The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt's Tweet on the anniversary.

The photograph above of Tiananmen Square in 1989 is from Carl Bildt’s Tweet on the anniversary.

Today marks the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre. In the past year it almost looked like similar sights would be repeated in Hong Kong, as the “Umbrella Revolution” protesters showed an early resolve and seemed to be making some headway. But the regime in Beijing kept its cool and a certain patience, and simply waited out the protesters. Perhaps the protesters will return, but they will have a difficult time regaining the historical momentum of the moment. It would take another incident of some significance to spark further unrest in Hong Kong. The Chinese state has both the patience and the economic momentum to dictate its version of events. Hence the importance of maintaining the June 4th incident in living memory.

Just yesterday I was talking to a Chinese friend and I opined that, with the growth of the Chinese economy and Chinese citizens working all over the world, the government might have increasing difficulty in maintaining its regime of control over information within the Chinese mainland. I was told that it was not difficult to make the transition between what you can say in China and what you can’t say in China, in comparison of the relative freedom of Chinese to say whatever they think when outside mainland China. One simply assumes the appropriate persona when in China. As a westerner, I have a difficult time accepting this, but the way in which it was described to me was perfectly authentic and I have no reason to doubt it.

Over the past weeks and months there have been many signs of China’s continued assumption of the role of a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community, with the initial success of gaining the cooperation of other nation-states in the fledgling Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Financial Times last Tuesday noted, “…the IMF’s decision later this year about whether to include China in the basket of currencies from which it makes up its special-drawing-rights will be keenly watched.” (“What Fifa tells us about global power” by Gideon Rachman) The very idea of a global reserve currency that is not fully convertible and fully floating strikes me as nothing short of bizarre — since the value of the currency is not then determined by the markets, its value must be established politically — but that just goes to show you what economic power can achieve. And all of this takes place against the background of China’s ongoing land reclamation on small islands in the South China Sea, which is a source of significant tension. But the tension has not derailed the business deals.

If China’s grand strategy (or, rather, the grand strategy of the Chinese communist party) is to make China a global superpower with both hard power (military power projection capability) and soft power (social and cultural prestige), and to do so while retaining the communist party’s absolute grip on power (presumably assuming the legitimacy of that grip on power), one must acknowledge that this strategy has been on track successfully for decades. Assume, for purposes of argument, that this grand strategy continues successfully on track. I have to wonder if the Chinese communist party has a plan to eventually allow the history of the Tiananmen massacre to be known, once subsequent events have sufficiently changed the meaning of that the event (by “proving” that the party was “right” because their policies led to the success of China, therefore their massacre should be excused as understandable in the service of a greater good), or is the memory of the Tiananmen massacre to be forever sequestered? Since the Chinese leadership has proved their ability to think big over the long term, I would guess that there must be internal documents that deal explicitly with this question, though I don’t suppose this internal debate will ever become public knowledge.

I have read many times, from many different sources, that young party members are set to study the lessons of the fall of dictators and one-party states elsewhere in the world. Perhaps they also study damaging historical revelations as carefully, and have developed a plan to manage knowledge of the Tiananmen massacre at some time in the future. It is not terribly difficult to imagine China attempting to use the soft power of the great many Confucius Institute franchises it has sponsored (480 worldwide at latest count) to slowly and gradually shape the discourse around China and the biggest PR disaster in the history of the Chinese communist party, paving the way to eventually opening a discussion of Tiananmen entirely on Chinese terms. I suppose that’s what I would do, if I was a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Politburo. But, again, I am a westerner and am liable to utterly misjudge Chinese motivations. I will, however, continue to wonder about their long game in relation to Tiananmen, and to look for signs in the tea leaves that will betray that game.

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Previous posts on Tiananmen Anniversaries:

2009 Anniversary of a Massacre

2010 Twenty-one years since Tiananmen

2011 Was the Tiananmen massacre an atrocity?

2013 A Dream Deferred

2014 Tiananmen and the Right to be Forgotten

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Genocidal Species

15 March 2014



Homo sapiens is the genocidal species. I have long had it on my mind to write about this. I have the idea incorporated in an unpublished manuscript, but I don’t know if it will ever see the light of day, so I will give a brief exposition here. What does it mean to say that Homo sapiens is the genocidal species (or, if you prefer, a genocidal animal)?

Early human history is a source of controversy that exceeds the controversy over the scientific issues at stake. It is not difficult to understand why this is the case. Controversies over human origins are about us, what we are as a species, notwithstanding the obvious fact that we are in no way limited by our past, and we may become many things that have no precedent in our long history. Moreover, the kind of evidence that we have of human origins is not such as to provide us with the kind of narrative that we would like to have of our early ancestors. We have the evidence of scientific historiography, but no poignant human interest stories. In so far as our personal experience of life paradoxically provides the big picture narrative by which we understand the world (a point I tried to make in Kierkegaard and Futurism), the absence of a personal account of our origins is an ellipsis of great consequence.

To assert that humanity is a genocidal species is obviously a tendentious, if not controversial, claim to make. I make this claim partly because it is controversial, because we have seen the human past treated with excessive care and caution, because, as I said above, it is about us. We don’t like to think of ourselves has intrinsically genocidal in virtue of our biology. Indeed, when a controversial claim such as this is made, one can count on such a claim being dismissed not on grounds of evidence, or the lack thereof, but because it is taken to imply biological determinism. According to this reasoning, an essentialist reading of our history shows us that we are genocidal, therefore we cannot be anything other than genocidal. Apart from being logically flawed, this response misses the point and fails to engage the issue.

Yet, in saying that man is a genocidal species, I obviously making an implicit reference to a long tradition of pronouncing humanity to be this or that, as when Plato said that man is a featherless biped. This is, by the way, a rare moment providing a glimpse into Plato’s naturalism, which is a rare thing. There is a story that, hearing this definition, Diogenes of Sinope plucked a chicken and brought it to Plato’s Academy, saying, “Here is Plato’s man.” (Perhaps he should have said, “Ecce homo!”) This, in turn, reveals Diogenes’ non-naturalism (as uncharacteristic as Plato’s naturalism). Plato is supposed to have responded by adding to his definition, “with broad, flat nails.”

Aristotle, most famously of all, said that man is by nature a political animal. This has been variously translated from the Greek as, “Man is by nature an animal that lives in a polis,” and, “Man is by nature a social animal.” This I do not dispute. However, once we recognize that homo sapiens is a social or political animal (and Aristotle, as the Father of the Occidental sciences, would have enthusiastically approved of the transition from “man” to “homo sapiens”), we must then take the next step and ask what exactly is the nature of human sociability, or human political society. What does it mean for homo sapiens to be a political animal?

If Clausewitz was right, political action is one pole of a smoothly graduated continuum, the other pole of which is war, because, according to Clausewitz, war is the continuation of policy by other means (cf. The Clausewitzean Continuum). This claim is equivalent to the claim that politics is the continuation of war by other means (the Foucauldian inversion of Clausewitz). Thus war and politics are substitutable salve veritate, so that homo sapiens the political animal is also homo sapiens the military animal.

I don’t know if anyone has ever said, man is a military animal, but Freud came close to this in a powerful passage that I have quoted previously (in A Note on Social Contract Theory):

“…men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attack; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and of history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien.”

Is it unimaginable that it is this aggressive instinct, at least in part, that made in possible for homo sapiens to out-compete every other branch of the hominid tree, and to leave itself as the only remaining hominid species? We are, existentially speaking, El último hombre — the last man standing.

What was the nature of the competition by which homo sapiens drove every other hominid to extinction? Over the multi-million year history of hominids on Earth, it seems likely that the competition among hominids likely assumed every possible form at one time or another. Some anthropologists that observed a differential reproductive success rate only marginally more fertile than other hominid species would have, over time, guaranteed our demographic dominance. This gives the comforting picture of a peaceful and very slow pace of one hominid species supplanting another. No doubt some of homo sapiens’ triumphs were of this nature, but there must have also been, at some time in the deep time of our past, violent and brutal episodes when we actively drove our fellow hominids into extinction — much as throughout the later history of homo sapiens one community frequently massacred another.

A recent book on genocide, The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Persepctive (edited by ROBERT GELLATELY, Clark University, and BEN KIEMAN Yale University), is limited in its “historical perspective” to the twentieth century. I think we must go much deeper into our history. In an even larger evolutionary framework than that employed above, if we take the conception of humanity as a genocidal species in the context of Peter Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, according to which life itself is biocidal, then humanity’s genocidal instincts are merely a particular case (with the added element of conscious agency) of a universal biological imperative. Here is how Ward defines his Medea Hypothesis:

Habitability of the Earth has been affected by the presence of life, but the overall effect of life has been and will be to reduce the longevity of the Earth as a habitable planet. Life itself, because it is inherently Darwinian, is biocidal, suicidal, and creates a series of positive feedbacks to Earth systems (such as global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane content) that harm later generations. Thus it is life that will cause the end of itself, on this or any planet inhabited by Darwinian life, through perturbation and changes of either temperature, atmospheric gas composition, or elemental cycles to values inimical to life.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 35

Ward goes on to elaborate his Medea Hypothesis in greater detail in the following four hypotheses:

1. All species increase in population not only to the carrying capacity as defined by some or a number of limiting factors, but to levels beyond that capacity, thus causing a death rate higher than would otherwise have been dictated by limiting resources.

2. Life is self-poisoning in closed systems. The byproduct of species metabolism is usually toxic unless dispersed away. Animals pro- duce carbon dioxide and liquid and solid waste. In closed spaces this material can build up to levels lethal either through direct poisoning or by allowing other kinds of organisms living at low levels (such as the microbes living in animal guts and carried along with fecal wastes) to bloom into populations that also produce toxins from their own metabolisms.

3. In ecosystems with more than a single species there will be competition for resources, ultimately leading to extinction or emigration of some of the original species.

4. Life produces a variety of feedbacks in Earth systems. The majority are positive, however.

Ward, Peter, The Medea Hypothesis: Is Life on Earth Ultimately Self-Destructive? Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2009, pp. 35-36

The experience of industrial-technological civilization has added a new dimension to hypothesis 2 above, as industrial processes and their wastes have been added to biological processes and their wastes, leading to forms of poisoning that do not occur unless facilitated by civilization. Moreover, a corollary to hypothesis 3 above (call is 3a, if you like) might be formulated such that those species within an ecosystem that seek to fill the same niche (i.e., that feed off the same trophic level) will be in more direct competition that those species feeding off distinct trophic levels. In this way, multiple hominid species that found themselves in the same ecosystem would be trying to fill the same niche, leading to extinction or emigration. Once homo sapiens achieved extensive totality in the distribution of the species range, however, there is nowhere else for competitors to emigrate, so if they are out-competed, they simply go extinct.

Ward was not the first to focus on the destructive aspects of life. I have previously quoted the great biologist Ernst Haeckel, who defined ecology as the science of the struggle for existence (cf. Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated), and of course in the same vein there is the whole tradition of nature red in tooth and claw. Such visions of nature no longer hold the attraction that they exercised in the nineteenth century, and such phrases have been criticized, but it may be that these expressions of the deadly face of nature did not go far enough.

There is a sense in which all life if genocidal, and this is the Medean Hypothesis; what distinguishes human beings is that we have made genocide planned, purposeful, systematic, and conscious. The genocidal campaigns that have punctuated modern history, and especially those of the twentieth century, represent the conscious implementation of Medean life. We knowingly engage in genocide. Genocide is now a policy option for political societies, and in so far as we are political animals all policy options are “on the table” so to speak. It is this that makes us the uniquely genocidal species.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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eastern front

The question of existential risk is intentionally formulated as a very large conception that is concerned with risks to humanity on the largest scale — the possible extinction, stagnation, flawed realization, or ruination of Earth-originating intelligence. An existential threat (as the term is commonly employed, and in contradistinction to an existential risk) may be considered a relative existential risk, that is to say, an existential threat that constitutes a risk to concerns less comprehensive that the whole of humanity and humanity’s future. Individual human beings face existential threats, as do particular business enterprises, cities, nation-states, and social movements, inter alia. In short, any existing object that faces a threat to is continued existence may be said to face an existential threat.

When nation-states (or, before the advent of nation-states, their predecessor political institutions) that view each other as existential threats become engaged in a war, these wars typically escalate to become wars of extermination. A war of extermination is a particular species of the genus of warfare, uniquely characterized by systematic effort to not merely defeat the enemy, but to annihilate the enemy. Thus wars of extermination are also called wars of annihilation.

Another way to formulate the idea of a war of extermination is to think of it as a genocidal war. Genocides can be carried out in the context of war or in isolation (presumably, in the context of “peace,” but any peace that provides the context for genocide is not a peace worthy of the name). In sense, then, the ideas of war and of genocide can be understood in isolation from each other — war without genocide, and genocide without war — though there is another sense in which genocide is a war against a particular people, i.e., a war of extermination.

It is worthwhile, I think, to distinguish between the Clausewitzean conception of absolute war or the more recent conception of total war and wars of extermination, although this distinction is not always made. Absolute or total wars refer to means, whereas war of extermination refers to ends. Means and ends cannot be cleanly separated in the unkempt reality of the world, and the means of total war is one way to bring about the aim of a war of extermination, but a war of extermination can also be pursued by less than total means.

In several posts I have written about what Daniel Goldhagen calls “human eliminationism,” of which he distinguishes five varieties:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)

oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”

expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)

prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”

extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

If we take Daniel Goldhagen’s distinctions within this scheme of human eliminationism, we see that many means can be employed to the ultimate aim of genocide. Indeed, what are sometimes called “military operations other than war” (MOOTW) may in some cases be sufficient to bring about some level of human eliminationism, and therefore prosecute (an undeclared) war of extermination.

The above considerations give us six categories of war that overlap and intersect to present an horrific exemplification of Wittgensteinian family resemblances:

● war simpliciter

● war of extermination

● war of annihilation

● genocidal war

● absolute war

● total war

A recent book on wars of annihilation and wars of extermination, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, employ several of these concepts of war without trying to make fine distinctions of the sort one would like to see in a comprehensive theory of war:

“The war of annihilation is a cultural phenomenon. It does not exist merely because war exists. A war of annihilation — that is to say, a war which is waged, in the worse case, in order to exterminate or merely to decimate a population, but likewise a war aimed at exterminating the enemy population capable of bearing arms, the opposing armies, and indeed also a battle of annihilation in which the aim is not merely to defeat or beat back the opposing army but to kill the enemy in the greatest possible numbers — all these forms of the war of annihilation, however widespread they may be in geographical space and historical time, are not historical inevitabilities.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Concept of the War of Annihilation: Clausewitz, Ludendorff, Hitler,” Jan Philipp Reemtsma, p. 13

…and further…

“Clausewitz had been wrong: the war of extermination was structured not only by grammatical rule, but also by a particular kind of logic. Whereas the grammar — as Schenckendorff and Kluge both correctly assumed — could be controlled, the logic behind the war of extermination — as Hitler knew full well — was utterly dominant and tolerated no half-measures. At the end of the second year of the war in the East this principle was nowhere so clearly in evidence as on the partisan front.”

Heer and Naumann, editors, War of Extermination: The German Military in World War II, Berghahn Books, 2004, “The Logic of the War of Extermination: The Wehrmacht and the Anti-Partisan War,” Hannes Heer, p. 117

It is widely acknowledged by scholars of the Second World War that the Nazi-Soviet war on the Eastern Front came to constitute a war of extermination. Casualties were heavier on the eastern front than casualties on the western front. Perhaps most tellingly, when the German war machine began collapsing, German soldiers made an effort not to be captured by Soviet troops, as they knew that they could expect the worst in this case.

When Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and invaded the Soviet Union in the massive Operation Barbarossa, it was the beginning of an existential struggle between ideological enemies — fascism and communism — in which each side explicitly framed the other as an existential threat. Thus the eastern front was, from the outset, expected to be a war of extermination, and the above-quoted book takes the Nazi-Soviet conflict as paradigmatic of a war of extermination.

It was partially in response to the experience of the eastern front and its war of extermination within the larger framework of the Second World War (which also included the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews) that the Nuremberg principles were formulated. The Nuremburg Principles include as principle VI(c) a list of crimes against humanity:

“These consist of murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried out in execution of or done in connection with any crimes against the peace or any war crime.”

All of these war crimes were realized in the course of the Second World War with shocking clarity — the kind of clarity that comes from an ideological war in which a war of extermination was expected to follow from explicitly stated positions of the combatants. History has not always been so clear in its demonstrations of philosophy teaching by examples, but even if earlier history was not as explicit in its prosecution of wars of extermination, less obvious forms have always been with us.

Wars of extermination did not begin in the twentieth century, and even Kant mentioned the possibility of such conflict in his Perpetual Peace. Kant states his sixth article as follows:

6. “No State Shall, during War, Permit Such Acts of Hostility Which Would Make Mutual Confidence in the Subsequent Peace Impossible: Such Are the Employment of Assassins (percussores), Poisoners (venefici), Breach of Capitulation, and Incitement to Treason (perduellio) in the Opposing State”

And in light of this he says of wars of extermination:

“These are dishonorable stratagems. For some confidence in the character of the enemy must remain even in the midst of war, as otherwise no peace could be concluded and the hostilities would degenerate into a war of extermination (bellum internecinum).”

The Latin tag employed by Kant points to the antiquity of the idea. Kant continues:

“…a war of extermination, in which the destruction of both parties and of all justice can result, would permit perpetual peace only in the vast burial ground of the human race. Therefore, such a war and the use of all means leading to it must be absolutely forbidden. But that the means cited do inevitably lead to it is clear from the fact that these infernal arts, vile in themselves, when once used would not long be confined to the sphere of war.”

One of the factors that made wars of extermination explicit in the twentieth century was the emergence of the nation-state as an actor on the international stage. The nation-state was conceived as a political representative of a particular people, and as representative of the aspirations and ambitions of a particular ethnic group, nation-states also frequently have exhibited the worst kind of ethnocentric politics.

I began my book Political Economy of Globalization with the assertion that we must begin with the fact of the nation-state as the central political institution of our time. Whatever we may think of the nation-state — whether one believes that it is a permanent feature of human political organization or that will soon join empires and kingdoms on the ash-heap of history — it is the central fact of the international system as it exists in our time.

The existential viability of a nation-state is predicated upon the ability of that nation-state to meet existential threats and overcome them. Few would dispute the right of a nation-state to defend itself in an existential struggle, but many would dispute the legitimacy of the grounds for such a struggle. When a political entity claims to be threatened on ideological grounds — when the mere existence of another ethnic group or ideological movement is construed as an existential threat — then we move beyond a defensive struggle to continue to exist and into the realm of ideological conflict that is the natural ground from which wars of extermination grow.

I have already written about the role of nation-states in genocide in Genocide and the Nation-State. I see a strong connection between the two. No war of such magnitude can be waged without the implicit consent of the peoples from whom the troops are drawn, and who continue to make it possible for the state to prosecute such a war. This is one sense in which total war and war of extermination coincide.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Fourth in a Series on Existential Risk

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

I traveled to Palermo specifically to see this great fresco of the Triumph of Death.

“The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.” Arnold Toynbee, “Man and Hunger” (Speech to the World Food Congress, 04 January 1963, quoted on the Anthropocene Blog)

Readers, I trust, will be aware of existential risks (as well as global catastrophic risks) since I’ve recently written several recent posts on this topic, including Research Questions on Existential Risk, Six Theses on Existential Risk, Existential Risk Reminder, Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk, Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty, and Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. The idea of the “Death Event” is likely to be much less familiar, so I will try to sketch out the idea itself and its relationship to existential risk.

Edith Wyschogrod

Edith Wyschogrod

The idea of the “death event” is due to philosopher Edith Wyschogrod, and given exposition in her book Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death. Wyschogrod took the title of her book from an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s from 1930: “I once said, perhaps rightly: The earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes, but spirits will hover over the ashes.”

spirit in ashes

In defining the scope of the “death event” Wyschogrod wrote:

“I shall define the scope of the event to include three characteristic expressions: recent wars which deploy weapons in the interest of maximum destruction of persons, annihilation of persons, through techniques designed for this purpose (for example, famine, scorched earth, deportation), after the aims of war have been achieved or without reference to war, and the creation of death-worlds, a new and unique form of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life simulating imagined conditions of death, conferring upon their inhabitants the status of the living dead.”

Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985, p. 15.

Wyschogrod’s conception of the “death world,” also given exposition in the text, is introduced in conscious contradistinction to the late Husserlian conception of the “Lifeworld” (Lebenswelt). (Cf. Chapter 1, Kingdoms of Death) I cannot do justice to Wyschogrod’s excellent book in a few quotes, so I will simply encourage the reader to look up the book for himself, but I will give a couple more quotes to locate the “death event” in relation to the larger picture of our civilization. Wyschogrod sees a relation between the “death event” and the peculiar character of industrial-technological civilization:

“The procedures and instruments of death which depend upon the quantification of the qualitied world are innovations deriving from technological society and, to that extent, extend its point of view.”

Op. cit., p. 25

And again,

“…the world of the camps is both distinct from and tied to technological society, so too the nuclear void is embedded in the matrix of technological society but not related to it in simple cause and effect fashion.”

Op. cit., p. 29

Perhaps at some future time I will consider Wyschogrod’s “death event” thesis in relation to what I have called Agriculture and the Macabre, which is the particular relationship between agricultural civilization and death, but whether or not the reader agrees with me or not (or with Wyschogrod, for that matter) I will acknowledge without hesitation that the character of the macabre in agricultural civilization is very different from the place of the death event and the death world in industrial-technological civilization.

Wyschogrod focuses on death camps and industrialized warfare, but of course what shocked the world more than anything were the nuclear bombs that ended the war. A considerable bibliography could be devoted to the books exclusively devoted to the anguished reflection that followed the atomic explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of them written by and about the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project and made the bomb possible. Many of the most eminent philosophers of the time immediately began to think about the consequences — both contemporaneously and for the longer term human future — of human beings being in possession of nuclear weapons.

Bertrand Russell wrote two books on the possibility of nuclear war, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (1959) and Has Man a Future? (1961) Recently in Bertrand Russell as Futurist I discussed Russell’s views on the need for world government in order to prevent the annihilation of human life due to nuclear weapons — a view shared by Albert Einstein.

Karl Jaspers

Karl Jaspers

In 1958 Karl Jaspers published Die Atombombe und die Zukunft des Menschen, later translated into English as The Future of Mankind. What all of these works have in common is struggling with what Jaspers called “the new fact.” Of this new fact Jaspers wrote:

“The atom bomb of today is a fact novel in essence, for it leads mankind to the brink of self-destruction.”

Karl Jaspers, The Future of Mankind, Chap. I, p. 1


“the atom bomb is today the greatest of all menaces to the future of mankind… The possible reality which we must henceforth reckon with — and reckon with, at the increasing pace of developments, in the near future — is no longer a fictitious end of the world. It is no world’s end at all, but the extinction of life on the surface of the planet.”

Op. cit., p. 4

The fact that fear of nuclear Armageddon was felt viscerally as an all-too-real possibility for our world points to the fact that this was not merely the appearance of a new idea in human history — new ideas appear every day — but a fundamental shift in feeling. When the awful reality of the Second World War, which saw man-made mass death on an unprecedented scale, received its finale in the form of the atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we had acquired a new object for our instinctual fear of annihilation.

The larger meaning of the “death event” — testified not only in Edith Wyschogrod’s explicit formulation, but also in the work of Bertrand Russell, Karl Jaspers, and a hundred others — is that of formal, reflexive consciousness of anthropogenic existential risk. We not only know that we are vulnerable to existential risk, we also know that we know. It is this formal, reflexive self-consciousness of existential risk that is the differentia between human history before the “death event” and human history after the “death event.” The “death event” was a crystallizing event, a particular moment in history that was a watershed for human suffering that placed that suffering in the naturalistic context.

Earlier catastrophes in human experience did not have this character — or, if they did have this character for a few individuals who realized the larger meaning of events, this formal, reflexive consciousness of human vulnerability did not achieve general recognition. Partly this was a consequence of the non-naturalistic and teleological assumptions that were integral with the outlook of earlier epochs of human civilization, before science made a naturalistic conception of the world entire conceivable. If one believes that a supernatural force will intervene to continue to maintain human beings in existence, there is no reason to be concerned with the possibility of human extinction.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

The eschatological conception of history is predicated upon the efficacy of supernatural agents.

Prior to industrial-technological civilization (made possible by the scientific revolution, which is particularly relevant in this context), the “end of the world” could only be understood in eschatological terms because eschatologies derived from theological cosmogonies were the only “big picture” accounts of the cosmos that had been formulated and which had achieved any degree of currency. (There have always been non-theological philosophical cosmogonies, but these have remained marginal throughout human history.)

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

Until science provided an alternative, the only big picture conceptions of the world were traditional cosmogonies, to which the least imaginative among us still recur.

The situation in regard to “big picture” conceptions of the world is closely parallel to that of biology prior to Darwin’s theory of natural selection: there were no strictly biological theories of biology prior to Darwin, only theological theories that were employed to “explain” biological facts. With no alternative to a theological account of biology, it is to be expected that this sole point of view was the universal point of reference, just as where there is no alternative to the theological account of history, this theological account is the sole point of reference in history.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

Charles Darwin, in formulating a thorough-going scientific biology, gave the world its first non-theological formulation of biology.

In regard to traditional eschatologies, it would be just as apposite to point out that a supernatural agent might intervene to bring about the end of civilization or the extinction of all human beings (in contradistinction to supernatural interventions intended to be to our benefit), regardless of all human efforts made to preserve themselves and their civilization in existence. The point here is that once we recognize the efficacy of supernatural agents in human history, human agency in shaping the human future cannot be assumed, and in fact the idea of “destiny” (especially in the form of predestination) may come to prevail over conceptions of the future that allow a greater scope to human agency. This is why, in my post The Naturalistic Conception of History, I defined naturalism as “non-human non-agency,” i.e., the absence of supernatural agency.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

Four conceptions of history, political, eschatology, cataclysmic, and naturalistic.

To formulate this from the opposite point of view, we could say that it was only the essentially naturalistic assumptions of our own time, assumptions built into the structure of industrial-technological civilization (because it is dependent upon science, and science cannot systematically expand in the way that science has expanded in recent history without the working philosophical presupposition of methodological naturalism), that made it possible for human beings to understand that no deus ex machina was going to emerge at the end of the human drama to save us in spite of our failure to secure our own future.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

We once thought that Atlas carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; now we know that we are the ones who carry the world on our shoulders.

Once human beings realized with fearful clarity that they possessed the power to annihilate civilization and possibly also all human life, it is only a small step from this consciousness of human vulnerability to come to a similar consciousness of human vulnerability whether or not the existential threat is anthropogenic or non-anthropogenic. A sufficient number of ill-advised and irreversible choices (choices that result in action or inaction, as the case may be) could mean the extinction of human beings, or the reduction of human activity to a level of insignificance. That is what we now know to be the case, and it shifts a heavy burden of responsibility onto human beings for their own future — a burden that had once been carried on the shoulders of gods.

It is only in the past few decades of contemporary science that we have begun to look at the long antiquity of man with the thought of our existential vulnerability in mind, retrospectively placing our fingers at the nodal points of our past, for there have been many times when we might have all been extirpated before any of the many thresholds of development that have brought us to our present state at which we can adequately conceptualize our existential risk came about.

In this way, existential risk mitigation efforts not only provide a kind of clarity in conceptualizing the human future, especially in so far as we abide by the moral imperatives imposed by existential risk, but also by giving us a novel perspective on the human past.

One of the guiding principles of contemporary thought on existential risk is to focus on those risks that human beings have no record of surviving. In order to make good on this principle, we need to understand what existential risks human beings have survived in the past, and to this end we must acquire a better knowledge of human evolution in a cosmological context, which is, in a sense, the particular concern of astrobiology.

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Grand Strategy and Existential Risk: A Series:

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

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Grand Strategy Annex

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It is time for another anniversary of the “June Fourth Incident” (天安門事件), now twenty-two years past. Soon it will be a quarter century, then fifty years, then a hundred. It will slip into the past, into history, into legend, and into myth — unless the Chinese authorities can extirpate the memory entire, which seems unlikely. But that the desire still apparently remains on the part of China’s Communist Party to gloss over the Tiananmen massacre shows that, whatever changes have occurred in the past couple of decades — and there have, most assuredly, been some profound changes — this particular Stalinist aspect of the Chinese leadership remains intact.

Indeed, on the twenty-second anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre we find China’s most prominent artist — Ai Weiwei — in custody and incommunicado, and we find a renewed and reinvigorated Maoism among the aspirants to the top spots in the Chinese leadership. The Financial Times ran a great piece a couple of days ago, China: Mao and the next generation by Kathrin Hille and Jamil Anderlini, in which the authors describe the current politicking for the upcoming party congress, and how those who aspire to seats on the Central Committee have been invoking the ghost of Mao in a surprisingly retrograde fashion.

And Mao certainly is the right figure to invoke in this context. In terms of absolute numbers of people killed in the service of a political or ideological program in the twentieth century, Mao probably takes the prize, though he is often not seen as even the equal of Hitler or Stalin. As with Stalin, some today still praise the achievements of Mao, and there is also the fact that the vast majority of the people that Mao liquidated were his own countrymen.

It is an interesting moral thought experiment to ask whether the Tiananmen massacre was an atrocity. That it was a massacre I think few will argue, but I can’t think of any context in which it has been called an atrocity, though in scope it was larger than many political crimes that are typically called atrocities.

If we had something approaching a true political science we might be able to answer questions like this, but political science remains anecdotal in our times. Political science needs formal rigor before we can make fine distinctions between massacres and atrocities. And we know that matters such as this are intrinsically problematic, and not readily amenable to formalization. There are always running debates over whether this or that campaign of terror constitutes “genocide,” which is another term which has seen many attempts at clarification but its usage remains largely anecdotal.

But let us consider this on an even larger scope and scale. Let us consider the Great Leap Forward. The Great Leap Forward was no more a massacre than Stalin’s Terror Famine, the Holodomor, was a massacre. But as an event that was a socially engineered historical episode that resulted in the deaths of millions — in the case of the Great Leap Forward, tens of millions — it certainly was an atrocity, and perhaps it was also genocide. Even if not genocide in the strict and narrow sense of the term, the Great Leap Forward was genocidal in scope, and perhaps also in intent. And, similarly, the Cultural Revolution was genocidal in scope, if not in intent. (Though in so far as the Cultural Revolution was a systematic attempt at the extirpation of traditional Chinese civilization it could be called cultural genocide.)

But, I think that even with an event of the scale of the Great Leap Forward (or the Cultural Revolution), few people would be willing to call it an atrocity. The fact that I think many people would hesitate to call the Great Leap Forward (much less the Tiananmen massacre) an atrocity, points to important and deep moral intuitions. But I cannot at this time give any kind of exposition of this. I will have to think about it more.

The easy thing to do would be to say that the Great Leap Forward was internal to China, the deaths were not well reported in the Western press at the time, and it was authentically undertaken by the Chinese leadership without any intent to destroy a generation, though that’s what the practical consequences of this “industrial” policy were. In this case, the easy answer might be partially right, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough. To give an exposition of the moral intuitions involved one needs to know more about the lives, ideas, and intentions of the agents involved, and I don’t have the background knowledge I would need to enter in to such an analysis.

Here is a philosophical problem that would require an imposing effort of empirical research to even approach an adequate answer. But such an empirical-philosophical inquiry into the Great Leap Forward would, in turn, give one the background to make a reasonable inquiry into whether or not the Tiananmen massacre was an atrocity. One might well spend a lifetime on such an inquiry.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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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Political Irony

19 April 2011


 سورية‎ Sūriyya or سوريا Sūryā; Syriac: ܣܘܪܝܐ; Kurdish: Sûrî), officially the Syrian Arab Republic (Arabic: الجمهورية العربية السورية‎)

The Syrian Arab Republic has a constitution, but it hasn’t mattered much for the past few decades. The constitution of Syria has been on the back burner since 1962 or 1963 (since before I was born), and an emergency has been in effect — until today. Now the state of emergency law has been lifted, and the Syrians have their constitution back again. What is supremely ironic in this is that the emergency law has been lifted at the very moment when there is an actual emergency in Syrian, at least for its autocratic government.

The Baath Party, the al-Assad family, and the Alawite Shias have controlled the country for forty years, and have tolerated no dissent. Syria has long been a human rights nightmare, but it has had stability, and as much as Syria has been condemned by the Western democracies, we know that in actual fact that these same Western democracies have repeatedly favored stability over freedom in the Middle East. Thus the regime in Syria has been snubbed, but it has been allowed to stand.

Perhaps I am putting it a bit strongly when I say that al-Assad has been “allowed” to remain in power by the Western powers. Could he be removed? Yes, of course, but at what cost? Too high a price for any interested party. And the leaders of Syria have been masters at what I have called the weaponization of eliminationism, taking their depredations on their own people up to the threshold of atrocity, but mostly pulling back so as not to provoke the international community into action against the Syrian leadership. One might call this behavior atrocity brinkmanship. Hafez al-Assad was the master; his son, Bashar al-Assad, was an apt pupil and learned the lessons of autocracy with far more sophistication than, for example, King Jong-il and his heir apparent.

The obvious exception to al-Assad atrocity brinkmanship is the Hama massacre, which probably counts as atrocity simpliciter, without qualifications, but in so far as it was carried out as a calculated action that did not result in reprisals against the regime, it falls into the same pattern. Hama was populated primarily by Sunnis, while the al-Assad family is Alawite Shia.

How will the Syrian leadership pursue its policies of the weaponization of eliminationism and atrocity brinkmanship in the brave new world of Syrian constitutional politics? Will the inertia of the forty years of state of emergency rule simply allow the same depredations to continue, or will there be brave souls within Syria who will challenge the same old same old of Syrian human rights violations?

Like many irrelevant constitutions around the world, the Syrian constitution has admirable passages guaranteeing individual liberties to the people. For example:

Part 4 Freedom, Rights, Duties

Article 25 [Personal Freedom, Dignity, Equality]

(1) Freedom is a sacred right. The state protects the personal freedom of the citizens and safeguards their dignity and security.
(2) The supremacy of law is a fundamental principle in the society and the state.
(3) The citizens are equal before the law in their rights and duties.
(4) The state insures the principle of equal opportunities for citizens.

We should be familiar with these glittering generalities by now. We have seen them, and we have seen them ignored, far too many times. Nevertheless, this is at least hopeful, whereas some of the Syrian constitutional rhetoric is not such as to inspire hope. It begins with an anti-colonial rant:

“The Arab nation managed to perform a great role in building human civilization when it was a unified nation. When the ties of its national cohesion weakened, its civilizing role receded and the waves of colonial conquest shattered the Arab nation’s unity, occupied its territory, and plundered its resources. Our Arab nation has withstood these challenges and rejected the reality of division, exploitation, and backwardness out of its faith in its ability to surmount this reality and return to the arena of history in order to play, together with the other liberated nations, its distinctive role in the construction of civilization and progress. With the close of the first half of this century, the Arab people’s struggle has been expanding and assuming greater importance in various countries to achieve liberation from direct colonialism.”

We can see from this that that Syrian constitution is a period piece, and it only gets more surreal after this with its Nassarite appeals to Pan-Arabism, “the construction of the United Socialist Arab society,” and similar ideological antiquities.

It is worthwhile to quote in full the self-described major principles of the Syrian constitution:

The Constitution is based on the following major principles:

1) The comprehensive Arab revolution is an existing and continuing necessity to achieve the Arab nation’s aspirations for unity, freedom, and socialism. The revolution in the Syrian Arab region is part of the comprehensive Arab revolution. Its policy in all areas stems from the general strategy of the Arab revolution.

2) Under the reality of division, all the achievements by any Arab country will fail to fully achieve their scope and will remain subject to distortion and setback unless these achievements are buttressed and preserved by Arab unity. Likewise, any danger to which any Arab country may be exposed on the part of imperialism and Zionism is at the same time a danger threatening the whole Arab nation.

3) The march toward the establishment of a socialist order besides being a necessity stemming from the Arab society’s needs is also a fundamental necessity for mobilizing the potentialities of the Arab masses in their battle with Zionism and imperialism.

4) Freedom is a sacred right and popular democracy is the ideal formulation which insures for the citizen the exercise of his freedom which makes him a dignified human being capable of giving and building, defending the homeland in which he lives, and making sacrifices for the sake of the nation to which he belongs. The homeland’s freedom can only be preserved by its free citizens. The citizen’s freedom can be completed only by his economic and social liberation.

5) The Arab revolution movement is a fundamental part of the world liberation movement. Our Arab people’s struggle forms a part of the struggle of the peoples for their freedom, independence, and progress.

This constitution serves as a guide for action to our people’s masses so that they will continue the battle for liberation and construction guided by its principles and provisions in order to strengthen the positions of our people’s struggle and to drive their march toward the aspired future.

So there you have it: the definitive word of the Syrian Constitution. Pan-Arabism, anti-Zionism, anti-imperialism, Ba’athism, revolution, unity, freedom, socialism — and, as it is delicately put, “the reality of division,” i.e., the division of the Arab world into squabbling nation-states, vulnerable from within and vulnerable from without.

Thus at the moment of modern Syria’s greatest crisis of regime legitimacy, in the midst of a true emergency, with masses protesting in the streets, hopeful that Syria, too, might go the way of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, the Syrian leadership canceled its emergency legislation. Whereas the emergency law was once a tool to justify repression and the extirpation of dissent, now as it is rescinded it is again a tool, a symbol of the possibility of what Syria might be. Hafez al-Assad would be proud.

Even without its emergency law in place, the Syrian leadership has a nearly surreal constitution that it can use to any end it likes. Who is going to interfere? Don’t look for any Western intervention. Syria is landlocked, and surrounded by a highly diverse group of nation-states with highly diverse political systems, leaders, peoples, and national interests. While Turkey and Jordan are often allied with the West, they aren’t going to allow their territory to be used as a base of operations against the Syrian regime, as this would open them to retaliation from Syria’s often highly effective militant proxies. Bashar al-Assad still has levers within reach.

There are other ways in which Syria is different, but I find them difficult to formulate explicitly. While the popular media outlets make little or no distinction among those nation-states of the “Arab Spring” experiencing mass protests, in the more thoughtful writing on the regional situation, almost no one expects the situation in Syria to parallel that of Tunisia, Egypt, or Libya. This is not to say that Syria will remain untouched by the movement. Obviously, there are persistent protests that have not died down even in the face of demonstrators being killed in the street. There will be change in Syria, but, despite the constitutional rhetoric of revolution, that change will not be revolutionary. And that, too, is political irony.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Yesterday in A Definition of Genocide I reviewed Daniel Goldhagen’s conception of human eliminationism, which he described in his book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity. Goldhagen defines five strategies of eliminationism, as follows:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)
oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”
expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)
prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”
extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

Goldhagen goes on to say that these methods are “functionally equivalent” and are part of a “continuum of increasing violence” (p. 20):

“Because mass killing is but one act in the repertoire of functionally equivalent eliminationist acts, and because whenever people have perpetrated genocide, they have simultaneously used other eliminationist policies, it is misleading to isolate genocide as a discrete phenomenon.” (p. 28)

Thinking of this again, I realized that what in Genocide: Proof of Concept I called the weaponization of genocide — the strategic use of genocide in the attainment of war aims — could better be called the weaponization of eliminationism.

The weaponization of eliminationism involves the explicit development of eliminationism as a social technology that can be consciously employed in the attainment of aims. The first step in the process is the explicit development of eliminationism itself.

Previously in Genocide: Proof of Concept I wrote:

“Once the Nazis had shown what was possible, others could follow with refinements that would make genocide far simpler and easier to implement. This is, in a sense, the weaponization of genocide. And I think that this is a fair way to describe many of the conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: as genocide weaponized.”

“Genocide has now become a recognized institution of human society, and is rapidly becoming a method of warfighting at its most brutal. No one is surprised today when genocidal means are employed to attain war aims, and thus we can extend Clausewitz’s famous aphorism defining war as the pursuit of policy by other means and assert that genocide has become one form of violence that is the pursuit of politics by other means.”

A better (and more accurate) formulation of the above two paragraphs would simply substitute “eliminationism” for “genocide.”

In The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities I wrote that:

“I think that throughout the coming century we will see more non-atrocities, more widely spread, and influencing the lives of more people. The tyrants have learned some lessons from the twentieth century. Unfortunately, instead of learning the lessons of good government, they have learned that brutality kept within limits will be ignored and unpunished. Non-atrocities will proliferate even as genuine and undisputed atrocities will decrease. This will not mean that the world is, overall, a better place, but that the tyrants who perpetrate near atrocities will be more calculating and cunning in their use of force, constrained only by the threshold of atrocity.”

And in The Threshold of Atrocity I further developed the theme and concluded:

“Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.”

Nefarious forces in the world today might well consciously study the record of human eliminationism with an eye toward systematically exploiting eliminationism on both a strategic and tactical level, with a strategic policy of eliminiationism put into practice by the functionally equivalent tactics of transformation, oppression, expulsion, prevention of reproduction, and extermination.

Just as “mass, low-level suffering” has become the norm in much of the world, so too undeclared war — including undeclared civil war — has become the norm in much of the world. The way to keep one’s declared war (on one’s enemies or one’s own people) “below the radar” of international intervention is to maintain one’s depredations below the threshold of atrocity, and one way to maintain one’s depredations below the threshold of atrocity is to limit escalation of the continuum of increasing violence that is eliminationism.

The ultimate development of the weaponization of eliminationism would be to transform this social technology into a weapons system, and history has already shown us, and is now showing us, the first steps in this direction.

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Established definitions of genocide

In Genocide: Proof of Concept I quoted Raphael Lemkin’s initial 1944 definition of genocide (from his report Axis Rule in Occupied Europe) as, “the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.” This is an appropriate place to begin an investigation of the concept of genocide.

A more detailed account of genocide is to be found in Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly on 9 December 1948. Entry into force: 12 January 1951), which defines genocide as follows:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;

(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;

(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;

(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In a couple of posts, A Political Theory of Genocide and Genocide and the Nation-State, I cited Daniel Goldhagen’s book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, where he develops the concept that he calls human eliminationism. Eliminationism is a more comprehensive concept than that of genocide simpliciter, and includes the following degrees of escalation in the elimination of undesirable populations:

transformation: “the destruction of a group’s essential and defining political, social, or cultural identities, in order to neuter its members’ alleged noxious qualities.” (this is very similar to what I have called The Stalin Doctrine)
oppression: “keeping the hated, deprecated, or feared people within territorial reach and reducing, with violent domination, their ability to inflict real or imagined harm upon others.”
expulsion: “Expulsion, often called deportation… removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps.” (I wrote about this in The Threshold of Atrocity)
prevention of reproduction: “those wishing to eliminate a group in whole or in part can seek to diminish its numbers by interrupting normal biological reproduction.”
extermination: for Goldhagen, extermination seems to be equivalent to genocide simpliciter, in the narrow and strict sense: “killing often logically follows beliefs deeming others to be a great, even mortal threat. It promises not an interim, not a piecemeal, not only a probable, but a ‘final solution’.”

It is easy to see that the UN convention defining genocide overlaps substantially with Goldhagen’s concept of human eliminationism, and so defines a more comprehensive concept that genocide in the strict sense. While the the more comprehensive conceptions of the UN convention’s definition of genocide or Goldhagen’s concept of human eliminationism are very interesting, and place genocide in a larger context (which is how we should see it), I want to suggest a definition of genocide in a narrower sense, genocide sensu stricto, if you will.

A novel definition of genocide

In contradistinction to the above attempts to define genocide, I will define genocide as follows: Genocide is extinction by human agency.

The Biology Online website defines extinction as follows:


1. (Science: ecology) The death of an entire species.

2. (Science: psychology) The procedure of presenting the conditioned stimulus without reinforcement to an organism previously conditioned. It refers also to the diminution of a conditioned response resulting from this procedure.

I am using “extinction” in the first sense of the definition above, though to get a more flexible definition of genocide, “species” would have to be interpreted in a logical sense (the sense in which Aristotle refers to genus and species in his logic) rather than a biological sense. If we confine a definition of genocide to extinction strictly in the biological sense, this is a valid and radical conception, though not as useful as a less radical conception of genocide.

Thus if we define genocide as the death of an entire species brought about by human agency, and we allow a species to be anything definable in terms of genera and differentia, we have something approaching a formal conception of genocide.

In regard to the role of human agency in genocide, in many posts to this forum I have been developing an exposition of conceptions of history based upon four schematically distinct conceptions of human agency, as follows:

the political: human agency (cf. Three Conceptions of History)
the cataclysmic: human non-agency (cf. Revolution and Human Agency)
the eschatological: non-human agency (cf. Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception)
the naturalistic: non-human non-agency (cf. The Naturalistic Conception of History)

On the basis of these conceptions of human agency, there are four corresponding conceptions of genocide:

political genocide: genocide directly brought about by human agency
cataclysmic genocide: genocide that occurs without the direct intervention of human agency
eschatological genocide: genocide directly brought about by non-human agency
naturalistic genocide: genocide without the intervention of non-human agency

For the moment, I only mention these possibilities, and I save their exposition for a later time. At the moment I will say only that this analysis extends the conception of genocide in interesting ways that have not been addressed by received definitions of genocide.

The intentionality of genocide

One feature of genocide that is immediately familiar on an intuitive level but which has escaped most attempted definitions of genocide is that genocide is an act that essentially involves both a perpetrator and a victim. All definitions of genocide that I have seen focus on defining the victims, and yet we understand on an intuitive level the moral horror of one people, as a people, singling out another people for extermination (or, as I would put it, extinction). Thus an adequate conception of genocide should with equal thoroughness seek to define the perpetrators of genocide as well as the victims. I will call an account of genocide that defines both victims and perpetrators as the intentionality of genocide.

I can offer a schematic approach to the intentionality of genocide by characterizing both victims and perpetrators as agents of genocide, and given the possibilities of human agency laid out above, it is obvious that all of these possibilities of agency hold equally for victims and perpetrators, and in fact we can formulate sixteen (16) possible permutations of victim-perpetrator agency:

It is controversial to consider victims either as passive sufferants or as active agents. To be merely a sufferant is dehumanizing; to be an active agent in one’s suffering or annihilation implies a measure of complicity.

It is not my intention to characterize the victims of genocide either as dehumanized sufferants or as complicit agents. The conception of human agency that I am attempting to formulate is not a matter of moral praise or blame; to derive moral praise or blame from on ontological analysis is to commit the moralistic fallacy. One can think of schematically delineated forms of human agency as a population’s form of being-in-the-world. That is to say, a particular conception of human agency is a non-personal and non-individual ontological disposition.

The role of genocide in utopian visions

Megalomaniacal utopian schemes for the transformation of society are more often than not based upon a visionary conception of man. (Here I am using “man” in the traditional, now almost archaic, sense intended to include the whole of humanity, and I am using it simply because it sounds more poetic and is therefore preferable.)

We have become accustomed to think of “visionary” almost exclusively in the honorific sense, but evil geniuses are as visionary as beneficent geniuses, and, perhaps as importantly, evil geniuses believe their visionary schemes to be beneficent and even eschatologically conceived programs for the secular equivalent of the “salvation” of humanity. It takes a true utopian to create a true dystopia.

In so far as a future vision of society is based upon a future vision of humanity, such schemes are at very least implicitly genocidal, and often explicitly genocidal. In the case of the Nazis and the Khmer Rouge, their programs for a New Society and a New Man were explicitly genocidal: in order to create a new order that would in turn create a new man, it was necessary to annihilate the old order and to exterminate that man created by the old order of society.

Just as we can define genocide as extinction by human agency, we can in parallel define the goal of utopian social programs as speciation by human agency. It is the ambition and the goal of utopian social engineering to create a New Society that will create a New Man. This New Man will be a new species of man brought about by the actions of the utopian visionaries. Thus utopianism in its most radical form aims at human speciation, and moreover human speciation brought about by human agency.

To coin an awkward term, the ambitions of utopian visionaries are genogenic as much as they are genocidal — but the two cannot be separated. To seek the extermination of some part of humanity is to seek to establish a new human norm, a New Man, while to seek to raise a New Man is to seek to displace man as he has heretofore been known to us.

The reciprocal relationship of the genocidal and the genogenic explains the historical reality of the reciprocal relationship between utopia and dystopia. It is not that a dystopian social order is a utopian vision gone wrong; the dystopian and the utopian are equivalent, and are only distinguished by the perspective one brings to them.

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A related post: The Genocide of Homo Sovieticus

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crematoria ashes with Wittgenstein quote

At what point do we pass the threshold of atrocity? If a single death is a tragedy (and therefore not an atrocity) while a million deaths is a statistic (and therefore possibly an atrocity), at what point between one death and a million deaths do we pass the threshold of atrocity? This is what philosophers call a “sorites paradox” or a “paradox of the heap”: if you continue to pile grains of sand together, eventually they will form a heap, but when? What is the threshold of a heap?

I introduced the phrase “the threshold of atrocity” in The Moral Status of Non-Atrocities, in which I attempted to identify on-going forms of political brutality that fall short of atrocity but which nevertheless ruin countless lives. In that post I predicted that the world would see more violence and suffering that falls just short of the threshold of atrocity as a result of political calculations of tyrants and dictators who are learning to contain their depredations within limits that will not arouse the interest of the wider world (“rousing the sleeping giant,” as Mike Burleson put it in a recent New Wars post).

One form of near atrocity is population transfer. In his series of lectures for The Teaching Company, Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century, Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius discusses population transfer in his seventh lecture, “The Hinge of Violence.” He observes that after the First World War, with the ideological reconstruction of political entities as nation-states, the “problem” of ethnic minorities emerges. An ethnic minority within a nation-state putatively defined in terms of an ethnic nationality is a source of cognitive dissonance, like a splinter that festers and irritates. What does one do with a splinter? One removes it. Thus Liulevicius says of this peculiarly modern problem:

“As an expedient to deal with these new situations there was arrived at, by politicians, the notion of something that’s ubiquitously and euphemistically called “population transfer.” This is a case of a trend we will see repeatedly in the course of our lectures of the power of euphemisms, of code words, to cover up harsh human realities. “Population transfer” sounded, and was meant to sound, neat, humane, and efficient. The reality, however, was of a brutal, uprooting process of populations who were now to be moved around involuntarily.”

Liulevicius cites the example of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne between Greece and Turkey, which set a precedent for population transfer. He recounts how the uprooting of Greek Christian populations from Turkey and Muslim populations from areas in Greece and the Balkans became a series of horrors, and then remarks:

“…in spite of this bloody record of the Treaty of Lausanne, in spite of the atrocities and violence that accompanied the policy of population transfer, the mark that this procedure left in European intellectual history was quite different. It was truly starkly in contrast to the human reality that historians record. It was hailed by European historians of the time as a successful model of problem solving, of the redrawing of borders, of dealing with the supposed problem of ethnic minorities within new national states, and this hailing of so brutal an expedient, this euphemistic policy of population transfer, was truly to have ominous results…”

Thus Liulevicius clearly sees such “procedures” as atrocities, or at least as often involving atrocities, though he also remarks that few today recall the episode, and that it was viewed as a success in its own time. This atrocity, then, was not only not the focus of an intervention, but was seen as a model to emulate.

Population transfer is treated a little differently in another contemporary source, which calls it “expulsion,” though we can see how the two treatments are related. Daniel Goldhagen, in his Worse Than War (which I previously mentioned in Revolution, Genocide, Terror), distinguishes five levels of what he calls human eliminiationism. Of these five levels, expulsion is the third, coming between repression and prevention of reproduction. Goldhagen characterizes expulsion thus:

“Expulsion, often called deportation, is a third eliminationist option. It removes unwanted people more thoroughly, by driving them beyond a country’s borders, or from one region of a country to another, or compelling them en masse into camps. From antiquity to today, expulsions, often by imperial conquerers, have been common.”

Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, pp. 15-16

One contemporary example of such euphemized violence that involves small scale brutality is the recent dispossession of white farmers in Zimbabwe. Recently the BBC ran a surprisingly soft piece on Robert Mugabe’s “land reform programme,” Zimbabwe’s new farmers defend their gains, in which some of the violence of the evictions is described but not given much attention, as the story focuses on the new farmers who have acquired the lands of those who were evicted. To call the process of evictions in Zimbabwe “land reform” is clearly in the tradition of a policy intended to sound “neat, humane, and efficient” but which in fact has involved widespread suffering. And that suffering is not primarily the suffering of the 4,000 or so white farmers. The primary targets of the violence of the evictions were the native employees of the farms, and the entire population of Zimbabwe has suffered horribly from the botched “land reform” that has meant a catastrophic fall in the country’s agricultural productivity. How are we to take the moral measure of the impoverishment of millions for the benefit of a few well-connected Zimbabweans who prosper because of their relation to the ZANU-PF party?

Is Zimbabwe’s “land reform” an atrocity? We have already seen that the attempt to define an atrocity involves us in a classic philosophical paradox. There are, of course, philosophical responses. An excellent book by Claudia Card, The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (a book imbued with the true spirit of philosophical inquiry, I must say, however much I disagree with parts of it), focuses on atrocities. Card writes:

“…evils are foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing… Evils tend to ruin lives, or significant parts of lives…” (p. 3)

Thus Card does not demand that atrocities be defined in terms of mass death, so we avoid the paradox posed by locating an atrocity between the tragedy of one death and the statistic of a million deaths. Further along Card writes:

“Why take atrocities as paradigms? Many evils lack the scale of an atrocity… Atrocities shock, at least when we first learn of them. They seem monstrous. We recoil of visual images and details… It is not for their sensationalism, however, that I choose atrocities as my paradigms. I choose them for three reasons: (1) because they are uncontroversially evil, (2) because they deserve priority of attention… and (3) because the core features of evils tend to be writ large in the case of atrocities, making them easier to identify and appreciate.” (p. 9)

While I agree in spirit with much of this, it misses what I have been trying to capture above. The near atrocities of expulsion or population transfer are not uncontroversially evil. As we have seen, such actions are sometimes employed as models of sound policy. Further, because near atrocities are not uncontroversially evil, the core features of evil are not writ large. On the contrary, the evils that I see growing in the world today, and which I also see as dominating the world of the future, are often writ in a very subtle script, and at times in invisible ink. Sometimes it is very difficult to discern the subtle, ongoing evil that distorts and disrupts lives in the millions. Precisely because mass, low-level suffering can come to seem the norm, one’s perspective can become distorted and evil no longer appears as evil, but just as the typical way of the world.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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