18 August, 2019

Ko Wen-je Has No Staying Power

Image Source
This post will be a bit parochial for readers outside of Taiwan. But let us jump in anyway.

Ko Wen-je is a fairly popular mayor of Taipei. He is independent of any party—or at least he was until earlier this month, when he announced he was creating a new political party of his own. Ko seems to hope that voter anger with the established parties will give him (or the person he selects as the party candidate—there is a lot of speculation over who that might be, with most people giving Terry Gou good odds) a chance to steal victory. With Han Kuo-yu and the KMT going too "far blue" on the China question and Tsai Ing-wen having lost most of her popular support, there is a plausible place for a party that represents something closer to the median Taiwanese voter.

If you want a bit more background on Ko and his new party, I recommend this piece in the News Lens and these two blog posts at Frozen Garlic. I am going to go out on a limb and make a prediction here: unless Terry Gou enters the race, Ko and his party will fizzle out long before election day. 

I have had conversations with half a dozen ardent Ko Wen-je supporters this week. I should use the word "ardent" carefully; most were not especially political. This is half the reason they like Ko Wen-je so much. They are less in love with Ko the man than Ko the idea:  injecting something new into a political scene they strenuously try to avoid every time it pops up in their news feeds. Key to understanding these voters is how stressful they find politics. Partisanship grows vicious in this country; normal people who do not want to define their identity with words like "green" and "blue" grow tired of it. They want someone who stands outside the old partisan blood feuds. Thus Ko Wen-je.

So why my doubt? Simple:  I was personally able to convince each potential Ko voter to change their vote. 

I am still a bit flabbergasted by this, actually. Normally it is really, really hard to convince anyone, in any country, to flip their vote. Yet the first three times I did it on accident! (The last few were experiments, all successful).

How did I do it? All I did was say this: "This is my opinion: a vote for Ko Wen-je is actually a vote for Han Kuo-yu. If you look at the polling for the last few months we see a pattern. When it is just two people, Tsai wins. When it is three, Han wins. Tsai gets second, and Ko gets third. A few months ago Ko was getting second and Tsai was getting third, but I have not seen a poll yet where Ko wins." I then show them the polling. I conclude by saying: "I am not satisfied with Tsai Ing-wen myself. I think she is a terrible leader. But the question that matters is not 'do I want Tsai Ing-wen or Ko Wen-je?' but 'Do I want Han Kuo-yu to win?' That is the question you need to consider."

It works. It has worked every time. Why? The answer is pretty simple: there are few Taiwanese who like Ko more than they hate Han.

The distaste the potential Ko voter has for the two candidates is not equal. They are disenchanted with Tsai Ing-wen, but they detest Han Kuo-yu. Ko's people are not Han's people.  Understand: those who do like Han do not just like him. They are fanatically enthralled with him. This disgusts the relatively non-partisan, non-politico Ko-leaners. Han speaks language carefully targeted at melting the heart of a 55 year old Taiwanese woman. This rhetoric has no resonance with the potential Ko voter, who is almost always of the younger half of the electorate. They want displays of intelligence, competence, and fresh thinking; Han, for all of his strengths, can deliver none of that. Han Kuo-yu is everything a 60's something Taiwanese thinks a good Taiwanese man should be; he is also the one thing Taiwan's 30-somethings hope they never grow to be. In their eyes he is a national embarrassment. And all of that before they consider Han's position on the China question, which is far out of line with the median voter's.

What was most interesting to me in these discussions was that none of these self-declared Ko voters had ever heard the argument I offered. They had never thought what the actual consequences of a vote for Ko might be. Once they were aware of these consequences, their change of heart was immediate. "I might vote for some of his party members in the Legislative Yuan," one said, "but if it looks like Han Kuo-yu will win I guess I do not really have a choice on the presidential vote, do I?"

Ko's party has only existed for a few weeks. If Ko throws his hat in the ring, the facts I spelled out to these potential Ko voters will be universal knowledge. The clearer it becomes that a vote for Ko is a vote for Han, the less and less people there will be willing to give Ko anything. I do not see a way for Ko and company to survive that.

Well, I do see one way. They could choose Terry Gou as their presidential candidate.  As a former KMT candidate he could plausibly pull in a much larger number of the moderate Blues than Ko can manage. That would defang the "a vote for Ko is a vote for Han" line before its bite ever begins to sting. I have also found that among the Taiwanese there is a certain sort of popular irrationalism when Gou comes up. This is based in the implicit affinity Taiwanese believe Terry Gou shares with Donald Trump. Donald Trump was a wildcard who was not supposed to win, but he did. Trump did not have a plan to make the American economy better, but with his business sense, it has happened all the same. Donald Trump is a force that defies expert explanation and careful reasoning altogether! Terry Gou, his supporters hope, will be the same sort of inexplicable force that breaks all the rules (and polling data) Taiwanese usually use to understand what is politically possible.

Given her the data, and a Ko voter will understand what her vote really means. I have no such confidence with potential Gou voter! Gou lives outside the world of polling, data, and normal politics. That perception will prove useful to Ko and company, if they can swallow their pride and trust Gou with the future of their movement.

14 August, 2019

Chinese Are Partisan Too

With Darwin came the realization that whatever traits humans share as a species are not gifts of the gods but outcomes of biological evolution. Reason, being such a trait, must have evolved. And why not? Hasn't natural selection produced many wondrous mechanisms?
 —Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier, The Enigma of Reason (2017)

The number of anonymous twitter handles worth reading can be counted on two hands. One of the few worthies tweets under the title "@itrulyknowchina." He or she lives somewhere in China, has a better command of Chinese than I do, and often breaks stories on twitter long before journalists do. Earlier today, he/she typed up the following tweet storm:
The overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders, including or especially the educated, comparative liberal ones, have lost their brains on the issue of Hong Kong - genuinely buying into whatever the Party has ben selling. And this makes me really frightened.

Many bought into the foreign incitement bullshit. What kind of foreign "black hand" can whip 2 mln people onto the street on a single day and keep tens of thousands on the streets week after week? It's just bullshit.

Plus, the "black hand" theory is so looking down on HK citizens - are they that stupid to be manipulated by a few "black hands"? What can drive these HK citizens except their own grievances and discontent?

There are so many bullshit theories that I just don't want to go through one by one. Bottom line is the overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders including the elite ones have been brainwashed so thoroughly that they don't have any critical thinking capabilities left on them.

They can't tell black from white. They can't tell right from wrong. And they don't know what is good for Hong Kong and perhaps most importantly what is good for China (even within its most narrow definition) in the long run.

This phenomenon, namely that the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of Chinese mainlanders are under the fingertips and easily manipulated by the Party, is gonna have far reaching repercussions for China and the world in the long run.

Beijing is gonna feel ever emboldened, having been reassured by the "patriotism" it has seen on HK issue. It will therefore act more toughly and recklessly on external affairs. Nations across the world will find - have already found - China adopting a much togher stance.

China doesn't have checks and balances built in internal politics, so one of the few little things that could vague check Beijing's hand is the elusive collective "feeling" of its citizens. If Beijing is confident in manipulating public opinion, it fears nothing (not even USA)[1]
Dake Kang, a reporter for AP working out of Beijing, had a twitter thread on a similar theme:
Lots of foreigners saying they don't understand how anyone could believe the gov't line that HK protests are whipped up by foreign "black hands".

Indeed the increasingly shrill and patronizing gov't propaganda is angering HK protesters even more. So why do it?

The only reasonable explanation is that at this point, the gov't no longer cares about foreign opinion, or even the opinion of HK residents.

They're now mainly worried about what Mainland Chinese think about the protests.

In the early days of the protests, Chinese media was silent on HK. Images and news of the marches were vigorously scrubbed offline. At that point, their main concern was HK/world opinion.

But a funny thing happened: educated elite Mainland Chinese started hearing about HK

And though it's a fool's errand to try and measure public opinion in China, just anecdotally, many Mainland Chinese I spoke to weren't hostile to the protests. A few were actually extremely supportive; others had complicated feelings; most didn't know what to think.

My guess is that the gov't realized that these protests may actually have the potential to appeal to Mainland Chinese. That freaked them out, and now they're going all-out in winning Mainlanders back to the government's side.

So even though their propaganda push now is extremely harmful to Beijing's image abroad, and angering protesters even more, it's full steam ahead, because at the end of the day legitimacy at home 》》》》》global opinion. It's a worrying microcosm of why protests keep escalating

I don't think most Mainlanders totally support Beijing on HK. The educated aren't necessarily pro-protest, but many have nuanced opinions not reflected in state media. Many others haven't decided what to think, opinions still very fragile. It's a battle for hearts and minds. [2]
As I would prefer a world where intelligent people are not obligated to use twitter, I will do my part in building it by responding to these ideas as a good dinosaur should, by blogging.

My argument will make some people unhappy: it is not accurate or especially helpful to chalk Chinese beliefs about Hong Kong to state propaganda. We cheapen Chinese perceptions by doing so. It think it foolhardy to cheapen them so.

Do not misunderstand: The theory that the Hong Kong protests were the creation of a few American operatives is stupid. Its stupidity deserves only the briefest treatment. On the twitter wilds conspiracy mongers flash photos about thoughtlessly. The next time someone spams your feed with a hundred pictures of Julie Eadeh meeting with a group of protesters, ask them: just what do they think she gave them? Is she shipping the protesters guns? Gas masks? Crates of money to bribe protesters out of their parents homes and on to the streets?

The truth is that the Americans can give the protesters one thing only: information. An American FSO can inform them of what the official government position is on the Hong Kong protests, give them a sense of where American public opinion stands on the issue, warn them of what actions might lead to formal rebuke from the United States government, and perhaps (though I think it exceedingly unlikely) feed them actionable intelligence on the CPC, HKSAR government, or the police that they were not already aware of. The side that really benefits from this sort of meeting is not the protesters. It is the Americans. A political officer's job is to report to Washington what is happening in the foreign country in which she is stationed, and why. In the Hong Kong of 2019, the fastest way to do that is to meet with people who are making things happen.

Which leads to the obvious question: if this theory is so obviously stupid, why do so many Chinese believe it?

The answer is simpler than "propaganda." Simpler and scarier. If it was all a matter of propaganda and censorship, then the whole thing could be resolved by exposing Chinese to the truth. There are obvious snags here. Take those Chinese students in New Zealand and Australia that attacked the pro-Hong Kong marchers. They have escaped the Chinese censorship machine. Are they any better off for it? They are exposed—quite directly—to opposing narratives. Have they been moderated by it?

Censorship is the wrong lens through which to view this issue.

American readers, an intellectual exercise: think for about thirty seconds about your partisan opposites. In that thirty seconds, tally as many of crazy, unconscionable, obviously false things commonly believed by the other side's rank and file.

Now: reflect on the American Great Fire Wall—but that is right, we do not have one. We are free to read whatever views we will. You cannot live in our country and not eventually come across arguments from the other side. You will come across the truth sooner or later. Whether you believe the truth when you find it is a different question.

So why do so many Americans believe stupid things?

We know the answer to this query. I have written about it before. Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have written a superb book about it. Moshe Hoffman's twitter feed (one of that service's few other gems) is a daily exploration of it. Humans do not reason to find truth. Reasoning and rhetoric were useful adaptations in mankind's evolutionary past because reason and rhetoric help us build coalitions. We argue to win. The telos of reason is victory. Every other application is a fortunate accident.

The important question in a political dispute is not "who is right?" but "who is on our side?

Incidentally, this is what those intimidation squads on Australian campuses are wondering:
Despite being the aggressors in this case, invading protesters’ personal space and menacingly shouting people down, the patriots perpetually framed themselves as victims. Citing an earlier incident in which a group of protesters in Hong Kong threw the Chinese flag into Victoria Harbor, the loudest of the patriots demanded answers from the Melbourne-based protesters for this offense, as if they had personally grabbed the flag from his hands: “Answer my question, are you on the same side as those people who threw our flag into the harbor?” Such accusations and pre-emptive self-victimization in turn provided cover for such blatantly threatening comments from the Chinese students as “We Chinese just want Hong Kong’s land, we don’t care about the people” and “We’ll upload video of this to Weibo, then see if you all are still alive tomorrow.”

Third, nationalism eats its own. “We are all Chinese” is not a statement of solidarity but rather a threat to embrace a particular ideological line based not in reason but in imposed identity. While the Hong Kong students were the main targets for harassment, particularly venomous hatred was reserved for fellow Chinese who failed to adopt a suitably hostile stance. In a moment that highlighted the troubling intersection of authoritarian nationalism and sexism, one student from the province of Sichuan who was speaking with protesters rather than yelling at them was shouted down as a “Sichuan sister” who “needs to be reported to the consulate.” The assembled group of patriots laughed as this student shook her head and stared down at the ground. Images of this student continue to circulate on Chinese social media today, with threats to report her to the authorities “in every province.” (emphasis added) [3]

This gets to the core of the issue. Americans think what is happening in Hong Kong is about opposing the communists and preserving their liberties; Chinese think what is happening in Hong Kong is about splitting China asunder.

I was on an American university campus when the Umbrella movement was in full swing. I had to physically intervene to prevent a Hong Konger and a mainlander (a Manchurian, of course) from getting in a fist fight at the university visitor center. I reflected on this incident later with an older Chinese student who had come to the school for a semester as part of an English learning program. "That was the most surprising thing when I came here to Hawaii," she told me. "I knew people from Taiwan would be how they were; that was expected. But I was shocked the first time I heard a Hong Konger get up in class and answer the question 'what country are you from?' with 'I am from Hong Kong.' I had no idea they were like that. I had no idea we have so many traitors."

Note the assumptions: Hong Kongers are basically the same as other Chinese, Hong Kong is just another Chinese city, and those who want it to be otherwise are traitors. That is the how the majority of Chinese feel about the issue. The innocent protester/undercover cop that was tied up in the airport last night will be understood through this lens: here is one of our very own citizens on our very own soil being abused in public, and our very own government is powerless to stop it! This is how the event will be understood before any propagandists attempt to massage the event for their own ends. It will be seen as an attack on China and its people—in other words, an attack on us. The protesters are them—the people who throw the Chinese flag in the harbor, the people who want to dash China into pieces, the people who should love China, but work constantly to frustrate its return to greatness.

Line these beliefs up. China's interests are our interests. Hong Kong is a just another part of China. Hong Kongers are just another group of Chinese. Protests in Hong Kong hurt us. The protesters are traitors. They hurt our people at a time when they are engaged in a struggle with America. It is not very far stretch to stitch these things together and go one step further: the traitors get their strength from our other enemies. We face one grand effort to destroy us.

You do not need an especially effective propaganda machine to get people to believe this kind of thing. All people are primed to believe this sort of thing. Humans are eager partisans. Our race is ever ready to reason against its enemies. We vary in one thing only: who we believe those enemies to be.

The people of China have identified theirs.

EDIT 15/8/19: The original post misidentified the second tweet stream as belonging to Dake Kang, the political scientist, when in reality it was written by Dave Kang, one of AP's Beijing reporters.

If you found the psychological angle of this post insightful, you might also like the posts "Reason is For Stabbing," and "On Words and Weapons."  If you would like to read more of the recent things I have written about China, try out the essay "Give No Heed to the Walking Dead," or my translation of an important speech by Xi Jinping. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] "itrulyknowchina," tweets published on 4:18 AM, 13 August 2019. Accessible here: https://twitter.com/itrulyknowchina/status/1161009021639417860

[2] Dave Kang, tweet stream published 11:59 AM on 13 August, 2019. Accessible here: https://twitter.com/dakekang/status/1161125128882667520 1

[3] Kevin Carrico, Universities Are Turning a Blind Eye to Chinese Bullies," Foreign Policy 9 August 2019.

08 August, 2019

On the Angst of American Journalists

Felix Fenon, At La Revue Blanche (1940)
Image source.
It is a common observation that internet life and real life don't really match. Spend a few hours on twitter and you will think America is a 21st century Weimar Republic. But spend time talking with neighbors and friends in the flesh and you find that this feeling ebbs away. The economy is doing well. People are getting paid bounding sums. Nothing seems so fraught as the online hordes would have you fear.

I have a hypothesis for why this might be.

For the last few months I have tried my hand at earning most of my income through writing. This has been an interesting experience. One of the wake up calls to me happened at the turn of month. I had not been paid like I expected to. The publications in question were not late in payment; they are late in publishing. I met deadline for both, but the publications have held onto the pieces now for some weeks. I have confidence they will eventually get around to them.

For them it does not make much a difference; none of the submitted pieces were especially time sensitive. They can be saved for a lull in the newsroom. But for me the difference is between getting paid in July and getting paid in September.

This might not be a business I can afford to be in much longer.

This post is not really about me. I relate this vignette because it is an interesting slice on an industry in crisis. To get into this industry you must spend several years free-lancing, usually for $150-$500 per piece, or come in with sterling connections and internships as the top. But neither a successful reporting record or the best connections in the world will guarantee you much.

Here was a report in Bloomberg from last month:
The news business is on pace for its worst job losses in a decade as about 3,000 people have been laid off or been offered buyouts in the first five months of this year.... The level of attrition is the highest since 2009, when the industry saw 7,914 job cuts in the first five months of that year in the wake of the financial crisis, according to data compiled by Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc., an outplacement and executive coaching firm.

With the U.S. unemployment rate the lowest since 1969, the journalism job market is one of the rare weak spots, said Andrew Challenger, the firm’s vice president.
“In most industries, employers can’t find enough people to fill the jobs they have open,” he said. “In news, it has been the opposite story. And it seems to have been accelerating.” 
The cuts have created a competitive job market where the number of out-of-work journalists often exceeds the number of openings. When Bklyner, a local news site in Brooklyn, said in May it was looking for a new political reporter, 16 journalists emailed their resumes within a few hours, said Liena Zagare, Bklyner’s editor and publisher. Many had prior work experience at national media outlets such as CNN, Reuters and New York Magazine
“I was looking at my inbox like, ‘Oh my goodness,’” Zagare said in an interview. “It was beyond what I’ve seen before ⁠— the kind of people looking to work for us and the speed that their applications were coming in. To me, it was incredibly depressing. It says something about this industry that we can’t employ these people.” [1]
You can read the full thing here. Spend some time contemplating their graphics. The upshot? Unlike for the rest of the country, for the news media the recession never ended. They are still living in 2009. For them, the economic hardship and uncertainty that gripped us all in the Great Recession never stopped.

How do you imagine that colors how these people see the world? Or how they report on it?

Political twitter is dominated by people from a few professional backgrounds. These backgrounds are not surprising. If you have an interest in public affairs—an interest strong enough to make a career out of it—these are the sort of fields you tend to end up in:

  • Journalism and the media
  • Academia
  • Policy work (which mostly means think tanks, and occasionally means working on the Hill, for DoD, or so forth)
  • Law  

To succeed in any of these careers you need a fairly high IQ, strong writing and verbal skills, and a network of contacts and connections in your field of choice. These are the default career paths for people who are good with words.

Each is something of a mess. I will not cover them all in depth; the stories are well known. Academia produces thousands and thousands of adjuncts working far below the average American wage. To get to that stage  you must spend five to eight years laboring as a graduate student, again working under the average wage. Only a fraction of those who go through this experience end up securing a stable university job because of it. This instability matches what you see in the policy world; I recently saw a well placed researcher brag on Twitter that they had completed six unpaid internships in order to climb to their current position. Six! Lawyers, for their part, earn an average wage high above these other two groups, but that number deceives. The wages lawyers make fall into a bimodal distribution. A small percentage at the top gets paid a lot straight out of law school; a smaller group gets paid just about the American mean—but the American mean household does not have to worry about law school debt.

About four years ago a GenX friend with more worldly experience than my own admitted he had limited sympathy for the generations below them. His generation also had struggled in their 20s, but at the end of the day all of the kids with top-30 degrees that were crowding Washington DC turned out just fine. For all the gnashing of teeth he heard then, pictures of newly purchased houses just outside the beltway are seen now. Things would work out the same for the next batch of insecure 20 somethings start out at the bottom.

This view was more defensible in 2015 than 2019. The journalism jobs have only been cut further, tenured faculty positions continue to decline, and competition in the big city law firms has not abated. These industries simply have more talented applicants than positions. Those who pursue them have committed themselves to a decade of economic risk and financial uncertainty. These men and women have grounded their identities in one of the few careers whose prospects have declined as the rest of the country has gotten better.

These are also the people who drive the national conversation on twitter. Academics, journalists, policy hands, and lawyers.[2] The people who form the narratives that we understand our country have been frustrated by fate. They live uncertain, precarious lives; even the most successful and secure are surrounded by defeated legions. Each old college friend is a reminder of what they could have been or might soon be. They are more likely to be stressed by circumstance. Do you think that stress does not carry over into their perceptions of the country writ large?

My hypothesis is that it does. The national conversation seems dangerously off kilter because it is dominated by the voices of those whose lives actually are off kilter. The online world is awash with frantic insecure chattering because the chattering classes have spent the last decade living frantic, insecure lives. That sort of life takes a toll on you. What we have discovered over the last few years is that this toll is paid by the rest of us too.

If you found this post on the sociological source of our narratives was worth reading, you might also like the posts"Why is the Fight For Free Speech Led by the Psychologists?," and "On Words and Weapons."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Gerry Smith, "Journalism Job Cuts Haven’t Been This Bad Since the Recession," Bloomberg (1 July 2019).

[2] I might add activists to this group, but here I must admit ignorance of the labor economics of that profession. 

29 July, 2019

A Study Guide for Human Society, Part I

Image source

ខ្មាសល្ងងទើបចេះ ខ្មាសក្រទើបមាន 
Shame of ignorance leads to knowledge; 
shame of poverty leads to wealth
—Khmer Proverb

Earlier this week I was grousing on twitter about books like Ursuala Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, Frank Herbert's Dune, Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, or Ian Banks Culture series. The obvious connection between all of these books is they are acclaimed works of 'soft' science fiction. But hang around with political nerds long enough and you will realize something else these books have in common: when you ask those people "what books have had the biggest impact on your life?" these books are often some of the first ones offered up. The same person will not offer all five of course—it is a very different sort of person whose life has been changed by The Dispossessed and by Starship Troopers—but the impact is just as strong in all cases. Other books you will find in this crowd includes novels of Ayn Rand or Hermann Hesse, and works of philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche or the French existentialists.

Some of these books are better than others. Some are over-rated. Others are works of minor brilliance. But their enduring brilliance (or lack of it) are not why they show up on these lists. They pop up so often because they are perfectly, though unintentionally, designed to transform the life of a certain sort of person: the bookish, overly-intellectual American teenager.

Do not misunderstand me. None of these books (well, maybe a few of Hermann Hesse's...) were designed for the 'young adult' audience. Almost all were written before publishers considered 'YA' a distinct consumer demographic. Much of their attraction to the teenage mind comes from this fact. These books are adult works written for adult audiences. They are meant to be taken seriously. And these young readers do take them seriously.

These are all books with big ideas. The ideas rest at the intersection of action and thought. Foundational to all of these works is a critique of the conventional. This is quite explicit in the work of the philosophers and existentialists, who write directly of what bothers them in human life, and how humans might do better. The critique is more subtle in the science fiction novels. Here readers are presented with societies vastly different than their own, fictional utopias and dystopias that discard all of the assumptions of American middle class life. They operate on a different set of values than that taught in classrooms and living rooms of suburbia. They force readers to reassess their own values and assumptions about what makes society work. No matter what else might be packed into it, this is an underlying message behind any thoughtful work of 'soft' science fiction: things could be different.

You could learn this other ways, of course. A look at the political philosophy of the Aztecs or the feuding laws of Medieval Iceland will force you to rethink your assumptions about what makes humans tick. But that is hard. In contrast, science fiction writers wrote with modern audiences in mind and package their material into engaging narratives. You can read them without bothering with supporting class lectures or extended footnotes. That appeals to an intellectual 16 year old. Well written science fiction is history and political philosophy on the cheap.

(The same thing is true for Nietzsche, Sartre, and the rest, of course. The reason they are immensely popular with intellectual teenagers while Kant is not has everything to do with the difficulty of reading the latter and the ease of reading the former, not the intrinsic worth of their actual work).

This is not a bad thing! I do not write all this to dismiss science fiction or existentialism. I am glad there are books that force thoughtful teenagers into wrestling with the big questions of human existence. But what if you don't want to read about history, political philosophy, and the human sciences 'on the cheap?' What should you read if you have already done that science fiction thing as a teenager and want to dig into something deeper? What to read then?

A twitter follower asked me that exact question two days ago. I have thought about it a bit since then and have decided that this would be a fun topic to write a post on. You will have to take my answer with a grain of salt; I have written no mind-shattering theory to explain the decline and fall of human civilizations. I am no authority. The most I can say for myself is that I have read a lot. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here). For those of you who read at more normal speeds, what I am about to write might be useful for optimizing your time. I have read the crap so you do not have to.

In general, I am assuming that our twitterer is interested in questions like these: "What makes human society work? Why do people do what they do? How does culture/wealth/geography/[enter your favorite variable here] change human behavior? What is the relationship between human behavior seen at the micro-scale and at the macro-scale? Do ideas matter? How much does individual choice matter? Is it possible to live morally in human society? Is it possible for societies as a whole to become more or less moral over time?" I am also assuming the questioner has no special background in any particular field, and also that they are not especially mathematically inclined.

If that describes you, I'd prioritize my reading in the following categories, and in the following order:
  • history(+archeology/ethnography)
  • literature
  • behavioral science
  • political/moral philosophy
  • social science
Let's cover each of these in turn.


History is the most important thing you can read. Why? Only a strong background in history can you tell you when writers in other fields are full of crap. I cannot tell you the number of times I have a found a political argument (or even fairly well regarded work of social science) that reads compelling at the 10,000 foot view but falls apart when you stack it up against concrete facts of history seen from the ground view. Humans are motivated reasoners. We bend the data to fit our theories. If you are not familiar with the data, you will not realize when it is being distorted or misused.

The data of the social sciences is history.

The problem with history is that it is too big. It is impossible to get a fine grained picture of every people and era on the planet. There is just too much of it.

My recommendation is to pick three very different historical periods that you find fascinating. They can be any three, really, but ideally they will be a bit separated from each other in space, time, and culture. For example, you might choose pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the Abbasid empire, and revolutionary Russia. Or maybe your interests lie with Republican Rome, the Protestant reformation, and 20th century India. That all works. It does not really matter what you choose, as long as you have decent spread (at least one is 'modern,' at least one is 'ancient,' and at least one is from a non-Western civilization). The important thing is that you have a genuine interest in these societies strong enough that you could gladly read 4-6 books about each of them without getting bored.

Because that is what you should do. Read 4-6 books about each of the eras in question.

Your goal here is to build up a fairly granular knowledge of a particular time or event than can be called on to test and assess theories and narratives that will be thrown at you. "Famous scholar X proposes that y leads to z, but did y lead to z in each of the eras I am most familiar with?" You will know you have the background knowledge to do this right when you can answer questions like the following for a given era of expertise: "What are some of the biggest disagreements historians have about this era/event? What are the main sources historians or archaeologists use to try and understand the era, and how might they bias this understanding? If you had to pick one small incident or detail about the era that seems insignificant at first, but is actually very revealing example of the way this society/event worked, what would it be?"

You don't need PhD levels answers to these questions. Just something more insightful that you would get from the Wikipedia page.

From that point, you can broaden out to more general histories. If you read fast enough to keep reading 4-5 books on different eras, keep on doing that. More normal people will probably want to transition to broader surveys that fill in the blank spaces they have with the rest of the world. There are plenty of fine histories that cover entire countries or regions from antiquity to the present (e.g., India: A History  Japan and the Shackles of the Past). Others might follow the history of a specific topic (say, war, the environment, or the financial system) over multiple centuries (e.g. the Pursuit of Power, Ecological Imperialism, the Cash Nexus). Others might do the same thing, but restrict themselves to a slightly smaller geographical scale (e.g. Asian Military Revolution, China: An Environmental History, An Economic History of China). Global histories of entire centuries are also somewhat in vogue (I blame Hobsawm's series for this development). Others will be comparative histories—works of history or ethnography that line up dozens of societies (e.g. The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers, Understanding Early Civilizations, War in Human Civilization, Dynamics of Ancient Empires), or just a few (Islamic Gunpowder Empires, Empires of the Atlantic World, The Industrial Revolution in World History). All of these will do.

If that seems overwhelming, one way to make it easier would be to focus one particular macro-topic that can be explored in almost every single society. I personally have a special interest in warfare and military affairs. Reading about the wars and military institutions of different societies across history of human civilization has proved useful for learning much about the broader history of the societies involved. Something similar can be said for economic, religious, institutional, and environmental history. It should be true for histories that focus on the life of women, but I have been disappointed by the many bad apples in this sub-field, who often focus too narrowly on literary representation and images to say anything useful about the larger society in which these images are drawn from. There are exceptions (see Domestic Revolutions) but they are harder to find.

The last group of history books are the ones you are likely the most eager to read. These are books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, Francis Fukuyama's Political Order, Ian Morris's Why the West Rules. While methodologically these books are properly considered histories, for the purpose of this series I group them with the social sciences. They are concerned with the same questions that animate works of social science like Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty or the entire oeuvre of Peter Turchin. Why do some countries become wealthy while others do not? What explains the rise and fall of civilizations? Why did Western countries conquer the world instead of the other way around?

These books are fine to read and fun to contemplate, but if you start here you are doing it wrong. I have collected fifteen separate 400+ page books that try to answer the question "why did the West get rich first." And that was seven years ago! The number of books tackling this question has only grown larger. But if that is all you read, you are in trouble. How will you know who is right and who is wrong? If you have not read widely in history and anthropology, who are you to judge? There is absolutely no point, for example, in reading one of Peter Turchin's books if you don't have the background knowledge needed to assess whether his models match the historical record. There is no point reading Diamond's explanation for why China stagnated and why Europe did not if you do not know anything about Chinese or European history yourself (I am not convinced Diamond does). Grand theories of civilization should be at the bottom of your list. They are worth reading, but not before you have the foundation in facts that you need to distinguish between the good work and the ill.

So how do you find the history books worth reading? Occasionally people you can trust will put up reading lists. I have a reading list here on books to read in Chinese history. Here is Razib Khan's recommendations on Roman history. Will Buckner has a list of valuable ethnographies over at Traditions of Conflict. Bryn Hammond has an absolutely fabulous set of reviews on just about every book ever written on the Mongols and Inner Asian nomads. Website like Five Books are another good place to start.

But if no reading lists come to mind, there are two methods in particular I have often have useful. The first is to Google syllabi. If you are interested in the history of the Roman Republic, Google "Roman Republic syllabus" and see what pops up. Read a few courses and see what books are included. Alternatively, if you just read a book you thought was particularly good, put its title into Google and then the word "syllabus" afterwards and see what other readings college professors have paired with that book in their courses.

The other route is the more old-fashioned: read the footnotes. A significant percentage of what I read comes not from book reviews or book lists, but by looking up and purchasing the books mentioned in the footnotes of other books I found interesting. Often times the best book on a topic is not the newest one. This is how experienced academics and researchers fill up their own reading lists. What works for us will work for you.

That's a wrap for today, folks. I do not have anything else to say about history books. I still have quite a bit to say about literature, behavioral science, political theory, and social science. But this post is already long. My idiosyncratic take on those subjects will be given their own post(s).

If you this post on books is your sort of thing, you might also like the posts"Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings," and "Making Sense of Chinese History: A Reading List."  To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

24 July, 2019

Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity

Image source.
François Bougon's book, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping is excellent. It is accessible to those who have but a cursory interest in China, yet does a better job of describing the actual motives and ideology of Xi Jinping than the vast majority of writing about the man in more wonkish publications. It is my new go-to recommendation for those who want to understand the priorities of the Communist Party of China.

My full review of the book should be coming out in a separate publication in a few weeks time.  This post should be considered more of a place-holder for public reference. One of the best aspects of Bougan's book is the way he contextualizes Xi within the broader currents of contemporary Chinese society. Each chapter juxtaposes Xi's words with the thoughts of prominent Chinese intellectuals, trends in popular culture, or broader campaigns by the Communist Party of China that parallel Xi's personal obsessions. The two lengthy excerpts that I quote below are examples of this. Each deals with the communist elite's conviction that they are engaged in an ideological struggle for survival with the West. Neither of these incidents have been treated especially well in the English before. This post thus serves as a public reference for these events that you can link to when you need to explain them quickly to others.

The first passage deals with the film In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union:
In 2013, all over the country, Party members were invited to private viewings of a curious film. Not one of those big ‘Hollywood’ productions the Party had become keen on, such as The Founding of the Republic, which was released in 2009 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, featuring a cast of over 100 famous actors. Instead, this was a three-hour didactic documentary entitled In Memory of the Collapse of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union. Shot in early 2012, the film was devised by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) and the Research Centre for World Socialism of the Academy of Social Sciences. 
The film crew had travelled to Russia to interview witnesses, who happened mostly to be former Soviet Communist Party members. Oddly enough, they were all desperately nostalgic for the USSR’s lost greatness. In the film, a voice-over recites a ponderous political analysis tinged with a hint of paranoia, characteristic of authoritarian regimes. The original sin, it explains, can be traced back to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on 25 February 1956, during which Khrushchev gave his ‘secret speech’ before 1,430 delegates. This was when the seeds of disaster had been sown. The Soviets had started to burn down their idols: Stalin, but also Lenin, which opened the floodgates to a questioning of Marxist faith. Gorbachev, father of the 1980s reforms, and his ‘accomplices’— Alexander Yakovlev, Edward Shevardnadze, and Boris Yeltsin— were all ‘children of the Twentieth Congress’. In a nutshell, they were traitors. When they came to power, their objective had been to bring down socialism and communism. Under the influence of Western powers, who were counting on them, they had implemented their destructive policies: the introduction of a multi-party system, the authorisation of NGOs, the liberalisation of the media, the abandonment of control over means of production, the privatisation of public industries, and severing the link between the Party and the army. 
The documentary specifically demonises Gorbachev and accuses him of selling himself to the Americans. Weak in his decision-making, ideologically hesitant, he had driven his country to ruin through a wave of privatisations. The wealth of a huge majority of the people had been collected by a handful of oligarchs from the old Party bureaucracy. It was the beginning of the reign of violence and of the mafia. The final blow came with the former USSR falling victim to separatist movements. Twenty years after the fall of the motherland of socialism, the outcome of glasnost and perestroika was not just negative— it was downright criminal.  
The film ends with the usual elements of propaganda: not all is lost for communism, since China has taken up the baton. Gennady Zyuganov, leader since 1993 of what’s left of the Russian Communist Party, drives this point home in his interview with the Beijing film crew: In the space of thirty years, China has achieved formidable results. I hope you will not forget the reasons for the collapse of the USSR and the lessons of the fall of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: only by [learning these lessons] can the Chinese people build their own country. The documentary ends with images of the Kremlin set to The Internationale. The voiceover gives some closing recommendations to Party members: never renounce socialism and Marxism; never give in to the influence of ‘hostile forces’ who wish to ‘Westernise’ the country and ‘sow the seeds of separatism’. Beware above all of ‘the manoeuvres of Western powers’, of their ‘financial and ideological manipulations’, of their use of NGOs, of ‘their will to incite chaos by promoting governance from the streets’. 
With this film, the tone was set from the first year of Xi’s mandate: the West was the enemy and Gorbachev had been its puppet. Xi, on the other hand, would be a herald of Chinese Marxism-Leninism. [1]
The second involves a 2014 crackdown on the Academy of Social Sciences:
In 2014, the Academy of Social Sciences—the Beijing-based national research body employing thousands of researchers—was issued a warning following an inspection by the Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. Invited to a study session on the ideas of Xi Jinping, the inspector found that the Academy had ‘ideological problems’ and had been ‘infiltrated by foreign forces’. The message was received, loud and clear; measures have since been taken. In 2015 and 2016, the Academy published no fewer than four critical works on ‘historical nihilism’, ‘neoliberalism’, the ‘theory of universal values’, and the ‘concept of Western constitutional democracy’. The last three shared the same preface; here are a few excerpts to gauge the country’s mood: 
  • Facing a new situation wherein our cultural ideology is undergoing a process of exchange, blending, and confrontation, the paramount task facing the frontlines of philosophical social science is not only to persist in upholding Marxism as our guiding ideology, but to engage in meaningful critiques of ‘universal values’, the concept of ‘constitutional democracy’, neoliberalism, historical nihilism, democratic socialism, and other mistaken ideologies from this position. We must place unfailing faith in the path of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’, matched with an equal degree of faith in our theories, and faith in our systems. 
The Academy followed the roadmap outlined in Document 9 to the letter. An entitled form of Marxism is expressed here, eager to lambast its opponents: Westerners used their universal values to impose their law all over the world—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen—but 
  • What is clear is that what the system of Western capitalist values brought to these countries was not the ‘gospel’ or ‘salvation’” but instead unmitigated unrest and disaster. The cruel lesson learned by these countries and regions demonstrates that there is no such thing as eternal values which can be universally applied to all societies, all countries, and all peoples. 
On the contrary, the preface continues, there is discernibly 
  • an ideological trap, aimed at our nation, with the goal of destroying the status of Marxism and replacing it with the ideology of the Western bourgeoisie. … Our nation is a socialist nation with a specific history and unique realities. What system or methods are appropriate for our nation should be decided by the national circumstances of our nation. Simply copying the political system or political methods of another country would be pointless, and might even have dire consequences for the future of our nation. China is a socialist nation and a developing superpower. We must make use of the beneficial aspects of foreign political civilisations, but never at the cost of abandoning the fundamental political system of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’.
This passage could have been written, word for word, years before: it is pure, hard ideology. On an economic level, the United States’ sub-prime crisis of 2008, which led to the global financial crisis, is described here as ‘the complete bankruptcy of neoliberalism’: 
  • It demonstrates that contemporary capitalism has not fundamentally solved the inherent contradiction which exists between socialised and private production. Periodic economic crises are an unavoidable product of this fundamental contradiction of capitalism. It is precisely because socialist market economics employs a different model, wherein the means of production are held communally, that economic crises are not only avoidable, but also predictable. [2]
I encourage you to purchase the book (the kindle edition is only $10!) and see how Bougan connects these incidents to the thought of Xi Jinping. Bougan understands what too many China analysts downplay (or even worse, outright ignore). The concerns Xi Jinping and his clique have about the ideological integrity of the Chinese socialist system and the threat Western values and institutions pose to them are not comic curiosities. They are the foundation for China's relationship with the United States. We cannot get China policy right if we do not take the fears of these men seriously.

If you found this post on China's political ideology useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] François Bougon. Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping.  Translated by Actes Sud (London: Hurst and Co., 2018), pp. 39-42.

[2] Ibid., 168-170.

16 July, 2019

Book Notes—Strategy: A History

Lawrence Freedman's Strategy: A History is gargantuan. Really. This intellectual history clocks in at over 760 pages. It narrates various theorists' attempts to discover and describe the principles of strategy over the last few centuries of Western thought. Freedman covers many definitions of the word 'strategy' but never settles on any one of them: the common theme that unites them all is an attempt made by one group of humans to change the behavior of another group. Freedman's book is divided into three sections and the narrative arc of each follows a different category of strategic interaction: the first, attempts to impose one's will upon an adversary through military force; the second, attempts to impose one's will upon an adversary through law, propaganda, media manipulation, revolution, or protest; and the third, attempts to impose one's will upon an adversary through economic bargaining and financial maneuvering. These categories are less about ends than means. The first group of theories were addressed to generals and statesmen; the second, to activists, revolutionaries, and politicians; and the third, to businessmen and financial strategists.

These three categories of people seem quite different from each other. But they are not. One of the fascinating things about Strategy is how these three groups of theorists regularly faced the very same set of intellectual problems—sometimes stumbling across one of them for the very first time in the same decade theorists in a different stream of strategy were wrestling with the exact same issues. Freedman does not beat you over the head with these parallels. Nevertheless, they vindicate Freedman's decision to include all of this disparate material in one generously sized book.

I will not provide an in depth summary of the entire book here. The work is worth reading, if only because it is a firm reminder that most of the problems that preoccupy 21st century minds are not truly new. They have been debated for centuries, and often with more nuance and insight in 1925 or 1876 than they are debated today. However, the book is quite long, and its chapters are uneven. Some chapters sparkle with insight; others fall flat. With a book of this scope that is inevitable. I found the "revolution from below" section (which starts with Marx and ends with modern American presidential election campaign strategy) to be the most consistently stimulating, though even it has some chapters that feel more tacked on for the sake of completeness than because Freedman has anything especially insightful to say about the theorist in question (his chapter on Foucault is a good example of this).

In lieu of a longer review, I'll leave you with two points I have been mulling over since I finished this book last month. The first centers on the geography of the last two centuries of Western thought. Though he has a few not-that-relevant chapters on the strategic heritage of ancient Greece, Renaissance Europe, and so forth, Freedman's history really begins only in the 19th century. Specifically, 19th century Europe. At this time, no one European country dominates the debates over military, political, or revolutionary strategy. Germany is something of the center-node for strategic thought and practice as the century comes to a close, but the Germans by no means have a monopoly on strategy, and there is no clear division between debates happening within Germany and those happening outside of it. In both military and revolutionary circles, everybody read everybody else.

When American thinkers first show up on the scene in the 1910s, this did not change. They simply joined the conversation. It is clear from Freedman's profile of American theorists like Jane Addams and John Dewey (not who you expected to show up in this book, is it?), that the American thinkers of this era viewed themselves as voices in an international conversation. Freedman presents them as such; the chapter in which they appear gives equal space to Max Weber and Leo Tolstoy.

This changes in the post-war world. In each of the three eras, Freedman's intellectual history narrows in on America after 1945. These chapters are devoted almost entirely to case studies involving American social movements, American military conflicts, or American firms. Henceforth he profiles frameworks created by strategic theorists living in America or made relevant because they were written in English and addressed to Americans. There are two main exceptions to this: a chapter on Foucault and French social theory of the 60s and 70s, and a chapter on Japanese business strategy in the 1980s. Even these two chapters earn their place mostly because of the immediate impact their subjects had on American strategic thought in '80s and '90s. The utility of French thinking and Japanese praxis is assessed by the impact they had on American conceptions of strategy.

There is a larger pattern here. You will find it on numerous syllabi in philosophy and related topics in the humanities. A chronologically minded 101 course will contain a scatter-shot collection of writings from the ancient and medieval world, a much larger chunk of content from 18th and 19th century Europe, and then around 1950 or so "Western" thought becomes "Anglophone" thought, and most of that is really just "American." Freedman did not invent this pattern, but he does follow it. Is he right to do so?

I do not know the answer to this question. In one respect Freedman and the thousand philosophy syllabi that take his approach simply reflect reality: if you were to trace the intellectual history of the ideas Anglophone thinkers debate today, the ideas whose origins lie outside of Anglophone world overwhelmingly entered it before 1960. (As noted earlier: Foucault and his intellectual descendants are the obvious exception). But is this because American thinkers became more insular in the post-war era, or is it because the best thinkers of the era all came from or moved to America?

Another way to ask that question: are there debates happening today in Russian, German, Japanese, and so forth, that would shake the world if only the world could read them? Or are those conversations mostly internal reactions to intellectual trends pioneered in the Anglophone world (just as the intellectual conversation in China, c. 1911-1949 was mostly a reaction to ideas imported from Europe)? Has the engine of thought really left the Old World behind?

I doubt that it has. My reasoning reflects my second observation about the grand course of Freedman's narrative: the theorists of the post-'60s, for a lack of a better way to put it, seem far less brilliant than those that came before.

This is an entirely subjective impression. I can fathom no way to objectively prove it. But it is true! Or at least, it is true in the three of the domains Freedman investigates.[1] I have two hypotheses for why this may be. The first involves the social position of post-'60s theorists. The thinkers and practitioners from 19th and early 20th century did not think of themselves as being part of a specific intellectual discipline. They were not experts in "strategic studies," "activism," or "business strategy." Credentials in these fields did not exist. Indeed, they were not yet recognized as professional fields at all. There was no canon for potential strategists to master, no position for potential strategists to strive for, and no degrees to validate potential strategists' pretensions. Those who theorized and strategized did so because of an irrepressible intellectual fascination with the topic or because their immediate responsibilities demanded it of them.

This changed in the latter half of the 20th century. By the turn of the millennium, these were fully professional fields with their own graduate degrees and industry hierarchies. Much of the intellectual work done over the last three generations was done for the sake of obtaining credentials or jumping through professional hoops. 'Correct' frames of thought had been ingrained into the relevant communities. What had once been an exciting, open-ended pursuit that defied existing categories had been nailed down into domains of licensed expertise.

There are some similarities between what I am describing here and what happened to the strategy-related blogosphere (the "strategy sphere") c. 2008-2014. In the years before, online writing about war and strategic theory has been dominated by anonymous junior officers desperately debating paths to victory in Iraq and Afghanistan. They were complimented by a small host of (again, mostly anonymous) citizens nerdy enough to play along. What mattered most was the quality of one's thinking. By the end of the era, however, blogging had become a prestige medium. People wrote to promote their careers. What they wrote could not compare to what had come before. [2]

I often wonder if intellectual disciplines do not always work something like this. When a discipline begins it is not really recognized as an independent discipline at all. Its practitioners come from diverse backgrounds and they draw on ideas and research from a strange conglomeration of sources. They are in dialogue with the world. I would put the emerging discipline of "cultural evolution" (or "cultural epidemiology," if you are from Paris) in this category right now; just about everything game-theory hit this stage in the '50s. Move forward a decade or two and the field has an upswing in funding and prestige. It is no longer the work of isolated scholars. Professional associations, research centers, and grants have been founded to improve our knowledge of the field. In this stage the field is at its most productive—ideas and insights from earlier eras are built into more coherent models and used to explain an increasing number of otherwise mysterious social phenomenon. This is right about where I would place cognitive and evolutionary psychology and the current iteration of 'global' history today.

After this comes the decline. Now established as an independent discipline, new folks sign on because it is the sort of thing respectable scholars do. A canon of what experts in field x are supposed to study becomes the standard curriculum. New research continues, but few outside the field care about or understand it anymore. Links to research outside of the field dry up; debates are limited to insiders. There are clearly defined social markers (and if the people involved are modern academics, journals) that separate success from failure. Innovation in this stage mostly means spinning off new subfields. Things are more competitive than they used to be, yet a larger percentage of those who succeed in the field seem to do so by jumping through professional hoops. I would put a great deal of current IR theory in this bucket.

Where things go from here depends upon the social nature of the field in question. If the field is attached to a plane where there are real world consequences for mediocrity (say, a general staff), reality might crash in and force a reshuffling of the social deck. In academia few fear such exogenous shocks. There the field devolves into little more than an intellectual patronage network. Doyens of a past age act as king-makers. Scholarly disputes linger on, ossified remnants of ancient gang-wars. The old methods are applied to increasingly narrow problems. All of the institutions that were created in the field's heyday still exist, and they continue on, funding and hiring long after their purpose has been fulfilled.

So that is my first guess. The skillset needed to obtain a set of credentials does not match the skillset needed to develop useful strategic theories. Or useful theories in general. Credentialism has ravaged American thought.

My second hypothesis is more tentative. The very first wave of thinkers in the American age (who by and large were educated before its birth) were brilliant people. If Thomas Schelling and Herbert Simon are not included in St. John's reading list by 2050, the list will not be worth much. The strategic practitioners of this time were also very sharp people. But things quickly were muddled up. The clearest break between the crisp thinking of the older Americans and the addled thought that came after them is marked quite clearly in Freeman's second section, when he transitions from a discussion of the strategic theory behind the American Civil Rights movement to the theory behind the SDS and the Port Huron manifesto.

My low estimation of the SDS's strategic acumen is shared by Freedman himself. To quote:
The new radicals were more in a libertarian, anarchist, anti-elitist tradition, desperate for authenticity even at the expense of lucidity... Instead of the rigorous analysis of classic texts, the new radicals were suspicious of theory. Political acts had to be genuine expressions of values and sentiments. Convictions took priority over the calculation of consequences, reflecting a wariness of expediency and a refusal to compromise for the sake of political effects. At times it seemed as if deliberate and systematic thought was suspect and only a spontaneous stream of consciousness, however inarticulate and unintelligible, could be trusted. Todd Gitlin, an early activist and later analyst of the New Left, observed how actions were undertaken to “dramatize” convictions. They were “judged according to how they made the participants feel,” as if they were drugs offering highs and lows. If it was the immediate experience which counted for most, then there was little scope for thinking about the long term.[3]
I do not think American intellectual thought has ever really recovered from this. The SDS and the constellation of social movements that it was a part of created the "New Left." These students, and those they influenced, would go on to take control of university departments, editorial chairs, and other positions in the 'commanding heights of American culture. Though most are now passing from the scene, the American imagination still refracts politics through the cultural lens these boomer rebels created.[4] Most of the intellectual sloppiness that you find in modern activism comes from this source (not from Foucault et. al., who was brighter than conservatives give him credit for, and has largely been appropriated as intellectual cover for shoddy thinking that had been entrenched before Foucault was published in English).

The student movements trained an entire generation of intellectuals to feel instead of think. It also taught them to reject all that came before, cutting themselves off from the smartest thinking of the preceding two centuries. It was our misfortune that this happened just as the American intellectual scene was shrinking away from the rest of of the world. The free-wheeling, transnational debates of the 19th and early 20th century could not be repeated in the frozen Cold War world.

I pity the American public intellectual. Rejecting the rigor of the past, isolated from intellectual currents of non-Anglophone society, and planted in an environment where feelings trumped thought, it is a marvel that any of the lot has added to our understanding of strategy at all.

So that is hypothesis number two. Demonstrating this hypothesis true or false will be devilishly difficult. Possibly it is nothing more than an imaginary "just-so-story" engineered to pull a sense of coherence out of the last three generations of American thought. But either way, it is intriguing business to mull over. For the thoughtful reader, Strategy: A History will quicken many questions of this type. It is a book worth mulling your way through.

If you found this post on American intellectual history to your liking, you might also find the posts "Requiem for the Strategy Sphere" and "Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] One of the lingering side effects of this book was a drop in my appraisal of John Boyd—I did not realize how much of his theory was really just late 20th century update on ideas first described in the interwar years by fellows like Giulio Douhet and J.C. Fuller until Freedman juxtaposed them directly.

[2] Tanner Greer, "Requiem for the Strategy Sphere," Scholar's Stage (2 November 2019)

[3] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), kindle location 13600.

[4] Yuval Levin, Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in an Age of Individualism (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 13-31.

01 July, 2019

Give No Heed to the Walking Dead

Image source
"Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society....  We can cooperate with the emerging China of today, even as we work for the democratic China of tomorrow."
—Robert Zoellick,
Deputy Secretary of State [2005].
Since the Vietnam war, the U.S. has more often chosen the strategy of ‘winning without a war.’ This is a soft war using politics, economics, ideas, and culture as weapons with its advantageous military power as backing... The U.S.’ present and future primary target is China.”
—Ji Zhiye,
President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations [2013].

The People's Republic of China is wealthier than any rival America has faced. Its leaders are convinced of the malignance of the United States. Their ambitions are global, their ideology hostile, and their military forces optimized to "fight and win wars" with America and the democratic nations that surround it. The challenge is daunting—and it exists because of us. The Sino-American relationship of 2019 is the acrid fruit of "engagement."

Engagement is dead. Yet like dead growth lumped to living branch, the men and women who crafted the disaster linger with us. In twitter whispers and podcast chatterings their murmurs grow. Engagement did not fail, we hear. It never was about remaking China in the first place. We never thought the Chinese would come to share our systems, values, or priorities. Engagement was about something else entirely.

I have ignored the murmurs. But now that Alastair Iain Johnston has congealed them all into a well footnoted academic offering, a short response is necessary.[1]

The narrative of our walking dead is false. It is easily proven so. Here is Bill Clinton, explaining to the American voters why the People's Republic deserves a seat at the W.T.O.:
Most of the critics of the China W.T.O. agreement do not seriously question its economic benefits. They're more likely to say things like this: China is a growing threat to Taiwan and its neighbors -- we shouldn't strengthen it. Or China violates labor rights and human rights -- we shouldn't reward it. Or China is a dangerous proliferator -- we shouldn't empower it. These concerns are valid. But the conclusion of those who raise them as an argument against China-W.T.O. isn't. The question is not whether we approve or disapprove of China's practices. The question is what's the smartest thing to do to improve these practices.

The change this agreement can bring from outside is quite extraordinary. But I think you could make an argument that it will be nothing compared to the changes that this agreement will spark from the inside out in China. By joining the W.T.O., China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products. It is agreeing to import one of democracy's most cherished values, economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people -- their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise. And when individuals have the power, not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say....

State-run workplaces also operated the schools where they sent their children, the clinics where they received health care, the stores where they bought food. That system was a big source of the Communist Party's power. Now people are leaving those firms, and when China joins the W.T.O., they will leave them faster. The Chinese government no longer will be everyone's employer, landlord, shopkeeper and nanny all rolled into one. It will have fewer instruments, therefore, with which to control people's lives. And that may lead to very profound change. The genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle. As Justice Earl Warren once said, liberty is the most contagious force in the world.[2]
There you have it. The "smartest thing" to "improve" China's attack on human rights and reduce China's threat to Taiwan is to admit it to the W.T.O. The W.T.O. would reduce the role of SOEs in the Chinese economy, and in consequence, the Party "will have fewer instruments with which to control people's lives."

How quaint.

More sophisticated versions were offered by people a rung down on the ladder. Take these comments by Richard Haas, given in a 2008 testimony to the Committee on Foreign Relations:
The principal focus of U.S. foreign policy toward China should be China’s foreign policy. This may be seem obvious, although it is anything but. One contending school of thought influencing American foreign policy would emphasize and seek to change what goes on inside countries, both as a moral end in itself and for pragmatic ends. This latter contention stems from the assumption that democratic countries are likely to behave better toward their neighbors than authoritarian regimes. But given all the challenges we face in a global world, the United States does not have the luxury of making its focus what goes on inside China. Nor do we have the wisdom or ability to make China in our image. We do, though, have an interest in a stable and peaceful China that is willing and able to play a constructive role in the world. It is not an all or nothing call – there are things we can do (such as spreading the rule of law and working with the Chinese to increase the transparency of what goes on inside the government) to help encourage the emergence of a more open China. But there is the matter of emphasis, and the emphasis of U.S. policy should be on shaping what China does, not what China is. [3]
Haas' distinction between what China does and China is has always been chimerical. If you have never had the chance before, I encourage you to go read the old Robert Zoellick speech that introduced the phrase "responsible stakeholder" to the world. Among the laundry list of items Zoellick requires the Chinese to do to earn the "responsible" label: halt "rapid military modernization," or at least make China's military technology and strategy more transparent, work to end "an imbalanced bilateral trade deficit," crack down on "rampant theft of intellectual property and counterfeiting," live up to SOE reform commitments in "markets where America has a strong competitive advantage," rely on multilateral institutions when negotiating in Asia instead of bilateral forums that make it easy "to maneuver toward a predominance of power," stop "'lock[ing] up' energy supplies around the world," and avoid "partnerships with regimes that hurt China’s reputation," especially North Korea. To this list of things China must do Zoellick adds a few items that China "should" do, but does not need to do, to earn the "responsible" title (e.g., establish low-level elections and an independent judiciary). [4]

The most notable thing about this little list is that none of it amounted to anything. Here are the openly declared metrics for success put forward by one of the grand architects of Bush era engagement. Yet more than a decade later each of these issues looms worse than on the day the speech was given. This is something the ghosts of policy past can never quite square away. In the old days they could justify what they did with the assumption that Zoellick explicitly admits underlined his entire approach: "Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society." [5] If you believed China would liberalize on its own accord regardless of what you did, then what was there to do but make money in the meantime?

But in counterpoise: if the arc of the universe does not bend towards Chinese freedom, vaulting the Chinese party-state to the height of wealth and power becomes a more haunting proposition.

The broader problem with the Haas formula ("shape what China does") is that China's political behavior cannot be divorced from the economic and political structures that produce it. As China's newest white paper eagerly reminds us, demanding the PRC reform its SOEs is demanding that it transform the fundamentals of its government, of which those SOEs are a critical part. Asking them to dismantle mercantilist policies and halt IP theft is asking them to abandon the economic model (what Xi would call "the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics") that their social system (in the Marxist tinged theory of the CPC, China's social "superstructure") is built upon. Dialing down the ambitions and capabilities of the PLA would have meant dismantling a keystone of Party ideology, identity, and organization.

Shaping what China does has always entailed shaping what China is.

"Shaping what China is" was not a inherently bad strategy. The attempt to co-opt Chinese upper class, cajole Party leadership into liberalizing their economy, incentivize the Chinese to have a "stakehold" in a system of norms and institutions that we created decades earlier, and infect their population with an irrepressible love for liberty was not doomed at conception. It was a cagey gambit. This gambit came very close to succeeding. This is why the Party leaders reacted so violently against it.

They understood what we were doing perfectly well. They knew from the beginning that we hoped closer economic and social relations with the Chinese people would lead to their gradual emancipation from the claws of a tyrannous party-state. They knew! That is what Silent Contest In Memory of the Collapse of Communist Party and the Soviet UnionDocument #9, Xi's obsession with ideological competition, Wang Huning's entire career, and two decades of Party-sponsored research and national security law was all about! To the Chinese state, the "engagement" and "responsible stakeholder" strategies were an existential threat to their regime, and they were not shy about telling us this. Our problem: we did not listen.

We still don't.

The sad truth is that the Party has a say in its own fate. We moved. They countered. They took decisive measures, some quite costly, to ensure that the West's attempt to peacefully liberalize their regime would not succeed. They loudly proclaimed their intention to do this all the way back in 2008; this resolution was aggressively translated into policy between 2010 and 2014. The decision to tighten the screws under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping was openly articulated as a direct response to Western attempts to change China and liberalize the Party.[6] If "engagement" was never really about transforming the Chinese social and political systems, then Beijing never got the memo. The eyes of Zhongnanhai were reading the same speeches, policy documents, interviews, and books the rest of us were. They came to the same conclusions about American policy's ultimate goals that everyone else did.

Then they decided to do something about it.

The tragedy of American policy making in the 2010s is that we refused to recognize what they were doing. Our politicians and pundits discoursed on the "choice" the Chinese faced before them long after they had made it. The gambit had failed. We were slow to recognize it. Eventually a rough national consensus that engagement was no longer a winning strategy came about, though it came seven years too late. Now that this consensus has been reached and a clearer-eyed vision of the Communist regime finally lies before us, panicked notes of the departed are heard again. "Trust us!," go their nervous murmurings. "This is how we wanted it to be!"

It would be one thing if these voices were saying: "The strategy we advocated was appropriate given what we knew at the time. Had we known how things would develop, we might have acted differently. But the issue at the table today is not what America should have done in 2000, but what America will do in 2020. In the twenty years since we opened up to China, the American economy has become intertwined with the Chinese economy. Cutting the Chinese off now is destructive—to us, them, and the rest of the world—in a way that it was not when we quarantined them after Tiananmen three decades ago. Likewise, the strength of the Chinese military has experienced incredible increase since 1997. We can no longer send an aircraft carrier to Taiwan Strait to solve all of our problems. America is partly responsible for these developments. But it has happened. Relitigating the choices of the late '90s and early aughts will not change that. We must live with the PLA we have now, not the one we could have had had we done things differently. The truth is that a military conflict with China now would be horrific. It would be painful in ways that we, who have never lived through a great power war, have trouble imagining. There is a real danger of any conflict with China escalating to a nuclear exchange. No point of contention in the Sino-American relationship is worth that risk. If trading away the freedom of 23 million Taiwanese is the price of avoiding decades of nuclear brinkmanship and possible nuclear war, I will take it."

That, at least, is an honest argument. I disagree with it. But it is honest. Instead we must listen to this choir of the damned rise up from their graves to sing in praise of rotting plans, stratagems better left entombed and forgotten. Their gambit failed. They pretend that no gambit was made. How are we supposed to react to this mumbo-jumbo, these incantations jittered in op-eds and interviews, half-baked spells for gas-lighting a nation?

Ignore them. Their protests are not lodged in good faith. When the spectre of Chas Freeman is called forth to chant "U.S. policy was almost entirely aimed at changing China’s external behavior rather than its constitutional order" recognize this cant for the blight that it is.[7] What Freeman and his sort say about the aims of engagement now do not match what their administrations said about engagement then. Either they were lying then or they are lying now. Either way, they do not deserve our intellectual respect or our personal sympathy. Frankly speaking, they do not need it. They can retreat to the comfort of their gilded crypts in East Coast consultancies and Shanghai trade houses without worrying about being held accountable for their mistakes. Let them! Let them linger on in those dark places, nicely fed and sharply dressed, uncalled on and unheeded to the end. The conversation has moved beyond them. They are no longer relevant—unless we make them so.

Which is why this post is the last thing you will see me write about any of these folks. The day is late. Our task presses urgent. We have better things to do than argue with the shades of a dying order.

If you found this post on China's political ideology useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Alastair Iain Johnston, "The Failures of 'Failure of Engagement' With China," Washington Quarterly, vol 42, iss. 2 (July 2019), pp. 99-114.

[2] "Clinton's Words on China: Trade Is the Smart Thing," New York Times, 9 March 2000.

[3] Richard Haas, "Statement of Richard N. Haass President Council on Foreign Relations before the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate on 'U.S.-China Relations in the Era of Globalization,'" 15 May 2018 (Washington DC), accessed at the CFR website on 2 July 2019.

[4] Robert Zoellick, "Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?," address given to National Committee on US-China Relations (New York City), 21 September 2015, accessed at the U.S. Department of State archival website on 2 July 2019.

Incidentally, Zoellick also gives a reason why America should not treat China more confrontationally than the Bush administration chose to do. To quote:
  • It does not seek to spread radical, anti-American ideologies.
  • While not yet democratic, it does not see itself in a twilight conflict against democracy around the globe.
  • While at times mercantilist, it does not see itself in a death struggle with capitalism.
  • And most importantly, China does not believe that its future depends on overturning the fundamental order of the international system. In fact, quite the reverse: Chinese leaders have decided that their success depends on being networked with the modern world.
It is interesting to consider which of these points remain true (or ever were).

[5] ibid.

[6] I believe the best and most accessible description of this dynamic to date is François Bougon, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping 
(London: Hurst, 2018). Bougon does a fine job of contextualizing Xi's concerns within the broader milieu of party thought and cultural debate that has defined the Chinese public sphere over the last two decades.

[7] Chas Freeman,“Sino-American Interactions, Past and Future,” Carter Center Presentation (January 2019,) pp. 2–3.