I’ve been reading John C. Hulsman’s To Dare More Boldly: The audacious story of Political Risk (Princeton University Press 2018). I have no idea whether this is considered a good book or not but its interesting. He gives ten principles for political risk and, in so doing, points towards principles useful for dealing with complexity, as what could more complex than political behaviour between nations?
Today I’m going to consider the first principle, and show that while its good, he actually ignores it in favour of ‘received knowledge,’ ‘individualism,’ and apparently ‘meaningless words’….
“We are the risk”
The point here is that we tend to ignore our own possible failings, or the failings of the systems we like. We look elsewhere for the problems.
For example, the author attended a Council of Foreign Relations meeting, and he suggested that American “political sclerosis” (whatever that is) was one of the ten most significant political risks in the world today, he was told it was the rest of the world that was the problem, not the USA, which could be left out of the problem sphere (p.45).
This is pretty clearly not a useful form of analysis, as the USA interacts with everyone else (complexity) and therefore has an effect on the result – no matter how ‘healthy’ it might be.
Another way of looking at his point, is that civilisations which collapse under external attack first suffer an internal collapse that makes them vulnerable.
He suggests that 18th Century Historian Edward Gibbon makes this kind of analysis in his Decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Or as he summarises:
Rome fell not primarily because of outside pressures but rather owing to an internal and gradual loss of civic virtue amongst its citizens(P.43)
Now as an anthropologist I’m going to state that a decline in civic virtue, is not an explanation of anything. It is a statement of what might have happened. We may also need to ask, what caused this decline? What made the decline seem reasonable to people? What are the structures and processes involved? What are the complex interactions that lead to collapse, or slow phase out. I doubt that many individual people woke up one morning and said to themselves: “that’s it for civic virtue” and then Rome fell, or as Hulsman puts it
society atrophied as a result of personal failings that accumulated over time(p 48).
If its personal failings there is nothing we can do, except blame others. However, if its shared personal failings or social dynamics then we can look around to find common causes and remedy them. Pretty obviously Rome in the East continued on for quite a long time (falling in 1453) so its a bit foolish to just focus on Rome in the West (476, almost a thousand years earlier), and we need to know what civic virtue (or personal failings) even are, and how they changed – not just assume they are immediately obvious, and obviously important because we like the idea and maybe think we are virtuous and have them.
Gibbon may have thought that Roman civic virtue was a matter of militarism.
The victorious legions, who, in distant wars, acquired the vices of strangers and mercenaries, first oppressed the freedom of the republic, and afterwards violated the majesty of the purple. The emperors, anxious for their personal safety and the public peace, were reduced to the base expedient of corrupting the discipline which rendered them alike formidable to their sovereign and to the enemy; the vigour of the military government was relaxed, and finally dissolved, by the partial institutions of Constantine
Christians, while violent, did not support the military as such, and hence helped the downfall. However, Gibbon begins this passage by making an added point.
Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.
The Roman Empire became too big, and to clumsy to control, and to respond properly to challenges, as well as Romans becoming less interested in constant military ventures which consumed even more energy away from making it work. It is doubtful that even a modern empire with internet, jets and satellite can expand forever and hold its conquered land, as its context of supply chains, identity failure and local resistances grow more and more complicated.
However the point is clear, as Hulsman says, Rome may have eventually fallen because of a failure “to recognise and combat [the] home grown problems” of its Empire. This is a form of societal suicide which he calls ‘decadence’ (nothing like having a word that already tells you something is bad to help your judgements, and think you mean something) which he defines as “a society’s loss of ability to deal with its problem, coupled over time with a long-term abdication of responsibility for them” (p44).
My personal guess is that a lot of Romans probably tried to take responsibility for the problems, by blaming other people for them – despised classes like passive people, lazy workers, prostitutes, gays, people reveling in Luxury, nouveau riche, freed-slaves, Christians and later pagan philosophers etc. and they probably felt quite proud of facing up to the faults of others and berating them (Juvenal for example). Our vocabulary for condemning decadence (not being the same as we once were) very likely comes from Romans condemning each other.
Anyway, the point is that the Empire grew to such a size that it had to use barbarians to make its legions – which might have lengthened the decline – after all it gave the Barbarians something to fight for that wasn’t the fall of Rome, and made them invested in the Empire itself to an extent – they could become Roman citizens. They lived dangerous lives and got paid for it.
However, it is possible that ordinary citizens no longer saw the Empire as a particular advantage for them and lost interest…. It solved problems which did not seem that relevant to them, or it created problems for them – such as finding work, finding land, not having political representation, being unable to make social change and so on. Sport, public murder, and religious dispute, was all they might have had left to make a meaning for life
Hulsman further discusses the dangers of the Praetorian guard who were meant to defend the Emperor and family, but became a force in themselves from quite early on. They slaughtered emperors they did not like, appointed new people to the throne, and demanded higher and higher payments for loyalty – because they were necessary. Obviously not a mechanism for stable government, but it did not immediately cause the collapse of Rome, as the Emperor Constantine disbanded them and destroyed their barracks when he invaded Rome in AD 312.
So the main take away is the problems may issue from us, from the way we approach the problems, or the way we organise ourselves – but it is not simple.
The ‘Perfidious French’
Rather oddly, instead of moving to look at his own society from this point of view, he moves to condemn the modern day French. Let’s charitably assume that this is because he thinks Europe is part of the US, or he will talk about the US later on….
He discusses the events of August 2003 when Paris suffered a heat wave and large numbers of people died. To quote wiki:
In France, 14,802 heat-related deaths (mostly among the elderly) occurred during the heat wave, according to the French National Institute of Health. France does not commonly have very hot summers, particularly in the northern areas, but eight consecutive days with temperatures of more than 40 °C (104 °F) were recorded in Auxerre, Yonne in early August 2003.Wiki 2003 European heat wave.
Houses in France are not generally built for heat waves. Hulsman alleges that the French government, and doctors (?), did nothing. The relevant ministers were on holiday and reluctant to come back to the heat. Many people who died where healthy people living alone, and the government blamed French Families for not taking care or elderly relatives.
- The sanctity of French summer Holidays (Lazy selfish people)
- Worship of an unsustainable mode of living (not ecologically unsustainable, but unsustainable in terms of capitalist economics.)
- Europe “rotting from within” with decadence.
- People avoiding responsibility for their kin.
- Growing older populations
- People wanting too much from work.
His solution, is pretty obvious for a North American. Capitalism.
Lets not bother to look at whether the Capitalist system still works or not. Let’s not bother to ask whether something we like, or participate within, is a problem or not. Capitalism may be great for getting development going, but after its reached a point in which a very few of the people own nearly everything, and have bought the political system and taken it away from the people, is it still the solver of all problems? Or is it a generator of at least some significant problems? Is economic growth a solution or a problem? Not asking these questions is like avoiding American “political sclerosis.” It is violating the principle that “We are the risk”.
Let us assume he is correct and that capitalist markets in Europe are not allocating most people enough money for what they want to do, and that it will all crash down. Then how are you going to sell a project which means – YOU (other people) work harder, take home less pay, get less benefits, retire later, pay increased personal taxes if middle class, have pensions privatised and subject to risk and rip off, in return for an uncertain promise that allowing other people to earn more in half an hour than you do all year round, might fix the problem or might not. This sounds like a standard neoliberal solution in which austerity is for the poor and the middle classes. Indeed Austerity seems to be both the solution and the result.
The wider questions around Are we the problem?
Capitalism as a problem?
He may be correct that Euro-capitalism is dying, but is the only solution US style capitalism, which could also be said to be dying? Or could it be something new?
Do we need to abandon capitalism? I’m not suggesting we always do (although there are obvious problems with neoliberal capitalism and its theories which I’ve discussed elsewhere), but it needs to be examined if the Anglo-sphere is not just to rest on its claimed laurels.
Are people uninvolved because neoliberalism encourages a “selfish” individual focus?
Are people uninvolved because capitalism encourages obedience to bosses, and irrational managerial restructures in which no one affected is ever listened to?
Are people uninvolved, because all spiritual and psychological questions become reduced to purchases?
Are people uninvolved because capitalism reduces tradition to obstruction?
Are people uninvolved because capitalism:
has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade.Marx and Engels Communist Manifesto
I don’t know, but they, and other questions, are questions worth asking.
We could also note that pro-corporate media is very keen on the idea that people who die of Covid, die with Covid, have existing conditions, or are old and useless and would die anyway. We repeatedly here how old people are a cost not a benefit, and so it is perhaps no wonder that people ignore the elderly and leave them to die. That they are solely a cost and burden, as they are retired, might even be an implicit message in his own arguments…
If people cannot labor, in relevant fields, or have no money to invest, do they have any value in capitalism?
That a form of capitalism worked well in the 60s to 70s in the Anglo-sphere to bring prosperity, social mobility, art, and education to all is not a guarantee that neoliberal capitalism will do the same, work now, or could not be modified with consultation. We could look at it as a potential cause of problems. Or do we have to protect capitalism from being considered even briefly a problem generator? There is plenty of degrowth economics around.
While it is cynical, we might find the answer to the question of why are these questions completely avoided in a chapter on not avoiding questions which implicate ourselves by reading the opening chapter and finding out that most political risk analysis is sold to corporations. Telling them capitalism might need to be changed is possibly limiting the market.
Lets look in a wider sphere, dragging in events or contexts he seems to be ignoring. Events only have meaning in context.
Can you publish a book on real political risk in 2018 without mentioning climate change and ecological decay. I don’t know yet, but I suspect you can. There is no entry for these problems in the index.
People did not normally die in late summer in Paris from heat. The contexts of events are changing. Climate change was already here in 2003. However at that time, probably no government or corporation on Earth recognised climate change as a current problem. There was little to no preparation for it. It was in the distant future, despite the warnings. So it is not surprising that few people were prepared. This was unusual. Nights in Paris are usually cool, but this time they were not. Houses did not cool over night.
Summer 2003 was the hottest in Europe since 1500, very likely due in part to anthropogenic climate change. The French experience confirms research establishing that heat waves are a major mortal risk, number one among so-called natural hazards in postindustrial societies. Yet France had no policy in place, as if dangerous climate were restricted to a distant or uncertain future of climate change, or to preindustrial countries.Marc Poumadère, Claire Mays, Sophie Le Mer, Russell Blong. The 2003 Heat Wave in France: Dangerous Climate Change Here and Now. Risk Analysis 25(6): 1327-1687
Let us remember the Australian Governments some 15 years later and their complete lack of interest in climate change, and complete lack of preparedness for the “black summer” bushfires and the huge floods a few years later. It is much harder to excuse these pro-market people for their failure, than the French; especially after all the warnings and the wild events around the world. However, people like Bjorn Lomborg are still trying to argue that heat is not as deadly as a cold people will be unlikely to suffer in France; indeed that heat saves lives , .
Capitalism, and pro-capitalist governments, have not been good at dealing with climate change, although they have been good at denying climate change and resisting social change to deal with it. Given this, it seems even more odd to argue that capitalism is a solution for either the problems of climate change in France, or the long-term problems of the French Economy.
It is worthwhile looking at the failures of our own system, or the systems we like, and not to protect them from questions, when we are considering the future. “We, and what we like, are (part of) the risk“.
It is also useful to look at the contexts of those system we live within, such as the global ecology and the global climate. These are changing and will challenge established systems which grew up within different systems and developed different expectations as a result.
Something which once worked ‘well-enough,’ may now no longer work, because it operates differently dues to internal changes, or the context it is working within is now different.
In terms of climate politics we might need to look at how our attempts to initiate lower emissions, renewable energy, ecological care and so on, are maladaptive, remembering again that: “We, and what we like, are part of the risk to our own success and to our own future.”