The Franchise Problem

13 December 2017


‘Chairing the Member’ from William Hogarth’s series ‘Humours of an Election.’

Is an inclusive franchise a bug or a feature of democracy?

One of the unquestioned political values (if not ideals) of our time is not only that of liberal democracy, but, even more-so, liberal democracy with the broadest possible franchise. Many today regard the expansion of the franchise as one of the most important accomplishments of contemporary civil society and civil rights. Indeed, the limited franchise of democracies prior to the twentieth century expansion of the voting franchise is today regarded as a terrible moral stain on earlier societies. But what if a limited franchise were not a bug but rather a feature of early democracies? Can democracy even function with a universal franchise? We don’t know. Political societies in their contemporary form of a nearly universal franchise are historically very young, and we cannot yet say whether or not these political experiments will be successful.

Even to suggest a restriction on the franchise after a century of expansion is political heresy in the western world, but we may be forced into accepting some limitation on voting rights in order to salvage our societies, which seem bent on self-destruction. It is likely that the most we can do at this point in the history of western civilization is to salvage what can be salvaged from the Enlightenment project; more radically, western civilization may need to sever its relationship to the Enlightenment project and adopt some other ideological formation as its central project, and this would likely be a process as fraught as the Thirty Years’ War, which was one of the causes of the formation of the Enlightenment project. I think it would be preferable to experiment with different implementations of the Enlightenment project though different franchise regimes, when seen in comparison to the chaos that would ensue from entirely dispensing with the Enlightenment project. Thus, I am well aware that the present discussion lies outside the configuration of the Overton window as it functions in contemporary western societies, but I think that this discussion can be conducted in a rational way, and that it may suggest political experiments that have never yet been tried in the history of humanity.

Even before the age of the nearly universal franchise, democracy was believed to be unworkable. Plato and Aristotle had nothing good to say about democracy — after all, it had been democratic Athens that had condemned Socrates to death. In modern times there is a well-known quote from Alexander Fraser Tytler, often mis-attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, suggesting that democracy is fatally flawed:

“A Democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the results that Democracy always collapses over a loose fiscal policy, always to be followed by a dictatorship.”

While this was written before the nearly universal franchise of contemporary democracies, it points to a structural problem in democracies that is only made worse by the expanding scope of the franchise. The practical consequence of a nearly universal franchise is that voting rights have been given to an even greater number individuals who are not stakeholders in society except in so far as their “stake” in society is the value that they extract from the others in that society that produce value. Very few individuals are productive members of society — most consume more than they contribute to the common weal. It sounds cruel to say it, but this is a case in which we must eventually be cruel to be kind. The dependent members of a society will suffer more in the long run from the collapse of that society than they would suffer from being excluded from the franchise.

A democracy with a limited franchise has as its goal a franchise that is restricted to productive stakeholders in society. Limiting the vote to property owners was one way to accomplish this, and moreover this retained a connection to the feudal past, in which the lords of feudal estates were a law unto themselves in the decentralized power structure of feudalism. Nevertheless, democracy has deep roots in western society, and many of these feudal societies had democratic aspects that we fail to recognize as democratic today because of the severely restricted franchise. For example, when the aldermen of a town gathered to make a decision, this was an essentially democratic institution. Many such institutions existed on a local level, and they reached up all the way to the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, where the franchise was limited to prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire electoral college. The Vatican retains a system like this to the present day, in which the College of Cardinals elects the Pope, not a mass ballot among Roman Catholics.

In past democratic societies, voting rights were restricted across categories of age, sex, and race, and these are precisely the categories that became the focus of identity politics in our own time. Since these past categories of franchise limitation have proved to be so divisive, the obvious political experiment is to attempt franchise limitations based on other categories (though it is easy to predict that any condition placed on voting would rapidly become stigmatized as a method employed by the powerful to shut out powerless sectors of society from ever gaining political power). Above the idea of limiting the franchise to property owners has been noted. Another idea that regularly recurs, and which is found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, is the limitation of the franchise to veterans. It would also be possible to limit the franchise to net taxpayers (those who pay more taxes to the government than the value they derive in government services, though this calculation would of course be controversial).

A thought experiment that may help us to think our way through the franchise problem is to consider the remaining restrictions on the expansion of the franchise. Most nation-states that hold elections have a minimum age limit for voting, and most restrict voting rights to citizens. What would it be like to remove these remaining restrictions on voting rights? What would a truly universal franchise be like? Suppose anyone from anywhere in the world could come to your nation-state and vote in your election, and further suppose that children of any age could vote. This would obviously run into serious problems. A toddler could not meaningfully vote, but a toddler’s parents could take a toddler into a voting booth and record the child’s vote.

The problem of children voting points to two very interesting questions:

1) If beings who cannot meaningfully vote were included in a universal franchise, why should we limit the franchise to human beings? A dog may not be able to meaningfully vote in an election (or stand for office), but a dog’s owner could register a dog’s vote, just as a parent could register a child’s vote before that child became old enough to resist having their vote taken by their parent. If this is a problem, why exactly is it a problem? Presumably it is a problem because kennel owners would breed themselves into a position of power in society, and we think this is more likely than parents producing so many children as to capture the vote in an election. However, a very rich individual could adopt a large number of children and thereby control a disproportionate voting bloc. Is this a bad thing? If there were requirements to assure the well being of the children (as there are), this could be to the benefit of orphans. However, if children were relevant to voting, there would be far fewer orphans because children would be more politically valuable than they are today.

2) If the votes of very young children would necessarily be mediated by their parents, the child’s vote could simply be legally conferred upon the parent or guardian until that child reaches a certain age. This points to possible alternatives to contemporary franchise conventions: an individual (or a couple) could have as many votes as they have dependent children, for example. This could be administered in many different ways. Each adult might have a vote, and then one parent (or both) might have an additional number of votes corresponding to their number of dependent children. In a more radically natalist regime, the only votes could be the votes that parents exercise on behalf of their dependent children, and no adult automatically has a vote simply in virtue of being an adult. Individuals would have an opportunity to vote only when they could prove themselves to be a parent presently caring for a dependent child, which would achieve the end of having the only voters being those who are stakeholders in the future of the society in question. Additionally, this would incentivize child-rearing at a time of declining fertility rates. (Full disclosure: I have no children, so I would not be eligible to vote under such a franchise regime.)

I do not think it is likely that any contemporary political regime would adopt any of the franchise experiments suggested above in regard to parents exercising a vote on behalf on their children, but it is an interesting idea, and it points to other political experiments that could be made.

A political entity might actively manage the scope of its franchise throughout its history, changing voter qualifications as conditions change, and circumstances appear to warrant a different composition of the electorate. For example, if the age distribution of a society becomes too weighted toward the elderly, as is projected to occur in most if not all industrialized nation-states in the near future, a nation-state may choose to implement not only a lower age limit to voting, but also an upper age limit for voting. An active management of the franchise might be continual changes in both lower and upper age limits to voting eligibility.

Given the generous supply of political data, it would not be difficult for data scientists to comb through well-documented elections and to determine, ex post facto, what the result of a given election would have been if the franchise regime had been altered. If general rules could be derived from this kind of research, an analysis of the contemporary political landscape would determine the ideal composition of the electorate required to obtain a certain result. However, this meta-electoral process would itself be undemocratic. Some managerial body (or some individual) would have to determine the desired result and, on the basis of the desired result, then stipulate the constitution of the electorate, and it is difficult to imagine how such a regime could come about under contemporary social conditions.

The important exception to the above observation on the difficulty of managing an electorate under contemporary conditions is the European Union, which has de facto pursued a course like this. The political elites have made a determination of the desired end, and votes are held until the desired result is achieved. While it could be argued that this procedure has produced an unprecedented unification of Europe, it has also produced a backlash, most obviously manifested by the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the EU. The political class of Britain is staunchly opposed to this, and seem to be going about Brexit negotiations in a disingenuous fashion, while the “Remainers” continue to agitate for another vote, on the hope that this will reverse the first vote, and then we would have a return to EU business as usual, when votes are simply held until the desired result is obtained. This system does not involve tailoring the electorate in order to achieve the desired result; instead, the wording of the measures to be decided (clear or confusing as necessitated by circumstance), the date selected for the vote (convenient or inconvenient), the campaign for the vote, and threats of disaster should the vote not go according to plan, have been the methods employed to shape a putatively democratic society along non-democratic lines.

The reader may interpret the above remarks as hostile to the European Union, but while I find aspects of the European Union to be problematic, I admire the Europeans for having undertaken their grand political experiment in the constitution of a European superstate at a time when few nation-states are willing to experiment politically. The Europeans are using the tools they have at their disposal in order to attempt a reform of liberal democracy. Though this experiment is imperfect, as are all political experiments, there is much that we can learn from it. It is this spirit of political experimentation that he needed to order to test alternative voting franchise regimes such as those suggested above, and to prevent a society from becoming so politically stagnant that change becomes inconceivable.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Three Revolutions

12 November 2017


Three Revolutions that Shaped the Modern World

The world as we know it today, civilization as we know it today (because, for us, civilization is the world, our world, the world we have constructed for ourselves), is the result of three revolutions. What was civilization like before these revolutions? Humanity began with the development of an agricultural or pastoral economy subsequently given ritual expression in a religious central project that defined independently emergent civilizations. Though widely scattered across the planet, these early agricultural civilizations had important features in common, with most of the pristine civilizations beginning to emerge shortly after the Holocene warming period of the current Quaternary glaciation.

Although independently originating, these early civilizations had much in common — arguably, each had more in common with the others emergent about the same time than they have in common with contemporary industrialized civilization. How, then, did this very different industrialized civilization emerge from its agricultural civilization precursors? This was the function of the three revolutions: to revolutionize the conceptual framework, the political framework, and the economic framework from its previous traditional form into a changed modern form.

The institutions bequeathed to us by our agricultural past (the era of exclusively biocentric civilization) were either utterly destroyed and replaced with de novo institutions, or traditional institutions were transformed beyond recognition to serve the needs of a changed human world. There are, of course, subtle survivals from the ten thousand years of agricultural civilization, and historians love to point out some of the quirky traditions we continue to follow, though they make no sense in a modern context. But this is peripheral to the bulk of contemporary civilization, which is organized by the institutions changed or created by the three revolutions.

Copernicus stands at the beginning of the scientific revolution, and he stands virtually alone.

The Scientific Revolution

The scientific revolution begins as the earliest of the three revolutions, in the early modern period, and more specifically with Copernicus in the sixteenth century. The work of Copernicus was elaborated and built upon by Kepler, Galileo, Huygens, and a growing number of scientists in western Europe, who began with physics, astronomy, and cosmology, but, in framing a scientific method applicable to the pursuit of knowledge in any field of inquiry, created an epistemic tool that would be universally applied.

The application of the scientific method had the de facto consequence of stigmatizing pre-modern knowledge as superstition, and the attitude emerged that it was necessary to extirpate the superstitions of the past in order to build anew on solid foundations of the new epistemic order of science. This was perceived as an attack on traditional institutions, especially traditional cultural and social institutions. It was this process of the clearing away of old knowledge, dismissed as irrational superstition, and replacing it with new scientific knowledge, that gave us the conflict between science and religion that still simmers in contemporary civilization.

The scientific revolution is ongoing, and continues to revolutionize our conceptual framework. For example, four hundred years into the scientific revolution, in the twentieth century, the Earth sciences were revolutionized by plate tectonics and geomorphology, while cosmology was revolutionized by general relativity and physics was revolutionized by quantum theory. The world we understood at the end of the twentieth century was a radically different place from the world we understood at the beginning of the twentieth century. This is due to the iterative character of the scientific method, which we can continue to apply not only to bodies of knowledge not yet transformed by the scientific method, but also to earlier bodies of scientific knowledge that, while revolutionary in their time, were not fully comprehensive in their conception and formulation. Einstein recognized this character of scientific thought when he wrote that, “There could be no fairer destiny for any physical theory than that it should point the way to a more comprehensive theory, in which it lives on as a limiting case.”

Democracy in its modern form dates from 1776 and is therefore a comparatively young historical institution.

The Political Revolutions

The political revolutions that began in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, beginning with the American Revolution in 1776, followed by the French Revolution in 1789, and then a series of revolutions across South America that displaced Spain and the Spanish Empire from the continent and the western hemisphere (in a kind of revolutionary contagion), ushered in an age of representative government and popular sovereignty that remains the dominant paradigm of political organization today. The consequences of these political revolutions have been raised to the status of a dogma, so that it no longer considered socially acceptable to propose forms of government not based upon representative institutions and popular sovereignty, however dismally or frequently these institutions disappoint.

We are all aware of the experiment with democracy in classical antiquity in Athens, and spread (sometimes by force) by the Delian League under Athenian leadership until the defeat of Athens by the Spartans and their allies. The ancient experiment with democracy ended with the Peloponnesian War, but there were quasi-democratic institutions throughout the history of western civilization that fell short of perfectly representative institutions, and which especially fell short of the ideal of popular sovereignty implemented as universal franchise. Aristotle, after the Peloponnesian War, had already converged on the idea of a mixed constitution (a constitution neither purely aristocratic nor purely democratic) and the Roman political system over time incorporated institutions of popular participation, such as the Tribune of the People (Tribunus plebis).

Medieval Europe, which Kenneth Clark once called a, “conveniently loose political organization,” frequently involved self-determination through the devolution of political institutions to local control, which meant that free cities might be run in an essentially democratic way, even if there were no elections in the contemporary sense. Also, medieval Europe dispensed with slavery, which had been nearly universal in the ancient world, and in so doing was responsible for one of the great moral revolutions of human civilization.

The political revolutions that broke over Europe and the Americas with such force starting in the late eighteenth century, then, had had the way prepared for them by literally thousands of years of western political philosophy, which frequently formulated social ideals long before there was any possibility of putting them into practice. Like the scientific revolution, the political revolutions had deep roots in history, so that we should rightly see them as the inflection points of processes long operating in history, but almost imperceptible in their earliest expression.

Early industrialization often had an incongruous if not surreal character, as in this painting of traditional houses silhouetted again the Madeley Wood Furnaces at Coalbrookdale.

The Industrial Revolution

The industrial revolution began in England with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, which was, in turn, an improvement upon the Newcomen atmospheric engine, which in turn built upon a long history of an improving industrial technology and industrial infrastructure such as was recorded in Adam Smith’s famous example of a pin factory, and which might be traced back in time to the British Agricultural Revolution, if not before. The industrial revolution rapidly crossed the English channel and was as successful in transforming the continent as it had transformed England. The Germans especially understood that it was the scientific method as applied to industry that drove the industrial revolution forward, as it still does today. It is science rather than the steam engine that truly drove the industrial revolution.

As the scientific revolution drove epistemic reorganization and the political revolutions drove sociopolitical reorganization, the industrial revolution drove economic reorganization. Today, we are all living with the consequences of that reorganization, with more human beings than ever before (both in terms of absolute numbers and in terms of rates) living in cities, earning a living through employment (whether compensated by wages or salary is indifferent; the invariant today is that of being an employee), and organizing our personal time on the basis of clock times that have little to do with the sun and the moon, and schedules that have little or no relationship to the agricultural calendar.

The emergence of these institutions that facilitated the concentration of labor (what Marx would have called “industrial armies”) where it was most needed for economic development indirectly meant the dissolution of multi-generational households, the dissolution of the feeling of being rooted in a particular landscape, the dissolution of the feeling of belonging to a local community, and the dissolution of the way of life that was embodied in these local communities of multi-generational households, bound to the soil and the climate and the particular mix of cultivars that were dietary staples. As science dismissed traditional beliefs as superstition, the industrial revolution dismissed traditional ways of life as impractical and even as unhealthy. Le Courbusier, a great prophet of the industrial city, possessed of revolutionary zeal, forcefully rejected pre-modern technologies of living, asserting, “We must fight against the old-world house, which made a bad use of space. We must look upon the house as a machine for living in or as a tool.”

Revolutionary Permutations

Terrestrial civilization as we know it today is the product of these three revolutions, but must these three revolutions occur, and must they occur in this specific order, for any civilization whatever that would constitute a peer technological civilization with which we might hope to engage in communication? That is to say, if there are other civilizations in the universe (or even in a counterfactual alternative history for terrestrial civilization), would they have to arrive at radio telescopes and spacecraft by this same sequence of revolutions in the same order, or would some other sequence (or some other revolutions) be equally productive of technological civilizations?

This may well sound like a strange question, perhaps an arbitrary question, but this is the sort of question that formal historiography asks. In several posts I have started to outline a conception of formal historiography in which our interest is not only in what has happened on Earth, or what might yet happen on Earth, but what can happen with any civilization whatsoever, whether on Earth or elsewhere (cf. Big History and Scientific Historiography, History in an Extended Sense, Rational Reconstructions of Time, An Alternative Formulation of Rational Reconstructions of Time, and Placeholders for Null-Valued Time). While this conception is not formulated for the express purpose of investigating questions like the Fermi paradox, I hope that the reader can see how such an investigation bears upon the Fermi paradox, the Drake equation, and other “big picture” conceptions that force us to think not in terms of terrestrial civilization, but rather in terms of any civilization whatever.

From a purely formal conception of social institutions, it could be argued that something like these revolutions would have to take place in something like the terrestrial order. The epistemic reorganization of society made it possible to think scientifically about politics, and thus to examine traditional political institutions rationally in a spirit of inquiry characteristic of the Enlightenment. Even if these early forays into political science fall short of contemporary standards of rigor in political science, traditional ideas like the divine right of kings appeared transparently as little better than political superstitions and were dismissed as such. The social reorganization following from the rational examination the political institutions utterly transformed the context in which industrial innovations occurred. If the steam engine or the power loom had been introduced in a time of rigid feudal institutions, no one would have known what to do with them. Consumer goods were not a function of production or general prosperity (as today), but rather were controlled by sumptuary laws, much as the right to engage in certain forms of commerce was granted as a royal favor. These feudal political institutions would not likely have presided over an industrial revolution, but once these institutions were either reformed or eliminated, the seeds of the industrial revolution could take root.

In this interpretation, the epistemic reorganization of the scientific revolution, the social reorganization of the political revolutions, and the economic reorganization of the industrial revolution are all tightly-coupled both synchronically (in terms of the structure of society) and diachronically (in terms of the historical succession of this sequence of events). I am, however, suspicious of this argument because of its implicit anthropocentrism as well as its teleological character. Rather than seeking to justify or to confirm the world we know, framing the historical problem in this formal way gives us a method for seeking variations on the theme of civilization as we know it; alternative sequences could be the basis of thought experiments that would point to different kinds of civilization. Even if we don’t insist that this sequence of revolutions is necessary in order to develop a technological civilization, we can see how each development fed into subsequent developments, acting as a social equivalent of directional selection. If the sequence were different, presumably the directional selection would be different, and the development of civilization taken in a different direction.

I will not here attempt a detailed analysis of the permutations of sequences laid out in the graphic above, though the reader may wish to think through some of the implications of civilizations differently structured by different revolutions at different times in their respective development. For example, many science fiction stories imagine technological civilizations with feudal institutions, whether these feudal institutions are retained unchanged from a distant agricultural past, or whether they were restored after some kind of political revolution analogous to those of terrestrial history, so one could say that, prima facie, political revolution might be entirely left out, i.e., that political reorganization is dispensable in the development of technological civilization. I would not myself make this argument, but I can see that the argument can be made. Such arguments could be the basis of thought experiments that would present civilization-as-we-do-not-know-it, but which nevertheless inhabit the same parameter space of civilization-as-we-know-it.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent “fragile states” is to be considered a euphemism for “failed states” the reader may judge for himself.

The Fund for Peace has been publishing an annual Fragile States Index for ten years now; to what extent fragile states is to be considered a euphemism for failed states the reader may judge for himself.

Why failed states now?

The idea of a failed state (or, if you prefer, a “fragile state”) has been playing an increasingly prominent role in geopolitical thought at least since the end of the Cold War. Failed States and Institutional Decay: Understanding Instability and Poverty in the Developing World by Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz identifies the use of the term “quasi-states” by Robert Jackson in 1990 as the source of the failed state concept. Whatever the provenance, the geopolitical analysis of failed states is an idea whose time has come.

Many factors have contributed to this. Rising instability as nation-states re-aligned themselves after the breakup of the Soviet Union, suppressed ethnic conflicts reemerging, de facto tolerance of “rogue” regimes (which previously would have been drawn into an alliance, but which are now on their own), and the absence of superpower sponsors willing to engage with smaller nation-states in the attempt to gain an edge in global competition, among other factors. While some fragile states were consumed by proxy wars during the Cold War, some vulnerable nation-states received substantial support from superpower sponsors and alliance blocs. A marginal nation-state as an ally in a sensitive region might be too valuable to lose, and so support was forthcoming. Also, both superpower sponsors allied themselves with autocratic regimes that were, to some extent, effective in governing, even if contemptuous of human rights.

Developments in armaments and technology have had the unintended consequence of decentralizing and widely distributing combat power, making asymmetrical conflicts sustainable for long periods of time. Also, the growth of international aid organizations that intervene when governments fail, providing food and medical care, and, in so doing, have the unintended consequence of extending the longevity of states experiencing precipitous decline, especially decline due to failures of leadership (cf. Sustaining the Unsustainable, Part Two).

Another source of contemporary state failure is what Brennan Kraxberger calls “the overwhelming bias toward preserving existing territories.” I take this feature of the contemporary international nation-state system to be a function of the stagnancy and ossification of the international nation-state system. The nation-state is geographically defined and derives its legitimacy from the territorial principle in law. Thus an international system of nation-states places disproportionate emphasis upon defining geographical territories through unambiguous borders. In the event of any international crisis, the status quo ante is always preferred, to the point of re-constituting failed states simply for the reason of retaining extant borders.

Mogadishu, Somalia

Mogadishu, Somalia

What is a failed state?

What is a failed state? On the first page of When States Fail: Causes and Consequences by Robert I. Rotberg we read:

Nation-states fail when they are consumed by internal violence and cease delivering positive political goods to their inhabitants. Their governments lose credibility, and the continuing nature of the particular nation-state itself becomes questionable and illegitimate in the hearts and minds of its citizens.

Robert I. Rotberg, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, “The Failure and Collapse of Nation-States: BREAKDOWN, PREVENTION, AND REPAIR”

We find a more detailed breakdown of factors of state failure from Breaking the Failed-State Cycle, based on the indicators used by the Fund for Peace in their annual rankings of failed states:

“…failed states are of the sort identified by the Fund for Peace in its Failed States Index, which is based on 12 indicators of state vulnerability: (1) mounting demographic pressures, (2) massive movement of refugees or internally displaced persons creating complex humanitarian emergencies, (3) legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia, (4) chronic and sustained human flight, (5) uneven economic development along group lines, (6) sharp and/or severe economic decline, (7) criminalization and/or delegitimization of the state, (8) progressive deterioration of public services, (9) suspension or arbitrary application of the rule of law and widespread violation of human rights, (10) security apparatus operating as a ‘state within a state,’ (11) rise of factionalized elites, and (12) intervention of other states or external political actors.”

Marla C. Haims, David C. Gompert et al., Breaking the Failed-State Cycle,

While helpful to a certain extent, there are countless questions that could be raised in regard to the presuppositions embedded in the above definitions. What exactly counts as the factionalization of elites? Might not the Republican and Democratic parties in the US be characterized as a factionalized elites? And would we really prefer an oppressive elite that speaks with a single voice, as in North Korea? In many repressive states a factionalized elite would be a good thing.

If we instead adopt an ostensive definition, and point out examples rather than attempt to formulate what logicians call a “real” definition, we are not much better off. While there is widespread consensus on certain examples of state failure (e.g., Somalia), there are other instances that are much more problematic, and much more political. For example, the Index of Fragile States annually published by the Fund for Peace, which ranges from “very high alert” (with South Sudan at the top of the list) to “very sustainable” (a category including only Finland), places China — by some measures now the largest economy on the planet — as being “high warning,” while Argentina is listed three classes below China as “stable,” only one rung above the US. I would be the first concur that China is problematic on many levels, but to rank it that much higher than Argentina with its severe economic troubles (albeit self-inflicted) strains credulity.

It is perhaps inevitable that any definition of failed or fragile states, or any rankings based on such a definition, will be controversial in some cases and uncontroversial in other cases. State failure is evaluational and not factual; the fact/value distinction (also known as the is/ought distinction) would seem to forbid us from making making any evaluational judgment on the basis of mundane facts. This distinction is not observed in the literature, and I can even imagine that it sounds a bit strange in this context.

Such social science-derived political judgments — like the index of fragile states — derive what legitimacy they aspire to precisely from their factual basis, drawing on extensive statistics and social science research. If there were a way to conceptualize state fail in purely factual terms, this would be appropriate; or if there were a way to base an evaluative judgment of state failure on the basis of evaluational criteria, this too would be appropriate. But the subtle shift from factual survey to evaluational judgment is not merely politically problematic, but also logically problematic.

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Can a civilization be judged to have failed?

Beyond state failure: civilization failure

Let us consider political order (and its failure) at a larger scale — larger in both space and time — than the political order represented by the nation-state. Martin Jacques has introduced the idea of a “civilization-state” to identify China, and the idea is also applicable to India (European civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state). I wrote about Martin Jacques’ conception of a civilization-state earlier in Civilization States and their Attempted Extirpation. China and India as nation-states are part of the international nation-state system, but they also represent the contemporary development of ancient civilizations that can be traced all the way to separate origins during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution.

How do we identify and differentiate civilizations, and, once we have done so, how do we identify a particular civilization with a present-day nation-state? In accordance with the paradigm of the geographically-defined nation-states, we typically differentiate and identify on the basis of geographical regions. Less often, we make these differentiations and identifications on the basis of the ethnicity of the population, or by other markers of ethnicity, such as language. All of these can be made to work in some contexts, and yet all are problematic.

There are a few familiar lists of civilizations from which we might draw, as, for example, those of Toynbee and Huntington. These, too, are problematic. Toynbee identified a Syriac civilization, and in so far as Syria today is the remaining legacy of Syriac civilization, Syria could be considered a civilization-state, and a failed civilization-state at that. Of Toynbee’s Syriac civilization Walter Kaufmann wrote:

“…no ‘Syriac Civilization,’ for example, ever existed, though it may possibly be convenient in some contexts to lump together the many kingdoms that existed between ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and to give them some such name as this; but this fictitious civilization could hardly be studied very fully without reference to its two mighty neighbors.”

Walter Kaufmann, From Shakespeare to Existentialism: Studies in Poetry, Religion, and Philosophy

Perhaps a better procedure would be to recur to those half dozen or so civilizations that had their origins in the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution — another list that would consist minimally of the Indus Valley, the Yellow River Valley in China, Mesopotamia, Egypt (not clearly distinct from Mesopotamian origins), Peru, and Central America. (On early civilizations cf. my post Riparian Civilization.) However, limiting ourselves in this way to a small class of “founder” civilizations would mean that we would miss out on a lot of the most interesting developments in the history of civilization. Western Civilization, for example, is a distant descendant of the Mesopotamian founder civilization, but only after one branch of that civilization moved west and encountered a series of other civilizations, such as Viking Civilization, that ultimately changed its character decisively.

Of these founder civilizations, all have some living presence today, sometimes a mere remnant absorbed into another civilization, and in other cases a vital and distinct tradition remains to this day. If mere longevity is the criterion for civilization failure, none of these civilizations could be said to have failed. Of course, longevity is not the whole story. To cite my own western civilization once again, we have the catastrophic experience of the failure of the Western Roman Empire as an atavistic memory that continues to inform our historical conceptions to this day, two thousand years later. And then, in the very different kind of civilizational transition, the medieval world gave way to the modern world, and again after a three hundred years of modernism without industrialism, modern western civilization gave way to industrial-technological civilization. In all of these transitions, something is lost and something is gained. Shall we call the losses civilization failure? If so, what shall we call the gains?

There are no easy answers as to what constitutes a civilization and what constitutes civilizational failure. Books have been devoted to the topic, and more will yet be written. The really interesting intellectual questions are those that are revealed to us after we make the attempt to differentiate civilizations and define civilizational failure. Any initial effort will fall short, and the ways in which we discern the inadequacy of our initial intuitions has much to teach us. This must be regarded as an ongoing inquiry, and not a question that can admit of a definitive answer.

Civilization-states and state failure

In general, civilization-states are too big to fail. (Perhaps the smallest nation-state that could be identified as a viable civilization-state is Iran, and there are those who would argue that Iran is a failed state — I would not make this argument.) Too big to fail civilization-states find themselves propped up by the international nation-state system, not unlike a puppet regime, but here the puppet is not a particular leader whom more powerful leaders want to keep in office, but a particular kind of state structure that more powerful nation-states want to keep intact. The catastrophic failure of a nation-state implies the possibility of the failure of the international nation-state system predicated upon the viability of the nation-state, and the breakdown of the nation-state system is an existential threat to all nation-states. This explains, in part, the semi-hysterical response on the part of elites drawn from the leadership of nation-states to the breakup of nation-states (which has happened repeatedly since the end of the Cold War, and has therefore provided ample opportunity for political hysteria of the most polished and authoritative kind).

There is, however, a relationship between failed states and failed civilizations: failed states are, at least in some cases, symptoms of failed civilizations. In more detail: there is a poorly defined relationship between state failure and civilization failure in regions where a tradition of civilization never coalesced into a civilization-state; there is a slightly more well-defined relationship between contemporary state-failure and civilization failure where a tradition of civilization did coalesce into a civilization-state. Thus if contemporary China or India were judged to be failed states (which is, needless to say, a judgment I would not make), then there would be reason to consider whether we could judge the civilizations of China and India to have failed.

But an incipient civilization-state, which initially fails to unify the geographical region of which it is the central political entity, fragments into multiple states, each of which aspires itself to be the civilization-state, and each of which lacks legitimacy in this role because too much constitutive of that civilization lies outside its borders. Thus if, for example, we were to judge, say, France of Germany as failed states, there would be very little reason to maintain that western civilization had failed, because western civilization has so many representative nation-states as the bearer of its traditions (or, at least, some subset of its traditions).

The relationship between state failure and civilization failure is not robust because it admits of countless exceptions. A civilization that is productive of a sequence of failed states might be judged to be failed, but in another sense it could be considered successful merely in terms of fecundity: if a civilization continues to produce states, even if every such state fails, the tradition of civilization remains vital in some way. A tradition of civilization in this case may represent a particular perennial idea, something to which the human mind returns like a moth to a candle flame. Every implementation of the idea may prove disastrous, but the idea is as definitive of the human condition as civilization itself.

If a civilization-state can fail, this would represent the failure of the contemporary iteration of an ancient tradition of civilization. If it is controversial to identify some nation-states as failed, it is even more controversial to identify an entire civilization as failed. It is considered to be in bad form to compare civilizations and to rank any one as being better than any other. If we are ever going to get the point at which we can formulate a science of civilization, or, at very least, a theory of civilization, we will have to get past this proscription on the use of comparative concepts in the study of civilization.

In The Future Science of Civilizations I noted how Carnap distinguished classificatory, comparative, and quantitative conceptions as all playing a role in arriving at a scientific conception of a body of knowledge. Civilization, or the study of civilization, must pass through these stages of conceptual development, and in this process it must not allow itself to be threatened by its past errors if it is ever to make progress. As Foucault said, and as I have quoted many times, “A real science recognizes and accepts its own history without feeling attacked.”

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Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson's most extravagant rhetoric and accusations. (Virginia Historical Society)

“Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin were named to a committee to prepare a declaration of independence. Jefferson (standing) did the actual writing because he was known as a good writer. Congress deleted Jefferson’s most extravagant rhetoric and accusations.” (Virginia Historical Society)

On this, the 238th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, I would like to recall what is perhaps the centerpiece of the document: a ringing affirmation of what would later, during the French Revolution, be called “The Rights of Man,” and how and why a people with “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” should go about securing these rights:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The famous litany of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness names certain specific instances, we note, among the unalienable rights of human beings (a partial, and not an exhaustive list of such rights), and in the very same paragraph the founders have mentioned the Right of the People to alter or to abolish any form of government that becomes destructive to these ends. This is significant; the right of the people to alter or abolish a government that is destructive of unalienable rights is itself an unalienable right, though qualified by the condition that established governments should not be lightly overthrown. The Founders did not say that long established governments should never be overthrown, since they were in the process of overthrowing the government of one of the oldest kingdoms in Europe, but that such an action should not be undertaken lightly.

In keeping with with a prioristic language of self-evident truths, the Founders have formulated the right to alter or to abolish in terms of forms of government. In other words, the right to alter or abolish is framed not in terms of particular tyrannical or corrupt regimes, but on the form of the regime. This is political Platonism, pure and simple. The Founders are here recognizing that there are a few distinct forms of government, just as there are a few distinct unalienable rights. For the political Platonism of the Anglophone Enlightenment, forms of government and unalienable rights are part of the furniture of the universe (a phrase I previously employed in Defunct Ideas and some other posts).

It has always been the work of revolutions to alter or to abolish forms of government, and this is still true today, although we are much less likely to think in these platonistic terms about the forms of governments and unalienable rights. To be sure, the idea of rights has become absolutized to a certain extent in the contemporary world, but it is a conflicted absolute idea, because it is an absolute idea stranded in a society that no longer believes in absolute ideas. In just the same way, the governmental tradition of the US is a “stranded asset” of history — an anachronistic relic of the Enlightenment that has survived through several post-Enlightenment periods of history and still survives today. The language of the Enlightenment can still speak to us today — it has a perennial resonance with human nature — but if you can get a typical representative of our age to engage in a detailed conversation about political ideals, you will not find many proponents of Enlightenment ideals, such as the perfectibility of man, throwing off past superstitions, the belief in progress, the dawning of a new world, and a universalist conception of human nature. These are, now, by-and-large, defunct ideas. But not entirely.

If you do find these Enlightenment ideals, you will find them in a very different form than the form that they took among the Enlightenment Founders of the American republic — and note here my use of “form” and again the Platonism that implies. Those today who most passionately believe in the Enlightenment ideals of progress, perfectibility, and a new world on the horizon are, by and large, transhumanists and singulatarians. They believe (often enthusiastically) in an optimistic vision of a better future, although the future they envision would be, for some among us, a paradigm of moral horror — human beings altered beyond all recognition and leading lives that have little or no relationship to human lives as they have been lived since the beginning of civilization.

Transhumanists and singulatarians also believe in the right of the people to alter or to abolish institutions that have become destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — but the institutions they seek to alter or abolish are none other than the institutions of the human body and the human mind (or, platonistically speaking, the form of the human body and the form of the human mind), far older than any form of government, and presumably not to be lightly altered or abolished. Looking at the contemporary literature on transhumanism, with some arguing for and some arguing against, it is obvious that one of the great moral conflicts in the coming century (and perhaps for some time after, until some settlement is reached, or until we and our civilization are so transformed that the question loses its meaning) is going to be that over transhumanism, which is, essentially, a platonistic question about what it means to be human (and the attempt to define the distinction between the human and the non-human, which I recently wrote about). For some, what it means to be human is already fixed for all time and eternity; for others, what it means to be human is not fixed, but is subject to continual change and revision, taking in the whole of human prehistory and what we were before we were human.

It is likely that the coming moral conflict over transhumanism (both the conflict and transhumanism itself have already started, but they remain at the shallow end of an exponential growth curve) will eventually make itself felt as social and political conflict. The ethico-religious conflict in Europe from the advent of the Reformation to the end of the Thirty Years’ War brought into being the political institution of the nation-state and even created the conditions for the Enlightenment, as a reaction against the religious excesses the Reformation and its consequences. Similarly, the ethico-social conflict that will follow from divisions over transhumanism (and related technological developments that will blur the distinction between the human and the non-human) may in their turn be the occasion of the emergence of revolutionary changes in social and political institutions. Retaining the right of the people to alter or abolish their institutions means remaining open to such revolutionary change.

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Happy 4th of July!

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Appearance, Reality, and

Escher Tower of Babel

Maintaining the Illusion of Order

Most philosophical attempts to come to grips with politics consists in examining political systems in an attempt to determine whether or not they can deliver in practice the ideals that they promise in theory, and whether these ideals are worthy ideals to maintain, and not somehow deceptive. Thus the distinction between theory and practice is central to political philosophy, and we tend to think of politics as an exercise in applied ethics and not as an exercise in applied metaphysics, even though we are bringing into being a new kind of entity, a political entity.

I would like instead to consider the nation-state from the perspective of appearance and reality, that central distinction of western metaphysics that I recently discussed in The Recrudescence of Metaphysics. The distinction between political theory and political practice can itself be assimilated to the distinction between appearance and reality, if we frame the worthiness of political ideas as a matter of the appearance and reality of the ideals themselves. If some political ideal is presented as a noble and worthwhile political aim, but this is mere illusory appearance, and we discover in the practice of politics that our ideal is a sham, then theory and practice reveal themselves as appearance and reality.

In earlier eras of history, different political entities were at stake — tribes and chiefdoms, kingdoms, empires, city-states, confederations, and early republics — but the principle of creating a political entity that is distinct from any individual or family remains consistent, and this distinction has widened over time. Today, it is the nation-state that is, as I have said many times, the central political fact of our our age. I have repeatedly discussed the nature of the nation-state in several posts (its tribalism, as well as its links to genocide), and opened my book Political Economy of Globalization with a discussion of the nation-state.

What does the nation-state appear to be, and how does this appearance differ from the reality of what the nation-state is? The central tension of the nation-state, and the fundamental divide between its appearance and its reality is that the nation-state is putatively defined in terms of ethnic cohesion — supposedly being the expression of Wilsonian self-determination on the part of a particular people — but in fact is defined by geographical boundaries and the assertion of the territorial principle of law within these boundaries. Given this glaring chasm between ideal ethnicity and real geography, nation-states frequently responded by attempting to enforce an ideological conformity that would appear to coincide with authentic ethnic cohesion.

In the past, state structures sought to enforce ideological conformity through brutal means, not excluding massacres, atrocities, and mass population transfers, but these methods are no longer approved in their explicit form (whereas in the past the explicit character of the action would have been accounted a virtue, and any attempt to conceal official actions would be thought base and ignoble). In the pre-modern world, then, a violent effort was made to close the gap between political appearance and political reality. Given the role of the weaponization of eliminationism in maintaining depredations below the threshold of atrocity, such brutal methods are no longer countenanced, but there is more than a single means to the same end.

The means employed today are precisely the opposite of the means employed in the past: instead of seeking to close the gap between appearance and reality, the contemporary nation-state exploits the gap between appearance and reality to its fullest, creating an unbridgeable chasm between appearance and reality as the gap is rent ever wider. The kinder, gentler methods of persuasion and social imposition (if not imposture) are entirely consistent with the most flagrant contradiction between appearance and reality, and the fact that there is any gap between the two can be attributed to precisely the humane methods employed by the contemporary nation-state to achieve the perennial ends of state power.

The nation-state can no longer force its citizens to be virtuous and good with the ruthless brutality employed in the past, but it can pass a plethora of laws that attempt to control behavior, both employing distributive justice to favor those who place the needs of the nation-state before their own, and retributive justice to penalize those to have advanced their interests before those of the nation-state. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be safe, but it can create an endless stream of rules and regulations that give the appearance that something proactive is being done to ensure safety of its citizens. The nation-state cannot force its citizens to be obedient to any principle, but it can supplement its byzantine code of laws with elaborately detailed rules and regulations that effectively box in the agency of the individual until one is effectively hamstrung and one’s freedom dies the death of a thousand cuts, none of which taken in isolation is fatal.

The need to cooperate with democratic forms of governance, when politically powerful individuals run up against the limits of engineering consent, requires that democratic forms be respected as far — and only as far — as is necessary to maintain the machinery of state power intact. This may entail saying things to the masses that one patently does not believe, giving “red meat” speeches in order to get elected, placating powerful constituencies with symbolic yet impotent legislation, all of which must be entered on the “appearance” side of the ledger of political authority. There is, in all of these efforts, something of plausible deniability (which is just another way of saying, “lying with a straight face and a good conscience”). We only require plausible deniability when we have already determined our hypocrisy in advance and want to ensure its success to the greatest extent possible.

Any glaring gap between appearance and reality, although sustainable and consistent with the ongoing existence of the nation-state, can become an invitation to charges of hypocrisy — and have we not been witness to spectacular hypocrisy? In a world in which authenticity has intrinsic value, hypocrisy is among the greatest of sins. People today seek authenticity not out of any sense of duty or obedience to a higher moral standard; people seek authenticity to satisfy a visceral need. This visceral need for authenticity is expressed in relation to political authority as it is in all dimensions of life, and it is the “higher truth” to which appeal is made in explaining away the very hypocrisy that is an insult to the feeling of authenticity. Hypocrisy must be transformed into a sacrament of political theology, and this is the function of representative institutions. Political representatives believe nothing on their own account, according to this account of popular sovereignty; they are mere instruments in the hands of their constituents, who are the source of the authenticity that the political authority invokes.

The idea that truth is to be found at the source was for classical antiquity and the medieval world what authenticity is for the modern world. Indeed, authenticity is the modern permutation of the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, and that the later accretions of time and history only obscure the purity to be found at the source. But authenticity has about it an ineliminable sense of loss and nostaligia, and while the ideas of loss and nostalgia were not absent in ancient and medieval civilization, the character was different. Authenticity is the knowledge of loss, and of its irreparability; truth found at the fons et origo of the world is coupled with a belief that this source is still accessible. We know better now. Even if truth is to be found at the source being, we know ourselves to the alienated from this source, and that there is no going back.

Knowing that we cannot have the reality from which we are alienated, we accept the substitute realities that are, for us, as close as we are going to get to source of being. For true political authority that can trace its legitimacy and justification to the same source of the world from which all things derive, we accept the best that we can do in terms of political authority. What remains, when we have stripped away all vestiges of political authority that relied upon the legitimacy and justification traced back to an ultimate but now alienated source, is the political order of the state for its own sake. The practical implementation of the state for its own sake is the state bureaucracy that continues the state in existence from day to day by its unimaginative but implacable methods.

The bureaucratic expression of the nation-state is the permanent nation-state — it is the reality of the nation-state, the truth of the nation-state — because the bureaucratic structures, and, more often than not, the particular individuals who staff these bureaucratic structures, remain and continuously shape the life of the nation-state even while executive administrations come and go. We all know, of course, that in democratic nation-states there is virtually no difference between the political parties and candidates who vie to fill the temporary positions of the revolving executive power; their identity is a function of their derivation from the permanent bureaucratic nation-state.

Given the revolving door that shuffles individuals between elective office, appointed positions, and bureaucratic employment, the temporary administrations that come and go are largely drawn from the bureaucratic positions within the permanent government, and appointed members of various government commissions often remain across changing administrations, with the result being that the attempt to limit governmental authority through the separation of powers has simply multiplied the forms of the bureaucratic state, and made the permanent bureaucracy the center of gravity in the system of government.

That the truth of the bureaucratic nation-state is no enchanting vision, but rather a petty and grubbing careerism undertaken in the name of the people is disappointing but not necessarily hypocritical. One might even stretch one’s conception careerism so far that it transforms vile and base motives into legitimacy and justification, like the philosopher’s stone, which was supposed to have the power to transmute base metals into gold. This is metaphor, in case you didn’t notice.

But what, asked Pilate, is truth? And what is the truth of the nation-state? Another perennial theme of western metaphysics, besides that of appearance and reality, is that of Veritas est adæquatio intellectus et rei (a venerable piece of Thomist Scholasticism). This is the closest thing to consensus in the history of philosophy as to what constitutes truth. Here is Saint Thomas’ exposition of this definition of truth — the mutual adequacy of mind and thing — in its locus classicus:

Consequently, truth or the true has been defined in three ways. First of all, it is defined according to that which precedes truth and is the basis of truth. This is why Augustine writes: “The true is that which is”; and Avicenna: “The truth of each thing is a property of the act of being which has been established for it.” Still others say: “The true is the undividedness of the act of existence from that which is.” Truth is also defined in another way—according to that in which its intelligible determination is formally completed. Thus, Isaac writes: “Truth is the conformity of thing and intellect”; and Anselm: “Truth is a rectitude perceptible only by the mind.” This rectitude, of course, is said to be based on some conformity. The Philosopher says that in defining truth we say that truth is had when one affirms that “to be which is, and that not to be which is not.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Question 1, Article I

Note the the first definition given is the idea of truth as the fons et origo. And the same again more briefly…

“Truth is ‘the conformity of thing and intellect.’ But since this conformity can be only in the intellect, truth is only in the intellect.”

Thomas Aquinas, On Truth, Article II

The truth of the nation-state is the conformity of the nation-state to the intellect — but to what intellect? Obviously, the mind of mass man.

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It was the Romanian expatriate writer E. M. Cioran writing in French (and translated into English by the indefatigable Richard Howard) who first made me aware of Joseph-Marie, Comte de Maistre. Cioran’s Anathemas and Admirations has a chapter on de Maistre, the latter himself an intemperate expatriate gifted with a literary style so powerful that it wins the reader’s attention for doctrines so marginal as to be laughable — if only they had not been taken so deadly seriously by men who have died for them. But not everything in de Maistre is as trivial or marginal as his monarchism and his defense of the Ancien Régime.

Along with Edmund Burke, de Maistre (when he is remembered today) is remembered as a proto-conservative, staking out positions that would later become doctrinaire among conservative thinkers. Both were great stylists, but Burke was really a poet — did he not write one of the eighteenth-century tracts on the sublime that gentlemen of good taste wrote in those times? — while de Maistre was an original, ruthless, and brutal thinker, i.e., he was everything that a philosopher ought to be. But today de Maistre is held in low opinion because of his at times virulent racism (as though this were worse than virulent monarchism, or virulent sexism, etc.).

There are two sides of the coin of ad hominem arguments: either love or hatred of a man can lead us to embrace or reject his ideas. We need to try to see beyond both de Maistre’s fearsome if not untouchable reputation and the beauty of this style, if we are to engage with de Maistre the thinker — and this is a task worth the effort, because de Maistre has some interesting ideas that deserve exposition. His low reputation today might lead us to ignore these ideas, or his literary style might lead us to assent to ideas that, while interesting, certainly do not deserve our assent.

The intransigence of de Maistre invites the reader to shout back at him, even to shout him down, with a long and detailed catalog of the absurdities that have been perpetrated upon the world by men who believed in the doctrines that de Maistre defends. I doubt any of this would have made the slightest impression on de Maistre, whose own obvious contempt for such an approach comes across in every dismissive formulation that is presented as though no counter-veiling principle were even possible, even thinkable. With such a mind it would be utterly irrelevant to debate details; I have no doubt that de Maistre would have dismissed every challenge to his examples and instances with a contemptuous wave of the hand and a disapproving expression. In reading de Maistre, therefore, it behooves us to think only in terms of principles.

What are de Maistre’s principles? What is the essence of de Maistre’s thought? It is easy to take the wrong lesson from such a vigorous and expressive writer. The least imaginative and least creative among us read the likes of Burke and de Maistre and believe that they have found the whole meaning in a blueprint for contemporary society. But this is a mere detail, an accident of historical circumstances that might be construed in dramatically different ways in different periods of human history. What is of the essence of de Maistre’s thought is something not at all obvious, and it is his finitistic perspective.

I have previously quoted from de Maistre’s An Essay on the Generative Principle of Constitutions — a short, incisive, and suggestive work, i.e., everything that a philosophical work should be — in Fairness and the Social Contract and Why Revolutions Happen. Comte de Maistre begins his Essay by recounting the counter-intuitive nature of political science, citing several examples of putative political “common sense” and how experience has shown these to be “disastrous.” This points to an unexpected empiricism in de Maistre’s thought. Echoing but altering Thucydides’ famous aphorism, history is philosophy teaching by example, de Maistre wrote that history is experimental politics.

In the preface to his Essay, de Maistre anonymously quotes his own Considerations on France, Chap. VI. Following is how the two passages appear, first in Considerations on France:

1. No government results from a deliberation; popular rights are never written, or at least constitutive acts or written fundamental laws are always only declaratory statements of anterior rights, of which nothing can be said other than that they exist because they exist.

2. God, not having judged it proper to employ supernatural means in this field, has limited himself to human means of action, so that in the formation of constitutions circumstances are all and men are only part of the circumstances. Fairly often, even, in pursuing one object they achieve another, as we have seen in the English constitution.

And this is how they appear, in a slightly revised form, in de Maistre’s Essay:

1. No constitution arises from deliberation. The rights of the people are never written, except as simple restatements of previous, unwritten rights.

2. [In the formation of constitutions] human action is so far circumscribed that the men who act become only circumstances. [It is even very common that in pursuing a certain end they attain another.] 3. The rights of the PEOPLE, properly so called, proceed almost always from the concessions of sovereigns and thus may be definitely fixed in history, but no one can ascertain the date or the authors of the rights of the monarch and the aristocracy.

This in itself, in its most tightly circumscribed formulation, I cannot reject — human action is most certainly circumscribed, and unintended consequences often outweigh intended consequences. Indeed, de Maistre’s thought here closely echoes my own formulations in terms of the permutations of human agency, and in so doing de Maistre reveals his eschatological conception of history, affirming non-human agency as the source of political constitutions.

Further to this eschatological conception, Comte de Maistre quotes the theologian Bergier:

Law is only truly sanctioned, and properly law, when assumed to emanate from a higher will, so that its essential quality is to be not the will of all [la volonte de tous]. Otherwise, laws would be mere ordinances. As the author just quoted states, “those who were free to make these conventions have not deprived themselves of the power of revocation, and their descendants, with no share in making these regulations, are bound even less to observe them.”

Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions and other Human Institutions, M. the Count de Maistre, the citation is from Bergier, Traite historique et dogmatique de la Religion, III, ch. 4 (after Tertullian, Apologeticus, 45)

Bergier has here put his finger on something important, though of course the lesson I take from it is rather different than the lesson that de Maistre takes from it. The same idea finds a very different expression in Gibbon, and I have quoted this several times:

“In earthly affairs, it is not easy to conceive how an assembly equal of legislators can bind their successors invested with powers equal to their own.”

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. VI, Chapter LXVI, “Union Of The Greek And Latin Churches.–Part III.

I have called this Gibbon’s Principle of Inalienable Autonomy for Political Entities, or, more briefly, Gibbon’s Principle. Bergier and de Maistre invoke a distinction between laws and ordinances, with ordinances being mere human things subject to change, while laws are laid up in heaven. This is de Maistre’s realism.

The political theologizing of de Maistre is what is most predictable and least interesting in his thought; it only becomes interesting as a consequence of his finitism. The implications of de Maistre’s finitism, once extrapolated to its logical conclusion throughout his political thought, converges upon a radical finitism in political science, and this I cannot accept or endorse. More interesting than his theologizing is de Maistre’s political realism — and by “realism” I do not mean that “political realism” used in discussions of policy, that prides itself on its rejection of humanitarianism and of moral and political ideals, but de Maistre’s Platonic realism in politics that, on the contrary, raises up moral and political ideals as the only true reality.

The strong position de Maistre takes on ineffability is related to his Platonic realism: constitutions are real in a Platonic sense, but our knowledge of them is imperfect, and if we try to write them down we will only get it wrong, much as a mathematician using a compass to draw a circle inscribes only an imperfect image of a circle that represents, for pedagogical reasons, the “real” and “true” circle to which the imperfect drawing refers. The harder we try to inscribe a perfect circle, the more we are going to depart from the Platonic form of a circle, and the more we try to write down the perfect constitution, the more it departs from the Platonic form of a constitution. In de Maistre, written law is not only derivative of unwritten law, i.e., the mere appearance or a more fundamental reality, but it is, moreover, always wrong because the unwritten fundamental reality is essentially ineffable.

This is how de Maistre himself formulates it in his Essay:

1. The fundamental principles of political constitutions exist prior to all written law.

2. Constititional law is and can only be the development or sanction of a pre-existing and unwritten law.

3. What is most essential, most inherently constitutional and truly fundamental law is never written, and could not be, without endangering the State.

4. The weakness and fragility of a constitution are actually in direct proportion to the number of written constitutional articles.

This is really quite close to Brouwer’s intuitionism; indeed, we might call de Maistre’s thought intuitionistic political science. Both Brouwer and de Maistre place a strong emphasis on the ineffability of experience, and the ways in which language misleads and falsifies, but de Maistre’s ineffability is predicated upon realism while Brouwer was what we might call a proto-anti-realist. Intuitionism after Brouwer went on to inspire a generation of philosophers to formulate anti-realist positions that owe much to Brouwer’s inspiration.

Thus de Maistre’s realism coupled with finitism and an eschatological conception of history stake out a unique (or nearly unique) position in the history of thought. It would be entirely possible to formulate this Platonic realism in politics in an infinitistic context (just as de Maistre could have justified his finitism according to other conceptions but in fact chose to justify it in theological terms, invoking an eschatological conception of history), but de Maistre is thoroughly finitistic in his orientation.

Comte de Maistre uses an eschatological conception of history to provide the ideological superstructure of justify his theological exposition of finite human agency, but he could make the same point invoking a cataclysmic conception of history or a naturalistic conception of history. Even a modified and qualified formulation of the political conception of history, which makes human agency fundamental and central to history, would be consistent with de Maistre’s finitism, so that the theological justification, however much weight de Maistre himself might have attached to it, is of little intrinsic interest. The point I am making is that de Maistre’s theology is dispensable in defining his theory, while de Maistre’s finitism is indispensable.

Joseph de Maistre’s finitistic political theory represents something of an antithesis to an infinitistic conception of political society such as I outlined in what I called Gödel’s Lesson for Geopolitics (and something I touched upon again in Addendum on Technological Unemployment).

I hope to return to this idea in future posts, and to be able to show why this is important, because I know that this sounds rather recondite and marginal, but it is neither. One of the most persistent themes of Western historiography in the modern period is the idea of progress, which is attacked at least as often as it is put forward as an interpretation of history (not long ago in Progress, Stagnation, and Retrogression I mentioned my surprise that Kevin Kelly offered an explicit defense of historical progress in his book What Technology Wants). A finitistic conception of history knows nothing of progress; we must have an infinitistic conception of history before the idea of progress can even have meaning for us. This, however, is a complex idea that requires many qualifications and therefore independent exposition. I will leave that for another day.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Human Future after Geopolitics:


The Large Scale Structure of Political Societies

Some time ago in The Fundamental Theorem of Geopolitical Thought I formulated just such a theorem as follows: Human agency is constrained by geography. While geopolitics must remain central to understanding contemporaneous political thought, this will not always be so. The time will come when we will, of necessity, pass beyond geopolitics.

In many posts in which I have discussed the extraterrestrialization of terrestrial civilization (cf. e.g., Addendum on Extraterrestrialization and The Farther Reaches of Civilization) and the advent of Copernican civilization (cf. e.g., Civilization and the Technium and Earth Science, Planetary Science, Space Science) I have clearly implied that, as civilization expands off the surface of the earth, the political life of man will be forced to change in order to keep pace with these events, much as human societies have been forced to change rapidly as a result of the industrial revolution and its consequences. It does not matter how desperately those heavily-invested in the present global order will resist this change: the change will come if industrial-technological civilization continues its trajectory and does not succumb to existential risks.

If the political structure of extraterrestrialized civilization will be described by a future science of astropolitics, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be formulated as concisely as my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and it would be formulated thus:

Human agency is constrained by the structure of space.

This is a straightforward generalization of my fundamental theorem of geopolitics, and as that theorem can be summarized as geography matters, the fundamental theorem of astropolitics can be similarly summarized as space matters.

The generalization of the scope of human agency from geography to the structure of space itself suggests that we also ought to generalize beyond the human, since by the time earth-originating civilization is an extraterrestrial civilization human beings will have become transhuman or post-human, and in the fullness of time homo sapiens will be followed by successor species. Thus…

Human and human-successor agency is constrained by the structure of space.

However, since this formulation of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics would hold for any peer civilization, there is no reason to limit the formulation to human beings, human successors, or earth-originating life. Thus…

Any conscious agency is constrained by the structure of space.

It is even superfluous to mention the qualification of “conscious” agency, since any naturalistic agency whatsoever is and will be constrained by the structure of space (supernatural agencies as comprehended in eschatological conceptions of history would presumably not be constrained by space). However, since our concern at present is to understand the large scale structure of political societies, we are concerned with those agents that represent peer industrial-technological civilizations that might establish (or have already established) a (peer) civilization beyond the surface of their homeworld.

Despite the many different formulations that might be given to the fundamental theorem of astropolitics, depending on the degree of generalization to be embodied in the formulation, all of these generalizations are intuitively continuous with the fundamental theorem of geopolitics, as well they ought to be. The geographical and topographical features that are central to geopolitical thought are the local structures of space corresponding to the human epistemic and perceptual order of magnitude. When the growth of civilization forces the parallel expansion of human epistemic and perceptual orders of magnitude, the structure of space itself will concern us more than the local mountain ranges, rivers, and deserts that now shape our terrestrial strategic thought.

The structural similarity between the fundamental theorem of geopolitics and the fundamental theorem of astropolitics masks the profound transformation of human political life that will come about in the event that human civilization expands to the degree that astropolitical thought will better describe strategic agency than geopolitical thought. A robust, self-sustaining human presence off the surface of the earth will impact human political societies so dramatically that it will eventually mean the end of the nation-state system. Such a change in human political thought will develop over more than a century, and will probably require two or three centuries to be fully assimilated throughout human civilization.

In my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to describe the peculiar form of dishonesty that is employed in political thought that is to be found when our political ideas do not keep up with actual political developments:

…not every political entity that has a seat at the table at the United Nations conforms to the paradigm of the nation-state; some are more state, others more nation, yet others falling under neither category. Feudal monarchies rub elbows with republics and city-states, none of them representing any genuine national aspirations of a people or peoples for self-determination.

If the United Nations had existed in the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire would have been a member; if the United Nations had existed in the nineteenth century the Austro-Hungarian Empire would have been a member state. These empires are long since dissolved, but we can easily imagine that had the UN been in existence at the time of their dissolution these events would have been characterized in apocalyptic terms and attended with much hand wringing.

And if the dissolution of individual nation-states causes the level of distress one sees in the international system, it should be apparent that the end of the nation-state system itself will be viewed by some as a catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. However, it will take some time for the change to be noticed, which I also noted in my Political Economy of Globalization:

In the distant future, there will be, of course, political entities that will be called states. But the modern nation-state, eponymously defined in terms of nationhood, but in fact defined in terms of territorial sovereignty, cannot survive in its present form to be among the political entities of the future. Perhaps the new political entities will be called nation-states, as a holdover from our own time, but they will not have the character of nation-states any more than the Ottoman Empire had the character of a nation-state. While the latter was an identifiable state, to be sure, it was not a nation-state.

Conventional contemporary political and social science scarcely ever questions the role of the nation-state in human affairs (as though it were a permanent feature of civilization, which it is not), but we are under no obligation to allow these conventional limitations upon political imagination constrain our own formulations. It is enough to be constrained by the structure of space; there is no need to voluntarily burden oneself with additional constraints.

But we must unquestionably begin with the nation-state as the source of our present political situation, because all that follows in the future from the present situation will follow from the familiar nation-state system and the political thought of our time that privileges the nation-state system. The human, all-too-human scale of the nation-state system is the political parallel of the human, all-too-human scale of the geographical and topographical obstacles that are the present boundaries to human agency.

There is story I can’t resist repeating here about practical geopolitics, which is what military operations in the age of the nation-state represent. It is, in fact, a story within a story, as related by Hermann von Kuhl of Alfred von Schlieffen:

“He lived exclusively for his work and his great tasks. I remember how we once travelled through the night from Berlin to Insterburg, where the great staff ride was to begin. General Schheffen travelled with his aide-de-camp. In the morning the train left Königsberg and entered the Pregel valley, which was basking prettily in the rays of the rising sun. Up to then not a word had been spoken on the journey. Daringly the A.D.C. tried to open a conversation and pointed to the pleasant scene. ‘An insignificant obstacle,’ said the Graf — and conversational demands until Insterburg were therewith met.”


Schlieffen’s single-minded focus on geographical features as exclusively representing opportunities or obstacles for campaigning — features that for others might represent aesthetics objects, or any kind of object significant in human experience — demonstrates geopolitical thought as at once practical and abstract. It is possible for geopolitics to be practical and abstract at the same time because the abstractions it considers are features like “insignficant obstacle,” while it takes no account of features such as “pleasant scene.” Astropolitics will be practical and abstract in the same way, although its objects will not be objects of ordinary human experience such as “insignificant obstacle” or “pleasant scene.”

The magnification of the scale of human concerns in astropolitics will not merely involve a larger canvas for human ambition, but will also introduce complexities not represented at the geopolitical scale. On the level of ordinary human experience time and space can be treated in isolation from each other, so that we have history and geography as abstract conceptions; at the higher energy levels, greater distances, higher speeds, and greater gravitational influences of a much-expanded spacefaring civilization, space and time will of necessity be treated together as space-time.

After I first formulated my fundamental theorem on geopolitical thought I followed it with two additional principles, the second law of geopolitics

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

…and the third law of geopolitics

Human agency is essentially a temporal agency.

As I had summarized the fundamental theorem of geopolitical thought as geography matters, I summarized the third law of geopolitical thought as history matters. As we have seen above, the large scale structure of the universe must be understood in terms of space-time, meaning that we cannot isolate cosmological geography from cosmological history. History and geography on a cosmological scale are even more intimately bound up in each other than they are on the human, all-too-human scale of terrestrial politics.

This suggests a further generalization of the fundamental theorem of astropolitics:

Human agency (or any conscious agency) is constrained by space-time.

History and geography have always been intimately tied together, and his, of course, is one of the great lessons of geopolitics, that geography shapes history. It is also true, has been true, that history shapes geography, but the forces by which the history of life on earth have shaped geography have occurred on a timescale that is not apparent to human perception.

In a future political science of astropolitics, we will have a history that reflects the large scale structure of the cosmos, and a large scale structure of the cosmos that reflects the history of the universe. While human agency (or other conscious agents) has not yet acted on a scale to have shaped the initial 13.7 billion years of cosmic history, if our civilization or its successor institutions should endure, its history could well shape the large scale structure of space-time.

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bodies superimposed on stars

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Arthur William Russell (b.1872 – d.1970)

In 1948, shortly after the end of the Second World War and the first use of atomic weapons, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled, “The Future of Man”, apparently published in The Atlantic in 1951 (and subsequently collected in Russell’s Unpopular Essays). Russell opened his essay with a sweeping prediction:

Before the end of the present century, unless something quite unforeseeable occurs, one of three possibilities will have been realized. These three are: —

1. The end of human life, perhaps of all life on our planet.

2. A reversion to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of the population of the globe.

3. A unification of the world under a single government, possessing a monopoly of all the major weapons of war.

I do not pretend to know which of these will happen, or even which is the most likely. What I do contend is that the kind of system to which we have been accustomed cannot possibly continue.

Russell numbered three possibilities for the future, but there is a fourth, which we can call the zeroeth possibility: something quite unforeseeable. Russell left himself an out, but even with the out, I will argue, he got it wrong.

In any case, here are Russell’s four possibilities, which closely correspond to several categories of futurism hotly debated at the present time:

● 0th scenario: unforeseeable developments — this is Russell’s singularity, i.e., the occurrence of an event so discontinuous with previous history that it results in a “prediction wall” that prevents us from seeing or understanding subsequent historical developments.

● 1st scenario: human extinction — following the use of nuclear weapons to end the Second World War, Russell (like Jaspers and other contemporaneous philosophers) was fully aware of anthropogenic existential risks, of which human extinction from nuclear war is a paradigm case, so this is one of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.

● 2nd scenario: global catastrophic failure — Russell identified a two-fold global catastrophic event — drastic diminution of the human population followed by a return to barbarism — which obviously followed from his concern that the next war would be so catastrophic as to end civilization (this is a scenario that also worried Einstein, who famously said that, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but world War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”). Whether we consider this a global catastrophic risk, or a form of subsequent ruination, this is another of Russell’s qualitative risk categories.

● 3rd scenario: world government — again like Einstein, Russell was an advocate for world government, and thought it likely the only means by which we could escape our own destruction. In the immediate post-war period, when the US had a nuclear monopoly, Russell actually advocated that the US should use its nuclear monopoly to assert global hegemony and enforce a world government. Later, Russell was to become much more well known for protesting against nuclear weapons, being sharply critical of the Cold War, and writing telegrams to both Khrushchev and Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It seems to me beyond dispute that human life has not come to an end (Russell’s 1st scenario), that human society has not reverted to barbarism after a catastrophic diminution of population (Russell’s 2nd scenario), the world has not been unified under a single government (Russell’s 3rd scenario), and nothing quite unforeseen has happened (Russell’s 0th scenario). It is important to spell this out, being entirely explicit about it, because it is easy to imagine that any or all four of these possibilities might be disputed.

Of the strictly quantifiable predictions, any disputant would really have to tie themselves in knots in order to maintain the human beings have gone extinct or that there has been a catastrophic diminution of population. Only the philosophically desperate would attempt to argue that human life, as we knew it in 1951, has ended forever, or that the seven billion souls alive today somehow do not represent a much larger human population than in 1948. However, I must pause to say this, because there clearly are philosophically desperate disputants who are willing to make claims precisely of this character. But having explicitly acknowledged these strategies of desperation, I will henceforth dismiss them and consider them no further, except in so far as the bear upon the other scenarios.

It could be argued, and it has been argued, that the result of the resolution of the Cold War (which did occur before the end of the century in which Russell was writing) was the installation of US global hegemony as a de facto world government. It has also been argued by conspiracy theorists that there is in fact a world government operating behind the scenes, but not in any public and explicit fashion. It might also be argued that the UN and its associated international agencies (like the International Criminal Court) constitute a nascent world government that will someday coalesce into something more robust and capable of exercising authority. Sometimes these latter theses — government by conspiracy and the UN as world government — are merged together into a single claim.

Even if any or all of these claims are true, none of them have accomplished what was central to Russell’s concern for the future: the abolition of war. Near the end of the same essay Russell wrote:

Owing to the increased productivity of labor, it has become possible to devote a larger percentage of the population to war. If atomic energy were to make production easier, the only effect, as things are, would be to make wars worse, since fewer people would be needed for producing necessaries. Unless we can cope with the problem of abolishing war, there is no reason whatever to rejoice in laborsaving technique, but quite the reverse. On the other hand, if the danger of war were removed, scientific technique could at last be used to promote human happiness. There is no longer any technical reason for the persistence of poverty, even in such densely populated countries as India and China. If war no longer occupied men’s thoughts and energies, we could, within a generation, put an end to all serious poverty throughout the world.

The conspiracy theorists argue that war is part of the plan of subduing the global population, but this isn’t at all the kind of world government that Russell had in mind. When Russell and Einstein wrote about world government in the middle part of the twentieth century, they implicitly had in mind the Weberian conception of sovereignty, i.e., a legal monopoly on violence. Both Russell and Einstein wanted to see a single military power that would beneficently impose its unilateral will upon the world so that we would not see the perpetuation of armed conflict between nation-states.

This did not happen, nor did anything like it happen. On the contrary, the second half of the twentieth century demonstrated the possibility of a state of near-permanent armed conflict as definitive of the world order. In order for this to happen, something did come about, which I have called the devolution of warfare — that is to say, parties to conflicts throughout the world realized that nuclear war could lead to global catastrophic risks, so everyone decided to continue to make war, but to do so without atomic weapons. This way human beings could indulge to the full their love of war and violence without making themselves extinct (and thereby ending the fun for everyone).

This brings us to Russell’s 0th scenario: has the devolution of warfare constituted something quite unforeseeable? Not in my judgment. The devolution of warfare is a negative historical development, involving the suppression or limitation of human agency and capabilities previously demonstrated. The limitation of a demonstrated human capability represents a retrograde development, and I don’t think retrograde developments of this kind rise to the level of constituting a singularity in history.

If anything, the development and use of nuclear weapons constituted an historical singularity, therefore creating a “prediction wall,” so that the deliberate tradition of non-use represents a step back from an historical singularity and a return to predictability. Indeed, what some scholars have called “the return of history” might also be called “the return of predictability” in the sense of being a return to the predictable behavior of nation-states in anarchic competition employing conventional weapons.

It could be argued that what Russell did not see was that at precisely the time he was writing his essay a world order of sorts was being forged, in the post-war agreements on economics at Bretton-Woods and on political matters at Yalta — and, as importantly, if not more importantly, how these explicitly formulated agreements were worked out in practice, sometimes through open warfare, and usually through superpower competition, as in the Berlin Airlift. This de facto world order essentially held throughout the period that Russell considered in his essay — the second half of the twentieth century. Since the actually working out of these agreements in practice was as essential as the agreements themselves, we cannot blame Russell for a lack of prescience in not recognizing in Bretton-Woods and Yalta the foundations of the post-war world. And I don’t think that anything in that war-torn whilst stable post-war world could be said to have fulfilled any of Russell’s predictions.

Now that the post-war world that Russell failed to recognize as it was taking shape has finally become unraveled, we find ourselves once again contemplating the future with great uncertainty, and asking ourselves about the possibilities of radical historical discontinuity (i.e., a singularity), global catastrophic risks, existential risks, and world governance. Dante similarly found himself asking questions of this sort just at the very earliest moment when the scholastic synthesis of the medieval world was beginning to unravel — not only did Dante consider eschatological scenarios that would have constituted a singularity, global catastrophic risks, and existential risks, but also considered world government in his De Monarchia. But Dante was a great poet, and great poets are sensitive souls, and are likely to hear the rumbling on the horizon even when the rest of us are blissfully unaware.

Perhaps whenever the world finds itself at a point of historical transition, grand narratives of transition are contemplated — but in the final analysis (the Hegelian analysis, in which the owl of Minerva takes flight only with the setting of the sun) we usually end up muddling through in the best human tradition, rarely realizing any grand narrative.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Syrian civil war

As Syria continues its slide from insurgency into civil war, and no one any longer expects the ruling Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad to triumph, it is an appropriate moment in history to reflect upon the fall of tyrants and tyrannical regimes. Not that we haven’t had ample opportunity to do so in recent years. The fall of the Soviet Union in the late twentieth century and the fall of a series of Arab dictators in recent years has given us all much material for reflection (chronicled in posts such as Cognitive Dissonance Among the Apologists for Tyranny and Two Thoughts on Libya Nearing Liberation).


I have previously written about Syria in Things fall apart, Open Letter in the FT on Syria, The Structures of Autocratic Rule, and What will Assad do when he goes to Ground? Much more remains to be said, on Syria in particular and on the collapse of tyrants generally.

Bashar al-Assad

The obvious problems of governmental succession in Syria are already being discussed ad nauseam in the press. That there is trouble on the horizon is evident to all who carefully follow the developments of the region in which Syria is a central nation-state, bordering no fewer than five nation-states: Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east, Jordan to the south and Israel to the southwest. This centrality of Syria in a politically unstable region has led the surrounding regional powers to favor the devil they know rather than to chance the devil they know not. The ruling Alawite regime of Syria has been held in place not only by its own brutality, but also by the tacit consent of its neighbors. Now that the fall of the al-Assad dynasty is in sight, there are legitimate worries about the radicalization of the insurgents and the role of Islamist Jihadis in the insurgency. No one knows what will come out of this toxic stew, but it is likely to resemble a failed state even upon its inception.


At this moment in history, Syria is now the bellweather for the fall of tyrants, but Syria is only the current symptom of an ancient problem that goes back to the dawn of state power in human history. Since the earliest emergence of absolute state power in agricultural civilization, for the first time in human history sufficiently wealthy to support a standing army that could be employed by turns to oppress a tyrant’s own people or as an instrument to conquer and oppress other peoples, there has been a tension between the ability of absolute power to effectively exercise this absolute power to maintain itself in power and the ability of rivals or of subject peoples to wrest this power from the hands of absolute rulers and seize it for themselves.


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the institutions of tyrannical political rule are not sustainable. Tyrannical rule may be sustainable for the life of a tyrant, or for a few generations of a dynasty established by a tyrant, but history teaches us that tyrannical longevity is the exception and not the rule. The more onerous the rule of the tyrant, the more other factions will risk to overthrow the tyrant. A tyrant who sufficiently modifies his tyranny until it is approximately representative is likely to last much longer in power, and over time approximates non-tyrannical rule. But if a tyrant simply cuts a few others in on the spoils, creating a tyrannical oligarchy, the same considerations apply. In the long term, only popular rule is sustainable.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,

But what does this mean to say that in the long term only popular rule is sustainable? The learned reader at this point in likely to begin a recitation of the failings of democracy, but I didn’t say that only democratic regimes persist. Unfortunately for most human beings throughout history, the fall of a tyrant has not resulted in democracy. The most vicious tyrannies call forth the most vicious elements in the population as the only agents willing to risk the overthrow of the tyrant, and so one tyrant is likely to be replaced by another. Even if a popular revolt and revulsion helped to topple the previous tyranny, the new tyranny reverts to perennial tyrannical form, and in so doing eventually alienates the popular movement that installed it in place of the previous tyranny.

This is a particular case of what I have called The Failure Cycle, since this pattern can be iterated. Much of human history has consisted of just such an iteration of petty tyrants, one following the other. That nothing is accomplished politically by the churning of tyrannical regimes should be obvious. There is no social evolution, no social growth, no strengthening of institutions that can provide continuity beyond the vagaries of personal rule.

Thus one consequence of the fact that only popular rule is sustainable is the possibility of an endless iteration of popular movements to overthrow serial tyranny, each tyrant in turn having been installed by a popular uprising. This constitutes a perverse kind of “popular” rule, though it is not often recognized as such or called as much.

Tyrannical regimes typically bend every effort in order to suppress, or at very least to delay, social change. The suppression and delay of social change means that societies laboring under tyrannical regimes — and especially those that have labored under a sequence of tyrannical regimes — have little opportunity to allow social change to come to maturity and for old institutions to be allowed to die while new institutions rise to take their place. Cynics will opine that there is no social evolution in human history, but I deny this. Social evolution is possible, if rare, but the conditions that lead to serial tyranny and serial popular uprisings are not conducive to the cultivation of social evolution.

It is the historical exception to interrupt this vicious cycle of serial tyranny and serial popular uprising, but it takes time for informal social institutions to reach the level of maturity that allows a popular uprising to install a genuine democracy instead of a tyrant who claims to be a democrat out of political expediency.

Homo non facit saltus. Man makes no leaps. We cannot skip a stage in our social evolution. We cannot impose democratic institutions, or freedom, or even prosperity. A people must come to it on their own, with the maturation of their native institutions, or not at all.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Anarchy is the absence of law. In the contemporary international nation-state system there is law internal to nation-states but no law between nation states. In other words, international relations between nation-states is anarchic. While political science types will occasionally admit this explicitly, mostly reasons are found not to talk about this anarchic dimension of the international system, because it is something of an embarrassment. There are, of course, contemporary attempts to create true international law, with institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC), but we know that such institutions are powerless before recalcitrant nation-states. International institutions have no threat of force behind them, and therefore cannot enforce their writ. Moreover, if they did have force, they would have to have more force than the most powerful nation-state in the world; without preponderant force at their command, international institutions would be (and in fact are) defied by any nation-state with the power to do so.

Yet the anarchy of the international system is not a perfect absence of law — there is, as I have observed above, the ineffective law of toothless international institutions, but that is not all. There are international treaties between nation-states that have force because the nation-states signatory to these treaties are prepared to back them up with force. Treaties may be divided into those that are mere international showpieces with no force behind them, as is the case with most UN treaties, and those treaties which have the force that they do because signatories to the treaty are prepared to back them with force, such as is the case with NATO. In either of these two cases, power in the international system is still vested in the nation-state and not in the international institution. There are also constraints on the international system that might be characterized as customary.

Customary constraints on state power count for little in the long run, and even less in extremis, but they do figure prominently int he expectations that peoples have for the norms of the behaviors of nation-states. Not only can we distinguish between state and non-state actors in the international system, we can also distinguish (in parallel to this initial distinction) state-like actors and non-state-like actors. That is to say, certain behaviors are expected of the contemporary nation-state, even though these behaviors are routinely violated. (One way to define a “rogue state” would be to charge it with non-state-like behavior.)

One theme of contemporary geostrategic thought is China’s “peaceful rise” as a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community. (Cf., e.g., Three ‘nots’ characterize China’s peaceful rise) These innocuous and familiar little phrases embody many of the most obvious state-like expectations that we have for the behavior of a nation-state: among other virtues, nation-states should be peaceful and responsible. But nation-states do not advance their interests by being peaceful or by adhering to a notion of responsibility entertained by others. Most likely, nation-states — like individuals — will re-define anything they do in fact do as “responsible” after the fact.

A more accurate picture of state-like behavior is to be found in the words of Prince Felix of Schwarzenberg who said, following the Russian intervention in Hungary during the “Springtime of Nations” in 1848, that Austria would, “shock the world by the depth of its ingratitude.” This is what we should expect; if we are shocked, it is only because we have deceived ourselves.

Some thinkers not only impute state-like and non-state-like behavior to nation-states; some have so deceived themselves that they themselves believe that nation-states by and large adhere to supposedly state-like behavior. This gives rise to the idea of a “rogue” state, which is a nation-state that disregards expectations of state-like behavior. The speculation that North Korea has been behind counterfeit “supernotes” embodies an obvious violation of state-like expectations. In contrast, although we may disapprove, we will readily acknowledge that the acquisition of nuclear weapons is consistent with state-like behavior, while counterfeiting the currency of another nation-state is not considered an appropriate state-like behavior.

This account of state-like behavior could be made a little more fine-grained by distinguishing expected behaviors from different classes of nation-states. I cam imagine that some would be greatly offended by the very idea of classes of nation-states, but we all know (or should know, even if we don’t approve) that different standards are applied to different nation-states, and that no one begrudges the nuclear weapons of top-tier nation-states, but for a second tier nation-state it is considered unseemly to pursue nuclear weapons, while a tertiary nation-state that actively pursues a nuclear weapons program can expect to be sternly ostracized in the international community for this behavior. Thus we see that state-like expectations change according to the nation-state in question.

Notwithstanding routine and repeated flaunting of expectations about state-like behavior, there is a clear bias among strategic thinkers to assume not only that nation-states engage in state-like behavior, but even that non-state actors are vaguely state-like and that certain state-like behaviors are to be expected from non-state actors also. This bias of state-like expectations reflects a desire to see the world as one wishes it to be rather than to see it as it is in actual fact. I am going to call this bias the fallacy of state-like expectations. This fallacy is characterized by imagined social consensus in the anarchic international state system. The fallacy of state-like expectations means projecting centralization, hierarchy, and procedural rationality onto all political entities, whether or not the political entity in question is a nation-state.

Anyone with a capacity for critical thinking (the latter honored more in the breach than the observance) will not need to be reminded that the fallacy of state-like expectations is a fallacy, since they will know that not all political entities are nation-states, and even among nation-states there is no consensus in terms of state-like expectations. Or, rather, there is more than one consensus, and these expectations change over time.

Westerners are often more than a little shocked when they find themselves confronted with a different conception of the rule of law and the international system than meets with their expectations of state-like behavior, but the almost perfect antithesis of the international nation-state system as I have described it above is to be found with some regularity among nation-states who engage in systematic oppression of their own populations. According to the political conceptions of repressive nation-states — the worst offenders in this regard we would not hesitate to call “rogue states” — the political regime of a given nation-state has carte blanche within its own borders, an absolute Hobbesian freedom via-à-vis its own people, as long as it observes its international obligations and is a good citizen to its neighbors. Under this conception, what happens within the nation-state stays within the nation-state, and these “internal affairs” are sacrosanct.

Given this particularly brutal conception of the international political order, it is entirely plausible that nation-states — or, rather, the political elites that run roughshod over nation-states — would conspire with each other to mutually oppress their restive populations. Under this system one would expect to see one oppressive nation-state coming to the aid of another such nation-state in the event of a popular uprising. In fact, we see this quite commonly; we are seeing it now, at the present time, as Russia has come to the aid of Syria to assist Syria in putting down its popular rebellion, and we saw the same thing last year when Saudi Arabia sent assistance to Bahrain to help the Bahraini elites put down a popular Shia uprising (I discussed this in The Second Annual Arab Spring).

This “mutual oppression” as the essence of the international order — and one must understand that this is one permutation of the “law and order” mentality — exists side-by-side in the contemporary world with the antithetical conception of internally law-abiding nation-states bound by no constraints internationally in its relationships with other nation-states, which might be called the “mutually predatory” conception of the international system.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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