9 March 2014
Million year old civilizations are not necessarily supercivilizations
The most common way to think about the possibility of very old civilizations is in terms of an ancient supercivilization, in which it is implied that the civilization in question began much as our civilization began, but has continued its trajectory of development for a million years or more. I previously addressed this theme of a million year old supercivilization in Third Time’s a Charm.
It is also possible, however, to conceive of very old civilizations — perhaps even million year old civilizations — that do not correspond to the assumptions implicit in the idea of a supercivilization. Such ancient but not necessarily advanced civilizations would constitute counterfactual civilizations — paths to civilization not taken by humanity, but which were once open to humanity at one time. Indeed, such paths may be open to us yet.
I previously considered counterfactual civilizations in Counterfactual Conditionals of the Industrial Revolution. This post reviews scenarios for civilization absent the industrial revolution; below I will continue this line of counterfactual thought experiments in the history of civilization.
Diachronic extrapolation of the pre-industrial past
If we plot out the history of technology and population (among other metrics) on a graph and extrapolate from trends prior to the industrial revolution (when these metrics suddenly spike) we can easily see the possibility of a very old civilization — tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years old — that would be the result of a simple diachronic extrapolation of trends that had characterized human life from the emergence of hominids up until the industrial revolution. That is to say, if we had just kept doing what we had been doing before the industrial revolution, this slow development represented by a shallow angle could have continued indefinitely without ever catching up to the kind of development that followed the industrial revolution.
The very old civilization that would be the result of a straight-forward diachronic extrapolation of civilization prior to the industrial revolution would be a civilization conceived in terms proportional to earlier human history. We often forget that, prior to Homo sapiens, there was a multi-million year history of hominids with minimal toolkits that changed almost not at all over a million or even two million years. This same level and rate of progress might have continued to characterize human civilization in its later stages of development as well. It is at least possible as a counter-factual, and conceivable by way of an analogy with our prehistoric past, that the breakthrough to industrialization had never occurred.
If we were to add to the absence of an industrial revolution several strategic shocks or global catastrophic events — demographic catastrophes such as the Black Death or natural disasters such as a massive supervolcano eruption or an impact by an asteroid or comet — what little gains that may be made by the ever-so-gradual increases in technology and population due to civilization prior to the industrial revolution might be canceled or reversed. Contingent events could result in a contraction or collapse of a civilization that never made the breakthrough to an industrial revolution.
The social science of a non-industrialized civilization
Imagine that there were social scientists prior to the scientific revolution who studied their contemporaneous society much as we study our own societies today, and further suppose, despite the disadvantages such pre-modern social scientists would have labored under, that they manage to assemble reasonably accurate data sets that allows them to model the world in which they live and the history up to that point that had resulted in the world in which they lived. What kind of future would these pre-modern social scientists forecast for their world?
If you were to show pre-modern social scientists the spike in demographics, technology, energy use, and urbanization that attended the industrial revolution, they might deny that any such development was even possible, and if they admitted that it was possible, they might say that a world so transformed would not constitute civilization as they understood civilization. They would be right, in a sense, to characterize our world today, after the industrial revolution, as a post-civilizational institution, derived perhaps from the long tradition of civilization with which they were familiar, but not really a part of this tradition.
I implied as much about the divergence of contemporary civilization from its pre-modern tradition recently when I wrote (in Is society existentially dependent upon religion?) that:
“It could be argued that traditional society… has already collapsed and has been incrementally replaced by an entirely different kind of society. For this is surely what has happened in the wake of the industrial revolution, which destroyed more aspects of traditional society than any Marxist, any revolutionary, or any atheist.”
Prior to the industrial revolution, the entire economy of civilization was based on agriculture. (Elsewhere I have called this biocentric civilization.) On the basis of this biocentric civilization, there was nothing to suggest (or, more cautiously, almost nothing to suggest) the possibility of a civilization with an economy in which agriculture was marginalized to the point of near invisibility to the overall economy. What could possibly replace agriculture in its role as the indispensable employer and primary producer of commodities?
Non-civilizations and other non-peers
The thought experiment that I have suggested here in regard to the industrial revolution could also be performed in regard to the Neolithic agricultural revolution, although in this case we could not properly speak of an ancient civilization. Humanity as a species might have attained a great antiquity without ever making the breakthrough to civilization; just as we might never have experienced the industrial revolution, we might also have skipped the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. In fact, if Marian scientists had been observing life on Earth for the five millions years or so of hominid history (prior to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution), they might have said, “Here is an intelligence species with a very long history that has never created a civilization, and shows no signs of creating a civilization.”
It is an especially interesting thought experiment to imagine humanity having attained great antiquity without creating a civilization when we reflect that the uniquely human activities of art and technology predate civilization and may be understood in isolation from civilization. Even without the great impetus of civilization, there would have been some minimal continued development of art and technology. The rate of technological innovation prior to the advent of civilization was very slow, but it was not zero, and extrapolated to a sufficient age it would have produced an impressive technology. It could be argued that such a gradual development of technology, if extrapolated indefinitely into the distant future, could surpass any arbitrary technological measure.
Something like civilization, but not exactly civilization as we know it, might have emerged from a very old human social context that never passed through the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution or the industrial revolution — the two great disruptions in the history of humanity that define civilization, and which have come to define us as a species. Without these definitive events, humanity would be defined very differently.
The non-civilization social institution that could arise from the antiquity of humanity without civilization might qualify as an example of a non-civilization such as i described in my Seven Levels of Civilizational Comparability. In an attempt to define what constitutes a “peer” civilization we need to try to understand alternatives for sentient species that would not constitute peers, and this thought experiment provides just such an example.
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3 March 2014
It has been the custom of strategic thinkers to make explicit the underlying strategic doctrine implicit in the actions of political leaders, formulating this strategic doctrine in summaries that encapsulate the principles of power projection employed by the leaders in question. Those of us in the Western world usually speak in terms of strategic doctrines promulgated by American presidents (with their strategic doctrines eponymously named), since presidents dominate the “big picture” strategic vision of the US, which is the superpower among western powers. Yet the same thinking applies to other political leaders beyond the US. Many Cold War analysts spoke of a Brezhnev Doctrine; I previously formulated a Stalin Doctrine. Today I want to go further by identifying a Putin Doctrine that is implicit in Russia’s contemporary use of power projection.
To give a sense of some of the strategic doctrines that have had currency among analysts, here is a brief summary of some major strategic doctrines from the emergence of the post-WWII global situation to the early twenty-first century:
● Reagan Doctrine “[W]e must not break faith with those who are risking their lives — on every continent from Afghanistan to Nicaragua — to defy Soviet-supported aggression and secure rights which have been ours from birth… Support for freedom fighters is self-defense.” “The Reagan Doctrine proclaims overt and unashamed support for anti-communist revolution… It is intended to establish a new, firmer — a doctrinal — foundation for such support by declaring equally worthy all armed resistance to communism, whether foreign or indigenously imposed.” (The former is from a Reagan speech; the latter is a passage from Charles Krauthammer quoted in The Reagan Doctrine: SOURCES OF AMERICAN CONDUCT IN THE COLD WAR’S LAST CHAPTER, Mark P. Lagon, PRAEGER, Westport, Connecticut and London, 1994, p. 2)
● Brezhnev Doctrine “Reflecting on the ‘lessons’ of 1968-69, the Brezhnev leadership resolved to run a tighter ship in Eastern Europe against the possibility of further crises. Dubbed the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine of Limited Sovereignty’ by Western observers, the new policy line would rely on the implicit threat of military intervention to prevent any deviation in the region from Soviet-approved norms. In this way, the Kremlin sought to perpetuate communist monopoly rule in Eastern Europe, free from the instability that reformism and diversity had unleashed in the past.” (The Rise and Fall of the Brezhnev Doctrine in Soviet Foreign Policy, Matthew J. Ouimet, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 2003, p. 40)
● Bush Doctrine “When people talk about a Bush doctrine, they generally refer to three sets of principles: the idea of preemptive or preventive military action; the promotion of democracy and ‘regime change’; and a diplomacy tending toward ‘unilateralism,’ a willingness to act without the sanction of international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of its allies.” (EDITED BY MELVYN P. LEFFLER AND JEFFREY W. LEGRO, TO LEAD THE WORLD: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine, OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2008, p. 37)
● Clinton Doctrine “It’s easy… to say that we really have no interests in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some piece of parched earth by the Jordan River. But the true measure of our interests lies not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so.” (cf. Clinton Doctrine) The Clinton doctrine is most famously associated with the commitment of armed force for the purpose of humanitarian intervention.
● Stalin Doctrine “…whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise.” (cf. The Stalin Doctrine)
There are many other strategic doctrines, of course. The most famous strategic doctrines in US history were the Monroe Doctrine and the Truman Doctrine, which date from earlier eras and no longer address the global circumstances of contemporary power projection. Moreover, it would be argued that the more recent (American) strategic doctrines cited above are all variations on the theme of the post-VietNam Weinberger Doctrine, that is to say, the US coming to terms not only with being a superpower, but also coming to terms with the limitations of power projection that even superpowers must observe.
Strategic doctrine may be contrasted to tactical doctrine. When the military speaks of “doctrine” they usually mean “tactical doctrine,” which is the body of principles and practices for the use of men and materiel in the theater of combat. Similarly, strategic doctrine may be characterized as the body of principles and practices, though governing political entities (today, primarily nation-states, their leaders, and their populations) and their use of power projection, not limited to the detailed directives for soldiers and the weapons they carry.
In Political Constraints on Weapons Systems I wrote that, “A weapons system is an embodied tactical doctrine.” I should have offered a slightly more nuanced formulation by incorporating the distinction between the tactical and the strategic, thus: “A tactical weapons system is an embodied tactical doctrine; a strategic weapons system is an embodied strategic doctrine.” When the strategic situation changes, or the technology of weapons systems changes, strategic doctrine is forced to evolve.
The massive nuclear arsenals of the US and the USSR of the Cold War were the embodiment of the strategic doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Now that we are at the end of a nuclear era, and have seen all over the world the devolution of warfare from massive peer confrontation to dispersed, asymmetrical conflicts, the kind of strategic doctrines that ruled the Cold War are increasingly less relevant. The many strategic doctrines summarized above represent a kind of strategic experimentation as world leaders seek to find a formula for the use of power projection that is effective but which is also carefully calibrated not to escalate to a nuclear confrontation.
In the post-Cold War world, with the rise of China as a global power and the (partial) recovery of Russia, strategic doctrines are in flux. As of this writing, the current situation in Ukraine provides an occasion to witness the practical implementation of strategic doctrine in a region of Eurasia that finds itself (and has always found itself) uncomfortably wedged between Europe and Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has sought to establish itself as an independent nation-state, which has meant distancing itself from Russia, with which it was formerly joined as a Soviet Socialist Republic. But Ukraine is an ethnically and culturally divided nation-state, with a northwest of Ukrainian-speaking, European-identifying people, and a southeast of Russian-speaking, Russian-identifying peoples. Such divisions were submerged during the Cold War, but have since returned with a vengeance (some have called this “the return of history”).
The conflict within Ukraine came to a head once in the Orange Revolution, but the Russian-identifying Viktor Yanukovych steered Ukraine back toward a Russian orbit (jailing his rival Yulia Tymoshenko in the process), and now the conflict has come to a head again. Street protests in Kiev led to the ouster of Yanukovych, who fled to Russia; a new government has been installed in Kiev, but Russian sentiment remains strong in the southeast, and strongest in the Crimean Peninsula. Crimea is technically an autonomous republic within Ukraine, but now Russia has moved significant military forces into Crimea, with strong support from the local population, over the protests of western leaders.
The ability of anti-government protesters in Kiev to take the initiative and to seize power in the capital was a function of their identification with the majority Ukrainian-speaking, European-identifying people of the region. These peoples seek to tie their destiny to that of Europe. This demographic reality cuts both ways: the ability of Russia to assert control over the Crimea is a function of Russian forces’ and their local proxies’ identification with the majority of Russian-speaking, culturally Russian-identifying people of the region. These peoples, by contrast, seek to tie their destiny to that of Russia.
In response to Putin’s commitment of Russian troops to the Crimea, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted, “On the centenary of 1914, we are suddenly in a Europe of invasion, aggression and threats of massive use of military force.” Previously in The Idea and Destiny of Europe I cited Bildt’s opinion piece, Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine. Bildt is a very level-headed statesman, and from the tone of his reaction we can judge more generally of the Western response to Russia’s entry into Crimea.
What Putin is doing in Crimea is neither new nor unprecedented. In fact, Putin’s commitment of Russian troops to Crimea embodies what I will call the Putin Doctrine, and I will define the Putin Doctrine as follows:
● Putin Doctrine Peoples in Russia’s near abroad who desire to be brought under the Russian security umbrella (whether Russian-identifying peoples, or Russian sympathizers) will be given Russian military assistance in secession from a nation-state to the extent that this secession results in a geographical region in which effective political control can be exercised by the seceding peoples, with Russian assistance. Priority is given to geographical regions immediately contiguous with the Russian border, and de facto rule is the object, rather than formal recognition of sovereignty by the international community.
The practical corollary of the Putin Doctrine is that Russia will project power in its near abroad where it has the cooperation of the peoples in these regions. This it has already done many times. A few analysts have compared the situation in Ukraine with the war in Georgia a few years ago, with the qualification that Georgia is much smaller. But the comparison is just. Georgia — another former Soviet Socialist Republic, and the homeland of Stalin — has been to a considerable extent dismembered by Putin’s Russia as the world has looked on.
In Deep Battle and the Culture of War I discussed the Russian presence in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia. Georgia has also been forced to accept a Russian-dominated South Ossetia. Technically, as far as the international state system is concerned, Georgia is a geographically contiguous nation-state that wholly includes Abkhazia and South Ossetia; in fact, Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been brought under the Russian security umbrella; there is nothing Georgia can do about this, and nothing that the rest of the world is willing to do about this.
There were already intimations of the Putin Doctrine with the conflicts over Transnistria, a narrow region between the River Dniester and the eastern Moldovan border, the peoples of which did not wish to separate themselves from the Soviet Union, as was the desire in most of Moldova. After almost a quarter century, Transnistria is not a recognized nation-state, but it enjoys de facto sovereignty under the eyes of 1,200 Russian soliders.
Putin’s authority in Russia could be said to embody the degree of autocracy that is possible for a global power at the present time; he does not rule as an absolute autocrat, and he must be consciousness not only of the opinion of his people, but also the opinion of the international community. Putin’s power projection thus has limits, but his observance of the opinions and demands of others also has limits. It would have been entirely unsustainable — both politically and militarily — for Russia to invade the whole of Ukraine and to reinstall Yanukovych as president in Kiev. Everyone knows this. But Crimea is another matter entirely. Crimea mostly wants the Russians there, and the Russians want to be there, not least to protect the port of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.
There will be a western response to Putin’s adventure in Crimea, but it will be a tepid response. Neither the EU, nor the US, nor both together as NATO, are going to send forces into Crimea and attempt to dislodge the Russians. Again, everyone knows this. Moreover, Putin’s carefully calibrated and measured violations of Ukrainian state sovereignty are so modest that any sanctions enacted are not likely to be very effective or far-reaching. Already several European countries have announced that there would be no major interruptions in trade with Russia. That is to say, even before sanctions have been enacted, it is widely acknowledged that any sanctions will be merely symbolic. Crimea is about to become another frozen conflict, and very little is likely to change in substance (though appearances may shift radically from day to day).
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2 March 2014
Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript is an impassioned paean to subjectivity, which follows logically (if Kierkegaard will forgive me for saying so) from Kierkegaard’s focus on the individual. The individual experiences subjectivity, and, as far as we know, nothing else in the world experiences subjectivity, so that if the individual is the central ontological category of one’s thought, then the subjectivity that is unique to the individual will be uniquely central to one’s thought, as it is to Kierkegaard’s thought.
Another way to express Kierkegaard’s interest in the individual is to identify his thought as consistently ideographic, to the point of ignoring the nomothetic (on the ideographic and the nomothetic cf. Axes of Historiography). Kierkegaard’s account of the individual and his subjectivity as an individual falls within an overall ontology of individuals, therefore a continuum of contingency. Thus, in a sense, Kierkegaard represents a kind of object-oriented historiography (as a particular expression of an object-oriented ontology). From this point of view, once can easily see Kierkegaard’s resistance to Hegel’s lawlike, i.e., nomothetic, account of history, in which individuals are mere pawns at the mercy of the cunning of Reason.
At the present time, however, I will not discuss the implications of Kierkegaard’s implicit historiography, but rather his implicit futurism, though the two — historiography and futurism — are mirror images of each other, and I have elsewhere quoted Friedrich von Schlegel that, “The historian is a prophet facing backwards.” The same concern for the individual and his subjectivity is present in Kierkegaard’s implicit futurism as in his implicit historiography.
In Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript, written under the pseudonym Johannes Climacus, we find the following way to distinguish the objective approach from the subjective approach:
The objective accent falls on WHAT is said, the subjective accent on HOW it is said.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 181
A few pages prior to this in the text, Kierkegaard tells us a story about the importance of the subjective accent upon how something is said:
The objective truth as such, is by no means adequate to determine that whoever utters it is sane; on the contrary, it may even betray the fact that he is mad, although what he says may be entirely true, and especially objectively true. I shall here permit myself to tell a story, which without any sort of adaptation on my part comes direct from an asylum. A patient in such an institution seeks to escape, and actually succeeds in effecting his purpose by leaping out of a window, and prepares to start on the road to freedom, when the thought strikes him (shall I say sanely enough or madly enough?): “When you come to town you will be recognized, and you will at once be brought back here again; hence you need to prepare yourself fully to convince everyone by the objective truth of what you say, that all is in order as far as your sanity is concerned.” As he walks along and thinks about this, he sees a ball lying on the ground, picks it up, and puts it into the tail pocket of his coat. Every step he takes the ball strikes him, politely speaking, on his hinder parts, and every time it thus strikes him he says: “Bang, the earth is round.” He comes to the city, and at once calls on one of his friends; he wants to convince him that he is not crazy, and therefore walks back and forth, saying continually: “Bang, the earth is round!” But is not the earth round? Does the asylum still crave yet another sacrifice for this opinion, as in the time when all men believed it to be flat as a pancake? Or is a man who hopes to prove that he is sane, by uttering a generally accepted and generally respected objective truth, insane? And yet it was clear to the physician that the patient was not yet cured; though it is not to be thought that the cure would consist in getting him to accept the opinion that the earth is flat. But all men are not physicians, and what the age demands seems to have a considerable influence upon the question of what madness is.
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Translated from the Danish by David F. Swenson, completed after his death and provided with Introduction and Notes by Walter Lowrie, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968, p. 174
These themes of individuality and subjectivity occur throughout Kierkegaard’s work, always expressed with humor and imagination — Kierkegaard’s writing itself is a testament to the individuality he so valued — as especially illustrated in the passage above. Kierkegaard engages in philosophy by telling a joke; would that more philosophy were written with similar panache.
From Kierkegaard we can learn that how the future is presented can mean the difference between a vision that inspires the individual and a vision that sounds like madness — and this is important. Implicit Kierkegaardian futurism forces us to see the importance of the individual in a schematic conception of the future that is often impersonal and without a role for the individual that the individual would care to assume. Worse yet, there are often aspects of futurism that seem to militate against the individual.
One of the great failings of the communist vision of the future — which inspired many in the twentieth century, and was a paradigm of European manifest destiny such as I described in The Idea and Destiny of Europe — was its open contempt for the individual, which is a feature of most collectivist thought. Not only is it true that, “Where there is no vision, the people perish,” but one might also say that without a personal vision, the people perish.
One of the ways in which futurism has been presented in such a manner that almost seems contrived to deny and belittle the role of the individual is the example of the “twin paradox” in relativity theory. I have discussed this elsewhere (cf. Stepping Stones Across the Cosmos) because I find it so interesting. The twin paradox is used to explain of the oddities of general relativity, such that an accelerated clock moves more slowly relative to a clock that remains stationary.
In the twin paradox, it is postulated that, of two twins on Earth, the two say their goodbyes and one remains on Earth while another travels a great distance (perhaps to another star) at relativistic velocities. When the traveling twin returns to Earth, he finds that his twin has aged beyond recognition and the two scarcely know each other. This already poignant story can be made all the more poignant by postulating an even longer journey in which an individual leaves Earth and returns to find everyone he knew long dead, and perhaps even the places, the cities, and the monuments once familiar to him now long vanished.
The twin paradox, as it is commonly told, is a story, and, moreover, is a parable of cosmic loneliness. We would probably question the sanity of any individual who undertook a journey of space exploration under these conditions, and rightly so. If we imagine this story set within a larger story, the only kind of character who would undertake such a journey would be the villain of the piece, or an outcast, like a crazed scientist maddened by his lack of human contact and obsessed exclusively with his work (a familiar character from fiction).
The twin paradox was formulated to relate the objective truth of our universe, but it sounds more like Kierkegaard’s story of a madman reciting an obvious truth: no one is fooled by the madman. As long as a human future in space is presented in such terms, it will sound like madness to most. What we need in order to present existential risk mitigation to the public are stories of space exploration that touch the heart in a way that anyone can understand. We need new stories of the far future and of the individual’s role in the future in order to bring home such matters in a way that makes the individual respond on a personal level.
A subjective experience is always presented in a personal context. This personal context is important to the individual. Indeed, we know this from many perspectives on human life, whether it be the call to heroic personal self-sacrifice for the good of the community that is found collectivist thought, or the celebration of enlightened self-interest found in individualistic thought. Just as it is possible to paint either approach as a form of selfishness rooted in a personal context, it is possible to paint either as heroic for the same reason. In so far as a conception of history can be made real to the individual, and incorporates a personal context suggestive of subjective experiences, that conception of history will animate effective social action far more readily than even the most seductive vision of a sleek and streamlined future which nevertheless has no obvious place for the individual and his subjective experience.
The ultimate lesson here — and it is a profoundly paradoxical lesson, worthy of the perversity of human nature — is this: the individual life serves as the “big picture” context by which the individual, the individual’s isolated experiences, derive their value.
When we think of “big picture” conceptions of history, humanity, and civilization, we typically think in impersonal terms. This is a mistake. The big picture can be equally formulated in personal or impersonal terms, and it is the vision that is formulated in personal terms that speaks to the individual. In so far as the individual accepts this personal vision of the big picture, the vision informs the individual’s subjective experiences.
The narratives of existential risk would do well to learn this lesson.
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25 February 2014
Even as the eyes of the world were fixed on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, events in Ukraine eclipsed the closing ceremony and the world turned its attention instead to the tumult in Kiev as protesters battled with police and (now former) President Viktor Yanukovich fled the capital, leaving behind a palatial home with a private zoo (shades of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who, like other autocrats, also had a private zoo). I met a friend of mine in Starbucks on Sunday, and as we talked about the situation in Ukraine and some of its likely outcomes, I had occasion to explain the term “Finlandization.”
As it turns out, I was not the only one to have Finlandization on my mind. Writing in the Financial Times (Monday 24 February 2014), Zbigniew Brzezinski explicitly endorsed the Finlandization of Ukraine, in his opinion piece, “Russia needs a ‘Finland option’ for Ukraine,” as a prerequisite for Ukraine making a peaceful (or relatively peaceful) transition to the European fold:
“The US could and should convey clearly to Mr Putin that it is prepared to use its influence to make certain a truly independent and territorially undivided Ukraine will pursue policies towards Russia similar to those so effectively practised by Finland: mutually respectful neighbours with wide-ranging economic relations with Russia and the EU; no participation in any military alliance viewed by Moscow as directed at itself but expanding its European connectivity.”
This Finlandization of Ukraine would be necessary because…
“…Russia can still plunge Ukraine into a destructive and internationally dangerous civil war. It can prompt and then support the secession of Crimea and some of the industrial eastern portions of the country.”
Brzezinski is correct that Russia could still cause great problems for Ukraine, and evidently a Finlandized Ukraine seems to Brzezinski a reasonable price to pay to avoid potential chaos. Ukraine is a deeply divided country, with ethnic and cultural loyalties pulling toward Russia in the East and the Crimea, and toward Europe in the western part of the country. Given these social conditions as the background, it would be a relatively easy matter for Russia to stir the pot in Ukraine for decades to come.
During the Cold War, “Finlandization” came to mean subordinating a nation’s priorities to a foreign policy designed to appease the Soviet Union, without actually surrendering sovereignty, and certainly without becoming merely another absorbed “republic” among the Soviet Social Republics. Here is one definition of Finlandization:
“Behaviour of a country whose foreign policy and domestic policies are strongly conditioned by a conscious desire to mollify and maintain friendly relations with Moscow, at the expense if need be of close ties with formal allies and traditional friends or of its own sovereignty.”
George Ginsburgs and Alvin Rubinstein, eds. Soviet Foreign Policy toward Western Europe, New York: Praeger, 1978, p. 5.
It sounds a lot less menacing to call this a “good neighbor policy,” which is what Finland’s policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union were sometimes called, and truly enough the Finns successfully negotiated a very tricky tightrope between Europe and Russia. It must be said that the Finns were also successful in retaining their sovereignty and independence. Finland is among the wealthiest countries in Europe, and it does not resemble in the least those former Soviet republics (like Ukraine) still struggling today to free themselves from the influence of the Kremlin. Thus if Finland made any existential compromises during its Cold War Finlandization, it does not seem to be suffering from them today.
Can Ukraine pursue the “Finland Option” and can they do so successfully? The example of Cold War Finland seems to suggest that, yes, Ukraine can move toward Europe while placating Russia. The question then becomes, “Is Ukraine different from Finland?” Obviously, yes, Ukraine differs from Finland in thousands of ways. Really, then, the question is, “Does Ukraine differ from Finland in any essential respect that would prevent it from being able to pursue a policy of Finlandization?”
George Friedman of Stratfor has argued repeated that Ukraine is, indeed, different, though I don’t recall if he has explicitly compared Ukraine to Finland. In Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires (from November 2010) Friedman presented Russia’s strategic dependence upon Ukraine in the strongest terms:
“Ukraine is as important to Russian national security as Scotland is to England or Texas is to the United States. In the hands of an enemy, these places would pose an existential threat to all three countries. Therefore, rumors to the contrary, neither Scotland nor Texas is going anywhere. Nor is Ukraine, if Russia has anything to do with it. And this reality shapes the core of Ukrainian life. In a fundamental sense, geography has imposed limits on Ukrainian national sovereignty and therefore on the lives of Ukrainians.”
“From a purely strategic standpoint, Ukraine is Russia’s soft underbelly. Dominated by Russia, Ukraine anchors Russian power in the Carpathians. These mountains are not impossible to penetrate, but they can’t be penetrated easily. If Ukraine is under the influence or control of a Western power, Russia’s (and Belarus’) southern flank is wide open along an arc running from the Polish border east almost to Volgograd then south to the Sea of Azov, a distance of more than 1,000 miles, more than 700 of which lie along Russia proper. There are few natural barriers.”
While I haven’t been reading Friedman lately, so I don’t know his take on the recent Ukrainian crisis, he has repeated this reasoning in several pieces, and I don’t think that Friedman would assert that Finland is crucial to Russian national security, or that it anchors Russian power in Fenno-Scandia.
One fly in the ointment of this analysis, and one that points toward larger and more interesting questions, is that, at the time of this writing, one of Friedman’s examples — Scotland — is considering succeeding from the UK. And this, as I said, points further afield.
One of the constants we find in the discussion of the present crisis in Ukraine is the dire warnings that Ukraine might split apart, notwithstanding the fact that the geographical region we now call Ukraine has been split up in many different ways in the past. One of the most obvious solutions to the present crisis would be to partition the country, allow those who wish to be part of the idea and destiny of Europe to join Europe as West Ukraine, and allow those who desire to have closer relations with Moscow to do so and become East Ukraine.
Zbigniew Brzezinski makes a point of emphasizing, “national unification and political moderation.” Many others have gingerly touched the question of the possibility of a rupture of Ukraine’s national “unity” only to recoil in horror. (Cf. Ukraine crisis: Turchynov warns of ‘separatism’ risk and Ukraine revolution: Where on Earth is Viktor Yanukovych? stated that, “Mr Putin has not yet spoken publicly about Mr Yanukovych’s ousting, but in a phone conversation with German chancellor Angela Merkel he agreed that the ‘territorial integrity’ of Ukraine must be maintained, suggesting Russia may not intervene.”) Truly enough, if it came to a fight, a civil war would be disastrous and bloody. But it need not be fought over. We know from the example of Czechoslovakia that a “Velvet Divorce” is possible if both parties want the same thing. West Ukraine would not want to give up the industries in the east of the country or the ports and coastline, and East Ukraine would not want to give up the capital, Kiev, but there is much to be said for partition in the case of Ukraine.
Why is Finlandization considered a more palatable alternative than partition? If Ukraine were partitioned, West Ukraine would join Europe, and its people would enjoy greater freedom and economic opportunity. The economy would grow after an initial shrinkage due to the split, but from there, under the umbrella of the European Union, West Ukraine would experience a better future than anything in its past should give it a right to expect. East Ukraine, on the contrary, would slip into an economic twilight, and under Russian influence the country would stagnate (except for a few economic centers) and the quality of life of the people would likely decline.
In time — perhaps in several decades — East Ukraine might also be ready to join Europe when they see their former compatriots doing rather better than they are doing. Is there any reason to hold back West Ukraine when its people are ready to forge ahead on a path different from that chosen for them by Russia? Foreign policy “realists” like Brzezinski and Friedman will say that it shouldn’t be done or it can’t be done, but history shows us otherwise. No matter how ossified the international system of nation-states, some do splinter, and it is rarely a pretty sight. But a peaceful partition is yet possible, and better than many other options. If mutually policed by Russian, EU, and UN forces, it could work better than the other alternatives.
The borders of a partitioned Ukraine have already been drawn by the unambiguous results of the 2004 election (see the map of the poll results above). While it is true that the example of Finland shows us that Finlandization can work, so too the example of Czechoslovakia shows us that a Velvet Divorce can work. Czechoslovakia is also Exhibit A for failed appeasement, and it could be argued that Ukraine has tried Russian appeasement unsuccessfully since the Orange Revolution. Finlandization, as we have seen it to date in Ukraine, has not served the people of Ukraine well, and perhaps it has failed due to the essential differences between Finland and Ukraine mentioned above. Another solution is needed.
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24 February 2014
In my previous post, Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind: Conflicting Destinies in South Asia, I discussed the differing manifest destinies of Pakistan and India in South Asia. I also placed this discussion in the context of Europe’s wars of the twentieth century and the Cold War. The conflicting destinies imagined by ideological extremists in Pakistan and India is more closely parallel to European wars in the twentieth century than to the Cold War, because while Europe’s wars escalated into a global conflagrations, it was, at heart, conflicting manifest destinies in Europe that brought about these wars.
A manifest destiny is a vision for a people, that is to say, an imagined future, perhaps inevitable, for a particular ethnic or national community. Thus manifest destinies are produced by visionaries, or communities of visionaries. The latter, communities of visionaries, typically include religious organizations, political parties, professional protesters and political agitators, inter alia. We have become too accustomed to assuming that “visionary” is a good thing, but vision, like attempted utopias, goes wrong much more frequently than it goes well.
Perhaps that last visionary historical project to turn out well was that of the United States, which is essentially en Enlightenment-era thought experiment translated into the real world — supposing we could rule ourselves without kings, starting de novo, how would be do it? — and of course there would be many to argue that the US did not turn out well at all, and that whatever sociopolitical gains that have been realized as a result of the implementation of popular sovereignty, the price has been too high. Whatever narrative one employs to understand the US, and however one values this political experiment, the US is like an alternative history of Europe that Europe itself did not explore, i.e., the US is the result of one of many European ideas that had a brief period of influence in Europe but which was supplanted by later ideas.
Utopians are not nice people who wish only to ameliorate the human condition; utopians are the individuals and movements who place their vision above the needs, and even the lives, of ordinary human beings engaged in the ordinary business of life. Utopians are idealists, who wish to see an ideal put into practice — at any cost. The great utopian movements of the twentieth century were identical to the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: Soviet communism, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create an agrarian communist society in Cambodia. It was one of the Khmer Rouge slogans that, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”
The Second World War — that is to say, the most destructive conflict in human history — was a direct consequence of the Nazi vision for a utopian Europe. The ideals of a Nazi utopia are not widely shared today, but this is how the Nazis themselves understood their attempt to bring about a Judenrein slave empire in the East, which Nazi overlords ruling illiterate Slav peasants. Nazism is one of the purest exemplars in human history of the attempt to place the value of a principle above the value of individual lives. It would also be said that the Morganthau plan for post-war Germany (which I discussed in The Stalin Doctrine) was almost as visionary as the Nazi vision itself, though certainly less brutal and not requiring any genocide to be put into practice. Visionary adversaries sometimes inspire visionary responses, although the Morganthau plan was not ultimately adopted.
In the wake of the unprecedented destruction of the Second World War, the destiny of Europe has been widely understood to lie in European integration and unity. The attempt to unify Europe in our time — the European Union — is predicated upon an implicit idea of Europe, which is again predicated upon an implicit shared vision of the future. What is this shared vision of the future? I could maliciously characterize the contemporary European vision of the future as Fukuyama’s “end of history,” in which, “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” constitute the only remaining social vision, and, “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism,” have long since disappeared. …
After the horrors of the twentieth century, such a future might not sound too bad, and while it may constitute a kind of progress, this can no longer be understood as a manifest destiny; no one imagines that a unified Europe is one people with one vision; unified Europe is, rather, a conglomerate, and its vision is no more coherent or moving than the typical mission statement of a conglomerate. Indeed, we must view it as an open question as to whether a truly democratic society can generate or sustain a manifest destiny — and Europe today is, if anything, a truly democratic society. There are, of course the examples of Athens at the head of the Delian League and the United States in the nineteenth century. I invite the reader to consider whether these societies were as thoroughly democratic as Europe today, and I leave the question open for the moment.
But Europe did not come to its democratic present easily or quickly. Europe has represented both manifest destinies and conflicting manifest destinies throughout its long history. Europe’s unusual productivity of ideas has given the world countless ideologies that other peoples have adopted as their own, even as the Europeans took them up for a time, only to later cast them aside. Europe for much of its history represented Christendom, that is to say, Christian civilization. In its role as Christian civilization, Europe resisted the Vikings, the Mongols, Russian Orthodox civilization after the Great Schism, Islam during the Crusades, later the Turk, another manifestation of Islam, and eventually Europeans fell on each other and during the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, with Catholics and Protestants representing conflicting manifest destinies that tore Europe apart with an unprecedented savagery and bloodthirstiness.
After Europe exhausted itself with fratricidal war inspired by conflicting manifest destinies, Europe came to represent science, and progress, and modernity, and this came to be a powerful force in the world. But modernity has more than one face, and by the time Europe entered the twentieth century, Europe hosted two mortal enemies that held out radically different visions of the future, the truly modern manifest destinies of fascism and communism. Europe again exhausted itself in fratricidal conflict, and it was left to the New World to sort out the peace and to provide the competing vision to the surviving communist vision that emerged from the mortal conflict in Europe. Now communism, too, has ceded its place as a vision for the future and a manifest destiny, leaving Russia again as the representative of Orthodox civilization, and Europe as the representative of democracy.
On the European periphery, Russia continues to exercise an influence in a direction distinct from that of the idea of Europe embodied in the European Union. Even as I write this, protesters and police are battling in Ukraine, primarily as a result of Russian pressure on the leaders of Ukraine not to more closely associate itself with Europe (cf. Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt). Ukraine is significant in this connection, because it is a nation-state split between a western portion that shares the European idea and wants to be a part of Europe, and an eastern part that looks to Russia.
What does a nation-state on the European periphery look toward when it looks toward Russia? Does Russia represent an ideology or a destiny, if only on the European periphery and not properly European? As the leading representative of Orthodox civilization, Russia should represent some kind of vision, but what vision exactly? As I have attempted to explain previously in The Principle of Autocracy and Spheres of Influence, I remain puzzled by autocracy and forms of authoritarianism, and I don’t see that Russia has anything to offer other than a kinder, gentler form of autocracy than that what the Tsars offered in earlier centuries.
Previously in The Evolution of Europe I wrote that, “The idea of Europe will not go away,” and, “The saga of Europe is far from over.” I would still say the same now, but I would qualify these claims. The idea of Europe remains strong for the Europeans, but it represents little in the way of a global vision, and while many seek to join Europe, as barbarians sought join the Roman Empire, Europe represents a manifest destiny as little as the later Roman Empire represented anything. But Europe displaced into the New World, where its Enlightenment prodigy, the United States continues its political experiment, still represented something, however tainted the vision.
The idea of Europe remains in Europe, but the destiny of Europe lies in the Western Hemisphere.
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18 February 2014
0. Introduction: Narcissism of Minor Differences
One of the socio-political mechanisms that join civilization and war in a coevolutionary spiral is the ethno-sectarian realization of what Freud called the narcissism of minor differences, which not only accounts for ongoing disputes between neighbors, but can explain how such ongoing disputes can turn into morbid fascinations and neurotic obsessions that come to exclude rational calculation of interests, which in the strategic sphere is the operative form of rationality.
In Europe, narcissism of minor differences repeatedly set neighbors at each others' throats -- Jonathan Meades called this "neighborly murderousness down through the centuries." While we might first think of the Balkans in this connection -- Churchill made black humor of this European fratricide by saying that the Balkans produced more history than they could consume -- perhaps the central rivalry of Europe has been the rivalry of France and Germany, which led to the two most destructive wars in history. Many commentators have opined that the ulterior motive of postwar European efforts at economic integration were to bind France and Germany so tightly together than there would never be a repeat of the first and second world wars.
The same narcissism of minor differences that animated the geographical, linguistic, and cultural divisions of the Germans and the French in twentieth century Europe have been playing out since the 1947 decolonialization and partition of the Indian subcontinent between the ethnic, cultural, and religious identities of Muslim Pakistan and (mostly) Hindu India. As France and Germany imagined different destinies for the European landmass they shared, so too Muslims and Hindus imagine different destinies for the South Asian landmass that they share.
1. Manifest Destinies
While we associate the phrase "manifest destiny" with a particular phase of US expansionism into and across western North America, there is a much more general meaning implicit in the idea of manifest destiny. I appealed to this generalization of manifest destiny in my post Manifest Destiny: Roman and American. The essential elements of manifest destiny have been present in other places and other times than the Roman and the American instantiations.
What happens when two distinct manifest destinies collide? What happens when distinct conceptions of civilization are forced to confront each other? What happens when peoples who see themselves are part of distinct traditions are forced by historical and geographical circumstances to live next to each other? Often this confrontation is understood by partisans on both sides as each side posing an existential threat to the other. Moreover, perception of mutual existential threat often means a war of extermination once the appropriate trigger erupts within an escalation and so allows events to pass beyond a critical threshold. Wherever one finds revachist or irredentist sentiment that looks toward a neighboring territory, one finds a ready audience for ideological justifications to covet thy neighbor's possessions.
Manifest destiny is, in a sense, a vision of the future of civilization, the unfolding of a destiny implicit in the life of a people -- it is a teleological conception of a people, and therefore often formulated in deterministic terms. The idea of "destiny" is of course a slippery term for geopolitics and geostrategy, given its eschatological and soteriological overtones, but it is precisely for this reason that the idea of destiny maintains a powerful hold over human minds -- a much more powerful hold than mere nationalism, for example, which does not usually extend its roots into the religious identity of a people in the same way that manifest destiny does. Any idea that moves masses in an age of popular sovereignty must be taken seriously by geopolitics and geostrategy, and destiny must be counted among these ideas. A destiny that grows organically out of the life of a particular people -- the destiny of a particular geographical, ethnic, social, political, or sectarian groups -- has a particular appeal to members of that group. Vague and ambiguous conceptions that appeal to a potent mix of powerfully felt yet ill-defined sentiments such as patriotism, ethnic and sectarian pride, ethnic and sectarian autonomy, and self-sacrifice for an ennobling and edifying cause still today have significant traction in the popular mind.
2. Geopolitics and Big History
Manifest destiny incorporates all of this and more as well, and for that reason it deserves our analytical attention. An analytical approach to a concept as elusive and protean as that of destiny demands that we place the lands and the peoples and the ideologies in a larger theoretical context, and the largest possible theoretical context for geopolitics is Big History.
Will Durant was my introduction to Big History. I suppose I owe this to Earl Fisher, as he was my impetus to read Durant's The Life of Greece while I was still in high school (by the way, thanks Mr. Fisher). At the same time I also read Burn's classic Western Civilization text (also at the behest of Mr. Fisher), but it was Durant that stuck with me. Burns was too much like a textbook. Long before I had read Pascal, I felt as he did: "When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man." After my school years, when I began my true self-education, I acquired Will and Ariel Durant's entire Story of Civilization series of books (purchased in a small used book store in Beaverton that no longer exists), which I still read and still admire as a synthesis of human history.
In the first book of the Durant's massive history, Our Oriental Heritage, Durant says this of the history of India and the Indian subcontinent:
"We must conceive it, then, not as a nation, like Egypt, Babylonia, or England, but as a continent as populous and polyglot as Europe, and almost as varied in climate and race, in literature, philosophy and art."
Will Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. I, Our Oriental Heritage, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954, Chapter XIV, p. 393
The first time I read this -- I was probably 16 or 17 years old -- it made an impression on me, and over the intervening years I have thought about this statement. For a Westerner like myself, European history is the standard of history, and I can recount, off the top of my head, the various movements and conflicts of peoples even in a small fragment of Europe -- for example, the English, Welsh, Scotch, and Irish peoples on the British Isles. On the continent, we know that Spain was only unified by granting special charters and traditional privileges to peoples within the Iberian peninsula, while Italy and Germany were only unified in the nineteenth century from a diverse patchwork of traditional political entities. To think that South Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, hosted a similar plurality and diversity of peoples, each with their own histories and traditions, was almost too much to take in. But I remembered it, and returned to think about this theme from time to time.
It is only in my maturity that I have begun to understand the truth of this quote from Durant, and to gain an inkling of the complexity of history as revealed in the synchronic "thickness" of a given geographical region (historians sometimes say they will give a "thick description" when they delve into details usually conflated by some overly-general yet convenient label).
In a previous post, Thoughts from Horseback, I quoted another passage from Durant that places India's religious traditions within its biological and climatological context, which again shows Durant as an authentic ancestor of Big History:
"Here and there, constituting one-fifth of the land, the primitive jungle remains, a breeding-place of tigers, leopards, wolves and snakes. In the southern third, or Deccan, the heat is drier, or is tempered with breezes from the sea. But from Delhi to Ceylon the dominating fact in India is heat: heat that has weakened the physique, shortened the youth, and affected the quietist religion and philosophy of the inhabitants. The only relief from this heat is to sit still, to do nothing, to desire nothing; or in the summer months the monsoon wind may bring cooling moisture and fertilizing rain from the sea. When the monsoon fails to blow, India starves, and dreams of Nirvana."
Robert D. Kaplan, in his recent book The Revenge of Geography, like Durant, sees South Asia as a geographical unity in spite of its contemporary political divisions, and for geopolitics, geographical unity can be more significant that passing political arrnagements:
"...the vast region that today encompasses northern India along with Pakistan and much of Afghanistan was commonly under a single polity, even as sovereignty over southern India was in doubt. Thus, for Indian elites, to think of not only Pakistan but Afghanistan, too, as part of India’s home turf is not only natural but historically justified. The tomb of Babur is in Kabul, not in Delhi. This does not mean that India has territorial designs on Afghanistan, but it does mean that New Delhi cares profoundly about who rules Afghanistan, and wishes to ensure that those who do rule there are friendly to India."
"This is a rich history that few in the West know of, while sections of the Indian elite know it in their bones. When Indians look at their maps of the subcontinent they see Afghanistan and Pakistan in the northwest, just as they see Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh in the northeast, as all part of India’s immediate sphere of influence, with Iran, the Persian Gulf, the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and Burma as critical shadow zones. Not to view these places as such, is, from the vantage point of New Delhi, to ignore the lessons of history and geography."
Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of geography: what the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate, New York: Random House, 2012, Chapter XII, "INDIA’S GEOGRAPHICAL DILEMMA"
Kaplan here more or less gives the Indian perspective -- his chapter, after all, is called "India's Geographical Dilemma," and one tends not to think of Pakistan as a geopolitical "power" due to its internal strife -- but it is a sanitized Indian perspective that fails to do justice to the fact that the geographical unity of India has only been approximated in the modern period under Muslim Mogul emperors and British colonialism.
3. Greater Pakistan and Greater India
Some Pakistanis harbor the idea of a "Greater Pakistan" which is expressed in the idea of "Ghazwa-e-hind" (or "Ghazwatulhind" depending on your transliteration; غزوة الهند). The literal translation of this is something like, "When the Prophet (PBUH) goes to war in the Indian subcontinent," however, over time the idea has come to signify something more like the Pakistani equivalent of Manifest Destiny. On the surface, this idea could be seen as overtly hostile to India, and in the some forums there are maps that show most of what we now know as India as part of a Greater Pakistan, as in this example:
Now, we all know that this is a fantasy, and that no iteration of contemporary Pakistan would be able to push across India like this, much less make it stick with boots on the ground. Such visions are eschatological dreams of true believers. But there are conceptions of a Greater Pakistan that are much more realistic. For example, there are many maps (check out the Pakistan Defense Forum) that show what is today Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single nation-state within one border, as in this example:
It is, of course, very unlikely that the global powers that be would allow anything like this Greater Pakistan to come into existence, but the important thing here is that this is something like a rational and realizable vision for extreme Pakistani nationalists, whereas the vision of a Greater Pakistan including most of India is not realistic. The deep penetration of Afghanistan by the Pakistani ISI, and the ability of the ISI to exercise influence and to shape events in the region, make the idea of a Greater Pakistan including large swathes of Afghanistan a believable manifest destiny for Pakistan, since de facto Pakistani control of parts of Afghanistan is already a reality in some regions.
But Afghanistan is far from being controlled outright by Pakistan, and other destinies may conflict with this western vision of Pakistan's future. Another quasi-eschatological vision of a "greater" political entity
is Greater Khorasan (or Khurassan, or Khurazzan), which, like the ideas of Greater Pakistan and Greater India, are based on idealized historical models of greatest territorial extent of past empires. The most ambitious maps of Greater Khorasan and Greater Pakistan overlap considerably, and while these represent (slightly) distinct political eschatologies, both are ideas that draw from the traditions of Islamic civilization and frequently cite the same sources, so that these visions are not necessarily mutually exclusive -- which does not mean that they are necessarily compatible.
More obviously mutually exclusive is the Indian political eschatology of a Greater India. This Indian parallel to this Pakistani vision of Ghazwa-e-hind or Greater Pakistan is Akhand Bharat (अखण्ड भारत, Akhaṇḍa Bhārata, literally Undivided India), which is a conception of Greater India based on the historical unity of India prior to the partition of 1947, but carefully skirting the issue of this unity being based on British colonialism or Indian imperialism under Muslim rulers.
In the above illustrations of Greater Pakistan, Greater Khorasan, and Greater India maps are employed as tools of political propaganda, with vast geographical areas identified by a single bold color as falling within some expanded political imperium. Given the record of expulsions and populations transfers that marked the violent partition of India and Pakistan, merely to contemplate grandiose schemes of Greater Pakistan or Greater India humbles one by the mere idea of the magnitude of human suffering that would attend any attempt to realize such a vision, much less the successful imposition of a political eschatology. (Colors on a map indicating territory, like lines on a map indicating borders, are easy to draw, but their realization comes at a high human cost.) And yet, this is the dream of those who dream big on the Indian subcontinent.
4. Manifest Destiny and Eschatological Wars
While dreams of political eschatology were once mere fantasies, and it is easy to consign them to a pre-modern past that lives today only in the dreams of deluded antiquaries, contemporary technology has given new impetus to the idea of eschatological wars (that is to say, cosmic wars); Pakistan and India are now both nuclear-armed nation-states, and the rational reconstruction of the traditional state on the basis of the nation-state model means that both powers meticulously plan for nuclear engagements. (Cf., e.g., Race to the End: Pakistan's terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad idea to develop battlefield nukes by Tom Hundley, 05 September 2012, and India 'unlikely' to deploy Cold Start against Pakistan)
Planning for doomsday was once the sole preserve of raving prophets; now it is the daily occupation of professionals. Together with a de facto tolerance for state-sponsored weaponization of eliminationism as long as it is kept below the threshold of atrocity, doomsday planning becomes the natural telos of escalating atrocities. If atrocities can be explained away as hostages to fortune, and doomsday as the technological implementation of manifest destiny, the lives of millions of human beings might be dismissed as being of little account compared to the cosmic forces in play.
5. Tolerating Fanaticism through Facilitating Moderation
I have no doubt that there are a great many sophisticated and cosmopolitan Indians who understand that the future of India lies in greater integration with the global economy, improving living standards for its people, broadly-based recognition of the importance of democracy and human rights for long-term global stability and prosperity, all of which would be turned back by any attempt to act upon Akhand Bharat as a political ideology. And I have no doubt whatsoever that an equally proportional number of sophisticated and cosmopolitan Pakistanis understand precisely the same in relation to any attempt to act upon Ghazwa-e-hind as a political ideology. Such individuals as I have described would immediate recognize the appeal to any such retrograde ideologies that would result in socioeconomic retrogression as an opportunistic and probably purely cynical political gambit for power on the part of ambitious and unscrupulous elements.
However, it is not the sophisticated and cosmopolitan outlook of Indian and Pakistani elites that shapes the history of the subcontinent, but rather it is history and geography that shapes the elites. Even the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan members of society -- that elite segment of society from which political leaders are usually drawn -- remain captive to ideas of manifest destiny that are likely to be destructive of all the whatever gains have been realized through economic development. Why is this the case?
In my post Hearts and Minds I quoted Sam Harris on the relationship between religious moderates and religious extremists ...
"...people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance -- born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God -- is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss."
Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005
Implicit in Harris' formulation is a more general principle, as applicable to manifest destiny as to religious identity, which I stated as, "...ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists."
The ideological moderates likely to be found among Indian and Pakistani elites facilitate the fanaticism and militarism of the masses -- much and Soviet and American elites during the Cold War had to play to the vulgar us-against-them dialectic of the masses. And while India and Pakistan find themselves sharing a border and coveting the same landmass for their manifest destiny, Soviet and American military planners reflected the global ambitions of the conflicting ideologies that defined the Cold War: each side in the conflict had a vision and a destiny for the planet entire.
6. Conclusion: A Problem of Civilization
Is respect for the unjustified beliefs of others pushing us toward the abyss in the Indian subcontinent? Yes and no. In the Darwinian struggle of ideas, science and technology are rapidly transforming our knowledge in unprecedented ways, and in the long term the sheer efficacy of science and technology triumphs over barbarism and superstition, which become marginalized as a result. Technologically implemented eschatological wars that seem to embody a long-imagined manifest destiny can only be successfully prosecuted by societies in possession of the scientific and industrial infrastructure necessary to the waging of industrial-technological warfare, and the unpleasant reality is that, whereas victory once lay with the larger battalions (as Napoleon observed), victory now lies with the higher technology.
But we aren't home free yet. There is no reason for smugness, and much reason to yet fear the danger. Industrial-technological warfare, as it grows in sophistication, presents an existential threat to civilization, and possibly also to all life on Earth. In so far as these means are placed at the disposal of those who still believe in cosmic wars, and who see modern technology as a means to realize an eschatological end, the advancement of science and technology only brings us closer to anthropogenic extinction.
Keynes famously said that the long term is a misleading measure because, in the long term, we are all dead. The danger here is that in the short term we also may all be dead. The prospect of industrial-technological warfare among societies still envisioning their destinies in agrarian-ecclesiastical terms means that we are at the present stage of history passing through a window in which the means to destroy ourselves are provided by novel developments that have not yet changed our societies, and our traditional societies provide the pretext for war on a scale not possible for agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
Ultimately, then, this is a problem of civilization -- perhaps we could say a problem unique to civilization. Civilization changes our means more readily than it changes our ends, and that puts advanced means at the service of stagnant ends. The problem of civilization is, then, resolved by the need for more civilization. But how are we to expand civilization so that its ends are brought up to a level equal to its means? That must be a question for another time.
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8 February 2014
The Three Eras of Life on Earth
The Earth, it would seem, has been regularly reduced to biological penury throughout its long history, which has been punctuated by mass extinctions that have very nearly reduced biodiversity to zero. It is possible that, in the earliest history of life on Earth, when our planet was regularly bombarded by objects from space, and exposed to especially harsh conditions, life may have emerged multiple times, only to be wiped out again in short order. There would have been plenty of time for this to occur during the 550 million years prior to the emergence of the earliest life known to be continuous with our own.
The repeated denudation of the planet by mass extinctions constituted a kind of ecological succession on a grand scale. Each time life had to recover anew, and, in recovering, the surviving species (the “weeds” that were the most robust and which went on to colonize the denuded landscape and seascape) underwent dramatic periods of adaptive radiation until, in the global climax ecosystems prior to a mass extinction event, almost every niche for life has been filled — possibly several times over, leading to contested niches where multiple species compete for the same limited resources.
The history of life is such a reliable indicator of geological time that there is an entire discipline — biostratigraphy — given over to the dating of rocks by the fossils they contain. Once life becomes sufficiently complex to leave a record of itself in the rocks of our planet, the development of life is a sure guide to the age of the rocks that contain traces of this past life. Contemporary scientific geology largely got its start through biostratigraphy in the work of William Smith (called “strata Smith” by his contemporaries), whom I have previously mentioned in The Transplanetary Perspective.
Three of the major divisions of geological time are named for the eras of life that they comprise: Paleozoic (old life), Mesozoic (middle life), and Cenozoic (common, or recent, life). These divisions of geological time give a “big picture” view of the history of life on Earth. The mass extinction events at the end of the Permian and at the K-T boundary were so catastrophic that the Earth in the case of the end Permian extinction came perilously close to being sterilized, and while the K-T event (now known as the Cretaceous–Paleogene or K–Pg extinction event) was not as disastrous, it ended the dominion of the dinosaurs over most ecological niches and thereby gave mammals the opportunity to experience an explosive adaptive radiation.
Million Year Old Civilizations
We know that intelligent life on Earth arose in the late Cenozoic era, but how clement were these earlier eras of life on Earth to intelligent life? If intelligent life had arisen in the Paleozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 250 million years old. If, again, intelligent life had arisen in the Mesozoic, founded a civilization, and survived to the present, that civilization would be in excess of 65 million years old. However, both of these counterfactual civilizations that did not happen would have almost certainly have been destroyed by the catastrophic mass extinctions that separated these eras of terrestrial life (unless they had taken adequate measures to mitigate existential risk, which would seem to be a necessary condition for any truly long-lived civilization).
The idea of a civilization a million or more years old was a theme discussed by Carl Sagan on several occasions. Here is an explicit formulation of the million-year-old civilization theme from Chapter XII, “Encyclopedia Galacitca,” from Sagan’s book Cosmos:
“What does it mean for a civilization to be a million years old? We have had radio telescopes and spaceships for a few decades; our technical civilization is a few hundred years old, scientific ideas of a modern cast a few thousand, civilization in general a few tens of thousands of years; human beings evolved on this planet only a few million years ago. At anything like our present rate of technical progress, an advanced civilization millions of years old is as much beyond us as we are beyond a bush baby or a macaque. Would we even recognize its presence? Would a society a million years in advance of us be interested in colonization or interstellar spaceflight? People have a finite lifespan for a reason. Enormous progress in the biological and medical sciences might uncover that reason and lead to suitable remedies. Could it be that we are so interested in spaceflight because it is a way of perpetuating ourselves beyond our own lifetimes? Might a civilization composed of essentially immortal beings consider interstellar exploration fundamentally childish?”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Chapter XII, “Encyclopaedia Galactica”
Human civilization could be considered as being more than ten thousand years old if we date the advent of civilization to the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. This is an atypical way to think about civilization, but I have seen it in a few sources (Jacob Bronowski, I think, takes this view, more or less), and it is how I myself think about civilization. A civilization ten thousand years old or more is nothing to dismiss; persisting for ten thousand years is a non-trivial accomplishment. Yet the history of terrestrial civilization may be compared to the history of terrestrial life: there is a long period that is nearly stagnant, with painfully slow innovations, and then an event occurs — the Cambrian explosion for life, the industrial revolution for civilization — and what it means to be “alive” or “civilized” is radically altered.
Dating to the Neolithic Agricultural revolution is consistent with my recent suggestion in From Biocentric Civilization to Post-biological Post-Civilization that civilization could be minimally defined as a coevolutionary cohort of species. However, our industrial-technological civilization is barely more than two hundred years old. To consider the geologically insignificant period of time of one hundred years is to contemplate a period of time half again as long as the entire history of industrial-technological civilization. The kind of technological gains that industrial-technological civilization could experience over a period of a hundred years can be quite remarkable, as our experience of the past hundred years suggests.
This year, 2014, we experience the one hundred year anniversary of global industrialized warfare. Not long after, we will experience the hundred year anniversaries of digital computers, jet propulsion, rocketry, and nuclear technology. Some of these technologies have improved by orders of magnitude. Some have improved very little. If the coming century brings commensurate technological innovations (not to mention innovations in science that would drive these technological innovations), even if not all these developments experience exponential development, and many languish in a state of stagnation, our world and our understanding of the world will nevertheless be repeatedly revolutionized.
Given what we know about the rapidity of technological change — bequeathed to our industrial-technological civilization as a consequence of the STEM cycle — we ought to conclude that we can know almost nothing about what a million year civilization would be like, except in so far as we might be able to imagine only the most stagnant aspects of such a civilization. It would be beyond our ability to understand advanced technologies ten thousand years hence, just as our ancestors, only beginning to lay the foundations of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization ten thousand years ago, could have understood our advanced technologies today. Understanding across these orders of developmental magnitude lie beyond the human zone of proximal development.
I have written previously that there is an earliest bound in the history of our universe for life, for intelligent life, and for civilization. It would not be possible to produce an industrial-technological civilization as we know it (i.e., a peer civilization) without heavier metallic elements, so that the emergence of industrial-technological civilization must minimally wait for the formation of Population I stars and their planetary systems. That being said, many population I stars have been around for billions of years, and there have consequently been billions of years for industrial-technological civilizations to emerge and to attain great age.
Are there other constraints upon the emergence of life, intelligence, and civilization that move the boundary for the earliest possible emergence of these phenomena nearer to the present? Is there any reason to suppose, from our knowledge of the natural history of Earth and the complexity of the human brain, that intelligent life and civilization could not have arisen in earlier eras of life — Paleozoic intelligent life or Mesozoic intelligent life, which would, in turn, according to Civilization-Intelligence Covariance, give rise to Paleozoic civilization or Mesozoic civilization? Or, if not here on Earth, why not some other planet orbiting a population I star where life begins 550 million years after the formation of the planet?
Octopi, cuttlefish, and other cephalopods with large brains and highly sophisticated nervous systems — it takes a lot of raw neural processing power to do what some cephalopods do with their skin color — would seem to be ideal candidates for early terrestrial intelligent life. Octopi date back to the Devonian Period, more than 360 million years ago, during the Paleolithic Era, so that ancestors of this life form survived both the End Permian extinction and the K-T extinction (cf. Fossil Octopuses). Why didn’t cephalopods establish a counterfactual civilization during the Permian? There was certainly time enough to do so before the End Permian extinction.
Is a backbone, or something that can serve a similar function like an exoskeleton, a necessary condition for intelligence to issue in the production of civilization? Multicellular life forms without a backbone, or confined to an aquatic environment, might well develop intelligence, but would have a difficult time building a technological civilization — difficult, but not impossible. This is a question I considered previously in The Place of Bilaterial Symmetry in the History of Life and Counterfactuals Implicit in Naturalism.
If we should find life in the oceans below the icy surface of Europa, or any of the other moons in our solar system internally heated by gravitational forces, it would consist of life forms peculiarly constrained by their environment, i.e., possibly more constrained than terrestrial conditions, and therefore more likely to favor extremophiles. Oceanic lifeforms beneath a crust of ice many kilometers thick would not only have the technological disadvantage faced by any intelligent aquatic species, but would face the additional disadvantage of being cut off from the stars. Unable to physically see their place in the universe, such lifeforms might have an even more difficult time that we had in coming to understand the world. The mythology of such a life form would have to be very different from the mythologies created by early human societies, in which the stars typically played a prominent role. Any civilization that might be conjoined with such a mythology might constitute an extremophile civilization.
Inside the Charmed Circle
Many of the questions that I have posed above are variations on ancient themes of anthropocentrism, and from within the charmed circle of anthropocentrism it is difficult for us to see outside that circle. Our minds are quite literally defined by that circle, being the product of human biology, and our imagination is largely circumscribed by the limitations of our minds. But our minds are also capable, with effort, of passing beyond the charmed circle of anthropocentrism, identifying anthropic bias as such and transcending it.
For us, the third time life got a chance on Earth was the charm. Paleozoic life came and (largely) went without producing intelligence or civilization, as did Mesozoic life. It was not until Cenozoic life that intelligence and civilization emerged. But was this the result of mere contingency, or a function of some operative constraint — possibly even a constraint no one has even noticed because of its pervasive presence — that prevented intelligence and civilization from arising in earlier geological eras?
While there might be reason to believe that other forms of life will have something like a DNA structure, or that something like the transition from prokaryotic cells to eukaryotic cells will have taken place, but there is no particular reason to believe that the large scale structure of life on other worlds would have the terrestrial tripartite structure, since this big picture view of life on Earth was a result of particular mass extinction events that seem too contingent to characterize any possible emergence of life. However, there is reason to believe that there will be some mass extinction events afflicting life on other worlds, and at least some of these mass extinction events will result from large scale cosmological events. If solar systems form elsewhere in a process like the formation of our solar system, life elsewhere would also be exposed to asteroid impacts, comets, solar flares, and the like. This is one of the lessons of astrobiology.
That there will be constraints and contingencies that bear upon life we can be certain; but we cannot (yet) know exactly what these constraints and contingencies will be. This is a non-constructive observation: invoking the existence of constraints and contingencies without saying what they will be. What would a constructive approach to life’s constraints and contingencies look like? Is it necessary to adopt a non-constructive perspective where our knowledge is so lacking? As knowledge of the conditions of astrobiology and astrocivilization grows, may we yet adopt a constructive conception of them?
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1 February 2014
In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I discussed some of the changes that are likely to come to the transportation industry as a result of autonomous vehicles, which may come to be a textbook case of technological unemployment, though I argued in that post that the transition will take many decades, which will allow for some degree of reallocation of the workforce over time. Economic incentives to freight haulers will drive the use of autonomous vehicles, because of their relatively low costs and ability to operate non-stop, but many people today are employed as transportation workers, and these workers, though today in high demand, may find themselves with greatly changed employment opportunities by the end of the twenty-first century. A whole class of workers who today earn a living wage without the necessity of extensive training and education, stands to be eliminated.
Today I want to go a little deeper into the structural problem of technological unemployment. In my previous post, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector, I mentioned the recent cover story on The Economist, Coming to an office near you… The argument in an article in this issue in The Economist, “The Onrushing Wave,” is that automation allows for capital to substitute for labor. I don’t disagree with this entirely, but there is no mention in The Economist of regressive taxation or decades of policies that have redistributed income upward.
The same article in The Economist mentions the upcoming book The Second Machine Age by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson; the authors of this book recently had an article on the Financial Times’ Comment page, “Robots stay in the back seat in the new machine age” (Wednesday 22 January 2014). The authors try to remain upbeat while grappling with the realities of technological unemployment. One answer to “resigning ourselves to an era of mass unemployment” proposed by the authors is educational reform, but we know that education, too (like employment), is undergoing a crisis. The same socioeconomic system that is making it possible for capital to substitute for labor through automation is the same socioeconomic system that has been driving young people to spend ever-larger amounts of borrowed money on education, which has lined the pockets of the universities, transformed them into credentialing mills, and has driven employers to escalate their educational requirements for routine jobs that could just as well be filled by someone without a credential.
Both The Economist article and the Financial Times article cite Keynes, who in a particularly prescient passage in an essay of 1930 both foresaw and largely dismissed the problem of technological unemployment:
“We are being afflicted with a new disease of which some readers may not yet have heard the name, but of which they will hear a great deal in the years to come — namely, technological unemployment. This means unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment. All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is to-day. There would be nothing surprising in this even in the light of our present knowledge. It would not be foolish to contemplate the possibility of a far greater progress still.”
John Maynard Keynes, Essays in Persuasion, “ECONOMIC POSSIBILITIES FOR OUR GRANDCHILDREN” (1930)
It is remarkable that Keynes would so plainly acknowledge technological unemployment as a “new disease” and then go on to dismiss is as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment.” It was Keynes, after all, who penned one of the most famous lines in all economic writing about how misleading it is to appeal to the long run while dismissing the temporary problem:
“But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
John Maynard Keynes, Monetary Reform, New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1924, p. 88
Economists would indeed set themselves too easy, too useless a task if they dismiss technological unemployment as a temporary phase of maladjustment. But, to be fair, economists are not social engineers. It is not for economists, in their role as economists, to make social policy, or even to make economic or monetary policy. This is a political task. It is the role of the economist to understand economic policy and monetary policy, and it is to be hoped that this understanding can be the basis of sound practical recommendations that can be presented to policy makers and the public.
It is well worth reading the whole of Keynes’ essay on the economic possibilities for our grandchildren, in which he suggests that human beings have evolved to struggle for subsistence, but that the growth of technology and capital are going to bring an end to this struggle for subsistence, thus marking a permanent change in the human condition (which Keynes calls, “solving the economic problem”). In short, Keynes was a classic techno-optimist, and he thought it would take about a hundred years (from 1930, so 2030) to get to the point at which humanity has definitively solved the economic problem. He does add the caveat that population control, the avoidance of war, and the employment of science will be necessary in addition to economic effort to solve humanity’s economic problem, and presumably, if we fail to heed Keynes’ caveats — as we certainly have since he wrote his essay — we will likely hamper our progress and delay the solution of the economic problem.
What I find remarkable in Keynes, and in the techno-optimists of our own time, is their ability to speak of the coming age of maximized abundance as though it were all but achieved, and to neglect the whole struggle and negotiation that will get us to that point. Keynes effectively consigned a century to being a temporary phase of maladjustment, and recognized that this temporary phase may stretch out over more than a century if matters don’t proceed smoothly. But for Keynes that isn’t the real problem. Keynes feels that, “the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.” He then goes on to blandly state:
“…there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society.”
In other words, what bothers Keynes is the troubling prospect of leisure for the working classes. To Keynes and the techno-optimists, I say there is nothing to worry you; that the millennium has not yet arrived, nor are we prepared for it to arrive, since the masses of the people will continue to struggle for subsistence for the foreseeable future. In the contemporary economy, we see no measures put into place that would indicate a shift toward institutions that would ease us into the paradise of maximized abundance promised by automation. There are, of course, the traditional workplace protections put into place throughout the industrialized world in the early part of the twentieth century, which include benefits for the unemployed, protections for those injured on the job, and a minimal stipend for the elderly, i.e., the worker after retirement. None of these traditional protections, however, begins to go far enough to support the unemployed worker for extended periods of time, or eases him into our out of his unemployed condition into sometime sustainable for the indefinite future.
If you lose your job at the age of 50 and have another 15 years to go until retirement (assuming a retirement age, and therefore eligibility for retirement benefits, at age 65), the benefits available to unemployed workers are not going to pay your mortgage for 15 years. And if you sell your house and move into an apartment, those benefits are not going to pay your rent. There are food banks and clothing banks for the destitute, so that in an industrialized nation-state you are not likely to go without some minimal amount of food and clothing. Perhaps, by hook or by crook, you find a way to maintain yourself for 15 years without becoming homeless and ending up as an invisible statistic, begging for change on a street corner. At that time you might get the minimal stipend provided for the elderly, and this might sustain you until you die. But what kind of life is the survival that I have described? It is simply another form of the struggle for subsistence, which Keynes’ thought would be eliminated by the solution of humanity’s economic problem.
While the unfortunate scenario I have outlined above consigns an individual to a relentlessly marginal life, others who have managed to find a more fortunate niche for themselves in the changing economy will have a house or two, a car or two, dinners at nice restaurants, a good education for their children, vacations, and all the things that money can buy in a market economy. The kind of problems that Keynes imagines in his essay, and which techno-optimists ever since have been (implicitly) imagining — that is to say, the problem of what individuals will do with all the time hanging heavy on their hands when they no longer have work to do — would be a kind of situation in which material goods become so cheap that they are simply given away to people. But are we going to give away the kind of good life that the fortunate enjoy?
All you have to do is to drive (or walk) through any large city in the world, and in a recession you will see block after block of empty store fronts, and if you read the classified advertisements you will find countless empty apartments waiting to be rented even as there are homeless people living on the street. We know that the owners of the empty store fronts could rent them out if they were willing to drop their asking price, but there is a limit below which landlords will not drop their price, and they would rather hold on to their properties, paying property taxes and maintenance expenses while their property remains idle, in hopes that a tenant will appear who is willing to meet their price. This situation could be met by government income redistribution, if money collected as taxes were spent to subsidize rentals, to give storefronts to small businesses or to rent empty apartments outright in which the homeless might live. But we already know what government programs like this are like. Individuals have to jump through hoops — in other words, they must be ready to humiliate themselves and to grovel before a functionary — in order to receive the “benefit.” Many people will not do this (I wouldn’t do this), and would thus opt out of well-intentioned programs that would make housing available to the homeless — with strings attached.
Suppose, however, you’re willing to grovel and you get your government apartment. What then? You will still be trapped in an extremely marginal position. You won’t be getting a penthouse suite with a view, you won’t be given a Ferrari to drive, you won’t be given an Armani suit, and you won’t be given an all-expense-paid trip to the south of France to sample the food and wine of the region. Who gets the penthouses and the Ferraris and the Armani suits and the vacations in the Dordogne? In other words, how do we allocate luxury goods in an economy of maximized abundance? Ideally, there would be no limits to consumer goods; that’s what “maximized abundance” means, but we all know that we are not going to be living in a world in which everyone has a Ferrari and an Armani suit.
How far can abundance be stretched? Are we to understand maximized abundance (or what Adam Smith called universal opulence) in terms of equal access to luxuries for everyone, or in terms of freezing social arrangements in a particular configuration so that each level of society receives its traditional share of goods? In other words, are we going to understand society as an egalitarian paradise or a feudal hierarchy? History has many examples of feudal hierarchies, and no examples of egalitarian paradises. Those societies explicitly constituted with the goal of becoming egalitarian paradises — i.e., large scale communist societies of the twentieth century — turned out to be even more stultifyingly hierarchical than feudalism.
There are some rather obvious answers to the rhetorical questions I have posed above, and none of them are particularly admirable. Luxury goods may go to those who are born into great wealth, or they may go to those who are particularly expert in some skill valued by society, or they may be reserved to reward government functionaries for loyal service. All of these arrangements have been realized in actual human societies of the past, and none of them constituted what Keynes called a solution to the economic problem for humanity.
Perhaps you think I am being trivial in my discussion of luxury goods, mentioning Ferraris and Armani suits, but I employ these as mere counters for the real luxuries that make life worth living. By these, I mean the experiences that we treasure and which are uniquely our own. The richness of a life is a function of the experiences that comprise the life in question. In market economies as they are administered today, if you have money, you can afford a wide variety of experiences. And if you are poor, your experiences are pretty much limited to staring at the four walls of your room, if you are lucky enough to avoid being homeless.
Believe me, I could easily elaborate a scenario that would stand with the best of the techno-optimists. I have observed elsewhere that, while seven billion human beings is a lot for the Earth, in the Milky Way it is virtually nothing. With the declining birth rates that characterize industrial-technological civilization, we will need every human being simply for the task of expanding our civilization into the Milky Way, leaving the machines to do the dead-end industrial jobs that once trapped human beings in unenviable circumstances.
There are endless interesting things yet to be done, and we will need every living human being freed from drudgery simply to begin the process of establishing a spacefaring civilization. This is a wonderful vision of considerable attraction to me personally. This is the world that I would like to see come about. The problem is, virtually nothing is being done to realize such a vision, or, for that matter, to realize any other techno-optimist vision. On the contrary, policies being implemented today seem formulated for the purpose of discouraging the kind of society that we need to begin building right now, today, if we are to defy the existential risks with which we are confronted as a species.
We could accurately speak of contemporary economic circumstances as “…a temporary phase of maladjustment…” if we were actively seeking to mitigate the maladjustment and to build an economy that would prepare us for the future. This is not being done. On the contrary, people who lose their jobs are viewed as failures or worse, and are condemned by economic reality to live a life of straightened circumstances. The struggle for subsistence continues, and is likely to continue indefinitely, because despite Keynes’ claim to the contrary, humanity has not yet solved its economic problem, although the economic problem is no longer a problem of production, but rather a problem of distribution and allocation.
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Technnological unemployment has been back in the news in a big way. There was a widely reported study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne (cf. Half of jobs to be lost to computerisation?), and recently The Economist devoted a cover to the topic (Coming to an office near you…), with several stories inside the magazine considering technological unemployment from a variety of perspectives.
I have visited the question of technological unemployment several times, most particularly in the following posts:
Developments that touch upon technological unemployment — the actual automation technologies, our understanding of these technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure employed in attempting to make sense of economic and technological trends — evolve so rapidly that it is necessary to revisit the question on a regular basis, even while sedulously remaining focused on the big picture so that we do not mistake some passing and ephemeral trend for a development that will define a new era of history.
The big picture of technological unemployment is that it is part of the ongoing industrial revolution, which changed the relationship of human beings to each other and to the planet they occupy, and which continues to unfold with unprecedented developments. Some who write about the industrial revolution make a series of distinctions between the first, second, and nth industrial revolutions, but none of these finer distinctions have been universally recognized, so they only tend to create confusion. Indeed, when I was reading an article about technological unemployment last week the writer called technological employment the second industrial revolution, either unaware or unconcerned that others have already called previous developments (as, for example, electrification or assembly-line production) the second industrial revolution.
I prefer to think of the industrial revolution as one, long, unfinished process, beginning in England with the use of fossil fueled steam engines to power machinery and changing continuously up to the present day, as new technologies emerge from the previous generation of technologies. This technological innovation that began the industrial revolution and sustains it in our time I have called the STEM cycle. Because of the STEM cycle, the industrial revolution continues to revolutionize itself, always producing new technologies and new technological dislocations in the socioeconomic system, but it is the structure of technological change itself that defines the industrial revolution and the industrialized societies that have arisen in its wake.
The same conditions that held in the earliest automation of formerly manual tasks continue to hold today: some tasks are easier to automate than are other tasks, and some parts of a given task are easier to automate than other parts of the same task. The automated production process tends to break down tasks into their simplest constituents, automate the automatable tasks, and then stitch together the whole in an assembly-line production process in which the gaps between automated tasks are filled by human workers who continue to perform the tasks (and parts of tasks) that cannot be readily automated. Thus industrialization gives us the “job of the gaps” employment structure, and continuing technological innovations narrow these gaps, reducing employment.
However, even as entire classes of employment disappear, new classes of employment appear — as unprecedented as the technological innovations that spelled the end of previous forms of employment — and this has allowed industrialized economies to continue their balancing act of keeping the majority of their populations employed while enjoying the rising productivity that results from continuous technological improvement of the production process. However, there is no guarantee that this balancing act can be maintained indefinitely — or even that this would be a desirable state of affairs. Imagining a permanent future of dead-end industrial jobs is a kind of dystopian scenario that offers little hope. However, the utopian scenario of human beings freed from stultifying labor by technological unemployment seems too good to be true.
I will discuss some of the implications for technological unemployment in relation to the transportation industry, since I know something about the transportation industry, having earned by income in the industry for the past three decades. The rapidity of the development of self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles) is a testament to the rapid gains of technology and computerization as they bear upon transportation. When, in the past, people imagined an automated road transportation network (and this is a staple of futurist thought that has been imagined many times), it was assumed that radio transponders would have to be built into roads and infrastructure to guide a vehicle along. Instead, laser range finders and radars construct a local map of the terrain, which is then compared to high resolution maps of the actual environment, and the precision of GPS systems allows the vehicle to navigate through the map. (Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the abbreviated version.)
The development of autonomous vehicles is a potential boon to the transportation industry. One of the greatest challenges to the industry has been the ability of motor carriers to find a sufficient number of drivers to haul their loads, and recent hours of service (HOS) regulation changes have increased the limitations on the number of hours a driver can drive in a day and in a week. Autonomous commercial vehicles, when they become both practicable and legal, would potentially mean unlimited freight capacity and trucks operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Driver shortage would no longer be a problem for freight haulers.
While most driving is routine and could easily be handled by an autonomous vehicle, there is a significant portion of the driving day which is likely to elude automation for some time to come. Driving a tractor-trailer within a congested urban area is much more difficult that driving a passenger vehicle in the same conditions, and it will take longer to automate this process than the hours on the open highway between major urban centers. There is nothing in principle that cannot be automated, and when the technology is available it is likely that autonomous tractor-trailers will be safer in traffic than human drivers. However, a single severe collision involving injury or a fatality would likely be picked up by the media and one would expect a headline something like, “Killer Robot Trucks on our Highways!” This would likely to delay the development of the industry for years, if not decades. Due to the obvious liability issues, one would expect that the technology would not be rolled out until it is fully mature, and even then accidents will happen. (I have elsewhere argued that industrial accidents are intrinsic to and ineradicable features of industrial-technological civilization, and traffic accidents are among the most common of industrial accidents.)
Other than the complexities of driving in crowded urban conditions that put other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians at risk of life and limb, there are aspects of freight hauling that will not be easily automated. Another aspect of our industrial-technological civilization is that it runs clock around and year round. There is never a break. Freight moves every day of the year, and if the transportation infrastructure is slowed or stopped, store shelves are quickly bare. Other than unpredictable snow storms that shut down highways, there are predictable inclement weather conditions that occur on all roads at high elevations. In the continental US, thousands of trucks every day go through mountain passes, and it is not usual in the Rockies or the Cascade Range for drivers in mountainous areas to chain up their vehicles every day simply to be able to complete their trip. Tire chains are a nearly archaic technology, but they are effective, and nothing else will get a truck through snow and ice like chains. Believe me, I’ve been there. I know whereof I speak.
I think it will be a very long time before any robot or automated system will be able to chain up a tractor-trailer in inclement weather conditions. There are automatic chains available, but their use is limited, and they won’t get you through deep snow. Putting tire chains on a tractor-trailer is physically demanding and difficult to do well. No doubt there is a way to automate the process, but it won’t happen in a robust form any time soon — and here by “robust form” I mean a dependable way of getting a truck through a mountain pass on a daily basis.
I can foresee a day when tractor-trailers are automated for long stretches of highway in flat country, and dual-purpose vehicles are sometimes piloted autonomously and sometimes driven by human drivers. It might be possible to station drivers on the outskirts of cities, who would then get into autonomous vehicles and drive them within urban areas. Or drivers might be stationed at the bottom of mountain rangers, and get in the trucks to take them over the pass. But in a severe winter, the snows come down the side of the mountains, and the stationing of drivers to take over in inclement conditions might have to change daily. Under such conditions, it would be an open question as to whether it would be more cost effective to simply keep drivers in the trucks all day rather than attempt to constantly shuttle drivers to where they would need to be to take over autonomous vehicles where these vehicles could no longer safely operate. So truck drivers aren’t yet quite out of a job, even when autonomous tractor-trailers become a reality.
The process of automating commercial vehicles is likely to spread out over many decades, which will allow for realignment of employment within the industry over time. And driving, of course, is not the only job within the transportation industry. There is the warehousing and loading of freight, maintenance of vehicles, and many other functions. It will be a very long time before automated roadside service for breakdowns will be possible. Autonomous vehicles will be more technologically complex even than the trucks on the road today, and they will break down with some regularity (breakdowns, like industrial accidents, are an intrinsic part of industrial-technological civilization). Automated vehicles broken down on the shoulder of the road will have to be serviced by human technicians for many decades to come, and a stranded automated vehicle would also be a soft target for cargo theft, which creates a new kind of “opportunity” for human beings within an automated economy.
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