Nightcap

  1. Monarchy in American political thought Zach Bates, JHIBlog
  2. Make school hard again John Nye, Reason
  3. Nationalism’s dividends Liah Greenfeld, American Affairs
  4. Lysistrata among the hippies Titus Techera, Law & Liberty

Fantasy and politics

I wish fantasy novels offered more political diversity. I adore fantasy, but I’ve begun to chafe at the ironic lack of creativity when it comes to political regimes. The genre may be missing a great opportunity. Or maybe I’m reading the wrong books.

While I don’t really mean this as a criticism so much as an observation, monarchy and feudalism abound in most other-world fantasies. Or the politics are indistinct. Despite my deep love for Tolkien, he falls into this category as well–either political control is unclear in regions like the Shire, or the region is ruled by an absolute ruler. His most well-known series culminates with the return of the benevolent dictator to the throne, Aragorn King of all the Dunedain (granted, there is intentional Christian symbolism here).

Modern fantasists follow a similar trend. Brandon Sanderson’s books, while wonderful, tend to involve worlds replete with absolute rulers. In fact, in the original Mistborn trilogy, a naive emperor tries to impose a more representative system of government, fails, and then decides that a firm hand is what’s called for. He and other authors like Robert Jordan dabble with some interesting political ideas and do provide a great deal of political detail, but they ultimately tend toward absolutism of some variety. Terry Pratchett’s main city-state on Discworld, Ankh-Morkpork, is ruled over by an absolute ruler, but Pratchett at least takes plenty of opportunity to poke fun at the masses’ constant yearning for a noble king to tell them what to do. Really, all these books are splendid, and politics are typically not their centerpiece–I just think some more variety may be valuable to the genre. (I’m not pointing fingers, as I’m guilty of the same problem–my forthcoming fantasy novel takes place in an empire with an absolute ruler and a largely meaningless parliament).

Fantasists could perhaps take a page from their science fiction comrades, where experiments with politics seem more common. Fantasy authors could do more than tinker with small tweaks to the monarchy and mercantilism of a pre-enlightenment age.  I can’t help but roll my eyes when I hear Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones gushing about how Daenaerys Targaryen is the only person who can swoop in and save the Seven Kingdoms from itself. That’s remedial polisci–surely we can do better. Who wouldn’t want to read about an anarcho-capitalist Iron Islands or a post-communist King’s Landing?

If you have any good recommendations for other-world fantasies that take up this challenge, I’d love to hear them!

Eye Candy: Kalmar Union, circa 1400

NOL map Kalmar Union 1400

The Kalmar Union lasted from 1397 to 1523. Here is a wiki on it. Imagine Denmark, Norway, and Sweden united as a single country when it came to foreign affairs, but each of them having plenty of room to govern themselves domestically. The main rivalry here was the “monarchy” of Kalmar and the aristocracies of both Sweden and Denmark. This domestic rivalry, coupled with fact that its neighborhood included the Holy Roman Empire and the Hanseatic League, means that the Kalmar Union is probably one of the more interesting polities in European history. Yet I know next to nothing about it…

Nightcap

  1. Srebrenica and Demagogues Keith Doubt, Berfrois
  2. Habermas and pimps: the world of the day and the world of the night Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Why didn’t the Crusades succeed? (Aleppo is not a Syrian city) Harry Munt, History Today
  4. The awkwardness of remembering the Romanovs Bruce Clark, Erasmus

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism II

In the last post, I gave some historical background on how the Ottoman state, whether in reformist or repressive mode (or some combination of the two), was on a road, at least from the early nineteenth century, that was very likely to end in a nation-state for the Turks of Anatolia and the Balkan region of Thrace, which forms a hinterland in its eastern part for the part of Istanbul on the Balkan side of the Bosphorus. Despite the centuries of the Ottoman dynasty (the founder Othman was born in 1299 and this is usually taken as the starting point of the Ottoman state, though obviously there was no such thing when Othman was born), it was also an increasing possibility that the nation-state would be a republic on the French model.

The obvious alternative being a style of monarchism mixing populism and (rather constructed) tradition, born out of a national movement and accommodating the idea of a popular will represented by the monarch, mixed in varying degrees with constitutional and representative institutions. The clearest example of this style is maybe Serbia, to which can be added Montenegro, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece. The older monarchies of imperial Germany and Russia incorporated elements of populist-national monarchy. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, as the Habsburg empire based in Vienna for many centuries became known in 1867, was the Empire most lacking in a core and not surprisingly suffered the most complete disintegration after World War One (that great killer of Empires).

France was the exception in Europe as a republic, particularly as a unitary republic, and was only continuously a republic from 1870. In 1870, Switzerland was the only other republic, but known as the Swiss Confederation, with strong powers for the constituent cantons. The example of French republicanism was still supremely important because of the transformative nature of the 1789 French Revolution, and the ways its development became central events in European history. Part of that came out of the preceding status of France as the premier European nation and the biggest cultural force of the continent. Educated Ottomans were readers of French, and Ottoman political exiles were often in Paris.

High level education often meant studying in Paris. This had such a big influence on the fine arts, including architecture, that apparently 19th century architecture in Istanbul was more based on French Orientalism than earlier Ottoman architecture. The religious conservatives and neo-Ottomanists in power today, who claim to represent authenticity and escape from western models, in reality promote imitation of these 19th century imports.

Ottoman intellectuals and writers read French and were familiar with the idea of France as intellectual and political leader. There were other influences, including important relations with Imperial Germany, but French influence had a particular status for those aiming for change.

Namık Kemal, the ‘Young Ottoman’ reformer who has some continuing appeal to the moderate political right in Turkey, as demonstrated in the foundation of a Namık Kemal University in Thrace 4 years after the AKP came to power, appearing more moderate conservvative than it does now, translated Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws into Ottoman Turkish (modern Turkish is based on major changes from Ottoman).

The more radical reformers who came to power in 1908 were known as Young Turks, that is Jeunes Turcs, often now written in half-Turkish, half-French style as Jön Türkler. The more radical reformers wanted less role for Islam in public life and at the most radical end even regarded Islam as responsible for backwardness. French laicism was therefore a natural pole of attraction, as were the ways nationalism and republicanism came together in the French revolutionary legacy as an expression of the sovereignty of the people.

The Ottomans studying in France were strong influenced by the sociology of Emile Durkheim, who is usually counted as one of the three founders of the discipline of sociology, along with Karl Marx and Max Weber. Durkheim’s social thought was very influenced by an understanding of Montesquieu and Jean-Jacques Rousseau as precursors of sociology. This partly reflects the social analysis they engaged in, but also their idea of how a society is constituted legally and politically, particularly Rousseau’s theory of the social contract. Durkheim’s social thought is permeated by concerns with what kind of social solidarity there can be in modern societies in ways which build on the long history of republican thinking about a community of citizens. This was very important in the late Ottoman and early republican period.

The German

Max Weber was also a major influence. His ideas about disenchantment (a version of secularisation) and the role of the nation-state were of definite interest to Turkish thinkers inclined towards republicanism, nationalism, and secularism. One of the consequences of this is that criticisms of the Turkish republican tradition, as it passed through Kemal Atatürk (‘Kemalism’), are tied up with criticisms of Weber. Some of this Turkish absorption of Durkheim and Weber can be found in English in the work of Ziya Gökalp (1876-1924) and Niyazi Berkes (1908-1988).

It is also worth finding Atatürk’s Great Speech of 1927 (a book length text read out over several days), which is a political intervention not a discussion of social theory, but does show how ideas connected with social theory enter political discourse in Turkey. It is very widely distributed in Turkey, I’ve even seen it on sale in Turkish supermarkets; and it has been translated into English. Berkes is the social scientist and has a rather more academic way of writing than Gökalp (a famously ambiguous thinker) or Atatürk. His The Development of Secularism in Turkey (published in English 1964, while he was working at McGill University in Montreal) must be the single most influential work of social science by a Turk or about Turkey.

Unfortunately a discussion  of republicanism in relation to Durkheim, Weber, or any other major thinkers declined after the 1920s and Berkes is really the last great flowering of this tradition in Turkey. This is part of the story of how Turkish republicanism as a mode of thinking declined into defensive gestures and the repetition of dogmas, so is also the history of how extremely superficial gestures towards liberalism by leaders of the Turkish right had undue influence over the more liberal parts of Turkish thinking.

The weakness of thought about republicanism and the superficial absorption of liberalism was the main thread on the intellectual side leading to the disaster of Erdoğan-AKP rule. The rise of AKP was welcomed by many (I suspect most, but I don’t know any ways in which this has been quantified) Turkish liberals until the suppression of the Gezi movement in 2013 and even in some cases until the wave of repression following the coup attempt of 2016.

To be continued

Monarchical Brazil was not a conservative paradise

Seems to me that there is a strong tendency between contemporary Brazilian conservatives to consider the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889) a golden age in Brazilian history. Many Brazilian conservatives are now defending the monarchy as an ideal form of government for Brazil.

As someone said, “the more we change, the more we remain the same.” Brazil became independent from Portugal in 1822. The independence was officially proclaimed by Dom Pedro I, son of Dom João VI, the king of Portugal. I think that maybe Brazilians are so acquainted with this fact that they don’t realize how crazy it is: the prince of Portugal declared the independence of Brazil! That didn’t happen because Dom Pedro fought with his father. By all accounts, father and son enjoyed the best relationship possible. Dom Pedro declared Brazil’s independence because if he didn’t, someone else would.

Dom Pedro’s independence was just one among many others. Tiradentes tried to proclaim the independence of [at least part of] Brazil in 1789, basically 30 years before Dom Pedro! And this is just one example! Tiradentes independence was not successful because it was averted by Portugal. Dom Pedro’s independence was successful because he was Portugal (ok, he wasn’t Portugal, but he was part of it)!

The fact that Brazil’s independence was proclaimed by a Portuguese monarch gives a very special meaning to what means to be conservative in Brazil. Today, in the US, one may call himself a conservative because he defends the ideas of Thomas Jefferson. But in his day Thomas Jefferson was a radical! A rebel who revolted against the British monarchy. Dom Pedro was not exactly a rebel. He wanted, to a great degree, to maintain things just the way they were. Certainly, many of his supporters were afraid of a more radical independence movement. To say the least, Brazil’s independence was a compromise between radicals and conservatives.

Brazilian monarchy avoided many reforms, inspired by classical liberalism, that were happening in other places. To give just one example (in my personal view, the most glaring), Brazil was the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery (in 1888). I don’t blame Dom Pedro I for this. I also don’t blame his son, Dom Pedro II, who ended up being emperor for the majority of the monarchical period (1840-1889). But the fact is that the monarchy maintained many of the privileges inherited from Portugal, and avoided reforms that Anglo-American conservatives would support.

Brazilian conservatives have to be careful with the use of this word. To be a conservative in Brazil is not necessarily the same as being a conservative in England or the US.

Revisiting Epstein’s Freedom and Growth


I was fortunate to be invited give the Epstein Lecture at LSE this March. The series is named after the great LSE economic historian Larry (Stephen) Epstein. Here I’ll summarize why it was such an honor to give the lectures. The content of the lecture will be another post.

Epstein was a historian whose origin field of expertise was medieval Italy. I encountered him through Freedom and Growth. Published in 2000, I first read it a couple of years later, perhaps in 2002 or 2003. At the time I was devoted to a story of economic growth shaped by Douglass North, particularly Structure and Change in Economic History (1981).

The focus of Structure and Change was on transaction costs. High transaction costs limited market exchange and kept societies poor for most of history. Sustained economic growth could only occur once transaction costs fell to a level that allowed markets to expand and the division of labor to develop. On this view, market expansion or Smithian growth was itself a stimulus to technological innovation. But what kept transaction costs high?

One answer North gave was the state. To paraphrase: the state had the ability to both keep a society mired in poverty through predatory behavior and to provide the preconditions for growth by securing property rights. The origins of sustained economic growth for North lay in institutional changes that occurred secured property rights and lowered transaction costs. The most important such institutional change was the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


North’s account received many challenges, but the issue that Epstein honed in on was the assumption that there was such a state, able to either revoke or secure property rights. It was assumed that “rulers rule”. Epstein contested this arguing that New Institutional Economists

“project backwards in time a form of centralised sovereignty and jurisdictional integration that was first achieved in Continental Europe during the nineteenth century; they therefore fundamentally misrepresent the character of pre-modern states.”

North, Wallis, and Weingast would address this in their 2009 Violence and Social Orders. But Epstein’s criticism was spot on in 2000. Epstein argued that alongside the problem of predatory states, a central problem was the lack of integrated markets. He attributed market disintegration to coordination and prisoners’ dilemma problems between political authorities. In so doing, Epstein set the agenda for the subsequent “state capacity” research agenda.

Epstein made several points which continued to be expanded upon by current research (see here). First, he documented that the lower interest rates that the British state paid after 1688 were characteristic of city republics from the middle ages onwards. He argued that the English monarchy in the 17th century was characterized by an anomalously backwards financial system. Lower interest rates after 1688 partly represent a convergence to the Republican norm achieved by Italian city-states centuries earlier.

Second, he challenged the argument that monarchies “overtaxed” cities. There was “no evidence that townspeople paid higher taxes under monarchies than republics”. Per capita taxes were likely higher in Republican city-states.

Third, he disputed that Republican city-states like Florence brought economic freedom noting that “republican subjects faced several limitations to their economic and political freedoms that monarchical subjects did not”. All of this challenged generalizations made by historical sociologists like Charles Tilly and economic historians like North.


Epstein’s historical evidence came from medieval Italy. Late medieval Italy was highly urbanized and prosperous by pre-industrial standards. According to Broadberry’s estimates, per capita GDP in Italy in 1450 was not matched by England until 1750. Like growth elsewhere in the premodern world, it was Smithian growth, driven by trade, market integration, and the division of labor. But unlike in England, this Smithian growth did not continue and blossom into modern growth. Epstein’s explanation for why this did not take place was that late medieval Italy suffered an “integration crisis”.

He saw the late medieval period as characterized by new opportunities for growth and innovation. Urbanization increased. Capital markets expanded and deepened. Interregional trade developed. Proto-industrialization took place. But Epstein contended these opportunities were only seized in areas where political authority was centralization.

In reference to proto-industrialization, he observed that

“Crucially, the success of regional crafts was inversely proportional to the concentration of economic and institutional power in the hands of a dominant city.”

With respect to the establishment of permanent fairs, he noted that

In fifteenth-century Lombardy, new fairs proliferated only after the balance of power shifted decisively from the former city-states to the territorial prince with Francesco Sforza’s victory in 1447.

Market integration was complemented and perhaps driven by political integration. Integrated urban hierarchies were themselves the product of political centralization.

“Centralisation underlies all the major institutional changes to market structures previously described. It lowered domestic transport costs, made it easier to enforce contracts and to match demand and supply, intensified economic competition between towns and strengthened urban hierarchies, weakened urban monopolies over the countryside, and stimulated labour mobility and technological diffusion.”

The more centralized parts of Italy — notably Lombardy — were better able to benefit from these trends than was Tuscany. But in general, political fragmentation and regional diversity were “distinctive features of pre-modern Italy” in general and an impediment to its long-run growth prospects.

Unlike in his analysis of interest rates, Epstein brought little data to bear on these claims and I am unaware of subsequent research on late medieval Italy. As such, the thesis of a late medieval integration crisis laid out in Freedom and Growth remains speculative. Epstein would no doubt have fill in the details had he lived longer. Subsequent research has mostly focused on early modern rather than medieval Europe (see here).  But the larger message: the importance of the state for premodern economic development has been central to subsequent research, including my own work (e.g. here).