Diamond wrote the excellent Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, so I had high hopes and expectations of Upheaval. I have found myself repeating in conversation some of the points Diamond makes in these earlier books, not least the axiom that guns, germs and steel were the central components of the conquest of much of the world by the European powers in the later centuries of the second millennium. But sadly Upheaval is fundamentally and quite seriously flawed. That’s not to say that there aren’t interesting things to be found here, but before I go on to identify these I need to explain this central point.
Diamond argues that nations (and he doesn’t spend sufficient time in identifying what he means by this concept, which to my mind is much more fluid than he suggests) go through crises from time to time, and the way those nations respond to those crises can be compared to the way individuals respond to similar situations in their personal lives (e.g divorce, bereavement, etc). Using the work of psychiatrists he breaks these responses into twelve different categories. Just to offer one example, he argues that people who are able to isolate the problematic issues in their lives – building a psychological fence around the issue – move on more successfully than people who don’t. Similarly, countries bounce back from national crises and prove more resilient if they deploy similar responses.
I think I have represented Diamond’s thesis accurately. I hope so. He spends the bulk of the book considering crises in a series of seven countries. These potted histories – of the military coup against Allende in Chile, the Suharto anti-communist atrocities in Indonesia and the experience of Finland during and after the Second World War to give three examples – are interesting. I learned something. After each of these accounts Diamond then laboriously goes through the 12 techniques he identified at the beginning of the book, and tries manfully to explain in what way they can be applied to the case study. It goes without saying that very quickly he find the analysis pointless – either it is simply a way of categorising the response (so for example Finland could not rely on its neighbours for help in the Winter War against the Soviet Union, unlike people who turn to their friends when they are going through a divorce) without adding anything in the way of understanding, or the comparison does work but is trite. These analytical sections are without doubt the weakest part of the book, and I quickly learned to skim read them. Here’s an example of the knots he finds himself tied in:
“Individuals in crisis often receive help from friends, just as nations in crisis may recruit help from allied nations. Individuals in crisis may model their solutions on ways in which they see other individuals addressing similar crises; nations in crisis may borrow and adapt solutions already devised by other nations facing similar problems. Individuals in crisis may derive self-confidence from having survived previous crises; so do nations.”
Do these parallels help at all? Do you feel you know more about how nations respond to crises because of these points? “These things are like these things but not like these other things” seems to be the sum total of the analysis.
Even had Diamond’s thesis been accurate, and national crises could usefully be compared to individual crises, there would still have been a massive “so what” to overcome. But nations aren’t people, and Diamond is forced to acknowledge that many of the typical responses he identifies simply don’t and can’t apply on a national or global scale. For example, countries respond more successfully to crises if the population is united in its response – this just doesn’t have a counterpoint in individual situations.
There were other issues. Diamond’s prose is often clumsy and laboured. He often appears to be working backward from a predetermined position. His defence of Finlandization for example, whereby Finland has aligned itself with the USSR and allowed Russian meddling in domestic Finnish political issues, is obviously driven by his affection for the country rather than any serious pretence that this is a successful strategy. Russian has plenty of other neighbours that don’t adopt this craven submission and seem to survive.
Diamond constantly assumes his readers are all Americans. I found this so irritating. It is understandable that an author’s work should reflect their national prejudices and perspectives. But I don’t think I have ever seen this done so openly and yet unthinkingly. And by the way Jared, the claim that the USA is responsible for the invention of the television and the internet is tenuous to say the least!
Diamond is quite open about that fact that the seven countries he chooses to analyse in this book are those he has lived in and knows extensively. In order to justify his case study choices he has to pretend that Australia has gone through a crisis comparable to that of Chile or Indonesia, when of course it hasn’t. Diamond has form here – in Collapse he argued that the Australian economy was on the brink of disaster, and while of course the country has some challenges to face, its economy is very resilient and it hasn’t been through a recession since the early 1990s.
I said earlier that despite some serious issues there were some positives in the book. The case studies are interesting, even if you have to wade through a lot to find the nuggets of value. The insights in the history of Japan in particular were new to me. Diamond is concerned about the prospects for his home country, rightly so, although his statistics lacked conviction and he didn’t seem to be up to date with the progress that has been made in third world economies for example. Ultimately this was a disappointing book, made all the worse by the strength of Diamond’s earlier work. The New York Times reviewer demolished it pretty comprehensively here if you are interested in another perspective.