Penpals: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

I just came across this fascinating letter that Karl Marx wrote to Abraham Lincoln, following the latter’s re-election in 1864.

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

… The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.

On a related note, my girlfriend and I recently watched Lincoln while on a short work/fun trip to Ghana (posts on Ghana coming soon). The controversies over the historical accuracy of parts of the film aside, Lincoln is a must-watch. The movie does a brilliant job of portraying the complexities that inhabit all humans – good or bad, or somewhere in-between.

The abolitionists in 19th century America were no altar boys. Their triumph against slavery was also a triumph against parts of themselves.

Another interesting thing about the movie is how Obama-esque the Lincoln in the movie is, or it might be that Obama has read so much Lincoln that he emulates the man from Illinois. The truth is probably a mix of both. It is almost impossible to imagine that the first black president would have no influence on the production of a movie about the president who signed into law an act abolishing slavery.

Go watch Lincoln.

And Django Unchained which is also awesome – but which I had to finish watching alone at the hotel because of a skype appointment with my adviser (and the Tarantino violence which in the end was too much for my girlfriend).

An infinitely more sophisticated review of the two films (Django Unchained and Lincoln) by a scholar of their subject matter can be found here.

On technology, governance and development

By now many of you have perhaps seen the takedowns of TED talks (see here, highly recommended), which some think have become rather pedestrian (I still find most TED talks insightful, just for the record).

The pushback against the belief among some disciples of TED talks that technology is the answer to all of humanity’s problems (whether this depiction is accurate or not) also speaks to the issues of governance and development. As Shea, the Journal’s blogger points out:

……. Morozov also detects, besides superficiality, a distinctively TED-style attitude toward politics in which institutions and democratic debate are derided and technology is looked to as a deus ex machina that will solve such once-intractable problems as poverty and illiteracy—obviating those pesky voters and squabbling elected leaders.

The global “development sector” has recently seen a wave of tech-inspired attempts to accelerate development by bypassing politics and other socio-cultural inhibitors, with little success (development economists are also implicated here). The lesson that many have missed is that bad governance and underdevelopment are not primarily technical problems that can be fixed by experts. Many have fallen to the temptation of thinking that,

…. technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race.

The characterization of governance and development as purely technical risks abstracting too much away from the human beings that development is supposed to help. Think of how scientific communism worked out. Statements like the one below are a reminder that bad ideas die hard.

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”

The problem, of course, is that more often than not these “technocrats” in the poor countries of the world (read those with the most and biggest guns, a.k.a autocrats) are woefully incompetent (see here) and never observe their term limits (this classic on dictatorship comes to mind).

The question of what to do with the relatively more competent autocrats will be the subject of a future post.

H/T Ideas Market

South Sudan to relocate capital to Ramciel

The Sudan Tribute reports:

“The survey for the proposed new capital of South Sudan, Ramciel, is expected to be completed within the next six months, reports the official in charge of the project.

resolved to suspend any construction of new public buildings for the national government in Juba.

Juba was disqualified for a number of reasons including administrative stalemate over which level of government its jurisdiction should fall under.”

That is the official reason.

Source: Political Geography Now

I know very little about the deliberations that resulted in the move but another reason could be that Juba was too far from the new nation’s centre of (ethno) political gravity (see maps; click on image to enlarge). Relocations of capitals almost invariably have political considerations. One only hopes that the Bari community whose ancestral homeland is around Juba will not suddenly find themselves completely abandoned by the central government.

The government should ensure that Ramciel does not suddenly suck in all the money. It could prove beneficial to decouple the political and economic capitals of the country.

Source: Gulf 2000 Project

On the plus side this is a sign that the new government in Juba is willing to try out new things. A fresh start in Ramciel might not be such a bad idea.