Sunday, May 19, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis II

This book is not as exotic as Collapse, which isn't necessarily a weakness, though reading it feels more like dutifully informing oneself on relatively recent world history. As a cautious academic, Diamond seems to be avoiding explicit political commentary in the manner of Robert Reich, the Berkeley professor, and is merely laying the groundwork for readers in order to draw parallels and highlight differences between events that have occurred in various modern countries. I am finding the book informative, and, though I would prefer a more conceptual approach, Diamond is providing ample information for readers to gain a sense of how national issues have developed and played out in the last century or so. The predictive value of what Diamond has to say, I think, is rather dubious, given that each national situation is unique in most respects, and that Diamond is not providing a template regarding human nature. It is a little exhausting to learn what has occurred in so many countries, but my sense is that Diamond's descriptions are reasonably accurate and therefore have value for understanding current geopolitical trends, if that is the sort of thing that interests you. I wouldn't place that at the top of the list of my interests, and I am plugging along mainly for general information.

There is a chapter on Japan, the contents of which I found vaguely familiar. Until 1853, Japan was still a medieval society, with shoguns and none of the modern technology that was then available in Europe. The Japanese were aware of what had occurred in China when British imperialism intruded there, so when Commodore Perry arrived in Edo representing the U.S. and made various demands, they began the radical process of national transformation which is now referred to as the Meiji period. They did an excellent job and copied various ideas that had been used in other countries, creating a startling change in little time. However, the Japanese leaders later became "hotheads" and engaged in a war with Russia and entered World War II. Nevertheless, Japan is currently in good shape economically and politically. Diamond rolls out his list of factors for each country undergoing an upheaval, and so far I'm not finding it very useful.

There is a chapter on Chile, a country with which I had little familiarity. It has a relatively homogeneous culture, since the natives interbred with Spaniards, and no other groups make up a significant segment of the population. However, the problems in Chile emerged primarily internally, with conflicting ideas about how to run the country. Salvador Allende, a communist sympathizer, socialist and Marxist, barely won the election in 1970, and was completely ineffectual as a leader. Following the nationalization playbook under Allende, the country soon fell into disarray, and the wealthy, along with international corporations and the U.S., soon sought his removal. In 1973 there was a brutal military coup, and Augusto Pinochet became the new leader. Law and order returned to Chile, and although Pinochet's regime engaged in the interrogation, torture and murder of thousands of Chileans, he was still somewhat popular. In this chapter, Diamond engages in psychological speculation about Allende and Pinochet and finds them both somewhat mysterious. My preferred way of approaching this subject is to identify the essential human weaknesses that cause undesirable consequences. Allende didn't understand that socialism can't easily replace capitalism, mainly because the active management of an economy is extremely difficult and no regime has been able to do it effectively for any length of time. As soon as there is an economic decline, people become worried and restless. The capitalist model works better not because it is intrinsically superior, but because markets have a tendency to self-correct, and even if some individuals become wealthier than others and there is corruption, the public on the whole are more likely to feel economically secure, and they will support capitalist leaders under the mistaken assumption that they are the ones who have a better understanding of economics. In the case of Chile, neither Allende nor Pinochet understood economics, and Pinochet masked his corruption by pretending to be pious; even if capitalism causes inequality, people are willing to overlook that when they come to associate it with order and prosperity as opposed to chaos.

I'm a little over halfway through the book and just finished the chapter on Indonesia, a country that was unfamiliar to me. Indonesia did not exist as a country until 1945; before then it was the Dutch East Indies. The area was too large to be managed as a Dutch colony, and the Japanese had used it as a source of oil during World War II. Much like Allende in Chile, Indonesia's first leader, Sukarno, had anti-colonial, pro-communist leanings that didn't work well for the economy. Suharto took over in a military coup that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. He was capitalism-friendly and corrupt, like Pinochet, and the economy eventually stabilized. Over the years, unification has been facilitated by an invented language, Bahasa Indonesia, which makes communication easier in a country of islands stretching 3400 miles and comprising over 700 indigenous languages. For me, it is hard to think of Indonesia as a country, given its geographic and cultural characteristics, and so far Diamond hasn't commented on what I often think about national unity: it seems like a fiction, especially in a heterogeneous country like Indonesia. Diamond's working hypothesis, that nations are real entities that can, through rational means, reliably be directed toward ends that satisfy the needs of all their citizens, remains suspect to me, and I'll comment on that throughout the remainder of the book.

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