Monthly Archives: March 2013

Neil Davidson, *How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?*

The gist
Davidson’s answer is: bourgeois revolutions were bourgeois in outcome, boosting the rise of capitalism, not in agency, and that’s how they were revolutionary.

The book is mostly a very detailed history and discussion of ideas about bourgeois revolution; partly a defence of consequentialism (the outcome, not agency point); partly a collection of digressions on many related but often arcane points of Marxism. And it is massive: 833 pages of eye-straining small type.

bourgeois revolutions davidson

The positive
The writing is clear and comprehensible, which is more than could be said of some Marxist works. It is comprehensive: just about everything any Marxist has written about the subject seems to be here.

The coverage is unrepentantly “Eurocentric” — the revolutions that matter began with the Dutch, English, American, French and then other Europeans, before spreading out to Japan and eventually other non-European nations. The Haitian revolt, for instance, which to the multiculturalism-minded is of massive significance, is barely mentioned. This version of Marxism at least has not crumbled before the onslaught of anti-Eurocentrism.

The negative
It goes into far too much arcane detail on obscure points of Marxist exegesis and theory. (I had to skip and skim many sections to get to the end.)

It proposes no theory of the causes or courses of revolutions. In effect, it tacitly concedes this to the non-Marxist theories of revolution. (But, in a sectarian way, the ideas of the leading non-Marxists such as Jack Goldstone or others are largely ignored).

It does not ponder why the West was the pioneer not just of (bourgeois) revolutions but of almost every other kind of revolution, whether scientific, industrial, democratic or any other.

The consequentialist concept of bourgeois revolution is in the end not convincing. Modern revolutions have had many consequences: sometimes boosting capitalism, sometimes not, but also boosting variously the nation-state, bureaucracy, autocracy, democracy, communism, independence, empire and so on.

There is no empirical narrative or analysis of the bourgeois revolutions themselves. I grew tired of the concept and wanted to learn more about the actual events.

Some supposed bourgeois revolutions are highly questionable. Davidson claims that Russia 1917 and China 1949 were bourgeois revolutions because they led to state capitalism (orthodoxy for his International Socialists), also that Canadian confederation was a bourgeois revolution.

The whole idea that it is worth devoting so much attention to the idea of bourgeois revolution is misguided. Bourgeois revolutions are assumed to be important because they supposedly provide the key to explaining the rise and triumph of capitalism. (Maybe too they are supposed to offer lessons about proletarian revolution, though Davidson does not dwell on this.) But I think other things better explain capitalism’s rise, such as the general success of capitalist societies.

The judgment
Impressive, but only recommended for people who really like this sort of thing.

Neil Davidson, How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions? (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012) pp. xxi + 812.


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World History: The PC Version

Fabrizio del Wrongo has an hilarious post on “What I Learned About World History” after listening to Peter N. Stearns, one of the leading current world historians, give a Great Course for The Teaching Company.

Here are some extracts:

  • Women probably invented farming because, being the primary gatherers, they were more likely to drop seeds and notice them sprouting. (Isn’t this a bit like saying that women likely invented the vacuum cleaner because they were more likely to do house work?)
  • Ibn Battuta, a 14th-century Islamic traveler, is worth devoting a full 20 minutes to. But no time for Alexander the Great, Plato, Augustus, Napoleon, Bismark, Luther, or Hitler. (To be fair, there aren’t many individuals named in the course. One of the aims of World History seems to be to de-emphasize the individual. Ibn Battuta, however — that guy is fucking important.)
  • Three religions can be identified as “world religions” — Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. However, only one — Islam – is worth devoting a whole lecture to.
  • Islam is pro-woman because it’s against infanticide.
  • The Greeks and the Romans shouldn’t be seen as having fostered Western Civ. because they also contributed to Eastern and African traditions. (Isn’t this a bit like saying that Babe Ruth shouldn’t be considered part of the Yankee tradition because he also played a few years for the Red Sox?)
  • In fact, Western Civ. isn’t really a definable thing.
  • The West got strong largely by stealing ideas from other cultures. Like the printing press.
  • You know, Gandhi was sort of right — the West has no civilization.
  • Christianity gave Westerners the idea that they were above nature. This is why Westerners have such an urge to dominate others.
  • The Mongols were a very tolerant people who engaged in conquest mostly because it fostered contact between cultures. (Apparently, China’s building a wall to keep them out was just an advanced form of Chinese bigotry.)
  • When the Mongols did cruel things, it was usually because their armies were small, and cruelty was the only tactic available to them.
  • Genghis Khan was a sort of proto-feminist because his wife is known to have advised him.
  • Islamic and Mongol conquest = multiculturalism. Western conquest = colonialism.
  • Black Death (spread to the West from China) was kinda okay for Europe because it inspired innovation. However, disease spread to the New World from Western Europe — this inspired no innovation to speak of.
  • Subsaharan Africa circa 1200 – 1300 was about as advanced as Europe around the same time.
  • Contact with the Mongols is what made Europe so advanced, because it forced Europeans to open up to other cultures. At which point the Europeans could steal stuff.
  • Africa ended up lagging behind the rest of the world in large part because they were never conquered by the Mongols. Thus they never benefited from the Mongols’ generous program of multiculturalism.
  • Isolated cultures — those in Africa, those in the pre-Columbian Americas — hardly qualify as historical, because there’s no cultural cross-pollination. History, you see, is multiculturalism. (This isn’t expressed directly, but it’s the general idea.)
  • African polygamy was caused by slavery.
  • When China outpaces the West: “We all need to realize how backward Western Europe was at this time.” When the West movies ahead of the East: “It’s a mistake to view China as being backward.”
  • To the extent that America is “exceptional,” it’s due to its dependence on religion, guns, and violence.
  • Coding babies by color (blue for boys, pink for girls) is likely a patriarchal reaction against feminism.

Read the whole thing at Uncouth Reflections.

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Mark S. Weiner, *The Rule of the Clan*

Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What An Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom (Farar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) is an informative, well-written, tour through the past, present, and possible future of clannism – with stops among various parts of the Islamic world, Anglo-Saxon England, the Nuer, and others, to illuminate the politics, law, culture, and conflict of clannish societies.

The book also has a warning:

if liberals fail to take to heart the lessons of the rule of the clan, particularly the lesson of individualism’s paradox, our future will be a deeply troubling, literally postmodern version of our own clan past. If liberals lose the political will to maintain and nurture robust state institutions dedicated to the public interest, ignoring our human impulse to create clanlike forms of legal organization, … our societies will move in historical reverse—from Contract to a new terrible form of Status.

As well as giving me a much better understanding of clannish societies, it made me appreciate just how peculiar and unusual are non-clannish societies. Thoroughly recommended. (Earlier comment here.)


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The Geographist and His Critics

The clash between Acemoglu/Robinson and Diamond continues …

Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson review Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

Could it be that differences in social organization and institutions, rather than differences in geographic factors, are responsible for the different economic and social evolution of these societies?

They have in mind questions such as: why do some parts of the world have states while others do not? Or, why was China dominant in technology and prosperity in the fifteenth century, then backward for five centuries, and then rising over the last 30 years?

I would ask: Could it be that in addition to geographic differences and institutional differences other differences also influenced economic and social evolution?

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Against Cosmopolitanism

Michael Lind has a vigorous critique of cosmopolitanism. Extract:

Contemporary cosmopolitanism, in defiance of Hume, combines an “ought” with an “is.” The “ought” is the view that the nation-state is a parochial form of organization and should be replaced by broader, more inclusive loyalties. The “is” takes the form of the claim that the nation-state is destined to wither away because of irresistible technological or economic forces, whether we like it or not.

… Fortunately, most of the world-order goals of cosmopolitanism can be achieved by enlightened liberal internationalism without the need to sacrifice or weaken the democratic nation-state, the organization in which most of the progress toward equality and economic security over the last three centuries has taken place.

That is one of the most concise descriptions of cosmopolitanism, and most concise cases for the nation-state, that I have seen.

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What’s So Bad About Clanocracy?

Yesterday’s mention of clannishness raised the question of what is so bad about the rule of the clan, or “clanocracy.”

There are plenty of negatives. Ernest Gellner once called it the “tyranny of cousins.” Here’s just one example: clannism is in general inimical to democracy.

One way to measure clannishness is by consanguinity. That’s because clannism and cousin-marriage go together like a horse and carriage.

A recent study compared 70 countries and found that more consanguinity meant less democracy. Here’s the abstract:

This article examines the hypothesis that although the level of democracy in a society is a complex phenomenon involving many antecedents, consanguinity (marriage and subsequent mating between second cousins or closer relatives) is an important though often overlooked predictor of it. Measures of the two variables correlate substantially in a sample of 70 nations (r = −0.632, p 0.001), and consanguinity remains a significant predictor of democracy in multiple regression and path analyses involving several additional independent variables. The data suggest that where consanguineous kinship networks are numerically predominant and have been made to share a common statehood, democracy is unlikely to develop. Possible explanations for these findings include the idea that restricted gene flow arising from consanguineous marriage facilitates a rigid collectivism that is inimical to individualism and the recognition of individual rights, which are key elements of the democratic ethos. Furthermore, high levels of within-group genetic similarity may discourage cooperation between different large-scale kin groupings sharing the same nation, inhibiting democracy. Finally, genetic similarity stemming from consanguinity may encourage resource predation by members of socially elite kinship networks as an inclusive fitness enhancing behavior.

Michael A. Woodley and Edward Bell, Consanguinity as a Major Predictor of Levels of Democracy: A Study of 70 Nations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology February 2013 vol. 44 no. 2 263-280 doi: 10.1177/0022022112443855


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A Dose of Clannishness

Felipe Fernández-Armesto praises clannishness in a review of The Rule of the Clan by Mark S. Weiner in the WSJ.

The author musters a wide range of case studies of clannish behavior, from ancient Arabia, through medieval Iceland and traditional Scotland, to Wagner’s Nibelungen, Arafat’s Palestine, and the North Korea of Kim Jong Il.

I am reading the book now. Fernández-Armesto, a world historian with a strong multiculturalist bent, fails to mention that Weiner actually has interesting things to say about clannishness in more strategic places like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Weiner aims to alert liberals to some of the problems of clannishness, from honour killing to feuding to Islamic fundamentalism. But Fernández-Armesto sees nothing to worry about. In fact, he likes clannishness.

All vertical structures, from clans to churches, that clasp, in a single embrace, people from contrasting and potentially warring economic strata will help us perpetuate stability and avoid the tumbrils.

No. Some associations are voluntary (civil society) and others are not (clans). The former are sources of liberty and the latter are not. That is the essential difference.

Fernández-Armesto’s multiculturalism blinds him to the ways that societies with a history of weak lineages and less clannishness (much of Europe, also Japan) became far more successful. I have no objection to clannish societies retaining the rule of the clan. But I do object to the multiculturalist idea that a dose of clannishness would help us in the West in any way.


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