Author Archives: logarithmichistory

The veil

January 1979 – February 1982


From Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi.

Before the Iranian Revolution, a number of Western scholars wrote books attempting to develop general theories of revolution. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy is an early classic in the genre, treating different political trajectories – liberal, reactionary, and communist – as the outcome of different bargains between landowners, peasants, and bourgeoisie. Theda Skocpol’s States and Social Revolutions covers some of the same ground with an added focus on states and war-making.

But the class-centered theories that these authors develop don’t do a very good job of accounting for the Iranian Revolution or broader political currents in the Islamic world. It’s difficult to map Middle Eastern political movements onto a Left-Right spectrum. And both democracy and communism made far less headway in the Middle East than in either Latin America or East Asia. Nor do the class-based theories have much to say about gender relations and patriarchy, major issues in Islamic politics.

One of our themes in the past few months of Logarithmic History has been how the major civilizations of Eurasia have found different ways of combining patrilineal clans, state formation, and major world religions. From this perspective, the Islamic world is distinctive in several respects. The custom of marriage within the patrilineage (stemming from a culture of honor long predating Islam in the Near East, but spread far and wide by Muslim conquests) probably contributes to making the Muslim Middle East exceptionally fragmentary and fissiparous. And Islam has been exceptionally successful in overriding alternative identities based on nationality and class. Today for example, according to surveys, most Pakistani Muslims think of themselves as Muslims first and Pakistanis second, while most Indian Hindus think of themselves as Indians first and Hindus second. Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics makes the case for Muslim exceptionalism in some detail in comparing the Islamic world with Hindu India and Catholic Latin America.


The limits to growth

April 1972 – September 1975

Different decades have been obsessed with different doomsdays. From the 1940s to the early 1960s, people worried especially about nuclear war. From the late 1960s on, fears of overpopulation and ecological doom came to the fore. John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) is still one of the best science fictional imaginings of a planet cracking apart under the stress of overpopulation, a richly detailed piece of world-building. Like all visions of the future, it reflects the time it was conceived in, carrying a sense that the cultural revolutions of the 60s were spinning out of control.

For non-fiction there was The Limits to Growth (1972). Here is Scenario 1 from the book, generated by a computer model of the interaction of population, resources, industry, food, and pollution. Fiddling with the model suggested that it would be very hard to avoid a massive collapse in one form or other. If the exhaustion of resources didn’t get you, pollution would do the job.

limits to growth

The idea that overshoot-and-collapse is a fundamental recurring pattern in human history continues to be influential. Jared Diamond’s Collapse is a recent expression. Yet one of Diamond’s case studies, Easter island, now seems fairly shaky. And the most famous decline-and-fall of all – that of the Roman empire – also doesn’t look very Malthusian. (On Rome, in addition to references in my previous blog posts, check out Goldsworthy and the very recent book by Harper.)

None of this is meant to suggest that we shouldn’t worry about our ecological future. Rather that we should be thankful that we’re now mostly rich enough that we can worry more about distant dangers and less about immediate subsistence threats.

Green revolution

November 1964 – September 1968

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Paul Ehrlich. The Population Bomb 1968

Ironically, it was just around the time that Ehrlich wrote this that production of rice and wheat in India, the Philippines, and other countries was booming thanks to the Green Revolution – more productive plant varieties that could take advantage of fertilizer and pesticide inputs. It’s true, as Malthus pointed out long ago, that exponential population growth can eat up any conceivable increase in agricultural output. But the Green Revolution bought the world some breathing space until birth rates began to come down. It probably also eased some of the paranoia about food supply that played a part in two world wars.

Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind … than the whole race of politicians put together.

Jonathan Swift

Sexual intercourse began in 1963

October 1960-October 1964

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up to then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.

Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.

So life was never better than
In nineteen sixty-three
(Though just too late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Annus Mirabilis, by Phillip Larkin

Half the sky

February 1947-October 1951

Chinese state patriarchy – the alliance of the Emperor and his officials with patrilineal extended families and clans and patriarchal authority, under the sign of Confucius – was extraordinarily resilient. Over the course of several thousand years, it bounced back again and again in the face of foreign invasions, and neutered potentially disturbing influences like Buddhism and Christianity. It was finally severely weakened, if not quite eliminated, in the twentieth century. Chinese intellectuals, including the student reformers of the May 4th movement, regarded the traditional Chinese family system as a source of backwardness, which would have to be overthrown for China to take its rightful place among the world’s powers. After the Chinese Communists took over in 1949, they promulgated a revolutionary new marriage law (1950), which stated, in part

The feudal marriage system, which is based on arbitrary and compulsory arrangements and the superiority of man over women and ignores the children’s interests, shall be abolished.

The New Democratic marriage system, which is based on the free choice of partners, on monogamy, on equal rights for both sexes, and on protection of the lawful interests of women and children shall be put into effect.

Bigamy, concubinage, child betrothal, interference with the re-marriages of widows, and the exaction of money or gifts in connection with marriages, shall be prohibited.

Marriage shall be based on the complete willingness of the two parties. Neither party shall use compulsion, and no third party shall be allowed to interfere.

(The law, however, allowed traditional rules of exogamy to stand. These required people to marry outside their clan.) A campaign began, launched in 1953, to enforce the new law. The Communist Party in China would prove willing to use extraordinary violence to attack old ways, including a kinship system that stood in the way of new forms of state power.

Solution unsatisfactory

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know that Russell was a science fiction fan. (He did write some science fiction stories, which are not any better than Heinlein’s stabs at philosophy.) His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.

Ballad of the soldier’s wife

Here’s the song by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht,
performed by Marianne Faithfull (video) and by Amanda Palmer (video).

For the role of plunder in the Nazi political economy, there’s Götz Aly Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.

Here are the lyrics:

Ballad of the Soldier’s Wife

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the ancient city of Prague?
From Prague came a pair of high heeled shoes,
With a kiss or two
Came the high heeled shoes
From the ancient city of Prague.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Oslo over the sound?
From Oslo there came a collar of fur,
How it pleases her
The little collar of fur
From Oslo over the sound.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the wealth of Amsterdam?
From Amsterdam he got her a hat,
She looked sweet in that,
In the little Dutch hat
From the wealth of Amsterdam.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Brussels in Belgian land?
From Brussels he sent her the laces so rare
To have and to wear,
Those laces so rare
From Brussels in Belgian land.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From Paris city of light?
In Paris he got her a silken gown,
It was envied in town
That silken gown
From Paris city of light.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the south, from Bucharest?
From Bucharest he sent her a shirt
Embroidered and pert,
That Romanian shirt
From the south, from Bucharest.

What was sent to the soldier’s wife
From the far-off Russian land?
From Russia there came just a widow’s veil
For her dead to bewail
In her widow’s veil
From the far-off Russian land,
From the far-off Russian land.