Note: I am grateful to Yale Historian, the Late Professor Robin W. Winks (dec. April 7, 2003 ) who was Visiting Professor of American History at The University of Malaya in 1960-1963 for introducing me to Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis.–Din Merican
American Progress: Some Thoughts on Frederick Jackson Turner and the Study of the American Frontier
For those who don’t know his name, Frederick Jackson Turner is one of the most important and debated figures in the field of American history, particularly frontier studies. Born in 1861, Turner published his most important and enduring work in 1893 – the ‘Frontier Thesis’ contained in ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History.’
According to Jackson, it was the frontier experience which gave America its distinct character, from popular democracy to the jettisoning of spent European ideas, the frontier was the location in which modern America came to be. Jackson’s ideas thus went to the heart of American history, describing modern characteristics as being fundamentally connected to one specific social experience; historians have been debating Turner ever since.
As you might expect, few of Jackson’s ideas have survived one hundred and twenty years of scrutiny, particularly as new perspectives (not the least of which is a Native American one) have come to describe a far more nuanced and subtle model for how we understand the frontier. In many ways, then, Turner is little more than a relic from the subject’s past but unlike most early pioneers in the topic (pun unintended) his work continues to fire discussions in academic circles, at conferences, and in private emails between colleagues and friends.
Indeed, if I were to be asked which historian I would most like to emulate it would have to be Turner – that has nothing to do with any desire to have my ideas discredited overtime. Rather, I respect and admire Turner’s ability to craft one of the most important questions ever to have been asked in the field of American history: what was the significance of the frontier in American history? This question is so complete, it cuts so utterly to the core of frontier studies that it has yet to be answered in a way that has put Turner’s original thesis to bed.
To compound matters, Turner possessed a skill which is sometimes lacking in some academic writing. Turner described a complex set of ideas – ones which aspire to explain the character of the United States – in a manner which was not only easily understood by those in the field, but easily understood by those outside of it. Consider the role played by western film during the Cold War.
So pervasive are Turner’s ideas that I recently received an email from a colleague of mine which asked this: “My question is really whether or not you, as a frontier historian, still regard Turner as an important touchstone for frontier historiography. Or is he too old hat? Are the questions he raises still ones that concern you and your colleagues?” Here is my reply…
“Frederick Jackson Turner’s ideas are a bit like reality TV programs: no matter how much you might want them to go away, they never really do. By that I mean that FJT and his ideas are, for the most part, deemed to be old hat but he reappears in various guises. Even when works go out of their way to present a different interpretation of the frontier he is often mentioned. In Contact Points, a book edited by Andrew R.L. Cayton and Fredricka Teute, they talk about FJT in order to make the point that his ideas are not relevant to that volume.
On the other side of the coin, his ideas still spring up in modified form, Patrick Griffin’s American Leviathan being a case in point. To be sure, Griffin doesn’t rehash Turner’s ideas but he does essentially argue that, in the broadest sense, they remain valid because the frontier experience in the Ohio Valley had a formative impact on how the US would develop in the 19th century. The frontier may not have been the cornerstone of mass democracy that Turner described but, according to Griffin, it was the cornerstone of many later developments, particularly with regards to the development of anti-Indian racism and the Trail of Tears, etc… For the most part, FJT is considered to be wrong in his interpretation of the frontier. However, his ideas were so big that that parts of them have been reintegrated into the modern historiography even as others use him as the straw man against which their own ideas are to be measured.”
To have one’s ideas discussed over a century after airing them is no small feat, particularly when the last three decades have seen our understanding of the frontier (in academic circles, at least) augmented considerably. Outdated though most of his ideas and arguments now are, Turner presented the academy with an important question which it has yet to adequately answer and that, I believe, is his true significance: what was the true significance of the frontier in American history? I offer no answers here, just his question.
FOR nearly two decades now articles and reviews by Daniel Bell have been appearing in our better journals of ideas…
Dennis H. Wrong /
An American “Centrist” The End of Ideology.
by Daniel Bell. The Free Press. 416 pp. $7.50.
For nearly two decades now articles and reviews by Daniel Bell have been appearing in our better journals of ideas and opinion. He has been so ubiquitous a figure, expressing himself on so many subjects, that readers must have occasionally wondered if there were more than one person writing under the name. Bell has in fact had several different careers: youthful radical journalist in the early 40’s, teacher of social science, labor editor of Fortune, globe-trotter for international committees of intellectuals. Now that he has returned to academic life as associate professor of sociology at Columbia, the publication of this collection of his more ambitious essays suggests an effort to indicate his intellectual resting places.
Range, variety, and versatility are the talents with which Daniel Bell is commonly credited. Yet the grouping together of his essays in The End of Ideology reveals his intellectual concerns to be rather more consistent and narrowly focused than regular readers of his magazine pieces might have anticipated. Two main themes predominate. One is what used to be called “American exceptionalism”: the view that political and sociological concepts derived from the study of European societies seriously distort our vision if applied to the American scene. The other is the “end of ideology” of the title: the abating in our prosperous post-bourgeois era of the ideological conflicts between left and right which have for so long dominated Western politics. Marx and Dewey, especially as interpreted by Sidney Hook, to whom the book is dedicated, are Bell’s chief intellectual mentors in developing, exploring, and illustrating these themes in their bearing on a range of topics including the bureaucratization of American capitalism, the decline in the militancy of the labor movement, the inadequacies of Mills’s theory of an American “power elite,” the rapid swings of the intellectual Zeitgeist since the 30’s, and the continuing boredom and emptiness of industrial work and what might be done to alleviate it.
It is possible to discern a certain formal inconsistency between the two themes. If the end of ideology applies to the Western world as a whole and reflects the stability of mature, increasingly egalitarian industrial societies, then the American immunity from divisive ideological passions which Bell consistently emphasizes as the unique virtue of our political system is no longer exceptional. There is, in fact, a dialectic between European and American experience that Bell misses—the much advertised postwar “Americanization” of Europe and the belated American adoption of reforms long advocated and in some cases long instituted by European socialist parties both helped dampen the fervors of the 30’s, the decade whose epitaph Bell is writing once more in so many of these essays. In an often penetrating discussion of the “New Left” here and abroad—Dissent, the British “angries,” the post-Hungary defectors from Communism on the continent—Bell fails to note the paradox that American radicals denounce mass culture in accents echoing European elitist or “Establishment” values, while young British leftists manifest immense sympathy and curiosity about American culture and are envious of the fluidity of status and the absence of stuffy, gilded institutions like the monarchy on this side of the Atlantic. Each group seems to wish that its own country resembled more closely its image of the other.
Except for this discussion of contemporary radicalism abroad, a review of theories of Soviet society, and some reflections on the thought of the early Marx, the essays in The End of Ideology deal with American life. Bell is perhaps our most conscientious and reliable historian of the return from the 30’s, of the assimilation of once-radical intellectuals and trade unionists into a society which they succeeded in modifying without transforming. But by now we know this story so well in so many of its ramifications that several of these essays have inevitably lost the flavor of originality they had when they first appeared. One is struck, nevertheless, with how good the best of them are, a category in which I would place those dealing with the U.S. economy. Probing the point at which economic problems of wage determination, national mobilization policy, technological rationalization, and shifts in business leadership and the sources of investment funds become or touch on political conflicts, Bell refuses to be frightened by the formidable abstractions or the arrogant professionalism of the economists and determinedly locates what they have to say in its larger social and historical context.
I have more reservations about his treatment of political and cultural issues. Dwight Macdonald recently described Bell as a congenital centrist. If so, and Bell good-naturedly accepted the designation, we are here confronted with the spectacle of a centrist engaged in finding his own image reflected in the society around him, a society founded, he argues, on the politics of moderation and the culture of the middle class, yet strong and vital enough to blunt the critical assaults of both the cultural aristocrat and the Utopian radical. Bell is aware of the intensity with which many intellectuals “ache for the lost Arcadia” of the 30’s; he recognizes the widespread hunger for heroism, passion, a transfiguring cause. Nor is he lacking in sympathy for such an outlook, observing that the young intellectual unavoidably feels that “the middle way is for the middle-aged, not for him.” And he is careful to note that “a repudiation of ideology, to be meaningful, must mean not only a criticism of the Utopian order but of existing society as well.”
Yet there is an irritating cageyness about all this. For Bell will not finally concede the reality of anything out there in the world to justify rebellion and rejection. His tone becomes avuncular: ah yes, young intellectuals naturally want to be fired with romantic passions—that is a rite de passage of their vocation. But unhappily history is unable to accommodate them, for the Age of Ideology has ended and anyway we have learned that “the tendency to convert concrete issues into ideological problems, to invest them with moral color and high emotional charge, is to invite conflicts which can only damage a society.”
Now if one equates “ideology” with secular messianism few will want to deny the essential rightness of this judgment after all that has happened in this century. The trouble is that it is almost impossible to believe Bell’s claim that, for himself at least, it represents a bitter, hard-won wisdom, that in giving up the delights of ideology he is really surrendering something for which he has a strong appetite. His references to the pessimism, disenchantment, et al. of his “generation” (he is a great player of the generations game) therefore ring hollow, and he simply sounds smug when urging the young to renounce this evil fruit. It is all very well to affirm with Machiavelli that “men commit the error of not knowing when to limit their hopes” (this quotation heads the final and title chapter of The End of Ideology), but the reality and indestructibility of their hopes need to be insisted on with equal force. Especially if one sees history as tragic.
But these are essentially matters of sensibility and are perhaps of secondary importance in what is not, after all, a personal testament but a series of uncommonly knowledgeable political and sociological interpretations. I find, however, that on at least two occasions Bell’s centrism and “moderationism” lead him rather seriously astray on substantive questions.
In an essay which has already acquired justified celebrity as one of the very few available critiques of the fashionable notion of “mass society,” Bell ably traces the origin of the idea to European reactionary and aristocratic-elitist thought. He catches Jaspers, Ortega, and other mass theorists in a number of extreme and romantic overstatements before turning to a defense of American society against the charges of social atomization, cultural mediocrity, and compulsive conformism leveled by these thinkers and their epigoni. So the American habit of establishing and joining a multitude of voluntary associations serving all conceivable purposes is invoked to refute the view that we are a rootless, alienated mass, although the very disposition to create such “artificial” social groups might as readily be considered evidence for as against our rootlessness. And then we are told for the umpteenth time how many good books are sold and how many symphony orchestras flourish in the United States, as if these conceivable indications of the average cultural level were in any way relevant to the arguments of Ortega and T. S. Eliot which bear solely on the opportunities for high culture. While Bell, finally, is right to chide leftist critics of mass culture for ignoring the possible conflict between the claims of cultural excellence and social justice, he himself then suppresses the issue by descending to the sorriest level of apologetics in defense of American culture.
Bell argues that socialism failed as a movement in the United States because American socialists of all breeds never resolved the contradiction between ethical idealism and the requirements of effective political action. Perhaps by stressing this somewhat esoteric consideration he is simply trying to avoid another rundown of the usual causes cited to explain the failure of American socialism: the lack of a feudal past, the influx of immigrants, the high standard of living, and so on. But he manages seriously to distort and oversimplify the thought of Max Weber, from whom he borrows the notion of an inevitable tension between ethics and politics. In his famous essay “Politics as a Vocation,” Weber contrasted an “ethic of responsibility” with an “ethic of absolute ends.” By the former he meant the recognition that to make changes in the world one must take into account its imperfection and be prepared to use ethically questionable means, i.e. force, for all politics involves the use of force at some level. The proponent of absolute ends, on the other hand, refuses to separate means and ends: he may simply recommend exemplary conduct or he may argue that “from good comes only good, but from evil only evil follows.” Arthur Koestler’s dichotomy of the Yogi and the Commissar refers to the extreme versions of each ethic.
Bell quite illegitimately identifies the Communist, the fanatic, the totalitarian extremist with the ethic of absolute ends. In fact the Communist does not, like the saint, “live his end,” but is at the very opposite pole, completely dissociating means from ends, and ultimately, in his worship of the “organizational weapon” of the party, collapsing the latter into the former. Bell wants to reserve rational, expedient, “responsible” conduct for the politics of compromise and moderation which he favors, so he stands Weber’s distinction on its head and obscures the fundamental dilemma of means and ends in politics which Weber grasped more profoundly than anyone else, the dilemma, in Weber’s words, that “if one makes any concessions at all to the principle that the end justifies the means, it is not possible to bring an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility under one roof or to decree ethically which end should justify which means.” Koestler’s pseudo-tragic polarity is also a false one because though a man acts by following an ethic of responsibility somewhere, unless he is a totalitarian, “he reaches the point where he says: ‘Here I stand; I can do no other.’ ”
Perhaps it is a measure of the ultimate limitations of centrism as a political philosophy that it so obscures the central, utterly irresolvable dilemma of politics. But this is not to deny the illumination it casts on particular issues and these essays amply attest to that.
On May 9, 2018, Malaysians threw the bums out, voting decisively against the Barisan Nasional (National Front, BN), the coalition of broadly right-wing and center parties that had governed Malaysia since independence in 1957. The election poses the question: has Malaysia bucked a global anti-democratic trend?
The conventional wisdom is that a feisty, beleaguered opposition coalition made up of a somewhat motley mix of leftist catch-all, progressive Islamist, and communal parties bested the behemoth BN by force of ideals, pluck, and the charisma of a former “dictator,” as the new prime minister now delights in branding himself. The BN’s decrepitude, born of too many years of untrammeled authority and political inbreeding in a cronyistic, dynastic order, cleared the way for new leaders. All the while, rising costs of living, increasingly stark economic inequality, and spreading awareness that the state- and party-controlled mainstream media were not telling the whole story had left the mass of voters hungry for change.
The Malaysian narrative is one of voters reflecting critically on a well-lubricated patronage machine and rejecting it, at least in part, out of aspirations for democracy, justice, and good governance. But like any good story, this one has a more complex plot line than that, peppered with stratagems, reversals, and ironic turns. What too-pat narratives obscure is the wider context and what we might expect — and voters might seek — to change or maintain.
The Scene As It Stands
At the helm now, thanks to a weird twist of fates and strategy, is one-time Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, one of the world’s longest-serving heads of government — and also now among the oldest, as he approaches his ninety-third birthday. Although he did voluntarily step down in 2003, after twenty-two years in office, Mahathir has continued to yank at the strings of state since then, and had become increasingly apoplectic at incumbent Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak’s running the party and government, per Mahathir’s reading, into the ground through rent-seeking verging on plunder.
To hear breathless popular accounts of the “Mahathir factor,” one might assume ethnic Malays — who, together with smaller indigenous groups, collectively termed Bumiputera, comprise slightly more than two-thirds of the population — to be blindly feudalistic, swiveling to heed the call of their once and future master. (Just under one-quarter of Malaysians are of Chinese ethnicity and about 7 percent, Indian.) Mahathir does have his devotees, but to some extent, this common narrative reflects media sensationalism more than reality. Frustration with rank corruption, inequality, and poor governance galvanized many or most opposition supporters, independently of the icon propounding those messages. Nevertheless, Mahathir’s savvy articulation of his coalition’s objectives and BN pathologies, as well as his charisma, helped to tip the scales.
Initially organized as the three-party Alliance, the BN structures itself largely along communal lines. Its core parties represent ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Indian Malaysians, respectively. First among nominal equals — and increasingly dominant over the years — is the United Malays National Organisation, UMNO, Mahathir’s home since its founding in 1946 until he left and launched Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (Malaysian United Indigenous Party, PPBM) in 2016.
Essentially ideology-free otherwise by this point, the BN claims support for having delivered development, with something for (almost) everyone. Opposition parties tend to cluster largely in an Islamist camp dominated by the Parti Islam seMalaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS), or else along class lines, from a Socialist Front defunct by the early 1970s; to the social-democratic Democratic Action Party (DAP), rump successor to the People’s Action Party after Singapore’s short-lived merger with Malaysia in the mid-1960s; to the small but embedded Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM).
To take on the BN required merging these camps. First-past-the-post voting rules, coupled with heavy-handed gerrymandering and constituency malapportionment, often make three-cornered fights difficult for the opposition; pre-election coalitions are a must. That imperative is at the heart of any assessment of how far Malaysian political alternatives have come and where they may be going: Malaysia’s sociopolitical landscape makes for quirky pairings.
Coalitions require glorification of the least common denominator. Starting in the late 1990s, that galvanizing, offensive-to-few message came to be “justice,” centered initially around sacked, then imprisoned former UMNO deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim and his purpose-built Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, People’s Justice Party). Now, in the wake of one of the world’s largest money-laundering and graft sagas, that of the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) sovereign-wealth fund, the message centers around an obvious anti-corruption theme.
The coalition had maintained a non-communal premise since an initial foray as the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Front) in 1999. Now it includes a Malay-communal party: Mahathir’s PPBM, made up mostly of his fellow exiles from UMNO. Having made incremental, inconsistent headway in cementing cooperation and securing seats since the late 1990s, the opposition coalition — reconstituted first as Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Pact), then as Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) — gained control of several states, and now the federal government.
In the last election, in 2013, Pakatan Rakyat won a slim majority of the popular vote but fell short of winning the federal government. This time, Pakatan Harapan won the government with just shy of a popular-vote majority, given divided support for the BN and the no-longer-in-Pakatan PAS, which remains independently potent in Malaysia’s northeast.
The BN is left in shambles, its remains eroding further by the week. Pakatan Harapan is up and running, but it is not entirely clear yet how far or how fast.
Pakatan Harapan willsurely make positive, progressive changes to what has become an ossified, decreasingly legitimate, increasingly illiberal system. Already they have begun investigating ousted prime minister Najib Razak and wife Rosmah Mansor — whose penchant for exorbitantly priced handbags rivals Imelda Marcos’s yen for shoes — and the 1MDB saga, the convoluted, seedy story of how Najib and various others misappropriated an estimated several billion dollars from a state investment fund launched in 2009.
More than that, the new government has spoken plausibly of plans, once parliament convenes in July, to revise or revoke controls on media, association, and speech; to release the political reins on schools and universities; to implement open tender and stronger oversight on government contracts; and more. Heads of statutory boards are starting to roll, and bloated or needless government agencies are coming under scrutiny.
Most cabinet appointments, finalized only in mid June, reflect real expertise rather than political concessions, as under the BN model. The coalition itself is far more equally balanced among its component parties than the BN ever has been — and that those parties do differ in meaningful ways, in their goals or membership, ensures a wider range of alternatives may reach the policy table.
Already the results have reset the stage for states’ rights, too. Leaders of awkwardly incorporated, underdeveloped Sabah and Sarawak, states on the island of Borneo, hundreds of miles across the South China Sea from the peninsular mainland, have broken with the federal BN — not just eviscerating their former coalition, but staking a firm claim to fairer status and reward in the federation.
If Malaysia is to emerge from its increasingly authoritarian past, having this new government emplaced is a good thing. Yet of course, it will not change all things, and it may achieve far less than years of opposition manifestos have pledged in terms of ushering in a more equitable, consultative order.
Two lenses are especially germane in understanding the capacity and limits of reform, given this mix of old and new: economic policy, including the extent of communalism (as codified especially in far-reaching race-based preferential policies); and the tension between a highly personalized (however party-centered) and more issues-based or ideological politics.
Where Paths Lead
First, economics. Survey after survey suggests the key issue for Malaysians, election after election, is the economy, and particularly rising costs of living. However, a thick tangle of affirmative-action policies to favor Bumiputera, dating to British colonial times but strengthened under the 1970s New Economic Policy (NEP) and a series of successor plans, tempers what it means to prioritize household economics.
The UMNO-led BN has held pro-Malay policies to be sacrosanct. Revising the criteria for qualification to be need-based rather than race-based would not dramatically shift the beneficiaries; race and class substantially align, particularly since the benefits of preference have flowed disproportionately to already-wealthy “UMNOputera,” the well-connected ruling-party elite. A better lens on economic voting in Malaysia considers not just financial standing, confidence, and progress since the last election, but which party voters trust to manage the economy.
Here we see an ethnic divide, with Malay voters typically disproportionately trusting UMNO, whatever they think of the party otherwise. The most plausible explanation is that these voters believe the best way to ensure their economic wellbeing is by maintaining preferential policies, on which opposition parties, but never UMNO, have equivocated.
The Malaysian constitution grants Bumiputera special stature in the polity; accumulated norms (backed by potent sedition legislation) translate that standing to irrefutable political dominance and economic privilege. At no time has Pakatan seriously challenged Malay primacy, but they have promised a less communally structured economy.
Pakatan’s embrace of the communally focused PPBM shifts the key. Critical to the coalition’s gains this time, especially in winning over Malay voters, appears to have been the reassurance Mahathir — whose early writings inspired and informed the NEP — and his party offered, that Pakatan would uphold pro-Malay policies. Now in office, the coalition has limited room for maneuver, especially with their main opposition still Malay-based (in UMNO as well as PAS) and only a slim parliamentary majority.
Importantly, since taking office, Mahathir and his government have insisted on their determination to maintain an even keel: to push back against some mega-investment from China, perhaps, and to cancel at least one particularly costly boondoggle — a high-speed rail line between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore — but to keep investors confident.
Mahathir is Malaysia’s original mega project mastermind: the “national car” intended to galvanize industrialization in the 1980s (Proton, short for Perusahaan Otomobil Nasional, or National Automobile Company, 49.9 percent owned by China’s Geely Holdings as of last year), the Petronas twin towers, an extravagant new capital at Putrajaya: glamorous, expensive grand gestures intended to signal Malaysia’s developmental success. His newly appointed finance minister, the DAP’s Lim Guan Eng, previously the chief minister of prosperous, opposition-held Penang state, likewise caught flak there for his coziness with developers and embrace of ambitiously grand infrastructure and real-estate projects.
Mahathir’s Council of Eminent Persons (L-R): Robert Kuok, Zeti Aziz, Hassan Marican, Dr. Jomo Kwame Sundaram and CEP Chair Person Tun Daim Zainuddin
An appointed Council of Eminent Persons, named after the elections to advise on economic policy, includes the renowned, respected, and progressive economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, but also billionaire tycoon Robert Kuok and Mahathir’s erstwhile UMNO bagman Daim Zainuddin — so their advice could pull in any of several directions. (Already, members have come under fire for meddling beyond their mandate.)
These economic impulses and incentives taken in sum, we should assume an at least somewhat more transparent, less cronyistic system, but still with a heavy emphasis on foreign investment–led, large-scale developments (with requirements intact to ensure Malay contractors’ protected share in the bounty), faith in the blessings of neoliberalism, and politically fruitful (commonly dubbed “populist”) wealth-sharing to amplify otherwise-tepid trickle-down effects.
More broadly, both coalitions are neoliberal at their core. Both offered a host of makeshift measures to reduce the pinch of rapid, top-heavy development, ranging from targeted cash-transfer and voucher schemes (for children, students, seniors, newlyweds, the bereaved, housewives, entrepreneurs, and the poor), to subsidized utilities, to reduced road tolls. But neither suggested any fundamental branching from that economic path beyond, for instance, expanded educational opportunities to prepare Malaysians better to embrace the modern economy.
Indeed, Pakatan essentially shut out the anti-capitalist Parti Sosialis: in allocating seats, the coalition offered the socialist party a meager one constituency in which to contest (in which PSM was the incumbent). When PSM insisted on standing in others, Pakatan revoked even that paltry offer and competed against PSM’s Dr Michael Jeyakumar Devaraj, defeating him. (In pushing on to prove their point, both sides took the very real chance of splitting the vote and delivering the seat to the BN.)
Second, like the government it replaces, Pakatan is highly leader-centered, to the point of obscuring an emphasis on issues or ideology. Its commitment to term limits is a definite improvement (while Mahathir’s old age offers reassurance of his own commitment not to outstay his welcome; the plan is to hand the reins to Anwar within about two years). Yet Malaysian politics has been and remains deeply clientelistic across parties, despite significant overseas and internal rural–urban labor migration, economic diversification, and sufficient state capacity that party machines should be off the hook for welfare services. A “personal vote” matters even when parties are at their most pulled-together — and even those candidates able to coast on their party’s coattails prioritize “going to the ground” for grassroots constituency service and mingling among the masses.
However much media and pundits exaggerate the extent of his personal responsibility for Pakatan’s win, Mahathir did help to tip the scales, and it remains to be seen what Mahathir the man represents vis-à-vis a reform agenda. More to the point, that the best Pakatan could do in terms of a broadly palatable leader — realizing the imperative in Malaysia of a leader to lead the charge, no matter how deeply unpopular their rival — was the long-retired Mahathir, architect of the system now in place and whom so many within PH once reviled as a despot, could bode poorly for its sustainability and depth of support.
On the other hand, Pakatan has a clear advantage on this score — though less in Mahathir’s PPBM than in its partner parties. Spurred not least by predations during Mahathir’s previous longue durée, Malaysia has developed a vibrant civil society, encompassing not only largely urban, middle class–based advocacy NGOs, but also mass-based Islamist organizations, deeply embedded communal and cultural associations, and more. Many of these groups, from Chinese educationists to Muslim dakwah activists to human-rights campaigners, have a clear political, and often partisan, orientation. That rootedness in civil society gives Pakatan not only a loyal base of volunteers for get-out-the-vote and other efforts, but also reinforces its orientation around issues of better governance, social justice, and civil liberties.
That said, Pakatan’s record of governing at the state level revealed greater ambivalence than many activists had expected about their collaborating with advocacy NGOs in particular. Even many Pakatan legislators who cut their political teeth in those same NGOs came to consider their one-time colleagues too single-issue-oriented or impatient for improbably sweeping change and found the constant pressure irksome.
Promises of reserved seats for civil society activists in appointed local councils, for instance — as a stopgap remedy until Pakatan could restore local-government elections, halted since the 1960s — withered in Pakatan-held Penang and Selangor over the past decade. (Pakatan’s national manifesto does not promise restoration of local-government elections, but pressure is sufficiently high that progress toward that goal seems likely.)
Moreover, women’s organizations in particular have urged all parties to improve the gender balance in representation in public office. While these efforts have yielded aspirations and quotas, no party has come close to meeting them, even for appointed offices with a clearly sufficient female pool from which to draw. So while the close ties between civil society and Pakatan parties bode well for generating sufficient new leaders to sustain real competition, among candidates with skills and experience for leadership roles, recruitment could still fall short in terms of enhancing representativeness and idealism in practice.
And at the end of the day, there is always another election ahead. Pakatan developed under BN rule; it may hesitate to change the rules of a game it has only so newly mastered. Nor can it risk losing its lead. Some Pakatan support is proactive: champions of change, away from the too-long-entrenched BN and toward cleaner, more accountable and responsible governance. Some, though, is reactive: voting against Najib, but without necessarily seeking any dramatic overhaul beyond that purge — hence the appeal of not-too-different PPBM and Mahathir.
To win a second time, Pakatan needs to keep both camps in its corner. Unless electoral rules change (unlikely, although entirely reasonable to consider) or something else goes really awry in Malaysia (always possible), the wider frame of these recent elections suggests observers keep their expectations of systemic change in check.
Malaysia is unlikely to return to the old Mahathirian model, which Najib stretched to its extremes, of an excessively strong executive, rapacious ruling party, and snowflake-sensitive public authorities. On the other hand, quick, dramatic change toward a much more politically competitive or economically progressive order is equally unlikely, given the pull of the status quo. (Nearby Indonesia, having just marked twenty years since the Reformasi that ousted Suharto and his New Order regime, is a sobering Exhibit A.)
What the wider context suggests is something in between: an order that increases the political space for, and responsiveness to, alternative voices and ideas, within and outside parties; that does less to stifle efforts within civil society toward more coordinated, efficacious advocacy; and that encourages — even just by dint of a multipolar electorate and fissiparous coalitions — real competition around principles as well as personalities.
Malaysia has opened the door to fundamental reform, even if new leaders do little more than peek around the corner in these early stages, and even if its citizens opt ultimately to update the décor rather than shift the socioeconomic foundations of the state.
There was a limit to playing identity politics during the 14th General Elections (GE14), but it’s now too simplistic to say there’s a “new politics” where race and religion no longer matter in Malaysia. Malaysia is not totally free from elements of Bumiputraism and Islamism, yet there are diversifications and transformations of discourses and practices in political Islam. And these changes will continue to shape and be shaped by political contestations in this “new Malaysia”.
Opposition party PAS and victorious Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition party Amanah are unlikely to cooperate in the name of Islam. Although both claim to be Islamic parties, their approaches are rather different. PAS is a more Malay-oriented Islamic party with its strongholds in Kelantan and Terengganu, while Amanah is a more cosmopolitan and reformist-inclined Islamic party with a support base in the urbanised Klang Valley. Such Pas–Amanah competition might be also framed as a contestation between orthodox versus moderate Islamism, Islamism versus post-Islamism, or political Islam 1.0 versus 2.0; of course, the realities are more much more complex than these differentiations. Hence, it is a mistake to claim that Malay Muslims in the Klang Valley are less “Islamic” than those in the east coast states, just because they did not vote for PAS.
At GE-14, PAS won 18 parliamentary seats while Amanah secured 11 seats. However, the “Islamic voice” in the winning PH coalition also exists in its other component parties PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) and even PPBM (Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia), as there are leaders with ABIM (Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia) and IKRAM (Pertubuhan IKRAM Malaysia) background in both parties. In short, PAS is no longer the only dominant force representing political Islam in Malaysia, as it’s facing strong challenges from other political parties and also NGOs with Islamic credentials.
Many Malaysians, including Malay Muslims, voted against Najib Razak and issues such as the GST and corruption in GE-14. Yet where these Malay protest votes go are configured by political orientations among Malay Muslims, depending on regions. In the southern states such as Johor, Malay nationalism is strong and PAS is not an important force. Hence the anti-Najib voters’ swinging to PH.
But in the east coast states, PAS is strong on its own. After successfully denouncing Amanah and consolidating its hardcore supporters, the party ran extensive campaigns against the GST and corruption to attract anti-Najib voters. It may be inaccurate to claim that many Malay Muslims in Kelantan and Terengganu were voting for RUU355, a parliamentary bill proposed by PAS president Hadi Awang to enhance existing Syariah laws.
In the Klang Valley, potential PAS voters are much more diverse and sophisticated than those in the east coast. Aside from the PAS hardcore, there are also supporters of Anwar Ibrahim, ABIM, Ikram, and other Islamic movements. At GE14, the PAS hardcore stayed loyal yet others, especially those from ABIM and IKRAM, ran effective campaigns for PH, lending the coalition much-needed Islamic credentials. They have successfully persuaded many former PAS voters in the Klang Valley to vote for PH.
Many observers have focused on PAS’ winning Kelantan and Terengganu states on its own, attributing its victories to religious factors and describing PAS voters as a “moral constituency”. However, such analyses often wrongly suggest Muslims who have voted for PH are less “Islamic” and less concerned about “moral issues”. Many have also taken urban Muslim supporters of PH for granted.
Take the case of Sungai Ramal (formerly Bangi), a Malay-majority urban state seat in Selangor. By exploring how PAS and PH (represented by Amanah) competed to win over pious urban Muslim voters, by offering different approaches to political Islam, its results tell us more about the transformation of political Islam in urban Malaysia.
Like Shah Alam, Bangi or to be more accurate Bandar Baru Bangi (Bangi New Town) was an urban development project under the New Economic Policy (NEP) to increase the urban Malay population. The state assembly seat of Bangi, renamed Sungai Ramal in 2018, had previously been won by PAS in 1999, 2008, and 2013. Yet it was captured by PH in 2018. The main offices of ISMA (Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia) and HTM (Hizbut Tahrir Malaysia) are located in Bangi, while many ABIM and IKRAM activists also reside in this township.
Bangi is generally seen as a “middle-class Malay Muslim” township. It’s also known as “bandar ilmu” (“knowledge town”, where UKM and KUIS are located) and “bandar fesyen” (“fashion town”, where many Muslimah boutiques and halal eateries are situated). During the GE14 campaign, some Amanah leaders also called Bangi “bandar Rahmatan lil-Alamin”—an inclusive Islamic township which is “a blessing for all”.
After the controversial redelineation exercises nationwide by the Election Commission (EC), the state constituency of Bangi not only got a new name (Sungai Ramal) but also an increase in Malay voters, from about 66% to 80%. Such demographics might have indicated a higher chance for PAS to retain the seat or perhaps enabled UMNO to wrest the seat back. However, as I have observed during the election campaign, Bangi was a battleground between PAS (represented by Nushi Mahfodz, a celebrity ustaz) and Amanah (represented by Mazwan Johar, a lawyer and ex-PAS activist), given that UMNO was not popular among many urban, educated middle-class Malay Muslims.
In order to engage with its middle class and youth members, as well as to win over support from a broader set of pious Muslims, the PAS leadership in Selangor knows its religious credentials alone are not enough. Party strategists have introduced the idea of “technocratic government” (kerajaan teknorat), running events such as “town hall” meetings featuring the party’s youth leaders from professional backgrounds. But religious issues are still central to the PAS campaign. It fielded Nushi Mahfodz, a lecturer at KUIS (Kolej Universiti Islam Selangor) and a celebrity ustaz, as an attempt to win over pious voters. PAS also had certain controls over mosques, religious schools and kindergartens across Bangi.
But there were some uncertainties and dissatisfaction among PAS supporters during GE-14, and they posed challenging questions to party leaders over the campaign. According to PAS ceramah attendees I met, there were different levels of support toward the Islamist party. Some were hardcore PAS members, some were dissatisfied members considering voting for PH, while others who were unhappy with the party leadership still stayed loyal to the party. One of them used the analogy of a classroom: “the teacher might be wrong, but the textbook is always correct. We can criticise the teacher, but we can’t throw away our textbook”.
Pakatan Harapan was well aware it was not enough to campaign solely against the GST and corruption if it wanted to win over pious Muslim voters in Bangi. So it wasn’t a surprise that Amanah arranged a dialogue in Bangi during the GE14 campaign featuring Ustaz Nik Omar, the eldest son of the late Nik Aziz, the revered former PAS spiritual leader. In that dialogue, Nik Omar suggested that his father was not only fighting for the party (PAS), but also more importantly for Islam and for dakwah. For him, dakwah was an “Islamic outreach” towards the broader Muslim community and non-Muslims as well. Compared to “inward-looking” PAS, Nik Omar found PH a better platform for dakwah. In some ways, he carried the legacy of his father, emphasising the need to engage with broader societies while upholding an Islamic agenda.
But Nik Omar himself suffered a heavy defeat in Kelantan, where PAS hardcore supporters in the east coast were ideologically committed and highly loyal to the party. Yet Nik Omar played an important role in helping PH win over fence-sitter Muslim voters, especially in the Klang Valley. If Dr Mahathir Mohammad with his “Malay nationalist” outlook convinced some previously UMNO voters to switch their support to PH, Nik Omar with his “Islamic credentials” persuaded some previously PAS voters to swing their support to Harapan.
By hailing Nik Aziz as an exemplary Muslim leader in its elections campaign, Amanah emphasised social inclusiveness, working with people from all walks of life including non-Muslims. Yet, at the same time, it maintained certain conservative religious and moral viewpoints. For example, some of its leaders committed PH to not allowing cinemas and alcohol sellers in Bangi. In addition to Nik Omar, many ABIM leaders living in Bangi including its first president Razali Nawawi and fourth president Muhammad Nur Manuty also gave their support to PH candidates. A local PKR leader who ran one of the campaign offices was also from an ABIM background. The main campaign team for the Amanah candidate included youth activists from IKRAM.
As the results showed, a combined effort by Amanah, PKR, IKRAM and ABIM activists defeated the incumbent PAS candidate in this urban Malay Muslim-majority seat. The PH coalition won with 24,591 votes, with PAS securing 13,961 votes while UMNO only got 9,372 votes. As compared to the 2013 elections, there was a huge decrease in both PAS voters (dropping to 13,961 from 29,200 previously) and UMNO voters (to 9,372 from 17,362 previously). In other words, about half of previously PAS and UMNO voters swung their support over to Pakatan Harapan.
Various reasons contributing to this change of voting patterns include the possibility that a significant number of former PAS voters are also supporters of PKR, ABIM, IKRAM, and other Islamic organisations. They are pious voters who consider Islam as an important factor in their voting but they’re not loyal PAS supporters. At GE14, many of them indicated their acceptance of PH as an “Islamic alternative”. Despite that, PAS was still able to keep its 30% support base of Muslim voters in Bangi, suggesting that the Islamist party still has influence among urban Muslims in the Klang Valley. It might be premature to conclude that PAS is only a regional party with influence in the east coast and northern states.
The GE-14 result reflects the enduring influence of PAS and it remains one of the key players of political Islam in Malaysia. Yet at the same time, Amanah and PKR, and to a lesser extent, PPBM, together with IKRAM and ABIM, have offered a viable “Islamic alternative” for pious Muslim voters. Over the next few years, can PAS rejuvenate or expand its support base in the Klang Valley? Can Amanah make further inroads into the east coast states?
The competition for pious Muslim voters will continue to shape and be shaped by Malaysian politics. Anwar Ibrahim recently visited his comrade Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, while Nik Omar and some Amanah leaders have also made references to Erdogan. Some liberal Muslims have questioned the suitability of Maszlee Malik as the Minister of Education because of his perceived “Islamist” background, and he replied such critics by pointing out “being religious is not a crime”.
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has stated his intention to revamp the federal government’s Islamic affairs bureaucracy JAKIM, leaving the room open for further competition among different Islamic groups in Malaysia. Such competition will also be configured by the engagement of Muslims from various backgrounds—from traditionalists to modernists, from secular-minded to Islamist-minded, from progressive to conservative. And there are the interactions with non-Muslim Malaysians to consider as well.
DUN Sungai Ramal(formerly Bangi)
2018Total voters: 54,961
Malays 80% Chinese 9%
Indians 10% Others 1%
2013Total voters: 53,268
Malays 66% Chinese 19%
Indians 13% Others 1%
Election results in the Sungai Ramal state seat (formerly Bangi) in 2018 and 2013 [data from https://undi.info]
TL;DR – But if you take some effort to google, actually, you can avoid embarrassing yourself.
Singaporean Historian PJ Thum became famous after he was grilled by Minister Shanmugam at the hearing of the Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods for six hours. Back then, he had made the audacious claim that the politicians of the PAP were the “clear source of fake news”. He based that claim on his work as a historian.
And PJ Thum appeared to be a historian with glowing credentials. He graduated from Harvard with a bachelors in East Asian Studies. He then went on to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and got a second degree in Modern History and Politics. He returned to Oxford on a Commonwealth Scholarship to get his Doctor of Philosophy. Since 2014, PJ has been a Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; a Fellow of Green Templeton College, and coordinator of Project Southeast Asia, an initiative of the University of Oxford to expand its range of scholarly expertise on Southeast Asia. In 2015, PJ was elected as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum.
Sounds impressive, right? A historian with such sterling credentials must be a really smart person. Someone who won’t be easily fooled by fake news. Someone who would think critically of the things he reads, cross-references multiple sources to ensure that he comes to the right conclusions. Right?
Well… not quite. At least not in this particular instance.
PJ Thum posted this on Facebook recently:
Just in case it gets taken down, it’s a post with this cartoon:
Two versions of the same event. What is the truth?
Accompanying the cartoon, PJ Thum had the following remarks:
“Another from the archives:
“At the end of (Lee’s speech to the joint session of the US Congress), there was a sustained standing ovation… Even before he started his speech, there was a standing ovation – such is the Prime Minister’s reputation.” – Straits Times, 10 October 1985.
“(Lee) was addressing a sparsely attended joint session and drew polite applause.” – International Herald Tribune, 10 October 1985.
Hmmm… now I’m wondering just how much of what Singaporeans believed to be LKY’s vaunted global reputation was actually manufactured by the government-controlled media, in the days when there were no alternative news sources?”
PJ Thum questioned whether the media, controlled by the Singapore government, had manufactured Mr, Lee Kuan Yew’s “vaunted global reputation”.
Is he once again insinuating that the Singapore government is a source of fake news?
Thankfully, there’s a video of the speech
Someone added this video in the comments to PJ Thum’s post, and the video proved PJ Thum wrong.
It’s a video of Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at a Joint Session of the US Congress taken off C-SPAN.
And at the 3:13 mark, and also 4:09 mark the video shows people applauding in a packed room.
At the 9:47 mark, the video shows Mr Lee Kuan Yew receiving a standing ovation when he wrapped up his speech.
Now we can’t possibly know from the video alone if the Congressmen really respected Mr Lee Kuan Yew, but the fact was that the Joint Session was well attended, and that Mr Lee Kuan Yew had received a standing ovation.
Those are facts.
Captured on video.
Facts which directly contradict what PJ Thum had insinuated. Facts which can be found if Thum had taken a little bit care and effort to verify and check.
Which unfortunately makes PJ Thum look rather bad
This could mean one of two things.
The first possibility is PJ Thum is a sloppy historian who doesn’t dig deeper and look for more sources of information so that he can come to a proper (and accurate) conclusion.
Or the second possibility is that he had deliberately put up the post and asked a question in such a way that would induce people to conclude that the Singapore government is a source of fake news.
Of course, we don’t know which is the truth. We don’t believe that PJ Thum is that malicious as to deliberately spread fake news. But we also don’t think PJ Thum is stupid. So… It’s hard to say. Having said that, if PJ Thum can be so wrong on this incident, what else could he or we have gotten wrong?
Whatever the case is, this incident has again demonstrated that we should all learn to google. And don’t automatically accept anything we read or what we’re told to be true.
ALWAYS check and look for more sources of information. Otherwise, we might end up looking like fools for believing that some piece of fake news is true.
In London, in the nineteen-thirties, the émigré Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi was known among his friends as “the apocalyptic chap.” His gloom was understandable. Nearly fifty, he’d had to leave his wife, daughter, and mother behind in Vienna shortly after Austria lurched toward fascism, in 1933. Although he had long edited and contributed to the prestigious Viennese weekly The Austrian Economist, which published such celebrated figures as Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, he had come to discount his career as a thing of “theoretical and practical barrenness,” and blamed himself for failing to diagnose his era’s crucial political conflict. As so often for refugees, money was tight. Despite letters of reference from eminent historians, Polanyi failed to land a professorship or a fellowship, though he did manage to earn thirty-seven pounds co-editing an anti-fascist anthology, which featured essays by W. H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr. In his own contribution to the book, he argued that fascism strips democratic politics away from human society so that “only economic life remains,” a skeleton without flesh.
In 1937, he taught in adult-education programs in Kent and Sussex, commuting by bus or train and spending the night at a student’s house if it got too late to return home. The subject was British economic history, which he hadn’t much studied before. As he learned how capitalism had challenged the political system of Great Britain, the first nation in the world to industrialize, he decided that it was no accident that fascism was infecting countries as disparate as Japan, Croatia, and Portugal. Fascism shouldn’t be “ascribed to local causes, national mentalities, or historical backgrounds,” he came to believe. It shouldn’t even be thought of as a political movement. It was, rather, an “ever-given political possibility”—a reflex that could occur in any polity experiencing a certain kind of pain. In Polanyi’s opinion, whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom. The insight became the keystone of his masterpiece, “The Great Transformation,” which was published in 1944, as the world was coming to terms with the destruction that fascism had wrought.
Today, as in the nineteen-thirties, strongmen are ascendant worldwide, purging civil servants, subverting the judiciary, and bullying the press. In a sweeping, angry new book, “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton), the journalist, editor, and Brandeis professor Robert Kuttner (pic above) champions Polanyi as a neglected prophet. Like Polanyi, he believes that free markets can be crueller than citizens will tolerate, inflicting a distress that he thinks is making us newly vulnerable to the fascist solution. In Kuttner’s description, however, today’s political impasse is different from that of the nineteen-thirties. It is being caused not by a stalemate between leftist governments and a reactionary business sector but by leftists in government who have reneged on their principles. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Kuttner contends, America’s Democrats, Britain’s Labour Party, and many of Europe’s social democrats have consistently tacked rightward, relinquishing concern for ordinary workers and embracing the power of markets; they have sided with corporations and investors so many times that, by now, workers no longer feel represented by them. When strongmen arrived promising jobs and a shared sense of purpose, working-class voters were ready for the message.
Born in 1886 in Vienna, Karl Polanyi grew up in Budapest, in an assimilated, highly cultured Jewish family. Polanyi’s father, an engineer who became a railroad contractor, was so conscientious that when his business failed, around 1900, he repaid the shareholders, plunging the family into genteel poverty. Polanyi’s mother founded a women’s college, hosted a salon, and had a somewhat chaotic personality that a daughter-in-law once likened to “a book not yet written.” At home, as Gareth Dale recounts in a thoughtful 2016 biography, the family spoke German, French, and a little Hungarian; Karl also learned English, Latin, and Greek as a child. “I was taught tolerance not only by Goethe,” he later recalled, “but also, with seemingly mutually exclusive accents, by Dostoyevsky and John Stuart Mill.”
After university, Polanyi helped to found Hungary’s Radical Citizens’ Party, which called for land redistribution, free trade, and extended suffrage. But he remained enough of a traditionalist to enlist as a cavalry officer shortly after the First World War broke out. At the front, where, he said, “the Russian winter and the blackish steppe made me feel sick at heart,” he read “Hamlet” obsessively, and wrote letters home asking his family to send volumes of Marx, Flaubert, and Locke. After the war, the Radical Citizens took power, but they fumbled it. In the short-lived Communist government that followed, Polanyi was offered a position in the culture ministry by his friend György Lukács, later a celebrated Marxist literary critic.
When the Communists fell, pogroms broke out, and Polanyi fled to Vienna. “He looked like one who looks back on life, not forward to it,” Ilona Duczynska, who became his wife, remembered. Duczynska was a Communist engineer, ten years younger than he was. She had smuggled tsarist diamonds out of Russia in a tube of toothpaste and once borrowed a pistol to assassinate Hungary’s Prime Minister, though he resigned before she could shoot him. She and Polanyi married in 1923 and soon had a daughter.
Karl Polanyi and Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph E. Sitglitz
These were the days of so-called Red Vienna, when the city’s socialist government was providing apartments for the working class and opening new libraries and kindergartens. Polanyi held informal seminars on socialist economics at home. He started writing for The Austrian Economist in 1924, and he was promoted to editor-in-chief a few months before the right-wing takeover sent him into exile. Duczynska remained in Vienna, going underground with a militia, but, in 1936, she, too, emigrated, taking a job as a cook in a London boarding house. In 1940, Bennington College offered Polanyi a lectureship, and he left for Vermont, where his family soon joined him and he began to turn his lecture notes into a book. “Not since 1920 did I have a time so rich in study and development,” he wrote.
Polanyi starts “The Great Transformation” by giving capitalism its due. For all but eighteen months of the century prior to the First World War, he writes, a web of international trade and investment kept peace among Europe’s great powers. Money crossed borders easily, thanks to the gold standard, a promise by each nation’s central bank to sell gold at a fixed price in its own currency. This both harmonized trade between countries and stabilized relative currency values. If a nation started to sell more goods than it bought, gold streamed in, expanding the money supply, heating up the economy, and raising prices high enough to discourage foreign buyers—at which point, in a correction so smooth it almost seemed natural, exports sank back down to pre-boom levels. The trouble was that the system could be gratuitously cruel. If a country went into a recession or its currency weakened, the only remedy was to attract foreign money by forcing prices down, cutting government spending, or raising interest rates—which, in effect, meant throwing people out of work. “No private suffering, no restriction of sovereignty, was deemed too great a sacrifice for the recovery of monetary integrity,” Polanyi wrote.
The system was sustainable politically only as long as those whose lives it ruined didn’t have a say. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the right to vote spread. In the twenties and thirties, governments began trying to protect citizens’ jobs from shifts in international prices by raising tariffs, so that, in the system’s final years, it hardened national borders instead of opening them, and engendered what Polanyi called a “new crustacean type of nation,” which turned away from international trade, making first one world war, and then another, inevitable.
In Vienna, Polanyi had heard socialism dismissed as utopian, on the ground that no central authority could efficiently manage millions of different wishes, resources, and capabilities. In “The Great Transformation,” he swivelled this popgun around. What was utopian, he declared, was “the concept of a self-regulating market.” Human life wasn’t as orderly as mathematics, and only a goggle-eyed idealist would think it wise to lash people to a mechanism like the gold standard and then turn the crank. For most of human history, he observed, money and the exchange of goods had been embedded within culture, religion, and politics. The experiment of subordinating a nation to a self-adjusting market hadn’t even been attempted until Britain tried it, in the mid-eighteen-thirties, and that effort had required a great deal of coördination and behind-the-scenes management. “Laissez-faire,” Polanyi earnestly joked, “was planned.”
On the other hand, Polanyi believed that resistance to market forces, which he dubbed “the countermovement,” truly was spontaneous and ad hoc. He pointed to the motley of late-nineteenth-century measures—inspecting food and drink, subsidizing irrigation, regulating coal-mine ventilation, requiring vaccinations, protecting juvenile chimney sweeps, and so on—that were instituted to housebreak capitalism. Because such restraints went against the laws of supply and demand, they were despised by defenders of laissez-faire, who, Polanyi noticed, usually argued “that the incomplete application of its principles was the reason for every and any difficulty laid to its charge.” But what was the alternative? Once the laissez-faire machine started running, it cheerfully annihilated the people and the natural environment that it made use of, unless it was restrained.
Polanyi offered the example of the enclosure movement in sixteenth-century England, when landowners tore down villages and turned common lands into private pastures. The changes brought efficiencies that raised the land’s food yield as well as its value, in the long term improving life for everyone. Enclosure was a good thing, in other words; the numbers said so. In the short term, however, it dispossessed peasants who couldn’t immediately improvise a new living, and it was only because of a countermovement—led in piecemeal fashion by the monarchy, in a long, losing battle with Parliament—that more people didn’t die of exposure and starvation. If you argued that resistance did not compute, you would be right, but the countermovement, though it couldn’t stop progress, shielded people by slowing it down. It made enclosure so gradual that, even three centuries later, the poet John Clare was lamenting its advance in his sonnets.
In the nineteen-thirties, when Polanyi was first formulating his critique, the British economist John Maynard Keynes was likewise arguing that capitalist economies aren’t self-adjusting. The markets for labor, goods, and money, he showed, don’t find equilibriums independently but through interactions with one another that can have unfortunate, counterintuitive side effects. In hard times, economies tend to retrench, just when stimulus is most needed; the richer they get, the less likely they are to invest enough to sustain their wealth. During the Depression, Keynes made the case that governments should deficit-spend their way out of recessions. By the time Polanyi’s book was published, the Keynesian view had become orthodoxy. For the next few decades, the world’s leading economies were tightly managed by their governments. America’s top marginal tax rate stayed at ninety-one per cent until 1964, and anti-usury laws kept a ceiling on interest rates until the late seventies. The memory of the financial chaos of the thirties, and of the fascism that it gave rise to, was still vivid, and the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative, should the Western democracies fail to treat their workers well.
In terms of international monetary systems, too, Keynesianism held sway. In 1944, at the Bretton Woods Conference, Keynes helped to negotiate a way of harmonizing exchange rates that gave national governments enough elbow room to boost their domestic economies when necessary. Only America continued to redeem its currency with gold. Other nations pegged their currencies to the dollar (making it their reserve currency), but they were free to adjust their currencies’ values within limits when the need arose. Countries were allowed, and sometimes even required, to impose capital controls, measures that limited the cross-border flow of investment capital. With investors unable to yank money suddenly from one country to another, governments were free to spur growth with low interest rates and to spend on social programs without fear that inflation-averse capitalists would sell off their nations’ bonds. So weak was the political power of investors that France, Britain, and America let inflation shrink the value of their war debts considerably. In France, the economist Thomas Piketty has quipped, the period amounted to “capitalism without capitalists.”
The result—highly inconvenient for free-market fundamentalists—was prosperity. In the three decades following the Second World War, per-capita output grew faster in Western Europe and North America than ever before or since. There were no significant banking or financial crises. The real income of Europeans rose as much as it had in the previous hundred and fifty years, and American unemployment, which had ranged between fourteen and twenty-five per cent in the thirties, dropped to an average of 4.6 per cent in the fifties. The new wealth was widely shared, too; income inequality plummeted across the developed world. And with the plenty came calm. The economic historian Barry Eichengreen, in his new book, “The Populist Temptation” (Oxford), reports that in twenty advanced nations no populist leader—which he defines as a politician who is “anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist”—took office during this golden era, and that a far narrower share of votes went to extremist parties than before or after.
“This was the road once taken,” Kuttner writes. “There was no economic need for a different one.” Nevertheless, we strayed—or, rather, in Kuttner’s telling, we were driven off the road after capitalists grabbed the steering wheel away from the Keynesians. The year 1973, in his opinion, marked “the end of the postwar social contract.” Politicians began snipping away restraints on investors and financiers, and the economy returned to spasming and sputtering. Between 1973 and 1992, per-capita income growth in the developed world fell to half of what it had been between 1950 and 1973. Income inequality rebounded. By 2010, the real median earnings of prime-age American workingmen were four per cent lower than they had been in 1970. American women’s earnings rose for a bit longer, as more women made their way into the workforce, but declined after 2000. And, as Polanyi would have predicted, faith in democracy slipped. Kuttner warns that support for right-wing extremists in Western Europe is even higher today than it was in the nineteen-thirties.
But was Keynesianism pushed, or did it stumble? Kuttner’s indignation about its fall from grace is more straightforward than the course of events that led to it. In the years following the Second World War, Europe was swimming with dollars, thanks to the Marshall Plan and American military aid to Europe. Beyond America’s jurisdiction, those dollars slipped free of its capital controls, and in the nineteen-sixties investors began to sling them from country to country as impetuously as in the days before Bretton Woods, punitively dumping the bonds of any government that tried to run an interest rate lower than those of its peers. The cost of the Vietnam War sparked inflation in America, and the dollar’s second life as the world’s reserve currency risked pushing the inflation even higher. When America fell into recession in 1970, the Federal Reserve tried to boost the country out of it by dropping interest rates, and America became a target of opportunity for speculators: capital fled the country, taking gold with it. By May, 1971, the United States was facing its first merchandise trade deficit since 1893, an indication that the high dollar was discouraging foreign buyers. Unwilling to pacify investors by inflicting austerity on voters, President Richard Nixon uncoupled the dollar from gold, ending the Bretton Woods agreement. Then, in October, 1973, Arab nations, upset about America’s solidarity with Israel during the Yom Kippur War, embargoed oil sales to the United States, and the price of crude nearly quadrupled in the space of three months. Food prices skyrocketed, and, as wallets were pinched, the country tumbled into another recession.
At this juncture, a new economic monster appeared: stagflation, a chimera of inflation, recession, and unemployment. Keynesian economists, who didn’t think that high unemployment and inflation could coëxist, were at a loss for how to handle it. The predicament provided an opening for their critics, most notably Milton Friedman, who argued that incessant government stimulation of the economy risked promoting not only inflation but the expectation of inflation, which could then spiral out of control. Friedman declared Keynesianism discredited and demanded that the government refrain from tampering with the economy, other than to manage the money supply.
In 1974, Alan Greenspan, President Gerald Ford’s economic adviser and an acolyte of Ayn Rand, likewise urged resisting political pressure to help the economy grow. “Inflation is our domestic public enemy No. 1,” Ford declared, and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Five years later, when a revolution in Iran set off a second spike in oil prices, a new round of inflation, and yet another recession, President Jimmy Carter’s Federal Reserve chair, Paul Volcker, raised interest rates again and again, to as high as twenty per cent. By 1982, America’s G.D.P. was shrinking 2.2 per cent a year, and unemployment was higher than it had been since the Great Depression. The nation had gone back to stabilizing its currency the old-fashioned way—by throwing people out of work—and utopian faith in self-regulating free markets had made a comeback. Kuttner thinks that this was a terrible mistake, arguing that the inflation of the seventies was limited to particular sectors of the economy such as food and oil. That sounds a little like special pleading. It’s not clear how Ford and Carter could have resisted the pressure they were under to find a new policy solution once it was clear that the old one wasn’t working.
In time, Keynesians adapted their models—one adjustment took into account Friedman’s discovery of the dangers posed by the expectation of inflation—and the resulting synthesis, New Keynesianism, is now canonical. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations adopted Keynesian policies in response to the financial crisis of 2008. But when stagflation flummoxed the Keynesians it cost them their near-monopoly on political advice-giving, and laissez-faire was rereleased into the political sphere. In January, 1974, the United States removed constraints on sending capital abroad. A 1978 Supreme Court decision overturned most state laws against usury. By the early twenty-first century, Kuttner charges, every New Deal regulation on finance was either “repealed or weakened by non-enforcement.” Starting in the eighties, developing nations found free-market doctrine written into their loan agreements: bankers refused to extend credit unless the nations promised to lift capital controls, balance their budgets, limit taxes and social spending, and aim to sell more goods abroad—an uncanny replica of the austerity terms enforced under the gold standard. The set of policies became known as the Washington Consensus. The idea was pain in the short term for the sake of progress in the long term, but a 2011 meta-analysis was unable to find statistically significant evidence that the trade-off is worth it. Even if it is worth it, Polanyi would have recommended tempering the short-term pain. From 2010, when austerity measures were first imposed on Greece, to 2016, its G.D.P. declined 35.6 per cent, according to the World Bank. A federally appointed panel is now pushing for a similar approach in Puerto Rico.
There is no shortage of villains in Kuttner’s narrative: financial deregulation; supply-side tax cuts; the decline of trade unions; the Democratic Party, which, by zigging left on identity politics and zagging right on economics, left conservative white working-class voters amenable to Donald Trump. Perhaps the most vexed issue Kuttner discusses, however, is trade policy—whether American workers should be protected against cheap foreign goods and labor.
The contours of the problem call to mind Polanyi’s account of enclosures in early-modern England. Half an hour with a supply-and-demand graph shows that free trade is better for every nation, developed or developing, no matter how much an individual businessperson might wish for a special tariff to protect her line of work. In a 2012 survey, eighty-five per cent of economists agreed that, in the long run, the boons of free trade “are much larger than any effects on employment.” But although free trade benefits a country over all, it almost always benefits some citizens more than—and even at the expense of—others. The proportion of low-skilled labor in America is smaller than in most countries that trade with America; economic theory therefore predicts that international trade will, on aggregate, make low-skilled workers in the United States worse off. The U.S. government has, since 1962, compensated workers laid off because of free trade, but the benefit has never been adequate; only four people were certified to receive it during its first decade. In a 2016 paper, “The China Shock,” the economists David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson wrote that, for every additional hundred dollars of Chinese goods imported to an area, a manufacturing worker is likely to lose fifty-five dollars of income, while gaining only six dollars in government help.
In a laissez-faire utopia, dislodged workers would relocate or take jobs in other industries, but workers hurt by rivalry with China are doing neither. Maybe they don’t have the resources to move; maybe the flood of Chinese-made goods is so extensive that there are no unaffected manufacturing sectors for them to switch into. The authors of “The China Shock” calculate that, between 1999 and 2011, trade with China destroyed between two million and 2.4 million American jobs; Kuttner quotes even higher estimates. NAFTA, meanwhile, lowered the wage growth of American high-school dropouts in affected industries by sixteen percentage points. In “Why Liberalism Failed” (Yale), the political scientist Patrick J. Deneen denounces the assumption that “increased purchasing power of cheap goods will compensate for the absence of economic security.”
Kuttner follows Polanyi in attacking free-market claims of mathematic purity. “Literally no nation has industrialized by relying on free markets,” he writes. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton recommended that America encourage new branches of manufacturing by taxing imports and subsidizing domestic production. Even Britain, the world’s first great champion of free trade, started off protectionist. Kuttner believes that America stopped supporting its manufacturing sector partly because it got into the habit, during the Cold War, of rewarding foreign allies with access to American consumers, and eventually decided that exports of financial services, rather than of manufactured goods, would be the country’s future. Toward the end of the century, as American manufacturers saw the writing on the wall, they shifted production abroad.
Kuttner doesn’t give a full hearing to the usual reply by defenders of laissez-faire, which is that a transition from goods to services is inevitable in a maturing economy—that the efficiency of American manufacturing means that it would likely be shedding workers no matter what the government did. Even Eichengreen, a critic of globalization, notes, in “The Populist Temptation,” that, if you graph the share of the German workforce employed in manufacturing from 1970 to 2012, you see a steady, grim decline very similar to that of its American counterpart, despite the fact that Germany has long spent heavily on apprenticeship and vocational training. The industrial revolution created widely shared wealth almost magically at its dawn: when an unemployed farmworker took a job in a factory, his power to make things multiplied, along with his earning power, without his having to learn much. But, as factories grew more efficient, fewer workers were needed to run them. One study has attributed eighty-seven per cent of lost manufacturing jobs to improved productivity.
When a worker leaves a factory, her power to create wealth stops being multiplied. The only way to increase it again is through education—by teaching her to become a sommelier, say, or an anesthesiologist. But efficiency gains are notoriously harder to come by in service industries than in manufacturing ones. There are only so many leashes a dog walker can hold at one time. As a result, if an economy deindustrializes without securing a stable manufacturing core, its productivity may erode. The dynamic has caused stagnation in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are signs of a comparable weakening of America’s earning power.
Meanwhile, in the factories that remain, machines have grown more complex; the few workers they employ need to be better educated, further widening the gap between educated and uneducated workers. Kuttner dismisses this labor-skills explanation for job loss as an “alibi” with “an insulting subtext”: “If your economic life has gone to hell, it’s your fault.” This is intemperate but, in Kuttner’s defense, he has been warning American politicians to protect manufacturing jobs since 1991, and has been enlisting Polanyi in the cause for at least as long. Moreover, he has a point: to talk about productivity-induced job loss when challenged to explain trade-induced job loss is to change the subject. Economists estimate that advances in automation explain only thirty to forty per cent of the premium that a college degree now adds to wages. And though Eichengreen is right about manufacturing’s declining share of the German workforce, it still stood at twenty per cent in 2012, which is roughly where the American share stood three decades earlier, and the German decline has been less steep. Somehow, Germany’s concern for its manufacturing workforce made a difference.
In any case, if one’s concern is populism, it may not matter whether jobs have been lost to trade competition or to automation. In areas where more industrial robots have been introduced, one analysis shows, voters were more likely to choose Trump in 2016. According to another analysis, if competition with Chinese imports had been somehow halved, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would likely have chosen Hillary Clinton that year. Economic explanations like these have been challenged. In April, the political scientist Diana C. Mutz published a paper finding that Trump voters were no more likely than Clinton ones to have suffered a personal financial setback; she concluded that Trump’s victory was more likely caused by white anxiety about loss of status and social dominance. But it’s not surprising that Trump voters weren’t basing their decisions on their personal circumstances, because voters almost never do. And Mutz’s own results showed that the factors most likely to lead to a Trump vote included pessimism about the economy and preferring Trump’s position on China to Clinton’s. It may not be possible to untangle economic anxiety and a more tribal mind-set.
Casting about for a Polanyi-style countermovement to temper the ruthlessness of laissez-faire, Kuttner doesn’t rule out tariffs. They’re economically inefficient, but so are unions, and, for a follower of Polanyi, efficiency isn’t the only consideration. A decision about a nation’s economic life, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik writes, in “Straight Talk on Trade” (Princeton), “may entail trading off competing social objectives—such as stability versus innovation—or making distributional choices”; that is, deciding who gains at whose expense. Such a decision should therefore be made by elected politicians rather than by economists. America imposed export quotas on Japan in the seventies and eighties, to the alarm of headline writers at the time: “Protectionist Threat,” the Times warned. But Rodrik, looking back, judges the measures to have been reasonable ad-hoc defenses—“necessary responses to the distributional and adjustment challenges posed by the emergence of new trade relationships.”
Trump’s chief trade negotiator served on the Reagan team that administered quotas against Japan. A similar approach today, however, seems unlikely to work on China, whose economy is much more messily enmeshed with America’s. You probably can’t name as many Chinese brands as Japanese ones, even though you probably buy more Chinese-made products, because they are sold to Americans by American companies. American workers may wish they had been shielded from the effects of trade with China, but American businesses, by and large, don’t. Perhaps that’s why Trump has escalated from a tariff on steel and aluminum to erratic threats of a trade war. To achieve his campaign goal of bringing manufacturing jobs home from China, he will have to not only impose tariffs but also convince multinationals that the tariffs will stay in place beyond the end of his Administration. Only then will executives calculate that they can’t just wait it out—that they have no choice but to incur the enormous costs and capital losses of abandoning investments in China and making new ones here. It’s hard to imagine such a scheme working, unless Trump establishes a political command over the private sector not seen in America since the forties. That can’t be ruled out, given the state of affairs in Russia, China, Hungary, and Turkey, but it seems more likely that Trump’s bluster will merely motivate businesses to be deferential to him, in pursuit of favorable treatment.
“Basically there are two solutions,” Polanyi wrote in 1935. “The extension of the democratic principle from politics to economics, or the abolition of the democratic ‘political sphere’ altogether.” In other words, socialism or fascism. The choice may not be so stark, however. During America’s golden age of full employment, the economy came, in structural terms, as close as it ever has to socialism, but it remained capitalist at its core, despite the government’s restraining hand. The result was that workers shared directly in the country’s growing wealth, whereas today proposals for fostering greater financial equality hinge on taxing winners in order to fund programs that compensate losers. Such redistributive measures, Kuttner observes, are only “second bests.” They don’t do much for social cohesion: winners resent the loss of earnings; losers, the loss of dignity.
Can we return to an equality in workers’ primary incomes rather than to one brought about by secondary redistribution? In a recent essay for the journal Democracy, the Roosevelt Institute fellow Jennifer Harris recommends reimagining international trade as an engine for this rather than as an obstacle to it. When negotiating trade deals, for instance, governments could make going to bat for multinationals conditional on their agreeing to, say, pay their workers a higher fraction of what they pay executives.
Failing that, we’d be better off with redistributive programs that are universal—parental leave, national health care—rather than targeted. Benefits available to everyone help people without making them feel like charity cases. Kuttner reports great things from Scandinavia, where governments support workers directly—through wage subsidies, retraining sabbaticals, and temporary public jobs—rather than by constraining employers’ power to fire people. “We won’t protect jobs,” Sweden’s labor minister recently told the Times. “But we will protect workers.” Income inequality in Scandinavia is lower than here, and a larger proportion of citizens work. Maybe a government can insure higher pay for its workers by treating them as if they were, in and of themselves, valuable. True, Denmark’s spending on its labor policies has at times risen to as high as 4.5 per cent of its G.D.P., more than the share America spends on defense, and studies show that diverse countries such as ours find it harder to muster social altruism than more racially and culturally homogenous ones do. Nonetheless, programs like Social Security and Medicare, instituted when a communitarian ethic was still strong in American politics, remain popular. Why not try for more? It might make sense even if the numbers don’t add up. ♦