Review of “Lord of the World,” by Robert Hugh Benson

Lord of the World is an odd book. It is work of apocalyptic fiction. It is science fiction. It is the retro-future: written in 1908, it appears to be set in 2008. It is a snapshot of the Right-wing Continental Catholicism. It’s an interesting story.

So a lot to go through, but I will try my best!

1. A Catholic Apocalypse

Lord of the World, like the Left Behind Series (of which Assassins and Indwelling are the best) and the stories of Wastelands (of which Gene Wolf’s “Mute” is the bets), is a tale of the end of the world. Unlike Protestant apocayptic fiction, like Left Behind, or even atheist apocalyptic fiction, like “Judgement Passed,” there is no rapture. This is because, in Catholic theology, we are already within the Millenial reign of Christ: the reason things still suck is that humans are still involved. (As I have a dim view of human nature, this interpretation is persuasive.)

In Catholicism, the Catholic (“Universal”) Church represents the Teaching Authority, or Magisterium. As long as this teaching authority still exists, the Christian religion can still be taught. Without the teaching authority there is only natural religion, those aspects of God that can be deduced from an objective study of reality. Protestants may find Lord of the World odd, therefore, in that the fate of Christianity, the fate of the Catholic Church, and the fate of the world are so clearly linked in the book. In the Left Behind universe, by contrast, even after the Rapture people are able to re-discover Christianity in order to understand the mass disappearances.

2. The Retro-Future

Benson was a good futurist, and so while the details of inventions are different from those that described, he alone of the old writers understood that the 20th century was the century of communication. International flight is made possible by Volors, a sort of zeppelin or ornithopter.” The Volors are slower than modern airplanes, but seem much more convenient to fly in. Likewise, the victorian internet is everywhere in the book: people can communicate with friends and conspirators half-way the world away, quicker than they can even speak, by these useful inventions.

The political situation is doubly-interesting. The super-powers of the world as a strong but isolationist United States, a war-weary but prosperous united Europe, and a commonwealth that encompasses China and Japan. The balance of power described in the book is realistic, and the political situation at the beginning (in which Europe is considering whether or not it would be worth-while to use its independent nuclear deterrent to stop an invasion at the East, at the cost of destroying European civilization along with it) is familiar from the 1970s.

Europe is weary from the “Eastern War,” but there seems to have been no world wars. Nor was there a Communist Revolution: the Communists appear to govern Britain in the book’s version of 2008, but their policies would strike modern conservatives are less offensive than British Labour in the 1970s, or even the Wisconsin Unions of today. Euthanasia was normalized in Europe almost the exact year it was in our reality, and the description of the result of socialized healthcare (“People thought the economy would collapse once doctors became employees of the State. Of course it didn’t.”) is realistic as well.

At first my thought was the depiction of the Antichrist in the book is the weak point. The rise of Nicolea Carpathia in the Left Behind books strikes me as more likely than the meteoric career of Julian Felsenburg (I think the name derives from “False Rock“). But when you consider Felsenburg’s rise happened to the Presidency of Europe happens in both Germany and Britain, you have to consider that reality gave us Adolf History. Felsenburg’s religion is less weird than the Protestant Reich Church, his exterminationist campaign are against a group less integrated into British society than Jews were into German society. Felsenburg is Hitler, but less implausible, less warlike, and less vicious.

3. Right-Wing Continental Catholicism

Benson’s personal view of religion was instantly familiar to me, after reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace. Horne’s enemies, in order are

  • Freemasons
  • Supporters of Democracy
  • Communists
  • Jews

I am careful here, because some reviews have picked up on his hostility to Communists and Jews, and lept to the conclusion that he is an antisemite or a fascist. I don’t know if he was or not, but he clearly has much more against Democracy than he does against Communism, and is far more hostile to Freemasons than he is to Jews. I know nothing about Benson’s political beliefs outside this book, but I clearly get the idea that Francisco Franco is pretty much his ideal ruler.

4. A Fun Story!

I’m glad I read The Lord of the World. The writing is very clear, and the Kindle helped with a few archaic words. There is not a lot of character development, but different philosophies, religions, and political goals are presented fairly. I have already read atheist and protestant fiction about the Apocalypse, and I’m glad I read this one too.

Lord of the World is available from Project Gutenberg. I read it for free on the Kindle.

Review of “Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation,” by Victor Shih

What is the nature of Reform-Era China? That is, how has the People’s Republic been run during the ages of Deng, Jiang, and Hu? For that matter, what ideologies and factions are represented in this mural to the Paramount Leaders?

This is the question raised in Vincent Shi’s “Factions and Finance in China: Elite Conflict and Inflation.” Shi’s book is part of my introduction to the present era in Chinese history, along with Prime Minister/General Secretary Zhao’s autobiographical Prisoner of the State, McGregor’s The Party, Huang’s Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, and even Dikotter’s Mao’s Great Famine. Unlike the Revolutionary-era histories which center around the victories of Deng Xiaoping and his classmate, Chiang Ching-kuo, the Reform-era histories all revolve around the Tiananmen Massacre, Zhao’s dismissal as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and the nature of his house-arrest.

Perhaps even Reform-era history centers around one paragraph of Zhao’s address to the protestors:

Students, we came too late. We are sorry. You talk about us, criticize us, it is all necessary. The reason that I came here is not to ask you to forgive us. All I want to say is that students are getting very weak, it is the 7th day since you went on hunger strike, you can’t continue like this. As the time goes on, it will damage your body in an irreparable way, it could be very dangerous to your life. Now the most important thing is to end this strike. I know, your hunger strike is to hope that the Party and the government will give you a satisfying answer. I feel that our communication is open. Some of the problem can only be solved by certain procedures. For example, you have mentioned about the nature of the incident, the question of responsibility, I feel that those problems can be resolved eventually, we can reach a mutual agreement in the end. However, you should also know that the situation is very complicated, it is going to be a long process. You can’t continue the hunger strike for the 7th day, and still insist for a satisfying answer before ending the hunger strike.

Who is being talked about? Who is being criticized? What is being forgiven?

After reading Dikotter, Huang, and McGregor, my understanding of the Reform era was as follows:

Various people supported Mao Zedong and the Communist Party as a reaction to the Karzai-level corruption of the KMT. China’s Confucian traditions lead to supporters of Chairman Mao placing an unusual degree of trust in his policies. After witnessing (and engaging) in the autogenocides of 1957-1961 and 1966-1969, elite support of Mao’s policies (as opposed to his figurative leadership collapsed. Following Mao’s death, Deng Xiaoping cleverly used Soviet-style conservatives, Mao-style radicalists, and western-style Liberals, allowing him to form the leadership couterie that eventually took power in 1992. the two most powerful factions in the Communist Party were centered around the Communist Youth League, which focused on leashing the creative energies of the rural population, and the Shanghai Clique, who aspired to imitate Japan’s economic strategy. While the CYL-Shanghai split was serious, this split is analogous to a split between militant factions of the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce..

Shih’s book largely agrees with the narrative, but challenges it on two main points.

  • The Reform consensus became the dominant ideology of the Communist Party by 1982, not 1992, and
  • The factional split is deeper, but more stable, than merely between the Youth League and the Shanghai Clique

Shih argues in both cases that Chinese Communist politics is forever split into generalists factions and technocratic factions. Generalist factions have widespread support throughout the country, but lack domain expertise in any specific area of governance. Technocratic factions have narrow support within groups of assorted ministries and departments, but are linchpins to success in these areas. Examples of weak technocratic factions would be Education or Environmental Protection. The strong technocratic faction that is the focus of Shi’s work is the Finance faction.

With regard to economic policies, the Finance faction plays the same role now that the Gold faction used to in American politics. Because China has no independent banking system, the Finance faction clamps down on local lending in order to burnish high-profile projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam. Supporters of sound money, stable finances, and a strong central government, the Finance faction gains power during times of economic insecurity and loses power during times of economic growth. Likewise, the various generalist factions use the State-Party banking system to finance loans to followers, which allows rapid growth of the cash-starved Chinese business system at the price of high inflation.

There are many generalists factions and many technocratic factions at any one time. During the reign of a generalist faction, it will force the State-Party banks to lend generously so that it can use its political leadership to benefit its supporters. Weaker factions use this permissive environment to do the same. This leads to both growth but also inflation: Zhao Ziyang publicly stated that inflation at 70%/yr (that’s seventy percent a year) was acceptable as a baseline. Eventually, however, the dangers of high inflation become obvious, but the dominant faction is in a bind: if it alone withholds funds from supporters, other generalist factions will increase in strength while they free-ride. Thus, the dominant generalist faction delegates power to the Party-State banks, who withhold power from all generalist factions. The dominant generalist faction, however, recognizes the Finance faction can never acquire enough supporters to maintain its rule, and thus feels safe with this delegation.

The Communist Party and China benefit from this dynamic (as it serves to moderate inflationary cycles) and the bureaucratization of the modern Party-State (which allows for more technocratic factions that can be bought off without threat to the hegemony of the dominant generalist faction).

Shih’s book helps me reinterpret what I formerly read. Zhao’s action as a rural confiscator of grain in Mao’s Great Famine may have partially been the work of a frightened and naive official, but they were also the work of a man firmly in a generalist faction competing against other generalist factions. The Shanghai Clique, which is castigated for slow-growth in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics, is perhaps simply playing out the favorite scenario of gold standardists everywhere. The Party-State, which is supportive of and supported by both the generalist and technocratic factions, looks as strong as ever.

So to answer questions:

What is the nature of Reform-Era China?

A stable equilibrium between inflationary generalist factions and deflationary technocratic factions.

That is, how has the People’s Republic been run during the ages of Deng, Jiang, and Hu?

As a pro-growth economy, without private banks, whose debates about monetary stability resembles America’s debates about the Cross of Gold from a century ago.

For that matter, what ideologies and factions are represented in this mural to the Great Helmsmen?

Mao’s ideology was revolutionary, Deng’s, Jiang’s, and Hu’s were reform.

For that matter, Mao, Deng, and Hu are definitely generalist. Shih classifies Jiang as a generalist circumscribed by the technocratic Zhu Rongji, while others would classify him as a technocrat himself. In any case, the 3-1 split seems representative of the relative power of the generalist v. technocratic factions.

Who did Zhao say was being talked about? Who is being criticized? What is being forgiven?

The dominant generalist faction, which allowed inflation and corruption to increase a a price of rapid economic growth.

Factions and Finance in China occasionally reads like a dissertation, but is a brilliant addition to my collection of Reform-era histories of China. Highly recommended!

Short Review of “Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft Plans to Stay Relevant in the Post-Gates Era,” by Mary Jo Foley

I have mixed impressions of Microsoft 2.0 by Mary Jo Foley. I love Foley’s blog. But not this book.

This book is written by Mary Jo Foley, who maintains a wonderful blog about the software company from Redmond. Mary often receives leaks (seemingly officially) from Microsoft insiders that outline future product directions and organizational changes. For anyone who is interested in what Microsoft is actually up to, Mary’s blog is a must read.

Microsoft 2.0 is basically the same material one would have found on her blog, distilled, and current as of early 2008. As such the book is not a necessary read for anyone, as those “predictions” or “leaks” that are in the book have since been taken over by events. Unlike at the time of writing, Vista is now recognized for the disaster it was, Windows Mobile 7 was killed and replaced by Windows Phone 7, and “software + services” seems to be as important as ever.

If you are interested in this sort of material, then definitely Read the blog. But skip the book.

Reviews of Self-Help, Advise, and Financial Book

Books reviewed:

Of these five books, three have helped to improve my professional life (Collins, Godin, and Ramsey), one is a fine technical book (Mecham), and the last seems bizarre and dangerous (Orman).

First, Seth Godin. I think the reason I loved Godin is that it was an easy, breezy, well written, and actionable (!) distillation of the ideas that I focused on in my dissertation: namely, creative performance is a function of your expertise in your domain, the extent to which you can co-opt gate-keepers in your field, and your eagerness to fail. Godin repeatedly emphasizes the second of the three attributes, and really emphasizes the social aspect of business. A hand-drawn chart sums up a number of his arguments very nicely:

While Godin focuses on co-opting gate-keepers, Collins focuses on building expertise. The way one becomes an expert is practice, of course, so the center of Collins’ writing is how to move yourself into a position where you can keep practicing for an extended period. Using a case study approach, Collins emphasizes doing something that in which (a) you find excitement, (b) you make money, and (c) you can become the best in the world. While much of Collins’ tone is written at the level of CxO types, the personal applicability of the lessons are obvious.

As Collins lays out how to build expertise, and Godin seeks out the social aspect of co-opting gatekeepers, Ramsey keeps an eye clearly on failure. All learning comes from failure, and Ramsey’s advise is all about how to embrace this part of life. Essentially, Ramsey seeks to turn disasters into annoyances and annoyances into non-events. Specific advise, such as rapidly paying off debt, paying in cash, and such all have at their root a minimizing dependency on steady incoming cash-flow from an external source. My only criticism is that Ramsey is a much better radio host than he is an author — casually listening to his podcast is more enjoyable than reading him in book format.

All the advise of Godin, Collins, can perhaps me summed up in one sentence:

If you want it bad, you get it bad. If you want it like hell, you get it like hell.

Mecham, by contrast, offers an extended text-based infomercial for his budget software, YNAB. The software is fine, as is the book. Mechan’s advise is broadly compatible with Ramsey, and being conscious about spending decisions is hardly a bad thing. Still, while Godin, Collins, Ramsey together outline an exciting vision of how the economy actually works, Mechan’s writing is a less-useful and more-muddled version of the same (so more like my writing level!)

Godin, Collins, and Ramsey are great writers. Mechan is a fine one. Orman is dangerous. While reading Money Class, I kept thinking, “Who is this written for?” When I read that Orman had worked for Merrill Lynch and Prudential, it all made sense: Orman teaches a spreadsheet-based version of microeconomics which works fantastically if you average the results over 10,000 random people. This is dangerous because it ignores the variability in outcomes that can be critical during the course of building expertise, co-opting gatekeeprs, and failing. Advise that Orman gives that prepares for failure (a large emergency fund) is immediately undone by assuming long-term and constant streams of income (prepare to pay off your mortgage… by retirement).

I dont’ view life as dry or cold, so Orman’s disembodied advise really puzzles me. Failure should not be a disaster which requires a “new American dream”: it is (and has been since you were a toddler) an intrinsic part of learning.

In conclusion, Godin are Collins are must reads. Ramsey is a must-listen. Mecham is perfectly fine. Orman is writing from a different, and colorless, planet.

Review of “To Lose a Battle: France 1940,” by Alistair Horne

To Lose a Battle, by Alistair Horne (the author of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962) is (1) a logistics-heavy description of the Battle of France, (2) a description of the general incompetence in both the France and German High Commands, (3) a tale of France, a country that was not then and never became a western democracy, and (4) a history of the end of France and Germany as distinct states.

1. The Logistics of War

“It was time that was the vital element which — more than weapons, even perhaps more than morale — France most lacked in 1940.”

Horne’s focus on logistics, timing, supplies, and materiel is refreshing, especially given so much strategy-focused writing by John Boyd and William Lind. I am not in a position to evaluate the completeness of Horne’s account, but his manner of writing certainly has fans:

Some two years later, I encountered at a London publishing party Israel’s leading military analyst and former Chief of Intelligence, Chaim Herzog (He was later to become Israel’s President.) We had met some years previously in Israel, and he had now just published his own account of the 1973 campaign, The War of Atonement. (Weidenfeld, 1975). When I commented on the similarities to the Manstein Plan of 1940, he smiled knowingly and said something to the effect that, only recently, General Sharon had referred to it, acknowledging a certain indebtedness to To Lose a Battle. Herzog kindly signed a copy of his book for me, adding the laconic but meaningful inscription, “In appreciation.”

I’ve never read a clearer account of battle that focused on the vital appointment of having the right materiel at the right location at the right time. Horne deserves major props for this part of the book, as he does for flowing between the political and military dimensions of struggle in his last book.

2. The Incompetence of the High Commands

Poor decisions went up to the part. “During the course of the Second World War,” Horne writes, “Hitler committed half a dozen key blunders that were to lose Germany the war.” Though in fairness, Hitler’s consistent habit was to bluff as much as he can while being prepared to rapidly ceed ground at the first resistance. Even as late as 1939 Horne believes that a French attack on Germany (during the Nazi invasion of Poland) would have reached the Rhine within two weeks.

The French and German general staffs, however, were fixated on the strategy of an orderly defense, and as such both were hesitant to move rapidly or seize the initiative. These “wrong lessons learned” for World War I, however, reach comic levels with the French, who even move troops away from Paris and towards the Maginot Line near the end of the fight.

3. France, an Unstable Democracy

The best insight I have from reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is that France was never a stable western democracy. Attempts to view its behavior as analogous to what the United States or Britain would do in a similar situation are unfounded, because France had a unique set of interests. Specific elements of French political life that made normal politics impossible were

  • A lack of separation between the political and the military
  • A militant left-wing (which was purposefully crippled by Stalin)
  • A revolutionary right-wing (which was sympathetic to military coups against elected governments)

The pattern of both To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace is the old general, brought in from retirement, who oversees the death of the old Republic and faces resistance from an idealistic general

Philippe Petain v. the Third Republic and Charles DeGaulle
but then… DeGaulle v. the Fourth Republic and Roaul Salan

After reading both books, the solution is obvious: France is not a stable democracy.

Reading To Lose a Battle and A Savage War of Peace at first is strange, because the country appears to be a nightmarish version of the United States, but the U.S. is a democracy that has not had a new constitution since the the 18th century. France, by contrast, was never stable. Thus Petain, and DeGaulle, operated out the same frame: no stable government existed absent a strong leader, so a constitutional dictatorship was (for the time being) the only natural form of government for France.

The difference between Petain and DeGaulle was not between traitor and patriot (by our standards, they were surely both). Indeed, both recognized the unstable nature of French democracy, and sought to meld the French polity into Germany. Likewise, both (like Mao Zedong, Chiang Kaishek, and Wang Jingwei) differentiated between ‘diseases of the limbs’ and ‘diseases of the hearts’ — during their heights…

DeGaulle, unlike Petain, was an optimist as DeGaulle, unlike Petain, did not live with the guilt of overseeing a massacre. While other French commanders fled he attacked the Germans, achieving some pointless victories that did nothing to stop the German war machine. Thus, DeGaulle was willing to wait for a better time to commit his ethnic cleansing campaign and tie his country’s fate to Germany. Petain simply wanted to end the destruction of his country.

4. The End of France and Germany

The hosts of heaven allowed the sons of man to form two nations, France and Germany, in June 840. The mandate was revoked in June, 1940.

Before France and Germany western Europe was controlled by a transnational aristocracy. After June, 1940, such a world returned.

The end of the book has a “where are they now” section. There seemed to be no correlation between the side of a leader and how his future career unfolded. Both German and French generals suffered under Hitler. Both German and French generals were executed post-war. Both German and French generals would enjoy a sunny career in NATO. June 1940 appeared to be the last month where the fates of Germany and France were, truly, antagonistic.

For centuries it was impossible imagine a world without these two countries. Now, it is impossible to imagine one with them. Considering the inability of either France or Germany to establish stable national democracies, the accomplishments of the European Union are astounding.

To Lose a Battle is a brilliant history of one of the first fights of the Second World War. Highly recommended!