11 September 2013
It has been a dozen years now since 11 September 2001. Like that day, today is a beautifully clear and pleasant September day. That such an event should be associated in my memory with nice weather is not unlike that memory almost a hundred years ago of the summer of 1914, just before the Guns of August, when Europeans reported one of their most pleasant summers ever, as though to drive home the stark horror of all that followed that beautiful summer.
I last wrote about September 11 two years ago, on the tenth anniversary, in Ephemera and Pseudo-Events, when I explored the nature of anniversaries as “pseudo-events” that are created by media participation. This year media participation seems pretty low key, making the anniversary perhaps less of a pseudo-event. Moreover, the anniversary of September 11 is also the anniversary of the coup that ousted Salvador Allende from power in Chile, and the news in the sources I read (I should mention that I don’t get my news from US sources) gave almost as much play to the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup as to the terrorist attacks on the US.
September 11 not only marked a turning point for US geopolitical involvement in the world in the post-Cold War era, it also marked a decisive turning point in the narrative by which we understand these events and their place in history. New terms and political catch-phrases entered our vocabulary and were relentlessly repeated by media outlets until they became meaningless almost as rapidly as they were introduced. A lot can happen in a dozen years — three or four presidents, for example, though in fact the post-9/11 political environment has yielded only two.
As rapidly as events occurred in the wake of September 11, events have continued to succeed each other with astonishing rapidity, and for all the day-to-day continuity that one experiences when swimming in the ocean of history, we can already begin to see the dissolution of the political patterns of the first decade of the 21st century and the emergence of patterns that will define the second decade of the 21st century. The US has sought to execute a “strategic pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region, even as the apparent clarity of purpose in Afghanistan and Iraq yield to the irremediable ambiguities of Libya and Syria.
It is a worthwhile thought experiment to attempt to see one’s own time in historical perspective, but this is admittedly very difficult. As I noted above, the onward rush of events in the present does not allow us to lose sight of the continuity of history, but we know that when we look back on previous centuries (which is itself an arbitrary historical periodization) we tend to break up the centuries into decades and make sweeping generalizations about each decade (perhaps an even more arbitrary historical periodization) as though each were lived separately, in isolation from the decade immediately preceding and immediately following.
What will be said, a hundred years from now (or five hundred years from now), about the first two decades of the twenty-first century? How will they be compared and contrasted in university examinations? What will our descendents say about how we lived, and how different it was to be alive in 2013 as compared to 2003? One obvious narrative structure would be to consign US political history to the presidents in office, so that the first decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Bush years, defined by 9/11 and the response thereto, while the second decade of the twenty-first century will be thought of as the Obama years, when Americans wanted to distance themselves from the radical democratization initiatives of the Bush years and return to a more traditional isolationist stance in relation to the larger world.
This is one particularly obvious narrative, but one of the things that makes it obvious is its traditionalist focus on political leaders and military engagements — the dreaded grammar-school triumvirate of “names, dates, places” — whereas historiography has turned decisively away from top-down narratives in favor of bottom-up narratives that focus on the ordinary lives of ordinary people. But who is ordinary? In the context of the succession of presidents, any one president is ordinary, so context must be taken into account.
How could we arrive at a bottom-up narrative structure for contemporary history since the end of the Cold War? Or must we change our perspective even more, acknowledging that on the micro-historical level things change little and slowly, so that periodizations must look to macro-historical forces and structures that are so much larger than the Cold War, and what preceded and followed it, that such events barely register in the lives of ordinary individuals? In this context, what would seem to matter is the slow erosion of the position of the middle class, widening income disparity (just yesterday it was reported that US income inequality at record high), and the large-scale change in the structure of the labor market influencing the kind of jobs that are available, how much they pay, and how long they last.
Of course, no one is going to be satisfied with any one narrative or another exclusively. Part of the complexity of history is the collision of competing narratives. While in the history text books one narrative may triumph to the exclusion of others, the conflict from which the triumph emerges inevitably alters the triumphant narrative so that it becomes a kind of synthesis of the trends of the age.
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6 August 2013
It is time again for the annual “state of the union” message for the Taliban, which is Mullah Mohammad Omar’s Eid al-Fitr address, or, as it is otherwise known, “Message of Felicitation of Amir-ul-Momineen (May Allah protect him) on the Occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr.” With the US set for a complete pull out of Afghanistan in 2014, and the world’s attention at the moment focused on the closure of US embassies throughout the Middle East and North Africa (which I have noticed now sometimes are referred to by the acronym “MENA”) due to an al Qaeda threat, Mullah Mohammed Omar’s annual statement did not have a very high profile this year, but I find it instructive to review these statements carefully for signs of development in the Taliban’s position, their own self-assessment, and the Taliban view on Afghanistan, which they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
For ease of reference, here are my past posts of Mullah Omar’s past statements:
● The Graveyard of Empires (2009)
Many of the themes of this year’s address are continuous with past addresses. There is a recounting of the successes of the Taliban, and exhortation to continued struggle, condemnation of espionage, affirmation of the need of Afghans to be educated, and a short sketch of the future of Afghanistan as envisioned by the Taliban. All of this is familiar territory.
Among the standard “boilerplate” language of any public Taliban statement are always expressions of solidarity with the global Ummah, and this year’s address includes references to “the oppressed and believing people of Syria and Egypt.” However, the Taliban are primarily an Afghani organization and seem to have no internationalist Jihadist ambitions. The expressions of global solidarity with oppressed Muslims everywhere are pro forma declarations of Islamic unity on the occasion of a celebration common to all Muslims.
The central theme of this year’s statement is Afghan national unity. This is expressed throughout the document in many different ways. Mullah Omar (or, at least, his translators) employ the awkward locution “Afghanhood,” as in, “Those patriotic Afghans who detest the (foreign) occupation and de facto oppose the presence of the invaders… we appreciate their emotions of Afghanhood.” It would be an interesting inquiry to attempt to determine the exact emotions that coincide with Afghanhood, though I assume that it is here intended to mean something like patriotic emotions.
Another expression of national unity in the form of territorial integrity is this: “…we will not allow anyone to succeed in the wicked plan for disintegration of the country or to divide our country under geographical locations and ethnicity denominations.” Mullah Omar also rejects any sociological division among Afghans, of the sort one finds in policy analysis: “The categorization of hard line and moderate Mujahideen is a futile and hostile classification worked out by you and your hirelings. All Mujahideen are followers of the sacred religion of Islam. They have a unified, moderate and clear policy.”
Mullah Omar is especially insistent upon the idea that a future government of Afghanistan after the end of the occupation will be a government of national unity: “I reiterate once again that we do not think of monopolizing power.” And again: “We have already said that the Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power. Rather we believe in reaching understanding with the Afghans regarding an Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles.” There is even a passage that explains why Afghan national unity will be possible following the end of the occupation: “When the occupation ends, reaching an understanding with the Afghans will not be a hard task because, by adhering to and having common principles and culture, the Afghans understand each other better. ”
Mullah Omar also denies that there will be any score-settling when the Taliban come into power: “I assure all, no personal revenge will be taken on any one following the end of occupation because our struggle is neither for achievement of personal gains nor personal power.”
The appeal to Afghan national unity and even to “Afghanhood” is problematic. I might even say, “problematic in the extreme.” Elsewhere I have argued that the mountainous territory of Afghanistan is what is left over in Central Asia once everything else has plausibly been included in a nation-state. The settled agriculturalism from which the nation-state descends in a direct historical line has chosen mountains or oceans as its preferred borders, as these are believed to be impenetrable, and peoples who rejected the life of settled agriculturalism retreated to the mountains to retain their ancient ways unchanged and occasionally to raid the wealthier peoples of the lowlands.
Attempting to assemble a nation-state from tribal peoples distributed over mountainous territory is akin to herding cats. Moreover, the very idea of nationalism and national identity is a relic of Western European political thought. In this current address Mullah Omar takes a swipe at colonialism, as he has in past addresses. (“We will maintain good relations with all those who respect Afghanistan as an independent Islamic country and their relations and interactions are not domineering and colonial, whether they are the world powers or the neighbors or any other country of the world.”) Yet conceptualizing Afghanistan in terms of patriotic feelings directed toward a unified nation-state is essentially a colonization of the mind: Omar here accepts that categories of Western political thought, and attempts to graph them on to Afghanistan.
The question posed by this interior colonization of Taliban thought by Western political ideas and ideals is whether Mullah Mohammed Omar really believes in Afghan national unity, or if he is just saying it. There is no clear evidence on either side of this question as far as I can discern. It is obvious in all of Mullah Omar’s statements that much of the language is there for purposes of display, and that the Taliban and their sympathizers have no intention whatsoever of abiding by it should they come to power. But the idea of nationalism, and of national unity as a focus of a people, is a powerful idea — an idea so powerful it nearly destroyed Europe, and now this destructive idea is making its round of the globe and convincing people who not only do not identify with the West, but who see themselves as sworn enemies of the West.
There is no more insidious colonization than that colonization of the mind that is believed to be a form of liberation by those who believe they have seen the truth and need to convince and convert others. Mullah Omar rejects colonization in the form of exterior occupation of Afghan lands by an infidel force, but he appears to embrace the interior colonization of the Afghan mind by Western ideas. I think that he will have more trouble than he realizes when, in the future, he attempts to realize this ideal of national unity on Afghan soil after the end of the occupation. It will be easy to obtain the cooperation of peoples throughout Afghanistan in expelling American forces and American influences, but it will be much more difficult, once the invaders are gone, to find any remaining Afghan national idea to unify the people. The attempt at unity will be made, and it is likely to be violent, but it is not likely to be successful.
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The full and unedited text of Mullah Omar’s statement is copied below. I have taken it from the English language website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
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Message of Felicitation of Amir-ul-Momineen (May Allah protect him) on the Occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr
In the Name of Allah, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful
All praise be to Allah. We praise Him and seek His help and forgiveness. We also seek His refuge from the evils of our inner selves and from our wicked deeds. Whoever is guided by Allah, there is none to mislead him and whoever is left by Allah in error, there will be none as guide for him (except Allah).
I testify there is no god but Allah. Alone is He and has no associate and I testify that Mohammad (peace be upon him) is his Servant and Messenger.
Having said that, I proceed and seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the rejected one.
“Allah has promised those of you who believe and do good works to make them successors on the earth as He had made successors those who were before them and that He will surely grant them authority to practice their religion that He has chosen for them and to change their fear to safety. Let them worship me and associate not anything with me. Those who disbelieve after this, they are the wicked” (24:55)
To the Mujahid people of Afghanistan and All Islamic Ummah:
Asalamu Alaikum WA Rahmatullah wa Barakatuh.
Peace be on you and Mercy of Allah and His Blessing.
I extend my felicitation to you all for the great bliss and festivity for your having performed the great obligation of the holy month of Ramadan and that you are now in the auspicious days of Eid-ul-Fitre. I pray to Almighty Allah to accept in His Sight, the Jihad, fasting, worship and charities of all Muslims. May you have a prosperous life and success! Similarly, I congratulate the Afghan Mujahid people and all oppressed Ummah for the great victories achieved by Mujahideen in the field of Jihad with the help of Allah (SwT) and through unparalleled sacrifices, martyrdom-seeking operations and struggle which have practically forced the invaders to take to fleeing in a manner being unprecedented.
I would like to thank the Afghan Mujahid and freedom-loving people for their continuous and comprehensive assistance with the Mujahideen against the invaders and hope that they will, shoulder to shoulder with the Mujahideen, increase their assistance in the cause of independence. I pray to Allah (SwT) to bring to an end, the sufferings and miserability of the Muslims both in Afghanistan and in the entire world, particularly, may Allah save the oppressed and believing people of Syria and Egypt who spent the (whole) month of Ramadan under beating, bloodbath, arrest and torture in squares, prisons and hospitals. May Allah be their helper and grant them glory and (aptitude of) excellent planning. May Allah save all Mujahideen from overt and covert conspiracies of enemies and may Allah, the Almighty, heal the injured believers, and may through His grace and blessing usher in means for release of the detainees.
The current jihad in Afghanistan is continuing with great success. Many areas of the country have been liberated from the grips of the invading usurpers during the sacred operations of this year under the name of Khalid bin Walid (RA). (Military) centers of the enemy in different areas of the country have fallen which before this, were considered unconquerable. With the help of Allah (SwT), the military power, morale, pride and arrogance of the enemy have received heavy thrashing. They are now on the threshold of collapse. The Almighty Allah says: “Their multitude shall be routed and they will turn their backs” (54:45)
Another good news is that the Mujahideen have been waging their struggle against the enemy in all provinces of Afghanistan like brothers under a sole leadership and flag. The Jihadic movement gains momentum with the passage of each day. In addition to the military field, Mujahideen increasingly obtain new experience of work and success in political, cultural, economical, administrative and allurement fields. A spirit of reform, dedication, cooperation and obedience gains strength ever more.
(My) believing Countrymen and Mujahid Brothers!
You know that our country is passing through a critical phase. The enemies who have been beaten in the past twelve years are unleashing new conspiracies and launching new plans. We are on our guard as to their conspiracies. We believe that only an Islamic, just, independent and all Afghan-inclusive system can bring well-being and prosperity to our countrymen.
With the support of our people, we will not allow anyone to succeed in the wicked plan for disintegration of the country or to divide our country under geographical locations and ethnicity denominations. Our pious people consider it their responsibility to build their common home and defend its every inch. Similarly, they consider it their religious obligation to maintain internal unity and give support to their Mujahid brothers. They also believe that obtainment of freedom and independence is their legitimate right.
As to the deceiving drama under the name of elections 2014, our pious people will not tire themselves out, nor will they participate in it.
Our pious and Mujahid people know that selection, de facto, takes place in Washington. These nominal rulers are not elected through the ballots of the people. Rather they are selected as per the discretion of Washington! Participation in such elections is only a waste of time, nothing more.
I urge all Afghans who perform duties in the ranks of the enemy to turn barrels of their guns against the infidel invaders and their allies instead of martyring their Muslim Afghans. We have always given a hero welcome to these young fighters and, on the basis of fraternity, we welcome everyone who leaves the rank of the enemy and comes over to his Mujahid people.
My brotherly request from those who say they are committed to Islam and Jihad but still carry out maligning campaign against Mujahideen, spreading hypocrisy, doubts and mistrust, using their tongues and pens against their Muslims brothers instead of the unbelievers, is to desist from such futile and sabotage activities. These activities only expose their selfish and naïve character, nothing more than that. Unequivocally, it makes their burden of sin heavier.
Those patriotic Afghans who detest the (foreign) occupation and de facto oppose the presence of the invaders, though far-off they may be from us in distance, we appreciate their emotions of Afghanhood. I assure all, no personal revenge will be taken on any one following the end of occupation because our struggle is neither for achievement of personal gains nor personal power.
Public of the World and Countrymen!
I would like to opine about a future Afghanistan. An Islamic system and complete independence are values, which we are not willing to strike a deal on them with anyone. The Afghan people have rendered great sacrifices for the said two values both in the past and the contemporary history. Their country has been destroyed for the sake of these values and millions of them have been martyred. After all these, they should be left to form an independent Islamic system as per their aspirations.
As to the management of internal system and rehabilitation, we believe, that there is no remedy to alleviate the pains of the Afghans except the remedy of an Islamic system based on transparency and commitment, in which all Afghans will see their full participation. Instead of reliance on foreign assistance and skills, the Afghans should qualify themselves and serve their country by utilizing their own resources. In the same sense, in order to protect ourselves from scarcity and hardships, our young generations should arm themselves with religious and modern educations because modern education is a fundamental need of every society in the present time.
I reiterate once again that we do not think of monopolizing power. Those who truly loves Islam and the country and has commitment to both, whoever they may be or whichever ethnicity or geographical location they hail from, this homeland is theirs. None can prevent them from serving their homeland. We assure them that, we, together and through joint efforts, will serve our homeland. We consider as our brother and give him a welcome whoever openly expresses regret about his support for occupation.
As to the foreign policy, our fundamental principle according to our unchanging policy is that we do not intend to harm anyone, nor we allow anyone to harm others from our soil. Similarly, we can’t tolerate any harm from others. We will maintain good relations with all those who respect Afghanistan as an independent Islamic country and their relations and interactions are not domineering and colonial, whether they are the world powers or the neighbors or any other country of the world. It is to be said that we have mentioned this point in our previous messages and have conveyed to all people of the world through the Political Office.
The aim of our contacts and talks with the invaders which are conducted through the Political Office is to put an end to occupation of Afghanistan. No one should perceive that the Mujahideen will relinquish of their lofty religious principles and national interests. I assure you that I will not reach any illegitimate compromise or unlawful deal. Praise be to Allah (SwT), the Islamic Emirate has the honor of having stood up to ups and downs of many tribulations and trials. I ask Allah (SwT) to keep us straight on His way in the time to come as well.
The developments following the opening of the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate proved that Islamic Emirate is independent, strong and unwavering in its decisions. It was also proved that the Islamic Emirate has shown and is showing honesty and commitment to resolve problems of its oppressed people in the light of Islamic principles and national interests. But the invaders and their allies are creating obstacles in the way of resolving problems by making various pretexts.
We have already said that the Islamic Emirate does not think of monopolizing power. Rather we believe in reaching understanding with the Afghans regarding an Afghan-inclusive government based on Islamic principles. Of course, the Islamic Emirate considers it its religious and national obligation to liberate the country from the occupation. When the occupation ends, reaching an understanding with the Afghans will not be a hard task because, by adhering to and having common principles and culture, the Afghans understand each other better.
The occupying countries should learn from the bitter experiences of the past twelve years. They should not try their fate once more by prolonging the occupation or by establishing permanent bases. In the same vein, they should not let themselves to be deceived by the futile and baseless promises of the Kabul powerless administration. Their domestic allies and hirelings, who had, at the beginning of the invasion, described Afghanistan as being a ready-made soft loaf of bread, now want once again the occupation to prolong and military presence to continue in order to ensure their power and personal interests.
The Western invaders should have come around by now to realize that the Afghans do not want foreign invaders and their installed rulers. If they think that they can pave the way for a permanent (military) presence by resorting to misinformation and gimmicks and by implementing different schemes or in their words, convening a fake Loya Jirga for approval of the security agreement or by creating other pretexts, they are wrong. The Afghans consider the presence of small number of invading troops as an encroachment against their independence as they are not willing to accept presence of thousands of foreign troops. The invaders also should not nurture the idea that the chiefs and common Mujahideen of the resistance of the Islamic Emirate will disband their legitimate struggle because of the invaders promises, material privileges, and personal security and government slots while occupation is in place. The categorization of hard line and moderate Mujahideen is a futile and hostile classification worked out by you and your hirelings. All Mujahideen are followers of the sacred religion of Islam. They have a unified, moderate and clear policy.
“And thus we have made you a nation justly balanced so that you may testify against mankind and that your own messenger may testify against you” (2:143)
About the work of international humanitarian organizations, I would like to say that every humanitarian organization which keeps away from political and espionage motives and which is not established by the invaders for the purpose of collecting intelligence or inviting people to non-Islamic ways, it can carry out its selfless activities in areas under our control on the basis of our conditions and policy and in coordination with the relevant commissions, whether they are working in the health sector or in the refugees or in food supply sectors or any other sector.
To end, I urge the public of the world, particularly, the Islamic countries and those countries and people who love justice, the international and Islamic societies to give all-sided assistance to the oppressed Afghan people in the cause of their independence on the basis of humanitarian sympathy and Islamic fraternity. I thank them for their efforts made for the Afghan people in the way of their independence.
I would like to remind the Mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate to further focus on implementation of the by-laws, the instructions of the leadership of the Islamic Emirate and perfectly obey your chiefs. Strength of array (a group) lies in unity. Real unity comes from obedience. So maintain your ranks united by obeying (your superiors).
Manage affairs of the areas cleansed from the presence of the enemy or are being cleansed, with the help and counsel of religious scholars and (local) elders. Those people who harm the commoners by misusing the name of Mujahid or kidnap people for ransom or follow personal goals under the name of Jihad, they are neither Mujahideen nor belong to the Islamic Emirate. I order the Mujahideen to block the way of activities of these tyrants if possible and increase efforts for prevention of civilian casualties and help the newly-founded office of the Islamic Emirate which has been established to prevent civilian casualties and present on ground facts to our people and the public of the world.
It is worth mentioning that the enemy has been spreading misinformation about civilian casualties. Some entities, who claim to be neutral, publish reports based on these distorted reports. In fact, civilian casualties are caused by the enemy itself. Occasionally, when a Mujahid is found being careless as regards the prevention of the civilians casualties, he must be referred to the leadership after identification for handing over to the judicial courts.
The Mujahideen should try to invite those in the Opposition side to the way of truth according to the policy of the Commission of Call, Guidance, Allurement and Absorption and split them from the Opposition side. Similarly, they should consider it their responsibility to serve the detainees and the injured according to the programs of the Detainees and Health Commissions. Moreover, the Mujahideen should pay necessary attention to the education of the new generations in accordance with the plan of the Education Commission so that our emerging generation will have both religious and modern education and serve their people and country as pious and professional Afghans.
The Islamic charity organizations and the wealthy brothers should help the Economic Commission in order to perform their obligation through financial jihad and satisfy the need of the Mujahideen. I call on the wealthy Muslims on this occasion of the auspicious day of Eid-ul-fitre not to forget the families of the martyrs, detainees, refugees and the poor to enable them to participate in the festivities of the Eid.
To end, I wholeheartedly thank all Muslims for their assistance given to the Mujahideen and for their prayers for Mujahideen and urge them to keep on.
Congratulation on Eid-ul-fitr once more. Wishing you independence and glory.
Peace be on you all.
Mullah Mohammad Omar Mujahid
Servant of Islam
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23 May 2013
Since when are there riots in Stockholm? Who could even imagine social unrest in Sweden, that classic example of successful welfare state socialism? Sweden the exemplar of progressive social policies? And then there is the old joke that America is the second most Americanized country in the world — after Sweden. What’s going on? What went wrong? Is the dream of the Scandinavian welfare state unraveling?
No one is innocent in this shocking episode, neither Sweden, nor the immigrant communities that have increasingly come to Sweden, taking advantage of its generous social welfare benefits and its open immigration policy.
Sweden’s self-image as a progressive society has led to its opening its doors to increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees, and Swedish society is in the process of being transformed as it attempts to assimilate these immigrants, who increasingly come from a profoundly different social, cultural, and ethnic context.
In the Wikipedia article Demographics of Sweden we read:
“According to Eurostat, in 2010, there were 1.33 million foreign-born residents in Sweden, corresponding to 14.3% of the total population. Of these, 859,000 (9.2%) were born outside the EU and 477,000 (5.1%) were born in another EU Member State.”
In other words, almost ten per cent of Sweden’s population comes from outside Europe. Ten per cent is enough of a population to make a real difference, especially if this ten per cent identifies with a different social, cultural, or ethnic tradition than that of its host country.
And again from Wikipedia:
The fastest growing groups of foreign-born residents in Sweden between 2011 and 2012 were the following nationalities:
Bosnia and Herzegovina (+2,458)
The issue of Muslim immigration into Europe has been discussed extensively, and usually in a highly politicized context. Muslim immigrants complain of discrimination while doing little to assimilate, while Europeans have expectations of immigrant assimilation while doing little to accommodate the profoundly different culture they have received into their midst.
So, it’s time for some blunt talk. State structures in the Middle East, where many Muslim immigrants originate, have always been weak. The institution of the nation-state has been imposed on the region by the international system, although it resonates but little with the peoples (i.e., the nations) whose interests these nation-state putatively represent. That is one reason (among many) that the region is torn by violence: state regimes in the region lack intrinsic legitimacy, so they cannot enforce an internal security regime.
The lack of a viable state or national identity in the Middle East has been compensated for by a strong sectarian identity. Muslims see themselves as part of the global Ummah, the global community of Muslims, and identify with this community more than their putative political community. When Muslims immigrate to Europe, they continue to identify with the Ummah and not with the nation-state to which they immigrate — just as they did at home.
The Europeans, on the other side, made it easy for immigrant peoples to retain their traditional identities rather than to attempt to assume a new social identity. For my American readers, it may perhaps be worth mentioning that Europe does not assimilate immigrants in the same way that the US does.
For all the US problems with immigration and social identity, it is virtually effortless to become an American. If you arrive in the US from another country, the day you step off the airplane you are a Swedish-American or a Somali-American or an Armenian-American, and so on. All you have to do is to speak English and call yourself a such-and-such-American, and it becomes true as soon as you say it. This is the ultimate political performative language (to borrow a term from J. L. Austin).
It is not so easy to become a European. In fact, it is almost impossible to become a European. If I were to move to Italy tomorrow, and stay there for the next thirty years (if I should live so long), at the end of thirty years I would still be an American living in Italy. I would not be an American-Italian. One cannot simply assume European identity in the way one can seamlessly assume and assert American identity.
We have already seen the results of these European-Muslim immigrant tensions in the riots in Paris and London. Now these tensions have reached as far north as Sweden. The same tensions exist in Sweden despite the efforts of the Swedes and their government to be tolerant, and this is partly the result of pure numbers: neither France nor the UK have an immigrant population of ten per cent from outside Europe, and if they did the problem would be even worse. It is probably more difficult to “become” a Frenchman or an Englishman than to be accepted as a Swede.
In the Financial Times article, Swedish riots spark soul-searching on immigration, we read the following:
The big problem in a suburb such as Husby, where immigrants represent about 80 per cent of the population, is unemployment, particularly among the young. Swedish youth unemployment stands at 25.1 per cent, about triple the level of overall joblessness. And much of that youth unemployment is concentrated among immigrants from countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Syria. “Sweden isn’t that different to other countries when it comes to problems of integration in larger cities where we have these suburbs with a lot of unemployment,” says Per Adman, an associate professor at Uppsala university. He points out that the media often refers to “unemployed young men” without specifying that they are predominantly immigrants.
It can be interpreted as an attempt to studiously avoid racial profiling to refuse to specify the differences within statistics between native-born Swedes and immigrants, and we often find this in the US media and police reports, in which one has to read between the lines to try to understand what is really going on. This is a strategy of tolerance that probably has limits. In so far as a democratic country relies on public education and accurate media reports for intelligent public policy discussion, even the best intended efforts to avoid the stigmatization of immigrants can result in false information and false public impressions that leads to a failure to engage with the problem as it is.
And it continues. After a fourth night of rioting, the BBC in Stockholm restaurant torched as riots spread reported:
Stockholm police spokesman Kjell Lindgren said the rioters were a “mixture of every kind of people”.
When does promoting the illusion of integration (such as citing a mixture of “every kind of people” involved in a riot in a neighborhood that is eighty per cent immigrant) contribute to the formation of a mendacious society that makes things worse instead of better? And one cannot appeal to a status quo to be restored, maintained, or achieved. Demographics tells us that populations change over time, and either you find a way to manage the change, or you succumb to chaos and social disintegration.
Riots in one of the most stable and tolerant societies on the planet is an unambiguous sign of social disintegration, though in the name of integration it will be called anything but this.
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Since writing the above yesterday the Swedish Minister for Integration, Erik Ullenhag, has issued an official statement about the rioting in stockholm, Minister for Integration Erik Ullenhag comments on the unrest in some Stockholm suburbs, which is interesting in several respect. The statement in its entirety is copied below.
Society must make it clear that it is never acceptable to burn cars or throw stones at the police. The people of Husby want a society where the rule of law prevails, they want to be able to feel safe and secure. We must remember, the cars that are burning do not belong to people who live in the centre of Stockholm, they belong to people who live in Husby.
In the short term, this is a matter for the police. In the long term, it is a matter of making a change for the better where people live, so that more children and young people can successfully complete school and more people get jobs.
What we are seeing are extreme, unusual events. But we need to be absolutely clear about one thing: we can never accept violence. Violence has a negative impact on social segregation. We know there is discrimination based on where people live, and these events do not improve the image of these residential areas, where there are plenty of positive things going on too. At the end of the day, what this is all about is that we must create a positive belief in the future in areas at risk.
And one positive thing is that civil society has taken to the streets. That adults in the community are helping to calm down the situation in these areas. The Government is not actively involved right now – this is a matter for the law enforcement authorities. But we are taking long-term action, for example by taking measures to increase the visible police presence.
This is a small group of individuals. They are young boys and men who are not representing the 15 percent of foreign born living in Sweden today. Several of them are known by the police and some of them don´t even live in the area where they now burn cars.
Swedish integration policy is now focusing on jobs and education. We can see that school results in some of these areas are bad. But we can also see that we have schools in these areas where the kids are working very hard and doing extremely well.
The minister here asserts that “The people of Husby want a society where the rule of law prevails,” but the problem here is that when the minister speaks of the “rule of law” he means the territorial principle in law which is now nearly universally adopted by nation-states, whereas the Muslim immigrants, is so far as they see their identity in terms of the global Muslim community, the Ummah, does not look to the state as a source of law, but to the traditional law associated with this identity, which is Sharia. In so far as those who understand their political identity in terms of the Ummah, distributed across many different nation-states, and in so far as they look to Sharia as the law of the Ummah, they implicitly understand the “rule of law” as the personal principle in law, i.e., that an individual be judged according to the law of their ethnic or sectarian community, and not in terms of a geographically defined nation-state. So while political representatives can use glittering generalities like “the rule of law” and “civil society,” they do not necessarily mean the same things when they use the same words.
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21 April 2013
How long does a weapons system last?
Recently I had a comment on my post The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier which started me thinking about the life span of weapons system. This is a surprisingly interesting way to think about weapons systems, which contextualizes them within the civilizations that design and build weapons systems.
I have approached this contextualization of weapons systems previously in several posts, as in The Nature of Viking Power Projection and The Byzantine Superweapon. A great many technological innovations and ideological assumptions are built into sophisticated weapons systems, and the most sophisticated among them require an entire civilization to design, build, and field them.
Contextualization can be take diachronically of synchroncially. If we contextualize a weapons system diachronically, we understand it in terms of its historical ancestors and successors, thinking in terms of the evolution of the weapons system in parallel to the socioeconomic system that makes it possible. If we contextualize a weapons system synchronically, we understand it in terms of the infrastructure and institutions (the technological and doctrinal context) that jointly make that weapons system possible, and make it what it is when brought to bear in armed conflict.
The life span of a weapons system is thus a diachronic historical inquiry, but it is only through a synchronic understanding that we see how the elements of a contemporary weapons system stands in relation not only to military function it is supposed to serve, but also in relation to the wider society and designs, builds, and operates the weapons system in question. As in all historical inquiry, the diachronic and synchronic perspectives are bound up in each other. Moreover, there is a parallel synchronic inquiry that would concern itself with the scope of application of a weapons system. This is a crucial and often-overlooked question, which we find we must asked ourselves when a political entity possesses a weapons system that it does not use when engaged in armed conflict. This is another sense of the “lifespan” of a weapons system.
To clarify our terminology we need to indulge in a little informal philosophical logic, since in this context the generality of our assertions will make an important difference. We have to be able to distinguish not only between weapons systems but also the fine gradations in the generations of weapons systems. The F-16 block 60 fighter aircraft operated by the UAE are a more advanced fighter aircraft than the F-16 block 50/52 operated by most USAF squadrons, but we would only distinguish them in a very fine-grained account of weapons systems.
The various “block” upgrades I will count as the “same” weapons systems, even when they have different capabilities, while I will count fourth generation fighter aircraft and fifth generation fighter aircraft as distinct weapons systems. Therefore the F-16 and the F-22 will count as different weapons systems. However, at a higher level of generality, the F-16 and the F-22, as both being supersonic fighter jets are, in a sense, the “same” weapons system. At an even higher level of generality, all fighter aircraft, from the Sopwith Camel to the F-22 are essentially the same weapons system: an aircraft mounting missile weapons to be employed in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.
All of these distinctions are useful, and we have to keep them in mind so that we avoid comparing apples to oranges and therefore avoid vitiating our point. Furthermore, we need to distinction between what I will call perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems.
● perennial weapons systems are weapons systems based on perennial technologies. A knife is a perennial weapons system. There will always be knives, pistols, and rifles. These are now perennial weapons systems. Similarly, there will always be missile weapons of some type, but this is already a move to a higher level of generality, since “missile weapons of some type” include pistols and rifles (and knives, too, when thrown). It is at least arguable that a perennial weapon is not really a weapons system, since perennial weapons in their stark simplicity may be found in isolation from a doctrinal or technological context, but in this case I don’t think that this distinction matters all that much, so I will allow myself the leeway to call perennial weapons “perennial weapons systems.” (Also note that the generalization of a the idea of a weapons system is distinct from the idea of perennial weapons systems.)
● sempiternal weapons systems are weapons systems that in their complexity transcend the simplicity and directness of perennial weapons systems. There is no clear dividing line between perennial weapons systems and sempiternal weapons systems, but I introduce the term “sempiternal” to imply that they are clearly invented at some point in time and, once invented, they are here to stay. It would be difficult to say at what time knives were invented, so knives are clearly perennial weapons systems — it is possible that a knife was the first stone tool produced by human ancestors. I count general categories of weapons systems (the highest level of generality mentioned above, that conflates the Sopwith Camel and the F-22) as sempiternal weapons systems: ships purpose-built for warfare, fixed wing fighter aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and so on. Once the idea of fighting from a flying platform was implemented, it is going to be with us as long as our civilization lasts. That makes such ideas and their implementations (which change radically over time) sempiternal.
● properties of weapons systems are distinct from general kinds of weapons systems, as in sempiternal weapons systems. Under a sufficiently general conception of a weapons system, Hittite chariot archers, Mongol horse archers, main battle tanks, aircraft carriers, and helicopter gunships all count as mobile fire weapons systems. Yet mobile fire is not itself a weapons system, but a property of some weapons system, a property that might be possessed to a greater or a lesser degree. An aircraft carrier is a mobile fire weapons system, but is much less mobile and much less maneuverable than a helicopter gunship. An arrow, a spear, and a knife when thrown are all examples of missile weapons; any of these missile weapons when employed from a mobile platform constitute mobile fire weapons systems, just as an Apache helicopter gunship constitutes a mobile fire weapons system, but all of these weapons systems are profoundly different each from the other.
Given these distinctions, it should be obvious that perennial weapons systems, sempiternal weapons systems, and properties of weapons systems have no life span: once they are introduced, they are with us forever. If some treaty establishes their abolition, we will still have the idea that such a thing is possible, and if it becomes seen as militarily necessary, they will be built regardless of treaties or abolition.
This is not true, however, at lower levels of generality than that contemplated by the bare idea of sempiternal weapons systems. There will always be missile weapons, but this is a highly general concept of a weapons system. In the same way that there will always be missile weapons, there will always be ships and submersibles, and there will always be aircraft. While there will always be fighter aircraft, particular generations of fighter aircraft become obsolete. No one would build a Sopwith Camel today for combat, although they might build one as a project of historical reconstruction (i.e., as an exercise in experimental archaeology).
What applies to generations of fighter aircraft also applies to generations of naval technologies. To take one example, no more ships of the line are built for contemporary navies (except to train cadets). In other words, the ship of the line, with multiple decks and multiple masts, optimized to fire the greatest number of cannon as broadsides against other ships of the line, is obsolete, were it was once the state of the art in naval architecture. The ship of the line had a definite life span, and that life span came to an end more than a century ago.
This post began as a response to my post on The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier, in which I speculated on the lifespan of fixed wing aircraft carriers and explicitly stated that no weapons systems will last forever; the aircraft carrier will eventually go the way of the ship of the line, but not until something better comes along. A comment was recently made that aircraft carriers may last another hundred years on the earth’s oceans, and I do not dispute this. Nevertheless, it is still a matter of time.
With the above distinctions in mind, I will revise this a bit, and assert instead that the aircraft carrier simpliciter is a sempiternal weapons system, and I acknowledged this implicitly in my earlier post when I stated that there will be helicopter carriers in the future, which are a kind of aircraft carrier, but once fixed wing hypersonic aircraft become a reality, and it is cheaper and more effective to base fighter aircraft deep within the home territory of a nation-state, given that hypersonic aircraft could show up anywhere in the world in less than an hour, then fixed wing aircraft carriers will become obsolete. But helicopters will continued to be needed on the battlefield, and they cannot be made hypersonic, so there will be a need for helicopter carriers beyond the time when fixed wing aircraft carriers have become obsolete. Also, since I have predicted that helicopter gunships have not yet been fully exploited on the battlefield, the future of helicopter carriers is bright; helicopters will be needed more than ever on the future battlefield.
The fixed wing aircraft carrier is not the only high technology weapons system the obsolescence of which can be projected. It could be argued that the life span of the land-based ICBM is essentially expired, given that precision weapons system and guidance systems have effectively rendered ICBM silos vulnerable. Even if no nation-state has chosen to build nuclear-tipped hypersonic precision-guided cruise missiles with the intent of neutralizing a ground-based ICBM threat, this is nevertheless clearly a weapons system that is within the capability of the advanced industrialized nation-states to build at the present time. (We have the idea of such a weapons system, and the idea cannot be banned or “unthought.”) Effective obsolescence, then, may be distinguished from obsolescence in fact.
On a level of greater generality — greater even than the generalization of all weapons systems — and therefore of even greater potential theoretical interest, it may be that in our own time that symmetrical conflict between peer or near-peer military powers has become obsolete. I don’t assert this with any dogmatic degree of confidence, and the coming century may yet see a peer-to-peer conflict in the Pacific if China is able to tool its industrial plant to the point of producing a rival carrier fleet to that of the US. Nevertheless, it is at least possible that peer-to-peer conflict has disappeared from the world, to be replaced by chronic, low-level insurgency and asymmetrical operations.
If we rigorously limited ourselves to a single level of generality (again, avoiding the comparison and apples and oranges) we could probably calculate for a given weapons system an average lifespan. If we could do this (i.e., if someone took the time to do this in a rigorous way) I will make a prediction about the lifespan of weapons systems:
Prediction: even as perennial weapons systems endure in their usefulness, the lifespan of large, technologically sophisticated weapons systems will gradually shrink in length unless industrial-technological civilization reaches a (near-)permanent plateau of development, spelling the end of the technological innovation that drives weapons systems development.
The ship of the line arguably endured for centuries as a viable weapons system. The ICBM seems to have lasted only about 50 years as a viable weapons system. Some high technology weapons system seem to be obsolete as soon as they are designed and being prepared for actual use. The most notorious examples of this would include the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer and the M247 Sergeant York self-propelled anti-aircraft gun.
The same forces that drive industrial-technological civilization forward — science creating technology engineered into industries creating new tools for science — also drive industrialized warfare forward, and as technology improves exponentially, weapons systems must also improve exponentially. This means shorter lifespans for the most advanced technological weapons systems, even as perennial weapons systems retain their efficacy in ongoing asymmetrical conflicts in which the full force of industrialized warfare cannot be brought to bear in any meaningful way.
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16 April 2013
The Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China has just released a white paper on China’s military posture, which can be read in its entirety online: The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. This document is remarkable not for its insights into Chinese strategic thinking or its application of Sun Tzu’s philosophy of war or even “strategy with Chinese characteristics” but only for its resemblance to military white papers from western nation-states, which idiom (and acronyms) it has thoroughly adopted.
This use of the idiom of contemporary western military professionalism is doubly interesting, since public statements of the Chinese government often continue to be jargon-laden pieces of communist theory — sometimes to the point of impenetrability. Some time ago in What is Strategic Trust? I mentioned an article in Foreign Policy by Isaac Stone Fish, Hu Jintao on China losing the culture wars, which very effectively poked fun at the irony of the Chinese leader’s formulaic use of communist nostrums in the attempt to urge his fellow Chinese to improve the quality of their cultural production.
It is precisely this absurd communist jargon that is missing from the just released report The Diversified Employment of China’s Armed Forces. Instead, the report indulges in the western parallel to this: the absurd jargon of western bureaucratic military jargon and acronyms. There is a pattern here of rigidly formulaic thinking. Of course, such patterns are to be found in the official documents of all nation-states, but the question is whether it is believed by those who use this language, or whether such language is used merely out of a misplaced sense of bureaucratic necessity.
It was interesting to note that the report mentions the “three evil forces” which have been a talking point for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and I recall when I last wrote about this I remarked on how the press releases of the SCO read like those of any western military exercise. And while the report mentions the three evil forces of “terrorism, separatism and extremism,” Tibet and Xinjiang, where the Chinese are most likely to encounter these forces, are only mentioned peripherally in this report (in relation to rivers and schools in the section titled “Participating in National Development”), as the Diaoyu Islands (which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands) are mentioned only once.
At the same time that the Chinese were releasing their official version of China’s military posture, Focus Taiwan published a short piece, China yet to deploy 094 sub, JL-2 & DF-41 missiles: security head, mostly about China’s failures to fulfill its military ambitions for weapons systems commensurate with the technologically advanced weapons systems of western nation-states. The article was concerned with the trouble China continues to have with their latest submarines and ICBMs.
It is easy to focus on Chinese ambitions to join the club of nation-states operating aircraft carriers or fifth generation fighters, but it is also important to recall that China has had difficulty in tooling its industries to design and build world-class weapons systems. The Chinese have long had difficulty building missile boats (as with the above-noted difficulties with the 094 Jin-Class submarine and the JL-2 ballistic missile), for example.
The Chinese still buy the jet engines for the most sophisticated fighter jets from Russia, which despite its decrepit communist economy was able to create and sustain an industrial plant nearly equal to that of western powers during the Cold War (including supersonic jet turbines and missile boats). This came at a price for the Soviet Union, of course, and it would come at a price for China. So is it the case that the Chinese are unwilling to pay the price for a world-class defense industry, or that they would be willing be to pay the price, but are simply unable, as yet, to design and build the hardware? It would take a China specialist to give a definitive answer to this question, but it is a crucial question, because to answer this question would be to determine whether China’s military posture is voluntary or involuntary.
If China’s present military posture really is voluntary, that means that China’s leadership really does believe in their own “peaceful rise” and in “strategic trust.” If, however, China’s present military posture is involuntary, forced upon it by circumstances beyond the control of China’s leadership, then that means that “peaceful rise” and “strategic trust” really are the formulaic platitudes that they appear to be. We must be prepared to entertain either of these hypotheses, as, at present, they are empirically equivalent theories.
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As Syria continues its slide from insurgency into civil war, and no one any longer expects the ruling Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to triumph, it is an appropriate moment in history to reflect upon the fall of tyrants and tyrannical regimes. Not that we haven’t had ample opportunity to do so in recent years. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and the fall of a series of Arab dictators in recent years has given us all much material for reflection (chronicled in posts such as Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny and Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation).
I have previously written about Syria in Things fall apart, Open Letter in the FT on Syria, The Structures of Autocratic Rule, and What will Assad do when he goes to Ground? Much more remains to be said, on Syria in particular and on the collapse of tyrants generally.
The obvious problems of governmental succession in Syria are already being discussed ad nauseam in the press. That there is trouble on the horizon is evident to all who carefully follow the developments of the region in which Syria is a central nation-state, bordering no fewer than five nation-states: Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. This centrality of Syria in a politically unstable region has led the surrounding regional powers to favor the devil they know rather than to chance the devil they know not. The ruling Alawite regime of Syria has been held in place not only by its own brutality, but also by the tacit consent of its neighbors. Now that the fall of the al-Assad dynasty is in sight, there are legitimate worries about the radicalization of the insurgents and the role of Islamist Jihadis in the insurgency. No one knows what will come out of this toxic stew, but it is likely to resemble a failed state even upon its inception.
At this moment in history, Syria is now the bellweather for the fall of tyrants, but Syria is only the current symptom of an ancient problem that goes back to the dawn of state power in human history. Since the earliest emergence of absolute state power in agricultural civilization, for the first time in human history sufficiently wealthy to support a standing army that could be employed by turns to oppress a tyrant’s own people or as an instrument to conquer and oppress other peoples, there has been a tension between the ability of absolute power to effectively exercise this absolute power to maintain itself in power and the ability of rivals or of subject peoples to wrest this power from the hands of absolute rulers and seize it for themselves.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the institutions of tyrannical political rule are not sustainable. Tyrannical rule may be sustainable for the life of a tyrant, or for a few generations of a dynasty established by a tyrant, but history teaches us that tyrannical longevity is the exception and not the rule. The more onerous the rule of the tyrant, the more other factions will risk to overthrow the tyrant. A tyrant who sufficiently modifies his tyranny until it is approximately representative is likely to last much longer in power, and over time approximates non-tyrannical rule. But if a tyrant simply cuts a few others in on the spoils, creating a tyrannical oligarchy, the same considerations apply. In the long term, only popular rule is sustainable.
But what does this mean to say that in the long term only popular rule is sustainable? The learned reader at this point in likely to begin a recitation of the failings of democracy, but I didn’t say that only democratic regimes persist. Unfortunately for most human beings throughout history, the fall of a tyrant has not resulted in democracy. The most vicious tyrannies call forth the most vicious elements in the population as the only agents willing to risk the overthrow of the tyrant, and so one tyrant is likely to be replaced by another. Even if a popular revolt and revulsion helped to topple the previous tyranny, the new tyranny reverts to perennial tyrannical form, and in so doing eventually alienates the popular movement that installed it in place of the previous tyranny.
This is a particular case of what I have called The Failure Cycle, since this pattern can be iterated. Much of human history has consisted of just such an iteration of petty tyrants, one following the other. That nothing is accomplished politically by the churning of tyrannical regimes should be obvious. There is no social evolution, no social growth, no strengthening of institutions that can provide continuity beyond the vagaries of personal rule.
Thus one consequence of the fact that only popular rule is sustainable is the possibility of an endless iteration of popular movements to overthrow serial tyranny, each tyrant in turn having been installed by a popular uprising. This constitutes a perverse kind of “popular” rule, though it is not often recognized as such or called as much.
Tyrannical regimes typically bend every effort in order to suppress, or at very least to delay, social change. The suppression and delay of social change means that societies laboring under tyrannical regimes — and especially those that have labored under a sequence of tyrannical regimes — have little opportunity to allow social change to come to maturity and for old institutions to be allowed to die while new institutions rise to take their place. Cynics will opine that there is no social evolution in human history, but I deny this. Social evolution is possible, if rare, but the conditions that lead to serial tyranny and serial popular uprisings are not conducive to the cultivation of social evolution.
It is the historical exception to interrupt this vicious cycle of serial tyranny and serial popular uprising, but it takes time for informal social institutions to reach the level of maturity that allows a popular uprising to install a genuine democracy instead of a tyrant who claims to be a democrat out of political expediency.
Homo non facit saltus. Man makes no leaps. We cannot skip a stage in our social evolution. We cannot impose democratic institutions, or freedom, or even prosperity. A people must come to it on their own, with the maturation of their native institutions, or not at all.
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11 January 2013
A couple of days ago in The Byzantine Superweapon, and again yesterday in Innovation, Stagnation, and Optimization, I discussed some of the forces that led to the technological stagnation of classical antiquity, which ensured that there would be no industrial revolution in the classical world. Western civilization had to pass through the painful contraction of political and economic collapse in Western Europe, and lose much of what it had struggled so hard to build, before it could get to the point at which the conditions were right (and ripe) for industrialization.
Now, the way that I have worded the above paragraph suggests a kind of historical inevitability, and this is philosophically objectionable. If one is going to make a claim of historical inevitability, one has an intellectual obligation to state this claim, and to defend it. However, I am not making such a claim, although my position could be interpreted as a weak form of historical inevitability.
What do I mean by “weak historical inevitability”? A strong formulation of historical inevitability would simply be a statement of determinism. A weak formulation of historical inevitably need make no metaphysical claims about determinism, but does acknowledge that, given the kind of civilization that characterized classical antiquity — settled, slave-holding, agrarianism — it would have been virtually impossible, or in any event extremely unlikely for technological innovation to escalate to the point of an industrial revolution. Before industrialization could occur, certain social changes must occur. But the “must” in the last sentence is not the “must” of necessity or determinism, but only a weaker “must” of the preponderance of the evidence. Call this a scientific must if you must, because it shares in the inductivism and revisability of all scientific thought.
In the same spirit of a scientific perspective on history, imbued with an empirical and inductive approach (rather than an a priori and deductive approach, in which “had to” and “must” carry connotations of metaphysical determinism, as in Marxism), there is another factor in the stalling and stagnation of ancient Western civilization that bears examination, and this relates to the geophysical structure of the Roman Empire, which represented classical antiquity at its greatest reach and its most robust iteration.
Of course, the study of the geography of political structures is the meat and potatoes of geopolitics, and I have written a good deal on geopolitics and geostrategy. But even though geopolitics represents a “big picture” and “long term” view on political structures, in the field of geophysics geopolitics is the shortest of short term perspectives. Those who take the longer view of human history and civilization in the context of geography — Jared Diamond is probably the most famous contemporary example of this — are frequently charged with “geographical determinism,” and while in some instances this may be true, but, as I noted above, we can adopt a weak sense of geographical inevitably and avoid all metaphysical determinism.
The geographical unity of the Roman Empire was primarily a function of the Mediterranean Sea, which was ringed by ports that connected the cities of the empire with water-borne commerce — at that time in history, the only form of commerce that could move mass quantities of goods. Maps of the Roman Empire show it surrounding the Mediterranean. After the collapse of Roman power in the West, Western civilization moved inland and approximated pure agriculturalism until expanding again across the North Atlantic and new and larger geographical unity based on water-borne commerce.
During its medieval phase, and carried over into continental politics during the modern period, Western civilization gave rise to no durable empire on the scale of the Roman Empire. The European peninsula is too geographically divided by rivers and mountain ranges to posses the kind of geographical unity the Roman Empire had in virtue of the Mediterranean. George Friedman and Strategic Forecasting often argues in this vein, and in this I think he is right. Friedman has also pointed out that, geopolitically, China is an island. Separated from the rest of the world by deserts, mountain ranges, and the ocean, the traditional unity of Chinese civilization derives from this insular geography. The only people who penetrated the fastness of China were the Mongols; the Chinese themselves did not engage in successful power projection, but spent most of the history warring with each other to determine who would rule the geographical unity of China.
The same geographical divisions of Europe that led to a plethora of petty kingdoms, states, statelets, principalities, and city-states led to ideological, political, economic, and even aesthetic diversity by way of the cultural equivalent of allopatric speciation. In other words, civilization speciated rapidly on the European peninsula. Political and ideological diversity meant a history of continuous conflict, which was at times was ruinous, but at other times had the remarkable quality of competitive government, so that a variety of diverse candidates for political leadership contested with each other to demonstrate (usually militarily) who could provide the best rule. The brilliance of the Italian renaissance is sometimes credited — rightly, in my view — to the competition among principalities on the Italian peninsula.
The Roman Empire, possessing the geographical unity of the Mediterranean — similar in a certain sense to the insularity of Chinese civilization and its series of empires — did not benefit from competitive government. It became, in contrast, a political monoculture that iterated itself around the Mediterranean basin and penetrated as far inland was travel by road was practicable. Instead of competition, the Roman Empire bestowed peace — the Pax Romana.
In this context, the Pax Romana could be understood as a cause, if not the cause, of the decline of classical antiquity, for without the continual pressure of war there was no need reason to systematically harness science, technology, and engineering to practical ends, and these pursuits remained an elite preoccupation of a handful of privileged and relatively isolated individuals.
By contrast, the continual (internal) warfare of medieval Europe eventually gave birth to the scientific revolution even before the industrial revolution made the application of science to technology systematic.
Universal empire — as in Rome or China — leaves peoples with a choice between civilization and barbarism, whereas competing political entities offer peoples a choice between different representatives of a particular tradition of civilization.
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12 November 2012
It has become one of the most familiar complaints today on the US political scene that the political system of the US is mired in permanent gridlock. Nothing gets done because the people are divided and vote into office individuals with vastly differing agendas; the two-party system ensures that the two parties are always at each others’ throats, vying for money, votes, and influence; the corrupting influence of money in the political process has meant that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence upon public policy; the never ending stream of laws and rules and regulations that issue from the Capitol mean that no business has a stable operating environment, hence tremendous amounts of money are spent by industry in lobbying the government to get the regulations it prefers. Nothing gets done, is the complaint. What this complaint really amounts to it this: the government doesn’t get anything done. But, really, should we count on the government to get anything done? Do we want the government to have to power to efficiently put its plans into practice?
I‘ve got news for the complainers: the US political system was designed for gridlock; it’s supposed to be that way. The checks and balances that constitute the US political system were intended to prevent the government from functioning efficiently. Tyrannies function efficiently, but that isn’t a model for any government to follow. However, tyrannies often can point to dramatic short term achievements — Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet economy in the 1930s when Western countries were mired in depression, and Hitler’s regimentation of Germany after the chaos of the Wiemar Republic — and as a result of these short-term, unsustainable accomplishments there have been many commentators in democratic countries who have looked with envious eyes at the accomplishments of dictators and tyrants (as today they look east with obvious China Envy).
I have written several posts in which I have attempted to frame the US political system in the context from which it derives historically: as an explicit and systematic manifestation of Enlightenment political thought (cf. From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), deeply indebted to Montesquieu, Locke, and Hume, and itself a reaction against extreme statist philosophies of the early modern period such as that of Hobbes as well as a reaction against the excesses of the religious wars in Europe following the Reformation (cf. The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins). Since much of this historical context has been lost, and Americans are famously unconcerned about history (Henry Ford said “History is bunk”), Americans by and large, including American political leaders, have little idea what their country is about (i.e., what the Framers were trying to do) and many Americans are openly hostile to Enlightenment political ideas and ideals.
Because of the relative absence of Enlightenment ideals in contemporary political discourse, we have instead the vulgar “ideals” that have emerged in the meantime: celebrity, wealth and its conspicuous consumption, temporary political triumphs of the “zero sum” sort, and the ephemeral (but perennially attractive) blandishments of a youth culture that celebrates a Dionysian frenzy of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (which, these days, is less about rock-n-roll and more about rave, industrial, trance, techno, and the like). Anyone can realistically aspire to these ideals, and many in fact do, but the ideals of contemporary mass consumer society, like any ideals, have their disappointments. In the US today anyone has a great deal of freedom to live as they like, but you cannot have any impact on contemporary events unless you have money, fame, or connections — preferably all three, but a sufficient quantity of any one of these usually translates into the other (which Joseph Fouche of the now-defunct blog Committee of Public Safety characterized as “all power is fungible”).
Being anonymous or poor in a world in which fame and money are the currency of effective action means being denied the possibility of effective action. This is one source among many of the feeling of alienation that is so common in industrialized society — the feeling of being a powerless cog in an enormous and uncaring machine. (I wrote about this in Fear of the Future.) In such a society, the entire life of an anonymous individual is reduced to the liberty of indifference, which is better than no liberty at all, but not the role in which most individuals see themselves.
One way to address the disaffection and alienation of anonymity in industrialized society is to make individuals feel a genuine part of mass social movements. This is the path of totalitarianism, which, like earlier forms of tyranny and dictatorship, is not sustainable. However, at a much attenuated level, there any many people in the US political system who look to the president to “lead” and are frustrated when little effective leadership is forthcoming. I suppose that there are many people who intuitively feel (even if they would not state it in these terms) that the US President represents what Rousseau called the “general will” as opposed to the mere “will of all” and that it is the responsibility of the President to lead in accordance with the general will and for the people to follow in the same spirit.
In recent history, nation-states have in fact been at the vanguard of the greatest undertakings of human beings, not least because nation-states have the resources at their command that make it possible to undertake expensive and difficult enterprises like mass warfare and space travel. If some other political paradigm (other than the nation-state, that is) prevailed in the present, then that institution would have the resources to undertake great enterprises. The important thing to keep in mind here is that there is nothing that is necessary about the predominance of the nation-state in human affairs, or indeed even the predominance of some political institution.
FDR and Keynes, each in their very different ways, contributed to a climate of opinion in which the nation-state is the locus of human action, shifting the perception of the power and agency of the state as something distant and relatively unimportant to being the central fact in the lives of industrialized masses. FDR greater expanded the scope and role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary US citizens, and Keynes formulated the economic doctrine that the state had an obligation to insert itself into the economy, no matter how disastrously many of these interventions turned out to be. These foundational developments, along with a string of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made a mockery of the Bill of Rights, have consolidated the nation-state as the central power in the lives of US citizens, even if no one knows what that nation-state is supposed to represent.
The idea that the initiatives that move history forward will be government initiatives is fundamentally flawed, and, since it is fundamentally flawed, in the fullness of time it will reveal itself as flawed through the bitter disappoints that it delivers to its true believers. In the meantime, however, there is so much momentum behind the idea of the nation-state and its centrality in the life of peoples that its less-than-optimal performance will be sustained by this momentum for quite some time to come. There will be plenty of blame to spread around to a wide variety of targets before people will come to realize that the nation-state, even in its most intrusive nanny state incarnation, is not going to come and hand you a wonderful life on a silver platter.
Individuals will ultimately be the agents that move history forward. We must look to ourselves to become such individuals that are capable of moving history forward despite the best efforts of officials and bureaucrats and functionaries who presume to speak on our behalf. We need only stop believing in their pronouncements in order to begin the process of freeing ourselves from the the grip of statist omnipotence.
It is a good thing that the US government should be systematically stymied in any grand initiatives it might undertake; I don’t think that many people would enjoy living in the world that would result for the efficacious prosecution of the government’s grand plans for our future. The twentieth century provided us to all too many examples of utopian ideals, which, when put into practice, issued in dystopian realities. (cf. Addendum on Unintended Consequences) I remain hopeful in proportion as the government is weakened by its own infighting.
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