The “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the “Chinese Spring” of 1911

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The op-ed page of The Lakeville Journal has won the top prize for op-ed pages of 2011 at the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA); I am pleased that one of my columns was at the top of the award-winning page. That one was about the Arab Spring of 2011, and a cautionary antecedent, the Chinese democracy uprising of 1911.


“Well Doctor, what have we got — a monarchy or a republic?” Ben Franklin was asked by a female onlooker on the last day of the American constitutional convention in 1787. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin responded.

Maintaining a republic, of course, is the true problem; and it was on display, recently, as in Warsaw, President Obama pledged, along with some European nations, a substantial sum of money to support the emergence of democratic institutions in the countries that have awakened in the Arab Spring. While in Poland the president also commemorated the “Polish Spring” uprisings of the late 1980s that led to the downfall of Communism in Soviet Union and its satellite states – as though that is the model for what should happen in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps even in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, should they throw off authoritarianism.

But Poland’s emergence as a democratic republic in the wake of a popular uprising is the exception, not the rule.
Much more relevant and common are historical uprisings that presented a moment of happiness – and of opportunity – for democracy and capitalism, but that soon disappeared. One that has been all but forgotten in the modern world, but whose failure is instructive, is the attempt at instituting democracy in mainland China, begun in 1911.

It would be nice to be able to call it the “Chinese Spring,” but it actually began in the fall, and lasted about eighteen months. In a half-dozen provinces in southern China, revolutionaries led by the American-trained medical doctor, Sun Yat-Sen, and the charismatic newspaper editor, Song Jiaoren, succeeded in a rebellion. It had two bases: one, a pledge to unite China’s five ethnic groups (the majority Hans, and the minority Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims) under one banner, and to let all have a share in ruling. The second base was Sun’s principles, modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This promise enthralled a Chinese populace that had been under the dominion of the Qing Empire for nearly three centuries, and under other emperors for 4,000 years prior to that.

In a moment when the Qing were torn between the conservatives loyal to the dowager queen, and the more liberal elements of the regent, there was some space for a genuine revolution. It was led more by Song than by Sun. Song Jiaoren, pledged to representative democracy, set about convincing Beijing to institute it. His main enemy, the Qing’s man Yüan Shi-kai, was a good general and a fierce administrator, but when he realized that the government’s scattered forces could not immediately defeat the rebels, he offered Song a deal: Yüan would become the president of a republic, in exchange for overthrowing the monarchy and for instituting democratic elections for a legislature that would share power with the executive. Song agreed. Sun Yat-Sen was off in America, raising campaign funds.

On February 12, 1912, the last Qing emperor, an under-aged boy, abdicated, the regent went into internal exile, and the Republic of China was declared. Elections were scheduled for the end of the year. Still, Yüan grumbled, “I am a president who presides over nothing and commands nothing,” and chafed under a constitution he found too restrictive. Nonetheless, for the rest of the year, the country was caught up in election fever, with public debates, editorials, and the like. The results astounded everyone when they were announced in February 1913. The Nationalists won 269 out of 596 seats in the lower house, and 123 out of 274 in the upper, and would be in power. It was clear that the 32-year-old Song would become the country’s premier. But on March 20, 1914, Yüan had Song Jiaoren assassinated.

After that, without effective top leadership, the Nationals were quickly run off. Authority was stripped from the legislature. Yüan used money from a five-power foreign consortium to pay warlord armies to best the Nationalists’ forces in battle. By October of 1913, Sun Yat-Sen had retreated to Japan, to begin once more his revolutionary quest. Within another year, Yüan Shi-kai tried to become emperor himself. When he died in 1916, without having accomplished that last goal, warlord control of China returned with a vengeance, and held sway through the 1920s, the 1930s, and until 1949 and the Communists’ victory in the long Chinese civil war.

— Tom Shachtman

A Dozen Ways To Eliminate The Middle Class

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Here’s an article that was first in The Huffington Post and then reposted on many other sites.

Cleaning out my files at year end of 2010, I came across notes that I wrote in early 2002 on a dozen ways to eliminate America’s middle class through the actions of government and private industry. I must have put the notes away because it did not seem possible that all these things could come to pass. How silly of me! In the past decade more than 90 percent of American families experienced severe economic shocks, and that the damage was particularly bad in households earning between $60,000 and $100,000 per year.

Here’s my list of killer actions:

  • Suppress unions. From the 1930s on, unions have been the principal route out of poverty for tens of millions of Americans. Since 1983, membership has been declining, and is now around 12-13 percent of the workforce. Fewer union members equals fewer people in the middle class.
  • Substantially reduce dividends paid by public companies. Stockholders used to rely on dividends to build a nest egg for a downpayment on a home or a fund to send the kids to college. When the average dividend dropped below the rate of inflation, accumulation by dividends became impossible.
  • Lower interest rates on bonds, deposits, and CDs to laughable levels.
  • Fire middle managers and at the same time raise compensation for upper-level managers. Decades ago, the top manager made 40 times the salary of the factory floor worker; now the multiple is 500, and the growth has been provided mostly by firing the managers in between the top and bottom levels.
  • Shift the burden of health care costs from businesses to employees. Medical costs alone don’t cause people to fall out of the middle class; it is the burden of carrying overpriced health care.
  • Underfund pension plans, and don’t punish companies that fail to make their contributions. When an employer inadequately funds its employees’ pension plan, retirees fall out of the middle-class because the money they had counted on receiving has vanished.
  • Raise college tuition to the stratosphere. Even public college costs today are so high that almost no middle class families can pay for college out of current income, and are forced to take out second mortgages so that their children can obtain a sheepskin.
  • Make greed more attractive. When the upper ranks of earners are not taught to be satisfied with a million dollars a year but insist on making ten, rather than being content to share the extra nine with fellow employees, everyone else loses.
  • Make debt attractive. Ease the way for the middle class to spend money through credit and debit cards, and extend credit to people who are less than credit-worthy, thus driving up credit-card rates and greasing the skids toward impoverishment. Then tout second mortgages as a way to consolidate credit-card debts; and then decrease the value of the homes on which the second mortgages have been based.
  • Allow the economy to become over-dependent on consumer spending, and encourage citizens to buy disposable consumer items. The middle class used to be known for its affinity for real property and big-ticket items. But when you don’t buy the refrigerator and instead buy suits, pairs of shoes, and electronic toys (all made in China), not only don’t you have the refrigerator, but the U.S.-based refrigerator-manufacturing plant shuts down for lack of customers, throwing a couple of more thousand people in Michigan out of the middle class, too.
  • Embrace a tax policy inconsistent with the growth of the middle class, for instance, not permitting tax deductions for such middle-class-boosting expenses as life insurance premiums, college tuition payments, and commuting expenses.
  • Facilitate and protect a bought-and-paid-for Congress beholden to the wealthy for their campaign expenses.

— Tom Shachtman

The Warbabies’ Adult Rite of Passage

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Here’s an op-ed of mine from The Lakeville Journal. It was inspired by my, gulp, 50th reunion from high school, and many people have said that it touched a nerve ….


My high school class’s fiftieth reunion was this weekend. An older male friend laughed when I told him of the impending occasion, and called fiftieth high school reunions “the only adult rite of passage,” with the implication that the event was to be gotten through, endured rather than enjoyed.

Before attending, I agreed with him. As with most people, my time in high school had been intellectually and emotionally exhilarating and troubling in equal measure, and although I looked forward to renewing acquaintance with some childhood friends with whom I had lost touch, there were other classmates who I didn’t care if I ever saw again. And I’d have to see girls that I’d embarrassingly pined over and boys I’d secretly envied. Now they would all be thin, dark-haired, sexy, wealthy, and have incredible accomplishments to their names.

“Do you have your own hair and your own teeth?” a female friend asked me gently when I expressed my apprehension. “You do, so you’ll be fine.”

Our high school, on the South Shore of Long Island, was relatively small, 212 in our graduating class, and most of us classmates had been in school together since junior high. That middle school had been fed by three elementary schools, so we had known some of our classmates since we had been in second or third grade. On my block, seven of the eleven houses held children who were in my class in elementary school and who were my companions during a decade of schooling.

We were warbabies, born in 1941 or 1942; our parents had moved to this suburb, ten miles or so beyond the New York City limits, at the end of the 1940s or in the early 1950s, from Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan. They chose it because its public school system was very good, and New York City’s was not.

Our parents had come, that is to say, for us. They felt in their hearts that the most important thing they could give us was a good solid education, and they were determined that we should have it.

That conviction had been drummed into them by their life experience. Born in the Teens and Twenties, they had grown to adulthood in the Depression, which had seared many of them. A goodly proportion of them were children of immigrants. Their struggles had generated in their minds a version of the dream that John Adams had expressed at the time of the American Revolution: “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy.” I now think of this as the germ of the great American immigrant dream: That the first generation does manual labor so that the second generation can be managers and entrepreneurs, and so that the third generation and beyond can become artists, professionals, do whatever they please and can imagine striving for.

I have long held the concomitant belief that my generation of middle-class Americans – we warbabies, we sons and daughters of the American suburbs who trooped off to college as the 1960s were a-borning – that we have been the most privileged and lucky generational cohort ever to have existed on earth. Our children may have it even better, but we were the first.

During 99 percent of the twenty thousand years of recorded human history, most people did drudge work, tilling farms and the like, all of their lives. This began to change with the industrial revolution and radically altered only in the last half of the 19th century, when big cities grew up and provided millions of non-farm jobs for the multitudes. But then came a series of debilitating wars and economic depressions that curtailed many dreams.

And then we warbabies arrived, billowed to suburbia on the wings of the three-generational dream to take advantage of a good educational system and to nurture great expectations. Unlike our grandparents and parents, who had a limited number of opportunities to seize, we had millions of them. And seize them we did. We were able to because we were so well equipped, having been stuffed full of good learning and a great work ethic during high school, and coached and groomed and sent through college on our parents’ nickels, and then out into the world, to do the one thing that our parents required of us: to truly fulfill our dreams, whatever they might be. Business success. Artistic success. Professional success. Familial success.

I had a wonderful time at my reunion, and so did everyone else. We were all friendly, geared to enjoy ourselves, and we did. It was lovely to see so many old comrades – who looked marvelous, by the way. I was thrilled to hear what each had to say as we each took the microphone for a minute or two and spun an incredible variety of stories of fulfillment, ninety of them, each different from the next. Oh, I’m sure there was some excess bragging, but in the speeches and in the answers to the questionnaires that were made into a commemorative booklet there was very little can-you-top-this, and a lot of it’s-been-a-hell-of-a-ride. We made lunch dates, reciprocal promises of visits, renewed acquaintance with a greater dollop of affection than we had allowed ourselves fifty years ago, when as teenagers we were all into expressing our individuality and differentness one from another.

As senior citizens this weekend, some of us were tickled pink by the extent of what we had in common, and our collegiality. Those who had hardly passed a word with one another fifty years ago, at the reunion were not only congenial but also interested in what the other person had to say.

Certainly that attitude is attributable to our having matured; but it is also, and more importantly, testament to our having gained a benevolent and grateful sense about the world, a sense pushed into full bloom by this once in a lifetime rite of passage. What a gift to have given ourselves!

— Tom Shachtman

Rereadings: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Part I

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Youth is wasted on the young. Really? That’s one of those myths – “If you build it they will come” is another – that wormed its way into our culture without our giving it enough thought. The young do appreciate their youth; they don’t care for certain other aspects of life, perhaps because they lack the experience to do so. Reading is one of those. Of course the young do read, and so do the rest of us, regularly – newspapers, magazines, websites, e-mails, tweets, crime novels. The Classics are another matter. Which is why, upon reaching a ripe age and on realizing how many important books I either never read or was forced to read in college and never appreciated, I decided to embark on a Year of Reading Dangerously. I shall report to you, now and then, from that far country.

In this column and the next, I reread one of the most dangerous books ever penned, The Prince. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) wrote it as a series of letters in 1513, and its chapters were circulated for years before being first printed as a book in 1532, five years after his death. This is one of those books more talked about than read. We equate it with the adjective Machiavellian, loosely defined as a condition of amorality. We think we know that its writer counsels his unnamed prince in violent and cunning ways to amass, perpetuate, and wield power without regard to justice or conscience.

At 80 pages, The Prince can be read in a single sitting, although – like fudge – it is best in small bites. The book is a series of brilliant analyses of the human condition and of how autocratic leaders can use those understandings to temporal ends. All states, Machiavelli writes – bear in mind that this is 500 years ago — are either Republics or Princedoms, and all Princedoms are either hereditary or newly-won; he speaks only of Princedoms, having discussed republics in previous works. Actually, Machiavelli favored having more republics but lived in a world in which there were very few.

The precision and clarity of his language, even in translation, is breathtaking. Here’s how he counsels a prince not to wait to address the ills of a newly-won state: “For the distempers of a State being discovered while yet inchoate, which can only be done by a sagacious ruler, may easily be dealt with; but when, from not being observed, they are suffered to grow until they are obvious to everyone, there is no longer any remedy.”

Machiavelli advocates the use of “violence,” stern measures to quell incipient rebellions, foreclose possibilities for usurpers, and to keep the populace in line, while also advocating the doing of demonstrably good works and charity in the service of retaining power, making the people happy, and perpetuating the princedom past the prince’s lifetime.

This approach may seem overly tough and dictatorial to us, but in Machiavelli’s time Europe was a series of princedoms and fiefdoms and there seemed no alternative way of governance. He drew his examples from Italy, France, and Germany in the Dark Ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. His knowledge of these matters, some of it firsthand from his years as a counselor – and from his years in prison – imbues the tract with authority and sagacity. Machiavelli didn’t see all autocrats as villains or as necessarily having to be cutthroat. He counsels princes who have come by their princedoms by “wickedness and crime” to quickly shift over to benevolence, lest they be as quickly overthrown. You can read into the book both a paean to the need for federalism, and the need for small, self-governing units. You can find in it advice on being a good leader, and advice on learning how, when, and why to follow.

This is as keen an observer of the human condition as ever wrote. He asserts that if you gain your princedom with the aid of the nobles, you must thereafter be wary of them because they think you are no better than they; but if you win your princedom with the aid of the people, you will be even more alone, although it will be easier to satisfy the demands of the many than the demands of the few.

A lot in the book still resonates; politicians, CEOs, and anyone who has a bit of power and now and then has need of using it should read the book, if only to understand from it the basic reasons for having democratic governance and institutions, and the reasons against the arbitrary use of power.

Next time, more about The Prince, including Macaulay’s analysis of why the book came to be so detested, and its author’s name, synonymous with villainy.

— Tom Shachtman