‘Escape From Rome’: A Book Review

roman ruins

Almost exactly three years ago, I reviewed Walter Scheidel’s book on historic cycles of inequality, ‘The Great Leveler.’ I am pleased to be able to now review the more recent ‘Escape From Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity’ by the same author.

While my review for the last book of his on here was uniformly positive, this one will be more critical for reasons I will get to later. I will, however, start with the positives. I do insist that it is a very good read and I am glad I read it, personally.

  1. Why ‘Escape From Rome’ is a work of serious scholarship and worth reading:

Despite the title, Scheidel is not primarily focused on Rome itself so much as its absence after it fell. Talking about Rome specifically is restricted to the very first chapters and the epilogue. In these sections, Scheidel makes a very strong case as to why Rome was so successful in a region where hegemonic empires are a rarity. No other state controlled such a large proportion of Europe’s territory and population directly save in ephemeral conquest periods like Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany. By showing that Rome faced no truly dangerous long term challengers to its north or west and a unique mass mobilization system, he makes the case that Rome’s singular commitment to mass armies and to long term expansion, coupled with the durable staying power of its alliance system, was something not seen before in European history and would not be seen again until revolutionary France-a state that would not arise until polycentrism (multiple unfriendly states in one region) was long established as the European normal. Polycentrism prevents one government from quashing innovation and allows dissident thinkers to migrate elsewhere if home turns into a sour environment. This in turn increases the contractual and mercantile orientation of a state, perhaps leading to constitutionalism.

Following this is a case for why, in the long run, polycentrism is preferable to technological and economic advancement. This includes other parts of the world who often saw such periods, though they did not have the persistence that Europe’s polycentrism did. In International Relations speak the term for this is multipolarity, by the way. Geography naturally starts the calculation with the broken terrain of Europe playing a massive role in both facilitating naval power as a utility and reducing the effectiveness of land power.

Scheidel then gives us a comparison of the other regions and how large scale hegemonic empires were far more common an occurrence. Rightly ceding the Western Hemisphere and its enormous divergence from the Eurasian experience to Jared Diamond, he focuses entirely on Eurasia and predominantly on China. In the end, his case can be simplified to ‘Rome may have given Europe a common educated language and religion after its fall, but it was keeping Europe in a hegemonic trap and its full potential as a region could not be unleashed until centuries and centuries of polycentrism established themselves.’ This case is both rigorously made and lucid. It is worth reading and it will make you think about macro historic trends.

2. Questions  I had:

Before getting to my criticisms of Scheidel, I want to pose the questions I have that aren’t critical so much as ‘why is this the way this text was done?’ Namely, Scheidel and I both love historical counter-factuals so long as they are neither sloppy nor over-simplified. They help us question our assumptions and show what moments actually were decisive in the world we have today. Yet Carthaginian victory over Rome is given quite a short shrift despite being more probable than some of the speculations he engages with in the book. While it is obvious that Rome had a massive manpower and logistical advantage in total war over Carthage, it could not have exercised that power outside of Italy without first winning some improbable victories over Carthage at sea. A theater it started out in with far less experience and many losses.

It seems to me that the ultimate counter-factual in discussing Rome’s impact (or lack thereof) on long term Roman history would be Carthage confining Rome to Italy through naval victories and subsequent alliances with Celtic tribes north of the Alps. A predominant Carthage would have played to Europe’s geographic strengths more than Rome. This is not to say that Carthage ever could have replaced Rome at all, a scenario Scheidel rightly dismisses given its societal model, but that by thwarting Roman hegemony and setting up urban mercantile enclaves throughout the coastal areas of Europe, Carthage could have strengthened the Celts in terms of both technology and institutions-not so much through direct policy but gradually by cross-pollination. It becomes plausible to see a medieval Europe of small states in the west but with a Gaulic-Punic-Germanic culture and Hellenistic Greek-Slavic states in the east, with Italy as a weird Latin outlier in-between.

This brings me to another question: Africa outside of the northern coast is barely mentioned at all. I get that its trajectory diverges from that of Eurasia pretty strongly, but nowhere near as strongly as the Americas. The Sahel was connected to the north through trade routes and the east coast strongly integrated into the Indian Ocean network (itself barely covered in the book despite its immense historical economic importance). Why is this? I feel some words on Sub-Saharan Africa are needed to round out the text.

3. My criticisms of Scheidel’s Thesis:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my Central Asia focused historical background, but I didn’t take kindly to Scheidel joining the ranks of the many historians who have effectively dumped on the steppe for retarding the growth of more littoral civilizations. If I thought this thesis was true I would admit it, however. Nomadism is still cool even if its overall impact is being the cool loser guitar playing boyfriend who makes your sister drop out of high school to move to Reno. But its really not. Using Scheidel’s own examples only, in fact, I can prove it is not. How? Because he specifically cites the Song period and the Yuan (Mongolian) dynasty as examples of China-centered governments who were into technological experimentation and pushing the envelope. Indeed, his favorable treatment of Song history is admirable but is missing the vital ingredient of just how much of a multi-state system it is, with both the Liao and Jin successively providing counter-hegemonic multipolarity and the Tangut Xi Xia state clinging on throughout it all for good measure. The Liao barely gets mentioned at all for being a state far smaller in population and economic power but that equaled the Song in military and diplomatic power. Like a western European state in the modern era, it punched far above its weight, largely due to the contractual nature of its dual-system governing structure between nomads and farmers and its ruling elite’s interesting in poaching talent from the Song through brain drain.

If Scheidel thinks the steppe has a retarding influence on state innovation why does he admit that the Yuan was far ahead of the game in future oriented policy than the native Chinese and southern-born Ming Dynasty? He correctly points to the Ming as the true era where China began to fall behind, but seems to ignore that for most of Chinese history it was technologically more advanced the Europe. If vulnerability to steppe predation was such a long term problem than why did it only become a problem when the steppe began losing out to the littoral regions due to the rise of gunpowder and the greater levels of trade being conducted at sea? We can see how the steppe and pastoralist conquerors aided technological development in the African Sahel as well.

And there we have an alternative answer to Scheidel’s: technological change favoring the ocean as the primary trade conduit to the steppe. Before the massive improvement of shipbuilding and navigational techniques, it was the steppe that was the sea. The ultimate realm of trade, exchange, and military competitiveness. Thus, a case could be made that the steppe was once a formative engine of innovation, but due to the material factors of technological change eventually coming to favor ocean-born cargo this went away. Regions with well established naval traditions took the mantle. The nature of maritime exchange also lends itself to bureaucratization, considering the technicalities of running trade through a harbor system. So, most of the institutional uniqueness of European early modern history once again stems from a geographic and technological impetus. And a maritime culture, of course, would be the first to get to the Americas, infect it with Eurasian diseases, and exploit its vast resources-growing the trend to exponential levels.

Another criticism I have is putting the primary poles of comparison between macro-regions into a mostly Europe vs East Asia comparison. This is not to say it doesn’t make sense, those are the two areas with the most durable states and the most surviving records for pre-modern history overall. East Asia belongs in any comparison here. But, South Asia strikes me as a far closer analogue to the European experience. While hegemonic powers were more common in South Asia, they were less common than in East Asia and the proportion of their reach was often limited once you hit the Deccan. Southern Indian states like the maritime Chollas and the militarized Vijayanagar are mentioned by Scheidel but never elaborated on. One could argue that the classical Mauryas, while not lasting as long as Rome did, had a similar foundational impact on India and disseminated en elite language (Sanskrit) and a new religion (Buddhism) widely enough to have a comparable legacy. Furthermore, during the breakup of the closest thing to a post-Maurya hegemony and pre-British hegemony was the Mughal Empire. This empire’s decline caused many of the smaller states to enter into a dedicated arms race quite similar to early modern Europe in the same period. Could the military innovations of the Marathas and the mercantile expansion of the Bengal region have set off something akin to the industrial revolution a bit later in history had not the East India Company got in there first to run roughshod over the place? Its very possible. Ergo, I do not believe that something akin to the modern world could only have come from Europe.

Going further east, into Southeast Asia, Scheidel specifically brings the region up as the only other heavily populated section of Eurasia where balanced and anti-hegemonic state systems were the norm… but then never uses it as a thorough compare/contrast with Europe. I feel like this is a lost opportunity as this region, rather than the more northerly East Asia, is the best center-point for any compare/contrast. It is perhaps here that he could have best made his case that Rome at least gave a common intellectual language to Europe-something lacking in Southeast Asia. Still, as I showed in my Carthage Uber Alles scenario, I am no convinced that a once-off hegemony is necessary. Perhaps if India had really taken off Southeast Asia would have succeeded even more. Think of how the urbanization and renaissance in Northern Italy was the start of Europe’s breakout but it wasn’t these states but rather the North Sea powers of the Netherlands and England who really took it to the next level. I can see something similar going from south and east India to Southeast Asia, especially considering the mercantile capabilities of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Burma then gets to play the role of France as a semi-continental and semi-maritime hybrid country whose influence on the globe is somewhat thwarted but whose regional land dominance in the core region is hard to dispute.

My final and most substantial point of criticism builds off these prior points. And that is presentism. Where you to go back in time before the enlightenment or the takeover of the New World and the harnessing of it to Europe, not only would Europe not have been out in front, it would be lagging behind. Not just South and East Asia but the Middle East and potentially parts of western Africa too. No one then would have seen any kind of ‘European Divergence’ if they were somehow able to experience much of the globe. Marco Polo himself would write about how much more advanced the cities he traveled to in Asia (notably then under Mongol rule, ahem) were to most places he had experienced in Europe-and coming from Venice he was arguably from the most advanced city in the region of that era. But sure, if we are going to talk about the modern era from the benefit of hindsight that is all well and good.

But presentist bias does not just apply to the past, it applies to the future. And if Scheidel’s ‘great divergence’ is true than it represents not a permanent reorienting of the planet but rather a specific epoch that already belongs to the past. The last gasp of western Europe being in the drivers seat of world affairs ended in the First World War for everyone save Britain, and Britain was an empire continental in scope if not in shape, its crown jewel being India whose population outlclassed any European state. Britain too would exit the world’s relevance with the crushing losses to its colonial empire in the Second World War, paving the way for the continental empires of the United States and the Soviet Union to cannibalize the fates of many of its old colonies between them. This in turn would be followed by a brief period of American global hegemony which is now fading into something more akin to a high Byzantine period where America probably retains its overall top dog spot but as part of a multipolar system divided between other big powers like China and India. No European state matters outside of Europe anymore save for its economic trade influence and the French informal empire in parts of Africa. Only one of the major powers is a cultural descendant of the age of European expansion and it is not based in Europe and appears to be diverging, rather than merging, with its allies there. The continental empire is back and has been since long before anyone reading this was born. Scheidel does not see this and opts instead for a clean break of premodern to modern with nothing new after that. I think we should instead see continuity from predmodern, modern, on through now and the future. If no other time in history was set aside for being absolutely special, why should this one be?

4. Conclusion:

So, multipolarity/polycentrism is back. But theres nothing at all European about it. In fact, for us to once again see the benefits of polycentrism in technology and civil society, its best to divorce from the era of Europe entirely and embrace a new era of new institutions reflecting new global-scale power poles. This is an era where the continental empire has become maritime-and the world has become small enough that they can no longer be complacent in their own specific regions but must compete, like early modern nation states, on a smaller planet. One doubts this is what Thomas Friedman meant when he said ‘the world is flat’, but the actual result of globalization turns out to be the super-state getting all Westphalian.

That does, however, leave plenty of regions between the major power poles that can make use of the polycentrism that Scheidel rightly praises. You can turn your diplomacy further afield than even before even as a small country now. You can always recruit technocrats and appeal to scientists by offering an alternative to the increasingly invasive surveillance states of America, India, and China. Only time will tell if the resources of smaller states could again outperform big ones, but they can always offer refuge to the dissident and the misfit. If there is one real lesson of European history (after the utility of naval power) it has to be that such states offer immense cultural and economic value to human development.

 

P.S. Someone tell Scheidel that as a fan of Hellenistic successor kingdoms and not a huge Roman fanboy, I am always grateful for more ammunition for my case that Rome replacing Pontus, Ptolmaic Egypt, and Seleucia was a net negative trend in history. He even at one point mentions that they were more technologically innovative than Rome as a point in his cases favor.

The Consolations of Big Picture History

modern plague doctor

Continuing the trend of using my own illustrations for the blog for the time being. It just so happens that I had a picture of a plague doctor in a modern subway station from a few years ago and that just works for this post.

In times of crisis and breakdown there is a tendency to turn to religion and philosophy for context and meaning. I disagree that these should come first. It is history that should come first because it is only in history that the experiences of the present can be directly shown to be outgrowths and inevitable processes of the past. A past that rhymes with often surprising regularity and binds experiences across generations.

This is not to demand the divorcing of history from other concepts in the humanities-indeed that would be foolish. I simply want to prioritize events over interpretation even while I acknowledge that both working in tandem is necessary. Why? Because an un-anchored interpretation on its own is simply editorialism and a concession to postmodern solipsism. Religion on its own is an even more extreme version of this. History, even vague and disputable history, is by definition based around clear cut events and therefore sets limits on just how much editorializing can come from studying it (even if as a humanities discipline there is still quite a lot to editorialize).

Most likely, just like after 9/11, we are about to see an uptick in religious fervor, cult activity, and large groups of people retreating into idealist and individualist-affirming philosophies. This is exactly the wrong path forward, especially considering that it is materialism, science, community response, and state policy alone that are going to curb pandemics and climate change.

If you wish for consolation in the grand scheme of things coming from the humanities, it is to be found in the past experiences of those who came before. Because history shows a few big things quite definitively:

-Pandemics are normal.

-Tragedy is normal.

-Social breakdowns fueled by decaying orders staffed by complacent ghouls are normal.

-These things happening in tandem with each other is not unheard of.

-Practical collective action can matter, atomized individual responses do not. True leadership, such as we see from Vietnam, South Korea, and New Zealand, comes from governments integrated with oligarchies of proactive expertise rather than defensive ass-covering such as we see among the great powers.

Above all, history shows something that was once summed up perfectly in a phrase from Battlestar Galactica, ‘All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.’ Fictional though the setting is, its a sentiment that could have been written by Kautilya, Thucydides, or Sun Tzu. It is also a sentiment that is deeply alienating to the western European/Christian mind, where history serves as a sort of teleological exercise where life is just a practice run to sort out who gets to go to the good place or the bad place forever.

No doubt this view brings comfort to the moral absolutists and scolds that makes up a noticeable sub-section of humanity. But we shouldn’t indulge such people any longer. They have proven themselves in their eras of dominance (christianized rome, late caliphate, the neoconservative-neoliberal present) to be unfit to hold the reigns any longer. Its time to use history as a far more accurate counter-narrative…the one of connecting us to the greater picture of our past through the shared sufferings and occasional triumphs that make up the story of life.

As evidence for this allow me to use a somewhat strange example. I have generally have nothing but scorn for the phrase ‘conservative intellectual.’ Not as a general principle but certainly applying to the 19th, 20th, and above all 21st Centuries. So-called conservative intellectuals are usually nothing but fearful rubes riddled with sexual pathologies who use eloquent language to deny that problems caused by the powerful are bad and to shift blame onto the powerless as much as possible. While I have massive disagreements and often outright disdain for many leftist and progressive thinkers, they are usually critics of entrenched systems which makes a far greater percentage of them intellectually useful.

But there are two conservative intellectuals from the modern time period that I do have respect for…one is John Gray but if he is even conservative in any way outside of general philosophical disposition anymore is debatable. The other, who I wish to talk about, is Oswald Spengler, even though my disagreements with many of his central thesis are legion.

Despite claims to the contrary, Spengler is a bit of a romantic. He is definitely a Germanic idealist, that most cursed class of philosophers. The central argument of his most famous work ‘The Decline of the West’, takes a great framework (cultures growing, flowering, and dying as part of a natural life cycle), and corrupts it with anti-material assumptions about the intrinsic and platonic nature of culture. In a way, he was a (much smarter) precursor to Samuel Huntington.

What sets him apart, however, is that he was a historian before he was a theorist. Even with his misguided focus on KULTUR, his curiosity about the world, of actual events that occurred make him a fascinating and engaging read. While his interpretation of the past was often questionable, the fact that he engaged with it to construct his world view (rather than the usual opposite of selectively harvesting the past to suit a pre-constructed theory) meant he was way ahead of most of his contemporaries when it came to understanding the present and the future. His predictions were often spot on, seeing the social and environmental effects of mechanization long before that was a normal conservation to have, calling both world wars as inevitable before they happened, and how decolonization would soon occur.

Despite Spengler’s love of culturally-focused relativism, he still manages to outclass his ideologically similar thinkers by the mere fact of treating history as an ever-unfolding story that may not repeat itself but definitely rhymes. A grand tragicomedy where we all have roles to play and little control over the stage directions or even casting calls. And, to steal a line from a Thomas Ligotti story, ‘there is no one behind the camera.’

We know by looking at the past that our sufferings are not unique and that our individual influence over grand events is actually quite small. In acknowledging how little control we really do have over vast systemic processes we can become immunized to the paralyzing fear of uncertainty. The Resistance Liberal mantra of ‘this is not normal’ was always entirely wrong. It is the very definition of normality when living in times of uncertainty. Others did it before, we have to do it now. Endure stoically and your odds are making it through with less damage increase. You might even learn something in the process.

Weirdly enough this now leads me to conclude with an example that is not historical, but in the realm of popular (ostensibly) children’s entertainment. Much as its rare to find a conservative intellectual worth reading, its also rare to find popular entertainment that can engage with the general themes of history as a continuous process with no predetermined beginning or end. It is no accident that the show I am watching continuously through lockdown is Adventure Time. Why? Well, having caught most but not all of the episodes and often out of order in the past I finally had the chance to go through it all in order. But, more importantly for our purposes here, because Adventure Time does something I love to see but that is rarely done well…it presents a world where apocalyptic events are normalized into a historical context.

The nuclear analogue ‘Mushroom War’ did not end the world except for those directly killed by it, it merely started a new cycle. Everything changed but by the time of the show’s present era all those changes are now normalized. The past is tragic but also enabled the present in much the same way that the extinction of dinosaurs made way for the rise of mammals. You can never go back and it would be weird to want to. At the same time, the past is what made the present and therefore the future. While Spengler could only see civilizations dying in the absolute, Adventure Time sees civilizations as dying but still contributing to a great compost heap of context that the entire future is built upon. This theme is carried continuously forward as multiple episodes contain not only flashbacks of thousands of years but also flash-forwards where we see ruins of the (usually present-tense) Candy Kingdom. The Kingdom had a technologically advanced future beyond that shown by the present-era episodes of the show, but apparently met a similar fate to the human civilization of the ancient past (our present) and left behind only its ruins. Though this looks pessimistic since we have been conditioned to identify with the Candy Kingdom, new life forms have taken their place and the world continues on-different, but not in the end worse.

In the sense of world building, Adventure Time is actually a deeply historical and historiographical setting, even if its connection to real world history is nonexistent. Compared to most of the anglo-protestant morality plays we get in mainstream fiction as the primary output of our culture that is refreshing. It sells the idea that the study of real world history could propagate to an even greater degree: all of this is normal, and even the weird bits will one day become normal, perhaps even the start of something endearing. You are part of a of a context that started before your birth and will not conclude after you die. The personal discomforts and tragedies you face are events to bind you to the experience of the species, not alienate you from them.

In Praise of Indigenous People’s Day

battle-of-old-sitka

‘The Battle of Old Sitka’ by Roy Troll

If you have been following this blog for a while, you probably know I have nothing but disdain for so much of the fashionable woke causes of today. We are bombarded on a daily bases by performative virtue signalling largely sold as snake oil by grifters to the guilt-ridden white bourgeoisie and those over-eager to have passionate opinions without doing the necessary work to justify such strongly held views. No doubt today you are seeing many of those very people loudly proclaiming their inheritance to replacing Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Be not afraid though, broken clocks are right twice a day after all.

From the undeniable fact that the largest mass human die-off in recorded human history was due to Eurasian pathogens made short work of much of the Native American population, to the subsequent enslavement, murder, and conquest of these then-weakened communities (I maintain that direct European conquest would likely not have happened in that era save for certain coastal and island areas were it not for the full-fledged apocalypse of smallpox and company creating a literal post-apocalypse-but that is a big enough topic to be the subject of another post), the reasons for replacing a Holiday celebrated in the United States, a (future) country Columbus never set foot it, are obvious. Even leaving aside that Columbus was a grifter, fanatic, and died convinced he had found the edge of Southeast Asia despite everyone else realizing it was clearly something else which was a direct result of him believing the world was much smaller than it actually was-a fringe view even in his time- there are plenty of reasons to neither give up a holiday nor continue it in its present form.

The mass destruction of indigenous culture goes beyond the human toll. It robbed the world of art, thought, philosophy, biodiversity, and language. While I am hardly one to use ‘imperialism’ as a catch-all phrase of bad things, the specific form of Spanish and English colonialism towards the New World resulted in positively ISIS-levels of cultural vandalism where the pathologies of the present rob the future generations of Earth from its material heritage. If the conquest in hindsight seems inevitable, the mass destruction, Palmyra style, of religions and cultures surely was not as it was fueled purely by ideology. Conquistadores cared little for converts, but the people that came after them did. And from Torquemada’s ideological children to Cotton Mather’s bastards, a varied mosaic of thought was swept away for the barren and monolithic desert of Christian fanaticism. A legacy that very much infects almost everything today in contemporary North America.

But Indigenous People’s Day is not mainly a marking of the past but first and foremost a statement of the future. The Natives are still here. Despite everything many still keep their cultures as intact as reasonably possible.  They aren’t going anywhere. And of equal importance, it is about time that we who dwell in North America recognize how much they contributed to us. Half of the vegetables commonly used in cooking today in the world have a New World origin. Most spices come from Mesoamerica originally. Languages used as codes to baffle the Axis Powers and vital contributions especially welcome in our benighted postmodern age towards contemporary art still pour out from Native artists who are both cutting edge and traditional alike. Even our urban legends and modern myths increasingly adopt the fantastic creatures who were spoken of in these lands long before the Europeans came.

We might also do well by recognizing what they have still to give. There are ways of thought that would be a welcome break from the endless Alt-Protestant shrieking that almost all sides of our culture have degenerated into. No one is more suspicious of that famously ambiguous and mealy-mouthed phrase ‘decolonization’ than me, but we sure as hell could use some decolonization in our politics and philosophy on this front when it comes to anthropocentrism, economic priorities, and the dominant sects whose theology holds sway over much of the populace. So much of the intellectual legacy of Northern Europe is a stain on the thoughtful, including even in strategic culture. There are histories whose very concept of strategy remains to be explored as political theory. More on this later at some point, I promise.

Anyway, if you would like to explore something contemporary and native I recommend starting with Nechochwen:

Black Mahakala: Macro-History as Annihilationism

mahakala

I just finished reading Speculative Annihilationism by Matt Rosen, the newest entry of note in the growing canon of speculative realist philosophy. I have posted on this subject before, in particular about my working side quest of integrating Object-Oriented Ontology and adjacent thought into geopolitics. But Speculative Annihilationism (let’s use SA from here on out) is something that works with macro-level history in general at least as well.

A short summary of Rosen’s argument is that materialist archeology shows the way to handle the snuffing of anthropocentrism in philosophy across the board. So much of what we study at the archeological level is already extinct. Australopithecus, the dinosaurs, civilizations whose genetic descendants may still live but whose cultures, languages, and cities do not. The extinct lack the ability to engage with correlationism and phenomenology, yet their existence is undeniable if there is enough evidence for the archeology of their past to even happen. Therefore, we are forced to reckon with extinction, no matter our feelings about it. To quote the author:

‘SA’s dark perversion is this: deterritorialization always has the upper hand over reterritorialization. At the core of every assemblage-materiality is an unavoidable fragility, a tendency towards discontinuity, disparity, and extinction, a becoming-nothing at the core of every becoming-something-this is what it means for a species to be a species-towards-extinction. Cataclysm, annihilation, and extinction are the rules; assemblage, coming-together, and being-something are the strange, uncanny, and interruptive exceptions.’

Rosen’s argument has many facets and subtleties that someone like me who views metaphysics are largely back burner stuff to policy and scientific questions is inadequate to fully explain. Suffice to say that it is worth reading in its entirety and also a powerful case that extinction, entropy, and the like is the ultimate reality. If one takes casual time as a measuring stick we are all already dead in a sense, since death is the inevitable end process of life. So too is it for species and the self, all of which are in fact reducible to breaking down physical processes whose intangibles we construct outside of science as the humanities. Whereas much of currently existing speculative realism is constructive, hearkening to process theory and seeing a culmination of material events, SA brings us back to decay as the norm and construction as the outlier. Extinction, in the end, for everything. In truly and unambiguously material terms.

I believe this is incredibly useful as a philosophical and linguistic tool for deep history, particularly for the materialist. If we view all states, nations, cultures, cities, religions, and artforms as dead on arrival-or more practically always living on borrowed time-with extinction the only given, we are liberated from the curse of teleology and trying to make sense of every societies place in history and better able to appreciate it on its own terms. Terms that do not need to be those of the purely subjective and idealistic such as found in postmodern schools of thought. It also levels the playing field between long-dead states and currently living ones for the purposes of study. They are subject to the same overall experience of unexpected rise (most attempted state formations fail after all) and predictable decline and fall so it is just as enlightening to study civilizations across the world that lie in different ecologies and time periods no matter where they are. A wide knowledge base across the board gives you a vaster repertoire of case studies and minutia even if you know how it all turns out.

It is also worth noting that SA, much as it does on the individual level, provides a great counter-example to the hubris of presentism. Something all too common in current dominant cultures, as well, no doubt, as future ones. I often speak of my favorite historiographer, Ibn Khaldun. One thing about his evolution of thought that is often overlooked is that he grew up in North Africa in the late Middle Ages. North Africa’s heydey of global relevance had already come and gone. The Sahara was already growing and the crop yields shrinking, even then. In such a setting there were as many ruins as there were currently occupied cities and buildings. The leftovers of numerous cultures dotted the countryside and signs of a glorious past leered mockingly through the dust of time at the less prosperous present. It is easy to see how Khaldun was molded by this experience to help him come up with a cyclic theory of state formation and state death. One I think is still among the most accurate macro-historical thesis of all time. In his works is implicitly a shared assumption with SA-that construction is more the outlier, and degeneration the more common norm. Entropy is ever present and can only accelerate due to time unless a very unlikely event interrupts it. State formation is so fascinating and impressive precisely because it is so rare compared to state degeneration, be it dramatic degeneration or slow motion.

Unlike many other speculative realist philosophers, who betray their continental roots by more often being Eurocentric to the extreme, Rosen draws some direct comparisons to Hindu thought in his conclusion. This is long something I have advocated. Though I am neither Hindu nor Buddhist, certain branches of these religions philosophies overlap with many trends in speculative realism. Over the past few years-my most intense time brushing up on that philosophy-I have also been re-engaging with reading about these religions as well.

The figure that best shows the overlap of Speculative Annihilationism in particular with these thoughts is Mahakala. In Hinduism, Mahakala is Shiva’s most wrathful form, the ultimate destroyer, and consort of Kali. In Vajrayana Buddhism, he is the ultimate meditative figure for contemplating the void and the eminent entropy of all through time. Whether taken as a literal god or a symbolic figure of a process, Mahakalan History (I’m now coining this term) is applying the concepts of SA to macro-history. Especially, in my case anyway, to the macro history of states and civilizations. The end point is taken as an unavoidable extinction, but the process of getting there, of engaging, in Rosen’s terms, with ‘the putrifying other’ is always enlightening. Beneath the facade is the degenerating process, past, present, future, other and self. We are, after all, along for the same ride they once were.

For much of the ‘Third World’ the Cold War was the Good Old Days

 

Nonaligned Meeting

When looking at the potential for future multi-polarity in world affairs it becomes important to consider what kind of multi-polarity is preferable and what is not. Surely, no one but the most diseased wiki-youtube edgelords of the alt right and neoreactionary movements pine for the days before World War II, where the entire planet was either exploited by rapacious colonial powers or had to live in fear from the periodic eruptions of late-comer powers with a world war or two in tow. But between the endless devastation of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the increasingly schizoid overreach of the dying post-9/11 neoliberal consensus, and the foul upswing in religious and ethnic identitarian non state actors it has unintentionally spawned, lies a far more instructive period of history to what our near future could learn from.

The Cold War, like any era, was a time filled with horrors of its own. It should never be the point of the serious historian or strategist to grow sentimental, idealistic, or above all become afflicted with that disease of critical thinking…nostalgia. But some time periods are simply more constructive for examples of this issue than others. Then, as now, the world lived under the threat of nuclear weapon armed powers. Now, perhaps as then, such enforced great power stability could give smaller and more independent countries the room to grow both diplomatically and developmentally. If they are up to the task anyway.

There were epic disasters in that time period, of course. The Khmer Rouge, the multiple attempts by outside powers to subjugate and divide Vietnam, the rule of Idi Amin in Uganda, Apartheid South Africa, Pakistan’s attempt to retain Bangladesh, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and many more. But none of that outshines the vast achievements in human economic development made across the planet in this time-achievements that would slow or even reverse with the end of the Cold War and the triumph of neoliberalism. This is because the end of the Cold War also led to a diminishing in the power of small states diplomacy for the omnipresent dictatorship of a globalized market. We see the results of this now.

In countries like America and Britain we sigh at the decadent boomers who think with hard work and gumption you can get a college degree for the price of a used car and view hoarded wealth as a sacred entitlement. We rightly condemn that generation’s war on the postwar consensus of their actually hard working forefathers for the sake of tax breaks while gutting civil society and the planet itself with no regard for future generations This effect, however, is still restricted to the victory addled Anglosphere more than the rest of the world. While North America and the North Atlantic lived off the accumulated fat of times past, and even made some gains with it, other places actually did have to build from nothing. Many succeeded.

In much of the rest of the world the destruction of the final colonial powers (Japan, Britain, France) as well as the large scale stability of the situation between the United States and the USSR and the removal of the perennial German threat saw a massive wave of development guided by various modernist visions of a future for newly independent states. Perhaps more importantly, the ability to extract aid, technical advisers, and good deals from the major powers was increased by the fact that they were in a constant state of rivalry. Egypt under Nasser was particularly adept at using diplomacy to aid development and to grow living standards, but others would soon follow suit.

When the paranoia of the immediate post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-McCarthy United States started to peter away, more and more of the astute started to realize that this too was simply more of a great power competition than any ideological battle. In addition to the loosely affiliated nations of the so-called Non-Aligned League, it became more and more possible with time to seek a more fluid status in the international realm by rejecting the thinking of binaries. France, despite its pro-western tilt, made concerted efforts to reach out and develop connections with Eastern Bloc nations, while communist Yugoslavia maintained both NATO and the Warsaw Pact at equal distance-which in turn helped it extract better aid and trade deals from both as well as boost its international position with other independent states. Technological developments too were spread not just from the defense budgets of the competing powers (a la space exploration) but also in a desire to show off what they could do and how they could be of use to the Third World. Nowhere was this more apparent than the Green Revolution in agriculture whose spread was assisted by experts being encouraged to come to other nations. While both Washington and Moscow often tried to compete with technologies and aid in a way framed as a competition between capitalism and communism, the truth was they were using their technological advantages to buy influence and allies. And this was often a net boon for many newly independent countries. This was not a company hiring a few locals as it extracts raw materials for profit. This was genuine developmental assistance.

With the end of the Cold War, this favorable conjunction for national development would also end. While new opportunities would open up to a select few who had reached a level of development strong enough to take advantage of the changes that came in the late 80s and through the 90s (mostly, and perhaps tellingly, in already partially developed post Soviet countries such as Kazakhstan and Estonia), the majority of the Third World effectively lost its bargaining power. Even leaving aside that the collapse of living standards in much of the former USSR was the largest peacetime loss of human development in recorded history, the consequences for the Third World would often be quite dire as well.

Much aid dried up almost immediately. The US lacked a need to compete with anyone. Meanwhile, the type of economic exchange between the North Atlantic plus Japan and the rest of the world moved towards a more unchecked and predatory phase. Many developmental and technological advisers were replaced by voluntourists and vulture capitalists. While trade increased, development often slowed or stopped at the same time more and more resources were extracted. While the most extreme forms of poverty has continued to reduce since 1991, the majority of the people who experience that boon are in China, a country far less tied to neoliberalism than most others. Many other successes come from nations who had already set up a path to success before ’91. Meanwhile, the countries targeted for regime change such as Libya and Syria have seen an utter collapse of living standards in systems that once two were somewhat independent and working towards developmental success. To further this, the very pioneers of the present economic order are now facing rising poverty rates, especially in rural and post-industrial areas.

In a world were all gains are temporary but can at least be made somewhat long term in the right circumstances, it behooves us to think about what opportunities could be returning to developing countries as the Chinese economy reaches out to challenge America’s. For all the various dangerous multi-polarity can bring, there could be a bounty of opportunities for the independent nations of the world…ready to open a bidding war of experts and assistance between the great powers.

Its either that or give in to nostalgia as the only refuge.

 

Alcibiades: Trickster and Folk Hero of the Classical Era

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Victorian death portraits, like those above, are always so full of melodrama. But in the case of the historical figure of Alcibiades he would surely have appreciated such portrayals.

One of my original objectives was to regularly have a historical figure who meets the description of the mythological trickster as an entry. Well, it hasn’t been quite regular at all…in fact I believe the last time I properly did this was in 2015, but there is no one more deserving of coming back to the theme than Alcibiades.

I just recently finished David Stuttard’s excellent ‘Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens’ , which is a book I have been waiting for years to be written by someone. The book is chock full of citations and facts as you might expect from a university publication, but reads like a page turning biography. What Stuttard doesn’t know he doesn’t tell us and he leaves the many ambiguities of this famously amorphous figure as they are. What is known though, or can be surmised, is written up in both an educational and accessible manner. You really do get a feel for both the strangeness and later fascination for this most mercurial Athenian. In his time it was said that ‘in youth he enticed husbands from their wives, as a young man wives from husbands.’ He still entices historians to this day, if in a different way.

For a full biography read the book, but in what follows I wish to touch upon Alcibiades trickster like attributes as illustrated by key themes in his career.

Born into a wealthy if declining family of the Athenian aristocracy , Alcibiades was hardly someone who scrapped up from nothing at first but with his many massive changes of fortune he would come to prove his immense ability (and immense flaws) time and time again. Meritorious service with his mentor Socrates in the Peloponesian War would cause his star to rise as many of Athens’ elected and older warriors stumbled into death or obscurity. The war itself was a time for all kinds of varied fates, as Athens and its allies and vassals struggled with Sparta and its allies and vassals for mastery over Greece. The common front posed by a Persian threat had long since departed (or so was thought), and Athens had benefited the most from their withdrawal from Europe, building its own wealthy commercial empire founded on a core of naval prowess. Eventually, Athens overreached, and the city states not wanting to bow her way looked to Sparta.

Most of the history of the war was a stalemate, but as the Greek city states in Sicily began to enter the periphery of the conflict (especially by supplying food to Sparta) many of the leaders came to imagine a knockout blow against the Spartans. An invasion of Sicily, a seizure of Sparta’s biggest trade partner, and the empowerment of Athenian allies. Sparta could then be starved and blockaded into submission and the groundwork for expansion into the western Mediterranean would be laid. Overly ambitious perhaps, but the only navy that could challenge Athens at this point was Carthage, who also hated Syracuse was was too far west to yet matter.

Alcibiades had proven himself a strongly divisive figure, a hateful hot head to his enemies and a great benefactor of his friends. He was known for stealing fancy silverware to pass as his own and then sneaking it back to the owners once an esteemed guest was gone. His bravery on the battlefield was matched by his legal and social perfidy. Not everyone wanted him in command of the attack on Syracuse, and furthermore, not everyone wanted a risky attack on Syracuse in the first place.

Before he left, various statues of Hermes were vandalized. People whispered he, as a notorious indifferentist to the gods, had done so. Most likely it was either someone trying to stop the invasion in general (be it Spartan agent or Athenian who feared the results) or trying to sabotage Alcibiades in particular. Of course, there really is no real known motive here. A bad omen is bad for him as well as the city, but the tongues flapped. Before more could be made of it, Alcibiades left Athens with fleet and invasion in tow, seized a coastal town in Sicily, and began to lay out a plan to take Syracuse and link up with her enemies on the island. That is when the news came that he was going to be recalled for trial. If found guilty he would be executed, if not he would still lose command and possibly never be given another one. He escaped.

He was an outlaw on the run now. And at this point when most might give up and disappear into obscurity, that he really began to shine. He defected to Sparta. He had, after all, intimate knowledge of the Athenian plans and dispositions in Sicily. The Spartans sent a general, armed with this information, to aid the Syracusians, and soon the entire Athenian force of troops and ships alike was killed or captured.

Alcibiades was a dashing presence at the rustic Spartan court and soon he seduced the Spartan King’s wife and fathered a son by her (not as bad a thing to have happen in Spartan culture as you might think, but Alcibiades rankled many nonetheless). He was able to recommend ways to best use Sparta’s fledgling navy to conduct raids on Athenian holdings that just so happened to belong to his wealthiest rivals back home.

This gave him Persian contacts with local satraps in Anatolia as Sparta and Persia were now growing closer as the war dragged on. Once the tide of ruling class opinion in Sparta turned against Alcibiades, he was able to escape once again to Persia, where he befriended the satrap Chiththarna. For over a year he tended gardens and lived in luxury while advising the Persians on how to drag out the war as long as possible to weaken both parties to the point that Persia could get its lost coastal and island provinces returned.

The Athenians, meanwhile, made moved from disaster to disaster. They had finally seen how effective Alcibiades was as a commander but mostly from the wrong side. Internal turmoil enabled some to put out feelers to him about returning. When the Athenian navy off the coast of Anatolia broke out in revolt against the government Alcibiades rode to take command of them and proceeded to defeat the Spartan navy and seize several ports from them. When the regime changed at home he could sail back, a hero. Naturally, he had waited to see which faction came out on top.

Back in Athens he would alternate between naval command (and taking back and securing the Bosporus to secure grain supplies) and living his decadent life back in the city. He campaigned with and secured an alliance from Thrace as well. All this made him more popular than ever before-and this bothered his enemies whom he had both humiliated and also directly attacked before with the Spartans. He was so popular people would beg him to the street to take charge of the city as a tyrant. The forces against him would surely act the second a chink in his armor was made. Finally, luck swung their way. Alcibiades’ led a campaign that deadlocked for him and ended in catastrophe for his subordinate. The war had swung back in the Spartan’s favor now that Persian gold flooded into their coffers. Alcibiades was banished-again.

He had come to hate the buzzkill Spartans and could not trust the Persians who were now firmly in their camp, but he still had one last trick up his sleeve. He now defected as a mercenary commander to Thrace, the one kingdom that still had love for him. He proceeded to expand the kingdom and take some fortresses for himself, amassing great wealth at the expense of conquered tribes there. The situation was ripe for a perfectly solid retirement. Many of his friends, lovers, and family had joined him and the government was friendly. He even got to see Athens final naval humiliation from one of his forts in a battle where he either rode down and offered to take command or just to give advice. He was jeered off and the Athenians would go on to lose.

But with the end of the war others turned to settling scores. The Athenian puppet government under Spartan command demanded the death of anyone who would rally opposition, and Sparta obliged by sending a request to the Persians as it had been learned he was traveling in their territory. He was set upon and killed in the night.

Later figures, especially in the future Roman Empire, would take quite a shine to this bizarre figure. The reasons I take a shine to him are as follows:

Balls of Steel: Trickster type figures are often stereotyped as cowards, but this is not always the case. Alcibiades personified this with his commended service as a hoplite and then as a cavalry commander who always led from the front. He developed a loyal following based of his ability to take personal risks, including diplomatically. Often, he would take a city by offering to negotiate solo within their walls and convince the place to surrender without a fight. One time he stormed a city with an inferior force. Realizing as the enemy bore down that they outnumbered him he pretended to issue orders to units in the dark which were not there and then called on the enemy to surrender for they were surrounded. It worked.

Loyalty to the Art First: Considering he only left Athens when he had to and was still willing to come back to it, one cannot consider him a straight out traitor per se. He was Athenian first but flexible. He followed his skills-the art of strategy-above regional loyalty. This was a practice common among many talented generals and diplomats all the way up to the 19th Century. It barely exists today. The trickster is always ‘moving along’ and retains few if any loyalties that get in the way of personal gain or getting one up on one’s enemies.

Undone by Appetite: Alcibiades was often undone, like most tricksters, by a voracious appetite. Be it sex, food, luxury goods, fame, revenge. He checked all the boxes.

 

 

 

The Modern Pandavas: 20th Century Leadership and the Mahabharata

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I recently completed a reading of a condensed English translation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata. This is not the first time I have engaged with a version of the text, but it does happen to coincide with a building desire to write a post on three interesting examples of leadership from the 20th Century.

This comes with the realization that three of my favorite state leaders and revolutionary cliques from the 20th Century-a century that more often than not resembles an utter breakdown of leadership and the most dramatic examples of state failure-all share a similar journey to the Pandava Brothers in the Mahabharata.

An incredibly brief summary of the political-military main story arc of the work follows. Two branches of a royal family reigning in the ancient state of Kuru begin to struggle for the future of the throne. The treacherous and decadent Kauravas use a variety of clever (but sometimes too-clever-by-half) schemes to attempt to murder, and then exile the Pandava branch. The Pandavas, humiliated, wander in the wilderness where they acquire numerous allies, weapons, and skills during multiple adventures. Most importantly, they acquire the patronage of the god Krishna. When the Pandava’s return to claim their kingdom, they begin with negotiations. The Kauravas refuse to give an inch, quite literally, and declare war. Given the greater levels of empathy and thinking the Pandavas have learned in their exile, they, especially Arjuna, have a crisis of conscience on the eve of the battle. Is it worth it to fight in this rotten world? But Krishna, serving as Arjuna’s charioteer, gives him a pep talk about duty and dharma (the Bhagavad Gita) about how he is involved in forces far greater than himself and his family connections (among other things) and has no choice but to act. He is here now with a job to do. You can always renunciate when the job is done. A massive battle is fought leading to immense slaughter and the eventual triumph of the Pandavas who claim back the kingdom entirely.

The implication is that the kingdom is now better and more justly governed. After several decades this golden age fades, it is the last gasp before the Kali Yuga, the age of degeneration which, by implication, recorded history belongs to. The heroes of old are gone, and they leave only their examples until the cycle begins anew.

If you want a more interesting summary see Wes Cecil’s excellent lecture on the philosopher’s view of the text.

The three state leadership cliques this most resembles in the 20th Century follow in chronological order:

1. The founding of the Turkish Republic:

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At the end of the First World War the defunct Ottoman Empire became a puppet rump state with most of its territory going to be carved up between the victorious Allied powers. Though hardly bothered by the loss of the rebellious Arab provinces, the well educated clique of military officers that had been long advocating reforms of state saw even the chance for a Turkish state to survive start to vanish. Britain occupied Istanbul and the surrounding straits, France took Iskenderun, and Greece wholesale invaded hoping for massive territorial annexations in Anatolia and Thrace.

These officers, under the command of Mustafa Kemal, the best Ottoman general of the war, organized a rival government in Ankara to the puppetry of the Sultan in Istanbul. They hoped to gain at least a guaranteed territorial integrity for the Turkish homeland of the state. But when the Sultan declared them traitors they declared a rival republic from their new base. Kemal halted and then decisively crushed the Greeks, swept west to cause the British occupation to flee along with their puppet government, and moved to abolish the Sultanate-and soon after-the attached caliphate as well. What followed was a new reign that swept aside over a century of Ottoman decay for a state that prized development, education, and modernization. Anatolia and Turkey, about to be obliterated in 1919, had bought itself a new lease on life against the odds.

Then of course the Kemalists, Turkey’s Pandavas, left the stage and Erdogan eventually arrived, ushering in the Kali Yuga.

2. Communist Yugoslavia:

 

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Fortunately for everyone a few months ago I made this picture of Tito as a Hindu God for no particular reason and now its suddenly perfect.

The state of Yugoslavia was also formed in the aftermath of World War I, though it was originally a monarchy. The fragile new state was an attempt to unite all Southern Slavs who had been traditionally been divided by the Austrian and Ottoman Empires and their traditional sectarian divisions. When this state faced joint invasion and occupation by Axis Italy and Germany it was quite literally carved up and under German influence, the Croatian Ustasha embarked on a massive genocide of Serbs and Bosnians. Surely, such a young and weak state could never be reformed now?

Two dueling partisan bands formed, the more conservative Chetniks and the left wing Partisans. Josip Broz Tito’s Partisan’s turned out to be the far more clever and tough of the group and managed to eventually convince both western and eastern Allies to direct the lion’s share of aid to them. Once they had undermined the Chetniks enough to be secure, the Partisans began retaking the hills and outlying regions, leaving Axis forces increasingly in isolated urban areas. They had in fact liberated most of the country by the time the Soviets arrived, who helped clean up much of the remainder of forces around Belgrade. This success meant that Yugoslavia would not become a satellite Soviet state and retained a large degree of independence from the beginning.

Tito’s partisans became the new government of a socialist Yugoslavia, which rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The state made enormous, if unfortunately ephemeral, gains in reconciliation after thoroughly purging fascists from the war. Considering the context, this was no small matter in one of the most devastated states of World War 2. It made far more lasting gains in the realms of female empowerment, human development, and making a previously minor country a major diplomatic player on the world stage which held influential sway in the Non-Aligned Movement.

But just a bit over a decade after Tito’s death the old and ever-present tensions would tear the state apart again. With the coming of Slovene and Croatian separatism as well as Serb chauvanism, the Kali Yuga would descend upon the Southern Slavs.

3. Post Genocide Rwanda

On the sixth anniversary of the Liberation of Kiga

To say that Rwanda spent most of the Twentieth Century as an incredibly troubled nation would be to barely scratch the surface. Colonization by Germany and then Belgium, who both propped up an unsustainable system of built in ethnic strife gave the nation an already bad hand after independence. The revolution in the 60s removed the Tutsi aristocracy from power but did little to remove still existing tensions. The new government made many enemies and the Rwandan Patriotic Front became an exile army and government which made allies with Uganda and served in the Ugandan Bush War.

Meanwhile, back home, the crumbling situation took the government in famously genocidal directions. Like the Croat Ustasha, the Hutu radicals took to ferreting out rumored weak links by waging a no-holds-barred campaign of extermination against the Tutsi minority and anyone opposed to their rule. But while they bloodied their machetes against the defenseless, the RPF, battle hardened and unified by their exile, swept in and against the odds disposed of the government.

Since that time tiny Rwanda has made enormous strides in recovery, development, and re-orienting its foreign relations. It has become arguably the most powerful state in Central Africa and one still working hard to abolish official ethnic division. Time will only tell what the real results will be, but the fact that they have made it here from the 90s is nothing less of a miracle.


What are the recurring themes of these (and more) examples and the journey of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata?

1. In-group solidarity (such as Ibn Khaldun’s assabiyya) is made in adversity and exile, and can be a more effective tool of revenge than numbers. All three of the above real life examples were against the odds and against entrenched power. When Krishna was approached by both sides of the coming Kurukshetra War he could not deny either, despite his preference for the Pandavas, for he can deny no one that seeks his aid. He offered himself to one side and his army to another. This makes him much like a symbol for the vagaries of fate and power. But Arjuna chose wisely, and chose Krishna himself over his armies. This would be the linchpin of victory in the coming war.

2. The only way to stave off political degeneracy and reactionary ossification, at least awhile longer, is to have a political upset in the form of a dramatic upheaval or bloodletting. The necessary reforms and re-organization of the ruling classes can only occur with the extermination of the miscreants, be it through exile, prison, or death. This may include fighting former friends and allies. No doubt, Kemal, Tito, and Kagame all had moments where they, like Arjuna, paused before taking the necessary action. But the balance of forces were moving in games more relevant than individual feelings and there was no choice but to see it through.

4. Women too will get their revenge. Much like Kaurava rule in Kuru, where they tried to humiliate and denigrate Draupadi only to have her enthroned and washing her hair in the blood of her enemies, the women of these three former reactionary regimes would go on to have an elevated position in the new governments. The Turkish government made enormous strides in female education and enfranchisement, as did socialist Yugoslavia (where women had fought with the partisans as equals of the men). Rwanda in turn has gone on to surpass all other nations of the present in percentage of female lawmakers.

 

All of these lessons and more are worth keeping in mind as we enter into an era of ecological catastrophe. After all, those of us who live in the Anglo-American sphere of things have been dwelling in the Kali Yuga for many decades now insofar as leadership is concerned.

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