23 March 2013
In Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization and Axes of Historiography I discussed the differences between synchronic and diachronic approaches to historiographical analysis (and in much greater detail in Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography). The synchronic/diachronic distinction can also be useful in futurism, and in fact we can readily distinguish between what I will call synchronic extrapolation and diachronic extrapolation.
If we understand synchrony as, “the present construed broadly enough to admit of short term historical interaction” (as I formulated it in Axes of Historiography), then synchronic extrapolation is the extrapolation of a broadly construed present across its interactions. This may not sound very enlightening, but you’ll understand immediately what I mean when I relate it to chaos and complexity. Recent interest in chaos theory and what is known as the “butterfly effect” has led some to think in terms of synchronic extrapolation since the idea of the is of a small event the interactions of which cascade to produce significant consequences.
As a form of futurism, synchronic extrapolation is not familiar (probably because it doesn’t take us very far forward into the future), but we need to keep it in mind in order to contrast it with diachronic extrapolation. Diachronic extrapolation is one of the most familiar forms of futurism today, especially as embodied in Ray Kurzweil’s love of exponential growth curves, which are usually diachronic extrapolations. One of the reasons that I remain so skeptical about the claims of Kurzweil and other singulatarians (even though I have learned a lot about them recently and have a less negative picture overall than initially) is the heavy reliance on diachronic extrapolation in their futurism. I frequently cite specific examples of failed exponential growth curves or technologies (like chemical rockets) that seem to be stuck in a technological rut (what I have called a stalled technology), experiencing little or no development (and certainly not exponential development), and I do this because readers usually find specific, particular examples persuasive.
I have discovered over the course of many conversations that most people tune out extended theoretical expositions, and only sort of wake up and pay attention when you give a concrete example. So I do this, to the best of my ability. But really, the dispute with diachronic extrapolation (and particular schools of futurist thought that employ diachronic extrapolation to the exclusion of other methods, such as the singulatarians) is theoretical, and all the examples in the world aren’t going to get to the nub of the problem, which must be given the theoretical exposition that it deserves. And the nub of the problem is simply that diachrony over significant periods of time cannot be pursued in isolation, since any diachronic extrapolation will interact with changed conditions over time, and this interaction will eventually come to constitute the consequences as must as the original trend diachronically extrapolated.
Diachronic extrapolation may be derailed by historical singularities, but it is far more frequent that nothing so discontinuous as a singularity need happen in order for a straight-forward extrapolation of present trends fail to be be realized. I specifically single out diachronic extrapolation in isolation, because the most frequent form of failed futurism is to take a trend in the present and to project it into the future, but any futurism worthy of the name must understand events in both their synchronic and diachronic context; isolation from succession in time is just as invidious as isolation from interaction across time. This simultaneous synchrony and diachrony resembles a chain reaction of ever-growing consequences from the initial point of departure.
In my two immediately previous posts — Addendum on Automation and the Human Future and Bertrand Russell as Futurist — I dealt obliquely with the problems of diachronic extrapolation. Predicting technogenic unemployment on the basis of contemporary automation, or predicting a bifurcation between annihilation or world government, is a paradigm case of diachronic extrapolation that fails to sufficiently take into account future interactions that will become as important or more important than the diachronically extrapolated trend.
This was the point that I was trying to make in Addendum on Automation and the Human Future when I wrote:
I am willing to admit without hesitation that, 250 years from now, we may well have realized a near-automated economy, and that this automation of the economy will have truly profound and far-reaching socioeconomic consequences. However, the original problem then becomes a different problem, because so many other things, unanticipated and unprecedented things, have changed in the intervening years that the problem of labor and employment is likely to look completely different at this future date.
In other words, a diachronic extrapolation of current employment trends — technogenic unemployment, new jobs created by new industries, and perennial problems of unemployment and underemployment — is helpful in so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough in capturing the different world that the future will be.
Similar concerns hold for Russell’s failed futurism that I reviewed in Bertrand Russell as Futurist: Russell took several trends operating at present — war, nuclear weapons, anarchic competition among nation-states — and extrapolated them into the future as though nothing else would happen in history except these closely related group of strategically significant trends.
In my post on Russell’s futurism I cited his essay “The Future of Man”, but Russell made the same point innumerable. times. In his first essay on the atomic bomb, “The Bomb and Civilization,” he wrote:
Either war or civilization must end, and if it is to be war that ends, there must be an international authority with the sole power to make the new bombs. All supplies of uranium must be placed under the control of the international authority, which shall have the right to safeguard the ore by armed forces. As soon as such an authority has been created, all existing atomic bombs, and all plants for their manufacture, must be handed over. And of course the international authority must have sufficient armed forces to protect whatever has been handed over to it. If this system were once established, the international authority would be irresistible, and wars would cease. At worst, there might be occasional brief revolts that would be easily quelled.
And in his book-length study of the same question, Has Man a Future? Russell made the same point again:
“So long as armed forces are under the command of single nations, or groups of nations, not strong enough to have unquestioned control over the whole world — so long it is almost certain that sooner or later there will be war, and, so long as scientific technique persists, war will grow more and more deadly.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 69
We have seen that armed forces continue to be under the command of individual nation-states, and in fact they continue to go to war with each other. Moreover, scientific technique has markedly improved, and while the construction of weapons of mass destruction remains today a topic of considerable political comment, the availability of improved weapons of mass destruction did not automatically or inevitably lead to global nuclear war and human extinction.
In the same book Russell went on to say:
“…it seems indubitable that scientific man cannot long survive unless all the major weapons of war, and all the means of mass destruction, are in the hands of a single authority, which, in consequence of its monopoly, would have irresistible power and, if challenged to war, could wipe out any rebellion within a few days without much damage except to the rebels.”
Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future? New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962, p. 70
In writing these comments, we can now see in hindsight that one of the major strategic trends of the second half of the twentieth century that Russell missed was the rise in the efficacy of asymmetrical resistance to irresistible power. Russell does not seem to have recognized that authorities in possession of de facto irresistible power might choose not to annihilate a weaker power because of global opinion and the hit that such an actor would take to its soft power if it simply wiped out a rebellion. Moreover, the wide distribution of automatic weapons — not weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a disruptive force in global political affairs by providing just enough friction to the military operations of great powers that rebellions could not be wiped out within a few days.
The rise of twentieth century guerrilla resistance and rebellion was an important development in global affairs, and a development not acknowledged until it was already a fait accompli, but I don’t think that it constituted an historical singularity — as it is part of a devolution of warfare rather than a breakthrough to a new order of magnitude of war (which seems to have been what Russell feared would come about).
It has been said (by L. P. Hartley, a contemporary of Russell) that the past is a foreign country. This is true. It is also true that the future is a foreign country. (Logically, these two claims are identical; every present is the future to some past.) We ought to make no pretense to false familiarity with the future, since they do things differently there.
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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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12 October 2012
Last August in The Temporal Structures of Civilization I suggested that we might think of early modern civilization — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism — as an abortive civilization. Modern civilization, sensu stricto, was preempted and essentially overtaken by industrialized civilization, or, as I now like to say, industrial-technological civilization.
Implicit in this claim is the idea (not explicitly formulated in my post of this past summer) that our civilization or any civilization might be suddenly and unaccountably preempted by a macro-historical revolution that changes everything, if only that revolution is sufficiently large and catastrophic. Those were my thoughts of high summer, and now it is fall and the rains have begun. I have been meaning to return to some of these themes, and the change in the weather is as good a reason as any to revisit my less-than-sunny summer thoughts.
The most studied macro-historical transitions in Western history are 1) the transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages, and 2) the transition from the middle ages to modernity. Both of these transitions have must to teach us, and it is remarkable that the differences between these two macro-historical revolutions are so schematic that they also seem to have been formulated to give us two radically different perspectives on what it means to make the transition from one form of civilization to another.
The transition from medievalism to modernism was gradual, continuous, and incremental; any attempt to draw a clear line between medieval civilization and modern civilization must adopt some conventions simply in order to make the distinctions, and in adopting historical conventions we know that we could have chosen our conventions differently.
Despite the gradual transition from medievalism to modernism, the medieval mind and the modern mind could not be more different. Their separation in time was gradual but the result was nearly absolute incommensurability. To formulate it in Aristotelian modalities, it was the accidents of of life that remained continuous in the transition from medievalism to modernity, even while the essence of life fundamentally changed. There is a sense in which we could say that there was an essentialist revolution that left accidents unchanged.
The transition from antiquity to medievalism, on the other hand, while it did take several centuries to consolidate as a macro-historical revolution, involved a violent break with the past and its traditions — actually, several violent breaks in tradition. There was the relative suddenness of the abandonment of classical religious traditions in favor of Christianity; there was the collapse of any unified Roman legal and political power in Western Europe; there was the break with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, which continued on for another thousand years (turning itself into what Toynbee would have called a fossil civilization); there was the collapse the urban life in Western Europe and the flight from the cities, and with this came a radical economic transition from a unified system of commerce across the Roman Empire to a self-sufficient manorial system.
Although this transition from antiquity of medievalism involved a series of violent social dislocations, the scale of which have not been seen since in Western civilization (with the exception of the Black Death and industrialization), the medieval mind believed itself to be unchanged in essentials from the world of classical antiquity. It was common rhetorical and indeed an intellectual trope of the middle ages for people to speak of themselves as Romans and to assume that their world was simply a greatly diminished and impoverished Roman Empire. Rather than thinking in terms of a new civilization that had been born with the passing of classical antiquity, it was said that mundus senescit — the world grows old — and it was thought that the peoples of time were simply waiting for the old world to end.
From an historiographical perspective, medieval civilization is an historical phenomenon of great value, because it represents a fully contained macro-historical division of western history, with a more-or-less clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. In other words, we have the full arc of the story of medieval civilization.
Somewhere (I don’t recall where as I write this) I read that someone characterized the upshot of Toynbee’s historical effort as embodying the idea that civilizations are the proper unit of historical study. Civilizations are a unit of historical study — one unit among many other possible units of study — but every epistemic order of magnitude has its proper units of historical study. Those units are the “individuals” recognized by the conceptual infrastructure of a given epistemic order of magnitude.
Different objects of historical study will also mean different forms of historical transition between the objects in question. Civilizations have characteristic forms of transition. Demographic macro-historical transitions that affect the entire human population of the Earth, like the transitions from hunter-gatherer nomadism to agriculturalism, and then the transition from agriculturalism to industrialism, are of another order of magnitude. It is no wonder that the modernism of civilization gave way before the demographic revolution of industrialization; the latter is a far larger historical force that can easily swamp developments as relatively small as those on the scale of civilization.
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4 July 2012
It is always a pleasure to celebrate the armed struggle of the American people against the oppression of the Old World, with its true believers in autocracy, hierarchy, patronage, and privilege, and its Old World tolerance of corruption, ineptitude, and failed institutions.
The emergence of revolutionary man — Homo revolutionibus — in history is no small matter. This idea that was first given concrete embodiment in the American Revolution has gone on to shape not only the politics of the world ever since that time, but moreover to shape the very idea of humanity itself — what humanity is, what humanity ought to be, and what humanity might reasonably hope to become.
In the PBS documentary Liberty! The American Revolution, there is a quote that makes clear the anthropological dimensions of the advent of the American Revolution:
As the British army fell to the American rebels commanded by Washington and laid down their arms at Saratoga, they saw for the first time the face of their conquerors. Row upon row of plainly dressed citizen soldiers. Old men and young boys. People of all colors. Ordinary Americans. A British officer would write that he felt he was “looking at a new race of men.”
I tried to find the original source of this quote, but I have not yet been successful, so that British officer in question must remain nameless for the time being — a nameless, faceless representative of the Old World tradition of individuals subordinated to arbitrary royal authority. Yet this British officer was not so blind to an incommensurable paradigm that he could not see the emergence of something new in history.
A parallel formulation of the American project as productive of a “new race of men” is found in Crèvecoeur:
Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.
Great changes in the world indeed. Such changes have already occurred, and further changes continue to shake both the New World and the Old. Wherever today there is entrenched privilege and power, there is also to be found a popular insurrection against this entrenched power. It does not matter the extent to which power seeks to co-opt the masses and to take for itself the mantle of the people — such charades are easily seen through by revolutionary man.
To what extent may we identify this New Man, revolutionary man, with that other New Man of the modern world, the Übermensch? In other words (the words of Borges, to be specific), to what extent are all of us of the Western Hemisphere vernacular supermen?
Precisely to the extent that we seek to make ourselves over as revolutionary men and to overcome the corrupt, all-too-corrupt taint of the Old World and its old institutions that have no claim upon us but tradition, revolutionary man and the Übermensch are one and the same.
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22 October 2011
Recently I was re-reading my post of more than a couple of years ago, Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, and I realize now in retrospect how limited my perspective was at the time. My first reaction at revisiting these thoughts was that I had concentrated on revolutions within the context of the traditional periodizations of Western historiography, whereas I should have taken this traditional historiography in a much larger context. But at that time I had not yet given explicit formulation to some of the ideas about history that I have subsequently posted.
The “larger context” to which I allude above I have since explicitly formulated as ecological temporality, which I also call metaphysical history, and which in its earlier stages I called Integral History. Since most of the traditional periodization of Western historiography is part of the agricultural paradigm (though the last portion of it lies in the industrial paradigm), revolutions within the traditional periodization, even when they seem to mark a decisive transition in history, are mostly internal affairs of agricultural civilization.
In retrospect, I now see that I did consider revolutions in the context of macro-temporality (which is one division of ecological temporality), but I didn’t realize while I was writing my early formulations of the transitions between the paradigms of integral history that that was what I was doing. The major transitions between periods on the level of macro-history (or, if you prefer, macro-temporality) are revolutions within macro-temporality, and these are none other than the neolithic agricultural revolution, which marked the transition from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agriculturalism, and the industrial revolution, which marked the transition from settled agriculturalism to settled industrialism. These two macro-historical revolutions divide history into three (unequal) portions.
While I have never claimed any originality for these particular divisions of macro-temporality, and in fact I don’t even recall if I found them someone and adopted them or formulated them myself independently, I have since found the same division in two other sources. Bertrand Russell in his Prospects of Industrial Civilization implicitly makes the distinction:
“A new economic mode of existence brings with it new views of life which must be analysed and subdued if they are not to dominate to the exclusion of human values. Thus in the past, it has been necesssary to destroy a superstitious reverence for agriculture, which dominated before it was made to serve the needs of human beings. many prejudices still held by modern people are nothing but remnants of the agricultural, or even of the hunting, stage of man’s development.”
Bertrand Russell, The Prospects of Industrialized Civilization, Preface to the first edition
I have also found the distinction in Analytical Philosophy of Technology by Friedrich Rapp, in which the author contrasts the view of Max Scheler and A Gehlen, writing:
“Gehlen holds, on the other hand, that there have actually been only two historical junctures of primary importance. These are (1) the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ in which mankind made the transition from a life of nomadic hunting to a sedentary one of agriculture and cattle raising, and (2) the changeover to ‘machine culture’ of the Industrial Revolution.”
Friedrich Rapp, Analytical Philosophy of Technology, London and Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1981, pp. 27-28
Now that I see my discussion of revolutions in the traditional historiographical periods of antiquity, medievalism, and modernity in relation to the macro-historical revolutions of metaphysical history, I can come to realize that revolutions take place at each level of ecological temporality, and we must both recognize the distinction between revolutions at distinct temporal levels and ecological unity of time that makes any revolution at whatever level felt throughout the whole of metaphysical history.
I thus posit the following temporally distinct forms of revolution:
Micro-revolutions are revolutions on the level of the individual. An overthrown in an individual’s way of life — especially the birth or death of an individual — is a micro-revolutionary event. It utterly transforms the life of an individual, but it may go unnoticed even by those in personal contact with the individual in question, though not necessarily. The point is that a micro-revolution may have no immediate meso-, exo-, macro-, or metaphysical effects.
Meso-revolutions are revolutions are the level of communities of individuals. Most familiar political revolutions — the revolution on Corcyra described by Thucydides, the American Revolution, the “Color Revolutions” — are meso-revolutions. We note that meso-revolutions may occur which leave the lives of individuals untouched, and which may even leave the larger historical record untouched.
At the upper end of the scale of meso-revolutions these dramatic changes become exo-revolutions when they involve a number of distinct communities over a period of time. When strategists speak of “revolution in military affairs” (RMA) they are essentially speaking of an exo-revolution. The structure of scientific revolutions, of which Thomas Kuhn famously wrote, has the temporal structure of an exo-revolution. Like other revolutions, even as exo-revolutions transform the ordinary way of doing things, they may leave surrounding levels of ecological temporality untouched.
Once again, at the upper end of the scale of exo-revolutions, these community-transcendent revolutions merge into even greater historical transformations, and these are the macro-historical revolutions mentioned above.
Beyond macro-revolutions there are metaphysical revolutions. These, too, must play out in time, but there are not primarily concerned with processes of historical events or transformations in the ordinary business of life. Metaphysical revolutions are transformations of thought. A perfect example of a metaphysical revolution is the transition from a Ptolemaic cosmology to a Copernican Cosmology.
In the big picture and the longue durée — that is to say, in the whole of metaphysical history taken together, which is the structure of ecological temporality — the fortunes of an individual may ripple through all the ecological levels of time until it resonates at the level of metaphysical history. But not necessarily. Individuals appear and disappear on the stage of life without ever making a ripple. Contrariwise, the great transformations of metaphysical history may resound through the ecological structure of time until they resonate within the life of a single individual. Though, again, not necessarily. An individual life may remain utterly untouched by the most profound transformations of history.
Revolution understood in context is revolution understand in terms of metaphysical history. There are many kinds of revolution distinguished by the temporal level at which they occur. The next time I write about revolution I will be more careful to specify its temporal structure.
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13 October 2011
In The Chinese Revolution I wrote that China experienced its political revolution that severed its link to the feudal past before experiencing its industrial revolution, which is the reverse order of the events of modernization in the West. It is worth considering the significance of this in more detail.
For Marx himself the communist revolution was to come about through the revolt of exploited industrial workers, and this would obviously come about in the most industrialized regions of Europe. Not only did it not happen like this — much of the industrialized world pursued reform and forestalled revolution — but in actual fact the “revolutions” to come in Russia and China resembled civil wars more than sharp, sudden revolutionary expropriation of the expropriators, though one could call it “revolutionary civil war” and be finished with it.
For Lenin, who wanted to preside over a communist revolution in Russia, which was most definitely not the most industrialized region of Europe, the strict Marxist position wouldn’t do, so Lenin created the “weakest link” theory: the revolution would happen first in Russia because Russia was the weakest link in industrialized capitalism, and not because it was the most industrialized place on earth. Lenin also brought to full fruition the idea of a revolutionary cadre. This idea is present in Marx, but in Marx it is the industrialized workers who took action on their own account. Lenin placed the crucial work in the hands of the revolutionary cadres who would stir up the workers and work them up into a revolutionary fervor.
By the time we get to Mao in China, the original Marxist model doesn’t make any sense at all. China wasn’t at that time industrialized. There were virtually no industrial workers to organize. There were, however, rural masses to organize and stir up into revolutionary fervor, so Mao further tampered with the doctrine he inherited from Lenin, and created the idea of a revolutionary peasantry who would overthrow urban centers of power without bothering to pass through the stage of industrialization.
It was in this form, the Maoist form, that communism — no longer Marxism in any strict sense of the term — came to the third world and proved itself a central thread of the political drama of the twentieth century. For all over the world there were poor, disenfranchised, immiserated peasants, far from the centers of industrialized civilization, who could be armed and inspired to pursue their fair share of the world’s wealth, as they saw it.
Revolutionary insurrection by the poor and downtrodden is nothing new. I discussed some of the peasant revolutions of the European Middle Ages in Revolution: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. The medieval period experienced repeated peasant rebellions, and some few of these cascaded into significant events, while most dissipated and came to nothing.
Imagine, if you will, that one of the medieval peasant revolutions had been successful, and a radical revolutionary regime had come to power in continental Europe at this point in history, during the Middle Ages. This would be a Western (counter-factual) parallel to the victory of the Chinese communists. Thinking of revolution from this perspective, one could even imagine a cultural revolution in a radicalized medieval Europe (once again, a counter-factual cultural revolution) to overcome entrenched feudal traditions. This makes a kind of sense, and makes the Cultural Revolution in China more comprehensible to a Westerner like myself.
The upheaval in Chinese society through the twentieth century — from 1911 revolution to 1949 communist takeover to the Cultural Revolution — can be understood as one long revolution, and perhaps the only political medicine of sufficient strength to serve as the trigger of historical discontinuity for an imperial tradition as distinguished, and therefore as entrenched, as that of China.
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12 October 2011
We do not hesitate to speak of the American Revolution or the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution as political events and punctuated the modern era, and we do not hesitate to speak of the Scientific Revolution or the Industrial Revolution or the Technological Revolution that have shaped, and continue to shape, the modern world, but the recent observance of the centenary of the Chinese Revolution of 1911 may have some people asking: What Chinese revolution?
To the credit of the Chinese Communist Party, they didn’t try to sweep the centennial under the rug, but openly celebrated it. The official media organ of the CCP, Xinhua News, carried several stories on the anniversary and its official celebration, including a speech by President Hu Jintao calling the revolution in 1911, “a thoroughly modern, national and democratic revolution.” A portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen was even erected in Tian’anmen Square for the centennial.
The official speeches, however, also included calls for Taiwan to be peacefully reunited with the rest of China. The CCP probably feels that they have proved that “One Country, Two Systems” is not only possible, but practically workable, though the example of Hong Kong has been a mixed bag. Hong Kong was always capitalist and always tolerant of free expression throughout the British lease, but it was never democratic. The attempt the put democratic institutions in place as the British lease was ending was well-intentioned but as artificial as many attempts at democratic social engineering. And on the Chinese side, while they have tolerated the open markets and open expression of Hong Kong, they have still tried to trim it around the edges, and, probably more important for the long term, are seeking to develop Shanghai into the banking center of east Asia, which constitutes a de facto demotion for Hong Kong.
Taiwan remains a thorn in the side of the CCP leadership. When Mao was consolidating the hold of the party over mainland China, he had to strike deals with ethnic minorities like the Uighers, and in the case of Taiwan he let sleeping dogs lie. There was enough on Mao’s plate that he couldn’t practically pursue a cross-straight invasion at that time. But the split between the communist Chinese mainland and the Republic of China on Taiwan played into the political division of the Cold War, and Taiwan became (not unlike Hong Kong) a bastion of capitalism and economic development in east Asia while Mao was busy destroying the Chinese economy through the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
But the Chinese revolution remains historically important, and not only on Taiwan where the remnants of the Chinese Nationalists had to hole up when the communists under Mao seized control of the mainland. The imperial family had controlled China for two thousand years — almost as long as the entire record of Western Civilization from the Greeks to the present day. Unseating this dynasty abruptly and rudely brought China into the twentieth century, and this rude and rapid transition probably made the communist Machtergreifung possible.
The contrast with Japan is especially instructive. Japan seized not on the revolutionary tradition of the West, but the industrial tradition of the West, and rapidly transformed its society into an industrial power not long after Europe, parallel in time to North America, and long before the rest of Asia. There was no Japanese revolution, except for a Japanese industrial revolution that left Japanese traditional life in place, in so far as that remains possible within an industrialized society. And when Japan surrendered at the end of the Second World War, its unconditional surrender included the one condition that, whatever was to become of the occupation, the Emperor would remain.
And the Emperor remains to this day, whereas the Chinese have now a century of history under their belts without an Emperor. This is remarkable, and points to the dramatic changes in Chinese society — changes more dramatic than experienced in Japan during the course of its modernization and industrialization.
Indeed, the Chinese have experienced the shocks of modern history in the reverse order of their experience in the West. Europe was already more or less fully industrialized before the industrialized carnage of the First World War brought down the old order of society and the fall of most of Europe’s remaining imperial houses and their ties to the deep history of the European Middle Ages. In China, the political revolution came first, and only now are we seeing the industrialization of Chinese society.
China, like the West, has experienced (albeit in reverse order) the dual politico-economic revolutions that have issued in distinctively modern societies. Japan, in contrast, experienced only the economic revolution without the political revolution. And while Japan is now a functioning democracy, it is unlike other democratic systems in the world. And it is more than merely the retention of a royal family, which is an historical condition that Japan shares with Britain and the Netherlands, for example.
Contemporary strategists and sociologists have looked far and wide for an explanation of Japan’s arrested socio-political development, and why, when Japan seemed poised in the early 1980s to once again dominate a greater east Asian co-prosperity sphere, that this did not happen. Even the visionary Cold War thinker Herman Kahn failed to see Japan’s (at that time coming) “lost decade” (now “lost decades“), and in his last years wrote The Emerging Japanese Superstate: Challenge and Response.
To me, the answer to this riddle seems obvious: despite an overlay of democratic procedure, Japan’s society is still essentially feudal. Even in an apparently anonymous metropolis of the size of Osaka (where I have visited many times), everyone knows who comes from a Samurai class family, and everyone knows who comes from a Yakuza family. Japan’s socio-political evolution stalled, and while it enjoyed great economic development, it never experienced a traumatic political revolution that would have served the purpose of severing ties to the past and therefore opening the future to unprecedented developments. And now the window of opportunity has passed: Japan can’t very well have a revolution today.
China, of course, is no democracy — its path to modernity lies elsewhere — but unlike Japan it has severed itself from its feudal past, both socially and economically, and this bodes well for the Chinese ability to embrace a future of unprecedented developments, whatever they may be.
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7 September 2011
Libya borders six other North African nation-states: Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger, Algeria, and Tunisia. All of these nation-states have been in the news in recent months, and are sometimes delicately referred to as being “in turmoil.” Last February, in The Geography of Revolution, I suggested that since Libya is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt, both of which had recently overthrown their long-standing authoritarian heads of state, that the natural population transfers within these regions would, by idea diffusion, give currency to the real possibility of regime change through popular revolt. Libya was in fact the next domino to fall of the Arab Spring (now the Arab summer, and soon to be the Arab fall), and its geography must be counted among the factors that made this possible.
Libya’s geography has also made it possible for regime cronies to escape the country. Travel in the desert is less dependent on roads than elsewhere (which is what provided the perpetually open flank of the North African Western Desert campaign). If you have sufficient fuel and a vehicle that can cope with the desert, the Sahara is your friend. You can drive to any number of lonely crossing points in the desert and quietly disappear into another country.
In some cases these desert crossings were homecomings: Gaddafi had hired mercenaries from the ethnic Tuaregs, many of which he had trained in warfare in previous decades, and these Tuaregs made their way back, primarily to Niger, when they could. But the Tuaregs are nomadic desert people; they range throughout this part of the Sahara, and are represented in Algeria and Mali as well as Niger. There have been stories that ethnic Africans remaining in Tripoli after the departure of Gaddafi and his forces have been assumed to be mercenaries and have been treated accordingly by the rebels with predictable reprisals. However, many peoples of the region sought work in Libya. Libya is a petrol state, and Gaddafi used his oil largesse liberally to increase his stature in Africa, relentlessly promoting his vision of a United States of Africa.
Even as Tuareg Leaders in Niger and Mali Urge Tuareg in Libya to Work With NTC, it was reported that a convoys of dozens of vehicles with prominent Gaddafi regime figures, as well as “gold, euros and dollars,” have crossed into Niger (Libya conflict: Gaddafi aide Mansour Daw ‘in Niamey’). The Sahara desert, famous for its vast expanses of emptiness, is rapidly becoming an interesting place. In fact, the Sahara is likely to be the theater of coming conflicts: between the Libyan NTC and a presumptive Gaddafi-financed insurgency; between Islamists and secularists; between North African Arabs and subsaharan Africans; and even, or ultimately a three-way conflict between nomads, nation-states, and transnationalists.
Previously it had been reported that Gaddafi’s wife, Safia, daughter, Aisha, and two sons, Hannibal and Mohammed, had crossed into Algeria (Did Algeria flout U.N. sanctions by taking in the Qaddafis? and Libya conflict: Why did Algeria take the Gaddafis? by Aidan Lewis of BBC News). The diaspora of Gaddafi regime figures into surrounding nation-states — permission or no permission — is predictable. What is not predictable are the long term consequences of this Gaddafi diaspora. I have already read interestingly contrasting opinions in the media, some claiming the Gaddafi’s oil largesse distributed in Africa has won him enough friends that he will not want for shelter (Gaddafi: African asylum-seeker? by Farouk Chothia, BBC African Service; see also Libya conflict: Where could Muammar Gaddafi be hiding?), while other commentators have suggested that the government of Niger, elected only earlier this year in the wake of a coup, will want to safeguard its legitimacy by refusing sanctuary to Gaddafi sympathizers.
While the long term consequences cannot be predicted with any certainty, there are some things that can be said with certainty. Even if Gaddafi can’t get his country back, he can cause trouble for Libya and its new rulers. With gold and cash looted from the national treasury, he can fund an insurgency which can go on for quite some time. An insurgency that has been bought and paid for (unlike a popular insurgency) can continue as long as the money holds out, regardless of whether the movement has support. Such a strategy on the part of Gaddafi and his loyalists would destabilize Saharan Africa. Gaddafi could exploit existing tensions between Arabs and Africans and between nomads and settled peoples in an attempt to carve out an ongoing political niche for himself and his loyalists. Since the region is poor and their are few television cameras present, violence in the region may be unnoticed by global media assets. On the other hand, the fragile and unstable governments of the region, as interested in regime survival as any other political class, may decide that they cannot put up with this sort of thing, and they may use the same media invisibility to persuade Gaddafi’s dead-enders to take their fight elsewhere.
Another predictable consequence will be the steady realignment of the new government of Libya away from any governments perceived to have helped or supported Gaddafi and toward those that helped or supported the rebels. This is already happening. If the NTC is a template for the government to follow, these process will be consolidated in practical ways: oil contracts, trade relations, border security, and diplomatic missions. The parallel jockeying for influence in the Sahara by the Libyan NTC and the Gaddadi loyalists could sputter along for decades, or it could feed into the larger conflicts in the region mentioned above.
The most interesting theater of the Gaddafi diaspora will be Algeria. Algeria has a violent and revolutionary history. No sooner than the French were forced out, but an indigenous Islamic insurgency conducted a brutal and bloody civil war that is still little understood, little appreciated, and little documented (coming, as it did, prior to 11 September 2001). No sooner had the iron fist of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika defeated this Islamic insurgency, but another indigenous popular movement burst on the scene: the Arab Spring. Had Bouteflika ruled in earlier decades, or in world in which the Arab Spring never happened, he would have been seen as a leader to back who would be, if not friendly to western interests, at least not hostile. Under other circumstances, we would have been seen as a bulwark to prop up. Now we cannot count on the kind of support that is forthcoming to those perceived as holding back the tide of chaos, and he is weakened as a result.
President Bouteflika sits on a powder keg: the same idea diffusion that demonstrated the possibility of successful revolution to the Libyans will have penetrated Algeria. If the Gaddafis can cross the border, so can smugglers and job seekers and human traffickers and those who have families on both sides of the border. Stories will be told. Audiences will listen in rapt attention. And this falls on the fertile soil of Algeria’s revolutionary tradition. But then there is the Gaddafi family thrown into the mix: they will have money and some political resources to draw upon. They will perhaps seek to exercise influence through connections and wealth, even as the Algerian government seeks to isolate and silence them. In this contest, both parties and weakened, and both will fight as an injured animal fights for survival.
If I had been Bouteflika, I would have bent every effort to keep the Gaddafis and their sympathizers out of the country, and I would have done everything to appear to the international community as a responsible stakeholder in the region, enforcing law and order, but not so harshly as to appear oppressive. Now it is too late for that. The Gaddafis can make trouble for years to come, especially if their patriarch uses them as mouthpieces, and the Algerians themselves may yet overthrow Bouteflika in their own Arab Autumn.
As I hope I have shown from the above considerations, North and Central Africa are complex crossroads, made all the more complex by recent events. With all these forces in play, the Sahara Desert may become a periphery that decides the fate of the political centers of the region. The momentum of history, at least in Africa, has passed into the vast emptiness of the interior of the continent. This will be a theater to watch in coming years.
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Note added Sunday 25 September 2011: Gaddafi’s daughter Aisha, ostensibly allowed into Algeria for humanitarian reasons, has made a public statement that has been broadcast on Syrian television. (cf. Alive and well! Libyan leader Gaddafi continuing his fight for power insists daughter) This comes after the oasis Sabha has fallen to NTC forces, and as breaking news is reporting that NTC forces have entered Sirte. It is difficult to believe that either al-Assad or Bouteflika could be so stupid as to allow themselves to get drawn into a losing fight, and at a time when revolutions are sweeping autocrats from power. Thus one instinctively seeks for some other motive at work. I can’t guess what that might be. Grasping at straws, I can only suggest what I suggested in Libya’s Seat at the UN: that they are standing up for the “principle” of autocracy.
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24 July 2011
It now appears that the responsible party for the bombing and shootings in Norway was an individual, an ideologically motivated “Lone Wolf” who practiced meticulous care not only in planning his attacks, but also in documenting his planning and preparation that extended over a period of many years. While the sheer scale of the carnage makes it difficult to believe that a single individual could have perpetrated these attacks, this is now a lesson in how “successful” a lone wolf attack can be when everything “goes right” according to the perspective of the attacker.
After the Oklahoma City bombing it was reported that the truck bomb assembled by Timothy McVeigh had only incompletely exploded, so that despite the massive destruction it caused, this destruction would have been even worse had the bomb performed as planned. With this in mind, I would guess that the bomb assembled by Anders Behring Breivik was of a similar design, and also reportedly assembled from fertilizer, like the Oklahoma City bomb, and that the extraordinary destructive power of the blast was due to the bomb functioning as intended.
Breivik, however, killed far more people in his shooting rampage than he did with his bomb. I can’t recall an incident outside a war zone in which a single individual killed so many in a single shooting rampage. As with this bomb, Breivik’s meticulous planning and preparation, coupled with the vulnerability of individuals living in a highly open society, seems to have yielded the intended result. If we compare Breivik’s shooting rampage with that of the Columbine killers, for example, who had hoped to kill hundreds, Breivik’s massacre approached the scale of efficacy to which the Columbine killers has aspired, without themselves achieving that scale.
However, Breivik’s “success” on a tactical and operational level — if we define success as the identification of an explicit objective and taking offensive action in order to attain that objective, both of which were embodied in Breivik’s plans — is coupled with a complete and utter failure on a strategic level. In this Breivik is to be compared not with Timothy McVeigh, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold — other isolated, ideologically motivated killers — but to Al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda was highly successful on an operational level, repeatedly carrying out simultaneous attacks on an international scale, but its strategic agenda never even got off the ground. Because of the tactical and operational efficacy of Al Qaeda, they posed a genuine threat, and so major military operations were taken to counter their power and influence. From this, many drew the conclusion that Al Qaeda had achieved its ends through its spectacular acts of terrorism. It had not. The terrorism was not an end in itself, but had an objective.
The strategic agenda of Al Qaeda was, narrowly conceived, to topple the Saudi government and to put in its place a militant Salafist regime in some respects modeled on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but ultimately modeled on the first community established by the Prophet himself in Medina (to which example the Taliban also looked). The grand strategic ambition of Al Qaeda, on the widest scale, was to trigger cascading revolutions throughout the Islamic world that would topple governments throughout the region, installing traditionalist regimes and ultimately the re-establishment of the Caliphate and the re-invigoration of the Islamic world.
Thus while Al Qaeda’s spectacular acts of terrorism were effective on a tactical and operational level, they were strategic failures, and, I would argue, utterly misconceived as the operations that would bring about the desired revolutionary contagion and the regime change desired. In fact, a very different revolutionary contagion did come to the region, though it was not based upon the ideological model of Al Qaeda, and the regime changes that have occurred as a result of this revolutionary contagion have not installed retrograde traditionalist regimes seeking to turn back the clock, but rather progressive regimes seeking to join the modern world.
What Al Qaeda and Anders Behring Breivik have in common is that they are ideologically-inspired violent revolutionaries. They are believers in revolutionary violence, and moreover believers that they can serve as the trigger for a wave of cascading revolutionary violence that will transform the political and social landscape. This mode of thought embodies what I have called a cataclysmic conception of revolution.
Another obvious point of reference here is Theodore Kaczynski, the unabomber, who also viewed himself as a one-man cadre whose actions would trigger a revolution, and indeed it was widely reported today that Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto included extensive extracts from Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future.
Since Anders Behring Breivik is alive and in custody, he may well provide the most thorough and complete picture of the violent revolutionary yet. Mostly the violent revolutionary accepts his death as the price of triggering a world-historical event. The death of violent revolutionaries itself serves an integral function in revolutionary violence, since a surviving revolutionary lives to see the failure of his cause and his careful plans and preparations come to nothing. A violent revolutionary whose death is written in to the histrionic scheme of his plot to trigger cascading revolutionary contagion can go to his death believing that, with his triggering action, the revolution has already begun, and it is merely a matter of the remaining events unfolding according to the ideological script.
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