26 November 2012
In The Industrial-Technological Thesis I characterized industrial-technological civilization as involving an escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering, each generation of which feeds into the next so that science makes new technologies possible, new technologies are engineered into new industries, and new industries create the instruments for further scientific research. I further argued in Civilization, War, and Industrial Technology that the only property more pervasively inherent in industrial-technological civilization than escalating feedback is war — since escalating feedback is characteristic only of The Industrial-Technological Thesis, whereas war typifies all civilization. Thus technological growth and war are both structurally inherent in The Industrial-Technological Thesis, so much so that to entertain the idea of civilization without either is probably folly.
Now I realize that in recounting the escalating spiral of science, technology and engineering, that I was recounting only the “creative” side of the “creative destruction” of industrialized capitalism, and that the creative destruction of capitalism as it is played out in industrial-technological civilization also has a destructive side that is expressed in a way entirely consonant with the distinctive character of industrial-technological civilization. Each phase in the cycle of science, technology, and engineering fails in a distinctive (and in a distinctively interesting) way.
The counter-cyclical trend to that of the exponentially escalating spiral of science, technology, and engineering is the exponentially deescalating downward trend of science in model crisis, stalled technology, and catastrophic failures of engineering. Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science. Human beings, being what they are, have invested science with the “truth” once reserved for matter theological; but science has no “truths” — there is only the scientific method, which remains the same even while the knowledge that this method yields is always subject to change. Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.
I hadn’t previously thought of these disruptions to industrial-technological civilization together, but now that I see them whole I see that I have already written separately about all the phases of failure that so closely parallel the successes of industrialization. Mostly, I think, these disruptions have taken place separately, and have therefore only proved to be temporary disruptions in the rapidly-resuming cycle of technological growth. However, once we see the possible failures as a systemic, counter-cyclical trend that destroys old knowledge, old technology, and old industries in order to make room for the new, we can easily see the possibility of an escalating disruption in which scientific model crisis would limit knowledge, limited knowledge would lead to long term stalled technologies, and stalled technologies would lead to escalating industrial accidents and complex catastrophic failures.
None of this, of course, is in the least bit surprising. Ever since the industrialized warfare of the twentieth century we have been discussing the possibility that industrial-technological civilization will more or less inevitably destroy itself. Civilization, when it was suddenly and unexpectedly preempted by industrialization, has opened Pandora’s box, and the evils that fly free cannot be shut back inside.
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22 October 2012
Waiting at the End of History
for the Coming of the Zero Hour
What does French literary criticism have to do with geopolitics, geostrategy, and far future scenarios of human civilization? Everything, as it turns out.
Roland Barthes wrote a book titled Writing Degree Zero; one could say that it is a work of literary criticism, but as with much sophisticated scholarship it is more than this. French literary criticism is not a scholarly undertaking for the faint at heart.
Barthes compares what he calls “writing degree zero” to the writing of a journalist; we can similarly compare history degree zero with the history found in journalism. In journalism, nothing ever happens, and at the same time something is always happening. It is the contemporary incarnation of the cyclical conception of history, in which nothing in essentials changes even while accidental change is the pervasive order of the day. (In Italy this is called “Gatopardismo.”) This is history reduced to white noise.
Here is Barthes’ own formulation of writing degree zero:
“Proportionately speaking, writing at the degree zero is basically in the indicative mood, or if you like, amodal; it would be accurate to say that it is a journalist’s writing. If it were not precisely the case that journalism develops, in general, optative or imperative (that is, emotive) forms. The new neutral writing takes place in the midst of all those ejaculations and judgments, without becoming involved in any of them; it consists precisely in their absence. But this absence is complete, it implies no refuge, no secret; one cannot therefore say that it is an impassive mode of writing; rather, that is is innocent.”
Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero, translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, New York: Hill and Wang, 1977 (originally published 1953), pp. 76-77
It has been said that Barthes’ book is parochial, and certainly his central concern is French literature, and the situation (or, if you prefer, the dilemma) of the French writer. Barthes was a man of his place and time, and the book sets itself questions that scarcely resonate in early twenty-first century America: How can writing be revolutionary? We’ve come a long way since 1968.
Barthes was clearly vexed that a lot of writing by professed communists was anything but revolutionary. It was, in fact — horror of horrors — bourgeois, and little better than shilling shockers, penny dreadfuls, and yellow journalism. Barthes, then, was asking how it was possible for someone with truly revolutionary ideas to write in a revolutionary manner.
One must recall that at this time there were two kinds of writers in France: communists who supported Stalin and made excuses for him, and communists who did not support Stalin and made no excuses for him. (If you have the chance, I urge you to see the wonderful film Red Kiss, which is a bit difficult to find, but worth the effort for its illustration of the period.) The most famous literary-intellectual-philosophical dispute of the time — that between Sartre and Camus — perfectly exemplified this. Camus, not one to make excuses for anyone, said he would be neither a victim nor an executioner. Sartre, after resisting the blandishments of communism for many years, eventually became the most unimaginative of communists, defended Stalin and Mao, and had his lackeys take Camus to task in print.
Barthes explicitly cites the style of Camus as embodying the qualities of writing of the zero degree, though I think that Barthes was so personally involved in the idea of literature that his identification of Camus as writing degree zero was not in any sense intended as a political slander — or, for that matter, as a literary slander. (I hope that more informed readers will correct me if I am wrong.)
Journalism, then, is historiography degree zero, and in so far as journalists produce (as they like to say) the first draft of history, and in so far as this first draft is subsequently iterated in later drafts of history, historiography more closely approximates the zero degree. (If you prefer reading sitreps to journalism — they’re pretty much the same thing — you can reformulate the preceding sentence.) And then again, in so far as mass journalism is consumed by a mass audience, and that mass audience goes on to create contemporary history, in a mass spectacle of life imitating art, history itself, and not merely the recounting of history in historiography, approaches the zero degree. The new neutral history — uninvolved, disengaged, absent — is the perfect characterization of the mass politics of mass man.
There are elections, there are debates, there is television news 24/7 and radio talk shows 24/7, there are still a few newspapers and magazines sacrificing dead trees, and there is of course the blogosphere resonating with the voices of the millions (like myself) who have no access to the media megaphone and who prefer the web to a soapbox. All of this feeds into the appearance that there is always something going on. But we know that almost nothing changes for all the sound and fury. It doesn’t really matter who wins the election, since the rich will still be rich and the poor will still be poor.
Have we already, then, reached history degree zero? Are we living at the end of history? Is this what the end of days looks like? Not quite. Not quite yet.
One of the most famous and familiar motifs of Marx’s thought is that history is driven by ideological conflict. It is a very Victorian, very Darwinian, very nineteenth century idea. History understood as an ideological conflict has characterized the modern period of Western history, even if it was not always obvious what people were fighting for. Sometimes it was obvious what men were fighting for, and this was especially true in the wake of revolutions: those who died to defend the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution knew, to some extent at least, what they were fighting for.
For Marx, the locomotive of history was the class struggle, and it was the nature of class struggle to erupt into revolutionary action. Revolutions, as I noted above, had the property of clarifying what it’s all about. You’re on one side of the barricades or the other. Marx was right to focus on revolutions, but wrong to focus on the class struggle.
We can arrive at a more satisfactory understanding of modern history if we take social class out of Marx’s class struggle and make the class a variable for which we can substitute any political entity whatsoever. Thus we arrive at a formal conception of political struggle: a social class can struggle against a nation-state; a nation-state can struggle against a royal family; a royal family can struggle against a city-state, and so on, and so forth.
The convergence of the international system on the model of the nation-state system has given us the appearance that nation-states struggle with nation-states, and as life has imitated art — in this case, the art of political thought — we have steadily been reduced to the monoculture of a single kind of political entity — nation-states — engaged in a single kind of struggle. Francis Fukuyama called this political system “liberal democracy” and this condition “the end of the history.” I guess one name is as good as any other name; I would call it political homogenization.
In many posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis (a thesis, I might add, heavily indebted to French scholarship, and especially to Alexandre Kojève’s reading of Hegel — note that Kojève was an acquaintance of Leo Strauss and his work was translated by Allen Bloom, noted literary critic and cranky academic who wrote The Closing of the American Mind). I have pointed out that, despite the many dismissive critiques of Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis, and claims of a “return of history,” that Fukuyama himself still holds a modified version of the thesis, and this is that contemporary liberal democratic society is the sole remaining viable form of political society (cf. Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics, in which I noted that Fukuyama is still thinking through his thesis twenty years on, as befits a philosopher).
As it turns out, there is a political level below that of the “end of history” and this is the absence of history — history degree zero.
A single remaining political ideology signifies History Degree One, and in the theater of political ideologies, liberal democracy is, for Fukuyama, the last man standing — but if this last man standing is a straw man, and we knock over this straw man, what then? If it can be shown that liberal democracy is a failure also, along with communism and fascism, nationalism and socialism, internationalism and fundamentalism, what comes next?
What then? Zero hour. History degree zero.
Even the end of history waits for further developments, and the future of the end of history is Zero Hour.
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23 July 2012
Even if you know what to look for, it is quite difficult to pick out the Urnes stave church from across the fjord at Solvorn, where a small ferry departs each hour on the hour to take tourists and a few cars and bicycles across Sognefjord over to the Urnes side (also spelled “Ornes”). Once across, you walk up the hill to the top of the village, and there sits the Urnes stave church among trees and the cultivated hillsides, just as it has been sitting for more then 800 years. This is the second time I have been to Urnes, and I was unable to see the stave church from across the fjord; perhaps if I had had binoculars I would have seen it, but it melds into the landscape from which it came.
Looking back to Solvorn from the top of the hill at Urnes, standing next to this ancient wooden structure, little changed from when it was built — Urnes is thought to be the oldest of the surviving stave churches, with timbers dating from 1129-1130 (thanks to dedrochronology) — it is very easy to imagine the villagers are Solvorn getting into the wooden boats, rowing across the fjord, and walking up the hill to attend services in their ancient church. We often hear the phrase “time stands still” — at Urnes, you can stand still along with time for a few moments. Here, history has been paused.
In so saying that history is paused at Urnes I am reminded of a passage from Rembrandt and Spinoza by Leo Balet, which I quoted previously in Capturing the Moment:
“In those of his portraits where the portrayed is not acting, but just resting, pausing, we get the feeling that the resting continues, that it is a resting with duration, a resting, thus, in time; in those pictures we are closer to life than in the portraits where just the breaking off of the action makes us so vividly aware that his whole action was make-believe.”
Leo Balet, Rembrandt and Spinoza, p. 184
Balet here frames his thesis in terms of portraiture, but the same might be said of a photograph or a sculpture — or even of a place that changes but little over the years. Urnes is such a place, and, in fact, there are many such places in Norway. Yesterday in A Wittgensteinian Pilgrimage I noted how Wittgenstein’s correspondents in Skjolden often closed their letters with, “All is as before here” (“Her er det som før”). in Skjolden, too, time is paused.
Similarly, the busyness of the world appears to us as mere make-believe when seen from the perennial perspective of unchanging continuity in time. Our hurried and harassed lives seem mindless and perhaps a bit comical when compared to forms of life that endure — or, to put it otherwise, compared to modes of life that enjoy historical viability.
I have elsewhere defined historical viability as the ability of an existent to endure in existence by changing as the world changes; now I realize that the world changes in different ways at different times and places, so that historical viability is a local phenomenon that is subject to conditions closely similar to natural selection — existents are selected for historical viability not by being “better” or “higher” or “superior” or “perfect,” but by being the most suited to their environment. In the present context, “environment” should be understood as the temporal or historical environment of a historical existent — with this in mind, a more subtle form of the principle of historical viability begins to emerge.
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3 July 2012
Each time the Eurozone puts together another bailout package the markets follow with a brief (sometimes very brief) rally, which collapses pretty much as soon as reality reasserts itself and it becomes obvious that most of the measures constitute creative ways of kicking the can down the road, while those more ambitious measures that are more than kicking the can down the road are probably overly ambitious and not likely to be practical policies in the midst of a financial crisis.
Simply from a practical point of view, it is difficult to imagine how anyone can believe that a more comprehensive fiscal and political union can be brought about in the midst of the crisis, although formulated with the best intentions of saving the Eurozone, since the original (and much more limited) Eurozone was negotiated, planned, and implemented over a period of many years, not over a period of few days as inter-bank loan rates are climbing by the hour. Apart from this practical problem, there are several issues of principle at stake in the Eurozone crisis and the attempts to rescue the European Monetary Union.
Mario Monti was quoted in a Reuter’s article, Monti says EU hinges on summit talks outcome: report, in defense of strengthening financial and political ties within the Eurozone as a way to save that Euro that:
“Europeans know where they’re going… the markets are convinced that having given birth to the euro, the will to make it indissoluble and irrevocable is there and will be strengthened by other steps towards integration.”
Can the Euro be made “indissoluble and irrevocable”? Can anything be made indissoluble and irrevocable? I think not, and this is a matter of principle to which I attach great importance.
I have several times quoted Edward Gibbon on the impossibility of present legislators binding the acts of future legislators:
“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”
Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.
Since I have quoted this several times (in The Imperative of Regime Survival, The Institution of Language, and The Chilean Model, e.g.), implicitly maintaining that it states an important principle, I am now going give this principle a name: Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle.
As I have tried to make explicit, Gibbon’s Principle holds for political entities, but I have also quoted a passage from Sartre that presents essentially the same idea for individuals rather than for political entities:
“I cannot count upon men whom I do not know, I cannot base my confidence upon human goodness or upon man’s interest in the good of society, seeing that man is free and that there is no human nature which I can take as foundational. I do not know where the Russian revolution will lead. I can admire it and take it as an example in so far as it is evident, today, that the proletariat plays a part in Russia which it has attained in no other nation. But I cannot affirm that this will necessarily lead to the triumph of the proletariat: I must confine myself to what I can see. Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what man is then to be. Tomorrow, after my death, some men may decide to establish Fascism, and the others may be so cowardly or so slack as to let them do so. If so, Fascism will then be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be such as men have decided they shall be. Does that mean that I should abandon myself to quietism? No. First I ought to commit myself and then act my commitment, according to the time-honoured formula that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.” Nor does this mean that I should not belong to a party, but only that I should be without illusion and that I should do what I can. For instance, if I ask myself ‘Will the social ideal as such, ever become a reality?’ I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing.”
Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism” (lecture from 1946, translated by Philip Mairet)
This I will now also name with a principle: Sartre’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Individuals, or, more briefly, Sartre’s Principle.
If that weren’t already enough principles for today, I going to formulate another principle, and although this is my own I’m not going to name it after myself after the fashion of the names I’ve given to Gibbon’s Principle or Sartre’s Principle. This additional principle is The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual (admittedly awkward — I will try to think of a better name for this): political autonomy is predicated upon individual autonomy. In other words, Gibbon’s Principle carries the force that it does because of Sartre’s Principle, and this makes Sartre’s Principle the more fundamental.
At present I am not going to argue for The Principle of the Political Primacy of the Individual, but I will simply assume that Gibbon’s Principle supervenes upon Sartre’s Principle, but I wanted to make clear that I understand that there are those who would reject this principle, and that there are arguments on both sides of the question. There is no establish literature on this principle so far as I know, as I am not aware that anyone has previously formulated it in an explicit form, but I can easily imagine arguments taken from classic sources that bear on both sides of the principle (i.e., its affirmation or its denial).
Because, as Sartre said, “men are free agents and will freely decide,” the Euro cannot be made “indissoluble and irrevocable” and the attempt to try to make it seem so is pure folly. For in order to maintain this appearance, we must be dishonest with ourselves; we must make claims and assertions that we know to be false. This cannot be a robust foundation for any political effort. If, tomorrow, a deeper economic and political union of the Eurozone becomes of the truth of Europe, this does not mean that the day after tomorrow that this will remain the truth of Europe.
And this brings us to yet another principle, and this principle is a negative formulation of a principle that I have formulated in the past, the principle of historical viability. According to the principle of historical viability, an existent must change as the world changes or it will be eliminated from history. This means that entities that remain in existence must be so malleable that they can change in their essence, for if they fail to change, they experience adverse selection.
A negative formulation of the principle of historical viability might be called the principle of historical calamity: any existent so constituted that it cannot change is doomed to extinction, and sooner rather than later. In other words, any effort that is made to make the Euro “indissoluble and irrevocable” not only will fail to make the Euro indissoluble and irrevocable, but will in fact make the Euro all the more vulnerable to historical forces that would destroy it.
When I previously discussed Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle (before I had named these principles as such) in The Imperative of Regime Survival, I cited an effort in Cuba to incorporate Castro’s vision of Cuba’s socio-economic system into the constitution as a permanent feature of the government of Cuba that would presumably hold until the end of time. This would be laughable were it not the source of so much human suffering and misery.
Well, the Europeans aren’t imposing any misery on themselves on the level of that which has been imposed upon the Cuban people by their elites, but the folly in each class of elites is essentially the same: the belief that those in power today, at the present moment, are in a privileged position to dictate the only correct institutional model for all time and eternity. In other words, the End of History has arrived.
Why not make the Euro an open, flexible, and malleable institution that can respond to political, social, economic, and demographic changes? Sir Karl Popper famously wrote about The Open Society and its Enemies — ought not an open society to have open institutions? And would not open institutions be those that are formulated with an eye toward the continuous evolution in the light of further and future experience?
To deny Gibbon’s Principle and Sartre’s Principle is to count oneself among the enemies of open societies and open institutions.
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4 June 2012
In several previous posts I have discussed how novel technologies will often display a sigmoid growth curve, starting with a gradual development, suddenly experiencing an exponential increase in complexity, sophistication, and efficacy, followed by a long plateau of little or no development after that technology has achieved maturity. The posts in which I described this development include:
In Blindsided by History I wrote:
“Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear.”
The phenomena of one technology superseding another results in Technological Succession. In my post on technological succession I wrote the following:
The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need (although by way of a distinct method) is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technology coevolution.
Technological succession, then, develops in parallel with the social succession of institutions capable of fostering further technological development by different means once a given technology stalls. In this post I made a distinction between mature technologies (another name for stalled technologies), which are technologies that have passed through their exponential growth phase and have plateaued at a stable level, and perennial technologies, which are technologies that do not experience exponential growth curves in their development — things like knives that have always been a part of the human “toolkit” and always will be. This distinction between mature and perennial technologies I then developed according to a biological analogy:
By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.
The coevolutionary pressures are those social institutions that make demands upon a technology to continue its development in the face of advancing social developments, which latter might include expanding populations, higher standards of living, raised expectations and soaring ambitions.
Even if another technology does not come along to further extend the social functions served by the mature and now stalled technology, the incentives to continue to go one better with technology remains, and this incentive drives the attempt to try to squeeze more performance out of mature technologies that would, if surpassed in the process of technological succession, remain stalled at a stable plateau of development. The result of pushing for more performance from a stalled technology is what I will call decadent technology (though I could just as well call this baroque technology).
The obvious examples that come to mind of decadent technologies are either of a humorous or theatrical character (or both). Steampunk and tubepunk are obvious examples of the intentional elaboration of a decadent technology for aesthetic and theatrical effect. As genres of art and literature, steampunk and tubepunk aren’t seeking to supply the wants of mass society (except for aesthetic wants, which respond to a different class of coevolutionary pressures).
Another example of decadent technology is that of race car engines. If you want to go really fast, it would make more sense to strap a jet engine onto set of wheels (which would look like a steampunk contraption), but racing mostly means specialized internal combustion engines — engines pushed about as far as the technology of the internal combustion engine can be pushed. It is obvious, from the thousands of photographs in car magazines, that the builders of racing engines can an aesthetic pleasure in their creations. However, these engines are not merely aesthetic exercises like steampunk, because by pushing the technology of the internal combustion engine to its limits, much more horsepower can be obtained. Thus a decadent technology can be effective, though it quickly begins to reach a level of diminishing returns, and further investment yields progressively less of a return. That is why these engines are not models of efficiency that the mass producers of automobiles look to for technological developments (though this is often used as an excuse for car manufacturers to sponsor drag racing) but rather they are expressions of mechanical ambition. Like I wrote above, if you want to go really fast, you can build a jet; the challenge is to build an internal combustion engine with the power of a jet, and this is a challenge in which both builders of racing engines and race spectators enjoy.
Most examples of decadent technology are not as theatrical and not as much fun as steampunk and race cars, but the principles are essentially the same. Microchip technology, following the social coevolutionary pressure of fulfilling the prophecy of Moore’s Law, is close to becoming a decadent technology. If some other technology for computing fundamentally different from silicone wafer technology does not emerge soon (like quantum computing, which still seems to be some way off), the producers of microchips will come under considerable economic pressure to drive silicone technology beyond its natural (i.e., physical) limits and transform it into a decadent technology.
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24 April 2012
The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.
I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.
Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.
At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.
The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”
The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”
As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.
However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .
Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?
This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.
The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.
With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.
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30 December 2011
It has been widely reported that the China National Space Administration has released a white paper, China’s Space Activities in 2011, detailing China’s plans for space exploration in the coming years. Today’s Financial Times carried this as the front page story, complete with a color picture of a Chinese rocket blasting off. The most detailed story was on Xinhua’s English language service, China to launch Shenzhou-9, Shenzhou-10 spacecraft next year.
In section III of the paper, “Major Tasks for the Next Five Years,” there are three short paragraphs on human spaceflight:
China will push forward human spaceflight projects and make new technological breakthroughs, creating a foundation for future human spaceflight.
It will launch the Shenzhou-9 and Shenzhou-10 spaceships and achieve unmanned or manned rendezvous and docking with the in-orbit Tiangong-1 vehicle.
China will launch space laboratories, manned spaceship and space freighters; make breakthroughs in and master space station key technologies, including astronauts’ medium-term stay, regenerative life support and propellant refueling; conduct space applications to a certain extent and make technological preparations for the construction of space stations.
China will conduct studies on the preliminary plan for a human lunar landing.
It has become a commonplace of political commentary that the “Space Race” of the 1960s was primarily driven by Cold War competition between the US and the USSR — a response to a perception to maintain national prestige requirements — and was not a disinterested quest for knowledge or a visionary undertaking for the future of humanity. Bertrand Russell responded to the Space Race in precisely this way, dismissing all space exploration on this basis, and in so doing demonstrating that even great men have their blind spots.
But competition between nation-states, and the incentive and spur to action that comes from competition, can be as essential to social and political life as it is to economic life. Isolated political entities not spurred on by competition can fall into an introspective languor that becomes a malaise, and all their promise is lost as they disappear from history simply because they lacked the interest to achieve anything. The world is covered by the remains of lost civilizations that grew, flourished, and then died, mostly without any kind of robust contact with other socio-political entities.
The transportation infrastructure of industrial-technological civilization has ended the possibility of a civilization completing an entire life cycle without being in contact with other civilizations. This has placed nation-state against nation-state and civilization against civilization and made our crowded world a dangerous place. This has changed the conditions under which civilizations exist. The challenge and response mechanism that Toynbee thought accounted for the emergence of civilization is now a mechanism that accounts for the growth and perpetuation of civilization, because civilizations are in competition primarily with each other, rather than with the natural environment.
Competition means selection, and we are now on the cusp of experiencing selection on a cosmological level. What we do now in terms of space exploration truly matters for the long term future of humanity. A selection event almost always involves competition, and competition can get ugly. Also, competition apparently lacks those elevated and high-minded features that we might most admire in humanity when they make their brief appearance among the baseness and squalor or our ordinary lives. We want ourselves to be better, but we know that we are mostly no better than our worst moments — and sometimes competition brings out the worst in us.
Competition gives rise to an unpleasant milieu of, “trampling, crushing, elbowing, and treading on each other’s heels…” as John Stuart Mill put it (Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, Chapter VI, 1), and which led Mill to speak kindly of the “stationary state” in his work on political economy. Russell belongs to this tradition, and we must see this tradition in historical perspective to understand that there will be future representatives of this tradition who will urge us to be content with what we have and not to strive for more.
If some (or even most) nation-states decide that space travel is not worth the time, expense and effort, and this particular aspect of human endeavor now falls to the Chinese, what civilization do you think will represent humanity to the universe at large? To the rest of the universe, we will be known as the Chinese planet, and China will literally fulfill its historical destiny of being the “Middle Kingdom” halfway between heaven and earth.
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12 August 2011
To speak of induced failure in complex adaptive systems is already to acknowledge a distinction between induced failure and non-induced failure, and beyond this distinction we can make a further distinction between failure that is purposefully induced and failure that is induced but as an unintended consequence of some other action — i.e., failure as an externality. An obvious example of purposefully induced failure is military action undertaken with the intention of causing catastrophic failure on the part of enemy forces. An equally obvious example of induced failure as an unintended consequence is that of environmental damage that results from pollution and the pressures of industrialized society on the ecosystem.
It could be argued that the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which was precipitated by the collapse of the value of the Thai Bhat (much as the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 was precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis), was, for all intents and purposes, an intended failure, as investors had placed the Thai Bhat under considerable pressure by shorting the currency on international currency markets. When a nation-state (or even a quasi-state entity like the Eurozone) finds its currency under pressure by international speculators, it will often protest that the speculators are at fault, while the speculators will say that they are only trying to make a profit, and that they serve a valuable function within the financial community in bringing vulnerabilities to light.
In the past few days we have seen some dramatic examples of this sort of thing, as the downgrading of US government securities by Standard & Poor’s was called a “mistake” by Gene Sperling (NEC director) when it was clearly a carefully deliberated decision (especially in terms of its announcement after close of business on Friday to give markets time to absorb the news before opening on Monday), while Greece and Turkey enacted bans on short selling, although European regulators could not agree on a wide-ranging ban on short sales. Are we to say that this week’s market turmoil was induced by Standard & Poor’s downgrade, so that the ratings agency has a measure of historical agency in bringing this about, or is the ratings agency merely the canary in the coal mine?
Clearly, it becomes a matter of how the boundary is drawn between agency and absence of agency, just as it is a matter of how we draw the boundary between induced and non-induced failure. I think it would quite difficult to formulate an adequate theoretical definition of non-induced failure, and in fact I am not prepared to even suggest anything at this time. Since non-induced failure is when failure “just happens,” there will always be claims made for agency in failure, including the agency of natural forces (say, friction). So I think the better method here is to try to understand induced failure better, and then to define non-induced failure as the complement of the cases of induced failure.
In the present context, we will call a purposefully induced failure a formal failure, while a failure that results from unintended consequences will be called an informal failure. According to this terminology, an old building that has been dynamited to bring it down has experienced a formal failure, while shoddy design or construction practices that have resulted in a building collapsing (as in the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse) is an example of informal failure.
It is a standard mode of argument among conspiracy theorists to claim that an informal failure is really a formal failure, though the mechanisms of purpose in the failure have been disguised by nefarious agents so that what appears, at first sight, to be an informal failure is in fact a formal failure. It could be argued that the attempt to impose purpose upon informal failures is a consequence of what evolutionary psychologists call the agency detector. On an intuitive level, it doesn’t take much sophistication to understand that, 1) individuals want to believe that they understand things that others do not understand, and 2) that this intellectual form of self-aggrandizement plays a role in drawing the boundary between formal and informal failures so as to exclude all informal failures. This, however, is ultimately uninteresting, and I maintain that there is a valid distinction between formal and informal failure. Just as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, so too failure is sometimes just failure and involves no agency.
At a somewhat higher level of sophistication, it is a standard mode of argument among ideologically-motivated partisans that, although informal failures are technically informal failures, any reasonable and responsible person should have seen the unintended consequences that would follow from their actions, so that if people would just take their blinders off they would see the informal failures for the formal failures that they are. Such an argument implies self-deception at some level, whether on the part of participants who are following orders or on the part of those issuing the orders. This argument is important because it brings our attention to the role of self-deception in understanding the world — and I believe the role of self-deception to be under-estimated in human affairs — but it is easy to make sweeping claims in this regard which, when pressed, lead to the denial of the very possibility of informal failures, and the denial of the possibility of informal failure leads to the search for agents responsible for the formal failure — scapegoating and witch-hunts.
The universal search for scapegoats is just as uninteresting as the universal search for nefarious and hidden agents, and so I reject the ideological attempt to draw the boundary between formal and informal failure so as to exclude all informal failure. I have said elsewhere, in another context, that the facts do not speak for themselves. This bears repeating, as does the observation that what is obvious to one person in terms of unintended consequences is in no sense obvious to another person.
There is as yet no standard definition for complex adaptive systems; the discipline is too recent to have settled upon the requisite conventions. The Wikipedia article on complex adaptive systems cites a definition by John Henry Holland: “Cas [complex adaptive systems] are systems that have large numbers of components, often called agents, that interact and adapt or learn.”
If the agents that constitute a complex adaptive system fail to adapt, or adapt poorly, fail to learn or learn the wrong lessons, then such complex adaptive systems are vulnerable to failure. If a complex adaptive system can be induced to adapt poorly, or induced to learn the wrong lesson, then such complex adaptive systems can be induced to reveal vulnerabilities. If the induced vulnerabilities are intentional (that is to say, if they are formal failures), the vulnerability can be exploited to bring about catastrophic failure cascading from the point of the vulnerability.
As we follow out this reasoning we must be careful because matters become complicated very quickly. In all of the above cases we must distinguish between formally inducing failure and informally inducing failure. Taking the example of environmental degradation, we know that some industrial chemicals allowed into the biosphere mimic naturally occurring substances and replace the naturally occurring substances, sometimes to deleterious effect. This in an informally induced poor adaptation that results in a vulnerability. Taking the example of military defeat, a campaign of disinformation can cause the enemy to “learn” the wrong lesson and this can be calculated to open a vulnerability. This is a formally induced learning of an incorrect lesson.
Adaptation and learning occur in the context of interaction, and interaction takes place at many different levels. Following my adaptation of Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model (cf. Metaphysical Ecology), I hold that interaction takes place on five levels of metaphysical ecology:
● macro-interaction, and
● metaphysical interaction
Such interaction may take place simultaneously across many different ecological levels, or at one or several levels. All of these interactions carry with them the possibility of adaptation and learning on the part of the agents primarily functioning on the levels in question, and all of these interactions carry with them the possibility of formal or informal failure.
We know from ordinary experience how a complex adaptive system can fail on one level and this failure can cascade bringing about a catastrophic failure of the entire system, even when other ecological levels of the complex adaptive have learned and adapted appropriately. For example, during wars one always hears of soldiers learning lessons on the battlefield (micro- and meso- learning) that have not been learned at an institutional level (meso- and exo- level learning), and thus the institution goes on making the same mistake that the soldiers know to be a mistake but cannot change because they are not empowered to bring about institutional change. These kinds of failures are also very common in business, when frontline employees know policies to be failing, but are required by management to continue a failing policy because the lesson has not yet been learned at an institutional level.
On the other side of this dialectic, it is often the case that people who see the big picture clearly understand the nature of a problem and have learned their lessons (on meso- and exo- levels), but are, for one reason or another, unable to communicate this understanding to meso- and micro- levels, where the same mistakes continue to be made. This is clearly the case with social workers who understand the roots of inter-personal violence (IPV) in families and communities, and although they seek to educate families and communities with all the resources that they have available, the same problems continue to appear over and over again.
I assumed both of the above examples to be generalizable throughout metaphysical ecology), which means that even in ecological systems — and complex adaptive systems are ecological systems — there is just enough compartmentalization for an isolated failure to develop to the point that it can cause a cascading catastrophic failure, even if successful adaptations and effective learning is taking place on other ecological levels.
I assume that in a highly sensitive complex adaptive system that minor failures and disturbances would be rapidly transmitted up and down through all ecological levels of the system. In so far as learning and adaptation are global — meaning not that it takes place on the highest ecological level, but that it takes place across all ecological levels, and that there is a feedback loop that allows one level to learn from the adaptations and learning of other levels — I suggest that a highly sensitive complex adaptive system, while superficially fragile, may represent the more robust and resilient form of order.
The ability to learn from what others have learned — which I have expressed here as learning lessons and adaptations from other ecological levels — might be called higher-order learning, but this is a fancy name for a simple idea… the idea that you don’t have to be the one to burn your finger on the stove to know that it is hot. There is a kind of intellectual maturity involved in learning from the lessons of others, and when this intellectual maturity can be integrated into institutions the resultant institutions would possess a much higher degree of resiliency than those that lack this capacity.
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