Mark Blyth on The Origins of Neo-Nationalism

It's not often you stumble across some professor who says he's going to explain the world, and then watch him actually do it.

I stumbled across Mark Blyth via MetaFilter. Mark Blyth is political science professor at Brown University — Wait! I know, you're thinking Brown University, the tiny, ultra-expensive US liberal arts college which is a hotbed of the most demented form of political correctness? Can any professor there be capable more than soft-focus P.C. pieties?

Well, Mark Blyth can. Perhaps because he's Scottish. Very Scottish, if you listen to him. In 2016, Blyth accomplished a pretty impressive trifecta in 2016: he accurately predicted Brexit, the Italian constitutional referendum, and Trump. His big idea is Global Trumpism, which involves defections both to the right and the left from the globalist neoliberal consensus. Whether it's Podemos in Spain or Trump in the U.S., middle-class voters in the West are reacting to 30 years of tectonic changes in the global political and economic landscape which have seen their quality of life being gradually eroded.

The end result is a sense of seething frustration in the middle and lower classes of Western countries. Unions have been crushed, more and more risk shifted onto the shoulders of individuals, job security is a thing of the past, international competition and automation are destroying millions of jobs which will never come back, the small luxuries of middle-class life are drifting out of reach, and each generation is seeing a decline in its standard of living compared to the last one.

All the while, the rich are getting almost exponentially richer, and mainstream politicians — whether center-right or center-left, there is no meaningful difference — seem at best helpless or disinterested at worst actively corrupt.

Here's some remarks he published in Foreign Policy (previous link), which are a bit heavy on the economics but still get the point across:

Back in 1943, [Michal Kalecki] he argued that once you target and sustain full employment over time, it basically becomes costless for labor to move from job to job. Wages in such a world will have to continually rise to hold onto labor, and the only way business can accommodate that is to push up prices. This mechanism, cost-push inflation, where wages and prices chase each other up, emerged in the 1970s and coincided with the end of the Bretton Woods regime and the subsequent oil shocks to produce high inflation in the rich countries of the West in the 1970s. In short, the system undermined itself, as both Goodhart and Kalecki predicted. As countries tried harder and harder to target full employment, the more inflation shot up while profits fell. The 1970s became a kind of “debtor’s paradise.” As inflation rose, debts fell in real terms, and labor’s share of national income rose to an all-time high, while corporate profits remained low and were pummeled by inflation. Unions were powerful and inequality plummeted….

But if it was a great time to be a debtor, it was a lousy time to be a creditor. Inflation acts as a tax on the returns on investment and lending. Unsurprisingly in response, employers and creditors mobilized and funded a market-friendly revolution where the goal of full employment was jettisoned for a new target—price stability, aka inflation—to restore the value of debt and discipline labor through unemployment. And it worked. The new order was called neoliberalism.

Over the next thirty years the world was transformed from a debtor’s paradise into a creditor’s paradise where capital’s share of national income rose to an all-time high as labor’s share fell as wages stagnated. Productivity rose, but the returns all went to capital. Unions were crushed while labor’s ability to push up wages collapsed due to the twin shocks of restrictive legislation and the globalization of production. Parliaments in turn were reduced to tweet-generating talking shops as central banks and policy technocrats wrested control of the economy away from those elected to govern.

Seen this way, what we see is a reversal of power between creditors and debtors as the anti-inflationary regime of the past 30 years undermines itself—what we might call “Goodhart’s revenge.” In this world, yields compress and creditors fret about their earnings, demanding repayment of debt at all costs. Macro-economically, this makes the situation worse: the debtors can’t pay—but politically, and this is crucial—it empowers debtors since they can’t pay, won’t pay, and still have the right to vote….

The traditional parties of the center-left and center-right, the builders of this anti-inflationary order, get clobbered in such a world, since they are correctly identified by these debtors as the political backers of those demanding repayment in an already unequal system, and all from those with the least assets. This produces anti-creditor, pro-debtor coalitions-in-waiting that are ripe for the picking by insurgents of the left and the right, which is exactly what has happened.

In short, to understand the election of Donald Trump we need to listen to the trumpets blowing everywhere in the highly indebted developed countries and the people who vote for them. 

The global revolt against elites is not just driven by revulsion and loss and racism. It’s also driven by the global economy itself. This is a global phenomenon that marks one thing above all. The era of neoliberalism is over. The era of neonationalism has just begun.

Blyth actually shines in videos; he's an outstanding and engaging speaker. I switched this video on to run in the background while I did some housework, but found myself repeatedly rushing to the computer to replay something I didn't quite get. This video is the best exposition of his theory as a whole. You'll have to get used to his Scottish burr:

Although his main critique is aimed at the technocratic managers of national and international economic policy, he also directs withering critiques at center-left politicians, who hurl accusations of politically-incorrect thoughtcrime to appear "left" while simultaneously suckling at the teat of the financial and technological elite and doing nothing to improve the lot of the middle class.

Blyth thinks the U.S. will stumble through, but Blyth believes that the outlook for Europe is much bleaker (this discussion starts at about 41:00). The Euro is a disaster which cannot be fixed, but European technocrats still refused to understand this, and continue to inflict crippling austerity on the European South in a doomed attempt to save it.

Conan O’Brien Inspects a Kotzbecken and Confronts Harald Schmidt’s Producer

I stumbled on this 1997 Conan O'Brien segment recently. Far from his best work, but of sociological value for showing Americans a genuine German Kotzbecken (puking-sink) and, even more entertainingly, exposing Harald Schmidt's relentless plagiarism of American late-night television:

Just underneath the video: DISABLING COMMENTS – YOU PEOPLE ARE ALL CHILDISH DOLTS. THIS IS A COMEDY VIDEO. ENOUGH WITH THE COUNTRY BASHING.

Arrgh, what I would have given to read those. Perhaps we can re-create some COUNTRY BASHING right here, folks — what do you say?

Cold, Dry, Secretive, Boring German Women: The View from Almaty

just flew in from almaty

One of my favorite movie lines comes from the overlooked gem Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills. My hazy memory of the set-up: Some rich socialite declares her intention to raze all the trees on a stretch of the Amazon rainforest she owns and build a giant mall. Her sycophantic gay amanuensis (hairdresser? interior designer?), cradling a yapping Pekingese in his arms, lisps excitedly: "What a horrible, fabulous thing to say!"

Roissy in DC, a blogger who applies the pitiless revelations of evolutionary psychology to the contemporary dating world*, is an excellent source for horrible, fabulous things. His blog's motto, "Where Pretty Lies Perish", pretty much says it all. Don't say you haven't been warned.

One Roissy find is a study conducted by a Kazakh gender studies researcher on Kazakh womens' views of women of other nationalities. That is, what stereotypes do Kazakh women associate with chicks from other countries? I'm not really sure why this study was conducted, but why nitpick when we can learn such things about Uigurettes as "she is a hospitable cook, a good hand in cooking lagman; lagman and manty are her best cooked dishes and she can cook economically from everything she has under her hand." "Dungan woman", however, "is associated with national dish – Dungan noodles, lagman, as well as djussai herb, carrot salad, funchesa salad." Good to know!

But there's more. Much, much more. Here are the traits Kazakh women associated with German women:

Probably, the most typical ethnographic image of German woman, known from textbooks, is a blonde in white flounced apron, with plump hands, shaking off flour.

German woman usually is bright-eyed blonde, often stout, plump, sometimes wan, awkward, plain. Often respondents present German woman as unattractive, thin, without make-up, manlike. Undoubtedly, she is a good housewife and spouse, she has a strong united family. One can easily guess which features are typical for German woman in the most concentrated way, serving as a national attribute. They are accuracy, cleanliness and pedantry. This is supplemented by practicality, prudence, diligence, strictness, discipline, thrift, solid sense, honesty, punctuality and we have a business portrait of German woman. However she is characterized with poor spiritual qualities: coldness, dryness, cruelty, secretiveness, boring.

Physically, these Kazakhs are all over the place. Some are thinking of Ulrike Meinhoff, while others are thinking of an Oktoberfest beer-tent maiden. But there seems to be uncanny unanimity on the 'spiritual' qualities. But wait, what about the Americans?

American woman is described in quite contradictory way. Most amazing is a negative estimation of her appearance. There are many variations on this topic: not well-groomed, not stylish, does not dress well, not fashionable clothes, not ironed shorts and T-shirt, sleepers, put on bare feet, elderly woman in shorts, emancipated woman, for whom it is not important how she looks, a girl without make-up, happy fatty woman, stout and shapeless person, a short hair-cut, a knapsack, waddling walk, tennis shoes, dentures, plain, manlike, unisex. Positive estimations are given less frequently: smiling, loudly speaking, stylish blonde, jeans, jeep, cowboy hat, cigarette, uncommonness.

Knowing a kind of our sampling (activists of female organizations and researchers of gender issues), we are not surprised, that most people relate image of American woman with achievements of the female movement in the USA: feminist, independent, free, self-sufficient, uninhibited, emancipated, enjoying equal rights, wealthy, hater of men.

Besides, American women are emotional, uninhibited so much, that they look ill-mannered, snobs, arrogant, hypocritical, empty, with complexes, cold, dry, egoists, superficial, non-constant and impudent.  Their actions are often characterized with regulated character, black and colored women are distinguished with a habit to rely on social support and not to undertake anything to change their life.

Despite this, business qualities of the majority of American women – intellect, professionalism, activeness, self-confidence, discipline pragmatism, career-mindness – are worth of great respect.

I could go on, but I'd just end up copying the entire study, which you can and should read for yourself. To find out, among other things, which women are "not attractive, nothing extraordinary, a grey bird in everyday life, but she can show off with her night beauty; often she is bow-legged and has a voice of smoking person. She is free and not alien to feminism, but prefers to remain within proprieties and good manners. The main thing, of course, that she is light-minded, frivolous, uninhibited, romantic, inspired, very popular with men and she has no equals, full of love."

* Briefly, Roissy's worldview is this: Almost everything men and women say about what they find attractive in partners is nonsense. It's rationalization driven by societal expectation, and has little or nothing to do with how most men and women actually behave. Men are attracted 95% by looks, and have been equipped by evolution with a drive to inseminate as many young, attractive females as they can get away with. All things being equal, the men who have the highest status and the most dominant personalities (alpha males) are always going to get the most nookie. The man's ideal position is to find a stable, reliable partner who will raise his children, while (as the wife ages) simultaneously enjoying occasional flings with young hotties. This is why so many cultures permit men to marry multiple wives, or unofficially recognize a responsible married man's 'right' to a mistress.

Women, on the other hand, are attracted mainly by a man's indicators of status. Cash, titles, dominance, physical size, respect shown him by other men, roguish charm. Women may claim to be attracted to sensitive, caring, honest wimps, but actually have sex with aloof, domineering bad boys. The ideal set up for most women is to find an meek, easily-dominated beta-male provider to marry. Then, have the occasional fling with the hot bass player/tennis pro/biker. Extra points if beta-male husband is willing to raise the offspring of the alpha males, who sure aren't going to stick around to do that themselves.

Not sure I agree 100% here, but the paradigm certainly does have some explanatory power.

The Dangerously Non-Dangerous Book for Boys

In 2006, a British father and son wrote The Dangerous Book for Boys.  It’s supposed to evoke those long-past days when, instead of vegetating for hours in front of glimmering consoles, young boys dreamed of adventure, played outside, and sometimes got hurt.  It had information on Antarctic explorers, famous historical battles, building catapults, tying knots, navigating in the woods.  Plus anecdotes about bone-crushing sports and their heroes.  And some sections on history and honor and loyalty and other old-fashioned virtues. It sounds like a kind of updated Boy Scout manual.  I should note that I haven’t read the book.  As will shortly become clear, this post isn’t really about the book’s contents.

The book was a success in Britain, and soon an American version came out.  Some changes were made — mainly removing Britain-specific themes like rugby, and adding in more references to American history. 

Now, the German version is here (G).  But wait — we wouldn’t want to make Germany a dangerous place, would we?  No, we wouldn’t.  So the entire chapter on historical battles has been removed, as has the "Brief History of Artillery."  The Ten Commandments has been replaced by — wait for it — an essay on international human rights.  Any mention of rabbit hunting is also gone.  The first reviewer (G) on the Amazon.de page is disgusted: "[T]he English version was so successful because, among other reasons, it addressed subjects that run contrary to the gobbeldygook of ‘peace education’, and which boys would actually find interesting, at least in secret."

I’m with him.  These changes do at least two impermissible things.  First of all, they alter the contents of the book.  This is the capital crime, the cardinal sin, of the translator’s art. It would be equivalent to me translating a German novel and substituting all the sex scenes with uplifting homilies to chastity, because I personally believed that people like the ones portrayed in the novel shouldn’t be having sex.  Second, the ‘opinion elite’ sense of privilege seems to have struck again.  The changes were not made because the original references would not be understood in Germany (which would be a legitimate reason, given authorial consent), but simply to ‘disappear’ aspects of the book which might make the average German literary professional uneasy.  The chapter on human rights is especially ludicrous.  What, a reasonable 12-year-old boy might ask, is so bloody dangerous about human rights?

These changes reflect almost unimaginable self-aggrandizement, I would say.  Whatever German literary professional made these changes expressed the unmistakable belief that his values and his sensibilities are more legitimate than those of his audience.  The fact that many people may have bought this book precisely because it’s the kind of book that might have information about battles seems to be irrelevant.  The changes also reflect a fundamental distrust of the public — boys are being denied information about battles presumably because they might end up wanting to fight them.  I rather doubt that would happen, but who am I to question the immortal wisdom of a German editor?

I don’t want to be too hasty assigning blame here.  I don’t know whether the translator himself was responsible for any or all of these changes.  And if the authors approved them or instigated them, then I suppose we’ve just got to grit our teeth and accept it.  I have send off an email to the authors to see whether they know of these changes. I’ll let you know what I find out.

UPDATE: I got a nice response from one of the authors of the book.  He said that he understood there would be some changes to the book to make it more suitable for a German audience, but that he was not aware of the extent of the changes and did not approve them.  He said he would be complaining to the publishers. 

I should note that negotiating translation rights is a complex business.  It’s always good to keep in mind that authors may have less control over translations than the lay public might think.