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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Loot 2

LI’s post on loot was fortunate enough to attract some comments from P.M. Lawrence. We disagree about the reasons for the progress of empire, but Lawrence makes a strong case for viewing the different parts that came together in Great Britain between 1688 and 1789 as parts not of some general ‘program’ or the expressions of class interest, but as, in a sense, a concatenation of independent and contingent developments.

LI’s point is not to deny the place of contingency. However, we’d claim that accident and program are related to one so that elements advantageous to one sector of a society – say the income from the slave trade going to slave traders and their financiers and the plantation owners and their financiers and the merchants of the products produced by the plantations and their financiers - are built upon to maximize and prolong the sectorial advantage in the face of opposition from other sectors and unpredictable, contingent factors – shifts in the environment, or unexpected technological changes, or the like. However, this does not mean that the advance of a given sector eliminates unexpected outcomes on the larger, national level, since there are – as any development economist will tell you – numerous sectors in a nation, and their striving for advantage is not coordinate. Thus, for instance, the fact that Britain developed a system – the national debt – that sluffed the payment for war onto future generations by the use of long term loans meant that, by 1789, almost half of the tax collected by the government was being used to pay back these loans. In other words, the most taxed – the consumers, as there was no income tax – were paying for wars that benefited a changing but distinct establishment of merchants, plantation owners, financiers and the like. As a contingent part of this, public investment by the state in British infrastructure devolved to the private sector. This paradigm of heavy state investment in war and a paucity of state investment in infrastructure was not, I think, the result of liberal or whig ideology, but it did become a model for classical liberal ideology, with its principle that the state should be as small as possible, i.e. not invest in human capital, not invest in land improvement and the like, and leave that to the private sector. In the nineteenth century, the liberal dream was to apply the same idea to the state’s ‘security’ apparatus – that somehow the need for war would vanish in the face of increasing trade.

This, at least, would be my hypothesis about how war figured into the emergence of the liberal order.

The question of the war and loot is not just historical. In the 90s, some scholars around Paul Collier called into question the notion that civil wars are driven by grievance instead of gain. The incentive for Collier’s work was the outbreak of civil wars all over Africa that came after the end of the Cold War. In a much referenced essay, Doing Well out of War, Collier writes:

“The discourse on conflict tends to be dominated by group grievances beneath which inter-group hatreds lurk, often traced back through history. I have investigated statistically the global pattern of large-scale civil conflict since 1965, expecting to find a close relationship between measures of these hatreds and grievances and the incidence of conflict. Instead, I found that economic agendas appear to be central to understanding why civil wars get going. Conflicts are far more likely to be caused by economic opportunities than by grievance.”

To make his case, Collier first has to explain why it seems like civil conflicts stem from grievances.

“Narratives of grievance play much better with this community than narratives of greed. A narrative of grievance is not only much more functional externally, it is also more satisfying personally: rebel leaders may readily be persuaded by their own propaganda. Further, an accentuated sense of grievance may be functional internally for the rebel organization. The organization has to recruit: indeed, its success depends upon it. As the organization gets larger, the material benefits which it can offer its additional members is likely to diminish. By playing upon a sense of grievance, the organization may therefore be able to get additional recruits more cheaply. Hence, even where the rationale at the top of the organization is essentially greed, the actual discourse may be entirely dominated by grievance. I should emphasize that I do not mean to be cynical. I am not arguing that rebels necessary deceive either others or themselves in explaining their motivation in terms of grievance. Rather, I am simply arguing that since both greed-motivated and grievance-motivated rebel organisations will embed their behaviour in a narrative of grievance, the observation of that narrative provides no informational content to the researcher as to the true motivation for rebellion.”

Ho ho. Collier stumbles upon the old philosophical problem of intention, here, and rightly does what we all do to solve it: he looks around for actions, divided into those consistent with an economic or a grievance motive, to confirm intentions.

“I first describe the proxies which I use to capture the notion of an economic agenda. The
most important one is the importance of exports of primary commodities. I measure this
as the share of primary commodity exports in GDP. Primary commodity exports are
likely to be a good proxy for the availability of `lootable’ resources. We know that they
are by far the most heavily taxed component of GDP in developing countries, and the
reason for this is that they are the most easily taxed component. Primary commodity
production does not depend upon complex and delicate networks of information and
transactions as with manufacturing. It can also be highly profitable because it is based on
the exploitation of idiosyncratic natural endowments rather than the more competitive
level playing fields of manufacturing. Thus, production can survive predatory taxation.
Yet for export it is dependent upon long trade routes, usually originating from rural
locations. This makes it easy for an organised military force to impose predatory taxation
by targeting these trade routes. These factors apply equally to rebel organisations as to
governments. Rebels, too, can impose predatory taxation on primary commodities as long
as they can either interrupt some point in the trade route or menace an isolated, and
difficult to protect, point of production.”

Could what counts, here, in civil conflict be extrapolated to conflict between nations within a world system?

This is, I should say, just one part of Collier’s entire schema, which goes like this:

The two other economic proxies are: the proportion of available young men, and the cost of recruitment (“If young men face only the option of poverty they might be more inclined to join a rebellion than if they have better opportunities”), which is a function, in Collier’s model, of education – education creating, for him, a more extensive series of economic opportunities against which to measure violence.

The four factors of grievance are: religious and ethnic hatred; economic inequality; political rights; and government economic incompetence.

The double register of Collier’s economic/grievance factors do seem more indigenous to civil conflict than to conflict between nations. But the first, looting factor – now that interests LI. In inter-national disputes, what seems to happen is that the economic factor exist in contrast to the political factor - that is, the dispute becomes its own justification. Grievance – which has resurfaced as liberal interventionism – is subordinate to board positions, so to speak. Thus, if France “goes into” India, Britain, to ‘defend itself”, has to go into India. If Russia goes into Afghanistan, the U.S. has to counter Russia. Etc. A certain amount of moralizing will follow on the heels of the moves in the game, but it will never be very coordinate with those moves, and will lead to ceaseless confusion among the propagandists for and against the moves, who will always seem to be arguing about issues that aren’t quite relevant to the case.


Arkady said...

Very interesting stuff, Roger. China establishes interests in Sudan. So now the Decents and the wingnuts need to go in to defend themselves?

hapa said...

from which china profits, via bonds. awesome.

Arkady said...

I think China is the net loser (outside the people who get slaughtered, of course) on that deal, Hapa. The bonds are as much hostages as for them as they are for us. The effort they put into Sudan would be a lost sunk cost unless they could negotiate something to salvage.

hapa said...

not as much money on the line in the sudan but i wonder if anybody big feels more "willing" to address "grievance" in the wake of iraq. not, not the sudan; iran.

Anonymous said...

Obviously I'm going to have to take some time digesting this before giving a full reply, including decoding the jargon. However I can tell you something right now for free: some of the results cited have built in their own conclusions, by coming at it with the widespread conceit that "hatred" is a driving factor. I can speak with some authority on this, having spent formative years in Africa in the '60s. Anyhow, hatred, if it is involved at all, is more usually a product than a driver, and is more likely to be from righteous outrage at someone defending himself or (more rarely) a psyching up to justify one's own violence in one's own mind. But once you're used to it, once it's endemic, violence doesn't need hatred at all, you just do it. Some references: Robert Graves's Goodbye to all that and Joyce Cary's Mister Johnson.

Anonymous said...

Opportunity now permitting, I belatedly resume my feedback. I'm concentrating more on clearing stuff away than on providing new information, so I shall only do that when it comes naturally.

"...Britain developed a system – the national debt – that sluffed the payment for war onto future generations by the use of long term loans..." Clearly that is only possible in nominal cash terms; in real terms the resources had to be found in real time, either within the country or from foreigners. We need to keep this distinction in mind for what follows...

"In other words, the most taxed – the consumers, as there was no income tax – were paying for wars that benefited a changing but distinct establishment of merchants, plantation owners, financiers and the like." One minor point first: there was a wartime income tax, but it was intended to be abolished in the time scale over which the debt would be serviced and/or retired, so that wouldn't have influenced people's financial planning (and it actually was abolished, only being re-introduced a generation later).

More seriously, it is a red herring to discuss taxing consumers; for this purpose incidence, not impact, is what counts. The tax flowed through to the agriculture of Britain and its possessions (including India and the West Indies), to what it tapped into elsewhere via trade (particularly the carrying trade), and - later in the life of the debt, but not originally foreseen - the value added on the back of the industrial revolution. This was essentially a multiplier and network externality effect that rested on the physical fact that "the only cheap thing you can do with coal is burn it" (so Britain couldn't - then - simply end up a quarry on the back of its coal). Also, of course, the impact/incidence question was blurred by the interactions and overlaps of the various producer and/or owner groups mentioned with the consumers.

"This paradigm of heavy state investment in war and a paucity of state investment in infrastructure was not, I think, the result of liberal or whig ideology, but it did become a model for classical liberal ideology, with its principle that the state should be as small as possible, i.e. not invest in human capital, not invest in land improvement and the like, and leave that to the private sector."

Provided we remember that "Liberal" and "Whig" were conceptually different, and only fused in practice in the 19th century, then this is correct apart from one very important thing: the model wasn't drawn from state practice, but rather both drew on a much earlier model that flourished in feudal times and can even be discerned in the Roman Republic. That was the idea behind privilege, which did not mean that one group had advantages over others so much as it meant - before things degenerated, which they only did on the continent - that each group had particular advantages that others did not. It was meant to encourage a division of labour, specialisation, by conferring enduring advantages to specialisation so that continuity wouldn't be broken in times when needs weren't obvious. Thus, landowners wouldn't go into trade, but would provide sons as officers for the army or navy. And so on.

It was this idea of proper spheres of activity that stopped the state from engaging in directly productive activity, or allied activity, and so left improvements of various sorts to the contractors or landowners most naturally connected to it. The liberal perspective on this was - obviously - a reinvention in terms of its own concepts, not a simple maintaining of tradition.

The question of civil war is too narrowly focussed. Similar issues apply in all war, and in peaceful proxies for overt conflict like politics. All of them link both interests and bones of contention (which need not be mere reactive grievances). What happens is like the need for both fuel and ignition source to get combustion. The War of Jenkin's Ear needed both a grievance and the economic interests; but if either had been lacking, nothing would have happened. So, the grievance was genuine, no mere pretext, and so also was the interest real. Consider how Concorde failed in the face of genuine democratic objections to sonic booms. Had these not prevailed, Concorde would have been fast tracked in landing patterns and could have carried more passengers (needing less fuel) and would have lost less of its competitive time advantage in holding patterns. Had there been a better US equivalent, interests would have defeated the genuine protests. (I'm not being anti-US here; something similra happened in reverse in the '30s, over allowing US flying boats rights in the UK.)

So, just as random motion of molecules causes gas flow as, when and if outside forces open or close valves, so also the grievances - more broadly, bones of contention - are genuine; only, they need something behind them if they are not to gutter out.

Incidentally, the young men are always available for violence. It is what evolution has fitted them for; in that scheme of things, they are expendable although not actually cheap.