What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.


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

Towards a genuinely Inclusive, Liberal, and Open Global Agenda

The recent past has been witness to the increasing rise of ‘economic-nationalism’, anti-immigration policies, and increasing xenophobia. Countries which in the past have welcomed immigrants, and have been protagonists of Free Trade and open borders, while immensely benefiting from the same, are becoming more and more insular. While this point got strongly reiterated by the election of Donald Trump. Apart from the US and UK, many of the EU member states and Australia are also becoming more and more inward looking.

Germany and Canada have tried to develop an alternative narrative while being open to immigrants, and opening their doors to refugees. Justin Trudeau in Canada, like Angela Merkel, deserves immense credit for exhibiting courage and conviction and not capitulating before populist and ultra nationalist sentiments.

Both Trudeau and Merkel have opened their doors to refugees, with Trudeau opening his country’s doors to nearly 40,000 Syrian refugees. After the US imposed a ban on immigrants from certain Muslim countries, he tweeted:

“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, in spite of scathing criticism for her decision to admit over 1 Million refugees, since 2015, from Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan, has stuck to her guns. In an interview, the German Chancellor stated:

“It was an extraordinary situation and I made my decision based on what I thought was right from a political and humanitarian standpoint.”

The rise of the extreme right AfD, which emerged as the third largest political outfit, and which Merkel managed to beat by a lesser margin than usual, has been attributed to Merkel’s open door policy.

Along with Macron and Trudeau, one more leader who is trying to offer an alternative narrative is the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who has started a campaign, ‘London is Open’. Said Khan in his message:

…Many people from all over the globe live and work here, contributing to every aspect of life in our city. We now need to make sure that people across London, and the globe, hear that #LondonIsOpen… 

Not restricted to any ideology or country

It would be pertinent to point out that while the rise of right-wing leaders like Trump and AFD in Germany is cited as one of the reasons for this growing insularity, even left leaning leaders have been equally inward looking, when it comes to economic and trade policies. One thing which was common between Trump and Bernie Sanders was their economic policies, which found resonance with the working class.

Not just Trump

While Trump has emerged as the mascot of ‘insularity’ and economic nationalism, it must be pointed out that not just the US, but other countries which have benefited from immigration, to have tended to look inwards on important issues.

Australia, which has opposed Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership TPP and has repeatedly spoken in favour of an ‘open’ Indo-Pacific, has brought in some tough laws to oppose immigration. This includes the abolition of the 457 Visa (for skilled migrants), replacing it with a new visa program which is far more stringent, and will make it tougher for workers from other countries.

Commenting on the abolition of the Visa, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull stated:

“The migration program should only operate in our national interest. This is all about Australia’s interest.”

The second point to bear in mind is that some countries have spoken vociferously in favour of trade agreements, and open borders, but have played it safe on important human rights issues and immigration. This includes not just Syrian refugees, but more recently the Rohingya Issue. If one were to take the case of ASEAN for instance, a number of member states including the Chair for 2018, Singapore, have argued in favour of economic openness, and were critical of the US approach towards TPP. Yet, they have been cautious on the Rohingya Issue, not wanting to rub Aung San Suu Kyi the wrong way.


In conclusion, there can  not be a selective approach, countries which seek to benefit from globalization, need to be open to immigrants and at times shoulder onerous responsibilities. After all, it is not just immigrants who benefit economically, but countries which they have migrated too also benefit from their skills and productivity.

Secondly, an enlightened, liberal agenda cannot just be restricted to economic issues, important human rights issues, can not be obliterated and must get the attention they deserve.

Third, it is pointless, to blame any one country or ideology for insularity, everyone shares collective responsibility for the same.

Why Immigrants Are Superior

I am endlessly interested in issues of emigration/immigration. In part, this is because it’s the place where my personal experience, and my wife’s, intersect with my training and with my professional life as a sociologist. There is a deeper reason I try to explain below a little circuitously; bear with me.

I think that how humans form into groups is the central question about our species. The question arises because every adult individual without exception is simultaneously a member of several groups and categories. Thus, I am a husband (member of a very small group, at least under monogamous conditions), a member of the sociological discipline/ profession, a member of the teaching professions broadly defined (but never an “educator”!), a small-time member of a local radio station (KSCO Santa Cruz, 1080AM), a Republican but nevertheless, a libertarian (with a small “l”), and an American. Yet, as a former Frenchman I am also a member, though somewhat passive, of a culture group, roughly the francophone group.

All the above memberships are in groups. I also belong to several categories that don’t qualify as groups because they never meet and because they have little sense of themselves as belonging together. So, I am a male (decidedly so), a moderately overweight person past middle age (but athletic!), a parent, a tax-payer, and I also belong to the secret, vast, worldwide category of humans who lack hair on the second phalanx of their index finger. In America, I am also a white man. The latter category is a little problematic because it’s ill-defined, like all matters that have to do with race. It means that most Americans on looking at me would guess, probably correctly, that all or most of my ancestors lived in Europe ten thousand years ago. Do the count of your own memberships for yourself and you will be amazed.

Memberships are not all equal, especially at a given time. Some memberships become activated while others lie dormant. Individuals activate one membership over the others depending on circumstances and often, depending on their stage in the life cycle. The presence of others frequently triggers the activation of long-dormant membership, as when a thirty-something bumps into a couple of old high-school buddies. Finally, sometimes, individuals are forced to activate one membership to the near-exclusion of others. This happens most often in connection with the nation and religious denominations, including secular religions such as Communism in the old days. The penultimate sentence is a description of totalitarianism, political, religious, and other. It’s the most parsimonious definition I know.

Emigration matters because every act of emigration implies a reasonably conscious decision to de-activate a group membership that is salient in much, but not in all, the world: nationality. Emigrants may not be completely clear about how definitive their decision to move is but they always know that it entails an abrupt shutting off of whatever comfort one derives from being inside that particular group.

Emigration, immigration, after one begins to live in another country, typically remains emotionally costly for a long time. Besides, frequently, distance from others one loves, there are subtle issues of self-worth I cannot discuss here (but that I will discuss at some future time, especially if asked). In the classical age of worldwide, and American, emigration, it tended to be final. Travel was slow and expensive. If you did not like it in the new place, often, you just had to suck it up. (This is broadly true although turn-of-the-century American records show that surprising numbers of recent European immigrants left the US every year.) Today, the extraordinarily low cost of air travel means that nearly every dissatisfied immigrant may go home. In 2009, there were very few parts of the world for which a one-way ticket cost more than a thousand dollars. That would be under seven weeks worth of after-taxes minimum wage at worst. Tickets from the US to Europe, for example cost less than one third that amount off-season. In the same year, the average US wage was about $20 per hour. Estimating deductions of 25%, the net hourly wage was thus around $15. Hence, there were few if any parts of the world that could not be reached at the cost of net savings amounting to 70 hours of average wages (less than two weeks).

For emigrants to contiguous countries or proximate countries, such as Turks to Germany, Romanians to France, or Mexicans to the US, the option of going home is even more open, of course.

What I am trying to establish here is that emigration is normally a doubly voluntary act. Immigrants first volunteer to be in the country of immigration. Then, they keep volunteering by not taking up the option of moving back home, of re-emigrating.

Two things should follow from this volunteer condition: First, if they don’t like the country to which they have moved, immigrants have no one to blame but themselves. I know I am repeating myself but the imagery is so attractive, I can’t resist: If you come to the party, especially if you come uninvited (99% of immigrants, I would guess), don’t criticize the food, or the interior decoration, or the guests’ intellectual level.

Although there is a widespread impression to the contrary, it seems to me that few immigrants break this simple rule of their own accord. Rather, more commonly, they fall under the sway of political organizations who presume to speak on their behalf. These organizations are often political in nature. They seek to exploit the voting power of people unfamiliar with the national political customs. It’s in their interest to create and inflame feelings of deprivation. Moreover, since immigrants more often than not enter the host social structure near the bottom, they are frequently taken over by labor unions who do the same. In the US, specifically, recent immigrants are sometimes annexed by radical organizations with a long history of America-hatred. These influences confuse some immigrants, putting them in mental contradiction with their own choices. They do a great deal of damage by retarding immigrants’ emotional integration into American society. Note that I refer to integration rather than to “assimilation,” a cultural construct. Societies differ in the extent to which they expect immigrants to fit into the national culture, Canada little, France a great deal, with the US somewhere between the two.

Finally, organizations led by native-born who pretend to speak for immigrants also do the latter a great deal of harm by creating false impressions in the general public. The main false impression is that immigrants are more difficult to integrate than they really are. In the US, you seldom hear about the millions of immigrants who think that everything is just peachy or better.

The second consequence from the voluntary nature of the status of immigrants is seldom discussed: Immigrants make better citizens than the average native-born. Over 90% of Americans, for example, only took the trouble to be born in the right country. That’s akin to choosing your parents carefully. There is not much merit in it, first because it just happened. Secondly, most native-born citizens of any country would not have enough information to choose the land of their birth over others if the thought crossed their minds. Here again, the exception proves (“tests”) the rule: It’s possible to make such a choice since millions do, by emigrating, precisely. This would include the tens of thousands of Americans who live abroad more or less permanently.

Immigrants, by contrast, choose and keep choosing merely by staying put. Their choice is deliberate, conscious and informed. Their appreciation for the country of their immigration is a form of adult love. It should be superior to the baby-love of many of the native-born who only know one mother. If I were still a scholar, I would have a topic for a good study here. I would begin to endeavor to find data to test what is now a compelling hypothesis. But I am not, so it will remain this as far as I am concerned.

Immigrants into the US, specifically, possess superior qualities, whatever their national origin. First, they are usually hard workers, because this country offers some of the least generous social benefits (“welfare”) in the developed world. To sponge off “the system” in this country takes a great deal of skill. (A pregnant idea but I won’t go there in this essay.) Immigrants into this country must also comprise a large proportion of enterprising people, for the same reason. (There, I think data exist that demonstrate the validity of this claim.) Moreover, immigrants into the US have to be more adventurous, braver, than the native-born, on average. To change one’s living conditions drastically takes more courage, more tolerance of risk, and more imagination than moving to the next suburb.

I believe, accordingly, that American exceptionalism is rooted in exceptional institutions but that it is fertilized by wave after wave of immigration of a superior kind.

The following link will take you to an article about illegal immigration specifically that I published in the Independent Review with Russian immigrant Sergey Nikiforov: “If Mexicans and Americans could Cross the Border…“.

White Supremacists

“White supremacy” has become a central part of the left’s narrative. In an hour and a half of casual news watching on television in early October 2017, for example, I heard three references to white supremacy. That’s more than I did in the decade 2005 to 2015, I believe.

One utterance came from the sports channel ESPN’s African-American commentator Jemele Hill who called president Trump a “white supremacist.” She added that he surrounded himself with white supremacists. Perhaps, by implication of the term “surround,” she meant several millions of his 63 million voters, or even all of them. This kind of verbal hysteria is not new and neither are intemperate television commentators but, in the recent past, such breathless declarations would have been laughed out of the park or negatively sanctioned, or both. Not anymore. Ms Hill’s statement was not exactly an isolated incident either.

In the first two weeks of October 2017, I hear the word “supremacist” on radio or television at least once a day. I am sure it has not happened before in my fifty years in this country (as an immigrant). This new tolerance makes some sense in political context.

For the inconsolable of Pres. Trump’s election, I suspect – but I don’t know for a fact – that the claim is by way of passing the baton at a time when the investigation on “Russian collusion” to elect him, now in its thirteenth month, is going nowhere. If he did not betray the country, what can we accuse him of that’s difficult for decent minded people to forgive, they ask? Digging into this country’s complex and troubled past is always a good bet if you are looking for dirt to throw at an American.

Mr Trump’s own intemperate comments – although never directed at the usual African-Americans targets of real supremacists – helped identify a valuable, superficially semi-plausible charge. The sudden emergence in the collective consciousness of unhappy young white Americans on the occasion of the 2016 election also contributed. (“…in the collective consciousness…;” they were around before that.) Unhappy young whites can but with little effort be turned into the racist rednecks of countless movies. Thus, the white supremacy narrative may be part of a half-blind collective endeavor to discredit for the long term the social forces thought to be associated with the sensational defeat in 2016 of a moderate liberal (and a feminist to boot; more on this below).

My first impression of the reality of a white supremacist movement, based on reading and listening to radio – including National Public Radio – about five days a week, besides watching television, is that there isn’t actually much going on nationwide in this respect. Yet, I am mindful of the fact that I live in “progressive” Santa Cruz, in liberal California. In neither place would one expect to bump casually into white supremacists. And if there were one, he would probably just clench his teeth and keep his mouth shut. In lily-white Santa Cruz, on the contrary, a black supremacist would probably be elected mayor on the first try without really campaigning. (OK, I may be exaggerating a little, here.)

I realize also that my reading habits as a conservative may not lead to chance encounters with supremacist tripe.* So, I wonder: What’s the actual situation? To try and explore this question more deeply, I use a two-step strategy. I look first for existing credible empirical reports on the topic. Second, I look for what should be the products of white supremacist groups, the tracks they should logically be expected to leave on the internet and elsewhere. But first, a brief historical detour. Continue reading

Lunchtime Links

  1. Globalization and Political Structure [pdf] | what’s a monopolis?
  2. Protestantism and the Rise of Industrial Capitalism in Nineteenth Century Europe [pdf] | who was James Cooley Fletcher?
  3. Primed against primacy: the restraint constituency and US foreign policy | polystate, book 2
  4. Nation-building, nationalism, and wars [pdf] | against libertarian populism