27 December 2016

Some Thoughts on Big Ideas in History

Ah, 42... The great answer to life, universe, and a lack of reading. 2016 is the first year I really made an effort to pursue reading books as a daily habit by reading just 50 pages/day, which works out to only ~1hr for most non-fiction books, and I'm both surprised and pleased by how easily achievable my original goal of reading at least 24 books for 2016 was. I guess this is what normal people feel like when they talk about how easy it is to get in the habit of exercising? That's definitely something I need to work on but running for the sake of running is one of the dullest activities for me... To anyone reading my blog, I encourage you to get out there some stale indoor-air and read as many things as possible! Manga, articles, journals, blogs, books, erotic fan-fiction! Life's too short to spend it on exercise, charity work, dating, praying to God, or raising a family. Surely, we can all agree that the warm embrace of a loved one is inferior to the smug satisfaction one can get from reading 17th century grain-price fluctuations across Europe, right?

Bad jokes aside, I saved the best for the last to conclude my series of posts for 2016 books. This post is dedicated to the Big Ideas in history. The kind of ideas that even normal people find fascinating but historians sometimes hesitate at because they don't want to seem too reductionist with grandiloquent ambitions of constructing historical formulae or metanarratives.

The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution: The European Economy in a Global Perspective, 1000-1800
Historiography is, I think, not something really stressed at the pre-university level or in most pop history books. The long word scares some people off, especially if you talk about it from a more philosophical side, such as the quest for objectivity. The common definition offered to newcomers is the "history of history" but if I were a history professor searching for ways to engage students and prevent them from falling asleep, I'd show them this youtube video.
Disregarding the point that kids today probably haven't seen the original Karate Kid, I'd tell the students if the Karate Kid was a film based on real historical events, then this video is essentially engaging in historiography because it's dealing with how you "frame" a story. It rejects the traditionalist interpretation that Daniel is a good kid, and analyses the "historical events" from a different perspective (abandoning preconceptions that the MC has to be good) to arrive at the revisionist conclusion that Daniel is the real bully. That's really the essence of historiography; it's all about how you interpret history. It really should be taught from at least middle school because it's also the essence of developing critical thinking. You show kids that history isn't this dusty, stone-engraved truth that won't ever change. You make them realize that history can be shaped and distorted through perspective. You teach them how to identify narratives, assess its strengths and weaknesses, and ultimately, how to think for themselves, which is absolutely crucial if we're to have a healthy, functioning democracy in spite of all the propaganda we're bombarded by every fucking day.
Now one of the most interesting historiographical debates has concerned the industrial revolution. While hailed as a monumental dividing line for "modernity" (an even more problematic concept in history, but let's not get into that now), its causes have been notoriously controversial. Like the Socratic paradox, as historians studied more and more about this monumental phase in human history, they grew less and less confident in their formerly "definitive" explanations of what caused it. Should the causes be viewed in a environmental frame, such as England's easy access to coal and rivers? An intellectual frame, such as the scientific revolution that preceded it? A technological frame, such as the invention of the Watt steam engine? An economic frame, such as the preceding financial revolution or the high number of wage-workers? A cultural frame, such as Weber's famous Protestant work-ethic theory? An institutional or political frame, such as England's parliamentary government that respected property rights and allowed bourgeois interests to be fairly represented? With so many theories floating about, how does one separate the bad from the good? Can any of these theories be tested somehow?

And if the field wasn't already muddled enough, historians also had to address counterfactuals like why the industrial revolution first happened specifically where and when it did. Why England? Why not France, the Netherlands, or even Song China? When did it really occur? 1760? Early 19th century? Could it have occurred earlier? Did it require global trade? Were colonialism and slavery necessary? As more and more factors that possibly contributed to this revolution were identified, the scope expanded wider and wider, which then naturally led to looking even further back in history. Thus in the 1970s, a concept called "proto-industrialization" was coined to describe the birth of proto-industry that some believed a necessary prerequisite to the Industrial Revolution. The term didn't quite catch on, but its ideas have inspired others to build upon it, resulting in the concept of the "industrious revolution."
I think Jan de Vries is like, the Dutch version of Zhang Wei.
There's a billion fucking different Jan de Vries on google
For Western European historians, it was Jan de Vries in a seminal 1994 paper ("The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution") who first coined this term to express the desire of Early Modernists to smooth out the wrinkles of the Industrial Revolution's abrupt birth by focusing on how household behaviour in Early Modern Europe underwent a change towards "industriousness" to sow the seeds for the later, industrial revolution. For East Asian historians, it was Hayami Akira who coined the same term (勤勉革命) back in the '70s as part of a greater historical frame to rehabilitate the reputation of Tokugawa Japan that had formerly been negatively portrayed as "feudal" or "medieval" in contrast to Meiji era's modernity. To smooth out the once-perceived abrupt gap between the Tokugawa and Meiji period, he identified significant changes in domestic production and demography during the Tokugawa period that encouraged industrious behaviour and integration to a market economy which prepared Japan for its later, successful industrialization.
Jan Luiten van Zanden's The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution is an up-to-date (for 2009, at least) synthesis of ideas, of which the industrious revolution is just one, that seek to reach much further back in time to explain not only the Industrial Revolution, but also the Great Divergence (Why Europe, not Asia) and Little Divergence (Why Northwest Europe, not Eastern Europe). If you've never immersed yourself in the debates over the Industrial Revolution and the Rise of the West, the whole book will likely come across as an original, engaging read. In it, you'll come across ideas like the market as an almost organic entity that has the power to transform human beliefs and behaviour, how demography and marriage patterns can influence economic behaviour, or the concept of "social capital" that's needed just as much as financial capital for human societies to develop more complex organizations. Even if you're no stranger to those debates, like I was going into this book, it's still a handy book that puts everything together in one nice place. There's a good amount of attention devoted to actually testing theories through quantifying data, so all the graphs included in the book is also a nice plus for the more numerically-minded. Even if individual data points turn out to be unrepresentative due to flawed methodology, it's still great to see academics in social sciences attempt to test their hypotheses rather than naturally assume they're correct as some self-righteous assholes do.

Keep in mind this book is simply one "perspective" to help explain the industrial revolution and the Rise of the West. If you follow this shit and names like Kenneth Pomeranz and Roy Bin Wong are like, uhhh, Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt to you (just me trying to pull out names well known to normal people at the top of my head), you'll know that there's still an ongoing healthy debate. For instance, there's a debate about whether or not England really did transition to a high-wage economy (important since high labour costs supposedly promotes capital investment) since it seems some of the wage data were misrepresented. There's also skepticism about if labour hours really did increase in Early Modern Northwest Europe, buttressed by some case studies that show the opposite. Buuuuttt... If what I wrote in the above paragraphs about the industrious and industrial revolutions are news to you, READ The Long Road to the Industrial Revolution. I promise you'll walk out with a completely different view on global history.
WARNING: This book contains a metric fuckton of dryly written, technical information
intended for readers in love with the Early Middle Ages. Reader discretion is advised.
Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800
This is an absolute behemoth of a book and let me be honest with you. This is NOT a fun read, and I say this as someone who likes the Early Middle Ages. I will, however, say that this IS a highly rewarding read. So prepare to climb Mt. Everest if you're planning to read this book. And please do take notes while you're reading so you don't completely forget everything you've read. With that out of the way, let's talk about the fall of Rome a little bit.
Fun read that brings back the old "barbarians made Rome fall" argument into vogue
The fall of Rome, or more accurately, the end of the Western Roman Empire (WRE), is one of those topics that will never cease to be debated. Was it because of Christianity? Barbarian migrations? Oppressive taxation? Currency debasements? Bad leadership? Corruption and degeneracy? Then there are people who argue semantics by challenging the notion of whether "Rome" even really fell, or stress that "WRE's death at 476 AD" isn't even significant because of all the continuities. If you're really interested in this debate, I think it's important that you first read how the Roman Empire changed between 200-400 AD and then how former lands of WRE changed from 400-600 AD. Too many people mistakenly imagine the mighty Roman Empire of the 2nd century being reduced to a pile of rubble all of a sudden in the 5th century by ooga booga barbarians. In order to have a reasonable judgment on if and why a fall occurred, you need to have a sound understanding of the what actually changed before and after the supposed "fall." If you simply want my opinion on why Rome fell, scroll down to the 3rd book covered in this post.
Literally me before reading this book if you asked me about the importance of
patterns in urban/rural settlement or aristocratic land ownership on social organization 
So if you're looking for a book that uses both historical documents and archaeological records to exhaustively examine what actually changed from the crucial 5th century when WRE fell all the way to 800 AD, READ THIS BOOK. If you're looking for a book that will delve into how the politics and societies of the Romano-Germanic Kingdoms differed from the late WRE, if at all, READ THIS BOOK. If you're looking for a book that can explain the divergent outcomes in Western and Eastern Mediterranean societies, READ THIS BOOK. But most importantly, if you're interested in ways to frame your understanding of any medieval state, READ THIS BOOK. It's this last point that really made this book worth reading for me. Before I read this book, I'd probably give you a blank stare if you were to talk to me about rural and urban land settlement/ownership patterns. "What the fuck does that even matter?" I'd probably say. But now that I've seen the light that is Wickham's Framing the Early Middle Ages, this couldn't be a more important question. Often at times, the flashy political history like Charlemagne's conquests or Belisarius' reconquest of North Africa are so alluring that we find ourselves overlooking the unmentioned supply/demand forces or the shifting tripartite balance between the state, elites, and commoners that are always at play for any medieval state, whether in Europe, Middle East, South Asia, or East Asia. Wickham is at his best when he strips the superficial view one might get from traditional narrative accounts of kings and discusses more crucial matters like the precarious situation of the aristocracy as state power receded in 5th century WRE. All of a sudden, everything clicked into place and the oddities of the so-called "Dark Ages" (e.g. Why did average height increase dramatically after WRE's fall but material culture collapse? How can material culture or political organization devolve so rapidly? Does such a model of devolution require massive foreign immigration, knowledge loss, and/or extreme warfare?) resolved themselves in my mind.
ARS depicting Solomon's Judgment
Let me stress again. The most important lessons that you'll learn from this book are, in my opinion, broadly applicable to analyzing any pre-modern agrarian state. So if you find your eyes glazing over after reading 20 pages of African red slip ware (ARS) distribution across the Mediterranean or some other super-technical info, that's DAIJOUBU. You're probably going to forget all about it anyways unless you study it professionally. What is important is that you understand the logic and greater purpose behind examining ARS distribution. Or the intimate relationship between material culture and aristocratic power. Or the link between a village's communal identity and its autonomy. Or in what economic conditions tenant farmers are preferred over slavery. That last point was particularly surprising for me. Up until now, I had considered that the decline of slavery in Europe was entirely due to Christianity. I never stopped to think from a wider perspective of what conditions are necessary for slavery to even proliferate as a dominant economic mode. As Wickham writes:
But slaves are a risk. The more numerous they are, the more dangerous and expensive they are to police. Furthermore, they have to be maintained, in high seasons and low, in good years and bad, when hired labour can be laid off, and tenants left to their own holdings. They presuppose high levels of profitability, of the sale of products, for these risks to be covered; but if there is that much exchange, then wage labour is equally feasible. As has been argued in recent decades, the context in which plantations are most likely to become attractive is when there is a secure market for produce at the same time as an easily available slave market. By and large, in the late empire and later, if there was one of these there was not the other: the wars in fifth-century Gaul or sixth-century Italy produced many slaves but were also linked to economic crisis, whereas the stable prosperity of the fifth- and sixth-century East was in a time of relative peace and less large-scale access to new slave groups. 
Now I'm gonna have to completely rethink the unique prevalence of large-scale slavery in medieval Korea in contrast to medieval Chinese and Japanese states... In any case, Framing the Early Middle Ages is one hell of a book but read at your own risk. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Secular Cycles
And the final book I'll talk about in 2016 is also, hands down, my favourite book of 2016! I want to smack myself for putting this on my to-read bookshelf for so long. What the fuck was I thinking? I first heard of Peter Turchin in his 2013 Bloomberg opinion piece. At the time, I thought the elite-overproduction was quite an intriguing concept but it seemed too much like a variation on the prevalent "wealth inequality as the root of social disorder" idea. As such, I wasn't nearly wowed enough to check out his books, and I had my reservations on his ideas of trying to start up an entirely new academic discipline called "cliodynamics." But I am, for the time being, completely in love with Turchin and Nefedov's version of the demographic-structural theory once I read their book, Secular Cycles. While I highly recommend you go read the book yourselves, allow me to spoil the book by summarizing the main features of their model. Turchin and Nefedov's demographic-structural theory (secular cycles) is essentially a theory of how and why pre-modern agrarian states rise and fall. It's also an attempt to synthesize Malthus-inspired demographic interpretations of history with socio-cultural interpretations that prefer to examine how power is distributed among the state, aristocracy, and rural/urban commoners. As I understand it, there are 2 main pressures driving the "secular cycle."
1) Demographic pressures: Stems from how close or distant a population is from the environment's carrying capacity
2) Intra-elite pressures: Cooperation or conflict among elites of a given society

These two components combine and interact with each other to create the overall sociopolitical stability. An agrarian society then undergoes 3 phases as determined by its stability.

1) Integrative phase: Growing stability and living standards, marked by strong internal cohesion
2) Stagflation phase: Stagnating stability and living standards, marked by diminishing returns
3) Disintegrative phase: Declining stability and living standards, marked by endemic conflict

Sociopolitical stability, or instability, is further modified by the dynamics of generation cycles. For example, a society in the disintegrative phase which breaks out into a civil war might temporarily reverse its trajectory and become more stable when a generation shaped by the violence grows weary and chooses cooperation over competition. However, such effects are limited to a generation's time scale (hence the term "generation cycles"), and as long as the root causes of instability (demographic and intra-elite pressures) aren't addressed, instability will inevitably resume its increase. In simpler terms, if the civil war didn't resolve the larger issues stemming from a population living at the environment's carrying capacity or the over-production of elites competing for narrower and narrower margins, then instability will simply return in one form or another. Ultimately, as society becomes more and more unstable, it will also become more vulnerable to both internal (ie. civil war, peasant uprisings, ideological conflicts) and external shocks (ie. disease, invasions, climate change). These shocks will eventually bring about a state's collapse and relieve the demographic and intra-elite pressures so that society can once again return back to the integrative phase. This cycle from integration → stagflation → Disintegration → integration is what's termed a "secular cycle" and it happens on the order of centuries. It's also why many states or dynasties in world history have a lifespan of only 2-3 centuries. 
Like this book, I believe that things like barbarian migrations, civil wars, or plagues are
merely symptoms which accelerated WRE's fall, rather than being its root cause.
After laying out the features of this theory, the authors then turn to historical case studies to see if the evidence fits the predictions made by the theory. The case studies are Plantagenet England, Tudor-Stuart England, Capetian France, Valois France, Republican Rome, Principate Rome, post-Golden Horde domination Muscovy, and Romanov Russia. So there's quite a lot of case studies covered and while some have less reliable data than others, from what we do know from the historical and archaeological records, the theory seems to fit pretty well. It might've been more convincing for some to include non-European states as case studies, but hey, you gotta start with ones with readily available and reliable data in English.
Now let me just say that I'm not really a fan of grand formulae in the field of history. It's one thing to attempt to quantify data to see if some theory on a very specific era/topic has any merit at all, lest the whole discipline devolve into post-modern circlejerks of "every opinion is valid!" But it's another matter when you're dealing with a topic as large as the rise and fall of states. "Humans are too fickle. Our environments are too variable. There's too much statistical noise," I'd instinctively react. At the same time, however, I have read enough Eurasian history to see broadly similar trends repeating themselves (ie. loss of internal cohesion, shrinking fiscal base, or states contracting out state-capacity to private individuals/entities) as states spiral downwards to their deaths. So I really can't help but love the secular cycle theory. As soon as I read the basic laws of this theory, a hundred light-bulbs lit up above my head as I attempted to see how well it matched to my understanding of the histories of China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, Iran, Islamic Caliphates, Egypt, England, France, Spain, etc. While I'm no historian and can't specifically cite hard data on coin hoards, population, average height, wages, prices of staples, fiscal revenue, etc, the secular cycle model seems to fit really well with just about everything I've ever read in history. And what I love most about the theory is how surprisingly flexible it is. The influence of generation cycles as mentioned above, proximity to militarized nomadic pastoralists, or polygyny on how it can shorten or lengthen secular cycles are all discussed. I am hesitant on how applicable the theory is for non-agrarian modern states though, which the authors sensibly enough don't attempt to do.
I hear Turchin's earlier 2003 book, Historical Dynamics, is a much more math-heavy book dealing mostly with the same topic as Secular Cycles. So if you want more math, go with that one. If you want a much more reader-friendly book with less math, there's also his 2007 book, War and Peace and War. For me, however, Secular Cycles was the perfect mix of theory and analysis through use of historical data. Unless a reaaaallly good critique comes along, I don't think I can ever un-see history as framed by the secular cycle's demographic-structural theory.

Whew, that's enough writing for now. I hope all these history-related posts can get a few people who only visit this blog for manga releases to pick up a few history books too. Well, here's to hoping that 2017 will be a productive reading year for all of us... and also less batshit crazy than 2016. Then again, maybe it'd be better if it were more insane. I'm not that attached to this planet anyways.


  1. Happy New Year Hox!

  2. Hey hox, is there a chance of you translating Shotaro Ishinomori Miyamoto Musashi manga?


    I wonder how the story would go in his hands unlike Inoue masturbation

    1. I wouldn't mind doing it, but I'm gonna be starting a few longer projects this year which'll preoccupy my attention. So definitely not in 2017 is all I can say for now.

    2. Damn, gonna miss the short projects era, that was fantastic, always discovering something new, but I am gonna wait for them.

      Thanks for all the knowledge and fun you gave us the opportunity to read.

    3. I'll still be doing several short projects once Soil, Wombs, and Planet of Sutakola wraps up. But I'll also have 2 longer series that I'll be working on.