But now I was attuned to, not tuning out, his whimsies.

That is from Michael Lowenthal’s Face the Music: My Improbable Trip to Saturn (or Close Enough) with Sun Ra, a charming set of anecdotes about Sun Ra’s 1990 visit to Dartmouth College (it is a magazine-article-length Kindle Single published in 2016). His recollections are particularly poignant, and perhaps particularly insightful, because he gave up trumpet playing for writing not long after this encounter.



Some of Marx’s earliest critics were right on the money

I’m working my way through the early chapters of Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion, Gareth Stedman Jones’ recent biography. There’s a lot of German idealism, and these debates often seem to have been lost in the mists of history for pretty good reason. But some of the most interesting bits involve Marx’s arguments with his contemporaries, well before he became widely famous.

Arnold Ruge was a lecturer at the University of Halle and founder of journals that published some of Marx’s early writings. They were frequent collaborators and correspondents, and both were both critical of the autocratic Prussian state and traditional religion. But Ruge was more of a liberal, republican nationalist and their views drifted apart as Marx moved toward a more radical position. They eventually had a personal falling out after living in close quarters in Paris, which led to an open intellectual break:

Ruge went on to attack Karl’s communism. He argued to Feuerbach that neither the aims of the Fourierists, nor the suppression of property that the communists advocated, could be articulated with any clarity. ‘These two tendencies end up with a police state and slavery. To liberate the proletariat from the weight of physical and intellectual misery, one dreams of an organization that would generalize this very misery, that would cause all human beings to bear its weight.’

Karl Grün was a German journalist active in organizing workers around the same time as Marx, and also collaborated with Proudhon, the famous French critic of private property. Marx despised Grün, whose popularity and prominence were a challenge to his own, and devoted a section of the Communist Manifesto to criticizing his “German” socialism. In 1848, Marx and Engels followed up with the Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, which called for the nationalization of industry, transport and finance. 

Writing in the Trier’sche Zeitung, [Grün] criticized the emphasis on centralization and nationalization; its results, he stated, would not be the emancipation of labour, but the replacement of individual monopolies by a ‘collective monopoly’ of the state, and the undermining of individual self-determination.

From today’s perspective, a full century after the Bolshevik Revolution, these criticisms sound very accurate indeed.