Monday, June 9, 2014

The Instructions of Shurrupak

The Instructions of Shuruppak is a 5000 year old document recorded on clay tablets. It's among the very first examples of recorded literature in the history of our species. In other words, it's an incredibly rare and precious gift from people so distant from us in time that we can barely see them from our own era.

As with any precious gift, one must be careful about how one handles it. While The Instructions are a window into a time when Humanity had just learned to write, it's very important to realize just who it is we're seeing through the window.

All images from Wikimedia Commons

In the first place, almost no one knew how to read or write at the time The Instructions was first pressed into soft clay. The "author" (who was almost certainly merely transcribing an oral tradition) was a scribe.  But that word doesn't adequately convey what a "scribe" actually was, and did.

A scribe was highly trained member of an elite class of technicians. They went to school for years to learn cuneiform, and they were responsible for the maintenance and transmission of information within an incredibly complex system of distribution, accumulation and transfer. Without the scribe, the Sumerian economy would have crashed, returning to the local distribution networks and tiny populations of the Ubaid Period.

The Instructions was recorded by scribes, for other scribes, and reflects their concerns and values. At least, it represents their asserted values. But even the assertion of a particular value is instructive to the student of history. Asserted values tell us how people wish to be perceived, and they testify to the existence of behaviors that the asserted values condemn.

The Warka Bull, about 3000 BCE.

I should also note that my own analysis can most charitably be characterized as a wild-assed guess made by someone unqualified to speculate. I don't read Sumerian, and Babylonian scribes of 600 BCE would immediately dismiss me as an intellectual poseur. THEY knew the importance of being able to read Sumerian, 1500 years after it was a dead language. I read English translations of Sumerian documents. For the most part, they're translated by native speakers of English, and Sumerian is very, very different from English. Chomsky would tell you an English speaker can't think like a Sumerian, and that possibility made for a superb science fiction novel.

On the other hand, Occam's Razor saves us some agonizing here. Sumerians were people. It would be strange if we didn't share some common concerns and values. And thanks to archeology we actually know a great deal about how ancient Sumerian society worked, which is helpful in understanding its literature.

Sumerian life ways were a bold experiment in human behavior. They took agricultural practices that originated in the Levant and applied them to the delta region of the Tigris-Euphrates delta. Instead of praying for rain, they irrigated. The experiment paid off like the Powerball; much of the time Sumerian settlements were swimming in grain.

And for the very first time in human history, we see the operation of an apparently immutable law:

Surplus value will always be diverted to a society's elites, employing a narrative ideology. That value will then be used to support and extend that elite's privileges.

The grinding, labor intensive agriculture that made the grain surplus possible was not a means to an end. The labor was itself the purpose of human existence. Labor had formerly been the activity of the Gods, but bored and exhausted by the drudgery, they demanded relief from their ruler, Enlil. This was the motivation behind the creation of humanity; to do the work that would allow the deities to reside effortlessly in "the place of their heart's delight".

The Ziggurat of Ur

Naturally, the place where the Gods' hearts were delighted was in their temple, in their favorite city, surrounded by specialists in the creation of impressive, crowd-pleasing ritual and ceremony. These specialists, had to be supported by the poor bastards out in the fields.  That's a modern perspective, of course. A priest of the city's temple would point out how the priests gave each worker a bowl of grain of their very own, every day.

Between the elites controlling the surplus and the masses providing the surplus, there was a sliver we might think of as "middle-class". These were specialists in non-agricultural occupations like smithing, or the production of prestige goods. Or, they were scribes.

Keeping all of that in mind , here is what I think we can conclude from The Instructions of Shurrupak.

Middle class Sumerians were very much chasing the American dream. The verses tell us the Sumerian scribes possessed private property, including both slaves and agricultural land. A number of verses of The Instructions are devoted to "expanding property", and "multiplying your goods". The specific techniques for this are instructive. The reader is cautioned to buy slaves rather than hiring labor, to buy foreign rather than local slaves, and to marry a woman from a prosperous family rather than an attractive one. Hard work and diligent attention are recommended, and the focus seems to be on creating a lasting family legacy rather than individual enrichment.

At the same time, The Instructions counsel a great deal of social deference. The reader is advised to "not speak improperly", to "not boast in beer halls" and to "move along at the side of the mighty". He is told to "avoid quarrels", and "speak modestly". There seems to me to be clear evidence of a class structure in these verses, even if we ignore other evidence from material culture.

Sumerian society is less patriarchal than we might expect from the earliest historical civilization.  Women with their own property are claimed to "ruin a home". Sumerian women could own their own property, under some circumstances. I conclude this made them less deferential to men, and that scribes were predictably turned off by this prospect. Some of the more patriarchal themes of The Instructions are carefully paired with strong themes of respect for women, especially older women. 

The Instructions also enjoins the reader to avoid sex with a married woman, which implies some degree of female sexual autonomy. Another proverb states that "A weak wife is always seized by fate", which seems to me to be a rape reference, especially in conjunction with another verse urging the reader not to be a rapist. The consequence of rape, as with adultery, seems to be social disapproval rather than the criminal penalties which we see described in the injunctions against theft.

The goddess Inanna and her lover the shepherd Dimuzzi. She sent him to Hell.

The rape references are part of an over-all theme of pervasive physical insecurity, at least by our standards. Shurrupak flatly tells us not to travel East. I suppose that might be a reference to the Elamites, an ancient enemy of Mesopotamia, but it seems more likely to be a reference to the bandits that always live on the edge of civilization. There are warnings against travel by night, warnings against beating one's social inferiors (they might destroy your property) and warnings against abducting your wife, rather than marrying legitimately. Two particular sins the reader is warned against are burglary, and the theft of meat. Unlike the warnings against rape and adultery, these acts apparently carry formal criminal penalties.

Life in ancient Mesopotamia was apparently a precarious affair. Economic surpluses provided the basis for a thriving economy in most years, but the goods and possessions accumulated by the successful resident of the city were vulnerable to theft and perhaps the envy of those with higher social status. Clearly there was an advantage to be derived from allying oneself with "the mighty". Beatings of one's social inferiors were considered to be a sign of poor judgement, but were apparently not criminal. Finally, rape and robbery were common enough to be feared, especially at night or in rural areas. It seems worth noting here that the fact that city-dwelling scribes feared rural crime doesn't tell us how much crime there was.

If I haven't misread the entire intent of the text, The Instructions of Shuruppak draws a very familiar sketch for us. We see middle-class citizens much like ourselves, trying to provide economic security and a bit of luxury, for themselves and their families. We see a hustling petit-bourgeoisie trying to ingratiate itself to its "betters", crapping on its "inferiors", and desperately concerned with keeping up a respectable image for the neighbors.

At least, that's my translation-reading, center-left, late 20th Century perspective on it. And if I'm right, it tells us something critically important about "human nature", at least as it manifests in urban economies with occupational specialization.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Crimea, Syria and the Responses They Provoke.

President Obama's second term is shaping up as a more challenging foreign policy environment than his first. The challenges themselves are naturally of interest, but equally riveting has been the various responses to those challenges here in the United States. But before examining those responses, we should talk about the challenges themselves.

The big news story this year has been Russia's illegal, tyrannical, imperialist annexation of Crimea. The big story last year was the on-going civil war in Syria, particularly the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Let me establish right away my prejudices in both these cases; American national interests are only somewhat connected to the Syrian civil war, and only tangential to Crimea's annexation. Many, many smart people disagree with me violently about this...

and they're wrong, for the simple reason that they have no idea what they mean by "the national interest".

Crimea. All images from Wikimedia
Commons unless otherwise noted.

The best definition we have of "the national interest" is provided by Utilitarianism. It is the responsibility of the United States to enact policies which provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of its citizens, FULL STOP. Policies which impose more costs on American citizens than benefits provided to American citizens are an illegitimate oppression of us by our government, usually on behalf of a special interest group.

In the case of Crimea, US interests are involved at but a single point:

Territorial acquisition by means of violence or the threat of violence is always unacceptable, under every circumstance, even in cases of national self-defense.

That's the principle that's involved here, and it's in our nation's interest to defend that principle, within certain obvious limits. But beyond those limits, it is emphatically NOT in the national interest to defend the above principle. You wouldn't want to threaten a nuclear strike in order to defend the principle. You wouldn't want to threaten a conventional war, for that matter. In fact...

the costs to the American people of defending the "no territorial conquest" cannot exceed those imposed on aggressor.

Hence, it must also be acknowledged that Russia's annexation of Crimea will not result in the net loss of a single US job. It will not cost the US tax payer a dime, because net US defense spending is going down, irrespective of any symbolic bumps we make in our aid to Ukraine. The pensions of virtually no Americans will be affected. Our kids will remain exactly as badly educated as they are now. Our infrastructure will deteriorate no more quickly, our approaching ecological catastrophe will advance no faster, the oppression of minorities and women and the poor will be no worse...

THAT'S the national interest, by God. The fact that it's meaning has been perverted to the extent that it has is a catastrophic failure of American political culture.

The case of Syria is more complicated, because a Sunni jihadist government would impact our national interests, to some extent. But in both the Syrian and Crimean cases, the ability of the United States to influence events has been badly overstated by critics of the President. We should be clear about what is taking place in Crimea. The Russians are taking over a slice of territory on their border. How many Russian planes are within strike range of Crimea? How many tanks? How many infantry divisions?

Map from here. I gather he lifted it from a Russian language source. 

What do advocates of more "muscular", "resolute" "assertive" responses advocate? Do they want military action? Confronted with that question, critics of the President quickly disavow it. Do they want sanctions? The President has invoked sanctions, and while it's easy to demand "tougher" sanctions, what we're seeing from the Administration are the "smart" sanctions that were all the rage when it was discovered that most sanctions hurt the innocent population of an aggressor, rather than the elites responsible for the aggression. 

Ultimately, the idea that the United States can dictate outcomes on the border of Russia is ludicrous. Those who assert that we can do so have a vastly inflated picture of American capabilities

If we're going to defend the "no conquest" principle, it needs to be in ways that do not negatively affect our national interest, and it will probably involve boring, pedestrian, never-going-to-make-an-action-movie economic sanctions. The kind that brought Iran to its senses, for example.

But as I said at the beginning of this piece, the response of various identifiable groups within our public discourse has been every bit as interesting to the political scientist in me as the events themselves.

1) the Neocons are predictably rattling their sabers, demanding a “robust” response. This is because they are unconsciously pursuing what Hans Morgenthau would describe as a “policy of prestige”. A policy of prestige is the strategy inevitably pursued by a declining power. In an attempt to maintain the US position in a rapidly evolving international hierarchy, Neocons desperately want to be involved in every dust-up around the globe. Failure to get involved would demonstrate “a lack of US resolve” and the “abdication of American leadership”.

Neoconservative idol and War Criminal Richard Cheney. Hide your kids.

2) Conservative political hacks are attempting to use the issue to “Carterize” President Obama. This is irresponsibly partisan of them, (and grossly unfair to President Carter) but we’re talking about political hacks. This is what they do, in both parties. Perhaps their silliest formulation is that Putin did this because we failed to symbolically bomb Syria, despite Assad’s offer to disarm.

3) The Biblethumpers are getting moist between the legs about Putin, because they are authoritarians at heart, and Putin is a charismatic authoritarian. At least, he’s charismatic if you’re the kind of rube that likes that macho cowboy shit. They fall for the judo and shirtless horseback riding the way they fell for “Bring it on” and “Mission Accomplished”. Kinda embarrassed for them.

Not sure who owns this image. I pulled it from here.

4) The neorealists who dominate the State Department are feeling hawkish, because they believe in the power in international norms, and feel the need to enforce them to prevent them from breaking down. The problem with their perspective is that international norms temporary and ephemeral things, which will always be violated the instant a particular nation-state perceives it to be in their interests to violate them. Full disclosure: I'm a Classical Realist.

5) The Libertarians have gone completely silent, of course. As acolytes of Glenn Greenwald and admirers of Edward Snowden, they can’t really condemn this evil Statist action by Russia, because that would draw attention to the fact that a) Mr. Snowden is currently the guest of an Imperialist Authoritarian State, and b) maybe Russian aggression is an argument that the United States needs some sort of SigInt capability. But then, they’re completely silent about Putin’s treatment of Russian homosexuals, too.

6) The Beltway media is thrilled to get the ratings/readership boost, and will cheerfully parrot every single talking point said in their hearing, until something goes viral. They will then repeat that emerging meme, ad nauseum. God help us, we're still hearing the "warm-water port" crap Jeanne Kirkpatrick revived.

Andrea Mitchell, groundbreaking journalist and Syria Hawk.

7) The Far Left continues its slide into madness, which makes me very sad. We Center-leftists need the Far Left, and they’ve lost their frigging minds. After sucking face with the Libertarians (and LaRouchies!) during Occupy Wall Street, they decided to get in bed with them over this NSA stuff. Now, they’re really making asses of themselves as they desperately try to find a way to make the US the bad guy because Putin is muscling a weak neighbor. 

On some levels, it’s hysterically funny. I’ve had people I admire deeply on the Far Left tell me “Putin has geostrategic concerns that must be accounted for!”, as though “geostrategic concerns” was EVER a legitimate motivation for ANY State action in the eyes of the Far Left. 

This is hypocrisy of the worst kind. When the United States was passing the ill-considered Patriot Act, the Far Left correctly condemned it as an example of over-reach that provided insufficient checks on executive action. No one on the Left tried to justify it on the basis of our having the shit scared out of us by 9/11. For the Far Left to suddenly demand we take Russia's justified concerns about NATO expansion as some sort of excuse to seize territory at gunpoint from a sovereign state, in violation of their diplomatic undertakings is...

a bit obvious. Let me make one additional observation on NATO expansion. While I was and am opposed to it, and feel strongly NATO should have been disbanded with the end of the Cold War (remember the "peace dividend?"), the decision to join NATO was made by sovereign states, employing democratic political institutions.

National sovereignty used to be an important principle to the Far Left.
People don't know this, but there used to be a United Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania, which included a piece of Ukraine                                                                                                   . The Hussaria were their fearsome heavy cavalry. The wings on their back used to rattle and panic their horses into running even faster during a charge, while also panicking the horses of opposing cavalry into running away.

The latest mantra I’m seeing is that “It’s hypocritical for the US to condemn Russia when we did the exact same thing to Panama and Iraq”. I have some sympathy for this view, although I will note that we haven’t annexed anyone for a long time. But they REALLY get mad when you point out that it’s equally hypocritical to condemn US imperialism but give Putin a pass.

Of the typology I outline above, the only one that really floors me is this last one, and I find it depressing as Hell. We have an ideological sub-culture in this country that believes in greater income equality, and marriage equality, and criminal justice reform, and US disarmament. They simultaneously support an oligarchic Russian regime that systematically persecutes homosexuals, imprisons political dissenters and settles its national security concerns by means of armed invasion.

The dichotomy there is a grim reminder of the extent to which our political discourse has become tribal, with group identity dictating policy positions rather than the other way around.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Intro to International Relations: Why Neocons can't govern.

Better students of foreign policy than I have observed the seemingly insatiable Neoconservative desire for saber-rattling and even armed intervention. The Neocons have one foreign policy play, and it involves violence, implied or actual.

Current events have provided lots of opportunities for the Neocons to complain from the back seat. John McCain is perhaps the leading Neocon Senator. He's been damned near ubiquitous these past 12 months, demanding aid to the Syrian Rebels, and military strikes on the Assad government in retaliation for Syrian use of chemical weapons, and a "more robust" US response in Ukraine.

All images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise noted

One might have hoped that after the Neocon debacle in Iraq, they'd have the humility to stay quiet for a few years, rethink their assumptions, perhaps do a post-mortem on why Iraq failed to greet us as liberators, finance its own "liberation" and evolve into a stable US client that would "promote democracy" in the region.

Neocons are not dumb. Many of them have impressive academic achievements. Others have distinguished careers in national security. But there's a remarkable lack of variety in their proposed response to an endless variety of problems faced by the United States abroad. Very smart people can nevertheless be locked into a paradigm, and I would argue that this has taken place within the Neoconservative foreign policy community.

The Classical Realism school of International Relations Theory provides a convincing explanation of why this is the case. Neoconservatives are unconsciously pursuing what prominent Realist Hans Morgenthau would call "a policy of Prestige". In Morgenthau's typology, a policy of Prestige is pursued by a declining power, in an attempt to maintain its position within the hierarchy of the International System.

Paul Wolfowitz, who testified before Congress that we would be greeted in Iraq "as liberators"

As I write this, I anticipate the howls of protest at my use of the term "declining" to describe the United States. Fortunately, no one reads this blog. But in any case, such objections are the product of people unfamiliar with IR Theory. To venture briefly into the weeds...

In the International System, "power" is both "situational" and "relative".

Situational power means the amount of influence that can actually be brought to bear in a specific circumstance. It is related to Clausewitz's dictum: "War is the continuation of politics by other means". A war is not "won" unless its stated policy objectives are achieved. Situational power is power for what purposeIt is an objective fact that in 1972, the United States possessed the theoretical capability to kill every living person in Vietnam. That would have ended the war immediately. But that "ability" was irrelevant to the struggle between the United States and Vietnam. American "power" varies from situation to situation.

"Relative" power means power in relation to whom? In virtually any "situation", the United States is "more powerful" in relation to Papua New Guinea than the US is in relation to the People's Republic of China. If the United States GDP is growing at 4% per year (would to god that it were), and the PRC's is growing at 8% per year, the United States is less powerful relative to China each year, although it may still be more powerful in an absolute sense.

There are excellent reasons to use GDP as the definitive measure of a State's "power" within the International System. The search for both a definition and a useful metric of international power consumes a lot of IR Theory's time. They've got scores of enormous multivariate models of "power", using statistics like steel production and kilowatt hours produced and national literacy levels, and they all give you exactly the same rank ordering of nation-states that simple GDP does.
THIS is the why, despite still being the apex power of the International System, the United States is a "declining" power. Since the end of WWII, the United States has enjoyed economic growth, the enhancement of its military capabilities, increased the number of channels through which it can exert influence...

but so has the rest of the world. And having started from near zero at the end of WWII, they have increased their power more, relative to us.

So, back out of the weeds...

Classical Realism predicts that the United States, as a declining power, will pursue a policy of "Prestige". The policy of Prestige attempts to "demonstrate" the power (and continued relevance) of the nation-state carrying out the policy. A State pursuing a policy of prestige engages in numerous interventions and disputes within the international system, even when its national interests cannot credibly be said to be engaged. That should sound awfully familiar to students of current events, as well.

Neocon Hawk Bill Kristol, sometimes referred to as "Dan Quayle's brain"

Consider the common themes behind various Neoconservative policy prescriptions. The Neocons spend a great deal of time talking about the need to "demonstrate American resolve", and "display American leadership". Neocons are all about "sending a message" to whichever adversary is destabilizing the International System. Think about what it is the Neocons are advocating here...

these are purely symbolic purposes they're advocating. They're attempting to deter destabilizing actions by projecting an image of US power.

If that's not Morgenthau's policy of Prestige, I don't know what is.

Having identified the underlying paradigm of Neoconservative foreign policy, it is probably still necessary to explain why it is inimical to US national interests.

Neoconservative foreign policy is expensive. Since Neoconservatives are less concerned with American decline relative to other States than they are the perception of American decline, they need the United States to spend a lot of time throwing its weight around. Neoconservatives advocate some form of US intervention in virtually every dispute which takes place within the international system, irrespective of its nature, or the actors involved, or its utter triviality to US national interests.

These interventions are dissipations of US power rather than demonstrations of it. US power in the international system is a function of its economic strength, not its ability to impose a conclusion on international disputes having little or nothing to do with us. 

This is Dick Fuld. he's not a neocon, but his mismanagement of Lehman Brothers precipitated the Great Recession . In the process, he did more damage to American national security interests than anything done by Putin, or Assad, or Edward Snowden. But he's only worth about $160 million now, so I'm sure he's been chastened.

Furthermore, Neocon interventions are themselves often destabilizing, as can be seen in Iraq, or Nicaragua, or Iran

Finally, Neoconservatives make a couple of the classic errors of foreign policy described by Morgenthau. They badly overestimate US capabilities, and they confuse military power with "power" in the International System. Their thinking here is almost unforgivably shoddy; 'If the US is more powerful than Russia, it ought to be able to dictate the outcome of events on the Russian border'.

There is another point I'd like to make about Neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions, but it's not from the standpoint of a Classical Realist.

Neoconservatives, as unwitting advocates of a policy of Prestige, are primarily concerned with the symbolic effect of the actions they advocate. As I said above, they are concerned with US "credibility", and "demonstrating resolve" and "sending a message".

But they want to achieve these symbolic objectives through very real means.

When you decide to "demonstrate your resolve" by dropping high explosives on actual, non-symbolic people, or "send a message" having young American citizens risk death or mutilation...

you need to be damned sure that you're going to produce a concrete benefit that can be identified by objective observers, instead of engaging in mere posturing. The cost of Neocon policy is often very real horror and misery.