Azerbaijani legionnaire from the 804th Azerbaijani infantry battalion

The Second World War will be studied by historians as long as human civilization endures, since the scope and scale of the conflict puts it in a class by itself, but what kind of war was it? What kind of war was the Second World War? It is a deceptively simple question, since it implies that there is some kind of taxonomy of warfare, and that the Second World War neatly fits into some taxon. Thus the question implicitly appeals to theories of war that remain unstated in the question. One could relativize the inquiry with some formulation like, “According to a Marxist perspective, what kind of war was the Second World War?” This would at least make our theoretical framework explicit, and would narrow the inquiry to a manageable scope. I’m going to tackle the subject in an open-ended way, without doing this.

A North African soldier from the Free Arabian Legion and a Cossack volunteer.

Some years ago I formulated a taxonomy of war (largely building on the ideas of Anatol Rapoport) that schematically distinguished between political war (human agency), eschatological war (non-human agency), catastrophic war (human non-agency), and naturalistic war (non-human non-agency) — I didn’t systematically develop this schema in relation to war to the point of writing a post on each kind of war, but cf. More on Clausewitz, Three Conceptions of History, The Naturalistic Conception of History, Revolution and Human Agency, and Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception (every conception of history implies a conception of war, and vice versa; moreover, every conception of war implies a conception of civilization, and vice versa). While this schematism possesses an enviable neatness (when systematically laid out), in retrospect it appears to me as being a bit too neat, and therefore not always helpfully reflective of the messiness of the actual world. And war is perhaps the messiest manifestation of the actual world.

Soldiers of the Free Indian Legion of the German Army, with a Luftwaffe Member, 1944.

If we abandon the attempt to explicitly formulate a taxonomy, we can distinguish wars of conquest, imperialist wars, resource wars, geostrategic wars, ideological wars, genocidal wars or wars of extermination, and so on. This grab bag of classifications is not unlike our classifications of science — empirical science, natural science, physical science, social science, historical science, and so on — in so far as there is no overarching conception that systematically relates the parts to each other and to the whole. For a messy world, there is a certain inevitability to messy systems of classification, but our taxonomies of classification should be no more messy than is absolutely necessary. Knowledge inevitably involves imposing a template on the messiness of actuality in order to organize our experience rationally and coherently, so that the more systematic our organization of experience, the more knowledge we could be said to possess of this experience. Taxonomies of war seek to systematically organize our experience of war into knowledge of war, and from knowledge of war comes efficacy in waging war.

The Clausewitzean approach is to define war and then to refine and elaborate the definition in order to illuminate the nature of war, rather than to converge upon a taxonomy of kinds of war. In Book Two, Chapter One of On War, Clausewitz does discuss the classification of war, and Clausewitz did note some kinds of war, for example, his distinction between absolute and real war. In Book Eight of On War Clausewitz comes to focus on the outcomes of war as persistently as he focused on the definition of war in Book One, and in focusing on outcomes Clausewitz distinguished between real war and absolute war, which latter is often assimilated to Erich Ludendorff’s conception of “totale Krieg”. (An interesting discussion of this can be found in “The Idea of Total War: From Clausewitz to Ludendorff” by Jan Willem Honig; also cf. “Controversy: Total War” by Daniel Marc Segesser.)

Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-295-1560-22, Nordfrankreich, Turkmenische Freiwillige, photograph by Karl Müller

Real war, for Clausewitz (and in contradistinction to absolute war), is what we today would call limited war, but absolute war is the paradigm of war and the criterion against which any other conception must be measured, here expressed in the context of Clausewitz’s political conception of war: “If war belongs to policy, it will naturally take its character from thence. If policy is grand and powerful, so will also be the war, and this may be carried to the point at which war attains to its absolute form.” (Book Eight, Chapter 6, B) However, no great emphasis is given to the classification of war in Clausewitz. This has left taxonomies of war underdeveloped in the post-Clausewitzean literature. If Carnap was correct that scientific concepts develop from taxonomic (classificatory), through comparative, to quantitative concepts (though we are under no obligation to accept this schema of scientific development, but at least it offers a framework), then the underdevelopment of taxonomic concepts for warfare represents a failure in the development of a truly scientific understanding of war.

We can adopt the Clausewitzean approach and begin with a definition of war, which then defines the class of all wars, and then we can decompose the class of all wars into subclasses that define kinds of war. Any good taxonomy (by which I mean any taxonomy useful and fruitful for research) will involve a schematization of a complex and ambiguous reality that results in simplification. One of the most difficult aspects of scientific abstraction is finding the “just right” point between too much fidelity to empirical fact, which makes schematization impossible, and over-simplification, which falsifies empirical reality to an unhelpful extent. Ideally we would want a principled classification that decomposes all wars into a finite number of classes, each of which is mutually exclusive of the others, and each of which exemplifies an unambiguous idea. The ideal of classification is rarely realized, so we are often thrown back on a classification based on contingent properties. There are several contingent properties that characterize the Second World War and so furnish us with the most familiar, even if not rigorous, classifications. These contingent properties do not result in mutually-exclusive, non-overlapping classes, which means that there is overlap among kinds of wars. The Second World War was an industrialized war, but the Russo-Japanese War and the First World War were also industrialized wars. It was a planetary-scale war, but The Seven Years’ War and the First World War were also both planetary-scale wars. From the Second World War being a planetary-scale war it follows that it was a war fought on multiple fronts and in multiple theaters among a wide variety of combatants drawn from many nation-states. The Second World War was more a war of maneuver than attrition, more about offense and initiative than defense and stagnation. In this it differs significantly from the First World War, but resembles the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond a haphazard classification of war by overlapping contingent properties, there are reflective taxonomies that seek to organize our knowledge of war around principles of war, but which embody no overarching conception that unifies the principles employed. This is the status of Anatol Rapoport’s distinction among political, eschatological, and cataclysmic philosophies of war, mentioned above (but which I developed in accordance with an overarching conception of agency). Another example can be found in Ian Clark’s Waging War: A Philosophical Introduction (pp. 19-23), which distinguishes six concepts of war, as follows (the headings below are Clark’s, but the explanations and commentaries that follow each heading are mine), and which I will examine in relation to planetary-scale warfare:

War as instinctive violence — This could be called the evolutionary or biological conception of war. As Freud once wrote, “…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.” This was written long before evolutionary psychology had been formulated, but further work in evolution, biology, and psychology has underlined Freud’s assertion with voluminous evidence, including something like war fought among chimpanzees in the wild. If human beings are instinctively violent, then it should not be surprising that human beings organized by civilization should engage in organized violence on a scale proportional to their organization, and this is what was exhibited in the global industrialized wars of the twentieth century.

War as divination or legal trial — We could also call this “war as a decision procedure.” In so far as the decision procedure of war invokes divine sanction on its side, it also becomes an eschatological war, but it is at least arguable that its eschatological character is epiphenomenal in the context of war as a decision procedure. The point is to settle a dispute, and in so far as war has a decisive outcome (which is not always the case), the dispute is settled and the procedure of war has yielded a decision. In the case of a planetary-scale war of multiple theaters, there are multiple decisions simultaneously in pursuit of decision, and it cannot be expected that all of these outcomes will be decisive. This implies that planetary-scale war rarely if ever achieves an outcome that largely decides outstanding issues, hence the Second World War was followed by the Cold War.

War as disease — This closely corresponds to what Anatol Rapoport called the cataclysmic philosophy of war, but Clark makes a distinction between war as disease and war as cataclysm: a disease can be cured, whereas a cataclysm usually cannot be prevented, so that mitigation efforts focus instead on limiting the damage and cleaning up after the fact. War as disease suggests a cure, and is therefore an abolitionist conception, but it also suggests the possibility of pandemic. If human beings, or human societies, are infected with the disease of war, then war will be spread like a disease, and at times that disease will take on the properties of a pandemic. War understood as a pandemic is planetary-scale war of planetary-scale civilization.

War and social change — Clark glosses war as social change as war being either a measure or a means of social change. Although Clark mentions Comte and Schumpeter (focusing on economic development), this is essentially a Hegelian conception (or, if you prefer, a Marxist conception), since it is conflict that pushes the social dialectic forward; we cannot make social change without fulfilling all of the steps of the dialectic. If we look how far we have come, driven by conflict, it appears as a metric of that development; if look forward to social change yet to come, conflict appears as the means by which such change can be brought about. If we look forward to a planetary civilization, then only a planetary-scale dialectic, which involves planetary-scale war, can secure that end. This was once made very clear in some varieties of Marxism, which insisted that the peace of the communist millennium could come only after the world entire had experienced proletarian revolution and the planet entire has been unified on communist economic principles.

War as a political instrument of the state — This conception perfectly embodies the political philosophy of war, which we usually identify with the work of Clausewitz. For the political conception of war to culminate in a planetary-scale war, the political framework must be planetary, and this planetary-scale political framework has been taking shape since the Age of Discovery, with the industrial revolution providing the technological means for effectively acting on a planetary scale at human time scales. It could be argued that it was only the twentieth century that this framework and its means came to maturity, and as soon as this maturity was achieved, planetary-scale wars were waged. This argument, however, minimizes the role of human agency (it makes war look as inevitable as a violent instinct), which agency is one of the key features of the conception of war as a political instrument. In other words, there is an interesting overlap between the most agency-centered conception of war and the least agent-centered conceptions of war.

War as regulator of the international system — This might also be called war as the invisible hand, as the parties waging war are, by waging war, performing a function that restores the balance of power, though through no intention or plan of the parties to the conflict (Clark does not make this connection). If war is waged as the action of the invisible hand of the international system to maintain its own viability and stability, then we would also expect instances of “market failure” in which the invisible hand ceased to function. In cases of political failure (say, the failure of conception of war as a political instrument, above), the wars waged in the wake of political failure would fail to restore balance of power and confer viability and stability on the international system, cascading into planetary-scale war now free of the mechanisms that had once governed its scale and conduct (being much like the concept of war as a disease).

In the above taxonomy, there is no obvious place for what Rapoport called the eschatological philosophy of war, except as briefly mentioned under war as divination, where the eschatological aspect is epiphenomenal. We could place eschatological war under instinct or divination or elsewhere; the point isn’t to find a place for it, but to point out how haphazard taxonomies usually miss something important and fail to fully clarify that which they exhibit as central. Still, some attempt to give order to our experience is better than no attempt at all. Sometimes the only way to proceed is to work with a haphazard framework, revising and refining it with further experience and evidence, until either it converges on an effective taxonomy, or the additional experience and evidence forces a model crisis and a paradigm shift, with a new taxonomy emerging from the paradigm shift.

As the largest war of human history in scope and scale, the Second World War was also the messiest war, and therefore the most difficult to classify, but in hindsight (because of its salience in our consciousness of war) it has become a war understood in schematic terms in which the messiness is progressively erased from historical memory. Even the Cold War, in all its complexity, was simpler than the Second World War, because of the planetary-scale division between the US and the USSR was, at its basis, an us-against-them conflict, and could be reduced to this schematic dyad. The Second World War cannot be reduced to a dyad; it was a war with many fronts, many theaters, many belligerents, and many motivations for participation. When Nazi Germany set its war machine in motion and it was evident to all that this was a formidable force, there was probably a strong sense of inevitability about ultimate German victory in the war. When Poland and France had fallen and the British had retreated at Dunkirk without any means of striking the Germans except for their long-ranger bombers, and with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact keeping the Soviet Union out of the war, “Fortress Europe” looked secure, and the burden fell upon those on the outside Fortress Europe to penetrate its defenses. When the Allies did begin to penetrate the defenses of Fortress Europe, and the Soviet Union entered the war after Operation Barbarossa, the Germans had to seek more manpower for their armies.

Bosnian soldiers of the 13th Waffen Mountain Division of the SS “Handschar”

It was a relatively straight-forward matter to recruit from Soviet and Soviet bloc POWs, as many of them were passionately anti-Bolshevik and had no love for the Soviet Union. Promised the opportunity to fight for the freedom their native homelands from Soviet tyranny, many joined. These volunteers were opportunistic, not ideological. The volunteers from western European nation-states, by contrast, were more ideologically driven, though not always in the way one might guess. There were two Waffen-SS divisions of Scandinavian volunteers, the 5th Wiking and the 11th Nordland, and the different circumstances of the Scandinavian nation-states, which were very different indeed, influenced the character of the volunteers for Germany. The Finns fought the Russians in the Winter War of 1939, and thousands of Swedes volunteered to fight in Finland against the Russians, so when Hitler violated the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and went to war with the Russians, Finland became an ally of Germany (until the Moscow Armistice of 19 September 1944), one of the Axis powers, and Finland then became a “pipeline” for fighters to join the Axis cause. Sweden remained resolutely neutral throughout the war, but Norway was occupied up until the very end, and occupied Norway was governed by Vidkun Quisling, whose name has become synonymous with treachery. Quisling was an interesting figure, as he was not an opportunistic fascist nor even an anti-Semitic fascist; Quisling belonged more to ideological fascism, and even to the mystical and esoteric side of Nazism; one suspects he would have been much more comfortable with Heidegger than with Hitler or Himmler.

Soldiers of the Turkestan Legion.

The German use of foreign legions was no doubt utterly cynical, which is to say, it was pragmatic; it was equally cynical (i.e., equally opportunistic) on the part of those who sought to hitch their wagon to a star by jumping on the bandwagon of what seemed to be the most powerful military force on the planet. The Origins of the Second World War by A. J. P. Taylor, argued that Hitler himself was an opportunist, not driven by fanaticism or an insane lust for destruction, but was responding to geopolitical imperatives to which any German politician would have had to answer. Taylor’s book was controversial in the extreme (the response to it was not unlike the intensity of the response to Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem), and only time will tell its eventual reputation. Taylor’s arguments aside, we should question the idea that any war — and most especially a war as large and as complex as the Second World World — must be pigeon-holed as one and only one kind of conflict. There is the possibility that a war might be one kind of war for one of the combatants, and another kind of war entirely for another of the combatants. This is most obviously the case when a war of extermination on the part of one party to a conflict is a war of survival for the other party; those fighting only to survive need not exterminate their rivals, though they may well come to desire this end. However, it also can be the case that, when an ideological war is being fought by two or more parties of the conflict, other parties join the conflict for opportunistic reasons. This was manifestly the case during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR were locked in an ideological struggle, but third world proxy wars which the great powers attempted to contain within ideological bounds inevitably became mired both in local struggles as well as opportunistic conflicts.

Chiang Wei-kuo, adopted son of Chiang Kai-shek, attended a German military academy and commanded a Panzer unit during the Austrian Anschluss in 1938.

Because of the diversity and multiplicity of war, there is no unity and clarity of purpose at the largest scales. For a fire team of soldiers caught in a skirmish, there is perfect unity and clarity of purpose, but this purpose doesn’t scale beyond a certain limit. The grand strategies of nation-states, kingdoms, and other political agents, constitute clarity of purpose in so far as the grand strategies themselves are clear, and impose a measure of clarity on those wars that have their origins in grand strategy, but, once a war has started, the grand strategy of any one of the parties to the conflict cannot contain the conflict within the grand strategy parameters of the originating party. The grand strategy can continue to guide developments in a war as it progresses, and so can confer a rough directionality on the conflict, but even this directionality can evaporate if the political agent attempting to pursue its grand strategy begins to lose the conflict. Precisely this occurred in the Second World War. The ideological aims of the Nazi party were rendered ambiguous by the growing scale of the conflict, and eventually become meaningless. Whether the ideological aims of political parties were ever causes of events, or whether they were, rather, responses to events — symptoms of a disease, as it were — may be a chicken-and-egg problem.

Original caption: “Treu der Kosaken-Tradition Oberfeldwebel Nicolas Balanowski, kämpft wie viele seiner Landsleute, in den Reihen der landeseigenen Verbände gegen seine früheren Unterdrücker, den Bolschewisten. Getreu der alten Kosakentradition, trägt er noch immer die Kosaken-Mütze.” In English: “True to the Cossack tradition, Sergeant Nicolas Balanowski, like many of his compatriots, fights in the ranks of the state’s associations against his former oppressors, the Bolsheviks. True to the old Cossack tradition, he still wears the Cossack hat.”

The Second World War was many wars — Theodore Ropp wrote that, “The Second World War consisted of four related major wars, each presenting separate military-political problems.” (War in the Modern World, New York: Collier, 1971, p. 314) — and these many wars of the Second World war each had a distinctive character, hence even more diversity and multiplicity than are typically to be found in smaller conflicts. On the western front, it was a straight-forward political war of the kind that had repeatedly erupted between Germany and France; on the eastern front it was a war of extermination, not unlike the German campaign in German Southwest Africa or the British campaign against the Boers during the Boer War. On the northern front, it was a static war of occupation in Norway, while on the North African front it was a mobile war of mechanized armor against mechanized armor, and in the Pacific Theater further complexities were added by the multiplicity of colonial powers and their subject peoples who were involved.

One useful distinction that can be made among kinds of war is that between methods of war on the one hand, and, on the other hand, kinds of war based on causes and objectives (which, for purposes of brevity, I will call causal taxonomies). In my post Hybrid Warfare I included a list of seventeen distinct forms of warfare recognized by the US DOD and NATO — Antisubmarine Warfare, Biological Warfare, Chemical Warfare, Directed-Energy Warfare, Electronic Warfare, Guerrilla Warfare, Irregular Warfare, Mine Warfare (also called Land Mine Warfare), Multinational Warfare, Naval Coastal Warfare, Naval Expeditionary Warfare, Naval Special Warfare, Nuclear Warfare (also called Atomic Warfare), Surface Warfare, Unconventional Warfare, and Under Sea Warfare — all of which are methods of warfare, constituting a methodological taxonomy. Needless to say, the US DOD and NATO do not recognize wars of extermination as a distinct mode of warfare, but it could be conceived as such. More importantly, these methods of war tell us very little about causal taxonomies of war, even when methods and outcomes are mutually implicated (as in genocidal wars of extermination). The taxonomy of war employed by Ian Clark, discussed above, clearly draws a connection between methodological taxonomies and causal taxonomies, as each kind of war suggests methods of waging war, or methods of mitigating war, but for Clark, as I read him, it is the causal taxonomies that are fundamental, and the methods of waging war follow from these causal imperatives. Methodological taxonomies may satisfy war planners and unify soldiers and command structures, but they do not touch on the motivations of the mass societies of planetary civilization to wage war.

Planetary-scale war like the Second World War was not possible until there was planetary-scale civilization. The planetary-scale war that was the Second World War was both enabled by planetary-scale civilization and ultimately extended planetary-scale civilization (suggesting Clark’s war as social change), as became clear in the post-war period when there was a new impetus to create planetary institutions — the UN, the EU, and eventually the WTO and the World Criminal Court, inter alia. As I have argued on many occasions, our planetary-scale civilization is not politically or legally unified, although it is culturally, technologically, economically, and scientifically unified. Within a planetary-scale civilization, Huntington’s “clash of civilization” thesis is meaningless, and therefore stillborn. On a planet well on the way to integrating planetary-scale civilization there could be wars that break out between and among partially assimilated remnants of civilizations (formerly isolated regional civilization), which would constitute the trailing edge of Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and which latter could be said to have peaked in the 16th or 17th century. In this planetary context one can certainly imagine conflicts over control of Makinder’s world-island (“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland. Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island. Who rules the World Island commands the World.”), which would be essentially planetary-scale wars with planetary-scale methods and objectives, but which were not wars breaking out along the fault lines of civilizations.

Another way to think about wars in terms of outcomes (causal taxonomies) is that at least part of what makes a war the kind of war that it is, is the kind of peace that is possible following upon the end of the war (the actual outcome in contradistinction to the envisioned outcome, i.e., the war aim). While a war may begin with clear war aims, the war itself may cloud these war aims or make their achievement impossible, so that the actual outcome of the war is no longer recognizably related to the war aims of any of the parties to the conflict at the initiation of hostilities. In the case of the Second World War, the peace that followed was itself a war: the Cold War. Planetary-scale peace at the end of planetary-scale war came at the cost of small-scale regional wars and an arms race on a planetary scale. The decisive defeat of the Axis Powers was an unambiguously achieved war aim, but it was achieved by allies that were as ideologically opposed to each other as they were opposed to the Axis Powers. This set the stage for the conflicts to follow. Peace and reconstruction was geographically regional (not on a planetary scale, like the war itself) and was ideologically driven to a much greater extent than the pragmatic conduct of the war itself. Before the war was over Ernst Jünger had written, “It may safely be said that this war has been humanity’s first joint effort. The peace that ends it must be the second.” (The Peace, Hinsdale: Henry Regnery, 1948, p. 19) This was not to be the case, though FDR and the US tried to realize this ideal.

Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt in Paris.

A familiar narrative (especially to Americans) is that the Second World War was “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” (i.e., it was a just war, to invoke an Augustinian conception). This propagandistic conception of the Second World War is, in a sense, the mirror image of the Second World War as a great ideological conflict between lofty ideals on the one hand, and, on the other hand, naked evil, belies the pragmatism with which the war was fought and alliances were made, in which the war was rather a conflict driven by geopolitical imperatives — admittedly, geopolitical concerns extrapolated to a planetary scale, but still a conflict more about the distribution of ocean basins and mountain ranges than about ideology. The narrative of the Second World War as “The Good War” that was fought by the “greatest generation” elides the catastrophic policy failures of both the First and Second World Wars, and the peace settlements that followed upon them, which were arguably invidious to the grand strategies of the western nation-states. The Cold War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the Second World War in the same way that the Second World War was necessitated by the failed outcome of the First World War. However, it is at least arguable that the Cold War was fought more effectively than the world wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

The General Assembly of the United Nations Convenes for the first time on 10 January 1946 in London.

The ability of human beings to conceptualize and to act upon planetary-scale ideals is noble and inspiring, but a failure to distinguish between ideals that can be brought into being at the present, and ideals that must wait for another time, when conditions are right for their realization, constitutes a failure of wisdom at least proportional to nobility of conceptualizing an unattainable ideal. When Wilson arrived in Paris in 1919, and when FDR traveled to Yalta in 1945, both American presidents were prepared to make major strategic concessions in order to bring robust international institutions into being, and this willingness to sacrifice US national interests to a larger vision for peace on a planetary scale, following upon war on a planetary scale, put the US at a disadvantage. The outcome could well have been better for all if these presidents had exclusively focused on US national interests and the national interests of US allies rather than upon a trans-national ideal. Other parties to the negotiations in Paris and Yalta cannot be blamed for taking advantage of US willingness to bargain away its interests, and the interests of its allies, in order to secure the future of international institutions, which no one else took seriously. Of course, it must also be noted that both Wilson and FDR believed that the successful implementation of these international institutions would be in the strategic interest of the US, and many would argue that the US, as the leading post-war international power, got at least part of what it bargained for in the form of international institutions.

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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has taken the name of Caliph Ibrahim as leader of Islamic State, began life as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who has taken the name of Caliph Ibrahim as leader of Islamic State, began life as Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri.

Introduction: Madmen in Authority

If you’ve ever heard the final paragraph of Keynes’ economic masterpiece, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, you will not have forgotten these now-classic lines:

“…the ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”

John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Chapter 24, section V

Whether you care to consider our homegrown madmen here in the west, or the madmen elsewhere in the world, it is difficult to deny Keynes’ estimate of the place of ideas in political life. We are now seeing some especially pernicious ideas being played out in our planet’s history, and while we can be confident that these ideas will be discredited in the long term, in the short term they will be the source of enormous human suffering as long as madmen in authority cling to them, and others are willing to follow the madmen.

One of these madmen in authority at the present time is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (born Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri) who, as leader of Islamic State, has taken the name and title Caliph Ibrahim, as the restoration of the caliphate abolished with the end of the Ottoman Empire has been one of the long-held dreams of political Islamists upon which Islamic State has acted. The political entity now called Islamic State is also called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), in reference to the geographical region in which the movement is now active. The history of this geographical region is relevant to our inquiry, so we will consider this next.

Mesopotamia and the Levant

The Civilizational Milieu of Mesopotamia and the Levant

The region of the world now being fought over by Islamic State militants challenging established state structures was that region of the world most productive of ancient civilizations. The civilizations of India and China arose independently in almost complete cultural isolation, and they developed in isolation for hundreds or thousands of years before encountering other civilizations at a similar level of development. In the western hemisphere, there was perhaps more interaction between settled groups, with highland peoples of the Andes trading with lowland peoples along the coast from the earliest origins of civilization in South America, but even this was nothing like the density of civilization to be found in the contiguous regions of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt — a geographical area that came to be called the Fertile Crescent.

At the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea a series of civilizations arose in relation to and often in conflict with each other. Empire succeeded empire as the peoples of the region competed for power. This predecessor — this common ancestor — of Jewish civilization, western civilization, Islamic civilization, North African civilization, Russian civilization and all the civilizations that have their ultimate origins in the Mediterranean Basin, was the most complex, most polyglot, most diverse civilizational milieu on our planet. In my notes to myself I sometimes call this civilizational region the “West Asian cluster,” as these contiguous lands hosted a cluster of evolving and interacting civilizations. History has great depth and complexity here, and one might well spend a lifetime attempting to master all the diverging and converging strains that are interwoven in the region.

The civilization that was to become Western civilization is ultimately from this west Asian cluster (albeit derivatively), specifically, from Anatolia, and it is easy to trace on the map its journey through Thrace, Bulgaria, and into the Balkan Peninsula. Then in Greece that civilization experienced a dramatic mutation, and then again, further west, in Rome, again that civilization mutated into something else, and further west again when the Roman legacy was mixed with Barbarian Europe, Christendom emerged and western civilization as we know it today took shape. Western civilization, in other words, took shape outside the region of the west Asian cluster. The civilizations we see in the region today are those that remained in the region from earliest antiquity, and this is our first hint of the dramatically different histories of East and West. Christendom took shape in the muddy, rural backwaters of manorial estates in western Europe; nothing could be farther from the dusty, desert cities of the Levant, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt — cities that had already existed for thousands of years by the time Islamic civilization emerged and became the dominant power.

Islamic State is seeking to establish itself and to project power at the heart of this West Asian Cluster that proved itself fertile not only in its soil for the production of food, but fertile also in the minds of its peoples for the production of civilizations. But it is interesting to note that among the civilizations that emerge from the West Asian cluster, Islamic civilization is only derivatively from this cluster (like Western Civilization), since Islamic civilization in the narrow sense has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, although the civilizations of the Arabian Peninsula had their origins in turn from the West Asian Cluster.


The Golden Age of Islamic Civilization

It is not unusual to hear the ideology of ISIS compared to medieval interpretations of Islam, but medieval Islam — a civilization of wealth and power at the height of its historical influence — was a large and diverse civilization, one of civilization’s “big tents,” and moreover a civilization of many hundreds of years in duration, so that if you were to compare early medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Samarra and Baghdad with late medieval Islam of the sort you might find in Granada and Cordoba, the differences may be more evident than the continuity of Islamic identity. Medieval Islam, then, is not exactly what people usually have in mind when they speak of “medieval Islam.”

The height of medieval Islamic civilization saw cosmopolitan cities, monumental architecture, and a great efflorescence of philosophy. The works of classical philosophy lost in western Europe with the collapse of Roman institutions were translated into Arabic and were the subject of extensive interpretation and commentary. When medieval Europe recovered to the point of being able to once again engage with philosophy, they received the Greek and Roman classics from Islam, and they consumed the works of Islamic commentators no less than ancient works. While St. Thomas called Aristotle “The Philosopher,” he also called Averroes “The Commentator.”

Any wealthy agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization that begins to produce an abundance of intellectual innovation will trigger a reaction from the conservative sectors of society who wish to preserve untainted the religious principles of social organization that are of the very essence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. This was true for the Greeks, for the Romans, for the Jews, and it was true for Islam. The Greeks killed Socrates, the Romans exiled Ovid, the Jews excommunicated Spinoza, and Islam produced figures like Ibn Taymiyyah who condemned all intellectual innovation.

Ibn Taymiyya

Ibn Taymiyyah and reactionary philosophy

I begin my inquiry into the violence in the region from the earliest traces of civilization, but the echo chamber of the press and the popular media goes back only when pressed for explanations they do not have, and then they go only far enough to seize upon a figure who can be used to “explain” the apparently inexplicable. A review of regional history may include the split between Shia and Sunni, and will certainly go on to discuss the crucial role of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and Wahhabism in the ideology of the militant Salafist groups. It would be an easy matter to use up one’s available time simply trying to clarify the distinction, if any, between Wahhabism and Salafism.

There are several older and deeper layers of history sedimented into the ideology of ISIS. One of the pivotal philosophical figures in contemporary militant ideology is that of Ibn Taymiyyah, who is one of the “Two Shaikhs” — the other being al-Islam — of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. It should be noted that jurisprudence plays a much larger role in Islamic thought than it does in Christian thought. Perhaps this is a consequence of the separation of political and ecclesiastical power that has always marked western civilization; perhaps there are other historical forces at work as well. In any case, one of the major distinction made within Islam is that made among the five schools of Islamic jurisprudence, viz. the Ja‘fari, the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi΄i, and the Hanbali. There are in addition some other schools, though with relatively few followers.

Ibn Taymiyyah not only played a prominent role in the foundation of the Hanbali school, he was also what we would today call a technical philosopher, that is to say, he wrote technical treatises in philosophy that can only be understood by other philosophers who have studied similar questions. But Ibn Taymiyyah was a technical philosopher only because he felt the need to refute the doctrines of other technical philosophers. Refuting philosophers on their own terms has the paradoxical consequence of requiring that the intellectual representatives of a simpler past are forced to engage these philosophers on their own terms, adopting the language and the concepts of philosophy in order to give the lie to philosophy.

A figure like Ibn Taymiyyah within Islam has several parallels in the western philosophical tradition. When intellectual life revived in western Europe after the Dark Ages, and scholars began to read Aristotle and his Greek and Arabian commentators (all of these texts passed along via a cosmopolitan Islamic civilization, since they had been lost in the west), many sincere yet conservative Schoolmen were nothing less than horrified by the “Latin Averroists” and other philosophers who openly learned from pagan and Islamic scholars. They not only argued against these philosophical innovations, they also actively sought to have these views suppressed and their authors silenced, and they were successful with depressing regularity and thoroughness.

Giles of Rome is a good example of this: he wrote a book called The Errors of the Philosophers, in which he recounts in detail the false doctrines that Christian philosophers had disastrously picked up from reading Greek and Arabic philosophical texts. Yet, paradoxically, in order to effectively refute these doctrines, Giles himself had to learn to speak the language of the philosophers. A good example of this is his book Theorems on Existence and Essence — a technical philosophical treatise on ontology. If you read this book without knowing medieval philosophy, you would have no idea if Giles was a flaming radical or the most hidebound reactionary. It bristles with philosophical terminology that can only be understood by initiates of the discipline. Nietzsche once wrote, “Kant wanted to prove in a way that would dumfound the ‘common man’ that the ‘common man’ was right.” A similar observation might be made on Giles of Rome.

Ibn Taymiyyah was in a similar position: he wanted to refute the rationalism of the Greek logicians, but in order to do so he was forced to adopt the language and the concepts of the Greeks, and so his primary theoretical text, Against the Greek Logicians, like Giles’ treatises against Christians borrowing from Greeks and Arabs, is a demanding philosophical read. It is a subtle and sophisticated work, not a mere catalog of rejection or condemnation, though it also resembles Saint Augustine in its elaborate and verbose digressions. But his project is a paradoxical project. Like all anti-rationalist philosophies, it is beset with contradictions from the outset. But a little contradiction never worried a committed ideologue; indeed, the very idea of contradiction stems from logic, so that in so far as you use logic to condemn itself (as Ibn Taymiyyah does), you are in a position to welcome contradictions.

In so far as we can identify the Enlightenment project as the re-emergence of rationalism in western civilization, all of those western nation-states today who look to the Enlightenment project, or which, like the US and France, owe their very existence to the Enlightenment, have their source and origin in Locke, Hume, and the cluster of early modern political philosophers who made their work possible. But it is not only rationalism that re-emerges repeatedly in history; irrationalism also returns time and again in human history. The philosophy of ISIS constitutes a parallel re-emergence of Ibn Taymiyaah’s project, a reactionary, anti-rational project for civilization. While we already know that anti-rationalistic programs are failed civilizational programs, sometimes failed ideas are perennial ideas, and so they come back to haunt us time and time again, no matter how pernicious to human well being and many times discredited by history when history teaches by example.


Fawaz A. Gerges on Islamic State

In a cosmopolitan civilization, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome would be mere cranks, rapidly left behind by accelerating intellectual innovations that open up new horizons of inquiry and research and which change civilization in their wake. (I suspect that Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome, had they ever met, would have gotten along famously as long as the topic of religion never came up, in which case they would likely have killed each other.) Unfortunately, in human history from all quarters of the planet we can find examples of growing and dynamic civilizations, civilizations that do not feel threatened by diversity of thought, retrenching from their cosmopolitanism, closing themselves off from new influences, looking to the past rather than the future, and refusing change, if not actively working to reverse changes. (In Islamic thought there is actually a term for this: “closing of the gate of ijtihad.”)

In non-cosmopolitan civilizations, in reactionary social contexts, failed ideas that fully deserve to be defunct ideas are given a new lease on life, and perhaps more importantly and most dangerously, these ideas are placed in the context of a mythology that gives cosmic significance to them. In such a retrograde social context, men like Ibn Taymiyyah and Giles of Rome take on a prophetic quality: they have seen the limitations of reason and scientific inquiry, and they were among the first to issue warnings about where such developments will take us if we allow them to continue.

We have seen that the philosophical basis of ISIS and related groups that share the ideology of ISIS is the principled rejection of that rationalism that has been the unique contribution of the western branch of the west Asian cluster of civilizations, and that Ibn Taymiyyah is one of the theoretical sources of this principled rejection, and author of the many of the principles that can be and have been invoked to this end. Much of the social and eschatological background against which these ideas have been received can be found in an article on the BBC, Islamic State: Can its savagery be explained? by Fawaz A. Gerges, Emirates Chair in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science. In this article Gerges wrote:

“…IS actually stresses violent action over theology and theory, and has produced no repertoire of ideas to sustain and nourish its social base. It is a killing machine powered by blood and iron.”

Obviously, I do not share this view, but Gerges is unquestionably correct that Islamic State emphasizes violent action over theoretical disputation. Gerges, however, also notes several other factors in the appeal of Islamic State that constitute the social context within which the ideological superstructure of the group is played out:

“victory through terrorism” (the quotation marks are in the Gerges’ text, though I can’t find the source of this presumed slogan)
Get out of the way or you will be crushed; join our caravan and make history.
a powerful vanguard that delivers victory and salvation
shock-and-awe tactics against the enemies of Islam
capturing huge swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq
a greater mission — to resurrect a lost idealised type of caliphate (Gerges also says “establishing a caliphate”)
be part of a tight-knit community with a potent identity
to defend persecuted co-religionists
an anti-Shia diet and visceral hatred of minorities in general
the spearhead of Sunni Arabs in the fight against sectarian-based regimes in Baghdad and Damascus

All of these are direct quotes from the Gerges article on the BBC. While this may not sound like an ideology compared to the tortuous theological justifications for brutality to which we are accustomed, it is clearly an ideological program, and, more than that, it is an ideological program with an unmistakeable pragmatic bent.


Strategy and Tactics of Cosmic War

It would be difficult to produce a more concise list of the tactics of cosmic war than that above I have derived from Gerges. The violence and brutality, then, are epiphenomenal to the eschatological core of militant Salafism, which is in turn the core of Islamic State.

It is at least arguable that the devolution of warfare has driven the brutality of warfare on the ground, as this remains one of the few avenues for perpetrating atrocities that will command the attention of the world, and it is through the practice of atrocities that Islamic State has advertised itself and its ruthlessness to the world. But the calling card of brutality and ruthlessness is not be conflated with the ideological superstructure of Islamic State.

We can see that all of these slogans, ideas, and actions noted by Gerges play into a conception of history, that is to say, they constitute a kind of historical consciousness, and a particular conception of history superadded to the individual’s conception of himself — which is to say, the individual consciousness supplemented by an historical consciousness that places that individual within a big picture conception of the world — is a potent ideological cocktail. It is precisely this kind of historical consciousness that drove fanatical (and also often victorious) communists in the twentieth century. In other words, militant Islam today is in some sense parallel to militant communism in the twentieth century. This observation should give us pause, and it is something that we need to remember when we consider the problem of Islamic terrorism.

A conception of history, while powerful, is essentially only the scaffolding of an ideological superstructure. The scaffolding is there to support and to organize the principles that constitute the substance of an ideological superstructure. This substance of the ideological superstructure is taken from the older, perennial theoretical justifications found in original thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah (who, I might note, would not want to have been thought of as an original thinker).

The principles that ultimately govern the shape of the ideological superstructure go far beyond the tactical implementation of a particular conception of history: these ideas are the strategy of cosmic war. We can understand thinkers like Ibn Taymiyyah, then, as the strategists of cosmic war — and I even think that if a sympathetic reader of Ibn Taymiyyah and a supporter of Islamic State took the time to understand that I have written here, that he would not necessarily reject this formulation.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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In my previous post, Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind: Conflicting Destinies in South Asia, I discussed the differing manifest destinies of Pakistan and India in South Asia. I also placed this discussion in the context of Europe’s wars of the twentieth century and the Cold War. The conflicting destinies imagined by ideological extremists in Pakistan and India is more closely parallel to European wars in the twentieth century than to the Cold War, because while Europe’s wars escalated into a global conflagrations, it was, at heart, conflicting manifest destinies in Europe that brought about these wars.

A manifest destiny is a vision for a people, that is to say, an imagined future, perhaps inevitable, for a particular ethnic or national community. Thus manifest destinies are produced by visionaries, or communities of visionaries. The latter, communities of visionaries, typically include religious organizations, political parties, professional protesters and political agitators, inter alia. We have become too accustomed to assuming that “visionary” is a good thing, but vision, like attempted utopias, goes wrong much more frequently than it goes well.

Perhaps that last visionary historical project to turn out well was that of the United States, which is essentially en Enlightenment-era thought experiment translated into the real world — supposing we could rule ourselves without kings, starting de novo, how would be do it? — and of course there would be many to argue that the US did not turn out well at all, and that whatever sociopolitical gains that have been realized as a result of the implementation of popular sovereignty, the price has been too high. Whatever narrative one employs to understand the US, and however one values this political experiment, the US is like an alternative history of Europe that Europe itself did not explore, i.e., the US is the result of one of many European ideas that had a brief period of influence in Europe but which was supplanted by later ideas.

Utopians are not nice people who wish only to ameliorate the human condition; utopians are the individuals and movements who place their vision above the needs, and even the lives, of ordinary human beings engaged in the ordinary business of life. Utopians are idealists, who wish to see an ideal put into practice — at any cost. The great utopian movements of the twentieth century were identical to the greatest horrors of the twentieth century: Soviet communism, Nazi Germany, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and the attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create an agrarian communist society in Cambodia. It was one of the Khmer Rouge slogans that, “To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss.”

The Second World War — that is to say, the most destructive conflict in human history — was a direct consequence of the Nazi vision for a utopian Europe. The ideals of a Nazi utopia are not widely shared today, but this is how the Nazis themselves understood their attempt to bring about a Judenrein slave empire in the East, which Nazi overlords ruling illiterate Slav peasants. Nazism is one of the purest exemplars in human history of the attempt to place the value of a principle above the value of individual lives. It would also be said that the Morganthau plan for post-war Germany (which I discussed in The Stalin Doctrine) was almost as visionary as the Nazi vision itself, though certainly less brutal and not requiring any genocide to be put into practice. Visionary adversaries sometimes inspire visionary responses, although the Morganthau plan was not ultimately adopted.

In the wake of the unprecedented destruction of the Second World War, the destiny of Europe has been widely understood to lie in European integration and unity. The attempt to unify Europe in our time — the European Union — is predicated upon an implicit idea of Europe, which is again predicated upon an implicit shared vision of the future. What is this shared vision of the future? I could maliciously characterize the contemporary European vision of the future as Fukuyama’s “end of history,” in which, “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” constitute the only remaining social vision, and, “The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism,” have long since disappeared. …

After the horrors of the twentieth century, such a future might not sound too bad, and while it may constitute a kind of progress, this can no longer be understood as a manifest destiny; no one imagines that a unified Europe is one people with one vision; unified Europe is, rather, a conglomerate, and its vision is no more coherent or moving than the typical mission statement of a conglomerate. Indeed, we must view it as an open question as to whether a truly democratic society can generate or sustain a manifest destiny — and Europe today is, if anything, a truly democratic society. There are, of course the examples of Athens at the head of the Delian League and the United States in the nineteenth century. I invite the reader to consider whether these societies were as thoroughly democratic as Europe today, and I leave the question open for the moment.

But Europe did not come to its democratic present easily or quickly. Europe has represented both manifest destinies and conflicting manifest destinies throughout its long history. Europe’s unusual productivity of ideas has given the world countless ideologies that other peoples have adopted as their own, even as the Europeans took them up for a time, only to later cast them aside. Europe for much of its history represented Christendom, that is to say, Christian civilization. In its role as Christian civilization, Europe resisted the Vikings, the Mongols, Russian Orthodox civilization after the Great Schism, Islam during the Crusades, later the Turk, another manifestation of Islam, and eventually Europeans fell on each other and during the religious wars that followed the Protestant Reformation, with Catholics and Protestants representing conflicting manifest destinies that tore Europe apart with an unprecedented savagery and bloodthirstiness.

After Europe exhausted itself with fratricidal war inspired by conflicting manifest destinies, Europe came to represent science, and progress, and modernity, and this came to be a powerful force in the world. But modernity has more than one face, and by the time Europe entered the twentieth century, Europe hosted two mortal enemies that held out radically different visions of the future, the truly modern manifest destinies of fascism and communism. Europe again exhausted itself in fratricidal conflict, and it was left to the New World to sort out the peace and to provide the competing vision to the surviving communist vision that emerged from the mortal conflict in Europe. Now communism, too, has ceded its place as a vision for the future and a manifest destiny, leaving Russia again as the representative of Orthodox civilization, and Europe as the representative of democracy.

On the European periphery, Russia continues to exercise an influence in a direction distinct from that of the idea of Europe embodied in the European Union. Even as I write this, protesters and police are battling in Ukraine, primarily as a result of Russian pressure on the leaders of Ukraine not to more closely associate itself with Europe (cf. Europe’s Crisis in Ukraine by Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt). Ukraine is significant in this connection, because it is a nation-state split between a western portion that shares the European idea and wants to be a part of Europe, and an eastern part that looks to Russia.

What does a nation-state on the European periphery look toward when it looks toward Russia? Does Russia represent an ideology or a destiny, if only on the European periphery and not properly European? As the leading representative of Orthodox civilization, Russia should represent some kind of vision, but what vision exactly? As I have attempted to explain previously in The Principle of Autocracy and Spheres of Influence, I remain puzzled by autocracy and forms of authoritarianism, and I don’t see that Russia has anything to offer other than a kinder, gentler form of autocracy than that what the Tsars offered in earlier centuries.

Previously in The Evolution of Europe I wrote that, “The idea of Europe will not go away,” and, “The saga of Europe is far from over.” I would still say the same now, but I would qualify these claims. The idea of Europe remains strong for the Europeans, but it represents little in the way of a global vision, and while many seek to join Europe, as barbarians sought join the Roman Empire, Europe represents a manifest destiny as little as the later Roman Empire represented anything. But Europe displaced into the New World, where its Enlightenment prodigy, the United States continues its political experiment, still represented something, however tainted the vision.

The idea of Europe remains in Europe, but the destiny of Europe lies in the Western Hemisphere.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Geopolitics and Geostrategy

as a formal sciences

In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.

There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.

Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:

One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)

Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.

There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.

The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.

We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.

The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.

Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).

Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.

Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)

A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).

As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.

Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.

Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.

Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.

If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.

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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Kurt Gödel 1906-1978

Kurt Gödel was possibly the greatest logician of the twentieth century, and certainly among the handful of greatest logicians of all time. Tarski called himself the “greatest living sane logician,” implicitly conceding Gödel first place if the qualifier “sane” is removed. Gödel’s greatest contributions were his incompleteness theorems, which have subsequently been extrapolated to an entire class of limitative theorems that formally demonstrate that which formal systems cannot prove. I just mentioned in The Clausewitzean Conception of Civilization that Gödel’s results were widely interpreted as the death-knell of Hilbert’s program to provide a finite axiomatization for all mathematics.

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, however, were not his only contribution. Over the past few years his correspondence and unpublished papers have been published, giving a better idea of the full scope of Gödel’s thought, which ranged widely across logic, mathematics, cosmology, and even theology. Hao Wang in his Reflections on Kurt Gödel called Gödel’s, “A life of fundamental theoretical work,” and this is an apt characterization.

It strikes me as fitting and appropriate, then, to apply Gödel’s fundamental theoretical work whenever and wherever it might be applicable, and I will suggest that Gödel’s work has implications for theoretical geopolitics (and even, if there were such a discipline, for theoretical biopolitics).

Now, allow me to back up for a moment and mention Francis Fukuyama again, since I have mentioned him and the “end of history” thesis in several recent posts: Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, Another Future: The New Agriculturalism, Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism, Geopolitics and Biopolitics, and Addendum on Geopolitics and Biopolitics to name a few. Should the reader think that I am beating a dead horse, I would submit to you that Fukuyama himself is still thinking through the consequences of his thesis. In his book The End of History and the Last Man, the idea of a “struggle for recognition” plays an important role, and Fukuyama has mentioned this again quite recently in his recent Foreign Policy essay, The Drive for Dignity. And this is the way it should be: our impatient society may frown upon spending ten or twenty years thinking through an idea, but this is what philosophers do.

In the aforementioned The End of History and the Last Man Fukuyama poses this question, related to his “end of history” thesis:

“Whether, at the end of the twentieth century, it makes sense for us to once again to speak of a coherent and directional History of of mankind that will eventually lead the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy?”

Fukuyama answers “yes” to this question, giving economics and the “struggle for recognition” as his reasons for so arguing. Although Fukuyama seems to avoid the tendentious formulation he employed earlier, yes, history is, after all, coming to an end. But wait. There is more. In his later book Our Posthuman Future and in some occasional articles, Fukuyama has argued that history can’t quite come to and end yet because science hasn’t come to an end. Moreover, the biotechnology revolution holds out either the promise or the threat of altering human nature itself, and if human nature is altered, the possibilities for our future history are more or less wide open.

From these two lines of argument I conclude that Fukuyama still thinks today that the ideological evolution of humanity has come to an end in so far as humanity is what it is today, but that this could all change if we alter ourselves. In other words, our ideological life supervenes upon our physical structure and the mode of life dictated by that physical structure. We only have a new ideological future if we change what human beings are on an essential level. Now, this is a very interesting position, and there is much to say about it, but here I am only going to say a single reason why I disagree with it.

Human moral evolution has not come to an end, and although it would probably be given a spur to further and faster growth by biotechnological interventions in human life (and most especially by human-induced human speciation, which would certainly be a major event in the history of our species), human moral evolution, and the ideological changes that supervene upon human moral evolution, will continue with or without biotechnological intervention in human life.

To suppose that human moral evolution had come to an end with the advent of the idea and implementation of liberal democracy, however admirable this condition is (or would be), is to suppose that we had tried all possible ideas for human society and that there will be no new ideas (at least, there will be no new moral ideas unless we change human nature through biotechnological intervention). I do not accept either that all ideas for society have been tried and rejected or that there will be no fundamentally new ideas.

The denial of future conceptual innovation is interesting in its own right, and constitutes a particular tradition of thought that one runs into from time to time. This is the position made famous by Ecclesiastes who said that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Politicians, geopoliticians, geostrategists, and strategists simpliciter have been as vulnerable to “group think” (i.e., intellectual conformity) as any other group of people, and they tend to think that if every idea has been pretty much discussed and exhausted among their circle of friends, that ideas in general have been pretty much exhausted. The idea that there are no new ideological ideas forthcoming represents group think at the nation-state level, and in part accounts for the increasing ossification of the nation-state system as it exists today. I have mentioned elsewhere the need for nothing less than a revolution to conduct a political experiment. It is no wonder, then, that new ideas don’t get much of a hearing.

To the position of Ecclesiastes we can oppose the position of Gödel, who saw clearly that some have argued and will argue for the end of the evolution of the human mind and its moral life. In a brief but characteristically pregnant lecture Gödel made the following argument:

“Turing . . . gives an argument which is supposed to show that mental procedures cannot go beyond mechanical procedures. However, this argument is inconclusive. What Turing disregards completely is the fact that mind, in its use, is not static, but is constantly developing, i.e., that we understand abstract terms more and more precisely as we go on using them, and that more and more abstract terms enter the sphere of our understanding. There may exist systematic methods of actualizing this development, which could form part of the procedure. Therefore, although at each stage the number and precision of the abstract terms at our disposal may be finite, both (and, therefore, also Turing’s number of distinguishable states of mind) may converge toward infinity in the course of the application of the procedure.”

“Some remarks on the undecidability results” (Italics in original) in Gödel, Kurt, Collected Works, Volume II, Publications 1938-1974, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 306

Since we are, today, living in the Age of Turing (as I write this, the entire current year of 2012 has been declared The Alan Turing Year), ushered in by the pervasive prevalence of computers in contemporary life, it is to be expected that those who follow Turing in his conception of the mind are at or near the flood-tide of their influence, and this conception might well be as pervasively prevalent as the computers that Turing made possible by his own fundamental theoretical work. And in fact, in contemporary philosophers of mind, we find a great many expressions of the essentially mechanical nature of the mind, sometimes called the computational model of the mind. It has become a commonplace to see the mind as the “software” installed in the body’s “hardware,” despite the fact that most of the advocates of a computational theory of mind also argue strongly against Cartesian dualism.

Gödel is right. The human mind is always developing and changing. Because the mind is not static, it formulates novel ideas on a regular basis. It is a fallacy to conflate the failure of new ideas of achieve widespread socio-political currency with the absence of novel ideas. Among the novel ideas constantly pioneered by the dynamism of human cognition are moral and political ideas. In so far as there are new moral and political ideas, there are new possibilities for human culture, society, and civilization. The works of the human mind, like the human mind itself, are not static, but are constantly developing.

I have recently argued that biopolitics potentially represents a fundamentally novel moral and political idea. An entire future history of humanity might be derived from what is implicit in biopolitics, and this future history would be distinct from the future history of humanity based on the idea of liberal democracy and its geopolitical theoreticians. I wrote about biopolitics because I could cite several examples and go into the idea in some level of detail (although much more detail is required — I mean a level of detail relative to the context), but there are many ideas that are similarly distinct from the conventions of contemporary statesmen and which might well be elaborated in a future that would come as a surprise to us all.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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A Clausewitzean Transformation

Clausewitz had a classical education and benefitted from it. As paradoxical as it may sound, he attempted to bring the spirit of Enlightenment rationalism to the study of war.

of Geopolitics and Warfare

In one of the most famous passages of Clausewitz’s On War is this:

“We see, therefore, that War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means. All beyond this which is strictly peculiar to War relates merely to the peculiar nature of the means which it uses. That the tendencies and views of policy shall not be incompatible with these means, the Art of War in general and the Commander in each particular case may demand, and this claim is truly not a trifling one. But however powerfully this may react on political views in particular cases, still it must always be regarded as only a modification of them; for the political view is the object, War is the means, and the means must always include the object in our conception.” (On War, Book I, Chap. I, 24)

In previous posts (e.g., More on Clausewitz) I have cited Anatol Rapaport, who called Clausewitz the greatest representative of the political conception of war. This is certainly Exhibit A of Clausewitzean political war.

Here’s another passage expressing more or less the same thought:

“The War of a community — of whole Nations, and particularly of civilised Nations — always starts from a political condition, and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act.” (On War, Book I, Chap. I, 23)

And these reflections follow Clausewitz’s definition of war:


That war is an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will must be seen in the context of war being a political act and instrument, carrying out state policy by other means, just as the carrying out of state policy by other means must be seen in the context of the violence of war intended to force compliance. Political action is an act of violence carried out by other means.

We might well call this this fungibility doctrine, since Clausewitz maintains that politics can be transformed into war and war can be transformed into politics.

Foucault makes this fungibility a theme of his lectures Society Must be Defended, in which he returns to the Clausewitzean aphorism and its inversion repeatedly.

There is another way to state this that brings out the idea with admirable clarity. Joseph Fouche of the Committee of Public Safety has summed it up in four words:

All power is fungible.

Anyone who can sum up an idea like this in four words has performed a certain intellectual service that ought to be recognized. This is from Citizen Fouche’s post Crony Capitalism, the Choice of 1912, and Bully for You. And here is a quote from the same post with a little more detail:

“All power is fungible: one form of power can, with varying degrees of difficulty, be converted into another form of power. Economic power can become political power. Political power can become economic power. This means there is ultimately only one market for all forms of power. Change in the division of economic power within an economic market is always followed by change in the division of political power within a political market. Shifts in the division of political power within a political market always impact the division of power within a political market.”

I do not myself agree with an unrestricted application of Fouche’s fungibility doctrine — there are too many cases of, say, soft power that cannot be transformed into hard power — but it possesses the virtues of simplicity and directness. It is this simplicity and directness that gives abstract and formal theory its power.

In this spirit, I will observe that the three principles I began formulating in my posts on theoretical geopolitics also apply to the theory of war. Here are the three principles I formulated:

Human agency is constrained by geography.

The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.

In so far as these are principles of geopolitics, they are also principles of war. formulated as principles of war they become:

Military agency is constrained by geography.

The scope of military agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which military agency is marginal.

Military agency is essentially a temporal agency.

I suggested that, given the greater constraints of time in comparison to space, that history may be the greater constraint than geography, thus the corollary of the essential temporality of military agency is the greater constraint that history places on military agency than the obvious constraints of geography.

Well, now that I have called these principles of war, we have to ask what becomes of the familiar principles of war. There are many formulations of the principles of war, but I will refer to the principles of war as codified in US military doctrine. The familiar list of objective, offensive, mass, economy of forces, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity are also, by Fouche’s fungibility principles, also principles of politics. And certainly we know that ruthless politicians run their election campaigns like military campaigns, and govern like generals.

What, then, is the relation between the principles of theoretical geopolitics that I have begun to formulate, transformed into principles of war according to the fungibility of power, and the familiar principles of war? I don’t know. I haven’t thought it through yet. That is work for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Third in a Series

In two previous posts in this series on theoretical geopolitics I have identified the following two principles:

The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought: Human agency is constrained by geography.

The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought: The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

These first two principles of geopolitical thought as I have formulated them together yield centers of human agency (i.e., centers of power) at each level of metaphysical ecology. These forces have decomposed the world into geographical regions and ultimately yielded the geographically defined nation-state of the present age. The territories of hunter-gatherer bands, the city-states and empires of antiquity, the kingdoms of the middle ages, and the nation-states of today are all expressions of the geographical constraint of human agency.

The next step beyond geography is something I have already discussed at some length in The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, and which I will now make explicit a in third principle:

The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.

If the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought tells us that geography matters, then the third law of geopolitical thought tells us that history matters.

As I noted above, I have already discussed the temporality of human agency in the context of ecological temporality in The Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, though when I formulated the second law I was primarily thinking in geo-spatial terms formulated in metaphysical ecology rather than in historico-temporal terms formulated in ecological temporality.

Human agency has both geographical (spatial) and historical (temporal) aspects, so that it would be sufficient simply to understand human agency in its full dimensions to appreciate this, but since the first principle of theoretical geopolitics, that human agency is constrained by geography, explicitly reminds us of the geographical dimension of human agency, it is appropriate that we should be similarly explicitly reminded of the historical dimension of human agency in a principle reserved for that purpose.

As I have observed on several occasions, I consider metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history to be alternative formulations of the same state of affairs, so that in the same spirit the third law of geopolitical thought is to be regarded as an alternative formulation of the Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought. I can make this alternative formulation more explicit by rephrasing the third principle as human agency is constrained by history. In this form the third principle of theoretical geopolitics closely approximates a famous line from Marx that I have quoted (with approval) many times:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, first paragraph

Human agency is constrained both by geography and history, and these geographical and historical constraints define the scope of human agency, as invoked in the second principle of theoretical geopolitics, viz. The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

We can even substitute, salva veritate, the explicit invocation of geographical and historical constraints for the formulation in terms of human agency, so that the second principle of theoretical geopolitics reads like this: human agency constrained by geography and history defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal (or non-existent).

The virtue of this latter formulation lies in the immediacy with which we can see that there are both geographical and historical centers and peripheries. In the simplest model of geopolitics, there would be only one center and one periphery. This center would be both a geographical and historical center, and all that lies outside that center would constitute the geographical and historical periphery.

The simplest model of center and periphery.

One way to imagine this simplest model would be through a thought experiment: suppose that Western history consisted only of classical antiquity, and that the history of the ancient world was followed by no further achievements of Western civilization. In this case, the high point of the development of the Roman Empire would constitute both the geographical and historical center of Western history, and we could refine the geographical center to be the city of Rome, and the historical center to be, say, 180 AD, at which point Gibbon commenced his history. Outside these centers, all else is peripheral, and the farther from the center one moves, the more peripheral events become.

We don’t even have to do that thought experiment as a counter-factual exercise if we only confine our scope to classical antiquity. In other words, we can simply say that Rome in 180 AD was the geographical and historical center of classical antiquity. Non-Westerners reading this can perform similar thought experiments by substituting for Rome, say, the Persian Empire or the Chinese Empire or the Mogul Empire (though I suspect that many from India would not regard the Muslim Moguls as constituting the center of Indian history). Muslims might like to consider the Abbasid Dynasty as the historical and geographical center of pre-modern Islamic civilization. All of these identifications are obviously problematic, but all of them also, I think, have something to teach us in this context.

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

In a more complex and subtle model of geopolitics, we need to recognize that there are multiple centers and multiple peripheries and overlap and intersect (like Wittgensteinian family resemblances). We also need to recognize that geographical and historical centers can be offset, that is to say, the “center” of a people’s history may be distinct from the “center” of a people’s geography.

Our own history once again can supply us with examples of a more subtle account of theoretical geopolitics. Classical antiquity had numerous centers both in terms of history and geography: besides Rome there is of course Athens under Pericles, and on the far periphery of Rome there was Parthia under the Arsacids, on another periphery there were the Germans under Arminius, and also the later kingdoms of Egypt.

There is something a little artificial about making a separation between historical and geographical centers, because human agency is also spatio-temporal: that is to say, it consists of actions that take place in both space and time, and because human action is spatio-temporal centers of geography and history are usually aligned, even if they may be offset in some cases.

This is especially true of non-settled peoples. What was the center of Viking history? Viking voyages. The Vikings had their settlements in Norway and Iceland, and their trading outposts and even places they returned to time and again to rain and loot (like the British Isles), but the center of Viking civilization was in the act of voyaging, and voyaging is in equal parts spatial and temporal, geographical and historical. If we consider the nomadic Sami people of the far north of the Scandinavian peninsula, the center of their world is the annual migration of the reindeer. This is a recurring event, and so the historical center is very different from peoples who have abandoned this ancient hunter-gatherer modus vivendi. This suggests the possibility of recurring geographical and historical centers. This is an interesting idea that I will perhaps take up at another time.

Although human agency is constrained by both space and time, and integrates the two in spatio-temporal action, because of the particular properties of space and time, human agency is differently constrained by space than it is by time and vice versa. Time involves far more stringent constraints because we cannot move freely in time in the way that we can (ideally) move freely in space. Of course, we cannot even move absolutely freely in space, which is the whole point of geopolitics. We are even more tightly constrained by time.

Given that ideal freedom of movement in space is constrained by topography and the limitations of human agency, so that actual freedom of movement in a geographical context is far less than the ideal spatial freedom of geography, this is a lesson to us in regard to historical constraints. The “ideal” freedom of movement in time is nearly non-existent. We can, to a very limited extent distribute our activities in time, and we can chose when to begin and end certain activities, but most of time is beyond our control even if we were to appeal to Newton’s “Absolute, true and mathematical time,” which, “of itself, and from its own nature flows equably without regard to anything external, and by another name is called duration.”

If the parallelism of space and time holds so far that there exists a parallelism also between the relations of pure space to actual space and pure time to actual time, then the recognition that real world spatial constraints are far more limiting than ideal spatial constraints suggests that real world temporal constraints are far more limiting that ideal temporal constraints. In this case, if the parallelism holds, history would be a far more rigorous constraint upon human agency than geography, in which case we ought to be thinking in terms of temporal politics instead of geopolitics.

This is an interesting idea that requires separate consideration. Perhaps it needs to be a separate theorem of theoretical geopolitics. I will have to think about this a little more. So, for the time being, I will let it rest there.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Second in a Series

In The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I began to sketch a theoretical geopolitics. There I identified the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as being that human agency is constrained by geography.

Today I move beyond the fundamental theorem, which I attempted to justify in narrative terms in my previous post, to what I will call the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought:

The scope of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human agency is marginal.

If the reader has had the opportunity to look at my Agent-Centered Metaphysics post, as well as a great many other posts in a similar vein, that reader will understand the centrality of agency in my thought. Such a reader might also be not be surprised that I would like to formulate a conception of agency based on what I call metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, since that has become (of late) a consistent touchstone for me.

For a quick review, I have adopted and adapted Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological model formulated within the social sciences, taking it over for my own purposes and modifying it as I please. To that end, I take the first four stages of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological model — the micro-system, meso-system, exo-system, and macro-system — while separating Bronfenbrenner’s chronosystem apart, setting it to one side, and supplementing these initial four degrees of ecology with a fifth stage, which I call metaphysical ecology. Then I extrapolate the chronosystem eo ipso, according to the principles of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory, by which I arrive at micro-temporality, meso-temporality, exo-temporality, macro-temporality, and metaphysical temporality (or, if you will, metaphysical history — which is sort of where I began, except that I used to call it integral history). Finally, I noted that metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality are each alternative formulations of the other, one (ecological) in terms of a synchronic perspective, and the other (temporal) in terms of a diachronic perspective. Clear enough? Very good.

Human agency, then, is to be understood as ecological agency, which we can formulate either in terms of metaphysical ecology (if we are thinking in primarily spatial or systematic terms) or in terms of ecological temporality (if we are thinking primarily in terms of time, history, and eternity).

Thus the reader familiar with my thinking on these matters can obviously formulate the next step, which is the delineation of ecological agency in terms of:

● micro-agency

● meso-agency

● exo-agency

● macro-agency

● metaphyscial agency

The micro-agency of the individual is circumscribed by the individual’s immediate location and the other objects in the immediate vicinity with which the individual can interact. Considered in temporal terms, the micro-agency of the individual is that individual’s temporal now (the punctiform present) by which the individual is continuously circumscribed. This is the most restrictive and narrow sense of human agency, and according to the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought, this narrow sense of human agency defines a center, beyond which lies a periphery in which human micro-agency holds little or no sway.

A more realistic model of multiple centers and overlapping peripheries. Beyond this spatial model, one ought also to imagine multiple centers and overlapping peripheries in time.

This reflection immediately leads us to the obvious consequence that there are distinct centers based upon metaphysical ecology and ecological temporality, as follows:

● the micro-center beyond which lies the meso-ecological periphery and more.

● the meso-center beyond which lies the exo-ecological periphery and more.

● the exo-center beyond which lies the macro-ecological and metaphysical periphery,

● the macro-center beyond which lies the metaphysical periphery, and…

● the metaphyscial center beyond which lies nothing, because this is the most comprehensive category, short of the whole structure of metaphysical ecology itself, which includes all levels and their interaction with every other level.

Are you still with me? Good. There’s more. The periphery is always the complement of the center, i.e., it is the remainder of metaphysical ecology once we take away the center. That means the periphery is always larger and more comprehensive than the center. Therein lies the paradoxical key to much geopolitics: the center is privileged, because it is the locus of some level of human agency, but is still relatively narrow and relatively small. The bulk of life lies outside the center. One obvious aspect of this geopolitical deduction relates to what I have recently written about political elites in Limits to Social Mobility: the bulk of the life of the nation lies outside the narrow class of political elites who possess the institutional agency that allows them to act as meso-agents, exo-agents, macro-agents, and (even occasionally) as metaphysical agents.

I wrote above in the delineation of the metaphysical center that this is the most comprehensive ecological category and therefore excludes nothing. However — and this is an important however, also noted above — the metaphysical level of ecology is distinct from the whole structure of metaphysical ecology taken together with its ecological structures linking it to all other levels, so that the metaphysical center alone, or the metaphysical agent who acts metaphysically and therefore initiates metaphysical change, is also, in a sense, narrow, constrained, and limited.

Generally speaking (though with an important exception noted next, as well as in the next paragraph), individual agency is micro-agency, and can affect little beyond the micro-center. In a Hobbesian Leviathan, in which the members of a commonwealth utterly surrender their rights to a sovereign in order to enjoy his protection, the sovereign comes into possession of meso-agency, exo-agency, and sometimes even macro-agency (say, in the case of some Roman or Chinese emperors). The individual who thus possesses the office of sovereign, wields power far beyond the individual’s micro-agency. However, it is interesting to note that these midrange levels of agency can be quite powerless at lower levels: a government can pass a law, but individuals reserve the right to violate that law within the scope of their micro-agency. Unless there is an agent of the sovereign present (say, a soldier or a police officer), meso- and exo-agency are powerless to affect the outcome (as meso- and exo-agency). Moreover, it is only at the level of the micro-agency of the soldier or the police officer that the micro-agent’s defiance of the law can be effectively addressed.

It is one of the supreme ironies of ecological structures — systems, time, agents, centers, and so forth — that it is most often the individual agent, acting only on the recognizance of his own micro-agency, who effects metaphysical change and there is therefore transformed into a metaphysical agent (and thereby exemplifying the heroic conception of civilization, I might add). This metaphysical agency of the individual will, in la longue durée, percolate down through the levels of metaphysical ecology, ultimately changing the very terms on which meso-, exo-, and macro-agency is exercised.

Continuing this line of thought, our ecological conceptions need to be supplemented by temporal conceptions, and so we could also define temporal centers and peripheries corresponding to each ecological level. I will leave a further exposition of this idea to a later date, or the reader can work it out as an exercise. Intuitively I can see that there is something here that requires some serious thinking to sort out, and that is why I will not attempt to elaborate this at present.

Previously I gave an exposition of centers and peripheries in The Farther Reaches of Civilization, but when I wrote that I had not yet formulated the above ideas of the Second Law of Geopolitical Thought or ecological agency or ecological centers and peripheries. Now that I posses this more comprehensive conceptual infrastructure, in the fullness of time I can return to the themes of centers and peripheries in a more systematic and rigorous fashion, perhaps even incorporating an adequate doctrine of temporal centers and peripheries, as suggested above.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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