16 June 2017


Salvador Dali, ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’

In the Salvador Dali painting “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” (1943) we see a prophetic figure (sometimes identified as the old world) indicating to the Geopoliticus Child the emergence of a new order, represented by the New Man. Here the Earth is an egg, from which new life emerges, and the Geopoliticus Child, already itself new life, watches from safety the struggle of the New Man to be born. If one could place oneself in this archetypal context (perhaps, as a thought experiment, inhabiting the person of the Geopoliticus Child), there are at least three possibilities as to how one might respond:

one might passively observe the birth of a New Man while taking no action
one might actively seek to facilitate the birth of the New Man
one might actively seek to prevent the New Man from being born

The second of these possibilities represents what I will here term “accelerationism,” which is the conscious and purposeful effort to expedite an historical process so that the process in question will be more rapidly brought to its end or fulfillment.

The terms “accelerationism” and “accelerationist” are sometimes employed to discuss accelerating technological change, especially exponentially accelerating technological change (which is sometimes called “exponentialism”). That is not how I will use the term in this context. In the present discussion, I will use “accelerationism” to refer to the view that certain events or processes could or should “speed up” the collapse of existing political institutions, which can be understood as a good thing if one believes that the ground must be cleared in order to frame new institutions de novo.

Accelerationism in the sense of accelerating the collapse of a decaying and doomed social order is a species of contemporary apocalypticism. I have touched on apocalypticism in several posts, most recently in Vernacular Declensionism focusing on contemporary “preppers” (who were formerly called “survivalists”). There is both a vernacular apocalypticism (such as I wrote about in my “vernacular declensionism” post), which appears to be independent of political orientation, and a high-culture apocalypticism expressed in academic and scholarly terms. It has been my intention for some years to write more generally about apocalypticism, since it has become so widespread, and is rarely challenged on principle. This is a project that still remains in the offing.

It is of some interest to me that contemporary apocalypticism has become prevalent on both the left and the right, including being prevalent among the emerging political permutations that go beyond traditional left and right, and these are the social justice ideologues as the transfiguration of the left, and the alt-right and neo-reaction as the transfiguration of the right. (The most famous neoreactionary is Curtis Yarvin, blogging as Mencius Moldbug; the neoreactionary whose work I follow is Youtube vlogger Reactionary Expat, who has touched on accelerationism in some of his posts.) As I noted in my post on Vernacular Declensionism, this form of apocalypticism has mostly represented the political right, and the idea of the collapse of modern civilization easily plays into the narrative of a return to traditional forms of society. Obviously, a traditionalism predicated upon the destruction of existing social institutions is a radical form of traditionalism, but if the intention is to restore traditionalism by eliminating modernity, sooner rather than later (in virtue of accelerationism), then I guess this still counts as some form of traditionalism.

In recent years, the left has joined in vernacular apocalypticism with gusto, especially with scenarios of environmental apocalypse, to which a growing literature of popular fiction is devoted. However, there is little sign of accelerationism on the left; the hints I have glimpsed of accelerationism have been almost exclusively concerned with hastening the demise of corrupt modern society. There is, however, an important exception: anarchism. This will be discussed below. But, more importantly, accelerationism is apocalypticism with a purpose, and not apocalypticism for its own sake.

Accelerationism is not apocalypticism simpliciter, but rather it is a tactical apocalypticism, i.e., an apocalypticism only for the sake of that which will follow after the apocalypse; in other words, the means of social denudation will be justified by the end of the social order that replaces the existing social order of the present. What social order will replace the existing social order that is to be accelerated in its trajectory of self-destruction? Here there is a clear bifurcation of the visions of the future held by left and right.

It is possible that the surviving vestiges of the past will hamper the emergence of a truly new order to supplant the old order, and this could be an argument for a complete and total extirpation of the old order so that a new order can arise in its place. I am not advocating this argument, but I can see how the argument could be made. Many twentieth century communist regimes attempted to follow this line of reasoning, attempting to utterly obliterate traces of the pre-communist past (the entire Cultural Revolution in China could be framed in these terms). These efforts could be understood as an example of leftist accelerationism, attempting to more rapidly bring into being the communist utopia of a classless society.

Anarchic utopians have long held that the realization of a better social order is just around the corner if only we will take the radically appropriate action of extirpating traditional institutions that have held us back from realizing our human potential. This is an idea that goes back at least to Rousseau (for purposes of Enlightenment thought), and probably is much older. I will not, at present, attempt to elucidate a more thorough history of this idea. While utopians who project a peaceful anarchic society in the near future tend to identify with the political left, we cannot fully assimilate them to the traditional left, in the same way that we cannot fully assimilate social justice ideologues to the traditional left. I cannot, however, think of any anarchists on the right, as the right tends to believe in human fallibility (original sin), and so are distrustful of human nature released into the wild, as it were. The Rousseauvian dream is, for the right, a Hobbesian nightmare. And so we usually find the radical right looking not to anarchy, but to a reaffirmation of order, and of the symbols of order. The apocalypticism of the right thus plays into accelerationism; the two go together as tactic and strategy.

Implicit in the accelerationist view is that there are historical changes occurring anyway, albeit gradual and incremental change, and while this change must be accepted, it is nevertheless amenable to being managed. The accelerationist, then, understands that history transcends itself when an old order is replaced by a new order, so that the accelerationist may be characterized as facilitating historical transcendence, and that, moreover, the historical process must be brought to its fulfillment. In true Hegelian form, we cannot skip a step in the historical process, but not skipping a step in historical evolution does not preclude the possibility of accelerating a step so as to reduce the amount of time spent in a suboptimal form of civilization and therefore to maximize the amount of time spent in a preferred mode of civilization.

Accelerationism on the right, which I believe to be the more common form of accelerationism, understands the preferred mode of civilization to be a society dominated by traditional institutions. How are traditional institutions to be brought into being in the wake of accelerated apocalypticism? This, I think, is the nub of the problem, as the traditionalist favoring accelerationism as a means to realizing a traditional society must either hope for new traditionalist institutions to emerge, or for the reconstitution of defunct institutions. Both of these horns of the dilemma are a problem.

Part of Burke’s criticism of the French revolution was the folly of attempting to craft de novo institutions on the basis of abstract and theoretical propositions about human beings and human society, especially in the light of existing institutions that apparently are adequate to their institutional role, and which are, in some sense, the preserved wisdom of our ancestors. (The attempt to frame new institutions de novo was the source of Goya’s famous etching, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” which was a symbolic response to the terror that followed the superficial rationalism of the French revolution; more simply, we can call this an instance of the law of unintended consequences.) Burke wrote before an evolutionary understanding of human beings and human society had been formulated, but in the light of evolutionary psychology and the slow evolution of human society we could easily reframe Burke’s critique so that any nebulous invocation of the wisdom of ancestors can be replaced by traditional institutions being the cumulative result of natural selection. This is far more satisfying from a scientific point of view.

The argument can be made that if an episode of social denudation stripped away existing social institutions, surviving human societies would revert to a model of social organization that is naturally emergent from the kind of beings that we are, that is to say, a social order predicated upon our particular cognitive endowments and cognitive biases (as well as that which I have called less than cognitive biases, which might be called “breaking human”). The traditionalist assumes, or would assume, that these naturally emergent institutions would be traditionalist institutions. In this view there is a hint of a venerable pre-modern idea, that truth lies at the source of things, so that if only we can return to the source of being, the source of our being, we will find the authentic truth that has been hidden from us by the overgrowth of thousands of years of extraneous developments that have led us far from our origins. This view stands in stark contrast to the idea that truth is a distant goal to which we aspire, and which we always approximate more closely, but which we never fully possess.

If, instead of seeking to frame traditionalist institutions de novo (which may be a contradictory idea anyway), the accelerationist seeks the reconstitution of defunct traditional institutions, I am skeptical that this effort would fare any better. There have been many times when regimes have attempted to turn back the clock on developments that did not seem to favor their vision of how things ought to be, but I cannot think of any of these attempts that were successful. Old or traditional institutions transplanted into new circumstances will neither function as these traditional institutions functioned, nor will they remain true to the tradition from which they are drawn. The same logic is to be found in arguments over the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in music: can we ever truly make our instruments and performances sound like those of the past, or must our contemporaneous recreations always be performed with modern instruments in a modern setting? This is an interesting debate, and many books of musicology have been devoted to the HIP controversy. Perhaps the discussion of the accelerationist reconstitution of defunct traditionalist institutions could learn something from this discussion.

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Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Vernacular Declensionism

27 October 2016



When I was an adolescent I was quite taken with what was known at the time as “survivalism.” With the little money that I had a bought a copy of Life After Doomsday by Bruce Clayton, I subscribed to Survive magazine (at the same time I was reading Soldier of Fortune magazine), and my favorite science fiction novels were those that dealt with the end of the world. There is an entire sub-genre of science fiction that dwells on the end of the world — some of it concerns itself with the actual process of societal collapse, some considers the short term consequences of societal collapse, and some considers the far future consequences. The most famous novel in this genre is also perhaps the most famous novel in science fiction — Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz — which lingers over a post apocalyptic future at three distinct six hundred year intervals. My interest in the end of the world also led to my studying civil defense and eventually nuclear strategy, which fascinated me. This autodidactic process eventually led me to high culture sources of declension narratives, and hence to an intellectual engagement that ceased to be related to survivalism.

My Cold War childhood provided ample scope for my secular apocalyticism, but in reading about survivalism it was not long before I discovered that, ideologically, the survivalist movement was far to the right, though with some exceptions. There is was a bit of overlap between the counter-culture back-to-the-land movement, which was typically on the political left, and the survivalists, who were typically on the right. Both camps read the Foxfire books and imagined themselves returning to a simpler, and more self-sufficient life — an obvious response to the alienation produced by industrialized society and exponential urban growth. The exponential urban growth that especially blossomed in Europe and North America following the Second World War, and which effectively led to the depopulation of the rural countryside, continues in our time (cf. The Rural-Urban Divide). One of the most significant global demographic trends has been, is, and will continue to be the movement of rural populations into increasingly large megacities. This process means that the communities of the rural countryside are dismantled, while new communities are created in urban contexts, but the transition is by no means smooth, and some weather the change better than others.

Several changes occurred at or around the middle of the twentieth century that severally contributed to the rise of declension narratives: the exponential growth in urbanism mentioned above, atomic weapons and the Cold War, the dissolution of extended families, the Pill, and so on. Before this time, narratives of the future were largely expansionist and optimistic. During the Golden Age of science fiction, uncomplicated heroes traveled from planet to planet in a quixotic quest to right wrongs and to rescue damsels in distress. Now this seems very innocent, if not naïve, and we now prefer anti-heroes to heroes, as we identify more with their tortured struggles than with the uncomplicated heroes and their happily-ever-after.

Thus while our cities are larger than ever before in the history of civilization, and they are growing larger by the day, civilization is more integrated around the planet than ever before, and becoming more tightly integrated all the time (even as politicians today flee from the label of “globalization” because they know it is, at the moment, politically radioactive), and civilization is more robust than ever, with higher levels of redundancy in essential infrastructure and services than ever before, as well as possessing long-term, large-scale disaster planning and preparation, we are more pessimistic than ever before about the prospects of this vigorous civilization. Perhaps this is simply because it is not the civilization we expected to have.

In the social atmosphere of Cold War tension and the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation, which could materialize at any moment out of the clear blue sky, those initially disaffected by the emerging character of modern urbanized life sought to opt out, and this process of opting out of the emerging social order was often given intellectual justification in terms of a Weltanschauung of decline, which I call declension historiography. Declensionism varies in scope, from mainstream media columnists bemoaning the declining stature of the US in a multipolar world, to disaster preparedness, to societal collapse, to awareness of global catastrophic risk and existential risk, to a metaphysical doctrine of universal, inevitable, and unavoidable decline (which is today often expressed in scientific terms by reference to the second law of thermodynamics). Doomsday preparedness, then, comes in all varieties, from those hoping to survive “the big one,” where “the big one” is a massive earthquake, hurricane, or even an ephemeral political revolution, to those gearing up for the collapse of civilization and living in a world where there is no more electricity, no hospitals, schools, governments, or indeed any social institutions at all beyond the individual survivalist and his intimate circle.

The prehistory of doomsday preppers also included those preparing for a variety of different environmental, social, and political ills. Hippies founded communes and used their agricultural skills to grow better dope. Several apocalyptic churches have predicted the end of the world, and some explicitly urged members to build fallout shelters in order to survive nuclear war (such as the Church Universal and Triumphant). The communitarians on the right have often chosen to opt out of mainstream society under the umbrella of one of these apocalyptic churches, while the rugged individualists on the right became survivalists and they prepared to meet an apocalyptic future on their own terms, but, again, often justified in terms of a much larger conception of history. This declension narrative has become pervasive in contemporary society. While the end of the Cold War has meant the decline in the risk of nuclear war, the political left now favors scenarios of environmental collapse, while the political right favors scenarios of institutional collapse due to bank failure, currency collapse, the welfare state, or the decline of traditional social institutions (such as the church and the family).

The terms “suvivalist” and “survivalism” are not used as widely today, but the same phenomenon is now known in terms of “preppers,” short for “doomsday preppers,” which indicates those who actively plan and prepare for apocalyptic scenarios. The political division and overlap is still evident. The left, focusing on environmental collapse, continues to look toward the “small is beautiful” ideal of the early environmental movement, inherited from the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study; they focus on community and sustainable organic farming and tend not to stress the necessarily violent social transition that would occur if the most shrill predictions of “peak oil” came to pass, and industrialized civilization ground to a halt (this sort of scenario approaches mainstream respectability in some popular books such as $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, which I discussed in Are Happy Days Here Again?). These left-of-center declensionists are rarely called “preppers,” but their activities overlap with those usually called preppers.

The right, in contrast, does focus on the presumptively violent transitional period of social collapse, fetishizing armed resistance to marauding hordes, who will stream by the millions from overcrowded cities when the electricity stops and trucks stop bringing in food. While details are usually absent, the generic social collapse scenario has come to be called “SHTF,” which is an acronym for “shit hits the fan,” as in, “when the shit hits the fan, if you aren’t prepared, things are going to go badly for you.” Right-of-center declensionists, like the left, have an overarching vision of the collapse of civilization (as strange as that may sound), but drawing on different ideas and different causes than the left.

What are these declensionist ideas and the presumed causes of declension? Where does vernacular declensionism get its ideas? Why is declensionism so prevalent today? I have touched upon this issue previously, especially in Fear of the Future, where I made an argument specific to the nature of industrialized society and the reaction against it:

“…apocalyptic visions graphically illustrate the overthrow of the industrial city and the order over which it presided… While such images are threatening, they are also liberating. The end of the industrial city and of industrial civilization means the end of wage slavery, the end of the clocks and calendars that control our lives, and the end of lives so radically ordered and densely scheduled that they have ceased to resemble life and appear more like the pathetic delusions of the insane.”

This explains the motivation for entertaining declensionist ideas, but it does not explain the sources of these ideas. But in the same post I also cited a number of science fiction films that have prominently depicted apocalyptic visions. It is difficult to name a science fiction film that is not dystopian and apocalyptic, and these films have had a great impact on popular culture. Even those unsympathetic to the prepper mindset effortlessly recognize the familiar tropes of societal collapse portrayed in film. Presumably the writers of these films derive their declensionist ideas from a mixture of vernacular, social media, mass media, and high culture declensionism, as these ideas have percolated through society.

The mass media rarely recognizes preppers (although I see that there is a television program, Doomsday Preppers), and when it does do, it does so in a spirit of condescension. The greatest friends of civilization today are those who never think about it and take for granted all of the comforts and advantages of civilization. For most of them, the end of civilization is simply unimaginable, and it is this perspective that is operative when the occasional article on preppers appears in the mass media, where it is presented with a mixture of bemused pity and incredulity. The target audience for these stories are precisely the people that preppers believe will not last very long when the shit hits the fan. I could easily write a separate blog post (or an entire book) about the relationship of the mass mainstream media to declension scenarios, but this is a distinct topic from that of vernacular declensionism. There is some overlap between mass media and social media, as every mainstream media outlet also has a social media presence, and the occasional social media post will “go viral” and be picked up by the mainstream media. In this way, some survivalist ideas find a wider audience than the core audience, already familiar with the message, and this can draw in the curious, who may eventually become converts to the message. Other than this, the contribution by mass media to declension historiography is very limited (except for supplying a steady stream of inflammatory news articles that are pointed out as sure signs that the end is near).

Social media is vast and amorphous, but is given shape by each and every one of us as we pick and choose the social media we consume. This filtering effect means that like-minded individuals share a common ideological space in social media, and they overlap very little with those of divergent ideologies. The prepper community is well represented in social media, which has taken over from the small private presses that formerly distributed survivalist literature to the small survivalist community. The social media presence of preppers is all over the map, with an array of diverse social collapse scenarios, but, like survivalists of the 70s and 80s, still primarily on the political right, and often inspired by Biblical visions of apocalypse. In 72 Items That Will Disappear First When The SHTF, preppers are urged to buy boxes of Bibles: “Bibles will be in demand and can be used to barter items. A box of 100 small Bibles cost about $20.” Perhaps the writer of this article has watched The Book of Eli too many times and imagines that the Bible may be hard to come by in post-apocalyptic America. It would be extraordinarily difficult for the Bible to become a rarity — as difficult as it would be for human beings to go extinct. Both are too widely distributed to be eradicated by anything short of terrestrial sterilization. If you want trade goods, you would be much better off stocking up on books that will be rare than books that will be common, but this doesn’t stoke the prepper narrative, so the logic of commerce gives way to the ideology of social cohesion through embattled belief.

High culture declensionism, as to be found, for example, in Oswald Spengler’s classic The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes), is scholarly, if not pedantic, and is essentially an exercise in the philosophy of history. (Interestingly, the most famous representatives of the Beat Generation, who foreshadowed the hippies’ back-to-the-land rejectionism of industrialized society, were avid readers of Spengler; cf. Sharin N. Elkholy, The Philosophy of the Beats, University Press of Kentucky, 2012, p. 208.) Spengler employs the old standby of a cyclical conception of history, and despite the intellectual and cultural distance we can come since cyclical history was the norm, vernacular cyclical history continues to be an influence. Vernacular cyclical history can appeal to intuitions about the life cycle of all things, and it is easy to conceive of civilization as participating in this coming to be and passing away of everything sublunary.

Saint Augustine, the father of the philosophy of history, may be cited as another high culture representative of declensionism, living as he did as the Roman world was unraveling. The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD was the occasion of Saint Augustine writing his magnum opus, The City of God (De Civitate Dei). Rome had been a city untouched by any invading army for more than eight hundred years, and had functioned as the capital of the known world, and yet it had been laid low by unsophisticated barbarians. How was this to be explained? This is the task Augustine set himself, and Augustine had an answer. The ruination of the City of Man was, for Augustine, a mere detail of history, of no great importance, as long as the City of God was thriving, as he believed it to be. Indeed, the City of God would go on to thrive for more than a thousand years after Augustine as western Europe attempted to make itself over as the Earthly image of the City of God.

Augustine represents a sharp break with cyclical history. Throughout the City of God Augustine is explicit in his rejection of cyclical history, arguing against it both as a theory of history as well as due to its heterodox consequences. Thus while we can construe Augustine as a representative of declension history, it is a linear declension history. Augustine’s vision of linear declension history was remarkably influential during the European middle ages, when the few educated members of society did not perceive any break in history from classical antiquity to medievalism. For them, they were still Romans, but degraded Romans, very late in the history of Rome. The miserable condition of life of the middle ages was to be put to having come at the tail end of history, waiting for the world to well and truly end.

Vernacular declension, with its intuitive retention of cyclical history, resides awkwardly side-by-side with the Whig historiography and progressivism (ultimately derived from Augustine’s linear conception of history) that is so common in the modern world — the idea that we are modern, and therefore different from the people of the past and their world, is axiomatic and unquestioned. Human periodization of time is as natural as the categories of folk biology — our modernism, then, is, in part, a function of folk historiography (on folk concepts cf. Folk Concepts and Scientific Progress and Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization). What are the categories of folk historiography, what kind of historical understanding of the world is characteristic of folk historiography? This will have to be an inquiry for another time.

I will conclude only with the observation that vernacular declensionism might paradoxically be employed in the service of civilization, if an interest in responses to existential threats to societal stability could be used as a stepping stone to the study of and preparation for global catastrophic risks and existential risks. That is a big “if.” When I think back to my own frame of mind when I was an enthusiast of survivalism, I thought that civilization had little or nothing of interest to me, and that all the adventure that might be possible in the world would follow from the “struggle for subsistence” that Keynes took to be the “economic problem” of humanity, and which contemporary civilization has largely solved. I still have sympathy for those who find little to value in civilization, as I can remember that stage in my own development quite clearly. In a sense, I only became reconciled to civilization; I never belonged to those who never question civilization, and who can’t imagine its extirpation. Civilization was, for me, always open to question.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Prior to the advent of civilization, the human condition was defined by nature. Evolutionary biologist call this initial human condition the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA). The biosphere of the Earth, with all its diverse flora and fauna, was the predominant fact of human experience. Very little that human beings did could have an effect on the human condition beyond the most immediate effects an individual might cause in the environment, such as gathering or hunting for food. Nothing was changed by the passage of human beings through an environment that was, for them, their home. Human beings had to conform themselves to this world or die.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

Since the advent of civilization, it has been civilization and not nature that determines the human condition. As one civilization has succeeded another, and, more importantly, as one kind of civilization has succeeded another kind of civilization — which latter happens far less frequently, since like kinds of civilization tend to succeed each other except when this process of civilizational succession is preempted by the emergence of an historical anomaly on the order of the initial emergence of civilization itself — the overwhelming fact of human experience has been shaped by civilization and the products of civilization, rather than by nature. This transformation from being shaped by nature to being shaped by civilization is what makes the passage from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agrarian civilization such a radical discontinuity in human experience.

This transformation has been gradual. In the earliest period of human civilizations, an entire civilization might grow up from nothing, spread regionally, assimilating local peoples not previously included in the project of civilization, and then die out, all without coming into contact with another civilization. The growth of human civilization has meant a gradual and steady increase in the density of human populations. It has already been thousands of years since a civilization could flourish and fail without encountering another civilization. It has been, moreover, hundreds of years since all human communities were bound together through networks of trade and communication.

Civilization is now continuous across the surface of the planet. The world-city — Doxiadis’ Ecumenopolis, which I discussed in Civilization and the Technium — is already an accomplished fact (though it is called by another name, or no name at all). We retain our green spaces and our nature reserves, but all human communities ultimately are contiguous with each other, and there is no direction that you can go on the surface of the Earth without encountering another human community.

The civilization of the present, which I call industrial-technological civilization, is as distinct from the agricultural civilization (which I call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) that preceded it as agricultural civilization was distinct from the nomadic hunter-gatherer paradigm that preceded it in turn. In other words, the emergence of industrialization interpolated a discontinuity in the human condition on the order of the emergence of civilization itself. One of the aspects of industrial-technological civilization that distinguishes it from earlier agricultural civilization is the effective regimentation and indeed rigorization of the human condition.

The emergence of organized human activity, which corresponds to the emergence of the species itself, and which is therefore to be found in hunter-gatherer nomadism as much as in agrarian or industrial civilization, meant the emergence of institutions. At first, these institutions were as unsystematic and implicit as everything else in human experience. When civilizations began to abut each other in the agrarian era, it became necessary to make these institutions explicit and to formulate them in codes of law and regulation. At first, this codification itself was unsystematic. It was the emergence of industrialization that forced human civilizations to make its institutions not only explicit, but also systematic.

This process of systematization and rigorization is most clearly seen in the most abstract realms of thought. In the nineteenth century, when industrialization was beginning to transform the world, we see at the same time a revolution in mathematics that went beyond all the earlier history of mathematics. While Euclid famously systematized geometry in classical antiquity, it was not until the nineteenth century that mathematical thought grew to a point of sophistication that outstripped and exceeded Euclid.

From classical antiquity up to industrialization, it was frequently thought, and frequently asserted, that Euclid was the perfection of human reason in mathematics and that Aristotle was the perfection of human reason in logic, and there was simply nothing more to be done in the these fields beyond learning to repeat the lessons of the masters of antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during the period of rapid industrialization, people began to think about mathematics and logic in a way that was more sophisticated and subtle than even the great achievements of Euclid and Aristotle. Separately, yet almost simultaneously, three different mathematicians (Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann) formulated systems of non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly revolutionary work transformed logic from its Aristotelian syllogistic origins into what is now called mathematical logic, the result of the work of George Boole, Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, and many others.

At the same time that geometry and logic were being transformed, the rest of mathematics was also being profoundly transformed. Many of these transformational forces have roots that go back hundreds of years in history. This is also true of the industrial revolution itself. The growth of European society as a result of state competition within the European peninsula, the explicit formulation of legal codes and the gradual departure from a strictly peasant subsistence economy, the similarly gradual yet steady spread of technology in the form of windmills and watermills, ready to be powered by steam when the steam engine was invented, are all developments that anticipate and point to the industrial revolution. But the point here is that the anticipations did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century.

And so with mathematics. Newton and Leibniz independently invented the calculus, but it was left on unsure foundations for centuries, and Descartes had made the calculus possible by the earlier innovation of analytical geometry. These developments anticipated and pointed to the rigorization of mathematics, but the development did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century. The fruition is sometimes called the arithmetization of analysis, and involved the substitution of the limit method for fluxions in Newton and infinitesimals in Leibniz. This rigorous formulation of the calculus made possible engineering in its contemporary form, and rigorous engineering made it possible to bring the most advanced science of the day to the practical problems of industry. Intrinsically arithmetical realities could now be given a rigorous mathematical exposition.

Historians of mathematics and industrialization would probably cringe at my potted sketch of history, but here it is in sententious outline:

● Rigorization of mathematics also called the arithmetization of analysis

● Mathematization of science

● Scientific systematization of technology

● Technological rationalization of industry

I have discussed part of this cycle in my writings on industrial-technological civilization and the disruption of the industrial-technological cycle. The origins of this cycle involve the additional steps that made the cycle possible, and much of the additional steps are those that made logic, mathematics, and science rigorous in the nineteenth century.

The reader should also keep in mind the parallel rigorization of social institutions that occurred, including the transformation of the social sciences after the model of the hard sciences. Economics, which is particularly central to the considerations of industrial-technological civilization, has been completely transformed into a technical, mathematicized science.

With the rigorization of social institutions, and especially the economic institutions that shape human life from cradle to grave, it has been inevitable that the human condition itself should be made rigorous. Foucault was instrumental in pointing out salient aspects of this, which he called biopower, and which, I suggest, will eventually issues in technopower.

I am not suggesting this this has been a desirable, pleasant, or welcome development. On the contrary, industrial-technological civilization is beset in its most advanced quarters by a persistent apocalypticism and declensionism as industrialized populations fantasize about the end of the social regime that has come to control almost every aspect of life.

I wrote about the social dissatisfaction that issues in apocalypticism in Fear of the Future. I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and I hope to return to this theme when I can formulate my thoughts with the appropriate degree of rigor. I am seeking a definitive formulation of apocalypticism and how it is related to industrialization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Jerash in modern Jordan

Throughout Europe, North Africa, and West Asia you will find the ruins of ancient Roman cities. These abandoned ruins haunt the Western historical imagination, and not only the modern imagination. The Middle Ages were possibly even more haunted by the vanished Roman Empire than are we. There is a remarkable early poem in Anglo-Saxon — one of the earliest of all surviving poems in Anglo-Saxon — that communicates the sense of loss and mystery that abandoned Roman structures had for the peoples of the Middle Ages, who imagined them as the work of giants. Here are the first few lines of The Ruin (in a modern English rendering):

This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.

The Fall of the Roman Empire remains still one of the central points of reference in Western historiography. Italian historian Aldo Schiavone called it, “…the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilization.” (The End of the Past, p. 2) The ruined cities that dot the landscape of the Old World offer mute testimony to this catastrophe. (On a personal note, here I am, a Westerner on the far western edge of the New World, where no ancient cities dot the landscape, and there is scarcely a day that passes that I don’t think of the Romans and their accomplishments.)

Aphrodisias in modern Turkey

We cannot make a clear and unambiguous distinction between Roman cities and Roman civilization when we ask why Roman cities failed. It has been said that Mediterranean civilization is essentially urban, centered in its cities, so that the failure of Roman cities was the failure of Roman civilization, and vice versa. We could even take a term from economics to express this, and say that the fall of the Roman Empire in the west involved the co-movement of failure across Rome’s western cities.

Heliopolis, or Baalbek, in modern Lebanon.

When I previously wrote about Failed Cities I realized later that I had failed to make any basic distinctions between classes of failure suffered by cities. Some instances that I cited couldn’t even be called “failure” in the strict since, as these cities were destroyed by natural disasters (here I am thinking of San Juan Parangaricutiro in Mexico, which was covered by lava and volcanic ash, but any city destroyed by a natural disaster and not subsequently rebuilt and repopulated would serve equally well as an example, such as Pompeii). Even among destroyed cities we ought to distinguish between those destroyed by natural disasters, those destroyed purposefully in war, and those destroyed by their inhabitants. Once these distinctions are made, it can be observed that there will be no clear and unambiguous distinction between some cases of failure sensu stricto and some cases of the destruction of a city by its own inhabitants.

Leptis Magna in modern Libya

This last observation, which may seem a bit overly-subtle (and, believe me, I could go into in a much greater detail if I cared to do so), is germane to the present concern of why Roman cities failed. If Roman civilization may be identified with the network of Roman cities, then the failure of Roman civilization in the West may be identified with the systemic failure of Roman cities. Since a natural disaster may destroy a few cities but it not likely to cause the failure of many diverse cities over a wide geographical range of distribution (unless that natural disaster is global climate change), the across-the-board failure of Roman cities would not seem to be due to natural disaster. Similarly, cities destroyed in war tend to be localized to the theater of war, and this leaves definite signs that archaeologists can uncover. Similarly, again, cities intentionally destroyed by their own inhabitants is a measure of considerable desperation and is not likely to have occurred on a large scale, and it would moreover leave traces for archaeologists. This leaves us with the failure of Roman cities ambiguously related to the unintentional self-destruction of cities by their own inhabitants.

Volubilis in modern Morocco

In the most famous case of a Roman city — the city of Rome itself, the Eternal City — its fall was as slow and as gradual as its rise. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, Rome didn’t fall in a day. And the “failure” of Rome was not complete, although at its nadir Rome had gone from being a cosmopolitan city of more than a million souls, and the largest megalopolis if the ancient world (possibly the only megalopolis of classical antiquity) to being a city of fewer than 50,000, stripped of its population, its power, its wealth, its public art, and its central place on the world stage. Domestic animals grazed in the Forum Romanum as the great temples and public structures were looted as quarries for stone to build ramshackle huts nestled in among the interstices of the ruins.

Rome itself, the Eternal City.

It was in the Eternal City itself that Gibbon was inspired to write his justly famous account of the fall of the Roman Empire, as he recounted in a beautiful passage from his Autobiography:

“It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city rather than of the empire…”

Gibbon’s literary ambition grew as he worked, and he eventually would write the entire history of the fall of the Roman Empire, not excepting the history of Byzantium until that Second Rome had fallen to the Grand Turk in AD 1453. There have been others who have taken a more tightly circumscribed focus in recounting the fall of Rome itself, the city, but it would be another project again to retain Gibbon’s original concrete and particular interest in writing the fall of Rome, and iterating this to all the Roman cities, recounting their joint and cumulative decline.

Perge in modern Turkey

For Rome, the Eternal City itself, was not the first or the only Roman city to have animals grazing in the marketplace where once the business of an empire was transacted. Here, from Dio Chrysostom, is an account of haw far and how quickly some cities had already declined in classical times:

“ ‘At the present moment even the land just outside the city gates is quite wild and terribly unattractive, as though it were in the depths of a wilderness and not in the suburbs of a city, while most the land inside the walls is sown or grazed. It is therefore surprising that orators trump up charges against the industrious people of Caphereus in the remote parts of Euboea, and yet hold that the men farming the gymnasium and grazing cattle in the market-place are doing nothing out of the way. You can doubtless see for yourselves that they have made your gymnasium into a ploughed field, so that the Heracles and numerous other statues are hidden by the corn, some those of heroes and other those of gods. You see too, day after day, the sheep belonging to this orator invade the market-place at dawn and graze about the council chamber and the executive buildings. Therefore when strangers first come to our city, they either laugh at it or pity it.’”

Dio Chrysostom, this is taken from a long passage which Dio quotes in the Seventh, or Eoboean, Discourse, 38-39, pp. 307-309 in the Loeb volume. The Original is in Greek.

Many cities, Rome and Caphereus among them, experienced depopulation, declining industry, declining trade, failing infrastructure, failing institutions, and the whole panoply of problems that simultaneously exacerbate each other when systematic failure compounds local failures in a vicious circle.

Timgad in modern Algeria.

But it was not always thus. The Hellenistic period was a time of bustling, wealthy cities surrounding the Mediterranean, and it was this network of cities (connected by a transportation network) that made the civilization of this period vital. Townspeople took pride in the status and beauty of their cities, their local gods and festivals, and the famous men who hailed from them. Here is a description of ancient Taras, modern Taranto, from Strabo’s Geography:

“…at the city there is a very large and beautiful harbor, which is enclosed by a large bridge and is one hundred stadia in circumference. In that part of the harbor which lies towards the innermost recess, the harbor, with the outer sea, forms an isthmus, and therefore the city is situated on a peninsula; and since the neck of land is low-lying, the ships are easily hauled overland from either side. The ground of the city, too, is low-lying, but still it is slightly elevated where the acropolis is. The old wall has a large circuit, but at the present time the greater part of the city — the part that is near the isthmus — has been forsaken, but the part that is near the mouth of the harbor, where the acropolis is, still endures and makes up a city of noteworthy size. And it has a very beautiful gymnasium, and also a spacious market-place, in which is situated the bronze colossus of Zeus, the largest in the world except the one that belongs to the Rhodians. Between the marketplace and the mouth of the harbor is the acropolis, which has but few remnants of the dedicated objects that in early times adorned it, for most of them were either destroyed by the Carthaginians when they took the city or carried off as booty by the Romans when they took the place by storm. Among this booty is the Heracles in the Capitol, a colossal bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, dedicated by Maximus Fabius, who captured the city.”

The booty that Strabo mentions was a symbol of civic status, and it true that when Rome or any other empire conquered a famous city they often took the most famous monuments and moved them to their capital. While this transfer of status represented a form of honoring tradition, this already points to a fundamental problem in the ancient political system, in which the strong did as they pleased and the weak suffered what they must — the famous formulation of Athenian hubris in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The renowned prehistorian Gordon Childe painted a compelling picture of the prosperity and comfortable circumstances of ancient cities in his What Happened in History:

“For all Roman cities, like the Hellenistic poleis, enjoyed the amenities of a public water supply, now often laid on to every block, handsome public buildings, baths, theatres, colonnades, market halls, and assembly places adorned with statues and fountains. The private dwellings were tasteful and commodious. In a provincial watering place like Pompeii with at most 30,000 inhabitants archaeologists have uncovered street upon street of mansions with mosaic pavements, frescoed walls, colonnaded courts, glazed windows, running water, bathrooms, and latrines.”

And to account for this relative wealth:

“Trade circulated freely throughout the Empire. The cities were united by a network of superb roads. Harbours were everywhere improved or constructed, and the seaways were now free from pirates.”

This is a picture that rivals our best cities today. I encourage the reader to read the entire last chapter of Childe’s book (i.e., What Happened in History, the last chapter of which is, “The Decline and Fall of the Ancient World”), as Childe gives in a few pages a summary of his own views on the collapse of Western civilization, as seen from the perspective of a non-dogmatic Marxism. Childe emphasizes the continuity of arts, industry, and institutions, and says that, “Progress is real if discontinuous.”

Dougga in modern Tunisia

To speak in terms of historical “discontinuity” is a polite way to speak of failure followed by subsequent recovery, and if the recovery surpasses the former peak of civilization, then we have “progress.” But the ruined cities that still stand vacant today never recovered. Civilization continued elsewhere in other modes, but it abandoned the dead cities that had once been prosperous and comfortable. And the wealth was not incidental. The failed cities of Roman Hellenism that surround the Mediterranean basin are only there because they were first built and grew and thrived, only later to fail systematically and catastrophically. The prior success of Hellenistic cities is the conditio sine qua non of the collapse of an entire civilization, for without the civilization there is nothing to collapse. It was, then, at least in part, the scope and success of Roman civilization that contributed to scope and ignominy of the failure. There is a sense in which it was not merely an institution that failed, or a political system that failed, but that it was civilization itself that failed.

The Porta Nigra (Black Gate) of Trier in modern Germany

In Complex Systems and Complex Failure I wrote the following:

“Complex systems fail in complex ways. Moreover, the scope of a catastrophic failure of a complex system is commensurate with the scope of the complex system. This is easy to see intuitively since a catastrophic cascading failure in a complex system must penetrate through all levels of the system and encompass both core and periphery.”

This is what happened in the Roman world. Each city is a complex system, and the network of cities that constituted the Roman Empire was an even more complex system. Moreover, each city is a micro-center of civilization, with its hinterlands as its periphery; and the clusters of cities tightly connected by roads and shipping networks were in turn larger centers of civilization, with the outlying networks of further cities as their periphery.

Emerita Augusta in modern Spain.

There is a systematic way to discuss these complexities, and that is in terms of metaphysical ecology and metaphysical temporality, though here, in the present context, I will not ascend to metaphysical concerns, leaving the idea of the ancient city aside for the time being. Simply employing the bio-ecological levels of Bronfenbrenner without further extension, we can see that the city is a meso-system, or, rather, that the city is at the center of a meso-system which also includes a peripheral region. A network of cities constitutes an exo-system, with further meso-systems at its periphery.

Conimbriga in modern Portugal

These bio-ecological and bio-social systems collapse in reverse order as they emerged and grew. As the growth of complexity is attended by expansion, differentiation, and dynamic equilibrium, their collapse involved contraction, homogenization, and disequilibrium. Now, exactly what accounts for the ability of a complex social whole to achieve both internal differentiation and equilibrium is a problem that is widely recognized, but also unsolved. One would easily suppose that greater differentiation (as in craft specialization, division of labor, and social stratification) would lead to disequilibrium, but in a healthy and growing ecological system the opposite is the case. The healthiest ecosystems embody biodiversity, as the healthiest societies embody social diversity. Somehow it works, but no one quite knows now it works. But the very fact that it is not fully understand how complex and internally differentiated systems maintain an equilibrium is as much as to admit that the equilibrium is a balance, and a balance can be thrown out of balance and into disequilibrium.

Serjilla in modern Syria

The impressive world of the Hellenistic cities of Rome’s Mediterranean empire somehow passed beyond the point of balance and into disequilibrium. The apparent stability of the Roman world began to change, and it did not change for the better. The center could not hold. Things fell apart. Perhaps the interconnected ancient cities were drawn into a vicious spiral of a failure cycle. When I discussed The Failure Cycle recently I identified criminal exaptation of institutional weaknesses as a crucial part of this cycle. However, in the failure of the Roman cities, criminal exaptation does not seem to have played a major role. Perhaps I could re-formulate the failure cycle in order to account for the circumstances of Roman urbanism. when I wrote The Failure Cycle I was thinking of contemporary nation-states and their institutions, but I realize now that there is a fundamentally different relationship between center and periphery in the case of ancient cities and contemporary nation-states. In classical antiquity, failing institutions were exploited by elements in the external periphery rather than by elements internal to the center; and whereas the contemporary failed state may receive assistance from the external periphery, the ancient city was helped, if it was helped at all, by its internal core. Thus, when the core failed, there was nothing else upon which the ancient city could fall back.

Thus I previously laid out the failure cycle as follows:

1. A state with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by criminal enterprises, exacerbating state failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that outside powers intervene.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a state with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

Whereas the institutional failure of classical antiquity looks more like this:

1. A city with weak institutions begins to fail.

2. Institutional weaknesses are exploited by external elements (e.g., barbarians), exacerbating city failure.

3. Failure becomes so acute that traditional powers intervene, seeking to restore rule and order from the center.

4. Intervention ameliorates the immediate and acute failure, but leaves a city with weak institutions vulnerable to failure.

In either case, the iterated failure cycle can become a vicious spiral that grows beyond the ability of traditional guardians of traditional order to contain.

This way of looking at the problem suggests that the interconnected nation-states of today (which interconnection is often referred to as “globalization”) are analogous to the interconnected cities of classical antiquity. And given that the Roman world of classical antiquity grew out of the earlier world of city-states, with the expanded possibilities of today, the nation-state stands in a relation to other nation-states today that the city-state stood in relation to other city-states in classical antiquity.

Fustel de Coulanges, in his classic study The Ancient City, argued that the expansion of Rome destroyed the municipal institutions of the city-state, and replaced it universally with something Roman that was not the city-state as it was known in earlier antiquity. This would be an interesting thread to pursue in analogy to the present day, and as an extension of the thoughts above, but this inquiry will need to wait for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The pages of Foreign Policy magazine are once again becoming agitated by the question of American decline. There is A Nation of Spoiled Brats: Financial Times columnist Ed Luce explains the real reason for American decline an interview by David Rothkopf in Foreign Policy dated 16 April 2012; a few days before this there was The American decline debate by Clyde Prestowitz, while for some background we have from last January Think Again: American Decline, This time it’s for real by Gideon Rachman. The latter, Gideon Rachman, also writes for the Financial Times, which also occasionally hosts pieces on alleged American decline.

I have written before about my distaste for declensionism, so I am not simply going to repeat my arguments the continuing vitality of US institutions and ambitions. For this, you can see The Revolution Without the Revolution and Expanding on a Comment. I will also like to point out the declensionism can be considered a special case of apocalypticism, so that arguments against apocalypticism (as, for example, in The End of the End of the World) also apply, mutatis mutandis, to declensionism.

Of course, one might accept or reject both exceptionalism and declensionism; the two are not mutually exclusive. One might well maintain that the US is unique and that it is now in decline — in fact, I believe that this is the position of many if not most on the political right — as one might equally well maintain that the US is not unique and not in decline (something closer to my own perspective). However, despite the possibility of simultaneously maintaining or rejecting exceptionalism and declensionism, what is interesting about the current spate of declensionist commentary is the shift in narrative that seems to have taken place.

At one time, American exceptionalism was the dominate narrative in understanding the US and its position in the world. I now wonder if we have turned the corner so that American declensionism has become, or is becoming, the dominant narrative by which society at large attempts to understand the US and its position in the world. Having the exceptionalist or the declensionist perspective matters, because each plays into a familiar context of related narratives. That is to say, one idea leads to another, so once you get started down a particular narrative path, the internal logic of the narrative is likely to guide your thinking more than any evidence or reasoning.

The American exceptionalist is likely to say something like, “Sure, things aren’t so good right now, but they’ll turn around; good ol’ American know-how will see to to that. And when things do turn around everyone will see that America isn’t just another country in the world, it is different from all the others, and it can continue to defy the critics and stymy its enemies, and it always will.”

The American declensionist likely to say something like, “No country can forever defy the laws of nature or society; it is time for simple realism and pragmatism in facing up to the fact of America’s finite resources. We need to reassess our position in the world and adopt more appropriate horizons for our actions, learn to learn our lessons, and avoid the kind of overreach that might make things even worse. Every empire in history has eventually joined that of Ozymandias, and we must prepare for the same.”

As I wrote above, I have little sympathy for the declensionists, who are quite taken with their own wisdom in soberly recognizing what they take to be the limits of US power and ambition. The declensionists are smug and self-satified in their own self-defined ghetto — but no more so than the exceptionalists. In fact, this is precisely what these two narratives — the exceptionalist and the declensionist — have in common: their parochial outlook. Both the jingoistic promoter of exceptionalism and the shrill prophet of declension are so wrapped up in their idea of American that this idea comes to supplant the reality. It is this very parochial outlook that is the true danger to the American experiment.

However, if I had to craft my own declensionist narrative, it would not look anything like the stock, off-the-shelf accounts of American decline. If there has been an American “decline” it is because the political class of the US does not believe in the Enlightenment ideals that were instrumental in constituting the US political system. It is not that the political class is actively opposed to Enlightenment ideals, but more a matter of disconnect and incomprehension. It wouldn’t take much to acquaint any intelligent individual with the Enlightenment tradition, but this is not being done. Without an understanding of Enlightenment ideals, there is political drift. The politically expedient takes precedence over all over considerations. With political drift, there is tension between competing visions of what ought to be taking place instead of drift. .

Even if the US political class could be acquainted with the Enlightenment tradition that gave us our constitution and out institutions, it is very likely that they wouldn’t know what to do with this understanding. How does one put Enlightenment ideals into practice in the 21st century?

This is why is probably better to speak in terms of political evolution rather than declension. The world changes, and we must change with it. Hopefully we can remain true to our ideals in the midst of change, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes you must reach out for new ideals.

The Roman political system survived in one form or another from the founding of the city of Rome until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. That is a run of almost 2,000 years. The Roman Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Republic, and the Byzantine Empire did not remain true to the ideals of the Roman Empire. This exemplifies what I have called historical viability. If the American political experiment is to be historically viable, it too will undergo changes as profound as those experienced by any long-lived institution.

With this in mind, we can observe that the narrative shift from American exceptionalism to American declensionism is not evidence of defeatism or pessimism or decline, but rather evidence of American historical viability. As the American self-image is able to change from exceptionalism to declensionism, this change facilitates other forms of change, so that the American experiment is changing and adapting to changed times, and in so doing demonstrating its historical viability.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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