Upheaval - Critical summary review - Jared Diamond

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Upheaval - critical summary review

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Society & Politics and History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crises and Change

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0241003393

Publisher: Little Brown and Company

Critical summary review

The American polymath named Jared Diamond writes at the beginning of his eighth book, “Upheaval,” that at one or more times during our lives, “most of us undergo a personal upheaval or crisis, which may or may not get resolved successfully through our making personal changes.” He adds that nations go through similar processes, as they “undergo national crises, which also may or may not get resolved successfully through national changes. There is a large body of research and anecdotal information, built up by therapists, about the resolution of personal crises. Could the resulting conclusions help us understand the resolution of national crises?”

And this is what “Upheaval” is all about. To use Diamond’s beautiful description, it is “a comparative, narrative, exploratory study of crisis and selective change operating over many decades in seven modern nations… and viewed from the perspective of selective change in personal crises. Those nations are Finland, Japan, Chile, Indonesia, Germany, Australia, and the United States.” Just look at a map of the world, and you’ll see in no time why these are the nations Diamond chose: in addition to having much personal experience with all of them, they also cover many distinctly different cultures and are scattered across the map of the world.

But before devoting the rest of his book to the problem of national upheavals, Diamond reserves the introductory chapter for a quick look at the therapeutic 12-step of personal crises, believing (as suggested in the excerpts above) that the factors that influence the likelihood of a successfully resolved personal crisis have their parallels in the case of national crises as well. It seems like a great place to start our summary as well, doesn’t it?

The 12 factors related to the outcomes of personal and national crises

Personal crises are inevitable. So inevitable that, whether sudden or gradual, whether in adolescence or after retirement, we are not afraid to hazard a guess that you must have experienced at least one or even more. For reasons like this, therapists have spent a lot of time analyzing the genealogy of personal crises, their possible extent, and the ways one can overcome them. During this research, they have identified “at least a dozen factors,” which suggest whether an individual will or won’t succeed in resolving a personal crisis:

  1. Acknowledgment that one is in crisis.
  2. Acceptance of one’s personal responsibility to do something.
  3. Building a fence, to delineate one’s individual problems needing to be solved.
  4. Getting material and emotional help from other individuals and groups.
  5. Using other individuals as models of how to solve problems.
  6. Ego strength.
  7. Honest self-appraisal.
  8. Experience of previous personal crises.
  9. Patience.
  10. Flexible personality.
  11. Individual core values.
  12. Freedom from personal constraints.

Most of the factors on the list above have “recognizable analogs” in the case of national crises (topics 1 through 5 and 7 through 8), two are less specifically linked (9 and 12), and, in the case of the final three (6, 10 and 11), the individual factor serves just as a metaphor suggesting a factor describing nations. In other words, just as 12 factors influence personal crises, there are 12 quite comparable factors that Diamond believes he can predict, with pretty much the same success, the outcome of national crises:

  1. National conses that one's nation is in crisis
  2. Acceptance of national responsibility to do something.
  3. Building a fence, to delineate the national problems needing to be solved.
  4. Getting material and financial help from other nations.
  5. Using other nations as models of how to solve the problems.
  6. National identity.
  7. Honest national self-appraisal.
  8. Historical experience of previous national crises.
  9. Dealing with national failure.
  10. Situation-specific national flexibility.
  11. National core values.
  12. Freedom from geopolitical constraints.

National crises

It is through these 12 factors that Diamond examines thoroughly several (mostly) 20th-century crises that he was able to observe in person and in real time. He dedicates the second part (most of his book) to these analyses. The same holds true for our summary as well.

The case of Finland

As you probably know, Finland is a Scandinavian country of about 6 million people that borders Sweden to the west and Russia to the east. We’ll be very surprised if you know something more than this. However, Finland wasn’t even a free country for most of its history (being part of its neighbors’ territories), proclaiming its independence only after the Russian Revolution of 1917. 

Unfortunately, being a small and rather undeveloped country located next to the biggest country in the world was a sure recipe for trouble and complications. And these became something quite palpable after the newly independent Finland became a liberal capitalist democracy, while the USSR was the first communist country in the world. Needless to say, all hell broke loose when Stalin became president of the Soviet Union and used the outbreak of World War II as an excuse to invade Finland.

What followed was something generally known as the Winter War. USSR, of course, won it in the end, but, due to some very smart tactics employed by numerous Finnish volunteers (camouflage, snipers, Molotov cocktails and machine guns), it suffered heavy losses (eight Soviet soldiers killed for every Finnish one) and the bulk of its still fragile international reputation (the League of Nations expelled the USSR from the organization).

Now, the most controversial tactic that the Finns employed during the Winter War was allying with the Nazis in the hope that the Germans would help them defend from Soviet attacks. They realized soon after that that Hitler was not precisely the best ally one could have, and that while he would be gone one day, their neighbor would forever remain to be Russia. Coming to terms with this fact, Finland finally got down to the root of the problem – geography – and started acting accordingly, selectively adapting to the circumstances. For example, they declined to support the German troops in Leningrad, and the grateful Soviets started deliberately missing Finnish targets, dropping their bombs in Finnish waters.

However, since Finland was on the losing side after the war, the country was obliged to pay $300 million to the USSR in reparations – in little over half a decade. The Finns, true to that adage to never let a good crisis go to waste, started looking at this financial issue with different eyes, using it as a springboard for quick industrialization and an instigator for developing trading connections with every country in the world – above all, with the USSR. They also agreed not to talk ill of anything bad happening in the Soviet Union, but self-censorship is not that bad a price to pay for earning your independence and developing a prosperous country on the very border of a mighty enemy. 

After all, that’s how selective change works: you do what you can change to achieve the necessary (good neighborly relations) and accept what you can’t change (the neighbor) even if it means sacrificing a bit of your former self. “A country’s independence is not usually absolute,” said once Finland’s longest-serving president, Urho Kekkonen. “There was not a single state in existence that did not have to bow to historical inevitabilities.”

The origins of modern Japan

Today, Japan is considered one of the great powers of the world, but up until the second half of the 19th century, it was still a completely isolated feudal society. And then, out of the blue – just like the USSR did in the case of Finland – the U.S. forced Japan to modernize and become the country it is today.

Namely, after gold was discovered in California, in pursuit of new ports to refuel their boats along their Pacific Ocean trading routes, in 1853, American President Millard Fillmore ordered Japan to give the United States access to Japanese ports, unless it wanted to risk invasion. Though the proposal caught Japanese rulers off guard, they had no choice but to accept these terms – considering the alternative.

This, of course, caused an internal crisis – which led to a coup and a civil war – but eventually it resulted in what is today known as the Meiji era, a period of forty or so years during which Japan evolved from a feudal society to a modern, industrialized nation, and became one of the world’s emergent great powers. 

True to the 12-step therapeutic program, Japanese rulers first acknowledged their situation (they were no match for the U.S.), then performed an honest self-assessment (the country had lost step with progress), and then started emulating foreign countries to catch up (Germany for its constitution and army, and Britain for its military ships and its navy), all the while remaining faithful to some of its ancient traditions. Soon enough, Japan itself became a role model – and, in a way, it has remained one to this day.

A Chile for all Chileans

Unlike most South American countries, Chile has been a democratic nation for most of its history. That was the case in 1970 as well, when Marxist Salvador Allende became the country’s president with about 36% of votes. Even though a little over a third of the Chilean voters gave him support – Allende started by replacing the free-market elements of Chile’s economy with socialist-style state planning, which, additionally, meant nationalizing American-owned copper companies. 

This polarized the political climate and, on September 11, 1973, it resulted in a U.S.-backed coup that overthrew Allende’s government and ended civilian rule in Chile. Allende was either murdered or committed suicide, and the leader of the coup, General Augusto Pinochet, proclaimed himself a dictator and ruled sadistically during the next two decades. 

Surprisingly, Pinochet was smart enough not to make Allende’s economic mistakes and allowed Chile’s economy to be reorganized by Milton Friedman and the so-called Chicago Boys following their libertarian views on the matter. Why would a dictator opt for laissez-faire free-market economic policies remains unclear to this day, but Pinochet’s strange choice ultimately resulted in the stabilization of the Chilean society and the overcoming of its worst crisis.

Indonesia, the rise of a New Country

Pretty much the same thing that happened in Chile in the 1970s had already happened on the other side of the world, in the newly-created Indonesia, just a few years before. Ruled by a left-leaning president ever since its foundation in 1945, Indonesia was hit by a very confusing crisis on September 30, 1965, when a communist faction of the army was blamed for the death of six supposedly corrupt generals.

If there was a communist plan to kill these generals remains uncertain to this very day, but it is quite possible that it was all a ploy by one of the army’s most powerful generals, Suharto, because once he got what he wanted out of the confusion – political power – he immediately ordered the extermination of the communist element in Indonesia. And, just like under Pinochet’s rule in Chile, that’s precisely what happened under Suharto in Indonesia: between half a million and two million communist supporters were brutally murdered in the ensuing decade for no reason other than their political beliefs.

Left-leaning, Indonesia’s previous president, Sukarno, had aligned the country with China, which economically made very little sense and left the country’s economy in shambles. The right-winger Suharto broke the alliance and started courting the Western world, not the least by surrounding himself with his version of Pinochet’s Chicago Boys, the less courteously dubbed Berkeley Mafia.

Using foreign role models, the Berkeley Mafia successfully reduced Indonesia’s foreign debt and inflation, while balancing its budget and making the country a powerful international trading partner and global ideological player. Once again, it was selective change by way of foreign role models that did the trick – even in the face of widespread corruption and heartless tyranny.

Rebuilding Germany

Just a few years after the World War II had ended, the Western allies realized that a unified Germany was not even remotely as threatening as the USSR, so it included West Germany in the Marshall Plan, the American post-war initiative to rebuild European economies and thus prevent them from falling under the Soviet sphere of influence.

The plan worked like a charm: from a country split in half, West Germany became the most highly developed European nation. It introduced a powerful new currency (the Deutsche Mark) and joined the free market as both one of the world’s topmost exporters and importers of goods. 

Moreover, when Willy Brandt became West Germany’s first left-wing chancellor in 1969, the country started a different kind of healing process, as Brandt was the first one to accept responsibility for Germany’s past sins. He apologized to neighboring countries for the war and was patient and flexible as far as Germany’s reunification was concerned. When, eventually, in 1989, this finally did happen, reporters didn’t forget to mention that it owed a lot to Brandt and the policies enacted during his leadership.

Australia: who are we?

Australia didn’t want to be disowned by the British Empire during the 1950s, but that’s precisely what happened. Not wanting to be an independent country, the Australians begged the British to come back, but soon they realized that it was beyond their power to influence Britain’s decision. This was the first honest self-assessment of Australia – and the first step toward overcoming its post-war identity crisis.

It yielded some good results – the country started developing – but also some disastrous outcomes – its immigration minister, Arthur Calwell, was openly racist and was interested in accepting only white immigrants. In 1972, when the Labor Party came to power, Australia made yet another honest assessment of itself and realized that it had to selectively change some more and become a respectable and independently-ruled country.

First of all, since Britain was so far away, Australia decided to stop begging its former sovereigns to return and started instead improving relations with its immediate neighbors, most importantly China. It also changed its immigration policies and started accepting everyone: it needed people, and it needed them now. Finally, it enacted a policy of equal pay for women – for hundreds of obvious reasons.

The best example of selective change happened in 1999, when Australia finally recognized Britain as a foreign country, while symbolically still pledging allegiance to England’s queen. That’s what essentially happens when a country successfully overcomes a crisis: it loses something but not everything, and what it loses is actually a gain in the long run.

Final Notes

Though “Upheaval” is as all-embracing in its ideas and as far-reaching in its conclusions as “Guns, Germs, and Steel,” it is much less rigorous and scientific than Jared Diamond’s best-known work, possibly because it is much more personal as well.

Even so, it is worth the time and effort if only for Diamond’s charming insights on the side and his indisputable storytelling capabilities. Ignore the generalizations, though.

12min Tip

Never let a good crisis go to waste: use it as a catalyst for growth by way of selective change. Whatever you might lose in the process, you probably don’t need it anymore.

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Who wrote the book?

Jared Mason Diamond is an American polymath, a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles and author of many popular science books, such as... (Read more)

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