Dec
17

The Silk Roads

In a random bookshop in Kathmandu I came across "The Silk Roads: A New History of the World" (2015) by Peter Frankopan. Having taught Global Political Economy in the past and gone through a number of textbooks (which are largely centered on the Euro-West and its perspectives on global matters) I was hoping this book might be a new look at history. For several chapters, the book takes a thematic approach (flow of theological ideas, flow of commodities) and others are issue based (revolution, war, colonization). While there might be relatively more focus on Central Asia and Asia compared to other renderings of world history, it is not immediately clear what is new per se. The Americas and Africa largely remain without a history, unless in the context of conquest or colonization, following the tradition of Hobbes. This is a mass market book (Bloomsbury), but includes 100 pages of notes (book is 636 pages). For a specialist of a region or issue or commodity, the book contains some errors or over simplifications and could be frustrating; for a generalist interested in an introduction to world history, this could be a useful book. A few notes:

"The willingness to adopt new ideas and practices was an important factor in enabling the Persians to build an administrative system that allowed the smooth running of an empire which incorporated many different peoples. A highly educated bureaucracy oversaw the efficient administration of the day-to-day life of the empire, recording everything from payments made to workers serving the royal household, to validating the quality and quantity of goods bought and sold in market places; they also took charge of the maintenance and repair of a road system criss-crossing the empire..." (p. 1-2)

"The Islamic conquests created a new world order, an economic giant, bolstered by self-confidence, broad-mindedness and a passionate zeal for progress. Immensely wealthy and with few natural political or even religious rivals, it was a place where order prevailed, where merchants could become rich, where intellectuals were respected and where disparate views could be discussed and debated." (p. 101)

"By the early fourteenth century, Timbuktu in particular was not just an important commercial centre but a hub for scholars, musicians, artists and students who gathered around the Sankoré, Djinguereber and Sīdī Yahyā mosques, beacons of intellectual discourse and home to countless manuscripts collected from all over Africa. Not surprisingly, the region attracted attention from thousands of miles away. There had been gasps in Cairo when Mansa Musa - or Musa, King of Kings of the Malian Empire - 'a devout and just man' whose like had not been seen before, passed through the city in the fourteenth century on his way to Mecca on pilgrimage, accompanied by an enormous retinue and carrying huge amounts of gold to give as presents. So much was spent in the markets during his visit to the city that a mini-depression is supposed to have been triggered across the Mediterranean basin and in the Middle East as the price of bullion apparently plummeted under the pressure of the huge inflow of new capital." (p. 203-204)

"The native populations in the Caribbean and the Americas were devastated. Within a few short decades of Columbus' first voyage, the numbers of the indigenous Taíno people fell from half a million to little more than 2,000. This was in part due to ferocious treatment at the hands of those who began to style themselves as 'conquistadors' - or conquerors - such as Hernán Cortés, whose bloodthirsty expedition to explore and secure Central America resulted in the death of the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma, and the collapse of the Aztec Empire. Cortés stopped at nothing to enrich himself. 'I and my companions', he told the Aztecs, 'suffer from a disease of the heart that can be cured only with gold.'" (p. 213)

"The underlying secret to Dutch success in the seventeenth century was common sense and hard work. The Dutch reckoned that the way to work was not to follow the example of England, where the chartered companies used sharp practices to limit beneficiaries to a small circle of intimates, all looking after each other's interests and using monopoly positions to protect their positions. Instead, capital was pooled and risks shared among as wide a body of investors as possible. In due course, the conclusion was reached that despite competing ambitions and rivalries between provinces, cities and indeed individual merchants, the most efficient and powerful way to build up trade was by combining resources." (p. 255)

"Aware that their hold over the Gulf region was tenuous, the British made overtures to leading figures in the Arab world, including Husayn, Sharīf of Mecca, who was offered a tempting deal: if Husayn 'and the Arabs in general' were to provide support against the Turks, then Britain 'will guarantee the independence, rights and privileges of the Sharifate against all external foreign aggression, in particular that of the Ottomans'. That was not all, for another, even juicier incentive was offered up too. Perhaps the time had come when 'an Arab of true race will assume the Caliphate at Mecca or Medina'. Husayn, guardian of the holy city of Mecca and a member of the Quraysh, and descendant of Hāshim, the great-grandfather of the Prophet Muammad himself, was being offered an empire in return for his support. The British did not really mean this, and nor could they really deliver it. However, from the start of 1915, as things took a turn for the worse, they were prepared to string Husayn along..." (p. 335)

"Three possible triggers were envisaged - all of which could justify military action. Perhaps Saddam "moves against the Kurds in [the] north?', wondered Donald Rumsfeld in November 2001 ; maybe a "connection to Sept 11 attack or to anthrax attacks" (following mailings to several media outlets and to two US senators in September 2001); or what if there were a "dispute over WMD inspections?" This seemed a promising line – as revealed by the comment that follows: "Start now thinking about inspection demands." ... Particular emphasis was given to building up the case that Iraq was not just determined to make weapons of mass destruction but was doing so covertly and obstructing inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the same time. In some cases, this created problems with the monitors themselves, who found their positions overstated, compromised or even at risk altogether. In the spring of 2002, for example, Jose Bustani, the Brazilian director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was ousted following a special closed session - this was the first time the head of a major international organization had been forced from their position. Information gathered from one-off and often unreliable sources was given primnance, and speculation was presented as fact, the result of a single-minded determination to make the case against Iraq and Saddam appear watertight. 'Every statement I make today', Colin Powell told the UN on 5 February 2003, 'is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.'" (p. 502) 

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May
08

Capitalism in the Age of Globalization

Samir Amin (1931-2018) spent his life research, writing and acting against capitalism, in particular highlighting how exploitative is it for the peripheries of the system. On this, Unequal Development (1976), is one of the earlier important works. In its place, he advocated for a socialist system. In the 1970s he introduced the term "eurocentrism", a critique that has influenced all of the social sciences (he wrote a book by that title, published in 1988, which I will aim to cover in a later post). Born in Egypt, he spent much of his life in West Africa, largely writing in French (which he was educated in). This post covers "Capitalism in the Age of Globalization: The Management of Contemporary Society" (1997).

I have the 2014 re-print, which is useful because Amin includes a Preface that he wrote in 2013. In several regards, Amin foresaw many of the challenges that would emerge in the decades that followed the publication of this book, which he reflects on in saying: "So far as I was concerned, the new system was nothing other than the latest stage in moves to world domination by the centres of historical imperialism (USA, Western Europe, Japan), which they sought to impose through exclusive access to the planet's natural resources, a monopoly over modern technology, control of the globalized financial market, and sole deployment of weapons of mass destruction. I maintained that the nations of the South, being victims of this system, would not willingly bow to its demands, and that the North-South conflict was therefore destined to grow in scope and importance" (p. xv)

"Generalized, globalized and financialized monopoly capitalism now has nothing to offer the world, other than the sad prospect of humanity's self destruction, and further deployment of capital accumulation is inexorably heading in this direction. Capitalism has outlived its usefulness, producing conditions that suggest a necessary transition towards a higher stage of civilization. The implosion of the system, caused by the ongoing loss of control over its internal contradictions, signals 'the Autumn of Capitalism'." (p. xxix)

"During the Uruguay Round (which ended in December 1993) Western powers pursued common objectives, while attempting at the same time to reconcile some of their differences. It is important to say it clearly: the common denominator for all the Western powers, throughout this affair, has been a marked hostility toward the Third World. The true objective of the Uruguay Round is to block the competitiveness of the industrialized Third World, even at the expense of the holy principles of liberalism, and thus to reinforce the "five monopolies" of the dominant centers. In this area, as in every other area and at every other time, the double standard prevails." (p. 28-29)

"With Trade Rights in Intellectual Property (TRIP), an offensive has been launched not to reinforce competition, but on the contrary, to strengthen the power of technological monopolies - at the expense, of course, of developing countries for whom the possibility of acquiring the technology they need in order to progress becomes even more uncertain. Will the 'trade secrets' that GATT-WTO wants to include under this category bring us back to the mercantilist monopoly practices of 300 years ago? Even the language used to discuss the topic is not neutral. We no longer speak of knowledge as the common property of humanity, but rather of 'piracy' when someone tries to acquire it! This policy sometimes verges on the obscene: GATT-WTO, for instance, wants to forbid Third World manufacture of inexpensive pharmaceutical products, which are of vital importance, in order to protect massive profits of monopolies in this sector." (p. 29)

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Oct
30

Can Trade Promote Development?

Joseph Stiglitz and Andrew Charlton wade through the debates and evidence in "Fair Trade for All: How Trade Can Promote Development" (2005). The book aims to "describe how trade policies can be designed in the future with a view to helping the developing countries" including that "liberalization needs to be managed carefully - the task is much more complex than the simple prescriptions of the Washington Consensus which blithely exhorts developing countries to liberalize their markets rapidly and indiscriminately" (p. 2). It has been over a decade since the book was published, and as a result some of the details have changed, but the general arguments are important ones. The book is easy to read for non-economists and is highly recommended. 

The book begins: "The rules which govern world trade affect the livelihoods of the whole planet, and influence the economic development of all nations... You might hope that the world's trading system went some way to redressing the global inequalities which slice our world into the rich, the poor, and the very poor. Yet the opposite is true. The world trading system has protected the interests of the rich countries, at the expense of the poor, and entrenched inequalities" (p. v). 

The authors provide plenty of examples to back up the strongly worded statement given at the outset. One example: "Farmers are subsidized and protected by the governments of the rich countries, where less than two percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture. This protection shuts out goods produced by farmers of developing countries, where agriculture supports the livelihoods of most of the world's poor people. Intellectual property rules protect the rights holders in the rich countries, but do little to transfer technology to the underdeveloped industries in the poor countries. We are in the bizarre position of giving the developing world some $100 billion in aid every year, but costing them three times as much in protectionist policies." (p. v; see also p. 7). 

Despite what might be assumed (based on the positionality of the authors), the authors do not advocate for free trade, in all places at all times. In fact, they argue against this. "To date, not one successful developing country have pursued a purely free market approach to development. In this context it is inappropriate for the world trading system to be implementing rules which circumscribe the ability of developing countries to use both trade and industry policies to promote industrialization" (p. 17). And, not just trade - liberalization will affect inequality, and thus other services are required (like safety nets) to ensure the redistribution of wealth do not simply re-create new forms of poverty.

One point I found interesting was a commentary on the idea of 'comparative advantage', and the limits (or limiting role it can play). "For example, the theory of comparative advantage told South Korea, as it emerged from the Korean War, that it should specialize in rice. But Korea believed that even if it were successful in increasing the productivity of its rice farmers, it would never become a middle- or high-income country if it followed that course. It had to change its comparative advantage, by acquiring technology and skills. It had to focus not on its comparative advantage today, but on its long run, its dynamic comparative advantage. And government intervention was required if it was to change its comparative advantage." (p. 30). Often the 'comparative advantage' discourse is deterministic, stories such this present comparative advantage not as a reflection of present resources and opportunities but also of a vision for different opportunities and creating pathways for that. 

The focus of the second half of the book is what fair trade could actually look like - in agriculture, intellectual property, labor mobility, non-tariff barriers, and a number of other areas. Interested readers should pick this book up.

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