Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

Eugene Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship: Toward a Theory of Bureaucratic Political Power” (1980) – I have a feeling the Citizenry (become a Citizen of my newsletter, it is rad) voted for me to read this book out of two motivations: a minority are genuinely interested in how bureaucracy works, and a majority who thought it would be funny to make me read and review something with a title that sounds this boring. Joke’s on them! I love this shit. I tracked down this book and bought the cheapest but still rather dear copy I could find with some stimmy money. I had known about it for at least a decade, after seeing it in some “works cited” of interesting books.

I probably would not have noticed this in “works cited” were it not for the second subtitle (I basically refuse to have second subtitles in the headlines of my reviews, nonfiction authors should count themselves lucky to have subtitles, let alone fiction writers getting subtitles!): “The Organizational Lives of Hyman Rickover, J. Edgar Hoover, and Robert Moses.” What a trio! Hard charging bureaucrats who gave precisely no fucks and ran important parts of American state power at roughly the same time, Rickover was the “father of the nuclear navy,” Hoover ran the closest thing to a nationwide secret police force America ever saw, and Moses was “master builder” of New York, basically in charge of the city and state’s public infrastructure for decades. They weren’t the gray, colorless figures we associate with master bureaucrats. They weren’t exactly flamboyant like the politicians they coexisted with, like Roosevelt or Johnson, either. They were their own thing- the titular public entrepreneur.

This book belongs to what you’d call “historical sociology,” that odd by-blow of two fields you’d figure would maybe have more in common but reached a real nadir of mutual misunderstanding not long after this work was published. I’ve read some good historical sociology (like this book) but it’s not a good way to rocket up the field in either history or sociology, specializing in it. Essentially, what Eugene Lewis (a political scientist, according to his short, eccentric, one suspects self-written Wikipedia page) tries to do here is use historical examples to prove a social scientific point. He doesn’t do primary research (a big history no-no) and he doesn’t do anything quantitative or any fieldwork (a substantial social sciences no-no). Mostly, he talks about the careers of the three men, based on secondary sources (including Robert Caro’s legendary biography of Moses, “The Power Broker”), and fits them into a definition of public entrepreneurship. Public entrepreneurs both fit (uncomfortably) into their organizational molds and break them wide open, they expand their domains, they present a face of apolitical technical competence, they get old and stumble on new political realities, etc etc.

I shouldn’t give such short shrift to Lewis’s theory here, but A. it’s not why I read the book and B. it didn’t go anywhere. My understanding is that “Public Entrepreneurship” is respected in its field but that field isn’t huge and this didn’t spark a big, long-lasting conversation. It also came at an interesting time- 1980, just as neoliberalism was coming down the pike and bureaucracy went from being seen as a necessary evil to… well, here the story is funny. Neoliberalism is a famously slippery term, and people tend to associate it with a rebellion against bureaucracy and rules-bound organizations in favor for “thriving on chaos” in the marketplace, but recent research and arguments have gotten across the point that neoliberalism in fact thrives on, proliferates, rules and bureaucracy. But in any event, those bureaucracies wouldn’t look that much like those of the heyday of the mid-twentieth century. A “theory of bureaucratic power” that made a Weber-inflected take on those bureaucracies in 1980… that’s just bad timing.

But really, I mostly just found the descriptions and comparisons of how the three principals worked interesting and written in quite lively style, remarkable for social science. All three were tough- interestingly, the one from the actual military, Rickover, while a hardass when it came to his agenda, was probably the least of a son of a bitch of the three (then again, he probably wouldn’t have hesitated to flip that nuclear switch if the order came down, so…). Moses routinely destroyed neighborhoods to build highways, and Hoover, arguably, would be the one man to erase from American history if you only got one (I’m aware other people did worse stuff- but most of them would have been replaced by equally bad, roughly equally competent people, not the case with Hoover in my opinion). While Lewis makes notes of things like the lives destroyed during the red scare, he is ultimately more interested in bureaucratic form, how the three men managed new technologies and techniques and played politics, all while appearing apolitical. In many ways, that is the most appropriate portrait of these three men and others of their type, and I’d argue the type is worth understanding. The siren call of “just getting shit done”… not always enough to get an elected politician over the line, but it can provide a basis for power that slips the bonds of what is usually associated with bureaucracy (i.e. the notional source of the apolitical nature of the bureaucratic entrepreneur). Lewis admits his book is more of a jumping off point than a set of definitive answers- alas, I don’t know what jumped off from it.

One thing I found myself wondering- is this sort of power exclusive to liberal capitalist states? Would other bureaucratic setups nurture similar people under similar dynamics? It would seem they could- surely clever people played communist and fascist bureaucracies pretty well. I guess I’m wondering A. would such power dynamics inevitably exist in any system with bureaucracy, and could (should?) they be prevented and B. could you have, if not socialist, then social democratic public entrepreneurs within a capitalist system? Frankly, I have my doubts, though I have fewer doubts about the technical feasibility — some AOC devotee landing in charge of Head Start or something and cancelling their opponents on Twitter until they ran all of the country’s pre-K or some such — then whether it’d actually be helpful to socialism. I don’t hate bureaucracy but it’s not my preferred way to play the game. In this case, I very much am asking for some friends who I could see seizing upon such an arrangement were it possible… people love some sewer socialism… maybe my navy-man alter-ego in a work of fiction (who would no doubt greatly admire Rickover!)… anyway. An interesting and evocative book. ****’

Review- Lewis, “Public Entrepreneurship”

Extramural Writing: Beyond Belief Amongst the Millennials

I wrote a piece for Full Stop, which is rapidly becoming my favorite outlet for which to write. It started as a review of Tara Isabella Burton’s new book on millennial spirituality and religious practice, “Strange Rites.” It’s a provocative book, well worth reading, and summoned strange thoughts in me when juxtaposed with some of the other stuff I study, especially the contemporary right. Put it all together and you get this piece. Enjoy.

Extramural Writing: Beyond Belief Amongst the Millennials

Review- Corey, “Cibola Burn”

James S.A. Corey, “Cibola Burn” (2014) (narrated by Jefferson Mays) – Back to the Expanse! This time the drama takes place on a planet on the other side of an ancient alien wormhole. But humanity doesn’t leave the cynical maneuverings that characterize the Coreys’ (its two guys, James Corey is a nom de plume) gritty workaday space solar system as established in the previous four volumes. Some squatters, survivor of the collapse of a colony on Ganymede that we saw a book or two back, went through the wormhole first and settled a seemingly earth-like planet. Alas, according to the rules, an Earth-based megacorp has dibs. They can’t even agree what to call it! The megacorp wants to call it New Terra, the squatters call it Ilus. In any event, they start fighting. Who’s called in to mediate but Jim Holden, space-dad and classic perspective-dullard, the protagonist who has less character than all the others but whose dogged insistence on heroic goals drives the story forward?

This one is pretty fun, taking as its motto the old writing workshop advice, “chase your characters up a tree, and once they’re there, throw rocks at them.” The corporate security people and the settlers do tit-for-tat terror on each other. The settlers are desperate for a place to live, and the leader of the corporate team is depicted as a kind of Colonel Kurtz psychopath, except speaking in corporate tough talk rather than whatever Brando was doing, so Holden can’t get them to knock it off. In the midst of all this, the planet turns out to be less a planet and more a planet-sized factory made by the same long-dead intergalactic alien civilization that made the wormholes… complete with defensive systems. These systems go off one by one, creating additional headaches for Holden et al at an agreeably frantic pace.

The other perspective characters include Elvi, a naive corporate scientist with a big-girl crush on Holden, Havelock, a corporate security guy, and Basia, an accidental (he only wanted to do property damage!) settler terrorist. I guess talking about them is as good a place as any to talk about this book and colonialism. Various people have told me the show is a good, “subversive” take on the difficulties of colonialism. I haven’t seen the show — I want to get through the books first — but that’s not really how I see this book. The actual issues of colonialism aren’t really here, because there is no indigenous culture (unless you could the long-dead builders of the planet). There is some racism on the part of the corporate security people, who are mostly from cushy, established Earth, and the squatters, who are hardscrabble Asteroid Belt types, but that’s about it. If anything, there’s more of your classic inter-settler squabbling, like Elvi the scientist earning the ire of the settlers for trying to get them to do less mining (and pooping) so she can do more science on a fresh, untainted biosphere. The violence of both sides is understood as being about greed, sociopathy, and in-group loyalty, the kind of thing basically-good people like Basia and Havelock can transcend, not really about power and who wields it for whose benefit.

There’s still enough of the Coreys’s master, George R.R. Martin, here to make any politics beyond “people are generally bad, except for your (often chosen) family, who you should be good to and open to expanding” supremely unlikely.But that’s ok, as far as I’m concerned, because it’s fine for a scifi adventure to be a scifi adventure without a scathing political critique behind it. It’s almost heartwarming, seeing the authors gesture at a broader point but landing on the usual bromides about family and empathy… anyway, I actually think the Coreys best Martin in terms of delivering on promises, and I’m not just talking about that last ASoIaF book we’re not getting. I mean resolving plots in a satisfactory number in an acceptable span of verbiage, balanced worldbuilding — the concept of the Expanse is about as thin, conceptually, as that of Westeros, but the Coreys haven’t built as much on such shaky foundations as Martin has — and not automatically going for the most cynical/grimdark resolution every time and calling it “tragedy.” Elvi gets over Holden and it’s fine- in Westeros, presumably she’d die horribly. Havelock learns some lessons without getting tortured. Even Holden’s girlfriend, Naomi, a cardboard Strong Female in most instances, shows some vulnerability in a human kind of way. All in all, not bad. ****’

Review- Corey, “Cibola Burn”

Review link- The Everyday, Between Revolution and Reaction

I published this piece in LARB almost two months ago but forgot to update here! It’s a review of Marc Stears’ “Out of the Ordinary,” which purports that a focus on “ordinary life” on the part of a group of British writers and artists (including George Orwell and Dylan Thomas) helped create a humane, effective center-left in Britain in the mid-twentieth century. I don’t “buy” it but it was an interesting and thought-provoking book. Also, Stears wrote a nice tweet about my review! In contrast to my rep in some quarters as an unforgiving ideological warrior, I do like to clasp hands across divides. It just turns out some divides are hard or impossible or not worth crossing. Anyway! Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Review link- The Everyday, Between Revolution and Reaction

Review- Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields”

Paul Thomas Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields: Rethinking the Long Peace” (2018) – The “new global history” makes its way from the archive-heavy “groundbreaking” texts that get a scholar through the door, to the more approachable, secondary-source-using works that help a professor get tenure (and if they’re lucky and have a good contract, textbook buys). Chamberlin did the former with his book “The Global Offensive,” about the PLO’s international campaigns, and is now doing this latter with a broad-scope look at the Cold War in Asia. It makes sense the Cold War is such a locus for global history, given that it took place around the world, and the archives are mostly intact, and in a variety of languages for all these scholars to show off their chops. It’s been a good time for Cold War scholars.

Chamberlin takes aim, though in a curiously unaggressive way, at two shibboleths of recent twentieth-century historiography. One is right there in the subtitle: “the long peace,” the idea that the Cold War constituted a peculiar time where conventional wars between great powers ceased, in marked contrast to the first half of the century. This was most strongly promulgated by the dean of Cold War historians, John Lewis Gaddis, though Gaddis, in this as in other instances, was always more of an affirmer of consensus establishment ideas than he was an innovator. It’s easy to see the Cold War as peaceful from Yale. It’s a lot harder from pretty much anywhere in the parts of the world that Chamberlin writes about and refers to as “bloodlands,” making another nod at another Yale historian with substantial crossover appeal, Tim Snyder (Chamberlin went from a job at the University of Kentucky to one at Columbia over the course of researching this book, for those playing the home game). Snyder’s “Bloodlands” was an interesting and frustrating book, understanding the regions between a Germany and Russia through a lens inflected both by an understanding of the central importance of mass violence and a certain liberal totalitarianism-school dingbattery that only got worse once Snyder got Resistance-brain after the Trump election.

Chamberlin reassures us he’s not having a go at Gaddis and I don’t recall him mentioning Snyder by name but there’s enough of interest here to retain us without academic backbiting. The central idea should be obvious to anybody: maybe we avoided the big nuclear blowout everyone was afraid of, but a lot of countries suffered terribly due to the Cold War. Particularly given the coincidence of the Cold War occurring during the collapse of the European empires, the conflicts that would have accompanied decolonization in any event became supercharged and freighted with meaning as the Cold War superpowers forced each conflict into the framework of bilateral — or at best, US vs USSR vs China trilateral — conflict. The Cold War’s gravitational pull — and especially the sheer determination on the part of the American side to assimilate seemingly every political event between 1947 and maybe 1980, if not well after, into an us vs them framework, and the money and force they’d throw into the project — drew in wars that had little to do with decolonization as well, particularly in the Middle East.

While some of this dynamic played out in Africa and Latin America, Chamberlin chooses to focus his efforts on Asia. This makes sense, as many of the worst conflicts occurred there, and enough of them happened that you get a solid arc of conflicts from the end of WWII right up to the nineties. Most of the book is made up of respectable capsule histories of Cold War conflicts running in an arc from Korea all the way to Lebanon. Chamberlin artfully balances concision and completeness, overarching theses and the details of the individual conflicts. It wouldn’t make a half-bad textbook with which to teach the Cold War.

The historical narratives Chamberlin threads through these conflicts include atrocious conduct towards civilians as well as the eventual downfall of both revolutionary Third World communism and of secular nationalism in much of the arc of conflict he describes. Most of the wars in Cold War Asia were civil wars, and one thing that has become increasingly clear in history is that civil wars are a special kind of hell (you have to wonder how much the fact that the US Civil War was understood as “chivalrous,” alongside the way the English kind of throw their civil war down the memory hole, contributed to the delay of that realization in anglophone history). These invariably become wars against suspect populations. In Korea, massacring suspect civilians was de rigueur when either side, the American-backed South or the communist North, seized an area, or retreated from it. Massacre was also common on the invariable “both sides” in Vietnam, to the point where many were surprised that after the communist revolutionaries final victory, their revenge kill count was “only” in the five or six figures. On and on.

“Both sides” doesn’t really cover it, though, because one side was typically a good deal stronger than the other, and that was the side that was backed by the United States. The Soviets and Chinese did not distinguish themselves with their regard for human life during interventions in Afghanistan, Korea, and Vietnam. But it’s clear, from this book and from the Cold War scholarship in general, that both material and ideological factors rendered American-backed parties in these wars both deadlier and more willing to use that deadliness indiscriminately. You want to see disregard for human life, have a gander at the conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about what their friend, the Pakistani military under Yahya Khan, was doing in Bangladesh in 1971, or the approving CIA memos of the mob slayings of hundreds of thousands of purported communists in Indonesia in 1965. You didn’t need to be a sociopath like Kissinger, though- just accepting of the Cold War establishment party line and not thinking too much, like most Americans involved in destroying Korea and Vietnam, in large part from tens of thousands of feet in the air or from an office somewhere, killing between one and three million in both places, mostly civilians. Even the (arguably) grisliest set of episodes in the book, the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, took place with tacit American (and Chinese) approval, to “counter” in some backwards way, the (Russian-backed) North Vietnamese.

The international left won some pretty substantial victories in Asia during this period, mainly in creating and maintaining a communist regime in China and the victory over American imperialism in Vietnam. But it took a beating in doing so. Brutalized societies do not for utopias make. In many respects, our caricatures of Communist regimes as brutal and deprived gain their truth from the fact that all of them — not just the ones in the Asian bloodlands, either — went from long-oppressed, typically impoverished autocracies to war-torn messes to just left to their own devices. There’s limits to how much failure and oppression that excuses, but the point is that deprivation and violence, often enough inflicted by overweening foreigners (who think they’re doing you a favor in the bargain!), tend to elevate harsh, hasty decisions and those who are comfortable implementing them. The rest is history.

It’s questionable how much that factored in to the ways in which the third wave of Asian Cold War conflicts in the Middle East (after a first wave in Northeast Asia and a second in Southeast Asia) turned away from communism and towards ethnic conflict and religion, especially militant Islamism. It certainly didn’t help, in terms of confusing local socialist forces (do we favor China or Russia, etc?) or inculcating paranoia and divisiveness in, say, the Afghan left. Egypt and Arab nationalism is somewhat outside of the scope, or anyway the framing Chamberlin gave it, and while he doesn’t underplay the American hand in encouraging Islamist forces, he doesn’t quite nail how destroyed the Middle East left was by direct suppression, not just discouragement at how communism seemed hard and treacherous.

This brings me to one of the odder things about the book- what he counts and what he doesn’t as part of his “bloodlands.” Snyder was odd about this too, including relatively quiet Estonia but not bloodied Yugoslavia, but he had a thesis, double-occupation, Nazi-Soviet totalitarian interplay, to advance. I don’t really see what Chamberlin’s thesis would lose by including the Hukbalahap rebellion in the Philippines in the late forties and early fifties, or the “Malay Emergency” that ran from 1948 to 1962. I guess every pedant will find a gored ox in any book of this kind, and the book doesn’t suffer too much from their exclusion. It probably doesn’t help that neither war is that well sourced or widely written about, as I have reason to know. In fact, the main people who write about them are self-dealing counterinsurgents crowing about them as success for their model of war. Beyond them it’s tricky to find stuff. The British aren’t eager to talk about Malaya because of their usual impulse to hide their dirt; Americans aren’t eager to talk about the Philippines because it’s a confusing by-blow that doesn’t demand anything of them (not unlike Liberia in that respect). For instance, I can’t find a good casualty count for the Huk War. Details are a little better with the Emergency but not much. It could be they simply weren’t bloody enough for Chamberlin’s definitions? But among other things, they encouraged the western side in the Cold War to take a hard line in Asia…

Anyway, this is a pretty admirable work of history. It’s interesting to see the “bloodland” thing taken out of the context of totalitarianism arguments, most of which implicitly back Anglo-American power, if not all of its uses (often, totalitarianism-minders want that power to be used more aggressively, like North Korea hawks). It’s conceivable that this book is an instance in a kind of positional warfare on the part of soft-left (here meaning actual leftists who are cautious about revolution, not liberals) academics to use widely accepted notions — like that it’s bad to kill millions of people — to criticize the Cold War state and its inheritors, most of the states currently extant and the neoliberal capitalism that dominates most of them. That’s cool- I can’t help but imagine the slashing attack an Eric Hobsbawm or a Walter Rodney would make of the same material, but sometimes expanding the trench lines works too. ****’

Review- Chamberlin, “The Cold War’s Killing Fields”