David Grazian: A Sociologist at the zoo, Father’s Day style

Grazian jacketThis Father’s Day, millions of American families with small children will trek to their local zoos for the pleasures of springtime—afternoons of strolling tree-lined paths, watching lions nap and flamingos dance, hand-feeding elk and free-range peacocks their picnic lunch leftovers on the sly, warning signs—DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!—be damned. Zoos are not only great places to observe orangutans and chimpanzees but human primates as well, especially when the weather warms and they emerge from their winter hibernation to join the masses seeking to commune with nature in the city’s outdoor public spaces: its waterfronts, public squares, bird sanctuaries, botanical gardens, nature preserves, and of course, its aquariums and animal parks.

It’s all quite a hoot. I even I wrote a whole book about it—American Zoo—to which I have fatherhood itself to thank. As a cultural sociologist and urban ethnographer by training, I had earlier in my career written two books about urban nightlife, the first on Chica­go’s blues scene, the second on the growing social world of res­taurants, nightclubs, and cocktail lounges in and around downtown Philadelphia. These projects required me to spend long hours at late-night music venues, corner taverns, nouveau-fusion eateries, martini bars, high-end speakeasies, dance palaces, and corner taverns from dusk until dawn—until the wee morning hours of April 22, 2006, when my wife gave birth to our son (in the book I call him Scott). Suddenly this nocturnal, free-for-all lifestyle no longer seemed all that tenable. (I would joke that I still hoisted a bottle at 2:30am every morning, but it was a bottle of baby formula, not Budweiser.)

During his infant and toddler days, Scott developed an acute fondness for our neighborhood’s menagerie of leashed puppies, wandering house cats, and (somewhat illegal) backyard chickens. This enthusiasm eventually brought us to the local Philadelphia Zoo nearly every weekend to take in its far more exotic elephants, red pandas, marmosets, pumas, and gorillas. From the helium-filled Channel 6 Zoo Balloon that rose hun­dreds of feet up into the sky to its intricate naked mole-rat exhibit down below, we took it all in: the unforgettable sights, sounds, and smells of the nation’s oldest zoo. (The smells were the most difficult to forget.) With each visit, our curiosity grew about the zoo’s strange creatures, and what makes them tick—and chirp, moo, growl, honk, quack, roar, and squeal.

Yet as Scott and I continued our father-son visits to the zoo, the sociologist in me couldn’t help but wonder about its strange allure, so I spent four years volunteering at two different metropolitan zoos. At one institution I worked primarily in an outdoor children’s zoo where I cleaned enclosures and exhibits, prepared and distributed zoo-prescribed diets to birds of prey and small mammals, managed children in a petting yard filled with goats and sheep, and provided behavioral enrichment to a variety of animals. Along the way I shoveled cow manure and chicken dung, goat pellets and duck droppings. I scrubbed owl and macaw cages and lined them with old issues of USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, clipped a ferret’s toenails, and once got locked inside a bird’s double-caged enclosure. I picked horse and donkey hooves, stuffed frozen feeder mice with vitamin E capsules, bathed tortoises, and exercised overweight rabbits.

At a second zoo, I worked as a docent, or volun­teer educator. I handled and presented a variety of small live animals to a range of zoo audiences, including families, school groups on field trips, children’s birthday parties, and busloads of local nursing-home residents. I learned to handle red-tailed boa constrictors, fat-tailed geckos, black vultures, and an American alligator. (Fortunately, no animals were ever seriously harmed on my watch, although I myself endured bites, scratches, and other humiliations from several domestic rabbits, a bearded dragon, an African gray parrot, and at least one goat.) I also regularly helped prepare diets for most of the animals in the zoo’s collection, which in­cluded giraffes, jaguars, howler monkeys, river otters, peccaries, and Jamaican fruit bats. Much of the food was expired (but still safe) meat, fish, and produce donated by local supermarkets and grocery stores, including whole strip loins, boxes of oranges and kale, and odds and ends of raw salmon and squid for the otters.

The best part about my zoo job was how much I absolutely crushed it on Career Day in Scott’s kindergarten class—unless one of his classmates’ parents turned out to be a firefighter or astronaut, my reputation as the Dad with the Coolest Job was super safe. Of course, when I wasn’t in uniform Scott needed to accompany me on all my zoo visits, since a grown man walking around animal exhibits while taking notes and photographs of other people’s children tends to attract the wrong kind of attention. That was the other highlight of writing the book—trekking across the country to 27 different zoos and aquariums, all with Scott in tow. The only downside is that the repetition of our visits made him immune to the charms of zoos altogether. (“Oh, another Siberian tiger? Yawn.”) It’s a good thing the book came out by the time he turned nine, since he is no longer as susceptible to being bought off by bribes of stuffed animals from the zoo gift shop.

Now Scott is thirteen, and the other day he picked up a copy of American Zoo lying around the house, and he read the whole thing. He asked if we could go back to the zoo one last time, just to double-check my findings in the book against the real thing. Sign me up; I think we’ll go on Father’s Day.  

David Grazian is associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of American Zoo: A Sociological Safari, Blue Chicago: The Search for Authenticity in Urban Blues ClubsOn the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife, and Mix It Up: Popular Culture, Mass Media, and Society.

Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro on The Wealth of Religions: The Political Economy of Believing and Belonging

mcclearyWhich countries grow faster economically—those with strong beliefs in heaven and hell or those with weak beliefs in them? Does religious participation matter? Why do some countries experience secularization while others are religiously vibrant? In The Wealth of Religions, Rachel McCleary and Robert Barro draw on their long record of pioneering research to examine these and many other aspects of the economics of religion. Places with firm beliefs in heaven and hell measured relative to the time spent in religious activities tend to be more productive and experience faster growth. Going further, there are two directions of causation: religiosity influences economic performance and economic development affects religiosity. Dimensions of economic development—such as urbanization, education, health, and fertility—matter too, interacting differently with religiosity. State regulation and subsidization of religion also play a role. Timely and incisive, The Wealth of Religions provides fresh insights into the vital interplay between religion, markets, and economic development.

How did you come to write the book?

Robert is an economist and Rachel is a moral philosopher. In thinking about religion, we took as our starting point the work of Adam Smith, the founder of economics, who believed that moral values and organized religion were key forces in political economy and society. Nevertheless, social scientists—particularly economists and political scientists—have tended to underestimate the importance of religion, particularly the role of beliefs and values. We think that Adam Smith was right. Beliefs and religiosity are central determinants of which societies prosper and which deteriorate.

What does your book bring to the conversation on the economics of religion that hasn’t been discussed before?

Another contribution to the study of religion is bringing together the ideas of Adam Smith with those of the German sociologist Max Weber. Religious beliefs and values motivate people to behave in certain ways. This view, as we discuss in our book, is integral to forms of Protestantism with its emphasis on unmediated, individual responsibility for one’s salvation. We bring a quantitative approach to the relationship between beliefs, values, and economic behavior. In so doing, we examine the role of religious beliefs across world religions and countries. Our research has an international perspective with a focus on believing and belonging in the major religions of the world.

We focus on the role of religious beliefs and belonging to organized religions in the economic, political, and social development of nations and individuals. We are filling an important gap in the literature on religion by providing an international perspective. Much of the work in the sociology of religion is focused on local or regional patterns of religiosity. The sociology of religion has a strong focus on the United States, centering research around assumptions about religious patterns and organizations in the United States. In our research, we apply economic analysis to world religions and across countries.

How does religion fit into the story of developing nations? Does religious fervor help or hinder efforts to increase economic development?

To better understand the relationship between religion and economic growth, we need to look at a two-way causation. Religiosity has a two-way interaction with political economy. With religion viewed as the dependent variable, a central question is how economic development and political institutions affect religious participation and beliefs. There is a clear overall pattern whereby economic development associates with decreasing religiosity. However, there is no evidence that greater education diminishes religious beliefs.

Looking at the other direction of causation with religion as the independent variable, we study the effects of religion on economic, social, and political behavior. A key issue is how religiousness affects individual traits such as diligence, honesty, thrift, and integrity, thereby influencing productivity and economic performance. Another channel involves religion’s effects on literacy and education (human capital) more broadly. For example, there is evidence that Protestantism is more favorable than Catholicism as an influence on education and work ethic.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities would tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. Moreover, the costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities. In addition, time and money are expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Can religion help to explain why some nations develop faster than others?

We found evidence that economic growth was stimulated when religious beliefs were high compared to religious participation. This pattern applied, for example, to Japan and parts of Western Europe. An overall expansion of religiousness—greater beliefs accompanied by the typically associated attendance at formal religious services—was not strongly related to growth. Religiously sponsored laws and regulations hindered economic growth in some places, notably in Muslim countries, which typically did not have favorable institutions with respect to corporations, credit markets and insurance, and inheritance.

How did the conflict between Protestantism and the Catholic Church affect economic development in early modern Europe? Do we still see the impact of that today?

As Max Weber argued, the rise of Protestantism beginning with the Reformation in the 1500s enhanced work ethic and the accumulation of human capital and, thereby, contributed to the industrial revolution. We found evidence that this mechanism still operated in Western Europe in the modern era.

Competition increases the quality of services provided by different religions. The introduction of Protestantism into Western Europe challenged the monopolistic status of the Roman Catholic Church, pressuring that organization to respond in two ways. First, by lowering the nature and pricing of religious goods, the Catholic Church sought to retain believers. Second, the Catholic Church promoted those aspects of its theology that distinguished it from other religions.

We discuss in our book how the beatification of saints is a unique mechanism of the Catholic Church. With the rise of Evangelical faiths, religious competition became particularly strong in Latin America, vernacularly referred to as “The Catholic continent,” where Catholicism had enjoyed a monopoly since the region was colonized by Spain in the 1400s. Today, in regions of the world where competition with types of Protestantism is increasing, the beatification of local saints revives religious fervor and deters adherents from converting to types of Protestantism.

Is religious fervor impacted by fluctuations in the economy? If so, how?

There is evidence that adverse economic shocks and natural disasters tend to increase the demand for religion. This pattern has been observed, for example, for earthquakes in Italy, flood-related declines in agricultural harvests in Egypt, declines in incomes during the Asian Financial crisis, and adverse effects from a poorly designed land reform in Indonesia. In the other direction, increased economic development—particularly movements away from agriculture and toward urbanization—tend to lower the demand for religion. However, it is wrong to conclude that sustained economic growth causes religion to disappear.

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

We hope our readers will appreciate the possibilities of interdisciplinary research on a variety of religion topics. The application of economic ideas to religion broadens our understanding of ways in which beliefs and practices influence individual and group behavior.

We find that social capital and cultural aspects of religion—communal services, rituals, religious schools—are significant mainly to the extent that they influence beliefs and, hence, behavior. For given beliefs, more time spent on communal activities tend to be an economic drag for the believer as well as the entire community. The costs of formal religion include the time spent by adherents and religious officials on religious activities and the time and money expended on buildings, sacred objects, and so on. Our general view, based on empirical evidence, is that believing relative to belonging (attending) is the main channel through which religion matters for economic and other social outcomes.

Rachel M. McCleary is lecturer in the Department of Economics at Harvard University. Her books include The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of ReligionRobert J. Barro is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard. His books include Education Matters: Global Schooling Gains from the 19th to the 21st Century and Economic Growth. They both live in Massachusetts.

James J. O’Donnell on The War for Gaul

Imagine a book about an unnecessary war written by the ruthless general of an occupying army—a vivid and dramatic propaganda piece that forces the reader to identify with the conquerors and that is designed, like the war itself, to fuel the limitless political ambitions of the author. Could such a campaign autobiography ever be a great work of literature—perhaps even one of the greatest? It would be easy to think not, but such a book exists—and it helped transform Julius Caesar from a politician on the make into the Caesar of legend. This remarkable new translation of Caesar’s famous but underappreciated War for Gaul captures, like never before in English, the gripping and powerfully concise style of the future emperor’s dispatches from the front lines in what are today France, Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland.

Why did you want to translate Caesar? 

Caesar’s War on Gaul is the very best book ever written by a truly bad man who sets out to tell us with absolutely no remorse just how bad he’s been.  So first we get the cognitive dissonance of this utterly self-assured voice telling us horrible things.  (Best estimate is that about a million people died in that war, a war that didn’t need to happen.)  But it’s also just a great book— a gripping yarn with thrills, chills, and adventure, written in a taut, vivid style.  Hemingway only wished he could write this way.  So I wanted to see how I could capture both the atrocity and the elegance at the same time.  

Is there anything else like Caesar in our “canons” of literature?  

I can’t think of anything—perhaps the steamy epistolary fiction of Dangerous Liaisons, that needed Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer to cast the film.  No room for women in Caesar’s cast, but there’s got to be a part for John Malkovich in here somewhere—and maybe Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel and John Goodman.  When Hollywood calls, I’m ready to pitch a great movie!

Your translation comes with year-by-year introductions for each part of the story.  How do those work?

If you just read Caesar’s words, you get a story of soldiers marching around clobbering people.  Really good soldiers, clobbering a lot of people with plenty of panache, no question.  But what was really going on?  Caesar spent those nine years up in Gaul because he was a politician on the make.  He needed to be a great conqueror, he needed people to know he was a great conqueror—so he wrote the book.  But he also needed money, lots and lots of money, so plundering and enslaving masses of people were big on his mind—but he plays that side of things down.  And he also needed to stay in touch with politics back in Rome and needed the reports of what he was doing to land in Rome just when he needed them to spin his narrative and to keep his name and fame alive.  My introductions and notes tell you all the things Caesar didn’t tell you but that everybody around him and everybody back at Rome knew.  What was he really up to?  I spill the beans.

So what’s in it for you?  Most people don’t think of translating Latin as a job they’d want!

Different strokes for different folks.  From some time in college, I’ve just known that reading Latin makes my head feel good in ways I can’t describe.  If you see me in the window seat of a plane muttering to myself, I’m probably subvocalizing whatever Latin book I have with me, just because it feels so good to do that.  And Caesar has been one of the half dozen or so Latin books that have always done that for me the best.

Ah, so what other Latin writers do you find yourself returning to over and over again?

It’s a very mixed bag.  Nobody in the ancient world hated Caesar so much as the poet Lucan a hundred years later, who wrote an astonishingly gory epic about Caesar’s civil war, then committed suicide when he got caught in a plot against Nero.  It’s a real leap from there to Augustine’s Confessions or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, but in ways I can’t really explain those books always work for me as well, over and over again for decades.  They work the way the last page of Joyce’s “The Dead” can work—still brings tears to my eyes every time I read it.  Some books are just magical for some readers and we should cherish that.  If I can make Caesar a little big magical for readers of this book, I’m happy.

So, which book would you most like to have written yourself?  Caesar’s?

No!  I’m actually a nice guy.  And I wouldn’t last a week in Caesar’s army.  A book I go back to over and over is called Beyond a Boundary by the Trinidad-born cricket journalist, professional rabble-rouser, and historian C.L.R. James, who died at great age in 1989.  He was an Afro-Trinidadian brought up to be a citizen of the British empire, acutely aware of both his British-ness by virtue of his culture and education and of his exclusion from British-ness by virtue of his race and colonial subjection.  So he wrote a book about the ultimate imperialist game, cricket — and it was a combination of memoir, social history, love song (for his love of cricket in spite of everything), and literary triumph.  Think of a skinny little black kid growing up in Trinidad before the first world war, dividing his time passionately between the English game and the Englishman’s literature.  Vanity Fair was the book he read over and over and over again, the way I remember reading Life on the Mississippi in the middle of the New Mexico desert.  Anyway, it’s a book that brings together things intensely personal for him, but in a way that opens up the whole set of cultures he grew up and lived in and leaves the reader thinking about the paradoxes of inclusion and exclusion, of loyalty and exclusion.  He’s somebody able to love the past and cherish an inheritance and at the same time give himself fiercely to the struggle to transcend that past for a more just and inclusive way of seeing and living.  That one makes my head feel pretty good too.

James J. O’Donnell is professor of history, philosophy, and religious studies and University Librarian at Arizona State University. His books include PagansThe Ruin of the Roman Empire, and Augustine: A New Biogr

Yan Xuetong on Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers

XuetongWhile work in international relations has closely examined the decline of great powers, not much attention has been paid to the question of their rise. The upward trajectory of China is a particularly puzzling case. How has it grown increasingly important in the world arena while lagging behind the United States and its allies across certain sectors? Borrowing ideas of political determinism from ancient Chinese philosophers, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers explains China’s expanding influence by presenting a moral-realist theory that attributes the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan Xuetong shows that the stronger a rising state’s political leadership, the more likely it is to displace a prevailing state in the international system. Using the lens of classical Chinese political theory, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers offers a provocative, alternative perspective on the changing dominance of nations on the global stage.

How did you come to make the connection between political leadership and the rise of great powers?

Reading Chinese political writings pre-Qin, I found that all ancient Chinese political thinkers attributed the prosperity or decline of a hegemon to its rulers. Since all of the ancient Chinese hegemons experienced the process of rise, boom, decline, and perish with no substantial change in the institution of those states, the only variable ancient Chinese thinkers could identify was the change in leadership quality. As such, it raised, for me, two questions: how does an effectively similar political institution bring about different results and why does the rise and fall of hegemons correspond to different leaderships when the institution remains unchanged?

What is your book bringing to the conversation on the rise of great powers that hasn’t been addressed before?

Most of the IR literature on the rise of great powers focuses on a specific strategy for obtaining international leadership and then dissects why that strategy works. Meanwhile, IR writings often explain the rise and fall of great powers with different factors. For instance, imperial over-expansion is often applied as one of the main factors to a hegemon’s decline while technology invention to its rise. In contrast, this book takes a leadership-focused approach and brings to attention the human element in political decision making and demonstrates how the mentality of the leadership contributes to the effective rise and fall of hegemons. The leadership focused approach integrates three levels of analysis: individual, state and system. This approach not only offers an explanation for the rise and fall of great powers, but it can also explain the changes in international configurations, norms, orders, and systems.

Can you say a bit about the connection between ancient Chinese philosophy and modern political theory?

Ancient Chinese philosophical writings offer many analyses about the relations between ancient Chinese states that are applicable to modern international relations. This is because pre-Qin China was composed of many independent states that were vying for power in a manner that resembles current international jockeying. For the ancient Chinese philosophers, China constituted the entirety of the known world, whereas for modern scholars, the geographical range for the known world has expanded to encompass the entire planet. However, although the geographical size has expanded, there remains a structural parallel between current international entities and those of the interstate relations of the pre-Qin era. As such, generalized observations by ancient philosophers about the patterns of interaction amongst sovereign entities of power remain relevant in the modern era. This is much like how Art of War by Sunzi has been scaled down to derive insight towards modern military affairs. For instance, ancient Chinese philosophers described the differences between wangdao (humane authority) and badao (hegemony) in establishing and maintaining interstate order. This distinction is also applicable to how international norms work in current global system.

What do the ancients have to tell us on a topic that is generally thought to be firmly grounded in the present?

Ancient Chinese philosophers tell us that the order of a social system, no matter domestic or interstate, is based on a hierarchical relationship among its actors. Absolutely equal relations results in chaos. Any form of organization requires the existence of leaders and subordinates. Absolute equality leads to mob justice, as seen in the social bullying that occurs on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms where there are no accepted community leaders. Therefore, political leadership is the prerequisite of all types of structured relations and social orders. It follows that different types of leadership produce different social orders. The uncertainty of the present international politics since 2017 is mainly the result of a lackadaisical and confrontational international leadership. People may have different explanations for the lack of a reputable international leadership, but they generally agree that its absence is the major reason for the current disorder.

What accounts for China lagging behind other developed nations, even as it becomes increasingly important on the world stage?

China’s material capability is second only to that of the US. Nevertheless, China is not viewed as an international leader by the developed countries mainly because its political system is based on a cult of personality rather than the rule of law. A cult of personality is more efficient for governance than the rule of law, but it is far more susceptible to catastrophic disasters because of its restriction on freedom of expression. For the sake of preventing disasters and compelling state leaders to correct their wrong decisions, it is worthwhile for major powers to consider establishing a remonstrant system, which was a popular institution of central government in ancient China.

Do nations always rise at the expense of other nations?

Yes. There is a zero-sum structural conflict between rising powers and the status hegemon. “The rise of great powers” is defined as a process of a rising power reducing the capability gap with the status hegemon until it surpasses the latter. Since all hegemons regard maintaining international domination as their strategic interest, being surpassed by a rising power represents a huge loss. Meanwhile, due to the zero-sum nature of power distribution, the rise of a new great power must bring about a relative decline of other major powers’ international status, even as their absolute capabilities continue to grow.

What are some examples of the political leaders who have contributed to China’s rise, and how exactly did they have this positive impact?

The Chinese government headed by Deng Xiaoping represents a proactive political leadership contributing to China’s rise. The core of Deng’s political principles were opening-up and reform. “Opening-up” guarantees the right direction of reform and “reform” replaces the outdated methods with current advancements. That is why all the three leaderships after Deng flag that principle as their political guideline. Although the reforms after Deng have not been as dramatic, Chinese leaders have implemented more reforms than their concurrent counterparts in other major powers. While it is true that since 1978 Chinese leaders have all adopted some regressive policies that undermined the growth of national capability, these harmful policies were less detrimental to national growth than the policies of their counterparts in other major powers.

Within the framework of your argument, what accounts for the diminishing international stature of the United States?

The relative decline of the US is the result of having less positive political reform than China since the end of the Clinton administration. The Bush administration adopted an aggressive leadership, which prioritized military expansion abroad over political reform at home. Obama’s administration was unsuccessful at implementing political reform despite its best intentions to do so. Trump’s administration is an economically aggressive leadership, adopting regressive policies rather than reform. Trump’s policy of abandoning international leadership provides a strategic opportunity for China to improve its international influence. However, Trump’s leadership is not unique to his time. At present, the leaderships of many major powers are similar to Trump’s authoritarian rule. The result of current strategic competition between major powers is likely to be determined by leadership which undermines national growth rather than implementing reforms.

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

First, I hope this book helps policy makers realize that the growth of national capability is determined by the reforms implemented by the nation’s leadership and that capability of a leader can be determined by how much reform they can implement. Second, I hope IR scholars will pay attention to the role of political leadership, especially international leadership, in their analysis of international changes after reading this book. Third, I hope readers are inspired to vote for their national leaders based on the reforms their candidates have accomplished in their political careers rather than their rhetoric.

Yan Xuetong is professor of political science and dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His many books include Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power.

Walter Mattli on Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

MattliCapital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and “dark” markets, some of which are deliberately designed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, Darkness by Design challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

How did you come to write this book?

Right after the 2007-2008 financial crisis I became interested in questions regarding the regulation of big banks in order to prevent abuse, market distortions, and further scandals and crises. I wanted to look at the ways in which the very same contributors to the financial crisis benefited from it, but I discovered that a number of financial experts were already examining the topic and producing very insightful research. I thus decided to shift my attention to an important related area that many knew little about: the structure and governance of capital markets. After talking to several dozen market actors and doing some preliminary research, what struck me as particularly interesting was the puzzling transformation of equity market structure: the move from centralized to fragmented markets in the early 2000s. I wasn’t convinced by the conventional view of this transformation; I therefore began to investigate the question of market structure and governance more carefully. In the process, I made interesting discoveries that I felt should be explored more fully and presented to a broad audience.

Can you explain the title? What exactly is being hidden?

A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of a mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price?

The title, Darkness By Design, refers to almost invisible exploitative trading schemes or arrangements in today’s capital markets that are deliberately designed and governed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful.  

To understand the mechanism of such exploitation, it is important to go beyond conventional accounts of how markets work and acknowledge the extent to which markets are political organizations. What the many conventional accounts of the function of markets overlook is the extent to which markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where what is being hidden is the extent to which power politics shapes markets. Contending groups intensely battle to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense of general power politics arguments about who wins or loses, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

What are the origins of the market fragmentation that we’re seeing today? 

It’s worth recalling that for over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading “pool” seemed natural and inevitable, because the greater the number of users of an exchange the more attractive that exchange is to new or potential users, since new buyers and sellers are more likely to find a counter-party in a large market than in a small one. That is to say, a central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradeable securities). In other words, it has the highest liquidity, and liquidity begets liquidity: the bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull.

My book questions the conventional view of the move from centralization to fragmentation that says that centralized markets were monopolistic and inefficient and that this led to the fragmentation of the market. In this narrative, investors are the principal beneficiaries owing to narrower trading spreads and lower commissions, but this deeply entrenched conventional view is flawed. A key finding of my book is that power politics caused the market fragmentation—it was a plot by a coterie of powerful insiders who had grown weary of the traditional way of organizing trading, viewed the old model increasingly as contrary to their economic interests, and quietly pushed for a different market structure more aligned with those interests.

How is market fragmentation hurting us now?

In today’s fragmented markets characterized by many “shallow” pools of liquidity—a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places—costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors. Specifically, information asymmetries and secrecy—often deliberate governance-design strategies—have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest, often in undisclosed or hidden ways, at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that “modern” markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good; its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. The rise of fragmentation, or market transformation more generally, matters because it shapes the incentives of market actors to invest in either good or bad governance.

Good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society whereas bad governance milks the conflicts of interest for the benefit of the few on the backs of the many. Over the past decade and a half, fragmentation has given rise to bad governance. Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, and enforcement is rendered ineffective.

It is important to note that market fragmentation is by no means limited to the US equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization has been replaced by varying levels of fragmentation.

Is this story all doom and gloom? Are there any positives? What would have to happen to address the issues related to market fragmentation?

Darkness by design is not inevitable—the mantle of darkness can be lifted through a combination of steps based on several fundamental principles, including market transparency based on stringent disclosure rules and robust market intelligence, a level playing field for market participants, proper accountability for market disruption and bad governance, and, crucially, market consolidation or centralization. The reason is that dominant exchanges in such market systems have particularly strong reputational concerns and the requisite financial resources to invest in good governance. Dominance means high public visibility, which brings with it great reputational vulnerabilities.

In highly fragmented market systems, the many market organizations have an incentive to cut corners. Why focus on delivering high quality public goods, such as price discovery, if competitors can simply free ride, and, in addition, good money can be made by milking conflicts of interest? Once such behavior becomes permissive and the unspoken norm, no significant reputational costs result from engaging in, abetting, or condoning bad market behavior.

Regulatory intervention in capital markets by governments plays a role in lifting the mantle of darkness. However, it is rarely the only answer and not necessarily the most effective one. It is bound to face considerable practical and especially political challenges, not least from powerful defenders of the status quo who will fight change tooth and nail. There is another answer: market solutions to market failures, sometimes nudged or facilitated by regulators. Specifically, greater consolidation and market centralization are possible—not through regulatory intervention but perhaps through market processes.

Consolidation of markets at the national or transnational level, with one or more dominant exchanges, is likely to generate a fairer, simpler, more transparent, and more efficient marketplace than the one created by a fragmented system and characterized by shallow liquidity scattered across a wide range of exchanges, dark pools, and internalizers. 

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

A key contribution of this book is the empirical analysis into historical patterns of market structure and governance. The book shows the market transformation that took place over time. Central to the analysis is the role of power politics in shaping market structure and governance: changes in the distribution of power in capital markets alter market actors’ relative influence in pushing for or opposing change. Specifically, over the last decade and a half, transformations have taken place which have resulted in fragmentation and badly governed markets, thereby adversely affecting aspects of quality and fairness in these markets. I hope the book will encourage readers to become more cautious and will equip them to ask tough questions of their brokers in order to better protect their interests when investing in capital markets.

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John’s College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy and The Politics of Global Regulation. He lives in Oxford, England.

Christian Sahner: Islam spread through the Christian world via the bedroom

There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched across centuries and was influenced by factors as varied as conquest, diplomacy, conviction, self-interest and coercion. There is one factor, however, that is largely forgotten but which played a fundamental role in the emergence of a distinctively Islamic society: mixed unions between Muslims and non-Muslims.  

For much of the early Islamic period, the mingling of Muslims and non-Muslims was largely predicated on a basic imbalance of power: Muslims formed an elite ruling minority, which tended to exploit the resources of the conquered peoples – reproductive and otherwise – to grow in size and put down roots within local populations. Seen in this light, forced conversion was far less a factor in long-term religious change than practices such as intermarriage and concubinage. 

The rules governing religiously mixed families crystallised fairly early, at least on the Muslim side. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four women, including ‘People of the Book’, that is, Jews and Christians. Muslim women, however, were not permitted to marry non-Muslim men and, judging from the historical evidence, this prohibition seems to have stuck. Underlying the injunction was the understanding that marriage was a form of female enslavement: if a woman was bound to her husband as a slave is to her master, she could not be subordinate to an infidel.

Outside of marriage, the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries saw massive numbers of slaves captured across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Female slaves of non-Muslim origin, at least, were often pressed into the sexual service of their Muslim masters, and many of these relationships produced children.

Since Muslim men were free to keep as many slaves as they wished, sex with Jewish and Christian women was considered licit, while sex with Zoroastrians and others outside the ‘People of the Book’ was technically forbidden. After all, they were regarded as pagans, lacking a valid divine scripture that was equivalent to the Torah or the Gospel. But since so many slaves in the early period came from these ‘forbidden’ communities, Muslim jurists developed convenient workarounds. Some writers of the ninth century, for example, argued that Zoroastrian women could be induced or even forced to convert, and thus become available for sex.

Whether issued via marriage or slavery, the children of religiously mixed unions were automatically considered Muslims. Sometimes Jewish or Christian men converted after already having started families: if their conversions occurred before their children attained the age of legal majority – seven or 10, depending on the school of Islamic law – they had to follow their fathers’ faith. If the conversions occurred after, the children were free to choose. Even as fathers and children changed religion, mothers could continue as Jews and Christians, as was their right under Sharia law.

Mixed marriage and concubinage allowed Muslims – who constituted a tiny percentage of the population at the start of Islamic history – to quickly integrate with their subjects, legitimising their rule over newly conquered territories, and helping them grow in number. It also ensured that non-Muslim religions would quickly disappear from family trees. Indeed, given the rules governing the religious identity of children, mixed kinship groups probably lasted no longer than a generation or two. It was precisely this prospect of disappearing that prompted non-Muslim leaders – Jewish rabbis, Christian bishops and Zoroastrian priests – to inveigh against mixed marriage and codify laws aimed at discouraging it. Because Muslims were members of the elite, who enjoyed greater access to economic resources than non-Muslims, their fertility rates were probably higher.

Of course, theory and reality did not always line up, and religiously mixed families sometimes flouted the rules set by jurists. One of the richest bodies of evidence for such families are the biographies of Christian martyrs from the early Islamic period, a little-known group who constitute the subject of my book, Christian Martyrs under Islam (2018). Many of these martyrs were executed for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, and not a small number of them came from religiously mixed unions.

A good example is Bacchus, a martyr killed in Palestine in 786 – about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bacchus, whose biography was recorded in Greek, was born into a Christian family, but his father at some point converted to Islam, thereby changing his children’s status, too. This greatly distressed Bacchus’s mother, who prayed for her husband’s return, and in the meantime, seems to have exposed her Muslim children to Christian practices. Eventually, the father died, freeing Bacchus to become a Christian. He was then baptised and tonsured as a monk, enraging certain Muslim relatives who had him arrested and killed.

Similar examples come from Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, where a group of 48 Christians were martyred between 850 and 859, and commemorated in a corpus of Latin texts. Several of the Córdoba martyrs were born into religiously mixed families, but with an interesting twist: a number of them lived publicly as Muslims but practised Christianity in secret. In most instances, this seems to have been done without the knowledge of their Muslim fathers, but in one unique case of two sisters, it allegedly occurred with the father’s consent. The idea that one would have a public legal identity as a Muslim but a private spiritual identity as a Christian produced a unique subculture of ‘crypto-Christianity’ in Córdoba. This seems to have spanned generations, fuelled by the tendency of some ‘crypto-Christians’ to seek out and marry others like them.

In the modern Middle East, intermarriage has become uncommon. One reason for this is the long-term success of Islamisation, such that there are simply fewer Jews and Christians around to marry. Another reason is that those Jewish and Christian communities that do exist today have survived partly by living in homogeneous environments without Muslims, or by establishing communal norms that strongly penalise marrying out. In contrast to today’s world, where the frontiers between communities can be sealed, the medieval Middle East was a world of surprisingly porous borders, especially when it came to the bedroom.

Christian Martyrs under Islam: Religious Violence and the Making of the Muslim World by Christian C Sahner is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof: Racial Migrations

“A Group of Cuban Leaders,” identified, from back left, as Commander Antonio Collazo; Brigadier Flor Crombet; Major General Antonio Maceo; Brigadier Cebreco; Colonel Salvador Rosado; Brigadier Morúa; Commander Borja; Colonel Aurelio Castillo; Commander Manuel Peña; Castillo, a Venezuelan; and Antonio Maceo’s dog, “Cuba Libre.” The photograph was taken between 1884 and 1886. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de España.

Near the end of July in 1885, General Antonio Maceo spoke to an enthusiastic audience at an assembly hall on East 13th Street in Manhattan.  The general, one of the most famous leaders of the unsuccessful war for independence in Cuba between 1868 and 1878, was in the city seeking donations to buy arms and munitions for a new war.  A group of volunteers, under his command, had already departed for Kingston Jamaica, where they were preparing for an invasion of Cuba.  The event was one of hundreds of gatherings held by exile revolutionaries in New York in the last third of the 19th century in support of such efforts.  But it sparked unusual controversy.  The Spanish Consul in the United States wrote to the district attorney asking him to prohibit  the gathering, arguing that it violated neutrality laws and because it was “to be attended by colored men, and presided over by the so-called Major Gen. Antonio Maceo.” The district attorney replied that there was no legal mechanism to prevent such an assembly, but the local precinct did send sixteen patrolmen to monitor the event, having received reports that it would be “disorderly.”

The accusation was familiar.  The general was a man of partial African ancestry and the most prominent of the revolutionary leaders who had made the abolition of slavery and the end of racial privileges central to the project of independence.  He was a target of suspicion and accusation, fomented by Spanish enemies and some Cuban participants in earlier war.  The Spanish had construed the rebellion as a rising up of blacks against whites.  Some white Cubans had sought to undermine or constrain his leadership.  Yet the accusation also points to an important point.  Cubans of African descent did, in fact, constitute a large proportion of the exiles who participated in and supported the expedition in 1885.  There is no record of exactly who was in audience that cheered for the General that evening, and raised nearly 12,000 dollars, under the watchful eye of the New York City patrolmen.  But many Spanish-speaking New Yorkers, of African descent,  were certainly in attendance.

These early Afro-Latinx migrants, and their impact on Cuban and Puerto Rican revolutionary politics, are the subject of my book, Racial Migrations: New York City and the Revolutionary Politics of the Spanish Caribbean.  I have been able to document the emergence, by the middle of the 1880s, of a well-organized community of black and brown cigar makers, seamstresses, waiters, cooks, laundresses, and midwives, who had begun to settle and build institutions within the segregated apartment buildings of Greenwich Village.  Indeed, at the time of Maceo’s appearance, in July of 1885, some prominent members of this community had already shipped out to Kingston as part of the expedition.  Several weeks after the general’s speech, the community gathered at the third annual Cuban-American Picnic.  Organized by the Logia San Manuel, the picnic drew together Cubans of color with African American friends and neighbors.  Dance music –likely some combination of Cuban danza and the local sounds that would later be known as ragtime—was provided by Pastor Peñalver, a young Cuban recently graduated from the “colored” high school on Manhattan’s West Side.

The man who came to serve as the spokesman for emigres of African descent was a cigar maker and writer, originally from Havana, named Rafael Serra.  Serra volunteered for the expedition in 1885, was commissioned as Lieutenant, and spent two years in Jamaica and Panama waiting to deploy before returning in disappointment to New York.  Once back in the city, he mobilized the Logia San Manuel and other independent networks and institutions established by migrants of color to support the struggle for black civil rights in Cuba. He recruited them to participate in Republican Party organizing in New York.  He mobilized them to create an immigrant educational society, designed to support the entry of men of color from Cuba and Puerto Rico into the professions.  He and his wife, a midwife named Gertrudis Heredia, allied with the white poet and journalist José Martí, to recruit white and black workers into the Cuban Revolutionary Party under the banner of “a nation for all.”  When Martí died in 1895 and Maceo died in 1896, they drew on the same New York community to support a struggle to preserve the democratic values of the party.  And, finally, in 1902, Serra returned to Cuba, where he became one of the most successful black politicians in the early republic, twice winning election to the House of Representatives. 

Racial Migrations traces the trajectories of Serra, Heredia, and other migrant revolutionaries as they traversed and confronted distinct local systems of racial domination.  It explores the politics they articulated, the coalitions they built, and the compromises they made as they participated in nationalist projects that, famously, promised to transcend racial division.  The book contends that this idea of a nation without race, and the political system that emerged under its banner, so often imagined as having sprung fully formed from the mind of José Martí,  can be better from the vantage point of the migrants who gathered to cheer Antonio Maceo in New York, who joined the 1885 expedition, who created the Cuban-American picnics, and who, only later, chose to throw their support behind Martí.

Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof is professor of history, American culture, and Latina/o studies at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Racial Migrations, A Tale of Two Cities: Santo Domingo and New York after 1950 (Princeton).

 

 

 

Caitlyn Collins on Making Motherhood Work

Collins Making Motherhood Work coverThe work-family conflict that mothers experience today is a national crisis. Women struggle to balance breadwinning with the bulk of parenting, and stress is constant. Social policies don’t help. Of all Western industrialized countries, the United States ranks dead last for supportive work-family policies: No federal paid parental leave. The highest gender wage gap. No minimum standard for vacation and sick days. The highest maternal and child poverty rates. Can American women look to European policies for solutions? Making Motherhood Work draws on interviews that sociologist Caitlyn Collins conducted over five years with 135 middle-class working mothers in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States. She explores how women navigate work and family given the different policy supports available in each country.

Tons of academics and journalists have written about motherhood and work-family conflict. What’s different about your book?

 Making Motherhood Work pushes the conversation about work-family conflict beyond national borders. There’s clear consensus: the United States’ free market approach to social provisioning is failing families. Working mothers’ struggles are only intensifying. We need structural change. Many of these writers point to European-style policies as promising models.

This book is the first to compare work-family policies cross-nationally from the perspective of mothers themselves. I begin—rather than end—with the question of policy. What’s life like under these different policy models? Making Motherhood Work complements accounts of U.S. women’s experiences with stories from European women. I engage them in a virtual transatlantic conversation to consider a wide range of possibilities to better support mothers and families. Women’s perspectives should be central to any endeavors in the U.S. to craft, advocate for (or against), and enact work-family policy as a force for social change.

How did you approach the research for the book?

I conducted interviews with 135 middle-class working moms in Sweden, Germany, Italy, and the United States over the course of five years. I spent time with women in their homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, and with their children, partners, relatives, neighbors, and colleagues. We can think of these women as a conservative test of how employed moms think and feel about work-family conflict. As sociologist Pamela Stone writes, if middle- and upper-class working mothers struggle to manage work and family, these difficulties are akin to “the miners’ canary—a frontline indication that something is seriously amiss.” Things are much, much harder for mothers who are low-income, have little formal education, unrewarding jobs, unreliable or no transportation, and for people without legal residency or citizenship. Studies with these women are vital. I hope this book inspires more research on disadvantaged mothers across national contexts.

Where do mothers have it “best”? Can we import their policies to the U.S.?

The most satisfied women live in Sweden. I left Stockholm feeling optimistic about prospects for working moms. Cultural attitudes and work-family policies can play in reducing gender inequality. I show that Swedish social policies are part of a larger cultural discourse about parenting, work, and gender equality. Their social democratic policies operate in the context of societal beliefs that child-rearing is a collective responsibility, that both men and women can and should work for pay and care for their families, and that workplaces recognize and support employees’ nonwork responsibilities and interests. These cultural beliefs are incompatible with the neoliberal ideology ascendant in the US. In other words, work-family policies are symptomatic of larger ethical and cultural understandings of what is and isn’t appropriate for mothers. As such, they play a role in reproducing the existing social order.

The larger point is this: context matters. We can’t roll out a Swedish or German or Italian policy in the U.S. and expect it to have similar consequences. Instead, with any policy, we need to examine its assumptions, content, and practical implications in relation to the wider political, economic, and social context. We need to evaluate policy reforms in light of prevailing cultural ideals to understand their effects on mothers. They’re likely to differ in important ways for different groups of women.

What about dads? They struggle to manage work and family life, too.

Absolutely they do. I focus on mothers because in all industrialized countries, they’ve historically been the targets of work-family policy. Women are still responsible for most housework and childcare. They report greater work-family conflict than men. And they use work-family policies more often than men. The conversation needs to be about dads as much as about moms.

These policies are necessary but insufficient if they’re offered to and used mostly by women and not men. In other words, work-family policies should be enacted in a cultural environment supportive of gender equality. Policies can be pro-mother without being pro-equality. To be clear, ridding a society of sexism isn’t a necessary precondition for implementing work-family justice oriented policies. But we need a renewed conversation about gender equality policy and policy instruments aimed at changing men’s behavior alongside work-family policy debates to improve the social and economic climate for all working parents.

What’s the one takeaway you want readers to remember?

Work-family conflict is not an unfortunate but inexorable part of life as a working mom today. This book shows that mothers’ stress is not of their own making, and it can’t be of their own fixing. Work-family conflict is a phenomenon that societies have created. This means that societies can change it, too. U.S. Americans can enact policies to remedy the unequal social conditions that fuel mothers’ stress and undue burden for caregiving. What we’re missing is the political and social will to do so.

You argue we should abandon the goal of “work-family balance.” Instead you advocate a social movement for work-family justice. What does that mean?

Framing work-family conflict as a problem of imbalance is too individualistic. The U.S. is a nation of mothers engulfed in stress. Suggesting mothers seek “balance” doesn’t take into account how institutions contribute to this stress. We need a social movement centered on work-family justice. I define this in the book as a system in which each member of society has the opportunity and power to fully participate in both paid work and family care. The rhetoric of justice highlights the reality that this conflict isn’t the outcome of individual women’s shortcomings or mismanaged commitments. Instead, it’s the result of cultural attitudes and policies embedded in workplaces and systems of welfare provisioning. In Erik Olin Wright’s words, as with all social problems, work-family conflict doesn’t reflect some fixed law of nature. It reflects the current social organization of power. Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice.

What’s the one social policy you would implement if you could wave a magic wand to help U.S. moms?

High-quality, affordable childcare. My next project is an ethnographic study of the U.S. childcare system, an extractive market we don’t tend to talk about in these terms. Without a robust public option, consequences are dire for kids, parents, businesses, and our economy. Like work-family conflict, the crisis of care is not inevitable. But it’s central to reproductive justice. We can do more, and better, for U.S. families.

Caitlyn Collins is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @caitymcollins and read more here: caitlyncollins.com.

Margaret C. Jacob on The Secular Enlightenment

JacobThe Secular Enlightenment is a panoramic account of the radical ways that life began to change for ordinary people in the age of Locke, Voltaire, and Rousseau. In this landmark book, familiar Enlightenment figures share places with voices that have remained largely unheard until now, from freethinkers and freemasons to French materialists, anticlerical Catholics, pantheists, pornographers, readers, and travelers.A majestic work of intellectual and cultural history, this book demonstrates how secular values and pursuits took hold of eighteenth-century Europe, spilled into the American colonies, and left their lasting imprint on the Western world for generations to come.

What accounts for the fact that ordinary people began to see the world on its own terms, rather than through the prism of religion, during the 18th century? 

So many factors were present but I would highlight a few: the realization that there existed whole continents where the Christian God was unknown; the growing realization that Europeans had persecuted and enslaved non-Europeans often in the service of religion. The behavior of the clergy at home was one of the main themes in the new pornography; and of course religious divisions between Catholics and Protestants played into skepticism about all the claims of religion. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the ensuing persecution of French Protestants put the issue of religion, and how its representatives treated others, on the European wide agenda. This was compounded by the thousands of Protestant refugees to be found by 1700 in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Geneva, etc. They were articulate and took to the printing presses to alert the world of the injustices perpetrated by the French king and clergy.

What does your book bring to the conversation of secularization during the Enlightenment that hasn’t appeared before?

The book draws upon new sources, many of them found only in manuscript form. Such sources often reveal private thoughts and struggles about the veracity of religion or expressions of doubt and clerical hostility. It also crosses national boundaries, and focuses on the main urban centers in Germany, Italy and of course France, the Dutch Republic and Britain.

How common was it for ordinary people to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers during the 18thcentury?

It depends upon what we mean by ordinary. Anyone fully literate had access to the ideas found in the new journals or the writings of the philosophes. Note also that in France, for example, local clergy were advised in detail what heretical books contained so as better to refute them. From the pulpits of London (and the Boyle Lectures) to the French provinces any listener could hear about the details of the latest heresy.

Why have the voices of people you shed light on in the book been largely silent up to now?

So much attention has been given to the major thinkers from Locke and Newton to Adam Smith and Rousseau that lesser folk, often their followers, do not receive attention. Also digging in archives means a lot of travel to places often off the beaten track. How many books access archives in Leiden or Strasbourg or Birmingham? However, I do not neglect the major thinkers.

How did the religious establishment of the 18th century react to this shift?

Not as many people were burned at the stake or tortured as in previous centuries but there are big exceptions: the wife of a Dutch pastor and school teacher, a heretic, who went mad while locked away in prison; the book seller from Strasbourg who went to Paris in search of bad or forbidden books and spent over two years in the Bastille; the Italian heretic forced to flee to London where, impoverished, he continued to publish.

Do we see any attempts at justification on the part of groups or individuals for their decreasing attention to religious matters?

The literature of heresy consistently mocked the pretensions of the clergy and courts; their perceived hypocrisy was one good reason to avoid religion altogether. Others, like the busy industrialists in northern England, could plea the pressure of work or family obligations, so too could travelers and itinerants.

Was there anything that surprised you when you were researching for this book?

Yes, how many people had been left out of Enlightenment history; how incredibly thorough the French police were at spying and reporting on heretical behavior—or what they thought was heretical. Similarly, how coteries could remain relatively underground and then circulate some of the most virulent heresies of the age, for example, the group that brought out the Treatise on the Three Impostors. It argued that Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed had been the three. All involved managed to die in their beds.

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

Antidotes to the claims made by biased contemporary clergy; the role of deism and freethinking for American philosophes like Jefferson and Franklin; and finally, how widespread enlightened ideas were by 1750.

Margaret C. Jacob is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her many books include The Radical Enlightenment: Pantheists, Freemasons, and Republicans and The First Knowledge Economy: Human Capital and the European Economy, 1750–1850. She lives in Los Angeles.

Amin Saikal on Iran Rising

Saikal Iran Rising coverWhen Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges.

What did international observers predict would happen in Iran after the 1978-79 revolution? Why did things turn out differently?

The Iranian revolution marked a momentous development in world politics, challenging the regional order and America’s dominant position in the Middle East. A new Islamic Republic of Iran, under the theo-political leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, replaced the Shah’s pro-Western monarchy. It condemned the US for supporting the Shah’s autocratic rule and disparaged America’s regional allies, including Israel. It locked horns with Washington—something that has continued to date, though in different intensity from time to time.

Khomeini established a unique Shia-based system of Islamic governance. In a bloody power struggle following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini swiftly and forcefully eliminated or marginalised groups and individuals who had actively participated in the revolution, but did not agree with his brand of Islamism. The resultant post-revolutionary turmoil, and the Islamic regime’s unorthodox theocratic behaviour on both domestic and foreign policy fronts, led some analysts to conclude that the regime was an aberration and could not possibly endure.

However, the regime has now lasted for forty years, surviving numerous domestic and foreign policy challenges. Three key variables account for this. First, the internal elasticity and external flexibility of the regime’s system of governance enable it to both claim religious legitimacy and act pragmatically to survive. Over time, it has become less ideological and more pragmatic. Second, changing conditions within Iran and internationally have enabled the regime and its supporters to take advantage of American policy failures in the region—including, most importantly, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and on the Israeli-Palestinian front—to expand its regional influence. Third, it has built up hard and soft power capability in support of an asymmetrical defensive strategy.

How has Iran’s Islamic regime weathered the international sanctions against it?

The Islamic regime has been under American sanctions since the “hostage crisis.” On 4 November 1979, a group of militant student supporters of Khomeini overran the US embassy in Tehran and took 52 of the embassy’s diplomatic and non-diplomatic personnel hostage. The episode lasted until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. The Islamic regime used the crisis to consolidate power, humiliate the United States, and pierce Pax Americana in the Middle East. Washington severed all ties and imposed sanctions on Iran.

The regime coped with this— along a bloody, and costly war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—by extracting more from the Iranian people and by pragmatically strengthening ties with the Soviet Union (and subsequently its successor, Russia) and China, despite the regime’s serious aversion to godless communism. It also entered closer cooperation with India. It engaged in processes of self-sufficiency and took steps to circumvent the sanctions.

When the UN later imposed sanctions, and the US and its European allies ratcheted up their sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, the regime pursued the same approach. It is now forced to act in a similar fashion once again, to counter President Donald Trump’s efforts to tame the regime in line with American interests.

Trump’s sanctions imposed following his withdrawal in May 2018 from the July 2015 multilateral nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are indeed very severe. Targeting the core elements of the Iranian economy, they are designed to strangle the regime economically and force it to change behaviour that Trump has branded as destructive and destabilising in the region—and therefore contrary to America’s interests. Trump’s actions will seriously hurt Iran’s already fragile economy, causing more hardship for ordinary Iranians. But they are unlikely to affect the regime to the point of submission, given its theocratic nature and the Iranian people’s tradition of fierce nationalism in the face of an outside threat or assault. After all, it was not the US-led international sanctions—imposed on Iraq following the February 1991 US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraqi occupation—that ended Saddam Hussein’s rule, but rather the March 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

How would domestic policy changes lead to foreign policy changes?

A majority of the Iranian people are crying out for improved living standards. Economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, international sanctions, and the residual effects of war with Iraq have led to high unemployment, inflation, and declining living conditions. As public pressure has built, the clerical leadership has responded by allowing occasional economic and social reforms. At the same time, it has been able to blame the US and its allies for Iran’s economic woes and keep most Iranians on their toes in a conflated Shia and nationalistic posture.

President Trump’s blatant support for public protests—primarily over the economic situation, and also the clerical domination of power—has conveniently enabled the regime to attribute Iran’s problems to America’s hegemonic and imperialist designs on the Iranian people. As the regime has defied the US, it has sought good relations with countries that have not shared Trump’s hostile attitude. These include, prominently, the other signatories to the JCPOA (Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China), which have remained committed to the nuclear agreement, with a promise to override America’s ban on third party’s business dealings with Iran.

Can the history of the Islamic Republic help us understand Islamic governments in other countries?

Not necessarily. Iran’s system is heavily informed by Khomeini’s Shia version of Islam and is linked to Iran’s peculiar traditions. Neither the three other Shia-majority countries (Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain) nor any of the Sunni-majority states, whose citizens form the bulk of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims, have emulated Iran’s system of governance. For a combination of sectarian and geopolitical reasons, only Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime and some Shia sub-national groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—not to mention certain Iraqi Shia militias—have sought close relationships with Tehran.

What about US-Iran relations?

The United States has tried everything short of direct military confrontation to contain the Iranian Islamic regime since its advent—and so far has failed. President Trump has promised that his latest round of sanctions will debase the regime economically and politically. But the likelihood of this happening seems remote. Realising this, President Obama pursued a policy of engagement rather than confrontation toward the regime. This led to the JCPOA, a landmark diplomatic achievement and a shot in the arm of the reformist and pragmatic factions in Iranian politics, led by President Hassan Rouhani, to strengthen their position in the power structure.

Trump’s actions have once again energised the hardline clerics and their supporters, associated with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to maintain their centrality in governing Iran and beef up their stance against any form of rapprochement with the United States or reformation of the Iranian system. The main question is: If his present measures fail and his own presidency survives, given the magnitude of his domestic problems, will Trump move toward military confrontation? War would be disastrous for all sides, as Iran has invested heavily in an asymmetrical fighting strategy to make an attack on it as costly as possible for its perpetrator.

Amin Saikal is Distinguished Professor of Political Science, Public Policy Fellow, and Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University. He is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Shah (Princeton) and Modern Afghanistan. He lives in Canberra.

Carolyn Dever: Birth of a Queer Parent

This article was originally published by Public Books and is reprinted here with permission.

By virtue of their youth, trans and queer kids offer something new. Coming out today is less exclusively a narrative of young adulthood or middle age, and increasingly an experience of childhood or early adolescence. When kids embrace models of social identity newly available to their generation, the parents who love and care for them confront new forms of obligation, and even new forms of agency: with every queer child is born a queer parent.

But queer parenting doesn’t exist on its own. Queer parenting also means precarity parenting, as families face down a fragmented and insufficient system of supports while they attempt to optimize the conditions for their kids’ success. Queer identity and economic precarity have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood together.

Parents hold in their hands the capacity to reshape core concepts of social identity, a fact that runs directly counter to the understanding of the family as inherently conservative. In fact, parents make choices every day about how to raise their kids. Those choices are sensitive to the social and economic incentives that translate into opportunities for children to survive and thrive. Because their LGBTQ kids have changed the narrative of childhood gender and sexuality, parents find themselves at the live edge of social transformation.

Today, queer children and teenagers can be out and proud from a very early age. According to sociologist Mary Robertson, queerness offers kids the chance to express a range of nonnormative ways of being: capturing a rich mix of gender identity and sexuality, race and class, ability, and educational and work opportunities.[1.Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity (NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.] That fact is transformative to their families of origin, and from there outward to the conceptual contours of normative identity. One by one, and collectively, queer families demonstrate the futility of any effort to “erase” trans and queer identities.

Queer Parents and Social Agency

“It is rare to have an opportunity to watch an emergent social category in formation,” writes sociologist Tey Meadow in the landmark study Trans Kids: Being Gendered in the Twenty-First Century. Only in the last decade or so has gender nonconformity emerged as a serious challenge to the normative bureaucratic institutions that form children’s identities: doctor’s offices, schools, and social services; shops, dressing rooms, and bathrooms; proms and playing fields.

This represents the dramatic reorientation of gender identity from a fact of anatomy—it’s a girl!—to a private psychic expression particular to an individual, evolving uniquely over time within the life of each person. In Meadow’s eyes, this marks not a post-gender moment, when gender no longer matters, but gender’s proliferation: not the failure of a child to conform with one of two categories of gender identity, but the failure of categories themselves to capture the full diversity of gender expressions.

If gender nonconformity emerges not as the failure of gender but as its form, the parents of queer little kids become agents poised to dismantle the traditional sex/gender system. Meadow writes: “Parents are becoming ever more likely to fight for a child’s chosen identity, to contest the labeling practices of others, to engage in more directed interpersonal work to assist children in further articulating a discrete identity, to purchase clothing and toys that reinforce that identity, and to enlist social institutions in identity creation and maintenance.” Families operate alongside courts, schools, and the medical establishment as institutions that regulate normative categories of gender and sexuality in kids.

But in the past decade, administrative processes within such institutions have begun to adapt. Social shifts in understanding gender as psychological rather than anatomical have enabled parents to adopt modes of agency and advocacy on behalf of their kids. For many families this agency emerges in the context of vulnerability to state interventions that both reflect and exacerbate inequality.

The state is an active participant in the work of gendering, in both positive and negative ways: “On the one hand, the state confers recognition, in the form of legal name changes and gender changes, antidiscrimination protections, and disability rights paradigms (which can be particularly useful in schools). In this way, we can see gender as a resource distributed by the state. On the other hand, the state also both regulates and punishes deviance.”

At the same time as families are learning to manage state interventions in their kids’ gender nonconformity, they are increasingly exposed to the economic precarity that is in part a function of post-recession instabilities. On both fronts, the cold jaws of social and economic inequality loom, threatening to snap down and trap young kids for life.

Precarity and Parental Agency

When inequality is high, helicopter parents launch. When families are vulnerable to discrimination or poverty, ferocious parental ingenuity kicks in. And when social gains are available to a select few, parents will do whatever they can to ensure that their kids are prepared to benefit. Families and parenting are changing in more ways than one.

Parents parent differently in response to incentives and opportunities. In those areas of the globe that have witnessed the rise of income inequality over the last half century, parenting strategies have changed dramatically. Parents adapt their styles and strategies in order to optimize their kids’ opportunities—for survival, for success, for happiness—on a ladder of achievement that is increasingly perilous.

“The story often told about financial success in America is that slow and steady saving over a lifetime, combined with consistent hard work and a little luck, will ensure financial security, a comfortable retirement, and better opportunities for one’s children,” write Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider in The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty. Yet the lived experiences of families shred this myth, revealing instead an often silent precarity that Morduch and Schneider describe as “America’s hidden inequality.”

For generations, most families have not seen themselves reflected in the mirror of America’s dream. Surely “American’s hidden inequality” was not so very hidden to families of color, nor to queer or single-parent or poor households, nor to anyone outside the great mythology of aspiration. Indeed, the mechanics of parental aspiration in the US today are an outcome of decades and centuries of resourcefulness from families “other” to the normative middle-class ideal.

What has changed? Precarity is now a daily feature of the white, middle-class experience. Developments in technology and human capital distribution since the 1970s have extended financial fragility, and all its social implications, even more broadly. As Morduch and Schneider tell the story, the “Great Job Shift” of the last half century transferred risk from employers to workers, and power from workers to employers. Today, many workers lack a paycheck that is steady, predictable, and sufficient to meet basic needs—a development extended to US federal employees and contractors during the “Trump shutdown.”

Poor families earn less. But they are also subject to brutal income volatility, to unpredictable cycles of earning and expenses. Such vulnerability is increasingly common in the context of rising informality of working arrangements—unpredictable shift work, freelancers replacing full-timers, gig workers patching together a quilt of sidelines—that preserve all flexibility for the employer at the expense of the employed. Income volatility in turn produces extreme vulnerability to the cyclical needs of kids, such as childcare, school supplies, medicine, new shoes … college.

Critical events such as car or health problems are then devastating—though in many cases, vulnerability results in great creativity: “The families we met had developed a range of strategies for managing their cash-flow challenges, as well as for balancing their longer-term goals with their immediate and near-term financial needs … The strategies were often thoughtful and creative, helping families preserve their resources for their highest priorities.” Absent a social safety net, ingenuity makes a virtue of necessity.

It’s about cash-flow management. Programs that rethink the temporality of savings—emphasizing needs emerging sooner rather than later—can help families manage the peaks and valleys of unpredictable income. Strategies of borrowing and sharing among broader communities can insulate individual households from vulnerability, and also create a network of affective bonds: “Social meanings matter to households’ long-term financial decisions and even their day-to-day cash flows. Money is more than a symbol of financial worth, and people rarely make financial decisions based purely on math. Instead, money can be a way that people structure their choices and express their values.”

With ingenuity comes a rewriting of the rigid conventions of social identity associated with the “American dream.” At stake is survival in an inhospitable social field, rather than loyalty to a status quo that has come to strip most people of the capacity to thrive. Inequality, suggest Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti in Love, Money, and Parenting: How Economics Explains the Way We Raise Our Kids, has a powerful shaping force on the choices parents make, and how parents interact with their kids. Developmental psychologists generally understand three distinct approaches to parenting style: authoritarian, or strict and controlling; permissive, or oriented toward children’s independence; and a more hybrid approach, authoritative, based in reason and the development of values.[2.Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind.]

Doepke and Zilibotti’s study asks why parents adopt a particular parenting strategy. What are the sensitivities that shape parental agency? And what strategies are most effective given the constraints and opportunities facing a family?

When inequality is high, intensive parenting styles—think helicopter parents or stereotypical Asian American tiger moms who take the authoritarian approach—undergird aspirations for upward mobility. In cultures with a flatter social terrain, greater equity among schools and universities, and a reliable social safety net, more permissive or laissez-faire parenting styles prevail. “When it comes to parenting,” write Doepke and Zilibotti, “incentives matter big time.” In a country like the United States, which has witnessed dramatic increases in inequality over the past 30 years, parenting has changed dramatically in turn: “Tiger and helicopter parenting grew increasingly popular just when inequality rose sharply.”

Based on those incentives, parents exercise extraordinary agency in the choices they make for their children. There is a direct correlation, Doepke and Zilibotti demonstrate, between prosperity and access to the full repertoire of choices available to parents, and between the stress of precarity or poverty and the social limits of parenting. All well-meaning parents “attempt to do what it takes to get their children to succeed, given the economic conditions in play.” Yet, in the authors’ words, the “parenting gap” in resources can turn into a “parenting trap” in outcomes, requiring ever more ingenuity and assertive action.

Economic conditions of the 21st century have rewritten the conventional scripts of parenthood and introduced new roadblocks on the way to security and prosperity for children. The social constraints of parental identity evolve in turn as parents invent and use new tools in their aspirational pursuits.

Queer Parenting, Precarity Parenting

What does it mean for kids to not just survive but thrive? To what social conventions are parents beholden when they act on behalf of their children’s futures?

In light of dramatic changes in social conventions of gender and sexuality, what it means to set a kid up for happiness looks different than it used to. Parents make choices on behalf of the well-being of their children every day, choices that are often creative or unconventional, and that are almost always deeply personal. Parents emerge as gender warriors when social possibilities of gendered identity begin to expand, and the health and prosperity of their trans kids depends on finding a place to thrive within that world.

Yet for those gender warriors, it’s early days. Within the ethnographic study that produced Trans Kids, Meadow’s own gender nonconformity and the identities of the study’s subjects remained a persistent topic of negotiation and scrutiny. Meadow describes “a peculiar kind of carnal sociology,” with the investigator’s identity clearly also in the mix. “Others’ reactions to my gender,” Meadow writes, “their assumptions, discomforts, and interests became an embodied ethnographic project. It was in these self-conscious moments that I believe I came closest to knowing the gender nonconforming child, by which I mean living the experience of having one’s body and identity be the object of a particular type of searching gaze, one tinged with worry, fear, expectation, sometimes hope.”

Subject to hyper-scrutiny, trans kids embody a charged form of epistemological uncertainty. It’s up to their parents to translate such a perceived instability at the core of a child’s self into a successful form of social identity—and by doing so, to support that child’s capacity to survive and thrive.

Parents, writes Meadow, “became ‘radical translators’ of the gender order; they leveraged gender expertise gleaned from the fields of education, psychology, medicine, and politics to convert their child’s subjective self-understandings into socially sanctioned forms of identity and personhood. At the same time, they engaged in tremendous emotional labor to present themselves, the primary conduits of expert knowledge, in ways that were culturally assimilable to the people who ran institutions.” Meadow maps various models of parent activism, including work to gain institutional access for children who transition from one category to another, and more radical work to expand the “constellation of options for childhood gender overall.”

If parents are the radical translators of the gender order, they are also the translators of the economic order: queer parenting and precarity parenting both recognize the prescriptive social order even as they work to loosen or undo its shaping power over children’s lives. Activist parents share a need to mitigate emotional and material risks, remaining inside normative social identities even as they attempt to change them: “From engaging in the gathering and tracking of evidentiary support for their parenting practices, to developing nuanced vocabularies for communicating with children and other adults, to the monitoring of their child’s expressive conduct in public, assessing and responding to uncertainty became an automatic feature of how they parented.”

There are few role models for trans kids’ adult identities: “Older transgender people,” writes Meadow, “did not have the same kinds of transitions as contemporary trans youth,” because social discourses of gender (non)conformity have gradually moved backward into childhood. It’s a moon shot for parents fighting for a future for their gender-nonconforming kids, creating social space and personhood in a way that has never before existed. The social category of trans youth is truly new to this generation. It has emerged against the backdrop of a modern economic order in which the stakes of inequality are sharper every year.

“These families are dismantling the sex/gender system as we know it,” writes Meadow. Theirs is a 21st-century story of modernity, told against the backdrop of inequality and uncertainty. It is also a story of agency, with a child’s future happiness and prosperity at stake. Moved by social and economic incentives, parents who were once gatekeepers of the status quo have stepped forward as agents of its potential transformation.

Featured image: Mother and Child (2018). Photograph by Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash. 

  1. Mary Robertson, Growing Up Queer: Kids and the Remaking of LGBTQ Identity(NYU Press, 2018), pp. 5–6.
  2. Doepke and Zilibotti adopt this framework from the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind. 

This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.

J. C. Sharman on Empires of the Weak

SharmanWhat accounts for the rise of the state, the creation of the first global system, and the dominance of the West? The conventional answer asserts that superior technology, tactics, and institutions forged by Darwinian military competition gave Europeans a decisive advantage in war over other civilizations from 1500 onward. In contrast, Empires of the Weak argues that Europeans actually had no general military superiority in the early modern era. J. C. Sharman shows instead that European expansion from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth centuries is better explained by deference to strong Asian and African polities, disease in the Americas, and maritime supremacy earned by default because local land-oriented polities were largely indifferent to war and trade at sea. Bringing a revisionist perspective to the idea that Europe ruled the world due to military dominance, this book demonstrates that the rise of the West was an exception in the prevailing world order.

Scholars have long argued that the dominance of the West can be attributed to superior technology, tactics, and institutions. Your book takes an opposing view. Can you describe it?

The standard view is to see Western expansion as synonymous with Western dominance, but my book separates the two. For around three centuries, Western expansion was more often the result of deference and subordination to non-Western rulers. Africans and Asians tolerated a weak European presence because Europeans were generally fixated on the control of the seas, which more powerful but terrestrially-oriented non-Western rulers generally didn’t care about. Even in the Americas, European victories were much more partial and incomplete than often portrayed, and were generally the result of disease and demography rather than superior technology, tactics and institutions.

What accounts for the narrative that the West came to power through general superiority?

The conventional ‘military revolution’ thesis argues that Western expansion reflected superior technology and institutions, basically guns and states. Supposedly, these advantages were first developed in the fiercely competitive environment of European warfare, and then applied to conquer the rest of the world. I argue this thesis is wrong, for several reasons, but particularly because of a reading of history which starts at ‘the end’ of the story, i.e. Western superiority, and then views the historical record from this supposed end-point. So European victories get a lot of coverage, because Europeans won in the end, whereas the Ottoman, Mughal and successive Chinese empires, which were much more powerful than their European counterparts for most of their existence, can be written off, because these empires lost in the end. But of course everyone loses in the end. The Europeans lost their empires, and someday the United States will lose too. Interestingly, even post-colonial scholars and those most critical of European imperialism tend to play into the narrative of powerful Westerners dominating everyone else. 

If the dominance of the West is an aberration to the prevailing global international system, what does a typical system look like?

Very roughly we can say that we’ve had some sort of global international system for five centuries. In most of Africa and Asia, Europeans weren’t really dominant until the nineteenth century (and this didn’t last long). In the three hundred years before, the typical arrangement was for Westerners to interact with Asian and African polities on a basis of inferiority. But because culture, ideas, and legitimacy are so important for shaping the international system, it’s hard to say what a typical form is.

For example, in the late nineteenth century the consensus was that any great power worthy of the name had to have an empire, and so we had an international system of empires, even though most empires lost money and didn’t confer security benefits. Then in a huge change that social scientists spend far too little time thinking about, empires went out of fashion. Now we have an international system of formally equal states, even though most states are pretty hopeless at performing the functions that are meant to justify their existence.

What led you to write this book?

The first reason was historical: that there was this hugely important undiscovered early modern international system out there, or at least a neglected and misunderstood international system, waiting to be explored. To me what makes international politics in the period 1500-1800 so exciting is that it upends our presumptions of superior, more powerful Westerners dominating everybody else. Sometimes this happened, but for two to three centuries Westerners were more likely to be dominated by non-Westerners, including in Europe.

The second reason was a basic rejection of the standard functionalist presumption that on average organizations work well, i.e. efficiently and effectively, because of learning and competition. On the contrary, I think getting the job done efficiently has very little to do with how organizations are structured and how they work.

For example, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that most meetings in universities, corporations, and government bureaucracies are a waste of time (and hence money). But people can simultaneously know this, while continuing to go to and schedule endless meetings, without any plans to change this situation. Organizations, including militaries and states, do not learn to become more efficient, and are not penalized for their inefficiency. In environments of overwhelming complexity, they mainly stick to ritualized ways of doing things, like going to meetings.

What does the book have to say about international politics today and in the future?

Historians have done an excellent job of showing how the way we think about the past affects our views of the present and the future, and this point certainly applies to international politics. All sorts of things we currently tend to take for granted about international politics are in fact strange, while some important things we tend to think of as strange, and perhaps worrying, are actually the historical norm. The fact that all the world’s polities are today organized as one homogenous type of unit, the sovereign state, is very unusual by historical standards. Looking to the future, if China or other non-Western states were to become the most powerful in the twenty-first century (and social scientists are lousy at predictions so I have no idea if this will happen), rather than being unprecedented, this would in fact be a return to the historical norm in international politics.

J. C. Sharman is the Sir Patrick Sheehy Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of King’s College. His books include The Despot’s Guide to Wealth Management and International Order in Diversity. He lives in London.