27 May 2014
A great deal of contemporary political stability — much more than we usually like to think — is predicated upon the careful management of public opinion and the engineering of consent. The masses that constitute mass society in an age of mass man have the vote, and as voters they play a role in the liberal democracies that populate Fukuyama’s end of history, but we must observe that the role the voters play in democracy is carefully circumscribed. (A perfect example of this is the lack of transparency built into the US electoral college, adding layers of procedural rationality between the voters and the outcome of the process.) There is always a tension in liberal democracies predicated upon the management of public opinion of how far and how hard the masses can be pushed. If they are pushed too hard, they riot, or they fail to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. If they are not pushed hard enough, or if they are not sufficiently fearful of authority, again, they might riot, or they might not work hard enough to keep the wheels of industry turning.
So political elites don’t push, they nudge. The nauseating paternalism of the “nudge” mentality among contemporary politicians (which, instead of being called “engineering consent,” which is a term that carries unfortunate connotations, is now called, “active engineering of choice architecture”) derived the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, seeks to apply the findings of behavioral economics to public policy decisions — with the proviso, of course, that it is the people in charge, the people who make public policy, who know best, and if we want a better world we need to give them a free hand to shape our choices. Unfortunately, the working class masses are not in a position to actively engineer the choice architecture of political leaders, although it is at least arguable that the political elite need an engineered choice architecture far more than the masses.
The European Union has been testing the boundaries of how far the European masses can be pushed (or nudged) to cooperate in bringing about the vision of a unified Europe, and with the Euroskeptics winning in many different regions of Europe, it appears that the European masses are pushing back by failing to cooperate with the dominant political paradigm. The political class of the European Union has just been handed a sharp rebuke that is a reminder of the limits of engineering consent, and they have been remarkably open and honest about it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on the BBC on the need for economic development, “This is the best answer to the disappointed people who voted in a way we didn’t wish for.”
This European openness about the failure of Europe’s political class to effectively engineer the consent of the governed for the political and economic programs planned by the political elite is an important corrective to the American tendency to see conspiracies and secret cabals behind every unexpected turn of events. In Europe, the politicians have been honest that they wanted one result, and the people gave a different result. French President François Hollande was quoted as saying he would, “reaffirm that the priority is growth, jobs and investment.” Why are Merkel and Hollande united in seeing the need for jobs and economic development? Because they know that workers making good wages and who see a future for themselves and their families will mostly let the politicians have their way. It is when times are not good that voters push back against the grandiose dreams of politicians that seem to have little or no practical benefit. Europe’s political class is well aware that if the European masses have growth, jobs, and investment that they will be far more compliant at election time.
However, Hollande also said of the Eurozone financial crisis (now apparently safely in the past) that Europe had survived, “but at what price? An austerity that has ended up disheartening the people.” This latter statement demonstrates the degree to which Hollande fails to understand What is going on even as the ground shifts beneath his feet. One must understand that when European politicians talk about “austerity” what they really mean is resisting unchecked deficit spending, which would then be justified on Keynesian grounds. (I earlier called this the Europeanese of the financial crisis.) It isn’t “austerity” that has disheartened the people; it is Europe that has disheartened the people, the Europe of the European Union, but this realization is almost impossible for true believers in the European idea.
The tension between the masses in representative democracies and their putative political representatives has become obvious and explicit with this EU election in which “Euroskeptics” have been the most successful candidates. This tension can also be understood by way a very simple thought experiment: If you really had a free choice to elect whomever you liked as your political leader(s), are the political representatives you have now the ones you would choose? I think that any honest answer to this question must be, “No.” And this leaves us with the further question as to how these “leaders” came into power if they are not the choice of the people. The answer is relatively simple: these where the leaders that the political system produced for the consumption of the public. The public isn’t happy with its leaders, and the leaders aren’t happy with the public, but they are stuck with each other.
There is a limit to the extent to which the disconnect between rulers and ruled can grow before a social system becomes unworkable. Early in this blog in Social Consensus in Industrialized Society I suggested that two paradigms for the social organization of industrial society had been tried and found wanting, and that we are today searching for a further paradigm of social consensus to supersede those that have failed us. The mutual alienation between political elites and working masses in the liberal democracies of today is a symptom of the lack of social consensus, but in so far as these classes of society feel stuck with each other we have not yet reached the limits of the disconnect.
However, this mutual alienation tells us something else that is interesting, and this is the continued role of mythological political visions in an age of apparent pragmatism. The alienation that lies at the root of what Eric Voegelin called “gnosticism” in politics is here revealed as the alienation of the leadership of a democratic society from the people they presumptively represent (Hollande said of the EU that it had become, “remote and incomprehensible”) and of the people from its “leadership.”
Gnosticism is a worldview in which secret knowledge is reserved for initiates into the higher mysteries. Here is one of Voegelin’s definitions of gnosis:
“…a purported direct, immediate apprehension or vision of truth without the need for critical reflection; the special quality of a spiritual and cognitive elite.”
Eric Voegelin, Autobiographical Reflections, Collected Works Vol. 34, Columbia University, 2006, Glossary of Terms, p. 160
How does the claim to gnosis reveal itself in our pragmatic, bureaucratic age? Gnosis is necessarily distinct for each of the political classes, each of which has created its own political mythology in which it is an unique and indispensable historical actor on an eschatological stage. For mass man, gnosis takes the form of “consciousness raising,” whether being made aware, for the first time, of his status as a worker (proletarian), his race, his ethnicity, or any other property that can be employed to distinguish the elect. Access to official secrets is the special privilege and the secret knowledge of the elite political classes — the elect of the nation-state — so that to compromise these secrets and the privilege of access to them is to call into question the political mythology of the elites.
The creation of universal surveillance states is part of the this development, since the efficient management of mass man is predicated upon knowing the masses better than the mass knows itself — knowing what the mass wants, what will placate its tantrums, how hard it can be pushed, and, then the masses push back, how they can be most effectively distracted, mollified, and redirected. The extreme reaction to the revelation of official secrets as we have seen in the hysterical responses on the part of the elite political classes to Wikileaks and the Snowden leaks are the result of challenging the political mythos of the ruling elite.
In Europe, residual nationalism, ethnocentrism, and communism still resonate with some sectors of the electorate, and all of these can be be the focus of a purported gnosis; it is precisely the fragmented and divided nature of these loyalties that has kept Europe a patchwork of warring nation-states, and which threatens to torpedo the idea of a unified Europe. In the US, the intellectual lives of the workers have evolved in a different direction, which has resulted in an entirely new political mythology born out of a syncretism of conspiracy theories. (Political conspiracy theories also play a significant role in Africa, Arabia, and parts of Asia; perhaps they will yet come to the European masses.) The elite political classes are contemptuous of the conspiracy theories that excite the masses, even when these conspiracy theories verge uncomfortably close to the truth, but they are jealous in the extreme of their own “secret” knowledge obtained through surveillance. Thus we experience what Ed Snowden has called the Merkel Effect, wherein a member of the elite political class is subject to the very surveillance to which they have subjected others, and it is regarded as a scandal. The masses, on the other hand, are often defiant when their conspiracy theories are subject to rational examination, calling into question their own “secret” knowledge of how the world functions.
It is important to note that both the rise of conspiracy theories on the part of the masses and the rise of surveillance on the part of elite classes are parallel developments. Both classes of society are seeking forms of secret knowledge — that is say, this is the perfect illustration of Voegelin’s thesis on the role of gnosticism in contemporary political societies.
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Some past posts in which I have considered Europe, the European Union, and the Eurozone…
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12 November 2012
It has become one of the most familiar complaints today on the US political scene that the political system of the US is mired in permanent gridlock. Nothing gets done because the people are divided and vote into office individuals with vastly differing agendas; the two-party system ensures that the two parties are always at each others’ throats, vying for money, votes, and influence; the corrupting influence of money in the political process has meant that the wealthy have a disproportionate influence upon public policy; the never ending stream of laws and rules and regulations that issue from the Capitol mean that no business has a stable operating environment, hence tremendous amounts of money are spent by industry in lobbying the government to get the regulations it prefers. Nothing gets done, is the complaint. What this complaint really amounts to it this: the government doesn’t get anything done. But, really, should we count on the government to get anything done? Do we want the government to have to power to efficiently put its plans into practice?
I‘ve got news for the complainers: the US political system was designed for gridlock; it’s supposed to be that way. The checks and balances that constitute the US political system were intended to prevent the government from functioning efficiently. Tyrannies function efficiently, but that isn’t a model for any government to follow. However, tyrannies often can point to dramatic short term achievements — Stalin’s transformation of the Soviet economy in the 1930s when Western countries were mired in depression, and Hitler’s regimentation of Germany after the chaos of the Wiemar Republic — and as a result of these short-term, unsustainable accomplishments there have been many commentators in democratic countries who have looked with envious eyes at the accomplishments of dictators and tyrants (as today they look east with obvious China Envy).
I have written several posts in which I have attempted to frame the US political system in the context from which it derives historically: as an explicit and systematic manifestation of Enlightenment political thought (cf. From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), deeply indebted to Montesquieu, Locke, and Hume, and itself a reaction against extreme statist philosophies of the early modern period such as that of Hobbes as well as a reaction against the excesses of the religious wars in Europe following the Reformation (cf. The Nation-State: a Sketch of its Origins). Since much of this historical context has been lost, and Americans are famously unconcerned about history (Henry Ford said “History is bunk”), Americans by and large, including American political leaders, have little idea what their country is about (i.e., what the Framers were trying to do) and many Americans are openly hostile to Enlightenment political ideas and ideals.
Because of the relative absence of Enlightenment ideals in contemporary political discourse, we have instead the vulgar “ideals” that have emerged in the meantime: celebrity, wealth and its conspicuous consumption, temporary political triumphs of the “zero sum” sort, and the ephemeral (but perennially attractive) blandishments of a youth culture that celebrates a Dionysian frenzy of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (which, these days, is less about rock-n-roll and more about rave, industrial, trance, techno, and the like). Anyone can realistically aspire to these ideals, and many in fact do, but the ideals of contemporary mass consumer society, like any ideals, have their disappointments. In the US today anyone has a great deal of freedom to live as they like, but you cannot have any impact on contemporary events unless you have money, fame, or connections — preferably all three, but a sufficient quantity of any one of these usually translates into the other (which Joseph Fouche of the now-defunct blog Committee of Public Safety characterized as “all power is fungible”).
Being anonymous or poor in a world in which fame and money are the currency of effective action means being denied the possibility of effective action. This is one source among many of the feeling of alienation that is so common in industrialized society — the feeling of being a powerless cog in an enormous and uncaring machine. (I wrote about this in Fear of the Future.) In such a society, the entire life of an anonymous individual is reduced to the liberty of indifference, which is better than no liberty at all, but not the role in which most individuals see themselves.
One way to address the disaffection and alienation of anonymity in industrialized society is to make individuals feel a genuine part of mass social movements. This is the path of totalitarianism, which, like earlier forms of tyranny and dictatorship, is not sustainable. However, at a much attenuated level, there any many people in the US political system who look to the president to “lead” and are frustrated when little effective leadership is forthcoming. I suppose that there are many people who intuitively feel (even if they would not state it in these terms) that the US President represents what Rousseau called the “general will” as opposed to the mere “will of all” and that it is the responsibility of the President to lead in accordance with the general will and for the people to follow in the same spirit.
In recent history, nation-states have in fact been at the vanguard of the greatest undertakings of human beings, not least because nation-states have the resources at their command that make it possible to undertake expensive and difficult enterprises like mass warfare and space travel. If some other political paradigm (other than the nation-state, that is) prevailed in the present, then that institution would have the resources to undertake great enterprises. The important thing to keep in mind here is that there is nothing that is necessary about the predominance of the nation-state in human affairs, or indeed even the predominance of some political institution.
FDR and Keynes, each in their very different ways, contributed to a climate of opinion in which the nation-state is the locus of human action, shifting the perception of the power and agency of the state as something distant and relatively unimportant to being the central fact in the lives of industrialized masses. FDR greatly expanded the scope and role of the federal government in the lives of ordinary US citizens, and Keynes formulated the economic doctrine that the state had an obligation to insert itself into the economy, no matter how disastrously many of these interventions turned out to be. These foundational developments, along with a string of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made a mockery of the Bill of Rights, have consolidated the nation-state as the central power in the lives of US citizens, even if no one knows what that nation-state is supposed to represent.
The idea that the initiatives that move history forward will be government initiatives is fundamentally flawed, and, since it is fundamentally flawed, in the fullness of time it will reveal itself as flawed through the bitter disappoints that it delivers to its true believers. In the meantime, however, there is so much momentum behind the idea of the nation-state and its centrality in the life of peoples that its less-than-optimal performance will be sustained by this momentum for quite some time to come. There will be plenty of blame to spread around to a wide variety of targets before people will come to realize that the nation-state, even in its most intrusive nanny state incarnation, is not going to come and hand you a wonderful life on a silver platter.
Individuals will ultimately be the agents that move history forward. We must look to ourselves to become such individuals that are capable of moving history forward despite the best efforts of officials and bureaucrats and functionaries who presume to speak on our behalf. We need only stop believing in their pronouncements in order to begin the process of freeing ourselves from the the grip of statist omnipotence.
It is a good thing that the US government should be systematically stymied in any grand initiatives it might undertake; I don’t think that many people would enjoy living in the world that would result for the efficacious prosecution of the government’s grand plans for our future. The twentieth century provided us to all too many examples of utopian ideals, which, when put into practice, issued in dystopian realities. (cf. Addendum on Unintended Consequences) I remain hopeful in proportion as the government is weakened by its own infighting.
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25 September 2012
Excursus on US Electoral Futurism
For the most part I avoid writing about US domestic politics, but I did write a series of posts about the beleaguered Republican Party after its defeat in the previous election cycle. These posts included the following:
Why do I usually avoid writing about US electoral politics? Several reasons. Among these reasons are the saturation media coverage of the event, the fact that I find it all deadly dull, and the likelihood that whatever I write will be misconstrued. Since I am a US citizen and a resident of the US, my objectivity is likely to be questioned, and it would be assumed that I write with a partisan agenda. This last is probably decisive.
While the idea (much less the ideal) of objectivity is not highly valued today, and many would say that the denial of the very possibility of objectivity is one of the central features of postmodernism, I take a great pride in my objectivity, and I would not want to be thought to be just another voice repeating one party line or another. What is objectivity? At least part of objectivity is the continual struggle against anything that might prejudice, distort, or alter that which is demonstrably the case. At least one form of the failure of objectivity, then, is the underdetermination of an account of things. Thus we see that a political perspective is a theory about the world that is underdetermined by the evidence.
Domestic US politics is especially vulnerable to those who are passionately committed to one side or the other thinking themselves into a frame of mind in which they really believe to be true that which they want to be true. The passionate state of mind distorts everything by interpreting it in accordance with an underdetermined political theory. Once a person thinks themselves into such a frame of mind it is extraordinarily difficult to reason with them. It is probably better not to try, so instead we must simply set aside the passionately committed.
If we set such persons aside, there remains a core of commentators who don’t allow themselves to be swayed by partisan rants. Among this core, you would be hard-pressed to find any who thought that Romney would win the election. Now that Romney’s fate has been sealed by the release of the secretly recorded video from Mother Jones magazine, it is worthwhile considering the ramifications of Romney’s coming defeat.
The press must of course pretend that there is still a contest, but it isn’t much of a contest. While recent events have driven home the unlikelihood of a Romney victory in the general election, as I noted above, almost no one really thought he would win. Objective Republicans can read polls just as well as objective Democrats, and they all knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat President Obama in the present election. It is for exactly this reason that several prominent Republican candidates chose not to run. If the president had been viewed as highly vulnerable, stronger candidates who did not want an embarrassing defeat on their record would have joined the contest.
There will be those who say that US presidential elections are always predicated upon domestic economics, and that the softness of the US economy made Obama vulnerable. Yes, that is true, but vulnerability is not always the same as defeatability. It is likely that the domestic economy will take several points off Obama’s margin of victory, but these points won’t be enough to make a difference. A sufficiently large margin of victory can absorb a certain amount of vulnerability.
So my first prediction, apart from the now-obvious prediction that President Obama will win the general election, is that the commentators will wear themselves out telling the public how usual and unprecedented it is for a president to be reelected with the domestic economy in such poor condition. This spin will in turn be further spun to make the claim that President Obama’s reelection represents a truly profound shift in US electoral politics. (It does, by the way, but it will not be the shift that the commentators will identify; I have already identified the actual shift in Appearance and Reality in Demographics.)
Probably many of the commentators who will appear on television on election night have already written their scripts, so that they can appear to have had penetrating insights into the nature of the result spontaneously as the numbers begin to come in. Like I said above, none of this is a surprise to anyone. In fact, the biggest surprise will be to see how exactly the coming aftermath plays out. Here there remain several unknowns.
A careful observer of US electoral history will have noticed that so many statistics are kept on US elections that it is nearly inevitable that every time a US presidential election is held, some statistical trend that has always perfectly predicted the election in the past is upended, therefore demonstrating the “unprecedented” nature of the election. While it is true that some statistical correlations are more robust and significant than others, there is nothing surprising in and of itself that each and every election should involve a statistically unprecedented result. In fact, I would even say that it is statistically inevitable that there will always be statistically unprecedented results. If not, we wouldn’t bother to hold elections, because the outcome would always be determined on the basis of precedent.
One of the most obvious consequences of the Republicans losing two presidential elections sequentially will be a strong call from within the Republican Party to do something — to do anything — to make sure that they don’t lose again. For one party to be permanently shut out of a duopoly on power is for the duopoly to cease to function and for the party out of power to become restive. Such crises often result in highly pragmatic electioneering that focuses on finding a candidate for the next election who can win. All standards other than electability tend to go by the board. Whether this pressure for pragmatism overcomes the the pressure for ideological conformity is an unknown. It is not impossible that “country club Republicans” could re-take control of the party, expel the evangelicals (who would likely go on to form their own minor but ineradicable party), and return to a classic (i.e., pre-Reagan) Republican agenda, but it is not likely either.
Another obvious consequence is that the Democrats, after two sequential presidential victories, may indulge in triumphalism and consequently engage in ideological overreach that will cost them in local elections two years hence. There will be some democrats who understand the underlying demographic realities resulting in their victories, but many if not most will view the victory as an ideological victory and will claim, and perhaps also attempt to live by the idea, that the US electorate is permanently re-aligning itself with a Democratically-defined political ideology. Depending upon how much Democrats attempt to live by this delusion, the Republicans may be able to count upon a reaction that will return them to power — at least temporarily.
One of the medium- to long-term consequences of President Obama’s reelection to a second term and the consequent heightened soul-searching within the Republican party that is sure to follow, will be whether the Republicans choose to change their orientation so that they do not face extinction as a political party. Ideologically motivated Republicans felt that the last election was lost due to a failure of ideological purity. If this faction should triumph within the Republican Party, the party is doomed is irrelevance and eventual extinction. This in itself presents a fascinating problem.
Many commentators over recent years have made a point of reporting the “gridlock” in the US political system. The really interesting question if Republicans fail to reform themselves and if political gridlock persists is this: how can an another party emerge to take the place of the Republican party in the duopoly of the US two-party system in the midst of political gridlock? And if political gridlock has made the US political system too sclerotic even to change, how can the status quo be maintained when the Republicans are experiencing a gradual dissolution as a viable political party?
Whether the coming aftermath is a bloodbath or a re-alignment, it will be perhaps more interesting to watch than the usual US domestic melodrama.
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15 April 2012
Say what you will, those of us in the Western hemisphere can be rightly proud of the fact that all but one nation-state in the Americas is roughly democratic in its constitution. Many of these democracies are highly imperfect and leave much to be desired, but if we compare the western hemisphere where it is today to where it was in the 1970s and 1980s — with hyperinflation, numerous proxy wars for the Cold War, strongmen (caudillos) ruling countries for decades, and military regimes installed in some of the largest nation-states in the hemisphere — things look pretty good at present.
That sole exception — Cuba — was one of the points of contention at the Sixth Summit of the Americas, that just wrapped up business in Cartegena, Colombia. The BBC reported in Summit of the Americas ends without final declaration that, “The leaders failed to reach agreement on whether Cuba should attend the next gathering.”
It has been the steadfast position of Canada and the US that Cuba not be invited because it is not democratic. Many if not most of the other nation-states sending their representatives to the Summit feel that Cuba ought to be invited. I personally find this disappointing, that there is not more support for the intrinsic good of reinforcing the democratic character of the Western hemisphere, but this points to the fact that the different members of the Organization of American States view the purpose of the organization and of the summits differently. Other than the US and Canada, political leaders want the summit to be inclusive, regardless of content or intent.
Constanza Vieira of IPS quoted Uruguayan analyst Laura Gil in Last Summit of the Americas Without Cuba as saying:
“…there will not be another summit without Cuba. Either Cuba is included, or there will not be a summit at all. The absence of (Ecuadorean President Rafael) Correa is a red alert…”
“This summit reminds us that ideologies are still a force to be reckoned with. The limitations are plain to be seen…”
Although this remark was intended as a criticism of the exclusion of Cuba on ideological grounds, it is good to be reminded the ideologies are a force to be reckoned with, and it is appropriate the the OAS should take a stand against repressive regimes and in favor of democracy. Without this, the OAS becomes another talk-shop and a place for grandstanding to no purpose. It would also forfeit the legitimacy of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.
Also, truly enough, the limitations are plain to be seen, as the limitations of Cuba are plain to be seen from decades of repressive misrule by the Castro brothers. Cuba’s simultaneous repression and impoverishment are not accidental; each is implicated in the other, and the OAS should not tolerate as a member or as a participant a nation-state that imposes such misery (not to mention avoidable misery) on its people. There is no principle here represented by Cuba that is worth defending.
José R. Cárdenas in Americas Summit: Obama needs to rescue the democratic charter has a number of quotes from other Latin American representatives about their desire to include Cuba in any further OAS summits. If this is true, it is a disturbing and disappointing trend, and if it comes to the point of either inviting a non-democratic Cuba or not having another summit, I hope that the US will make no concessions to including Cuba for the sake of inclusion. That being said, I wonder how members would react to a proposal to allow Cuba to send an observer. This is a possible compromise that need not force the OAS to recognize a non-democratic nation-state but would allow Cuba to be present after a fashion.
The President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, as noted in the above quote, felt so strongly about Cuba’s exclusion that he boycotted the summit and stayed home (Ecuador to boycott Americas summit over Cuba exclusion). Risa Grais-Targow of Foreign Policy has asked, Is Rafael Correa about to become the next Hugo Chávez? Certainly with Hugo Chávez dying of cancer (and receiving most of his medical treatment in Cuba), it is time to pass the leftist firebrand torch in South America, and Correa seems to have nominated himself. He stands to benefit from the David and Goliath dividend.
José R. Cárdenas is not the only one over at Foreign Policy taking Correa to task. There was a very strongly worded piece by Otto J. Reich and Ezequiel Vázquez Ger, How Ecuador’s immigration policy helps al Qaeda. The authors write:
These examples show how Rafael Correa’s Ecuador is becoming a failed state, hosting all sorts of dangerous actors. They also help to understand the context in which various financial, commercial, and energy agreements are being developed by Ecuador with the governments of Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela. While many of the agreements are not yet completed, they serve as “government-authorized illicit tunnels” through which anything and anyone can pass, from terrorists and drugs to money and arms.
It would probably be difficult to find much common ground between the sort of sentiments expressed by Laura Gil earlier, and those expressed just above. What these expressions of discontent manifest in common is a lack of diplomacy. It might sound disingenuous of me to say that Cuba could send an observer who was strictly identified as an observer but not a participant and not a member of the OAS, but this is the very essence of diplomacy. If diplomacy can make something possible that would not otherwise be possible, then it is a facilitator of events. Not to be a facilitator of events is to be an obstructionist.
It strikes me as perfectly appropriate if Cuba should send an observer to the Seventh Summit of the Amnericas, if there is one, and even that there should be meetings and many photo opportunities that give the impression to the public and to the media that Cuba was being “included.” Even a Rafael Correa or a Hugo Chávez could take this home as a symbol that they have vanquished the hated Yanqui.
Yet it is entirely possible to be both diplomatic and tough-minded (like Richard Holbrooke, whom we recently lost). If Cuba could be “included” in the sense described above — included in pictures, included in parties, included in rhetoric — but then taken into the back room and given a thorough drubbing beyond the view of the press, this could send an effective message. If words were followed by deeds, it would send even a stronger message.
The danger here is that some people — indeed, some diplomats — cannot sustain the illusion and simply lack the intestinal fortitude to make nice in public and then be brutal in private. But this is exactly what we need. There should be no compromise whatsoever over Cuba’s impoverishment, immiserization, lack of popular sovereignty, lack of the rule of law, and flaunting of the very idea of human rights, but all of these things can be maintained, pristine and intact, even while everyone is smiling for the cameras.
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9 April 2012
Geopolitics and Geostrategy
as a formal sciences
In a couple of posts — Formal Strategy and Philosophical Logic: Work in Progress and Axioms and Postulates of Strategy — I have explicitly discussed the possibility of a formal approach to strategy. This has been a consistent theme of my writing over the past three years, even when it is not made explicit. The posts that I wrote on theoretical geopolitics can also be considered an effort in the direction of formal strategy.
There is a sense in which formal thought is antithetical to the tradition of geopolitics, which latter seeks to immerse itself in the empirical facts of how history gets made, in contradistinction to the formalist’s desire to define, categorize, and clarify the concepts employed in analysis. Yet in so far as geopolitics takes the actual topographical structure of the land as its point of analytical departure, this physical structure becomes the form upon which the geopolitician constructs the logic of his or her analysis. Geopolitical thought is formal in so far as the forms to which it conforms itself are physical, topographical forms.
Most geopoliticians, however, have no inkling of the formal dimension of their analyses, and so this formal dimension remains implicit. I have commented elsewhere that one of the most common fallacies is the conflation of the formal and the informal. In Cartesian Formalism I wrote:
One of the biggest and yet one of the least recognized blunders in philosophy (and certainly not only in philosophy) is to conflate the formal and the informal, whether we are concerned with formal and informal objects, formal and informal methods, or formal and informal ideas, etc. (I recently treated this topic on my other blog in relation to the conflation of formal and informal strategy.)
Geopolitics, geostrategy, and in fact many of the so-called “soft” sciences that do not involve extensive mathematization are among the worst offenders when it comes to the conflation of the formal and the informal, often because the practitioners of the “soft” sciences do not themselves understand the implicit principles of form to which they appeal in their theories. Instead of theoretical formalisms we get informal narratives, many of which are compelling in terms of their human interest, but are lacking when it comes to analytical clarity. These narratives are primarily derived from historical studies within the discipline, so that when this method is followed in geopolitics we get a more-or-less quantified account of topographical forms that shape action and agency, with an overlay of narrative history to string together the meaning of names, dates, and places.
There is a sense in which geography and history cannot be separated, but there is another sense in which the two are separated. Because the ecological temporality of human agency is primarily operational at the levels of micro-temporality and meso-temporality, this agency is often exercised without reference to the historical scales of the exo-temporality of larger social institutions (like societies and civilizations) and the macro-historical scales of geology and geomorphology. That is to say, human beings usually act without reference to plate tectonics, the uplift of mountains, or seafloor spreading, except when these events act over micro- and meso-time scales as in the case of earthquakes and tsunamis generated by geological events that otherwise act so slowly that we never notice them in the course of a lifetime — or even in the course of the life of a civilization.
The greatest temporal disconnect occurs between the smallest scales (micro-temporality) and the largest scales (macro-temporality), while there is less disconnect across immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality. I can employ a distinction that I recently made in a discussion of Descartes, that between strong distinctions and weak distinctions (cf. Of Distinctions Weak and Strong). Immediately adjacent divisions of ecological temporality are weakly distinct, while those not immediately adjacent are strongly distinct.
We have traditionally recognized the abstraction of macroscopic history that does not descend into details, but it has not been customary to recognize the abstractness of microscopic history, immersed in details, that does not also place these events in relation to a macroscopic context. In order to attain to a comprehensive perspective that can place these more limited perspectives into a coherent context, it is important to understand the limitations of our conventional conceptions of history (such as the failure to understand the abstract character of micro-history) — and, for that matter, the limitations of our conventional conceptions of geography. One of these limitations is the abstractness of either geography or history taken in isolation.
The degree of abstractness of an inquiry can be quantified by the ecological scope of that inquiry; any one division of ecological temporality (or any one division of metaphysical ecology) taken in isolation from other divisions is abstract. It is only the whole of ecology taken together that a truly concrete theory is possible. To take into account the whole of ecological temporality in a study of history is a highly concrete undertaking which is nevertheless informed by the abstract theories that constitute each individual level of ecological temporality.
Geopolitics, despite its focus on the empirical conditions of history, is a highly abstract inquiry precisely because of its nearly-exclusive focus on one kind of structure as determinative in history. As I have argued elsewhere, and repeatedly, abstract theories are valuable and have their place. Given the complexity of a concrete theory that seeks to comprehend the movements of human history around the globe, an abstract theory is a necessary condition of any understanding. Nevertheless, we need to rest in our efforts with an abstract theory based exclusively in the material conditions of history, which is the perspective of geopolitics (and, incidentally, the perspective of Marxism).
Geopolitics focuses on the seemingly obvious influences on history following from the material conditions of geography, but the “obvious” can be misleading, and it is often just as important to see what is not obvious as to explicitly take into account what is obvious. Bertrand Russell once observed, in a passage both witty and wise, that:
“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently sceptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”
Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”
Russell here expresses himself in terms of symbolism, but I think it would better to formulate this in terms of formalism. When Russell writes that, “we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious,” the new and difficult symbolism he mentions is more than mere symbolism, it is a formal theory. Russell’s point, then, is that if we formalize a body of knowledge heretofore consisting of intuitively “obvious” truths, certain relationships between truths become obvious that were not obvious prior to formalization. Another way to formulate this is to say that formalization constitutes a shift in our intuition, so that truths once intuitively obvious become inobvious, while inobvious truths because intuitive. Thus formalization is the making intuitive of previously unintuitive (or even counter-intuitive) truths.
Russell devoted a substantial portion of his career to formalizing heretofore informal bodies of knowledge, and therefore had considerable experience with the process of formalization. Since Russell practiced formalization without often explaining exactly what he was doing (the passage quoted above is a rare exception), we must look to the example of his formal thought as a model, since Russell himself offered no systematic account of the formalization of any given body of knowledge. (Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica is a tour de force comprising the order of justification of its propositions, while remaining silent about the order of discovery.)
A formal theory of time would have the same advantages for time as the theoretical virtues that Russell identified in the formalization of mathematics. In fact, Russell himself formulated a formal theory of time, in his paper “On Order in Time,” which is, in Russell’s characteristic way, reductionist and over-simplified. Since I aim to formulate a theory of time that is explicitly and consciously non-reductionist, I will make no use of Russell’s formal theory of time, though it is interesting at least to note Russell’s effort. The theory of ecological temporality that I have been formulating here is a fragment of a full formal theory of time, and as such it can offer certain insights into time that are lost in a reductionist account (as in Russell) or hidden in an informal account (as in geography and history).
As noted above, a formalized theory brings about a shift in our intuition, so that the formerly intuitive becomes unintuitive while the formerly unintuitive becomes intuitive. A shift in our intuitions about time (and history) means that a formal theory of time makes intuitive temporal relationships less obvious, while making temporal relationships that are hidden by the “buzzing, blooming world” more obvious, and therefore more amenable to analysis — perhaps for the first time.
Ecological temporality gives us a framework in which we can demonstrate the interconnectedness of strongly distinct temporalities, since the panarchy the holds between levels of an ecological system is the presumption that each level of an ecosystem impacts every other level of an ecosystem. Given the distinction between strong distinctions and weak distinctions, it would seem that adjacent ecological levels are weakly distinct and therefore have a greater impact on each other, while non-adjacent ecological levels are strongly distinct and therefore have less of an impact on each other. In an ecological theory of time, all of these principles hold in parallel, so that, for example, micro-temporality is only weakly distinct from meso-temporality, while being strongly distinct from exo-temporality. As a consequence, a disturbance in micro-temporality has a greater impact upon meso-temporality than upon exo-temporality (and vice versa), but less of an impact does not mean no impact at all.
Another virtue of formal theories, in addition to the shift in intuition that Russell identified, is that it forces us to be explicit about our assumptions and presuppositions. The implicit theory of time held by a geostrategist matters, because that geostrategist will interpret history in terms of the categories of his or her theory of time. But most geostrategists never bother to make their theory of time explicit, so that we do not know what assumptions they are making about the structure of time, hence also the structure of history.
Sometimes, in some cases, these assumptions will become so obvious that they cannot be ignored. This is especially the case with supernaturalistic and soteriological conceptions of metaphysical history that ultimately touch on everything else that an individual believes. This very obviousness makes it possible to easily identify eschatological and theological bias; what is much more insidious is the subtle assumption that is difficult to discern and which only can be elucidated with great effort.
If one comes to one’s analytical work presupposing that every moment of time possesses absolute novelty, one will likely make very different judgments than if one comes to the same work presupposing that there is nothing new under the sun. Temporal novelty means historical novelty: anything can happen; whereas, on the contrary, the essential identity of temporality over historical scales — identity for all practical purposes — means historical repetition: very little can happen.
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Note: Anglo-American political science implicitly takes geopolitics as its point of departure, but, as I have attempted to demonstrate in several posts, this tradition of mainstream geopolitics can be contrasted to a nascent movement of biopolitics. However, biopolitics too could be formulated in the manner of a theoretical biopolitics, and a theoretical biopolitics would be at risk of being as abstract as geopolitics and in need of supplementation by a more comprehensive ecological perspective.
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7 April 2012
In the Age of the Nation-State, exactly who gets to join the charmed circle of nation-states and who does not get to join this charmed circle is a question of some importance, and there is no one, single way in which the question is settled. Some nation-states were “grandfathered in” as conventionally recognized political entities when the League of Nations or the United Nations was founded. Some nation-states fought for years or for decades to gain recognition. Many political entities have remained in permanent geopolitical limbo for years or decades — like Taiwan or Palestine or Transnistria or the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Theorists of the nation-state system (who are, more often than not, advocates who rarely acknowledge the fact that they are advocates) have proposed all kinds of criteria for what constitutes a nation-state, but we know from the above-mentioned fact that very different political entities become recognized as nation-states by very different means, and that this is an explicitly political process, that there is no essentialist way to separate the wheat from the chaff, because there is no essence of the nation-state. Self-determination is only recognized when it is imposed by force; the ethnic unity of a people is acknowledged as a legitimate basis of a nation-state only when it is convenient for existing powers and does not encroach upon their claims; territorial sovereignty is subject to routine violation at the whim of powerful or technologically advanced nation-states.
When Southern Sudan recently split away from Sudan as an independent nation-state this was widely recognized by the international community. In fact, we have several recent (and diverse) examples of changed governments that have achieved recognition, as, for example, Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Not so for Azawad. The declaration of the independence of Azawad has brought more jeers than cheers.
Here are some of the statements (as they have appeared in various press reports) that have been made about the declaration of Azawad sovereignty:
● French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet: “a unilateral declaration of independence that is not recognized by African states means nothing for us.”
● President of Niger Mahamadou Issoufou: “Mali is one and indivisible.”
● African Union Commission chief Jean Ping: “firmly condemns this announcement, which is null and of no value whatsoever.”
Of course, when you carve your nation-state out of existing nation-states, this is going to be very unpopular, and it sets a precedent that no existing nation-state wants to sanction: that nation-states are divisible into legitimate states rightly claiming self-determination of a national group. If this principle were acted upon, it would result in the fissioning of most existing nation-states, because most existing nation-states, despite their claim to uniquely represent a people, in fact are multi-ethnic and multi-national political entities whose borders were established through armed conflict and are maintained in existence through force or threat of force.
Thus we see that there is a principle at stake in the matter, but it is the principle of a political Ponzi scheme: if you’ve gotten “in” early and you’ve gotten your share, you certainly aren’t about to share your share with anyone else, and certainly not with any late-comers.
The MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de L’Azawad), which is the military entity behind the seizure of the territory they now identify as Azawad, has a website where they have posted a declaration of independence (in French). In their declaration of independence they have promised:
● Recognition of existing borders with neighboring states and their inviolability
● Full adherence to the UN Charter
● The firm commitment of the MNLA to create conditions for a lasting peace, and to initiate the institutional foundations of a state based on a democratic constitution for an independent Azawad.
The MNLA is here obviously trying, despite its marginal position, to position itself as a “responsible stakeholder” in the global community. For the same reason MNLA representatives have strongly denied any links with AQIM or other trans-national Jihadist organizations. No doubt many will be skeptical, but then one must ask how responsible currently recognized nation-states have been as stakeholders in the global community. We would be justified in being skeptical both of the MNLA and the international community that rejects an independent Azawad.
I have given several reasons above to be skeptical of the international community, given its manifold hypocrisies. Why should we be skeptical of the MNLA? Well, the media is filled with reports such as I have quoted above, giving nothing but a negative evaluation of the independence of Azawad. Such assertions are of little interest in the long run. What is of significance in the long run is how a people’s way of life interacts with the conventions and institutions by which nation-states have divided up the globe among themselves.
In so far as the MNLA and their nascent political entity of Azawad represents the Tuareg people, what is essential about contemporary political developments is the way of the life of the Tuaregs, and this is a way of life that is not easily reconciled with the ideology of the nation-state. The Tuaregs are nomadic pastoralists, and they have long made the Sahel their home without much concern for the borders of nation-states. But the Tuaregs of the MNLA are political realists: they know that if they are going to win a homeland for themselves, that they must seize it through violence, and that, once established, they must conform to the norms and conditions of the nation-state, because that is the way that the world works today. It would be more accurate to carve out a Tuareg homeland that covered the traditional lands through which the Tuareg peoples moved, crossing the borders of many nation-states and with no recognition of the inviolability of such borders. But this is not possible at present.
The are (and have been) analogous dilemmas in many parts of the world. The Kurds, for example, have carved out a de facto homeland in what was Northern Iraq, but a more accurate representation of Kurdistan would include parts of Eastern Turkey, Northern Iran, and Northern Syria. This, however, is a bridge too far, so the Kurds do what they can within the context of contemporary political realities. And in many of these and similar cases, peoples reconcile themselves to the politicized borders of nation-states and learn to live within these boundaries. The same could well happen in Azawad, but the MNLA has no more of a commitment to the inviolability of borders than the international community has a commitment to self-determination, regardless of what each may say.
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28 March 2012
Last January in Ica to Lima I quoted a famous line from Anatole France:
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
And last September on Twitter I wrote:
We shouldn’t say that anything is “banned,” only that it has been “denied to the poor.” The rich can always satisfy their wants and needs.
I don’t think that there has been a sufficient appreciation of the intimate relationship between law and poverty.
Our legislators like to pretend that they are making laws that are universally applicable to everyone within a given nation-state, and the mass media is complicit in this illusion by reporting on an egalitarian society that simply does not exist. Of course, our legislators have plenty of practice in this art, because every two or four years they must go out on the campaign stump and pretend as though they are “just plain folks” when they are not.
There is an old saying that, money can’t but you happiness, but it does allow you to choose your own kind of misery. So it is that the wealthy have choices denied to the rest of us, and among these choices are opportunities to avoid any law felt to be onerous or an inconvenience. The rich live in a libertarian anarchy in which all things are possible.
This I take to be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s point at the end of The Great Gatsby when the narrator says:
“Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…”
The same essential idea was expressed with less poetry and more viciousness when Leona Helmsley, the “Queen of Mean,” was quoted as saying, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
Despite the persistent idea of equality before the law in democratic societies, we all have known, even if we don’t much talk about, the fact that the rich are not subject to the same laws as everyone else. Back before abortion was legal in the US, if a girl from a privileged family got in “trouble,” she went to Sweden for a safe and legal abortion, or she was sent to have her child in Europe where such things carried less social stigma. Today, abortion is legal in the US, but the political climate in large swathes of the US means that an abortion is almost impossible to obtain in some states, but for those for whom travel out of state presents no difficulties it is not a problem, though it is a problem for the poor.
The middle classes don’t have the scope of free action that the wealthy possess, but they do posses some scope of action that the poor do not. For example, the middle classes have just enough money that, if they prioritize some particular interest or activity, they can choose one or two or maybe three areas where they will exercise their freedom — whether these areas might include private schools, exotic vacations, or boutique health care.
And to mention medical care brings us back to the topic of yesterday’s Three Alternatives to PPACA. It is important to understand that the debate over health care is really a debate over what health care the poor will have, and then this debate is really a debate over how the poor will be regulated (in ways that do not regulate other segments of society).
Regardless of what measures are imposed on the US population as a consequence of PPACA, the wealthy will continue to enjoy the best medical care that money can buy. They can afford to pay into whatever system they need to pay into, and then still buy themselves whatever they want outside the system (or above and beyond minimum requirements). It is those without options who will be stuck with the system and whose lives will be most profoundly affected by it. And, as I noted yesterday, most of those who have no health care or no health insurance at present do not have it because they cannot afford it. They will be the ones forced to face either unaffordable premiums or fines.
Neither the wealthy nor the middle class will have to make painful decisions about cutting back on food or cutting back on electricity or cutting back on heating in order to meet health insurance premiums (and thereby ensure that the insurance industry continues livin’ large), but these are issues as real to the poor as the monthly worry of making rent and having enough to eat.
Thus we can say in precise analogy with the earlier quote from Anatole France:
“The health care law, in its majestic equality, obligates the rich as well as the poor to purchase health insurance, to choose between paying bills and paying premiums, and to face fines if they cannot afford the premiums.”
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22 March 2012
In the wake of the violent overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, members of the Gaddafi family, regime loyalists, and hired mercenaries fled Libya and scattered themselves throughout North Africa and the Sahara Desert. This is petty obviously a potential source of trouble for the places that these defeated and discontented refugees have sheltered. I wrote about this situation and its potential for destabilization of region in several posts:
Several recent articles on the BBC document the trouble that has particularly come to affect Mali, where many Tuaregs who once fought for Gaddafi fled and reignited an insurgency against the Malian government:
The trouble brewing in the desert has now claimed its first nation-state casualty: there has been a coup in Mali. Most interesting in this situation is that the government in Bamako has not been overthrown by Tuaregs or others in active insurgency, but rather by government soldiers who felt that they were not receiving the resources that they needed to combat the resurgent Tuaregs in the north of the country, far on the periphery where the Tuareg nomads know the desert and the writ of the government in Bamako is difficult to enforce.
The situation in Mali is as perfect an instance of unintended consequences as one could find. The BBC article cited above, Gaddafi’s influence in Mali’s coup, quoted Abdul Aziz Kebe of the University of Dakar in Senegal much to this effect:
“Western powers have underestimated that getting rid of Gaddafi would have severe repercussions in the Sahel region.”
There is no need to qualify this statement with “Western powers,” although Kebe may have intended to emphasize that it was Western intervention that made possible the defeat of Gaddafi. This may well be true, but we cannot prove that this is true, because the Libyan rebels may have overthrown Gaddafi without Western assistance. As a counter-factual condition this isn’t very stable ground for an argument, and neither is its implied contrary, as implied by Kebe.
The coup in Mali could yet fail. Portions of the military remain loyal to the president. But succeed or fail, the coup demonstrates that the Sahel has been destabilized by the overthrow of Gaddafi and the diaspora of his family and followers. The destabilization of the Sahel will not end with Mali, and, in any case, the trouble in Mali is only beginning.
The BBC article cited above, Tuareg rebels make troubled return from Libya to Mali , quoted Bazoum Mohammed, Foreign minister of Niger, as saying:
“We’re upset that the Malians have allowed this situation to get out of control.”
Of course the government in Niger is concerned about destabilization in the region, but they have contributed to the situation by allowing Saadi Gaddafi to speak publicly on television, announcing that he would lead a counter-revolution against the Libyan rebels.
Every actor in the region — whether state or non-state actor — has its levers to apply pressure to the situation in hopes of a result more to their liking, but since everyone is employing their levers in their own interest and without regard to the regional outcome, the result is chaos in the strictest sense of the term. No one can say what comes next in the Sahara.
Ironcially, it was Gaddafi the visionary (not Gaddafi the thuggish dictator) who saw this problem and pressed for a United States of Africa. A regional hegemon that could impose its will, or a voluntary association of states surrendering security arrangements to a binding trans-national security regime could bring peace at a cost, but neither the peace nor the cost is possible at this time.
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