Sunday 25 August 2019

Upheaval: How bloodshed drives change and money trumps morality

Non-fiction: Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change

Jared Diamond Allen Lane, hardback, 512 pages, €35

Power grab: General Augusto Pinochet (left) after leading a military coup in Chile
Power grab: General Augusto Pinochet (left) after leading a military coup in Chile

Until the late 1960s, Chile was seen as one of the most functional democracies in Latin America. But political stability quickly turned to violent chaos on September 11, 1973, when Salvador Allende's democratically elected Marxist government was overthrown in a coup d'état led by Augusto Pinochet. The Chilean Army commander-in-chief's accession to power was achieved through mass fear, kidnapping, and state-sponsored murder.

Following the military coup, the Chilean National Stadium in Santiago was turned into a concentration camp, where thousands of suspected dissidents were arrested, interrogated, tortured and executed. By 1976, 1pc of the Chilean population were in prison. While many were eventually released, others simply "disappeared".

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Shocking as these events appear, they were more the rule than the exception in the region during the Cold War: when the fight against global communism got especially sneaky, lawless, and underhanded. By the late 1970s, 15 of the major 21 states in Latin American were ruled by military dictators. Much of the meddling, fixing, financing and supplying of weapons that brought these far-right juntas to power came from the clandestine activity of the CIA. Chile's recent traumatic history takes up an entire chapter in Jared Diamond's Upheaval: How Nations Cope With Crisis and Change: a book that essentially provides a litmus test for a nation state in political calamity and its subsequent survival.

Since Pinochet stepped aside from power in 1990, Chile has made a peaceful transition to democracy. It leads Latin America economically, and the percentage of Chileans living below the poverty line has rapidly decreased.

But inequality remains rampant in Chile, which is still ruled under many legal clauses put in place in Pinochet's constitution. For the sake of peace and posterity, however, the country has collectively drawn a line in the sand and moved on from its painful past: despite the fact that cold-blooded murderers still living in the society have never been brought to justice.

Why, then, didn't left-wing opposition take up arms, fight a civil war and seek revenge? Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Professor of Geography at UCLA, and noted polymath, feels Chile's citizens firmly believe in two powerful words that sum up what this book is all about: political pragmatism.

Other examples we read of here come from a motley crew of nations as diverse as Finland, Japan, Indonesia, Germany, Australia and the United States. Each nation has responded differently to its own moment of crisis.

Germany, for instance, presently doesn't try to disguise its shameful Nazi past that led to the genocide of six million Jews; Japan, conversely, has not been as forthcoming in admitting its brutal treatment of the Chinese and Koreans during the same period. Some examples Diamond cites are more extreme than others.

The national identity crisis Australia played out at snail's pace with its big brother, Great Britain, over the course of the 20th century feels more like a drunken pillow fight in comparison to, say, the massacre Indonesia inflicted on half a million of its own citizens during its genocidal anti-communist purge during the mid-1960s.

Bloodshed, it appears, is usually the driving impetus for lasting political and historical change; money, meanwhile, often trumps morality in the long game of nation state survival.

War is indeed devastatingly cruel to those who survive. But do the moral victories and economic benefits that emerge from its horror ensure posterity gains where their ancestors lost out? In a word: yes.

Here, Diamond uses Finland as a good case in point. Before its 'Winter War' with the Soviet Union during WWII, the country was seen as poverty-stricken and insignificant in the greater spectrum of global politics. But reparations it was forced to pay to the Soviet Union to broker peace paradoxically forced Finland to adapt to the global capitalist economy rapidly and with flexibility in a short-time span. The benefits were enormous. What was once considered a Scandinavian backwater is today one of the wealthiest, technologically sophisticated and educated nations on the planet.

Here we might remember Hegel's sobering analysis that: "War has the higher significance that through it the moral health of peoples is preserved in their indifference towards the stabilizing of finite determinations."

For the most part, Diamond's central thesis - that war followed by peace followed by trade equals prosperity and progress - is a convincing one. But when gaps in his argument appear, they are more like sink holes. Here is one particularly egregious clanger: "Only in poor countries where much of the population [feels] desperate and angry, is there toleration or support for terrorists." Such a reductive analysis makes a huge distinction between state violence vs non-state actors taking up arms in cases when human rights are worth going to war for. In reality, those demarcation lines are not so clear-cut. No irony is lost here, since Diamond spends much of his book explaining instances where state-sanctioned violence normalised and promoted genocide, rape and torture.

This shouldn't put the reader off, though. More broadly, Diamond's book is vast in scale and ambitious in scope. He takes on global history over the last three centuries, while also dedicating significant time to predicting future threats to our planet: nuclear war, climate change, global resource depletion, and rising global inequality.

His tone is informal, conversational, laid-back, centrist, heavy on detail and measured, and mixes geography, politics and history into a sharp, lucid narrative where realpolitik takes preference over moral finger-waving histrionics.

It's a Machiavellian school of thought where the premise is cruelly realistic: eternal justice-seeking won't get one very far in a global world order where fairness isn't always forthcoming. Diamond essentially sees political affairs as a shrewd game of poker. If you want to survive at the table, having an expertise in trade, arms, the swift movement of capital, and the psychological games of power will serve you well. It's certainly a seductive argument, even if a somewhat morally repugnant one.

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