18 June, 2020

On Cultures That Build

Image source.

Ending his decade of silence, the voice of Marc Andreessen rises from the dust, trumpeting forth a rousing cri de coeur: "It is time to build."

Andreessen's essay has got a lot of play in certain circles, and it generated many responses. The general rule for those galvanized by Andreessen's call to action is to raise it as a banner for their own cause; the most interesting entires in this category are probably the essays penned by Mark Lutter and Isaac Wilkes. The response written up by Ezra Klein and Jose Luis Ricon are probably the most thoughtful examples of the opposite reaction: long explanations for why Americans cannot build things, and will not build things, until requirements x, y, or z are met.

I was greatly inspired by the essay. But there are a few important ideas that need to be interjected into this conversation that are currently lacking from it.

First, the TLDR version:  In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not "how do we make that happen?" but "how do we get management to take our side?" This is a learned response, and a culture which has internalized it will not be a culture that "builds."

Now on to the long version:

1. Andreessen is correct: our failure to build things is a problem of culture and will. One of the common complaints about Andreessen's essay is that it does not take the obstacles to "building" seriously enough. I am not a terrible fan of "Green Lantern theories" of human accomplishment and would thus normally be sympathetic to this critique. My baseline assumption is that when intelligent people produce failure, a nest of entrenched interests and perverse incentives lie at the problem's heart.

The failures in America's coronavirus response suggests this is the wrong assumption to make. The scale of American errors simply range too wide. At every single level of society we have seen incredible, truly incredible, mistakes. None have done well: not the White House, not the federal government agencies, not the state governments and their agencies, nor even city authorities. Private enterprise was caught as unprepared as everyone else, and has subsequently struggled to produce a tenth of the innovative counter-virus workarounds their Chinese counterparts managed to dream up (and that under much greater time pressure). The media disgraced itself early on in the crisis and has no power to keep people's attention focused and efforts united now; much the same can be said for the largest voluntary associations of American civil society. Of course, each of these examples can be pulled out and explained away as the result of this or that unique set of conflicting interests, onerous regulations, partisan concerns, or terrible incentive trees, but as you zoom out towards the national view these micro-explanations grow less convincing. Before us lies a national catalogue of dysfunction and disaster. A national explanation is needed. Something must be found that holds together the staffers manning the Mayor of New Orleans response team and those doing the same thing in Washington DC. I am comfortable calling that thing "culture." America does not have a culture that builds.

2. America was not always this way. There are many who want to make this story a grand competition between liberalism and authoritarianism. In terms of virus response this is silly; Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, and many European nations have weathered this crisis as well as or better than authoritarian states like Vietnam and China, and even those who have done comparatively poorly in Europe have done a far better job of bringing infections down than the United States has managed. But there is more to the issue than the coronavirus, isn't there? Most of Andreeson's essay is not about the virus at all, but skyscrapers, education, healthcare and so forth. In so many areas of Western life (and American life specifically) there simply is a failure to build new things.

Yet this has not always been true. Patrick Collison has fun list of grand projects that went up "fast." As Collison notes, most of those things went up before 1960. Collison's list is focused on the physical: skycrapers, tunnels, ships, moon landings, military planes, and so forth. But this was also true for institutions. Consider how America responded to the last great pandemic to wash over its shores:
Already an important part of the public health agenda, organizing the state and local public health communities and their resources quickly became a vital component in the struggle against the epidemic. Again, the local populace often responded to these needs, creating new bodies or enhancing the authority of those already in existence in order to allow them to manage the epidemic crisis effectively. One common mechanism was the establishment of an emergency committee— sometimes at the state level, other times at the level of the county or city— to deal with the overwhelming need for organization, communication, and cooperation among individuals, agencies, and organizations
In Illinois, for instance, the Council of National Defense organized the Illinois Influenza Commission, which included representatives from the state and city health departments, the USPHS, the Red Cross, the military, and others. They met regularly, indeed nearly every day, until the worst of the epidemic was over.  In Pennsylvania the State Department of Health created nineteen Epidemic Emergency Districts in the state and mobilized and coordinated the actions of countless “Health, Patriotic, Civic, Religious, Business and Social organizations” as well as the State Guard. 
In Washington, D.C., the USPHS Medical Officer in Charge was appointed to oversee the work of a Central Office and four Medical Districts, each with its own Medical Officer, Assistant Directing Nurse, Supervising Nurse, and nursing staff. Cooperating agencies included the District Health Department, the Board of Education, the Visiting Nurse Society, the Washington Diet Kitchen Association, the National Organization for Public Health Nursing, the Children’s Bureau, the Red Cross, other governmental departments, and local churches. [1]
Nancy Bristow's account of the emergency committees created to deal with the flu is much shorter than we would like it to be, as her book is not a history of institutions, but public attitudes and perceptions. She makes clear however that the effectiveness of the various committees at disease prevention varied widely (and all were hampered by poor understanding of the flu virus itself). But the effectiveness of the committees is besides the point. When the America of the 1910s faced a national crisis, America responded by creating dozens and dozens of emergency response committees at the local level. These committees included membership of both local governments, federal public health officials, and the leaders of local business, social and religious organizations. They did this fast. And finally, they set these committees up as temporary instruments to address a temporary problem. For the Americans of 1918, this was the obvious response demanded by crisis. Crises demanded organizing at the local level to try and meet the problem head on.

We do not have this impulse today.

But it should not be that surprising that the Americans of 1918 could set up mixed civic-business-government organizations on the fly; they had just done the exact same thing at the exact same level of society two years earlier in order to sell war-bonds and rally the home front against the Hun. [2] Both efforts should be seen against the backdrop of an incredible nation-wide craze for institution building. In 1918, America was not even a generation removed from its frontier past; the frontier was only officially closed in 1890, and the state of Arizona was only admitted to the Union in 1912. The Americans of 1918 had carved towns, cities, and states out of the wilderness, and had practical experience building the school boards, sheriff departments, and the county, city, and state governments needed to manage them. Also within the realm of lived experience was the expansion of small towns into (unprecedentedly large) metropolises and the invention of the America's first multi-national conglomerates. The progressive movement had spent the last three decades experimenting with new forms of government and administration at first the state and then the federal level, while American civic society saw a similar explosion in new social organizations. These include some famous names: the NRA, the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the American Bar Association, the Sierra Club, 4-H, the VFW, Big Brothers, the NAACP, the Boys Scouts, the PTA, the United Way, the American Legion, and the ACLU. [3] To a large extent we wander in the ruins of the world this generation built.

3. I mention the progressive era to highlight a fundamental contrast: in the America of the early 20th century, the default solution to any problem encountered was to assemble a coalition of Americans to defeat it. This was true regardless of the level of society in which the person operated. It was the default response in small towns and in large cities, at the federal center and at frontier's edge, in the world of the businessman, the social reformer, the minister, and the politician. Americans had faith that building things worked. To be sure, politics and perverse incentives existed. They could and did lead to all sorts of disastrous outcomes. [4] But the baseline assumption of the American people of that time was that free associations of Americans working towards a common goal could get hard things done—and that it was their responsibility to get those people associating.

This impulse was not new to the progressive era. One foreigner described it a distinguishing American feature all the way back in the 1830s:
Anyone living in the United States learns from birth that he must rely on himself to combat the ills and obstacles of life; he looks across at the authority of society with mistrust and anxiety, calling upon such authority only when he cannot do without it. This begins to become apparent when school starts and children, even in their games, submit to the rules they have established and punish offenses following their own definitions. The same spirit prevails in all the affairs of social life. Should an obstacle appear on the public highway and the passage of traffic is halted, neighbors at once form a group to consider the matter; from this improvised assembly an executive authority appears to remedy the inconvenience before anyone has though of the possibility of some other authority already in existence before the one they have just formed.... [In America] there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined powers of individuals. [5]
Tocqueville contrasts this unfavorably to the subjects of European kings:
There are European nations where the inhabitant sees himself as a kind of settler, indifferent to the fate of the place he inhabits. Major changes happen there without his cooperation, he is even unaware of what precisely has happened; he is suspicious, he hears about events by chance. Worse still, the condition of his village, the policing of his roads, the fate of the churches and the presbyteries scarcely bothers him; he thinks that everything is outside his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called government. He enjoys what he has as a tenant, without any feeling of ownership or thought of possible improvement. This detachment from his own fate becomes so extreme that, if his own safety or that of his children is threatened, instead of trying to ward off the danger he folds his arms and waits for the entire nation to come to his rescue. [6]
Which of these two caricatures sounds more like the Americans of the modern day? [7]

4. I understand that the self-organizing neighborhood committee that removes a tree that blocks their street does not go on to build the Empire State Building. My argument is slightly different. To consistently create brilliant poets, you need a society awash in mediocre, even tawdry poetry. Brilliant minds will find their way towards poem writing when poem writing and poem reading is the thing that people do. Likewise, the sense that "free action of the combined powers of individuals" is the solution to problems that plague you personally is a learned response. It is a response that America's governing elites have never had the chance to learn.

Where would they have learned it? Tocqueville describes American children learning republicanism in their schoolyard games; today's children rarely leave the sight of adult authority figures, and have learned instead to solve conflicts by appeal to authority. No building tree-houses in the woods with a bunch of friends for these kids! Consider the 30 year old staffer in Congress, or her counterpart protesting out on the streets: her youth was a long slog of arbitrary tasks and awards accumulated to win the favor of admissions committees, and the politics of her university experience boils down to causing a ruckus until the administration decided to bequest to the ruckus-causers the object of their desires. All she has learned from these experiences is that solving problems means petitioning the powers that be. Most of the institutions that could have given her a different model of how the world works are dying—or dead:
Problems once handled at lower levels of society by self-governing citizens were passed upwards to impersonal bureaucracies. The largest of these bureaucracies is the federal government. But the problem is not limited to the federal government—these bureaucracies dominate large swaths of American life, from the global conglomerates that dominate our economy to the universities that crown our education system. One of my favorite ways of tracking this has been to look at the ratio of students:school boards. School boards used to be as close and as responsive to the interested citizen as politics could get, but many school boards now manage the education of hundreds of thousands of students. At this scale, citizen voice is diminished. 
While this was happening, the civic and religious institutions that Americans traditionally relied on to manage their own affairs were quietly disappearing. Some organizations, like religious boards, unions, and bowling clubs, declined in number; others, like charities and NGOs, switched from a model of mass participation to a model of mass donations. Add it all together and you find that the percentage of Americans expected to be familiar with Robert's Rules of Order shrunk precipitously.[8]
It is striking to me how many of the old Silicon Valley builders—people of Andreeson's generation—were social outcasts in their youth. These people felt estranged from the established corsus honorum of American society. They might not have spent their summer days building tree houses, but they did spend them building things (computers, code, networked communities, etc) on their own initiative. One wonders if their building spirit can long persist now that San Fransisco is flooded with young men and women whose values and experience are more closely tied to the established corsus honorum of the American upper class.

5. To clarify: Tocqueville blamed the passivity of the 19th century Frenchmen to his government. I am not sure the government as such is really the relevant variable here. To update his words for modern times, I would make them read: "he thinks that everything is outside of his concern and belongs to a powerful stranger called management." A culture that does not build is a culture habituated to living under management. As I wrote in a previous post,
 In the 21st century, the main question in American social life is not "how do we make that happen?" but "how do we get management to take our side?  [9]
You see this in the difference quite clearly between Black Lives Matters on the one hand and the Civil Rights Movement on the other, but if you reflect on this distinction you will quickly start to see it everywhere.

6. So why then is China, et. al. able to build things? Am I seriously arguing that they are less managed and bureaucratized than we are?

 Chinese bureaucracy is several millennia old, but until quite recent times its reach was very short. Villages were self governing all through the imperial era and civic society was extremely vibrant. The Chinese Communist Party's was the first bureaucracy to truly penetrate the countryside (in the '40s and '50s), and the official government organs of the People's Republic were the first to exercise fine-grained control of urban society. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution destroyed the Party's countryside bureaucracies entirely, and they had to be rebuilt in the years that followed. Even now both the Party and the state bureaucracies that canvas the Chinese hinterland are highly decentralized; these government and Party units are given a great deal of room for experimentation and in many realms are practically independent from outside control. This causes endless frustration to centralizers in Beijing, but the benefits are clear: it is not wrong to think of these units as "labs of communism." Various scholars have suggested that the decentralized nature of the CPC's regime explains both its longevity and its ability to foster strong economic growth.[10] 

The disruption caused by the "leftist deviations" of the Maoist era were not as great in the cities as in the countryside, and there urban "work units" exercised a truly tyrannical level of control over people's lives even when various parts of the countryside began rolling back Party interference in ordinary life. "The Management" of that era controlled urban Chinese lives in a way few Americans have ever experienced. But that way of life was largely dismantled as China opened up.  One Chinese businessman who lived through it used the word "anarchic" to describe to me the lived experience of the economic reforms. In using that word I do not think he meant "lacking government" so much as "lacking rules." The changes that China was going through were so vast that neither Chinese businesses nor government regulatory bodies could keep pace with what was happening. Rules had to be made up as one went. An astounding number of the financial, corporate, and political institutions that govern China today were not around 1990. Not only did individual organizations not exist, but in many cases even that type of organization did not exist before the boom began. The last time America experienced changes on that magnitude was in the Progressive Era and the Gilded Age.

The Baby Boomers were the first American generation to live entirely beneath the management. Perhaps the Chinese baby boomers have already been born. China's current batch of urban young are managed from birth in a way their parents born in the '70s and '80s never were. These kids are not self-reliant, and like Americans born today have no experience in getting things done.[11]  But they are only one generation removed that world, and it took America several generations to move decisively away from the values and worldview of their ancestors. [12] Moreover, the middle class urban young are only one part of their generation. How the experience gap between the coddled city kids and the millions "left behind" in the countryside will shape China's future is something I often wonder about, but which I will make no predictions (If you forced me to put down money, my bet is that China will have a building culture for several more decades to come).

7. The real question is whether we will be able to rebuild a building culture. I believe it is possible; Silicon Valley has shown that building sub-cultures can persist even in the face of general malaise. I am afraid this is a long term project. It may involve wrenching cultural authority out of the hands of existing arbiters and pulling it towards places like Silicon Valley, where men and women have not forgotten how to get things done. This may require building up the sort of cultural, media, and political infrastructure that exists along the Acela Corridor, just divorced from the patronage networks that currently keep things anchored in Washington and New York. Tech titans who care about these things should begin thinking seriously about what it would take to begin political and social experiments in the places closest to them: San Fransisco and its metro, other towns and cities in the state, perhaps California itself.

This post is already long; more thoughts on what it takes to build new cultures will be reserved for the future.


If this post on American institutions and culture caught your interest, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem:"A Tour Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture," "The Title IX-ifcation of American Childhood," "Pining for Democracy," "Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History," and "Institutions, Instruments, and the Innovator's Dilemma." 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] Nancy Bristow, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 104-105.

[2] To a get a sense of what this looked like in just one American city, see David Drury, Hartford in World War I (Charleston: The History Press, 2015), pp. 57-83.

[3] One of the best depictions of this era as a frenzy of institution building that ties together both the progressive movement and the huge expansion in American civic and religious organizations is found in Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster,  2000), 367-402. A book length treatment of this theme (perhaps one that includes the municipal and state level responses to the 1918 pandemic and the First World War!) is sorely needed.

[4] David Randall's Black Death at the Golden Gate is a page turning account of one example of this, an account that both emphasizes the slap-dash frontier-builder culture of America at the turn of the century, as well as what eventually needed to happen in order to "get things done" in the America of the time.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerald Bevan (New York: Penguin, 2003), 220.

[6] bid, 108.

[7] I appreciate humorist Dave Barry's take on this question:
 Every year approximately 17 million more Americans decide that they'd rather become lawyers and spend their days wearing and filing suits, instead of doing some form of work that anybody actually needs. Too many chiefs, not enough Native Americans, that's what's wrong with this country. We all want to manage. We all want to attend meetings and develop concepts. We look down on jobs that involve any physical activity more rigorous than faxing. Nobody in this country knows how to do anything anymore. There was a time when average Americans could get together and, in one afternoon, build an entire barn.  
Yes! A barn! Can you imagine average Americans doing that today? Not a chance! 
They'd spend weeks debating the membership and organizational structure of the Barn Architect Selection Committee, whose members would then get into a lengthy squabble over the design of the logo to appear on their letterhead. Ultimately this issue would become a bitter and drawn-out dispute, be taken to court, and the people involved would start complaining of depression and anxiety, and psychologists would announce that these people were victims of a new disease called Barn Committee Logo Dispute Distress Syndrome, or BCLDDS, which would become the subject of one-hour shows by Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael, after which millions of Americans would realize that they, too, were suffering from BCLDDS, and they'd form support groups with Hot Line numbers and twelve-step programs. That's what we modern Americans do.
From Dave Barry, Dave Barry Does Japan (New York: Fawcett Books, 1992), 53-54.

[8] Tanner Greer, "The Title IX-ification of American Childhood," Scholar's Stage (25 September 2019).  Some key  texts I draw on to create this picture include Putnam, Bowling AloneRobert Putnam, Carl Frederick, and Kaisa Suelman."Growing Class Gaps in Social Connectedness Among American Youth", Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America (8 August 2012); Theda Skopal, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013); Charles Murray,  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010); Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, "Micro-Agression and Moral Cultures," Comparative Sociology 13, iss 6 (2014).

[9] Greer, "The Title IX-ification of American Childhood," 

[10] On the short reach of traditional Chinese bureaucracy, see Peer Vries, State, Economy and the Great Divergence: Britain and Qing China, 1680-1820 (Bloomsbury Academic: 2015); Debin Ma, "State Capacity and the Great Divergence: The Case of Qing China," Eurasian Geography and Economics, vol 54, iss 5 (2013), 484-489; Kenneth Lieberthal, Governing China: From Revolution Through Reform, 2nd ed (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004), 3-19. One of the best depictions of vibrancy of imperial China's society are the first four chapters of Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996); on the decentralized, and even democratic nature of rural Chinese political arrangements, see Robert Garnett, "Village by Village Democracy," report for the American Enterprise Institute (15 April 2009); William Joseph, ed. Politics in China: An Introduction, 3rd ed (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 317-341 (the next thirty chapters are a good primer on urban relations too); on the benefits of China's decentralized political structure generally, see Sebastian Heilman and Elizabeth Perry, eds., Mao's Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations Adaptive Governance in China (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2011). See also Arthur Kroeber, China's Economy: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), passim.

[11] I wrote up my take on these kids in the post "The Inner Life of Chinese Teenagers," Scholar's Stage (19 April 2019).

[12] See Campbell and Manning, "Micro-Agression and Moral Cultures" and my commentary on it in
"Honor, Dignity, Victimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture," Scholar's Stage (16 September 2015).

03 June, 2020

Against Patrick Deneen (II)

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In Michael Lotus and James Bennett's America 3.0 an interesting observation is made about the nature of the American family:
A less appreciated factor pushing assimilation [of immigrants] was the American legal system, which compelled people to adopt American marriage and inheritance practices. However attached immigrants may have been to their own practices, if they were incompatible with our family culture, they could not maintain them here for more than a generation or two. Other cultural systems could not take root or survive for long in America because the law would not enforce any other system with regard to spouse selection, inheritance, or household formation.

The protection of choice in marriage partners, especially for women, was critical to the assimilation process. People who moved to America, and more importantly their children, faced no legal obstacles, and few social ones, to choosing their own spouses. In America, parents had no legal authority to interfere with the marriage decisions of adult children, whatever the law and customs may have been back in the "old country." The children of immigrants often wanted to marry someone from outside their ethnic or religious community. They then necessarily formed their own families outside of one or the other other cultural milieu they came from, or outside of both.

The story of immigrants coming to America for opportunity and freedom, but feeling they are losing their children to a culture they do not always like or understand, is an old one that been repeated many times. There is an element of sadness to this. This process of loss of the old way of may be be felt as tragic by the parents but it has been a triumph for Americans over the centuries. We have peacefully, though not painlessly, assimilated millions of people one marriage and one family at a time, into a shared culture. [1]
One of the central themes of Lotus and Bennett's book is that America's characteristic individualism is baked into the structure of the American family, which has been from its beginning an "absolute nuclear family" type. In such a family system, the "family unit" is understood to mean a mother, father, and their under-aged children. Unlike, say, in premodern China, where sons would live with their parents until their parents' death and (and a daughter would move into her husband's household, living under the subjection of her in-laws), in the Anglosphere there is the expectation that a married couple would go off and establish their own independent household. Along with this conception of the family comes a certain set of norms (such as "individuals freely select their own spouses," "there are no limitations on whom a person can marry, except that marriage to close relative  is forbidden," "women enjoy a high degree of autonomy compared to most cultures," and "extended families are weak"). [2] These norms are centuries old, preceding the colonization of America itself.

Lotus and Bennett slightly exaggerate the continuity of the American family type. There has been significant variation in household size and type over the course of American history, and in the early periods there was significant geographic variation as well. [3] Of the four central settler cultures identified by David Hackett Fisher, only one—the Puritans—lived and married according to type. The Cavaliers did not frown on cousin marriages, and the Scots-Irish were devoted clansmen; both Cavalier and Scots-Irish patriarchs made it a custom to decide who their daughter would and would not marry, while the Quakers went even further, giving not only parents, but extended family, church leaders, and even neighbors a veto on the marriage choices of their children. [4]

It is interesting to see, however, how quickly many of these practices died out. By end of century Quaker church courts are filled to the brim with young colonists who have violated one of their community's gravest rules: do not marry outside of the Church. [5] Custom might keep Cavalier fathers and Quaker neighbors interfering in other's marriage beds, but it seems that the English common law gave them no legal right to do so. As water flows to the lowest point, so any society whose legal regime protects a woman's free choice will inevitably settle into a society of love-marriages. Thus while there was still some variation in practice at different parts of the social strata, the ideal of the freely chosen love-match was firmly enshrined in all regions of the country by 1820. [6] So it has been ever since.

This puts a new spin on Karl Marx's famous description of industrialization's effect on tradition and sense of place:
All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.[7]
It is a poetic passage. But in the American case it is not even half the story. Ask those in a conservative immigrant subculture why "all that is solid melt[ed] into air" after they moved to this country, and they will tell you the truth: nothing has tore their world apart quite like the centuries old English marriage system.

To read the first post in this series, see Against Patrick Deneen (I). For past writing on the relationship between family structure and individualism, read Historians, Fear Not the Psychologists and Taking Cross Cultural Psychology Seriously. The post "Conservatism's Generational Civil War" provides some of the additional context for what I am doing here. 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] Michael Lotus and James Bennett, America 3.0 (New York: Encounter Books, 2013), 54.
[2]  ibid, 27-28.
[3] Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: The Free Press, 1988), passim.
[4] David Hackett Fisher, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 274-306; 481-501; 662-680.

[5] Ibid, 486.

[6] Mintz and Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, 43-67.

[7] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party," in Robert Tucker, ed., The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd ed. (New York: W.W. Norton, 1979), 476.

31 May, 2020

On Days of Disorder

Let us say you are a man inclined towards a riot. Perhaps breaking stuff gives you joy. Maybe the chemical cocktail that courses through you as you go about burning this and pummeling that provides a visceral feeling of power and exhilaration with which nothing else compares. Perhaps you feel pent up and pushed down in normal times; perhaps you glory in asserting to the earth that you are indeed a man, a being who acts instead of one that is acted on. You may be moved by a hard conviction that those who have much do not deserve the much they have, and you hunger to be the force that delivers them more just desserts. Perhaps you just like making a quick buck from stealing things and hawking them on Craiglist. There are many reasons a man might be inclined towards a riot.

Yet you and all those like you have a problem. The man inclined towards a riot cannot simply wake up one day and begin one. The lone rioter is not a rioter at all. He is simply a common vandal. The system can handle that problem with ease. This is the sorrow of the would-be rioter: he cannot begin his riot until he is sure all the other would-be rioters will pound the streets besides him.

Here is how David Haddock and Daniel Poisby described the travails of the rioter-in-embryo almost three decades ago:
After the Los Angeles riot in spring of 1992, almost every pundit in the country took a turn at explaining why riots occur. The conventional wisdom on the subject went something like this: certain dramatic events such as political assassinations or unpopular jury verdicts crystalize riots from social rage. So to understand riots, one must understand and the causes of social rage, usually said to be racism, poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and why people who experience this rage manage it in such a destructive manner. The usual suspects include breakdown of the family, television, and a generalized cultural disorientation.

All of these explanations have some truth in them, but are evidently incomplete. First, they explain too much. The predisposing social conditions are with us all the time, yet riots are episodic. Second, they explain too little. Many mob actions, like European soccer riots or the increasingly predictable civil meltdowns in the home cities of National Basketball Association champions, are triggered by good news, and not obviously related to social injustice or existential anomie. Indeed, during the Los Angeles riots, anyone with a TV set could see that jubilation rather than fury best characterized the mood of the people in the streets. It is hard to credit that these exhilarated looters with their new VCR’s and cameras were protesting the jury system, the state of race relations in Southern California, or anything else. They were, in fact, having a party. Moreover, many of those who risked life and limb opposing the more outrageous excesses of the rioters were themselves poor, unemployed, and victims of racism.[1]
Haddock and Poisby raise an important question: if riots happen because of deep structural injustices, what explains the European soccer riot?

Haddock and Poisby begin this inquiry by reminding us what a riot is not:
Day in and day out in any big city, police blotters will reflect the existence of a fairly steady background supply of theft, mugging, arson, and homicide. But this jumble of criminal mischief does not amount to a “riot”; riots are the coordinated acts of many people. If they are coordinated, who coordinates them? Authorities looking for ways to explain why trouble has broken out on their watch sometimes ascribe exaggerated organizational. powers to “outside agitators.” While, as we explain, there is definitely a leadership niche in the ecology of a mob, it seems to become important only after the crowd has assembled. Riots are not, as a rule, plotted and scripted affairs.

It would be very difficult indeed to “stage” a riot. A person who set out to do so would encounter a series of difficult challenges. When should the riot be held? Where? How should the participants be notified? Once marshaled, how should they be instigated to behave in a way that would expose them to arrest? Trying to organize a riot as though it were a company picnic would quickly attract the attention of the police. And with the police watching, who would be brave enough to cast the first stone? How, then, do riots begin?[2]
Riots then are best understood as a coordination problem. People must act together for the riot to proceed, and importantly, they must act at the same time. Corporations and military commands develop vast hierarchies to ensure that those in their employ work in concert. The rioter does not have this option available to him. Haddock and Poisby quote a passage from Thomas Schelling's Strategies of Conflict that explains why:
It is usually the essence of mob formation that the potential members have to know not only where and when to meet but just when to act so that they act in concert. Overt leadership solves the problem; but leadership can often be identified and eliminated by the authority trying to prevent mob action. In this case the mob’s problem is to act in unison without overt leadership, to find some common signal that makes everyone confident that, if he acts on it, he will not be acting alone. The role of “incidents” can thus be seen as a coordinating role; it is a substitute for overt leadership and communication. Without something like an incident, it may be difficult to get action at all, since immunity requires that all know when to act together.[3]
Absent long-term leadership, the coordinating mechanism for the would-be rioters is almost always an incident. The incident itself can be almost anything, provided that all would-be rioters understand that what has just happened is in fact "an incident:"
Certain kinds of high-profile events have become traditional “starting signals” for civil disorders. In fact, incidents can become signals simply because they have been signals before. What ignited the first English soccer riot has been lost in the mists of history; but they had become a troublesome problem sometime during the nineteenth century, as Bill Buford (1991) makes clear in quoting old newspaper accounts in his Among the Thugs. Today, there is a century’s weight of tradition behind soccer violence. People near a football ground on game day know that a certain amount of mischief, possibly of a quite violent kind, is apt to occur. Those who dislike that sort of thing had best take themselves elsewhere. Certain people, though, thrive on the action —relish getting drunk, fighting, smoking dope; enjoy the whiff of anarchy, harassing and beating respectable people and vandalizing their property. Such people—hooligans—make a point of being where the trouble is likely to start....  In Detroit in recent years, “Devils Night” (the night before Halloween) has become a springboard for multiple, independent, almost simultaneous acts of arson. These are examples, baleful ones,of how culture, habit, and tradition can overcome major organizational barriers to cooperative social endeavors and lower the cost of transacting business. [4]
Once a crowd has gathered in response to an incident, there are still two hurdles that would-be rioters must overcome to transform a mere crowd into a destructive mob. The first is that the crowd must have massed in sufficient concentration and speed at "one place [where] police cannot mass at a correspondingly rapid rate... [so that] that offenses occur rapidly enough to overwhelm the police."[5] The second is that the would-be rioters must find a way to judge the composition of the crowd. Haddock and Poisby again:
Not every crowd threatens to evolve into a riot. In fact, the opposite is more often true: people bent on criminal mischief usually do not want lots of witnesses and possibly hostile bystanders around when they commit crimes. And so the psychology of the crowd’s members is crucial. A significant number of the crowd’s members must expect and desire that the crowd will become riotous. That is, there has to be a critical mass of people in the crowd who are making accurate judgments, not about their own desires and intentions, but about the riotous desires and intentions of other members of the crowd.[6]
Haddock and Poisby describe the individuals who go about testing the desire of the crowds riot entrepreneurs:
Even in an unstable gathering, the first perpetrator of a misdemeanor is at risk if the police are willing and able to zero in on him. Thus, someone has to serve as a catalyst—a sort of entrepreneur to get things going—in Buford’s account usually by breaking a window (a signal that can be heard by many who do not see it). In civil rights, anti-war or anti-abortion marches, it is probably pretty common to find participants eager to expose themselves to arrest in exchange for the chance to optimize the desired impact of their protest. This sort of self-sacrifice is certainly rare in ordinary riots, where potential rioters’ behavior is consistent, we suppose, with something like the following calculation: “If somebody else gets the riot started, I can participate without much risk. But if I stick my neck out and nobody follows, I’ll be the only one arrested. So I’ll wait for somebody else to go first.” If every would-be rioter reasoned thus, nobody would cast the first stone, and the riot would not ignite. This is a typical free-rider problem, as economists have called it. It is usually sufficient to prevent riots from occurring, even where there is a plentiful supply of disposed participants. Riots await events that surmount the free rider problem. The entrepreneur will throw the first stone when he calculates that the risk that he will be apprehended for doing so has diminished to an acceptable level.[7]
This then is the general pattern of riots:
  1.  An event occurs that signals to would-be rioters that they may soon be able to riot.
  2. This event gathers a crowd. A significant percentage of this crowd—though rarely, it seems, the majority—are eager for destruction.
  3. An entrepreneurial would-be rioter tests the crowd for the presence of other rioters by engaging in a minor (yet easily perceived) act of carnage.
  4. Other rioters follow suit, and as the number of offenders grow so does their willingness to take increasingly brazen acts of vandalism, theft, or violence.
Notice that this schema is value neutral: it describes both the football hooligan and the race rioter, 19th century Russian pogroms and 21st century Hong Kong street battles. In all of these a certain percentage of the participants plays the game for fairly mundane reasons: to revel in excitement or terror, lose themselves in a rare sense of solidarity, belonging, or power, or to simply gain the monetary rewards that come with theft and looting. The proportion of the population willing to join a riot to attain these things likely reflects the proportion of the population otherwise cut off from them in normal times. Few rioters are married men who must be at work at 8:00 AM the next morning.

Thus those who riot for the joy of the thing. To them may be added those with some ideological or political commitment to civil disorder. The reason these people might instigate or join a riot are various, but the practical problems they face differ little from the problems faced by those who riot because they like it. Rioting is a breach of order that—in normal times—carries extreme consequence. Those consequences can be avoided only when participants understand that times are not normal. To disturb the peace one must own the streets, and to own the streets one must be confident your folk will come out in concert. Concert absent explicit coordination is the problem of all who oppose existing orders.

This general principle can be extended to all manner of systems of order and control. I am sure the Communist Party of China and the People's Liberation Army are filled to the brim with men who hate Chairman Xi Jinping. If they acted in concert I have no doubt they could depose him. But how to do it? Those who oppose Xi cannot signal this openly; any leader of an anti-Xi resistance would find himself imprisoned or dead. Like the would-be rioters, the would-be deposers must bide and hide until some event signals that they will all be out in force.

Traditional Chinese political philosophy ascribed much to the "Mandate of Heaven" — this notion that Heaven itself supported the ruling dynasty in ratio to the virtue and wisdom of its emperors. Floods, famines, and other great natural disasters were signals of heaven's displeasure. No wonder so many great disasters were followed by revolts and rebellions. Or so the theory went. Perhaps you now see an alternate explanation for what occurred in Chinese antiquity: great disasters were signal incidents, just as soccer games and the videos of black men unjustly killed by American police are today. When struck with disease, drought, flooding, depression, or death, would-be rebels knew that others of their type would be out in force, ready to fight against the dynasty.

The opening sentence of the famous Ming dynasty novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms states this lesson concisely: tianxia dashi, fenjiu bihe, hejiu bifen. I was surprised to find that most English translations of this famous opening line obscure the lesson (Roberts: "the empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide;" Brewitt-Taylor: "domains under heaven, after a long period of division, tends to unite; after a long period of union, tends to divide;" Yu: "unity succeeds division and division succeeds unity").[8] These translations omit the word "dashi" (大勢)—a word we might translate as the great trend, tendency, or inclination inherent to a specific situation or arrangement of forces. Sunzi said it was through arranging the shi of the battlefield one general defeats another (as a mountain stream carries boulders down its length, or the trigger of a crossbow causes a bolt to fly forward); Hanfei claimed that it was the shi of a king in relation to his underlings that caused his orders to be obeyed. [9] The inherent tendency the Romance of the Three Kingdoms speaks to is a tad different. This is not a trend to be manipulated so much as recognized. In some eras, the world trends towards order and harmony. In such times, studying hard for one's exams, getting chummy with the high-born, and following rituals with Confucian precision are deeds that bring honor and esteem. In other eras, the world trends towards disorder. In those times glory is up for grabs, and honor will be had by those violent, heroic, or brave enough to seize it.

It is supremely important to understand the sort of era one is in. At the level of the ordinary citizen, the trend of the age may prompt a family to fill their larders or purchase arms. At the political level different calculations must be made. Just how durable is the order? How many people will willingly oppose it, given the opportunity to do so? Have they begun to do so? How will I act differently in world where no one believes the center will hold? There is a whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy in these decisions; once the signal is sent out, each small defection from the order is evidence that the broader mandate has gone up in smoke. The world united shifts to the world divided, and the struggle for the future begins.

But a signal must first be sent. In this respect fallen mandates and roving mobs differ little from each other. No civic order can be breached until the ambitious few have broken a few windows.

If you are interested in other attempts I've made to find the thread within the noise, you may be interested in the posts "Public Opinion in Authoritarian States," "Reason is For Stabbing,"  "The Marvelous Machiavellian Mindreader," "Tradition is Smarter Than You Are," "Vengeance as Justice," or "A Brief Model of Extremist Politics."  If explorations of ancient Chinese thought are your thing, try the posts "The Radical Sunzi," "Manning Up in Ancient China," and "Being vs Doing in Ancient Chinese Thought." 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] David Haddock and Daniel Posby, "Understanding Riots," Cato Journal Vol.14, No.1(1994), 147.

[2] Ibid, 148.

[3] Thomas Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), 90.

[4] Haddock and Posby, "Understanding Riots," pp. 149-150

[5] ibid., 148-149

[6] ibid., 14

[7]  ibid., 14

[8] In characters the full phrase is 天下大勢,分久必合,合久必分. These English translations are taken from the first pages of Robert Moss, trans. Three Kingdoms: A Historical Novel, Part I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); C.H. Brewett-Taylor, trans., Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2002); Yu Sumei, trans. The Three Kingdoms: Vol I, The Sacred Oath (Clarendon, VT: Tuttle, 2014).

[9] Sunzi Bingfa 5; Hanfeizi 40.

18 May, 2020

The World That China Wants (II): The Communist Case In Brief

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One month ago I announced a series that would investigate "the world that China wants," using Dan Tobin's recent congressional testimony and Nadege Rolland's recent research brief as the foundation of this discussion. My original plan was to dissect each of these documents at length. However, I put that aspect of the project to the side when Tablet Magazine requested I write for them a ~2500 summary of my entire case. Today that summary was published under the title "China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order." While it is not the most elegant piece I've writtent, it does a good job of putting all the important pieces of contemporary Chinese Communism in one place.

One of the highlights comes at the beginning, where I present a metaphor for thinking about Chinese "socialism:"
Listening to Chinese communists champion their socialist bona fides in one of China’s money-hungry metropoles summons a special sort of cognitive dissonance; distant electric billboards gleam through industrial smog while your conversation partner parrots Marxist cant. But this dissonance cannot be too different from, say, what an outsider might have felt listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt address a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in 1936. If Jefferson’s writings are your scripture, Roosevelt’s titanic interventions in American life are heresy. Yet Roosevelt thought of himself as the heir to Jefferson and Jackson. He earnestly believed that his program was an adaptation of Jeffersonian ideals and principles to a 20th-century political economy. Roosevelt’s politics were a natural—albeit historically contingent—evolution of America’s liberal tradition, so the politics of the Chinese communists are an outgrowth of their Leninist identity.[1]
There is an entire PhD thesis to be written on what aspects of Marxist and Leninist thought are still relevant in 21st century China. To me the obvious answer is quite a lot. But in this essay I focus in on a narrower part of the whole:
One of the most salient continuities between classical Leninism and the current version of communist politics endorsed by Beijing, which the Chinese uncreatively have labeled “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is the conviction that true modernization must be led by a “vanguard” party that is able to act in the interests of the “overwhelming majority” of people. According to this Leninist line, free markets and free elections lead to the rule of selfish elites, and China’s rejuvenation depends on being protected from both. Despite the concessions made to market-price mechanisms that have helped drive China’s recent economic boom, Chinese communists believe that they lead an ideological-political system distinct from and in opposition to those of the capitalist world. Circumstance forces temporary cooperation with the self-interested capitalists, but these two systems cannot be permanently reconciled.[2]
Another interesting hold over is their sense of the relevant history:
But there are dangers to “opening up” to the outer world. This is the lesson Chinese communists draw from extensive study of the Soviet failure. The party’s official explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union—which has been communicated to party cadres through speeches, party school education, and even a full-length documentary—is that its demise had nothing to do with the weaknesses of its planned economy or the tensions inherent in a multinational empire masquerading as a people’s republic. In the telling of the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Union began to die the day Nikita Khrushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Joseph Stalin. Though the reformist policies of destalinization were only intended to strengthen the communist system by eliminating its errant and excessive aspects, it ended up eroding the foundation of the value system that made the USSR cohere. Once it became possible to question the party leadership, the Soviets lost the ability to shore up the “ideological security” of their regime. In these circumstances, Chinese communists studying the USSR’s dissolution now conclude, Gorbachev’s decision to “open” the system and expose formerly culturally quarantined Soviet peoples to the enticements of the Western order was a suicide pact.

Xi Jinping endorsed this explanation for the Soviet collapse in a 2013 address to party cadres. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he asked his audience. “An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce!” The party leadership is determined to avoid the Soviet mistake. A leaked internal party directive from 2013 describes “the very real threat of Western anti-China forces and their attempt at carrying out westernization” within China. The directive describes the party as being in the midst of an “intense, ideological struggle” for survival. According to the directive, the ideas that threaten China with “major disorder” include concepts such as “separation of powers,” “independent judiciaries,” “universal human rights,” “Western freedom,” “civil society,” “economic liberalism,” “total privatization,” “freedom of the press,” and “free flow of information on the internet.” To allow the Chinese people to contemplate these concepts would “dismantle [our] party’s social foundation” and jeopardize the party’s aim to build a modern, socialist future.[3]
That is the Communist's problem. The nature of this problem is misunderstood in the West:
Westerners asked to think about competition with China tend to see it through a geopolitical or military lens. But Chinese communists believe that the greatest threat to the security of their party, the stability of their country, and China’s return to its rightful place at the center of human civilization, is ideological. They are not fond of the military machines United States Pacific Command has arrayed against them, but what spooks them more than American weapons and soldiers are ideas—hostile ideas they believe America has embedded in the discourse and institutions of the existing global order. “International hostile forces [seek to] westernize and divide China” warned former CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin more than a decade ago, and that means that, as Jiang argued in a second speech, the “old international political and economic order” created by these forces “has to be changed fundamentally” to safeguard China’s rejuvenation. Xi Jinping has endorsed this view, arguing that “since the end of the Cold War countries affected by Western values have been torn apart by war or afflicted with chaos. If we tailor our practices to Western values ... The consequences will be devastating.” [4]
One way around this is censorship, intimidation, and bribery. This is how the Chinese communists direct ideology inside their own borders, and increasingly outside it as well. But this solution is insufficient:
For the party, censorship of hostile ideas and intimidation of those who voice them is only a stopgap solution. To secure their victory, liberal values do not just need to be silenced. They must be discredited.

The Chinese communists’ plans to discredit and dismantle the liberal values baked into the existing global architecture are incredibly ambitious. They imagine a future reality where even the notion that China could be more successful, wealthy, or powerful if it were free would sound too ridiculous to take seriously. Xi Jinping has given a name to this future world. He calls this vision “a community of common destiny for mankind.” This future community of nations would give Chinese communism the moral recognition it is now denied. The party-state would be lauded, in Xi’s words, as a new “contribution to political civilization” and a new chapter in “the history of the development of human society.” Power blocs and existing military alliances would soon melt away as the various nations of the Earth are drawn into China’s economic orbit. No country would be compelled to shift their regime to the Chinese model in this scenario, but most would recognize that the Chinese social and political system has “demonstrated socialism’s superiority.” Many would gladly adopt the tools Beijing has perfected to manage economic and political problems to shape their own societies. Democratization, free markets, and universal human rights would no longer be enshrined as the bedrock of the world’s most important international institutions or be seen as the default standards of good governance. They would instead be reduced to a parochial tradition peculiar to a smattering of outcast Western nations....
Xi does not expect this contest over the future world order to be resolved quickly. In 2013 he warned cadres that “for a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system ... [And there will be a] long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems” before China has “the dominant position.” The PRC’s plan to build up the economic sinews of a less hostile order will take several decades to come to fruition. To make that future a reality requires convincing the world that, in the words of Yang Jiechi, “Western governance concepts, systems, and models [no longer] grasp the new international situation or keep up with the times.” Only when the world is persuaded that Yang is correct—that liberal ideals like pluralism, individual rights, and constitutional government are anachronisms of a past age incapable of solving 21st-century problems—will Chinese communists no longer fear that their bid to restore China to greatness will be derailed by the ideological plots of their enemies. [5]
It is to this end both the grand project of the "Belt and Road" and the narrower task of creating anti-American propaganda shorts are devoted.

I encourage folks to go read the full thing over at Tablet. I have finally put together a condensed statement of my thinking about the Party's intellectual trajectory and current priorities. While I came to a similar conclusion as Rolland and Tobin independent of their research, what I have written here would not have been written without the hard work they have done tracking down sources and compiling them into coherent reports.

I think both of them would argue that the full story is a shade more complex and nuanced than I've presented in this five-page Tablet piece, and in future episodes of this series I will return to their reports and explain some of the caveats and unknowns attached to the project. Yet this works for now, and should serve as a useful primer that "normal people" not waist-deep in the weeds can use and understand. My hope is that it will be shared widely.
If you are interested in other things I have written about China's Communists, you might also find the first post in this series,"The World That China Wants (I)" useful.  Similar themes are pursued in "A Note on Historical Nihilism," "Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability," "Case Studies in Communist Insecurity," "Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping," "Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party," and "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II." 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] Tanner Greer, "China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order," Tablet Magazine (18 May 2020).
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid

10 May, 2020

Against Patrick Deneen (I)

Don Trioani, Stand Your Ground, (1976).
Captain Levi Preston of Danvers, Massachusetts, interviewed about his participation in the first battle of the American Revolution many years later, at the age of 91, around 1843:
"Captain Preston, what made you go to the Concord Fight? [Was it because you] were you oppressed by the Stamp Act?"

"I never saw any stamps, and I always understood that none were ever sold."

"Well, what about the tea tax?"

"Tea tax, I never drank a drop of the stuff, the boys threw it all overboard."

"But I suppose you have been reading Harrington, Sidney, and Locke about the eternal principle of liberty?"

"I never heard of these men. The only books we had were the Bible, the Catechism, Watts' psalms and hymns and the almanacs."

"Well, then, what was the matter?"

"Young man, what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves and we always meant to. They didn't mean we should."
—Adapted slightly from David Hacket Fisher, Paul Revere's Ride (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 163-164.

To read other bits of my jousting for the future of the American right, you might find the posts of my older posts on the problem: "Conservatism's Generational Civil War," "Questing for Transcendence," and "On the American Football Game" 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.

06 May, 2020

Japan's Achilles Heel?

Infographic from the International Gas Union.

Two months ago I wrote a post with the title "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan." It described how the loss of Taiwan to the PRC would put Japan in a geopolitically untenable position, as the PLA Navy would then be capable of choking Japan into submission if conflict ever arose between the two powers.

I thought back to that post as I read a report from the Financial Times on the difficulties Japan will face if its liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities are shut down because of the SARS-2 coronavirus:
Because LNG is poorly suited for long-term storage, Japan only has a two-week stockpile. Yet the country depends on the fuel for 40 per cent of its electric power generation, and all of the LNG it uses is imported from the Middle East and south-east Asia.....

Unlike oil, LNG is hard to stockpile. After the Arab oil shocks of the early 1970s, Japan passed a law to require stockpiling oil, and about 200 days of domestic consumption is stored together with the private sector. Even if there were a hindrance to the transportation of oil, “we can hold up until the infection subsides”, said an employee at a private energy company.

LNG, meanwhile, cannot be held in large volume because of its composition. To ship over long distances, the gas is chilled to minus 162C, at which point it becomes liquid. But it evaporates as it is being transported. That is why Japan has only two weeks’ worth of LNG at any given time.

It takes about a month to ship the LNG from the Middle East to Japan. With shipments arriving constantly, a few missed shipments would not immediately signal a crisis. But an extended cut-off would spell trouble for the country. [1]
The connection to that previous post should be obvious. However, as I am not especially familiar with LNG infrastructure, I am left pondering a few questions. I encourage readers more knowledgeable than myself to take them up in the comments.

The Financial Times describes a nation that can easily be paralyzed by losing just a few key nodes in its LNG offloading infrastructure. If damaged in war, how quickly could such infrastructure be rebuilt? How possible is it to harden these targets from ballistic missile attack? In the event of war, what is more economical: attacking the LNG port infrastructure or attacking the LNG ships bound for Japan? What percentage of the LNG carrier fleet that embarks in Japan is Japan-flagged? One suspects Mitsui O.S.K. Lines would have no choice but to continue supplying Japan in the face of commerce raiders, but would the fleets of Shell, Nakilat, et. al dare risk it?

If you found this analysis of Taiwanese and Japanese military affairs of  interest, you might also like the posts "Losing Taiwan Means Losing Japan," "Why Taiwanese Leaders Put Political Symbolism Above Military Power," "Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet or Not At All," and "At What Point is Defending Japan No Longer Worth It." 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] Suguru Kurimoto, "Hidden threat: Japan has only 2-week stockpile of LNG," Financial Times (5 May 2020).