Monday, June 06, 2011

Niall Ferguson goes all Götterdämmerung on us again...

Niall Ferguson issues a timely warning about the intense economic hardship following in the wake of the Egyptian revolution (recession, capital flight, inflation, unemployment). But having effectively demonstrated that hard times are at hand for Egypt, Ferguson goes into costume (melo)drama mode:
None of this should surprise us. Such is the life cycle of revolutions. What begins with euphoric crowds soon slides into a second phase of economic paralysis. The same happened in France after the initial “bliss” of 1789 and in Russia after 1917. In each case, exuberance at the overthrow of the old regime was swiftly succeeded by exasperation at the decline in living standards. And that was what gave the political extremists their opportunity to peddle their radical ideology of war against internal and external foes. Yesterday, the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. Tomorrow, I fear, the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda.
Well, maybe. But that is what I call a loose analogy (or pair of analogies).  A lot of countries have overthrown dictators since 1789; most have probably experienced economic hardship in the aftermath.  Not all have devolved into terror and tyranny.  In fact, the Egyptians of all stripes who participated in the ovethrow of Mubarak  have displayed intense awareness of a revolution-gone-wrong much nearer at hand: Iran's in 1979.  All, including the Muslim Brotherhood, publicly rejected that model:
GVF [2/4/11] — Egypt’s main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood have rejected calls by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for an Islamic Revolution similar to the Iranian revolution of 1979 to be established in Egypt.

“The MB regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution” said a statement published on the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website just hours after Khamenei's remarks on Friday, while “asserting that the Egyptian People’s Revolution includes Muslims, Christians, from all sects and political.”

Of course, Ayatollah Khomeini made noises about democracy too in 1979. Egypt's revolution could be betrayed (Elliott Abrams sees economic populism as a more likely wrong turn). But if Ferguson has any evidence that full-blown theocracy is around the corner, he doesn't cite it.

Back in February, a Bulgarian novelist, Nikolai Grozni, sketched out a very different analogy between a past revolution and Egypt's. His was offered as a hope, though not unleavened with warning:

I remember that for months after the uprising began I had no home. The fabric of society as it had existed for 45 years was torn apart. The thought of school, or practicing the piano, or even a family dinner, seemed absurd. People bonded spontaneously, hugging each other and vowing to keep protesting. An adrenaline-dizzy, spoiling-for-a-fight 16-year-old, I slept in the apartments of strangers, or on the street. Then things got really, really bad. Huge strikes paralyzed the country. Gas stations ran out of gas. Hospitals had no supplies, not even anesthetic. Supermarkets sold only bleach. The electricity worked for just a few hours a day.

At one point, after wandering around town with the young protesters for days without sleep or food, I went to see my girlfriend who lived on the 11th floor of a Soviet-style apartment building, and I got stuck in the elevator for hours because the power had gone out again. I remember that even in that desperate moment, with the cold wind blowing furiously through the dark shaft, I thought that it had all been worth it...

I would like to commend my Egyptian brothers and sisters for their breathtaking courage and ask them to never give up. After all, Mr. Mubarak may be gone, but real change comes very slowly, and at an enormous price. It took two years after the toppling of our dictator before the first democratic government in Bulgaria came to power, and it lasted barely a year. From 1989 to 2009, Bulgaria had 10 governments. Even now, the invisible structure of power set up by the Communists is still largely intact, with the current ruling elite rife with former national security agents and informers.

Nonetheless, children growing up in Bulgaria today are free to listen to whatever music they want, to say whatever they want, to gather wherever and whenever they want, to freely choose their futures. Girls will never again be inspected by state-appointed doctors to determine if they have lost their virginity. High school boys will never again be forced to strip naked and show their bodies to a committee of military perverts in charge of monitoring future army recruits for signs of homosexuality. And the mummy has been buried.

No matter what happens next in Egypt, it will all have been worth it. After living in oppression for so long, Egyptians have already achieved what matters most: they have regained their dignity.
Someone might argue that Grozni's analogy is no nearer the case than Ferguson's. (Though it's considerably nearer in time, and that's not nothing. Again, Egyptians are aware of the negative examples.)  In a way, that's just my point. Take your pick from 50 analogies. But if you're going to indulge, show in some detail how yours is relevant -- and better yet, mark the limits of its relevance, so others won't have to.

The strongest evidence that Ferguson is writing horror movies, not history, is in his final paragraph, which immediately follows the one cited above. Having earlier cited John Maynard Keynes' warning that imposing reparations on Germany after WWI would provoke a backlash, he cranks up the Wagner:
As Keynes might have written, nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of reaction and revolution, before which the horrors of the late war on terror will fade into nothing.
Ferguson has been at pains to convince us for some time now that the world is headed toward a maelstrom equal to or worse than The War of the World that he rather sloppily tries to convince us (in his 2007 book of that name) extended through the entire first half of the twentieth century. His evidence was slight in that book, and it's slight here. Yes, humanity could rip civilization to shreds at any moment.  But tell me again: why exactly should we be unduly afraid that the Arab Spring will be the catalyst?

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