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Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2015

Why Culture? — Brian Edwards, Author of “After the American Century”

After the American Century, Brian T. Edwards

“Analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations…. I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in.”—Brian T. Edwards

The following is a post by Brian T. Edwards, author of After the American Century: The Ends of U.S. Culture in the Middle East:

The devastating acts of murder and violence in France last month targeted a rock concert, a soccer match, and cafés in Paris’s dynamic 10th arrondissement. This past January, a satirical magazine most famous for its cartoons was attacked. The sites where these terrible crimes took place were not simply gathering places. They were locations where people go to consume or produce “culture.”

In the general hysteria of our times, we tend to reduce cultural products and their consumption to simple rather than complex things. Rushing to keep up with an ever more dire geopolitical landscape, an easy binarism prevails: us versus them, civilization versus barbarism. Paris becomes simply the romantic city of lights under attack, the debate over Charlie Hebdo a simple question of freedom of speech.

But this replaces a more nuanced sense of how culture is both contested and how cultural products can offer a window onto the complexities of life in various parts of the planet during a time of global transformation.

Many analysts of foreign affairs tend to relegate understanding culture as irrelevant to the hard work of political science and international relations. The humanities and humanistic social sciences (such as cultural anthropology) are all well and good, from this perspective, but secondary when it comes to understanding or negotiating international relations.

I am increasingly convinced that this is an error—and a costly one. Cultural products and debates over them help to explain the world we live in with a nuance that is missing from social science formulas or the distant perspective that media talking heads take.

When I read or listen to accounts of the great and ancient tensions between Sunni and Shia, or analysts who chart the national rivalries between states like a giant game of Risk, I feel that the discussion is too abstract and fails to reflect the realities as I have come to understand them based on more than two decades of discussions with people in the Middle East and North Africa.

(more…)

Tuesday, December 1st, 2015

RMB Inclusion into SDR: Hyperbole and Reality

The China Boom

The following is a guest post by Ho-fung Hung, author of The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World:

RMB Inclusion into SDR: Hyperbole and Reality
By Ho-fung Hung

As widely expected, IMF decided on Monday to accept RMB, the Chinese currency, into the currency basket that made up its Special Drawing Rights (SDR), rendering the RMB the fifth currency in the basket after USD, euro, British pound, and Japanese yen. Predictably, many will hail the inclusion as a triumph of China’s global financial power, even though they might never hear of SDR until last month and still don’t know what SDR exactly is. If we put RMB’s inclusion in the SDR in its proper historical and global context, we would find that such inclusion does not actually mean much to the Chinese and world economy in the long run. It may even bring some immediate troubles to China’s slowing economy.

The Rise, Fall, and Brief Revival of SDR

IMF created the SDR in 1969 to solve the problem of the inadequacy of hard currencies, such as US dollar and gold, necessary to maintain the Bretton Woods monetary order. Such order was constructed in the Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 and was anchored on the gold convertibility of USD under 1 ounce of gold to 35 USD rate, as well as fixed exchange rates of major currencies with the USD. To warrant the stability of this order, central banks of major capitalist countries needed to accumulate sizeable foreign exchange reserves so that they could intervene to protect their currencies’ peg with the USD at times of currency crisis. The rapid expansion of the world economy in the 1960s fomented a shortfall of USD and gold that jeopardized the stability of the Bretton Woods order. The invention of the SDR is an IMF attempt to tackle such shortfall. (more…)

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Marx after Marx — An Interview with Harry Harootunian

Marx After Marx, Harry Harootunian

“The role Marxism plays today is the same critical vocation and practice Marx imagined at the start. It is still the best critical strategy we have available to understanding … and grasping what must be done.”—Harry Harootunian

The following is an interview with Harry Harootunian, author of Marx After Marx: History and Time in the Expansion of Capitalism:

Question: How does Marxism look different once it is taken out of the Western framework? What does it mean to “Deprovincialize Marx”?

Harry Harootunian: The question of how Marxism looked different once it was taken out of the Western framework, once it was deprovincialized and resituated in a context constituted of a different lived historico-cultural experience is, in many ways, the central problem of my book.

At one level it was obvious that the migration of Marxism acquired a different appearance when it landed in regions outside of Western Europe. In fact, its migration showed the multiple routes to the development of capitalism. Uno Kozo, the great Japanese political economist notedthat the development of capitalism in Japan was a local inflection of a global process similar to other late developing societies since it followed the same economic laws despite the mediating contaminations exercised by specific historical and cultural circumstances. However, it should be pointed out that this observation was made by a number of previous thinkers in Eastern Europe, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky and even Georg Lukacs, the putative founder of ‘Western Marxism.”

All of these thinkers recognized that the penetration of capital in Eastern Europe dramatically contrasted with economic practices derived from previous modes of production and in some cases were metabolized to serve capital’s quest for surplus value. Marx put it simply in Grundrisse when he remarked that capital takes what it finds useful at hand from prior forms of economic activity and subordinates it to capitalism’s production process. Lukacs sought to show how the visible disparity between co-existing different forms of practice, the then and the now, could be overcome through the agency of ideology. The bourgeois mind was made to see in these residual appropriations not practices derived from pre-capitalist presuppositions but rather from capital’s own presuppositions. With thinkers from the margins of industrial capital and the colonies, the determining factor was the moment of encounter, time and circumstances in which capital appeared in a society. What I’m suggesting is that the reason why capital looked different derived from the convergence of two different forms of historical intervention: the conditions accounting for the timing of capital’s entry and the reasons prompting its adoption and the subsequent collision with a received, lived history and cultural experience.

The movement of Marxism could only result in a deprovincialization that took on the appearance of local historical and cultural color. When Marx announced in his famous Preface of the first edition of Capital I that “the country that is more developed industrially shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future,” he was not proposing that it would look like England or even France. What he was offering was the promise of development, knowing, at the same time, that the operation of formal subsumption, as the rule and logic of capitalist development, would inevitably involve a process of appropriation of what was at hand. Imitation of a “classic” example would have been simply impossible to maintain under the rule of formal subsumption. So I propose that in terms of theory, Marxism and its general laws, will always be mediated by local historical and cultural circumstances.

Q: Building upon that how does the history of Marxism and Marxist movements look different when you begin to look beyond the Euro-American context?

This question might be answered by suggesting that much of the concerns of Marxism outside of Europe-America, beginning with Lenin, was an effort to return to some of the more fundamental considerations of the founders, namely wage labor and the production process. In Western Marxism, The Frankfurt school was preoccupied with the role played by culture, consumption and the culture industry in the domination of everyday life. This program reflected the privilege accorded to the commodity form and ultimately value was released from its relationship to labor, whose importance was diminished. In a sense, this move to the structuring force of the commodity—value theory—exemplified thinkers like H-G Backhaus and Antonio Negri and to some extent Moishe Postone. The trouble with this orientation is that it was premised on the presumption that value had invaded every pore of the social formation. In this regard, the efforts of thinkers to return to some of the principal perspectives of the founders were an attempt to return to history and politics rather than philosophy. The move to philosophy signified a withdrawal from historical considerations related to labor and production, as suchand its importance for forms of contemporary political intervention. The preoccupation with philosophy separated lived culture from politics and history by subsuming their identities instead of reuniting value and history. In this regard, one should recall Marx’s own repudiation of philosophy and rejection of the “concept” for the sensuousness of the concrete commodity. If value trumped history, culture and consumption replaced history to signal in the West capital’s completion, that is, the accomplishment of real subsumption.

In contrast, the world beyond Europe remains at an earlier stage, still dominated by the bricolage of formal subsumption, incomplete, undeveloped, a history in the making aimed at “catching up.” Hence, the stage theory of an earlier Marxism was stretched to distinguish the West from the world beyond it, even though they shared the same contemporary moment. What I’m suggesting is that the presumed stagist movement from formal to real subsumption (absolute surplus value to relative surplus value) was another way of representing the difference between the advanced West and the backwardness of underdevelopment, maintaining the trajectory of an earlier and vulgate version of Marxism evolved from the Second and Third Internationals that would explain where societies were located in the historical route to socialism. Yet, on closer examination, it is possible to discern in this evolutionary scheme how the underdeveloped society is cast into another temporal register to reveal the distance it must travel to reach the true contemporaneity of modern capitalism. It is precisely this stagism that mandates the reproduction or replication of a singular model of development that excludes other, plural possibilities.

(more…)

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS — Olivier Roy

Olivier Roy, author of Secularism Confronts Islam and Globalized Islam: The Search for a New Ummah, is a professor at the European Union Institute in Florence. We share his recent article from the New York Times Opinion Pages in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS
By Olivier Roy

As President François Hollande of France has declared, the country is at war with the Islamic State. France considers the Islamist group, also known as ISIS, to be its greatest enemy today. It fights it on the front lines alongside the Americans in the Middle East, and as the sole Western nation in the Sahel. It has committed to this battle, first started in Mali in 2013, a share of its armed forces much greater than has the United States.

On Friday night, France paid the price for this. Messages expressing solidarity have since poured in from all over the Western world. Yet France stands oddly alone: Until now, no other state has treated ISIS as the greatest strategic threat to the world today.

The main actors in the Middle East deem other enemies to be more important. Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.

The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.

The Kurds, be they Syrian or Iraqi, seek not to crush ISIS so much as to defend their newfound borders. They hope the Arab world will become more divided than ever. They want to seize Sinjar because it is in a Kurdish area. But they won’t attack Mosul, because that would be playing into Baghdad’s hands.

For the Kurds of Iraq, the main danger is seeing a strong central government emerge in Baghdad, for it could challenge the de facto independence of Iraqi Kurdistan today. ISIS stands in the way of the creation of any such power.

The Shiites of Iraq, no matter what pressure they face from America, do not seem ready to die to reclaim Falluja. They will defend sectarian borders, and will never let Baghdad fall. But they are in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq’s political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it. (more…)

Friday, November 13th, 2015

A Chronology of State Making and Capitalist Development in China

The China Boom

This week, our featured book is The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, by Ho-fung Hung. Today, for the final post of the feature, we are happy to present Hung’s chronology of the development of both capitalism and the state in China from the 16th to the 21st centuries. Hung believes that a deep understanding of the historical development of these two institutions in China is crucial for making any kind of accurate prediction about China’s future.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The China Boom!

Thursday, November 12th, 2015

Political Uncertainties in Post-miracle China

The China Boom

“With the economic boom times gone, the perpetuation of such socio-political peace, as well as what the Communist Party would do to contain any imminent unrest becomes uncertain. Political and legal reforms might help institutionalize conflict resolution, smoothen power transition, and hence promote stability. But the Party leaders are more likely to worry that any opening will fuel rising expectations, ultimately threatening one-party rule.” — Ho-fung Hung

This week, our featured book is The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, by Ho-fung Hung. Today, we are happy to present a crosspost of “Political Uncertainties in Post-miracle China,” an article by Ho-fung Hung originally published on the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute Blog, in which he explains the political implications for China’s recent economic growth slowdown.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The China Boom!

Political Uncertainties in Post-miracle China
By Ho-fung Hung

The latest economic data from China shows that its GDP grew 7.4 percent in 2014. It was the slowest growth since 1990 (amidst global sanctions post- Tiananmen) and missed its growth target for the first time since 1998 (in the aftermath of the Asian Financial Crisis). It is another indication that the era of double-digit hyper growth has ended. To be sure, a 7.4 percent growth rate is still enviable for many developing countries. Domestic consumption now constitutes 51.2 percent of GDP, suggesting that the Chinese economy is more balanced and less dependent on fixed-asset investment and exports.

Slower, more balanced growth is good for China in the long run. But such slowdowns will also bring immediate headaches for Chinese leaders. After the outbreak of the global financial crisis in 2008, the Chinese government unleashed a huge stimulus to aggressively flood local governments and enterprises with state bank loans, trying to shield the economy from the global headwinds with a wave of debt-driven construction. China’s total debt to GDP ratio jumped from 147 percent at the end of 2008 to over 250 percent in mid-2014 according to a Standard Charter report. It has reached 282 percent by February 2015 according to a McKinsey report. This figure is dangerously high compared to other emerging economies, and it is set to keep soaring when the economy continues to slow. (more…)

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

China Steps Back

The China Boom

“Creating the A.I.I.B. is not Beijing’s attempt at world domination; it is a self-imposed constraint, and a retreat from more than a decade of aggressive bilateral initiatives.” — Ho-fung Hung

This week, our featured book is The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, by Ho-fung Hung. Today, we are happy to present a crosspost of “China Steps Back,” an article by Ho-fung Hung published in the New York Times, in which he discusses the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China-America relations.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The China Boom!

China Steps Back
By Ho-fung Hung

Beijing’s plans for a new multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank have put Washington on edge. More than 40 countries, including major United States allies in Europe, have signed up to join it despite the Obama administration’s objections and warnings.

In fact, the United States government has nothing to fear from the A.I.I.B.; its opposition is misguided. The bank’s creation will not enhance China’s global power at the expense of the United States. If anything, Beijing’s attempt to go multilateral is a step backward: It’s a concession that China’s established practice of promoting bilateral initiatives in the developing world has backfired.

Once more, anxiety about China supplanting the United States as the world’s leading power is undermining cool-headed analysis. When China set up its own sovereign wealth fund in 2007, many feared it would take control of strategic resources, acquire sensitive technology and disrupt global financial markets. But the China Investment Corporation, which controlled $575 billion in 2014, has been struggling with losses, partly because of mismanagement, according to China’s National Audit Office. (more…)

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Sinomania and Capitalism

The China Boom

“[China's] economy is also driven by three main engines: domestic consumption, fixed-asset investment, and export. The interconnections among and relative weights of these sectors are mediated by the legacies and paths of China’s long quest for modernity since the Qing dynasty was defeated by European gunboats in the mid–nineteenth century. As such, any account that lacks holistic and historical perspectives is inadequate for a full understanding of capitalist development in China.” — Ho-fung Hung

This week, our featured book is The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, by Ho-fung Hung. Today, to kick off the feature, we have an excerpt from the introduction, “Sinomania and Capitalism,” in which Hung lays out what he hopes to accomplish in his book and explains what exactly he means by “the China boom.”

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The China Boom!

After the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, which unleashed a global financial crisis, China’s export sector crashed at the turn of 2009. In a few months, however, the Chinese economy rebounded strongly into double-digit growth, where it largely had been since the 1980s. At a time when the global economic status quo seemed to be crashing, more than three decades of vibrant economic growth experienced in China—still ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)—induced excitement and even fantasy about the world’s future among writers on both the left and the right.

To be sure, left-leaning intellectuals and the business elite have different reasons for their euphoria about China, which Perry Anderson calls “Sinomania” (2010). For corporate CEOs, the rise of China and its apparently strong recovery from the crisis represent a vast, new, and limitless frontier for profit, just when business profitability in the advanced capitalist countries is seeing less and less room for expansion. For example, the business-school professor and veteran hedge-fund trader Ann Lee’s best-selling book What the U.S. Can Learn from China: An Open-Minded Guide to Treating Our Greatest Competitor as Our Greatest Teacher (2012) has drawn wide applause from business presses and consultants. The billionaire Donald Trump, who accused China of “stealing” American jobs during his entertaining bid for president in 2012, is in fact an admirer of how business is conducted in China, as he noted at an international hospitability conference in New York in 2008: “In China, they fill up hundreds of acres of land, constantly dumping and dumping
dirt in the ocean. I asked the builder, did you get an environmental impact study? He goes, ‘What?’ I asked, ‘Did you need approval?’ No, the Chinese said. And yet if I am the last guy to drop one pebble in the ocean here in this city [New York], I will be given the electric chair” (qtd. in Heyer 2008).

In the meantime, for some intellectuals, the rise of China represents the emergence of an ultimate challenge to Western domination. Others assert that China’s experience points to a “Chinese model” of capitalist development that is grounded in active state intervention (e.g., Ramo 2004). They see this “model” as a progressive and superior alternative to neoliberal capitalism, which is premised on unregulated free-market forces and has prevailed ever since Ronald Reagan’s and Margaret Thatcher’s free-market reform in the 1980s. State-directed “Chinese capitalism” is hailed for its supposedly better handling of economic crises and its greater effectiveness in sustaining uninterrupted rapid growth and poverty alleviation. (more…)

Monday, November 9th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World

The China Boom

“Timely and important, Ho-fung Hung’s accessible and clear-eyed assessment of China’s prospects, rooted in both the longer patterns of China’s own history and global economics, reaches unexpected and reassuring conclusions. A stimulating intellectual journey led by a calm and judicious guide.” — Robert A. Kapp, former president of the U.S.-China Business Council

This week, our featured book is The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World, by Ho-fung Hung. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The China Boom. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, November 13th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, October 30th, 2015

A Guru for Our Time: Eqbal Ahmad and the Life of Dissent from Empire

Eqbal Ahmad

“Eqbal was a quirky, seminal thinker and analyst of global foreign policy. He understood and described correctly the catastrophies that would follow if the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. He had met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and predicted early on that the man would become a major enemy of the US once the Soviets were defeated.” — Stuart Schaar

For the second half of this week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. In the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an article by Schaar telling a number of poignant stories about Schaar’s relationship with Eqbal Ahmad and about Ahmad’s life as an activist and seminal political thinker, originally published at Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Eqbal Ahmad!

A Guru for Our Time: Eqbal Ahmad and the Life of Dissent from Empire
By Stuart Schaar

In the early 1960s I was living in Rabat while researching my doctoral dissertation for Princeton University. My friend, the Pakistani Eqbal Ahmad (d. 1999), who was living in Tunisia and also researching his dissertation, had just driven through Algeria as the Algerians celebrated their victory over France and gained their independence. Eqbal was euphoric after having shared celebrations with the Algerians whom he met along the way. We immediately set out for southern Morocco and the walled Saharan towns south of Marrakech.

Along the route we stopped at a town where everyone was blind. They were victims of trachoma, a fly-borne disease. I remember Eqbal biting his lower lip and bursting out in tears at the sight of people who greeted us with outstretched arms begging us to help them. We were activists and were used to organizing solutions for problems. This time, we felt absolutely helpless. Years later we learned that the World Health Organization began solving the problem of blindness in the Moroccan south, by distributing lime powder to peasants who lined the walls in the rooms under their houses, where they kept their animals, and in that way kept away infected flies.

I left this story, and several other poignant ones, out of my new book, Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age just published by Columbia University Press. Instead I concentrated on his ideas and the reasons why we should remember and read him still. Eqbal was a quirky, seminal thinker and analyst of global foreign policy. He understood and described correctly the catastrophies that would follow if the US invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. He had met Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the early 1980s and predicted early on that the man would become a major enemy of the US once the Soviets were defeated. (more…)

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said

Eqbal Ahmad

“Both men [Ahmad and Said] had cosmopolitan views, and by the time they met, they had seen a considerable part of the world. Their status as refugees had made them into critical outsiders. Both of them could see the societies in which they lived from without, and they had developed sufficient yardsticks with which to gauge with some detachment and discernment what they experienced and saw.” — Stuart Schaar

This week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. Eqbal Ahmad and Edward Said were contemporaries who shared political views, and who also grew to be very close friends. In the excerpt below, taken from the second chapter of his biography, Schaar delves into their friendship, explains where they agreed and where they disagreed in their scholarly and political works, and mentions how Ahmad’s fervent defense of Said was both a positive and a negative factor in his professional life.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Eqbal Ahmad!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age

Eqbal Ahmad

“This book is full of remarkable original primary material on the life and writings of an intellectual and activist well deserving of a biography.” — Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University

This week, our featured book is Eqbal Ahmad: Critical Outsider in a Turbulent Age, by Stuart Schaar. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Eqbal Ahmad. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, October 30th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

International Climate Negotiations

Green Capital

“Over the years, the agendas for climate conferences have tackled new issues, even though the negotiations may have been at a standstill or even backsliding in terms of coordinating actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. New topics, such as climate change adaptation, the transfer of low-carbon technology, and innovative financial mechanisms, have been introduced through ad hoc working groups without really opening up new perspectives. The march toward increased cooperation in reducing emissions will be facilitated if these general categories are linked to specific questions that participants have raised, by suggesting they join concrete action programs to come up with solutions.” — de Perthuis and Jouvet

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference will be held in Paris from November 30 to December 11 of this year. De Perthuis and Jouvet look back at the complicated history of international climate negotiations and try to outline the contours of the “ideal” future climate agreement in the thirteenth chapter of their book, which we have excerpted here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Green Capital!

Tuesday, October 27th, 2015

Introducing Green Capital

Green Capital

“Despite the supportive discourse of international organizations like the OECD and the World Bank, which has lent credibility to the idea of “green growth,” these new environmental concerns remain on the periphery of political and economic decision making. Worse, following the deep recession of 2008–2009, the outlook of decision makers has shortened: what counts now is a rapid return to growth and the reduction of unemployment. As for the color of growth, they seem to say, we’ll think about that later!” — de Perthuis and Jouvet

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. Today, we are happy to present the introduction to Green Capital, in which de Perthuis and Jouvet explain the necessity and possibility of including and prioritizing climate policy in larger policy discussions, as well as giving a quick run-through of the topics that their book covers.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Green Capital!

Monday, October 26th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth

Green Capital

Green Capital takes us on a salutary journey through biodiversity, water shortages, the energy transition, and much more to stress the importance of ‘natural capital.’ The book provides an accessible discussion of the economic value of the environment and of the tragedy of the commons, and it explains why, despite our reluctance to employ them, price signals are necessary to create the right incentives. A call for greater environmental awareness and more common sense, Green Capital is a must-read for all those interested in environmental policy issues.” — Jean Tirole, Toulouse School of Economics and Nobel Laureate in Economics

This week, our featured book is Green Capital: A New Perspective on Growth, by Christian de Perthuis and Pierre-André Jouvet, translated by Michael Westlake. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Green Capital. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Wednesday, October 28th at 5:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Friday, October 16th, 2015

How Evolutionary Psychology Can Affect Political Change — Gillian Barker

Beyond Biofatalism, Gillian Barker

“[P]o­litical discussion needs to be informed by the fullest available understanding of human patterns of development and behavior and their broader ramifications. This means that it must be grounded in a grasp of the workings of evolved and evolutionary processes of change in human development, behavior, and social arrangements. But it will benefit too from a lively dialogue with older traditions of thought about political change that look far beyond a narrow and economistic cost–benefit analogy…. Evolutionary thinking about human behavior—evolutionary psychology properly understood—can be a useful and vital part of that discussion.”—Gillian Barker

The following is an excerpt from the conclusion to Beyond Biofatalism: Human Nature for an Evolving World, by Gillian Barker. In it, Barker argues that evolutionary thinking and evolutionary psychology—properly understood—can play an important part in affecting political and social change:

The critique of the syntheses of evolutionary psychology by writers like Steven Pinker, Robert Wright, and Richard Dawkins shows that a proper understanding of the dynamics of evolution, development, and behavior does not support the conservative interactionism that they espouse. Their point of view is that the inbuilt qualities of human nature impose powerful restrictions upon the kinds of social change that are feasible and acceptable. But the arguments supporting this view make use of misleading metaphors, misapply cost–benefit thinking to the evaluation of change, and blur the distinction between fact and value in consequential ways—making assumptions about values that bias their judgments of matters of empirical fact and treating normative conclusions about what is good for humans and human societies as if they emerge straightforwardly from the facts of human evolutionary history.

If the critique calls into question the pessimistic conclusions of influential writing on evolutionary psychology, recently pub­lished research in evolutionary and developmental biology has re­vealed patterns of responsive change in behavioral capacities in humans and other species that require a very different conception of evolved human nature. The dynamics of evolution, develop­ment, and behavior that this research has uncovered indicate that there is a much more lively interaction between changes in the be­havior of an organism and its environment than mainstream evo­lutionary psychology has assumed. The mechanisms of responsive change include niche construction and the environmentally cued “switches” characteristic of adaptive developmental and behav­ioral plasticity. Together these indicate that there are sometimes key points at which a small environmental intervention may trigger a distinct new process of sustained and accumulating change. They also suggest that change can sometimes be rapid and relatively smooth. It is as if there are leverage points where an environmental change across some specific threshold opens a new pathway for behavioral change that in turn has an impact on the environment. The new pathway may lead to further change, or it may arrive at a kind of stability or resilience.

(more…)

Friday, October 2nd, 2015

American Individualism Challenged

Beyond Individualism

“The individualism that Americans embrace is all-too-often seen as an attack on the core values of more traditional societies. In such contexts, individualism is all too easily characterized as uncontrolled materialism and hedonism aimed at undermining the long-established commitments and practices of communities opposed to outside intervention.” — George Rupp

This week, our second featured book is Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, by George Rupp. Today, on the final day of the week’s features, we are happy to present an essay by Rupp, in which he argues that the individualism embraced by both liberals and conservatives in American politics has a deleterious effect on both American domestic and foreign policy.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

American Individualism Challenged
By George Rupp

Especially in this campaign season, the cause of individualism is claimed across the conservative-liberal spectrum of contemporary U.S. politics. Conservatives affirm individual initiatives and embrace the liberty of individuals, often grounded in religious convictions. Liberals insist on the freedom of individual expression and action and view social order as the result of agreements among consenting individuals.

Yet this apparent agreement as to the merits of individualism has led, not to shared positive outcomes, but rather to a catastrophic under-investment in public goods.

Government funding for education at all levels has declined. The same is true for investments in the research that has undergirded global competitiveness. Similarly, the infrastructure for transportation requires massive attention. Less immediately evident but even more compelling for the long term is the imperative of care for environmental sustainability. In all such areas, the United States faces a tragedy of the commons even as private interests dominate in all sectors.

The under-investment in social goods is accentuated by the increasing spread between the income and wealth of the very top stratum of society and all other strata—not only the poor but also the middle class and even significant segments of what used to be the well-to-do. This increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth is in any case troubling. But it is especially challenging when it includes reduced upward mobility not only in comparison with past American patterns but also compared to other Western societies that have significantly better recent records of movement from lower to higher income levels.

The challenges in domestic patterns have international ramifications as well. The most basic ones result from what will be an increasingly evident lack of international competitiveness over the long term. Reduced upward mobility, declining educational attainments, and smaller investments in infrastructure and research will all over time have powerfully negative consequences.

There are also current effects on international relations. The fact that the United States devotes proportionately less of its resources to global development than virtually all other wealthy countries is one measure of under-investment. But an even more direct impact of American individualism is evident in conflict areas around the world.

The individualism that Americans embrace is all-too-often seen as an attack on the core values of more traditional societies. In such contexts, individualism is all too easily characterized as uncontrolled materialism and hedonism aimed at undermining the long-established commitments and practices of communities opposed to outside intervention. Instances of these antagonistic positions are inescapable in Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq among many other conflicts.

In confronting the appeal of such characterizations, responses can and should highlight the myriad ways in which individualism is not antagonistic to the traditional values of community. There will unavoidably be areas of tension and disagreement—for example, in regard to the role of women or the prerogatives of elders. But what is crucial is to affirm the value of traditional communities and acknowledge that there are limits to the entitlement of individuals.

One point of conflict that is potentially an area of collaboration is religion. Religious allegiances can easily become a source of mutual antagonism. Indeed, inter-religious contention and distrust have at quite a few times—regrettably including the present—been drivers of hostility. Yet there is remarkable agreement across the entire range of religious traditions that individual attainment need not be opposed to affirming the value of community. Put positively, the faith, the insight, and the conviction of the individual presupposes a nourishing and supportive community.

While this mutual support is affirmed in Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and other initially Asian communities and also in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, it is not immediately evident in some of the more strident forms of modern secular individualism. This fact renders alleged American imperialism the more plausible as a target for attack. It is therefore incumbent on the U.S. for both principled and pragmatic reasons to embrace and commend the values of communities as fundamentally compatible with the core principles of individualism.

Both liberal and conservative traditions have contributions to offer. The individualism of conservatives includes explicit recognition of the role of the community in shaping the identities of its members. Religious communities figure prominently in this process, but voluntary associations of all kinds are also included. Similarly, the individualism of liberals includes the aspiration for community as well. In this case, the community is much more likely to be secular and at its most ambitious is universal in scope, seeking in principle to include all individuals everywhere, albeit often with little focus on particular local communities.

The challenge for both conservative and liberal advocates of individualism is to allow their shared albeit not identical commitment to community to gain enough traction to overcome the under-investment in public goods that is impoverishing our common life.

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Introducing “Beyond Individualism”

Beyond Individualism

“Against the backdrop of [my] experiences across a considerable range of locations both in this country and abroad, Beyond Individualism offers a serial overview of my recent efforts to think and act in ways that resist the power of special interests and press toward more inclusive communities.” — George Rupp

This week, our second featured book is Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, by George Rupp. Today, we are happy to present Rupp’s introduction to his book, in which he explains how his experiences over a long and fascinating career have led him to the ideas he presents in Beyond Individualism.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Interview with Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness

Ethical Loneliness

“We live in a world where every relatively privileged life relies on the use of misery: the clothes we wear and the food we eat come from abusive labor conditions, the super-wealthy hide their money in tax havens to avoid contributing to larger social benefit, powerful nations pay corrupt elites in underdeveloped nations for natural resources at rates that benefit everyone except the people living in those underdeveloped nations, and it is all legal.” — Jill Stauffer

The following is an interview with Jill Stauffer, author of Ethical Loneliness: The Injustice of Not Being Heard.

What made you write a book about political repair that focused on loneliness rather than on politics or the work of institutions?

Jill Stauffer: I wrote Ethical Loneliness in response to a gap I felt in discussions people were having in various settings about how to respond to harm. Political reconciliation, transitional justice, political forgiveness and apology, legal adjudication of mass violence, truth commissions, international courts—all these are ways of responding to harm, focused to varying degrees on a discourse of repair. And yet it seemed to me that often, in conversations about these important forms of response, some things were being left unsaid. Forests were being discussed, but trees neglected, I might say. In all these discussions of repair, I kept finding too many moments where institutions designed to hear failed to listen well, and so also failed those they were most meant to serve.

So I set out to try to put a name to this thing that seemed to slip through the cracks of current conversation. I found my way to an answer when I started reading the writings Jean Améry, a holocaust and concentration camp survivor famous for defending the political value of resentment over forgiveness. Reading his work while thinking about Emmanuel Levinas’ early phenomenology—written while held in a forced labor camp during WWII—led me to come up with the term “ethical loneliness,” a name for a double abandonment. Ethical loneliness is the experience of being abandoned by humanity compounded by the experience of not being heard when you testify to what happened.

Can you offer an example of how “ethical loneliness” gets produced?

JS: It might happen when interviewers taking testimony from holocaust survivors want to hear stories of resilience and so cannot hear tales of a self’s destruction; at a truth commission where a political concern with forgiveness means stories of justified resentment go unheard; or in a court of law where the need to establish the facts of a case pushes to the side a larger story of harms caused and worlds destroyed. It might also arise when testimony about a complex story of disrespect and abuse is reduced to a standard rape story due to selective listening or political goals; or when academic discourse analysis takes testimony aiming to demonstrate strength and loss and transforms it into a story only about pain; when the legalized goal of isolating victims from perpetrators fails to see how porous the lines between the two can be in protracted complex conflict; or when those empowered to judge do not adequately understand the context in which histories and stories are conveyed, or the forms they might take, for indigenous or other minority communities. These are all sites where even people who very much want to hear well, do justice and create a better future may fail to do any of that. And that will leave many people feeling unheard, invisible, lonely or worse.

What causes ethical loneliness?

JS: Well, it’s a failure of hearing, but you’re asking why people fail. Reasons for it are just as varied as the occasions where it occurs. Those who fail to hear well may be focused on the facts of the case or the established laws and procedures. They may have a political interest in a restorative discourse. They may be overwhelmed by how far the demand for help exceeds their capacity to offer assistance. Or they may be protecting themselves from the trauma of hearing.

But I think it goes beyond that as well. As I wrote the book, I asked myself how it could be that “bad hearing” was so widespread. And I came to the thought that at least part of the problem resides in the stories we (those of us who care about justice and believe it ought to be fairly equally distributed) tell ourselves about what we owe and how we come to owe it. We want to believe in liberal political theory’s tale of autonomy not only because, for many of us, we find it all around us as we get formed as people—it is a prevalent story. But we also want to believe in a simplified autonomy because it can be too frightening to admit that, just as we were made into who we are by lots of forces beyond our control, including our fellow human beings, we can be destroyed by other human beings. Meaningful autonomy only exists where there are others who will respect its boundaries. And much of what keeps some safe while others get harmed is moral luck, nothing earned or deserved. It can be terrifying to think it, but I see no way out of that truth.
And so we tell ourselves that we are only responsible for what we’ve done and intended, and perhaps we also believe that people get what’s coming to them. But we forget to reason our way to the conclusion that comes from that starting point: that our aspirations toward a better justice will remain unrealized if that’s the story we tell ourselves about responsibility.

How does that follow?

JS: Well, let’s admit up front that sometimes it does work to say that a person is responsible for something she has done, and that the balance disturbed by that bad act can be set aright by some kind of punishment or paying of compensation. That probably works for some kinds of harms. But that story of legal culpability does not correspond to most of the forms of harm discussed in the book: where what causes harm and destroys worlds is not (or not only) individual people who set out to do harm, but also whole ideologies rallied around supporting that harm, supported actively or passively by large populations—nearby or distant, sometimes even the whole world—standing by and doing nothing to resist them. We might like to call these “innocent” wielders of harm bystanders and beneficiaries, but I’m not sure those terms are rich enough to communicate a sense of what actually builds or destroys a world.

But how does believing I’m only responsible for what I’ve set out to do mean that there won’t be better justice?

JS: We live in a world where every relatively privileged life relies on the use of misery: the clothes we wear and the food we eat come from abusive labor conditions, the super-wealthy hide their money in tax havens to avoid contributing to larger social benefit, powerful nations pay corrupt elites in underdeveloped nations for natural resources at rates that benefit everyone except the people living in those underdeveloped nations, and it is all legal. Most individuals benefiting from that misery have not participated directly in imposing oppressive or violent conditions. And so they may think they cannot be responsible for what happens. My point: many will be left unprotected and without recourse even in a world where everyone lives up to their legitimate legal duties and does nothing more than that. More is needed. But in order to see that you have to tell yourself a different story about where responsibility comes from and who bears it. If you believe in a justice beyond bare legal culpability, then you have to accept responsibility for more than what you’ve done and intended.

And how do you tell that story in the book?

JS: To get at where a sense of responsibility beyond bare culpability could come from, I had to work through a phenomenology of how selves get built not as autonomous units but in a dependence on others. I show how that is true not only in dire situations where human vulnerability is exploited, but in daily life, where one’s own possibilities and daily actions are made easier or more difficult by a variety of human-made contexts. Only that story makes sense of how human beings can be destroyed by other human beings, with or without violence (that is, destruction is not only physical but can also be emotional or social). And it begins to dismantle the attachment many of us might have to current ideas self, autonomy and responsibility that only tell half of the story. I don’t discard autonomy (it is a valuable possession!), but rather put it back in relationship with the vulnerability that also defines us as human beings. That vulnerability is not all bad! It brings us love and various kinds of pleasure along with the danger of harm and loss.

OK. So if I care about justice in way that transcends legal institutions, I have to give up my attachment to my limited-version story of responsibility. Is that all?

JS: That’s a step. The book doesn’t just gut you of your autonomy and leave you there. It also gestures at ways out of this deeply rooted impasse. I suggest renewed attention to the human capacity for revision, and a revision of our limited ideas about desert. For anyone living in the wake of an unjust past that should have been otherwise, revision can be a life-saving talent. But it is rarely accomplished by one person acting alone.

What do you mean by revision?

JS: It doesn’t mean denying that the past happened (it isn’t “revisionist”). But it reckons with the different kinds of stories each of us can tell ourselves about the past, over time. We all know that the meaning of past events changes for us over time as we age and/or as our lived context changes. That’s revision. I argue in the book that this, also, is the source of a broad social responsibility. For someone living in a community where what happened to her is widely acknowledged as a wrong that should not have been permitted and will not be allowed in the future, it will be easier for her to narrate the past as over rather than continuing into the present moment than it will be for someone whose losses aren’t acknowledged or who is still surrounded by people who do not treat her with respect or care. In that case the past will not be past. In the wake of massive violence or longstanding oppression, it is everyone’s job to contribute to building a world where positive rather than negative revisions are possible.

So the book sets out a phenomenology of ethical loneliness, discusses how current discourses about truth commissions, international tribunals, political reconciliation and transitional justice contribute to furthering justice but leave important goals unthought, collects together testimony from diverse institutions and a wide range of persons whose worlds have been further destroyed when their words were not properly heard, thinks carefully about the human capacity for revision—for remaking the world—and asks what desert could mean in the wake of all that.

Wednesday, September 30th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, by George Rupp

Beyond Individualism

“Rupp writes with great clarity and wisdom, and also with unmistakable moral conviction about issues with which he has direct personal engagement. Beyond Individualism is a book of passionate advocacy.” — David N. Hempton, dean, Harvard Divinity School

This week, our featured book is Beyond Individualism: The Challenge of Inclusive Communities, by George Rupp. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Beyond Individualism. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, October 2nd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!