Monday, May 21, 2012

The Arab Uprisings: 1848 All Over Again?

“I believe that right now we are sleeping on a volcano . . . Can you not feel . . . the wind of revolution in the air?” Shortly after a perceptive political observer uttered these words, the uprisings began. Unemployed workers, radical university students, reform-minded middle class workers, ordinary peasants and even women and children marched toward the square outside the parliament to demand reform.

But they were met by government forces manning barricades, and bloody clashes soon broke out as the crowds surged against the barriers, eventually pushing through. After attempts to placate the crowds with half-measures for a few critical days, the head of state was forced to flee the country in disgrace. Revolutionaries across the region took heart and charged into the streets, threatening their regimes with massive protests.

This was  not Egypt and the Arab World in 2011 but France and Europe in 1848, and the perceptive political observer was none other than Alexis de Tocqueville.

What similarities and differences can we observe between this earlier revolutionary wave and the “wave” of revolutions that swept across the Middle East and North Africa region in 2011-12? This latter wave ousted regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen; it destabilized those in Syria and Jordan; and it left no country in the region unaffected. By contrast, only France’s monarch was removed in 1848. 
Sites of major uprisings in 1848

What contributed to the uprisings of 1848? How do they compare to the Arab uprisings? And what might the comparison teach us about globalization and political change?

To answer these questions, I picked up a recent book, Mike Rapport’s 1848: Year of Revolution (Basic Books, 2008), and compared it to Robin Wright’s Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World (Simon and Schuster, 2011), Marc Lynch’s The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (Public Affairs, 2012), and James Gelvin’s The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2012). Reading these together offers several lessons about rapid political change in a globalized world.
1. Comparing 1848 to the Arab Spring
Mike Rapport identifies several trends that had emerged by the mid-nineteenth century to make possible the fast-moving diffusion of revolutionary protests in Europe, and each of these has analogues in the Arab world today.

a. Increasing literacy rates and the growth of civil society leading to imagined unity
By 1848, Prussia had an impressive 80 percent literacy rate and France’s was 60 percent. More broadly, Europeans had embraced the ideal of civil society, “a cultural and social space independent of the state, where individual citizens could engage in discussion, debate and criticism of everything from art to politics” (p. 22). Embracing this ideal of civil society helped Europeans to imagine themselves as sharing something in common. If only for a moment, they were united. As an example, Rapport cites a Polish Democratic Society appeal to France on the basis of “the will of peoples—and not that of the cabinets usurping their rights—as the basis for international relations in the future” (p. 412). Both Polish and French liberals saw themselves as united.

Similarly, Marc Lynch builds on his previous book, which argued that the emergence of an Arab public sphere, seen mostly clearly in the widespread popularity of the Al Jazeera Arabic television channel, allowed ordinary Arabs to imagine themselves as part of a larger Arab public. Egyptians, Yemenis, or Libyans viewed themselves as connected to their Tunisian brothers and sisters. If anything, an Arab public space emerged more easily than a European public space, due to a common Arabic language across the region. Lynch notes in passing how the “Arab cold war” of the 1950s was inflamed by Egypt’s Voice of the Arab radio station and its appeals to the Arab masses. Thanks to al Jazeera, however, the “Arab uprising [in 2011] unfolded as a single, unified narrative of protest with shared heroes and villains, common stakes, and a deeply felt sense of shared destiny” (Wright, p. 8).

b. Widespread pressures for political reform, combined with economic crisis (Rapport, p. 105)
Across Europe, the old regime had failed to accommodate increasing desires for political and civil rights or national autonomy. But a global economic (food) crisis, combined with rapid technological changes, was disrupting lives across the continent. Regimes can easily put off political reform when people are well-fed and confident about their economic future. But when people are hungry and the economy goes sour, incumbents are in trouble. The incumbents in the European case, like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, had been around for over thirty years.

The importance of economic crisis is evident in the catalyst for the current wave. Everyone agrees that the December 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six year old fruit vendor in a poverty-stricken townin Tunisia, was the spark that kindled the revolutionary fires and was motivated by poverty and despair (see Wright, pp. 7-8). Young people across the Arab world shared his frustration with the economic and social status quo--a frustration noted in the Arab Human Development Reports of the last decade. Adding political frustration over corruption to economic despair, young Arabs were ripe for revolt.

c. Technology that speeds up communication
As Rapport puts it, “In 1789 it took weeks for news—carried, at its fastest, on horseback or under sail—for the fall of the Bastille to be relayed across Central and Eastern Europe. In 1848, thanks to steamships and a nascent telegraph system, reports were being heard within days or even minutes” (106). These dramatic technological changes help explain why a revolt that began in late February in Paris could inspire movements in Berlin, Vienna, and Venice within weeks. Globalization itself doesn't cause revolt, but it speeds up the process of change.

Although James Gelvin is skeptical about the “wave metaphor” (pp. 30-31, 155-56) and about the role of technology in the Arab protests, Marc Lynch describes a flurry of self-declared “hashtag revolution” protest days that were announced on Twitter between February 3 and March 24, 2011. While no serious scholar would argue that technology causes revolutions or obviates traditional political structures, it is obvious that technological innovations like Twitter, Facebook, and cellphones sped up communication. Gelvin writes that “there is no evidence to demonstrate that social media have played any more of a role in the current uprising than the printing press and telegraph played in earlier uprisings” (158). But this does not deny that communications technologies have played an important role and that they hasten the networking of revolutionaries. Lynch and Wright are the better guides on this issue.

d. A crisis of confidence among (some) leaders (Rapport, pp. 107, 410)
Rapport notes that several of the leaders hesitated in the face of widespread popular protest, agonizing over using force against their own citizens and wavering between cracking down or granting concessions. Notable among them were the French monarch, King Louis Philippe Bourbon; the Austrian Chancellor, Prince Clemens von Metternich; and the Prussian king, Frederick William IV. (Only the latter survived the crisis.) By contrast, the Russian tsar, Nicholas I, never hesitated in cracking down on liberal and nationalist reformers in his domains, and he intervened militarily to crush revolts in Romania and Hungary. Other leaders, notably in the Netherlands and Belgium, “made timely concessions before anything like a groundswell of opposition could pose a serious challenge” (98).

The parallels to leadership strategies in the Arab uprisings are nearly exact. Consider the three major options for leaders in 2011:
  • Neither all carrot nor all stick, or those who wavered and were lost:  Presidents Mubarak of Egypt, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and Saleh of Yemen.
  • The stick strategy, or those who cracked down and survived (thus far): the Al Khalifa family of Bahrain, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (in Bahrain), and President Bashar al Asad of Syria.
  • The carrot strategy, or those who made pre-emptive concessions and survived (thus far): King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (internally), Sultan Qaboos of Oman, King Abdullah of Jordan, King Mohamed VI of Morocco,
The major exception here is Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi tried the stick strategy and was defeated by rebel forces, assisted by NATO airpower (Lynch, who advised the White House during the uprisings, reviews this case well.)

e. The importance of coalitions (Rapport, pp. 108-9, 261)
Rapport contends that the uprisings in 1848 temporarily united disparate political forces: poor urban workers who wanted better economic conditions, rural peasants who were desperately poor, and middle class liberals who wanted political and civil rights or national autonomy. When these three groups could stick together and cooperate, they tended to get more results, but the conservative regimes were often able to regain the loyalty of the peasantry by abolishing serfdom and rallying the newly liberated peasantry around religious or national symbols.

Although we do not yet have detailed studies of the coalitions in the Arab uprisings, we will likely find similar coalitions of disparate groups with clashing interests and identities in the thick of it. We do know from journalists that young people, secular liberals, Islamists, and unionized workers (especially in Egypt) are key players in the revolutionary coalition.

2. Lessons about globalization and political change
Rapport’s history also yields a few lessons for those of us in the business of making sense of globalization and Middle East politics.

a. The illusion of simple narratives
As Anne Applebaum noted in Slate last year, the uprisings of 1848, like the Arab revolts, occurred for a myriad of local reasons. We must be careful to see the local and contextual factors--not just the global "wave" (and here Gelvin's cautions are warranted). While there is no question that the inspiration for revolution spread between countries, specific political grievances drove the process of change within each country. Bahrain’s fragile sectarian balance, for example, with a minority Sunni regime governing a Shiite majority, is quite different than Syria’s, where an Alawite minority ruled a restive Sunni Arab majority and pro-regime Christian minorities. Libya's regional and tribal differences are critical to understanding the opposition to Qaddafi. In short, the story is complicated, as it was in Europe. And all the politics were local, even if the mediascape was global.

b. The illusion of major change and permanent unity
Rapport borrows the term “lyrical illusion” from a French historian, Georges Duveau. Duveau contends that the revolutionaries acted on two illusions in 1848: first, “the idea that the people had indeed triumphed over the old regime and even defeated its armed forces;” and second, “the idea that the revolutions marked a new beginning, one in which the unity of all classes and people could nurture the delicate growth of a new freedom and a new, liberal order” (pp. 110-11). Neither of these ideas proved to be true in 1848: the armed forces and most regimes kept their power, while the revolutionary coalition was picked apart and peasants started backing the monarchs. As a result, the revolutions of 1848 failed to topple regimes except in France.

In the heady days of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution or Egypt’s Tahrir Square uprising, many shared the “lyrical illusion.” But 1848 reminds us to be humble about the prospects for change. The counter-revolutionary forces triumphed at the time, even in France (when the new president of the Republic, Napoleon III, made himself into a monarch within a few years). Likewise, it is not yet clear that the armed forces in Egypt have truly relinquished power. The upcoming presidential elections there will be an interesting test, and it’s quite likely that the winner will be an army-friendly member of the old regime.

c. The difficulty of keeping radicalism at bay and constructing a new order
Once the forces of change are unleashed, it can be hard to contain them. An American diplomat watching events in Vienna in 1848 noted that “the moderate supporters of the constitution were fighting a ‘double conflict . . . first, that of the people against the old form of government; secondly, that of the new form of government against the Radicals, or enemies of all government’” (Rapport, p. 227). Rapport counts this as “one of the great tragedies of 1848: that the social and political unity that had secured the victory of the opposition in the initial revolutionary outbursts proved to be so fragile” (p. 406).

Similarly, the transitional regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt have struggled to deal with continued protests from those unhappy with anything less than radical change. With the remnants of corrupt regimes often remaining in place, is moderate reform enough? The dangers of being co-opted by those remnants remain. It is difficult to construct a new regime in the midst of pressures from both radicals and old regime supporters.

As historian Jonathan Steinberg put it, “it is easier to overthrow the old regime than build a new one.” 

Nevertheless, a major lesson of the crises of 1848 is that a short-run victory for the forces of counter-revolution might only postpone a reckoning with the forces of change. Russia managed to stave off pressure in 1848, but the pent-up frustrations contributed to revolution in 1917. Prussia saw the ascent of a counter-revolutionary leaders in Bismarck, but the pressure to liberalize continued. Bismarck, despite being a conservative, instituted a welfare state in Germany as a classic “carrot strategy” to pre-empt protest. Social and economic change occurred, even when regimes stayed in place.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have already ousted more old regimes than the European wave of 1848. And this story is far from over.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Financial Thriller?

Review of Robert Harris, The Fear Index. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Several months ago, some members our family were settling down for a Friday movie night and a guest asked what we were going to watch.

"Margin Call," I said.

"What's that about?" our guest asked.

"It's a financial thriller."

"What's a financial thriller?" said the guest.

That was a great question. It's not exactly a familiar film or novelistic genre.

But the recent global financial crisis has spawned a few engaging stories, both fictional and journalistic, that also educate us a bit on the world of high finance (many of them reviewed in this space).

For a recent case in point, consider English novelist Robert Harris' most recent book. The Fear Index tells the story of Alexander Hoffman, an American physicist turned hedge fund trader, whose life is completely upended when a computerized algorithm invented by Hoffmann starts acting autonomously. This algorithm, called VIXAL, threatens to take over Hoffman's life and business. It all comes to a head in a crazy twenty-four period that begins when Hoffmann receives a rare first-edition copy of a book by Charles Darwin in the mail from an anonymous source.

Although the plot is "wholly implausible," as the Economist reviewer put it, the novel weaves together three main questions into a truly page-turning and engaging read. First, a classic science fiction strand: what would happen if machines, which dominate our lives, start taking autonomous action? Second, an interesting thought experiment: what if those machines followed Darwinian logic and sought to dominate the world? (It's significant that quotations from Darwin's works head nearly every chapter.) Third, a straightforward teaching function: what are hedge funds and how do they work?

It's this last point that interests me the most here. The Economist, which knows these things, says that "as a guide to what hedge funds actually do, [the book] is surprisingly clear and instructive." 

Two passages in the book illustrate this teaching function. First, in a few colorful (and creepy) sentences, Harris manages to explain hedging strategies of traders in a way that makes sense. Alexander Hoffmann, the main character, has just met an English financier who wants to recruit him to start a hedge fund. Hoffman asks, "What's a hedge fund?"

The English financier tells him to look across the room at a woman. He says that he is absolutely convinced that she is wearing black underwear, and he wants to bet a million dollars that he is right.
The trouble is, if I’m wrong, I’m wiped out. So I also bet she’s wearing knickers that aren’t black but are any one of a whole basket of colours—let’s say I put nine hundred and fifty thousand dollars on that possibility: that’s the rest of the market; that’s the hedge. . . . Now, if I’m right, I make fifty K, but even I’m wrong I’m only going to lose fifty K, because I’m hedged. And because ninety-five percent of my million dollars is not in use—I’m never going to be called on to show it: the only risk is in the spread—I can make similar bets with other people. Or I can bet on something else entirely. And the beauty of it is I don’t have to be right all the time—if I can just get the colour of her underwear right fifty-five percent of the time I’m going to wind up very rich. (p. 177)
That's what hedge funds do. They leverage their money across multiple risky bets, while hedging those risks to try to limit the damages if their bets about the future are wrong. And they may be speculating over very intimate details of our lives. (The creepiness of speculating on the color of a woman's underwear is essential to the character that Harris is sketching here. He's not condoning it so much as trying to depict how a real hedge fund trader would talk.)

The second example comes late in the book, when the VIXAL program appears to be running out of control:
That VIXAL was purely mechanical and possessed no emotion or conscience; that it had no purpose other than the self-interested pursuit of survival through the accumulation of money; that it would, if left to itself, in accordance with Darwinian logic, seek to expand until it dominated the entire earth—this did not detract for Hoffmann from the stunning fact of its existence. He even forgave it for the ordeal it had subjected him to: after all, that had purely been for the purposes of research. One could no more pass moral judgment on it than one could on a shark. It was simply behaving like a hedge fund. (pp. 262-63)
"It was simply behaving like a hedge fund." And how does a hedge fund behave? Like the machine, it has "no purpose other than the self-interested pursuit of survival through the accumulation of money."

Most ordinary people have no idea that the hedge fund world even exists. But the recent news about J.P. Morgan's two billion dollar loss in a risky hedging trade reminds us that overly aggressive risk-taking can be disastrous for banks and the ordinary people who use them.

Still, despite the crucial importance of risk-taking in the global financial system, "financial thrillers" will always attract a small audience. Our guest stayed to watch Margin Call, but fell fast asleep halfway through.