The Asian Age

I love Asia. Ever since my student days I have had a keen interest in South East Asia and China, with my course on the Politics of the Asia Pacific at the London School of Economics in the run up to the handover of Hong Kong as a high point. This was followed almost a decade later with four years of living in Manila, with time spend as a freelance journalist covering Philippine politics and society, as well as teaching for three years at the European Studies Program at the elitist Ateneo de Manila University. I also had the opportunity to travel to almost all countries in the region (with the notable exceptions of Laos, Taiwan and the Koreas, but one should keep something to be desired). I admire the resilience of the Asians, their humour, great work ethics, the beauty of their countries, and of course their sumptuous food.

As a classical liberal I always have a keen interest in the economic developments of the region, which to me serve as the prime evidence for the great and positive impacts freeing up economies have. The rise of Asia in essence is the empirical proof that classical liberal ideas work, that capitalism has the capacity to improve the life of millions of people, in a very short term. This despite the imperfect implementation of capitalism throughout the region, so there is much room for further improvement. In this light it is also interesting to see how long economic freedom and political lack of freedom can co-exist. Classical liberal ideas predict, most clearly expressed by Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom, that one follows the other. Economic and political freedom cannot be separated forever (nor forever suppressed together, as the experiences in the former Soviet bloc continue to make clear, even despite Putin’s increasing autocratic rule).

For an international relations observer from Europe, the developments in the Asia Pacific are of particular interest, because the rise of Asia seems to go together with the fall of Europe as a geopolitical player. Or more precisely: the fall of the middle rank European powers, as the European Union itself is a significant player in trade politics only, the only field where it represents all member states and policy is determined at the European level, with a leading role for the European Commission.

The recent book Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century, by Financial Times journalist Gideon Rachman, deals precisely with this issue.

blog-easternisation

It is a great book, bringing together Rachman’s extensive experience in the US, Asia, and Brussels. Often, books written by journalists lack sound analysis for the mid to long term, and historical perspective. While Easternisation is not an academic tome either, it does provide sufficient deep analysis, especially by tackling developments in all important countries which play a role in the process. It is not just another volume of simply USA or EU bashing, as we have seen before with the huge literature on the alleged Japanese take-over of the US economy.

Rachman’s main argument is that the influence of the West, Europe in particular, has crumbled. This may lead to a major conflict in the Asia Pacific, most notably between China and the US, which also endangers the global economic order. Yet many other conflicts are also building up, in a region which heavily invests in armaments. In short, in the 21st century, ‘rivalries between the nations in the Asia Pacific will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over 500 years from 1500 onwards’. I think this is an important message, which should be taken seriously by everybody. Certainly by the Europeans, who are in danger of just inhabiting the world’s largest open air museum within a few decades.  One thing is certain: the Asians will not wait for them to come to terms with the current shift of power.

The struggle for life

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


In elementary school, grades were handed out in class in a terrifying monthly ceremony. The same deranged Principal would walk into each classroom in turn holding a thick pile of “livrets scolaires,” individual grade-booklets, rather than simple, one-shot report cards, under his arm. There was one livret per student per year with numerical scores and verbal comments for each subject matter, and a monthly overall ranking of students. The Principal would lay the grade-books upside down, in reverse order of students’ ranking for the month ending hence, lowest-ranking student first.

For several years, every month, without fail, the lowest-ranking pupil and the first on the mental scaffold was a runty, scrawny, rheumy-eyed boy who always sat in the last row, “Colinet.” The Principal would start ranting as he entered the room; his glasses would drop down his nose and he would deliver himself of the same furious tirade at the top of his voice against miserable, crouching Colinet. He was a large middle-aged man whose eyes became globulous when he was angry. He would foam at the mouth and spittle would dribble down his shirt as he promised Colinet the guillotine or worse. Colinet never got used to it. I sure did not. I almost crapped my pants several times although I was sitting near the front row and the Principal was staring over my head, straight at the back of the room, as he yelled and screamed. As he called out names from Colinet to the higher-ranking pupils, he would calm down, his voice would subside, and his comments became briefer. By the time he reached the livret of the tenth-ranker, his manner had become civilized as if there had been no raging storm minutes earlier.

In my family, there was a completely arbitrary rule that only the first six places were acceptable. I think my parents secretly thought only the first five were really acceptable but added the sixth because it made them feel magnanimous. Once the Principal had called out the ninth-ranked name, my body began to relax and I was breathing normally. If the Principal was down to the fifth livret and my name had not come up, the sweet song of victory began ringing in my heart. “Very good, my boy,” the Principal would say in a low, calm voice as he handed me my livret (to be signed by both parents).

Communism and reading

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My parents pro-Americanism must have been displayed often because faith in Communism was on the ascendancy during the miserable post-war years. That was when a significant fraction of French public opinion became mindlessly and reflexively anti-American, seemingly forever. Yet, rampant anti-Americanism hardly interfered with American cultural influence. The first movie I saw was a Charlie Chaplin, the first cartoon, Snow White. Every week, when I had been good, I had my copy of Mickey Mouse Magazine (“Mikay Mooze”), although there were excellent French and Belgian children’s periodicals. One of the best French-language children’s periodical had a Far-West serial, “Lucky Luke” that still amazes me for its historical and geographic accuracy. Somebody in the France of the fifties was an attentive student of Americana. Made-in-America action hero comics were forbidden fruits though. To this day, I don’t know why they were prohibited. Perhaps my mother thought them “vulgaires,” like many other things. Later, the first music I paid attention to was jazz.

Movies played a big role in shaping my world-view. I did not develop a sense for what was an American movie rather than a French movie until I was about fifteen. My real second language was thus the extremely bad, stilted French dubbing of American motion pictures. The dubbing is awful to this day. When the hero shoots the bad guy in the gut with a “Take this, you motherfucker!” it comes out in French like this: “This will teach you a lesson, mean man.” All dubbing is done in France by people who don’t know English well, I suspect. The same dozen voices are used over and over again. The dubbers are immortal, it seems. You might say that I was brought up in good part by a curiously distorted Hollywood.

How I Helped Win World War Two

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


All of a sudden, that road was flooded by a long column of trucks overflowing with big, loud, laughing men in distinctive uniforms. People were shouting greetings and waving flags. It seems that an American soldier jumped off his vehicle, swept me up into his arms and kissed me on both cheeks. That may have been because my mother, who had wanted her second child to be a daughter, processed my long blond hair into Goldilock-style ringlets. That I am straight today is a testimony to the resiliency of genetic programming. My mother always insisted the kissing soldier was black. On the one hand, she may have made up this detail for colorful effect. On the other hand, there were so many trucks the soldiers may have belonged to a transport unit and hence, probably to a black unit in the segregated Army of the day.

It was August 1944. I was two and my family lived in a (nice) city project right on the periphery of Paris, near one of its main access roads. One thing that bothers me about this visual and auditory recollection is that we lived on the east side of Paris. American soldiers should have been arriving from Normandy, in the west. Yet, the memory is clear.

Before the American forces reached Paris, my mother had sewn a makeshift tricolor French flag. The blue came from my father’s old military service flannel sash (a forgotten and now incomprehensible item of clothing). The red came from a Nazi flag my father had stolen from a German general’s car he was supposed to guard. (The Germans were packing up at the time and very nervous. He might have been shot on the spot if he had been caught.) At a loss for white, my mother made the center piece out of one of my diapers. That’s why I have always felt I played a part, although a small one, in the liberation of Paris, a symbolically important phase of WWII.

I was born and conceived during the Nazi Occupation of France when life was tough and entertainment scarce. My father was a Paris cop. His life was not so tough, however, that he did not have the energy to make my mother pregnant one more time before the Liberation, this time with twins. There was little to eat and milk was rationed so, my mother breastfed me for the longest time. I was precocious. At one point, I think I was able to ask for the breast in grammatically perfect French. It must have been embarrassing for her. Or perhaps I made this up on the basis of bits and pieces I picked up while I was growing up, like some of the other early recollections in these truncated memoirs. They stop at age 21 when I moved to the US for good. I made that choice because I think the second part of my life would be less  interesting to an American readership than the first, the preparatory phase, so to speak.

I  described above my first, full, cinematographic memory. From the days before the Liberation, I remember bit and pieces, like still photographs with some sound, glimpses of German uniforms and the vast, beautiful fire of the Paris general mills, a mile away, set by the US Army Air Corps. It’s a little known fact that the Allies bombed the hell out of France right before and during the Normandy landing. The French never complained much; they were different then, and too sick of the German presence to bitch about collateral damage. When the air raid siren sounded, my mother would wrap me up in a blanket and take me down to the basement of our seven-story apartment house. Some tenants were so jaded by then that they did not bother to take shelter. The basement was a crowded but not especially tragic place.

In spite of this dramatic, first, fully formed memory, nothing really important ever happened to me. I have escaped the Chinese curse, of “living in interesting times,” although I did live in fact in quite interesting times. I waltzed through the murderous second half of the twentieth century with hardly a scratch to show for it. All my life, I have been mostly fortunate. The undeserved lucky breaks more than made up for the few unjustified blows fate has dealt me. The luckiest break was my first coming to the US at eighteen, a prelude to immigration three years later. In this country, no one ever oppressed me successfully though a few tried.  Many gave me a push at just the right moment. Mine is a happy story. This makes it worth telling to the largely glum denizens of the twenty-first century.

I live in the sunny, warm climate I longed for as a child, near the sea I always loved, in a small town rich with the small pleasures I have always appreciated: a variety of movies, a good café in an interesting, animated downtown, several bookstores within easy reach, and young people everywhere. My wife is a talented painter whose work I enjoy so much I don’t ever like her to sell it. She has few obligations, and she has not had many for  quite a while. That’s what keeps her beautiful, I think. She is also an immigrant, from the other side of the world from me, yet we see eye-to-eye on most matters. Nevertheless, we each have our own house, feet apart, each gracious in its own way. Although, it’s in the center of town, our tiny plot contains an apple tree, a plum tree, two lemon trees, and a big fig tree. All bear fruits, especially the fig tree, a sort of miracle I never fully grasp, for reasons that will become clear below.

I am a retired university professor and scholar, fairly proud of my scholarship, happy to have been a professor and equally happy to not be one anymore. Most mornings, weather permitting (it permits often, here in California), after the gym and after coffee at Lulu’s, I am forced to decide whether I want to go sailing, or fishing, or just putter about my boat, or start one of my sometimes fairly good postcard paintings, or again, write a micro-story. Sometimes, I just simply spend the whole day reading, for no particular reason and to no particular purpose. I read much history but also almost anything anyone hands me. That would include a fair amount of trash. You guessed it: I am a satisfied lazy man.

The pages below tell the tale of the unlikely beginnings of the journey that brought me to my current state of beatific smugness.

From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

Foucault’s biopolitics seems like it’s just a subtle form of nationalism

I’ve been slowly making my way through Michel Foucault’s The Birth of Biopolitics, largely on the strength of Barry’s recommendation (see also this fiery debate between Barry and Jacques), and a couple of things have already stood out to me. 1) Foucault, lecturing in 1978-79, is about 20 years behind Hayek’s 1960 book The Constitution of Liberty in terms of formulating interesting, relevant political theory and roughly 35 years behind his The Road to Serfdom (1944) in terms of expressing doubts over the expanding role of the state into the lives of citizens.

2) The whole series of lectures seems like a clever plea for French nationalism. Foucault is very ardent about identifying “neo-liberalism” in two different models, a German one and an American one, and continually makes references about the importation or lack thereof of these models into other societies.

Maybe I’m just reading too deeply into his words.

Or maybe Foucault isn’t trying to make a clever case for French nationalism, and is instead trying to undercut the case for a more liberal world order but – because nothing else has worked as well as liberalism, or even come close – he cannot help but rely upon nationalist sentiments to make his anti-liberal case and he just doesn’t realize what he’s doing.

These two thoughts are just my raw reactions to what is an excellent book if you’re into political theory and Cold War scholarship. I’ll be blogging my thoughts on the book in the coming weeks, so stay tuned!

McCloskey, Western equality, and Europe’s Jews

Warren shot me the following email a few days ago:

Brandon, do you know the name Deirdre McCloskey?

She is a first-rate economist with extensive expertise in history, literature and anthropology.  She recently finished a trilogy, the third volume of which is “Bourgeois Equality.” It’s a fat book but you would be well rewarded for time invested.  You don’t have to read the first two volumes to benefit from the third.

The purpose of the trilogy is to explain why we’re 30 times richer than our forebears of 250 years ago, as best that can be estimated.  Conventional answers like the industrial revolution and rule of law don’t go far enough.  The answer lies in attitudes toward commerce.

I haven’t read McCloskey’s book yet, but it’s been on my amazon wishlist for awhile and thanks to Warren’s prodding it’ll be my next purchase. (Here is all of NOL‘s stuff on McCloskey so far, by the way.)

My first instinct on this topic is to think about Europe’s Jews. Bear with me as I lay out my thoughts.

McCloskey’s book, which as far as I can tell takes readers to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries, is about how Europeans began to reconceptualize equality in a way that was very different from notions of equality in the past.

A very basic summary is that notions of equality in Europe prior to the modern era largely aligned with notions of equality elsewhere in the world. Basically, an established hierarchy based on either inherited land ownership or clerical ranking was justified in all cultures by a religious appeal: “we’re all Christians or Buddhists or Muslims or fill-in-the-blank, so don’t even worry about what we have and you don’t have.” This way of thinking was irrevocably altered in 17th century northwestern Europe. Once I actually read McCloskey’s book, I can give you more details (or, of course, you can just read it yourself).

This argument, that northwestern Europe became free and prosperous because of a change in ideas about equality, is of course very broad and qualitative, but I buy it. The big “however” in this line of reasoning is Europe’s treatment of its Jews.

I forget where I heard the argument before, but somebody or some school of thought has argued that because Europe’s Jews were forced by legislation to go into “dirty trades” like commerce, they became more broadly open-minded than other ethnic groups in Europe and therefore more prosperous. Dutch and British bourgeois culture no doubt had a Jewish influence, and because bourgeois culture is internationalist in scope this Jewish influence must have penetrated other European societies, but anti-Semitism in these other bourgeois centers was more rampant than than it was in the UK and the Netherlands. Why was this?

My main guesses would be “Protestantism” (because Protestants at the time were more open-minded due to being at odds with the Catholic Church), or “the seafaring character of British and Dutch societies.” These are just guesses though. Help me out!