Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Transition from Clannism to Capitalism

I cannot escape the embrace of clannism! Robin Hanson comments on clannism and the transition from clannism to modernity:

In most farmer-era cultures extended families, or clans, were the main unit of social organization, for production, marriage, politics, war, law, and insurance. People trusted their clans, but not outsiders, and felt little obligation to treat outsiders fairly.

I would only add that there have been different degrees of clannism in different areas. The farmer-era was not uniform. So, Islamic areas saw a high level, as did upland regions (Scotland, Albania), while Japan was relatively less clannish.

Our industrial economy, in contrast, relies on our trusting and playing fair in new kinds of organizations: firms, cities, and nations, and on our changing our activities and locations to support them.

Those new organizations would also include voluntary or civil society associations of all kinds—universities to parties.

The first places where clans were weak, like northern Europe, had bigger stronger firms, cities, and nations, and are richer today.

Not quite right. Northern Europe did not have bigger cities than Asia. Big firms were a much later phenomenon and did not arrive on the scene until the 1800s. Nations, however, emerging in the middle ages, did presuppose weakening clans.

Family clans tend to bring personal benefits, but social harms, such as less sorting, specialization, agglomeration, innovation, trust, fairness, and rule of law.

This may be going too far. Is innovation due to decline of clannism, or agglomeration in big cities? I would however say that the extension of trust, fairness, and rule of law to society requires a decline of clannism. Clans tend to hog those things within their tight embrace of kin.


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Not Beau Geste Any More

Just as good things clump together, so do bad things. The Sahara region has recently been in the news — because bad things are clumping together there. Here’s a couple — drug smugglers and Islamists:


smugglers and islamists

source: BBC News

But the BBC forgot to show things like Darfur, the new state of South Sudan, ongoing problems and peacekeeping in Ivory Coast … and on and on.

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From Bourgeois Revolution to Combined and Uneven Development

If the term “bourgeois revolution” has any good meaning, it is probably best seen as the series of liberal constitutionalist advances beginning in 17th century Netherlands and England, continuing through the 19th century, reversed in the epoch of the two world wars, but later resuming, and in some ways continuing into the 21st century. The trouble is, it wasn’t always the bourgeoisie who generated these reforms and revolutions.

Marc Mulholland has an excellent review of Neil Davidson’s account (my earlier brief take here).

Davidson’s most substantial diversion from the classical interpretation of ‘bourgeois revolution’ is to empty it of its specific political content.

For Davidson, all that’s need for something to be a bourgeois revolution is to promote capitalism. Declarations of rights, or liberty, or democracy is all so much blather and false consciousness.

Even the Communists promoted capitalism.

Davidson – not very convincingly – sees all communist seizures of power (except Russia 1917) as instances of bourgeois revolution. The last bourgeois revolutions, therefore, were in 1973–5: the Communist ‘Derg’ coup in Ethiopia, US defeat in Indochina, and decolonisation of the Portuguese Empire (p. 621).

This surely stretches the concept of bourgeois revolution far beyond breaking point. Such ideologically disparate movements cannot be grouped in this way.

The mechanism?—Uneven and Combined Development.

Davidson wishes to demonstrate that ‘combined and uneven’ development helps to account for the various paths to ‘bourgeois revolution’. A ‘backward’ country with a weak middle class might well seek to destroy the remnants of feudalism – guild restrictions, usury laws, a recalcitrant peasantry attached to micro-farms, aristocratic privileges, and so on – in order to catch up with geo-political rivals. The result is state-driven revolutions from above more often than from below. The first such example, Davidson argues, is the transformation of Scottish society from above in the 18th-century. In like form, socialism can begin to push beyond capitalism even in countries where the proletariat is numerically weak, as in Russia 1917.

Basically, this theory amounts to the claim that once integrated into an international division of labour, a national economy is likely to comingle reservoirs of rural backwardness with cutting-edge industries. In a ‘backward’ country seeking to ‘catch-up’ with great power rivals, the state forces the pace of defence-related industries at break-neck speed. Consumer spending is suppressed and the peasantry burdened with taxes. Politically and socially, therefore, we can expect to see a wracked traditionalism cheek-to-jowl with hyper-modernity. Any notion of stately ‘stages of modernisation’ becomes inapplicable.

A nice summation of the idea.

I don’t see the use of the “combined and uneven development” notion. Of course the underlying idea is basically true: external pressures leads catch-up states to modernize in an uneven fashion. But Trotskyism does not seem to me to add anything of value to understanding this phenomenon. In fact I would say it is just a special case of group selection: inter-group competition promotes up-scaling. That is one of the main (perhaps the main) mechanisms of social evolution. Trostkyism has managed (serendipitously) to catch a glimpse of the truth, but still cannot grasp the whole story.



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Memo to the Swedes

Sorry to hear about your current troubles.

There has been a sixth night of rioting in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, despite police reinforcements being deployed.

Cars were set alight in poor suburbs inhabited largely by immigrants

The BBC’s Stephen Evans in Stockholm: “The whole policy of immigration and integration is being questioned”

(BBC News)

Clearly you didn’t get the memo from the Canadians: if you must have mass immigration, make sure you have a highly selective system of admission.

Best of luck.

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Ignoble Lies

I happened upon a curious critique of Steven Pinker’s seminal Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Jennifer Mitzen accepts Pinker’s main theses that (a) violence has declined and (b) the West led the way thanks to reason, the Enlightenment, and liberalism. In short, she agrees that the basic message of the book is true.

But still she dislikes the book. So, what’s her problem? She thinks it will make the reader feel “smug comfort” and “indifference” to others (p. 525). Pinker’s book makes “us feel good about ourselves and distant from the causes and victims of violence” (p. 528).

In short, it may be true, but nevertheless it’s a bad book because it makes us feel good.

Well, heaven forbid that the West should dare to feel good about itself! Of course not! We must be made to feel bad about ourselves! And never mind about small matters like the truth!

Once upon a time it was considered noble to tell lies that made us feel positive about ourselves. Notoriously, the Straussians defended this. But now the plan is to tell lies that make us feel bad about ourselves – ignoble lies. That is some weird inverted ultra-Straussianism.

Of course, this only applies to the West. Only Westerners should be lied to in order to make themselves feel bad.

It is perhaps noteworthy that these opinions are published not in some ideological magazine but in a learned journal of the American Political Science Association.


Jennifer Mitzen, The Irony of Pinkerism Perspectives on Politics 11:2 (June 2013) 525-528 DOI: Published online: 21 May 2013

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Motion Quotient

A common but peevish complaint against IQ tests is that they don’t test anything real, or are somehow biased. Very unlikely.

Science Daily reports:

A brief visual task can predict IQ, according to a new study.

In the study, individuals watched brief video clips of black and white bars moving across a computer screen. Their sole task was to identify which direction the bars drifted: to the right or to the left. The bars were presented in three sizes

As expected, people with higher IQ scores were faster at catching the movement of the bars when observing the smallest image. The results support prior research showing that individuals with higher IQs make simple perceptual judgments swifter and have faster reflexes.

But the tables turned when presented with the larger images. The higher a person’s IQ, the slower they were at detecting movement…. That counter-intuitive inability to perceive large moving images is a perceptual marker for the brain’s ability to suppress background motion, the authors explain.

The key discovery in this study is how closely this natural filtering ability is linked to IQ.

This visual test is correlated remarkably with IQ in the .64 – .71 range.

There is a version of the test on YouTube here.


Motion quotient: IQ predicted by ability to filter visual motion. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 23, 2013, from­ /releases/2013/05/130523143130.htm

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The Age of Glass

From the 1200s the West, alone among civilizations, began using glazed windows and mirrors on a wide scale as well developing lenses and spectacles.

I have been wondering what implications this unusual state of affairs may have had. (Earlier posts on glass here and here.)

Firstly, glass simply made life more convenient and satisfying. Imagine a dimly-lit interior world without glass windows, or a world in which the middle-aged have no glasses to correct their dimming eyesight. More recently, how different would the world be without glass lightbulbs.

Secondly, glass affected art. Linear perspective was invented, ca. 1425, when Filippo Brunelleschi applied the geometric rules of optical mirror reflection to painting. Mirrors were commonly used by artists to develop the skill of realistic painting.

Western art after about 1250 diverged from other art traditions. Most art was flat, lacking perspective, lacking realism. Western art moved towards realism, depth, perspective, and accuracy. Alan Macfarlane points to glass. On the demand side, Macfarlane suggests that experience of windows, mirrors, and spectacles made the patrons and customers of art want realism. On the supply side, mirrors, glass panes, and knowledge of optics enabled artists to develop techniques of realism. (Realism declined in the 20th century—but those centuries of realism stand out.)

Thirdly, glass influenced the scientific revolution. The key instruments of science were made of glass: telescope (called a “perspective tube” showing the links between optics in art and science), microscope, vacuum chamber, thermometer, barometer, and the most iconic scientific instrument of all—the test tube. For science, it was essential to see what was going on. This helps explain why the scientific revolution occurred in the West, and why it began in the age of glass.

Thanks to these major effects, I think it reasonable to say the West led the world into a new age, an age of glass.

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