Moral relativism and historical horror

I did a lot of reading over the holidays.

Something I found noteworthy was the conflict between the different authors I read, all seemingly bright, educated and respectable people. In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs (Ph.D., Harvard) says that developing countries need to avoid protectionism and liberalize their markets to encourage investment, spurring growth. Fair point. In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang (Ph. D., Cambridge) says that developing countries need to embrace protectionism in specific industries, particularly nascent high-tech or complex manufacturing, until they are stable. He cites the specific and intentional use of this strategy by the UK and the USA during their industrial development. Fair point. An single economic problem, with two solutions that couldn’t contrast any further.

In the elaborately titled Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century W.E.B. Du Bois (Ph. D, Harvard…. 1895) lauds the Soviet state, declaring plenty of immeasurable positive effects – people interested in personal achievement, bettering themselves, and attending lectures, theatre, concerts: all sorts of academic and cultural events. Fair point, albeit an anecdotal one, observed in the 1950s. Sachs (again), critiquing that same state, declares that the Soviet Union’s ultimate failing was its inability to effectively tailor its production to consumer demands. Fair point. I see this as an example of confirmation bias: both authors holding certain viewpoints, fileting off cross-sections of information from a behemoth nation with a vast, complicated history, to reinforce their chosen narrative. (I don’t dispute Sachs’ analysis, nor was he attempting to offer a comprehensive account – but I was still struck by the contrasting accounts, both relating to the happiness of the people.)

What can one take away from this? When it comes political economics or social history, people tend to/like to/prefer to disagree? Truth depends on interpretation of data? Of circumstance? It depends on what you’re looking for? I’m a believer that almost any theory, applied to the correct set of circumstances, can be validated.

That’s not to say there aren’t general principles and ideas that I see as preferable or ideal; I don’t believe in some weird absolute vacuum. Maybe I see some political schemes as more equitable, more just, or more compassionate. More likely to benefit more people. But that doesn’t mean that following those ostensibly superior schemes won’t lead to disaster, or apathy, or insolvency, or a bad haircut. In that order. Whatever. At any rate, my political righteousness and conviction fades by the day, except some days, when it doesn’t.

It was with this sort of selective moral ambiguity that I opened up Mao’s Great Famine, by Frank Dikötter (had a devil of a time hunting down those umlauts. I just like saying “umlaut”). I expected it to be something of a (well-researched) socialist take-down. “Don’t worry, Frank. I don’t actually want to be a communist. I just think we could all share a little more.”

In retrospect, my flippancy there only showcases my own ignorance. I knew numbers, but I really had no concept of Mao’s place in history.

The book was just a bad, bumpy, grim read. These are things that happened sixty years ago, but it was still quite difficult to read in certain places because of how many horrible choices could have been easily avoided, and how badly multiple circumstances kept compounding with each other during the “Great Leap Forward” to create the famine. A summary, from memory:

The party wants to advance in steel production – they massacre their resources to create an overnight steel production program. The loss of farm implements hurts productivity in the following years. The loss of kitchen utensils removes villagers’ independence when the communal canteens take over food distribution, forcing dependence on work points. The party wanted to create irrigation and dams. Farmers are pulled away from the fields, worked to death, to build water structure so poorly designed they flood in the following years. Nothing works. Everything is broken. Houses are destroyed for fuel. No one has food.  But the infrastructure is so overrun that the food transported around gets stuck in the middle of nowhere on trains bound for cities. And it rots. One province exports 2 million tonnes of grain to meet trade obligations to save face for the party. They receive 200 000 tonnes of emergency grain rations later that year. Everyone lies. The party declares unrealistic quotas. The local government lies, to meet quotas. The provincial government upscales the lie, to gain prestige. The party government receives the information of quotas met and even exceeded, and re-inflates their initial quota. The food they’re expecting doesn’t exist. Rural people who make the food starve as its pulled away to meet foreign and urban demands. Urban people who are hinging upon an unrealistic delivery starve. It’s hard to even call it a cycle because there’s so many flailing tentacles involved that there’s not even a semblance of a sequence. The insane measures of night shifts and beatings and work points employed to try to meet the quotas, then the central government, in fits of arrogance and whimsy, increasing them, offering more food to be exported in trade, expanding their (poorly designed) capital projects and dragging more farmers out to work on them. Pure insanity.

The last few chapters of the book were dedicated to the living conditions of villagers as taken from individual histories. It’s a long read of violence. Not that the author is unaware – in multiple instances he states “one or two examples will suffice to explain” or something of that nature before moving on to the next type of pain.

What I found so bewildering and overwhelming about the book was the way it unfolded. There was evil, yes, and a willingness to sacrifice human lives articulated outright by man party members. But some of the worst devastation I would say came less from intentional evil, intentional targeting of the population than from a strange combination of brutality, incompetence and arrogance, where party members would crush their opponents or imprison them because their claims or reports could lead to the unraveling of their own career. For some reason, that’s harder for me to imagine than something applied more directly.

I guess what I’m saying is I learned something. And in a way it also shook me out of my lumbering moral nebula: right, some things are clear and obvious and there’s a right and a wrong, and DON’T YOU FORGET THAT!

It also reaffirmed my general curiosity on history. Most of what I’ve read this year has had something to do with history. I’m not sure why I picked this one up – but I suppose if you’re looking to acquaint yourself with Chinese history, the Great Leap Forward, or something about China under Mao, this was a worthwhile read.


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