Upheaval: Book Review

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis (2019), Jared Diamond. Six diverse countries (Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, and Australia) facing various crises and how they handled it. Plus what this could mean for the current situation in the US (and the rest of the world). He develops criteria related to possible outcomes and how each countries adapted: 1. National consensus that the nation is in crisis. 2. Accepting of national responsibility to do something. 3. Building fence around the problem. 4. Getting help from other nations. 5. Using other nations as models. 6. National identity. 7. Honest national self-appraisal. 8. Historical experience of previous crises. 9. Dealing with national failure. 10. Situation-specific national flexibility. 11. National core values. 12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints. Other elements include the institutional framework, the role of leaders, possible peaceful solutions (versus war), and reconciliation.

The six crises:

Finland. In 1939 Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union, a much bigger country with tanks are bombers, which Finland did not have. They put up a stiff resistance and initially held the Soviets, but lost about 100,000 soldiers in the process (the Soviets lost about half a million, but this apparently is insignificant in a big police state). The Soviets invaded with a bigger, better prepared force and defeated the Finns--they received virtually no help from other countries. The Finns kept their independence, but learned their lesson and accommodated the Soviets from then on (Stalin seized most of Eastern Europe after World War II); the Finns traded and worked with the West as best they could, but did not count on any assistance. The assumption was that as an ally of the USSR, they would not invade. The West called this "Finlandization," without understanding the circumstances. Finland is now a successful democracy with all the pluses of Scandinavian countries. Education has been a major focus to stay competitive with the rest of Europe and maintain a high living standard.

Japan. The focus here is on the Meiji Restoration of the later half of the 19th century, when the leaders sought Western reform to maintain independence, called by Diamond "selective national change's using other nations as models" (plus multiple indigenous models). Note that the Japanese culture is different from Europe, thus they were selective in what changed and what remained the same (e.g., navy built on the British model and army on Germany, maintaining the emperor). They were so successful that they defeated Russia in a war in the early 20th century. In the 1930's a militant Japan attacked its neighbors, then the US. "Meiji Japan exemplifies patience, the willingness to tolerate initial failure, and persistence until a workable solution is found" (p. 134).

Chile. Salvador Allende was elected president in 1970 as a Marxist and took a radical approach to bring Marxist government to Chile, which alarmed the right wing, military and US, and refused to compromise. His first act was to nationalize US-owned copper companies, then replaced free markets with state planning, including turning over large estates to peasant cooperatives. This led to a 1973 military coup (with CIA support) and the death of Allende. General Augusto Pinochet became leader, becoming a sadistic dictator. Thousands were tortured and killed. The economy was reestablished on a free market basis, while repression continued (Us aid allowed the military to maintain power longer). A new constitution and elections left Pinochet in power. He was finally voted out of office in 1988 and a functioning democracy returned--rule of law, property rights, low inflation and lower corruption. Wealth inequality remains high and social mobility low.

Indonesia. This colony of islands after the defeat of Japan in 1945, then breaking away from the Dutch, underdeveloped and searching for an identity. Military leaders extorted money and smuggling plus other corrupt practices. Sukarno was the first leader, developed a state-centered economy under the army using martial law. Sukarno fought for power with the military and communist party. The communists were rounded up and killed. Suharto was a rising army leader and became acting president in 1967, then replaced Sukarno and ruled for 30 years with something of a reform agenda and aligned Indonesia with the west (reforming the economy using Berkeley economists: balancing the budget, market economy, reducing inflation). The army remained a powerful force and took political positions under Suharto--thus a military state. [Stay in power by terror, rather than fixing real problems.] The Suharto regime collapsed in 1998 in the Asian finance crisis. Relatively free elections followed, corruption fell.

Germany. Germany was destroyed by World War II and split into zones, to become West (rebuilt with the help of the West) and East Germany (with productive assets carted off to the Soviet Union) in 1949. East Germany would be closed off and a wall built around East Berlin. West Germany became needed to defend against communism and Marshall Plan cash rolled in. German companies had good labor relations and flexible working conditions, then developed an apprentice system. Because much of post-war Germany was in the hands of Nazi-trained bureaucrats, Nazi criminals were viewed as a tiny clique. Germany takes responsibility for its /Nazi past. Willy Brandt signed a treaty with East Germany and established diplomatic relations with Eastern Bloc countries. In 1989 East Germans crossed the border to West Berlin freely and by 1990 the two countries were united (and East Germany dissolved). "Only Finland rivals Germany in the limitations on its ability to act independently" (p.242). Germany had a strong national identity, including culture and science.

Australia. Australia started as a British penal colony on this big island continent (from 1788-1868) filled with aborigines and marsupials. They decided that culturally they were Brits far from home, traded mainly with Britain and were loyal servants in times of war. //after World War II Australia became a leading exporter of aluminum, coal copper and other minerals. Although Australia achieved independence they did not sever ties with Britain, (over time, beginning in the 19th century) but remained part of the British commonwealth. Australia did not become a single nation until 1901. Australia was attached in World War II and received most military assistance from the US (MacArthur's headquarters were in Australia). Britain turned to Europe and joined the EU. Australia figured out it was an Asian nation, willing to trade with Japan and other Asian countries--then made big political changes in 1972, like recognizing China and repudiating the White Australia policy. In other words, Australia changed its culture to be more inclusive, more tied to Asia, but with continued British ties.

Updates. Japan is the world's leading creditor nation, but has a large domestic debt (2.5 times GDP). It has healthy, well-educated people and excellent infrastructure; low inflation, cooperative labor/employer relations, competitive markets, a large domestic market, the highest life expectancy in the world, low income inequality, high agriculture productivity, but a declining birth rate and high sexism. Because there is little immigration, the population is aging and declining. Japan has never apologized for atrocities committed in China, South Korea and elsewhere. Although dependent on many resources, Japan does not promote sustainable resources, such as fish and whaling.

The various countries faced different challenges and handled them in different ways, suggesting potential solutions for American problems. The US has drifted down to "flawed democracy" status, with a political system that is not working (polarized with little chance of compromise). "The US is resource rich, self-sufficient in food and most raw materials, and large in area" ...high wealth per person due to the geographic, political, and social advantages" (p. 328). [These are explained in depth in this chapter.] The US has relatively low overt corruption, but considerable covert corruption (p. 338). The cost of elections makes donors more important. Gerrymandering reduces the power of moderates; voter suppression reduces minority voting. ["in 2013 the US Supreme Court overturned Congress's 1965 formula for identifying districts to be subject to oversight. ... The results was a rush by state legislatures to adopt new obstacles to voter registration" (p. 361). "I consider our political polarization to be the most dangerous problem facing us Americans today" (p. 356).

Income and wealth inequality. Income earned by top 1% rose from 10% in the 1970's to 25%+ now. Belief that poor people are poor because it's their own fault (p. 366). "The US is losing its former competitive advantage that rested on an educated workforce, and on science and technology" (p. 372). Much of our money is going to prisons, military and health. By and large the lessons of the six countries reviewed have been ignored. Canada could be a useful model (as described around p. 380). While their is a focus on sub-group identity, there is little focus on national identity. A situation-specific national flexibility could be useful (p. 440). Historically, America has been flexible, but not in the last 20-30 years.

World wide problems include potential for nuclear war or accidents, climate change, a number of problems associated with over-population, depletion of natural resources, but little world-wide acknowledgment of problems. An interesting story of Palestinian and Israeli bird watchers notifying the other country of large migrations which cause air crashes (p. 418). "Great Man" view of history (Thomas Carlyle) versus minimal influence of leaders (Tolstoy). Max Weber though charismatic leaders could sometimes influence history.

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© 2016 Gary Giroux