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 nope 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

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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

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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

Geopolitics in a World of Interlocked Machines

mt roraima

Mt Roraima, the closest thing to a true natural border, serving as the meeting point of the borders of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela

In previous posts I have mentioned in brief my fascination with speculative realism and object oriented ontology. I was always planning on making a post drawing the connections between it and the geopolitics which are the centerpiece of my writing here, but kept putting that off. Of course, now that I have read Levi Bryant’s (blog here) excellent book on ‘Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media’ I am now jump-started into finally getting around to this task. This post will also partially count as a book review for said work.

Also, as an aside, damn University of Edinburgh, you folks publish a lot in both speculative realism *and* China-Central Asia studies. I can’t believe I never realized this connection until after I moved out of the city. All my fields represented in my favorite place I ever lived. Missed opportunities and all that.

I got my start in grand historical narratives with Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, and I feel that its influence and verifiability in my experience kept me always on the side of anti-idealism and pro-realist interpretations-one of the few views I have never changed in my adult life. The anthropocentrism of so much of philosophy is both silly and divorced from the big picture and largely seemed to make most of philosophy-especially since the postmodern turn-utterly divorced from anything interesting or practical. It was only with my discovery of John Gray and then speculative realism as a whole that I finally found like minded people who wanted to insert some materialist and/or pseudo Taoism into these trends and thus rescue philosophy from its own self-imposed irrelevance.

From what can be inferred by the writings of many of these new wave of thinkers, the breaking point is the anthropocene itself. Human-caused environmental destruction ironically shows both how unintentionally powerful we are as a species as well as how utterly enslaved we are by the forces of nature even as we effect them. Climate change and the like are very real material things that cannot be ‘socially constructed’ away. This really forces the issue: western philosophy must get its head out of its own ass. The world is real no matter what you want to think about it. And postmodernism, Kantian idealism, and all the rest have done nothing but effectively make the same case for philosophy that climate change denialists and young Earth creationists do for the hard sciences. By relaying everything through human interpretation (correlationism), we elevated ourselves to the status of godlings in ideal but deluded street preachers in the real. Here is the world, we are part of it and it is part of us. We are not special or have some separate destiny through our unique access to consciousness. We are where we come from and what we are made of. In turn we effect the rest not because we are apart of the world but because we are very much an integrated (if increasingly overly powerful) part of the process.

Thinkers like Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Steven Shaviro, and others have done much work on bringing the usefulness in realism back to metaphysics and I encourage you to check out their work. But I must say, none of them quite have pieced together all the elements I wanted to see in one place like Levi Bryant has. More importantly, he does so in a way that makes it easier to do what I wanted to do–connect these forms of philosophy to geopolitics and history.

To put it extremely succinctly but perhaps unjustly as a summary: Onto-Cartography is Bryant’s mode of viewing the reality of objects (both physical and functional, so from plants to states or companies) as machines made of component parts, which in turn are machines made of component parts. All machines can be modified, made irrelevant, or increased in power by the addition or subtraction of various sub-components. These are all real de facto objects in space, whose interactions with each other and space itself as a medium are the sum total of reality. There may also be hidden objects-which is to say things that exist but that we do not and might never know of due to our lack of ability to interact with them-or objects that me might infer the existence of but still cannot detect outside of the inference on objects we can see (such as dark matter and dark energy, or the ideology of an umfamiliar society which you cannot yet communicate with linguistically). The one connector between all of these machine-objects, whether seen or unseen or man made or organic, is nature itself. The only holism here is that all things are natural.

This is not to say that all things are monistic and equally intertwined (what I would call the hippie-spiritualist platitude of ‘we are all, like, one mannnnn’). Some machines only interact with some things and may be invisible to others. The internet interacts with me and you if you are reading this, but not a wild boar rummaging around in the bush. Nor are such bilateral relations equal. The machine-activity of plant life, evolving constantly and striving to extract energy from the sun is utterly dependent on the sun-but the sun is hardly dependent on those plants and would exist unchanged without them. So too does it follow that bi-laterals can be proportionally unequal when they do exist as a back-and-forth, with the Earth influencing the sun, but nowhere near as the sun influences the Earth. Our solar system in turn, while obviously influenced by the context of evolving in the Milky Way galaxy, would continue to exist if it was ejected from said galaxy until the death of the sun, and the Milky Way itself would be unaffected by its absence. Most relationships in physical space exist to some degree, as everything observable interacts with energy and gravity, but this is dead end. Functionally speaking, the relationship between machine-object assemblages that matter are context dependent and have to be broken down to strategic linkages of power and cause and effect. So too, with grand theories of the humanities, where being pro or anti-capitalist becomes an almost meaningless position from the perspective of actively seeking to create change through politics when instead one must use a targeted approach to attack or support policies through their interlinkages with direct results, geographic context, and the interplay of physical factors that social science theory may not account for. This brings us strongly into the need to re-engage with geography-long one of my main causes.

When you consider that agriculture first arose in parts of the world that had the easiest plants to domesticate, and animal husbandry arose where the easiest and most useful animals to domesticate still lived or evolved, it becomes a legitimate question: Who domesticated who? Are we not now as beholden to our wheat crops and herds as their spread and cultivation is beholden to us? Are we not one giant interlocked process of physical objects as machine processes whose relationships can change or be re-evaluated by the constant evolution, revolution, and modification of these relationships through nature-often unintentionally? I would lean in the direction of a strong yes. The factors cited above which are also those which most directly the anthropology and history at the center of the humanities are directly tied to this geographic understanding. Against this background there is also the understanding that Bryant, much like Ibn Khaldun, constantly reminds us of: entropy. Machines break down with time. Geography itself, long treated by pop-geostrategists as eternal, is in fact temporal-if not as much as human societies themselves (Bryant 120, 174). To function in such a world machines need to either repair themselves or be re-invented, so is the overlap of seeing states (or tribes or gangs or whatever) as machines interlocked with the fate of their physical and contextual environment. To quote Bryant directly from page 191: ‘The social is not a specific sort of stuff, but is another word for the ‘ecological’. A social assemblage is an ecology.’ So zoologists have treated the interactions of their various species but anthropologists often have difficulty meeting this standards when looking at people.

So too does Bryant’s concept of hidden objects matter for international relations. Something that effects nothing until it does is a surprise, and often disproportionately makes history precisely because no one was prepared for it. Daesh, or ISIS, was something that lurked from the De-Bathification and marginalization of Sunnis in occupation Iraq but did not come to have proper international sway as a new and utterly bizarre entity until the circumstances of conflict in the Post Arab-Spring world enabled it to move from an ideology of rejected and angry sunnis to one which held a territorial base and influenced a web of international alliances. It was an object that barely mattered, dark to most of the world, until it achieved the mass necessary to exert a much larger gravitational force on other actors, so to speak. One could also see this process on a much larger scale in the meteoric rise of previously nonexistent powers in a short period of time, From Macedon under Philip II and then Alexander to Mongolia under Chinggis Khaan. As Ibn Khaldun was fond of postulating, the next new vigorous dynastic founders are often the most marginalized and sometimes even irrelevant people in a given order. See also the French and Russian revolutions where ideas of disaffection merely simmered until the situation made it that they could co-opt entire societies once they had momentum and a territorial base. The territorial base is key, as it means direct resource acquisition and interaction, something discussions in a salon never could achieve on their own. Tellingly, those that think salon discussion alone can bring about change (these days, mainstream liberals and conservatives) are those who already identity with the ruling class and therefore whose priorities are already de facto supported by the arms, power, and consensus of the pre-existing state.

Geography both constrains and enables what those who rule a certain place can do. It also means, in my opinion, that even if all nations can (and should) come together on environmental points that clearly would benefit everyone that they will never be able to share other common causes. Nations dependent on rare Earth exporting are going to be different that nations dependent on tourism, just as a highly urbanized region is not going to see eye to eye with a mostly rural area and neither will agree with a wilderness frontier. As geography and culture are very interlinked in an explicitly materialist way, and Earth is replete with societies of different geographies, the political idea of a common humanity vanishes even as we acknowledge we need to downgrade humanity’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Resource security with different powers and maintaining the right diplomacy is a way of maximizing differences for mutual gain, rather than some quixotic quest for a world order of moralism. The only thing universal is the natural and material mediums through which all such interactions take place-and even those change with climate, altitude, arability, power relationships between assemblages, and the like.

Bryant offers those of us who are old school realists and geostrategy watchers to engage with contemporary philosophy and both put into place language outside of general policy-wonkery. Considering how many absolute quacks infest geopolitics this goes in a positive direction to establish a much maligned field as more legitimate philosophy in the materialist tradition. Seeing states as the entropy-affected machines that rise and fall in reaction to the various people in that interact with their physical places as well as the pressures of the natural world and those of other people is a neutral and realist way to ground the study of alliances, war, strategy, and the historical contexts which feed into the self-justifications of states and the policy traps they often make for themselves. The relationship with nature by societies are always (at least) two ways, we affect nature and it effects us, because we like our technology and our animals, are as much a part of it as the wilderness. If we can chart the territories of wolf packs relatively objectively and always keeping the environmental context in mind, there is no reason we cannot do it with the formations of people as well. And any attempt to effect change within these societies must keep this context in mind. It also, perhaps most importantly for the realist school of IR thought, gives us the means to engage in contemporary materialism when talking about the power imbalances between strong and weak states as well as how they constantly adapt and evolve to try to find better balances of power for their interests.

 

 

 

 

 

Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography-a Review

Bust_of_Ibn_Khaldun_(Casbah_of_Bejaia,_Algeria)

I mention Khaldun enough so it is about time I review a book about him.

I have to admit, Robert Irwin’s ‘Ibn Khladun: An Intellectual Biography’ did not immediately meet with my approval. One of his earliest statements is that the great historian’s views of the cycles of nomadic Bedouins coming and going in power in North Africa is not applicable to many other places on Earth. I disagree entirely-with the added proviso that as long as one is aware of the local histories in detail-and I myself came to Ibn Khaldun through matching his thinking up with my first historic love: the Turko-Mongolian world. Though the author later quantifies that to some degree. But I would add also that Khaldun’s thought does in fact become more universally applicable to the cycles of history if one looks for the equivalent of nomads in these settings-potentially powerful outsider groups with strong in-group cohesion. A society with no nomads still has the underclass, highly traveled professional workers, diplomats and mercenary generals for hire as was common in Enlightenment Europe, privateers and upstart naval powers, and the like. One could, and in fact I feel like perhaps later I should, write the history of naval power from a Khaldunian perspective. All show the upstart but well organized outsider taking over the decadent wealth which often was not made by its present adherents but rather inherited by them, setting up their new, more youthful, and vibrant regime in its place or at its expense, and then succumbing, with the passing of generations, to the same maladies of their former foes and who are in turn replaced by new upstarts on their own periphery. So did it go with Venice, Spain and Portugal to the Dutch and then the British and then the Americans. So will it be again.

But this criticism aside, the overview Irwin gives us of both Khaldun’s career and the life his works have taken on since his death are both critical and laudatory, and put the man in context. As a thinker who is often projected by moderns to be one of them, it is important to see his historic context and actual views (including now laughable ones about sorcery and supernaturalism) restored to discussion of his record. Additionally, Irwin retains enough detachment to be able to postulate about the normal human foibles that Ibn Khaldun suffers from. He also retains a very even overview of later thinkers, both modern and not, who interpreted the thinker for their own ends. Most interestingly was his apparent growing popularity in the Ottoman governing and thinking classes that showed they were far more aware of the potential of their decline than most empires at their height are. I am very tempted to think that the nomadic Turkic background of the state contributed to this self-awareness and critical openness. It was also interesting having his time in the Mamluk Sultanate covered, as it was both a government that reflected some knowledge of the need to keep the ruling class recharged with fresh blood (Mamluks were imported Turko/Circassian/Balkan slaves who had been raised as nomadic cavalry who were then drawn into the military of Egypt under Sultans also descended from such stock) but also one which by Khaldun’s time was starting to degenerate even despite this caution.

Still, all things political being either in a state of rising and falling-with falling more commonplace-one can say that the Mamluks were in fact enormously successful compared to most of their contemporaries as well as a rare medieval state that could long term sustain being both an art patron and a vigorous military power. And its fall had more to do with the technological changes elsewhere invalidating the nomadic cavalry focused military than internal factors when the chips were down. Firearms matter and it was the Ottomans who jumped on that wagon first as a way to organize the core of their armies.

The best part of Irwin’s work, however, is in recognizing the pessimism of Ibn Khaldun. Here was a man born and raised in 14th Century North Africa who all around him saw signs of ruins of richer and more powerful civilizations long dead in the past. If Carthage and the Almohads could fall, why not the Hasfids who he worked for? Why not everyone else until the end of time? Though nomadic regime change could bring in fresh blood for a time, it would only be for a limited amount of it. Meanwhile, the Sahara grew and prestige of the region shrunk. This was the core of Ibn Khaldun’s work…work that would go on to influence such fiction greats as Asimov’s Foundation and Herbert’s Dune. And in a remarkable in-person meeting years after most of his writings, Ibn Khaldun would meet Emir Timur outside of Damascus during the very siege that the Turkic conqueror was conducting, and in so doing get to see the only example of rising in his lifetime and discuss theories of history with him-an academic case study made real in the flesh.

Would all us scholars be so lucky.

The Allure of Battle: A Review

the allure of battle

The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won or Lost‘ by Cathal J. Nolan is no trite and glib accounting of heroic genius and blundering foolishness like so much of published military history.  There is no romance to be found here. Only the stark appraisal of a materialist looking at many of the conventional wars of the modern age and asking those who casually study military history (actual scholars usually-but not always-know better these days) to smash the myths and look at the bloody truth: Its societies and their logistics that tend to win more than leadership. When leadership is important it can only work when harnessed to a communal effort that enables it to thrive.

Nolan implies he understands it was not always so. Medieval and tribal armies were often the sum total of defense their societies could put in the field. Surely, few could argue with the military dominance of the Eurasian nomad to centuries. (One also of course could say Eurasian nomads had the best logistical system of all time, as they took everything with them on campaign at no mobility sacrifice, I suppose). But with the increasing importance of centralized states, fortifications, and gunpowder came larger armies and more territoriality fixed states. After a brief introduction to bring us up to the 30 Years War, Nolan really gets going with his main case studies. He seeks, and largely succeeds, in gradually building a case that in the age of firepower starting in the 17th Century and leading through at least the Second World War if not through today, the age of firepower has been the age of attrition and not grand romantic decisiveness.

One can go back before to find obvious examples of supposedly brilliant generals who lost entire wars only a few years after winning one or more truly ‘decisive’ victories. Hannibal gave us the term ‘Cannae’ after all-named after one of the most successful envelopment in all of military history. But that and other brilliant battlefield tactical level performances did not change that the outcome of the war was a decisive defeat for him and for Carthage. Scipio on the other hand could learn from Hannibal tactically but brought an understanding of the enemy’s weakness behind their armies that led all his campaigns to really count in the long term. But as is so often the case with military history, the glamour of the takes eyes off the drudgery of the staff room and the logistics trains. Now, this is not really a new or mind blowing perspective for those of us who have given the research of military history quite a lot of thought, but it has never seen such a concerted case for its making as this.

Showing consistently how gunpowder actually extended the operational over the tactical in conventional war, Nolan takes us through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and up until 1945. He has a wide array of history to work with, so he focuses on Europe and modern Japan, where the cult of decisive battle seeking was the strongest. He has some choice words for some famous generals, respectful criticisms of others, and some praise for a few who normally do not get the praise they deserve. Part of the joy of the book is to find out what his take on a ‘great captain’ might end up being. Some common wisdom is overturned.

All throughout Nolan shows us how ‘the captains’ and even sometimes the armies themselves were secondary to the ability of states to wage war until the exhaustion of the other. Combined with these straightforward and mostly objective observations also comes the author’s poetic humanity, which never fails to bring forward the suffering of common people, soldier and civilian, in often pointless and frivolous wars for marginal gains. He never loses sight that he is a historian of tragedy and broken lives, even as he sets forth the seemingly brutal case that mass numbers, grueling campaigning, and institutional and organizational superiority often overcome where flashy battles do not.

One major reason he gives for the popularization of the concept of the one decisive battle or campaign right when warfare was moving exactly in the other direction was a cut of the offensive stemming from victory disease. His two most detailed case studies, Victorian-Early 20th Century Germany and Japan, were resource insecure revisionist powers who sought to use military force to establish regional hegemonies. Their first wars, often against foes in more dire straights than they, were successful enough in their objectives to inspire a bland self confidence not just in military solutions to international problems, but also that such solutions could  and must be brought about rapidly before superior coalitions resources could be brought to bear against such aggression. ‘Shock and Awe’, much later generations would call it. These actions are contrasted quite negatively with Allied adaptability after initial massive defeats, and greater ability to re-tool to play the long game to reverse the tables against enemies who were too wedded to very specific victory plans. As Von Kluck and Moltke the Younger melted down over the failure of the Shleiffen Plan (something Nolan refreshingly doesn’t even praise as a potential concept given the dire diplomatic ramifications and lack of enough vehicles to really exploit the speed necessary) Foch was learning to abandon his commitment to previously faddish offensive doctrine and look for a nuanced grand strategy that did not have to win or lose in an opening move. A similar thing would happen throughout World War 2, most egregiously in the Pacific with the Japanese failures to bag the American carriers and prepare for full scale logistical war on their new empire by submarines, making all their many resource rich and defensible consequences become rotting branches on a dying tree. Operation Barbarrossa might be the largest scale example of this type of thinking, itself moved up in expectation in timetable due to a miss-reading of the tea leaves that came with the unexpected ease which France fell-seemingly confirming the cult of the offensive and enabling it to grow yet more over-ambitious. In so doing, by failing to win decisively in Moscow it condemned its soldiers to lose in time.

The author does not forgo the important or morale or leadership but simply undermines their cardinal place in the hierarchy. Though to me group solidarity is a very important part of not just battlefield success but also logistics and mobilization at home. That feeds directly into staying power which in turn feeds into production and sustaining the effort.

While I loved this book stylistically and historically…I do have a couple of quibbles:

-I do understand needed to limit oneself on such a massive topic, but throwing in more countries outside of Europe than just Japan would have been nice. Paraguay in the War of the Triple Alliance stands out as a great example of the author’s thesis points. So does the Second Boer War and even the century long succession of conflicts known as the Ashante Wars. The Safavids often coming off poorly against the Ottomans would also just barely fit into the time frame but illustrate the point, as would all around more views on the naval aspect of conflict (where battles do tend, proportionally, to be decisive as fleets are more expensive than armies and can be more thoroughly destroyed in defeat).

-The author constantly and rightly alludes to the American Civil War as far more instructive to the future of war than Konnigratz or Sedan, whose proximity to London and Paris made them models for future armies to follow-into disaster. But he never actually talks about it. I feel, considering even his admittance to its importance at looking at how war was evolving technologically, especially towards the end of the conflict, that he could have had a chapter on it to further his points elsewhere. Not only did the western campaign’s slow and stead progress on geographic and logistical targets prove the decisive part of the war, but commanders like Lee are often held up as neo-Hannibals when really their actions, impressive in single field engagements as they were, failed to further actual achievable strategic direction.

-While the author does mention Soviet Deep Battle strategy as a positive development against both purely positional grinding and wild pell-mell and often petering out Blitzkrieg, he never actually goes into it. This is a shame as few people do, but it has a truly impressive historical record as a battle doctrine and also shows that one can wage limited decisive campaigns building on each other to grind down an enemy with maneuver without risking everything on a single throw of the dice and wounding their behind the lines logistics while doing it. Personally, I am I big fan of looking at Soviet Deep Battle as an example of how conventional mechanized wars could operate as a starting point. I felt it getting a shout out without proper analysis was a real missed opportunity.

Definitely a must have for the military historian. Now, let’s just hope we don’t live to see another conventional outbreak.