The wonderful thing about money

George Packer’s article about the ethnic discontents in Kirkuk is a study in what happens when justice is conceived of as the restoration of the past. Kirkuk was Arabized under Saddam. The program Saddam followed doesn’t seem too different from the programs by which the Israelis displaced the Palestinians, or the way American city planners, in the fifties, displaced blacks in urban centers. Of course, neither the Israelis nor the Americans, in the end, used poison gas -- one should always remember that the degree of violence, here, makes all the difference. But one should also remember that the degree of violence doesn't transform anything basic about the relation between the exploiters and the exploited.

Packer's article is all a tissue of miseries, and of injustice piled on injustice. Kirkuk is now claimed by the Kurds and the Turkomen, while at the same time it is nominally under the control of the Iraqi state.

Packer mentions, in passing, a British woman, Emma Sky, who exists in the narrative as a counter-narrator. Her story is not the grim one in which Packer evidently believes, but a liberal story.

“The first representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk, and the most influential advocate for the city with Paul Bremer, the head of the C.P.A., was Emma Sky, a slim, brown-eyed, thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman. Sky speaks some Arabic and once worked with Palestinians in the West Bank; though she opposed the invasion of Iraq, she volunteered to join the occupation authority. Upon arriving in Kirkuk, she saw that the most urgent task was to reassure alienated Arabs and Turkomans that the triumphant attitude of their Kurdish neighbors did not mean there was no future for them here. As Sky travelled around the province, her prestige among Arabs soared. Ismail Hadidi, the deputy governor and an original Arab, gave her his highest praise: “We deal with her as if she’s a man, not a woman.”

"Sky believes passionately that Kirkuk can be a model for an ethnically diverse Iraq. “People have to move away from this zero-sum thinking,” she told me in Baghdad. “Kirkuk is where it all meets. It all comes together there. Yes, you can have a country of separate regions, where people don’t have to deal with other groups. But can you have a country where people are happy with each other, where people are at ease with each other? I think Kirkuk is going to tell you what kind of country Iraq is going to be.” Compared with the problems in Israel and Palestine, Sky said, Kirkuk’s can be solved relatively easily. “Kirkuk you can win. Kirkuk doesn’t have irreconcilable differences—yet.”

We don’t know if Packer, who evidently believes the situation in Kirkuk is tending unstoppably towards a mini-civil war, or Sky is right. But we do know that the Kirkuks of the world are monuments to a world before money. That’s a very attractive world to the romantic consciousness. Myself, having little or no money most of the time, I often rage against filthy lucre. But it does embody one great and peaceable characteristic: by abstracting the possessors of it into the pure subjects beloved by Kantian idealism, it uproots this whole world of hatreds.

Surely a similar thought (minus the crack about Kantian idealism) must have occurred to Adam Smith, given the similar history of Scotland. The Scottish highlands were being decimated by the English in Saddam-ist style in the eighteenth century, since the highlanders language, customs and loyalties were suspect to London. This, of course, motivated (to use a bland word for having a bayonet thrust in your ass) the great Highlands immigrations to America. The breaking up of the clans, and the re-structuring of property claims, left a huge impress even now on Scotland.

“Scotland has the most unequal distribution of land in western Europe and it is even more unequal than Brazil which is well-known for its land injustices. In a country of over 19 million acres, over 16 million acres is privately owned rural land. Two-thirds of this land is owned by 1252 landowners, (0.025% of the population). And these estates are extremely large. One quarter of the privately owned rural land is in estates of 30,700 acres and larger, owned by just 66 landowners (Wightman: 1999).”

Smith may not have sympathized with the Highland clans, and certainly, as an ideologist, he was ready to do a death dance over the complicated feudal system of land ownership. However, chapter 4 of The Wealth of Nations is still one of the great analyses of the kinds of civilization that are defined by their internal structures of production and their external chances for exchange – it is the kind of analysis that we now call Marxist – and in that chapter Smith says much that is relevant to the current situation in Kirkuk. To quote a little of this chapter here would mean choosing not to quote it all – and it is all quotable. Smith takes for granted that vanity is as great a mover of human history as sympathy, and he shows the stages by which the great landed proprietors essentially gave away their power over their retainers, a power that rested upon a certain socially necessary generosity, in order to divert wealth to their own individual satisfactions. In order for this to be accomplished, there had to be a market that would supply such luxuries and goods as would be worth spending money on. The culture of consumerism, once it got a foothold, inevitably decayed the culture of feudal power, without central authority having to lift a finger.

We think this model is full of exceptions, but it is still a wonderfully organized vision of social change. Here Smith comes to the end of the process he is describing. He pulls back, and extends his gaze to other, pre-capitalist societies around the world:

“The tenants having in this manner become independent, and the retainers being dismissed, the great proprietors were no longer capable of interrupting the regular execution of justice, or of disturbing the peace of the country. Having sold their birth-right, not like Esau, for a mess of pottage in time of hunger and necessity, but, in the wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the playthings of children than the serious pursuits of men, they became as insignificant as any substantial burgher or tradesmen in a city. A regular government was established in the country as well as in the city, nobody having sufficient power to disturb
its operations in the one, any more than in the other.

It does not, perhaps, relate to the present subject, but I cannot help remarking it, that very old families, such as have possessed some considerable estate from father to son for many successive generations, are very rare in commercial countries. In countries which have little commerce, on the contrary, such as Wales, or the Highlands of Scotland, they are very
common. The Arabian histories seem to be all full of genealogies; and there is a history written by a Tartar Khan, which has been translated into several European languages, and which contains scarce any thing else; a proof that ancient families are very common among those nations. In countries where a rich man can spend his revenue in no other way than by
maintaining as many people as it can maintain, he is apt to run out, and his benevolence, it seems, is seldom so violent as to attempt to maintain more than he can afford. But where he can spend the greatest revenue upon his own person, he frequently has no bounds to his expense, because he frequently has no bounds to his vanity, or to his affection for his own person. In
commercial countries, therefore, riches, in spite of the most violent regulations of law to prevent their dissipation, very seldom remain long in the same family. Among simple nations, on the contrary, they frequently do, without any regulations of law ; for among nations of shepherds, such as the Tartars and Arabs, the consumable nature of their property necessarily
renders all such regulations impossible.”