13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

13 ways of looking at a bureaucrat

“Psychoanalysts don’t usually write essays; they tend to write lectures or papers or chapters, or what are called, perhaps optimistically, contributions.” Adam Phillips “Coda: up to a point” in One Way or Another: New and Selected Essays

If Phillips’ invitation, masked in the form of a provocation, is true of psychoanalysis, how much more true is it of my own profession – public servant, civil servant, bureaucrat. Bureaucrats do not write essays, or so some people might believe. They write briefs, presentations, summaries, talking points – in descending order of intellectual significance. Indeed among many of the bureaucrats among whom I have made a kind of living – like some transplanted flower placed by a bumbling gardener in too much sun or too much shade, in the acid soil, where its roots soak all day in water – to write an essay is a phrase to denigrate a staff member who has put too much thought into a paper, and simply cannot reduce it down to memorisable talking points to be scanned for performance in front of your superiors. “Don’t give me an essay…” they will say “just tell me what I need to know.”

Is it because of the general contempt in this profession of contumely for the most inventive and flexible genre of prose that fiction writers have left us more caricatures and few grand characters who are bureaucrats? A few years ago I recall a lifeless panel run by the local institute of public administration that asked the latest bunch of mini (very) celebrity bureaucrats what books they felt best represented life in the bureaucracy. The responses were so pallid, except for one, from a genuine reader, who nominated Hilary Mantel’s rich portrait of that man of affairs, Thomas Cromwell, in Wolf Hall and its sequels. When you search google for best novels about the bureaucracy, you get a rather tired old list. Kafka’s Castle. Heller’s Catch 22. Gogol’s Dead Souls. and then a few references to satires of communist bureaucracy – as if it were only an East European institution – before slipping in a reference to Yes, Minister, or similar light television comedies, including in the Australian context Utopia. A few mention David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Pale King – from which I recall surely one of the funniest literary names for a government department – the United States Office of Unspecified Services – USOUS – which you may well pronounce as youse owe us.

But these representations of life in the bureaucracy have never really registered with me as genuine engagements with the life of the mind as it is practised in our government offices. Yet, it is that very culture, with its foibles and traps and few moments of genius, that I have dedicated the greater part of my working life to. It is that life of the mind in which I have experienced problems as deep, ethical dilemmas as thorny, practical judgements as meticulous as any second-rate university research seminar. But the world would not know this – because bureaucrats do not write essays.

So maybe they should, and maybe I should, and maybe I have already begun. Adam Phillips is an inspiration to me in this task, this attempt, this essay, in more ways than one. He has stepped outside the sterile code of his profession and lifted from its place, discarded on the floor, one of the traditions that exceed the profession’s histories. After all, Freud was a great essayist, perhaps a greater essayist than a psychologist (the opposite may be said of his disciple turned rival Carl Jung). And within my profession – with some flexible interpretation of its boundaries across a long and diverse global history – there have been some great essayists, some great investigators of the human spirit as it is tested in the public life of the mind. There are the Chinese ancients for a start. Confucius was, after all, a public official dismayed at the demoralisation of conduct in public office, who roamed the country for years with his teachings that sought to inspire a nobler spirit of duty. There were the great Byzantine scholar-bureaucrats. Indeed, there is the extraordinary  Anna Comnena and her portrait of her father, Alexiad. There is Francis Bacon  – although we might reach with him perhaps more for the title of statesman and grandee, but still government official he was. His essays speak still across the centuries to the peculiar obligations, duties and privileges of the bureaucrat who offers advice to a modern-day prince. “The greatest trust, between man and man,” Bacon wrote around 1600 “is the trust of giving counsel.” (Francis Bacon, “Of Counsel”, The Essays)

So if Bacon’s essays can endure these 400 years, and preserve a wisp of this peculiar, secreted and yet all too human life that I have led as a government official, surely I should honor this tradition by picking it up from its dusty corner and finding a new reinvention of the essay form to speak of the true experience of bureaucracy.

Long ago – maybe ten years ago – I took it into my head to write one such essay about the real life of the mind of bureaucrats – at least the kind of public official that I aspire to be – that would take its cue from Wallace Stevens “Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird.” Over the years the yearning to express the true spirit has grown stronger as I have watched public institutions and public culture decay around me, and read other testimony of such decay, as in Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order  and Political Decay. The first impulse of this essay was to speak as a wistful, even comic, challenge to the many “stakeholders” I had met over the years who had treated me and other faithful public servants with sneering contempt. Take a look at the world through my eyes for a minute, if you will. Think of me as Stevens’ manifold blackbird, and do not fixate on a cardboard cut-out image of who I am, what I do, and especially how I think.

As the years have rolled on, however, my thoughts on the essay have turned in different directions. I have wanted to write a “J’Accuse” to all the treasonous clerks who have profited from office, sought to break the greater traditions of the profession, and betrayed the higher purposes of public service. Some even proclaim nonsense like the “public purpose sector” to describe all the consultocrats and tax farming firms who thrive on advantageous government contracts, tolls and partnerships. In yet another mood, “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat” is an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.

Still, what is writing for, if not to write sad songs that honour the traditions that represent the best of who you are? And who can say that my laments may not inspire at least one of my fellow officials to rise above the muck of daily talking points, the ill-considered decisions, the bluff and bluster of those consultocratic courtiers who know no better way?

So with those questions, let me end for tonight, and promise a mini-series of posts – 13 episodes in all – each prompted by that great poem on perspective – “Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat.”

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The eternal triangle: love, art and work

The eternal triangle: love, art and work

It seems that after all Sigmund Freud did not say that the goal of therapy or the standard of a successful life was: to love and to work. Erik Erikson did once report Freud saying something along those lines, but the memory of disciples is unreliable. The closest expression in Freud’s voluminous writings to this formula for the sex- and career-mad Götterdämmerung of our times was this sentence from Civilisation and its discontents (1930):

“The communal life of human beings had, therefore, a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love…(Standard Edition v XXI, p 101)

In our commonplace experience, work might be an activity practised as both love and necessity. Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad days. Yet we dream that work might become pure vocation, the expression of our life’s purpose, the realisation of ourselves in an artform of living.

We deceive ourselves, and make ourselves miserable in these fantasies. Ananke’s child was Adrasteia, and it was she with her fellow nymphs who distributed rewards and punishments in the world.With our poor kenning we compound rewards and necessity, and hope our always frail attributes will be rewarded in this world. When we see ourselves rewarded and recognised in our jobs, we see fate and vocation smiling on us. And when they do not, we long for that job that will bring meaning, recognition and wealth to us. In truth, Adrasteia hands out her laurels and her whips with no regard for what happens in our minds, as befits the fickle whims of an uncontrollable goddess-nymph. But we cannot escape our bonds to necessity.

We may be more content knowing these bonds for what they are – lifelong shackles that we learn to get by with over time. They tie us to our master, but allow us to roam freely in other domains of life. Perhaps it is our Romantic and democratic dreams of a universal aristocracy, where everyone can live like a movie star on their vacation, that makes us so miserable at work. For most of human culture, work has been unequivocally the servant of the dark Greek god, Ananke. In ours it serves a three-faced god. We want it to give a sense of belonging and love, of connection with our true kindred spirits. We want work to be the studio where we realise our gifts. And we want it to reward us more than all the other Joneses so that we may sit atop a social hierarchy of our own devising. We forget Freud’s words  – that we suffer the compulsion to work, created by external necessity. We come to believe we choose to work as an act of inner freedom.

But over our long working lives – and the boom in life expectancy has also been a curse of longer years in the office cubicle – we slowly learn that work cannot be these things, except for a few legendary people who have become our modern pantheon of role model heroes. It is rather a daily grind. A cruel social lottery. It is a theatre of cruelty and of the absurd. It is a graveyard of disappointments, grand illusions, organisational reforms, and the long and deadly march through the marshes, driven by the ambitious and the crazed.

Yet we must endure it. We have no choice. Ananke stands over our withered bank balances and sends us out to keep the wolf at the door. But in enduring it, we do not need to succumb, not to its illusions, not to its drudgery, not to its confusion of necessity with love or with art, not to dark Ananke’s will to dominate our lives.

We endure our working lives by reaching for the other points of the eternal triangle that has long driven human culture. We reach for love and art. They are the deeper veins of living purpose. They are the true lodestars by which we navigate our troubled oceans.

The revolutionary

Revolutionary lost its threat as a word sometime in recent decades. Revolutionary is now just another exaggeration from the advertisers in today’s commerce-drowned world. But I recall within decades people who still lived their lives by this creed. It is said that the splendidly delusive Australian Marxist or Maoist revolutionary and historian, Humphrey McQueen truly believed the revolution was imminent in 1970s leafy Canberra, and that his angry denunciations of all that was wrong about the country he shared with me would bring the day of this coming closer.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The black-clad, intense and hairy revolutionaries of the 1970s have grown old, tired and disappointed. They are surrounded now by technological ephebes celebrating the disruption of whole economies caused by hailing a cab by using a mobile phone, and keeping the fares down by paying no tax and ignoring all the rules. Their tradition, their culture has been trashed.

In the 1970s some of these revolutionaries followed Nechayev’s creed through to its stated goal. They acted as implacable enemies of the society which they would only dissemble belonging in. The Baader Meinhof gang and others long ago showed the fascination for a certain group of young idealists of a life at war with simple life. There is a great movie by Visconti, The Conversation Piece (1974), which portrays the affluent, lost youths of Europe who are seduced by the lives of violent revolutionaries amidst the cultural collapse and moral aimlessness of their lives. These people have not gone away, but they now rarely go by the name of revolutionaries; instead, Hackers, Extremists, or just plain terrorists.

But the long sad siren’s song of Nechayev’s creed still exerts its charm. It was laid down in a catechism by Bakunin and Sergei Nechayev in 1869.

“The revolutionary is a lost man; he has no interests of his own, no cause of his own, no feelings, no habits, no belongings, he does not even have a name. Everything in him is absorbed by a single, exclusive interest, a single thought, a single passion – the revolution. In the very depths of his being, not just in words but in deed, he has broken every tie with the civil order, with the educated world and all laws, conventions and generally accepted conditions, and with the ethics of this world. He will be an implacable enemy of this world, and if he continues to live in it, that will only be so as to destroy it the more effectively.” Catechism of a revolutionary (1869) quoted R. Evans The Pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914


The revolutionaries embrace the doom that faces us all, and brings this same tragedy down on the heads of all of us. Such determination, steel and despair at existence seems a long way from the brand-conscious pleasure heads of today’s identity politics. They appear only to borrow the second hand clothes, newly fashionable of revolutionaries.

But might we see another turn to violence by those infected with the creed, and now convinced they are surrounded by greater evils. An “illegitimate” president of the USA, who in turn treats political conventions as traps for chumps; societies sickened by excess wealth; the protest that floods the plains but cannot run off anywhere constructive; national security agencies out of control. And then there are all the nationalists who wank to make their country great again, and may threaten violence with violence. The world seems headed for dark times in which I fear the violence of the revolutionary may make a comeback. 

If it does, remember Nechayev was a murderer. If it does, beware of your implacable enemies down the street.  If it does, read Dostoyoevsky’s The Possessed again. If it does, tend your garden.

On reading ambitions

On reading ambitions

It should be known that the above-mentioned hidalgo, during the periods when he was idle – which was most of the year – devoted himself to reading romances of chivalry with such eagerness and pleasure that he almost completely neglected the hunt, and even the administration of his estate. His curiosity and folly got to such an extreme that he sold many acres of farmland to buy romances of chivalry to read, and he took home every one of them he could find” Miguel de Cervantes, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605) [translated by Tom Lathrop, 2014], p 19

Today I strolled through the city during my lunchtime break, and wandered down to the best bookshop in the CBD, or central activity district as it has been recently renamed, with a determined plan to return with one great unread or much loved but recently neglected by myself, classic work of literature.

I did first browse through books of current affairs, since I felt I should familiarise myself at least with the terms and titles of current debate in my lowly role as an under-castellan of a minor and sleepy provincial government in the Southern Pacific. From those racks I collected a recent essay proposing Australia quarrel a little more with our great ally and imperial friend, the United States of America. Surely the only sensible course, at least in a world made less secure by the day by the chest-beating of the US national intelligence community and its grand old men and women.

Then I turned to deeper interests in the long rack holding classics, plays and poetry. I paused a while over the Saga of Volsung and the Elder Edda, and passed over reams of Austen and Dickens and the comfortable favourites. Then I thumbed through a new edition of Yeats’ selected poems. From there I read his “Why should not old men be mad.”

WHY should not old men be mad?
Some have known a likely lad
That had a sound fly-fisher’s wrist
Turn to a drunken journalist;
A girl that knew all Dante once
Live to bear children to a dunce;
A Helen of social welfare dream,
Climb on a wagonette to scream.
Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.
Young men know nothing of this sort,
Observant old men know it well;
And when they know what old books tell
And that no better can be had,
Know why an old man should be mad.

W.B. Yeats, Selected Poems

No single story of an unbroken happy mind indeed. It was perhaps the affirmation to know what old books tell, and the noble madness of the aged truth, monuments of unageing intellect, that led me like a bloodhound on the scent of its hare to that grandest of tales of old men and the folly of their books.

So I walked home with a 2014 translation of Cervantes, Don Quixote, or to give the full name from the early frontispiece, reproduced if in translation in this edition by Alma Classics, The ingenious hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Cervantes’ great comedy is one of those books that you can believe that you know but have not read, and especially so for someone like me, who is inclined to tilt at false dragons, clothed as windmills, and more inclined to know people in books than in real life. Yet I have not read Don Quixote.

But now I will, or at least give myself a plan to read its nearly 700 pages, full of comedy, classical and early modern literary references that I will rely on notes to understand, and a human understanding from a writer whose story I have begun to be intrigued by. It is on a first pass a much funnier book than many that I have ploughed determinedly on with. Proust. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Tolstoy’s War and Peace, although I must say I did skim over the long essay on his pet theories of history near the end. On the other hand, there are many long books that have defeated my overly ambitious plans to ingest whatever wisdom and creative spark they still hold: a six volume history of private life, that stands embarrassed on my selves, the Bible, Musil’s Man without Qualities, and of course, Don Quixote

It makes me wonder about ambitions in reading. Today’s literature is so vast. It is an ocean beyond ambition’s compass. There is too much to read, even when you do not explore the shores expanded exponentially with all the internet samizdats to which I contribute and celebrate. Is there a time when the sheer enormity of all the written words will lead me to give up on trying to understand the classics, the great challenging works, the necessary elements of a humanist education, and just skim social media feeds for my remaining years of silence?

Then again ambitions in reading surely serve some good ends. They set a course across that vast uncrossable ocean that is the literature of everything that could be read, and allow this poor reader to tack close to at least some known shores. If I say I will read Cervantes and fail, then at least I would have tried, and, even if taken in fragments, the attempt makes me stronger. What I fail to read, still makes me stronger?

So I will go to bed tonight with my heavy old Spanish master, held in my weak old wrist, and thank ambition for letting me know, if only for moments, the imagination of the dead. In our madness is our truest dignity?

Image Source: via Wikimedia Commons, Juan de Jauregui y Aguilar (circa 1583 – 1641) – Portrait of Cervantes, assumed. cervantesvirtual.com 3. The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 119216

Massacres in history

Massacres in history

As the violence and brewing disorder of our times disturbs us, we can readily fall into a comforting delusion: either our liberal minds have conquered the violent instincts of the human animal, or our modern ideologies (whether Nazism, Marxism, Imperialism, Neo-Conservatism or Islamism) or our powerful nation states have a peculiar talent for blood-curdling murder and total war.

Alas, neither is true. The pages of history are littered with massacres and community violence. Of course, the history reader need not give their attention to these stories. There are so many other threads to follow – the glories and diversity of culture, the grandeur of art, the suffering of ordinary people, the conflicts over resources, power, status, belief, or the blooming and fading of faiths. But all those threads are mixed with blood on the wattle.

It is difficult to face this squarely. The wound to human pride caused by the repeated violence of our kin is deep, and we naturally seek to numb the pain. Either we turn away to more pleasant thoughts, or we develop elaborate denials of the common humanity of the perpetrators of violence. They become dictators, monsters, barbarians. Or we pursue an absurd nobility in fighting for justice – bandits, thugs, and rebel yells so become freedom fighters, poetic champions of a noble cause wrapped in mystic illusions, like Byron going to fight for the Greeks.

The greatest affront is to our idea of progress, which accompanies our modern culture like an ever-vigilant chaperone. Darker thinkers know this. John Gray’s work has long taken apart the modern belief in human progress. In reviewing Pinker’s Better Angels of our Nature, Gray zeroes in on this necessary illusion:

Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible. John Gray, The Guardian, 2015

Gray compares the elaborate theories of Pinker and similar liberal optimists, with their reliance on big data and google, to Tibetan prayer wheels, turned forever to produce an assurance of meaning in life, progress in history, and the goodness of humanity. With such a prayer wheel, the bloodied pages of history that tell of massacres and communal violence, the descent of civilised people into barbarism, can be carefully, mindfully willed away.

For whatever fortuitous reason, I came across one such bloodied page last night in reading Richard J. Evans, The pursuit of power: Europe 1815-1914 (2016). The story concerned the struggle for Greek independence, or release from the “cruel yoke of Ottoman power” in the 1820s.

The Greeks held a national assembly at Epidauras in 1822 where they declared, despite the fractious rumblings within their own ranks, a “holy war” against the Muslim Ottoman overlords, who had ruled since 1453. Like many holy wars, the Greeks’ fight for a separate, Christian nation soon justified massacres. A British observor recoiled at the violence of the rebels when they killed the local Muslim population:

“Women and children were frequently tortured before they were murdered. After the Greeks had been in possession of the city for forty-eight hours, they deliberately collected together about two thousand persons of every age and sex, but principally women and children, and led them to a ravine in the nearest mountain where they murdered every soul.” (George Finlay, quoted in Evans, p 55)

The Ottoman rulers and the Muslim local population responded with massacres of their own. The Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople/Istanbul was hanged on his cathedral’s gate. At Salonica local crowds massacred the Christian population turning it into a “boundless slaughterhouse.” On the island of Chios, Greek rebels were besieging a Ottoman garrison, which itself held hostage many of the wealthy Greek Christian merchants of the island. When Ottoman troops and boats arrived  to reinforce the garrison, the balance of the siege turned. The Ottoman soldiers tortured their hostages to reveal the hidden locations of their treasures, and then massacred them. The island’s town streets were littered with corpses, and its buildings burned to the ground. Nearly 30 000 Christians were killed. Others were sold into slavery. The island’s population was quartered, falling from 120 000 to 30 000.

Yet this next link in the chain of communal violence inspired a humanitarian response to fight to defend the birthplace of Western civilisation. Eugene Delacroix’s The Massacre at Chios (1824) [the featured image of this post, with image credit to Le Louvre] rallied the educated classes of Europe, seeped in the love of classical cultures. Across Europe idealistic young men, full of civilised illusions, went to fight for the divided and compromised Greek rebels, if in their own mind they were in a struggle for justice for a civilised nation. One observor noted that “All came expecting to find the Peloponnesus filled with Plutarch’s men and all returned thinking the inhabitants of Newgate [London’s main prison] more moral.”

Of course one of the famous foreign fighters was the mad, bad and dangerous to know Lord Byron. He left behind the ravages of his incestuous and treacherous relationships in England, and dedicated himself to his great Cause, a greater delusion. He told an aristocratic friend (Marguerite, Countess of Blessington) of his motives: “he who is only a poet has done little for mankind” so that he would therefore “endeavour to prove in his own person that a poet may be a soldier.”

He died there at Missolonghi in April 1824. And the Romantic martyr was born from his 36 year old corpse. Today he is considered a national hero in Greece. The phenomenon of young men and women fighting and dying uselessly in a civilisational struggle, drunk on dreams of justice and glory and romance and martyrdom, are older than the Islamic rebels of ISIS.

 

The unravelling of empires

US and western leaders have to find better ways to satisfy their people’s demands. It looks, however, as though the UK still lacks a clear idea of how it is going to function after Brexit, the eurozone remains fragile, and some of the people Mr Trump plans to appoint, as well as Republicans in Congress, seem determined to slash the frayed cords of the US social safety net.

A divided, inward-looking and mismanaged west is likely to become highly destabilising. China might then find greatness thrust upon it. Whether it will be able to rise to a new global role, given its huge domestic challenges, is an open question. It seems quite unlikely.

By succumbing to the lure of false solutions, born of disillusion and rage, the west might even destroy the intellectual and institutional pillars on which the postwar global economic and political order has rested. It is easy to understand those emotions, while rejecting such simplistic responses. The west will not heal itself by ignoring the lessons of its history. But it could well create havoc in the attempt.

Martin Wolf, Financial Times, 6 January 2017

A (southern) summer spent reading the magisterial histories of John Darwin – After Tamerlane and Unfinished Empire – has inoculated me against the false lessons of history pronounced by journalistic oracles, such as the distinguished Martin Wolf from the Financial Times, who I have quoted above. He is not alone in brooding on the dark omens that have filled our contemporary skies. Across the Atlantic, Robert Samuelson from the Washington Post, issues a similar warning. The question of the year, he states, is “whether we’re witnessing the gradual decay of the post-World War II international order, dominated by the economic and military power of the United States.” He in turn summons the old Svengali of American statecraft, Henry Kissinger, who warns that when the international order is moving from one system to another. “Restraints disappear, and the field is open to the most expansive claims and the most implacable actors… Chaos follows until a new system of order is established. (quoted from World Order)”

Are we entering the death of one order, and the chaos in which a new world order will be reborn? Here our prophetic pundits would do well to read Darwin’s work deeply rather than stay within the cocoon of their false assumptions about the “pillars” of the post-war international order.

Darwin’s world-weary, realistic, yet scholarly assumption is that after Tamerlane – who by the time of his death in 1405 had conquered most of the world island of Eurasia but still  had not imposed a single political order amid competing empires – there has been no single international order, no common vision or shared liberal intellectual assumptions between competing empires. Those empires have risen and fallen, waxed and waned, imploded and recovered in response to fickle, changeable circumstances, and in ways that only with the blindness of hindsight seem to be a story of progress or the rise of the West.

Darwin assumes also that empires are the most common form of political order through all of human history. Empire is not a European original sin, as in nationalistic histories of colonial imperialists (something I observed commonly in the history museums of Vietnam). It is not only the ancien regime of Roman or European aristocrats imposing themselves on the third world. Rather, it is rooted in some fundamental human characteristics.

As Darwin explains, “the exchange of information, knowledge, beliefs and ideas – sometimes over enormous distances – has been just as typical of human societies as the eagerness to acquire, useful, prestigious or exotoc goods by trade or by barter.” (After Tamerlane , p. 22) As those goods and ideas – which have included goods and ideas both for making war and declaring faiths – have circulated between societies, they have:

“upset the cohesion of some societies much more than others, making them vulnerable to internal breakdown, and to takeover by others. So a second propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force) has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under the same ruler) has been the default mode of political organisation throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road. (After Tamerlane, p. 23) [my emphasis]

These assumptions lead into a remarkable narrative of contending empires competing with different resources and visions of “modernity”. This story is very different from the accounts of the rise of the West that dominate the economics schools of the world, and seep into the accounts of the globalised world and post-war international order by journalists. Darwin’s story is remarkable for making clear how open the future was to these contending empires, and in a way how late the moment of European domination came. In contrast to complacent assumptions about the pillars of Western thought or the genius apps of Western civilisation (Niall Ferguson), Darwin tells how:

“In practice, and for reasons that we are far from understanding fully, for almost two centuries after 1750 it was North West European societies (and their transatlantic offspring) that mobilised [resources and people] fastest and also coped best with the social and political strains that being mobile imposed. Far-flung empires, and a global economy shaped to their interests, were to be their reward. (After Tamerlane, p. 27)

But that reward was not a permanent prize, not a pillared temple of Western vigour and superior intelligence. One of those far-flung empires – the British Empire whose empire was made of private enterprise, of commerce, Christianity and civilization and whose dominance in the nineteenth century was powered by cotton, coal and capital – would discover in the 1950s and 1960s that it was no longer a world power on a par with the USA and the USSR, and it had been eclipsed by its transatlantic offspring in the bipolar world of the post-war international order.

Another of the far-flung empires – the United States – would draw some stranger lessons from the history of empires. Like a millenarian visionary, it would believe that it had made a decisive break from this tainted history of imperial rule. Darwin is not fooled. Empires are still empires when they are not ruled as the Romans did, nor as the Europeans. Darwin relates the bare facts – the commercial presence, the cultural influence of global media, and more than 700 military bases in over 130 countries of the world. The post-1945 American system of international order was thus imperial in all but name. It was the empire that dared not speak its name, and yet believed itself to be the “indispensable nation.”

Like its imperial ancestors and rivals, the American order owed to chance and conflicts its decades of dominance. “It was the Second World War that made the United States not just the world’s largest economy, but also its strongest. It was the global cold war that made it the world’s greatest military power. These were the assets with which American entered the ‘globalized’ world at the end of the century. (p 504)”

Darwin concludes his great book with some very different reflections on our globalised world than the gospel-preachers of the international financial order. “The economic regime to which we have grown used in the last decade and a half represents an extraordinary moment in the turbulent history of the global economy,” Darwin writes. “It was produced by an earthquake as dramatic as anything in the world’s modern history.” (p 504) The geopolitical collapse of Soviet power and China’s embrace (after Deng Xiaoping) of a market economy created massive new markets. At the same time dramatic changes in transport (air travel and the container revolution) and communications (the Internet and digital communications) created conditions for remarkable growth and integration of economies worldwide.

It also drove a rebalancing of wealth across the world. “The great divergence in wealth and economic performance between the Euro-Atlantic West and most of the rest of Eurasia has given way instead to the ‘great convergence’, which should if it continues restore the balance to the rough equilibrium of half a millenium ago in the next fifty years.” (p 504)

But economic integration is not a bulwark against the building of empires, states and cultures with distinctive values, attitudes, institutions and ideologies. These long-standing human propensities may well surge back in response to the free movement of goods and the dominance of commercial elites. Since I take a long view of the moulding of human cultures and empires, my money is on these deeper drives making a comeback and remoulding our international order in ways that we cannot yet predict.

And is it not this resurgence of difference and diversity, this expression of divergence from the views of the Washington consensus, the Hollywood celebrities, the European technocrats, that we are seeing unfold in the unpredicted events of 2016 – Brexit, Trump, a more assertive China, a more assertive Russia, the dream of a resurgent caliphate that ISIS exploits? Contrary to Wolf then, a reading of After Tamerlane will open the future to good possibilities and bad, but certainly to no one international order, no one set of remedies to cure the ills of the “West.”

Darwin concludes his great book, finally making clear the precise meaning of After Tamerlane, in a final section entitled Tamerlane’s Shadow, with more sober, telling judgements on the constant breaking apart of dreams of a new world order.

“Perhaps this is the point. It might well be true that we are on the brink of a great transformation – in geopolitics, economics and culture – at least as far-reaching as the Eurasian Revolution of the late eighteenth century. If this is so, it can hardly be doubted that its impacts in different parts of the world will vary enormously.”

Rather than a fairytale story of ascendant beliefs in liberal democracy and globalisation, Darwin offers a deep historical understanding of how our world came to be as it is in its confusing disordered state. “The past patterns of trade and conquest, diaspora and migration that have pushed and pulled distant regions together and shaped their cultures and politics have been exceptionally complex.” (p. 505)

And this requires some scepticism towards the apostles of the market and pop culture. “Their effect has been not to homogenise the world, but to keep it diverse. By contrast, the magnetic force of the global economy has been too erratic thus far, and too unevenly felt, to impose the cooperative behaviour and cultural fusion to which theorists of free trade [in the 19th, 20th and 21 st centuries, I might add] have often looked forward to.”

So Darwin sees some similar discontents in a broader and deeper perspective than the worries of the liberal press.

“What we call globalization today might be candidly seen as flowing from a set of recent agreements , some tacit, some formal, between the four great economic ’empires’ of the contemporary world: America, Europe, Japan and China. For them and for all other states and societies, the challenge will be to reconcile their internal cohesion with the disturbing effects of free competition. The strain will be great; the outcome uncertain. But if there is one continuity that we should be able to glean from a long view of the past, it is Eurasia’s resistance to a uniform system, a single great ruler, or one set of rules. In that sense we still live in Tamerlane’s shadow – or perhaps more precisely – in the shadow of his failure. (pp 505-6)

The havoc that we see about us is not caused by “false solutions, born of disillusion and rage,” but the unravelling of empires adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence.

Travelling in Vietnam

I have not posted for a month because I have been travelling on a family holiday to Vietnam, with some side trips to Angkor  Wat in Cambodia and the beach in Northern New South Wales. The trip itself was a rite of passage, marking the end of childhood as both our children have now finished school. It may also mark a new phase of life with more travel since I am already contemplating another trip to Portugal and Prague. Until now I have always believed, after Rilke, that the greatest journey is within, but now perhaps I see that as an envious song of innocence.

Along the way I read John Darwin’s great histories of the rise and fall of empires, After Tamerlane and Unfinished Empire: the global expansion of Britain, and a fair slice of the magnum opus by Jurgen Osterhammel, The transformation of the world: a global history of the nineteenth century. Together with my encounters with the ruins of wonders and the retelling of Vietnam’s history through museums and tour guides, in a strangled jejune marxist-nationalism that was surprisingly dull, these musings have seeded many more posts for the weeks to come. Since I will shortly resume my day job, we will see what kind of posting schedule I can maintain when back full-time in the office. I hope two to three times per week.

The one book I was unable to read was Nguyen Du’s Tale of Kieu (1820). I set off on this journey planning to read it, and I searched the few foreign language bookshops in Hanoi that I found my way to for a copy. But it was only at the last station as I was leaving Ho Chi Minh airport that I presented to one of the stalls a googled copy of the wikipedia entry. The shopkeeper was sure she had one, but it turned out to be a french-vietnamese bilingual edition only.

So my journey to Vietnam will need to continue to the public libraries and shops of Melbourne to uncover this Shakespeare of Vietnamese, and the sad tale of a scholar-bureaucrat who must make decisions about whether to serve a regime that is not true to his heart.