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

chinnamasta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

International Order in Diplomacy- Book Review

mughal painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World, A Book Review

Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World‘ by Jairus Victor Grove was a book I had to get the second I found out about it. It merges the disciplines of international relations, ecology, and speculative realist thought and long time readers of this blog know that that is something I myself have endeavored to do for the past few years. Naturally, it is interesting to see someone else work their way through this combination of interdisciplinary issues, especially when they come to different conclusions than myself.

Grove seeks to bring the new materialisms into IR theory specifically in the context of the present environmental crisis we find ourselves in. In doing so he argues that the very practice of geopolitics has enabled this present ecological dark age by forcing the world into a hyper modernist European-led state system he refers to as the ‘Eurocene.’ The competitive arms race and its focus on expansion or continuation through war has in effect played a major role in the climate crisis of today. He then goes through many examples of how a new framework of discussion to international affairs must be created that cuts through the assumed narratives and back to a materialism that will enable us to survive this self-inflicted misery.

I believe it would be easier to split this review into two parts-the parts I am with the author on and the parts I disagree with. First up, where me and the author agree.

I am entirely with Grove that materialism is necessary and vital in a time of terrifying natural changes and a new human-led mass extinction. And speculative realism in particular offers the best way forward to making a new school of thought in this direction. I also agree with his premise that we shape the natural world but are also products of it which are shaped in turn. Humanity is more of a process than it is a dynamic primary actor. We need to recenter how we talk about politics more in the direction of how we talk about zoology. To quote a Godspeed You! Black Emperor lyric, ‘we are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine…and the machine is bleeding to death.’ But its a machine we helped build to rule even though it rules us now. We need to stop thinking like good civilized people and realize some barbarism is exactly what we need to break our own self-inflicted misery-if that is even possible anymore. And the first step of that is rejecting anthropocentrism and civilized niceties not just in ecology but in politics.

Where I disagree with the author, however, is his very concept of the ‘Eurocene.’ If the present international state system wasn’t working for states across the globe it would be dying out, but it seems to strengthening. There is no way we are getting through what I will remain calling the anthropocene without some level of a command economy for resources and research direction for technologies. Many of these resources will be scare and will be competed over. The competitive nature of the state system means something Darwinistic is occurring, which is good as we do not yet have the answer for surviving our current era and so multiple approaches must be tried and the best will serve as models for others and the worst will die out.

I also do not see anything particularly European about modernity anymore. While a new era did begin with the biological and demographic takeover of the western hemisphere and its forceable wedding to Europe-previously a minor and not particularly important subcontinental peninsula of Asia-any Eurasian actor could have potentially done the same thing. The bureaucratic state was first born in China and the agricultural state came from the Middle East, and those strike me as just as relevant to where we are now than the maritime-industrial states of post medieval Europe. Furthermore, as India and China move their way into full industrialization on their own terms and countries like Japan have long held that position dating back to the colonial era, I find little to argue for something called specifically ‘The Eurocene.’ That being said, the author is entirely correct that our currently unsustainable methods of development are a type of self-replicating virus imposed by force. But so too will any solutions have to follow that path.

It may come as no surprise that I, a person very into geopolitics (and making speculative realist geopolitics in particular) also take a more neutral tone on the field than this author. I think geopolitics are as likely to get us out of this mess as they are to dig us deeper. Aside from general environmental goals, I see little universal in how we will escape from pollution and mass extinction and more a variety of paths which depend on the varying ecologies of different countries. As it is, some countries will benefit from climate change and their interests cannot be said to be comparable with those who will suffer. A stateless world is a de facto neoliberal world in practice and the author’s fear of political homogenization is not caused by realism or geopolitics but rather prevented by those same actors. Diversity can only thrive in the absence of grand universal projects.

So our approaches are very clearly different as I see realist geopolitics as the garuntor of ideological, economic, and ecological diversity, not its foe. But Grove is an excellent writer so I enjoyed his take on it anyway.

The War Comes Home: A Book Review of ‘The Management of Savagery’

jihadjohnmccain

In the aftermath of the First World War there was a famous example of ‘the war coming home’ in the German Freikorps, which largely fought as anti-Bolshevik forces in the power vacuum of Eastern Europe before returning home and disproportionately joining far right movements that would be eventually subsumed under the Nazi Party. The famous and impressive Czech Legion which found itself stranded and forced to cross the length of civil war Russia to escape the other end in coastal Siberia experienced a similar phenomenon. Perhaps most analogous to modern day audiences, and the one with by far the most soldiers deployed abroad was the Japanese Army in Eastern Siberia. They were those who played the largest role in the Siberian Intervention and arguably did the most to secure the deliverance of the Czech Legion.

Japanese troops were kept fighting a low level guerrilla war of occupation in Siberia past the end of the rest of the intervening powers in that war. Although their presence succeeded in extracting oil and gas concessions in the region before departure, it was a failure in its main (if unstated) goal of making Primorye partially detached from the nascent USSR and open to business with Japan (see ‘Japan’s Siberia Intervention‘). A long and expensive intervention soured the public and domestic pressures brought the troops home. Some troops would terrify the home country with the influences they had picked up from the reds. Many others of those troops, specifically the officers, would go on to influence the growing cadre of right wing radicals in the army, a faction that would one day go rogue in the seizure of Manchuria and then go on to usurp the government, setting the Japanese Empire on an inexorable path towards self-immolation in World War II.

Max Blumenthal’s new book: ‘The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State Fueled the Rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump’ is far more contemporary, but is charting a very similar process to these events that happened almost a century ago. But this time there is only one seemingly unstoppable world power and a host of non-state actors.

I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch where I purchased my own copy and had it signed by the author. You may recognize his name, along with his colleague Ben Norton, as the co-hosts of the podcast ‘Moderate Rebels’, which is my personal favorite podcast which I have referenced a few times before. At that event, Blumenthal referred to the book (whose release had to be delayed and relocated due to complaints from a combination of Beltway lanyards and Syrian rebel backers) as ‘the most dangerous book in Washington.’ Its not hard to see why this could be so.

The book charts the rise of American-backed Jihadism, a process that really swung into full action with the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the golden opportunity for the CIA to inflict revenge for Vietnam on the arch-foe. Though most people in DC know of this story and the reverberations of it (Steve Coll’s quite good book Ghost Wars is a common staple around Washington) there seems to be a collective cultural and political denial that this still happens. Not only that, but that this process, only really briefly interrupted by the immediate post 9/11 rush to combat the Taliban (itself a partial creation of these policies, if unintentionally) also has domestic blowback similar to the kind once experienced by multiple nations in the interwar era.

9/11 was used by many of the more hawkish elements of the American defense establishment, as well as a crisis hungry media (I was overjoyed to see I am not the only person who remembers that the top news panic story of summer of 2001 was the false claim of a rise of shark attacks world wide-its referenced directly in the book) to roll out an ambitious neoconservative plan of reckless expansionism. This parade of wars, botched operations, and flagging public support soon after Iraq turned sour in turn led to the rise of various media grifters seeking to make a buck (or a public profile) off of the War on Terror. Both Islamists often recruiting from the west to fight in regime change wars coming home to commit terrorist attacks (The Manchester Bombing for instance) as well as radicalized far right racist terror of a more indigenous persuasion not only fed off of the blasted detritus of American policy failures abroad but also each other directly in the domestic field.

The events are recent and many of them I have written about here before. But Blumenthal weaves a convincing narrative about just how interconnected all of this is, and how the neoliberal/neoconservative center is the ultimate enabler of the extremism it claims to be the bulwark against (see my last post for more on what I call ‘Trident Theory’). Right wing grifters and Jihadists alike feed off of each other. ISIS recruitment documents prove they intentionally provoke this as a strategy. The smarter people on the far right must know more terrorist attacks by Islamists are good for them electorally. Perhaps Steve Bannon himself wants to secretly and indirectly ‘adopt a muj’.

Much of this is enabled by conscious decisions by foreign policy elites in various countries. The grotesque tableau of the humanitarian warrior who loves refugees so much they want to make more of them by leveling their country allied with the Bolton-hawks who are just in it for the fireworks and the forceable opening of new markets abroad. For the specifics of this tale of woe we have all lived through, knowingly or not, I cannot recommend ‘The Management of Savagery’ enough. Especially as Representative Ilhan Omar faces critiques both by the xenophobic right and the increasingly pro-neocon center and center-left and the media does it best to drown out the necessary issues driven candidacy of Tulsi Gabbard.

To bring this full circle I am reminded of the first college essay I ever wrote that I could be genuinely proud of. It was a comparative study of a historical and (then) contemporary event, presaging what I often do now. It was an essay for a history class on the Japanese Empire taught by the excellent Professor Roden of Rutgers University. I first cleared with him that I could add contemporary elements and he graciously accepted.

It was about the Japanese Empire’s fall to radicalization to an extremist elite that festered in the military and intelligence services. It spoke about the connections of the rhetoric of the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ as compared to what was then Bush’s Second Term and ‘Freedom Dividend’. It spoke of traumatic events leading to sea changes in public opinion (The Great Kanto Earthquake, 9/11), the lack of a unified or bold opposition, and debilitating wars that only expanded with time-all under the ideological impetus of a form of national exceptionalism.

I was an undergraduate then and aside from its core ideas it probably wasn’t very good by my current standards. If it still exists anywhere its on an old computer in storage or a lost thumb drive. But I will say this: despite all the insanity of politics in our present time one thing that is decidedly different from both the interwar period and the early to mid oughts is that there really is opposition to this stuff. Perhaps not yet unified, but it is there. The effects of these policies, after all, are undeniable and all around us. There is more dissent today. Maddening as the present can be I know I felt far more alienated from discourse in the Bush Jr years. In very real material terms Bush killed far more people pursuing the quixotic dreams of American Exceptionalism, expanded far more of the surveillance state, and had more of a media lock than Trump-so far- has. People never would have believed back then that a common Middle Eastern moniker for extremist Islamic sects was ‘American Islam’, or that the Iraq War’s greatest beneficiaries was Al Qaeda, who was given a second wind by the chaos there, but the amount of people willing to hear such uncomfortable truths is far higher now.

I had no hope then. I have the modicum of some now. Take from that what you will.

 

 

 

 

‘The Hell of Good Intentions’, A Review

hell of good intentions

Stephen Walt was one of the most influential contemporary international relations theorists to me when I first entered the field of IR as a Master’s student over a decade ago. Of the currently active crop of IR thinkers he remains my favorite, so it should be no surprise that the coming of his newest book, ‘The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy’ was an instant acquisition for my massive nonfiction library. Though Walt and I have diverged on some issues in the past few years, our overall diagnoses of both what ails the US foreign policy mainstream as well as what to do about it remains extremely similar.

I am not going to go over the details of the book as many of its themes have been covered on this blog multiple times already. From the incestuous navel gazing of the Court Eunuchs of the Beltway ghoul class to the virtues of America’s fortuitous geography in its rise and options towards grand strategy, to the virtues of offshore balancing to those lucky enough to be able to practice it, all can be found here in various posts. If you know many of my bugbears you can guess what are Walt’s, and vice-versa.

What I will do, however, is review how good a case Walt makes for covering this topic as a single book meant for a large audience. Unsurprisingly, this book is meant for a similar audience as the very one it rightly criticizes. This means Walt takes a very different tactic than I do. Whereas I tend to go after people outside-of-the Beltway and show how the fables of liberal hegemony are directly counter to someone’s interests, Walt wants to convince those who are a bit more integrated into these elite circles. This is not a criticism of mine, as its important to be firing on all cylinders here. I am merely acknowledging that if he is the Martin Luther King Jr of foreign policy realism than I am more the Huey Newton-to use a somewhat tortured and tongue in cheek analogy. I try to convince people who are non-centrist independents, the few sane paleocons, and leftists and he goes more for the liberals and centrists.

Keeping this in mind, Walt does an excellent job. Not only does he wage a thorough and quite multi-topical demolition of both the record of our very own Late Ming court eunuch equivalents whose lanyards are the modern version of the old quill said eunuchs once used to hold in their piss (analogy once again mine), but also the long term effects of these luxury wars we have found ourselves in. For someone who is sometimes (unjustly) criticized in academic circles for ignoring domestic factors and how they shape foreign policy, it is worth pointing out that, so far, this book seems to have little in the way of big newspaper reviews. Quite possibly because it also criticizes the general neoconservative/liberal bias of major legacy papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times’ op-ed section. Had this book come out in the twilight of the cursed Bush II presidency I have no doubt it would have been given more media attention, but in a world where both parties now identify openly with unthinking hawkishness-from Trump embracing Pompeo and Bolton to the Democrats rallying around the flag of the national security state and even bizarrely ex-Bush Junior officials-there is little mainstream attention paid to this work so far despite the fact that Walt is a distinguished and well known scholar in the field.

Fascinating that. I’m sure its just a coincidence.

Needless to say, this is *the* work to get your foreign policy orthodoxy questioning people to engage with series realist critiques of both the present system and what to do about it. The book even helpfully closes out a useful list of talking points and arguments that could be deployed to make the case for a more restrained offshore balancing strategy. Worth keeping around to push the needle especially as a reckoning with the establishment must be only one or two more of their failures away.

My only real critiques of the text as follows:

While Walt does mention how the Lanyard Ghoul (once again, my phraseology) class has an intrinsic reason to back mindlessly hawkish policies due to them making money and status off of such policies, he only barely mentions the privatization and for profit militarization of much of the DoD in the past few decades. This is not something that could be easily reversed without major structural reform not only of The Pentagon, but also our entire political-economic system as it presently stands. This, along with environmental issues, are some of the reasons being a realist actually made me evolve more structurally left wing positions over time. Also, when living in DC, as I currently do, one sees how this recession-proof city really functions as more and more ‘Beltway Bandits’ move in with the attached monstrous apartment complexes clearly designed for pod people in tow. In DC the policy is made, and DC itself is increasingly economically reliant on what Eisenhower once called ‘the military-industrial complex’….except that now said complex has a profit motive above all, and thus far less reasons to uphold the national interest first. This entails not only many jobs that rely directly on the perpetuation of bad policies to exist, but also an army of lobbyists to see that their voices are disproportionately heard in government.

My second criticism is just a minor oversight but one worth mentioning. Walt rightly bemoans the lack of foreign policy focused elected leadership in office currently. While I agree with the argument overall, and also with his complaint that the cause suffers when certain people from a family with the last name of ‘Paul’ do much of the public speaking on its behalf, he is missing one very persistent and vocal figure in congress: Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. The entire reason she has managed to restore realist and restraint positions to the discourse is because she is charismatic and is a rare figure focused on foreign affairs. Personally, I would love to see Walt support her mission in congress as congruent to his own.

 

Seven Types of Atheism: A Book Review

chuckyjacksoff

Seven Types of Atheism, by John N. Gray is a book I have been meaning to get my hands on for a few months now. Gray is my favorite living philosopher for a number of reasons, mostly related to his ability to critique most of the currents in European political thought from a kind of Taoist-Antihumanist position. He is an atheist but not a progressive or believer in the power of humanity. Though on contemporary politics we are extremely different, him going for Burkean conservative secularism and me for a kind of regionally adjusted geopolitical realism that ers on the side of hard left due to ecological concerns and the current failings of our contemporary ruling classes, but we come from the same place…that history is not a teleology, it has no predetermined end point nor a guiding overall ideology-and that attempts to impose a universal moral ideology is a horrific mistake. Rather, history is a cyclic process of constant crisis management and adaptation which knows no clear cut answers that work in every location or time period. He ends up more on the managed decline side of things-where I used to be I might add-though I now end up more on the ‘seize the moment to start a new cycle lest you be dragged down further’ side, but it is the kind of disagreement on big issues that reasonable people can have.

The reason I came to Gray was due to a recommendation from someone I knew who said that my attempts to articulate my own general position towards political theory sounded like his. I read Straw Dogs shortly after that, and since have gone on to read all his major works. I enjoy and learn from all of them, if not to equal extents. Straw Dogs and above all Black Mass I would contend remain his top works. Though I have moved in many ways in a different direction since, Gray was still the pivot point of my turn away from much of mainstream liberalism.

If anyone has been following his output recently, nothing in ‘7 Types of Atheism’ may necessarily surprise you. In the past 5 or so years he has written numerous criticisms of the myopia of seeing atheism as a purely progressive and humanistic endeavor for the patrician bourgeois of the western world’s developed nations. He not only does this to critique New Atheists, who he rightly scorns as charlatans and entertainers, but also to return awareness of the rich diversity of atheist thought which is not reflected by many contemporary trends. He is especially interested in non-liberal incarnations of the atheist world view, both ones he clearly dislikes as well as ones he respects. ‘7 Types’ is in effect the ultimate coda to these various positions he has scoped out over time. He starts with the New Atheists and Secular Humanists, and his largely negative views of them, then continues on to a mid-tier of various types (scientism, misotheism, etc) which he doesn’t like much either but sees at least some things worth engaging in. He then ends with what is clearly his favorite grouping, the ‘Atheists Without Progress’, and the ‘Mystical Atheists’ (Santayana and Conrad in the first and Shopenhauer and similar thinkers in the second).

I personally have never engaged much with Santayana, though I probably should considering there is a lot of overlap with my interests, but I certainly define myself in this ‘atheist without progress’ category. The impersonal and directionless nature of the cosmos is not what we make of it, as postmodernists and existentialists might claim, but rather simply a fact. The natural world is a material world, and a material world is stuff and energy. Our ability to control our responses to this are just as much slaves to nature as the other animals-even if we have perfected the art of deluding ourselves otherwise. It is not *all* for the worst of course, it gave us art and music after all. Its neither bad nor good because nothing is, the cosmos has no morality and this is fine.

Rather than go through each case study or argument piece by piece, I think it would be perfectly succinct to simply state the best and worst part of the book as I found them.

The best part of the book is that in many ways it serves as a slap in the face to the many Christians who have recently been drawn to Gray because of his savage critiques of New Atheists and Stephen Pinker type euphoria. Gray had developed a bit of a weird fan base that kind of missed the part where his critique of many contemporary atheists was precisely that they were too Christian and behaved as if they were the inheritors of all that baggage. The faith in progress, of human perfection, of a linear path going towards an end goal in history, of good and evil being repackaged as reason and unreason, it was all a very Christian form of atheism. Gray is more in line with the pagan thinkers of old, being fatalistic and skeptical of attempts to seek an artificial ideological improvement for the human race at large rather than localized and contextualized harm reduction. Universalism, outside of the big rules of hard science, is simply a method of moral posturing that heightens rather than reduces tensions and whose only benefit is as a psychological palliative for those who wield it. By re-centering his opposition to the monotheist world view as the core of his critique of many types of atheisms, Gray is reminding (intentionally or not) the faithful of Abraham that they created this mess in the first place. Perhaps if there were eight types of atheism I could consider myself a ‘pagan atheist’, or one who denies the reality of the gods but sees the use in the world view of personified natural forces for festivals and community building. But the point remains that Gray is reminding us of the origin of many of the bad ideas we struggle with, secular or religious, are monotheistic in nature-and stem from a religion that unlike most makes specific factual claims it cannot back up (a la the Resurrection of Jesus).

The worst part of the book to me is a general critique I have developed of Gray in the past few years: I do not think it realistic that many humans could become a kind of apathetic renunciate.  We are an action species by and large. To reject the idea that we are reasonable means accepting the fact that we will take action regardless of being able to see the pointlessness of much of it in the long run. We still have short term goals after all, which are far more immediate. There are people who renunciate, of course, but the realistic observation is that such people never become powerful, and powerful people count for much more. That means, if you like them you have to actively support them, and if you do not you should oppose them. Humanities’ ‘warring interests’ that Gray accurately points out are more likely to lead to a call of arms than a peaceful withdrawal. Since I believe individualism as politics to be a waste of time, one can only take such views from a deeply personal perspective-and even then this only applies to some people. I myself may want one day to live in remote A-frame cabin in Southeast Alaska’s temperate rainforest, but before that point I want to uphold my friends and revel in the misery of my enemies. You can only get things done by building communities, and all communities need foes and challenges to provide that extra glue of solidarity. I can always renunciate when I am old if I want to, and if I’m dead before then I already, in effect, have.

Since Gray used numerous fictional authors to help illustrate his largely non fictional point I believe it is only fair if I do the same to summarize this one respectful disagreement I have with his work. Robert E Howard, creator of Conan, Kull, and arguably the entire sword and sorcery subgenre, was someone who shared my view that history is cyclic, civilizations decay after apogee, and the future is barbaric-just as the barbarians one day will be the civilizational apogee before they collapse in turn. This view came, like mine, not from theory or philosophy but from years of a rigorous study of world history. There are enough of such people who would say the following: ‘But not all men seek rest and peace; some are born with the spirit of the storm in their blood,’ that walk this Earth. And even more of us who are not like that for the most part but have just enough appreciation of the ups and downs of irrational humanity as to have a little bit of that storm in them. For now, this is where I consider myself to be.

Or to take it from the mouth of Howard’s most iconic character:

‘I seek not beyond death. It may be the blackness averred by the Nemedian skeptics, or Crom’s realm of ice and cloud, or the snowy plains and vaulted halls of the Nordheimer’s Valhalla. I know not, nor do I care. Let me live deep while I live; let me know the rich juices of red meat and stinging wine on my palate, the hot embrace of white arms, the mad exultation of battle when the blue blades flame and crimson, and I am content. Let teachers and philosophers brood over questions of reality and illusion. I know this: if life is illusion, then I am no less an illusion, and being thus, the illusion is real to me. I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and am content.’

 

‘The Centrist Manifesto’: A Special Guest Book Review

new centrist party

A friend of mine who is currently blog-less has submitted a review of a book which he recently acquired for the sake of morbid curiosity, ‘The Centrist Manifesto’ by Charles Wheelan. I have not read this book myself but given the suitability of the topic to multiple previous entries when I have mocked the claims of rationality, impartiality, and political viability of centrist projects as well as excoriated the idea that centrism automatically or even often equates to pragmatism, I felt that his self-proclaimed ‘book report’ was an absolutely essential addition to the Geotrickster canon. What follows below are the words of Brandon Hensley entirely:

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Several weeks ago a friend’s Facebook post pointed me towards Charles Wheelan’s “The Centrist Manifesto”. An admixture of lolz and apprehension greeted me when faced with the choice of signing my name to a “moderate” hopeful in some other state’s election in exchange for a free copy of what promised to be a more thrilling political commentary on the current moment than Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. After several weeks of waiting, the Manifesto of the Radical Center arrived. The fact that my suburban Ohio home was in the middle of yet another monsoon was oddly fitting.

The first thing you notice about Wheelan’s manifesto is that it is appropriately thin. The ability to wave one’s manifesto in the air like a little red book is supremely important if you want to be able to disseminate nuggets of wisdom at a moment’s notice, such as “We need an insurgency of the rational: a generation of Americans who are fed up with the current political system, who believe we can do better, and most important, who are ready to do something about it. Are you one of those people?”. We do need an insurgency of the rational in the current political climate, and gone are the days of Bismarkian realpolitik as well as the halcyon days of Kennedy-style bipartisanship, but my enthusiasm for Centrism giving this back to us is low. Exhibit A:

We open our discourse on this American moment five years ago (copyright 2013) with “Something has to change. Our country is on a dangerous trajectory. We are mired in serious policy challenges, in large part because the political process has moved beyond gridlock to complete paralysis.” Wheelan is appealing to the lowest-common denominator with this opener. It is effectively tautological at this point to accuse DC of being unable to do anything useful. I get it though, we need the hook, and the communists already cornered the market on catchy manifesto openings. “A spectre is haunting Europe” is sort of like the virgin birth: only one gets to happen and after that nobody will believe you. So we can be charitable to the Centrists and allow them the tautology. Wheelan continues in this chapter entitled “The Big Idea” by accusing Republicans and Democrats of being equally culpable in the paralysis of the democratic system. He hits all the traditional talking points—fiscal irresponsibility, personal sacrifice, even job creators, along with a litany of woes affecting the world. He even has a remarkable moment of clarity when he takes to task the political system for what it is:

“Our political institutions reward the most extreme views in each political party. Congress has grown increasingly polarized and dysfunctional because we have built a system that elects extremists. Each party nominates its candidates in a primary. Who votes in primaries? The most extreme elements of each party.”

After the litany of castigations against the Republican and Democratic Parties and this raking over the coals of the primary and electoral system, you can be forgiven if you forgot on page 12 that his answer to this problem is yet another political party playing in the same political arena. In case you did forget, Wheelan reminds us that he has no interest in dismantling the political system itself: “The Centrist Party will introduce a coherent governing philosophy around which Americans disenchanted with the traditional fare will naturally coalesce.” Ah, yes. Strength through Unity, Stronger Together, Make America Great Again. “[T]he Centrist Party will take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.” Because the anti-fasicsts are the real fascists, amirite?

In explaining the basis of a Centrist Party, Wheelan takes a 180 on his previous strategy of admonitions against the Republicans and Democrats and instead praises each for what they do best. Republicans have a decent brain but Democrats have a noble heart, for example. He even reminds us that “in normal times, these are the kinds of things that pragmatic Democrats and Republicans would agree to do together.” He takes an additional 180 in a subsequent chapter when he returns to railing against the Democrats and Republicans. This sort of back and forth is a staple of the manifesto. What is disappointing is the historical illiteracy of Wheelan. The “normal” times he is appealing to, roughly 1945-2000, was hardly emblematic of American political history. It was an anomaly. The American “norm” historically resembles more of Trump and less of Kennedy.

Wheelan says that only four or five Senate seats would be enough for the Centrists to hold the strings of legislative ability. He describes how electioneering in the middle is what attracts the widest amount of voters, and reminds us that only a few Senators are needed to effectively kneecap Congress forever. He even takes a cheap shot at the Greens for being too on the fringe to win elections in the process, ignoring the actual electoral history of the fringe. Taken altogether, it appears that the Centrist’s strategy to restore normalcy is to win only enough elections to make their presence in the Senate annoying to everyone else. Hardly a recipe for Leninist-style accelerationism designed to break the system in order to replace it with something new.

Relevant to his shortcomings when it comes to replacing the electoral system is the proposal later for electoral reform. He proposes in his section on “The Centrist Process” a series of electoral reforms that border on populism—heresy for the Centrist. But it is admirable in its own way. If we must keep the American electoral system, we should at least endeavor to amend it. Wheelan proposes ending gerrymandering, “open primaries in which the top two candidates in a single primary election advance to the general election, regardless of their political party,” reform the rules of Congress to prevent the filibuster (this seems a little counter to his idea of hamstringing the entire Senate using four or five Centrists, though), and “constrain the corrosive effect of money in politics.”

Before we get there, however, we have to endure a great deal of finger wagging. After chastising America for not being more political involved, Wheelan appeals to the emotional heartstrings about how hard public policy really is with a quaint hypothetical about running a home owner’s association and throwing a community party. While the metrics he presents (movie preference, food choices, whether or not we should even have a party) are all valid metrics in formulating public policy, one can’t help but get the sense at this point that the earlier failure to appeal to something new and better over the current system might be emblematic of a larger issue in the worldview of the Centrist Wheelan is appealing to, that of being out of touch with the very demographic the Centrist thinks they represent.

A key moment of this “out of touchness” is when he points out the platitudinous nature of the paean “do the right thing”. He is right to point out that platitudes aren’t helpful, but in contrasting the private sector, he goes on to claim “[t]he whole point of government is to do things that the private sector cannot or will not do.” Wheelan fails to admit that the list of things outside the private sector’s purview is not a comprehensive list of things that government should do, and that, based on ideological concerns, the government will always choose to do some things as “the right thing” over other things. In his hypothetical hamstringed-by-the-Centrists Senate, what are the ideological moral hills the Centrist bloc will choose to die on? After stating that there is no objective metric to determine any best decision—a statement which is only right insofar as it also accepts that “best” is by definition subjective, something Wheelan does not admit—he expounds upon a lack of objectivity by…defining objective trade-offs? Using a variety of examples from college to medical care, Wheelan adopts the utilitarian position that what promotes the greatest welfare for the greatest number of people is objectively the best decision to make, and, therefore, should be promoted in public policy. But, again, what the greatest welfare is is already subjective, let alone the subjectivity inherent in deciding which road to take to get there. Chapter three is the longest section of the entire book and it only contains two useful bits of information: a list of Centrist “principles” and “The Centrist Process”. The principles are paradoxical given what Wheelan has given us so far; a Centrist Party that appeals simply to what is commonly and widely upheld from a policy perspective is devoid of principles entirely. To stake ones position in principles or ideology means alienating a portion of the public by default. To avoid an ideological position, one must default to axioms to determine what is and is not “good”. The problem is that “good” and “not-good” are not axiomatic. Both assume certain things about the world and different issues. I suspect Wheelan is aware of the uncomfortable position he puts himself in by listing a series of principles, none of which are hills to die on, which is why he introduces the process.

The Centrist Process: 1) Be pragmatic. Solve problems. 2) Talk about trade-offs. 3) Improve the electoral system. 4) Ask always, Where are we trying to go? What is a reasonably good way to get there? Other than 3, he is essentially describing a board meeting. What is especially telling is that in all of this, in a section that makes up more than half the total weight of the book, Wheelan still does not understand that you cannot answer 1, 2, 3, or 4 without a firm ideological foundation. Good sense and pragmatism are meaningless without the ideological trade off necessary to identify what the pragmatic solution is. Wheelan touches on this concern in his discussion of point 2, but he doesn’t actually stake an ideological position other than “…there are lots of options that are better than what we are doing now, and those better policies begin with a more sophisticated discussion around the issues. The Centrist Party will facilitate those discussions.”

Wheelan attempts to illustrate “The Process” regarding moral and ideological questions surrounding abortion and gun control by simply looking at data analysis and trying to compromise the two positions (see his claim on page 23 where he says the Centrist Party will not do this). Unfortunately, I have to laugh at his claim that no-one is pro-abortion. Not only because I am personally pro-abortion, but because he immediately contradicts himself by quoting a statistic that one-fifth of Americans think abortion should be legal in all cases. That’s twenty percent of the American electorate. That is hardly a “nobody thinks this way” statistic. In fact, the actual poll he quotes for these numbers shows as of 2011, 26% of the American public thinks abortion should be legal in all cases, whereas only 20% of the American public thinks it should be illegal in all cases, a segment of the American public that he dismisses as “only a small minority”. For a Centrist, he really doesn’t even grapple with the raw data he’s fetishizing very honestly.

Overall, Wheelan is emblematic of Centrism: it simply isn’t an attractive narrative. Instead of looking inwardly to say “why has the Center failed?” he lashes out awkwardly and unexpectedly to everyone else in a vain attempt to make Centrism appealing. He attempts to stake Centrism in some sort of moral and ideological purity, but contradicts his own vision of Centrism in the process. He stakes the entire enterprise on being pragmatic and then disregards pragmatism for propaganda when he willfully misrepresents statistics in opposition to one another to prove a point—that the larger majority of Americans are more ambivalent than all or nothing (shocking!). The biggest fault of Centrism as a political philosophy is that it doesn’t offer anything to the public and doesn’t pretend to want to, which is probably the biggest meta-joke to come out of this “manifesto”. Typically, modern rhetoric warrants opening a piece with a quote to set the stage for what is to come. I think it’s far more appropriate to close with a quote, to reflect on what Wheelan has or has not accomplished.

“Manifesto: man·i·fes·to,  ˌmanəˈfestō/, noun: a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate” -Google Dictionary