I’ve spent June until October writing a brief but comprehensive book called “Designing Conversational Interfaces” introducing the creation of messaging applications and chatbots to a non-technical audience.
The core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors.
Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems. It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead to accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests. Like
To make matters worse, for many people in business, education, and government, the word “strategy” has become a verbal tic.
A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength through the coherence of its design.
An insightful reframing of a competitive situation can create whole new patterns of advantage and weakness.
A large organization may balk at adopting a new technique, but such change is manageable. But breaking with doctrine—with one’s basic philosophy—is rare absent a near-death experience.
To detect a bad strategy, look for one or more of its four major hallmarks:
- Failure to face the challenge.
- Mistaking goals for strategy.
- Bad strategic objectives.
Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impracticable. It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings.
If you continue down the road you are on you will be counting on motivation to move the company forward. I cannot honestly recommend that as a way forward because business competition is not just a battle of strength and wills; it is also a competition over insights and competencies.
Good strategy works by focusing energy and resources on one, or a very few, pivotal objectives whose accomplishment will lead to a cascade of favorable outcomes.
A long list of “things to do,” often mislabeled as “strategies” or “objectives,” is not a strategy. It is just a list of things to do.
The purpose of good strategy is to offer a potentially achievable way of surmounting a key challenge. If the leader’s strategic objectives are just as difficult to accomplish as the original challenge, there has been little value added by the strategy.
When a leader characterizes the challenge as underperformance, it sets the stage for bad strategy. Underperformance is a result. The true challenges are the reasons for the underperformance.
Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hot hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them.
Only the prospect of choice inspires peoples’ best arguments about the pluses of their own proposals and the negatives of others’.
So they avoided the hard work of choice, set nothing aside, hurt no interest groups or individual egos, but crippled the whole.
Serious strategy work in an already successful organization may not take place until the wolf is at the door—or even until the wolf’s claws actually scratch on the floor—because good strategy is very hard work.
Strategy does not eliminate scarcity and its consequence—the necessity of choice. Strategy is scarcity’s child and to have a strategy, rather than vague aspirations, is to choose one path and eschew others.
Strategies focus resources, energy, and attention on some objectives rather than others. Unless collective ruin is imminent, a change in strategy will make some people worse off. Hence, there will be powerful forces opposed to almost any change in strategy. This is the fate of many strategy initiatives in large organizations. There may be talk about focusing on this or pushing on that, but at the end of the day no one wants to change what they are doing very much.
The transformational leader, they argued, unlocks human energy by creating a vision of a different reality and connecting that vision to people’s values and needs.
Called the New Thought movement, it combined religious sentiment with recommendations for worldly success. The theory was that thinking about success leads to success. And that thinking about failure leads to failure.
Nevertheless, the doctrine that one can impose one’s visions and desires on the world by the force of thought alone retains a powerful appeal to many people. Its acceptance displaces critical thinking and good strategy.
The kernel of a strategy contains three elements:
1. A diagnosis that defines or explains the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as critical.
2. A guiding policy for dealing with the challenge. This is an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.
3. A set of coherent actions that are designed to carry out the guiding policy. These are steps that are coordinated with one another to work together in accomplishing the guiding policy.
A good guiding policy tackles the obstacles identified in the diagnosis by creating or drawing upon sources of advantage.
A guiding policy creates advantage by anticipating the actions and reactions of others, by reducing the complexity and ambiguity in the situation, by exploiting the leverage inherent in concentrating effort on a pivotal or decisive aspect of the situation, and by creating policies and actions that are coherent, each building on the other rather than canceling one another out.
An important duty of any leader is to absorb a large part of that complexity and ambiguity, passing on to the organization a simpler problem—one that is solvable. Many leaders fail badly at this responsibility, announcing ambitious goals without resolving a good chunk of ambiguity about the specific obstacles to be overcome. To take responsibility is more than a willingness to accept the blame. It is setting proximate objectives and handing the organization a problem it can actually solve.
When someone says “Managers are decision makers,” they are not talking about master strategists, for a master strategist is a designer.
A design-type strategy is an adroit configuration of resources and actions that yields an advantage in a challenging situation. Given a set bundle of resources, the greater the competitive challenge, the greater the need for the clever, tight integration of resources and actions. Given a set level of challenge, higher-quality resources lessen the need for the tight integration of resources and actions.
Existing resources can be the lever for the creation of new resources, but they can also be an impediment to innovation.
It is also human nature to associate current profit with recent actions, even though it should be evident that current plenty is the harvest of planting seasons long past. When the profits roll in, leaders will point to their every action with pride. Books will be written recommending that others immediately adopt the successful firm’s dress code, its vacation policy, its suggestion-box policies, and its method of allocating parking spaces. Of course, these connections are specious.
Were there such simple, direct connections between current actions and current results, strategy would be a lot easier. It would also be a lot less interesting, for it is the disconnect between current results and current action that makes the analysis of the sources of success so hard and, ultimately, so rewarding.
The proposition that growth itself creates value is so deeply entrenched in the rhetoric of business that it has become an article of almost unquestioned faith that growth is a good thing.
No one has an advantage at everything. Teams, organizations, and even nations have advantages in certain kinds of rivalry under particular conditions. The secret to using advantage is understanding this particularity. You must press where you have advantages and side-step situations in which you do not. You must exploit your rivals’ weaknesses and avoid leading with your own.
The forces at work were not only altering the fortunes of companies, they were shifting the very wealth of nations.
To make good bets on how a wave of change will play out you must acquire enough expertise to question the experts.
Leaders who stay “above the details” may do well in stable times, but riding a wave of change requires an intimate feel for its origins and dynamics.
Thus, software’s advantage comes from the rapidity of the software development cycle—the process of moving from concept to prototype and the process of finding and correcting errors.
What is actually surprising about the modern computer industry is not the network of relationships but the absence of the massively integrated firm doing all the systems engineering—all of the coordination—internally. The current web of “relationships” is the ghostly remnant of the old IBM’s nerve, muscle, and bone.
During the relatively stable periods between episodic transitions, it is difficult for followers to catch the leader, just as it is difficult for one of the two or three leaders to pull far ahead of the others. But in moments of transition, the old pecking order of competitors may be upset and a new order becomes possible.
The simplest form of transition is triggered by substantial increases in fixed costs, especially product development costs. This increase may force the industry to consolidate because only the largest competitors can cover these fixed charges.
Many major transitions are triggered by major changes in government policy, especially deregulation.
A third common bias is that, in a time of transition, the standard advice offered by consultants and other analysts will be to adopt the strategies of those competitors that are currently the largest, the most profitable, or showing the largest rates of stock price appreciation.
Another bias is that, faced with a wave of change, the standard forecast will be for a “battle of the titans.”
For instance, people rarely predict that a business or economic trend will peak and then decline. If sales of a product are growing rapidly, the forecast will be for continued growth, with the rate of growth gradually declining to “normal” levels. Such a prediction may be valid for a frequently purchased product, but it can be far off for a durable good.
An industry attractor state describes how the industry “should” work in the light of technological forces and the structure of demand. By saying “should,” I mean to emphasize an evolution in the direction of efficiency—meeting the needs and demands of buyers as efficiently as possible.
Inertia due to obsolete or inappropriate routines can be fixed. The barriers are the perceptions of top management.
Chief scientist David Kirk put it this way: “There is a virtually limitless demand for computational power in 3-D graphics. Given the architecture of the PC, there is only so much you can do with a more powerful CPU. But it is easy to use up one tera-flop of graphics computing power. The GPU [graphics processing unit] is going to be the center of technology and value added in consumer computing.”
The benefit of a faster cycle is that the product will be best in class more often. Compared to a competitor working on an eighteen-month cycle, Nvidia’s six-month cycle would mean that its chip would be the better product about 83 percent of the time. Plus, there is the constant buzz surrounding new product introductions, a substitute for expensive advertising. As a further plus, the faster company’s engineers will get more experience and, perhaps, learn more about the tricks of turning the technology into product.
Whenever a company succeeds greatly there is a complementary story of impeded competitive response. Sometimes the impediment is the innovator’s patent or similar protection, but more often it is an unwillingness or inability to replicate the innovator’s policies.
A surface reading of history makes it look like 3dfx did itself in with too many changes of direction. The deeper reality was that Nvidia’s carefully crafted fast-release cycle induced 3dfx’s less coordinated responses.
To generate a strategy, one must put aside the comfort and security of pure deduction and launch into the murkier waters of induction, analogy, judgment, and insight.
In praising America’s “deep and liquid” financial markets, the herd conveniently skipped over the giant bag of flammable gas keeping those markets buzzing—easy credit, overleveraging, a vast expanse of unpriceable derivative securities, long-term assets financed with overnight borrowing from trigger-happy counterparties, and huge top management bonuses for taking on hidden risks.
Although there were some voices cautioning that these new financial vehicles were new and untested, the dominant position was that the economy was growing and the finance industry was prospering, hence these new financial innovations must be doing something beneficial.
Social herding presses us to think that everything is OK (or not OK) because everyone else is saying so. The inside view presses us to ignore the lessons of other times and other places, believing that our company, our nation, our new venture, or our era is different. It is important to push back against these biases. You can do this by paying attention to real-world data that refutes the echo-chamber chanting of the crowd—and by learning the lessons taught by history and by other people in other places.
Rich people do this. They have the power and they see no reason not to use it. Men and women are just merchandise, like everything else.
There were no protests — you can’t argue with a robot.
What had possessed Bancroft to outfit me for summer with the scrambled weather systems that Bay City had so far exhibited was beyond me.
Shopping is physical interaction, exercise of decision-making capacity, sating of the desire to acquire, and an impulse to more acquisition, a scouting urge. It’s so basically flicking human when you think about it.
I spent most of the journey feeling sorry for the girl, and worrying at the Catholic madness like a dog with a bone. This woman’s stack was utterly undamaged. Financial considerations aside, she could be brought back to life on the spin of a disc. On Harlan’s World she’d be temporarily re-sleeved for the court hearing, albeit probably in a synthetic, and once the verdict came down there’d be a Victim Support supplement from the state added to whatever policy her family already held. Nine cases out of ten that was enough money to ensure re-sleeving of some sort. Death, where is thy sting?
Women are the race, Tak. No two ways about it. Male is just a mutation with more muscle and half the nerves. Fighting, fucking machines.
And make no mistake about this: being taken seriously, being considered dangerous marks the difference, the ONLY difference in their eyes, between players and little people. Players they will make deals with. Little people they liquidate.
Like Bancroft, MacIntyre had been a man of power, and like all men of power, when he talked of prices worth paying, you could be sure of one thing. Someone else was paying.
“The human eye is a wonderful device,” I quoted from Poems and Other Prevarications absently. “With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.”
Kawahara grew up in Fission City, dealing anti-radiation drugs to the families of fuel rod workers.
All I had now was the gravity pull of mission time, the cold dawn and the sound of the waves on the shore.
See, the thing is, they’re looking for borderline psychopathic tendencies. That’s why they do most of their recruiting from the military in the first place.
The old-style yakuza were funny about that sort of thing.
‘How shall I explain the dying that was done?
Shall I say that each one did the math, and wrote
The value of his days
Against the bloody margin, in an understated hand?
They will want to know
How was the audit done?
And I shall say that it was done,
By those who knew the worth
Of what was spent that day.’
‘Told you not to go there, didn’t I pal. Now look at you. Earth.’ He spat and disappeared, leaving the echoes of his voice. ‘It’s a shithole. Got to get to the next screen.’
Get to the next screen.
It was about Jimmy de Soto, clawing his own eye out in the mud and fire at Innenin, and the millions like him throughout the Protectorate, painfully gathered assemblages of individual human potential, pissed away into the dung-heap of history. For all these, and more, someone was going to pay.
The original draft of the plan had called for the ninja copy of me to stay at Ortega’s apartment until the Ryker copy had disappeared with Miriam Bancroft.
It mattered little to which class or race they belonged; the subordinate peoples of the world keenly absorbed the deeper implications – moral and psychological – of Japan’s triumph.
They had failed to notice the intense desire for equality and dignity among peoples whom Europe’s most influential thinkers, from Hegel and Marx to John Stuart Mill, had deemed unfit for self-rule – thinkers whose ideas, ironically, would in fact prove highly potent among these ‘subject peoples’.
During their long and eventful lives the Asians discussed in the book manifested all of the three main responses to Western power: the reactionary conviction that if Asian people were truly faithful to their religious traditions, which were presumed to be superior to those of all other civilizations, they would be strong again; the moderate notion that only a few Western techniques were required by Asians whose traditions already provided a sound basis for culture and society; and the vigorous determination, embraced by radical secularists like Mao and Atatürk, that the entire old way of life had to be revolutionized in order to compete in the jungle-like conditions of the modern world.
Islam was as much a universalizing ideology as Western modernity is now, and it successfully shaped distinctive political systems, economies and cultural attitudes across a wide geographical region
Two centuries later, al-Jabarti seems to stand at the beginning of a long line of bewildered Asians: men accustomed to a divinely ordained dispensation, the mysterious workings of fate and the cyclical rise and fall of political fortunes, to whom the remarkable strength of small European nation-states would reveal that organized human energy and action, coupled with technology, amount to a power that could radically manipulate social and political environments. Resentfully
The Chinese themselves remained perplexed by the apparently unappeasable greed of the British.
The British were beginning to replace their economic and political regime of pure plunder, as had existed in Bengal, with monopoly interests in shipping, banking, insurance and trade, and administrative structures. They enlisted native collaborators, such as the middlemen who expedited the lucrative export of opium grown in India to China, but these tended to be Hindu, Sikh or Parsi rather than Muslim.
European forms of political and military mobilization (conscript armies, efficient taxation, codified laws), financial innovations (capital-raising joint-stock companies) and information-rich public cultures of enquiry and debate fed upon each other to create a formidable and decisive advantage as Europe penetrated Asia.
By 1900, a small white minority radiating out from Europe would come to control most of the world’s land surface, imposing the imperatives of a commercial economy and international trade on Asia’s mainly agrarian societies.
Secret British government reports from Kandahar and Kabul in 1868 describe al-Afghani as having arrived from India in 1866, a virulent anti-British agitator and likely Russian agent, a slender man with a pale complexion, open forehead, penetrating azure eyes and goatee, who drank tea constantly, was well-versed in geography and history, spoke Arabic, Turkish and Persian (the last language like a native of Persia), not visibly religious and with a European rather than Muslim lifestyle.
Most of Istanbul’s population was Christian, and parts of it – the western quarters of Pera and Galata – resembled, superficially at least, a more cosmopolitan version of Berlin or St Petersburg.
Many Muslim reformers in his time spoke of following the West, but it was not easy for most ordinary Muslims to follow the ways of infidel peoples whom they feared or hated or knew nothing about.
With European bondholders and moneylenders practically running the country, al-Afghani was becoming less discreet than before about the dangers of Western encroachment.
The correspondent did admit that the expulsion ‘may not seem consonant with English ideals as to the free expression of opinion’, but added that the ‘peculiar circumstances of the country must be considered’.
Modernization, it was clear, hadn’t secured the Ottomans against infidels; on the contrary, it had made them more dependent.
India had originally alerted al-Afghani to the advantages of Western science and knowledge; India also served as a warning against those advocating drastic, total Westernization.
In the same vein, he also argued that linguistic ties were more profound than religious ones (a lesson Pakistan was to learn when the Bengali-speaking Muslims in East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh in 1971).
The Indian visitors were keen to learn about the Mahdi, then the kind of minatory figure to Westerners that Osama bin Laden was to become later.
Renan attacked Islam in terms similar to those he and other European freethinkers deployed against Catholicism: with its claims to supernatural revelation, it was an affront to reason, and a violent persecutor of free thought.
The masses do not like reason, the teachings of which are understood only by a few select minds. Science, however fine it may be, cannot completely satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal, or the desire to soar in dark and distant regions that philosophers and scholars can neither see nor explore.
That Islam needed a Reformation, with himself as Luther, was gradually becoming a favourite theme of al-Afghani.
He confessed he was worried about British influence in Afghanistan; the British, he said, always crept into countries as advisers before becoming their masters. This could also, he added, be proved true in Persia, where the shah was beginning to make major concessions to the British at the expense of Russia.
Budding revolutionaries usually have one shot at success. Al-Afghani had had several, but he had nothing to show for his efforts except a wide network of friends, sympathizers and fellow conspirators across three continents.
Like many other despots, he was interested in modernization only in so far as it strengthened his apparatus of surveillance and control, and made him look enlightened to foreign investors.
The imperatives for reform and science were contained in the Koran, which was perfectly compatible with modern science, politics and economics. He stressed a clear and modern reading of the Koran; no traditionalist interpretation of the holy text, he seemed to argue, should stand in the way of Muslim unity.
‘The entire Oriental world,’ he told the German journalist who visited him in Istanbul, ‘is so entirely rotten and incapable of hearing the truth and following it that I should wish for a flood or an earthquake to devour and bury it.’
More drastic, and popular, revolutions from below were needed; and they needed to shatter the bases as well as the superstructures of oppression.
A generation of educated Japanese, some exposed to Western societies, came to occupy powerful positions in the Meiji Restoration. They recognized the futility of unfocused xenophobia, shrewdly analysed their own weaknesses vis-à-vis the West as scientific and technical backwardness, and urgently set about organizing Japan into a modern nation-state.
The brisk rout of Chinese naval and land forces not only resoundingly proved the sturdiness of Japan’s military and its industrial and infrastructural base. It also showed that, as Sohō put it, ‘civilization is not a monopoly of the white man’.
At the risk of lèse-majesté, Kang now told his fellow students that China had degenerated so much that it resembled Turkey, another once-confident and now-feeble country carefully maintained in its infirmity by exploitative foreigners.
The Chinese resisted, and in the war that ensued the French destroyed much of the Chinese navy.
Even Italy, a latecomer to Chinese affairs and expansionism in general, demanded territory (although it was successfully rebuffed).
They all faced the task of having to generate a new set of values that ensured survival in the modern era while respecting time-honoured traditions – of appearing loyal to their nation while borrowing some of the secrets of the West’s progress.
the sick men of Asia were better alive than dead, for they held chaos at bay, and could also be bullied at will.
Singh particularly blamed the Russian and French soldiers for the mass killings, arson and rape inflicted on the Chinese. Some of the soldiers tortured their victims purely for fun. ‘All these sportsmen’, Singh noted, ‘belonged to what were called “civilized nations”.’
As he saw it, corporate interests played an insidious role in American politics. Frequent elections made for policy short-sightedness and cheap populism. People entering democratic politics tended to be third-rate; far too many American presidents had been mediocre and uninspiring.
Invoking their ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the French authorities in Vietnam had rounded up some 100,000 peasants and artisans and shipped them to the battlefields of France. In return, France was to consider self-rule for their country at some unspecified point in the future.
It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Atatürk’s success on opinion across Asia – the greatest victory of the East since the Battle of Tsushima. ‘The truth’, Muhammad Iqbal wrote, ‘is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness.’
Indian philosophy and literature – which only Brahmans in possession of Sanskrit could read – had been a closed book to a majority of Indians; it was the European discovery, and translation into English and German, of Indian texts that introduced a new Western-educated generation of Indian intellectuals to their cultural heritage.
‘Whatever is to their interest,’ Mukhopadhyay wrote about Europeans, ‘they find consistent with their sense of what is right at all times, failing to understand how their happiness cannot be the source of universal bliss.’7
According to him, the Industrial Revolution, by turning human labour into a source of power, profit and capital, had made economic prosperity the central goal of politics, enthroning machinery over men and relegating religion and ethics to irrelevance. As Gandhi saw it, Western political philosophy obediently validated the world of industrial capitalism.
Okakura had been alerted to Japan’s cultural heritage by his American teacher Ernest Fenollosa, an art historian and philosopher who believed that it was Asia’s destiny to spiritualize the modern West.
And, he added, ‘the unbridled tyranny of the white races exists because there are no powerful people other than the white races. By breaking through this condition, we can make a positive contribution to all mankind.’
In this programme of eradication, Japan succeeded beyond the most garish militarist fantasy. In about ninety days, beginning on 8 December 1941, Japan overran the possessions of Britain, the United States and the Netherlands in East and South-east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, much of Siam and French Indochina, and Burma with bewildering swiftness to stand poised at the borders of India by early 1942. There are few examples in history of such dramatic humiliation of established powers.
The Japanese had revealed how deep the roots of anti-Westernism went, and how quickly Asians could seize power back from their European tormentors.
However, everywhere they came up against the new communal identities forged during the long war, when the Europeans were absent or slaving in prison camps.
Accustomed to deferential natives, European powers mostly underestimated the post-war nationalism that the Japanese had unwittingly or deliberately unleashed. They also misjudged their own staying power among populations unremittingly hostile to them. This led to many disastrously futile counter-insurgency operations and full-scale wars, many of which still scar nations across Asia.
The prominent Malay nationalist Mustapha Hussain spoke for many Asians when he said that, ‘Although the Japanese occupation was described as one of severe hardship and brutality, it left something positive, a sweet fruit to be plucked and enjoyed only after the surrender.’
The revolutions that succeeded in Muslim countries were launched in the name of Islam not Marx or Paine. Liberalism, defined in the broadest sense, had a tenuous hold in the Muslim world.
A further devastating blow to the reputation of the West was the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian lands in 1948
New urban elites emerged from modern educational institutions and bureaucracies, and they tended to have little time for traditional sources of authority. Many of them enriched themselves at the expense of the rural poor. A reservoir of discontent built up, especially among the people most marginalized by this process, such as the clergy, small-town merchants, provincial officials and men from semi-rural backgrounds – the kind of people who hung around al-Afghani.
Relations between the Arab world and the West were never so fraught as they were between the two world wars. Muslim intellectuals who stressed Western ideologies of nationalism, secularism and democracy felt cruelly betrayed by Europe’s refusal to support their aspirations for national independence.
In the war that followed, the Zionists defeated the combined Arab armies, expelled hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants of Palestine, and proclaimed an independent state. This constituted a radical defeat for Egypt in particular – the most modern of Arab nations – and Israel became, and has remained, a symbol of Arab impotence against Western power.
This was where Qutb first began to develop his larger critique of Western civilization as unhealthily obsessed with material and technological progress to the detriment of moral freedom and social justice.
He freely employed the words ‘white man’ as an epithet thereafter: ‘We must nourish in our school-age children sentiments that open their eyes to the tyranny of the white man, his civilization, and his animal hunger.’
Qutb extended a conventional critique of corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and failed modernization into an indictment of all those Western ideologies – whether nationalism, liberalism or socialism – that banished religion and morality from the realm of politics, and exalted human reason above God.
The attempt to push Iran into the twentieth century created a small middle class, but it also uprooted millions of people from their traditional rural homes and exposed them to the degradations of urban life. Inequality increased as a small urban elite prospered and acquired the symbols of a modern consumer economy.
However, a visit to the then new nation-state of Israel in 1962 impressed upon him the power of political solidarity built upon a shared religion: ‘I as an Easterner [prefer] an Israeli model over all other models of how to deal with the West,’ he wrote in his diary.
In many countries, especially in the Middle East and South Asia where modernization failed or was not even properly attempted, hundreds of millions of Muslims have long inhabited a netherworld fantasy of religious-political revenge. Trying and failing to enter the modern world defined by the West, they ended up not only uprooting themselves but also hating the West – the source of so much upheaval and trauma in their lives.
Turkey is the first Muslim country to have developed a model of indigenous modernity that not only does not depend on the original Western one but also seems to rival it. Furthermore, this Islamic modernism is rooted in lived experience rather than, as has been the case elsewhere, pure imagination. Western ideas remain important but they are now assessed on the basis of their effectiveness, rather than simply swallowed whole. And a certain abject attitude towards the West has been replaced by a renewed pride in Turkishness.
But Turkey itself shows that Atatürk’s political and cultural experiment succeeded only partially and that some selective borrowings from Western modernity cannot relegate Islam to the private sphere – let alone ensure social and economic justice for the majority of the population.
What China may well need, he said, is state socialism which controls the economy and works to diminish inequality, while making the country a serious combatant in the jungle of international competition.
This loss of the West’s moral prestige and the assertiveness of the East may appear a recent phenomenon. But, as this book has shown, the less uneven global order coming into being was outlined as early as the nineteenth century by Asian intellectuals who rejected the West’s racial and imperial hierarchies and its right to define the rules of international politics.
This can be seen most clearly today within Europe and the United States, the originators of globalization. Inequality and unemployment grow as highly mobile corporations continually move around the world in search of cheap labour and high profits, evading taxation and therefore draining much-needed investment in welfare systems for ageing populations. Economic setbacks, the prospect of long-term decline and a sense of political impotence stoke a great rage and paranoia among their populations, directed largely at non-white immigrants, particularly Muslims.
Globalization, it is clear, does not lead to a flat world marked by increasing integration, standardization and cosmopolitan openness, despite the wishful thinking of some commentators.
It took much private and public tumult, and great physical and intellectual journeys, to bring these thinkers to the point where they could make sense of themselves and their environment, and then the knowledge they achieved after so much toil was often full of pain and did not offer hope. They often seemed to change their minds and contradict themselves. As some of the first to break with tradition, they were faced with the Sisyphean task of finding their bearings in the modern world and reorienting their minds to new problems of personal and collective identity.
Many of these thinkers judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces. They knew that borrowing technical skills through a modern system of education from Europe wasn’t enough; these borrowings brought with them a whole new way of life. They demanded an organized mass society whose basic unit was the self-reliant individual who pursues his economic self-interest while progressively liberating himself from guild rules, religious obligations and other communal solidarities – a presupposition that threatened to wreck the old moral order. These thinkers sensed that, though irresistible and often necessary, the modern industrial society and social freedoms pioneered by Europe would destroy many of their cherished cultures and traditions, just as they had in Europe itself, and leave chaos in their place.
And all this was for a process which did not lead directly, even in the West itself, to a clear destination of happiness and stability, and which despite producing mass education, cheap consumer goods, the popular press and mass entertainment had only partly relieved a widely and deeply felt rootlessness, confusion and anomie.
Indeed, as one indigenous modernizer after another in Japan, Turkey, China and India conceded, resistance to the West required urgent adaptation to Western ideas of organizing state and society.
Ryszard KapuŚciński once summed up the tragic ‘drama’ of the honest and patriotic postcolonial leader by describing the
terrible material resistance that each one encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that is just isn’t happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organizes a coup.
And the cycle begins anew.
We can see that the seemingly wholesale adoption of Western ideologies (Chinese communism, Japanese imperialism) did not work. Attempts at syntheses (India’s parliamentary democracy, Muslim Turkey’s secular state, China’s state capitalism) were more successful, and violent rejections of the West in the form of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Islamist movements continue to have an afterlife.
It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.
The European model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state was a poor fit in Europe itself. That it was particularly so for multi-ethnic Asian societies has been amply proved by the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, the Chinese in Malaysia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka.
As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent.
The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda.
Indeed, this is the challenge of the historical novel: whether or not the stories are true might be the least important thing about them. History as it’s written down in books is one thing, but history as it’s lived is another.
When the Europeans left, educated Ugandans climbed out of the swamps, slaked off the mud, and took to the hills and raw Ugandans flooded the swamps. Up in the hills, educated Ugandans assumed the same contempt as Europeans had for them.
For those whose jobs came as rarely as a yam’s flower this was a chance to feel useful.
Tradition claimed that identical twins were one soul who, failing to resolve the primal conflict in the self, split—and two people were born.
Every time a set of twins arrived, they shook his hand, “A strong man may wake up late and still get to do as much as we who woke up with the birds.”
He knew the snare of being a man. Society heaped such expectations on manhood that in a bid to live up to them some men snapped.
He had never discussed his role in her rise in status because words not only travel, but they acquire legs and arms along the way. And by the time they get to the person talked about, they are beyond recognition.
I tell you fellow men: never negotiate with a woman. Their sense is not our sense.
Of course, when a nation has plenty and peace reigns, foreigners start to flock in. And you know with foreigners: they bring their troubles with them.
Everyone’s face turned and stared at Suubi as if her father killing his twin was written on her body.
Britain and America were the lands of humanity, the places Miisi longed to be. The real Britain took him by surprise.
She corrected herself, “These things have no place in the modern world.”
“As long as there are Africans in the world, there will always be someone seeking these things,” the woman laughed.
This is the history of those who got away
the power of the state to deploy distance-demolishing technologies—railroads, all-weather roads, telephone, telegraph, airpower, helicopters, and now information technology—so changed the strategic balance of power between self-governing peoples and nation-states, so diminished the friction of terrain, that my analysis largely ceases to be useful.
In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition.
That frontier operated as a rough and ready homeostatic device; the more a state pressed its subjects, the fewer subjects it had.
Seen from the state center, this enclosure movement is, in part, an effort to integrate and monetize the people, lands, and resources of the periphery so that they become, to use the French term, rentable—auditable contributors to the gross national product and to foreign exchange.
More commonly, nonstate peoples found it convenient to raid the settlements of sedentary farming communities subject to the state, sometimes exacting systematic tribute from them in the manner of states.
The main, long-run threat of the ungoverned periphery, however, was that it represented a constant temptation, a constant alternative to life within the state.
For long periods people moved in and out of states, and “stateness” was, itself, often cyclical and reversible.
Much of the periphery of states became a zone of refuge or “shatter zone,” where the human shards of state formation and rivalry accumulated willy nilly, creating regions of bewildering ethnic and linguistic complexity.
Their subsistence routines, their social organization, their physical dispersal, and many elements of their culture, far from being the archaic traits of a people left behind, are purposefully crafted both to thwart incorporation into nearby states and to minimize the likelihood that statelike concentrations of power will arise among them.
They are, in other words, political adaptations of nonstate peoples to a world of states that are, at once, attractive and threatening.
The attempt to bring the periphery into line is read by representatives of the sponsoring state as providing civilization and progress—where progress is, in turn, read as the intrusive propagation of the linguistic, agricultural, and religious practices of the dominant ethnic group:
The principle behind region-making in each case is that, for the premodern world, water, especially if it is calm, joins people, whereas mountains, especially if they are high and rugged, divide people.
Zomia is thus knitted together as a region not by a political unity, which it utterly lacks, but by comparable patterns of diverse hill agriculture, dispersal and mobility, and rough egalitarianism, which, not incidentally, includes a relatively higher status for women than in the valleys.
Ibn Khaldun, who noted that “Arabs can gain control only over flat territory” and do not pursue tribes that hide in the mountains.
Hill polities are, almost invariably, redistributive, competitive feasting systems held together by the benefits they are able to disburse.
Accounts of lowland states that miss this dimension do not merely “leave out” the hills; they ignore a set of boundary conditions and exchanges that make the center what it is.
For most of its history, Southeast Asia has been marked by the relative absence even of valley states. Where they arose, they tended to be remarkably short-lived, comparatively weak outside a small and variable radius of the court center, and generally unable systematically to extract resources (including manpower) from a substantial population.
It becomes difficult, in this context, to reconstruct the life-world of nonelites, even if they are located at the court center.
State rulers find it well nigh impossible to install an effective sovereignty over people who are constantly in motion, who have no permanent pattern of organization, no permanent address, whose leadership is ephemeral, whose subsistence patterns are pliable and fugitive, who have few permanent allegiances, and who are liable, over time, to shift their linguistic practices and their ethnic identity.
Grain, then, as compared with root crops, is both legible to the state and relatively appropriable.
All the evidence points to the piecemeal elaboration of padi lands by kinship units and hamlets that built and extended the small diversion dams, sluices, and channels required for water control. Such irrigation works often predated the creation of state cores and, just as frequently, survived the collapse of many a state that had taken temporary advantage of its concentrated manpower and food supply.
Provisioning the state’s core population with grain ran up against the intractable limits of distance and harvest fluctuations, while the population sequestered to plant that grain found it all too easy to walk beyond the reach of state control.
In thirteenth-century Europe, according to one calculation, shipping costs by sea were a mere 5 percent of the cost by land.
Before the distance-demolishing technology of railroads and all-weather motor roads, land-bound polities in Southeast Asia and Europe found it extremely difficult, without navigable waterways, to concentrate and then project power.
Rulers fed major inland cities such as Berlin and Madrid only at great effort and great cost to their hinterlands. The exceptional efficiency of waterways in the Netherlands undoubtedly gave the Dutch great advantages at peace and war.
They would also, as we shall see, help demarcate the sharp difference between a geography more amenable to state control and appropriation (state space) and a geography intrinsically resistant to state control (nonstate space).
It matters little how wealthy a kingdom is if its potential surplus of manpower and grain is dispersed across a landscape that makes its collection difficult and costly.
Less reliant on volatile trade, more hierarchical, more insulated from food-supply crises, and capable of feeding quite massive armies, these agrarian states might lose a battle or even a war, but their staying power over the long haul tended to prevail.
“To have too many people [as subjects to a lord] is better than to have too much grass [uncultivated land].”
Vagrancy was discouraged and displaced people were fixed to a plot of land where they could be turned into reliable sources of taxation, corvée labour and military service.
The expansion and peopling of legible state space was intrinsically difficult, given the open frontier. If it was occasionally achieved, it was due as much to the closing off of alternatives as to the inherent attractions of state space.
Statecraft with both eyes fixed on the accumulation of manpower could hardly be particular about whom it incorporated. A “manpower state” in this sense is, in principle, the enemy of hard and fast cultural distinctions and exclusiveness. Put more accurately, such states had great incentives to incorporate whomever they could and to invent cultural, ethnic, and religious formulas that would allow them to do so.
When it came to skilled manpower as well as foot soldiers and cultivators, the need for their services precluded rigid cultural exclusion.
The manpower imperative was, everywhere, the enemy of discrimination and exclusion.
Slaves, it is fair to say, were the most important “cash crop” of precolonial Southeast Asia: the most sought-after commodity in the region’s commerce. Virtually every large trader was, simultaneously, a slave-raider or a buyer. Every military campaign, every punitive expedition was, at the same time, a campaign for captives who could be bought, sold, or held.
Knowing this, one might have expected statecraft to consist in sailing as close to the wind as they could: that is, in extracting resources just short of the point at which they would provoke flight or rebellion.
Peoples who appeared to have no fixed abode, who moved constantly and unpredictably, were beyond the pale of civilization.
In addition, to the degree that irrigated padi cultivation massively alters the landscape, while hill agriculture appears less visually obtrusive, hill peoples came to be associated with nature as against culture.
Thus, of all the commodities that the hill societies could deny the valleys, their trump card was manpower.
All those who had reason to flee state power—to escape taxes, conscription, disease, poverty, or prison, or to trade or raid—were, in a sense, tribalizing themselves.
What passes, in the eyes of valley officials, as deplorable backwardness may, for those so stigmatized, represent a political space of self-governance, mobility, and freedom from taxes.
The official invisibility of defection is encoded in the narrative itself; those who move to nonstate space, who adapt to its agro-ecology, become ethnicized barbarians who were, presumably, always there.
Those absorbed disappeared as distinctive societies, though they lent their cultural color to the amalgam that came to represent valley culture.
This reversal is an important reminder that the key to premodern state-building is the concentration of arable land and manpower, not altitude per se.
Competition among the agrarian states for conscripts led to constant sweeps for “vagrants”—virtually anyone without a fixed residence—to fulfill draconian recruitment quotas.
Gypsies, the most stigmatized and scourged of the itinerant poor, were criminalized and made the object of the notorious Zegeuner Jagt (Gypsy hunts).
This no-man’s land, this narrow zone of refuge, became known as the “outlaw corridor.” The outlaw corridor was simply a concentration of migrants “between the Palatine and Saxony, which was too far from the Prussian-Brandenburg recruitment area as well as from the Mediterranean (in the latter case, the transportation costs were higher then the price per slave).”
As Hefner observes, the overriding goal of the Tengger uplanders is to avoid “being ordered about”; an aspiration that is deliberately at odds with the elaborate hierarchies and status-coded behavior of the Javanese lowlands.
The varied timing of the many waves of migration, their location by altitude, and their mode of subsistence account, Keesing believes, for the luxuriant diversity of the mountain ethnoscape in contrast to valley uniformity.
The hills, from the valley perspective, were associated with heathenism, apostasy, primitive wildness and ferocity, and insubordination.
Having, over time, adapted to a hilly environment and, as we shall see, developed a social structure and subsistence routines to avoid incorporation, they are now seen by their lowland neighbors as impoverished, backward, tribal populations that lacked the talent for civilization.
Again and again, the compilers are told that the village was founded recently or several generations back by people who had come from elsewhere, usually to escape war or oppression.
All these options were generally preferred to the risks of open rebellion, an option confined largely to elites contending for the throne.
The expression “states make wars and wars make states,” coined by Charles Tilly
It mattered little whether the army in question was “one’s own” or that of a neighboring kingdom, the quartermaster’s requirements were the same, and so, largely, was the treatment of civilians and property.
The wet-rice valleys and the level plains of the typical valley state are not merely topographically flat; they can also be thought of as having been culturally, linguistically, and religiously flattened.
When Islam swept the area the Berbers became Muslims, but soon expressed their dissent from the inequalities of Arab Muslim rule by becoming Kharijite heretics.”
Religious identity in this case is a self-selected boundary-making device designed to emphasize political and social difference.
Most of the deadly epidemic diseases from which we suffer—smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, plague, measles, and cholera—are zoonotic diseases that have evolved from domesticated animals.
State-resistant space was therefore not a place on the map but a position vis-à-vis power;
A complete accounting of state-resistant places would have as many pages devoted to low, wet places—marshes, swamps, fens, bogs, moors, deltas, mangrove coasts, and complex waterways and archipelagoes—as to high mountain redoubts.
Self-marginalization, or “self-barbarianization” in valley terms, might have been, at times, quite common. Civilizational discourse, however, made such conduct unthinkable.
Dissimilation—not to be confused with dissimulation—refers to the more or less purposeful creation of cultural distance between societies.
These communities ranged in size from Palmares in Brazil, with perhaps twenty thousand inhabitants, and Dutch Guiana (Surinam), with that many or more, to smaller settlements of escapees throughout the Caribbean (Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico, Saint-Domingue), as well as in Florida and on the Virginia-North Carolina border in the Great Dismal Swamp.
To choose swiddening or, for that matter, foraging or nomadic pastoralism is to choose to remain outside state space.
Wet rice is, to be sure, more productive per unit of land than shifting cultivation. It is, however, typically less productive per unit of labor. Which of the two systems is the more efficient depends mainly on whether land or labor represents the scarcer factor of production.
If, on the other hand, the population chooses to grow padi rice, they represent an easy target for a state (or raiders), who know where to find them and their crops, carts, plow animals, and possessions.
One Bornean specialist goes so far as to argue that the very purpose of shifting cultivation was to sustain a population of traders scouring the forest for valuable trade goods.5
Any crop that allowed people to move to hitherto inaccessible areas and to provision themselves successfully there was, by definition, a crop stigmatized by the state.
Cassava allows its planters to occupy virtually any ecological niche, roam more or less at will, and avoid a great deal of drudgery.
Ernest Gellner describes this deliberate choice among the Berbers with the slogan “Divide that ye be not ruled.” It is a brilliant aphorism, for it shows that the Roman slogan “Divide and rule” does not work past a certain point of atomization.
Social structure, in other words, is, in large measure, both a state effect and a choice; and one possible choice is a social structure that is invisible and/or illegible to state-makers.
The British in Burma, Leach noted, everywhere preferred autocratic “tribal” regimes in compact geographical concentrations with which they could negotiate; conversely, they had a distaste for anarchic, egalitarian peoples who had no discernible spokesman.
They emphasize the equality of access to feasting and status competition, refusing to allow those who were already prominent or too wealthy to conduct further sacrifices lest they aspire to chiefdom status.
At the same time, those who migrate to lowland states and assimilate—and historically there have been a great many—enter valley society at its lowest rungs.
They might be termed equality, autonomy, and mobility, all understood relatively. As a matter of practice, of course, all three are encoded in material life in the hills—in location well away from lowland states, in dispersal, in common property, in shifting cultivation, and in the choice of crops.
The gumlao Kachin, as we have seen, have a history of enforcing egalitarian social relations by deposing or assassinating overreaching chiefs. One imagines that this history and the narratives that accompany it operate as a chilling cautionary tale for lineage chiefs with autocratic ambitions.
then, by the same token, the absence of writing and texts provides a freedom of maneuver in history, genealogy, and legibility that frustrates state routines.
Such legends are, like ethnic identity itself, a strategic positioning vis-à-vis other groups. We have every reason to imagine that such legends, like ethnic identity, will be adjusted if the circumstances shift appreciably.
Second, those who were literate in the script of the lowland state would have almost certainly have been elites whose bicultural skills fitted them best to become allies and administrators of the lowland state and, if they so chose, to take the path of assimilation.
Lowland padi states were centers of literacy not merely because they were cult centers for world religions but also because writing is a crucial technology of administration and statecraft.
In an oral culture, there cannot be a single authoritative genealogy or history that can serve as the gold standard of orthodoxy. In the case of two or more renditions, which one is given credence depends largely on the standing of the “bard” in question and on how closely the account conforms to the interests and tastes of the audience.
Oral culture exists and is sustained only through each unique performance at a particular time and place for an interested audience. These performances are, of course, far more than the transcript of the words spoken; each includes the setting, the gestures, and the expression of the performer(s), the audience reaction, and the nature of the occasion itself.
Oral traditions, then, appear to provide, under certain circumstances, something of the word-for-word constancy of a fixed, written text, together with the potential flexibility of strategic adjustment and change. They can, as it were, have it both ways; they can claim to be precise ur-texts while in fact being substantially novel—and there is no easy way of evaluating this claim.
Elaborate genealogies are, in this respect, a vast portfolio of possible connections, most of which remain in the shadows but could, if necessary, be summoned.
By denying their history—by not carrying the shared history and genealogy that define group identity—the Lisu negate virtually any unit of cultural identity beyond the individual household.
Ernest Renan was right when he wrote over a century ago: “Forgetting, and I would even say historical error, are an essential factor in the creation of a nation, and so it is that progress in historical studies is often a danger to nationality.” That is, I believe, a fine task for historians: to be a danger to national myths. —Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780
The confusion was genuine and four-barreled. First, any particular trait was likely to be a gradient and occasionally a seamless continuum from one village or group to another. Lacking sharp, discontinuous changes in ritual, dress, building styles, or even language, any line of demarcation was arbitrary. Second, if one did in fact meticulously chart small variations and then try, conscientiously, to justify a particular trait boundary, another nearly insurmountable problem arose. The boundaries for trait A, B, and C did not map onto one another; each yielded a different line of demarcation, a different classification of “ethnicities.” The third and fatal difficulty was that any such trait-mapped ethnicities were unlikely to coincide with the phenomenological understandings of the tribal people whose life-world was being mapped. The colonial ethnographers’ map said they were A, but they said they were B and had always been. How could that not matter? And if the classification exercise somehow survived these blows, a fourth difficulty, time, would surely be the coup de grâce. Those with some sense of historical change understood that in terms of traits or in terms of self-identification, the A had, not so long ago, been B and seemed, alarmingly, now on their way to becoming C. How could an ethnic group, a tribe, be so radically unstable over time and still be a people?
Zomia is and has been what might be called a “fracture zone” of state-making, much like the Caucasus and the Balkans.
Such powerful identities are, in this respect, no less fictitious and constructed than most national identities in the modern world.
The perspective adopted and elaborated here is a radical constructionist one: that ethnic identities in the hills are politically crafted and designed to position a group vis-à-vis others in competition for power and resources. In a world crowded with other actors, most of whom, like modern states, are more powerful than they, their freedom of invention is severely constricted. They craft identities, but not in circumstances of their own choosing, to paraphrase Marx.
But what is novel and noteworthy for most of this long history in the hills is that ethnic and tribal identities have been put to the service not merely of autonomy but of statelessness.
The formula for full incorporation was minimal: becoming a retainer of a Malay chief, professing Islam, and speaking Malay, the lingua franca of trade in the archipelago. A negeri was less an ethnicity than a political formula for membership in the polity.
As suggested earlier, the Burmese and Siamese were to the numerous and varied populations they incorporated as the two thousand conquering Norman families were to the indigenous peoples of Britain.
The keystone, of course, is the technique of irrigated rice cultivation that makes possible a padi core in the first place. It was not, however, a technique exclusive to the Burmese and Tai, inasmuch as it had been the basis of the Khmer, Pyu, and Mon courts earlier. The cosmology and architecture of the Indic court center is, as it were, the ideological superstructure of the divine monarchy and was adapted for that purpose. Theravada Buddhism, another import, served as a universal domain, to assemble “ethnic deities and spirits” under a new hegemon, much as the padi state’s subjects were gathered around the court. Local spirits (nat, phi) were accommodated as subsidiary deities much as Catholicism accommodated pagan deities under the rubric of the saints. Even the languages of the state-builders, Burmese and Thai, were, in their written form (from Sanskrit via Pali), linked to the legitimating cosmology of Buddhism and the Indic state.
While the historical process of ingathering was a cosmopolitan enterprise, the population thus assembled came to share a set of common cultural practices and institutions.
Before the advent of modern statecraft, with its practices of territorial administration and mutually exclusive sovereignties and ethnicities, such ambiguities were common.
A person’s ethnic identity in this sense would be the repertoire of possible performances and the contexts in which they are exhibited.
The first is that powerful outsiders, especially states, constrain the identity choices of most actors. Second, movement toward one of an array of identities does not exclude the possibility that, should circumstances change, that movement might be reversed. Finally, and surely most important, we must never confuse what an outsider might perceive as a momentous shift in identity with the lived experience of the actors involved.
Peoples whose vernacular order was egalitarian lacked the institutional handles by which they could be governed. Those institutions would have to be provided, if necessary, by force.
In Batavia, the Dutch discerned, according to their preconception, a Chinese minority. This mixed group did not consider itself Chinese; its boundaries merged seamlessly with those of other Batavians, with whom they freely intermarried. Once the Dutch discerned this ethnicity, however, they institutionalized their administrative fiction. They set about territorializing the “Chinese” quarter, selected “Chinese” officials, set up local courts for customary Chinese law as they saw it, instituted Chinese schools, and in general made sure that all those falling within this classification approached the colonial regime as Batavian “Chinese.” What began as something of a figment of the Dutch imperial imagination took on real sociological substance through the traffic patterns of institutions. And voilà!—after sixty years or so there was indeed a self-conscious Chinese community.
The point is that once created, an institutional identity acquires its own history. The longer and deeper this history is, the more it will resemble the mythmaking and forgetting of nationalism. Over time such an identity, however fabricated its origin, will take on essentialist features and may well inspire passionate loyalty.
The Lisu are without history not because they are incapable of history but because they choose to avoid its inconveniences.
By 1800 a kind of cultural template had been established for Lahu rebellions, which were innumerable. They were almost always led by holy men seen by the Lahu as god-kings who could cure illnesses, purify the community, and constitute a Buddhist “field of merit.”
The frequency of Lahu prophetic movements allows us to identify something of a “career trajectory,” even for an activity so decidedly unroutine as becoming a god-man. A local village priest has a mystical experience—perhaps as the result of an illness—and claims healing powers through the use of trance or possession. If his claim is accepted and he gains a substantial extravillage following for his curing powers, he may claim (or his followers may claim) that he has Gui-sha’s divine nature. He is then likely to insist on ritual and doctrinal reforms (diet, prayer, taboos) to cleanse the community and prepare for a new order. A final step, one that will invariably catapult him into the archives of his lowland neighbors and perhaps sign his death warrant, is when, as god-man, he proclaims a new order and unites his followers in defiance of the lowland state.
Nonetheless, the analogy does illustrate the way in which the cultural expectations and historical understanding of a charismatic public—often misunderstood as mere putty in his hands—can play a decisive role in influencing the script of a successful prophet. This stochastic process of successive adjustment is familiar enough; it is the stock in trade of most successful politicians and preachers.
Among others, Weber pointed to the Donatist sects of Roman North Africa, the Taborites (aka Hussites) of early-fifteenth-century Bohemia, the Diggers of the English Civil Wars, and Russian peasant sectarians as examples of the prophetic tradition of agrarian radicalism.
That is, it was not so much penury that led peasants to radical religious sects as the imminent prospect of losing their status as independent smallholders and falling into abject dependence as landless laborers or, worse, someone’s serf.
Virtually all states were monarchies, and the remedy for a bad king was a better king.
In the great Taiping Rebellion, in the hundreds of cargo-cult uprisings in the Pacific Islands, in the rebellions of New World prophets against Europeans, the key figures are often culturally amphibious translators who move relatively easily between the worlds they inhabit.
The shaman or traditional healer treats patients who are troubled or ill, typically through trance and/or possession. The shaman identifies what is out of whack and then conducts rituals to persuade the spirit troubling the patient to withdraw. In the case of the prophet, however, it is the entire community that is, as it were, out of whack. Often the crisis and threat are such that the normal cultural paths to dignity and respect—diligence as a cultivator, bravery, successful feasting, good hunting, marriage and children, and locally honorable behavior generally—are no longer adequate to an exceptional situation.
For every would-be prophet who manages to lead his followers to a zone of relative peace and stability—and subsistence—many others fail. But the coincidence of such movements with economic, political, and military crises suggests that they can be seen as desperate social experiments, a throw of the dice in a setting where the odds of a very favorable outcome are long.
Faced with slave raids, demands for tribute, invading armies, epidemics, and occasional crop failures, they appear to have developed not just the subsistence routines to keep the state at arm’s length but a shape-shifting social and religious organization admirably adapted to cope with a turbulent environment. The concentration of heterodox sects, hermit monks, pretenders, and would-be prophets in most hill societies has provided, in effect, the agency that allows many of them to substantially reinvent themselves when the situation requires it.
To stand back and take all this in, to wonder at the capacity of hill peoples to strike out, almost overnight, for new territory—socially, religiously, ethnically—is to appreciate the mind-boggling cosmopolitanism of relatively marginal and powerless people.
In light of this history it is perhaps not so surprising that they have been so adept at moving at the drop of a hat, reshuffling their social organization, and shape-shifting between various forms of millenarian dreams and revolt. These are, in a sense, high-stakes experiments in social identity by a people hoping to change their luck. As their situation has worsened, they have developed escape social structure into something of an art form.
Nevertheless, such movements have created new social groups, reshuffled and amalgamated ethnicities, assisted the founding of new villages and new states, provoked radical shifts in subsistence routines and customs, set off long-distance moves, and, not trivially, kept alive a reservoir of hope for a life of dignity, peace, and plenty in the teeth of very long odds.
Most hill cultures have, as it were, their bags already packed for travel across space, across identities, or across both. Their broad repertoires of languages and ethnic affiliations, their capacity for prophetic reinvention, their short and/or oral genealogies, and their talent for fragmentation all form elements in their formidable travel kit.
It is in their interest to keep as many of their options open as possible, and what kind of history to have is one of those options. They have just as much history as they require.
In periods of dynastic consolidation, peace, and buoyant trade, Skinner explains, the local community opens and adapts to the opportunities these conditions afford. Economic specialization, trade, and administrative and political links flourish as the community takes advantage of the opportunities in the wider world. By contrast, in periods of dynastic collapse, economic depression, and civil strife and banditry, the local community withdraws increasingly into its own shell as a self-protective measure. The withdrawal was patterned, according to Skinner: first a normative withdrawal, then an economic closure, and, finally, a defensive military closure. Specialists and traders returned home, economic specialization diminished, the local food supply was guarded, outsiders were expelled, crop-watching societies were formed, stockades built, and local militias created.
Such adjustments can take place along one or several dimensions not easily available to the core peasantry. The first of these dimensions is location; the higher and more remote their dwelling, the farther they generally are from state centers, slave raids, and taxes. A second dimension is scale and dispersal; the smaller and more dispersed their settlements the less tempting a target they represent for raiders and states. Finally, they can and do modulate their subsistence techniques, each of which embodies a position vis-à-vis states, hierarchy, and political incorporation.
What is most striking here, of course, is how closely the ideal of a civilized landscape and demography coincides with a landscape and demography most suitable for state-making and how closely a landscape unsuitable for state appropriation, as well as the people who inhabit it, is understood as uncivilized and barbaric.
Dwelling in inaccessible forests and on hilltops codes as uncivilized. Foraging, forest collecting—even for commercial gain—and swiddening also code as backward. Scattered living and small settlements are, by definition, archaic. Physical mobility and transient, negotiable identities are both primitive and dangerous. Not following the great valley religions or not being the tax- and tithe-bearing subjects of monarchs and clergy places one outside the pale of civilization.
The ruler of Palembang in 1747 observed: “It is very easy for a subject to find a lord, but it is much more difficult for a lord to find a subject.”
One of the most inspiring things I have ever seen was a large papiermâché statue of a running figure, a “Monument to the Deserters of Both World Wars” (Denkmal an den Unbekannten Deserteurs der Beiden Weltkriegen) assembled by German anarchists shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and taken, via flatbed truck, to the cities of the former German Democratic Republic. It was chased from city to city by the local authorities until it came to rest, briefly, in Bonn.
Military portering is especially dreaded. It has been common for porters to be worked to exhaustion on maneuvers and then executed so that they cannot return home, to be forced to walk ahead of Burmese troops through suspected minefields, and, occasionally, to be forced to wear uniforms and precede the troops in order to draw insurgent fire.
When you use “And what else?” you’ll get more options and often better options. Better options lead to better decisions. Better decisions lead to greater success.
There’s a place for giving advice, of course. This book isn’t suggesting that you never give anyone an answer ever again. But it’s an overused and often ineffective response.
Which is why people in organizations like yours around the world are working very hard and coming up with decent solutions to problems that just don’t matter, and why the real challenges often go unaddressed.
The simple act of adding “for you” to the end of as many questions as possible is an everyday technique for making conversations more development- than performance-oriented.
Stick to questions starting with “What” and avoid questions starting with “Why.”
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question “But what do you really want?” will typically stop people in their tracks.
I was not a successful law student. I remember almost nothing from my classes, and I ended my studies by being sued by one of my lecturers for defamation. It’s a long story.
“Are you more important or less important than I am?” is the question the brain is asking, and if you’ve diminished my status, the situation feels less secure.
T is for tribe. The brain is asking, “Are you with me, or are you against me?”
E is for expectation. The brain is figuring out, “Do I know the future or don’t I?”
A is for autonomy.
If you believe you do have a choice, then this environment is more likely to be a place of reward and therefore engagement.
A way to soften this question, as with all questions, is to use the phrase “Out of curiosity.”
Other phrases that can have a similar softening effect on the question being asked are “Just so I know…” or “To help me understand better…” or even “To make sure that I’m clear…”
You’re giving the solution, you’re providing the answer, you’re adding something to your to-do list. You’re assuming you know what the request is, even though the request hasn’t been clearly made. In short, you’re taking responsibility.
The more direct version of “How can I help?” is “What do you want from me?”
the wheel is spinning but the hamster is dead.
In fact, “strategic” has become an overused qualifier, something we add to anything that we want to sound more important, more useful, more thoughtful, more… good.
Why are you asking me?
Whom else have you asked?
When you say this is urgent, what do you mean?
According to what standard does this need to be completed? By when?
If I couldn’t do all of this, but could do just a part, what part would you have me do?
What do you want me to take off my plate so I can do this?
What is our winning aspiration?
Where will we play?
How will we win?
What capabilities must be in place?
What management systems are required?
You want them to learn so that they become more competent, more self-sufficient and more successful.
Academic Chris Argyris coined the term for this “double-loop learning” more than forty years ago.
But “What was most useful for you?” is like a superfood—kale perhaps—compared with the mere iceberg-lettuce goodness of the other questions.
“Is my manager useful?” the question asks. And thinking back over the last year, he’s struck by the fact that every single conversation with you has proven to be useful.
Answering that question extracts what was useful, shares the wisdom and embeds the learning. If you want to enrich the conversation even further—and build a stronger relationship, too—tell people what you found to be most useful about the exchange.
Critical consciousness, they say, is anarchic. Others add that critical consciousness may lead to disorder.
This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well.
The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom. Freedom would require them to eject this image and replace it with autonomy and responsibility.
Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture.
No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors.
Any situation in which “A” objectively exploits “B” or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened by false generosity, because it interferes with the individual’s ontological and historical vocation to be more fully human.
Conditioned by the experience of oppressing others, any situation other than their former seems to them like oppression.
The oppressed, as objects, as “things,” have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them.
Submerged in reality, the oppressed cannot perceive clearly the “order” which serves the interests of the oppressors whose image they have internalized. Chafing under the restrictions of this order, they often manifest a type of horizontal violence, striking out at their own comrades for the pettiest reasons.
This discovery cannot be purely intellectual but must involve action; nor can it be limited to mere activism, but must include serious reflection: only then will it be a praxis.
Accordingly, while no one liberates himself by his own efforts alone, neither is he liberated by others.
Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
The dominant elites consider the remedy to be more domination and repression, carried out in the name of freedom, order, and social peace (that is, the peace of the elites).
Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow.
The role of the problem-posing educator is to create; together with the students, the conditions under which knowledge at the level of the doxa is superseded by true knowledge, at the level of the logos.
Education as the practice of freedom—as opposed to education as the practice of domination—denies that man is abstract, isolated, independent, and unattached to the world; it also denies that the world exists as a reality apart from people. Authentic reflection considers neither abstract man nor the world without people, but people in their relations with the world.
Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human (which is not the privilege of an elite, but the birthright of all).
Without dialogue there is no communication, and without communication there can be no true education.
We simply cannot go to the laborers—urban or peasant9—in the banking style, to give them “knowledge” or to impose upon them the model of the “good man” contained in a program whose content we have ourselves organized.
They forget that their fundamental objective is to fight alongside the people for the recovery of the people’s stolen humanity, not to “win the people over” to their side. Such a phrase does not belong in the vocabulary of revolutionary leaders, but in that of the oppressor. The revolutionary’s role is to liberate, and be liberated, with the people—not to win them over.
Educational and political action which is not critically aware of this situation runs the risk either of “banking” or of preaching in the desert.
Meanwhile, the significant dimensions, which in their turn are constituted of parts in interaction, should be perceived as dimensions of total reality.
If the oppressed do not become aware of this ambiguity during the course of the revolutionary process, they may participate in that process with a spirit more revanchist than revolutionary.3 They may aspire to revolution as a means of domination, rather than as a road to liberation.
One is the thinking of the master; the other is the thinking of the comrade.
In order to present for the consideration of the oppressed and subjugated a world of deceit designed to increase their alienation and passivity, the oppressors develop a series of methods precluding any presentation of the world as a problem and showing it rather as a fixed entity, as something given—something to which people, as mere spectators, must adapt.
These courses are based on the naïve assumption that one can promote the community by training its leaders—as if it were the parts that promote the whole and not the whole which, in being promoted, promotes the parts.
If children reared in an atmosphere of lovelessness and oppression, children whose potency has been frustrated, do not manage during their youth to take the path of authentic rebellion, they will either drift into total indifference, alienated from reality by the authorities and the myths the latter have used to “shape” them; or they may engage in forms of destructive action.
What Guevara did not say, perhaps due to humility, is that it was his own humility and capacity to love that made possible his communion with the people.
Most unexpectedly I read 52 books in 2017. These last couple of months I’d been gunning for it but nothing about the first half of this year indicated that I would even hit my challenge of 26 books.
The first half of the year was marked by some decidedly slow reading as well as becoming a twin dad. The long and regular naps of young babies along with my parental leave made that a period where I caught up on watching a lot of movies (see the 50 movies in my Letterboxd diary).
Then halfway through the year, a shift happened where the kids underwent sleep regressions and we went through figurative hell. Watching video became impossible. The sleepless nights sitting up for 30-45 minutes at a stretch with a baby falling into deep sleep turned out to be a catalyst for reading.
I wanted to see how dramatic this shift was so I retrieved my year’s reading from Goodreads, filled in the page counts and made a bar chart of pages racked up per month.
That is indeed more or less where the kids started to become difficult sleepers (month 4-5) where my first peak starts and from there on it’s a steady pace until the end of the year bang.
What this has taught me more than anything is how relative reading velocity is and how with a bit of time and a slight change in attitude you can easily read 2-5x more than you normally thought possible. One of my tricks is to read about five books simultaneously and to cycle through those to keep up the energy.
For a normal month 1500 pages seems sustainable which would be about five books per month or sixty a year if I’d kept that up from the start. And 1500 pages per month is only 50 a day something that anybody with a bit of dedicated time should be able to do.
The books are listed per category below and the recommended ones are marked bold.
A meagre year but I feel that in my current engineering practice I know mostly what I want to know and I’m looking more to branch out. I’m still open to reading books about engineering, but the bar is rather high since both of the UX books below did not add much to my knowledge. Alexander’s Notes… is seminal and should be a required exercise for anybody designing anything.
- Lean UX: Applying Lean Principles to Improve User Experience
- Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher W. Alexander
- Advanced Swift
- UX for Lean Startups
This has been one area where I branched out and tore through a decent stack of standard works. I’ve enjoyed most of the things I read here a lot. Some books did not teach me that much as much as reinforce and recontextualize things that I already knew. It’s nice to be confirmed about things you found out yourself, but let’s hope my reading prevents me from making as many mistakes as well.
Jocko Willink’s Extreme Ownership is simple but extremely (!) effective. Reinertsen’s is a seminal tome that formalizes a lot of (what I think to be) common sense when it comes to product development and project management. Never split the Difference is a thrilling read and I’m already looking forward to applying the haggling it taught. The Coaching Habit is a laser precision book that teaches you exactly what you need to know and when/how to apply it. More books should do that.
- Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win, Jocko Willink
- Personal Kanban: Mapping Work Navigating Life
- The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development, Donald G. Reinertsen
- Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager
- Developer Hegemony: The Future of Labor
- Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness
- What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful
- Financial Strategy for Public Managers
- Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It, Chris Voss
- The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier
Seven out of nine (78%) of these authors are non-white/non-male and that is a worse score than I was hoping for. Toer’s book on life in the Dutch East Indies should be essential reading for all Dutch people. Nelson has shown me parenting from a non-cis/-male perspective and for that I’m grateful.
- Água Viva
- Open City
- The Name Of The Rose
- Aarde der Mensen, Pramoedya Ananta Toer
- The Goldfinch
- The God of Small Things
- The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson
- Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West
- The Underground Railroad
Five out of nine (56%) books here are by non-white/non-males which is somewhat better than one could hope for in speculative fiction. Blue Mars was a lovely end to a huge journey and both the trilogy and the planet did grow on me. The second Inheritance book was the best of the lot which does not mean the series is bad in any way.
- The Lathe of Heaven
- Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy, #3), Kim Stanley Robinson
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Inheritance Trilogy, #1)
- The Broken Kingdoms (Inheritance, #2), N.K. Jemisin
- The Kingdom of Gods (Inheritance, #3)
- The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)
- The Dispossessed
- Blindsight (Firefall, #1)
- Echopraxia (Firefall, #2)
Not that much outstanding here other than Scott’s book about Zomia. Reading a lot of the other books here felt like work even if they were short.
- The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering
- We Have Never Been Modern
- The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, James C. Scott
- Homage to Catalonia
- Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals
- Discontent and Its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London
- Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built
- Metaphors We Live By
- Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Kids’ books are terrible and Karp’s book on kids was one of the few I read that wasn’t totally useless.
- Mann Und Vater Sein
- Babys brauchen Väter
- The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block 2-Book Bundle, Dr. Harvey Karp
- The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems: Sleeping, Feeding, and Behavior–Beyond the Basics from Infancy Through Toddlerhood
- Was machst du kleiner Bagger?
- Wie kleine Tiere schlafen gehen
- Die kleine Raupe Nimmersatt
- Mein erstes Buch vom Körper
- Schlaf gut, Baby
A very slim year with Darwish the sole representant of this category, lovely but overly long in this selection.
- Unfortunately, It Was Paradise: Selected Poems, Mahmoud Darwish
Trungpa’s style is highly accessible while maintaining a lot of jargon. This is one of the first times things have clicked for me.
- The Truth of Suffering and the Path of Liberation, Chögyam Trungpa
Turkish MC XiR has a new trap song out with the noteworthy title Angela Merkel. There is even somebody with a Merkel mask in the video.
The video has a quick and dirty German subtitle bundled with it which you can turn on and read.
In the spirit of international relations, I will translate to English the hook of the song (lyrics on Genius). The rest of the song is either not that interesting or I’m missing out on a lot of inside baseball. Either way, I won’t try it.
Karaköy’e sen gel
Yol aldı yengen
Karaköy’e sen gel
There is no Schengen
You come down to Karaköy
You’ll lose your senses
Your woman’s gone
You come down to Karaköy
I can’t make much more of it other than that the mythologization of Angela Merkel continues. I’m curious what the German foreign office thinks about that.
Madness and journeys give us handles on the concept of love, and food gives us a handle on the concept of an idea.
We are proposing that the concepts that occur in metaphorical definitions are those that correspond to natural kinds of experience.
Examples are PHYSICAL ORIENTATIONS, OBJECTS, SUBSTANCES, SEEING, JOURNEYS, WAR, MADNESS, FOOD, BUILDINGS, etc. These concepts for natural kinds of experience and objects are structured clearly enough and with enough of the right kind of internal structure to do the job of defining other concepts.
What is real for an individual as a member of a culture is a product both of his social reality and of the way in which that shapes his experience of the physical world.
New metaphors, like conventional metaphors, can have the power to define reality. They do this through a coherent network of entailments that highlight some features of reality and hide others. The acceptance of the metaphor, which forces us to focus only on those aspects of our experience that it highlights, leads us to view the entailments of the metaphor as being true. Such “truths” may be true, of course, only relative to the reality defined by the metaphor.
A statement can be true only relative to some understanding of it.
It is because we understand situations in terms of our conceptual system that we can understand statements using that system of concepts as being true, that is, as fitting or not fitting the situation as we understand it. Truth is therefore a function of our conceptual system. It is because many of our concepts are metaphorical in nature, and because we understand situations in terms of those concepts, that metaphors can be true or false.
The reason we have focused so much on metaphor is that it unites reason and imagination. Reason, at the very least, involves categorization, entailment, and inference. Imagination, in one of its many aspects, involves seeing one kind of thing in terms of another kind of thing—what we have called metaphorical thought.
The reason is, simply, that if we can do this, we can draw inferences about the situation that will not conflict with one another. That is, we will be able to infer nonconflicting expectations and suggestions for behavior. And it is comforting—extremely comforting—to have a consistent view of the world, a clear set of expectations and no conflicts about what you should do. Objectivist models have a real appeal—and for the most human of reasons.
A general realization that science does not yield absolute truth would no doubt change the power and prestige of the scientific community as well as the funding practices of the federal government. The result would be a more reasonable assessment of what scientific knowledge is and what its limitations are.
Within the experientialist myth, understanding emerges from interaction, from constant negotiation with the environment and other people.
Each art medium picks out certain dimensions of our experience and excludes others. Artworks provide new ways of structuring our experience in terms of these natural dimensions. Works of art provide new experiential gestalts and, therefore, new coherences.