Its common in international relations history to refer to historical figures like Kautilya and Han Feizi as their societies’ version of Machiavelli. This is a somewhat strange order of comparison as both of these figures as well as many others in the global realist tradition predate Machiavelli by numerous centuries. It does show one thing, however…that Machiavelli stands out first and foremost in the European (and Euro-American) mind. This is because he has a reputation for transgressiveness while the other realists have one for sound statecraft. Because he lived and was first disseminated in Christian cultures, the societies where his works arose were morally incapable of seriously dealing with him until mass secularization started to make inroads.
Briefly skimming through my more recent posts here to see if there was an organically unfolding theme to my thinking that I hadn’t yet explicitly addressed, I realized that it must be this: Material concerns should dominate the thought of any serious political thinker and culture war is largely a secondary front-*but*-its a secondary front that can be worth fighting if for no other reason than to open up the possibilities of discourse and have a propaganda wing and aesthetics that help you win the battle. This means that even those who are materialists first are unwise to just entirely cede the cultural front lest they suddenly find themselves swamped in a realm of discourse filled with preaching, sanctimony, moral panic, reactionaries, and the reactionary-progressives I have come to know as wokecels. As one of my favorite cultural critics, Anna Khachyan, once said on the Red Scare podcast, ‘the internet has just made men more autistic and women more hysterical.’
Nothing made this more immediately apparent than this past week’s war scare. (I imagine many regularly readers of this blog probably expected my next post to be about that. Sorry to disappoint you, though you can read my prior thoughts on war with Iran here and an op-ed I wrote about the issue elsewhere just this week here.) Discourse immediately degenerated into flag-humping on one side and humanitarian whimpering on the other. There was little true discourse on the strategic wisdom of the act of assassinating Qasem Souleimani that did not dip into whether or not assassination itself is wrong or hand ringing about the internal structural of the Iranian government.
Having transformed itself from transgressive outlet to moral fad arbiter, the internet itself has created an echo chamber that abolishes discussion of strategy for strategies’ own sake. To admire the achievements of Souleimani is to be an apologist for a hostile theocracy in the mind of the public, not simply someone who appreciates a general who was good at their job in an era where few of any nation meet that criteria. We live in an era that, like Machiavelli’s, is going to try to suppress strategic and critical thought in order to uphold the pieties of the day. It is truly a new Great Awakening and also a potential new dark age. People are often shocked by my admiration of certain people in history who I obviously politically disagree with, but an admiration of ones strategic political skill is not the same as an endorsement of their beliefs or even the net impact they had on the world at large. This should be obvious but in our society it is not by most-including (and sometimes especially) the highly educated commentator class. This is particularly strong in the case of Protestant-derived societies like that of northern Europe and North America. So it must be admitted that those who wish to have real strategic discussions in these societies have to think of new ways to connect with each other among a hostile landscape.
Obviously, those with high rank and power probably (and hopefully) have frank and honest discussions with each other away from the public. But its sad that public discussion of strategy among lay people is so suppressed by the inherited cultural baggage of Christian, post-Christian, liberal, nationalistic, and other forms of discourse. It is my belief that a secular ‘left handed path’ of strategic discourse should be made so that the wisdom and art of various geopolitical and military decisions can be discussed among non-practitioners in order to provide an outside but non-idealist form of criticism not dissimilar to (good) art and cultural criticism. While, no doubt, niche groups online and in real life do this, they are small and highly atomized and still vulnerable to ideological partisanship. One still has to walk on eggshells and insert truly endless amounts of quantifiers to have any kind of opinion extolling the skill of a ruthless commander lest any comments be immediately redirected into one’s own sympathies.
So, to open up the space for this left handed path of strategic analysis a secondary culture war, like was alluded to above, must be waged. But it is not a conventional war targeting the masses by any means, but rather one targeting people with niche interests. More of a shadow war that remains above the mainline of culture and solidly with the recruitment of the outsider in mind. It would have to be subversive, transgressive, and for people deemed worthy. In many ways like the esoteric and left hand paths of tantric thought in South Asian philosophy. Despite being inclusive to ideological and cultural background, such an approach still has as many do-nots as dos in order to keep its core character intact and to remain useful as a network.
Below I will outline some things I think such a practice would entail:
-The rejection of monotheism and its secular descendants. If a person believes that one political, spiritual, or economic system holds all the keys to bettering society and policy than they lack the ability to appreciate good strategy wielded by people they do not like and will forgive bad strategy wielded by people they feel kinship with. If someone believes in these things but can separate these beliefs from their appraisal of the art of politics, however, than its fine. Its just that I believe this combination to be much more rare than its claimed to be.
-The rejection of absolute relativism. While some relativism is good for analyzing the art of power and strategy, absolute relativism will mask successful applications of strategy from less successful ones. Some standards are needed, even if they are flexible.
-Ignoring people with aggressively basic and uncritical opinions. People have been trying to work on these forever, they are just marks waiting for the next grift or fad. Don’t bother.
-People who show a capacity for critical self-reflection are always good recruits, but not those who are self-flagellates and guilt mongers, they are just waiting for a chance to make any discussion a morality play.
-It is important to place yourself in the circumstances of the strategist you are examining, to be able to judge them based on the criteria for a job well done that they were given by their superiors or constituents, not on the opinions we have about them today from whatever society you personally hail from. This includes transgressive thought experiments like ‘if my job is to eliminate my rivals so thoroughly they all die or leave forever, what is the best way to go about it?’ Thinking about some of the worst things you can find in history is often illuminating as to how and why the bizarre things that happen unfold.
-In order to expose more people who might be receptive to these kinds of thought experiments it becomes important to bring in the ‘culture war’ aspect. Never let this take over your primary goals but always plant the seeds of doubt in your audience about how limiting to intellectual growth certain dominant trends (from mass consumerism, wokeness, racism, religion, individualism, and other forms of stultifying identity politics) are to those who want to take their explorations to the next level. Always be aware of historical examples that debunk the placid assumption of inherited popular ideologies. Be an agent of casting doubt in received wisdom. Battle sanctimony like it was robbing your house, because in a way that is exactly what it is trying to do.
-Reject the self as the arbiter of analysis. Even the most powerful actor you find was still part of a geographic, institutional, historical, and technological assemblage. Individuals are just another cog in a process known as strategy and that goes for oneself as much as it goes for other actors. The most important thing is the process itself, not its separated out components.
-Never give up the detachment necessary to remain an outsider. If you want to really understand the strategic forces that make our world work it simply requires some level of nihilism vis-a-vis value judgement and the morality of actors. We all have enemies and friends and we all make moral judgements as to where we stand, of course, but this should never be conflated with sober analysis.
-And that brings me to the final point (for now). Treasure your rivalries. If you forget you have enemies then you forget why it is so important to know and learn from strategy. If you don’t think you have any I have news, you do…you just don’t know it yet. They might be institutions rather than specific people. You do not want to be caught unprepared, so if you don’t have any, make some. To be unprepared leads to a slowing or stopping of self-improvement through adaptation. You were born into a species of apex predators who have spent all of their recorded history and much of their prehistoric time on this planet being its own biggest threat. Our social bonds are strongest when they have something to exclude, and not everyone can get along. This isn’t a tragedy, its a strength.