Friday, February 27, 2009

Imagined Communities

Imagined Communities, by Benedict Anderson
1983, 256 pp.

It has been said that the best thing about Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities is its title. That may be a slight overstatement, but what is at least certain is that the worst thing about it is its argument. The author, who is the brother of the prominent Marxist literary critic Perry Anderson, is a cosmopolitan intellectual with a specialty in Southeast Asia, and who addressed this book in the mid-1980's to his fellow Marxists in an effort to build a Marxist response to nationalism. The study of nationalism was then (and mostly still is) dominated by the "historicist" or "modernist" school of thought, exemplified by Ernst Gellner and partially Anthony D. Smith, who posited that nationalism is an inherently modern phenomenon, inextricably tied to the rise of industrial capitalism. Anderson takes that formulation a step further: his argument is that nationalism came about due to the rise of "print-capitalism." In his view, the marketing of mass print to monoglot populations necessitated the development of distinct vernacular languages, which entrenched and codified those languages, and the shared consumption of print matter in them created an imaginary sense of solidarity (the titular "imagined communities") which is the basis for nationalism.

It's a charming premise, but unfortunately one utterly unacquainted with history. Mass printing owes its origin mainly to Herr Gutenberg, who started work on his printing press in 1436. The technique of bookmaking was still essentially the same 300 years later: the next big break came in 1810 with a steam-powered machine. While it is certainly a pleasant pastime and party game to blame everything that has ever happened on capitalism (or if you happen to be Noam Chomsky or Naomi Klein, it is a pleasant source of tenure, lecture fees, book royalties, star-struck collegiate acolytes, and adoring documentaries) but sadly for that project, capitalism is not now, nor has it ever been eternal. The safest date to pin on the origin of capitalism is the final repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Even then, the passage of the Joint Stock Companies Act didn't come until 1856, nor the first free trade agreement until the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860, and even then we can speak intelligently about capitalism between Britain and France, but not the entire world. Its intellectual origins cannot possibly be placed any earlier than Adam Smith's 1776 insurgency against the dominance of mercantilism, and generalized capitalism (as opposed to one or two capitalist systems in a sea of mercantilism) simply isn't possible to assert before about 1871. Even then, the rise of capitalism and the spread of the print market did not entail a general rise in literacy. At the time of the Corn Laws, about 35-40% of English citizens were illiterate, and England was the very center of global capitalism. The argument simply is not sustainable.

It is surprising that a Marxist would attempt to theorize about nationalism in this way. Imagined Communities contains not one mention of Rosa Luxemburg, despite the fact that she wrote an entire volume on the subject, and conducted a long-running intellectual grenade-throwing match with Lenin on the issue of Polish nationalism. Rather than draw on her provocative ideas, Anderson spends two chapters essentially summarizing a book about the history of books, which does indeed sound quite interesting, but which is not a theory of nationalism. Indeed, as Ernst Haas wrote in a 1986 review, Anderson writes as though nobody has ever done work on nationalism before: he ignores Deutsch on the relation between identity and socio-economic change, Hayes on the contrast between Western and Eastern nationalism, Emerson on Third World nationalism, tons of statistical studies, and J.L. Talmon's already existing Marxist analyses. The book goes especially to hell in the last half, once Anderson has introduced his square-peg theory and sets about trying to cram it into the round hole of the facts. First Anderson tries to explain revolutions in the Americas, which were conducted against home countries with the same language and culture as the rebels. Then he tries to tackle European nationalism after the fall of the monarchies in 1918, then the wave of Third World nationalism which followed the Second World War, and finally frames the book with an attempt to deal with the rabid nationalism of ostensibly "Marxist" states. Plainly none of these phenomena are the same, and under the banner of his attempt at a general theory, Anderson forces himself into some awkward theoretical calisthenics to try and explain them away. He does not succeed. His latter chapters trying to deal with the role of racism in imperial and nationalist projects and talking up the importance of maps and museums are truly dreadful. The book ends with an utterly unsavory chapter about how difficult it is to be so successful and widely published.

Anderson's prose style is a blocky mixture of High Pedant and Sonorous Academic. It is somewhat fitting that the book boasts a quote from The Nation on the front cover which uses the word "exegesis," despite the fact that there is no text of nationalism being analyzed therein. Anderson is the sort of person who never writes "capital city" when he can use "metropole" instead, or "similar" instead of "isomorphic." Sometimes the fat, turgid river of his prose washes up a real gem of a sentence like one about how theories of nationalism are "etiolated in a late Ptolemaic effort to 'save the phenomena'; and that a reorientation of perspective in, as it were, a Copernican spirit is urgently required." That thoroughly superfluous semicolon is almost endearing. Less charming is Anderson's habit of leaving quotes in foreign languages untranslated. The first pieces of raw French are startling, though when they are footnoted to another, larger block of French, things begin to seem amiss. The French is followed by German, which is forgivable, then Tagalog, which is not, then Vietnamese and Indonesian, which ought to be grounds for prosecution. I will readily admit that even I am prone to habitually adumbrating recondite ipsedixitisms, apropos of eleutheromania, but the goal in academic writing in particular and in advancing an argument in general is to be lapidary, not eristic.

All of this is not to say the book is without merit. Much of it is quite stimulating, particularly when Anderson warms up his specialist knowledge of Southeast Asia. His discussion of the intellectual poverty of nationalism is interesting, as is his view that nationalism is "the middle class intelligentsia inviting the masses into history." He references a number of books which sound fascinating, and he is obviously a deeply read, well-traveled, and generally fascinating fellow. If the reader views Imagined Communities as an interesting chap ruminating on the topic of nationalism, it can be a pleasant experience, but as a serious argument, a work of scholarship, or a historical analysis, it is a failure.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Solidarity with Ingmar

The subject of Bergman's Virgin Spring comes up literally every time we discuss the great Swede's work, and thus far I have failed entirely to deal with it in any satisfactory degree. Allow me to sketch in writing the rebuttal which I am utterly inept at communicating verbally.

It is true that The Virgin Spring is not patently anti-religious the way the Silence of God trilogy (which follows it) is, but instead is simply (in a restricted and admittedly ambivalent sense) anti-Christian. It is significant that the story comes from a 13th century Swedish ballad, and is one of very few of Bergman's 62 films which he did not write himself. There are salient issues of the plot which we must get straight before we can proceed: first, there is the issue of Sweden's transition from paganism to Christianity. The family in the film is a recent convert to Christianity, which makes them by no means common people for the time period. They have two daughters: one extremely Christian who is actively involved in the Church (the "light" child), the other "dark," who still worships Odin (a god whose purview is war and death) and who is unmarried and pregnant and adopted besides. The light child is raped and murdered (on her way to church, no less) while the dark child watches. The father murders the murderers, then at the end vows that although he cannot understand his new God, he will build a church at the site of his daughter's death, where a spring now flows. He asks God for forgiveness, though he hears no answer, and asks why God would allow such horrible things to happen. God is silent.

The assertion has been made that because of the ending, this is somehow a Christian film. Bergman was by no means a declarative filmmaker, but rather a procedural one: his films do not demonstrate his already developed beliefs but instead demonstrate how he works through their problems. In this sense, Virgin Spring is very much a transitional film, both in terms of its position in Bergman's overall body of work (not to mention philosophical development) but also in terms of the subject matter which concerns the historical clash of two religions, as well as undertones of modernity and barbarity. The audience is left to wonder first, if God exists, why allow the rape and murder of an innocent? Is the construction of a church really adequate penance for killing three people? Is the creation of an apparently miraculous spring really adequate compensation for the rape and murder of a daughter? If God is all-powerful, why play this apparently sadistic game which has ended four lives and ruined two others to apparently no purpose? When the father exercises his hardly-Christian revenge (there is not much forgiveness or turning of other cheeks in this film) isn't that simply a vindication of the poverty of Christian ideology and its inability to disguise a) the deep-seated cultural structure which would have previously made the father's pagan revenge legitimate and b) the basic human impulse towards violence and vengeance? It would appear instead that when put to a real world test, Christianity does not trump paganism for congruence with human impulse. Instead it is artificial, unsatisfying, unnatural, and ultimately the sort of false consciousness of ideology which Marx so clearly demonstrated it to be.

Instead, we have a film about man's (and God's, to the extent that man has invented him) powerlessness against the darkness within and outside him. In the clash of these two religions, the one that most closely recognizes and capitalizes on the inherent misery of the world and of mankind triumphs.

(On a purely technical note, it is worth hastening not to overlook Bergman's structural genius: consider the motif of images of fire and body, that the film bracketed by prayers to different silent gods and by images of the pure child "sleeping late," the literal image of the pure girl moving from a small outpost of "civilization" to dark woods, the theme of watching (the boy watches the rape, the mother watches the revenge, the dark child watches both), the use of fire and sword in vengeance, and the murderers who die in crucifixion poses...somewhere Freud would be delighted).

It is also significant that this film was made during one of the happiest times of Bergman's life: apparently this is as close as he comes to expressing joy. Yet it is a mistake to locate the central thrust of Bergman's work on this film. It was made before the far more nihilist and antitheist Silence of God trilogy, and decades before he began his intense personal dramas which characterized the last thirty years of his output. In 1960 he still had dozens of masterpieces left to create, and judging his entire output by the philosophical ambiguity he explores in this relatively early film is like judging from Marx's praise of the productive genius of capitalism in the Manifesto that his entire body of thought is similar to that of Milton Friedman. Instead we get to see Bergman moving by stages away from his strict, brutal Protestant upbringing to pure nihilism, and in that process, Virgin Spring is a critical step. Certainly there is a lot of Christianity in the film, but that does not make the film itself Christian, nor does it begin to suggest that Bergman was himself a conservative deist. Instead Bergman's worldview can more accurately be summed up by an extract from Cries and Whispers. After the final, slow, painful, agonizing death of one sister from cancer, her emotionally devastated other sisters (following an hour and a half of hatred, bitterness, blood, and recriminations) read an extract from her diary in which she writes about a perfect day in the autumn, when the pain was not so bad, and the four women took up their parasols and walked in the garden. "This is happiness," she writes. "I cannot wish for anything better." That is Bergman's philosophy: that we are meaningless people leading meaningless lives on a constant march towards inevitable death, destined only to hurt those we care about most, utterly alone, and the most we can hope for is a brief moment in which the pain is not so bad.

The "dance with death" which ends The Seventh Seal is also a common fixture of our discussions which I utterly fail to dispel. Fortunately, the Almighty Wiki can help:

The point of The Seventh Seal is the universality of death. We use our reason to rationalize and justify our lives and postpone them as long as possible, but it's ultimately useless. Death comes for everyone regardless, the only question is how long the game will last.

I hope I've done better with this defense than I usually do verbally. I am interested in rebuttals.

Develoment as Freedom

Development as Freedom, by Amartya Sen
1999, 384 pp.

Amartya Sen's magnum opus is distinctly uneven: rather like Paul Collier's The Bottom Billion, it sometimes reads like a "greatest hits" of his (justly) famous previous work. On a number of occasions, Sen swiftly and effectively summarizes a vexing problem of economics or political philosophy and refers to "the extensive literature" on the subject, but the assiduous reader who follows the endnote will find only a half-dozen papers by Sen himself. Presumably these papers have robust bibliographies, but after ten chapters or so of this, it begins to seem that the book is structured around only those issues on which Sen has already established his eminence.

To be sure, Sen touches on virtually every major problem of human society: the problem of poverty, gender equality and "missing women," differing interpretations of freedom, natural rights, cultural relativism, and hunger. He is very skilled at laying out the problem, but the poor organization of his book makes whatever solutions he may have difficult to locate and devoid of particular emphasis. He has an alarming command of facts and figures and qualitative knowledge, but knowledge alone does not an argument make. Sen offers no new formulation to prove a priori the existence of natural rights, does little to confound the self-serving casuistry of the relativists, and in effect only repeats his mantra that development requires freedom and freedom creates development over and over. His is a disappointingly simple syllogism: freedom is good, X is an aspect of freedom, therefore X is good. Replace X with human capital, gender agency, access to food, etc, and you have the book.

To some extent, the ten years since Development as Freedom was written and the political proclivities of this reviewer steal most of the resonance from Sen's argument. It is necessary to remember that when Sen was writing, the Human Development Index was still young and incomplete (though Sen has since criticized it as a "vulgar measure") and the Millennium Development Goals had not yet been proposed. The idea that development must be more than just an increase in per-capita GDP and that growth for its own sake without expanding human capabilities no longer seems new and daring: indeed, for us Marxists, it has been old news since approximately 1844. A line from George Orwell's review of a Bertrand Russell book seems appropriate: "If there are certain pages of [this book], which seem rather empty, that is merely to say that we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men. It is not merely that at present the rule of naked force obtains almost everywhere. Probably that has always been the case. Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking." In that sense, little has changed since the writing of Development as Freedom. Or Bertrand Russell's work, for that matter. Therefore it is important to persevere through Sen's thoughtful argument, however little fire and passion his dessicated prose and rudderless organization may help.

To be sure, Sen is not a radical. It is very easy to agree with his above-delineated syllogism and still be left unimpressed by the book. Certainly one of the key (if not THE key) variables in development is whether or not a country has a government which is interested in helping its people rather than oppressing, immiserating, dispersing, raping, pillaging, mugging, murdering, or otherwise maltreating them. Unfortunately, few governments, particularly in the developing world, have such interests, and there Sen is silent. He does not grapple with the issue of national sovereignty or the problem of foreign intervention. He does not deal much with aid, and he has little to say about international or humanitarian law. We can all agree that it would be most desirable for Robert Mugabe to implement Sen's arguments about freedom, but in the interim, what should the world do?

This is not to say the book has no value. Sen's details illuminate several excellent debating points: the success of Kerala indicates that high per-capita GDP is neither necessary nor simply sufficient for raising standards of living. The lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and reduction of human agency endured by poor African Americans is in Sen's framework an issue to be dealt with in development studies, which purely GDP-related interpretations precludes. Sen's analysis recognizes that development is not teleological, and indeed has a relevant critique of virtually every society on earth. Several states in India have a larger population than the entire country of Russia, yet endure sub-Saharan levels of development, with little international discussion. And so forth. Interesting, and useful, but by no means a systematic, revolutionary theory, and unfortunately a work devoid of practical solutions.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Beirut Blues, by Hanan al-Shaykh

Beirut Blues, by Hanan al-Shaykh
English translation, 1995, 371 pp.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must immediately admit that I stopped reading Beirut Blues on page 260. Nothing particularly infuriating or objectionable takes place on page 260, nor indeed nothing noteworthy in any sense. Nothing noteworthy took place on the preceding 259 pages either, and when I flipped ahead and read pages 312-317, nothing noteworthy happened their either. In fact, they easily could have been torn out and switched with pages 187-192 or 78-83. I had originally stopped on page 217, demoralized at the idea of another 150 pages of this thing, but skipped ahead and saw that there would be a section actually about the Lebanese Civil War, and so decided to persevere at least that far, in the hope that the book may finally get around to being about something. It did not, and with the arrival of several books by José Saramago in the mail, the opportunity cost of continuing to muddle through Beirut Blues vaulted well over my literary budget constraint. It is rare for me to not finish a book: in this case I rather wish I hadn't bothered starting it.

Beirut Blues is an epistolary novel by Hanan al-Shaykh, who is occasionally billed as the foremost female writer in Arabic. I selected this book for that reason, and also because it bears a glowing recommendation from Salman Rushdie on its front cover. Since I consider Rushdie a magnificent writer, I easily misled myself into syllogizing that anyone he thinks is a magnificent writer must be so. Considering the recommendation refers to "an unforgettable portrait of a broken city," despite the fact that only about fifty pages of the novel actually take place in Beirut, I am forced to wonder whether Rushdie read it at all, or simply contributed a kind blurb sight unseen, and thereby unknowingly condemned me to read it in his place.

The absence of Beirut is the beginning of the problem. The book is nominally a series of long, rambling letters written by a secular, educated, upper-class woman from Beirut to friends, lovers, family, the land, the war, and Billie Holliday. Very, very slowly a story of sorts unfolds and we learn small, disconnected things about the writer, Asmahan. None of the story has anything much to do with the war in Beirut. By the third letter, Asmahan, her grandmother, and their servant are rescued from Beirut by someone named Ali, who I think is Asmahan's uncle. It is unclear, as are most of the relations of people in the novel, and indeed as are their motivations, their histories, their personalities, and their relative positions in time and space. The structure of the letters is fragmentary: sometimes there are stories in which both the writer and the recipient participated (in which Asmahan always seems to be a passive, long-suffering, ignored sort of figure...were I to be the recipient of these letters, I would find this habit infuriatingly passive-aggressive), sometimes there are vague memories of trips and family histories, sometimes there are vague reflections on relationships and the narrator's life. It is therefore difficult to exactly follow the actual story, but as near as I could tell, the rest of it took place on Asmahan's grandparents' land in rural Lebanon.

And here Asmahan lost me. She is not among the wretched of the earth, the damaged, the dispossessed, the ruined, the marginalized, or even the substantially inconvenienced. Her family is a part of the wealthy, landed aristocracy, and the war impacts them only when a local militia occupies their fruit orchard for a while. This must be the only book ever written in Arabic about a war which paints the Israelis in a thoroughly positive light. The bulk of what little drama there is concerns itself not with the enormous human cost of the war, but with the cheerful infidelity of Asmahan's grandfather.

To a certain degree there is a place for literature which clings to the mundane in order to illustrate incomprehensible suffering. I have on my shelf a fascinating book called Intimacy and Terror, which is a collection of excerpts from private diaries kept by a cross-section of people during the darkest years of Stalin's reign. Many of them are shockingly banal, but they are contrasted with voices of protest and outrage, so instead of oblivious mundanity, we realize that the diarists are clinging desperately to any sense of normality they can find, rather than be cast adrift in such an endless sea of misery. Hanan al-Shaykh's narrator gives no such impression. When her uncle comes to rescue her in Beirut in a tank, she frets that the boys driving the tank are not attracted enough to her. She complains that her friends who have fled Beirut don't write to her enough. She is worried not about the war, but about whether she can find her grandfather a new mistress who will be easier for her to control. She spends a lot of time playing hard-to-get with a visiting foreign doctor. Much of the book's appeal (and indeed much of the reason I started reading it) was because the author and her narrator are very ostentatiously Not Typical Arab Women. But instead they seem to be a typical caricature of a woman, as written by an unexamined male chauvinist who is convinced that women are fragile, self-obsessed, vain, flightly, simple creatures who are incapable of comprehending the world outside themselves.

If these things listed above are the sorts of things that give her the titular Blues, one has to reflect what sort of book she would have written if her entire family had been senselessly pulped by a car bomb. The war she is not writing about lasted for decades, involved at least three foreign interventions, killed at least 100,000 people, wounded another 100,000, and displaced close to a million. It may have irrevocably destroyed a shining, cosmopolitan city which was once called the Paris of the Middle East, and handed a beacon of secular tolerance over to the perpetually fratricidal Parties of God. I came away from page 260 feeling not only like I had been more affected by reading Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem than the narrator was by actually living through the war, but that maybe she needed to read that book too to find out that the war was really rather unpleasant.

It is difficult to say how much of this is Hanan al-Shayk's fault. I kept thinking of a line from Martin Amis' Money (spoken, no less, by a character named Martin Amis) about how the difference between the author and the narrator is measured by how much disgust the former has for the latter. Asmahan talks a lot about herself: she "likes books and wine," she is largely irreligious, she likes Billie Holliday, and her breasts seem to see a lot of traffic. I got no sense of distance, let alone distaste from the author, and the narrator's frivolity and solipsism are so prevalent that they must either be the entire point of the book, or the defined limits of the author's mind.

All of this seems to be compounded by poor translation. Al-Shaykh writes only in Arabic, but works closely with her Scottish translator, Catherine Cobham, who has translated at least four of her books. Beirut Blues even begins with a note that there have been substantive changes from the original Arabic, but that they were artistic improvements and will be kept in the next Arabic edition. Presumably these artistic improvements do not include the sloppy shifts between present and past tenses, between first, second, and third person narration, the meandering lack of structure, or the unclear relation of people, times, events, and places.

I very much wanted to like this book. Several of al-Shaykh's other novels sound interesting, especially the controversial The Story of Zahra which made her reputation. But after the experience of Beirut Blues, it is unlikely that I will return to her work as long as a single book by José Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Martin Amis, George Orwell, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, or P.G. Wodehouse goes unread by me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago

The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by José Saramago
English translation, 1989, 317pp.

The History of the Siege of Lisbon is a triumph of how utterly irrelevant plot is to a great novelist. Martin Amis wrote somewhere that mainstream fiction only has about a half-dozen plots to work with, all of which have been used for millennia. This book could be crudely and violently reduced to a rendition of “boy meets girl,” which is true, and would be as accurate to describing José Saramago’s art as pointing out, accurately, that the ocean is jolly wet.

The story: Raimundo Silva is a lonely, quiet, mild-mannered proofreader in Lisbon. One day he is struck by a random assertion of humanity and inserts one word into a manuscript he is correcting about the siege of Lisbon in 1147. In the center of a crucial sentence he adds the word not.

This of course sets of a sequence of events. He is promptly found out and brought to the attention of Dr. Maria Sara, a supervisor at the publishing house. They are instantly taken with each other, and she suggests that he write his own History, preserving the alteration and following it to its logical conclusion. He does so: about half the book is his narrative of the history, as a parallel historical romance. The other half is about him and Maria Sara falling in love, although since characters in the History mirror Silva and Maria Sara, to a certain extent the entire book, even the most extraneous and mundane detail, is about falling in love, especially when you are lonely and have been that way a long time and cannot believe that anyone would really want to love you.

José Saramago might have the most distinctive prose style in the world. He writes in long, lyrical sentences which sometimes run for paragraphs or pages with minimal punctuation. Starting a new paragraph for a new piece of dialogue seems to be beneath him. He is disinterested even in the period, so dialogue takes place in areas marked off only by feeble commas and the hopelessly bewildered capital letter. Since a speaker may give out several sentences at once, which are likewise punctuated, the reader must constantly reevaluate the subordinance or dominance of clauses. A sentence originally read in one character’s voice may be revealed later through some capricious contextual clue to have been spoken by another, causing a reexamination of all that came after. At the same time, the absence of periods or indents deprives the reader of any convenient stopping point. Once the reader’s attention is seized, there is no escape from Saramago’s narrator until the narrator is ready to be finished. The reader is compelled to enter into a tug-of-war between the impetus to read quickly forced by the absence of structural pauses and the need to be slow, careful, and methodical to properly understand what is happening and who is saying it. I will admit that there were times when I would sit back, sip my port, contemplate the vast landscape of unrelieved words, and be glad that I am a scarred veteran of Thomas Bernhard’s hundred-page monologues.

Saramago’s prose is a character unto itself, in the way that Dublin is a character for Joyce and the cold is a character for Jack London and the sea is a character for Monsarrat. His narrator is a chatty, witty, playful sort with a peculiarly limited knowledge about the characters. He has a fierce attention for quotidian details and is full of little homilies and proverbs, so if any general sense of character emerges, it is one of a wizened, wise, old Portuguese peasant, perhaps gleeful at the knowledge of a young wife at home, sitting around a campfire, telling the reader a long and riveting story.

Yet there is another layer of cleverness behind this provincial fellow. Saramago is a highly educated postmodernist, a hardline Communist in a formerly fascist country, a journalist, and a Nobel Laureate. He is not a parochial bumpkin, but his hands are never visible pulling the strings of his narrator-surrogate, who apparently is a fixture of all of Saramago’s work. Amid the well-thumbed peasant phrases are glistening little pieces of absolute brilliance, which he seems to scatter negligently through his prose as though fully confident that he will never face a shortage, like someone who is amused that their pocket full of diamonds has sprung a leak. Consider:

“only the proofreader has learnt that the task of amending is the only one that will never end in this world”

“let us suppose that a man has asked a woman, Do you love me, and she remains silent, simply looking at him, sphinx-line and distant, refusing to utter that No that will destroy him, or that Yes which will destroy both of them”

“it is easier to love than to be loved”

“anyone who thinks it is easy to pronounce a name for the first time when you’re in love, is much mistaken”

There are ruminations on the phenomena of error (complete with allusions to Aristotle and Bacon) which would not be out of place in a book by Umberto Eco. There are digressions on history and art, beauty, language, thought, death, and the passage of time. The narrator suggests that since all things have a cause, our thoughts are caused by the thoughts we had before them, and those by the ones before them, and so on back to our very first thought on the moment of being born, which is unfortunately one we will never know. Somewhere Kant must be wishing he had Saramago’s gift.

This striking simplicity of life’s everyday routines, the half-platitudes and half-aphorisms, and the sweeping universal observation are the three notes with which Saramago builds his narrative chord. He opens in a distinctly minor key, and when Raimundo Silva writes his life-altering not, the italics stand out so nakedly against the otherwise implacable blocks of unpunctuated text that it’s as though someone brought a timpani to a slow performance by a string quartet. The passages narrating Silva’s new History are full of rococo flourishes and recondite digressions; the everyday life of the proofreader is stripped down and observed with touching precision. Here the limitations of that irascible narrator serve Saramago brilliantly: several times we are surprised that this is not the usual utterly omniscient magical-realism narrator (consider how Salman Rushdie’s narrator knows everything everyone is thinking all the time) and the narrator informs us that, due to a well-reasoned argument, he will limit himself only to Silva, the subject for whom he has endless fascination and affection.

The long dialogues between Silva and Maria Sara never, ever strike a false note. Saramago’s habit of punctuating only with a comma and then a capital letter makes the voices of the two lovers run together, in the perfect prose equivalent of the delirious rush of falling rapidly and irrevocably for someone else. They are witty and skilled at verbal fencing and from their very first exchange, the pages are almost dripping with longing and sexual tension. The eventual scene of their cautious, careful, half-terrified and half-euphoric admittance of their feelings is almost heartbreaking, and in their later dialogues Saramago’s prose is so lyrical, so suffused with romantic feeling that at times it feels like drinking honey out of Helen of Troy.

Little wonder then that Harold Bloom considers Saramago "most gifted novelist alive in the world today" and James Wood, who I consider the most gifted literary critic alive in the world today, heartily agrees. The History of the Siege of Lisbon is not even considered one of Saramago’s masterpieces, and although the theme of historical knowledge is in keeping with his preoccupations, it is not the allegory or assault on poor reasoning which seems to characterize his later work. Now 87 years old, he published another book this year, and hopefully will not deprive us of his gift any time soon. I intend to begin The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis immediately.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Governing the Market, by Robert Wade

Governing the Market: Economic Theory and the Role of Government in East Asian Industrialization, by Robert Wade
1990, 438 pp

Despite its rather modest ambition, Robert Wade's Governing the Market is a triumph of scholarship. Wade is a stalwart of the interdisciplinary anti-neoclassical school of thought which roughly encompasses sociology, economic history, development economics, and the much-marginalized field of political economy and which includes Alice Amsden, Peter Evans, and the late Susan Strange. There is at present only one major success story in the field of development economics: the rapid rise of East Asia from largely rural, agrarian, feudal, low-capital Third World backwaters to modern manufacturing and export powerhouses. The fundamental question with which any theory of development must eventually grapple is to explain why these countries developed when they did and as quickly as they did, and why Latin America, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa has not. It is to these ends that Governing the Market was written, and it might provide the only convincing argument on the subject I've yet read.

Upon picking up the book, the reader will immediately notice that, quite contrary to most recent scholars of the subject, Wade knows how to logically organize a cogent argument. After introducing the problem, he gives a quick overview of the history of development economics from Smith's emphasis on capital accumulation, through the early 20th century fixation on efficient allocation which began with A.C. Pigou, past the brief (and exciting) flirtation with structuralism, to the reigning neoclassical orthodoxy. He then proceeds not only to explain the neoclassical theory, but also to provide five indicators by which to judge its success or failure. They are: the presence of neoclassical growth factors over time (low protectionism, floating exchange rates, etc), a history of little government intrusion in industrial development, few instruments for government leadership, few institutions to exercise and organize government leadership, and the degree of unity of political power.

In brief, the orthodox explanation for East Asia's success is that they "got the prices right": i.e. there was very little government intervention, very little protectionism, and consequently very little price distortion between the domestic and international markets. This, combined with low wages and high investment in human capital provided East Asia with a skilled and cheap labor force they used to produce exports at competitive prices. Wade refers to this as the Free Market theory (FM henceforth) and its quieter cousin, the Simulated Market (SM) approach. Then Wade introduces his own theory, which he calls the Governed Market (GM) approach. For a seasoned veteran of virtually every major critique of capitalism in general and neoclassical economics in particular, his theory is surprisingly restrained, and the distinction he draws between it and the prevailing wisdom is quite precise. He then refers back to the five indicators mentioned above and explains what differences his theory expects to see in the data from what neoclassical theory predicts. At this point I was slightly tempted to drop a postcard to Amartya Sen: "Dear Professor Sen: Please see Wade (1990) on how to properly organize an argument."

Wade's case study is Taiwan, which has received comparably little attention compared to Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong. His approach is genuinely interdisciplinary: the reader gets a comprehensive history of Taiwan from the time of Japanese colonialism, an analysis of industrial development, an examination of bureaucratic organization, a chapter of political philosophy, and quite a lot of economic theory. Unlike many non-technical economists writing about the subject, Wade is clearly well versed in the mechanics of quantitative economics. He argues convincingly and in great detail about interest rates, inflation, savings, investment, and capital accumulation, and he is both willing and able to skewer a study which does not demonstrate sufficient rigor in their multivariable regression analysis. His evidence about Taiwan is overwhelming (and at times, quite dry: the sections on the development of the petrochemical industry do not make for gripping bedtime reading) and indeed the reader is often struck by two urgent thoughts: "How the hell did anyone ever really think Taiwan had a free market with little government intervention?" and: "How has any country NOT been able to do this? It all seems so obvious now!"

Indeed, Wade's explanation of Taiwan's industrial policies seems like it could serve as a how-to manual for development. To discourage a landed aristocracy or unproductive investment, the government capped land holdings, and distributed excess land to the poor, thereby giving them a stake in the government system. There was indeed some free trade, but only in imports of intermediate goods, which would then be processed in high value-added industries and exported for profit. High interest rates encouraged big domestic savings (and therefore a steady supply of capital to draw on) but capital controls kept out destructive flows of foreign capital. The financial system was restricted to banks (think how much more pleasant America's circumstances would be without the shadow banking system!) and those banks operated under tight government control and supervision, which ensured capital would flow to the most productive industries. The government set up public entities to control the "commanding heights" of the market: heavy industry, oil, steel, petrochemicals, shipping, machinery, and fertilizer are all government-owned utilities. The downstream industries are private free-market actors, but the leverage lies clearly with the government. Exports are promoted through tax incentives, government marketing, government-enforced quality standards, and cheap government credit to exporters. The government ownership of major inputs means they can hide subsidies by providing extra-cheap inputs to major exporters. Then there is the political system: efficient and centralized. Every industry with more than five firms must form a government-chartered association, and all institutions in civil society are set up and monitored by the government. While the centralization (and effective one-party dictatorship) are particularly disturbing, they did have the beneficial effect of eliminating the rise of power interest groups, regulatory capture, and rival power structures. In developing countries with weak governments and crises of legitimacy, the utility of something like this is clear.

It is in his discussion of Taiwan's political system that Wade is the least convincing. He comes perilously close at times to advocating the "Lee thesis" of the efficacy of authoritarian development, but even here he draws an interesting distinction. Amidst all the rather chilling descriptions of state control in Taiwan, he outlines an analysis of "corporatist" civil society, in which institutions are not set up freely, but are chartered by the government. In his view, societies are less in an either/or "pluralist" vs. "corporatist" dichotomy, but rather on a sort of sliding scale. Most European countries have far more prevalent government-affiliated institutions in civil society than does the United States, which has a government notorious for its management of the affairs of powerful interest groups. He does not explore the possibility of a democratic corporatist hybrid, but the idea is an intriguing one well worth further theorizing.

In the midst of Wade's tremendous outpouring of knowledge about Taiwan's history, economy, and organization, he always pauses to examine what the empirical evidence shows in regards to the five key indicators. On each occasion, the evidence is overwhelmingly on his side, and I was again possessed by the desire to send a postcard: "Dear Neil Fligstein: ask Pete Evans to refer you to Bob Wade about how to thoroughly, systematically, and methodically critique neoclassical economics."

Wade's prose is as lively and arresting as it is possible to be while discussing the organization of a chemical industry. He gets in several memorable zingers, and is remarkably open about indicating where the evidence for his theory is weak, or where there are gaps in his understanding and experience. His argument is authoritative enough and his organization clear enough that the reader is propelled through the thickets of organizational minutia with the least discomfort possible. His concrete material analysis and thoroughly delineated policy prescriptions rescue him from either being fruitlessly descriptive (as much modern social science insists on being) or rhapsodically self-referential and theoretical. At the end of the book, I felt like if I were suddenly appointed Zambia's Minster of Finance, I'd have some idea of what to do, rather than a vague notion about modifying "conceptions of control" to change a "field" (or is it the other way around? I can never remember).

Finally, Wade offers some conclusions and policy prescriptions for states interested in attempting to repeat Taiwan's success. To be sure, his target is not so much the "bottom billion," but rather those states which at least have a functioning government and which are attempting to make the transition to the glittering category of Newly Industrialized Countries. These sections are a veritable manual for how to make winners, shape the social structure of investment, and shape relative prices to ensure profitability of target industries. When taken in conjunction with Chalmers Johnson's groundbreaking work on Japan's MITI, and Alice Amsden's studies of Korean industrialization, it is difficult not to conclude that the problem of East Asian development has been solved.

Though Wade effectively demolishes neoclassical theory, he does not come across as a radical. Governing the Market is not a defense of Raul Prebisch-style import substitution industrialization and protectionism, or an attack on free trade. He does not rail against the Washington Consensus or the Bretton Woods agencies, and he fully recognizes the happy confluence of American benevolence, cultural respect for authority, absence of opposing elites, and lack of class consciousness which have made East Asian industrialization a shallower hill to climb than that of many other places. But still, his is an argument that development is not only possible but quite feasible, and it is a major theoretical and empirical contribution to an otherwise impoverished field. Unequivocally recommended for any serious student of development, political economy, or economic history, and well worth repeated study and consideration.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Pirate Coast, by Richard Zacks

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805, by Richard Zacks.
2005, 380 pp.

The previously quite obscure topic of the 1805 war with the Pasha of Tripoli has generated a startling amount of literature in the past few years, fueled almost entirely by the hunger of the popular press for instances of American conflicts with Muslims. Apparently there's currently a spot of bother involving Muslims, and there is a great deal of interest in divining patterns from past conflicts. Unfortunately, few scholars have specialized in the topic, and what with the prevalence of actual pirates lurking in every corner of the existing literature, amateur and popular historians have eagerly swooped in. It is now possible to amass a considerable library on the subject: Christopher Hitchens in a recent review cites The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World, by Frank Lambert (2005); Jefferson’s War: America’s First War on Terror 1801–1805, by Joseph Wheelan (2003); To the Shores of Tripoli: The Birth of the U.S. Navy and Marines, by A. B. C. Whipple (1991, republished 2001); and Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation, by Joshua E. London (2005). This is all not to mention the book here reviewed, or Glenn Tucker's Dawn Like Thunder, which was previously the stalwart on the subject.

Richard Zacks, the author of a slightly revisionist book on the pirate Captain Kidd, has made something of a living writing popular histories involving pirates. The Pirate Coast gets off to an unpromising start, with Zacks committing a half-dozen clunking prose misdemeanors on the very first page. The story quickly picks up and pulls the reader along, but the author's ongoing armwrestle with the English language often detracts from the experience. But with a subject like this, the reader cannot help but move quickly and happily through the first portion of the book, with little cause for complaint.

The story, in brief: the Barbary states were in 1801 the first entities to declare war on the newly-independent United States, whose shipping they regularly raided and from whom they wanted to exact regular tribute payments. President Thomas Jefferson dispatched most of the US Navy to blockade Tripoli, which it did quite effectively until the captain of the USS Pennsylvania managed to run his ship aground and surrendered to the Pasha of Tripoli. His crew were forced into slavery, and his ship captured, eventually to be blown up by a daring American commando raid. The impetuous, stubborn former Consul in Tunis, William Eaton, laboriously persuaded Jefferson to send him on a covert mission to find the Pasha's brother Hamet, overthrow the Pasha, and put Hamet on the throne in his place. It was the first American attempt at regime change, albeit during a declared war, poorly funded, and ultimately abandoned.

The first half or so of the book describes this lunatic plan. Eaton, with no money and no resources, eventually found Hamet besieged in a castle in the lawless anarchy of southern Egypt. He managed to extract him and his entourage, hired mercenaries on credit in Cairo, and marched five hundred miles across the Libyan desert to finally take the city of Derne, up the coast from Tripoli. This section of the book is a pleasure to read, with much derring-do and buckling of swashes and daring adventure in exotic locations.

The last hundred and fifty pages concern the peace negotations between the Pasha and Tobias Lear, Jefferson's peace envoy. Essentially, Lear gave the Pasha everything he wanted, including ransom payments and tribute, and abandoned both Eaton and Hamet. Eaton spent the rest of his life in an ongoing fight with Jefferson over the treaty and over Eaton's expenses before dying broke, bitter, and alone. Hamet died in exile in Egypt, and the Pasha ruled Tripoli until 1838. So it goes.

The rollicking subject matter and Zacks' chatty prose conspire to make The Pirate Coast into a decently-researched historical novel. There is nothing by way of analysis, only linear narrative, and Zacks' writing skills are sufficiently subpar that the reader begins around page 170 to wonder if instead he ought not simply obtain Eaton's journal and read that instead. Zacks seems to have never met italics he didn't like, and he has a curious habit of referring to the followers of Muhammad as "Moslems." This peculiar spelling, and the thoroughly negative things he has to say about the Arab shiekhs Easton encounters gives a distasteful impression of a world populated by cowardly, greedy, backstabbing camel drivers conniving against brave, stalwart, upright Americans. He even refers frequently to the Americans as "us" and waxes poetic about America's commitment to honor and justice. He uses the archaic phrase "turned Turk" to refer to American prisoners who converted to Islam, which may not actually be a racial epithet, but certainly sounds like one.

Zacks is plainly quite in awe of the belligerent, combative Easton, with little respect for "lawyerly Jefferson" or the scheming Tobias Lear. The flow of history is not often kind to structuring a pleasing story, and here it is jarring to transition from a bracing adventure novel to a final fifty pages of bureaucracy, lobbying, and litigation. The final passages are brightened up by the appearance of Aaron Burr, who had a demented scheme to split off the Western United States and set himself up as an emperor, with Easton's help. Even that, though, does little to enliven the bitterness Zacks channels directly from Easton about the "betrayal" of Hamet and of American values. Here the book's subtitle seems decidedly misplaced. It ought instead to have been called "The Life and Times of William Easton," which during the first, exciting portion was to the book's benefit, but during the long, polemical, bitter portion at the end, the reader wearies of Zacks simply fronting for Easton and begins to wish instead for some scholarly detachment and historical analysis. Alas, such things have little place in the popular press, so a book which was for a while enthralling ends with a sense of disappointment.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne

The Fall of Paris, by Alistair Horne
1965, 433 pp.

Alistair Horne, the eminent historian of the Algerian War, has with his histories of Verdun and the Paris Commune firmly established himself as perhaps the foremost expert on late nineteenth and early twentieth century French history. Perhaps only Georges Lefebvre is his rival in the history of modern France, but the assiduous socialist will more often find himself in need of Horne's subject matter than that of Lefebvre.

Though the Commune has been the cornerstone of the Marxist mythos for a century and a half, it is not so well known today as it ought to be. A brief summary of events will therefore be profitable.

In 1870, Bismarck, having recently established Prussian dominance over the German Confederation by beating Austria in the war of 1866, was ready to both establish a unified Germany and to assert Germany's hegemony in Europe. He skillfully provoked the blundering, ineffectual Napoleon III into declaring war over a diplomatic trifle. At this point, the Prussian army was the most experienced, efficient, and dangerous in Europe; the French army was a paragon of preposterous incompetence. Within six weeks, the Prussians surrounded Napoleon III at Sedan, where he surrendered with his entire army in what may still be the worst military debacle in history. Furious citizens of Paris established a republic under the leadership of one Louis Trochu to continue the war. The Prussians laid siege to Paris for 130 days, during which time Trochu tried three times to break out, each ending in absolute disaster. Finally the Prussians grew impatient and began indiscriminately shelling the city. A combination of military failure, destructive bombardment, and dwindling food supplies led the republican government to sue for peace. The government fell under the fury of the Paris mob, to be replaced by Adolphe Thiers, forty-year veteran of French politics. The conscripted soldiers of the National Guard, feeling betrayed and marginalized, seized a number of heavy guns and stockpiled them in Montmartre. The Guard had been organized by the Republican government, but had been trained and armed insufficiently to make an actual fighting force—just enough to make the most potent revolutionary force of the 19th century. Trochu had recognized this and bled the Guard deliberately during his third breakout attempt around Buzenval. Unable to control the mob or the Guard, Theirs (who represented the "Better Bismarck than Blanqui" faction of the bourgeoisie) removed his government to Versailles and in his absence, a number of leftist leaders, freed from prison by the mob, proclaimed the Paris Commune. While the leaders of the Commune dithered for 13 crucial days, Thiers wasted no time regrouping and assaulting Paris. After a second siege of two months, his forces broke through Paris' defences and a bitter two weeks of street fighting ensued. Paris burned, and Thiers executed every Communard he could lay hands on. By the time the last bands of Communards were captured or killed, some 20-25,000 Parisians had been executed by their countrymen, in one of the grimmest and most merciless government massacres in history up to that time. That it occurred in the streets of Paris, the City of Lights and center of the world, left an irrevocable scar in the French psyche: the war, the siege, and the Commune largely set the stage for the next half-century of European politics and struggle.

The Fall of Paris is closely focused on the long siege of Paris in the winter of 1870-1871, then on the rise and fall of the Commune which resulted. The conduct of the Franco-Prussian War is truncated to just one swift chapter (though to be fair, it was quite a swift war) partially to the detriment of historical context. Likewise, the book is decidedly Francocentric: there is little attention paid to the Prussians or to the general balance of power in Europe. For comprehensive diplomatic analysis, Horne poses no threat to the continuing reign of the great A.J.P. Taylor. A few of Horne's chapters seem to take up more time and attention than their subjects warrant: there is a stage-setting chapter on the Exposition Universelle of 1867, one on foreigners living in Paris, one on hunger, and so forth. These chapters are liberally studded with quotations from diaries, mainly of Americans and Brits living in Paris, and although it is sometimes easy to lose the narrative thread, taken in sum these chapters convey a portrait of everyday life which would otherwise be left out of a purely political or military history. The role of aeronauts carrying news and letters in primitive hot-air balloons is almost certainly the most interesting and entertaining example, and of course no discussion of the Siege is possible without lurid stories about eating rats and zoo animals. However, Horne's extensive use of primary source documents written by non-French people living in Paris at the time of the Commune allows him to stand aside from the pervasive Marxist vs. bourgeois conflict over the historiography of the Commune. It is quite difficult to find sources of any degree of objectivity on the subject, so Horne's decision here was a shrewd and profitable one.

Like histories of the Spanish Civil War, reading about the Paris Commune is a depressing process. Often in American history there is a sense of the good guy winning out in the end: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and both World Wars ended rather in the way a reasonable person would wish. Not so here, and the hopelessness of doomed soldiers, outmaneuvered generals, ill-informed radicals, and falsely exuberant workers takes on a downright Aeschylean air. It is particularly cruel that the first half of the book consists largely of blunders and stupidities on the part of the Republican leadership, which the reader endures uneasily in the knowledge that ultimately tens of thousands of Parisians will pay the price in blood. Horne, with his expertise on the two World Wars, continually draws parallels to the Western Front and to the Siege of Leningrad, which frames the Commune as the first in an exponentially-growing series of European barbarities. This is less a matter of adding to context and analysis, and more a matter of making thematic comparisons, and it does not always help Horne's narrative.

And to be sure, the narrative is the point of the book. The setting of the mood and descriptions of quotidian detail seem to be Horne's primary objective, followed closely by a brisk, almost novelized story, with analysis coming in a very distant third. Consequently, The Fall of Paris is an excellent introduction to the subject: the reader will come away knowing who did what and when and will have a keen mental image of the whole affair, but probably will not gain any theoretical insights. It is an effective book, but not an exhaustive or definitive one.

A final point should be made about the place of the Commune in the history of Marxism. Contrary to the popular view, the Commune had little to do with Communism: the name was derived instead from the Revolution of 1793, and the International had nothing to do with its establishment. Marx himself was against the idea, and did not hold any illusions about its chances for success. Instead his genius was in recognizing the utility of the Commune for propaganda purposes: the legend of the Commune is the one that Marx built, largely in his rapidly-produced pamphlet The Civil War in France, which is probably second only to the Manifesto for rhetorical fire. Lenin was a keen student of the Commune, but both he and Stalin took the wrong lesson from its failure: they considered the Commune "an incomplete dictatorship" and rather than observing the strength which came from a rather Luxemburgist spontaneous organization and from the power of working with the alienated middle class, they saw only that the Communards were not as brutal as their opponents. In a piece of historical irony, it was the Jacobin majority in the Communard government which wanted dictatorship and terror, and the Socialist minority which did not: precisely the opposite of the 1917 October Revolution. Certainly the failure to attack Thiers in Versailles was a blunder, as was the constant bickering and backbiting of the Communard government, but that was due mainly to the utter absence of any competent leader whatsoever, not to an absence of repression. Regardless, the Commune is still the first rallying cry of the class struggle, and its place in the development of our thought should not be overlooked.