The collapse of socialism and the sovereignty gap

When socialism collapsed in the late 1980s-early 1990s, many debates and contentions were settled, but the issue of sovereignty has only grown in importance thanks in large part to more economic integration. The European attempt at federation, undertaken after the fall of socialism, has not gone well precisely because it cannot close the Westphalian sovereignty gap. The bloodshed in the non-liberal world has largely been a product of the inability of states to fragment, an inability which is encouraged by notions of Westphalian sovereignty and institutionalized by IGOs such as the United Nations or World Bank.

If states wish to break away, but are prohibited from doing so by enormous costs (such as violent aggression from the state it wishes to break away from, or hostility from illiberal states that can use IGOs as mediums to act on those hostilities), then a federation which welcomes states into its union, and which is strong enough to deter aggression, would be a welcome, liberal development.

This is from my forthcoming article in the Independent Review. Here’s a sneak peak (pdf) at the whole thing. I’m guest editing a symposium on the subject at Cosmos + Taxis, in case any of you want to write a response, or add to the conversation…

Nightcap

  1. How the anti-communist alliances of the Cold War have ended David Goodhart, Literary Review
  2. The end of interest (and capitalism) John Quiggin, Crooked Timber
  3. The democratic road to socialism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Masks, pollution, and implied consent Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata

Nightcap

  1. Communist China’s dream of total information Arunabh Ghosh, Aeon
  2. The romance of American Communism Hannah Gold, Commonweal
  3. The Last Utopians: Four late-19th century visionaries Robert Greer, History Today
  4. The role of science in Enlightenment Universalism Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. A calibrated campaign of genocide in China Kapil Komireddi, Critic
  2. The art of dissent (under Soviet communism) James Le Sueur, LARB
  3. Is citizenship just a rent? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  4. Local citizenship Michelangelo Landgrave, NOL

How I understand left and right today

One of the things that I discussed in my Ph.D. dissertation some five or six years ago was the concept of left and right in politics. In the context of my dissertation, the discussion had to do with the fact that 19th century Brazil had primarily two political parties, the Liberal and the Conservative. I was trying to find ways to make sense of these two parties. My advisor said that the Liberals were the left, and the Conservatives the right. I came to the opposite conclusion, but mainly because we were using different criteria to define what is left and what is right.

At least in my experience, people call left something that is closer or more sympathetic to socialism. Right is something that is opposite or aggressive towards socialism. This explains why most people believe that nazism and fascism are far-right movements: they are perceived as archenemies of socialists. Liberals (in the American sense) are also considered left-wing, although true liberals would not go so far as to embrace full socialism. Conservatives and Libertarians are in the right because they are more opposite to socialism. The left is also identified with revolution, for wanting to radically change things, while the right is perceived to be conservative (with a small c) or even reactionary.

Even when I was in high school, learning these things for the first time, I found them to be somewhat confusing. Really, what is the difference between Hitler and Stalin? How can it be that one is on the far-right and the other on the far-left if I perceive them to be so similar? In my 15 or 16 years old mind, a possible explanation was that left and right are not in a straight line, but in something that resembles a horseshoe, with the extremes very close to each other. I thought about that sitting in my high school History class before I read it anywhere, and it served me well for many years. All I had to do, I thought, was avoid the extremes, for they end up being equally totalitarian. For many years I thought of myself as a social democrat, in favor of a substantial welfare state and some level of economic intervention by the state, but only when market forces were unable to do their job right.

Since I truly started learning about classic liberal, conservatives and libertarians, my horseshoe theory started to make less sense. I think that the traditional way to think about left and right already makes less sense because we have to bend the line like this for it to work somehow. But also, I think that this model has a problem because we use socialism as a reference: we classify things and people as left or right depending on how they relate to people and things like Marx, Stalin, Lenin, and the USSR! Intuitively I think that there is something wrong with that. And that’s when I started to think that we should classify things as left and right according to how they relate to individuals.

Today I think of left and right according to how much freedom we are willing to give to individuals. In my mind, far-right means maximum freedom. Far-left means minimum. That’s it. Of course: Rousseau will say that people are not really free until they are free according to his definition of freedom. In a Rousseauian state you might believe that you are in chains, but you’re actually free and your process of reeducation is still ongoing. Granted, Christians think something in similar lines: you’re not truly free until you serve God. However, I think that this is mistaking freedom and flourishing. You can have whatever understanding of what human flourishing (or happiness) really means, but the point is that if you want people to be free, you can’t force it on them.

And so, that is it: when I think about left, I think about forcing on people your concept of human flourishing. When I think about right, I think about letting people free to figure this out by themselves. I don’t think it’s a perfect system. After all, am I not forcing upon people the concept that they have to find their flourishing ideal by themselves? But I avoid thinking about that. Of course, this model might make some conversations harder, because I’m thinking about Hitler and nazism as far-left movements, while a lot of people (maybe the majority) learned to think about them as far-right. But on a personal level, it has helped me to think about politics. On my part, I believe that a society where people are in general free to choose (Milton Friedman) is a better society. Generally.

 

Nightcap

  1. How to be wrong Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. Here’s what 30% unemployment looks like Nicholas Smith, Boston Review
  3. Welcome to Fascistville Mario Carrillo, The Long Run
  4. Khrushchev’s Great American Road Trip Angela Brintlinger, Origins

A very short note on despotism

Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.

However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).

Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)

Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.

The state as the illusionary Deus Ex Machina

The 20th century was a century in which societies consolidated the belief that governments should provide certainty and protection from collective risks and developed the expectation that governments are well equipped to do so through large-scale interventions in the social environment.

The image of the state was transformed from that of an alien and often hostile apparatus in the service of the king and nobility to that of a collective organization entrusted with society’s safety and prosperity. This view grew stronger in the years of war-like economy and post-war reconstruction during the 21st century. Nationalism gave it the face of a father taking care of his extended family. Socialism gave it the image of a collective machine serving the interests of the working class. Democracy promised to tame its power, make it accountable to its subjects and harness it for the provision of public goods, whose definition was open to public deliberation.

The image of the state was also shaped by a growing belief in the use of science to give meaning to the ‘common good’ and offer prescriptions as to how a powerful central planner should work to achieve it. The state and science together provided a replacement for the loss of divinity. They offered a rationalization of power as enlightened parenthood. They created a secular Deus Ex Machina. Governments cultivated this paradigm as they were strengthening their role and clout over society through increasing levels of taxation, regulation and distribution, which in turn fostered public expectations for state effectiveness and political accountability. Recurrent failures led to policy re-adjustments some of which were historical political transitions. Yet all these transitions were responses that complied with this paradigm and sought to re-establish confidence in it.

Consider one of the most discussed economic and political transitions, the neoliberal turn. In light of recurrent economic crises, most prominently long-standing stagflation in the 1970s, neoliberalism best describes a re-adjustment of the role of government in the economy through privatizations, a drift away from Keynesianism to monetarism, and the re-regulation of economic structure. In the field of ideology, there was an effort to reshape public perceptions of what the state should not do with the promotion of economic freedom. Governments – most of them very reluctantly, such as both the Conservative and Labour governments in the late 1970s and the Ford and Carter administrations, while others very enthusiastically such as the Reagan and Thatcher governments – adopted versions of a ‘take some economic decisions back to you’ approach.

In the so-called neoliberal era, the state did not become less interventionist overall. Instead, governments redefined the nature of interventions in some areas to forms of surveillance of the responsibilities and individual risks that were given back to businesses and workers. Neoliberalism was a large-scale intervention in itself. It was an effort to revamp the economy and protect the capacity of states to extract resources from the market for political allocation. Governments preserved interventions that privileged the few and maintained those that continued to offer a safety net for the many (such as health insurance, progressive taxation and welfare state spending).

A remarkable juncture occurred when the 2009 crisis posed a systemic threat. Governments intervened to patch the financial system from a sequence of cascading events – partly the result of imbalances attributed to its own macroeconomic policies. The management of collective risk came center stage.

Terrorism is another case of the interventionist state. Spectacular terrorist attacks triggered a war-like response that combined the use of the criminal justice system with extra-judicial actions, including the mobilization of security and military forces and the introduction of new intrusive norms of intelligence collection and surveillance.

It is easy to discern that, over time, demand for drastic state action is more pronounced in the presence of dramatic single-source events or cascading events that are traceable as a single sequence. While millions are killed by car accidents and diseases, large-scale massacres such as the 9/11 or unravelling developments from the collapse of a major bank trigger a collective alarm. The public expects the state to intervene and give a heroic fight against the visible threat on behalf of society.

The most extreme version of the protective state is the current general lockdown. Not knowing any way out, governments can only deliver a form of collective protection that requires a general population quarantine. They offer society the kind of shield that a medieval wall and a locked gate offers in times of siege. Society both expects and accepts this.

Yet in the current pandemic governments still cannot deliver a cure. If a safe vaccine is not found, if the epidemic does not recede with growing immunity, if seasonal change doesn’t make any difference with contagion and if an effective anti-viral treatment is not found, governments will oversee their economies in rapid collapse and will soon have to make tough choices about how to turn the epidemic into a chronic manageable condition. For the time being, citizens remain disciplined in their lock-down and are the ones demanding strict measures. Governments know that, like in terrorism, citizens can be overwhelmed by fear as well as managed through fear.

In our efforts to understand what has happened and to make informed guesses about what could happen, metaphors can help or distort our perception. Societies have subscribed to an ideal image of political power that metaphorically resembles the biblical God: omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. They call for a divine intervention, they express their dissatisfaction when they see no signs of it but they never question its raison d’ être. But there is an ontologically different metaphor. In Greek mythology gods are superhuman creatures struggling for domination and survival with their own moral regards, vices and ignorance as they mess around with the world of humans. They struggle to rule based more on terror than wisdom, imposing justice that serves their order. Humans have to worship them in order to appease them. I find this imagery closer to a realist depiction of government.

Nightcap

  1. What’s the difference between Italy and the rest of the Western world? Scott Sumner, EconLog
  2. Viruses, civil rights, jails, and prisons Premal Dharia, Slate
  3. Is YIMBYism the answer to California’s housing crisis? Apoorva Tadepalli, New Republic
  4. Even Hayek quoted FDR Peter Canellos, Politico

Nightcap

  1. In the 1940s, one-third of Baghdad was Jewish Farah Abdessamad, Asian Review of Books
  2. Theory of non-territorial internal exit Trent MacDonald, SSRN
  3. Native American reservations as socialist archipelagos Andrei Znamenski, Mises Daily
  4. East meets West at Ueno Kōen Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon

The Good Life vs. reality

Recently, a former classmate badgered me into accompanying her on a run to the supermarket. As we were checking out, I, as a person who is very dedicated to the principle of self-interest, used a handful of coupons and a discount card to lower my final tally. My companion had a judgmental reaction to the proceedings: she gave me to understand that she never sought discounts or used coupons because to do so was beneath her station. Oddly, she could see no connection between her attitude and her continuous complaints about being short on funds. It was only much later that I connected her attitude at the cash register with her frequent monologues about a “broken society,” a slight fixation on “inequality,” and an overweening sense of entitlement.  

In 1971, NBC produced a sitcom called The Good Life, not to be confused with the British series of the same name. The American series was unsuccessful, in comparison to its competition, and it was canceled after fifteen episodes. I have never seen the show as NBC has never rerun it or provided a home release of it. I first heard of The Good Life in a book, whose title I have regrettably forgotten (for a long time I thought the book was Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox but now I can’t find any allusion to the tv show in Easterbrook’s book.). The author of the forgotten book alluded to The Good Life as a watershed moment in tv history with its portrayal of the so-called super-rich – the one bit I remember was that the book described the show as “the most luxurious show [in terms of portrayal of lifestyle]” and connected the show to a sudden increase in a broad sense of entitled victimhood throughout society. The Good Life  was also, apparently, part of creating the environment conducive for the success of the soap opera Dallas (1978 – 1991).

The plot behind The Good Life is that a middle-class couple become exhausted with the pressures of suburban life and maintaining a lifestyle that’s beyond their means. Consequently, the pair decide to scam their way into the household of an industrialist multimillionaire by disguising themselves as a butler and housekeeper. The theme which (apparently) underlay the show was the idea that there is a class of people who live extravagant, exotic lives (the proverbial good life) and therefore can afford to support some sponging malcontents.

When researching the show, one thing that struck me about it was how prescient it was in terms of foretelling some of the themes which are present in our current socio-political discourse. The two con-artists are reasonably successful college graduates who believe that society promised them the good life as a reward for going to college and having careers; however, when the pair see the lifestyle shown in glossy magazines – mansions, tennis courts, Rolls-Royce cars – the couple feels that society has reneged on its promise. The logic of the show’s premise is that the couple has been pushed by society – that wicked, amorphous “they” – toward a life of deception because there is no other path to riches open to them.

LitHub ran an article titled “How the well-educated and downwardly mobile found socialism.” The article isn’t worth reading, but the title touches on what began as the fictional premise of The Good Life and has become a full blown, ideologically fraught, issue today. What happens when perception of status is overblown and there is no sense of timeframe to temper expectations? 

Thinking of the popularity of AOC or Andrew Yang and the manner in which they have successfully tapped into the tropes of “unjust society” of “inequality,” the modern millennial (my own generation) seems to have embraced the premise of The Good Life. The tv show contained a very subtle, and completely subversive, inversion of the moral order: because “society’s promises” were broken, the dishonesty of the protagonists was not immoral. The extension of such reasoning is that the industrialist was obligated to support the swindlers anyway due to his greater wealth.

Capx just ran a terrific article by Jethro Elsden, “Jane Austen, the accidental economist,” in response to the new film version of Emma. One of the interesting tidbits the author found was that in modern terms, Mr Darcy’s £10,000 per annum income is probably equivalent to £60 million today, which would make his wealth around £3 billion. Even then Elizabeth Darcy had to “make small economies” once she decided to support her sponging sister and feckless brother-in-law. Granted the economies might have been the result of not telling her husband, but still the point remains that no one can long support spongers.

Elsden alluded to the logic of social pressure and the malignant effect it had on Austen’s characters who feel compelled to engage in an “arms race.” A major reason the swindlers of The Good Life turn to dishonesty is that they feel pressured to look like successful suburban college graduates. The problem was that  in the case of Austen’s characters and the tv show from 154 years later, the definition of “success” in relation to appearances was fungible. Rationally, it is ridiculous for the youngish couple of The Good Life to be in same place financially and socially as their mark, the middle-aged, widower industrialist whose lifestyle (but not work ethic) they covet.

To return, finally, to the anecdote regarding my shopping expedition, the episode is an example of a type of path that begins with frivolous preconceptions and ends with The Good Life on the comic end and the rise of Andrew Yang, Bernie Sanders, or Elizabeth Warren on the other. These politicians have located a demographic which has no sense of progression of time, stages of development, or realistic expectations. A perfect example is my ex-classmate, who has subjected herself to a fantasy regarding her own realistic expectation and now believes that the social contract has been broken.  For such a demographic, the emotional trumps the rational. It is easier to believe themselves wronged than as merely victims of their own imaginations.

Nightcap

  1. Uncaptive minds Garcia & Tismaneanu, American Interest
  2. Cold War exiles Sheila Fitzpatrick, London Review of Books
  3. Roving revolutionaries Houri Berberian, Aeon
  4. After the Berlin Wall Sabine Beppler-Spahl, spiked!

Nightcap

  1. The extractive colonial economy in Java Dell & Olken, NBER
  2. Modernity and art in the Near East Lara Arafeh, The Grey Area
  3. Tales of socialism David Henderson, EconLog
  4. Space aliens as culture heroes Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex

Nightcap

  1. Holocaust remembrance under communism (and after) Tim Judah, Financial Times
  2. Viruses and globalisation Johnathan Pearce, Samizdata
  3. Britain’s forgotten citizens Jorge Giovannetti-Torres, History Today
  4. On leaving Facebook alone John Samples, Cato Unbound

Nightcap

  1. The strange death of libertarianism John Quiggan, Crooked Timber
  2. No sympathy for Bernie Sanders Paul Mirengoff, Powerline
  3. Deporting Ho Chi Minh Tom Vaizey, History Today
  4. The politics of American aid to the Soviets Joshua Sanborn, TLS