What was the Cold War, and is it over?

I belong to the first generation for whom the Cold War is mainly history rather than lived experience. By the time I went off to college and started learning about the wider world, the Soviet Union had already collapsed. Even though the events of 1989-90 were in fact very recent, to me they did not seem like the news of the day but history that had already acquired the aura of age and inevitability, like the Protestant Reformation or the French Revolution. Communism seemed faintly ridiculous and largely irrelevant; even the left-wing student radicals invoked it as more a symbol of opposition to mainstream America than as a serious system of ideas. This impression was only reinforced when I moved to China in the late 1990s: China at the time seemed to be busily dismantling the apparatus of socialism and building ties with the US and the rest of the world.

That’s my excuse, anyway, for why I never got around to learning much about the Cold War; I had managed to acquire the quite mistaken impression that it was not something urgent to understand about the world. When in 2022 foreign-policy commentators began busily proclaiming “the start of a second Cold War” (Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times) or that “the Cold War never ended” (Stephen Kotkin in Foreign Affairs), I realized that I could not evaluate those claims because I did not have a clear definition of my mind of what exactly the Cold War was. So, I read a book about it: Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War: A World History. Although it’s a long book with lots of details, the Cold War is helpfully defined on the very first page:

The Cold War was a confrontation between capitalism and socialism that peaked in the years between 1945 and 1989, although its origins go much further back in time and its consequences can still be felt today. In its prime the Cold War constituted an international system, in the sense that the world’s leading powers all based their foreign policies on some relationship to it.

Westad’s definition of the Cold War has two aspects: that of an ideological conflict between two totalizing and incompatible systems, and that of an international system, which forced many different issues and conflicts among countries into alignment with that ideological conflict. I found this is a useful distinction, as the arguments for a contemporary Cold War generally focus on the second aspect, the pattern of international relations. There’s no question that, since the invasion of Ukraine, the US and Western Europe are in increasingly direct rivalry with Russia and China. The continuity of this division with that of the Cold War period is what Rachman and Kotkin focus on in their essays.

But it’s harder to see a similar ideological conflict underway today. Westad consistently emphasizes how in the twentieth century both the US and the USSR were highly ideological states, organized around universalizing ideas not just national interests. Both countries were led by elites who believed that they were spreading the right ideas about the way to organize human societies throughout the world, and that their right ideas were mortally threatened by the other side’s wrong ideas. “It was its ideological origins that made the Cold War special and hyperdangerous,” Westad writes. The existential struggle between capitalism and socialism made every minor issue seem like a terminal conflict, encouraging both sides to raise the stakes.

While there have been occasional attempts on both sides of the current divide to paint it as essentially ideological as the same way as the original Cold War, these are less convincing. I found this interview with Chinese foreign-policy scholar Wang Jisi, translated by David Cowhig, to be a useful contribution:

Q: The question of whether there is a “new cold war” between China and the United States is now more controversial in academic circles. How do you see this issue?

A: Compared with the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the Cold War, the current U.S.-China relationship is still different in many ways. First of all, neither side can resort to “bloc politics”, so the U.S. and China will not become a bipolar opposition like the U.S.S.R. By “poles”, I mean attracting other countries to unite around them and form a united camp. The United States wants to do this, but it is difficult to do so. China, for its part, does not seek to build such a camp. In contrast, as the gap between other countries and China and the United States grows, the future may turn out to be a world in which the two powers stand side by side, but there will not be two camps as there were during the Cold War.

Secondly, from the ideological aspect, the competition between China and the United States is not as obvious as the ideological confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, but is mainly a manifestation of nationalism. Therefore, there is no ideological struggle between China and the U.S. like the one between the U.S. and the Soviet Union back then.

His analysis that what is underway is a conflict between national interests rather than totalizing ideologies seems correct to me. The US foreign-policy elite is historically prone to prone to seeing global events in ideological terms, and has tried to portray the current division as one of democracy and liberal values in opposition to authoritarianism. This is par for the course for the US; as Westad notes, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “American foreign policy rolled on, unperturbed by any significant adjustments in strategic vision or political aims.” Since the US saw itself as the victor in the ideological conflict, its ideology was not in need of adjustment.

On the other side, though, the role of ideology has changed. Although Russia and China famously proclaimed a “no limits” partnership just before the invasion of Ukraine, this is founded more on a shared desire to resist US power than any shared ideology. The leaders of both Russia and China have articulated some grand theories underpinning their foreign policies, but both are more interested in national greatness for their respective nations than exporting a universalizing system of thought. The pattern is less of two broad ideological camps than of varying forms of opposition to US global leadership.

This is more or less the pattern that Ken Jowitt predicted in his essay “The Leninist Extinction,” originally published in 1991 (it’s available in his book of the same name, which I’ve previously praised here). Given how fresh the collapse of the Soviet Union still was at the time, the piece is remarkably insightful in its broad analysis of the consequences (though some of the specific predictions have not panned out). It’s worth closing with a lengthy excerpt of what now seems like quite a key passage:

The primary axis of international politics has disappeared. Thermonuclear Russia hasn’t, but the Soviet Union/Empire most certainly has. Its “extinction” radically revises the framework within which the West, the United States itself, the Third World, and the countries of Eastern Europe, the former Russian Empire, and many nations in Asia have bounded and defined themselves.

The first imperative is to anticipate national environments characterized by conflict (along both civic-ethnic and regional fault lines) and an international environment whose primary characteristic will be turbulence, not the stereotyped, fundamentally apolitical quality of international life during the Cold War. Turbulent environments produce more than their share of simultaneous emergences for a significant number of national and sub-national elites. An emergency environment calls for different political skills and leaders than the stereotyped bipolar environment of largely contained, and occasionally ritualized, emergency characteristic of the Cold War. On balance, in a turbulent world environment, leaders will count for more than institutions, and charisma for more than political economy.

Liberal capitalist democracy has generated a heterogeneous set of opponents: Romantic poets, Persian ayatollahs, aristorcrats, the Catholic Church, and fascists. However, for all the genuine and substantial differences separating these diverse oppositions, one can detect a shared critique. Liberal capitalist democracy is seen as one-sided in its emphasis on individualism, materialism, achievement, and rationality. The Roman Catholic preference for the family over the individual and the Nazi preference for “race” in place of the individual are radically different critiques, but the general critique is the same: liberal capitalism fails adequately to provide for the essential group needs and dimension of human existence.

As long as the West retains its partisan liberal capitalist democratic identity, it will regularly generate movements–internally and externally–opposing or attacking, attempting to reform or destroy it; movements that in one form or another will emphasize the value of group membership, expressive behavior, solidary security, and heroic action.

All of these have indeed come to pass: a “turbulent” international environment, an increasing role for charismatic leaders, and the persistent popularity of critiques of liberal values. The legacy of the Cold War is still very much with us, but its particular style of global ideological conflict probably is over, having been replaced with something not yet properly named.

What will self-reliance mean for China?

Self-reliance seems to be an important value for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. In a public discussion with agricultural experts in March, he invoked the term to urge attention to food security: “Who will feed China? China has to put its faith in self-reliance, and feed itself!” Xi declared, “in a resounding tone,” according to the account in the People’s Daily. In Liaoning province in August, on a tour of a robot manufacturer, he used it again in the context of technology: “We must adhere to self-reliance, make developing the strength of the country and the nation the basic point, and firmly grasp the initiative of development.”

The phrase conventionally translated here as “self-reliance” is zili gengsheng (自力更生), which has historical resonances in Chinese that the neutral English translation fails to capture. Zili gengsheng was a key slogan during the Mao era, and Xi’s repeated use of the term in recent years is one of the things that make people think he wants to return to the autarky of the 1950s.

But like many good political slogans, zili gengsheng works to elicit an emotional response–who doesn’t want to be self-reliant?–without necessarily referring to a specific set of policies. The best short explanation of the term I’ve found is in Jason M. Kelly’s recent book Market Maoists: The Communist Origins of China’s Capitalist Ascent, a history of foreign trade policy during the Mao years:

Trade with capitalists was indispensable, but also dangerous. It must be controlled. This view produced an early and abiding tension in CCP trade policy. On the one hand, the Party must remain aloof from foreign capitalists to safeguard China’s independence; on the other, it must “struggle” to engage them. The Party reconciled these divergent aims in the concept of zili gengsheng, or “revival through one’s own efforts.” Zili gengsheng, which became a pillar of economic policy in the Mao era, was never just a policy. It was a disposition, a blend of caution and ambition from which Party leaders could derive the orientation and scope of China’s economic interaction in a given historical context. The term offered a foundation for thinking about the political implications of trade, especially the dependencies and vulnerabilities that accompanied it. Trade could breed dependency if not carefully controlled, and dependency brought vulnerability. In its broadest sense, zili gengsheng meant never trusting one’s fate to outsiders and never placing all of one’s eggs in a single basket.

I think this applies to the contemporary use of zili gengsheng as well. Xi’s use of the term conveys a conviction that China exists in a dangerous world surrounded by rivals and competitors. Because no one else is going to help China become rich and powerful, it must do that on its own, without depending on outsiders. Xi’s choice of this specific term, out of many possible synonyms for self-reliance, is certainly a gesture to the Mao era. But the use of zili gengsheng signals more of a “disposition,” in Kell’s term, than an endorsement of the specific policies of extreme isolation that Mao pursued. China’s central position in the global trading system means the starting point for any pursuit of self-reliance today must be quite different. The total value of its imports and exports is equivalent to around 35% of China’s GDP, a high ratio for a large economy, compared to around 5% in the 1950s.

During the Mao era, zili gengsheng was a general political value with varying interpretations, not a single program. Another very interesting book on trade policy in the Mao era, Lawrence C. Reardon’s The Reluctant Dragon: Crisis Cycles in Chinese Foreign Economic Policy, explains how Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s articulated an alternative to Mao’s version of self-reliance. Zhou agreed that China needed to become self-reliant, as the break with the Soviet Union had led to a major loss of foreign investment, aid and technical advice. But he argued for controlled foreign trade to obtain China’s needs, rather than autarky, and more orthodox socialist planning to guide development, rather than the disastrous campaigns of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou did argue that “China’s strategic policy is to obtain self-reliance,” but also that “it is impossible to close the door to the outside world to implement communism.” He thought China should export the goods it knew how to produce in order to earn the revenue to import what it needed to develop further. The debate was not over whether China should be self-reliant, but over the best program for achieving that self-reliance: Zhou’s relative and flexible one versus Mao’s extreme and doctrinaire one.

Zhou ended up losing the debate on economic policy to Mao, and the more moderate development model he and others proposed in the early 1960s was abandoned for mass campaigns and autarky during the Cultural Revolution. their ideas lived on, and were an inspiration for some of the initial moves away from Maoist autarky in the late 1970s. But in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping abandoned self-reliance entirely and pursued a different model, of export-oriented growth and attracting foreign investment. The level of trade openness that Deng endorsed was a fundamental change from what socialist economics had previously considered desirable.

Xi Jinping’s renewed invocation of self-reliance, and related concepts like “dual circulation,” show a discontent with Deng’s outward-focused model and a desire to reduce China’s external vulnerabilities. At the same time, there is a recognition that China’s position as the hub of global supply chains gives it economic power and influence over other countries, which Xi wants to enhance rather than abandon. Given this context, Maoist autarky is not a practical option. Despite the occasional rhetorical gestures to Mao, Xi seems to be more of a strong-state nationalist than a true Maoist (see this previous post, “Who won the battle of ideas in China?“). The renewed pursuit of self-reliance in today’s China may end up being a variation of Zhou Enlai’s strategy of accepting the necessity of trade while guiding it to benefit the nation.

Lessons from Hall Overton

I knew the name Hall Overton from Thelonious Monk records: he was the arranger on Monk’s two large-ensemble recordings, At Town Hall and Big Band and Quartet In Concert. But I didn’t know anything else about him when I next came across his name, in Steve Reich’s new book Conversations, which transcribes chats with various friends and collaborators.

It turns out that Overton was an important music teacher and figure in the cross-pollination of musical worlds that was happening in the 1950s and 1960s. It makes sense that Reich, whose minimalism was in part an effort to recreate some of the dynamism of jazz and other musics in formal composition, would have studied with Overton, who was one of the first musicians to engage seriously and on equal terms with both jazz and the European tradition.

Reich thought very highly of Overton as a human being and a musician, and I particularly liked this anecdote about his lessons:

Steve Reich: I remember the very first day Hall gave me a compositional exercise to do. He said, “I want you to write some melodies,” and he went into my music notebook and drew it in pencil: “Write a melody that goes like this, down, another that goes up, and a third that goes straight.”

I looked at him, because this was the very, very beginning, and I said, “Hall, I don’t think I have enough technique.” And he looked me right in the eye and said, “You’ll never have enough technique. Get to work.”

David Lang: (laughs) Oh, that’s such a great lesson.

SR: Isn’t that wonderful? I mean, it’s still true.

DL: It’s still true.

SR: I’m gonna die and think, “Ugh, I was just getting started.”

DL: That’s like every composer’s great fear, you know? “There are things I wish I could do, but I’ll never be good enough to be able to do them.”

SR: So, best to do what you can do and get on with it. Because you’ll do that well, and who knows, you could get better.

DL: Yes.

That strikes me as pretty good advice for everyone, not just composers.

Ethan Iverson has also written a typically interesting and in-depth appreciation of Overton’s own compositions; he doesn’t claim that they are lost masterpieces but judges that he “successfully harnessed some of the jazz scene’s incandescent energy for the realm of fully notated formal composition.”

Robots in Chinese literature circa 1902

The concept of the “robot,” a mechanical replacement for a human worker, seems to have been one of those things that was just in the air at the turn of the twentieth century, across the world. As is now well known, the English word was coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek (who credited his brother Josef for the inspiration, from the Czech word robota, forced labor). In the interesting short article, “Techno-Utopias And Robots In China’s Past Futures” in the new, free anthology Proletarian China: A Century of Chinese Labour, Craig A. Smith details the early history of robots in Chinese literature, which is not completely unlike the Western science fiction of the day. Here are some excerpts:

The idea of animated or mechanical humanoid servants and labourers appeared in classical Chinese texts. Mozi, a utilitarian philosopher active in the fifth century BCE, even created mechanical birds and beasts, and is now the namesake of a technology company. However, the concept of a ‘machine-man’ (机器人, the modern Chinese word for robot) only made its way from elite texts into the popular imagination towards the end of the Qing Dynasty.

Around the turn of the century, the entire world became fascinated with the idea of humanoid automatons and their potential for labour. The most memorable example of this in the West is the Tin Woodman from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), a depressed cyborg lumberjack yearning for a heart. Chinese fiction was in step and introduced labour automatons but with decidedly Chinese characteristics. In 1905 and 1906, the newspaper Southern News serialised a lengthy novel by Wu Jianren entitled The New Story of the Stone (新石头记).

Although other Chinese science fiction writers penned stories with automatons at the time, Wu’s novel was a wonderland, its plot following Jia Baoyu, the protagonist of the eighteenth-century Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦), China’s most famous novel, into a twentieth-century technological utopia. Passing through a technological device called a ‘civilisation mirror’ (文明镜), Jia enters this utopia and is immediately served tea by a talking automaton ‘boy’ servant. The journey then proceeds through a melange of advanced technologies, including flying machines and submarines.

It might have been around this time that Kang Youwei wrote the Book of Great Unity (大同书). The complete volume did not appear in regular print until 1935, eight years after his death, leading to controversy and numerous studies on the dating of the text. Tang Zhijun’s extensive research has shown that Kang most likely finished his manuscript in 1902, a finding corroborated by Wang Hui.

Building on a few short chapters from [the Confucian classic] The Book of Rites (礼记), and contextualising these ideas within the modern reality of nation-states and new political economies, Kang envisioned a future world with no suffering. He saw robots playing an important role in his Confucian utopia, yet his position as a member of the literati class shaped his understanding of how robots would bring an end to the traditional hierarchies: ‘There will be no slaves or servants, but their functions will be performed by machines, shaped like birds and beasts.’

Kang imagined that ‘in the time of the Great Peace, there will be no suffering. Labourers will only find enjoyment.’ This will be possible because they will only put their skills to use in creating works of
art, as the heavy lifting will all be done by robots. Like H.G. Wells, Kang saw technological advancements bringing an end to toil and opening the door to universal leisure: ‘One will order by telephone, and food will be conveyed by mechanical devices—possibly a table will rise up from the kitchen below, through a hole in the floor. On the four walls will be lifelike, “protruding paintings”.’

This great trust in the emancipatory potential of science continued throughout the twentieth century, and revolutionaries, including Mao Zedong in his youth, found Kang’s work inspirational. However, largely
due to his promotion of constitutional monarchy, Kang is now remembered as a conservative opponent of revolution.

The lived experience of market orders

Harald Jähner’s recent book Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich 1945-55 is a fascinating window onto German life during the end of one social order and the creation of another one; it covers everything from “rubble tourism,” mass migration and regional cultures to to jazz dance halls, sex toys, interior decoration and avant-garde art.

There is also quite a lot on how the people living in Germany’s ruined cities made ends meet on a daily basis, through a combination of official rations, looting and the black market. Jähner’s reflections on how people’s lived experience of these different types of economic systems influenced their thinking is interesting if somewhat speculative:

In an atmosphere of mistrust and curiosity, the black market was a vital learning experience for the Germans, offering a radically different trading experience and providing a fundamental corrective to the Volk community fetishised by the Nazis. It was a lesson that remained in the memory for many years. Its lack of defined rules, which “rewarded the cunning and punished the weak,” created an economic terrain “in which people had apparently once more become wolves towards their fellows,” as the historian Malte Zierenberg writes. The widespread wariness so characteristic of the 1950s found a powerful source here. That narrow-minded, stuffy atmosphere that lingered around the black market was the smell of mistrust. Even the appetite for cleanliness, tidiness and order in 1950s Germany, which appeared strange to the next generation, had an origin in the chaotic conditions of the illegal markets.

The black market only thrived because of the existence of its opposite pole, the rationing system. On the one hand the wild interplay of raw market forces, on the other rationed per-capita distribution. People were caught between two different systems, always experiencing both at the same time: the state dirigisme of the shortage economy and the anarchic freedom of the unbridled market. Two conflicting logics of distribution, both of which had severe shortcomings.

This daily exercise in practical sociology, with all the exertions that it entailed, explains the unshakable faith that West Germans would later bring to the system of the “social market economy,” which, from 1948, became the patent remedy for the emerging Federal Republic. The very phrase sounded like a magical formula, because it reconciled both sides: the caring state ensuring that everybody got something and a free market system that was demand-led and placed the consumer at its centre. The few black-market years ensured that the social market economy became an article of faith for generations.

This “practical sociology” of ordinary people may not have directly determined the top-level government policy decisions that built Germany’s postwar social market economy. But the functioning of that system, like any other, depends on some shared consent to and understanding of economic norms.

His discussion also reminds me of the way popular support for the planned economy in China fell apart in the 1970s. At first this happened in the scattered local experiments with local agricultural markets and light industry that were facilitated by the chaos of the Cultural Revolution; Frank Dikotter’s wonderful 2016 article on “Decollectivization from Below” compiles a lot of fascinating archival material on this theme. The government’s later, more organized efforts to build a “socialist market economy” were informed by this widespread rejection of the old system, a discontent that was all the more effective because it was based on practical lived experience rather than ideological preconceptions (see my older post on China’s grassroots market liberals).

Hong Kong in 1945

The backstory to why Hong Kong ended up still being a British colony after the end of World War II is interesting, and I did not previously know the details. At the time it probably appeared to be a small matter, but it did have big long-term consequences. This account is a from a recent review essay by Stephen Kotkin, Stalin’s biographer, in Foreign Affairs:

Arguably, with the exception of the Soviet capture of Berlin in May 1945 and the stern telegram that U.S. President Harry Truman sent to Stalin in August of that year warning him not to invade Hokkaido (one of Japan’s four main islands), the physical reoccupation of Hong Kong by the British in 1945 exceeded any other wartime episode in its strategic implications.

When Japan’s surrender suddenly appeared imminent in the summer of 1945, surprising Washington, the Truman administration hastily accelerated work on a plan for the hand-over of Japanese-occupied territories and assigned the acceptance of Japan’s surrender of Hong Kong not to the British but to Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government. The British, however, undertook furious military and political preparations to reclaim Hong Kong for themselves. U.S. officials wanted to satisfy their British allies but also allow Chiang to save face, and so they cleverly suggested that the British could accept the surrender on behalf of the Chinese government. But the British refused that offer, and eventually, Washington acquiesced. Chiang acquiesced as well, dependent as he was on U.S. military and logistical support to reclaim other areas of China. The upshot was that Hong Kong passed from the Japanese back to the British and remained that way even after 1949, when the Communists triumphed over Chiang’s Nationalists in the Chinese Civil War but shrank from attempting to expel the British from the strategic southern port.

Had the British acquiesced rather than the Americans and Chiang, history would have played out very differently. As it was, the communist regime in Beijing was able to take extraordinary advantage of something it would not otherwise have possessed: a world-class international financial center governed by the rule of law. During the period of Deng’s reforms, British Hong Kong ended up funneling indispensable foreign direct investment into mainland communist China—from Japan and Taiwan, especially.

People often ask why Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, when attempting to reenergize the Soviet economy in the second half of the 1980s, did not follow the successful Chinese approach to reforms. Beyond the immense gulf between a highly urbanized, heavily industrialized country and a predominantly rural, agricultural one, the Soviet Union had no Hong Kong to attract and direct incoming investment according to market, rather than political, considerations. No British Hong Kong, no Chinese miracle.

Japan surrenders Hong Kong to the UK

The science fiction of social stagnation

Henry Farrell recently recommended Walter Jon Williams’ novel Metropolitan, and after devouring it quickly I will second the recommendation: it’s sharp, thoughtful, and engrossing. Nothing dates faster than visions of the future, but the vision in this 1995 book still seems strikingly contemporary. The book presents mind-blowing technological power that coexists with depressing stagnation, its extraordinary capabilities diverted mostly to bureaucracy and status-seeking.

This theme is comes out into the open at one point when one of the characters starts ranting about the inability to build new buildings, a synecdoche for the broader problem of social stagnation:

“Nothing changes in our world,” he says, “because the cost of change is so enormous. Not the least is simply the cost of space. Consider what’s needed simply to build a new building. There will be something on the site already, so the old building must be purchased, and all the people living or working there moved. All those displaced people will have to go somewhere else, at enormous cost, and even if the builders manage somehow not to pay the displacement fees, somebody will. So every new structure is a drain on the economy before it even starts. …

Nothing can be transformed in any significant way, because the cost of transformation is just so high.

The resonance with the contemporary debates over why it’s so hard to build stuff in the US is pretty obvious. Because it’s a novel and not social science, there’s no explicit argument about what has caused this problem in the fictional world.

But the world-building makes an implicit argument that stagnation is the result of the closing of the frontier. The conceit in the title is that virtually the entire surface of the earth, apparently including the oceans, is covered by cities. There is literally no usable space that is not already occupied by some structure and some political entity. Hence the problem that any new construction requires removing whatever is already there.

Furthermore, the universe beyond the earth is not visible or accessible, with the sky, sun, moon and stars walled off by a barrier called the Shield. This feature reinforces the book’s cosmically claustrophobic atmosphere, portraying a world in which people are trapped into zero-sum competition over a limited pool of resources. (As I recall, there’s a similar theme running through Iain M. Banks’ Against a Dark Background, though I read it some time ago.)

There is definitely a real difference between places where things can be built from scratch and places where building requires first compensating and removing the existing users (and it’s not just a US issue–compensation for residents displaced from their homes by new development has been a long-running political problem in China). But the the tradition of American science fiction, in which space travel is often the most important indicator of technological progress, is somewhat biased toward the idea that progress depends on having new frontiers of empty space to exploit.

We should hope this idea is not true. In general terms it probably is not: the American frontier was declared closed in 1890, but technological progress and economic growth in the US has been faster after 1890 than before. Nonetheless, I found Williams’ portrayal of stagnation pretty convincing and it will stick in my head for a while.

The best books I read in 2021

This year I had better luck with my fiction reading than with my nonfiction, so I’m putting my fiction recommendations first. Books are listed in the order in which I read them:


  • Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room. A stunning and vivid evocation of a delinquent San Francisco childhood that turns into an adulthood behind bars. It’s hard to convey just how good the writing is.
  • Hernan Diaz, In The Distance. An anti-Western in which a Swedish immigrant wanders around the American frontier, never quite fitting in and never quite understanding what is going on around him. A portrait of loneliness.
  • Octavia Butler, Parable Of The Sower. In this 1993 book Butler was one of the first to make the intellectual leap from thinking of “the apocalypse” as a discrete, dramatic event to thinking of it as the gradual and often unnoticed breakdown of systems. This insight (picked up by William Gibson in his excellent The Peripheral) helps account for some of the book’s uncannily prescient moments.
  • Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven. As an enjoyer of historical fiction I’d heard about Renault’s Alexander the Great books for a while. But I was still surprised at how immediately compelling her 1969 novel about Alexander’s youth turned out to be. It is even endorsed by historians. However the sequel, The Persian Boy, was much less convincing.
  • Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend. Through a misguided desire not to jump on literary bandwagons, I hadn’t picked this up before, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. The writing is always remarkably precise and emotionally honest.
  • Stephen King, Billy Summers. Classic American noir fiction updated to the (last possible pre-Covid) moment, with stripped-down prose precisely describing the logistics of various criminal actions. The details are everything in this kind of writing and the details here are absolutely on point.
  • Jenny Erpenbeck, The End Of Days. One woman lives multiple lives through the events of twentieth-century German history. The structuring conceit adds to rather than subtracts from the realism, and the prose (translated by Susan Bernofsky) is always striking.
  • Pat Barker, Regeneration. The crackling intellectual sparring between psychologist and patient makes this portrayal of a World War I mental hospital much more than an account of the human costs of war.
  • Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock. “Climate-change thriller” is not yet a recognized genre of fiction, but perhaps it will become one on the strength of Stephenson’s thoroughly plausible example. The opening chapter is a particularly brilliant depiction of just how complicated overlapping unanticipated consequences can get.


  • Charles Kenny, The Plague Cycle. One lesson of the last couple of years is that it is difficult to understand what happens to human societies without understanding the biological context in which they operate. Kenny’s book is an excellent introduction to this relatively new way of seeing history (see my post on his reinterpretation of Malthus for more).
  • John Maynard Keynes, Essays In Biography. Keynes’ accounts of the life and work of economists Thomas Malthus and Alfred Marshall are wonderful pieces of writing: detailed, sympathetic and thoroughly engaged with the substance of their work in a way that probably only another genius economist could manage (here’s more on Malthus).
  • James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History Of The Earliest States. An excellent survey of the rise of what is usually called “civilization.” Scott’s anarchist politics and anthropological background are similar to David Graeber’s, who was also interested in the history of the early states. But Scott is the more careful scholar, making clear the limits of our knowledge while Graeber reliably lunges for the tendentious over-interpretation.
  • Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020. After the miracle of The Mars Room I had to read more Kushner. Like any collection of occasional journalism this is a bit of a mixed bag, but the best pieces are very good indeed: her prose is always sharp and unsentimental.
  • Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I wouldn’t normally expect magazine writing from the mid-1960s to age particularly well, but this classic collection of essays is not dated at all, and in fact often seems shockingly contemporary.
  • J.G. Ballard, Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews. From his perch in suburban England, Ballard’s outsider view on society was always interesting and original. Of course, he wasn’t right about everything, and his obsession with Freudian psychology turned out to be an intellectual dead end. But these interviews show how he saw where things were headed very clearly, not because he particularly understood technology but because he understood people.
  • Ken Jowitt, New World Disorder: The Leninist Extinction. A collection of essays on the political culture of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, filled with insights and a catholic range of historical and literary references. Although dating mostly from the late 1970s, a very different intellectual moment, the persistence of what Jowitt prefers to call Leninism in China has kept his project relevant.

Previous lists: 20202019 | 2018 | 2017 | 2016 | 2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012

Acadian Books & Prints, New Orleans, Louisiana

The deep roots of China’s financial conservatism

A growing theme in China’s recent policy rhetoric is the forceful contrast between economic policymaking in China and “the West,” particularly the US. Not just in the old-school “our socialism is better than your capitalism” way, though there is some of that, but more in the vein of: “we do orthodox fiscal and monetary policymaking better than you do.” Central bank governor Yi Gang wrote an impressive article in 2019 in which he laid out China’s determination to avoid zero interest rates, quantitative easing, and all the rest of it. A more recent example of the genre was a speech this month by Guo Shuqing, China’s top financial regulator; here’s a couple of samples from the official English translation:

When fiscal spending has been largely supported by money printing, it is like an airplane getting stuck in a spinning vortex: it would be very hard for the airplane to get out easily on its own. Before 2008, the Fed balance sheet was less than about US$800 billion, but it has now expanded to almost $8 trillion. Meanwhile, the ratio of the US federal debt to its GDP has surged to a record high since the World War II. …

China didn’t flood the market with liquidity while strengthening its macro policy responses. Some countries criticize that China failed to implement adequate policy responses and make sufficient contribution to global economic recovery, which is evidently a bias or misconception. In fact, China has made quite strong policy efforts.

What I’ve only recently started to appreciate is just how deep the historical roots of this kind of thinking are in China. During the civil war between the Communists and the Nationalists, each side issued its own currency in areas they controlled, so there was competition between the different monetary and fiscal regimes. The Nationalists lost that battle: their money printing to finance fiscal obligations led to dramatic hyperinflation in the mid-1940s, with triple-digit increases in the money supply and price indexes (see for instance the 1954 article “Hyperinflation in China“). After the Communist victory in the war, one of the new government’s first great accomplishments was to stabilize the currency and end hyperinflation.

That seems to have been a formative experience for many of China’s economic thinkers. Even a couple of decades later, they were still touting the benefits of a stable currency and low government debt to Western visitors. There’s an interesting anecdote to this effect in John Kenneth Galbraith’s A China Passage, his diary of a 1972 visit to China in the company of Wassily Leontief and James Tobin (I did not know about this book before but recently stumbled across a copy at my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia). Here’s the relevant passage:

The government has no external or internal debt–a loan from the Soviets negotiated at the time of the Korean war was paid off ahead of schedule in 1968. The budget operates with a slight surplus. In our discussions in Peking information on Chinese finances was provided with great precision and competence by a member of the Institute of Economics of the Academy of Sciences. She notes that “The Chinese currency is one of the most stable in the world. In contrast with some capitalist countries, no borrowing, no inflation, no devaluation.” Being, like all our hosts, impeccably polite, she did not specify the capitalist country.

One of the more engaging moments of the visit was when James Tobin, who with Walter Heller was one of the men who made the New Economics legitimate under President Kennedy, undertook to explain in response to a question why it was often good for the United States to have a budget deficit and increase its debt. He might have had it easier with Andrew Mellon.

There seems to be a pretty direct line from Galbraith’s unnamed Chinese interlocutor in 1972 and the defiantly conservative posturing of today’s top economic policymakers. With the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Party’s founding in full swing, there’s even more attention than usual to this history. The Economic Daily newspaper has been running a series of articles on the Party’s pre-1949 economic policies: one focuses on Chen Yun’s success in containing inflation in 1943-44, while another highlights Xue Muqiao’s achievements in stabilizing currency in 1940-41. The message from such historical arcana is pretty straightforward: the Party’s track record of steady economic management goes back a very long way.

Skeptics will be quick to point out that this kind of rhetoric is a bit incongruous coming from the country that, in the decade after the 2008 global financial crisis, engaged in one of the largest and most expansions of debt in economic history. Yet the effects of the old conservative line of thinking were visible even then. Because the Ministry of Finance was obsessed with keeping its own debt and deficit metrics under control, it ended up tolerating excessive borrowing by local governments and SOEs.

A couple of further comments on the Galbraith book: I wish it had had more of the kind of anecdotes I quoted above. On the whole it is not very insightful: he is too obviously and easily swayed by the fact that his Chinese hosts fed him well and put him in nice accommodations. He modestly announces his lack of China expertise at the opening, but does nothing to compensate for how those gaps in his knowledge kept him from understanding the context of what he was seeing (a problem that is blindingly obvious now but was clear even to other contemporary non-specialists; see for instance Martin Bernal’s 1973 review). As a result, me makes some fairly cringeworthy comments.

Malthus reconsidered

The name of Malthus will forever be associated with the idea of resource constraints on human population growth– which is unfortunate, because his argument appears to have been completely wrong. But I feel a need to compensate a bit for my little essay on those mistakes after reading John Maynard Keynes’ delightful biographical sketch of Malthus. Keynes offers an alternative intellectual history of Malthus, in which the Essay on the Principle of Population appears as a youthful work that gave him much notoriety, but was far from his most significant intellectual accomplishment.

It is difficult to overstate just how good Keynes’ essay on Malthus is: it is wonderfully detailed yet short, warmly sympathetic yet intellectually sharp. (Among other tidbits, we learn the name of Malthus is derived from “Malthouse,” and should be pronounced similarly.) Tyler Cowen has called Keynes “one of the greatest biographical writers in the entire English language.” And indeed I found Keynes’ Essays in Biography to be very good, though the meat of it is really the biographical essay on Malthus and a more extended one on Alfred Marshall; the sketches of British politicians for me were less interesting and insightful.

Keynes claims Malthus as his intellectual forebear, “the first of the Cambridge economists,” on the strength of Malthus’ early attention to the demand side of the economy, and his invention of the concept of “effective demand,” a precursor to today’s “aggregate demand.” As far back as 1820, in his Principles of Political Economy, Malthus recommended “the employment of the poor in roads and public works” as a remedy to economic downturns. But the first appearance of this idea actually came in 1800, in an anonymous pamphlet called An Investigation of the Cause of the Present High Price of Provisions:

Malthus’s conception of “effective demand” is brilliantly illustrated in this early pamphlet by “an idea which struck him so strongly as he rode on horseback from Hastings to Town” that he stopped two days in his “garret in town,” “sitting up till two o’clock to finish it that it might come out before the meeting of parliament.” He was pondering why the price of provisions should have risen by so much more than could be accounted for by any deficiency in the harvest. He did not, like Ricardo a few years later, invoke the quantity of money. He found the cause in the increase in working-class incomes as a consequence of parish allowances being raised in proportion to the cost of living. …

The words and the ideas are simple. But here is the beginning of systematic economic thinking.

Keynes found that Malthus’ economic thinking was best developed in his long correspondence with David Ricardo, a relationship that managed to combine deep and sincere friendship with equally profound intellectual disagreement:

This friendship will live in history on account of its having given rise to the most important literary correspondence in the whole development of Political Economy. … Here, indeed, are to be found the seeds of economic theory, and also the divergent lines—so divergent at the outset that the destination can scarcely be recognised as the same until it is reached—along which the subject can be developed. …

The contrasts between the intellectual gifts of the two were obvious and delightful. In economic discussions Ricardo was the abstract and a priori theorist, Malthus the inductive and intuitive investigator who hated to stray too far from what he could test by reference to the facts and his own intuitions. …

One cannot rise from a perusal of this correspondence without a feeling that the almost total obliteration of Malthus’s line of approach and the complete domination of Ricardo’s for a period of a hundred years has been a disaster to the progress of economics. Time after time in these letters Malthus is talking plain sense, the force of which Ricardo with his head in the clouds wholly fails to comprehend. Time after time a crushing refutation by Malthus is met by a mind so completely closed that Ricardo does not even see what Malthus is saying.

Malthus’ strengths, on Keynes’ account, are his close attention to the realities of economic life and his detailed investigation into practicalities, which gave him insights that Ricardo’s abstractions could not. It’s interesting, therefore, that he characterizes Malthus’ first writings on population as “a priori and philosophical in method,” the precise terms in which he criticizes Ricardo’s arguments.

While Malthus added huge amounts of empirical material to the second edition of the Essay on the Principle of Population, it is clear that the inspiration for the first edition was not empirical. It was more of an abstract conviction, one that arose during a theological argument with his father. William Otter, a friend of Malthus, relates the story in his Memoir of Robert Malthus:

The mind of Mr. Malthus was certainly set to work upon the subject of population, in consequence of frequent discussions between his father and himself respecting another question, in which they differed entirely from each other. The former, a man of romantic and somewhat sanguine temper, had warmly adopted the opinions of Condorcet and Godwin respecting the perfectibility of man, to which the sound and practical sense of the latter was always opposed; and when the question had been often the subject of animated discussion between them, and the son had rested his cause, principally upon the obstacles which the tendency of population to increase faster than the means of subsistence, would always throw in the way; he was desired to put down in writing, for maturer consideration, the substance of his argument, the consequence of which was, the Essay on Population.  

Keynes does not discuss whether Malthus’ theory of population–that it would always grow exponentially while food production could only grow linearly–was actually correct, seeing it mainly as an early example of the power of his intellect. When the early work on population is considered along with the later work on political economy, the intellectual contrast with Ricardo is perhaps not as sharp as Keynes makes it out to be: Malthus too could be bullheaded in holding to his a priori theories in the face of contrary argument. But who among us has not been guilty of that?