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Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty
by Daron Acemoglu
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.39

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Some Criticisms, 2 Jan. 2014
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The authors believe that nations succeed when they have pluralist civil society where no one group is able to seize the state machinery and use it to direct the economy to their advantage. This allows creative destruction to continually revolutionize society and lead to economic growth and eventually prosperity for all. Conversely in states with weak or non-existent civil society there is always the temptation by rulers to adopt extractive economic policies that maintains the status quo.

The sheer wealth of examples and historical depth of their theory is impressive and is probably worth reading for this fact alone. Other reviews give a good outline of the argument so I'll just focus on some criticisms I have.

1. Ignoring the dangers of monopoly capitalism.

The authors illustrate how pluralist societies manage to regulate the monopoly tendency in capitalism by telling the story of how in the United States trusts like Standard Oil were broken up in the late 19th and early 20th century.

My comment would be that such monopoly busting actions is actually quite rare and only carried out in relatively healthy pluralistic societies. Marx's view that the state is run by the bourgeois for the bourgeois seems just as common throughout history. Britain and America's reaction to the financial crisis- shoveling credit to Banks and selling off state assets whilst cutting welfare, education and health care - is a classic example of this.

Also the authors are really quite blithe to the dangers of creative destruction. The primary benefit of pluralistic institutions for them seems to be that they allow the process of creative destruction to go unhindered. Yet creative destruction can destabilize civil society to the extent to which they begin to look to extreme political parties- like 1930s Europe and Japan.

Our own age will probably see the disappearance whole sectors of employment to robotization and consequently unemployment rates hit 40% + across much of the developed world. It will be interesting to see how modern capitalist states cope with this without letting half of society slide into poverty.

2. Ignoring the the Cold War

The effects of the Cold War were felt right across the Third World and it's absence in the authors discussion is striking. The slave trade and colonialism are rightly seen as sowing the keys for exploitative regimes, but the wars (Vietnam, Korea) and purges (Indonesia) in Asia, the 'Bush wars' in East and Southern Africa (Angola, Ethiopia) and the twenty two coups engineered by the US in South America are apparently peripheral to their argument.

Their account of Columbian para-military groups seems particularly naive in it's presentation of such groups as spontaneous responses to left wing violence. Ignoring that such groups are responsible for at least 70 to 80% of political murders in Colombia per year and the funding such groups have historically enjoyed by the CIA.

Why is this ignored? I think because the authors know that the foreign policy of the most aggressive Western nations France, Britain, Israel and America doesn't work within the check and balances framework that domestic policy is framed by and it never has. Their capitalist form of development has always demanded constant expansion and expropriation of new lands, resources and peoples whether under the slave trade, colonialism or free market capitalism. If the industrial revolution had occurred in a Britain without colonies it would have quickly run out of both raw material and consumer demand for it's manufactures. So in many ways the rich successful pluralist societies of the world are in symbiotic relationship with the poorer nations.

3. Unsympathetic views on alternatives

The story told of Asia's development stagnating in the early modern period isn't really true.

To take the Chinese example: The population tripled in size between 1600 and 1850 to 420 million, new world crops were adopted, manufactures boomed and the Empire was vastly expanded. Some historians like Pomeranz even argue that as late as 1800 there very little difference in European and Chinese GDP. The Chinese state was in fact in some ways a proto-welfare state in it's redistribution of resources to the under developed hinterland at the expense of the coastal ports. This development strategy makes sense given that the primary threat seen by the Chinese State (an alliance of bureaucrats and Northern warlords) remained the Mongols. Eventually this path of development was defeated by European navies enabling colonial powers to foist unfair trade agreements upon the country and open it up to cheap Western goods (and Indian opium).

Similarly in the authors account the Chinese Communist regime before Deng's reforms is rightly disparaged for the great suffering it caused without any note of it's successes. But from my reading in health-care, education and in particular land reform Mao laid the foundations for subsequent economic success. See the Chapter on the 'Origins and Dynamic of the Chinese Ascent' in 'Adam Smith in Bejing' by Arrighi.

It seems odd that the authors are so suspicious of any redistribution of land or revolution in the developing world yet freely admit the decisive role the French revolution played in subsequent capitalist development by modernizing laws and redistributing property.

From my reading the success of East Asia against Africa and South America is precisely because East Asian countries succeeded in redistributiing land even if, like the French revolution, this was a bloody process. Many South American revolutionaries tried to achieve this but a combination of elite oppression backed up with CIA arms blocked all attempts at reform.

The authors seems beholden to an Anglo-sphere development path which ignores the fact that in most countries the only way to end the power of the landlord class is revolutionary appropriation of land.

Another point is that the authors are overly sanguine about the decline of the 'extractive' Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. For all their flaws each of these multi-national Empires were achieving impressive growth rates prior to the First World War in comparatively liberal environments. Their collapse lead to the death of multiculturalism in Eastern Europe and West Asia whose end game is being played out in Iraq and Syria today.

4. Pluralist Societies

Finally I am skeptical about how truly pluralist Western institutions are. Compare America and China today.

Are we so sure that America, despite it's riches and it's long legacy of representative government is a more pluralist society - that it's checks and balances work and truly represent and cater to the needs of it's people?

The historical record of last two Presidencies has been bleak. From the fixed election in 2000 through to Afghanistan, Iraq, the implosion of the financial sector, rising inequality and political extremism and recently revelations about widespread illegal spying by the NSA.

No doubt China's political and legal system is far more corrupt and will have to fundamentally reform sometime in the next twenty years. However the power of the labor movement combined with the ideological commitment of the state to Communism means that the leaders are much more scared of repressing the lower end of society, and much more anxious about maintaining growth than the US state is.

Parallels could be draw with early 20th century Germany which was less democratic than America, but had much larger and most successful labour movement.

Anyway I'm rambling. It's a interesting book but ultimately I think it is unsuccessful at fitting modern history within the confines of a rather simple theory.

I recommend therefore reading it in conjunction with.

The Making of the Modern World - Bayly
Adam Smith in Bejing - Arrighi
Power and Plenty - Findlay & O'Rourke
23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism - Chang
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2014 11:40 AM GMT


Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism
Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism
by Stephen Graham
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars snore, 12 Feb. 2012
I was disappointed with this book, it had none of the ferocity and multidisciplinary approach which made Mike Davis's books on urban planning such a joy to read. Most of this book seems to be a summery of newspaper articles interspersed with trite cultural theory, with far too much emphasis upon Iraq and the occupied territories. The amount of times the author references 'the Other' or the 'political-military-cultural-securitising complex' is infuriating. The result is an over-long, myopic, unoriginal and already outdated book.

Someone like Davis have written this book in under 200 pages and discussed in far more depth the moral, economic and future courses of urban planning.

Alternatively Paul Mason's recently published 'Why it's kicking off everywhere' worth checking out as is Ivan Illich 1973 essay 'Energy and Equity'. [...]
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 11, 2012 8:36 PM BST


Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (Routledge Classics)
Enlightenment's Wake: Politics and Culture at the Close of the Modern Age (Routledge Classics)
by John Gray
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two cents..., 14 Dec. 2009
I don't usually write reviews but because this lacks one, and because as a student of politics and history this has been invaluable help, I'll offer my thoughts.

This is not a polemic like Gray's more recent works; instead it is a series of essays written in the early 1990s which range from issues of toleration and agonistic liberalism to the transition of post communist societies. The broad thesis is that the collapse of the Soviet Union will, instead of heralding victory for liberalism, precipitate a legitimacy crisis and ultimately a return to classic geopolitical conflicts centred around ethnic, religious and resource conflicts. But whilst later books such as 'Black Mass' focus on the practical results of this, Enlightenments Wake is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of the Enlightenment and the implications to classical liberalism and society in general of its collapse.

Though Gray isn't a particularly original thinker, like his mentor Isaiah Berlin, he is extraordinarily well read, has an uncanny feel for the trends of his time, and is an extremely perceptive and critical interpreter of other thinkers. For anyone with any interest in politics he is an invaluable introduction to late liberal thought and often ignored thinkers such as Illich, Oakeshot and McIntyre. In particular the final eponymous essay is, in my opinion, the greatest ever written on the subject of political philosophy.

`The dissolution of morality, as that was conceived in both classical and Christian terms, and the fracturing of the inherited of the inherited Western world-view into a diversity of incommensurable perspectives, which is accomplished in Nietzsche's thought, are irreparable, and any cultural losses they may entail are irretrievable. We shall make the best of the opportunities this cultural mutation affords if we relinquish the search for grounds - metaphysical, transcendental or rational - on which we have run around in nihilism. Instead, abandoning the spirit of seriousness that has animated Western philosophy from its founding we may then come to regard the world -views intimated in our culture lightly and playfully, as evanescent art forms rather than weighty representations of the truth.'
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2016 10:33 AM GMT


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