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March 05, 2014
After recent events in Crimea several commentators have asked for more understanding of Russia's position -- among them, for example, my old friend Liam Halligan. This is particularly important because, if we do not understand Russia, we will be unable to predict the consequences of our own actions. Because this will be a long blog, here's the short version:
- Does Putin want primarily to be King in Russia or Emperor of All the Russias? We don't know, and it will make a big difference.
- If Putin wants to be King, the result of his invasion of Ukraine will be to consolidate his rule, at least for a while, but any further implications are limited.
- If Putin wants to be Emperor, a protracted and dangerous international conflict has already begun; only resolute deterrence will avert tragedy.
We need better to understand Russia, but Russia is not easy to understand. Why? The most important reason is that Russia's politics lack transparency and accountability. Consider the following. The Russian invasion was clearly well planned, yet took the world by surprise. It was undertaken despite a near total absence of popular support; according to a VTsIOM poll published on 24 February[correction: link updated, 8 March 2014], only 15 percent of Russians endorsed military intervention in Ukraine, with 73 percent opposed. Although there was no popular enthusiasm for military intervention, Russia's parliamentarians mandated it unanimously. Although there would appear to be clear blue water between the administration and public opinion, the administration's action has met with little or no popular reaction.
Russia, in short, is free of the public agonizing that signals a vibrant democracy. Nothing could show more clearly that Moscow's decisions are made in a secretive, unaccountable way, so that ordinary people expect to have no voice and remain passive.
Two related factors only add to the difficulty we face in trying to interpret Russia's behaviour. One is that the Kremlin understands the value of surprise. The sudden and unexpected character of the Russian action in Crimea deprived Russia's opponents of the chance to react promptly in a calculated way. The result has been confusion and indecision in Kiev and western capitals. While Ukrainian and Western leaders have pondered their best responses, Moscow has consolidated its gains. The result of this is an analyst's paradox. A capacity for unpredictable action is valuable, but can only be maintained by preventing adversaries from understanding how Russia will decide its next move, and therefore from predicting it. Thus, Russia's leaders must continue to behave unpredictably, avoiding any clear or systematic pattern.
A second related factor stems from the fact that, while Russia's action in Crimea was extremely successful in exploiting surprise to achieve a bloodless coup, the bloodless nature of the intervention could not have been predicted. Any panicky self-defence by Ukrainian troops or (say) Tatar civilians would have led to a bloodbath. One must suppose that Putin and his cabinet anticipated this possibility, but discounted it and went ahead regardless. As things turned out, the risk of bloodshed was not realized, but this was just lucky. In other words, Russia's leaders were prepared to take a very substantial risk. A propensity for risky behaviour is characteristic of rulers that have a great deal at stake but also fear that time is running out: the option of wait-and-see has low value for them, or is seen as also highly risky, so they act now despite the risks.
What is at stake for Russia in Ukraine that is of such value? What is Russia's action designed to achieve? Here I see two possibilities, and the opaque, unaccountable nature of Russia's politics makes it hard to discern which is the dominant factor.
I take it for granted that Russia's action in the Crimea was designed to help bring about a lasting change in the balance of forces. I cannot see that any lesser objective would justify invading a sovereign neighbour whose borders are guaranteed by two other nuclear powers (the US and UK, the third being Russia itself). But which hostile forces was the Russian action designed to counter? Does Putin mean to change the balance of forces within Russia or that in the world beyond Russia? Related to this, is Putin content to be King in Russia more or less as it is today, or does he mean to become the new Emperor of All the Russias?
Explanatory note. "All the Russias" means Great Russia (Russia proper) plus Little Russia (the Ukraine) plus White Russia (Belarus). All the Russias would be a smaller territory than the old Russian Empire (which extended to Poland, Finland, the Baltic, the Caucasus, and Central Asia) and also smaller than the Soviet Union (which lost Poland and Finland), but it would reunite all the Slavic nationalities under one authority.
There is a case for thinking that Putin just wants to be King, and his primary objective is to offset potential domestic opposition. Among Russians, his legitimacy rests on a narrative of Russia, weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, plundered by domestic and foreign thieves, and encircled by enemies at her borders. When Putin's position at home is weakened by stories of election-stealing or corruption, he portrays his opponents as fraudsters and agents of foreign powers and he deters many critics by putting a few of the more important out of circulation. His narrative has been sustained by the turmoil of Ukraine's unfinished transition from communism and by worsening relations with the West. On this interpretation, Putin's goal in Ukraine has been to stoke international tension for a while and so change the balance of forces domestically, within Russia. He has used the Ukrainian events to teach Russians that Ukraine's movement is not "anti-corruption" or "pro-democracy" or "pro-Europe" but "anti-Russia." And anyone in Russia who campaigns against corruption or vote-rigging is now vulnerable to proscription as anti-Russian.
If it is Putin's strategy to weaken domestic opponents and so shift the domestic balance of forces in his favour, then it is already largely successful. All that is required is for the West to put up a show of resistance, and Putin will have achieved his objective, which is to confirm that Russia is embattled and he is the Russians' only defender. He does not need a war to prove it. He will take no more risks, and he will stop here. It's hard to say how long the effects will last; they might be relatively short lived. As for Crimea, the outcome can be some messy compromise that will poison Ukrainian politics and store up future conflict, which will also serve Putin's domestic purposes.
Alternatively, and much more seriously, Putin's final objective may be to weaken external adversaries, and so to shift the balance of forces in Europe. To do this permanently would mean to redraw frontiers by creating a new Empire of All the Russias with a cordon sanitaire of neutralized states on its borders. A first step is to expose the powerlessness of the EU, to divide Europe from the US, and so to divide NATO. But in this case he has only just begun. He will continue to work to subordinate Ukraine and Belarus in a Eurasian Union, while isolating and neutralizing all Russia's less compliant neighbours, which include Georgia, Poland and the Baltic states. If that is Putin's grand project, it is probably shared by others around him.
If Putin wants to be Emperor, it is hard to see how confrontation can be avoided at some point. If Europe and NATO signal accommodation, for example, and express only token resistance to the Russian action in Crimea, then Putin will drive on towards his ultimate goal by undertaking other adventures, perhaps by going deeper into Ukraine or by setting out to humiliate other neighbours. On the other hand, to the extent that Europe and NATO show unity and put up resistance, Putin's objective will become more distant and, because time is not on his side, he will be willing to take more risks to achieve it. Only resolute deterrence will prevent violence and tragedy.
As I see it the immediate policy implications are limited. In 1994 Britain guaranteed the security of Ukraine's borders. In return, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons. Whatever Russia's motivation for breaking its word, we cannot honourably walk away from our own guarantee. There are many steps that Britain, Europe, and NATO should now take, that fall well short of destabilizing military intervention. Most importantly, we should take them together.
It troubles me, however, that we do not know how Russia will respond. If Putin's objective is to affect the domestic balance of forces, nothing much more will follow, except that his regime will be consolidated for a while. If his objective is to redraw Europe's boundaries, then a game has begun with many unpredictable and dangerous moves in store.
February 24, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-26312008
Europe has been at this crossroads before. An ancient multi-national empire creaks dangerously under the strains of modern nationalism and separatism. Its rulers fear the mob, and fast-moving events. It fears especially the example of a neighbouring independent state, once its colony. Above all, it fears the future.
A century ago this was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where the Hohenzollern dynasty, ruling in Vienna, determined to crush the rising challenge of Serbian nationalism. In planning war on Serbia, the Austrian government knew that Serbia had a powerful ally, Imperial Russia. The Austrians knew they would face strong resistance. They feared their enemies, but they feared the future more. They gambled on war.
Austria was encouraged in its war aims by the rising power of Germany, which expected to take advantage of the resulting conflict to settle accounts with its own rivals and shift the balance decisively in its own favour. This too was a gamble.
Today the ancient, creaking multi-national empire is Russia itself, where the Kremlin looks to events in the neighbouring Ukraine, once ruled from Moscow, with mounting anxiety.
Note what I am not saying. I'm not saying that history repeats itself. It doesn't repeat itself at all, never mind exactly one hundred years later. Over a century the world has changed in too many ways for this to be a nice laboratory experiment with controlled conditions under which similar reagents reliably produce a similar result. All that history can tell us is some of the risks in the situation -- and not all of them, because there is always something latent or new that did not happen before.
But I am saying that Europe is at a dangerous crossroads. A popular uprising has rid Kiev of the corrupt Yanukovych regime. In this moment, 45 million Ukrainians face an unknown future. That's their problem. It's not an easy problem. If it had been easy, former president Yushchenko and former PM Tymoshenko would have solved their first time around, in 2005. They would not have fallen out and Yanukovych would not have been elected president in 2010.
The one thing that Ukrainians cannot change is their location. Russia was, is, and will remain their powerful neighbour. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and feel Russian. Whether the reformers like it or not, they have to take this into account.
The problem for Russia's president Putin begins with the fact that events in Kiev look set to put an end to his dream of uniting Ukraine with Russia and Belarus in a Eurasian Union. Worse than that, Ukraine in this moment embodies an existential threat to his rule. If the people can get rid of Yanukovych, they can get rid of Putin.
The problem for 700 million Europeans in this moment is: What will Russia do now? Does Russia have the will and the capability intervene in Ukraine by whatever means present themselves -- openly or under cover, by inducements, threats, or force? Financial inducements have been tried. Repression from within has been tried. Both have failed. What else can Russia do?
When rulers feel their survival is at stake, the normal restraints and inhibitions can melt away. They may not act rashly or precipitately; they will still calculate and if calculation suggests waiting they will wait. But what enters the calculation and with what weight may change. And pessimism is a dangerous element, because fear of the future may tilt the calculation in favour of taking a gamble on precipitate action today.
If the alternative is to be chased out of the presidential palace, the resort to violence may no longer look so bad. That's what Yanukovych showed us last week. I wonder what Putin is thinking about this morning.
February 06, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.hoover.org/publications/hoover-digest/article/5279
The athletes gathering in Sochi for the Winter Olympics must regret the fact that the threat of terrorism is commanding as much media atttention as the prospects for sporting excellence.
The extent of the terrorist threat to Sochi is a measure of how Russia has changed. The Soviet Union offered little scope for terrorism. Under intense state and party surveillance it was very difficult for non-state actors to spread a message or recruit. It was not obvious what would make an effective target for a terrorist act and the state was fully capable of suppressing any publicity that would normally follow in an open society. Terrorist acts were rare. Nonetheless, a few did take place.
While studying the records of the KGB of Soviet Lithuania (held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution), I came across documentation of such a case. On a Saturday afternoon in January 1977, three bombs were detonated in Moscow, one in a subway train, another in the street, and a third in a food store. The attack came out of the blue: there was no warning and no one claimed responsibility. Seven people were killed and 44 injured. Two days later, on January 10, the Soviet news agency TASS issued an uninformative bulletin that mentioned only the subway blast and concealed the deaths.
The KGB was completely at a loss where to look for the perpetrator, so they looked everywhere -- including Lithuania. The investigation took many months; almost a year passed before arrests were made. I'm not going to tell the story of the investigation here; I've published the main story elsewhere and you can also read a more detailed version in a working paper with footnotes.
The thing that interested me most was what I learned about the career concerns of KGB operatives. It worked like this.
- If you were Yurii Andropov, the USSR KGB chief in Moscow, you naturally had what Mancur Olson would have called an "encompassing interest" in identifying and catching the culprits as soon as possible.
- At the next level down, if you were Juozas Petkevičius, the Soviet Lithuania KGB chief in Vilnius, your concerns were more complicated. Your first priority was to ensure that the culprit was not in Lithuania. The culprit had to be somewhere, of course, and the chance that he (or she, but let's be realistic: most terrorists are male) was in Lithuania was very small (1 percent of the Soviet population). Moreover, if the perpetrator was found in Lithuania, Petkevičius could expect a career setback, because this would be someone the local KGB had overlooked or underestimated. One could understand it if Petkevičius had chosen to let sleeping dogs lie. But he couldn't, because then he would face an even worse career risk: that some other branch of the KGB would come into Lithuania and find the terrorist that the locals had overlooked. So Petkevičius did the right thing and mobilized his forces to scour Lithuania for the culprit, if the culprit was to be found there.
- There were still lower levels, headed by chiefs of KGB city and rural district administrations, and so on down to factory and ward officers, workplace and apartment block informers, and so forth. At each level the KGB staff and agents faced the same conflicting pull as Petkevičius, but the balance changed. By the time you came down to a village or street, the chance that the culprit had chosen to hide out exactly there, as opposed to any other street in the entire Soviet Union, was absolutely infinitesimal. Correspondingly, as you went down the hierarchy, the risk of slacking and the incentive to search weakened and dwindled to zero. The only remaining incentive to search was to please the boss. Therefore, as time went by, Petkevičius became more and more concerned that no one below him was trying hard. And he needed them to try hard, so he pleaded and threatened and bullied.
Why is this interesting? Because we might think of the KGB as a special, elite organization full of dedicated, self-motivated patriots and loyalists. Yet, when push came to shove, in the face of a national emergency, most employees behaved like the staff of any bureaucracy: they responded to career concerns, and not otherwise.
PS If you follow my links to the full story, you'll find that what happened in the end was exactly what Petkevičius must have feared most -- but it happened elsewhere, to another regional KGB boss who was found to have held the terrorist leader in his hands and let him go.
January 16, 2014
Writing about web page http://www.voxeu.org/article/costing-secrecy
Yesterday VOX published a short column that I wrote about Costing Secrecy. The teaser is as follows:
Democracy often seems bureaucratic with high ‘transaction costs’, while autocracies seem to get things done at lower cost. This column discusses historical research that refutes this. It finds empirical support from Soviet archives for a political security/usability tradeoff. Regimes that are secure from public scrutiny tend to be more costly to operate.
A starting point of my column was that communist rule in the Soviet Union gave rise to one of the most secretive systems of government that has ever been devised. I'm always looking out for ways to illustrate this, and I found a new way recently with the help of Google's Ngram Viewer(thanks to Jamie Harrison). The Ngram Viewer searches the Google Books corpus for words and word combinations and shows their changing frequency over time. The chart below shows the result of searching in the Russian corpus for the word "Главлит" (Glavlit).
Glavlit, the Soviet Union's Chief Administration for Affairs of Literature and Art, was created in 1922 to centralize the censorshop of the media. The background is that the Bolsheviks introduced censorship in November 1917 as one of the first acts of the Revolution (the "Decree on the Press"). During the Civil War that followed, they operated censorship through many agencies at many levels. Glavlit pulled it all together into a single, unified agency. The official title of Glavlit changed a few times over the next 70 years. Still, no one ever called it anything but "Glavlit," even in official government and party documents.
My current research is on secrecy. Censorship and secrecy are not the same. But they are closely connected. Enforcing government secrecy was one of the most important functions of censorship. In addition, Glavlit was a government agency, and its working arrangements were entirely secret, so the censorship had to censor the facts of its own operations.
How effective was Soviet censorship? The frequency with which the chief agency of censorship was mentioned in published works offers a simple measure in one dimension. Here it is:
Notes: My guess is that the Google Books Russian corpus must include books published in the Russian language abroad, out of reach of the Soviet censor, as well as within the Soviet Union. For transparency the chart is completely unsmoothed. In the years of the Civil War (1918 to 1920) and World War II (1941 to 1945) fewer books were published, making observations in those years more susceptible to the law of small numbers. You can view and play with the chart here in its home setting.
There is a simple message. The Soviet censorship agency was openly acknowledged and discussed at the time of its establishment and for a few years afterwards. From the mid-1920s it faded rapidly from sight. By 1931, when Stalin was fully in charge, its disappearance was almost total. For more than half a century Glavlit successfully covered its own tracks. Fifty-six years later, in 1987, Gorbachev launched his policy of "glasnost" (openness). Only then did Glavlit gradually come back into uncensored view. Glavlit was finally abolished in 1991.
In short: Soviet censorship worked.
January 03, 2014
This item first appeared under the same title on DNA India on 3 January 2014.
In the name of counter-terrorism our phone and Internet communications are today under continual government surveillance. Should we worry about the US National Security Agency and Britain’s GCHQ? Yes: Ordinary people have a right to privacy and few means to resist covert surveillance. The privacy of hundreds of millions of people is at risk. Against that, a relatively small number of ordinary people have secret plans that threaten our security. Compared to the threat, the indiscriminate character of surveillance seems disproportionate.
But the critics of surveillance also need a sense of proportion. Many commentators have suggested that more than privacy is at stake. Our liberty is also at risk, they fear: perhaps we are moving towards a police state. Really? A standard of comparison is needed, one that would be best provided by the historical records of a real totalitarian police state.
The Soviet Union was such a police state. In the Soviet Union under Communist rule, the secret police was the KGB (Committee on State Security). Most KGB records remain under lock and key, because Russia today is governed by an ex-KGB elite that has no interest in letting the world see how the KGB upheld Communist rule. A few of the former Soviet states have made a clean break with the Communist past and have opened up their KGB archives. For the last five years I have been working with records from now-independent Lithuania — held on microfilm at the Hoover Institution in California. These are highly revealing about KGB methods of mass surveillance and intervention.
Soviet society was organized to make surveillance easy. Every citizen had an ID card; everyone’s residence was registered with the police. At work, everyone was employed by the State or by government-controlled “collectives”. At home, everyone was a tenant of the government or some collective. The government and the ruling party ran the press and TV; there were no independent media, no independent access to copying or print services, and absolutely no Facebook or Twitter.
With one State postal and telephone service, any letter or call could be intercepted. The KGB ran a network of informers, which was concentrated on key offices, factories, and colleges where young people gathered. The extent of secrecy and surveillance was never debated in any public forum.
No one could leave the country without permission, and the small numbers allowed in and out were basically limited by the KGB’s capacity to watch them individually or in groups. In the 1970s, for example, Soviet Lithuania sent at least 1,000 visitors abroad each year and received at least 10,000 visitors. Forty years later, freed from Communist rule Lithuania would receive more than one million visitors each year just from the European Union. By the standards of a middle-income country today, Soviet citizens were almost unbelievably isolated. Just as important, the cause of their isolation was the Communist regime’s resolve to keep the citizens under continual observation. The first lesson seems to be that a police state will restrict citizens’ travel and communication to a level that it can observe. As humans we love to move around and be in constant touch with each other through social media. In open societies our intelligence agencies respond to this challenge by gathering our data indiscriminately and hoarding it in vast quantities. But they do not compel us to live or work only where they can watch us, and they do not try to prohibit us from communicating through channels they cannot overhear or from travelling to where they cannot see us. On this criterion we are still far from a police state.
After surveillance comes intervention. Intelligence agencies don’t do surveillance for its own sake; they want information on which they can act. Another important difference between us and them is what the authorities do with the products of surveillance. On the basis of the information it received, the KGB intervened directly in the lives of citizens to nudge their behaviour and limit their choices. Suppose they heard that Ivan Ivanovich was behaving suspiciously or voicing undesirable views. The response, at a minimum, was to call Ivan in for an unpleasant and frightening warning. Ivan’s card would also be marked for the future. No Soviet citizen could be promoted to any management position or allowed to travel to any foreign destination without KGB clearance, and Ivan’s chances of either of these were now greatly reduced.
At the moment we have no clear evidence that any of the NSA’s programmes has impinged on the life of any citizen in this way. Nor is it clear how they might do so, other than in the form of private abuse. Again, we seem to be a long way from the working of a real police state.
Still, is there something to worry about? Absolutely. Just as there is no clear evidence that Western intelligence surveillance is taking us into an Orwellian nightmare, there is also a lack of evidence that it is effective at doing what it is supposed to do: combat terrorism and strategic threats to Western security. Western security establishments look overfunded and undermanaged. Potentially, vast resources are being wasted to promote the careers of security empire builders. That should be of huge concern.
What is the true mission of national security in a free society? Surely it is to protect the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government, to protect our freedom (as private persons) and to be the people we want to be. A question then is: What do we want to be, or how do we want to live? Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should set limits on surveillance and accept some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. It’s a tough one, especially for politicians who do not want another 9/11 on their watch.
November 08, 2013
Writing about web page http://isc.independent.gov.uk/files/20131107_ISC_uncorrected_transcript.pdf
Yesterday the House of Commons Intelligence and Security Committee met the chiefs of Britain’s three intelligence agencies. Among other matters, they debated the price we should be willing to pay for national security. I was interested by how this quickly turned into a debate over the meaning of national security itself. There were unexpected differences among legislators and spies; the spies themselves did not speak with one voice. (Here's the uncorrected transcript.)
Hazel Blears, a Labour MP and former local government minister, who is also an ISC committee member, offered up the conventional formula that might be most appealing to an economist:
I wonder if you would agree that in order to have the trust and confidence of the nation, which provides a strong platform for your work, that it is important that we again look at the balance between privacy and security.
She was saying, in other words, that privacy and security are competing objectives of government, and we have to balance them, or trade one against the other. The slope of the "trade-off" is then the price. If we want more security we may end up with less privacy, so the price of security is the amount of privacy foregone. Do we have the right balance? Or, are we paying too much for security in lost privacy? It’s hard to say; we’ll come back to that.
Here’s what was said by Sir Iain Lobban (GCHQ):
I believe a government's first duty is to protect its people. Some ways that it does that I think are necessarily secret. I don't think "secret" means "unaccountable" in any sense, and I think the Foreign Secretary, certainly appointed by an elected government, authorises our operations. There is a Parliamentary Committee which gives us plenty of oversight. There is also the two Commissioners, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, who the Chief mentioned earlier.
In these words Lobban said something different from Blears. For him, government has a list of priorities. Security (meaning “to protect its people”) comes first. Everything else comes after. In this perspective there is no balance (or “trade-off”). First, achieve security; privacy comes after. Where it comes (second, third, fourth, etc.) is up to the government and the scrutineers. In case you might think I'm overinterpreting, Lobban went on later to say exactly this:
I don't particularly like talking about the privacy and security balance because I think it is a false choice. I think our job is to provide intelligence around security which enables security in a way which safeguards privacy to the maximum extent possible.
In other words, you can have as much privacy as is left to be had -- after you have ticked security off the list, and security comes first. I don't want to make this sound too bad. Lobban also said other things that, if you believe them (and I have no particular reason not to) are quite reassuring, for example:
[GCHQ] can only look at the content of communications where there are very specific legal thresholds and requirements which have been met. So that is the reality. We don't want to delve into innocent e-mails and phonecalls. I feel I have to say this: I don't employ the type of people who would do. My people are motivated by saving the lives of British forces on the battle field, they are motivated by fighting terrorists/serious criminals, by meeting that foreign intelligence mission as well. If they were asked to snoop, I would not have the workforce. They would leave the building.
Now, here’s the contribution of Andrew Parker (MI5):
I think fundamentally, the raison d'etre of an organisation like MI5 is to protect the sort of country we live in against threats to it. The sort of country we live in is a free society, a democracy, a country where we do prize our individual liberty and privacy. Those values are extremely important to all of the men and women who work in our Agencies, who are members of the public, who live in communities and don't want to live in a surveillance society or a North Korea. They want to live in a country like this. Our job is to keep it that way.
Here Parker took a third line, different from that of either Blears or Lobban. In his view the purpose of security is not to protect persons, or even the people (as Lobban had it) and the price of security is not privacy (as Blears said). Rather, the aim should be to secure “a free society.” Because privacy is one of the characteristics of a free society, he implied, security and privacy are not in conflict; security that infringes on privacy is not security.
To repeat, for Lobban, security and privacy are not in conflict because security comes first. To Parker, security and privacy are not in conflict because privacy is part of a free society and a free society is what must be secured.
Of these three views I have most sympathy, by far, with the third – the "Parker view" that the ultimate mission of national security is to protect the institutions of a free society and democracy. In too many countries the mission of national security has been to protect the incumbent government and repress dissent. Consider the things that distinguish our own society from the settings in which the KGB or Gestapo held sway. Aren’t the most important of these the democracy that allows us (as voters) to toss out the government if we wish and our freedom (as private persons) to be the people we want, say what we believe, and associate with whom we choose?
But this is only the beginning of the problem. Intrusive mass surveillance in the hands of a bloated security apparatus seems unlikely to protect democracy or freedom. If we seriously want to protect free speech and free association, we should uphold limits on surveillance. Inevitably, then, we will incur some risk that a few bad people will successfully exploit free speech and free association to do bad things to some of us. So there is still a trade-off here, but the balance we have to strike as a society is not between security and privacy. It is between two kinds of security: the security of our freedoms and of our physical persons.
Hazel Blears captured this difficult point quite nicely:
You [the intelligence agencies] are currently under some criticism for knowing too much. If there is a terrorist incident, no doubt you will be under criticism for knowing too little. It is a rock and a hard place.
In other words it is questionable whether the mission of national security as safeguarding our way of life, not our persons, is politically viable in the long run, when all the bad (and good) luck has come in. It’s easy to agree beforehand that we should tolerate a few risks. It’s much harder to maintain that after the event, when lives have been lost as a result. At the very least, clear leadership is required. That’s a tough one, especially for politicians and security chiefs who do not want another 9/11 or 7/7 on their watch. In other words freedom carries risks, and may call for a little courage from time to time.
October 14, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.conservativepartyconference.org.uk/Speeches/2013_George_Osborne.aspx
At the Tory conference George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, made an interesting point about the views of Ed Milliband, Leader of the Opposition:
For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people. That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital. It is what socialists have always believed.
Osborne’s point made me think about the influence of Marx on modern intellectual life. To many this is something of a puzzle. Isn’t Marxism discredited as a political philosophy? Haven’t the economic policies of Marxist regimes generally failed to provide for “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – the words by which Marx once distilled the goal of communism? How many of those that identify with the ideals of socialism today have actually read and followed even one page of the fifty volumes of the Marx-Engels Collected Works?
My answers: Yes, Yes, and Not many. Yet Marxism shows no sign of dying out; it lives on in a variety of political movements and branches of academic and cultural life.
Why’s that? The question is puzzling only if we think of Marx as the the reason why Marxist ideas exist. Of course Marx was the originator of Marxism, but I am quite sure that if Marx had never been born to invent Marxism, some other scribbler would have taken his place. The basic ideas that underlie Marxism pre-existed Marx, and would have existed without his writings, and are continually reborn and propagated among people who know nothing of Marx for a straightforward reason: because such ideas correspond with how most people experience everyday life. Marx’s importance, therefore, was not as the discoverer of these ideas but as the writer that gave them a scholarly form.
What are the experiences to which Marxist economics correspond? Behind the complicated terminology of capital and value and Marx’s elaborate philosophical and historical argumentation of them are four simple ideas:
- The market is a jungle, a chaotic struggle of each against all, in which the strongest, most ruthless predator wins. Lurking behind every transaction is the chance that someone will rip you off.
- Of all the possible functions of market prices – accounting, economising, distributive – the only one that matters is distribution. A rise in the price of food or fuel cuts the real income of workers and redistributes it in favour of the producers that employ them.
- Work is hard and stressful, and the main source of pressure is the employers' drive to make you work harder and longer, in order to save them money or increase their profits.
- You can’t do anything about this on your own. Idealistic advocacy has no traction without numbers. Everyone should get together and intervene forcibly to bring about radical improvement.
What kind of economics do these four ideas make? They make the economics of everyday lived experience for most of the world’s seven billion people. I’m not talking just about the poor and ignorant. It’s nothing to do with education or position in society. My guess would be that most people in my immediate circle of family and friends that are not trained economists hold, most likely, two or three of the four ideas; I expect that all might hold at least one.
Suppose you decided to give your life to elaborating these four ideas and you spent years working them up into a philosophy of economics: What kind of book would you write? I think you’d end up writing something pretty much like Das Kapital. In other words, Marxism is a philosophization of the economics of lived experience, but it's the economics of lived experience that should really demand our attention.
What kind of economics would lived experience support? It would make, in the words of Frederic Bastiat, the economics of “that which is seen.” It would take into account only the most immediate effects of things. It would leave out the other effects, those that “unfold in succession – they are not seen: it is well for us,” Bastiat went on, “if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference – the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee.”
What’s wrong with the economics of “that which is seen”? By analogy, think of the physics of “that which is seen”: the earth is flat and parallel lines never meet. Or the chemistry of “that which is seen”: burning is the release of phlogiston. I’m not saying that economics is a science like physics or chemistry in all respects. What I’m saying is that Euclidean geometry, the idea of a flat earth, and the theory of phlogiston are perfectly serviceable for making sense of a number of things everyone can see from day to day. It’s true, though, that these ideas miss out badly on other things and this prevents them from being useful in many contexts. For the purposes that are missing, we need more; we need the physics and chemistry of “that which is not seen,” including molecular science, gravity, and relativity.
What is added by the economics of “that which is not seen”?
- The market creates many opportunities for sellers to abuse buyers, yet the market is not chaos: it enables specialization and competition. The same market economy that often feels like a jungle is the mechanism that has sustained the West’s unprecedented prosperity and is also the hope for sustained progress of the Rest. But this is not seen because it has taken hundreds of years to materialize; life’s too short for it to be seen. (My colleague Omer Moav makes a similar point in a penetrating review, which he showed me recently, of Ariel Rubinstein's Economic Tales.)
- If something that you consume is in short supply so that the price goes up, you lose in the short term, and this is seen. Beyond this, however, is an unseen process by which all gain. There is adaptation. Responding to the increased cost, we economize on uses, we search for substitutes, and we find or create new sources of supply. The adaptation is not seen because it would require the simultaneous observation of a million small responses.
- Work is stressful, and a predatory employer can increase the stress for the sake of profit. But that is incomplete. In the Marxian perspective there is only one kind of surplus, called profit, one source of surplus, called labour, and one class of recipients, the capitalist class. In the competitive market economy every transaction gives rise to a surplus on both sides. Day by day, billions of small surpluses accrue to both sides, buyers and sellers, that are party to every transaction. In other words, there are surpluses everywhere and they accrue to everyone; they are not the monopoly of one class. But this, too, is not seen.
- Everyone getting together to force change does not always make anything better, and this might be the case quite often. This is not seen for two reasons. First, in every case to establish the results of intervention requires the careful construction of a counterfactual (in other words, what would have happened without the intervention) which, to most people, seems intolerably speculative. Second, when intervention has demonstrably not brought about the benefit sought, there is a natural human tendency to shift the responsibility from our own action to the counteraction of those that disagree with us, whom we make into scapegoats.
Whatever things are not seen, it’s hard to know they are there. Understandably, therefore, most people stick to the economics of what they can see for themselves. Most of those don’t think of themselves as Marxists or even socialists. Still, it ensures a reservoir of instinctive sympathy in our society for ideas that are aligned with Marx's and helps to explain his lasting influence. This reservoir is continually refilled from everyday experience. That's why Marxist ideas live on and will often be well received by well educated, well intentioned people.
Full disclosure: In years gone by I considered myself a Marxist and I read a lot of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others. At various times I joined a Capital reading group, and taught the economics of Marx (alongside Smith, Ricardo, List, and Schumpeter), and I even wrote a pamphlet called The Economics of Capitalism; I still have a copy; one day I’ll scan it and put it on line. Somewhere between that time and this, however, I changed my mind for reasons that I wrote down here.
September 16, 2013
Writing about web page http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/03377ccc-16e0-11e3-9ec2-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2ezCPilYN
Last week I went to Downing Street for an informal discussion about Britain and China ... No, not with the prime minister, but between some academic China watchers and a couple of prime ministerial aides. Here I can only say what I said myself, but I thought afterwards whether I could package it for general interest. Here's the basic idea.
The Chinese government is currently trying to rebalance the economy. This will create both opportunities and risks for a country like Britain that exports worldwide and also has some world-class corporations that are willing to invest worldwide. It's important to be aware of what the opportunities are, and also the risks.
What does rebalancing mean? It means, primarily, trying to build China's mass market for consumer goods and services. The composition of China's spending must shift somewhat away from government and infrastructure towards consumption and the mass market. This does not mean that the government will become unimportant or that China will stop building new towns, universities, and transport systems. All of these are already huge and since the economy is still growing relatively rapidly they will remain important and also continue to grow. But net exports and capital formation together account for well over half of China's GDP, making one of the highest saving rates ever recorded for a modern economy. In other words, there is a lot of room for consumer spending to grow more rapidly at the margin, if only the pressure of government spending on infrastructure and military projects will allow it.
When China's prime minister Li Keqiang says "we will expand consumer demand" (in the FT, 8 September 2013), that doesn't make it happen, of course. The UK coalition government has talked about rebalancing our economy away from financial services to manufacturing for some time. That hasn't made it happen. Even in a totalitarian police state, rebalancing the economy can be quite difficult. Stalin's first attempt at rebalancing came in 1932, the last year of his first five-year plan, when too much capital formation and rearmament were killing off millions of people from famine. Rebalancing was urgent -- literally, a matter of life and death. The second five year plan was being written. It was supposed to rebalance the economy back towards consumption. Consumption did recover, but it was not a great deal more than a dead cat's bounce. After a year or two investment and rearmament took off again. The whole economic system had been designed around creating a surplus for accumulation and military spending. Given that, it was pretty hard for it to do anything else.
China's economic mechanism has also been designed around accumulation and military spending. An important problem with rebalancing China towards consumption is that success might weaken the drivers of the mechanism underlying China's huge success of the last 30 years. This mechanism is the rivalry of China's provincial leaders, each of whom compete with each other to win favour with Beijing and promotion to Beijing by pushing the growth of production in their own province. That growth depends a lot on infrastructural investment. If the provincial leaders can't push infrastructure as strongly before, then Beijing will have made it harder for them to compete. If they don't compete as strongly, the economy may falter, undermining the core purpose of rebalancing.
Still, China's ruling party has come to accept that a growing mass market can stabilize society and relax social tensions, making China stronger internationally. So let's suppose they can make it happen. There are opportunities here for British businesses to meet rising consumer demand, whether by exporting or by investing in China and producing within China's borders. As people get richer they want to be healthier, and better informed, and to enjoy faster communication. There is sure to be rising demand for things like telecoms and pharmaceuticals that Britain is good at making and doing.
One problem with exporting to China and investing in China is that China's market is very wide -- too wide, in fact. It is spatially highly dispersed, because too many Chinese live in small towns and rural settlements. It is also not very well integrated, with significant barriers to internal trade across provincial boundaries -- a product of the inter-provincial rivalry that has helped China's past growth. In other words, if you sell to the Chinese, you might expect to go to a market of 1.3 billiion people, but what you actually reach is one of 30 or so provincial markets. Of course, this isn't so bad because a typical province in China is the size of a European country in population, which is pretty big. It's also true that China's market integration is most likely improving over time. Still, it doesn't yet add up to the idea of selling a lightbulb to every Chinese family.
Another problem is that China's market has many, many opportunities for vested interests to conspire with government officials against competitive threats (and therefore against the consumer). Corruption remains a huge problem. China's government is currently waging an anti-corruption campaign. Anti-corruption is fine, but the campaigning aspect is problematic. The best way to reduce corruption is to reduce product market regulation and have open, competitive markets and the rule of law. China's communist party continues to prefer party rule to the rule of law. The result is that, when you see a person (like Bo Xilai) or an organization (like GlaxoSmithKline) targeted for corruption, you can't really be sure whether they are guilty as an impartial court would see the evidence, or whether the political authorities decided to make them guilty of something and then make the evidence up.
That's a particular risk for foreign investors in China. Of course, foreign investors face risks everywhere. Anyone who has followed the recent history of BP in the United States will be aware that a foreign corporation can become a target even in a liberal democracy with an independent judicial system. The point may be that at least BP had first to do something wrong before it became a target. In a corrupt police state like China's, in contrast, you can get into trouble even if you did nothing wrong. Or perhaps, more accurately, there are contexts in which everyone bends the rules, or the rules may be so complex and pervasive that you can't operate at all without breaking them somehow. Then, the foreign investor either sticks to the rules, which leaves you unable to compete, or you compete and break the rules like everyone else, but that means you are making yourself ever vulnerable to those in power. Indeed that might be one purpose of a rule book that no one can adhere to conscientiously.
Finally, helping China to build its mass market is an opportunity for British business, but it is important to recognize that for China's leaders building the mass market is not an end in itself but an exercise in national power-building. Prime minister Li acknowledged this when he linked China's mass market with sustainable growth and both of the latter with "national strength." In other words, if we help develop China's consumer market, we should do so with open eyes: we are also colluding with a project that is designed to reduce our own country's relative power and influence in the world to China's benefit.
Is that a reason to stand aside? In my view, not at all. In the long run, free trade and investment have civilizing power. (In case anyone thinks that's snobbish, I mean it literally: free exchange develops civil-society institutions in ways that governments cannot.) Countries that make themselves economically interdependent are are then somewhat less likely to come into conflict. That's not a deterministic statement, by the way. The power of trade is double edged, because trade can be exploited to build national power. The civilizing influence of trade takes lots of time. It works through probabilities, not certainties. It's an average thing, with plenty of variation and historical counter-examples.
So we should trade with China and invest in China with our eyes open. We should remain aware that China's rulers are heirs to the communist tradition. In this tradition the world is an arena for a zero-sum power struggle in which, in the long run, one country's gain is likely to be another's loss. These leaders want China to develop its mass market not for the sake of consumer welfare but because a more sustainable Chinese economy and a more stable society will better support their national and international strategic goals.
The benefits that we should seek from economic interaction with China are those that will flow to the citizens of both countries, and to consumers as well as producers. For example, the benefits of trade and investment will come back to the British economy not only through our exports to China's growing market but also by access to imports from China that lower prices and raise living standards in Britain.
August 29, 2013
Since last week’s gas attack on a Damascus suburb, the political class has been gripped by the idea that “something must be done.” Meanwhile Wall Street, already declining through early August, fell further as this week began. At the same time oil prices have ticked up sharply, not because Syria is a significant oil producer, but in response to fears for Middle Eastern supplies generally.
A military attack on Syria would clearly affect stock values. War diverts trade: some businesses lose while others gain. Is war good for business in the aggregate? Not likely. When an economy is depressed, and the fighting is at a comfortable distance, additional military spending might give a short-run stimulus to business for everyone. In the long run, however, war is a wealth-destroying activity. Because stock values reflect long-run profit expectations, the chances of a positive aggregate effect from hostilities are vanishingly improbable.
It is a somewhat different question whether the launching of an attack will move stock values on the day. Cruise missiles rarely come from a blue sky. Those for whom war has clear implications will usually have looked into the future and hedged their bets.
On the day the fighting starts, it is true, war changes from a probability to a certainty. But if the probability was already seen as close to 100%, the impact on asset values will inevitably be small. Only a true surprise would move them by much.
Economic historians first became interested in this topic in connection with World War I, the outbreak of which was a surprise to many. Niall Ferguson (in the Economic History Review 59:1 (2006)) and others (Lawrence, Dean, and Robert in the Economic History Review 45:3 (1992) have documented that as the war began European bond prices fell and unemployment rose in London, Paris, and Berlin. The panic on Wall Street was so great that the New York Stock Exchange was closed for the rest of the year.
To update the record across the last 100 years, the chart below shows closing values of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in New York for the ten working days before and after eight war onsets (the value on the day itself is omitted).
Source: Mark Harrison, "Capitalism at War," forthcoming in The Cambridge History of Capitalism, edited by Larry Neal and Jeff Williamson for Cambridge University Press. [Thanks to Christopher Renner for drawing my attention to a misprint and a small error in the first version of this chart.]
The days shown are:
- September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda attacks American cities
- August 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait
- August 7, 1964: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
- June 25, 1950: North Korea invades South Korea
- December 7, 1941: Japan attacks Pearl Harbor
- September 1, 1939: Germany invades Poland
- March 1, 1917: The Zimmermann telegram published
- July 28, 1914: Russia mobilises against Germany
Only two of these events saw stock prices climb, and then only slightly. In five cases they fell, and in two the stock market was closed (for more than four months after the outbreak of World War I in Europe, and for four days after 9/11).
Notably, although stock prices rose a little after Hitler’s attack on Poland in 1939, they fell thereafter. When Pearl Harbor arrived, they remained below the level recorded two years earlier. The median change in stock prices over the eight crises was a 5.3% decline.
Contrary to commonly held opinion, war has also been bad news generally for the very rich. Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez have collected historical data on top incomes in many countries across the twentieth century. These show sharp wartime declines in the personal income shares of the very rich in every belligerent country for which wartime data are available.
This does not rule out the idea that a few corporations gain business, and a few people become richer as a result of conflict. It just tells us that the average effect goes the other way. Besides, war is always first and foremost a political act. If Western bombs fall on Damascus in the next few days, it will be because someone decided it made good politics, not good business.
Mark Harrison does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
August 08, 2013
On the Pieria magazine website there has been an exchange of views on capitalism and socialism. I guess it is my fault; on 28 June I contributed a summary of some remarks on the subject. I concluded:
Liberal capitalism isn’t perfect, but it has done far more for human welfare than communism. It has been the solution more often than the problem. Last time capitalism experienced some difficulties, many countries went off on a search for alternatives. That search for alternatives led nowhere. It wasn’t just unproductive. It was a terrible mistake that cost many tens of millions of lives. Lots of people have forgotten this history. Now is a good time to remember it.
On 31 July, the blogger UnlearningEconomics responded:
In my opinion, this view rests on a highly selective interpretation of events. It requires that we gloss over two major historical points: first, the historical circumstances of existing communism; second, the history of capitalist countries. It fails to acknowledge the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones. It ignores the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states, a process comprehensively documented by US foreign policy critic William Blum (Blum, 2003). It also requires that we define past and present abuses of capitalist states as somehow 'outside' capitalism, in order to place ourselves above the (real or imagined) abuses of the communists.
I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates. In any case, my main aim is to show two things: first, the abuses of existing socialist states are better explained by their political circumstances than their innate evils of the ideology; second, capitalist countries have a similarly abhorrent record, one which is not so easily explained by political necessities. My rendition will definitely annoy capitalists and anti-communists by being too sympathetic toward communism, which is a dirty word for many. It will also potentially annoy communists and socialists by not being sympathetic enough and repeating some of the more simplistic mainstream narratives. However, the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.
UnlearningEconomics (below I'll call him or her "UE") goes on to present "brief" (but, for a blog, quite lengthy) histories of both communism and capitalism. The general story is that if communism has had a bloody history it is mainly because communist revolutions occurred under unfavourable circumstances and had to struggle against the encirclement and aggression of the surrounding capitalist states; as for capitalism, it has its own bloody history, which is too often ignored.
What is there here that we can agree on? Perhaps we might agree that twentieth century warfare was terrible enough that it could damage social norms and other institutions of a relatively poor country like Russia or China; in such conditions organized minorities with unscrupulous leaders could seize power and use it to do terrible things. The efforts of other countries to intervene and prevent this, then as now, were largely fruitless or even counterproductive; perhaps they should not have tried, although politicians are not generally selected for lack of ambition and public opinion too often demands that something must be done.
UE goes beyond this to suggest that somehow history has been unfair to those same minorities and psychopathic leaders by allowing them to seize power only under terribly adverse circumstances. We owe it to them (the argument seems to go) to compensate them for their disadvantage; we should allow them at least a few decades of unchallenged power, so that they have a fair chance to show what they can achieve. But this seems completely unhinged.
In bringing up my children, I tried to teach them that people show their inner qualities when things go badly. It is easy to look good when things go well. Only good people will still be good when things go badly; adversity reveals character. I believe this rule can also be applied to politics. It is when things go badly that we see political leaders and their programmes and ideals put to the test.
Can systems be blamed for atrocities of whatever kind? It is not systems that take food from the mouths of the hungry or put bullets into the back of anyone’s head. People do this. But the system matters, nonetheless. What the system does is to leave more or less scope for the concentration of power in the hands of people who are inclined to exploit it without restraint. Liberal capitalism at least allows the separation of economic power from politics and decentralizes decisions to firms and households in markets. This is because, in the words of North, Wallis, and Weingast (2011), it is an “open-access order.” Communism is a “closed-access” order that restricts who may exercise political power and concentrates control of the economy in the hands of that privileged elite. Given that, ask which of these systems is more likely to permit the abuse of power and allow abuses to be hidden from the public gaze?
When general outlooks clash, it is not always enough to stay with generalities. Sometimes we have to get down with the particular facts. History is full of good stories, and UE tells some of them well. The problem is that not all good stories are true, but this becomes evident only when they are confronted with the detail. So, I will confront some of UE's history with the detail. I will not cover everything; I will focus for the most part on the "brief history" of communism, where I think I have more to offer.
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism ignore “the fact that existing socialism occurred primarily in undeveloped countries, which we would naturally expect to exhibit lower standards of living than developed ones.”
This is seriously incomplete. Existing socialism occurred in relatively few undeveloped countries, and generally only in those weakened by war (Russia, China, Korea, and Indochina). Central Europe would scarcely have counted as undeveloped; there the precondition was war followed by military occupation. Cuba may be the only example of a country that had a communist revolution without a foreign war. In 1945 in several places the boundary of “existing socialism” was laid down in the middle of a region that was previously economically and ethnolinguistically integrated. As well as showing that warfare counted for more than lack of development, these examples also provide natural experiments for the long run consequences of system change. Think of Estonia versus Finland, East versus West Germany, and North versus South Korea. For discussion see Harrison (2013).
- UE says: Unfavourable views of communism also ignore “the deliberate campaign of destruction and sabotage toward the socialist states by the capitalist states” (citing William Blum).
Again, seriously incomplete. The UE view of postwar history rests on selection, overstatement of the capacity of outsiders to intervene in Russia and Eastern Europe, exaggeration of popular support for communism (the most popular communist party in Europe at the end of the war was probably the French party with no more than a quarter of the popular vote), and ignorance of the documented process whereby Stalin’s secret police entered Eastern Europe in 1944 and 1945 “embedded” with the Red Army and armed with a template for dictatorship that they began to apply immediately, regardless of whether or not communists were in the government (Applebaum 2012). Far from resenting western "sabotage," millions of Central and East Europeans felt abandoned by the West as Stalin crushed their hopes for national self-determination. Finally, it forgets that the one American initiative that could have decisively altered the trajectory of Eastern Europe was not “destruction and sabotage” but Marshall Aid, which Stalin instructed his allies to reject.
- UE says: The unfavourable conditions of the Russian Revolution are shown by the fact that “Russia had suffered the worst losses out of any country during the war.”
No. It is hard to imagine that Russia would have suffered the Revolution without three years of world war, and it is true that battle and non-battle deaths of Russian soldiers up to 1917 were heavy (1.8 million). At the same time Russia's losses were fewer than Germany’s absolutely, and (given Russia’s large population) were proportionately fewer than of those of Britain, France, Italy, Serbia, Rumania, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (Broadberry and Harrison 2005). Russia’s economic loss of GDP per head up to 1917 was less than that of Austria, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, and Turkey (Markevich and Harrison 2011). The latter conclude: “We have seen that the economic decline up to 1917 was not more severe in Russia than elsewhere. In short, we will probably not be able to explain why Russia was the first to descend into revolution and civil war without reference to historical factors that were unique to that country and period.”
- UE says: “By the time Joseph Stalin took (absolute) power in 1929, many – including, perhaps, himself – believed the threats the USSR faced were justifications for his purges and the Gulags.”
Seriously incomplete. There is no “perhaps” here: Stalin had a precise understanding that is now well documented (e.g. Khlevniuk 1995; Simonov 1996; Davies et al. 2003; Harrison 2008; Velikanova 2013). In 1921, 1924, 1927, and 1929 there was no foreign threat. But rumours of war were frequent, because the Soviet Union’s strategy of inciting revolution and mutiny abroad kept Soviet foreign relations in a state of continual tension. In domestic society, Stalin's secret police told him, every rumour was destabilizing; peasants and workers started to wonder when the chance would come to get rid of the Bolsheviks. Stalin was aware that above all he had to secure the regime internally and externally and that drift could only weaken him. This is why he launched Soviet society simultaneously on the courses of forced industrialization, mass collectivization of the peasantry, and political violence. Justification? Yes, of course, if taking power and holding it are sufficient motivations. Not otherwise. Khrushchev was personally responsible for tens of thousands of killings under Stalin, and this left him with a bad conscience. In trying to come to terms with it he blamed Stalin many times but not Hitler, the CIA, or anyone else outside the country.
- UE says: “The country did face a very real Nazi threat that, failing industrialisation, it would not have been able to overcome.”
No. Stalin changed course towards industrialization, collectivization, and mass violence in 1929, when there was no significant external threat. The Nazis came to power in 1933, and no European leader (including Stalin) recognized the threat from Hitler before 1935. Before Hitler, a threat to Siberia appeared from the East in 1931 with the Japanese annexation of Manchuria. These threats came after, not before, Stalin’s “revolution from above.” As for whether the Nazi threat justified Stalin’s policies after the event, I have written about this in many places (most recently Harrison 2010).
- UE says: “This reasoning is consistent with the fact that once Stalin died and the more immediate western threats disappeared, ‘de-Stalinisation’ took place: the Gulags were softened and reduced in size; the cult of personality was dismantled … things certainly improved once the Nazi threat had been eliminated.”
No. The Nazi threat was eliminated in 1945. The softening of the Soviet regime after 1953 had everything to do with Stalin’s death and nothing to do with the disappearance of “immediate western threats.” De-Stalinization took place not because of the disappearance of western threats but because the entire Soviet leadership was tired of living in fear of their own lives, and then went further because Khrushchev and Mikoyan had bad consciences about their own responsibility for past mass killings. The Gulag was dismantled immediately, not because of the disappearance of western threats but because Lavrentii Beriia had long before determined that it was an economic drain and a source of social contagion but Stalin had prevented him from acting on his findings. There was bitter resistance to dismantling the cult of Stalin from other communist leaders (especially Mao), not because of western threats but because it threatened their own legitimacy (and their own cults). The cult of Stalin was dismantled but was soon replaced by the cult of Khrushchev.
- UE says: “The Great Leap Forward (GLF) … undoubtedly caused a large degree of famine, surely because of the over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy.”
Seriously incomplete. A centralized, inflexible policy was enough to start a famine, but it does not begin to explain explain how the famine proceeded, nor does it explain the secrecy that then shrouded it for decades.
Think about what is required for an act of policy to cause millions of famine deaths. Here is the problem: When people starve to death, they do not die suddenly and unexpectedly. It takes them months, even many months to weaken, become sick, and die. Some die before others. Some die of hunger; some are carried off by diseases to which they lose immunity. Some die at home; some drop dead in the street. Some die passively; some steal or even kill for food; a few turn to cannibalism. In other words, a policy that causes millions of famine deaths (such as in the USSR in 1932 to 1934) or tens of millions (in China in 1958 to 1960) cannot go unnoticed by those carrying out the policy.
In fact, in both the USSR and China, the famine process worked like this (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004; Chen and Kung 2011). First, the leaders issued quotas for the collection of food, province by province. They also gave the provincial leaders to understand that their future depended on meeting the quota. The provincial leaders competed to raise more grain than their neighbours in order to show loyalty and to save their own lives and the lives of their families. And they passed these incentives down the line to their subordinates charged with doing the actual work. When some people reported that the quotas were too heavy, or they resisted or dragged their feet, they were arrested and others took their place. Food collections began and the first people started to die. When some people reported that other people were dying, they were told that this was just “simulation or provocation”: enemies were maliciously withholding food and starving their own children to cause trouble (Davies and Wheatcroft 2004, p. 206).
While the first ones were dying, the people responsible for extracting grain from the villages had to go deeper and deeper into the countryside to find food and take it by force. On every journey along all the different routes they took, they had to go past the people from whom they had already taken food, who were now dead or dying, to find more food that they could take. In China, the provincial leaders of lower rank had more to prove and Chen and Kung (2011) show these people tried harder, so that more grain was collected and more people died in their provinces. Returning from every journey past the already dying and dead people, they sometimes reported what they had seen (although it was sometimes “forbidden to keep an official record”) but in public they had to remain absolutely silent about, not just at the time but for the rest of their lives. The same applied to everyone with business that required them to move around the countryside. While they were doing this, others had to be ordered to stop some of the dying people who were not dead yet from moving out in search of food elsewhere. They had to be ordered to stop them because the food that had been collected and stored elsewhere was destined for others; if the dying people were allowed to eat it, it would not be available to feed Stalin’s Great Breakthrough or Mao’s Great Leap Forward. A particular reason for these orders is that when hungry people are allowed to mix with people that have enough to eat, it is extraordinary difficult to stop kind people from giving some of their food to starving families; the Germans found this in occupied Europe when they tried to cut Jewish communities off from food, and this is one reason why they first herded Jews into ghettoes and later decided to accelerate the Holocaust (Collingham 2010, pp. 205 ff). Finally, both at the time and later, the surviving victims and perpetrators alike learned never to talk about it, perhaps not even to their children. As a result, witnesses of terrible things (such as Yang 2012) often concluded the events they had seen were isolated and exceptional.
In other words, the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy” was enough to start a famine, but further deliberate actions were required to ensure government priorities for food supplies when millions of people were dying of hunger. All this must be read into the “over-centralised and inflexible nature of the policy,” and it suggests why those words do not begin to provide a full explanation.
- UE says: “It is also worth noting that the remaining Cold War paranoia was certainly not a USSR-only phenomenon, with McCarthyism and the red scare in the US reaching levels which now seem ridiculous to most.”
No. McCarthyism was ridiculous and, partly as a result of it, the FBI missed many Soviet agents that were actually at work in American government and society after the war (Moynihan Commission 1997).
- UE says: “In Poland, the popular party Solidarity wanted some form of worker ownership – in other words, socialism – until, in desperation, they had to turn to the IMF, who made capitalist policies a condition for any aid. In Russia, Boris Yeltin’s ‘free market’ reforms were resisted, which was met with force; similarly, in China, the Tienanmen Square massacres were not made in favour of capitalism but in favour of democracy and worker control” (citing Naomi Klein).
No. None of us can possibly know what demonstrators in China or elsewhere “really” wanted. Politics is the art of the possible, and for this reason people tend to express their choices strategically, in the light of the constraints they perceive and the choices they expect others to make. I saw this myself in Russia: As long as the communist party was in full control, many dissenters preferred to limit their demands by appealing to rights guaranteed by the Soviet constitution, asking for a return to “true” Leninism, calling to rehabilitate Old Bolsheviks like Trotsky and Bukharin, and so forth. Only when the communist monopoly gave way did it become politically and psychologically possible for free thinkers to go further; some didn't but many did. UE refers to IMF conditionality in a disparaging way; but why would a responsible aid donor give aid without wishing to rule out uses of its resources that would be damaging or counterproductive? UE relies on Klein’s Shock Doctrine as a source; on its use of evidence see Harrison (2009).
- UE says: “While estimates of deaths from Mao’s GLF are exaggerated using dubious estimation techniques (which effectively allow the demographers to pick the number arbitrarily), little to no cover has been given to the increase in Russian deaths during the ‘transition’ to capitalism, which, by a reasonable estimation method of simply counting the increase in death rates, claimed 4 million lives between 1990 and 1996” (citing Utsa Patnaik).
No. UE (or perhaps Utsa Patnaik) seems to confuse demographic studies with the literary and journalistic accounts written by people who do not have a good understanding of error margins. Demographers know that when people die in numbers so large that they are not recorded individually there is always an error margin. The error margin has several sources: mismeasurement of the population before and after the shock, imputation of normal mortality during the shock (required to infer excess mortality), and correctly apportioning the birth deficit between babies not born (or miscarried) and babies born and died within the famine period. In other words the best available estimation techniques give rise to ranges rather than point estimates, and it is from these ranges that nonspecialists feel entitled to pick and choose.
As for the cause of Russia’s mortality spike in the transition years, the research attributing it to mass privatization (Stuckler and McKee 2009) has been widely disseminated; less well known is that it has also been thoroughly criticized (Earle 2009; Earle and Gehlbach 2010; Brown, Earle, and Telegdy 2010; Battacharya, Gathmann, and Miller 2013; see also reply by Stuckler and McKee 2010). In the last years of the Soviet Union Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign temporarily prevented millions of Russians from drinking themselves to death. However, it did not alter their desire to drink. Their deaths were postponed and so stored up and waiting to happen when alcohol became cheaper again and more easily available. Thus, the increase in Russian deaths during transition is more plausibly attributed to an increase in the availability and collapse in the price of alcohol.
I’ll conclude on the subject of atrocity. UE writes: “I do not hope to defend anyone's atrocities, though I am happy to refute some of the absurd exaggerations that sometimes pervade these debates … the important thing is that we examine the history of both systems in context, rather than lazily parading the kill count of the other side to try and shut down debate.” I noticed that the UE blog goes further, wishing to move debate on from “disingenuous ‘Black Book of Communism’-style kill count porn” (the "Black Book" reference is to Courtois et al. 1999).
This shocked me. Is there room for debate over the scale, causes, and significance of the excess deaths that arose around the world from communist policies? Absolutely. Should any figure in the Black Book of Communism be above discussion? Of course not. But kill count porn? The demand for these people to be remembered and their suffering acknowledged comes from the victims themselves. “We were forgotten. For our broken lives. For our executed fathers. No one apologized. If we don’t preserve the historical memory, we shall continue to make the same mistakes” (Fekla Andreeva, resettled as a child with her “kulak” family, whose father was executed in the Great Terror, cited by Reshetova 2013; see also Gregory 2013).
- Applebaum, Anne. 2012. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. London: Allen Lane.
- Bhattacharya, Jay, Christina Gathmann, and Grant Miller. 2013. Gorbachev’s Anti-Alcohol Campaign and Russia's Mortality Crisis. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 5(2): 232-60.
- Broadberry, Stephen, and Mark Harrison. 2005. The Economics of World War I: an Overview. In The Economics of World War I: 3-40. Edited by Stephen Broadberry and Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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