The Apotheosis of Immiserization

28 May 2011


One of Voltaire’s most famous aphorisms is, “If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities.” I cannot but think of Tertullian in this connection, whose equally famous aphorism was, “I believe because it is absurd.” In other words, I believe because I want to perpetrate atrocities, or, if you prefer, in order to commit atrocities, find an absurdity to justify it. This brings us to a famous aphorism from Pascal, which pretty much sums up the foregoing: “Men never do evil so fully and cheerfully as when we do it out of conscience.”

With the past hundred years of carnage — we will soon “celebrate” the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War — it is all too easy for us to pick an atrocity from history, more or less at random, in order to remind ourselves how bad things can be. In a recent post I cited Europe during the Thirty Years’ War as a paradigm case of a deeply dysfunctional society, but I could just as well have cited the immediately lapsed century. With so many atrocities to choose from, it is easy to lose sight of those ongoing forms of suffering that remain below the threshold of atrocity.

I consider these less-than-atrocities to be important to the understanding of recent history, and so I have written about them in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities and The Threshold of Atrocity, and I tried to show how these carefully moderated atrocities have, in effect, been turned into weapons systems in The Weaponization of Eliminationism. Other than non-atrocities below the threshold of outright atrocities, one of the central exhibits of absurdities that cause suffering is immiserization.

It is incomprehensible to me personally, given how difficult life is without intentionally making things worse, that so many people do intentionally make things worse, and especially political “leaders” make a career of the immiserization of their people even while they pursue their own aggrandizement and enrichment. With this in mind, I was particularly struck by a line from Roula Khalaf’s column in yesterday’s Financial Times. In “Loyalist elite helps rulers hang on as armies fragment,” Khalaf wrote:

“Western officials say Mr Assad has done irreparable damage to his regime even if he manages to stay on. They predict it is a question of time before Col. Gaddafi and Mr. Saleh succumb to pressures for their exits – though perhaps not before they drag their battered countries through further ruin.”

Ms. Khalaf is exactly right in this. “Leaders” of the likes of Gaddafi and Saleh have spent their careers contributing to the immiserization of their peoples, and now as their last act in power they drag their peoples through further ruin. The most that could be said of such leaders is that, had they left gracefully, history books might have recorded that, although they were all-around lousy bastards, at least they left when the jig was up, or didn’t resist too hard when the time came for their exit. Such “leaders” could, at best, be seen as “caretaker” regimes bridging the post-WWII settlement to the twenty-first century, maintaining stability in a region not yet prepared to join the rest of the world in what Heilbronner called the Great Ascent. Mind you, I am not myself arguing for this interpretation, which I regard as absurd, but it is plausible that a sympathetic historian might make the case.

But most of these recalcitrant leaders are not bowing out gracefully. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt left without too much resistance only because their respective militaries did not back them. In Yemen and Syria and Libya, there is at least a rump military force willing to continue to fight for the ruling regime, and so that regime hangs on, because they know nothing but hanging on, and in the course of event further blackening their posthumous reputations.

Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, and Moamar Gaddafi of Libya will be remembered not as great leaders or as great nationalists or as heroic anti-colonists who championed their peoples in the face of former colonial powers — the role that many of them play in their imaginations — but only for the apotheosis of immiserization that they imposed upon their peoples. As contemptible as this is, it is not new, and it has been done before.

While it sounds like a cheap shot, the model for this behavior is Hitler, who apparently felt himself justified in bringing total ruin upon the Germans since they proved themselves unequal to the task that Hitler had set for them in conquering the world. It is worthwhile to read Hitler’s My Last Testament in order to get a sense of the megalomaniac’s sense of their place in history. Here is a passage from Hitler’s My Last Testament:

After six years of war which, despite all setbacks, will one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of the struggle for existence of a nation, I cannot abandon the city which is the capital of this Reich. Since our forces are too meager to withstand the enemy’s attack and since our resistance is being debased by creatures who are as blind as they are lacking in character, I wish to share my fate with that which millions of others have also taken upon themselves by remaining in this city. Further, I shall not fall into the hands of the enemy who requires a new spectacle, presented by the Jews, for the diversion of the hysterical masses.

I have therefore decided to stay in Berlin and there to choose death voluntarily when I determine that the position of the Fuhrer and the Chancellery itself can no longer be maintained. I die with a joyful heart in the knowledge of the immeasurable deeds and achievements of our peasants and workers and of a contribution unique in the history of our youth which bears my name.

That I am deeply grateful to them all is as self-evident as is my wish that they do not abandon the struggle but that, no matter where, they continue to fight the enemies of the Fatherland, faithful to the ideals of the great Clausewitz. Through the sacrifices of our soldiers and my own fellowship with them unto death, a seed has been sown in German history that will one day grow to usher in the glorious rebirth of the National Socialist movement in a truly united nation.

Many of our bravest men and women have sworn to bind their lives to mine to the end. I have begged, and finally ordered, them not to do so but to play their part in the further struggle of the nation. I ask the leaders of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force to strengthen the National Socialist spirit of resistance of our soldiers by all possible means, with special emphasis on the fact that I myself, as the founder and creator of this movement, prefer death to cowardly resignation or even to capitulation.

May it become a point of honor of future German army officers, as it is already in our Navy, that the surrender of a district or town is out of the question and that, above everything else, the commanders must set a shining example of faithful devotion to duty unto death.

Of course Hitler was deluded; that is not the question. What is important here is the species of delusion, which seems to be common to a certain kind of dictator. All the evasions and dishonesties we find in Hitler constitute a type; this type is not unique, and it regularly recurs in history, though the type of the megalomaniacal dictator does not always occur in history with the means with which to carry out destruction on the scale that Hitler was able to bring about.

In this, I find myself differing from John Lukacs, who has written several books on Hitler. In Lukacs’ The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age he wrote:

“Cruelty, as all human characteristics, is a matter of quality, not of quantity. Hitler’s cruelty was cold and mental; He was sui generis. There were plenty of other Nazis, anti-Semites, German nationalists, racialists and demagogues, but no one like Hitler. We will not see the likes of him again. He did not accord with any type.”

After denying the Hitler belonged to any type, Lukacs went on to assert that Stalin did belong to a recognizable type.

What set Hitler apart was not his unique qualities, but rather the simple quantity of the damage he was able to do and the immiserization he was able to cause. Hitler was able to place himself at the head of one of the most powerful industrialized nation-states of his time. If this should happen again, a similar degree of misery and devastation could well occur again. The megalomaniacal dictators of our time, while they do not possess the resources that Hitler had it his command, do remind us that the spirit of megalomania is alive and well in the world today.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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2 Responses to “The Apotheosis of Immiserization”

  1. vik said

    ‘political “leaders” make a career of the immiserization of their people even while they pursue their own aggrandizement and enrichment.’

    Leadership does not mean Management or Social Engineering of some piecemeal sort to maximize a given Social Welfare function. On the contrary, it generally means providing a role model and serving a signalling function w.r.t meta-preferences — i.e. what you should want yourself to want.
    Govt. is very much about creating a constituency for itself, creating a demand for its own monopolistic product.

    In so far as Govts. and political leaders reduce preference diversity they ensure that there will be gains from trade and the division of labour.
    It is impossible to decide in advance whether the stuff they want us to consume — including their own speeches and cracker barrel philosophy — is good or bad for us.

    The Education of Henry Adams reveals that the Civil War was fought by a political class to no good end. It was as though these highly cultured and intelligent and articulate men were simply sleep-walking to disaster.

    Gandhi was a political leader who thought everybody should stop having sex, eating tasty food, studying interesting things like physics and maths, wearing comfortable clothes, going to doctors, using trains or automobiles etc. etc. He is still considered a great leader and was praised by Obama recently.

    Hitler, who was brought into Politics by the German Army, had a different idea of what Germans should want to want. In general it was stuff which the military would have also wanted the Germans to want. The sad thing is that there were a couple of years in the mid 30’s when Hitler (who kept out of economic policy) seemed to be doing better than Baldwin in England or Roosevelt in U.S. (vide Keynes in his preface to the German edition of the General Theory).

    I can recall Gaddafi being widely admired back in the 70s. He was praised for protecting young Libyans from mindless consumerism and (Marcuse) repressive desublimation and other such fashionable nonsense. Come to think of it, Saudi Arabia’s disastrous agricultural policy was also lauded as ‘sustainable’ and ‘culturally sensitive’ back in the benighted Eighties.

    The problem with judging leaders is that we don’t know what’s round the corner. If civilization had really destroyed itself as Gandhi thought it would, then his Ashrams would now serve the same function as Cluniac Monasteries during Western Europe’s dark Ages.

    As for Hitler, had Germany been a little weaker, he’d have lived to be an ally of ours like Franco.

    Let us suppose some nutjob in North Korea or wherever decides the sky is going to fall on our heads and orders his people to dig deep tunnels for a chosen few to survive underground. Well, if a meteor hits and only these guys survive then guess what? He was the greatest leader in Human History.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Vik,

      Thanks for your contribution. I must admit that I don’t even know where to start in making a response, as you have made a number of statements but I am unable to find a thread or a thesis upon which to hang any further remarks.

      Best wishes,


      PS – I tried to follow your link at blogspot but it came up as nonexistent.

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