Monday, October 31, 2011


I haven't done one of these in a couple of months. So, for your Monday (or Sunday - we're ahead of the world here in NZ) reading pleasure:
  • Via a link from Cosma Shalizi, more on Arendt and Occupy Wall Street by The Slack Wire. There's some interesting discussion in the comments as well, which implicitly brings out some points I didn't stress in my post: concrete political action with specific goals always ends up transforming the space of appearances and introducing elements of surveillance, hierarchy, and the like (sometimes with very good reason!). Organized hierarchy appears to be unavoidable in both politics and economic life, but (according to Arendt) there is something that is always lost in that transition. Hence the need for a different balance between spaces of appearance, spaces of surveillance, and spaces for escaping visibility. (Maybe I'll write more about this later). 
  • Speaking of Cosma Shalizi, I enjoyed his discussion of an obscure book on Marxist econophysics and of Bayesianism and the law in the UK. It is obscure, but you'd be surprised about how much you learn about the perils and difficulties of using models in the social sciences! Besides, it comes with a mention of the call-in show at Radio Yerevan, and who doesn't like that?
  • Question to Radio Yerevan: Is it correct that Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev won a luxury car at the All-Union Championship in Moscow? 
    Answer: In principle, yes. But first of all it was not Grigori Grigorievich Grigoriev, but Vassili Vassilievich Vassiliev; second, it was not at the All-Union Championship in Moscow, but at a Collective Farm Sports Festival in Smolensk; third, it was not a car, but a bicycle; and fourth he didn't win it, but rather it was stolen from him.
  • Via BK Drinkwatercreating a totalitarian society inside a film set. And then living in it. And refusing to finish the film. 
No government in the world pours more resources into patrolling the Web than China’s, tracking down unwanted content and supposed miscreants among the online population of 500 million with an army of more than 50,000 censors and vast networks of advanced filtering software. Yet despite these restrictions — or precisely because of them — the Internet is flourishing as the wittiest space in China. “Censorship warps us in many ways, but it is also the mother of creativity,” says Hu Yong, an Internet expert and associate professor at Peking University. “It forces people to invent indirect ways to get their meaning across, and humor works as a natural form of encryption.” To slip past censors, Chinese bloggers have become masters of comic subterfuge, cloaking their messages in protective layers of irony and satire.
This is not a new concept, but it has erupted so powerfully that it now defines the ethos of the Internet in China. Coded language has become part of mainstream culture, with the most contagious memes tapping into widely shared feelings about issues that cannot be openly discussed, from corruption and economic inequality to censorship itself. “Beyond its comic value, this humor shows where netizens are pushing against the boundaries of the state,” says Xiao Qiang, an adjunct professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose Web site, China Digital Times, maintains an entertaining lexicon of coded Internet terms. “Nothing else gives us a clearer view of the pressure points in Chinese society.”
    The core of his argument is that even Caligula’s wildest behavior reflected the instability of the political order, not of his mind. The transition from republic to empire in the decades prior to his reign had generated a rather convoluted system of signals between the Senate (the old center of authority, with well-established traditions) and the emperor (a position that emerged only after civil war).
    The problem came from deep uncertainty over how to understand the role that Julius Caeser had started to create for himself, and that Augustus later consolidated. The Romans had abolished their monarchy hundreds of years earlier. So regarding the emperor as a king was a total non-starter. And yet his power was undeniable – even as its limits were undefined.
    The precarious arrangement held together through a strange combination of mutual flattery and mutual suspicion, with methods of influence-peddling ranging from strategic marriages to murder. And there was always character assassination via gossip, when use of an actual dagger seemed inconvenient or excessive.
    Even those who came to despise Caligula thought that his first few months in power did him credit. He undid some of the sterner measures taken by his predecessor, Tiberius, and gave a speech making clear that he knew he was sharing power with the Senate. So eloquent and wonderful was this speech, the senators decided, it ought to be recited each year.
    An expression of good will, then? Of bipartisan cooperation, so to speak?
    On the contrary, Winterling interprets the flattering praise for Caligula’s speech as a canny move by the aristocrats in the Senate: “It shows they knew power was shared at the emperor’s pleasure and that the arrangement could be rescinded at any time…. Yet they could neither directly express their distrust of the emperor’s declaration that he would share power, nor openly try to force him to keep his word, since either action would imply that his promise was empty.” By “honoring” the speech with an annual recitation, the Senate was giving a subtle indication to Caligula that it knew better than to take him at his word. “Otherwise,” says Winterling, “it would not have been necessary to remind him of his obligation in this way.”
    The political chess match went smoothly enough for a while. One version of what went wrong is, of course, that Caligula became deranged from a severe fever when he fell ill for two months. Another version has it that the madness was a side-effect of the herbal Viagra given to him by his wife.
    But Winterling sees the turning point in Caligula’s reign as strictly political, not biomedical. It came when he learned of a plot to overthrow him that involved a number of senators. This was not necessarily paranoia. Winterling quotes a later emperor’s remark that rulers’ “claims to have uncovered a conspiracy are not believed until they have been killed.”
    In any event, Caligula responded with a vengeance, which inspired at least two more plots against him (not counting the final one that succeeded); and so things escalated. Most of the evidence of Caligula’s madness can actually be taken, in Winterling's interpretation, as ways he expressed contempt for the principle of shared power -- and, even more, for the senators themselves. Giving his horse a palace and a staff of servants and announcing that the beast would be made consul, for example, can be understood as a kind of taunt. “The households of the senators,” writes Winterling, “represented a central manifestation of their social status…. Achieving the consulship remained the most important goal of an aristocrat’s career.” To put his horse in the position of a prominent aristocrat, then, was a deliberate insult. It implied that the comparison could also be made in the opposite direction.
More evidence for the "signaling" interpretation of cults of personality. (Working on a paper on the topic right now).
In one sense, the Information Sharing Environment is a medium tending toward unobstructed transmission; it is like an ocean that conducts whale songs for hundreds of miles. But in another sense, the ISE has created a very private pool of publicly circulating information. Simplified Sign-On, for example, gives those who qualify total access to "sensitive but unclassified" information—but it gives it only to them, and with only internal oversight on how that information is used. The problem is not simply that private information is now semi-public but that the information is invisible to anyone outside organizations that "need to share."
Citron and Pasquale have suggested that if technology is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution—that network accountability can render total information sharing harmless. Rather than futilely attempting to reinforce the walls that keep information private, publicly regulating how information is used can mitigate the trends that caused the problem in the first place. Immutable audit logs of fusion-center activity would not impede information sharing, but they would make it possible to oversee whom that information was shared with and what was done with it. In fact, it was John Poindexter, the director of the Total Information Awareness program, who first suggested this method of oversight, though even today, many fusion centers have no audit trail at all. Standardization and interoperability might also provide means of regulating what kinds of data could be kept. The technological standards that make information available to users can also facilitate oversight, as Poindexter himself realized.  
Spaces of surveillance are worse when the watchers cannot be watched.
This fusion of despotism and postmodernism, in which no truth is certain, is reflected in the craze among the Russian elite for neuro-linguistic programming and Eriksonian hypnosis: types of subliminal manipulation based largely on confusing your opponent, first developed in the US in the 1960s. There are countless NLP and Eriksonian training centres in Moscow, with every wannabe power-wielder shelling out thousands of dollars to learn how to be the next master manipulator. Newly translated postmodernist texts give philosophical weight to the Surkovian power model. Fran├žois Lyotard, the French theoretician of postmodernism, began to be translated in Russia only towards the end of the 1990s, at exactly the time Surkov joined the government. The author of Almost Zero loves to invoke such Lyotardian concepts as the breakdown of grand cultural narratives and the fragmentation of truth: ideas that still sound quite fresh in Russia. One blogger has noted that ‘the number of references to Derrida in political discourse is growing beyond all reasonable bounds. At a recent conference the Duma deputy Ivanov quoted Derrida three times and Lacan twice.’
In an echo of socialism’s fate in the early 20th century, Russia has adopted a fashionable, supposedly liberational Western intellectual movement and transformed it into an instrument of oppression. In Soviet times a functionary would at least nominally pretend to believe in Communism; now the head of one of Russia’s main TV channels, Vladimir Kulistikov, who used to be employed by Radio Free Europe, proudly announces that he ‘can work with any power I’m told to work with’. As long as you have shown loyalty when it counts, you are free to do anything you like after hours. Thus Moscow’s top gallery-owner advises the Kremlin on propaganda at the same time as exhibiting anti-Kremlin work in his gallery; the most fashionable film director makes a blockbuster satirising the Putin regime while joining Putin’s party; Surkov writes a novel about the corruption of the system and rock lyrics denouncing Putin’s regime – lyrics that would have had him arrested in previous times.
In Soviet Russia you would have been forced to give up any notion of artistic freedom if you wanted a slice of the pie. In today’s Russia, if you’re talented and clever, you can have both. This makes for a unique fusion of primitive feudal poses and arch, postmodern irony. A property ad displayed all over central Moscow earlier this year captured the mood perfectly. Got up in the style of a Nazi poster, it showed two Germanic-looking youths against a glorious alpine mountain over the slogan ‘Life Is Getting Better’. It would be wrong to say the ad is humorous, but it’s not quite serious either. It’s sort of both. It’s saying this is the society we live in (a dictatorship), but we’re just playing at it (we can make jokes about it), but playing in a serious way (we’re making money playing it and won’t let anyone subvert its rules). A few months ago there was a huge ‘Putin party’ at Moscow’s most glamorous club. Strippers writhed around poles chanting: ‘I want you, prime minister.’ It’s the same logic. The sucking-up to the master is completely genuine, but as we’re all liberated 21st-century people who enjoy Coen brothers films, we’ll do our sucking up with an ironic grin while acknowledging that if we were ever to cross you we would quite quickly be dead.

Bet you cannot do that.

More here, while it lasts.

[Update 10/31/2011: added Geobacter picture, fixed some typos, some minor wording changes]

Friday, October 28, 2011

Spaces of Appearance, Spaces of Surveillance, and #OccupyWallStreet

(Warning: contains self-promotion and potentially hazardous levels of theory).

It is a bit of an occupational hazard for bloggers that one is always tempted to comment on current events. It’s the pundit temptation that comes from suddenly coming into (temporary, fragile) possession of an audience. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single blogger in possession of an audience must be in want of an opinion. (Or is it that a single blogger in possession of an opinion must be in want of an audience?). I try to avoid this, since for the most part my opinions on most current topics are not that insightful, and besides they are often more than a little uncertain and muddled. The #OccupyWallStreet movement is no exception; I am still trying to figure out what I think about it. (I’ve been thinking of visiting the “Occupy Wellington” camp to see what’s going on, among other things). But it so happens that I have an actual academic article coming out early next year [update: now out!]  that might (might – results not guaranteed!) shed some light (laterally, at odd angles) on the “Occupy X” protests taking place around the globe. The piece is called “Spaces of Surveillance and Spaces of Appearance” ([update: gated final version hereungated nearly-final version here), and it is forthcoming in Polity (vol. 44, issue 1, January 2012, pp. 6-31). Here’s the abstract:

Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault developed different but complementary theories about the relationship between visibility and power.  In an Arendtian “space of appearance,” the common visibility of actors generates power, which is understood as the potential for collective action.  In a Foucauldian “space of surveillance,” visibility facilitates control and normalization.  Power generated in spaces of appearance depends on and reproduces horizontal relationships of equality, whereas power in spaces of surveillance depends on and reproduces vertical relationships of inequality.  The contrast between a space of appearance and a space of surveillance enhances both Arendt’s and Foucault’s critiques of modern society by both clarifying Arendt's concerns with the rise of the “social” in terms of  spaces of surveillance, and enriching Foucault's notion of “resistance.”

Basically, your bog-standard interpretive piece on Arendt and Foucault, mostly of interest to specialists in (certain kinds of) political theory; I try to put Arendt and Foucault in dialogue with one another with respect to the question of the relationship between power and visibility, and to extract some ideas from both I think are useful for thinking beyond Arendt and Foucault (and not necessarily in harmony with their specific theoretical projects), especially about the relationship between surveillance, appearance, and forms of economic organization in society. But the key points of the piece are relatively intuitive, and some of its arguments may have some relevance to current events, particularly the concluding thoughts on how modern society could do with more spaces of appearance and fewer spaces of surveillance (which, if I’m not too mistaken, is at least in the spirit of the “Occupy” movement). So let me see if I can explain the main points of the paper without too much reference to Arendt and Foucault. (Those who prefer a fuller discussion of Arendt and Foucault can read the paper – and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about it).

The paper starts by considering the relationship between visibility and power. We can distinguish four ideal-typical ways in which visibility and power are related in particular spaces:

1)      In some spaces, the visibility of those present generates power (the capacity for collective action) by enabling people to act with, and in front of, others. We can call these, following Arendt, spaces of appearance. Her main examples are “egalitarian” democratic spaces like the participatory Soviets of the early Russian revolution, the New England town council, and the classic public spaces of the agora, the parliamentary assembly, etc.; the “General Assembly” at a typical “Occupy” event would be one such space. But lots of other spaces, including spaces structured in non-egalitarian ways, also have the characteristic of generating (forms of) power and influence for those who are visible: consider how a politician’s power is often mediated through his/her visibility to many, and would be reduced by becoming less visible. The key point is that in such spaces visibility enables those who are visible to initiate and coordinate action.

2)      By contrast, in some spaces, visibility subjugates or subjects people to power, insofar as they are prevented from escaping (or find it costly to escape) the gaze of particular spectators (including, sometimes, one another). We can call these, following Foucault, spaces of surveillance. The panopticon is Foucault’s ideal-typical case, but one can easily think of many other spaces where visibility functions in this way. Modern society is in fact notable for the wide variety of spaces in which people are surveilled (for good and bad reasons, by the way – I’m not passing judgment on any particular form of surveillance at this point). Spaces of economic production within firms, in particular, tend to be spaces of surveillance due to obvious principal-agent problems. The key point is that in such spaces it is difficult (but not impossible) for those who are visible to avoid various kinds of sanctions for deviating from whatever norms or rules are current among spectators. These sanctions do not need to be very “explicit” to work: the permanent and unavoidable gaze of others (who may not themselves be visible) can induce powerful pressures for conformity even in the absence of explicit or obvious punishments for noncompliance. People want to get along, or they dread ridicule, and even the otherwise powerful politician fears scandal.

3)      Conversely, in some spaces invisibility enables some people to escape subjugation or subjection, and can even empower them in various ways. We can call these private or secret spaces. The private space of the home, for example, enables people (on occasion) to escape the prying eyes of others; and the secret recesses of intelligence agencies enable people in suits to plan mischief against the rest of us and their invisibility prevents us from controlling their activities. In accordance with the logic of exit, invisibility (or at least the possibility of making oneself invisible) can have a liberating effect.

4)      Finally, in some spaces invisibility marginalizes people, disempowering them. For completeness, we call these marginal spaces. For example, the oikos to which the Greek citizen could retire after a day spent at the agora was at the same time the space to which women were confined.

These spaces are all related, of course, and they are not always sharply distinguished. Within any given space some people may have power that is mediated through their visibility, while others may be surveilled and marginalized. Surveillance is not always asymmetrical, as in the Foucauldian panopticon; it may also be mutual, as in David Brin’s idea of the “transparent society.” It is also never perfect. By the same token, any significant degree of visibility in spaces of appearance is accompanied by the potential for surveillance: the politician who is powerful precisely because he is in the public eye faces powerful pressures for regulating his behaviour so long as he cannot escape that same public eye or hide parts of his life from it. (Even voluntary self-disclosure, as when people share stuff on Facebook or blog, is subject to these pressures to some extent). Spaces of appearance are always tainted by surveillance and pressures for conformity; invisibility often implies some degree of marginalization even if it sometimes also serves to escape from subjugation; and marginalization is often accomplished through various forms of surveillance.

Much of Hannah Arendt’s political theory is a defence of certain kinds of “egalitarian” spaces of appearance on non-instrumental grounds. For Arendt, egalitarian spaces of appearance are valuable not because they promote specific ends like welfare or justice, or because such spaces somehow represent the only way in which political life could be organized so as to respect the equal rights of people, or because they induce appropriate forms of deliberation, but because they are the only spaces in which we can truly be “persons” – actors with individual stories that transcend the routine and repetitive aspects of the human condition. In acting together with and in front of others, we disclose ourselves as virtuous or vicious, or as the people who are responsible for this or that act; we acquire a story, rather than a living. And in acting together with others in such spaces, we can modify the roles and rules that regulate our ordinary intercourse; our actions put these norms in question and enable us to “begin something new,” i.e., to come up with new ways of regulating our ordinary lives. But action itself in such spaces is never “ordinary” or “routine,” and it is never simply effaced behind some achievement. In fact, Arendt indicates that what matters most about action in such spaces (from her perspective, if not necessarily the perspective of the activist, who certainly has some objective in mind) is not the achievement of some particular goal, an achievement that is at any rate uncertain, given human freedom: political activity is not, in her view, like the making of a work of art, or the implementation of some blueprint. What matters is the possibility of appearance in front of others as such; without such a possibility, in her view, our lives tend to the routine isolation of “making a living,” or the self-effacement of other forms of creative activity where what matters ultimately is the work produced (the painting, the book, the poem, etc.) rather than the person and his/her story.

This distinctive understanding of what we might call the joy of public action seems to be echoed in many descriptions of what happens in OWS protests. People discover a sense of themselves as joint actors in the world, and they generally enjoy this above and beyond anything they may or may not accomplish; to put the point in non-Arendtian terms, there is something fun and exciting about revolutions, even when they are supremely risky, and there is something about the public spaces that such movements create that help people experience each other as people who are engaged in a common story in which they all have some part. (This is also what makes some people annoyed about things like the OWS protests: participants seem too concerned with their own voices and actions, and too little concerned with “getting things done.” There is something narcissistic about every “revolutionary” movement and every protest: admiration is an important part of any space of appearance).

But Arendt was also concerned about what she called the “substitution of making for acting,” which involved (in her view) the attempt to use these modes of action characteristic of spaces of appearance for the solution of very specific problems through the implementation of “policies” understood as blueprints for social organization. This, I argue in the paper (drawing on Foucault), always requires not appearance but forms of surveillance: the uses of collective action that can be geared towards the production of specific effects in the world necessarily involves forms of visibility that are in conflict with the possibilities of self-disclosure through stories in spaces of appearance. E.g., if you provide food to people, unless you have unlimited resources, you will need to monitor your activities and make distinctions between those who should and should not receive it.

Arendt thus worried a lot about the transformation of politics into administration, and stressed that politics properly speaking should not be concerned with “economic” and social questions, a position that earned her much criticism. (What else are politicians going to talk about?). But I think what she had in mind had to do with the kinds of power appropriate to different kinds of activity. In her view, “to the degree that politics (which is predominantly conducted in spaces of appearance, however imperfect) becomes ever more directly concerned with the management of production (a development that she connected with the rise of the “social question” ever since the French revolution), the more politics turns into bureaucratic administration (which is pre-eminently conducted in spaces of surveillance): more like Soviet bureaucratic communism than like the original Soviets Arendt praised in her book On Revolution.” (Here I quote myself). Action in public spaces provides an opportunity for putting in question, and perhaps changing (unpredictably), the overall norms and rules that govern our everyday interaction, but it does not offer a model for governing everyday life.

What this perspective suggests is that an important problem about modern societies concerns the balance between spaces of appearance, spaces of surveillance, and other spaces. Let me quote myself again to close this post:
…  Arendt’s worries about the colonization of public space by the social can be restated as a worry about the balance between spaces of appearance and spaces of surveillance, and their proper relationship, within modern societies. The modern welfare state appears then less as a successful or unsuccessful attempt to manage material inequalities than as a diminution of available spaces of appearance and an expansion of spaces of surveillance, and in particular disciplinary spaces. In such a state, any gains in the “empowerment” of individuals occur at the expense of the possibility of self-disclosing collective action (and hence “power” in a different sense). Similarly, Arendt’s other complaints about the rise of the “social” realm can be understood as concerns that even when this realm is not directly concerned with economic production it nevertheless functions as a space of mutual surveillance where common visibility leads to hypocrisy and conformism rather than to self-disclosure and creative individuality.  Arendt’s views converge, on this reinterpretation, with Foucault’s views on the expansion of “biopower,”  where the concern with the management of “life” was accompanied by the development of disciplinary techniques and objects of surveillance (like populations) that produced an intricate ecology of spaces of surveillance.

But where Foucault appears to think that the problematic aspect of these developments lies in the way in which previously more or less unregimented areas of human life come to be regulated by infra-legal mechanisms,  yet at times seems to recommend a strategy of pure resistance that is at the very least easily misunderstood as a kind of nihilism because of his inability or unwillingness to articulate an alternative vision of the operation of power,  an Arendtian perspective is perhaps more illuminating about what is lost in this process, and about what sorts of political action might make things better. On the one hand, we find a shrinkage of spaces of appearance, where human beings in their plurality may emerge in their full individuality, and their replacement by “social” spaces and other spaces where conformity rules, i.e., by spaces where visibility is turned into an instrument of control or regulation, including self-regulation. This includes the deployment of ever more elaborate technologies of surveillance and (self)-monitoring that extend their tendrils into ever more “ordinary” aspects of social life, and the relative narrowing of public spaces to those mediated spaces of modern democracy where only relatively few political leaders can appear and act. On the other hand, and less obviously, we find the “unmooring” of important spaces of appearance from control by a public, so that genuine action not only remains restricted to a few, but these actors are now too much in control of their own visibility to be properly accountable to their publics: the public’s surveillance is no longer sufficiently effective to undermine [or at least exercise some degree of control over] the ordinary hierarchical relationships that structure the modern state. In other words, not only is the space of appearances colonized by people who have too much control over their own visibility, but the spectators are in turn more surveilled and normalized than before, losing control over their own visibility.

(I draw here on an interesting book by Jeffrey Edward Green, The Eyes of the People: Democracy in an Age of Spectatorship, which I should like to review properly at some point).

But if this is in fact a problem (a big if, I suppose), how could we think about what to do? I suggest in the paper that “a solution to these problems would at least involve the expansion of spaces of appearance (even if they can never be untainted by surveillance) and the reduction of the reach of spaces of surveillance,” which seems to me to be sort of what movements like OWS are trying to do at some level. (Of course, they are also trying to do all kinds of other things, like decrease income inequality and punish bankers.) But I also indicate that the point is not to eliminate spaces of surveillance, or transforming all of society into a big public space: any moderately complex society, and indeed any society that aspires to a certain level of material security, will certainly contain a very large number of spaces of surveillance, though it would be better if, following on the work of people as diverse as James C. Scott and Hayek, these spaces of surveillance were not large and centralized.  But, to be honest, I’m not very good at thinking about the classic “what is to be done” question.

[Update 10/28/2011 5:45pm - fixed some minor typos]

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Little Ice Age and Other Unintended Consequences of the Conquest of the Americas

I recently read Charles C. Mann's 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which I highly recommend. It's the best kind of popular history, full of amazingly interesting, perspective-altering stories, and I hope to blog more about it, if time permits. (Samurai in Mexico city in the sixteenth century to guard the silver coming from Potosi: somebody should make a movie about that). One of the points that Mann makes both in 1493 and in his earlier (and also excellent, in fact better) 1491 is that the "conquest" of the Americas by Europeans (and in particular, Spaniards) was ultimately made possible by the fact that the Europeans brought more lethal microbes with them. It wasn't metal, or guns, or horses, or political organization, that made the crucial difference, but smallpox (and to a lesser extent malaria and yellow fever); without these invisible armies, Cortes and Pizarro would never have won the kinds of astonishingly quick victories they achieved against the Mexica and the Inca. (In fact, Cortes almost lost, even with his microbial allies).

Smallpox was so lethal in the Americas that in places more than a third of the native population was quickly (very quickly!) wiped out, leaving in its wake collapsed political and social structures; and smallpox usually raced ahead of the Spanish and other Europeans, like an enormously powerful advance force. And after smallpox, malaria and yellow fever usually moved in, especially in wet and hot areas like the Amazon basin, making life difficult both for any natives that survived smallpox and for the Europeans themselves, with important political consequences. For one thing, in places where malaria became endemic, Europeans were often unable to settle in any great numbers, but they were able to create "extractive" institutions using malaria-resistant slave labor forces imported from West Africa; and the consequences of such extractive institutions have been enormously far-reaching and long-lasting.

There is something inhuman about this idea: the conquest of the Americas, with all its enormous injustices, is ultimately reduced to a biological event, driven by forces none of its human protagonists could understand, let alone control. But it gets worse (or more interesting, depending on your perspective). Most native peoples in the Americas, lacking iron tools, practised forms of agriculture that made much use of fire. These were not "primitive" forms of agriculture, but complex land-management practices that made possible great population densities, even in places that are today only lightly inhabited (like the Amazon). Low-level burning kept grasslands from turning into forests, helped create forests that looked to Europeans like great parks, and produced charcoal that was used to make thin soils fertile through terra preta. And these practices effectively kept enormous amounts of carbon dioxide constantly in the atmosphere rather than locked into trees and other vegetation. When  native populations collapsed, however, the burning stopped or was greatly reduced, and the carbon dioxide was quickly locked up into forests again. Now, what follows is quite controversial. Mann cites some recent research that argues that this must have made a big contribution to the so-called Little Ice Age: the sudden drop in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, perhaps in combination with natural variations in solar radiation, generated global cooling from around 1550 to around 1660. And this global cooling in turn appears to have produced a great "general crisis" in Europe: famine, war, and pestilence. I quote from a recent piece in Ars Technica summarizing recent research by Zhang et al:
The General Crisis of the 17th Century in Europe was marked by widespread economic distress, social unrest, and population decline. A significant cause of mankind’s woes during these times was the climate-induced shrinkage of agricultural production. Bioproductivity, agricultural production, and food supply per capita all showed immediate responses to changes in temperature. In the five to 30 years following these changes, there were also responses in terms of social disturbance, war, migration, nutritional status, epidemics, and famine. 
Cooling during the Cold Phase (1560-1660 AD) reduced crop yields by shortening the growing season and shrinking the cultivated land area. Although agricultural production decreased or became stagnant in a cold climate, population size still grew, leading to an increase in grain price and an increased demand on food supplies. Inflating grain prices led to hardships for many, and triggered social problems and conflicts such as rebellions, revolutions, and political reforms. 

Many of these disturbances led to armed conflicts, and the number of wars increased 41 percent during the Cold Phase. During the latter portion of the Cold Phase, the number of wars decreased, but the wars lasted longer and were far more lethal—most notable was the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), where fatalities were more than 12 times of the conflicts between 1500-1619.

Famine became more frequent too. Nutrition deteriorated, and the average height of Europeans shrunk 2cm by the late 16th century. As temperatures began to rise again after 1650, so did the average height.

The economic chaos, famine, and war led people to emigrate, and Europe saw peak migration overlapping the time of peak social disturbance. This widespread migration, in conjunction with declining health caused by poor nutrition, facilitated the spread of epidemics, and the number of plagues peaked during 1550-1670, reaching the highest level during the study period. As a result of war fatalities and famine, the annual population growth rate dropped dramatically, eventually leading to population collapse.
I am tempted to make a bad joke about "Montezuma's revenge," except that would be in terribly bad taste.  More seriously, perhaps, I wonder about what the complexity of natural and social systems implies for political theory.Given that none of the forces that were set in motion by the arrival of European colonists in the Americas the late 15th century were understood or even controllable if they had been understood (in fact, even today we do not understand them very well), how should we think about what they did, and about  the kinds of political systems they could or should have created? And should these sorts of stories matter for thinking about the ways in which we may be unleashing similar forces today?

More on this later - Mann has another story, about the silver trade and the collapse of the Qing dinasty, that is also quite instructive for these purposes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Technical Request

Dear readers,

I'm currently the secretary of the New Zealand Political Studies Association. We are a small professional association (there are about 150 people in our mailing list) which basically disseminates announcements of interest to people who study politics in New Zealand, presents a number of awards for NZ postgraduate students, and helps fund and coordinate our annual conference. I am basically in charge of membership matters. My problem is, our membership records are a bit of a mess. Right now, we have a jury-rigged system involving a Google spreadsheet to keep track of new and existing members, but existing records do not allow me to tell for sure who is and is not a member (so our mailing list probably overstates the extent of our paid membership), and it is more difficult than we would like for members to pay their fees. So we've been looking into upgrading  our system for keeping track of members and  processing membership renewals and requests, and I thought that my (wise and discerning) readers might have some good ideas about how to go about doing this.

Ideally, we would like a system that:
  • Allows people to become members/renew their membership and pay their membership fees online via credit card or some other means (a modest NZ$20 per year - NZ$10 for students). 
  • Allows members to update their own membership records
  • Sends automatic reminders to people whose membership is about to expire 
  • Allows exec committee members to send e-mails to the entire membership or to specific "sections" (we have a political theory and a media and communications network)
  • Allows members to register their interest in being available to the media or other people as experts in some particular field (e.g., elections, MMP, etc.) and makes the names, contact details, and fields of expertise of these  members available in a searchable database 
  • Is easy to maintain and not too expensive
I've looked at a couple of membership software packages and a few other things (including Zoho Creator), but nothing seems quite right. We could also pay someone to set up a system like this (like a very limited version of the APSA website), though we have limited funds. Do my readers have any ideas about this? If you have any thoughts/suggestions, leave them in comments below or e-mail me at