The Libyan Civil War

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/82-the-libyan-civil-war

A Civil War has been raging in Libya, officially since 2014, when Islamist-led General National Council (GNC), a temporary political body to transition Libya to permanent political institutions, refused to recognize the new members of the House of Representatives (HOR), who were elected on June 25, 2014. HOR is the internationally recognized successor parliament to GNC, and GNC was supposed to be dissolved. The Islamist militants promptly attacked the newly constituted parliament in Tripoli, so HOR fled and set up shop in the eastern city of Tobruk. GNC under Khalifa al-Ghawil itself was marginalized by the formation of the Presidential Council under Fayez al-Sarraj and the newly formed High Council of State under Khalid al-Mishri, both ethnic Turks (which is quite salient note as I describe below). Al-Sarraj subsequently formed the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. GNA is the UN-recognized government of Libya.

General Khalifa Haftar was a former general under former dictator Muammar Gaddafi until he was captured in a secret operation in the Chadian-Libyan conflict in 1987. Gaddafi wanted to mollify his Chadian counterpart and denounced Haftar who vowed to take revenge on Gaddafi by joining a conspiracy of officers to topple Gaddafi. Haftar fled to exile in the US, received US citizenship and lived there until 2011, when he returned to Libya to rejoin the military, which he led since November 2011. Under HOR, Haftar became the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), which united various militia, foreign mercenaries from Chad, Sudan and Russia and units of the armed forces to fight Islamic militants, especially Islamic State and the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries.

After the Islamists were weakened, LNA launched a military offensive in April 2019 against the GNA, which hastily formed the Libyan Army (LA), which is numerically inferior to Haftar’s LNA. GNA can only survive with the support of anti-Haftar militia groups. More importantly, GNA is supported by Qatar and Turkey. Qatar primarily supplies the funds, while Turkey provides the arms. Turkey voted on January 2, 2020 to send military equipment and fighters to Tripoli to aid GNA troops in beating back Haftar’s LNA. This weakened Haftar’s momentum.

Currently there is a scramble to consolidate the frontline, especially in the city of Sirte, which is held by Haftar loyalists. Haftar himself relies on foreign backers in Egypt, UAE and, most importantly, Russia. Egypt has threatened to send troops to aid Haftar if GNA threatens to take Sirte. Russia is influential via the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group are Russian mercenaries directed by the Russian defense ministry. The owner of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin (businessman oligarch), is also close to Russia’s president Vladimir Putin. As mercenaries, Putin has plausible deniability. Whenever he gets criticized by western governments for intervening abroad, he claims that the Russian government does not support or condone Wagner Group while clandestinely supplying it with funds and military training. Until very recently, even France has been backing Haftar, even though the EU officially supports GNA. French oil companies are heavily invested in the southwestern oil fields, and has not been very fond of the Wagner Group’s involvement in Haftar’s invasion force, fearing a loss of their assets. France is now recalibrating and likely switching allegiance back to GNA. France doesn’t have the same deep military involvement in Libya, a former Italian colony, compared to much of the rest of Francophone West Africa (e.g. Sahel, Mali, Central African Republic). An important context is that 97% of the Libyan export earnings comes from oil, especially crude oil, thus the control of the major oil fields is the prerequisite to dominating the country.

Thus, the contours of the Libyan Civil War is factional conflict between west (Tripoli) vs. east (Tobruk), ethnic Turkish vs Arab, al-Sarraj vs Haftar, Turkey vs. Russia. The goal for each actor is to establish political supremacy in the region and control the vital oil supplies.

The origin of of the civil war is the traumatic experience of the aftermath of the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator of Libya (reigning from 1969 to 2011). Gaddafi was part of the Free Officer Corps which conspired against the monarchy under King Idris I, the first indigenous leader after being freed from Italian colonization. Gaddafi’s vision was a mixture of pan-Arab socialism, which was advocated by neighboring Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, and traditional Islam. He favored the abolition of private property and sharia law, which was quite idiosyncratic. It created much resentment among businesspeople but even the Islamic clerics, who thought that Islam favors private property. He also favored women joining the armed forces and being paid the same wage in most occupations, which alienated even conservative members of his own government.

Gaddafi’s turn to socialism was facilitated by the support of substantial oil revenues, which had been discovered in the late-1950s. He took leadership in pushing the OPEC countries to restrict oil supply and thereby push up the oil rents, which were very high between 1973 and 1986. Radical reforms such as nationalizing the oil companies and the trade regime, redistributing farmland to farmers, confiscating private wealth above 1000 dinar, expropriating housing landlords and reselling housing to tenants at a low cost were made possible by buoyant oil revenues. Gaddafi also supported the expansion of the education and health care systems, which became the best in the region.

By the mid-1980s, declining oil prices made the state socialist strategy less sustainable. The first major headache for Gaddafi was that by alienating the owning bourgeoisie, who often fled to western exile, he created external opponents who advocated for the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. The students, who were created by Gaddafi’s investment in education, were chafing under the severe restrictions to freedom of speech and civil society and organized anti-Gaddafi protests. Gaddafi countered the student protesters by creating “revolutionary student councils”. As the pro- and anti-Gaddafi factions clashed, the government imprisoned the protesters and introduced compulsory conscription on young people. Because the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic clerics also opposed Gaddafi, the privately owned Islamic colleges were shut down. The economic challenge of Gaddafi’s rule was that agriculture was inefficient and required state subsidies. The government taking over the international trade regime resulted in good shortages, which resulted in a thriving black market. The oil-dependent export profile demonstrates that Libya has not developed a diversified industrial economy.

Gaddafi began his turn to privatization in the late-1980s, which picked up pace in the early-2000s. Gaddafi insisted that he remained true to his socialist agenda, even as foreign direct investment increased substantially in the first decade of the millennium. Privatization created new headaches, because Libyans who were used to the comfortable salaries and stable jobs had the rug pulled under them. Another problem was that despite the universal provision of basic needs, wages were extremely low and much of the oil wealth and private-sector profits was doled out as personal fiefdom by Gaddafi. This created enormous resentment against the Gaddafi regime, which continued to imprison, torture and kill political opponents. Not surprisingly, once the Arab Spring (2011) roiled the Mediterranean neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt, Gaddafi himself was swept up in it. He tried to keep the populace obedient by increasing food subsidies, purging several military officers deemed illoyal to the regime and releasing Islamist prisoners. The Benghazi-based National Transitional Council (NTC) formed to lead opposition to Gaddafi. Gaddafi, in turn, vowed to crush the NTC. He was about to succeed until the British and French successfully appealed to US president Barack Obama to create a no-fly zone in Libya to aid NTC and bring about the fall of Gaddafi. By October, Gaddafi faced certain defeat hiding in his hometown of Sirte. He was found and killed by the anti-Gaddafi fighters.

Getting rid of the dictator and leaving Gaddafi’s succession unclear resulted in deep political divisions and instability. Even though the West was enthusiastic in establishing the no-fly zone, it had no interest in doing nation-building in Libya. President Obama made it clear that he had no interest to pursue the US neoconservative project of nation-building, which was haphazardly pursued after the Iraq War. The perception that the Iraqi government becomes dominated by the majority Shia, while leaving out the Sunnis favored the rise of sectarian violence and ISIS. Obama expedited the timetable for the drawdown of US troops in Iraq (while advancing a temporary build-up in Afghanistan), although the US still has small contingents stationed in Iraq. Obama stated his “regret” over leaving Libya to fend for itself, although it accorded with his anti-nation-building temperament. Any appetite for potential US intervention was ended with the Islamic militant assassination of US diplomats stationed in Benghazi in 2012. [An important asterisk is that if Hillary Clinton was the president, she would have acted more aggressively in the region, which explains why neoconservatives like her, especially when she faced the isolationist Trump in 2016.] The vacuum of weak centralized power in Libya after the fall of Gaddafi was subsequently filled by the Islamic State which set up base in the center of Libya. With the Islamic State facing certain defeat, over the last few years, the vacuum has been filled by Turkey and Russia, the two most important foreign backers of the GNA and HOR respectively.

With the US withdrawal from the Middle East, Russia and Turkey assert themselves as major regional powers in the Middle East. The first precedent was set in the Syrian Civil War which broke out in 2011. Bashar al-Assad has been the inheritor to his father’s Baath Party rule, secular nationalists that were swept to power with the ideological inspiration of Egypt’s Nasser. For a time, Syria was even part of Egypt in the United Arab Republic. Assad was a typical autocrat, who doled out economic privileges to his own ethnic group, the Alawites, while neglecting and repressing the remaining (non-Alawite) Arabs, Turks and Kurds. The Islamic State and other Islamic militant fighters were nearly successful in dislodging Assad, when Russia decided to send troops to Syria in September of 2015. With Russian and Iranian help, Assad’s troops have been able to largely defeat ISIS and weaken the western-supported Islamic militants. Russia supports Assad because the Syrian government has reliably bought Russian weapons and the Russians operate a natural gas processing plant in Syria. Also, Russian president Vladimir Putin believes that legitimate governments have to be supported and regime change must be avoided.

The US military has backed the Kurds in Syria to oppose ISIS, but President Trump’s fateful decision to withdraw US troops under the instruction of his “friend” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan left the field wide open for Russia and Turkey. Turkey’s plan has been to invade the Kurdish region of Syria along the border with Turkey to drive out the Kurdish population and replace them with Arabs and Turks. Turkey’s contention is that the Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurds) supported the PKK, the armed wing of the Turkish Kurds. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey having struck Turkish military installations and cities though since the imprisonment of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, it has been substantially weakened, while the establishment of Iraqi and Syria Kurdistan, Rojava, strengthened it. Turkey thinks that by changing the population balance in northeast Syria, it would weaken the Kurds. A secondary objective of the Turks is to consolidate their Turkmen allies in Idlib, which the Russians and Assad’s army have been attempting to reconquer.

Turkey has been very critical of the Assad regime, and has been upset about the many border incursions by Syrian rockets and artillery strikes that hit Turkish border towns. The brief improvement in political relations between Assad and the Turkish government after 2003 quickly cooled with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War. Erdogan has hoped that the West would intervene to topple Assad, but as this option was foreclosed, he became more intent on fighting the Kurdish SDF, which the Turkish government regards as an even bigger threat to national security. In 2018, the Turkish army dislodged the SDF from Afrin, a city with a majority Kurdish population. The SDF had attempted to create a landbridge to the rest of the SDF-controlled regions. Turkey regarded this as a threat, wanting to prevent SDF controlling the whole of north Syria along the border with Turkey. As soon as Turkey launched the incursion, the SDF joined a coalition with Assad, whom the Kurds did not like (given that Assad marginalized the Kurds), but thought were better than the Turks, who would slaughter them. Assad promptly established a military presence in Qamishli in northeast Syria. As such, Russia (as ally of Assad) and Turkey were potentially pitted against each other, but Russia and Turkey negotiated a joint patrol zone in northeast Syria.

The Russian-Turkish struggle over Syria is now transplanted onto Libya, as both countries are again backing opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey is planning to invest substantially in the reconstruction of Libyan buildings, which have been destroyed by incessant civil war. This would be a welcome reprieve from the severe economic crisis in Turkey, which has resulted in substantial losses in popular support for the ruling AKP and Erdogan. Foreign interventions in Syria and Libya can distract the population from domestic problems, though there is a risk that the foreign engagement could lead to a quagmire.

From the Russian perspective, the violent death of Gaddafi was a catastrophe because Russia had lost $10 billion in investments in an instant. Putin also opposes regime change and has blamed the West for the political chaos in Libya. Putin was also horrified by his predecessor/ successor Dimitri Medvedev’s decision to abstain from the UN Security council resolution to create the no-fly zone to topple Gaddafi. Officially, Russia followed the United Nations by recognizing the GNA and signed an oil deal with it (considering that Libya has the largest proven reserve of oil). But it has also backed Haftar’s HOR, and supplies active military material and support to Haftar, as Haftar promised the Russians even more lucrative oil contracts. Russia’s mercenaries (Wagner Group) are already occupying Sharara oil field, blocking GNA from accessing the facility. Russia wants to create a permanent military base in Libya, which will help advance Russian interests against the EU and the US. Realizing that Russia backs Haftar, the US foreign policy establishment has been calling for Haftar, a dual US-Libyan citizen, to disband his armed forces, but without substantial US ground troops, the US will not be able to press its case.

Other minor powers like Greece or Italy have begun to meddle in Libya as well. Greece is seeking to sign a bilateral agreement with the Tobruk HOR on an Exclusive Economic Zone with Libya to beat out the Turkish maritime claims off the coast in Libya. Italy has a vested interest in political stability in Libya fearing a repeat of the 2015-6 refugee crisis, where African migrants took off from the Libyan coast to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe via Italy. Italy has officially endorsed the GNA, but in reality has been keeping equidistant between both sides.

Is there an ideal resolution to the Libyan conflict? It’s the same solution that Randall Collins (2016) envisioned for Syria, which is Hobbesian: let one side, either GNA or HOR, win the civil war and strengthen that government, so it can create political security, internal peace and economic development. A less ambitious approach is to divide the country in two and fixate boundaries and a sharing of the vital oil revenues. Whether Libya will reach that point in the immediate future is less than certain.

Further reading

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libya

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libyan_Civil_War_(2014%E2%80%93present)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muammar_Gaddafi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khalifa_Haftar

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fayez_al-Sarraj

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wagner_Group

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia%E2%80%93Syria_relations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syria%E2%80%93Turkey_relations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libya%E2%80%93United_States_relations

https://madamasr.com/en/2020/07/04/feature/politics/why-egypt-may-not-be-going-to-war-in-libya/

https://www.insideover.com/indepths/politics/who-is-fayez-al-sarraj.html

https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/columns/african-policy/importance-of-the-libyan-crisis-for-russia-after-the-arab-spring/

https://www.dw.com/en/turkeys-strategic-play-in-libya-to-help-reap-economic-gains/a-54037623

https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/07/intel-us-push-hifter-libya-militias-disband-lna.html

https://thearabweekly.com/doha-erdogan-seeks-qatari-funds-foreign-interventions

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Social Unrest During the Pandemic

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/79-social-unrest-during-the-pandemic

The whole country and most of the western developed world have been engulfed in mass protest action. The proximate trigger for the mass protest has been the tragic killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25. Floyd had been arrested because he was charged with passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a grocery store. Chauvin arrived at the scene, pressed Floyd to the ground and kneeled on him for nearly 9 minutes, thus cutting off Floyd’s access to oxygen. He died on the spot. Chauvin is white and Floyd is black. This has not been the first time where a white cop has killed an unarmed black person.

It seems to be a regular occurrence, which creates a lot of physical insecurity for the US black population. Blacks have been disadvantaged via America’s primordial sin, which is slavery. It is the forcible extraction of labor by white slave masters without monetary compensation. With the dire experience of slavery, the police or any law enforcement authority became the servant of the white slave owner. The tradition of slavery continued until 1865, when a bloody Civil War ended it. But the subjugation of blacks continued into the post-Civil War era via sharecropping. This is a form of agriculture, where the landowner allows a tenant to use the land in return for a share of the crops produced on the land. The landowners, in most cases, were the former slave masters, who still owned the land, while the tenants were the freed slaves. Beginning in the early twentieth century, the physical mobility of blacks improved (cars were invented around that time) and the manufacturing towns of the US north faced a substantial labor shortage and, thus, attracted blacks from the south to move and work there.

By the 1960s, mass deindustrialization eliminated the well-paying, high-status jobs in manufacturing, thus diminishing the black middle class. Public sector jobs were the only major job category where the black middle class could grow thanks to anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws in public sector hiring. The growth of the urban poor was compounded by white flight (the movement of middle class whites from urban to suburban neighborhoods to avoid living close to blacks), deteriorating schools and public services (which depend on middle class property taxes), mass incarceration (primarily targeted at black men via the three-strikes policy of lifetime incarceration for three criminal acts, truth-in-sentencing laws, which reduced judges’ discretion to shorten prison time, and criminalizing drug use/sales) and the workfare regime (forcing low-income mothers to work low-paid jobs in exchange for welfare benefits).

In the meantime, the civil rights movement scored major victories in the 1950s, which culminated in the Civil and Voting Rights Act (1964/5). Martin Luther King Jr. was the undisputed leader of the movement who beginning in the mid-1960s turned his attention from direct discrimination (bus/restaurant segregation, hiring discrimination) to economic disparities between rich and poor (of all races). King was an ardent proponent of a universal basic income and stopping endless foreign wars (the US was fighting the Vietnam War at that time). He was assassinated in 1968 when supporting the sanitation worker strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The failure of the civil rights movement to tackle the economic disparity coincided with mass deindustrialization, globalization and automation, which decimated the power of organized labor. The civil rights movement fostered a right-wing backlash that began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, continued with Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” campaign in the 1970s and culminated in Ronald Reagan’s brand of conservatism, which covered racial and class antagonism by denouncing welfare spending and advocating law-and-order.

The ghettoization and impoverishment of the middle class, which disproportionately affected black communities, was made worse by the expansion of the surveillance state, which took the form of the police targeting the poor for minor offenses like drug consumption/ sale and mass incarceration. From 1977 to 2017, state and local government increased spending on police from $42 to $115 billion, although it remained constant at about 4% of total government expenditure. Corrections spending increased from $18 to $79 billion, which is an increase from 1.6 to 2.6% of government spending (Urban Institute, n.d.). The US may have disinvested from cities public and welfare services, but it plowed the national resources into a surveillance state, which afflicts primarily poor, uneducated blacks. The defenders of mass incarceration point to the benefits of pursuing the broken-window theorem, according to which small crimes have to be punished harshly to deter further crime. Indeed, since the early-1990s, when crime peaked, society has become safer as more and more people became incarcerated. But statistical studies have shown that mass incarceration only explain one-tenth of the variation in the crime decline (Western 2006). Another study claims only 5% of the crime decline is explained by mass incarceration and only in the 1990s but not in the 2000s (Chettiar 2015).

Interactions between white police officers and black suspects can be tense. In some cases, it is the cop being especially suspicious and harsh against blacks, and in others, it is the black suspects putting up a verbally aggressive front to taunt the cops. Annually, over 200 black men are shot dead by police (223, 209 and 235 from 2017-19), while it has decreased for whites (457, 399, 370) (Statista 2020). Thus, the ratio of white-black killing is 2, while the white-black ratio in the total population is 6. Critics will point out that overall crime arrests also have a white-black ratio of 2 (2017 data in FBI 2017), hence there can’t be any police bias in the killing. In fact, police tend to downgrade the urgency of intervening in neighborhoods with a high black population (Lum 2010). But the issue is not merely police killing, but the subjective impression of police interaction which differs by race. 73% of black respondents think that cops are too quick to apply force compared to 35% of whites (NAP 2018: 263). Furthermore, any white cop killing an unarmed black civilian for minor infractions becomes especially upsetting because of these pre-existing tensions between cops and the black communities they are tasked to serve. In the old days, the police killings could be swept under the rug with police unions and prosecutors turning a blind eye to protect their police colleagues, but cell phone cameras with direct upload or livestreamed social media feed have exposed any single act of police brutality, thus causing a social explosion. There are, indeed, bad apples in the police force, which cannot be excused and they must be removed from the police force.

The heavy investment in police resources is not solely explained by the legacy of racism and the call of the ruling class to control black subjects, but also by the country’s obsession with guns. If private citizens can easily acquire guns, then the life of a cop is more endangered, because criminals can use the gun against cops during interactions. Thus, being an American cop is much more traumatic than being a cop in another country, where gun laws are stricter. In the US, 7-19% of cops exhibit signs of post traumatic stress disorder compared to 3.5% in the general public. Cops are more likely to die from suicide than at the hands of a criminal (NPSF 2019). Randall Collins (2008);(2020) analyzed police officers during very tense encounters with criminals or protesters and finds that the buildup of adrenaline (e.g. during shoot-outs or hot pursuits) results in “forward panic”, where cops apply excessive force, especially when the target is not resisting or overwhelmed in numbers. One forward rushing police officer encourages his colleagues to move forward, thus adding more violence to the equation.

Tensions with the community are more likely with the government’s decision to militarize the police, which is the transfer of heavy military gear (tanks, Humvees, assault rifles) to local police departments. The US spends more money on the military than any other country in the world. It is impossible to use up all the weapons, especially if there is no large-scale foreign war with the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops abroad, so the surplus is handed over to the police forces at home, which use them to put down protests and lootings. The sight of a heavily armed police force creates resentment among protesters, who become more determined to demonstrate.

The killing of George Floyd and the ensuing mass protest across the country (and even in other western cities in Europe and Canada) have unearthed the deep social and racial tensions. These would not have surfaced if we were not facing a major pandemic. Covid has produced mass unemployment nearly overnight, as many service sector venues (restaurants, movie theaters, gyms, dentists etc.) have been declared “non-essential” to reduce community spread of Covid. Trump had celebrated the dip in the unemployment rate in May, which was apparently 13.3%, though the true figure is likely 19%. The non labor force population increased by nearly 6 million from last year. These people are not counted in the unemployment statistic (Shapiro 2020).

Some of the economic pain could have been blunted if the government gave workers the same protections as the corporations, i.e. paid employers for keeping the workers on the payroll. This has happened in small parts via the Paycheck Protection Program, but not enough. The mass of people have received a $1200 stimulus payment, but that is not nearly enough to afford people’s basic necessities. Unemployment insurance kicks in, but the antiquated computer systems of the government cannot handle the massive volume of unemployment requests and the benefits are time-limited to six months even though the crisis will likely linger beyond that time frame. As people become unemployed, they have to look for new work, while their skills atrophy and few employers are confident in hiring them back. Thus, the call of politicians for the protesters to go home is ringing hollow. People have lost their jobs and incomes and being forced to be home all the time during lockdown is making them go crazy. The anomie and purposelessness can be temporarily halted by protesting on the street against police brutality and racism. In this righteous struggle, people feel useful and needed.

What about the lootings of shops that are occurring alongside peaceful protests? While the peaceful protests are legitimate, large aggregations of people tend to invite the looters, who use the opportunity to burglarize shops. Lootings have to be condemned, although one should not forget Robert Merton’s deviance typology according to which criminals/ looters are “innovators”, who accept the cultural goals (materialism) but reject the institutionalized means (work hard, earn a living) to attain them. But the issue isn’t necessarily even that the looters desire to live at the cost of community, but rather that the people most likely to loot are those without stable jobs and savings. A society with a big middle class and a strong social safety net is unlikely to invite looters, and we can see that, at the moment, in the US we have neither. City and state officials have to thread a careful needle between permitting the protests while preventing the lootings, which is not made easier by a president who is feeding red meat to his base (“shoot the looter” tweets; hold the Bible in the air during a speech). In the meantime, livestreamed situations where aggressive cops attack protesters, cover them with pepperspray and teargas, and ram them over by cars generate more public indignation, thus lowering the legitimacy of the entire police force, even as the vast majority of cops behave prudently.

Public officials are also faced with protester demands to defund police departments. In cities like Philadelphia, we see the opposite, where the city is proposing an increase in police funding and cuts in other city services. 20% of the city budget is devoted to police and prisons. If you add the district attorney and other criminal justice arms it’s 25% (Reyes 2020). In Los Angeles, the police department receives a 7% rise in the budget, while other public services are cut and staff are furloughed, though the mayor has made an about-face by demanding modest police cuts (Denkmann 2020). The mayor of New York has now announced reducing the $6 billion NYPD budget, but has not indicated by how much and community activists are skeptical that he is serious with the pledge (Rubinstein 2020). The Seattle city council demands slashing the $400 million police budget in half (Kiggins 2020). In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, the city council went the furthest by voting to abolish the police department, which is even opposed by the liberal mayor, Jacob Frey (Searcey and Eligon 2020). The goal in the defunding police campaign is to reallocate more city resources to education, health care and community programs, which would do more to address the root cause of criminal activity. I think the police abolition movement goes too far, but a gradual reallocation of the state resources to community organizations is eminently prudent. Police have been tasked with dealing with the consequences of poverty like petty crime or drug overdose, which should have been handled by health care and community organizations.

The coronavirus pandemic has unearthed the practical challenges of US society involving race and and the criminal justice system. A genuine solution cannot be focused on altering the police arrangement exclusively, but has to take into account the economic crisis arising from the pandemic. Systemic discrimination and racism must be addressed simultaneously with a dysfunctional political economy that only serves the well-off.

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Kim Jong-un’s Health Scare

Podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/75-kim-jong-uns-health-scare

Kim Jong-un (KJU), the North Korean supreme leader, disappeared from the public spotlight after a cabinet meeting on April 11 and was absent from the birthday celebration of his grandfather, the well-revered Kim Il-sung (KIS), the first leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Rumors about his demise ran wild in various journalist outlets. Did he have a heart attack? Did the foreign surgeon screw up the heart surgery and accidentally killed KJU? We do know that KJU is seriously obese and his family has a history of heart disease, hypertension and diabetes. Only three weeks later on May 1, he appeared in front of state cameras in a choreographed ribbon-cutting event to open a new factory. He was smiling and looked elated. He looked in good health, but rumors suggest that the dictator was replaced by a body double, which is not uncommon in dictatorships that shroud their leadership in a veil of secrecy. We have to assume that he is still alive. As an authoritarian society, there is no free media, so information has to come from dissidents leaking information or intelligence service operations interpreting satellite images on KJU’s potential whereabout. A lot of stories on the health and well-being of KJU are made up by bloggers or non-serious journalistic sources, and these rumors then get shared by serious journalistic sources, which give the rumors credibility.

Limited public information makes it very complicated for outside observers to make a good judgment of the North Korean regime, so let’s dig into its history. Korea used to be a unified country ruled by a dynasty, the last of which was called the Joseon dynasty, which was replaced by the Korean Empire in 1897, which in turn was annexed by Japan in 1910. Anti-Japanese resistance became the major theme in Korean nationalism. Two biographies are quite noteworthy. It is Kim Il-Sung (KIS) and Rhee Syngman.

Rhee was born into a rural peasant family with modest means in Daegyeong in Hwanghae Province in 1875 before settling in Seoul to have a traditional Confucian education. In 1894, he joined an American Methodist school, where he converted to Christianity and studied English. He became a teacher for Americans wanting to study Korean. Rhee opposed the Japanese, who came to increasingly influence the waning years of the Korean Empire. He was implicated in a plot to remove King Gojong from power and was imprisoned in 1899. An attempt to escape was thwarted after which he was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the Russo-Japanese War he was released with the help of a friend and moved to the US in November 1904, where he would live most of his adult life, only interrupted for short time periods to return to Korea (1910-12) and Shanghai (1919-1921), first as a missionary and the second time to be in the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea, which was stationed in Shanghai. Rhee received a PhD from Princeton in 1910, wrote several books and was an activist for Korean independence. When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, Rhee returned to South Korea and became the founding president, primarily because the Americans trusted him, as he was the only major Korean politician fluent in English. He was quite corrupt and the economy did much worse under his rule than in the North. He was removed from power at the beginning of his third term in 1960, when student protests forced him to resign.

KIS comes from a family of Presbyterian ministers from Jeonju, North Jeolla Province, but settled in Pyongyang around 1860. He was born in 1912. In 1920, when KIS was 8 years old, his family fled to Manchuria because their opposition to the Japanese occupation made them a target for prosecution. In 1926, KIS founded the Down-with-Imperialism Union and attended Middle School in Jilin Province. When years later, KIS took over the reigns of power in North Korea, he was barely conversant in Korean, having spent most of his youth in China. He joined the Communist Party of China in 1931, and joined the guerrilla resistance against the Japanese occupation of Manchuria which commenced in September of 1931 after the Mukden incident. In 1935, KIS was appointed as political commissar for the 3rd detachment of the second division, which had 160 soldiers. KIS was celebrated for taking charge of a communist raid on Poch’onbo, a Korean village on the border to China. In 1940, KIS was appointed commander of the 2nd operational region for the 1st Army, but the Japanese captured the other 1st Army generals, and KIS had to flee across the Amur River to the Soviet Union, where he was retrained as Korean communist guerrilla. When the Soviets retook northeast China and occupied North Korea from Japan in 1945, the Soviet authorities led by Soviet general Terentii Shtykov installed KIS as leading member of the North Korean government. Both North and South Korea were founded in 1948. The North was under the direction of the Soviet Union and the South under the US.

KIS has been credited for many political reforms, especially the forceful expropriation of landlords and the transfer of lands to the peasantry and the communist party state. It was actually Shtykov’s policy, who formally conceded power to KIS when North Korea became a formal state. KIS major task was to reunify the divided island nation. He raised the Korean People’s Army (KPA) using Soviet advisers and equipment, especially tanks, trucks, artillery and small arms. He and Shtykov successfully lobbied Stalin to agree to the invasion of the South to ensure reunification, so the Korean War commenced in the summer of 1950. The US beat back the North’s invasion and nearly eliminated KIS regime by November of 1950 until China intervened on behalf of North Korea and pushed the US-ROK (Republic of Korea) troops back to the south. The front stabilized near the 38th parallel, where the front was prior to the war around 1951, when the armistice was declared in 1953.

KIS was fortunate that with Chinese help he could retain power. The post-war era was marked by a large reconstruction effort, the establishment of a command economy and the collectivization of agriculture. KIS took a page from the Soviets and the Chinese by focusing on developing heavy industry and arms production. The outcome was that with the financial support from China and the Soviet Union, North Korea became richer than the South. The South did not become a wealthy economy until the 1980s, which also coincided with democratic liberalization.

KIS also introduced a personality cult surrounding himself, which is continued by his successors, his son and grandson. He also purged his opponents, including Pak Hon-yong, leader of the Korean Communist Party (he was executed in 1955), and Choe Chang-ik, the security minister (executed in 1960). By 1960, KIS became the undisputed leader of North Korea. 30,000 people were imprisoned for unjust and arbitrary reasons, such as not printing KIS portrait on sufficient quality paper or using newspapers with his picture to wrap parcels. Grain confiscation and tax collection occurred with force, beatings and threat of punishment. While communism is about equality, that was the last thing on KIS mind. He created the songbun caste system, which divided people into three groups: core, wavering and hostile classes. The core group were party members, anti-Japanese resistance fighters, workers and peasants, while merchants, lawyers, Christian ministers and dissidents were given the lowest status. The songbun classification became very important during the 1994-98 famine, when the public distribution system gave less food to the lowest-ranked songbun.

KIS main ideology is summarized as Juche, which was about generating self-reliance for North Korea, which means political independence, economic autarky and military power. The diplomatic alignment with Communist countries meant economic isolation with the collapse of the Soviet Union and many other communist states. This event was a severe economic shock to North Korea, because the Soviet Union was an important funder for North Korea. China, which opened up the economy and began to prosper, would increasingly become the patron of North Korea, but Chinese financial problems resulted in declines in grain imports to North Korea in 1993. 1994 was the year that KIS died and left the reins to his chosen successor, his son Kim Jong-il (KJI), who has been groomed for power since 1980. KIS, thus, set a firm precedent for ruling North Korea: monarchic transition. The year KJI took over, the famine began to take hold which killed between 200k to 3.5 million people. Economic autarky was clearly a miserable strategy given that the lack of trading relationships mean low foreign exchange and hence little financial cushion to import food during times of economic need, e.g. when the floods and droughts destroyed a big part of the crops. 250,000 North Koreans moved across the border to China to escape the famine.

In the middle of the famine, KJI enunciated his doctrine of Songun, which means military first. The military receives the highest priority for state funding, even during the famine, although many lower-ranked soldiers remained hungry as well. What KJI most likely meant with Songun was the investment in nuclear weapons which formally culminated in a nuclear test in 2006. KJI feared the increasing military aggression of the US, which formulated the goal to destroy the “axis of evil”, which includes North Korea, Iran and Iraq. The nuclear weapons could be used to pressure the South and other countries to deliver food aid to the North, thus preventing a repeat of future famines. It is, therefore, not surprising that North Korea refuses to get rid of its nuclear stockpile. KJI warmed up political relations to the South from 1998 to 2008, and that was resumed after 2017 by his son KJU. With the failure of communism, KJI permitted very limited privatization in the late-1990s, although by 2009 he attempted to turn it around, when he felt that privatization went too far.

While KJI was the undisputed successor of KIS, there was some ambiguity for KJI’s successor, especially as KJI’s health turned for the worse in the late-2000s. He had three sons, the oldest being Kim Jong-Nam (KJN), the son of his first mistress Song Hye-rim, and the two younger ones are Kim Jong-chul (KJC) and KJU by his second mistress Ko Yong-hui. KJN was the first choice for successor, but in 2001 he apparently screwed up by using a fake Chinese passport to travel to Japan to visit Disneyworld, thus embarrassing the regime and convincing KJI to sideline KJN, who lived in exile in Macau and later in Singapore. KJN claimed that the reason why he was sidelined was that because of his western education in Switzerland (which KJC and KJU received as well), he was too convinced of the free market and privatization, which was opposed to the centralized power of the North Korean regime and KJI himself. That left the two younger sons, but KJC had no interest in power or politics. He was a musician, who loved playing his guitar and visiting Eric Clapton concerts in England. Even today, KJC has a high-ranking party position, but he actually spends most of his time gigging with his band. KJI regarded KJC to be too effeminate. KJI only liked his youngest son, KJU, who was as ruthless and power-hungry in his demeanor as KJI. Both father and son were fond of plenty of fatty food, alcohol, cigarettes and basketball. When KJU studied in Switzerland in his youth he was so obsessed with basketball that he played it and made pencil drawings of Michael Jordan, one of the biggest basketball stars.

When KJU took over from his father at the end of 2011, he moved to purge his enemies as ruthlessly as his grandfather. His powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek (KJI’s brother-in-law) was supposed to be KJU’s regent, as he was still quite young. But KJU decided to purge him by executing him and his whole family, which includes many ambassadors and high officials in the North Korean government. KJU also ordered the assassination of his half-brother KJN in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. KJN made negative comments about KJU in a news outlet, claiming that he was an incompetent ruler. KJU saw this as a threat to his power and sent a threat to KJNs life. KJN then pleaded to his half-brother on the phone to spare his life.

KJU furthered privatization reforms by allowing some small-scale food producers to make profits, which raised output and productivity. KJU also focused on construction projects in Pyongyang, adding amusement parks, aquatic parks, skating rinks, dolphinarium and ski resort. KJU also continued with nuclear weapons development, which was combined with improvements of bilateral relationships with the South and the US. Trump wants KJU to surrender the nuclear weapons, but it is North Korea’s only “valuable” asset, so that is unlikely to happen. KJU might not be inclined to drive privatization and international trade (which currently is limited to China) too far, which would automatically weaken the relative power of the state and, hence, threaten the legitimacy of the Kim regime (Vu 2018).

A nightmare scenario for China and South Korea is any hint of political instability in North Korea, which could happen if KJU prematurely dies without a clear sense of who the successor is going to be. Instability could result in the dissolution of North Korea, mass migration to China, and huge reunification costs for South Korea. It could also spark a destructive nuclear war.

KJU has promoted his sister, Kim Yo-jong, to an influential position, but is she going to be a regent until KJU’s infant son is old enough to rule? What is the role of the president, Choe Ryong-hae, or the premier, Kim Jae-ryong (no relationship)? Foreign observers can only continue guessing. The more unpredictable the regime the better it is for the supreme leader, who can feel safe via foreign ignorance. The North Korean people deserve a better fate both with respect to the economy and personal liberties/ human rights. The secrecy surrounding the coronavirus, where North Korea has apparently not reported a single case, could make the effect of the pandemic much worse as people are kept ignorant about the severity of the situation, although with effective, repressive institutions like in China the disease could be brought under control as well. Among the socialist regimes, only North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and China exist, whereby the latter three have introduced significant market reforms. Cuba is close to the US, and retains a dollarized tourist economy to gain foreign exchange. Hence, North Korea is a holdout socialist state, though absent huge pressures like famine or internal rebellion, it can hold out for a long time.

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Comment on Jaimovich et al. (2020)

Nir Jaimovich, Itay Saporta-Eksten, Henry E. Siu, Yaniv Yedid-Levi. “The Macroeconomics of Automation: Data, Theory, and Policy Analysis.” NBER Working Paper No. 27122, May 2020 https://www.nber.org/papers/w27122

The authors state a very powerful finding with respect to the employment effects of automation, which is quoted here

Our key finding is that the probability of such routine-type individuals working in routine occupations declined by about 16% between the pre-polarization era and the post-polarization one. We find that instead of working in routine occupations, about two-thirds of such individuals have ended up as non-participants in the labor force, with the remaining one-third employed in non-routine manual occupations (which cluster at the bottom of the occupational wage distribution). Interestingly, we find that the unemployment rates for such workers remained roughly unchanged.

Jaimovich et al. (2020)

The authors propose various solutions to automation and they attack UBI for the high costs of taxation, which would supposedly lower output as some people withdraw from the labor force altogether. But very importantly, they concede that among the three categories of people (unemployed, low-skilled, high-skilled workers) the unemployed (including NLF), and low-skilled workers will see a net benefit (for the latter it is especially strong because their wages are supplemented by UBI, which is not taxed away like traditional welfare), while the net losses will be absorbed by the high-skilled workers, whose UBI is offset by a rising tax burden to fund the program. What their model does not account for is that rising wage pressure on both the high- and low-skilled would incentivize more automation, which could offset any potential output declines following labor participation. It should also be noted that the high-skilled will sell their labor as long as net wages exceed the low-skilled wages. Living on $1000 and some chump change as low-skilled worker is not an aspiration of the high-skilled, but I do understand (and disagree with) the framework of the homo oeconomicus which assumes that humans are perfectly rational economic agents making precise tradeoffs between labor and leisure, and shifting to more leisure if given enough income support.

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Existentialism and Absurdity

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/74-existentialism-and-absurdity

After reading Albert Camus (Myth of Sisyphus, The Rebel), Jean-Paul Sartre (Being and Nothingness) and Soren Kierkegaard (Either Or) I have reached a deeper understanding of existentialist philosophy. One may also add Friedrich Nietzsche (Genalogy of Morals) to that list. What is the main thesis that emerges out of existentialism? It is that life is pointless and absurd. It emerges out of Christian dogma in a society that transformed from feudal stability to capitalist change. In a world that is driven by what Max Weber called the “rationalist” value ethics (optimize career or romantic choices; focus on short-term gain over long-term relationships with others etc.), how can one retain stable moral values?

Kierkegaard is the only Christian among these four thinkers and the earliest. Kierkegaard was raised in a strict Lutheran family, holding the belief that individuals have the responsibility to carry sin, guilt and suffering and they have to choose to embrace the faith, which determines eternal salvation or damnation. Making this choice creates anxiety, which is the dreadful burden of choosing eternity and the exhilaration in the freedom of choosing. Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism does not allow for mediation by a priest, who could help individuals be connected with God. Individuals are directly linked to God. Kierkegaard, however, points to the logical contradiction in the Christian faith, which is that God is eternal, infinite and transcendent but becomes incarnated as temporal, finite and human being in the form of Jesus. The individual now has the choice to either embrace Christianity as faith or reject it for logical reasons. Christianity is about admitting to one’s sin and then finding atonement via faith in God. Faith is about believing that for God the impossible is possible, that God forgives the unforgivable (sin). Christianity is, thus, a virtue of absurdity, an unreconcilable contradiction, whose attractiveness arises from that very contradiction. While Kierkegaard insisted on the Christian faith he cracked the door open for later existentialists to pick up on the theme of absurdity and human freedom to choose what to believe in and how to act independent of Christianity.

Kierkegaard distinguishes between the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious life. The aesthete pursues his immediate pleasure (sexual exploits, wealth, social recognition etc.) without reflecting seriously on the nature of one’s life, while the ethicist critically reflects on his lifestyle and is filled by responsibility and accountability for his life choices. The religious person reflects on his lifestyle too but surrenders himself to his faith, thus suspends reason on our existence. The aesthete is in the lowest and most vulnerable position, because reliance on external factors for happiness creates emptiness and boredom. The ethicist who cares nothing for religion might be disappointed as well, because the absurdity of life (the pointlessness of life choices; the finality of death) cannot be easily reasoned with.

About half a century later, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche renounced Christian values, which he equated with slave morality. Societies are structured by hierarchy, where the aristocrats dominate over the peasants/ workers/ slaves/ the poor. In the Greek-Roman value system, which Nietzsche glorifies, the aristocrats are seen as good and capable, using their political and physical strength and valor to dominate over the weak, the common masses. Might is right. I still recall a classmate in middle and high school in Vienna, who glorified the rich and powerful, always cringing when the social studies professor made us read an article highlighting the negative effects of inequality, lack of access to social services etc. One can also not forget the Russian-American author Ayn Rand, who used her trauma of Soviet communism to glorify capitalism and the entrepreneurs as the “creators”, while the masses are “takers”.

The Christian value system turned morality around. Now it is the weak, poor and oppressed, who are the good and morally superior, while the aristocrats and ruling class carry the guilt for being at the top of an “unfair” and “oppressive” social system. Jesus protects the poor and condemns the rich for their greed and their unwillingness to share wealth with commoners. Nietzsche similarly condemns socialism, which is merely a secular version of Christian values. Nietzsche disliked capitalism as well, which is too obsessed with asceticism (hard work, frugality, invest profits etc.) which is another version of self-denial. Nietzsche thought that the Christian value system is unnatural and inhibits the freedom of human beings, hence “God is dead”. This was both a positivist and a normative statement. Positivist in that by the late-19th century, society became more secular with capitalism, and normative in that the Christian value system has to be defeated.

What he instead advocated for is “the will to power”. This could be about reaching the top of a social hierarchy, but Nietzsche was more abstract than that. The will to power is about self-mastery and reaching excellence in a trade or art. Unlike the narrow vision of rationalist enlightenment, Nietzsche believed that reason and truth cannot be pursued everywhere and at all times. The appreciation of art (novels, painting, music etc.) exposes us to illusion, which is an important aspect of living well. The consumer of art contemplates and enjoys the human spirit, while the producer of art embodies the mastery of the human spirit. In a world, where we deny God’s existence and admit to the loneliness of humans in an absurd and unfair world, humanism and its artistic creation is all we have, and Nietzsche believed that this freedom must be relished. Of course, we can survive without art by giving in to daily rituals, but it would be much harder to endure. We need to escape by reading novels, watching movies, looking at paintings, listening to podcasts, or in the case of the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, build buses from crates.

Jean-Paul Sartre picked up on the theme of freedom, which is based on his broader existential philosophy, in which existence precedes essence. Who you are (essence) is defined by what you do (existence). This is different from other philosophical paradigms, where the human essence precedes existence. Thus, there is no higher purpose to existence. Our existence just “is”. Sartre broke down “being” (existence) into three parts: being-in-itself, which is the non-conscious being. It exists without comprehending, which presumably are most animals and inanimate objects. Being-for-itself, which is the conscious being that forms attitudes toward others and is an agent/ subject. Human consciousness is being-for-itself. Being-for-others is when the self exists as object for others, which creates a conflict because everyone is a being-for-itself trying to restore his own agency, while converting the other person into a being-for-others. Social conflict is, thus, endemic to human relations. The power dynamic is most obvious in a couple, where the lover attempts to convert the loved a being-for-other, and the loved has to make a decision whether to submit voluntarily and develop feelings for the lover or to ditch the lover.

But fundamentally, Sartre believes in human freedom, which is based on the human desire for being-for-itself. This freedom is quite broadly construed. Even a slave is free, according to Sartre, not in the sense that he is not oppressed by the master. He obviously is “unfree” in a social relationship sense. But his freedom lies in how he interprets this slave condition and how he behaves in every situation. Most slaves will be loyal to their master, while others try to secretly sabotage him. If living conditions are poor enough, slave rebellions are possible, where many being-for-itself slaves take agency against their masters. But human freedom is not only positive. Sartre notes that humans are “condemned to be free”. Writing nearly a century after Kierkegaard, Sartre no longer makes any references to Christianity. Man is left on his own to contemplate his existence, and make it purposeful through his actions as being-for-itself, knowing that it causes anxiety as Kierkegaard pointed out. But true freedom occurs in solitude, which might explain why I enjoy writing this blog even without payment. It is a creative act, in which I decide which words to use and what points I want to make, while you as a reader, in turn, have the freedom to read this text (thank you!), other texts or don’t read at all.

Freedom is diminished in sociality via the perennial conflict between being-for-itself and being-for-others. In relationship to others we are either subjects or objects or we are both depending on the specific situation. We are back to the lovers, who derive their purpose not from mere existence, but from maintaining the look or attention of the other lover. At the extreme, the alienation, which is the reduction of one’s own freedom/ being-for-itself, creates masochistic or sadistic attitudes. Whether one wishes to inflict damage on oneself or on the other, it becomes an enslaving experience for both as one’s own freedom is suppressed. Hence, in Sartre’s play No Exit, the three main characters of the play are trapped in the afterlife in hell, which is not Dante’s inferno but the three incompatible personalities who make each other’s afterlife a hell. Quarantine during a pandemic lockdown has the potential to turn into hell, as retreat options from roommates and family members are diminished.

A contemporary of Sartre was fellow French writer Albert Camus. Camus can also be considered a philosopher but he was less interested in describing and defining concepts in detail than to reflect on practical human implications of existentialism. He wrote more novels than philosophical works, and his philosophical works are more engaging than Sartre, who is much drier and clinical in his approach. Camus states that life’s absurdity comes from the fact that we have to die, thus the people who are very attached to life because they have great material possessions, exciting travel history, amazing relationships, a happy family etc. are the most shocked when it has to come to an end. Death is a biological fact and makes us no different than animals, but unlike animals humans as rational beings cannot simply accept death but have to justify or minimize it in some way. A potential solace is again found in religion. In Christianity, death is followed by the afterlife, which connects us to God’s heaven. In Buddhism/ Hinduism, we are going to be reborn in another creature unless we reach enlightenment in life and hence moksha/ nirvana. For the atheist Camus, religious belief is escapism and nonsense. There is no afterlife. There is only our present existence, which begins with our birth and ends with our death.

But this resignation to a pointless life due to death begs the question whether suicide or murder (which he called ‘rebellion’) become acceptable. If life is pointless, why not end one’s life now or end the life of others? Camus rejects both of these actions. It is precisely by accepting its pointlessness that life becomes worth living. People should surrender to their hedonistic pleasures, which would be closest to living in the moment. People should become so defiant of their existential fate that the only reason to die should be “unreconciled and not of one’s own free will” (Myth of Sisyphus, p.55).

That’s how Camus himself died in 1960 from a car accident (with Camus in the passenger seat). Consider the death of the famous China scholar John Fairbank in September 1991. He worked on his last book China: A New History over the summer, delivered the manuscript to Harvard University Press, returned home and suffered a fatal heart attack. Another famous example was the death of Bernard Edwards, the bass player of Chic, who formed a powerful duo with fellow producer and guitar player, Nile Rodgers. In April 1996, Chic appeared for a concert in the Budokan Arena in Tokyo, when Edwards fell ill right before the show. The doctor who examined Edwards said that he had to cancel the show and go to hospital immediately. Rodgers wanted to cancel, but Edwards insisted that the show had to go on, so they performed the concert, where Edwards occasionally required rest and even blacked out at times. Rodgers had believed that the interruption in the bass line was deliberate improvisation. When the show was over, Rodgers checked in on Edwards in the hotel room asking him whether he needed food or medicine. “I’m fine, I just need to rest”, Edwards replied. He died overnight in his hotel room from pneumonia age 43. Rodgers had a bad dream that night about his friend. When Rodgers came in the next morning, he found Edwards’ corpse. What a way to go!

Life’s absurdity is similar to Sisyphus, who was punished by the gods to roll a rock up the hill and repeat the cycle over and over again. Camus notes that Sisyphus does not simply passively resign himself to the mindless and pointless task, but finds happiness in the midst of it. That becomes the basis for the desired human attitude: despite our daily life rituals that begin with getting up from bed and end with going to bed, which is repeated until the day we die, we have to convince ourselves that this is good enough. Rolling the rock is also similar to our quest for the point of life, where any illusion to find a response gets dashed as the rock rolls downhill again, thus forcing us to start afresh with the question of meaning, knowing that there is ultimately no answer and no point in the inquiry.

There is no clear guideline as to the activities that man must pursue and live by to feel content. One way of looking at it is to appreciate simple pleasures and beauties in life, which is quite reminiscent to Nietzsche’s obsession with self-mastery and will to power. A noteworthy passage is rendered in “Nuptials at Tipasa”,

In a moment, when I throw myself down among the absinthe plants to bring their scent into my body, I shall know, appearances to the contrary, that I am fulfilling a truth which is the sun’s and which will also be my death’s. In a sense, it is indeed my life that I am staking here, a life that tastes of warm stone, that is full of the signs of the sea and the rising song of the crickets. The breeze is cool and the sky blue. I love this life with abandon and wish to speak of it boldly: it makes me proud of my human condition. Yet people have often told me: there’s nothing to be proud of. Yes, there is: this sun, this sea, my heart leaping with youth, the salt taste of my body and this vast landscape in which tenderness and glory merge in blue and yellow. It is to conquer this that I need my strength and my resources. Everything here leaves me intact, I surrender nothing of myself, and don no mask: learning patiently and arduously how to live is enough for me, well worth all their arts of living.

Albert Camus, Nuptials at Tipasa, p.69

Camus demands of us to stare at the absurdity of life with courage and defiance rather than flee to religion. Camus, although a socialist and even a communist party member in his younger years, became an ardent critic of Marxism and communism, whose premise is the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system to create a new heaven on earth. Camus regards communism as a pipedream, which cannot be realized compared to the simple, contingent pleasures that we can attain in the present socio-economic order. Camus almost certainly does not defend the social disorder of capitalism. But attaining heaven on earth is a futile pursuit. The source of disorder lies in the absurdity of the human condition. Similar to death declaring life to be absurd, the perfection of human social systems is similarly absurd, especially as it tends to involve violence, murder and death. Death is the highest form of absurdity, which Camus thinks is better left to nature than human intervention.

In defense of the “general will”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s concept of decisions that could harm certain subset of people but benefit the whole of the people, the French revolutionaries chopped off King Louis XVI’s head, but the problem only started there and violence grew out of hand in the first few years after the revolution. Only Napoleonic restoration and the re-direction of national energy against foreign enemies, the Prussians, Austrians, British and Russians, stopped the French carnage. The broader point for Camus is that communists and revolutionaries attempt to escape the absurdity of human life in their quest for heaven on earth rather than acknowledge that absurdity is always with us. They take the consequentialist maxim that “end justifies the means” without questioning whether those ends are attainable in the first place.

There is something very attractive in existentialist ideas. However, with respect to Nietzsche, I only find myself agreeing with his views in the abstract, but concretely the “slave morality” that he criticizes is quite attractive. He does not distinguish between the indignation against poverty and deprivation in the midst of plenty and the psychological resentment (Ressentiment) against the rich and powerful. Perhaps they can’t be separated, but socialists can make a case by harping on the former.

As Camus pointed out, the whole point of the socialist campaign is to create heaven on earth, which we will never attain. But that quest for socialism is quite attractive and worthwhile. It is the life activity that can give meaning to some people. Being on one’s dying breath knowing that heaven on earth has not been achieved but one has given one’s best is not the worst final thought to have. Futility is also suspended by thinking about the well-being of future generations, which becomes relevant with climate change. There are many young activists, who insist on action on combating climate change, because the struggle for our own survival and those of future generations is inherently worthwhile (even if we know about our own mortality). Similarly, the social distancing protocol during the coronavirus pandemic emerges from our desire to not die from the disease (even if we have to die at some point from a different cause). This is what Arthur Schopenhauer referred to as the “will to live” (Wille zum Leben).

Existentialists precede and inspire postmodernists, who no longer think that there is a ruling meta-narrative of human life. There are local truths, but there is no absolute truth. If life is pointless, then we can also give up the quest for truth. But to be fair to the existentialists, they are not as nihilistic as the postmodernists. Kierkegaard allows us to escape absurdity with Christianity. Nietzsche wants us to abandon Christianity and pursue will to power, self-mastery and art creation. Sartre wants us to realize our freedom as thinking beings, while Camus wants us to defy pointlessness and pursue hedonistic passions. At their root, they believe in human freedom, knowing that we struggle with this freedom, hence our escape by “surrender” to God. Every absurdity, uncertainty, injustice and doubt get offloaded to the deity. He has a plan. Therefore, we don’t need our own plan, and we can, as fully-grown adults, return back to the proverbial kindergarten of life and play. For the small minority of people, who acknowledge the existential absurdity and existential freedom (primarily intellectuals), life also continues while it lasts.

Further readings:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/

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Why Biden Must Become the Next President

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/73-why-biden-must-become-the-next-president

As Bernie Sanders decided to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Joe Biden has become the Democratic nominee to take on Donald Trump, who is bracing for his reelection in the fall in the middle of the pandemic. Sanders’ end to his campaign is a massive disappointment to progressives, but despite all the weaknesses in a Biden campaign, an important case has to be made that he is better than Trump for the country.

The first thing that must be analyzed is why Sanders lost. Firstly, he was the poll leader as long as the Democratic field was crowded, which ended after Joe Biden’s victory in the South Carolina primaries. Prior to that he lost the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. The three moderate candidates Buttigieg, Klobuchar and Bloomberg dropped out before or shortly after Super Tuesday, thus allowing Biden to consolidate the centrist vote. The progressive vote was split between Sanders and Warren, though Warren also dropped out after Super Tuesday. At that point, the two-man race between Biden and Sanders meant that we saw a repeat of 2016, where a plurality in the party would support the centrist candidate. Biden has 52% of the delegates, while Sanders has about 40%. So the second problem is that despite an improvement in Sanders ground game in some liberal states, including Nevada and California, most other states swung to the centrist wing after supporting Sanders in 2016, including Michigan and Minnesota. Sanders struggled to bring black, older and centrist voters on his side, an important block within the Democratic Party. He could have fared better if he retained the youth voter turnout, which did not happen.

The centrist Democrats seem to be vindicated, believing that their view more closely reflects the overall electorate and thus allowing an easier victory for the Democratic candidate. This could be true if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio was president, because these are conventional Republicans, who represent the same political swamp and act like it. However, the centrist strategy against Donald Trump, the first major political candidate who pointed to the corruption of the political class it is quite troubling to send in an establishment candidate like Biden. Trump still retains a solid block of voter support, roughly 40-45% of the electorate. But now is not the time to demand perfection, which is what some Sanders supporters insist on.

The intolerable nature of the Trump presidency makes the vote for the lesser of two evils all the more important. What Trump has opened up is a box of Pandora of xenophobia and racism, which began with the travel ban on seven Muslim countries, and continued with the forced family separation of undocumented border migrants. Given the economic dislocation of the domestic working class, a more nativist concern could work if it were combined with leftist economic policy as in the Sanders campaign. Instead, Trump’s main domestic achievement has been a watering down of the Obama health care law, which is quite devastating during a pandemic when many more people need affordable health care. His second accomplishment was to cut taxes for people paying the highest income tax, which are rich people. 83% of the tax cuts benefit the top 1%. The fall in government revenues have not been matched by spending cuts, thus increasing government deficits, which the Congressional Republicans use as excuse to advocate for cuts in social safety net programs, though these have not been implemented.

Trump could still make populist pronouncements if he made real his reindustrialization “made in USA” strategy, but this was not so much a well thought out strategy than a weak aspiration. Trump pronounced the retention of selected jobs after giving huge tax breaks to manufacturers, even though in the case of Caterpillar jobs were nonetheless outsourced. Trump is a real estate tycoon who shares the anti-government suspicion of the rest of the business community (not because the state is less efficient than the private sector, but because they fear that state success would result in more systematic collectivist policies that threaten the wealth of private capitalists). The tariff war with China might have encouraged some reshoring, but manufacturing jobs only increased by half a million since January 2017, when Trump took office. In the same time frame, the labor force increased by 17 million. This lack of manufacturing job growth might in part be explained by improved automation and outsourcing options outside of China.

With the failure of a reindustrialization strategy, the record low unemployment figures prior to the pandemic were exclusively based on contract, gig and temporary work in the service sector. Since the Great Recession, Uber taxi services, Amazon warehouse workers, supermarket cashiers and home health aides have boomed. With the pandemic, the many “non-essential” workers are sent home, thus wiping out any employment gains in the recent past. Part of the essential workforce are the food producers, who are overwhelmingly undocumented migrants from Central America, the very people Trump wanted to remove from the US with his nativist agenda. The lack of social safety net is reflected in deeper economic pain at the individual level compared to Europe.

All the lies, bluster and showing off are no longer just entertaining, but exasperating during the pandemic. How is it entertaining to boast about high TV ratings during a pandemic? How is it entertaining to pick fights with individual governors who “disrespect” him? How is it entertaining to promise opening up the country during Easter and giving false hope to people which will make them more angry and anxious when they have to be disappointed a few days later? How is it entertaining to first deny the pandemic and then boasting to have long known about it? How is it entertaining to promise hydroxychloroquine as cure-all, when there are not enough studies to prove it? All it does is result in the delay of mitigation strategies, the lack of medical equipment and excess deaths.

This leaves the case for Joe Biden, who is not the ideal candidate, but at present the better of the two candidates. The minor liability with Biden is that he suffers from severe cognitive decline and struggles with completing sentences. This weakens him during debates with Trump and is quite problematic even when he reaches power. It might not matter too much if he appoints capable officials, who will conduct most of the affairs of state, but it will hamper any ambitious policy agenda. The major liability is with respect to the political agenda, which is a return to the status quo ante, which we might call the Bush-Clinton-Obama consensus. In this consensus, only incremental political change is possible. Much of what the state is doing is to manage the global economy with the US at the head of the table, expand the market sphere in the provision of personal needs (hence more student, housing, medical and consumer debt), allow for the continued deindustrialization and hollowing out of middle class jobs with the exception of a small privileged class (corporate executives, New York Times journalists, Ivy League professors, doctors, lawyers and urban professionals along the coast) and occasional bandaids to prevent a complete social explosion.

If Biden represents the neoliberal agenda, why would he be better for the working class than Trump? This is a fair question from Trump supporters. The answer is that Trump is even more regressive. Trump’s only steering state policy is to give more tax cuts to the rich, while Biden will elevate the tax burden on the wealthy moderately. Furthermore, Biden has had to shift to the left on some positions, now endorsing some student debt relief, a higher minimum wage and a Medicare buy-in option. These are positions that not even Obama could take on, because back in 2008 there was a stranglehold on centrist party positions. Sanders has shifted the center of gravity to the left. Not left enough, many will suggest but it has moved. While Sanders dropped out of the presidential race, he indicated that he will remain on the ballot and will make his Biden endorsement dependent on very progressive positions, although due to the pandemic Sanders negotiating position is weaker than in 2016.

Because this is a “lesser of two evil” election, it must be emphasized that voters do not have to be enthusiastic about Biden to support him. They merely have to recognize that Trump would be even worse. Progressives have to regroup and attack again in 2024. But I have to admit that Biden’s victory in the fall is not a slam dunk. If the crisis recedes over the summer, which all of us have to hope for if we care about our well-being and survival, Trump will claim all the credit and he is a showbiz expert knowing how to profit from it electorally. Trump retains the bully pulpit on his daily press briefing, while Biden trots out video messages in his basement at home which few people will watch. Trump is the incumbent who will depict Biden as part of the swamp, and if the only thing that Biden will say in response is the bigotry, sexism and xenophobia of Trump he will resonate only among the converted, which is the educated, urban professionals on the coast who have always disliked Trump (Trump will never win New York and California). Biden’s winning coalition would need to shave off some Trump supporters and a larger chunk of the disappointed, young (i.e. under-45) Sanders supporters. We are not certain that the nightmare will end in the fall, but one must hope.

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The Roman Origins of European Feudalism and the Problem of Domination

Podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/72-the-roman-origins-of-european-feudalism-and-the-problem-of-domination

European feudalism has been characterized by the dependence relation between the king, feudal lord, vassal and the serf. The king grants control of the land, the fief, to the landowner (usually because he served in the military), who would outsource management to the vassal, who would have serfs working under him to receive monetary payments, or more frequently, labor services or in-kind payments (grains). The serfs are peasants who grow food and cannot move freely and are forced to stay in the lord’s land in return for military protection as marauding bands and foreign armies could sack the land. The lord raised security forces to ensure the safety of the serfs, hence the fealty relationship. Feudalism reached its highpoint from the 10th to the 13th centuries, especially with the Norman expansion.

I argue that European feudalism was preceded by the manorial system of the Roman empire, and that it arose from a need to continue social domination and inequality of power. A manor is a country house or mansion, where the lord lived. It consisted of the demesne which was reserved for the use of the landowner (usually his food needs), the mansus, which is where dependent tenants (serfs, peasants) lived and worked for their needs and those of the lord, and free peasant land, which was inhabited by free peasants who had to pay rent to the lord.

Roman landholders were mostly high-level generals or Roman politicians, who began moving out of the big cities as the end of the Roman territorial conquests in the third century AD resulted in a lack of recruitment of new slaves. The Roman empire’s economy was heavily reliant on a growing slave population, who would be drawn from newly captured territories. Slaves were not Roman citizens, but also lacked the legal status of free-born foreigners. As such they were legal property in Rome that could be bought and sold. Slaves were debtors and prisoners of war from military campaigns. Slave status could also be inherited if the mother was a slave.

Slave status was not immutable, as slaves could be freed under certain circumstances. Some slaves had marketable skills, which allowed them to earn money and buy their freedom. Some masters have stated in their will that upon their death slaves will be freed. If the slave was physically weak and thereby not useful to a master, the slave trader might just decide to free the slave. Very few slaves were able to convince their masters to grant them freedom, but it happened. Freed men (liberti) were freed slaves who would become lower-class plebeians. Their children have the chance to rise the social ranks and become Equestrians or senators. These are patricians, the zenith of Roman society, as opposed to the common man or plebeians, who often work for the patricians.

Equestrians were large property-holders who formed the cavalry (soldiers on horses) of the Roman armies. Toward the end of the Roman republic (1st century BC), the equestrians added tax farming as a profitable activity, which was curbed by Augustus, who established provincial authorities to raise revenues. Equestrians also became judges and financial bureaucrats for the state, thus collecting high salaries to solidify their wealth and power. The senators were members of a political institution, which ran the government affairs of Rome with the passage of advisory laws (although the final decision-making power was either with the king in the monarchy or the consul in the republic). The Senate was founded by Romulus, the city founder, and initially consisted of 100 men before being expanded to 600. The senate was powerful throughout the Roman Empire, but was substantially weakened by the emperor Diocletian, who asserted that the emperor did not have to be appointed by the senate and most laws passed as emperor decrees rather than senatorial laws.

Back to the slaves: the upward social mobility among some slaves means that to keep the patricians and some plebeians well-fed and well-provided, the empire had to continuously add more slaves. Not conquering new territory meant a lack of slaves and made life in the big cities untenable for the patricians, who moved to the land and built a manorial economy that was not dependent on the support of the empire. Toward the end of the empire, the lack of trade and the fraying political center weakened internal security, which could be provided in the manorial economy. Hence, many lower class city residents also began to leave the city to find refuge in the manorial structure, even as that means submitting to a new structure of domination and providing agricultural labor to the lords.

The blow to the empire occurred in the fifth century, when the Vandals occupied North Africa, thus robbing the Roman Empire from the Mediterranean trading markets. The Huns began to invade Europe in the late-4th century, thus pushing the Germanic tribes, especially the Visigoths, into the Roman empire. The Romans treated the Visigoths poorly, which created resentment. Once they amassed in great numbers they struck and routed a Roman Army in the Battle of Adrianople in 378. The Romans were also undermined by the lack of manpower, which forced them to incorporate more Germans into their ranks, who lacked loyalty to the Roman empire. Goth king Alaric sacked Rome in 410 and a final attack in 476 by Odoacer destroyed the Western Roman Empire. City life and trading routes in Europe were dealt another blow with the Muslim conquests in the seventh century. The introduction of Christianity as state religion under Constantine in 380 had already undermined the supremacy of the Roman king.

The feudalization of European society has been termed the “Dark Ages”, which is a post-Enlightenment perspective, looking back at this period. This surely has been the case, as scientific and technological advances were ditched in favor of the Christian faith and a stagnant land-based economy. The stagnation was gradually overcome with the rise of the cities, where merchants and artisans created wealth that was independent from the church and landed aristocrats, who naturally viewed the city bourgeoisie with skepticism. Beginning in 1200 Arabic scholars who had preserved Aristotle and other ancient Greek thinkers brought scientific perspectives back to western Europe. Successful bourgeois takeover of the political economy had to wait until the Glorious Revolution in England of 1688 and the French Revolution of 1789. In some countries, it took even longer for the bourgeoisie to become dominant.

From a historical and sociological viewpoint, European feudalism of the Middle Ages was a continuation of the Roman manorial economy. While the actors and the names change, following Marx’ historical materialism, the social structure of domination remains an unchanged element of any complex society. A complex society has a hierarchy in which the ruling class (senators, equestrians, landlords, capitalists) appropriates the resources, which are produced by a dominated class (slaves, serfs, peasants, workers). The ruling class owns the ideological apparatus, which includes schools, the media and the state institutions which reinforce the self-serving lies on the supposed meritocracy of the existing social order.

From the ruling class perspective, the historical constancy of hierarchy can be justified, as the human progress produced by artists and scientists, usually members of the aristocratic class, is built on the labor provided by the subordinate class. The need for a subordinated laboring class becomes less clear-cut as production chains are increasingly automated, and more and more jobs are socially oriented (social care, education, entertainment, business and professional services). My ability to write this blog and your ability to read this blog (because you are in self-isolation at home too and have enough cultural capital to understand this blog) suggests that some other people have provided the essential labor to sustain our major needs. This is made all the more clear during the period of the pandemic, when the state reminds us who the essential and the non-essential workers are. The essential workers are the farmers, manufacturing workers and some service workers, including truck drivers, supermarket clerks, law enforcement, warehouse workers or health care workers. Almost everyone else is non-essential.

In most advanced industrial societies, the essential workers are likely only 20 to 25% of the total population. We already live in a society, where over half of the population does not pursue paid employment, because they are students, children, seniors or homemakers. Among the remaining half, there are about 40% of the workforce, who think that their labor makes no positive difference in the lives of other people (what David Graeber called the “bullshit” workers). This category of bullshit workers received their confirmation during the pandemic when they are classified as “non-essential” and are condemned to the home office. To be sure, not all non-essential workers are bullshit. The fact that many athletes and entertainers are idled by the quarantine orders does not make their work bullshit. In fact, cabin fever for the middle and upper class home-quarantined individuals is made worse by a dearth of entertainment options (keeping in mind that part of the working class is trapped in essential jobs and can’t quit as they lack enough savings to weather bouts of unemployment).

But remarkably anno 2020, we can- at high cost to GDP and living standards- sustain for many months- a bare minimum economy as long as the 20% of the population, who are essential workers (the real heroes during this pandemic, not just the health care workers), show up to work daily to clothe, nourish and heal us. The cost will be high, as the economy grinds to a halt, debts are no longer paid and trillions of dollars of stock market valuation puffs up in thin air. To prevent anarchy and social collapse the government has to extend credit lines to businesses and corporations but also pay some universal basic income to the 80% of the population that are in hibernation due to the lockdown. If we cover people’s basic needs, the crisis can be weathered, but what is very important is that once the pandemic passes that we do not merely return to “business as usual”.

The strike to the neoliberal economic model works best during this major global health emergency: the widely implemented lockdowns have dramatically reduced CO2 emissions as people are traveling less and hunker down. Factories are ordered to remain idle and, in any case, as most people’s pension plan and incomes are hit by the crisis, they have no appetite for consumerism. For those advocating for climate justice, which is a form of intergenerational justice (as a stable climate tends to benefit young people with a longer remaining life expectancy more than old people), the pandemic has achieved what the school strike and Greta Thunberg’s tears on TV camera have not. The climate emergency is an ongoing problem, and the capitalist inclination to return to “business as usual” will continue deforestation, drainage of fresh water supplies, rising sea levels and rising temperature.

But the pandemics could also jolt humanity to reconsider consumerism and whether to reproduce in large numbers (as is the case in sub-Saharan Africa), which the capitalist economy needs to ensure further economic growth. (I have seen some people speculate on social media that the pandemics will increase the number of births, because-so the reasoning- quarantined couples will be so bored that they will have a lot of unprotected sex, though I find this to be unlikely. Firstly, the home quarantined adults tend to be the middle class that is telecommuting and they tend to be the most conscious of using contraceptives, hence the lower birth rate among women with more education. Another quarantined group are the newly unemployed, who are unlikely to desire having children during this period of economic uncertainty. The US fertility rate has dipped below replacement rate since the Great Recession and has not recovered since then.)

Our planet can surely no longer handle this unlimited growth paradigm and we quickly have to plan alternative economic institutions to allow us to thrive without it. The non-capitalist institutions are necessary because within a capitalist economy a declining population and declining consumption will depress investment and hike unemployment, which results in more inequality and social destabilization.

Once a non-capitalist or socialist paradigm takes shape, we can also hope that the egregious nature of social domination built on the extraction of surplus labor can come to an end. The patricians throughout history have tried to convince us that without formal employment, the plebeians (the masses) would go crazy, but the patricians themselves have no issue using their own abundance of leisure. The modern patricians (the capitalist titans) are even worse by insisting that no one should have much leisure time. The automation revolution, which must continue unabated to free us from toil, might challenge this paradigm and convert us all into patricians, which is an abhorrent idea to the current patricians, whose well-being is defined by their exclusivity. We need a society with automation-provided leisure for all and a minimum of consumerism. This must be repeated loud and clear during this pandemic.

Further readings:

https://www.history.com/news/8-reasons-why-rome-fell

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fall_of_the_Western_Roman_Empire

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_class_in_ancient_Rome

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_Senate

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equites

https://www.ancient.eu/Manorialism/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manorialism

https://www.ancient.eu/Feudalism/

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Chinese Socialism in the Xin and Song Dynasty

Podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/71-chinese-socialism-in-the-xin-and-song-dynasty

When we think of Chinese socialism, the first association is with Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party, which won the Civil War and declared the People’s Republic of China in 1949, which exists to this date. However, there are deeper historical antecedents to socialism in the Chinese system. The main premise behind socialism is that the state would provide for the basic welfare of its citizens and reduce the ability of private entrepreneurs to take profits. Because state power has been consolidated since the Qin dynasty, we can go back to that period to analyze the major socialist actors in Chinese history. I will first examine Wang Mang (王莽), who reigned from 9 to 23 AD in his short Xin dynasty, followed by the New Policies under Chancellor Wang Anshi (王安石) from 1070 to 1076. The major conclusion is that Wang Anshi’s socialist policies worked better than Wang Mang’s.

The Han dynasty was the second imperial dynasty, which was preceded by the Qin dynasty. Qin Shi Huang was the first emperor, who unified China. After Qin’s death, the Qin empire quickly disintegrated into 18 kingdoms. Two former rebel leaders Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han engaged in a war to determine supremacy, and Liu defeated Xiang in the Battle of Gaixia in 202BC. Chang’an became the new capital and Liu became the new emperor of what came to be known as Western Han, which ran until 9 AD. The new empire quickly became embroiled in an external war with the Xiongnu, a nomadic tribe to the north of China. Extensive military campaigns forced Emperor Wu and the Modernist faction to nationalize private industries. He created central government monopolies in salt, iron, liquor and bronze-coin minting. By controlling commodities that people needed, the emperor could extract labor and money from the citizens, which would be paid to soldiers, who fought the wars. The Modernist faction was opposed by the Reformists, who advocated for a cautious, non-expansionary foreign policy, frugal government budgeting and low taxes on private entrepreneurs.

Wang Zhengjun (71BC-13AD) was an important empress, then empress dowager (husband dies, son becomes king), and then grand empress dowager (son dies, grandson becomes king). When her grandson died, her nephew (younger brother’s son), Wang Mang, was appointed regent under Emperor Ping. He killed Ping in 6 AD and the child Liu Ying was chosen as successor again with Wang Mang as regent. Wang promised to surrender control once Liu became an adult, but after he got rid of his internal opponents he declared himself the king. But let’s step back for a moment and look more closely at Wang Mang’s biography.

Wang Mang’s father was Wang Man. His other was Qu. Wang Man was the younger brother of Empress Wang Zhengjun. As such Wang Mang was closely connected to power, but he did not live the lavish lifestyle that is common in the royal family. He was quite frugal, considerate and studious. He was close to some of his uncles, which made him a Marquess of Xindu. Importantly, Wang did not use his promotion to spend it on his personal habits but to support scholars and give gifts to colleagues to gain a positive reputation. An important promotion was to become commander of the armed forces. Wang Gen was the youngest surviving uncle as commander and he died in 8BC. Who was going to follow him? It could have been Zhang Chunyu, the dowager’s nephew via her younger sister. Wang Mang ensured that Zhang would not be appointed by framing his cousin for receiving bribes from the deposed Empress Xu to help her return to power. Zhang was executed and Wang Mang was appointed commander, which is the highest position in the imperial government.

In 7BC, His cousin, Emperor Cheng died from an overdose of aphrodisiacs given to him by his favorite consort Zhao Hede. Cheng was followed by his nephew (brother’s son) Liu Xin to become Emperor Ai. Wang temporarily remained in his post but because of a feud with Emperor Ai’s grandmother, Princess Dowager Fu of Dingtao (concubine of Grand Empress Dowager Wang’s husband Emperor Yuan), he was demoted and moved to Xindu (Nanyang, Henan). But because his governing ability was missed, Emperor Ai called him back to assist Grand Empress Dowager Wang in governance.

Emperor Ai died in 1 BC without heir. Grand Empress Dowager Wang immediately called Wang Mang back to power by appointing him commander of the armed forces. Prince Jizi, the last surviving son of Emperor Yuan, was called to ascend the throne as Emperor Ping with Wang Mang appointed regent. Wang used his power to demote Grand empress Dowager Fu posthumously (as she died two years prior) and her family. Wang consolidated his power by building up a personality cult. He encouraged people to submit false prophesies that mention him as the second coming of the Duke of Zhou, a great mythical personality. One of Wang Mang’s opponent was his own son Wang Yu, who disliked his father’s dictatorial regime. Yu formed a conspiracy with his teacher Wu Zhang, his brother-in-law Lu Kuan to remove his father from power. They were trying to provoke a “supernatural incident” to scare Wang Mang into surrendering his power. They wanted to spray blood onto Wang Mang’s mansion door, but Lu Kuan was discovered by Wang Mang’s guard and the conspiracy was revealed. Wang Mang ordered his son Yu to commit suicide, and also executed his wife Lu Yan. Wang Mang used the conspiracy to purge all his potential opponents, including other family members.

Emperor Ping became upset about many of his uncles being killed and resented Wang Mang. Wang realized the threat to his position and resolved to murder the emperor by adding poison to his wine. Wang convinced the mayor of South Chang’an to submit a rock with the writing “Wang Mang should be emperor” and he convinced the Grand empress Dowager to appoint him acting emperor until a new emperor could be found. The new emperor faced resistance from Liu Chong, Marquess of Anzhong, and Zhai Yi, governor of the Commander of Dong, who were both crushed by Wang’s armies. Wang then issued the decree to create his Xin dynasty, which lasted only from 9 to 23AD. So let’s turn to his policies.

In 9AD, Wang Mang instituted a revolutionary land redistribution system, which transferred all the land from private property to the empire. Land transactions were banned. Use rights remained with the private owners, but if the family had less than eight members and more than 0.6 km2 of land, it had to deliver that excess in land to fellow clan members, neighbors and villagers. He also abolished slavery, but heavy resistance against these policies made him revoke these policies 3 years later in 12 AD. Wang set up a state economic adjustment agency, which buys up excess of food and textiles and then sell the when the price increased. He instituted a sloth tax, where landowners refusing to cultivate land, city dwellers leaving their house without trees or citizens refusing to work had to pay a textile tribute. Those unable to pay it were required to work for the state. He introduced an income tax of 10%, the first of its kind, as head/ property tax were previously the main form of taxation. He created a state monopoly on liquor and weapons. These were expanded a few years later by salt, coinage, forestry and fishing. Because of rampant corruption, the imperial treasury did not receive much benefit while the people faced a high cost burden.

A problematic reform was to issue 28 types of coins, made of gold, silver, tortoise shells, sea shells and copper. The problem was that it became impossible for residents to distinguish genuine from counterfeit and so people returned to the old Han coins in the underground trade economy. The Qing dynasty historian Zhao Yi made the following remarks to summarize the problems of economic policy under Xin,

The first of Wang Mang’s failures was to seize all private land under the wangtian system and prohibiting land transactions. If a person’s land exceeded 0.6 square kilometers, then he must distribute them to neighbors or relatives. Those who dared to oppose it were exiled to the wild borderland. He also prohibited people from saving and using the Han coins that the people considered reliable, and he also exiled those who violated this policy. Therefore, farmers and tradesmen lost their livelihood. Further, those who were severely punished for trading land or trading Han coins were innumerable. He then created the six monopolies, ordering local governments to monopolize liquor, salt, and iron, and he created taxes on the goods coming out of mountains, forests, and lakes. These are all policies that angered the Chinese.

Source: Wikipedia, “Wang Mang”

One of the major reasons that the Xin government was ineffective was that they spent too much time researching legends about the Zhou dynasty’s government structure and they left government affairs undecided. Many local offices remained vacant and remaining local officials, who lacked supervision, became corrupt and oppressive of the populace. Wang Mang was highly suspicious of his subordinates and refused to delegate government decisions, which left him fatigued and many problems remained untackled. He only trusted the eunuchs to screen reports from local governments to him, but these eunuchs were not necessarily reliable conveyors of information. Lastly, Wang Mang insisted on reforming the salary of officials, but dragged his feet on it, which meant that many officials remained unpaid, which made them even more corrupt and oppressive on the populace.

Natural disasters compounded political instability. In 11 AD the Yellow River overflowed the riverbanks. Beginning in 17, the combined pressure of natural disaster, the high cost of wars (especially with the neighboring Xiongnu kingdom), famines and corruption resulted in peasant rebellions, which Wang Mang brutally crushed. But by that point he lost the proverbial Mandate of Heaven, which is the moral right of the emperor to rule. The rebellions grew in size and was led by the brothers Liu Yan and Liu Xiu, a descendant of a distant branch in the Han imperial clan, who regrouped Han forces to defeat the Xin government forces led by Wang Yi and Wang Xun in the Battle of Kunyang in 23. The Xin forces had many more troops than the Han, but the Xin commanders made the mistake of splitting their forces by sending 10,000 men to attack Liu Xiu’s forces. As the Xin losses were mounting, the remaining Xin troops who were hiding in the rear refused to come out for battle. They were hit in a second wave of attacks, which led to the collapse of the Xin forces. The soldiers deserted and went home. The Han forces converged on the capital in Luoyang, where they killed Wang Mang. His body was cut into pieces and his head was hung on the city wall of Wancheng. The Han dynasty was restored.

The second example is Wang Anshi’s New Policies in the 1070s during the Song dynasty (960-1279). The Song period is divided between the Northern Song (960-1127) and the Southern Song (1127-1279). The Southern Song had to surrender the vast northern territory to Mongol invaders, who formed the Yuan dynasty. The Mongols ultimately crushed the Song with a full conquest in 1279. The Northern Song were established in 960, when Emperor Taizu of Song spent 16 years conquering the rest of China and uniting five dynasties and ten kingdoms. In Kaifeng, he set up a strong central government that promotes state bureaucrats via the civil service examination.

By the 11th century, political rivalries began to divide the court as ministers had different views on how to regulate society and economy. The Song state suffered from weak state capacity, as the large landowners evaded the land taxes, which shifted the burden of taxes on the peasantry. The low state revenues and the high expense of maintaining the court and the wars resulted in rising budget deficits and inflation, which created the reform pressure to stabilize state finances.

The reformist chancellor Fan Zhongyan instituted the Qingli reforms in the 1040s, which increased the salaries of minor officials to reduce corruption and reformed the recruitment of officials based on merit, intellect and character. Fan was opposed by conservative officials, who feared that drastic civil service reforms could inhibit their own careers and they successfully appealed to the emperor to rescind the reforms in 1045. The reformists were silenced until Wang Anshi became chancellor in 1070. Wang came from a family of imperial scholars and scored high on the imperial exam. He was promoted through the ranks until he became chancellor. Wang continued the civil service reforms by increasing the supervision of civil servants to reduce corruption. He also changed the examination system to ask more practical matters including law, military, medicine and mathematics, as the civil service exam tends to be focused on knowing the literary classics by heart.

But in addition to the civil service, Wang Anshi was much more radical than Fan. He argued that the state had the responsibility to provide its people the essential goods for a decent standard of living, which means that the state has to take over commerce, industry and agriculture. Wang was skeptical of private property, which would only benefit the rich while exploiting the working masses. However, he never got rid of private property. The state should demand tax payments in government-issued currency rather than corvee labor, increase the supply of copper coins, direct government loans to farmers during planting season which is repaid at harvest, who no longer would have to rely on greedy private moneylenders. During the good times, relieved farmers could use the government loans to increase harvests and pay more taxes. On the other hand, these loans imposed a heavy burden on farmers during periods of drought, where local officials insisted on collecting the loans even though the farmers could not repay, forcing the farmers to leave their land and fall into destitution. The drought fiasco resulted in Wang’s resignation in 1074.

Speculation and private monopolies were curbed with price controls. He introduced state monopolies. He introduced regulated wages and set up pensions for the aged and unemployed. The state introduced public orphanages, hospitals, dispensaries, hospices, cemeteries and reserve granaries. Wang also introduced the baojia system of collective responsibility, where villages kept a household register to determine tax payment and service of soldiers in the military. Wang introduced a balanced-delivery law, which gave the state the power to purchase commodities at a low price (via government-issued currency), and deliver them for the needs of the central state (e.g. sustaining the state bureaucracy) or sell it at a higher price. The state treasury further benefited from a new land survey, which applied taxes to hitherto unregistered fields. The state also imposed taxes on mining products. Thus, Wang Anshi’s work raised state capacity and central power, even as it came at the expense of merchants and officials who profited from a less efficient status quo (less taxes, easier promotion/ corruption).

Wang Anshi was opposed by the conservative faction, which was led by the later Chancellor Sima Guang. The conservative faction was in a weaker position as long as Wang Anshi and his allies (like Shen Kuo) were in power. The conservative statesman Su Shi was jailed and exiled for criticizing Wang’s reforms. Wang was supported by emperor Shenzong (1067-1085). After his resignation as chancellor in 1074, a year later Shenzong recalled Wang Anshi, but he was now vulnerable to open critique by the conservatives who were vindicated by the drought-loan problem. During that time, Wang’s son died. In 1076, exhausted from the political struggles Wang returned to Nanjing where he continued to write and engage in scholarship through his death in 1086, but New Policies remained in place as his allies remained in power.

After Shenzong’s death, his son Emperor Zhezong took over, but he was still a kid. His grandmother Grand Empress Dowager Gao was holding the reins of power and she appointed the conservative Sima Guang as chancellor, thus reversing the New Policies by Wang Anshi from 1085 to 1086, when Sima died. Wang Anshi died in the same year. Emperor Zhezong was a supporter of Wang’s New Policies but could not influence policy as long as his grandmother Dowager Gao was still alive. When she died in 1093, Zhezong restored the New Policies, though they were pursued less rigorously without a strong leader. Zhezong died in 1100 and was succeeded by his half-brother, who became Emperor Huizong, and he continued the reform policy, but had to abdicate in 1126, when the Northern Song were routed by the Mongol invaders from the Jin dynasty.

So is there a central lesson of past versions of Chinese socialism? Both Wang Mang and Wang Anshi were concerned about the power of the wealthy and wanted to improve the situation for the peasant masses. But Wang Mang’s ambition to confiscate and redistribute land were made with substantial local resistance, as landowners opposed brash transfer of land and had to be reversed. A big mistake was the currency reform, which flooded the market with too much currency which traders and consumers distrusted. The biggest problem with Wang Mang was that he was a narrow-minded authoritarian, who distrusted all his subordinates and refused to delegate any tasks to him. Official positions were unfilled and unsupervised local officials could oppress people with high taxes and corrupt waste. Wang Mang only liked to listen to sycophants, who wanted to give him the good news even as his empire was imploding with peasant rebellions.

Wang Anshi had redistributionist preferences as well but refrained from nationalizing the means of production. Instead the private sector had to become more honest actors, which would strengthen state capacity in the form of higher tax payments and serve social purposes as their trade monopolies were smashed up and prices were restrained for consumers. Rising tax revenues were also invested into better public services like hospitals. Wang Anshi also understood that his reforms could only work if the masses had confidence in the state government, so he made sure that low-level officials would be paid higher so they would be less susceptible to corruption and squeezing out the population. Furthermore, he reformed civil service recruitment by asking test-takers practical governance skills (how to ensure good harvest, how to set up irrigation systems, how to clamp down on corruption etc.) rather than make them recite poems and arcane texts. Creating functioning and reliable state officials is what Wang Mang had neglected, and was probably the decisive difference in why “socialism with Chinese characteristics” was less acceptable in the Xin than the Song dynasty.

Does that have any implications for the current CCP rulers? Surely, Mao could draw on a deeper communitarian spirit in Chinese society and history which has favored the communist system to prevail. China can boast a 6,000 year uninterrupted civilization with over 2,000 years of a strong central government, which is the crucial institution with which socialist redistribution policies are possible. Much has changed since Deng Xiaoping’s opening reforms in the late-1970s. China has joined the global capitalist economy and emphasizes more individual accomplishment, even as it never surrendered party control over the economic process, e.g. the presence of state-owned enterprises and CCP officials in private company boards. Never having developed much of a liberal society, the CCP is also quite effective in clamping down on dissidents and civil society critics. The authoritarian structures have been a blessing and a curse simultaneously during the pandemics, as censorship and punishment of doctors reporting on Covid-19 were responsible for the early spread of the disease, but authoritarian surveillance ensured a swift lockdown of Wuhan and a limiting in the number of cases and fatality, which most other liberty-loving countries around the world are struggling to fully implement, hence the higher caseload and fatality incidence outside of China.

Similar to Wang Anshi, the Xi Jinping administration has tried to improve the quality of its civil service by clamping down on corruption, but these efforts are always hampered by Xi’s unwillingness to introduce genuine rule of law, fearing rightfully that the CCP would lose supremacy and with that popular legitimacy. Hence, one cannot expect too much out of high profile targeting of corrupt officials, who also happen to be in the anti-Xi camp.

The merging of capitalism with Chinese socialism is proclaimed as the most natural thing by the CCP, and the claim draws on the high rates of economic growth and the huge poverty reduction over the last 40 years. But not all is well. Capitalism is a box of pandora and requires conditions to be just right to be sustained. One of these conditions is globalization. Globalization means that western countries have incorporated Chinese workers into the global production chains, but we are witnessing a threat to globalization coming from Trumpist nationalism precisely because of the globalization-induced sharply rising inequality and the devastating consequences on the western working class, who have been bypassed by globalization.

China’s belt-and-road initiative is the evident attempt to stamp out dependence on US markets by shifting emphasis to Europe and the other countries along the way, including the Middle East and Africa. These external markets remain important as the rate of return on domestic infrastructure projects are declining. But it isn’t evident that the Chinese growth model remains sustainable. In addition to the depressing effects of the pandemic, the demographic component of economic growth spoke favorably to China from the 1980s to the early-2010s. Since then, we are witnessing a rapid shrinkage in the working age population and a rapid aging of society. Another threat to growth is that China already has the world’s best technology (much of it stolen from the US), and will find it difficult to come up with its own technology strategy. Combined with a turn away from globalization, the Chinese social contract is once again in turmoil and the rulers better come up with redistributionist measures to attain their goal for a “harmonious” society or risk surrendering the Mandate of Heaven once more.

Further readings:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_dynasty

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xin_dynasty

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Song_dynasty

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Mang

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wang_Anshi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Policies_(Song_dynasty)

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wang-Anshi

http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Terms/wanganshireforms.html

https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Wang_Anshi

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19962432

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Egypt’s Political History and COVID-19

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/70-egypts-political-history-and-covid-19

Egypt is a very populous country that is reeling from the COVID-19 crisis. It has the second-highest infection rate in Africa, following South Africa. On Thursday, it decided to shut cafes, shopping malls, sports clubs and night clubs in the evening, and exempts supermarkets, pharmacies, bakeries and neighborhood corner stores. Schools and universities are also shut and government departments are restricted to the minimum. Inbound flights were banned, but tourists were permitted to leave the country. The country is very dependent on tourism revenues, which will struggle with the virus-related shutdown (Mourad 2020). The pyramids are deep-cleaned, while the tourists are staying away (Casiano 2020). These quarantine measures are rolled out all over the world and are not avoidable given the objective to contain the spread of the deadly virus. President Abdelfattah El-Sisi has been placed on a two-week quarantine after being in contact with a high-ranking general in the army. Two army generals have already passed away from COVID (MEE 2020). As of March 25, 550 soldiers and officers have tested positive for COVID, though the military has suppressed those reports (Memo 2020).

Egypt is also a country, which has been at the epicenter for political turmoil, as the Arab Spring of 2011 originated in North Africa, starting in Tunisia, then spreading to Egypt, Libya, Morocco and other parts of the Middle East. Political turmoil is, thus, superimposed by the spread of COVID-19 and we need further historical analysis to understand where they stand.

Egypt is among the oldest civilizations in the world. Egypt bordered on the fertile crescent, which has been the origin of agricultural civilization about 10,000 BC. Around 6,000 BC, climate change resulted in the desiccation of pastoral lands of Egypt, thus forming the Sahara desert. Humans converged along the Nile river, where they developed an agricultural economy with a centralized political structure. The fact that high population density was only possible along the Nile river and the delta close to the Mediterranean coast meant that centralized irrigation systems were necessary to maintain the civilization.

An important mark of civilization is the presence of a writing system. The first hieroglyphic inscriptions occurred in the predynastic period around 3,200 BC. The first unified kingdom was founded by King Menes in 3,150 BC. The Old Kingdom (2,700-2,200 BC) was marked by the construction of many pyramids. The pyramids, triangular structures made from brick or stone, were tombs for pharaohs (kings). They required thousands of laborers, and imply the presence of an advanced civilization as these laborers are fed by the food surpluses of the agricultural economy. After a 150 year period of turmoil, there was some political stability and prosperity during the Middle Kingdom from 2,050-1710BC, which declined with the foreign conquest by Semitic-speaking Hyksos. The New Kingdom (1550-1070BC) resulted in an expansion of Egyptian control by the conquest of Nubia (current Sudan) further south and Levant in the Middle East. Famous pharaohs like Tutankhamun and Ramesses II come from this era. Libyuans, Nubians (Sudanese) and Assyrians invaded and conquered Egypt, but Egyptians beat them back.

The first consistent foreign conquest occurred under the Achaemenid Persians in 525 BC. The pharaoh Psamtik III was defeated by Cambyses II in the battle of Pelusium. Persian domination of Egypt lasted until the Macedonian Alexander the Great captured Egypt and the first Ptolemaic (Greek/ Hellenistic) ruler was Ptolemy I from 305 to 282 BC. The most famous ruler was Cleopatra, who committed suicide after her Roman lover Mark Antony stabbed himself. Augustus became the first king of the Roman Empire and soon seized Egypt. Alexandria, a port city, became an important trading outpost for the Roman Empire and supplied the empire with grain, flax, papyrus, glass and other finished goods. Alexandria also offered a base for scientific advances in astronomy and mathematics. It was under Roman rule that Christianity thrived in Egypt, resulting in the founding of the Egyptian Coptic church, which still makes up 15 to 20% of the Egyptian population today.

Under Diocletian (284-305) power shifted from Rome to Byzanz. In 619, the Sasanian empire (originally based in Libya) seized Egypt, and held it for 10 years, but the Byzantines regained control over Egypt. Only shortly later, Egypt was seized by the Arab Islamic Empire from 639-642. The Arabs brought Sunni Islam to the country, which is the dominant religion in Egypt today. The Islamic Caliphate retained control over Egypt for six centuries with the seat in Cairo, which remains capital to this day. The Kurdish Ayyubid dynasty ruled, followed by the Turkic Mamluks. in 1250. During these hundreds of years, Greek and Coptic declined in significance as Egyptian society was Arabized.

In 1517, the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt and declared it as part of the Ottoman Empire. Egypt suffered six famines from 1687 to 1731, and the 1784 famine led to the death of one-sixth of the population. In 1798, the French invasion of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte was a brief shock, but the French were driven out 3 years later. The Ottomans attempted to regain control over Egypt, but the Albanians under Muhammad Ali became the dominant faction in Egypt. Muhammad Ali became viceroy of the Ottoman Empire, but the Ottomans had effectively lost control over Egypt. Muhammad Ali’s dynasty ruled the country until the revolution of 1952.

Muhammad Ali was very ambitious and annexed Northern Sudan (1820-1824), Syria (1833) and parts of Arabia and Anatolia. The European powers were fearful of Ali becoming too powerful and forced him to surrender his Middle East possessions, though he kept control of Sudan. This union was not broken up until 1956. Ali’s military ambitions were accompanied by an eagerness to learn from western countries. He dispatched students to training missions in the west, and built industries, canals and streamlined the civil service.

Ali’s modernization reforms were continued by one of his successors Ismail (1863-1879), who completed the Suez Canal in 1869. The Suez Canal transformed Egypt into an important trading hub, as it connects the Red Sea/ Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean, thus allowing European-Asian sea trade to be conducted more expeditiously and bypassing the longer Horn of Africa. The problem for the Egyptian rulers was that the project was primarily funded by Western banks. The onerous tax burden that was imposed on the Egyptian population created such a large pushback that the rulers were forced to sell the share rights to the British government, which soon came to dominate the financial and economic policies of Egypt. The French also held a financial stake in Egypt.

British interference, in turn, raised nationalist discontent beginning in 1879, which was led by Ahmed Urabi. Urabi became the prime minister and was committed to democratic reforms and parliamentary control of the budget, which came to the chagrin of the French and British, who wanted to retain control over the country. They bombed Alexandria and crushed the Egyptian army in the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. The British installed Ismail’s son Tewfik as figurehead of what became the British protectorate. The British protectorate status was made official in 1914, when the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in the First World War. The British were at the height of their global rule, dominating over perhaps one-fifth of the global population.

British-Egyptian tensions were heightened with the Denshawai incident of 1906, where scuffles between British soldiers and Egyptian villagers resulted in a harsh British crackdown, which further inflamed Egyptian nationalist, anti-colonial sentiment., which culminated in the Revolution of 1919, led by Saad Zaghlul. The British were forced to recognize the independence of the Kingdom of Egypt in 1922, although Britain continued to station troops in Egypt (at the Suez Canal) and Sudan, which were not fully withdrawn until 1954. Britain’s residual control over the Suez was confirmed in the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, which also offered UK military support for Egypt when it was invaded by the Nazis.

The continued British domination of Egyptian affairs inflamed Egyptian nationalists who were congregating in the armed forces (which was ironically supported and trained by the British). In 1952, a coup d’etat led by the general Mohammed Naguib and colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser ended the Muhammad Ali dynasty and declared the Republic of Egypt on June 18, 1953 with Naguib as president and Nasser as prime minister. After a few months in office, however, it became clear that Naguib was merely the figurehead, while the more charismatic and decisive Nasser was the real leader of the country. At the time of the coup, Nasser was only 34 years old and was part of the military junta (Free Officer Movement) which planned and carried out the coup, while Naguib was 51 years old and a respected military figure, who would lend legitimacy to the junta’s power grab.

Once the two men were in power, however, there were increasing disagreements with Nasser accusing Naguib of being controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and harboring dictatorial ambitions. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, and was the political and educational arm of representatives of Sunni Islam. They were consistently marginalized by successive Egyptian governments, and even actively suppressed under Nasser, though they had a brief taste of power following the Arab Spring between 2012 and 2013. More on that later.

The overwhelming majority of the top brass in the military and intelligence services backed up Nasser, who pressured Naguib to resign from the presidency in November 1954, thus leaving all the power to Nasser. Nasser was the best exponent for Pan-Arab socialism, believing that Egyptian progress would be associated with the state nationalizing the ownership over the means of production. Nasser’s rule (1954-1970) was the highpoint for Egyptian influence in the Middle East region, which looked up to the socialist and anti-colonial state-building project of Egypt.

His major policy was to nationalize the Suez Canal in 1956, thus depriving the French and British of control over the vital passageway. The French, British and Israelis attacked Egypt militarily and captured the Suez Canal, but they pulled out two months later as the US pressured the invaders to relent. The US wasn’t necessarily supportive of Nasser and his vision of Arab socialism, but they were not very keen on supporting continued British control over Egypt. The US strengthened its alliance with Saudi Arabia, which was meant as counterweight to Egypt. Rapprochement between Egypt and US occurred after 1979.

As the British and French retreated, Nasser felt vindicated and could promulgate his pan-Arab vision. In 1957, Nasser furthered the nationalization of British and French assets, including the tobacco, cement, pharmaceutical and phosphate industries. He opened up a state-sponsored steelworks and furthered industrialization. He began cooperation with the Soviet Union to construct the Aswan dam to provide the burgeoning country with electricity.

Egypt’s increasing ambitions were countered by the British with the founding of the Baghdad Pact in 1955, involving the UK, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey. Turkey harbored plans to attack Syria, an important ally of Egypt. Because of the fear of a communist takeover, the Syrian political elites pleaded Nasser to unite Egypt and Syria in a United Arab Republic, to which Nasser acceded under the condition that he would be the president of that union. UAR was proclaimed on February 1, 1958 and lasted a mere 3 years. Egypt was joined by Syria and in a federal structure with Northern Yemen.

The union was short and unhappy because Syria’s economy was deteriorating even as Egyptian growth was steady. Nasser responded with the nationalization of many sectors of the economy, but the Syrian political and economic elites were not too excited about these measures. In September 28, 1961 secessionist army units carried out a coup in Damascus. Nasser initially rushed Egyptian army units to Latakia to preserve the union, but gave up after a week, conceding that the union had failed. Nasser’s defeat resulted in his nervous breakdown, and he began to smoke more heavily and his health increasingly deteriorated.

Fortunately for Nasser, his influence in the region remained strong. In 1962, a Nasserist in Yemen, Abdullah al-Sallal, overthrew the Saudi-backed Imam Badr, although it resulted in costly military aid to Yemen, which was suspended in 1967. In July 1962, Algeria declared independence from France, which Nasser regarded as personal victory as Egypt funded the Algerian independence movement. Nasserists toppled the Iraqi and Syrian governments which renewed calls for a new Arab Republic, which fell apart in 1965 as anti-Nasser elites of the Baath party in Syria prevailed.

Nasser carved out a unique position in the Cold War by joining the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961. The co-signatories were Indonesia, Yugoslavia and India. Nasser pushed for the founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). While Egypt’s international position remained strong, the domestic economy grew 9% per annum in the 1950s and 1960s. Social reforms meant guaranteed minimum wage, profit sharing with workers, free education, free health care, reduced working hours, and pro-tenant land reforms. The amount of cultivated land increased by a third, which was a big historical feat. The expansion of the public sector meant that the many newly educated doctors, engineers, teachers, lawyer and journalists found employment. Improved social services came with increased social repression, as Islamists and anti-regime military officers were imprisoned. Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood’s chief ideologue Sayyed Qutb was imprisoned and executed in 1966.

In 1967, the Six-Day War was very harmful to Egyptian interests. Army chief of staff Abdel Hakim Amer pushed for a military confrontation with Israel. Egypt had entered an alliance with Syria and Jordan, promising the annihilation of Israel. Nasser was quite skeptical of fighting a war with Israel, believing that the air force wasn’t up to par with Israel. Nonetheless, the other Arab countries increased the pressure on him to fight the war. At the end of May, Egypt formed the formal alliance with Syria and Jordan and blocked the Straits of Tiran, which would block shipments to the southern Israeli port city of Eilat.

On June 5, the Israeli Air Force (receiving heavy support from the US) was dispatched to strike Egyptian airfields destroying much of the air force and giving Israel complete air superiority for the duration of the conflict. Israeli ground forces advanced in the Sinai peninsula, breaking through the Egyptian defenses, which forced an Egyptian retreat to the Suez Canal. Israel captured Sinai, the Golan Heights in Syria and West Bank in Jordan. Thus, the Arab countries had lost on all fronts. Nasser was seething and thought he had been duped by the incompetent Amer, who was removed from his post, arrested and driven to commit suicide. Nasser offered his own resignation to the Egyptian people, but the many sympathizers on the street had convinced Nasser that he would remain in power. Egypt’s defeat in the Six-Day War meant that his strategy to dislodge Israel as a Jewish state was doomed to failure and he expressed less interest in pushing for Palestinian independence. The PLO came under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, who pursued the struggle for a Palestinian state on his own account. Furthermore, Nasser broke off diplomatic relations with the US and took on arms supplies from the Soviet Union, thus ending the pretense of non-alignment.

In January 1968, Nasser commenced the War of Attrition to reclaim Sinai from Israel, which was ultimately cut short in June 1970, when he signed up to the US-sponsored Rogers plan, which declared an end to Israeli-Egyptian hostilities. The Soviet Union pressured Nasser to give in, fearing broader confrontation with the US. In September 1970, simmering tensions between Jordan and the PLO resulted in a brokered peace led by Nasser. A day later he died of a heart attack following arteriosclerosis, varicose veins and diabetes.

Nasser’s death marked an end to the great regional influence of Egypt. He was succeeded by Anwar el-Sadat, born in the same year as Nasser and a member of the Free Officers, who carried out the coup in 1952. He held high official positions during the Nasser era, becoming minister of state in 1954. He was the Secretary of the National Union (political party) in 1959. President of the National Assembly in 1960-68 and vice president from 1969 to 1970. The Egyptian officer corps initially believed that Sadat would be a weak and temporary leader, but he quickly consolidated his position by purging his opponents in the government and the security forces. He reduced support for the secret police and expelled Soviet military advisers. Sadat reversed Nasser’s oppressive stance on the Muslim Brotherhood and gave them autonomy as they supported Sadat’s regime.

In 1973, the simmering tensions with Israel resulted in the Yom Kippur War, where Syria attempted to recapture the Golan Heights and Egypt the Sinai. After initial advances, the Israelis pushed the Arab advance and a ceasefire was declared after nearly three weeks. Even though Israel won the war again, they now realized that Israel could not continue to wage a multi-front war against its Arab neighbors, which convinced it to accede to the Camp David Accords of 1978, which concluded with an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Sadat and Isreali leader Menachem Begin received the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering the accord. The accord returned Sinai to Egypt, while Israel would be permitted to use the Suez Canal and the strait of Tiran. Peace with Israel was an about-face and perceived as betrayal by many Arab neighbors, who suspended Egypt from the Arab League, which was not reversed until 1989. To counterbalance Arab isolation, Sadat improved bilateral relations with Iran’s shah, and even offered him refuge when he was forcibly removed during the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The peace treaty also meant that Egypt would be switching from Soviet alignment to US alignment, as Egypt became one of the largest receivers of US military aid. The shift to the US camp was also associated with Infitah or openness policy, where Egypt decontrolled the economy and let the private sector become more dominant. The turn away from Nasser’s state domination also consolidated Sadat’s grip in power.

However, there were problems with Infitah. Privatization simply meant crony capitalism, where state contracts, land and concessions were given to government allies and cronies, who could grow rich without broadly shared benefit that had been associated with Nasser’s land reform, education and health care campaigns. The overall dependence on the state sector for employment was not overcome with Infitah, and the state still contributed 72% of all investments at the end of the 1970s.

Mounting external debt tightened the hands of the government, so Sadat requested a World Bank/ IMF loan in 1976 which came under the condition of austerity, the first time this has ever been imposed in the Egyptian Republic. Austerity meant cuts in food subsidies by the government, which was introduced in January 1977. This was followed by the bread riots and army crackdown, resulting in the the death of 70 people and 550 injured. Sadat had to back off and restored the subsidies. It wasn’t so easy to comply with the IMF conditions, and the IMF responded with tightening lending to Egypt until it paid off most of the debt in 1987. Sadat and future regimes became more cautious in applying austerity on the people.

Rapprochement with Israel proved unacceptable to the domestic Islamists, who were given some free room to operate in Egypt. El-Jihad, a group of extreme Islamists, wanted to assassinate Sadat and restore confrontation with Israel. Sadat reacted with the roundup of 1,500 people, including Jihad members, but also the Coptic Pope and clergy, intellectuals and various other intellectuals. In the arrest wave, he skipped over army Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, a member of El-Jihad. On October 6, 1981, during the annual victory parade in Cairo to celebrate Egypt’s crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War, Islambouli approached the stage where Sadat and high officials were gathering, pulled out a Kalashnikov and assassinated Sadat at point blank range. Islambouli was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad in April 1982.

Sadat’s vice president, Hosni Mubarak, became his successor. Mubarak, just like the other previous leaders, came from a military background and made his name as commander of the Air Force and deputy minister of defense during the Yom Kippur War. He was then appointed vice president in 1975. During Sadat’s assassination he was injured on his hand. Under Mubarak, Egypt’s political isolation was halted, mainly because of the Iranian Revolution, which brought the mullahs to power. Ayatollah Khomeini claimed to be the rightful leader of the Islamic world and opposed the Iraqi and Saudi regimes. Iraq quickly got embroiled in a war with Iran, and the Saudis quickly forgot about their dislike of Egypt’s pro-Israel stance, forging a close alliance with Mubarak’s Egypt. What also helped was that Mubarak kept Israel at arms length, honoring the treaty commitments but not more. Mubarak supported Iraq during the war with Iran. When Iraq overshot in 1991 by capturing Kuwait, Egypt supported the US-Saudi push to remove Iraqi troops from Kuwait. Mubarak backed Iraq once more when he spoke out against the US invasion in 2003.

Mubarak was well aware that Sadat’s assassination happened because he disavowed the security services, so Mubarak ensured that he retained close ties to the security agencies, which might explain how he could retain power for 30 years. The security services carried our multiple human rights violations against the political opposition and any critics of the regime. The cozy arrangement with the security services proliferated graft and corruption, which Mubarak (with an estimated net worth of $40-70 billion by the end of his rule) condoned. He regularly parked the stolen money in Swiss bank accounts, which were not cracked down on until the Arab Spring removed him from power in 2011. Corruption was made possible by Mubarak’s authoritarian grip on power, similar to his two predecessors. Elections were without opposition until 2005, which Mubarak won nonetheless handily, which undermines confidence in the electoral system. To ensure his succession, he built up his son Gamal to succeed him as president.

Mubarak’s rule also deepened dependence on IMF/World Bank funding given the high external debt and financing needs of the state. In 1991, the Egyptian government signed a structural adjustment program, which devalued the Egyptian pound, raised the interest rate and reduced subsidies for food and fuel. Because these measures disproportionately hurt the poor, they were mobilized by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Jihad, the latter of which carried out terrorist attacks in tourist locations. Tourism is an important part of the Egyptian economy. Terrorists also target political leaders, secular writers and Copts.

In the least years of Mubarak’s reign, government incompetence, corruption, police brutality along with worsening living conditions via high unemployment (even for the educated), low wages and high food prices produced a powder key waiting to explode. By the winter of 2010-11, the Arab Spring occurred. On December 17, 2010, a street vendor in Tunisia, Mohamed Bouazizi, who complained about rising prices for essentials and the corrupt regime, immolated himself, sparking mass uprising in Tunisia, which brought down the regime there. With the presence of social media (which was inaugurated in mid-2000s), the images of the protests and self-immolation went viral across the Middle East. Egyptian activists seized the moment by calling for mass protests on January 25, 2011 first to criticize police brutality but then to demand the ouster of Mubarak. Two days later, the government shut down the internet, but it was too late. People were streaming into the streets and could not be dispersed by security forces.

Mubarak appointed military leaders into his cabinet, hoping that the military will help him crack down on the protesters. But the military refused a crackdown. Mubarak then made a televised address to promise political reforms like tackling police brutality, curbing corruption and carrying out fair elections. He also promised to not run for re-election which was scheduled for September of that year, but the protesters remained adamant. Mubarak appointed Omar Suleiman as Vice President and promised to delegate most powers to him, but the protests continued. On February 11, Mubarak flew to his mansion in Sharm el-Sheikh as the Vice president announced Mubarak’s resignation. He lost his power, and was then put on trial for graft and ordering killings during the protests serving a few years in prison until he was released in 2017 and died in February 2020.

Mubarak’s ouster was just the beginning of the yearlong turmoil in Egyptian politics. The military moved in to restore the institutional order, but permitted parliamentary elections in November 2011 and presidential elections in May and June of 2012. The most strongly mobilized faction was the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained nearly half of the seats in the largely fair elections. The two major candidates in the presidential election were Ahmed Shafik, who served as the last prime minister during Mubarak’s rule, and Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Due to the high mobilization of the Brotherhood, Morsi won the election and was sworn in as the first democratically elected president in Egyptian history, but his power was circumscribed by the military, which exempted itself from presidential oversight and parliamentary approval for its budget, which Morsi accepted as a condition for acceding to power. He appointed general Abdelfattah El-Sisi as defense minister.

Morsi’s major task in office was to write a new constitution that the Egyptian public would find legitimate, but he met drastic opposition as Copts, liberals and secular moderates believed that Morsi wanted to introduce an Islamic constitution to the detriment of them. Qatar and Turkey formally endorsed the Muslim Brotherhood. To overcome opposition, Morsi declared his presidential decrees would be immune from parliamentary oversight, which resulted in the opposition walking out of the talks for the new constitution. Morsi had overplayed his hands. On his one year anniversary as president on June 30, 2013, the opposition gathered on Tahrir Square to demand the resignation of Morsi. The military used that moment to oust Morsi and appoint the jurist Adly Mansour as interim president. The enraged Morsi called on his supporters to organize counter-protests, but this time the security forces cracked down harshly by dispersing and imprisoning the pro-Morsi protesters and prohibiting the Muslim Brotherhood.

New presidential elections were scheduled for May 2014, and initially the defense minister Sisi refused to run for the presidency, but then declared his bid in March and resigned from the military (which he still controlled thereafter). Sisi essentially ran the shots after the ouster of Morsi. With 47% voter turnout, he was elected the next Egyptian president. Sisi is no democrat himself, even though his term paper he wrote as Brigadier taking courses at the War College suggests that he is quite open-minded to democracy in the Middle East as long as people are educated and wealthy enough (El-Sisi 2006), which Egypt by implication was not.

Sisi has been a military strongman, similar to his predecessors, not allowing much political freedom and arbitrarily detaining journalists and opposition officials. His security agencies further carry out torture, asset confiscation and restriction of travel of dissidents and critics. He handily won reelection in 2018 with 97% support. With Sisi the status quo ante of military dominance was restored and the Muslim Brotherhood was once more marginalized, which suggests that theocratic leanings are less influential in North Africa than say Syria, Iraq or Iran. Nonetheless, political protest flared up in September 2019, targeting corruption and repression of the regime, which Sisi blamed on Islamists. Sisi has appointed his three sons in high political offices, although his eldest son Mahmoud was shifted from the intelligence service to a diplomatic position in Moscow given that he is deemed incompetent.

On the other hand, Sisi satisfied the popular demand for political stability after over three years of turmoil. He confronted Islamist militants operating in Sinai Peninsula with military operations. He invested in big infrastructure projects, especially the expansion of the Suez Canal, which occurred in 2014-2015. Further projects involve the Suez Canal Area Development Project, which converts the Suez region into an economic zone, though much of that is still in the works. The National Roads Project is supposed to create 4,400 kilometers of a road network to better connect the country. Egypt also invested in the building of 11,000 new housing units, which should increase to 850,000 new units to house the growing population.

Egypt is still dependent on external funding, so Sisi imposed a fresh round of cuts in fuel subsidies, which hiked the oil prices by 78%. Transportation, bus and taxi fares, as well as cigarette and alcohol taxes were raised. As part of the structural adjustment reforms, Egypt also devalued its currency, which resulted in rising costs for import goods, which is another form of austerity. The added government revenues were used to reduce external debt, which dropped by 13.5% from 2015 to 2016. The credit rating agencies upgraded the debt and economic outlook of Egypt. The added revenues were also used to pay off foreign oil companies, who then invested in the maintenance of the electricity grid, which addressed the frequent power outages. A further complication is that about a quarter of the economic exports are in petroleum, which is sensitive to oil price declines from the COVID crisis, although it is more diversified than other Arab countries.

With respect to foreign policy, Sisi restored strong relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and UAE. The Gulf countries promptly pledged $20 billion in funding for Egypt. Sisi has been supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria for the sake of stability.

Because Sisi’s regime is largely a continuation of military strongman rule, one may conclude that the Arab Spring’s aspiration had been thwarted compared to the more successful changes in Morocco and Tunisia, where civil society pressure was more effective in ensuring deeper political reforms. The Sisi regime faces the same challenge of legitimacy that Sisi’s predecessors in power experienced. There is a rapidly growing population, which is increasingly better educated and retains aspirations for middle class jobs and civil and political rights that are currently insufficiently met. Problems of endemic corruption and the lack of accountable rulers becomes less and less acceptable. As the Arab Spring of 2011 is pushed further out of our memories, Sisi will face the popular pressure for more political accountability. While he is safe for now with changes to term limits allowing him to stay in power until at least 2030 (which might be stretched even further), no one can foretell whether a big crisis like the Covid pandemic could undermine his power, especially as the cases and death toll mount.

Further readings:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egypt

https://www.britannica.com/place/ancient-Egypt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Egypt

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1977_Egyptian_bread_riots

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_revolution_of_2011

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Naguib

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamal_Abdel_Nasser

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anwar_Sadat

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hosni_Mubarak

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Morsi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdel_Fattah_el-Sisi

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What I would Do as President During the Crisis

I am, by no means, the leader of the country and I have an aversion to apply force and authority, but in this Coronavirus emergency we need a forceful government response which is adequate to the task. These are my proposals (some of which have already been adopted):

  1. Paid Sick Leave, which should be expanded for as long as needed
  2. Emergency unemployment insurance for laid off workers, which should pay 100% of the salary up to $2000 a month. Non-working adults (e.g. homemakers) should get $1000 a month. This should also be extended for as long as it is needed.
  3. Businesses should receive grants if they keep the workers on the payroll and continue paying their salaries. Exceptions are for large, profitable corporations who are required to impose losses on shareholders. Surely, the shareholders will complain but if I have to choose between bitchy investors and riots on the streets I choose the former anytime.
  4. All the previous cuts to social programs including food stamps or housing benefits are reversed.
  5. Student loan repayment is suspended and no further interest accrues for as long as the crisis lasts.
  6. All eviction notices for lack of rent payment are suspended, but landlords still have the right to sue for payment if the tenant’s income is unchanged during the crisis. Utility shutoffs for non-payment are also suspended.
  7. For the immediate crisis response, I would demote Mike Pence and put Anthony Fauci, the director of the infectious disease unit of the Center for Disease Control, in charge of the government’s coronavirus task force. He shall receive the full authority to make and change public health regulation as they come up and has to give a daily press conference to media and the public to update the number of Coronavirus cases and address public concerns on the virus.
  8. Reverse cuts and increase in CDC funding. The first priority is to speed up the approval of Coronavirus testing kits. The second priority is to coordinate and fund national researcher effort to find a vaccine.
  9. Invoke the Defense Production Act, which should be used to ramp up production of ventilators, protective equipment for medical personnel, testing kits, hand soap and sanitizers; requisition schools, hotels or indoor sports stadiums to be repurposed for emergency hospitals
  10. Substantially increase testing for the virus with those testing positive being isolated in either self-quarantine at home or in a hospital (for severe cases).
  11. Impose a national lockdown, which overrules all state and local regulations that might be looser in response to the emergency. This measure includes school and university closures, whereby essential staff (like medical personnel, police, military, supermarket clerks, logistics, postal service etc.) with children should receive free child care. All children can still receive lunch packets. It includes social distancing and shelter-in-place regulations, which must be enforced by military and police. People without symptoms can still go jogging, cycling and walking but only with a safe distance. Essential trips like work, grocery shopping or doctor appointment is still okay. Non-essential businesses are closed.
  12. Activate the military to be used for any needs to combat the virus: this could be enforcing the lockdown; aiding in the delivery of food and medicine for the sick; carry out temperature checks; disinfect streets and public infrastructure; repurpose military hospitals for civilian use
  13. Medical workers have their vacations delayed. Their overtime pay has to be increased from 150 to 200% of salary (extra expenses covered by the federal government). Retired doctors and nurses are called to report back to medical work. Medical trainees and interns are called in to do medical work.
  14. All medical expenses related to the virus have to be paid for by the federal government with prices set by the government. Hospitals and medical providers are barred from charging patients copayments or deductibles and to deny patients as long as they have the capacity.
  15. The vaccine once developed must be provided free of charge to all patients, and patent laws don’t apply to it. Vaccination is mandatory for everyone except the weak and frail, and resistance will result in jail time.
  16. Impose a travel lockdown which bars foreign nationals and non-residents from entering the country for the duration of the crisis. Travelers who are admitted receive a temperature check and quarantine if necessary.

I doubt that all the measures will be implemented and liberty-loving societies will fail to convince the people to comply with all of these measures. We will fail to flatten the curve sufficiently and that would be a public health disaster. One has to hope for the best.

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Coronavirus and Past Pandemics

Podcast here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3G5H5L_fqs

As the coronavirus spreads in the US, we are reminded of the perennial war between human and nature. Nature gave us the space to thrive and grow as a species. Planet earth has just the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen to allow animal species including humans to breathe, whereby periods of increased oxygen supply results in bigger species like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs died out, in part, because a reduction in oxygen made their survival impossible. Nature also offers all the things we need to survive including food and oil. Oil is the accumulated ancient remains of dead species that are stored in liquid form. When humans began to use coal in 4,000 BC, it was a major intervention into nature, although it would take thousands of years with the Industrial Revolution until the impact on nature became significant enough to result in rising temperature and climate change. We are living with those effects today.

Human-nature relations are not entirely harmonious. Pestilence in the form of virus and bacteria have been around long before we humans existed. A virus can mutate and infect host species, which usually are animals. Humans have used domesticated animals for thousands of years, and hanging around infected domesticated animals can result in disease transmission and death. Agriculture, urbanization and globalization favor the transmission of disease, as the former increases the total population, the second increases density, and the latter moves these people into natural spaces (especially wild animals) that were previously undiscovered by humans.

Cold and flu have been quite common and recur every year, which results in the death of tens of thousands of people in the US alone. The plague is still raging in countries like Madagascar, while Ebola was a big problem in West Africa. Pandemics have been quite common, although the last major pandemic affecting the world has been the Spanish flu in 1918-20, which killed between 50 to 100 million people. Therefore, the current coronavirus comes as a substantial shock to many societies. I suspect there are not too many people alive today, who actively recall the Spanish flu. An important sociological takeaway from the history of pandemics is that it explains temporary social breakdown and focuses the human mind to address the problem as a common challenge.

I discuss briefly the three major pandemics, Black Death (plague) from 1346 to 1353 and the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920, SARS in 2003 before turning to the evolution of the current COVID-19, coronavirus.

The Black Death or the Bubonic Plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas on ground rodents like marmots in Central and Western Asia. The warming of the climate in Asia pushed the rodents from dry grassland to more human populated areas. The first documented case of the plague occurred in 1338 in Kyrgyzstan, from which it spread to China and India, where a further outbreak was documented. In the 1330s to 1340s, 25 million people in Asia died as a result of the plague. By the autumn of 1347, the plague reached the Middle East via Alexandria, Egypt. It traveled to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and then Arabia and the rest of north Africa. The disease reached Mecca in 1349. Muslim religious scholars thought that the plague was “martyrdom and mercy” from God and told believers that they would reach paradise upon death, thus being very skeptical of treating the disease with medicine. Other doctors applied strict preventive measures and treatments.

In October 1347, the plague reached Europe via Sicily. Genoese traders at the port of Kaffa, Crimea contracted the disease, as the invading Mongol army threw corpses of infected individuals over the city walls of Kaffa. The fleeing Genoese traders took the disease back to Italy. The plague reached Genoa and Venice in January 1348, and from there it was transmitted to Marseille, France. From there it went to Spain, Portugal, UK, Germany and then north to Scandinavia.

The main symptom of the plague was the swelling of lymph nodes on the groin, neck and armpits. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Most victims die between 2 to 7 days after initial infection. Freckle-like spots and rashes were also quite common. In another common strand of the plague, breathing difficulties and pneumonia occurred. The plague recurred throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. It wasn’t until 1898 that Paul-Louis Simond found out that fleas were the carriers of the disease. By that point another outbreak began in southern China in 1865, which spread to India. Australia had plague outbreaks from 1900 to 1925, while San Francisco was struck in the first decade of 1900s. In the last 10 years, we see outbreaks on the island of Madagascar. In total, 75 to 200 million people died of the disease, primarily in Eurasia. Remote populations like the Australian Aborigines and the Native Americans were not impacted by the plague when it first struck in the fourteenth century, but when they were colonized by Europeans it was quite deleterious to these populations as they lacked exposure and hence immunity to those diseases.

In European cities, the Black Death produced a death toll of between 50 to 60%, whereby monks, nuns and priests were especially hard-hit because they cared for the patients. The social effects of the plague were profound. Because comparatively more lower class individuals (laborers and peasants) died of the disease, wages soared as labor shortages forced landowners to pay high wages to laborers and extract less rent on peasants. Pro-poor social changes and the rise of free farm laborers seeking the highest wage became important in the later period in Western Europe, which favored the market economy and the rise of the bourgeoisie in large cities. Survivors of the plague inherited the unclaimed land. In contrast, in eastern Europe the plague was equally devastating to the population, but landlords kept a tight leash on the subordinate peasantry. As a result, Russia did not abolish serfdom until the 1860s. The environmental effects of the 14th century plague was quite positive, as reduced human population meant less land use and reforestation, which cooled the climate. The inverse relationship between population numbers and a favorable climate is repeated today after over 200 years of industrialization and rapid population growth.

The spread of the disease has been favored by poverty, as these conditions are associated with the presence of lice, unsanitary drinking water and generally poor sanitation. Children and people with a weak immune system are especially vulnerable to the disease. Even as only selected poor countries are prone to be affected by the plague and vaccines have been developed to cure it, the plague bacterium could develop drug resistance, in which case a broader human population would be exposed to the plague.

The Spanish flu was the next largest epidemic, which killed between 50 to 100 million people, killing 2.5% of those infected (which is similar in range to what experts think the coronavirus causes, 0.5 to 3.5%). Common symptoms include fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea. Severe cases involved hemorrhage and pneumonia, which became a common cause of death. The Spanish flu was carried by birds, who then infected humans. A later strain affected swines, hence the 2009 swine flu. “Spanish” flu is somewhat of a misnomer, because even though it raged in Spain as well as in many other parts of the world, it was the free press reporting on it that provided an extensive record of how the disease impacted the population. What was especially devastating with the Spanish flu was that contrary to normal flus which harm small children and old people, it killed many young adults at the prime of their health, because their relatively stronger immune system produced a cytokine storm, which is an overreaction of the immune system which destroyed the patient’s lungs.

The Spanish flu arrived in two waves. First in the fall of 1917 and a stronger strain in the fall of 1918. There are disputes about the origin of the virus, ranging from Northern China, a military base in France and Kansas, US. The Spanish flu was not as fatal in China as in other parts of the world, which is likely because that flu strain hit the Chinese population before it affected other areas. The Spanish flu had immensely negative impacts in Europe, because the flu emerged toward the end of World War I. Pandemics are favored by high levels of population density, which was almost certainly the case in the trenches of World War I. It is also favored by globalization or the movement of people across borders, which was also the case with soldiers during the war. Soldiers were weakened by malnutrition during the intense battles, which made them more vulnerable to die. But what made the flu pandemic worse was that the soldiers that became infected by the severe strain were carried back to the medical camps, who spread the flu to all the other wounded via sneezing and coughing. Once these wounded returned to their home communities, they spread the disease to the civilian population. During peace time, the flu fails to be as deadly because the severe case patients stay home, while mild case patients go about their day and spread the mild rather than aggressive strain.

Here, variation in government policy had a substantial effect on the spread of the disease. In Philadelphia, the city decided not to cancel a war-bond rally even as hundreds of people had already been diagnosed with the flu. Over 45,000 people became infected and 12,000 Philadelphians died and the city’s activities ground to a halt. In contrast, St. Louis cancelled the rally, public schools and other public venues and the death toll was limited to 700. A total lockdown can keep the number of infected contained, which ultimately saves lives. On the other hand, given the virulence of a virus true protection can only occur if there is herd immunity, which is when roughly 60% of the population had contracted the virus, developed immunity for it and no longer spread it to the rest of the population. This is relevant for the coronavirus, which is discussed later.

Aside from Europe and the US, many deaths were reported elsewhere. In Japan, 23 million people were infected killing 390,000. In Indonesia, 1.5 million people died. In Iran an estimated 8 to 22% of the population perished. In Brazil it was 300,000. In Ghana, it was 100,000 people. Aside from China, one of the few light points of the pandemic was Denmark, where many people were exposed to the first wave and developed immunity when the second more deadly strain arrived. The mortality rate in the first wave was 0.02% and in the second wave 0.27%. More fortunately for the human race was that by November 1918 the number of deaths decreased substantially, which suggests that the more virulent strain died out.

Despite the high cost of life, the Spanish flu was a blip in overall human history as technological improvements in agriculture and medicine facilitated the further explosion of the population, such that we increased the global population from nearly 2 billion to 7.7 billion in the span of a century (1920 to 2020). The difference between the fourteenth century plague and the twentieth century Spanish flu is that the mortality rate was higher during the plague, even as the total number of death was higher in the Spanish flu. The plague tends to be more devastating in malnourished communities which was a much more common problem prior to industrial agriculture. The plague killed many religious clerics, while currently heavy death tolls occur among hospital and medical staff, which suggests a more scientific societal outlook.

But solving one disease does not solve all other diseases and nature keeps us working to find new means to fight new diseases. The flu can have extremely deadly mutations, which are favored with more densely populated areas and globalization (international travel via improved transportation networks). While the plague is confined to very underdeveloped countries, we have a flu season every year for most countries, whereby the peak is reached in the cold winter period when our immune system is most vulnerable. Acquiring immunity from one strain does not imply immunity from another, later strain, hence we are prone to become sick every year. Over 30,000 people have died from the flu in the US this season, most of which are elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions.

More damaging than the flu has been the coronavirus of which COVID-19 is the seventh strain. The fifth and sixth strain of the coronavirus, SARS and MERS, require further elucidation before turning to COVID-19. A coronavirus is a viral respiratory disease, which attacks the lungs and causes flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle pain, lethargy, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath. In extreme cases, it results in pneumonia and death. The coronavirus comes from infected wild bats who come into contact with humans in wet markets and then spread the virus to humans, who can transmit the virus to other humans via respiratory droplets or fomites. The first dangerous strain was SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), of which there were over 8,000 cases, 774 deaths and a 9.6% death rate. Thus, while the strain was very deadly the prevalence of the disease was also very low. SARS emerged from cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in China’s Yunnan province.

China is extremely susceptible to originate coronavirus because of “wet markets” where bats are sold as delicacies. Bats would be stacked on top of other wild animals, who defecate on top of each other and spread infections. In the case of SARS, the first case was reported in November 2002, when a patient from Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong was treated in a hospital in Foshan. The patient died thereafter, but the authorities did not recognize that case as highly infectious and did not report the disease to the World Health Organization of the outbreak until February 2003. On January 31, 2003, a super-spreader (sick individual who infected many others) was admitted to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital in Guangzhou, which then spread it to other hospitals.

The Chinese authorities were very resistant in cooperating with global authorities to combat the disease and it wasn’t until April 2003 that they let in international officials to investigate the situation. As an authoritarian society, the government did not allow for honest reporting of the disease, which resulted in the undetected spread of the disease, especially in hospital settings. The WHO was informed in February 2003 about the disease as an Italian doctor Carlo Urbani, who worked in a Hanoi hospital in Vietnam, treated Johnny Chen, an American businessman with SARS fell ill after visiting China. Both Urbani and Chen died, but now the international community was alerted. Hong Kong was disproportionately impacted by SARS. Mainland China reported 5,327 cases while it was 1,755 in Hong Kong. Canada was a western country with the largest SARS exposure documenting 251 cases, primarily from Hong Kong and Mainland residents flying to Canada. Taiwan reported 346 and Singapore 238 cases. South Korea notably only had 3 cases, which might explain why South Korea was overwhelmed by COVID-19 while Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were quite well prepared for the current strain.

By July 2003, SARS had been contained although China still reported selected cases in December 2003 and January 2004. All went well. What helped containment was the warmer weather, although the spike in cases occurred between March and the middle of May. More importantly, the deadliness of SARS (nearly 10% fatality) meant that the highest infectiousness was for the sickest patients, who could be isolated because of the severity of their symptoms. COVID-19 has a fatality of between 0.5 and 3.5%, much higher than the common flu (0.1%), but much lower than SARS which might explain the high case load for COVID-19 (150,000 as of March 14, although it is still growing exponentially and there are likely millions of undetected cases as of now). With SARS resolved, researchers still warned the public that a new strain could spread more deadly and widely, and, indeed, as of now, COVID-19 killed over 5,000 people compared to 774 from SARS.

MERS, Middle East Respiratory Disease, is another coronavirus that emerged in 2012 when the first case was reported in Saudi Arabia. MERS also came from Australian or African bats but transmitted the disease to camels in the mid-1990s before transmitting to humans by the early-2010s. Camels are delicacies in Saudi Arabia and UAE. By 2017, there have been over 2,000 cases and 600 deaths with a case fatality rate of over 30%. MERS is, thus, unusually deadly, but the high lethality also made it unlikely to become a pandemic because infected patients tended to have severe symptoms which resulted in them being isolated from the wider community. There has been no vaccine for either SARS or MERS, so infected patients with severe symptoms have to be attached to ventilators to be supplied with oxygen, hoping that these patients can recover.

SARS and MERS are the predecessors to COVID-19 or COVID for brevity. Like the other coronavirus strains COVID attacks the lungs and result in shortness of breath, dry cough, fever and in extreme cases pneumonia. It is more infectious though less lethal than SARS or MERS which is reflected in the exponentially rising caseload all over the world. There are many asymptomatic cases who, nonetheless, spread the infection unwittingly, hence the sharply rising numbers for COVID. Elderly people are disproportionately affected by severe symptoms and death, while no children below the age of 10 have died from COVID. It began in the wet market of Wuhan, with infected bats or infected pangolins transmitting the disease to local buyers. Human infection likely occurred in the third week of November, which was reported in a Wuhan newspaper on November 17, 2019. Community spread (human-to-human transmission) in Wuhan began to happen, making Wuhan the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the early stage of the disease, the Wuhan authorities ignored the warning of doctors about the community spread and actively silenced and censored them on social media. But as infections and number of deaths spiked and the hospitals began to be overwhelmed, Chinese netizens began to share stories of the disease and their experiences in the overwhelmed medical facilities resulting in a massive panic and confusion. (In contrast, during SARS there was no social media or widespread internet use.) In January 17, the Wuhan authorities reassured residents that lunar year celebrations could continue to be held, which drastically increased infections (as in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu). On January 20, the pandemic became so large that the Beijing authorities stepped in and declared a lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, which was extended to the whole province a day later. Initial government incompetence and online censorship allowed the situation to fester in the initial period.

What happened since then is equally amazing. Once the Chinese authorities identified the problem they introduced an effective lockdown, setting up checkpoints everywhere in Hubei to not allow people to move around, hence containing the spread to other provinces. All lunar celebrations and travel options across the country were also cancelled or interrupted. They also created makeshift hospitals that were set up within a few days to cope with the growing health care demands, which most other countries would have struggled with. By the end of February, China brought the disease under control by reducing the daily increase in COVID infections, thus being the only country in the world to do so, while everywhere else we see an exponential rise in cases. It remains an open question whether the cases will spike substantially if public life returns to normal.

In the last week of January, first cases became reported in other parts of the world, primarily in countries that service many flights to China, East Asia, Western Europe and North America. Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are noteworthy cases of effective containment given their trauma and experience from SARS. Effective and determined authorities can contain the spread of the virus. Singapore suspended all flights from Wuhan early on and tracks down every suspected case of COVID patient and test their immediate social contacts as well, which is called contact tracing. The government encourages people to get tested for the virus and does not charge them for it. It offers self-employed people $100 Singapore dollars a day and employers are prohibited from deducting annual leave from staff who take off from work. Singapore’s leader, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, has been very forthright communicating with the public which prevented hamster buying in stores. Taiwan and Hong Kong similarly banned travel from the mainland. Hong Kong also cancelled schools and any public gatherings. Given the traumatic experiences of SARS 17 years ago, many people are compliant with the government request.

In other parts of the world, the public health response has been weaker. South Korea, Iran, Italy and now Spain have become the new epicenters of COVID, even as cases are rising in most parts of the world. South Korea was barely impacted by SARS, but it has effective public health authorities which resulted in substantial testing capabilities being rolled out. It tested 10,000 people per day and imposed self-isolation on patients testing positive, while also aggressively using disinfectants. Therefore, the number of new infections are now receding. Japan had a pathetic response with more than 1,000 detected infections and struggled handling the Diamond Princess Cruise ship with 700 infections. They were holed up in the port of Yokohama and were not allowed to disembark the ship as the authorities feared spread.

Iran’s cases began to spike since the end of February, and the regime has refused to close businesses and mosques and impose a quarantine, fearing even more unrest due to economic hardship. Hardship is already quite severe with the reimposition of US sanctions in 2018. With oil prices collapsing as a result of the global economic slowdown, the regime faces cash shortages, which forced it to go to the IMF to apply for a $5 billion loan. The short-term focus on preserving economic activity does not help the economy either as hospitalization and deaths mount.

In Europe the new epicenter became northern Italy’s Lombardy region. The death toll mounted as the Italian authorities gravely underestimated the severity of the pandemic. It did not do a lockdown until the second week of March, when the first cases cropped up in late January. As of March 14, Italy has over 21,000 confirmed cases and 1,400 deaths, which is aggravated by the fact that so many Italians are old age. The lockdown and associated social isolation is quite unusual for Italian culture, which is very affectionate and is captured in the following statement

When people have appeared, they’ve given one another a wide berth. So un-Italian. Normally, people charge into each other and greet with affection, shaking hands, kissing and embracing. Italy is a touchy-feely society. We tend to trust our senses and intuition more than grand ideas (those are Germany’s trademark). For us, life is food, wine, music, arts, design, landscape; the smell of the countryside; the warmth of one’s family, and the embrace of friends. Those involve our mouths, our noses, our ears, our eyes, our hands. Fear of Covid-19 forces us to repudiate those senses. It’s painful.

New York Times (March 12, 2020)

At this point, we are facing a global pandemic. Countries that believe that they can ride this out are badly mistaken. Most humans in the world have no acquired immunity for COVID and given the power of the community spread not doing a lockdown, social distancing (i.e. cancelling of all mass events and minimizing human contact) and aggressive testing and treatment will result in a huge jump in the death toll. Surely, the social costs of the virus are huge as humans are social animals, yet we are told to reduce social interactions that are face-to-face. For the small minority of people, who are adept hermits, life may not change that much, but for most of the rest of society, the COVID pandemic will be very disruptive. One of the few silver linings is that an enforced hermit lifestyle can result in more contemplation and taking things more lightly, which could result in long-term social changes. Less work, more contemplation.

To allow the health systems to cope with the patient-intake the spread of the disease has to be extended for as long as possible, which is the meaning of “flattening the curve”. Flattening the curve does not necessarily mean that the virus will be contained (i.e. preventing the exposure to the virus). We are in mitigation stage and that assumes the need for herd immunity, i.e. 60% of the population must be exposed to the disease and acquire immunity to make further spread to the rest of the population unlikely. On the other hand, if as is the case in China, the exposure can be limited, then herd immunity might not be required to root out COVID. Containment, if feasible, is still the preferred route as it would lower the death toll, although it is difficult because once life returns to normal it takes only one infectious person to repeat the ordeal.

Only few leaders will openly admit that herd immunity is a possible solution like Angela Merkel or Boris Johnson. In the case of the British PM, he made it sound like it was not necessary to cancel public events (fearing that it would undermine legitimacy) and desires to reach the peak disease as soon as possible so that we can go back to business-as-usual. But the “collateral damage” of tens of thousands of excess death is quite a steep price to pay and irresponsible for a leader. To be fair, the UK government wants to “spread out the period of the disease” by telling older and sicker populations to avoid leaving the house. But letting the adult, non-elderly population be exposed to disease is also irresponsible. In addition, the medical advice that infected patients with symptoms should stay home for 7 days is inadequate as infectious period and incubation can be much longer than that, thus still endangering weaker populations. Allowing public life to continue uninterrupted will spike caseload and death toll, which will overwhelm the health service and generate social panic. I suspect the British government will change tack and impose the lockdown in the near future, but will have a sharper rise in infections and death than if they acted immediately.

The most gentle and only ethically defensible way to attain herd immunity is by developing and dispensing a vaccine, though that will take years to develop and we haven’t had a good track record with getting a vaccine for previous strains of the coronavirus.

In the US, the Trump administration’s incompetence is finally proving fatal. First, he downplayed the severity of the crisis, promising people that the few existing cases can be reduced to zero. As the crisis is escalating, he now denies testing kits because he fears high numbers would lower his reelection chances. This is the most stupid response one can have about the pandemic. By keeping the public ignorant about their symptoms the number of cases will sky-rocket as not enough infected people self-quarantine. The next step of the administration’s PR effort will be to deny the escalating death toll as “fake news”. Trump is directly contradicting his public health officials, exhibiting his ignorance and incompetence to handle the crisis.

Dishonest leadership results in chaos and confusion in the public. States and municipalities are left on their own to figure out how to get ventilators, testing kits or hand sanitizers. For a rich country, the US is unusually poorly prepared because of the lack of family and medical leave policy and a privatized for-profit health care system. Presently people who want to be tested have to pay $1000 and treatment could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Pharma companies want to profit from this crisis by charging a lot for the vaccine when it comes out. This will deter treatment and can exacerbate the pandemic as untreated patients continue showing up at work and infecting and killing more people. As the stock markets are tanking, the Fed has pumped half a trillion dollars to support big banks and large corporations, while the Trump administration is still carrying out cuts in CDC (Center for Disease Control) funding. The CDC is needed more than ever to find a cure to COVID. The wrong priorities of the government will exacerbate the effects of the pandemic.

What we need is a complete lockdown of public life, which has in part already happened. As people are traveling less, restaurants and shops are less visited and public events and conferences are canceled, many businesses like airlines or caterers are laying off workers. Those privileged enough to shift to tele-working will do so, but that is not feasible in all jobs, especially not in the vital low-skilled service sector (food, hospitality, retail, transportation, warehousing, delivery). The unemployment rate will rise and social suffering can increase as most people don’t have any economic savings. Trump’s response is to temporarily cut the payroll tax, which won’t amount to much money because shift cutbacks would more than compensate the small income gains of the payroll tax cut, and it won’t help people who become unemployed. The government has six months of unemployment insurance, although if it takes longer for life to get back to normal, the expiration of unemployment insurance would be devastating. Reasonable politicians like Bernie Sanders are calling for an expansion of unemployment and paid sick leave. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tulsi Gabbard demand a universal basic income, which would be the ideal policy.

I am even more worried about the pandemic’s impact on less developed countries that lack proper medical facilities. Surely, their more youthful population might make them more resistant than the rapidly aging Italian population. On the other hand, given that malnourishment is not solved in all less developed countries, physically weaker individuals could be more prone to develop severe cases from COVID, while public safety and law enforcement are incapable of sufficiently enforcing social distancing.

The negative economic ramifications of COVID are quite severe, although the implications for the environment are quite positive as less transportation and consumption reduces CO2 emissions. The air quality in China has notably improved with the travel restrictions and lockdown. Humans have long had a major influence on the environment but it has taken a pandemic to reduce that influence. Recall that the Black Plague in the fourteenth century led to reforestation and a cooler climate for a while.

While public health authorities are overwhelmed by the patient load and scientists are frantically developing a vaccine, public discourse is completely confused over COVID. Unlike previous pandemics we live in a world of social media, where communication is instantaneous, so we have seen the avalanche when it began in Wuhan and radiated to other parts of the world. People can google information on the virus and how it spreads and take measures to delay the spread. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the vast majority of people are neither scientists nor do they have a scientific mindset. Thus, rumors can easily spread, which are silly at best and dangerous at worst. President Trump’s anti-science mindset is likely in the latter category and I suggest you google his statements himself to make yourself a picture.

In the early days of COVID coverage in January, racist attacks against Asians ticked upward, as other racial groups believed that any Asian must be the carrier of the virus even if they hadn’t been to China in the recent past and even as the disease began to spread across the world and affecting all races of people. Surely, there has been a problem with the wet markets in Wuhan and the sale of wild animals must be banned, although on the other hand, the presence of avian and swine flu suggests that even frequently consumed domesticated animals can transmit diseases to humans.

Within Chinese-speaking networks and right-wing US networks there are rumors about the US having deliberately spread the virus in China. The origin of the rumor is a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao. This is evidently combative cold war rhetoric, which has no basis in reality but is meant to inflame tensions between the two major economic powers of the world.

Public ignorance about the crisis can exacerbate the crisis and the way to deal with it is to have strong political leadership, where politicians and scientific advisors continuously communicate to the public and assuage irrational fears, although it is not obvious whether we will be able to observe this level of leadership in all cases. In the US case, we have an evident lack of leadership.

Whether it is the plague, the flu or the coronavirus, diseases have always been with us. While we do not cause the disease directly, human decisions matter in how severe the disease is and improved science can help us mitigate these diseases (which has been the case with the plague and also HIV, which is not cured but held at bay via anti-retrovirals), even as there is a risk for drug resistance. But the irony is that it is our scientific advances that have also made us more susceptible to potential pandemics. By becoming first an agricultural and then an industrial society, we have increased our population size substantially. Increasing urban density increases the risk of spreading diseases. And so does globalization, which is made possible by advances in information and communication technology. By interacting with animals, either domesticated or wild, we are getting our required calories but expose ourselves to disease.

Thus, what is at heart in the COVID pandemic and other past pandemics is that we humans are at war with nature, and it is a war in which our species is inferior. Fundamentally, human life is only possible as part of nature, having the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen, having access to fossil fuels and other raw material that shape our material lives, having enough drinking water and so forth. The reverse dependence is at best tenuous. Planet earth would be no worse off without humans (assuming it has any feelings). In fact, not having humans around would perhaps be even better for other animal species, whose habitat won’t be destroyed by human settlements and climate change.

Now we are being hit by a pandemic. The adaptability of diseases means that we can see a more benign or a more malign mutation, which will put an unbearable stress on the health care system and result in the loss of many people’s lives. The severity of climate change means that even if pandemics remain temporary inconveniences, climate change is here with us and making more lives a living hell. And even as our survival as a species is uncertain, the fundamental reality is that for us as individuals life is limited. “We come from dust and we shall return there”, whether it be from COVID, flu, heart attack, accident, cancer or infirmity. Being aware of our mortality gives added emphasis to the slogan ‘Carpe Diem!’ The silver lining is that COVID focuses the human mind, and in the coming days and weeks ahead, we have to practice social distancing even as we have to care for each other.

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Climate Change and Australia

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/68-climate-change-and-australia

Australia has had one of the worst wildfire seasons in its history, burning over 18 million hectars, destroying over 9,000 homes and killing 34. In February 7 a torrential rain storm extinguished many fires. By the beginning of this month New South Wales fires had been extinguished while the Victoria fires have been contained, which means that this fire season is drawing to a close. Forest fire danger tends to be concentrated in the heavily populated southeast of the country, which harbors the major cities Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.

Wildfires are not uncommon in Australia’s history given that it is the driest continent on earth. However, climate change has exacerbated the intensity of the wildfires. Since 1900, average temperature has increased by 1.0C, while the rainfall averages declined since 1990. A small fire can turn into a big wildfire under very dry conditions. Ironically, the Liberal Party led government of Scott Morrison denies climate change, blaming the wildfire on environmental conservationists who supposedly block officials from prescribed burning, which is about burning old wood, thus minimizing the chances for major fires during the fire season. This is a bogus charge, overstating the power of conservationists.

The wildfires in Australia are a warning signal to the whole of humanity that our industrial lifestyle is no longer sustainable. The pursuit of scientific and economic progress has run its course on planet earth, which has finite resources and an unfavorable climate following our dependence on fossil fuels. Perhaps there will be a technological revolution, which will eliminate fossil fuels and allow us to live the same expansive lifestyle that we have grown used to. I am quite skeptical of this.

Climate change denial at the highest ranks of government is extremely concerning, but in the context of Australian history marked by the conquest by white British people it is not entirely surprising. Recall that Britain was the world leader of the Industrial Revolution post-1750 by combining technological prowess (principally the steam engine) with a cheap and abundant labor force, the first of its kind following the successful enclosure of British peasants in the 1600s. Industrialization and advances in agriculture swelled the British population, which increased competition for jobs and lowered the quality of life over the short term. Right around that time, the British joined the other European powers, including the Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and French to send expeditionary forces across the sea, which created European presence all over the world. Colonization was an escape route for domestic poverty and would create new markets, which become profitable outlets to capitalists.

Before the Europeans set sail to Australia around 1600, the island nation was inhabited for 65,000 years. Australia was connected to New Guinea via the Sahul land bridge, as the sea levels were much lower than presently. Early human inhabitants became known as Aborigines, the ancient Australian population, who were hunters and gatherers. Their access to Asia was severed 6,000 years ago, when rising sea levels separated Australia from Southeast Asia. Aborigines split off genetically from the Eurasian population between 62 and 75,000 years ago, while European and Asian populations split only 25 to 38,000 years ago. As a result of the physical separation, the Aborigines did not share in the civilizational developments cooked up in Eurasia and north Africa.

The Aborigines believed in living in harmony with nature, performed rituals and held animist beliefs. This means that trees, rocks, and water contain a spirit and are, thus sacred. Aborigine population reached close to a million at its peak but given the hunter-gatherer lifestyle it is less taxing on the environment. The white man had a very different relationship with nature. Believing in science and progress (and an abstract deity), they used their tools to extract maximum value from nature and labor and had very fixed notions of private property, which the Aborigines lacked. Although European (Dutch and later Spanish) explorations go back to 1600, the first large-scale colonization occurred under the British Captain James Cook in 1770. In 1788, Cook set up a colony in Sydney, New South Wales. Cook was commissioned to set up a penal colony, where British vagrants and criminals could be deported to. Even today, 20% of Australians are related to the penal colonists.

Upon first contact, many Aborigines died from European diseases like smallpox, chickenpox, influenza and measles. The greater variety of diseases among Europeans comes from the greater variety of domesticated animals at their disposal, while the Aborigines only had the dingo (a dog). Diseases are transmitted via animals with exposure leading to widespread death, but survivors encode genetic immunity to descendants. A similar disease elimination occurred among the Khoisan in southern Africa when they encountered Bantu farmers, and among the Native Americans when they encountered whites.

Among the surviving Aborigines, many (10-20,000) were killed by whites who had superior military technology. The whites wanted to claim the land occupied by the Aborigines, whom whites regarded as primitive because they lacked fixed notions of private property and were much more cautious with resource use. Whites felt entitled to the land and natural resources of Australia. To sustain the growing white population, the settlers brought their cattle to Australia and had to seize more and more fertile lands from the Aborigines. The cattle ate native animals, which were the Aborigine food staple. The loss of the old livelihood converted Aborigines into farm laborers for white farm owners, which was reinforced by the Australian goldrush that occurred in the 1850s. White farm workers abandoned the land to work in gold mines, thus creating openings for Aborigines to work as farm laborers. They were usually unpaid, and instead received in-kind rations of food, clothing and housing.

By the 1920s, the Aborigine population was reduced to roughly 70,000 (from a peak of about 1 million) but stabilized with advances in medicine. Today, they comprise 3% of the Australian population or 760,000. Nonetheless, white conquest was deleterious to the social structures of the Aborigines, who developed alcohol addiction after they were given alcohol by whites. The Australian government also imposed a policy of family separation for “half-caste” (half white, half Aborigine) individuals, who were supposed to live in church-run missions and be taught western ways of life. These kids became part of the “stolen generation” and were likely to suffer from poor health, poor mental health and poverty. While the practice was ended in the 1970s, it was not until 2008 that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had apologized for the practice.

Only after World War II did the Australian government begin to grant voting and civil rights to the Aborigines, beginning with the federal vote for Aborigines who fought in World War II in 1949 and then for all Aborigine after 1962. In 1967, a referendum stipulated that the government could pass laws favoring Aborigine interests. The Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1976 gave Aborigines in the Northern Territory (very low population density) the “inalienable” freehold title to some traditional lands, although there are ongoing legal disputes between Aborigines and whites on this matter.

The poor treatment of Aborigine people is merely a reflection of how poorly whites regard the people and the environment they found at their disposal. Similar to many other developed countries, Australia experienced a rapidly improving economy in the three post World War II decades, which provided upward social mobility to many Australians, but this changed with the stagflation period of the 1970s. Australia jumped on the same neoliberal boat as the other western countries and bought low unemployment at the cost of rising inequality, precarity, deindustrialization and more women joining the labor force. The labor share of income peaked in the mid-1970s and dropped by roughly 10 points to 52% in 2017 (La Cava 2019).

The deteriorating quality of work and rising economic insecurity has been accompanied by a growing nativist, anti-immigrant discourse, which could gain salience as the Australian government departed from the white-only immigration policy in the 1970s. (Currently, 5% trace their descent to China, 2.8% to India, 1.4% to Philippines, 1.4% to Vietnam.) In addition, refugee boats have sailed in increasing numbers beginning in the late-1990s, drawing refugees from conflict countries like Afghanistan. Australia deflects taking on refugees by bribing neighboring island nations (Papua New Guinea and Nauru) to absorb and detain them. Given the poverty and climate change induced instability in other parts of the world, Australia will be confronted with more refugees in the near future.

Australia has not been kind to its environment either. Ever since the economic rise of China, which was turbocharged post-2000, Australia opened its doors to Chinese foreign investment, which is concentrated in the mining and real estate sector. The recent economic slowdown hurts investment in these sectors, and Australia is raising Chinese ire by following the US ban on Huawei’s 5G expansion. But the bigger picture is that for the sake of jobs, investments and economic development, the Australian government is not batting an eye when doubling down on CO2 increasing mining activity. Hence, the government believes that climate change is a hoax and environmentalists have to be fought to preserve the Australian way of life! Let the fires rage!

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The Implications of Super Tuesday

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/67-the-implications-of-super-tuesday

Since Super Tuesday, Joe Biden has become the frontrunner in the Democratic Primaries converting a substantial delegate deficit with three weak performances in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada into a 78 delegate lead against Bernie Sanders who dominated the first three primaries/ caucuses. How did the electoral calculus change? The Democratic field was very wide with more than 10 candidates before narrowing substantially in the last few weeks. Biden as the leading moderate was sharing votes with Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bloomberg. The first two dropped out right before Super Tuesday, and Bloomberg dropped out the day after Super Tuesday. Buttigieg and Klobuchar are likely expecting to be appointed to the cabinet in return, but even if they received no reassurances from Biden, they have likely received the pressure from major Democratic Party donors to drop out and leave the field to Biden with the goal of preventing Sanders nomination.

Biden received a major boost in South Carolina. Biden received 49% of the vote, while Sanders with 20% was a distant second. South Carolina is the first southern state to vote in the primary contest, and however it votes gives an indication of how the rest of the rural south will vote with its considerable black voting base. Biden went on to take all the former Confederate states voting on Super Tuesday, though Texas was a narrow lead, because Sanders did very well among the Latinos in the south and west of Texas.

In the progressive side of the Democratic Party we find Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Warren made the mistaken calculation that a winnowing of the field shortly before Super Tuesday would propel her campaign, even though the first four contests showed how she performed successively worse, landing in fifth place in the South Carolina polls. Warren may also have stayed on through Super Tuesday to indirectly help Joe Biden’s cause, although it is hard to say that there was a strong disadvantage to Sanders’ campaign, because Biden’s support was diluted by Bloomberg’s campaign. The billionaire Bloomberg had dumped $450 million mostly in campaign ads to promote his campaign, but he could not gain enough traction and his poor debate performance in February revealed his ineptness to deal with public criticism on his political record as mayor of New York City.

Some states that Sanders used to win in 2016, including Minnesota, Oklahoma and Maine were turned over to Biden, although Sanders captured Nevada and California that he lost 4 years ago. Sanders clearly improved his game plan in the western states, although to have a path to win the nomination he has to make inroads in the northeastern states outside his native Vermont and New Hampshire as well as some of the mid-western states like Illinois and Missouri. Sanders triumph stands and falls with the youth voter turnout as his base feeds heavily from millennials and Gen Z, i.e. individuals age 40 and younger. The youth turnout was lower in the Super Tuesday states this year than 2016, which hurt Sanders prospects.

At this point Biden’s momentum may be unstoppable. Clinton produced a delegate lead to Sanders of roughly 200 delegates with Super Tuesday at the beginning of March and never surrendered that margin, ending up with almost 400 more delegates than Sanders in June when the last contest concluded. With the winnowing of the field, the decisive struggle between the centrist and progressive wings of the Democratic Party are playing out again with the two top contenders, Biden and Sanders, competing for very different clientele and different political visions. Given that the entire corporate establishment is backing up Biden, Sanders has an uphill struggle to take, relying on popular mass support.

The next contest occurs on March 10 with Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Washington primaries and the North Dakota caucus. Sanders has a good shot at Idaho and Washington, while Biden is favored in Mississippi and Missouri. The delegate-rich state that matters is Michigan, which currently favors Biden after it favored Sanders for long periods of time (Sanders also won Michigan in 2016). If Sanders loses Michigan, his path to the nomination is narrowing substantially, as every succeeding states voters make their decision based on the previous states’ vote outcome.

The sad reality is that within the Democratic Party electorate, the path to Sanders’ victory is narrower than in the total electorate as Sanders can attract more independent and some Republican voters, which Biden is incapable of doing. The progressive wing of the party is about 40-45%, which is quite considerable, but evidently insufficient in what has now become a two-way contest.

Ironically, judging from Trump’s tweets he favors a contest with Sanders, presumably because he feels certain that not enough people support socialism. But a weaker case can be made for Biden in the November elections, because it would be a rematch of 2016. Trump merely has to hold his coalition of disaffected white working class voters and peel off some black and Latino voters with vague promises to support HBCUs and praising Latino border patrol officers as he did during the State of the Union address. He can then hammer Biden because of his affiliation with the much-hated establishment, whichBiden is part of. Trump is part of the establishment himself, but knows how to deflect it as a real estate billionaire with showbiz and rhetorical skills, while Biden is as deeply part of the “swamp” as Hillary Clinton had been. Biden demands “normalcy” after Trump, but normalcy is what the broader electorate does not want. How is it normal to have half a million medical bankruptcies for getting sick every year? How is it normal to not be able to pay rent on the minimum wage income? How is it normal to be trapped in perennial debt for going to college, the only promised ticket to the middle class?

In addition to Biden’s association with the swamp, he is no longer as sharp as in the past. His debate performance has been poor, in part, because his sentences lack clarity, which is fine if you are lecturing UPenn undergrads (where he taught as professor for two years) but not when you are trying to win an election against Trump. Trump will clobber Biden and he would not have much to offer in return.

Sanders would be a much better debater not because he would fall to the same childish level as Trump, but because all he has to do is hammer home the same message he has been delivering for over 40 years: the economic system is rigged. Trump’s tax cuts on behalf of millionaires and billionaires is reinforcing inequality and reducing opportunity for the masses. Sanders is the real tribune of the downtrodden and the forgotten men and women, a.k.a. the “basket of deplorables” in Clinton’s parlance. These are the same people that propelled Trump into the White House. Sanders would excite the base, and undermine Trump’s loyal electorate. Furthermore, Sanders’ ability to excite the base could increase the voter turnout, which was a dismal 55.7% in 2016. A rising voter turnout helps the Sanders campaign more than Trump. Whether Biden or Sanders wins in the nomination, it will alienate either the moderate or the progressive voters, but the loss of progressive voters is more consequential in the November elections as the 2016 example shows.

Biden’s victory in the Democratic nomination at this point is likely but not guaranteed. If the Democratic Party wants to dislodge Trump in November, Sanders is the best bet. Biden defenders will argue that it is better to have a “safe pair of hands” on top of the Democratic ticket, but the corporate, media and political establishment have long been out of touch with the overall electorate. They will throw anything into the kitchen sink to assure the Biden nomination even at the risk of losing in November.

One must not forget that the Democratic establishment regards Trump as a temporary evil, who can be dislodged in either 2020 or 2024, but Trump is a candidate of the status quo, which was reinforced with business deregulation and tax cuts for the 1%. Funneling more money to the donor class can then be exploited by the DNC in the future election cycles, thus the DNCs deprivation of power is perceived as temporary under Trump, while they perceive it as permanent if Sanders takes over. Naturally, this is not the whole story, because even under a Sanders presidency, the donors still control the selection of senators and congresspeople, who can block any progressive agenda, but Sanders would fight the political establishment tooth and nail by doing rallies in political districts that oppose his progressive agenda. Even the bully pulpit would send shudders in the boardrooms of the donor class.

The donors also realize that the most dangerous element in a progressive political movement is not so much the specifics in the current proposals. Yes, Medicare for all will wipe out the medical insurance industry, but cheapening the delivery and broadening the coverage of medical care will subsidize other economic sectors who no longer have to trade-off between hiring more workers, raising wages and providing good health care coverage. Yes, higher taxes on fossil fuel companies will increase fuel costs, but promoting alternative energy will create new jobs and new profitable sectors. Yes, getting rid of student debt will crush some financial lenders, but the increased purchasing power of individuals no longer paying off their loans will benefit other sectors of the economy as people, for instance, make home renovations that they put off previously because of student loans.

So if the capitalist class as a whole benefits from Sanders agenda (even as specific capitalists lose out), why would they oppose the progressive agenda? Because they fear that the success of that agenda will wet progressive appetite for more radical reforms, which could squeeze out capitalists. Sanders is not demanding the nationalization of the means of production, but his successor might. However unsustainable the neoliberal political economy is for the working class, this status quo is preferable to the donors, who know what they get out of the present system but don’t know what they might get in a more progressive political structure. Thus, the next few months are, indeed, very consequential to most people.

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Could the KMT Have Brought Democracy to Mainland China?

Podcast here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/66-could-the-kmt-have-brought-democracy-to-mainland-china

‘No’ is the short answer, but it is an important historical counterfactual that needs to be considered. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to dominate Mainland China in 1949 declaring the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after being victorious in the civil war and the once dominant Kuomintang (KMT) had to flee to Taiwan, retaining the title Republic of China (ROC, founded in 1912). Taiwan under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo built up a formidable economy beginning in the 1960s, and liberalized society toward the end of the 1980s. The 1990 electoral reform ushered in first democratic elections to the legislature in 1992 and the first presidential elections in 1996. What would happen to China if the KMT won the civil war and the CCP lost it? Reading Jay Taylor’s (2011) biography of Chiang Kai-shek one can get the impression that he had quite liberal sympathies, although he was by no means a democrat. The real democratization reforms occurred under his son Ching-kuo, and elections only occurred with his successor Lee Teng-hui after Chiang Ching-kuo’s death in 1988.

But Chiang Kai-shek’s refusal to implement democratization directly is not the main reason why the KMT would have failed in democratizing the Mainland. The Taylor biography reveals the fundamental fault lines in Chinese society that are not favorable to democratization on the Mainland, while they were much more favorable on Taiwan.

The Mainland was largely under the control of various landlords and warlords after the collapse of the central government with the death of the first president Yuan Shikai in 1916. The Republic of China was largely a paper-tiger with no effective control. The most charismatic nationalist-republican leader with a unified China vision was the KMT leader Sun Yat-sen, who died of liver cancer in 1925. The next leader was Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Whampoa military academy in Guangdong, which was jointly run by the KMT and the CCP, as the Soviet Union provided the funding. The Soviets only were interested in supporting the CCP to take over the whole of China, while Chiang wanted his own KMT to prevail.

He expelled the CCP in 1927 and went from victory to victory, defeating some landlords while paying off others, thus increasing the sphere of KMT control over the Mainland. As KMT territory increased the revenue streams increased as it could requisition grain production for its expanding war effort. The KMT was also supported by the wealthy bankers and businesspeople, who were primarily based in Shanghai and Nanjing. Surely, Chiang antagonized these capitalists by nationalizing and taxing their wealth (he wasn’t so opposed to socialism and benefiting the poor as the CCP portrayed him as), but the KMT was far more preferable to them than the CCP, which wanted to kill them and/or expropriate them outright.

What sounded like strength turned out to be a fatal weakness for the KMT during the civil war later. Having to pay off landlords meant that even as they put the KMT banner on their lapel, they retained their local fiefdoms which increased corruption and weakened the war effort as soldiers were unmotivated to serve lacking pay, which the lords stole. Throughout the wars, Chiang mistrusted many of his generals because they ran their own agenda rather than obey Chiang. In December 1936, the biggest shock to Chiang was when he was about to quash the Shaanxi base of the CCP (they had lost their Jiangxi base and went on a Long March to Shaanxi) and he was imprisoned by two warlords, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng, who wanted Chiang to sign a treaty with the CCP to fight against Japanese aggression. (Zhang was a Manchurian warlord, whose land was taken by the Japanese in 1931). Relying on bankers for financial support may have been prudent to fund the war, but also gave the communists moral ammunition to get the peasants, still the backbone of Chinese society, to oppose the KMT government and join the CCP ranks as the CCP promised them land. The capitalists were a small, urban elite, but whoever got the peasants on their side could win the struggle.

The KMT could still have survived and hold onto power if it were not for the Sino-Japanese war. In one of their first moves, the Japanese ordered an invasion of Shanghai and Nanjing, the KMT capital. Chiang committed his best German-trained troops to defend the two cities, but the Chinese armies (primarily light infantry) were no match for the Japanese invaders, who commanded heavy artillery, tanks, machine guns, battleships and airplanes. With the loss of the eastern urban centers and Chiang’s best troops, the rump state of free China based in Chongqing was substantially weakened. The KMT could sustain itself with the rice fields in Hunan and Hubei and the US military supplies delivered over the Hump (border with British India) after the US joined the KMT side in 1941. After 1941, the US put increasing pressure on the KMT army to recapture Burma to create a land supply route via the port of Rangoon on the Indian ocean. The KMT was obliged to bind its good troops in the southwest, and they were routed by the Japanese invaders, who took Burma in the spring of 1942. To compensate for the loss of most of the Japanese navy close to the end of the war, Japan attacked Henan, Hunan and Guangxi in the spring and summer of 1944, which resulted in a loss of 750,000 KMT troops.

The end of the nationalist attacks allowed Mao Zedong to consolidate his Shaanxi base, while carrying out guerrilla attacks on Japanese military installations, though these were rare. The communists shied away from direct confrontation with the Japanese army (in contrast to the KMT armies which lost substantial manpower in the war), but they dug themselves into the countryside where they were sheltered by peasants. The Japanese reacted with search and destroy missions in the countryside, but these were sporadic and most Japanese troops were concentrated in military bases and urban centers.

Once the Japanese left, the KMT struggled to retake the north and northeast, which was controlled by communist armies. A brief negotiated peace deal between Mao and Chiang collapsed quickly as each leader wanted to gain supremacy over China. A big headache for the KMT was the Soviet conquest of Manchuria, as the Soviets used that province to supply the CCP with vital arms to succeed in the civil war against the KMT. Chiang committed the mistake of throwing his best (US-trained) forces into the battle of Manchuria, believing that it had to be held at all costs and the communists needed to be crushed. But unlike in the late-1920s, the CCP was now a much stronger force, and they could keep their recruitment up by promising peasants free land. The KMT armies effectively only controlled the big cities in Manchuria, while the rest of the region was CCP-controlled. The Soviets intensely supported the CCP, while the US was extremely cautious and pressured Chiang to prevent provocation or lose US funding. The initial numeric and military troop advantage of the KMT was reversed by around 1947. Every KMT loss resulted in the capture and transfer of US-provided weaponry to the CCP. Beginning in the second half of 1948, the CCP carried out major attack campaigns and routed the demoralized KMT armies, who ultimately retreated to Taiwan.

Taiwan was a fisherman island which has been settled by the southern Chinese (mainly Minnanese, but also Hakka and Cantonese) for centuries before being formally annexed by the Qing empire in 1683. The Japanese seized the island in 1895 with the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The mostly ethnic Chinese on the island were forced to learn Japanese and obey the Japanese government, but Japan also implanted their industrial infrastructure and institutions on the island (Japan had opened up to western influence since the 1860s), creating railways, transport networks, a sanitation system and a formal education system. China experienced some industrialization as well in Manchuria, which was the basis of steel-based industrialization of the PRC, but the country as a whole was more backward both in terms of education levels and level of industrialization.

When the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the island was returned to Republic of China control. As far back as 1946, Chiang Kai-shek, while exploring the island on a brief visit, envisioned the potential to fall back on the island should they be defeated by the Communists in the impending civil war. Chiang ordered a brutal crackdown against a popular uprising triggered by students and other groups upset abut rising inflation and quasi-colonial domination of the Mainland KMT army. If Chiang didn’t believe that the island was a needed retreat for the KMT, I doubt he would have been so harsh against the Taiwanese during the uprising.

With the defeat of the KMT army in the early months of 1949, Chiang moved his government and 2 million KMT personnel (mainly soldiers and some bureaucrats) to Taiwan. Chiang found on the island the ideal conditions to impose good governance, as the civil society was well developed via its high literacy rate and functioning education system bequeathed by the Japanese colonial rulers. A powerful civil society coupled with Taiwanese people’s resentment against KMT military rule became the basis of the Democratic Progressive Party founded in 1986, which Chiang Ching-kuo recognized likely fearing the destabilizing implications of a brutal crackdown.

Furthermore, the local landlords were not that powerful and could be convinced in the 1950s to surrender their land via land reform in exchange for government bonds, which benefited the small farmers and leveled the distribution of income and wealth on the island, another factor favoring democracy. The CCP equalized land ownership rights as well (though by centralizing it under CCP as opposed to peasant control), which was the basis for industrialization under Deng Xiaoping decades later, but without surrendering an inch of political control from the CCP. If Chiang had defeated the CCP, he would have had to do the same extreme land reform, which the powerful landlords would have delayed for as long as possible or even prevented (while the CCP did not owe anything to landlords).

One of Chiang’s first order reforms once setting up base in Taipei was to centralize military payroll, which sounds like a logical thing to do for an army, but on the Mainland Chiang lacked the power to enforce such centralization given the many landlords and generals opposed to his power grab. The centralization of the payroll diminished the local fiefdoms, which weakened the KMT army in the civil war with the CCP, and it also reduced corruption substantially as previously the leaders of local fiefdoms could appropriate any revenues or foreign aid paid to them. Now the few KMT landlords who boarded the same ship to Taiwan as Chiang were left with almost nothing, and were happy with any small sinecures given them by the KMT (like a civil service appointment). If Chiang prevailed in the Mainland, he would have struggled to centralize power given the vastness of the country. As the Chinese saying goes 山高皇帝远 (mountains high, king is far away), central rule is weak.

Finally, the US provided the military and financial umbrella to protect the island of Taiwan with the beginning of the Korean War in 1950. Without the North Korean invasion of South Korea, the US administration would not have dispatched a fleet to protect Taiwan from an impending CCP invasion. Taiwan advanced an export-driven economic growth agenda which could only work with the support of the US. The US was the biggest global economic power with the capacity to support export-driven industrialization via open markets and low-tariff barriers in what became known as the “Asian tigers” including South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. Taiwan became a bulwark against communism. Early industrialization combined with an educated population, an efficient, uncorrupt civil/ public service, egalitarian land distribution and US support produced democratic governance in Taiwan.

The stature of the island was diminished with the expulsion from the UN and the unrecognition of many foreign diplomatic missions in Taiwan in the early-1970s. Mainland China was too much of a political and later economic juggernaut to not have diplomatic relations with. Following the One-China principle countries that recognized the PRC could not recognize ROC/ Taiwan simultaneously, although ROC cultural and economic affairs offices that were opened after unrecognition perform the same functions as an embassy. The Mainland also became an industrialized powerhouse, a precondition toward democratization, but the CCP never surrendered control, which was evidenced in the 1989 Tiananmen protest crackdown. The population is becoming increasingly educated, although mainly along technical and engineering realms rather than social sciences and humanities, from which democratic demands usually are generated from. Corruption among public services is still an endemic problem mainly due to a lack of rule of law. Economic factors increasingly favor democratization on the Mainland, but simplistic modernization theory according to which industrialization is followed by democracy is false.

Nonetheless, democratic Taiwan is a constant thorn on the side of the CCP, which tries to convince Mainland people that “Chinese people have no desire or inclination for democracy” despite the presence of a Chinese-speaking island next door that is democratic. Hence, the CCP desire toward reunification under PRC terms. But I doubt the KMT would have had the same trajectory of democratization on the Mainland. Chiang and his KMT successors found social conditions to be more amenable to democracy in Taiwan than on the Mainland. Hence, Chiang would have struggled to become the strong, benevolent Mainland ruler conceding more power to the people.

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The Democratic Establishment Favors Trump over Sanders

Podcast here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/65-the-democratic-establishment-favors-trump-over-sanders

The Iowa caucus has produced an enormous PR disaster for the Democratic Party, which could not produce the election result on the same day the caucus was held. The official explanation for the delay in the results was that Shadow, a new phone app, malfunctioned and could not transmit the results from the local caucus to the Iowa Democratic Party (IDP). Two observations are extremely concerning with regard to the legitimacy and fairness of the election. (1) The Shadow App developer was founded by a firm named ACRONYM, which is run by the Democratic Party establishment which gave the contract to Shadow to run the Iowa caucus (Fang 2020). (2) In Black Hawk county, Iowa the delegates that went to Bernie Sanders were in the IDP reported as being given to Deval Patrick (a no-name former Massachusetts governor), which was a “mistake” that the IDP corrected after it was pointed out to them, and shared widely on social media (Vessel 2020).

The result of these irregularities is that the Iowa caucus has been very much contested. Bernie Sanders pointed out that he won with 6,000 votes on the first alignment and 2,500 votes on the second alignment, but the official results produce 564 caucuses going to Pete Buttigieg and 562 to Bernie Sanders, which means 13 delegates for Buttigieg and 12 to Sanders, thus giving the victory to Buttigieg. Not surprisingly, both candidates claim to have won the contest, but given the confusion created by the process no campaign can relish their “victory”. Was this an intentional IDP/ DNC (Democratic National Committee) screwup, or an “honest” mistake?

The 2016 Democratic Primaries set the precedent of how DNC officials actively worked to undermine the Sanders campaign and benefit the Clinton campaign. The major problem was that the 572 establishment superdelegates (out of 712), which are high-ranking Democratic Party officials (like governors, senators and representatives) had backed Hillary Clinton, thus giving her an unfair advantage in the process. The second problem have been irregularities, which inflated the vote for Clinton while depressing it for Sanders. The indications we have for 2020 is to repeat the sham of the 2016 process, where the DNC establishment wants to ensure the victory of a centrist candidate, which is either the pro-corporate management consultant Pete Buttigieg or Joe Biden, the former vice president. A third establishment candidate is Michael Bloomberg, who successfully bribed the DNC to change the debate rules to get him on the debate stage (usually one has to reach a donor threshold, which is not applicable for Bloomberg, who doesn’t take take donor contribution, given that he is self-funded).

Why is the DNC so insistent on getting a centrist on the ballot and pushing out progressives like Sanders, Warren or Yang? In 1992, Bill Clinton won the Democratic Primaries and the presidential election with the promise of being a centrist politician, who would triangulate between the left-wing and the wealthy campaign donors, who in US parlance are considered centrist or establishment. Clinton had the understandable concern that Reagan’s neoliberal revolution of enriching the top 1% would tilt all the donor money into the Republican Party, thus reducing the Democrats’ viability to win national elections. Clinton argued that it became necessary to adopt the neoliberal mantle of the Republicans, and thereby balance the weight of campaign donations to both political parties. While this strategy ensured roughly comparable fundraising abilities for both political parties, it meant the full marginalization of genuine progressive leaders, including people like Bernie Sanders.

Barack Obama was the next successful centrist, neoliberal candidate, who could take advantage of the Democrats’ tiredness with the Clintons (Hillary was running in the 2008 Democratic primaries) without simultaneously offending the DNC donor base. His PR campaign centered on the nebulous promises of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ was also striking a chord with a sufficient portion of the electorate, allowing him to win the election handily in 2008 and 2012, even as his bank bailout and austerity policies were very unpopular.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders became the first real challenger to the DNC neoliberal consensus of kowtowing to wealthy donor interests to ensure the cash coming into the campaign coffers. Given that wealth is much more unequally distributed than it has ever been, the DNC temptation to continue the status quo is enormous, which is evidenced by the many billionaires dumping wild amounts of cash into the Buttigieg campaign, who notably speaks in very nebulous terms in policy to avoid offending the donors. Sanders doesn’t take the money of the wealthy, and funds his campaign from ordinary people, which makes him a viable and competitive candidate, but given that the DNC works against him, he could still lose the nomination.

But at least the DNC wants to get rid of Trump, right? Well, yes, but not at all costs. While the Trump presidency means that there is less corporate and donor money flowing in than if the Democrats controlled the White House, the DNC establishment regards the Trump presidency as temporary, while a radical like Sanders would upset the status quo order. Despite Trump’s populist appeal which is broadly based on nativism and xenophobia, he is a member of the oligarchic elite himself, which is evidenced by the enormous tax cuts lavished by his administration and Congress on the wealthy 1%. Thus, Trump has been reinforcing the corrupt status quo in which more wealth and power flow to the top of society, which the DNC would want to capitalize on by putting in a neoliberal president of their own, i.e. Buttigieg or Bloomberg (Biden’s chances are quite dim at the moment). Among the two, I suspect that the greater DNC preference is for Buttigieg, because his dependence on donors makes him more obedient to the DNC, which at least influences the apparatus of donor lists, while Bloomberg could be a loose cannon and maverick given his independent wealth.

But Sanders or Warren would be unacceptable candidates. The establishment media and DNC pundits claim that the two candidates are “unelectable”, but their real fear is the opposite: their left-populist campaign makes them very much electable and capable of defeating Trump in 2020. Their fear is that Sanders will redistribute wealth and power to the detriment of the current wealth holders, who keep the DNC operation going. It is a very narrow vision, of course, because by activating ordinary people into politics (consider that the voter turnout is about 55% at present), the more left-populist candidate will have a better chance of winning the election, which is net beneficial for the Democratic Party (because the economic left does not aggregate in the Republican Party at present). But that is what being a centrist means: better have the security of campaign cash now than the potential for political domination later. Furthermore, the division between DNC establishment and corporate establishment in Silicon Valley and Wall Street is a thin one, i.e. they are often the same people or part of the same network/ organization. So any change to the status quo harming the corporate elite is harming the DNC establishment too.

What is the outcome of putting Buttigieg, Biden or Bloomberg on the ballot in November? It is to secure a Trump victory (given that voters hate the political establishment of either party; Trump is very much part of it, but retains his right-wing populist cache, which is enough to swing the election to him). Sanders supporters are quite numerous and will likely not back the moderate Democratic candidate as they already have indications to be suspicious of the fairness in the nomination process, and instead opt to stay home. Hillary Clinton alleges the opposite to be the case if Sanders was the nominee (i.e. moderate voters won’t back Sanders), but most of the urban professional middle class people (the Clinton-Obama electorate) are not opposed to more expansive welfare policies, and only the big donors are likely to jump off the Democratic Party with Sanders as nominee. In fact, Sanders’ nomination is likely to increase the voter turnout by just a few percentage points, which is most crucial in the swing states in the Midwest that swung to Trump in 2016.

But the DNC establishment can tolerate an establishment candidate loss in the general election, as long as they are given a shot at putting another centrist candidate on the ballot in 2024, expecting by then that people are sick and tired of the incumbent. One problem in this calculation is that with Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism, he might be inclined to stay in power and demand the abolition of term limits. It is not clear whether we are on a full-scale descent into fascist authoritarianism. Perhaps our democratic institutions are strong enough, but the fact that we could not even contemplate such a scenario just a few years ago speaks volumes about how the US body politic has evolved.

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