History


I’ve seen this quote a couple hundred times too many:

We are spending more money than we have ever spent before, and it does not work. After eight years we have just as much unemployment as when we started, and an enormous debt to boot.

It comes from Harry Morgenthau, FDR’s secretary of the treasury, via Burton Fulsom’s flawed history. It’s a darling of conservative pundits who want to say that government spending cannot reverse an economic downturn. Indeed, their whole case against government spending seems to hinge on this one moment, a supposed moment of clarity from Morgenthau.

Government spending would not in itself be the problem.  It increased dramatically through the 1940s.  But as easy as it is to argue in its favor, I’ve yet to read some dissection of Morgenthau’s statement … something that puts it in context to show that it is a less powerful assesment that conservatives would think.  Indeed, the passage lacks any depth, and reads more like exasperation rather than reflection, and given that Morgenthau often disagreed with Roosevelt on spending (though not necessarily on its application), there is plenty of room for a historian to debunk the conservative interpretation.

Morgenthau, at the very least, represented the concerns of American businessmen that the goals of the New Deal were not clearly defined, and the consequential costs were excessive.  Were they temporary or permanent?  According to HW Brands, Morgenthau confronted Roosevelt with this issue, claiming that recent declines in productivity reflected businessmen’s frustration with Roosevelt’s opacity.  FDR relished his caginess, refusing to choose between temporality and permanence, and preferring to keep that information from those whom he felt opposed his policies.  Eventually, Roosevelt would associate economic security with stable democracy.

This is only a small bit of context.  Beyond this moment, there is little evidence of Morgenthau’s sustained opposition to the New Deal, or that his proclamation was a blanket judgement of New Deal policies.  But the bigger problem is that this is one quote, one full of ambiguities (what else was said at the same Congressional committee hearing?).  Ultimatley, there are more fruitful ways to use history of the Great Depression to bolster their arguments.  This isn’t it.

The Great Depression is far from my area of expertise, though I know enough about the questionable aspects of Burton Folsom’s history (particularly the skewed employment numbers and the light treatment of political volatility).  What I find interesting is that this debate about the effectiveness of New Deal policies seems to have found distant shores. Australia’s PM, Kevin Rudd, not only referenced the New Deal in justifying state intervention in financial markets and aggressive economic stimulus, but Australian columnists have taken up the arguments of American conservatives in opposing Rudd’s proposals.  Referencing Fulsom, Michael Costa wrote:

What is not in dispute is that the US Federal Reserve made the Depression worse by mismanaging monetary policy. At the onset of the Depression, the Federal Reserve adopted a deflationary monetary policy that added to its severity. The money supply contracted by nearly one third in the Depression’s first four years. That’s why present Fed chairman Ben Bernanke moved quickly to increase liquidity.

Without discussing the merits of Folsom’s arguments, I wonder how Costa came to the conclusion that this is “not in dispute”, considering Fulsom’s arguments fly in the face of many American histories of the Depression, and that Fulsom has gained currency mostly among politicians, almost all conservative.  (Perhaps a better critique would come from Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform: Roosevelt and Morgenthau found that  state intervention brought stability, but limited potential growth.  Consequently, Rudd’s plan to reinvent capitalism under state guidance might not provide as much bang in the long term.)

On a similar note, German Social Democrat Erhard Eppler has been arguing hard for not just state intervention, but reinvestment in the state itself (see “The State is an Achievement Itself” and “Nicht-Staaten sind gefaerlich“).

What a strange coincidence that Crooked Timber would have a symposium on the science fiction of Charles Stross days after I completed reading his first novel, Singularity Sky. (HT: Ralph Luker)  I had picked up the novel years ago, but it languished in the pile of books-I’ll-get-to-someday.  Reviewers had described it as a novel of ‘big ideas’ about the clash of civilizations, appropriately reflected in its publication date, 2003.

Among the contributions are fine analyses from Paul Krugman and Henry Farrell.  Curiously, the authors don’t deal extensively with Singularity Sky, nor do they touch upon one of the novel’s most relevant themes: asymmetrical warfare.  At best, the novel serves to illustrate singularity, which a theme that runs throughout his oeuvre.

Singularity Sky is set in an era in which humanity has been forcibly dispersed by a near-omnipotent Eschaton, an entity that jealously guards the past to prevent threats to its power.  The politics of Earth have been decentralized to the individual, nationality is meaningless, and citizenship (if one can call it that) emerges from a complex web of overlapping allegiances and alliances.  Conversely, the New Republic has regressed back to the strong post-Westphalian state, as represented by such nineteenth century powers as Prussia and Russia.  Anti-intellectual and anti-technology, advancement serves only to strengthen the  state’s ability to project violence.

In Massie-like fashion, the state invests in heavy space-faring battleships to protect its empire.  When the mysterious Festival drops technology over one of its colonies, inciting violence and revolution, the fleet launches in order to confront the threat to its sovereignty.  However, the political thinking that produces this type of war machine fails to comprehend, and thus respond, to the threat.  Instead of engaging in a high-tech, though traditional, gun battle, the ships are consumed by nanites.  The fleet is catastrophically defeated.  (Oh, there is also something about the Eschaton preventing interference in the timeline.)

According to the protagonists, the New Republic was bound for disaster.   The New Republic was organizationally mismatched against the Festival, the the former’s command hierarchy being incapable of confronting the decentralized system of the latter.  Unfortunately, we don’t see this, it must be told to us (as with much science fiction) by the protagonists.  Stross never describes how the Festival operates, and what we do see of its military strategy (if you could call it that) does not preclude a centralized command structure.

In the end, the technological differences (rather than organizational) carry the day.  The pesky nanites are  too small, too numerous to confront with large-scale weapons.  The strategic advantages aren’t clear, and we are left with a narrative that gives superiority to the civilization with the better technology.  Tropes of western imperialism could fit easily into this narrative.  Indeed, I could not help but think of the Africans who believed that German bullets would turn to water and would not harm them.  (I’ll grant that Stross’ description of what happens to societies inundated with techonology is compelling and frightening.)

This aspect of the novel offers insight into what had been a poorly explored aspect of the “War on Terror”: the tendency to associate terrorism with the politics of state rather than understanding the mentality and organization of terrorists.  How much Stross wants readers to equate the New Republic’s fights against the Festival with the War on Terror is debatable (nor should we force congruence between them).  Yet Stross has vocally denounced the United States’ targeting of nation-states as exporters of terrorism.  Instead, the fight requires broader, more cordial engagement with the societies from which terrorism rises:

Declaring a war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11 was good politics for George W. Bush. But it’s a misleading metaphor; because war is terrorism by other means, just as terrorism has become an extension of diplomacy by the weak against the strong, to fold, spindle and mutilate Von Clauswitz’s famous dictum. If a war against terrorism is to be successful it must be fought in peoples’ hearts and minds, with unusual weapons like trust and respect, and a willingness to negotiate with the moderates before our intransigence turns them into desperate extremists.

Insisting that a war on terrorism is a literal war, involving bombers and tanks, is foolish in the extreme. Handing them a victory on a plate — by surrendering our civil liberties on the altar of security — is insane.

Given Stross’ interest in the War on Terror, it’s fair to ask how useful his novel is at illuminating asymmetrical warfare.

Part II tomorrow.

I tip my hat to anyone who can be a complete historian. The ideal subject, yes, should be humanity in its wholeness, of all era and places, from the birth of fire to global warming (let’s allow for some periodization, though). Following Bloch, would should allow our imagination fly to the farthest shores and vistas to find our past. There is such an historian, and he blogs as Mercurius Rusticus. He must be, reading his assault on the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women. Indeed, is not women’s history such a subject that rather than celebrates the human condition, creates feudalities that parcels away our common and universal heritage. Let’s suffer no talk of the exclusion of women. They may claim to seek redress and inclusion by doing so, but are they not shoring up the boundaries of their territory instead, solidifying the differences between genders rather than approaching a common appreciation thereof?

Alas, Mercurius Rusticus is no hero. Rather than liberate us from this demagoguery of the pen, he has chosen protection ofthe nobility of the sword, cowering behind the might of a depleted monarch, and who can no more see these shores than Franz Josef could see Brandenburg. He takes comfort that the ocean separates him from the luscious Amazons. He has retired to his own feudality, where he can be protected rather than do battle. How can he, from behind the barred door of his study, champion our great universal history against the factions of women? He is but another guildsman. And should he banish them, how will he repair the whole. He will make a desert, and call it man.

Canada, like Australia, is taking steps to reconcile with Native Americans for programs to forcibly assimilate them as children in the early and mid 20th century. The programs removed children from their homes and sent them to state and parochial schools to be educated as children of European descent. They were given numbers, their names not recognized, and divested of their cultural traits. Abuse was rampant.

The article in question discusses the terms of reconciliation, not in terms of recognition of the children and compensation to them, but as part of a larger dialogue. Wisely, the government wishes to include those in the process of “civilizing” the Native Americans. However, one passage struck me as a little odd:

One of the largest shifts in attitude has come from Canada’s churches, which ran most of the schools and have since settled lawsuits for physical and sexual abuse.

“The ‘good guys,’ no matter how kindly or well intentioned, have to confront they were complicit in a system of evil,” said Jamie Scott, the United Church of Canada officer for residential schools.

The United Church was one of the first to withdraw from the schools, in 1969, and in 1986 was the first of the churches to apologize. Between 1991 and 1994, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church also issued apologies. They have agreed to participate and donate to the commission. Scott said staff members have their own tales to tell.

“Many of the people who worked in those schools never beat a kid,” he said. “They saw themselves called to help people they saw as marginalized. They have a side of the story too.”

I’m not surprised that churches would be first to apologize, or that their apologies would seem incomplete after other authorities took more radical steps. In other contexts, the Catholic Church, for instance, has been quick to respond to its ethical shortfalls, but slow to expand on them. Those last sentences, though, characterize the churches involvement in national policy as social work. “Not knowing any better” has served as a partial excuse of some kind or other for some time. But I think there is an attempt to protect the agency of religious institutions in social work, their methods. Inserting their voices into the record, supporting the process of reconciliation so fully, attempts to draw a distinction between the intentions of the churches, their practices and the goals of the government’s assimilation policies.

Like a fool, I’ve tried to piece together a plausible narrative that describes what motivates the group dynamics at the fore of Gosford Park.  The best I can say is that Lord Stockbridge wanted to remove his capital from investments in the British Empire and move them into more lucrative and modern industries, namely entertainment (because of his peculiar interest in the filmmakers’ business seemed to excite the jealousies of his family, many of whom made their living through imperialism).  His murder insured that empire would go on blissfully without reflecting on its weaknesses, although we all know it would eventually fail.

This all came to mind as I watched Pat Buchanan on Morning Joe insist that Britain unnecessarily risked its empire fighting Germany in WWII.  It seems that the mechanism that informs Buchanan’s historical analysis is that Britain’s decision to become involved in the war had the effect of expanding the war beyond what Hitler had intended.  Indeed, the choices that British governments made created an ever-escalating conflict.  To Buchanan, had the British not become involved, there would have been no loss of empire, a limited Holocaust, and no war in Western Europe.  And because of the war that led to the loss of empire, the West lost its ability to contain extremism globally.

Resisting the urge to debate him on the points (how could German honor be satisfied without defeating the French republic?), I find what may seem to be a worldview antithetical to the one Bush expressed in the Knesset, equally as dangerous.  Both speak against diplomatic engagement.  Both are premised on the question of whether force can be used to maintain order.  Both asks us to wait around until problems can only be resolved by armed intervention (I’ll give Buchanan at least the benefit of having a higher threshold than Buchanan).  Both point to the weaknesses of the conservative opinion of diplomacy: unnecessary as a prelude to force.

Fareed Zakaria ( “Is America in Decline? Why the United States will survive the Rise of the Rest“, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2008 ) spends quite a few pages discussing the relevance of comparisons between the decline of the British Empire and the current situation of the US. Despite the facile similarities–being the premier economy with a global reach–what were Britain’s weaknesses are America’s strengths. The reach of British political power far outdistanced the capacity of its economy by the turn of the century. For the most part, the American economy is not burdened by the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, representing but a small part of GDP. Moreover, American institutions (most notably education) will help the economy maintain its global position. The challenge for the US is not to see the ‘Rise of the Rest’ as a depletion of US power, but to adjust to the reality of a multipolar world in which the US is still dominant.

It’s a hopeful story, and probably Zakaria’s prescription for Americans to learn from the emerging capitalisms is good advice. It’s curious though that Britain would continue to serve as a a valuable example after Zakaria dispensed with its contemporary relevance. If the US can’t fail like Britain, what can we learn from it? Zakaria, of course, did not dictate the terms of the discourse. There’s a tradition of depicting the US as the inheritor of British power and progress, something the Ferguson’s of the world are willing to perpetuate. But even as he undermines the relevance of the British example, he continues to draw inspiration therefrom. Though we might not fail like Britain doesn’t mean we better understand how to avoid failing.

The uniqueness of Britain’s global dominance is largely overstated. Between the Treaty of Paris and the Invasion of Algiers, a seventy-three year period during which chief rival France’s imperial ambitions were continental rather than global, Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain maintained extensive global empires (often at tremendous cost). After the Conference of Berlin, other European states were able to assert themselves on the global stage with relative ease. At least in the German case, it was largely to claim the right to be called ein Weltmacht (a global power). in fact, Germany’s territorial empire was incongruent with its commercial ventures, the former burdening the latter, and may be more relevant to comparison. The real question, however, is not whether one country or another is a better comparison for American imperialism. It’s a matter of seeing the entirety of European imperialism since the Early Modern Era–the domination of a collection of European powers over the globe–and where America fits therein. Zakaria may think that reform is all that is needed to maintain global leadership, but it is possible that imperial commitments will inhibit reforms (France, Germany), or that the depletion of manufacturing base will force political power to become dependent on commercial ventures (Netherlands).

Christian Kreutzer (“Germans to the Front”, Atlantic Times, March 2008) produced a piece on the German effort in Afghanistan, describing the army’s hesitation to take an active role the war. Alas, the Bundeswehr, more involved than the German public realizes, is still quite tepid about engaging in combat missions. But is this is question of post-war mentality?

The politicians have all run for cover because they are afraid that in the next election, an opponent might fashion a political noose out of any commitment to the mission, Perthes says. “In game theory, that is called a game of ‘chicken’ for cowards.” But politicians have demonstrated strong leadership in some cases, he adds, pointing out that they regularly make decisions that run in the face of majority opinion.

A deeper reason for German reluctance to fight lies in its collective subconscious, according to Perthes. “The American re-education campaign after the war was successful,” he said. As part of re-education after World War II, the U.S., in particular, required that school curricula, newspaper articles and popular culture promoted an anti-militaristic, democratic awareness among the German public.

Karsten Voigt, the federal government’s coordinator for German-American relations, can’t suppress a grin either. “After the last World War, the Americans wanted an especially peaceful German nation,” he said. “Now they have it and are astonished and unhappy that their re-education campaign was so successful.”

Perhaps, but I’m not quite convinced by the notion of Prussian militarism castrated by De-Nazification. Germans listen to American propaganda, but only to a point. Eventually, they resented hearing those messages, holding their ears when shorts came up in theaters. It just wasn’t that effective. Giving up a strong defense was controversial, being a matter of national sovereignty, and it was resolved politically rather than psychologically. If anything psychological prompted this new mentality, it was probably the extent of the German defeat for that first generation, as well as the guilt heaped on it by succeeding generations.
[Crossposted to Cliopatria]

Another mini-bombshell went off in the discovery of the Stasi’s activities: as many as 189,000 were employed as “unofficial” agents of East Germany’s security services just at the time of the fall of the Berlin. Mainly motivating them: political ideals and money, not force. That number is staggering. Not only does it reveal the penetration of the state into the private lives of citizens, but also the extent to which citizens were willing to participate in their own repression.

Getting into the nitty-gritty of German political history?   Michael Rademacher has given us all a great resource with Deutsche Verwaltungsgeschichte.

Frightening:

Einer neuen Studie zufolge macht der Unterricht über Nationalsozialismus Schüler nicht mehr betroffen. Und ihr Wissen um die Verbrechen im Zweiten Weltkrieg ist erschreckend schlecht. Geschichtslehrer werden oft sogar als “Israelfreunde” beschimpft.

A new [unpublished] study [by Bavaria’s Regional Office of Political Education] shows that instruction about National Socialism is not taking with students. And their knowledge of crimes during World War Two is frighteningly bad. History teachers are often reviled as “friends of Israel.”

Is this the reputedly new antisemitism? Hold on–things aren’t so bad. Robert Sigel, in an interview for Focus-Schule, points to several factors that make instruction less effective. Students show a great deal of curiosity over the Holocaust, but lessons are often complicated, touching on deep moral issues in the midst of historical and political instruction. Some materials, like films and visits to concentration camps, don’t illicit the same horror as they used to. Moreover, as Germany’s population swells with immigrants, students don’t connect directly with Germany’s past. Ultimately, history instruction must reach these students on a more general plane, concerning discrimination that may be a theme in their own histories.

 Text of lecture at Eurozine:

… The voters who in 2004 regarded Bush as the worst American president of modern times, and who desperately hoped for Kerry’s success, were also constitutionalists. When Kerry lost, they were sick at heart. But they did not dream of fomenting a revolution. Leftwing Democrats are as committed to preserving the US constitution as are rightwing Republicans.

But if, instead of asking these two groups whether they believe in democracy, you had asked them what they mean by the term “democracy”, you might have received different replies. The Bush voters will usually be content to define democracy simply as government by freely elected officials. But many of the Kerry voters – and especially the intellectuals – will say that America – despite centuries of free elections and the gradual expansion of the franchise to include all adult citizens – is not yet a full-fledged democracy. Their point is that although it obviously is a democracy in the constitutional sense, it is not yet a democracy in the egalitarian sense. For equality of opportunity has not yet been attained. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening rather than narrowing. Power is becoming more concentrated in the hands of the few.

(more…)

Le Point carries a fascinating interview of Marcel Gauchet, in which he lays out a scheme for political history.  Leaving behind a “heteronomy” in which spiritual ideals unified complex soceities, democracy has set forth on an unending process of historical development, often contradicting its intentions to elevate the individual and guarantee their equality.  There is no “moment” in which democracy is achieved and perfected, no time when it reaches its final form.  Gauchet sees an ever-evolving institution that nowadays is narrowly focused on infrastructure.

How Gauchet deals with the initial stages of political modernization interests me most.  The state, supposeably the institution in service of the society of individuals, bears little relationship with them.  Indeed, the major transformations that define the early democratization are not the emancipation of individuals, but the atomization of the Old Regime and the reorganization of individuals into a society according to the interests of the state.

… first [in the process of democratization] is the political, with the appearance of this bizarre object that we call the modern state: not a transcendence incarnated in individuals who command but an abstract power.  Former royal  power was a machine that tied heaven and earth together.  The state is a machine that unties them and constructs a disembodied system of power that is the instrument by which the human community governs itself by its reason alone. . . .

The irony of history is that the absolute state produces what it will destroy, that which we call the absolute individual. . . . In order to create connections between individuals, it must start by disconnecting them.

First the state, than the individual.  Moreover, the state makes the individual in its own image.

This does not stray far from modernization theories, except that Gauchet emphasizes the state more.  While the state may wish to make subjects/citizens who are economically useful (Gellner), it also seeks to limit political participation.  (Ascribing personal motivations to an impersonal agent is itself problematic, but I’ll overlook that.)  The state, in general, finds popular participation a nuisance, seeking to limit it by empowering one group above others, filtering public opinion through parliamentary institutions, or offering a sense of fulfillment through a spiritual nationality.  An identity between state and public is largely elusive, and compromises are made.  The Terror itself reveals how quickly the state’s project of creating its own public devolves into violence.

Gauchet also recognizes the excesses of democracy and liberalism, especially as manifested in the “religious mold” reproduced by so-called secular regimes.  Still, he invests the process with a sense of positive progress:

The liberal may be a fanatique, but he permanently produces a society that disclaims his own zealousness.

Perhaps, but it is only tenable if society willfully prevents that zeal from becoming an institution.  It is not the fanatical liberal who destroys itself, but society that bounds him.

Gauchet appears to follow much of what Ranciere, Rosanvallon and the like have written about democracy.  Its institutions tend to constrain, rather than elevate, the democratic voice.  Gauchet, however, does not want to critique the democratic project, in as much as it is a continually process.  What he does not address is how the public at large will be able to take control of that process and direct it to its own benefit.

So much for the notion that American children know less of their history  than other children: a study by the Free University of Berlin shows some surprising misunderstandings about the DDR among German school children. Some show a deepening east-west division concerning the memory of the Cold War: pupils in former East Germany were far less likely to consider the DDR a dictatorship/authoritarian regime, as well as less likely to see the DDR as less intolerant than the BRD.

Even better: 13.6% believe the Allies built the Berlin wall, 1.9% specified the USA; 46% said the USSR; and 3.9% said West Germany.

A reworked intro to my AHA paper: vague, redundant, still too wordy, but functional enough. This material has been relocated to Memory Matters.

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