This is going to be a brief and unstructured post as I have a vaccine-breakthrough case of Covid-19 and thus am not at the height of my mental faculties.
But while I linger here in inglorious self-isolation, I have been reading the collected philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. I am not finished yet and I do not mean to give a comprehensive take, but it is worth mentioning that I came to this task via a book I recently read for work that compared and contrasted various historical definitions of the concept of sovereignty. I knew Spinoza by some philosophical concepts but had no idea that he was a thinker on such relevant (to my interest) political concepts. The ideas that I read about in that book made me want to know more.
Spinoza is most famous today for his metaphysics and his radically materialist concept of a pantheistic god, rather than a spiritualist and religious one. This interests me much less than his politics here, but serves as a fascinating example of materialist thinking in a deeply spiritual age. He comes across as similar to an early Tantric thinker with elements of Vedanta philosophy but in a 17th Century Dutch context. His god, such as it can be called such, is really a combination of the will of energy serving as the connective force for all of matter. To Spinoza, this matter is the same everywhere and thus the creative energy may as well be ‘god’ because this is the only way things may happen by forcing change and interaction. Of course, we know now through the hard sciences that matter can indeed change its nature in many circumstances and that it can be converted into energy. This punctures his need for the god language, but was information that was unavailable to him in the time of his life. Therefore, we get an interesting example of a fully materialist god with the characteristics of the theology of the Dharmic religions. Good and evil are pointless, as is faith. The majesty of being leaves no use for the simple moralism of man. And it is the simple moralism of man that the Abrahamic faiths, of course, hold as supreme.
No wonder Spinoza’s Jewish community in Amsterdam excommunicated him. Then so did the Protestant Dutch municipals of that city. After death, his writings would be banned by the Catholic Church. Cancelled by three different religions, now that’s a guy I can respect! He would never end up joining any faith community again and lived the rest of his life as a private tutor and lens grinder, apparently content and with his own circle of friends from many outlier communities. Honestly, he sounds like a cool dude.
While his attack on the specifics of the Abrahamic God, (a being much more like Miura’s Idea of Evil than Spinoza’s omni-nature) and his creation of a deterministic world view of moderation and autonomy in service of living with nature while also exploring it would be his most famous contribution, what I really find interesting in his political philosophy.
Spinoza is an extremely interesting contemporary and counter-point to Thomas Hobbes. Both believed in the ultimate sovereignty of the state as the enabler of human thriving, particularly in societies that had grown large enough to have dense populations. Both sought state control over religion to quash sectarianism and outside societies interfering in domestic affairs. Both looked down on violent rebellion but left themselves each specific escape clauses when the situation became dire. Both, most interesting to me, upheld the right of different countries to have different political systems based in their own culture and untampered with by the designs of others…even if their personal preferences were for different kinds of systems. Both were aware of one another and Spinoza at least read Hobbes’ work.
The differences are more interesting, however. Whereas both Spinoza and Hobbes saw a strong state as the most effective way for maximizing human flourishing, Spinoza emphasized the state’s capacity to uphold freedom of thought, religion, and the press whereas Hobbes viewed such things as potential dangers to the state. Hobbes also sought a centralized state whereas Spinoza sought a more decentralized one, where the dynamic tension of regions and their differences sparked an engaged citizen-culture that would, over all, actually strengthen the state against outsiders. Hobbes’ personal preference for monarchy also contrasts with Spinoza’s personal preference for republics. But both, I will re-iterate, did not believe there was one universal best form of government for all places and peoples. In fact, Spinoza was insistent that a political system will always be regionally and situationally unique. He was also even more of a realist than Hobbes when it came to social contracts, finding that power, not safety, was the true ultimate determinator in who got what. And that power came not from ideas, but by living within nature and understanding it enough to get the most out of it.
Here we have a thinker who denies progress, teleology, and idealism for a fully deterministic and materialist world view, yet comes to support freedom of the press and secularism in service of a republican civic virtue. Is Spinoza a liberal with all the stupid bits cut out? Or a realist with a modern sense of nuance lacking in Hobbes? Or both? Nevertheless, you can see why I am interested in him.
To create an artificial binary here, I am probably more personally close to Spinoza’s world view than that of Hobbes. However, I will maintain that so long as certain caveats such as adding economic security to the Hobbesian bargain are done, that Hobbes might still be the more relevant thinker on sovereignty for much of the world. Why? Because the dynamic tension of Spinoza is often preferable but too dangerous to work in fragile or besieged societies. A very strong and secure society can afford a level of decentralized experimentation, but a weak one cannot. Hobbes wrote in the aftermath of an apocalyptic war and its resulting fanaticisms in his home country. Spinoza wrote exposed to fanaticism as all in 17th Century Europe would have been, hence his desire to relocate from region to region to avoid antagonists, but also in a society at its financial and military peak. The Dutch Republic was in a far stronger place than England in that period. It could afford to be experimental. The British would only shift to a more mixed political system once they pulled ahead of the European pack.
We see this today in the world’s conflict zones. Embattled states either fail or become more Hobbesian to avoid failure. And so, as I am want to do, let us bring in Ibn Khaldun to add a third corollary here: the passage of time matters. Personal bonds create a new ruling elite, the ruling elite, if successful, creates a Hobbesian (or Chinese Legalist or whatever) state focused on survival and establishing itself as the dominant force in a territorial unit. Then, the Hobbesian state can (and possibly should) morph into a Spinozan state, strengthening itself by more fully integrating its citizens into its body and allowing dynamism to survive the loss of the original solidarity provided by security needs. The cycle will eventually repeat itself again, of course, but the transition to a Spinozan state could delay the inevitable decline in the final phase, meaning while upheaval is still inevitable, it is less common. This is not to ignore, of course, that a state could go from a Spinozan position to a Hobbesian one as a matter of necessity due to security concerns and internal division. Indeed, this is to be expected as well. But if the state survived the crisis by doing this, it could always pivot back to the Spinozan position once things clamed down.
And now, because that is the most effort I have been able to put into anything for the last couple days, let me leave you with a Spinoza quote that I think sums up both his metaphysical and his political views quite well:
‘Whenever then anything in nature seems to us ridiculous, absurd or evil, it is because we have only a partial knowledge of things, and are in the main ignorant of the order and coherence of the whole, and because we want everything to be arranged according to the dictates of our own reason; Although in fact what our reason pronounces is bad is not bad in regards to the order of laws of universal nature, but only in regards to the laws of our own nature taken separately.’
Running themes on this site are historical trickster figures, explorations of books on relevant subject matters in detail, and past parallels to present challenges. Here, I will bring you all three in addition to some original ‘artwork’ from myself at the end.
Despite being primarily interested in other eras and parts of the world, it should be obvious to regular readers that I have developed a recent fixation on 17th Century Europe and in particular Britain. This is not because it conflates with most of my actual historical interests, as it mostly does not, but because it is the time that is so culturally similar to our own and thus demands closer examination. Those with little to no historical knowledge have a tendency to reach for over-used and often ill-fitting periods, such as the Great Depression and World War II, but the world we live in looks nothing like the Inter-War era in actual substance. This is merely hyperbolic rhetoric from neoliberals who have no comparison point to the fairly regular occurrence of localism re-asserting itself against internationalism.
Today does, however, look a lot like Europe of the Thirty Years War and the Britain of the era of its civil wars. Indeed, the ideologies and struggles of that time plague us still. Our present era, I would argue, is a very Cromwellian one. For those of us who oppose this and find it the potential start of a new dark age, it becomes relevant to familiarize ourselves with how this happened before and how such a time was overcome and displaced. Having already dealt with the lessons that can be learned from the Thirty Years War before, I now wish to move towards the British origin point of so much of present ideological pathologies.
Since the analogy is obviously imperfect, (there is no conventional war yet, for one thing) it should be understood that I am more focusing on the cultural and philosophical life of political society rather than claiming an exact parallel in events. Nevertheless, you may find yourself surprised by the overlaps between then and now. Wokeness, Christian evangelism, universalist liberalism, creationism, and many of the other afflictions of the Anglophone world were born or revived in this time. And now, as the cultural dominance of that world begins to recede in our present era, it comes forth once again with full force and with a cacophonous death rattle…knowing the time to remake the world in its image has come to a close but seeking one last great push.
The Commonwealth and Protectorate’s Messianic Endeavor
‘If He that strengthens your servants to fight, pleases to give your hearts to set upon these things, in order to His glory, and the glory of your Commonwealth, besides the benefit of England shall feel thereby, you shall shine forth to other nations, who shall emulate the glory of such a pattern, and through the power of God turn into the like.’ ~Oliver Cromwell
The British Civil Wars began in Scotland and ended in Ireland, though they are often erroneously called ‘The English Civil War’. In the end it would be England dictating the peace for the others. The union of the crowns that had begun with James VI of Scotland becoming James I of England upon Elizabeth I’s death had finally brought inter-state warfare on the British Isles to a close, but sectarian and domestic political struggles would tear the country apart under his inept successor, Charles I’s rule. Parliament would emerge victorious in the resulting civil war, and then eject various other groups from power in Ireland and Scotland. Charles I would be executed, his family driven into exile, and an attempt to set up a republic would ensue. Cromwell himself would end up shutting down parliament and ruling as a dictatorial “Lord Protector” not long after this.
Paul Lay’s ‘Providence Lost: The Rise and Fall of the English Republic’ is an Anglo-centric yet nevertheless engaging read about the state that existed between the fall of Charles I and the restoration of Charles II. He describes a state that began with so much experimental promise but descended into factionalism and moralistic hypochondria. Something akin to if the American Revolution had been immediately co-opted by an alliance of Cotton Mathers and Tipper Gores right after the Treaty of Paris.
Sadly, this could not have been a surprise. Even before the war was over it was soon apparent that, demographically, the Parliamentarians were far more puritan than ‘leveller’ (the term given to people who wanted a universal male franchise). In a situation that should strike familiarity with anyone who has followed the Syrian Civil War, what looks on the surface like a noble cause can in fact be nothing but a sieve for fanatics and sectarians. People throughout Britain soon learned this as a government that was supposedly committed to freedom of religion began to persecute anyone not clearly of the Puritan ilk, including former allies of theirs like the Quakers.
Messianic regimes, especially new ones, cannot justify themselves without outward expansion. And so, the powerful military edifice built to win the Civil War would be turned onto Spain. In particular, its enormous New World empire. But the invasion of Hispaniola ended disastrously amidst tropical disease and local Spanish soldiers who knew the terrain. As a consolation prize the defeated English swept into barely-defended Jamaica. It would be their only gain from an expedition with dreams of driving the Whore of Babylon out of the New World and introducing a new Protestant reign for Central America.
In a pattern all too familiar to moderns, failure abroad led to a bizarre rise of extremism at home. Cromwell entered a kind of existential crisis. He had not failed in such a way. Surely, it must have been the nation itself that had yet to repent for its wickedness. And so, loyal generals were appointed as satraps throughout the country with explicit instructions to crack down on irreligion, drinking, the arts (especially theater) and even folk festivals. A life simmering within unadorned churches would be the only publicly sanctioned form of culture for the masses. It was this that made the people turn against the government in large numbers. But living in a literal garrison state, there was nothing they could do but grumble. Lay has a particular section that describes the goals of this society which is designed to strike us today:
‘The concept of a tirelessly interventionist and inescapable God might be compared to social media, resulting in comparable levels of anxiety and paranoia. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram are realms of round-the-clock surveillance, where one’s thoughts and actions, beliefs and appearance are posted and preserved for all to see and subjected to constant comparison and judgement. The shame, vindictiveness, and piety that social media generates would not have felt out of place among seventeenth Century Puritans. But one can opt out of social media, however addictive. There was no such option in the world God had created, nor in the next.’
The various sects denounced each other constantly. To borrow a phrase from Angela Nagle, ‘competing over a scarcity of virtue’ in order to prove who was the most humble and the most ideological pure. Cromwell himself cared only that people were Protestant, but the forces and style of governance he had unleashed catered to only the worst and most extreme of ideologues. Fortunately, this government did not survive Cromwell. His ineffectual failson and chosen successor fled the country as the disputes between Generals and ex-Parliamentarians threatened to tear the islands apart again. But no one wanted a sequel to full blown civil war. A compromise was reached, if the exiled son of the late king would sign on to acknowledging the existence of Parliament in government, he would be invited back to bring the country together and avoid calamity.
The Restoration Undoes the Era of Hysteria
‘The King spent most of his time with confident young men, who abhorred all discourse that was serious, and, in the liberty, they assumed in drollery and raillery, preserved no reverence towards God or man, but laughed at all sober men, and even at religion itself.’ ~James Butler, Duke of Ormond.
‘He spends all his days
In running in plays
When in his Shop he should be poreng;
And wastes all his Nights
In constant delights
Of Reveling, Drinking, and Whoreing.
~Anon, ‘Upon His Majesties’ Being Made Free of the Citty.’
One would have expected had he lived the life planned for him King Charles II would have been a diffident, if witty, failson not unlike Richard Cromwell. At least he wasn’t that other and most cursed Charles II. The problem with monarchy is the sheer sheltered entitlement it breeds in those growing up expecting to inherit it. Due to the Civil War, however, Charles did not have this luxury. He fled the country, tried to rally support in Scotland only to be held hostage by the fanatic Covenanters and forced by Archibald Campbell, their de facto leader, to sign away much of his powers to them. Then, Cromwell had defeated the Scots (largely due to religious fanatics firing their most experienced commanders for ‘drinking and whoring’ on the eve of the Battle of Dunbar). Charles had to flee again. Crossing much of the country in disguise as a commoner and having many close calls, the heir to the monarchy slept outside, hid in trees, and developed a knack for socially integrating himself with common people he otherwise would not have. Once he made it out of the country, he would end up living an impoverished yet interesting young adulthood in the Netherlands, France, and Spain. Largely existing as leech on related aristocratic families in those countries.
When he returned to England he did so to a totally changed country. But not more changed than himself. In her book ‘A Gambling Man: Charles II’s Restoration Game’, Jenny Uglow documents how Charles’ unconventional and roguish new skill set served him well to meet this particular moment as the restorer of the monarchy in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Charles II had a victory procession of sorts, but it was not simply pomp. As he disembarked in the country that had once tried to kill him, he was met by crowds of people relieved that there would be no civil war or continuation of Puritan rule. Formerly powerful general submitted to his authority, and he used his political capitol to disband the radical-infested army. This not only removed his most dangerous enemies, but also freed up immense amount of finance for the state. The regicide parliamentarians were hunted down for execution or driven into exile. Archibald Campbell found himself publicly executed in Edinburgh, and Cromwell’s body was disinterred for a mock execution and display.
But what followed this score-settling would be even more interesting. Charles was both a monarch who liked to throw massive court parties, indulge in the arts (which he of course re-legalized and came to patron) but also was an accessible ‘man of the people.’ He was at ease with people of all backgrounds and often struck up conversations with random people he met on the street when walking his dogs (of the breed now named for him). Rumors that he ‘rolled from whore to whore’ incognito as a commoner abounded and seemed to actually increase many people’s affection for him after the dour Cromwellian cultural revolution. When the Great Fire of London threatened to engulf the entire city, he not only led the response in an official capacity, but was smeared in ash and smoke, working the firebreaks and hauling buckets of water with the crowd at the worst of it. I can personally attest from years living in multiple locations in the United Kingdom that there are many pubs named after him to this day. And, of course, there is that Horrible Histories song.
But Charles was not simply a people’s partier. He was actually a fairly competent monarch in his own right. His diplomacy showed immense flexibility and his limited naval wars, though often considered indecisive or even losses by conventional historians, did encapsulate his move towards international trade access and naval power. The gains made in this conflict would, in fact, end up with the acquisition of New York and New Jersey, unifying the English colonies in North America into one band of coast-the first springboard for a future great power Britain. These pickups were made possible by the money he made selling indefensible colonial outposts in other places like Tangier and Calais. A keen eye for geography, and the centrality of the offshore stance in Europe but expansion elsewhere, showed the way of the future for an island nation. People back then didn’t know it yet, but Charles II’s reign would lay the seeds of Britain’s future at the expense of its (then) more powerful rivals in France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Charles would make some major errors too, most importantly designating his thick-headed brother as his official successor knowing it would cause another sectarian crisis. Some people have said this sympathy for a Catholic brother stemmed from Charles’ own secret conversion. But Charles, it seems to me, cared little for religion and made this conversion to gain war subsidies from Louis XIV of France. After all, he did get the money and didn’t even convert until he was on his death bed. He never ended up converting the court, meaning he got one over on his superpower cousin. But the point here is not to say Charles II was a perfect ruler to whom we should aspire, but rather that he was a cultural force. The right counterbalance at the right time. He singlehandedly ended Britain’s first Woke-Evangelical Era not with frothing reactionary policies, but through levity, pragmatism, and disdain for all kinds of cultural extremes. In so doing, a hot mess of a country prone to regular bouts of rebellion and sectarian strife began to transform itself into a future financial and industrial powerhouse.
For a time anyway. All gains are, after all, temporary. Something the Puritan can never understand.
Accepting the Hobbesian Bargain
‘The obligations of the subjects to a sovereign is understood to last as long and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them…the end of obedience is protection.’ ~Thomas Hobbes
‘The losers are the real victors. The victims are the real winners.’ This was the sentiment of puritanism, and it is the dominant sentiment in the Anglophone world today. So much of our present-day culture war (which was declared by and waged in service of the right before it became the lefty cause du jour of the present moment) is an all-pervasive and multi-ideological trend. But it is a trend that can be defeated. This can be accomplished by the marriage of two things often not thought of as partners: the marriage of state power and the levity of humor.
Anyone who has ever interacted with ideological cliques such as anarchists knows that it is often the people who fear the state who are the most authoritarian and censorious people imaginable. Radical cliques often degenerate into cults where people psychologically abuse each other for clout and differences between people are not tolerated. Individualism is ineffective for every cause, so when one does not believe in the arbitration of the state, one must create a sect to compensate. The sect, ironically, often tolerates less dissent and divergence than does the state. This is because all they have is ideology, whereas the secular state (whatever form it takes) is a more situational and territorial arbiter. Its concerns (when it is working anyway) is to maintain the peace over its sovereign location and to maximize its autonomy vis-à-vis other states. This is true for all states and state-like entities no matter their internal ideological and traditional structure. Though states that forget this are very likely to degrade the sanity and effectiveness of their governing class and become more like those sectarian cults that spring up in their absence.
Let us return once more to the 17th Century. Thomas Hobbes was an intellectual and instructor who had royalist connections. He missed the civil war due to his job as a private tutor having taken him to France beforehand. When Charles II was in exile in France, Hobbes became his personal instructor. It was at this point that he published his most famous work, Leviathan. Leviathan’s blatantly irreligious, pragmatist, and materialist nature would cause scandal in the Stuart court-in-exile…despite the fact that it made an implicit argument for the Stuart style of governance. Fearing retaliation from religious cavaliers, he fled to Cromwell’s Protectorate. He reasoned, rightly as it turned out, none of the members of that government had yet read his works. He also made it clear that the necessity of government he wrote about could apply to any form of statecraft. Sovereignty was not held by divine right, but by power over the land and the execution of the prerogatives of the state itself.
When Charles was restored, he invited Hobbes to enter the court. It was there that the already old man, known today as a dour sourpuss due to the nature of his thought, made himself indispensable through his wit, jokes, and ability to disregard superstition and religious dogma (Hobbes himself was almost certainly an atheist in private). This is when people really began reading him.
Hobbes’ political thought lacks the subtlety of Han Feizi or even Confucius. In his concept of the mediating sovereign which protects individuals and groups from each other, he is far too supportive of the idea that the subject must support the sovereign no matter what-so long as their security needs are met. He wallows in constant fear of rebellion for obvious reasons given the times he lived in, but the long view of history shows plenty of rebellions that replace an inferior sovereign with a superior one. He does not grapple with the problem, innate to his thinking, of sovereign capriciousness from one head of state to another upon succession and which is particularly common in monarchies.
All of this being said, Hobbes is worth engaging with as his primary observation, that society can only thrive under conditions of sovereignty where a state is the primary mediating influence between actors, is correct for any society larger than that of the tribe. It is also, though this was not Hobbes’ intent, a better model of achieving freedom of conscience and securing the ability of divergent people to live with each other than more ideologically motivated models of conversion. Leviathan, it turns out, is a better guardian of private liberty than even the ideal of private liberty itself. Just ask any non-Islamist and non-liberal Syrian today, especially if they come from a minority group.
In his book ‘The Two Faces of Liberalism’, John Gray examines this lost liberationist aspect of Hobbes. Most useful to us today, he makes a case that the best of liberal values can be saved only by rejecting the worst of them. Specifically, the freedom to live one’s life as they please in the cultural and lifestylist sense by sacrificing liberalism’s tendency towards universalism and messianic behavior. These two impulses which are endemic in the philosophy are at war with each other, because universalism cannot abide competitors and those who opt out of it, and, on the other side, divergence requires a morally neutral pragmatist state to balance interests without adopting a mission of its own aside from the survival and maintenance of the state itself. This restricts communal projects to the realm of necessary material needs for a community like security and infrastructure.
Whether we like it or not, we live in a very liberal society. And so, to convince those in power to change policies, we must all be liberals to some degree. Gray’s reappropriation of Hobbes is a way to do that which makes the messianic culture war obsolete. Indeed, Gray admires Hobbes’ Leviathan as a model which could ‘Extend the benevolence of indifference’ to issues of private lifestylist and social spheres so long as the political order that upholds this indifference is not challenged by the subject. He points out that such arrangements were the norm in the ancient and classical worlds, before messianic religions took hold, and are often still the norm in places like East Asia, were they never came to be powerful at all. They also tend to exist in early modern states like the height of the Ottoman Empire, and, most obviously and perhaps at its greatest extent, in medieval states like that of the Mongols. For a modern example, he cites Singapore as a country that guarantees freedom of religion but bans missionary activity. The liberals did not invent toleration, they merely invented a form which was a successor to the Christian world it was rebelling against. But as such, this toleration inherited many preexisting problems.
Despite liberalism being the pervasive default setting in the Anglosphere, but not in these other examples, Gray wishes to learn from such arrangements as ways to have a collective civically minded state that does not engage in enforcing ideological or cultural uniformity but still maintains a civic unity. I contend that, in order to appeal internally to this Anglosphere’s tradition and common historical experience, that the reign of Charles II serves as a potential in-house model for such an arrangement. Not because I am a monarchist (I am definitely not) but because it came from a similar age of hysteria and ended up dissolving many of the problems it inherited. While Charles II is a bit too establishment to fit my mold of previous historical trickster figures, he had a similar personality as those past examples and thus can cross the bridge of communicating these issues between more outsider and insider persuasions. This, naturally, applies to the international system as well as the domestic. Whatever ways we find around our present impasse will differ from the solutions of the past, but we can certainly learn from events that preceded us nevertheless.
Modus Vivendi, as Gray calls his proposal, is not only the acknowledgement that no one way of governance can work for everyone, but that the very idea of political hegemony through one ideology is a potential declaration of war upon much of the domestic population of a state and thus cannot exist in a world where pluralism is the natural state of things. Two Faces of Liberalism is a short book and worth reading in its entirety, so I won’t mass quote it here, but there are two passages in particular I wish to conclude with:
‘Modus Vivendi expresses the belief that there are many forms of life in which humans can thrive. Among these are some whose worth cannot be compared. Where such ways of life rivals, there is no one of them that is best. People who belong to different ways of life need have no disagreement. They may simply be different. Modus Vivendi is liberal toleration adapted to the historical fact of pluralism.’
‘…When liberals set up one regime as a standard of legitimacy for all the rest, pluralists and liberals part company. For pluralists, a liberal regime may sometimes be the best framework for modus vivendi. At other times a non-liberal regime may do as well or better.’
Context reigns. Acknowledging that means there is something we can learn from the experiences of all types of governments. When the chips are down I consider myself more in favor of republics than monarchies, but should I therefore dismiss the experiences of all monarchs or all kingly states? No. Just as it is no great scandal to learn strategy from thinkers of all backgrounds why not also governments? It is this intellectual flexibility that keeps us from falling into the farce of Manichean culture war. That and the right kind of King Charles style levity that acknowledges that while running the state might be serious business, there is no reason it has to be too serious. Platonic absolutes do us no favors here. And those who are interested in working out the practical can do so with anyone else, regardless of that other person’s inner life. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the only times I take part in culture war is defensively or where there is a codified legal imbalance that needs to be adjusted. If people do not seek to inflict their preferences on me then I have no need to do the same to them. But I have never been so insecure as to seek to convert others save on issues of real and pressing policy that affects the entire state. Those are the true structural issues that affect everyone-economic, foreign, and infrastructure policy. And those are the issues that supermajorities of people could, theoretically anyway, come together much more effectively if they were prioritized over the social. Obviously, those content with the status quo therefore have a vested interested in fueling rather than dousing the culture war and its attendant surveillance and cancelling network. But bad policies of the state cannot be challenged by disregarding the state itself, but by coopting or replacing it with another state.
And if for some reason you do think it would be nice to have a monarch once again with this personality type, may I recommend the fashionable and party boat owning King of Morocco?
‘The Human Swarm: How our Societies Rise, Thrive, and Fall’ by Mark Moffett is the kind of book I would have written had I been a zoologist rather than a historically inclined geopolitical analyst. Its almost a relief to see someone more qualified than myself in the field of looking at animals to be inspired by the observation that humanity is a primate that behaves like wolves on the small scale and like ants on the large scale. Once this observation is made the inevitable question is how this unique combination came about and why it makes us such a successful species.
Moffett spends about 40% of the book on evolutionary biology of multiple socially-oriented species to do the compare/contrast with humanity. He spends another 40% on hunter gatherer, pastoralist, and tribal peoples, reasoning correctly that this is the lifestyle humanity primarily evolved for and spent the overwhelming majority of its existence in. The final 20% or so is all sedentary civilization and the high cultures get. This kind of spread may strike many as odd, but considering how most of human history played out until (in terms of evolutionary time at least) it makes perfect sense. This is not a work of macro-history quite as much as it is a work of macro-anthropology.
Moffet’s main argument, which I will summarize to the point of oversimplification here, is that almost all pack animals have a type of fission-fusion dynamic that causes individuals to status seek against each other to maximize their own place or find their own niche while also retaining an overall group dynamic about loyalty to the greater whole. This likely developed as a survival tactic to both concentrate for maximalized social bonds among breeding couples while also enabling the social unit to cover more territory both for expansion and for warning of coming hostile attack. (Closer to home one can think of the ‘gay uncle hypothesis’ or the equally valid yet divergent lifestyles of householder vs renunciates to see the value outsiders can bring to social units). Wolves patrol far and wide around the territorial perimeter, but not those with children who sit in the center of a given pack’s territory. Humanity’s conception of the tribe, however, is much more numerous than that of other primates. This leads to a type of ‘anonymous’ society, where not everyone in a greater culture knows each other personally. Not being known personally is immediate sign of being an outsider in most other species, but not in humanity.
In other words, in addition to our technological prowess (which may have come later), we were the original zerg rush primate. No other primate can have so many numbers in one band. Only insects have the numbers per society we can pull off, and they do it by chemical smell markers…not something we can tell in an outgroup by save perhaps when the French are involved. Also, insect hives tend to be true collectives, and individuals have little brain power giving them a much smaller amount of dynamism in fission-fusion relations. So how did a species come to grow in numbers to the point where it had towering cities across the globe with population densities that would be considered insane to most of our ancestors? We do in fact have signifiers, but they are not chemical nor even genetic. They are cultural affect. Things not given off as pheromones but as behaviors and lifestyles. Language is the most important part of this, and from ‘Human Swarm’ one can easily slide into Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to see how the interplay of geography and language gives rise to internal mass press cultures in the early modern period, which was his thesis on the rise of nationalism displacing religion and loyalty to monarchs. But language isn’t the only thing. Remember, Moffat, unlike Anderson, is looking back to prehistory most of the time. He reminds us that we are a uniquely un-furred species and that most surviving tribal societies who live traditionally can tell foreigners from body language and body painting. Smooth skin is a canvas and spoken language comes with accents and hand gestures that vary from region to region. These in turn create a divergence of aesthetic that elevates and demotes individuals based on the dominant or despises personalities within a tribe, giving rise to cultural divergence. Culture is the outcome of what kind of personalities maximize survivability in a given region.
Cultural divergence itself plays a similar role to a famous Arab proverb, ‘My country against the world, my region against my country, my town against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ Though Moffett does not quote this, I was reminded of it constantly while reading his book. It could also go ‘pastoralists against agrarians, agrarians against industrialists,’ or ‘little powers against big powers, big powers against the biggest power, North Sentinel Island against the world.’
The negative side effect (to many anyway, I’m ambivalent) of this kind of community building is that it is always de facto competitive. To have an in group there must be out-groups. Without out-groups the internal divisions become more important and the group will split, often in a hostile fashion. Here we see why on those rare occasions that universal creeds triumph, they almost inevitably split apart soon after their victory. The breakup of Yugoslavia was not an outlier, but just a modern version of a process as old as humanity. The inevitable fate of all societies which, like people, eventually die and are replaced by others. Though obviously each nation’s rate varies due to a variety of circumstances. The book does a good job in acknowledging that the average life span for a recognizably continuous state is not as long as many assume, and rarely passes past 200-500 years. Modern states have not yet shown to have made gains on average length of survival than Mesopotamian city states in the ancient era.
There is a positive side of this competitive-swarm model though beyond its utility for maximizing human numbers and coalition building. It is designed for a degree of flexibility at the individual level. People with a low role in one tribe can leave for another. They will be obviously foreign, but if young enough to be impressionable or tough enough to prove themselves, can fall in with another band in potentially a better position. A risk of course, but not an irrational one when one feels they have bottomed out at home. This reflects what I know to be true about tribal societies and chiefdoms in actual history, where racial essentialism didn’t exist but cultural allegiance does. Its easy to forget that modern notions of race are barely over a couple hundred years old and were specifically invented to justify the new order that arose in post-smallpox apocalypse New Worlds after European expansion. Compared to ancient concepts such as cuisine and sectarianism, it is a baby. Even older than all of those is adaptive lifestylism and art. Most people obviously stay with their birth community, hence why they retain longevity, but others by choice or through captivity, do not. Societies cross-pollinate and the definition of inside-outside changes. Often growing more inclusive as a society grows than fracturing when it stagnates or contracts. The ability to function both in groups, through signifiers, and as individuals, through differentiation, is the key to making the anonymous society work. Its the collective experience of living amongst certain people who frequent certain places that matters most. Hence why giant waves of immigration did not tear the United States apart, but rather simply grew its taxable citizen pool…a similar process as once occurred in pre-modern empires with diverse concepts of citizenship like the Achaemenid Persians and Romans.
This point reminds me of my current bugbear, trying to get moderns to re-engage with the concept of sovereignty after its attempted abolishment in the neoliberal era (see many pieces I’ve published elsewhere which are now collected in the ‘publications’ tab page of this blog). Being sympathetic to sovereignty does not mean one must be a nativist or anti-immigration. If anything, I would argue that in an extremely connected world where people can travel and resettle so easily, sovereignty matters even more now. The risk of an over-powerful monoculture or political order with which one might not be compatible should increase ones desire for both the ability to migrate to foreign lands as well as the rights of foreign lands to choose who fits the criteria for coming in as they preserve their distinctiveness. Unity is important at the tribal and society level, but at the species level it is stagnation. We need divergence. Rather than simply write off people as losers for not working in the society of their birth, they should at least have the opportunity to start again elsewhere in a place that could be more fitting. Kind of like a career reset mid-life. Though the onus then is on them to start a bit behind and at least partially integrate into their new society. And they will always be a little ‘off’ through accents and learned habits of course. The exiles life isn’t for everyone, but I can speak to this personally, it it for cool people. There are definite advantages to never being too at home when it comes to personal development.
Moffet, also like myself, has a strong interest in societies that straddle the lines between what we think of as settled vs nomadic or tribal vs national. He often cites examples of the unique material culture of the Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples and the political intricacies of the Iroquois League (who upheld tribal sovereignty inside but kept a largely unified front towards outsiders in the near abroad-at least until they didn’t anymore) and the generally widespread practice of adopting war captives in Native American history as a population replacement tactic. Like I said, a book after my own heart.
Sadly, I can’t say its perfect. What is? His lack of a truly thorough historical background leads Moffett to draw some erroneous conclusions in some of his examples. None of these ruin his overall point though, even when they are galling (The Maya claimed as the first Mesoamerican civilization, really?) But they usually aren’t that bad slip ups. Also, as previously mentioned, more of this work is anthropological than it is historical. Also, considering his background I cannot say I am surprised by this but the lack of reference to Ibn Khaldun ( I know I know, I am a total broken record about this) is a missed opportunity. If a late middle ages Tunisian guy could come to such similar conclusions of how societies form and then dissolve from such a different scholarly background it seems worth including him. Perhaps Moffet never heard of him? If so, he should definitely become acquainted with the Muqqadimmah.
If you like big picture stuff and anthropology rooted in robust materialism, ‘Human Swarm’ is a book worth checking out. For now, I am going to fission out of this fusion with one of my favorite John Gray quotes, one that works for this book as well as when I usually use it against anti-materialist theory-first people:
‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans.’
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:
If there is one science fiction author that Francis Fukuyama and the general neoliberal ‘thought leader’ establishment would dislike, it has to be Jack Vance. Not that I suspect such classes of people have heard of him as he wrote genre fiction with a noticeable lack of mid-life crisis-having college professors having affairs with their students to compensate for existential despair. While such literary guardians search fruitlessly for the meaning of history, Vance just comes up with a darkly comic ‘LOL’ in response.
Jack Vance was an author of immense output whose ‘golden age’ of writing occurred between the 60s and 80s (though he was active from the 40s-oughts) and who spanned numerous genres and themes. He is also, full confession, my favorite author.
Image taken from a comic adaptation of ‘The Moon Moth’ by Jack Vance. Adaptation by Humayoun Ibrahim.
Though Vance’s best and arguably most famous works are his ‘Dying Earth’ series, which I cannot recommend heavily enough, right now I want to focus in particular on his science fiction space operas, which was the majority of his output. There was a succession of settings which one could argue, albeit without concrete proof, were all different time periods in the same history of a future Milky Way.
Whether one calls it the Oikumene, the Gaean Reach, or what have you, Jack Vance had a fairly consistent view of far-future space colonization in a setting of faster than light drive. Most high space settings, when they include time dilation and forgo any violation of the lightspeed barrier, often focus on how much cultures diverge from planet to planet. In faster-than-light drive settings, however, this effect is often downplayed. Not in the case of Vance. If anything, the opposite seems to occur and contact with others leads many people to intentionally differentiate themselves. What comes from this is a theme of highly bizarre alien cultures (though almost always the cultures are human in origin) which are often not isolated but in contact-especially commercial contact-with each other.
In the variety of settings across the time of Vancean Space, there usually seems to be a pleasant core region (usually centered around Earth) where living standards are high but high population densities and the monolithic nature of culture has quashed any sense of adventure or counterculture. This leads many to migrate outwards, past the bubble of First World type planets, and into a wild frontier of what habitable worlds can be found there. Cults, communities focused on professions or hobbies, and general societal rejects have then created a halo of space where they can do what they want on their various colonies, albeit with little security or stability as the inevitable rush of grifters, criminals, and space pirates follows them for these new opportunities far away from state police or military control.
Even ‘The End of History’ as it pertains to Earth and its nearby colonies is really just the impetus for starting it elsewhere. And as some stories imply (not even including the Dying Earth series) such as The Last Castle, life on the core worlds may too one day degenerate from its present bucolic nature.
Often, a typical space-bourne Vancean protagonist is someone from the core worlds who finds themselves on a secret mission or stranded by chance in some odd sector of space or planet. In these types of stories, there are often multiple cultures on each planet, with the ‘Planet of Adventure’ series going the furthest by having a world divided up into spheres of influence based on the natives and three alien species from elsewhere. The unifying factor is that all of these species have taken towards humanity as servitor races through abduction as a race easy to genetically manipulate. Each of these species then has a form of humanity modified to be their junior partners with varying results. In some the modified peoples are outright slaves, in others they eke out a semi-independent organization while presenting a deceptive face to their masters, and in others, the human-alien hybrids have actually become the dominant force over their supposed masters.
Another kind of Vancean protagonist is that of the person born and raised on these strange and faraway worlds. Often, such types experience culture shock if they go to the core worlds and we see the process mentioned above is portrayed in reverse. Since these are the characters who are more likely to face intense danger such as pirate attacks of wars between worlds, they tend to be a bit more action-oriented. The ‘Demon Princes’ saga of novellas, my personal favorite of Vance’s science fiction, fits this setting the best. A group of criminal masterminds who once destroyed the protagonists’ home colony on a slaving raid is hunted down, Kill Bill style, by the main character. But the story is more of an excuse plot to take us on a tour of this bizarre frontier of space. Each of the big baddies have personalities that loom larger than life over their respective narratives, and each has effectively retired to use their ill-gotten gains to pursue careers as what can only be described as ‘failed artists.’ The various planets they settle on to do this also affect these post-criminal hobbies to great degrees, from an incel impotent surrounding himself with a cloned harem of his one past true love to a jilted fantasy author whose many characters have become distinct personalities jockeying for control in his own brain, to a god-complex LARPer who uses a giant land crawler bristling with weapons to terrorize a planet full of pre modern peasantry, all the strange grotesquerie of flush with success humanity is there. The galaxy for the successful gangster is like one giant Little St James Island.
A truly great and genre-bending tale is ‘The Dragon Masters,’ which is about a world were humans having once fought off a costly reptilian alien attack have now technologically degenerated into a medieval-style culture where genetically modified ‘dragons’, which are the former reptile alien captives, are now dumb beasts bred for war and ridden into battle by the knightly human class of the planet. The real twist occurs when, after this long-lived culture introduced, the old reptile aliens return for a second invasion, now riding atop giant human-modified brutes descended from those they took captive on their last raid. An epic battle of aliens riding beast-men and men riding beast-aliens ensues.
In general, Vance tends to like worlds with a rural, even pre-modern vibe. Planets where elaborate cultures of social prestige and Byzantine rules of public conduct are fascinating but often skin deep covers for the base greed and sensual drives of humanity everywhere. Haggling, negotiation, commerce, and espionage are near-constant themes be it do or die pulp adventure or sedate social climbing. The sheer amount of cultural protocol makes you wonder how many anthropologists enjoy these stories. The short ‘Moon Moth’ or ‘Languages of Pao’ are good starters on these types of themes.
But always Vance straddles a line between extremes. He never glorifies his strange cultures, showing the more insular ones in a kind of parochial light and all as a mixed bag. Neither does he glorify the safe homeworlds of humanity’s first civilizations. He is telling an aggressively values-neutral tale of both the highs and lows of cultural diversity, erring on the side of diversity being positive but also quantifying that with a strong *but not all forms of it*.
Be they alien to the culture they are exploring or natives, almost all of Vance’s space heroes are reformers in some sense. Or at least disruptive personalities. Although his most overt trickster character is in Dying Earth, you still see many lesser versions of this personality type in his science fiction. Change is good, if rough as a process. Diversity is not stasis but can and should be an unfolding process. One cannot help but kept the impression that Jack Vance, had he lived in the future of his own creation, would have spent his youth out in the frontier and only later retired to the core worlds. This was, after all, a guy whose sense of irony was so cultivated that when a publisher begged him to write a conventional space opera he responded by writing a book literally titled ‘Space Opera’…but made it about an interstellar opera company and how a variety of their shows are perceived in the different planetary cultures they go to.
But then again, there are enough protagonists of his who end up adopting a strange new planet’s culture even if their first interaction with it was hostile. As a person who was born and raised in America but often found myself more comfortable living abroad, I can certainly see this. Vance was a very well-traveled person in his early life before partial blindness and age eventually relegated him to his Oakland home before he died in 2013.
In his future, just like in ours, history will never end nor will it go inevitably in just one direction either until the human race is extinct. And even then events will still unfold, just without us. No matter how many planets we colonize, the process of repulsion, which I discussed before in more metaphysical and theoretical terms here, remains a part of the human experience. And the various tricksters will always keep things interesting even if all we have to look forward to is entropy.
And yes, since I mentioned it enough here I am sure eventually I will make a sequel to this post specifically about the fantasy of Jack Vance such as The Dying Earth and Lyonesse.
I’ve been a stalwart fan of the Sword and Sorcery genre and its iterations for a very long time. It is second only to horror and weird fiction for my fictional genre enjoyment. I have also been just as much a foe and hater of high fantasy for an even longer period of time. I never really gave much thought as to why this is until recently, assuming that the rank corniness and ethical Manicheism of high fantasy as compared to the more ambiguous and earthy nature of sword and sorcery were alone enough to clinch the deal for me. But my recent discovery that cultural commentary need not all be a horror show of religious fanatics, entertainment industry neoliberals, and blue-haired-septum pierced woke scolds jarred some thoughts about this topic. Indeed, the people mentioned in the sentence above-the ruiners of cultural critique-are a big part of the difference between traditional fantasy and sword sorcery, and more importantly, the kinds of people each appeals to. Plus, if your rivals are going to use such language in the real world, ridiculous as it is, you might as well be able to meet them on a level they can understand. Much like a sophisticated vocabulary is not a good idea when speaking to children.
What makes S&S what it is are protagonists with base motivations, magic being rare and mind-bending if not outright a cosmic horror, glories being relegated to a mythical past if even mentioned, and above all the love of a good tale about powerful outsiders, usually barbarians or criminals, and the decadent magical and political forces they often find themselves at crossed swords with. There are no grand battles of good vs evil or light vs darkness here. Large conflicts tend to be one local petty kingdom vs another with the protagonist happening to find themselves on one side or the other through chance, personal vendetta, or mercenary motives. This is the stuff of Robert E Howard, usually considered the inventor of the genre (as well as the maker of its two greatest incarnations, Kull and Conan), not of Tolkien or his many many increasingly terrible imitators. This is the less famous and far more interesting world(s) of Imaro, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Kane, Jirel of Joiry, and Nifft the Lean.
What I like most about the genre aside from its general fun, of course, is its Ibn Khaldun-derived general view of human nature and of societal processes. Unlike the dominant ideologies of our time (which are reflected in our dominant fantasies apparently), history isn’t a teleology. It isn’t going along some pre-determined path. It is rather a series of competitive crisis managements that fail or succeed to different levels amongst a series of cultures and societies that were born into some form of success or stability and have been declining towards their fall and replacement ever since. Then the cycle begins anew. This is neither the reactionary thought of a Burke, the Catholic Church, or of modern-day patrician centrism, where a magical tower is continually built towards the heavens, nor is it the edginess of the pure radical, who revels in the demolishment of all for a wholly new leap in the dark, but rather sociology as a natural process. In fact, both of these extremes are often the antagonists of S&S stories. The first as the cloistered evil wizard or decadent king in their ivory or onyx tower, the second as a re-awakened cosmic horror or the monsters that dwell out in the wilds. Often, one is summoned by the other.
The protagonists of this genre tend to share things in common too. An outsider status, tight but rare friendships in an untrustworthy world, and a disdain for declared authority. Most importantly, many of these characters follow the Khaldunian path of barbarian nomads by eventually leveraging their advantages into kingship, toppling the old order but replacing it with a new and more vigorous one. Conan, the most famous hero of the genre, becomes king of Aquilonia. Kull was king of Valusia aeons before him, both were barbarians who started out fighting those very kingdoms. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser eventually end up as the local bigwigs on a subarctic settlement, Imaro as a legend across the lands with a mixed reputation. All come across dark entrenched forces that more live by inertia in entropy than by dynamic action. Most importantly, the various wizards, sorcerers, and the like are usually not world-threatening menaces but rather merely another cog in some kingdoms political machine, or a criminal guild’s most prized member, or the secret forces behind events within kingdoms. The decadent throne of Valusia was only given vigor by Kull, and first he had to survive assassination attempts by literal lizard people who had secretly controlled the kingdom and held it in bondage to old ways by puppeting previous kings. If that is not a conspiracy theorists fever dream come to life, I don’t know what its. But symbolically it resonates much as Pizzagate is obviously an (ironically hilarious) farce that no one should actually believe, but it speaks volumes about how many view our present ruling classes. It was after all only after the various housecleanings of Conan that Aquilonia entered its golden age, even if this, like all times before, could not last.
S&S is, in effect, the Virgin vs Chad meme of fantasy genres. Cold steel always outperforms the elaborate machinations of a bunch of tower-dwelling neckbeards, court eunuchs, and inbred aristocrats. In a temporary, ever-fluctuating world, only the right use of force and alliances can see you through. This is not a glorification of violence and always taking the offense either. The vast majority of S&S heroes, when not being thieves, are usually wronged before they act. They do not seek fights, but rather respond decisively when such battles are forced upon them. The kingships of Kull and Conan are remarkable for how much less warlike they often are compared to their neighbors, with the real battles being keeping the decadent dying courts of rivals at bay. Meanwhile, all of these outsider protagonists tend to be extremely well traveled, multiple language speaking, highly analytical thinkers. The Nerd-Wizards, on the other hand, so haughty and proud in their rote-learned intelligence, are almost helpless without prestige, ceremony, and dependency on established power networks. Their lack of contact with the brute reality of the world is their undoing.
It all reminds me of recent commentary I read somewhere (source presently slips my mind) about the superiority of speculative realist philosophies against correlationist ones, with the hobbies of the thinkers compared with their thought. It basically broke down that the realists tended to like hiking, travel, adventure, while the correlationists and idealists were often desk bound thinkers. This was shown by the nature analogies used by each, with correlationists tending strongly towards inanimate solitary objects like furniture and the realists using animals, plants, ecosystems, and weather.
And look, there I managed to tie this post into my fascination with Speculative Realism too. Anyway, back to the point.
It is these decadent courts whose thumb we presently dwell, tolerant as they are of neckbearded nerd-wizards in their towers and court lanyards that are the most aggressive threats to the world arise. Lacking true fortitude and strength as intrinsic character traits, they must rather pretend they have it through fraud and posturing- a far more dangerous proposition. Fantasy Bill Kristol types in effect. And if some group or leader came about who actually was interested in changing these entrenched interests they would face plots and palace coups aplenty from the dark forces that fester in the shadows of the kingdom. But that’s no reason not to try anyway. Even if you fail it will make for a good tale around a few pints, anyway. And someone needs to Hold the Sword against this high fantasy loving nerd tyranny we live in, where neoliberal nerds who identify their politics with the entertainment they consume are the predominant cultural force of strange cosmic horror summoning sorcerer class. If we must live in a nerd-dominated culture, then we can at least speak the language of the Chadliest of nerds…and that is of Sword and Sorcery. It is not like high fantasy represents anything but the pathologies of both liberals and reactionaries alike and their presently collapsing world views.
Anyway, here is a picture I did for a Mandy style movie poster (Mandy may take place in the 1980s but it is very much a S&S genre film-trust me) of Tulsi Gabbard clearing out the wretched dungeon of the Democratic establishment (special guest MBS, with Hillary, Booker, Harris, Podesta, Biden, and Power all thrown).
But seriously, read nonfiction first for real commentary, people. Actual history and philosophy will always rule at the end of the day. But maybe…maybe sword and sorcery can help on the propaganda front anyway. It certainly can break up the high virgin fantasy monotony.
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.
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:
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
Tokugawa Yoshinobu, no doubt being a Sensible Serious Centrist
Not exactly a foreign policy post, though it overlaps. I have made a point before of knocking rote extremest and complacent ideological thinking. But I never got to the most irritating form of ideological thinking to the trickster: centrism. Let us start with a list.
Famous Moderates/Centrists of History:
Low level Vichy collaborators
British Loyalists in Ireland and America
The Anglican Church
American Indian Boarding Schools
President Bill Clinton
President Andrew Johnson, President John McCain-oh wait
President John Kerry-oh wait, President Joe Lieberman-oh wait
President Hillary Clinton-oh wait (so far)
Pro-democracy Burmese who also love genocide.
Any Saudi monarchs who only hates women and infidels *half* the time.
Any North Korean who does not believe Dear Leader is from celestial lineage upon a mountain top but still believes said Dear Leader to know best.
Syrian rebels. Ha!
What an illustrious intellectual and cultural lineage!
Such are the measly scraps of moderation and centrism contributing to any kind of interesting discourse. Namely, they do the opposite of contribute. This is not to say that it is always wrong to not agree with various wings in an argument. In fact, I greatly encourage it. This is a blog about unorthodox thinking towards the boring and rigid confines of the humanities almost as much as it is about foreign policy issues. I find issues of right and left, authoritarian and libertarian, to be infinitely boring if simply taken straight on face value.
And yet, none of that changes that it is above all the centrists who I reserve the most disdain. If a person has a variety of unorthodox views and you simply appear to be in the center when all of them are averaged together, well, it happens, not your fault. So long as you have reasons for your views and on a case by case basis they remain interesting, it is all good. Take myself. Simply speaking I am a libertarian on social issues, a moderate hybridized socialist on economic issues, conservative but only slightly on second amendment issues, quite radical if open minded on environmental issues, and a realist who (in the US anyway) is closest to the paleoconservative position of foreign affairs. Surely you cannot get more unorthodox than that. These are however part of a world view based on an intense and life-consuming study of world history, and they came about by the very process centrists claim to uphold: critical inquiry. All of these seemingly divergent views of mine only seem bizarrely diverse if you suffer from the disease of rote-thinking that thrives in our neoliberal order-and in so doing assume that the centrism that lurks as the singularity inside our (temporary and situational) system is inherently reasonable. And therefore that only the people in close orbit-the moderates-are rational actors.
This naturally rests upon the assumption that the center is reasonable. But the center of any society, no matter where it lies politically, is a product of circumstance and a quest for legitimacy on behalf of whoever rules a nation. It is the epicenter of uncritically accepting the dictum of one’s rulers with just enough waffling to keep one’s distance from their mistakes. See, it is all well to come to a moderate version of a position through internal and external debate and reconciling different arguments that work for you, but this process should have nothing to do with splitting the difference and equivocating, as if by averaging all points together in a blender and drinking the thin beige gruel that comes out is in any way sensible or original. It is not. An idea from one end of a spectrum might compliment another, but they can also clash. If your default position is to assume they can always be made to compliment, or that that is some glorious ideal, you may have a problem.
Henry Clay made a career out of trying to do this, but it just ensured a coming civil war by delaying an actual struggle long enough that total war became inevitable. The Tokugawa Shogunate, a government I have a lot of respect for that I feel is often maligned by western historians, tried to straddle an awkward line between retrenchment and embracing the foreign world in its final decades. It would have been better to go in whole hog. Even the reactionary (and wrong) position adopted by Satsuma and Choshu domains ended up being a better path in the end than centrism, as to fight against the odds for what they wanted forced them into government and a total reversal of their previous positions. See, it isn’t not so much about right and wrong, but motivation. Centrists motivate no one but themselves…when they talk to each other…about their supposed nuanced superiority.
It is something they share with extreme nationalists and patriots actually. Their country is the center of the world. Their country’s most centrist parties are the center of their country. This is the fountain from which they just so happened to have won the lottery of life to be born into. And with this miracle of being born amongst the elect, they are now more enlightened than everyone else. Through their own will and exertion, of course.
It cannot be a coincidence that protestant majority countries are most attracted to this way of thinking. Indeed, centrism shows its true nature as a die hard fundamentalist position for ideologues-especially lazy ideologues-precisely because its intellectual lineage in any society can be easily traced in whatever country you are looking at’s historical experience. It is, like so many other things, a product of external forces. From geography to ecology to the nature of the political system, the very nature of Sensible Serious Centrism (SSC from here on out) and Meticulous Moderation is simply an excuse not to look too critically at the most mainstream of assumptions which exist. Hell, even stodgy old Edmund Burke at least acknowledged that different societies are marching in different directions, an admission which is too extreme for most theocracies and neoliberal nations to even fathom, believing as they do (sensibly of course) in some linear, rational world order.
I can guarantee you, as a former doctoral student in academia, that whatever their flaws might be, finding a self-declared centrist amongst people who actually have a depth of knowledge in the humanities is like finding an intelligent and articulate statement on policy from Donald Trump. I mean, sure maybe you can find a couple, but they are outliers, and the topic they are focused on is probably stupid or boring anyway.
There is nothing Sensible nor Serious about being a SSC. It is simply being a tool who has reams of psychological validation to bolster their position from the media and whoever rules at the time.
It is only by acknowledging that times change that one can be serious, and it is eminently sensible to see that a present day and geographically situational ethical fad is not some window into an eternal political truth.
So the next time you meet a SSC, play a little game with them. Ask them a series of questions and watch the answers.
What is a centrist in Saudi Arabia?
What was a centrist during the inquisition?
What is a centrist in a genocide-someone who advocates only exterminating half of a minority group instead of all of them?
Does a centrist Khmer Rogue labor camp commander only want racks of jaws rather than entire skulls?
If you are in a western nation, I guarantee you the response will be that centrism only applies to their own country and those like it. A fascinating bit of chauvinism that, so bring up the immense unlikeliness of them being born in said country. Also bring up the divergences in policy between developed countries.
Actual critical thinking can indeed be sensible and serious. But if it is nearing those things we can assume it is not in fact centrist. To actually engage in critical thought one must never be a slave to fashion.