Global Geopolitical Alliances and Nagorno-Karabakh

Can I call it, or what?

Of course the possibility I neglected to mention when I last wrote about this subject here almost four years ago was that Azerbaijan would use its greater levels of diplomatic and economic connections to rebuild and re-launch its armed forces. It was a possibility I considered, but as my primary focus on writing was on the concept of small scale territorial disputes in general and not this one in particular, I didn’t bother to go into it. I should have.

The struggle over the ultimate fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke out before the Soviet Union even officially fell between constituent republics of that late superpower, ended strongly favoring Armenia, putting the Armenian-majority part of Azerbaijan within the control of that nation, though the territory is still internationally recognized by almost everyone as a part of Azerbaijan. Though it is worth noting that in addition to the properly disputable Karabakh region, Armenia has also occupied some large parts of Azerbaijan that are not Armenian-majority in order to create a defensive perimeter and to negotiate from a position of greater strength.

In the time since the first fighting ceased in 1994, the balance of power has been slowly changing. Azerbaijan has sought closer ties with its patron Turkey whilst still retaining its relations with Russia, while Armenia has gone fully into Moscow’s camp. Though Armenia clearly won the first war and has had greater success building up its civil society, Azerbaijan’s economic growth and diplomatic efforts outside the region have borne fruit and made it a valuable trade partner to the region whose pace of development has been impressive. In the brief flare up in 2016 it was apparent that Azerbaijan could roughly equal Armenian military performance. In the current struggles so far in 2020, preliminary imports show that unless a major reversal now occurs that Azerbaijan holds the advantage.

Russia tilts pro-Armenia but not yet in a decisive manner. France has taken a position opposite of Turkey by backing Armenia, dividing NATO on the issue. The prevalence of Armenian diaspora communities throughout much of the world has tilted many otherwise indifferent countries media coverage towards Yerevan. China retains a position of support for the Azerbaijani position but without compromising its relations or interests in either country, as both are needed to court various Belt and Road projects in the region. Perhaps most interestingly, the strongly allied governments of Syria and Iran have diametrically opposite positions on Karabakh. Iran’s largest ethnic minority is Azeris, who make up most of the people of its northwest regions that border Turkey and Azerbaijan. It has expressed support for Azerbaijan’s position on the dispute in the past. Syria, on the other hand, views Turkey and its allies as its greatest existential threat and contains significant Armenian minorities within its borders, and therefore backs Armenia. It seems that most powerful countries would prefer the present fighting ends rather than continue and risk drawing in more actors. The field is ripe for diplomacy and mediation, but not interventionism. There is a clear international consensus, Turkey excepted, of not wanting to internationalize this conflict any more than it has been already.

But this may change should Azerbaijan be foolish enough to enter Armenia proper. They are winning, and they certainly don’t have to. They must not let victory disease go to their heads, especially as the problem of the disputed region still being majority Armenian isn’t going away anytime soon.

One of the more interesting things is how conflicted the U.S. establishment is on this issue. America has a large Armenia diaspora community with political clout, particularly in California. But this tilt is quashed by the fact that Azerbaijan has more connections with the U.S. through geopolitical alliances with those tilting away from the Moscow axis, notably Georgia and Turkey. This has led to a kind of awkward media silence. Normally, U.S. media dutifully drums up support for one side over the other in a bid to do its job preparing the public for intervention on someone’s side, but that is simply an impossibility here. Sadly, rather than get even-keel coverage, it basically means your average American gets none. It is also interesting because a similar calculation holds sway in Iran but in reverse. Despite Azeris being an enormous domestic part of Iranian politics, Tehran’s highest level policy makers are most likely more sympathetic to Armenia due to the Azeri-Turkish alliance. The more complicated things are for Turkey the less Turkish proxies have to be fought by Iran and Syria outside of Idlib. But Iran cannot take a position hostile to a country made up of its second largest ethnic group, where support for Azerbaijan is nearly universal. This is the most awkward position of any of the regional powers.

It also presents a great opportunity to re-open communications between Tehran and DC. Neither side wants a greater escalation-and what a great excuse this would be to get these two countries talking again. You can bring in Russia who clearly does not want to sever relations with Baku despite its pro-Armenian stance. But I won’t hold me breath.

The only logical way to make sense of this conflict is to hope that it remains entirely local and does not precipitate a greater crisis among larger powers and alliance networks. Any other opinions should be restricted to just the two combatants on the ground given all the above stated convolutions. Despite my ‘to the victor goes the spoils’ view of the 1994 war, I cannot help but have tilted more and more pro Azeri on this issue as this decade has unfolded. Azerbaijan has offered diplomatic solutions multiple times in recent history offering the full autonomy of Karabakh with a bonus connecting strip to Armenia proper in exchange for Armenian evacuation from all the many non-Karabakh territories it has occupied around the region. While it was logical for Armenia to occupy a cohesive defensive perimeter, there never was a reasonable solution to this conflict so long as so much of Azerbaijan-outside-of-Karabakh was under Armenian occupation. By refusing to bow to this reality as Azerbaijan’s international position grew and Armenia’s shrank, Yerevan effectively forced Baku’s hand by indirectly admitting that only a military option could bring them back to serious bargaining at the table. The fact that they started referring to the adjacent to Karabakh occupied territories as part of greater Armenia, if informally, didn’t really help. There isn’t much of an international market for Armenian Lebensraum.

The closest option I can see for a relatively equitable peace would be that Azerbaijan, showing foresight, offers this exact same deal again plus both sides recognizing some kind of regionally autonomous status. A weakened Armenia would have to acquiesce to such a fair deal. It would avoid Russian intervention against them while making Baku look magnanimous. Azerbaijan gets its core territories back sans Karabakh, but the Azeris forced out of Karabakh can return home. There is an international peacekeeping area of no-contact set up to oversee the territorial realignment. The danger to this scenario is of course that Turkey and Russia ramp up their involvement even more, or that Azerbaijan, seeing the winds in its favor, keeps the war going to the point where they lose control over it and can no longer appear as the magnanimous grievance settler. Just as Armenia’s annexation of Karabakh set off a never ending problem leading to sanctions and bloated military budgets, so too does fighting an Armenian insurgency in Karabakh and dealing with all the bad press from that threaten to undermine Azerbaijan’s recent gains. If the Azeris complete what looks like a clear victory with a peace that eschews chauvinism for a just redressing of grievance, they will gain much in the long run. Then they can join the Azeri-Iranians across the border in song. This is my hope. But real world experience shows me that knowing when to stop when one is winning is a rare thing in policy makers. I expect they will push for pre-Soviet breakup border delineation. It will be impressive if they actually get it, but it will be a poisoned victory that risks setting off internal problems or turning a victorious operation into a quagmire.

Almost everything we know about this war is through selective leaks and context-free combat footage. No doubt current attempts to analyze the battlefield situation will not hold up well. This being said, it is clear that we are seeing drones used at an unprecedented scale in conventional warfare. Probably even more for artillery spotting than for direct strikes, even though most of the footage out of Baku-linked sources are from attack drones. Vehicle casualties are high on both sides as the terrain largely favors infantry and drones that can hover over defensive positions. The Azerbaijani advances have been enormous in the south, where there is comparatively flatter terrain, and quite limited in the more mountainous north. What remains to be seen is what the plan of Azerbaijan was at the start of the conflict and what it has become. Did they think they could sweep over the region in one big offensive? Unlikely, but if so that clearly hasn’t quite worked out. Was this operation launched as a test of Armenian defenses a la the 2016 fighting and turned out to be unexpectedly successful so they went with it? Also unlikely, given the amount of logistics clearly involved in the offensive (though more likely than the grand blitzkrieg the Armenians are claiming to have heroically thwarted).

To me it seems the most likely option is that the Azeris went for a double envelopment that bogged down in the north and won big in the south. Given the terrain, this is probably what they expected at some level and they just wanted Armenian forces tied up in multiple places before they dumped their main focus on the south and the cutting of Armenia off from Iran and swinging Azeri columns behind the road connecting Karabakh to Armenia proper. If so, then the plan is working pretty close to intention. Here is hoping everyone can keep their heads and return to the negotiating table.

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Sidenote: I cannot help but notice that so many of the people who love accusing those that disagree with them as being ‘Russian bots’ or ‘Kremlin stooges’ have taken a reflexively pro Armenian stance recently. Part of this is constituency (see Adam Schiff), but Armenia is a Russian ally nonetheless. Its almost as if evaluating conflicts on their own terms is a complicated place with no room for moralistic Manicheanism in how different countries’ alliance networks work. Shocker! So, of course backing Armenia doesn’t make you a Russian stooge. Just like my support of Syria’s right to crush its rebels and spare the world another jihadist enclave doesn’t make me a Russian stooge. This point is fundamental for conversations with people who try to turn geopolitical strategy into a morality play. All politics is first and foremost local, and unless someone is paying you to construct a grand strategy or you cannot divorce yourself from your home country when doing an analysis, you should first understand it on that level. It does not make me a Russian stooge to support Syria’s sovereignty nor does it make me a Turkish stooge to think Azerbaijan is owed at least some of its occupied territory back. Neither does it make me convoluted because on two separate issues I tilt towards different partners in two competing alliance networks. It simply is what it is, the tragicomedy of international relations. When things get that complex the only logical conclusion for those not directly involved is a desire not to become involved.

Battletech: In Space No One Can Hear The Kali Yuga

”We’re still alive and we still have friends, and somewhere to stay, and its a beautiful evening and the dunes of Neume are singing to us. Those dunes aren’t just any old dunes, you know. They’re the shattered remains of provider-era megastructures, after their culture fell out of the sky. We’re being serenaded by the twinkling remains of a dead supercivilization, the relics of people who thought themselves gods, if only for a few instants of galactic time. Now-how does that make you feel?”

”Like I am living too late,’ I said.’

~Alastair Reynolds, ‘House of Suns.’

When do you realize you are living in a dark age? Contrary to a lot of recent discourse, its not something most people tend to notice until far too late. In our current era of flat-eartherism, anti-vaxxer and anti-mask activism, and postmodern-infused reality denialism, many people seem to have missed the signs of long-running rot for a sudden all too late realization. This has happened in many culture’s zeitgeist many times before. Americans finally realizing their society is in fundamental and probably terminal relative decline to its past strikes me as amusing since I have distinct memories of realizing we had crossed a point of no return back when I was a college student in 2005. That was the year the Iraq War really went south, the government response to Hurricane Katrina was laughable and led to no major structural reforms or climate change action, and the evangelical movement was attempting to teach young earth creationism in the science classroom. All of these problems could have been overcome with rigorous political action, but they were not. They were treated as aberrations and nothing was done to structurally adjust for the problems they exposed moving forward. That is when I knew I had already seen the peak of my birth nation’s civilization.

How is this gradual entropy of states and civilization portrayed in fictional stories taking place in high space? There is a different dynamic if we managed to get sustainably off planet. Though decline and fall is common to the genre it is almost always portrayed as rapid and incredibly dramatic, with star empires collapsing in a single lifetime. High space settings are by necessity somewhat positive about human chances in the future for the mere fact that for the genre to exist humanity must create sustainable settlements outside of Earth, something that requires major periods of advancement in our own future. However, many of these seemingly positive outcomes of no longer being confined to our fate on a single planet on one world are still full of cosmic horror, devastating conflicts, or any number of potential dramatic outcomes. Even Star Trek, a vision of a human positive future in space at the highest end of fictional idealism, works with a timeline where things had to get much worse on Earth before they could get better. Some visions, such as the above quoted novel House of Suns (one of my personal favorite high concept science fiction books) present an extremely impressive future that, nevertheless, still reaches a point where it tops out and stagnates. Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series explored what living through the fall of the first galactic golden age was like, but from the perspective of detached outsiders trying to mitigate its effects. Other quite popular settings simply use space to revel in edginess. Some few go for a smaller scale perspective on a distant world set apart from the main drama of humanity.

Politically and philosophically I believe that the most realistic and interesting take on the darker side of humanity’s spacefaring future is that found in Battletech. A gaming series originally designed for tabletop tactical gaming which reached the peak of its fame with the rise of the Mechwarrior PC gaming series shortly after its birth, it is, at its core, a giant bipedal robot vehicle combat simulator. Most people who play it, including myself in childhood, do so because its cool. Giant stompy robot vehicles with a ton of visual variety, combat roles, and customization. This is the core of the series and why it exists. Its lore and stories, including a long running novel series of incredibly varying quality, is supplemental to the main point of driving and commanding mechs to take into battle in the 31rst Century. And yet it is this lore that ended up, possibly by accident at first, becoming one of the most interesting elements of the franchise. After all, who would think that giant tall bipedal vehicles, surely a detrimental platform and walking target in any firepower dominated battlefield, would end up giving rise to a realistic depiction of what power politics would look like in a closed system during an era of decline.

To put it incredibly simply, humanity a century or so from now invents faster than light drive and spends hundreds of years expanding into an area all around Earth. Outside of Earth’s influence, great conglomerates eventually begin to pull influence over distinct territorial patches out in space, eventually consolidating in multiple nations often led by hereditary royal families. War is rampant between these states over contested territory. Already, human expansion has simply led to a greater scope for conflict. Unused to campaigns taking up light years of range and battles being for entire planets, many human actors resort to nuclear warfare to expedite the process. We have the inverse of Star Trek in a way, the near future is good, but the long term trend is bad.

Eventually, humanity does get a golden age of sorts. For an all too brief period a resurgent Earth under an ambitious royal family of its own uses politics, diplomacy, and war to unite The Inner Sphere (the major empires closest to the core worlds) and expand territory by taking over the far flung and more renegade factions of the periphery, on the edges of human settled space. For the first time since initial colonization, technology begins to advance again. The battlemech, star of the series, is popularized and expanded in numbers and a new elite class of warrior takes the place of mass warfare, the mechwarrior. But this is still the prequel to the setting. After an all too brief period of success (which came at great cost to the periphery who were exploited to fuel it), the Star League is brought down from internal intrigue, usurpation, and civil war. The major houses divide once again, and begin a series of debilitating wars against each other to divide the spoils of the old empire between them. The old Star League loyalists either retire to Earth to run the FTL-network company Comstar as a ‘neutral’ for profit corporation, or fly out into deep space to go into self-imposed exile, founding a new civilization out beyond settled space. Meanwhile, the great houses in their combat gradually begin to lose technology. Warships become rare and then almost nonexistent, being replaced by drop pods who can only defend themselves and disgorge land forces. The over-use of nukes makes many planets worthless, and so a switch to mech (and other vehicle) based combat around specific objectives returns space warfare to the ground. Computer technology backslides and far flung regions are not even networked and rely on a literal physical postal service connected to the nearest place where FTL drive ships can disgorge information. All of this happens over the course of generations, gradually, and no one really notices it except to feel nostalgia for the Star League days, now passed into legend and heavily mythologized. The introduction to the 2018 squad based tactical Battletech game, summarizes the tragedy of humanity’s brief expansion and long drawn out decline incredibly well with only visuals and music.

That game in particular really captures the ramifications of this setting better than any other. Mercenaries, the only people free of clan or royal house fealty, live in precarious existence through salvage. Repair and upgrading of mechs is most effective through scavenging battlefields. Industries can no longer keep up with demand, especially outside of core established military channels. Some of the same companies around today (GM, Chrysler) are still in existence as defense contractors, but their output isn’t what it was. Older mechs tend to be better, the technology to make them as well as they once where is now lost or prohibitively expensive in this new dark age.

One of the funnier (and almost certainly unintentional) signs of this process of humanity just repeating its past on grander and grander scales can be found in the art of the earlier books. The ‘Tex Talks Battletech’ series on the BlackPantsLegion youtube channel does a phenomenally funny job going through the 80s era original art of the game books and postulating on how many of the people were clearly copied out of then-contemporary fashion magazines and photography. This is utterly hilarious commentary on dudes with handlebar moustaches and mullets drinking in 80s style bars in the 31rst Century…but think about it for a moment. In this setting of perpetual decline what makes more sense than every fashion aesthetic that has ever existed coming back again and again over the next thousand plus years? In this way, personal aesthetics mirror the politics of Battletech, where the successor states of the Star League all constantly jockey for position over the same territory over and over again, their alliances shifting, but their overall stability and living standards barely moving if not outright declining.

When innovation does come back into the setting, its not for fun reasons. Those Star League exiles I mentioned before? They spent centuries going insane out in deep space and developing unhinged caste-based societies obsessed with war. Ironically, these neo-Spartas called The Clans were consumed with highly ritualized combat and were proportionally quite peaceful when it came to the scale of internal conflicts, enabling them to actually expand upon Star League tech and grow human material capabilities for the first time in centuries. But then they proceeded to squander much of this in an ill-advised invasion of the Inner Sphere. The Clan Invasion would jump start a complacent Battletech setting with new technology and tactics, but also wreak immense destruction over certain regions of the Inner Sphere. The Clans were often fanatical and bizarre, and they could only offer perpetual serfdom to those they conquered. Their initial victories were impressive and against the odds, but they didn’t have the numbers, the logistics, or, most ironically, the experience in mass conventional warfare to win in the end. To quote Tex’s video on the clan invasions, ‘The Clans had spent centuries playing at war, the Inner Sphere had practiced it.’ And within a short amount of time, many clan technologies and mech designs had been integrated into Inner Sphere militaries. Not just that, but for a brief period the clan goal of recreating the Star League did in fact occur-but not under Clan leadership as they intended but rather in a brief military unity of the feuding houses *against* the clans. Much territory was recaptured from the clans, and an entire clan, Smoke Jaguar, was successfully obliterated by the alliance before, like all things in this setting, this new coalition too would fall apart. Meanwhile, back in the sticks, the clanners faced massive unrest and rebellion as a result of their failed re-engagement with the rest of settled space. And the unity of the clans against other powers disappeared as they turned blame on each other.

Now, the clans are part of the balance of power much like the Inner Sphere and periphery nations are. Tech got a bit of a boost, but the dark age did not end. Humanity’s future of a space fairing Kali Yuga continues. Arguably, with events stemming from the rise of the Word of Blake techno-fundamentalist movement in the core worlds and the incredibly costly methods it took to defeat them, it might even be accelerating.

There is something melancholy about this universe built to have fun with stompy combat robot vehicles. But its not aggressively in your face. The processes that have unfolded in this setting have taken centuries. Many people accept them as reality. They may not even know they live in a dark age. Historians and scientists might be the only professions where everyone is fully aware what is happening, but being beholden to the interests of powerful nobles and militarists means their capacity to construct an independent voice is limited.

Where could a new black swan event lie, and thus contain the kernel of potential upending of this order? Such things may not exist in this setting. But if they do I am going to pick the region that holds my personal loyalty: the periphery. It figures that the only people who do not idolize the Star League and wallow in its nostalgia are the societies one who value some independence would most want to live in. Their living standards are lower on average then the Inner Sphere (mid 20th Century at best) but they lack the social rigidity of the those nations while also lacking the militarized edginess of the clans. I suspect that were it not for their small populations and economies that they would be outsized players in affairs. All they need is some nearby great houses to collapse in order to rush into the vacuum left behind…something that remains a very real possibility. The ruthless yet affluent and educated Taurian Concordat is probably the top contender for a future new dynamic great power, needing only for those pesky Federated Suns to take a major hit to get get going. But as in the Inner Sphere, their ambitions will go only so far before the periphery gets locked in and counter-balancing coalitions clip its wings before it gets too big. Still, in my personal opinion, a refocusing on the periphery for future events would be a great new territory for the franchise.

No matter what happens though, there could well come a time when galaxy has a new golden age (albeit unlikely to be a unified one like the last time), but certain structural cores of the setting would have to be upended. Decline can lead to revival, but in this setting it is hard to see how that is coming anytime soon. So we are left with a space fairing humanity. It hasn’t yet met any sentient aliens. It topped out its tech 500 years of so before the core of the setting today, and the thousands of inhabited and terraformed worlds only seem to have accelerated preexisting trends in human history. It is not an ideal future, but it sure as hell is a possible one for us. One we should consider being sympathetic too as a concept as so far our experience with the 21rst Century has itself been one of decline, decay, and stagnation despite (and perhaps indirectly because of) the greater expansion of the electronic era and globalization. And much like today, Battletech is a livable universe. Most places are not warzones, the average standard of living is similar to what we have. Its just…not going anywhere and has no constructive vision of alternatives which it could presently pivot towards. That could change for us, of course, but we have to make the space for new ideas and new elites to even fathom that first. One imagines many in the Inner Sphere think the same when they have the ability to reflect beyond their immediate circumstances.

Anyway, be sure to check out the excellent remixes of old Mechwarrior music on Timothy Seal’s channel while you ponder how to get by while driving your giant combat machine through the battlefield in a galaxy where the best you can do is survive this battle, this war, and the next societal breakdown long enough to build a retirement fund and cash out.

The Present Necessity of a Left-Right Foreign Policy Alliance

In a few days 9/11 turns 19. Old enough to fight in Afghanistan were it a person. Old enough to fight in a war began before its birth.

In recent years, all the traditional bipartisan norms are often assumed to be entering a state of re-alignment. This is most apparent in the field of foreign policy. There may be little difference between the republican aligned hawks and neoconservatives in the mold of George W Bush and Tom Cotton when put up besides the Samantha Powers and Michelle Flournoys of the ‘muscular liberalism’ and humanitarian interventionist crowd. There is, however, a growing disconnect between such people in both parties and the vast majority of everyone else in the American body politic. Especially in the wake of Trump’s failure to govern in ways contrary to the foreign policy positions he ran against in his primary and the Democrat’s continuous turn to shore up a Beltway Blob dominated array of bipartisan advisors. ‘Horseshoe Theory’ may be the rejected detritus of political science undergrad in love with their own rote-indoctrinated received wisdom, but the clear fear of this largely nonexistent entity by the national security state mandarins implies that were someone to even partially invoke it, it might catch the establishment off balance and make real gains before it inevitably collapses. Nixon goes to China, but for domestic lobbying. To see the effectiveness of that event all you have to do is dig into the history of Moscow’s flailing reactions to it. Seizing the initiative to do something unexpected is often a strategic principle that pays out more than the initial investment.

Stolen from this hilarious parody article.

Sensing the tides shifting against them, a coordinated effort has been made to merge the consensus of endless imperium into one cohesive bloc that can seize as many levers of power while the window of opportunity is still open. If this process is completed it will lock in another decade of endless war and regime change into the American foreign policy establishment as well as hasten our domestic decline by diverting money and effort into the Beltway’s perpetual growth industry of exporting conflict abroad. It is justified by invoking existential bugbears, training the body politic to believe that every great power rivalry is a battle for the soul of the world. But the fact is while the 1930s and 40s might be the model for our propaganda, but they were a freakish outlier. Almost all such rivalries are regional, non-ideological, and bear little consequence for the average citizen unless they turn hot. Even the Cold War, outside of those countries unfortunate enough to be caught in the proxy conflicts, cannot be viewed as an ideological struggle that it was sold was as by both sides but rather simply the largest scale bipolar power rivalry yet to occur in history. Change the governing systems of either the United States or the Soviet Union, and the most important detail still leads to a similar rivalry: two massive power poles with no other truly threatening competitors outside of each other. Already, the process is underway to begin again but this time with the Chinese. The Chinese, however, are (so far) smart enough not to couch their precautions as anything but safeguarding their national interests and autonomy of action. A ‘New Cold War’ could remain relatively lukewarm if the United States followed suit. Instead, and knowing the heyday of its focus on the Middle East may be closing, the U.S. seems to again be gearing up its Christian-dominionist-inherited (and now thoroughly liberal and bipartisan establishment) cultural complex to advocate for values-based conflict along Manichean ends. It begins again, this time against a foe likely not foolish enough to fall into the trap of competing with Washington for the ‘soul of the world.’

For American strategists with a sense of deep history (sadly, a rarity) it is obvious that the country risks over-expansion and that over-expansion risks the entire enterprise coming apart due to lack of strength in the core. The costs balloon, the deployments expand, but each commitment is less solid than the last. Presence everywhere is weakness across the globe, not strength in a specific region. The more money that gets diverted away from internal science and technology, infrastructure, logistics, and adapting to climate change, the more this world empire rots into something like 18th Century Spain or 17th century Ming China…an outwardly impressive edifice just waiting for someone to kick in the door that then takes with it the walls and roof attached to it when it falls. The right does not want this because American power will end in humiliation. The left should not want it because humiliation breeds reaction, retrenchment, and xenophobia. And this is to say nothing of the immense human costs abroad. People in neither camp should want the sudden power vacuum that will set off a succession of sequel conflicts. I do not want it for all of these reasons combined. On this issue they share a common enemy more than happy to divide them with cultural issues. It is time to see past this division and forge the necessary links to lobby for a negotiated and sustainable reduction in U.S. global commitments so that over-expansion can be halted and the danger of a major world spanning conflict or sudden power vacuum occur.

There is clearly a market for featuring anti-establishment commentary from left, right, and elsewhere which is united in its opposition to the post-Cold War consensus. Already, the Quincy Institute has made waves in discussion outsized to its newborn and comparatively small status. But to be a truly impactful force there must be a left-right anti-establishment alliance on foreign policy issues that grows to the level of significant and fearsome lobby up on Capitol Hill. The kind of coalition that can give the defense contractors and the well-paid friends of Saudi Arabia and Israel a true run for their money at shaping the discourse of war and peace. This is only the first step of course, but here we are not even having taken them yet.

In order for this to work certain agreements have to be made to overcome the differences in left- and right-wing approaches to conceptualizing foreign policy. The first thing to understand is that most meaningful differences between the two wings are on domestic policy. Domestic policy, however, operates under a much different framework than foreign policy does. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ itself is a terminology that comes from the seating arrangements of the French revolutionary government and implies an internally deliberative body. Today it barely even makes much sense as a political label on anything that is not economics or determining who is a citizen. Even if one does find the label useful, it is an appeal to a greater authority of a single community for how a state should be structured. In international relations, however, anarchy reigns above the level of sovereign states. There is no powerful entity capable of restraining the ambitions and foibles or large states. Bilateral relations and exclusionary alliances reign supreme. Universalism in intent or purpose does not exist in the inter-state system.

Whatever cultural or budgetary disagreements held by left and right can therefore be separated from foreign policy convergence against militarism, endless war, and a truly disproportionate defense budget. I know many more inclined to be on the left (including myself, if unconventionally) who think the coverage of foreign policy issues in The American Conservative is among the best around today. I know many on the right who look at issues-based alliances between Rand Paul with Tulsi Gabbard and ‘Ro Khanna on foreign affairs with a point of pride. These are pretty mainstream examples, but there is where the discussion should start in terms of accessibility. The point is to win over as much of the public as possible when you want to change policy, even if before that point all unpopular or unrepresented causes must inevitably and probably preferably begin in some level of esotericism.

In order to overcome any reticence on either side, a few points of divergence have to be overcome first when discussing foreign policy. To do this the left must concede to the idea of state sovereignty as an absolute bulwark of international affairs, and the right must concede that American Exceptionalism is nothing but a vehicle of jingoistic chauvinism. While not all actors in either camp are beholden to these ideologies, both are quite common and present the largest stumbling block towards coming together.

The importance of sovereignty as an upholder of stable diplomatic relations means both liberals and leftists must de-emphasize universal internationalism as an ideology guiding their world view. This would also be wise because most international institutions in the present era are heavily infiltrated by people who support American actions at spreading invasive and messianic economic and political interventionism to developing countries. There is no point in an internationalism that must play second fiddle to the currently declining neoliberal project in the first place. With this also comes dropping any kind of narrative of universal human progress. International relations are an exercise in crisis management and not social engineering. Besides, as I wrote recently for The Hill, there are many strategic and stabilizing benefits for the general public to adopting such a doctrine.

On the other side, the right must give up the siren song of exceptionalism and the Reagan derived ‘shining city on a hill’ vision of the United States as a uniquely virtuous actor. Nationalism cannot blind advocates of restraint from the cold realities of geopolitics, where self-interested actors exploit circumstantial advantages in a setting where no greater authority regulates state behavior. Either no countries are uniquely virtuous or all of them are virtuous in different ways-which is effectively the same thing. There are no such things as exceptionalism in international politics save more effective and less effective strategies. If individuals should not be special snowflakes, neither should states. We can even call this new stance ‘The Hadrian Doctrine’ to appeal to that common conservative love of the classics.

If these points can be agreed upon by both wings- even in a broad way-then the overall project of building a large movement ready to take on the endless war lobby can go ahead. Military force as a last rather than first option, diplomacy that benefits the citizen rather a few centrist ideologues and defense contractors, and a general commitment to avoiding further expansion of an already unsustainably large overseas empire. This needs to be something actively worked on to be grown into a ‘Restraint Lobby’ that wields coordinated power in DC. Such an attempt must be made before the consolidation of the center around a bipartisan neoconservatism (or the attempts of a desperate and incompetent president) returns to plunge us into another era of imperial calamity.

Perhaps a first small-scale test case is needed where I specific policy can be targeted. Knowing how many on both the left and right feel about Syria, I would recommend starting to make the case there. And in my own way, I already have. I hope others join me and we can grow this into something bigger and more coordinated.

Swat Kats: Our Radikkal Future

1993’s ‘Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron’ contains shredding guitar music, toxic sludge-caused mutants, dinosaurs back from the dead, cyborg criminal organizations, and of course cats flying jets fighting kaiju style monsters. So its clearly escapist fantasy operating under the rule-of-cool and has nothing to do with humanity’s coming future in the anthropocence….or does it?

If you need a primary on the show this will work.

When I re-watched the series (two seasons originally broadcast in 1993-4 and first seen by a then very little version of myself) a few years back, a thought occurred to me. This thought was sans the cartoon animal and supernatural parts, this was a vision of present trends come to life. Better yet, it was not a worse-case or best-case scenario but a pretty balanced one of what society might look like post-environmental and societal collapse. Specifically, after the recovery of the initial downsizing.

The show is not explicitly post-apocalyptic. It is also not big on world building outside of aesthetics and plot excuses. The standard of living for your average person seems normal for industrialized nations. There are few signs of significant poverty and most people’s living seem to float somewhere between late 20th century NATO and the upper echelons of the Cold War era Eastern Bloc such as Hungary. Gradually, however, the more of the show you watch the more you can’t shake that Megakat City is a giant megalopolis that grew out of a battered hellscape in the same way that Egypt’s original Nile Valley civilization grew out of the desertification of the Sahara. All shots of outdoor places outside of the city are at best arid and at worst utterly barren. There is wreckage everywhere. You might be tempted to think that the place is just a stand in for Los Angeles or something, but there is a time travel episode that clearly shows that once this same land was utterly lush green and forested. We aren’t talking about the normal tens of thousands or millions of years needed for such changes to occur naturally, as this distant past is medieval…which implies that if we are operating on a similar technological time frame for this world as our own, it can’t be more than a thousand or so years in the past.

Then there is the city itself. Its the only city we ever see directly in the show, even though other cities/countries are confirmed to exist due to the recurring trope of foreign investors visiting the city who the bumbling poltroon of a mayor is always trying to impress. These foreigners are distinctly different in accent and appearance (in perhaps a familiar way) but are still cats, implying sentient life on this world is uniformly one species. There is also a vast wasteland separating MegaKat City from its neighbors. Possibly, all such states are mega-cities scattered like oasis-es in a post-industrial desert. But at the very least this region is a confined city state. And the city is huge. Agriculture seems to only exist in its immediate proximity, much like how cities were before the industrial revolution and the shift to port-centric growth for urban places.

Within that city are tons of toxic pollutants, though most seem to be long standing problems rather than immediate present day problems. In addition to causing monsters and bizarre mutations that seem to cluster among the criminal element of society, such toxicological wonderlands are used by a large number of unethical/mad scientists for their own ends. This both implies that that the city has a barely suppressed underground to match its dark environmental history as well as a plethora of medically trained but utterly unethical people.

It is easy to piece together a rough outline of a civilization much like our own that entered a period of sustained and at least partly industrial-caused environmental decline, which unleashed resource wars (past conflicts are mentioned in at least one episode) which probably included bioweapons and chemical weapons programs. A large degree of Shiro Ishii-type super villains were created by this who then suddenly found themselves out of a job when either the populations declined enough to be sustainable or new energy/agricultural methods were developed to allow the cities to make peace. The world got much worse, then stabilized, but the cost of doing so was to later unleash a spectacular crime wave upon the city from the former mafiosos, freikorps-type displaced veterans, and bioweapons scientists who everyone just wanted to forget about.

The new peacetime regime of rebuilding Megakat City was in fact a triumph. A publicly affable and harmless seeming mayor as the front for a new era of peace and stability makes sense, but he was unprepared for the threat from within. The ‘Enforcers’ under Commander Feral are a war time organization used to dealing with threats in a certain rigid and hierarchical way that perhaps made sense during the dark era before, but is ill-equipped to deal with the new challenges of asymmetric underworld threats from within.

Enter Deputy Mayor Callie Briggs and her unofficial vigilante alliance with the SWAT Kats:

Much like how the Harding and Coolidge administrations were perfectly symbolic of the Roaring Twenties while also being utterly incompetent to the real dangers that lurked within society, Mayor Manx’s rule is inadequate to this new post-post-apocalyptic era. So Callie, the Deputy Mayor gradually seems to have usurped power from behind the scenes. By the time we meet her she has both a public persona as a hapless secretary and borderline overworked intern for the mayor’s office, but it clearly becomes apparent that it is she, through competence, connections, and guile, who actually governs the city. Perhaps she is a civic patriot with no public ambition, or perhaps its a canny game to keep all criticism and focus on a mayoral figurehead while she does her own thing in the shadows away from scrutiny, but either way it can’t be denied that MegaKat City only works against these new emergencies because of Callie.

And what better way to circumnavigate a foolish figurehead and an overly conservative and sometimes incompetent military/police force that is long entrenched in the city’s power structure? Callie also has her own shadow hard power, the Swat Kats. Two genius pilots and mechanics fired from the Enforcers due to Feral’s short-sightedness suddenly come across the resources to build an underground jet hangar, experimental weapons lab, and have a direct phone line to the *deputy* mayor? (but not the ‘actual’ mayor?). It can’t be a coincidence. And so, without changing the bland facade of peacetime governance, MegaKat City has a shadow government with a shadow military. The extreme superiority of the Turbokat jet fighter over Enforcer vehicles is made clear time and time again in almost every episode. Not to mention the clear superiority of T-Bone and Razor as special forces.

So far, you could accuse me of just wanting to talk about my favorite childhood show and make it spicy with some adult level political hot takes. You would be right. But my main point is this: SWAT Kats shows us a dark vision of the future after the apocalypse has been normalized. And any dark age eventually becomes adapted to and integrated into the experience of a culture or a civilization. In this example of MegaKat City, a full blown worst case environmental collapse occurred but the city survived and arguably thrives. Certain contemporary trends like urbanization and desertification happened to that world, but it wasn’t the permanent end of technological civilizations so much as a hard re-set. It would probably look like a crappy world to their grandparents, but the average person raised there sees it as normal and is glad that the only major problems they have now, though quite dangerous, are really just these periodic supervillian/kaiju attacks.

If we manage to head off the worst of climate change we will still have to get used to freakish weather, monstrous storms, and our continual curse of old people in government ill-equipped to handle new challenges. We will get through this process better if we change our ways, yes, but it couldn’t hurt to also staff the backrooms and facilitating logistical departments with people like Callie Briggs and the SWAT Kats, who are devoted to their civic responsibilities and commitment to adaptation, and not interested in public fame or vast wealth. Perhaps its time to consider hardening our own increasingly fragile societies with shadow organizations more up to date with the present day dangers we face. If the Covid Crisis shows anything its that the state as it currently is is not always reliable, but direct personal connections and unofficial organization can only be a net benefit for those who wish to act.

There. You can say you learned something useful from a kids cartoon cancelled by Ted Turner for being too violent.

The Black Longhouse

“You’re feeling the oppression of Christian hegemony in conflict with native animism,” he said. “Self-righteous, puritanical men seized this land. You’re also feeling the eyes of the vultures evaluating the sweet texture of your skin. The eyes of many animals. Animals endure.’

~Laird Barron, ‘Worse Angels’

What follows is a symbolic manifesto of sorts. Take from it what you will.

In a world built on bones there is an entire hemisphere that is especially shattered by abrupt displacement. On the northern continent of that hemisphere is the seat of a degenerating world-empire. Within that empire are a people unmoored from the reality of the ancient land beneath their feet even as it dies because of them. They cling to the ideologies of a failing state despite these very beliefs having brought them to this point. The universal idealism of a simple moralistic world and one set of values to make sense of it has not just failed them-it has made everything worse for everyone. The ubiquity of their communications networks brings what was once left at the pulpit of the puritan into an unceasing daily bombardment of affirmation for collapsing monoculture.

But there was a time that lasted far longer before the coming of Christ and Cotton Mather when these lands had no such grifters. Tribes existed and fought each other as humans always do, but had no concepts of messianic religion, ‘biological’ race, or the glorification of victimhood. These many diverse peoples were wiped out by an unprecedented hemisphere-encompassing apocalypse where smallpox and plague took the majority as a prelude. Then came shattered bands of survivors still alive in a time where the recently dead outnumbered the living by multitudes and were forced to respond to an alien invasion of technologically advanced extremists. They went down in a hell of a fight that took centuries and their descendants are still live today, despite the odds.

In their place came a civilization that broke all contact with this past and rushed to fill the vacuum with their own inheritance…but not all these things were a sensible fit for the new locale. Despite the cultural disconnect of most of its inhabitants, its earthy chaotic gods sleep much closer to the surface than the long-buried and fully domesticated pantheons across the sea. This is not a land of mellow meadows and shires, but of earthquakes, blizzards, tornadoes, and towering thunderstorms. This is a land that scorns weakness.

The newcomers could breed to the point where they were immune to native syncretism-avoiding the natural fate of conquerors. This further cut off the northern reaches of the hemisphere even beyond that of the rest. We live in their world now. But now, in the early 21rst Century, we see their world view cracking under the strain of its own hubris and excess. The opportunity to build something new is opening before our eyes. Something that fits this place better. Something that can at least bridge some of the gap between the incongruous ideological imposition of today and the natural state of a beautiful and terrible land.

There are those of all backgrounds and persuasions who find no tribe amongst the degenerating postmoderns of our time. They find the amplification of faddish superficial issues a distraction, the busybodies of the commentariat and consumer as the front for a past-prime ruling class in crisis. Witch hunts are everywhere as the fearful and ostensibly secular descendants of those original puritan settlers and conquistadores blame heretics for their own inadequacies.

Those who reject this status quo may find themselves walking in the woods as they travel apart from the trends. Let us say in the northeast or Great Lakes region-though it could be anywhere. The new growth forest of the woodlands hacked down and re-grown is filled with underbrush and small trees. Ticks lurk everywhere as un-predated deer strip the biodiversity as they spread like locusts.

Eventually these travelers make their way to a place deep in the woods. Giant ancient trees tower above in the old growth grove. Here, the underbrush is lighter. Flowers bloom again. Sharp unseen eyes raise their hackles as they know the deer tread lightly in this place for fear of predation. At the center is a longhouse. Those redoubtable large bark clad structures that could house many people and supplies. But this longhouse is different. It is jet black and angled as only a modern construct could be. It draws from the forgotten past but is no slave to it. It would seem incongruous to those who came across it accidentally, but not to our band our travelers.

On the inside they find the interior lit only by the fire pits. The shadows cast about imply a structure far larger than seems from the outside. There wait for them masked figures-wooden shamanic grotesques with distorted and leering features. Beneath this they wear well-tailored suits. They tell the travelers that to accept the uncertainties of a new future is to draw strength from a different past. The pipe is passed around as the masked ones speak of a land people belong to, and not a land belonging to people.

‘Mankind sought the death of Coyote, an animal once confined to the plains and Rockies. His attempts to kill it made it breed and migrate outwards. A century after this campaign began it has unintentionally spread the animal over the entire continent. Here, in the east, it has bred with Canadian wolves up north before moving south. It has thus grown in size and pack mentality.

‘The coyotes were misfits, but they came together to survive and perhaps for revenge. Now, they thrive while we decline. Be like this beast. Adapt to the new by breaking old bonds of safety. Your mouth must be red with venison for the flowers to bloom again and the ticks to recede. Face your fears directly and make them your allies against your foes. Come together at decisive points in time and scatter when countered. Always help to sabotage the complacently powerful and their defenders.’

These travelers realize their personal differences do not need to be ironed out-the diversity strengthens them. Here they can debate the most taboo subjects openly, shrouded from view of the puritans by the walls of the Black Longhouse. They have something more important now: common enemies. The missionary, the financier, the complacent monoculture that upholds them all.

As the travelers dance around the fire they revel in being both distinct and as-one. They know that their odds are low but that such difficulties only increase the glory of the fight. The future they want is yet un-defined but by taking the first step away from a failed consensus the mere possibility to building something new has been created. All of them now carry the Black Longhouse inside them.

The travelers walk out of the old growth region, through the moat of the striplings, and back into the roar of modernity. But rather than be sad as before, they see now that within this degenerating world is an abundance of new opportunities. Every decaying town is a chance to rebuild not in some nostalgic way for what it once was, but a new way to that leans forward and draws from a different and much neglected past. Many peoples, gods, and cultures united against a common old order and its increasingly hysterical defenders. What were the covenant chains of past entities on this land before colonization but the agreement that difference and divergence was fine, and could all serve a struggle against a common enemy? Such was the thought of people who lived in older longhouses. Already, one can hear the sounds of this new synthesis of forgotten old and dynamic new if one listens.

Somewhere inside a tacky suburban home at night, a clergyman (either of faith or of human resources and professional management) spots something outside the window. He peers through the glass to see the leering face of a coyote with wolf-like dimensions. The lights go dark and he screams, fumbling to bring them back on. But against one who sees in the darkness as if it was its own form of light…

In a time of monsters be the biggest baddest monster of all. And bring your friends. This ancient land demands no less of you.

Woke Xenophobia and the Left-Liberal Cromwellians

‘Yikes sweaty validate my trauma. Popery is triggering and the Irish are #cancelled’

In the Civil Wars that rocked Britain in the 17th Century a certain pattern emerged that may seem familiar to people today. Calls for reform went ignored for too long leading to an explosion of violence. New values came as a result of that but the people who most strongly voiced those values in positions of power went on to advocate for cosmetic retooling of social issues at the expense of actually changing anything when it came to social organization or fairness. Oliver Cromwell’s reign over ‘The Protectorate’ kept or even re-invigorated all the old institutions and preferred to focus on creating a ‘Kingdom of God’. Largely inward looking, Puritan rule left no great monuments (such would be prideful) nor works of infrastructure. It did not increase the living standards of anyone in any measurable way. But it was revolutionary in a purely social sense. Now England and Scotland were ‘free’ to ‘contemplate God’ and ‘perfect themselves.’ Free from the past and dangerous foreign ideas they were now nothing but slaves to the present. A serfdom belonging to a ruling class obsessed with chasing virtue and then creating a scarcity of it so that they could retain a monopoly over it. Pure Protestant pathology distilled. It was probably the most oppressive government that British Isles had ever been subjected to, and despite all of this it changed so very little in the long term.

Cromwell’s legacy is strong in all societies culturally descended from England. Especially in America. Wokeness thrives in the Anglosphere and most influences places with strong socio-economic ties to it. There is even a great Chinese term for it.

Just two entries ago I wrote about how vital and necessary the George Floyd protests are. That is still true. But unsurprisingly, they have opened up a vast power vacuum that grifters and charlatans have been all too happy to walk right into. Promising not meaningful change but self-flagellation, serious conversations on structural issues can be made palatable to certain demographics without actually threatening their pocketbook.

In no way is this more overt than in meaningless genuflections such as companies pulling past content as if the past can be edited to fit perfectly with the present along some invented concept of universal and eternal values. Animated fictional characters voices must now match their real world ethnicities because…reasons? Victorian racial essentialism has been re-tooled and repackaged by corporate HR grifters like Robin Diangelo so that companies can better divide their workers but do so with a woke veneer. Such were the tactics of the English puritans and such are the tactics of their cultural descendants today. It is not a coincidence that the most militant of the woke puritans come from above average incomes and often originate in parts of the country that are utterly homogeneous in a cultural sense. They move to large cities only to find their views are no longer edgy or revolutionary and they must invent new competitive standards to stay atop their the pyramid of self-regard they have been creating since their time in debate club or musical theater.

The weirdest thing of all about this purely academic and media driven ‘anti-racism’ is that its bizarrely xenophobic. Woke culture, a decidedly Anglo-phenomenon, is considered to be world culture. Much like the neoliberal economic models who they find themselves in company with, this is a project of world conversion. Starting with the now infamous Kony 2012, the general trend has been for large business and government interests to weaponize the ‘we must do something’ sentiment to increase military and market penetration abroad. The Christian delusion of one universal set of right and wrong and a grand struggle towards redemption lives on in the campuses, HR departments, and mass media. Management has more tools to divide workers below them. Whatever you do, the implied message to workers goes, don’t look up.

One of the reasons I suspect this is so xenophobic is because among the bien pensant posers who make up the followers-of-the-elite classes there are constant demands for ‘representation’ from fictional genres that are plenty diverse…but not necessarily in the English language. Film is global yet people who only watch Hollywood blockbusters and British twee-comedy are angry that they don’t see enough of the world reflected in that. This is because they are assuming that English language culture *is* world culture and are too lazy and nativistic to seek out and watch foreign films from across the planet. Something it is easier to do now than ever before.

Fiction writing seems the most relentless assault from these people. Despite regularly reviewing on goodreads, I tend to avoid most of that site’s culture because 80% of the users don’t read anything overlapping with what I read. This is good because on the occasion that I catch a glimpse of what is going on outside my areas its inevitably horrifying. The cultural dominance of crunchy wine moms in their 40s who still read young adult fiction is stultifying, and one can see many behaviors such as what I deem ‘checklisting’ or making sure they read things where the narrative includes only characters with a requisite of diverse backgrounds.

Almost none of these diversity-upholding authors are from outside of Britain and its majority white ex-colonies. The stories are often formulaic and an unspoken agreement seems to be that a woke present neoliberal veneer is to be applied to preexisting genre tropes. The only innovation is in casting *not* in storytelling. Since fiction is expected to uphold liberal values along with fantasy moral ones.

For just one particularly striking example of how this perforative diversity is actually nativistic in nature, read the negative reviews of Marlon James’ ‘Red Wolf, Black Leopard’ to see this phenomenon in microcosm. Here you have something that on the surface meets the criteria for woke checklisters (gay Carribean author, African influenced fantasy setting) that is aggressively hated by moral guardians/ex theater nerds and woke white women. They hate it because it is experimental, transgressive, and morally ambiguous. It is diversity in storytelling, not just in checklisting. And the virtue demographic loathes it.

Marlon James (and others less noticed by the mainstream) pull from real history and mythology to tell unique fantasy stories from across space and time. Currently, China is producing tons of new and vibrant science fiction. Horror writers from the Middle East and Africa are making waves and Japan has been plugging along since Edogawa Rampo. But if it makes McSkaleighlough Connecticut-Kaleton uncomfortable by breaking Anglofied expectations than it must be of the devil. What these people really want is simple good vs evil narratives, Lord of the Rings in blackface. The Christian narrative secularized into liberal gruel. An affirmation of norms highly specific in time and place but assumed to be desirable to the entire world. After all, without these norms wokeness would be impossible.

Mainstream Anglosphere conservatism could be described as an attempt to defend the honor of high school history teachers to never move beyond the level of understanding they impart. Now, mainstream American liberalism finds itself in the same boat but for topical culture. They can diversify all they want, but the message remains the same: There is only one way, the way we grew up. The deviate from received wisdom is dangerous. Everything works fine if the cast is diverse enough. Please don’t look for alternatives outside of Cromwell’s Protectorate.

This is a new version of the ruling class, but its still a ruling class every bit as out of touch and irritating as the one it is replacing. They don’t wear top hats anymore and they are very aware of racial injustice. But they aren’t interested in doing anything but mining it for their own social prestige and holding people far below their income level accountable for the problems that they themselves support and create. And if you fall for this, you are dupe. The mud-stained peasant who thinks Cromwell’s social purity and witch trials will lead to a better world for him and his family. Never mind that the neighbors were just denounced for breaking the Sabbath.

Here is hoping we can at least make it through this phase and live long enough to see whatever our cultural equivalent is to the restoration of Charles II.

Speculative Realism’s Mongolian Debut

Siyah Qalam Painting

Speculative Realism is such a young and often disputably defined philosophical trend of thought that it might seem premature to wonder what the policies of a government or society predominantly run by like minded people to it would be. There is no example that matches with contemporary strain of thought, but if we are willing to go back to premodern times and be a bit flexible with what we define as speculative realist, I believe that the Mongol Empire was the closest thing we have to a historical example.

I just finished the art and cultural history book ‘Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art’ by Roxann Prazniak. I am not going to fully review the book here so much as synthesize why it underscores the materialist-realist turn of Mongolian imperial culture. Prazniak writes about the exchanges that took place at the height of the Mongol Empire by specifically focusing on a series of major metropoles in the 13th Century, both inside and outside of the empire proper. Her main focus is on the visual arts and the traceable trends that came-often from the Himalayas and Central Asia-to influence Middle Eastern, East Asian, and European artwork.

What she shows with art history is the cultural side of an often political and military history point made by many before: The Mongols were cross-cultural facilitators uninterested in imprinting their culture on the conquered so much as using their critical monopoly over military and trade power to create new synthesis forms of culture which would serve the state and royal family directly. Those of us who are into the details of Mongol Empire history know of these trends but as far as I know Prazniak’s book is unique for its soft power and artistic focus. While most of the rest of us Mongolists-and I would peripherally include myself here-can recite the litany of ways the Mongols made bank on empire, we often don’t talk about where that budget surplus actually went. For further information on the book, see this review of it by a fellow author and acquaintance of mine here.

As a cross-cultural empire ruled by a group always far outnumbered by its subject people not just in aggregate but in any locality outside of the homeland, the Mongols sought to leave a visible legacy in pushing for artistic innovation. Having a particular fondness for Tibetan and Nepalese art, this once utterly peripheral region would start influencing much of Eurasia through the exportation of its artists and schools of thought. Meanwhile, architects from Iran were being given jobs in China to introduce new building styles to visually display not only the wealth of the new rulers, but also their clear breaking with the past and expected tropes of codifying imperial rule from such entrenched cultures as the Chinese. Considering the Mongol affinity for Mahakala, then considered a patron deity of the empire, this commitment to innovation against stasis really isn’t surprising.

Up through even the fracturing of the empire into autonomous and sometimes even mutually hostile successor states, the general cultural attitude of the Mongol ruling class was one of secular patrons who showed their beneficence not by endorsing the dominant religion in society or among their own elite, but all religions represented held by their subjects. Whether the Ilkhanate in Tabriz or the Yuan in Dadu (and countless places in between and even outside the empire) the proper Mongolian method of spending surplus treasury funds was to construct public spaces, religious buildings, and works of art for as many people as possible. A Buddhist khan would show his fitness to rule not just by buildings stupas in Islamic Iran, but also built mosques for the locals and Nestorian churches for his wife. To say nothing of the mobile Tengriist shrines that would follow the still nomadic army as it migrated across the country. This was backed up with the legal precedent of the Yasa, or the Mongol Empire’s proto-constitution, which disavowed the state having an official religion and upheld the idea of religious freedom. Back in a time when humanist meant much more than its present definition of ‘lame liberal’ and clergy monopolized talent, this was something new and big.

The Mongolian ruling class saw itself as guarantors not only of commerce, but of directing that commerce towards tangible material outcomes that showed their patronage to as many different people as possible. There was no ideological project of the state outside of patronage of the arts (and of course survival, but all states have that). This set off a cultural explosion of innovation and new technique far afield of the specific courtly and public square contexts that the policy was directly applied to. Most interesting to me, with my affinities both for Central Asia and the Himalayas, was the return of figure portraits to a Muslim world notoriously hostile to human depiction. Himalayan style figures came to influence Central Asia, Iran, and eastern Anatolia for a while after having been gone for centuries. Most striking of these are the Siyah Qalam or Black Pen paintings attributed to a single school of now lost artists which are often spoken about as if they were a single guy.

These striking paintings show surreal takes on life, often with nomadic people or traders as their subjects. People from far afield such as pale Europeans and black Africans are depicted, showing a level of world awareness for non-courtly artwork that is truly remarkable. Even more frequently, monstrous figures either intermingle with people or are the only type of subjects. They fight, play instruments, and wrestle with animals. There is no definitive explanation that survives today to describe what these beasts were meant to portray, if anything.

I have a few books in my personal library that have large prints of many of these paintings. Personally, my view is that Siyah Qalam artworks were art for fun. A more refined version of the marginalia that creeps in around the corners of European illuminated manuscripts that simply found its own subgenre that took off, at least for awhile. Its the kind of thing that can only exist in a political culture that values talent and stuff for their own sake, rather than cloistered away commodities for theologians and bored aristocrats.

It is hard to talk about a young loosely bound school of philosophy like speculative realism, which lacks any kind of common political project, in a way that can guess how people educated in proximity to its ideas would govern. But the Mongol example shows what a fully materialist-realist state can do when it rejects conventional idealism and articulates the governing purpose of the state in purely real world terms. It is an example that both incorporates many different cultures and is long ago enough in the past to avoid easy comparisons to contemporary divisions of left and right. It does, however, have a revolutionary aspect in consciously trying to break with the past wherever it went. This break was done not in the messy fit of a Chinese style cultural revolution, but through patronage that innovated and forced change through a type of dynamic artistic merger.

A future government run by speculative realist-aligned people, I would like to imagine, would be something similar. Not destroying the past, but not leaving in unchallenged either. A desire to deliver real material results to reinvigorate culture from its long and debilitating postmodern malaise. Much as Islamic art removed the human figure for so long as to nearly forget how to draw people, so too have we in the present era been subjected to anti-material idealism for so long we don’t even know how to have concrete policies towards pressing issues of ecology and energy production. Not to mention that most modern art since the sixties has royally sucked. Future societies surely would not lose out by realizing that we could give our aesthetic public spaces a proper boot in the ass, Mongol style in inspiration but adapted for our own times.

America loses the Mandate of Heaven and the Cops and Lanyards are not Prepared

I often talk about the lanyards in a foreign policy context and how our technocratic classes are incapable of seeing past such obvious bunk as ‘American Exceptionalism’ when they need to be calculating actual policy and real life circumstances. Events this week clearly show that this dynamic applies to domestic policy as well.

‘The Mandate of Heaven’ is a concept in old Chinese political thought that effectively states that the gods/universe are pleased when the state is governed effectively and displeased when it is not. This displeasure is often shown by earthquakes, flooding, rebellion, and disease outbreaks. Obviously, to the smarter thinkers in imperial China, these events-barring possibly some rebellions-could happen at any time no matter what the government was like. So they added some nuance to the idea. It wasn’t the existence of bad things that showed that a government had lost the Mandate of Heaven, but the inability of the government to effectively respond to such crisis that was the issue. This usually had something to do with appointments being made on personal connections and perceived subservience rather than ability, along with unchecked corruption. This showed clearly that the government in question had become a malignant force that needed to be restructured or replaced. Either a different faction of the elite or a non-state mass movement would then begin the work of doing so.

Nowhere is this concept more apparent than in present day America’s out of control mass incarceration and militarized police culture, which is increasingly in the service of profit and well connected private enterprise before that of civil society. Despite being a young culture on the world stage, the United States is second only to Britain in having the longest lasting uninterrupted government model in the world. That is indeed a sign of success for this model, but entropy increases with time all the same. A workable model may delay the inevitable, but it cannot stop it. When a socio-political model outlives it usefulness people start to take notice.

Ostensibly set up to tackle the spiraling crime rates of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, the most draconian policies of our present criminal justice system were put in place when the violent crime statistics were already starting to rapidly decline. This coupled with a growing siege mentality among American urban police going from community based to outsider-suburb recruited cops led to an alienation between the enforcers and the enforced more reminiscent of European colonial empires occupying foreign countries and governing them through constabularies. As the crime rate went down, violence on behalf of the police paradoxically increased. So did the percentage of citizens incarcerated. Until, of course, the United States took the dubious distinction of the most proportionally incarcerated society on planet Earth. For a society so obsessed with the often nebulous concept of freedom, what more objective marker could you have between a free and non-free society than the percentage of citizens in jail? But alas, the process continued.

Fast forward to the immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent flooding of police departments with military equipment no officer was properly trained to use but more than happy to deploy. Around this (probably feeding off of troop worshipping post 9/11 bellicosity culture) formed a newly militarized police force. LARPing like they were deployed in the Sunni Triangle in surge-era Iraq, American police roamed the streets busting down doors and filling surrendering and sometimes even random people at the wrong address with lead from M-4 carbines and other such weapons. With this turn came a new sense of entitlement utterly divorced from keeping a communities’ peace as events from this week clearly show. The Supreme Court was more than happy to give these grown up bullies added legal protection as well.

It is worth noting that American (and all western hemisphere states) have a form of policing intertwined with racial antagonism towards black and native populations alike. This is because, from the start, the tragedy of our hemisphere is one of genocide and slavery paving the way for European enrichment. However, to take our out of control police as a racial issue alone is to miss the the point and, ultimately, to redirect criticism from our dying political order and onto a more elite-friendly narrative of ethnic grievance.

While no one doubts that being a black male puts an American at disproportionate danger from police, this ignores that being poor itself-across all ethnic categories-is the ultimate indicator of police violence affecting someone. One needs only see the death rates of people detained in and around impoverished Native American reservations or the dark and bloody history of union suppression in majority white Appalachia to see that first and foremost the police are the protectors of socio-economic elites and the upholders of a rigid class hierarchy. But the increasing murderousness of American police culture cannot be honestly confronted by our presently existing policy and media elites because to do so would be to admit that 1. they themselves caused this situation, and 2. they benefit from it. So while the racist element is very real, when taken as the absolute excuses for all of this it functions far more as a redirect. A way to protect the powerful from deeper criticism and inflicting the blame onto some kind society-at-large. This is religious liturgy and not serious politics.

This is why social media is currently flooded with self-flagellating white liberals posting about how they benefit from ‘whiteness’ and promising to ‘do better.’ As if these people or their feelings matter one way or another when big structural issues come calling. There are many whites and others who do not benefit from our present socio-economic arrangement because their skin color does not grant them entry into the truly protected club: the elites of the ruling class and their enabling minions. Yes, the ruling class is disproportionately white compared to everyone else, but its purpose is to replicate the presently existing oligarchy and it will still do so with a fully diverse public face just as easily as what it does now. Look at ‘progressive prosecutor’ Kamala Harris’ record as attorney general of California or Barack Obama’s tepid expansion of all the mistakes of the Bush Presidency to show exactly how ‘black faces in high places’ without changing the system itself or opening it up to greater ideological diversity is a relatively meaningless enterprise. It is why a significant gay support base for Pete Buttigieg failed to materialize and why it is controversial that cops be allowed to march in pride parades. No amount of endlessly chanting woke shibboleths like ‘bodies and spaces’ can possibly challenge this entrenched power. In fact, one suspects its popularity among media-affiliated classes is evidence that is it specifically designed not to.

By failing to confront the actual power dynamics of our societal level corporate and security state hegemony, this masochistic genuflection on behalf of liberals ironically upholds the very system it wants to critique. Amazon and Apple are out tweeting ‘Black Lives Matter’ but the policies unleashed by the deindustrialization those companies support and that require a prison-industrial complex to uphold aren’t changing.

To reverse-engineer right wing racial essentialism into wokeness leaves scholars such as Professor Adolph Reed asking the vital question: What possible end point could this have but race war? When identity takes over as the final level of explanation analysts are willing to tackle, it just shows that America’s commentariat is so thoroughly removed from a systemic analysis of how neoliberalism ruined civil society and facilitated the rise of the warrior-cop.

But nowhere is this disconnect so obvious as among the very people currently in the process of losing The Mandate of Heaven. The lanyard-wearing, cable news watching equivalents to the eunuch administrators of old. It is the politics enacted and supported by our governing and private sector elites that led to the death of George Floyd and the subsequent rioting. And yet it is they who are most shocked by the present turn of events. Why is this?

One major recurring element of states in terminal decline is a class of administrators who become divorced from the realities of political power. A society that has been around for too long without major structural changes comes to take itself for granted. There is an assumption by the lanyard-eunuchs that what works for them works for everyone. They ignore that all political orders are upheld by force because the force is never directed back at them. When I used to work for the government, the American Exceptionalist blinkers could be seen running full force. I could write up a thorough critique of how a foreign countries’ security service was driving up extremism and sabotaging civil society and be lauded for it…then if you made a comparison to America people’s faces would immediately fall. The assumption in lanyardville was always that America isn’t like those other places. But while many of the security forces from objectively impoverished countries I looked at abroad were more corrupt than America’s, practically none of them were as consistently violent or deadly. Yet to mention this to the wonk-class produced only stony silence.

Then, suddenly, a spark finally catches the tinder and the violence of society is pushed backwards onto the sheltered. Now it is their police, their buildings, and their institutions that are under attack. They cannot compute this turn of events and thus retreat into elaborate conspiracies of outside agitators, both foreign and domestic, that must be responsible for causing such chaos inside their perfect and ever-improving whiggish society. While no one can deny grifters, charlatans, anarchists, and pot-stirrers flock to such events like bees to honey, this is neither new nor is it ever a primary reason why such things occur. Neither Soros nor Putin could trigger a cross-country rebellion. But universal suffering across the nation under an out of control police force and the corrupt system it upholds certainly can.

The truth the lanyard-eunuch is afraid to realize is that most people don’t really believe in America, its justice system, the cops, the media, politicians, and the rest of the package. Those things are forced on them and technocrats believe in them, but they hold no sanctity for many others. And why should they? For the Mandate of Heaven to remain in force a government must govern capably. Ours isn’t, and much of the technocratic class is paid not to notice this or even to excuse it.

As America descends into its Late-Ming period of blaming foreigners and revolting masses for the incompetence of its own rulers, it would be wise for future policy makers to take heed from this perpetually recurring trend in complacent societies: That the realities of hard power always matter more than the ideological justifications upholding it. Though one should be doubtful there is a cohesive message in the present riots across the country, the raw force of a backlash itself has already moved the needle on our disastrous criminal justice system. Putting the fear into the police that they so often and so casually inflict onto others may make them think twice in the future before acting. Without dramatic footage of often excessive street violence the issue could be sidelined or ignored. It cannot be now. It is now up to the governing classes to respond accordingly or one day face their removal. Then, like the dynasties of old, historians will write the postscript of the era with, ‘And then, their heyday long since passed, the rotten edifice shuffled off this mortal coil to the delight of many and to the tears of the corrupt administrators who had made its replacement a necessity.’

Cuomo’s Media Coverage is a Reboot of Giuliani’s.

Back three weeks ago when this would have been a hot take I shopped this piece around to various news commentary magazines in the hopes of getting it published. None took it. Not a surprise considering where most left of center mags are based. Right now its more common to see commentary like this starting to pop up so I can’t claim to be cutting edge anymore with it. So, enjoy this now somewhat out of date op-ed which I would still rather put here than have it go nowhere. Consider it extra bonus content I suppose.

If you would like to see something more current and also more in line the general topics I write about out, I have a new piece out at The Diplomat as well.

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A media darling mayoral mediocrity who used crisis to push a personal brand, all while structurally undermining the very society he claimed to uphold, Rudy Giuliani made his national name by standing around and looking shocked in front of the cameras on 9/11. Soon after, the massive and still-unfolding scandal of lack of institutional support for 9/11 first responders continue to beleaguer the nation. Giuliani then leveraged this and the quite debatable results of his ‘broken windows’ policing into an international grift and a comically unsuccessful run for the presidency as ‘Americas Mayor’, phrase it is almost impossible to refrain from adding a trademark symbol onto.

Cuomo now sits atop an austerity and mass incarceration gubernatorial regime akin to something out of Scott Walkers Wisconsin and has the gall to declare himself a savior for his response to the Covid 19 pandemic. It would be hard to doubt that without his recent policies targeting Medicare and hospitals the present crisis would be a lot more manageable. As it is, austerity’s record in Britain, France, Greece, and other nations should have already provided all the warnings needed even without a pandemic. A significant and compelling case has already been made that the policies of austerity played the most decisive role in the shock victory of the Leave campaign in the BrExit referendum. The necessary logistics for civil society to function are seen as disposable by the telegenic front men of the present governing classes while the upper income tax increases that could fund them are seen as unimaginable.

Why is it so easy for New York (city and state) based politicians to do this? To elevate themselves in the public eye for accomplishing very little? The answer is media consolidation. Almost all the big news networks and their pro status quo and terminally unfunny late-night comedy side projects are based there. Journalists and interviewers needing access to power need not travel far, and if they wish to remain in the good graces of the powerful it becomes far more beneficial for them to adopt the position of hagiography than of critics. When talking amongst themselves in private, the media class admits this openly.

What results from this is a morass of self-congratulatory groupthink between affluent, well connected New Yorkers and an aspirational but no longer muckraking media class. Journalism pays little and has largely been taken out of the hands of field reports and given to an increasingly affluent group of lifestylists. This is its own pandemic of patronage transmitted through cocktail parties and legacy media that dismisses criticism as divisive or unreasonable and upholds specific complicit political figures as paragons of crisis response. All while giving short shrift to the healthcare, municipal, farming, and grocery workers who are the true linchpins keeping society running right now.

For sake of context, it should not go unremarked upon that in the 2016 election both campaigns were based in the New York City area. It was an election between the two least popular contenders for the presidency in modern American history. One that ended in tears for the well-connected and overconfident donors in the Javits Center and the rise to ascension of an unparalleled collection of incompetent grifters. All of them integrated heavily into the New York media class.

Perhaps it is time to break out of this media bubble that exerts disproportionate sway over the rest of the world. Maybe then more people could talk about the comparatively much more successful approaches of crisis leadership wielded by New Zealand, Taiwan, and Vietnam and less about the fraudulent victories of Andrew Cuomo. Of course, to admit that societies still capable of mass mobilization and coordination that sidelines the market-first approach of North Atlantic elites might be a step too far outside the comfort zone of a thoroughly neoliberalized media apparatus.