Sunday, February 14, 2016

Description of the World - Part 53

Alice Yaeger Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life (This book came out in ’86, which means that it preceded some of the most notable recent reappraisals of fascism, in particular those undertaken by the French, who took a very long time to get around to settling accounts with Vichy and the collaborationists. Farías’ book on Heidegger and the Nazis didn’t show up until ’87, and the de Man scandal didn’t break until ’88—the de Man affair had to mean a great deal to Kaplan, who was one of his students. I’m not sure when I started to take fascism seriously as an ideology with continuing appeal. If I last long enough I may get around to reading my old journals from that era and finding out. I certainly didn’t read this book with much attention. I probably bought it out of a sense of duty and assumed, inaccurately, as it appears, that it was another manifestation of late Postmodernism. I think I was put off by Russell Berman’s foreword, whose style is redolent of the 80s. Kaplan is far more down to earth. She reminds me a bit of Eva Hoffman, another person who writes about history and ideology in an autobiographical vein. And this from a woman who became the head of the Yale French department.)

Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power, Volume 1 (I’ve been fortunate to stumble across very significant books before they become celebrated. Before everybody weighs in on a book, you can simply read it. Once it becomes a football—or MacGuffin—the text becomes next to unreadable as it sinks below the interpretations like a foundering ship. I’d never heard of Michael Mann when I ran across this paperback edition in the Stanford University Bookstore, but it looked, well, chewy, as indeed it is, full of very specific observations as well as an important general thesis. Example: Mann points out that Rome, unlike many other states before and after, didn’t suffer from periodic fiscal crises brought on by the expense of war because it was always at war. That’s obvious, but also worth the price of admission, even if Mann only takes three sentences to make the point. The big takeaway from the book for me was the idea that statehood was contagious. Once a state emerged in the neighborhood, the other peoples had to match its coercive power or become its victims unless they were protected by topography or climate; and every local big man wanted to have a state of his own. I resisted this explanation when I read the book. Mann suggests that the Mesopotamian example may have encouraged the developments of polities as far away as Shang China by a sort of action at a distance. I wrote, “So what if the Chinese had heard rumors. Without local experience how would they have made sense of them? Or better, since the state isn’t such a nice animal, why should hearing about the state make anyone want to live in one?” To be fair to Mann, he doesn’t make any strong claim for this particular application of his theory. On the other hand, maybe great big simple ideas are at least as communicable as Yersinia pestis.)

Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Mead Earle (Best four clams I ever spent. This anthology of essays, published originally in ’43, taught me most of what I know about the subject.  It’s been updated since, but I’ve never seen the expanded version. One essay introduced me to the ideas of Ardant Du Picq, who proposed what amounts to an ethological theory of combat. At least at the point if contact, wars are encounters between troops of mammals who fight or flee. Le choc est un mot. Napoleon made a similar point in one of his maxims: in war the moral is to the physical as three to one. Using the language of forces to explain war is a category mistake analogous to thinking of economics as the physics of money. It’s a commonplace to make fun of the accounts of battles in Livy and other ancient historians because they tell us so little about the dispositions of troops and give so much space to the speeches the generals make to the men before battle. Well, the speeches were invented, but the old writers at least understood that war was a rhetorical activity, especially in the era of edged weapons. You had to persuade the soldiers to fight so they would persuade the enemy to flee. The clever maneuvers beloved of readers of military histories, the boxes and the arrows, don’t mean much if the troops won’t fight.)

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (I don’t know how well this book is remembered now. It was endlessly discussed when it came out in ’87 when the pundits were all gravely warning about imperial overstretch. As it turned out, the timing of the book was awkward. Kennedy was certainly aware of the deep problems facing the Soviet Union—“the most shocking trend has been the steady deterioration in both life expectancy and infant mortality rates since the 1970s”—but he expected that any crack up would be violent because failing empires don’t usually give up without a fight and I’m sure he was as surprised as anybody else how quickly it all happened—three years later. The travails of the Soviet Union weren’t the focus of book, however. Kennedy was warning the United States about its own relative decline. That hasn’t turned out quite as projected. As much as I deplore America’s excellent adventures in the Middle East, I have to admit that our national problems aren’t really a consequence of military spending. The low rate of real investment over the last forty years means that the economy has plenty of slack in it. We aren’t building the infrastructure we need, but that’s not because we’re building weapons instead. Kennedy also subscribed to the notion that the country’s finances were in a dangerous state because of huge deficits and a dependence on foreign money, but that’s folk economics only fit to provide talking points for Republican presidential debates. Prophesy is risky, especially if you’re a man who writes with rather more clarity that Nostradamus. Somebody may look at your book a quarter of a century later.)

George F. Kennan, The Fateful Alliance (Kennan kept on writing after he composed the long telegram (’46) that proposed the policy for dealing with the Soviet Union that came to be called containment. This little book on the origins of the Franco-Russian alliance came out in ’84. When you think of the long sweep of European history, the last several centuries can be seen as a protracted and eventually successful struggle of the Western Europeans to stifle Russian expansionism—in actual diplomacy as well as the game Diplomacy, Russia was the wicked witch of the East. We tend to forget how menacing the Russians appeared to be or how much effort went in to limiting their power. Partly that’s because there were a couple of notable periods when the process of containment was, as it were, in remission and partly because the checks to what must have seemed like a relentless process of expansion aren’t given much consideration. The Crimean war, the Treaty of Berlin, the Great Game, and the Russo-Japanese war actually were momentous. Now they don’t even come up very often on Jeopardy. The alliance between France and Russia leading up to World War I lasted barely a quarter of a century and was seen as anomalous even at the time—a secular Republic making common cause with a despotic empire. Thing is, it was an anomalous.) 

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