(__Attention conservation notice__: 3600-some words on the four books I read over Christmas and New Years. A lot of it is my processing and synthesizing my understanding of the runup to World War I. Valuable for *me*, anyway.)
Not a bad run: four books from December 21 to December 31. My total for 2013 was 30 books, which is quite a bit south of where I want to be. Alas.
__Albert Hirschman, [book: The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy]__
You really need to read Hirschman. This is the third of his books that I’ve read, after [book: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States] and [book: The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph]. I’ve also read Jeremy Adelman’s biography of Hirschman. The man really is worthy of a biography. Apart from a legendarily eclectic academic career, he saved thousands of people from the Nazis and much besides. Again, I’m way behind on reviews; suffice to say in the meantime that Adelman’s book is well worth a read, because Hirschman’s life is fascinating.
The Hirschman method, based on the few books of his that I’ve read, is deceptively simple, but it’s all about the execution. In writing [book: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty], he considered some typical reactions to a failing institution — think about your local public school, or your favorite mobile-device manufacturer. The reactions are to abandon the failing institution (e.g., send your kids to a private school instead, or use an iPhone), which he calls “exit”; or to stick around and try to change it (lobby the public school to better educate its students, send lots of letters to the CEO explaining that their phones are behind the times). “Loyalty” is really sort of a turbocharger for voice: it’s an extra bit of stickiness that might make you exercise your voice more.
Even on their own, these little concepts are tremendously useful and clarifying; humans respond to a great many situations through exit and voice. Yet the concepts are small-scale and non-vacuous enough that you really can say meaningful things about them, rather than just gesticulating vaguely in their direction.
*But there’s more!* Hirschman really turns on the magic when he shows how these three pieces interact with one another. Again, let’s focus on the example of a failing public school. If private schools are encouraged, you can exit from the public school freely. You might, then, be willing to use your voice less. In particular, the people who care most about their kids’ educations — the ones who would otherwise be using their voice — may be the first to exit, leaving behind only the less-interested parents, thereby accelerating the school’s decline. So exit can weaken voice.
Flesh out these concepts, apply them to a mass of interesting situations, do it with shockingly brief writing that nonetheless manages to say a lot, do some formal mathematical modeling in the appendix, and pack the whole thing into 176 pages. That’s [book: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty]. It’s breathtaking.
But that’s not important right now! We were talking about [book: The Rhetoric of Reaction]. I’m angry that you distracted me from my point.
The same series of tricks applies here. Again, we have three components. This time, the question is how reactionaries respond, in their rhetoric, to any kind of social change. Hirschman is at pains to be clear that he’s not looking down on reactionaries; he’s merely trying to understand their responses to the world. He’s pretty clearly read more people reacting to social change than you and I have; I imagine the man heading off to the library for months and years, reading, studying, synthesizing, processing, and abstracting. At the end of all that, he picked three classic responses to social change:
* __Perversity__: You think you’re going to improve x, but in fact the change you envision is going do achieve exactly the opposite of what you intend: it’s going to make x worse.
* __Futility__: The real structure of the world underlying the thing you’re trying to change is absolutely immobile. You think you’re toppling the ruling class, say, but they will always manage to stay on top. Real social change is impossible.
* __Jeopardy__: Trying to change the thing you’re trying to change is going to make something else — something that we care about just as much — worse.
Again, on their own these are really powerful concepts. They help put a large class of conservative argument into focus. From there, they can be studied with greater clarity. Futility is an interesting one, which can be used by both the left and the right. The left says, “Yes, the ruling class will continue to pull the levers, so at worst our attempts to overthrow it will be fruitless; but try we must.” The right says the opposite: that the ruling class will continue to pull the levers, so why bother?
Here’s Hirschman, in a delightfully arch way, addressing the simultaneous complaints that a) means-tested welfare programs don’t actually reach the people they’re supposed to reach (the money goes to the middle class instead, or to the bureaucrats who provide social services), and b) that those same programs encourage a life of indolence:
> It requires special gifts of sophistry to argue at one and the same time that welfare payments have those highly advertised perverse effects on the behavior pattern of the poor *and* that they do not reach these same poor.
It’s hard to convey, without reading the book in its entirety, just how effortless Hirschman makes all of this. His book is both dense with historical evidence dating back to the French Revolution (which, I gather, is the time when the Western world first learned about “revolution” in its modern sense *and* thereby created reactionaries like Edmund Burke), rich in style, and somehow light as a feather. He reminds me very much of Quine:
> He calls to mind […] one of the exceedingly refined diners at those [formal] suppers, for whom the proper use of the fish-knife is automatic, second nature and almost first; for one of the qualities of Quine’s writing is that he makes everything, not least his minute clarity and precision, seem easy, obvious and spontaneous.
Just like [book: Exit, Voice, and Loyalty], [book: The Rhetoric of Reaction] is short: just 224 fairly large-print pages. It’s absolutely worth the few hours it will take you to read.
One final note: Hirschman entered this project as he watched, seemingly with great dismay, the polarization of the American political debate, whereby *my* political beliefs are reasoned, rational responses to empirical truth, while *yours* are mere visceral mutterings. By its end, he found just as much rhetorical incoherence in liberals’ positions as in conservatives’, and this wasn’t just a search for pox-on-both-your-houses David Brooks balance; there really are certain tried-and-true liberal rhetorical devices which share just as unreliable a connection to the facts as conservative ones. For instance, there’s the “if we don’t do this now, then far worse consequences will come later” trope. And there’s the slippery-slope argument, of course, which is maybe the flip side of the previous one: if we do this now, then we open the door for far worse possibilities later on.
The thing to note about rhetorical devices generally is that they needn’t bear any connection to the actual truth of the matter. Indeed, the wide variety of contexts in which they’re called into battle suggests that they’re used more often than when the facts alone would call for.
Hirschman’s main achievement, then, may be that he helps us recognize when something that looks like an empirical or logical claim is merely a rhetorical one.
__Corey Robin, [book: The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin]__
I read this directly after Hirschman, and I’m glad I did. First, there’s something to Hirschman’s balance and humanity that is missing in Robin’s book, which I might not have noticed had I not read Hirschman first. Second, there’s a concision to Hirschman that isn’t there in Robin.
Robin’s basic aim is to show that, from Edmund Burke to now, conservatism has basically been about two things: 1) keeping the rabble in line, and 2) violence as a creative spark — war as an essential element in maintaining a dynamic society.
This work makes me uncomfortable in a few ways. First, these may be accurate synopses of what important conservatives have thought over time, but it’s really not clear to me that this is what animates conservatism-as-she-is-lived today. Walk up to a Republican friend of yours and ask him or her why he or she is conservative. I doubt the answer you’ll get is that he or she wants to claw back some of the freedoms that the poor and disfranchised have gained — at the expense of the privileged — over the last 200 years. I also doubt you’ll hear this notional Republican explain that he or she voted for Mitt Romney because Romney promised more wars.
There are at least a couple reasons why this objection might be irrelevant. Maybe conservatives believe these things without articulating them. Maybe the actions of conservative voters betray these underlying motives, even when their words do not. These are both possible, but Robin doesn’t consider them. Robin doesn’t really consider the experience of lived conservatism.
My conservative friends — and even friends who wouldn’t outright identify themselves as conservatives but have conservative leanings — tend to be conservative, not because they feel like the lower classes deserve to be crushed, but rather because they feel that the liberal alternative of greater government intervention is a non-starter. They believe that government is likely to be in the pockets of those it’s supposed to be regulating; that government wastes taxpayer’s money; and that market competition is a better alternative to government monopolies. For starters.
Mind you, I have retorts to all of these. And I have retorts to all of these, specifically, when we get down to specific topics like health insurance or retirement security. Conservatives have surreplies to the retorts. And so goes the debate.
Granted, I also know conservatives who have stated explicitly that they were going to vote against Obama because he was going to raise their taxes. This is less a “debate … within a shared objective function” than is the peaceful discussion about Social Security and Medicare that I outlined above. Robin is on surer ground against these folks: it’s pretty straightforwardly about keeping something to yourself that you don’t want someone poorer than you to get. Or, again, you could just want the government not to take your tax money because you think you can do something better with it than the government can.
My point is just that, when you come face to face with actual conservative ideas, the “screw the working class and start wars” argument seems like a Procrustean bed for lived conservatism. It’s just hard for me to buy it.
I’d also have a hard time if the conservative equivalent of Corey Robin wrote a book claiming that liberalism, all throughout its history, has preferred rational theory to lived experience (which is a rough outline of how conservatives viewed the French Revolution, and viewed Thomas Jefferson), and would prefer to centralize everything under a wise, all-knowing state. Maybe that’s been true of certain thinkers, but that’s not at all why I consider myself a liberal. I would more or less immediately stop reading any book that described me in that way; its violations of realism would call the rest of it into question.
The best Robin could try to claim is that when Republicans argue for lower taxes, they’re actually just disguising their real intentions. Paging Lee Atwater:
> “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.
> “And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.'”
Another way to put this is that, whatever their *intentions*, their actual policies have the inevitable consequence of screwing the poor and starting wars. And maybe the Republican voter is being hoodwinked into voting for policies that he doesn’t actually want (or which actively undermine his own interests). I would enjoy a book about this premise quite a lot. It would get me closer to an understanding of my fellow-citizens. Robin’s book, sadly, does not do this.
The “conservatives believe in violence” argument is interesting, even if you replace “conservatives” with “people”. The basic gist is that conservatives believe a technocratic, rationally managed society whose GDP curves always bend gently upward is boring. Societal greatness comes through acts of boldness, through fighting, and through conquest. Hence, in particular, conservatives’ support for the free market, and their love of foreign domination. Again, it’s hard for me to believe that my conservative friends would accept this as an accurate description of why they, for instance, supported the Iraq War. That’s not why George Packer did. They were driven by genuine humanitarian impulses — that Hussein was a bad dude. (Let’s not get started down the “but there are lots of other bad dudes” road; that’s not an actual argument.)
There’s something to this: Americans (and Germans; see the Pflanze review below) do seem to love war, regardless of their political leanings. They dutifully get in line behind their leaders whenever we pick the latest poor little country to blow up. And we certainly do venerate the bold business conquistador.
To back out a step, I think the positive way to frame this — rather than the negative way that Robin frames it — is that we liberals need a living, breathing, bold, energizing ideology for the 21st century; that Keynesian technocratic demand management combined with a strong welfare state probably lacks the vigor necessary to inspire greatness in Americans; and that, in the absence of a compelling ideology, people will succumb to the allure of violence, xenophobia, and selfishness. If this argument itself wasn’t in Packer’s [book: Blood of the Liberals], it could easily find a home there.
So I think I’d be happier with Robin’s book if it were less about What Conservatives Really Think, Deep In Their Brainstems, than if it were about a liberalism that could inspire. I’m pretty sure Robin does have such ideas in him; they probably involve organizing labor and helping out the world’s marginalized. I’d be proud to read such a book; it would help me produce the world I want, in which we all believe that we’re part of a community. I’m less proud to read [book: The Reactionary Mind].
__Otto Pflanze, [book: Bismarck and the Development of Germany, Vol. 1: The Period of Unification, 1815-1871] and [book: Vol. 2: The Period of Consolidation, 1871-1880]__
I think my obsession with Bismarck started when I realized, a couple years ago, that the modern welfare state began under him in the late 1800s. How did Germany manage to create what took the U.S. either half a century or a century-plus to implement? Long story short: I haven’t yet come to a solid understanding of the answer. But Bismarck himself is fascinating, so it’s okay.
Otto Pflanze’s three-volume work is, very clearly, the canonical work on Bismarck. That would be obvious even if I had never read another Bismarck work, just as Caro’s four-volume LBJ series will very clearly never be surpassed in its sphere. (As it happens, I have read another work on Bismarck, namely Steinberg’s one-volume bio, which is more psychological study than Pflanze’s. There’s important overlap, which I’ll try to get to.)
Very, very long story short: Bismarck unified the German states in 1870 into what we now call Germany. I wouldn’t have understood the magnitude of that achievement if it weren’t for Pflanze. For one thing, I was not aware that the south of Germany is quite distinct from the north. The south was more Catholic, the north more Protestant; the south was more agricultural, the north more industrial. The south includes Bavaria; the north includes Prussia. How Bismarck fused these disparate states into the nation we know today consumes the first, gripping volume of Pflanze’s work.
The very short answer is: nationalism. Bismarck’s interests were essentially those of the absolutist Junker power structure, and he spent his entire career defending those interests in the face of an industrializing, democratizing, nationalizing world. His central challenge was to harness the forces of the modern world against one another to achieve a unified Reich. He used liberals’ patriotism and nationalism first to defeat Austria and defeat dreams of a wider union between Germany and Austria (“great Germany”); then acquired Schleswig-Holstein in its entirety from Denmark without dividing the territory in half; and finally turned German nationalism outward toward France, in the Franco-Prussian War, in 1870 and 1871, to effect the final union of German states.
This is something I only recently realized: the Franco-Prussian War is really, really important:
First, it gave us Germany as we know it today.
Second, German seizure of Alsace-Lorraine during that war was a continuing thorn in the French side.
Third, that seizure of Alsace-Lorraine contained some of the first serious notions of the German [foreign: Volk]: that even though Alsatians identified as French, Germans (initially not including Bismarck, it seems) believed that it was part of a broader Germany which had to be reunited with the fatherland.
Fourth, German atrocities — particularly during the siege of Paris — left France with a burning hatred of Germany. This hatred seemed to be personified in Raymond Poincaré, just in time for World War I. (Though of course it’s possible that any French statesman, given this context, would have behaved the same way.)
Fifth, the war’s end made the French pay a crushing indemnity to the Germans, which seemingly has echoes in the post-WW1 treaty of Versailles, whose manifest failings were an important contributor to World War II. (Indeed, the German states named Wilhelm their emperor under the newly formed Reich at Versailles upon the war’s conclusion. Pflanze doesn’t explain exactly how this location was chosen, nor how the French felt about it, but I do wonder whether the World War I treaty was signed there as a final coda to the Franco-Prussian War.)
Sixth, the war empowered generals in dangerous ways. Bismarck had exploited Prussian respect for the military in his plans for German union, and seems thereby to have opened Pandora’s box. When the war came, the generals fought with only military ends in mind, while Bismarck raged at the strategic damage that their brutal siege had done to Germany’s international relations. This echoes loudly in David Halberstam’s [book: The Best and the Brightest], about how the U.S. military took on an autonomous power in Vietnam, with disastrous results. (You can also see it in Douglas MacArthur’s decision to invade China without support from his civilian superiors, in his grudging return to the States, in the American public’s outrage that Truman had “lost China”, in his battle before the U.S. Senate, and in the public’s eventual realization that the generals’ view of the world is narrower than that of their civilian superiors.)
There’s so much else to say about Pflanze. The man’s sense of balance is exquisite; never do I feel that I’m in the hands of a hagiographer. Pflanze is trying to understand, from a historian’s distance, whether Bismarck shares any part of the blame for what Friedrich Meinecke called “the German catastrophe“. At two volumes in (out of 3), I only have the beginnings of an answer. First, Bismarck established a state which, by design, only had the appearance of democracy, while it was in fact autocratic and centralized. Second, his cooptation of German nationalism left the traditional Prussian structure — a strong monarch, a Junker landowning class, and an obedient military — in place on a grander and more dangerous scale. And third, his delicate puppetry, by which he controlled every situation throughout his nearly half-century of rule, couldn’t survive his death.
The second volume is less exciting than the first. The second volume is about the humdrum, but vitally important, work of lashing nominally unified German states together so that they’d act as an empire. This involved parliamentary maneuvering that would make LBJ proud, and endless bureaucratic tinkering. No wonder Bismarck had to spend increasingly long periods taking the baths to repair his damaged nerves; the man embodied, and indeed created, the German Reich. Its problems were his problems. (Thankfully, Pflanze only spends as much time on the man’s psyche as is necessary to explain the broader problems. He’s less of a psychological historian than Steinberg.)
The second volume also discusses Bismarck’s famed [foreign: Kulturkampf], which was essentially a war against Catholics and socialists. The Catholics were in Germany’s south and in Polish parts of Germany. They didn’t go gentle into that good night. In fact they organized the Center Party. This was a long, pointless battle that took Bismarck the better part of a decade.
I can’t quite recommend that someone coming to this topic from ground zero should dive right into Pflanze, in the same way that 69 Love Songs is not the best intro to The Magnetic Fields. I’m still looking for the right one-volume work on Bismarck. But if you want the full meal, look no further than Pflanze. Your grandkids will still be reading him when they want to understand what went wrong in 20th-century Germany.
 – A note here about how I, at least, read and learn history. I had one block of knowledge about World War I previously, and a bit of knowledge about the post-Napoleonic world by way of Henry Kissinger. I knew the *words* “Franco-Prussian War”, but didn’t know the first thing about them. Now that I’ve got some context, it’s very easy for me to remember that the Franco-Prussian War comes at the end of the formation of the German Empire, and that it predates World War I, and that it provides important context for the latter. This is how I remember U.S. presidents, as well. Can other people remember historical facts and dates on their own, without needing to situate them within a longer story?