18 June 2014
The recent military successes of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams — ad-Dawlat al-Islāmiyya fī’l-‘Irāq wa’sh-Shām — also known as ISIL, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in sweeping aside the Iraqi army and taking control of Mosul, Tikrit, and Falluja, has been a surprise. Iraq had fallen out of the news cycle, which has, of late, been dominated by Putin’s Russia and the turmoil in Ukraine. Now the cameras and reporters are heading back to Iraq to try to discover what went wrong, and in so doing they are also going back to school to try to understand why one of the rallying cries of ISIS is the effective nullification of the Sykes–Picot Agreement.
Here is one statement from an ISIS sympathizer that I managed to find, after hearing it quoted in another source (which latter I have since not been able to relocate):
“In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, this is one of the destruction (mechanism, devices) of the Safavid Iraqi army (referring to the Shiite Safavid dynasty in Iran). This is their flag. All the prayers belong to God. And to you [God] goes all our gratitude. This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders. This is God’s grace. What remains of any borders of Muslim land. Oh God all our prayers belong to you. This is their destruction. They ran away. By God’s blessing. They are the lions of the Levant. Peace be upon you, God is great. This is their evil flag, we will remove it, God willing. For ISIL. That is God’s grace. God’s blessing on them.”
I found this text at Raw: ISIL Fighters Attack on Iraq-Syria Border, and despite the fact that I have found the line “This is the end of Sykes-Picot borders” quoted in other media sources, this is the only place that I could find the context of this quote. There is more on the role if the Sykes–Picot Agreement in the ideology of ISIS in How ISIS Is Tearing Up The Century-old Map Of The Middle East by Charles M. Sennott on the MintPress news site.
It is all very well to chant about the end of Sykes-Picot borders, but what does it mean? How are we to understand Islamist militants being pushed out of Iraq into the civil war in Syria, only to burst back over the border and take possession of Mosul, Iraq’s second city. And why was one of the symbolic actions of that crossing back into Iraq from Syria the use of a bulldozer to push through the earthen berm that defines the border in this part of the Levant?
An intelligent (but limited) article on the BBC by Fawaz A Gerges, London School of Economics, Iraq’s central government suffers mortal blow, diagnoses the problems in Iraq exclusively in terms of short term causes (since the ouster of Saddam Hussein). Gerges even invokes the Weberian concept of sovereignty to explain Iraq’s state failure: “It is doubtful if Baghdad could ever establish a monopoly on the use of force in the country, or exercise authority and centralised control over rebellious Sunni Arabs and semi-independent Kurdistan.” Gerges implies by his analysis that one can adequately understand the conflict in Iraq (and presumably also in Syria) with reference to the last ten or twenty years of political developments. This is an inadequate historical framework. We must go back a hundred years to examine the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and this agreement came to have the significance that it did only because of what preceded it.
Like the division of Europe made at the Yalta Conference before Hitler was defeated on the battlefield (though the end was in sight), the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Levant before the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled these lands, was decisively defeated. But we all know that the Ottoman Empire was the “sick man of Europe,” and even the Tsar, precariously perched on his own empire as he was, seemed secure in comparison to the Ottoman sultans. All had witnessed the decline of the Ottoman Empire, and it only remained to wait for (or hasten) its fall.
The Sykes–Picot Agreement was controversial even before it came into effect. Stratfor noted in The Intrigue Lying Behind Iraq’s Jihadist Uprising by Reva Bhalla that:
“When the French and British were colluding over the post-Ottoman map in 1916, czarist Russia quietly acquiesced as Paris and London divided up the territories. Just a year later, in 1917, the Soviets threw a strategic spanner into the Western agenda by publishing the Sykes-Picot agreement, planting the seeds for Arab insurrection and thus ensuring that Europe’s imperialist rule over the Middle East would be anything but easy.”
In “Isis defies repeated efforts to destroy its capability” in the Financial Times (Thursday 12 June 2014), Erika Solomon writes, “Aspiring to create an Islamic caliphate, Isis is already operating over a state-sized amount of territory of its own, stretching east of Aleppo, through desert frontiers into western Iraq.” Solomon quotes analyst Hayder al-Khoei as saying, “A few months ago, Isis was mostly doing hit and run attacks, albeit sophisticated ones. Now it’s holding territory. That’s what’s scary: they feel capable of confronting the state,” and quotes ISIS sympathizer “Shami Witness” (who may be the same individual responsible for the longer quote above) as saying, “Their aim is to expand reasonably, and the goal is definitely Baghdad now.”
The establishment of a new caliphate, the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire are linked as differing perspectives on the same historical object. The end of the Ottoman Empire was, to be sure, an opportunity for European colonialism, but it was at the same time the end of an ancient Islamic institution that had endured for more than a thousand years: the Ottoman sultan was the last caliph to rule an Islamic territorial empire and to preside over a dynasty. The Sykes–Picot Agreement is symbolically important not only as an expression of European colonialism and imperial impunity, but also as the agreement that defined the terms by which the last caliphate came to an end (though it was the Grand National Assembly of Ankara who deposed the Ottoman sultan ‘Abd al- Majid II and abolished the caliphate in February 1924).
For many Jihadis and militant Islamists, the establishment of a new caliphate is the unwavering aim to which they are committed with a symbolic determination equal to the symbolic humiliation that they attribute to the Sykes–Picot Agreement. In The Management of Savagery, which I previously cited in The Farther Reaches of Civilization (and which we might characterize as a call for revolutionary violence on the part of Islamic militants), the author laments ineffectual Muslim efforts to secure an Islamic state:
…the Muslims and their organizations quarreled about what they had to do to establish the state of Islam according to the prophetic method. It is a dishonorable and disgraceful affair. Even though the people of Islam possess the largest resources (needed for) achieving success controlling the state, those who did not have the resources very easily became rulers of states and those who had the resources became exiles who did not possess a single meter of land on which to die peacefully.
The people built their states, laid its foundations, and buttressed them. They made its pillars firm and they secured its resources and they instructed the ummah as they saw fit. They acquired advanced positions while the people of Islam were still debating and quarreling about the ideal method for establishing the Islamic state! All of the debaters claim that their proof for what they believed regarding the establishment of the Islamic state was derived from the prophetic method.
Regrettably, some of the people still think that this method needs more investigation and research and many of the people of religion still gather the people together in order to tell them about the ideal method for causing the downfall of the Taghuts or the ideal method of reviving the State of the Caliphate.
The Management of Savagery: The Most Critical Stage Through Which the Umma Will Pass, Abu Bakr Naji, Translated by William McCants, Funding for this translation was provided by the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, and any use of this material must include a reference to the Institute. 23 May 2006
What is (or what was) the caliphate? Here is one perspective:
The caliphate (al-khilāfa) is the term denoting the form of government that came into existence in Islamic lands after the death of the Prophet Muhammad and is considered to have survived until the first decades of the 20th century. It derives from the title caliph (khalīfa, pl. khulafā’ or khalā’if), referring to Muslim sovereigns who claimed authority over all Muslims. The caliphate refers not only to the office of the caliph but also to the period of his reign and to his dominion—in other words, the territory and peoples over whom he ruled. The office itself soon developed into a form of hereditary monarchy, although it lacked fixed rules on the order of succession and based its legitimacy on claims of political succession to Muhammad. The caliphate was constrained by neither any fixed geographical location or boundaries nor particular institutions; rather, it was coterminous with the reign of a monarch or a dynasty.
Gerhard Bowering, editor, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, Princeton University Press, 2013, p. 81
As with any historical institution, the more one reads the history of the caliphate, the more complex the story becomes, and the more difficult it is to extract any one historical lesson from the tangle of particular instances that constituted the institution while it was viable. Whatever the historical ambiguities of the caliphate, the ISIS militants are among those Islamist groups for which the establishment of a new caliphate is a central imperative. It is, because of its historical complexity, an imperative that comes with strings attached, but ISIS may yet prove itself to be the organization that can realize this now century-old dream. I do not think that this is likely, but it is at least possible.
Despite the strong ideological orientation of ISIS, the militant group apparently has no scruples about profiting from its activities. An article in The Guardian by Martin Chulov in Baghdad, How an arrest in Iraq revealed Isis’s $2bn jihadist network, claims that a recent intelligence coup revealed ISIS to have amassed a fortune worth 875 million dollars, all meticulously documented. Try to imagine a group of radical militants with nearly a billion dollars in their control — it is a wonder that they only took Mosul and didn’t go all the way to Baghdad while they were on a roll. (As with the quote above, this story in the Guardian in the only source I could find for this information.)
In a further demonstration of pragmatism, the radicalized and ideologically-motivated militant Islamists of ISIS are not blind to the fact that they cannot merely proclaim a new caliphate, but that any new caliphate must be credible — militarily, politically, ideologically, and religiously. For a caliphate to be credible, it must be established across the divisions of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and it must hold and administer this territory according to the contemporary paradigm of the nation-state, because this is the recognizable form of political power in our time. (It does not matter that the Islamic conception of the Ummah has more in common with the personal principle in law and the nation-state is the territorial principle in law made manifest.) A caliphate must furthermore be able to defend itself, and command the approbation of at least some Islamic scholars, preferably the most eminent among them. This will be difficult. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has already said, “Defense of Iraq and its people and holy sites is a duty on every citizen who can carry arms and fight terrorists.”
A new caliphate must be existentially viable in order to be credible. To establish a caliphate only to see it ignominiously go down in defeat would probably be a political disaster much greater than failing to re-establish a caliphate. In this, Islamist militants of many different loyalties who in common look toward a new caliphate seem to be as one, and ISIS seems to understand this as well. Whether or not they can make it a reality, only time will tell.
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12 June 2014
Scientific civilization changes when scientific knowledge changes, and scientific knowledge changes continuously. Science is a process, and that means that scientific civilization is based on a process, a method. Science is not a set of truths to which one might assent, or from which one might withhold one’s assent. It is rather the scientific method that is central to science, and not any scientific doctrine. Theories will evolve and knowledge will change as the scientific method is pursued, and the method itself will be refined and improved, but method will remain at the heart of science.
Pre-scientific civilization was predicated on a profoundly different conception of knowledge: the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, the fons et origo of the world (as I discussed in my last post, The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State). Knowledge here consists of delineating the truth of the world prior to its later historical accretions, which are to be stripped away to the extent possible. More experience of the world only further removes us from the original source of the world. The proper method of arriving at knowledge is either through the study of the original revelation of the original truth, or through direct communion with the source and origin of being, which remains unchanged to this day (according to the doctrine of divine impassibility).
The central conceit of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to be based upon revealed eternal verities has been so completely overturned that its successor civilization, industrial-technological civilization, recognizes no eternal verities at all. Even the scientific method, that drives the progress of science, is continually being revised and refined. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…”
Scientific civilization always looks forward to the next development in science that will resolve our present perplexities, but this comes at the cost of posing new questions that further put off the definitive formulation of scientific truth, which remains perpetually incomplete even as it expands and becomes more comprehensive.
This has been recently expressed by Kevin Kelly in an interview:
“Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.”
The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]
Scientific civilization, then, is not based on a naïve belief in progress, as is often alleged, but rather embodies an idea of progress that is securely founded in the very nature of scientific knowledge. There is nothing naïve in the scientific conception of knowledge; on the contrary, the scientific conception of knowledge had a long and painfully slow gestation in western civilization, and it is rather the paradigm that science supplants, the theological conception of knowledge (according to which all relevant truths are known from the outset, and are never subject to change), that is the naïve conception of knowledge, sustainable only in the infancy of civilization.
We are coming to understand that our own civilization, while not yet mature, is a civilization that has developed beyond its infancy to the degree that the ideas and institutions of infantile civilization are no longer viable, and if we attempt to preserve these ideas and institutions beyond their natural span, the result may be catastrophic for us. And so we have come to the point of conceptualizing our civilization in terms of existential risk, which is a thoroughly naturalistic way of thinking about the fate and future of humanity, and is amenable to scientific treatment.
It would be misleading to attribute our passing beyond the infancy of civilization to the advent of the particular civilization we have today, industrial-technological civilization. Even without the industrial revolution, scientific civilization would likely have gradually come to maturity, in some form or another, as the scientific revolution dates to that period of history that could be called modern civilization in the narrow sense — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism. And here by “maturity” I do not mean that science is exhausted and can produce no new scientific knowledge, but that we become reflexively aware of what we are doing when we do science. That is to say, scientific maturity is when we know ourselves to be engaged in science. In so far as “we” in this context means scientists, this was probably largely true by the time of the industrial revolution; in so far as “we” means mass man of industrial-technological civilization, it is not yet true today.
The way in which science enters into industrial-technological civilization — i.e., by way of spurring forward the open loop of industrial-technological civilization — means that science has been incorporated as an integral part of the civilization that immediately and disruptively followed the scientific civilization of modernism without industrialism (according to the Preemption Hypothesis). While the industrial revolution disrupted and preempted almost every aspect of the civilization that preceded it, it did not disrupt or preempt science, but rather gave a new urgency to science.
In several posts I have speculated on possible counterfactual civilizations (according to the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism), that is to say, forms of civilization that were possible but which were not actualized in history. One counterfactual civilization might have been agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization undisrupted by the scientific or industrial revolutions. Another counterfactual civilization might have been modern civilization in the narrow sense (i.e., Modernism without Industrialism) coming to maturity without being disrupted and preempted by the industrial revolution. It now occurs to me that yet another counterfactual form of civilization could have been that of industrialization without the scientific conception of knowledge or the systematic application of science to industry.
How could this work? Is it even possible? Perhaps not, and certainly not in the long term, or with high technology, which cannot exist without substantial scientific understanding. But the simple expedient of powered machinery might have come about by the effort of tinkerers, as did much of the industrial revolution as it happened. If we look at the halting and inconsistent efforts in the ancient world to produce large scale industries we get something of this idea, and this we could call industrialism without modernity. Science was not yet at the point at which it could be very helpful in the design of machinery; none of the sciences were yet mathematicized. And yet some large industrial enterprises were built, though few in number. It seems likely that it was not the lack of science that limited industrialization in classical antiquity, but the slave labor economy, which made labor-saving devices pointless.
There are, today, many possibilities for the future of civilization. Technically, these are future contingents (like Aristotle’s sea battle tomorrow), and as history unfolds one of these contingencies will be realized while the others become counterfactuals or are put off yet further. And in so far as there is a finite window of opportunity for a particular future contingent to come into being, beyond that window all unactualized contingents become counterfactuals.
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4 June 2014
There is a spectre haunting China — the spectre of Tiananmen. It is now a quarter century since the June 4 incident, as it is known among the Chinese. The Chinese government is concerned that the symbolic significance of 25 years since the carnage in Tiananmen Square will mean the resurfacing of memories that the communist party of China has diligently sought to suppress and conceal. Within China, they have been largely successful, but they have not exorcised the spectre of Tiananmen, which haunts public consciousness even as it is carefully expunged. Can a nation forget? Ought a nation to forget? To put the question in a new light, does a nation have the right to forget? Does China have the right to forget the Tiananmen massacre?
There has been a great deal of attention recently focused on what is now called “the right to be forgotten,” as the result of a European Court of Justice ruling that has forced the search engine Google to give individuals the opportunity to petition for the removal of links that connect their names with events in their past. This present discussion of a right to be forgotten may be only the tip of an iceberg of future conflicts between privacy and transparency. It is to be expected that different societies will take different paths in attempting to negotiate some kind of workable compromise between privacy and transparency, as we can already see in this court ruling Europe going in one direction — a direction that will not necessarily be followed by other politically open societies.
The Chinese communist party that presided over the Tiananmen massacre would certainly like the event to disappear from public consciousness, and to pretend as though it never happened, and the near stranglehold that the communist party exercises over society means that it is largely successful within the geographical extent of China. But outside China, and even in Hong Kong and Taiwan, the memory does not fade away as the communist party hopes, but remains, held in a kind of memory trust for the day when all Chinese can know the truth of Chinese history. A hundred years from now, when the communist party no longer rules China, and the the details of its repression are a fading memory that no one will want to remember, Tiananmen will continue to be the “defining act” of modern Chinese history, as it has been identified by Bao Tong (as reported in the recent book People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited by Louisa Lim).
The right to be forgotten could be understood as an implementation of the right to privacy, but it is also suggestive of the kind of control of history routinely practiced by totalitarian societies, and most notoriously by Stalin, who had individuals who had fallen out of favor excised from history books and painted out of pictures and photographs, so that it was as though the individual had never existed at all. It has been suggested that this extreme control of history was intended to send a message to dissidents or potential dissidents of the pointlessness of any political action taken against the state, because the state could effectively make them disappear from history, and their act of defiance would ultimately have no meaning at all.
Many have observed that there is no right to privacy written into the US Constitution, and some have proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would secure such a legal right to privacy. I found one such proposed amendment, worded as follows:
“Each person has the right to privacy, including the right to keep personal information private; to communicate with others privately; and to make decisions concerning his or her body.”
But a nation-state is not a person, not an individual, and while advocates of the nation-state and the system of international anarchy that prevails among nation-states claim on the behalf of the nation-state supra-personal rights, I think that the moral intuitions that predominate in our time deny to political entities — in principle, if not always in practice — the kind of rights that persons have, or ought to have, and I further suspect that among those who advocate a right to privacy or a right to be forgotten, than they would not likely extend this right to political entities.
Few would argue that the individual deserves greater consideration when it comes to privacy than a political entity. This idea has already been incorporated into law. In libel and slander cases, individuals considered private citizens are viewed in a different light by the courts than public figures such as politicians and celebrities, and I am sure that at least one of the motivations on behalf of the “right to be forgotten” is the idea that private citizens deserve a certain anonymity and a higher level of protection. Nevertheless, the opportunities for abuse of the right to be forgotten are so obvious, and so apparently easily exploited, that it is at least questionable whether a right to be forgotten can be considered an implementation of one aspect of a right to privacy (which latter, as noted above, does not itself have legal standing in most nation-states).
I think that the worry that individuals will be dogged by a past on the internet that they would rather forget is overstated. We hear about the egregious cases in which individuals lose their jobs because of off-color photographs from years before, but the media emphasis that falls upon these cases tends to obscure how social networks actually function. On most online social networks, individuals post a vast amount of material, the vast bulk of which is rapidly pushed into the past by new posts piling up on top of them. Most things are forgotten quite quickly, and it takes a real effort to locate some post from the past amid the sheer amount of material.
The exception to this rapid receding even of the recent past is what has come to be called the Streisand Effect: when the attempt to suppress information results in the wider dissemination of the same information. In other words, it is often the attempt to suppress information that creates a situation in which a right to be forgotten becomes an issue. If an individual or a nation-state did not try to sanitize its past, much of these past would naturally fall into obscurity and would eventually be forgotten.
The institutional memories of nation-states guarantee, on the one hand, that many things will not be forgotten, while on the other hand the equally institutional suppression of events, or versions of events, can become something like an imperative to forget, that buries in the silent grave of the past all that the institution and its agents do not want on the conscience of the nation-state. Nietzsche once wrote that, “My memory says, ‘I have done this.’ My pride says, ‘I could not have done this.’ Soon my memory yields.” This, I think, is equally true for nation-state and for individuals.
It is this imperative to forget, to put behind that which is a burden to the conscience of the individual or the institution, that provokes the opposite reaction — the moral demand that a memory not be forgotten, and this is why one of the most familiar political slogans is, “Never forget.” There is a Wikipedia article on “Never forget,” calling it, “a political slogan used to urge commemoration and remembrance for national tragedies,” and noting that, “It is often used in conjunction with ‘never again’.” Both of these slogans are as appropriate for Tiananmen as for any other national tragedy one might care to name.
In Twenty-one years since Tiananmen I mentioned the then-recently published diary of Li Peng, who compared Tiananmen to the Cultural Revolution, and justified the Tiananmen crackdown as necessary to avoid another tragedy of Chinese history on the scale of the Cultural Revolution. Thus for Li Peng, the massacre at Tiananmen on 04 June 1989 was itself undertaken in the spirit of “Never again.” During the Cultural Revolution, China has scarcely more government than Somalia has today; the state during the Cultural Revolution was essentially represented by roving bands of Red Guards who killed and destroyed virtually at will. The attitude of Li Peng and other communist leaders who ordered the massacre was, “Never forget” the Cultural Revolution, and never allow it to happen again. In their eagerness to avoid another national tragedy, they created another national tragedy that in its turn has become a focus of the imperative to never forget.
The emergence of the memory of Tiananmen as an imperative to never forget, no less than the imperative to never forget the Cultural Revolution, poses a problem for the authority of the Chinese communist party, and the party has taken the familiar Stalinist path of attempting to control institutional memory. Rather, however, than the brutal amnesia of Stalinist Russia, when disgraced party members were painted out of heroic celebrations on communist triumph with a certain awkwardness so as to remind the people that individuals can be forgotten and written out of history, the Chinese have approached the problem of controlling history as a pervasive low-level intervention.
An article in the Wall Street Journal, Tiananmen Crackdown Shaped China’s Iron-Fisted Approach to Dissent, describes the method of the Chinese police for dealing with dissidents:
“In taking down Mr. Zhang, police applied a well-honed, layered strategy to nip opposition in the bud. His moves were carefully tracked online and in real life. He was apprehended just before the Chinese New Year, when it was less likely to attract attention, and then quietly released into a life of isolation. ‘These are strategies that have been used over and over again,’ says Maya Wang, Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch. ‘Tiananmen also started small. The government has to be on the lookout for sparks… They’ve been working on this for 25 years’.”
The skittishness of Chinese authorities entails a low threshold for intervention, meaning that the state feels it must act on the smallest suspicion of dissent. It is this skittishness that led to the suppression of a movement as apparently innocuous as Falun Gong.
We all know that tyrants and dictators eviscerate civil society, leaving nothing to a people but the dictator himself, or his cronies, so that the people are utterly reliant on the state for all things; here there is no alternative to the one, universal institution of dictatorship. While China’s economic opening to the world has been so dramatic that there has been a tendency to view Beijing’s totalitarianism as a perhaps kinder and gentler totalitarianism, in actual fact the low threshold for dissidence in the wake of Tiananmen has meant systematically dismantling and deconstructing any and all spontaneous institutions of civil society, wrecking any promising social movement that might serve as an alternative focus for social organization not dictated by the communist party.
This evisceration of civil society, at all levels and across all institutions, may well mean yet another “Never forget, never again” moment will define China’s future history. Without robust institutions of civil society outside the exclusive control of China’s communist party, weathering the coming storms of history will not be easy, and the communist party of China is building into its rule a kind of brittleness that will not serve either itself for the people of China when the country experiences the kind of strategic shocks that are inevitable in the long term history of a nation-state.
In the meantime, the Chinese communist party will continue to assert its right to forget its own unpleasant past, and to defend this right by policing its own amnesia. This, again, incorporates a kind of brittleness into the rule of the party, even a kind of schizophrenia in actively seeking to suppress not only a memory, but also public consciousness of the meaning of China’s modern history.
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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:
2013 A Dream Deferred
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3 June 2014
A distinction often employed in historiography is that between the diachronic and the synchronic. I have written about this distinction in several posts including Axes of Historiography, Ecological Temporality and the Axes of Historiography, Synchronic and Diachronic Geopolitical Theories, and Synchronic and Diachronic Approaches to Civilization.
It is common for this distinction be be explained by saying that the diachronic perspective is through time and the synchronic perspective is across time. I don’t find this explanation to be helpful or intuitively insightful. I prefer to say that the diachronic perspective is concerned with succession while the synchronic perspective is concerned with interaction within a given period of time. Sometimes I try to drive this point home by using the phrases “diachronic succession” and “synchronic interaction.”
In several posts I have emphasized that futurism is the historiography of the future, and history the futurism of the past. In this spirit, it is obvious that the future, like the past, can also be approached diachronically or synchronically. That is to say, we can think of the future in terms of a succession of events, one following upon another — what Shakespeare called such a dependency of thing on thing, as e’er I heard in madness — or in terms of the interaction of events within a given period of future time. Thus we can distinguish diachronic futurism and synchronic futurism. This is a difference that makes a difference.
One of the rare points at which futurism touches upon public policy and high finance is in planning for the energy needs of power-hungry industrial-technological civilization. If planners are convinced that the future of energy production lies in a particular power source, billions of dollars may follow, so real money is at stake. And sometimes real money is lost. When the Washington Public Power Supply System (abbreviated as WPPSS, and which came to be pronounced “whoops”) thought that nuclear power was the future for the growing energy needs of the Pacific Northwest, they started to build no fewer than five nuclear power facilities. For many reasons, this turned out to be a bad bet on the future, and WPPSS defaulted on 2.25 billion dollars of bonds.
The energy markets provide a particularly robust demonstration of synchrony, so that within the broadly defined “present” — that is to say, in the months or years that constitute the planning horizon for building major power plants — we can see a great number of interactions within the economy that resemble nothing so much as the checks and balances that the writers of the US Constitution built into the structure of the federal government. But while the founders sought political checks and balances to disrupt the possibility of any one part of the government becoming disproportionately powerful, the machinations of the market (what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand”) constitute economic checks and balances that often frustrate the best laid schemes of mice and men.
Energy markets are not only a concrete and pragmatic exercise in futurism, they are also a sector that tends to great oversimplification and are to vulnerable to bubbles and panics that have contributed to a boom-and-bust cycle in the industry that has had disastrous consequences. The captivity of energy markets to public perceptions has led to a lot of diachronic extrapolation of present trends in the overall economy and in the energy sector in particular. I’ve written some posts on diachronic extrapolation — The Problem with Diachronic Extrapolation and Diachronic Extrapolation and Uniformitarianism — in an attempt to point out some of the problems with straight line extrapolations of current trends (not to mention the problems with exponential extrapolation).
An example of diachronic extrapolation carried out in great detail is the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?, speculating on how the economy will change as gasoline prices continue to climb, and written as though nothing else would happen at the same time that gas prices are going up. If we could treat one energy source — like gasoline — in ideal isolation, this might be a useful exercise, but this isn’t the case.
When the price of fossil fuels increase, several things happen simultaneously. More investment comes into the industry, sources that had been uneconomical to tap start to become commercially viable, and other sources of energy that had been expensive relative to fossil fuels become more affordable relative to the increasing price of their alternatives. Also, with the passage of time, new technologies become available that make it both more efficient and more cost effective to extract fossil fuels previously not worth the effort to extract. Higher technologies not only affect production, but also consumption: the extracted fossil fuels will be used much more efficiently than in the past. And any fossil fuels that lie untapped — such as, for example, the oil presumed to be under ANWR — are essentially banked in the ground for a future time when their extraction will be efficient, effective, and can be conducted in a manner consistent with the increasingly stringent environmental standards that apply to such resources.
Energy industry executives have in the past had difficulty in concealing their contempt for alternative and renewable resources, and for decades the mass media aided and abetted this by not taking these sources seriously. But that is changing now. The efficiency of solar electric and wind turbines has been steadily improving, and many European nation-states have proved that these technologies can be scaled up to supply an energy grid on an industrial scale. For those who look at the big picture and the long term, there is no question that solar electric will be a dominant form of energy; the only problem is that of storage, we are told. But the storage problem for solar electricity is a lot like the “eyesore” problem for wind turbines: it has only been an effective objection because the alternatives are not taken seriously, and propaganda rather than research has driven the agenda. The Earth is bathed in sunlight at all times, but one side is always dark. a global energy grid — well within contemporary technological means — could readily supply energy from lighted side to the dark side.
Even this discussion is too limited. The whole idea of a “national grid” is predicated upon an anarchic international system of nation-states in conflict, and the national energy grid becomes in turn a way for nation-states to defend their geographical territory by asserting control of energy resources within that territory. There is no need for a national energy grid, or for each nation-state to have a proprietary grid. We possess the technology today for decentralized energy production and consumption that could move away from the current paradigm of a national energy grid of widely distributed consumption and centralized production.
But it is not my intention in this context to write about alternative energy, although this is relevant to the idea of synchrony in energy markets. I cite alternative energy sources because this is a particular blindspot for conventional thinking about energy. Individuals — especially individuals in positions of power and influence — get trapped in energy groupthink no less than strategic groupthink, and as a result of being virtually unable to conceive of any energy solution that does not conform to the present paradigm, those who make public energy policy are often blindsided by developments they did not anticipate. Unfortunately, they do so with public money, picking winners and losers, and are wrong much of the time, meaning losses to the public treasury.
When an economy, or a sector of the economy, is subject to stresses, that economy or sector may experience failure — whether localized and containable, or catastrophic and contagious. In the wake of the late financial crisis, we have heard about “stress testing” banks. Volatility in energy markets stress tests the components of the energy markets. Since this is a real-world event and not a test, different individuals respond differently. Individuals representing institutional interests respond as one would expect institutions to respond, but in a market as complex and as diversified as the energy market, there are countless small actors who will experiment with alternatives. Usually this experimentation does not amount to much, as the kind of resources that institutions possess are not invested in them, but this can change incrementally over time. The experimental can become a marginal sector, and a marginal sector can grow until it becomes too large to ignore.
All of these events in the energy sector — and more and better besides — are occurring simultaneously, and the actions of any one agent influence the actions of all other agents. It is a fallacy to consider any one energy source in isolation from others, but it is a necessary fallacy because no one can understand or anticipate all the factors that will enter into future production and consumption. Energy is the lifeblood of industrial-technological civilization, and yet it is beyond the capacity of that civilization to plan its energy future, which means that industrial-technological civilization cannot plan its own future, or foresee the form that it will eventually take.
Synchrony in energy markets occurs at an order of magnitude that defies all prediction, no matter how hard-headed or stubbornly utilitarian in conception the energy futurism involved. The big picture reveals patterns — that fossil fuels dominate the present, and solar electric is likely to dominate the future — but it is impossible to say in detail how we will get from here to there.
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27 May 2014
A great deal of contemporary political stability — much more than we usually like to think — is predicated upon the careful management of public opinion and the engineering of consent. The masses that constitute mass society in an age of mass man have the vote, and as voters they play a role in the liberal democracies that populate Fukuyama’s end of history, but we must observe that the role the voters play in democracy is carefully circumscribed. (A perfect example of this is the lack of transparency built into the US electoral college, adding layers of procedural rationality between the voters and the outcome of the process.) There is always a tension in liberal democracies predicated upon the management of public opinion of how far and how hard the masses can be pushed. If they are pushed too hard, they riot, or they fail to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. If they are not pushed hard enough, or if they are not sufficiently fearful of authority, again, they might riot, or they might not work hard enough to keep the wheels of industry turning.
So political elites don’t push, they nudge. The nauseating paternalism of the “nudge” mentality among contemporary politicians (which, instead of being called “engineering consent,” which is a term that carries unfortunate connotations, is now called, “active engineering of choice architecture”) derived the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, seeks to apply the findings of behavioral economics to public policy decisions — with the proviso, of course, that it is the people in charge, the people who make public policy, who know best, and if we want a better world we need to give them a free hand to shape our choices. Unfortunately, the working class masses are not in a position to actively engineer the choice architecture of political leaders, although it is at least arguable that the political elite need an engineered choice architecture far more than the masses.
The European Union has been testing the boundaries of how far the European masses can be pushed (or nudged) to cooperate in bringing about the vision of a unified Europe, and with the Euroskeptics winning in many different regions of Europe, it appears that the European masses are pushing back by failing to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. The political class of the European Union has just been handed a sharp rebuke that is a reminder of the limits of engineering consent, and they have been remarkably open and honest about it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on the BBC on the need for economic development, “This is the best answer to the disappointed people who voted in a way we didn’t wish for.”
This European openness about the failure of Europe’s political class to effectively engineer the consent of the governed for the political and economic programs planned by the political elite is an important corrective to the American tendency to see conspiracies and secret cabals behind every unexpected turn of events. In Europe, the politicians have been honest that they wanted one result, and the people gave a different result. French President François Hollande was quoted as saying he would, “reaffirm that the priority is growth, jobs and investment.” Why are Merkel and Hollande united in seeing the need for jobs and economic development? Because they know that workers making good wages and who see a future for themselves and their families will mostly let the politicians have their way. It is when times are not good that voters push back against the grandiose dreams of politicians that seem to have little or no practical benefit. Europe’s political class is well aware that if the European masses have growth, jobs, and investment that they will be far more compliant at election time.
However, Hollande also said of the Eurozone financial crisis (now apparently safely in the past) that Europe had survived, “but at what price? An austerity that has ended up disheartening the people.” This latter statement demonstrates the degree to which Hollande fails to understand What is going on even as the ground shifts beneath his feet. One must understand that when European politicians talk about “austerity” what they really mean is resisting unchecked deficit spending, which would then be justified on Keynesian grounds. (I earlier called this the Europeanese of the financial crisis.) It isn’t “austerity” that has disheartened the people; it is Europe that has disheartened the people, the Europe of the European Union, but this realization is almost impossible for true believers in the European idea.
The tension between the masses in representative democracies and their putative political representatives has become obvious and explicit with this EU election in which “Euroskeptics” have been the most successful candidates. This tension can also be understood by way a very simple thought experiment: If you really had a free choice to elect whomever you liked as your political leader(s), are the political representatives you have now the ones you would choose? I think that any honest answer to this question must be, “No.” And this leaves us with the further question as to how these “leaders” came into power if they are not the choice of the people. The answer is relatively simple: these where the leaders that the political system produced for the consumption of the public. The public isn’t happy with its leaders, and the leaders aren’t happy with the public, but they are stuck with each other.
There is a limit to the extent to which the disconnect between rulers and ruled can grow before a social system becomes unworkable. Early in this blog in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that two paradigms for the social organization of industrial society had been tried and found wanting, and that we are today searching for a further paradigm of social consensus to supersede those that have failed us. The mutual alienation between political elites and working masses in the liberal democracies of today is a symptom of the lack of social consensus, but in so far as these classes of society feel stuck with each other we have not yet reached the limits of the disconnect.
However, this mutual alienation tells us something else that is interesting, and this is the continued role of mythological political visions in an age of apparent pragmatism. The alienation that lies at the root of what Eric Voegelin called “gnosticism” in politics is here revealed as the alienation of the leadership of a democratic society from the people they presumptively represent (Hollande said of the EU that it had become, “remote and incomprehensible”) and of the people from its “leadership.”
Gnosticism is a worldview in which secret knowledge is reserved for initiates into the higher mysteries. Here is one of Voegelin’s definitions of gnosis:
“…a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special quality of a spiritual and cognitive elite.”
Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Vol. 34, Columbia University, 2006, Glossary of Terms, p. 160
How does the claim to gnosis reveal itself in our pragmatic, bureaucratic age? Gnosis is necessarily distinct for each of the political classes, each of which has created its own political mythology in which it is an unique and indispensable historical actor on an eschatological stage. For mass man, gnosis takes the form of “consciousness raising,” whether being made aware, for the first time, of his status as a worker (proletarian), his race, his ethnicity, or any other property that can be employed to distinguish the elect. Access to official secrets is the special privilege and the secret knowledge of the elite political classes — the elect of the nation-state — so that to compromise these secrets and the privilege of access to them is to call into question the political mythology of the elites.
The creation of universal surveillance states is part of the this development, since the efficient management of mass man is predicated upon knowing the masses better than the mass knows itself — knowing what the mass wants, what will placate its tantrums, how hard it can be pushed, and, then the masses push back, how they can be most effectively distracted, mollified, and redirected. The extreme reaction to the revelation of official secrets as we have seen in the hysterical responses on the part of the elite political classes to Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks are the result of challenging the political mythos of the ruling elite.
In Europe, residual nationalism, ethnocentrism, and communism still resonate with some sectors of the electorate, and all of these can be be the focus of a purported gnosis; it is precisely the fragmented and divided nature of these loyalties that has kept Europe a patchwork of warring nation-states, and which threatens to torpedo the idea of a unified Europe. In the US, the intellectual lives of the workers have evolved in a different direction, which has resulted in an entirely new political mythology born out of a syncretism of conspiracy theories. (Political conspiracy theories also play a significant role in Africa, Arabia, and parts of Asia; perhaps they will yet come to the European masses.) The elite political classes are contemptuous of the conspiracy theories that excite the masses, even when these conspiracy theories verge uncomfortably close to the truth, but they are jealous in the extreme of their own “secret” knowledge obtained through surveillance. Thus we experience what Ed Snowden has called the Merkel Effect, wherein a member of the elite political class is subject to the very surveillance to which they have subjected others, and it is regarded as a scandal. The masses, on the other hand, are often defiant when their conspiracy theories are subject to rational examination, calling into question their own “secret” knowledge of how the world functions.
It is important to note that both the rise of conspiracy theories on the part of the masses and the rise of surveillance on the part of elite classes are parallel developments. Both classes of society are seeking forms of secret knowledge — that is say, this is the perfect illustration of Voegelin’s thesis on the role of gnosticism in contemporary political societies.
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Some past posts in which I have considered Europe, the European Union, and the Eurozone…
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24 May 2014
In my post on why the future doesn’t get funded I examined the question of unimaginative funding that locks up the better part of the world’s wealth in “safe” investments. In that post I argued that the kind of person who achieves financial success is likely to do so as a result of putting on blinders and following a few simple rules, whereas more imaginative individuals who want adventure, excitement, and experimentation in their lives are not likely to be financially successful, but they are more likely to have a comprehensive vision of the future — precisely what is lacking among the more stable souls who largely control the world’s financial resources.
Of course, the actual context of investment is much more complex than this, and individuals are always more interesting and more complicated than the contrasting caricatures that I have presented. But while the context of investment is more complicated than I have presented it in my previous sketch of venture capital investment, that complexity does not exonerate the unimaginative investors who have a more complex inner life than I have implied. Part of the complexity of the situation is a complexity that stems from self-deception, and I will now try to say something about the role of self-deception on the part of venture capitalists.
One of the problem with venture capital investments, and one the reasons that I have chosen to write on this topic, is that the financial press routinely glorifies venture capitalists as financial visionaries who are midwives to the future as they finance ventures that other more traditional investors and institutional investors would not consider. While it is true that venture capitalists do finance ventures that others will not finance, as I pointed on in the above-linked article, no one takes on risk for risk’s sake, so that it is the most predictable and bankable of the ventures that haven’t been funded that get funding from the lenders of last resort.
Venture capitalists, I think, have come to rather enjoy their status in the business community as visionaries, and are often seen playing the role in their portentous pronouncements made in interviews with the Wall Street Journal and other organs of the financial community. By and large, however, venture capitalists are not visionaries. But many of them have gotten lucky, and herein lies the problem. If someone thinks that they understand the market and where it is going, and they make an investment that turns out to be successful, they will take this as proof of their understanding of the mechanisms of the market.
This is actually an old philosophical paradox that was in the twentieth century given the name of the Gettier paradox. Here’s where the idea comes from: many philosophers have defined knowledge as justified true belief (something that I previously discussed in A Note on Plantinga). I myself object to this definition, and hold, in the Scholastic tradition, that something known is not a belief, and something believed cannot be said to be known. So, as I see it, knowledge is no kind of belief at all. Nevertheless, many philosophers persist in defining knowledge as justified true belief, even though there is a problem with this definition. The problem with the definition of knowledge as justified true belief is the Gettier paradox. The Gettier paradox is the existence of counter-examples that are obviously not knowledge, but which are both true and justified.
Before this idea was called the Gettier paradox, Betrand Russell wrote about it in his book Human Knowledge. When stated in terms of “non-defeasibility conditions” and similar technical ideas, the Gettier paradox sounds rather daunting, but it is actually quite a simple idea, and one that Russell identified with simple examples:
“It is clear that knowledge is a sub-class of beliefs: every case of knowledge is a case of true belief, but not vice versa. It is very easy to give examples of true beliefs that are not knowledge. There is the man who looks at a clock which is not going, though he thinks it is, and who happens to look at it at the moment when it is right; this man acquires a true belief as to the time of day, but cannot be said to have knowledge. There is the man who believes, truly, that the last name of the Prime Minister in 1906 began with a B, but who beleives this because he thinks that Balfour was Prime Minister then, whereas in fact it was Campbell Bannerman. There is the lucky optimist who, having bought a lottery ticket, has an unshakeable conviction that he will will, and, being lucky, does win. Such instances can be multiplied indefinitely, and show that you cannot claim to have known merely because you turned out to be right.”
Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964, pp. 154-155
Of Russell’s three examples, I like the first best because it so clearly delineates the idea of justified true belief that fails to qualify as knowledge. You look at a stopped clock that indicates noon, and it happens to be noon. You infer from the hands on the dial that it is noon. That inference if your justification. It is, in fact, noon, so your belief is true. But this justified true belief is based upon accident and circumstance, and we would not wish to reduce all knowledge to accident and circumstance. Russell’s last example involves an “unshakeable conviction,” that is to say, a particular state of belief (what analytical philosophers today might call a doxastic context), so it isn’t quite the pure example of justified true belief as the others.
An individual’s understanding of history is often replete with justified true beliefs that aren’t knowledge. We look at the record of the past and we think we understand, and things do seem to turn out as we expected, and yet we still do not have knowledge of the past (or of the present, much less of the future). When we read the tea leaves wrongly, we are right for the wrong reasons, and when we are right for the wrong reasons, our luck will run out, sooner rather than later.
Contemporary history — the present — is no less filled with misunderstandings when we believe that we understand what it is happening, we anticipate certain events on the basis of these beliefs, and the events that we anticipate do come to pass. This problem compounds itself, because each prediction borne out raises the confidence of the investor, who is them more likely to trust his judgments in the future. To be right for the wrong reasons is to be deceived into believing that one understands that which one does not understand, while to be wrong for the right reason is to truly understand, and to understand better than before because one’s views have been corrected and one understands both that they have been corrected and how they have been corrected. Growth of knowledge, in true Popperian fashion, comes from criticism and falsification.
This problem is particularly acute with venture capitalists. A venture capital firm early in its history makes a few good guesses and becomes magnificently wealthy. (We don’t hear about the individuals and firms that fail right off the bat, because they disappear; this is called survivorship bias.) This is the nature of venture capital; you invest in a number of enterprises expecting most to fail, but the one that succeeds succeeds so spectacularly that it more than makes up for the other failures. But the venture capital firm comes to believe that it understands the direction that the economy is headed. They no longer think of themselves as investors, but as sages. These individuals and firms come to exercise an influence over what gets funded and what does not get funded that is closely parallel to the influence that, say, Anna Wintour, has over fashion markets.
Few venture capital firms can successfully follow up on the successes that initially made them fabulously wealthy. Some begin to shift to more conservative investments, and their portfolios can look more like the sage of Omaha than a collection of risky start ups. Others continue to try to stake out risky positions, and fail almost as spectacularly as their earlier successes. The obvious example here is the firm of Kleiner Perkins.
Kleiner Perkins focused on a narrow band of technology companies at a time when tech stocks were rapidly increasing, also known as the “tech bubble.” Anyone who invested in tech stocks at this time, prior to the bubble bursting, made a lot of money. Since VC focuses on short-term start-up funding, they were especially positioned to profit from a boom that quickly spiraled upward before it crashed back down to the earth. In short — and this is something everyone should understand without difficulty — they were in the right place at the right time. After massive losses they threw a sop to their injured investors by cutting fees and tried to make it look like they were doing something constructive by restructuring their organization — also known as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” But they still haven’t learned their lesson, because instead of taking classic VC risks with truly new ideas, they are relying on people who “proved” themselves at the tech start-ups that they glaringly failed to fund, Facebook and Twitter. This speaks more to mortification than confidence. Closing the barn door after the horse has escaped isn’t going to help matters.
Again, this is a very simplified version of events. Actual events are much more complex. Powerful and influential individuals who anticipate events can transform that anticipation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are economists who have speculated that it was George Soros’ shorting of the Thai Baht that triggered the Asian financial crisis of 1997. So many people thought that Soros was right that they started selling off Thai Baht, which may have triggered the crisis. Many smaller economies now take notice when powerful investors short their currency, taking preemptive action to head off speculation turning into a stampede. Similarly, if a group of powerful and influential investors together back a new business venture, the mere fact that they are backing it may turn an enterprise that might have failed into a success. This is part of what Keynes meant when he talked about the influence of “animal spirits” on the market.
What Keynes called “animal spirits” might also be thought of as cognitive bias. I don’t think that it one can put too much emphasis on the role of cognitive bias in investment decisions, and especially in the role of the substitution heuristic when it comes to pricing risk. In Global Debt Market Roundup I noted this:
It seems that China’s transition from an export-led growth model to a consumer-led growth model based on internal markets is re-configuring the global commodities markets, as producers of raw materials and feedstocks are hit by decreased demand while manufacturers of consumer goods stand to gain. I think that this influence on global markets is greatly overstated, as China’s hunger for materials for its industry will likely decrease gradually over time (a relatively predictable risk), while the kind of financial trainwreck that comes from disregarding political and economic instability can happen very suddenly, and this is a risk that is difficult to factor in because it is almost impossible to predict. So are economists assessing the risk they know, according to what Daniel Kahneman calls a “substitution heuristic” — answering a question that they know, because the question at issue is either too difficult or intractable to calculation? I believe this to be the case.
Most stock pickers simply don’t have what it takes in order to understand the political dynamics of a large (and especially an unstable) nation-state, so instead of trying to engage in the difficult task of puzzling out the actual risk, an easier question is substituted for the difficult question that cannot be answered. And thus it is that even under political conditions in which wars, revolution, and disruptive social instability could result in an historically unprecedented loss or expropriation of wealth, investors find a way to convince themselves that it is okay to return their money to region (or to an enterprise) likely to mismanage any funds that are invested. The simpler way to put this is to observe that greed gets ahead of good sense and due diligence.
Keynes thought that the animal spirits (i.e., cognitive biases) were necessary to the market functioning. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps venture capital also can’t function without investors believing themselves to be right, and believing that they understand what is going on, when in fact they are wrong and they do not understand what is going on. But unless good sense and due diligence are allowed to supplement animal spirits, a day of reckoning will come when apparent gains unravel and some unlucky investor or investors are left holding the bag.
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12 May 2014
In several posts I have discussed Francis Fukuyama’s influential essay (now considered a bit dated) on the “end of history” — Marx and Fukuyama, History Degree Zero, and The Zero Hour Thesis — which for Fukuyama means the end of titanic ideological struggles between existential enemies. Here is a definitive passage from Fukuyama’s essay:
“In order to refute my hypothesis, then, it is not sufficient to suggest that the future holds in store large and momentous events. One would have to show that these events were driven by a systematic idea of political and social justice that claimed to supersede liberalism. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan — horrible as that would be for those countries — does not qualify, unless it somehow forced us to reconsider the basic principles underlying our social order.”
Do we see, anywhere in the world’s current events, any sign of a systematic idea of political and social justice that claims to supersede political liberalism (or has pretenses to supersede liberalism)? Given Fukuyama’s intellectual debt to Hegel, we might begin such an inquiry by looking at some of the conflicts in the world today to see if they betray any signs of any nascent ideological conflicts that may come to define the titanic struggles of the future. Let us consider some of the world’s trouble spots at this moment: Egypt, Syria, and Ukraine.
After the hopes raised by the Arab Spring it is deeply disappointing to see the developments in Egypt, and even more deeply disappointing to see the supine reaction of the western liberal democracies (presumably those nation-states that carry aloft the torch of the liberal democracy that Fukuyama still sees as the unchanged political idea and ideal of our time), which have accepted without protest a de facto military dictatorship that has sentenced hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death and declared that the only truly representative institution in the country would exist no more. Nothing good is likely to come of this, but the world looks on, once again preferring the elusive promise of short-term stability over the messy but sustainable democratic process. Thus the political context of the developments in Egypt since the Arab Spring represent the same old, same old in geopolitics. Egypt is not yet even close to liberal democracy, so it is in no position to move beyond this to an innovative new ideology.
Syria is looking more and more like the Lebanese civil war, with multiple factions fighting over control of a nation-state while simultaneously fighting each other. Syrians are suffering, and the stagnation of the conflict suggests that the people of Syria will continue to suffer. No major power is willing to involve itself to bring about a decisive end to the conflict — Russia is not about to intervene on behalf of Assad, and the western powers are not about to intervene on behalf of the rebels — so the bloodletting will continue until some contingent and unpredictable event ends it, or until those doing the fighting get so sick of killing that they stop (as more or less happened in Lebanon). Syria seems mired in tribalism, so that, like Egypt, it is in no position to represent some novel ideological conflict.
In Egypt and Syria it is autocracy that is asserting itself, re-asserting itself, or attempting to re-assert itself. The Islamists make headlines through a mastery of the hyperreal event, but they have been markedly unsuccessful in bringing about any change. Even the recent displacement of governments by the Arab Spring has not resulted in any clear political victories for Islamists. We see instability, and the consequent attempt to impose stability and restore order; what we do not see is the emergence of an unambiguously Islamist regime, much less the restoration of the Caliphate, which is one of the key symbolic political events to which Islamists look forward. Indeed, Egypt represents the defeat even of moderate Islamists. There is no question that radical Islamic militancy views itself as a systematic idea of political and social justice that supersedes liberalism, but I think that even the advocates of radical Islam recognize that this is not a universal doctrine, and that if it is fit for any people, it is for those peoples who already fall under Islamic civilization.
What some are called the “resurgence of Russia” following the annexation of the Crimea and agitation in southern and Eastern Ukraine for closer ties with Russia could easily be assimilated to a narrative to the “return of history” (which I previously discussed in The Historical Resonance of Ideas, Doctrinaire and Inorganic Democracy, and Anniversary of a Massacre — too easily, as I see it. There is nothing particularly compelling about this narrative, and the “return of history” offers no systematic idea of political and social justice. Its only attraction is its facile familiarity and the ease with which the pundits evoke it.
Russia, which remains the overwhelming military power in Eurasia, is again re-negotiating its borders and its sphere of influence after a contraction of these following the end of the Cold War. This is nothing of great historical importance, however deleteriously it affects the lives of Ukrainians today. All of this is predictable, and should surprise no one. Even less than the situations in Egypt and Syria does the situation in Ukraine represent anything new from the geopolitical perspective. We could just as well assimilate these developments to the rise of autocracy in Russia, and this would be a little more accurate than talk of the “return of history,” except that Russia has rarely deviated from autocracy, so it would be deceptive to imply that Russian autocracy had lapsed and then been reborn under Putin. This patently is not the case.
None of these conflicts cause us to question or to reformulate the basic principles underlying our social order, yet there are developments of interest today for what they portend about the future. In my last post, The Finlandization of Germany, I mentioned what I called the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, as based on the devolution of warfare. During the Cold War, the devolution of warfare emerged as a strategy to avoid the possibility of wars crossing the nuclear threshold and triggering a massive nuclear exchange and mutually assured destruction. In the post-Cold War period the devolution of warfare has shifted to keep military depredations below the threshold of atrocity, thereby avoiding intervention by the international community.
I also mentioned the growth in efficacy of guerrilla forces. Both of these developments — devolution of state power below the threshold of atrocity and escalation upward to the threshold of atrocity by guerrilla groups — play a role in the three conflicts discussed above. That powerful states have sought to keep their depredations below the threshold of atrocity, while the most ambitious non-state actors have sought to precipitate hyperreal atrocities and therefore to claim the mantle previously reserved to nation-states, means that state power and asymmetrical warfare converge on a new symmetry defined by atrocity. Asymmetrical warfare converges on symmetry. Some have called this “symmetrizing,” although this term has meant the efforts by nation-states to copy the asymmetrical tactics of non-state actors, the better to counter their efficacy.
While much of this is of purely military significance — the attempt by disparate forces to engage each other on terms that each chooses, even while the other tries to force the other to engage on its terms — and so we can consider this merely the attempt to arrive at a balance of power between nation-state and non-state actors, it is of historical significance that the nearly all-powerful nation-state finds itself challenged by non-state actors, and challenged to the point that it is forced to respond.
Implicit in Fukuyama’s position that liberal democracy is the only systematic idea of political and social justice that survives following the collapse of communism is that that nation-state is the locus of liberal democracy. Beyond this implicit condition that liberal democracy be realized by nation-states, there is the historical fact that nation-states exist in a condition of anarchy vis-à-vis each other, i.e., the anarchical state system. Liberal democracy, then, is contingent upon nation-states embedded in an anarchical international system.
The challenge that asymmetrical non-state actors present to the nation-state they also present to both the liberal democracy realized by the nation-state and to the anarchical international system that is the condition the the contemporary nation-state that realizes liberal democracy. There is a sense, then, in which the ability of non-state actors acting asymmetrically and successfully challenging the nation-state that is a radical challenge to the locus of liberal democracy. However, this challenge does not rise to the level of constituting a systematic idea of political and social justice. At present, it is merely a threat. However, should we see this process continue, and the nation-state loses ground against non-state actors, those who sense the shift may endow this shift with meaning and value that it does not possess at present. At that time, a systematic idea of political and social justice may emerge, but it has not as of yet.
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8 May 2014
In my previous post on the violence in Ukraine, The Finlandization of Ukraine?, I discussed Zbigniew Brzezinski’s call for the Finlandization of Ukraine as a way to deescalate the political situation and to arrive at some kind of diplomatic understanding that would leave Ukraine intact.
Strange though it may sound, Zbigniew Brzezinski’s hope for Ukrainian Finlandization was not all that different from Sergei Lavrov’s call for a “neutral and federal” Ukraine. Realistically, whether formulated in Brzezinski’s terms or Lavrov’s terms, the only way to prevent Ukraine from being dismembered and retaining its unity as a nation-state is to allow a great deal of autonomy so that the southern and eastern portions of the country could cultivate ties with Russia while the northern and western portions of the country could cultivate ties with Europe, while the Government in Kiev would have to step gingerly so as to avoid offending Moscow. The possibility of this solution is now probably close to nil, since the rising violence has disillusioned everyone and reduced what little trust there may have been between Russian-sympathizing Ukrainians and European-sympathizing Ukrainians.
What we are seeing is not the Finlandization of Ukraine that Zbigniew Brzezinski hoped to see, because he hoped to see Ukraine remain intact; what we are seeing is not the loose federalism that Lavrov suggested would have been acceptable to Moscow; what we are seeing is the de facto division of Ukraine between regions of majority Ukrainian speakers who look toward closer relations with western Europe and majority Russian speaking regions in which the people look toward their cultural and ethnic ties with Russia. Whether the partition of Ukraine remains de facto or is eventually formalized de jure as the two halves go their separate ways, there is little that can be done in the present climate to avoid partition (which, as I argued in The Finlandization of Ukraine?, is not the disaster it is made out to be).
For all practical purposes, then, Ukraine will be partitioned. But Finlandization is still relevant to the discussion, because the unwillingness of European governments to take a strong stand against Russia — they talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk — reveals that those nation-states that will not be partitioned as a result of Russia’s resurgence many be forced into conciliating the Russian steamroller — i.e., Europe itself already finds itself forced into a gradual Finlandization as it scurries to show its support for Ukraine while not taking any action that would result in Russian using its fossil fuel levers to make Europe pay a real price for “supporting” Ukraine.
Europeans have been found to be quite idealistic when it comes to the criticism of US involvement in regional wars, but Europe is markedly less idealistic when it comes to issues that potentially can inflict direct damage upon the European economy — like supporting Ukraine materially in a way that would negatively impact Russia. Germany has the largest economy in the European Union, so it has the most to lose in any economic war that might come out of escalating sanctions between Russia and the European Union over Ukraine. Germany imports about 35 percent of its natural gas from Russia, and this is already setting the stage for political conflict. (Cf. Debate on Russian energy imports strains German coalition)
Russia has a long history of using its fossil fuel supplies as a political tool, and it has not hesitated to do the same in the present conflict over Ukraine. Ukraine, through which 15 percent of European gas transits, has been put on notice by Gazprom that as of June 01 Gazprom will only deliver pre-paid natural gas to Ukraine, which Gazprom is contractually entitled to demand because Ukraine is late paying for its gas. Gazprom has already raised the price of natural gas from $268.50 per thousand cubic meters to $485.50 — almost double. (cf. Moscow ups stakes in gas dispute by Jack Farchy in Moscow and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev)
Although the western press has contended to see who can be the most vociferous in the condemnation of Putin for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Putin is not doing anything surprising or unprecedented, as I attempted to explain in The Putin Doctrine. Putin has opportunistically expanded Russia’s influence in Eurasia, but he has not attempted to exert control on the ground in any region where the population is hostile to Russia. In other words, and despite the near-hysteria in the press, we aren’t going to see a Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Poland. These peoples have made it clear that they do not want to be part of Russia, and under contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection, it would be nearly impossible for Russia to establish a security regime in these regions. Similarly, it would be nearly impossible for Russia to establish a security regime in the northwest of Ukraine where the people are unsympathetic to Russia. But southern and Eastern Ukraine are another matter entirely. Where the Russians can use a sympathetic population as a foot in the door for geopolitical expansionism — whether in Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, or Crimea — Russia will do so.
In the above paragraph I wrote of, “contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection.” What do I mean by this? What I mean is the particular nature and level of intensity of force projection that is accepted in the current international system. This is not anything that has been formalized in a treaty — there are treaties that address this, but they are without real teeth — but an unspoken convention that has emerged from the sociopolitical developments since the end of the Second World War. …
This long and slow development of a de facto set of conventions limiting force projection was one of the parallel threads of the Cold War that was simply not noticed because it was mired in the Cold War dyad, but the anti-colonial struggles under the dyad of superpower competition set the stage for this development, and once the Cold War ended this thread could become a dominant narrative (even if unrecognized as such) in the post-Cold War world. The unspoken convention to limit the use of force both reinforces and is enforced by the devolution of war as this developed from the global Cold War competition to countless local struggles, each unique rooted in the history of the region, and having little or no connection to a global narrative.
There are several contributing factors that have led to the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection. One of these factors has been the revolutionary, anti-colonial, and asymmetrical conflicts waged since the end of the Second World War. Asymmetrical conflicts in which poorly equipped, poorly funded guerrilla forces have humiliated much larger and better equipped forces has been the “proof of concept” of asymmetrical efficacy. Peoples all over the world, by reading the news and watching television, have been made pervasively aware that a guerrilla force that can move among a people like fish in the sea (as Mao put it), can exact unacceptably high costs on traditional military forces, especially when these forces attempt to occupy any geography with a hostile population.
In order to establish a security regime on the ground, any occupying force needs the cooperation of at least the majority of the peoples who live in the region, and even, given the ability of an armed minority to exercise a “violence veto” on any peace settlement, in some cases a robust consensus is required. Peoples have to accept the need for order and stability. If the majority of the population rejects the authority of a political power that seeks to establish a security regime on the ground by projecting force into a geographical region, it is nearly impossible to assert political authority in the region with the contemporary parameters of geopolitical force projection.
The level of direct physical force that is necessary to establish order and stability among a population that rejects the force seeking to impose order and stability would exceed the threshold of atrocity, meaning that the world’s attention would be fixed on the particular conflict, and the fact of the world’s attention being focused would change both the perception and the reality of the conflict, lowering the threshold of atrocity and making it all the more difficult to enforce a security regime on an unwilling people. The attempt to enforce order in the teeth of opposition and publicity is possible, but it would constitute a war of extermination, and wars of extermination are so far beyond the threshold of atrocity that even the most supine political regimes in the international system would be prodded into action.
Putin is not about to cross the threshold of atrocity, much less to pursue a war of extermination in southern or eastern Ukraine — or anywhere else. Russia will confine itself to the most civilized forms of economic warfare when it comes to its relations with Europe, and Europe will have to decide whether the conflict in Ukraine is, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing,” or whether Europe is prepared to sacrifice on behalf of Ukraine.
In the unlikely event that Russia cuts off natural gas supplies to western Europe — and it is much more likely to reduce supplies, raise prices, and demand pre-payment, as it has done with Ukraine — the European economy would take a major hit. Probably the European Union economy would contract for several successive quarters, if not for several successive years (if, again, the unlikely event of Russia cutting off natural gas could be maintained year on year, which is even more unlikely). The European economy would not “collapse,” though it would have a few bad years. Efforts to shift to renewable resources would be accelerated, importation of Norwegian natural gas would increase, and other sources of fuel and opportunities for conservation would be found. All of this would be painful, but it would also ultimately be a stimulus to the economies of the Eurozone.
As noted above, the extreme scenario of a complete cutoff of Russian gas is unlikely, but it is survivable. Less extreme scenarios of raised prices and reduced supplies would also be painful for Europe, but less catastrophic in effect, and would give the European economies an opportunity to shift their procurement of energy supplies from Russia to other sources under less drastic conditions. But it is the fear of economic pain — economic contraction, recession, unemployment, budget deficits, social unrest — that is enough in itself to dissuade the Europeans, and especially the Germans, from taking a hard line with Putin’s Russia. Russia has already made this calculation, and who can fault them for making it? If the Europeans can be brought into line with the implicit threat of a few years of discomfort, this is a relatively cheap way for Russia to expand its geostrategic scope.
Even in this climate of avoiding confrontation with Russia, that is to say, in the climate of the Finlandization of Europe, we will see increased efforts in Europe to shift away from dependence upon Russian natural gas, but the more gradual and extended the transition, the more people are likely to forget the Ukrainian crisis and to once again look favorably upon Russian natural gas. The more that alternative supplies and sources are found, the price of Russian natural gas will drop as demand drops, and there will be a great temptation to become reliant of Russian natural gas once again. This is the virtue of a forced, rapid, and uncomfortable transition from dependence: the shift is decisive, and few are likely to forget the cause of it.
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