The Fatal Attraction of Hugo Chavez

All political pundits now must suffer the compulsory assistance and thunder-stealing rivalry of Wikipedia: freely available, assured, anonymous, pseudo-authoritative. That has been even more obvious than usual in most Canadian thinkpieces on the death of Hugo Chavez. They suggest a familiarity with Latin America largely based on holidays in Castro Cuba, sometimes with at least a qualified sympathy, if not fawning admiration, for the Fidelista worldview. Tempering bien-pensant adoration with Wikipedian ‘balance’, obituary writers have usually settled for praising with faint damns. Typical was the full-page tribute in the March 6 Gazette, a Bloomberg News reprint, ‘The man who remade Venezuela’.

The article did offer one major point of substance. Its authors noted that the price of Venezuelan crude increased over 1000% from its $9 a barrel price when he took power to over $120 a barrel in 2009, which surely had as much to do with Venezuela’s ‘remaking’ as Chavez’s share-the-wealth populism. Venezuela sits on what is possibly the largest single pool of oil in the world, and since big oil has at various times greatly enriched, and as frequently destabilized, everyone from Oklahoma Indian tribes and Arab Bedouin to Alberta high school dropouts, it was not really all that remarkable that Chavez and previously impoverished Venezuelans should join the great global gravy train. Chavez might tell the United Nations that George Bush, was the Devil incarnate, and form a rhetorical alliances with Castro, Ahmedinejad, and even Robert Mugabe, but he did not stop selling oil to the Satanic kingdom and its indispensable Luciferian army of automobile owners. Fidel Castro, however much warmed by Chavez’s adoration, must surely have been green with envy. Himself having only large exports in sugar that he could transfer from the U. S. to the Soviet Union, his own all-day speeches had to paper over an impoverished reality. Chavez has been more like a tenured academic Marxist, able to spout the language of revolution while clinging to capitalist comforts.

There is something dissatisfying about the speciously evenhanded media tributes, as there also is about the furious ‘good riddance’ sendoffs provided by miscellaneous American neoconservative pundits. These latter could find plenty of ammunition in the increasingly totalitarian ‘remaking’ of Venezuela, but could not confidently claim they were saluting ‘the end of a hated tyrant’. Chavez has just remained too popular. He has long been disliked by most of the Venezuelan middle class, but Latin American middle classes, sometimes themselves at first carried along by the siren songs of revolution, have never been very consistently successful at providing a ‘North American’ version of middle class liberal democracy. Even when it has been achieved, it has constantly proved vulnerable to the chronic instability and unpopularity of the region’s boom-and-bust export trade in commodities, usually dominated by foreign business giants, and by two centuries of romantic, theatrical, and tragicomic political history.

That history, richly mythic, has frustrated many of the most intelligent and perceptive Latin Americans themselves, never mind pundits in the U. S. These latter have frequently tried to ram some of the most anarchic peoples to be found on earth into one of two Procrustean beds: the disastrous model of Marxist ‘class struggle’, or the less appalling but not much more successful inverted, or ‘capitalist-friendly’ Marxianism, found in the 1960s ‘Alliance for Progress’, expected to display the ‘Stages of Economic Growth’, rehashed in not much different neoconservative nostrums that arrived by three and four decades later.

Chavez was not alone in loudly rejecting North American ‘neoliberal’ or ‘neoconservative’ ideas. His combination of macho paratrooper bravado and booming oil revenues made him an especially noisy, extreme, and confident exponent of Robin Hood economics for all of Latin America, tied as well to a ‘Bolivarian’ dream of a larger union of South American states. But even quieter and more centrist regional politicians have found it expedient to offer admiring words for Chavez and even for Castro. While rhetoric is usually all they really want to offer, its perceived necessity arises from a fundamental division in European liberalism that emerged in the first half of the 19th century.

American neoconservatives are lineal descendants of the ‘Cold War liberal’ theorists of 1945-1990, who held up the Anglo-American liberal tradition as the one true path to both freedom and democracy. Their current emulators have tried to maintain this, arguing not only that Marxist economic policies are inefficient, inevitably dictatorial, and ultimately evil, for which there has always been a good case in the long run, but by liberal definition, undemocratic. That term could certainly be used justifiably about the Soviet Union and China, as it could about the eastern European countries forced into ‘the socialist camp’ after 1945. But when Latin Americans, from Nobel-Prize-winning novelists to the illiterate poor use words like ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ they do not often give them the same meaning that they commonly have in the Anglosphere. They may not instead mean, as Americans have often too casually assumed, just the hypocritical boilerplate of Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, but they do apply a concept of ‘democracy’ that comes not from the law-bound ‘propertarian’ democratic order launched by the American Revolution and gradually broadened in scope and international impact.

They more commonly have thought in terms of the ‘democracy.’ claimed by the French Revolution, and above all the France of Napoleon Bonaparte. That was ‘democracy’ conceived of in terms of a Rousseauist, even Hobbesian ‘general will’, expressed, even ‘legitimately’ expressed, through the thought and action of a new and popular philosopher-king. This kind of ‘democracy’, not necessarily friendly to American interests, may actually have majority support in some countries, and especially in Latin America.

The great hero of all of Latin America is Simon Bolivar, a gifted, complex, and frequently frustrated hero, seen as a Washington, Jefferson, and Napoleon, all rolled into one. And like Napoleon, he was also a Caesar, in the sense of the popular authoritarian political leader who maintains his power through a combination of personal charisma, mass appeal, and constant adaptation to an ever-changing revolutionary project. To Bolivar’s credit, he was not all that happy playing Caesar, or engaging in Robin Hood economics; he remained a romantic but genuine liberal, in the early 19th century sense.

His own ‘Caesarism’ came mostly from trying to assert control over regional chaos after the fall of the Spanish Empire. But while he died in 1840 when only 57, both his tumultuous military and political career and his voluminous writings left an immense and ambiguous heritage, to which almost any Latin American national leader can claim lineal descent by selective citation. None of them, Chavez included, have been very persuasive as reincarnations of the mythic hero. Bolivar came from a very wealthy and very old South American family, and was educated as a polished aristocrat. As a young man he had witnessed Napoleon’s imperial coronation in Paris, and admitted to being very impressed by it. But Bonaparte impressed him more as a monarchial reformer than as a voice and champion of impoverished masses. In fact, Bolivar’s writings have been drawn on frequently by Latin American conservatives.

However, Chavez has tried to claim the revolutionary Bolivar as his own model and ideal, actually renaming his country ‘the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’, erecting a gigantic Bolivar statue in Caracas, and, in a fine melodramatic touch, even having the famous liberator’s bones dug up for chemical tests to find whether there was any truth in a conspiracy theory that, rather from dying of tuberculosis, Bolivar had been poisoned by Columbian enemies.

It could as well be said that neither Barack Obama nor his main Republican opponents are much more like the American Founding Fathers than Chavez is like Bolivar, and citizens of Obama’s America, with its own Robin Hood and police state enthusiasms, are no longer in as strong a position as they once were in holding up American political and legal freedom as an ideal for all others to emulate. As well, they now live in a society with too many pundits and policy advisers who are, like Chavez and Obama themselves, graduates in political science, with little knowledge or understanding of history, and thereby of the historical and cultural factors that have shaped different kinds of successful and unsuccessful political ideas. Hence the ‘Mediterranean’, Catholic, macho, sexy, and above all, theatrical and bella figura politics south of the Rio Grande is now little more comprehensible to many members of the American political elite than the joyous entrepreneurial capitalism of Silicon Valley has been to the Liberation Theology monasteries and convents of Central America.

A genuine reincarnation of Simon Bolivar is not very likely, but there will probably be many more versions of Hugo Chavez, long a much more familiar type from ancient times to 1930s Louisiana, to present Ecuador. They may quote Bolivar as well, but not one of his saddest late observations: ‘All those who served the revolution have ploughed the sea.”

Groucho Marxism

Michael Enright, the host of CBC Radio’s Sunday Edition, has a flair for spotting ideas of coming importance, or at least importance for CBC employees and those who depend on the CBC to provide them with their enlightened opinions. So it was not all that surprising that he chose the 165th anniversary of the publication of The Communist Manifesto to mull whether Marx and Marxism were now going through an improbable revival.

He began the show with a dramatic flourish, a scratchy old recording of Lenin thundering to some 1920s Soviet audience, but leaped nimbly past the next seventy years of Lenin’s handiwork and that of his followers. What Enright wanted to talk about was Marxist ‘thought’ today, not in any of the past embarrassing instances of its actual governmental application. As an initial explanation of why a 21st century version was germinating, he first pointed out that the Great Crash of 2008 had led to a renewed interest in the idea of Marx the prophet.

To help prove the point, he observed that, since the Crash, copies of Das Kapital have been ‘flying off the shelves’ in Germany. However, that may just show that young German university students are maintaining their great tradition, not just of devouring bad ideas from their professors, a habit as common among Canadian and American students, but unlike the latter, actually trying to read, or at least skim, even the dreariest works placed on their class reading lists. Millions of past Marxists worldwide, from murderous revolutionaries to mild academic blowhards, undoubtedly used to read and drew their ideas from the Manifesto, a forceful polemic pamphlet, which the youthful Marx and Engels whipped off in under 300 pages. But Das Kapital, only ‘Volume I’ of Marx’s never completed magnum opus of almost twenty years later, is not only three times as long, but as a laboured synthesis of 19th century English political economy and the tortuous dialectics of Hegelianism, regularly defeated even his fanatical worshippers, and belongs on that long shelf of books which are much admired but not read.

Enright deftly navigated the minefield of voluminous writings by Marx and Marxists by throwing out a few questions to his three interview guests: Leo Panitch, a York University professor of political science, editor of The Socialist Register, and co-author of a recent book on The Making of Global Capitalism; Ursula Huys, another political science professor, from the University of Hertfordshire, who writes mainly on the new working world of outsourcing and call centres, and who has published a book on The Making of a Cybertariat; and Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old editor of a New York City magazine called Jacobin. It is unlikely that many Canadians had previously ever heard of them, although all three were clearly legends in their own minds. Enright, a little like Scrooge’s midnight visitors, may have chosen Panitch to represent Marxism past, Huys as Marxism present, and Sunkara as Marxism future.

Panitch, who speaks in the measured tones of a well-fed bishop of his church, is one of that army of ‘social science’ academics who largely rewrite ordinary media stories in what might be called Marxian demotic. That is, he takes familiar current political and economic news and rewrites and restates it with a ‘class analysis’, that provides nothing not already obvious, but in much more splendidly pretentious form. For example, he daringly admits that Lenin’s theory of economic imperialism can not be used to describe how international capitalism works today, since American corporations actually invest far more in places like Great Britain than they do in developing countries in Africa and Asia. Indeed, he notices that British capitalist enterprises also invest in the U. S., explaining this as the ‘interpenetration of capitalist imperialism’. Give him a few more years, and he may make the still more exciting discovery that this is what is called ‘trade’.

Both he and Huys give the impression of trying very hard to offer an avant-garde of socioeconomic interpretation, but like Wallerstein, Hobsbawm, and similar lifelong Marxist academics, they just sound like unusually cranky readers of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, constantly tripping on the Protean nature of the Great Beast. You can’t really blame them; the reporters and analysts of the WSJ and FT have to work harder and faster than these academic bad poets limping along behind them..

Consider Silicon Valley alone. Five of the six biggest websites in the world are there (one is Chinese). The two Google founders are tied for 13th richest person on earth. Tens of thousands of young technical workers in the Valley work long hours, but make well over $100,000 a year. That may do nothing to solve the unemployment problems of young and old living in rust belt cities, but whatever this means in the longer run, it hardly fits any of Marx’s own prophecies about the ‘bourgeoisie’ and ‘proletariat’, or even the Marxian glosses being provided for the American economy a few decades ago, which were all about ‘alienation’, not the arriving information revolution. The present Marxists like Panitch and Huys have been as forced to ‘go global’ as the corporations they bewail, in search of a shape-shifting ‘working class’.

Marxists still sometimes indulge in the joys of ‘dialectics’, a kind of flimflam to escape tight corners, but a sense of irony is not their strong suit. Ursula Huys is an even better demonstration of this than Panitch. He has now spent three decades at York University, which was created at the very beginning of the 1960s, and has kept several departments in 1960s aspic ever since. Hertfordshire is a quite different sort of place, beginning as a modest Hatfield Technical College, on land provided by the once-famous Dehavilland Aircraft Co. It became a university only in the early 1990s, and retained a strong connection to engineering and technical education right into the present. It also keeps winning awards for being an unusually innovative and ‘entrepreneurial’ school. Since Professor Huys has been there since the 1970s, she may very well participate in its ‘entrepreneurial’ innovations and take pride in them, apparently little bothered by the thought that Marxist and socialist past policies have been about as beneficial to entrepreneurs as a compulsory diet of cyanide.

Huys claimed that Marxism is ‘just a toolbox’, although apparently containing a mighty hammer. She talked to Enright about the possibility of eliminating the capitalist system through a general ‘withdrawal of consent’, a syndicalist dream sounding more like Georges Sorel than Marx, or even a kind of inverted version of Atlas Shrugged. But undoubtedly the Marxist for the age of i-phones and Gangnam Style was Baskhar Sunkara, the 23-year-old American son of prosperous Asian immigrant parents who dropped out of university to create Jacobin, first an online periodical that began getting many hits (elegant web page, topics much more lively than those found in old Marxist periodicals like Monthly Review), and has now become a quarterly periodical based in New York City.

Sunkara’s growing little enterprise appears to be bound on the same course as the one followed by the British Marxism Today a few years ago. That is, to become a venue for bright young leftists, mostly of upper-crust background, whose ‘Marxism’ is essentially a Whig aristocratic pose, not at all revolutionary, and not even very friendly to dogmatist keepers of the sacred Marxist flame, able to find in the ‘toolbox’ almost anything they want. This is a Marxism at last fully emancipated from its fierce revolutionism and romance of the stubbornly unrevolutionary proletariat; not the path to a political party, or even a moral program, but what is most of all an aesthetic stance. Contributors, once reaching middle age, may very well evolve into solidly reactionary curmudgeons. In the meantime, it will probably be useful for conservatives to read Jacobin – occasionally. Almost everything Marxists still apparently believe about their ‘toolbox’ has been shown to be hopelessly wrong, not just by the past horrors of Stalinism and Maoism, but by repeated refutations from major thinkers through the whole 20th century, many of the most acute critics being themselves ex-Marxists. But the world today is undoubtedly in a new kind of mess, with governments, banks, and corporations generating feeble economic growth mostly through borrowing more and more money. Libertarians and conservatives make more sense than Marxists, but are little more confident about what should be done next. So both may learn something by reading each other. Those who really want to know what Marxism is all about, as filtered through a great mind, should read the Polish philosopher, Leszek Kolakowski, especially his Main Currents of Marxism. Jacobin is probably just a preparation for Vanity Fair.

Not Damned Lies, Just Lifeless Truths

Consider a thought experiment about some two dozen Quebec voters in the recent election, a group of bilingual Quebec anglos living in a rural area, found to include three or four surprising PQ voters, but with the rest voting for the provincial Liberals. Suppose further that this is how they are composed: ‘John Smith’, son of a poor Scots-Canadian millworker, has made a substantial fortune, first in a local pulp and paper business, then shifting all his capital into other and distant fields. He has an annual income of $2 million. Through three consecutive unhappy and expensive marriages to now deceased wives, he has produced a brood of over a dozen children, all of them hopeless wastrels, drunks, drug addicts, and militant animal liberationists, all incapable of making a living on their own, sometimes drifting away, but mostly living on the Smith rural estate. Little fond of any of them, the Smith paterfamilias has provided each with separate trust funds permanently outside their control, paying each $30,000 a year, adjustable only for inflation. He has also prepared a challenge-proof will that will maintain the trust funds only if they are not touched. He wills all his major assets to his distant company employees, household servants, and favourite charities.

Further assume that some current political party spin doctor, doing an election post-mortem by using provincial demographic and tax data, has found that the total incomes of the little region come to $2,500,000. This is actually made up of $2 million from Smith, a quarter of a million from the trust-funded wastrel Smith offspring, and another quarter of a million from the household staff. The spin doctor, dividing the $2,500,000 between a total of 25 individuals, concludes that these individuals have an ‘average’ income of $100,000, indicating that it is composed of voters who are members of the affluent part of the middle class. He therefore manages to be completely wrong about every single one of them.

A political operative of a half century ago would be even more likely than the current one to make so crude a simple statistical error; howlers of that kind were much more common fifty years ago, especially by journalists. On the other hand, he would also take for granted that, even with more tedious labour required, he would need to learn more about the Smith village. The current investigator, perhaps unlikely to be as wildly misled as the hypothetical tale suggests, would nonetheless be more likely to depend on his numerical data alone, even if more skilfully manipulated. Nowadays, political science or journalism graduates are likely at a minimum to have yawned their way through a course in ‘Quantitative Methods’, or may have acquired some quicker wisdom from the old Darrell Huff classic, How To Lie With Statistics. Most would immediately recognize the fallacy of using an arithmetic mean to describe the motley individual fortunes of the Smiths and the servant staff. But they might not realize that even a more sophisticated use of a weighted mean or mode would still not entirely capture the Smith saga.

They are, after all, living in a world in which, often without realizing it, they would now be far more likely to be really familiar only with some statistical version of the Smiths, or the Joneses, or the Tremblays, Gagnons, or Goldbergs, than with any extended personal contact, or with the detailed histories and biographies of any of them For decades now, they will have found themselves surrounded and intellectually seduced, sometimes almost unconsciously, by now omnivorous statistical information and explanation.

In some ways, this has been just a particular variation of the great transformation of all thought in the last half of the 20th century, as it grew more university-monopolized, professionalized, specialized, and exponentially expanded. But the particular advance of statistics has also been a kind of unnoticed revolution in its own right; a readable historical account of how this happened can be found in The Lady Tasting Tea, by David Salsburg, himself a distinguished statistician. Statistical data, sampling, and theory, are now far more than useful tools; they have become dominant components in political policy studies, bureaucratic position papers, corporate marketing plans, research reports in the natural sciences, theses in the social sciences, and journalistic expositions.

Only men and women well over sixty are likely to be fully aware how recent and remarkable this change has been. Many people may have been misled by recalling the old jibe about ‘lies, damned lies, and statistics’, attributed to both Disraeli and Mark Twain, and hence suggesting that annoyed familiarity goes back at least to the 19th century. But it is less often realized that, however annoying, the ‘statistics’ bemoaned by Disraeli or Twain still just meant ‘state information’, that could include things like geological survey maps. Even as it came to be applied to exclusively numerical data, until well into the 20th century, the data was largely ‘raw’. As late as the early 1930s, it still most commonly consisted of overall government-tabulated demographic numbers, like births and deaths or employed and unemployed, until late in the decade making no use of sampling and sample comparisons.

Quantitative reasoning about probability and statistics was already being developed in the 17th century by thinkers like William Petty and Blaise Pascal, and gradually advanced over the next two centuries. But most of the major contributors to the mathematical statistics used today lived in the first half of the 20th century; the single most important one, Sir Ronald Fisher, died in 1962. The textbooks that university ‘Q.M.’ students are now required to buy are mostly just glosses of a 1935 book by Fisher, The Design of Experiments. But even as late as the time of his death, statistics was still something of an academic orphan, usually represented by a single course given in the mathematics departments, where it was often regarded with dislike by the pure mathematicians, who thought of it as a backwater for mediocrities.

This view of statistics has the same irony as found in almost all social science. In all of them, founding fathers like Adam Smith and Max Weber were undoubtedly intelligent, but they fathered disciplines that eventually became natural homes for narrow and gullible intellectual mediocrity. Fisher, and William Sealy Gosset [who had to write his major statistical papers under the pseudonym ‘Student’, as he was employed as a brewmaster at Guinness, statistical thinking long vital in the creation of good beer], were intellectual giants in their own right, entirely in the same class as ‘paradigmatic’ titans of physics and chemistry. On the other hand, just as very few of the now giant armies of social scientists, perhaps none, would be intellectual matches for Weber or Keynes, even when provided with advanced statistical techniques and computers on which to apply them, many current professors of statistics itself are intellectually mediocre, ill-educated and unimaginative, just as the pure mathematicians had long complained.

Many intimidatingly technical statistical publications in all fields, although now seldom showing elementary howlers like using the wrong choice of an unweighted mean, are still not very good. Many of them should have the the ghosts of Fisher and Gosset regularly tearing their hair, since, like most real geniuses in every field of thought, their greatest intellectual achievements came in understanding the fundamental limitations of their methods. But beyond that, undeniably indispensable as many modern statistical analyses in every field have become, there is still something ‘wrong’ about even the better ones, especially in politics and economics. It is that we are now living in a culture, at the scholarly level as well as the mass media one, in which it is regularly forgotten that the original purpose of converting information about human beings into numerical samples and quantified conclusions was to provide quick, roughly accurate, and practically useful insights about those human beings, not to replace altogether the kind of human understanding only possible through a combination of direct human experience and at least some knowledge of history, biography, literature, and philosophy.

Fisher and Gosset themselves understood that much of their work did not stand on entirely secure and consensually accepted philosophical premises. In fact, different founding premises yield different kinds of statistics, ‘frequentist’ versus ‘Bayesian’. Fundamental primises contend much as they do in non-quantitative politics and economics. But many eyes glaze over at the sight of algebraic formulae, inducing a mistaken sense of mathematical infallibility, rather than just another way of murdering to dissect. For anyone who really wants to understand society and politics, in Quebec or anywhere, they need to meet, or at least read about, lots of real Smiths, Tremblays, and Goldbergs, ‘biased sample’, or not. Otherwise, they may get the habit of giving statistical abstractions more life and purpose than real human beings in their minds, which is just a modern kind of superstition.

Hydro Quebec and Henry Adams

Pauline Marois included in her almost Stephen-Harper-like determination to fulfil election promises, the immediate closing of the ageing nuclear power facility at Gentilly. While nuclear power has become unfashionable again since the Fukushima disaster, this final writeoff in Quebec is still an ironic reversal for the PQ, compared to how its leaders once sounded. Especially as long as conventional hydroelectric expansion was associated with Robert Bourassa, the Pe’quistes once smiled warmly on nuclear power. They were oddly allied with several Canadian federal governments; Atomic Energy Canada had pressed for large-scale nuclear development ever since the days of Lester Pearson. Jacques Parizeau, some years before he became Premier, once told Le Devoir that “We don’t have to dam every single river just because they’re French Canadian and Catholic”.

Nonetheless, in power the PQ let the dams continue to multiply, Bernard Landry’s government signing another agreement with waterlogged northern natives in 2002. The Charest Liberals took the same route. The one example of a slightly less rosy view of has been Francoise Legault’s claim that it is overstaffed, and that he could get rid of several thousand expensive employees.

He has a case; Hydro has one of the lowest numbers of clients served per employee of any power-generating enterprise, in all of North America. It can claim with some justification that the location of the generating plants, unusually remote from their main Quebec and New England markets, and imposing harsh climatic conditions on workers, explain this. But it is no mere ordinary state monopoly.

I always found it a fascinating one. When I was an Equality Party Member of the Quebec legislature in 1989-1994, I served on the committee then considering the future of the James Bay project, and was the usual critic on Hydro issues in Question Period. I learned a fair amount about the economics of hydroelectricity in general, especially by making detailed comparisons of Hydro’s annual reports with those of B. C. and New Brunswick. Quebec was far more secretive than they were,, always pleading the need to keep ‘competitive’ information confidential., Sometimes I found this comic. In one Question Period, I asked why ‘our’ utility could not provide us with the same kind of output breakdowns readily available in the case of B. C. Electric. Jacques Parizeau slapped his desk and bellowed, in English, “Damned good question!” Even more memorable was a comment made to me in the hallway later by Lise Bacon, then the Liberal Minister responsible for Hydro. “That was a good question,” she agreed, “but you know, they’re not the easiest people to get information from… “

It was my colleague and EP Leader, Robert Libman, however, who enjoyed a moment in the sun in April of 1991, becoming a hero for a while for the general francophone public, who repeatedly congratulated us on the streets of Quebec City. A useful contact in the U. S. had passed on to us information being openly debated in an American Congressional committee, but which Hydro had tried, with a court order, to keep out of Canadian newspapers and TV news. Robert, using his parliamentary immunity, broadcast in Question Period the embarrassing news that Hydro was secretly selling electricity to selected customers at 40 per cent below cost.

The power was being sold to big aluminum and magnesium smelting firms, which use huge amounts of electricity to extract metal from ore, Norsk Hydro had been identified as a typical example, paying 1.5 cents a kilowatt hour, a lot less than the 2.4 cents it cost to produce, and much less than the 4.2 cents then being paid by ordinary Quebec residents. Then as now, electricity was still very cheap here, costing less in Montreal than any cities in North America but Winnipeg and Seattle. But the public had not much previously realized that low electricity bills were more than counterbalanced in taxes.

The characteristically arrogant attempt to muzzle the Canadian media had become ludicrous several days before Robert belled the cat, since Washinton was openly discussing the exact size of the subsidies. Pressed to respond, Hydro’s VP of industrial marketing admitted that 13 big industries, those for which electricity made up 30 per cent or more of their costs, benefited from what Hydro liked to call ‘risk and profit sharing contracts’, but which everyone else called subsidies. Supposedly, the lowered rates would be provided for the initial stages of poor profits, then raised when the company started making money, with the price ‘evening out’ over the life of the contract. This claim was met with scepticism by several economists, one estimating that Quebecers were paying well over $100,000 for each job actually being created by the policy.

Everyone really interested in Hydro knew that Hydro made its real money in two quite different ways. First of all, to the fury of Newfoundlanders, unable to break a disastrously long-term contract going back to 1949, Hydro was getting several thousand Megawatts from the shared project at the Little Churchill, for which they had to pay only a quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour, conveniently mixed in with the much higher James Bay costs. Secondly, they were exporting power to the northeastern U.S., charging New York State, for example, 6.5 cents a kilowatt hour, 5 cents more than what it was charging the favoured 13 companies, 2 cents more than Quebec consumers paid. These comparisons enraged American and Canadian environmentalist groups, not only objecting to all the flooding in northern Quebec, but seeing the cheap power as a disincentive to conservation measures in both Quebec and New England.

I met the top executives of Hydro in their presentations before the legislative committee, all highly articulate. Robert and I had also flown up to James Bay, talking to the Cree leader, Chief Bill Diamond, but also touring one of the giant facilities. I couldn’t help but be impressed by its grandeur, and the engineering talent that had gone into the construction. The James Bay project alone, costing well over $20 billion to build, and spread over an area as large as New York State, is one of the largest electricity generating systems in the world. It produces 16,000 megawatts, three times more than all the plants at Niagara Falls, and eight times the power of the colossal American Hoover Dam.

Nonetheless, I was not at all overwhelmed by the economic claims for the monopoly. Hydro appeared to me as having an opaque and imperial magnificence, not so much a sacred cow as a giant sacred cattle ranch. From the 1980s on, a few free-market economists were already making heretical sounds about the disadvantages of state monopoly ownership, and by 2009, Claude Garcia, writing for the conservative Montreal Economic Institute, even provided a detailed plan showing how a gradual privatization could take place, offering some calculations that this could bring several billion dollars of real increase in wealth for the people of Quebec. I did not have comparable detail available to me two decades ago, but what I could see led me to think then, as I still do, that privatization would serve the public interest, not just private industry developers.

I must admit, however, that I suspect that only a great general crisis in Quebec finances could lead to effective political thinking about the unthinkable. All the fuss I observed in the 1990s did have some consequences: Matthew Coon Come, the young lawyer who had become the new Grand Chief of the Cree, successfully blocked the Great Whale project. But overall, the great sacred cattle ranch grazed on unchanged, as it still does. Outside the pur et dur IEM libertarian economists, there is litle talk of privatization, or even some small steps like raising domestic rates to correspond to real costs. The worldwide drive to privatization and market discipline that began in the mid-1970s lost much of its force with the 2008 Crash, even in far less ‘collectivist’ milieux than this one. Watching the world of Hydro close up, I was strangely reminded of Lenin, who was himself so intoxicated by technological dreaming that he once wrote that ‘soviets plus electrification = Communism!” Slightly more modestly, those linked visionaries, Rene’ Le’vesque and Robert Bourassa, created our own local variant: ‘State monopoly + electrification = Le project collectif. Jacques Parizeau, as usual better at amusing utterance than government, had it right. Hardly anyone remembers any more how much the whole vast creation started as the work of that tough anglo engineer, Sir Herbert Holt, and every new river dam remains one more expression of nationalist public identity. Henry Adams would be stunned: the Virgin has married the Dynamo.

Constitutional Ghosts

Halloween, apparently now lasting for weeks, is supposed to recognize a brief rising of the dead from their graves. This year, some of us are bound to hear the moaning and rattling of chains of two particularly gruesome corpses: the Meech Lake Accord, proclaimed a quarter of a century ago in 1987, and its more quickly extinguished successor, the proposed Charlottetown Accord, slain by a failed national referendum, held exactly twenty years before this October 26. Both creatures owed their brief lives to Brian Mulroney, manufactured during his two Conservative majority governments from 1984 to 1992. Sickly at best, each took fatal blows from the opposition of Pierre Trudeau, who demonstrated that, with no remaining political office at all, he retained as much clout on constitutional issues as Mulroney did as sitting Prime Minister. The decaying remains continue to haunt us still.

The constitutional upheavals of 1982-95 came about mainly because of the large political changes in Quebec in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the winning of a majority provincial government by the Parti Que’be’cois in 1976, and its own failed ‘sovereignty-association’ 1980 referendum. The conduct of the provincial Liberals, returned to power from 1985 to 1994, was also an important factor. But the whole story was shaped above all by the personal character and ambitious of Trudeau and Mulroney. By the 1980s, Trudeau was already something of a Canadian national institution, even to those who were not fond of him or his policies. He had been in power uninterruptedly from 1968 to 1979, those years including his use of the War Measures Act to deal with the 1970 FLQ crisis. The Joe-Clark-led Conservatives had defeated him in 1979, but had won only a minority government, which soon fell and brought back Trudeau from 1980 to 1984. He began those final years with his successful fight against the 1980 Quebec referendum, in which he had included a vague promise that he would soon provide a new Canadian constitution. He also turned sharply to the left, but the nationalist economic policies he introduced crashed badly on the double-digit interest rates of the early 1980s.

That brought Mulroney, newly chosen by the Conservatives to replace the ineffectual Joe Clark, to majority power in 1984. His most powerful argument at the 1983 Conservative leadership convention was that he was the man who could remedy the longtime weakness of his party in Quebec. By that time, Trudeau had carried out the ‘patriation’ of the constitution from the last powers held by the British Privy Council, combining that with the federal-provincial negotiations that led to the Constitutional Act of 1982. Trudeau gained the support of nine of the provinces, but the Act and its attended Charter of Rights and Freedoms was rejected by Rene’ Le’vesque, and also by the Quebec Liberals. However, the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that neither Quebec nor any other province had the power to veto the patriation, or to claim that they were not bound by the new constitution.

In his 1984 landslide election victory, Mulroney indeed ‘delivered’ Quebec, filling its seats with conservative nationalists, including his then close friend and adviser, Lucien Bouchard. But few Canadians in other provinces, who voted largely against the Liberal economic record, had much idea what Mulroney had meant in his promise of constitutional ‘reconciliation’. Trudeau’s own 1980 promise to Quebec had actually led, in the 1982 Act, to a reduction of previous provincial powers; Mulroney was aiming at some kind of undoing of Trudeau’s handiwork. Three years later, Mulroney used all his considerable negotiating skills to gain the temporary agreement of all ten provinces, including Bourassa’s Quebec, and even the now John-Turner-led opposition Liberals, to his 1987 Meech Lake Accord, ambiguously recognizing Quebec as a ‘distinct society’.

New provincial Liberal governments in New Brunswick and Newfoundland soon showed that they did not with to preserve this fragile harmony, Manitoba was also discontented. Anglo Quebec, fearing its fate as part of the ‘distinct society’ also rebelled; while the 1989 provincial election gave another term to the Bourassa Liberals, four predominantly anglo seats abandoned them for the upstart Equality Party. Mulroney tried, sometimes in crude and bullying fashion, to steamroller over all these disparate problems. But when Trudeau subjected the agreement to an elegant and merciless assault in both the French and English press, that gave heart to the Newfoundland Liberal premier, Clyde Wells, and to an unbending native member of the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper, and they killed Meech Lake dead in June of 1990..

Much sound and fury followed for the next five years. The mercurial Lucien Bouchard, given major input in crafting Meech Lake, greeted its failure by resigning from the Conservative Party, taking with him a group of followers to form the Bloc Que’be’cois. Bourassa created the huge Be’langer-Campeau Committee, which included Jacques Parizeau and other PQ Members, Bouchard, and representatives of muncipalities, unions, and other groups. This mouutain laboured for a year and brought forth two mice: a smaller ‘Expert Committee to Consider the Implications of Sovereignty’, and another less lively one to consider new constitutional offers. Not much came of either. Mulroney, by then so personally unpopular that he pushed Joe Clark to the fore for new negotiations, cobbled together another accord at Charlottetown. But this time ratification depended on a national referendum, which not only failed in Quebec itself, but also in most other Canadian provinces. In the 1993 federal election, the Conservatives, now led by Kim Campbell, were almost annihilated, replaced by the Bloc in Quebec and the new Reform Party in Western Canada. The PQ under Jacques Parizeau won the 1994 Quebec election, and Parizeau tried yet another provincial ‘sovereignty’ referendum, but again narrowly failed to win a majority, despite drawing on the assistance of the much more personally popular Lucien Bouchard, who then replaced Parizeau as PQ Premier.

Both Trudeau and Mulroney were dealing with a singularly difficult province at a singularly difficult time, but they did a lot themselves to make both the time difficult. They are bound to be regarded as men who made a desert we now call peace. Both put the country at risk with ambitious gambles. Trudeau advanced his own centralist vision with so contemptuous a disregard for provincial nationalist emotions as to help revive quasi-separatist politics he once claimed to have vanquished. But Mulroney managed to be worse, using bungling attempts to use the separatist threat as a club to batter both recalcitrant provincial Canadian politicians and the wider public into accepting first Meech and then Charlottetown out of simple fear.

Mulroney simply could not demonstrate the supreme intellectual self-confidence and clarity of purpose that Pierre Trudeau could. Rather than successfully making the case for the traditionally more decentralized Conservative vision of Canada, he sounded more like a hired Quebec advocate than a Canadian Prime Minister. Trudeau was respected even by many Canadians who were not fond of him personally and did not at all like his political ideas. Mulroney was nearly the exact opposite, much better-liked by his own political rank and file, and much better at maintaining amiable relations with professional politicians generally than Trudeau. But overestimating the value of the professionals’ concord.

Much closer to the business world in which he had served as an executive, Mulroney was highly effective in leading the fight for the Free Trade Agreement with the U.S., winning his second majority government with that fight in 1988. But even his political supporters never saw him as an intellectually commanding small-c conservative alternative to Trudeau’s small-l left-liberalism. Worse, he did not seem to realize this, never seeing that a lawyer’s negotiating triumph with the politicians was an inadequate basis on which to redefine a nation. Trudeau, lofty authoritarianism and all, had an instinctive grasp of mass politics in the mass media age, which he continued to exploit without elected office. He could always provide at least the illusion that he commanded events; Mulroney never gave a similar impression, looking more like a man who had tried to set up a conjuring trick, only to have his stage apparatus collapse, with rabbits and doves fleeing in all directions. In the process, he had done more than any Quebec provincial politician to persuade the Quebec public that they had some large legitimate grievance against Canada, and he had helped demolish the once large reservoir of goodwill in the rest of the country toward this province. Now that the federal Liberals appear to be putting their hopes in Justin Trudeau, he may be tempted to propose another grand national reconstruction in the manner of his father, and it is conceivable that some successor to Stephen Harper will respond with a revived version of what Mulroney failed to do. Bad idea. Better to allow the ghosts out only on Halloween.

A Lincoln at the End of his Tether

Abraham Lincoln is for Americans, something like a demigod. One or two other Presidents have achieved their own mythic status, but never anything like that of Lincoln. From his own time to the present, he has been an incarnation of the the American Union, a new and singular Founding Father, four score and seven years after the earlier ones. For the America that is as much a religion as a nation, he is a Christ-like figure, full of courage, wisdom, and humour; a suffering penitent who took on his shoulders the Original Sin of slavery, entrenched in the country’s founding document, and redeemed the nation from it; a writer and orator who captured the meaning of the moral struggle and bloody conflict of his time in poetic and Biblical language; at the Civil War’s end, the assassinated martyr. His Presidential years alone, coinciding exactly with the 1861-65 War, could scarcely be fitted into anything like a conventional cinematic biography.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln tries to cope with this challenge with a compressed character portrait covering only the last four months in Lincoln’s life, and the intimate and sometimes squalid details of his last political struggle. This was his fight to achieve a broader and more enduring fulfilment of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, to be accomplished by ramming through the House of Representatives the 13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, permanently abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the United States. While the North had clearly won the war by then, Lincoln saw the task as both urgent and difficult. A Confederate delegation was approaching Washington with a peace offer. They might be unwilling to negotiate if finding slavery permanently outlawed, while if Congress became fully aware that a peace offer was at hand, its unpredictable mixture of conservative and Radical Republicans with wavering War Democrats might refuse to pass the Amendment. So Lincoln, portrayed brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, had to engage in a certain amount of manipulation and subterfuge to carry out his grand design.

He needed the assistance of his friend, Secretary of State William Seward, well played by David Strathairn, and his critic but occasional collaborator, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the firebrand leader of the abolitionist Radical Republicans in Congress. He also needed the help of a sleazy Democratic Party backstairs fixer, William Bilbo (James Spader). At the same time, he had to deal with his private grief at the loss of a son to typhoid, and the nagging of his neurotic wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), both of them terrified of losing their oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to the war. The fast-moving narrative about these and a host of minor characters was taken by Spielberg from the 2005 bestseller book about the Lincoln cabinet by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, and Goodwin collaborated with the playwright Tony Kushner on the script. But it is the sheer virtuosity of Day-Lewis that brings the story to life.

Spielberg’s talent in filming spectacular action sequences is almost absent from Lincoln. The President is shown visiting the Union commanding general, Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris) at the battlefront, but only the film’s first few minutes, a grisly scene of soldiers dying in mud, brings home the savagery of the Civil War. That scene quickly gives way to a conversation between Lincoln and two black Union soldiers, and almost all of the rest of the film is rather stagey dialogue in darkly-lit rooms.

In those scenes in which Lincoln is not present, the dialogue is not always as impressive as it is clearly intended to be, with hints frequently provided by rising chords of background music. Sally Field is supposed to be irritating as Lincoln’s wife, and is only too successful. Tommy Lee Jones is also something of a mixed blessing. The real Thaddeus Stevens was dogged and humourless to the edge of fanaticism. But Jones pretty much plays the character he usually does, never quite able to conceal his amiable small-town Texas origins just below the surface of a gruff and scowling exterior. It is a little hard to see him as a blazing-eyed passionate Northern slavery abolitionist. Tommy Lee Thaddeus is, however, so much fun to watch that few will complain. In fact, all the acting is fine, only put in the shade by Day-Lewis, whose Lincoln is not a mythic icon, but a complex, clever, resourceful, fallible, and sometimes tormented man, splendidly achieved.

But Spielberg, who in recent years has clearly burned with an ambition not just to make fine entertainments, but to embrace ‘History’ with a capital H, tends to hit that large nail firmly on his thumb, and has done it again in Lincoln. It just might have been possible to convey the whole sense of Lincoln’s larger importance to his era within the narrow confines of Kushner’s script, but to do that would have required at least a bit more context, something more than a recapitulation of backstage political games. Because Spielberg and Kushner take for granted modern popular attitudes about the evil of slavery and the necessity of ending it, they show little interest in why not all Republicans were Radical ones, or why not all War Democrats were merely opportunist or timid. They take no interest at all in why Southerners were so confident of the justice of their own cause. By excluding all these considerations, studied by many of the best American historians for many years, they have helped give their story its rapid pace, but have robbed it of much of its tragic dimensions. Entirely successful in making an exciting story out of Lincoln’s ingenious politicking, they have removed any sense at all of why and how slavery had not only produced so complete a regional political division in one country, but eventually something like a clash between two rival civilizations, with the total defeat of one of them changing all of world history thereafter.

Lincoln is made to remark briefly at one point that the war cost 600, 000 lives, a figure he would be unlikely to know at the time, but permissible dramatic license. However, that horrendous figure is given little context. For example, for every six slaves freed, approximately one soldier was killed. For every ten white Southerners ultimately kept in the Union, one Union and one Confederate soldier died Furthermore, however appalling it now appears to think of human beings as property, emancipation with no compensation to slaveholders was one of the largest economic expropriations in the whole of human history, technically larger in scale than the expropriation carried out in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The utter ruin of the South was not just felt by the slaveholders, but by the suddenly ‘freed’. propertyless, largely illiterate, and henceforth only uncertainly employed ex-slaves. Lincoln’s Vice-President and unhappy successor, the Tennessee War Democrat Andrew Johnson, is entirely absent from the Spielberg film, but his difficulties in trying to apply Lincoln’s relatively mild policies of “Presidential Reconstruction’, only weeks after Lincoln was killed, came partly because Stevens and Seward were breathing hotly down his neck, eventually producing the crisis of Johnson’s near-impeachment, and from 1869 a near-decade of harsher ‘Radical Reconstruction’: the South was occupied by Union troops and flooded with Northern carpetbaggers buying up everything in sight from bankrupt Southerners. Almost another century of racial subordination, segregation, and lawless violence followed. Even if the war itself was unavoidable, it remains conceivable that had Lincoln chosen an earlier, messier, but less absolute and devastating end, a more gradual ending of slavery would have been better, even for the slaves. Lincoln’s ‘new birth of freedom’ came at terrible cost, not hinted at by the film.

Canadians of the time were driven to their own Confederation by the revolutionary explosion to their south. The British Empire had abolished slavery three decades earlier, and Canadians for the most part disapproved of its continuation in the American South. However, in the Civil War years themselves, Montreal and Toronto, irritated by rude Yankees and charmed by well-mannered and free-spending Southerners, largely came to favour their cause in the War. We still look back to that decade through the eyes of the practical and cynical John A. Macdonald, rather than those of his prophetic contemporary. Less moral grandeur, but less agony; our usual option.

Prince Arthur Herald Christmas Song 2012

Investors watched their stocks with fright, as Greece more broke was found;
While Brits thanked God on island tight that they still had the pound.
The Queen drew lots of broad applause, in Diamond Jubilee;
Her stoic calm made adults pause, in common memory.

Republicans sent candidates, to primaries galore;
They left a pile of broken plates, and fratricidal gore;
Mitt Romney struggled with the fates, but stayed a pleasant bore.
Obama thus still rules the States, but not the Congress floor.

Petraeus is now daubed with mud, the stone man turned to jelly;
Biographer who’d found him stud, had threatened one Jill Kelley.
The Harper Tories spent the year in pushing to the right;
For CBC they shed no tear, while greens with rage turned white.

In Montreal, a student mass, resisted fee increase;
Pauline Marois adored their brass, Charest slipped on the grease;
Corruption in construction trades, is being now unveiled;
Police are making frequent raids, but no one yet is jailed.

The end of Tremblay’s failing grades: an anglo mayor is hailed;
Toronto’s mayor now somewhat fades; a court may have him nailed.
McGuinty too, just chose the door,
Out West, two women have the clout, where only men once trod.

The great and good all rise and fall, like stocks and interest rates;
But all end in the same bus haul, that goes to Pearly Gates.

– Merry Christmas & Happy New Year from Neil Cameron, December, 2012.

Davos and the Spectre of David Hume

This year’s just-completed World Economic Forum at Davos had as its theme ‘resilient dynamics’. According to its executive chairman, Klaus Schwob, ‘resiliency in the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and withstand sudden shocks,’ while ‘dynamism’ is required as well, to assure future growth through ‘bold vision and even bolder action.’ Don Tapscott, a Canadian economist and business guru, who has been a gratingly cheery booster of the Davos meetings for years, also brought the news to readers of the Globe & Mail that what began as only a series of meetings has now evolved into ‘a massive research organization’, a ‘do-tank’.

2,500 participants from over 100 countries came to Davos this January: government and corporate leaders, economists, and wealthy world-improving entertainers like Bono. Almost all of them were provided with a great deal of comfortable personal insulation from ‘sudden shocks’ of any kind, and many were also accustomed to being generously compensated for producing lots of bold visions; Paul Krugman provides one every month or two in his NY Times columns, and the megabankers can be counted on as often for clever new derivatives. Tapscott argued that Davos remained ‘the foremost creative force for engaging leaders in collaborative activities focused on shaping the global, regional, and industry agendas.’ This may very well be true, but over a decade after 9/11 and five years after the World Crash, the Davos assembly, which still observes the pious reverence for economic forecasting that existed two decades ago, resembles a conference of men’s hat makers, congratulating each other on their new plastic bowlers.

Of course, discussions and papers gave solemn attention to tottering banks and flowering sovereign debts, but nothing really much disturbed the equanimity of this new in-crowd as they inhaled the brisk Swiss mountain air. Since 2006 the Forum has released an annual ‘Global Risks Report’, examining 50 global risks in terms of ‘impact, likelihood, and the extent to which they are connected’, based on a survey of ‘more than 1000 experts from industry, government and academia’. And how could 1000 such experts be wrong? Indeed, a special report on ‘national resilience’ proposed that countries could be assigned a ‘resilience rating’, with annual reports of this kind of progress. There is also a year-round WEF working group, of which Tapscott proudly claims membership, ‘that includes many of the world’s leading thinkers about global governance’, excited by ‘new non-state networks of civil society’, addressing ‘every conceivable issue facing humanity’. The group is ‘trying to understand their potential for improving the state of the world’, which should keep them busily occupied for some time.

Although ‘resilience’ has now been around for a decade as an economists’ buzzword, it is just possible that this year’s Davos theme was a vague nod of sorts to the heretical arguments about statistics and forecasting made in recent years by gifted ‘outliers’ like Nassim Nicholas Taleb and Nate Silver. Neither of these are mere flavour-of-the month popular pundits in the manner of Malcolm Gladwell or the authors of Freakonomics. In fact, both are presenting their own kind of fresh versions of an old, powerful, and very alarming philosophical position.

Silver, who trumped all more conventional political pundits by accurately predicting, state-by-state, the results in both of the last two American Presidential elections, has already had an enthusiastic reception for his new book, The Signal and the Noise. He is not so much a grand theorist as an individual who understands how to analyze statistics with a special personal skill, this in itself casting great doubts on the validity of purely standardized statistical models.. Taleb is a great deal more egomaniacal and bombastic, but while he can sometimes be irritating, especially in his latest book, Antifragile, he has something important to say, as he did in his previous books, Fooled by Randomness (2001) and The Black Swan (2007). The latter book was a best-seller and a public sensation, at least in the business and financial worlds. He had already become a recognized financial guru; as a onetime options trader on Wall Street, he not only saw in advance the likelihood of the 2008 Crash, but placed, to use a favourite expression of his, ‘skin in the game’, shorting the collapsing real estate derivatives early enough to make himself some tens of millions of dollars. He has not repeated this success, but can now afford quite a few more modest plunges.

But then his whole argument against academic economists, statisticians and Wall Street rocket scientists is that neither he nor anyone else can predict the future at all, since stunningly unexpected ‘Black Swans’ are not just very rare exceptions, but frequent enough to ruin all persuasive-looking futurology. This is not a new idea; it was classically demonstrated by David Hume over two centuries ago, and Taleb also explicitly acknowledges his debt to two great Hume-influenced sceptical thinkers of the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper. But just as it used to be said that many of the purely philosophical arguments advanced by Nietzsche had been made earlier by Hume, Nietzsche differing mainly by yelling them at the top of his voice, Taleb has a similar method in his madness. Hume not only undermined traditional notions of causality, but was just as devastatingly sceptical about the limits of confining study to ‘relations’ instead, these including the statistical ones that have become more and more universal today. He turned his own empirical reasoning against even itself, so thoroughly that ambitious futurists have been averting their eyes from this terrifying Scot ever since.

Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Taleb are all fond of pointing out the flaw in the reasoning of an empiricist turkey. The turkey becomes accustomed to the daily appearance of the farmer with food, and hence experiences an unpleasant surprise one day when the farmer arrives with the sharp blade that will soon convert the turkey into someone’s dinner. Even a turkey who has observed another turkey’s misfortune can not predict when the blade will replace his own meal. Taleb’s own prescription for business, financial, and political action is, behind the bombast, a highly conservative one, recommending the cautious use of rules of thumb and a spirit of trial and error. Hence he is full of loathing for most academic economists, and for bankers inventing financial models whose failure does not affect them because they have ‘no skin in the game’. He suggests that it would have improved the body politic to behead a few such bankers on the pavement outside their ATMs, an idea unlikely to be well-received at Davos even as a joke.

In his new book, he insists on the utility, even the necessity, of his ‘antifragile’ neologism, which he argues, using several examples from a wide range of human activities, is not simply a synonym for ‘robust’ or ‘resilient’, but has a special and different meaning: a kind of thinking and action which can actually find benefits in turbulence and volatility. Not, of course, as an exact science; for Taleb, in all empirical experience, there is no exact science, certainly not in academic economics or the design of Wall Street investments. But he thinks there are sometimes real-life counterparts of the mythological Hydra, which sprouted two new heads every time one was cut off. The Hydra-like, in his view, include weightlifters, Mafiosi, entrepreneurs, street fighters, and the author of Antifragile. He likes bottom-up, diversified, and small enterprises, allowing uncatastrophic withdrawal when things go wrong.

Taleb is nonetheless willing to be grand enough in his own level of epistemological ambition. Arguing less about specifically statistical reasoning in his new book than in the previous two, he turns to the very founding arguments of Greek philosophy. In the 1930s. Karl Popper attacked ‘the spell of Plato’ as the first ancestor of the totalitarian thought and politics of his time. Taleb goes after Plato somewhat differently. Noting that The Republic opens with an attack on merchants and money lenders, Taleb takes the side of these moneymakers. But he remains like Popper in recognizing the permanent utopian attraction of a top-down rule of enlightened philosopher-king guardians. At least Plato’s were supposed to be schooled in wisdom, not just in knowledge, much less in data. Taleb is offering more insight to the world than it is likely to obtain from all 1000 of the Davos-selected ‘experts from industry, government, and academia’. The world may even come to prefer his shouted wisdom to the bland and optimistic annual groupthink counsel from Switzerland.

Real and ‘Counterfactual’ History: The Zhukov Factor

In courses as different as creative writing and historiography, there is a standard simple argument. If one writes, ‘The king died, and then the queen died’, either in fiction or in history, this is only chronicle. If one writes, ‘The king died, then the queen died of grief’, you have the basis of a novelist’s plot, or of a historical explanation. The novelist, however, is godlike and omniscient, and can be quite firm about the cause of the queen’s death. The historian has a larger problem, and will need plenty of supporting evidence to be confident about the second clause. After all, there can be few queens in history who showed more grief at the death of her consort than Victoria, but she managed to go on grimly mourning in constant black attire for decades after the death of Albert.

In the case of a queen’s quick death after the death of a king, she conceivably was so shattered, so unconcerned with eating, sleeping, or turning her mind from her agony, that the explanation of her literal death from grief may be a real possibility. But she might have discreetly committed suicide with a drug overdose, concealed from the world, or more dramatically, been as discreetly murdered by some ambitious courtier or member of the royal family. Or a historian might succeed in finding medical documents unequivocally demonstrating that the queen had been in the course of dying from some ailment like an intestinal cancer well before the king died. In some cases, the true explanation can actually be found, with near-total certainty; in others, alternative explanations can go on forever, although with some more probable than others.

Furthermore, sometimes a very good explanation can be provided that event A caused event B, and it may even have been published more than once, yet never really entered the assumptions and imaginings of most historians, never mind the broader public. It is sometimes made strikingly clear that, as Dr. Johnson remarked, we are more in need of being reminded than being instructed. This thought came back to me with great force as I was reading a review article (‘The Truth About World War II’) in the October 11, 2012 New York Review of Books, by Richard J. Evans, of two new books on the War, a new history, The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, and a new biography, Stalin’s General: The Life of Gyorgy Zhukov, by Geoffrey Roberts. This is the first I have heard of the latter, although he apparently did a solid job on Zhukov. However, both Beevor and Evans are two of the best living historians about WW II, which makes the whole review an unusually authoritative one.

Yet it contained a couple of paragraphs about events in 1939 that I know I and other history teachers had been more or less familiar with, but which I doubt many of us thought through as consistently as both Beevor, and Evans, who agrees with him, have. Those of us familiar with the history of the era knew that there was a short Russo-Japanese war in 1939, and we also knew that the Japanese cabinet had once considered a ‘strike north’ strategy to expand and acquire raw materials by attacking the U.S.S.R., rather than a ‘strike south’ on the British and Dutch colonial empires in Asia, co-ordinated with the attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor. But I don’t think I have ever seen before, or thought through before, this condensed version of the equivalent of why ‘the queen died’, as described by Evans:

‘The book [Beevor’s] opens with a description of the Battle of the Khalkin Gol River, which began in May 1939 with a minor border clash between Red Army and Mongolian forces on the one side, and Japanese and Manchurian forces of the other. Unlike previous clashes, this one escalated as the local Japanese commander ordered an air strike against Soviet bases behind the front line, and Stalin called in the cavalry commander Gyorgy Zhukov to deal with the situation. Zhukov prepared his mission with all the tactics that later made him famous, assembling massive reinforcements under cover of darkness and concealing them during the day, while deceiving the enemy with misleading and badly encoded messages into believing he was digging in when he was actually preparing to go on the offensive.

On August 20, 1939, his tanks powered forward behind the Japanese lines in a large encircling movement, inflicting 60,000 casualties on the enemy and resolving the border issue in favor of the Soviet Union. Another of Zhukov’s characteristics came to the fore in the conflict too: his disregard for casualties among his own troops, nearly 8,000 of whom were killed and more than 15,000 wounded. An attempt by his superior officer to stop the carnage was brusquely dismissed as “indecisiveness”.

Beevor brings out well the larger significance of this minor clash. Surprised and dismayed by the defeat, the Japanese military was forced to abandon its plan to strike first against the Soviet Union and give way to the naval faction, who wanted instead to ‘strike south’ in the Pacific. The decision had far-reaching consequences; bolstered by a Soviet-Japanese nonaggression pact signed in April 1941, it would give Stalin a free hand to counter the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the months following the launching of Hitler’s ‘Operation Barbarossa’ in June 1941.’

So there it is; a whole card deck of not especially far-fetched counterfactual histories of the 1940s, of several different Second World Wars and outcomes, all to be traced to what might have happened if Stalin had not had the ruthless but capable Zhukov available to deal with the Japanese in the spring of 1939.

Neil Cameron

Lasting Conservative Lessons from Liberal Reasoners

Lasting Conservative Lessons from Liberal Reasoners

Every year, new books appear about philosophical ideas and politics. Truth be told, even those getting rapturous reviews seldom have any impact at all on thought or action in public affairs. The interesting exceptions are often new editions, or sequels or reprints, of the few that did. Two examples have appeared this year, both offering flashbacks to two great debates in which their authors had a central part. One is a followup to a bombshell book of 1945 and the outset of the Cold War; the other is a reprint of an even more sensational work of 1986, only a little before the collapse of Communism, and in the midst of a very different intellectual and political era, which it helped redefine. The first is a posthumously published and edited collection of late essays by Karl Popper, After ‘The Open Society’ (Routledge), and the other is a 25th anniversary edition of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster), with a new introductory essay by Andrew Ferguson.

Popper, an Austrian Jew by origin who fled from the Nazis to New Zealand in 1937, has had plenty of critics, but has remained influential for over half a century as both a philosophical theorist and as a polemicist. He had introduced, starting in the 1930s with a work in German on ‘the logic of scientific discovery’, a novel criterion for assessing the value of theories in both the natural sciences and the fuzzier social ones. The criterion was not one of empirical verification, but of refutation; he pointed out that no number, no matter how large, of observed white swans could definitively ‘verify’ the universal claim that ‘all swans are white’, but the discovery of only a single black swan would refute the claim. He developed and expanded this ‘fallibilist’ epistemology in a long series of later books, using it to analyze the persuasiveness of accomplishments in natural science and the feebleness of social and psychological theories. His first two English-language works, The Poverty of Historicism (1942) and The Open Society and its Enemies (1945) were also ferociously polemical, attacking Marx and Marxism, Freud and Freudianism, and what he regarded as ‘unfalsifiable’ and ‘prophetic’ theories in general. In his earlier years, Popper had still remained, nonetheless, essentially a ‘reformist liberal’ or non-Marxist social democrat, advocating a cautious kind of ‘piecemeal social engineering’.

The Open Society was both a sensation on its appearance and one of the most celebrated and enduring works of the intellectual Cold War, remaining in print for many years. The essays in After the Open Society show how Popper gradually became less and less persuaded that even moderate and evolutionary state-directed economic changes were either morally desirable or practically efficacious. Once sharply distinguishing his own views from those of Friedrich Hayek, he eventually came to the latter’s entirely free-market ideas. He drew far less attention in making this change than he had with his earlier books; he was not that distinctive in the wider neoconservative political current that arrived in the 1980s.

The new bombshell of that decade was Allan Bloom’s book, which became a bestseller beyond the level of all of Popper’s books put together. Bloom did not so much propose a single new organizing Grand Idea, like Popper’s ‘refutationism’, although all his essays showed the effects of the close interpretive readings of classical and modern authors that he had learned from his mentor, Leo Strauss. The philosophical reasoning was of a great deal more polished and subtle kind than that provided by Popper, who, like the Vienna Circle of logical positivists thinkers with whom he had once associated, was far more affected by the apparent special authority of natural science in the modern world, especially as displayed in the evolutionary biology of Darwin and the relativity and quantum physics of Einstein and Planck.

However, Bloom the Plato scholar and Strauss disciple was just as much a no-quarter polemicist as Popper, his main target not the Marxist-Leninists and their mirror-image fascist opponents, that Popper had regarded it as necessary to stretch on his rack. Bloom, an odd mixture of American academic liberal Democrat voter and elitist Europhile cultural conservative, offered a keening lament about the entire development of modern Western university education, which he charged with a complete failure in providing a moral and intellectual foundation for rising generations. The original title he had intended for his book is in some ways a better condensation of his indictment than the eventual famous one; he had intended it to be called Souls Without Longing.

Both Andrew Ferguson, the conservative journalist who provided an excellent historiographic introduction to Bloom and his book for the new commemorative edition, and the two editors of the late Popper essays, have been bound to realize that the world has changed so much over the last three decades that many of the disputes that concerned these authors already have a somewhat archaic quality. For younger readers interested in philosophy and politics today, at least on first approach, reading might at first seem like reading, say, a couple of brilliant Victorian authors discussing church-state relations, or the debates between Marxist and pacifist poets and novelists that were a feature of the Great Depression. But Popper and Bloom are both very much still worth reading, not only for the many things they say that continue to have substantial importance, but even more to appreciate and understand the sheer intensity and force with which they analyzed the nature of modern – non-‘post-modern’ – Western culture and political thought.

The impact of both writers was not entirely because of what they said. Popper provided a striking individual technique in showing the fallacies of Marxist and Freudian reasoning, but with conclusions not so different from many rival books of the Cold War by liberal and social democratic writers still on the left, but bitterly disillusioned by Marxism and by the Soviert Union. Bloom gave a highly condensed, and very entertaining, summary of almost all the underlying discontents that historically-informed and even moderately literate adults have been bound to have about mass democracy, and the mass expansion of ‘higher’ education that has gone with it.

But what both writers also understood and exemplify is the remarkable power, almost ‘poetic’, that it is possible to pack into single real books. The Open Society, and a couple of Popper’s other best books, like Conjectures and Refutations (1964), Bloom’s Closing and a less-known but equally fine essay collection, Giants and Dwarfs, are not just components of respectable bibliographies and personal bookshelves; they were, and for some purposes still are, books that change minds. For countless young people, reading them was a watershed point in their lives, the end of their intellectual childhood. For many others, not even an entire undergraduate program in liberal arts or social sciences, or graduate studies and degrees, for that matter, ever accomplish the same thing. It is only necessary to observe, for example, the recent mass behaviour of college students in Montreal, to realize how infrequent this transformation to intellectual adulthood can be. Reading Popper and Bloom, even in 2012, still offers splendid lessons in the use of genuine reasoned argument and individual moral conviction in politics, and it is greatly to be hoped that some young people will still learn the same lesson from these brave and brilliant men.