Léonce Crenier

Léonce Crenier

The word “precarity” is quite recent, and does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary, but has appeared in the titles of several books. The term mostly derives from left-leaning organized labor, and has come into use to describe the lives of workers in precarious circumstances. Wikipedia defines precarity as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare.”

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day, writing in The Catholic Worker (coming from a context of both Catholic monasticism and labor activism), May 1952 (“Poverty and Precarity”), cites a certain “saintly priest… from Martinique,” now known to be Léonce Crenier, who is quoted as saying:

“True poverty is rare… Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, Precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential element of poverty. That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the church.”

Crenier had so absorbed and accepted the ideal of monastic poverty, like the Franciscans and the Poor Clares (or their modern equivalents such as Simone Weil and Christopher McCandless), that he didn’t merely tolerate poverty, he embraced and celebrated poverty. Elsewhere Father Crenier wrote, “I noticed that real poverty, where one misses so many things, attracts singular graces amongst the monks, and in particular spiritual peace and joy.” Given the ideal of poverty and its salutary effect upon the spiritual life, Crenier not only celebrated poverty, but also the condition in which the impoverished live, and this is precarity.

Jean XXII reçoit les transcriptions de l'interrogatoire de Gui de Corvo. Manuscrit du XVem siècle. Bibl Nazionale Braidense, Milan, Italie.

Jean XXII reçoit les transcriptions de l’interrogatoire de Gui de Corvo. Manuscrit du XVem siècle. Bibl Nazionale Braidense, Milan, Italie.

Recently studies have retained this leftist interest in the existential precarity of the lives of marginalized workers, but the monastic interest in poverty for the sake of an enhanced spiritual life has fallen away, and only the misery of precarity remains. Not only has the spiritual virtue of poverty been abandoned as an ideal, but it has, in a sense, been turned on its head, as the spiritual focus of poverty turns from its cultivation to its eradication. In this tradition, the recent sociology of Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart is especially interesting, as they have bucked the contemporary trend and given a new argument for secularization, which was once in vogue but has been very much out of favor since the rise of Islamic militancy as a political force in global politics. (I have myself argued that secularization had been too readily and quickly abandoned, and discussed the problem of secularization in relation to the confirmation and disconfirmation of ideas in history.)

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart

Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart are perhaps best known for their book Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Their paper, Are high levels of existential security conducive to secularization? A response to our critics, is available online. They make the case that, despite the apparent rise of fundamentalist religious belief in the past several deacades, and the anomalous instance of the US, which is wealthy and highly religious, it is not wealth itself that is a predictor of secularization, but rather what they call existential security (which may be considered the economic aspect of ontological security).

While Norris and Inglehart do not use the term “precarity,” clearly their argument is that existential precarity pushes individuals and communities toward the comforts of religion in the face of a hostile and unforgiving world: “…the public’s demand for transcendent religion varies systematically with levels of vulnerabilities to societal and personal risks and threats.” This really isn’t a novel thesis, as Marx pointed out long ago that societies created ideal worlds of justice when justice was denied them in this world, implying that when conditions in this world improve, there would be no need for imagined worlds of perfect justice. Being comfortably well off in the real world means there is little need to imagine comforts in another world.

Speaking on a purely personal (and anecdotal basis), Norris and Inglehart’s thesis rings true in my experience. I have relatives in Scandinavia and have visited the region many times. Here where secularization has gone the furthest, and the greater proportion of the population enjoys a high level of existential security, you can quite literally see the difference in people’s faces. In the US, people are hard-driving and always seemingly on the edge; there is an underlying anxiety that I find very off-putting. But there is a good reason for this: people know that if they lose their jobs, they will possibly lose their homes and end up on the street. In Scandinavia, people look much more relaxed in their facial expressions, and they are not continually on the verge of flying into a rage. People are generally very confident about their lives and don’t worry much about the future.

One might think of the existential precarity of individuals as an ontogenic precarity, and this suggests the possibility of what might be called phylogenic precarity, or the existential precarity of social wholes. Fragile states exist in a condition of existential precarity. In such cases, there is a clear linkage between social precarity and individual precarity. In same cases, there may be no such linkage. It is possible that great individual precarity coexists with social stability, and social precarity may coexist with individual security. An example of the former is the contemporary US; an example of the latter would be some future society in which people are wealthy and comfortable but fail to see that their society is on the verge of collapse — like the Romans, say, in the second and third centuries AD.

The ultimate form of social precarity is the existential precarity of civilization. In some contexts it might be better to discuss the vulnerability and fragility of civilization in terms of existential precarity rather than existential risk or existential threat. I have previously observed that every existential risk is at the same time an existential opportunity, and vice versa (cf. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity), so that the attempt to limit and contain existential risk may have the unintended consequence of limiting and containing existential opportunity. Thus the selfsame policies instituted for the sake of mitigating existential risk may contribute to the stagnation of civilization and therefore become a source of existential risk. The idea of existential precarity stands outside the dialectic of risk and opportunity, and therefore can provide us with an alternative formulation of existential risk.

Toxteth riot in Liverpool

Toxteth riot in Liverpool

How precarious is the life of civilized society? In some cases, social order seems to be balanced on a knife edge. During the 1981 Toxteth riots in Liverpool, which occurred in the wake of recession and high unemployment, as well as tension between the police and residents, Margaret Thatcher memorably said that, “The veneer of civilization is very thin.” But this is misleading. Urban riots are not a sign of the weakness of civilization, but are intrinsic to civilization itself, in the same way that war is intrinsic to civilization: it is not possible to have an urban riot without large-scale urban communities in the same way that it is not possible to have a war without the large-scale organizational resources of a state. Riots even occur in societies as stable as Sweden.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher

We can distinguish between the superficial precarity of a tense city that might erupt in riots at any time, which is the sort of precarity to which Margaret Thatcher referred, and a deeper, underlying precarity that does not manifest itself in terms of riots, overturned cars, and burned buildings, but in the sudden and inexplicable collapse of a social order that is not followed by immediate recovery. In considering the possibility of the existential precarity of civilization, what we really want to know is whether there is a social equivalent of the passenger pigeon population collapse and then extinction.

1981 Toxteth riot in Liverpool

1981 Toxteth riot in Liverpool

In the 19th century, the passenger pigeon was the most common bird in North America. Following hunting and habitat loss, the species experienced a catastrophic population collapse between 1870 and 1890, finally going extinct in 1914. Less than fifty years before the species went extinct, there was no reason to suspect that the species was endangered, or even seriously reduced in numbers. When the end came, it came quickly; somehow the entire species reached a tipping point and could not recover from its collapse. Could this happen to our own species? Could this happen to our civilization? Despite our numbers and our apparent resilience, might we have some existential Achilles’ heel, some essential precarity, incorporated into the human condition of which we are blissfully unaware? And, if we do have some essential vulnerability, is there a way to address this?

Zoological illustration from a volume of articles, The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor). Engraving from painting by John James Audubon in Pennsylvania, 1824.

Zoological illustration from a volume of articles, The Passenger Pigeon, 1907 (Mershon, editor). Engraving from painting by John James Audubon in Pennsylvania, 1824.

I have argued elsewhere that civilization is becoming more robust over time, and I have not changed my mind about this, but neither is it the entire story about the existential security of civilization. In comparison to the precarity of the individual life, civilization is robust in the extreme. Civilization only betrays its existential precarity on time scales several orders of magnitude beyond the human experience of time, which at most encompasses several decades. As we ascend in temporal comprehensiveness, civilization steadily diminishes until it appears as a mere anomaly in the vast stretches of time contemplated in cosmology. At this scale, the longevity of civilization is no longer in question only because its brevity is all too obvious.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

Joseph Voros discussing disciplined societies.

At the human time scale, civilization is as certain as the ground beneath our feet; at the cosmological time scale, civilization is as irrelevant as a mayfly. An appraisal of the existential precarity of civilization must take place at some time scale between the human and the cosmological. This brings me to an insight that I had after attending the 2014 IBHA conference last summer. On day 3 of the conference I attended a talk by futurist Joseph Voros that provided much food for thought, and while driving home I thought about a device he employed to discuss future forecasts, the future cone.

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen Director, Web Policy

From The Future and Accessibility, OZeWAI Conference 2011, Jacqui van Teulingen
Director, Web Policy

This was my first exposure to the future cone, and I immediately recognized the possibility for conceptual clarification that this offers in thinking about the future. If we depict the future as an extension of a timeline indefinitely, the line itself is the most likely future, while progressively larger cones concentric with the line, radiating out from the present, become increasingly less likely forecasts. Within the classes of forecasts defined by the spaces included within progressively larger cones, preferred or unwelcome futures can be identified by further subdivisions of the space defined by the cones. Voros offered an alliterative mnemonic device to differentiate the conceptual spaces defined by the future cone, from the center outward: the projected future, the probable future, the plausible future, the possible future, and the preposterous future.

future cone 2

When I was reflecting on this on the drive home, I realized that, in the short term, the projected future is almost always correct. We can say within a high degree of accuracy what tomorrow will be like. Yet in the long term future, the projected future is almost always wrong. Here when I speak of the projected future I mean the human future. We can project future events in cosmology with a high degree of accuracy — for example, the coming collision of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies — but we cannot say anything of significance of what human civilization will be like at this time, or indeed whether there will be any human civilization or any successor institution to human civilization. Futurism forecasting, in other words, goes off the rails in the mid-term future, though exactly where it does so is difficult to say. And it is precisely in this mid-term future — somewhere between human time scales and cosmological time scales — that the existential precarity of civilization becomes clear. Sometime between tomorrow and four billion years from now when a swollen sun swallows up Earth, human civilization will be subject to unpredictable and unprecedented selection pressures that will either mean the permanent ruination of that civilization, or its transformation into something utterly unexpected.

What unforeseen forces will shape human life and civilization in the future? (First Contact, by Nikolai Nedbailo)

What unforeseen forces will shape human life and civilization in the future? (First Contact, by Nikolai Nedbailo)

With this in mind, we can focus our conceptual exploration of the existential precarity, existential security, existential threat, and existential risk that bears upon civilization in the period of the mid-term future. How far can we narrow the historico-temporal window of the mid-term future of precarity? What are the selection pressures to which civilization will be subject during this period? What new selection pressures might emerge? Is it more important to focus on existential risk mitigation, or to focus on our civilization making the transition to a post-civilizational institution that will carry with it the memory of its human ancestry? These and many other related questions must assume the central place in our research.

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About four billion years from now, when the sun is swelling into a red giant star, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge, perhaps resulting in an elliptical galaxy. The universe will be an interesting place,, but will human civilization be around to record the event?

About four billion years from now, when the sun is swelling into a red giant star, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will merge, perhaps resulting in an elliptical galaxy. The universe will be an interesting place, but will human civilization be around to record the event?

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Grand Strategy Annex

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project astrolabe logo smaller

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1914 to 2014

One Hundred Years of Industrialized Warfare

Now that it is 2014 the year will unfold with a series of remarkable 100 year anniversaries as we look retrospectively at the events that led to the First World War — the first global industrialized war, and one of the most traumatic events of the twentieth century, or of any century. There were industrialized wars before WWI — the Russo-Japanese War — and there were global wars before WWI — the Seven Years’ War — but WWI as the first global industrialized war introduced several discontinuities into history that continue to shape us today. The Second World War involved a greater number of casualties and more destructive force, but it was the First World War that decisively cut us off from our past and marked our full transition from agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to industrial-technological civilization.

While the anniversary of a conflict is a pseudo-event, in so far as it prompts reflection it does not have to be merely an empty pseudo-event, although a forced search for parallels is likely to be more misleading than enlightening. Perhaps it is inevitable that such comparisons will be made. An article in The Economist discussed the parallels between 1914 and 2014, The first world war — Look back with angst: A century on, there are uncomfortable parallels with the era that led to the outbreak of the first world war. Is this a helpful exercise? Or is the search for historical parallels a kind of pseudo-history that emerges from pseudo-events?

STEM cycle 1

The Nature of Industrialized Warfare

Industrialized warfare is warfare driven by the STEM cycle, with the additional incentive of an existential threat to spur the rate of innovation and to shorten the time lag between scientific innovation and technological application. In short, industrialized warfare is the whole of industrial-technological civilization in miniature, escalated, accelerated, and focused on some particular conflict that has no intrinsic relation to the ways and means employed to wage the struggle.

Industrialized warfare has a distinctive character. In the warfare of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, hostilities often had to yield to the agricultural calendar. Wars were fought in the summer; those pressed into service, if not released at harvest time, would desert in order to harvest their crops — if they did not, they would starve. No major engagements could take place in the winter because of the lack of mechanized transportation. In the spring, as in the fall, the mass of the populace had to plow and plant. Only a small class of professional warriors could devote themselves to a career of arms and could fight year-round.

Industrialized warfare is no respecter of seasons; men can be taken by train into battle under inclement weather conditions (as they were in WWI)), and supplied in the field by transportation and food preservation technologies. Technological changes were matched by social changes; the rigid and hierarchical class structure gave way to a democratic and egalitarian ideal that was exapted by newly emergent nation-states in the form of enlightenment universalism that popularized the notion of every man a soldier. Industrialized warfare is mass war, fought by mass man; it is the warfare that emerges from the anonymization of killing. It is the anonymous and mass nature of industrialized warfare that makes it particularly absurd and senseless, as the individual soldier is no longer a heroic figure, but, like a worker in a vast industry, the soldier is merely a cog in a gigantic machine.

gavrilo-Princip name and date

The Causes and the Possibilities of Industrialized Warfare

It should be evident from the above that the telos of industrialized warfare is global total war, since the industries that make such industrialized conflicts possible are global, and to successfully wage such a war it is necessary to disrupt the global supply chain of one’s adversary. A similar logic dictated the “de-housing” of industrial workers in the strategic bombing campaigns of the Second World War once that became technologically possible. At some point in the development of industrial-technological civilization, World War One or some equivalent conflict was bound to occur, but did this particular conflict in this particular form have to occur? We might shed a little more light on this question if we attempt to analyze it in a finer grain of detail. To do so it will be convenient to distinguish long term causes, short term causes, and triggers. (Long term causes, short term causes, and triggers may be assimilated to Braudel’s tripartite distinction between la longue durée, the conjuncture, and the history of the event; in Braudel in Ecological Perspective I have shown how Braudel’s historical distinctions can be understood in the light of what I call ecological temporality for a broader theoretical context.)

The long term causes of World War One include the development of industrial-technological civilization itself, and the application of industrial technologies to warfighting, as well as the struggle between developing powers within the regions where the events of the industrial revolution had transformed the life of the people most rapidly and drastically. Slightly less long term as causes are historical forces including the rivalry of France, Germany, and Russia for dominance of the Eurasian landmass, with Britain serving as the “off shore balancer” for balance of power politics. The longer of the long term causes stretch back to the origins of civilization, while the shorter of the long term causes shade imperceptibly into short term causes.

Short term causes of World War One include the arms race in continental Europe (including the naval arms race to build Dreadnaught class battleships), the network of secret alliances among the major powers, the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war and the professionalization of the German General staff, with its master plan for war meticulously crafted year after year, the decline of the Hapsburg monarchy and the increasingly restive populations of subject territories, not only in Hapsburg domains but also within the Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man of Europe.” With Hapsburg and Ottoman power in decline, and ethnic populations newly conscious of themselves as potential political communities, therefore clamoring to fill the gradually growing power vacuum, there were numerous European dyads across which war could break out given the proper trigger and a failure to contain escalation.

The trigger for World War One is one of the purest examples of a triggering event in history: the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, by Gavrilo Princip in the streets of Sarajevo on 28 June 1914. Once the shots were fired and the Duke and Duchess were dead, it was only a matter of repeated diplomatic miscalculations (in an atmosphere of universal preparation for a European-wide war) that escalated the murder into an international incident, the international incident into an armed conflict, and an armed conflict into war between the major European powers and eventually into a global conflagration. Different triggers might have resulted in different details of the world’s first global industrialized war, and different outcomes as well, but that the newly industrialized powers with their new industrialized weapons systems would not decline a test of their newly found powers is as close to inevitable as anything that has transpired in human history (while still not rising to the level of inevitability that coincides with necessity).

Europe had been preparing for a war for a generation, since the end of the Franco-Prussian war. The increasing wealth due to increasing industrialization led many to interpret nineteenth century history in terms of continual progress, but the military planners never lost sight of preparations for war. In France, the loss of Alsace-Lorraine was captured in the phrase, “Think of it always, speak of it never.” With planning for war solidly in place, only the trigger was left to chance. For the First World War to have been significantly different, the short term causes would have had to have been significantly different. And for the First World War to have been a profoundly different conflict than in fact it was, the long term causes wold have had to have been different. With long term and short term causes in place, the structure of the war was largely shaped before it began.

twentury century war collage

Global Industrialized Warfare Since 1914

As we all know, the First World War was followed by an armistice of twenty years (although the armistice was called a “peace”) as a new generation prepared for a new war, and when the next war broke out in 1939 it spiraled into the most destructive armed conflict in human history. The whole development of the twentieth century up to 1945 may be considered one long escalation of industrialized warfare. After that time, European multi-polarity was replaced by the Cold War dyad, which meant that major wars could only break out across this single power dyad, which limited the triggers that could come into play. The effect of stalling major industrialized conflicts led to what I have called the devolution of warfare, allowing human beings to continue the fighting and killing that they love without triggering a catastrophic nuclear exchange that would bring the fun to an end for everyone.

We are still today, even after the termination of the Cold War dyad and the emergence of an ill-defined multi-polarity, living with the the devolution of warfare that has bequeathed to us multiple low-level asymmetrical conflicts around the globe. The very idea of peer-to-peer conflict between major industrialized powers seems distant and unreal. That complacency may be a vulnerability that allows miscalculation to escalate, but what has permanently changed in human history — what Karl Jaspers called “the new fact” — is the availability of nuclear weapons that constitute an existential threat to civilization. This existential threat is the counter-veiling force to rising complacency.

Will the Pacific Ocean be the theater of the next global industrial war?

Will the Pacific Ocean be the theater of the next global industrial war?

The Future of Global Industrialized Warfare

The First World War, although global, was focused on Europe; the Second World War, while triggered in Europe, was not centered on Europe: North Africa, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially the Pacific were major theaters of conflict. As the focus of global attention continues its gradual shift from the older and mature industrialized economies of Europe, which have bordered on the Atlantic Ocean and which grew in conjunction with the growing economy of North America, to the now mature industrialized economy of North America, which borders on the Pacific Ocean and grows in conjunction with the growing economies of East Asia, world history (in so far as there is any such thing) slowly shifts from the Atlantic basin to the Pacific Basin. Atlanticism becomes more and more an irrelevant relic of the past. The strategic reality of today is that of a Pacific-centered world order. In deference to this changing strategic reality, the US is seeking to execute a strategic pivot toward the Pacific and to formulate a grand strategy for the Pacific.

Will the Pacific see a major conflict in this century? This has become a major concern of strategists and war planners who see the world’s sole superpower — the US — challenged across the Pacific by the rising economic power of China, which may translate its economic power into military power. If the US and China come to engage in open armed conflict, the likely theater will be the Pacific, much as the US and Japan faced each other over the Pacific during the Second World War, which was the only conflict and the only theater to see major aircraft carrier engagements. Since that time, the aircraft carrier has only grown in stature as the premier instrument of force projection in the world today. China has recently begun sea trails of its first aircraft carrier, and while it is a long way from parity with US Naval strength in the Pacific, it is possible that China could begin to invest in a carrier fleet in direct competition with the US, much as the Kaiser sought to create a fleet of Dreadnaught class battleships in direct competition with the Royal Navy.

If the twenty-first century is to see a major peer-to-peer industrialized conflict, the long term causes are already in place — the aftermath of the Second World War and the Cold War, and the international system of nation-states that we today take to be the permanent reality of global political order — and only long term efforts could address these long term causes. Any short term causes are now in the process of formation, and we would have a realistic chance of addressing these short term causes of a future war by creating institutions that are resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation. Our agency in these matters — they are ideally within our control — is a hopeful sign of the times; what is not hopeful is that efforts to constitute a world order that is resistant to escalation and tolerant of miscalculation are almost nonexistent.

If both short term and long term causes are in place, and no short term or long term initiatives are undertaken to mitigate potential causes for war, then only the trigger of a future global industrialized conflict is left to chance; the war itself is already shaped by the long term and short term causes: the weapons systems already built and fielded, the military doctrine for their employment, the alliance structure within which military action is undertaken, and the political and economic forces that shape alliances that come into play in the event of armed conflict.

Another global industrialized conflict is possible, though not likely. No one would say that it is inevitable. Much more likely are regional asymmetrical conflicts scattered across the globe, fought with whatever weapons are ready to hand, and for different reasons. There are historical forces that could escalate regional conflicts into global conflicts, and other forces that work against such an escalation. But the price of such a conflict with twenty-first century weapons would be so high that, even if the likelihood of global industrialized warfare is low, it merits our concern as an existential risk.

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Since writing the above the BBC has carried Dancing over the edge: Vienna in 1914 by Bethany Bell about the lead up to war in Central Europe, the Financial Times carried the editorial “Reflections on the Great War: World can still draw lessons from the catastrophe of 1914” (Thursday 02 January 2014), and The Independent carried Is it 1914 all over again? We are in danger of repeating the mistakes that started WWI, says a leading historian by Ian Johnston.

The BBC has since added La Belle Epoque: Paris 1914 by Hugh Schofield BBC News, Paris, and Berlin 1914: A city of ambition and self-doubt by Stephen Evans BBC News, Berlin, and has a page dedicated to The World War One Centenary.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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eastern front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

● war simpliciter

● war of extermination

● war of annihilation

● genocidal war

● absolute war

● total war

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

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

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

…and further…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The center of Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

The center of Gamla Stan in Stockholm.

Last year in The Land of My Forefathers I noted my connection to Norway through my father. Just as the unbroken genetic line of my Y chromosome goes directly back to Norway, so the unbroken genetic line of my mitochondrial DNA goes directly back to Sweden (Småland, to be specific), thus concentrating my genetic heritage entirely in the Scandinavian continent — before it came to there from sunnier, southern climes. Why would anyone choose to leave the sunny south for the cold north?

A parade of Swedish horsemen in Gamla Stan by the Royal Palace.

A parade of Swedish horsemen in Gamla Stan by the Royal Palace.

That branch of the human family that left Africa and made its way north over thousands of years to the farthest northern extreme of the Eurasian landmass must have been among the most peripatetic of human beings — like the peoples of Siberia who crossed over to the Western Hemisphere and made it all the way to the tip of South America, or the Polynesians who populated the islands of the South Pacific, as isolated in the vastness of the ocean as the stars are isolated in the vastness of space. These intrepid peoples, having placed themselves, like extremophiles, at the ends of the Earth, began the process of incipient speciation, until the advent of civilization preempted this incipient speciation by effectively abrogating the geographical barriers that, in the past, would have resulted in allopatric speciation. The Scandinavians went on later in their history to further demonstrate their wanderlust when they passed beyond the known limits of the world and during the medieval climatic optimum (when conditions were favorable) took their ships to the Western Hemisphere as well as throughout the Old World.

Bernt Notke's Saint George and the Dragon in Stockholm's Storkyrka.

Bernt Notke’s Saint George and the Dragon in Stockholm’s Storkyrka.

Hundreds of years later, during the Little Ice Age, when the Scandinavians had been domesticated and civilized by Christianity, and it must have been very cold indeed in Stockholm, a remarkable piece of sculpture was commissioned in Stockholm — Saint George and the Dragon as “re-imagined” by Berndt Notke (also spelled “Bernt Notke”), completed in 1489. I say “re-imagined” as this is the current Hollywood term for adapting an old story to new circumstances, or simply tampering with the narrative. Outside Hollywood, folklore is defined by the existence of variants of a story, and the legend of Saint George and the Dragon is folklore if anything is folklore. Most scholars doubt that the legend even has a basis in fact, but it has engendered some wonderful art, of which the sculpture in Stockholm is, to my mind, the most astonishing instance. While aspects of this sculpture are identifiably medieval — the impassivity of Saint George even in the moment he is killing the dragon (when he should be straining and sweating) reminds me of the Saint George and the Dragon sculpture in Prague — in other respects the sculpture is so fantastic as to exemplify every idea of medieval fantasy. While the greater part of the Middle Ages was nothing like this, it is possible that this is a fragment of that florid world, like the castles we see in the background of the paintings of the Brothers Limbourg.

The motif of Saint George and the Dragon repeated elsewhere in the Storkyrka in another medium.

The motif of Saint George and the Dragon repeated elsewhere in the Storkyrka in another medium.

The explanation of the legend accompanying the sculpture said that a dragon was demanding human sacrifices from the town of Selene, but when the day came that the king’s daughter was to be sacrificed, Saint George chanced by, and told the townsfolk that if they would all convert to Christianity he would slay the dragon and save the princess. They did, she lived, and the dragon was killed. Montaigne said that he would as like light a candle to the dragon as to Saint George (actually, now that I look up the reference, I see that it was Saint Michael, but the sentiment remains the same: “…I could easily for a neede bring a candle to Saint Michaell, and another to his Dragon…”), which is my attitude. One can see in this legend an explanation and a rationalization of Christian conversion (with its attendant abandonment of old gods, which had previously defined the identity of a people), and I think this is part of the currency of the legend throughout Christendom, but not all of it. Dragons are symbols of existential risk. A people faced by a dragon face a calamity for which there is no apparent mitigation but for the most drastic of measures, as in human sacrifice. Human sacrifice is, on one level, a catastrophic loss of identity, which is what communities faced in their conversion to Christianity, but also in the face of any existential threat. Under the extreme regionalism, if not localism, of medieval life, an entire community might be wiped out by a famine or a plague or a natural disaster; existential threat was never far. Dragons symbolized the unknown fear of a world that might turn against one at any time. The myth of Saint George and the Dragon gave elaborate detail and realism to the vague threat of unknown calamities, making them concrete and making it possible to weave the narrative of such existential threats into the history and thus the consciousness of the people.

The vasa, disinterred from its watery grave and now proudly displayed despite its initial calamity.

The vasa, disinterred from its watery grave and now proudly displayed despite its initial calamity.

Calamities of all kinds attend the human condition. I also visited the Vasa museum, which I might well say is the most impressive museum I have ever seen, containing the nearly pristine bulk of the warship Vasa — pristine because it sank on its maiden voyage of 1628, only to be raised 333 years later, re-floated, and installed in this enormous building. The building has to be enormous because the ship is enormous. If you stand near the back of the ship and look up at its bulk towering several stories above it is difficult to believe how such a construction could be undertaken in the 17th century, with wood and the most basic tools — no electricity, no CAD, no concrete drydock, no construction crane of steel, no modern capitalization or management. And still today in the 21st century the ship impresses, if not intimidates.

Unbelievably ornate bas-relief carvings on the Vasa.

Unbelievably ornate bas-relief carvings on the Vasa.

At the beginning of his television series Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clark stands in front of Notre Dame de Paris and says that he can’t define civilization, but that he knows it when he sees it. For Clark, Notre Dame exemplifies civilization. If I could “re-imagine” Clark’s television series — something, by the way, I would love to do — i might start here at the Vasa museum, and with the towering warship behind me say that I can’t yet define civilization (though I’m working on it) but I know it when I see it, and certainly the Vasa exemplifies civilization. And I would go on to add that everything that I admire about civilization — the art, the technology, the mastery of difficult tasks, and the human ambition it represents — as well as everything about civilization that makes me despair — the extremes of social hierarchy, entitlement and privilege for the few, routinely repressive societies, the horror of war, and, again, the human ambition and hubris that the Vasa represents — are all found together in the Vasa. Here we find a social embodiment of the home truth that the best and worst qualities of an individual are often precisely the same.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sixth in a Series on Existential Risk:

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

Sartre, Camus, Heidegger, and Jaspers represented different facets of existentialism.

Existentialism and Existential Risk

Sometimes when you talk to people about existential risk they only pick up on the word “existential” and then make a comment about existentialism, which I guess demonstrates that they weren’t listening very closely or that the whole idea of existential risk is so foreign to the way many people think that it takes time for the idea to sink in. Having become aware of this, I sometimes formulate existential risk in terms of “human extinction scenarios,” which actually constitutes a subset of all possible existential risks, but at least gets the general idea across and seems to be less vulnerable to being misconstrued.

To be so misconstrued, however, is understandable, since most people with a passing acquaintance of intellectual debates will have heard the term “existentialism” (perhaps they’ve even heard Sartre’s familiar formulation that existence precedes essence, or maybe they once tried to dip into Heidegger’s Being and Time) while they very well may never have heard “existential risk” as it is employed in its contemporary usage. It is more likely that a random interlocutor might have heard the term “existential threat,” and indeed this might be an opening for a discussion of larger existential threats (larger, that is, that the existential threat that individuals or nation-states pose to each other) that pose genuine existential risks.

But to return to the understandable confusion between existentialism and existential risk as might occur in a semi-casual conversation, especially when talking to someone you might assume to be aware of such things — what is it about existentialism that makes it an existential philosophy, and what is it about existential risk that makes it an existential concern? Is there any common existential core?

Put in its simplest terms, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This sounds rather unremarkable. Aren’t all philosophies philosophies of existence? Well, no. Many philosophies have been philosophies of essence, even going so far as to consider essences the truly real constituents of the world to the point of existence in its mundane form construed as not real at all. This tradition goes back at least to Plato, who is the most eminent representative of this school of thought, but by no means the last. Existentialism broke — violently — with this tradition on the continent just as positivism broke — again, violently — with this tradition in the Anglophone world. Existentialism was very interested in exactly the kind of mundane existence that Plato called unreal.

So, existentialism is a philosophy of existence. This is why Sartre defined existentialism in terms of the precedence of existence before essence. What, if anything, does this have to do with existential risk? Existential risk, too, is a philosophy of existence, after a fashion. It is, if anything, even more concerned with the mundane world of the everyday than were Sartre or Heidegger. I will try to explain why this is the case.

Both existentialism and existential risk are concerned with asking radical questions that are not ordinarily asked in going about the ordinary business of life. When one gets out of bed, goes about one’s morning routine, and eventually goes to work, one doesn’t ask oneself whether the world will still be in existence tomorrow, or an hour from one, one simply assumes that this is a case and acts upon this assumption. If one does ask these questions, one might end up as an impoverished philosopher, perhaps enjoying the fruits of what Socrates called the “examined life,” but unfortunately not enjoying the fruits of the unexamined life, which might include such simple and innocent enjoyments as sound sleep and knowing where one’s next meal is coming from.

I want to try to make this point in greater detail, and to do so in relation to a classic existentialist text that will allow the reader to make his or her own connections between existentialism and existential risk, if one cares to follow up on the parallels that I will try to suggest below.

In his Being and Time, Heidegger made a distinction between Existentiell and existential, which is confusing because the words look very similar and sound very similar; it would have been less confusing to coin a completely different word to cover the concept that Heidegger wants to get at with the term “Existentiell.” Now, Heidegger exegesis is a highly technical subject, and something that many philosophers have spent their entire lives giving expositions, so I begin with a warning to the reader that my exposition of this Heideggerian distinction is not likely to correspond with that found in Heidegger scholars.

The distinction betweeen existentiell and existential reflects the Heideggerian distinction between beings and Being, as beings are an ontic swarm of actual particulars while Being is the ontological ground of beings and the condition of their possibility. What Heidegger calls “existentiell” is an ontic understanding of things in the world, which corresponds to what Husserl (Heidegger’s one-time mentor) called “the thesis of the natural standpoint” (which it was the imperative of phenomenology to overcome). This might also be characterized in Alfred Marshall’s classic formulation of economics: the ordinary business of life. The existential, in contradistinction to the existentiell, involves the presuppositions that make the existentiell possible, which corresponds to Husserl’s suspension of the thesis of the natural standpoint, in order to get at the ultimate presuppositions of thought.

Here is one formulation of the distinction from Heidegger himself:

We come to terms with the question of existence always only through existence itself. We shall call this kind of understanding of itself existentiell understanding. The question of existence is an ontic “affair” of Da-sein. For this the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence is not necessary. The question of structure aims at the analysis of what constitutes existence. We shall call the coherence of these structures existentiality. Its analysis does not have the character of an existentiell understanding but rather an existential one.

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, translated by Joan Stambaugh, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 10-11

In other words, you don’t need to know anything about the structure of the world to come to terms with existence in it most mundane forms, but an analysis of what constitutes existence is necessary to a more fundamental coming to terms of existence. This latter is what Heidegger called an existential perspective. As I implied above, I’m not interested in engaging in any extensive Heidegger exegesis. On the contrary, I want to take this philosophical idea, usually expressed in highly abstract terms (as it is expressed in Heidegger) and reformulate it in naturalistic terms.

I‘ve pursued this approach previously in The Mind/Body Problem in the Context of Natural History (when I tried to place Cartesian dualism in the context of natural history) and in A Human, All-Too-Human Eternity (when I tried to place the idea of eternity in the context of natural history. Now I would like to place the Heideggerian distinction between the existentiell and the existential, or between beings and Being, in the context of natural history.

From the perspective of natural history, one comes to terms with existence every day when one goes about one’s practical routine, engaging with the world in a pragmatic and utilitarian fashion. This is the existentiell perspective. The existential perspective takes this further, looking for the structure of existence. And what is the structure of existence from a natural historical perspective? It is one and the same world as that ordinary world of ordinary experience, expect extrapolated radically to its greatest extent. In other words, coming to terms with existence from an existential perspective means coming to terms with Big History, which provides the ultimate (natural historical) context for ordinary experience and its objects.

The parochial world of personal experience is meaningful and valuable on a personal level, and it is easy to go through life as if this is the only world that mattered, but everything personal and particular exists in a context, and your personal life and all its immediate objects are dependent upon the whole history of the world that made all of this possible (diachrony), and apart from this history, there is the whole interconnected web of things in the present that cannot exist unless all the other things exist (synchrony).

Similarly, when we think exclusively in terms of our private and personal lives, we are likely to think of dangers such as being involved in an automobile accident or contracting an illness. These are existential threats to the individual. But the individual life is set in the context of many other lives, and all these lives are set in the context of a living biosphere, and this living biosphere is set in the context of a cosmos that makes it possible for such a thing to exist. This is the perspective of Big History. The existential threats to the individual life scarcely register at the level of Big History, but there are other existential threats that appear at this level of consideration. The existential threats that threaten the many lives that are the context of our individual life, or which threaten the biosphere entire, or which threaten the biosphere-consistent cosmos are existential risks.

From the perspective of the individual, transcending the imperatives and threats of the individual life constitutes a radical form of thought, and a radical rethinking of what is important. This requires, in Heidegger’s terms (though not at all in the sense in which Heidegger intended), “the theoretical transparency of the ontological structure of existence.”

Heidegger is not a philosopher that I greatly admire, but to many people Heidegger is synonymous with existentialism, so I wanted to develop my point in a Heideggerian context, but all existential thought is philosophy of existence, and the interpretation that I have given the above Heidegger quote could be adopted and adapted, mutatis mutandis, to other existential philosophers. The existentialist concern for the individual existence largely remains valid when transferred beyond individual existence.

The fragility and vulnerability of existing things is powerfully expressed in Sartre’s famous novel Nausea:

“Every existing thing is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.”

The unreasoning fact of one’s birth and death, and the unreasoning blindness of the will to live that maintains us in existence, makes us as vulnerable to ourselves as we are to others, and this vulnerability seems also to hold for larger wholes that incorporate individuals. Biospheres give birth to invasive species that crowd other species out of existence and threaten the very web of life upon which the invasive species depends; and planets give birth to civilizations that potentially threaten the entire planet. We would just as well say that every existing world is born without reason, prolongs itself out of weakness, and dies by chance.

Nietzsche, too, had a sense of this vulnerability, or being a hostage to fortune:

“That my life has no aim is evident even from the accidental nature of its origin; that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter.” (Notes 1873, The Portable Nietzsche, Kaufmann, p.40)

That Nietzsche should add to this palpable sense of vulnerability that I can posit an aim for myself is another matter reminds me of one of the “Proverbs of Hell” that William Blake wrote for The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

“The most sublime act is to set another before you.”

Continuing in existence out of the blind, unreasoning will to live is a weakness, as Sartre suggests, but consciously choosing some end or aim is another matter entirely.

Choosing one’s own destiny and taking responsibility both for the choice and for one’s actions was a favorite theme of Sartre (before his later Marxist phase) and a position that he expressed very eloquently in his well known lecture Existentialism is a Humanism (which I have quoted many times, since it has profoundly influenced by own thought). Here is Sartre’s uncompromising formulation of human responsibility:

“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”

Sartre repeatedly places this responsibility in a social context. For example:

“I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be. In fashioning myself I fashion man.”

This is the weakest part of Sartre’s exposition. I agree with it, but I still see the weakness of his assertion. This is not the sort of thing that can be asserted; it must be demonstrated, and Sartre does not attempt a demonstration of how personal responsibility is at the same time social responsibility.

To demonstrate that personal responsibility does entail social responsibility for larger wholes of which the individual is a part, and to do so with the unflinching sense of individual responsibility that Sartre brings to his formulations is a task for our time — a task left undone by the philosophy of existence in its earlier iteration, and remains now as a task for a philosophy of existence in its later iteration.

We can see the relationship between personal responsibility and social responsibility — more than see it, we can feel is viscerally — but to demonstrate these linked responsibilities would require passing beyond both to a theoretical perspective that is a common context of both, and perhaps at this point we pass out of the perspective of natural history and resume a philosophical perspective.

While we may not yet be in possession of a fully explicit and formal expression of these linked responsibilities of the personal and the social, we can grasp what the structure of this must be, and it is this:

Existentialism is the ontogenic formulation of existential risk; existential risk is the phylogenic formulation of existentialism.

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danger imminent existential threat

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Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

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ex risk ahead

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Grand Strategy Annex

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