Monthly Archives: October 2012

On Possibly Independent Countries of the Future

(Ignore the syntactically unfortunate title of this post…)

Scottish independence: Cameron and Salmond strike referendum deal“:

A deal setting out terms for a Scottish independence referendum has been signed by Prime Minister David Cameron and First Minister Alex Salmond.

The agreement, struck in Edinburgh, has paved the way for a vote in autumn 2014, with a single Yes/No question on Scotland leaving the UK.

It will also allow 16 and 17-year-olds to take part in the ballot.

The SNP secured a mandate to hold the referendum after its landslide Scottish election win last year.

The UK government, which has responsibility over constitutional issues, will grant limited powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a legal referendum, under a mechanism called Section 30.

The deal will also commit both governments to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Mr Salmond said the agreement would mean a referendum “made in Scotland”, while the prime minister said keeping the United Kingdom together was his number one priority.

Perhaps even less well known to Americans is the desire for Catalonian independence from Spain, though independence is a somewhat less likely outcome here:

Artur Mas, the leader of Catalonia, has a clear message for Madrid: He is serious about his threat to let the people of Spain’s most economically powerful region decide for themselves in a referendum whether they should remain a part of Spain.

[…]

That kind of posturing has thrust Mr. Mas, 56, to the forefront of Spanish politics and made Catalonia the biggest domestic headache for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who is facing troubles on all sides as he tries to satisfy demands from the European Union to straighten out Spain’s economy and from Spain’s heavily indebted regions, including Catalonia.

The question now for Mr. Rajoy, and for all of Spain, is just how far Mr. Mas, a once relatively obscure politician who was elected regional president two years ago, is willing to go in posing what may be the most serious challenge to a sovereign entity in Europe since the implosion of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr. Mas’s talk is not idle. With a $260 billion economy that is roughly the size of Portugal’s, an independent Catalonia and its 7.5 million inhabitants — 16 percent of Spain’s population — would rank ahead of a dozen of the 27 nations in the European Union. But like most of Spain’s regions, it is under great financial pressure and would like a better deal from Madrid.

In that respect, his threats may amount to nothing more than brinkmanship, as he applies to Madrid much the same tactic it has used to gain favorable treatment in its own dealings with Brussels: that is, that Catalonia, which has its own language and sense of identity, is simply “too big to fail” without calamitous consequences that no one wants to see. On Friday, Catalonia’s government raised the pressure, saying it would not be able to meet its September payments for basic services like heath care on schedule.

For a somewhat more comprehensive take on the uptick in regionalism and the rise of new independence movements in Europe, see the New York Times.

History Does Not Exist

Check out this post from the World Policy blog, “Democracy in China: The Popularity of Alexis de Toqueville in the Middle Kingdom” (emphasis added):

First there was Confucius. Then there was Mao Zedong. And now Alexis de Tocqueville tops the must-read list for avid Chinese intellectuals and bloggers.

The French aristocrat who limned the definitive political sociology of the United States almost two centuries ago might seem an unlikely crux of controversy in 21st-century China. But it is Tocqueville’s other classic, L’ancien régime et la Révolution—with its thesis that revolutions come not when masses are downtrodden, but when their lot is improving—that has sparked today’s hot debate.

After all, China arguably offers the ideal test of Tocqueville’s thesis. As one Chinese blogger puts it, “Don’t you feel that China now is nearly a copy of France in those [prerevolutionary] days?”

Or, as Cheng Li, director of Chinese research at the Brookings Institution, putsit, Chinese developments today seriously challenge the Western academic consensus that the Chinese Communist Party has somehow found the magic wand of “resilient” (or “adaptive”) authoritarianism to maintain its power indefinitely.

[…]

What the two [main] camps [within the CCP] are feuding about is, in essence, the verity of de Tocqueville’s apercu that revolutions erupt not when people suffer the most, but rather when their lives start improving, as the lives of today’s young generation have done spectacularly. Both camps tacitly see today’s China as anancien regime that is in crisis. Hardliners contend that the only way the Chinese Communists can hang on to power is by suppressing dissent. Reformers argue instead that the only way the party can stave off being swept away by the gathering storm is to loosen its tight bureaucratic control voluntarily and invite outsiders into the political game gradually.

For his part, Cheng Li thinks that time is short, but reform now could still forestall revolution by soliciting support from the 200,000 lawyers and other newcomers in China’s increasingly pluralist society. “If the CCP wants to regain the public’s confidence and avoid a bottom-up revolution, it must embrace genuine systematic democratic change in the country,” he contends. “[Like Taiwan in the 1980s] the CCP must now either make changes to be on the right side of history or be left behind.” Even if there is no “real consensus for the rule of law” in the party now, “sometimes the development of the rule of law happens through necessity, not due to the noble ideas of political leaders.”

This was an interesting post, but I want to take issue with the highlighted part, this idea of “History” with a capital “H” as something like a train moving inexorably forward.  On this view, history is more or less a force of nature, and a progressive one at that, steadily and unstoppably moving forward and making human societies more just as it does so.  To reject democracy in China–or the advances of the US Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, or the ongoing wave of legalization of gay marriage in many US states, and so on–is to be on the “wrong side of history,” to be in opposition to advances that were going to arrive sooner or later.  Because they are right.

The problem with this is that there is no History, not in the sense described above.  History is just the ensemble of stories we tell about people’s individual and collective actions in their societies and the ways these have changes over time.  If ethical progress is the yardstick we use to measure these actions, we should recognize that people are capable of taking 10 steps forward, 1000 steps back, and any variation or combination thereof.  History does not march forward; it’s not even linear!  We as individuals and as groups always have highly complex sets of choices to make that can take us in a number of directions, many of which with ethically ambiguous results.  That’s not to say that progress isn’t possible–I firmly believe it is–but we have to recognize that it isn’t automatic, and it can be rolled back.

I think the “history as History” view is problematic for a number of reasons.  It’s not very good history, methodologically speaking: it obscures the actions and dynamics that led to a certain situation or result.  It makes understanding progressive outcomes’ implications for the future much more difficult.  And it leads to a certain ethical complacency.  In my research in France I recently came across a work by an American historian named Todd Shepard called The Invention of Decolonization, in which he argues that metropolitan French authorities made use of the term “decolonization” to explain Algeria’s political independence from France, which came about in 1962.  It was easier and more politically expedient, Shepard argues, to see Algeria’s independence as just one instance of a larger historical process known as “decolonization,” which sooner or later brought about the end of direct colonial relationships, than to attend to the reasons for and dynamics of French colonialism and racism and to the effects the events of Algeria’s independence would have on Algerian and French society and the relationship between the two.

This seems to me a really powerful argument and one that applies to many, many other topics.

Biden vs. Ryan

So I really haven’t blogged at all since I’ve been in France, but I wanted to say a couple quick things about the VP debate last night:

1. Like many folks, I was quite happy with Martha Raddatz’s performance as the mediator.  Except for one thing: whenever Joe Biden would mention that the Obama administration’s policy was in accordance with recommendations of the Joint Chiefs, Raddatz would interject with something like, “But they’re answerable to civilian authorities,” as though to suggest that political considerations would bend their suggestions away from purely military considerations.  I’m not sure this is true (but can’t really say without looking into the matter more empirically), but more fundamentally, isn’t it a good thing that the US military is answerable to a civilian authority?  Isn’t that what we want?  Raddatz kept bringing it up as though that were a flaw in the decision-making process, but it seems to me that’s just the sort of thing you want in a democratic society that operates according to the rule of law.

2. David Brooks took issue with Biden’s tone in this debate.  He thought the VP was too aggressive, that he “exude[d] more drama than a decade of Latin American soap operas.”  And he chalks this up to a generational difference, i.e., that the political climate when Biden came on the scene in the 70s was much more conducive to this sort of theatricality and aggression, whereas politicians like Ryan are of a generation that favors cool, calm behavior.  And he thinks that Biden’s style is the sort of thing that makes efficient politics and effective policy-making more difficult.  I’ve got a number of problems with this.  I don’t think Biden was quite so bad as Brooks thinks, though certainly he was a bit obnoxious at times.    More importantly, I don’t think this was a generational issue at all.  I think you can see Biden’s performance last night partially as stemming from his personality but mostly as a political calculation.  This is what the Obama campaign thought needed to happen to make up for Obama’s comparatively lackluster performance in the first debate, and Biden pulled it off with style.  Talking about generational differences doesn’t really make sense (to me, anyway) and obscures the real dynamics here.

All that aside, though, I’d like to join the ranks of those who fetishize decency and cordiality in discourse.  Yes, people need a certain level of civility  to have a functional political conversation, but honesty and candor are much more important.  I’ll take an angry Biden who calls out Ryan on his obfuscation and untruths over a more polite one who refuses to do so any day.  And while the debate was unquestionably heated at times, it wasn’t out of control.  I was quite happy with Biden’s approach; it might be just what our politics needs in order to function better.

Image by azipaybarah