Book Review: ‘A Mad Catastrophe’

Over a decade ago I read Geoffrey Wawro’s books on the Austro-Prussian War and Franco-Prussian War nearly back to back. I was struck by his detailed research, ability to find interesting quotes from multiple people of all ranks and nationalities that were relevant to his topic, and general ability to sum up military operations from as much of a political and logistical sense as well as one based on what happened on the battlefield. Now that I have gotten to his First World War book, ‘A Mad Catastrophe: The Outbreak of World War I and the Collapse of the Hapsburg Empire,’ I can say that this is probably his best book overall.

Wawro, like the best historians, has a great ability to neither pretend he is entirely dispassionate nor advocate for blatant partisanship. In ‘Catastrophe’, however, he comes the closest he ever has to taking a firm stand. But it is less one based around being for or against this country or that, but rather his scorn for institutional inertia and incompetence. Something that plagued all the major powers of World War I, especially in 1914, but seemed to plague Austria-Hungary more than any other.

Yes, even more than Italy. Italy at least had the forethought to play wait-and-see when the war broke out, and defected from the Central Powers for the Entente once it could. Their miserable military showing against Austria-Hungary (the only front Vienna would pull any impactful victories from on its own) did not undo that this diplomatic calculation was more on point than Austria’s mad attempt to re-start its great power game by trying to be the deciding power of the post-Balkan War world emerging after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s European possessions.

Wawro sketches out in broad terms the extreme decay affecting the Hapsburg Empire from its defeat by Prussia in 1866 until the outbreak of the First World War. The failure to militarily innovate is shown side-by-side with the increasing belligerency from an out of touch ruling class and military officer corps who knew their glory days were gone yet still stuck to a great last roll of the dice to pull them out of inertia. In all of this, of course, lay a thoroughly neglected industrial and logistical center. And the glue supposedly holding the rotting state together was a military so riddled with mutually unintelligible languages and ethnic groups that it could only be trained in the simplest of ways (mass for attack, run at them with the bayonet, use these three stock phrases you know in your troops’ languages to tell them how to request artillery support, etc). But this is just elaborately setting the stage as a prelude to the disaster. Like slow burn tragic movie that builds up an immense story line constructively so that you can really appreciate just the utter disaster when the story enters its third act, we see Austria-Hungary recover from a series of disasters only to lay the seeds of its long term decline. The royal family, the intelligence services, internal politics. All were rocked by unsustainable signs of decline and the necessity of major structural changes at home.

And when the car crash comes with the outbreak of war, it is impossible to look away. Sure, one of the defining features of 1914 was how everyone’s grand plans went so spectacularly wrong. No one thought the Russians could mobilize quickly. The Germans thought France would cave rapidly and Russia would be the real long term fight (funny how they operated on the opposite assumption in the 1940s based off of being wrong about this in 1914, with even more calamitous results for themselves), the Austrians thought they would steamroll Serbia, the French thought a commitment to the tactical offensive would carry the day. And everyone thought the Ottomans would be the weakest link in the Central Powers if and when they came into the fray.

It turned out France would stand strong, Russia would blunder against Germany (but not the Ottomans or Austrians), the Ottomans would over-perform against the British, and the Austrians would perform so badly that they failed three times in a row to take out vastly inferior Serbia, with whom they had mobilized to punish in the first place. This was compacted by Russia’s speedy mobilization and decisive crushing of Austrian offensives in Poland. The opening moves of WWI often are described as a big unexpected Entente win at the Marne and a big unexpected German win at Tannenberg removing any hope for either alliance network to get a quick victory over the other, but it was actually a 2-1 spread in favor of team Entente when one factors in the enormous and calamitous (for Vienna) campaign in Galicia which was only exacerbated by their simultaneous failures in Serbia. Soon, Berlin’s junior partner would become its vassal outright as it requested German officers, training, supplies, and reinforcements to merely keep itself going…something to tax and already beleaguered Germany who faced the allies with major overall demerits in comparative manpower and industrial output. Russia’s logistically unprepared army, shorter in rifles and basic supplies than even the Austrians were, still consistently cleaned Austria-Hungary’s clock on the battlefield, inflicting disproportionate losses on them and driving them back in utter chaos.

It is here where some of the criticism of this book I have seen can be engaged with, for, having read Wawro’s other books, I know he is not castigating poor strategic planning in Vienna and Berlin *because* they come from those locations, but merely because they were strategically inept. Anyone who has read his Franco-Prussian War book would know he had the same acerbic criticism for the French leadership in that war that he now heaps primarily on Austria-Hungary. Where I do have some criticisms of his work is how he criticizes the Hungarian portion of the empire for withholding funds for pre-war military modernization from the overall state. While he is absolutely correct that this played a role in the Hapsburg forces starting the war even more comically out of step with the times than France was (Russians and Serbs often just gunned down entire units of theirs in minutes given all they could often do was banzai-charge in dense Napoleonic style columns with minimal support as the Austrian artillery never had the ability to hold its own like that of France), his own accounting of the dismal state of affairs between Budapest and Vienna clearly show it would have unwise for the Hungarians to ever give too much to their co-partners in the empire. Since Wawro is so good at showing all the reasons Hapsburg troops had low morale, it stands to show that would apply even to the co-governing ethnic group as much as to the Croats and Poles. It was Budapest, after all, that wanted to take a far more cautious and diplomatic route with Serbia and Russia. Maybe they should have made their weight felt in the diplomatic field as well as the budgeting one.

And while we watch in both horror and enticed thrill at this ‘Mad Catastrophe’ unfolding on the page, safely relegated to people who have all long since died, is it not so hard to see these events happening again in a new era where people are once again uncertain about how technological changes could upend expectations of how war would work in practice?

No figure came up more in the narrative of this tragicomedy than Conrad von Hotzendorf, Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian army. While the empire’s failures were no doubt a collaborative effort, Conrad most perfectly encapsulates everything happening in Vienna in the form of one man. A military theorist by trade who rose through the ranks in peacetime, Conrad constantly advocated military action against any and all Balkan countries it was viable to attack. He did this while being in charge of a military he knew was logistically weak and poorly motivated. His solution was to always advocate for war, and then, when war happened, he encouraged mindless frontal offensives that would have made even Joffre blush. Then, when these failed, he retreated to his far away headquarters where he would often sit and sulk for hours, writing novella-length letters to his mistress and bemoaning his critics. Always happy to shift blame for his problems onto subordinates, he was somehow able to resurrect his career multiple teams even after everything he ever touched turned to shit. In the Cold War, the Austrian military would try to rehabilitate his reputation and even name streets and buildings after him. A colossal failure with an undeserved reputation who constantly advocated war and refused to take responsibility for the results of such actions? Where have I heard that before? Conrad von Hotzendorf was Hillary Clinton before there was a Hillary Clinton.

I’m JUST CHILLIN in Vienna! Why don’t you POKEMON GO…to Przemysl.’

Much in the same way that I have used certain totemic neoliberal bipartisan consensus political figures as symbols to show the decline and fall my own birth nation and many of its allies, its easy to see why Wawro is so fascinated by Conrad and his increasingly erratic actions in 1914. A man who is a state in microcosm is not something to be overlooked when breaking down the beginning of the end of a declining country in crisis. Alexander is famous for destroying one empire…Hell, Conrad destroyed four!

Overall, ‘Mad Catastrophe’ is a a book I would recommend to people into military history and political history alike. But I would especially recommend it to people interested in the history of terminal decline, state entropy, and times when people march at full speed to a heavily foreshadowed disaster.

‘Going Along’ with the Coyote Conquest

The Twentieth Century was not a great time for territorial conquest and overt annexation. The most successful nation of that century engaged in a far more sly method of co-opting its targets, while the next most successful power of the epoch, the Soviet Union, largely inherited its extra territories from its predecessor. The old colonial empires crumbled from their height to nothing in that time. The vast majority of new overt conquests were undone in the course of a single decade. A few outlasted this. Only things like Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara and Israel’s rule over the Palestinian territories, where the power imbalance was geographically immediate and overwhelming, seems to have truly lasting power. And those are still incomplete and contested takeovers. The Twenty-First Century seems even less promising, with few trying and those that do, such as Turkey in Northern Syria and the U.S. in Iraq, entering the most convoluted and embarrassing situations possible. The present disposition of forces has not been friendly to this type of direct takeover since the territorial swapping of League of Nations mandates showed clearly diminishing returns on the annexation project. The largest scale attempts to try to give it another go were touched off by Japan, Italy, and Germany and led to their total ruin.

This is, of course, only talking about the human world. Sure, we all know diseases and bacteria are the same as they ever were with Spanish Flu, AIDS, and Covid continuing in the path of Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and the like. That is normal and to be expected. But in the Anthropocene, the time of unquestioned human dominance, it is interesting to note the larger animals that are not just succeeding but rising to dominate in a way that they didn’t before. I am not just speaking about the obvious candidates like rats and feral descendants of domestic pets, i.e. animals you would expect to increase in numbers as the human-heavy ecological imbalance teeters from growing cities, suburbs, and more anthropogenic land use conversion. Humans, domesticated livestock, and agricultural crops have become a truly disturbing proportion of terrestrial biomass. And we know the effects of it are extreme losses in biodiversity with resulting negative impacts on environmental sustainability. The general view is that wild mammals in particular, and the larger variants especially, are all on the wane.

But there is a big exception to this. More than one, in fact, but right now I am going to concentrate, as per theme of this site, on the most obvious and most tricksteresque one. The true troll of North America in mythology and real life, Old Man Coyote himself. Since human conquest started slowing, coyote conquest increased. Not only that, but it also seems to be happening at a far greater rate than most human expansion in the prehistoric era was, at least as far as we can tell from archeology. A species that normally stuck to the Great Plains and the Southwest has exploded in every direction, moving to the north and east coast and then down in an inexorable southern march since about 1900.

Taken from here

What is even funnier is that humanity at least partially caused this current colonization. The migration of coyotes out from their traditional ranges was greatly accelerated by attempts from farmers and ranchers to kill them off in huge numbers with traps and hunting bounties. It caused the species to scatter far and wide and adapt to new environments with great vigor. The eastern branch of this migration seems to be diverging from the norm and growing in size, likely due to admixture from breeding with both wolves and domestic dogs. The path of this side of the family tree went up to Canada, where the wolf admixture was likely introduced, and then into Maine. Since then it has been coming southward steadily and now if firmly entrenched in the southeast.

Coyotes set up shop in forests, plains, deserts, suburbs, farmland, and cities. They can ride the metro. They can go from pack animal to solo to small family units and back again depending on circumstance. The eastern ones even provide a valuable service by introducing a large predator to our over-populated deer problem, giving us the first chance in generations to see a proper return to flowers and flora in our stripped-bare-by-the-hooved-menace forests. They can live anywhere, they can live in any kind of social group or none, and they can eat anything. Truly, in a time of accelerating environmental and demographic changes, a species to look up to. As Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the one most responsive to change.’

I grew up with a large amount of Native American folktales in my childhood. The ubiquity of trickster figures in those cycles was postulated by Paul Radin to be a response from the first people to populate North America as they reacted to a land where the weather behaved erratically, earthquakes were frequent, thunderstorms and tornadoes massive, and the rapid growth and melting of ice age glaciers in that migratory period caused sudden flooding and bizarre microclimates. This implied that the gods were mercurial and fickle towards the fate of humanity. Coyote is by no means the only one of these figures, but he is the most common in tales translated into English. And it is the species that inspired him that is currently the most ubiquitous of these trickster totemic animals out in the real world.

Coyote tales are the true chaotic neutral worldview distilled. There are stories which can be within the same tribe’s cycle of Coyote creating fire, saving the world, dooming humanity with mortality, embarrassing himself or getting himself killed due to foolishness, and defeating monsters through trickery and guile. He might boon the human race either intentionally or unintentionally. He might trick a mother into believing he is a reliable babysitter so he can eat her children. He might even eat a talking plant that says ‘He who eats me will defecate!’ on a dare thinking, ‘well, I am too strong, I will not defecate,’ and then be launched into the sky on a rocketing tower of his own feces. This is why the animal that provided a model for the mythological figure succeeds. It rolls with the times but is never merely of the times. Rebellion and adaptability rolled into one. Failures and even death do not seem to weaken or stop it in the long term. In one century, a whole continent fell to this expansion after the U.S. government instituted its most brutal and sustained wildlife killing program in history. It most likely took the first Native Americans longer to traverse the continent. We know for a fact it took four hundred years for the Europeans to become truly endemic across the land. And that’s with steel, gunpowder, compasses, and maps. They were still beaten by The Tricky One.

Coyote is the chaos agent. He exists to remind us that all the planning in the world cannot adapt to random circumstance. Stories about him often begin with the phrase ‘Coyote was going along…’ and sometimes they end with, ‘and Coyote went back to going along.’ Motion is perpetual, but it is not headed to any particular place. The destination might be as random as the outcome of running into such a figure. Perhaps it works because the way to adapt to an uncaring world is to cultivate a sense of bemused aloofness in turn. As Dan Flores, the author of the book ‘Coyote America’ put it:

‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’

It is theorized that this current expansion of the coyote might not be the first time this has happened. The Red Wolf of the southeast might be a remnant population of coyote-wolf hybrids from a pre-recorded time. If so, it means the east was theirs before. But even if not, it is theirs now.

The part of Pennsylvania which I am currently based has had coyotes for decades now, but you rarely see the signs. My knowledge of their presence until recently was merely word of mouth and indirect indications. But last week I took a walk outside around midnight in this tree-shrouded hill country far from the desert origins of the coyote. Echoing in the darkness from a patch of thick woods around a creek valley not more than a mile to the southeast came a chorus of yips and howls from a pack of coyotes. Their calls bathed the trees in an echo not heard in these parts for possibly thousands of years, if ever.

That particular pack stayed for only a few days as it turned out. But it was obvious that the land is now claimed. There will be more.

Thomas Ligotti and Tantric Horror

‘Consciousness has forced into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are-hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.’ ~Thomas Ligotti

‘The awesome, horrifying renunciation of the aghori sadhu seems to defy the norms of civilized life. He will live only in the cremation ground, cook his food on the fires of the funeral pyre, eat and drink from a hollow skull that he uses as the sadhu’s bowl.’ ~Rajesh Bedi, ‘Sadhus’

I have been a Thomas Ligotti fan for almost a decade now. While not my top favorite author for exploring the macro-tale of humanity, he is always an author I return to, again and again. I do not share his relentless pessimism, but I do share his scorn for optimism. And in his endlessly dour world view I find something intensely useful to meditate on. For indifferentists and ‘true neutrals’ like myself do share a very common world view with the Ligotti’s and Cioran’s of the world, we simply respond differently.

For Ligotti, a previously underground horror writer who writes mostly short fiction and whose fame increased greatly after it was realized by the public that he was a big inspiration of the first season of True Detective, the cut of his work is to write philosophical fiction with a dose of cosmic horror. His style is like that of an early Twentieth Century absurdist mixed with the gothic elements of Poe and the themes of a very modern alienation that come with certain trends in postwar fiction. He tends to ruminate on ruins, dying and diseased towns and cities, and the innate intrinsic horror of existence. Obviously of a depressive character, he, like the philosopher Emil Cioran with whom he is often compared, has a wry and quite funny sense of humor wrapped up among this bleakness. Not everyone sees it…though I do.

I have also seen much ink spilled about the intellectual traditions of pessimism that such figures belong to in the western tradition. But I think they are a far closer approximation to the school of thought I have become most interested in these past couple years, Tantra. I have shared my thoughts on Tantra before in its own right. How a school of thought began as rebellion from Brahmanical pieties and embraced a kind of material baseness as a method to investigate the inter-connectedness of things. While I disagree with the monist trends in most modern practices, I find the exploration of the self and the world through challenging oneself by confronting-by-embracing the darkness of both self and the world to be a remarkably interesting and novel approach, specifically for those who find little use in our present self-censoring eggshell-treading age.

In Tantra, one confronts the fear of death by meditating on a corpse. The fear of lust by engaging in sex to attain full control. The fear of the forbidden by eating what society proscribes. Deities of compassion and wisdom are depicted as terrifying relentless monsters for only such could cut through illusions and shock you into the ruthless nature of reality. Once shocked into reality one is less likely to be shocked by it again. One lives with reality as it is, without fear. Tantra is the opposite of a trigger warning. It challenges you to define your greatest fears and then plunge into them. You are going to think about them after all, so why not face them directly?

Ligotti’s fiction (and his one non-fiction work, ‘Conspiracy Against the Human Race’) does exactly this but in a modern post-industrial context. The charnel ground is no longer representative of our fears of the future, but the dying blighted town or the crumbling ruin is. It is on such subjects that Ligotti likes to focus on. ‘The Red Tower’ is a rumination on a ruined factory and the connections it made throughout the community when it manufactured whatever it was that it made in a pointless process of self-replication. ‘This Degenerate Little Town’ (spoken by the author himself in this clip no less) sees the entropy of the universe reflected in the image of a horrific miserable small town that lies symbolically at the center of everything. Having once visited one of ‘the most dismal towns in Britain’ specifically because it was near a ferry I had to catch and the town was described as such in a guidebook, I have the specific image of the small and suitably named community of John O’ Groats in mind whenever I hear this prose poem. Perhaps the greatest Tantra-adjacent work of Ligotti’s, however, is ‘The Shadow, The Darkness.’ A longer story bordering on novella about a hack artist who suddenly becomes filled with talent and drive after a near death experience forces him to confront his lack of self, humanity, and practically anything save the terrifying Schopenhauerian ‘will’ that drives his body to simply perpetuate its own existence. But even this is not enough for both the artist, and his social clique, and they respond in various ways depending on their psychological disposition.

While Tantra’s end goal is liberation from fear, weakness, and myopia, Ligotti promises no liberation. Even death is not an end of the horror for reasons best summed up in a Cioran quote, ‘It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.’ Of course, I see the humor in that quote. I would also say that there is a form of liberation-through-darkness that lurks implicitly in the background of Ligotti’s works. This is most apparent in his one novel, ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done.’ This novel is often not talked about by Ligotti fans, the consensus seeming to be it is more a send up of insufferable co-workers and office culture than part of his serious canon. I could not disagree more.

While ‘My Work Is Not Yet Done’ is a workplace revenge fantasy involving making a dark pact with a cosmic being in order to torment ones workplace foes to death or fates worse than death, it is in some ways the ultimate modern Tantric novel and thus has as much philosophical value as Ligotti’s other works, if with a different tone. Like the works of contemporary horror author Richard Gavin, himself a Tantra-adjacent author in my view, its a story that speaks to people who walk a different path from the sunshine lollipops and rainbows of most of society while also avoiding the mopey ennui of those kinds of manic depressives who, by their aspect, let tell that they are really dejected and scorned optimists at heart. ‘My Work’ shows us that an immense amount of capability can be bestowed on one willing to plunge the depths of horror. The reward is still basically to die, but to die honestly with no illusions about what oneself is and what the world at large is as well. Ligotti’s (and Gavin’s) works are for those who walk a different path and are not enlightened nor empowered by the things we are taught are supposed to bring joy to our lives. The band Garbage had a catchier way of putting it, I suppose.

The Tantric approach is an attitude, one befitting those of trickster like disposition I might even say. It need not be followed like the counter-establishment religion of a very specific time and place that gave rise to it to be worthy to us today. Our cremation grounds are rotting towns and cities and our holy men are horror authors. Our world can be thoroughly material and yet still one of immense and awesome horrors. But rather than the Lovecraft protagonist who shrinks from exposure a world where humans are not at the top of the food chain, we embrace the shattering of our illusions because, as Ligotti himself says, ‘We can hide from horror only in the heart of horror.’

Indeed, the Cult of Dionysius back in the classical era arrived to similar conclusions on its own. As Professor E. R. Dobbs wrote about Euripedes’s play ‘The Bacchae’: ‘The moral of The Bacchae is that we ignore at our peril the demand of the human spirit for Dionysiac experience. For those who do not close their minds against it, such experience can be a source of spiritual power and eudaimonia. But those who repress the demand in themselves or refuse its satisfaction to others transform it by their act into a power of disintegration and destruction.’

Tabletop RPGs and Understanding Chaotic Probability

The gamemaster screen for the excellent Mörk Borg

Chaos Theory is often misunderstood by those who have never actually looked at it to be the simple triumph of randomness over order. It is in fact the natural replication of order, but in an imperfect and ever-evolving way whose specifics are unpredictable but its patterns recognizable. Outlier events dominate when they occur, but are rare. Nothing is certain but patterns exist. A humanities equivalent might be ‘History doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes.’

It has become increasingly apparent to me that explaining the deficiencies in how dominant ideologies of the present day process events needs a simple and readily accessible analogue for the general populace. Sure, my habit of blaming the extreme and (supposedly) opposite wings of monotheism and postmodernism for being the partners of maintaining an obsolete neoliberal order in our present age of global stupidity and breakdown is something I maintain is correct, but its also inaccessible to many. To get why I have this opinion requires an explanation of historical events and materialist philosophy that most people would not be interested in, if they even have the time for it. People know something is wrong, and they know that most of the people hired to explain these concerns away are lying to them or out of touch. They also know that many of the people proposing alternatives are very intense and extreme. Thoughtful but not formally educated people generally find the extremism of wingnut rhetoric and the hollow rear guard denials of unhinged centrism equally alienating. Surely, there is no panacea for our problems. Likewise, we clearly have to start looking further afield than the presently acceptable and ascribed solutions. Absolutism and relativism both are failures when taken to be universal principles. Abraham and Derrida both have much to answer for in their own special ways. Philosophy, politics, even the ways people communicate are hobbled. As do those with money and power who patroned them for their own ends. Probability, not certainty is the most important thing that must be accounted for by anyone who wishes to have a sensible opinion.

So how do you introduce the idea of a pragmatic probability to a general audience? By talking about real life places where it applies. Where both chance and skill interact together to create a situation where preparing and improving oneself is rewarded, but always under the knowledge that the roll of the die or the shuffle of the cards has final say. You can improve your odds always, but you cannot achieve certainty even a you do so. This can be analogized in many ways. Gambling, sculpture, game theory, the study of active volcanoes, traditional wargaming, your grandma playing Bejeweled. The way it should be talked about is determined by the nature of your own audience as well as what you know best on your own terms.

For me that is tabletop role playing games. At least, outside of geopolitics. But once again, more people are likely to be familiar with the former than the latter-especially when it comes to the fundamentals of practice. These are games where someone sets up a story and other players go through it not unlike a multiplayer computer game, but with the final determinator being not a software program but the actual game master, a human as capable of dynamic response as the players are.

I was introduced to tabletop RPGs as a kid in the mid-90s with Second Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Call of Cthulhu. By my early teens around Y2K I was already running Call of Cthulhu games as a ‘Keeper’, better known as a Dungeon Master (from DnD terminology) and henceforth referred to as a Game Master to include all potential games. I have played, and most often ran, games ever since in a variety of systems. Call of Cthulhu remaining my constant favorite with many others jockeying for my affection right below it. I tend to prefer more tone and story driven games to ‘crunchy’ rules-heavy ones, but as my Edinburgh-based former Pathfinder team can attest, I am also capable of running the more war-gamey ones as well. But even with my less complex preferences, it is important to me to run a game where dice rolls and chance play a major part so that the experiences transcends mere interactive storytelling and predictability.

Dice go beyond just pass/fail and enter into a new realm where there are multiple kinds of successes and failures and varieties of responses. The non-mathematical storytelling element that responds to roll results allows both the game master and the player to think far more creatively than any computer game could allow. At the same time, the random element means that no one is fully in control. What emerges from this interaction between fate and human input is something neither entirely determined nor entirely free. One in which dice might doom the best prepared players and spare the most incompetent, but only as outlier events. You can never achieve certainty, but you can increase your odds through smart builds and smart play. Sometimes by a little, sometimes by a lot. Over time, the proportion of players who play wisely (as well as creatively) will be the ones more rewarded. Not only in enjoyment of the game, but in material benefits to their character in the game-world.

Even games where the players are pretty much guaranteed to be doomed the longer they play, such as Mörk Borg or Call of Cthulhu, this can serve as a kind of death analogy. We are all going to die one day so why try to maximize performance? Well, because you make gains along the way anyway-at least for a time. You’ll think back on your story of how you got there as you die, most likely. Its not about the destination but the people you met along the way. Sure, the knowledge gained in Call of Cthulhu will drive your character stark raving mad, but it is still knowledge. And knowledge can be many things from power, to a greater appreciation of the arts, to a lessening of the fear of failure. Having a character that survived long enough in that famously lethal game to become a stark raving mad and phobia-riddled savant of occult lore with an impressive library of forbidden tomes is one of my greatest accomplishments as a player.

But for most people who don’t share my pseudo-tantric black metal world view this might not be so effective. That is fine, as most tabletop rpgs aren’t like the examples above. In traditional fantasy or science fiction games one gains power and riches the longer they survive and keep adventuring. From the many Old School Renaissance games up through present day DnD Fifth Edition (the best and most accessible DnD version hence its surging popularity right now), there is enough danger and reversal to keep you on the your toes but the rewards are worth the attempt by any standard. Perhaps most interestingly, there also exists a variety of games between these poles that do a good job modeling both the power fantasy element of traditionally popular games with the more morally ambiguous and complication-riddled side of the darker ones. Here I am thinking about Werewolf: The Apocalypse (and other World of Darkness settings), Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, and The Dying Earth RPG. These are games that specifically work into the gameplay immense ups and downs to create a roller coaster of experiences where the character is always growing, but not necessarily in a linear fashion or through constant victory.

The Conan game, in a great nod to its source material, actually has specific mechanics for both incentivizing winning gold and fame and also having to use these acquired resources to recover mental and physical health through debauchery and carousing. If you want to keep gaining stats you have to keep adventuring, but if you want to keep adventuring you have to recover through squandering your ill-gotten gains. On top of this is the momentum/doom system where successes lead to more die for rolls and failures compound into more counter-die for the game master to use against the players. The players and game master end up trading literal dice to increase their probabilities in rolls they want to fudge up, turning near misses to near hits (or vice versa). Fate can be played with, but only temporarily as somewhere down the line ones accumulated dice-karma will come back for them. The Dying Earth RPG takes an even more direct approach, with all rolls being based around six sided die with 1 being an critical fail and six being a stunning success, greatly increasing the odds of a ridiculous outcome in any direction. The game is built specifically so that epic failure is as entertaining and almost as desirable as epic success. The GM rewards players who play into their extreme results with a sense of panache with experience points, regardless of if those results are a failure or a success.

Even traditional games on the ends of the tone spectrum have variants that fudge the line. DnD has the Planescape and Dark Sun settings to create a darker and more surreal or survivalistic tone to its normally high fantasy system. Call of Cthulhu has Pulp Cthulhu, which adds an bit of Indiana Jones style punching out cultists and traveling the world for treasure to the staples of madness and unspeakable horrors lurking under the surface. Interwar dungeon delving with a cosmic horror tone.

The fact is that tabletop gaming still does what its more popular computer based descendants cannot do in both randomness and in player input. (There is one possible almost-exception to this rule, however). Anyone who has played-and especially ran-these games enough knows no plan for a module, be it the module itself from the game master or the player’s tactics at tackling it, ever survives fully intact upon contact with the random elements. But at the same time, a well designed module or player tactical plan is going to work far more often than a poorly thought out approach. Much like navigating life, politics, the sciences, metaphysics, the stock market, or even the overall span of societies, tabletop rpgs show in a clearly communicable way to a general audience the interplay of forces both outside and within a person’s control and how those come together to create a probability-dominated world where nothing ever turns out as you plan it. This unpredictability is part of the intrinsic nature of the game and usually makes perfect sense of even outlier events in hindsight. Dice results may disappoint or elate you, but they don’t lie. And how you respond to those stark numbers rolled out on the table can be everything. There is always an excuse for failure at something challenging, but never one for not being prepared as much as possible before the challenge roll.

MAGAMaidan vs Patriot Act 2.0

Leon Czolgosz assassinates President McKinnley. These days we just make fun of him for his name.

It doesn’t come up very often on here because its not one of my primary interests personally or professionally, but a major part of my work back when I was at the U.S. Department of State was the study of and working around issues related to violent extremism and the countering thereof. Specifically, I was tasked with using the history and cultural understandings of political theory that existed in the Central Asian region to come up with more constructive ways of combatting extremist groups recruitment strategies than simple state repression. The reason for this was that finally, over a decade after 9/11, people were coming around to the idea that the ‘cure’ to an extremism problem can often be just as bad as the disease.

The United States may have started to learn this lesson for other countries, but I don’t thing it has learned it for itself. Indeed, given the present media climate, I expect that any attempts to understand and diagnose the Miller Lite Militia’s storming of Capitol Hill will be met with the same kind of anti-thought rhetoric we saw immediately after 9/11. ‘How dare you sympathize with these people?’ Etc. Of course, never once in my entire life have I sympathized with Islamists (or republicans). In fact, I loathe them so much that when forced into a binary between corrupt and oppressive state security vs Islamists I always go with state security. I even hosted an extra-haram food themed BBQ party the day Osama Bin Laden was killed in celebration of the event. He deserved his comeuppance, but not at the cost of the polices enacted in response to his attacks. I would prefer societies not have to degenerate to that point in the first place if we can help it. And if it does we can still punish our worst assailants without giving way to cowardice by signing away our rights. It is a common tactic of governments everywhere to force a security state vs extremist Manichean binary as it will more easily enable them to divide and crush opposition. So too are we going to see this here now more than before. It would be best to inject some nuance in now before the opportunity is lost, or as, in the case of 9/11, only comes over a decade later after all the damage has been done.

I don’t really want to talk about MAGAMaidan itself as numerous takes on it can be found elsewhere. I will only point out that Trump is a moron and incited his followers to go to the capitol, but, as can clearly be seen by his immediate backing down and chickening out, did not in fact plan on the capitol police failing so epically and actually letting them storm into the place. This confirms my long held suspicion that everything he does it meant to boost his next reality show/talk show media career, which indeed is why he ran for president in the first place. The fact that they made it that far was as unplanned as the failure of the capitol’s security forces. Now this, and other antics, have helped cost his party the senate, possibly the next mid term election, and probably any attempts of his to run again for the presidency. He even finally conceded. A coup this was not. Trust not any historically illiterate dweller of frantic jazz laden NPR echo chambers who uses that word. A botched putsch? Maybe. A riot? Definitely. Everyone involved should be punished. If you want the best take I have seen which I could not surpass, check out Sam Kriss‘. But realize that Trump’s Twitter being taken away is probably the funniest and most punishing thing its possible to do to him.

Q Anon people have a lot of similarities with the kind of disaffected losers who get swept up into Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and thus do in fact present a security challenge. They believe their miseries are often caused by the government and elites (true) but invent elaborate self-flattering conspiracies to avoid having to understand structural forces so they can focus instead of simplistic moralism and clear good guy/bad guy narratives. Their groups need to be investigated and at their worst thwarted, but are rarely worth restructuring society and our civil rights around doing so. Such people are responding to serious grievances in unserious ways. Islamists, for instance, thrive in societies that limit acceptable expression so severely that the only socially sanctioned way to get out of mandatory loyalty is to join the clergy.

Already the monotonous blob of elite identifying media/academic/government worker groupthink is treating this as their very own Lanyard 9/11 and Reichstag fire in one, even though four people died, three of them chuds, and seems so far to be one grand gesture of self-sabotage. One of the fatalities accidentally tazered themselves and had a heart attack which is just….so the entire event in microcosm. It isn’t even the 1954 shooting attack on the capitol when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on congressmen on the house floor (showing that this has indeed happened before). But let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and say it is a new 9/11. Do you think our response to 9/11 was a good one? Do you think the Patriot Act and unchecked NSA surveillance was a good thing for the country? Do you think the culture of paranoia, warmongering, and xenophobia that descended in waves on this country was worth ‘bringing us together’ for a grand total of two years was worth it? Post-Cold War history has no lesson stronger than that Bipartisan Consensus is more often to be feared than embraced so long as these leadership cliques are in charge.

Here is what will most likely happen: the already existing pro censorship positions of many liberals, journalists, and many of the dumber leftists will accelerate to new heights. The FBI’s record of entrapping the dumber Muslim teenagers into fake bombing plots in order to drive up their terrorism prevention stats will be partially redirected towards white and right wing teenagers. Being conservative in a non-Brett Stephens approved way in any capacity will be conflated with ‘white supremacy’, because, as we know, Americans are incapable of imagining politics outside of a very narrow and parochial framework, and ‘incitement to violence’ will take on new meanings (that will somehow never include the calls of politicians to bomb and sanction small and weak nations abroad, of course).

To see this coming is not to take the side of MAGA any more than to have a nuanced view of the Patriot Act after 9/11 was to take the side of Al Qaeda. One can in fact have multiple different enemies at the same time. But the currently dominant trends in our society are not as much that of Trump’s bizarre and incoherent cult of personality, but rather a Silicon Valley neofedualism that has opportunistically adopted the rhetoric of left wing culture warriors and the priorities of the centrist security state. Both are threats, but one is far better poised to effect our immediate future. And if people who are not right wing already give up and roll over for this binary, then they will be the first to be shut out of relevance as the only valid opposition to our new dystopia is (incorrectly) rewritten to be MAGAMaidan. We already saw this process beginning before the clown car of reactionary ‘revolutionaries’ stormed the capitol when factually correct allegations about Hunter Biden’s dealings in Ukraine were softly excluded from major media narratives despite their merit as a story. We have seen it in the career trajectories of threatened journalists seeing gatekeeping as the only way to hold on to their positions, voluntarily becoming like the media is forced to be in countries like Russia.

Political instability and even violence is not abnormal in America, it is all too normal. Four sitting presidents have been assassinated. A senator once assaulted and crippled a colleague in the capitol building. There were anarchist bomb throwers and the Battle of Blair Mountain. There was the militia movements of the 1990s and the Oklahoma City bombing. There was the aforementioned shooting of the capitol building itself in 50s. There were the riots than spun out of the George Floyd protests this summer. And this is to say nothing of how frequent protests that degenerate into riots are in other countries, including developed ones. France has them more often, and has a somewhat higher standard of living for its average citizens too. Did all of these events necessitate an expansion of the security state? No. In many cases there was no such thing at all. Tragedies happen, you seek out egregious perpetrators for punishment, then people move on.

As a friend of mine said recently when we were discussing how MAGA and the liberal establishment share common assumptions about the religion of American Exceptionalism and setting them above and beyond the forces of history, ‘This country has a lot of growing up to do all across the ideological spectrum.’ It certainly does. The people who stormed the capitol have no coherent ideology but that they live in this world and they don’t like it. They see one incredibly dumb and opportunistic man as their salvation. They see the world as children. Their partisan opposite has more fancy words to hide behind but is deeply invested in maintaining the rhetoric of setting their views above those of others not by historical fact but by theoretical assumption that the dominant ideology of our society evolves us out of the chaos of unplanned for events. This too is childish, if less overtly so.

To grow up, Americans could start by learning the real lesson of 9/11…that to give in to the temptations of censorious security state expansion for dramatic outlier events is one of the worst things you can do. You can hold people accountable and punish criminals without making life worse for everyone who isn’t a criminal. ‘Blame fundamentalists, not all Muslims’ was a common cry among liberals in the Bush years. Can they be made receptive to hearing it again in a more domestic context or do they now want their turn playing Cheney? As happened with extraordinary rendition and military surplus feeding police militarization, the War on Terror’s true legacy was that its effects will always be coming home to roost. I fear that the censorious scolds of the media and administrative classes will lead the way to continue this trend.

A Remarkably Ineffective Presidency

You have heard it for four years: ‘Trump is a fascist. Trump is a dictator. Everything is different now. This is not normal.’ Meanwhile, while this rhetoric reached fever pitch literally all of those points were provably incorrect. Trump is a right winger, but far too lazy and non-ideological to be a fascist. Trump is a bully, but was too weak and scatterbrained to be a dictator. Everything is different now, but in the same way that things are always changing and history in America is getting over its long postwar boom and, thus, returning to normal.

Despite the incredible obnoxiousness of Trump’s fan base and their cult like loyalty to his person over any kind of political platform, they are not the ones who surprised me these last few years. Anyone capable of paying even a modicum of attention to American conservatism since Gingrich could have seen this coming. If anything, the ideology being somewhat loosened from its evangelical and libertarian pieties into atavistic nationalism makes it more bearable than its formerly sanctimonious moral-majority and market-fundamentalist basis.

No, what surprised me was just how rapidly the opposition to Trump degenerated. Certainly, being a liberal in the Twenty-First Century is very much akin to staying behind to run the Heaven’s Gate website after the rest of the cult got whisked up to the comet above. The prophecy of the End of History failed to come true which means the followers do not do the rational thing and realize they believed in a lie, but rather double down and blamed everyone but themselves for the failure. If only every one else had supported them then this would all be fine. And so the liberals have become more obsessed with American Exceptionalism and culture war, becoming the new woke version of what the republican party was in the aughts. They now expresses valorization to intelligence agencies and giant corporations and prioritize pet causes based in their stifling moralism rather than in measurable material gains.

This happened because they let themselves be driven mad by a clownish president. But that president was as weak if not weaker a political leader than Jimmy Carter. Despite having two years of one party unified government his only accomplishment was a standard Bush-style tax cut for the wealthy. The kind of thing that would have happened under a Rubio, a Romney, or a Cruz. Likewise, the only lasting institutional effect of this supposedly-norm-breaking presidency will be to fill the ranks of the judiciary once again with the strange Opus Dei-like cultists that can always be found in the Federalist Society. Also something that would have happened under any other republican president. The only meaningful difference between Trump and these others is that he is less warlike. He is also, it is worth noting, less warlike than many democrats these days too. Not to give him too much credit here. His Iran policy is utterly unhinged and did immense damage to U.S. interests, and he managed to make his prior presidents look positively independent of Saudi influence. But compared to his GOP rivals in 2016 or Hillary Clinton, we almost certainly dodged a bullet in Syria and Venezuela. After all, the best news story of the now famously dismal year of 2020 had to have been that whole Silvercorp USA thing.

That’s right. With hindsight I am now saying that Trump was the lesser evil to Hillary in 2016. Sure, her Covid response would have been better, but not too much better as the USA was always going to take a pandemic the hardest of any developed country given its poor health systems infrastructure and employment based benefits that fail under economic downturns exacerbated by lockdowns. Meanwhile, a reinvigorated refugee crisis brought about by more regime change operations across the world would not only have facilitated the spread of the disease, but also of reactionary politics at home and abroad. In this alternative world something far worse than Trump would now have just won the presidency in the 2020 election, possibly Tom Cotton. We would have the Iran Deal at least, but far worse relations with North Korea. Besides, what is the point of an Iran Deal if we still stumbled into a conflict with Tehran through the Syrian backdoor? Three separate times in the 2016 election, H-Bomb stated that her first priority in office was regime change in Syria, what was by then obviously a recipe for the black flag of jihadism to fly over Damascus. I remember because I was watching, determining if I could pull the lever for her as a lesser evil. I couldn’t. Still glad that I didn’t today.

Of course, two bombing runs later Trump invoked The Curse himself, ending up a one termer. If ever you are thinking about uttering the fateful words, don’t.

Meanwhile, Trump’s terrible relationships with most governmental institutions actually weakened the process of centralizing power behind the imperial presidency, something that had been growing nonstop for decades. Trump’s transactional understanding of politics was brute and often misplaced, but it was a real unmasking moment for a country used to believing itself and its system to be exceptional and widely admired around the world. Trump unintentionally undermined even domestic faith in American Exceptionalism, and I will take it. So too did his horrific immigration policies finally force a discussion on Obama’s immigration policies as well, showing this to be a bipartisan issue. Trump will leave office having deported less people than Obama did.

It may seem dour that the era of Trump paradoxically removed any remaining vestigial feelings I once had about there being any lesser evils in the two party system, but it is actually quite liberating. I know, going forward, that if I support someone in public service that it will only be because they offer a platform that provides real alternatives. And if there are no such people to support, that is fine too. Change does not, in fact, come first from voting but by what you write for, organize for, and take part in directly. Giving up on any sense of being able to rely on a political party is giving yourself a greater level of independence and agency, and thus potential critical thinking. Something definitely needed in our moralistic dark age.

For all the problems Trump exacerbated, none of them were new to him. He is an accelerant rather than the spark. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush Junior all had a much greater role in building the world that we presently live in. Obama too, though he at least took the foot off the gas even if he resolutely refused to apply it to the brakes on this car hurtling towards a cliff. And it is his surveillance apparatus we live in now more than anyone else’s.

In the end, Trump will be remembered by historians as a grotesquely fascinating era that symbolized our societal decline, but was too late in the game to be its cause. He might also be the first person since Grover Cleveland to pull off two non-consecutive terms. A wet sack of potatoes could defeat Kamala Harris in a debate after all. She better hope someone far less charismatic than Trump runs against her in the future so she stands a chance. But whether he will be back or not he leaves us with an attitude and an aesthetic and little else.

A truly ineffective presidency. Which I suppose at this state of the game could almost be considered damning with faint praise as much as an insult. The spectacle was certainly something. Whelp, enjoy some Clown Core.

‘The Human Swarm’- a book review

A North Sentinelese Man shoots arrows at an Indian helicopter.

‘The Human Swarm: How our Societies Rise, Thrive, and Fall’ by Mark Moffett is the kind of book I would have written had I been a zoologist rather than a historically inclined geopolitical analyst. Its almost a relief to see someone more qualified than myself in the field of looking at animals to be inspired by the observation that humanity is a primate that behaves like wolves on the small scale and like ants on the large scale. Once this observation is made the inevitable question is how this unique combination came about and why it makes us such a successful species.

Moffett spends about 40% of the book on evolutionary biology of multiple socially-oriented species to do the compare/contrast with humanity. He spends another 40% on hunter gatherer, pastoralist, and tribal peoples, reasoning correctly that this is the lifestyle humanity primarily evolved for and spent the overwhelming majority of its existence in. The final 20% or so is all sedentary civilization and the high cultures get. This kind of spread may strike many as odd, but considering how most of human history played out until (in terms of evolutionary time at least) it makes perfect sense. This is not a work of macro-history quite as much as it is a work of macro-anthropology.

Moffet’s main argument, which I will summarize to the point of oversimplification here, is that almost all pack animals have a type of fission-fusion dynamic that causes individuals to status seek against each other to maximize their own place or find their own niche while also retaining an overall group dynamic about loyalty to the greater whole. This likely developed as a survival tactic to both concentrate for maximalized social bonds among breeding couples while also enabling the social unit to cover more territory both for expansion and for warning of coming hostile attack. (Closer to home one can think of the ‘gay uncle hypothesis’ or the equally valid yet divergent lifestyles of householder vs renunciates to see the value outsiders can bring to social units). Wolves patrol far and wide around the territorial perimeter, but not those with children who sit in the center of a given pack’s territory. Humanity’s conception of the tribe, however, is much more numerous than that of other primates. This leads to a type of ‘anonymous’ society, where not everyone in a greater culture knows each other personally. Not being known personally is immediate sign of being an outsider in most other species, but not in humanity.

In other words, in addition to our technological prowess (which may have come later), we were the original zerg rush primate. No other primate can have so many numbers in one band. Only insects have the numbers per society we can pull off, and they do it by chemical smell markers…not something we can tell in an outgroup by save perhaps when the French are involved. Also, insect hives tend to be true collectives, and individuals have little brain power giving them a much smaller amount of dynamism in fission-fusion relations. So how did a species come to grow in numbers to the point where it had towering cities across the globe with population densities that would be considered insane to most of our ancestors? We do in fact have signifiers, but they are not chemical nor even genetic. They are cultural affect. Things not given off as pheromones but as behaviors and lifestyles. Language is the most important part of this, and from ‘Human Swarm’ one can easily slide into Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to see how the interplay of geography and language gives rise to internal mass press cultures in the early modern period, which was his thesis on the rise of nationalism displacing religion and loyalty to monarchs. But language isn’t the only thing. Remember, Moffat, unlike Anderson, is looking back to prehistory most of the time. He reminds us that we are a uniquely un-furred species and that most surviving tribal societies who live traditionally can tell foreigners from body language and body painting. Smooth skin is a canvas and spoken language comes with accents and hand gestures that vary from region to region. These in turn create a divergence of aesthetic that elevates and demotes individuals based on the dominant or despises personalities within a tribe, giving rise to cultural divergence. Culture is the outcome of what kind of personalities maximize survivability in a given region.

Cultural divergence itself plays a similar role to a famous Arab proverb, ‘My country against the world, my region against my country, my town against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ Though Moffett does not quote this, I was reminded of it constantly while reading his book. It could also go ‘pastoralists against agrarians, agrarians against industrialists,’ or ‘little powers against big powers, big powers against the biggest power, North Sentinel Island against the world.’

The negative side effect (to many anyway, I’m ambivalent) of this kind of community building is that it is always de facto competitive. To have an in group there must be out-groups. Without out-groups the internal divisions become more important and the group will split, often in a hostile fashion. Here we see why on those rare occasions that universal creeds triumph, they almost inevitably split apart soon after their victory. The breakup of Yugoslavia was not an outlier, but just a modern version of a process as old as humanity. The inevitable fate of all societies which, like people, eventually die and are replaced by others. Though obviously each nation’s rate varies due to a variety of circumstances. The book does a good job in acknowledging that the average life span for a recognizably continuous state is not as long as many assume, and rarely passes past 200-500 years. Modern states have not yet shown to have made gains on average length of survival than Mesopotamian city states in the ancient era.

There is a positive side of this competitive-swarm model though beyond its utility for maximizing human numbers and coalition building. It is designed for a degree of flexibility at the individual level. People with a low role in one tribe can leave for another. They will be obviously foreign, but if young enough to be impressionable or tough enough to prove themselves, can fall in with another band in potentially a better position. A risk of course, but not an irrational one when one feels they have bottomed out at home. This reflects what I know to be true about tribal societies and chiefdoms in actual history, where racial essentialism didn’t exist but cultural allegiance does. Its easy to forget that modern notions of race are barely over a couple hundred years old and were specifically invented to justify the new order that arose in post-smallpox apocalypse New Worlds after European expansion. Compared to ancient concepts such as cuisine and sectarianism, it is a baby. Even older than all of those is adaptive lifestylism and art. Most people obviously stay with their birth community, hence why they retain longevity, but others by choice or through captivity, do not. Societies cross-pollinate and the definition of inside-outside changes. Often growing more inclusive as a society grows than fracturing when it stagnates or contracts. The ability to function both in groups, through signifiers, and as individuals, through differentiation, is the key to making the anonymous society work. Its the collective experience of living amongst certain people who frequent certain places that matters most. Hence why giant waves of immigration did not tear the United States apart, but rather simply grew its taxable citizen pool…a similar process as once occurred in pre-modern empires with diverse concepts of citizenship like the Achaemenid Persians and Romans.

This point reminds me of my current bugbear, trying to get moderns to re-engage with the concept of sovereignty after its attempted abolishment in the neoliberal era (see many pieces I’ve published elsewhere which are now collected in the ‘publications’ tab page of this blog). Being sympathetic to sovereignty does not mean one must be a nativist or anti-immigration. If anything, I would argue that in an extremely connected world where people can travel and resettle so easily, sovereignty matters even more now. The risk of an over-powerful monoculture or political order with which one might not be compatible should increase ones desire for both the ability to migrate to foreign lands as well as the rights of foreign lands to choose who fits the criteria for coming in as they preserve their distinctiveness. Unity is important at the tribal and society level, but at the species level it is stagnation. We need divergence. Rather than simply write off people as losers for not working in the society of their birth, they should at least have the opportunity to start again elsewhere in a place that could be more fitting. Kind of like a career reset mid-life. Though the onus then is on them to start a bit behind and at least partially integrate into their new society. And they will always be a little ‘off’ through accents and learned habits of course. The exiles life isn’t for everyone, but I can speak to this personally, it it for cool people. There are definite advantages to never being too at home when it comes to personal development.

Moffet, also like myself, has a strong interest in societies that straddle the lines between what we think of as settled vs nomadic or tribal vs national. He often cites examples of the unique material culture of the Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples and the political intricacies of the Iroquois League (who upheld tribal sovereignty inside but kept a largely unified front towards outsiders in the near abroad-at least until they didn’t anymore) and the generally widespread practice of adopting war captives in Native American history as a population replacement tactic. Like I said, a book after my own heart.

Sadly, I can’t say its perfect. What is? His lack of a truly thorough historical background leads Moffett to draw some erroneous conclusions in some of his examples. None of these ruin his overall point though, even when they are galling (The Maya claimed as the first Mesoamerican civilization, really?) But they usually aren’t that bad slip ups. Also, as previously mentioned, more of this work is anthropological than it is historical. Also, considering his background I cannot say I am surprised by this but the lack of reference to Ibn Khaldun ( I know I know, I am a total broken record about this) is a missed opportunity. If a late middle ages Tunisian guy could come to such similar conclusions of how societies form and then dissolve from such a different scholarly background it seems worth including him. Perhaps Moffet never heard of him? If so, he should definitely become acquainted with the Muqqadimmah.

If you like big picture stuff and anthropology rooted in robust materialism, ‘Human Swarm’ is a book worth checking out. For now, I am going to fission out of this fusion with one of my favorite John Gray quotes, one that works for this book as well as when I usually use it against anti-materialist theory-first people:

‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans.’

Marianne Williamson Would Have Won

I am writing this before the end results of the 2020 election are known. You might think that, like last time I did an election post-mortem, I should wait for a conclusion. But what I have to say changes very little whether Trump or Biden is in the driver’s seat. What matters right now is that once again the U.S. media predicted a blowout, and once again they have a close election that will be decided by razor thin margins with a game show host. Once again, the democrats sought to challenge a supposedly unconventional candidate with the most conventional establishment group of people imaginable, and once again this led to a shocking under-performance. The simple fact that elections are popularity contests seems to have gone unnoticed by these extremely well paid givers of poisoned advice. The kind of people who, like the recycled Bush neocons of the Lincoln Project, spent tens of millions of dollars to sway republicans in race where the republican share of Trumps votes went up by 3%. Sadly, it is these people a Biden administration will likely pivot towards rather than anyone to the left of their mainline. The present election is a contest to determine which faction of the republican party has the most say in governing the country. The other obvious point that people are tired of candidates who promise nothing but to ‘go back to normal’ and willing to take big risks to shake things up is one the consultant class is paid not to notice by their masters. If Biden wins it will be by a squeaker when it should have been a big margin. He will have no mandate and will play defensive against McConnel for four years while getting cleaned out in the mid-terms and probably flubbing re-election. If Trump wins the Democrats have a better shot next time but at the cost of who knows what damage to their prospects and the mental health of liberals in the meanwhile. No matter who wins here is a prediction: the winner of this cycle loses the next.

It didn’t have to be this way. This election could have been a referendum of Trump’s many failures with an actual positive alternative shown for comparison. But unlike 2016, where I think a strong case that ‘Bernie would have won’ was an argument with a lot of merit considering the economic history of the states that turned out to be most critical, Bernie clearly was a dud this time around. One gets the impression, when seeing his lackluster performance in the primary, that he was pressured into running by his new fan base. But his former independent-leaning fans were increasingly turned off by his movement being colonized by the downwardly mobile rump managerial class who brought with them all their normal-human-alienating woke language policing and hyper-fixation on culture war. Bernie was a class candidate and could only run well with a class-first campaign. That didn’t happen in 2020. Despite class being more important than at any point in American history since the Great Depression, low information partisan news cycles have instituted a kind of postmodern dark age where people focus on identarian issues as their very standard of living and their country at large physically rots around them. This is not an accident, as powerful actors have sought to shift the attitudes of critical thought in directions beneficial to the status quo. That we swim in dark tides is undeniable. But as anyone who has spent time at the beach knows, you escape being ensnared in a rip tide by swimming with the current parallel to the shore until it weakens its hold on you to the point where you can break free. Go with the flow until the flow weakens.

Marianne Williamson was the person who could have won a general election. And she shows a potential path forward while we find ourselves in this trap. She was not my first, second, or even third choice of preference in the democratic primary, but despite my solidly realist and materialist bona fides, I found her more and more likeable as the process went on. By the time it was over for her campaign she had booted out Warren to become my third overall. In retrospect, she should have been my second choice. But to understand why I have come around to the Marianne Way, we first need to go back in time a bit for context of the dark age we find ourselves in.

When I look back at the dominant themes of my writing on here for the past two years, there is one thing that keeps re-occurring: That we live in a dark age. Contrary to so many of the commentariat, I do not believe that this dark age began in 2016 with Trump and BrExit. The seeds of it were sown in the 1980s with the rise of the neoliberal austerity state, confirmed as more than just an era specific fluke in the 90s when many of these market fundamentalist reforms were locked in by Clinton outflanking Reagan from the right making the demolition of civil society a thoroughly bipartisan affair, and then full germination occurred when the disastrous Bush Junior presidency showed how incapable such a society was at responding to crisis or adapting to challenges. It was right after 9/11 when Bush, being looked to by the entire public for leadership, encouraged the American people to keep the economy strong by going shopping. Surely, there has never been such a quintessentially neoliberal response to any crisis as that.

As I have mentioned previously, I personally became aware that I was living in an era of terminal American decline in 2005, when the dismal response to Katrina piggybacked on the collapse of the Iraq occupation after the re-election of the clearly already failed presidency of W. Bush. The thing that pushed him just over the threshold of re-election? Weaponized electoral homophobia. It seemed that there was no going back, and there wasn’t. Bush would leave office with around 20% approval ratings and Obama would be elected in the closest thing the 21rst Century has yet to provide us with that could be described as a landslide. He was elected specifically to undo the failure of the Bush years. He ended up expanding the very out of control surveillance and endless war state he had been elected to curtail. The welcome receding of the Christian culture war of the previous government ended up being the only positive as Obama proceeded to move on to his own Iraqs in Honduras, Libya and Syria, went on to clamp down on internal critics and whistleblowers of a growing surveillance regime that would have impressed East Germany, and deport more immigrants than any president before…or since.

Rhetorically, this acceptance of the failed Reagan-Clinton-Bush consensus by the Democratic Party was papered over by another Bush Era import: that of weaponized identitarian culture war. Except that this time the values were inverted. Now, it was people outside the evangelical tent rather than in it who were the saintly elect. A theology of nerd culture, kale, and getting one’s views on politics from West Wing re-runs rather than actual history. The professional managerial class were going to set things right after the recession. They did so by bailing out the banks who had caused the crisis and promising a Heritage Foundation approved healthcare plan that was a gift to private insurance companies. What is interesting here is that it is now clear that culture war does not in fact work very well, at least not for the side most aggressive about using it offensively. The American people rejected Bush evangelism and liberal wokeness alike, because while the professional ideologues of our society might be obsessed with re-enacting various interpretations of the protestant reformation, most people want to be left alone by such struggles. Even just looking at the currently available trends, it is now undeniable that there were many Obama-to-Trump voters. This may not be a rational ideological path to take, but in both eras it represents a clear rebellion against contemporary moralizing trends by establishment actors. The states that have become the most competitive today are the states who were most hollowed out by offshoring, NAFTA, and neoliberal policies in general for the past four decades. Its not a partisan thing so much as an establishment/anti-establishment thing.

Many deluded liberals seemed to have worked themselves up into a frenzy in the past four years that Trump was some kind of unprecedented phenomenon. His rhetoric and unpredictability are outliers, but what really matters-his policies-are not. Unfortunately, he governs less like he said he would on campaign in 2016, ignoring infrastructure and criminal justice reform for standard Romney/Ryan tax cut-and-spend policies. While those who fell for his rhetoric as independents are fools, those republicans who dutifully lined up behind him are not. They got exactly what they wanted. The goofy antics of the administration are just that. The policies are standard U.S.-republican-right wing. Trump is no fascist nor even of the alt right, even if he has fans from such groups. He is simply a Cholesterol Caligula. Berlusconi, not Mussolini. His only meaningful heterodoxy seems to be in trade policy and making NATO allies pay more, and this could simply be a desperate rear-guard action by the smarter right-neoliberals in order to cover up the extent of their multi-decades failure. In this way he is a continuation of the inevitable process of American decline that began arguably with Carter and definitely with Reagan.

Trump would have won this election handily and easily without Covid simply because of what Biden has represented for decades in the senate, and he would have blown out a major victory had he broken with his own Mnuchin-creatures and instituted universal basic income for at least the duration of the pandemic. Likewise, had Biden promised an expansion of downward cash transfers, I believe his victory would have been assured and extremely telling on the electoral map too. But such bipartisan commitment to austerity colors both of these candidates, much to the misfortune of the country at large. Maybe Andrew Yang was much more important for our future than anyone thought. Certainly more than media-loved supposed brain geniuses like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg ever could have been. The two candidates that extremely highly educated but not deeply political people and literally no one else loved.

It has already become apparent that Trump’s racist rhetoric has not hurt him with minority voters. Though most minorities skew heavily democratic still, Trump is the first republican to make consistent gains with non-whites in my lifetime. It is also obvious that the tokenistic and foolish decision by Biden to pick Kamala Harris as his running mate has had no positive effect for his campaign and perhaps even had a negative one when all things are said and done. What a shocker, a mass incarcerating creature who surrounds herself with establishment lanyards to help her figure out her policy views turns out to once again be a dud of a VP choice. The DNC really seems to struggle with VP choices that boost a ticket. Gore, Lieberman, Edwards, Biden, Kaine, Harris? Its like a retinue of the worst choices possible. And considering Biden’s age and obvious past-prime nature, it mattered more this time than at any time before. That they chose Harris of all possible options is another damning indictment for how out of step these people are. So out of step they tell an immigration activist to ‘vote for Trump’ if they didn’t like Obama-Biden’s demonstrably awful record of detention and deportation policies. Meanwhile, the identity politics that are increasingly the tent revival religion of the democratic establishment are clearly failing as the only demographic group Biden seems to be expanding his appeal to are the great satan of contemporary liberalism itself, white men. Exit polling indicates more than just an ideological re-alignment is current going on. A Biden victory is a stop-gap measure in this process, not a reversal of it. Him winning a victory means little considering the unpopularity of the present incumbent, and his loss would be simply damning.

Even if Biden wins, this race will be close. Far closer than the media predicted (but about as close as I thought it would be). It shouldn’t be. Trump’s awful response to Covid alone means he deserves to lose and lose big, to say nothing of his other failures. But the Democratic Party spent the past four years sabotaging any candidate who could have been a viable alternative for both their own past failures as well as Trump’s. They have shown, time and time again, that they will fight to the death with an admirable ferocity against any challenger to their left, but barely squeak by when faced with the blackpilled horror of McConnel and company. The reason for this is simple, American parties are controlled by their large donor classes. Large donor classes are always fiscally right wing. The bottom line demands that while they may prefer the less obnoxious rule of the democrats, liberal elites as a group will still throw anyone under the bus who is going to tamper with their private family hoards. But despite this clear materialist cause of our problems, the mood of the public-no matter what their political allegiance, has long since left the quest to pursue material objectives, and has moved firmly into the camp of faith, belief, and cultural signifier. The press, that supposed cadre of defenders of freedom of expression, have allowed themselves to be suckered into becoming the biggest defenders of the national security establishment imaginable. Many of them openly champion the firing and imprisonment of leakers and other journalists for either minor social infractions that cross presently trendy causes or under a kind of neo-McCarthyite delusion that they are guarding the body politic from some phantom foreign threat that spreads through memes. By making such asses of themselves they have collectively abrogated their vital mission right when they were needed the most, providing solipsistic spy thrillers for ageing boomers while ignoring the very real and bipartisan domestic problems that are entirely self-inflicted by the decay of American civic responsibility, the anti-intellectualism of the public, and above all their own failure as journalists and critical thinkers. When our legacy media uses its global reporting as a trite morality play to be framed in how a liberal sees domestic politics, you know your professional class has jumped the shark.

 There needs to be a hard left waiting in the wings in case the necessary push for materialism in our age of ecological catastrophe returns, but we also must prepare for the possibility that it will not do so anytime soon. In order to truly practice harm reduction in the present dark age, we need dark age candidates who actually do understand the problems we face and offer a superior alternative. People who aren’t obscurantist leftist puritans, woke liberals, or market fundamentalists. Someone who can speak to people’s emotional needs while also stating bluntly why the bipartisan establishment has failed everyone. Someone like Marianne Williamson.

At the first debate which she appeared in Marianne Williamson was someone I cheered ironically. I remember shouting ‘orbs orbs orbs!’ (a reference to a then current ironic meme about her having crystal orb powers) with a friend at the tv in the hopes we would be subjected to some pablum about using the power of positive energy to banish Trump from this dimensional plane. But my support for her right to speak only increased as she did so. She was the first candidate to bring up how Obama administration policies towards Central America had created the migrant crisis in the Americas and thus the debate around caravans and the wall. She went on to speak about how the United States had become a sociopathic nation abroad, and that this blundering bully persona had come back home to roost, infecting our domestic politics and giving rise to Trump. Sure, I am hardly a person to resonate positively towards rhetoric about ‘dark psychic forces’, but part of living in our new dark age where feelings do in fact seem to beat facts for most people, is understanding the power of rhetoric and symbolism. No one understands this better than Marianne. Not only does she get this necessary aesthetic packaging (made all the more powerful with the right Twin Peaks musical remix), she also clearly understood the structural bipartisan forces that have made our present American hellscape so intractable. In interviews too numerous to list since she was running and also after she dropped out, she has spoken of the necessity of breaking out of liberal-democratic shibboleths in order to effect meaningful structure change.

It is hard to think of anyone else with a speaking style and public persona who could have so strongly given Trump a what-for in his debates. Who could have generated headlines, positive and negative alike, at an equal level to Trump. Who is skilled at the one thing Trump is genius at and that all democrats seem to struggle with terminally…self-promotion. The kind of candidate who could be both forceful and patiently persuasive to skeptical audiences. The kind of person who, despite their background as a spiritualist with a lot of extremely questionable former views, could make this stone cold atheist and materialist take notice and come to take her very seriously. What matters, and what is overlooked by so much of the wonk class, is policy and deliverables. To get those things you need charisma and branding. Williamson is a rare person who could play both these roles simultaneously. She is hardly a perfect candidate for someone like me, but she is someone I could have supported openly to move things in a favorable direction.

The primary is, of course, over now. To the immense misfortune of the country at large and opposition to Trump in particular Biden was the clear victor. I doubt Marianne Williamson will run again. But she has shown us who seek to take the edge off of this dark age how it could be done. Should a candidate with a similar affect and set of policies tied to a shrewd understanding of the fully bipartisan nature of our present terminal decline, perhaps running in conjunction with an Andrew Yang type making the case that the covid emergency stimulus checks are proof that downwards redistribution really does work, ever again be a possibility, that candidate should be supported. The weirder a rhetorical outlier the better. She may not have won the democratic primary of the general election in this timeline, but Marianne Williamson showed us all a direction where the potential for immense political growth is most likely to lie so long as present cultural and socio-economy conditions continue. You can’t abolish the priests in a dark age, but you can start your own heresy. The alternative church might not be more rational than the main one, but it could be a much better community to live in. Its certainly a better path than tossing more money down the pit to nowhere also known as Amy McGrath.

Which is why it is so important to say it loudly and with certainty despite being such a counter-factual that could never technically be validated: Marianne Williamson could have…perhaps would have…definitely should have, won the 2020 General Election.

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.