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…


*The Islamic Enlightenment* | A critical review

De Bellaigue, Christopher. (2017) The Islamic Enlightenment: The Struggle Between Faith and Reason 1798 to Modern Times. Liveright Publishing Corporation (Norton & Company) New York, London.

In 1798, in view of the Pyramids, a French expeditionary force defeated the strange caste of slave-soldiers, the Mamlukes, who had been ruling Egypt for several centuries. The Mamlukes charged the French infantry squares on horseback, ending their charge with the throwing of javelins. The Mamlukes were thus eliminated from history. The French lost 29 soldiers. In the conventional narrative, the battle woke up the whole Muslim world from its long and haughty slumber. The defeat, the pro-active reforms of Napoleon’s short-lived occupancy, and the direct influence of the French scholars he had brought with him lit the wick of the candle of reform or, possibly, of enlightenment throughout the Islamic world.

De Bellaigue picks up this conventional narrative and follows it to the beginning of the 20th century with a dazzling richness of details. This is an imperfect yet welcome thick book on a subject seldom well covered.

This book has, first, the merit of existing. Many people of culture, well-read people with an interest in Islam – Islam the sociological phenomenon, rather than the religion – know little of the travails of its attempted modernization. Moreover, under current conditions of political correctness the very subject smells a little of sulfur: What if we looked at Muslim societies more closely and we found in them some sort of intrinsic inferiority? I mean by this, an inferiority that could not easily be blamed on the interference of Western, Christian or formerly Christian, capitalist societies. Of course, such a finding could only be subjective but still, many would not like it, and not only Muslims.

Second, and mostly unintentionally, possibly inadvertently, the book casts a light, an indirect light to be sure, on Islamist (fundamentalist) terrorism. It’s simple: Enlightened individuals of any religious background are not likely to be also fanatics willing to massacre perfect strangers. Incidentally, I examine this issue myself in a fairly parochial vein, in an essay in the libertarian publication Liberty Unbound: “Religious Bric-à-Brac and Tolerance of Violent Jihad” (January 2015). With his broader perspective, with his depth of knowledge, De Bellaigue could have done a much better job of this than I could ever do. Unfortunately he ignored the subject almost entirely. It wasn’t his topic, some will say. It was not his period of history. Maybe.

Continue reading

Geopolitics and Asia’s Little Divergence: State Building in China and Japan After 1850

Crossposted at the Medium

Why did Japan successfully modernize in the 19th century while China failed to do so? Both China and Japan came under increasing threat from the Western powers after 1850. In response, Japan successfully undertook a program of state building and modernization; in China, however, attempts to modernize proved unsuccessful and the power of the central state was fatally weakened. The failure to build a modern state led to China’s so-called lost century while Japan’s success enabled it to become the first non-western country to industrialize. In a paper with Chiaki Moriguchi (Hitotsubashi University) and Tuan-Hwee Sng (NUS), we explore this question using a combination of historical evidence and formal modeling.

On the surface this East Asian “little divergence” is extremely puzzling. Qing China, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, was a powerful centralized empire. An impersonal bureaucracy selected by exams, and routinely rotated, governed the empire. In contrast, the institutions of Tokugawa Japan are usually described as feudal. The shogun directly ruled only 15% of the country. The remainder was divided into 260 domains ruled by lords known as daimyo who collected their own taxes, possessed their own armies, and issued their own currencies. To the outside observer China would have seemed much more likely to have been able to establish the institutions or a centralized state than Japan.

Figure 1: Qing China and Tokugawa Japan

For much of the early modern period (1500–1700) China and Japan possessed military capabilities that made them more than a match for any western power. This changed dramatically after the Industrial Revolution and their vulnerability exposed by the Opium War (1839–1840) and the Black Ships Incident of 1853, respectively. During the First Opium a small number of British ships overpowered the entire Chinese navy, while Commodore Perry’s show of force in landing in Japan in 1853 convinced the Japanese of western naval superiority. Within a few years, political elites in both countries recognized the need to modernize if only to develop the military capacity required to fend off this new danger.

* * *

Figure 2: Commodore Perry in Japanese eyes

In China, after the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, there were attempts at modernizing — notably the Self-Strengthening movement associated with Li Hongzhang and others. Recent scholarship has reevaluated this movement positively. At the purely military-technological level it was in fact quite successful. The Jiangnan Arsenal and the Fuzhou Shipyard saw the successful importation of western military technology into China and the Chinese were soon producing modern ships and weaponry. However, these developments were associated with a process of political decentralization as local governors took on more and more autonomy. The importation of military technology was not associated with more far-reaching societal or political reforms. There was no serious attempt to modernize the Qing state.

In contrast, Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, embarked on whole scale-societal transformation. The daimyo lost all power. Feudalism was abolished. Compulsory education was introduced as was a nationwide railway system. A new fiscal system was imposed in the teeth of opposition from farmers. The samurai were disarmed and transformed from a military caste into bureaucrats and businessmen.

Qing China and the newly modernized Meiji Japan would collide in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894–1895). Before the war, western observers believed China would win in part because of their superior equipment. But the Chinese lacked a single national army. It was the Beiyang army and the Beiyang fleet that fought the entire Japanese military force. The fact that Japan had undergone a wholesale transformation of society enabled them to marshal the resources to win a rapid victory.


Figure 3: The Jingyuan, one of the ships in the Baiyang fleet

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Why did the Japanese succeed in modernizing while Qing China failed to do so? Historians have proposed numerous explanations. In our paper, however, rather than focusing on cultural differences between Japan and China, we focus on how different geopolitical incentives shaped their decisions to invest in state capacity and state centralization.

Before the mid-19th century China only faced a threat from inner Asia from where historically nomadic invasions had routinely invaded and threatened the sedentary population of the Chinese plain. Due to this threat, historically China tended to be a centralized empire with its capital and the bulk of its professional army stationed close to the northern frontier (see Ko, Koyama, and Sng (2018)). In contrast, Japan faced no major geopolitical threats prior to 1850. This meant that it could retain a loose and decentralized political system.

After 1850 both countries faced major threats from several directions. China was threatened on its landward borders by Russian expansionism and from the coast by Britain and France (and later Germany and the United States). Japan was threatened from all directions by western encroachment.

We build a simple model which allows for multidirectional geopolitical threats. We represent each state as a line of variable length. States have to invest in state capacity to defend against external geopolitical threats. Each state can use centralized fiscal institutions or decentralized fiscal institutions.

If there is strong threat from one direction, as China faced prior to 1850, the dominant strategy is political centralization. In the absence of major geopolitical threats decentralization may be preferable as was the case in Tokugawa Japan.

The emergence of a multidirectional threat, however, changes things. A large country facing a multidirectional threat may have to decentralize in order to meet the different challenges it now faces. This is what happened in China after 1850. In contrast, for a small state with limited resources, an increase in the threat level makes centralization and resource pooling more attractive. For a small territory like Japan, the emergence of non-trivial foreign threats renders political decentralization untenable.

We then consider the incentives to modernize. Modernization is costly. It entails social dislocation and creates losers as well as winners, the losers will attempt to block any changes that hurt their interests. We show that for geographically compact polities, it is always a dominant strategy to modernize in the face of a multidirectional threat as the state is able to manage local opposition to reform. This helps to explain why all members of the Japanese political elite came around to favoring rapid modernization by the late 1860s.

Consistent with our model, modernization was more difficult and controversial in China. The Qing government and particularly the Empress Dowager famously opposed the building of railroads. The most well-known example of this was the Wusong Road in Shanghai. Built using foreign investment it was dismantled in 1877 after locals complained about it. The Qing state remained reactive and prepared to kowtow to local powerholders and vested interests rather than confront them. Despite local initiatives, no effort was made at wholesale reforms until after China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895.

Figure 4: The Wusong Railroad in 1876

* * *

By 1895 it was too late, however. The attempts of the Qing state to reform and modernize led to its collapse. Needless to state, East Asian’s little divergence would have lasting consequences.

Japan’s modernization program astonished foreign observers. Victory over Russia in 1904 propelled Japan to Great Power status but also set Japan on the path to disaster in the World War Two. Nevertheless, the institutional legacy of Japan’s successful late 19th century modernization played a crucial role in Japan’s post-1945 economic miracle.

Following the collapse of the Qing dynasty China fragmented further entering the so-called warlord era (1916–1926). Though the Nationalist regime reunified the country and began a program of modernization, the Japanese invasion and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) devastated the country. The end result was that China came to be reunified by the Communist party and to experience more conflict and trauma until it began to embrace market reforms after 1979.

Is the Political Left Today’s Conservative Faction?

I tend to think so. I come across more and more anecdotal evidence to support my thesis with each passing day. For example, in my current research on Dutch colonial responses to Javanese political strategies, I came across the following passage by Dutch historian Eduard JM Schmutzer in his 1977 monograph Dutch Colonial Policy and the Search for Identity in Indonesia 1920-1931:

The abuses in government exploitation under the so-called “Cultuurstelsel” (Cultivation System) and the subsequent criticism by humanitarians […] made the liberals aware that new methods for the exploitation of the East Indies and for the development of its inhabitants were to be found. In contrast to the conservatives who maintained that the central role of government in economic life was necessary to protect the natives against the overpowering influence of private capital, the liberals argued that the doctrine of free enterprise and its beneficial laws of unrestrained capital and labor market, promised in Indonesia an increase in the sagging production and an improvement in the welfare of the natives. Both conditions [free capital and labor markets – bc], the liberals maintained, would be to the advantage of the population at home and abroad.

However, the channeling of capital into the structure of government monopolies by private investors did not result in the expected increase per capita productivity [Ya don’t say? – bc]. (1)

The emphasis is mine. Can anybody name any factions in today’s world that advocate restraining private capital in the name of (condescendingly) protecting those who are too stupid to know what to do with their own money?

Anybody at all?

Needless to say, the liberals lost those important colonial policy battles of the late nineteenth century (probably because they were outnumbered by both the theocrats and socialists who believed private capital was bad for the natives and that therefore authoritarian paternalism was in order).

I can’t help but wonder: Does the anti-globalization Left realize just how conservative its position is?

May I Present

…the estimable Kyle Dix:

Kyle Dix (personal homepage) was born in Miami and raised in the mountains of North Georgia.  He graduated from the University of Georgia in 2010 with dual degrees in Spanish and Management.  Kyle currently resides in Philadelphia, PA where he works and attends class at University of Pennsylvania, studying history with an eye on entering academia.  Between UGA and Penn he worked in a welfare-to-work NPO in North Philly, teaching job skills, career planning, and basic English.

The historical questions Kyle asks are largely rooted in his experiences: What is the nature of the discourse between individuals and government?  How do ideologies guide institutions as they grow and change?  How do globalization and modernization act as drivers for this discourse?  Kyle seeks to offer answers to these questions from the historical context of US-Latin American relations and via over-eager observations of current events.

Check out his introductory post at Notes On Liberty here. Welcome him accordingly!