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September 21, 2010


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Unfortunately the threat is (potentially) still there. Radical groups both on the left and the right have been on the rise in both sides of the Atlantic. While of course these are still far from anything which would resemble either Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union they are a constant reminder that under certain conditions significant parts of society can become radicalised. What exact conditions are at play its hard to say but as the literature would have it, it seems a combination of supply and demand. Once you throw in a few charismatic personalities that mobilise against foreigners, Islam, and so on, and propose easy populist "solutions" you manage to get a lot of people on board. I'm not equating them of course with what happened after WWII but it might be that under further conditions of e.g. a deep economic crisis these movements might become much more radical.

Allow me, perhaps, to add to the depressing atmosphere. DeLong's draft echos part of an argument I used to have with Ivan Hodes at SHWI. As you will recall, hypothetical time-lines where the bad regimes of our world did not go down in flames were quite popular. Ivan appeared, to me, to argue several times that had these bad regimes survived, they would have faced difficulties by mere virtue of being bad. My own view tended to be that "bad" was in the eye of the beholder. Worlds where the Nazis come out ahead necessarily point to places where Nazis will end up both more numerous and Nazism more popular than in our own world. Likewise for Communism, Southern racialism or any other nasty ideology and its adherents.

I believe our argument boiled down to a question about whether one believes there is some sort of Arrow of Time that points towards certain specific forms of human organization as the "correct" ultimate ones. My own view is that while some forms of organization (and the moral superstructures that enable them) are more effective or efficient than others, there is nothing inevitable about Western liberal democracy winning out, any more than it was inevitable that specific phenotypes were going to win out after the Cambrian Explosion.

DeLong seems to me to be arguing for that inevitability, or at least that the Arrow of Time has traveled down the given path so far that threats are diminishing and there is no turning back now. I'd argue that the Allied victory in WW2 and the collapse of the USSR constrained the set of possibilities for a while, there is nothing inevitable about what happens going forward.

Further, I think he misinterprets the examples he cites. It is true that the Saddams, Rwandas and Al Qaedas of the world appear smaller along some dimensions than their ideological antecedents in the early to mid 20th century. I would argue, however, that this is a consequence of the advancing energy intensity of human civilization as time goes by. You no longer need to have a Nazi-sized chunk of human productive capacity to do some terrible (in both the modern and antiquated senses of the term) things. This seems likely to increase, meaning that existential threats (or those with pretensions to becoming existential) will come in increasingly smaller packages. The game is not over, it's just that the rules are shifting over time....

I liked the above mini-essay, save for the last paragraph. Your argument shifts ground from fear of the past reoccuring to fear of new future threats, a la Mr. Robb. I don't mean to be sanguine, but it confused me in two places.

First, I'm not sure what you meant by increasing energy-intensity, or what that would have to do with fewer aggressive totalitarian regimes.

Second, I don't understand the specific examples of Saddam, Rwanda, or Al-Qaeda. Saddam controlled a centralized state, but a badly-organized one that punched below its weight. (Frex the opening of the Iran-Iraq War; armed forces as well-trained and led as Rwanda's --- let alone Turkey or South Korea --- would have carved off Khuzestan and destroyed Iran's ability to retaliate meaningful in the war's opening weeks.)

Rwanda was coordinated with technology available in the 1920s. Nor was the death count out-of-line with similar horrors from the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

Al-Qaeda flew jet airplanes into buildings, which was new, but could have been done from any point after 1955 or so. Since then, the organization has been remarkably unable to do anything near as damaging; the subsequent horrors in Spain and Britain were less damaging than the wave of bomb attacks that gripped Cuba in 1933 and '34, let alone the 1970s and '80s in Northern Ireland, Spain, India, and elsewhere.

In short, what's the dimension under which Saddam's dictatorship, the Rwandan genocidaires, and Al-Qaeda appear larger than their equivalent predecessors?

Al-Qaeda is not about to seize control of any state.

It's the Conventional Wisdom of the Blogosphere* that radical Islam (if not al-Qaeda specifically) is soon to take control of "Eurabia," in fact France and Sweden and perhaps others have already fallen.

* = certain segments of the Blogosphere, at least, such as the Game/HBD/MRA segments

I do not recognize the expression "Game/HBD/MRA," which seems to be indicative of my sanity. What do they mean, and why do you know what they mean, Peter?

As long as such ideas remain in the fringe, the Barrington Moore question (I hate the word "problematic;" it sounds like an appliance from the 1950s) will likely remain moot. Once they start being taken seriously by prominent politicians and large segments of the public, however, we should be sure that we understand the conditions under which such ideas influence or guide state policy.

Oh, wait. That already happened. See Omar's comment, above.

Coming in from the outside (I am an academic, but not a historian), it seems to me that the problem with the Barrington Moore problematic is not that it's irrelevant but that it's too limited. Even right after WWII, when the salience of totalitarianism as an issue was at its peak, there were many aspects of social science that couldn't be understood through that lens. Recent events have exacerbated this, but the basic problem was always there. And since we don't know why there haven't been any more Hitlers, it seems exceedingly presumptuous to declare that the concern of totalitarianism is now in the past.

That said, I do recognize that for pedagogical purposes, having a simple lens through which to view and frame things is really useful. Thus, here is my (completely naive) suggestion for an overarching "frame" question for the social sciences: What kinds of ways do people organize themselves, and what factors drive that organization? Totalitarian societies, being a way that people organize themselves, are an obvious subset, but there are many others: liberal democracies, anarchies, badly-organized centralized states, hereditary monarchies, etc. The interesting part is identifying the factors and how they interplay with each other: I would guess some key ones are things like communication (how easily people within the society can communicate with each other, whether there are people through which communication must occur, etc); homogeneity (i.e., degree of ethnic/racial/cultural similarity within the society); resources available (including whether they are renewable/non-renewable, easily controlled by one or a few people (like mines) or must be used by many); and interactions with other societies (cooperating, competing, fighting, etc).

Anyway, the idea is that you could analyze and study basically any society in a useful way with a frame like this.

Again, this is completely naive. I'm clearly out of my depth on this blog, but it was such an interesting question I couldn't help but comment.

Noel, you're correct, I'm making two distinct arguments above. I should have separated them more clearly. Let's take the first section to be arguing that the current calm between nation-states and the like might be ephemeral.

What I'm arguing in that last paragraph is that while the world as seen through the lens of large nation-states and other massive organizational systems seems calmer today, the otherwise wonderful system of scientific progress and advancing living standards we live in has a negative byproduct. That negative byproduct is that you need steadily fewer people and less strict heirarchy and organization to create an equivalent amount of damage or chaos as time goes by.

Take the case of AQ. As you note, prior to the jet age there simply weren't too many large manned missiles around for a small group of ideologues to use in the first place. It took a large state (Imperial Japan) to implement such a thing, and only in a fairly ineffectual way. The state of the art was such that an accidental hit on the Empire Stae Building by a large (for the time) bomber in 1945 killed 11 people, including 3 crew. Still, even after the introduction of the 707 in 1955 (which you note), air travel remained relatively rare, relatively expensive and restricted to relatively developed areas with non-disaffected populations. Note the order of magnitude difference in passenger miles flown between 1960 and 1990, for instance. I'd argue that what made 9/11 possible, ultimately, is the otherwise laudable march of human progress. It was the routinization of an activity that was, for most of human history, impossible, and for much of the remainder of that history inaccessible to other than elites.

Consider also Rwanda. The tensions there between the Tutsis and other local inhabitants appear to predate even colonial exploitation, dating back to the original unification wars around the lakes. The resentments that led to the genocide have been there for some time, then. What was lacking was a system of mobilization. Contra your argument above, I doubt that radios were widely available in the area in the 1920s, and cheap widespread availability is what was necessary to mobilize the Hutu and then organize the massacres. It was the increasing availability and decreasing cost of the technology that eventually made it possible to convert what would otherwise have been localized tensions or at worst pogroms into an organized attempt at genocide.

I might likewise argue that Saddam, far from punching below weight, actually managed to create a lot more mayhem and cause many more casualties (Iranian ones in particular) than a similarly clownish local strongman might have a century prior. Anyway, I think you'll see where I'm going with this, and I look forward to your response.

I note that Forza, above, is talking about some of what I address in my second claim:

"The interesting part is identifying the factors ...communication (how easily people within the society can communicate with each other, whether there are people through which communication must occur, etc)...resources available (including whether they are renewable/non-renewable, easily controlled by one or a few people (like mines) or must be used by many)"

Sadly, I need to be brief (gotta catch a flight) but here is some food for the next go-around. (BTW, your general point is convincing; we're debating the magnitudes.)

No general disagreement about air travel; the point about increasing availability in poor areas with disaffected populations rings true. The specific contention would be that it seems to be fairly easy to keep hostile hands away from the large guided missiles we use for mass transportation --- ditto for chemical plants, gas distribution, and other potentially deadly technologies. The challenge seems quite manageable, with the possible exception of biotechnology, about which I do not know enough to judge.

You're absolute right about radios in Rwanda. Similarly large genocides were coordinated elsewhere, however, with primitive communications technology: the scale of the killing in Rwanda was about the same as the scale of pre-1920 killings in Turkey and parts of India, or post-1960 slaughters in Algeria and Uganda. (The latter two were not ethnic, per se; Algeria's post-independence slaughter of the harkis comes close.) It's very hard to see anything new in Rwanda, since similar ones were conducted both with and without radios in the pre-1945 period. In other words, a genocide in Rwanda might have been hard to organize in 1920, but genocides in general were not.

Finally, see the War of the Triple Alliance for the champion regarding local strongmen and casualties. More recently, see the Korean War before the Chinese intervention, or the Indochinese conflicts through 1980. The PDRK produced about as much of its own materiel as the Republic of Iraq. (Admittedly, Saddam had to pay for his foreign supplies whereas the PDRK did not, but that cuts against the argument, since few states sit atop giant piles of money the way Iraq did.) Without American intervention, Lee the eldest would have made a far greater threat than Saddam. Similarly, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was limited by its ambitions and the fact that its near neighbor was Thailand (rather than Iran): unlike Iraq, it punched far above its weight class.

A counterfactual that should make the argument clear is one in which Iraq, for whatever reason, decides to march into Turkey instead of similarly-disorganized revolutionary Iran. Far far far fewer Turks will die, in a much shorter war, and Iraq's relative impotence despite its oil wealth will be made clear.

To be frank, I think I'm on the strongest ground with the third argument; Saddam was a threat, given his economic resources, but far less than he would have been had he controlled a stronger state. The first argument is the weakest; the second seems prima facie stronger, but certainly has holes. Back over to you.

I do not recognize the expression "Game/HBD/MRA," which seems to be indicative of my sanity. What do they mean, and why do you know what they mean, Peter?

You've been blogging for how long, and you haven't come across sites of this type? I would've thought they had long since extended their tentacles into every corner of the blogosphere.

Anyway, Game = how to score with women, the so-called "pick up artist" community; HBD = human biodiversity, basically the connection of race and intelligence, with a dose of anti-immigration activism; and MRA = men's rights advocacy, devoted to ending legal, economic and cultural discrimination against men.

I have to say that the MRA movement makes some decent points from time to time. One of these points concerns the rampant ridiculing of men in TV commercials and sitcoms, with men often portrayed as hapless doofuses constantly in need of being rescued by their smart, resourceful wives and girlfriends. Think Homer and Marge.

Uh ... those are all pretty obscure, and very weird, parts of the internet. I feel icky even having the links on my blog, so I'm taking them off.

From your description, we have a group of sexists with delusions of grandeur, racists with delusions of science, and people who are just plain delusional.

Why are you interested in any of these sites?

Noel wrote:

From your description, we have a group of sexists with delusions of grandeur, racists with delusions of science, and people who are just plain delusional.

Why are you interested in any of these sites?

Because those are, sadly enough, no longer "obscure, weird parts of the internet". For example, the HBD sector is actually having an impact on the politics on this side of the Atlantic. Various radical, populist, racist and xenophobic movements are using the present-day social media as the perfect means for networking, recruiting and claiming themselves a seat in the public discussion.

... and it's working. For example, in the country that I live in, the resident organized xenophobic political movement also emerged basically from nowhere. They organized in the web, decided to get involved in politics and managed to score far bigger than one could have ever imagined.

DeLong argues, with good reason, that this no longer dominates. Modern Western societies mobilize rapidly against even relatively mild forms of racism or authoritarianism.

DeLong's optimism is endearing, and so very typical for an American person. He might wish to take a look at this, and then convince all of us that there's no need to worry.

He might also want to take a look at the recent Swedish elections. Sure, it's not much, but how many people would have believed that a party whose activists were sporting Nazi uniforms only fourteen years ago would somehow manage to gain any seats in the parliament, let alone emerge in a strategic position, holding the balance of power?


J. J.

A. Can I check to see if I'm following some implied logic correctly? The idea seems to be that 1) Barrington Moore's question hasn't really been sufficiently answered yet and therefore 2) it's a good idea to organize certain interdisciplinary academic programs' curricula so that this question is always in the back of their graduates' minds. You could think of it as a kind of tax on their mental space.

If I'm not totally confused, it isn't really clear how strongly 2 follows from 1.

B. Bernard, doesn't the increasing energy density (among other things) of modern societies make it easier for AQ et al to do the same *absolute* amounts of damage as earlier bad guys but harder for them to do the same *proportional* amount? Wikipedia tells me that WWII casualties were about 400,000 people and about .3% of the US's 1940 population. Today, that percentage would be close to a million.

C. Also Bernard, re "Arrow of Time", does it have to be a question of morality or of the type and level of conflict the system has to manage and how it evolves to do so, frex, China vs. North Korea.

D. Finally, my proposed organizing principle: The History of the Future. Basically, at certain points in the past people had these expectations about their future, this is why they did, and this is how it came out. Hopefully, students would come out of this program with a sense of how the parts of the social sciences relate and an increased awareness of their own biases.

While AQ itself is certainly not about to take over any countries (blogospheric paranoia notwithstanding), it certainly would not be impossible for a pro-AQ fundamentalist movement to overthrow the current Saudi regime. We'd then face the unappetizing prospect of a dangerous government in control of a vast amount of modern weaponry. Though how competently the Saudis could actually use said weaponry is another matter.

Well, there is impossible and then there is impossible. It isn't impossible to imagine a pro-Al-Qaeda movement taking control of Saudi Arabia the way it is impossible to imagine one seizing control of the Dominican Republic, or the United States. But it really isn't likely. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia really has very good control over its territory and the population residing within.

It could happen, but it isn't something I'd worry about.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia really has very good control over its territory and the population residing within.

It could be. The thing is, just over 30 years ago everyone was saying the same thing about Iran.

I question the premise. It seems to me we have a pretty good grip on when and why democracies turn authoritarian, and can make educated guesses of likelihood in any given country.

One might question whether Germany or the USSR were 20th century states, to begin with. To me, one seemed positively 19th century, and the other still 18th century, or something of that nature. It seems to me that the capacity to mobilize for utter destruction, whether in WW1 or 2, depended more on how well the state machinery was geared up and oiled, rather than on specific ideologies. A more unhappy outcome to the Cuban Missile Crisis might have reshaped the undergraduate agenda in toto. It might have produced an emphasis on biology and the neuro sciences to explain human behaviour, probably with better predictive power than the social studies -- oops, the social sciences...

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