Sunday, August 3, 2014

Hitchens, 2007, God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (political theory)

Christopher Hitchens was a journalist, teacher, and public intellectual, who died in 2011. He seems to have been building up to this through much of his life, during which he was exposed through family and circumstance to Methodism, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Judaism.  He investigated miracles for the Catholic Church, debated fundamentalists over the Danish cartoon imbroglio, and was repeatedly called to the barricades to defend secular humanism and the right not to believe – something about which he felt passionately.  He was particularly outraged by the effort to insert creationism and “intelligent design” into school curricula in the US. He avows that he would be happy to leave others to their belief, if they would leave him to his atheism, but the religious believers cannot do so, and cannot abide a secular world, so there must be a counter-attack.  All this is in here, which must stand as something of a capstone to his life’s work in service to the heritage of the enlightenment. It is a book that should be read by thinking believers, no less than skeptics, because it lays out in pitiless detail and relentless logic the sins of man-made religion and the absurdities of unthinking faith.  I listened to Hitchens himself reading the audio-book, and he sounds clear-eyed and unsentimental, measured and reasonable, only occasionally outraged by justifiable outrages and sad at the pitiable consequences of organized religions’ assaults on humanity through its dysfunctional and manipulative belief systems. His criticisms are not reserved only for Christianity. He is erudite and eloquent in tracing back the plagiarisms, repetitions, deceptions, and shifting and contradictory revelations called into service of the interests of the priestly castes that have preyed upon the poor and poisoned societies for millennia.  He knows his scriptures - more than can be said for many of the simple faithful.

            He opens with both barrels. The five irreducible objections to religion are: it misrepresents the origins of man and the cosmos; because of this misapprehension, it combines servility and solipsism; it is both result and cause of dangerous and dysfunctional sexual repression; it is ultimately grounded on wish-thinking; and it is used by those in authority to manipulate and abuse the vulnerable. But he comes to these charges with humility. He is as certain that he doesn’t have the ultimate answers as he is that they do not reside in religious belief, and he is therefore much more convincing than more arrogant intellectuals like Dawkins or Dennett, who are confident in our inevitably limited knowledge.  He is convincing about the extent to which religion kills, with personal anecdotes from Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad. It’s an impressive testimony. His short digression on why heaven hates ham is amusing but illustrative of the problematic logic of belief.  He demonstrates the false metaphysical claims of religion, which set back scientific and social progress. The illogic and absurdity of “intelligent design” claims are easy to dispel in the light of science, in which he places his faith, but here it seems to me that humility in the limits of our knowledge can leave the door open to unfounded faith, in which there is no harm if it is not imposed on others.  More difficult to dispel is the logic of Epicurus: “Is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” Of course, every religion has explanations, and the eighteen chapters covering wars, the Old Testament, the New Testament, the borrowed and plagiarized Koran, the tawdriness of the origins of the Book of Mormon and nineteenth century sects, the manifest failures of religion to make people behave better, the awful impact of religious beliefs crafted to scare children, repress or distort sexuality, and stunt intellectual growth, the absurdity of original sin (he is particularly harsh on Calvin), and the equal inadequacy of Eastern religions amount to a powerful argument for his thesis that religion poisons everything.  Two of the best chapters are the last-ditch case against secularism (Ch. 17), and the finer tradition of rational resistance (Ch. 18).  In the first, he argues that the worst of the secular atrocities – Hitler’s fascism, Stalin’s Communism, Pol Pot, and so on – either had the trappings of a religion, or the support of the religious, or both.  In the second, he traces the cautious resistance of rational free-thinkers from Plato and Epicurus to Galileo, Spinoza, Hume, and Jefferson, arguing that they had to pull their punches and couch their insights in language acceptable to the religious ideologues of their day – something which retarded human progress immeasurably. Religion has run out of justifications, and it is time to know the enemy and to prepare to fight it, says Hitchens. He has certainly done his part.

At the end, as a skeptical believer (faith consisting of belief despite the absence of evidence) I’m left paraphrasing Solzhenitsyn: perhaps the line between good and evil does not run between religions, or between faith and atheism, but through every human heart. If religion helps some people stay on the right side of that line it can still serve a purpose, but to the extent that it oppresses and generates evil and violence, it should wither in the face of a new enlightenment.
David Last, 3 Aug 2014

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Rothkopf, 2012, Power, Inc. (political economy)

David Rothkopf was in America’s political inner circle in the Clinton Administration, putting him in good company with Philip Bobbitt, Tom Reich, and Joe Stiglitz. Each had a front-row seat on the evolving relationship between the world’s uncontested superpower of the 1990s, and the growing power of corporations operating outside the control of states. Bobbitt’s Shield of Achilles postulated evolution towards something that he called the market state; Reich’s Work of Nations focused on the importance of educating citizens for the survival and prosperity of the state; Stiglitz, in several books, points to bad policies, American errors, and corporate depredations. But a theme running through all of them is that states may be slipping from their dominant role as international actors.  This is the problem tackled squarely in Rothkopf’s book. 

Like Bobbitt, Rothkopf begins with his interpretation of history. The first part of the book is structured around four revolutions: the origins of the corporation in the Europe’s emergence from the middle ages; the origins of the state in wars of religion (1648 and all that); the political revolutions and enfranchisements of the American and French Revolutions, with different trajectories; and the industrial revolution and class struggle (1848 and changing role of government). His historical sketches are more lightly drawn and less lavishly sourced than Bobbitt’s, but nevertheless compelling, and richer for the thread of corporate evolution running through the narrative.  He uses the label “the Great Transformation” but there is (surprisingly) no reference to Polanyi, though the arguments resonate.

Part 2 of the book chronicles the constraint of the state and the rise of corporate power, beginning in the 19th century, then bouncing back and forth to make the point that constraining government to preserve property rights was good, but giving the rights of an individual to a corporate entity put the state in a bind. This is a point missed by Acemoglu and Robinson (both 2006 and 2012).  Rothkopf covers four vital pieces of contemporary political economy: the legal ascendancy of the corporation; its global reach and transcendence of state control; the decline of monetary sovereignty; and the declining utility of force. All these developments reduce the power of the state as the preeminent international actor. Throughout this, Rothkopf keeps the tone of the analytical observer, treating Marx, Rand, and Hayek with the same courteous objectivity.

In Part 3, the tone starts to be more concerned, and Rothkopf is revealed as a fan of the state and its protection of individual freedoms, probably more US “blue state” than “red state”. The final two chapters address the competition between weakened states and muscled corporations, and the varieties of capitalisms. Rothkopf cautions against oversimplification: we need the energy and innovation of the marketplace, and we need the protections of the state and its regulation of the corporate super-citizens bestriding the world.  Which of the five capitalist models is likely to triumph and how will governments respond.  Ultimately, the problem is that the viral form of the corporation is agile and adaptive, but governments have been less so.
David Last, June 18, 2014

Villeneuve, 2010, Incendies (movie - conflict studies)

This is the first film I have included in this list of non-fiction reviews, but it should to be here because it illustrates protracted social conflict, the personal costs, and the ultimate antidote in forgiveness at a personal level.  I have often thought that the political genius of Christianity is twofold, particularly in the context of conquest and official oppression.  In the first place, it offers rewards in the next world, but that just qualifies it as the opiate of the masses.  More importantly, it prescribes forgiveness and turning the other cheek, both empowering and subversive.  It offers the empowerment of the victim, and the subversiveness of James Scott’s weapons of the weak. 

Denis Villeneuve takes Wadji Mouawad’s play as a starting point, and spins a gripping tale between Montreal and Lebanon, from the 1970s to the present. It can be seen as an anthropological study of personal loyalties and choices, and the intergenerational effects of protracted social conflict, in which forgiveness is rare.  Particularly hopeful is the idea that a new country like Canada can foster the reconciliation necessary to live together in an old one like Lebanon.  The actual data on diaspora support for conflict is not so optimistic, but the vision is seductive.

David Last, June 10, 2014

Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012, Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity, and poverty (political economy)

Acemoglu and Robinson are an effective team of economic historians based at MIT with a good appreciation of political, economic and social interactions. Their previous book, 2006, The Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, (title from Barrington Moore’s classic, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy) was a re-examination of the interactions of institutions of oppression and the emergence of democracy, and argued that it was all in the incentive structure.  1688 and the Glorious Revolution figured heavily in their analysis, as it did for Barrington Moore. In this book, they have relabeled their central premise, lost the footnotes, shifted the dependent variable to prosperity rather than form of government, but the argument is essentially the same.  Extractive economic and political institutions are mutually reinforcing, and so are the (much rarer) inclusive institutions that include democracy and market economies. In addition to being less systematically sourced (the bibliographic essay is useful, but harder to follow), the book bounces around a lot, giving it the feel of a HAT-WAP-LUFN (have a thought, write a paper, look up a few footnotes - something most grad students have done).  Inclusive and extractive institutions are not well defined or operationalized - too much precision might get in the way of a good argument, well presented. They are convincing in their demolition of geography, culture, and ignorance as explanatory variables.  They leave modernization and aid to the end, but dismiss this argument effectively too, though without mention of Dambiso Moyo, who uses similar arguments. 

Why do inclusive institutions work?  The implicit argument, reinforced by many historic examples, seems to be that people work or invest if they can keep the product of their risk and labour. So the fundamental mechanism is human motivation. But expropriation of value isn’t always purely extractive; clearly there is good and bad taxation, and Acemoglu and Robinson aren’t good at distinguishing between the inclusiveness that creates incentives while engaging in public investment and redistribution and the greed that kills opportunity. They draw no distinction between the Russian Revolution and Mobuto’s kleptocracy, although the former clearly reinvested more than the latter.  The inclusiveness and creative destruction of the industrial revolution in England and America also generated the extractive institutions of exploitative colonialism in the periphery (see Wallerstein). And how is that form of extractive institution different from the wealth that dominates American politics today? (See Michael Ignatieff’s review in NYRB, July, 2014)  I was hoping for a final chapter on the rise of extractive capitalism and government captive to wealth in the US, but no such luck from MIT. 

To explain why some states evolve extractive institutions and others don’t, Acemoglu and Robinson resort to the contingent path of history and the influence of small differences, which sounds a bit like AJP Taylor’s description of history as “one damned thing after another”.  It’s certainly not as satisfying as their clear declaration of interest-based institutional development in their previous book, economic origins. They admit that it’s not much help with prediction. 

One final disappointment, that has begun to strike me repeatedly in economists’ work.  They do not question the assumption that all growth is good, and creative destruction (mentioned often) is always a good thing. Is it? If the rapacious growth of the 19th Century set up the extractive regimes of colonialism, who’s to say that the growth in power of the 20th Century corporations forged in creative destruction aren’t already the new extractive masters of a decaying western world verging on environmental disaster?  

See also the recent blog post by Acemoglu and Robinson, “Democracy, What is it good for?”

David Last, June 3, 2014

Tossell, 2012, The Gift of Ford (Canadian politics)

Ivor Tossell is a culture columnist for the Globe and Mail, which in this post-print media age stills lays tenuous claim to being Canada’s national newspaper.  Like most cultured Torontonians, and in opposition to the presumed louts of the Ford Nation, prepared to sacrifice civility for lower property taxes, Tossell is acutely embarrassed by global notoriety of the drunken crack-smoking, inarticulate Ford, son of a wealthy business family (who knew that printing sticky labels was so profitable?). This little book is a lament for a great little city - small in global scale, but one which used to have a lot going for it. Under Ford, its vision and its self-esteem have suffered, and the soul of the city is torn between the older core and the newer SUV-laden and box-store encrusted suburbs. But Tossell points out that the silver lining to this cloud is a focus on what matters to the city, on what unites the suburbs and the urban neighbourhoods.  The gift of ford is to spark a serious debate and a new urgency to the conversations surrounding urban governance. We’ll see if he’s right, come the municipal elections in October!
David Last, April 28, 2014 

Jensen, 2002, The Culture of Make Believe (political theory, sort of...)

read this about the time that I got cross reading Zizek on Violence (last year), and came back to it because it is such a contrast to the pile of books I’m currently working through. It still doesn’t compare well.  Laughton’s Tainted Source, Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History, Acemoglu and Robinson, Clark, and others I’m just dipping into are all coherent and weighty narratives making serious arguments about serious subjects. Even when they induce high blood pressure, they do so through evidence, not rhetoric, though none of them is rhetorically sloppy.  Jensen is rhetorically punchy, sometimes deviously so, but fundamentally lightweight. With chapter titles like utility, invisibility, contempt, property, power, and philanthropy, Jensen takes on easy targets. It’s easy to be outraged at apartheid’s labour laws, or lynching in the American south, slavery, racism, or economic oppression. The rhetoric is rich, and choir of liberal sophomores or bored suburbanites seeking the outrage of the righteous is easily made uncomfortable - presumably we buy the book to become so.  But look carefully at the footnotes and the sequence of argument.  This has the hallmarks of a HAT-WAP-LAFFN: have a thought, write a paper, look up a few footnotes.  Google makes it too easy.  Despite the footnotes, it is not much more substantial than an op-ed, and it becomes tiresome quickly.
David Last, April 21, 2014 

Cowen, 2010, The Great Stagnation (political economy)

Tyler Cowen is an economic historian, because anyone who didn’t drink the Samuelson Kool-aid of incomprehensibly elegant mathematical economics can’t be an ‘economist’.  After the 2008 economic shock, he started telling people that America wasn’t as brilliantly innovative as it’s dominant ideology suggested, and it was time to get serious about working hard, rather than grabbing for the productivity. His sub-title says most of what he has to contribute in this little book: how America ate all the low-hanging fruit of modern history, got sick, and will (eventually) feel better.  The low-hanging fruit were free (aka stolen) land to fill up, education of a relatively uneducated population, and growth through health, education, and welfare in the public sector.  He doesn’t write about the defence-industrial complex or the role incarceration, policing, and the homeland-security boondoggle, particularly over the last decade. 

It’s a generally convincing (albeit incomplete) argument, that he took on the road with Ted-X talk in 2011. In his chapter on the government of low hanging fruit, he blames government for handing out goodies based on low hanging fruit - basically becoming a government of extraction, including the business of subprime mortgages and give-aways to banking and finance.  He says the financial crisis was a big correction, fundamentally because we are not as rich as we think we are. We have to start saving and investing. He sees eventual salvation in more consumer imports from China and India, internet generation of revenue, and better quality and accountability of education k-12 (compare the 1895 Grade 8 exam to today’s knowledge levels?)  His final exhortation is to raise the status of scientists, but it’s unclear whether this extends to non-Samuelson economists! 
David Last, April 16, 2014 

Clark, 2007, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (political economy)

Gregory Clark is Chair of Economics at UC Davis, and an economic historian rather like Acemoglu and Robinson, but his explanation of why nations fail is at odds with theirs. In a 1999 article co-authored with Susan Wolcott, he compared textile production in Japan and India 1890-1938. Japan grew, but India stagnated. Their explanation prefigures the theme of Farewell to Alms.  Wolcott and Clark argue that it was not management decisions (good in both cases) but the relatively better culture of industry in Japan that made the difference.  The comparative method is similar to the approach by Acemoglu and Robinson, but the conclusion from a long slice of economic history is different. Acemoglu and Robinson (Why Nations Fail) settle on institutions, while Clark opts for culture. Industrial revolution England figures heavily as a reference point in both works, and since it has also been used by Allen (2012) The Institutional Revolution, and by Barrington Moore (1966) The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, along with a lot of other big-picture arguments, we are well placed to triangulate the use of available evidence.  If there’s one thing we can probably agree on, it is that monocausal explanations are inadequate. With that as a starting point, what do the different approaches tell us?

There is a good potted history of world economics in Figure 1.1, marking the sharp increase in income per person that arose with the industrial revolution. The book is then divided in two parts: the Malthusian trap describes the primitive economies before 1800, and part II, the industrial revolution, describes the world after 1800.  Some of this is good history  - fertility, life expectancy, and technological advance are well covered. On the nature of institutions, however, Clark should be read in parallel with Allen, on the institutional revolution, and Acemoglu and Robinson (2006) on the economic origins of dictatorship democracy. Institutions did change both prior to, and with the evolution of the industrial revolution. The idea that cultural evolution was important is not incompatible with the idea that institutions evolved fundamentally with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (Acemoglu and Robinson’s argument) or that measurement and bureacratization played a key role (Allen). But the idea that the British and Japanese were simply more modern and more industrious than Indians or Chinese, absent any influence of institutional incentive structures, doesn’t pass muster. 

This is an excellent summary of the economic history of the world, for the many detailed tables and graphs that describe the time series of economic history: production efficiency by decade, income per person over time, output and capital per worker. It is a rich presentation of data, with technical appendices and equations, but in the end, the Samuelson approach doesn’t provide a convincing answer, because all the data and utility curves can’t explain why the changes occurred. Acemoglu and Robinson, Douglas Allen, and Heilbroner have come much closer to doing so. So if you’re teaching economic history or political economy, borrow Clark’s tables and charts, but rely on Acemoglu and Robinson’s explanation.
David Last, April 7, 2014

Buzan and Hansen, 2009, The Evolution of International Security Studies (security studies)

Barry Buzan is probably the most influential scholar in international security studies (ISS) since the 1980s, with literally scores of seminal books and articles, consistently fresh and readable.  How does he do it?  He explains in the preface of one of his books that the ‘hive mind’ of multi-author efforts is different from the work that he produces by himself, and he has had some productive partnerships with eminent scholars like Ole Waever and Jaap de Wilde.  In this text, he partners with Peace researcher and feminist Lene Hansen, and the result is a valuable and balanced history of International Security Studies as a field of enquiry, that should be a first port of call for anyone teaching or studying the subject. Better than an introduction to international relations in general, it puts the realist-liberal-constructivist debate into perspective, with some brilliant flow charts that divide up the streams of thought that have shaped teaching. My personal favourite is the all-in-one crib sheet on the evolution of international security studies, Figure 7.3. (Table 2.2, mapping five ideas of eleven different schools of thought would be my second favourite.) Throw in a few dates and authors on the boxes, and you have a solid answer for a PhD comprehensive exam.  This is real value added for any security scholar. The clarity and precision in the demarkation between schools and thinking is impressive, even when I sometimes wonder about the categories, which may have more academic than practical utility. 

Figure 7.3 is a something of a summation of the book, but it doesn’t convey the depth and breadth of the discussion, and the utility of the distinctions for anyone teaching international security.  Some of these distinctions also have policy and operational relevance, such as the four questions that structure ISS: Is it all about the state?  Should we include internal as well as external threats? Should we extend the concept of security beyond the use of force and the military realm? Finally, is security ultimately only about threat, urgency, and danger?  The broad pattern of the evolution of ISS over time, well documented in the book, has been to expand the meaning of security to include more referent objects (human, national, international) and more domains (economic, environmental, etc). The discussion here goes beyond Buzan’s 1998 book with Waever and de Wilde, the admirably succinct Security: A New Framework for Analysis. Here, Buzan and Hansen describe how other scholars have approached and manipulated the core ideas that have become part of security debates.

What makes this a book for teachers rather than a textbook for undergraduates is the careful dissection of why international security studies has evolved the way it has.  In this respect, it is like Abbott’s Chaos of Disciplines, but focused on my field, so I have a real incentive to understand the nuances of the evolution.
David Last, March 24, 2014 

Boot, 2013, Invisible Armies: an epic history of guerrilla warfare from ancient times to the present (Security studies)

Max Boot is a free-lance military historian and advocate of American power.  If that wasn’t enough to make me cautious, the unabashed ego of the “epic history” in the title is cause for pause. The book is reasonably well done for its genre (populist military history playing to a nationalist American audience) and has some strength in its sweeping summaries of secondary sources. The data appendix, however, makes it clear that there has been some sloppy operationalization of categories (terrorism, insurgency, guerrilla war, counter-insurgency, etc). Ultimately, it is betrayed in the prologue and the conclusion - insurgents are terrorists when they are against us, and freedom-fighters when they are on our side or paid and armed by us. It’s not an attractive analysis. Compare Brogan, 1990, The Fighting Never Stopped for a countervailing anti-CIA view of the 20th century part of this military history. 

The book proceeds in 64 chapters and eight ‘book’ with a preponderance of the material addressing the 19th and 20th centuries - closer to 1000 than 5000 years, but who’s quibbling. The insights about insurgency as a weapon of the weak are confounded by the failure to recognize it as a tool of the strong neighbour, although this is also clear in the details. 
David Last, March 17, 2014 

Bobbitt, 2002, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History (political history)

I first read this back in 2004, and it had an impact on the way I thought about the changing nation state, but I have been thinking about it in the decade since, as the predicted “market states” of the 21st Century begin to take shape, not always as Bobbitt and his colleagues envisioned.  Bobbitt was a national security advisor in the Clinton administration, with a background in history and law. This book on the changing nature of the state should probably be read in tandem with Robert Reich’s book, The Work of Nations. Reich was an older cabinet colleague of Bobbitt, Labour Secretary under Clinton, and he made the case for the central role of the state being education, to position its citizens for success. That prescription fits well with the concept of the market state supplanting the nation-state as the dominant political form in the wake of the Cold War, but twelve years after Bobbitt wrote the Shield of Achilles, it looks to me as if both failed nation-states and a new authoritarian axis of managed markets and neo-mercantilism challenge the post-Cold War euphoria of liberal democratic dominance. 

Bobbitt’s broad scheme focuses on epochal wars and the ensuing legal regimes that entrench a particular order. His starting point is the twentieth century, before going back to the fall of the Hapsburg empire (predating the usual 1648 birthday of the modern state). He observes that with the hindsight of history, the three big wars of the 20th Century will merge to be seen as just one contest over political-economic organization. In rounds one and two, liberal-democracy beats fascism, and in round three (the Cold War) it beats communism. Surprisingly, the 90lb weakling liberal democracy triumphs over both systems that seem better at mobilizing resources under central command. Innovation and military technology played a key role, so military technology and social organization are variables that Bobbitt tracks in the series of “epochal” wars and post-war political-legal reorganizations.

The sequence of state types is a useful crib-sheet for teaching about the evolving nature of the state, which has not stood still as a form of political, social, and economic organization.  The princely state (like those of Germany and Italy) was followed by the Kingly state which could muster more armaments factories, then the territorial state, and the state-nation (spreading out from the capital to impose a national consciousness on its people), and finally the nation-state. There’s a helpful tabular layout of the major evolutions, but he has stuck to what he knows, and leaves out most of the economic history which reinforces and supports his argument. I can imagine conversations with political economist Robert Reich about the real nature of causality - the political-legal chicken or the economic egg providing the driving force.

As with many books written in the US in the warm afterglow of the fall of the wall, and before the Bush assault on international institutions, there is a sense of the inevitable triumph of democratic market institutions which seems excessively optimistic from today’s vantage point. Resurgent authoritarian Russia and China, corporate constraints on democratic functions, and erosion of the middle class in the western world make the worldviews of Clinton’s cabinet officers less convincing now.
David Last, March 10, 2014

Alef, 2010, Goldman Sachs and the Beginning of Investment Banking (economic history, institutional study)

This short hagiography might have been commissioned to cast the investment banking giant in a good light after the 2008 market crash.  Goldman Sachs did well out of the crash, and the presence of Goldman Sachs alumni in the national banks of several affected countries, particularly Greece, did not escape notice. Alef has a science and law background, and has written more than 300 biographies of industrial titans. Generally, they are positive and admiring, and there is a lot to admire in the rags-to-respectable wealth story of Henry Goldman, who went into business and then up against the titan of his era, JP Morgan.  
David Last, March 3, 2014 

Tilly, 2003, The Politics of Collective Violence (security studies

Charles Tilly is a prolific and eclectic philosopher and empirical scholar, who has never ceased adapting and revising his ideas. Here he presents a very comprehensive and attractive scheme for organizing practical thinking about collective violence.  It succeeds brilliantly by accounting for the connections between different kinds violence which are often analytically separated in major data collections.  The best-known major data enterprises, like those of Wright, Rummel, IPCRI, Singer and Small, Organski, etc. all make artificial distinctions between different types of violence, in order to make data collection possible.  The idea that wars consist only of more than 1000 battle deaths, for example, is incompatible with the actual experience of organized collective violence.  By limiting himself to conceptualization of conflict with a view to explaining variation,Tilly is not constrained by such artificial definitions.  The drawback is that the data to test his conceptualizations will never be complete.  On the other hand, there is no shortage of case studies supporting the framework, and once you accept the scheme, a lot of cycles of protracted violence become much easier to describe and explain.  Unfortunately, the language and labels are a bit obscure, and the book stops short of deductions for practitioners. 

Chapter 1 describes varieties of violence, with a focus on the relationships that are engaged in initiation or expansion. Much of the contention of politics involves opportunity hoarding and exploitation. The varieties of inter-personal violence can then be described in a two-dimensional space defined by the salience of violence in relations, and the degree of coordination between perpetrators of violence.  By focusing on relations between groups involved in violence (rather than ideas or motives) Tilly concentrates on the mechanisms that permit collective violence.  He zeros in particularly on boundary activation (us vs. them), brokerage, and polarization. 

Chapter 2 identifies the political context for variations in collective violence, including the categories of actors within regimes.  The key contribution here is an exposition of violent specialists and political entrepreneurs, playing roles in activation, connection, coordination, and representation of collective violence, which generate potential for opportunity hoarding and exploitation. He goes on to explain the variation of degrees of violence in different types of regimes along two axes: capacity of states, and degree of democracy. 

Chapter 3 explores trends and variations in collective violence, according to regime capacity and degree of democracy. Government-employed violent specialists do far more damage in high-capacity undemocratic regimes, and non-government violent specialists do more damage in low capacity undemocratic regimes. The mechanisms of activation and suppression (of boundaries, ties, and narratives, for example) affect the salience of violence, while the mechanisms of incorporation and separation (creating new ties or severing old ones) affect the degree of coordination between actors, while exploitation and opportunity hoarding provide the motivation and capability for actors to engage in collective violence. Chapter 3 is probably the most directly relevant to managers of violence (violent specialists in government or international employment), but the language is not readily accessible to staff planners; some translation and interpretation might help it to be more digestible in a staff college setting. 

The remainder of the chapters deal with the six specific types of collective violence that populate the two-dimensional space (salience and degree of coordination): violent rituals, coordinated destruction, opportunism, brawls, scattered attacks, and broken negotiations.  Taken together, this is where the somewhat cumbersome scheme begins to pay off.  There is a brilliant explanation of protracted cycles of violence in Ireland, which demonstrates the explanatory power fo the model.  My own experience in the Balkans and research on Cyprus, Sierra Leone, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and El Salvador, amongst other conflicts, convince me that Tilly’s scheme offers far more explanatory power for the variations in collective violence, and their implications.  The next step is to dissect the implications and deductions for managers of violence. 
David Last, February 22, 2014

Barber, 2013, If Mayors Ruled the World (comparative politics)

Benjamin Barber is probably best known for Jihad vs McWorld, (1996) which was a perceptive and prescient description of major trends that became a cultural meme even before 9/11.  Mayoral ascendancy is enticing, given urbanization and security worries in the face of states’ apparent impotence to address survival migration, climate change, energy crises, and potential food and water shortages. Despite writing from Mayor Rob Ford’s beleaguered Toronto, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Mayors (or urban governments) should have a larger role in global governance. The premise is strong: cities are networked, pragmatic, and affect the spaces where most people live. They can be more democratic than states (after all, even Mayor Ford was elected by more people than any other politician in Canada, but perhaps that should give us pause). In the end, though, the book fails from weak argument and lack of evidence. Even if cities should govern globally (chapters 1-6), the argument that it can be done (chapter 7) is unconvincing. A fundamental barrier is sovereignty, Barber’s examples notwithstanding. Cities may pass ordinances to restrict guns or sugary drinks, but if state or national law doesn’t back it up, the rules are defeated in court, as New York’s have been. Berlin’s declaration that it was a nuclear free zone in the Cold War has to stand as a delusion, and Barber doesn’t really close the circle to make the case for cities as agents of influence and change as tightly as he might (I’m not sure cause and effect could really be demonstrated).  In the end, the optimistic vision, with lots of poetic twaddle from Whitman and other literary figures, is less compelling than Davis’s Planet of Slums and Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains  - both visions of a more dystopic future. I want to believe him, and he might still be right, but in the end, it’s “IF” not  "Mayors can or do rule the world".  If they're going to get closer, they'll need a better manifesto than this. 
David Last, February 15, 2014 

Garnaut, 2013. Rise and Fall of the House of Bo (biography, political history)

This is a fascinating peek behind the bamboo curtain, and an entertaining way to come up to speed on some of the big Family names that still make Chinese politics.  Garneau is an award-winning Australian journalist who has been in China long enough to read and speak fluently, and he seems to be very well informed. I won’t try to summarize all the twists and turns, but this book describes the passage of generations from the “immortals” of the long march to their princeling sons who directed the Cultural Revolution, and who are now in their sixties. At bottom, it appears to be a struggle between rule of law (perhaps with equal opportunity) and hypocritical red-singing enthusiasm for the glory-days of Mao, while party leaders rake off hundreds of millions of dollars for their families. Bo Xilai,it is alleged, was in the latter camp, but one feels that there are few innocents amongst the powerful in China. 

When the electronic devices have to go off, this neat little book was just long enough for three take-offs and two landings.
David Last, 8 February, 2014 

Bacevich, 2013. Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed their Soldiers and Their Country (security studies)

This is a sad and angry book. It describes the crisis of American civil military relations, and offers an implausible solution.   Andrew Bacevich is a graduate of West Point and was an American Army officer for 25 years. The book is dedicated to the memory of Captain William F. Reichert, a messmate, killed by a disgruntled subordinate when they served together in the waning days of the Vietnam War, and to Colonel Theodore S. Westhusing, a fellow professor at West Point and scholar of military honor, who killed himself in Iraq when confronted with allegations of contractor fraud and command indifference.

The citizen army Bacevich joined in 1969, which practiced ‘fragging’ and lived with social dislocation at home, was transformed by Nixon’s repeal of the draft.  In the first part of the book, Bacevich describes the popular people’s wars – particularly the Second World War – from which America benefited, albeit at the expense of foreign armies which did more of the dying, while Americans built the machines that did the killing, in factories that later produced consumer durables while America picked up the spoils of empire.

The end of the draft brought the great decoupling, “minimizing collective inconvenience rather than requiring collective commitment”. The three No’s now characterize Americans’ approach to war: we will not change, we will not pay, and we will not bleed. This is the cri du cœur of the bereaved father, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2007. He describes the financial meltdown, the hubris, greed, corruption and plunder of America, and links citizens’ unwillingness to address epidemics of incarceration, obesity, teenage pregnancy, and debt to their unwillingness to engage in the business of killing for the nation.  It fits with the epigraph from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He answers his footnoted question about Bush’s call to fight for freedom: the pop gospels of American Freedom are novelty, autonomy, celebrity, and consumption. So what’s it all for? 

In the second part, Warrior’s Plight, Bacevich seeks to explain how the US Army after Vietnam sought reconciliation and relevance but became isolated and mired in unwinnable wars. He goes back over the same historical ground as the first part, this time focusing on the professionalization and outsourcing that followed the end of the draft, and the revolution that successively opened the US Army to equal opportunity unobstructed by race, gender, or (eventually) sexual orientation.  But he sees in this triumph of individual choice the widening of the choice not to serve: “Individual choice fully eclipsed state power as determinant of who would defend the country.” In the chapter, “Searching for Dragons,” he describes the institutional pressures within the US Army to be involved in the new wars of empire. Questions of purpose piled up as Iraq and Afghanistan went badly and the costs mounted, while few citizens paid, and contractors and their investor profited handsomely.  

The final part, Skin in the Game, blames politicians of all stripes, military and leadership, pundits and media, and a complacent citizenry for avoiding the truth about a failing American way of war.  There’s a wonderful chapter about rogue generals, who come to realize the error of their ways after lengthy service: Smedley Butler, Lee Butler, William Standley, and Thomas Moorer. But McChrystal’s belated call for the draft begs the question, what’s the game, and who benefits from it?  McChrystal’s call was unheeded, Bacevich says, because the Defence Department’s partner is not the people, but defence industry. Even the manual on working with contractors on the battlefield was written by the contractors, Military Professional Resources, Inc. The ‘treason’ of pundits unwilling to criticize is neatly summarized by tracing the trajectory of editorials by Paul Berman, Richard Cohen and especially David Brooks – a narrow sample that effectively makes the case: “In a time of faith, scepticism is the most intolerable of insults.” Bacevich has barbs for General Boykin (“They hate us because we are a Christian nation.”), for the growth of military commands, and for the operational mimicking of Israel, in which security means supremacy and preventive war and executive decrees for assassination become policy in pursuit of a strategy without apparent direction. He concludes that the American GI has become Kipling’s Tommy Atkins.

And so the prescription outlined in a scant few pages is to repeal the three No’s: Americas must revert to citizenship entailing responsibilities, not just privileges.  They must pay for wars as they go, by taxation, foregoing benefits, or reducing consumption.  Above all, they must bleed. Bacevich calls for national service or a draft. But is this plausible? Bacevich clearly understands the American army, but does he understand American society?  The all-volunteer force did not create the ills he describes; those ills created the all-volunteer force. Americans arm themselves, resist taxation, and deny the legitimacy of their gridlocked government, which sits on record-breaking debt and deficits, the proceeds of which are concentrated in ever-fewer hands. If the past is prologue, more plausible than a repeal of the three No’s, here is what America has to look forward to: 

“…more needless wars, or shadow conflicts sold by a militarized and irresponsible elite; more wars mismanaged by an intellectually sclerotic and unimaginative officer corps; more wars that exact huge penalties without yielding promised outcomes, with the consequences quickly swept under the rug, even as flags flutter… and commercials tout the generosity of beer companies doing good works for ‘the troops’…”

Does America have an infinite capacity to adapt to that sort of future?  How many wars like Iraq and Afghanistan can its economy and society absorb?

David Last, 2 February, 2014 

Gentile, 2013. Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counter-Insurgency (security studies)

Thanks to my colleague Joel Sokolsky for pointing my toward this.  I’m happy to see this critique of American counter-insurgency.  It is cogent, well researched, and reinforces some of my prejudices. Colonel Gian Gentile is a US Army Officer who teaches at West Point and served in Iraq in 2006, before the vaunted surge. He sees a common pattern in the search for a better way of counter-insurgent warfare, and describes the problem as one of constructing a convenient narrative.  He stops short of articulating the obvious conclusion: there is no place for expeditionary counterinsurgency or nation building at gunpoint. As in peacekeeping, third party intervention with consent and legitimacy or a negotiated settlement are the only plausible alternatives to a win-at-all costs war. A decade after the fall of Saigon, American companies were investing in Vietnam again, so were the Communists really that bad?

While he was in Iraq, Gentile was asked to review and comment on the new FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency. I think it was reflecting on his own experience, and the dead-end repetitions of American COIN thinking (building on Galula’s story of French success against Algeria’s insurgents), that spurred him to write this critical history, drawing on both primary and secondary sources.  There is no shortage of critiques of COIN and its ilk. Roberto Gonzalez (2009) American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, and the Network of Concerned Anthropologists’ (2009) edited collection, The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual attack COIN as both unethical and ineffective, rather like the argument against torture. They are shrill voices that make sense to me, but ring hollow on most soldier’s ears. But this is a more ambitious critique of the whole counterinsurgency concept, well grounded in the military history that spawned it, and written by a combat veteran professor in a military academy – surely someone to take seriously.  Gentler COIN based on hearts and minds and kindergarten construction is a dangerous myth.

In the introduction and first chapter he describes the construction of the COIN narrative – an important contribution that makes sense of a lot of the rhetoric and punditry surrounding American wars, including the Washington commentators Bacevich excoriates (see Breach of Trust). The narrative arc is this: a difficult war with a tenacious enemy is deadlocked because of conventional soldiers who don’t “get it”; then a new leader arrives and turns from conventional soldiering to winning hearts and minds, protecting the population, and building the nation.  The new and better way leads to a win, as it did in Malaya, the acme of COIN. Gentile puts a match to this fallacy. 

To begin with, the narrative arc is founded on the “success” of Malaya, Templar as the white knight, with his predecessor Briggs as the failure.  Gentile says this is wrong. Templar’s success built on the Briggs plan, which was already reducing violence not through hearts and minds but through successful population control measures and food restrictions–hardheaded and heartless–combined with hunt-and-kill. Of course, it would have taken an effort to lose Malaya, with a small and isolated Communist Party and a supportive Malay majority. There was no dramatic turn-around or shift in tactics, just steady policing and a turn-over to the majority as soon as possible. 

Gentile describes Vietnam as the first “better war” that wasn’t. A far cry from Malaya, Vietnam was probably unwinnable but the COIN narrative arc suggests it was almost won: bad conventional Westmoreland was dropping the ball, then good COIN Abrams orchestrated a dramatic turn-around with a successful departure, paralleling the Briggs-Templar story, and equally fallacious.  The same arc played out in Iraq with Casey-Petraeus, and Afghanistan with McKierney-McChrystal, according to Gentile. Each cycle of the narrative comforts us about the efficacy of COIN, when properly applied by the right dynamic leader. Of course, the dynamic leaders each had a role in portraying their innovative success.

As he dissects Malaya, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Gentile shows that there was no seismic shift of tactics between the paired generals. There was no dramatic insight from the new COIN manual, which actually contains much less novelty than one might imagine from the accompanying hype.  In Vietnam, an American army allied to a corrupt government without legitimacy faced a tenacious insurgency with local and international support, permeable borders and sanctuaries. Manwaring and Fishel and the Small Wars Operations Research Division (SWORD) got that right with Delphic studies in the 1980s; “legitimacy” is the master max-factor, but Gentile doesn’t give them much credit for this.  In Iraq, an American army of occupation was caught in a sectarian civil war, for which the COIN prescription was inappropriate. Rather than a triumphant surge led by Petraeus and FM 3-24, Gentile attributes the decline in violence to the Sunni awakening, Al Qaeda running afoul of local interests, and declining Shia militia violence, none of which was attributable to the surge. Gentile points to declining violence a year before Petraeus arrived, and documents many cases of competent officers doing COIN “by the book” before FM 3-24 arrived. He seems particularly sympathetic to General Casey, clearly the fall guy for the triumphal COIN narrative. One does wonder how big a role the politics of generals plays in the persistence of COIN.  His final word is that “…American strategy has failed in Afghabnistan (and Iraq) because it was founded on an illusion – that American-style counterinsurgency could win Muslim hearts and minds at gunpoint and create viable nation-states on the Western model virtually from scratch in a short time…the belief that counterinsurgency works persists like a vampire among the living.”

Like Bacevich’s Breach of Trust, this is part of the growing corpus of insider’s work critical of American application of military power.  It still remains, however, to demonstrate a better way of understanding and managing wars that threaten stability and interests.  How to maintain peace, order and good government at a global level?

David Last, 25 January, 2014 

King, 2011. Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces from the Rhine to Afghanistan (military sociology)

Anthony King was a promising young sociologist writing about European football and social theory until 9/11, when he was inspired to turn his attention to the military. With European Security and Defence Policy ground well-trodden, he decided to focus on the transformation of Europe’s Cold War armies into expeditionary forces. Following the Huntington (1957)  and Janowitz (1960) classics, and the theories of Posen (1984), Rosen (1991) and Avant (1994) relevant to innovation, King aims to provide a historically specific interpretation of European military innovation at the tactical (brigade) and operational (division/corps) levels. The three parts of the book address the strategic context, and the operational and tactical levels, drawing on documentary sources, interviews, and field observation. Although it was his intent to address Britain, France, and Germany equally, in practice the collection is tilted towards Britain for ease of access.  [As an aside, this is a general issue in global scholarship - not only is more published in English, but subjects accessible in English are disproportionately researched.] 

In addressing the strategic context of Europe’s new wars, King references Kaldor, Kalyvas, Keen, Berdal, Duffield, Glenny and other critics of neo-liberal war in the post-Cold War era, before digging into White Papers and defence ministry documents to describe the institutional intent behind the shift towards expeditionary forces. Iraq features heavily, but there is little mention of the American-led “war on terror”, and comparatively few mentions of American influence at the strategic level. In the Chapter questioning the capacity for autonomous action, his starting point is Seth Jones (2007) on rising European cooperation, then critiques of EU capacity and motivation for autonomous military action. He analyses Europe’s forays into Africa, mentioning gendarmes, but missing the European Gendarme Force (Armitage and Moisan, 2005), legitimately with a focus on the military. In the end, he seems to be on the fence about NATO versus a European force.  I think this section would be sharper if it were couched not as pro-Europe or Euro-skepticism, but as acquiescence to or rejection of American leadership.  I think it was primarily European unease with American direction from the Iraq venture forward that drove European military leaders towards each other. As an outsider doing interviews, he might not have heard as much of the griping as an insider hanging out in officers’ messes. 

In the second and third parts of the book, King does an admirable job of describing transformation from an outsider’s perspective. It would be difficult for a staff-trained colonel or participant observer to provide such a sweeping overview without getting lost in the details of headquarters functions, command authorities, and division of responsibilities, which are the nuts and bolts of multinational cooperation.  Drawing on Latham’s (2002) analysis of the RMA, King sees the operational renaissance of the Rapid Reaction Corps as an outgrowth of air-land battle concepts initiated in the 1970s; it all comes back to Depuy. I have argued elsewhere that the RMA was largely a tech-driven fad, but I can see the continuity King describes, and this is a useful part of organizational history. 

King concludes that the trajectory of NATO forces is towards smaller, more potent elite forces.  He notes that national sovereignty and culture remain important, and recounts fascinating stories of brits slagging german timidity.  Much of the final chapter is an extended post-mortem on particular Afghan operations, with deductions about what these say about national styles of warfare. But Afghanistan is already almost in the past. “NATO, Europe, and the International Community will eventually define success in very generous terms in order to minimize the negative political implications of the campaign...”  And Afghanistan, King says, may promote European military integration under NATO, becoming a transnational force that cooperates increasingly and enjoys increasing commonality of professional concepts and practices, notwithstanding the continued importance of sovereignty and national culture. 
David Last, 17 January, 2014