Konrad Jarausch on Broken Lives: How Ordinary Germans Experienced the 20th Century

Broken LivesBroken Lives is a gripping account of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of ordinary Germans who came of age under Hitler and whose lives were scarred and sometimes destroyed by what they saw and did. Konrad Jarausch argues that this generation’s focus on its own suffering, often maligned by historians, ultimately led to a more critical understanding of national identity—one that helped transform Germany from a military aggressor into a pillar of European democracy. The result is a powerful account of the everyday experiences and troubling memories of average Germans who journeyed into, through, and out of the abyss of a dark century.

How did ordinary Germans experience the cataclysms of the 20th century?
During the tumultuous twentieth century, ordinary Germans often felt overwhelmed by events over which they had no control. Starting with the defeat of World War I, they ex­perienced a series of disasters such as hyperinflation, depression, Nazi dictatorship, renewed war, Holocaust, flight and expulsion, division, and Communist repression that left them scrambling to survive. Except for short periods in the late Empire, middle of the Weimar Republic, and beginning of the Third Reich, times were tough and unpredictable, putting a premium on adaptability. As a result of the disastrous decisions of elites, they had to deal with a stunning succession of five different political systems within the course of a single century. In contrast to the normal progression of life stages in more fortunate neighboring countries like Switzerland, the past seemed problematic, the present challenging, and the future uncertain. This book seeks to explore this neglected human dimension of events by drawing on seven dozen untutored autobiographies that cover their entire life-spans from the Empire to united Germany.

What amazing stories do their memoirs tell about suffering, survival, or success?
As related in these personal memoirs, the facts regarding the impact of such upheavals on individual lives are often stranger than fiction. While perpetrators of crimes rarely admit their misdeeds, the many bystanders recount their struggle to cope with multiple dangers by compliance or evasion, seeking to get through them as best as they could. Endlessly repeated at bars and kaffeeklatches, their life-stories focus on avoiding death at the front, not dying in bombing raids, fleeing from the Red Army, making it through post-war hunger and cold, while dealing with a succession of shifting ideological demands. The narratives of political or racial victims such as Communists or Jews instead focus on their suffering and miraculous survival, unlike many comrades or family members killed in mass murder. Only after the war are Western narratives able to celebrate successful rebuilding and prosperity. These are astounding accounts show how normal individuals were trying to live in highly abnormal times. Offering a chorus of diverse voices, the present book is an effort to present their stories to a wider public.

Why did young people born in the 1920s get drawn into the Nazi dictatorship?
The children of the Weimar Republic proved especially vulnerable to Nazi appeals because Hitler’s propaganda promised to lead the young to a better future. The inability of their parents to deal with the effects of the Great Depression had discredited adult leadership. While schools indoctrinated adolescents in racist nationalism, the peer group in the Hitler Youth pressured insecure youths to join the exciting activities like hiking, camping, and paramilitary training. Too inexperienced to develop a political judgement of their own, most young people fell under the spell of the Führer and a movement that vowed to create a true “people’s community” without class distinctions and to make Germany great again by overturning the “shameful peace treaty” of Versailles. Only children from religious families, Communist parents, or Jewish backgrounds were excluded. The overwhelming majority of the young Aryans could feel emboldened by being treated like the avant-garde of a better future. Most did not understand that they would have to pay for this allegiance with their own lives.

How did World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War break their lives apart?
Instead of ushering in a brighter future with Germans ruling the continent, the Nazi dictatorship unleashed repression, war, and genocide. Already before 1939 the political and racial victims of the Third Reich experienced persecution, incarceration, and expulsion, if fortunate to get away. During the war many Nazi enthusiasts among the young men were killed in action in the Wehrmacht’s war of annihilation during its spectacular victories and inexorable defeats. Young women at the home front had to work in war-production factories, huddle in air raid shelters, and try to flee from the advancing Red Army in order to avoid repeated rape. While political victims suffered in penitentiaries, those Jewish Germans who had not managed to escape in time struggled to survive in the underground, during selection in concentration camps, and in death-marches at the end. Even after the fighting ended, many died of starvation, cold, and disease. Without regard to political commitment or racial belonging, this vortex of death and destruction broke millions of lives apart, leaving even survivors in a sea of suffering.

How did they as adults gradually turn into democrats or communists after the war?
With the end of hostilities, the remaining Weimar children had to pick up the pieces and become responsible adults. Trying to make sense of their horrible experiences, many retreated into their private lives by finishing professional training, getting jobs, and founding families. In the remnants of Germany, divided by the Cold War, they faced an ideological choice: should they try to become Western style democrats or follow the Communist dream of a classless society in the East? Since with American aid the Federal Republic of Germany experienced an Economic Miracle, many were willing to side with the West. Attracted by the promise of a peaceful egalitarianism, others chose the German Democratic Republic of the East even if it was a Soviet satellite. Though a series of Nazi scandals tarnished the Bonn government, ultimately the generational rebellion of 1968 turned it into a liberal society whereas the anti-fascist promise of the SED regime became a communist dictatorship. Only with the peaceful revolution and reunification of 1989/90, did Western democracy win the ideological contest in the end.

Why did their memories become surprisingly self-critical decades after the events?
Though Weimar children were too busy to confront their own past during their professional careers, many begun a painful process of self-examination after their retirement. In a diachronic reflection, these authors compared their youthful Nazi enthusiasm with their adult convictions as democrats or socialists, and tried to figure out how they could have believed such a racist nationalism as adolescents. Encouraged by political leaders, intellectuals and the media, they began to question their own earlier lack of sympathy for their persecuted Jewish neighbors as well as the exploited slave laborers or Russian POWs, pondering what they had witnessed of the mass murder during the Holocaust. In some cases, this admission of guilt for supporting the Third Reich and failing to act humanely towards its victims even led to nervous breakdowns, healed only by active engagement for progressive causes. While all memoirists stressed their own suffering, a minority went even further and embraced a public memory culture that has made Germans exceptionally self-critical when compared with to their former allies.

What lessons of human rights, pacifism and social solidarity do they hold for the future?
In a surprisingly broad consensus, ordinary autobiographies show that Germans have drawn largely similar conclusions for the future. Unfortunately, there are still some nationalist holdouts who blame the harsh treatment by the Allies or hold Hitler and the Nazi bosses responsible for their predicament. But most writers want to teach their own families as well as the general public an essential lesson in order to prevent the recurrence of such horrible events: their political messages cluster around the importance of human rights as antidote to dictatorship; the need for peace as barrier against another devastating world war; and the imperative of social solidarity as obstacle to a return of demagogic populism. Beyond the sheer drama of their life-stories, it is this collective learning process which makes reading these personal accounts worthwhile. As a paradigmatic resume of their broken lives, the autobiographies of the Weimar children emphasize that everyone should heed the warning of their disastrous experiences during the Third Reich.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century and Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front. He lives in Chapel Hill and Berlin.

Kay Lehman Schlozman, Henry E. Brady & Sidney Verba on Unequal and Unrepresented

UnequalThe Declaration of Independence proclaims equality as a foundational American value. However, Unequal and Unrepresented finds that political voice in America is not only unequal but also unrepresentative. Those who are well educated and affluent carry megaphones. The less privileged speak in a whisper. Relying on three decades of research and an enormous wealth of information about politically individuals and organizations, Kay Schlozman, Henry Brady, and Sidney Verba offer a concise synthesis and update of their groundbreaking work on political participation. Citing real-life examples and examining inequalities from multiple perspectives, Unequal and Unrepresented shows how disparities in political voice endanger American democracy today.  

Unpack the title for me. What do you mean that “political voice” is “unequal and unrepresentative?”

People and organizations express political voice to influence government action. They do this by voting, the most common participatory act; by engaging in activities that require an investment of their time, for example, getting in touch with a public official or volunteering in an electoral campaign; and by providing money to affect politics such as making contributions to electoral campaigns or political organizations.

Most people’s participation is limited to voting, but some people amplify their voices by devoting a great deal of time, energy, and money to politics. Unequal political voice is not, on the face of it, a problem for American democracy. But unequal voice that is also unrepresentative poses a threat to democracy. Those with louder voices—who are likely to be well-educated and well-heeled—get heard while those who can only speak in a whisper are ignored. Describing his calls to potential donors, Representative Chris Murphy of Connecticut put it this way: “I know that when I’ve been raising money, I’m not hearing from a representative sample…. I talked a lot more about carried interest [a tax provision giving favorable treatment to the earnings of partners at private equity firms and hedge funds] in that call room than I did at the supermarket.” This social class tilt, which characterizes every form of political voice except perhaps protest, is especially pronounced for any activity that involves making financial contributions.

What does the skewing of political voice in the direction those with high levels of income and education mean for what public officials hear? 

What decision-makers hear from political activists is not representative of the opinions, concerns, and needs of the population as a whole. Political activists are more conservative on economic issues and sometimes more liberal on social issues. Activists with high levels of education and income are much less likely than the disadvantaged to report that their activity is animated by a matter of basic human need such as hunger, housing, or health care.

Those who are politically active also have different life circumstances. They are, on average, less likely to be in need of health care, to have to cut-back in spending in order to make ends meet, or to use government benefit programs. In addition, those who benefit from such non-means-tested programs as Social Security or Medicare are much more likely to undertake political action—for example to make a voting decision or to contact a public official—in association with that program than are beneficiaries of such means-tested programs as food stamps (SNAP) or Medicaid, who are by definition economically needy. In short, political activists communicate a skewed set of messages about what citizens care about, want, and need.

Don’t all those organizations that get involved in politics overcome the class stratification in political voice? Doesn’t every possible interest have an organization to advocate on its behalf in Washington?

If only. On the contrary, many interests with a stake in public policy are not represented by organizations. For example, thousands of membership associations active in Washington politics represent people in terms of their occupations. Yet, unless they are union members, those who make their living as office receptionists, Wal-Mart associates, parking lot attendants, bellhops, telemarketers, laundry workers, van drivers, and bartenders have no occupational associations at all to represent their interests in Washington. In fact, other than unions, not a single occupational organization represents the shared concerns of those whose work is unskilled. Moreover, there are no organizations that bring together recipients of means-tested government benefits such as Medicaid or SNAP acting on their own behalf. Similarly, those caring for aging relatives at home, workers required to sign non-compete clauses, holders of sub-prime mortgages, and parents seeking high-quality child care have no organization dedicated to their concerns.

In contrast, affluent interests, especially business, are very well represented. In fact, a majority, 52 percent, of the organizations active in Washington represent business in one way or another. These business organizations account for more than three-quarters, 77 percent, of the spending on lobbying, and unions representing workers spend only about 1 percent.

Has it always been this way or has the New Gilded Age ushered in a new era of plutocracy with greatly enhanced inequalities of political voice?

Both. On one hand, for at least a half century, nearly all forms of political voice have tilted in the direction of the well-educated and affluent. On the other, modes of political advocacy that depend upon money—both for lobbying and for campaign contributions—have taken on increased importance in the past generation, which means that the voices of the affluent have become relatively louder during the New Gilded Age. This development is fortified by economic trends. Economic growth during this period has benefited an extremely narrow slice of households at the very top of the economic ladder, producing a small group that is in a position to invest vast resources in politics. In this way, economic and political inequality reinforce one another. More economic inequality means more political inequality which, in turn, means more economic inequality.

Don’t social movements help to overcome inequalities by mobilizing into politics those who are less affluent and well educated?

Social movements grab attention because they are not simply politics as usual but instead bring into politics new issues and newly activated activists. Some movements—for example, the labor movement at the end of the nineteenth century and Black Lives Matter much more recently—do bring less advantaged publics into politics. But the United States also has a long tradition of mobilizations of middle-class adherents, including the abolition, temperance, environmental, and Tea Party movements.

What is not ordinarily recognized is an ordinary, and much more common, process by which friends and relatives, fellow church members, and co-workers ask one another to get involved in politics. Because those who make requests for political activity seek out prospects who are likely to accede to the request to participate and to participate effectively—by, for example, making a large campaign donation or writing a compelling e-mail—when they take part, activity undertaken in response to a request is actually more unequal than is activity undertaken spontaneously.

What about the possibilities for political participation on the Internet or through social media?  Don’t these new technologies ameliorate inequalities of political voice?

When the Internet was in its infancy, optimistic assessments predicted that Internet-based political activity would be free of the educational and income stratification so typical of traditional offline participation. Contrary to those expectations, the bias in the direction of the affluent and well-educated of participatory acts performed online—for example, signing a petition, contacting a senator, or making a campaign contribution to a candidate for governor—reproduces the pattern for their offline counterparts. Social class stratification is also typical of political involvement through social media. These new technologies do, however, make political voice more representative in one way: young adults in their late teens and twenties, traditionally a relatively politically quiescent group, are not underrepresented when to comes to political participation on the Internet or political involvement through social media.

In the past, periods of democratic discontent—the Progressive Era, for example—have spawned democratizing reforms like party primaries and the direct election of Senators. Are there reforms that hold promise for overcoming inequalities of political voice?

Reforms in two areas, voting and campaign finance, could ameliorate inequalities of political voice. A number of states have implemented procedural changes that make it easier to vote in the hopes of raising turnout and, in turn, making the electorate more representative of the adult population. Unfortunately, democratizing the electorate is not easy. Many reforms designed to raise turnout fail to do so. Even reforms that boost turnout do not necessarily make the electorate more representative. Instead, the additional voters drawn to the polls replicate the characteristics of the core electorate. Besides, many states are moving in the opposite direction—passing voter ID legislation that erects barriers to the vote. Although the impact of voter ID laws is not yet clear, it is quite possible that their effect will be to produce electorates that are less representative with respect to both class and race.

As for campaign finance, beginning about a decade ago, a series of federal court decisions struck down several campaign finance provisions and afforded greater First Amendment protection to political contributions as a form of speech. In the aftermath, the electoral system has been swamped with cash from extremely wealthy individuals. As a consequence, the campaign finance environment seems to be changing dramatically in ways that, if anything, further tilt the playing field. In short, when it comes to procedural reform, it seems that anything that would make much difference in reducing inequalities of political voice is currently either politically infeasible or constitutionally proscribed; and anything that is currently both politically possible and constitutionally acceptable would not make much difference.

One final question, is there anything in the recent news that illustrates the patterns you found?

The 2017 tax reform bill confirms our analysis of unequal political voice. The details of the bill reveal both an overall bias in the direction of the affluent and the impact of lobbying by well-organized, but often narrow, interests. While reduction in the corporate income tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent is permanent, many of the provisions that benefit middle-income taxpayers are temporary. Among those receiving favorable tax treatment are heirs to large estates, craft brewers, real estate developers, owners of golf courses, and parents planning to send children to private elementary and high school. The tax bill had surprisingly little public support. Why were Republicans in Congress so impatient to pass a bill that  was not especially popular with the taxpaying public?  Representative Chris Collins (R-NY) had an answer that resonates with the conclusions of our inquiry. He told reporters, “My donors are basically saying ‘get it done or don’t ever call me again.’”

Kay Lehman Schlozman is the J. Joseph Moakley Endowed Professor of Political Science at Boston College. Henry E. Brady is dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy and the Class of 1941 Monroe Deutsch Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Sidney Verba is the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Emeritus and research professor of government at Harvard University.

Theodore Porter on Genetics in the Madhouse

PorterIn the early 1800s, a century before there was any concept of the gene, physicians in insane asylums began to record causes of madness in their admission books. Almost from the beginning, they pointed to heredity as the most important of these causes. As doctors and state officials steadily lost faith in the capacity of asylum care to stem the terrible increase of insanity, they began emphasizing the need to curb the reproduction of the insane. They became obsessed with identifying weak or tainted families and anticipating the outcomes of their marriages. Genetics in the Madhouse is the untold story of how the collection and sorting of hereditary data in mental hospitals, schools for “feebleminded” children, and prisons gave rise to a new science of human heredity. A bold rethinking of asylum work, Genetics in the Madhouse shows how heredity was a human science as well as a medical and biological one.

I can’t help noticing that the title of this book, Genetics in the Madhouse, incorporates a double anachronism.

Well, yes, you’re right about that. Guilty as charged. The book begins in about 1789 which, besides being the year of the French Revolution, coincides pretty closely with a new model of care for the insane. These new institutions were not places of incarceration, but retreats or—the favorite word of the new era—asylums. They were idealized as orderly, restful places in the countryside where patients, laboring quietly, could recover their mental balance. In real life, it was scarcely possible to maintain order and quiet in these hospitals, especially as they grew to hold thousands of patients. The title word “madhouse” evokes the precarious situation of service personnel trying to apply psychological and moral principles to such recalcitrant populations. The most basic point of the book is that routines of record keeping in these disorderly establishments provided an indispensable basis of data for investigation patterns of biological inheritance. Although our word for this study, “genetics,” was first used by the naturalist William Bateson in 1905, biological heredity as a scientific problem had been taking shape for at least a century. Bateson chose to let this new science be defined by Gregor Mendel’s experiments on plant hybridization from the 1860s, which had changed everything, he said. I follow a recent turn of historical research that demonstrates a richer and more diverse tradition of hereditary study. My book emphasizes the key role of data gathering from mental hospitals and related institutions for this science of human heredity.

This is your fourth book with Princeton University Press, all of which have involved history of statistics, calculation, and measurement in the human sciences. Did you write this one to reveal the statistical background to genetics?

In fact, the statistics of heredity was already an important topic of my first book, written in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the context of a very different historiography. Genetics in the Madhouse had its moment of inspiration a decade ago when it occurred to shift my emphasis from ideals of statistical reasoning to the production and deployment of medical and scientific data. Although I at first had no idea of this, data was just emerging as a focus of historical research. The history of data has and obvious connection to history of statistics, but it has, I would suggest, a certain primordial aspect. Statistics presupposes data, whereas there are other strategies besides statistics for reasoning with data. I ended up spending a lot of time in archives trying to figure out the protocol when, as it usually happened, a relative of a prospective patient supplied the medical superintendent of an asylum with information for a line in the hospital admission book. From this point of origin, I could see how unit entries were combined into medical-administrative tables, merged into census statistics, and recombined to get at the relations of different variables. I had supposed until recently that most doctors didn’t care much for statistics, but now I found that many asylum doctors at least took their numbers very seriously. I quickly discovered that what I had thought of as sources of data for statistical analysis were much more than this. The doctors were already deeply engaged in investigating relationship of heredity among the diagnosed insane decades before statisticians like Karl Pearson began asking them for data on heredity.

On this basis, I began the backward phase of my research, trying to establish when and where these tables of inheritance of first arose. One possible source, a very precise one, is the medical inquiries carried out about 1789 by Dr. William Black in response to a furor over the madness of King George III. A better answer would be to link it to the asylum movement and to new standards of record keeping for public institutions.

But do you really think that administrative records could provide the basis for a natural science such as genetics?

Indeed that would be too simple. Quite a lot of the asylum record keeping really was passive and formulaic, but this was never the whole story. Black, who was responding to constitutional crisis, had to track down privately-held data from Bethlem (Bedlam) and assemble new tables giving evidence on the critical question of whether the king was likely to recover. By the 1830s, many asylum doctors understood their role not only in terms of relieving insane persons committed to their institutions, but also of advising the population at large on the preservation of mental health. Their interest in causes of insanity was allied to this public-health mission. Meanwhile, despite all the new asylums, insanity numbers were growing like crazy. It became more and more important to understand causes, especially hereditary ones. By the 1840s, a subset of asylum doctors were taking the study of heredity very seriously. While they depended on administrative records to keep tabs on the presumed causes, they also widened the field of data collection, for example to relative of patients. Insanity, and even its inheritance, became a topic for the national census. The doctors also worked to integrate data from diverse institutions and to track down every insane person in specific parishes in order to unravel the family relationships and reduce them to family trees or pedigrees. So the routine record keeping often went well beyond administrative routines.

Why did they become obsessed with hereditary causation?

In fact, the inheritance of traits and diseases, including of mental illness, was already by 1800 a folk category. If a newly-admitted asylum patient had a sister or uncle who behaved oddly, spoke incoherently, or committed suicide, spouses and children often mentioned this as indicating a hereditary factor. Asylum doctors were in a position to gather up reports like these, and their tables often showed heredity as the most important cause of insanity. To be sure, such numbers depended also on the attitude of the doctor. Still, the numbers provided a basis for stern warnings against marrying into families plagued by hereditary weakness, and these were quite common by the 1840s. The reality of eugenics as a professional medical concern long predated the word.

Didn’t Charles Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton launch the eugenics movement?

Certainly he was a key figure, and ever since 1900, when eugenics became famous, his name has been associated it. But it is unconvincing, and probably even a category mistake, to attribute a professional and popular movement like eugenics to the inspiration of any single individual. As it happens, Galton’s initial obsession with human heredity, and even his early methods for investigating it, owed something to the ideas and practices of asylum doctors. In the 1870s, when he carried out his study of the resemblances of twins, he knew enough to ask asylum directors and the families of patients for pertinent data. And Darwin, an early convert to Galton’s doctrines of inherited ability and weakness, had been worrying for decades about the possibility of hereditary weakness in his own family. He and his son George proposed studies using data from asylums and related institutions to determine if family marriages might bring on inherited weakness.

How long did it take for modern genetics to replace medical and social speculations about inherited weakness once Mendel’s laws at last were noticed in 1900?

The first scientists to take up Mendelian research were botanists. It was quickly incorporated into agricultural research, and there were some real successes by the 1910s, most famously in research on mutations in fruit flies. Quick generation times and the possibility of rigorous experimental control were very important for Mendelian research. Some, such as Bateson, simply assumed that criminality must be controlled by a single gene. The first research on inheritance of insanity and mental weakness was carried out by allies of by Charles B. Davenport, founder of the well-funded Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. He more or less assumed that conditions like these, with no evident bacteriological or environmental causes, must be hereditary, and in a straightforwardly Mendelian way. His data and much of the expertise to deploy it came from professionals at asylums and special schools, and thus was continuous with long-standing traditions of institutional research on heredity. The primary novelty was their strong expectation that Mendel’s characteristic ratios, 3:1 and 1:1, should spring out from breeding results. And that is what they found 

There followed an international wave of Mendelian psychiatry and psychology in Britain, Germany, Switzerland, and Scandinavia as well as North America. At first almost everyone succeeded in getting the results they were looking for, but these were harshly criticized, especially by Pearson and his allies in London. The most serious and expensive Mendelian studies were carried out in Germany, most famously by the Munich psychiatrist Ernst Rüdin in alliance with the doctor and statistician Wilhelm Weinberg. Their results for inheritance of mental illness (dementia praecox) were about six times smaller than they expected. Although they did not give up on Mendelism, they adopted for practical purposes a more empirical approach, measuring how the presence of a trait of interest in the parents affected the characters of the offspring, and ignoring for the time being the presumed genetic factors.

By about 1930, Davenport’s findings on Mendelian inheritance of mental defects had become a scandal. While geneticist continue often to speak loosely of genes for traits like these, and find it impossible to ignore them, there is no prospect of a simple Mendelian explanation of schizophrenia or learning disabilities. Meanwhile, statistical investigations of inheritance of mental and psychological traits go on.

Weren’t eugenic researches on inheritance of mental illness and disabilities discredited by the terrible abuses of the Nazis?

While few these days are willing to own up to eugenic ambitions, eugenics never died. One of the first really terrible crimes of the Nazis was to murder hundreds of thousands of asylum patients. Genetics had some role in the justification and implementation of this policy, though rarely if ever let scientific arguments determine the implementation of policies like these. German research on psychiatric heredity from the Nazi period did not just disappear, but was cited and used for decades by researchers in Britain, Scandinavia, and North America, some of whom despised the medical-eugenic policies of the Nazi state.

Theodore M. Porter is Distinguished Professor of History and holds the Peter Reill Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, and The Rise of Statistical Thinking, 1820–1900 (all Princeton). He lives in Altadena, California.

Michael Best on How Growth Really Happens

BestAchieving economic growth is one of today’s key challenges. In this groundbreaking book, Michael Best argues that to understand how successful growth happens we need an economic framework that focuses on production, enterprise, and governance. Best makes the case that government should create the institutional infrastructures needed to support these elements and their interconnections rather than subsidize individual enterprises. The power of Best’s alternative framework is illustrated by case studies of transformative experiences previously regarded as economic “miracles”: America’s World War II industrial buildup, Germany’s postwar recovery, Greater Boston’s innovation system, Ireland’s tech-sector boom, and the rise of the Asian Tigers and China.Accessible and engaging, How Growth Really Happens is required reading for anyone who wants to advance today’s crucial debates about industrial policy, free trade, outsourcing, and the future of work. 

Why is the study of economic “miracles” important?

National and regional experiences of rapid growth that lack easy explanations are often casually ascribed to divine intervention. Over two dozen national and regional experiences of rapid growth lacking explanation have been dubbed ‘miracles.’ These ‘miracles’ are unexpected and outside the scope of the conventional policymaking mindset. This book brings several such purported miracles back to earth. It offers an explanation in terms of an economics anchored by fundamental principles of production and business organization. The claim is that we can learn about how capitalist economies function and malfunction from examining cases of rapid and transformative growth. The lesson is that there is no divine intervention, just a man-made conjunction of capabilities.

What does the book do?

The book characterizes the economic policymaking framework and implementation means common to the rapid growth experiences. The framework is informed by a historical genealogy of major economic thinkers that have contributed to an economics of transformative growth. It is an economics of capability development and mutual adjustment processes in which changes in business organization, production system, and skill formation are inextricably bound together. The three domains are not separable and additive components of growth, but mutually interdependent sub-systems of a single developmental process. No one of the three can contribute to growth independently of mutual adjustment processes involving all three. I call this the capability triad. 

What unites the neglected economic theorists that shed light on transformative experiences?

The economic theorists whose ideas are discussed in this book examine the innovation dynamics that underlie productivity growth. They share an alternative economics methodology for understanding how economies function and for informing and conducting policymaking. Each thinker focuses on a different interactive connection in the economy to characterize an innovation dynamic within a multidimensional and complex economy. But taken together the innovation processes have common features and can interact with one another. Strategically organized, they can produce dynamic increasing returns.

These great scholars lived and wrote about the real world, which their descriptions suggest is not amenable to magic bullets. But there is no throwing up of hands in despair and depicting episodes of rapid growth as unexplained and inexplicable. Each contribution does offer, at the minimum, an analytical framework in lieu of a “growth miracle.” These models can protect policymakers from unreflective failures. Together they offer more. Economic policymaking is always informed and defended by models, but no single model can mimic modern complex economies or fit all contexts. The capability triad is a better way to understand how crises can be overcome and robust growth achieved.

How did you come to study economic miracles?

In 1969 when I started teaching economics at the University of Massachusetts, the economic outlook for the region was not encouraging. Between the 1930s and mid-1970s, with the exception of World War II, the New England economy underwent a sustained period of economic decline.  Boston’s population declined from 800,000 in 1950 to 560,000 in 1980.

What occurred next is known as the Massachusetts Miracle. Between 1975 the mid 1980’s unemployment fell from 12% to less than 3% as upwards of a half a million jobs were created most in new sectors. Michael Dukakis, governor of Massachusetts, campaigned for the US presidency in 1988 attributing the ‘miracle’ to the creation of a range of quasi-public agencies. But as a board member of one such agency, I was acutely aware this was not the case. At the same time, it was not a consequence of a spontaneous burst of ‘animal spirits’ or unleashed by laissez-faire policies and free markets.

What role did government policy play in the Massachusetts Miracle?

State policy did not plan, foresee, or drive the Massachusetts Miracle. But it was not passive. The state government funded a huge investment to increase the number of electrical engineering students in public higher education from around 600 in 1976 to over 1600 ten years later. In so doing it turned a transformative potential into a sustained growth experience. These graduates were like a high-octane fuel for an explosive growth in the size and number of engineering intensive enterprises. 

Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Miracle cannot be explained without reference to the institutionalized means by which the US economy was transformed during World War II. State education policy responded to an increase in demand driven by the post-war emergence of a large population of technology-driven enterprises themselves exploiting opportunities created by the federal government’s wartime investment in technologically advanced weapon systems. Greater Boston’s research-intensive universities and the state’s legacy of precision engineering were key components in the design, development, and implementation of the President’s wartime strategic vision and mobilization programs. The federal government oversaw the creation of a national science and technology infrastructure of which Massachusetts was and has remained a major beneficiary.

What can we learn from the US World War II experience about industrial policymaking?

World War II was a period of policymaking experimentation and government intervention much as the Great Depression that preceded it. But while the Great Depression inspired an emerging Keynesian macroeconomic demand management perspective, the successful policy regime of the wartime American economy, namely to create and grow new industries and transform existing industries to meet unprecedented performance targets, did not inspire a new supply side, production development perspective within the economics profession.

In fact, the World War II US policymaking experience was an unparalleled industrial policy success. GDP nearly doubled in a four-year period, far exceeding all other nations. Its unmatched performance can be measured by comparing national rates of expansion in munitions production Over the period from 1935-9 to 1944, munitions output expanded 7 times in Germany; 10 times in the USSR; 15 times in Japan; 22 times in the UK; and 140 times in the US (Goldsmith 1946). Furthermore, the US alone produced guns and butter; guns were not produced at the expense of the civilian standard of living (Edelstein 2001; Overy 1995).

President Roosevelt’s vision to create the Arsenal for Democracy was not enacted by either an invisible hand or by central planning but purposefully by an industrial policy and economic governance agenda that organizationally integrated and diffused rapid technological and production innovation. Three complementary productive structures were pivotal. 

The first was the integration of science and industry to design, develop, produce, and deploy new technologically advanced products (e.g., radar systems, penicillin). The second was the diffusion of mass production principles to build and ramp up new organizationally complex products/plants/industries (e.g., aircraft, ships), and to convert existing factories to new products (e.g., cars to jeeps) and to extend mass production and enterprise output coordination principles throughout and across supply chains. The third was the design, administration, and implementation of a participatory management philosophy and skill formation methodology to foster workforce involvement in job design, quality improvement, and new technology introduction. Each of these productive structures is examined using case studies that take us inside the real-world economics of production, business, work, universities, and industrial organization to examine how US industrial policy transformed the nation’s industrial innovation system.

What unites the policy frameworks of the successful transformative growth experiences examined in the book?

Explosive growth experiences are many. I apply the Capability Triad framework to explain other success stories including West Germany, Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, Japan and China as well as policy framework failure in the UK, Italy and the US in recent decades.

We know that they are not explained by stabilization policy. No amount of adjustment of stabilization and market reform policies are sufficient to address matters of productivity and growth. We find in the success stories the crafting and implementation of strategic development policy frameworks. This takes us beyond the terrain of the economics equilibrium and optimal resource allocation, although economics is critical to it. But it is an economics of capability development and mutual adjustment processes in which changes in business organization, production system, and skill formation are inextricably bound together.

This does not mean that macro policy instruments are irrelevant; it means that the transformative experiences are better understood as capability informed macro policies. The idea is to characterize successful economic policies from an organizational capabilities perspective.

In the success stories we find a unified or coordinated set of extra-enterprise, capability-development infrastructures that galvanize a population of companies to engage in product development and technology management capabilities; we find macro-policymaking guided by a production-centric awareness of where a region or country fits within the global competitive environment and the use of the critical barrier analysis to inform infrastructural investment priorities. These can include access to a machine tool industry, engineering support services, development finance and skill formation institutions which, if inter-connected, enable a whole group of firms to innovate and grow without generating severe skill gaps and thereby curtailing progress.    

Why is the formulation of a conceptual policy framework important?

The historical experiences described in this book tell us that a development policy framework is important for success. The case studies reveal extraordinary leaders responding to daunting challenges by crafting appropriate strategic policy frameworks at both enterprise and government levels. At the same time, luck plays a large part in successful outcomes. The expected external conditions needed to support success do not always arrive conveniently, and their absence may frustrate otherwise admirable policy initiatives. Nor is the true significance of the internal elements of a strategy always fully understood even by its own designers. But luck and chance, however random, can be handled best within well-thought-out and coherent frameworks that take full account of the nature of the external environment (opportunities and threats), as well as realistic views of domestic capabilities (strengths and weaknesses). What we can add, as well, is that the resulting SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis can be much richer if it is guided by the alternative economic baseline of the capabilities and innovation perspective and of the dynamic growth processes that it illuminates.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the capability triad is that it treats the scope for public policy as being almost completely and seamlessly blended into the detailed mechanics of change that occur within private firms. In this framework, public policy and private entrepreneurial actions do not operate in isolation from each other but become mutually reinforcing. There is some scope for a separable public policy, such as in skill formation, to ensure that the right mix of education and skills is produced to accommodate the changing demands of the economy as it develops. But even here, the links between public and private activity are crucial.

In the quest to break free from narrow, dependent, and reactive policy mindsets, the capability triad framework proposed here does not provide all the answers. But it helps those who hope to fashion transformative policies to be smart when time is pressing and when financial and human resources are limited. Such policies are essential if we wish to bring focus and synergy to the disparate policies that make up a broad enterprise-development strategy in a national, provincial, or local economy.

What is the relationship between conceptual framework and policy success?

Conceptual frameworks and policy design, implementation, and renewal usually evolve in parallel with each other. Frameworks are rather like maps that tell you where you are, where you need to go, and the direction that you must take to get there. Policy design and implementation deal with the messy business of gathering resources, making pragmatic choices, overcoming obstacles, and bringing the team along to a collective goal. To confuse these separate but interrelated elements of strategy, or to emphasize one at the expense of the other, will almost certainly lead to failure. Having a wonderful map, but of a route that would take you over impassable terrain, is useless. Wandering aimlessly in the wilderness bereft of any maps is equally futile.

Fortunately, the capability triad is not like the weatherman! It can offer diagnoses, and  even contingent predictions, and it can also suggest ways forward. The country case studies examined in this book suggest that the logic of the capability triad, based as it is on a distillation of actual experience, provides both structure and content to strategy design. To neglect its lessons, and to focus on price competition and stabilization processes as advocated in standard economics, has condemned national and regional economies to stagnation and decline and to all the social problems that such failures propagate.

What about research methodology in economics?

The economics advanced by a review of the historical experiences of rapid growth and decline in this book do not advance a policy framework with the clarity or certainty of the market fundamentalist or even Keynesian perspectives. Together they tell us that economies are inherently complex and not reducible to mechanical relationships. The methodological argument is that an alternative paradigm, beginning with case studies and empirical research rather than formal models grounded in a priori principles, is a more fruitful approach to understanding real-world economies and guiding policy. This is the position taken by all the thinkers in the production-centric paradigm.

Why have Nobel prizes overwhelmingly gone to the economics of optimal resource allocation? Part of the answer is that it is a comprehensive, context-free theory of individual rationality tractable to elegant simplification. Capabilities do not fit; they are about activities that cannot be done alone or at once.

My book goes the route of a different research methodology of which Darwin is the most prominent. This is systemic observation in which one searches for general principles, applies them to more experiences and in the process subjects them to tests. Not a complete answer but we start with what goes on inside the business enterprise because it is here that innovation and value creation either take place or do not take place. My book links Edith Penrose’s capabilities theory of the growth of the firm with Charles Babbage’s principles of production and Darwin’s evolutionary principles of variation, descent with adaptation and population dynamics. All three operate within the systemic observation methodology that distinguishes the production-centric economics perspective. 

Michael H. Best is professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, where he was codirector of the Center for Industrial Competitiveness. He has held numerous academic fellowships and participated in development projects with the United Nations, the World Bank, and governments in more than twenty countries. He is the author of The New Competition: Institutions of Industrial Restructuring and The New Competitive Advantage: The Renewal of American Industry.

Konrad H. Jarausch on Broken Lives

LivesBroken Lives is a gripping account of the twentieth century as seen through the eyes of ordinary Germans who came of age under Hitler and whose lives were scarred and sometimes destroyed by what they saw and did. Konrad Jarausch argues that this generation’s focus on its own suffering, often maligned by historians, ultimately led to a more critical understanding of national identity—one that helped transform Germany from a military aggressor into a pillar of European democracy. The result is a powerful account of the everyday experiences and troubling memories of average Germans who journeyed into, through, and out of the abyss of a dark century.

Broken Lives is a response to an Amazon customer review which called my synthesis of 20th century Europe Out of Ashes “interesting and worthwhile, but in the end unsatisfying.” In that previous volume I had attempted to interpret the development of the old continent as a struggle between Communist, Fascist, and Democratic modernities. Using the pseudonym “Spinoza,” the reader criticized: “Working from this narrative angle, from what you would really experience on the streets of these German cities as you walked around (what, in a word, Hitler would have experienced as he walked around as a teenager a decade or so later), would be far more powerful, and effective, in understanding the why of the 20th century than some ab­stract concept as modernism.” Since he was, in effect, calling for a history from below, I decided to rise to this challenge, albeit limited to a single country which I know best, namely Germany.

In order to reconstruct the experiences of ordinary Germans, I turned to the fascinating stories of Nazi repression, wartime suffering and post-war privation with which I grew up in a defeated and divided country. While some adults were unable to talk about what they had done or witnessed, many others were all too willing to unburden themselves. As an adolescent I had little patience with the endless tales of family members killed, possessions lost, flight and expulsion from home, and struggles to resume a normal life, because I wanted to escape the physical rubble and mental disorientation into a better future. But in retrospect I understood that these shared narratives constituted an archive of popular memories that had largely been ignored by academic historians because such accounts focused on German suffering rather than on the pain of racial and national victims of Nazi genocide and aggression.

With the passing away of the war-time generation, I realized that these stories were going to disappear unless they were preserved in written form as autobiographies. My search for such ego-texts was surprisingly successful, turning up over eighty untutored memoirs of people who were born in the Weimar Republic and put their experiences on paper in retirement at the end of the twentieth century. Many of the narratives, such as the nine volumes by the composer Gerhard Krapf, were in manuscript form as well as in private possession, reaching me through personal contacts. Others, such as the life-story of the Rhine River captain Hermann Debus were printed privately, appearing in little publishing houses below the radar of academic reviews or university libraries. Others yet, such as the amazing account of the Jewish historian and personal friend Werner “Tom” Angress were printed by reputable publishers. Surprisingly enough, the surviving authors and their descendants were eager to have their stories shared with a wider public.

As an ensemble, these popular memoirs constitute a set of private memories, largely absent from accounts of public memory culture. Quite a few scholars have analyzed the contentious development of an official memory culture that has become self-critical and contrite about the Nazi crimes and the complicity of the majority of the population. But this unofficial layer of recollections, below public protestations of guilt, has been largely neglected, since it is focused on German suffering, thereby initiating a competition of victimhood in which Germans also claim to have experienced terror and pain. This discrepancy has always fascinated me, since both the stress on critical public memory and the emphasis on apologetic private recollection seem to have a point, posing the question of how these contrary positions relate to each other. Hence I wanted to explore how later self-representations dealt with earlier Nazi complicity.

While working on a wide range of popular autobiographies, I was surprised to see that in a process of decades-long reflection many of the authors had become critical of their previous selves. For instance, Leonore Walb, on rereading her girlish Third Reich diary was so shocked by her adolescent enthusiasm for the Hitler Youth that she required psychiatric help in order to reconcile her later anti-Fascism with her earlier self. While this was, no doubt, an extreme case, other authors like Dieter Schoenhals wrote not just to convey family history to their off­spring but also in order to impart a timeless lesson to the public. Even if many remained reticent about their own reluctance to help Jewish acquaintances or Slavic slave laborers, virtu­ally all of them condemned the war and the dictatorship, seeking to make sure that such horrors would not recur. Encouraged by the reflective speech of President Richard von Weizsäcker in 1985, the official critical and private apologetic memories have gradually grown somewhat closer to each other.

Weaving the many diverse life-stories together into an over-all tapestry of experiences made me appreciate the human dimension of the descent into the Third Reich and the subsequent recovery. This shocking trajectory of a purportedly civilized nation was propelled by many small individual decisions which collectively gathered such enormous force that they shattered entire countries and people in Europe. It has not been appreciated sufficiently that the Nazi complicity broke millions of lives, not just among their political, racial, and ethnic victims, but also among their Aryan and German supporters. Far from apologizing for such misdeeds, I want to explain the youthful attraction of the NS dictatorship as well as the subsequent adult understanding of its terrible consequences. It is this crucial nexus between perpetration and suffering that charac­terizes German stories of the twentieth century—including that of my own family.

Konrad H. Jarausch is the Lurcy Professor of European Civilization at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His many books include Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century and Reluctant Accomplice: A Wehrmacht Soldier’s Letters from the Eastern Front. He lives in Chapel Hill and Berlin.

Brian O’Connor on Idleness: A Philosophical Essay

idleFor millennia, idleness and laziness have been regarded as vices. We’re all expected to work to survive and get ahead, and devoting energy to anything but labor and self-improvement can seem like a luxury or a moral failure. Far from questioning this conventional wisdom, modern philosophers have worked hard to develop new reasons to denigrate idleness. In Idleness, the first book to challenge modern philosophy’s portrayal of inactivity, Brian O’Connor argues that the case against an indifference to work and effort is flawed—and that idle aimlessness may instead allow for the highest form of freedom. A thought-provoking reconsideration of productivity for the twenty-first century, Idleness shows that, from now on, no theory of what it means to have a free mind can exclude idleness from the conversation.

Could we start by asking you to tell us what you mean by idleness? Which sense of the word is important for your book?

Yes—that’s really key to appreciating what I’m interested in exploring. I actually don’t mean anything that’s at all obscure. The sense of idleness at the center of the book is that of doing little or nothing that’s considered productive, of feeling free of the pressures of caring about what one is supposed to make of oneself. An idle person is not pinned down by any plan that shapes their future. It’s a kind of way of being that, in the context of life today, amounts to a disavowal of those inclinations that make us into effective social agents, like being useful, busy, or competitive.

What gave you the idea of writing a book on philosophical criticisms of idleness?

Many years ago I was struck by Kant’s claim that no rational being—that is to say, a properly functioning moral person—would ever believe it proper to live according to the rule of idleness. This was no throwaway remark. It was backed up by some quite complex reasoning. Nevertheless, I found myself completely unimpressed by his position. What Kant was trying to convince us of in that claim just didn’t resonate with me personally. I noticed a number of other philosophers from around and soon after Kant’s time devising their own original ways of denigrating idleness. Eventually, I thought it was time to react. The book is my effort to expose the problems and assumptions within those philosophies which tell us that idleness is an unworthy way of life.

Why did you feel motivated to react with that critical attitude?

There’s a philosophical interest in identifying and exposing arguments that seem to serve as apologies or defenses of some kind of the basic practices of life in the modern world. I just happen to be drawn to the longstanding practice of unsettling philosophy’s complicity with the troubling and often destructive burdens social structures place on human beings.

But there’s also a sense that lives pursued through an obsession with reputational and material advance bring a significant amount of harm to our world. We seem to be driven to see a large part of who we are in terms of how much we can accomplish. It’s a precarious and anxious way to live. Although I don’t develop that point in the book, it’s held in mind throughout.

Does your book argue, then, that we need to work less and do more to enjoy our free time?

No. I make no positive proposals for any alternative lifestyle. The philosopher as guru is not a happy spectacle. What I do try to do—and different lessons might be drawn from this—is show that some of the most ingenious arguments against idleness developed by some exceptionally influential philosophers turn out to be justifications of our anxious world. What’s more broadly intriguing about those arguments is that they express sentiments that have become increasingly common outside philosophy. At the core of them is this idea, that a life worth living is one of effort and recognized achievement. If we can successfully criticize that idea perhaps it contributes in some small way to reflection on the power it ought to hold over us.

You mentioned that you look at particular philosophers opposed to idleness. Which ones and why?

I’ve already noted Kant’s austere perspective. And added to his formal argument are quite a few condescending dismissals of lives that seem to be quite free of any effort to achieve social worth, in Kant’s sense of that idea. There’s a similar move found in Hegel who values the process of turning us into autonomous self-perpetuating workers. As we work we serve a system whose power over us Hegel doesn’t find troubling. He too sees nothing impressive in cultures that seem to survive quite happily in near idleness. And then there’s Marx who famously designs a picture of utopian co-operation in which the fullest freedom and self-realization might be found in even the most arduous forms of labor. He has no interest in the kinds of freedom that might be enjoyed in the absence of labor.

Your book also looks at the question of boredom. How does that fit with the topic of idleness?

It’s virtually inevitable to experience boredom when we have nothing to do. And when we reflect for a moment on that experience we might want to conclude that idleness, as a state of doing nothing in particular, could actually be a cause of boredom. If so, then what’s the point in trying to rescue idleness from its hostile characterizations? The most ambitious philosophical expression of a deep connection between boredom and idleness is found in Schopenhauer. I raise questions about whether Schopenhauer mistakes our socialization for facts of nature. He’s certainly no advocate of the modern world, yet he doesn’t quite see the degree to which the experiences he describes are peculiar to that world.

A more difficult question is posed when looking at de Beauvoir’s notion of the idle woman. She compellingly outlines the circumstances which, in her time, encouraged women to invest little in developing skills and to dream instead of idleness. But the reality was often lives crushed by boredom since the group she describes had only really been encouraged to develop what would turn out to be an impaired ability to keep themselves occupied.

Bertrand Russell praised idleness and noted that human beings have forgotten how to play. Do you think the idea of play is close to what you mean by idleness?

Yes it is. I give quite a lot of space to exploring two major theories of how play might be considered as an alternative to the grueling processes of ceaseless industry and the discipline it imposes on us. I’m quite sympathetic to those theories—they belong to Schiller and Marcuse. Play means living without seriousness, with a readiness to respond rather than impose, an openness rather than a strictness about what one might do next. I do tease out some of the difficulties in the formulations of those theories while trying to keep their importance as sources of resistance to the anti-idlers firmly in view.

In reply to some of these questions “freedom” seems to be a significant feature of idleness. How does that sense of freedom compare with senses more familiar from moral and political theory?

At first it looks like idle freedom belongs to some space that’s beneath any kind of philosophical interest. That, at least, is what some of the philosophers I examine would like us to believe. I try to show that idle freedom—a positive experience of freedom from social expectation, and indifference to life plans and so on—may actually come closer to what we expect freedom to be than the very influential yet often philosophically artificial idea of autonomy. Too often autonomy—supposedly the highest freedom—has been tied to social participation under the conditions of the modern world. It also frankly endorses the idea that freedom can be a burden, but that’s just how it is. I hope some of the ideas I’ve conveyed in this Q&A will give you a sense of why those features of autonomy at least—core features—seem less defensible than the notion of idle freedom in terms of their respective appreciation of what ordinarily matters about freedom.

Brian O’Connor is professor of philosophy at University College Dublin. He is the author of Adorno and Adorno’s Negative Dialectic.

Michael North on What is the Present

The problem of the present—what it is and what it means—is one that has vexed generations of thinkers and artists. Because modernity places so much value on the present, many critics argue that people today spend far too much time in the here and now—but how can we tell without first knowing what the here and now actually is? What Is the Present? takes a provocative new look at this moment in time that remains a mystery even though it is always with us. Presenting an entirely new conception of the temporal mystery Georg Lukács called the “unexplained instant,” this book explores how the arts have traditionally represented the present—and also how artists have offered radical alternatives to that tradition.

What inspired you to write a book about the present?

I’m interested in the fact that some of the most obvious and ordinary aspects of life are also the most mysterious. The present is one of these. You might say, in fact, that the present is the most obvious aspect of life, one that we can never get away from. And yet, whenever you come to think about it at all seriously, it becomes very confusing.

How so?

Well, we tend to think of the present as something like a dash on a timeline or a tick mark on a clock, as if it were nothing more than an ultra-thin divisor between past and future. But we also think of ourselves as living in the present, and this implies that it takes up some amount of time. If so, then how much time does it take up? Is its length always the same or does it change from time to time or even from person to person? And then if the present is separate from past and future, how does time get connected back up again? If I watch as I move my arm, I seem to see the whole movement as one indivisible process, not as a series of snapshots. In other words, I seem to see the whole process as if it were happening now, not separated out into past, present, and future. And yet logically the very beginning of that movement must be in the past by the time the whole movement is concluded. How do we come to see it as one apparently simultaneous arc?

Couldn’t some of these puzzles be cleared up by scientific investigation?

Unfortunately, science just makes it worse. For a long time, physiological psychologists hoped to isolate the present by measuring human reaction times, on the assumption that the shortest possible reaction time could be taken as the length of the present. But they could never really come up with a consistent value. Now it seems that the human nervous system may be governed by a number of different clocks, running at different rates. There isn’t any central agent to which all the various parts of the nervous system report, so in a sense there isn’t a single physiological present at all.

But surely there must be an objective present, even if the subjective present turns out to be a fiction?

I guess not. Go outside some night and look up at the stars. The starlight you see in the “present” is actually billions of years old, some of it more and some of it less. What sense does the concept of the present make in that context? As our knowledge of the universe has expanded, it has become less and less possible to believe in the Enlightenment concept of a universal simultaneity, a now that would synchronize all the matter in existence.

Does any of this make a difference on a more practical level?

It could. We hear a lot of complaints nowadays about the present, how it has become too important, crowding out the past and the future. These complaints rely on the assumption of a normative present, one that is neither too long nor too short, but just right. If this present is a fiction, then we are flogging ourselves for no reason. And it turns out that if you examine the evidence offered for this normative present, the little that exists is primarily figurative in nature.

Figurative in what sense?

The present is almost always explained in metaphorical terms. A time-line, for instance, is a spatial metaphor, with a point or a short dash representing the present. People sometimes think of the present as something like a single frame in a movie, static by itself but fluid when shown with the entire film. Versions of this particular metaphor go all the way back to the magic lantern, which Locke used as a metaphor for the experience of time. It turns out, though, on close inspection, that these are not metaphors for something else. Where the present is concerned, these metaphors are all there is. In fact, it is because of the force and vividness of these metaphors that we continue to believe in the present, though it has always been so hard to establish its actual status.

So does that mean we should abandon a category that has always seemed essential to our understanding of time? Is there no future for the present?

An important part of this book is an account of how the arts have represented and used the present. Painters, writers, and film-makers have had to contend with the problem of the present in various ways, and the solutions they have come up with are more flexible and expansive than the standard notion of it as a thin slice of time sandwiched between past and future. I’m particularly fond of George Kubler’s version of this when he calls the present “a plane upon which the signals of all being are projected.” It sounds a lot like our present right now, with its apparently infinite access to all of recorded history, but it suggests a present that is bigger and more comprehensive, not smaller and more isolated. In this sense, the present contains the past, and I guess in a sense it contains the future as well.

Michael North is professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles. His many books include Novelty: A History of the New, Machine-Age Comedy, and Camera Works: Photography and the Twentieth-Century Word.

Sebastian Edwards on American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

EdwardsThe American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the U.S. dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history. At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.

Americans believe that the Federal government has never defaulted on its debt. Yet in your book, you tell the story of a massive debt restructuring that happened only eight decades ago, in 1933. A debt restructuring that changed contracts unilaterally and retroactively, and imposed losses of 61% on investors. Why do you think that this episode is so little known?

This is a case of “collective amnesia.” Americans think of themselves as law-abiding citizens. We think of the United States as a country where institutions work and where contracts are sacred; a country where the rule of law prevails at all times. Reneging on contracts is not something this nation does. And, certainly, we don’t change contracts retroactively. It is something that “banana republics” do. And when they do it, we scold them and denounce them. We also demand compensation for damages.

When the Supreme Court heard the gold clause cases in 1935, most analysts thought that these were among the most important cases ever considered by the Court. Today, however, they are not even taught in most law schools. We have forgotten the episode because it is convenient, because it helps us maintain the view we have about our nation: a nation that always pays its debts. But, as I show in this book, this is not the case.

Your book is about the annulment of the gold clauses in 1933, and the Supreme Court decisions that ruled that it was legal to change debt contracts retroactively. What were the gold clauses, exactly? And what was their role?

Historically, most long-term debt contracts in the United States were written in terms of gold. That is, the borrower committed himself to paying back an amount of gold (or gold equivalent) equal to the amount borrowed, plus interest. This practice started during the Civil War to protect lenders from possible inflation.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard, all public debt included the gold clause. In addition, most railway and public utility bonds had gold clauses, as did most mortgages. Overall, debt equivalent to approximately 120% of GDP was subject to these escalation riders. That is a huge number. To put things in perspective, it is about twice as large as the debt that Argentina restructured unilaterally in 2002.

You write that the abrogation of the gold clauses was closely related to the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933.

In 1933, President Roosevelt thought that the U.S. could benefit from devaluing the dollar with respect to gold. This had been done by the United Kingdom in September 1931, and it appeared to be helping the UK get out of the depression. However, FDR was told by his advisers that the gold clauses stood in the way of a devaluation. With the gold clauses in place, a devaluation of the USD would immediately trigger an increase in debts by the same amount as the devaluation. This would bankrupt almost every railway company, and many other businesses. It would also be extremely costly for the government. It was at this point that FDR decided to abrogate the gold clauses. The actual annulment took place on June 5, 1933.

When emerging countries, such as Argentina, devalue their currency and restructure their debts, we often brand them as “populists.” Was there a populist element in FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard and abrogate the gold clauses?

One of the main issues in 1933 was how to raise agricultural prices, which had declined by almost 70% since 1919. After the 1932 election there was a large bloc of populists, pro-agrarian members in Congress. The better known one was Senator Huey Long, but there were others. Two very influential ones were Senator Elmer Thomas from Oklahoma, and Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana. They were “inflationists,” and believed that getting off gold would help increase commodity prices. To a large extent the devaluation of the dollar—from $20.67 to $35 per ounce of gold—was to placate this group of “populist” lawmakers. Wheeler was also an isolationist. In Philip Roth novel The Plot against America, Wheeler is a fictional vice president, and aviator Charles Lindbergh is the president.

There are still some people who believe that getting off gold was a mistake. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should the U.S. go back to gold?

Most economic historians—including Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke—agree that one of the main consequences of devaluing the dollar in 1934 was that the country received a huge inflow of gold. This additional gold was monetized by the Federal Reserve. As a consequence, there was a large increase in credit. This triggered a recovery, and helped reduce unemployment. A key question, which I address in the book, is whether it was possible, at the time, to put in place an expansionary monetary policy and still maintain some form of a gold-based standard. This is a controversial issue; British economist John Maynard Keynes believed that it was possible; many modern economists believe that it was not.

You argue in the book that at the time most economists were perplexed and didn’t know how to face the Great Depression. Apparently they didn’t understand the effects of fluctuating exchange rates.

In the 1930s the economic analysis of currency values and currency adjustments was in its infancy. Some well-known economists, such as Yale’s Irving Fisher, were very critical of the gold standard, and suggested pegging the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities. Other, including Princeton’s Edwin Kemmerer and Chicago’s Jacob Viner, were convinced that, in spite of some shortcomings, the gold standard was the best available monetary system. In the book I tell the story of how these two groups for FDR’s ear. I discuss who said what and how the President reacted to their advice.

You write that in 1933 George F. Warren was the most influential economist in the world. However, today almost no one knows his name. Who was he, and why was he so important?

George F. Warren was a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, and a friend of Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Morgenthau was a neighbor and friend of President Roosevelt, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury. In 1931, Warren published a book titled Prices, where he argued that agricultural prices were related in a one-to-one fashion to the price of gold. If the price of the metal increased through a devaluation of the USD, the price of wheat, corn, cotton, eggs and so on would increase immediately and by the same amount. Starting in July 1933, Warren became Roosevelt’s main economic adviser. In October the president put in place a “gold buying program” based on Warren’s theories. Every morning FDR would determine an arbitrary price at which the government bought small amounts of gold. The president’s expectation was that agricultural prices would follow in short order. But that didn’t happen; the program did not work as expected. John Maynard Keynes criticized it strongly, and in January 1934 the program was abandoned. In the book I discuss, in great detail, Warren’s theories and I compare them to those of other prominent economists, including Irving Fisher’s.

You devote quite some time to the cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. What can you tell us about them?

At the time, the Court was deeply divided. There was a conservative bloc led by Justice James Clark McReynolds, and a liberal bloc that included Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice, was often the swing vote. The cases were fascinating for several reasons; first, the Administration used a “necessity” argument to support the Joint Resolution that abrogated the gold clauses. This argument is very similar—in fact, almost identical—to the argument used recently by countries such as Argentina when restructured their debts unilaterally. Second, the government made very sophisticated economic arguments; in order to support them, it included a number of charts and diagrams in its briefs. Third, the rulings were very convoluted and controversial. In the case involving public debt (a Liberty Bond, to be more precise), the Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power, and that the abrogation was thus unconstitutional. However, the Court said, there were no damages involved. That is, the government had violated the Constitution, but didn’t have to compensate bond holder for losses.

In modern times, countries that default and/or restructure their debts unilaterally pay a cost. Generally speaking, they have great difficulties accessing the capital markets. However, this was not the case for the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I discuss this issue in great detail in the book. Milton Friedman argued that by expropriating property rights the abrogation had severe negative effects on the U.S. economy. It negatively affected investment. I combed the data and didn’t find significant dislocations or signs of distress in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court rulings. In the final chapters of the book I give a possible explanation for this. I point out why the U.S. case is so different from recent default episodes, including Argentina and Greece.

Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania and Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. He lives in Los Angeles.

Michael Robertson on The Last Utopians

RobertsonFor readers reared on the dystopian visions of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, the idea of a perfect society may sound more sinister than enticing. In The Last Utopians, a lively literary history of a time before “Orwellian” entered the cultural lexicon, Michael Robertson reintroduces us to a vital strain of utopianism that seized the imaginations of late nineteenth-century American and British writers and readers. The book delves into the lives and works of four key figures—Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman—who lived during an extraordinary period of literary and social experimentation. The publication of Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1888 opened the floodgates of an unprecedented wave of utopian writing. Morris, the Arts and Crafts pioneer, was a committed socialist whose News from Nowhere envisions a future Arcadia. Carpenter boldly argued that homosexuals constitute a utopian vanguard. Gilman, a women’s rights activist and author of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” wrote Herland, a visionary tale of an all-female society. Read on to learn more about utopian dreaming and action, in both their time and ours.

When did you get the idea to write this book? 

At a lunch on Nassau Street in Princeton with Hanne Winarsky, my former editor at Princeton University Press. I had just completed Worshipping Walt, my group biography of Walt Whitman’s disciples, and Hanne and I were batting around ideas for my next book project. Writing Worshipping Walt, I’d become fascinated by Edward Carpenter, a British writer attracted to Whitman by his proclamations of love between men. Hanne asked what particularly interested me about Carpenter. I replied, “His utopianism. His bold and eccentric and wonderful idea that homosexual men and women constitute the advance guard of the utopian future.” By the end of the lunch, I had the chapters of The Last Utopians mapped out.

Sounds a bit like a cartoon lightbulb-going-on moment.

It does, doesn’t it? When I told that story to a friend, he said he knew lots of writers who had had the same experience, but it always happened late at night, in a bar, and involved ideas scribbled on cocktail napkins that made no sense the next day.

Your title and subtitle seem to be at odds. Your title claims that Carpenter, Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were the last utopians, but the subtitle refers to their legacy. What’s up with that?

I hope there’s a creative tension at work. These four writers were indeed part of the last generation of artists and intellectuals who took utopia seriously—who believed in the importance of laying out their visions of a transformed, better society, and who believed that we could reach utopia through a benign evolutionary process. After World War I—and after World War II, the Holocaust, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot—that sort of grand utopian vision became increasingly untenable. But I didn’t want to end the book on the battlefields of the Great War. The philosopher Ernst Bloch argued the “the hope principle” is as basic to human nature as the pleasure principle, and I think the utopian impulse is alive and well today. It just takes different forms. My last chapter is all about contemporary utopianism.

What’s behind your choices of the contemporary utopian communities and movements that you describe in your last chapter?

I wanted to explore sites and movements that share the values of Bellamy, Morris, Carpenter, and Gilman. In brief, those are a commitment to democratic economic equality, an interest in alternatives to the patriarchal nuclear family and compulsory heterosexuality, a progressive spirituality that locates the divine in the human and natural worlds, and the search for a simple lifestyle in harmony with nature. In a couple of cases, I found contemporary movements directly inspired by one of the last utopians. I attended a retreat in Scotland of the Edward Carpenter Community, a gay men’s group, and I spend a weekend in Vermont with the Radical Faeries, gender noncomformists who embrace Carpenter’s radical utopian vision. But most of the contemporary utopians I encountered had no knowledge of Carpenter, et al.

Who are those other contemporary utopians?

I found some of them in what used to be called “utopian communes” but now are known as “intentional communities.” I visited two of the largest, oldest, and best-known communities, Twin Oaks in Virginia and Findhorn in Scotland, and I spent a week at Erraid, which is located on a tiny island in the Scottish Hebrides. I was also able to visit a short-lived but influential community: Occupy Wall Street. Every utopian thinker is interested in education, and that’s especially true of Rudolf Steiner, the eccentric Austrian philosopher and founder of Waldorf schools. I spent a wonderful day visiting classes at the local Waldorf school. Finally, the contemporary food movement, with its vision of small, sustainable, community-supported agriculture has a powerful utopian vision, and I visited a lot of farms and gardens.

The research must have been enjoyable.

It was. I spent a lot of time with big-hearted optimists in a variety of interesting places. I picked radishes in the rain with a chatty woman from East London, talked about utopia with Michael Moore at Occupy Wall Street, chatted with ten-year-old boys knitting at a Waldorf school, played frisbee with the Radical Faeries, and built planters out of dumped tires in an empty lot in Trenton.

You say in the book that we’re in a golden age for dystopian fiction. Isn’t this a peculiar moment to publish a book about utopia? Why should we care? 

It’s easy to understand why dystopian fiction is so popular right now, given the resurgence of right-wing fundamentalism, misogyny, nativism, and racism; the reality of climate change; our increased awareness of police brutality and invasions of privacy; the crudeness and mendacity of our political culture. But without a utopian vision of a better world, we’re reduced to merely reacting to the latest outrage or resigning ourselves to a morally intolerable status quo. I hope that The Last Utopians will inspire readers with its account of these nineteenth-century visionaries and their contemporary heirs. My goal is to help readers envision how they might live out some portion of a transformed future in the here and now.

Michael Robertson is professor of English at The College of New Jersey and the author of two award-winning books, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton) and Stephen Crane, Journalism, and the Making of Modern American Literature. A former freelance journalist, he has written for the New York Times, the Village VoiceColumbia Journalism Review, and many other publications.

Frederick Cooper on Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference

CooperCitizenship, Inequality, and Difference offers a concise and sweeping overview of citizenship’s complex evolution, from ancient Rome to the present. Political leaders and thinkers still debate, as they did in Republican Rome, whether the presumed equivalence of citizens is compatible with cultural diversity and economic inequality. Frederick Cooper presents citizenship as “claim-making”—the assertion of rights in a political entity. What those rights should be and to whom they should apply have long been subjects for discussion and political mobilization, while the kind of political entity in which claims and counterclaims have been made has varied over time and space. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is a historically based reflection on some of the most fundamental issues facing human societies in the past and present.

What are the biggest differences between how citizenship is understood today versus how it was understood in ancient Rome?

Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference is both an historical panorama and an essay about politics today. As a twentieth-century specialist, I found that beginning with the Roman Empire was quite a challenge. Fortunately, citizenship is as essential a question for historians of Rome as it is for scholars of present-day politics. In both instances, citizenship was less a precisely defined juridical notion than a framework for political action, for claim-making. For the Roman elite, citizenship was an incorporative notion, a means of giving people, including those conquered by military means, a stake in an expanding imperial system. Citizenship under the Roman Republic entailed a voice in political assemblies as well as the right to serve in a Roman legion and to have legal cases tried in a Roman court. The egalitarian dimension of citizenship was in tension with the accumulation of power and wealth by an elite, and such tensions have their echoes into the twenty-first century. When Rome became a monarchy, citizens’ political voice was attenuated—although not entirely eliminated—but citizenship still provided juridical protection. In AD 212 citizenship was extended to all male, non-slave inhabitants of the entire empire. When we talk about the word and the concept of citizenship today as having roots in classical times, we are thus talking about “imperial citizenship,” a concept centered on a diverse polity rather than a homogeneous national society.

Readers might be surprised that imperial citizenship was a focus of debate in the mid-twentieth century. The French government (and less directly the British one) tried to give empire a renewed  legitimacy after World War II by extending citizenship rights to the inhabitants of colonies. French African activists seized on citizenship to claim social, economic, and political equality. Their claims included the right to settle in the metropole, and here we find the roots of the multicultural societies now found in France and Britain, with all their possibilities and problems.

The long-time perspective thus puts into question the idea that citizenship is essentially a national concept. People have claimed rights—and have tried to expand those rights—in a variety of political contexts, bigger than territorially bounded states and smaller as well. Today, citizenship is often associated with a set of rights, but in countries like China, Turkey, and Egypt rights claims are met with strong resistance from rulers. Since the early twentieth-century, citizenship, particularly in Europe, entailed social rights—a right to protection from the state against the risks of old age, illness, and unemployment—but social rights are everywhere under threat. So the usefulness of going back to Rome in thinking about citizenship in today’s world is not so much to find the origins of a certain set of norms or practices as to lay out a terrain of political contestation, where the consequences of incorporation of diverse peoples into a political unit is set against assertion of cultural specificity, where egalitarian ideals conflict with concentrations of wealth and power, where the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion of different categories of people from the body politic are argued and sometimes fought over.

How have different societies reconciled inequality of power among individuals with the equality of status offered by citizenship?

Citizenship in itself doesn’t posit that citizens should be equal in all senses of the term, but because it emphasizes that people belong as a body to a political unit it does imply that there is a relationship of citizens to each other as well as citizens to a ruler or to a state. That opens the door for debates within the construct of citizenship over how much inequality among citizens is acceptable. In Republican Rome, the controversy among writers was about the dangers of oligarchy and greed. In the French Revolution, the new political language emphasizing “nation” and “popular sovereignty” quickly revealed tensions that were not resolved: between the rights of every citizen to equal participation in society and the right to property which implied differences in resources, between popular sovereignty and the exclusion of women from the vote, and between the insistence that overseas colonies were “French” but that most people living there could legitimately remain without rights. Indeed, the idea of popular sovereignty made the policing of the boundaries of citizenship a more acute issue than it had been. In newly independent countries in the Americas as well as French, British, and Spanish colonies, slavery and the status of indigenous peoples—as well as the exclusion of many people from full citizenship on grounds of origins, color, gender, culture, and religion—confronted what seemed to be the fundamental tenets of the political regime.  When territories in Africa and Asia were forcefully incorporated into empires, millions of people were forced into a situation where they were “French” or “British” but were excluded from citizenship. In Europe itself, the mobilization of workers, the development of socialist parties, and the beginnings of welfare policies provoked debates over how much inequality was acceptable among citizens and between citizens and others in the territory. When empire itself came under fire, the debate was not just about political rights, but social and economic rights. Because citizenship as a principle—not just one’s own rights—was in question, some intellectuals and activists argued that whatever rights it entailed should be universal, that the notion of “belonging” had to be pushed upward to include all of humankind as a rights-bearing community. That by the 1970s, with the end of colonial empires, almost all of the world’s population was a citizen of someplace both continued and recast long-standing debates over how much inequality was tolerable within and among sovereign states. And the more universal the concept of citizenship became, the more the situation of people who did not fit into a citizenship regime became a source of tension—people like Palestinians, Kurds, or Rohingya, as well as refugees or economic migrants. The relationship of citizenship and equality has been a part of political thought and political action for a very long time, but in shifting ways.

How did the collapse of empire affect ideas of what it means to be a citizen?

The collapse of empires in the mid-twentieth century entailed a reimagining of history based on a vision of a well-defined society moving as a unit through time.  Not only did elite intellectuals of new states in Africa and Asia carved out of colonial empires try to naturalize the nations they were forging, but elites of France, Britain, and other imperial powers tried to project backwards their national identification onto an imperial past. They not only sought to obscure the violence and exploitation that was part of empire building, but also to deny the incorporative dimension of empire, which they had recently tried to promote. They feared that ex-citizens or recent migrants from former colonies would find in the imperial past a basis for making claims.

What changed when citizenship began to be thought of as a birthright for the inhabitants of a given nation rather than an exclusive status conferred upon individuals who meet a certain set of criteria?

Some scholars have pointed out the limits of “birthright citizenship”—that the luck of being born in a particular place shapes, more than anything an individual can control, a person’s fate. But remedies to birthright citizenship might be even worse than the disease—insisting that people merit their citizenship, making people’s rights subject to invidious distinction-making, to exclusionary notions of who really belongs where. In actual practice, legal regimes have tried various mixtures of jus soli—citizenship based on place of birth—and jus sanguinis—citizenship based on descent from a recognized citizen. The first can be arbitrary, the second exclusionary. We don’t want to lose the sense of common belonging and collective well-being that we share with our fellow citizens. Nor should we lose awareness of the fact that our collectivity was built out of the mixing of people of different origins, that we live among people some of whom resemble us and some of whom do not, and that our well-being depends on interaction with people across as well as within political boundaries. Since neither a rigid politics of national identity nor an amorphous notion of globality corresponds to the reality of today’s world, we need to think in nuanced ways about problems of immigration and integration in our own countries and about the conditions in which people in other parts of the world live.

How did you approach writing this book?

In much of my career, I have liked to change focal lengths: to do archivally-based research on a well-bounded topic and to write about general issues of history and theory in the social sciences. My Princeton book Citizenship between Empire and Nation: Remaking France and French Africa, 1945-1960 falls into the first category, and the present book, along with Empires in World History:  Power and the Politics of Difference, co-authored with Jane Burbank, falls into the second. Citizenship, Inequality, and Difference began as a series of lectures, and in turning them into a book I tried to retain the sense of an extended reflection on an issue that is as much a concern of today’s politics as it is a subject of historical interest. Writing in such different genres helps to avoid the pitfalls of either. Immersion in the particulars of historical situations helps focus not only on the limited knowledge on which generalizations are based, but also on the uncertainties and contingencies with which people lived. The temptation is usually to start an historical story at its end point, to see how we got where we are, to write off paths not taken and dead ends.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of historical research enables us to reconstruct the hopes, despairs, possibilities, and constraints, in which history was made. At the same time, immersion in the particular can mask the large spatial and temporal scale at which important actors operate.  Moving back and forth between archival research and theoretical reflections, between small and large scales of time and space, while following connections with their extensions and their limits and looking at continuities and evolutionary changes as well as moments of radical transformation seems to me a way to explore the possibilities and limitations of history writing.

What do you hope that readers will take away from reading this book?

Citizenship is both a powerful and fragile notion. Thinking about citizenship historically confronts us with the salience of the choices that we face today, as in the past. We have seen that from the early Roman Empire onward the commonality of citizens coexisted with social hierarchy and political oligarchy. They coexisted uneasily, for citizenship provided a framework for contestation, for some to push for greater equality and for others to use their resources to maintain and enhance their privileges. Citizenship has been an incorporative and an exclusionary notion. Today, we are confronting a world economy that offers a high degree of mobility to commodities and capital, and that fact provides a rationale—if not a reason—for the governments of the most privileged countries in Europe to erode the hard-won social benefits that citizenship has provided. Meanwhile, the closures of national citizenship tempt many people to scapegoat immigrants rather than confront the basic structures of inequality. In other parts of the world, we find citizens vigorously asserting their political rights against would-be dictators, and we see governments willing to kill or drive into exile millions of their citizens in order to preserve their power. Whether in today’s world citizens in different circumstances will be able to make good their claims by defending themselves within a strictly national framework is far from evident. An historical perspective on citizenship reminds us that we need to work with different kinds of political relationships at the same time, to define communities that live together and help each other without walling ourselves off from others. In the future as in the past we need to make our way in a world that is economically and social unequal, politically fragmented, culturally differentiated, and highly connected.

Frederick Cooper is professor of history at New York University. His many books include Empires in World History and Citizenship between Empire and Nation.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer on The Talmud: A Biography

TalmudThe Babylonian Talmud, a postbiblical Jewish text that is part scripture and part commentary, is an unlikely bestseller. Written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic, it is often ambiguous to the point of incomprehension, and its subject matter reflects a narrow scholasticism that should hardly have broad appeal. Yet the Talmud has remained in print for centuries and is more popular today than ever. Barry Scott Wimpfheimer tells the remarkable story of this ancient Jewish book and explains why it has endured for almost two millennia. An incomparable introduction to a work of literature that has lived a full and varied life, this accessible book shows why the Talmud is at once a received source of traditional teachings, a touchstone of cultural authority, and a powerful symbol of Jewishness for both supporters and critics.

 

What is the Talmud?

The Talmud has been the central authoritative text for Judaism for the last millennium. An originally oral collectively authored work that was completed by the eighth century CE, the Talmud ranges across topics both sacred and mundane with a nonlinear style that replicates the feel of an intellectual conversation. People have routinely looked to the Talmud for guidance in their ritual, spiritual and legal lives even as many of the Talmud’s most studied passages are about torts like the effects of a goring ox on a neighbor’s property. This combination of sometimes profound content alongside seemingly banal material is one of the things that makes the Talmud so unique.

Is this an introduction to the Talmud? Will it teach me how to read the Talmud?

It is an introduction to the Talmud, but not one specifically designed to train someone to read this unique work. There are some pretty good print and digital resources that help new learners figure out how to make sense of a talmudic passage. This book provides an overview of how the Talmud was composed and subsequently received. More than explaining a passage or two of Talmud, The Talmud: A Biography examines the historical contexts in which the Talmud was initially produced and subsequently canonized. It attempts to highlight the unique literary and religious features that have made the Talmud so compelling to so many for so long.

The Talmud is a religious classic written by dead white men. Is it still relevant?

Despite the Talmud’s antique background, it is a surprisingly fresh text that seems to have a limitless potential for reinterpretation. One of the claims of the biography is that different factions of Judaism (Zionism, Reform Judaism, Hasidism) throughout history established themselves with a self-conscious opposition to the Talmud and its vision of Judaism, but eventually came back to reclaim the Talmud and its authority through reinterpretation. The Talmud is of a different time and place. Contemporary readers occasionally bristle at sections that are challenging by today’s ethical standards. If one can create distance as a reader from some of the text’s more challenging opinions or assumptions, one can find sections that seem to speak directly to our age. Because the Talmud is written in a conversational style with multiple opinions it invites readers to join the conversation and talk back to it. The Talmud: A Biography ends with a discussion of some artists who are talking back to the Talmud. One of the discussed artworks is featured on the book’s jacket cover.

Biographies are stories of people’s lives. You’ve written a biography of a book. What were the challenges of applying this genre to a book and what are the advantages?

We’re so used to the genre of biography that we don’t think much about the fact that it’s challenging to turn a life into a textual narrative. This book compounded the problem because I had to turn a text into a life to reduce that life to a textual narrative. The advantage of writing a biography of the Talmud rather than an introduction is that the living Talmud more naturally lends itself to a dynamic treatment that recognizes that the work changed over time. The Talmud’s cultural position and impact were not the same in the eleventh century as in the eighteenth; the Jewish diaspora is so vast that there were major cultural differences inherent to the different places in which Jews lived. 

The Talmud has a reputation for being difficult to comprehend. Is the reputation deserved? What makes the work so difficult?

People sometimes think that what makes the Talmud difficult is its language—the Talmud is written in a hybrid of Hebrew and Aramaic. The language is a barrier for English readers, but there are several translations available which bridge that gap. The real challenge of the Talmud lies in its logic. Much of the Talmud’s text is about fine- grained debates around the interpretation of the Bible and Mishnah (an early rabbinic legal code). The Talmud assumes a lot about its reader (that the reader knows the bible, knows the full gamut of Jewish ritual and can process logic very rapidly). There are also many places where an attentive reader will pick up on flaws in the textual logic and even contradictions within a local passage. What makes the Talmud so difficult (but in a satisfying way) is figuring out a way to make sense of these flaws and contradictions.

When did you first read the Talmud?

I had an intense traditional Jewish education. At 8 I started competing in intra-school and inter-school competitions for memorizing Mishnayot (individual passages of Mishnah, the early rabbinic law code); for five years I averaged a hundred memorized Mishnayot a year. By the time I started studying the Talmud (in summer camp after fourth grade), I was so eager to get started because I had been exposed to story after story about the Talmud’s greatness and the satisfaction it provided to its learners. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand the satisfaction piece until a decade later, when I had the intellectual maturity to read the Talmud and understand all its complexities.

Does the book offer something for those who read Talmud regularly?

Many Talmud scholars and students rarely get the opportunity to reflect on the work’s origins, its unique qualities as a work of literature or the way the Talmud was transmitted through handwritten manuscripts and various print editions to our current digital age. The book is as interested in the life the Talmud lived off the page—as a symbol of Jews and Judaism that has been perpetually implicated in fights between religions or between competing religious factions. The Talmud: A Biography interprets two talmudic passages and sustains these examples from chapter to chapter. While designed to be understood by beginners, these interpretations will engage even the most experienced Talmud scholars.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer is associate professor of religious studies and law at Northwestern University and the author of Narrating the Law: A Poetics of Talmudic Legal Stories.

C.C. Tsai on ‘The Analects’ and ‘The Art of War’

Tsai AnalectsC. C. Tsai is one of Asia’s most popular cartoonists, and his editions of the Chinese classics have sold more than 40 million copies in over twenty languages. These volumes present Tsai’s delightful graphic adaptation of The Analects and The Art of War, two of the most influential books of all time and works that continues to inspire countless readers today. The texts are skillfully translated by Brian Bruya, who also provides an introduction.

What got you interested in illustrating the Chinese classics?

Ever since I was small, I loved reading—the Bible, detective stories, world classics, science. Of course, the Chinese classics were also part of the mix. In 1985, I moved to Japan to hide away and draw something new. This was a time when teenage love stories were all the rage in Japan. It occurred to me that I could use the simple-to-understand form of the comic to express difficult-to-understand ancient classics. I started with the charming stories of Zhuangzi.

How were these different from what you’d been drawing all along? And what did you hope to get across to your readers?

Before these books, I did mostly comic strips, and in those, I did all the creative work, including the story lines. With the classics, I am illustrating the works of thinkers like Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Mencius. It still required quite a bit of creativity to distill the works into digestible episodes, but it also required an enormous amount of background reading and research. My aim was to put the essence of their thinking into pictures.

I’ve heard that you have unique working habits—that you go to bed at 5 p.m., get up at 1:00 a.m., and work until 2:00 p.m. When did you start this routine, and why?

My lifestyle resembles that of the great French writer Balzac: to bed at dusk and up at about 1:00 a.m. Then, stand in the window drinking coffee and thinking. 95% of my thinking at this time is about the future. Only 5% is about the past. Then I start working and work straight through until about 2:00. Then, I eat, take a nap, and either read or watch a movie on the internet.

When you really focus on one thing, there is nothing but silence, and it’s as if you are the only thing that exists in the whole world. It’s as if time slows to a halt. This is why I prefer to get up in the night to welcome each new day.

From my experience, the stomach and brain are in a reciprocal relationship. Creativity is highest when the stomach is empty. And when the stomach is full, the brain turns off. I don’t really like to eat and prefer not to interrupt my work with meals. After eating, I can never get back to the same state of creativity.

You’ve done so many amazing things in your life. What are you the most proud of?

The thing that I am the most proud of is using maximal freedom to live the simplest life. I took ten years off just to study physics. Those were the ten happiest years of my life. Second to that was the four years that I spent in Japan while drawing the Chinese classics. If you can do what you most love over an extended period of time—that is a life worth living!

Of all the comic books you’ve created, which is your favorite?

The sage Laozi is my idol, but Zhuangzi must have been my form in a previous lifetime. I’m most like Zhuangzi, and I like Zhuangzi the most. He was blind to fame and fortune and simply lived his own life without concern for what others thought. I do the same, and this is why I drew Zhuangzi first in the series.

Are you one of those old guys trying to bring back traditional culture? Doesn’t it seem out of touch with today’s youth, who prefer surfing the Internet, getting on social media, and figuring out ways to make a quick buck?

There is nothing wrong with getting online or wanting to make a quick buck. The question is: how many people succeed in making that quick buck? Maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand. I have always lived by three simple principles:

  1. Find something you are good at and that you like to do and then devote yourself to it.
  2. Once you get good at something, your efficiency will increase exponentially, and you’ll be faster than you ever expected. This builds on itself, so that you increasingly get faster and better.
  3. When you can perform efficiently and at a high level, you’ll have very little competition. Challenge yourself. Every time you do something, try your best to do it faster and better than you did it last time. Soon, you will speed right past all of your peers.

You began drawing when you were 4 years-old. Do you remember your first drawing?

I have a deep impression of my first work of art. When I was two years-old, I was awe-struck by the special red ink that my dad would sometimes use in his calligraphy, so when he wasn’t looking, I grabbed his brush and used that red ink to draw the shape of a person on our white wall. The subsequent punishment is what made it stick in my memory.

Have you ever altered your style to meet the demands of your readers, or of the market?

In the fifty years that I’ve been drawing comics, including 7 years doing animation, I’ve developed 20 different styles. I tailor the style to the content. For traditional philosophy, I balance the difficulty of the thought with a light and breezy drawing style. But this is in service to the reader. I always have the needs of the reader at the front of my mind. Do these sections flow together? Is this sentence clear? A book is a way to connect with a reader’s mind. From creation, to editing, to printing, to distribution—a book is not complete until the reader has finished reading.

What is the focus of your work now? Do you have any plans for a new series?

I just finished a series on Buddhism, along with two animated feature films, and am now planning a series on the “wisdom of the East.”

What other kind of challenges do you plan to take on?

I have a strong interest in creating a comic book series devoted to helping people understand physics and mathematics. I’ve been studying these subjects for many years and am just about ready. At this point in my life, though, it becomes a matter of whether I am still alive and have the energy to complete the project.

Has drawing comics always been your goal in life?

Drawing comics is not my goal in life. My goal is to live with as much spiritual freedom as possible and as few material desires as possible.

There is a story of a little chick that has just pecked its way out of its shell when it comes across a snail. “So that’s what a shell is for,” it says to itself. So the chick picks up the pieces of its shell and carries them on its back for the rest of its life.

We are born free, so why accumulate shells to carry on your back? Our purpose in life is not to accumulate fame and fortune that we can’t take with us when we die; it is to be who we are to the fullest extent possible. Since we only have one life to live, we have to make the most of it. That’s why I’m not willing to spend an ounce of energy pursuing fame or fortune. Look at your life from the perspective of your death, then go and do something significant.

What books have influenced you the most?

I’ve found that reading is the most rewarding investment of one’s time. By the time I was three, I had finished reading the Bible. At 9, I had read many of the world’s most famous works of literature. Up to now, I’ve probably read over twenty thousand books, including eight thousand comic books. Of these, my favorite author is Kahlil Gibran. My favorite books are Gibran’s The Prophet and Sand and Foam and Lewis Thomas’ Lives of a Cell.

From your own experience and perspective, to what do you attribute your success. What could your fans learn from you about how to succeed in their own lives?

A person without a dream is like a butterfly without wings. In Taiwan, there is a saying: a blade of grass, a drop of dew. In the early morning, every kind of plant, whether big or small, a weed or a flower, will have dew on it. What this means is that nature is fundamentally fair, in that everyone has their own talents and abilities. You just have to develop them.

You have popularized comic books about ancient times. Do you feel like you have some special connection with the ancients?

I am interested in anything that has to do with wisdom. Reading is like being a neighbor to the ancients, like forming a friendship with them. I have never traveled for the sake of traveling, like a tourist does. Instead, I travel with the people of the past.

Where do you find your inspiration?

My inspiration comes from my attempt to connect with wisdom. I try to use this creative form to pass on some wisdom to later generations. My process lies in reading and note-taking. I’m slow at reading paper books and now prefer to read books on the computer. I download some ancient book, convert it to a Word document, and add correct punctuation. It’s hard on my eyes, and I sometimes think I’ll go blind doing it like this. Is this a bottleneck in my workflow? Actually, no. If I were to convert all of my notes to paper notebooks, I estimate they would take up something like 800 volumes.

Whenever people achieve a level of great success, it’s natural that others wonder how they were able to do it. What would you say is the secret to your success?

The secret to success is to find something you love and then do it. Even today, I still love to work. I work 16 – 18 hours per day. I don’t have a cell phone, and still use a land line. I also don’t have material desires to speak of, getting by on about $8/day. Besides working, my next love is playing bridge online. I’m still that little kid from the Taiwan countryside—very simple, just doing whatever he enjoys the most.

When did you first think of putting ancient thought into comics? Did your understanding of it come through studying it on your own?

When I was 9 years-old, I realized that if you really want to learn something, you have to teach yourself. The questions are yours, and you have to come up with the answers. Most teachers are just average people and are limited in their ability to satisfy a child’s curiosity. It was then that I began my project of self-learning. Self-learning is how you learn fast and efficiently. Everything I know, I’ve learned this way: cartooning, animations, physics, advanced mathematics, Japanese, bridge, Asian philosophy, Buddhism, Zen, and so on. I’m an autodidact through and through.

When I was 36 years old, I had the idea that putting classical literature into comics could be of great benefit to others. So, I decided to go to Japan and spend four years creating this series. Wouldn’t it be great to take priceless ideas of the Chinese classics and transmit them via the most efficient modern media format? Nothing could be more natural! 

Who has most influenced your drawing style?

I was exposed to the Bible when I was just one year-old. When I was 3-and-half, I began thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. When I was four-and-a-half, I decided that I would become an illustrator. At 9, I set my mind on becoming a professional cartoonist. I published my first comic when I was 15. When I first started drawing comics, I was heavily influenced by my idol at the time, Tetsuya Chiba. But after a year, I found my own voice and developed my own style. At 36, when I was traveling through the Kuala Lumpur airport, I came across some comics by a cartoonist who goes by the name of Lat. There is a freedom to his drawings that helped me develop my carefree style. But the one thing that has been most influential in my drawing has been my own studies—of classical Chinese painting, Western art history, Bauhaus design, not to mention physics and mathematics. It was only after studying formulas in physics and math that my drawing took on a kind of lyrical openness. But I don’t have just one style. Right now, I can draw in any of 20 different styles. It’s not a problem if a beginning artist is influenced by an idol’s style, but the artist has to very quickly transition to a unique style. We’re each a unique being from the day we’re born. If we can’t be ourselves, who is going to come and be us? We are our own selves, not copycats of others.

C. C. Tsai is one of East Asia’s most popular illustrators. His bestselling editions of the Chinese classics have introduced generations of readers to the wisdom of such luminaries as Zhuangzi, Sunzi, and Laozi. Born in Taiwan, Tsai now lives in Hangzhou, China. 

 

Tsai