Monday, April 26, 2010

On Hubris

One thing I love about hyperlinks is the way it leads you from one nugget to another.

I was just looking up Cellini’s sculpture on the internet and ended up discovering the meaning of a word I had often overlooked – “Hubris”.

The hyperlink-chase went something like this:

While reading about the Renaissance in medeival Italy, I came across a brief comment about the beauty & grace of Cellini’s sculpture  - “Perseus & Medusa”. Wondering what it looked like, I turned to Google and reached the first stop – Wikipedia.

Wiki had a powerful, frontal view of the famous sculpture, as well as a colorful description of the life and times of Benvenuto Cellini (goldsmith, ruffian, musician, murderer, sculptor, decorated soldier…). One of Cellini’s earliest acclaimed creations was a medallion, “Leda & the Swan”.

So, what about Leda? Well, according to Greek mythology, Zeus, disguised as a swan, seduced Leda on the night of her wedding (to another man). Leda bears a daughter named Helen. According to another version, Helen was Helen is the daughter of Nemesis, the goddess who personified the disaster that awaited those suffering from the pride of Hubris.

Pride of Hubris? What on earth is that?

Hubris refers to actions that shamed and humiliated the victim for the pleasure or gratification of the abuser. Aristotle defined hubris as shaming the victim, not because anything happened to you or might happen to you, but merely for your own gratification.

Now, this makes you wonder about Indian mythology and the epics…isn’t hubris the very core, the central theme of the Mahabharata war? The life of Duryodhana, Karna, Draupadi, Bhima, Arjuna...the ever-widening cycles of shaming, humiliation and excessive revenge that is carried forward from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, until an entire dynasty is wiped out...
One of the most vivid examples of hubris in ancient Greek literature is demonstrated by Achilles and his treatment of Hector's corpse in Homer's Iliad. Achilles killed Hector in revenge. Not only did he kill him, but he stripped Hector's corpse and dragged it around behind his chariot, threading leather thongs through Hector's ankles. Although the Greek forces were appalled by his treatment of this other hero's corpse, he was unrelenting. Priam, king of Troy, had to come and kneel at Achilles's feet and offer him Hector's weight in gold before he could convince him to give up the body. Once the body was gone, Achilles had time to ponder the fact that it was prophesied his own death would come soon after Hector's. (Wikipedia)

When does revenge become excessive? How can the vicious cycle of retribution be broken?

This brings us to the Theory of Justice propounded by John Lock and the notions of Natural Law vs. Conventional Law...ideas that form the core of not just the judicial system but the way in which societies and governments are organised today.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Absurdities of Eurocentricism

I've been reading an interesting book titled ReOrient by Andre Gunder Frank, at a time when the Indian newspapers are bursting with reports of the latest Cricket fiasco.

The pathetic tweeter-tussle between Shashi Tharoor and Lalit Modi has only added to my disdain for the charade that is called the `national sport of India`. To me cricket represents the worst of all the colonial baggage that we carry in our minds - a lazy, elitist game that has sucked out the life-blood of all other forms of sport in India. It is also a fine example of the Eurocentrism which is fed to us from the day we start reciting English nursery rhymes in the kindergartens.

In ReOrient, Andre Gunder Frank takes a critical look at received historiography, social theory, and notions of the world according to Marx, Weber, and other European theorists, and finds serious flaws in their very foundations.

Frank was, of course, not the first one to say this. Braudel (1992) has shown how `Europe invented historians and then made good use of promote their own interests at home and elsewhere in the world`; Marshall Hodgson (1993) denounced maps based on Mercator Projection which gave the impression that countries close to the poles were larger than those near the equator; and Lewis & Wigen (1997) wryly pointed out in the `The Myth of Continents` how the Europeans called their peninsula a`continent` but preferred to name the Indian peninsula - larger and much more populous than Europe at all times - as a mere `sub-continent`!

Much of conventional theory is based on the works of Marx, Weber, Sombart and others who have alleged that before 1750AD, "Asian Mode of Production" was traditional, stationary, stagnant and generally uneconomic.  Max Weber tried to show that the Occident inherited a unique combination of rationality and activism (Hodgson 1993) and only after the Europeans traders stepped in did anything worthwhile start coming out of Asia.

In ReOrient, Frank`s focus is on international trade in the pre-colonial days. He starts with a simple, well-known fact -  when the first European traders (Portuguese, Spanish) reached Asia, they had nothing worthwhile to offer. Asians were not interested in buying their substandard wool and textiles. Thankfully for the new entrants, a New World had been discovered in the Americas which, turned out to be a goldmine. Or, more precisely, a massive silver-mine.

Silver was the ruling currency in the Asian markets and the Spanish & Portuguese used this to import all the goods they wanted in Asia. This spurred the envy of the other little countries of Europe and triggered not only state-sponsored piracy but also a severe competition for building faster, larger ships, and equipment -- a process that culminated in the ultimate game-changer, Industrial Revolution in England.

So, European states first used the silver extracted from the American colonies to buy entry into an expanding Asian market that already flourished in the global economy. They then resorted to import substitution and export promotion in the world market, and thus became Newly Industrializing Economies of the day and tipped the global economic balance to the West.

This is exactly what Asia is doing today - to recover its traditional dominance, which had been temporarily lost to the West.


* "The West first bought a third-class seat on the Asian economic train, then leased a whole railway carriage, and only in the 19th century managed to displace the Asians from the locomotive"

* "They (the West) are, in essense, captives of a peculiar arrogance of not knowing what they do not know, yet speak as if they know what all of us need to know" - Molefi Kete Asante (1987)

* "Europe did not pull itself up by its own ecnonomic bootstraps, and certainly not thanks to any kind of European "exceptionalism" of rationality, institutions, entrepreneurship, technology, geniality, or, in a word - of race."

* The Columbian Exchange: The really mind-boggling impact of the post-Columbus exchange of animals, plants, culture, communicable diseases, and ideas, between the "old" and the "new" world (Americas). The indegenous population (Aztec, Inca, Maya, etc.,) of about 100 million was reduced to just 5 million! (Livi-Bacci, 1992)

* In 1615 only 6% of value of all cargo exported by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) was in goods, and 94% in bullion (mostly from mines in S. America). In the 60 years from 1660-1720 precious metals formed 87% of ov VOC imports to Asia!

* 133,000 tonnes of silver was extracted from America during the period 1545-1800 AD.

* For the British East India Company, intra-Asian "country-trade" was more profitable than Asia-Europe trade. This included the forcible cultivation of opium in North India for export to China. When the Chinese objected, the British invaded the country (Opium Wars) uunder the pretext of protecting "free-trade".

* The Westerners 'exported' over 12 million slaves from Africa, most of whom were traded not for gold or silver, but for cowrie shells sourced from the Maldives. A 12,000 weight of cowries was worth a 'cargo' of 500-600 slaves. Here is a PDF file on The Cowrie Shell as Money.

* A single slave was worth -- 12 guns /  5 rolls of Brazilian tobacco /  25 pieces of Silesian linen / 1 anker of French brandy / 15 pounds of gunpowder



* Said, Edward (1978) - ORIENTALISM
* Bernal, Martin (1987) - BLACK ATHENA
* Amin, Samir (1989) - EUROCENTRISM
* Wallerstein - Dependency Theory

Monday, April 12, 2010


"...When you’re asking questions, please be rude and provocative - that will help me learn better!"

This was the first time I head such a plea at a seminar. The speaker was Prof. Kishore Mahbubani from LKYSPP, Singapore, after his session at ADBI-Tokyo on 12 April 2010. The topic -  "The Secret Formula of Asian Regional Cooperation".

Having recently completed a course on "Regional Integration" at Tsukuba-U, the topic was not only interesting but a good opportunity to directly interact with Prof. Mahbubani. I had liked his papers and articles for their gung-ho optimism about Asia and thought it might be worthwhile to travel to Tokyo on a cold, gloomy, rainy day.

I was not at all disappointed.   :-)

Introducing the trends in regional cooperation as a "sunrise industry", Prof. Mahbubani started out by comparing two models - EU and ASEAN. The EU's three greatest strengths, according to him, were that -
  • It has succeeded not only in creating a zero-war zone but also enabled a zero-prospect of war in Europe
  • Created the most open borders for regional groupings - something that would have been impossible without total trust;
  • Replaced 19th century notions of sovereignty with 21st century notions of inter-dependence.

Even though these steps have made EU the 'gold-standard' of regional integration, it had some fundamental defects that are often overlooked by countries eager to replicate it. The EU model is deeply flawed because it is -

  • A mono-civilizational entity: EU is open only to Christian Europeans. It exclusion of Turkey underlines the fact that the grouping is out of sync with the real world which happens to be a multi-civilizational entity of 6.8 billion people;
  • Political dishonesty is rampant: Disconnect between rhetoric and reality is obvious from the recent fracas over foreign policy, and from the proxy-wars European powers have been fighting in the Balkans and in Africa;
  • Economic Dishonesty also rampant: Everybody knew that the Greeks were being dishonest with their data, but nobody wanted to do anything.
ASEAN, on the other hand, is a much more pragmatic, inclusive organization. Where EU is legalistic, formalized and technical, ASEAN places practice ahead of theory: trade links are first nutured and then the agreements and paperwork follow. It is clearly multi-civilizational (Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Taoists..), reflects the messiness inherent in the regional political fabric.

In the EU model the big boys (France, Germany) decide first and the others follow; in ASEAN, the little guys got together while the big boys (Japan, China) dithered. EU is obsessed with internal challenges (“just like arranging deck chairs on a sinking Titanic”; ERASMUS between similar countries), while ASEAN moves forward on an external focus, using agreements that need not be based on consensus, and using alliances are based on common interests (ASEAN+3, +6, +8).

According to Prof. Mahbubani, three decades on regular ASEAN meetings – and golf camaraderie – have succeeded in building trust in a turbulent region. Other regions like Africa and Latin America may perhaps find ASEAN model more useful than trying to blindly copy the EU model, which is fundamentally flawed in any case.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Iwakura Mission - Insights & Observations

This post is a collection of some interesting observations and insights recorded by Kume Kunitake, during the tour of the Iwakura Mission. What strikes you is how effectively the Mission Report managed to commnunicate the urgent need to pick-out and transplant a whole range of ideas from the West.

Excerpts -

Britain: Prosperity in just 40 years (pp.120)
European countries of the present day atand a the pinnacle of civilization. They are immensely rich, their trade is on a huge scale, they excel in arts and manufacturers, and their peoples live pleasant lives and are extremely happy. It is natural to assume that all this is the product, achieved over many centuries, of the high value which Europe places on commerce, and that it is peculiar to this continent. However, the truth is otherwise. It is since 1800 that Europe has attained its present wealth; and it is only in the last forty years that it has achieved the truly remarkable level of prosperity we now see.

France: Preserving old ways - Libraries & Museums for accumulating knowledge (pp228-229 )
At the root of the march of progress in the West is a profound love for antiquity...It is the accumulation of knowledge over hundreds and thousands of years which fosters the enlightenment of a civilization

Belgium:  Forethought and attention to detail necessary for a successful enterprise (pp. 267)

Whenever plans for a new enterprise are drawn up, the people of the West are just the opposite of the Japanese in the degree of forethoughtand attention to detail they bring to the task. After they have carefully weighed the idea and cosider the project to be feasible, they start by accumulating the necessary capital. Then they obtain the permit, put up a temporary workshop, install the machinery and gradually build up the enterprise over the course of two or three years. They will plan for the future, setting aside a part of their profits for improvement of buildings and equipment, and it will take ten years of sustained effort before they can display their achivements to the world at large.

People in Japan, however, assume profits will come easily even before they have made any money at all. They rush into plans for new forms and expand the business in such haste that within the space of a year, even as the fine premises they have built are still impressing people, their profits will be starting to dwindle. This may be attributed to their impulsive, carefree spirit, but the truth of the matter is that, as yet, they simply do not have an understanding of the fundamental nature of profit.
Germany: The influence of a frual monarch - Friedrich II (pp.300)

The political culture in Prussia seems to be founded on the legacy of Frierich-II, a monarch who despised outward showy displays. It is even said that at the time of this death he had no new clothes he could be dressed in... He once said that Prussians are not frugal by nature, and that even those with the smallest sums to spare will dress themselves in fine clothing...German aristocracy's admiration for French culture and of the way Austrian nobelmen wallow in a life of gilder splendour, all of which reveals the true character of the German people. It is the nature of man that a convenience once employed can never be foregone, while a taste once acquired cannot be forgotten.

Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck's timeless advise regarding realpolitik (15 March 1873)

Field Marshal Moltke's Views (pp 311-312)
Nations these days all appear to conduct relations with amity and courtesy, but this is entirely superficial, for behind this fascade lurks mutual contempt and a struggle for supremacy...First, so-called international law, which is supposed to protect the rights of all nations,afford us no security at all. When there is a dispute, the great powers would invoke international law and stand their ground if it stood to their benefit; but if they stood to lose, they would simply change direction and resort to military force, which was never limited to self-defence alone. However, small nations like ours would assiduously stick to the letter of the law and abide by univrsal principles, not daring to trnasgress these. Consequently, in the face of manoeuvring with flattery and contempt by the great powers, we invariably failed to protect our right of independence, no matter how hard we tried.

The principles of law, justice and freedom serve to protect the country domestically, but only military power can protect it abroad. International law, too, is concerned only with a country's strength or weakness, for it is small nations which will remain neutral and re protected solely by this law, whereas great powers must use their strength to claim their rights.
Somehow we begrudge military expenditure and yearn for a life of peace, but if war were to break out, would this not promptly squander the wealth we have worked so hard to accumulate all these years? To disband our regular army in response to encouraging signs of peace is a dream for future generations, not something which can be accomplished at present. On all sides our neighbors fear and etest our power, as if the devil himself were glaring down at them from pictures hung on their walls...
Russia: Wealth among commoners (pp.330)

It used to be argued that in Britain, France, Belgium and Holland there were more wealthy people among the commoners than among the nobility, and that for precisely this reason the population in each country was flourishing and popular rights were well developed. In Germany (including Austria), and Italy, the wealth of the nobility exceeds that of the common people, and therefore those countries cannot escape being pooer in the visible levels of civilization, and the rights of the rulers are greater than those of the people. In Russia, by contrast, it is only the nobility who are at all advanced and the common people are like slaves.

East vs. West (pp.336)
The Eastern races are less inclined to greed; they submit themselves to moral governance; their sovereigns are conscientious and frugal and thus have raised their people to great heights. Even so, the welath they have accumulated is found astonishing by foreigners. The Westerns races by contrast, are given to rampant greed and are slow to correct their conduct; as for the rulers, it would not be clumny to say that they tax the people of their lands heavily and make themselves wealthy by keeping the revenue to themselves, and that they are all but tireless in their cupidity and rapacity. This explains why the notion of freedom has sprung forth among the people of Europe and why Europe is seething with the views of those who would wipe out the rights of sovereigns and establish the rights of the people. The peoples of the East and West are different in character; they are almost opposites.

What should Politics be about? (pp. 372)

It is a vulgar notion, born of a narrow-minded outlook, to suppose that other people, because of some minor difference in bone structure or customs, are not our equals...What is it that politics should be about, that education should be inculcating? Surely not such trivial matters as these. Rather, let the focus of politics and education be on these two words: 'wealth' and 'strength'. The goal for which we should be striving is that all the people of the land workd hard at their occupations, achieve independence, be courteous in their dealings with others and be trustworthy, and that we exploit the benefits of all the foods which are desired. Thus will our national pride not be affronted abroad and we will be able to lie in good public order at home and progress towards a state of peace.
Switzerland: On how the government avoids recruiting excess staff (pp.457)
This day we visited various administrative departments which are under the direction of the members of the State Council...The appointment of officials in the various departments is simple in the extreme. At very busy times, when there are not enough clerks for the work on hand, passers-by are somtimes asked to help in such tasks as copying documents. This obviates the need for emplying superfluous officials, which would lead to a reduction inthe amount of workd done by each. One lazy official, we were told, would infect the others with his idleness.
European Commercial Enterprise - Industrial arts leading to vast gains in wealth and power (pp.482)

Because they are no more able to depend on their native ingenuity than on their infertile soil, Europeans make every effort to conquer nature by thoroughly investigating its mechanisms, by unremitting labout, and by close cooperation with one another. This capacity for investigation leads to advances in knowledge, their capacity for hard works leads to invention of machines, and their capacity for cooperation leads brings prosperity in trade. It is a combination of these qualities which has produced the flourishing civilization we see today.

An examination of the situation in Europe shows that while people in the East have developed agriculture and manufacturing through 'practical' experience, people in the West have developed agriculture and manufacturing through 'theoritical' study. Thus their technology cannot escape a dependence on machines.

We should not therefore be overawed by their engineering feats. What should give us greater cause to worry is their capacity for cooperation and their untiring attention to the minutae of trade. They always obtain the best possible prices for the goods which their nations produce, and their commerce is like an army on the march. They cannot rely on nature, so they make human cooperation their chief principle. It is in commerce that Europe can best serve as an example to the world.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Mother of All Missions

In India, the propensity of senior minister's and bureaucrats to go on foreign "study tours" or "missions" is often rediculed by the press - and for good reason too. Most of these public-funded trips,  usually to salubrious environs of Western Europe or USA, are thinly disguised family-holidays, and practically nothing comes out of these trips - except fat shopping bags.

So, last year, when I first read about the Iwakura Mission, it was something of a revelation. To think that a country would send out more than half of its entire cabinet on a foreign jaunt lasting two years was surprising enough. But to realize that the follow-up that took place after this mission transformed the entire socioeconomic structure of a nation, from a agriculture-based economy to an industrial powerhouse, is truly mind-boggling.

Recently I found on "New Arrivals" shelf, an abridged English translation of the multi-volume report compiled by Price Iwakura's personal secretary, Kume Kunitake. It makes for some very interesting reading.

The Iwakura Mission (aka `Embassy`) was sent out by the Japanese government on 23 Dec 1871. Led by Prince Iwakura Tomomi (1825-83), it consisted of over a hundred people, including some of the most senior minister`s in the Japanese cabinet. The Mission went around the globe in 19 months and covered almost all the industrialized countries of the time. The average age of all the ministers (excluding the prince) was just 32 years!

The original objective of this huge delegation was to renegotiate the `unequal treaties` that had been imposed on Japan by the colonial powers. Through these treaties, countries led by USA and England had wrested a number of trade concessions and extra-territorial rights without any obligation to reciprocate the same.

Even though the mission was unsuccessful in it primary objective of getting more favorable treaties, it resulted in a huge volume of literature and reports which were to form the basis of the Meiji Reforms that transformed Japan within just two decades.


* Kume, Kunitake, Japan Rising - The Iwakura Embassy to the USA and Europe 1871-1873; Cambridge University Press, 2009

  • 8 July 1853 - Commodore Matthew Perry's US East India squadron (Black Ships) arrives at Uraga, Tokyo Bay
  • 1854 - Perry comes again with a squadron of nine vessels
  • 31 March 1854 - US-Japan Treaty of Peace and Amity - ports at Shimoda and Hakodate opened for "harbors of refuge"
  • British demanded opening of more and more ports for repair of naval vessels (Nagasaki and Hakodate)
  • 29 July 1858 - US-Japan Treaty of Amity and Commerce - opens 5 ports for intl trade (Hakodate, Kanagawa-Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hyogo-Kobe and Niigata
  • Resistance, attacks on foreigners - mostly from Choshu and Satsuma clans
  • 1860, March - First Japanese mission to USA (cosmetic - nothing came out of it)
  • 1861-65 - US Civil War
  • 1867-68 - Civil war in Japan - Choshu & Satsuma against Tokugawa shogunate
  • Choshu & Satsuma domains first oppose and then collaborate to learn from foreigners
  • 1868, Feb. - Meiji Restoration
  • 1871-1873: The Iwakura Mission to USA, Britain, France, Belgium, Holland, Prussia (Germany), Russia, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Austria

Main Members of the Mission:
  • Prince Iwakura Tomomi (1825-83 )
  • Kido Koin (Takayoshi) (1833-77, Choshu clan) - vice-ambassador
  • Okubo Toshimichi, minister of finance (1830-78; Satsuma clan)
  • Yamaguchi Naoyoshi, asst. vce-minister of foreign affairs (1842-94; Hizen clan)
  • Ito Horobumi, ministry of public works (1841-1909; Choshu clan)