Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Colossal Muttonhead


The first chapter of Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson's Civilization discusses the first "killer app" of Western civilization, competition, and introduces the device he uses throughout the book to make his arguments, the poorly-crafted comparison. One can clearly see the benefits of interstate competition, Our Man Niall asserts in this chapter, by comparing the navigational and military achievements of Western Europe with those of Imperial China. In the 15th century Ming China was a rich, urbanized and technically sophisticated country, capable of sending huge "treasure fleets" across the Indian Ocean. By the middle of that century, however, the Ming emperor decided to turn his back on oceanic exploration, and because there were no rival powers to gainsay him the entire Chinese population had to follow suit. China as a result slipped into isolationism, economic stagnation, and disorder, which apparently lasted until the 20th century.

Meanwhile, the states of Western Europe, divided by geography into a multiplicity of competing states, were driven by their own rivalries to develop new navigational techniques and ships capable of reaching the Americas or East Asia (pp. 33-34). These competitors also developed improved cannons, one of the keys to their penetration of Asian markets, and - here one must give Ferg credit for a useful insight - devised systems of public finance capable of paying for hundreds of ships and cannon. The same interstate rivalries and navigational techniques also impelled and allowed Europeans to colonize the Americas, which, Ferguson notes - forgetting how dismissive he was of this point in his Introduction - provided Europe with an outlet for unwanted people and with "new nutrients like potatoes and sugar" (45), assets that China did not enjoy. Navigation and the interstate competition that fostered it were not the sole sources of early modern European power, but they certainly gave Europeans an advantage over a stagnant and declining China.

Well, perhaps. It all depends on which China you're talking about. Our Bearer of the White Man's Burden reports that the Ming Dynasty collapsed in civil war and famine in the mid-17th century, and that thereafter China remained "stationary" (46) until the twentieth century. This is bilge. The Manchu invaders who occupied Beijing in 1644 went on to create a dynamic polity and society in China in the eighteenth century. The imperial army conquered Formosa, Tibet, and eastern Turkestan, expanding China to its modern borders; the amount of arable land under cultivation doubled between 1720 and 1780, as Han Chinese colonized lightly-settled regions within the empire's borders; and the empire's population also doubled during the same period, to more than 300 million. Meanwhile, the Qing government repaired and expanded China's system of canals, lowered taxes, abolished serfdom, and lifted restrictions on land sales. By 18th-century European standards it was a model of "enlightened despotism."

Nor was China an isolationist state during the 17th and 18th centuries. No-one tried to build a fleet comparable to Zheng He's again - in part because China didn't have enough readily-exploitable timber to keep building enormous oceanic ships - but Chinese traders used smaller vessels to join the Indian Ocean trading network at Melaka, and the Qing government allowed Europeans to establish trading posts at Canton and Macao. Qing China used these connections indirectly to exploit the riches of the New World: at least 30% of the silver and gold from Spanish America was shipped to China, to pay for silks, sugar, tea, and other goods that the Chinese produced for export. At the same time, Chinese peasants acquired American crops like sweet potatoes and maize and used them to cultivate the empire's central and western uplands. Certainly, China stagnated around the end of the 1700s, as it reached the limits to growth set by elite conservatism, soil erosion, and a lack of energy resources, but this occurred at the end of 150 years of growth, not as a continuation of a 200-year-old trend.

Ferguson organizes his book both chronologically and thematically, which means that he intends in each chapter to cover a distinct and sequential epoch in world history - in Chapter One, the period from 1400 to 1650. However, he goes out of his way to indicate, through scattered references to Chinese stagnation and complacency in the 18th and 19th centuries, that Chinese history essentially stopped in 1650, and didn't restart (in an economic sense) until the Maoist revolution. A nation's history, however, doesn't just stop because you've ordered it to do so for the sake of narrative convenience. Maybe Ferguson should sue the Qing Dynasty for complicating his story.

[Sources: Gale Stokes, "The Fates of Human Societies," American Historical Review (April 2001): 508-525, esp. 514, 516-18; Jeremy Black, Warfare in the 18th Century (Smithsonian, 2005), 31-39; John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires, 1400-2000 (Bloomsbury, 2008), 129-131; Kenneth Pomeranz, "Their Own Path to Crisis? Social Change, State-Building, and the Limits of Qing Expansion, c. 1770-1840," in The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840, ed. David Armitage & Sanjay Subrahmanyam (Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), 189-208, esp. 192-194; Niall Ferguson, Civilization (Penguin, 2011), 19-49; Charles Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (Knopf, 2011), 162-192. Thanks to commenter John for recommending the last title.]

Thursday, January 26, 2012

New Rules

Periodically, when the American federal government undergoes an especially grievous episode of gridlock, incivility, or general craziness, I am prone to wishing we could simply scrap our ancient and seizure-prone federal Constitution and turn Washington, D.C. into a theme park. Reason, however, tells us that just as Nature abhors a vacuum, so would human beings find it difficult simply to raze the American national government without building a replacement – and that nowadays a new federal constitution would be likelier to draw its inspiration from Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins than from James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. In the interest of providing an alternative to a Christian Dominionist government, I herewith offer, with tongue somewhat in cheek, my own outline of a replacement constitution. Comments are welcome so long as they amuse me.

Dave’s Constitution:

1. All persons residing in the territory or jurisdiction of the United States are entitled to the equal protection of its laws.

2. All persons born or naturalized in the U.S. are U.S. citizens and entitled to the privileges and immunities thereof.

3. Neither the U.S., the states, nor any subordinate jurisdiction may abridge freedom of speech, the press, the rights of peaceable expression and assembly, and the right to petition officials for redress of grievances.

4. Neither the U.S., the states, nor any subordinate jurisdiction may abridge religious freedom or provide any legal or financial support to any religious entity.

5. No American citizen over the age of 18 may be deprived of the right to vote for any reason.

6. Neither the U.S., the states, nor any subordinate jurisdiction may infringe the right of persons to secure enjoyment of their homes, businesses, persons, and possessions.

7. The U.S. government, the states, and all subordinate jurisdictions guarantee the rights of habeas corpus, due process of law for those accused of a crime (including the right to an attorney and compulsory appearances of witnesses), and immunity from cruel and unusual punishment, including the death penalty, "stress positions," and waterboarding. Up yours, Dick Cheney.

8. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall extend to all weapons invented prior to 1791, including smooth-bore, black-powder cannon. Private citizens owning wooden, sail-driven ships of war may not engage in privateering without a Congressional letter of marque and reprisal.

9. The old Ninth Amendment is pretty awesome, so let's keep that.

10. The executive of the United States shall consist of a president, elected by majority vote of the citizens of the United States every four years; a vice-president (ditto), who shall succeed the president in the event of his or her death or resignation; and such subordinate officers as Congress may authorize by law. All will be bound by oath to support this Constitution and faithfully execute the laws of the United States.

11. The vice president, just to clarify, is part of the executive branch. Up yours, Dick Cheney.

12. Any U.S. citizen (born or naturalized) may run for president or vice-president, provided they are at least 35 and have been a resident of the United States for at least 20 years.

13. The president shall have the power to veto federal legislation, but not to alter or amend such legislation.

14. The legislative branch of the U.S. shall consist of a single legislative house, the Congress of People's Deputies. The voters of each electoral district will elect one Deputy every two years, for a two-year term, with vacancies to be supplied by special election. Each Deputy must be a U.S. citizen and at least 30 years of age.

15. The legislature shall have the exclusive right to levy federal taxes, print or coin money, borrow money on the credit of the United States, and declare war. It may approve treaties, Constitutional amendments, or impeach and remove the president by 3/5 vote. It shall have plenary authority to regulate foreign and interstate commerce, up to and including the nationalization of American businesses.

16. It should go without saying, but corporations are not people.

17. The U.S. and state governments will provide free public education and health care to all U.S. citizens and permanent residents. The standard of health care service provided will be no lower than that afforded participants in the Medicare program before it was terminated by President Rand Paul.

18. All federal and state elections shall be publicly financed. No private money may be spent therein, except by George Will, who may spent $5.00. No, not five dollars a year. Five dollars period.

19. The judicial branch of the United States shall consist of a Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may establish. All federal judges will be elected by the voters of their jurisdiction for a 7-year term, renewable.

20. This Constitution may be amended by a 3/5 vote of the Congress of People's Deputies, with the concurrence of a 3/5 plebiscitary vote of American voters, to be conducted by the states under federal guidelines.

21. The official anthem of the United States will be a mashup of Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” with Notorious B.I.G.’s “Bullshit and Party.” This clause is not subject to the amendatory authority in 20, above.

22. The capital of the United States will be moved to Omaha, Nebraska. The capitol itself, along with the president's mansion and principal executive office buildings, will be located in Carter Lake, Iowa, which, being located wholly within Omaha's boundaries, accurately represents the duality of Man.

23. The official flag of the United States shall be a red banner bearing a portrait of Eugene V. Debs.

24. The official motto of the U.S. will be “Up Yours, Dick Cheney."

Friday, January 20, 2012

Dress to Kill


Our quote of the week comes from R.R. Palmer's classic study of the Reign of Terror, Twelve Who Ruled, and concerns the 20 special commissioners whom members of the Committee of Public Safety appointed to oversee the political reconstruction (and destruction) of Lyons, after that city rebelled against the Republic:

"The commissioners were apparently in need of clothing, and their wants were not modest. For each one, out of the public funds, were ordered, to be exact: a blue coat with red collar, blue trousers with leather between the legs, breeches of deerskin, an overcoat and leather suitcase, a cocked hat with tricolor plume, a black shoulder-belt, various medals, six shirts, twelve pocket handkerchiefs, muslin for six ordinary cravats, black taffeta for two dress cravats, a tricolored belt, six cotton nightcaps, six pairs of stockings, two pairs of shoes, kid gloves a l'espagnole, boots a l'americaine, bronzed spurs, saddle pistols and a hussar's saber." (Palmer, Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of the Terror in the French Revolution (Princeton UP, 1941/2005), 167.)

Palmer includes these details to make a more entertaining narrative. Modern historians, following the lead of Linda Colley, might pause to consider the social significance of these ad hoc commissioners' wardrobes. The colored coat and trousers, cocked hat, and handkerchiefs were marks of a gentleman (or at least of someone rich enough to afford clothing of high-quality fabric); the spurs, boots, pistols and saber denoted a member of the nobility, or at least one qualified to ride and bear arms; the tricolored belts and plumes symbolized the republic; and the deerskin breeches were fashionable at the time and probably came from North America. The Committee on Public Safety, which dispatched this special commission to Lyons, may have wanted them to appear as modest sans-culottes adorned in virtuous homespun, but the commissioners themselves had other ideas: they wanted to be armed noblemen, ready to ride down their government's enemies. Which indeed they did: the commissioners at Lyons went on to execute over 2,000 people in France's second city. Maybe the "blue trousers with leather between the legs" were chafing them a bit too much.

(The awesome anime painting of Louis Antoine Saint-Just is courtesy of Ysa, from Deviant Art, and is used with permission of the artist. The original image may be found here. Copyright (c) 2008-12 by Ysa.)

Friday, January 13, 2012

Niall Ferguson is Still a Tosser

After flogging Niall Campbell Douglas Elizabeth Ferguson a couple of times last year for various kinds of bad behavior, I made a brief mention of plans to read Prof. Ferguson's macrohistory of Western Europe and how it got to be So Damn Fine, published last year under the modest title Civilization. My loyal readers will either be mildly pleased or politely indifferent to learn that I have now managed to plow through most of the Sexiest Scotsman's opus, and will shortly begin a multipart review in which I explore the strengths (there may be one or two), flaws (and there are at least a few), and amusing factual errors thereof and therein. To start, I have a couple of observations to make about Ferguson's preface and introduction.

First, allow me to draw attention to Our Man Niall's brief summary of other scholarship on the rise of the West. On page 10 he asserts that historians like Jared Diamond and Kenneth Pomeranz have attributed the growth of Western power to simple "good luck," rather than to Western Europeans' superior institutions - in Ferguson's phrase, their "killer apps." The examples he gives of this unlikely "good luck," however, seem like pretty important determinants of European power to your humble narrator, and as Ferguson later reveals some of them seem pretty important to him as well. Surely, Ferguson writes, it was not the "geography or the climate" of Europe that accounted for its rise - except that he later ascribes interstate competition in the West, a key component of Killer App Number One, to Europe's convoluted and knobbly geography. "Did the New World provide Europe with 'ghost acres' that China lacked?" Professor F. then asks, dismissively. Actually, it did; the resources and produce of the Americas - arable land, timber, fish, grains, sugar - were a tremendous boon to Europeans in the early modern period, rescuing them from the Malthusian trap into which they had fallen, while New World gold and silver helped Europe buy its way into the Indian and East Asian trading system. "Was it just sod's law that made China's coal deposits harder to mine and transport than Europeans'?" Dr. Ferguson inquires. Kind of sounds like it to me, actually, and it was Europe's use of cheap coal that touched off its transport and metallurgical revolutions and allowed it finally to pull ahead of China. Qing China certainly had the means to industrialize if it had enjoyed access to so much concentrated energy: the Chinese had had a wood-driven "industrial revolution" in the 11th century, until their foundries ran out of charcoal, and they had invented powered spinning machines and looms as early as the 14th century. In history, stupid contingencies sometimes matter, as Ferguson, a routine practitioner of counterfactual history, should bloody well acknowledge.

My other observation is short and sweet. It is that Ferguson isn't always careful to check his historical facts. Exempli gratia, taken from his preface: "The greatest political artist in American history, Abraham Lincoln, served only one full term in the White House, falling victim to an assassin with a petty grudge just six weeks after his second inaugural" (xxiv). The assassin was John Wilkes Booth, and the "petty grudge" was the "Civil War" - Booth was a Confederate spy and staged his attack on Lincoln as part of a multi-person attack on Union leaders. Perhaps Ferguson was confusing Booth with Charles Guiteau, Garfield's assassin? I guess all these 19th-century presidents look alike after a while.

(Sources: Gale Stokes: "The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of Recent Macrohistories," American Historical Review [April 2001]: 508-525; Alfred Crosby, Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Unappeasable Appetite for Energy [Norton, 2006], 68; Niall Ferguson, Civilization: The West and the Rest [Penguin, 2011], pp. xxiv, 10.)