Thursday, September 14, 2006

No fuel, no fire....share the wealth

The fire is in the minds of men, not in the roofs of houses. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The phrase, fire in the minds of men, recently repopularized by President Bush, originated in Dostoyevsky's The Possessed and also served as the title of a book by James Billington which chronicled the rise of the revolutionary ideology in Western civilization from the French through the Russian revolutions. It seems to me no mere coincidence that the science of economics with an increasing socialist bent was formalized and adopted by the new governments during this period.

While I take Billington's point that the fomenters of revolution were less than savory characters who often had only their own gain in mind, e.g. Napoleon who was lauded as a savior when he deposed the nobility but ran into difficulty when he wished to then become Emperor, I imagine that there are always nefarious characters wishing to overthrow the powers that be and jump into their place. Despite the perpetual presence of those wishing to overturn the power structure, revolutions remain reasonably rare events in human history. I contend that one needs fuel, in the case of an extremely dissatisfied population to make the fire.

Additionally, while Napoleon himself wasn't such a fun guy the reforms he imposed, in many cases, have endured. Sometimes even bad guys have positive effects or in Biblical terminology, the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Going back a few centuries, I wonder why the anti-Vatican rhetoric of Jan Hus was easily quashed while that of Martin Luther a century later was heeded? One key difference between the two periods was the increased flow of funds from northern Europe to the south in Luther's time.

That is, while both Luther and Hus spoke of the evil of indulgences, it wasn't until the sales of indulgences were dramatically increased, in part to finance the rebuilding of Rome in general and Vatican City, e.g. the Sistine Chapel and St. Peters, specifically, that such critiques found open ears. One could argue that the Protestant Revolution was a case similar to today when the developing world (at that time northern Europe) was financing the developed world, (at that time Southern Europe). Just as Osama bin Laden complains about the Middle East financing the US, the citizens of the northern Europe complained about their financing of southern Europe.

The egalitarian drive which was in part an impetus behind the international schism in Christendom in the 16th and 17th centuries, continued intra-nationally as documented by Billington. If it was OK to complain about the Netherlands, for instance, financing Rome, it eventually became OK for the peasantry to complain about their financing of the nobility, particularly as Europe industrialized, the peasantry become literate and the new nobility, the industrialists' concentration of wealth on the sweat of a peasantry relocated to cities and thus removed from their little plots of food providing land, became evident

I find the period of Europe's industrialization and subsequent labor turmoil in the 19th Century particularly instructive at the present in the sense that globalization can be seen as the same process but on an international rather than intra-national scale. That is, the disputes between Manchester, one of the industrial centers of England, and London, for instance, can be expected between China, the current swing industrial producer, and the West, or as noted, between the Middle East and the West.

Returning to my point about the more than merely coincidental adoption of the newly formalized science of economics with an increasing socialist attitude as time passed by the new governments during the egalitarian revolutions, I contend that such actions were taken, at least in part, because it became important to ensure that the newly literate citizenry were at least well off enough to not add fuel to the revolutionary fire.
Fat, drunk and happy citizens are far less likely to complain than thin starving ones. To cite a current example, if gas was still $1.00/gallon and the housing boom was continuing far fewer people would be complaining about the War in Iraq.

The term laissez faire was coined by French Physiocrats who wished the Monarchy would stop interfering with the economy and just let it be. That is, in its origins, the term aimed at greater egalitarianism. The liberal movement among the newly powerful merchants in Europe, and notably the American revolutionaries which adopted the phrase can then be seen as the first steps in what later continued as the rise of more socialist governments.

The drive for freedom President Bush speaks of had its roots in the desire to get the nobility off their backs, only in the current instance President Bush would have us believe that the current nobility or corporatocracy which isn't sharing the wealth of globalization adheres to its credos. This seems to me to be a misapprehension of the historical trend.

In a recent essay George Soros called for a new rhetorical frame to combat the problems of the world as the War on Terror frame was not useful. I agree and not simply because one cannot make war on a tactic.

The War on Terror frame focuses on the fire in the roofs of the houses, the acts of the complainants, rather than their motivations, that which drove them to set the fires. It seems to me worth noting that Dostoyevsky lived in one of, if not the most oppressive state in Europe, Tsarist Russia. The Romanov family's refusal to give an inch, after Alexander II, in the wake of Napoleon's triumphs, began a reformation but was dissuaded from going further by inter alios, Metternich, played a large part in setting the stage for the most sweeping revolution of Europe. One can only hold the lid on a pot of boiling water for so long.

While I don't think any single frame can capture all the elements of dissatisfaction, an economic frame at least casts the problem in a practical form. If, as seems to be the case, one wishes to forestall the rise of a Middle Eastern Napoleon deposing the many Sheikdoms and Western financing governments in the region, a dose of economic egalitarianism might be the best ticket. A widely shared prosperity in the Middle East and Asia would remove fuel from the revolutionary fires burning in the Middle East and in my view soon to come in Asia.

Had the US, after ousting the Taliban, built up Afghanistan as a model for the Islamic World, as was promised in Iraq, the tensions of the world would be lower. It seems to me that the best way to immunize the Islamic street from jihadi rhetoric is not to blow up towns and villages but to build them.

The success of Hezbollah is a case in point. It isn't only by virtue of their military arm that Hezbollah has gained popularity but also by virtue of its economic support. Given their recent success I suspect there will be more movements in the Middle East modeled on their platform of being a more agreeable government from an economic perspective than those currently in power.

Saddam's rise to power in Iraq was on the back of just such a wealth sharing vision. Admittedly, while he began well, he too fell into Napoleon's trap. I also suspect that one of the key problems currently fomenting civil war in Iraq is the allocation of oil export wealth, as noted, one of Osama bin Laden's concerns.

But, just as the European Monarchies resisted egalitarianism even after Napoleon's stunning successes, so too are Western governments, led primarily by the US, resisting egalitarianism today. Just as the likes of Metternich persuaded some of Europe's monarchs to roll back the clock on Napoleonic reforms, so too are the neo-liberals, such as the Neo-Cons trying to roll back the clock on the welfare state and suppress emerging economies. I suspect that the current attempt to roll back the clock will fail just as spectacularly.

Before anyone decides to send me nasty-grams let me state that I am not in favor of wealth transfer systems except in the event that the elite are failing to maintain civil societies. It was, I contend the failure to heed Herbert Hoover's calls for volunteerism, to my mind the ideal option, which allowed FDR to impose the New Deal.

A return to the Gilded Age of Industrialists lording over their workers will, I argue, only serve to reignite the labor movement and given the international scope of the issue, possibly inflame what Henry Kissinger, an admirer of Metternich, would have you see as a war of civilizations.

The problem as I see it, is not between competing civilizations but within them. Who knows, Marx' vision of a global revolution might have needed industrialization on a global scale in order to be fomented. Not that I pine for such an event. Reform seems to me always a better option as revolutions tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Unfortunately, concentrated power tends to resist reform.

On the bright side, there are some, such as Robert Rubin, and even Ben Bernanke who have warned about the need to ensure that the benefits of globalization flow to a larger portion of the population in order for the process to continue. This need will be one of the key topics discussed at the upcoming World Bank/IMF meetings in Singapore. Unfortunately I suspect that it will take more conflict before the War on Terror answer to the problems of the world is dropped and a more useful war on concentrations of power and wealth is adopted.

At some point people will begin to wonder why the jihadis haven't attacked Christian Latin and South America or Asia for that matter. Perhpas the flow of funds has something to do with jihadi attitudes.

Lest we forget, the American Revolution was sparked in part due to a flow of funds issue. "Why?," the American Revolutionaries asked, "should we pay taxes to England and have the English set the terms of trade." This same question is being pondered by others.


Anonymous said...

I'm pleased I found your blog. Excellent essay. Do you read The Existentialist Cowboy? Keep up the good work. It is a breath of fresh air to read a well thought-out essay.

Dude said...

I'm always glad to have a satisfied reader, thanks for the kind words.

I do read the cowboy from time to time.