Tag Archives: inequality

2019 RIP

Some deaths in 2019

Napoleon Chagnon

There will never again be anything like the twentieth century for cultural anthropology, a time when still-surviving tribal societies were studied in depth by several generations of fieldworkers. Napoleon Chagnon is among the great ethnographers. Even in this company he is exceptional for the range and depth of quantitative data he collected. He is exceptional as well for his interest in bringing evolutionary theory to bear on understanding human behavior – including violence and revenge. This made him a figure of controversy in cultural anthropology, where the duumvirate of Blank Slate and Noble Savage still have a strong hold. Here’s a post on Chagnon, and the controversy.


Jessye Norman

Just this


Immanuel Wallerstein

Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory is a spatialized version of Marxism: a prosperous Core of developed nations grows rich by glutting themselves on an exploited, underdeveloped Periphery. As a historical-sociological Theory of Everything, it probably ultimately doesn’t work better than classical Marxism. But it’s not entirely wrong either. Silver from Potosi, sugar from Haiti, corn from Wallachia, rubber from the Congo; Wallerstein and World Systems Theory have forced our attention on one of the dark sides of the making of the modern world.


Gene Wolfe

Thus I became acquainted with all the thoroughfares and with many an unfrequented corner – granaries with lofty bins and demonic cats; windswept ramparts overlooking gangrenous slums; and the pinakotheken, with their great hallway topped by a vaulted roof of window-pierced brick, floored with flagstones strewn with carpets, and bound by walls from which dark arches opened to strings of chambers lined – as the hallway itself was – with innumerable pictures.

Many of these were so old and smoke-grimed that I could not discern their subjects, and there were others whose meaning I could not guess. … After I had walked at least a league among these enigmatic paintings one day, I came upon an old man perched on a high ladder. …

The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure’s helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.

This warrior of a dead world affected me deeply, though I could not say why or even just what emotion it was I felt. In some obscure way, I wanted to take down the picture and carry it … into … mountain forests. … It should have stood among trees, the edge of its frame resting on young grass.

A remembrance of things past from Severian, born into the guild of torturers but now exiled, on a weary, war-torn Earth perhaps a million years in the future, under a dying sun. He is looking, all unknowing, at the picture of an Apollo astronaut, one of the few relics left of our forgotten age. (See picture at the top of this page, under December.)

Gene Wolfe is one of the finest literary artists the field of science fiction has produced. His tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, bears reading and rereading. (This quotation is from Book One, The Shadow of the Torturer.)

About Wolfe. And more.

Globalization and its discontents

October 2016 – November 2017

I posted a version of the piece below in 2016, just after Donald Trump was elected, trying to get some historical perspective on this wildly unexpected event. My prediction that “the future seems more likely to witness an Age of Discord and racialized politics than a stable new political alignment” was sadly on target.

Consistent with the argument I made about globalization and its discontents, here’s a recent article, The trade origins of economic nationalism: import competition and voting behavior in Western Europe, which finds that

a stronger import shock leads to (1) an increase in support for nationalist and isolationist parties, (2) an increase in support for radical‐right parties, and (3) a general shift to the right in the electorate.

One topic I didn’t consider in the post is immigration. This was not a big issue in back in the days of the New Deal: earlier immigration restrictions had taken it off the table, making it easier for Roosevelt to put together a commanding cross-ethnic coalition. But nowadays, the ethnic anxieties and animosities evoked by immigration are a major – ­maybe the major ­­– factor behind the rise of the populist right in the West.

Scholars have often failed to anticipate the enduring importance of ethnicity and ethnocentrism in politics. An exception is Walker Connor. In trying to account for the emotional hold of ethnicity (even under Communist regimes supposedly dedicated to the proposition that the workers have no country), he wrote:

With but very few exceptions, authorities have shied from describing the nation as a kinship group and have usually explicitly denied any kinship basis to it. These denials are customarily supported by data showing that most nations do in fact contain several genetic strains. But . . . it is not what is but what people perceive as is which influences attitudes and behavior. And a subconscious belief in the group’s separate origin and evolution is an important ingredient of national psychology. In ignoring or denying the sense of kinship that infuses the nation, scholars have been blind to that which has been thoroughly apparent to nationalist leaders. In sharpest contrast with most academic analysts of nationalism, those who have successfully mobilized nations have understood that at the core of ethnopsychology is the sense of shared blood, and they have not hesitated to appeal to it.

Eric Kaufmann’s recent Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities makes the case that a sense of shared ancestry and white identity is an important – albeit taboo – motive behind the rise of populist, nationalist parties.

As for the possible evolutionary deep history of ethnicity and ethnocentrism, and its relationship to kinship and nepotism, here’s a blog post and an article by me.

And here’s my original post on globalism and its discontents:

According to some paleontologists, evolution proceeds by fits and starts. Long periods of stasis, without much change, are punctuated by pulses of rapid evolution accompanying speciation. Human history too often proceeds by fits and starts. In 2016 several electoral upsets occurred – the British vote to leave the European Union, the U.S election of Donald Trump to the Presidency – that suggest that a long period of consensus about politics is due to be punctuated.

From Old Deal to New Deal

It’s interesting to compare-and-contrast the current situation in the United States with an earlier episode of stasis and punctuation in American history. Between the 1870s and the 1920s, there was an effective détente between Republicans and Democrats, with each party getting their way on the issues that mattered most to them. The Republicans were the party of Big Business, and Big Business for most of this time was a supporter of protectionism and high tariffs, meant to insulate domestic industry from foreign, especially European, competition. In the industrializing Northeast, much of the middle and working class was on board with this program, welcoming protection from low-wage labor abroad (although in big cities, Democrats and even Socialists had a base of support from recent immigrants). The Democrats, meanwhile, were above all the party of Race, specifically in the white South, which was effectively under single-party rule, dedicated to keeping African Americans (and low class whites) disenfranchised. The agricultural South and West would have preferred more a more open trade policy, and the industrial Northeast had some misgivings about segregationist excesses, but the two sides managed to keep the peace with one another.


With the onset of the Great Depression, being the party of Big Business stopped working for the Republicans. A very different political alignment came into being with the New Deal. Intellectually too there were major shifts, especially in thinking about race, so that the cultural world of, say, 1950, seems miles away from the world of 1900.


From “The World is Flat” to a Fractured World

From the 1970s until 2016, a different bargain held between Republicans and Democrats. Curiously, this bargain was a kind of inverted version of the earlier détente between the parties. The Republicans were still the party of Big Business, but with the United States having matured into an industrial superpower, this translated into support for reducing barriers to international trade. And the Democrats were again the party of Race, but now non-whites were a crucial part of the Democratic coalition, making up for (and contributing to) the party’s weak showing among whites. In particular, Democrats dominated the African American vote as effectively as they had once dominated the white Southern vote. Intellectually, this bargain translated into an ideological fusion of economic internationalism (what left wing critics would call neo-liberalism) and multiculturalism. Geographically, the pattern of support for the two parties was almost exactly the opposite of what it had been a century earlier.


Under the surface, there were signs that the Republican embrace of Big Business and free trade and the Democratic embrace of multiculturalism and identity politics left a lot of voters dissatisfied. But it took a very unusual political campaign to bring this discontent to the surface. Like Roosevelt, Trump won with the support of Northeastern voters who would previously have supported the other party’s candidate (or stayed home). But analogies with the past go only so far. Trump’s margin of victory was far narrower than Roosevelt’s. The future seems more likely to witness an Age of Discord and racialized politics than a stable new political alignment.


Culture wars

August 2015 – October 2016

Since 1981, the World Values Survey Association has been carrying out surveys around the world regarding people’s values, asking respondents, for example, whether most people can be trusted, and whether they are proud of their country. A lot of the variation in values across countries falls along two axes, call them Survival versus Well-Being/Self-Expression, and Traditional Authority versus Secular Rationality, shown as the x and y axes in the chart below.


In societies high on Survival and low on Well-Being/Self-Expression (left on the x axis), people tend be less trusting and less happy, and to value money and material well-being more than emotionally rewarding careers. In societies high on Traditional Authority (low on the y axis), people are more patriotic and more religious.

We can also plot countries around the world by their positions on the two axes, as in the chart below.


A few observations: Confirming everyone’s stereotypes, Sweden is extreme both in post-materialism, and in post-traditionalism. Overseas Europe is more traditional than the Continent: the Anglosphere is more traditional than the Continental Protestant world, and Latin America more traditional than the Continental Catholic world. And it looks like Soviet Communism did a moderately effective job of destroying traditional values, and a really good job of leaving people miserable.

Values change over time. They constitute a mediating link between economic and political change: economic changes tend to result in changing values, while changing values tend to result in changing political institutions. More specifically:

  1. The growth of industrial employment tends to move societies up the y axis, away from traditional values, without shifting them much on the x-axis. The history of rapidly industrializing late nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Europe reflects this value shift, with new ideologies and leaders bypassing or assaulting traditional hierarchies of aristocracy and Church while fighting ruthlessly to make sure their followers came out on top in the struggle for existence.
  2. More recent economic changes, toward post-industrial employment, tend to move societies rightward on the x axis. The declining levels of violence documented by Pinker, as well our halting progress toward a more democratic world, are reflections of this. These are encouraging developments, but matters are complicated by the fact that this movement is highly uneven, both across and within countries. We no longer see the stark divisions of the Cold War era. But in many areas around the world, people find themselves in a house divided against itself on cultural matters, and the resulting culture wars can make for more conflict. Political scientists have coined a label for this, Center-Periphery Dissonance, and many of the revolutionary political struggle of the last several years have pitted a modernizing center against a more traditional periphery.

The veil

January 1981 – January 1984


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.

Half the sky

February 1949 – October 1953

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 and the growth of mercantile wealth. 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 Communists 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.

Land of samba

South America largely avoided the all-out international total wars that consumed Eurasia in the twentieth century. (Civil wars are another matter.) But international events made themselves felt even here. Brazil had its own fascist party, the Integralists (founded 1932), with its paramilitary wing, the Green Shirts. However in Brazil, even the fascists couldn’t quite get into the whole National Socialist racial purity thing; the Integralist slogan called for a “Union of all races and peoples.” (“This place would have driven Hitler crazy,” is what one Brazilian told me, talking about race in Brazil.) The Integralists fought the Communists in the mid 1930s, but eventually both sides were suppressed by the dictatorial Estado Novo (New State) in 1937, led by Getúlio Vargas.


In much of the world at the time, liberalism and free trade were out, and nationalism and protectionism were in. In Latin America, this move went under the name of “populism,” favoring urban businessmen and workers at the expense of the old export-oriented land- and mine-owners. This often meant cultural as well as economic nationalism. Brazil today is famous for its Carnival celebrations, including samba parades. Ironically these took much of their current shape during the 1930s, echoing mass rallies in Italy and Germany. The organized samba parades were a means of bringing rowdy public celebrations under official control: from this point on they were officially sponsored, and were expected to march in orderly lines and to celebrate edifying nationalist themes. Early twentieth century samba musicians incorporated a variety of musical styles in their performances; in the 1930s, in the name of “authenticity,” they were encouraged to purge their music of foreign influences, including jazz.

Commerce and coalitions


The theory of comparative advantage is one of the really great theories in the behavioral sciences. It implies that even if country E has an absolute disadvantage at producing every kind of good compared to country P, it can still gain by finding goods for which it has a comparative advantage, and specialize in producing those, and trading for other goods with P.

But the theory of comparative advantage (like another great theory,  the theory of kin selection) needs to be handled with care. Even if a country benefits in the aggregate from international trade, there may be losers as well as winners. As the world came to be increasingly tied together by international trade, conflicts over free trade and protectionism moved to the fore of politics. In nineteenth century England, the free traders, representing industrialists and urban workers, took control, opening the country to cheap imported food. But in the 1870s, both Germany and the United States arrived at political settlements that favored protectionism over free trade.

Germany was unified in 1871. The densely populated country had a comparative advantage in labor and a comparative disadvantage in capital and land. Free trade for Germany would have meant specializing in labor intensive goods, and importing capital intensive goods from more industrialized countries like England, and cheap food from the more thinly populated Americas and Eastern Europe. Instead, Germany put up high tariff barriers to protect her industrialists and landowners – a “marriage of iron and rye.” Germany’s industrial working class was pro-free trade (so was Karl Marx), but their main political vehicle, the Social Democratic Party, was excluded from the government. This political settlement lasted right up to the First World War; on some accounts, the fraying of the protectionist ruling coalition was a factor pushing Germany toward war.

The United States had a different protectionist coalition. In the 1870s the country had an abundance of land, but it was short of labor and still in the early stages of industrialization. Protectionism, supported by Republicans, promoted national industry, and kept high-wage American workers from having to compete with low-wage workers overseas. The agricultural South and West were the big losers under this scheme, but there was a compensating advantage for the South. The compromise of 1876 put the Republican, Hayes, in the White House in exchange for ending Reconstruction in the South. White Southerners then had a free hand to set up a one party state under the Democrats, committed to black disenfranchisement and white rule. When the upstart Populists started winning support in the South and West on a free trade platform, they were beaten back by Southern Democrats playing the race card. The condominium between Republicans and Democrats lasted until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In Latin America at the same time period, the free traders were largely in the ascendant. In Brazil, for example, the ruling coalition stood for café com leite – coffee with milk – São Paulo coffee planters and Minas Gerais cattle ranchers committed to an export oriented economy. Brazil had a lot of vacant land that could be opened up for coffee production, and was able to attract European immigrants to help with the harvest.

In Guatemala by contrast, free trade took a more sinister turn. From 1871, a “liberal” government facilitated the expropriation of Indian lands to promote coffee production, all in the name of progress. Indians were recruited to work on the plantations by a combination of forced labor and debt peonage. The country came to resemble a penal colony under the control of a large standing army.

Joseph Conrad spent his early life as a sailor, and had plenty of chance to see the dark underside of globalization, most famously the Congo rubber trade as depicted in Heart of Darkness. In Nostromo, set in a fictional Latin American republic, he wrote

Liberals! The words one knows so well have a nightmarish meaning in this country. Liberty, democracy, patriotism, government – all of them have a flavor of folly and murder.