Archive for September, 2008

Financial Chaos

A sample of articles I have read over the last week about the unravelling US financial market:

“…there’s also been a fairly impressive amount of back-patting going on in Canada, with a range of commentators and officials remarking how different the system is here and how much more prudent Canadian regulators and standards are than those in the U.S.

As Canadians, we are no strangers to smugness. It’s not a particularly endearing national characteristic at the best of times, but even less so when it’s utterly unfounded.

Sure we may have dodged a direct bullet this time around, but that’s not to say that our regulation of our own financial services business is not without some profound and frightening flaws.

Remarkably, for example, there’s no single agency in Canada that has a full mandate to review and report on the health of brokerage industry balance sheets.

The Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) – which is a federal government body – has a singular mandate to keep an eye on the books of Canadian banks. Because the brokerage arms of the banks are consolidated on those books, they get a pretty clear look at what’s going on there. But OSFI officials don’t have the power to enforce any recommendations or warnings they may deliver on the brokerage side.”

from Why Canadians Shouldn’t Be So Smug (September 18)

“It is obvious that the current financial crisis is becoming more severe in spite of the Treasury rescue plan (or maybe because of it as this plan it totally flawed). The severe strains in financial markets (money markets, credit markets, stock markets, CDS and derivative markets) are becoming more severe rather than less severe in spite of the nuclear option (after the Fannie and Freddie $200 billion bazooka bailout failed to restore confidence) of a $700 billion package: interbank spreads are widening (TED spread, swap spreads, Libo-OIS spread) and are at level never seen before; credit spreads (such as junk bond yield spreads relative to Treasuries are widening to new peaks; short-term Treasury yields are going back to near zero levels as there is flight to safety; CDS spread for financial institutions are rising to extreme levels (Morgan Stanley ones at 1200 last week) as the ban on shorting of financial stock has moved the pressures on financial firms to the CDS market; and stock markets around the world have reacted very negatively to this rescue package (US market are down about 3% this morning at their opening).”

– from Nouriel Roubini’s Global Economonitor (September 28)

Many are still in denial it seems, arguing more and more fiercely for deregulation: the message of much of the business community is still that government is the problem,  government is too intrusive, the government should be out of the way of the private market so it can do what the government can’t; all this at the same time that the private market, especially the bank where most of our recent growth has been concentrated, is failing, disastrously, and begging for money from the government.

“I am definitely not a fan of a windfall profit tax on the oil companies, and I understand the need to plow those profits back in new equipment and searching for new drilling sites. However, if the oil companies do not at least pretend they are not completely profit driven and provide some relief for the consumer, some clown in Congress or the Senate or wherever looking to make a name for himself/herself will force through some legislation that will drastically hamstring the oil companies from doing what they do best, and ultimately affect all our standard of living.”

– from Agora Capital’s Five Minute Forecast (September 17)

This is further evidence, if any were needed, of the fact that the market is not and never can be the answer. (The need to pursue illegal wars is pretty strong evidence too, of course.) You look around the world and you see massive need on the one hand, and massive wealth on the other, and the two never connect. The market is massively inefficient, capitalism is massively unstable and turbulent, and it’s insane that we are all bound to this terrible wheel of instability.

The real left is making a lot of noise about this. There’ll be a convention of the left during the Labour party conference, all the shades of genuine leftwing opinion, and we’ll be hammering all these questions out from a socialist perspective. But if the papers and the broadcasters fail to record it, it’s very difficult for these ideas to penetrate the public consciousness. The media just turns a deaf ear; it chooses not to hear it. It’s a lot more interested in the careerism of whoever’s after Gordon Brown’s job.”

– Ken Loach, from the Guardian (September 19)

“Although we have long been opposed (and remain so) to views that place monetary policy at the heart of explanations of the course of modern capitalism—a perspective that Grant is identified with—we nevertheless agree with his assessment here that the state and finance are in bed with each other (or have at least closed ranks in the crisis, representing a common ruling-class viewpoint). This also extends to the two major political parties and their candidates. And it includes the media, which ought to be raising a stir. The silence in the context of a general election speaks volumes. We also find ourselves in accord with Grant’s conclusion that in the end there seems to be no completely satisfactory explanation for lack of popular protest over a series of ad hoc grants showering hundreds of billions of dollars of public money on the masters of finance, collectively the richest group of capitalists on the planet. And that raises the question: Is this outrage present nonetheless, growing underground, unheard and unseen? Will it suddenly burst forth, like some old mole, unforeseen and in ways unimagined? That too, we think, is a possibility.”

– the editors of the Modern Review, from last year (2007)

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The New Taliban

New Breed of Taliban replaces old guard

Money and a hatred of foreigners are motivating a new generation of Afghan fighters.

Beware: these men may lay down their lives for you if you are their guest. But they may hack your head off if you’re an intruder.

They soon demonstrated gruesome beheading videos on their state-of-the-art mobiles to establish their credentials.

Hamidullah Khan, a veteran fighter in his mid-forties, underlined why the wild body-counts of the Afghan government are meaningless. These Talibs fight, he claimed, like shark’s teeth. “This is the late Mullah Dadullah’s home. He gave his life for God’s will. When he was killed 20,000 more came forward in the name of Dadullah. They’re now behind him. This is the Taliban way. When one is killed another comes in. Then another. We don’t leave the ground empty.”

And there was no evidence here of hordes crossing the frontier from Pakistan. To a man they were Afghan. The sole foreigner, Aftab Panjabi, a former Pakistan Army officer, took a dozen Talibs through the art of firing an AK47 accurately.

They were candid about their motives. There was no chat of Mullah Omar – the old Taliban leader – nor Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. Their fight is both modern – and yet traditional.

In modern terms they feel nothing has changed. They see a country mired in corruption. They know there is a government of sorts in distant Kabul but it has no writ here. Haji Hyatullah, in his twenties, may have his face covered in black turban – but talks openly about getting far more money fighting with the Taliban than any other job around. Assuming for a second that there were any jobs. “People are getting fed up with the lies the government has told them.

– from The Telegraph in the UK

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Insurgencies in the Movies…

This week I watched with the girlfriend two films about guerrillas, insurgency and wars of occupation: The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Ken Loach’s loosely fictionalized account of a  single Irish community, and a few families, during the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War, from a few years ago, and Meeting Resistance, a brilliant documentary from a years ago as well, filmed on location in Iraq, by a former member of the British Army who served in Northern Ireland; both films are chiefly remarkable for allowing their subjects, fairly ordinary people, to speak through action and in their own words, about the struggles in which they fight.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is fictional, to an extent, and its characters are invented whole cloth but invested by their actors with a dignity, seriousness and intelligence that is never particularly condescending nor romantic, as rural people tend to be portrayed in Hollywood films about Ireland especially.  Better yet, this is a sympathetic but not sentimental portrayal of revolution from the ground up, as the historians say, something like Loach’s prior film Land and Freedom, or the films of Peter Watkins.  It does not glamorize revolution or civil war; innocents are executed, brothers kill brothers, men puke their guts out from the carnage or are tortured by their enemies.  Nor does it condemn it, as many a Hollywood film might do, blasting every side as being ‘the same’  and renouncing political violence while failing to offer any solution to what was a very real problem.  The British are very much the bad guys, or rather the Blacks and Tans, as there is nary another British character on display but the Blacks and Tans; the viewer gets a real feeling for why occupiers are almost always genuinely hated, arrogant, violent, demanding, forcing humiliation, beating and murder as a matter of course.  And really, how many Irish would have seen any Brits but a soldier at this time, men chosen specifically for their proclivity for violence, a very British Freikorps.  This presentation of the British as almost unambiguous villains got the film widespread condemnation in the right-wing British press, unsurprisingly, who objected to the ‘heroic’ (not really) portrayal of Irish ‘terrorists’ killing innocent Brits; they complained that the British side of the issue was never presented.  Of course, that ignores that most of the characters were Irish radicals anyway, supporters of the IRA and anti-treaty, anti-Free Staters as well, from West Cork, remote and Red, and that the film reflects their viewpoint, their arguments, their struggle, and doesn’t give a damn for the British side.

A more pernicious tendency of criticism, and this seemed to emerge in the American reviewers, was that the dialogue especially was unrealistic, and one meets the accusation that ‘no one’ (no one in the working class, at least) ever spoke like this, delivering speeches and speaking in terms of freedom, justice, class struggle, socialism, that no one ever stood in a tiny Irish council hall and debated with his neighbours the very serious political issue of the day, the one that literally meant life and death.  Of course, to the modern reviewer, or to the modern viewer, of whom a few I  know smirked at the dialogue, is often immersed chin-deep in postmodern irony and the popular vernacular of sarcasm and general insincerity, bemoaning that nothing can change, people can’t change, the world is shitty and better accept that as I make ridiculous, oh so clever jokes about unicorns…ahem…that went personal.  The point is, ignoring my hyperbole there, people (again, the mythical working class of the postmodernist) aren’t supposed to debate this stuff, with such fervour and such articulation.  It’s a valid criticism, but the actors of The Wind That Shakes the Barley stumble over lines, stutter, repeat themselves, scoff and yell it becomes very hard for me to deny that such debates did occur.  The counter-argument would be that the film is therefore serving its propoganda tool of fooling me into thinking popular revolution was possible and is possible, that ordinary people can grapple with complex issues and decide their own fates.  Of course, as a young historian I’ve actually read and have access to the kind of documentation, union minutes from meetings, factory records, diaries and journals, so I can say with more certainty than some that debates like this did happen and continue to happen.  My final statement about the movie (beside the fact that it is very sad and made people like my dad, grizzled anarchists and even so pomos cry) is summed up nicely by a review from the website Spike Online (I don’t like a lot of what they say, but the site is always worth reading):

This debate, urged on by those who want a new social order and not just a new flag, is brought to life in a striking scene in a Sinn Fein courtroom, with real weight given to the protagonists on either side. It is the precursor to the magnificent set-piece debate that is at the heart of the film. The local IRA convenes to decide its position on the Treaty. The men and women that we have got to know sit around a large room and one after another they speak out, for and against. All the arguments are rehearsed. We must fight on – for the martyred dead; against the oath; for the Catholics in the North; for a socialist republic. We must take this deal for now – we are faced with immediate and terrible war; the British are in a corner too; we can regroup later; it would be a betrayal of the martyrs; the border is still open to discussion. The debate – it never stops – is later taken on to the next stage in the local church when the parish priest threatens the anti-Treaty side with excommunication.

It is an exhilarating expression of people being utterly gripped by one of those real, palpable, watershed moments. ‘Lads, we have freedom within our grasp’. says one. ‘We’re that close. It’s just one inch but it’s still out of reach. And if we stop now, we will never again…regain the power that I can feel in this room today. And if we stop short now, never in our lifetime…will we see that energy again. Ever!’

t is difficult to avoid the conclusion that what Loach’s critics find hardest to take is his sympathetic treatment of someone who believes that there are things worth fighting for and making sacrifices for, and his touching depiction of a group of people who have the temerity to engage, as it were, on equal terms with the challenges of their times. Not to be missed.

Meeting Resistance fills the gap that is only vaguely suggested by the timing of Loach’s film; watching them back to back really drew home the similarities to my girlfriend, who is much less familiar with either 1920’s Ireland or modern day Iraq.  Meeting Resistance does for the Iraqis of the resistance what Barley tried to do for the Irish revolutionaries: give them a voice, a chance to speak and act for themselves beyond either the history books or the hot air of the pundits and the lies of the United States military and government.   The tagline asks rather melodramatically ‘What would you do if America was invaded?” but the film answers the question only through elision; the Americans in the film, after all, are the bad guys, but we never see them, and instead we get interviews, engrossing and interesting, with a broad cross section of Iraqi society, almost all members of the ‘resistance’.  The crew, led by  Steve Connors (the guy from the British Army) and Molly Bingham, lets a group of insurgents in the Al Adhamiya district in Baghdad explain why they  fight the occupation, how they organized, and the kind of backgrounds they have.  It’s  a broad mix, but few of them are either hard-core Baathists, supporters of Saddam Hussein, nor are they acolytes of Al-Qaeda desperate to wage global jihad in the name of Usama Bin Laden.

Instead, we have interviews with a former special forces officer, arrested and tortured by his own government, hateful of the army and government elites but even more willing to fight the occupation of his country.  We have a local labourer and secularist, and Arab nationalist a fighter in the resistance in his own right, describing an apolitical young man from his neighbourhood, humiliated by the US forces; in revenge, he buys an RPG on his own and destroys a few humvees and than a tank.   I don’t want to give anyone an untrue picture of the film; the Iraqi militants interviewed are not as sensible and secular as the labourer mentioned above, the former special forces offier or the middle class teacher who supplies arms and information.  There is an Imam explaining the subtelties of Jihad and the glory of martyrdom.  We meet a fighter wearing a kefiya, who has traveled from Syria to help his Arab and Muslim ‘brothers’ against the Americans, spurred on by the injustice of the invasion, willing to fight for Jihad and telling of his parents, jubilant on the outside, heartbroken on the inside.  We meet a mother and wife who begs, in her fashion, for martyrdom.  None of this is calculated to make a Christian supremacist or a rational atheist, or even someone who boosts in a nebulous fashion for Our Way of Life.  It isn’t meant to be.

Jihad is the language of insurgent struggle in Iraq, in 2004 as in 2008.  Jihad is what almost all of the interviewed use to describe their activities, it is right and pure to wage Jihad against invaders, in the name of Islam, and it is right and noble to die a martyr, better than to return alive and disgraced.  There is much talk of honour and gallantry, and there is much nationalism of the kind we, so advanced in the West, claim to detest: irrational, emotional, intense, violent.  The ideology propelling almost all of these insurgents is a potent mixture of Islam and nationalism, the kind we see as very dangerous in say, the United States.  Most of the interviewed are quite willing to send Americans home in body bags, to kill them and hope for more to kill, and there is some talk by the mother I mentioned that she awaits her arrest, as a suitable martyrdom.    Both the middle class teacher and the nationalist labourer bemoan the lack of dedication and determination of Iraqis to resist after the invasion; several of the former soldiers interviewed immediately began to organize a resistance in weeks, supplied by a growing net of foreign and local money raised covertly, their weapons smuggled over the border (“Thank God the border is free” says one fighter)  This is undoubtably all very unsettling, and the movie resists desribing the insurgents as ‘freedom fighters.’ That isn’t what these Iraqi insurgents call themselves, fehaydeen instead, or muhajideen, words we are familiar with from the 80’s in Afghanistan.  But Meeting Resistance makes it quite clear most of these insurgents are not religious fanatics, bloodthirsty murderers or member of Al-Qaeda.

There is a rather intense agreement amongst most interviewed that targetting civilians is wrong, that killing the innocent is wrong, that killing policemen or translators who do their job, as the insurgents see it, and do not openly collaborate, are to be left alone.  Collaborators, naturally, are to be shown no mercy, and the film included footage of a dead body fished from the Tigris.  Some of the former soldiers discuss the use of mines and IEDs as being less dangerous to bystanders than machine guns and rockets, which are much less precise in some ways.  Suicide attacks are okay, glorious martyrdom and all that.  There is some consensus that peaceful marches and protests are absolutely neccesary to winning the war, and there is an impressive scene in which many of the people filmed in the background, bakers, weight builders, women and men at bars, vendors and merchants, all agree that the resistance must win, Iraqis must resist, the Americans must go, and one woman in particular points out that if the bases and oil revenues stay in American hands, than the Iraqi government is meaningless.  One of the interviewed fought in Fallujah, and tells the camera that the insurgents there had been willing to negotiate the hand over of those who murdered the four military contractors (remember, the dead bodies dragged through the street) in return for the pilots who bombed neighbourhoods in Fallujah.  No deal was made, unsurprisingly.  Despite all the religious rhetoric, Meeting Resistance gives one the sense that most Iraqis are intelligent, articulate and knowledgable about what is happening to their country and who is calling the shots…perhaps more knowledgable than most Americans about Iraq…naturally, you’d think, but the feeling I got from news reports about Iraq in 2003 and 2004 was that they are all helpless and apathetic and that certainly they don’t want to free their country from the occupiers.

We even get a sense that the animosity between Shia and Sunni that is so central to the way the war is told in the West, was not something lurking just below the surface, and that many fighters seemed convinced, at least a few years ago in 2004 (their feelings may have changed) that the occupation was behind the market bombings in Karbala against Shias; many Sunnis and Shias interwvieed argue that if only the Grand Ayatollah Sistani would issue a fatwa against the occupation, all Iraqis (okay, not the Kurds, deservedly so) would rise up against the occupation.   Iraqi nationalism seemed as strong, at least in Baghdad, as religious identity, and most interviewed believed it would be a disaster if Shias and Sunnis started to fight, because so many shared family, friends, lives, workplaces.   Perhaps the American divide and rule strategy was effective, because ethnic strife is all we hear about Iraq. Wishful thinking I’m sure, but still, Meeting Resistance, if it does nothing else, should demonstrate that ethnic and religious strife is not the only current ongoing in the euphemism that is the ‘Iraq conflict’ (kind of like the Malaysian emergency…except the Americans aren’t going to win).   More from another blog review, War Post:

A wife whose husband and two sons are fighting the Americans delivers messages and sometimes weapons to the highly organized resistance in her neighborhood. A father of three identified as “the Teacher” preaches Jihad and criticizes Baath party members for not defending their country as so many other Iraqis are.

A pensive man, he explains the Al Adhamiya resistance as a group that “formed spontaneously under the banner of Islam,” but then says, “before these events, I didn’t pray. I didn’t even know my way to the mosque.

Louis Proyect has a great short review of the film from last year, indeed without it I would never have heard of this movie (the film festival in my home town did not pick it up, probably because it prefers noxious sentimental foreign bullshit as opposed to this kind of documentary), and I’ll point to it here.  Here’s a pertinent quote to the filming of Meeting Resistance:

To the dismay of our families, the short answer is that we didn’t really have any guarantee of safety while we worked on this story. Like all other journalists working in Baghdad at the time we were the possible victims of random violence, being in the wrong place at the wrong time when an ambush occurs, an IED or a car bomb are detonated, being killed by coalition forces either during combat or like many civilian Iraqis, during the response to an attack, or being kidnapped. But we were also exposed to the specific dangers of this story; that the fighters we were interviewing would turn on us, or that one of the many intelligence services, militaries or militias in the country would find out what we were doing and decide to rough us up or kill us to find out what we knew. We are very lucky that none of the possible things that could have gone wrong did. Not all journalists who have been working in the country have been lucky.

Meeting Resistance is an important film, and I urge anyone reading this who has not seen it to go and rent it, now, if you can.  To quote Proyect once more: “…this documentary accomplishes what all great art strives for, namely the humanization of its principals. With so much hatred directed against Sunni insurgents, who lack the socialist credentials of past insurgencies that attracted the solidarity of the Western left, “Meeting Resistance” takes a giant step forward in making the ‘enemy’s’ case.”   Most damningly, Meeting Resistance points out what the Iraqi resistance was arguing in 2004: the majority of attacks were against US troops or collabators, as confirmed by US government statistics from the Department of Defense (see here if you don’t believe me)

Meeting Resistance and The Wind That Shakes the Barley connect together in action; they show people motivated to do faintly incredible things, show them with sympathy and without haughty condescension, show that people, ordinary people, workers, farmers, the poor, the angry, can actually think and act on their own, for themselves and for their communities, can actually understand their situation and try and change it.  They are not sentimental films, they do not shy away from the truth of taking up arms, that all great change is horribly bought with bloodshed, but clearly state, it is better to revolt against oppression than to suffer it. And remember:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves”   – Karl Marx

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“Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist. The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstance that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilized period of human history has — as is well known — been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called “the predatory phase” of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed toward a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and — if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous — are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half-unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society”

– from “Why Socialism?”

A passionate argument from one of the best human beings of the last century, Mr. Albert Einstein.

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"Es hat sich vor meiner Seele wie ein Vorhang weggezogen, und der
Schauplatz des unendlichen Lebens verwandelt sich vor mir in den
Abgrund des ewig offenen Grabes.  Kannst du sagen: Das ist!  Da alles
voruebergeht?  Da alles mit der Wetterschnelle vorueberrollt, so selten
die ganze Kraft seines Daseins ausdauert, ach, in den Strom
fortgerissen, untergetaucht und an Felsen zerschmettert wird?  Da ist
kein Augenblick, der nicht dich verzehrte und die Deinigen um dich her,
kein Augenblick, da du nicht ein Zerstoerer bist, sein musst; der
harmloseste Spaziergang kostet tausend armen Wuermchen das Leben, es
zerruettet ein Fusstritt die muehseligen Gebaeude der Ameisen und stampft
eine kleine Welt in ein schmaehliches Grab.  Ha!  Nicht die grosse,
seltne Not der Welt, diese Fluten, die eure Doerfer wegspuelen, diese
Erdbeben, die eure Staedte verschlingen, ruehren mich; mir untergraebt
das Herz die verzehrende Kraft, die in dem All der Natur verborgen
liegt; die nichts gebildet hat, das nicht seinen Nachbar, nicht sich
selbst zerstoerte.  Und so taumle ich beaengstigt.  Himmel und Erde und
ihre webenden Kraefte um mich her: ich sehe nichts als ein ewig
verschlingendes, ewig wiederkaeuendes Ungeheuer."

"It is as if a curtain had been drawn from before my eyes, and,
instead of prospects of eternal life, the abyss of an ever open
grave yawned before me.  Can we say of anything that it exists
when all passes away, when time, with the speed of a storm, carries
all things onward, -- and our transitory existence, hurried along
by the torrent, is either swallowed up by the waves or dashed
against the rocks?  There is not a moment but preys upon you, --
and upon all around you, not a moment in which you do not yourself
become a destroyer.  The most innocent walk deprives of life
thousands of poor insects: one step destroys the fabric of the
industrious ant, and converts a little world into chaos.  No: it
is not the great and rare calamities of the world, the floods which
sweep away whole villages, the earthquakes which swallow up our
towns, that affect me.  My heart is wasted by the thought of that
destructive power which lies concealed in every part of universal
nature.  Nature has formed nothing that does not consume itself,
and every object near it: so that, surrounded by earth and air,
and all the active powers, I wander on my way with aching heart;
and the universe is to me a fearful monster, for ever devouring
its own offspring."

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When Robert Clive returned to Bengal in 1765, after several year’s absence, he was shocked and discouraged by what he observed in the East India Company’s new possession: an “unwarrantable Acquisition of Riches had introduced Luxury in every shape and in its most pernicious Excess,” so that “every inferior seemed to have grasped at Wealth.” Under this corruption “all Distinction ceased, every Rank became…an Equality” and greed “destroyed all Proportion between Wants and Honest Means.” Clive was distraught by how quickly the rot had set in, how much “Corruption could not keep pace with Rapacity” in the conduct of officials and the Company’s lower servants, “Writers, Ensigns and the Free Merchants.” Clive ultimately did not place the blame on them entirely. They had been corrupted, yes, but by the government and people they sought to rule, and by the results that their conquests had brought. Clive explained to the Committee appointed to inquire into the conditions in Bengal that “in a Country where Money is plenty, where fear is the principle of Government, where your Arms are ever Victorious…no wonder that Corruption should find its way to a spot so well prepared for it.” Worried as he was by corruption, as it deprived the Company of its returns, and despite being one of the keenest supporters of retaining Indian forms of government, or claiming to be (probably to maximize profits through native agents and keep costs down) Clive could not help but draw upon a tradition of distrusting Indians and scorning a creeping and enervating ‘Oriental despotism’.

The territories given over to the Company after the ‘revolution’ of 1757 and affirmed in their control by the grant of diwanny by the Mughal Emperor in 1765 were complex socially, politically and religiously, more so than any prior experience would have prepared the Company for. The Company’s servants sought to explain the chaos they faced in Bengal by attributing it to despotism, to a regime that was rapacious and tyrannical, with the attendant assumption that those who lived in a despotism will be as rapacious and tyrannical as their government. Many Company servants assumed, though Warren Hastings himself would later claim before Parliament to have not believed it, that Bengal was populated by “a people who were supposed to be governed by no other principle of justice then the arbitrary wills or uninstructed judgements of their temporary rulers.” Despotism thus defined, as an unrestricted use of terror and armed strength to rule, was understood by Company servants to engender all manner of vices: corruption, indolence, treason, a government fought over by wicked and scheming ministers, a submissive and weak people, the atmosphere inimical to an honest man.

The Honourable Sir Robert Clive

The Honourable Sir Robert Clive

Amidst the wreckage, many Company servants, including major figures like Warren Hastings, Robert Orne and Harry Verelst, discerned what they thought was an ‘Indian Constitution’, and believed that a lack of vigour, wisdom and strong government had worn away the ideal Moghul state into the violent, treacherous, greedy, decrepit ‘Country Government’ they were forced to treat with. This situation was described by Colonel Clive: “Every state (and such now is your Government in India) must be near the period when the Rage of Luxury and Corruption has seized upon its Leaders and People.” Many Company servants, as their influence grew in the Company’s domains and their responsibilities increased, viewed the Bengali leadership as increasingly irredeemable, never to be trusted. This attitude was enforced by the increasing need to interact with many of the zamindars, leading to “a growing contempt of everything Indian as irrational, superstitious, barbaric and typical of an inferior civilization.”

Old assumptions die hard. Until very recently, historians of India before the British often shared some of these assumptions about eighteenth century India, even if they were hostile to the East India Company or sympathetic to the Mughal Empire. The eighteenth century was viewed as a period of enervation, failure, collapse, venality, civil war, stagnation, and aside from the rise of literary Urdu and Bengali, not really worth studying or treating upon except in light of Mughal collapse and the growth of British dominance. That attitude has old precedents; the first conquerors of India were its first historians, and the idea of eighteenth century decay has taken a long time to die. C. A. Bayly’s Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire (1988) was one of the first major exceptions to this scholarly ‘consensus’, not that it was really ‘hegemonic’ or that glimmers of what Bayly proposed were not to be found before the publication of this book. The book is a work of synthesis first and foremost, putting forward a clear narrative and analytical history of India in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. It therefore depends upon a great deal of earlier, much more specialized research on more specific topics and areas of India, on ideologies, economies and class. I won’t get into the sources here for Bayly’s book, as it’s worth reading on its own merits and is easily available. It does as synthesis is supposed to do: present diverse and unconnected research as a comprehensive whole, making sense of it for those aren’t specialists in the field.

Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire challenges the basic assumption that India was a decaying society, an anarchic society, or a backward society, in the eighteenth century. The idea of Mughal decline is not so much questioned (the empire was, after all, slowly disintegrating by the 1730’s and finally collapsed precipitously after Nader Shah’s 1738 invasion) but is complicated by arguing that Indian political structures underwent a (violent) devolution to more stable, compact and cohesive structures at the time. Likewise, Bayly points out that Indian society went through no profound social crisis, that there was a resurgence of Hindu political states, and that the economy remained dynamic in the eighteenth century, indeed, that indigenous trade and methods of trade, from banking to military entrepreneurship, increased in scale, scope and their penetration of Indian society.


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Mongol General: “What is best in life?”

Conan: “Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.”

This quote has been attributed to Genghis Khan and plenty of other steppe nomads, and that is what we recall of them in popular historical imagination. Driven by bloodthirst and a desire for power and glory, as chronicled by historians like Harold Lamb, whose grasp of facts was much more tenuous then his grasp of what made good literature, the Mongols and others like them were generally admired for their warrior skill and empire‑building, as well as derided for their savagery and brutality, from Attila, the Scourge of God, to the pyramid of skulls building Tamerlane who inspired such an excellent play by Christopher Marlowe and whose forces conquered the Middle East, from Moscow to Delhi, and killed plenty along the way. Chinese tradition is likewise replete of fear and contempt for the nomad, from the Xiongnu who regularly pillaged the northern border, to the Mongols of Kublai Khan and the Manchus conquerers who ruled until the 20th century, blamed by nationalist revolutionary propaganda for China’s material and cultural retardation. And it would be foolish to deny how determined the Huns were, for instance, to conquer and assert their will, to gain favourable trade terms and make slaves and vassals of those without the strength to resist. Clearly, Tamerlane did sack cities, massacre children, and heap the heads of his enemies high, but what has changed amongst historians and even now amongst the general public is that Tamerlane, for instance, was not just a destroyer and bane upon existence, that the opponents and chroniclers of his reign, like the Chinese nationalists of a century past, would willfully alter history to suit an ideological and political aim, and that Tamerlane, while with sword in hand, would still build mosques, cultivate intellectuals and holy men, lavish wealth upon poets and encourage artisans and architects throughout their reign.

The Mongols, for instance, despite their reputation for destroying cities, also helped to foster widespread intellectual, commercial and cultural trends, as Thomas T. Allsen’s Culture and Conquest in Mongol Eurasia demonstrated, amongst many other sources. They were capable administrators and diplomats, occasionally even outdoing their sedentary subjects as in the case of the Manchus in China. Cynically, and perhaps rightly, we must consider this diligence to conquered subjects as the same sense of duty a pastoralist might take toward his flock: to be protected and husbanded carefully from other predators in order to benefit from the resources in food and trade they supply. Or is that how all macroparatism works, as William H. McNeil would argue? Some steppe nomads nonetheless proved more then willing to make themselves more like their sedentary subjects, whether, again, in the style of the Manchus, or peoples before them in China like the Shatuo Turks, Touba and Khitan, and rule in the name of a stable administration, peace and tranquillity; the Mughals and the Ottomans represent a relatively efficient example of a nomadic conquerer becoming as sedentary as their subjects and becoming much more then ravishers of women and stealers of cattle.

What is also gone is the idea of tribal or oriental despotism, of the great Khans and unchallenged Tamerlanes whose rule, once official, was of a single charismatic warrior and leader whose will to conquer was shared generically and the driving will of an entire nomadic people. Beatrice Forbes-Mann’s brilliant if dry book The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane sets the tone for the new and much more nuanced scholarly examination of steppe warriors: gone is the image of the ruthless tyrant, to be replaced by a powerful individual, charismatic true, who nonetheless relied upon and was challenged and supported by a vast array of tribal, clan and urban groups whose influence both pushed and restrained Tamerlane (he was still ruthless too, but this was not a function of his unique genius or psychopathy but of struggle for control within a broad and fractured group, in which loyalty could be bought or earned through military escapades, to reward loyal followers and their own followers, or through trade and taxes, much more boring but much more capable of sustaining a state apparatus if the shift to a more thoroughly sedentary life could be made. This understanding of tribal politics and sedentarization and Weberian bureaucratization underlies some of the same understandings in John E. Woods The Aqquyunlu: Clan, Confederation, Empire, in that his revised edition expands slightly upon a history of a nomadic steppe warrior group for whom tribal confederations and alliances, or their failure, were the most important factor behind success or failure on a geo-social and political scale.

Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were Turkmen, which may surprise some who think Turks live only in Turkey or in those ‘Stans’ south of Russia and north of Afghanistan and Iran. Azerbaijan’s historical and present day population is at least partially Turkmen, and once, much of what we now call the Middle East was ruled by tribal bands, kingdoms and warlord armies made up of Turkmen pastoralists, shepherds and warriors. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and Mughal Empire, as well as Iran up to the twentieth centuries, were sedentary descendants of these same Turkmen groups, whose ancestors had once established an empire in Central Asia and by the eleventh century had converted to Islam, conquered Jerusalem and eastern Anatolia, and triggered the Crusades.

Who were the Aqquyunlu? They were a clan, first and foremost, known as the Buyandur as well, who claimed descent from the near mythical Oghuz Khan, first of the Turks, as one of the ancestral 24 tribes. They were a confederation, led and dominated by the Buyandur clan, supported by the clans of the right and left flank, Purnak and Mawsillu. The manpower and resources of the Aqquyunlu was drawn from allied, conquered, and confederate Turkmen tribes like Afshars, Bayat, Pazukia, Haydarlu and Doger, from other nomad groups assimilated into the confederation as it expanded, and from other allied elite groups like the Safavid religious brotherhoods and Kurdish and Arab tribes. The Aqquyunlu were also an Empire, but this came late in the history of their political organisation, and did not last long. For most of their history, after emerging as a discrete political (as opposed to social) entity during the disruptions of the Mongol conquest of Iran, the Aqquyunlu existed on the fringes of the Islamic and settled world, vying with other Turkmen tribal groups over summer, yaylaqs and winter pasture, kishlaqs. As Woods points out repeatedly, the quest for pastures and caravan routes was a defining feature of much of Aqquyunlu history, necessary to maintain the cohesion and loyalty of the confederacy, alongside the granting of appanages of land and men to the ruling clan’s children, and the granting of political-military and fiscal responsibilities to clan chiefs.

The appanage system, by which the royal clan exerted territorial control over its conquests, however, was also the greatest weakness of the Aqquyunlu state: unlike in European feudalism, where primogeniture was established, encouraging the first born son and heir to inherit all the land of his father, the realm was shared out equally amongst the sons of the confederations head: these dispensations ensured loyalty to the head of the clan by rewarding his children at the expense of the other clans, who remained subordinate politically and economically, even if they monopolised the military and state offices. The problem arose when the dispenser died: all his children, due to their appanages, had equal right to the throne or the tent that served just as well for nomadic shepherds. Even designating a successor did not work, because Turkmen nomadic political authority rested upon ability as much as legitimacy. A weak son would most likely lose out and be replaced by a more ruthless and capable son, but as all sons had an equal share, they all usually attempted to gain control of the state. Worse still, their cousins and uncles also had claims to leadership, as did the other paramount clans through marriage alliances. A very confusing situation; the civil wars that resulted from these ‘disputes,’ to put it blandly, occupy almost all of Woods narrative of Aqquyunlu rise and fall. Unsurprisingly, he blames this unstable political tradition for the obscurity of the Aqquyunlu today.

The thrust of Woods’s book is easy enough to follow, a narrative of the “evolution of the Aqquyunlu confederation from a band of nomdic “cossack” freebooters into a relatively centralised, terrotorial system based on a regularised but essentially predatory relationship with agriculture and commerce”: an evolution brief, dynamic, and extremely bloody, a bright but fiery comet.


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Jorge Luis Borges

“It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them which was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld’s gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.  Suddenly, we felt that they were playing their last trump, that they were cunning, ignorant, and cruel, like aged predators, and that if we allowed ourselves to be swayed by fear or pity, they would wind up destroying us.

We drew our heavy revolvers (suddenly in the dream there were revolvers) and exultantly killed the gods.”

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Some biographical subjects, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, are beyond the pale in terms of sympathy, the task one of excoriation and condemnation. This is a point made by an early nineteenth century historian of Persia, Sir John Malcolm, in describing Jonas Hanway, another historian of Nader whose favoured tone was a haughty combination of contempt, superiority and horror: “In describing eastern depots, there has often appeared to me a stronger desire to satisfy the public of the author’s attachment to freedom and his abhorrence, and despotic power under every shape, than to give a clear and just view of those characters whose history was the immediate object of his labours.” Nadir has been a fairly obscure area of study, despite his prominence in the eighteenth century, including the translation into French, under the auspices of the King of Denmark of the primary chronicle of his reign, by Mirza Mehdi Khan Astarabadi. The French, Russian, English, Dutch, as well as Nadir’s neighbours in India and the Ottoman Empire, were intensely interested in the energetic general and king; understandably so, as he had a tendency to invade their lands or demand money and supplies from their merchants.

Nader Shah is the guy in red, in the centre, in case you couldn't guess

Even so, the latest biography in English, aside from the one under review, was published in 1938 by Laurence Lockhart, one of the most famous Orientalists of his time, and the former driving force behind Cambridge’s History of Iran. His biography wasn’t bad, actually, nor was his other book The Fall of the Safavi Dynasty and the Afghan Occupation of Persia; I’ve had the opportunity to read both, voluminous, with impressive numbers of sources. But as Iranian history scholar Rudi Matthee points out in a recent article, the sources have improved since these books, with new Dutch, Russian, Armenian and Persian sources recovered from the letters of travellers and archives of trading companies and diplomats. The methodology of Lockhart’s work has also been supplanted: his histories were replete with details and anecdotes, a stock in trade of many an Orientalist biography, but short on analysis and altogether too focused on the morality and personality (or lack thereof) of his subjects; from Lockhart, a reader new to Iranian history might get the impression that a lack of initiative, sexual proclivity and love of drink, in one man, caused the destruction of an entire empire.

Micheal Axworthy’s The Sword of Persia is a corrective, of sorts. His biography makes use of the newest sources made available by scholars like Willem Floor and Mansur Sefatgol, and much more ‘modern’ interpretation of the rise and fall of Nadir Shah’s empire. His work is still a biography, so it does descend into attempts to dissect the guilt, obsessions and angers, loves and desires of its subject; luckily, they rarely dwell on them, except for Nadir’s (not his first name, either, but an assumed name in Persian, meaning ‘rarity’ or ‘dear’) admiration of Timur and conscious attempts to emulate that bloody conqueror, including dragging off the top of Timur’s tomb as a prize of war, Nader’s tendency to react badly to an event and then regret what he had done in response, his love of family and yet his lack of sympathy for any betrayal, even from his children, and a contempt for elites of wealth and lineage and for the pageant of the court. Axworthy avoids excessively dwelling on Nader’s reputed insanity or madness at the end of his reign, his almost paranoid sense of being betrayed constantly, and avoid, generally, dwelling too much on what in his life may have led to the towers of skulls at the end of his reign. Luckily, there isn’t much in the way of moral disapproval, nor the fawning infatuation of many a biographer with his subject. His portrait of Nader, as a vigorous, talented, demanding, stern, dangerous and sometimes ruthless man, is not particularly original, and his book is, with some important exceptions, a rather standard history of the man, and one that occasionally manages to repeat some of Lockhart’s assertions about the singular importance of the Shah’s personal qualities and failings in the rise and fall of empires.

Why read Axworthy’s book, besides its more accessible style, aimed at people with little knowledge of Iran’s history as much as at academics, if it doesn’t say much new? I mentioned that Sword of Persia is a corrective, and as biography it certainly isn’t, but as analysis and as an argument for Nader’s importance to Iranian modernity, its central arguments are nearly as compelling as the narrative itself. The details of his career are easily available online, so I won’t summarize them here, but it was the career of a self-made man, of rare talent, who rose from obscure poverty to be one of the most powerful warlords of the eighteenth century. Sounds like a fantastic novel, and indeed, that was often how Nader’s career was treated until recently, by Lockhart and others as noteworthy because of the heights to which he rose and the depths of his fall. It was a fascination divorced from context, in which Nader was another Alexander, another Timur a bright flash across the tapestry of lethargic Oriental despots; he was a despot for sure, but imbued with the tragic force of a Lear or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (and Axworthy unfortunately repeats some of these conceits). It was Shakespearean, but Nader Shah was unique, an aberration, a story interesting in the same way that, say, Augustus the Strong or Attila the Hun was and is, but not really crucial enough to really study deeply or apply to an understanding of history deeper than historical drama and lively personality. Axworthy’s Nader Shah lives up to his (very) posthumous honour as the ‘Napoleon of Iran’, not just for the similarities in their career, (again, well suited to our peculiar meta-narratives) but as a man who left a lasting impact on the world, not so much by what he left behind, but by the depth of his shadow across the history of Iran.


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