We're back for September 2021 with some interesting reads on American power and influence, China's war against 'late capitalist tendencies', and East Asian developmentalism and its historical roots and practice as a form of statecraft. What follows is a summary of my thoughts based on this month's readings, which you can find after this section to get context and details around these issues.

Whether it's countering corrosive social phenomena caused by markets or engaging in geopolitical competition, China continues to flex its institutional muscles. The housing crisis in the western hemisphere contrasts with the CCP's controlled demolition of Evergrande, who are not interested in propping up an increasingly bloated housing sector. China also sees fit to reign in the perverse incentives of market mechanisms in particular sectors, probably because it has both the state capacity and lack of institutional capture by particular interests (read: corporate lobbyists) to be able to carry it out.

While China is popping bubbles, America is blowing them as litters crises wherever it walks. Is America the 21st century bubble boy? The Chinese have (correctly) identified America as lacking the institutional strength to deal with its wide range of social and economic issues (the housing crisis) as well as geopolitical gaffes with allies (e.g. the submarine deal with Australia that snubbed France). Making comparisons between America and the late stage USSR is lazy but one can't help but feel some strange premonition as China moves from strength to strength and America flounders.


The Latest from Post Apathy

The Genesis & Succession Crisis of Islam

I look at the succession crisis that occurred in the Rashidun Caliphate and how it was set into motion by the decisions made at its inception. Succession crises affect nearly every polity, but the case of the Rashidun Caliphate is unique. Its genesis - in the general amnesty given to the people of Makka after the Prophet Muhammad had conquered it - was one of the few peaceful transitions from an old order to a new one. But this would lead to the succession crisis that would later see the Rashidun give way to the Umayyad Caliphate and their hereditary form of rulership.


Readings

China

Xi Jinping’s War on Spontaneous Order
by Tanner Greer

Greer tries to identify a common thread in the CCP's war on a range of industries. At first, they seem to have little to do with each other. However, from a social perspective, Xi Jinping's 'Common Prosperity' campaign is targeting industries that one may typically identify with 'late stage capitalism': industries that create a maelstrom of perverse incentives, from private tutoring to video games to popstar fandoms, and 'eroding the health, autonomy, and dignity of ordinary citizens.' China seems keen on reversing course before its too late and they become like American citizens.

Culture & Society

American Gentry
by Patrick Wyman

Wyman provides a class analysis of one of the underappreciated social stratas of American power of influence: the local gentry. They're millionaires, not billionaires, and their money tends to come from 'fixed asset' businesses like concrete companies and fast food chains, not tech companies, entertainment, or finance. Their political incentives are different and they are more numerous and rooted than the billionaires, but they are no less powerful for it, and the current of power they form is key to understanding the landscape of American politics.

Political Economy

The housing theory of everything
by Sam Bowman, John Myers, & Ben Southwood

This is an interesting argument for the housing crisis as the root of several other crises; obesity, fertility, inequality, climate change, and wage growth, among others. The housing crisis is a combination of a supply shortage and the concurrent explosion in prices that have made owning a home almost impossible for the millennial generation and younger. Whether you believe the housing crisis is the cause or yet another symptom of larger structural issues, it's chief among young people's complaints about livability and their decreasing hope in a better future.

Developmentalisms
by Ernest Ming-Tak Leung

A tour de force of the influence of developmentalist economic philosophy and statecraft across East Asia, analysing the roots of this school of thought in the works of 19th century economists and statesmen like Friedrich List, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Carey, and others. I've sent out numerous links describing the genealogy of state capitalism, and I'll repost them below:

Statecraft

A Big Little Idea Called Legibility
by Venkatesh Rao

A book review of Seeing Like a State, which describes and analyses the 'high modernist' school of thought, particularly in relation to the state as a political entity. The key concept in this book is 'legibility', whereby nation states aimed to reify complex phenomena for the purpose of rational organisation and control. However, this more often than not results in disastrous outcomes. The concept of legibility has a wide analytical range and can be applied not just to statecraft but to reifying instincts in architecture, engineering, and even personal life. Legibility played a key role in the impulse of various post-colonial states to destroy traditional structures of governance, culture, and laws as part of their pursuit to build a modern state and 'catch up' with Europe (and America).

An excerpt on legibility from a previous essay:

The rise of the Sovereign State's ability to tax its people was fundamentally about creating the new order of power through legibility, i.e. the ability of the State to really know what’s going on in its territory through detailed records (as discussed in Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott). The rise of the Central Bank in early modernity is treated as a story of greed for money, but really is hunger for information and the power it confers. The State would come to monopolise the minting and taxation of currency which, once distributed, created a circulation of information. Such information may include the amount of assets and liabilities in a society, the records of taxpayers, and so on, improving the State’s legibility and ability to intervene where it wishes. To see capital as a tool for exchange tends to ignore the wider purpose it plays in maintaining and building political order.

Housekeeping

You can find previous newsletters below:

I welcome feedback and discussion. You can email me at: postapathy@gmail.com