From the Comments: the Ottoman Empire, the millet system, and nationalism

Barry has an excellent response to Jacques’ equally good essay on the Ottoman Empire and libertarianism:

Jacques, the Millet system was as much constructed as destroyed in the late Ottoman period. The idea of such a system was itself projected back onto the earlier Ottoman system to reflect modern assumptions about national belonging, which was understood to exist in the Ottoman state through a systematic accommodation of Christian nations.

The classical Ottoman system was very dispersed and irregular in the functioning of power under a sultan who [had] absolute power in certain spheres and certain circumstances. So the contrast of the millet system with emergent Turkish nationalism itself presumes nationalist categories anachronistic to the earlier Ottoman state. The understanding of a millet system does of course coincide with the destruction of said system, since the idea of such a system comes from a kind of nationalism, or at least [an] assumption of a top down administrative state with strongly homogenising tendencies. The greatest massacre of Armenians took place in 1915 under the direction of an element of Young Turks (the general term for reformists) manifested in the most extreme tendencies of the Committee of Union and Progress.

In any case there is some continuity with the policies of Sultan Abdülhamit following a version of Ottoman statism constructing a homogenising administrative state after suspending the constitutional system and its representative assembly. If we apply ‘millet system’ to the early Ottoman system, with the reservations I mentioned, you can of course talk about greater peace for Ottoman Christians than that experienced during the 30 Years War, in exchange for the surrender of young sons for training as ‘janisseries’, new believers serving the sultan as soldiers and administrators. However, the picture is less sunny if we look at the massacres of Alevi, what were known at the time as Qizilbash, that is followers of a rather unorthodox offshoot of Shia Islam. Particularly under Selim I, Yavuz Selim, Selim the Grim (an appropriate moniker) in the 15th century Alevis were massacred by the tens of thousands in connection with his wars against Iranian Shia. Maybe if we compare the Ottoman system with the Christian states of the time, we see more religious peace, but relatively speaking.

In any case by the late nineteenth century the peace was eroded by wars of separation and by persecution of ‘dangerous’ minorities within the remaining Ottoman lands. In terms of Ottomanist ideological legacy, Abdülhamit is a hero to religious-conservative and ultranationalist currents mobilised by an ideal of strong Muslim rulers presiding over a Muslim community and with Abdülhamit taken as a model. Of course they are applying something foreign to the Ottoman system in its earlier years and which even Abdülhamit would have found alien in its commitment to Turkishness. The actions of Abdulhamit and then the trio at the head of the CUP who orchestrated the massacres of 1915 show the dangers of statist modernisation. In both cases though, they would have understood their actions as done to protect the glory of the Ottomans.

Barry has more at NOL here. Jacques has more at NOL here. Both can often be found in a responsive mood in the ‘comments’ threads, too, as long as your comments aren’t too nasty or vulgar…


BC’s weekend reads

  1. Barry has a book review of Nietzsche’s political thought in the Los Angeles Review of Books!
  2. (check out Barry’s 2014 NOL post on Nietzsche’s contributions to the liberty canon)
  3. a good analysis on the Arab cold war between 2 sets of American allies
  4. a great analysis on the Kurds, the Yazidis, and Turkey
  5. the Zanzibar-North Sea swap
  6. walruses, the Arctic, and science

Lunchtime Links

  1. Trophy-taking and dismemberment as warfare strategies [pdf]
  2. optimally vague contracts and the law [pdf]
  3. Germanic and Carthaginian republicanism
  4. traditional resurgence in tropical Africa [pdf]
  5. crisis bureaucracy: homeland security and the political design of legal mandates [pdf]

From the Comments: Ottoman autocracy, Turkish liberty

Jacques, if you want to look at a libertarian/classical liberal case for the Ottoman Empire you should look at Islam without Extremes (Norton 2013) by Mustafa Akyol. I can’t claim to have got round to reading it myself, but I have seen Akyol’s summaries of his argumnents.

The power of Akyol’s argument in term of Turkey’s political scene has been somewhat undermined by his support for the AKP governemnt until after the Gezi Park protests. He is very critical of the AKP now, but as he was previously known as an AKP apologist (and enthusiast for Intelligent Design theory) it’s doubtful how much of an asset he is to Turkey’s rather small pro-liberty scene.

In any case I do not endorse myself straight on Ottomanist libertarianism and there are reasons it does not have much of a hold in Turkey’s pro-liberty scene though there are a few who think like this. The problems are endless and complex because the Ottoman system lasted from the 14th to 20th centuries and you can’t really talk about the same system, or at least few historians think you can. The millet system is a term applied late in Ottoman history, while the system was at its peak in terms of the size of the empire, along with it general prestige in the world, in the sixteenth century. Of course at that time, it could be said to have established some version of some liberty with order as good as many Christian states, and to me more power ful than any. I don’t think even at its height though you could say the Ottoman empire had more liberty than the most law governed and tolerant places in ‘Christendom’ and certainly while European thinkers respect the Ottoman system at its height it very much looked like an example of strong orderly monarchy, not decentralised liberty.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system obliged Balkan Christian families to send one son away at a very early age to be brought up as Muslim convert soldier-bureaucrat slave of the Sultan. The Janissary system, a very privileged kind of slavery and forced conversion, but that is what it was. The Sultan employed black eunuch slaves, transported from Africa, again a privileged position but not really an example of liberty.

Jumping forward, the Ottoman system started to imitate the west in some respects from the late eighteenth century, following military defeats to Russia. The biggest act of ‘reform’ was the violent repression/massacre of the Janissaries which formed a whole class of soldiers, bureaucrats and Istanbul firemen who were also market traders on the side, blocking the Sultan’s ideas of reform, including the formation of a more modern military.

Jumping forward again, the Ottoman sultan most revered by Turkey’s current Ottomanists on the whole, Abdulhamit II, suspended the national assembly, pursued a program of bureaucratic-military-technical centralisation, which included the early massacres of Armenians to which you refer. In the end he was overthrown as a ruker (not as holder of the title of Sultan) by westernising reformers (Committee of Union and Progress/Young Turks) who ended up continuing a centralising reform process which alienated people outside the Muslim Ottoman elite and the Anaotlian heartlands of the Empire. Jumping back to the period between the suppression of the Janissaries and Abdulhamit II’s rule, the Greek Independence movement was resisted with staggering levels of violence and cruelty (the Greek insurgents were not always fastidious in their methods either, it must be also be said). By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman system of relative tolerance towards non-Muslims on a communal rights basis was looking less impressive compared with a growing European tendency towards tolerance based on individual rights.

The ‘millet system’ at its peak provided a way Muslims, Christians and Jews could live together, but mostly as separate communities able to continue communal traditions, within a hierarchy in which Muslims had the real power. As with looking to models of liberty in ‘feudal’, medieval Europe, we may see some liberty benefits in the elements of localism and communal autonomy under a monarchy, but in both cases we are not talking about a system of individual rights or free interaction, we are talking about individuals constrained by communal traditions and hierarchies, along with the hierarchies between communities. If we value individual rights under common legal rights then this is not a model for us, even if we can see some lessons.

Even at its peak the Ottoman system blocked the spread of printing, one of the major elements of modern liberty. The reasons for the block combine the power of religious conservatism and the guild interests of manuscript copyists which seems to me to sum up the problems of even peak time Ottomanism for liberty. It was a system based on an assemblage of local, communal and guild privileges finding change difficult except through dramatic acts of autocratic rulers. The transition from Empire to French-modeled republic, but less liberal than the France of the time, in the 20s and 30s under Atatürk was itself the last great example of this and was a product of the difficulties the Ottoman system had with peaceful consensual change, even if it did have a few good moments on that score (e.g. the 1840 Tanzimat reforms).

Finally the Ottoman system was condemned by its own failure to defend itself, the last Sultan could only give into the victorious powers of World War One, while the republican-nationalists, who emerged from the most educated sections of the Ottoman elite, were able to mobilse a successful military struggle (the Independence War) even without control of the state apparatus. A system which can’t win a war is not a successful system, regardless of how sad the importance of war in human history is.

Arguments now about reviving the Ottoman Empire are surely self-evidently hypothetical only for anyone who does not take Erdoğan’s more bombastic statements seriously. In what way would the Middle East resolve anything by rule from Istanbul, particularly as part of a centralised state ruled by Erdoğan? If the question is should the Ottoman Empire have been prolonged at the end of World War One, the Ottoman government of the war undermined that possibility by massacres of Arabs, along with the leaders Faisal gave to Arab nationalists, aided by devious British and French policy.

The Ottoman Empire was in the Balkans before it was in the Middle East. Ottoman sultans used the title Kaiser-i rum (Emperor of Rome) after the Fall of Constantinople before they adopted the title of Caliph (leader of the faithful) after the later conquest of the Hezaz (i.e. the region containing Mecca and Medina). There is nothing natural or inevitable about a Turkey leaning predominantly towards the Middle East and nothing inherently desirable about Beirut, Amman, Riyadh, Damascus, etc coming under the dominance of Turks; there is nothing obviously healing for Arab Shiite Muslims in living under a Sunni Caliph in a palace on the Bosphorus, not now and not in 1919.

Ottomanist libertarianism makes most sense for those inclined to paleolibertarianism based on dispersal of power between homogenous traditionalist localised communities. I don’t see it has so much to offer to other kinds of libertarian. If we think about more modern liberal forms, there was some interest in Britsh style liberalism (already at that time in transition from classical liberalism to left liberalism) amongst the last Ottomans, most notably Prince Sabahattin, but this was a minority within a weakened elite, discredited by collaboration with British occupation at the end of World War One, which never had anything like a politics capable of mobilising the elite (very influenced by French republicanism politically and intellectually by the sociological expression of French republicanism in the work of Emile Durkheim), never mind the population as a whole.

(Yes Brandon I should be posting this kind of thing, in refined and revised form, but I really don’t have time to do this properly at present, believe me I really am in extreme crisis mode with writing/editing deadlines), after a particularly busy semester, believe me I will be posting when I can, and I should be able to manage within the next few months, sorry I can’t say any more than that, but it is the reality.)

This is from Barry Stocker, responding to Jacques’ musings on the Ottoman Empire and libertarian arguments that are sometimes in favor of it. The rest of the thread is pretty good too, though Dr Delacroix has yet to respond…

From the Comments: New Republics, Westphalia, and Russian Strategy

Thomas L. Knapp (check out his two contributions to the most recent Cato Unbound symposium on voting) has a great comment about Ukraine (Russia) that deserves further scrutiny:

In order for Putin to “pull out of” Ukraine, he’d first need to be in Ukraine.

The new republics which seceded from Ukraine are not in Ukraine.

Knapp brings up an interesting point that most geopolitical outlets and experts rarely consider (the Washington Post‘s Worldviews is a notable exception, as is Ilya Somin over at Volokh Conspiracy), and because of that these outlets fail to provide any depth or light to the world around us. There are three aspects of Knapp’s excellent comment that I’d like to hone in on.

The new republics

First, what are these “new republics” Knapp mentions? If you don’t count Crimea (wiki), which Moscow formally recognized in 2014, then the new republics that declared their independence from Ukraine are Luhansk (wiki) and Donetsk (wiki). Both polities are roughly 3300 square miles in area and house roughly 1.5 million people (you can get the exact numbers from the wiki links I provided above). Here is a map:


Alarmingly, both republics style themselves “people’s republics” and (less alarmingly) have aligned publicly with Moscow. Russia, by the way, has not recognized these “new republics,” for geopolitical reasons I hope to make clear below.

Westphalian sovereignty

Russia does not like to recognize new polities (“republics”) because of its adherence to the ideal of Westphalia, which is state sovereignty (elsewhere at NOL Barry Stocker argues that the Westphalian ideal can be better understood as an early modern cosmopolitanism rather than state sovereignty). All throughout the Cold War Russia and China were staunch supporters of the Westphalian ideal (as were states in Africa and Asia that broke away from colonial empires), and they became even more so after the collapse of socialism in 1993. State sovereignty is the idea that states (“countries”) have sole control over what goes on in their own borders, and that any interventions of any kind, by any type of organization, needs to be approved by the state. It is called “Westphalian” because of the Treaty of Westphalia that was signed by a number of major and minor European states in the 17th century. The major states were able to maintain a balance of power and the minor states were able to assert more sovereignty over their territories than ever before because they were signatories of an international treaty. (Edwin van de Haar’s article in the Independent Review [pdf] on the balance of power as the most libertarian option available is worth reading, and is made stronger, I believe, by Giovanni Arrighi’s argument [pdf] that the balance of power led directly to the “capitalist oligarchies” that eventually pushed feudalistic institutions out of Europe beginning in the late 15th century.)

Russia, China, and other autocratic regimes prefer an international system that is respectful of state sovereignty because of the fact that this idea helps their governments to administer an amount of coercion on populaces that Western states consider immoral or rights-violating.

Russian strategy

Why did Russia hint at recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk, but ultimately decide not to recognize them? Because the West has been recognizing separatist republics since the USSR fell apart, and it has done so in the traditionally Russian sphere of influence (noticeably carving up Yugoslavia at Serbia’s geographic expense). The West has not carved up post-Soviet space by simply recognizing the sovereignty of self-proclaimed republics, but also by incorporating these polities into the international system that it dominates. Russia wants to show elites (but not necessarily the public) that it is tired of policymakers ignoring Westphalian notions of sovereignty (which are enshrined in the UN charter that almost all recognized states have signed; when they sign it they get rent-seeking privileges, but that’s a story for another day…).

This is fairly straightforward logic on Moscow’s part. When the West supported Kosovo’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting South Ossetia and Abkhazia breaking away from Georgia before annexing them. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. When the West supported Montenegro’s secession from Serbia (in defiance of Article 2(4) of the UN charter), Russia responded by supporting Donetsk, Crimea, and Luhansk breaking away from Ukraine before annexing Crimea. The interesting thing here is that Russia even mimicked Western use of force to back up its play. Both Russia and the West used minimal military resources to achieve their objectives, and both played the sovereignty card to back up their actions.


Western policymakers will never be able to bring liberty to Russia, and liberty will never be known by Russians if the rule of law is trumped by geopolitics. The West dominates the world’s international governing organizations. It has made the rules. It has drawn up the contracts. It has invited the non-West to participate. It has given concessions in order to gain the non-West’s support. So when the West breaks the rules it first outlined and drew up, the non-Western polities it convinced to join IGOs in the first place cannot be expected to take such rules seriously. The fact that Russia does play by the West’s rules, by taking seriously the claims of breakaway regions, suggests that the West has been in the wrong post-1993.

American media pundits and critical thinking

All of this leads me back to sensationalist headlines about nefarious Russian meddling in the American presidential election. Don’t believe any of that garbage. Firstly, look at how often American foreign policy pundits have been wrong. Just look! Amid the cries of Russian meddling in the Clinton-Trump contest you can surely hear the faint echoes about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Secondly, all good analyses of geopolitical affairs provide at least some bit of historical context to them. Does your foreign policy pundit use history as a guide? Thirdly (and lastly), when thinking about a country remember that most accounts will have a point of view that shadows the consensus found in the world’s political and financial centers, which are useful but will sacrifice important details in the name of efficiency (and efficacy).

American libertarians, of all the factions out there, realize this best. Unfortunately, until they can shake the isolationist dogma that has paralyzed the movement since the Rothbard era of the 70s and 80s, they will continue to be marginalized in contemporary discussions about foreign policy, either as token libertarians in a Republican administration or as token libertarians in the “anti-war” movement (I put “anti-war” in scare quotes because by now it should be obvious that this movement represents the Democratic Party [pdf], not an ideal; see, though, Michael Kazin’s excellent, if ultimately unconvincing, argument for a different take on the disappearance of the anti-war movement once Obama and the Democrats came to power). New republics, secessionist movements, and other endeavors of exit are often embraced by American libertarians because of their autonomist appeal, but if they don’t pay attention to how state actors view such movements, especially regional and global hegemons, they may end supporting some very nasty regimes in the name of liberty.

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.

Classical Liberalism, Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism

In another thought-provoking post on Facebook (does the guy ever write mediocre stuff, I wonder?) Barry raised the question of the relation between classical liberalism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. He wrote the following:

“On the capture of classical liberal/libertarianism by anti-cosmopolitans. This is very influential at the heart of the ‘leave’ ‘elite’ in the UK, and can only be destructive of classical liberalism/libertarianism. The immediate political consequence of Leave is the elevation of Theresa May to Tory leadership/Prime Minister’s office on a much more ‘Red Tory’, communitarian, corporatist foundation than existed under Cameron. ’To the extent to which the current wave of populism maps into a conflict over national versus transnational identity (Dan Drezner is unconvinced), the problem is not an excess of cosmopolitanism but rather its absence, especially on the conservative, free-market right.”

He seems to take a positive relation between classical liberalism and cosmopolitanism as the default position. Of course Barry did not provide definitions in a FB post, but here I take cosmopolitanism to mean “the idea that all human beings, regardless of their political affiliations, belong to a common moral community. Cosmopolitans often believe that all individuals have the same basic moral status, and tend to downplay the importance or desirability of national political institutions. [They are] opposed to nationalism” (source: Matt Zwolinski (editor), Arguing About Political Philosophy, Routledge, 2009).

I argue that Barry overlooks that classical liberalism combines a cosmopolitan side, with a strong defense of national political institutions (e.g. the state). The cosmopolitan side is perhaps easiest to see, if one takes the idea of free trade as the guiding principle. Free trade is by nature morally neutral for the individuals involved, and has numerous positive economic effects; it fosters cultural exchange as well as innovation and knowledge sharing. In that sense classical liberalism is indeed related to cosmopolitanism.

Yet this stops where the national state comes into play. Classical liberals never predicted any positive political effects of trade (see my earlier notes on this topic) and, just as importantly, they actually favor a strong state, with a limited number of tasks. At the same time, from Hume and Smith onwards to Mises and Hayek, they strongly dislike the idea of transnational political institutions, because these lack any substantial emotional basis which nations do posses. Also, these large political institutions easily become a threat to individual liberty, even more so than national states with too many tasks. So, there is no really no relations between political cosmopolitanism and classical liberalism at all.

There is also no relation between nationalism and classical liberalism. A preference for the national state does not lead to nationalism, which is the vicious and poisonous belief in the superiority of one’s country, often accompanied with a dislike of allegedly inferior neighboring countries or peoples or groups. This is collectivism turned even worse, which is a double ‘no’ from a classical liberal perspective. This said, if patriotism is defined as national pride, then classical liberalism and patriotism can and will go together. There is a fine line between the two sometimes, but patriotism is not violent and dividing, but a binding force between individuals sharing a national state.

The last point is on the European Union. Hayek and Mises have been on record with strong support for a European Federation, primarily as a remedy to war-torn and nationalism-infected Europe. In these circumstances the default position of an international order as a society of states no longer functioned, so there was a need to seek an alternative. Needless to say their federation had little resemblance with the current super state we know as the European Union, which has become a classical liberal nightmare in terms of liberty and property rights violations it commits on a daily basis.

The current EU has some classical liberal traits (the imperfect common market is the single most important one), which is of tremendous use to all European individuals. It is, however, way too cosmopolitan in the bad political way. A likely consequence of Brexit is that this will become even worse, now that the French and their allies will get more room for their collectivist fallacies.