20 August 2012
In several posts I have attempted to understand autocratic regimes “from the inside,” as it were, seeking to grasp the reasoning of those who take a principled stance in the denial of freedom to entire peoples and populations. I gave one formulation of this in Modeling the Other, and offered a practical interpretation of this in Mullah Mohammed Omar’s Eid al-Fitr Address for 2012. Moreover, I suggested that these formulations of autocracy cannot be dismissed as being merely amoral, since there is even an utilitarian moral justification for this, as I described in The Chinese Conception of Human Rights.
The moral defense of autocratic governance is that autocratic institutions are necessary to secure the greatest good for the greatest number, which is an unambiguously utilitarian conception. While this would be laughable in relation to the Taliban, were it not for the miserable condition of the Afghan people — one could even argue that the Taliban while in power secured rather the greatest harm to the greatest number, constituting the pure inversion of a utilitarian morality — but this argument is deadly serious when it comes to the Chinese, who both preach and practise it. More importantly, the Chinese have their admirers even among Westerners. While I am quite certain that these Western admirers of Chinese utilitarianism would be loathe to surrender their own individuality to the good of the masses, they seem quite content to argue that the Chinese should accept the surrender of their individuality to the state. Some of the worst hypocrites in this respect even imply that such political models should be brought to Western countries, though, again, their own personal autonomy is not to be infringed, but it is fine to infringe the autonomy of others who they take to be much less important than themselves.
However, I am not interested in exposing the hypocrisy of China admirers — Tom Friedman is often cited as an admirer of the efficiency of Chinese autocracy, though for my money Robert Kaplan is the more dangerous China admirer, since he makes the moral case for autocratic utilitarianism — who are today the useful idiots of autocracy as others once played the role of serving as the useful idiots of communism. Rather, today I am interested in extrapolating the principle of autocracy, understood in its full moral, social, political, and diplomatic dimensions, which brings us to the consideration of a perennial feature of the politics of power: spheres of influence.
The central principle of autocracy is the inviolability of autocratic rule. In geographical terms, this means the inviolability of the autocratically ruled geographical territory, and, if the legitimacy of neighboring regimes is recognized, the inviolability of the neighboring regime’s territory. This was concisely expressed by Mullah Mohammed Omar such that, “The Islamic Emirate does not intend to interfere in the internal affairs of others nor allow others to interfere in its internal affairs.” The same idea has been repeatedly expressed by every nation-state that resists political “interference” in “internal” matters. The idea here is that the autocratic regime possesses absolute autonomy within its own territory, including the power of life and death over its citizens, and acknowledges a parallel autonomy to hold for other regimes in other territories.
Every nation-state recognizes a limited form of this principle, out of the pragmatic realities of power projection even if not out of an intrinsic respect for the boundaries of another nation-state, but there are implicit limitations upon this principle, and we have seen these limitations tested repeatedly since the Second World War and its aftermath up to the present day. When a regime’s depredations upon its own people reaches a level which is considered genocidal, even those who recognize a limited form of territorial inviolability will countenance a violation of territorial integrity in the interest of ending a genocidal campaign against a people internal to a given nation-state.
However, since there is no universally recognized application of the idea of genocide to actual historical circumstances, there is always disagreement about the threshold of intervention on humanitarian grounds. We can agree, after the fact, there there was a genocidal program in progress in Nazi-occupied Europe, and we can agree that the Khmer Rouge were engaged in a genocidal program in Cambodia, but beyond these paradigm cases there is little agreement, and therefore thresholds of intervention vary for different political entities.
The autocrat often must involve himself in moral contortions to excuse, explain, and justify his depredations upon neighbors, and this often takes the form of denying the legitimacy of neighboring regimes (putatively the objects of mutual respect and mutual non-interference), much as the advocate of slavery must deny the common humanity of those subject to enslavement even while celebrating the humanity of those other individuals who fall within the charmed circle of the free who are presumably beyond enslavement. Similarly, the autocrat who invades his neighbors denies that neighboring regimes constitute legitimate forms of power and therefore are exempt from his principled respect for other regimes’ internal affairs.
While depredations upon neighboring regimes are precisely parallel to depredations upon one’s own population — the former is external while the latter is internal, so that these actions represent the external expression and power and the internal expression of power, respectively — the principle of autocracy as defined by power’s own inviolability is an infinitely flexible pretext for action characterized as an attempt to defend this inviolability. We know that one of the most common rhetorical tropes of autocracy is to blame internal dissent on agents provocateurs under the control of external actors; this immediately de-legitimizes dissent as not being an authentic expression of internally subject peoples and therefore constitutes a violation of the autocrat’s autonomy. Exactly this pretext is then naturally extended to the external powers claimed to be underwriting internal dissent. There is no quarter of the globe that lies beyond the reach of an autocrat convinced that he is being “attacked.”
The supposed inviolability of internal state security thus is not limited to internal security, but naturally is projected outward and externally. An autocrat, once having consolidated an internal security regime, immediately perceives the possibility of danger from abroad, and so seeks to extend this internal power as far as possible beyond his borders. The ability to project power with impunity beyond the geographical territory defined by state boundaries is a sphere of influence (in the geopolitical sense). Autocratic regimes of expanding influence eventually collide on the far boundaries of their spheres of influence.
History is rich in examples of powers mutually dividing the world between their respective spheres of influence. The Spanish and Portuguese division of the New World along the Tordesillas Meridian meant that European discoveries in the Western hemisphere would be divided between Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence. This division continues to the present day, although the English did not recognize the legitimacy of the Papal decree on spheres of influence in the New World and consequently created their own sphere of influence by fiat through the establishment of colonies.
The European colonial divisions of Africa and Asia are now notoriously cited as examples of spheres of political influence and domination, and indeed the very idea of a “sphere of influence” carries with it a certain taint of colonialism, but since the political world cannot really get past the idea of a sphere of influence, it persists, even if it is called by other names and practised most grievously by those who have been the loudest in their condemnation of colonialism.
Spheres of influence can be carefully for formally defined, as in the British, US, French, and Soviet occupation areas of Berlin following the Second World War. Berlin proved to be a microcosm of Cold War spheres of influence, which were not nearly so well defined, due to shifting alliances and the ideological opportunism of potential client states. As the Cold War developed and its paradigmatic divisions emerged across the planet, the reality of spheres of influence were felt in every aspect of life. The Cold War was a Total War the transformed the lives of all peoples inducted into the struggle; the global division between US and Soviet spheres of influence defined the boundaries of the Cold War.
There is a fundamental asymmetry between autocracies and non-autocratic regimes, and that asymmetry is that non-autocratic regimes recognize some form of popular sovereignty and have some form of democratic institutions, which limit the depredations of a regime upon its own people, whereas the autocratic regimes of the world have no such limitations upon their depredations. Thus the “internal” affairs of a non-autocratic regime are not likely to involve mass atrocities, whereas autocratic regimes may pragmatically choose to limit their depredations, but there is no restraint in principle on an autocratic regime’s depredations. And while autocracy begins its justifications at home, in terms of its internal security, we have seen that this internal security regime cannot in fact be limited within the borders of an autocratic nation-states. Therefore there is in principle no limitation on the depredations of a autocratic regime either upon its own people or upon neighboring regimes.
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15 January 2009
“Quand je considère la petite durée de ma vie absorbée dans l’éternité précédente et suivante (memoria hospitis unius diei praetereuntis), le petit espace que je remplis et même que je vois, abîmé dans l’infinie immensité des espaces que j’ignore et qui m’ignorent, je m’effraie et m’étonne de me voir ici plutôt que là, car il n’ya point de raison pour quoi à présent plutôt que lors.”
“When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after – as the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day – the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then.”
It is indeed astonishing to find oneself here rather than there, now rather than then. Pascal is especially remembered for expressing his consternation at finding himself thrown into the world (i.e., the concern with “thrownness” did not originate with Heidegger). It is frighteningly arbitrary, or, as is said today, “random.” And one ought to be astonished not only at being here rather than there, but also at being this rather than that, or of one condition rather than another.
William Blake — himself no mean social critic — put it all more poetically (as is to be expected from a poet):
Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born.
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
We are led to believe a lie
When we see not through the eye
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light.
God appears, and God is light
To those poor souls who dwell in night,
But does a human form display
To those who dwell in realms of day.
This is one of my favorite passages from Blake, and I can recite it by heart, not from effort of memorization, but from having returned to it time and again over the years. However impossible it is for me to inhabit the world of Blake’s imagination, this speaks to be quite directly for reasons that I cannot articulate.
For Blake, there was the ultimate promise of divine intervention. At the end of the world, all would be put right. For us, there is no such consolation. We must take the fact of the matter at its hardest point or betray ourselves by living in untruth.
It would be humorous, were it not so pathetic, to see how many people tracing their genealogy look eagerly for some signs of privilege in their family tree. Even Americans, who have little love for royalty or the idea of royalty, seem to take a perverse joy in finding some titled aristocrat connected to their lineage through the most tortuous and tenuous of relations.
The fact of the matter is that in the past — up through the nineteenth century for most regions of the world — the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) were anonymous peasants engaged in subsistence farming. While the industrial revolution profoundly changed societies around the world, since the advent of industrialization the vast majority of people (90 percent or more) are working class wage earners. In other words, most of us are unlikely to find an ancestry of wealth, privilege, or title.
While much has changed in history over the past thousand years or so, truth be told, much has not changed. The more things change, the more things remain the same. Human nature is durable, and human societies grow out of human nature. Indeed, society is a fractal that emerges from innumerable repetitions of the same, essentially simple, unit, and, for the purposes of society, the initial unit for iteration is the individual person.
What has not changed since the time of the very different civilization of the Middle Ages, with its rigid system of feudalism? What has not changed is that the political order of the world is run by a small number of elites who represent the interests of a small number of well-positioned and well-connected persons. This is not a conspiracy theory, it is historical fact, although a fact upon which most do not dwell. Why bother, after all? Nothing will change.
The hold that elites have over the world has not been diminished by the progress of industrialization, urbanization, and democratization. The historical trend, on the contrary, has been the opposite. As time passes, the elites become a progressively smaller minority. This happens for simple demographic reasons.
At present, the world is politically divided into nation-states. Each nation-state has its ruling class. There are perhaps a hundred or more people with real power in each state — more in some, fewer in others. There are fewer than two hundred nation-states. Do the math. That isn’t a lot of people. Even if we allow a thousand influential persons per nation-state, it is still a small number in comparison to the six billion or so of the rest of us. (Specifically, the elites in our more generous calculation above represent a third of a hundredth of a percent of world population. Expressed as a decimal, it is 0.003333…%)
The essential institutions of government can be maintained by a skeleton crew of elites even while population expands. As population relentlessly expands, the small number of people with real power expands at a much slower rate, and as a consequence it represents a progressively smaller slice of the world’s population.
One could only be reasonably angry with the birth lottery (if one is inclined to be angry about it at all) if there were some kind of plan, human or divine, involved it. But nothing could be further from the truth. This is simply the way the world is. Privilege emerged in history by the actions of a few energetic men, and it has been maintained by their heirs who find it pleasant. Thus, from the naturalistic perspective, there is no reason to be angry about the birth lottery. However, while there is no reason to be angry about it, there is also no reason to be happy about it. Like any other feature of the world, it is what it is.
My remarks here on the birth lottery are obviously inadequate. I should return to the topic. What I wrote above about privilege having its origins in the efforts of a few energetic men invites a treatment in terms such as those Locke used to defend private property in his second essay on civil government. And such a treatment invites a critique such as that to which Rousseau, and many others, subjected Locke.
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