L’Inseguitore della Quarantena, A Covid-Giallo Story

giallo

Normally when I write short stories I just send them to specific friends as email attachments. But in the interest of providing extremely topical free content for those under social distancing lockdown I have decided that my most recent story should be posted publicly. The genre is giallo, which if you are unfamiliar with you can find a good concise summary here. Needless to say it is one of my favorite film subgenres. Bad taste as it might be, I just couldn’t resist thinking ‘Venice under lockdown during pandemic is the perfect giallo setting.’ Also, giallo is all about bad taste made stylish. Sometimes we make do with what the world gives us. Even by the standards of short stories, its on the smaller side so I figure it will fit fine as a blog post.

And if you need a fitting soundtrack for reading it, here it is. Now, on to the main event.

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L’Inseguitore della Quarantena

 

Ania strapped on her surgical face mask before wrapping herself in her stylish long coat. She reached for the purse that never leaves the foyer except to go outside and adjusts it over her winter-grey ensemble. Taking one last glance out the living room window that overlooks the waters of the canal outside, she sighed and opened the door.

On the ground floor of the apartment building she stopped to knock on her neighbor’s front door.

‘Who is it?’ the fragile voice of an elderly woman called out.

‘Eleanora, its Ania. I am headed to work now but wanted to know if there are any groceries I could pick up for you once I head back?’

‘No dear. I believe my family has provided for me this week quite adequately.’ A loud cough reverberated through the wall. It stopped suddenly, almost like an unintentional oath that slipped out at a formal board meeting, but then returned with a vengeance. ‘Perhaps it would not be best for anyone to come inside my apartment for some time, dear.’

Ania whipped out her phone and dialed a number she had the misfortune of having saved from past use. ‘I’m going to let the authorities know, okay?’ Eleanora was 89 years old and was peak risk demographic for the virus. She also had been in self-imposed quarantine for weeks. Ania knew the elderly were a prime target for the quackery of grfiters.

‘Please dear, don’t worry about me. You have your own concerns. My children take care of me.’

Ania cursed under her breath lest the sweet old lady hear her as the phone chimed in an automatic message. We’re sorry, but the reporting center is currently experiencing high volume of calls and a backlog of cases. Please try again in a few hours.

‘If you could use your phone to call the reporting center later today, please do so. Good day Eleanora.’

Ania could hear the muffled assent between rough coughing from beyond the door as she strode out into the sun. Then she remembered that Eleanora’s phone hadn’t worked in months.

—-

Ania was fortunate that her commute was only about 10 minutes. Exiting her apartment building of stately 18th Century entropy, passing the Santa Giustina church and walking along the canal by way of Ponte Fonadamenta di Santa Guistina Street and then turning east towards Castello was the extent of the journey.

It was a daily walk she had come to love since she started her job two years before. Even now…and perhaps even more so now, though she would tell no one of course, she found herself more in tune with the neighborhood and Venice in general with the quarantine in place. The city could be appreciated fully with less crowds and distractions. The waters lapping up against the crumbling-yet-functional buildings that had seen countless generations come and go stood as mute testament to past crisis survived by the city. The weathering on the buildings was no longer just charm for photo opportunities but rather the age lines and scars of place that had seen worse outbreaks and tragedies in its past.

The economy that kept it afloat on spendthrift tourists may have been gone, but a city was returned for to its actual residents. Or it would have been if they could have gone outside.

A masked police officer waved her down from across the nearest canal. Obediently, Ania stopped and ruffled through her purse for her permission slip. By the time he had crossed the nearest footbridge to within 10 meters of her she was able to hold up the work travel exemption. He gave her the thumbs up and she continued on her way.

He was the first person she had seen on the street that day.

Ania took off her mask and coat and stowed them in the locker right inside the entranceway to the crematorium. She washed her hands thoroughly in the restroom and made her way deeper into the building.

Alessandro was already there, running the oven. ‘Less today than any time last week. That’s good.’

Ania nodded. ‘Good to see such a rapid change in such short a time.’ The heat of the room tapered off as the oven shut down. She grabbed the brush and assisted her colleague in extracting the ashes from the oven. ‘Why do you think that is?’

‘Check the local news on your phone once we get done with this next one. I think I have a theory.’

Work gloves and plastic face plate applied, Ania began to hoist another wrapped body onto the table. ‘You know how I avoid the news these days. Everything I need to know I see here.’

‘Trust me on this one.’

The trellis rolled the next body into the oven. The door shut. Then came the roar of an all-consuming flame.

—-

CANAL STALKER STRIKES AGAIN

Multiple eyewitnesses have called now in testimony about a killer that stalks Venice. The figure, believed to be a male, has so far claimed four victims in the past month. He targets solitary pedestrians who violate quarantine by being out at night. There is now enough testimony from people who witnessed the killings from their windows that some common facts can be pieced together.

  1. There is a single solitary perpetrator working with no apparent collaborators.
  2. The killer always appears to be wear a long black trench coat, black leather gloves, and bright red shoes.
  3. The murders are all committed with a large knife, variously described as a long thin blade like that of a sushi chef.
  4. The killer is always stated to be wearing a horrific mask, though the details of this mask vary from eyewitness to eyewitness. One man in San Polo described it as ‘like melting wax’ and a woman in Dorsodouro stated that ‘it looked like a mask of that ugly American senator’ but could not recall the specific name of the figure she was referring to. A police officer at one of the crime scenes raised the point that the killer may in fact have a naturally deformed face. So far, there is no useful or clear picture taken of the assailant.

 —-

Ania was eating a salad two meters from Alessandro who had constructed his own sandwich out of what meagre remnants still lurked in the communal fridge. ‘I am at a loss,’ she looked at him between bites, ‘as to why a serial killer has reduced the amount of death we have to process.’

‘Four deaths and the quarantine violators are basically off the streets entirely. You almost never see anyone out after nightfall anymore.’

‘One hell of an extreme method.’

‘If it works it works.’

Let’s head back to it, we have a backlog to fill if we want to get done before sundown ourselves.

—-

Alessandro gave a polite wave on his way out the door. ‘Don’t wait too long now to close up.’

Ania nodded. She just had a few chores to wrap up after all. Then her phone rang with an unfamiliar number incoming.

Our system indicates that you previously tried calling our reporting center. Would you still like to make an infection report? Please press 1 if so.

Ania pressed 1 and then the various other numbers needed to narrow down who she was to talk too before being disconnected. She tried calling back and got a busy signal. Cursing, she gave up, gathered her outdoors coat and mask, and locked up the crematorium behind her.

—-

The sun settled overhead and a dusky orange hue reflected from the canal water. Ania would be home soon but this was clearly cutting it close by her normal standards. Not a single person, not even a police officer, had she seen walking the streets at the same time as herself.

She had just made it to her normal turn-off near Santa Giustina when she heard the report of hard shoes against stone from behind her. She turned her head but could only see the growing shadows emerging from between the buildings around her. They were masking the walker. A walker whose pace was increasing the echoes bounced all around, obscuring the direction of approach.

Cursing, Ania increased her pace. She was almost home and her paranoia wouldn’t matter once she got there.

Something splashed in the water directly behind her. An object casually tossed from what could only have been a place of origin no more than ten meters away. Unthinking, Ania took off at a running speed down the narrow side-street. The sounds of her heels on stone merged into an endless feedback echo along with that of the other person.

She almost collided with the apartment building’s front door. Fumbling with the keys, she unlocked the lobby and slammed it behind her upon entering. That’s when she noticed the blood red glow that permeated the inside of the building.

Turning, she saw that Eleanora’s apartment door was open. The light was pouring out from inside.

‘Eleanora? Are you alright?’ Time distorted as Ania walked up to the doorway and checked to make sure her facemask was still in place.

The elderly woman had managed to get her own face mask on and seat herself in a wheelchair near the entranceway. From the state of her apartment it had clearly been a struggle. Ania never remembered all of her lights being tinted red before, but now they were. Every last one.

‘My children,’ gasped the woman, ‘said the new light covers would protect me.’ Ania’s eyes caught a discarded box of ‘VIRUS KILLING UV LIGHT’ on the floor before returning to Eleonora. ‘I think I need to go to the hospital,’ wheezed the neighbor.

Ania had her phone in her hand in a second but swore an oath as the various emergency numbers she had put into her contacts list all returned busy signals or automated messages to call back later.

‘God-fucking-damn-it.’ The old woman was far too out of it to chastise Ania for her outburst as she grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and turned it about. She made her way back to the front door pushing the woman ahead. Outside, the darkness had descended into Venice.

—-

Even going to the hospital, they would still have to pass the Santa Guistina church. Eyes sharply casting about for any signs of a stalker, Ania turned the wheelchair before her onto the canal-adjacent street and began pushing past the building. The church had become lit up as the skies had darkened, giving the black waters and shadow-cast buildings around a faint and eerie reflective aura.

Ania gradually maneuvered herself and her charge to be directly parallel to the canal and across the street from the church. If anyone were to approach, they would be backlit. It only took a minute for her precaution to pay off.

A figure detached itself from the shadows at the base of the church and made its way towards her. The light was too poor to see details, but Ania could see the glow of the church lights reflect from bright red shoes and shining black leather gloves. At the top of this confidently and deliberately striding figure was a melting mask like that of a human blobfish. Its wax glistened repellently.

Beneath their masks both Ania and Eleanora screamed.

‘I am a vital state worker! I have a pass!’ Ania shouted.

Without breaking their stride, the attacker kept up at the same pace, now only a few meters away from them. There was almost an imperceptible nod towards the old woman in the wheelchair as if to ask ‘but does she?’

There was a scrape of metal against leather and the flash a long glistening knife. Ania let go of the wheelchair and stepped between it and the approaching figure. ‘No.’ It was barely a whisper that escaped her lips, but the determination behind it surprised even herself.

The knife was raised, pointed downward, and swept towards her. The figure was taller and broader than her but not faster. Self-defense course training from college kicked in and Ania sidestepped to the left. The knife flashed by her face, barely missing it. Open palmed, she struck the waxen mask.

There was the sickening sensation of lukewarm candle. A brief and confused thought flitted through Ania’s mind for just a second before she struck again: That is no mask.

Kneeing the off-balance attacker in the center of mass, she was able to stagger her foe. The knife fell. She pushed the stalker away and made a grab for the weapon. Grasping black gloves fumbled as she brought up the steel blade and failed to stop her relentless assault.

Again and again she thrust forward. Each time the knife came back redder. There were no cries or screams. Blank eyes buried within that melting face seemed to stare through her impassively as she screamed in primal rage. The figure toppled and Ania fell on top of it, knife still plunging.

So it continued until the attacker moved no more.

Shaking, Ania dropped the knife with a clatter upon the stone street. She was covered in blood. She turned and staggered back to Eleanora’s wheelchair.

The old woman’s eyes bugged out like grotesque glistening orbs. Her mouth frozen in a panicked scream. Ania had seen more than enough corpses to know it was too late. Eleanora’s frail heart must have given out in the panic of the attack.

Ania stripped off her blood-soaked gloves and reached for her phone, trying the police, the hospital, any institution once again. She received no response. A frustrated scream boiled out of her and she tossed the phone into the canal before falling to her knees and sobbing.

—-

It was almost opening time for the crematorium and Ania had completed most of her unofficial tasks for the night. Eleanora, per state mandate, was going to be denied a public funeral and as an infected person would have to be cremated anyway. This had already been completed. It was a second body she was preparing now.

There had been no forms of identification on the figure. Everything was loaded onto the oven trestle, gloves, shoes, and all, into the oven. Alessandro had been right, the canal stalker had a useful role to play in public health. Best to just disappear and remain a looming threat than a saga cleanly ended in the public mind.

Then Ania’s eyes caught the red on the shoes and her mind spun back to the UV lights in Eleanora’s apartment. She made sure to grab the knife before sending the body into the oven.

In fact, she thought, it might be best for the stalker to get one more stab at the headlines.

 —-

The middle-aged brother and sister were knocking on their mother’s apartment door. ‘She isn’t answering. She might not hear you.’ The woman crossed her arms impatiently as the man kept striking the door. He hit harder and the force caused the door to swing inward.

The siblings entered. Everything was bathed in red light. ‘Well, she put the lights up. That at least means she doesn’t have to worry so much.’ The brother turned to the sister, ‘probably in bed.’

The door slammed shut behind them and the lock clicked. The siblings spun around and recoiled. Between them and the door stood a figure swathed in black clothing, black gloves twisting around the hilt of a knife which glinted red in the light of the apartment’s interior. A shocking waxen mask had been constructed around a nurse’s face mask and surgical goggles.

The siblings screamed and cowered as Ania advanced in silence.

………………………………………………………………………………………………..

libretto di sangui

Now, for some added bonus content, here is an old giallo style movie poster I made for what was going to be another story years ago but I never ended up writing. Though a few of the ideas ended up going into the above tale.

A Speculative Realist Review of ‘History of the Tantric Religion’

chinnamasta

Those who have followed this blog since its inception in late 2015/early 2016 know that while it is mostly an international relations, politics, and history blog it has also gradually become a place to explore my journey into the new philosophical school of speculative realism. I have been gradually working my way through constructing a geopolitical take on speculative realism. In so doing I have also been inspired to engage with philosophical positions that come from South and East Asia as I have seen some obvious parallels between some of those schools of thoughts and the rebirth of metaphysical materialism in some sectors of ‘western’ philosophy. Above all, the worldviews with a Tantric side seem to offer the most interesting overlap.

Tantra is not in fact what most westerners who hear the term believe it to be. According to the school of Californian Buddtology, Tantra is feeling all mystical about having sex in weird postures. While it is certainly true that contemporary Tantra has some optional sex practices as part of its ritual culture, I have a feeling your average Cilantro-Botoxian from the Hollywood Hills would find little in common with the philosophy behind the movement if they ever actually bothered to read about it.

As an atheist and hard materialist myself, I naturally wanted to read about Tantra from as secular and scholarly a source as I could find. Fortunately, I was able to locate the second revised edition of N.N. Bhattacharyya’s ‘History of the Tantric Religion.’ I am not interesting in converting, after all, but rather understanding more fully this school of thought that presaged speculative realism by thousands of years. And this book delivered.

It is both a history of the thought trend and also an exploration into its themes. Many of these themes have been diluted or merged with more mainstream thought over time, leading Tantra today to have the reputation of something that is more about technique rather than a distinct world view on its own.

In its beginning, Bhattacharyya shows us that Tantra was an anti-establishment impulse that came from women and the lower castes of society. In direct opposition to Brahmannical divorce from the real world to follow abstract ideology (insert joke about woke neoliberal overlords here) an organic take on Hinduism and Buddhism arose which centered not the abstract goals of a priestly caste but rather the physical, real, and material. This was most evident in the relationship between physical objects-especially that of the human body, the natural world, and substances both foul and delightful- what could be consumed (meat, alcohol, bodily fluids, etc). Many Tantra-aligned schools of thought dabbled in atheism, skepticism, and controlled ritualistic hedonism. The violation of preexisting social taboos was important to challenge complacent thinking and transcend the rote wisdom we are saddled with that stops us from seeing the flow of nature as it really is. All of these schools were interested in the natural world and how the human body and the gods reflected this material existence. When gods were used they were explicitly stated to be symbols of natural forces to which we are only separated from by the illusion of human difference.

Sadly, over time most of these traditions would end up weakening and merging with the greater normie culture of medieval and early modern India. Others, such as Vajrayana Buddhism (who longtime followers of this blog know I have an obsession with the aesthetic of) effectively came to rule entire regions in the Himalayas. But having become the establishment those too largely lost the contrarian and material nature of the original school of thought as they degenerated into Llamaist theocracy.

Still, several core elements of this rebellious and wonderfully base philosophy still survive in many various deity cults and practices in South and Himalayan Asia today. These could be summed up (my own take here, be warned) as ‘the only way out is through.’ In other words, the way for a human to recognize their place as part of an unfolding natural process is to de-emphasize socially constructed protocol (caste, class, moralism, absolute idealism) for confronting the base nature of everything head on. Afraid of death? Spend time meditating upon the charnel grounds. Afraid of becoming a slave to the passions? Indulge in all of the passions in a disciplined manner so that you eventually grow tired of excess and regulate them in a rational manner. Afraid of violence and strife? Adopt the iconography and terms of war and slaughter in the form of wrathful deities, whose fearsome aspect is then turned from something shocking potentially directed against you into something powerful that is now on your own side. The practice of focusing on ones personal selection of deities is often a major part of this, as the gods most associated with Tantric practice (such as Chinnamasta, pictured above) are often grotesque, their power overflowing in fountains of gore, limbs, bones worn as decorations, and yet dancing through it all. They show that the most terrifying things can be internalized into something powerful and helpful, and turning fear from something to avoid into something to co-opt into bravery and critical thinking.

When I think of people around the speculative realist movement who do this Graham Harman and Ray Brassier come to mind, if in different ways. Harman wants to rub the fact that you are an object, and therefore that ‘objectification’ is not only not a bad thing but an honest and true claim, in your face. Brassier wants to bring philosophical nihilism out from the edgy teenager/depressive persons territory and claim it as simply objective truth to be confronted directly as fact before moving on to anything else.

In a way we all do this to some level without realizing it. People enjoy horror movies for cathartic or thrill seeking reasons even if (and sometimes especially if) they are the kinds of people who shrink from conflict and danger. I professionally advocate for tearing down the perpetual war state for strategic reasons but love military history and war movies. I can also speak from personal experience that the most effective means I ever came across for confronting and managing my situational depression when it flares up was to indulge it critically. This meant  treating it more like an annoying acquaintance than an enemy, indulging it just enough to integrate myself with the experience before realizing it didn’t really matter because it was just systems responding irrationally. Interestingly, the most effective way of speeding up this process is very Tantric…I watch as many depressing movies and read as many depressing books as possible. Eventually, by charging directly through you end up punching right past being stuck. It becomes a challenge of a sorts, ‘oh you think that is bad? I’ll show you worse!’ By the end of it you sort of win the game or you get sick of playing. Either way, crisis averted because now you are thinking entirely differently from when you started. In the process you learn self-discipline so the potential for even gaining knowledge is there too.

In an era where shrinking violets control the discourse and seek to avoid uncomfortable topics is a moralizing version of anti-intellectualism, I can think of no better way of thought to counteract this Tipper Gore-ish trend than that of subversive Tantric methods of thinking.

Guess that explains my love of black metal. If there is one genre of music that could fit this topic, its surely that.

 

Paul Ryan’s Pandemic

paul ryan workout
Preemptive apologies for the odd formatting of this post, wordpress seems to be struggling with depicting spacing as it appears in the writing box when posting. Getting paragraph breaks appears to be haraam today.
I would hardly consider myself a coronavirus alarmist. I am far more concerned about the public panic and response than the disease itself. Still, it is already having real effects on global markets so it is worth talking about why some countries respond much better than others.
Not a peep about HoW aRe We GoInG tO pAy FoR iT to once again bail out the stock market from the ‘fiscal conservatives’, Paul Ryan Pie Chart Dipshits, and SensibleSerious Neoliberals. Imagine my surprise. Never enough money for bailouts and the Pentagon, but god forbid we have a healthcare and pandemic testing response system…or modern infrastructure, or name any issue here.
Meanwhile as our dogshit healthcare system collapses the worlds largest economy is shown more and more to be based on a house of cards of 70% consumer spending. The supposedly all consuming power of the American economy rests on people being consoomers. The utter hollowing out of civil society means that this tottering pre-Punic War Carthage model of empire cannot even sustain this fragile economic balance when push comes to shove.
Joe Biden, who I generally regard as doomed in a general election against Trump, might even have a shot now considering how badly mangled the Trump administration’s response to this issue is.
That malignant little weasel may have slunk out of the public limelight, but we very much live in Paul Ryan’s America. Nowhere is that more clear than in the pathetic U.S. government response to coronavirus. This is not to say that he himself is solely responsible by any means, but as the hollow empty cipher for the model of hard-right neoliberalism and austerity embraced by the most complacent countries on Earth he is as good a hate symbol as any. Almost universally beloved by the mainstream press for most of his career, he was by any objective standard, an utter failure as a politician.
Kind of like the ‘free global markets’ ideology, Paul Ryan was a vapid nonentity who existed only to serve massive upwards wealth transfers with slick superficial ideological excuses. This required huge cuts to programs that increased societal stability and group cohesion. The privatization of civil society turned everything into a consumer good, but its OK, because its chief acolytes were edgy.
But Reagan and Thatcher are dead, and the Clintons and Bushes are dying. Paul Ryanism is being rejected left and right not because he was rational and they are extremists, but because, under the time of the Ryan-wonks, it was the center that became the true extremists who lived and breathed for the dismantling of society. Meanwhile, the organized and disciplined responses to pandemic from non-austerity practicing countries are well on track to put us to shame.
For the body politic to recover we need immunization from the virus that is Paul Ryanism. We have let this pandemic of pie charts run rampant for far too long. Meanwhile, the young fogies who take after his lead continue to fill corporate boardrooms and government offices all across the United States, the United Kingdom, and other similar countries, striving to defend the dystopia they themselves made. Right now Pence is probably having a conversation just like this, but with more snake handling.

The Slithering Death of Bush’s Last Legacy

Afghanistan-and-Its-Neighbors

 

Two decades, one peace deal.

I am hopefully going to have a much larger and depth write up on Afghanistan’s likely futures out soon. I will post that once its done. In the meantime just a brief commentary on the now diverging fates of Kabul and Washington.

1. The second the US decided to go on its quixotic Iraq crusade rather than focus on Afghanistan and reigning in Pakistan vis a vis the Taliban was the second this war was lost for Washington. Everything since has just been an incredibly expensive buying off of the inevitable. Afghanistan’s mere location in the world ensured it could never be a long term development project like some US cold war allies were (Thailand, South Korea). I still blame Bush and Pakistan first for this and everyone should really. Before that point this war was indeed (briefly) winnable. And it should have been won then. Everyone save the Taliban would have been better off.

2. Though Afghanistan’s immediate future will enter a dark readjustment, the long term prospects are what they have always been due to geography. China and Russia matter more in the fate of Afghanistan than America ever really could. Even if the Taliban take power totally (not a certainty, state failure or a splitting of country factions seem at least as likely) the situation has changed enough that other powers will act to contain any designs they have outside of the country. Russia and China’s capabilities are much greater than they were in 2000 and the 90s. Also, the Taliban does not get along with ISIS and even fights them quite effectively now, a trend that will only increase as the common American foe leaves. The Taliban have to be somewhat tired of war. It would be unwise for them to take part in any more international schemes, and if they do it will most likely target Ashgabat, Dushanbe, and Urumqi than NYC or Paris (still unwise). Local powers will find containing a resurgent Taliban from outside Afghanistan’s borders a more sustainable long term project than America could from this incredibly vulnerable position within the country. They are also more likely to be able to successfully negotiate with them since they cannot be waited out like distant America could. And the only country truly capable of reigning in Pakistan is their patron China.

3. From the US perspective its very important that once we leave Afghanistan we no longer have to rely on Pakistan for anything. The U.S. re balance towards India (and the admitting that Pakistan was always a Chinese goon before it ever could be an American goon) has infinitely more geopolitical significance to Washington than anything that ever happened in Afghanistan-including the Soviet invasion itself. Having to rely on Pakistan for logistics has really deformed this process.

So the U.S. lost the war in a sense. It negotiated itself out of a failure for only promises that might not be kept. But rather than being weakened, its likely strengthened on the world stage. No longer does this small outpost surrounded by rivals tie a maritime power to remote mountains deep in Eurasia. Security efforts move towards Moscow and Beijing’s pocketbook. And the Taliban ‘won’ but only in a way where they now face a local system even more likely to check their ambitions than before.

So who actually won here, if anyone? In a clear cost/benefit type of way? Pakistan I suppose, but a stronger more assertive China being their guarantor against India means perhaps not.

I think if anyone gets out of this with a strengthened hand its Iran. U.S. forces out of a country they share a large border with coupled with the rise of a threat that makes makes other local countries view Iran (and its proven sunni-fanatic killing abilities) a more desirable country to partner with. Tehran is coming out of the cold.

Bloomberg is the Greater Evil

Trump-bloomberg-getty-img

Here we are. After years of the professional managerial class moaning about violated norms and decorum, those very same people are now turning towards a figure as personally odious as Trump and on policy arguably much worse in order to save them. Save them from what? The systemic breakdown of a dying neoliberal order is the correct answer but these aggressive presentists only see one incredibly dumb man in the White House as the source of all the woes. Get rid of him and it all goes back to normal, they think. Never mind that Trump is a product of all those normal policies that got us here in the first place. Orange Man Bad.

But these are not people who read books of history and political philosophy to inform their world view, but rather react to cable news and fictionalized portrayals of politics as seen in the pablum of Aaron Sorkin style programs. They overestimate their popularity and appeal because they all consume the same media, attend the same cocktail parties, and yes, share the same class interests. Consider the track record of the neoliberal centrist in the 21rst Century. Gore, Kerry, Romney, (H) Clinton all lost the presidency. Obama ran as a reforming outsider but once that was shown to be a false claim he oversaw the greatest loss of Democratic seats in the legislature in generations and only won re-election because his opponent was such a cartoonish parody of the plutocrat class. Hawkish centrists perform terribly not just on policy but in national elections. Meanwhile, the policies of Reagan and Clinton that the center defends makes the poorer more poor, the rich more rich, and environment more degraded, and the living standards and sustainability of developed countries more and more precarious and less and less developed. Feudalism returns through tech and finance with a shiny new woke veneer. These are processes enabled and abetted by the bipartisan establishment, its most fanatical elements are the lingering miasma of Paul Ryan’s disastrous tenure in governance.

And who best represents these bipartisan liches now that Ryan has slunk off into obscurity, perhaps hoping to be forgotten about as the tides of both parties turn against him? Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s tenure as mayor was like the Bush-Obama years in exaggerated microcosm. An already existing mass surveillance state  was greatly expanded into something that would have made East Germany’s Stasi shudder in unease. Stop and Frisk policies and his eugenics-level disdain for local minorities under his governance are quite famous criticisms of him already so I feel little need to elaborate on them further here. Perhaps more shocking to those not in the know is his depths of sexist ranting which borders on sexual harassment. I thought a major part of the liberal critique of Trump was his misogyny, but his own terrible record on the issue pales in comparison to Bloomberg’s in sheer frequency and vindictiveness.

Then of course comes the terrifying idea of one billionaire president being exchanged for another. Worse, Trump at least ran a pretty bare bones campaign reliant on donations. Clinton outspent him on the campaign trail nearly two to one. Being the grifter he is, he actually spent very little of his own money on running for office. Bloomberg, on the other hand, is purchasing media left and right directly with very little campaigning or small donor support. He is buying his presence in this election in a way beyond anything seen before. The Norms Nerds who tend to be sympathetic to his run should consider that this is more norm-busting than anything yet seen in American politics. If allowed to triumph it may well end any remaining checks we have on the ruling classes and usher in a new era of techno-feudalism, where all major political parties are beholden to different oligarchic patrons based on the social issues/values they espouse and literally nothing else. A never ending culture war to keep the proles divided and prevent any unification against their Lords and Ladies.

Considering Trump’s rampant racism and the horror he has inflicted (particularly on the southern border), one could still make the argument that Bloomberg and Trump are tied. But we haven’t even gotten to the meat of my argument. This is an internationally focused blog foremost, and in Bloomberg’s foreign policy views we find the true horror of his candidacy.

To say Bloomberg is an arch-Zionist even by American standards is nothing new. One suspects that everyone skeptical of just how close the U.S.-Israeli alliance is knows this. But his rampant neoconservatism remains largely unchecked by a media class who remain one of the few constituencies left in contemporary America where sympathy for that ideology runs rampant. Bloomberg was an ardent supporter of the Iraq War and still is, despite everything that has happened since from the expansion of Iranian influence in the region to the rise of ISIS-neither of which could not have happened without the American invasion of Iraq. He has come out for the other disastrous American regime change operations, whether they ‘succeeded’ like in Libya  where slave markets are now commonplace or clearly failed (at great cost to everyone but Al Qaeda and defense contractors) in Syria. He would most likely deploy military forces to Venezuela under the guise of helping our generation’s Pu Yi in Juan Guaido and probably not have even Trump’s ability to step back from the brink when shooting incidents happen between the U.S. and Iran. Regime change wars in the 21rst Century have been a universal failure for America and they must be stopped for our sake and the rest of the world’s. As we have seen time and time again, they also exacerbate the refugee crisis which in turn increases the appeal of the far right and racist politics in developed countries. Bloomberg would be at least as hawkish as Hillary Clinton on these issues. Hillary Clinton, who many independent voters (myself included) did not find a ‘lesser evil’ to Trump specifically because of foreign policy issues-the most important issues handled by the president it must be remembered- also tended to lose swing districts where war casualties were highest.

Do I think Bloomberg is likely to win the democratic nomination? Not particularly. But I do think he has a better chance at it than some others. Democrats seem not to understand that independent voters are not necessarily centrists. I am not, and I find most of the disdain for the democrats to come from precisely that they are the centrist party. I know for a fact that I am not alone here. But the party is convinced a hyper-centrist is always the best option. No, getting voter turnout with independents is…something Obama did as a relative outsider but not Hillary as the penultimate insider. Bloomberg would do the opposite of this.

I think Bloomberg has an even smaller chance of winning the general election than in the democratic primary. He is probably the exact kind of candidate that Trump wants to run against in a general election-out of touch, no organic support, a clear representative of the failed policies both parties support and thus a perfect foil for anti-establishment times. I remember an Ann Coulter (of all people) quote from the 2012 election. ‘If we don’t run Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee and we will lose.’ It is looking like you can take that quote into today, switch its party and replace Christie with Bernie (or even anyone not Bloomberg at this point) and Romney with Bloomberg.

But lets say Bloomberg (Boomerberg?) pulls it off and buys not only the primary but the general election. What could we expect? Here is just a little list off the top of my head:

  1. All of the same economic policies Trump supports sans the trade war aspect.
  2. Silicon Valley/Manhattanite/Beltway social liberalism used to disguise a further harrowing of workers rights, union power, and the like. The ruling class would keep getting more diverse in a purely racial way but not at all in an ideological way. Class mobility would de facto cease for most.
  3. More wars, especially in the Middle East. Possibly escalating to showdowns over smaller countries vs Russia. The worst actors like the Saudi royal family and Erdogan indulged to make this more feasible.
  4. A return to the 90s-era expansion of the mass incarceration state and possibly a re-vamping of the calamitous drug war.
  5. A greater ability to ‘get things done’ than Trump by bringing together the two party establishment, which means more of the above policies actually getting enacted than should be possible.

On the bright side maybe it will prove accelerationism to be true and we will get a true political revolution down the line? But most likely people will be so beaten down and disaffected that politics will just divorce itself from the daily struggle to survive for most people. Full banana republic mode.

Keeping these factors in mind, it is extremely likely that a Bloomberg presidency would in fact be worse than a Trump second term. He would be able to ‘bring together’ the worst people of each party and marginalize the few remaining best. He would empower the far right as a seemingly ‘credible’ opposition while discrediting most others by virtue of now being a democrat. This leads me to believe that a second Trump term (preferably handicapped by democratic control of the house and senate of course) would be a significantly less terrifying prospect than a Bloomberg presidency.

Trump is the weakest and least effective American president since Jimmy Carter. If Bloomberg is the alternative and promising that ‘Mike can get it done’ should we be in such a hurry to replace him?

International Order in Diplomacy- Book Review

mughal painting

International Order in Diversity: War, Trade and Rule in the Indian Ocean by Andrew Philips and J.C. Sharman is the kind of book that immediately jumps out to me. As an international relations scholar always interested in elevating overlooked historical experiences that break the absolutism of theoretical schools of understanding diplomacy, it is pretty inevitable that I turn to books like this whenever possible. If I agree with them its more people to cite on ‘my side’, and if I don’t it helps me refine my critiques and be challenged to provide a counter-narrative.

In this case I find myself largely laudatory. The authors are interested in debunking mainstream liberal, constructivist, and realist assumptions about diplomacy being made (be it by culture, competition, or some combination thereof) in a homogenizing manner. Where before the modern era there was divergence and gradually we have come to greater and greater levels of convergence as powers interact more with each other. This narrative has taken on the aura of teleology among some theorists.

This book shows that even with the rise of what is commonly taken to be the modern world (the European overseas expansion, Westphalian diplomacy) there was really no move towards standardization until the 19th Century. In the Indian Ocean in particular, where the book spends almost all of its time, European expansion came across to most involved on all sides of trade as far away foreigners coming to pay homage to vastly economically and militarily superior Asian states and access their markets.

In doing so, there was a diverse arrangement whereas sea-bound Europeans were extremely peripheral (but potentially useful due to this uniqueness) actors in a greater Mughal-dominated regional system of power and commerce. Perhaps most laudably from western academic authors, the book does not present the Mughals as ‘the old ways’ and the Europeans ‘the new’ but rather introduces the Portuguese, Dutch, and Mughals all as early invasive empires on the make. The Mughals had Central Asian origins under a Timurid prince after all, and only broke into the Indian peninsula in the same period Cortez was invading Mexico and after the Portuguese had entered the ports of the Indian Ocean. It was the Mughals who came to control what was then one of the most populous and economically dynamic empires in the world, possibly only tied with early Qing China. They had everything that they wanted and it was on land. The Portuguese and later the Dutch and English could have the sea. Of what use was that to an empire based in Delhi whose primary income came from agriculture? Indeed, it would be two centuries before the balance of power in the Indian Ocean would even flip towards the maritime powers. There is a reason that my own book, which tries to limit its geographic scope to being more immediately adjacent to the Eurasian steppe, includes a section on the early Mughal Empire. It was foreign to South Asia but very different from the Europeans and is an interesting example of pastoralist military integration with a new agrarian base.

The Mughals, like their ‘gunpowder empire’ contemporaries the Ottomans and Safavids, had empires that were changing with technology and bureaucratic capability but still were clearly descended from their nomadic ancestors. This meant that while there were certain core military regions, a diversity of systems and vassals were the majority of ruling tactics rather than direct central control. When Europeans entered this system they largely integrated themselves into this style but with a seaward rather than landward direction. It was only when technological changes made seaborn trade more efficient and warships more potent that the balance of power shifted in favor of Europe. And even then, as the authors point out, attempts to homogenize the styles of imperial rule led directly to major rebellions in India and Indonesia which even at the height of European colonial power and success often caused the colonial powers to backpedal those ‘reformist’ policies.

All of this is to state as a thesis that the systems of geopolitical power are not destined to homogenized, either in the past or today. Countries cave have widely different economic objectives, domestic policies, and systems of alliance building and yet still enter into long term agreements.

My only major disagreement with the authors- and one I know I have mentioned towards other books in past reviews- is the assumption that realism supports homogenization. I have long held the opposite position and that its one truly global thing-the Westphalian diplomatic system-is more an ad-hoc statement of decorum for getting along than a truly unified and standardized system. In fact, its major point was recognizing domestic autonomy of all actors involved to protect negotiations from religious fanaticism and archaic imperial claims. This is why in the present day it is China, and not the Europeans, which seems to be the largest scale and most consistent defender of Westphalian state sovereignty while North American and Northern European (ahem, culturally protestant) actors that constantly advocate for policies that interfere in the domestic affairs of nations they do not like. An ironic turn considering the reasons behind the original 1648 consensus. Much like how Europeans came into a South Asian (and East African, it should be noted) system as foreigners and then eventually became its greatest manipulators after a long time of adaptation, now it is China who, having the Confucian tributary system of being the ‘Middle Kingdom’ stripped of it has adapted itself to being a real Westphalian actor. What goes around comes around.

Be on the lookout for an upcoming opinion piece in the American Conservative by me about the utility of the Westphalian world view and the dangers of rejecting it sometime soon-edit, here you go. Had nothing to do with reading ‘International Order in Diplomacy’, just good timing there.

Considering that the Indian Ocean was the biggest pool of maritime trade anywhere in the world before the late 18th Century North Atlantic, it is imperative that IR scholars look at examples like it to further refine their theories. The authors of this book are doing a similar thing that I and others have done towards the Eurasian steppe (and what I want to expand doing with indigenous America in the future) in bringing sadly neglected regions and eras of history into the discussion of geopolitical strategy. International Relations, despite its name, is still a grotesquely Eurocentric and presentist school of thought in its mainstream currents. And theories divorced from history are nothing but obscure hypotheticals with little evidence to back up longer term trends.

Geostrategic Vamachara: The Case for a Left-Handed Strategic Art

mitlantehuchi

Its common in international relations history to refer to historical figures like Kautilya and Han Feizi as their societies’ version of Machiavelli. This is a somewhat strange order of comparison as both of these figures as well as many others in the global realist tradition predate Machiavelli by numerous centuries. It does show one thing, however…that Machiavelli stands out first and foremost in the European (and Euro-American) mind. This is because he has a reputation for transgressiveness while the other realists have one for sound statecraft. Because he lived and was first disseminated in Christian cultures, the societies where his works arose were morally incapable of seriously dealing with him until mass secularization started to make inroads.

Briefly skimming through my more recent posts here to see if there was an organically unfolding theme to my thinking that I hadn’t yet explicitly addressed, I realized that it must be this: Material concerns should dominate the thought of any serious political thinker and culture war is largely a secondary front-*but*-its a secondary front that can be worth fighting if for no other reason than to open up the possibilities of discourse and have a propaganda wing and aesthetics that help you win the battle. This means that even those who are materialists first are unwise to just entirely cede the cultural front lest they suddenly find themselves swamped in a realm of discourse filled with preaching, sanctimony, moral panic, reactionaries, and the reactionary-progressives I have come to know as wokecels. As one of my favorite cultural critics, Anna Khachyan, once said on the Red Scare podcast, ‘the internet has just made men more autistic and women more hysterical.’

Nothing made this more immediately apparent than this past week’s war scare. (I imagine many regularly readers of this blog probably expected my next post to be about that. Sorry to disappoint you, though you can read my prior thoughts on war with Iran here and an op-ed I wrote about the issue elsewhere just this week here.) Discourse immediately degenerated into flag-humping on one side and humanitarian whimpering on the other. There was little true discourse on the strategic wisdom of the act of assassinating Qasem Souleimani that did not dip into whether or not assassination itself is wrong or hand ringing about the internal structural of the Iranian government.

Having transformed itself from transgressive outlet to moral fad arbiter, the internet itself has created an echo chamber that abolishes discussion of strategy for strategies’ own sake. To admire the achievements of Souleimani is to be an apologist for a hostile theocracy in the mind of the public, not simply someone who appreciates a general who was good at their job in an era where few of any nation meet that criteria. We live in an era that, like Machiavelli’s, is going to try to suppress strategic and critical thought in order to uphold the pieties of the day. It is truly a new Great Awakening and also a potential new dark age. People are often shocked by my admiration of certain people in history who I obviously politically disagree with, but an admiration of ones strategic political skill is not the same as an endorsement of their beliefs or even the net impact they had on the world at large. This should be obvious but in our society it is not by most-including (and sometimes especially) the highly educated commentator class. This is particularly strong in the case of Protestant-derived societies like that of northern Europe and North America. So it must be admitted that those who wish to have real strategic discussions in these societies have to think of new ways to connect with each other among a hostile landscape.

Obviously, those with high rank and power probably (and hopefully) have frank and honest discussions with each other away from the public. But its sad that public discussion of strategy among lay people is so suppressed by the inherited cultural baggage of Christian, post-Christian, liberal, nationalistic, and other forms of discourse. It is my belief that a secular ‘left handed path’ of strategic discourse should be made so that the wisdom and art of various geopolitical and military decisions can be discussed among non-practitioners in order to provide an outside but non-idealist form of criticism not dissimilar to (good) art and cultural criticism. While, no doubt, niche groups online and in real life do this, they are small and highly atomized and still vulnerable to ideological partisanship. One still has to walk on eggshells and insert truly endless amounts of quantifiers to have any kind of opinion extolling the skill of a ruthless commander lest any comments be immediately redirected into one’s own sympathies.

So, to open up the space for this left handed path of strategic analysis a secondary culture war, like was alluded to above, must be waged. But it is not a conventional war targeting the masses by any means, but rather one targeting people with niche interests. More of a shadow war that remains above the mainline of culture and solidly with the recruitment of the outsider in mind. It would have to be subversive, transgressive, and for people deemed worthy. In many ways like the esoteric and left hand paths of tantric thought in South Asian philosophy. Despite being inclusive to ideological and cultural background, such an approach still has as many do-nots as dos in order to keep its core character intact and to remain useful as a network.

Below I will outline some things I think such a practice would entail:

-The rejection of monotheism and its secular descendants. If a person believes that one political, spiritual, or economic system holds all the keys to bettering society and policy than they lack the ability to appreciate good strategy wielded by people they do not like and will forgive bad strategy wielded by people they feel kinship with. If someone believes in these things but can separate these beliefs from their appraisal of the art of politics, however, than its fine. Its just that I believe this combination to be much more rare than its claimed to be.

-The rejection of absolute relativism. While some relativism is good for analyzing the art of power and strategy, absolute relativism will mask successful applications of strategy from less successful ones. Some standards are needed, even if they are flexible.

-Ignoring people with aggressively basic and uncritical opinions. People have been trying to work on these forever, they are just marks waiting for the next grift or fad. Don’t bother.

-People who show a capacity for critical self-reflection are always good recruits, but not those who are self-flagellates and guilt mongers, they are just waiting for a chance to make any discussion a morality play.

-It is important to place yourself in the circumstances of the strategist you are examining, to be able to judge them based on the criteria for a job well done that they were given by their superiors or constituents, not on the opinions we have about them today from whatever society you personally hail from. This includes transgressive thought experiments like ‘if my job is to eliminate my rivals so thoroughly they all die or leave forever, what is the best way to go about it?’ Thinking about some of the worst things you can find in history is often illuminating as to how and why the bizarre things that happen unfold.

-In order to expose more people who might be receptive to these kinds of thought experiments it becomes important to bring in the ‘culture war’ aspect. Never let this take over your primary goals but always plant the seeds of doubt in your audience about how limiting to intellectual growth certain dominant trends (from mass consumerism, wokeness, racism, religion, individualism, and other forms of stultifying identity politics) are to those who want to take their explorations to the next level. Always be aware of historical examples that debunk the placid assumption of inherited popular ideologies. Be an agent of casting doubt in received wisdom. Battle sanctimony like it was robbing your house, because in a way that is exactly what it is trying to do.

-Reject the self as the arbiter of analysis. Even the most powerful actor you find was still part of a geographic, institutional, historical, and technological assemblage. Individuals are just another cog in a process known as strategy and that goes for oneself as much as it goes for other actors. The most important thing is the process itself, not its separated out components.

-Never give up the detachment necessary to remain an outsider. If you want to really understand the strategic forces that make our world work it simply requires some level of nihilism vis-a-vis value judgement and the morality of actors. We all have enemies and friends and we all make moral judgements as to where we stand, of course, but this should never be conflated with sober analysis.

-And that brings me to the final point (for now). Treasure your rivalries. If you forget you have enemies then you forget why it is so important to know and learn from strategy. If you don’t think you have any I have news, you do…you just don’t know it yet. They might be institutions rather than specific people. You do not want to be caught unprepared, so if you don’t have any, make some. To be unprepared leads to a slowing or stopping of self-improvement through adaptation. You were born into a species of apex predators who have spent all of their recorded history and much of their prehistoric time on this planet being its own biggest threat. Our social bonds are strongest when they have something to exclude, and not everyone can get along. This isn’t a tragedy, its a strength.