Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 14, 2020

Are the Jacobins and Thermidor just in the past?

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:41 am

Being raised as an American in the last quarter of the 20th-century gives one an interesting perspective. The period between 1975 and 1995 was characterized by worries about decline. From the tail end of the post-1965 crime wave to the psychological trauma of the oil shocks, the rise of Japan, and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, it wasn’t an era without angst clearly. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, we had turned a corner, even if we were not aware of it. The crime wave was abating, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Japan was entering its “Lost Decade.”

By the year 2000, the United States of America was the “hyperpower”. The period between 1995 and 2015 was defined by our unipolar moment. In the late 1990s, it looked as if wage growth had finally come back to the broad middle and lower classes, and the American model, and more broadly the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”, was here to stay.

Obviously things have changed. Though 9/11 is arguably one of the most important cultural events in the early 21st-century for Americans, with hindsight I think this exogenous shock really only had an impact on the margins in relation to the long term trends, which are driven by endogenous forces. The 2008 financial crisis didn’t come out of a vacuum but reflected serious and deep structural problems in the way capitalism was organized. And, more or less, the vast majority of economists didn’t predict it. It left many of us highly skeptical of “expertise”, as well as the ability of the market to self-correct and not be captured by corrupt parties gorging on rents.

The 2010s have been a mixed affair. Internally there has been recovery from economic distress, and the news for the middle and lower classes is not all bad (full employment is good for those with few skills!). That being said, high levels of inequality and the manifest reality that globalization benefits the very top of the income and wealth distribution seems hard to deny. The second great modern era of globalization is now facing critiques from both the Left and the Right.

Externally, the hyperpower/unipolar moment is fading, if not totally faded. Though on a per unit basis China is less productive and powerful than the USA, in the year 2000 it was 4% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it was 15%. In the year 2000, the USA was 31% of the world’s GDP, and in 2017 it is 25%. The 1990s expectation, shared by many Americans, that China would become more liberal and democratic as it became wealthier has not been validated by the facts on the ground.

Internally there are high levels of polarization and low levels of trust in institutions and leaders in the USA. Various positional races (e.g., university educations for everyone!) combined with a relatively stagnant pie (e.g., more legal degrees than lawyers) leave even the aspiring upper-middle class suspicious of their prospects. The overhang of personal and public debt and the possibility of government debt crises and problems funding entitlements loom over the horizon for the working-age population.

We are not doing badly as a nation, exactly. But rising morbidity in broad swaths of the population reflects uncertainty at the robustness of the prosperity we do have (as well as economic marginalization of those with fewer skills).

Those of us who came to maturity in the late 20th-century was proudly told about the reality that we were the Eternal Republic. Our Constitution was the oldest still in use. Our republic may not have been perfect, but it was as good as it gets. The idea that the Eternal Republic might have an ending to its story seemed absurd barring nuclear conflict, at least in our time, and across the generations alive at the end of the 20th-century.

More broadly, as Steven Pinker has highlighted, there has been broad growth in prosperity and wealth across the world. The American story is not the only story. But if someone told you that other citizens were doing well when you struggled, would that make you happier? Americans are not struggling, but we get a sense it is no longer “morning in America.” Rather, it is closer to dusk.

Foundational to the idea of the Eternal Republic is that our society, our culture, our nation-state, is so beholden to the values of liberty and democratic governance that it could be no other way. First, let us admit that this perfect republic has had its drawbacks and black-marks, most especially in the domain of racial slavery and racial segregation. With that being said, a broad commitment to the idea of liberty, autonomy, and the value of each citizen, has allowed for the circle of fellow-feeling to expand.

But the question is this: are the commitments to liberty and democratic governance due to individual principle, or institutional scaffold and contingency? If the citizens themselves do not have a deep commitment to the principles, the abstractions which undergird governance, then if the institutions begin to lack legitimacy, and the contingencies of history shift just a bit, one can foresee a scenario where liberal democratic citizens sing a very different tune very soon.

My view of human nature and social cognition is that people will believe and do what their ingroup leaders demand of them. For various reasons, American elites have generally taken an extremely liberal attitude toward freedom of expression. This, despite public surveys which suggest broad popular skepticism of offensive speech. If the consensus among American elites for freedom of speech erodes at all, I believe that the extreme policy position would quickly retreat in the face of populist disquiet and factional elite manipulation of government organs to silence their rivals.

The confidence in the Eternal Republic was rooted in the reality of American economic ascendency in the 20th-century. The reality that wage gains and prosperity were both broad-based. The expansion of rights and dignity to racial minorities was consonant with the broader elements of the foundational principles. America had always been the most powerful. America had always been the richest. And of course, America would always be the freest and the most democratic.

Over the last five years, I have come to be more and more skeptical of the robustness of the Eternal Republic. My rationale is straightforward. The cultural preconditions of the Eternal Republic were rooted in deep foundations. Shocks to the vigor of the Eternal Republic failed to topple it because of the accumulated capital of generations. But capital can eventually deplete with both shocks and gradual erosion. Once the system is no longer robust, novel contingencies can transform cultural expectations rather quickly. Cultural change is nonlinear because most people conform, and quickly bend before the cold new winds. Americans have a conceit that we love liberty. And I think we’re sincere in this. But the philo-Semitic Germans of the 1920s became something quite different in the 1930s, and atheistic Leftist Soviet men and women of the 1970s and 1980s have shape-shifted at least twice since the 1990s.

Is America and are Americans special because of something deep with us, or were we lucky? To be frank I fear the latter may hit close to the mark. If that is so, then eventually luck runs out…

January 13, 2020

An early modern Pax Islamica

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:59 am

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal has been in my “stack” for a while. It’s a short and academically-oriented work. What’s great about this book is that it is cross-cultural and comparative. I don’t know about you, but these sorts of narrative frames make recall and retention far easier for me. The integration of facts with other facts means that the sum of the parts is greater than the parts evaluated alone. In this, it has similarities with Strange Parallels: Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830.

The title itself is informative. These were Islamic polities in a self-conscious manner. The Ottoman Sultan emerged out of a parvenue lineage on the western Anatolian frontier whose claim to rule was based on their status as ghazis. Warriors of the faith. Their Mandate was confirmed through victory. The Safavids had religious charisma before they were temporally powerful. They were hereditary leaders of a Sufi order (their adoption of Shia Islam was a relatively late event). Finally, the Mughals were arguably the least religiously inflected of the three early modern dynasties, despite their appeal to the ghazi ethos.

Rather, the Mughals were notable because of their lineage, which was the most prestigious of the three. The Timurids descended from Timur, obviously, but more importantly, they descended on their maternal side from Genghis Khan. Though Genghis Khan was a pagan, whose scions destroyed much of the Islamic civilization of the Near East (and killed the last Abbassid Caliphs), the raw power and impact of the conqueror was such that he cast a shadow over the whole Turco-Persian world.

The key issue here is that these were dynasties of the Turco-Persian world, more or less. These were not states of the Islamic Arab world, though the Ottomans eventually absorbed much of that world in their later expansionary phase. Nor were they states of the Far East, or even Inner Asia. Despite all their other antecedents,* these dynasties were of Turkic provenance, and yet their entry into Islam was associated with their entry into Persianate culture.

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal takes a chronological tack in that it explores the origins of the three polities as far back as 1000 A.D., and also addresses thematic elements (e.g., architecture, poetry, and economics). Because of the thematic component it is not a work that needs to be read in sequence chapter by chapter, though perhaps doing so would allow for full appreciation.

One thing that jumps out is that in many ways the Safavid Iranian regime is an outlier in many ways. This is obviously true in regards to religion. The Safavids began as a vaguely Sunni but very Sufi religious order in eastern Anatolia. But by 1500 they were promoting arguably ghulat forms of Shia Islam, before settling down on mainstream Ithna Ashari beliefs. It is to this period that connections between Iran, a term that they resurrected, and the Shia cities of Iraq and the Shia regions of Lebanon, were established. It is during this period that Iran was forcibly converted from a mostly Sunni cultural region with Shia pockets to a Shia domain.

The Safavid domains corresponded roughly to what we now know as the Iranian nation-state (Mesopotamia was part of the Safavid domains for a few decades here and there). Despite early attempts at expansion into their Anatolian homelands, rebuffed by the muscular Ottoman military machine, the Safavids were preoccupied with internal concerns. The religious transformation of a whole region through coercion expended a great deal of capital. The early Ottoman state before 1500, and the Mughal domains for its entirety, was different from the Safavids insofar as the ruling military elite were of a different religious identity from the majority whom they ruled (Christians and Hindus respectively).

In contrast, the Ottomans did not attempt to forcibly reshape the culture of their vast domains. The millet system established subordinate roles for non-Muslims, while Ottoman hegemony over their 16th-century conquests in Arab lands did not disrupt native elites (the Mameluke Sultanate was conquered, but the Mamelukes remained Egypt’s ruling caste for centuries under the Ottomans). Within Anatolia and parts of Rumelia a process of assimilation of Greeks, Macedonians, and Armenians, to a “Turkish” identity occurred organically through conversion to Islam. Over the centuries the cosmopolitan tastes of the early Sultans, who spoke Persian at court and styled themselves, successors of the Roman Emperors, gave way to a classical Ottoman identity as leaders of the Muslim world who nevertheless had their own linguistic identity.

The Mughals, though just to the east of Safavid Iran, were a polity characterized by extremely different concerns and resources. Mughal controlled India was the second most populous polity in the world after Ming China. It dwarfed Safavid Persia, even the Ottoman Empire. The Timurids conquered a civilization, or perhaps more accurately a coalition of civilizations. Unlike the Ottomans and to a lesser extent Safavids the Mughals did not create “slave” armies and “slave” bureaucracies. The native resources of India’s people were such that this was not necessary (the argument in regards to labor also is often used to explain why slavery was never popular in China). Hindu Rajputs served in the Mughals in military roles, while groups such as Kayasthas served them in civilian roles.

But the Mughal story is not simply one of “going native.” The Ottomans and Safavids relied on “slave” armies due to the fact that these were often more loyal to the regime than regional or tribal levies. The Mughals opened up India to vast numbers of Turkic warriors and Persian literati. These two groups were regime loyalists because like slaves they lacked local roots.

As Persia become more Shia, many of these foreigners who arrived in India were Shia, but there were also broader connections to the Hanafi Sunni world, as far afield as the Ottoman domains. For example, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb patronized the compilation of a series of religious codes, which apparently became quite well known and popular in Ottoman Anatolia.

It is often said that Indian Islam became rooted in the soil of the subcontinent and took upon syncretistic aspects. This is true as far as it goes, but it seems clear to me that the integration of the Mughal ruling class into Turco-Persian culture served as a major check upon this process. The Mughal Emperor Akbar clearly exhibited a tendency toward synthesis and innovation in his religious thought, but his views did not win the day. Rather, it is notable that The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal reinforces the contention that each successive Mughal Emperor from Akbar, to Jahangir, to Shah Jahan, and finally Aurangzeb, adhered more closely to West Asian normative Islam.

A distinctive aspect of the Mughal polity is that it assimilated and promoted individuals who were ethnocultural distinct from the core ruling elite. In fact, arguably very disparate groups were all bound together as part of the core ruling elite. In particular, the Rajput generals who served the Mughals. This is in contrast with the Ottoman and Safavid cases, where conversion of the slave to Islam entailed eventual ethnic assimilation. The problem with Aurangzeb, despite his military victories, is that he began aggressively espousing a more West Asian style of ideological assimilating, coaxing and coercing Hindu military elites into Islam. The Mughal equipoise was broken, and while Safavid Iran gave way to polities which inherited all its major features (the Zand and Qajar regimes), and the Ottomans persisted in their long decline, Mughal India quickly shattered in the 18th-century, to leave behind a broad cultural influence.

More generally The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that a ruling elites with a similar ethos can span multiple polities. Despite the religious distinctiveness of the Safavids, which became more clear over time, the three early modern Muslim polities fostered trade and intellectual exchange. Large colonies of Indian merchants were resident in Isfahan (from which they eventually sojourned to Astrakhan and eventually Moscow).

As noted in The Idea of the Muslim World Indian Muslims after the fall of the Mughal Empire had a major influence on Islam in what became Turkey. In Bernard Lewis’ oeuvre there is discussion about the West’s rise and its supremacy over the world of Islam, and the psychological shock that that entailed. But what about the Maratha captivity of the Mughals and how they shaped the confusion of Indian Muslims?

The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughal illustrates that cross-cultural and cross-national civilizational affinities and ties are quite common. Today many view the West as sui generis. In some ways that are true, in magnitude, and scope. But around the year 1500, a group of Turkic tribesmen had conquered remnants of Byzantium, the Persian Empire, and India. In the ensuing centuries, they transformed these regions, and were themselves transformed. Today to be Persian and to be Shia are almost synonymous (Tajiks tend to be Sunni of course). But this was the consequence of Turkic tribesman. Today Anatolia is mostly Turkish speaking, but that is due to centuries of cultural assimilation. Finally, many elements of Indian culture are hard to imagine without the Mughal period.

* The Safavids had Greek and Kurdish origins as well, though in their early period the Turkic ethnic component was most important. Similarly, the Timurids had recent Mongol ancestry, but their primary identity was with the Turco-Persian world. Finally, the early period of the Ottomans is obscure, but it is hard to imagine that these Anatolian Turks did not absorb some of the “substrate” elements. Mehmet the Conqueror had a Christian, possibly European, mother.

January 10, 2020

Social Justice as white self-regard and self-obsession

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 1:38 am

A few years ago I made a passing reference to the “Kali Yuga” (I had been reading the Mahabharata), and an interlocutor expressed alarm. “Isn’t that an ‘alt-right’ idea?”

The truth is that the concept has become entrenched in parts of the Western Right through the influence of Theosophy and Julius Evola, but its origins and primary usage is non-Western. Obviously. Westerners repurposed the concept for their own usage (“appropriated” one might say).

I thought of this when our resident archetype of a particular type of “social justice” narrowly “liberally” educated commentator made an observation that some phrases had particular connotations among white nationalists. This was true on the face of it, but it struck me as illustrative of the pantheon of the powerful in the mind of this individual. The phrases in question, relating to anti-Semitism, are actually much more common among non-Western people today.

But this is not of any great consequence for many. Non-Western people do not exist except in relation to Western people, and non-Western people and their views are seen as purely derivative and reactionary to Western people.

In other words, Western people are the agents of history, the only observers of Schrodinger’s Cat.

This is an ahistorical and non-empirical view. Whether you agree with the scholarship in The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, the fact that this argument could be made in the first place stands testament to the rich textured complexity of the past.

Modern ideologies tend to flatten and diminish the complexity of history.

January 9, 2020

Indian Ancestry In Thailand During the Iron Age

Filed under: History,Southeast Asia — Razib Khan @ 11:30 pm


A follow-up to my previous post, one of the “Iron Age” samples from Thailand seems a definite outlier in comparison to the other Iron Age and Bronze Age samples. There is suggestive evidence again of Indian ancestry, as one sees in the plot above. One of the samples from Thailand overlaps with the Cambodians and Burmese, who do seem to have South Asian shift, while the other samples from Thailand do not. Today most Thais seem to show some Indian ancestry as well, at low levels.

Unfortunately, much of Southeast Asian history before 1000 A.D. is pretty much a cipher. Perhaps the best survey I’ve seen is Strange Parallels: Volume 1, Integration on the Mainland: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800–1830, though even there it’s rather thin before the arrival of the Tai and the shocks that entailed for the earlier Indic societies of Southeast Asia.

January 1, 2020

To know one must know

Filed under: History — Razib Khan @ 4:46 pm

I was having a discussion with a young person of subcontinental origin who is completing a STEM Ph.D. An open-minded and curious person and they asked me to exposit to them why a post-colonial paradigm that reduces all non-Western/white peoples to being objects in a narrative driven by Western/white agents is built on false premises. My candid opinion is that this is not something that one can explain in a single conversation, or in a single article. The reason is simple: if you don’t know much you are ultimately relying on someone else’s credibility.

I think I’m a credible person, but obviously I would think that. Unfortunately, history is messy, complex, and filled with shades and textures that can only be appreciated through direct consumption, not description. You need to read the history yourself and reflect upon it deeply in a first-person sense.

The reality is that there are plainly mendacious actors out there who launder their credentials to promote lies. This behavior knows no ideology but is quite common and pervasive. Often these “public historians” do not lie or spread falsehood directly, but they obfuscate and redirect attention in such a manner so that their audience draws particular ‘natural’ conclusions which are at variance with reality as we understand it.

I particularly recommend history written about the time before 1800, because the foundations of the present often run quite deep, an assertion which directly undercuts the logic of post-colonialism, where the recent overwhelms the past.

Economic history, in particular, is often useful because it deals in concrete variables, where human judgment is less opaque. For example, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millennium.

On occasion, readers will question why it is so important to know broadly and deeply to understand the particular. That is due to the reality that the particular is simply the terminal node in a tree of decisions which fans out into the past and across continents.

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