4 July 2016
The title of this post, “The Revolutionary Republic,” I have taken over from Ned Blackhawk from his lectures A History of Native America. No doubt others have used the phrase “revolutionary republic” earlier, but Blackhawk’s lectures were the context in which the idea of a revolutionary republic really struck me. Blackhawk contextualized the American revolution among other revolutionary republics, specifically the subsequent revolutions in France and Haiti. In his book, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Blackhawk has this to say about the Haitian Revolution:
“…in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, contests among New France, New Spain, British North America, and the United States redrew the imperial boundaries of North America in nearly every generation. In 1763, French Louisiana, for example, became part of New Spain. Reverting to France in 1801, it was sold to the United States for a song in 1803 after Haiti’s bloody revolution doomed Napoleon’s ambition to rebuild France’s once expansive American empire.”
Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2008, p. 150
The backdrop of the geopolitical contest that Blackhawk mentions — the “Great Game” of the Enlightenment, as it were — was the Seven Years’ War (what we in the US sometimes call “The French and Indian War,” though this term can be reserved to refer exclusively to the North American theater of the Seven Years’ War), in which future first President of the United States, George Washington, fought as a major in the militia of the British Province of Virginia. The Seven Years’ War is sometimes called the first global war, as it was fought between a British-led coalition and a French-led coalition across the known world at the time.
The Seven Years’ War was the final culmination of imperial conflict between France and the British Empire, and the defeat of the French ultimately led to the triumph of the British Empire and its worldwide extent and command of the seas in the nineteenth century. As an interesting counterfactual, we might consider a world in which the British has triumphed earlier over the French, and had established unquestioned supremacy by the time of the American Revolution. Under these changed circumstances, it would have been even more difficult than it was for the American colonists to defeat the British in the Revolutionary War, and as it was, it was a close-run thing. The colonial forces only won because they fought an ongoing guerrilla campaign against a distant power, which had to project force across the Atlantic Ocean in order to engage with the colonials.
Even at the disadvantage of having to send its soldiers overseas, the British won most of the battles of the Revolutionary War, and the colonials triumphed in the end because they wore down British willingness to invest blood and treasure in their erstwhile colony. When the colonials did win a battle, the Battle of Saratoga, the British made a political decision to cut their losses and focus on other lands of their global empire. From the British perspective, the loss of their American colonies was the price to be paid for empire — an empire must choose its battles, and not allow itself to get tied down in a quagmire among hostile natives — and it was the right decision at the time, as the British Empire was to continue to expand for another hundred years or more. With the French out of the way (defeated by the British in the Seven Years’ War, and then further crippled by the Haitian Revolution, as Blackhawk pointed out), and the American colonies abandoned, the British could move on to the real prizes: China and india.
The Seven Years’ War was the “big picture” geopolitical context of the American Revolution, and the American Revolution itself triggered the next “big picture” political context for what was to follow, which was the existence of revolutionary republics, and panic on the part of the ruling class of Europe that the revolutionary fervor would spread among their own peoples in a kind of revolutionary contagion. One cannot overemphasize the impact of the revolutionary spirit, which struck visceral fear into the hearts of Enlightenment-era constitutional monarchs much as the revolutionary spirit of communism struck fear into the hearts of enlightened democratic leaders a hundred years later. The revolutionary spirit of one generation became the reactionary spirit of the next generation. Applying this geopolitical rule of thumb to our own age, we would expect that the last revolutionary spirit became reactionary (as certainly did happen with communism), while the revolutionary spirit of the present will challenge the last revolutionary regimes in a de facto generational conflict (and this didn’t exactly happen).
The political principles of the revolutionary republics of the Enlightenment came to represent the next great political paradigm, which is today the unquestioned legitimacy of popular sovereignty. All the royal houses that were spooked by the revolutions in the British colonies, France, and Haiti were eventually either themselves deposed or eased into a graceful retirement as powerless constitutional monarchs. So they were right to be spooked, but the mechanisms by which their countries were transformed into democratic republics were many and various, so it was not revolution per se that these regimes needed to fear, but the implacable progress of an idea whose time had come.
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Happy 4th of July!
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Air Force Space Command General John E. Hyten has announced the release of a new “Commander’s Strategic Intent” document (Commander’s Strategic Intent), which is a 17-page PDF file. Once you take away the front and back covers, and subtract for the photographs inside, there are only a few pages of content. Much of this content, moreover, is the worst kind of contemporary management-speak (the sort of writing that Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times takes a particular delight in skewering). In terms of strategic content, the document is rather thin, but with a few interesting hints here and there. In a strange way, reading this strategic document from the Air Force Space Command is not unlike the Taliban annual statements formerly issued under Mullah Omar’s name (cf. 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015). One must read between the lines and past the rhetoric in an attempt to discern the reality beneath and behind the appearances. But strategic thought has always been like this.
After a one page Forward by General Hyten, there follows a page each on a summary of the contemporary strategic situation, priorities, mission, vision, Commander’s Intent, Strategy — Four Lines of Effort, and two and a half pages on “Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness,” then several pages with bureaucratic titles but interesting strategic content, “Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations,” “Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace,” and “Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments,” eith a final page on “You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow.”
This section rapidly reviews the improving capabilities of adversaries, who are responding to technological and tactical innovations continually introduced by US armed forces in the field. While the document never explicitly mentions hybrid warfare, this is the threat that is clearly on the minds of those formulating this document. While noting the continued dominance of US forces in the global arena, the document mentions that this is, “an era marked by the rapid proliferation of game-changing technologies and growing opportunities to use them,” which is a central problem that will be further discussed below, and for which the document offers no strategic or systematic response (other than the commander’s overall strategic intent).
This survey of the strategic situation also mentions, “new international norms,” which I assume is an internal reference to the central strategic idea of this document discussed below in terms of norms of behavior intended to discourage adventurism that could compromise the global flow of commerce and information. If any new idea about norms of behavior are intended to be a part of the commander’s strategic intent, they are not formulated in this document. I would have left out these references to norms of behavior unless the idea were further developed in an independent section of the document.
The priorities listed are three:
Win today’s fight
Prepare for tomorrow’s fight
Take care of our Airmen and our Families
A paragraph is devoted to each priority. The first two are sufficiently obvious. The last introduces a theme that is dominant in this document: the social context of the soldier. One way to look at this is that, in a political context in which it is not possible to raise the wages of soldiers to equal those of the professional class, one benefit that the institutional military can confer on the solider in lieu of higher pay is institutional support for the soldier and his family. An equally plausible interpretation, and perhaps an equally valid explanation, is that, given the technological focus of the Air Force, and especially Space Command, it would be easy to prioritize machinery over soldiers, or to give the impression that machinery has been prioritized over soldiers. Sending the explicit message that, “Airmen — not machines — deliver effects,” is to unambiguously prioritize the soldier over the machinery. (All of this is delivered in the nauseating language of social science and management-speak, but the meaning is clear enough regardless.) And with suicides among returning veterans as high as they are, the military knows that it must do better or it risks losing the trust of its warfighters.
The mission statement is predictable and uninspiring:
Provide Resilient and Affordable Space and Cyberspace Capabilities for the Joint Force and the Nation.
There is, however, one interesting thing on this page, which is the idea that “Resilience Capacity” is to be used as a metric for combat power. I have written about similar matters in Combat Power and Battle Ecology and Metaphysical Ecology Reformulated, especially as these concerns relate to the social context of the soldier (in the present case, the airman). One hint is given for how this is to be quantified: “Any capability that cannot survive when facing the threats of today and the future is worthless in conflict.” Certainly this is true, but how rigorously this principle can be applied in practice is another question. If everything that failed when exposed to actual combat conditions were to be ruthlessly rooted out, the military would be radically different institution than it is today. Is the Space Command ready for radical application of resilience capacity? I doubt it; it cannot alone defy the weight of institutional inertia possessed by all bureaucracies.
The vision statement is as lackluster as the mission statement:
One Team—Innovative Airmen Fighting and Delivering Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects across the Globe.
This is the kind of management-speak rhetoric that brings documents like this into ill repute, and deservedly so. Moreover, this page makes the claim that, “The three strategic effects of Airpower — Global Vigilance, Global Reach, and Global Power — have not changed.” This is exactly backward. Global vigilance, global reach, and global power are not effects of airpower, but causes of airpower. Such an elementary conceptual failure is inexcusable, but in this context I think it stems more from a desire to employ management-speak in a military context than from pure conceptual confusion. Despite these problems, this page introduces the phrase “aerospace nation,” which is a way to collectively refer to the soldiers and support staff who make aerospace operations possible (presumably also private contractors), and again drives home the message of the social context of the soldier and the institutional support for this social context.
It is a little surprising to read here about the need to, “reconnect with our profession of arms,” which is as much as to admit that there has been a failure to maintain a robust connection with the profession of arms. This is a theme that connects with the support for the social context of the soldier. Part of this social context is home and family, part of this is support staff, and part of it is those directly involved in the profession of arms (i.e., the human ecology of the soldier). Reconnecting with the profession of arms is one method of strengthening the social context of the soldier and therefore the whole of the “aerospace nation.”
Strategy — Four Lines of Effort
So here are the four lines of effort:
• Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
• Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
• Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from, and through Space and Cyberspace
• Fight through Contested, Degraded, and Operationally-Limited Environments
These themes occur throughout the document, but one can’t call this a strategy. It does, however, qualify as guidance for shaping the policy of Air Force Space Command. But policy must not be mistaken for strategy. Any bureaucrat can make policy, but bureaucrats don’t fight and win wars.
Reconnect as Airmen and Embrace Airmindedness
Now “airmindedness” is an awkward neologism, but it does represent an attempt to represent the qualities needed for the “aerospace nation.” These qualities are difficult to define; this document defines them awkwardly (like its neologisms), but at least it makes an attempt to define them. That is to say, this document makes an attempt to define the distinctive institutional culture of the Air Force Space Command. There is a value in this effort. This is what, if anything, distinguishes the Air Force Space Command from the other branches of the armed services. The need to reconnect with the profession of arms and at the same time to foster the distinctive qualities necessary to aerospace operations, which means pushing the boundaries of technology, constitute a unique challenge for a large, bureaucratic institution (which is what the peacetime military is).
If I had written this I would emphasized the need to continually update and revise any conception of what it means to engage in aerospace operations, hence “airmindedness.” This document focuses on “airmindedness” by emphasizing “shared core values,” innovation, the self-image of the airman as a combatant, development of expertise, resilience capacity (which in this context seems to mean taking care of the individual airman), and supporting the families of airmen while the latter are deployed. While these are all admirable aims, even essential aims, it is astonishing how many of these strategic statements read like social science documents of a Carl Rogers person-centered kind. I would have aimed at conceptually surprising the target audience of this document so that they could see these challenges in a new light, rather than through the lens of boilerplate management-speak.
Preserve the Space and Cyberspace Environments for Future Generations
Strategically, this is perhaps the most important part of the document. In four admirably short paragraphs, this page systematically lays out the the large-scale vision of deterring the outbreak of war, or triumphing in the event that war breaks out. Here, finally, we have a strategy: free flow of commerce and information, deterring adventurism that would compromise the free flow of commerce and information, influencing international norms of behavior in order to deter adventurism, “dissuade and deter conflict” by fielding “forces and capabilities that deny our adversaries the ability to achieve their objectives by imposing costs and/or denying the benefits of hostile actions…” I would have put this section front and center in the document, and connected all the other themes to this central strategy.
Deliver Integrated Multi-Domain Combat Effects in, from and through Space and Cyberspace
This section of the document addresses the technological underpinnings of the strategy announced in the previous section, and so can be considered its tactical implementation on a technological level. Such an emphasis fits in well with the idea of “airmindedness” as a distinctively innovative approach to combat power. But hiding this on page 12 under a section title that is all but incomprehensible is not helpful. The reference to “agility of thought” is belied by the management-speak of the entire document. This agility of thought should extend to the conceptual formulation of what is being done, and how it is being presented.
Fight through Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments
This section of the document specifies “four critical activities” that would allow the Air Force Space Command to fight in “Contested, Degraded and Operationally-Limited Environments.” In other words, this is the contemporary approach taken by Space Command to the perennial problem of warfighting that Clausewitz called the “fog of war” (“Nebel des Krieges” — Clausewitz himself used the term “friction,” but this has popularly come to be know as “fog of war”). The document defines these four critical activities intended to mitigate the fog of war as follows:
1. Train to threat scenarios — endeavor to discover the boundaries of our capabilities and constantly reassess those boundaries as threats and blue force capabilities evolve.
2. Identify the timelines and authorities required to successfully defend, fight, and provide effects in today’s and tomorrow’s environments with Operations Centers capable of executing them.
3. Establish the right authorities. For those authorities we control, push the right authorities as far down as possible to ensure timely response.
4. Establish and foster a joint, combined, and multidomain warrior culture that embraces pushing and breaking our operational boundaries and adapting and innovating new doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, personnel, facilities, and policy (DOTMLPF-P) solutions.
The friction of combat environments is a real and serious problem for the contemporary technologically-sophisticated warfighting effort — perhaps more of a problem than in the pre-technological age of war. The most sophisticated uses of technology are networked, and sophisticated technology requires continual maintenance and repair. If the first thing that happens in the battlespace is for the network to fail, any battle plan based upon that network will have become irrelevant. How to take advantage of networked information flow while not being captive to the vulnerabilities of such a network is a central problem for warfighting in the technological era. In so far as the Air Force Space Command presents itself as being a uniquely technological capable and competent, this is perhaps the overwhelming challenge to this branch of the military.
Given the centrality of the problem, not surprisingly the document details another seven explicit steps toward attaining the goal of mitigating friction in the technological battlespace. Prefatory to these seven principles the document states, “Our Space Enterprise Vision will capture the key principles needed to guide how we will design and build a space architecture suitable for operations in a contested environment.” No doubt volumes of study have been devoted to this problem internally, and it is admirable that this has been condensed down into seven principles.
As this is intended to be strategic document, I would go a bit farther into the high concept aspect of this problem, and how it could be tackled on the strategic level. What we have seen in recent history is that domains of human endeavor (including warfighting) are utterly transformed when technology becomes cheap and widely available. Adversaries have used this fact asymmetrically against institutionalized armed forces. The strategic approach to being wrong-footed in this way, it seems to me, would be to turn precisely this emerging historical dynamic against asymmetrical forces exploiting this opportunity. How can this be done? A strategy is needed. None is enunciated.
You Make a Difference, Today and Tomorrow
The document closes with a directive to carefully re-read the document and to discuss and to think critically about carrying out the commander’s intent formulated in this statement of principles. There is even an assurance that those who act most fully and faithfully in carrying out this intent will not be punished or put their careers in jeopardy by getting too far out ahead. This observation points to the fundamental tension between the continuous innovation required to keep up with the pace of technological innovation and the inherent friction of any bureaucratic institution. This, too, like the problem of friction in the technological battlespace, is a central problem for the Air Force Space Command, and deserves close and careful study. The definitive strategy to address these two central problems has not yet been formulated.
If I had written this document, I would have had a one paragraph introduction from the general, put the last sections of crucial strategic content first, and reformulated the initial sections so that each section was shown to contribute to and to derive from the central strategic ideas. Beyond that, I would suggest that the institutional challenges faced by Air Force Space Command, recognized in the phase “agility of thought,” points to the need for continual conceptual innovation in parallel with continual technological innovation. The Air Force needs to hire some philosophers.
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20 December 2015
The politics of a word
It is unfortunate to have to use the word “globalization,” as it is a word that rapidly came into vogue and then passed out of vogue with equal rapidity, and as it passed out of vogue it had become spattered with a great many unpleasant associations. I had already noted this shift in meaning in my book Political Economy of Globalization.
In the earliest uses, “globalization” had a positive connotation; while “globalization” could be used in an entirely objective economic sense as a description of the planetary integration of industrialized economies, this idea almost always was delivered with a kind of boosterism. One cannot be surprised that the public rapidly tired of hearing about globalization, and it was perhaps the sub-prime mortgage crisis that delivered the coup de grâce.
In much recent use, “globalization” has taken on a negative connotation, with global trade integration and the sociopolitical disruption that this often causes blamed for every ill on the planet. Eventually the hysterical condemnation of globalization will go the way of boosterism, and future generations will wonder what everyone was talking about at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. But in the meantime the world will have been changed, and these future generations will not care about globalization only because process converged on its natural end.
Despite this history of unhelpful connotations, I must use the word, however, because if I did not use it, the relevance of what I am saying would probably be lost. Globalization is important, even if the word has been used in misleading ways; globalization is a civilizational-level transformation that leaves nothing untouched, because at culmination of the process of globalization lies a new kind of civilization, planetary civilization.
I suspect that the reaction to “planetary civilization” would be very different from the reactions evoked by “globalization,” though the two are related as process to outcome. Globalization is the process whereby parochial, geographically isolated civilizations are integrated into a single planetary civilization. The integration of planetary civilization is being consolidated in our time, but it has its origins about five hundred years ago, when two crucial events began the integration of our planet: the Copernican Revolution and the Columbian exchange.
The Copernican Revolution
The intellectual basis of of our world as a world, i.e., as a planet, and as one planet among other planets in a planetary system, is the result of the Copernican revolution. The Copernican revolution forces us to acknowledge that the Earth is one planet among planets. The principle has been extrapolated so that we eventually also acknowledged that the sun is one star among stars, our galaxy is one galaxy among galaxies, and eventually we will have to accept that the universe is but one universe among universes, though at the present level of the development of science the universe defines the limit of knowledge because it represents the possible limits of observation. When we will eventually transcend this limit, it will be due not to abandoning empirical evidence as the basis of science, but by extending empirical evidence beyond the limits observed today.
As one planet among many planets, the Earth loses its special status of being central in the universe, only to regain its special status as the domicile of an organism that can uniquely understand its status in the universe, overcoming the native egoism of any biological organism that survives first and asks questions later. Life that begins merely as self-replication and eventually adds capacities until it can feel and eventually reason is probably rare in the universe. The unique moral qualities of a being derived from such antecedents but able to transcend the exigencies of the moment is the moral legacy of the Copernican Revolution.
As the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, the Copernican Revolution is also part of a larger movement that would ultimately become the basis of a new civilization. Industrial-technological civilization is a species of scientific civilization; it is science that provides the intellectual infrastructure that ties together scientific civilization. Science is uniquely suited to its unifying role, as it constitutes the antithesis of the various ethnocentrisms that frequently define pre-modern forms of civilization, which thereby exclude even as they expand imperially.
Civilzation unified sub specie scientia is unified in a way that no ethnic, national, or religious community can be organized. Science is exempt from the Weberian process of defining group identity through social deviance, though this not well understood, and because not well understood, often misrepresented. The exclusion of non-science from the scope of science is often assimilated to Weberian social deviance, though it is something else entirely. Science is selective on the basis of empirical evidence, not social convention. While social convention is endlessly malleable, empirical evidence is unforgiving in the demarcation it makes between what falls within the scope of the confirmable or disconfirmable, and what falls outside this scope. Copernicus began the process of bringing the world entire within this scope, and in so doing changed our conception of the world.
The Columbian Exchange
While the Copernican Revolution provided the intellectual basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization, the Columbian Exchange provided the material and economic basis of the unification of the world as a planetary civilization. In the wake of the voyages of discovery of Columbus and Magellan, and many others that followed, the transatlantic trade immediately began to exchange goods between the Old World and the New World, which had been geographically isolated. The biological consequences of this exchange were profound, which meant that the impact on biocentric civilization was transformative.
We know the story of what happened — even if we do not know this story in detail — because it is the story that gave us the world that we know today. Human beings, plants, and animals crossed the Atlantic Ocean and changed the ways of life of people everywhere. New products like chocolate and tobacco became cash crops for export to Europe; old products like sugar cane thrived in the Caribbean Basin; invasive species moved in; indigenous species were pushed out or become extinct. Maize and potatoes rapidly spread to the Old World and became staple crops on every inhabited continent.
There is little in the economy of the world today that does not have its origins in the Columbian exchange, or was not prefigured in the Columbian exchange. Prior to the Columbian exchange, long distance trade was a trickle of luxuries that occurred between peoples who never met each other at the distant ends of a chain of middlemen that spanned the Eurasian continent. The world we know today, of enormous ships moving countless shipping containers around the world like so many chess pieces on a board, has its origins in the Age of Discovery and the great voyages that connected each part of the world to every other part.
Defining planetary civilization
In my presentation “What kind of civilizations build starships?” (at the 2015 Starship Congress) I proposed that civilizations could be defined (and given a binomial nomenclature) by employing the Marxian distinction between intellectual superstructure and economic infrastructure. This is why I refer to civilizations in hyphenated form, like industrial-technological civilization or agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization. The first term gives the economic infrastructure (what Marx also called the “base”) while the second term gives the intellectual superstructure (which Marx called the ideological superstructure).
In accord with this approach to specifying a civilization, the planetary civilization bequeathed to us by globalization may be defined in terms of its intellectual superstructure by the Copernican revolution and in terms of its economic infrastructure by the Columbian exchange. Thus terrestrial planetary civilization might be called Columbian-Copernican civilization (though I don’t intend to employ this name as it is not an attractive coinage).
Planetary civilization is the civilization that emerges when geographically isolated civilizations grow until all civilizations are contiguous with some other civilization or civiliations. It is interesting to note that this is the opposite of the idea of allopatric speciation; biological evolution cannot function in reverse in this way, reintegrating that which has branched off, but the evolution of mind and civilization can bring back together divergent branches of cultural evolution into a new synthesis.
Not the planetary civilization we expected
While the reader is likely to have a different reaction to “planetary civilization” than to “globalization,” both are likely to be misunderstood, though misunderstood in different ways and for different reasons. Discussing “planetary civilization” is likely to evoke utopian visions of our Earth not only intellectually and economically unified, but also morally and politically unified. The world today is in fact unified economically and, somewhat less so, intellectually (in industrialized economies science has become the universal means of communication, and mathematics is the universal language of science), but unification of the planet by trade and commerce has not led to political and moral unification. This is not the planetary civilization once imagined by futurists, and, like most futurisms, once the future arrives we do not recognize it for what it is.
There is a contradiction in the contemporary critique of globalization that abhors cultural homogenization on the one hand, while on the other hand bemoans the ongoing influence of ethnic, national, and religious regimes that stand in the way of the moral and political unification of humankind. It is not possible to have both. In so far as the utopian ideal of planetary civilization aims at the moral and political unification of the planet, it would by definition result in a cultural homogenization of the world far more destructive of traditional cultures than anything seen so far in human civilization. And in so far as the fait accompli of scientific and commercial unification of planetary civilization fails to develop into moral and political unification, it preserves cultural heterogeneity.
Incomplete globalization, incomplete planetary civilization
The process of globalization is not yet complete. China is nearing the status of a fully industrialized economy, and India is making the same transition, albeit more slowly and by another path. The beginnings of the industrialization of Africa are to be seen, but this process will not be completed for at least a hundred years, and maybe it will require two hundred years.
Imperfect though it is, we have today a planetary civilization (an incomplete planetary civilization) as the result of incomplete globalization, and that planetary civilization will continue to take shape as globalization runs its course. When the processes of globalization are exhausted, planetary civilization will be complete, in so far as it remains exclusively planetary, but if civilization makes the transition to spacefaring before the process of globalization is complete, our civilization will assume no final (or mature) form, but will continue to adapt to changed circumstances.
From these reflections we can extrapolate the possibility of distinct large-scale structures of civilizational development. Civilization might transition from parochial, to planetary, and then to spacefaring, not making the transition to the next stage until the previous stage is complete. That would mean completing the process of globalization and arriving at a mature planetary civilization without developing a demographically significant spacefaring capacity (this seems to be our present trajectory of development). Alternatively, civilizational development might be much more disorderly, with civilizations repeatedly preempted as unprecedented emergents derail orderly development.
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4 July 2015
The viability of political entities
There is a well-known story that Benjamin Franklin was asked as he left Independence Hall as the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were in their final day, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” Franklin’s famous response to this was, “A Republic, madam — if you can keep it.” (The source of this anecdote is from notes of Dr. James McHenry, a Maryland delegate to the Convention, first published in The American Historical Review, vol. 11, 1906.)
The qualification implies the difficulty of the task of keeping a republic together, and keeping it republican. If doing so were easy, Franklin would not have bothered to note that qualification. That he did note it, in the spirit of a witticism, reminds me of another witticism from the American Revolution — quite literally an instance of gallows humor: “Gentlemen, we must now all hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately.” This, too, was from Benjamin Franklin.
The men who fomented the American Revolution, and who went on to hold the Constitutional Convention, were no starry-eyed dreamers. They were tough-minded in the sense that William James used that phrase. They had no illusions about human nature and human society. Their decision to break with England, and their later decision to write the Constitution, was a calculated risk. They reasoned their way to revolution, and they well knew that all that all that they had done, and all that they had risked, could come to ruin.
And still that American project could come to ruin. It is a work in progress, and though it now has some history behind it, as long as it continues in existence it shares in the uncertainty of all human things.
Recently in Transhumanism and Adaptive Radiation I wrote:
“If human freedom were something ideal and absolute, it would not be subject to revision as a consequence of technological change, or any change in contingent circumstances. But while we often think of freedom as an ideal, it is rather grounded in pragmatic realities of action. If a lever or an inclined plane make it possible for you to do something that it was impossible to do without them, then these machines have expanded the scope of human agency; more choices are available as a result, and the degrees of human freedom are multiplied.”
The same can be said of the social technologies of government: if you can do something with them that you cannot do without them, you have expanded the scope of human freedom. The hard-headed attitude of the founders of the republic understood that freedom is grounded in the pragmatic realities of action. It was because of this that the American project has enjoyed the success that it has realized to date. And the freedoms that it facilitates are always subject to revision as the machinery of government evolves. Again, this freedom is not an ideal, but a practical reality.
It is not enough merely to keep the republic, as though preserved under glass. The trajectory of its evolution must be managed, so that it continues to facilitate freedom under the changing conditions to which it is subject. Freedom is subject to contingencies as the fate of the republic is subject to contingencies, and it too can come to ruin just as the republic could yet come to ruin. The challenge remains the same challenge Franklin threw back at his questioner: “If you can keep it.”
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Happy 4th of July!
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13 May 2015
A story on the BBC, US Christians numbers ‘decline sharply’, poll finds, made me aware of a new poll by the Pew Research Center, reported in America’s Changing Religious Landscape. It is unusual for such a poll result to be reported so bluntly. Some time ago in Appearance and Reality in Demographics I noted that the WIN/GIP “Religiosity and Atheism Index” poll that I discussed in American Religious Individualism, had been reported under the headline WIN-Gallup International ‘Religiosity and Atheism Index’ reveals atheists are a small minority in the early years of 21st century, which seems to have been purposefully contrived to give the reader the wrong impression of what the poll revealed. This newest headline is another matter entirely. It is becoming more difficult to conceal the fact the traditional religious belief is on the decline.
While religious observance appears to be one of the most pervasive features of civilization from its inception, the example of Europe demonstrates that religious belief can pretty much vanish once conditions change. The US remains an anomaly as an industrialized nation-state with unusually high popular identification with religious faith, but the US may yet experience the kind of catastrophic collapse of religious observance that occurred in Europe from the middle of the twentieth century onward. In other worlds, secularization may yet come to America. Of course, if widespread secularism comes to the US, it will not play out as it played out in Europe, because these societies are so profoundly different.
The secularization thesis was widely believed in the middle of the twentieth century (when secularization was transforming European society), and then was widely abandoned at the end of the twentieth century as surging religious fundamentalism and religiously-inspired terrorism grabbed headlines and appeared to some (as strange as this may sound) as a sign of religious vitality. I discussed the secularization thesis in Secularization (which I characterized in terms of confirmation and disconfirmation in history) and more recently in The Existential Precarity of Civilization.
It is important to understand the religious backlash against modernity that became apparent in the later twentieth century in the context of traditionalism, as the role of a narrowly conceived religious belief is often made central in the debates over secularization, but this can be deceptive. In this context, “traditionalism” means any ideology or belief system dating from before the industrial revolution (which marked the advent of a new form of civilization), and so is a much wider concept than religion simpliciter, which is the most common exemplar of traditionalism.
Beliefs and practices associated with the pre-industrial form of our culture of origin persisted for ten thousand years (from the origins of civilization to the industrial revolution) and so they have left an enormous cultural legacy, and they are still very powerful elements of the human imagination. Almost every famous work of art which is a cultural point of reference for westerners (think of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s David, or the Mona Lisa), dates to this pre-industrialized period. The industrial revolution meant the dissolution of these ancient institutions and practices, sometimes within the life span of a single individual. The entire economic basis of civilization changed.
Even though civilization was forced to change, the cultural legacy of the past remains, and its hold upon the human mind remains. Although we live in modern industrialized societies, we don’t grow our own food, and we live alone in cities and not in multi-generational households, we continue to honor traditions that have become disconnected from our daily lives. Eventually the disconnect leads to cognitive dissonance as traditional attitudes come face-to-face with modern realities. There are two ways to attempt to address the cognitive dissonance: 1) a return to traditionalism, or 2) the abandonment of traditionalism.
It is impossible to return to a traditional (pre-industrial) way of life in an industrialized nation-state because you can’t just start farming in the middle of a city or create a multi-generational household out of thin air. So the return to traditionalism simply means the aggressive assertion of traditionalist claims, however empty these claims are. The most familiar form that the aggressive assertion of traditional claims can take is that of religious fundamentalism. This is not the only form of traditionalism, but it has become symbolic of traditionalism, and, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart have noted in their paper Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, “…residual and symbolic elements often remain, such as formal adherence to religious identities and beliefs, even when their substantive meaning has faded away.”
If industrial-technological civilization endures (i.e., if it does not succumb to existential risk), all traditionalism is doomed to extinction. However, that does not mean that religion is doomed to extinction. Although I have defended the secularization hypothesis, secularization is only a stage in the transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization. The idea that the extinction of tradition (given the gradual lapse of a now-defunct form of civilization) is the same as the extinction of religion is only possible through a conflation of traditionalism and religion. This conflation is as invidious to the understanding of history as is the misinterpretation (at times a willful misinterpretation) of the secularization hypothesis.
Religion can and often does take non-traditional forms, but the (historically recent) experience of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, in which all social organization was subordinate to theological principles, has distorted our perception of the role of religion and civilization, and led to the conflation of religion and tradition.
In Europe Returns to its Roots I discussed the tentative return to pre-Christian forms of religion in Europe in the wake of secularization. Such cultural movements will, of course, be influenced by subsequent developments of civilization. No more than we can return to traditionalism now that traditional agrarian ways of life have disappeared can we return to Neolithic religious practices, but whatever religious practices there are must be consonant with the life of the people.
On my other blog I produced a series of posts concerned with the relation of religion to civilization, extending from the Paleolithic past to into the future. These posts include:
These were a mere sketch, of course, and one might well invest an entire lifetime in attempting to describe the relation between civilization and religion. The take-away lesson is that religion is a perennial aspect of human experience, and so it will be a perennial part of civilization, but it is a mistake to conflate religion and traditionalism. After the extinction of traditionalism, once terrestrial industrialization achieves totality (not only eliminating traditional ways of life, but also greatly reducing existential precarity), religion will remain, but it will not be the religions of the Axial Age that defined agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.
When secularization comes to America, then, we should be surprised neither by the rear-guard action of traditionalism to defend the claims of a now-vanished civilization, nor by the inevitable emergence and rise of religious beliefs and practices independent of traditionalism. Expect popular accounts to conflate the two, but a developmental understanding of the relationship of civilization and religion reveals how starkly different they are.
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21 December 2014
One of the most fascinating aspects of civilization is how, despite thousands of years of development, radically different social, economic, and political systems, and the rapid growth of technology since the industrial revolution, there are structural features of civilization that do not change in essentials over time. (I have previously discussed these civilizational invariants in Invariant Social Structures, Invariant Properties of Civilization, and Invariant Civilizational Properties in Futurist Scenarios.) One of these invariant structural features is social hierarchy, and more specifically the fact that, all throughout history, a tiny fraction of the population has been in a position of political control, while the vast bulk of humanity has been subject to the control of a small minority.
The existence of a power elite, as a civilizational invariant, implies that there is always a power elite in every civilization, though this power elite may take different forms in different civilizations, and throughout the history of a given civilization the power elite may shift among individuals, among families, among ideologies, among industries, and even among social classes. From the perspective of the big picture, who happens to hold power in a given society is a mere accident of history, and the interesting feature is that there is always a small elite that holds power.
The “big lie” of our time is that the power elite that currently graces our society is in its position as the consequence of meritocratic mechanisms that assure only the best will achieve the pinnacle of power. Thus the ancient idea of aristocracy (rule by the best) is preserved, but given a contemporary, democratic twist in the assurance that anyone can be selected by these social mechanisms for advancing and rewarding talent. Now, this “big lie” is no worse than any other big lies around which societies have been constructed — no worse, for example, than Plato’s “noble lie” — but no better either.
We may call the power elite who benefit from this “big lie” of industrial-technological civilization the technocratic elite. They are few in number, and essentially oligarchic. (A recent study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, reported on the BBC in Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy; many studies have demonstrated similar findings.) That our elite is a technocratic elite does not reflect upon the quality of individuals who belong to the elite, but rather the kind of civilization that happens to arbitrarily raise up a few individuals into positions of power. The nature of this civilization is such that it shapes its power elites in particular ways that are enabled by the technological means of mass control.
It is not difficult to spot the technocratic elite (apart from the obvious fact that they appear on the news and on the glossy color covers of magazines). They are in excellent health and are dressed well, though in an understated style. Good food and good clothes are expensive. One must also have the leisure to be able to care about such things: they have time to exercise and to eat right. Just the right amount of education in just the right schools to give just the right mid-Atlantic accent accounts for the elocution and steady, careful tone of voice. They have been taught to express superficial concern for the lives of others, and they spend just the right amount of time on just the right charities to achieve just the right amount of media exposure for their time investment. These are not qualities of the individual, but rather qualities conferred upon the individual by their unique position in a technological society.
In A Thought Experiment in Tyranny I asked:
“If the president of a given nation-state belongs to a class of wealthy, world-traveling, foreign language-speaking elites with more in common with other elites than with the people of the nation-state in question, is this local rule or foreign rule?”
While from the perspective of the ruled it matters immensely (and is sometimes a pretext for revolution); from the perspective of the technocratic elite it is irrelevant. The particular nation-state of their citizenship or their government service is indifferent, because wherever they live or serve or invest, they will have the same privileges, advantages, and immunities.
We can think of the technocratic elite as the system administrators of the universal surveillance state, although the particular nation-state for which they are the custodians of surveillance are indifferent. We know that blocs of nation-states freely share their intelligence along elites — for example, within NATO, and more freely yet among the “Five Eyes” of Anglophone intelligence services. Thus while nominally loyal to the interests of a particular nation-state, the technocratic elite are in fact loyal to the international system of nation-states and the vested interests that this system represents. That same anarchic individualism that the procedural rationality of the universal surveillance state seeks to suppress, or, at least, to channel and control, is manifested at a higher order of magnitude among nation-states in the anarchic nation-state system that has been and is becoming institutionalized in international institutions (cf. State Power and Hypocrisy).
The masses can be bought off by the contemporary equivalent of bread and circuses — i.e., food stamps and mass entertainment — they can be be distracted and redirected by a barrage of trivia called “news,” and they can be seduced into passivity by relatively easy working conditions and cheap consumer goods. The middle classes can be bought off by better consumer goods, new luxury cars, and large houses. The more ambitious among the middle classes can be buried under the debt that they acquire in order to acquire the credentials that will secure the social mobility that they desire. The limiting mechanisms of social control assure that there is very little social mobility into or out of the elite class itself, however much social mobility into or out of the middle class, or within the various levels of the middle class, may occur.
In a world of seven billion people, there are only a finite number of Ferraris, Armani suits, and oceanfront mansions; these finite goods are allocated according to a system of privilege intrinsic to the technocratic nation-state. While a member of the middle class may move up in status and wealth and eventually acquire such goods as they may purchase (the best consumer goods, lying beyond the means of most of the middle class, who can afford only better consumer goods beyond the means of the masses), in the big picture these goods are merely decorative, and they may serve to confer status without real power to those who are most deeply invested in the status quo of our society. They have done what is expected of them, and they are rewarded for their loyalty and hard work. They also serve as models for the masses and the less successful middle classes. This is the institutional true believer, i.e., the individual who gives himself or herself to the state, and the state in turn gives to the individuals who have identified their interests with those of the institution in question the rewards due to their station. (I have previously written about such individuals in A Third Temperament.)
It is not difficult to recognize such institutional true believers. Foucault now appears as much a prophet as a philosopher, as he noted that in the change from right of death to power over life, such men are “no longer the rhapsodist of the eternal, but the strategist of life and death.” This is now literally true with the special place that healthcare holds in industrial technological civilization: religion once held out hope of salvation in another world; medicine now holds out hope of salvation in this world. With the PPACA and its individual mandate forcing everyone into the medical-industrial complex, doctors will become the agents of the universal surveillance state. Many medical institutions have already done so, voluntarily and enthusiastically. And this should not surprise us. Being an agent of a powerful entity means access to power, and access to power means privilege. They, too, can reap the material rewards of their special position in society.
Yet in a world of ever more available consumer goods, privilege is increasingly expressed in the form of intangibles. In the information-driven world of industrial-technological civilization, information is power, and access to privileged information is not only restricted to privileged individuals, but the very act of restriction on information creates a privileged class that has access to that information.
Recently I was corresponding with a friend in Tehran, who was telling me about all the internet restrictions in Iran. I asked if the people there accept this with resignation, complain about it, or make excuses for it, and was told that countless excuses are made for these restrictions. We in the west can laugh and be smug about this, except that the situation is little different in western nation-stations. We have seen countless excuses made for the universal warrantless surveillance conducted by the NSA, and shocking vitriol and invective directed at anyone who questions the wisdom of this surveillance regime.
The hysterical response to WikiLeaks disclosures and the Snowden leaks was not about national security, it was about the technocratic elites of the universal surveillance state, who base their status upon privileged access to restricted information, having their status called into question. Security is not an end in itself, but is only a means to an end — the end of social control.
In an op-ed piece on Wikileaks, Google and the NSA: Who’s holding the ‘shit-bag’ now?, Julian Assange recounts what happened in the wake of an attempt by WikiLeaks’ staff to call the State Department directly in order to attempt to speak to Hillary Clinton:
“…WikiLeaks’ ambassador Joseph Farrell, received a call back to discuss the parametres of the call with Hillary, not from the State Department, but from Lisa Shields, the then-girlfriend of Eric Schmidt, who does not formally work for the US State Department. So let’s reprise this situation: The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton. This is illustrative. It shows that at this level of US society, as in other corporate states, it is all musical chairs.”
Assange is right: among the technocratic elite, it’s all musical chairs. But Assange was wrong in implying that things are different outside corporate states. It has always been musical chairs among the elites, whether technocratic or corporate or otherwise. The nature of the society or the civilization may shape the nature of the elites, but it does not change the fact of power elites, which is a civilizational invariant.
It is important to keep in mind that, while the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more venal than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, they are also no less venal. Similarly, the technocratic elite of industrial-technological civilization are no more rapacious than the elites of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, but they are also no less rapacious that their predecessors.
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