Jared Diamond's Upheaval shows how in times of catastrophe nation states—just like individuals—need to rely on their ego-strength to surviveby Anatol Lieven / May 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
“How nations cope with crisis and change” is rather a big subject, which suggests something on the scale of Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History. In Upheaval, Jared Diamond, the great analyst of historical ecological collapses, has produced instead a vivid, interesting but somewhat incoherent set of impressions, drawn from the modern history of countries he knows well.
Like all Diamond’s work, it is meant to be a wake-up call to the world in general, and the United States in particular, to acknowledge and respond to the growing crises facing us, especially in the field of climate change and ecological degradation. The book is structured around a parallel between how an individual responds to a crisis and how societies do; he compares the so-called “ego-strength” in individuals with sources of national unity and resilience in countries.
Upheaval contains features disquieting both to the contemporary political right (especially in the US) and to the left. Conservatives will detest the implication that existing forms of capitalism need to be radically reformed. While rejoicing in this, however, leftists should ponder deeply on what Diamond’s examples have to say about the sources of national strength, flexibility and resilience: “The challenge, for nations as for individuals in crisis, is to figure out which parts of their identities are already functioning well and don’t need changing, and which parts are no longer working and do need changing.”
Diamond begins his case studies with Finland between 1939 and the 1950s. First it decided to fight, in the face of hopeless odds, against Stalin’s demands for territory and military control—thereby convincing him that the country was too prickly a hedgehog to be swallowed whole. After making peace with the USSR in 1944, Finland saved its democracy and market economy by an accommodation to Soviet strategic requirements (helped by the fact that Sweden and the western countries had done nothing to help Finland in 1939-40). This was the so-called “Finlandisation” process, much despised by western cold warriors, that saved the country from the fate of Hungary or Czechoslovakia. Ukraine in recent years might have done well to follow this example rather than pursuing the mirage of western aid and integration.
Finnish experience is striking in its unusual combination of indomitable courage and flexible pragmatism, based on the recognition—which Brexiteers should remember—that a country cannot choose its geographical location. Yet one of its most notable features is not mentioned by Diamond. He stresses the vital importance of Finnish national identity and unity; but due to centuries of Swedish rule, Finnish society was historically divided between a Swedish landowning and bourgeois elite and the Finnish masses.
Almost everywhere else, independence led to such elites being dispossessed, marginalised, or in the last resort ethnically cleansed: Hungarians in Slovakia, Poles in Ukraine, the Anglo-Irish in southern Ireland, and my own Baltic German ancestors in Latvia and Estonia. And indeed, the Finnish civil war of 1918 did have some ethnic aspects. Yet by the 1940s, Finnish society had overcome these divisions to the point where the commander-in-chief and national leader, General Mannerheim, was an ethnic Swede. Finland’s ability to combine intense patriotism with ethnic difference is perhaps its most inspiring lesson to the world: though the historical circumstances that produced it may not be replicable elsewhere.
This is the difficulty with Diamond’s examples. Unlike ecological collapse due to human activity, which tends to follow at least some common patterns, historical cases of national response to military, economic and cultural crises are so disparate that it is hard to go beyond very broad generalisations. Apart from Finland, Upheaval covers Japan’s response first to western imperial and capitalist pressure in the 1850s and 60s, and then to various challenges of recent decades; how Chile has coped with the terrible memories of Pinochet’s coup and subsequent repression; how Indonesia has handled nation-building, economic development, and the legacy of the coup and massacres of 1965; how West Germany dealt with the history of Nazism and the Holocaust; and how Australia created a new identity from the 1960s on.
Given this range and diversity of cases (and the countries he doesn’t include), I am somewhat sceptical of Diamond’s hope, expressed in the last section of the book, that a quantitative approach to analysis will establish detailed common patterns. Here, the hopes of Diamond the hard scientist triumph over Diamond the cautious historian. Rather than treating his examples as concrete lessons, it seems to me to make more sense to see them as inspiring or minatory parables.
For me, the most relevant such story for today is that of Japan in the mid-19th century. After America began the forced opening of Japan in 1854, and was followed by the British and French, the Japanese elites split three ways: the diehard opponents of any accommodation, who wished Japan to remain walled off from the outside world; the proponents of limited adaptation, especially in the military sphere; and the proponents of radical reform based on western models. The advocates of radical reform eventually won, and initiated the only truly successful national programme of social and economic transformation in Asia before the 1960s.
Why did the Meiji reformers succeed where so many others failed? The answer seems to be twofold. Japan before the 1850s was not the backward feudal monarchy of western myth, but already (though along specifically Japanese lines) the most effective state in Asia, based on an isolated but generally successful economy. It was this strength that had allowed the Shogunate to exclude outside influences for the previous 200 years. A majority of the Samurai were not the sword-wielding knights of legend, but bureaucrats—though bureaucrats who retained the discipline and loyalty of their warrior forbears. Under the Meiji, a reformed version of this state was able to enforce the reform of the rest of Japanese society, and demand from the population the immense sacrifices this entailed.
The other factor was a uniquely strong Japanese nationalism, based on an ancient, homogenous and self-sufficient society. The notion that the Meiji reformers “constructed” Japanese nationalism from the 1860s on is completely false. They modernised it, and turned it from an elite to a mass phenomenon, chiefly by the same methods as in Europe: a state school system and universal military service. Diamond quotes one of the opponents of westernising reform: “Our magnificent and divine country has been humiliated by the barbarians, and… the Spirit of Japan, which was transmitted from antiquity, is on the point of being extinguished.”
As Diamond emphasises however, the Meiji reformers were no less nationalist. The whole declared point of their reforms was to strengthen Japan so as to place it on an equal footing with European nations, and if necessary to fight and defeat them—as Japan did to Russia in 1904-5, and attempted disastrously against America in 1941. It was precisely this collective “ego-strength” of the Japanese which allowed them to borrow so heavily from the west without disintegrating in the process. The process of radical westernisation was nonetheless an extremely traumatic one, which contributed to Japan’s descent into crazed fanaticism three generations later.
In the final section of the book, Diamond applies the lessons of his historical examples to the contemporary west in general, and the US in particular, faced with a range of threats including climate change, economic transformation and the rise of China. He emphasises the need for Americans, like the Meiji elites, to learn intensively from other countries in carrying out radical reforms, and the huge obstacle to this presented by American “exceptionalism.”
Upheaval portrays America’s history of meritocracy and social fluidity: the great success of American elite universities, and the deep failure of the US school system in many areas; the grotesque misallocation of public resources away from education and infrastructure and towards the military, prison and tax cuts for the wealthy; the legitimacy given to the US system by American democracy, and the ways in which it is currently being manipulated, and in which political polarisation is leading to paralysis of government. As Diamond writes, the alternative to radical reforms based on a willingness to learn from others is too often a retreat into self-pity, inertia, conspiracy theories and a search for scapegoats: in other words, Donald Trump, though he is by no means the worst possibility facing us in the decades to come.
I fear however that Diamond’s critique, searching though it is, may not go far enough. One deep and possibly existential problem for US democracy today is peculiar to America. Diamond’s book emphasises the need for a combination of strength and flexibility; yet the legitimacy of the US system derives from a uniquely inflexible constitution: a late 18th-century oligarchical document that can no longer be changed in accordance with 21st-century needs and realities, not only because of the immense obstacles to this written into the constitution itself, but also because of its sacred character in the eyes of many Americans.
Consider the role of the US Supreme Court in acting not only as judiciary but also in many contentious areas of social policy as effectively the supreme legislative organ, making up laws in accordance with its interpretation of their conformity with this sacred document. The only parallel to this is Iran’s Supreme Jurist (mistakenly translated as “Supreme Leader”) and Council of Guardians in interpreting sacred scripture for contemporary Iranian state purposes (though Iran also has a Council for Expediency, something which the US Supreme Court often seems to lack).
One feature that the US shares with other western democracies is the growing gulf between radically different conceptions of national identity. If national identity in countries is ego-strength in individuals, then contemporary ideological alignments in the US, Britain and elsewhere seem more closely to resemble galloping schizophrenia. Democracies are very good at gaining the assent of minorities to majority decisions on policy; but as the miserable example of the short-lived Middle Eastern democracies that emerged from the Arab Spring indicates, they cannot reconcile fundamentally opposed visions of the nation—for example, theocratic versus secular. Yet the central lesson of Diamond’s book is that without a strong and common sense of national identity, it will be extremely hard for the states of today to reform and strengthen themselves to meet the immense storms gathering on the horizon.
Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change by Jared Diamond is published by Allen Lane, £20