Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: secrecy, elites, potholes, and more.

The editors

April 24, 2023

Spilling secrets: Can a government that forms and executes secret policies be called a democracy? In The Harper Review’s newest essay, Cassius Glikshtern argues that it cannot, outlining how the United States government fought the Cold War and currently fights the War on Terror using policies it does not share with the American people. State secrets, while typically justified as necessary for national security, are often used to avoid criticism over negligence and incompetence, investigations of criminal activity, and even public debate over policy—the latter a crucial part of the democratic process. Read Glikshtern’s essay at the link.

End times: While most historians would tell you that history is hopelessly complex and unpredictable, Peter Turchin begs to differ. In his new book End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites and the Path of Political Disintegration, the complexity scientist argues that as the balance of power between elites and masses tips too far in favor of the former, income inequality soars. As a result, frustration with the establishment brims over, leading to political turbulence and societal breakdown. Turchin, a research associate at the University of Oxford and professor emeritus at the University of Connecticut, claims that elite overproduction and its harmful consequences can be seen in the histories of imperial China, medieval France, and even contemporary America. End Times is published by Penguin Press and set to release on June 13, 2023.

Empirical evidence: This Wednesday evening, University of Chicago political science professors Jennifer Pitts and Adom Getachew will give a lecture titled “Democracy and Empire in W.E.B. Du Bois’s International Thought.” Introduced by Professor Demetra Kasimis and followed by a conversation with Professor Natasha Piano, the talk will discuss Du Bois’s view of the modern international order, shaped by the shadows of empire and the slave trade. The Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory will host the lecture, which is intended to accompany the University of Chicago’s Classics of Social and Political Thought curriculum and is also open to the public.

Pothole politics: Like a stubborn teen, Britain swears it can fix its roads from a plague of potholes whenever it wants—but it doesn’t seem to want to. Mary Harrington writes for British online magazine UnHerd about the frustrating disconnect between thought and action, a sort of executive dysfunction that’s spread to the whole nation. Politicians across the political spectrum have been quick to point the blame at petty politicking, overspending on other programs to the detriment of public infrastructure, or a lack of care for the working class. While there is some truth to all of these explanations, Harrington writes, they point to a fundamental disunity between politicians and the people due to a decreasing sense of duty the upper class feels toward the public. Like a pothole, this small issue is threatening to cause a big wreck.