Sunday, July 15, 2018

A Review of 'Maps of Time' by David Christian

Back in the summer of 2016 I went looking for a book that detailed out the history of the world from a high level. After some searching and asking around I stumbled on Maps of Time, which turned out to be one of the more fascinating books I've read in years (hence the review).

For a little background on the book the author, David Christian, is the father of 'Big History', a field that tries to understand the broad currents of our past. In other words, it looks at our history from the highest perspective possible, rather than focusing on the minutiae and details.

In the work Christian offers an introduction to the field of Big History, and does a step through of the history of the universe up until the modern era. He starts out with theories on the origins of the universe itself, to the origins of our solar system and planet, and then the evolution of life, to the various modern societies of people themselves.

When I was making my way through Christian's book I couldn't put it down. Because broad currents of time are exactly what I'm interested in, this was the work that I had been waiting for for some time. An enormous amount of my curiosity was sated with it's content. It'd be hard for me to go into much detail because there is so much packed inside, but the two main themes I took way from the book were energy intensification and collective communication.

Christian describes energy intensification as a process where people have gained the ability to extract more and more energy from the earth per square unit of area over time. So it goes that when population densities increase there becomes a need for more food production, and so the technology to produce more food ends up being invented (necessity is the mother of invention, type thing).

In effect, this has meant that as people have become more successful in growing their numbers, they've also become more successful at using the earth's resources, with obvious implications that most of us are aware of today.

Collective communication is a process where the total body of knowledge among us grows over time. In prehistoric days tribes were quite isolated and so information exchange was rare. But with populations becoming more dense over time, and more technologies being invented to record and transmit our knowledge, these communities of people started becoming smarter, faster.

One of the most important events here was the advent of the printing press, which arguably led to the modern era. These days the internet age also has the potential to radically transform the world.

There is also a ton of other interesting content packed away in the book, but it'd take a few blog posts to detail it all out.

What I can say about Maps of Time these days is that it's a shame that Christian wasn't able to do a better job of marketing it during it's initial release. Such a wonderful book had a lot of potential, but instead it seemed to stay within the arena of academics and historians.

And unfortunately newer, similar titles like 'Sapiens' by Yuval Harari have been getting a lot of attention even despite more fantastical and far-fetched writing. Although this seems to be the way it goes. Few are interested in reading a subdued explanation of the facts, they want their non-fiction to be equal parts entertaining.

It looks like Christian has recognized this marketing mistake, however, and recently released a more consumable book called 'Origin Story' (even repped by Bill Gates). But we'll have to see if it gains any ground into the public consciousness.

What I liked so much about Maps of Time was that like many of the books I read it took on an academic tone with the aim of relaying a well researched and accurate understanding of our history, rather than one that was simply appealing to the broadest number of people. But at the same time Christian also managed to tread that line and present a book that was still equal parts fascinating and readable. Unlike some other books I've tackled, this was one that didn't tire me out after reading 10 - 20 pages.

It's content also gave me an enormous amount of context to understand the other histories I've read. It's one thing to study 19th century Canada, or the medieval period, or Ancient Greece, but it's another thing entirely to take those histories and put them in the context of the complete history of people themselves.

And so broadly speaking Maps of Time offered a framework within which to place everything else I know about history, and this framework has been incredibly valuable in my understanding of our past.

For the most part I'd say that Christian's work is a must read, but I also think it will appeal especially to the knowledge seeker, whether interested in history or not. If you have any curiosity at all about how we got to where we are today, Maps of Time is well worth it's price.

Monday, July 2, 2018

A Review of 'The Postcolonial State in Africa' by Crawford Young

The Postcolonial State in Africa outlines the history and political progression of the African state post-colonization. But before I get into the grit of the book, a side note on the author Crawford Young:

Young received his B.A. from the University of Michigan and his PhD from Harvard in 1964, where his advisor was the famed scholar Rupert Emerson, the only person ever to serve as president of both the African Studies Association and the Asian Studies Association.

He became an Assistant Professor at Wisconsin in 1963, and published his first major work, Politics in the Congo: Decolonization and Independence. He became prominent as the author in 1976 of the highly influential The Politics of Cultural Pluralism, which was awarded the Herskovits Prize by the African Studies Association. His 1994 book, The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective, won the Lubbert Prize from the American Political Science Association as the best book written that year in the field of Comparative Politics.

And so before getting into the work it's worth noting that the author spent his entire career studying African politics. Written while in his eighties, The Postcolonial State in Africa feels like the culmination of Young's career, and a way of pulling all he'd studied together into a cohesive narrative.

In this review I'm going to intermix a summary of the book with some thoughts on it as I go along. To clarify things a bit I've broken the review up into sections.

Crawford Young's Purpose of the Book

Young's purpose in writing the book is to outline the evolution of the African state from it's colonial roots, through decolonization, and to the ensuing changes up until and after the democratization movement in the early 90s. While doing so he sets the history within a working definition of 'state' which he describes at the onset of the book. He uses this definition as a guide-post to refer back to as he makes his way through the postcolonial period.

In the early stages of the work Young also lays out a framework that explains the typical experience of African nations through the postcolonial period. In the middle sections of the book he lays out this framework in more detail, and finally he finishes with themes and conclusions.

Crawford Young's Framework of the Postcolonial Period

The framework Young outlines begins with Africa's colonial roots, which he argues set the stage for it's later dysfunction. The next phase was decolonization, where a variety of factors led to independence across the continent in the early 1960s. Decolonization was followed by a brief period of hope, and then what Young calls 'Afropessimism' as the international community and Africans themselves realized that the promises made during decolonization were not coming to fruition.

Decolonization was, in most cases, followed by a decline into neo-patrimonial autocracy, and soon after what Young calls 'state crisis' in the 70s and 80s. Finally a democratization movement emerged in the early 90s in response to the turmoil and economic crises that had enveloped the continent for the prior two decades. Since then some countries have made modest gains toward prosperity, while others have backslidden.

The History in More Detail

As for the history Young describes itself the core themes that come to mind are, one, the colonial legacy which left elements of authoritarianism across the continent. Two, the inability of political leaders with no history of governing themselves to quickly take the reins and steer their nations with any success. And three, because the majority of African states descended into autocracy after gaining independence, decision making ended up being too concentrated in a small number of hands, resulting in a huge number of disastrous decisions.

In practice the actions of African leaders usually led into what Young calls neo-patrimonialism, where all roads to wealth flow directly from the leader of the state and it's government. In time, this caused many African states to lose their capacity to govern meaningfully due to lost revenue. It also destroyed any legitimacy these states once had. Finally the governments of many African nations became predatory and a net drain on the communities which they governed, while the African people themselves attempted to make a living via unofficial channels.

My Thoughts on Young's Writing

While reading through the framework and history Young laid out I found his writing style and expertise impressive. The text was intricate and dense, and yet he managed to write in a style that was logical, lucid and clear. He also did a great job to avoid injecting his own emotions and biases into the book, except when some events could only be described with pejoratives (and there are many in African history). Throughout the work it was easy to see Young's long history studying the subject, which he laid out in full detail, and so for the knowledge seeker who wants to get inside African history it was a wonderful read.

My Thoughts on the History

To me, one of the more striking things about the framework and historical pattern was how consistent it was across Africa. While there was some minor divergence, for the most part it held true everywhere on the continent.

A few conclusions come to mind from this. First, it's clear that African and international leaders of the late 50's and early 60's had no true conception of the challenge they were faced with while transitioning away from colonialism. And secondly, it appears like African political leaders were powerless to create any other outcome. With such a universal outcome across the continent, the result itself looks like the product of social realities, and not the determined will of African leaders.

Young's Conclusions on the History

In the beginning of the work Young spends some time describing the main aspects of a functional state, which lets him outline the rest of the book in this context. And throughout the period he finds that the majority of the continent's states are missing most of these qualities. Meaning that today the continent has grim prospects in the near term.

But despite pessimism among the international community Young remains optimistic, and explains that there is precedent for these situations turning around. He also mentions that we shouldn't measure current Africa by it's distance from developed nations, but rather by it's distance from it's autocratic past. And since the democratization movement there are several nations on the continent that have made real improvements.

Young's Themes and Conclusions

To finish the work Young includes a few chapters of themes and conclusions. These chapters include a section on civil war and conflict, another on the trifecta of African identity, and then lastly a set of concluding statements.

The chapter on civil war had some interesting elements for me, but I skimmed through most of it as it included a lot of minutiae on different conflicts across the continent. It did outline the common types of conflict, though, which held my interest, looking like a kind of realpolitik where states and factions which couldn't control and secure their entire territory were often met by challengers. Ethnicity was also a common factor here.

The next section on African identity was my favourite of the three final chapters. Identity in Africa is an interesting topic as it's complex and interwoven into competing narratives. For one, Africans identify themselves as 'one' relative to the European, secondly, Africans define themselves in terms of their nationality, even despite arbitrary borders and failing governments, and lastly these two aspects are filtered through ethnic identity.

Of the three identity types I enjoyed Young's writing on nationalism the most. It's interesting that nationalism remains a major factor across the continent, even despite the governments of these nations failing to support their people. Young posits that one of the main reasons for this is a kind of social inertia where new generations born into the nation come to accept it as de facto reality, and are moved away from their history and ethnic origins.

His write-up on ethnic identity was much more complex, and moved further into the territory of social theory. In sum it outlined the major approaches to understanding ethnic behaviour, including primordial-ism, instrumental-ism, materialism, and constructivism. This section is definitely worth giving some attention, but I won't be going into depth about the above approaches.

In the final chapter Young finishes with some of his own concluding statements. I was looking forward to this section but it ended up being somewhat underwhelming. For the most part Young summarizes the book here, in addition to doing some comparative analysis with other developing regions in the world. In this section he states that Africa's colonial roots, along with it's period of neo-patrimonial autocracy are the most relevant factors needed to understand the state of the continent today. He also mentions that despite the democratization movement and reasons for hope, autocracy is still a potent force across the continent.

My Conclusions

I've read a lot of history through the past few years, and if I could choose a writing style for all of those books to borrow from, Young's work here would serve as a good example. It was extensively researched, well written, detailed, and Young himself was not present in the book. He did his best to outline the history objectively, nothing more, and nothing less.

And even though I found some of his concluding statements underwhelming, at the same time they reflected the general atmosphere of the work. Rather than treating the book as a magnum opus, Young modestly adds to current discourse on modern Africa. He states the relevant facts as one would do in a research paper, and then the book comes to an end.

When I came in to The Postcolonial State in Africa I had mixed expectations, but my main aim was to learn about current affairs on the continent, and it looked like Young's work was up to the task. After making my way through the book I'd say it was one of the more enjoyable reads I've gone through in years. If you like history, politics, or both, it's a must read.